Archive for January 2018

Songs from the Vault – Guitars (Part One)

For many years I played the electric guitar (having gone to guitar tech back in the day), playing in rock, fusion, acid-jazz and other bands.  While I rarely touch the guitar these days, focussing on my piano playing, I’ve a soft spot for the guitar tunes that became the soundtrack of the latter part of my youth.  But enough with the emotional journey, here are some great guitar tunes from the vault…

First up it’s Surfing with the Alien from Joe Satriani’s 1987 classic album of the same name.  The track is special to me in that I’m a big Silver Surfer fan, with a shelf full of Surfer comics, including the 1982 comic (36 years old!) which includes the picture that became the cover of Satriani’s album.  The guitar tone itself is apparently Satriani’s attempt to bring the Surfer’s voice to life.  It’s a great tune, with a great hook and a fitting soundtrack for the Sentinel of the Spaceways!

Satriani was Steve Vai’s (and Kirk Hammett’s) guitar teacher and it’s hard not to mention one without the other, given their omnipresence over the guitar landscape for so many years.   I saw Vai play with David Lee Roth’s band in 1988 at Donington rock festival (as part of the Skyscraper tour) and was amazed by his playing, including his talking guitar! I didn’t hear Vai again until his Passion and Warfare album blew me away in 1990.  I was going to include For the love of God off of that album but I think this classic scene from the 1986 movie Crossroads is well worth including, even though it’s a bit galling seeing Steve Vai having to fluff things at the end…

Adrian Legg is another guitar virtuoso, and an English one at that, but far removed from the sound world of Satriani and Vai.  I was going to include Kinvarra’s Child, the first track off his 1993 album Mrs. Crowe’s Blue Waltz.  However, I can only find versions of it by people other than Legg.  So, regrettably, I’ll move on.

This next track is, I think, one of the finest pieces of guitar music ever.  Mediterranean Sundance is an Al Di Meola tune off his 1977 album Elegant Gypsy.  That track is amazing but bettered, I believe, by the version featured on the album Friday Night in San Fransico, which captures a 1980 gig by Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia.  The trio have recorded and played live together a number of times.  Their second album, named Passion, Grace and Fire, is for me the perfect description of the live version of Mediterranean Sundance (the first track in the video)…

I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard.  I’m not quite done yet and have a few more tunes to add to this guitars-themed Song from the Vault, so stay tuned!

Book review – The Dry

Regular readers will know that I appreciate a good thriller.  The Dry (2016), by first-time and Melbourne-based novelist Jane Harper, seemed like a good bet by the glowing reviews.

The Dry is set in a backwater, five hours’ drive from Melbourne.  Tensions are high in the small farming community, owing in part to a seemingly never-ending drought.  Tensions rise yet further on the murder of the Hadler family (who knew, eh?).  The funeral finds our protagonist, federal agent Aaron Falk, and old friend of the supposed murderer/suicide victim, hoofing it from Melbourne to the town where he grew up.  Despite being an unwanted guest to many, Falk sticks around to conduct an unofficial investigation of the crime.

The words ‘federal agent’ may lead you to think that we have some form of super cop on our hands.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  Falk is a mild mannered guy, used to dealing with financial crime, rather than fist fights and gun battles in the street.  In fact, Falk seems like your average guy, which perhaps is part of his and The Dry’s appeal.  The book moves and unfolds at pace – I read it in just over a couple of days – driven by dialogue rather than detail.  That’s not to say that you don’t get a sense of the characters and their environment; you do.  I think however that the book could have benefited from a little more detail and description, something closer to what you might find in a Mo Hayder novel.

As is often the case with thrillers, an historical plot unfolds in parallel with the main one.  In this case the sub-plot surrounds the reason why Falk isn’t welcome in all quarters.  It’s a good story and provides further colour to our protagonist.

There’s enough twists and turns to keep readers engaged and I found myself wanting to know more about Falk and what his life in Melbourne looks like.  So I recommend The Dry and look forward to reading Force of Nature, Harper’s follow-up, which has recently been published.

Songs from the Vault – ’97

It’s been a good while since the last installment of Songs from the Vault, so it’s time for some new, old offerings.  For some reason, I thought it might be fun to revisit some tunes from 1997, which was a good year for dance music: a year in which Daft Punk released their first album; Bjork released her classic, Homogenic; drum and bass won the Mercury Music Prize in the from of Roni Size and Reprazent.  So let’s not waste any more time…

Come to Daddy by Aphex Twin is not only a great tune but one of the all time great videos.  If you thought Thriller was scary (and I certainly did in 1983), then this will make you have nightmares…

I can’t remember paying too much attention to the second track on the Come to Daddy EP but it’s a great track and worth checking it out.  It came to my attention again many years later via the jazz trio, The Bad Plus, who covered the tune on their great album, These are the Vistas.  Here’s the original…

I’m cheating a little with this next tune.  While Daft Punk’s album Homework came out in ’97, Da Funk, one of the tracks on the album, was actually released in 1995.  Like Come to Daddy, not only is Da Funk a great tune but it comes wrapped in a great video, directed by Spike Jonze, who directed the movie Being John Malkovich.

Drum and Bass (or should it be ‘Drum ‘n’ Bass’?) moved closer to the mainstream in the mid-90s with the release of Goldie’s Timeless and with Roni Size winning the Mercury Music Prize.  However, while individuals like Goldie started to receive celebrity status, most D&B artists failed to receive similar recognition.  Regardless, some great music was produced, including this track by Photek.  Ni Ten Ichi Ryu can broadly be translated to ‘two heavens as one’ or ‘two swords as one’ but I’m sure you’d have got that from the video…

I can’t remember why I bought the CD single of Sugardaddy by Jimi Tenor.  Quite possibly I saw a good review of it in one of the dance magazines of the day, e.g. Mixmag or Muzik.  Regardless, I’m glad I did.  It sounds like the bastard offspring of Suicide and Laurie Anderson and as cool as it did back in ’97…

I’m going to finish up on a more upbeat tune.  Masters at Work is the production team of “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, and Nuyorican Soul the album they released in ’97.  It featured some great dance floor classics including I am the Black Gold of the Sun, and a cover of Runaway.  The highlight for me, however, was the last track of the album, You can do it (Baby), which features George Benson.

For many, Benson is synonymous with cheesy tracks such as In your Eyes and Give me the Night.  Benson, however, is a fine jazz guitarist, influenced by Wes Montgomery, and this track shows off both his vocal and guitar talents…

As ever, I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane.  I’ve got more themed Songs from the Vault in mind, so keep your eyes and ears open!

Book review – The Cartel

I read Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog within the last year and was impressed enough to want to read its sequel, The Cartel (2015).  Like its predecessor, The Cartel clocks in at over 600 pages in length, so I was obviously hoping that it would deliver the goods.

The Cartel finds us in the familiar company of DEA Agent, Art Keller.  Keller is forced to resume his drugs-busting role, following a lengthy period of self-imposed hibernation, after his nemesis, Adan Barrera, escapes from prison.  Barrera is seeking to rebuild his drugs empire and power base, which inevitably leads to war between rival families.

If you’ve read The Power of the Dog then The Cartel will feel very familiar, perhaps too familiar.  I found myself thinking this throughout the book but enjoyed the reading experience nonetheless.  One of the highlights of POTD was the blend of characters and the space they had to develop.  The Cartel is consistent here and we find ourselves introduced to a range of new characters.  One of the most interesting developments is the injection of the media and journalists into the unfolding events.  I wonder if Winslow took inspiration here from the TV series The Wire, season five of which looked at Baltimore’s drug epidemic through the lens of a fictional newspaper.  In bringing the lives of journalists into the story, Winslow portrays the pressure journalists are under in reporting drugs related news; where gangs want their rivals portrayed in the worst light and will threaten journalists and their families to achieve this end.  This is a familiar theme in The Cartel, where we find politicians, the army, police and other branches of the state and society facing the same issues confronting journalists, if not more so.  In this regard, The Cartel feels like a more insightful work than its predecessor.

The Cartel doesn’t let up on the action of the first novel either.  In fact, if memory serves, The Cartel feels more ‘action-packed’, largely driven by the fact that one of the rival gangs, The Zetas, is essentially a special forces outfit.

Winslow notes in the acknowledgements section of the book that while a work of fiction, the events in The Cartel are inspired by actual events.  In the days since finishing The Cartel I’ve noticed a few stories in the press which bear Winslow out.  On 23 December, Reuters reported that Murders in Mexico are the highest since records began, with a staggering total of 23,101 murder investigations opened in the first 11 months of 2017 alone.  The BBC reported on 20 December that a Mexican journalist was shot dead while attending a Christmas celebration at his son’s primary school.  The journalist in question had been under state protection because of the high risks of reporting on crime.  Sound familiar?  So it’s in a guarded way that I use the words ‘action-packed’.  In fact, the more one looks into this, the more you realise that The Cartel is closer to reality than you’d like to think.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that The Cartel is a heavy and sometimes brutal book.  Nevertheless, it’s a good read and, like its predecessor, I recommend it to you.

Oh, and Happy New Year!