Album Review: Thomas Kercheval – We Were Here

If you’re a fan of Scottish rock band Big Country, you’ll love this album. Even if you’re not and you just enjoy quality rock music, you’ll still love it. Tom is a huge Big Country fan (as some reading this will know) and this is obvious in the album’s overall sound. He even played live with Big Country once, but he doesn’t like to talk about it. The album is self produced but this is no lo-fi bedroom portastudio effort; it’s highly professional sounding, but without being overly polished, which is a bigger crime in my book. What makes it more remarkable is that Tom plays all the instruments (according to the CD booklet) with the exception of some additional vocals, and the wind which is ‘courtesy of nature’. As a Big Country fan myself I can hear influences from the whole of the band’s career, from their first album right through to their later work and even demos and B-sides, but without being able to actually pinpoint particular songs. Well maybe just the once with the One Great Thing-like ending on The Ones Who Love You. There is even a track – Quasimodo – that is distinctly Skids sounding (you probably know this already but in case you don’t, the Skids were Big Country founder Stuart Adamson’s previous band.) There are a number of stand-out tracks, the best being Lonely Rider. It has a whole album’s worth of guitar parts crammed into one song, but every one fits perfectly and it never sounds cluttered. And if the guitars are not enough there’s even some keyboard bagpipes. Tom is a multi-instrumentalist, but even his talent doesn’t extend to the bagpipes, or maybe he just doesn’t own a real set, or doesn’t want to drive out all of his neighbours. Flicker is another of the stand-outs and is the most radio friendly song from the collection. It’s a song about love saving you from a destructive, or at least an unfulfilled life. Lyrically the album inhabits much of the Big Country territory, with songs about love, family and war. All except Window Unit, which appears to be a song about air conditioning, but it’s none the worse for it! This song actually contains my favourite lyric – “And you could never see how the weight of world kept pulling on me, and you’ll never understand all the strength you can find in a trembling hand” – poetic.

There are some much heavier moments to be found, particularly Melt Away with its menacing bass-line and lyrics. Then there’s the acoustic lull which gives way to an almighty scream that sounds like he’s channelling some Norwegian rage, followed by a top notch classic rock guitar solo. The album ends on a much lighter note with Papoose; Tom shows his versatility again with a bit of banjo and one of the best vocal performances. It’s hard to find fault with this album at all but if I’m being overly critical I don’t like some of the vocal effects, but strangely they work fantastically well on the female vocals on Flicker. I know we’re only in April so there’s much new music to come this year, but I’m already certain this album will make my end of year top 10.

Score: 9 suns out of 10 dc7ejqKc9

You can preview “We Were Here” on both Spotify and Reverbnation, at

http://www.reverbnation.com/thomaskercheval

The CD is also available at both CDBaby and Bandcamp at:

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/thomaskercheval

and

http://thomaskercheval.bandcamp.com/releases

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Gig Review: The Waterboys – Alexandria, VA – 2015-04-21

Mike Scott and his raggle-taggle gypsies burn the place down on the Modern Blues tour

Fresh off of a performance on the David Letterman show the night before (see link at bottom) Mike Scott and the current incarnation of The Waterboys played a blistering set on 2015.04.21 at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.

After an engaging opening set by Woodstock New York’s Connor Kennedy, Scott and his merry gang took the stage with Scott in Western garb and black hat, high-energy and ready for a storming evening of folk-inflected Celtic-flavored rock.

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The set focused on songs from their outstanding new “Modern Blues” album with some new arrangements of classic Waterboys cuts thrown in for good measure.  It’s always a positive sign when a band that’s toured for more than three decades (!) at this point is so confident and happy with the recent material that the show emphasizes the newest songs. That the material was so well-received by a crowd ready to hear the classic hits is a testament to the Modern Blues song-cycle’s strength.

Of course, since the Waterboys collective frequently rotates in new members under the Waterboys banner it stands to reason that the band is always reinventing itself.  In addition to Head Waterboy Scott and founding-member electric fiddle whiz Steve Wickham, the current lineup boasts an amazingly skilled iineup of musicians including long-time drummer Ralph Salmins, fluid guitarist Zach Ernst (who appears younger than the debut Waterboys album), Muscle Shoals bass player David Hood and the indomitable, indescribable Brother Paul from Memphis on keyboards.

Each incarnation of the Waterboys has a distinct group personality, and the current version is no different. Taking their cue from Modern Blues, this is a straight-ahead, driving rock show propelled by Salmins, Scott and Ernst with Wickham and Brother Paul then pulling and tugging on the melodies and rhythms to create the distinct musical colors and shapes of Waterboys songs.

There were fewer long improvisational passages among the band members than I’ve seen at some Waterboys shows, but the passion, soul, spirit and infectious energy of the best of Waterboys shows was still in full effect.  Scott in particular played with renewed energy and vitality belying thirty years of touring, seated only when playing the keyboards and spending most of the show moving and dancing as he played.  It’s clear that he is both justly proud of the new material and believes in it, and he really is able to sell it to the crowd.  This version of the Waterboys plays with the skill and practice of a mature band but with the passion and energy of a young band.

They had played some of the Modern Blues songs like “Still A Freak” and “I Can See Elvis” in their fall 2013 North American tour, including locally in Washington DC at the 930 club, but at that show the songs were still like new shoes that hadn’t been broken in yet, and even though there were some personnel changes from that show, it’s clear that these songs have now been worn in and are being played with a confidence gainsaying the newness of the songs and newness of this combo as a playing unit.

While I was disappointed not to hear “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland” from the new album, they did play most of the songs from Modern Blues and also mixed in some of the crowd-pleasing classics.  “Still A Freak”, “November Tale” and “Long Strange Road” were particularly sharp.

Here was “Still A Freak”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNtz0avnuCg

All of the older songs sounded fantastic and as fresh now as when newly-minted.  “Girl Called Johnny” galloped with Scott at the keyboards and Wickham providing the accents and they stone-cold nailed the audience favorite “Whole Of The Moon”. “Fisherman’s Blues” was a rousing sing-along encore and the old classic “Three Day Man” was a pleasant surprise.

Here was “Fisherman’s Blues”:

For me the highlights of the heritage material were the driving, pulsing version of the Fisherman’s Blues classic “We Will Not Be Lovers” and a spellbinding, showstopping version of “Don’t Bang The Drum” with just Scott and Wickham, both below:

Steve Wickham continues to provide the spice that makes the Waterboys such an interesting meal. Wickham plays with a mesmerizing lyricism and flow that provides color and character to each song. Although I’ve seen Scott play without Wickham, together they are magic; watching them up close they communicate with just a glance as they shift rhythms, speed and volumes. They play with the synergy that only comes with a lifetime of playing together.

You can’t discuss this incarnation of the Waterboys without focusing on the whirling dervish of a keyboard player that is Brother Paul. Brother Paul is a marvel to watch, a kinetic bundle of energy just short of exploding at all times, whipping his hair around and beaming the entire time. He plays in an extremely animated and thoroughly enjoyable style, throwing his hands at the keyboards like a wizard casting spells on the keys. There were a couple of times where after a particular flourish, Brother Paul would look over to Scott like a child caught in the cookie jar asking tacit forgiveness. Brother Paul’s ageless enthusiasm is a real joy to behold, and worth the price of admission alone.

One practical tip: with all apologies to Ernst and Hood who while virtuoso musicians keep a low profile onstage, try to work your way over to audience-left (stage-right) which is the area that Wickham and Brother Paul inhabit. They’re worth seeing up close.

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Scott can be a mercurial performer, and you know you’re at a classic Waterboys show when at some point Scott has to berate the crowd for misbehaving and you’re treated to an “aw, snap” moment. In this case, during a particularly quiet passage in “Song Of The Wandering Aengus (from the 2011 tribute album to W.B. Yeats poetry called “An Appointment With Mr. Yeats”) the rather noisy crowd was clearly bothering Scott who stopped the song about 30 seconds in and sternly addressed the throng:

“Perhaps we should play more quietly so that you can hear each other talk more clearly?”.

The crowd went stone silent for 15 seconds or so and Scott was content to let the silence linger. Then he calmly restarted the song and within a few seconds the crowd was back in the swing. Classic.

In short, it’s great to see Mike Scott and The Waterboys at the top of their game 31 years after they first toured the US. If you have the opportunity to see them play in your town, by all means treat yourself to one of the finest rock bands extant.  If they’re not coming to your town, you need to move to a better town. Life’s too short not to fill it with great live music from a masterful group.

Setlist from the show as best I remember:

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Destinies Entwined

Still A Freak

Girl Called Johnny

We Will Not Be Lovers

November Tale

Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy)

Three Day Man

Nearest Thing To Hip

I Can See Elvis

Song Of Wandering Aengus

Whole Of The Moon

Don’t Bang The Drum

Long Strange Road

Fisherman’s Blues

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Waterboys on David Letterman the previous evening doing “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”:

For more information on Mike Scott, The Waterboys and Connor Kennedy see:

http://www.mikescottwaterboys.com

http://www.connorkennedymusic.com

Album Review: The Prodigy – The Day Is My Enemy

There are few musical guilty pleasures like a new album from The Prodigy. Sadly The Day Is My Enemy does not offer much more than that.  It’s not a bad album, there’s just nothing new here. On the plus side there’s been no mellowing with age; The Prodigy are still hard as nails 25 years down the line.

Most of the tracks are of the hard edged dance variety that you would expect from this band.  Opening track The Day Is My Enemy sets the tone – it sounds like a chainsaw – and that ferocity pretty much lasts for the duration of the album. No doubt these songs will still go down a storm at the summer festivals.

There are a couple of high points – Rhythm Bomb is gloriously old school and Beyond The Deathray sounds like it would be a brilliant live opener that would have a crowd whipped into a frenzy before the beats kick in. The low point is Nasty, which sounds like a Prodigy parody (yes, even more so than Firestarter or Smack My B**** Up!)

The Prodigy were groundbreaking once, but it’s been a long long time since they could claim that. So the wait for another Music For The Jilted Generation continues – not only one of the best dance albums ever made, but one of the best in any genre. While they may never reach those heights again, hats off to them for sticking with it and never compromising.

Score: 6 suns out of 10

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Normally at this point there would be a link to something from the new album, but here’s an oldie instead.

Ferocious or what!

Album Review: The Waterboys – Modern Blues

Mike Scott and company release their freshest album since Fisherman’s Blues with a focus on sharply-observed lyrics and accessible tunes

Mike Scott and The Waterboys are one of music’s most enigmatic and interesting acts. In their three decade career going back to their 1983 eponymous debut, Waterboys (and Scott solo) albums are always marked by intricate, poignantly poetic lyrics combined with outstanding musicianship.

On their first three albums (The Waterboys, 1984’s A Pagan Place and 1985’s This Is The Sea) the Waterboys were often grouped together in with U2, Big Country, The Alarm and Simple Minds in what was called the Big Music movement (after a song on A Pagan Place). More a convenience for journalists than a conscious music collective, the description fit though and stuck through the 1980s; these five bands were writing songs based on Big Ideas of spirituality, politics and the politics of love in a complex, soaring, anthemic way that was in another universe than the vapid pop of the day. The music was uplifting, the singing was passionate, the lyrics were mind-expanding and no band exemplified this spirit better than the Waterboys, culminating for me with one of the 10 best songs of the 1980s, This Is The Sea’s “The Whole Of The Moon”.

After this opening trilogy of albums, Waterboys founding member Karl Wallinger (late of World Party) and others departed the band, and Scott and the Waterboys relocated to Ireland and took a hard right turn into a more rustic Celtic style for the stone-cold classic 1988 album Fisherman’s Blues and its raggle-taggle followup, 1990’s Room To Roam. This was an extremely fertile time for the now-sprawling combo as shown by the magnificent six-disc version (!) of Fisherman’s Blues released in 2013 that showed the depth of the work that they were doing in that period. This version of the band is one of my favorite groups of all time.

In 1991 Scott broke up this version of the Waterboys (as he is want to do from time to time), moved to New York and essentially restarted the band from scratch, with a more conventional rock electric sound that continues on to this day with a focus on exquisite word play and a harder-edged sound starting with 1993’s Dream Harder.

In the 22 years since Dream Harder, Scott has released two major solo albums and by my count eight studio Waterboys albums that have all been consistently high quality additions to the catalogue and solidify Scott’s place as one of the great writers of the rock era bringing to mind comparisons to Dylan and Morrison (Van, not Jim).

I admit that from time to time as Scott has delved deeper and deeper into literary allusions and mystic references, he sometimes has gone so deep as to risk losing even some of his devoted fans like me. For every accessible album like 1997’s solo Still Burnin’ or 2007’s Book Of Lightning, there are more impenetrable albums like 2003’s Universal Hall or 2011’s An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, (based on the poetry of William Butler Yeats) that are carefully crafted but so personal to Scott that I personally find them to be difficult listening. At his most obscure, the literary allusions, location references and mystic quotes that I understand only highlight how much of his writing that I don’t understand. I’m convinced that Scott is a lyrical genius even if I don’t understand the half of what he’s on to.

Live, Scott and the Waterboys are one of the most interesting bands going. I’ve seen them probably a dozen times over the years and no two shows have been the same. More than most musicians, Scott channels his muse in his live shows and it can be a remarkable experience to witness. I’ve seen Scott rapturous, expansive, mercurial and funny on stage, and I’ve also seen him angry and churlish; but, never anything other than absolutely authentic.

At their best live, it is as if each musician is not playing their own instruments, but rather the instruments of the other band members around them. It’s hard to explain, but startling to watch, particularly as they play within rhythms, melodies and tempos within a single song. It’s what every jamband aspires to, but the Waterboys at their best are effortless at at it. Their Washington DC show in the weeks after 9/11 was maybe the most empathic show I’ve ever seen both within a band and between a band and an audience.

On their Fall 2013 US tour, I was delighted to hear some new songs and a new direction in their music, which brings us to the nine songs on their excellent new album Modern Blues, released in the US on 2015-04-07.

Recorded in Nashville with American session musicians and long-standing musical ally Steve Wickham on violin, Modern Blues is Scott’s most consistently successful album in years, rating with the best work in his canon.

Modern Blues shines the spotlight on some of the sharpest, most observant and incisive lyrics of Scott’s long career. The music serves to support and highlight the lyrics, and the lyrics demand to be heard. They are more personal and less literary (and thus more universal) than much of Scott’s recent work; they really are more like poems set to music than traditional rock songs.

More than just the words themselves it is the way that Scott enunciates, pronounces and accents the words shows the exacting and precise placement of the writing. There’s not a single sloppy or excess word, even though some of the couplets are stuffed to the brim.

Released in the US a week after Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit, Modern Blues is an interesting counterpoint. Barnett seems to work hard to have a spontaneous stream-of-conscious, nearly throw-away style to her lyrics that belies the obvious care and craft that she’s put in, whereas with Modern Blues Scott let’s you see the meticulous, crafted brilliance he’s employed throughout.

Whether it’s a quick line like his description of Elvis Presley as “razor-quiffed and leather-squeezed, sideburns flickering in the breeze” in his vision of musicians and famous figures mixing together in the afterlife in I Can See Elvis, or the extended excellence of “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”, each song has at least one lyrical sequence that pops out to you as you hear it.

“The Girl Who Slept For Scotland” is a sly, lyrical standout from start to finish. Based on the light-hearted title and chorus, it sounds like sort of a throwaway until you hear his description of a sexual tryst:

“…When we sang in tongues together and our synchronized guitars

Played music to the rafters and made love among the stars

And our bodies beat like light in love’s beautiful embrace

As her tiny kisses burst like popping suns around my face

But then drift, recline, collapse, the lights went out, she fell asleep again

Before my kiss-wet face was even dry”

Or try this verse I’m picking at random from the first single, Beautiful Now”:

 “Look down a carousel of years and darling there you are

A Dancer crying salty tears, a Vagabond, a Star

The Slayer of Mediocrity, of every sacred cow

You were beautiful then, sweet angel

You’re way more beautiful now”.

However, before you think that this is one of Those Difficult Albums That Are Hard Work To Listen To, this is actually perhaps the most accessible Waterboys album musically since Fisherman’s Blues. Whether it’s the up-tempo romp of the opener “Destinies Entwined”, the mid-tempo ballad “November Tale”, the jaunty and self-deprecating “Still A Freak”, the doo-wop vocals and handclaps of “I Can See Elvis”, or the gentle slow-dance elegy of “Nearest Thing To Hip”, this is inviting and entertaining music.

Beautiful Now” is probably the most poppy and dare I say radio-friendly single from Scott in years, with a bouncy beat, organ and backup vocals over an innocuous hook and melody that rewards repeated listening. In a more just world, this would be a hit on Adult Alternative Radio in the US.

Before I nominate Scott for sainthood, I personally didn’t think that “Long Strange Golden Road” needed the sample of Jack Kerouac reciting from “On The Road”, and I personally found the kissoff to a romantic rival in “Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy” to be too vitriolic to be appealing on repeated listens.

However, these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable, likable album from start to finish, and for me it’s bound to be one of the notable albums of the year.

The album is scheduled to be on streaming services in the US as of 2015-04-07, but in the meantime you can find the album as a YouTube streaming playlist at:

Mr. Scott – feel free to continue making Big Music for the next three decades as well. I know that you never went away, but welcome back anyway.

Download: “Beautiful Now”, “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”. Score: 9 Suns out of 10.

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