Skyway 7

For an album bought on the decidedly shaky premise of an interesting cover, this hasn't worked out too badly. I literally knew nothing about Skyway 7 before I bought this, had never even heard of them. I don't know much more now, beyond the alleged fact that it is a nom de studio of one John Roberts (source: last.fm).

It's a gentle, doodling sort of album, with hints of a whole lot of different ambient-y artists like Zero 7, Air or Lemon Jelly. "Forgotten Ones" sounds like Mr. Roberts has been listening to The Durutti Column. "Good Friends" reminds me of The Beta Band. The more noodle-y sections remind me of Ed Shearmur's musical inserts for Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel And Laurence (a superb film and a good soundtrack too). So, since I like all the cited references, this works out as a decent-ish sort of album for me.

However, it's difficult to pick a favourite track from this album. None of it is unpleasant and much of it is a perfectly nice way of passing the time. I can't imagine it becoming anyone's favourite album, though. And with so much other, better music to listen to, I can't imagine coming back to it. Sorry, John.


Back At The Chicken Shack

Jimmy Smith

A classic? Pleasant and inoffensive, sure. A lovely mellow Hammond organ sound - just what you'd expect from Jimmy Smith - and some nice playing on the sax. The guitar is too polite, both in content and tone, surprising from someone as legendary as Kenny Burrell.

If this is what popularised the Hammond organ and led to its use on countless classic rock tracks, then that ensures its place in history, I suppose. But listening to it now, it's underwhelming. Nice background music (unless jazz improvisation sets your teeth on edge).


Ellington At Newport

Duke Ellington

It's worth remembering that, whatever the excesses, law-breaking or general high-living normally associated with rock, jazz generally got there first. Sex, drugs and degeneracy, all well documented, my favourite book on the subject being Bird Lives.

So, if you thought that riots at gigs didn't happen until The Beatles, well think again. This concert, Duke Ellington playing at Newport in 1956, went so well that the audience wouldn't let it end and had to be calmed by the Duke himself and placated with several extra songs.

And if you thought that fabricating a live album was the province of something like Thin Lizzy's Live And Dangerous, well, sadly, Ellington At Newport proves that wrong too. It turns out the five-track album was predominantly a studio concoction. The concert did happen and it was recorded - just not released until over forty years later.

My fifties music project isn't concerned with such trivia though. The original album is a classic, and that's good enough for me. This is one of my favourite discoveries so far - all five tracks are gems. It's the epitome of swing and big band music.

On "Festival Junction" you can hear the train starting out, gathering speed and then riding the rails out through the night. "Blues To Be There" has not one, but two false endings. The first (~ 4'30") is followed by some delicious piano chords before restating the theme; the second (~ 6'20") deceives the crowd enough to have them clapping, before the horn section comes back in with a gorgeous big band riff. "Newport Up" is a faster, slightly more generic jazz track and my least favourite of the five. "Jeeps Blues" is sultry, late night listening. And "Diminuendo In Blue and Crescendo In Blue" is a jazz tour-de-force, combining tightly arranged big band music with small band improvisation, notably the legendary 27-chorus saxophone solo by Paul Gonsalves (full disclosure: I'd never heard of it until I read about it in 1001 Albums ... and on Wikipedia).

The complete concert is interesting listening, although possibly a little too much of a good thing for me. I love the original album though, great stuff.



Alter Bridge

I love the sound of a heavily distorted guitar as much as anyone, whether it's punching a heavyweight rhythm (think QOTSA's "Go With The Flow"), carpet-bombing a song with compacted layers of sound (MBV's "Only Shallow" a winner here), squalling on the edge of feedback (try "Down In The Woods" by Richard Hawley), shrieking unearthly squeals (Smashing Pumpkins' "Stand Inside Your Love" being a notable example), or just plain wailing ("Safesurfer" by Julian Cope is one of my favourite solos ever). But whatever it's doing, it must exist - as these examples do - in the context of a superb song.

Mark Tremonti - widdler-in-chief of Creed and Alter Bridge - gets lots of mentions in Guitarist magazine and although I find their coverage pretty well balanced compared to other titles, usually this would mean that he's another metal man, noted less for his song-writing than for his ability to execute ear-piercing 64th-note runs above the 20th fret on his signature PRS while driving those Bogner Shivas into meltdown. What distinguishes him is that, last year, his solo on Alter Bridge's track "Blackbird" won a Guitarist poll for the best guitar solo (ever!). I'm sure there was some fan forum mobilisation, but still, it makes it worth a listen, eh?

I have to say I've been very pleasantly surprised. There is some jaw-droppingly astonishing playing here but, more than that, the songs stand up to repeated listening. It's good hard rock - big crunchy guitars, heavy rhythms, tunes you can actually sing along to (an all-too frequently forgotten ingredient), all good stuff. The icing on the cake is Tremonti's ability - he sounds like he can make his instrument do just about anything.

My current favourite track - I've had a few since I started listening to the album - is "Brand New Start". In structure, it's a dead ringer for all-time axe-classic "More Than A Feeling"; the quiet start with clean picking, building to a huge chorus that also contains a hint of Bon Jovi. The solo is stunning - starting slowly before working up to a fantastic, wah-driven climax, with some really nice tricks thrown in for the guitar geeks out there (hi!). Album opener "Ties That Bind" is cool too, a crushing, speeding, double-time riff (in 12/8 - bit of a bitch to play, I'll tell you) breaking to a flag-waving chorus. Lyrics are typical teenage self-realisation "I'm going to be all I can be" bollocks, but hey, nothing's perfect.

And what of the "best solo ever"? Well, "Blackbird" is nearly eight minutes long and consists of several sections but never outstays its welcome. And in fact it contains two guitar solos, the first by singer Myles Kennedy, showing that as well as possessing a fine, warm voice, he's no slouch on the guitar either, the second by Mark Tremonti. The difference in styles is really interesting; Kennedy's is a slower, more bluesy, richer sound, while Tremonti's is more technical and somewhat shriller - which isn't to say it's all 100mph though, it's nicely constructed.

There are several other very enjoyable songs too. All through, the guitar playing and tones are superb. A couple of the songs towards the end of the album could have been dropped without loss, but that's a minor quibble. Overall, a real keeper for guitar lovers.