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December 13, 2006

'TIS HIS REASONS

Paul Weller recalls Band Aid, looks ahead to U.S. shows in 2007

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Sometimes putting the greater good ahead of one's personal taste is the right thing to do.

That's essentially what Paul Weller did when he agreed to participate in the making of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" -- the star-studded 1984 famine relief single credited to Band Aid.

"Bob Geldof called me and asked me if I wanted to sing on this track," recalls Weller. "I think I was one of the first people to sing on the actual backing track, and my initial reaction was, 'I don't know if I’ve ever heard such an appalling song in my life.' I still feel that way now, as well. But what it was trying to achieve far outweighed any kind of critical reasoning at all.

"Even when we were all in the studio [to film the video], I still felt it was appalling on a musical level, but if it was going to save lives or raise consciousness or whatever it was supposed to do, [then] it was really hard to knock it and criticize it."

Weller pulls no punches no matter what the subject. He is quick to make it clear that his concerts early next year in New York and Hollywood, Calif., supporting Hit Parade, his career-spanning boxed set due Jan. 23, will include a wide range of material from his days with The Jam and The Style Council, as well as his solo career.

"I don't want anyone to be under the impression that it's going to be a greatest hits show because it won't be," he says, adding that he's more interested in performing B-sides and album tracks because "you don't hear them as much."

As for the possibility of an extensive U.S. tour with his band, the British singer/songwriter/guitarist says, "We're looking forward to these [confirmed] dates, and then we'll see how it goes."

-- By Chris M. Junior

Paul Weller on tour (schedule subject to change):

* Jan. 29, 30, 31: Irving Plaza -- New York

* Feb. 3, 4: Avalon Hollywood -- Hollywood, Calif.

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December 11, 2006

TOP ALBUMS OF 2006

It's time to recap the best discs of 2006, and here are the picks from Medleyville staffers.

JOE BELOCK'S TOP 10

1. Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, . . . Tick . . . Tick . . . Tick (Down There).
Ex-Dream Syndicate leader keeps getting better and better with age.

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2. Blank Stares, All Blown Up (Full Tilt).
San Francisco-via-Brooklyn, N.Y., trio is on target with explosive mix of great songs and hooks.

3. Cyril Lords, Motherland (No Fun).
Detroit's not over! Long-awaited debut from Motor City veterans delivers.

4. Little Killers, A Real Good One (Gern Blandsten).
No sophomore slump here as second release from NYC punkers lives up to its title.

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5. The Minus 5, The Minus 5 (Yep Roc).
If only Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey could transfer the spark and inspiration to the next R.E.M. project.

6. Mudhoney, Under a Billion Suns (Sub Pop).
Grunge survivors take another turn toward Hawkwind as 21st century rebirth continues in strong way.

7. Nikki Corvette & the Stingrays, Back to Detroit (Dollar).
Late '70s power-pop icon returns as great as ever.

8. Los Straitjackets featuring Kaiser George, Twist Party (Yep Roc).
How can a crazed Scotsman fronting a band of Mexican wrestlers not add up to wild fun? Let's twist!

9. Kelley Stoltz, Below the Branches (Sub Pop).
DIY popster puts bigger budget to good use on his third long player.

10. Neil Young Living With War (Reprise).
Regardless of politics, "Families" is one of Young's best songs ever.

BEST OF THE REST
The Royal Purple, Transcendental Medication (Umbrella).
Hi-Risers, The Fine Art of Making Mistakes (2-Bit).
Muck and the Mires, 1-2-3-4 (Dionysus).
Griefs, Throwing a Tempo Tantrum (Spoonful).
New York Dolls, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember
Even This
(Roadrunner).
Rainy Day Saints, Diamond Star Highway (Get Hip).
Sonic Youth, Rather Ripped (Geffen).
SSM, SSM (Alive).
Tommy Keene, Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty).
Goldstars, Purple Girlfriend (Pravda).

MICHAEL CORBY'S TOP 10

1. Wolfmother, Wolfmother (Interscope).
Aussie trio brings Black Sabbath riffs and Led Zeppelin mystique back in big way. Classic rock is cool and hip again.

2. Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam (J Records).
Best comeback album by a band that never went away.

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3. Ben Harper, Both Sides of the Gun (Virgin Records).
This double disc is composed of Harper's unique blend of blues, rock and folk music and sheds some hope and light to what seems like a very dark time.

4. Ray LaMontagne, Till the Sun Turns Black (RCA Records).
LaMontagne mixes his soulful voice with the folkiness of Nick Drake and produces a great retro album that will take you back to the singer/songwriter days of the 1970s.

5. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadium (Warner Bros.).
There isn't a single throwaway cut on this two-disc album. It features the usual funk meets punk signature sound, all the while showcasing John Frusciante's under-appreciated guitar stylings.

6. Tom Petty, Highway Companion (American).
This solo album, with the help of Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and fellow Traveling Wilbury extraordinaire Jeff Lynne, is Petty's best work in years.

7. Loose Fur, Born Again in the USA (Drag City).
Why does Jeff Tweedy seem to do all of his best work on side projects lately? Save some of this for future Wilco records!

8. John Mayer, Continuum (Aware).
Mayer does a solid job at his transformation into a blues trio singer/guitarist. He has a tendency to sound too much like Eric Clapton, but maybe that isn't such a bad thing.

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9. Corinne Bailey Rae, Corinne Bailey Rae (Capitol).
She has a real smooth R&B voice, plays a nice folky guitar and has cool dreamy lyrics, much like Lauryn Hill and Macy Gray back in the day.

10. Bob Dylan, Modern Times (Columbia).
Here's a shocker: Dylan released a record and it's great, although it was weird to see him in a TV ad.

THE BEST OF THE REST
Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways (Lost Highway).
Golden Smog, Another Fine Day (Lost Highway).
Elton John, The Captain & the Kid (Interscope).
Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia).
Neil Young, Living With War (Reprise).

GEORGE HENN'S TOP 10

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1. James Hunter, People Gonna Talk (Rounder).
The only question surrounding this British soulster's accomplished breakout disc is how he was he such a well kept secret until now.

2. The Minus 5, The Minus 5 (Yep Roc).
Scott McCaughey and his expansive collection of cronies follow up the morose Down With Wilco with a less daring but infinitely more fun listen.

3. Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, . . . Tick . . . Tick . . . Tick (Down There).
Wynn and his seasoned band tap into the raw emotion of their live shows with impressive results.

4. The Fags, Light 'Em Up (Idol).
Trio combines indelible harmonies and a muscular power-pop sound, and the result is early Cheap Trick on steroids.

5. The Weather Machines, The Sound of Pseudoscience (Tigers
Against Crime
).
South Dakota indie rockers offer moments of punchy post-punk perfection.

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6. Lucero, Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers (Liberty & Lament).
What this record lacks in originality -- think Bruce Springsteen singing his hard-luck tales, backed by The Replacements -- is more than made up for in the sheer sincerity of the songs, heightened by Ben Nichols' gravelly vocals.

7. Drive By Truckers, A Blessing and a Curse (New West).
The band's singer/songwriter triumvirate tones down the southern-rock ethos and long-windedness, and churns out leaner, meaner, and ultimately stronger material.

8. Tom Petty, Highway Companion (American).
With his live show growing more stale by the year, Petty sounds recharged, even on his starkest and quietest album.

9. The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls in America (Vagrant).
In Craig Finn's snapshot of American youth, rock 'n' roll kids score dates -- and an alarming amount of drugs -- over the course of 11 loosely connected and passionately rendered narratives.

10. Sonic Youth Rather Ripped (Geffen).
Just when these art-noise veterans seemingly have done it all over a quarter century, they turn in a catchy, concise effort that should rate among their career triumphs.

THE BEST OF THE REST
The Figgs, Follow Jean Through the Sea (Gern Blandsten).
Golden Smog, Another Fine Day (Lost Highway).
Hank III, Straight to Hell (Bruc).
Tommy Keene, Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty).
Jim Lauderdale, Country Super Hits, Vol. I (Yep Roc).
The Lonely Hearts, Paper Tapes (Tooth & Nail).
Rhett Miller, The Believer (Verve Forecast).
Van Morrison, Pay the Devil (Lost Highway).
Willie Nile, Streets of New York (00:02:59).
The Whigs, Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip (ATO).

MIKE MADDEN'S TOP 10

1. The Damnwells, Air Stereo (Zoe Records).
The second full-length release from this Brooklyn, N.Y., quartet is just the right amount of sad laments and confident power pop. The lyrics are augmented by some mighty fine harmonies and guitar atmosphere.

2. Drive By Truckers, A Blessing and a Curse (New West).
This is a bit of a departure from the band that made its reputation with long, vivid story songs. The tunes on Curse, for the most part, resemble the barroom rock of The Faces and less like the local tales of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

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3. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant).
The follow-up to last year's eclectic Separation Sunday doesn't break any new ground, but what makes this a standout is how the song arrangements are looser and the subject matter of the lyrics is relatable and a bit less harsh.

4. The Drams, Jubilee Dive (New West).
Fans of the alt-country casualties Slobberbone might be skeptical of a new project for three of its core members, but those who weren't discovered this to be a fresh take on Brent Best's folk-rock.

5. Hank Williams III, Straight to Hell (Bruc Records).
Hank III puts some piss and vinegar back into country with a loud and rude album.

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6. Rhett Miller, The Believer (Verve Forecast).
Miller is taking his shot at hitting a broader audience on this album of smart pop. He shows off his serious side and proves he still can charm with his wordplay.

7. Wolfmother, Wolfmother (Interscope).
This Australian band offers a fresh update on the classic power trio sound, but these guys are not a parody.

8. Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, . . . Tick . . . Tick . . . Tick (Down There).
It's hard not to like an album that has so much fuzzed-out guitar. Wynn and his band are getting better and better with each release.

9. Beyonce, B’Day (Sony).
It was pretty hard to escape Beyonce in 2006 but with solid material like this, why try? She had a Kelly Clarkson-type year with a string of solid pop and R&B hits.

10. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, Under the Covers Vol. 1 (Shout! Factory).
This is a nice snapshot into '60s folk-rock and a smooth blending of distinct voices. Neither artist outshines the other.

BEST OF THE REST
The Yayhoos, Put the Hammer Down (Lakeside).
Rob Zombie, Educated Horses (Geffen).
The Roots, Game Theory (Def Jam).
The Blue Van, Dear Independence (TVT).
Scott Miller & the Commonwealth, Citation (Sugar Hill).
Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam (Sony).
Beck, The Information (Interscope).
Golden Smog, Another Fine Day (Lost Highway).
Bobby Bare Jr., The Longest Meow (Bloodshot).
Jennifer O'Connor, Over the Mountain, Across the Valley, and Back to the Stars (Matador).

December 08, 2006

NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE -- LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST

A legend-to-be establishes his trademark sound

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The long-awaited first release from Neil Young's archive series is a rough-honed gem that will be a welcome delight to his legion of aficionados.

With only six cuts -- highlighted by glorious renditions of "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" -- the songs on Live at the Fillmore East (Reprise) sound as fresh today as in the halcyon days when they were first recorded and performed.

Another reason to rejoice is the early incarnation of Young's longtime backup band Crazy Horse, highlighted by the presence of Jack Nitzsche on keyboards and Danny Whitten on guitar. Whitten, a solid guitarist and near-perfect complement to the loose, garage-band sound that permeates this disc, slid into a severe drug addiction that prompted Young to fire him before a major tour in 1972. Days later, Whitten was found dead of an overdose.

That event has haunted Young for years, so much so that the existence of this release probably is a tribute to Whitten and his early contributions to the success of Crazy Horse.

Live at the Fillmore East (recorded on March 6 and 7, 1970) gets off to a short but rousing start with the title track from Young's second solo album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. After leaving the commercially successful Buffalo Springfield and dallying with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Young would firmly establish the foundation of his trademark sound at these Fillmore shows.

Everything comes together on "Down by the River," one of Young's darkest and most mysterious songs. Running more than 12 minutes, it is an oblique lament on the death of a lover (or not). The narrator croons "she could drag me over the rainbow/and send me away." But the tone turns ugly quite quickly and in a matter-of-fact manner. "Down by the river/I shot my baby," leaving her for dead.

Whether the lady in question is metaphorical or not (like Shakespeare's Dark Lady in many of his sonnets) is open to interpretation. Did the narrator shoot her with a gun (or -- as some have speculated -- with a syringe)? No one can say for sure, and Young isn't telling.

The extended jams between Young and Whitten and the methodical rhythm section (drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot) produce a fierce synergy that consumes the listener like a quicksand bog.

Refinement has never been a Young strong suit. His success has depended on the rough unpredictability of his musicianship and the channeling of his subconscious in an almost surreal way, anchored by a country-rock sound that keeps everything from falling apart. Young's vocals raise the tension with a controlled but fragile tenor.

Another highlight cut on the disc is "Wonderin'," a countrified version of the song that would eventually be released on Young's 1983 rockabilly flavored album, Everybody's Rockin'.

"Cowgirl in the Sand" continues past the 12-minute mark and concludes the disc. At times, Young's vocals seem to be scratching the roof of the Fillmore, but they never quite break or seem out of place.

Young's first in his archive series is a sure sign that things to come will be of the same musical quality and historic viability that this disc most certainly is.

-- By Donald Gavron

December 06, 2006

THE WHO -- ENDLESS WIRE

Mixed-bag effort offers flashes of the past

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The Who is undoubtedly one of the premier bands and concert acts in rock history, and arguably only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones can compare in terms of influence and quality of output.

Roughly 24 years after its last new album, The Who is back with Endless Wire (Universal Republic), and it’s difficult to judge it within the context of the band’s history.

Endless Wire, the first Who album without its original bassist, the late John Entwistle, has numerous echoes of past successes and failures, and it remains a mixed bag of good songs, some sketchy Roger Daltrey vocals, some dated but well-intentioned attempts to sound relevant and some steady rock-hard compositions that are few and far between.

There are nine studio tracks, all penned by guitarist Pete Townshend. "Fragments" opens the disc with the revved-up opening bars of "Baba O'Riley," one of the band’s signature songs quelled from 1971's landmark Who's Next. The opening lines "Are we breathing out/or breathing in" indicate to its audience that The Who is alive and well, the music indicating the speedy passage of time.

The second tune, "Man in a Purple Dress," slows down so Townshend can vent his frustrations on religious attitudes (and in an off-hand way take a swipe at Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ film). "Mike Post Theme" is a genuine rocker, with Daltrey emoting "Emotionally we're not even old enough," a commentary on the complexity of growing old. He insists "everything is all right/we prayed today" and "we have to face/the truth sometime."

"Black Window's Eyes" is another rock standout (the only one with drummer Zak Starkey, the band's regular drummer for live concerts), a love song written while staring into the face of death.

Townshend's gift for lyrics is evident throughout the album. He always was the creative force behind the band, writing a majority of the songs, and his guitar work is exemplary among his peers. Entwistle's quirky contributions are sorely missed on Endless Wire, as they worked well as a counterpoint to Townshend's personal lyricism.

Entwistle's replacement, Pino Palladino, plays a steady but uninspired bass. Session player Peter Huntington does a fine job handling almost all of the drum work. Townshend also does some drum programming on the disc; his brother Simon handles backing guitar. Longtime Who associate John "Rabbit" Bundrick also makes contributions.

But the deaths of drummer Keith Moon (in 1978) and Entwistle (in 2002) are irreplaceable to the authentic Who sound. And Daltrey's vocals sound weathered and distant, although his courage in going on with pipes that are obviously rusty is to be commended. His contribution to the band at this point is far below the pre-1982 years.

There are many factions that believe that this is really a Townshend album in disguise, with Daltrey as guest vocalist. This is never more evident than in the mini-opera Wire and Glass, a tired effort about a group of kids getting together to form a band, but in the end they wind up disillusioned.

The seven live cuts (from a concert in Lyon, France, on July 17, 2006) reveal The Who to still be energetic and, at times, cutting-edge. These are the real highlights of the disc, a selling point the band was no doubt aware of.

Endless Wire, which also includes a bonus DVD from the aforementioned concert, is a noble effort, but overwhelmed by the expectations of one of rock's genuine icons to break new ground.

-- By Donald Gavron

December 04, 2006

JAY-Z -- KINGDOM COME

Rapper's comeback effort has its ups and downs

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Arguably one of this fall's most anticipated album releases, no matter what genre, is Jay-Z's comeback album, Kingdom Come (Roc-A-Fella), and with it he is looking to reclaim his throne as rap's kingpin.

That leads to the question: Was it worth it for him to go back on his word and come out of retirement?

In recent years, Jay-Z has served as president of Def Jam Records, but he also has kept semi-active as a performer, collaborating with Kayne West, Beyonce, Linkin Park and Phish, just to name a few. But with Kingdom Come, his first album of all-new material since 2003's The Black Album, Jay seems to be tying up some loose ends and providing a spark to what has come to be, aside from a few unique talents, a weak hip-hop landscape.

The theory that rap isn't in focus with him springs up numerous times on Kingdom Come. The album's title track shows Jay-Z taking the identity of a superhero to help establish his status as "hip-hop's savior," and this is a very effective device. Using such good guy icons as Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, Jay shares a bit of newfound positivity that is refreshing to hear.

"Lost One" is another newish concept in rap music. In it, Jay creates a song that honestly tackles his splits both acknowledged (with former business partner Damon Dash) and rumored (with girlfriend Beyonce). What makes this track memorable is how there aren't attacks but admissions of equal fault. Most rappers would go right after the target, but the concept of the album is growth -- and what better way to express this than to put the dispute on the table for the public to interpret.

There are a few stumbling points that come from the comeback angle. On almost every track, Jay reminds everyone that he's back, and although this is expected, it gets redundant fast. The other common theme is the slightly less obvious one of spirituality, which in hip-hop always comes across conflicted, especially with such harsh language. The song that highlights the contradiction best is "Dig a Hole," in which he goes after his peers with both lyrical threats and empty prophecy.

One thing that shouldn't be ignored is the production of Kingdom Come, and that has its ups and downs, too. The highlight musically is "Oh My God," which is propelled by hard rolling drum beats and a strong sample of The Allman Brothers Band's "Whipping Post" as covered by soul singer Genya Ravan.

On the flip side, "Anything," which features singing help from Usher and Pharrell Williams, tries to recycle the tropical party of his previous hit "Big Pimpin'," but ultimately the song fails because it's hollow and vain. Jay is better on tracks like this when he's the featured guest, not the center of attention. Plus, this also proves that Williams' magic touch has run out: The great hip-hop run that he had by himself and as part of the Neptunes has become repetitive and dull.

So, was it worth it for Jay-Z come out of retirement? It could be in the long run -- if he can use what works on Kingdom Come to continue to evolve. Despite the missteps on some tracks, this is still one of the year's best rap albums and has the potential to change the public’s opinion of aging rappers.

-- By Mike Madden

December 01, 2006

LIFE AFTER MORCHEEBA

Set free from the group, Skye stands on her own two feet

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Dismissal from a band isn't always a dramatic Hollywood-type scene complete with shouting, shoving and/or expletives.

Sometimes it happens via an ordinary phone call, which is how it went for ex-Morcheeba singer Syke Edwards, now a surname-less solo artist.

In August 2003, she received word not from the eclectic band's co-founders, Paul and Ross Godfrey, but from the manager that her services were no longer needed.

"I was on a holiday and I got a phone call that they wanted to end it [with me], but they were going to continue as Morcheeba," she explains. "I kind of saw it coming. We were all working on individual side projects at the time anyway. They also wanted to buy my share of the Morcheeba studios, so it was in the cards."

The seeds for Skye's solo career were planted when Morcheeba was in the final stages of recording 2002's Charango. Around that time, Skye recalls, Paul announced he wanted to take a five-year break from the band, "so from that point I picked up the guitar and got a bunch of songs together and thought I would do a side project while he's taking this five-year break." (Morcheeba -- the Godfrey brothers, plus a new singer -- actually returned in 2005 with The Antidote.)

By spring 2004, Skye had written more than 30 songs. Her search for a producer led to Pat Leonard, and they would go on to write about 12 more.

"Each day he'd sit at the keyboard and ask me what kind of mood I was in, what kind of song I'd like to write, and we'd work it out together," recalls Skye.

She cites "Tell Me About Your Day" as a real turning point in the creation of her sensual, textured 11-song solo debut, the Leonard-produced Mind How You Go, released this year via Cordless Recordings. After she expressed concern that none of the lyrics rhymed and therefore she didn't think it could be a song, Leonard made a trip to Amoeba Records in Los Angeles and returned with copies of Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy and Joni Mitchell's Hejira.

"He said, 'Go ahead and listen to these, then tell me that songs don't rhyme,' " Skye remembers. "It's not like I learned how to write after listening [to them], but it was just a lesson in that songs didn't have to rhyme."

Although her days with Morcheeba are behind her, Skye, who has been on the road since mid-November with Ziggy Marley, hasn't closed the door on performing the group's songs during her solo shows.

"It's actually quite nice to do them in a different way," she says.

-- By Chris M. Junior

Skye on tour with Ziggy Marley (schedule subject to change):

* Dec. 1: La Zona Rosa -- Austin, Texas

* Dec. 2: Ridglea Theater -- Fort Worth, Texas

* Dec. 4: Sunshine Theatre -- Albuquerque, N.M.

* Dec. 5: Rialto Theatre -- Tucson, Ariz.

* Dec. 7: 4th & B -- San Diego

* Dec. 8: Avalon Hollywood -- Los Angeles