Alan Parsons – The Secret

It used to be, in the 1970s and ’80s, that you could almost keep time by the release of Alan Parsons Project albums, with a new one arriving every year or every other year. Albums started to arrive more sparsely in the late ’80s, with members of the core group exploring side projects (Keats, Andrew Powell scoring Ladyhawke) and, finally, the album that broke the Project apart, Freudiana (which was released not as a Project album, but as the studio concept album for a stage musical). The seemingly hectic pace was made somewhat easier because the Project didn’t play live, though Parsons assembled a touring band (which wasn’t always made up of the same players he had in the studio) to begin touring in the 1990s. The two-or-three-year gaps between albums made more sense then, and the live show was every bit as good as you’d expect it to be given how artfully Parsons crafted the studio sound that went out under his name. And then, after 2004’s A Valid Path…nothing. A single came out alongside Parsons’ Art And Science Of Sound Recording DVD, and then a couple more singles. It was somewhere in there that I read an interview in which Parsons declared the album, and especially the concept album in which he had specialized, dead in the age of iTunes downloads. I really didn’t expect to hear anything more from him after that. He had moved on to teaching the next generation of studio wizards and no longer seemed to be in the business of making and releasing his own music.

And that’s a big part of what made the announcement that The Secret was forthcoming such a shock, 15 years after A Valid Path saw him dabbling in electronica. Not just that, but The Secret was going to be precisely the kind of concept album that the singles-centric iTunes ecosystem had rendered obsolete. And what’s more, it’s an amazingly good concept album – though all of the “stage magic” imagery may be obfuscating what that theme really is.

Hewing to long-standing Alan Parsons Project tradition, the album has a lengthy instrumental opener, with Steve Hackett shredding “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with an orchestral backing. From there, things get more traditional – “Miracle” is a throwback to the Project of old, with “As Lights Fall” returning to the same mid-tempo musical ground that had proven so effective for songs like “Eye In The Sky”, but it’s in “As Lights Fall” that Parsons – actually doing lead vocals for once – peels back the curtain on what the album’s really about: the imminence of mortality, and the notion that each individual life is really the greatest magic trick of all.

This concept – dressing itself up in allusions to stage magic before revealing the real underlying theme – recurs in “Soirée Fantastique”, “Requiem”, “Years Of Glory”, and “The Limelight Fades Away”. Mortality and the miracle of life itself is the real concept of this concept album – even “Soirée Fantastique” includes the lyric “all the illusions fall away”. So do the allusions: for all of the lyrical nods to performing magic tricks, in the end it acknowledges that mortality is the ultimate disappearing act. With songs like “As Lights Fall” adding an autobiographical dimension, I almost want to call Parsons up and ask, “hey, buddy, is there something you’re not telling us? I’m kinda worried now.” (Parsons is 71 at the time I write this, though he certainly doesn’t sound 71, so yeah, I get it, life and death and legacy are a real concern.)

High points of the album include the return of Foreigner crooner Lou Gramm’s powerful voice on “Sometimes”, the almost Cabaret-esque, burlesque-act-worthy “Requiem”, and my personal favorite, “One Note Symphony”, a song about the Schumann Resonance whose lead vocal is sung in a perfect monotone, while the harmonies woven around it make the song. I could pick nits about the lyrics leaning into some of the more “woo” new-age connotations of the Schumann Resonance (especially at a time when scientific literacy among the public seems to be plummeting more with each passing day at the worst possible time), but it’s a fun listen regardless.

4 out of 4The Secret may be the best album has turned out since the Project’s heyday, and it really does sit alongside the best of the Project’s output in the quality of both the songwriting and the performance and production of the songs, and the degree to which the songs and the underlying theme of the album have been thought out. At numerous points during this album, I found myself thinking that the late Eric Woolfson (composer and theme architect of the Project’s original string of concept albums) would have wholeheartedly approved of The Secret. It’s worthy of sitting alongside Eye In The Sky and I Robot.

Order this CD

  1. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (5:44)
  2. Miracle (3:22)
  3. As Lights Fall (3:58)
  4. One Note Symphony (4:43)
  5. Sometimes (5:08)
  6. Soirée Fantastique (5:27)
  7. Fly To Me (3:45)
  8. Requiem (4:02)
  9. Years Of Glory (4:05)
  10. The Limelight Fades Away (3:36)
  11. I Can’t Get There From Here (4:38)

Released by: Frontiers SRL
Release date: April 26, 2019
Total running time: 48:28

[…]

Ladyhawke (newly expanded edition)

Ladyhawke (newly expanded edition)Either an awkward or awesome fit for its movie, depending upon whom one asks, 1984’s Ladyhawke veered away from the usual (indeed, almost stereotypical) Korngold-inspired heraldry expected of swords-and-sorcery films and, courtesy of composer Andrew Powell and his producer/collaborator Alan Parsons (of Alan Parsons Project fame), dared to score a period piece with synthesizers and rock music.

The result is practically a lost Project album in style and execution, and not a bad one at that. La-La Land Records expands the Ladyhawke score (last issued in the 1990s by GNP Crescendo) to two discs, including every note of the score, plus goodies such as demos, unused cues, and bite-sized edits of the movie’s music intended for radio advertising. If you already like the score, this release will delight you: there’s more where it came from, including fascinating alternate cues. If you didn’t like the score to begin with, steer clear: nothing here is likely to change your mind about it unless you’re prepared to go in with an open mind and open ears.

3 out of 4The packaging is a huge improvement on the almost-generic presentation of the 1990s release, with liner notes including interviews with Powell, Parsons, and director Richard Donner. This 2-CD set balances out the synth-heavy Crescendo single CD release by revealing that Powell prepared as much “traditional” material as he did anachronistic material; it’s still a fun listen.

Order this CD

    Disc One

  1. Main Title (03:02)
  2. Phillipe’s Escape From Dungeon (01:51)
  3. Phillipe’s Escape Through Sewer (01:43)
  4. The Search For Philippe (03:27)
  5. Navarre At Sunset (00:22)
  6. Tavern Fight (Philippe)
  7. (02:10)

  8. Tavern Fight (Navarre)
  9. (02:43)

  10. Navarre’s Saddlebag (00:37)
  11. Navarre Dreams Of Isabeau (00:56)
  12. Pitou’s Woods (04:07)
  13. Marquet’s Return To Aquila Part 1 (01:01)
  14. Philippe Describes Isabeau (01:14)
  15. Marquet’s Return To Aqula Part 2 (01:17)
  16. Bishop’s Garden (00:45)
  17. Navarre Has Returned (00:27)
  18. Monk’s Chant In Bishop’s Garden (01:58)
  19. Isabeau Chases A Rabbit (00:25)
  20. Navarre’s Sunset / Philippe’s Capture (00:36)
  21. Navarre Is Ambushed / Hawk Injured (04:55)
  22. Philippe And Imperius Enter Abbey (01:18)
  23. Philippe Discovers Isabeau’s Secret (01:28)
  24. Imperius Removes Arrow From Isabeau (01:37)
  25. The Bishop Interviews Cezar (01:33)
  26. “You Must Save This Hawk” (01:07)
  27. Chase Up The Turret / Isabeau’s Fall Part 2 (02:49)
  28. Isabeau’s Transformation (00:39)
  29. Isabeau Flies Free (01:14)
  30. Navarre And Imperius (00:42)
  31. Navarre And Philippe Leave The Abbey (01:45)
  32. Wedding Party (01:45)
  33. Navarre’s Transformation (00:44)
  34. Wedding Dance (02:38)
  35. Cezar’s Woods (05:32)
  36. “She Was Sad At First” (02:09)
  37. Navarre Rides To Aquila (01:40)
  38. Philippe And Imperius (00:28)
  39. Wolf Trapped In Ice Pool (02:38)
  40. Navarre And Isabeau’s Dual Transformation (03:24)
    Disc Two

  1. Navarre Sees Phillipe’s Wounds (00:44)
  2. Return to Aquila (02:44)
  3. Phillipe’s Return Through Sewer (01:03)
  4. Bishop’s Procession Chant 1 (01:32)
  5. Bishop’s Procession Chant 2 (01:48)
  6. The Service Begins (Part 1) (00:50)
  7. Navarre’s Instruction to Kill Isabeau (00:50)
  8. The Service Begins (Part 2) (00:40)
  9. Navarre Enters the Cathedral (01:36)
  10. Navarre and Marquet Cathedral Fight (04:27)
  11. Marquet’s Death (02:02)
  12. Isabeau Appears (00:50)
  13. Bishop’s Death (02:30)
  14. The Final Reunion / End Titles (06:07)
  15. Chase Up the Turret / Isabeau’s Fall Part 1 (00:53)
  16. Chase / Fall / Transformation (02:10)
  17. Phillipe Discovers Isabeau’s Secret (01:44)
  18. Imperius Removes Arrow From Isabeau (01:33)
  19. Navarre and Phillipe Leave the Abbey (01:45)
  20. Navarre’s Transformation (00:46)
  21. Wolf Trapped in Ice Pool (02:36)
  22. Phillipe’s Jewel (00:51)
  23. Ent Titles (05:00)
  24. Spot 01 Radio Bed A – 30′ (00:35)
  25. Spot 02 Radio Bed A – 30′ (00:35)
  26. Spot 03 Radio Bed B – 30′ (01:05)
  27. Spot 04 Radio Bed C – 30′ (00:56)
  28. Spot 05 Radio Bed A – 60′ (01:03)
  29. Spot 06 Radio Bed B – 60′ (01:09)
  30. Spot 07 Radio Bed C – 75′ (01:16)
  31. Spot 08 Radio Bed A – 90′ (01:31)
  32. Spot 10 Radio Bed B – 90′ (01:38)
  33. Spot 09 Radio Bed A – Full (03:32)
  34. Ladyhawke Theme (Single) (03:37)

Released by: La-La Land Records
Release date: February 10, 2015
Disc One total running time: 1:08:23
Disc One total running time: 1:01:38

Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

The Race For SpaceA concept band tackling a concept album, Public Service Broadcasting applies its quirky style (mixing amazing musical proficiency with clips and samples from vintage public information films) to a singular topic: the technological sprint that took humanity from Sputnik to Tranquility Base in just over a decade. Individual tracks are devoted to everything from the earliest spacewalks to Valentina Tereshkova to the Apollo 1 fire.

The technical and musical highlight of The Race For Space is “Go!”, a rapid-fire piece built around the machine-gun pacing of the Apollo 11 flight director getting go/no-go reports from his room full of controllers. The result is that these rocket technicians are basically rapping over a piece of music built around their responses (which have been only slightly edited to keep a steady tempo). “E.V.A.”, “The Other Side” and “Gagarin” are upbeat numbers that combine vintage sound clips with musical virtuosity.

The most haunting piece is “Fire In The Cockpit”, which PSB has vowed never to play live out of respect to the Apollo 1 crew. The title track is a little bit on the ponderous side – I think that it’s a given that 3 out of 4Kennedy’s public urge for NASA to reach for the moon was a monumental moment, so piling a choir on top of that comes very close to over-egging the pudding.

It’s a neat history lesson, and one to which you can tap your toes or play a little air guitar. Public Service Broadcasting has carved out a fascinating little niche for itself, and I’m curious as to what they’ll do next after the remix album built around The Race For Space, due very soon.

Order this CD

  1. The Race For Space (2:39)
  2. Sputnik (7:09)
  3. Gagarin (3:48)
  4. Fire In The Cockpit (3:01)
  5. E.V.A. (4:15)
  6. The Other Side (6:19)
  7. Valentina (4:29)
  8. Go! (4:12)
  9. Tomorrow (7:22)

Released by: Test Card Recordings
Release date: February 23, 2015
Total running time: 43:14

Producers – Made In Basing Street

Made In Basing StreetThey may not be the Traveling Wilburys, but this group – consisting of veteran producers and session musicians developing a few jams into full-blown songs – may have turned out the best album of 2012 while no one was watching.

With Lol Creme (10cc) and Trevor Horn (Yes, Art of Noise, The Buggles) as full-time members, it’s a given that this group’s original numbers come from guys who know how to write a song or two. What’s surprising is just how cohesive the whole thing is – Made In Basing Street bolts from one strong, memorable number to another without pausing for breath, or, as the old saying goes, “all killer, no filler.” None of the songs sound like they were album tracks farted out to fill space.

And it’s hard to even pick a favorite. “You And I” recalls the early ’80s, when synths were a novel (and perhaps occasionally overused) new addition to the instrumental palette, while such songs as “Waiting For The Right Time”, “Watching You Out There” and “Every Single Night In Jamaica” recall all that was good about ’70s rock anthems. Stripped-down numbers like “Stay Elaine” and “Barking Up The Right Tree” are no less memorable. Needless to say, each song is impeccably arranged and crafted, since the group’s members have built their entire careers on pairing the right song with the right production.

4 out of 4With all of the members’ careers still chugging along nicely, I’m under no illusion that we’ll be getting a follow-up to Made In Basing Street anytime soon, and in any case, these classic rock Justice Leagues are often formed and dissolved at the whim of their members. But I sincerely hope there will be a follow-up at some point, simply because the debut album was so good. Half a year later, I’m still playing this one a lot.

Order this CD

    Disc One

  1. Freeway (5:14)
  2. Waiting For The Right Time (4:15)
  3. Your Life (6:26)
  4. Man On The Moon (4:02)
  5. Every Single Night In Jamaica (5:16)
  6. Stay Elaine (3:44)
  7. Barking Up The Right Tree (3:21)
  8. Garden of Flowers (4:14)
  9. Watching You Out There (5:35)
  10. You & I (5:47)
    Disc Two (Deluxe Edition only)

  1. Your Life (extended) (7:40)
  2. Garden Of Flowers (alternative) (5:53)
  3. Seven (3:50)
  4. There’s Only So Much You Can Do (3:29)
  5. Freeway (extended) (12:06)

Released by: The LAST Label
Release date: June 25, 2012
Total running time: 48:32 (single disc) / 33:13 (deluxe edition bonus disc)

[…]

Pajama Club

Pajama ClubNeil Finn has so many “side projects” going that it’s hard to pick out which one is his main concern. Following on the heels of his duet with his wife Sharon on the last 7 Worlds Collide charity album (an all-star side project), Pajama Club sees the Finns team up with a couple of collaborators. Those accustomed to Neil Finn’s vocal virtuosity may find his wife’s vocals to be unsophisticated by comparison, but actually quite pleasant without being showy.

Anytime a rock star brings his spouse or significant other into the studio with him, it’s tempting to dredge up the collective ill will that lingers in some quarters for Yoko Ono’s half of Double Fantasy. Chances are that anyone expecting a straight-up Finn solo album won’t hear what they want to hear, but the good news is that Pajama Club is no Double Fantasy – and Sharon Finn is no Yoko. For several of the songs in which she’s prominent, such as “Tell Me What You Want” and “Go-Kart”, a playful simplicity works just fine. And frankly, there are too many instances of the couple taking turns on vocals and not enough standout husband-and-wife harmony here (i.e. “From A Friend To A Friend”).

Neil gets some more-or-less solo tunes of note in toward the end of the album, including “Dead Leg”, “TNT For Two” and “The Game We Love To Play”, all of which sound almost nothing like Crowded House. It’s the furthest afield he’s gone from the sound with which he’s most associated since the 1998 solo debut Try Whistling This – and it’s a truly interesting change of pace. Even Whistling‘s most atypical tracks have nothing on the experimental nature of “Dead Leg” and “The Game We Love To Play”, the latter of which almost reminds me of White Noise – not a comparison I ever expected to make with any of the Finns.

3 out of 4An interesting detour from Neil Finn’s not-too-far-removed-from-Crowded-House sound, Pajama Club may not be to everyone’s taste, but it represents a welcome trip off the beaten path – perhaps one that bears a second round in the future. Even if you’re not fond of Finn’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of side projects, this is worth a listen. It’s not perfect or even polished, but there’s a lot to like here.

Order this CD

  1. Tell Me What You Want (3:35)
  2. Can’t Put It Down Until It Ends (3:51)
  3. These Are Conditions (2:38)
  4. From A Friend To A Friend (5:15)
  5. Golden Child (3:18)
  6. Daylight (3:53)
  7. Go Kart (3:46)
  8. Dead Leg (3:37)
  9. TNT For Two (4:33)
  10. The Game We Love To Play (3:42)
  11. Diamonds In Her Eyes (5:16)

Released by: Lester Records
Release date: 2011
Total running time: 43:24

Homemade Spaceship: The Music Of ELO Performed By P. Hux

Homemade SpaceshipThere’s gonna be a throwdown! At least that was what I thought when I first heard of this release: Parthenon Huxley, the songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist behind the excellent No Rewind album from The Orchestra (formerly ELO Part II), tries on some bona fide Jeff Lynne classics for size. Given ELO Part II/The Orchestra’s storied legal history with Lynne, surely Huxley had some massive brass balls. Not only had he become one of the inheritors of the ELO sound, but he was taking on classic ELO songs written by one of the group’s founders. A gutsy move, to say the very least.

Huxley is, like many modern power pop practitioners, an admirer of Jeff Lynne’s songwriting and production acumen, and so perhaps it was wise for him to do something really unexpected with Homemade Spaceship: in many cases, he almost rewrites the music. Same words, but completely different takes on some of the familiar melodies. There are plenty of hints of the familiar melody of “Mr. Blue Sky”, for instance, but the timing has changed, and Huxley completely changes the trajectory of the main vocal melody. The lush harmonies are gone for the most part too, further confusing the ear that’s accustomed to Lynne’s wall of sound.

Some songs stick very close to their source material: “10538 Overture” is a folkier take on the very first ELO song, and has the added benefit of making the lyrics easier to understand than the original does. The closest any of the tracks here comes to their inspiration is “The Diary Of Horace Wimp”, which is presented in a laid-back way but, unlike many of the songs covered on Homemade Spaceship, preserves much of the harmonies in the chorus. “Showdown” stays close to the original, but trades in the original recording’s layers of foreboding strings for a pared-down, folky western dirge.

Some of the songs that do stray further from the source material are real treats: Huxley makes “Evil Woman” his own via some melodic twists and turns that differ significantly from the original, but it still has a driving beat and a bluesy feel at its heart. “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” is a much softer song than the hard-rocking original, but the changes give the same set of lyrics a compeltely different emotional angle.

3 out of 4My one complaint about Homemade Spaceship is that, like L.E.O., Huxley chooses to parody “Don’t Bring Me Down” instead of doing a more straightforward cover of it. With a faux British accent, he turns it into a song that’s spoken instead of sung, and occasionally reduces it to a Pythonesque farce. After the rest of the album’s thoughtful deconstructions of numerous ELO favorites, this approach struck me as cheap and cheesy, but your mileage may vary. Overall, a very interesting collection – ELO ultra-purists need not apply.

Order a download

  1. 10538 Overture (3:09)
  2. Mr. Blue Sky (4:08)
  3. Showdown (4:03)
  4. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head (4:22)
  5. Telephone Line (6:26)
  6. Sweet Talkin’ Woman (5:05)
  7. Evil Woman (4:54)
  8. Ma-Ma-Ma Belle (3:43)
  9. Strange Magic (3:41)
  10. The Diary Of Horace Wimp (5:13)
  11. Do Ya (4:08)
  12. Don’t Bring Me Down (3:34)

Released by: Reverberations
Release date: 2005
Total running time: 52:26

Alan Parsons – All Our Yesterdays

Six years after his last studio album (and mere months after his Eye 2 Eye live album), Alan Parsons is back with… a single? Essentially, that’s what this quietly-released digital duo is: an A-side and a B-side, sans album: a digital 45.

Parsons hasn’t been sitting idle, however; he’s spent the past few years shooting and editing an instructional DVD set, The Art & Science Of Sound Recording, covering the entire process of creating, recording and releasing music, and it’s from that other Alan Parsons project (sorry, couldn’t resist) that this single springs. The A-side, “All Our Yesterdays”, is followed throughout the DVDs as an example, from its inception through the final recording. The instrumental track “Alpha Centauri” is the theme music from the DVDs. In essence, these two songs make up the soundtrack of The Art & Science Of Sound Recording – and they’re a nice little spin-off on their own.

Anyone expecting more of the same from A Valid Path may think this is a step back, however. “All Our Yesterdays” isn’t quite low-tech, but it’s a more traditional rock number than A Valid Path‘s electronica-infused songs. (It fits nicely alongside material from Parsons’ On Air album in “feel”.) “Alpha Centauri” is an epic instrumental in classic Parsons style: hypnotically repeating echoplexed guitar riffs? Check. Orchestral backing that gradually builds in intensity? Check. Basically, “Alpha Centauri” follows in the mold of great Parsons instrumentals like “Mammagamma”.

4 out of 4Parsons has said that he’s considering commencing work on a new studio album in 2010, but with a new tour (with a new touring band) announced for this summer as well, smart money is on a 2011 or later release. In the meantime, “All Our Yesterdays” and “Alpha Centauri” make for a nice bite-sized preview: hopefully Parsons isn’t done honing his own art (and/or science) of sound recording under his own name.

Order this CD

  1. All Our Yesterdays (4:31)
  2. Alpha Centauri (3:19)

Released by: Authentik
Release date: 2010
Total running time: 7:50