8Tracks Rewind: Remembering the Jets

I was a junior in high school when the Jets hit the pop FM stations in my town.  Pop radio was different in the mid 1980s.  Pop was still pop—generally speaking, music aimed at mass (typically young) audiences, usually less challenging versions of various genres whose goal was accessibility more than artistry—but on a good top 40 station, you were likely to hear Def Leppard (pop metal), the Fat Boys (pop rap), Kenny Rogers (pop country), REO Speedwagon (pop rock, at least by 1986), Michael Jackson (pop R&B), and all forms of pop dance, which may sound like a redundancy but really isn’t because they weren’t playing any New Order.

At first, the Jets’ “Crush on You” sounded like every other pop dance song on top 40.  It was cute and bouncy, with a breathy female lead vocal and a keyboard-driven rhythm designed to get stuck in your head all day.  Mostly something I didn’t pay much attention to but tolerated because there would probably be a Pat Benatar song next.

This was the height of the MTV era (he wrote, wistfully), and when many of us saw the “Crush on You” video, something seemed strange.  These musicians might have been black, but darn it if they didn’t look like they might be Polynesian.

The thought of finding out whether they were or not was an alien concept.  Without the resources we have today, it never occurred to us to track down the Jets’ ethnicity, but eventually it trickled down to our lonely rock in the Pacific that the Jets were Tongan.  Eight Tongan siblings playing their own instruments, with 13-year-old Elizabeth on most of the lead vocals.

Most of the students in my school weren’t at all Polynesian, and the Jets were from Minnesota, but dang.  These videos featured young musicians who looked like our friends and neighbors, and there they were, all over MTV.  On the Billboard Hot 100 on June 28, 1986, the Jets looked up and all they saw above them were “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” by Billy Ocean and “On My Own” by Patti LaBelle with Michael McDonald.  Most of us were really in no position to say it, but “we” had our own Jackson 5.  We had our own Osmond Brothers.

Note to self: edit this later when you think of a better example than the freaking Osmonds.

Through pretty much all of high school, I had an if-it-doesn’t-rock-it-sucks attitude about most music, but when the Jets came on MTV or 93FM Q (when I wasn’t in control of the car stereo), I paid attention and even sang along. Because Polynesian.

The Jets hit the Billboard Hot 100 ten times before they were through, including “You Got It All” (peaking at number 3), “Cross My Broken Heart” (number 7), “Rocket 2 U” (number 6), and “Make it Real” (number 4). I was honestly never a fan, but I rooted for them. They played a reunion show in Honolulu in 2009, a retro festival with the likes of En Vogue, the Cover Girls, and Ready for the World (how long was that set, I wonder), and I didn’t go.  Friends who did, though, were most amped to see the Jets.

Interesting stuff I couldn’t find a place for in this stroll down Memory Highway:

  • The Jets’ family name is Wolfgramm, and they are cousins of reggae singer Leilani Wofgramm, and if you haven’t heard of her you are probably old.  I think she sold out when she performed here last May.
  • Elizabeth married Mark Atuaia, a BYU running back from Hawaii.
  • “Crush on You” was written by Rupert Holmes, the guy who sang “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and the almost-as-good “Him.”
  • Aaron Carter, among others, covered “Crush on You.”
  • Brittany Spears covered “You Got It All”
  • The siblings who performed as the Jets were eight of fifteen brothers and sisters.

 

8Tracks Review: ‘Melding’ by Marika Takeuchi

Melding by Marika Takeuchi
Bigo and Twigetti, 2018

Dawning

Marika Takeuchi’s new album Melding dropped July 19.  I first discovered her three years ago when she crowdfunded her fourth studio album, Colors in the Diary, while I looked for something interesting on PledgeMusic.  I love how that sometimes happens; the crowdfunding platforms are such a great way to get into something new.

“This is a mixture of classical and electronic music, eastern and western influences,” she says in the teaser video for the album, “and everything else that contrasts but coexists.  This is really about mixing up everything.

“I was told that my music is good, but I’m not going to be internationally successful because I’m a female and Asian.  I wanted to prove them wrong.  Music is a universal language, and what you look like, where you are from, and what gender you are don’t affect your abilities and passions to make good music.  Music has the power to unite people.”

Melding

  1. Melding (4:53)
  2. Night Time (4:06)
  3. Found (5:13)
  4. Roots (5:03)
  5. Dawning (3:39)
  6. Thoughts (5:10)
  7. Evolve (4:06)
  8. Breakdown (3:27)
  9. Found (Jim Perkins Re-Work) (4:00)
  10. Motion (5:09)
  11. Torn (4:45)
  12. Breeze (3:04)

I haven’t received my physical CD yet, so no album credits until later.

Thoughts

If you ever put together a playlist beginning with the X-Files theme and ending with Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” with Clannad’s “Theme from Harry’s Game” somewhere in the middle, you’ve got to get this album.  Takeuchi’s neo-classical sensibilities combine for the first time with just a bit of electronica to make Melding both meditative and dramatic.  If you prefer your genres unmelded, start with “Found,” a lovely, cascading theme progression that will bring tears to your eyes if you stare into it too closely.

For new additions to the X-Files playlist, jump to “Roots,” a sweeping construction of sounds not going where you think it’s going, or “Night Time,” probably the best example of the east-west thing the artist mentions in her teaser video.  The Japanese melody on violin and a pretty, plucked instrument (harp, perhaps) are a nice, new-agey example of Takeuchi’s interest in combining influences.  “Evolve” provides a similar experience, probably the most cinematic song on the album.

My favorite thing about this album is Takeuchi’s continued emphasis on building and exploring themes.  I don’t know whether this electronic-flavored neo-classical is a diversion or a new path, but I’m along for the ride because she’s still solidly a classical composer.  Listen to the build-up in the first two minutes of “Thoughts” and tell me you don’t want to rent a tux or put on your nicest gown and see this musician in live performance with your city’s orchestra.

A gorgeous. layered album.  I hear new things with each spin, and I’ve listened all the way through eight or nine times so far.

Breakdown

Best song: “Night Time”
Second-best song: It keeps changing, but right now it’s “Evolve.”
Best moment: The Enya-like vocals on “Found,” and the weird, almost weapon-sounding clicking in the same track.
Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Breeze”
Song to make you get on a horse, strap on your sword, and seek adventure: “Breakdown”
Song to make you question why we’re here and what it’s all about: “Thoughts”

Rating: 8/10

Found

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also this lovely 2016 performance of “Koyo” especially for those whose tastes lean contemporary classical.

8Tracks Review: ‘Strawberry Moon’ by Amy Vachal

Strawberry Moon by Amy Vachal
(Independent, 2018)

I’ve waited too long, baby

Until a few weeks ago, the only thing I knew about Amy Vachal was that she was a contestant on The Voice, a show I hate.  Don’t be mad.  I just think these singer contest shows on network television seek musicians who appeal to very large audiences, and if something appeals to the masses, it is most likely bland, unoriginal, boring, or crap.  Am I wrong?  It’s always struck me as ironic that judges on The Voice, like Adam Levine, Pharrell Williams, and Cee-Lo Green, would probably have bombed on shows like this.  They made their splash by being different from everyone else.

Geez.  What an idiot I am.  Vachal’s first full-length album, Strawberry Moon, dropped January 31, and it’s freaking terrific.

Putting down pictures when we were together

  1. Golden Boy (3:49)
  2. Taken (4:03)
  3. Honey (3:19)
  4. Strawberry Moon (3:14)
  5. Wait (4:28)
  6. Darling You (3:35)
  7. Lightning (4:36)
  8. You Can Have Me (3:48)
  9. Cashmere (3:52)
  10. Below My Feet (4:06)
  11. Stones (2:38)

I’m falling like seasons

While Strawberry Moon is pop-flavored, this is no mainstream pop album.  From the light, airy, lilting notes of opening track “Golden Boy,” you’re reminded of that girl who sat in the back row of your 11th grade history class, drawing all over her binder, her forearm, the desk, and her Chuck Taylors.  You thought she was pretty in a trying-hard-not-to-look-pretty way that didn’t fool anyone, and you admired her but were afraid to talk to her because she seemed like she Knew Things.

My idiotic anti-The Voice bias had me expecting completely the wrong thing.  It’s like when Lisa Germano, John Mellencamp’s violin player and always the most intriguing musician in his band, released her first solo album and it was creative, angsty, whispery, and potentially psycho and you were like holy cow where did that come from?

That was a long time ago.  I’m old.

I am not too old, however, to be really taken by this album, mostly a blend of folk, alterna-pop, gospel, and something like clove cigarettes or lapsang souchong.  The tunes are unique, not only in a gigantic field of solo singer-songwriters, but each among the ten others on the album.

Vachal apparently writes her own lyrics (it’s impossible anymore to find album credits if you don’t buy the physical CD, which I have done but it’s not here yet), and they’re the best thing about an album with no weaknesses.

Best album of the year so far.

Words in my skin and lips on a letter

Best song: “Taken”
Second-best songs: “Stones” and “Golden Boy”
Best lyric: “September took a turn on a highway west / whiskey and pie / held up a telephone to our lips / we’d kiss we’d fight / I was taken.” (“Taken”)
Second-best lyric: “I have seen gold / I have seen silver / I’ve been in love / I felt its fever / but give me the words / the ones that matter / I’m tearing out pages / I’m saying goodbye.” (“Stones”)
Best moment: Whatever that plucked string instrument is in the intro to “Honey” and throughout the song.
Second-best momentThe sound of a door, suitcase, or guitar case closing at the very end of “Stones.”
Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Strawberry Moon”

Rating: 9/10

I can’t change where you are

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8Tracks Review: ‘Mangoes’ EP by Amy Ahn

Before we knew it, we were flying

Amy Ahn’s three-song EP dropped June 1.  The classical harpist with harp performance degrees from UCLA and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee blends genres in a poppy-jazzy-r&b style.   In an interview with & Strings, she says,

If I’m going through something and feel like there are truths that need to be heard in this world, I like putting it in the form of a song. I put together a three song EP, very very small but quality wise very very big and put a lot of heart and effort into it.

Every song is really different. So if I were to describe it sonically, the groove is like Emily King, the soul is like Corrine Bailey Rae, my voice wilts a lot, and my classical background comes out with a string quartet that plays in one of the songs, which I’m super excited about.

 


What’s a girl got to do?

  1. Never Thought I’d Be (5:03)
  2. Bird’s Eye View (2:58)
  3. Mangoes (3:50)

An ocean full of ideas unheard

Most immediately notable is Amy’s voice, which reminds me most of Karen Peris’s sweetness combined with Norah Jones’s sultriness.  It’s very breathy, sometimes distractingly so, in the way that many contemporary folk-influenced singer-songwriters are breathy, only breathier.  What sets Amy apart is her vocal style, which leans heavily on r&b sensibilities but with an admirable jazz vocal attack.  I imagine her laying down vocal melodies and deciding they weren’t challenging enough, because she seldom takes the easy vocal path getting from here to there.  It’s pretty refreshing, and it’s refreshingly pretty.

“Bird’s Eye View” opens with just vocals and a harp, something else you don’t hear much of in pop-inflected music, and it compares nicely with the intros to the other tracks, which open with just vocals and acoustic guitar, the much more common approach.  All three songs develop into rather complex multi-instrumental arrangements.  The layering is really nice; I especially appreciated some nice piano coloring in “Mangoes,” and a weird, fascinating, oscillating industrial sound I can’t identify at about the :55 mark in “Bird’s Eye View.”

If there’s a lyrical theme, it’s “I used to be that, but now I’m this.”  If I have one complaint, it’s that the mix doesn’t leave enough room for Amy’s lyrics, making them difficult to understand in places, especially “Bird’s Eye View.”  I’m not sure, but I think she actually uses the lyric, “never thought I’d be in like with you” in “Never Thought I’d Be,” a phrase I’ve always favored but don’t remember hearing in a song.

“Mangoes” is the best song, musically and lyrically, so if you’re in a hurry start there.  Otherwise, put the whole EP in your earbuds on repeat for a few spins or a few days.

Rating: 7/10

I really do like you

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8Tracks Review: ‘In the Waiting’ by Kina Grannis

 

In the Waiting by Kina Grannis
KG Records (2018)

There was a time when there seemed to be something new to talk about from Kina Grannis just about every week.  While she has remained engaged with her rabid fanbase on seemingly a daily basis, these last few years have seemed pretty close to event-free.  So it was something of a surprise when her new album, In the Waiting, was finally available for preorders, despite regular tweets about personal songwriting retreats and informal surveys about where she should take her next tour.  A whole studio album for the first time in four years.

You know how much stuff happens in four years?  A lot, including a hundred days’ detainment by the Indonesian government during which Kina and three tour companions were forbidden from publicly communicating their situation.  Stuck in a hotel where she didn’t know their status on any given day, she wrote two songs appearing on this album, “California” and “For Now.”  If you’re a fan and you haven’t read her story, you really must.  It’s pretty horrible.

You calling me back to your side


I listen again for your song

  1. When Will I Learn (3:13)
  2. History (3:44)
  3. In the Waiting (4:12)
  4. Birdsong (4:36)
  5. For Now (3:18)
  6. Lonesome (4:27)
  7. Beth (3:51)
  8. Souvenirs (3:10)
  9. All Along (2:01)

There was a delay with physical CD shipments (this has been happening to me a lot lately), so I’ll add album credits later.

I am open, I am ready

There’s no question that Kina has purposely reframed herself for her audience over the years, and while I’m here for that, I admit it’s been an adjustment for me.  The Kina you and I fell in love with isn’t musically the Kina we get on this album.  She long ago shed any hint of coyness, and while she can certainly still present as sweet and sincere, her childlike playfulness is gone, quite possibly for good.  It’s okay.  It makes sense.  It happens to us all, as I suppose it must.

So what we have here is undoubtedly the same musician, just in a different place and time.  And this Kina is mellow.  Wistful.  Pensive.  Cautious, almost, stepping softly but determinedly through some tricky emotional ground.  Seriously, every track feels like a meditation on some daily, heart-squeezing near-paralysis.  “Beth,” my favorite song on the album, starts like this:

Beth, rest, you are on top of the world
Yet you disagree
And it’s too long, longing for something to give
When the taking is free
And it’s not in the way that you said your goodbye
Not in the way that you laughed
And it’s not in the way that you started to cry
When you heard that the worst part had passed

and it doesn’t get any easier to deal with.  Kina’s bravery as a lyricist is admirable, and I imagine I’m not the only one wishing I could reach out to the personae in these songs and buy them some ice cream.  Between tracks, my heart still begs her to jump up and sing “Message from Your Heart” next, but this album’s not the place for that kind exuberance.

This is not to say the album lacks lightness.  “California” is waltz-like and dreamy, while “For You” is driven mostly by quick fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar, the most reminiscent of earlier Kina songs.  You could almost float away on it, if it weren’t so sad!

It’s a solid album, but not everything is a viral video made with a hundred thousand jellybeans in stop-motion animation, and the songs here probably don’t quite have this kind of holy-molyness.  On each of her previous albums and EPs, I texted friends to say hey you gotta hear this song from the new Kina album and oh yeah hear this one too.  That may not happen for many of us on this one, and that feels appropriate.  It’s so darn personal.

I know nothing but the meaning

  • Best song: “Beth”
  • Second-best song: “For Now”
  • Meh: “All Along” is growing slowly on me, but very slowly.
  • Best lyric: “It’s too long, longing for something to give when the giving is free”
  • Best moment: Birdcalls and piano intro to “Birdsong”
  • Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Birdsong”
  • Song to make you whip out your old guitar and write your own song (do it!): “Lonesome”

Rating: 8/10

The ones that I am missing

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If you somehow have never seen Kina’s “In Your Arms” video, you need to see it now.  And if you have, you know you want to see it again.  Third-best video of all time behind A-Ha’s “Take on Me” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

 

8Tracks Review: ‘Pop Covers’ by Marié Digby

It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart

Marié Digby released an album of  pop covers this week.  I’m pretty sure these were all recorded before and are only collected and put into sequence here for the first time.

I love Marié.  You love Marié.  There’s no need to sell anyone on checking this out, and you pretty much know what to expect, although the Soundgarden cover might be a nice surprise!

You drown out the crowd

  1. Hold On, We’re Going Home (Drake) (2:05)
  2. Diamonds (Rihanna) (2:48)
  3. New Rules (Dua Lipa) (2:57)
  4. Too Good at Goodbyes (Sam Smith) (3:03)
  5. Let it Go (James Bay) (3:41)
  6. Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden) (2:49)
  7. Ordinary World (Duran Duran) (3:16)
  8. Enjoy the Silence (Depeche Mode) (2:55)
  9. When You Say Nothing at All (Alison Krauss) (2:45)
  10. Empire (Shakira) (3:13)

What’s being said between your heart and mine

I do not like the original recordings of any of the first five songs, so I am quite possibly the wrong person to evaluate these as covers.  I do very much like the originals of tracks 6 through 9, and Shakira’s always been semi-interesting.  Context for deciding on my cred.

Marié gives even the songs I don’t care much for her usual sweet, breathy treatment and I don’t have a single complaint.  Reinterpreted as mostly acoustic, stripped-down songs, everything here works.  I was surprised to find myself really liking the Sam Smith cover, “Too Good at Goodbyes.”

The real highlight is Alison Krauss’s “When You Say Nothing at All,” which is itself a cover of a Keith Whitley recording.  I’ve heard (and seen) Marié play a bunch of songs on her guitar, but she gets a really clear, ringing tone on this one, something a little different sounding from what I’m used to from her.  It sounds like she recorded the vocal live, as she accompanied herself, and rather than cheap or hurried, it sounds spontaneous.  It’s also one of the few tracks here where she doesn’t do the moaning-into-the-notes singing and it just sounds freaking pretty.

Although I’ve heard many of these recordings already, putting them together this way makes them more interesting.  Whether you’re a casual fan or hardcore, you’ll probably want to put this in heavy rotation for the rest of the summer.

Now you say it best

  • Best song: “When You Say Nothing at All”
  • Second-best song: “Ordinary World”
  • Meh: “Enjoy the Silence”
  • Songs I didn’t know before I spun this album: “Let it Go” and “New Rules”
  • Not an improvement on original: “Enjoy the Silence”
  • Huge improvement on original: “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and “Diamonds”
  • Best moment: The piano intro on “Let it Go”
  • Second-best moment: The almost yodel-like melody in the chorus of “Empire,” minus the hooing, which is better than in the original recording but still doesn’t do anything for me
  • Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Let it Go”
  • Song to make you whip out your old guitar and try to write a song (do it!): “When You Say Nothing at All”

Rating: 7/10

Old Mr. Webster could never define

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8Tracks Review: ‘In Fina We Trust’ by Awkwafina

Young Fina: slanty-eyed dreama

This is the summer of Awkwafina.  The New York rapper’s new movie Ocean’s 8 is a hit, and her next film Crazy Rich Asians is expected to blow up in August.  With all the “Who’s Awkwafina?” buzz I’ve been hearing in film reviews, I didn’t notice until the other day that she released a new EP right when Ocean’s 8 hit the screen.  This is what she says on her website.

To whom it may conce:

I made this album for my Day 1s — the fans who believed in me and were for me from the jump…I came to terms years ago that my music isn’t for everyone — and I like it that way.

So that’s why I cherish the small group that “gets it.”  My first album, Yellow Ranger, was recorded/produced/mixed&mastered on my bed.  It encapsulated a raw-ness and a memory of myself as an unsure musician, trying to find her place.  With your help, I finally found it.

I.F.W.T. is for my fans, my city, my hometown, and for all the young girls who it might inspire to follow their dreams in a world that often tells them they can’t.

I owe my career to you guys.

I will be eternally grateful for you, and will never stop making music for you.

With love and gratitude,
Awkafina

I’ve been an admirer since someone sent me links to her “My Vag” and “NYC Bitche$” videos about four years ago, and while I’m not much of a Snapchatter, for a while I couldn’t get enough of Awkwafina’s snaps, which featured a lot of hanging out, riding in Ubers, and harassing her beloved grandmother.  If she’s still actively snapping and you’re into it, check her out there.

I been writin’ these rhymes on the 7 train

  1. The Fish (Intro) (1:47)
  2. Cakewalk (1:55)
  3. Inner Voices (2:42)
  4. Pockiez (2:01)
  5. Ghost (2:01)
  6. Testify (2:38)
  7. The Fish (Outro) (0:39)

Let me testify this

Awkwafina’s right: her music is not for everyone, but if you’re at least casually into hip-hop, you’ll probably find something here to enjoy.  On this five-song EP, I have to say I don’t care much for “Cakewalk” and “Inner Voices,” but things really warm up with “Pockiez.” “I got good genes and I’m aging well / Is the bitch 13? They can never tell!” she boasts in typical hip-hop fashion, but if you know Awkwafina, you know self-deprecation is always right around the corner from any boast. In fact, her intro and outro tracks are a dramatized encounter on a train where someone mistakes her first for Bingbing Fan, then Kimiko Glenn, Constance Wu, George Takei, and Randall Park. When she IDs herself, the response is “Who the **** is Awkwafina?”

The highlight is easily “Ghost,” in which she talks about ghosting a couple of guys.  The track has a stuttering high-hat sounding rhythm with twangy, bouncy instrumentation and a catchy chorus.  The next track, “Testify” sounds like Awkwafina’s getting sincere about struggling to create her art and get people to connect with it.  Even here, when she says “I’mma make the city so proud,” and “ain’t gotta justify ****,” she adds, “not a happy camper when I’m stepping off the weight scale.”  There’s a sense of longing here that feels disarming.

They don’t need to know the details

Best track: “Ghost”
Second-best track: “Testify”
Meh: “Inner Voices”
Song to make you rethink your personal brand: “Ghost”
Song to make you want to take off her glasses and call her Nora: “Testify”
Best lyric: “I’m yellow as a egg-yolk / So I’m gettin’ side-eye by these alt-right white folk”
Best moment: The chorus in “Ghost”

Rating: 7/10.

I didn’t hit the game ’til 2008

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And you’ve probably already seen her video for “Green Tea” with Margaret Cho, but in case you haven’t.  Don’t click play if you’ve delicate sensibilities.

 

8Tracks Review: ‘Elemental’ by Taimane

Elemental by Taimane
independent, 2018

What’s your label?

Taimane Gardner’s new album dropped last week.  Elemental is a mostly instrumental blending of many styles, as one would expect from this ukulele virtuoso.  Her FB bio says,

Taimane translates to “diamond” from Samoan and perfectly reflects the different facets of her nature. Whether delicately finger-picking through Bach or radically ripping through Led Zeppelin, Taimane has the ability to morph genres – from classical to rock to flamenco – and stretch her instrument far beyond the familiar melodies of Hawaii, where she grew up.

She learned to play at age 5, first attending Roy Sakuma’s ukulele school, then taking lessons from Jake Shimabukuro.  Busking on the streets in Waikiki led to her discovery by Don Ho, who made her a regular in his Waikiki show when she was still in high school.  A nice feature in Ukulele Magazine about her then-recent We Are Made of Stars album, explains how her sound and performance style evolved next:

A close friend took her to Ong King Art Center, an underground art gallery in Honolulu’s Chinatown. “It was the complete opposite of Waikiki,” she says. “Improvising and creating on the spot was the hot thing. I was introduced to artists and musicians who looked at music and art differently. It was the moonlight compared to day.”

Prounounce it “ty-MAH-neh.”  And “oo-koo-LEH-leh,” not “yoo-kuh-LAY-lee.”

Only open eyes and ears and minds can hear

  1. Water (5:13)
  2. Fire (4:07)
  3. Air (4:40)
  4. Mother (Earth) (4:27)
  5. Hades (Pluto) (3:53)
  6. Ether (3:55)
  7. Atlantis (4:09)

Taimane Gardner: ukulele, vocals
Jazzy Jazz: guitar
Jonathan Heraux: cajon

Come on and listen

While Taimane delivers these seven element-themed songs with her usual cross-genre style, the dominating mood is atmospheric.  She’s at her best when she’s playing alone, without accompaniment, but there aren’t any bad or boring moments on the album.  Listen to “Air” and you’ll get a sense of the ukulele’s range of sounds in the hands of a competent musician.  The instrument has very little sustain without electronic help, but you hear how a mostly strummed style can provide a nice droning staccato and even some sweet harmonics for kind of an illusory sustenance.

I love how she occasionally, without overdoing it, will slide up or down the neck in a manner unusual for ukulele-playing.  There’s an approach here that some traditionalists criticize, attacking the instrument like a guitar to be shredded, rather than gently coaxing the music from the strings and fretboard, but I say there’s a time and place for good, musical shredding, and musicians like Jake Shimabukuro, Troy Fernandez, and Taimane Gardner carve out that time and place.

I never get tired of her playing.  Put this in your earbuds and lie down somewhere cool or warm, somewhere you can feel the ground you’re on and whatever breeze you can find.  People always associate ukulele-playing with the beach, but here’s an ukulele album that should work in any outdoorsy setting.  I’m serious!

She is here

Best song: “Ether,” a new-agey piece with some pretty accompaniment.
Second-best song: “Air.”
Meh: I really like the playing and vocals on “Mother (Earth),” but the lyrics are super uneven, sometimes distracting.
Song to make you wanna book that vacation to Hawaii (do it!) (and bring all your money!): “Fire.”
Song to make you wanna book a midnight Nightmarchers hike while there: “Atlantis.”
Best moment: I really like the strumming that picks up right after the short pause at about 2:44 in “Air” and goes to the end of the track.  Makes me want to break out my senior yearbook for some reason.
Rating: 7/10

Where are you?

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see Taimane play her kinda famous surf medley at halftime at a Clippers game at the Staples Center.  Ignore the announcer’s bad pronunciation of her name.  It’s not his fault.

8Tracks Review: ‘Noise Floor’ by Spock’s Beard

Noise Floor by Spock’s Beard
2018, InsideOut Music

It’s always good to see your face my friend

I guess I’ll get the 8A angle out of the way first and say that Spock’s Beard is a four-person progressive rock band from California with a Japanese keyboard player named Ryo Okumoto.

Spock’s Beard released its thirteenth studio album on May 25, the same day Meiko dropped her beautiful covers album.  It’s the first of the band’s albums without an official drummer — the drummer on the previous two albums, Jimmy Keegan, left to pursue other interests, so original timekeeper Nick D’Virgilio returned to play on this recording as a guest, ‘though he’s not an official member of the band.

Following the grand design

Disc 1: Noise Floor

  1. To Breathe Another Day (5:38)
  2. What Becomes of Me (6:11)
  3. Somebody’s Home (6:32)
  4. Have We All Gone Crazy (8:06)
  5. So This Is Life (5:35)
  6. One So Wise (6:37)
  7. Box of Spiders (5:28)
  8. Beginnings (7:25)

Disc 2: Cutting Room Floor

  1. Days We’ll Remember (4:14)
  2. Bulletproof (4:41)
  3. Vault (4:49)
  4. Armageddon Nervous (3:32)

I’ve been unable to find album credits!  I’m especially annoyed by this because I pre-ordered the double CD from Amazon, and I think there was a problem with the discs because although the album is streamable and downloadable, the disc mailout was pushed back to June 15.  I am freaking irritated by this.

Vocals: Ted Leonard
Guitar: Alan Morse
Keyboards: Ryo Okumoto
Bass: Dave Meros
Drums: Nick D’Virgilio
And probably lots of other cool musicians I don’t know about, including (I suspect) founding lead singer Neil Morse.

I’m alive to breathe another day

Last week, I said I think the new Meiko album is my second-favorite album of the year.  I said second-favorite because I’d already listened to this one.  As much as I love this band (and I reeeeeally love this band), I thought the last couple of albums were pretty forgettable.  It pains me to say that although I purchased them as soon as they were available, I pretty much never listen to them.

I’ve listened to Noise Floor at least ten times through already.  Honestly, I can’t get enough of it.  It has an incredibly warm, sunny, joyful spirit, as if the guys had been forbidden to play their instruments for ten years and finally picked them up again just for this recording.  Lyrically, there’s definitely a thread running through the album about surviving and thriving, and I’m totally here for it.  Solos on pretty much every instrument are sweeping and grand, technically as interesting as they’ve always been, but this time they sound like they’re playing for the clouds to open up and the sun to shine down on only them.

There isn’t an uninteresting moment on the actual album (disc 1).  The bonus EP (disc 2) is pretty flat and really adds nothing to the overall feel of the album, except “Bulletproof” which is quite good.  I can’t figure out why this one’s not on the full album; it fits right in.  Give the “To Breathe Another Day” video a chance, and if you find it intriguing, spin the whole album.  It’s music to make your brain and heart feel great.

No need to seek redemption

Best song: “To Breathe Another Day”
2nd best song: “Somebody’s Home”
Song that’ll make you say “wuh?”: “Have We All Gone Crazy”
Song to listen to with headphones while riding Space Mountain: “One So Wise”
Song for the second ride on Space Mountain: “Box of Spiders,” the only instrumental.
Best lyrics: I’ll have to get back to this when I finally get my CDs in the mail.
Best moment: Oh man, the bass playing behind the guitar and keyboard solos in “To Breathe Another Day” beginning at 3:33 is sweet.  Meros is ferocious on this album.

Rating: 8/10.  A high 8/10.

All the planets

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also this pretty cool song, “Godzilla vs. King Ghidarah” from one of Okumoto’s solo albums.

 

8Tracks Review: ‘Playing Favorites’ by Meiko

Playing Favorites (2018) by Meiko
Chesky Records

Everything I do depends on you

Yes, I know I just reviewed a Meiko single six weeks ago. I didn’t know back then that Meiko’s album would be out this early in the summer. But I am neither complaining nor apologizing, because people: this album is really good.

Meiko says:

I’m really proud of how it came out. It’s an album full of cover songs that I grew up listening to from artists like Sade, Blind Melon, Duran Duran, Mazzy Star, Portishead, Erykah Badu and a bunch of others!

My band and I recorded it live in an abandoned church in Brooklyn – the acoustics were AMAZING – this is definitely a record to listen to on headphones! 🙂

Anyway, I hope you like the album, and I hope you think we did these songs justice!

The album was recorded using the Chesky Binaural+ technique, which (if I understand it) records live in an attempt to capture the 3D sound we experience when we hear musicians play in person. Two mics are placed in the ear holes of a dummy to simulate what a human’s ears pick up, and as Meiko says, you really do want to listen to this with headphones.

Let it be what it’ll be

  1. Zombie — The Cranberries (3:09)
  2. Stand by Me — Ben E. King (3:16)
  3. Crush — Jennifer Paige (3:41)
  4. No Rain — Blind Melon (2:54)
  5. Fade Into You — Mazzy Star (5:02)
  6. (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay — Otis Redding (2:50)
  7. Wandering Star (featuring Casey Abrams) — Portishead (3:37)
  8. Come Undone — Duran Duran (3:56)
  9. No Ordinary Love — Sade (4:21)
  10. Super Freak — Rick James (4:02)
  11. Show Me Love — Robin S. (3:14)
  12. Bag Lady — Erykah Badu (3:44)

It’s just a little crush

I noticed the sound quality right off, before I knew anything about this technique. I thought it was just really, really, really well mixed, with Meiko’s vocals way up front and the accompaniment pleasantly, happily, and clearly in the back, almost like the background sound of the ocean from that long weekend at the beach when you know you had a great time but can’t recall the specifics. Because all you remember is the way the girl two beach houses over sounded when she sang you that Amy Grant song on the beach that one night.

It should be like that, anyway. Meiko’s singing is the reason to listen to any Meiko song. Her voice is at turns whispery, purry, pensive, sultry, and yearning, and boy does she do a number on these numbers.

I’ll get the lows out of the way first. A covers album is always a personal thing by any artist, so I get that, but honestly, if I never hear another cover of “Stand by Me,” it’ll be perfectly okay. It’s a great, wonderful song loaded with wonderful memories for many of us, but it’s so overdone now that I think we’ve had enough. This doesn’t mean Meiko’s cover isn’t good; it is. It’s the best I’ve heard, anyway. I just, you know, wish that track had been something else.

I was planning to say the same thing about “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” too, but dang! When Meiko sings the low note on “dock of the” and then this shimmying “ooh oooh ooooh oooh” after “watching the tide roll away,” I swear she’s singing it just to me, like that girl on the beach I totally made up.

Songs I didn’t know before hearing this album: “Fade Into You,” “Wandering Star,” “Show Me Love,” “Come Undone,” and “No Ordinary Love.” I like them all! “No Ordinary Love” is the best of them, and it’s my second favorite on the album after “Crush.” Is it me, or does the melody for “Fade Into You” sound a bit like the verses in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door?” And doesn’t “Come Undone” sound a little like “Hot in Herre” beginning at the :33 mark?

There really isn’t a meh moment on the album.  I’ve had it on repeat since this past weekend and I’m still grooving on it.  I want more.  Surely these are just the songs that made the cut.  When Meiko was brainstorming possible songs to include, she must have had forty to start with.  Let’s get a volume two.

I think this is my second favorite album of the year so far.

Let’s not overanalyze

Best song: “Crush”
2nd best song: “No Ordinary Love”
Most singable: “Zombie”
Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “No Ordinary Love”
Song most likely to be in a CW show this year: “Fade Into You”
Flick your Bic for: “No Rain”
Best lyric: “Might take a little crime to come undone” (“Come Undone”)
Best moment:  I don’t want to be boring and give the same answers for all of these, but the whole first verse and first chorus of “Crush” are just heavenly.

$9.49 on Amazon. Go get it.

Rating: 8/10

Everything I do

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8Tracks Review: ‘Rise to Glory’ by Loudness

Rise to glory

In 1985, right in hair metal’s best years, Loudness released its first album on an American label, it’s fifth album overall.  Until then, the band from Osaka was really known only in Japan.  I was sixteen, fascinated by the genre, and frustrated by my awareness of artists I had no way of checking out.  There were all these bands in metal mags and in the bins at Tower Records, but there was no way for me to hear them without gambling on stuff I didn’t know anything about.

It was a lonely passion in those days before the web.

Then suddenly there was Loudness, one of those bands in the imports rack, releasing an awesomely titled album in America, Thunder in the East, and featuring the Rising Sun as its cover art.  I bought it on cassette, sound unheard.  I mostly liked it, sorta, and tried to convert my friends.

“C’mon guys.  It rocks.  And these guys are Japanese.”  I got an acknowledgment from them that the lead guitarist, Akira Takasaki, was a total shredder, but at my little private school in Honolulu, I was the only person wearing a Loudness tee.  Man, I had to skip lunches for a week to save up for that.

It’s thirty-three years later, and the band is still at it.  Loudness has been through multiple lineup changes, but since 2001 or so has recorded with the original group, which continues today minus original drummer Munetaka Higuchi, who died ten years ago.

Rise to Glory is the group’s twenty-eighth or thirtieth studio album, depending on how you count them (two of their albums have separate, Japanese-sung and English-sung versions), and it’s a pretty good return to the sound that thundered in the east all those years ago.*

I’m still alive

Masayoshi Yamashita: bass
Akira Takasaki: guitar, keyboards, synthesizers
Minoru Niihara: vocals
Masayuki Suzuki: drums

Tracks:

  1. 8118 (instrumental) (1:49)
  2. Soul on Fire (5:50)
  3. I’m Still Alive (3:18)
  4. Go for Broke (4:55)
  5. Until I See the Light (4:43)
  6. The Voice (4:31)
  7. Massive Tornado (4:56)
  8. Kama Sutra (instrumental) (3:19)
  9. Rise to Glory (4:17)
  10. Why and For Whom (6:00)
  11. No Limits (5:09)
  12. Rain (6:19)
  13. Let’s All Rock (6:00)

Released January 26, 2018 on earMUSIC
Produced by Loudness

Why and for whom

Rise to Glory is accessible the way all pop metal is, but its appeal is mostly to middle-aged fans like me who still pay attention to Ratt and Def Leppard all these years later.  It’s heavily riff-driven, melodic, catchy, and mostly a showcase for shredmaster Akira Takasaki’s guitar chops, which are considerable and almost always interesting.  The album reminds me most of early-80s Scorpions with a little bit of Ratt thrown in.  It’s mostly riff riff riff riff, but with occasional slow grooves and some thoughtful composition.

Listeners inclined to give it more than five spins will appreciate some of the musically mature flavor the band throws into the mix, something completely absent the efforts of their twenty-something selves nearly forty years ago, which tended to skim the ocean’s surface.  Bass lines go dark and heavy.  Brief acoustic guitar fills, often mixed way back, are little treats for the attentive listener.  And always there are Takasaki’s varied, mostly classical-influenced solos and fills with dashes of funk, pop, and Japanese folk, the heart and soul of the Loudness experience.

The vocals are an acquired taste.  There’s nothing wrong with the quality of singer Minoru Niihara’s singing; there’s just a Japanese-accented English that non-Japanese listeners have to find some way to deal with, combined with the band’s writing lyrics in its second language.  Niihara is kind of a dork on stage, and it comes through more than a little in his singing.  But this is true of a lot of great metal bands from Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia.  My advice is to get used to the voice, tolerate the weird lyrics, and enjoy the whole picture, because Rise to Glory is mostly a fun, interesting ride.

No Limits

Best song: “Kama Sutra,” an instrumental.  Sorry, Minoru.
Second-best song: “Until I See the Light.”
Most singable: “Go for Broke,” although what it’s about I have no idea.
Headbang to: “Massive Tornado” and “Why and for Whom.”
Meh: “Rise to Glory.”
Song to make you wanna get the band back together (don’t do it!): “The Voice.”
Best lyric: “Reach the sky / You’re a brave samurai / There ain’t nothing than can stand in your way” (“Until I See the Light”)
Best moment: The spacy guitar fills beginning at about 2:30 in “Kama Sutra.”

Go for broke

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“We’re gonna do our best!”

This is video from one of the 2016 Monsters of Rock cruises.  It’s a nice example of how the band still rocks live, despite Minoru Niihara being kind of a doofus.  Sure, it’s weird seeing men pushing 60 dressing and playing like this, but the music is still great!  “Crazy Nights” is the first track off Thunder in the East, and therefore my very first exposure to this band (and many others’ first exposure), who will always have a special place in my heart.  Akira still shreds!


* The band explained in an interview in Hit Parader in the 80s that when you’re a Japanese band, the whole album-tour-rest cycle is really short.  An album takes the same amount of time to write and record, but touring the country only takes a month or so, and this is why the group is so prolific.

8Tracks Rewind: Get to Know Dengue Fever

I think about you so so so so much I forget to eat

Chhom Nimol and Senon Williams. 10-30-10.

“California psychedelic surf rock with lyrics sung in Khmer?  Sure!  Why not?”  I downloaded Dengue Fever’s third full-length album, Venus on Earth, and by the end of the first spin, I was repeating aloud, “Where has this been all my life?”

Once upon a time eMusic was the online digital music store unlike the others.  Because it didn’t have deals with the major labels, it pushed indie and fringe artists, some on the fringe because that’s where their music was, some because they hadn’t yet been discovered by the masses who would someday embrace them.  For a monthly subscription, music lovers received download credits for an impressive range of excellent music.

Because so much of the music I love is right in that wheelhouse, eMusic was one of my favorite things ever.  I had long lists of artists I wanted to check out each month and my “save for later” queue was maxed at 100 albums.  The number of credits I received was generous; my plan meant that mp3s were about $.49 each, or half the price for the same tracks on iTunes.  The low price meant that many of eMusic’s faithful were willing to be adventurous.  We’d look at the “most downloaded” lists, the staff picks, and the year-end highest-rated albums by eMusic subscribers lists, and say, “Sure!  Why not?”

This is how I first heard about Dengue Fever, on one of these “subscribers’ favorites” lists.  Venus on Earth was my third-favorite album of 2008 (it was a very competitive year!)* and Dengue Fever has remained a favorite.

I’m too geared to fall asleep

Because it was Halloween eve.

As gimmicky as the premise may sound, the biggest reason for Dengue Fever’s rabid fanbase is its excellent musicianship.  This band rocks, and seeing them live, you kind of wish you could slow everything down so you don’t miss anything.  Lead guitarist (and sometime lead singer) Zac Holtzman is strangely charismatic even in a band laden with charisma.  His brother Ethan Holtzman on keys, saxophonist David Ralicke, drummer Paul Dreux Smith, and bassist Senon Williams are all more than the backing band.  One of the things I love about this group is that it’s not afraid of lots of soloing, and everyone gets his chance.  Repeatedly.

Senon Williams took this photo of Nimol and a lumpy me. I’m all crooked because I fell in love that night.

The biggest reason to fall utterly in love with Dengue Fever, however, is lead singer Chhom Nimol.  If you’ve seen or heard anything like her in American rock music, I need to know where you hang out on Friday nights, because I need me some of that.

The band’s sound has grown more inclusive over the years, adding other styles to the Cambodian-Californian pop-rock origins.  Senon Williams says on the Dengue Fever website, “Before it was partly Cambodian and partly indie rock.  Now it’s one hundred percent both.”

I saw them in concert on Halloween eve in 2010, and they were amazing.  It was a street fair, and through their set the street was packed with the celebrants you would expect, but right after the show, a small mob of middle-aged Cambodian women waited for their turn to chat in (I’m assuming) Khmer with Nimol.  She seemed thrilled to speak with them and I wondered if this happens at every Dengue Fever show.

Just go see them.

The first thing that I do is throw my arms around you

Start with “Tiger Phone Card,” probably the band’s most accessible track.  It’s sung in English, and it’s about a long distance relationship (Phnom Penh and New York City).  It’s got that psycho-surf sound in all the instruments, but Nimol’s vocals slide around on that exotic Cambodian scale.  I’m embedding the album version, but if you kind of dig this, check out the many live recordings of this song on YouTube.

And never let go

Then you’ll want to hear “Sni Bong,” from the band’s self-titled debut album.  It’s probably Dengue Fever’s most popular song sung in Khmer.

Open up to me and tell me that you love me

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A couple of months ago, the South Coast Repertory staged an original play by Lauren YeeCambodian Rock Band inspired by and featuring the music of Dengue Fever.  This promo video is pretty great.  Did any of our readers see this?  Was it as awesome as it sounds?

* The best was the Gaslight Anthem’s The ‘59 Sound, and the second best was Crooked Still’s Still Crooked.