Sunday, October 4, 2015

Inside My Record Collection: Part 3

A lot of friends have asked me to do music-related videos on YouTube, especially regarding my personal music collection. Here is the third in a series where I go through some items of personal significance in my collection. (PS: Sorry, this was filmed were the others in this series. Oh well, a lesson learned for the future.) Discussed in Part 3 of this video: GITANE DEMONE, CHRISTIAN DEATH, THE SLAVES, A FISTFUL OF ROCK 'N' ROLL VOL. 4.


Inside My Record Collection: Part 2

A lot of friends have asked me to do music-related videos on YouTube, especially regarding my personal music collection. Here is the second in a series where I go through some items of personal significance in my collection. (PS: Sorry, this was filmed were the others in this series. Oh well, a lesson learned for the future.) Discussed in Part 2 of this video:  MISFITS, 100 FLOWERS, SUPER HEROINES, SACCHARINE TRUST, POMPEII 99.


Inside My Record Collection: Part 1

A lot of friends have asked me to do music-related videos on YouTube, especially regarding my personal music collection. Here is the first in a series where I go through some items of personal significance in my collection. (PS: Sorry, this was filmed were the others in this series. Oh well, a lesson learned for the future.) Discussed in Part 1 of this video: Y KANT TORI READ, PIL, WARZONE, CIRCUS MORT and SAMHAIN.


FEATURE - Heaven's in Here: Remembering TIN MACHINE

What the fuck's up? Is somebody going to talk to us?”

When Tin Machine bassist Tony Fox Sales uttered these words in front of 300 befuddled journalists in a room in Paris in the spring of 1989, he intended to break the ice at one of the most uncomfortable press conferences in music history. Tony – along with his drummer brother, Hunt, relatively unknown guitar alchemist Reeves Gabrels and a singer/second guitarist who just happened to be music megastar David Bowie – had arrived in front of the media in attendance to promote the band's eponymous debut album. But instead of receiving immediate and enthusiastic interest, the foursome faced five minutes of silence before Tony's words kicked the crowd out of its collective stupor. Although none of the band members knew it at the time, this scene perfectly summed up Tin Machine's entire existence.

“It's fascinating what happened,” recalls Tony years later. “[The journalists] didn't know what to say, and they didn't know how to interview us. There were so many questions that could have been asked, but it was always the same stuff. It was like, 'Why do you want to be in a group?' There was so much that could have been asked of a guy who was as talented and well known as David.”

To be fair, the writers and other tastemakers had a lot to take in when the band walked through the door. What was David Bowie, easily one of the most successful Rock artists in history, doing making raw, experimental noise best suited for a dirty dive on the Bowery when he could very easily play immortal hits at the Garden? Did the formation of Tin Machine mark the end of David Bowie's career as a solo act? Why did he – a star who nurtured the early careers of Luther Vandross, Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Sanborn and clearly had his pick of any A-list player he wanted – start a band with a no-name six stringer from Boston and a rhythm section whose best-known moments were more than a decade old?

In order to understand how much of an incendiary curveball Tin Machine really was in 1989, you need to consider where Bowie was in his career at the time. Although the '70s maverick succeeded in reinventing himself as a bona fide Reagan-era Pop star with 1983's Let's Dance, the ensuing years saw Bowie's creative endeavors yield uninspired results. While it has its moments (the still-solid “Day In Day Out,” for starters), 1987's Never Let Me Down is largely seen as the singer's nadir. (For example, Rolling Stone infamously called the album “a bit of a mess.”)

“David had gone through a whole period where instead of being in league with Eno and Fripp and people like that, he had fallen in with Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and Phil Collins after Let's Dance,” offers Gabrels, who first met Bowie during the Glass Spider Tour in support of Never Let Me Down. “There's a fine line between Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, but it's a very clear one.”

By 1989, the 42-year-old Bowie was looking to recharge his excitement for making music. But what could possibly be next for a man who had already transitioned through multiple personas on stage and on record? That question was answered that spring, when he took his name off the marquee completely and became just one of four members of a band. David Bowie wasn't the star of Tin Machine's first album; he was the singer and second guitarist. Nothing more, nothing less.

“It wasn’t a David Bowie record, okay?” offers Hunt Sales. “The Tin Machine thing was a band. We’d go to work every day; we’d go to the studio and write and record. At the end of each day, we’d sit back to listen to what we had. As it unfolded, everyone was more surprised, and on the next day more surprised than the day before.”

Appropriately enough, Tin Machine began only hours after the final date of Bowie's Glass Spider jaunt. At 2am during the tour's wrap party in Los Angeles, Tony - who had known the singer since the mid '70s – felt an urge to stop by and say hello.

“[David] was sitting there by himself, and I walked up to him,” he remembers. “I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. He said, 'I was just thinking of you. I was just thinking about getting a band together... and here you are.' I said, 'So, let's do it! Should I call the drummer?” He said, 'Yeah, you better call the drummer.' A week later, we were in Switzerland cutting the album.”

According to Tony, Bowie's mission for Tin Machine was simple: “The very first thing out of David's mouth to me was, 'Let's ruin Rock 'n' Roll.'”

More Surfer Rosa than Scary Monsters, Tin Machine's debut is a noisy, often dark and always exhilarating listen driven by the quartet's love of then-underground American Alternative Rock acts. (Tin Machine covered The Pixies' “Debaser” live, while Gabrels' vibrator-as-plectrum wailings were reminiscent of the guitar cries of early Swans.) Bowie curses, Gabrels shrieks away and the Sales Bros. crash through the proceedings with the same street-level intensity the duo brought to Iggy Pop's “Lust For Life.” (Even relatively conventional tracks like the Bluesy opener “Heaven's In Here” were mixed far too heavy for American commercial in those days.) Tin Machine was not an album; it was an assault.

“I haven't really seen or read lyrics to other songs that were quite as targeted as what we had for that first album,” offers Tony. “We were talking about drug, sex addition – all kinds of addiction. Deep, injured stuff. We were touching on things that people didn't want to talk about... It went over a lot of people's heads. I felt we were reflecting what was really going on, but most people would rather be anesthetized.”

For the bassist, joining forces with Bowie (and Hunt, for that matter) for the Tin Machine project was an opportunity to settle some unfinished business with the former Thin White Duke. In 1977, the Sales Brothers (already established in the industry as a go-to rhythm section thanks to their work on Todd Rundgren's early solo releases and the Iggy Pop/James Williamson album, Kill City) joined Iggy Pop's touring band, which at the time featured Bowie on keyboards.

“Iggy had run into Bowie, and Bowie wanted to work with him, so he moved to Berlin,” Tony explains. “A couple of months later, we got a call from Iggy saying he had played the Kill City album for David, and David wanted to know who those two black guys were [singing]. Iggy said, 'That's the Sales Brothers.' David said, 'You've got to get them over here right now.'

The three musicians hit it off immediately.

As Tony says, “At soundchecks, David, Hunt and I would fool around with different pieces of music that were actually finished. That was the beginning of Tin Machine. It was sort of Jazzy, Bluesy. None of us were young kids [at that point]. We pulled all of our resources together.”

The Iggy Pop era was an exciting time for Tony and Hunt. The sons of legendary entertainer Soupy Sales, they began their music career in the mid '60s with the teen novelty act Tony And The Tigers. After scoring a variety of TV appearances and a minor hit with “Summer Time (Is The Best Time For Making Love),” the pair moved on to explore the more mature side of music. After recording two albums with Rundgren (and after Hunt's stint in the group Paris with former Fleetwood Mac guitarist/singer Bob Welch and original Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick), they worked with Pop at the suggestion of Tony's buddy, former Stooges guitarist Williamson. In addition to proving to be a great combination personality-wise, the Pop/Bowie/Sales Brothers lineup clicked sonically. The album that resulted from the union, 1977's extraordinary Lust For Life (which Tony says was cut and mixed in Berlin “in about two weeks”), remains one of the strongest titles in Pop's catalog.

Of course, this was the '70s, and the revelry felt among the musicians behind Lust For Life was regularly fueled by liberal amounts of cocaine. The indulgence got finally spun out of control one night in 1979, when a drugged-out Tony was involved in a near-fatal car accident that left him in a coma for several months.

“I was pronounced dead, with a stick shift in my chest,” he shared in 2005. “When I came out of the coma, I was told I was going to die. It changed things a lot for me... certainly with my working with anybody for a long time. David came to see me and asked me when I'd be able to be on the road! I said, 'Well, look at me, man!' I weighed like 80 pounds or something.”

After a lengthy recovery, Tony resurfaced circa 1984 as a member of Chequered Past, a short-lived supergroup with Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), Michael Des Barre (Silverhead) and former Blondie members Clem Burke and Nigel Harrison. While the band's lone self-titled album came and went with little fanfare (and, as Tony puts it, “everybody got sick of working with each other”), Bowie's career hit its highest commercial peak. An increasingly weary Tony walked away from the business in favor of a life in carpentry, never giving music more than a passing thought until he crossed paths with Bowie again years later.

The formation of Tin Machine was also meaningful for Tony's kid brother.

“We had three people in that band who were singers; we had people who had made lots of records,” says Hunt, whose other work at the time included producing and playing drums for the California band Tender Fury. “Between my brother, David and me, we had people who had been working since the ’60s, making records for a long time. So when you put all that together, you’re gonna come up with something.”

The fourth piece of the puzzle, Gabrels, was already in place and collaborating with Bowie on fresh ideas by the time the Sales Brothers entered the picture. Unsurprisingly, Hunt and Tony immediately left an impression on him.

“The Sales Brothers reminded me that at least 50 percent of Rock 'n' Roll is below the belt,” he says. “It's not about execution; it's about the feel of it.”

All these years later, Gabrels' willingness to embrace the esoteric continues to be of interest to Tin Machine's timekeeper.

“I’ve worked with a lot of different guitar players and I’ve seen a lot of different guitar players, and I’d say that Reeves has always strived to do something with truth in it,” Hunt observes. “It’s all been done before, so what are you going to bring to the table to put a little bit of a twist or spin on it? I feel that he has done that. He’s trying to do something a little bit different.”

Naturally, creating “something a little bit different” led Tin Machine to impress as many people as they confused. Tony says that Trent Reznor (who later toured with Bowie in the '90s) once told him that Tin Machine was his favorite band, while the group's amped-up take on John Lennon's “Working Class Hero” got the official thumbs up from Yoko Ono. (Tony says that after she heard the track during a visit to the studio, she turned to the band and said, “If John did Punk, it would sound like this.”)

Despite receiving considerable praise from their peers, Tin Machine never truly captured the imagination of the general public – including the vast majority of Bowie's stadium-filling '80s audience.

“We made music that we thought was going to hang with people we liked at the time, which was Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and especially The Pixies,” offered Gabrels in 2000. “If you look at their album sales, I don't think any of those bands have sold over 250,000 copies in America. The first Tin Machine record came out at a time when unless you were selling at least six million copies, your album was a failure. Plus, we took Michael Jackson money for a Pixies album, which is only going to piss people off.

“In the English and European press, everybody was saying, 'The commercial failure of Tin Machine,'” he adds. “I couldn't give a shit. If it's an artistic success and a commercial failure, I'm fine with that. I wanted the statement more than I wanted the money.”

Was Tin Machine simply too weird for mainstream audiences in 1989? Was Bowie's career too Pop-centric at the close of that decade to allow for the same kind of freewheeling twists and turns he took in the '70s? Regardless of how some listeners might answer these questions, a quarter-century of hindsight leaves Tony Sales incredibly proud of what the band created.

“It really did work,” he insists. “It worked on stage, and it worked on record. Of the hundreds of interviews we did, people just wouldn't accept it. They just didn't know how to accept David as a person and not as some kind of icon or image.”

Despite Tin Machine often being viewed as a square peg in a round hole, Hunt looks back at the magic generated by this special combination of friends and musicians with great fondness.

“I enjoyed playing with Reeves, and I enjoyed playing with my brother and David,” he shares. “We all get along; we all really loved each other.”

Above all, Tony believes that the first Tin Machine album allowed his old friend the chance to regain the spark that originally ignited his long and celebrated career.

“Tin Machine raised David's consciousness,” he says. “It gave him permission to be a person again rather than the image. I don't think he was lost, but it gave him permission to come back down to Earth. I think it's even reflected in the music that he did after that. He personalized a lot of his material after that, instead of being a character.”

“I think in the back of David's mind, his hope was that we would dispel any future expectations, and have fun doing it,” adds Gabrels. “And we did.”

Author's Note: The above feature is a small sample of a much larger in-progress chapter on Tin Machine's first album that will be featured in my upcoming book, Albums that (Should've) Changed the World. The quotes from the Sales Bros. were taken from exclusive interviews I conducted with them in 2005; Gabrels' quotes are taken from an interview I conducted with him in 2000. Watch this website for news and updates on the Albums that (Should've) Changed the World project.   


Sunday, September 6, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW - Tairrie B: Vintage Curses

Tairrie B, motherfucker. Remember me?

Tairrie B has never done things the “right” way.

In 1987, the 22-year-old landed a gig singing in Bardeux, a Dance Pop duo that scored a Billboard hit right out of the gate with the track “Three Time Lover.” This kind of shot at fame would have been a dream come true for most young performers, but Tairrie saw things differently. Instead of playing it safe and building a life in the Pop world, Tairrie – very blonde and very white – opted instead to enter the world of Hardcore Rap. Hooking up with the notorious Eazy-E (and signing with his Comptown Records imprint), Tairrie released 1990's blistering The Power Of A Woman.

Issued during an era of gun-waving machismo, The Power Of A Woman remains one of the genre's truly incendiary feminist statements, an album tough as nails and bursting with confidence. At a time when other Hardcore Rap videos showcased the grittiness of the streets (and often portrayed women as little more than ornaments), Tairrie's classic video for “Murder She Wrote” embraced film noir, presenting her as a gangster moll and a female mafia boss in complete control of her environment. And the contradictions didn't end there: Although released by a label operated by one of the most controversial artists of his time, The Power Of A Woman was commercial enough to appeal to a more mainstream audience, as Tairrie's appearance on The Party Machine with Nia Peeples demonstrated.

Tairrie ended The Power Of A Woman with “Ruthless Bitch,” a brutal diss track that spent nearly nine minutes taking down everyone from her former Bardeux partner Stacy “Acacia” Smith to Dr. Dre. (As anyone who has followed Tairrie's Facebook page and numerous mainstream media sources in recent times knows, her notorious relationship with Dre – including the Rap mogul's much-discussed assault against her at a Grammys afterparty in 1990 – has been making considerable headlines lately. This and many other topics will be explored in a multi-part interview with Tairrie on this site in the very near future.)

With such a powerful debut release setting the stage for a fruitful career, Tairrie went back to the studio and began laying down tracks for a second album, Single White Female. But in true Tairrie B fashion, she decided to go in a new direction. Scrapping the album and her career as a rapper in the process, she dyed her hair black and formed Manhole (later renamed Tura Satana), a brilliant act that blended Rap and Metal over the course of two albums that are worth seeking out. Before those following Tairrie could catch their breath, she had gone from working with the N.W.A. camp to doing a Cro-Mags cover with Machine Head.

When Tura Satana called it a day in the late '90s, Tairrie continued following her Metal muse with her next group, My Ruin. The band's second album, 2000's essential A Prayer Under Pressure of Violent Anguish, marked the debut of guitarist Mick Murphy, who later married Tairrie and has served as her musical collaborator ever since. In addition to maintaining My Ruin's heavy touring and recording schedule, Tairrie spent the past several years building a successful online company (Blasphemous Girl Designs) and indulging in intriguing musical side projects like The LVRS. By all appearances, her life as a rapper was in rear-view mirror.  

Of course, this is Tairrie B we're talking about here, so the only thing we should expect after the last 25 years is the unexpected. Tairrie's return to her roots began in 2010, when she and Mick released a cover of the 1994 Dr. Dre/Ice Cube track “Natural Born Killlaz” under the name Death Work Professionals. Fast-forward to 2015, and the Ruthless Bitch is back in back in full Rap mode. But does this mean that Vintage Curses is a full-on return to what she gave us on The Power Of A Woman? Well, yes and no. Yes, Tairrie is back to delivering rhymes with the same lethal energy she brought to the table in 1990, but it would be foolish to think we'd be experiencing the same person who graced video screens a quarter-century ago. The Tairrie B of today is a dark-haired, tattooed wicked witch with a Gothic flair, a deepened voice and a sharper attack than ever before. Forget Compton – this Tairrie B comes straight outta your darkest visions and nightmares. Considering that Tairrie is 50 and decades away from her days of a full-time rapper, it is reasonable that some fans of the genre would look at Vintage Curses with skeptical eyes. Fortunately, it takes only one listen to album opener “Beware The Crone” (which finds Tairrie using “crone” as a word of empowerment the same way she used “bitch” back in the day) to know that she is as outspoken and real as ever.

Not surprisingly, Vintage Curses is a decidedly dark affair. References to the Left Hand Path abound, while Tairrie's husky vocals add an air of menace to the macabre proceedings. Live drums (courtesy of Mick) give many of the songs an organic feel, while this Rap album favors samples of Pentagram over P-Funk. (The autobiographical “Spirit Queen” uses the Virginia Doom gods' 1973 track “Forever My Queen” as source material.) Although witchcraft and the Devil make regular appearances throughout the album, it is clear that the most intimidating element of the album is Tairrie herself – a take-no-bullshit woman who, as she says on “Spirit Queen,” is “a survivor in an industry that kills artists.” And Beelzebub? That poor guy doesn't stand a chance against her. (“I don't worship Satan/He worships me” she proclaims during “Devil May Care,” a song that drives the point home with samples from Cliff Richard's “Devil Woman.”)

On Vintage Curses, we get inside the mind of a deeply creative woman who is perhaps too Metal for old school Rap fans and too Rap for the Goth contingent. Of course, this kind of musical and aesthetic dilemma is exactly what has driven Tairrie's career from day one, and exactly what gives this album its heart and soul. (As she said on The Power Of A Woman's “Swingin' with 'T'” way back in 1990: “Rappin' comes from the mind/Not from the look.”) This is music made by someone with the confidence and strength to do whatever she wants without answering to anyone. The proclamations of her formidable might heard throughout Vintage Curses are not mere boasts – they are statements of fact.

With the first 25 years of Tairrie B's career proving to be one of the strangest and most fascinating narratives in music history, Vintage Curses sets the stage for future explorations from a truly independent spirit who never disappoints. The album is “Occult Rap” by a Metal singer, but it's also the most Punk Rock thing this writer has heard in years.

Download Vintage Curses for free 
Tairrie B's Official Website
Tairrie B on Facebook
My Ruin on Facebook 


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW - The Ancients: Mind

It's impossible to review Mind, the first release from The Ancients in nearly 25 years, without diving into how this album got here in the first place.

Anyone who was a part of (or – like yours truly at the time – too young to do more than just read about) the late '80s/very early '90s underground music scene in New York/New Jersey surely remembers what a glorious hodgepodge the whole thing was. Grab an old EC Rocker from the time period, and you'll see shots of poofy-haired Glam bands sharing space with Goth groups in the paper's “Banding Together” section, ads for Punk and Metal bands (or, as the case often was, Metal bands comprised of old Punks) sharing the stage at The Pipeline or Studio One... and sporadic mentions of a small number of bands that were starting to make some interesting noise way out in Seattle. It was a beautiful time when everything seemed to blend together, resulting in bands that looked like Sonic Temple-era Cult but sounded like The Sisters Of Mercy (or Hardcore Punk guys who suddenly started looking and sounding like Circus Of Power).

One of the more intriguing characters to come out of this era was Fred Schreck, whose strong, Peter Murphy-esque voice first won over listeners during his stint as leader of Shoot The Doctor, a criminally underrated New York band best remembered for their appearances on the TV talent show Star Search in 1990. (Videos of these impressive performances are available on YouTube courtesy of keyboardist John Foster.) Despite this national attention, Shoot The Doctor dissolved after failing to secure a record deal, leaving Schreck to forge ahead with a solo project called “The Ancients.” Championed by major fan Joey Ramone, The Ancients quickly built a strong reputation in New York City's Lower East Side. With assistance from NYC club impresario Rob Sacher (Sanctuary, The Mission, Luna Lounge), Schreck brought The Ancients to the studio, resulting in a brilliant 1991 eponymous CD. The record's greatest track, “Release Me,” stands alongside Peter Murphy's “Cuts You Up,” The Mission's “Deliverance” and The Sisters Of Mercy's “More” as one of the strongest songs of the time period. 

The album boasted guest appearances by then-Psychedelic Furs keyboardist Joe McGinty (who went on to front the incredible Loser's Lounge project), Psychedelic Furs/Siouxsie And The Banshees collaborator Knox Chandler, former Clock DVA/Siouxsie And The Banshees guitarist John Valentine Carruthers and then-former Killing Joke drummer Big Paul Ferguson (fresh from an often-overlooked stint with Warrior Soul).

Schreck's working relationship with Carruthers and Ferguson would grow in significance two years later, when the singer was invited by the two to front their East West Records-signed act, Crush, after the band (originally known as Pleasurehead and signed to Island Records) saw the departure of original singer Michael Bramon. With Schreck completely re-recording the lead vocals at the last minute with great aplomb, Crush (completed by exceptional Lloyd Cole/Cats On A Smooth Surface bassist John Micco) released their fantastic self-titled album in 1993 – and nothing happened. Despite being a solid release (and boasting a should-have-been-hit with “The Rain”), the album – and the band – swiftly fell victim to the weight of the Grunge era, leaving Crush to sit in various cutout bins ever since. (A hunt for the album is highly recommended, as tracks like “The Rain, “Mary [Sing],” “She Came Down,” “Days Of Joy” and “We- The Love Child” are absolutely essential listens.)

Shortly after the release of Crush, Schreck found himself in the studio working on a second Ancients album with a new co-pilot. Initially involved with The Ancients when he mixed “Release Me” on the first album, British multi-instrumentalist and producer Morgan Visconti became a crucial part of The Ancients' second chapter, co-writing songs with Schreck and contributing keyboards, strings, backing vocals and drum programming. Others who contributed to the recordings included Ferguson, drummer John Socha, guitarist Chris Sokolewicz, backing vocalists Diva Gray and Robin Clark (best known for their work on David Bowie's Young Americans) and Schreck's former Shoot The Doctor bandmates Albert Zampino and Dave Tsien. Over the next four years, Schreck and Visconti worked to piece together the sessions into a full-length album.

And then... silence. By the time the 14 songs were completed, Schreck and Visconti found their personal and professional lives being pulled in different directions. For Schreck, this meant starting a new life in Nashville, where he raised a family and launched the popular Alternative Country group, The Billygoats, with old cohort Zampino. Visconti stayed in New York, building a career as a composer of ad music and releasing a solo album, Ride, in 2014.

With the duo splintering off into successful-but-separate lives, it appeared that The Ancients' lost second album would remain one of a long list of promising music projects that never left the ground. However, the surprise digital release of the collection, christened Mind, comes as the latest chapter in Schreck's unexpected second life in the Rock world. In 2012, Schreck resurfaced (at old friend Rob Sacher's suggestion) in familiar musical territory as a member of Satellite Paradiso, an all-star project helmed by former Psychedelic Furs guitarist John Ashton and featuring (among others) Sara Lee (Gang of Four/ The League of Gentlemen), Jonathan Donahue (Mercury Rev/The Flaming Lips), Cheetah Chrome (The Dead Boys/Rocket From The Tombs) and – interestingly enough – Big Paul Ferguson. With Satellite Paradiso's stellar 2014 debut album gaining well-earned attention, the timing was perfect for Schreck and Visconti to finally unleash Mind to the masses.

Not surprisingly, Mind boasts numerous highlights. As soon as an acoustic guitar kicks off album opener “Dope,” it is clear that Mind is an infinitely more organic affair than its drum machine-driven predecessor. (For those familiar with the first Ancients album, the groove found on the track “Rain” - not to be confused with the similarly titled Crush song - is indicative of what to expect on Mind.) Highlighted by Schreck's soaring vocals (comparable to his unforgettable highs on “The Promise” off the first album), “Dope” gives way to Big Paul's driving pulse on the mid-tempo “Things Fall Apart.” The irresistible “Circa 1977” mixes Low-era Bowie and “Fade To Grey”- era Visage with amazing results, while the chest-hitting drumming on “Shovel” finds timekeeper John Socha delivering a potent beat originally conceived by Ferguson in the Crush days. (Socha's performance on “Divine” is equally impressive).

“Wonder Element” is perhaps the track on Mind that most resembles the Crush days, with Schreck, Ferguson, Visconti and Tsien offering strong performances that could have easily found a comfortable place on the East West album. With Visconti putting down impressive drum programming, the stellar “Nowhere Bound” finds Schreck and Zampino joining forces to produce a driving Rock number reminiscent of The Mission's better moments. Anchored by Schreck's tasteful bass playing and Ferguson's solid groove, the gorgeous title track alone is enough proof that this album's release is an overdue gift to the world.

Mind is one of those truly special albums that gets better with each passing song - a collection of music clearly made by passionate people committed to producing genuine art. The greatest star of the show is Schreck's ever-versatile voice, an instrument that reaches its zenith when the man sings his heart out on “Free.”

Brimming with brilliant ideas that are far from dated, Mind truly sounds like an album recorded in the here and now. The album's release is even more important considering that many of the places (and at least one very special Punk singer) that helped shape The Ancients' original era are no longer with us. It would be a shame if the Schreck/Visconti partnership doesn't take advantage of Mind's arrival to create new sounds in the future. The world needs more music as perfect as this.

Purchase Mind on iTunes

The Ancients' Official Website


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

FEATURE: Still in Eden: Inside 10,000 Maniacs' Newest Tale

Left to Right: Dennis Drew, Steve Gustafson, Mary Ramsey, Jeff Erickson and Jerry Augustyniak (Photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR)

Releasing a collection of Folk songs from the British Isles is probably not be the best way to achieve Pop stardom in 2015, but it was how 10,000 Maniacs succeeded in making one of the year's finest albums.

On Twice Told Tales, the veteran Alternative Rock group (singer/violist Mary Ramsey, keyboardist Dennis Drew, bassist Steve Gustafson, drummer Jerry Augustyniak and guitarist Jeff Erickson) takes on music rarely (if ever) embraced by a commercial act. Although exploring sounds from the British Isles is an esoteric task for most other artists, this style of music has been a recurring theme in both 10,000 Maniacs and Ramsey's solo work (and her endeavors with John & Mary) for some time.

“The way I sing and the way we play and write music is sort of based on the style and the story content of a lot of the old tunes from the British Isles,” says the singer over the phone from the western corner of New York. “It was a real natural fit to find pieces that I had played before and the band had played before, record them and put our own treatment to those songs.”

Fans of 10,000 Maniacs will surely know more than a few songs off Twice Told Tales from the band's shows in recent times, especially "The Song of Wandering Aengus,” which Ramsey has performed a cappella in concert on numerous occasions.

“It would be a moment when the crowd was just ready to hear something quiet because whenever I've done it, the room goes just pin-drop quiet,” she explains. “The words to that poem are just beautiful.”

This audience's reaction to this approach served as a catalyst for the band's most recent adventure in the studio.

“When we kept doing it and it got that same kind of response, Dennis and I were talking [and said], 'Wouldn't it be neat to do just a whole CD of just these British Isles songs that we've all kind of liked?'” Ramsey recalls. “They do work very well with our band instrumentation.”

Like 2013's Music From The Motion Picture, Twice Told Tales was funded thanks to a successful PledgeMusic campaign. Using crowdfunding was a sensible move for 10,000 Maniacs, as Ramsey credits the band's fanbase for helping them maintain momentum in recent years by building a “cyber portal” of like-minded supporters around the world through social media.

“It's not about the selling of the CD; it's about having an artistic outlet, having a project and getting it completed and feeling like this is the representation of what we are for ourselves,” she says. “And then to share it with the audiences that want to hear us is cathartic for us as a band and for the individuals in the group.”

Twice Told Tales features contributions by 10,000 Maniacs co-founder John Lombardo, who was involved with the creative direction of the entire project and has been performing live with the band on an occasional basis. Although Lombardo's presence in the band has been on and off since his first departure in 1986, Ramsey is pleased to have had his involvement on this most recent collection.

“I think he has a lot of different interests,” she says of his sporadic membership in the band. “He's a visual artist, so I think his time is quite occupied with that. We're just glad that we have the chance to have this CD [with him] and continue to do collaborations.”

Ramsey's artistic relationship with Lombardo dates back to the late '80s, when the two began recording and performing as John & Mary. (Their 1991 debut, Victory Gardens, is an essential listen.) Initially hitting the stage with the Maniacs to add backing vocals when John & Mary were the opening act on the band's 1990 tour, Ramsey continued to augment the group during their hit-making Our Time In Eden/MTV Unplugged era. When original lead singer Natalie Merchant left the band in 1993 to pursue a solo career, Ramsey took over the vacancy and Lombardo officially rejoined the fold. Despite the personnel shakeup, the revamped lineup's first effort, 1997's brilliant Love Among The Ruins, remains one of the strongest releases in the 10,000 Maniacs catalog.

“I think [that album] really has stood the test of time in terms of the recording sound, but more importantly, I think that everybody played really well on that and sang very well,” Ramsey says. “[Our cover of Roxy Music's] 'More Than This' was [the] Maniacs' biggest-selling single in their history... I feel like it's nice to have something where you go away from it for how many years now – it came out in '97, so it's almost 20 years – and it's interesting for me to look back on that and listen to it and say, 'Wow!' I notice things that I hadn't noticed before. It's kind of turned into something a little bit different than what I remembered years ago. I'll be in the grocery store and I'll hear something like 'Even With My Eyes Closed' and I think, 'Oh, that sounds familiar.' Then I go, 'Wow, that's me singing!' That's weird!'”

After one more album (1999's criminally underrated The Earth Pressed Flat), Ramsey and 10,000 Maniacs parted company. Oddly enough, history repeated itself in 2007 when she rejoined the band (then fronted by Oskar Saville) to once again serve a support role singing backups and playing viola. Before long, it was 1990-1993 all over again, and she was back in the lead vocal spot. The “weird fate” behind her second and current stint in 10,000 Maniacs suits the free-spirited musician just fine.

“[When I initially came back], I just thought, 'Well, I don't have any problems just coming back and playing violin, viola and singing a bit','” she recalls. “At that point, I had decided to move back to Buffalo, so it all sort of fit in.

“What was really wonderful was that once I got back into singing and writing, it was just a natural fit,” she adds. “It all came back to us like old muscle memory.”

In addition to tracks off the new album, the band's recent performances have included older treasurers like “Pit Viper” from 1983's Secrets of the I Ching, “Can't Ignore The Train” from 1985's The Wishing Chair and “Cherry Tree” from 1987's In My Tribe. The band has even been known to throw in an exceptional rendition of The Cure's “Just Like Heaven” from time to time.

As Ramsey explains, “I said to those guys about five years ago, 'Let's try this. I've always loved The Cure and I love this song. I want to do this.' At one soundcheck, we started doing it and it worked out so well, and people love it... A lot of the people in the audience are from our era and people who know these tunes and remember going out, dancing and having fun – and they're doing that now.”

A portion of the PledgeMusic funds raised for the project has been set aside for the Rob Buck Memorial Scholarship, which was established to honor the memory of the band's founding guitarist. Fifteen years after Buck's untimely passing, the band is committed to ensuring that his musical legacy lives on.

“[The Scholarship] is something that we will continue to have because [Rob] was a very special person we lost too early,” Ramsey says. “Our goal is to have a scholarship fund that will help young people who are interested in music develop their craft. There are a lot of people who need funding and support like that. It's something that we hope spiritually will keep the memory of Rob alive – [not just] his music, but the idea of creativity and a place for a person to feel a sense of self, expression and identity. Music can help people of any age, but it really helps a young person if they have a sense of themselves and a sense of value.”

With Twice Told Tales, 10,000 Maniacs prove that a band can produce some of their most captivating work more than three decades into their career. Every note on the album serves as a reminder of the magic first developed when Dennis Drew, Steve Gustafson and John Lombardo co-founded the group in 1981. With Augustyniak keeping time since 1983, Erickson supplying guitars for 15 years and Ramsey involved with the band in one form or another for a quarter century, it is clear that 10,000 Maniacs is as much a family as they are a working band. In Ramsey's mind, 10,000 Maniacs' inspiring longevity is based on a mutual love of making music.

“There's a lot of life to [the band],” she says. “Every time we do a show, it's another validation that, yes, people do like this music, identify with it and value it. When you have people clapping and standing up and giving a positive response, sometimes you wonder, 'Wow, this is really surprising!' It's something that's contagious. I think that's been a big motivation for all of us.”

10,000 Maniacs have several live performances scheduled in New England next month. More information is available here

ALBUM REVIEW: 10,000 Maniacs: Twice Told Tales

With a history dating back nearly 35 years, 10,000 Maniacs have earned the right to do whatever they want. Years removed from the top of the charts but still drawing a devoted following, the group has used the crowdfunded Twice Told Tales as an opportunity to explore the kind of traditional Folk music that inspired their earliest days. Just like everything else released by the band through the decades, Twice Told Tales is a beautiful experience produced by players at the very top of their craft.

The album's greatest strength is its balance between the band's celebrated past and eclectic present. While songs like “Bonny May,” “Carrickfergus” (a song performed live by John & Mary over the years) and singer Mary Ramsey's breathtaking a cappella rendition of William Butler Yeats' “The Song Of Wandering Aengus” showcase the decidedly uncommercial aspects of the album, the more conventional “Dark Eyed Sailor” and “Canadee-I-O” could have found a comfortable place on an earlier Maniacs album like Blind Man's Zoo.

Yes, it is hard to imagine something like “Misty Moisty Morning” or “Marie's Wedding” being a Pop hit in 2015. Yes, the album's string-heavy approach guarantees a limited audience. But what Twice Told Tales offers most is an immensely enjoyable representation of a maturing band doing nothing but creating art out of love. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all of our favorite bands lasted long enough to reach that point?  

Official Mary Ramsey Website