Michael Pretzel is a Greek God
I think everyone should see Mike Roe play, at least once, before they die.
The problem is, he doesn’t play the big rooms – at least, not anymore. There was a time, decades ago, when his band the 77s were the Next Big Thing. They were on Island Records, touring decent venues, and poised for a breakthrough with a song called “Do It for Love.” And then a funny thing happened.
It was called The Joshua Tree.
The Sevens’ label mates U2 exploded in popularity, and Island forgot all about Mike Roe. That was 1987, but Roe has still had to make the rent payments in the ensuing 18 years, and so he keeps making amazing music. And he keeps touring. Only now, he plays venues like the Union in Naperville, a tiny ex-church that seats about 50, and, at the moment, rests between two roadblocks in the middle of a construction zone. If you don’t know about the Union, you can’t really get to it to discover it.
I’m trying not to think of that as a metaphor for Roe’s late-period career, but it’s tough. If you don’t already know about him, or know someone who knows about him, chances are you won’t ever discover his work. And I am here to tell you that not only is all of that work worth discovering, but seeing Mike Roe, alone on stage with an acoustic guitar, is positively life-changing. He’s able to do things with six strings and a voice that, were I able to do them, I would never leave my room.
Roe is on tour with Michael Pritzl, the lead visionary in the Violet Burning, an altogether different proposition. The Violets are a dramatic, widescreen rock band, with more than a little U2 influence. Pritzl is an incredible performer, an emotional lightning rod who bleeds all over any stage he inhabits. I have seen Pritzl with TVB and on his own, and he’s never less than captivating. He takes his music very seriously, though, which makes him an odd pairing with a wiseass like Roe.
Or, at least, that’s what I thought before I saw them last week. The show is billed as Roe vs. Pritzl, which led me to believe there would be a fistfight of some kind. While I was disappointed on that score, I walked away totally satisfied on every other level. I feared before the show that the “vs.” in the touring name would be sadly accurate – that the two different styles would clash, not mesh.
I was pleasantly and amazingly surprised. Pritzl and Roe each played a solo set, which further illuminated their differences – Pritzl’s was hushed and gorgeous, full of drama and emotion, while Roe’s was upbeat and funny. Roe looks more like Robert Smith every time I see him, and his hangdog sarcasm was in full bloom. But the highlight of the show, stunningly, was their concluding set together. They played old classics from the Sevens and TVB, complementing each other in ways I hadn’t imagined. They made each other’s songs better – quite a feat, considering the songs.
The undisputed highlight for me was “I Can’t Get Over It,” a menacing number from that very 77s album Island Records put out in 1987. I’ve seen Roe probably eight times, all told, and I’ve never heard him play this tune, despite its status among fans as one of his best. Somehow, Pritzl brought out more of the creepiness and power in the song – it was mesmerizing. Oh, and hearing a forgotten gem like “The Rain Kept Falling in Love” was pretty great, too.
But here’s the part I loved watching – Pritzl let his hair down (metaphorically speaking) and unveiled a dry sense of humor. He’s usually a pretty serious guy, but he and Roe bantered like an old Vaudeville act, and it was so cool to see him having fun on stage. Pritzl vs. Roe tour dates are available here and here – if it’s anywhere near you, I highly recommend it. And if you want a quick primer on both artists, and what to expect on this tour, visit their webstores and buy Pritzl’s Hollow Songs and Roe’s Say Your Prayers. They are both beautiful acoustic records, and well worth checking out.
The quote in bold above, by the way, was uttered by a rambunctious little kid who darted back and forth in front of the stage during the show. Pritzl and Roe had endless fun with this boy, and he added to the loose, fun atmosphere of the show. A splendid time was had by all.
* * * * *
A Bush I Could Vote For
The first time I heard Kate Bush, I thought she was doing a really good Tori Amos impression.
This was a little more than a decade ago, and I plead ignorance – of course Bush came first, and of course Tori took more from her than from anyone. The impassioned, teetering vocals, the oddball lyrics, the self-harmonizing, even the tendency to pause for maximum effect during piano-vocal numbers – it’s all from Kate Bush, the original mad magician. She is, and always will be, one of the most dazzling and strange female artists in the world, when she decides to make music.
Which isn’t very often, unfortunately: the British wonder’s first album, The Kick Inside, was released in 1978, and her eighth, Aerial, came out on Tuesday. To give you some idea of how long Bush worked on Aerial, many of the orchestrations were arranged by Michael Kamen, and he died in 2003. This was a long-gestating labor of love, appearing a mere 12 years after her last effort – by far her longest stretch between albums. Hell, save for Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos’ entire career has taken place between Kate Bush records.
What could possibly be worth that wait? Honestly, nothing, but damn if Aerial doesn’t come close. It’s an old-fashioned double record, 80 minutes long, and is nothing less than a magnificent paean to the utterly mundane. It’s an entire album about nothing happening, and then nothing continuing to happen, and how magical and wonderful that is. It celebrates washing machines and sunsets and street paintings, and does so with the most enchanting, ethereal music in Bush’s catalog.
Aerial is separated into two halves, and though some slight editing would have enabled all the material to fit on one disc, it screams to be on two. Most of the attention will be paid, and rightly so, to the second disc, A Sky of Honey – it is a seamless 42-minute suite chronicling an uneventful day, from afternoon to dawn. It’s all transcendent soundscapes and moods, and it’s fantastic, an ever-arcing crescendo that peaks with the title track, a thudding wonderland of joy. Along the way, Bush dabbles in flamenco on “Sunset” and lays down a deep groove on “Nocturn.”
Undoubtedly, the first disc, A Sea of Honey, consists of everything that didn’t fit in to the suite, but it’s remarkably cohesive on its own. It is, however, much loonier – if the Tori Amos allusions didn’t give the game away, let it be known that Kate Bush is a strange bird. (Literally, here – a recurring device on Aerial is her odd impression of a blackbird’s song.)
Hence, we get “Pi,” a song whose chorus is the mathematical concept of Pi calculated to 109 decimal places. We get “Mrs. Bartolozzi,” a piano-vocal number that eroticizes doing the laundry. We get odes to Elvis (“King of the Mountain”) and Joan of Arc (“Joanni”). And we get a beautiful song like “A Coral Room,” interrupted midway through for a children’s rhyme: “Little brown jug, don’t I love thee, ho ho ho, hee hee hee.”
Oddness abounds, but as usual, Bush makes everything work. More than work, she makes everything sparkle. “Pi” is absolutely stunning, a tale of mathematical obsession that somehow manages to make repeating numbers the most painfully beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. “Mrs. Bartolozzi” is breathtakingly poetic, and moving, especially when the tumbling clothes in the oft-mentioned washing machine bring the narrator back through her memories. “Bertie” is a song for her son that is simultaneously embarrassing and delightful. And both “King of the Mountain” and “How to Be Invisible” are this album’s version of rockers, and they are memorable and, in the case of “Invisible,” relentless.
The instrumentation is mostly synthesized soundscapes and percussion, with some excellent understated guitar here and here, but the focus is on Bush’s voice. And she uses all her tricks – melodies are trilled, high notes are belted out and then reined in, and vocal lines whoop and whorl every which way. Her voice is a natural wonder all its own. Bush could be a straight crooner if she wanted to, but she chooses a more idiosyncratic approach, and it’s unique and spectacular, as always. Hell, the title song contains a minute or so in which Bush does nothing but laugh. It is, like this whole record, strange and compelling.
What we have here is the spectacle of a most original artist marshalling all of her forces to capture and toast the ordinary. Aerial is panoramic, hugely expansive, and yet about very little. Many will find a 42-minute song about simple nothings boring, perhaps even interminable, but to these ears, it is enthralling, one of the best pieces of the year. In fact, in a year already full to bursting with masterpieces, Aerial stands tall, one of the most distinctive and successful records I have heard. It is beholden to no trends, it sounds out of time, and it bears no resemblance to anything else on the shelves.
In short, it is pure Kate Bush, in all of its baffling wonder. And it was well worth the wait.
* * * * *
If Kate Bush was going for the longest sustained suite this year, she lost to Neal Morse by 14 minutes.
But then, Morse is known for this kind of thing. He wrote numerous long-form pieces as the guiding light behind both Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic, before he went and got religion. Morse’s third solo album is a single 56-minute piece called ? (yes, just the question mark), which all by itself should put some people off. I probably shouldn’t mention that it’s about the temple the Israelites of the Old Testament constructed to honor God, which here serves as Morse’s metaphor for spiritual renewal. That’ll really turn people away.
But guess what? It’s fantastic, easily the best thing Morse has done on his own, and maybe even better than his work with the Beard. Even Morse’s fans should be impressed with this one – he has effectively shaken up his classic prog formula while embracing it at the same time. The song is broken up into 12 tracks, but for no reason at all. It really is completely cohesive, a singular work that is never boring, and that rarely slips into the instrumental noodling that has often plagued his records.
For those who have heard Morse’s prior two God-bothering records, Testimony and One, this is a huge step forward. Morse puts away his tendency for sugary balladry, instead taking from Kansas and ‘70s rock more often than not. The strings are downplayed, and the horn section adds brassiness from time to time. The playing, by Morse, Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, and bassist Randy George, is amazing – tight, fluid, almost unbelievable in places. Best of all, Morse sounds alive and engaged in this one, a level of attention and energy that was missing from most of One.
Take “Solid as the Sun,” for example. The song is fabulous, a strutting rocker with a harmonized chorus and thick, chunky guitars. But Morse is not content with just that – he slips in a pure jazz break, and a scorching bass solo, and concludes it with a Kansas-esque refrain It’s just an awesome thing, musically speaking, and it’s typical of ?. The hour-long song concludes with a reprise of its opening theme, tying the whole thing together. As a complex equation solved for X, this is phenomenal, perhaps the most vibrant and successful piece Morse has given us.
I’m afraid the lyrics damage it once again, though. As he has ever since leaving the Beard, Morse presents his Christianity in the most basic of terms – the packaging even includes Bible verses for particular lines. His use of the tabernacle as a metaphor is interesting, and a step in the right direction, but it remains a few drafts away from insight. Some sections, like “Outside Looking In,” are certainly moving, and I don’t even mind the repeated “Temple of the Living God” theme, but when he starts listing the instances of the number 12 in the Bible, it just goes a bridge too far for me.
But let’s focus on the music, because musically, ? is pretty much perfect, a dynamic work from start to finish. I can deal with Morse’s newfound faith and his desire to express it, even in the simplest ways, if it accompanies prog-pop this well-constructed. As I said when I reviewed Testimony, time will hopefully deepen Morse’s understanding of his own beliefs, and bring a level of personal insight that his work, at current, sorely lacks. ? is a giant step towards that goal, and is also completely enjoyable on purely musical terms. A cohesive 56-minute song is a tough thing to wrestle to the ground, but Morse makes it look easy. Here’s hoping the next one is as lyrically incisive as it is musically complex.
* * * * *
Over and Out
Next week, I should play catch-up with some recent releases. Coming up through December are new ones from System of a Down, OutKast and Ryan Adams, and the usual assortment of live discs and remix projects that usually hit around Thanksgiving. Kate Bush represents, I believe, the last major record of the year, so the top 10 list is all but set in stone. But I say that every year, and something happens to surprise me. So you never know. You know?
See you in line Tuesday morning.