CirdecSongs Rapid-Fire Record Reviews (August, 2022 part 2)

FRANK ZAPPA, Zappa/Erie (Zappa Records/UME). You’ve gotta hand it to the Zappa Family Trust: when they pull a live recording out of the vaults, they pull out all the stops. This Frank Zappa gig is no exception, as the six CD collection Zappa/Erie covers three shows recorded between 1974 and ‘76, mostly surrounding the album Apostrophe (‘). While the Roxy era wasn’t that far in the rearview mirror, it’s clear Zappa is propelling the music and his band forward. Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax and vocals) remains a key mainstay in the band, with his singing as soulful and humorous as it always has been. He continues to be the driving force for tunes like “Pygmy Twylyte” and “Cheepnis.” The rest of the band is right on top of it (not that we expected anything different), as Zappa has altered some of the arrangements, like putting the brakes on “Inca Roads,” to surprisingly good effect. One has to wonder if this arrangement is harder to play, given the temptation to rush it a little. Nah … this band can handle it. Erie represents another stage in the continuous development of the music from one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

UMPHREY’S MCGEE, Asking For A Friend (Nothing Too Fancy Music). There’s no questioning what you’re about to get when it comes to Umphrey’s McGee. Their music is as familiar and comfortable as an old pair of shoes. Particularly when they’re in the studio, where the band is more focused on songcraft than finding ways to extend the pieces into epic jams. Both make the band great and a “must listen” any time a new record is released. But Asking for a Friend is definitely focused on the songs. As always, Brendan Bayliss provides his smooth vocals, while the rest of the band continues to display its onstage tightness, moving the music along without a great deal of fuss. These guys know what they’re doing. Lucky for us, we get to hear what they’re putting down for us to pick up.

BILLY HOWERDEL, What Normal Was (Alchemy/BMG Records). There’s something poetic about the title of Billy Howerdel’s latest release, as no doubt many of us are trying to recapture what the world was like before it was interrupted by a global pandemic. The title What Normal Was is actually a coincidence, as Howerdel (best known for his guitar and songwriting work in A Perfect Circle) began work on this album a couple of years before the world ground to a halt. Interestingly, Howerdel has throttled WAY back on the guitar heaviness, opting for a synthesizer-driven sound that would fit nicely on a Depeche Mode album. But Howerdel’s vocals navigate the scene quite nicely. The songs are largely calm but introspective. They’re easy to absorb as the weight comes more from the lyrical content than any need to crank up the volume. A most worthy listen.

TROMBONE SHORTY, Lifted (Blue Note). A studio album from Trombone Shorty feels like an exercise in self-restraint, given his tendency to “jam” things out in concert. But Lifted contains tightly-arranged and soulful songs worthy of a hip party in someone’s living room. Not to worry … Shorty’s New Orleans side is very close by, making itself seen on tunes like “Everybody in the World.” There’s no questioning the man’s skill with the instrument that created his namesake. If anything, it would’ve been nice to have more of it! But unselfishness is one of the marks of a good musician. Shorty’s vocals and the fabulous horn arrangements go a long way toward making this a quality album.

JUSTIN MORELL, Exit Music For Intelligent Life On Earth ( Guitars. Drums. What more does one need to tell the story of Earth’s climate change and it’s after effects? Justin Morell believes that is more than sufficient. With a little help from drummer Mark Ferber, the guitarist sets out to make his point. The pieces are relatively brief, allowing them to reach the point in rapid-fire fashion. There’s no need for a lecture when a couple of sentences will do the trick. That is the approach taken here and it definitely works to Morell’s advantage.

MARY HALVORSON, Belladonna (Nonesuch). Guitarist Mary Halvorson loves to take her instrument through twists and turns whether the parts are written out for her or not. Forever the experimentalist, Halvorson uses her unique tone to improvise against the set music of a string quintet on Belladonna. It quickly becomes evident that the compositions are Halvorson’s, based primarily on the quartet’s rollercoaster-pitched sound. The pieces are highly developed yet feel loose, making it possible for the group to go wherever they deem musically choose. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to claim a unique sound in the modern music scene. But Halvorson has done it, and done it well.


Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.

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