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Monthly Archives: August 2013

The titans of siren.

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I’ve always been the kind to obsess about musical details.

It’s not my most endearing trait — especially to Bay City Rollers fans — but it’s just how I’m wired.

Something brought me today to the Wiki page dedicated to the Thunderbolt siren, a common piece of American civil defense ordnance in the second half of the 20th century.

That reminded me of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and Grand Funk Railroad’s “Paranoid,” two songs from my long-ago heavy-metal youth. I hadn’t heard either in quite a while, but I remembered that both used the chilling sound of a siren to good effect.

And that brought two questions to my mind, fired by the same synapse that sometimes makes me ask, “Hey, is that a Strat or a Telecaster he’s playing on that solo?”:

1. Wonder what model, make or type of siren is being “played” on “War Pigs” and “Paranoid”?

2. Wonder if it’s the same siren?

To answer the second question first: Yeah, I imagine so.

If you listen to “War Pigs” and “Paranoid” (and you only need to listen to the first 45 seconds or so of each), you’ll hear that both songs feature the stereotypical siren sound we all know from World War II movies.

The siren in “War Pigs” moves more quickly between tones, keeping pace with the music at times, while the siren on “Paranoid” takes more time shuttling between its two notes.

But they’re clearly the same model, and they could well be from the same sound-effects recording. I imagine that, even in the days of analog tape, a professional engineer would have had no problem doing a little snipping to make the siren move up and down faster.

Here’s what they sound like:

That question being settled enough for me, I headed to YouTube to check out videos of civil defense sirens, hoping to identify the specific kind that produces that distinctive sound.

It wasn’t a Thunderbolt. It only took one or two Thunderbolt clips to show me that Thunderbolts have a different tone — a sound with a recognizable grit or sizzle around the edges.

A brief sample of the Federal Signal Type 2, made by the same company that made the Thunderbolt, didn’t convince me.¬† An ACA Allertor 125 wasn’t the machine I was looking for, either.

Then I started getting into the British-made sirens, and it became clear to me that — like gin, toffee and Marshall stacks — nobody does it better.

A 1952 Castle Castings siren, made in Lancashire, sounded remarkably like the one(s) on the records. So, too, did a World War II-vintage siren of similar design made by Gents of Leicester.

I imagine that the young men of Grand Funk, who grew up in Michigan, were probably familiar with the sound of a Thunderbolt in action. It’s interesting to me that they turned instead to the familiar British siren sound when it came time to make a record. I guess nothing says “impending desolation” quite like those vintage sirens.

(Or, maybe the British sound just happened to be on the first sound-effects tape their engineer put his hands on, and they weren’t fussy. I can believe that too.)

Unfortunately, that’s where the trail stops.

British air-raid sirens are not as easy to differentiate as, say, Hammond and Farfisa organs. So I won’t have the satisfaction of a firm answer to this particular digression.

But I’ve gone far enough in that direction to be content, and I know more than I did when I started. I’ll take it.

I’ve also learned, somewhat to my surprise, that Grand Funk got the sound on record before Sabbath did.

GFR’s self-titled “Red Album,” with “Paranoid” on it, was released in December 1969, while Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” album (what is it with paranoia and sirens, anyway?) came out in September 1970.

That concludes tonight’s test of the emergency alarm system. I’m gonna go listen to the Jackson 5ive now — I need something light and fluffy to chase these damned sirens out of my ears.

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What’s the frequency?

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I am convinced this seemingly innocuous string of TV station IDs has a message it’s trying to get through to me, and I am going to listen until it does.

The eight-note synth-tuba motif will haunt my dreams tonight, I think.

I have now recorded the entire soundtrack of the YouTube clip and looped it so it runs eleven minutes and fourteen seconds.
I’m listening to it now. Again.

You think I’m joking.

From the Valley: “The Coffee Spoons.”

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Another in a series of self-centered semi-reviews of recent releases by Lehigh Valley-based bands.

Edit: Fixed so the Bandcamp link actually, y’know, works. (Dammit.)

Part of the reason I started writing these reviews was to expose myself to music I wouldn’t typically listen to.

And boy, did I ever push myself this time.

See, I hate cute. I strongly dislike twee. Awkward sets my teeth on edge, and I don’t tolerate adorkable, either.

Pomplamoose are posey, annoying muppets; and Zooey Deschanel exists in my world only as a distant, mostly rumored presence that is loathed and reviled, sort of like Carrie Bradshaw or the Black Shuck.

So who d’ya think should walk into my cauldron of ill-reasoned, seething hatred, wearing the cutest pair of matching reindeer sweaters, but the Coffee Spoons?

The Coffee Spoons are Ashley Dalrymple and Thom Eiser. They’re based in Bethlehem, and they dropped their first EP on Bandcamp only three days ago.

She sings and plays ukulele; he sings and plays glockenspiel. (Yup, glockenspiel, the plinky little xylophone you might remember from elementary school music class.)

Their lyrical subject matter focuses on relationships to the exclusion of all else. Over the course of five songs, they meet cute, go to sleep cute, wake up cute and pine-and-yearn cute.

Oh, and they get drunk and argue, not quite so cute. But that’s the second-to-last song, and they rebound with a closing number so thoroughly charming, it uses the word “fishies” with a straight face. It’s a caravan of cuteness, that one, painting a picture of our hero and heroine strolling cheerfully in cardigans and Oxford shoes.

The Spoons sing their tales of love in a sort of Forties-jazzy way, trading lines and coming together in pleasant harmony.

Dalrymple plays rhythm uke like a pro, while Eiser tinkles away merrily atop her. (No, not like that, you pervert. What do you think this is, Rick James?)

And, when all was said and done, they walked through my pyre of cute-rage with only the edges of their sweaters singed.

Their music still isn’t my cup of tea. Or, to use a suitably cutesy-comfy simile, it’s not my grilled-cheese sandwich and cup of tomato soup.

And it’s not quite as well-recorded as it could be — the sound quality is a little hushed, which is maybe appropriate for an act that mentions blanket forts in its PR blurb.

Still, it’s well-done enough for its genre. Those who like earnestness and plucky ukuleles and close vocal interplay and quirky romance and holding hands like it was the first time will find something to like — probably quite a bit — in these five songs.

The EP is available as a name-your-own-price Bandcamp download here. If you’re young and gawky and just falling for somebody, consider downloading a copy for your suitor or ladylove.

Yup: If you love somebody, send them twee.

From the Valley: Peter Johann Band, “The Wampus.”

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Another in a series of posts about recent online music releases by Lehigh Valley bands.

When I started writing From the Valley posts, I expected to hear a fair amount of punk, metal, and lo-fi singer-songwriter weirdness. And so far, I have.

I never expected to hear a band that would make me think of Steely Dan.

But the Peter Johann Band’s album¬†The Wampus, released on Bandcamp about two weeks ago, holds up to that comparison on at least a couple of fronts.

Bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Peter Johann Gutzmirtl says he’s been recording bands in a studio setting for 15 years.

The Wampus hugely benefits from that experience: It has a clarity and depth of sound you won’t hear in the average self-produced indie release. This is a professional-quality recording, and a departure from the let-it-rip basement business you sometimes get on homemade albums.

“Disco A Go-Go,” for instance, begins with a vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano sound you can practically sink your teeth into.

“Disco A Go-Go,” with its tumbling horn lines and cool female vocal, is a dead ringer for the glory days of the Brand New Heavies — another bunch of polished virtuoso players. In a perfect world, this infectious funk jam would be the hit single that makes the PJB some bucks and lands them on magazine covers, while the deeper stuff on the album hooks in the serious music fans.

The members of the PJB (there’s six of them on the band’s website, but only five on Bandcamp) have the chops to go with their professional sound. Horn arrangements, soaring guitar leads, funky percussion, five-string bass low end … these folks are tight and well-drilled.

Of course, professional sheen and frequent rehearsal aren’t enough; you need songs, too.

The PJB holds up its end of the bargain pretty well in that department. Its songs are catchy and well-constructed, suggesting that the group has spent as much time studying song structure as chords and rhythms.

I’d describe the general style as intelligent pop, with periodic touches of jazz, Latin and funk. And while I keep going back to “Disco A Go-Go” for another fix, that doesn’t mean the rest of the songs are weak; it just means I’m a hopeless disco-funk addict.

Are there weaknesses here? Well, you won’t hear any cries from the heart or passionate punk howls. If you like your music stripped-down and bloody raw, The Wampus probably isn’t going to be your bag.

Also, Peter Johann is an OK-to-pretty-good singer; his voice works well enough, but someone with a more distinctive presence might take some of the songs a little further over the top.

Those are pretty small bones to pick in the long run, though. The Wampus is a fresh and enjoyable piece of work.

There’s a place in the world for both lo-fi rage and professional polish. The former is fairly easy to come by; I’m glad to discover that the PJB is championing the latter.

The Wampus is available here as a Bandcamp download (minimum price $5).

Can you tell me when we’re leavin’?

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Not much new tonight. I have a couple From The Valley posts just calling out to be written, but not now.

To keep the beast fed, I’ll toss out a token few words about a song I’ve been listening to a lot lately.

The song is “Station Man,” a Fleetwood Mac oldie from the band’s blues-rock days. Released on 1970’s “Kiln House” album, “Station Man” is one of only four Mac songs to credit John McVie as a co-writer.

Another entry in the long tradition of British train songs, from “The One After 909” to “All The Way Home,” “Station Man” is an off-kilter, somewhat funky shuffle with a more stepped-up, straightforward midsection.

There’s not a heck of a lot to it, but I find it easy to get lost in.

Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, who has the voice and stage presence of a middle-school earth-science teacher, does an pretty good version:

Here’s the Mac’s studio original, which is a little too buttoned-down in places but builds up a head of steam in others:

And here’s the Lindsay Buckingham-Stevie Nicks edition of the Mac playing it in Largo, Maryland, in 1975:

Their appeal has become more selective.

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Apropos de nada, pretty much:

Earlier this month (Aug. 5, to be exact) marked 35 years since the last Rolling Stones single to hit U.S. Number One.

Not only that, but the last Stones single to hit the U.S. Top Ten is almost a quarter-century old: It was released Aug. 17, 1989.

Somehow that seems like a long, long time.

Wings.

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It makes sense that rock n’ rollers would be lured by the iconography of flight.

Pilots and superstar musicians both enjoy a certain otherworldly freedom most people never know.

A flight crew needs to work closely, like a band of brothers, to successfully complete its mission … just the kind of symbolism that appeals to romantic touring musicians.

And the traditional look of a pilot — leather flight jacket, scarf, goggles and/or reflective shades — connotes a kind of rootsy dash that’s a natural for rockers to want to appropriate.

In honor of Allen Lanier, then, a list of performers who have posed as aviators on their album covers:

Cream, Fresh Cream (the earliest example, perhaps?)

Blue Oyster Cult, Secret Treaties

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II

Joe Walsh, So What (adopting the ever-popular shirtless daredevil look)

Jefferson Airplane, Flight Log (I wouldn’t quite count Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, but some people might)

The Royal Guardsmen, Snoopy And His Friends

Pilot, From The Album Of The Same Name (yeah, some of these are gimmes)

The Jackson 5ive, Skywriter

John Cale, Honi Soit (the album’s credits list the band members as members of a flight crew, though I don’t believe they are pictured as such)

Danny Seraphine, Chicago, on the poster inside Chicago III

Richard Manuel of The Band wears what is variously interpreted as a U.S. Air Force or Royal Air Force uniform on the cover of The Basement Tapes

Know of any others? You know where the comments are.