Friday, February 7, 2014

Soundtrack to the Snowpacalypse: Wild Belle's "Isles"

This whole “snowpacalypse” thing has gotten a bit out of hand here in Austin. The first time, it was fun. I went on a foot trek to get some coffee on streets that were noticeably free of ice, snow, or danger. The second time, it was embarrassing. It seemed as if someone had merely looked at the thermometer and decided it was just too cold to go to school. It might have been understandable if there was a reasonable expectation of rain, but the chances were at around 15% - hardly enough to justify a delay.

This was starting to get frustrating. These repeated closings were starting to threaten our summer break. I have no desire to celebrate the 4th of July in the band hall. More immediately, UIL Concert and Sightreading Contest is happening at the beginning of March, and no amount of added days is going to make up for the rehearsal time that I am losing due to shutdowns and mock STARR testing. The culture of fear that we live in is going to have a direct effect on my student’s success, a fact that I find almost intolerable.

Make no mistake, however - it is nice to have unexpected family time. I have really enjoyed spending some time with the Little One and the wife. We’ve all been in close quarters, which means that my listening habits have veered towards the accessible. Fortunately, I received the absolutely stellar Isles from Wild Belle in a pretty robust stack of birthday CDs, and this album has emerged as the "Soundtrack to the Snowpacalypse."

Wild Belle obviously defers to reggae and other afro-Caribbean music. The sunny, beachside association that I often associate with reggae styles, however, is absent on Isles. Instead, the throaty, sultry voice of lead singer Natalie Bergman and the distorted bari sax of her brother Elliot perfectly complimented the lone cup of coffee I had in the house that I was using to beat back the bright, cold day outside.

There are a whole range of interesting issues that can be addressed anytime there is a cultural schism between a music’s point of origin and its current form. No, they are not from Jamaica. Yes, they are white. No, they have probably never lived in a shanty, but they can refer to them out of respect for the style. None of this is really weird in today’s musical landscape. There are no record bins anymore, so it doesn’t matter if you call them “reggae” or “alternative.” They cross over, and in the process, write excellent, catchy tunes with a distinctive, consistent vibe that permeates the entire album.

I was listening to Isles last night as I was driving home from the dojo on a completely clear road when I heard that the school districts were closing today for the third time in two weeks. I refused to believe they would do such a thing until I started fielding calls from my CrossFit crew, asking if 5 am session was still on. I dismissed their fears, and told them that if they slipped on the sidewalk on the way to their car, not to come. I did not expect anything to actually happen, and sure enough, nothing happened. It was cold, of course, but there was not even any water on the ground outside, much less ice. We knocked out that WOD and I went back to sleep, to be met by unsettling dreams of embarrassing scores at UIL.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Spock's Beard mk. III: Isn't This Where We Came In?

Spock’s Beard was one of a handful of exciting neo-prog discoveries that transformed my listening habits in the late 90s. When lead singer/keyboardist/guitarist/primary songwriter/all-around talented freakboy Neal Morse left in 2002, however, I felt that the band’s incredible chemistry was irreparably crippled. I believe that a band can survive, even improve, with such significant lineup changes, but 2003’s Feel Euphoria, their first album with drummer Nik D’Virgilio as lead singer, just didn’t do it for me. Despite some of their subsequent recordings receiving accolades from the prog community, I ceased following the group.

In 2011, D’Virgilio announced that he, too, was leaving the group. Spock’s Beard was without a vocalist or a drummer, and down another contributing songwriter. Yet in 2013, Spock’s Beard released Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, an album of new material that, despite featuring a drummer that has never recorded with the band in the studio and an entirely new vocalist, I find quite easy to accept as part of their oeuvre. In fact, Spock’s Beard in 2013 feels much more like the band that I remember finding so inspiring a decade ago.

Admittedly, this is partly due to my own totally subjective distaste for drummers that “come out from behind the set” to sing lead. Phil Collins established this practice in the 70s when he took over the lead vocals for Genesis, playing drums for the band in the studio and relegating his drum throne to a freelance hire while on tour. I really hate that. I recognize that there are unique stage presence considerations for a drumming frontman, but Jellyfish proved my hypothesis that it can be done effectively with a little conviction and creativity. It seemed to me that D’Virgilio had both of these qualities in spades, and I, perhaps unfairly, always held it against him that he did not just push the drumset up to the front of the stage and go for it.

The good thing that comes from all this, however, is that Jimmy Keegan, the band’s touring drummer during the D’Virgilio years, was more than ready to step into the role. With almost a decade of live shows with Spock’s Beard already under his belt, Keegan had little problem establishing chemistry with the band. More importantly for me, however, is that what you hear on Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep is what you can expect to get in a live setting.

For most people, however, the real hot seat isn’t the drum throne, but that lead singer role. My interest was piqued when Ted Leonard, whom I knew as Enchant’s lead singer, was announced. Their album Juggling 9 or Dropping 10 was there for me during a time in which I could not emotionally bear to listen to much music. Since then, however, Leonard seemed to drift from one project to another, so I found myself anticipating the ways in which his Steve Walsh inflected vocal style might contribute Spock’s Beard if he were to find a home there.

Before either of these musicians were announced, however, my interest in the album shot through the roof when I heard that Neal Morse was collaborating on several tracks. His distinctive compositional style was, for all intents and purposes, the sound that defined early Spock’s Beard and it has since traveled with him through his various projects. I was very, very excited to potentially see it come home. When I began to seriously look at investing in the album, the track Afterthoughts was the big hook.

No matter who is singing lead or playing drums, any fan of the band will immediately identify this track as a Spock's Beard song, the giveaway being their signature vocal take on that "Gentle Giant thing.” Predictably, it is one of the Morse collaborations, in this case with Leonard and Neal's brother Alan.  It’s probably my favorite track on the album.

Although I have more readily accepted this version of Spock’s Beard than I did any of the albums with D’Virgilio, embedded in that last sentence is the one reservation that I have about the future of the band. The rest of the album is pretty convincing, but without even looking at the liner notes, my standout, favorite tracks were ones that Morse collaborates on, and they greatly contribute to the feeling that this album truly belongs to the Spock's Beard canon. Without them to scaffold on, I’m not sure it would have been as easy a sell.

I think it would be living a bit too much in the past to see Morse come on as the band’s primary songwriter in absentia. What I would really like to see, however, is Morse continuing to take on a collaborative role in Spock's Beard on future recordings, similar to the way that Brian Wilson did for the Beach Boys. This might not be an unreasonable wish, either, because Leonard seems to have a pretty good rapport with Morse. They shared the stage during a couple of transitional shows as Leonard took over lead, and he is standing in as Transatlantic’s 5th member for a leg of their upcoming tour. The potential for further collaborations between the two is pretty high. There is always the chance, however, that Morse is merely giving his former band his blessing to move on, and his loose participation on Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep is a one-off occurrence. All the more reason to enjoy it while it lasts.