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Cyprus Avenue

Music Review: Astral Weeks album by Van Morrison

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In October of 1968, the album Astral Weeks was released to the world.  The vinyl disc was produced by Van’s then manager Lewis Merenstein, who two years later would produce another pastoral masterpiece, Vintage Violence – the debut solo album from John Cale of The Velvet Underground.

The musicians on Astral Weeks were jazzmen pulled from the Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as from the Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus bands.  The only musician from Van’s own stable was flute player John Payne.

OK, let’s dive in, shall we?

Side One: (titled) “In The Beginning”

The album kicks off with the title track, “Astral Weeks,” seven minutes of pure bliss, opening with the lines: “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream, where immobile steel rims crack, and the ditch in the back roads stop – could you find me?  Would you kiss-a my eyes?  To lay me down, in silence easy, to be born again, to be born again…”  The combo of the upright double bass and acoustic guitars almost sounds like a chorus of cellos, majestic in every way.  I’m immediately hooked.  It’s the sound of being in love, the sound of melancholic memories, the feel of a spiritual quest.

Is there a song by any other artist that makes one feel this way?  No.

The mood and tempo drop down on “Beside You,” which opens with a bit of Spanish meets classical guitar, while the lyrics are brought to life via a roaming vocal.  This is followed by one of Van’s all time outstanding works, “Sweet Thing” – a standard among standards in the massive Van Morrison catalog.  The opening chords and the words that accompany them: “And I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first and I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst and I shall watch the ferry-boats and they’ll get high on a bluer oceans against tomorrow’s sky and I will never grow so old again and I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain…” – sound so familiar to me, like an old friend. Perhaps a lover.

“Sweet Thing” has the magnificent sound of high-hat cymbals (crashing like water on the beach), the upright bass grounding it, the ringing acoustic guitars and a magical and mystical flute.  Oh, and there’s a string section on this song.  Larry Fallon did the arrangement.  Every time I hear this song, I feel like I’m high as a kite.  It’s a euphoric feeling, an energizing sound.  Just beautiful.

Seven minutes of “Cyprus Avenue” closes out side one.  I prefer the 1970-1974 live versions of this, but that’s another discussion.  When Van sings “I’m caught up one more time, up on Cyprus Avenue…” and the harpsichord responds to those words, we’re only 23 seconds in; it’s already surpassed most pop songs ever written.  As the song continues it’s lyrically simple but feels complex.  Van sounds like he’s in pain. This is THE BLUES, but in some kind of euro-classical setting rather than the south side of Chicago.  It’s a cross-cultural masterwork.

The strings give “Cyprus Avenue” a bit of a “down on the bayou” feeling, thus America is well represented.  Van is in pain, his tongue is tied every time he tries to speak; he’s overwhelmed.  He may also be stoned or drunk.  “It’s too late to stop now.”  Indeed.

Luckily for us, we have another side of the LP to explore.

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Side Two: “Afterwards”

“The Way Young Lovers Do” is an exercise in acrobatic genius.  The way the guitar and rhythm bounce along.  The vibraphone keeps it moving, providing a much needed “bright” and upbeat percussive feeling that the horn section supports as well.  It’s sort of an upbeat Stax/Volt thing that uplifts the vocal.  The vocal is simultaneously playful and mournful.

And then we have ten full minutes of “Madame George” – of playing dominoes in drag.  Like Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” it’s a long story song. But it could also be “Madame Joy” – there’s some fun going on here, a nod to William Butler Yeats’ wife Georgie. (Yeats was and is a Morrison favorite.)  In 1974, Van – who rarely praises his own work, said that “Madame George” was his own favorite song.  For me, it’s far from my favorite moment on this album.

But “Ballerina” is pure bliss.  This could have been written and sung by Tim Buckley, right after he recorded “Buzzing Fly” on Happy/Sad.  Speaking of which, Van’s vocals here are as expressive, as vibrant, as reaching in feeling as anything recorded by Buckley in 1968-’69.  Damn, this is good.  More blues, more longing mixed with hope.

“Ballerina” is not the strongest track on the album, but it’s equally as essential as the best songs.  “The show must go on… Keep on pushing.”

It all comes to a close with “Slim Slow Slider.”  There’s an empty sound as it starts, lots of “space” and air in the sound.  I can hear the fingers of the bass player on the strings.  The guitar and the vocal are plaintive, the soprano sax “calling from way over yonder” – adding both a jazz and a blues element.  It’s the sound of an open field in Ireland and the sound of the ocean, maybe on the Massachusetts shoreline.  “I know you won’t be back, I know you’re dying, and I know it too…”  This is an implied sequel to “TB Sheets.”

“Slim Slow Slider” fades out much too quickly, it’s only 3 minutes long.  In the CD age, they’d have kept it going, but on vinyl it needed to fade.  My guess is, if there’s one song that is a bit longer on the original master tape, it’s this one.

“Rider” ends the album on an almost hollow, existentialist note.  Yet I’m not sure how else it could have ended as the performer, the artist, is exhausted.  He’s emotionally spent, fully burnt out.

Sometime in the early 1990s, one of the Irish daily newspapers referred to Van as a “rock star.”  The next day the paper received a scathing letter in which Van stated in no uncertain terms that he was not a rock star – and that anyone who followed his career from its beginning would know that he plays jazz, soul, R&B, and folk.  He was correct.

Although Astral Weeks is considered a classic in the rock genre, it’s more unique than that. You might say it’s a blend of jazz, soul, R&B, and folk.  The most apt description of the recording is to simply say, “It’s Van Morrison.”

Highly recommended.

Pat Thomas

Pat Thomas works with a record company based in Seattle and Los Angeles.  He’s also an author.  Like the fictional character Zelig, he seems to always be in the place where it’s happening, no matter where or when that may be.

 

 

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Visions of Johanna

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial. – Bob Dylan from 1966’s “Visions of Johanna”

Cutting Edge 5

Fourteen Months

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It took Bob Dylan, his lyrics, his voice, his imagination, and his various ensembles 14 months to create some of the most unbelievable music and three of the all-time greatest albums in history.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: Bob Dylan 1965-66 The Very Best of the Cutting Edge is one of three versions of the recording sessions that changed the music world and redefined art in the 20th Century. Those of you who do not have children in college might opt for the more deluxe versions and spend over $100 for the bells and whistles – and more power to you – but, for most of us, this two-disc version is plenty sufficient to remind us why we originally fell in love with this sound and these songs and why they turned the music world topsy-turvy.

Included here are 36 out-takes, alternate versions, and works in progress that morphed into the second holy trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited (“…one of those albums that, quite simply, changed everything.” Rolling Stone), and Blonde on Blonde.

The original working titles, that were at times jokes, are a part of the story, as is the experimentation of enormous talent in the room, as they aimed for the precision of sound and style that was floating around in Bob’s head.

Along the lines of “You had me with hello,” one of the most underrated love songs of all time, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” kicks it off and there is no looking back. The rest is an endless stream of fun. “She Belongs to Me” is a keeper, and it is interesting that, 5 decades later, this is the second song of the most recent set live set lists, and current drummer, George Recile, employs mallets to move the band along, almost as if it is a march. There is so much texture to this music that the sound continues to evolve, seemingly without end.

Cutting Edge back

Back to 1965.

Some of the drum work of Bobby Gregg, particularly on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” is quite interesting, as is some of the guitar work of Robbie Robertson, although The Hawk’s (soon to be The Band) studio work did not mesh with Bob’s perspective for these albums, and none of these takes made it to vinyl.

But one could go on and on. Favorites will be in the eye – or, rather, the ears – of the beholder, and there are many, many to be had. It is all most interesting, and the gems included here are too numerous to mention in a track by track format.

The liner notes are also intriguing. While for the diehard Bob-Heads much of it is familiar territory, the take and telling of the stories is absorbing. Longtime Dylan chronicler Sean Wilentz adds his take, and it goes without saying that Al Kooper must again remind us that he snuck on the Highway 61 album after recognizing his inferiority to guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Kooper was informed that he was not an adequate organ player yet, despite all of this, Dylan instructed producer Tom Wilson to turn that famous organ mix up on the timeless “Like A Rolling Stone.” Listening to the evolution of this song alone, from waltz to classic is probably enough to justify a purchase.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

The reviewer received a copy of this release from Santa Claus.

Mr. Moyer is a public school district superintendent in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel. He remains employed and married despite having seen Bob Dylan perform live 36 times.

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Domino

Music Review: A Look Back at One of Van Morrison’s Best Albums.

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A lot of attention has been focused over the years on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album from 1968, and the album that followed it, Moondance. I’m sure that many of Van’s fans would list one of these two releases as their favorite of his, but my personal favorite is His Band and the Street Choir from 1970.

Here are some track-by-track notes on this record whose songs offered a lot of variety in musical style, and were placed in near-perfect order.

“Domino” – A great rocker and album opener; Van with an eleven-piece band. John Klingberg’s fine bass work can be clearly heard on the 2015 remaster from Warner Brothers. I’ve always loved the lines: “There’s no need for argument/ There’s no argument at all/ And if you never hear from him/ That just means he didn’t call…”

“”Crazy Face” – A pre-Eagles Desperado-type song. “He stood outside the church yard gate/ And polished up on his .38 and said/ I got it from Jessie James…”

“Give Me A Kiss” – A bouncy number that sounds like Elvis Presley circa 1956. More sweet brass backing from the band.

“I’ve Been Working” – Van as a macho soul man. This has always been his best on-stage performance number, and there’s just a touch of Tower of Power, War and the Doors in the break.

“Call Me Up in Dreamland” – Ragtime meets Dixieland meets southern Belfast rock. The Band might have sounded like this if they’d been less heavy.

“I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” – The haunting love poem that closed out side one of the L.P. His then-wife Janet Planet explained this best: “I have seen Van open these parts of his secret self – his essential core of aloneness I had always feared could never be broken into – and say… yes, come in here… know me.”

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“Blue Money” – Side two of the long player opened with this blazing tune. As much as I love “Domino,” “Wild Night,” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” this has always been my all-time fave Morrison single. (I often wonder if this was the song that inspired Steely Dan’s “Peg”?) It seems that almost every time a “Best of…” Van Morrison collection has been released, there are numerous complaints because this song is not included. Janet Planet contributed the Linda McCartney-ish background vocals.

“Virgo Clowns” – A positive take on Jackson Browne’s irony. “Now you know exactly who you want to be now. Let your laughter fill the room.”

“Gypsy Queen” – Smooth as a slide across the ice… Van captures the spirit of Motown. Say it’s alright. (Van himself said in 2007, “It’s always been about soul.”)

“Sweet Jannie” – Back to the cradle, with a blues rocker featuring a B.B. King-style guitar lead. Elmore James had nothing on this.

“If I Ever Needed Someone” – Van’s “My Sweet Lord.” “To keep me from my sorrow/ To lead me on to givingness/ So I can see a new tomorrow.”

“Street Choir” – The closer. A great, downcast, tribute to a long-lost love; one who will not be accepted back. “Why did you leave… Why did you let me down?/ And now that things seem better… Why do you come around?/ You know that I can’t see you now.”

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Like all of rock’s best albums, from What’s Going On to Graceland to The Rising, this one is life affirming. My score: 89.5 out of 100 points.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note: The 2015 reissue of His Band and the Street Choir, remastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, contains five bonus tracks; alternate takes of five of the twelve songs.

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Shining Star

Music Review: ‘Paper Stars’ by Ryan Calhoun

paper stars r calhoun

Does the new EP of five songs from Ryan Calhoun signal a musician on the rise?

CSF Music Group has released an EP of five new songs by Ryan Calhoun.   Let’s take a look at the tracks before arriving at a judgment about the release.

“Coffee” is a cute, bittersweet, song about a shy guy who’s mentally stalking a young woman that drops into the local coffee shop each morning.   “She’s the best part of my morning/And she don’t know me yet…/She’s an addiction like a shot of caffeine/She’s the reason why/Why I drink coffee.”   You can watch the video for this song on YouTube.   It’s got a touch of Justin Timberlake in the rhythm.   It’s the deserved single.

“Just as I approach her/She’s walking out the door/And I know that I’ll be back tomorrow.”   If Starbucks ever needs a theme for a TV commercial, this should be it.

Ryan Calhoun Paper Stars

“Paper Stars” combines more Timberlake-style pop-rock with a P. J. Pacifico-like sound.   This title song celebrates the simple joys of poverty, as experienced by a young couple.   “If you threw us a party for two/But the dinner you promised fell through/You ran out of time/We had burgers and wine on the floor/And we’d drink to a quarter to four/Till we pissed off the neighbors next door…/We will never be richer than being poor.”   This one should be popular with the college music crowd.

Ryan Calhoun If I Don't

“If I Don’t” is not rock or pop, it’s modern country.   This is a song that would fit perfectly on a Keith Urban or Darius Rucker album, and it’s spiced up with a trace of Tom Petty/Dwight Yoakum attitude.   “She’s the only thing I’ve ever really loved/Maybe nothing’s ever really good enough/She went left and I went right/There’s nothing left to decide.”   The singer knows he needs to propose to the woman he’s bought a ring for, but he can’t find enough courage to do so.   And if he doesn’t, someone else will take her down the aisle. (Listen to the track on YouTube and see if you agree that Keith Urban could sell a million downloads of this song.)

“Time and December” is pure Jim Croce, a variation of sorts on “Time in a Bottle.”   It channels Croce both in the lyrics and in the guitar-led melody.   “See, I thought I’d be something worth talking about/When I found myself coming back home/The more that I wander the more that I know/The more that I know I don’t know/So let’s raise up our glasses and toast to our dreams/I hope January will listen to me/Cause this year could be heaven or it could be hell/But I guess only time and December will tell.”   Very clever and satisfying.

“Stranger” might have fit well on Billy Joel’s The Stranger album.   It sounds like Joel backed by a U2ish wall of sound.   And the lyrics paint the portrait, as Joel often does, of a character that does not quite fit in:   “Everybody knows what nobody’s talking about/By the time we open up/It’s last call and they’re closing us down…/If I go and open up would you run/Or would you just let me be?/Let me be your stranger.”   Calhoun effectively borrows a line from George Harrison and incorporates it here: “If you don’t know where you’re going/Any road will take you there.”

Paper Stars is very well produced by Bill Lefler in Los Angeles.   There are no complaints about the sound.   The issue with Calhoun is evident if you watch several of his YouTube-posted videos.   He’s a musical chameleon.   Who he is varies with each song.   His versatility is a strength, but also a weakness that needs to be addressed.   After listening to many of Calhoun’s recordings, I’m not sure who he is as an artist and performer.   As an example, “Raise A Flag” from 2012 sounds nothing like the songs on Paper Stars.

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Despite this minor critique, Calhoun’s a clearly talented musician.   Paper Stars is a fine release from a singer-songwriter about whom it can be said, the best is yet to come.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-ryan-calhoun-paper-stars-ep/

 

 

 

 

 

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Music Review: Ready to Run by P.J. Pacifico

Music Review: ‘Ready to Run’ by P.J. Pacifico (Viper Records)Ready To Run Amazon

Musician P.J. Pacifico sounds different on his new EP release. Does the change in direction work?

Singer-songwriter P.J. Pacifico is going through some changes, as reflected in his latest release, an extended play (EP) disc entitled Ready to Run. The time he spends writing songs in Nashville is now augmented by time spent in the City of Angels. The influence of Los Angeles can be seen on the cover of Ready, which pays homage to Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky album. And Pacifico is co-writing songs with the team of Garrison Starr and AG, women who also handled the production on this release.

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Pacifico has come to terms with his status as a long-term cancer survivor (Hodgkin’s disease), a theme that runs through the five songs on the EP. And he’s gone retro, focusing on capturing the sound of the 1980s on this grouping. Does it all work? Well, let’s take a look at the songs on Ready, four of which can be seen and heard on YouTube.

“All for Something” is the first track, and it opens with the sound of a heartbeat. It sounds like a Sting recording crossed with Paul Simon during the latter’s Graceland period. Pacifico is reflective as he sings: “Baby, nothing good ever comes easy/And everybody knows it/I swear it’s all for something/If you’ll keep holding on.” The song could either be about a lost love or surviving a dreadful disease. This is a song that remains with the listener for a day or two after hearing it.

“While You Were Looking Away” is like Simon melded with Browne. The lyrics are definitely Browne-ish: “Nobody could have loved you better/It wasn’t getting any easier/Oh, I ran out of reasons to stay/While you were looking away/You don’t know what you want/You don’t want what you have/And now there ain’t no one left/You can blame me for that.” Note that Pacifico feels guilt, something that’s also true on the next track.

“Among the Living” is clearly about Pacifico’s experience with disease and his guilty feelings over having survived while others did not: “I was surviving/I want to forgive myself/For I’m among the living.” It’s a good song, but it’s marred by the heavy-handed production. There’s too much bass and Pacifico’s voice is at too low a range. “Living” would have been more effective if given a George Harrison-style arrangement. Still, Pacifico gets off a great line: “The thing that might kill you/Just might save your life.” He should know.

“I Want Your Love” is the track that’s not on YouTube, but it should be. It sounds like a Bruce Springsteen composition and production, with a bit of Ryan Adams thrown into the mix. The song closes out, quite interestingly, with Beatles-like sound effects. A very effective song, it should have been the single.

“Ready to Run” closes out the set with another overly-produced song. The sounds bury the vocal and the melody. In terms of reflecting the ’80s, this comes off as more Bryan Adams (“Run to You”) than Browne (“Running On Empty”). “Ready” would have been more memorable if delivered in a humble, pensive Browne-like style.

Ready to Run

It’s understandable that artists like to change things up, and it’s admirable that Pacifico’s taken risks on this new release. But I found there’s an overall sameness to the tracks due to the heavy, boomy production. This makes listening to this EP somewhat tiring. Make that more than somewhat.

I may well be in the minority, but I’d love to see the talented Pacifico return to the quieter guitar-based, almost folk rock sound reflected on earlier songs like “Half Wishing,” “Champions and Guardians,” and the beautiful “Lakeshore Drive.” I think Pacifico is in his natural sweet spot when he’s channeling the sound of the 1960s and ’70s.

Long-time Pacifico fans will no doubt want to pick up Ready to add to their collection. For those new to him, I’d suggest sampling his work on YouTube to see if you prefer his prior or current sound.

Recommended, with some reservations.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-p-j-pacifico-ready-to-run-ep/

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We All Shine On

Music Review: “Breathe Air” by the Plastic Yellow Band

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Plastic Yellow Band

The name Plastic Yellow Band (PYB) practically screams “Beatles.” By the time one has listened to the first third of the album, Breathe Air, any remaining doubt is resolved. PYB’s founder, Gerry Jennings, admits to modeling the band after John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band.

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The first song, “Lonely Place,” sounds a bit like Paul McCartney on piano while also being reminiscent of a late ’70s/early ’80s arena rock band’s power ballad. The second cut “She’s My Woman,” resembles a Beatles song with a Southern Fried rock twist. “Nowhere” features a sitar and George Harrison sound. “Nervous Stuff,” the fourth track, possesses the spirit of the Beatles’s “Helter Skelter”; it just so happens that the repeated lyrics might sound a bit familiar: “All you need is love.”

The album shifts gears a bit on “I Want to Feel Your Love” with Dana Rideout on lead vocals. “Love” has the countrified flavor of an Emilylou Harris song from the early ’70s.

“She Let It Down” is simply filler, while “Oil Kings” initiates the political overtones that are found throughout the rest of the album. Interestingly, “Oil Kings” sounds similar to “Nervous Stuff.” “Alone (It’s Hard)” is a mid-’80s-style pop song that I didn’t care for much. It’s notable that the lead vocal mimics the Lennon/McCartney sound to an almost greater-than-acceptable (or necessary) level.

The ninth track, “Climate Change,” clocks in at 4:45 and seems to be the band’s attempt to fashion a traditional popular single. The song has some of the dreariness, harmonies and production found on early Pink Floyd albums. And the lyrics are interesting: “Thirty years from now I’ll be just a memory/And you’ll still be around, not sure what your temperature will be.”

The Pink Floyd theme continues and deepens as Breathe Air closes with a trilogy of instrumental tracks – “Sunlight I,” “Sunlight II,” and “Sunlight III.” “Sunlight II” includes the line, “Say hello to sunlight and breathe air.” I was reminded of both Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here while listening to these closing numbers. Unfortunately, the trilogy – while creative and perhaps a bit pretentious, if not bland – threatens to lose the listener’s interest.

All in all, Breathe Air is a decently strong first effort. It runs a full 57 minutes, which makes up for the weak closing tracks. I’m hopeful that on PYB’s next release, the music will display a bit more punch, with leader Gerry Jennings more up-front, and fewer references to Jennings’s musical influences. (Imitation is not always flattery or tribute. Sometimes it’s just imitation.)

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was downloaded from the band’s website: http://plasticyellowband.com/

Dave Moyer is a public school administrator, a drummer, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Best Of All Possible Worlds

Music Review: ‘Pop/Art’ by Adrian Bourgeois (Disc Two)

Pop Art

Californian Adrian Bourgeois apparently knows where he comes from.

Adrian B 2

The second disc of Bourgeois’ 2014 release Pop/Art contains twelve songs that run 53 or so minutes. There’s much to like, and much that is reminiscent of a late ’60s/early ’70s pop sound and sensibility that puts today’s popular music to shame. And, a great deal of this features a unique and refined combination of The Byrds (especially the second track, “Better”) and the Beach Boys (especially the fourth track, “The Howling Wind”) with a Phil Spector-produced type of backdrop (especially the fifth track, “The Lost and the Free”). In terms of modern comparisons, it is like Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), with a higher voice and a tad less edge – though don’t let the voice fool you (if you look more closely at the lyrics you’ll find plenty of edge).

Take this from the seventh selection on Disc Two’s “Picture Frames”: “Now there’s poison in the wishing well/Poison in the wishing well/So you failed to say/And I’ve been drinking it all day/But it’s so nice to see you anyway/You and your picture frame.” Damn fine.

And there appear to be some Beatles influence at work as well, particularly in the sixth track “Parachutes”, in which the hooks and transitions are so smooth and cleverly constructed that Sir Paul McCartney comes to mind.

This CD is eminently listenable. This “album”, if you can still call it that, works as background music for a party or resonates at a much deeper, personal, level (should the listener choose to consider it in that manner). Many of these tracks could be included in a soundtrack for the right film.

Heavier on piano than guitar and, as stated earlier, produced on the borderline of being over-produced, the songs begin to run together by the end. One wonders if a double CD release was prudent or if some of these songs should have been saved for a follow-up release. That being said, they do hang together thematically.

The brass at the end of “Celebrate the News” (same title but different lyrics from the Beach Boys song), the blusier aforementioned “The Lost and the Free”, another change up in “Picture Frame”, and a solo-acoustic “Rainy Day Parade” help. However, by the third and second-to-last tracks on Disc Two (“Still Life” and “Sunflower”) the sound meanders a bit with the word “redundant” coming to mind. Although solid lyrics do save it from redundancy if one is willing to listen closely.

AB

Pop/Art should appeal to a broad audience. Several of these songs could be played on WXRT in Chicago, which those of you from that area know is the only station for music lovers. It almost goes without saying – although I will say it, that Pop/Art is a very solid work of “Pop/Art”.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Mr. Moyer is a public school administrator, a drummer who has never played with the Rolling Stones, The Who or the Beach Boys, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel. He was provided with a review copy of Pop/Art.

Pop/Art can be purchased here: http://adrianbourgeois.bandcamp.com/

You can read a review of Pop/Art, Disc One here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/everybody-knows-it-was-me/

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