Mike Oldfield – The Songs Of Distant Earth

Mike Oldfield - The Songs Of Distant EarthAfter an extremely acrimonious split with Virgin Records in the early 1990s, multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield was already venturing out of Tubular Bells territory throughout the 1980s, dabbling in pop songs (a cover of one of his tunes, “Family Man”, became a hit for Hall & Oates) and mixing music of wildly differing styles and ethnic origins. Virgin mogul Richard Branson was reportedly demanding a Tubular Bells II from Oldfield, who refused to do any such thing, and then released precisely that after switching to Warner Bros. just to give Branson the finger, but a funny thing happened while Oldfield and Branson were battling it out. Other acts started to claim for themselves the instrumental ground which Oldfield had pioneered: Enigma, to name just one example, came to prominence in the early ’90s, and by the time Oldfield got around to releasing this album – which is indeed based on the novel of the same name by the late Arthur C. Clarke – he was having to push his way through a now-crowded musical field.

Inspired by Clarke’s mention of a musical celebration at the end of “The Songs Of Distant Earth”, Oldfield added “spacey” synths and production textures to his usual structure. Despite boasting a track list which divides things up into shorter, discrete tracks, The Songs Of Distant Earth is classic Oldfield, with lengthy development of a central theme introduced early on, and the introduction and development of secondary themes coming later in the album. It may not sound like Hergest Ridge or Ommadawn, but in fact, Songs shares a very similar structure. Like those albums/pieces (in Oldfield’s case, he composes long pieces with minimal breaks, so these terms are almost interchangeable), there’s almost no interruption from one portion of the music to the next, and Oldfield’s soaring guitar work is an obvious sonic trademark. Now, as someone who climbed onto the Oldfield train by way of his early ’70s work, I’m a little disappointed to hear that his guitar takes a back seat, at times, to synths, various kinds of percussion, ethnic vocals and so on, but one can’t stick to the same formula forever. By that same token, there are spoken word samples of everything from a man counting down, to chants, to the crew of Apollo 8 reading from the book of Genesis, woven into the music; interestingly, depending on what mood I’m in, I’ve found these soundbytes either interesting and relaxing or irritating.

3 out of 4Songs Of Distant Earth is an interesting experiment in linking music to literature, sort of a soundtrack that bypasses the hurdle of a movie deciding what everything should look/sound like, and it signals a major reinvention on Oldfield’s part. There’s a part of me that loves his older, guitar-heavy work, and finds Songs lacking, but to a more mainstream audience this isn’t a bad place to get your first Oldfield exposure.

Order this CD

  1. In The Beginning (1:24)
  2. Let There Be Light (4:57)
  3. Supernova (3:23)
  4. Magellan (4:40)
  5. First Landing (1:16)
  6. Oceania (3:19)
  7. Only Time Will Tell (4:26)
  8. Prayer For The Earth (2:09)
  9. Lament For Atlantis (2:43)
  10. The Chamber (1:48)
  11. Hibernaculum (3:32)
  12. Tubular World (3:22)
  13. The Shining Ones (2:59)
  14. Crystal Clear (5:42)
  15. The Sunken Forest (2:37)
  16. Ascension (5:49)
  17. A New Beginning (1:37)

Released by: Reprise
Release date: 1994
Total running time: 55:43

Mike Oldfield – Hergest Ridge

Mike Oldfield - Hergest RidgeHis first album after the seminal Tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge dips into decidedly Celtic waters. The best thing about this epic two-part composition is that it really does take one on a journey – the main themes and motifs are developed, come to a climax, and then put on the back burner while other themes come to the fore, and everything reappears toward the end for a surprisingly laid-back summation. Despite the classical structure, it’s very much a modern work. Oldfield’s guitar work is nothing short of phenomenal, ranging from bucolic, Celtic-style strumming to full-blast heavy metal, and there are several thematic previews of his next album, Ommadawn, to be heard. (In fact, if you’ve got the hour or so to burn, I strongly suggest listening to Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn back to back.) There is also an abundance of orchestral instrumentation here, as well as a full choral version of one theme.

4 out of 4There really aren’t any drawbacks; this kind of longform composition has fallen into disuse these days, so those looking for convenient places to take a break may be a little put off by the length of the tracks. To them, I can only say that it’s worth it to sit and listen to this one (and indeed, to any of Oldfield’s longform works). Very highly recommended for those who want to hear an ambient instrumental piece that isn’t steeped in electronica, and lasts longer than five or six minutes.

Order this CD

  1. Part One (21:28)
  2. Part Two (18:45)

Released by: Caroline
Release date: 1974
Total running time: 40:13

Oceania – Oceania II

Oceania - Oceania IIThe long-awaited follow-up to 1999’s stellar self-titled album sees Oceania – vocalist Hinewehi Mohi, Killing Joke alumnus Jaz Coleman, and an assortment of other players – staying on course, mixing native Maori instrumentation and poetry with modern musical styles. And if the fact that I can’t seem to stop listening to it is any reliable indicator, this second album is even more compelling than the first.

Oceania II features wistful, emotional numbers such as Hawaiki, Niniwa and Kurupana, and hypnotically ethereal club tunes such as Rongo and Tauararai (the latter two of which are possibly my two favorite songs on the whole album). There’s a rather experimental number, Akonga, in which Hinewehi Mohi trades off verses with a recording of her great uncle which dates back over 30 years. Some of the shorter tracks are instrumental interludes with more traditional instruments; many of the full-length songs, however, have a decidedly modern feel to them.

4 out of 4As mentioned before, Tauararai and Rongo are highlights of the album, along with the soaring coda “Mana”. Unlike the first album, there’s no booklet of helpful Maori-to-English translations; you’re on your own in interpreting the lyrics. If you don’t speak a word of Maori, you’re still in for a treat – you can focus fully on the gorgeous vocals and the relaxing feel of the whole thing. Very, very highly recommended.

Order this CD

  1. Koauau Pongaihu & Ku (0:40)
  2. Hawaiki (4:40)
  3. Akonga (5:36)
  4. Kurupana (4:14)
  5. Nguru (0:56)
  6. Tuhira (4:22)
  7. Niniwa (4:40)
  8. Taurarai (6:26)
  9. Hue Puruhau (0:42)
  10. Rongo (3:44)
  11. Pukaea (0:20)
  12. Haka (1:51)
  13. Pukaea (0:24)
  14. Mana (4:55)
  15. Koauau Pongaihu & Ku (1:43)

Released by: Toi Iho
Release date: 2002
Total running time: 45:13

The Orchestra – No Rewind

The Orchestra - No RewindAfter nearly ten years of touring and recording, Electric Light Orchestra Part II – which included original ELO veterans Bev Bevan, Kelly Groucutt, Louis Clark and Mik Kaminski – met its match. It wasn’t touring exhaustion – unlike the usually reclusive Jeff Lynne, these guys love playing live. In this case, it was Lynne himself, who was in the process of reclaiming the ELO name for an upcoming greatest hits box set and an all-new album of original Lynne material; Lynne wanted any other use of the ELO name dropped. Drummer Bev Bevan, who had been with ELO ever since the band evolved from The Move in 1971, decided not only to give up the ELO Part II moniker, but to retire from performing as well.

This left ELO Part II – now consisting of Groucutt, Clark, Kaminski, Eric Troyer and newly recruited guitarist Parthenon Huxley – with no drummer and no name. Huxley called on a friend of his, a fellow L.A. session player named Gordon Townsend, to audition for the open drum seat, and the rest of the band approved. Rechristened The Orchestra, the band continued touring, also booking studio time out of their own pockets on several tour stops to lay down tracks for a new album. The result, which the band proudly proclaims was created without a single cent of money from any labels or outside benefactors, is No Rewind, which marks an incredible reinvention of the group’s sound.

The band’s new blood – Huxley and Townsend – asserts itself right off the bat with “Jewel And Johnny”. Kicking off with a beat not a million miles away from the fun, jaunty gait of “Mr. Blue Sky” itself, Jewel and Johnny shows that the new recruits have, in fact, brought The Orchestra that much closer to the sound of old-school ELO. (It’s worth noting at this juncture that Huxley is from the same pool of reared-on-the-70s L.A. power pop talent that has also given us Jason Falkner and Jon Brion.) There were tracks on both of ELO Part II’s studio albums that faintly irritated me because they made it sound like the group was trying to bring a hard rock sound to the table; not so with No Rewind. The songs here are finely crafted pop-rock with a Beatlesque sensibility, which is, ironically, what Jeff Lynne was always trying to do with the original ELO. And the songs featuring Huxley on lead vocals are a real treat, because it sure doesn’t hurt that Huxley’s versatile baritone isn’t a million miles away from the voice of the aforementioned Mr. Lynne. Whether consciously or not, there seems to have been a reassessment of what made the original ELO what it was; the songwriting is sharper this time around, both musically and lyrically, with fantastic results.

Highlights include “Jewel And Johnny”, the mesmerizing and majestic “Let Me Dream” (co-written by ELO Part II veteran Eric Troyer and original ELO violin virtuoso Mik Kaminski), “Can’t Wait To See You” (another tune written and sung by Huxley, which is as close as one can imagine to a lost Jeff Lynne song), and the Troyer-written tracks “No Rewind” and “Say Goodbye”. The orchestral components of each song are several orders of magnitude beyond most of the output of ELO Part II – arranger Louis Clark is all over this album, imbuing the new songs with the densely layered string sound he gave to the classic ELO albums A New World Record and Out Of The Blue, but also wisely backing off and giving Mik Kaminski numerous opportunities to wow us with a single violin.

Curiously absent, however, are many frontman opportunities for classic ELO bassist/backup singer Kelly Groucutt; when he joined ELO Part II full-time in 1991, his distinctive background vocals brought the whole exercise much closer to being “real ELO.” He was all over the next studio album as both lead and background vocalist, as much as any one member of the band could be with the rotating-vocalist scheme, but he’s in the lead on only two out of ten songs here.

One of those two songs, incidentally, is a reworking of “Twist And Shout” which is almost funny in how it deceptively repaints the song as a downbeat dirge before allowing the original tune to emerge. Once we’re in familiar territory, however, it’s pretty much a pastiche of the Beatles’ cover of “Twist And Shout”, which is my one disappointment with No Rewind – all of the other songs are not only originals, but damned good originals. Ironically, the best of those originals sound more worthy of the ELO name than anything the band’s done before – so naturally, they’re no longer permitted to use the name.

No Rewind, whether in its limited (and now out-of-print) edition issued through the band’s official web site or in a real live label release from, of all places, Argentina, is worth a listen. When I first heard it, I was thinking rating: 4 out of 4“Dear Jeff Lynne, get back together with your old bandmates.” But having listened to No Rewind more and more, and taking into consideration that it’s taking a long time for either Lynne or his erstwhile bandmates to release new material, I retract that. There are now two entities turning out an increasingly uncommon kind of music that I love. And that’s not a bad deal.

Order this CD

  1. Jewel & Johnny (3:56)
  2. Say Goodbye (4:25)
  3. No Rewind (4:07)
  4. Over London Skies (4:32)
  5. Twist And Shout (6:34)
  6. Can’t Wait To See You (3:28)
  7. If Only (4:38)
  8. I Could Write A Book (3:12)
  9. Let Me Dream (4:01)
  10. Before We Go (5:03)

Released by: ART Music (Argentinian release)
Release date: 2005
Total running time: 44:01

Listen To What The Man Said

Listen To What The Man Said: Popular Artists Pay Tribute To The Music Of Paul McCartney“What’s this?” I asked. “A Paul McCartney tribute album benefitting cancer charities and featuring the Finn Brothers? Sign me up!”

Actually, this nice little selection, proceeds from which go toward the fight against breast cancer, has many good covers of Macca’s post-Beatles best. Owsley kicks things off with a picture-perfect reading of “Band On The Run” which doesn’t stray very far from the original Wings recording. SR-71 turns “My Brave Face” – one of my favorite latter-day McCartney solo tunes simply by virtue of the fact that it isn’t “Hope & Deliverance” – into a gleeful hard-rock thrash. Semisonic also faithfully replicates “Jet”, rocking it out a bit but not so much that it’s unrecognizable. The Virgos give a similar treatment to “Maybe I’m Amazed”, while the Merrymakers punch up “No More Lonely Nights” (another personal favorite) a bit. Some of the other renditions fly under the radar a bit – Matthew Sweet’s “Every Night” for one.

And as for Tim and Neil Finn? It pains me to say it, but their cover of “Too Many People” is a mess – it sounds like an unrehearsed one-take-and-that’s-it wonder, without much effort. The arrangement isn’t organized, the sound quality isn’t even up to the standards of the brothers’ admittedly (and intentionally) lo-fi Finn album, and the vocals just smack of a cover band that’s been asked to play something they’d mostly forgotten. Sad to say, the Finn Brothers, who drew my attention to this collection, turned out to be its biggest disappointment. I was stunned. I was also looking forward to the They 3 out of 4Might Be Giants cover of “Ram On”, but it wasn’t so much disappointing as just inscrutably cryptic in its new arrangement.

Overall, a nice set – and one that truly turned my expectations on ear by introducing me to some excellent new artists while the known quantities gave me a wee bit of a let-down.

Order this CD

  1. Band On The Run – Owsley (5:14)
  2. My Brave Face – SR-71 (3:00)
  3. Junk – Kevin Hearn, Steven Page and Stephen Duffy (2:56)
  4. Jet – Semisonic (4:15)
  5. No More Lonely Nights – The Merrymakers (4:11)
  6. Let Me Roll It – Robyn Hitchcock (4:21)
  7. Too Many People – Finn Brothers (3:43)
  8. Dear Friend – The Minus 5 (4:45)
  9. Every Night – Matthew Sweet (2:56)
  10. Waterfalls – Sloan (4:21)
  11. Man We Was Lonely – World Party (2:59)
  12. Coming Up – John Faye Power Trip (3:43)
  13. Maybe I’m Amazed – Virgos (4:14)
  14. Love In Song – The Judybats (4:04)
  15. Warm And Beautiful – Linus of Hollywood (3:08)
  16. Ram On – They Might Be Giants (2:40)

Released by: Oglio
Release date: 2001
Total running time: 60:30

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

Oceania

OceaniaFor years, I’ve been addicted to music from New Zealand’s royal family of pop music, the Finns (of Split Enz and Crowded House fame). Not so long ago, however, I saw a CNN piece on a new Kiwi project which not only sounded interesting, but drew heavily from New Zealand’s Maori heritage (another subject with which I’m fascinated). This new musical entry was called Oceania, and it took me forever to find a copy. But the search was well worth it (and now, as you can see from the ubiquitous purchase link on this page, it’s suddenly easy to find!).

Oceania is the brainchild of artist Hinewehi Mohi and producer Jaz Coleman. Combining modern-day grooves and production with indigenous acoustic instrumentation and lyrics sung entirely in Maori, Oceania comes across as something that might appeal to Enigma fans, though the sound is much more ambient. Coleman deftly blends acoustics and synths to create a wall of sound which manages to avoid sounding mismatched. Hinewehi’s vocals are clearly the star of the album, however: in many places ethereal and Julee-Cruise-esque, her singing is always enjoyable, even if you can’t follow the lyrics. (Don’t speak Maori? That’s okay – the lyric 4 out of 4booklet has complete translations.)

Even on the more heavily percussive numbers, such as “Pukaea (The Trumpet)”, the sound of Oceania is relaxing, textured, and primal. Highest recommendations.

Order this CD

  1. Pukaea (The Trumpet) (6:32)
  2. Kotahitanga (Union) (4:41)
  3. Hautoa (Warrior) (4:46)
  4. Hinerakatauri (Goddess of Music) (4:55)
  5. He Tangata (People) (5:37)
  6. Kihikihi (Cicada) (6:23)
  7. Haera Ra (Farewell) (5:35)
  8. Pepepe (The Moth) (6:17)
  9. Tino Rangatiratanga (Self-Determination) (6:11)
  10. Hautoa – Beatmasters 7″ mix (4:41)
  11. Kotahitanga – Beatmasters 7″ mix (3:28)

Released by: Point Music / Universal
Release date: 1999
Total running time: 59:08