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Lost on the shelves: Spectrum Road – Spectrum Road

I recently listened to a podcast with Cindy Blackman Santana and was reminded of this 2012 brilliant homage to Tony Williams’ Lifetime band.

Keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood, guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour, drummer Cindy Blackman Santana (Lenny Kravitz) and legendary bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce of Cream

The album is mostly songs from the early Lifetime catalog (1969-1971). In addition to the Lifetime material, there is a group-composed original “Blues for Tillmon” and a traditional Gaelic air “An-T-eilan Muileach.”

The players all have one foot in jazz and another in rock – highly appropriate given the material. There are strong connections between the players and Lifetime: Bruce was in Lifetime, Blackman Santana is a disciple of Tony Williams, Reid is a disciple of Lifetime’s John McLaughlin and Woods is a jazz and rock polymath (the quintessence of Lifetime). That is, the perfect super group of players to honor Tony Williams and Lifetime.

This is not easy listening jazz – it is a mix of jazz-rock fusion, prog-rock, funk, metal and blues. Some songs are loud and noisy (e.g., the first cut “Vuelta Abajo”) and others quiet beauties (“Blues for Tillmon”). If you are a fan of Tony Williams, this is a must listen. If you are open to challenging fusion music, you will be rewarded.

Spinning on a Pro-Ject Audio RPM 1.3 Genie with an Audio-Technica VM540ML cartridge

Here is the source material:

Ron Miles – Rainbow Sign

Ron Miles, cornet; Jason Moran, piano; Bill Frisell, electric guitar; Thomas Morgan, bass; Brian Blade, drums.

Who the hell is Ron Miles? Despite my having never heard of Ron Miles, this is his 12th album as a leader and his debut on a major label – Blue Note (at age 57). He has an impressive discography as a sideman: Bill Frisell, Fred Hess, Joshua Redman, etc. Being based out of Denver does not help his profile.

I recently read a review of this album in Stereophile and I was intrigued to check it out. Wow, what a amazing album! Although on Blue Note, this has an ECM vibe. This album was released in October of 2020, but I missed hearing it until now. If I had heard it in 2020 it would have easily made my best of list.

I have loved jazz since I was a kid. I have never had a technical understanding of the music. It just touches my soul and moves me. As a kid I listened to Hobbs’ House on WCCO radio. Franklin Hobbs was a smoothed voice DJ who played the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and the big bands to a nationwide audience via ‘CCO’s clear channel signal every night from 10:30 PM till 5 AM the next morning. As a kid I never listened to rock radio or top-40, instead I listened to things like Hobbs House, classical radio and easy listening radio (that is elevator music – Muzak). I am not proud of this. But this is my music origin story. I did not discover rock, pop and contemporary jazz until I was in college. The point is jazz is the foundation of my music obsession.

On my first listen to Ron Miles’ Rainbow Sign I was immediately touched. I tend not to like blowing sessions, but rather intricately arranged, yet improvisational sessions. The band is so simpatico with each other – this is like an organism. Rainbow Sign is the definition of what my favorite kind of jazz performance. The instruments dance together in a way that in total support of each other resulting in a transcendent noise. There is constant movement between instruments, yet no one trips or steps on anyone’s toes. It is almost like this album doesn’t have solos. This is a band at the top of their game. I don’t know how to describe this style of jazz beyond that it’s beautiful. The interplay between instruments is like listening to an interesting conversation. Solos are introduced subtlety-easing in and then out before you know it.

Listening to this album I wonder why more horn players don’t use the cornet more. Its tone is so beautiful. But maybe that is just Ron Miles’ skill: he makes the cornet magical. I don’t think I have ever listened to an album that Bill Frisell plays on, whether as a leader or a sideman, that doesn’t sound great. Rainbow Sign doesn’t break the streak. I have not listened to much Jason Moran, but after this introduction I will be exploring his catalog.

In these impolite times the musical politeness of Rainbow Sign is therapeutic. Highly recommended.

Catchgroove’s Hall of Fame: Dexter Gordon – Sophisticated Giant

All tunes arranged by Slide Hampton
Recorded June 21 & 22, 1977 at Sound Ideas, NYC by William Wittman

Dexter Gordon’s tenor is the first time I became aware that I have a kind of synesthesia when it comes to music – I can taste the sound of his horn.

Right before the young lions movement of the 1980s (e.g. Wynton Marsalis), Columbia Records made a major investment in jazz and Dexter Gordon was at the center of that investment.

Gordon was among the most influential early bebop musicians. He was in the same class, but less famous, as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. His major influence, like Bird, was Lester Young. Gordon, in turn, was an early influence on John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Rollins and Coltrane then influenced Gordon’s playing as he explored hard bop and modal playing during the 1960s. The 60s were a hard time for jazz cats and so Gordon headed to Europe (mainly in Paris and Copenhagen) where he was treated with the respect he deserved.

Gordon returned to the United States and recorded the Homecoming album live at the Village Vanguard in 1976. That album, released on Columbia, was a jazz sensation and I became aware of it via Downbeat magazine. I loved that album, but Sophisticated Giant, that came out a year later, completely blew my mind.

Sophisticated Giant features an eleven-piece band playing tunes arranged by trombone player Slide Hampton. It is absolutely gorgeous. I mentioned my synesthesia earlier – when Gordon solos on the opening cut “Laura” it tastes like a piece of high end soft caramel – my mouth literally waters every time I listen.

Homecoming and Sophisticated Giant were my introduction to trumpeter Woody Shaw. Woody released another one of my hall of fame records on Columbia around this time: Rosewood. Woody and Dexter both solo on a Shaw composed standard “The Moontrane” that first appeared on Larry Young’s 1966 Blue Note masterpiece Unity.

As great as Woody Shaw is on this album, my favorite trumpet solo on the album is from Benny Bailey when he glissandos on “Red Top.” I never get tired of hearing it.

“Fried Bananas” is a Dexter Gordon song that gives most of the band a chance to strut their stuff.

“You’re Blasé” is dreamy late night ballad that is a brilliant showcase for Dexter’s big tone.

“How Insensitive” is a bossa nova by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes. Dexter performs the main melody on a soprano saxophone and brings his great tone to that instrument too – I often find the soprano shrill, but in the hands of Dexter it is smooth and easy.

This is a dream band for Dexter: Frank Wess — alto saxophone, flute, piccolo; Woody Shaw — trumpet, fluegelhorn; Benny Bailey — trumpet, fluegelhorn; Slide Hampton — trombone and arranger; Wayne Andre trombone; Howard Johnson — tuba, baritone saxophone; Bobby Hutcherson — vibes; George Cables — piano; Rufus Reid — bass; Victor Lewis — drums.

The Slide Hampton arrangements, Michael Cuscuna production and William Whitman engineering/mixing are perfect. I bet I have listened to this album a thousand times. It could be the most listened to album in my collection. My original vinyl version is remarkably in great shape given the workout it has been through. Early in the CD era it was not available and a friend acquired me a CD copy while vacationing in Europe – so that added some life to my vinyl copy. Stereophile magazine has a feature called “Records To Die For” – Sophisticated Giant would be on my list. In the liner notes, Ira Gilter quotes Dexter: “This is a classic. It should be in everyone’s library.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Coda: Sophisticated Giant (The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon) is also the name of Dexter’s biography by his wife and manager Maxine Gordon.

Wilco – Summerteeth Deluxe Reissue (2020)

Wilco started their career as the ultimate Americana band. Their debut, A.M., was the Jeff Tweedy side of an Uncle Tupelo album. Wilco was not yet Wilco. But the follow up, Being There, was a “not so fast” declaration that they were not going to be pigeonholed. They were as inspired by Liverpool as much as by Nashville. They then pivoted to a project collaborating with the unused lyrics of Woody Guthrie and British political folkie Billy Bragg on Mermaid Avenue. That, along with severe mental distress of the star of the show, Jeff Tweedy, was the set up for Wilco’s first masterpiece Summerteeth.

I was all in with A.M. and Being There, but Summerteeth was at a whole new level. Wilco discovered the studio as an instrument and became the American Radiohead. The music was experimental, but catchy.

Wilco is working their way though their catalog developing deluxe editions that add demos, alternative takes, unreleased songs and album cycle live recordings. Summerteeth Deluxe is the latest edition.

Up to this point the band had essentially recorded live, as a band, in the studio. For Summerteeth Tweedy and Jay Bennett wrote most of the album in the studio and it was heavily overdubbed with Pro Tools. This makes the demos and alternative takes particularly interesting to the obsessive Wilco fan (is there any other kind?). Jay Bennett, a multi-instrumentalist with studio skills took a significant role on the album nearly becoming Tweedy’s peer. The two take Wilco’s county and folk essence down a Pet Sounds/Sgt. Pepper’s rabbit hole. The results are a masterpiece.

If you are a Wilco fan Summerteeth is likely on the top of your favorites list. This deluxe reissue will reward your obsessions.

Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass, Vol 2: The Cowboy Arms Sessions

This is Sturgill’s second volume of bluegrass arrangements of his catalog. I like this volume better than volume one, mainly because it leans heavily on my favorite Sturgill album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Because of my familiarity with the recordings of these songs I can fully appreciate the genius of the bluegrass arrangements.

As I stated in my Vol. 1 review: “These bluegrass arrangements of old songs come off like new songs. According to some of Sturgill’s interviews, these bluegrass arrangements are the way the songs were always meant to be.”

This Cuttin’ Grass project is a welcome addition to Sturgill’s catalog.

Jeff Tweedy – Love Is The King

This is Jeff Tweedy’s quarantine album. It is my favorite of his non-Wilco work. It harkens back to his alt-country beginnings.

In the context of Wilco you forget what a great guitar player Tweedy is with all the great players in that band. On Love Is The King he reminds us – his electric work is on fire. In a recent Rolling Stone interview he states:

To me, that’s a totally different guy than the guy that’s strumming acoustic guitar and singing, the songwriter. The electric guitar guy is a commentator in a way. And I could never really fuse those two things together performance-wise, to be honest. That’s something that making a record during quarantine allows you to do maybe a little bit more.

These are not Tweedy demos like Springsteen’s Nebraska, this sounds like a band with fully realized arrangements. Not Wilco, but kind of like a simple (in a good way) Wilco.

Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You

Bruce and the E Street Band – what a nice gift! Bruce and the band are in a total late 70s groove. They sound great. We don’t need any additional challenges and so the gang is presenting us the audio equivalent of comfort food.

This is Bruce’s most meta album. The last few years Bruce has been very reflective: the memoir, the Broadway show and now this album. Many of the songs reflect on what it means to be Bruce, the meaning of Rock and being in a band.

The album was recorded live over four days with minimal guitar overdubs at the end of last year. In interviews Bruce says he avoided presenting demos to the band. Instead he just gave them the songs and let things happen organically. The result is a classic E Street Band vibe.

There are new songs and unreleased songs from early in his career. The new songs are reflective. The old songs are wonderfully wordy and represent a more naive and not fully formed Bruce – which is perfect juxtaposition given the retrospective nature of the album.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you have witnessed my amazement at the ability of ancient rock stars to deliver late career excellence – if not one last masterpiece. I can add Letter To You the list of late career masterpieces. If you have access to Apple TV check out the excellent documentary on the making of the album.

Tom Petty – Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition)

Wildflowers is the second solo studio album by Tom Petty (vs. with The Heartbreakers), released on November 1, 1994. This was his first Petty album produced by Rick Rubin (fresh off his success with Johnny Cash). It is an absolute masterpiece. It is Petty’s Americana album.

Since Wildflowers was released we have always been told it was missing about a third. Conceived as a triple album, Warner Brothers (Petty’s new label) convinced him to cut it down and surprisingly Petty complied. Petty teased for years that he would properly release all of Wildflowers. It has finally arrived along with deluxe and super deluxe editions.

The basic edition is a remastered original album along with the ten songs Petty intended to be on the album. The deluxe edition of Wildflowers & All The Rest contains 54 tracks:

  • 8 unreleased songs
  • 24 unreleased alternate versions
  • The 15 track original album (remastered)
  • All The Rest (10 songs from the original Wildflowers sessions)
  • 15 solo demos recorded by Petty at his home studio
  • 14 live versions of Wildflowers songs recorded from 1995 – 2017
  • Packaging includes a 60-page book, an introduction by Rick Rubin, an essay by David Fricke, a complete track-by-track, and rare photos and specially commissioned illustrations
  • Exclusive to the super-deluxe edition is two LPs of alternate versions (Finding Wildflowers)

The deluxe version is available on streaming services (master quality on Tidal).

The 10 All The Rest songs are revelatory – they were not fat trimmed from the original – they are essential tracks that appropriately complete Wildflowers and make it better that it already is. I have been waiting for this for a quarter of a century and it was worth the wait. This is not over hyped material.

Petty’s home demos of the Wildflower material are very enlightening. You get a sense of what a masterful songwriter Petty is. Most of the home demos are 80% of the final product. This is an artist with a vision.

The live stuff comes off so easy and natural for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers – like perfectly broken in boots. Thankful they don’t play it straight – it’s a jam. Petty and band are great live performers. They are tight and lose at the same time and a touch theatrical (in a good Springsteen kind of way). They are rock stars and know how to put on a rock show. Mike Campbell can blaze on the guitar and Benmont Tench can sure tickle the keys. Petty is a confident, but laidback front man. It is pure magic.

In the end I picked up the 3 LP version on vinyl (original album plus the ten All The Rest songs). The bonus material is nice but I can’t justify $150 when high resolution streaming is available (Tidal Masters being my choice). The vinyl edition sounds fantastic and has revealed gems in the arrangements that I never noticed on the original 1994 CD or the current Tidal Master stream.

Best of 2020

Courtesy of The Electric Fetus

In general 2020 has sucked, but the music has not. Lots of great albums this year. Here is my top ten and several honorable mentions. The list is dominated by old favorites – no new discoveries this year.

The War On Drugs – Live Drugs

#10 I didn’t get a chance to write a formal review of The War On Drugs live album Live Drugs. Their last two albums were fantastic. I assumed they were a studio band that would not translate well live – well they sound great live. The album takes an unusual approach: splicing songs from ten years of shows and in some cases they seamlessly edited multiple versions of a song – I would have never known that if I had not read an interview with the Drugs’ main man Adam Granduciel:

“I wanted to go through the wormhole a little bit,” he explains. “Taking six versions of ‘Under The Pressure’ and getting it down to one.”

Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started (with COVID puppy Margo)

#9 Margo Price refuses to conform and rather than make another country album she made a rock album. In my original review I said: “There is not a bad song on the album, but some of the highlights for me are:

  • ‘That’s How Rumors Get Started’ – the titular track has a Fleetwood Mac vibe with Margo purring like Stevie Nicks
  • ‘Hey Child’ a remake of an old song from her Buffalo Clover band that has a Delaney & Bonnie psychedelic gospel feel
  • ‘I’d Die For You’ an epic power ballad the is begging to be covered by Lady Gaga
  • ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ a catchy rock song that is Margo’s autobiography in three and a half minutes”
Pat Metheny – From This Place

#8 I have been a Pat Metheny fan for over 40 years and he has never failed to delight and challenge my ears. From This Place does not break the chain. In my original review I said:

I can’t listen to this new Pat Metheny album without thinking of Metheny’s long time collaborator Lyle Mays who recently passed away. From This Place is a guitar, piano and orchestra album. These last two features were the kind of contributions Lyle Mays typically made as keyboardist, composer and arranger in the Pat Metheny Group. Although this album’s creation predates Mays’ passing, I choose to savor it in Mays’ memory. Fortunately for us and in remembrance of Mays, From This Place is an extraordinary album.

Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You

# 7 Bruce returned to his roots and made an E Street Band album. According to interviews and the documentary about the making of the album, Bruce took a more spontaneous approach for this album. Instead of demos, he played the songs for the band and they quickly arranged and recorded them. He combined new songs with songs from early in his career that had never been released. The results are an unsentimental reflection of a lifetime as a rocker and the spirituality of rock music.

Jeff Tweedy – Love Is The King

#6 This is my favorite Tweedy solo album thus far and it rivals the last few Wilco albums too. It is the most Americana/country thing he has done in a long time. In Wilco, Tweedy rightly defers the guitar solos to Nils Cline, but here it is all Tweedy. I forgot what a great guitar player he is.

The Flaming Lips – American Head

#5 in my original review I said: “This album sounds as good as their best work. I like the juxtaposition of down to earth narrative lyrics in a psychedelic context. In the past The Flaming Lips have been weird just to be weird – almost a novelty act. American Head sounds honest and sincere. An added bonus is that fellow stoner Kacey Musgraves (whose 2018 Golden Hour is one of my favorite albums of all time) guests on several tracks.”

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

#4 I am not much of a Pearl Jam fan (I was a Soundgarden guy) but as I said in my original review: “It is hard not to be a rock fan of a certain age and not be a Pearl Jam fan. Their first three albums (Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy) were great. Those three albums, plus being a great live act, have allowed them to be the grunge Grateful Dead for thirty years.”

I went on to say: “The new album sounds fresh and energetic. It is a mix of punk attitude and classic rock influences – my definition of Seattle grunge. Like their 90s best, the songs have great hooks. Eddie Vedder’s vocals sound fantastic. It is probably not fair to call this a comeback, but it is for me – I have comeback to Pearl Jam because of the quality of this album.”

Jonathan Wilson – Dixie Blur

#3 Jonathan Wilson produces Father John Misty and plays the David Gilmour role in Roger Waters band. I am a huge fan of Wilson’s solo work which typically has a psychedelic rock vibe. On this album he mixes in an Americana vibe and pulled fiddler Mark O’Connor out of retirement to add some amazing textures to the Wilson sound.

In my original review I said: “It is a delightful album. Wilson has successfully mixed his Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter schtick with his psychedelic Pink Floyd vibe and Americana to create a Jonathan Wilson sound. It results in Wilson’s most original album to date. That is all you can ask from a recording artist – to develop their own voice. It has the perfect album title Dixie Blur. He has brilliantly blurred several styles with down-home southern charm.”

Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways

#2 I assumed this would be number one album of 2020. It is so good. In my original review I said: “At 79 Bob Dylan remains relevant as ever on his 39th studio album. After an 8 year dalliance with the Sinatra songbook, he returns with an inspiring collection of new original material. It is yet another masterpiece in his catalog – an amazing feat.”

Taylor Swift – folklore & evermore

#1 If ten years ago you told me that a Taylor Swift album would be at the top of my list, let alone beating out a Bob Dylan masterpiece, I would have told you, that you were crazy. After years of dismissing TSwift as a mere pop star I now officially get her genius.

I have spent a lot of time with folklore and just a little bit of time with evermore. They are birds of a feather and should be taken as one artist statement.

In my original review of folklore I said “This is adult music and teenage lyrics (in a good way) or as one reviewer said: bildungsroman obsession. This is a brilliant pivot for a pop star – hook up with an indie rock cult hero and make some magic. This is not a gimmick or desperate posturing by Taylor to ‘take me seriously.’ Instead, it is the right move at the right time. Without bombastic big arrangements, I really hear Taylor. Turns out she was hiding in plain sight for a guy like me. I now realize what a great storyteller she is and like all great rock and pop stars, an actor.”


Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

  • Sturgill Simpson: Cuttin’ Grass Volumes 1 & 2 – bluegrass reimagining of the Simpson catalog
  • John Scofield: Swallow Tales – a collaboration forty years in the making
  • Lucinda Williams: Good Souls Better Angels – the queen of Americana rocks out
  • Norah Jones: Pick Me Up Off the Floor – she has never made a bad album; this is on the jazzier side of her spectrum
  • Khruangbin: Mordechai – mellow funk with a world music vibe
  • Haim: Women In Music Pt. III – girl group fun accented with singer-songwriter gravitas
  • Jason Isbell: Reunions – my first time truly getting him
  • Laura Marling: Song for Our Daughter – continues to be my favorite Joni inspired heir
  • Bob Mould: Blue Hearts – no Sunshine this time around, just a lot of righteousness indignation
  • Rose City Band: Summerlong – if you like JJ Cale you will like the RCB
  • Jayhawks: XOXO – Gary Lourdes pushes the rest of the band to the front
  • Secret Sisters: Saturn Return – reminds me of the Everly Brothers, mid-70s Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and of course their producer Brandi Carlile
  • Jeremy Ivey: Waiting Out The Storm – don’t listen once, listen ten times
  • Stephen Malkmus: Traditional Techniques – his folk album
  • Texas Sun: Khruangbin and Leon Bridges together at last – it really works – only disappointment is this is an EP vs. LP
  • Puss n Boots: Sister – alternative country band from Brooklyn featuring Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper
  • Jamie Wyatt: Neon Cross – outlaw country
  • Atmosphere: The Day Before Halloween – a different sound – European techno vibe
  • Ryan Adams: Wednesdays – he is back and sounds mournful – can we forgive him?
  • Lady Gaga: Chromatica – back to the dance floor
  • Paul McCartney: McCartney III – quarantine recordings from one of the Titans – as Macca says “recorded in Rockdown”
Prince – Sign O’ The Times

Best Reissue: There were some great deluxe reissues this year but the best of the best was the massive (13 LPs + DVD + Book) deluxe reissue of Sign O’ The Times. In my original review I said: “Prince has always been known as a prolific artist and this super deluxe reissue of his 1987 classic Sign O’ The Times is evidence of that prolificity. It includes nearly four hours of previously unreleased material. The collection captures the scope of the Prince’s boundless genius: funk, jazz, gospel, rock, new wave, pop, singer songwriter of pop symphonies – it goes on and on. The new material, is at its worst, intriguing experiments, most of it is good and there are some absolute gems. This is what bonus reissues are supposed to be: a true treasure chest.”

Other notable reissues:

  • Tom Petty: Wildflower & All The Rest – After all these years we get to hear the rest of the album and bonus material
  • The Replacements: Pleased To Meet Me Deluxe – a rawer original mix and some great demos
  • Wilco: Summerteeth Deluxe – Demos and outtakes along with a live show
  • Uncle Tupelo: Uncle Tupelo Live March 24, 1994 Lounge Ax Chicago – I never saw this band live, so it is fun to hear them live – sorry RSD only release
  • Neal Casal: Fade Away Diamond Time – A gorgeous vinyl reissue of Casal’s solo debut from 1995 – sorry RSD only release

The Flaming Lips – American Head

I haven’t listened to the Flaming Lips for years and have not seriously listened to anything since 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. I noticed the Lips had a new release and the fact that Wayne Coyne is about my age somehow caught my attention. Pitchfork gave it a decent review (7.7). This Pitchfork tease was hard to resist:

“At the top of their fifth decade, the Lips rekindle their past romance with Neil Young’s piano ballads, the Beatles’ psychedelic guitar tones, and Bowie’s stargazing anthems on a deeply personal album.”

So I gave American Head a serious listen. I love it! The album has a wonderful trippy vibe. It is in line with lots of the mellow psychedelia I have been listening to lately (e.g. Jonathan Wilson, Khruangbin, Dope Lemon, Rose City Band, etc.). Musically and lyrically this is stoner music. Check out some of these track titles:

  • “Watch The Lightbugs Glow”
  • “You n I Sellin’ Weed”
  • “Flowers of Neptune 6”
  • “At The Movies On Quaaludes”
  • “Mother I’ve Taken LSD”
  • “Dinosaurs On The Mountain”

You get the idea.

This album sounds as good as their best work. I like the juxtaposition of down to earth narrative lyrics in a psychedelic context. In the past The Flaming Lips have been weird just to be weird – almost a novelty act. American Head sounds honest and sincere. An added bonus is that fellow stoner Kacey Musgraves (whose 2018 Golden Hour is one of my favorite albums of all time) guests on several tracks. I highly recommend this album. It will for sure make my 2020 best of list.

I liked this enough to pick up a vinyl copy. Like a lot of acts, the Lips issued a special independent record store version on colored vinyl. The packaging is high quality and the wax sounds great.

There is a great long form interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast.