acoustic rock

REVIEW: Alice in Chains – MTV Unplugged (1996)

ALICE IN CHAINS – MTV Unplugged (1996 Sony)

MTV’s Unplugged series is responsible for some of the best live albums you’ll find. Certainly Kiss’ instalment is up there, and so is Alice in Chains’. It’s somewhat strange that Alice’s first live album was an acoustic performance, but they have always been a two sided band. At least in the early days, you could count on an acoustic EP between electric albums.  Their Unplugged focuses on mellow(ish) moments from everything but their debut, Facelift.

“Nutshell” from Jar of Flies is a brilliant opener.  It sets a dark, quiet tone that follows through the whole album.  For this show, Alice added guitarist Scott Olsen to free up Jerry Cantrell’s hands to solo.  The eerie quiet of the audience only adds to the tension.  “Brother” from Sap is next; a showcase for the harmonies of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell.  Their vocal blend was Alice’s most defining feature.  The big single from Jar of Flies, “No Excuses” rounds out this trio.  Once again the harmonies kill it.  MTV Unplugged is an unforgiving format.  They had to do it live.  They could do multiple takes, but one of them has to be perfect.  “No Excuses” is perfect, and just listen to the percussion work of Sean Kinney!

A number of album tracks, better known as heavy electric songs, are next.  Right after a lil’ bit of “Enter Sandman”, Alice in Chains do the newbie “Sludge Factory” for the first time ever.  Due to Layne’s health, Alice were unable to tour in ’95-’96.  They played only five shows; Unplugged was the first.  (The other four were opening for Kiss, who also had an Unplugged album in 1996.)  “Sludge Factory” is a difficult song from a murky album.  Though was well received, “Down in a Hole” from Dirt earns more shouts of familiarity.  Layne clearly poured himself into the song.

“Angry Chair” is one of Alice in Chains’ heaviest songs; to hear it unplugged is strange but oddly appropriate.  Instead of raging, it simmers.  “Rooster” too is more peaceful, though an undercurrent of angst is always present.  It’s a song about Jerry’s dad, a Vietnam vet.  Sean Kinney’s marching band style drums give a slight military feel.  Layne absolutely wails on “Got Me Wrong” from Sap, and if you want intensity then check out “Would?”.  Even though the band hadn’t played live in ages, and despite Layne’s fragility, they were certainly as good as ever on MTV Unplugged.

A cluster of new material lies on the back end.  “Heaven Beside You” was always (largely) acoustic, but live it has a swagger.  For songs that were always challenging, “Frogs” is certainly one, and it is no less so unplugged.  It is more about the atmosphere than the notes.  “Over Now”, however, is a blast.

Alice finished the set with a new song called “Killer is Me”.  Like many of their songs it has atonal qualities that make it a difficult pill to swallow.  It has never been recorded in the studio, which makes the unplugged show that much more special.

Listening to MTV Unplugged, you can’t help but miss Layne.  A fun side of him shone that night.  “I just wanna hug you all!…but I’m not gonna,” he exclaims at the end.  It is true that the band eventually found a way to carry on with William Duvall, and they have done so very well.  But Layne…he was something special that only happens once.

4.5/5 stars

 

 

 

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REVIEW: Paul MacLeod – Close and Play (2006)

PAUL MacLEOD – Close and Play (2006 Busted Flat)

This CD was given to me by Uncle Meat for the purpose of reviewing.  Unfortunately I was too slow and Paul didn’t live to read it.  For that I’m sorry.

With Hawksley Workman in the production chair, one expects great sonics and perhaps just a touch of “weird”.  The opening track “Ghosts” has a familiar piano-based “bop” that is reminiscent of Workman.  This delightful little track is upbeat with just a slight sense of melancholy.  Moving on to “Cruelty”, the song has a strange aura that sounds as if you’re playing it on vinyl.  This electric song really showcases how versatile MacLeod’s voice was.  “Cruelty” does not easily escape from the memory.

Sadness and loneliness are two prevailing feelings on “Schopenhauer’s”, a beautiful acoustic tune.  “Gloat” adds a base of electric guitar for a rock solid foundation.  On top of this, Paul sings his soul out.  “All I could ever do was, was be but a crutch to you.”  The mood flows into the next tune “Pools of Blue” which speaks of regret.  This changes to anger on “Broken Wing”.  “She’s feeding the bullshit, a mouthful at a time.”  A tense little guitar lick goes on until the brilliant chorus releases it.  “Broken Wing” is an easy contender for best track on the album.

After the emotional peak of “Broken Wing”, it’s nice to go back to mellow on “Listen Mary”.  Its love acoustic guitar solo is a definite highlight.  “Giants”, another upbeat catchy number, would also be a peak point.

Closing the CD is “Stanley Steamer”, initially a shock as it begins with uncharacteristic electronic sound effects.  This soon turns into a humourous look back to an era long gone.  Paul’s song sounds as if it could have been born in that past decade.  One thing Paul had a talent for was tapping into the musical feelings of the past, like a human time machine.

Check out this fantastic CD by Paul MacLeod the Musical Tardis.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Wino – Adrift (2010)

“25 years in a rock n’ roll band, 10,000 women on a one-night-stand, all I got to show is the hole in my hand, where the money burned through.” – Wino

WINO_0001WINO – Adrift (2010 Exile on Mainstream)

I don’t know a hell of a lot about Scott “Wino” Weinrich (for shame), only that he was the guy from Saint Vitus, and they are doomy deliciousness.  I’d heard him before on a couple records — a Sabbath tribute, and Dave Grohl’s Probot. I do love acoustic records by metal artists.  I don’t mean unplugged albums, or acoustic versions…I mean when a heavy rock artist picks up an acoustic guitar and records what is (essentially) an acoustic heavy metal album.  Take Zakk Wylde’s Book of Shadows as an example.

Adrift is a fucking great album.  Even if you don’t like singer-songwriter type recordings, you’ll dig this.  According to the cool liner notes, a lot of these songs are old compositions from his past.  Wino made a ball crushing acoustic album out of them, and it’s brilliant.  It’s not entirely acoustic; there are stunning electric solos and the odd flourish here and there, but it’s mostly just wood, strings, and Wino’s hands.  Did I mention it’s fucking brilliant?  You can even hear the guy breathing on some songs.  It doesn’t get much more real.

But how does it sound?  Take some simple rock chords and acoustic licks, and combine together for maximum impact.  Wail out a long and atmospheric guitar solo when needed.  Sing deeply personal lyrics with a haunting, gritty double tracked voice.  Except on the instrumentals of course (of which there are two).

For shits n’ giggles, there is also a killer acoustic cover of Motorhead’s “Iron Horse/Born to Lose”.  Its placement is a little weird (right smack in the middle of the album) but my God does it smoke.

Check out:  “Green Speed”, “Old and Alone”, “Whatever”, “Shot in the Head”.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Zakk Wylde – Book of Shadows (reissue)

ZAKK_0001

ZAKK WYLDE – Book of Shadows (1996, 1999 Spitfire reissue with bonus tracks)

There are many albums in my collection that I have bought more than once, just because I love them so much. Kiss Alive for example I’ve owned on LP and CD every time its been reissued. Likewise, Book of Shadows. When this album was issued with the 3 bonus tracks on an extra CD, I made sure I added it to my collection, because this is such an amazing collection of songs and I needed more.

Book of Shadows, Zakk’s second album outside Ozzy (Pride And Glory being the first) was a departure. Every song is largely acoustic, and electric guitar is usually only heard distantly in the mix, or in some of the solos. Instead of shredding, this album is driven by Zakk’s soulful voice, electrifying lyrics (very underrated!) and songwriting excellence.

I recall playing this for Tom and T-Rev when I first picked it up.  Tom’s immediate first reaction was, “This sounds like Hootie and the Blowfish.” The reason for that is Zakk’s deep voice, and the fact that these are mostly mellow acoustic songs. However a few more minutes in, and it was clear that this was a Zakk album. Especially when that first electric guitar solo kicked in. By the time the albums ends on the electric, grinding, Sabbathy-outro to “I Thank You Child”, we had been thoroughly blown away.

Zakk’s lyrics run the gamut from philosophical to funny. “The Things You Do”, for example, seems to be about an ex-girlfriend and contains the lyric, “How do you do the things you do? You make Satan look like Christ, you know it’s true.” Elsewhere, “Way Beyond Empty” is a powerful, mournful song with a chorus so good that it will not let you go. I also enjoyed “Throwin’ It All Away” for its drama and orchestration.  The three bonus tracks are just as good as anything else on the album, particularly “The Color Green”, an indictment of modern greed.  Lyrically the bonus tracks are more topical than the album in general.  They are “Evil Ways”, “The Color Green”, and “Peddlers of Death”.  A vastly different re-recorded version of “Peddlers of Death” later appeared on Black Label Society’s debut album Sonic Brew.

If you are a Zakk fan, obviously this purchase is a must. If you’re not a Zakk fan but you happen to stumble upon this review, do what you can to hear it.  I’m firmly convinced that if Book of Shadows had a larger overall awareness, it could have been a hit album with multiple successful singles.

Band lineup:
Zakk Wylde – lead vocals, guitars, piano
Joe Vitale – drums, keyboards
James Lomenzo – bass

5/5 stars

Part 189: Hiding the Music

RECORD STORE TALES Part 189:  Hiding the Music

1985:

There was a group of kids on the street (Bob, myself, Rob Szabo, and Peter Coulliard) that were competing for a cassette copy of Kiss Alive II.  There was only one copy that we knew of in town on cassette.   Guys like Bob and Szabo would know that — they were older, had nice bikes, and probably had been checking all over town.  The only copy we knew of was at a store called Hi-Way Market.

Other kids on the street such as George and Todd had the album on vinyl, but Bob and myself didn’t really have any decent equipment for playing records at the time.  Cassette was portable, it was our primary medium in 1985.  In 1985, you didn’t listen to “albums”, you listened to “tapes”.  The cassette copy at Hi-Way Market was priced at $12.99.  This was more expensive than most, because it was considered a “double album” even though it was still just one tape.

KISS ALIVE II BACK

None of us had $12.99 plus tax right then, but Hi-Way Market had this tape we all wanted.  Hi-Way Market was a great store.  It had old creeky wooden floors.  Downstairs were groceries and clothing.  Upstairs, the greatest toy store in town.  Every Christmas they did a giant Space Lego display.  It was incredible.  But off to the side of this store, up a narrow staircase, was a little record store.  I bought my first Iron Maiden (Live After Death, on vinyl) there.  (I think the deciding factor in buying the vinyl of that album was the massive booklet, a rarity in those days.)

Since none of us had the money, Peter Coulliard hid the copy of Alive II behind something else in the store.  Something where no Kiss fan would ever look for it.  Probably behind Duran Duran or Michael Jackson.  This enabled Peter to have the edge when he finally did gather the necessary funds, thus edging Bob, Szabo and I out in the battle for Alive II.

1999:

These two kids kept coming into the store that were fascinated by my copy of Kiss’ Carnival of Souls.  These were young kids…well, about the same age as Bob, Peter and I were back when we pulled this stuff.  They did not have the $10.99 ($12.64 with tax) to purchase Carnival of Souls.  We didn’t have the only copy they could find, but we did have the cheapest one.  The mall stores were asking at least $20 for new copies.

So these kids came in day after day, week after week, moving Carnival of Souls.  They continually got more creative with their hiding places.  My job was to make sure the shelves were also straight and orderly, and when you’d find Kiss under Anne Murray, you’d put it back.  When bosses found Kiss under Anne Murray they’d give you crap.  So, much as I sympathized with the kids’ musical choice, they were grinding my gears as manager.

Finally I got fed up.  I sent the CD to Trevor’s store with an explanation of why he had to keep it and sell it there.  Then the two kids came in again.

“Hey, umm, do you have Kiss Carnival of Souls?” asked the first one.

“Nope, sold it yesterday,” I lied.

“Awwww…” said the second kid.

It had happened.  I had become “the man”!  I had lost sight of my old self.  Didn’t I pull that “hide the album” stunt myself? In fact, didn’t I do it with GI Joe figures at Hi-Way Market?  I did!

NEXT TIME ON RECORD STORE TALES…Early Birds.

JACOB MOON – “Subdivisions”

Just watch, and listen. There’s a reason he was asked to play at the Marillion convention in Montreal!

 

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