Sunday, December 14, 2014

Greil Marcus’s New History of Rock ’n’ Roll

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: December 14th, 2014

In departure from my stream of album reviews and product updates, I want to try my hand at a book review (of sorts) for today’s post. It’s a book on rock ’n’ roll; so, don’t worry, I won’t be diverging too much from my usual subject matter here.

The book in question is called “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs,” and it’s important to pick up on the obvious irony of this pompously authoritative title. (I doubt anyone could take seriously an author who affects such a foul posture of critical objectivity.) The essential joke of the title would probably be in bad taste if it was made by any writer other than Greil Marcus, one of the first cultural critics to treat rock ’n’ roll as a serious American art form, holding the likes of Elvis Presley up along with the likes of Herman Melville, tracing the promises and betrayals of the American ideal from the pen of John Winthrop to the mouths of John Lennon (who, despite being a Liverpudlian by birth, was no doubt an American artist) and beyond.

The book starts from a simple premise; namely, that the story of rock music has been told so exhaustively since its inception that everyone (more or less) recognizes at the very least a loose outline of the events that have shaped its history – i.e. Elvis Presley, The Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, Dylan going electric, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” etc. But as Marcus writes in the introductory section, “A New Language”: “That basically familiar way [of telling the story of rock ’n’ roll] can be summed up by scrolling through the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, letting the names compose the history of the music.” And so the telling of this story another time would be unnecessary, even torturous, a celebration of redundancy. Luckily, Greil Marcus did not set out to reiterate what now seems old, threadbare and lifeless.

In fact, Marcus’s mission in “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs” was to select ten often overlooked, or just plain forgotten, songs (one of which is not so much a song as performance art piece called Guitar Drag) which nonetheless embody the essence of rock ’n’ roll. And the list Marcus puts together is by no means definitive or, for that matter, even comprised, in sheer aesthetic terms, of the greatest songs; rather, the ten songs serve as alternate if not original approach to understanding what we as listeners, as participants even, are promised by this music, and how these promises are fulfilled, betrayed or both.

So, instead of making an argument for the general awesomeness of Greil Marcus’s new book, I’ll just list the ten songs myself (with YouTube links) and let you decide for yourself whether “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs” is worth checking out:

01) “Shake Some Action”; The Flamin’ Groovies
02) “Transmission”; Joy Division
03) “In the Still of the Nite”; The Five Satins
04) “All I Could Do Was Cry”; Etta James
05) “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”; Buddy Holly
06) “Money (That’s What I Want)”; Barrett Strong
07) “Money Changes Everything”; The Brains
08) “This Magic Moment”; Ben E. King & The Drifters/Lou Reed
09) “Guitar Drag”; Christian Marclay
10) “To Know Him Is to Love Him”; The Teddy Bears/Amy Winehouse

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

New Gibson 2015 Lineup

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: December 2nd, 2014

Gibson USA has launched its 2015 lineup, and the guitars come in some new finishes with some new playing improvements that you should know about. 2015 also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Les Paul, the guitarist, luthier, and, among many other titles, inventor, after whom Gibson’s most famous guitar model was named, and who had helped design what is probably the most recognizable instrument ever manufactured. This may be why Gibson’s 2015 line is being branded as ‘The Celebration of Innovation,’ and according to the company’s website: “It is in this spirit that Gibson USA has established the business practice of introducing a new model line every year in the fall. Every new Model Year is the culmination of research on how we can make the most advanced guitars.” So let’s check out what’s on offer for 2015.

The big improvement, or amenity, to Gibson’s new line is the G-Force™ automatic tuning system, which asPremier Guitar boasts is “the best and simplest experience yet in an automatic tuning system” and “a significant improvement on the Min-ETune system – easier to use, with enhanced features and increased speed.” What’s interesting about the new system is that it offers a choice between a quick and dirty tune and a precision one. For tuning on the fly, one only need to turn the G-Force™ on and simply strum once; the automatic tuning system does the rest. Otherwise, for a more precise tune, the player pretty much follows the same steps, but instead of giving the strings a strum, he plucks each individual string once and the system tunes each string more accurately. In addition to this, the player has a number of alternate tuning options to choose from; the G-Force™ can tune to Standard (obviously); DADGAD; E-Flat; Open E, A, D, & G; Dobro; and All Fourths, among others. This system only may be worth your considering a Gibson 2015 model as your next axe of choice.

The other improvements for Gibson 2015 are, as Premier Guitar lists, “the new zero fret nut which is a patented applied for nut that has adjustable action capabilities. The new Tune-O-Matic bridge features a hex wrench adjustment on thumbscrews for easy action adjustments. All guitars receive a professional set up with accurate intonation, and a new PLEK program with 27% lower fret wire.”

For more specific details of what’s new with Gibson, go ahead and visit their website here.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Jam Shop Open House & Autism Awareness Benefit

Written by: Chelsea Broughton

Date: November 14th, 2014

If a kid friendly day of fun filled with activities, prizes and a chance to donate to a good cause sounds like something you and your family would enjoy, make sure to keep your calendars open on Saturday November 22nd for Beau Monde Guitars’ Jam Shop Open House! We are teaming up with St. Thomas Aquinas College PR students to put on an event that raises awareness for children with autism, while also introducing families to our awesome Jam Shop program.

Jam Shop is a fun and interactive way for children to learn about music, while also expressing themselves in a creative way. Kids love Mike and Dan, our instructors, and we would love to use this event to show parents just how much fun kids have when experiencing a Jam Shop session. The program’s mission is to keep a child’s focus and creativity at their highest potential, allowing them to learn by association.

We have noticed that children with special needs have really taken to our Jam Shop sessions and how much it has helped many of our students when it comes to interaction and expression. Children with special needs are very close to our hearts so we wanted to use this opportunity to do as much as we can for the special needs community. Autism awareness is something that is so important and personal to us here at Beau Monde Guitars, and with the help of these college students, we have come up with an amazing event for the whole family that is also for a great cause.

The Jam Shop Open House will be filled with tons of things to do, especially for kids. There will be crafts, music, free food and a raffle with some great prizes, such as a month of free Jam Shop sessions or a free guitar! Admission to the event is free, but all attendees will be given the option to donate money to Autism Speaks. This fun-filled day will be held at our storefront at 285 Livingston Street in Northvale, New Jersey, and will run from 1:00 pm until 4:00 pm.

So come join us in raising awareness for a great cause, while also learning about what we have to at Beau Monde Guitars. We hope to see you and your families there!

Interested in coming? Follow us on our Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages for more details and make sure you use the hashtag #JamShopOpenHouse!

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Brief History of Crunch: The Tube Screamer (Part II)

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: November 7th, 2014

In 1982, the TS808 (revered at this point as sort of the Unholy Grail of overdrives) was succeeded by the TS9; and much to Ibanez’s disbelief, presumably, the TS9 went on to out-shine the original TS808 in the stomp-box overdrive market.

Oddly enough, internally, the TS9 is almost identical to the TS808; the only real alterations made in development of the second iteration of the Tube Screamer are 1) the on/off switch, which now took up about a third of the effect’s face and, one could safely assume, was an attempt to mimic the stomp-friendly design of Boss effects pedals, and 2) an expanded output, which “caused the tube screamer to be a bit brighter and less ‘smooth’,” according to a wonderfully detailed article on the Analog Man site. If the TS9 varies only slightly from the TS808 in design, the two couldn’t be more distinct in the component used to manufacture the pedals, which is important to note since component choice has an unquestionable affect on sound. As the Premier Guitar article, referenced in the first installment of this here post, has it: “one drawback of the new Tube Screamer…was that TS9s were built with a somewhat random sourcing of parts-basically whatever was readily available at the time of manufacture.” This resulted in considerable tonal variation between each batch produced; weighing in on the issue, Mike Piera, the “Analog Man,” writes that “the TS-9s were put together with seemingly random op-amp chips, instead of the JRC-4558 which is called for in the schematics. Some of these sound BAD, especially the JRC 2043DD chips.”

Ironically enough, Ibanez and parent company, Hoshino, made a name for itself in the late 60s and early 70s for producing Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker knockoffs. Nisshin, the Japanese outfit that supplied pickups for some of Ibanez’s ersatz instruments, was in fact the company that manufactured the first Tube Screamer, and other effects, for Ibanez, but as result of an interesting if somewhat vague arrangement between Nisshin and Ibanez/Hoshino, “Nisshin was allowed to market its own line of effects, which were identical to those it made for Ibanez,” as Tucker writes. In 1979, the fist Tube Screamer, TS808, debuted and was quickly picked up by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and other guitar greats.

But upon its release, the TS9 was not necessarily received with arms open. As John Lomas, the former product manager at Ibanez, puts it to Premier Guitar’s Lindsey Tucker, the unveiling of the TS9 “was not a magical moment by any stretch of the imagination…. The public didn’t give a rat’s ass-not for the longest time. It caught on much later. I would say guys really started talking about it in the late ’80s, and by 1990 it was really starting to roll along.” Because the TS9 failed to really take off on its debut, Ibanez discontinued the pedal in 1985, after only about three years on the market. But the Tube Screamer wasn’t gone for long; after putting out Super Tube STL, which wasn’t branded as a Tube Screamer but a part of the Master Series and contained the same circuitry as the Tube Screamer and an additional two-band EQ, Ibanez released the TS10. Which, unfortunately, was a complete flop. As Lindsey Tucker writes, the TS10 was developed with “with quieter circuitry that eliminated the vexatious chirp that older Tube Screamers sometimes emitted when all the controls were turned up. However, these alterations affected the burgeoning star’s signature tone, and the TS10 wasn’t as well received as Hoshino hoped.” Even Piera has a particular distaste for the TS10, complaining to Tucker, “I still hate [the TS10]…. They used cheap, proprietary parts-jacks, switches, and pots that often break and can’t be replaced, because the sturdy parts used in handmade, handwired pedals like the TS9 won’t fit. They have circuit boards that have all these parts mounted on them that break off, just so they could make pedals cheaply with machine soldering.”

But despite Ibanez’s failure with the TS10, the classic sounds of the TS808 and TS9 began rearing their heads in the music and guitar work of beloved artists like Stevie Ray Vaughn and U2’s The Edge. In the early 1990s, the Tube Screamer’s distinctive sonic crunch became once more a sought-after commodity, prompting Ibanez to return to its roots.

(To be continued…)

Ibanez & Kaoss Unite – Mesa Unveils Mark Five: 25

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: October 10th, 2014

In recent guitar news, Ibanez has unveiled two intriguing additions to the RG line: a guitar and bass equipped with the Korg Mini Kaoss Pad 2S.

The RGKP6 and the SRKP4 are rather barebones interpretations of Ibanez’s iconic RG design (you know, the Stratocaster’s shape with slightly sharper edges). The bodies are mahogany, finished in an unassuming Cosmo Black; the fretboard, rosewood with white-dot inlays; and the pickup is a single passive, ceramic IBZ-KP at the bridge. But what these guitars lack in aesthetic flamboyance, they most surely make up for with the built-in Mini Kaoss Pad. Nestled in a pre-routed mount just below the bridge and pickup, the Kaoss Pad delivers “100 ‘dynamic’ effects including filters, modulation, LFO-based effects, delays, reverb, looper, vocoder and synth effects, all of which are controlled by the pad’s touchscreen ribbon controller,” according to an article on the Music Radar site.

The commercials for both the RGKP6 and SRKP4, which you can watch here and here, demonstrate many of the Kaoss Pad’s capabilities, which range from your traditional Wah-Wah sound to weird glitchy murmurs; needless to say, you could get pretty far-out with these two guitars in terms of sheer variety of sonic textures, which is never a bad thing. Though, as a bass player, I wonder how much low-end rumble is lost, if any, when the Kaoss Pad is engaged on the SRKP4?

But I don’t want to dwell too long on the Kaoss Pad, because both guitar and bass are built with an internal distortion circuit, which can be switched on with or without the Kaoss Pad and adjusted with the its own set of tone and gain knobs. Anyway, for additional specs, take a look here.

In recent amp news, Mesa Boogie has unveiled the Mark Five: Twenty-Five, not only a miniature version of the Mark Series amplifier but also a sort of amalgam of the previous Mark Series designs, especially the Mark II-C+ and Mark Five; or, as the Mesa Boogie site has it, “the embodiment of the last 45 years of guitar amp evolution.”

For an excellent summary of the impetus for the development of the Mark Five: Twenty-Five, here’s an except from a Premier Guitar article on Mesa Boogie’s new micro amp:

“During years of development, Mesa’s team looked back to the wellspring of past Mark amps for inspiration on the new Mark Five: 25. Revisiting the coveted Mark II-C+ and comparing the vintage icons to the production 6L6 powered Mark Five, which many believe is the brand’s best work to date paying tribute to the II-Cs, the team confirmed that many of the Mark Five modes absolutely had to be included in the new mini package. The key requirement being that, in the end, the new Mark must truly sound on par with or even better than the original II-C+. Given this challenge they set out to find a layout that would accommodate 6 incredible modes in a sub-compact chassis size. Mesa’s research overwhelmingly confirmed that players preferred two, and only two, preamp channels for a tiny Mark amp. With pedals now offering such a personalized, quick-change approach to getting different sounds, Mesa set to work defining the Five: 25’s two channels. Mesa claims the result is a collection that includes the very best of the Mark IIC+ and the Mark Five in a package that many will find unbelievably powerful and versatile for its size.”

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Brief History of Crunch: The Tube Screamer (Part I)

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: September 27th, 2014

The Ibanez “Tube Screamer” is like the iPhone of overdrive pedals; everyone you know has one, and those who don’t, want one – even if they tell you somewhat contemptuously otherwise. The Tube Screamer (especially its first two iterations, TS808 & TS9) is arguably the most venerated of stomp-box effects.

The reverence musicians hold for the Tube Screamer is due to the sort of sympathetic relationship it establishes with a tube amp: “As you increase the amplitude of an input signal to overload a tube amp’s preamp,” writes Lindsey Tucker for the Premier Guitar site, “it distorts the signal in a way that adds sustain, edge, and harmonic liveliness, while preserving the innate tonal characteristics of the guitar and amp-and without obscuring the player’s dynamics.” The reason for the pedal’s appeal is not unlike that of the Klon Centaur, which was discussed on this here blog a couple months back; if anything, boutique effects like the Centaur were very determined attempted to imitate or even out pace what the Tube Screamer had already done

Ironically enough, Ibanez and parent company, Hoshino, made a name for itself in the late 60s and early 70s for producing Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker knockoffs. Nisshin, the Japanese outfit that supplied pickups for some of Ibanez’s ersatz instruments, was in fact the company that manufactured the first Tube Screamer, and other effects, for Ibanez, but as result of an interesting if somewhat vague arrangement between Nisshin and Ibanez/Hoshino, “Nisshin was allowed to market its own line of effects, which were identical to those it made for Ibanez,” as Tucker writes. In 1979, the fist Tube Screamer, TS808, debuted and was quickly picked up by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and other guitar greats.

But the Tube Screamer wasn’t the only new kid on the block. Around the time of the TS808’s debut, the Roland company was producing the first overdrive by the now ubiquitous pedal brand, Boss. And to the dismay of the Tube Screamer’s circuitry designers, Roland/Boss had already obtained a patent for their overdrive pedal’s asymmetrical clipping system, and so Ibanez was prodded into going with a symmetrical clipping system for their overdrive design. In fact, the different clipping systems were really the only thing that set the two overdrives apart. Boss’s asymmetrical clip was designed to distort the top and bottom of the sound wave in a rather varied fashion, much like a tube amp would. This was a major selling point for Boss, because at the time, in the late 70s and early 80s, amp manufacturers were moving away from tubes toward solid-state designs, and a distortion effect that could really capture the desirable crunch of a tube amp while masking the then poor sound quality of solid-state amplification would almost surely sell like lemonade on a hot, humid day.

But the competition didn’t stymie Tube Screamer sales. The Tube Screamer was one of the first pedals to include the JRC 4558D integrated circuit chip, and as former Ibanez product manager John Lomas maintains in Tucker’s Premier Guitar article, “the sweet, vocal mid-range sound the TS808 is known for has everything to do with that JRC4558D IC chip-which explains why Lomas and many other overdrive aficionados prefer the sound of the original over other permutations of the pedal that have emerged over the years.”

It’s not hard to find internet guitar forums where commenters assert the superior sound of the original Tube Screamer design and that any position to the contrary would be indefensible, even reprehensible. And if this is an indication of anything at all, it’s that the Tube Screamer has left an indelible mark on the sound of contemporary rock music.

(More to come…)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Required Listening: Angel Olsen

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: September 19th, 2014

I discovered Angel Olsen in a peculiar, almost serendipitous way. I had been struggling to nap after work one afternoon, and thought it’d be helpful to listen to something relaxing, soporific even, something to lull me into an easy sleep. I opened up my laptop on the nightstand beside my bed, and in YouTube’s “Recommended” section was a thumbnail for thisvideo. She seems like a pretty voice, I thought.

But instead of singing me a lullaby, Angel Olsen had me bewitched. I lay on my back, nearly catatonic, the lights out, staring at the ceiling fan as it whirred overhead, mesmerized by the sweet pluck and strum of Angel’s old, shabby guitar and by her truly singular voice – performing in this video the song “Some Things Cosmic,” Olsen goes seamlessly from a gentle lilt to an eerily ghostlike wail as she sings, “I’ve felt my soul/Rise up from my body/Like the way a soul can rise/When it dies in the light.” Needless to say, I couldn’t fall asleep; instead, I felt something akin to an out-of-body experience, and was nervous about my soul getting caught in the ceiling fan.

To call Angel Olsen a folk singer would be misleading. She is doubtless a singer steeped in an American folk tradition, but she’s also so much more than just a Joan Baez or Patsy Cline imitator. She is a musician through and through. Just listen to the brief but punchy garage-jam “Forgiven/Forgotten”, then the harrowing ballad of crime and betrayal “Miranda”, then the slick, bouncy sing-along “Hi-Five” for proof that Angel Olsen is a folky “singer-songwriter” type who’s also capable musically of almost anything.

To date, Olsen’s catalogue consists of two almost flawless full-length LPs, Half Way Home (2012) and Burn Your Fire for No Witness (2014), and a quiet but really quite stunning EP called Strange Cacti (2010). If you sit down for a couple hours and listen to each album in its proper chronology, you witness not only the growth and formation of a great musician but Olsen’s uncanny ability to shape-shift musically. From the Lennon/McCartney-esque songster of “The Waiting” - “I wasted time to ponder/Here I am now all Alice in wonder…” – through to the sighing matador of “The Sky Opened Up,” with its Flamenco-inflected admonition “No One Will Ever Be You For Yourself,” to the solipsistic narrator of“White Fire,” a cold, disquieting, all-too-cerebral song that would have given even Samuel Beckett the shivers: “I walk back in the night alone, got caught up in my song/Forgot where I was sleeping, none of the lights were on/I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth/ I laughed so loud inside myself, it all began to hurt,” Angel Olsen morphs effortlessly, and at will, into sonic representations of the characters her songs so precisely describe.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Animals As Leaders: Prog-Metal with a Human Heart

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: September 9th, 2014

I have always been a little leery of the label ‘progressive’. When applied to a politician or public figure, say, who sports the term like a boy-scout badge but whose politics is really no more radical than Joe the Plummer’s, I can easily enough change the channel. No secret here that “progressive” is a designation not to be taken all that seriously; it’s usually just a synonym for status quo with some spice.

Likewise, the notion of progress in music has been debased so thoroughly as to become a meaningless appellation of genre (progressive rock, progressive metal, progressive prog-rock, and so on). These sub-genres are used to refer generally to any type of music made within an established and recognizable form – like rock-&-roll or heavy metal – but have the added flare of disorienting time signatures, odd and elaborate arrangements, dizzying speed and butt-clenching dissonance, among some other strange characteristics.

Now, my problem with so-called progressive music is not with any one of its technical aspects listed above; I firmly believe one could just as well make an interesting and successful rock song in 4/4 as in 5/4. My reservation is that more often than not progressive music seems a tacit rejection of the musical achievements of the past; it’s obsession with moving forward is such that anything that came before is treated not as a tool but as refuse. The ahistorical attitude espoused by such music creates, I think, an almost impassable emotional gulf between the music and its listener. Usually, when I listen to music termed ‘progressive’, I feel as though I’m looking at a Chimera through five inches of bulletproof glass at the Bronx Zoo.

For someone with such firmly rooted preconceptions about progressiveness of all shape and color, it came as somewhat of a shock when I listened to Animals as Leaders’ latest, The “Joy of Motion,” and was genuinely moved by it. When the idea of writing a review of this album had been proposed to me, I was, in a word, trepidatious. The anxiety of trying to discuss a band known primarily for its virtuosic use of 8-string guitars (the group consists, currently, of two guitarists and a drummer, no bassist) lay not so much in any type of contempt for the music as a fear that I’d be at such a remove from the music that I’d have nothing to say.

What moved me about “The Joy of Motion” is how it’s at once a very determined step forward and a sincere celebration of everything that came before it. Listening to the record, you get the very definite sense that Animals as Leaders are not only trying to embed the entire history of music within their songs but also anticipate the course music will take in the next 5, 10, or 20 years. Because there are no lyrics on The Joy of Motion, and no story is being told in the traditional sense, the songs function almost as characters, each with his or her own richly developed personality. Every song has its moments of calm and mania, of melancholy and ecstasy, of skull-crushing violence and gentleness. By each song’s end, you can almost make out the form of the character being described by every note and drum beat. “The Joy of Motion” leaves you feeling like you just finished a novel in just under an hour, and for that hour lived intensely in the world of the characters Animals as Leaders so precisely, so elegantly limned for you.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Have Another Listen: Kevin Morby’s Harlem River

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: September 2nd, 2014

On the Friday before last, Kevin Morby (best known as bassist of the psych-folk outfit Woods and singer/guitarist of winsome garage-rock band The Babies) played a set of solo material from 2013’s “Harlem River” at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The show was an intimate one, which was not so much a consequence of the venue’s small size - surprisingly little nudging was required to secure a spot up front – but a result of the inherent intimacy of Kevin Morby’s songwriting.
Appearing on stage in a slightly oversized red button-down to match his candy-red Jaguar, Kevin Morby seems exhausted - the bags under his eyes hung so prominently on his face that it seemed at first glance as though he’d been in a brawl the night before. Morby’s appearance onstage gave new significance and just plain truth to the lyrics of “Harlem River’s” opening track, “Miles, Miles, Miles:” “If y’knew the depths I’d wandered/Or measure that hole that I’m in/If y’knew just how far I traveled/Then, maybe then, only then…”

More than any other album I’ve listened to in a while - the exception being quite definitely Angel Olsen’s “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” (2014) - “Harlem River” really lets you inside; as a listener, it compels you to nestle within the array of musical textures that Morby has so deftly arranged. From the shimmering chords of “Slow Train” and the meandering bass-line of “Miles, Miles, Miles” to the rollicking shuffle time of “Reign” and Morby’s quick, bluegrassy finger-picking on “If You Leave and If You Marry,” there’s a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of sonic nuances to be picked from the album’s soundscape.

But what I want to focus on here is Harlem River’s title track, which is the album’s keystone, keeping “Harlem River’s” whole airy architecture aloft. Clocking in at a little over nine minutes, “Harlem River” is a protracted love song to the city of New York, from which Morby recently left after a number of years for the warmer climes of Los Angeles. “I had kind of burnt out on New York at that point,” Morby said in an interview of the song’s subject and namesake, “and this area in the north of Manhattan, something about it up there is really nice. It’s really peaceful. I don’t think it’s the most desirable river in the world; it’s this dirty, gross river, but there’s something about it I really like.” “Harlem River” is sort of the culmination of the lonely wayfaring aesthetic Morby gropes at in the other songs on the album. With a pleasantly congested Midwestern lilt, Morby has found solace on the quiet, lapping shores that separate northern Manhattan and the Bronx; “Harlem River talk to me/Tell me what you think about/Harlem River I’m in love, love, love, love.” But it’s a love that is requited only after you’ve left for good: “And ride on/ that easy rider/Flow like, that Harlem River…I ride for you.”

“Harlem River” is also probably one of the most undeservedly overlooked albums in recent years. Note the nice but, finally, lackluster review on Pitchfork, in which Jeremy Gordon writes, “Harlem River is mostly concerned with different shades of subtlety, which makes the rare overt moments stick out like an anarchy patch on a wedding dress,” not a bad quality for a record to possess by any means, but then he gives the album a 7.0/10. I suppose we can argue for days about the arbitrariness of Pitchfork’s rating system. My recommendation would be to give the album a listen, or better yet see if you can catch Morby perform these songs live, and decide for yourself if Harlem River deserves what amounts to a C+. In my mind, it’d be a mistake to pass over this album too quickly.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Local Limelight: Jay Mickens

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: August 24th, 2014

Take one part early John Mayer, one part Jack Johnson and about two parts Dave Matthews, mix them together until the lumps disappear, and you’ll end up with Jay Mickens, a independent singer-songwriter hailing from Prospect Park, NJ who can no doubt hold ground against even the giants of the so-called “Adult Contemporary” genre. But Jay Mickens is no one-trick pony, not by any stretch of the imagination. He can move seamlessly from the elegant chord progressions, the lush instrumentation and gentle melodies of the “Adult Contemporary” camp to the turned-up, distorted blues-rock that would keep The Black Keys on their toes; a musical feat of the highest order. Where a lesser musician would botch such genre-jumping and end up with an ungainly hodgepodge of various songs and styles, Mickens is light on his feet, deftly leaping from one sonic realm to another (and another) with a gracefulness and precision that almost makes you want to cheer aloud to yourself as though you were watching Olympic pole-vaulting.

On his latest release, “Inner Demons with External Means” (2014), which you could listen to on Spotify or buy on iTunes, Jay Mickens showcases this uncommon talent of his and then some. The opening track, “Always,” kicks off with an acoustic guitar chopping its way through your eardrums and bouncing around your head, against which a sedating electric guitar delicately dresses the rhythm section with tasteful and well-placed embellishments as Mickens sings, “You’re not the first but will be the last/You always had, girl, so much class/And I knew what to do.” The power of Mickens’ delivery does not come from any type of fervor but understatement. The distance and emotional reserve that Mickens sustains in his vocals has the almost paradoxical effect of allowing the impressions and ideas of the lyrics to stand on their own. So when the verses give way to the chorus and Mickens sings, or almost proclaims that “We all…want to be wanted/We all…feel it’s true,” he doesn’t need melodrama or vocal pyrotechnics to make the line feel true.

But then a few tracks into “Inner Demons with External Means” Jay Mickens throws a real curve-ball with the song “Movin’ on My Mind,” a nod conscious or not to Robert Johnson’s recording of “Rambling on My Mind,” probably the quintessential blues about breaking off ones shackles, literal or figurative, hitting the road and getting the hell out of Dodge. The song begins with the ever pleasant combination of finger picking and slide, the bass notes droning underneath Mickens’ blues licks that fire from the left and right. But what really tops off this song is how the intro sounds as though it was recorded in the same studio as Robert Johnson, with the same equipment. And just when you feel fully immersed in early 20th century America, the far-off, mystic quality of the recording moves into a crunchy and very robust version of the same blues. “I’ve got movin’ baby, movin’ is on my mind…” sings Mickens, not without the same reserve as “Always;” “You know when I’m leaving, girl, you won’t be far behind…” But this is merely a taste of the many virtues of Jay Mickens’ new album, if you want to know what else he has to offer, give it a listen yourself.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ty Segall’s New Album Just Might Be His Best Yet

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: August 15th, 2014

For a musician who has garnered a reputation for such a preternatural output – releasing under various monikers three full-length albums in 2012 alone – California’s garage-rock crusader, Ty Segall, has of late been conspicuously absent from record store shelves. Quite nearly losing his record-a-year stride, a precedent set and maintained ever since his first release in 2008, Segall’s latest effort Manipulator comes to us on August 26th, a little more than a year after 2013’s quiet, unpolished, angsty, yet satisfying Sleeper.

Manipulator is Ty Segall’s longest and most slaved over record, a 17 track double album that took close to 14 months to complete. One thinks of Steve Albini’s admonition to Nirvana just before the recording of In Utero whenever the term “double album” comes up: “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up.” But if anyone could defy Albini’s claim, it’s Segall. Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene writes promisingly of Segall’s upcoming release: “Every single thing Segall has ever been good at is here, refined and sharpened and polished until it feels like a platonic expression of itself…. [Manipulator] is the stab at a defining statement that Segall has always seemed congenitally allergic to.” Greene seems just a tad pretentious and hyperbolic here (“…like a platonic expression of itself…” Eek!), but in my mind he isn’t very far off the mark.

For those unfamiliar with Segall’s music, he is known most for a delightfully manic, playful and fuzzed-out brand of garage-rock which is at turns menacing, hypnotic, winsome, contemplative; just listen the songs “Where Your Head Goes”, “Goodbye Bread,” “Girlfriend,” “The Keepers,” and you’ll see. The new album, Manipulator, or what I’ve heard of it (which amounts to about a handful of songs), stands firmly on the ground Segall has inhabited since the beginning; only difference I could glean is that the new songs seem just a little less rough around the edges, which I suppose is what happens when one spends over a year making a record – luckily, the results are far from lifeless, sterile.

The first song off Manipulator I came across was “Tall Man Skinny Lady,” a bouncy tune that just begs to be sung along to (even if you don’t quite know the lyrics yet) and opens with a wide-open guitar solo that swings like a pendulum to the drum beat established and driven through your head. “Feel,” released as the album’s single, is probably Segall’s most groovy song with a middle-section breakdown that employs both a cowbell and what sounds like a triangle as embellishment to the rhythm section. And finally, “Susie Thumb,” which is a pleasantly fuzz-fucked psych romp that could have been a long-lost record from Segall’s 2012 album Twins. I’ve got a feeling we’re in for one of Segall’s best records.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why Albini Matters

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: August 8th, 2014

America’s best lefty magazine, The Baffler, a wonderfully crotchety arts & politics journal that claims, as its motto, to ‘blunt the cutting edge’, has recently digitized its entire back catalogue, including, among many other great pieces of cultural dissent, Steve Albini’s notorious but seminal essay on the music industry’s moral/artistic corruption and all-around fuckedness, “The Problem with Music.” Now, some of Albini’s points may seem self-evident if not just outdated in the post-Napster musical paradigm (I mean, the thing was published in ’93, right around the time Albini recorded Nirvana’s “In Utero” and was, consequently, immortalized as a sort of punk-rock anti-hero), but what’s important about this bold attack on the corporate beast, especially when the beast was at its most robust, is that it evinces a staunchly independent attitude which bands nowadays could do much worse than take heed of.

For those who don’t know, Steve Albini was a fixture of the 1980s punk scene in Chicago, most notably as a member of Big Black and the short-lived and incendiary Rapeman. While producing a body of noisy, abrasive, delightfully fucked-up music, Albini began moonlighting as the recording engineer of his contemporaries who likewise inhabited the very margins of music. Slowly, surely, Albini’s “sound” – if he even has a sound – caught the attention of medium-sized and larger-name acts, such as The Pixies, PJ Harvey, Fugazi, (as I mentioned above) Nirvana, and even Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for 1998’s “Walking into Clarksdale” (you know, when they forgot John Paul Jones’ phone number and then reformed Led Zeppelin), and all the while maintaining an unwavering punk-rock philosophy; Albini rejects the title “producer” and refuses to accept royalties for any work he does, rather he insists on being paid not unlike a plumber, i.e., payment upon services rendered.

With Albini at his most caustic, the essay opens: “Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit.” On one end of this metaphorical trench are the band and their contemporaries; on the other end “a faceless industry lackey… holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed.” With his opinion of the music industry made unambiguous, to say the least, Albini proceeds to pry open A&R Scouts, so-called Producers, and the general economics of a major-label record deal like it’s Crabfest at Red Lobster. But instead of performing a dull, undergraduate-style exegesis of Albini’s text, I’ll just quote you the best snatches of the essay and let it speak for itself:

Here’s Albini on A&R Scouts:

“The A&R person is the first person to make contact with the band, and as such is the first person to promise them the moon… Hell, he’s as naive as the band he’s duping. When he tells them no one will interfere in their creative process, he probably even believes it.”

On Recording:

“Producers and engineers who use meaningless words to make their clients think they know what’s going on. Words like “Punchy,” “Warm,” “Groove,” “Vibe,” “Feel.” Especially “Punchy” and “Warm.” Every time I hear those words, I want to throttle somebody.”

“The current trendy thing is compression. Compression by the ton, especially if it comes from a tube limiter. Wow. It doesn’t matter how awful the recording is, as long as it goes through a tube limiter, somebody will claim it sounds “warm,” or maybe even “punchy.” They might even compare it to the Beatles. I want to find the guy that invented compression and tear his liver out. I hate it. It makes everything sound like a beer commercial.”

And after sketching out a Profit & Loss statement for a hypothetical but not implausible band who’s signed to a major, recorded an album, and hit the road, Albini concludes:

“This is how much each player got paid at the end of the game.

Record company: $710,000

Producer: $90,000

Manager: $51,000

Studio: $52,500

Previous label: $50,000

Agent: $7,500

Lawyer: $12,000

Band member net income each: $4,031.25…

Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.”

All this may sound like just a bunch of trivial, early-90s cynicism, and I’m sure a lot of it is, what with the tectonic shifts that have occurred in the music industry since “The Problem with Music” was penned, but nevertheless Albini’s points and general attitude in this essay are, I think, important and insightful for bands and musicians active now. Even though a band can theoretically operate off the traditional corporate channels by promoting themselves on social media and, if feasible, by recording at home or in somebody’s grandmother’s basement, it never hurts to keep a keen eye out for exploitation in whatever form it may take; and Albini has quite an eye for hucksterism of any color and shape.

Friday, August 1, 2014

ESP Announces LTD Jeff Hanneman and Metallica Guitars

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: August 1st, 2014

At Summer NAMM 2014, which concluded its three-day stint last Saturday in Nashville, TN, ESP introduced two truly killer commemorative guitars. The first, to honor the life and work of Jeff Hanneman, the guitarist of Slayer who, sadly, passed away last year, is the limited-edition LTD JH Tribute guitar in Urban Camo; and the second, to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the release of Metallica’s seminal 1984 thrash-metal album, is the (likewise) limited-edition LTD “Ride the Lightning” guitar. Both of these axes are due in stores this December.

Working closely with the estate of Jeff Hanneman, ESP modeled the LTD JH Tribute on Hanneman’s own ESP in a recognizable urban-camouflage print. Not only does it look badass but a percentage of the proceeds from this guitar will be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project, a service organization providing aid to veterans who have served in the military since the September 11th attacks, which was an organization very close to Hanneman’s heart. In a statement on the Premier Guitar site, Matt Masciandaro, ESP’s President and CEO, says of the Hanneman tribute: “He was a good friend to many of us at ESP, and his passing last year was a shock to us all. For his family and for Slayer fans around the world, we felt that commemorating his contributions to music and supporting the Wounded Warrior Project via this new model was an appropriate measure.”

Coming to us a year after the success of ESP’s “Kill ‘Em All” guitar, which was released on the occasion of the 30-year anniversary of Metallica’s first album, the LTD “Ride the Lightning” model carries on its alder body a print of the album’s cover with lightning striking an electric chair, which is set against a deep blue, almost violet background. ESP will only be producing 300 of these guitars, so the demand among guitar enthusiasts, voracious collectors, and rabid Metallica fans will be high. Masciandaro, on Premier Guitar’s site, comments that “ESP and Metallica’s guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett have a relationship that goes back more than two decades,” a relationship that has spawned some of the greatest songs in metal, rock, or just music generally. Here are the specs for these bad-boys:

The LTD Jeff Hanneman Tribute Guitar:

• Body Material: Alder

• Neck Material: Maple

• Neck Type: Bolt-on construction

• Neck Scale: 25.5”

• Fingerboard Material: Ebony

• Number of Frets: 24 XJ frets

• Pickups: EMG 85 (neck) & EMG 81 (bridge) Pickups

• Pickup Type: Active

• Bridge: Kahler Hybrid Tremolo Bridge

• Body Type: Neck-Thru

• Special Features: Limited Edition Urban Camo Finish, special Fingerboard Inlay with Hanneman “H Dagger” fret-markers as well as a “1964-2013” 12th fret inlay, and includes a certificate of authenticity.

The LTD “Ride the Lightning” Guitar:

• Body Material: Alder

• Neck Material: Maple

• Neck Type: Bolt-on construction

• Neck Scale: 25.5”

• Fingerboard Material: Ebony

• Number of Frets: 24 XJ frets

• Pickup Type: EMG 60 (neck) & EMG 81 (bridge)

• Pickup Type: Active

• Bridge: TOM Bridge

• Body Type: String-Thru

• Special Features: Limited Edition Album Artwork graphic body, Metallica logo Fingerboard Inlay, and each guitar includes an ESP form-fit case with the Metallica Logo, and a certificate of authenticity.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Phish: Fuego Album Review

Written by: Frank DeVita

Date: July 25th, 2014

Depending on who you ask, Phish is legendary, infamous, or just a waste of time. Phish are peers of iconic bands like Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors and Dave Matthews Band, and surfacing out of the 90s jam band music scene leading a revival of styles and improvisation dormant since the heyday of acts like Cream, Santana and the Grateful Dead. Naysayers cite the band’s live extended jams and oddly melodic movements as aimless exploratory noodling, and their sometimes self referential or fantastical lyrics as senseless, forced rhymes. Moreover, Phish’s permanent association with the subculture they inherited from the Grateful Dead fuels the flamethrowers of those that have written the band off for non-musical reasons.

The fact is that for 30 years, Phish has been playing and recording music that fuses classic rock, funk, jazz, blues, reggae, soul, Americana, bluegrass and classical music. Their dynamic concerts and intense touring keep their “phans” loyal, some returning over 50 shows. Phish’s has released 12 studio albums, and their most recent is June 24th’s “Fuego.” The album spans 10 songs, featuring 3 to 9 minute compositions and showcasing the kind of Phish never before heard on record.

Phish chose the realist psychedelia of Spanish painter Paco Pomet to represent Fuego visually. The blending of real subjects and unreal environments in the art aligns with the album’s effort to capture Phish’s live sound on record. In fact, Phish created Fuego by searching for musical ideas in their massive catalog of live and practice recordings, looking for starting material in their own improvisations. The band is touring in support of Fuego and celebrated it’s release with an extended set on The Late Show with David Letterman, which is available to stream online.

Fuego’s first and title track was cut mostly live in October 2013, reportedly during a sound check preceding the album’s live debut on Halloween in Atlantic City, NJ (then, it was tentatively titled “Wingsuit”). At 9 minutes,”Fuego” asserts Phish’s live prowess and unique style. Progressive rock tinged funk leads to a swift exploratory instrumental and back again before pianist Page McConnell carries the outro. “The Line” is another unique sounding tune whose wobbly choruses tells the story of college basketball player Darius Washington Jr.’s experience missing free throws that would change his life forever, and it’s chorus resonates with the the uncertainty commonly felt about the future.

The jam in “Devotion to a Dream” is a great example of classic rock Phish and the experience of their tight rock sensibility in a live setting. The rest of the track exudes Trey Anastasio’s pop rocking side usually reserved for his solo efforts. Penned by pianist/keyboardist Page McConnell, “Halfway to the Moon” is introspective lyrically, and it’s eerie, forthright piano groove creates a stark contrast against the previous two tracks. “Winterqueen” has a fantastical theme, alluding to troubled royals in what reads as a Narnia-like world, and is accompanied by a calm and soothing arpeggiated melody.

Tight instrumentation, ingenious lyrical wordplay and clever vocal treatments make the psychedelia-infused “Sing Monica” a standout track. It’s guitar solo is the stuff of legends, and the tune has transformed to a 60s rock homage from it’s debut arrangement on upright bass, (standing) cocktail drumset, Fender Rhodes and acoustic guitar. “555″ was written by bassist and sneaker connoisseur Mike Gordon, and the minor groove delivers on all fronts musically. The mix accentuates the song’s call and response vocals, well placed horns and choir like backing vocals add depth, and stellar takes from McConnell and Anastasio on organ and wah-wah’d guitar respectively top off a wholly satisfying experience.

“Waiting All Night” was released as the album’s first single and features instrumental motifs both new for Phish and (until now) reserved for the live setting. Drummer John Fishman’s prominent jazzy drum work fills much of the space, locking in with Gordon’s arpeggios and “bass bombs” (courtesy of his Meatball and Taurus effects pedals), Anastasio’s modulated guitar and McConnell’s high register organ sounds. “Wombat” embodies the fun, never-too-serious attitude Phish has embraced throughout their career. The funky tune’s lyrics reference the 1970s TV show “Fish,” the band’s own folklore and choice observations about wombats. Horns and choir vocals return here as well. “Wingsuit” bears the album’s debut title, and is a fitting closing to the album. Aphoristic lyrics allude to change, freedom and taking new beginnings head on. The album ends with the mellow, modulated feel that carries through a handful of tracks on the album and, of course, a huge soulful guitar solo. Subtle lead out electronic sounds accentuate the touch of former Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel producer Bob Ezrin.

As an album, “Fuego” shows Phish’s drive to innovate and abandon their comfort zone. It stands in stark musical contrast to the band’s previous albums and always variable live performances but blends their general concepts, illustrating the ingenuity of the jam band that defined the genre. Despite what reputation Phish gets among it’s loving fans or steadfast opponents, one thing is clear: Phish is an American band to the core. They blend styles, write, and perform live with unbridled optimism, as if there is no limit to their capabilities. Live and on record, they strive to draw the listener to an experience of creatively filled, dynamic musical space. Phish have never been preoccupied with record deals, cash advances, radio play or critical acclaim and they are certainly not about to start. They’ll continue to deliver soulful, creative, and interesting music under the radar as long as they can, and Fuego is proof of that concept.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Mastodon Bashes Some Life Into Pop

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: July 18th, 2014

What Mastodon seems to be attempting on “Once More ‘Round the Sun,” which dropped this past June, is a consecration of the marriage between the commercially viable and the head-bangingly heavy, between the “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and the aggressive affront of the double-bass drum and the crunchy, long-sustaining guitar lick, between the often scoffed at pop-song structure – verse, chorus, verse, bridge, etc. – and the seemingly interminable riff against intricate, modal, sometimes offensive harmonies; an admirable ambition for a band to have, and if these Atlanta boys were musicians of a lower caliber they would have certainly botched such an ambition.

The opening track, “Tread Lightly,” ironically enough, stampedes its way across the album’s first five minutes. The song begins with what sounds like a sitar riff played on guitar – whose melody recalls parts of Jimmy Page’s “White Summer” – and then, about 30 seconds in, comes an almost cosmic crash that sets “Once More ‘Round the Sun” into motion with relentless force; a force that does not let up until the last seconds of the album. What I think is so striking here and elsewhere about Mastodon’s new record is how they manage to fit the riotous momentum of metal comfortably within the pop music form.

Take, for instance, the song “High Road,” whose opening riff and verse screams out a debt to the Melvins’ “Hooch” but then goes into a chorus you’d hear on a Foo Fighters record, with soaring vocals, spot-on harmonies and all: “You take the high road down/I take the road below you.” “High Road” never strays far from the verse-chorus-verse structure; the exception being an instrumental bridge section that leads directly into dueling guitar solos – Mastodon is after all a progressive metal band. But I don’t point out Mastodon’s adherence to a traditional music form as a criticism. What I think they’ve accomplished on “High Road” and many other songs on this new record is giving new life to an old form. Much in the way The White Stripes revitalized the 12-bar blues in “Ball and Biscuit,” Mastodon has given new life to the otherwise dead form of popular music.

Despite adopting a mainstream approach to writing music, Mastodon never fails to thrash their listeners with fast rolling drum fills, chunky palm-muted guitars and lyrics that could have been taken out of an ancient epic; from “Chimes At Midnight”: “I saw the mountain crumble down/I saw colossus in flames/I heard the ocean draining/Nothing that I could ever tame.” And it’s through this relatively new accessibility, which really came to a head on their album “The Hunter,” that Mastodon honors their heavy metal antecedents.

Friday, July 11, 2014

You May Not Have Known: Musician’s Dystonia

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: July 11th, 2014

Dystonia may not be a term you’ve come across before, but it’s the third most common movement disorder, next to essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease; and about 300,000 people in North American suffer from one form of dystonia or another. According to a 2012 fact-sheet from the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, “Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder. Improper signaling in the brain causes the muscles to contract and twist involuntarily. These muscle spasms may force areas of the body into awkward positions or movements. Dystonia may interfere with daily activities, and some forms of dystonia may be painful.”

But the term Dystonia is sort of a catchall, used to classify a whole slew of very specific movement disorders that can affect numerous parts of the body. There’s, for example, spasmodic (or laryngeal) dystonia, which affects muscles associated with the vocal cords, making the simple task of speaking (not to mention singing) increasingly difficult; there’s blepharospasm, which causes the eyelids to either blink uncontrollably or remain shut – imagine driving with such a condition; and there’s generalized dystonia, which causes cramps and contortions in a number of body parts at once making even the most basic movements troublesome. Each form of this neurological disorder can be debilitating in its own way, but what I want to focus on here is task-specific focal dystonia, or, colloquially, musician’s dystonia.

Task-specific focal dystonia is not necessarily specific to musicians, per se – the word focal denotes dystonia affecting a single, isolated part of the body and task-specific means that the dystonia is related to the completion of a particular task or type of movement. But because musicians naturally move a particular body part in a very repetitive manner, they are generally associated with this form of dystonia.

At the onset of musician’s dystonia, a player may wrongly perceive his or her inability to perform what would otherwise be instinctive on an instrument as the result of bad technique or inadequate practice. The types of musician most associated with musician’s dystonia are pianists, guitarists and brass players. Pianists and guitarists generally suffer from dystonia in the hand, which, according to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, “is characterized by involuntary, abnormal movements in the hands and/or fingers…. Symptoms of hand dystonia may include subtle loss of control in fast passages, lack of precision, curling of the fingers, fingers ‘sticking’ to keys, involuntary flexion of the thumb in strings, and tremors.” While brass players are generally affected by embouchure dystonia, which “targets muscles in the mouth, face, jaw, and tongue,” and includes “air leaks at the corner of the mouth, sometimes accompanied by a tremor, and involuntary contractions of the muscles in the face.”

What causes musician’s dystonia, or any other type of dystonia for that matter, is still unknown. Genetics, past physical trauma, exposure to certain types of medication, and other neurological conditions, it is believed, all may have something to do with the onset of dystonia, but the actual biochemical processes generating these symptoms remain a mystery. And while there is no known cure, dystonia may be treated in a number of ways that are usually tailored to the needs of each individual case. A neurologist may treat dystonia with anything from surgery and Botox injections to daily relaxation and breathing techniques.

I asked Beau Monde’s own Lou Bottone to answer a few questions about his own struggle with focal dystonia. Here’s what he had to say:

How and when did you discover that you had focal dystonia?

I noticed the onset of dystonia around the time I turned 21 years old. While in college, I was working in a cover band playing three to four nights a week. I can remember being at a gig, in the middle of playing the solo for Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher,” and my fingers completely tripping over themselves. I immediately knew something was wrong.

Not being able to physically play the instrument you spent years learning and loving must have taken its toll psychologically. Can you describe how focal dystonia affected your psyche as a musician?

For most musicians their instrument is an extension of themselves. I had been playing guitar since I was 11 years old, it was my identity. It took a huge psychological toll on me. I was obsessed with finding a cure although I knew there was none. Focal Dystonia is a death sentence for a musician.

How did you go about treating it?

Before being properly diagnosed I sought numerous alternative treatments. I tried everything from massage therapy to acupuncture and physical therapy to chiropractic care. I even entertained hypnotism. After almost three years of searching for an answer I met with an orthopedist who recommended a neurologist conduct an EMG. The test results were negative, however it was suspect of dystonia and I was referred to see a specialist at Columbia Presbyterian in NYC. Once my diagnosis was confirmed the methods used for treatment were splint immobilization and Botox injections. Unfortunately for me, these treatments yielded no results.

What is the state of your focal dystonia today? Have you figured out a way to live with it?

My dystonia seems to have plateaued. It does not seem to be getting any worse, but it is definitely not getting any better. I have tried to retrain the brain using sensory tricks such as finger splints and latex gloves, but I find as I get older I have less time to devote to the instrument. I have learned to accept my dystonia and am glad I can still be involved with music in some capacity.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hyponomics: The Klon Centaur

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: July 3rd, 2014

The Klon Centaur, at first glance, seems an unassuming overdrive pedal. In its first incarnation, the Centaur came simply, and rather unattractively, in a matte gold casing with burgundy knobs for gain, treble and output; the only frill being an unadorned illustration of the mythological half-man, half-horse creature, after which the pedal’s named, wielding what looks like a sword or cudgel right below the gain and treble knobs. For such a minimalist aesthetic (compared to, say, anything Electro-Harmonix puts out), no other overdrive, or for that matter any other effects-pedal, inspires such contentious debate or even downright vitriol on music blogs, guitar forums, and the comment section of product reviews on YouTube than the Klon Centaur.

The reason for all the cyber animosity is that the Centaur, which has been out of production for years, is just so damn pricey – a used original (or, if you’ve already doled out the cash, a certified pre-owned original, hand-built by Bill Finnegan himself’) will cost you upwards of two-thousand dollars. As you may have already gleaned, the most frequent complaint about the Centaur by bloggers, commenters, trolls, etc., is that you’re not so much paying a couple grand for the astounding tonal quality – the warm, robust, tube-like breakup it’s purported to deliver – but the hype that for whatever reason has developed like ectoplasm around the fabled overdrive.

At some point in the late 80s, early 90s, Bill Finnegan conceived of a guitar effect that would emulate at lower volumes the organic distortion of a turned-up tube amplifier. One could get their hands on an Ibanez Tube Screamer at the time, but Finnegan, in an interview with West Warren from Premier Guitar Magazine, thought they “compressed the transient response of the original signal a lot, had a midrange character I didn’t like, and subtracted a noticeable amount of bass response from the signal as well.” What Bill was after was an overdrive that accentuated the natural characteristics of a quality amplifier, not something that filtered them. From the same interview: “[Finnegan] really wanted… a big, open sound, with a hint of tube clipping-a sound that would make you unaware a pedal was involved.”

For about four years thereafter, Finnegan, with the aid and technical expertise of MIT graduate Fred Fenning, slaved away on the design of the Centaur’s audio circuit, which Bill claims is a bit more involved than the circuitry of your traditional overdrive pedal. Moreover, the circuit they were devising made use of germanium diodes (as opposed to the silicon diodes that are generally found under the hood of an overdrive) that he was able to purchase on the cheap from a distributor who had a sizeable overstock. To Finnegan’s ears, the inclusion of these diodes in the circuit produced “a very natural-sounding distortion in terms of the harmonic response. It’s not harsh, but it also doesn’t round off the highs excessively. It doesn’t compress the signal as much as many germanium diodes seem to, but on the other hand it provides a little bit of what-to me-is exactly the right kind of compression.”

Despite an impressively acute concern for detail and embodying an admirable DIY ethos, Finnegan’s venture proved all too quixotic, never destined to last very long. Because of the exorbitant price of real estate in and around Boston, where Finnegan lived and worked, he was never able to expand production of the Centaur. For 15 years, about 8,000 Klon Centaurs were hand-built by Finnegan “on a cheap folding card table in a succession of small apartments,” using, exclusively, custom-made parts, which jacked up the aggregate production cost to “seven to eight times that of a pedal built with off-the-shelf parts” and, for an overdrive pedal whose retail value was only around $329, did not lend itself to hefty returns, much to Finnegan’s dismay. As it’s been shown here and elsewhere, time and time again, idealists tend to make lamentable businessmen. In the mid 2000s, Bill Finnegan stopped building the Klon Centaur.

During its modest lifespan, a number of marquee-names in the guitar world took a liking to the Centaur’s crafted tonal personality. A simple Google search will give you a disparate list of guitar greats who’ve been enamored by Bill Finnegan’s progeny: Jeff Beck and John Mayer and James Hetfield and Joe Perry and why don’t you just go ahead and pick a name out of the hat. In a piece Pedal Board Spiel, Nels Cline of Wilco writes, “Why the Klon Centaur?… It’s an amp in a box. No more worries in the world of amp du jour about overdrive tone. It will always be OK. The Centaur will take care of it. Consumers: It’s worth the wait to get one. I’ve had this thing for years now. What did I ever do without it?” With this kind of celebrity attention, it’s no wonder the price of an authentic Klon Centaur – there’s a whole market of Klon “Klones” – has skyrocketed in recent years.

Even Bill Finnegan seemed baffled by the hype-economics of the Centaur. In an effort to reproduce the greatly sought-after distortion of his original overdrive, Finnegan manufactured a short run of the KTR overdrive, which was based the original audio circuit he and Fred Fenning had developed but produced in a much more cost-efficient manner. Right below the footswitch, the KTR carries Finnegan’s somewhat wry inscription: “Kindly remember: the ridiculous hype that offends so many is not of my making.”

There are overdrive pedals on the market now that are purported to rival the Klon Centaur sonically. Some examples being the Soul Food by Electro-Harmonix, which to my ears sounds a bit chintzy but not a bad alternative for those with thin wallets (a demographic that constitutes most of the music-making population), and the Kalamazoo by Lovepedal, which frankly I couldn’t tell apart from the Centaur, but that’s just me, and costs a cool $200. But the question these gear-geeks forget to ask on whatever guitar blog, forum, or product review: Is all this obsessiveness with tone manipulation and gear hording really so necessary? I think someone like, say, Steve Albini would agree with me ­– largely because I’ve heard him make a similar point – if I said that great music can be made on even the crudest equipment. And just because you bought the perfect distortion tone doesn’t mean your music isn’t complete shit. And so unless you’re Nels Cline, an interesting guitarist in his own right, I recommend that you don’t buy the hype.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Black Keys Turn Blue Album Review

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: June 17, 2014

It would be easy to dismiss The Black Key’s latest studio album Turn Blue as nothing more than a hodgepodge of commodified pop drivel. When I first heard “Fever,” exuding like syrup from the car radio, I turned to a friend seated shotgun about a minute into the song and said, “Well, I guess the new Keys record’s gonna be a hodgepodge of commodified pop drivel.” Carney’s one-two groove struck me as boneheaded, something reserved only for nightclubs and annoying DJs, while Auerbach’s lyrics seemed cheap enough to be bought at a dollar store (“Fever ‘cause I’m breaking/Fever got me aching…”) and not to mention that synth line, which felt infectious in all the worst ways. But curiously enough neither my friend nor I changed the station. Listening to Turn Blue’s somewhat cloying first single was not unlike eating an entire container of ice cream: you’re disgusted with yourself for having savored every spoonful.

But this raises an interesting question. For a band responsible for the frenetic, fuzzy power of “10 A.M. Automatic,” or the delicate intensity of “Meet Me in the City” – an utterly enthralling Junior Kimbrough cover from the 2006 EP Chulahoma – or the strained but charming falsetto Auerbach employs throughout “Everlasting Light,” could one just pass off as a failure the production of an all-too-catchy, slightly vapid pop song like “Fever”? To do so, I feel, might be to take for granted the sincerity with which The Black Keys pluck every note and hit every beat. Seen in this light, maybe “Fever” was an earnest attempt to write an all-too-catchy, slightly vapid pop song, and if that was the initial intention, I’d say they hit their mark.

If at first I thought Turn Blue would be a slew of commercially viable radio hits, the opening track “Weight of Love,” probably the album’s strongest song, quickly dispelled such a notion. Clocking in at about seven minutes, the expected comparisons to “Stairway to Heaven” abound; as Kitty Empire, in a rather gushing review of the album, writes that the song “travels from Zeppelin pastorale through some serious guitar-shop soloing.” But Empire’s descriptions are misleading. The song’s structure is not of a Zeppelin-like complexity but instead consists of a few basic parts that are drawn out and repeated to the point of aural hypnosis. Auerbach’s solos are by turns exuberant and restrained, not the type of shredding you’d get from some whiz kid in Guitar Center. And what’s not mentioned in the reviews, so far as I've read, is the bass playing, which really stands out here and elsewhere throughout Turn Blue. As a lovelorn Auerback broods aloud, “I used to think, darling, you never did nothing/But you were always up to something…” the bass line circles around and in on itself, a sort of sonic representation of the album’s cover, creating a whirlpool into which the entire song – every word, chord, rhythm and airy embellishment – will eventually be drawn.

But the problem with opening a record with the strongest track is that, as you listen, the rest of the album seems to slowly deflate. After “Weight of Love,” the album for the most part feels like variations of the same song – a few times toward the end I even caught myself asking, “Didn’t I listen to this already?” and checked to see if my iPhone was on repeat. It wasn't. But that’s not to say there aren't any good songs to be had in the bulk of Turn Blue. With the exception of an irritating, vaguely gastric noise sitting needlessly in the background of the entire song, the title track recalls the gentle melancholy of “Never Give You Up” from Brothers, but instead of “Never gonna give you up/No matter how you treat me…” we get something a bit more sinister: “I really do hope you know/There could be hell below…” And “Bullet in the Brain” has all the same ingredients as “Fever” but without so much sap. But aside from those, the album becomes a little too homogeneous to be ranked among The Black Keys’ best, like Rubber Factory and Brothers.

The final song of Turn Blue, “Gotta Get Away,” comes as the album sputters out its last bit of air. It’s the only track that really sticks out on the album but, unfortunately, is also not far from being a convincing Lynyrd Skynyrd cover: “I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo/Just to get away from you/ I searched far and wide, hoping I was wrong/ But baby all the good women are gone…” I can only imagine they wrote this dad-rock anthem for the sole purpose of being asked to perform it at next year’s Super Bowl.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Benefit of Traditional Music Lessons vs Self-Taught Lessons

Written by: Jasmine Dursun

Date: June 7, 2014

The Internet has transformed the world by allowing users to find anything they want, anywhere they want at the click of a mouse. With the introduction of social networking, users can reach out to one another through forums, blogs and multimedia and share information from thousands of miles away. The Internet has allowed people to become self-sufficient and independent when it comes to the information they retain, and music has been an outlet where users have especially taken advantage of exploring - even if they don’t have any musical experience to begin with.

Search “beginner guitar lessons” on YouTube. The results yield over 500,000 results, with top videos being viewed over a million times. It’s true that the online medium has allowed potential guitar players to learn through the computer screen at any time, as often as they like, free of charge. But there are also deficiencies that come with being a self-taught musician that’s dependent on the Internet to learn.
  • Early taught music training can broaden scholastic learning such as reading. When children learn to play a musical instrument, they strengthen a range of auditory skills.1Researchers at Northwestern University recorded the electrical brain waves of college students in response to complex sounds, where the group of students who said they had musical training in childhood had more robust responses. Their brains could better process essential elements, like pitch, in complex sounds when tested. The experiment showed the effects of active engagement and discipline, which correlates to strengthened memory, abilities to disambiguate speech sounds, and making sound-to-meaning connections in reading, according to Professor Nin Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. Alexandra Parbery-Clark, a doctoral candidate in Kaus’s lab, suggests that teaching “a kid who is maybe 3 or 4 years old” will work “not only on their auditory skills but also … their attention skills and their memory skills - which can translate into scholastic learning.”
  • Music education taught to young children can benefit language development. According to the Children’s Music Workshop, the effect of music education on language development can be seen in the brain.2“Recent students have clearly indicated that musical training physically develops the part of the left side of the brain known to be involved with processing language, and can actually wire the brain’s circuits in specific ways,” the group stated. Dr. Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine supports that the relationship between music and language development, explaining, “language competence is at the root of social competence,” where “musical experience strengthens the capacity to be verbally competent.”
  • Self-taught musicians may develop poor habits and techniques when learning how to play themselves. With having an instructor to guide them, students, especially young children, can learn through trouble areas, maintain good form and technique, and develop a good practice routine.3There is little accountability to someone who is trying to develop their own skills, and when problems in playing arise, the student has no one to reference directly to work through them. Networking may also be challenging for a self-taught student in order to reference someone to help them in person.
  • The presence of an instructor motivates the student, which in turn, gives the student patience to continue with lessons. The International School of Music suggests that music lessons should be an organic process and enjoyable. Having an instructor to guide and encourage the student through their playing progress motivates the student to want to play more. In the beginning, it helps if the instructor rewards the student for a successful week of practice. With time, students will practice because they enjoy the process and they want to do it out of love and not because they have to do it.4Praise and acknowledgement tend to be sought of young musicians, and having someone present during lessons could be the drive a new musician needs to continue learning.
The Internet is a great resource to get in contact with musicians that could lend advice for playing, but ultimately, traditional lessons prove to be the best investment for a person who has no musical background at all. Learning basic music skills through an instructor can help the musician’s prowess, allowing them to advance on their individual time if they become interested in learning outside lessons. They’ll always have the instructor to guide them through.


  1. Klass, Perri, M.D. “Early Music Lessons Have Longtime Benefits.” Well, 18 and Under. The New York Times. 10 Sept. 2012.
  1. Brown, Laura Lewis. “The Benefits of Music Education.” Music & Arts. PBS Parents. No date available.
  1. Wallace, Emily. “Traditional guitar lessons versus self-taught instruction.” Huntsville Guitar. 18 Feb. 2012.
  1. The International School of Music Faculty. “E-Book: Guide to Music Lessons.” How should one practice? pg 10. The International School of Music. 2010.