Three Clear Winners

Three Clear Winners

Written by Tom Gibbs

Roger Eno/Brian Eno  Mixing Colours

Everyone knows Brian Eno; who could have missed the stylish glam he brought to the early work of Roxy Music? And his string of ambient albums from the late seventies on very nearly defined the genre. Roger Eno has never quite garnered the same level of attention, despite being a very talented pianist in his own right. Although the two Eno brothers have guested on each other’s albums, Mixing Colours marks the very first time they’ve released an album where they actually collaborated on the entire album. And shared the billing for the release.

A lot of comparisons will no doubt be made between Mixing Colours and Brian Eno’s groundbreaking 1978 release Ambient One: Music for Airports; the sparseness of the arrangements here definitely recalls the monochromatic character of that seminal release. Even Brian Eno, at the time of Ambient One’s release, referred to the music as “almost as ignorable as it is interesting.” And that monochromatic character is, essentially, probably the principle failing of Mixing Colors; while at points impressively beautiful, with no shortage of melodicism, it can be—for the lack of another word—in places, a rather tiresome listen. There just isn’t enough variety to capture the imagination of the typical listener.

And the album’s title, Mixing Colours, is really a bit of a misnomer of sorts; the record is about as lacking in color as is possible, and across its eighteen tracks, only occasionally breaks free of the monotonous. Roger Eno laid down all the piano and MIDI keyboard parts, then sent the files to Brian, who says he composed almost all of his electronic and MIDI embellishments while riding on trains around England. And that the music was perfect for riding on trains. I guess calling the album Ambient [XX]: Music for Trains would have been a little too derivative, huh? Anyway, all my listening was done through Qobuz’s 24/44.1 stream, and despite my reservations about the record in general, the sound was pretty close to perfection. That said, YMMV.

DG (Deutsche Grammophon), CD/2LPs (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, YouTube)


Al Di Meola  Across the Universe

I know, I know, an album of Beatles’ covers, and of all the people stooping to such a low level to record such schmaltz—Al Di Meola, for god’s sake? Di Meola had always loved the music of the Beatles; they were one of his prime inspirations for picking up a guitar in the first place. In 2012, he had the opportunity to record a Beatles’ tribute album, All Your Life, at the legendary Abbey Road Studios; that record went on to become one of the best selling guitar albums the following year when it was released (who knew?). Recording the album was an itch that he just had to scratch, and by all accounts, was an undeniable success on all levels. I’ll have to check it out!

Seven years later, Di Meola decided to return to the studio to record a follow-up; among the acoustic guitars he’d be playing were the Al Di Meola Conde Hermanos Signature Model, a Martin D-18, an Ovation, and Guild 12-string and 12-string harp guitars. But he wanted the electric guitar he’d play to have a very special tone for this record; he started digging through his collection of guitars, and buried deeply behind them was the very first Gibson Les Paul he owned, from 1971. The black one that he played on the first three Return to Forever albums, and on his first two solo albums, Land of the Midnight Sun and Elegant Gypsy. For whatever reason, he hadn’t played it since 1978! And the amp that’s used throughout the new recording was a 50-watt Marshall head and cabinet that he dug through a literal warehouse of equipment to find. And found himself equally amazed when he plugged everything in, and it all worked—and with perfect tone, after sitting untouched for over forty years. I can attest that Di Meola’s electric guitar playing on this album sounds astonishingly superb, and his technique is still flawless.

There was definitely some studio trickery employed; for example, on the “Golden Slumbers Medley,” Di Meola’s guitars are multi-tracked, so you’re hearing him play all the guitar parts on varying acoustic guitars and the Les Paul simultaneously. It presents the familiar in a way that’s new, and it’s pretty darn exciting to hear Di Meola playing so many different guitars at the same time! Di Meola wasn’t afraid to mix it up a little elsewhere; the intro to “Dear Prudence” comes from more of a flamenco approach, and while oddly strange, at the same time, it sounds very right. “Strawberry Fields Forever” samples the original’s intro, then segues into an acoustic guitar vamp before eventually blending into an mind-blowing Les Paul solo that’s interspersed with the horns from the original that have also been sampled to great effect. “Yesterday” is intro’d with a very tender acoustic guitar solo; about the point of the bridge in the original, a second multi-tracked acoustic guitar appears to provide counterpoint to the first guitar’s continuing solo, and the effect is simply stunning. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before!

For an album I was expecting to be absolutely cheesy, I thoroughly enjoyed Across the Universe; it was beautifully played and was a joy to listen to, and Al Di Meola was in top form. All my listening was with the 24/96 Qobuz stream, and the sound quality was absolutely superb. Very highly recommended!

earMUSIC, CD/Vinyl (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)


The Boomtown Rats  Citizens of Boomtown

The Irish band Boomtown Rats first surfaced in the late seventies, gaining a following for their quirky, but sophisticated and melodic songs that were often infused with punk authenticity. Their eponymous first album made a bit of a splash in the UK, but they really started getting people listening with their sophomore effort, A Tonic for the Troops, which in 1978 peaked at No. 8 on the UK charts. But the album’s single, “Rat Trap,” made a bigger impression, pushing all the way to No. 1! While knocking Grease’s Olivia Newton John and John Travolta out of the top spot—no small feat, there! But the real knockout came with the following year’s The Fine Art of Surfacing, with its epic song “I Don’t Like Mondays,” which became a No. 1 hit in the UK and many other countries worldwide. It only made it to No. 73 on the US Billboard chart, but gained the band a strong following in the states. A good friend of mine thought these guys were absolute gods.

And then it pretty much fizzled for the Rats; principal writer and lead singer Bob Geldof was rapidly gaining a reputation in the press more for shooting off his mouth with outrageously provocative remarks than for continuing to crank out pop hits. When once asked about his view on the music industry, he stated unequivocally that “All I want out of pop music is to get rich, get famous, and get laid.” And there was his star turn in 1982 as Pink in the film version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. On top of that, he’d suddenly developed this humanitarian conscience; not that that’s a bad thing, but his work on the Band Aid Christmas song “Do They Know It’s Christmastime” and 1985’s Live Aid concert greatly overshadowed anything being recorded by the Boomtown Rats. The Rats disbanded, and anything other than “I Don’t Like Mondays” was pretty much an afterthought—especially in the US.

So here we are, 36 years later, Geldof somehow or another managed to get the band back together, and we have a new album by the Boomtown Rats! And it’s all original members, minus keyboardist Johnny Fingers and early original guitarist Gerry Cott. Geldof and crew, however, do a surprisingly good job of acting as though they’ve never been gone the entire time! The songs are interesting and eclectic, and perhaps a bit more drivingly rock and roll than Boomtown Rats Mk. I in places. The album starts off strong with “Trash Glam Baby,” which is a definite nod to the bands’ early roots and the Bowie and New York Dolls’ sound that so inspired them in the first place. The next track, “Sweet Thing,” really kicks it into gear—just listen to the drum sound they managed to capture in the studio, it’s a real blast from what seems like a not too distant past. “Monster Monkeys” has a kind of Lou Reed vibe, and “She Said No” is another slam-bang rock and roller. “Passing Through” is about the most thought-provoking and poignant song on the album, but it doesn’t slow down much from there. “Get A Grip” has a classic rap/R&B eighties kinda groove, and “The Boomtown Rats” (really?) is a classic rock and roll, self-aggrandizing call-to-arms, but it works surprisingly well—I hit the replay button a couple of times!

All my listening was from the 24/96 stream via Qobuz—the sound had plenty of punch, with crunching guitars and pounding drums. And it’s a great listen, even if not quite as quirkily interesting as the Rats of old. Nonetheless, I find Citizens of Boomtown very enjoyable, and highly recommended!

BMG, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, YouTube, Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Deezer)


Mandy Moore  Silver Landings

If you’d told me twenty years ago I’d be reviewing a Mandy Moore album—and giving it anything other than a cursory dismissal—I’d probably just as quickly have shoved a pistol to my temple and squeezed the trigger! What makes it even worse is that she’s the star of the currently popular feel-good/feel-bad NBC television series This Is Us—which I absolutely abhor, but my wife looooooves and darn near forces me to watch every week. I find Moore’s weekly transformation from older woman to younger wife and mother unbelievable and almost unwatchable—I just can’t suspend my disbelief. And that’s compounded by the fact that twenty years ago, she was totally posturing herself to be America’s pop princess—locked in a near-death match with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Needless to say, I haven’t followed her career since the late nineties very closely!

It’s been ten years since Mandy Moore’s last album. Her current husband Taylor Goldsmith (of the band Dawes) is one of the principal songwriters on Silver Landings, and he’s a multi-instrumentalist who plays and sings along with Moore on many of the tracks. His contribution gives her a newfound indie-street cred that her music and songs were previously severely lacking in, and Mandy Moore really seems to have found her voice as an artist on this record. The songs are very confessional in nature, and she does a shockingly good job of pulling this album off—especially surprising, since her music and songs didn’t show anything near this level of cohesion and maturity during seven years of marriage and musical association with Ryan Adams.

My listening was all done with the 24/96 stream from Qobuz, and the sound quality was quite exceptional. I hate to say it people, but this is a surprisingly good album of mature pop music, if not suitable for everyone’s tastes. Am I suffering from a collapse of the majority of my cerebral function since my near-death medical episode in January? Maybe, but Silver Landings is surprisingly easy to listen to, even if it isn’t the most creatively cerebral album out there and I relegate it to strictly background listening. And regardless of the fact that it doesn’t occupy, for me, anywhere nearly the same echelon as any number of other records by SoCal singers I hold dear—say, anything by Linda Ronstadt, for example—Silver Landings is recommended, although, as usual, YMMV.

Verve Forecast, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, Google Play Music, YouTube, Spotify, Deezer)


Header photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/chascar (cropped to fit format).

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