Album Review – Degrees of Freedom’s PERFECT WORLD

It’s always a good feeling when you do something new – visiting a city for the first time, reading a new book, watching a new movie. So I was pleasantly surprised when my copy of the recent Degrees Of Freedom album, ‘Perfect World’ hit my doormat. Some new music by a band I’d never heard before was just what I needed.

Perfect+World

The story behind the album is interesting – it’s the culmination of guitarist John Aulabaugh’s mid-life crisis, which took a Blues Brothers twist when he decided to pull his band back together after a quarter of a century. I’m not sure if a 106-mile road trip or the Illinois Law Enforcement Agency were involved, but I’m sure the sunglasses put in an appearance!

As far as line-up goes, Degrees Of Freedom are guitarist John Aulabaugh, vocalist Michael Husler, Michael Murphy on bass and drummer Tim Murphy. In addition, the album benefits from guest appearances from Lydia Salinkova on keys and strings, Ken Barnum on bass and Paul Garisto on drums.

Perfect World is an eclectic mix of tracks, ranging from the rock to the melodic, from the driving beat to the tunefully pensive. Each tune has a slightly different flavour hinting at a wide range of influences and moods. My personal favourites are Again and Again, Overwhelmed, and Howlin’ at the Moon, tracks that show the best that Degrees of Freedom offer – great musicianship, a lyric that tells a story, and a tune that sticks in your head after the album has long finished.

The remaining tracks are all very good standalone tracks, including the title track, Perfect World, deliberately written in a mix of time-signatures so that it never quite settles into a comfortable groove in your head.

These days, it’s rare that you’ll sit and listen to an album from start to finish. I’m old enough to recall a time before people simply downloaded individual tracks, and then hit the shuffle button. Gone are the days when an album took you on a journey, with all of the tracks hanging together and taking you from A to B. And there’s the only problem I have with the album. Perfect World is, to me, an example of how nine great songs don’t quite hang together as a great album when played in sequence.

Now I’m very aware that I’m being picky here, but it’s that range of influences I mentioned before that possibly contributes to this. Don’t get me wrong – this is far better than most of the stuff you hear on the radio these days, and is worthy of a place on your shelf.

As a collection, Perfect World is excellent. As an album, it’s merely very good indeed…

Track listing:

  • Again and Again
  • Indifferent
  • Howlin’ at the Moon
  • Bring Me
  • Lie to Me
  • Mexico
  • Overwhelmed
  • Hand of the Devil
  • Perfect World
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Just a quick list

OK, quick list time – please comment on the contents….

Top 5 Films watched over Christmas:

Megamind – actually a fun animated flick, better than I thought it was going to be.

Tangled – OK, but I preferred Megamind.

Uncle Buck – who could ever get tired of this one? John Candy at his finest.

FAQ About Time Travel – I do love this quirky little science fiction thing.

Ooh You Are Awful – early 70s vehicle for the late great Dick Emery, allowing him to scour the country for tattoos on girls bums. Well, why not?

 

Top 5 TV Shows Watched Over Christmas:

I’m gonna preface this list with the comment that i still haven’t seen Doctor Who yet – but I will rectify that over the weekend. And I know that’ll take up a space on my list, so you only get 4….. Anyway:

Still Open All Hours – I was a little dubious about this, but I really enjoyed it, and reckon it could make a decent sitcom series.

PQ17 – this was on last night (so technically NOT Christmas) but was such an interesting documentary about the most disastrous convoy mission of WW2.

The IT Crowd – Love this show, and finally got to see the last episode (The Internet Is Coming) which was fab.

Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special – yeah, i know. But this had everything you want from a Christmas TV show, including the Andre Previn sketch. Never gets old.

 

Top 5 Christmas Gifts:

Dangerous to separate these out, because everything I got was great, so this one is more a subset of a much larger cool list of stuff…

Theatre Tickets – yeah, thanks to David and Heather, we’re gonna soak up some culture in 2014 over at Windsor.

Shaver – sounds dull, but it’s what I wanted, and my old one was very much past it. This one’s lovely and shiny-bright…

Christmas Jumper – well, not so much a Christmas jumper, more a winter one, so whilst it’s lovely and warm, it has no reindeer, holly, Santa or Christmas puds on it, which makes it acceptable for me!

Lynx – loads of Lynx stuff. Apparently, ‘Attract’ smells best, according to my girls….

Top Gear – Ambitious But Rubbish – the book that tells the background to all those well-intentioned yet spectacular failures, and shows that not all of the show is scripted.

 

Five Books I am reading:

Currently I have five books on the go, so it makes sense to add these to the post…

The Bible (natch)

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett (surprisingly hard going compares to his usual fare)

Some Kind Of Wonderful by Stephen Biskoff (the novelisation of one of my favourite movies)

Doughnut by Tom Holt (brilliant fantasy farce)

Top Gear – Ambitious But Rubbish (see above)

 

Finally, let’s do 5 things I want to do in 2014:

More gigging and drumming with my great mates in Riser.

Visit Ben and Julia in the South of France, hopefully fulfilling an ambition to drive over the Millau Bridge.

Write more – stories, blogs, songs, whatever, I really want to put more out there this year.

Go deeper – sounds strange, but with all the things I treasure – relationships, experiences, honesty, faith and self-awareness – there’s another level to take them to.

Enjoy life – 2013 was a bit of a struggle for much of the year, and has ended so well, I want this to continue throughout the year.

OK, there you go. Five lists of Five items. Let’s see where we go from there……

 

Big announcement!

OK, a couple of big announcements….

Firstly of all, anybody who is in the vicinity of Binfield on Friday night, come down to The Victoria Arms, where my band RISER are playing. Have a beer or three and listen to some great rock music. Oh, and then come say hello.

Secondly, and clearly of more momentous importance, I am about to formally embark on the road to digital literary publication! 

Yes, dear readers and…. yes, I feel I must say it… friends: I have decided that 2013 is the year I am going to write and publish my Grand Opus. There are a few little details to work out, such as title, topic, characters and the words, but I’m posting this notice as a marker, and so that you can hold me to it. It’ll be pushed out onto an unsuspecting world for minimal fiscal outlay via whatever Kindle markets I can access, and so this is also (sneak, sneak) an advance request for your pennies! 

OK, off now, but remember – pub on friday, book next year!

The Psychedelic Furs – London 2012

There’s something about going to a decent gig that gets your pulse racing and cheers the soul.

When the music is pounding, the crowd responds, and for a while, a short while, you’re taken on a journey to a place where your work worries, your family woes, your money troubles, whatever else ails you just doesn’t matter.

People have long believed that music has theraputic properties, and every time I hear a great tune, played brilliantly in an atmosphere that’s rocking, I believe it.

On a recent Thursday evening in July, I was one of a great many people packed into The Garage, in North London, to see one of the bands I grew up with as a child. The Psychedelic Furs may only be known to most people purely for the association that their 1981 hit Pretty In Pink has with the 1986 John Hughes movie of the same name, but those whose understanding starts and ends with Molly Ringwald and Duckie are missing the entire trick.

As a live act, The Furs are simply superb. More than 30 years may have passed since the Butler brothers first formed the band, but their enthusiasm, energy, and sheer love of the job is undiminished. The music is timeless, the musicianship flawless, and the performance peerless.

OK, let’s discuss the line-up.

My start point has to be my friend and fellow drummer, Paul Garisto. I’ve spoken with enough people that know Paul to understand that he’s acknowledged by all that know him as a real gentleman, a lovely guy, and one hell of a fine drummer. We’ve chatted online for a number of years and I have had the pleasure of seeing him play both here and when I was stateside in 2011. Both times, Paul went out of his way to give time to chat and catch up, and it was a pleasure to be able to spend time after the gig with him, chewing over drum stuff, talking about the vintage kit he’s just got, and the stuff he’s selling to make room. The Furs have a real gem in Paul, and it’s clear to see from their performances and the way they interact on stage, that they know and appreciate this all too well.

Next, I have to mention lead singer and founder-member, Richard Butler. Richard brings his full personality to lead vocals, with a voice oft-described as ‘nicotine-filled’ and certainly uniquely distinctive. To see Richard perform is to understand the heart of the man and to get inside the song. He’s an object lesson to any wannabe singer on how to engage with an audience and make them love you. I was able to cach up with Richard for a few minutes after last week’s gig, and once again, a genuine and lovely guy, clearly still very much in love with his music and the buzz on stage (even if I did point out, to his amusement, that he’d just succeeded in generating London’s oldest ‘mosh-pit’!)

Alongside Richard, at the start as now, is his brother Tim on bass, singing away and bringing bass excellence and so much more to the mix. I swear that at times, Tim was getting closer to the audience than Richard dared to! These two guys so obviously love their job, as well they should, and this infectious joy of performing hits the audience across both cheeks and dares them not to join in with the glee.

As well as the three above, we have the wonderful Mars Williams on sax, bringing his love of Rock and Jazz to create those distinct licks that fill and stir around both the guitar track, which is delivered with energy and passion by Richard Good, and the keyboard fills, which Amanda Kramer weaves in and out of the musical narrative with consumate skill and feeling.

I have to use the phrase Musical Narrative, even though it sounds pretentious, because that’s what The Furs do with their music. Every song tells a story, every lyric introduces a new character, and you cannot but be picked up and carried along with everyone around you.

And so to the gig.

I went with my younger brother, who I have watched from afar as he grew up as part of the mix-master generation, believing that turntables and segues are the key to good music. He’s been a DJ, he’s run karaoke clubs, he’s done a bit of singing, and now, at the age of nearly 40, he’s just joined his first ‘proper’ band. I took him along and advised him to watch and learn, my boy, just watch and learn. I admit to feeling a little like Yoda introducing the young Jedi student Skywalker to the ways of The Force. Suffice to say, he keeps telling everyone how great the night was, that he has a new favourite band, and it’ll be interesting to see what effect watching Richard’s delivery will have when next he performs with his band!

Musically, you won’t get much better than an evening with The Psychedelic Furs. There’s a freshness and a vibrancy about their music that makes me wonder how anybody could willingly listen to anyone called Beiber. There’s just no contest.

Whether they are playing tracks with a driving beat, such as Mr Jones or Into You Like A Train, or whether it’s a slower, more melodic track such as Heaven or All Of This & Nothing, the audience reaction is the same – utter entrancement. They sound like the end result every other live band is aiming for, and deservedly receive the adulation the audience pours out.

The Psychedelic Furs are back in the US now, but next time they are over this side of the pond (or next time you are over there, anywhere near a gig) be sure to grab your tickets and be there – you will certainly go away happy. I did, the Furs did, and so did everyone else who was there, on that special London night.

Thanks for a great one, guys!

Text copyright Paul Shrimpton, 2012.

These are not the greatest band names in the world…

 … They are just Tribute Bands.

It’s been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And it’s true that the real art of the Tribute Band goes far beyond mere copying.

The best tribute bands take on a cult following of their own, and can easily recharge the public interest in the original band and the source material.

However, I’m not going to write about the skill and dedication required when delivering someone else’s songs with the accuracy, feeling and heart needed to be successful as a tribute band.

No – I’m going straight for the most difficult task any tribute band needs to address: the adoption of a humorous yet familiar name.

Some play on the fact that they are NOT the original artists, such as Noasis, The Bootleg Beatles, or my friend’s band, The Small Fakers.

Others throw in some wordplay, such as The Velvet Underpants, or sometimes adopt a hybrid name if they cover two bands. Tangerine Queen, or Elvis Presley And The Attractions may be two possible names I doubt we’ll ever see.

This wordplay has led to the single best Tribute Band name I’ve ever seen, which combines clarity of thought with the band name, so you know what you’ll get and what you need to do: Earth Wind and For Hire.

Of course, one simple way to get the name is to merge the band name with where you are, although this can be a little restrictive if you’re unfortunate in where you live.

So here are a few suggestions – feel free to let me know if you want to use them….

  • The Boston Stranglers
  • Durham Duran
  • Devon 17
  • Alton Images
  • Terence Trent Derby
  • The Human Leeds
  • Cutting Crewe
  • Men At Warwick

 Living in Maidenhead, I really thought that the ‘geographical name’ was something I’d struggle with, but then inspiration struck. I didn’t think I was going to get any better than the frankly disappointing Frankie Goes to Holyport, but last night, whilst thinking about this, I realised that there were a couple of names I’d not considered.

So look out in the next few months for more information about The Psychedelic Furze Platt, and the frankly unforgettable T’Plow…..

 

Orchestras : are they just large covers bands in suits?

When you hear a four-piece band play a version of ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘Stairway to Heaven’, why is it perceived as any different to a fifty-seven piece playing a version of ‘Symphony No 4 in A’?

There must be a difference between the two, because everyone assumes that there is. But it’s a pretty subjective question.

Is it the number of performers? I’ve seen trios and quartets playing classical, and fifteen-piece bands playing funk, so it’s not a matter of scale.

Is it the presence of a conductor? Many so-called ‘big bands’ had conductors, and one of the most active and successful orchestras today (Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra) doesn’t. So it can’t be that either.

It’s certainly not the presence of posh frocks and tuxedos on either the performers or their audience.

Many bands, and many orchestras, play a wide range of musical genres as well, so it’s not down to that.

It’s vexing….

Now, I play in a covers band, and have seen loads – as well as having seen a fair number of original artists. And in many cases, I feel that seeing a good covers band in a small venue is often a better experience than seeing a ‘real’ group from the back of some soulless enormodome. Certainly when the original recording artists have died, split up or just decided that they have finally been on enough farewell tours, covers bands are a way for people to experience the music played live – even if not played by the people who first performed it.

One thing is for sure – I’d far rather see an honest covers band than a group who think they’re being original but are merely rehashing old clichés.

In that sense, orchestras (and in fact all classical musicians) are doing exactly the same thing: playing music created by other people. Bigger venues, maybe, with less sawdust on the floor and chickenwire strung in front of the stage, but fundamentally the same job.

But everyone assumes that there IS a difference. So what is it?
 
According to someone whose post I read somewhere on the internet, the difference is that “in the classical tradition, the composition and performance of the music are two separate processes, linked only by the score on paper, so there is no expectation that a classical performer is also a composer or improviser; whereas in pop, rock and jazz, most musicians can jam, improvise and contribute creatively to the music even if they don’t consider themselves composers or songwriters.”

But to be frank to this unknown contributor to my blog (and I appreciate there’s no way they can defend their position), that’s garbage.

None of the musicians in an orchestra lay any claim to be composers or songwriters. Neither is there the expectation that the members of a covers band can write songs (some cruel people suggest that this is why they are in covers bands in the first place). Many guitarists, keyboard players, drummers even, rely on tabs to play a song, just as the members of an orchestra have the sheet music. The covers band play music written and composed by someone they have almost certainly never met, and so does the orchestra. In fact, there’s no compulsion for the recording artist of the original song being the person who wrote the thing. Most bands throughout the past sixty years have employed songwriters or just plain bought the rights to perform the songs. So the link between the writer/composer, the performers, and the medium through which it is understood and delivered is the same for all.

So we’re back with the same question: Is an Orchestra simply a large-scale, well-dressed, and better paid covers band? I’d argue that yes, they are.

Let me know what you think……