Steven “Pearly” Hettum

coverFolks Like Us
Locals Only Records

Steve Hettum died on the evening of February 8th. He succumbed after a long, valiant struggle with cancer. His death was not unexpected. A few of his friends were able to put a life celebration together for him, what he called his “Wake While I’m Awake,” at the end of January, and several hundred people were in attendance.

To a lot of people, he was known simply as Pearly—a nickname he acquired in the ‘80s from a producer in Nashville, who found his voice to have a certain nacreous quality. He was a singer/songwriter from a country/folk tradition, on a trajectory scribing an arc between Garth Brooks and Van Morrison. His own compositions fell along that line somewhere.

Unreal Gods. Steve Hettum far right.
Unreal Gods. Steve Hettum far right.

I always saw Steve in a different light. When I first met him, in 1981, he was just a young guy in his early ‘20s. He had just begun managing a new band in town called Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods. My friend Lew Jones introduced us one evening over at the Dirty Duck, a tavern that used to be on NW Glisan, at the base of the Steel Bridge. From that time on, my path crossed with Steve’s on a regular basis.

After he was unceremoniously dumped from his managerial position with the band in 1983, Steve subsequently made a couple trips to the United Kingdom, on one occasion guiding Portland rockabilly stalwarts, the Razorbacks through an extended tour of the country.

On another occasion he brought the K Khan Band over from Great Britain, and they played many gigs across the Portland area, though probably not to as much acclaim as they deserved. They sort of fell through the stylistic cracks in the Portland music scene of the mid-‘80s.

Steve in Europe
Steve in Europe

Steve lived in Europe for a while, studying at Oxford. He got married and divorced and married again, father to three kids, while living out of the loop down in southern Oregon. Then he divorced again and moved back to Portland.

I caught back up with him at about that time. It was the early ‘90s and he had begun performing as a solo act around town. In fact, I remember that Steve and Lew Jones hosted the very first open mics at the newly opened Laurelthirst tavern, when the music was still in the front window, and they were having neighborhood issues with volume, and the usual civic complaints.

Steve released a nice album, Simple Elegance, in 1991, showcasing a knack for crafting catchy country/folk songs, and singing them with a pure, iridescent voice that, except for the faint whine of a craggy twang, was free of all affect.

It was about that time, too, that I began my first preparations to write a book about Billy Rancher. It had been five years since he had passed—and just before his death I promised Billy that I would tell his story. At the time I thought I would be writing a biography. Since Steve had been the manager of Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods, I started the process of gathering notes for my book by interviewing him first. Doubtless his insights would be different from those of the other members of the band. From my conversations with him, I was able to begin roughing out an outline for the book I had in mind. A sequence of events.

A few years later a fellow published a biography of Billy and the Gods, called Rocky Road—thus my plans for a biography were pretty much shot down. After all, how many biographies does the world need of an unknown musician who died before reaching his full potential? I didn’t give up my plans for a book. I kept my interviews with Steve, my outlines and notes and put them away for quite some time.

UNreal gods
UNreal gods

It was Steve’s version of events that I held on to. Doubtless I could have chosen someone else in or around the band to interview. And that was most certainly my original plan. But somewhere along the line, since I could no longer write the biography I had in mind, I decided the book might actually work better as a novel: where Billy’s story could become archetypal and not simply relegated to a backwater bio.

And while the story I tell in my novel UNreal gods is most certainly Billy’s heroic tale, it’s also Steve’s story—his point of view. And, as in real life, his character is an affable team player, willing to do the unsung dirty work behind the scenes. Not every person is cut out for those duties. It’s an unforgiving position, with few rewards. Whatever the case, Steve did his job well.

I lost track of the guy again after that. I know he was managing the kitchen out at the Edgefield for a while. Then he was gone again. It turns out he’d ended up moving back down to Gold Hill to help raise his two kids. That’s the kind of dutiful square guy Steve was. He made every effort at all times to do the right thing. He was always very conscientious and fair.

At the Alaskan Folk Fest, April, 2000
At the Alaskan Folk Fest, April, 2000

The next time Steve’s name came up was in the late 2000s. I’d heard through the grapevine that he was back in town. I saw him play a couple songs when the wall was still up at the old Eugenio’s. But it wasn’t until 2011 that I really had the chance to catch up with him again. He was the congenial host of the weekly Wednesday open mics at the new, post-wall Eugenio’s. By that time, he’d been at the helm for a year or two and he had a real smooth operation going. There was always a huge crowd there.

He ran a tight ship. He’d open the evening by singing a few songs to set the mood, and then he’d introduce each successive act to take the stage. Novice or old pro, Steve always had a kind thing to say in the presentation of each performer. If you think running an open mic would be a fairly easy gig, you’re out of your mind!

Think about it. You’re dealing with “ sensitive artist” types with egos as big as the Great Trumpkin himself, totally unrealistic about their own abilities. Some are pushy. They want their slot at such and such a time. Can my daughter crowd in? The family’s here. I was with Steve on many occasions when I was astounded that he didn’t go off on somebody for stepping way over the line. I know I would have. Still, Steve always handled every situation with fairness and affability.

But he was having health issues. He’d had something happen with his foot. (He’d broken his back while living in Gold Hill). And he was nursing a hip that he eventually had to have operated on. Then he got cancer of the tongue. They ended up removing a chunk of his tongue and he had a tough time speaking for a while. But through it all, he persevered, rarely missing a Wednesday Open Mic at Eugenio’s. Friends took up for him when he was out, keeping the gig going. But he didn’t miss that many shows, really. He just played through.

Open Mic at the Starday
Open Mic at the Starday

There was a period a few years back, when Eugenio’s was forbidden from having music at all—at which point Steve moved the Open Mic operation to the Starday Tavern on Foster. That went on for a month or two before the music was back at Eugenios’s and so were Pearly’s open mics. And from that point on, the place was packed out on any given Wednesday night.

The Janglers
The Janglers

Over time, Steve put together a tasty little combo of backing musicians, local pros who’d accompanied him on one or another or all of his various recordings over the past twenty five years. They were called the Janglers. Steve sang lead and played rhythm acoustic, Houston Bolles on lead guitar, J. Michael Kearsey on bass and Dennis Elmer on just a snare and a ride cymbal. Don’t kid yourself, Dennis Elmer can do more with a snare and a ride cymbal than most drummers can pull off with an entire field array of percussive artillery.

Dennis Elmer
Dennis Elmer

All in all, with comparative ease, that quartet could knock out an evening’s worth (more than half of the songs were Steve’s originals, the rest: well chosen covers) of top-notch entertainment—at easy listening volumes! Steve’s genial charm and his incredible ability to get people’s attention always made for a fun affair. Always.

J. Michael Kearsey
J. Michael Kearsey

But, as it so often does, Steve’s cancer came back. This time in the form of an inoperable tumor in the upper lobe of his left lung, right behind his heart. He had options to go with chemo and radiation treatments, to try to prolong his life for an additional three or six months. But Steve had seen what that process had done to his friend Billy Rancher in his final days and that’s not the way he wanted to go. So, he decided to forego further treatment and just ride the process out to the end.

open mikeI think it was last September when Steve first started to complain of chest pains and of feeling ill, lacking energy—and it was understood that the decline had begun. But that in no way deterred him from holding court with his regular Wednesday Night Open Mic at Eugenio’s and occasionally gigging with the Janglers on the weekend.

Around November, word got out that Eugene Gray was going to have to close Eugenio’s some time in December. Unbeknownst to most, the building’s owner/landlord, Tim Ellis, who also owned Kung Fu Bakery Recording Studios next door, was forced to sell his interest because he too was suffering from a struggle with cancer. This was one rare instance where Division Street gentrification was not directly responsible for the demise of the enterprise.

Open Mic 2By the time the middle of December rolled around and the final days of the club were being celebrated and mourned, it was becoming clear that Steve was in a great deal of pain. Despite that, or just as likely, because of it, Steve played on, hosting his final Eugenio’s Wednesday Night Open Mic on December 16th. I can’t remember the final total on his weekly open mic events. I think he hosted 306. It was over three hundred, I know that.

The Janglers played their last gig on Friday, the day before the closing of the club, on December 19th. If you didn’t know of his condition, you would not have known how sick Steve was, or how much pain he was enduring. On the tiny Eugenio’s stage, he was his in his element, being his typical fount of hospitable conviviality. His voice was thin, but still sure as pearl. His guitar playing was still crisp. He went out on a high.

steve fresh tracks
In the studio.

I spoke with Steve by phone frequently and visited him in mid-January. His condition had deteriorated dramatically. It was clear he was dying. He played me cuts of the album he was finishing up—whenever he was up to it—with members of the Janglers and many other friends joining in. He’d been working on it for a while, but when it became apparent that he didn’t have a lot more time left, he stepped up his recording schedule, jumping into Jon Lindahl’s Fresh Tracks studio whenever he could muster the strength to give it an hour or two.

Towards the end, his trusted friend, Steve Edgren, manned the board, recording a couple of songs in the living room of Steve’s apartment. He was weak and frail, but he knew what he wanted. Even in his final days he was directing traffic as he always had, whipping everyone into shape.

Madi Goldsmith and Will De Lance of the Glue Horses performing at Steve Hettum's "Wake While I'm Awake."
Madi Goldsmith and Will De Lance of the Glue Horses performing at Steve Hettum’s “Wake While I’m Awake.”

A bunch of Steve’s friends organized the event for him on January 24th. We weren’t sure Steve would live to attend his “Wake While I’m Awake.” But, as through all things, Steve showed rugged determination, and he wasn’t about to miss the celebration of his life. He was there, right up front in the place of honor. Many of the performers who made Steve’s open mics so successful took the stage to play for him one final time.

Steve sat in his recliner, soaking up every minute of the event, so sick and weak, his voice was just a hoarse croak. He could barely speak to the stream of well-wishers who came up to greet him and say their last goodbyes.

But someone had given him a microphone, so occasionally he would bark out some orders to performers or speakers on stage. And he sang with everyone for the evening’s fitting finale, “Party By Myself,” with a solo vocal for a verse, which led to an inspired round of choruses to close.

Steve “Pearly” Hettum died two weeks later on Monday, February 8th, at Steve and Esther Edgren’s house. Steve and Esther selflessly looked after Steve in his final days, offering him hospice in their home, allowing him to die as he wished: in peace, with friends and family at his side.

familyA fitting end for a guy who spent so much of his life looking after the needs of other people—as manager for Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods, as a husband and father, and as host to an interminable array of insecure musicians with enormous egos at his weekly open mics (I include myself among them)—he always took charge of the situation to put people at ease. When he was at his end, he was at ease and he had put someone else in charge.

Which brings us to Folks Like Us. What started out as the next Steve “Pearly” Hettum album eventually became his send-off, and you can feel that energy among the performers here. One can hear a profound sense of desperate determination among the musicians, motivated by the bleakness of the situation. But through it all, it was Steve who kept flagging spirits high, creating a mood of joy and thankfulness that is palpable from start to finish.

Among the fourteen songs presented, three are well-chosen cover songs, and a couple others are reworkings of self-penned songs he had produced for other recordings. But most of the material is new and original and performed with the sort of urgency you don’t hear on every record released these days.

The title track leads off the set, a homey, hillbilly sentiment reminiscent of the ‘50s, Claude King, Johnny Horton and the Burnette brothers, etc.—all cornbread in the oven, chicken in the skillet and cows out in the barn. Steve always had a knack for making any song he wrote sound autobiographical, so I have no idea if this yarn about his cousins in Oklahoma and family in Missouri, his Granny in Nebraski who smokes a pipe, or his cousin in Kansas, bear any resemblance to the truth. It sounds like “Wolverton Mountain” to me. A fascinating piece of Americana, all the same.

Jeff Bailey and Pearly
Jeff Bailey and Pearly

The arrangement is standard Janglers fare, stripped down a bit: with Steve on vocals and acoustic guitar, a little percussion and Jeff Bailey’s bass (and accordion)—laidback, but spot on, bustin’ along like a spirited pony. Guest Ritchie Raye contributes totally appropriate mood fiddle that lends the scent of hickory to the smoke in Steve’s tale.

“Cowboy Song” has been a staple of Steve’s repertoire for several years, this rendition culled from his 2008 release, The Jangler. It’s a yippy-oh-ki-yay song, to be sure, but there is an element of Van Morrison in the melody and feel. It’s an intangible. But when you hear Steve’s take on Morrison’s “Wild Night” a little later, the connection becomes clearer. There’s a vague element of Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” at the back of the sonic palette too. Jon Lindahl’s tasty slide guitar lends the perfect western element, while the piano backing fills out the rhythm section

Steve was regularly accused of being sentimental, in fact one of the songs found here, “Sentimental Bastard” defends that position (Billy Rancher suffered from the criticism that his songs were “corny,” which he freely admitted: so the compulsion runs in the family). “Funny Little Girl,” a paean to his daughters Caia and Margo, could pass for Ralph McTell or maybe Nick Drake. And because it’s about his daughters, he can be forgiven for his references to “licorice drops and peppermint sticks.” I’m not sure Drake or McTell would go there.

Houston Bolles
Houston Bolles

I actually thought Steve’s adaptation of “Weep No More” was his own composition. It sounds nearly nothing like Bad Company’s version from 1975. And I wasn’t familiar with that one in the first place. Steve wisely cut out a lot of superfluous material to get to the heart of the song. A streamlined take, with a bit of a country feel. It’s a Janglers arrangement, with Houston Bolles singing the high vocal harmonies, and adding a sweet guitar solo in the middle.

Steve’s had “For Pete’s Sake” in his catalogue for many years. It’s a song dedicated to Pete Jorgusen, who was the drummer for the Malchicks—Billy and Lenny Rancher’s band that preceded the Unreal Gods—and with whom Steve had a special friendship. Jorgusen died of cancer early in 2010. It’s a philosophical song, perhaps a father addressing his son, with a message about intention and accomplishment.

Steve Edgren
Steve Edgren

“Luella” is one of the last songs Steve wrote and recorded. With the help of Steve Edgren at the controls, Pearly recorded this in the living room of his apartment—just a solitary vocal and a lone acoustic guitar. Edgren described the occasion like this: “About three weeks before the album was to be mixed, Steve was putting the finishing touches on ‘Luella’. I stopped by his apartment one afternoon, and he was having an exceptionally good day.

“He said ‘I think I’m done writing “Luella”’, and grabbed his guitar and started playing it. I could tell the energy was there and stopped him, grabbed my phone, and started recording. As luck would have it he nailed it. I’m glad we recorded it that day because he never was able to play like that again. We did a lot of overdubs at Steve’s.”

It’s a ghostly lament, the wild, wicked, wraith-like Luella haunting his every waking moment, obviously recorded spontaneously, but with undeniable magic, all the same. About half way through, Edgren contributes additional guitars and the Janglers join him via the magic of studio overdubbing for a stirring finale. Following the performance, Steve briefly recounts the fascinating tale of how the song came to him in a dream.

Photo by John Alcala
Photo by John Alcala

There are no surprises with “My Old Man” and “Sentimental Bastard.” Those bookends are performed solo, just Steve, his guitar, and his memories—shared with candor and honest reflection. One cannot help but be touched by these simple songs. “Sweet Rose Diane” is a moving ballad in 6/8 time, from the folk tradition.

“If I Were a Christian,”also spills from a folk idiom, in the Bob Dylan vein (circa Blood on the Tracks). Steve’s observations are tinged with thinly veiled rancor: “I am not an Arab/And I am not a Jew/And I do not sympathize with either of the two/When they draw the line in Palestine/For another holy attack/And then they wonder at the other side—‘How come you’re shooting back’?” The rest of the commentary hits home with similar explosive impact.

There are many similarities between “Boogie Man” and “Luella.” For one thing it was recorded in Pearly’s living room studio, the Caruthers Street Corral, again under the oversight and assistance of Steve Edgren (although this track was recorded via a twelve track digital recorder, not a phone). And it’s another song of voodoo voogum, here sounding as if Doctor John were chewing through a swampy rendition of Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” with Creedence Clearwater Revival providing the accompaniment. Edgren’s lead guitar fills seem steered straight out of “Born on the Bayou.”

steve1Pearly’s warm depiction of John Prine’s “Souvenirs” touches all the bases. A home run. As with many covers Steve performed through the years, he found his way inside the song to make it his own. When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure if Steve had written it, or what. I thought it sounded like a Danny O’Keefe (“Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues”) song. The cut is also the perfect example of what the Janglers brought to their live shows. Simple. Subtle. Laid-back, not a wasted note, and tasty as all get out.

Conversely, Steve’s smart take of the aforementioned “Wild Night” is backed by a hefty contingent of guests—including a manifoldly stacked sax section created by the legendary Dan Schauffler (Nu Shooz, Crazy 8s), steeped in a rich broth cooked up by fabled organist Dover Weinberg. Vocally, Steve could easily pass as Van Morrison’s American born cousin, again making the song his own, from the inside out.

The album comes to a dramatic conclusion with the cathartic hymn, “Get On Board.” Deeply rooted in American gospel, spiritual soil, fully twenty people preform on the finished track, lending their talents, including the eleven-voice Diversion Street Choir.

Diversion Street Choir
Diversion Street Choir

Knowing the end to his story makes the song all the more poignant, as Steve was not playing with the possibility of leaving this life behind. He knew it to be a certainty. With that big, dark cloud hanging over his head, he created a piece of music that shines with immense light. Even to the end, Steve’s message remained resolutely clear and strong: “I lost the battle, but I won the war/And I feel the fire within /I’m knockin’ on the door/ Please let me in/Forgive my sins/I don’t want to go back to where I’ve been.”

And there it is. Few artists are availed of the opportunity to release a fitting close to their careers before the end of their lives. Coincidentally, David Bowie was able to do just such a thing before he died in January. That concurrence was not lost on any of the participants.

Steve's BoardTribute. Statement. No person could better sum up his own life than Steve Hettum himself. Unabashed schmaltz, whiplash insights. Imaginative expressions of well-worn homilies. Steve was an expert at setting a mood, at making everyone in a room comfortable. This album is no different. It brings joyful warmth to all who hear. Goodbye, Pearly.

The past six months have seen the city lose a number of important longtime contributors: Brian Berg in October, Dane Petersen in November. Jimmy Boyer died on January 21st, Steve died February 8th, Andrew Loomis died March 8th and Tim Ellis died on March 21st. Five of those sixth deaths are attributable to cancer. These were not old men here, people! They were still in their primes. One must ask himself what the hell is going on in this city that cancer is so persistently in our midst?

Home Base 2620 SE Powell Wednesday Night Open Mic
Home Base 2620 SE Powell
Wednesday Night Open Mic

The process has begun and we’re only going to lose more of our friends in the days and years to come. For that eventuality we must steel ourselves and appreciate what we have while we have it.

Though Eugenio’s closed in December, and Pearly’s Wednesday open mics ended at the same time, the Lost Tribe of Eugenio’s wandered for forty days and forty nights before longtime participant Larry Harrel, “Latenight Larry,” was able to secure a new location for the weekly event. Homebase Coffee and Espresso (and Tavern) at 26th, across Powell from Cleveland High School. In honor of Pearly’s spirit, in his memory, the music continues.

The space is small and intimate, in much the same way as Eugenio’s was. Late Nite Larry has hosted six Wednesday night open mics in the new venue, and every week the response is greater, and the quality of the musicianship, already of keen order, challenges all participants to perform at a higher level. In just a few visits I have seen several acts, one in particular, that I’m certain I will be writing about in the future. Rest assured that Steven “Pearly” Hettum will be watching over it all.

 

 

 

pearl

 

 

 

Matty Charles and Katie Rose

katy cd final (in progress) (3)-minCatching Arrows
1906 Records

It was precisely two years ago that I first ran across Matty Charles. Steve “Pearly” Hettum had just been forced to move his very successful Wednesday Nite Open Mic operation from Eugenio’s on inner Southeast Division, to the Starday Tavern—farther out on Southeast Foster. I wrote about that transition.

It wasn’t a perfect fit. Nothing would be, really, in comparison to the uniquely artistic atmosphere and congenial milieu of Eugenio’s. The Starday is laid out laterally along a narrow corridor, with the small stage up next to the entry door. Not so conducive to artist/audience interaction. The audience stretches away into the distance.

Eugenio's Veterans at the Starday
Eugenio’s Veterans at the Starday

But even with the change of venue, Pearly’s Wednesday Nite Open Mics successfully migrated to the Starday. Many of the Eugenio’s regular performers made the journey. A few new voices made appearances as well.

One of the things the Starday had going for it was an engaging young bartender, who regularly manned the station on Wednesday nights. Matty Charles. I’m not sure how it happened, exactly, but let’s just say I have a knack for getting people to tell me their life stories—part of the trade, one would assume. It transpired that Matty told me of a former musical career as a singer guitarist, in what was a burgeoning alt country folk scene in Brooklyn.

Matthew Barber grew up in Southeast Portland, and attended Jefferson High School. While he was still in high school, he and some friends formed the band PHNEA. Matty notes with pride that he bought his bass rig at Captain Whizeagle’s. Old school all the way! The band played Satyricon and the X-Ray Café, getting paid, as he says “mostly in beer, which was great for teenagers.”

After high school, Matty travelled the world some, settling in New York City in 1993. He was was in the vanguard of an old-time music revival in Brooklyn in the early 2000’s. Just as with the original folk renaissance in Greenwich Village, fifty years earlier, the scene consisted of a small coterie of local musicians circuiting between a few clubs in the neighborhood. The loci of that thriving little scene was a neighborhood joint called Pete’s Candy Store.

It was at Pete’s Candy Store, that Charles and his trio, the Valentines, maintained a weekly gig, and it was where their popularity grew and they achieved modest success. Over the course of ten years, Matty released four records (several with the Valentines), composed the musical score for a film, playing himself in a bit part in Hal Hartley’s Meanwhile.  

Land Beyond the Sea by Matty Charles and the Valentines
Land Beyond the Sea by Matty Charles and the Valentines

Both with the Valentines and through solo gigs, Charles gradually acquired a reputation for his gritty alt-country style as a guitarist and vocalist. The Village Voice compared him favorably to Guy Clark. Acoustic Guitar Magazine heard Johnny Cash or “a less twangy” Robert Earl Keen. Other critics likened him to Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristopherson.

But Oregon’s siren song beckoned him home to Portland in 2012. Shortly after his return, Matty met Katie Wheetman at the Landmark Saloon one night, and from that encounter forward a partnership was struck. Katie brought a pedigree of her own to the collaboration.

Her father, Danny Wheetman, has an array of musical creditials among which include playing fiddle for John Denver in the ‘80s. He has fronted the touring band, Marley’s Ghost for over thirty years. Her mother, who performed as vocalist in an Aspen band called Pearly White in the ‘70s, is a singer/songwriter today who performs under the name Seraina Wood. And though she frequently sat in with her musician twin brother Trevor at some of his gigs in Seattle, Kate had never sung in a “band” before. Then she ran into Matty.

Matty Charles and Katie Rose
Matty Charles and Katie Rose

“Matty and I met by chance at the Landmark Saloon in May 2012.  I had just been on a family trip where I did a bunch of singing, and when I finished the trip, I vowed that I would find some folks to play music with in Portland.  The night I met Matty, he had his guitar with him, so I asked him for his card so we could get together and play sometime.  We got together the next week and discovered that our voices had a really great blend etc….”

So, it was a year or so after their moment of kismet that I met Matty tending bar at the Starday Tavern out on Foster Road. It was only a matter of time until, during a lull in a particularly slow evening, Jeff Bailey coaxed Matty into coming out from behind the bar to perform a song or two.

What Matty did was to play deceptively simple guitar phrasings on his old Martin guitar, while singing his own songs with a voice like burnished hickory. I was blown away, and I told him so: another propensity of mine. He was good. Total pro. A sound and style all his own.

Katie and Matty
Katie and Matty

A few weeks later, Matty was back at Pearly’s Open Mic—on his night off, no less—this time with a tall, pretty, dark haired woman in tow. Katie Rose. They sang three or four songs together. He usually sang in the lead, with Katie providing sweet high harmonies, against Matty’s effortlessly well-executed guitar accompaniment. I was knocked out. My favorable impressions are in that same article, cited above.

They’ve been working toward the release of this album since those days—a couple of songs I heard that first night are represented in this collection. The record doesn’t sound that much different than a Valentines effort, except for the fact that Katie’s presence greatly alters the environment.

There’s a reason why there have not been a lot of great vocal duos in the history of popular music. It’s very hard to do. More precisely, it’s very hard to do well. I can think of Simon and Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers doing it well. Even fewer are teams comprised of a man and a woman.

It’s not just the difference in the voices that’s hard to manage, it’s the difference in gender perspective. The material must reflect an unique spirit of togetherness, even if the song should speak to falling apart. George and Tammy, and Sonny and Cher are the only pairs of male/female vocal acts that I can think of as pulling that feat off.

George and Tammy
George and Tammy

Matty and Katie traverse musical turf nowhere near the domains of George and Tammy, nor Sonny and Cher. As I pointed out in the previous review, their construal is far closer to the rare encounters between Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Their country is the western prairie and the lone restlessness such wide-open distances produce.

The couple recorded the basic tracks live, just Matty’s guitar and their two vocals, accompanied by drummer Kevin Major, at Fremont Studios, with Brud Giles manning the board. Instrumentation sparse and in keeping with their style, Matty and Katie recruited Joel Savoy to play fiddle and guitar, and Nick Forster to play tenor and electric guitars, and mandolin.

Forster is a member of a Grammy nominated bluegrass band called Hot Rize, and the producer/host of a radio program E Town, based out of Boulder, Colorado. Veteran bassist David Jackson is a founding member of the band Dillard and Clark, and Hearts and Flowers, and has played a long list of well-known rock and country artists, from Jackson Browne to Dwight Yoakam.

Matty Charles
Matty Charles

Matty actually sounds a little like Jackson Browne on “What I Want,” with his reedy vocal intonation, pining a lonesome plaint, until Katie jumps in for the harmony parts, wherein the combination of voices instantly melts into golden Everly butter. The musicianship on this cut is out of the park. Nothing overstated. Everything perfectly pristine and in its place. Nice.

Katie’s lead vocal on the simple “Julia” recalls early Linda Ronstadt’s honeyed euphony, an engaging  choirgirl, a sense reinforced even more when Matty adds the backups— sounding all Don Henley-like circa “Hasten Down the Wind.”

The homespun waltz, “Steady and True,” calls to mind Gram and Emmylou. Humble and plain guitar backing simple vocals. Echoes of Irish balladry reverberate from a distance. But at many turns the blend between Matty and Katie is pure Everlys—there’s a certain ineffable quality—only rarely duplicated. A stroke of fortune, to be sure.

A stripped-down ballad, “Maryanne,” plays like something Townes Van Zandt might have written. The ghost of John Denver lingers in the corners of the melody. Guest Arcellus Sykes’ elastic double bass columbines around the trellis of Matty’s deceptively simple guitar presentation, the creaky weariness in his voice smoothes when Katie arrives for the harmonies at the chorus.

photo-2“Hey, Pretty Birds,” is a lilting waltz, again with Sykes’ backing on bass, that recalls some of the great folk singer/songwriters of the early 70s: Steve Goodman, Danny O’Keefe, Paul Siebel and a hint of Jerry Jeff Walker at the back of the sonic palate. Katie slathers on more Everly harmony gravy. And there you go. It doesn’t take much for these two to make a song work. They draw you into their very intimate world, spinning their tales like cobwebs.

Conversely, “One Hundred Years,” is pure, old-time traditional country corn—the Everly vocal blend is never far away. Savoy’s forlorn fiddle kicks things off. A faint echo of J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt dueting his “Faithless Love” threads through the vocal melody, although the twang is set to stun in this instance. In addition to the fine fiddle, Savoy chips in some mighty slick pickin’ in the solo. Zesty!

The Linda Ronstadt comparison seems apt, as Katie takes the lead for “Where They’re Gonna Bury Me,” a performance that sounds as if it could have come from that same Heart Like a Wheel period. Forster provides subtle, but perfectly placed electric guitar fills, never once crowding the space, but always adding just the right touch, usually with a country chortle or trill.

photoI wrote about “Glorietta” in that Starday article, so I won’t repeat myself (for a change) here, but everything I said then: all the comparisons and descriptions, are completely in keeping with everything here. It’s a pretty, dusty, windswept song. The familiarly catchy chorus and Forster’s flitting mandolin phrasings decorate “Standin’ On the Corner (With Your Head On Fire),” yet another of Matty’s superior compositions. The wonderful bridge is far outside the alt-country territory he has staked out for most of his material, stylistically. An unexpected departure in just the right place in the program.

“Long Gone” sits outside the fences of the country pasture, as well. Closer to Jackson Browne (with Emmylou backing) perhaps. The pining feature is still prominently strong in the lad, but here more in keeping with a folk rock sensibility. Everything about each of the dozen songs on this album is flawless—skillfully executed by the players—well-crafted numbers: each instantly recognizable, as if the song had been heard a hundred times before. Matty is an expert at weaving new cloth from old strands.

untitled shoot-9156
Katie Rose

Katie returns to intone the winsome solo vocal on “Stars That Shine,” joined by Matty with harmonies at the turns. It’s perhaps her best effort of all, demonstrating Brud Giles’ proficiency in capturing the delicate articulations expressed within her richly human voice. Every nuance and filigree is secured with faithful attention to detail. It’s yet another of those songs that’s been out there in space for quite some time, waiting for someone to write it. And Matty just happened on to it first. He’s got a lot of songs like that here.

For example, “I Belong to Heaven” sounds as if it has always had a back page in the American country gospel hymnal, though bursting forth with a secular sensibility: “I am not a miner for the things that cannot be/I belong to heaven and the world belongs to me.” It’s a simple arrangement. Just a guitar and two voices, but the purity of the sound is remarkable. Katie and Matty blend in a most unique way—here somewhat differently than most of the other songs in the set. Her angelic soprano soars above Matty’s homely baritone, like June Carter above Johnny Cash’s younger brother. Try to hear that one I your mind’s ear!

SONY DSC
Matty Charles and Katie Rose

Their music is deceptively simple. The accompaniment doesn’t come any more stripped-down than this. What there is of it is at all times quite tasty, but the audible landscape is mostly quite sparse. Matty Charles and Katie Rose bear the weight of these songs squarely on their shoulders. Lesser singers could not pull off the task. Their vocal blend is directly in the spotlight throughout this program and they never once fail to deliver. As authentically American as roots music gets.

 

 

 

March 2016

Chris Newman Deluxe Combo

nobodyNobody
Self-Released

Chris Newman’s name came up last time in my review of Mike Coykendall. Chris has been a very busy fellow over the past year or so. I wrote about his self-produced (on his trusty Teac 4-track) album King Shit last January, and included a review of his previous album, Beachcomber (produced by the legendary Jack Endino) released in May of last year. So between the twenty-nine songs dispersed across those two records and the fifteen here, we’ve got two score and four. And with the recent addition of an 8-track machine to his studio arsenal, there is every reason to believe there will be more from Chris very soon.

But Nobody was recorded on the 4-Track and sounds like it (that’s meant to be a compliment as much as a criticism). As on the previous outings, Chris, plays the guitar, occasional piano, a couple of harp interjections, and an organ pad from time to time. He’s again expertly supported by bassist Nathan Jorg and Doug Naish on drums. And, as with King Shit, the arrangements are pared down and primitive. There’s not much room for a lot of fancy-dancy overdubs, tricky punch-ins, or doubling here. It’s mostly live to tape. Raw and real.

Chris Newman
Chris Newman

Chris isn’t reinventing the Newman wheel here. His influences remain at the forefront, really no different than they were when he first got rolling 35-40 years ago (at this stage of his career he stands as one of those influences: as launcher of the early grunge ships). But he presents his songs in such a variety of styles, from blues to psychedelia, any Chris Newman recording is a real sonic adventure. And there are always nuggets to be unearthed in the program—and this instance is no different. In fact, there are many inspired performances to be found.

The album begins with the languid “Castaway,” which seems to pick up the narrative thread that left off on King Shit. The verse traverses ground similar to the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” until midway, whereupon Chris launches into an elephantine solo, his guitar emitting a great pachydermic wail. Oh yeah!

Vocally, Chris fuses Captain Beefheart with Fred Cole, exorcising his dark interpersonal demons on “Drivin’ Me Mad,” while paving a black-top, two-lane grunge highway on guitar that drives hard from here all the way back to Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.”

The prototypical primordial grunge of “Homo a Go Go.” Thick, churning clouds of guitar hover low over the brimstone collision between human introspection and a fast-changing species. Joy Division meets Interpol in a dark cavern. Sublime. The rueful ballad “Bad Television” arrives, full circle, at the other end of the musical telescope, recalling “My TV,” a gem from Chris’ days with the Untouchables at the beginning of his career.

But where the former was a bit of a cheery ode to the companionship a television occasionally offered—the new song affords a far darker view. “I blame bad television, in all its encompassing nature.” Much has changed since Chris wrote “My TV” thirty-five years ago, the cultural landscape since laid to waste is starkly captured here. A touch of moody cocktail piano adds just the right touch of cynicism to the presentation.

Chris Newman Photo by RJB Photo (Rob Butler)
Chris Newman Photo by RJB Photo (Rob Butler)

“Elsewhere” is a bit of Floydian psychedelia, circa the Syd era. There’s a shadow of early Who hanging over the production as well. Chris invests a Leslie-like tremolo to his mournful solos, a tone that fits the ‘60s mode to a T. The moody psychedelia continues with the spacy, somnambulant ballad “Rings of Saturn.” Chris’ sparse, soaring guitar leads conjure Explosions in the Sky in scale of epic sonic majesty.

Jimi Hendrix watches over “Cryin’ All the Way Home,” a moody, bluesy number with incendiary solos, and banshee harp interjections, delivered over Naish’s rock-solid beat. Chris’ stinging, whipsmart fills fall somewhere along the line between Jimi and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Yow! The ghost of Jimi returns for “Deadman Blues,” with Chris firing off blistering solos over a “St. James Infirmary,” “House of the Rising Sun” setting. The nasty, roadhouse blues “Cleopatra Don’t Mind” is buoyed by Chris’ jazzy barrelhouse piano. Low, dirty vox spell out a tale of some gray, brooding voogum.

Following that extended blues interlude, the mood returns to lurching sludge with “City on Fire.” This time the keyboard ornamentation of choice is a smoky organ, but the guitar burns hot lead, distinctly maintaining Jimi in the arc of its manifestation.

Chris Newman1
Photo by Kurtis Kirk

A brusquely unique nylon string acoustic guitar propels “Dreamworld,” an energetic, ‘60s-informed rocker with a familiar turnaround. The focus here is lyrical. Though the vocal is buried just enough to make the deciphering of the lyrics difficult, the sense is that Chris is experiencing a great deal of confusion in his life, not all of it of his making. This song is a nice departure from the others.

The title track slaloms a hard driving two-beat, sliding downhill at a breakneck pace, until it tumbles into a heap momentarily, before resuming its cartwheel descent. Vocally, Chris occasionally invokes the wry Beefheart croak, a jagged broken windshield at other times.

Chris Newman is a musical treasure. His significance within the Portland music scene (and well beyond) cannot be overstated. And while Chris has experienced fallow times in his life, he is now undergoing an inspired period in which he is producing high quality material on a low-budget.

In bassist Jorg and drummer Naish, Chris has found solid support, similar in reliability to the olden days of Napalm. Justifiably, Chris has bemoaned the paucity of attendees to some Deluxe Combo shows. But the truth is that so much of the population in Portland is new to the city, recently arrived, that the sense of history once so highly valued within the local musical community has dissipated.

There is good music everywhere to be found in this town, the relative importance of one act against another is such, that older musicians often fail to attract a younger demographic that might actually enjoy the artistry, if there was any real name recognition. For some genres, the blues, for instance, the demographic in this city is aging right along with the chief proponents­—well, it’s the old story of the spirit being willing but the flesh (and the pocketbook) being weak.

deluxeChris Newman merits wider recognition. It seems so odd to even be making that statement, over thirty-five years into his career, but there it is. He is certainly still relevant, still cranking out great songs at a pace someone one-third his age would be hard-pressed to rival. But he is decidedly unglamorous.

Glamor and image, increasingly, seem to be what the denizens of New Portlandia crave most. Of course that’s entirely at odds with the very qualities that drew them to a backwater hardscrabble burg like this in the first place. The image of the “artist” that attracted the Nouveau Upwards here has drawn so many to Portland that the newcomers are now crowding out the “artists” they came to be among. That worked out well.

 

 

October 2015

Mike Coykendall

Coyk frHalf Past Present Pending
Fluff and Gravy Records

Mike Coykendall has been a longtime fixture in local music, involved in nearly every aspect of the scene. Since moving to Portland from San Francisco (where he and his wife Jill led the Old Joe Clarks) in 1999, he has quietly gone acquired a reputation for good ears and good musical taste. In 2003 he worked closely with M Ward on his third release, The Transfiguration of Vincent, subsequently touring with Ward in support of that album. Later he played with She & Him for their recordings and tours. He also collaborated with Gillian Welch, Bright Eyes, Jim James, and Victoria Williams, among many others

Mike Coykendall (Photo by Christopher Sohler)
Mike Coykendall (Photo by Christopher Sohler)

In addition to working as a sideman, Mike has served as producer and engineer on countless local recordings. We caught him here a couple of years ago, producing and playing on Little Sue’s New Light, wherein he was…ahem…instrumental in the outcome of that project.

He’s worked with countless local alt-folk musicians, in one capacity or another over the years—producing and recording the likes of Richmond Fontaine, Blitzen Trapper, Sallie Ford and her band, and the late lamented Amelia, to name a few. An early supporter of the career of Annalisa Tornfelt, Mike produced her album The Number 8 (released last March) and recorded her on his trusty 8-track analog recorder.

As if all that weren’t plenty enough on his plate, he’s released self-produced albums of his own from time to time. This is his fourth, the previous record being Chasing Away the Dots in 2012. For that outing he enlisted the aid of many of the big name stars he’s worked with in the past. Here he pretty much goes it alone. Because he’s been producing his own side projects for quite some time—he’s acquired an intrinsic personal sound and style that doesn’t necessarily require a lot of fanfare or fireworks.

But, left to his own devices, Coykendall is capable of amassing sonic munitions if the occasion calls for it. His drum-work, as demonstrated on Little Sue’s album, can be ruthless. When he’s of a mind, he tortures his modest kit. The rest of the time he is said to be employing “the rig,” a jerry-built percussion device, which doesn’t amount to much really, just a few household items. But when you hear it in action, it manages to fill all the necessary rhythm spaces quite adequately, whatever it is.

coyMike’s placement in the Americana arc would be a point located near that of Blitzen Trapper—with many similar reference points. But one can readily tell that he’s well versed in the classics, as his music reflects familiarity with the work of the masters.

There’s a Petty vibe in places among the ten songs (and two instrumentals). You can hear that brittleness in tracks such as “All That I Wanted,” “Just South of Levitation,” and the wry “You Don’t Have to Treat You That Way.” You hear Dylan, and mainly John Prine, in “Hard Landing,” wearied JJ Cale over jagged, smoky guitar in “Spacebaker Blues,” and the introspective lyrical poignance of Danny O’Keefe or Steve Goodman in “Burn on Re-Entry.”

But there’s more to Mike Coykendall’s music than that. Much more. For one thing, the two instrumentals included in this package demonstrate a distinctive, if somewhat primitive, studio savvy—after all, the guy’s only working with 8-tracks, although I thought I read somewhere that he ping-ponged to the 8-track from a 4-track cassette. But any way you cut it, we’re talkin’ lo-fi, DIY, down in the trenches, seat of the pants creativity. There’s wizardry here, but it seems born more of necessity than by design.

“Killing Time” marches onto the scene in a whirring din, before snaking into a repetitive, low-strung guitar filigree riff. Elements of Duane Eddy, Link Wray and even Neil Young circulate through the rumbling bloodstream of this forlorn sonic koan. Similarly, “Paranoid Eyes” hovers in an overblown cloud (with a thrown rod) before unwinding and finally settling into a cartoon-sprinkled swirl of peculiar sound. Accessible stuff, but weirder than shit.

coyk bkBut two of the strongest songs of the set are covers. Obscure covers to be sure. He gives Roger Miller’s “In the Summer Time” (a hit for Andy Williams in 1960) a fairly straight-ahead, goose-step two step treatment—while possibly employing the vaunted “rig.” Whatever it is, it’s raw, and raucous, and reverberates like a garbage can tipping over in a windstorm. Vocally, Mike is a sawblade cutting through brick: gritty, raw and tightly compressed; resembling some of Eric Earley’s early exhortations for Blitzen Trapper. “East of Cheney,” culled from the Coykendall back-catalog, has a bit o’ the Blitzen running through it as well.

Even better is Mike’s take on Syd Barrett’s nugget “Late Night,” from his ill-fated debut solo album The Madcap Laughs, released early in 1970. Maybe it’s just me, but everything about Mike’s presentation reminds me of Chris Newman—his gritty vocal, his molten guitar, his basement recording. Which brings to mind an interesting hypothetical admixture: Chris Newman and Mike Coykendall in a project together. I don’t know if they even know each other, but we live in a small town magical world, anything can happen.

Mike Coykendall knows what to do with what he’s got, and what he does, he does very well. His idiosyncrasies and quirks render him not so much a flavor as a spice. A versatile spice to be used in many different dishes, such as those found here.

 

July 2015

 

Brownish Black

B&B FrLife Lessons
Breakup Records

Brownish Black are an unique strain, a funky soul octet with elements of r&b floating though their lineage, and they are a distinct anomaly within the current Portland music scene. They’ve been together about five years, adding positions to the ensemble along the way, gradually expanding the scope of the group’s musical purview to include a line of horns and occasional keyboard/organ fills. The songs presented here touch thirteen separate stylistic bases (referencing mostly ‘60s and ‘70s) and never land for long on any single reference. It’s easy to generalize about the band, but hard to summarize.

And unique. Brownish Black are not descended from the funk/soul of the old days in the Portland music scene hierarchy, such as Pleasure, Cool’r, Nu Shooz, or the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and other seminal local acts. The Brownish material and delivery is harder, and more honest, closer to the Daddies in that respect. They exhibit a boldness and social consciousness worthy of Sly & the Family Stone, or War, or Gil Scott Heron.

lead
M. D. Sharbatz

Lead singer, M.D. Sharbatz, a Detroit native, brings with him a bargeload of Detroit r&b/soul freight. He is availed of a slippery falsetto and a thin, but respectable Wilson Pickett/Otis Redding/Joe Tex/Mitch Ryder growl. Meanwhile, the music and arrangements cast a broad net, often closer to early ‘70s: Temps, Ojays, Spinners, and the like. But in truth they’re all over the place.

They frequently exhibit an offhanded smartassedness. Like the children of Steely Dan, or the cousins of the Flock, they use similar settings to create the new soul paradigm for the 21st century. Music with a message. An amalgam. As an example, “Le System” resembles somewhat middle period Steely Dan, with a funk groove circa Earth Wind and Fire, and a brief Edwin Starr reference. The strange Mexicali middle that may or may not work.

brownish 2The melody to “Passing Time” waves at the Supreme’s “Where Did Our Love Go” as it floats by. “Fight It” calls to mind the Temptations doing a “Get Ready”-like follow-up to The Family Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher.” It’s a stew. But it cooks, without being imitative. This is in homage territory. No frills. Not ironic. A lot of irony in music today, tongue buried so far in cheek it’s coming out of the ear. One thing nice about Portland. Some bands are not ironic. Brownish Black are not ironic.

The quality of the recording is sparse, clean, punchy, no frills and to the point— such that it is right in the pocket with 1965-1972 soul releases played on the radio back at that time. John Neff co-produced the album with the band, and his previous work with Curtis Mayfield, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker clearly demonstrate his bona fides. He reveals his chops unobtrusively, subscribing to the “less-is-more” school of engineering.

brownish3Not really soul at all, the ballad “Singing a Song” is closer to ‘60s R&B ala the Drifters—or even closer to a female ballad, like Barbara Lynn’s “You Lose a Good Thing.” “You Can Taste It,” is Was Not Was-y and different from the rest of the material. “Louder” rides on Detroit Wheels.

While not sounding the same at all, Brownish Black have a lot in common with our very own Quick and Easy Boys—who also proficiently produce a brand of music that’s just as hard to pin down (i.e. kind of Parliament-ish funk at times, other times ZZ Top). It’s a hard road, as on the face of it, those odd choices would seem anathema to success in the current music market. But one thing about current music markets: they are subject to change. What’s old is new and it generally sneaks up from behind you.

There are a few others like them out there in the world. Trust that Brownish Black honor their r&b/soul heritage, without being a knock-off band. They take the genres to the next level. This is cool stuff that grows on you very quickly.

 

June 2015

Los Hijos de la Montaña

Los Hijos FrontLos Hijos de la Montaña
Cosmica Records

Here’s a productive side project that’s a real mind blower. This is one of the strangest releases I’ve ever run across. Strange, not in a musical sense whatsoever, but strange in the genesis of the recording. It’s not clear how it came to pass. And once it was finished, it really isn’t clear what the subsequent plan was. The label certainly doesn’t know.

Luz Elena Mendoza
Luz Elena Mendoza

This much we do know. It was Portland’s own Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) who first arranged to place local vocal treasure Luz Elena Mendoza (Y La Bamba, Los Tiburones, et al.) with Sergio Mendoza, leader of the Tuscon-based band Orkesta Mendoza—who has also worked with Devotchka and toured as sideman with Calexico.

And while the Mendozas aren’t familially related, their dedication to the traditional music of Mexico both folk and popular, unites them for this album (all songs but one are sung in Spanish), which Berlin produced (his influence is subtle, but pervasive); and which was released to little fanfare­—as in almost none. The recording seemed to come as a complete surprise to young Jessica who was handling the phones at Cosmica Records, when I called for information. She didn’t know about it. She knew Orkesta Mendoza, because they are distributed by Cosmica Records too. But Los Hijos de la Montaña? Never heard of it. Them.

I asked after a one-sheet, or any information about who played on the record (because there is some really great playing going on in the nine cuts: and brief instrumental). Anything. I got her email address and sent her my email address so she could send me information when she finally got a hold of some. Nada. So far the only information online about the album is the same scant stuff that came out just after it was released at the end of May.

Sergio Mendoza
Sergio Mendoza

I don’t know why the ball was dropped on this project. There are a lot of great songs, which appear to be Mendoza/Mendoza originals—though Luz sounds herself in a musical place not quite like any other in which she has sung before. It’s great material, well-produced, wonderfully played and sung. I’m not sure what the hell is the problem. But it kinda seems like no one wants anything to do with this one.

Too bad.

“Amor de Lejos” spins on a dark guitar figure, reminiscent of the Robby Krieger intro to the Doors’ “People Are Strange.” The arrangement then dissolves into a noir-ish fog, with Luz sounding passionately mysterious, accompanied by the festive thrump of acoustic guitars and classic lowslung spaghetti-western guitar themes. The song itself could pass as the soundtrack to one of those films, windswept and parched.

A sprightly dance rhythm propels the charming “El Tamalito,” with jaunty keyboard flourishes backing Luz in her element (this could easily pass for an Y La Bamba tune). The chorus is charmingly bilingual, with the hookline “Ay, si!” sounding very much like “I see.” Clever.

The one song sung in English, the moody “One Breath, One Soul,” is given one of Luz’s rapidfire vocal treatments, so that it is difficult to tell what language she’s singing in. But it’s not like her choice of languages has ever been an obstacle. She sings with such fluidity and emotional expressivity that language is not a factor.

A burbling synth figure threads against the persistent chuckle of a charango, or a ukulele, or some other small, stringed instrument. Mariachi brass join in the turnarounds, providing a keen, lamentational wail behind Luz’s own windy call. Sergio sings a verse of his own, a portentous cloud, jarring when it shows up. But well-placed!

berlin
Steve Berlin

“Compañera” is a song steeped in customary flavors of Mexico—more horns, organic, flamenco-like percussion and wistful acoustic guitars. Luz sings at the very lowest end of her register, like a shadow giving voice to some long unlit emotion, dark and smoldering. The ballad “Mi Sangre es Tu Ventana” (from my elementary Spanish: “My Blood is Your Window”?) is darker still. Heavily wrought. In the tradition.

Breaking up the torchy mood is the romantically edgy “Manos En Las Bolsas,” replete with stirring strings, whammy guitars and a hook in the chorus strong enough to hang up a winter coat. Luz’s impassioned vocals bespeak a sense of desperation, a hint of danger and intrigue. Again faithful to musical culture, in the ranchera style, while taking it to a new and different place. Great stuff. Very exciting!

“Lengua De Leon” plays with a cumbia disposition, a ska-like limp in the rhythm. And the ballad “Adonde Voy” is a sweet farewell to a place to which there may be no return. The band did release a subsequent track, “El Chumina,” which does not appear on this album, but should. Another superlative track.

mendoza
Luz and Sergio Mendoza

Luz and Sergio Mendoza, guided by Steve Berlin, have taken us to a very special place in popular music, where there are no borders or boundaries—to the common denominator between humanity and music. It’s a shame more of the world hasn’t heard it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 2015

Lost Lander

LL Cover FrMedallion
Glad I Did Recordings

It’s been three years since we last heard from Matt Sheehy and his smart synth pop band Lost Lander. In that time he has undergone several life transforming experiences, many of which are reflected in the cohesive program presented in this sophomore effort. The focus is more acutely drawn here, more clearly defined. Which is saying something given the precision their chosen genre demands.

Lost Lander toured extensively in support of their first release, DRRT— acquiring a prestigious list of critical accolades along the way. Perhaps the most prominent among Sheehy’s post-tour activities was his creation and performance of the first ad for the much-maligned Cover Oregon campaign (I looked all over the internets for a link and I’ll be damned if I can find a copy of that ad. Laura Gibson’s subsequent commercial is still floating around, but Matt’s contribution is, sadly, nowhere to be found).

Matt Sheehy for Cover Oregon
Matt Sheehy for Cover Oregon

It’s sort of a Guthriesque, “This Land is Your Land” affair, entirely in keeping with Matt’s ulterior career as a forester. More’s the pity the clever production is no longer available for viewing. It wasn’t like the ads were big budget affairs to begin with, though they did serve as symbols for the boondoggle the entire campaign became. It must be said that, for all that went wrong, it certainly wasn’t the fault of the commercials.

Other calamities in Matt’s life more definitively shaped the context of this album—a sense of loss and redemption hovering over it all. His mother died and it is clear that her passing had a profound impact on his psyche. Her recurrent dream of Lost Land Lake was the inspiration for the band’s name when they first convened in 2011, and her passing cast a longer shadow over the philosophical perspective expressed here.

Then, on top of that, Sheehy witnessed the disintegration of his intentions to marry and the subsequent breakup of that relationship, adding yet another layer of anguish to his woe. But in the midst of that adversity, Matt and Lander keyboardist/vocalist Sarah Fennell began to forge a deeper bond beyond their musical affinity. That sense of renewal and reconciliation manifests in this new recording as well.

Brent Knopf
Brent Knopf

For this second outing, Sheehy has again aligned forces with Brent Knopf (Menomena, Ramona Falls)—who serves as producer and contributor on keys. That would be considered a wise choice, as Knopf did a masterful job in both capacities on the first go around. Here he only exceeds his previous work, as nothing, not a single note, seems out of place here. All is as it should be, and it is glorious.

Last month I took Sleater-Kinney, or more specifically their producer John Goodmanson, to task for the unnecessarily ornate, gaudily overwrought aural picture the team painted with their new album, No Cities to Love—a cake with way too much frosting. By contrast Lost Lander’s Medallion, also heavily produced, creates quite the opposite affect. It’s a presentation filled with open air, where every of the varied instruments (and sounds) has room to luxuriate, a space all its own, before it disappears.

Sheehy and Knopf (sounds like a book publisher or a law firm) work in a 21st century manner, exchanging files of their projects and pieces online, rather than regularly meeting together in person in the studio. This aloofness does not translate at all in the music, for it sounds like Knopf lives inside Sheehy’s head most of the time. It is impossible at any given moment to ascertain just exactly whom is executing a particular part, or precisely what instrument is being played.

Which was pretty much the case with the first album, but here the process is even more refined. The production is world class, and somehow that pronouncement seems to shortchange the album somewhat. It’s truly a pleasure to listen to. Breathtaking.

Spandau Ballet - Those were the days
Spandau Ballet – Those were the days

Sheehy, Knopf and the band come from a distinct ‘80s synthpop perspective. At various points one can hear sonic references to all of the great synthpop acts of the era: Tears For Fears, Depeche Mode, Human League, Erasure, Howard Jones, Spandau Ballet, Ultravox and middle-period New Order, most obviously. But better. Much, much better. The technology that could only have been approximated and intimated in the ‘80s is here, now, for the savvy musician. Lost Lander are very savvy. They know how to use the technology as well as anyone.

This is no easy achievement, given the dappled emotional light and intense depth of field imparted within the subject matter. Still, at no time do the music or arrangements ever overtake the sentiments being expressed, instead at all times they compliment them.

A brief introductory interlude called “Pre” emerges into the first real track called “Gemini.” A halting flutey organ motif, underlain by a wiry synth bass play against jittery, ostensible electronic drums. Matt enters the vocal picture with the observation “There is an animal that finds us in the night/I see its eyes reflected in the soft light/I see trouble every time I look for you”—accented by a lone, low, muted trumpet figure of seven notes that appears then vanishes until it is called upon to fill the same space later on.

Matt Sheehy
Matt Sheehy

The mantis-like synth turns rubbery in the second verse and momentarily dominates the scene. All turns quiet for the turn at the chorus, a chattering synth in the background and Fennell’s expert backup vocal. At that point the chorus bursts into an Afro chant, Sheehy’s pleasant tenor turning grittier, calling to mind Curt Smith of Tears For Fears. “One by one we share a troubled… heart.” A sense of deliverance. Break down to a trumpet theme provided by guest Kelly Platt of Beirut and a weird wobbling synth feature. As might be expected, it all comes together down the homestretch, but never crowded, instruments speak their piece and get out of the way, a minimum of sustain to soak up the panoramic vista. A place for everything and everything in its place.

Every song in the set is laid out with the same precision and attention to detail. “Flinch” comes in with an early Eurythmics (and hint of Psychedelic Furs circa “Love My Way”) setting, but as if ABC’s Martin Fry or Neil Finn in his Split Enz days were applying the vocal where Annie Lennox might typically be. In reflection of his mother’s passing Matt sings “I need to keep a piece of what you leave when I’m alone again and feel your presence,” the intensity of his proclamation is Bono-esque, but free of creaky histrionics. Another anthemic chorus lodges the song securely in the memory, seamless harmonies the bond.

The obvious hit of the ten tracks presented is “Walking On a Wire.” Sparkling piano droplets sweep with a flourish across an insistently sputtering synth. It’s a song the Killers might do, although—as it has accurately been pointed out to me—better. Sheehy has a voice comparable to Brandon Flowers, with a similar slightly operatic delivery, coasting through the verse: “It seems so long since you sat on the bed with your hair all around you/Nothing there between us we were young, we were young.”

Things turn more urgent at the stirring chorus: “Hold on to that thread/We will not sleep until we’re dead.” A second, even more ornate filigree piano motif springs up, sounding as simple as the first until you try to sing it. This leads to a stirring bridge, which resolves in permutations of the chorus, the two piano themes intertwined in alternating sequence, tying it all together in the inspired finale.

Edward Snowden: Appropriately looking over his shoulder.
Edward Snowden: Appropriately looking over his shoulder.

Purportedly the lyrics to “Feed the Fever” were taken from transcripts of interviews with hero traitor Edward Snowden, although on the surface they would seem to pertain to anyone whose conscience was weighing heavily in an untenable situation. “You never run straight, coz that’s how they catch you/Feed the fever, sign away your life.” The arrangement is Howard Jones meets Depeche Mode. Tidy, compact. The production values are exquisite. The hook could snag a marlin.

It is difficult to put into words how complex these productions are—crafted with such meticulous care. The shifting clouds of tones and timbres on the introspective love song “Give It Time” burst like constellations in the firmament. Luke Price contributes a plaintive viola solo, which adds rapturous, windy wisps to the scene. Over another Afro tinged chorus, and with a voice sounding like Bono in a rare sincere moment, Matt delivers a heartfelt lyric. “I will crawl to you/Crawl out of my skin/And find myself again.”

Here's your new 2015 Jeep Cherokee
Here’s your new 2015 Jeep Cherokee

Of late there has been a revival: resurgence in the appropriation of African chant. It’s that choral “Whoa-oh-oo-oh” sound that you hear in a lot of car commercials or any other ad attempting to purvey some sense of energetic espirit de corp (reference Imagine Dragons’ “I Bet My Life” Sprite/Jeep Cherokee campaigns, or more recently X Ambassadors’ “Renegade”—also for Jeep Cherokee).

Dream Academy: Seminal Purveyors of Afro chant
Dream Academy: Seminal Purveyors of Afro chant

For a long time I thought the whole tradition could be traced back to Dream Academy and their hit from 1985 “Life in a Northern Town.” But after giving it some thought, I believe the whole thing started with Paul McCartney and his Hawaiianish finale for “Hello/Goodbye.” It probably goes back farther than that.

Whatever the case, Matt interjects some of that inspired, tribal character into several of his songs. My guess is this is not intentional—or premeditated anyway. It seems as if the triumphal outbursts are more likely a result of real emotions and emotional realizations, not a pitch for Jeep Cherokee legitimacy. As such, they can be accepted as genuine expressions of individual transcendence.

“SunBurns” is an example of just such an uplifting motif. A shimmering arpeggiated synth gives way to the very sort of chant of which I speak, resolving on a key call-and-response line: “We hold out…” upon which Fennell bolsters the back half with a clarion call, “for the feeling.” An intrepidly uplifting song.

Sarah Fennell and Matt Sheehy
Sarah Fennell and Matt Sheehy

Though she only sings back-up in the essential scheme of this album, Sarah Fennell provides the sort of stalwart vocal efforts one might expect from Stevie Nix supporting Lindsey Buckingham. The blend isn’t always perfect, but the level of commitment to the material is at complete unity between Matt and Sarah. The result is often quite stirring—as with Fleetwood Mac.

Sarah Fennell
Sarah Fennell

The pair demonstrate that vocal compatibility in “Never Go Easy,” wherein their commingled duet in the choruses produces a powerful effect, as if the couple are reassuring themselves and each other. Stuttering low-synths and chortling guitars inform the scene with nervous unease. In the bridge, Sarah is afforded a rare moment to stand in the spotlight. The peeling exigency in her presentation calls to mind a similar quality often found in Elizabeth Fraser’s (Cocteau Twins) work.

The track heads home on a familiar, spaghetti-flavored guitar solo riff, vaguely akin to some things the Allman brothers did in the bridge of “Jessica” (of all things). My first impression was that there wasn’t much guitar on the album, but after sundry auditions, I have noticed that there are numerous moments of inconspicuously understated guitar flourishes throughout the program. But it’s just like the rest of the instrumentation here: fleeting. You’ll hear a musical figure or phrase, and then you won’t hear it again for quite a while. You’ve got to pay attention!

Matt Sheehy
Matt Sheehy

An example of one of the many songs that unfold slowly, opening like a flower bud, is the pretty ballad “Trailer Tracks.” Matt wrote the song while on retreat, staying in an Airstream at the time of its composition and it reflects a sense of incisive introspection. “It takes every creature/It takes every kind/A momentary/Lapse of the mind/I am in the moment/I’m perfectly here/I can’t shake the past off/Can’t get myself clear.” A molten guitar solo, evocative of latter day Talk Talk, melts down to the core in the conclusion.

“Crush” reflects a mood and setting similar to that of “Walking on a Wire,” dauntless in the face of adversity, yet self-confrontational. “Self, please tell me what’s the answer/There’s no other way, to stay/Pull you through the mirror.” And, as with its predecessor, the chorus is indomitable. “Welcome to the miracle club/We are here on the other side.” Elements of Depeche Mode and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, with a flash of Simple Minds, invest the production values—although the final minute, blown out synth bass and “quirky” guitar solo, head off in a different direction entirely.

Lost Lander, the Band (Photo Brendan Patrick Coughlin)
Lost Lander, the Band (Photo Brendan Patrick Coughlin)

A sinewy feature similar in character to the work of Arcade Fire (perhaps with Brandon Flowers fronting the band) graces the hymn-like “Alpine Street,” a number that could easily fit on The Suburbs. There are many moments here where the playing sounds as if it were executed by a real band, rather than individual instruments, more like a band. Drippy backwards flutes notwithstanding, this cut is probably the best representation of what the band sounds like live: which is pretty damn good, but different from the quixotic electronic ensembles assembled for the rest of the material.

In recorded music, the idea of “production” is a nebulous term, totally dependent upon just how much participants wish to alter and enhance the process and finished recorded form of their music. In the case of Sleater-Kinney (and they are certainly not alone), the choice was made to slather on the butter. In this instance, Matt Sheehy, Brent Knopf and engineer Jeff Saltzman went for the less is more approach, realizing a state of aural feng shui, where the sonic chi moves within the shifting environment.

As in life, there is not a lot of sustain in this album. Things fall away. Every musical part is clean and concise. Each struts its moment in the spotlight, then disappears—perhaps (or not) to return again at some other time. But in its disappearance the ambience shifts: the ear attracted by some other tracery. The workmanship here is artisanal.

LL5But above and outside of the rabbit hole fixtures one chases down through the eleven songs presented here is a lyrical latticework that binds each song, holding the entire project together. Matt Sheehy’s mature lyrical insights reflect efforts of deep personal work and transformation. His intrepid emotional honesty when confronted by the dogging demons of the soul reflect great courage. His valiant spirit and force of persistence are unmistakable.

This is an album to be treasured—for all the life survived in order just to conceive it, for all the energy expended to craft it, for the joy it brings to experience it. The timeless feelings and delicate sensitivities conveyed, combined with consumate implementation, render this endeavor into a modest epic.

 

March 2015

Chris Newman Deluxe Combo

beachcomberBeachcomber
Self-Released

I had recently returned to Portland after a decade-long stay down in the valley. It was late 1980 and I was doing my best to become familiar with the burgeoning Portland music scene. I ended up at Euphoria one night, to see somebody, but I forget who. Because, I only remember the band I hadn’t come to see, and the guy who fronted them. They were the Untouchables.

The Untouchables: Nelson, Koenig, Newman, Carter
The Untouchables: Nelson, Koenig, Newman, Carter

They were a new wave band, part punk and part pop. Bassist Dave Koenig, drummer Chon Carter and rhythm guitarist Mark Nelson lent great support to the big fellow in the middle. Chris Newman. He had an unruly mop of tousled black hair plopped atop his head, wore black slacks and a sharksin suit jacket. His voice was huge—an operatic baritone with a superlative falsetto.

On top of that, the guy could really play guitar. I want to say he was playing a white Strat that night, but I’m probably confusing it with the instrument I saw him play at one or another of the hundreds of his gigs I’ve attended over the years. He often displayed a Hendrix edge to his playing. He was renowned to use a pink Strat—maybe that’s what I saw that first time—the trademark Flying V would enter the picture several years later), but there was a Steve Cropper tone in his style as well. The complete rock guitarist!

Still, beyond even that, beyond his powerful voice and amazing fretwork, were his songs. I still remember several in particular as though I heard them only yesterday—“Walk On Water,” “Soylent Green,” Fake ID,” the apocalyptic “(Let’s Go Surfing On a) Lake of Fire,” the thoughtful “If Jesus Played Electric Guitar,” and my favorite, “My TV.” It was an unforgettable set (for me anyway). To that point I had seen none finer, but for Elvis Costello and the Attractions in Eugene at the Lane Country Civic Center in February of 1978 (which was a life-altering event). The two performances had many things in common, not withstanding their (at times) occasionally analogous guitar stylings and similarly impactful vocals. Smart, wry songs.

Chris Newman, circa 1980
Chris Newman, circa 1980

As I filed my way down the tunnel and out the exit at Euphoria, I caught sight of Chris and the boys standing right in the entryway smoking cigarettes and laughing goofily. I stopped as I often did (and still do) to tell Chris that I thought he and his band were gods and blah blah blah. Once and always a fan. Chris guffawed aw gawrsh like he was all stoned, which in retrospect, he probably was. I went on at some length (which I still do) even though I had no credentials to present to the lads at the time, other than my good intentions. They accepted my drivel congenially, thinking (probably accurately) that I was just a typical blithering idiot.

My interaction with Elvis had been quite a bit different. There was a strange vibe in the church-like Lane County Civic center. Talking Heads had been co-billed, but bailed on the gig at the last minute. So it was left to Elvis to carry the show, with only the non sequitur Eugene band the Hotz to serve as openers. The Attractions had been touring the US relentlessly since the previous October (including their infamous Saturday Night Live performance in December of 1977). So I would say they probably knew what to expect.

There was a small “dance floor” in front of the very modest stage, which stood perhaps a foot and a half high. What was really odd is that the only inhabitants on the dance floor were a bunch of guys who were dressed just like Elvis: horn rims, snug suit coat, tight jeans, skinny ties. Except for me, I didn’t look anything like Elvis Costello, maybe more like Tom Petty with wire rim glasses, or John Denver. They all stood in a half circle about twelve feet from the stage, with their hands in their pockets, gawking awkwardly up at their role model.

Elvis
Elvis

That wasn’t my style so I did what I usually did. I walked right up to Mister Costello at the mic, who, given the low stage and his modest stature, stood barely taller than I. He was singing “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea.” I stood right in front of Mister Costello as he sang, attempting to grok his shit. To suss him out. To see what made him tick. What made him special. Elvis put up with me standing well inside his comfort zone, staring at him, for about a minute, before he dodged away from the mic, ran behind drummer Pete Thomas and hid back there for an extended guitar solo. And he didn’t come back out until after I vacated the vicinity. I don’t know what that was all about. Shy, I guess. Or he didn’t want me stealing his secrets. Maybe he didn’t like John Denver. I’m not sure.

Hardly a year after my first of many encounters with the Untouchables, they found out that some band had already registered that name. So Chris decided to call the group Napalm Beach. I saw a very early Napalm Beach gig at Accuardi’s in Old Town at 2nd and Davis. From the first incredibly loud roarstroke of Chris’ anguished guitar, it was evident that the lightness of the Untouchables had been supplanted by dark, grungy sludge.

Big Muff
Big Muff

The grungy sludge heard round the world. Chris began using the legendary Big Muff foot pedal around that time and it made a big difference in his guitar tone. In reviews at the time, I referred to Chris as a rock and roll Pavarotti, a 21st century Pagliacci. But I had no idea that within ten years he would launch a thousand ships of sludge from the Northwest, each bearing the grunge flag.

The mantle of grungity is typically bestowed upon Mark Arm (who ostensibly coined the term “grunge” for a new generation in 1981) and his band Mudhoney’s EP Superfuzz/Bigmuff released in 1988. But compare Mudhoney’s “Sweet Young Thing…” from ’88 to Napalm Beach’s live takes of “Get the Nerve” or “City of Night” from five years earlier on Live at the Met. Or check out several tracks released in 1983 on the Greg Sage produced Rock ‘n’ Roll Hell—the track “Pugsley” often cited as a grunge predecessor. The seeds were obviously sewn at the beginning of the decade.

Certainly by the time of the release of the cassettes Teen Dream in 1985 and the eponymous Snowbud and the Flower People and the subsequent Snowbud cassette Vegetable Matter in 1986, Chris had created a punk/metal fusion that sounds a lot like everything that was to come after. All that was ever missing was that Chris seemed to resist screaming over his songs, generally preferring to drawl across the top,

Napalm Beach: Dillinger, Henry, Newman
Napalm Beach: Dillinger, Henry, Newman

Mark Nelson continued to serve as rhythm guitarist for a couple of years after the transition from Untouchable to Beach-head. In 1982, Sam Henry (of the Wipers and the Rats) became the Beach drummer. The band remained a four-piece until around 1986, when Chris started using the Flying V. At that point the band became a power trio for the rest of its days. But the position of bassist was always in flux. A dozen men tried to fill the post over the course of six or seven years, until Dave Dillinger took the reins in 1989.

Napalm Beach stayed together until 1995, when Chris’ life began to take a well-documented,long, slow downturn. They recorded their final studio album In My Tree in 1994. That same year Chris released Volunteer, backed by drummer Lance Paden, which primarily consisted of reworkings of early Napalm Beach songs from some of the very first cassette releases in the mid-‘80s. But that was pretty much the last we heard from Chris Newman for ten years, until his tentative return with Tarp Town Years in 2004.

Chris has spent the past decade repairing his legacy, where necessary, while furthering it with a succession of diverse projects—the Divining Rods (with Untouchable Mark Nelson), Lost Acolytes (with Sam Henry on keys and one of the earliest Napalm Beach bass players, Dave Minick), Snow Bud, the Chris Newman Experiment, Boo Frog, and now the Chris Newman Deluxe Combo. Napalm Beach regathered for a few spotlight gigs in the years after1995. But on July 11, 2013, as he celebrated his 60th birthday, Chris declared the band officially defunct.

Frankly, it’s nearly impossible to estimate how many recordings he has released in the ten years since his return to form. More than ten. Fifteen? Twenty? All of them bearing the mark of Chris’ greatness, whether recorded in a studio, or lo-fi in his basement.

Jack Endino
Jack Endino

Laid down in just three days, Beachcomber was released in May of last year. The project, engineered and produced by the legendary Jack Endino in his home studio, cleanly captures the work of Chris and drummer Doug Naish with no unnecessary frills. A few vocal and guitar overdubs and we’re good to go. The material is pure, classic Chris Newman. Fourteen songs, three of which are interspersed instrumentals. In addition there are short sound collages at the beginning and end of the recording. The eleven songs with lyrics are, each and every one, monumental pieces of work.

After the brief opening tableau, Chris leads off the set with the instrumental, “Hotrod Motorcade,” a bit of a spaghetti western piece—the motorcade ostensibly of the funereal variety. It’s a dark, foreboding number, heavy on the tremolo solo guitar, but a simple start to the affair. “Broken Glass” crowds an amazing amount of riffage into a two minute space. A familiar ‘60s inspired chord progression leads into a hard-hitting rocker that hits right in the pocket of Chris’ classic voice. You can hear Arthur Lee and Love (circa “7 and 7 Is”) in this, for sure. Murky, smudged Chuck Berry-like chord chortles scuttle along this lost highway of a song.

Doug Naish
Doug Naish

Against a sensibility reminiscent of the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” Chris’ penchant for croaky Beefheartish vocals rises to the fore with “Gold Braided Curtain.” Funky, Hendrixy fills are delivered with deliberate crunch. “I don’t know what I’m doin’/I don’t know why I’m here/I am an ancient ruin/I am an unknown queer/If I don’t make it baby/Tell ‘em how I feel/ If I can’t take it/At least that shit was real.” Drummer Doug Naish contributes particularly adroit fills in the cool breakdown, before the big finish.

Another breakneck, two-minute special, “Play!” rocks hard on a tough, slashing chord progression—that veers off in very satisfying directions from what might be expected. The second half of the song is filled out with thick piano chords. While the album is guitar-based, Chris contributes bass and piano throughout, as well. His raspy vocal here partners perfectly with the rough-hewn arrangement. Classic stuff.

In a throaty, broken voice reminiscent of Peter Gabriel just after he left Genesis, Chris intones the poignant lyric to “White Sands.” It’s a stirring Bowie-like ballad, though fans of Interpol will hear antecedents as well. With incredible anguished dejection, Chris renders the desolate lyric. “When the alien boy landed in the sand/He walked a thousand miles across the unknown land/Determination kept him going/And the secrets he was knowing/He brought to life another showing/He didn’t need…Approval.”

The entire song fulcrums upon that single word “approval,” and its repetition—carrying with it so much gravity, expressed with such heart-rending elegance. Not even Richard Butler of Psychedelic Furs has ever sung in such a sadly melodious monotone. Spanish flavored acoustic guitars commingle with a great moaning guitar that cries in the background throughout. It’s a mature song, deep and introspective. An epic sense of resolute erudition hangs over the presentation like an inexplicable mushroom cloud. The wisdom of age.

The mood is lifted with “Woman and Man,” a buoyant riverboat shuffle, with Hendrix-styled turnarounds and a fiery solo at the end. Chris’ vocal calls to mind John Hiatt—a comfortable couch of a voice. The title track is an instrumental that includes subtle keys and xylophone. A lonely nocturne worthy of a David Lynch film. The other instrumental, “Sting Ray,” is closely modeled after the rhythm of the Champs’ “Tequila” with overtones of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” but with a definitive surf twang that distantly recalls “My TV” from all those thirty-five years ago.

Chris Newman
Chris Newman

“Life of Circles” is set in a Hendrix-like milieu, somewhere near Electric Lady Land. In a slow, affable dirge, Chris addresses the human condition “Bodies we climb over, trying to stay strong/Fingers we step on, climbing the rungs.” When the piano enters in the middle section, the complacent mood of the verses turns dark, desperate, and more intense. “Those who assist you/Those wishing you’d come to an end/They won’t even miss you/And your little friend/Supposed to feel grateful/They ever let you in.”

Classic vocalists such as Arthur Lee or Eric Burden come to mind on “His Will,” a deep, soulful number that intimates Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Needs a Woman”. Reedy organ and smoldering slide guitar bolster the white-hot coals of this fiery blues-tinged masterpiece. A drone-like Eastern flavor permeates the lengthy intro to “Gods of Yore” before launching into a majestic litany of verses that slowly build in force. “I loved you/You really showed me/How to love too/How to shine through/All the darkness/The lonely darkness/The drugs and women/The lonely women.” Raw honesty. Enough to rip your guts out if you should care to play along.

Naish expertly directs the graceful nocturne “Moonlight Dancer” through a series of time changes with deft precision. One might think that Chris would never again find a drummer the caliber of Sam Henry, but in Naish he’s discovered someone certainly equal to the task. He’s sure-handed at all times, pulling off some great fills and rolls along the line, as for example several found in this instance. Not showy, but solid and punchy. Dependable.

chris newman 2015The intro sounds sort of spacey-Doorsy, so maybe it’s Jim Morrison, but the body of the song is pure grunge at its finest. So it’s more likely Kurt Cobain. Or maybe it’s Jesus Christ on smack. Or maybe it’s just smack. But “He Come Back” resurrects somebody or something, with a shockwave blast. The quiet build-up only makes the launching of the attack seem that much more ferocious. Chris takes his voice through the stations of rock from sleepy, angelic choirboy to firebreathing dragon, to sandpaper voogum spewer. Over a riff that rocks and rails like an 18-wheeler in a hurricane, Naish provides short, smart drum solos that hold everything together with effortless proficiency. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the true and indisputable Grunge. Capital G. The headwaters.

I never heard it in his work before, or even expected to hear it, but there is a (fine though it may be) thread that extends from the Beatles through Chris’ work. George and Paul are vaguely represented at one point or another along the way. On “Life Without Meaning” you can hear Lennon insinuations, with a touch of that heretofore unanticipated John Hiatt aspect as well. In some ways, this song is the coda to “Life of Circles,” a soul search on the order of Lennon’s “God,” with a lyrical twist that is easy to miss: “Life without meaning/Is hard to imagine.”

Well, that was the best three days ever spent! From start to finish, this album puts you in a special place—all its own. Jack Endino’s imaginative production is perfect. Straight-forward, no frills. There are enough thoughtful overdubs to fill out the sound, this is (an imaginative) duo, after all. But where he could have gone all nuts and overproduced, he kept it simple. Authentic. True. Powerful. Real. Personally, I’m just proud to have even had the opportunity to hear this brilliant album.

king shitKing Shit
Self-Produced

By contrast, the just released King Shit sounds more like a demo. Recorded in Newman’s basement studio on the same trusty TEAC 2340 four-track machine upon which he captured countless other ventures (including the bulk of the Snow Bud catalog) over the years, the fidelity here is not as translucent, the performances not so crisp. Without question Jack Endino’s input on Beachcomber had a lot to do with it. Plus, the team certainly had far more than four-tracks to work with for that project. Chris was incredibly centered for Beachcomber. Given the circumstances surrounding that session he was able to channel all his emotions and frustrations into his work.

Chris Newman Deluxe Combo
Chris Newman Deluxe Combo

Here, it’s obvious that he must concentrate his energies on many different concerns in the recording of King Shit, wearing many different hats in the process. The scattered focus is audible. Chris isn’t in his best voice. The playing is on the sloppy side—though there are abundant flashes of brilliance between he and drummer Naish (as well as bassist bassist Nathan Jorg). All that being said, King Shit is even more adventurous, more eclectic, than its predecessor. There are musical places in the thirteen songs presented here where Chris has never gone before. It’s as if he has dug down even deeper into his subconscious to uncover a new strata of buried musical influences.

The title track rumbles out of the gate on a wagon of self-effacing sarcasm: “King Shit on Turd Island,” through a murky sludge of Stooges-like density. Vocally, Chris occasionally veers into the Beefheart realm, but otherwise gives it a straight reading. “No Redemption” recycles the riff to Cream’s “White Room,” affording Chris the space to cut loose with a couple of solos to rival the great Clapton himself.

“Gator Canal” is a dark, swampy tale, moving slow as a backwater. The (by necessity) mostly monophonic output on this album, here adds a constrictive claustrophobia to the atmosphere that serves it well. It’s hot and sweaty and the humidity is 100%. Chris’ moaning harp glints like razor teeth in the half-light. This sounds like a soundtrack well-suited for the True Detective television series. “Everyday is Friday” is another hunk of bayou, this time in the Creedence Clearwater Revival channel of the big green river of rock and roll.

Naish provides the bronto Bonham beat to the heavily Zep flavored “After the Rain,” the riff of which has a bit in common with “Misty Mountain Hop.” Chris dispenses some tasty slide guitar interludes along the way, while his vocal is straight ahead. The droogy “Blue Dream” is a brooding mood piece. Vocally, Chris drones ala Paul Banks of Interpol. “Something is happening today/It comes in a dream they say.”

CNDB1The brawling “Tugboat Jennie” again strikes some Zep veins with Naish’s big beat, Newman’s bluesy guitar, and his raucous harp playing. Leslie West and Mountain come to mind here as well. This a great rocker, insistent and infectious. After a brief, jazzy intro, “Big Butt Boogie” settles into a groove you might expect from a song with such a title: a musical mindset perfected by early ZZ Top and Captain Beefheart in his “Diddy Wah Diddy” days.

A three-quarter time soul ballad, “Something Else” could be the work of Van Morrison doing Otis Redding, or vice versa. “Explorer” continues the waltz in 12/8 with a bluesy sentiment, wherein Chris calls up a Peter Green moment, with compact, unrushed guitar flourishes throughout the somber elegy. “Nowhere is somewhere/Now that I’ve been there.” We’ve all been there, man.

“Listen My Friend” is a fitting tribute to Bay Area band Moby Grape and their similarly titled anthem from 1967. Chris’ take rocks harder and grittier. But anyone familiar with the former will hear the homage in the latter. Similarly, one might hear faint strands of the Stones’ “I Am Waiting” in the solemn ballad “Now Forever,” a ghostly finale to a stark, soul baring venture.

No adornments or studio trickery here. King Shit is the straight shit. Chris Newman and cohort cover all the bases, freely baring their influences without sounding the least bit imitative. Chris has been doing this far too long to really sound like anyone else but himself. He wears his numerous influences like a coat of many colors. And it fits him custom made.

With Beachcomber and King Shit Chris Newman reclaims a legacy of more than thirty-five years. In the twenty-nine different pieces of audio information spread out across these two recordings, you hear all the bands that he has subsequently spawned over the decades. Because, stylistically, he’s not “reaching” at all here—merely bringing it all back home.

Chris Newman
Chris Newman

Certainly there are ‘60s and early ‘70s influences abounding throughout these affairs, but they only serve as logical launching points from which all of punk, new wave and grunge were derived, extending into the present. Chris Newman represents the perfect assimilation and he always has.

He has his own style. His own acerbically wry and witty point of view. Lyrics lived, not imagined. He has his own story to tell, and he tells it very well, without being the least bit repetitive. His music still sounds vital and new. Authentic. Raw. Real. Wise. Insightful. After the long road he’s been down, you wouldn’t think the guy would still have it in him. But he does. Chris Newman is an overlooked genius at the peak of his powers and we’re lucky to have him in our midst.

 

February 2015

Sleater-Kinney

coverNo Cities to Love
Sub Pop Records

 In my most recent review—of Monica Nelson and the Highgates—I mentioned that Kathleen Hanna was inspired to form Bikini Kill after seeing Monica perform with the Obituaries in Olympia back in the late ‘80s. It was Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill, and other early riot grrl bands of the early ‘90s that first inspired Evergreen College students Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein to take up guitars and engage the fray.

Corin in Heavens to Betsy
Corin in Heavens to Betsy

For Brownstein it was with Excuse 17. For Tucker it was in Heavens to Betsy. In those bands the young women first honed their chops. So when they came together at the end of 1993 to form Sleater-Kinney, their punk ethos was fully formed. Accompanied by Aussie drummer Lora (Laura) Macfarlane, the pair traveled Down Under in 1994, to celebrate Corin’s college graduation. It was while they were in Australia that they recorded their eponymously titled debut album, released in 1995.

In 1997, drummer extraordinaire, Janet Weiss joined the team before they began work upon the band’s third release, the seminal Dig Me Out— an album which cemented for Sleater-Kinney a national presence with fans and critics alike. Over the next eight years, the succeeding four albums only found the band growing in popularity and prestige. Taking advantage of their newfound visibility, they became spokeswomen for LGBT, feminist and array of humanitarian causes.

The members of Sleater Kinney have always shared a spirit of adventure and have individually formed or played with many other bands over the years. Hell, Sleater-Kinney began as a side project. Corin formed Cadallaca with Sarah Dougher in 1997 and continues that concern up to present, though on a back burner for several years. Carrie recorded with Mary Timony of Helium an EP in 1999 under the name the Spells. Janet’s services have always been in constant high demand for side projects. One of those stints was in 2000 with the Go Betweens. In the late ‘90s she participated on three albums with her ex-husband Sam Coomes and their band Quasi.

Wild Flag
Wild Flag

Then, when Sleater-Kinney “broke up” in 2006, the three women went their separate ways. Weiss continued to sit in with any number of highly visible acts, including Connor Oberst and Bright Eyes, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, while maintaining her seat in Quasi, and later teaming with Carrie in 2010 to form Wild Flag with Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole. Tucker took the time off to be a mother to her son, who is going to be fifteen this year. In 2010 she released the low-key 1,000 Years, an album she herself called her “middle-aged mom record.” She bounced back in 2012 with the release of Kill My Blues, which was a record much nearer to what a fan would expect to hear from her, and far closer to the vocalist we find here.

Carrie Brownstein’s meteoric post-Sleater-Kinney rise has been the most visible, as she has been pretty much incessantly everywhere in one form of media or another since she left her thirty-month tenure at NPR in 2010. That was the year she formed Wild Flag. She’s always been attracted to acting and had participated in a variety of independent film projects before she began teaming up with Fred Armisen in 2005 in a comedy duo called Thunder Ant. They made a variety of video shorts. That eventually led, of course, to Portlandia, which has ruined permanently our city for all true natives. For that I hold Armisen solely responsible, as I have long contended that Carrie can do no wrong—and I’m not about to change that opinion at this late date. But just the same: No Cities to Love, indeed!

After nearly nine years out of the pop music picture, it’s not entirely clear what prompted this reunion. Yes, it is the twentieth anniversary of the release of their first album. And perhaps they wish to view the world from the other end of that telescope, now with the adultly jaundiced eyes of middle age. No longer riot grrls, angry homemakers, perhaps.

Sleater-KinneyThere are other explanations, too, perhaps best mapped out by Tucker in the first song, “Price Tag.” “I was lured by the devil/I was lured by the cause/I was lured by the fear/That all we had was lost/I was blind by the money/I was numb from the greed/I’ll take God when I’m ready/I’ll choose sin till I leave.” Whatever the case, this is not the band that rolled out Sleater-Kinney in 1995. But, then again, that estimation is nothing new. 

Fans were bitching fifteen years ago that trio had lost their punk bona fides, that The Hot Rock wasn’t edgy enough in 1999, so my own misgivings about certain aspects of this project are not without historical precedent—though the bulk of the mushiness can be attributed to John Goodmanson’s production choices. The band’s rawness has been deeply seared to a dry char. There’s still smoky, meaty flavor there, but all the juice has been cooked out. In this particular instance, the overcooked piece of meat is served smothered in mushrooms and gravy.

Remnant shards of the jagged riffs Brownstein broke off on The Woods (and with Wild Flag) have all been polished smooth in the mix, doubled and re-doubled. Fans acquired through David Fridman’s more stark production with The Woods, might find the return of Goodmanson’s thicker, denser mix (as last heard on One Beat in 2002) somewhat disconcerting. Perhaps more so, because Goodmanson seems to have procured a number of new effects devices and a replenished penchant for multi-tracking.

Fifty years ago communication theorist Marshall McLuhan introduced the idea that the medium is the message (also that the “medium is the massage”). That point is proven here. To a T. Gone are the unabashed anger and fury, replaced by effects and caution. It’s a good sounding record. You’ll marvel at the production. But at a certain point the actual music is overwhelmed by that production, to the point where one must hack through a jungle of sonic distractions just to get to the clearing where the real song is camped.

This is the fifth crack Goodmanson has had at producing a Sleater-Kinney album since his first opportunity with Call the Doctor back in 1996. With each succeeding album his imprint on the finished product has become more evident, to the point where the band really can’t recreate the studio wall of sound on stage. Nor should they. Check out the studio version of “A New Wave” and weigh it against their performance of the song on a recent David Letterman show.

Sleater-Kinney 2015: Weiss, Brownstein, Tucker
Sleater-Kinney 2015: Weiss, Brownstein, Tucker

I could not begin to appreciate this album until I stopped trying to hear it as a recording by Sleater-Kinney. It’s not. It’s a work created by three women who were highly influenced by Sleater-Kinney back in the day, and they have many things in common with that band. But this isn’t a Sleater-Kinney album. It’s something else. And once I started to listen to it in that light, I was finally able to start enjoying it for what it is: a really well put together record.

Carrie leads off “Price Tag” with a characteristically gnarled guitar riff: richocheting gunfire, wanged out to the max in either ear (doubled and delayed just so), moving toward a guitar synth (of all things) sound: Belewery, Frippery, Carlos Alomar. Corin delivers a rather restrained vocal through the verses, stepping it up in the back half somewhat. But by the chorus, she’s in a full-on holler rage and clear the decks! Whereas Corin used to sound like a kid yelling at her mom, she now sounds like a mom yelling at her kid. But either way, I wouldn’t want her yelling at me. As I have observed before, she is the female Zach de la Rocha and no one else sounds like her.

The lyric addresses the everyday mundanity of the typical, working class American and the price we pay to purchase the things we love, a price appraised by our own decline as a culture. “We love our bargains/We love the prices so low/With the good jobs gone/It’s gonna be raw.” Janet pounds home the bridge and final chorus of the song with punchy ferocity—kick and toms thumping like a herd of charging horses. But then a lot of needless sonic bullshit goes on to distract the listener down the homestretch. The women still have plenty of power all their own, it seems strange that such pyrotechnic clutter was deemed necessary. But there it is.

There is some stunning ensemble work on “Fangless,” with Carrie’s fiery riff dancing against Corin’s mock-bass lines, over Janet’s unrelenting drums. But the production wangery on the periphery—apparent buzzing synth dribbles—is so distracting it becomes impossible to actually concentrate on the track. Maybe it’s me and my ADD, but I don’t think so. Corin belts out the verses and Carrie carries the choruses, a tale of the fallen mighty. Dig it out, if you can.

John Goodmanson
John Goodmanson

Goodmanson is at it again with the quintessential S-K anthem, “Surface Envy.” He feels compelled, for some reason, to jack up the side-fill guitar flourishes, to the extent that they distract from Corin’s smoldering vocal. “Throw me a rope, get me a line/I haven’t seen daylight in what must be days.” There’s certainly a lot of great playing going on here—most of it pinched between twinned wheels of whirring musical information lodged at the exteriors of the stereo field. Maybe there’s so much great playing that Goodmanson couldn’t decide which parts to include or where. But those parts could have been parsed out over the course of the entire song, instead of competing with themselves for attention.

The performance, especially the muscular interplay going on in the “center” channel, is quite powerful—like 21st Century Go-Gos on steroids, they got the beat! Shit, yeah! “We win, we lose/Only together do we break the rules.” This song is going to end up on every cardio workout mix in the nation, no doubt. Just the same, there are occasions when one might prefer to hear the band simply stripped down to the essentials found in the middle of the mayhem. That band sounds like Sleater-Kinney!

Debora Iyall
Debora Iyall

Finally some space, some room to breathe in the title track. Carrie’s angular guitar figure scrapes majestically against Corin’s churning “bass” lines. And Carrie takes the insouciant vocal reins here, distinctly calling to mind Debora Iyall of the ‘80s band Romeo Void (think “Myself to Myself”), with detached aplomb. “Atomic tourists/A life in search of power/I found my test site/I made a ritual of emptiness.” Now that’s anomie!

The curious chorus is bound to rouse the rabble, with gang vocals that sound like a mob armed with pitchforks and torches—though the precise message, “It’s not the cities, it’s the weather we love,” is a difficult mantra to contemplate, and may overstate the message to a certain degree. The pretty bridge is very well built, but the conclusion: “I’ve grown afraid of everything I love,” doesn’t seem to fit contextually to the rest of the obviously obscure lyric. Maybe this is a song about climate change and I’m just not getting it. The cut sounds real good. Urgent. It’s just not entirely clear what all the urgency is about. The weather?

Carrie Brownstein (Photo by Jana Birchbaum)
Carrie Brownstein (Photo by Jana Birchbaum)

“A New Wave” is chock full of so much frosting, it’s hard to find the cake—perhaps an audition for John Goodmanson’s next project, but a real mess all the same. Weiss’ stuttering drums lead into another of Carrie’s sterling twisted guitar figures. Goodmanson’s penchant for splitting the lead guitar, either electronically or by doubling, is in especial evidence here. Personally, I think the idea of recording a three-piece band freaks him out.

Bordering on incoherent, the lyrics hold together long enough to get to a catchy chorus: “No one here is taking notice/No outline will ever hold us/It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me,” which would be catchier still if it was a turnaround for an even more attractive hook. Just the same, it’s a memorable number that is bound to have emotional currency for someone.

All desperately grappling for attention in the chaotic mix of “No Anthems,” writhing coils of Page-like (think “Dancing Days” from Houses of the Holy) cobra licks strike venomously against blown out synth bass and curious “ukulele” applications. Even Corin of the muscular shout is interred in the mix, wherein the chorus is perhaps more self-referential than even she might be willing to acknowledge. “I’m not the anthem, I once was an anthem/That sang the song of me/But now there are no anthems/All I can hear is the echo and the ring.”

I think she’s wrong about the first part. There are anthems galore on this album, even if most of them have a somewhat cumulonimbus mission statement. But I’m with her on the second part, because all I too can hear is echo and ring: cho-ring, cho-ring, cr-ing, cr-ing, cr-ing—echoing and ringing through the fog.

Corin Tucker (Photo by Rob Grabowski)
Corin Tucker (Photo by Rob Grabowski)

“Gimme Love” is a bit of an outlier on this album. And, as such, it hardly sounds like Sleater-Kinney at all. But for the relentless piercing clarion of Corin’s bullhorn voice, you would not recognize it as such. Built on a tireless gyre of triplets (as with the title itself), no one seems to have any idea what to do with the song. Carrie gives it a try, grinding out gritty bone meal guitar. But Janet sounds as if completely cornered. And, when his services could actually be put to some practical use, Goodmanson backs away and wipes his hands of it.

Janet Weiss
Janet Weiss

Janet delivers the Bonzo in the intro to “Bury Our Friends,” with a cut time salvo worthy of the master. Because she plays a vintage four-piece Ludwig kit, Janet can often sound like Ringo, or a stripped down Bonham. Carrie’s guitar figure sounds welded to a Franz Ferdinand frame. But soon we are whisked into a waltz in the verses; the guitar weaves and stutters, as Corin and Carrie trade vocals.

They come together for the powerful chorus, perhaps the fiercest and most focused statement presented in the set. “Exhume our idols and bury our friends/We’re wild and weary but we won’t give in/We’re sick with worry/These nervous days/We live on dread in our own gilded cage.” That’s a message that comes across loud and clear, despite the goop Goodmanson ladles on, and it’s another among several cuts with real radio-friendly memorability, though mostly unintelligible.

“Hey Darling” sounds like a real, honest-to-goodness pop song of indeterminate origin: ‘60s girl group transported to the present, perhaps—not necessarily S-K—until the chorus when Corin cuts through the bluster with characteristic chainsaw amplitude and we remember where we are. It’s not unusual on this album for Sleater-Kinney to not sound like themselves, but here they don’t really even sound like the band who recorded the rest of the material. This is such a weird album!

For the final track, the apocalyptic “Fade,” Carrie knocks off a pretty decent facsimile of Slash’s prickly intro to Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.” From there the opus launches into a mini rock opera of epic proportions, worthy of Kate Bush or Tori Amos in their most ambitious moments.

There are at least four separate sections to the piece, possibly more, the most gripping of which is the chorus: “All of the roles that we played/Hit your mark, push the walls, stretch the stage/Oh, what a price that we paid/My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end.” Talk about dark! The melody here sounds like an extension of Kate Bush’s “All the Love” from The Dreaming.

sleater 1Without question, this is the most puzzling, the most complexly perplexing record I have ever chosen to review. It is of a breed like no other, perhaps a portent of the future, the sound of things to come. Or maybe the final sayonara from a band that aren’t entirely sure they should have regrouped at all in the first place, ten years after dissolution. Because the report from the trenches they populate crackles with midlife crisis and self-conscious second-guessing.

Beyond that, however, is the bald fact that this is the first album I have ever reviewed where the band (and still a very good band) was subservient to the producer. I have been wracking my mind trying to recall an occasion in rock music history (there are probably many, but none come to mind since the days of Phil Spector) where such a thing has happened. Much of pop music released today is dictated by the tastes of the producer, rather than the artist. There are countless examples of that.

But in the rock arena it simply isn’t done. George Martin was integral to the Beatles sound, but his production choices didn’t dictate the final sonic outcome, even when his involvement in a track was to the extreme. In the ‘80s everyone went with Steve Lilywhite. He would put his mark on the recordings he produced, no doubt. But he did not commandeer them. Even Brian Eno couldn’t do what John Goodmanson has managed to do here. He has taken a band with incredible amounts of raw energy and a readily identifiable sound and managed to render it nearly identifiable. Close the offramp, it’s Sleater-Goodmanson now.

For what it is, this is a good album. The songs have catchy hooks and memorable choruses galore. But I’ll be damned if I can find the band in all of this. Maybe that was the their intent all along, but if so, then that’s a pretty cynical choice and sounds like a sellout. Maybe the members’ musical tastes have changed so radically in a decade that it makes sense to drench their “message” in barrels of aural treacle. But I don’t get it.

sleater-kinney-brigitte-sire-bb2-2015-billboard-650Each of these compositions could have stood on its own, captured with just the band performing beneath a single mic. The component parts are in place. All the members seem to have improved or refined their individual styles and techniques. The songs may be impenetrable (the lyrics have been called “inscrutable” elsewhere. Inscutable, hell. A lot of the lyrics here sound pasted together via the William Burroughs cut-up technique), but all but two or three are certifiable hits—that you’ll recognize the moment you hear them on the radio (or in the stream).

The only problem is: you won’t recognize who’s performing them. For a band that is celebrating its golden anniversary this year one would think they would emphasize the strengths that brought them to this point, rather than try to bury them. But buried they are. This recording is gaudily ornate, needlessly dense, and ignores its own virtues. Gone are the riot grrls. Here come the acquiescent old gals.

 

January 2015

Monica Nelson and the Highgates

cover

 I See Thee Still
Vinyl Fetish Records

I first saw Monica Nelson perform at the Long Goodbye in the fall of 1986, they were opening for somebody. I don’t remember who. I was playing keyboards in Ed and the Boats and we were headlining the upstairs stage that night. Down in the basement, the Obituaries were scheduled to open for some long-forgotten outfit. I had heard of the Obituaries via a positive review Dianne Hollen had written about them for Two Louies a few weeks earlier. I wanted to see them for myself.

I will never forget the spectacle I saw that night. It was the early days of the band. Laura O’Donnell was still the bassist. I don’t remember who the drummer was. The band sounded like the Grand Canyon caving in, with guitarist Rob Landoll riding cowboy over the chaos, driving the band over and through all obstacles. In the middle of that was Monica at the microphone stand.

Monica Nelson (Photo by David "The Ack" Ackerman)
Monica Nelson (Photo by David “The Ack” Ackerman)

Holding on for dear life. She was young. I don’t know how young she was but she may or may not have been around twenty. Maybe twenty. Maybe fifteen. She was drop dead gorgeous in a Eurotrash sort of way that doesn’t translate all that well thirty years later, you had to have been there. She had a distinct Marilyn Monroe quality about her. I seem to recall her attired in something vintage, like a full-length, wellworn ivory-colored evening gown with some sort of a scarf or sash accessory.

She had both hands on the mic, wobbling precariously, screaming at somebody in the audience who had gotten on her wrong side somewhere along the line. I don’t know if she was drunk, or high, or what, but she seemed to be melting. Literally, physically melting down to the floor. As she continued to scream at the unfortunate soul, Rob rodeoed the troupe into a deafening stampede and she just kept screaming like it was the first line of the song.

As things progressed, Monica slowly slid down the mic stand, despite clinging to it desperately, as if it were an oar extended from a life raft. She was still shrieking at the top of her lungs and you could still hear her, even though she had left the mic back at the top of the stand. By the end of the song, she lay pooled in a sweaty clump at the base of the stand, wailing and crying. Spent.

I don’t know if it was performance art or catharsis, or what. In the realm of my existence, I’d never before seen that sort of compacted expenditure of energy from a single human being. Critical density. It was like watching a star being born. Literally and figuratively. It was part encounter session, part punk rite of passage and part Portland rock music history.

Kathleen Hanna, Riot Grrrl
Kathleen Hanna, Riot Grrrl

Monica Nelson is one of the most influential vocalists in that Portland rock music history. Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, etc) has freely admitted to being inspired, as have many others within the former “riot grrrl” movement of the ‘90s. It would appear that Courtney Love probably saw Monica in action a time or two somewhere along the way. That is pure conjecture, of course. But, voila!

Anyway, I met Monica and Rob that night. I don’t remember anything about that encounter. But I did end up going over to some house in inner southeast around Cleveland High one afternoon shortly after that to hear the band rehearse. It was a single story bungalow. There were ten or fifteen people passed out, hanging out, or milling about the living room, as Monica led me through the crowd down to the basement where the band was rehearsing. It’s my recollection that it was an unfinished basement: unfinished in that it appeared to have a dirt floor and dirt walls. I may be wrong.

The band sounded good the way good punk bands sounded back then. What they lacked in skill and finesse they more than made up for in passion and determination. Rob was the obvious ringleader. He was the brooding type, clearly street savvy in a very unassuming way—extremely protective of Monica—himself a true force with which to be reckoned.

Monica seemed completely different from the young woman I’d encountered at the Long Goodbye. She demurely sat on a stool, shy and quiet. Studious. And when the band cranked into a song, she would simply sit up straight, clasp her hands together and scream bloody murder. From the sound of it, her lyrics were fashioned directly from her life—the topics ranging from one form of abuse to another, a litany of anger and pain. Raw and unfiltered. Unflinchingly honest. I’d never heard anything like it. Thirty years later, I still haven’t.

The Obituaries (Photo by The Ack)
The Obituaries (Photo by The Ack)

At the height of their popularity, throughout the late ‘80s, the Obituaries commanded stages all over the Northwest (it was a show in Olympia where Kathleen Hanna first saw the band and determined to form Bikini Kill). They shared the stage with acts such as Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, and Alex Chilton, and many others; as well as with a host of better and lesser known Seattle bands, including Green River, Mother Love Bone, and the Gits (Mia Zapata and Monica shared mutual admiration). In early formations, Soundgarden and Nirvana opened for the Obituaries.

By 1990, the Obits were disbanded. Rob went on to form M-99 and Monica split for New York City. There she produced several records (including Candymeat) during her hiatus, all showcasing a poppier side to her voice—where, among other things, she perfected a vocal quality comparable to that of her idol, Ronnie Spector (of the Ronettes: “Be My Baby”).

Monica was away from Portland for over fifteen years, though she made frequent trips back to Portland. She occasionally reunited with Rob on some of those return visits. That activity culminated in a reunion of the Obituaries in 2007, along with the release of The Obituaries, an epic compilation CD with tracks culled from nearly every one of the many different incarnations of the band to take the stage over the five chaotic years of their existence.

Monica finally returned to Portland to stay shortly after that. It was my great good fortune to serve as her accompanist on keyboards on a couple of occasions in the fall of 2007. She experimented with a number of musical configurations and combinations in the intervening years after that. All of them showcased the eclectically wide nature of her vocal prowess. But none of them stuck.

John Naylor
John Naylor (Photo by The Ack)

A couple of years ago Monica was contacted by the members of a local trio called Sick Broads. They weren’t strangers by any means. Sick Broad guitarist Johnny Naylor was bassist for the Obituaries during their “middle-period.” Johnny and bandmates, bassist Jeff Larson and drummer Joe Sanderson go back even further than that, however—clear back to the mid ‘80s and a band called the Terminally Hip, who were in the mix in the Portland alternative scene. Larson went on to play with Nervous Christians and for many years with Mark Sten and the Oblivion Seekers.

Jeff Larson (Photo by The Ack)
Jeff Larson (Photo by The Ack)

Larson and Naylor played with Steve Wilkinson in Crash Landing, in the early ‘90s. Naylor and Sanderson played in Plunger about that time, releasing a few sides on the prominent Tim/Kerr label. The three Broads hung together over the years, officially reconvening about four years ago.

Larson, Lastra, Naylor, Nelson, Sanderson
Larson, Lastra, Naylor, Nelson, Sanderson

Larson happened to bump into Monica sometime after her return to Portland and eventually the musicians founded the Highgates. That was about a year or so ago. While there have been some demos floating around, this wonderful six song EP was “recorded, engineered, mixed & mastered” by the legendary Mike Lastra at Smegma Studios. Lastra, a longtime bastion in local DIY underground music, provides the Highgates the perfect sonic environment—quiet, open, airy, without affect. Honest and true.

And the music here deserves that sort of attention to detail. Monica’s poetry has always been direct, naked, with no protective artifice. Even stalwart female poets of a similarly barren expository nature, say Marianne Faithfull, Patti Smith, or PJ Harvey—for example—have erected some defensive barriers within their work, affording themselves a bit of emotional distance from their listeners.

Not so with Monica. Her lyrics cut and tear at the tender underbelly of life with serrated precision. She doesn’t mince words. She doesn’t hold back. She speaks the unvarnished truth about relationships and life. Her point of view may have changed somewhat, maturing in the past thirty years. But the ferocious intensity of her performance remains intact. In that time she has learned to control her magnificent voice, every nuance and unique peculiarity. Her voice is now a fine instrument and she wields it like a true virtuoso.

And she’s found just the band to give her the support she needs. These guys know punk like the back of a tattooed hand. You hear it in the riffs, the style. It’s punk all right. But this is punk supperclub music (I mean this as a compliment). Peggy Lee with a black leather jacket. Billie Holliday riding a Harley. Janis Joplin wailing an operatic aria. Patti Smith standing next to the piano in an evening dress, holding a glass of wine, bawling her guts out. Etc. Instead of a typical sloppy punk sonic onslaught, we get sensational interplay between Monica and the other musicians, and deft execution, though no less punk in spirit.

To put this all in perspective one need venture no farther than the first track, the overheard conversation of the dirgey “Two Drunks.” Over Naylor’s turbulently bluesy guitar phrasings, the band creates a mood of taut, frayed tension. With spited constraint Monica intones a Bukowskian tale of cold cruelty. “Didn’t have the decency to break it to her/The fact that I didn’t want her anymore.” Suddenly for the next line Monica’s choked voice sounds like a ripping sheet. “Not that I ever really did.”

Joe Sanderson (Photo by The Ack)
Joe Sanderson (Photo by The Ack)

The final observation in the dreary account is probably the harshest of all. “Such a sweet girl but no one seemed to teach her about people like me.” Larson, Naylor and especially Sanderson’s steadfastly controlled drumming, display a great sense of dynamics with tight, ensemble work throughout. The final minute of the song is an impressive pastiche, with four bars of backwards guitar that segues into a fierce chord exchange reminiscent of the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” prefacing Monica’s return for a wrathful final verse. Pretty damn remarkable!

“Revival” smolders beneath a thick volcanic crust of crunchy guitars, molten bass and pyroclastic drums. Monica belts out the vocal with unbridled fury, though always within the parameters of the broad range of her nuanced abilities. Always within herself and her incredibly expansive skill set. It’s a marvel to behold. Truly.

Monica (Photo by The Ack)
Monica (Photo by The Ack)

For a showcase of Monica’s formidable talents, check out the amazing performance she renders on “Nowhere But Up.” Over the years she has defined her own style and all of those various elements—from punk, to blues, to pop and Ronnie Spector—come to the fore here. Monica has developed a timeless voice of her own that rivals those of any of her influences.

With strategically-placed, memorable licks that never crowd the aural space, the band is understated but powerfully muscular. Concrete Blonde and Spirit of Eden/Laughing Stock era Talk Talk come to mind for the sparse subtleness of the execution. Lastra’s impeccably clean recording techniques lend the entire project an aura of intimacy and immediacy that I have rarely heard in a local production.

Naylor employs a ballsy chord progression on “Hypocrites,” the tone and texture of which recalls Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl”—as if played on three shots of espresso and a nose-full by Kurt Cobain, circa Nevermind. A big, thick sound bolsters Monica hoarse exhortations: “Oh shit, I’m in trouble again/Nobody here understands my process/You’d think acceptance would be a virtue/It seems that I have exhausted all avenues/My so called family disowning me/You snobby little hypocrites/With all your dirty little secrets”

(Photo by The Ack)
(Photo by The Ack)

It’s a tale of familial vengeance, played out against a storm of focused collaborative mayhem. Sturdy, compact and precise, the band sludges relentlessly through the arrangement, though with crisp attention to detail, such as pregnant fermata and timely rests. Naylor nails a brief soaring solo, while Larson and Sanderson do the heavy lifting. Vital stuff.

Anyone familiar with the six stories in Hubert Selby’s harrowing novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn, will understand the torturous contextual terrain navigated in the downright short (1:30) “Topless.” The song begins with a prancing, jaunty riff, before the chord progression turns dark beneath the verse. Over that, Monica fiercely chronicles several curt tales of hapless people living at the edges of society.

The quiet ballad “My Need” allows Monica to explore the tenderer aspects of her spectacular delivery, those Ronnie Spector features she has so eloquently mastered. Willowy acoustic guitar joins the compliment of muted electric guitars in auxiliary to a wispy filigree above which Monica compellingly courts a plaintive melody, while lyrically confronting duplicitous social barriers that restrict the human spirit from reaching its full potential.

(Photo by The Ack)
(Photo by The Ack)

Between them the six songs found on this EP barely add up to sixteen minutes in duration. But those sixteen minutes are pure gold—more valuable, more real than eighty minutes of the typical recorded schlock to be found on the market today. Monica Nelson and the Highgates are a formidable band. They play together especially well, their individual parts intricately interwoven with great care and precision: in a musical genre rife with the subtlety of a car wreck, emotional gradations ranging from black to darker black.

There are colors here… and shades. Tones and textures. Mike Lastra deserves reverential praise for the tremendous contribution he has made toward the creation of this production. After listening repeatedly to this recording over the past week, I recently happened to put on Sleater Kinney’s new album. What a jarring juxtaposition!

Sleater Kinney used to be raw back in the day. Raw, raw. Maybe not Obituaries raw, but damn raw. Their new album [a full review is in the works] is anything but. It’s slick and tame compared to the expertly performed, gentle punk ferocity presented here by the Highgates. Listening to the two recordings side by side is a real eye opening experience that I recommend to anyone. It’ll blow you away!

 

Love is HellLove is Hell/Voodoo Saved My Life
Voodoo Doughnut Recordings

Just last December, Monica Nelson and the Highgates were afforded the opportunity to contribute the twelfth in a series of limited edition singles released on the vaunted Voodoo Doughnut Recordings label. Their contributions to that project are the songs “Love is Hell” and “Voodoo Saved My Life.”

MonciaNelsonBAckIS voodooWhile these cuts, recorded in drummer Joe Sanderson’s basement studio, may lack a bit of Mike Lastra’s sonic majesty, they are no less fearsome in attitude and artistic acuity, nor exacting in their implementation. It’s not the recordings, after all, it’s the band who produces them.

Perhaps the most accessible number among those reviewed here “Love is Hell” is a laidback 21st century blues, full of empty space, and dashes and splashes of tasty fills, perfectly crafted musical support for Monica’s incredible vocal. Finessing the full range of expression at her command, she dials in the sweet Ronnie at the head of verses and the explosive, Janis Joplin banshee qualities in her voice at the tailend, traversing with a restless spirit the barren emotional landscape of an icily austere lyric.

Highgates with Jay Rubin of Voodoo Doughnut Recordings
Highgates with Jay Rubin of Voodoo Doughnut Recordings

“Voodoo Saved My Life” rocks hard, classic Monica raining jagged gusts from the cumulus roil of the bass and guitars, closer to Bon Scott than Brian Johnson within the vaguely AC/DC-like themes and schemata—though the classic punk metal droog is very deep as well. There is some bad, bad donut voogum going down here. The final minute of this track is a wonder to behold. The ensemble displays hard-driven discipline, a balloon about to pop—which eventually bursts in the jagged crags of Monica’s unbridled finale. Wow!

Monica Nelson (Photo by The Ack)
Monica Nelson (Photo by The Ack)

Because she was absent from the local scene for fifteen years, Monica Nelson has not received the deep and abiding respect from the local public and press that she most certainly deserves. It’s entirely possible that is by her own design—as she has never seemed completely comfortable in the spotlight. Still, it must be said: there is no singer like Monica Nelson anywhere else on the face of the planet.

(Photo by Anthony-Anton Long)
(Photo by Anthony-Anton Long)

And, in the august days of her career, she has surrounded herself with the perfect supporting cast. John Naylor, Jeff Larson and Joe Sanderson are true professionals. They never go for the easy approach. In every instance among these eight songs there is a profound sense of unity and solidarity among the contributing individuals. It’s the sound of four musicians doing their utmost to do the best for their band and muse. And what they do is quite special. Quite special, indeed.

 

 

December 2014