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Music Review: Indie Round-Up – John Phillips, Stratospheerius

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I'm devoting much of this week's column to a noteworthy release of 35-year-old material. It's worth it.

John Phillips, Jack of Diamonds

"Papa" John Phillips (RIP) was best known for his work with The Mamas and the Papas, but his creativity went well beyond that. Last year, Varese Sarabande re-released Phillip's only solo album, 1970's John, the Wolfking of L.A. Now comes the second in their "Papa John Phillips Presents" series. 

Jack of Diamonds collects songs he wrote for a second solo LP which never saw the light of day (although the songs "Revolution on Vacation" and "Cup of Tea," included in different versions here, were released as a single in 1972).

Phillips's writing and arranging typically combined soulful sophistication with the anything-is-possible musical ethos of the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was always an element of wistful disillusion (and emotional dissolution) in his music, and I'd argue that it's that sad tinge that made the beautiful choral songs of The Mamas and the Papas into the timeless classics they've become. But Phillips's work outside the confines of the band extended into much more varied musical territory.

"Revolution on Vacation" and "Cup of Tea" lean towards the country-western sound of Wolfking, and the easygoing groove of "Campy California" feels like a lazy sunny day. But "Devil's on the Loose," "Mister Blue," and "Black Broadway" feel much more like the urban soul of the time, with smoky sax, wah-wah guitar, and groovy electric piano. (Heavy hitters like Joe Sample and Van Dyke Parks contributed.) In fact, Phillip's vocals on the latter two songs betray a heavy Lou Reed influence. The three songs contrast startlingly with what one might expect from the composer of "California Dreamin'" and "Kokomo." We're clearly on the gritty streets of New York City. Even "Marooned," a sad song set on the beach, is subtitled "Double Parked," while "Chinatown" and "Too Bad" have a jazz-rock flavor that reflects urban cool as well.

There are two versions of "Me and My Uncle," a song made famous by the Grateful Dead, and – speaking of space – a couple of shimmery tracks inspired by the 1969 moon landing. They're not brilliant pop like "Space Oddity" or "Rocket Man" but they fit in nicely on the CD, which has been put together very smartly – it's a good listen straight through. For most of its length one could imagine it had been released in this form back in '73 to critical acclaim. Even the two songs from the Brewster McCloud soundtrack – the only previously released material on the CD – sound like part of the same continuum. The only songs that really don't are the two unreleased Mamas and the Papas tracks, recorded for the group's final album, the one their record company forced them to make after the band had already split up. They sound like sad codas to the career of a great band.

Phillips continued working productively for decades after the triumphs of The Mamas and the Papas and Monterey. His work certainly deserves the attention Varese is giving it in this series. The sound has been restored and mastered just right – crisp but not icy, it could almost be coming off of vinyl.

Listen to unsatisfying 30-second clips here.

Stratospheerius, Headspace

There's so much going on on this CD that it could merit an "Indie Round-Up" column all on its own. Stratospheerius's music can't be pegged to one genre, but neither is it a simple hybrid of a couple of styles. For that reason, it's exciting stuff.

Jazz fusion, Stingpop, progressive rock, classical strains, and jam-band spaceouts take turns running through the ten songs on this, the band's fourth album. Leader Joe Deninzon's devilish violin weaves the compositions together, and he lends his throaty vocals to some of the tunes, layering attractive melodies over odd time signatures and dynamic, unpredictable arrangements. Think of a much more adventurous version of the Dave Matthews Band, add Steely Dan precision and prog-rock inventiveness, and you'll get an inkling. There's also a Police influence that would be quite evident even without the revved-up cover of "Driven to Tears." The crack musicians deserve mention individually: drummer Luciana Padmore, bassist Bob Bowen, and guitarist Mack Price.

These songs really do sidestep genre, yet one foot remains in accessible pop territory. "New Material" opens with a Celtic jam that flames into a lightspeed funk-rocker. The song is a funny take on creative inspiration and writer's block: "I need a death threat deadline panic attack/I need a big bolt of lightning to strike me in the ass/Where's my material/I need new material." "Mental Floss" is an exciting odd-time instrumental jam, while "Gutterpunk Blues" begins with a delicate-punk (a new term I just made up) mandolin solo (Deninzon again) which leads into crashing heavy-metal riffage and then devolves into wild electric guitar and drum soloing. The jazz fusion elements come to the fore in the slower instrumental "Yulia," while the pumped-up klezmer of "Heavy Shtettle Part II: Heavier Shtettle" closes the CD with a blast of technical prowess and ear-candy fun.

An interesting and spirited journey into outrageous creativity, this CD is highly recommended for anyone with an adventurous ear, including fans of fusion, progressive rock, the Police, the Kronos Quartet's pop experiments and collaborations, and fiery fiddling. Sample the music at the Stratospheerius website and  their Myspace page, and read a good interview with Joe Deninzon.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
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