The Idle Race – Back To The Story

The Idle Race - Back To The StoryIn the post-Sgt. Pepper 1960s, many an up-and-coming British band longed to be the next Beatles, and with record labels hitching their wagons to the musical “British invasion” of America, there was certainly no shortage of success stories. Some bands, however, by choice or by fate, remained strictly local concerns – and such was the case with the Idle Race, a Birmingham group that rose from the ashes of a previous local band, Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders, after Sheridan left the band and a young guitarist named Jeff Lynne joined up. Even while the band was still actively recording and playing live, Idle Race won critical acclaim (including from the Beatles themselves, who invited the band to sit in on some sessions for the White Album)…and sold so few records that the band might’ve vanished into local history but for one of its members’ later success. Back To The Story is a 2-CD set that collects all three of the albums recorded by the Idle Race – two with Lynne in the driver’s seat (including his first credit as producer), and one recorded after his departure.

An utterly charming little slice of obscure ’60s psychedelia, The Birthday Party is the Idle Race’s debut effort, boasting intricate arrangements, some teriffic vocal harmonies, and even a studio string section, quite an unusual luxury for such a young group. The harmonies and the sense of whimsy running through both music and lyrics are clear evidence of a Beatles influence, though there are also touches that might remind keen-eared listeners of the Byrds here and there.

The Idle Race - The Birthday PartyBy modern standards, The Birthday Party is barely an EP, not even weighing in at half an hour, but the songs are layered enough to merit repeat listening. Where there’s lyrical whimsy, it’s almost too much at times, with “I Like My Toys” and “Sitting In My Tree” sticking out in that regard; depending on your mood, it’ll either be a little too saccharine, or endearingly childlike. It’s in numbers like “Follow Me Follow” and especially “The Lady Who Said She Could Fly” that the real potential of the group is exposed, and they’re a revelation – decent rock numbers with a nice string arrangement woven into and around the Idle Race’s basic rhythm section. The songs leave a huge impression – honestly, why they haven’t been covered is a total mystery to me – and they show that the group’s young lead vocalist (and self-appointed rookie producer) Jeff Lynne had some very clear ideas about what he’d do with a studio and a band at his disposal. Despite overtures (ha!) from his friend Roy Wood to join The Move, Lynne stubbornly stuck it out with the Idle Race for another album.

The Idle RaceThat album was the self-titled The Idle Race, and while Lynne’s songwriting and production are still front and center, somehow the second album doesn’t just reach out and grab me the same way that The Birthday Party does. In a few places, Lynne is reaching too far for the kind of Beatlesque affectations that many critics accuse him of being about for his whole career. If you thought Lynne was trying too hard to set up shop on the Fab Four’s turf during his ELO career, stay right away from The Idle Race here. There is one bona fide gorgeous Lynne classic on here in the form of “Follow Me Follow”, which just about makes the whole album worthwhile. “Come With Me”, “Sea Of Dreams” and “Going Home” are a nice triple-act right at the beginning of the album…but all this means is that The Idle Race has an extremely soft center. The second CD kicks off with a selection of non-album singles and B-sides, which are also a mixed bag; I thought I’d get a big kick out of hearing Lynne cover his buddy Roy Wood’s “(Here We Go ‘Round) The Lemon Tree”, originally performed by the Move (and with Roy Wood sitting in on this cover version), but while it’s a faithful enough rendition musically, the production touches are a bit much – this is Lynne at an age where he was getting a big charge out of being The Producer, and he was throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at the job, whether the song called for it or not. There’s a really good cover of “In The Summertime”, dating from the band’s brief post-Lynne era, but it differentiates itself so very little from the original that you might as well stick to Mungo Jerry.

The Idle Race - Time Is...In any case, Jeff Lynne did ultimately join the Move and, with Wood, later formed ELO; his Idle Race cohorts released a third album, Time Is…, which sounds absolutely nothing like Lynne-era Idle Race. Roger Spencer and the other members of the group steered things into a more mainstream psychedelic rock vein, and while there are some nice tunes to be found on the group’s swan song, you have to keep in mind that this is solid 1969/1970 material a year or two past its sell-by date. These songs slid right under the radar because music had moved on – Led Zeppelin was in full force, and even the Move was busting out mind-blowers like “Open Up Said The World At The Door”.

Thus ends the complete catalog of the Idle Race – enough to fill two CDs, with space left over for both sides of the final Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders single, and a few alternate versions. (Hey, albums were shorter back then.) The alternate takes of three songs – including the gorgeous “Follow Me Follow” – quickly reveal why the versions we’re used to are what made it onto the albums. “Follow” in particular is marred, in this recording, by a strange effect on the vocals during the chorus; at best, this bit of “producing” is just unbecoming considering the rest of the song’s beauty.

3 out of 4
A “complete recordings” box set is due later this year, rumored to span more than twice as many discs as this set, but between my own post-baby budget and my ambivalence about the material presented in this collection, I’m going to have to see some awfully good reviews and see some awfully tempting stuff on the tracklist before I blow my money on it. For most people, even diehard fans who “Follow Me Follow” Jeff Lynne wherever he goes, this complete presentation of the Idle Race’s commercially released material will do nicely.

Order this CD

    Disc one
    The Birthday Party

  1. The Skeleton and the Roundabout (2:21)
  2. Happy Birthday / The Birthday Party (3:23)
  3. I Like My Toys (2:10)
  4. The Morning Sunshine (1:46)
  5. Follow Me Follow (2:48)
  6. Sitting In My Tree (1:53)
  7. On With The Show (2:22)
  8. Lucky Man (2:37)
  9. (Don’t Put Your Boys In The Army) Mrs. Ward (2:13)
  10. Pie In The Sky (2:27)
  11. The Lady Who Said She Could Fly (2:19)
  12. End Of The Road (2:09)
  13. The Idle Race

  14. Come With Me (2:45)
  15. Sea Of Dreams (3:13)
  16. Going Home (3:44)
  17. Reminds Me Of You (2:54)
  18. Mr. Crow And Sir Norman (3:17)
  19. Please No More Sad Songs (3:21)
  20. Girl At The Window (3:44)
  21. Big Chief Woolly Bosher (5:15)
  22. Someone Knocking (2:56)
  23. A Better Life (The Weather Man Knows) (2:45)
  24. Hurry Up John (3:33)
  25. Bonus tracks

  26. Lucky Man (alternate take) (2:35)
  27. Follow Me Follow (alternate take) (1:56)
  28. Days Of Broken Arrows (alternate take) (3:39)
    Disc two
    Singles & B-sides

  1. (Here We Go ‘Round) The Lemon Tree (2:44)
  2. My Father’s Son (2:15)
  3. Impostors Of Life’s Magazine (2:21)
  4. Knocking Nails Into My House (2:27)
  5. Days Of The Broken Arrows (3:51)
  6. Worn Red Carpet (3:03)
  7. In The Summertime (2:58)
  8. Told You Twice (3:38)
  9. Neanderthal Man (3:56)
  10. Victim Of Circumstance (3:36)
  11. Time Is

  12. Dancing Flower (2:14)
  13. Sad O’ Sad (3:28)
  14. The Clock (3:23)
  15. I Will See You (3:11)
  16. By The Sun (6:42)
  17. Alcatraz (4:02)
  18. And The Rain (2:52)
  19. She Sang Hymns Out Of Tune (3:07)
  20. Bitter Green (3:45)
  21. We Want It All (4:13)
  22. Mike Sheridan & The Nightriders

  23. It’s Only the Dog (2:15)
  24. Your Friend (3:22)

Released by: EMI
Release date: 1996 (re-released in 2007 without Nightriders tracks)
Disc one total running time: 74:26
Disc two total running time: 73:23

Iron Butterfly – In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida

Iron Butterfly - In-A-Gadda-Da-VidaIt’s become one of the most recognizable rock riffs in modern history. The “dun-dun-da-da-dun-dun” is known the world over for its melody and heaviness. Although Iron Butterfly may be considered a ’60s one-hit-wonder, their influence and musical stylings paved the way for today’s heavy metal bands. But many people don’t even realize that there was an entire album to go with that one song.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the album, was released in 1968. Most of the music follows the titular track in terms of composition: Heavy, distorted guitars, clear drumming, and intricate organ melodies. The album kicks off with “Most Anything You Want”, a song which combines all of the aforementioned elements into a moderate rocker. “Flowers And Beads” probably could have been a hit had it been recorded by a band like The Monkees; a “light” (comparatively) tale about love. “My Mirage” is a moody piece set to a lead keyboard theme. “Termination” is another of the signature “hard” songs that Iron Butterfly was known for, and includes a good helping of overdrive. “Are You Happy” is another recording that prominently features the keyboards, and alternately sounds like Jimi Hendrix jamming with Emerson, Lake And Palmer.

But then there’s the track itself: “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. And for those who haven’t heard the full, 17-minute version, it’s a beauty. It also contains an honest-to-God 2 1/2 minute drum solo (which nobody really does anymore, and certainly not for that long!). As a drummer myself, I found it very refreshing. Of course, after the solo, the guitars and keyboards kick back in to perform the now famous chorus and verse one more time.

3 out of 4The Deluxe Edition of this album released on CD contains two more versions of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”: another lengthy live version, and the much shorter single edit. Although it’s a nice way to fill out the remaining space, they certainly aren’t needed, and one wonders if other selections could have been chosen instead for the bonus material. Nevertheless, if you are a fan of rock music, psychedelia, or just someone who is interested in the origins of music history itself, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is not a bad choice to make.

Order this CD

  1. Most Anything You Want (3:48)
  2. Flowers And Beads (3:09)
  3. My Mirage (4:54)
  4. Termination (2:52)
  5. Are You Happy? (4:30)
  6. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (17:07)
  7. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Live) (18:52)
  8. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Single Edit) (2:54)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1968 (re-released on CD in 1995)
Total running time: 58:10

Ralf Illenberger – The Kiss: Five Waves Of Bliss

Ralf Illenberger - The Kiss: Five Waves Of BlissRalf Illenberger returns for his third post-Narada effort on indie label In Joy Records, and this time he’s got another winner…and an unusual concept.

The Kiss: Five Waves Of Bliss takes the form of a long, instrumental suite, subtle at times, but too involved to ever become mere background music, as with most of Illenberger’s guitar jazz pieces. The music kicks in with his unmistakable style in the second movement, Love Flow, but the real aural treat here is “Symphonique”, the third movement of The Kiss, which contains textures so complex that it takes a couple of listening to truly get all of what’s going on in the background with its echoplexed acoustic guitars and different parts playing on either side of the stereo image. “Beyond The Clouds” chases that down with some atypical electric guitar solo work that rivals anyone strutting around on a rock concert stage right now. Illenberger’s really starting to join the “studio-as-instrument” crowd with impressive results.

The only conceivable drawback to Illenberger’s stylistic experimentation on The Kiss is that the entire album, being a single, connected work, maintains a somewhat similar tone throughout. For those rating: 4 out of 4accustomed to more variety on Illenberger’s albums, this might throw them for a loop. But others may appreciate the audacious attempt at a modern-day crack at a classical structure.

Overall, another outstanding work from an underappreciated – and most undeservedly obscure – master of his art.

Order this CD

  1. First Touch (8:21)
  2. Love Flow (6:50)
  3. Symphonique (7:14)
  4. Beyond The Clouds (6:31)
  5. Fields Of Love (7:29)
  6. Afterglow (3:53)

Released by: in joy music
Release date: 1999
Total running time: 40:18

INXS – Greatest Hits

INXS - Greatest HitsIn hindsight, it’s eerie listening to this collection of INXS’s more radio-ready tunes, and it’s hard not to reflect – at least a little bit – upon the doomed falling star that was Michael Hutchence, the group’s lead singer. I’m not going to say that this guy is a fallen genius, but the world most assuredly lost an incredibly dynamic and charismatic performer when Hutchence’s personal demons overtook him.

But that’s all in retrospect, and this compilation predates those tragic events at any rate. If it’s an INXS song, and you’ve ever heard it on the radio, chances are it’s on this collection. The INXS Greatest Hits disc leans heavily in the direction of the group’s 1986 mega-hit Kick, from which damn near every song seemed to be a single at some point. The later X and earlier Listen Like Thieves, both worth listening to in and of themselves, aren’t represented quite as much. Basically, the Greatest Hits consist of roughly half of Kick with bonus tracks from other 3 out of 4albums.

Personal favorites here include “Never Tear Us Apart”, “Suicide Blonde” (a song which seemed to roll off the assembly line bearing every sonic trademark of the band packed into four minutes), and, yes, “Need You Tonight”.

Order this CD

  1. The One Thing (3:24)
  2. Original Sin (3:46)
  3. What You Need (3:36)
  4. Listen Like Thieves (3:47)
  5. Shine Like It Does (3:06)
  6. Need You Tonight (3:01)
  7. Devil Inside (5:11)
  8. New Sensation (3:42)
  9. Never Tear Us Apart (3:02)
  10. Suicide Blonde (3:51)
  11. Disappear (4:08)
  12. The Stairs (4:55)
  13. Heaven Sent (3:21)
  14. Beautiful Girl (3:29)
  15. The Strangest Party (These Are The Times) (3:55)
  16. Deliver Me (3:50)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1994
Total running time: 60:06

Common Ground: The Voices of Modern Irish Music

Common Ground: The Voices of Modern Irish MusicYou know, I’ll be the first to fess up that I’m not exactly a Thistle & Shamrock Listener (not that it’s a bad show, and not that I don’t like the music). And I’m a little wary of the mania for all things Celtic that has pervaded the underbelly of pop culture for the past decade or so, despite the fact that I’m able to trace my own lineage straight back to Ireland. Something about everyone embracing this culture just because it’s “in” bugs me – and many of the supposedly Celtic musical acts out there aren’t peddling the sound of old Eire, but rather of Enya, whose sound I associate with new age music more than I do anything that sounds distinctly Celtic. But I’ll expound on this soapbox more later. With all my griping, you’re probably wondering why in the world I even bothered with this CD.

The answer is the wonderful second track, “Mary Of The South Seas”, written and performed by Tim and Neil Finn. Aside from their dedicating the song to their mother’s Irish origins, your guess is as good as mine as to why two performers born and raised in New Zealand are on a compilation of “modern Irish music,” but it’s a lovely song all the same.

There are other good reasons to dig this one out, however; Sharon Shannon’s “Cavan Potholes” is a nicely traditional (and simultaneously modern) Celtic-flavored instrumental. Adam Clayton and Bono of U2 fame turn in a low-key number, “Won’t You Be Back Tomorrow”, and Sinead O’Connor turns in “On Raglan Road”. Toward the end of the disc, the tunes become more traditional and the readings become more tongue-in-cheek – I’m thinking primarily of Elvis Costello’s rendition of “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched” here – but in fine Irish tradition, the producers of this compilation probably expected us to have downed a couple of pints by this point, so I’m willing to forgive.

4 out of 4Though I originally bought it for one song by a couple of favorite artists, Common Ground quickly opened my eyes to some more good music. And I’m happy – and perhaps just a touch proud – to say that the whole thing smacks more of real Celtic music than a lot of the product that wears that label these days.

Order this CD

  1. O Bhean A’ti – Maire Brennan (5:13)
  2. Mary Of The South Seas – Tim and Neil Finn (5:08)
  3. Tomorrow – Bono and Adam Clayton (4:36)
  4. Cavan Potholes – Sharon Shannon (4:10)
  5. Help Me To Believe – Paul Brady (5:56)
  6. On Raglan Road – Sinead O’Connor (6:05)
  7. As I Roved Out – Brian Kennedy (4:32)
  8. The Night Before Larry Was Stretched – Elvis Costello (5:09)
  9. Mna Na H-eireann – Kate Bush (2:53)
  10. Whistling Low Errigal – Davy Spillane with Donal Lunny (4:08)
  11. My Heart’s Tonight In Ireland – Andy Irvine (3:36)
  12. Cathain – Liam O’Maonlai (3:27)
  13. Bogie’s Bonnie Belle – Christy Moore (3:18)

Released by: EMI
Release date: 1996
Total running time: 58:11

Ralf Illenberger – The Gateway

Ralf Illenberger - The GatewayThe latest from Ralf Illenberger is a stunning change in pace from the serenity of Sedona, his previous entry. Though still experimenting with unusual harmonies, this album ramps up the intensity with a little more emphasis on rhythm and percussion, and even some electric guitar and keyboard touches. It’s easily his most exotic-sounding work since his solo debut on Narada ten years ago, and in my opinion, his best since 1993’s Soleil. Some of this material features the kind of complexity that most of us would expect to hear in a rating: 4 out of 4movie score, as opposed to a more mainstream instrumental album, and in places it reminded me very much of Mike Oldfield’s very experimental Ommadawn. Highly recommended!

  1. The Gateway (5:25)
  2. Cosmic Boogie (6:28)
  3. Wide Open (3:57)
  4. Blue Planet (5:15)
  5. Order this CD Caveland (7:24)
  6. Someone’s Coming (5:16)
  7. Electric Storm (5:40)
  8. The Winged Isis (7:42)

Released by: in joy music
Release date: 1998
Total running time: 47:48

Ralf Illenberger – Sedona

Ralf Illenberger - SedonaThis long-overdue album by my favorite jazz guitarist is just now surfacing in some parts of the country. Ralf’s latest release, surprisingly, sees him popping up on a label other than new age powerhouse Narada, and his material also shifts into a different direction, with harmonies which are more abstract and dissonant than his previous work. Illenberger still maintains his style of building a nearly hypnotic, cyclical sound underlying the melody, which keeps his music complex and interesting enough to rating: 3 out of 4avoid being thought of as background music. The experimentation on this album makes one wonder if Ralf has any plans for another release anytime soon…and just how different will his next album be?

  1. Riding the Wave (4:46)
  2. Falling Down (3:37)
  3. Sedona (3:01)
  4. Frogs (4:01)
  5. Order this CD Secret Canyon (4:33)
  6. Crying Sky (4:46)
  7. Full Moon (4:41)
  8. Once Again (3:52)
  9. Ravens Above (9:49)
  10. Still Blue (5:09)
  11. Face Shift (4:08)
  12. Dream Catcher (5:11)

Released by: in joy music
Release date: 1995
Total running time: 58:02