January 1, 2004

Steve Lukather & Friends
It’s hard to name a guitarist who has had a more prolific and fulfilling career than Steve Lukather. In addition to co-founding Toto—which still, after 25 years, regularly headlines to crowds ranging from 6,000 to 45,000 people all over the world (“Everywhere but in America,” notes Lukather)—the guitarist has appeared on hundreds of albums by the likes of Paul McCartney, Cher, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Don Henley, George Benson, Dolly Parton, Boz Skaggs, Diana Ross, Alice Cooper, The Tubes, Michael Jackson, and numerous other platinum acts. He has also released a handful of solo albums.

“But I never dreamt in a million years that I’d do a Christmas record,” says Lukather, referring to his latest effort, Santamental. “When my friends at Bop City Records asked me to record one, I was like, ‘Why me? Do I look like Father Christmas to you mofos?’ They laughed and said, ‘No, we just know you’ll do something really weird.’ And that’s a good thing, because let’s face it, some of these classic songs can be a bit cheesy. You gotta dress ’em up in new ways.”

The Lone Arranger?
Once Lukather agreed to the idea, he soon found himself so enthralled with the project that he enlisted keyboardist Jeff Babko to help him rework the material in a range of wild ways. “Joy to the World,” for example, seems to mingle the harmonic complexity of a Gil Evans jazz arrangement with the aggressive, high-testosterone guitar attack of Thin Lizzy, and “Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”—which was co-arranged by Larry Carlton— is a solo guitar, chord-melody tour de force. And on “Jingle Bells,” you’ll hear a brand new big band backing track set against an old vocal track by Lukather’s hero, the incomparable Sammy Davis, Jr.

“I don’t think anybody has taken Christmas songs as out as we have,” declares Lukather. “Without changing the melodies, we put in new grooves and chord changes, which was difficult. It’s tough to take major-scale songs that are nursery-rhyme simple and turn them into something that’s even remotely hip. I have no idea how people will react to this record. It may even offend those who are religious or prefer traditional renditions of the tunes. They may be like, ‘Satan has revoiced our favorite songs.’”

One thing, however, is certain: If you’re a fan of hotshot electric guitar, then this album’s songs comprise an 11-course holiday feast for your ears—and it’s not just Lukather who tears into the Christmas carols. Luke also called on some of his best friends and neighbors to stop by his studio and lend a little yuletide riffage, including…

…Eddie Van Halen
“I tried to cast the right cats for whatever weird way we were going to do a given song,” recalls Lukather. “I figured because we were doing ‘Joy to the World’ as a cross between [Van Halen’s] ‘Hot for Teacher’ and [Jeff Beck’s] ‘Space Boogie,’ I’d bring in Eddie Van Halen. It was great, because Ed hadn’t been in the studio for a while. He’d been pretty much chilling, you know, just writing stuff for the new Van Halen record. He came in with his Peavey 5150 and immediately played brilliantly. Actually, it was hard for me to get him to stop playing. He kept saying, ‘Let me do another take.’ But, because we were tracking to one 24-track reel, I had to say, ‘No, dude, that’s great. I don’t have any more tracks.’ He’d say, ‘But I can do it better.’ I’d be like, ‘No way, man. I’ve been down this road before [laughs].’”

Steve Vai
“Steve Vai is one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever known,” states Lukather. “Talk about dedication, you have to surgically remove the damned guitar from his hands just to hang out with him. He’s one of these alien guys that if he’s not playing guitar, he’s writing orchestral scores or running a record company. He played on ‘Carol of the Bells.’ My son, Trevor, played all the power chords on that song. He was 14 at the time.”

“Slash plays on a tune I co-wrote with [drummer] Stan Lynch called ‘Broken Heart for Christmas,’” says Lukather. “Slash brought in his Marshalls and did his track in one take. I love the rawness of his playing. He’s the real deal. He’s the Keith Richards of our generation—and I mean that with all due respect. He’s not a burnout or anything.”

Michael Landau
“Mikey and I grew up together, played in a million bands together, and studied together,” says Lukather of Landau, another of the world’s most sought-after session guitarists. “People don’t realize how good he is. He’ll mess you up. If you see him play live—and you hear that touch and that tone—your jaw will drop. I became a better guitar player over the years just because we’ve always had a healthy competition between us.

“Mike brought in a Strat and a Marshall head, and played on ‘Look Out You Angels.’ Before I was finished saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ he was done and walking back out the door again. Bang, zoom, one take. That’s the thing about us—we grew up in that time where you just go in there, do the job, and split. There’s no mentality of, ‘Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow.’ You sit in the room and do takes until you’ve got one. You don’t fix it later or edit it to death in Pro Tools.”

On the Wagon
“Myself, I ran my Ernie Ball/Music Man signature model guitar through a Custom Audio Electronics three-channel preamp [built by guitar-rig guru Bob Bradshaw] and VHT power amps,” reveals Lukather. “It’s a very simple setup, really, and it sounds awesome. I used to use tons of effects, but I got really tired of having my name attached to the whole ‘over-processed’ sound. Was I guilty of over-using effects? Absolutely. But so were a boatload of other people. For some reason, though, people thought I invented that sound. When I started hearing TV commercials that had studio guitarists doing impressions of what I supposedly sounded like, and when I saw new digital guitar processors with my name on some horrendously awful, flanged-out, over-delayed patch, I yanked the harmonizers, choruses, and reverbs out of my rig. I literally chucked all that crap into the pool and watched it drown. Basically, I went to Effects Anonymous, and now, except for some delay or an occasional Univibe, I’m clean.”

Old School is in Session
“Don’t get me wrong—I love Pro Tools,” emphasizes Lukather, who recorded Santamental almost entirely live to 2" tape. “Pro Tools is fantastic for doing vocals and recalling mixes, and I use it all the time. But I’ve recorded a lot of famous younger cats in my studio, and let’s just say that I know exactly where the bodies are buried [laughs]. There are a lot of players out there who rely too much on Pro Tools—players who should spend less time at the bar and more time in the woodshed. I mean, we’re practically in a state of anti-guitar right now. How much lower can you detune? Pretty soon it’ll be down to ten cycles and it’ll make you crap, but you won’t actually be able to hear it.

“There is great rock guitar out there, but where’s the next EVH? Where’s the new cat who’s just dusting everybody? He hasn’t come around in a while. I think Tom Morello is the last guy to really bring something new to the party—something that makes you go, ‘What the hell is that?’ John Scofield is bringing the old and the new together in amazing ways, but, once again, he’s an older cat. Where’s the 18-year-old doing this stuff? I don’t know where that person is, but he or she is definitely out there, I guarantee it. It’s destiny.” Bop City.

—Jude Gold

The Raveonettes
Chain Gang of Love
In one of those giddy pre-nervous breakdown moments where the whole galaxy just seems hilarious, have you ever wondered what Phil Spector-inspired musical moods would sound like if interpreted by, say, some wacky campers from Copenhagen?

Hey, guess what? The Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner (guitar, vocals) and Sharin Foo (bass, vocals)—aided and abetted by former Blondie and Go-Go’s producer Richard Gottehrer—have delivered an aural fun fest of ’50s and ’60s American rock stylizations, all bathed in the detached cool that can only come from the design-intensive minds of natives of the Danish Empire. There’s definitely a sense of sterile architecture here. The Raveonettes, therefore, don’t match Spector’s orgasmic cacophony of musicians and singers burning through performances as a single rock and roll orchestra, crazed by hours of takes and tearing off their sweat-soaked shirts and digging deep into their guts to please the master. But clean lines have their own beauty, and the drum-machine-like grooves and well-arranged guitars on Chain Gang of Love brilliantly re-engineer the sounds of rock’s early days for modern ears. The guitars may have a bit more of an edge—both sonically and rhythmically—but the souls of Dick Dale, Duane Eddy, and countless ’60s session players shine through with renewed energy. As a result, Chain Gang of Love is far from a self-conscious homage to pioneering American rockers. This is a loving reassessment of the very soul of rock. Columbia.

—Michael Molenda

Allan Holdsworth
All Night Wrong
As the title not-so-subtly infers, these eight tracks were recorded live in Japan (on May 5, 2002 at the Roppongi Pit Inn club in Tokyo). Though entirely off the mainstream radar, the Guitar Player Hall of Fame alumnus continues to remain airborne, traversing largely self-defined musical territory at dizzying altitudes. And, if the playing on this CD is any indication (or that on Soft Works’ Abracadabra, also recorded in 2002 with fellow ex-Soft Machine members), the guitarist’s high-velocity virtuosity shows no signs of tapering-off. Playing a single-pickup Steinberger through a pair of Yamaha modeling amps, Holdsworth takes full advantage of the harmonic freedom inherent in the trio format, and drummer Chad Wackerman and bassist Jimmy Johnson provide the perfect foil for Holdsworth’s flights of fretboard fancy.

While there are no radical compositional departures here, with the exception of his outstanding guitar-synth work—he was chosen as “Best Guitar Synthesist” in GP’s Reader’s Poll for five years consecutively—the listener is treated to nearly the full range of Holdsworth’s polyglot musical vocabulary. As always, wide-interval light-speed legato lines are the primary focus, but there are also moody, impressionistic chord clusters (often with tapped and tapped/slid individual notes within the chords), and mysterious, reed-like melodic passages—all accomplished with very minimal effects. Holdsworth continues to be one of the most original and idiosyncratic players in modern times, and his fans will find lots to enjoy here. (An SACD version is also available as an import from Sony Japan.) Favored Nations.

—Barry Cleveland

Martin Simpson
Righteousness & Humidity
One of today’s finest slide guitarists and interpreters of traditional music, Martin Simpson continues to grow, inspire, and delight with his razor-sharp picking and grainy voice. On this album—the most sonically diverse of his career—Simpson swings effortlessly from the crisp, modal twang of his native British Isles to the haunting cry of Delta blues and low-key swagger of New Orleans funk. His timbral palette is huge: In addition to acoustic and electric guitars, he plays 5-string banjo, ukulele, lap steel, and percussion. Sometimes flying solo, but most often backed by various American and British players (including bassist Rick Kemp of Steeleye Span, and guitarist Dave Malone and bassist Reggie Scanlan of the Big Easy’s legendary Radiators), Simpson delivers chimey ragtime counterpoint, rippling close-interval melodies, and snarling slide riffs with robust tone and flawless intonation. Whether he’s putting a fresh twist on classics like “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “John Hardy” or digging into vibey originals, Simpson never flaunts his monster chops. Instead, he seduces with mysterious 6-string textures and poignant tales of lost love and drunken murder. Bewitching sounds from a 21st-century troubadour. Red House.

—Andy Ellis

My Morning Jacket
It Still Moves
Although they’re often compared to everyone from Neil Young to the Flaming Lips, My Morning Jacket has done something all good bands do—take your influences, mix them up, and let the listener sort it out. It Still Moves, the Kentucky-based band’s third full-length, is a rootsy blend of soaring songcraft and bare-knuckles riffing with loosely strummed open chords that are often offset by keening, clean-toned arpeggios. And although the lengthy major/minor pentatonic musings at the end of tunes such as “One Big Holiday” seem to indicate a slight case of “the Freebirds,” My Morning Jacket more than make up for it with glorious vocal melodies and lush production swamped in warm, cavernous reverb. All of this makes It Still Moves not only a cool record, but a cool sounding record to boot. ATO.

—Darrin Fox


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