A Favorable Juncture of Circumstances

At the crossroads of happenstance, ambition and aspiration one may find opportunity. While many of us may drive continuously through an eternal grid of indistinguishable meandering roads, most of us never get there. Some of us may come close, but we either dead-end or get scooped onto the highway to dwell.

Bert Keith realizes this, as for him, opportunity “beckons like a whore.” “Just reach out and take it,” he cries persistently, his voice almost breaking with frustration and sincerity. Underneath, the bass pumps and drops and the 70s-sounding rock guitars riff haltingly, like a braking locomotive. “Where do we go from here?,” Keith barks. Where indeed.

Written by Steve Mackereth, Alex Smith and Bert Keith, Opportunity was produced by Dragan “the man” Stojkovski.

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A Soul For Every Sleeper

“Churchill will win,” he yelled irrepressibly after constant taunting by the vicious guards, and in return he swiftly received the most severe beating of his life. “You don’t do that twice,” he said decades later. “You quickly learned anger management in the camps.” After the ocean liner Empress of Asia was attacked by a fleet of nine Japanese dive-bombers in the Banka Strait, Mick G. was one of the fortunate survivors, who was then unfortunate to make his way to Singapore just before it fell to Japan on February 4th, 1942. Many of those prisoners were conscripted to build the infamous Burma Railway, or Death Railway, as it became known.

A Soul For Every Sleeper by Two Worlds Apart features Steve Mackereth on Vocals, Alex Smith on guitars and Dragan Stojkovski on percussion.

Free My Trade

Bert “Stands With a Fist” Keith creates another solidarity classic in his tribute to working men and women everywhere. On the back of an upbeat groove, folkster Keith croons “Let me work, you know these hands can work.” While the world may be turning upside down on who gets employed and who doesn’t, his chant is not about nationalization or globalization. More essential than politics, more vital than industrialization or automation, it is about application of the human skill, putting to use practiced hands, hands that have been trained for years—through apprenticeship, through mentorship, now prepared for the short span of a human career. Not to be confused with the current political nationalist fervor, it is a more fundamental ode beyond Walesa or Lenin.

Produced by the brilliant Dragan “Less is More” Stojkovski, who brings out the simple clarity of the music with a paucity of instrumentation, augmented by hammer-like percussion during the breaks, reminiscent of the mechanics of construction.  With Bert Keith on vocals Alex Smith on guitars.

Twenty Nine Years

Twenty Nine Years by Two Worlds Apart

A quote attributed to teen-popster-turned-naughty-girl Miley Cyrus is, “A true friend is someone who is always there during the ups and downs; I actually have a song called True Friend.” Well, she really is a damn good singer and we are all probably pleased to hear about her friend status, though to be fair this quote was from the younger, more innocent Miley and Cyrus. TWA songs can be a tad more sinister and complicated albeit significantly less popular. Sung by the keen folkster fixture Bert Keith, Twenty Nine Years is no exception on a shady scale of surrender and despair.

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While the song generally has a melancholic minor musical progression, Keith’s singing vacillates between contemporary folk and neo progressive rock in some parts. When he is on top of the world he is vaguely reminiscent of that eons-old one-time hot band Marillion from rural Aylesbury in the UK. The instrumentation, seemingly by design, is threadbare—mainly one acoustic guitar, gracelessly strummed in a Cobainesque fashion, some oblivious guy having loads of fun with a cranked-up Rickenbacker bass, and the spotty kid next door on the drums. However, the overall sound is tight, even campy, and while the overused genre is life’s ups and downs, Twenty Nine Years is a fairly big down, but it’s not a downer.

Twenty Nine Years by Two Worlds Apart, with Alex Smith, Bert Keith, and Dragan Stojkovski.

Paula Abdul and Mr. Kay

“Lost in a dream, don’t know which way to go, if you are all that you seem, then baby I’m movin’ way too slow,” he sang excitedly as he walked spiritedly, but ever so slightly skipping. “This is where we’ll put the four thousand watt spots,” he said promptly dropping the melodic tone as he pointed up to the intricately patterned Rattanakosin edges of the oriental structure. “Behringer monitors all the way across here and four pairs of Yamaha floor speakers over there,” he continued, seamlessly motioning across an elaborate array of Ayutthayan-themed carvings and figures. “Sound will flood this whole beach,” he exclaimed proudly, juxtaposed against the Hindi-inspired iconographic backdrop. “You’ll hear it for miles.”

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Mr. Kay, as he is known, is a huge Paula Abdul fan, as well as an experienced, road-hardened audio-visual genius and concert planner. Here he was in one of the darkest corners of Asia, scoping out potential locations for an upcoming New Year’s special featuring Paula.

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“Elephants: Need to have elephants in the show,” he asserted dryly. “Don’t know if she likes elephants, though, or if she’s touchy on the whole animal rights thing, I’ll need to check,” he noted to himself quietly. “I’ve got one over here just in case.” Mr. Kay seemed like the type of guy that works in his sleep.

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The site was very impressive indeed, and would make for a truly great show, I thought to myself as I was leaving after receiving a short impromptu tour. But why Paula Abdul I wondered, is she still doing gigs? I could hear Mr. Kay picking up on the song again as I started up the stairs. “Straight up now tell me, do you really want to love me forever oh oh oh, or am I caught in a hit and run …”

 

Jimmy Carter and the Crooked Cross

“He wouldn’t like it,” she said assuredly. “Wouldn’t like it? Why?” I exclaimed. “It’s not his thing,” she continued with complete conviction. “Why?” I persisted monotonically. “Don’t know,” she conceded instantly. I found it hard to fathom any measure of indifference one could retain when faced with such lavishness and magnificence. There was gold leaf by the kilogram gilding the relief moldings of every column cap and pedestal. Entire walls were constructed of pink and blue marble throughout the massive domed structure. Inaugurated during the illustrious but fleeting reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (an early 1900’s world power), Hungary’s parliament majestically overlooks the River Danube. Well-organized tours are offered throughout the complex, in a variety of languages, including sneak peaks into the working parliamentary rooms. The jewel in the crown of the tour, quite literally, is the medieval gold crown of Saint Stephen, which is on display but guarded 24/7 under the dome of the colossal gothic legislative edifice.

Nevertheless, my wife contends that this is of no interest to my brother-in-law. A few weeks before we arrived in Budapest my American kin traveled thousands of miles to join a cruise where he apparently declined to visit all the main attractions, including the magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Parliament, the palace, and countless other wonders of Austro-Hungaro historical significance. I wait eagerly to read the detailed review of his room.

Sometime back in the 1600’s, the treasured crown was locked away in a box in a bad way, bending its cross. At the onset of World War II it was stored at Fort Knox and only by controversial presidential decree was it returned to its rightful place of origin. Jimmy Carter is a rock star in these parts.

Sometime back in the 1600’s, the treasured crown was locked away in a box in a bad way, bending its cross. At the onset of World War II it was stored at Fort Knox and only by controversial presidential decree was it returned to its rightful place of origin. Jimmy Carter is a rock star in these parts.

One of many golden chambers within the opulent seat of government.

One of many golden chambers within the opulent seat of government.

The nearby magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral is a marvel of marble and mosaic artistry. It was refurbished recently due to damage from wars, weather and an earthquake or two. Inside and out are gilded mosaics depicting celestial angels and astrology signs. The marbled altarpiece depicts a gleaming white statue of Christ surrounded by a balustrade of columns and cherubs. We had ample time to study its intricacy during one of those oversold church concerts.

The nearby magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral is a marvel of marble and mosaic artistry. It was recently refurbished due to damage from wars, weather and an earthquake or two. Inside and out are gilded mosaics depicting celestial angels and astrology signs. The over-the-top altarpiece showcases a gleaming white statue of Christ surrounded by an awkward columned balustrade. We had ample time to study its intricacy during one of those ubiquitous church concerts.

Kolos Kovats serenaded the audience in baritone splendor bringing life to Ave Maria and a few other songs that we had unfortunately never heard before. You think you know the classics and then you realize you really don’t when you’re sitting in a big cold church in Budapest with at least an hour to go, and no bathroom in sight.

The renowned Kolos Kovats serenaded the audience in baritone splendor bringing life to Ave Maria and a few other songs that we had unfortunately never heard before. You think you know the classics and then you realize you really don’t when you’re sitting in a big cold church in Budapest with at least an hour to go, and no bathroom in sight.

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All the World’s A Stage: A Review of the Rush R40 Tour

Sound of immense proportions fills the entire amphitheater, instantly masking the distributed racket of a sellout 20,000-strong crowd. Batteries of lights irradiate everything from the exuberant faces of my new short-term neighbors to the jagged internal structure of the hockey arena, which, illuminated, looked as though it had been constructed using a giant child’s Meccano set. As my eyes and ears regulate, squinting through the layers of light the origin of the sound and light show becomes clear: three unassuming older dudes on stage with a guitar, bass and a drum kit. For three unassuming guys from Canada, Rush is known to be big, visually and aurally, and tonight, perhaps their final tour, is no exception.

When Rush first appeared on the Scottish rock music scene in the late 1970s, my teenage group of friends’ comparative assessment was limited to our meager assemblage of vinyl LPs, two one-hour radio shows per week, and our detailed dissection of a handful of music newspapers. We compared Rush to other established contemporaries for various musical traits. Back then, new potentially awesome bands would be discovered and announced excitedly by one of our friends in a manner similar to what you might expect at a Paul Revere re-enactment in Boston.

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The 1983 European tour followed the release of Signals

Musical comparisons were very important for the younger generation, then as now, as it was an intrinsic means of social communication. Now of course, it is different: more automated, more technology-driven and real time, and more media savvy. For example, today Pandora uses a patented method called the “music genome” which decomposes songs into various ingredients and compares all the constituent parts of artists’ offerings in order to determine the essence of similarity. Although I believe there is a human-in-the-loop at the company, Pandora generally uses automation to come up with a sequence of songs by different artists that an individual ought to like based on selection of favorite band or bands. And boy is Pandora spot on. When I selected Rush radio recently I was treated to an ensuing amalgamation of Black Sabbath, Van Halen and Deep Purple. Amazing—the other three performers we had ready to play back in 1977! I’m just left thinking I could’ve lined up those other songs myself instead of relying upon thirty-some years of advanced technological development.

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Back at Wembley, this time for the 1988 Hold Your Fire tour

I loved listening to Rush in the 70s but maybe even more in the early 80s with the release of Signals and Grace Under Pressure. Many of my die-hard rock friends made opinionated distinctions about the 70s Rush and the 80s Rush as if the band had sold out by having more synthesizer dependence and trying to be a bit more pop-like and mainstream than the introspective Caress of Steel or the phantasmagorical 2112 albums. Geddy Lee’s voice was certainly strange in the earlier days with the ultra high-pitched vocal, which is not as noticeably present today. But that’s not necessarily a Rush highlight; it was never about the singing. Nor was it about the lyrics—you can love or hate Neil Peart’s scribblings, but he did put a lot of thought into them, and why shouldn’t there be songs about snow dogs and necromancers? It is all about the collective sound—the band. While all three are excellent musicians, together they are fabulous, a musical definition of synergy. You could pick three arguably more accomplished individual musicians who achieve less together, for example, Bozzio, Levin and Stevens, whom I admire greatly.

It’s great to see and hear Rush live; they play and look great and although their performances rely on heaps of technology they can essentially pull off all the songs including those that are difficult or otherwise complicated. However, generally I am not a fan of live albums and Rush seems to have gone over the top a bit in that department, like many other aging bands, with so many recordings to choose from, such as Live in Rio, Live Just the Other Night, and Live Again. I made some of those up, but my point is that the live shows are great to attend in real time; however, if I want to really listen to songs I want the original studio versions that were painstakingly mixed, mastered and produced so that fans like me can bask in every note, nuance and rhythmic refinement. Nonetheless, my preference for studio recordings does not necessarily extend to remixes. A higher quality version of an original is one thing, but changing the mix or providing alternative takes of songs after a musical lifetime I find strangely unsettling. Recently, I played Jimmy Page’s alternative productions of Led Zeppelin classics and I couldn’t help but feel somewhat perplexed, as I might should my Scottish mother suddenly start talking with a Bavarian accent.

Furthermore, while I love being a vital but teeny part of enthusiastic audience participation on show-night, subsequently listening to recordings of hollering drunken hordes such as those on Frampton’s Baby I Love Your Way is not something I view as a positive. Occasionally I have to listen involuntary to comparable live ballads on my car’s satellite radio with great sadness as I realize that many of these grandparents don’t go to concerts anymore. But that’s partly my fault for creating demand by tuning into 70s channels such as Classic Rock, Classic Rewind, 70s on 7 and so on. Caught by a TV interviewer on a street corner with the cameras rolling and the portable lights reflecting in the big silver golf umbrella I would probably admit, rather rapidly, that the 70s represents the pinnacle in rock music. But I lament being stuck there.

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At the shows, seasoned Rush fans enthusiastically sport treasured tee shirts from decades past

I do sometimes ask myself how many times in a month or a year should we have to listen to such classics as Bohemian Rhapsody or Stairway to Heaven. I hear them more repeatedly than the UK National Anthem, although not more often the old U.S. Stars and Stripes, since I am a sports fan in that country. I can imagine in a parallel life that as a young man I would have been thrilled to bits to land a good paying job as a disc jockey, especially if it was 70s music. Four decades later I think that might qualify as one form of cruelty in Dante’s Inferno.

Today, music for me continues to be a necessity and vital pleasure and not some form of torment. Torture by music is perhaps playing full-volume thrash heavy metal at blindfolded secluded prisoners in recent desert campaigns, as depicted in some movies and newspaper stories. Perhaps the closest I come to sonata suffering is through overexposure to background music. My wife and others habitually tut tut or give me some expression of chastisement as I request that unwanted, piped music, or muzak, be turned down or switched off in taxis and restaurants all over the world. Sometimes I’m the only customer and knowing the ambience is intended solely for me I’ll politely ask for its prompt cessation. In deepest Asia I explicitly tip for silence, as those songs kill me at any volume, especially when I’m hopelessly stuck in traffic. One time, I was stuck in a huge snowstorm at 6 AM going to the Boryspil International Airport in Kiev and the driver, with great fanfare, proudly produced a CD of ABBA’s greatest hits. In a Blizzard, before the light of day, if my flight isn’t canceled I’ll probably miss it anyway and some guy thinks I want to relax and groove to Dancing Queen. More recently in Manila, I arrived at the Ninoy Aquino Airport and was treated to unwanted muzak piped through the terminal, car, hotel lobby, elevator, and down the long hallway into my room, where tunes emanated from the large-screen TV. Since I stopped drinking Scotch a while back, oxygen or sunlight is the only commodity I yearn for continuously in such quantities.

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Those cunning Canadians designed their R40 show to start from most recent all the way back to their debut album, while roadies continuously deconstruct the set from lavish to basic, taking us through a series of stages as if from a stadium to a club.

Yet tonight I’m in a private suite watching one of my all-time favorite bands and all the songs spanning a 40-year history are sounding great.  Every guitar riff, bass thump and symbol crash of their three-hour, 30-song set has my complete attention and tomorrow I’ll tweet my old high school friends back in Scotland to wallow in the afterglow. Hopefully, this is not the last time I’ll get to see Rush exit stage left.

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You meet many ardent supporters on Rush tours. These two guys say they’ve been following the band, going to all the tours since the 1977 Farewell to Kings tour, yet the guy on the right still hasn’t decided when he’ll get his first tee shirt.

The Heir Guitar

In 2002 I bought a used left-handed Brian Moore Custom P-90 guitar at South Paw Guitars in Houston, Texas. I had never heard of the brand, but this was an entire day in a store in busy Bellaire, Houston, where I just sat happily playing rack upon rack of lefty guitars. Lefty players never usually get such an opportunity. Normally, in every guitar store in the world, there are no lefties or only a couple or so sitting unloved over by the cobwebbed rack next to the bathroom door. This guitar just played great and would soon become my go-to electric guitar. It was lightweight, looked fantastic, had a great sound, and played very easily—that’s pretty much what guitar players look for in an instrument. However, over the years it gradually lost its lustrous finish, apparently caused by exposure to moisture during the finishing process in the year 2000 when it was made.

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Under the fog there is a beautiful maple veneer just waiting to get out

Believing, as always, that with problem comes opportunity, I felt that this once-loved but now sidelined instrument could be the focus of an art project, customizing the axe while raising it from the ashes. My initial thought was to default to an original Celtic design theme, which was well within my comfort zone boundaries. That was before some of my daughter’s amazing artwork started appearing randomly around the house in her senior year at high school (2014 – 2015). Some of the designs were amazing: bold, confident, and instantly appealing. One haunting design in particular was the swirling stars—a series of imaginative shapes that looked like a cross between some deep-water invertebrate and a martial arts weapon. Using various methods, such as linoleum printing, she productively churned out various swirling stars that would be brought home during part of the creative process. If you were paying even the slightest bit of attention you would notice the migratory pattern of these conceptions arriving surreptitiously through the garage door, moving to the breeding grounds in the basement, then traveling together in small pods through the dining room, the kitchen, ultimately leaving the premises a few weeks later in the early morning, usually before sunrise.

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Crazy high school artwork invades your thought processes

These strange creatures caught my attention and one of the patterns was used for the cover of the Two World’s Apart CD “Glue.” Shortly afterwards the design inspiration for the Heir Guitar project became patently obvious.

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Swirling stars debuted on the multi-platinum Glue album

Many traditional electric guitars sport a sunburst finish, notably the early Fenders with their various shades of Sienna. Many folks believe that the origin of the hugely popular appearance was either to replicate earlier violins, to emulate graceful aging, or to conceal manufacturing flaws. In any event it remains a very popular staple of guitar finishing. While I eschewed that notion in decorating this particular instrument, I did end up giving it a nod by darkening the background honeycomb pattern just a bit toward the edges. My friend Larry from Wooden Wizard Guitars helped with the heavy lifting on the project, removing the electronics, stripping the old varnish from the guitar and applying the new finish, while paying extra attention to the ambient temperature in our unpredictable local winter-spring-summer climate.

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Waiting for inspiration

My daughter and I focused more on the fun part of the project, selecting the art materials, working on the overall design, and developing templates for scaling and design placement. Then we got out the paintbrushes and had some fun. Exclusively, we used alcohol-based inks so as not to interfere with the application of the polyurethane coatings.

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Who said men don’t like shopping? The art and design team gets some essential supplies from Utrecht. The initial decision was to use alcohol-based inks to minimize any bleeding in the wood finish process.

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First coat of ink, attempting to replicate the idea or notion of hand set stones such as you might find on a Scottish brooch.

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We made a conscious decision to freehand the design and painting. While computer aided techniques and other methods such as airbrushing give fabulous results, we felt that we would trade off perfection for authenticity, while having a lot of fun with our paintbrushes.

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We love the end result. The finishing process brings out the natural maple grain pattern and the overlaid ink honeycomb adds warmth. The guitar just asks to picked up and played, but I might just hang it on the wall and admire it for a while. 

Free Music For You Too

Music Review: Along with over 10% of the world’s population I received a free copy of U2’s 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence, which, with the perplexity of a Loch Ness leviathan manifestation, had inexplicably appeared in my iTunes library. When I fired up my laptop there was a new album waiting for me and it was from none other than the world’s acclaimed “most successful rock band.” Bono and Tim Cook had apparently conspired in absolute secrecy for months on end to gift me this harmonious handout.

What was utterly marvelous about U2 and Apple’s pioneering complimentary auto-download move was that they pulled it off when I was out of the country. I was contentedly traveling through Malaysia at the time, in Kota Kinabula, Borneo to be exact, at the Sheraton, on the sixth floor, and as usual none of my streaming music services worked in these seemingly un-licensable locations. Sure they’ve got electricity and the Internet works fine, but the music subscription services do not. Many video services also will not function, including free YouTube clips, when one is far from home. We might consider this to be a connivance to deny most of the world the inimitable entertainment we have back in America or as a ruse to encourage us to stay home and not spend our cash overseas.

A few weeks ago I was giving a talk at a French university and a crucial segment of the discourse relied wholly on my presentation of a YouTube video. I had successfully given a similar presentation in France a few months previously, and as I confidently built up to my pièce de résistance and the visual underscoring of my central hinging argument, the large screen projection brusquely pronounced, “this video is not licensed to play in this region.” It wasn’t even in French. I thought, well thanks guys, just change the rules on me mid lecture, mid stride, while the audience was thinking Dr. Badlink could’ve prepared better for his trailblazing talk on global commerce. Well, that involuntary screen declaration might as well have said asshole.

Stimulated in part by my recent French lesson, I realize that I now place a substantial reliance on streaming services, such as video on demand, subscription music, subscription video, and all sorts of at-your-fingertips real-time entertainment. Without streaming, on the sixth floor of the Sheraton, music selections diminished precipitously to a choice between a dodgy-looking 1980s era bedside clock radio featuring the Eagles in both AM and FM and the decade-old iTunes technology on my laptop. Having callously ignored the last fifty or so annoying prompts to download a new version of iTunes, based on my computer’s age I estimate that I am two years behind on that particular entertainment user interface. Firing up iTunes took me through a small time warp as I perused an aging sonic clutter that was as organized as my teenage daughter’s bedroom. But I saw a few gems. However, “not authorized to play on this computer” was the recurring communication as I tried to select favorite albums I rightfully purchased many years ago. Not only did I buy those collections on vinyl in the 70s, tape in the 80s, CD in the 90s, but also on iTunes in the 00s—apparently now licensed to play only in landfills on five obsolete computers. It was then that I stumbled across U2’s Songs of Innocence.

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Majestic View of the South China Sea from my Balcony in Borneo

A lot of people were upset by Bono’s megalomaniacal fascist imposition – but not in Borneo. I welcomed it with the pragmatism of Tom Hanks when he cut the shoes off the dead pilot’s feet in Castaway. So, yes, I thought, the boys are back in town, or more appropriately, achtung baby! Now while I am not criticizing the free aspect of this business model I would like to stress that when I go to bed tonight I don’t want Apple donating me the complete works of Barry Manilow or the entire Harry Potter audiobook series. So I do understand and respect the basis and substance of the complaints levied by others heretofore.

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When I was a teenager my record collection was carefully maintained and displayed as a prized trophy and testament to my acned existence. My friends and I kept our small collections of precious long playing records in dust covers, with unpeeled price stickers, stored upright and alphabetized in a purpose-built wire rack, close to the record player and away from the radiator. For more protection, one of my friends, Eric, additionally kept his dust-covered records in the plastic carry-out bag from the record shop, with the receipts. This required a three-step vinyl un-sleeving procedure followed by another three-step re-sleeving process every time he played a song. And there was that little black felt-like brush that we all used to remove tenacious dust particles that had somehow broken through our multiple layers of defense.

Fiscal conservatism generally dictated the growth rate of our teenage record collections. New records were added every several weeks with ceremonious pageantry that included a group detailed examination of any lyric sheets, photographs and artwork on the covers and inside the revered gatefold. Friends would be invited hastily to the bedroom for the un-sleeving of a new album, which would be played several times to its teenage fans and critics alike. Back then, record companies did not give out new rock albums for free. The closest we ever got to that scenario, which was not that close, was some random band’s square low-quality flimsy black plastic stylus-ruining 45 rpm single stapled to the inside of the New Musical Express, which, of course, you had to buy. Fast-forward to today and people are complaining about receiving new quality rock music for free! With great appreciation, I therefore welcomed the unexpected arrival of Songs of Innocence that evening.

The album is pretty good I think; well-produced as you would expect from U2, melodic and uncluttered for the most part. There is a small orchestra here and there, a piano, and oodles of voiceovers, but I suspect they could rousingly pull off most of these songs live with just the four of them. I’ve only owned perhaps three U2 albums; this one, their 1981 album October, and one other in between that I can’t recall right now. My good friend Jay Lanier dragged me to one of their concerts a while back –I think it was the Achtung Baby tour. I personally thought they were losing the thread at that point but what do I know—they kept getting bigger and bigger. The guitarist, the Edge, is incredibly gifted, and on Songs of Innocence he seems to dial down his overworked echo and reverb trademark sound and takes more of a nouveau Chilli Peppers rock approach on some of the songs, which I think helps overall with sonic variety. My favorite track is California, where the verse melody and meter carry the song effortlessly. The only real musical-related criticism I would have for U2’s latest work is a little too much seriousness. Many one-named rock stars can exhibit a bit too much geldofian solemnity and it puts me off a little when I hear that Sting’s latest album was inspired by the death of his father or Bono’s by the death of his mother. Great songs need powerful inspiration of course, but I just really want listen to some good tunes.

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