Sunday, June 26, 2016

30 Years of Bruce Hornsby

It's hard for me to believe, but Bruce Hornsby first arrived on the music scene three decades ago in 1986.

I became an instant fan with the release of Bruce Hornsby and the Range's debut album, The Way It Is. The top two singles, the title track and “Mandolin Rain,” played constantly on the radio and on MTV. The group also won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1986.

Hornsby and his band's music isn't your typical '80s synthesizer pop. Rather, it is timeless, led by Hornsby's graceful piano playing and his band's tasteful soft-rock groove. And unlike Billy Joel's bluesy, soulful piano playing, Hornsby's style gravitates more towards jazz and new age, often compared to Keith Jarrett and giving Hornsby's pop a more elegant flavor.

Even the group's videos were not your typical racy or avant-garde MTV fare, simply featuring exquisite cinematography of Hornsby and his band playing in the studio.

I distinctly remember buying Hornsby's first two albums on vinyl from a record shop on the top floor of the Bergen Mall, and the third and final Range album on cassette from a music store on the underground level of the Garden State Plaza.

As I listened to these albums as a teenager, I never could have imagined that I would get to interview Hornsby nearly two decades later, which I did by telephone in 2002. I then met him in person strictly as a fan five years later at a free outdoor concert and CD signing at J&R Music in New York City. When my turn came to get autographs and talk to him and his fellow musicians at the time, I quoted an obscure and hilarious line from one of his solo albums, and he immediately started singing the exact song with that phrase, which I had also gotten him to do on the phone five years earlier. His bass player, legendary jazz musician Christian McBride, was laughing and shaking his head. Hornsby's people also got a good laugh out of it. In addition to meeting and getting autographs from Hornsby and McBride, I also got to meet and get an autograph from Hornsby's drummer at the time, Jack DeJohnette, also a legendary jazz musician.

Hornsby and his current band, the Noisemakers, just released their latest album, Rehab Reunion, this summer. This is the first album on which Hornsby doesn't play piano, instead concentrating solely on hammered dulcimer.

But it all began with Bruce Hornsby and the Range, 30 years ago.

--Raj Manoharan

Myself When I Am Real

When Andy Summers' take on the Charles Mingus composition first came out as part of Summers' 2000 Mingus tribute album Peggy's Blue Skylight, I wasn't completely taken by it due to its length and its very classical bent. In fact, I passed it over frequently for the more jazz-rock fusion numbers on the record.

I have just recently been listening to the nearly 10-minute epic several times, and I now find it to be a masterpiece of intricate beauty. It is basically Summers playing restrained electric guitar both over and behind a vast expanse of alternatively prominent and subdued violins and cellos.

It is a grandly ambitious piece that fulfills its lofty aspirations, and in the end it is quite something to behold.

--Raj Manoharan

How Casual Fans Can Celebrate 50 Years of Monkees Music

There has never been a better time to be a fan of The Monkees than now, as the group celebrates its 50th anniversary with a new hit album and a nationwide tour that's currently underway.

However, if you don't have the time or the budget for all of their recorded output over the last five decades, here's a quick primer on how to enjoy 50 years of Monkees music in just four or five albums.

Greatest Hits (1995)

This 20-track collection provides a good overview of The Monkees' most popular songs from their 1960s heyday, including the trippy “Porpoise Song” theme from their 1968 psychedelic cult theatrical feature film Head. The album also contains the 1986 reunion hit single “That Was Then, This Is Now” from the successful record Then and Now … The Best of the Monkees, as well as “Heart and Soul,” the lead single off the 1987 reunion album Pool It!

An alternative to Greatest Hits is …

The Best of the Monkees (2003)

This album contains five more songs than Greatest Hits, as well as a few different tracks. It also comes with a second bonus disc of karaoke versions of five numbers. Although you get slightly more Monkees music than the previous collection, the main drawback here is that the set is strictly limited to the 1960s, with no cuts from later decades. And some fans will like it more just for that.

Pool It! (1987)

This is The Monkees' first reunion album, minus Michael Nesmith (who was preoccupied at the time with his Pacific Arts music and video production company). It continues the Monkees tradition of other songwriters and musicians composing and performing most of the music. Although it was released during the height of The Monkees' popular comeback tour, it failed to chart. Nevertheless, it is a perfect modernization of The Monkees' sound, with the vocal talents of Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork blending seamlessly with 1980s synth pop.

Justus (1996)

After a nearly 30-year absence, Nesmith finally rejoins Dolenz, Jones, and Tork, and as the title explicitly states, it's Justthem. In addition to singing, all four Monkees wrote, produced, and performed all the music on the album. And the results are remarkable, if not fully appreciated. The Monkees prove they have true garage band grit, but they also exhibit polish and finesse when they need to. This is also the best showcase of Nesmith's impressive guitar skills.

Good Times! (2016)

Twenty years after producing and releasing Justus, The Monkees are back in a big way, celebrating their 50th anniversary with a new tour and this sparkling new album, which debuted at number one on Amazon and number fourteen on The Billboard 200. Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith record new songs and complete unfinished old ones, with the now dearly departed Jones making an appearance via a vintage recording of a Neil Diamond composition. The album marks a return to form, with other songwriters and musicians composing and performing most of the music. The best part is that Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith, now in their 70s, sound as youthful and energetic as ever.
The Monkees magic continues!
--Raj Manoharan

Aquarian Dream, by Carmen Rubino

The music on this album is indeed dreamlike, conjuring up astral images of cosmic proportions.

Carmen Rubino is a one-man electronic orchestra, bringing his grand, epic, and visionary compositions to life by creating swirls of pulsing rhythms, grooves, and tones on his keyboards and synthesizers.

The result is an ear-opening flight of fancy through a kaleidoscopic galaxy of wondrous sounds.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Anton Yelchin (1989-2016)

To me, the new cast of the Star Trek movies from 2009 on could never recapture or replace the magic of the original cast.

However, they have created their own new magic, and Anton Yelchin especially brought an infectious charm and good-natured comic relief to his interpretation of the Enterprising navigator and sometime engineer Pavel Chekov.

Hearing this afternoon of his untimely accidental death was truly horrific and shocking, especially just one month before the release of his third big-screen outing as Chekov, by which time he had completely grown into the role and made it unmistakably his own.

May Anton Yelchin's spirit live long and prosper, and peace and love to his family, friends, and loved ones.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Midnight Rhumba, by Johannes Linstead

The latest release from Johannes Linstead is far from your typical Spanish flamenco guitar album.

Rather, it is a hearty and robust collection that varies between full-bodied, invigorating rhythms and beautiful romantic ballads, with some interesting curveballs thrown into the mix for good measure.

While Linstead manages quite a lot of different styles on his instrument, his exquisite lead phrasing shines on many of the tunes. In addition to guitars, Linstead also plays bass, djembe, keyboards, palmas, percussion, piano, udu, and ukulele.

The presence of violin and viola on several tracks gives them the feel somewhat of ethnic Jewish folk music. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Balzac’s Brew,” which sounds kind of like what I would call Yiddish ragtime.

Linstead's compositions and stellar playing receive support from the talents of Jordan Abraham on accordion and piano, Anastasios Bigas on bongos, congas, and drums, George Crotty on cello, Geoff Hlibka on acoustic guitar, Irina Koroleva on viola, Vasyl Popadiuk on violin, and Max Alejandro Ventura on bongos and cajon.

Anyone who enjoys guitar music will delight in the sonic joys of this record.

--Raj Manoharan

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Monkees’ Good Times! Debuts at Number 14 on The Billboard 200

Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith (and Davy Jones courtesy of an archival recording from the 1960s) are having a grand old time on the music charts, as their new album Good Times! debuts at number 14 on The Billboard 200.

This is the group’s highest position on that chart since Then and Now … The Best of the Monkees reached number 24 three decades ago in 1986.

With a hit album and a nationwide tour currently underway, The Monkees’ 50th anniversary is definitely in full swing.

Let the Good Times! roll!

--Raj Manoharan