The Cry!

cry coverDangerous Game (U.S. Edition)
Top Shelf Records  

Supposedly, the term “Power Pop” was coined by Pete Townsend around 1967 in describing the Who’s music (and that of the Small Faces as well). In essence, he could have been describing any number of bands releasing records at the time—first and foremost, the Beatles. Check out “Daytripper” from ‘65. Take a listen to “Ticket to Ride” and “Paperback Writer” from 1966. That stuff is sheer Power Pop—crunchy on the outside, but all squishy in the middle. Smart guitars, no solos—or very few past a signature riff, straight ahead beat, accessible lyrics and a big fat hook somewhere within the first sixty seconds, at most.

Paul Revere and the Raiders

Paul Revere and the Raiders

Power Pop was rife in the mid to late ‘60s, up to and including the Beach Boys and Portland’s own Paul Revere and the Raiders. But the term itself didn’t really catch on until later in the ‘70s. Before that, it was pretty much just Top Forty chart stuff. It was all either Power Pop or Soul. Maybe it was Folk Rock like the Byrds or the Mamas and the Papas, or Hard Rock (hence Blues related) bands such as the Kinks, the Stones or Steppenwolf, etc.

From there the genre blossomed to full flower in the 1970s. Perhaps the quintessential Power Pop band of the ‘70s was Badfinger. The Beatles stripped down to a riff, a few harmonies and deep sentiment. Sure. That’ll always work—and always has ever since. The formula worked for the Bay City Rollers. It worked for Slade and the Raspberries, the Babys. The Move/ELO. Cheap Trick. So many more.

Ramones

Ramones

Bowie and T. Rex got all Glammy with it. The Eagles went country with it: leading to the advent of Dwight Twilley, Tom Petty and the like. It even worked for the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, though they were pretending to be rebelling against Power Pop. Instead they were the new, young, disillusioned and angry vanguard creating Power Pop for a new, young, disillusioned and angry generation. Gabba gabba hey!

Dandy Warhols

Dandy Warhols

In the ‘80s the Romantics and the Knack were powerful Power Pop players. Divinyls. Rick Springfield. Split Enz/Crowded House. The Go-Gos embodied Power Pop, as did the Bangles. Tommy Tutone. The Cars were about as good as it gets, turning the genre in on itself with the droll, self-conscious pose the band struck. Tom Petty fathered REM who begat the Gin Blossoms, resulting in the Posies, which led to Cold Play, Jimmy Eat World and Fountains of Wayne. Our own Dandy Warhols fall in there somewhere, to be sure. Pure Power Pop.

So, we’ve established that Power Pop has been a flavor in the music marketplace for quite some time—consumed freely and abundantly by aficionados and other adolescence-addled brains since well before the term was even conceived. For, once something becomes popular, you can be pretty sure there is going to be a LOT of it around in very short order.

The Cry!: Bewley, Nelsen, Cortichiato, Crace, Franco

The Cry!: Bewley, Nelsen, Cortichiato, Crace, Franco

By those lofty standards borne of such hallowed traditions, we must approach the Cry! with some trepidation. For one thing, the concept of Power Pop has fractured. “Popular” music is now subject to all kinds of fandanglements that no longer mean much of anything other than being the product of some form of analysis or another. Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Foster the People, One Republic, the Black Keys, Haim and Shazam! Looking for an in-depth study of what makes a hit song? Check this out. Pay special attention to Table 1 (well, to all of them really) and tell me: what’s happened to love, people?

The Cry! so neatly fit into all of this that you’d swear they’ve been there all along. Their music sounds instantly familiar, without being entirely derivative. And they neatly cascade across decades within the course of their presentation, sounding all ‘60s British Invasion on one track and ‘70s cheerleader rock on the next. ‘80s New Wave and Punk Lite bluster, it’s all there. No muss. No fuss. No bullshit.

Crace and Nelsen

Crace and Nelsen

The core of the Cry! came together about five years ago, when guitarist/lead vocalist Ray Nelsen met lead guitarist/vocalist Brian Crace while both were still in high school in the Reynolds school district. The pair founded the Cry! in 2011, tinkering with the component players before arriving at the final line-up—which includes drummer Joey “Prude” Bewley from Spokane, Chicago native Mike Cortichiato on bass, and the most recent addition, guitarist/keyboardist Victor Franco, who hails from SoCal. “Corsh” and Franco also contribute occasional background vocals.

This quintet is certainly no “tribute” band or anything like that. They are as serious and as sincere as any Power Pop troupe can be. They drag out every rock and roll cliché in the vernacular and kick it around for a while, sounding like they invented the damn thing. Most of the fourteen songs presented here stick in your brain like gum stuck in your hair. The songs are expertly executed—if thoroughly predictable. Spot on, but no surprises. The Cry! seem not to be specifically copying any particular band(s). Not at all. They are simply of the ilk. They can hold their own with any of the competition.

Bewley

Bewley

Clocking in at just over two minutes in length, the break-neck, jacked-up tempo of the lead track “Smirk” bounds upon the deft execution of a crisp riff and smart group performance. Tight. Nelson breaks out his thickest Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day East Bay scouse to deliver the tell-tale line: “I just woipe that smirk roit off… of yer fice.” Bewley’s throbbing toms in the second verse beef up the presentation considerably.

The opening chords to “Discoteque” seem ripped from the AC/DC or Green Day playbooks, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out which page. It is so damn prototypical that the band really needn’t do anything more than that riff. Maybe add some cowbell. Open with that chord progression, play it eight or sixteen times. Launch into a solo—that length or longer. Go back to the opening chord progression and fade out with a solo over the top. Two minutes and a cloud of dust. That would be right up the Cry!’s alley.

Franco

Franco

The Cry!’s version of events, however, is slightly less predictable, though based alone on that introductory riff would be enough to catch the typical listener’s attention, while drilling a hole through his brain. One thing about this band: they don’t spend a lot of time on exposition. They get right to the point. So before you even really catch on to the riff, they’ve been through a four-bar solo and are well into the first verse. No. Make that the second verse, actually, where Franco’s plinky piano calls to mind some early ‘70s Bowie arrangement (circa the Mott the Hoople years)—the vocal delivered with just the right mount of Robin Zander smugness. An array of digital guitars are flashing off flares all over the place—if there’s room anywhere for another hook, the boys have jammed something in there. They’re unrelenting.

Crace, Corsh, Nelsen

Crace, Corsh, Nelsen

“Hanging Me Up” goes all ‘80s eighth note drive, sounding not unlike the The Vapors performing their only hit “Turning Japanese.” A certain circular vocal melody comes around from time to time. Sounding very much like early Cheap Trick, “Seventeen” seems dedicated specifically to the age demographic best suited for this material: most likely female. That is not at all a condemnation. That age seemed to work just fine for the Beatles when they first broke with a slew of songs that included “I Saw Her Standing There” (“well she was just seventeen…you know what I mean,” whatever the hell THAT’S supposed to mean).

corsh

Corsh

Speaking of the early Beatles, “Waiting Around” combines “This Boy” with “Tell Me Why” to create a harmlessly peppy overture. It’s a put-on, echoing the Beach Boys in the turns, tongues plastered in cheeks—though, expert musicianship aside, this is not one of the band’s more sterling efforts. B-side material. But the ‘80s sensibility returns with “Sleeping Alone,” a song that harkens back to the days of English Beat/General Public, where Nelsen and Crace’s chunky beef guitars are wedged inside Corsh’s bubbly bass and Bewley’s tom-driven beat. Nice stuff.

Ray Nelsen

Ray Nelsen

Attitude-wise “Nowhere to Go” could pass for a Ramones song—snotty enough—but more tightly rendered, more proficiently played. If the Ramones would have sounded as good as the Cry!, nothing would have ever happened for them because they would have been too good and the punks never would have accepted them. Sometimes life just turns out for the best.

A nice change of pace is the acoustic guitar/piano inflected ballad “Last Thing That I Do.” Think of Tom Petty leading the very early Heartbreakers through a sassy version of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” (I don’t know, maybe such a thing exists already) and you’re circling in on what we’ve got here. Nelsen’s sneering vocals and Crace’s kick-ass lead make of this track the most radio-friendly of the fourteen presented—which is really saying something. It’s like a sampler of everything the Cry! is capable of creating—and that’s a lot!

Thin Lizzy

Thin Lizzy

Jump cut to “I Think I’m in Love” (there are a lot of jump-cuts on this album—as if a silence any longer than a second might run the train of the average adolescent’s attention span off the tracks all together), a boisterous send-up in the fashion of Thin Lizzy. The boisterous Lynott-ish rap rolls free over the verses. But in the chorus, where the boys should heading back into town, the Cry! go the Rutles route and pull up with a Beatleseque pastiche eerily comparable to “I Must Be in Love.” They could have pushed a little harder on this one. A nice solo though.

Returning to the boogie rock at which they excel, “Down in the City” comes closer to the Zander/Cheap Trick template that works especially well for the Cry. Blowing through at 1:47, you barely have time to pick up the ditty on your sonic radar screen before you’re off to the next song. Nothing wasted… Zoom!

Yeah, Eddie Money!

Yeah, Eddie Money!

Thankfully for all parties involved, “Shakin’” has nothing whatsoever to do with Eddie Money’s 1983 release of the same name. Instead we are given a bouncy, Sweet-ish (“Ballroom Blitz”) rave-up with the memorable chorus: “Shakin’, shakin’ like a vibrator/Burnin’, burnin like a radiator.” Yow! Very tight ensemble playing locks down the homestretch. This band does not lack for chops.

The Rutles: Ron, Barry, Dirk and Stig

The Rutles: Ron, Barry, Dirk and Stig

That Rutles reference isn’t meant frivolously. You hear the influence again on “Modern Cindarella.” It’s meant as a sincere compliment, as anyone who has heard any of Neil Innes’ dozens of song contributions to the Rutles oeuvre, and the expert production those songs received. That material was nearly equal to that it is imitating. Similarly the Cry! take their homage to the limit, squeezing every last ounce of anguished teen bravado from the lines: “Please, girl, please stay with me/Tonight is for lovers like us/But you don’t seem to love like me/So I’m headin’ home on the bus.” Well, who hasn’t been on that bus a time or two themselves? “

“Dangerous Game” has a distinct element of a “fuck you” vibe that any fan of Green Day or the Dandy Warhols would readily recognize. The music is more amped up and Cheap Tricked out than the Dandys, but the attitude and sentiment are very familiar. The bridge is a little off-kilter here, like a few bolts came loose in the landing, but aside from that, this is prototypical Cry! material.

And no, “Toys in the Attic” has nothing to do with Lillian Hellman or Aerosmith: although that’s a band the Cry! might study very carefully going forward. What we have in this instance is another hard-charging stampede of punkish ‘80s New Wave Pop, skillfully rendered.

the cry5The Cry! are a very good young band. That much of their music seems rooted in the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s would mean that as children the members of the Cry! didn’t raid Dad’s record collection of Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots. They raided Grandpa’s pile of vinyl. And they listened to that stuff real hard. To the extent that they have it nailed and can play it backwards, forwards and upside down.

The Cry

The Cry!

The fact that no one as young as these guys seems to be producing this sort of bombastic Power Pop any more would seem to open the door for the Cry!. They do not lack for the look or talent. But, as sophisticated and accurate as they are, they could still take their music up a notch to the level of Journey or Aerosmith. That would require vocal chops the Cry! don’t have yet. But I wouldn’t count these guys out. They know what they’re doing.

Posted in CD Reviews, Music News | Tagged as: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

WaveSauce

WScoverStop Go!
Masher Music

We last visited with WaveSauce a couple of years ago, when the band bequeathed a couple of tracks (some of the very first recorded for this project) to the PDX A Go-Go surf music compilation. WaveSauce bill their sound as “Surf Pulp Sci-Fi.” And that’s pretty accurate, as far as it goes. But there are elements of hard rock, blues and experimental styles stirred into the sauce.

Theremin

Theremin

Their most obvious musical distinction of note is the employment of a theremin in their presentation. Front and center. A lead instrument. I wonder how many other rock bands there are out there that use them? There are a few. Mostly Prog acts as the ghostly sound of the instrument lends itself. Jon Spencer made use of one in his Blues Explosion. But the truth is they’re unruly little bastards. Not really musical instruments. A theremin is a simple tone generator, the history of which I pretty expertly laid out when we first met with WaveSauce back in January of 2012.

What’s true is the theremin is probably the most difficult instrument in all of Western music to play with any precision or efficacy. You’ve got two ultra-high frequencies beating against each other, to produce a third audible frequency. Rather than lengths of string or frets or keys, the accomplished thereminist is left to haplessly wave her hands in empty air, searching for an elusive pitch that hovers somewhere in space between two indefinite oscillators. It’s like trying to accurately solo on an air guitar!

Thus making it a pretty rowdy instrument in the wrong hands. If you run “theremin” into the Youtube search engine, you come up with some pretty sterling examples of how eerily similar to the human voice the contraption sounds. And of course it has been regularly used as an instrument of unparalleled science fiction soundtrack esteem.

Pete Vercellotti and Michele "Cookie" Heile

Pete Vercellotti and Michelle “Cookie” Heile

Michele “Cookie” Heile is lead thereminist for WaveSauce. Her partner, Pete Vercellotti, provides expert period-work guitar interjections. Through vintage gear Pete achieves an array of textures and tones familiar to the surf era of the early ‘60s. But he and Cookie, along with bassist Joel Boutwell and drummer Doug Powers, definitely stretch the boundaries of their particular quirky musical genre. Surf tunes. Car songs. Sci-fi, Spaghetti western themes—soundtracks for David Lynch films, or those of Quentin Tarentino. It’s a veritable surf and turf spaghetti feed!

And there’s more than that popping up along the way, everything from a harder rock feel in a couple of instances to some weird-ass, experimental moments. Emerson, Lake and Palmer it’s not. But just the same, this band has a unique sound in an artistic field littered with imitators and charlatans. No other band sounds like WaveSauce. Of that, there is little doubt.

Cookie warms up with “Coda Intro” running the rabbit ears through their paces—from the sputtering pulses of the very lowest notes up beyond to where only dogs can hear in the span of twenty seconds or so. It’s the sonic equivalent of a rocket launch. So fasten your seatbelts.

Cookie

Cookie

Then the band kicks into one of their two bequests to that PDX A Go-Go project, “Phantom Strut.” Pete’s chiming guitar sets the stage for Cookie’s operatic solo, swooping like a yellow canary over the rocky surf beat. The Ventures nugget “Joker’s Wild” rides on Pete’s dark, crunchy, Spanish chords, moving from Am to F before turning around on the inevitable E chord. Cookie’s solo in the middle calls to mind Duane Allman’s slide guitar solo on Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.”

“Sonic Who” is an energetic rocker, definitely in the spirit of the Who circa “Pictures of Lily,” with Pete’s Townshendish suspended barre chords motivating the song across Powers’ insistent beat. Cookie’s contribution is a credible Yoko Ono-type solo (though more melodic), while Pete subsequently untwines a gnarly ball of rock fury guitar, distantly related to Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.”

Boutwell, Powers, Cookie and Pete (Photo by David Bales)

Boutwell, Powers, Cookie and Pete (Photo by David Bales)

WaveSauce’s other entry for the PDX A Go-Go soundtrack, the very brief “Die Laughing,” bears a distinct ‘50s musical sentiment, with Pete leaning hard on the tremolo. Cookie’s solo sounds akin to the ghostly female vocal calliope of James Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World,” from around 1960. Vercellotti’s versatility is on full display with an original take of “Squad Car,” written by Paul Johnson of the Bel-Airs. Boutwell’s rumbling bass couples with Powers’ thumping toms to create a hopped up “Walk Don’t Run” surf rhythm that collides head-on with Pete’s decidedly reggae-flavored upstroke guitar. The result is something you might have heard in the early 80s from a band such as XTC. Cookie provides the requisite Squad Car siren. Cool track.

The title track is the epic of the bunch. Over a slinky ensemble setting, similar in feel to a jacked up version of “Shakin’ All Over” by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, Pete cranks strings through overdriven amp—one which hums with a singular intensity as if torn right out of the Art Alexakis playbook. Cookie’s work is superlative here, as she coaxes epic, Hendrix-like, Electric Ladyland whale herds from her theremin: chortling arpeggiatic yodels that I have never heard produced on that instrument before. Groundbreaking!

Cookie runs through the gears to kick off the minor-key chestnut “Blues Theme,” a tune whose central riff seems distantly derived from the memorable lick that opens the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville.” Powers pounds the toms with authority on the WS version of “Deep Surf,” by Jerry Cole and His Spacemen, while Pete prepares to navigate the pipeline. Meanwhile Cookie’s tone generator gently waves like a Hawaiian guitar in the Martin Denny moonlight.

Cookie (Photo by David Bales)

Cookie (Photo by David Bales)

“Lost Semaphore” (the perfect title for a number by a thereminist) serves as a showcase for Cookie’s considerable artistry. With skilled finesse she performs gull-like swoops and dives, Van Halenish whiplashes, and melodic passages worthy of the Ondioline soprano on Kai Winding’s “More” from 1963. A long time staple in the WaveSauce setlist, “Don’t Call Me Flyface” is a faithful rendition of the Reekers’ original breakdown, coupled with a distinctive edge indefinably reminiscent of the Clash with a sci-fi undertow.

Pete (Photo by Brock Kernan)

Pete (Photo by Brock Kernan)

Likewise, their take on “Peter Gunn” get’s all sauced up and colors outside the lines Henry Mancini drew so carefully back in ‘59. Vercellotti and Boutwell set up the riff—at a smokin’ pace—while Cookie goes for the heavy vibrato in approximating the lead line. One imagines her waving furiously like a Rose Festival princess on the back of a Cadillac. Pete comes on like Townshend, doing Carl Perkins in the break, with a tone that one can tell is certainly not generated by a foot pedal. Those are real vacuum tubes humming and distorting—entirely faithful to the sound and spirit of the ‘60s era.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The smoky blues, “Mosquito Serenade” sets the mood, with Cookie whistling in the dark with the theremin. Then she launches into the recitation of a portion of “The Poet,” an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common-wealth… For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.”

So you have a bluesy soundtrack of “The Thrill is Gone” calibur, with eerie synth hovering over that dusky scene. Then you have a woman reciting Ralph Waldo Emerson in the middle of it all. People, these are very strange times in which we live. Very strange times indeed!

“Super Sonic 2000” is a complete rebuild of Chris Isaaks’ “Super Magic 2000” from the floor up, as the band lend their special Sauce to the hard-biting instrumental number. The band rocks a lot harder here, especially, afforded the opportunity to truly let it out, Powers’ hard driving drums power the band into the new millennium.

WaveSauce

WaveSauce

To be sure, WaveSauce are an acquired taste. Not everyone in the audience is going to be capable of making the leap across the chasm that the band create by dint of their very composition. Still, with that being said, there is something groundbreaking and significantly outré about this band. They don’t play by anybody’s rules! You wanna talk about being on the edge in rock music, it’s hard to top the Saucers. They are first and foremost a spaghetti/surf band, a far orbiting satellite of a style—already outsiders to begin with.

Then toss in the theremin. It has been extremely rare in my experience to hear a theremin used in a rock context that wasn’t some sort of sci-fi prog noisemaker application. There’s no question WaveSauce know how to go there. They can get as arty as you wanna be. But Michele Heile can really play that thing and in ways you’ve never heard it played before. Ever. So, yeah, just how far out do you want to take it? WaveSauce take it there. And they do it with a straight face. They’re serious about it.

 

Posted in CD Reviews, Music News | Tagged as: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quick & Easy Boys

qaeb_followusoverboard_coverFollow Us Overboard
Self-Produced

It’s been nearly four years since we took a listen to the Quick & Easy Boys’ sophomore release, Red Light Rabbit in 2010. In the interim, the frisky three-piece has toured the country relentlessly—while releasing their third album along the way, Make It Easy, in May of 2013. As was noted in the earlier review, the Quick & Easy Boys are a great bar band, the perfect band to see live, onstage in a club. They are stylistically diverse for a trio and they don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re entertaining. As a flourishing live act they fulfill one other essential imperative. They’re really good.

w mike

Sean Badders, Michael Goetz, Jimmy Russell

And tight. Really tight. To be sure, the Quick & Easy Boys are throwbacks to the days of yore, when an intrepid rock band knocked it out in the clubs, fighting the good fight, learning the necessary tactics required to become successful, while acquiring a loyal fanbase along the way. Together for nearly ten years the Boys have intrepidly criss-crossed the country countless times from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonepah, playing every kind of stage that’s ever been played.

But, wearying of life on the road, drummer Michael Goetz finally called it quits earlier this year, soon replaced by Casey Anderson. The other two original members—bassist/vocalist Sean Badders and guitarist/vocalist Jimmy Russell—have soldiered on, with Anderson at their behest, maintaining the difficult to define lineage of their fostering. A great bar band.

Steve Berlin

Steve Berlin

And while their self-produced previous releases sounded great to anyone’s ears, for their fourth album the band elected to enlist the assistance of a pro. That would be Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. Berlin and his family have lived in Portland for several years now and along the way he has taken on a few projects in the role as producer—most notably Y La Bamba’s Court the Storm in February 2012 (my choice as the Album of the Year for 2012). Here as there, Berlin manages to cover his sonic tracks, leaving not a sound print in the digital dust. As was pointed out in the YLB review: He’s so good you don’t even know he’s there.

The Boys gave Berlin more than forty songs and chunks of songs to consider for this outing. There are fifteen songs included here. Five of those seem like some of the snippets originally provided for their producer’s approval. But just the same it all signals a slightly different musical direction for the band. Much of that shift can be attributed to Berlin, though most certainly the band knew where they wanted to go heading into these sessions.

Isaac Brock

Isaac Brock

Another wise choice in the assemblage of this package was the securing of Isaac Brock’s Ice Cream Party Studios here in Portland in which to record. Isaac Brock, leader of Modest Mouse and owner of the studio graciously allowed the Quick and Easy Boys full use of Mouse equipment—which one would presume to include some of Brock’s own one-of-a-kind customized and modified guitars and amps. From the scintillating sound of the finished product, it seems entirely possible.

The Boys have professed a sonic vision for their album that orbits between the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees and Flaming Lips—a trajectory of which, in and of itself, would have to be considered quite an achievement. But, though they regularly glint flashes of those three outfits, the QAEBs style cuts closer to the land of the American heart than even the disco surfers and the 21st century acid heads. Rootsier. Ballsier. Cut from heartier, beefier stock.

ZZ Top when they still rocked

ZZ Top when they still rocked

Think ZZ Top. No not those guys. The band that played like a bunch of hellbent cowboys before they started becoming cartoon characters of themselves post-Fandango, from about 1975 on—at which point they became fashion icons to a generation of Dynasty Ducks. Think of early ZZ Top swashed together with a loosy-goosy style maybe a little like Lowell George/Little Feat. I guess that would get you to a northwest version of Flaming Lips in some ways, come to think of it.

In the past there were frequent generous portions of funk in the Boys’ presentations. And here they lead off with “Breathe,” the chorus ripped directly from Parliament’s classic anthem “We Got the Funk.” A brief, soulfully wild-assed bridge—buttressed by horns or an organ or something back there—veers diametrically from the body of the song, but affords vocalist Badders the opportunity to come in with something that sounds like a melding of Harry Nilsson (“Jump Into the Fire”) with Prince (“Kiss).

It’s pretty impressive! And, in the phones, this recording holds up real well against all the aforementioned. I know this because I just checked. Sounds great! The performance of the second verse sounds straight out of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, so they can cross that one off the list. Bee Gees: check.

However, with that one song we pretty much leave the funk behind for this Quick & Easy Boys outing. The first among the five “snippets” follows—sounding similar to the run-out grooves on Sgt. Pepper… with thematic content comparable to “Fall Breaks And Back To Winter” on the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile. Beach Boys: check.

Sean Badders and Jimmy Russell

Sean Badders and Jimmy Russell

“Die” moves closer to that ZZ Top template, with Jimmy flicking off a bluesy bluster of crunchy licks. Think if the Top had gone in a different direction when they went in a different direction at the end of the ‘70s. What if John Doe were the lead singer captaining the band through their haunted waters? Chew on that! The chunk “Love Will Go,” works with the bewildering lyric: “It’s the cool Donald Duck and he’s been tellin’ everyone.” Maybe it’s something they heard out on the road that I don’t know about.

Coral Electric Sitar

Coral Electric Sitar

A banjo-like guitar/sitar (or possibly a stompbox effect) figure lends “Heart is Torn” a swampy feel reminiscent of the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.” But long about the arrival of a monstrous chorus, this song kicks into intense overdrive, with synth-strings (Melotron?) harking a monumental war dance. Russell’s writhing riveting guitar solo through a sassy break takes the song up to another level. Great stuff!

Starting out demo-like, with just a few guys sitting around the corner piano doo-wopping their way through the intro, “I Go Walking” soon reaches lift off, maintaining a hard-edged ‘50s feel throughout. Bay City Rollers dancing with The Ramones: with David Bowie looking on. The song builds as horns splat out from the chorus into the second verse. The insistent rhythm and Badders’ gruffish singing voice gives rise to comparisons to the sort of urgency often demonstrated by Roland Gift and Fine Young Cannibals. Another solid song. Zesty production.

Among the handful of fragments presented here, the sloppy “Better Way to Heaven” seems more likely than the others to evolve into a real song at some point. A cool repeating guitar riff pushes the piece past the (intentionally) half-assed vocals. Still, with the addition of a chorus and a bridge, there’s something in this that could be fleshed out. It’s just a little seed that hasn’t sprouted yet.

Larry Williams

Larry Williams

Further ‘50s riffage, this time distinctly driving energetically around the “bad Boy” Larry Williams (“Bony Moronie,” “Slow Down,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” and many more) neighborhood, propels “I Worry Myself.” There is also the fact that the melody in the verse vaguely resembles Ernest Tubb’s country classic, “I’m Walking the Floor Over You.” There. That’s been said. That’s out in the open. Just the same, Badders calls to mind Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens vocally on this cut. Something in the adenoids.

“Chasing Shadows” rides in on a bit of a contemporary country pony, although the choruses ring with a punchy horn section and vibrant “girl group” back-up vocals—taking it in a more soulful direction country music has yet to contemplate. Again Russell provides an amazing array of guitar interjections that are quite uniquely his own. A send up.

Stan Ridgway

Stan Ridgway

The soul-styled horns stick around for “Black Eyes,” a Stax informed slab of r&b that evokes the fabulous ‘70s Jersey-based (buds with the Boss) soul band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Well done! “Rave Bird” flies with Flaming Lips wings, although Stan Ridgway hovers nearby, to be sure. Jimmy’s chortling psychedelic guitar and Anderson’s trippy drumming serve to create the acid groove. With a heavily echoed vocal sounding megaphoned in by Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers.

The rudimentary snippet, “Ponytails,” buttressed by simple guitar and medieval recorders, again courts Beach Boys’ turf circa late ‘60s. “See Her Changing” revisits the Gibbness fever, in this case given the ZZ Top treatment. Think: the Bee Gees with balls. I know! A very interesting mashup, indeed. It’s like two separate records playing at the same time. Cool.

Russell and Badders

Russell and Badders

And too, for all intents and purposes, the final song, “Asleep,” is the most uncanny rendition of early-era Nilsson I have ever heard. Badders should consider a cover album or something. Quite amazing. The old-timey joviality of the arrangement fits right in with the Nilsson canon from Harry in 1969 through The Point, in 1971. A killer vintage synth solo in the middle adds to the period effect. The guys conclude the song with a sort of Abbey Road inspired choral pastiche, followed by the brief “Joe Schmo” which would serve as “Her Majesty” in this particular context. That final fragment sounds as if Frank Zappa swung by the Beach Boys’ house in 1966 for a cup of acid kool-aid and a campfire jam. Weird.

This is quite a worthy effort, and far different from the one many fans of the band might have been expecting. The funk which played an integral part in former Quick & Easy Boy incarnations is used here as a mere launching point—to explore regions where the band has never gone before. And while producer Steve Berlin has done everything within his earthly power to disguise them, the Boys do have their musical limitations. Their songwriting isn’t going to frighten Arcade Fire or whoever.

But at the same time, these guys certainly put themselves out there for this affair. And while every song isn’t always a hit or a homerun, they do make good contact on all of the ten songs they send to the plate. The decision to include the five crude scraps was ill-advised—as those momentary train wrecks really derail the album’s momentum. The record is forty minutes long with just the ten real songs, and they should have left it at that. It’s unclear what their reasoning was with that choice.

Still, with that being said, this record is otherwise a veritable magical musical mystery tour. Particularly unique are the excursions into the Bee Gees sing “La Grange” part of the field. There is something there that is most definitely worth further exploration. And the Nilsson guises are especially delicious as well.

Quick & Easy Boys

Quick & Easy Boys

Everyone involved in the project obviously put their heart into it. Jeff Saltzman’s engineering is laudable for imparting definition to an often-crowded (though never overcrowded) mix. Steve Berlin has again proven himself to be quite a versatile producer—one who really listens to the songs, fleshing out the very best aspects of each of them. But it’s the Quick & Easy Boys who have taken their music to a new level.

They very well could have continued doing what they were doing. It served them well enough for the past decade. And they are very good at what they do. Instead the band has chosen to step up their game—to move in new, different directions. That is not an easy undertaking for a trio. There’s not always a lot of room to move. But the Quick & Easy Boys cast their lot with the spirit of adventure and experiment and seem to have found a path out of whatever stylistic quagmire they may have found themselves. It’s going to be quite interesting to hear where the lads will go from here.

Posted in CD Reviews, Music News | Leave a comment

Here Comes Everybody

shakespeare-cd-coverPlay:Songs From Shakespeare
Refrigerator Records

Considered to be perhaps the greatest wordsmith in all the English language, not much is known about William Shakespeare. What is known about the man is often clouded by rumor and innuendo. But as time passes the only conclusion at which one can reasonably arrive is that Mister Shakespeare actually authored the thirty-seven plays (that we know of) for which he is renowned—and not Christopher Marlow, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Edward de Vere or the dozens of other characters who have at various times been briefly nominated for the achievement.

The Upstart Crow Himself

The Upstart Crow Himself

It wasn’t like Shakespeare was a complete unknown back then. By the time he was twenty-eight, he was already garnering damned faint praise from his fellows, such as this silver tongue-twister from dramatist Robert Greene in an industry rag called the Stationers’ Register: “…There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country…”

Except for the fact that a “Johannes factotum” might also be called a “jack of all trades,” I have no idea what half of that means, but it seems likely that Greene’s readers did, which in and of itself should give you a clue that the average cleat was a tad better educated than most of the upstart crows we see coming out of high school today. Those kids took Latin and knew of the Classics, whereas most of today’s students major in Video Games and Android Attenuation, bombasting tweets to their hale and hearty fellow bros at all hours.

The guy was no slacker. In fact, Shakespeare, who turned a spry four-hundred and fifty years old earlier this year (though he doesn’t look a day over three-hundred) was a pretty wealthy guy by the time he was thirty-five years old. He had a lot going on. For one thing, he wrote all those plays and they were pretty popular at the time (though he probably didn’t get any royalties on any of it to speak of). He owned a chunk of the Globe Theater and the acting company that performed there. He owned a couple of houses. He had a wife and kids. Hell, the family was issued its own coat of arms, fer chrissakes. They were doing okay.

John Dowland

John Dowland

And while William Shakespeare is best known for his plays, and to a lesser degree for his sonnets, few give him much credit for being one of the better songwriters of the Elizabethan era, right up there with William Byrd and John Dowland, the madrigalists and other pioneers of the craft, who were churning out the hit consort tunes of the day. Check out this famous ditty from The Tempest: “Where the bee sucks there suck I/In a cowslip’s bell I lie/There I couch when owls do cry/On the bat’s back I do fly/After summer merrily/Merrily, merrily shall I live now/ Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”

Thomas Morley

Thomas Morley

Now that sounds just like something Ian Anderson might have thrown down for a late ‘70s Tull album. As a matter if fact, As You Like It generated several hit songs. Composer Thomas Morley, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is known to have written the music for a song or two in that and a few others of Shakespeare’s plays—most notably “It Was a Lover and His Lass.” The 20th century’s own Donovan set the familiar “Under the Greenwood Tree” to music, though not particularly well.

Donovan

Donovan

“Under the greenwood tree/Who loves to lie with me/And turn his merry note/Unto the sweet bird’s throat/Come hither, come hither, come hither!/Here shall he see/No enemy/But winter and rough weather.”

One of the more ambitious attempts to delineate Shakespeare in a new and inventive way, arrives to us via Here Comes Everybody. Here Comes Everybody? You ask. Shouldn’t they be doing an album about Finnegan’s Wake? What does Shakespeare have to do with James Joyce? Plenty. He’s all over Joyce’s Ulysses. He is the main subject of discourse in Chapter Nine. And he makes a brief guest appearance in the “Nighttown” chapter wearing a reindeer antler hat rack crown.

James Joyce

James Joyce

And what does Joyce have to do with Here Comes Everybody? Finnegans Wake! The band is led by HCE, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and his lovely Liffey-rivered wife, ALP: Anna Livia Plurabelle—though they both go by many aliases, ie Ancient Legacy of the Past and Here Comes Everybody. No wait. That’s Joyce. Here Comes Everybody, the band, is helmed by drummer, vocalist Michael Jarmer and his wife Rene Orme-Jarmer, a talented drummer in her own right and quite an accomplished keyboardist and vocalist as well.

The Jarmers formed HCE back in 1986 and have recorded, jeez I don’t know, ten? twelve albums over that time. I’ve reviewed most of them. I remember that Michael drummed with Incognation on a bill with my band at the Fat Little Rooster in 1983. And Rene actually auditioned as a drummer for my band around the same time. All this to say, that despite their youthful appearances they go back thirty years in the Portland music scene. And they’ve played with an impressive array of side players along the way.

Monster Talk

Monster Talk

Both of them are teachers, so they have respectable jobs, besides their artistic endeavor. They’re well-rounded. And Michael’s an English teacher and an author. He published Monster Talk  a couple of years ago, a novel about a descendant of Doctor Frankenstein’s “experiment.” Rene teaches private drum lessons and coaches the drum line at Rex Putnam High School. These guys are not lightweights.

Which is why, in the scheme of things, this present undertaking comes as no big surprise.  It’s literary. Yeah? Well everything HCE have ever put out has had a literately literary element at play. Lyrically, Michael is witty, cheeky, erudite. Cerebral. So it’s no big leap having Willie the Shake in to write (most of) the words here. The genius here is that the Jarmer’s reworked the Bard’s material into a new narrative, a “play” (in two Acts) as it were, constructed out of lines extracted from only three of Shakespeare’s plays—Hamlet written later in his career, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, which were earlier works.

Hamlet is larded with an array of songs in its own right, many of them sung by crazy Ophelia or vocalized by troubled Hamlet to make everyone think he was crazy. But for the most part those songs are left alone, with new connections being made from chunks of monologues, soliloquies and orations.

Hamlet

Hamlet

Take, for instance, the pretty “What a Piece of Work,” cut from the whole cloth of Hamlet’s monologue in Act 2, Scene 2, written not in typical Shakespearian iambic pentameter, but in blank verse. “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”

In the verse this plays out on a narrow musical bed. Over Michael’s kinetic drums and confident vocals, Rene layers warm tufts of electric piano, while longtime bassist David Glide here makes his first of four guest appearances, accentuating Rene’s left hand. The chorus, which are Hamlet’s next two lines, “The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals,” opens up majestically. Ethereal background vocals support Michael and Rene in lead duet. Indistinct orchestration in the periphery creates a wistfully nostalgic, haunted turn, a longing in the delivery of the phrases.

The concluding lines of Hamlet’s brief speech serve as the second verse—Michael’s reading as ambiguously jaundiced as the first—again perhaps exalting the lofty righteousness of Mankind. Maybe. But the return to the chorus blankets such bluster with a relentless agenbite of inwit. “I have of late…lost all my mirth.”

A ballad, “The Advice Song” floats upon Rene’s misty major 7th chord inflections on electric piano, calling to mind one ‘60s Burt Bacharach song or another, circa Herb Alpert. The “advice” is extracted from Polonius’ lecture to his son, Laertes, in Act 1, Scene 3 of Hamlet. A former advisor to Hamlet’s dead father, the king, (also named) Hamlet, Polonius fancies himself the wise mentor, but whom Hamlet the younger considers to be among a league of “tedious old fools.”

Polonius

Polonius

In this instance, Polonius dispenses some of his most memorable homilies, many employed in Michael’s adaptation of the speech—which builds its chorus on the memorable line “to thine own self be true.” Rene adds lush string settings at the edges and Al Torres neatly contributes a well-placed trombone solo that hits with just the right amount of irony.

Claudius

Claudius

The Beatlesque “The Play’s the Thing” nicely captures Hamlet’s soliloquy at the end of Act 2, Scene 2, wherein he plots his revenge on his uncle Claudius, brother to the slain ruler, who has taken over the throne and taken up with Gertrude, King Hamlet’s widow, Prince Hamlet’s mother. Over an 11/8 (?) latin jazz rhythm, provided by Rene on drums, Michael delivers the first verse sounding very much like Paul McCartney, singing “…Hum, I have heard/That guilty creatures sitting at a play/Have, by the very cunning of the scene/Been struck so to the soul that presently/They have proclaimed their malefactions.”

Dave Captein

Dave Captein

The chorus straightens out into a straight-ahead gait, Michael and Rene singing “the play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” faintly calling to mind Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.” Rene’s piano and strings orchestration and Dave Captein’s punchy bass work add a Phil Specter-like Let It Be ambiance to the sonic atmosphere.

Hamlet Jerking Ophelia Around

Hamlet Jerking Ophelia Around

“Song of Indecision” knits together Hamlet’s end of a conversation with Ophelia in Scene 1 of Act 3, where he seriously fucks with her fragile head. He loved her once. He loved her not. Hamlet is a complex guy and maybe a brick or two short of a retaining wall. But the scene concludes with Hamlet chiding poor Ophelia, urging her to “get thee to a nunnery,” the hook line for the chorus.

The song could pass for a Bowie arranged Killers song and Michael renders a Brandon Flowers-informed vocal. But more than that, this song sounds like classic Here Comes Everybody, with Rene’s dappled keyboard phrasings glistening against bowed double bass in the chorus, Michael’s persistent beat and Glide’s galloping bass.

Hamlet’s consummate encounter with Claudius in Act 4 is the basis for “Where’s Polonius?” Mistaking him for a rustling rat, Hamlet has just dispatched the “intruding fool” Polonius—who was hiding behind a curtain, spying on an argument between Hamlet and Gertrude. In this song, Hamlet evasively implies to Claudius: “Hey, Bud, you’re next,” a point which Claudius fails to fully recognize.

Michael calls to mind Adrian Belew or David Byrne in his vocal delivery and phrasing of Hamlet’s spiteful script. Rene’s restless keyboard plays against the fluid motion of Captein’s bass. Her syncopated rhythms (she additionally plays drums on this track) lend a jazz feel to parts of the performance.

Ophelia in the Weeds

Ophelia in the Weeds

The lovely, Beatles-like gem “Ophelia’s Song” comes to us from the conclusion of Act 4, Scene 5, where Ophelia, grief stricken at the death of her father Polonius and Hamlet’s headtrips, briefly wanders through an impassioned exchange between her brother Laertes and the new king Claudius. It is clear from her ravings that she has gone off the deep end. She manages to sing a couple of songs within the text of her short appearance, but the Jarmers choose instead another delightfully sweet and crazy expression of her grief.

Michael and Rene duet harmoniously over her dramatic piano, orchestral string passages in the chorus and melotronish flutes in the second verse; moving toward a heart rending bridge at the end: “There’s fennel for you, and columbines—There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.”

Captein adds mournful arco double bass to Rene’s bounding piano Tchaikovskian chordal leaps in “Denmark’s a Prison.” The narrative digresses to Act 2, Scene2 and an interaction between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about what a ditch Hamlet thinks Denmark to be. It must be said that Hamlet maintains a pretty sour attitude throughout. The guy’s got a real chip on his shoulder. Personally, I think he’s bipolar.

Michael Jarmer

Michael Jarmer

The final number of the first act (Side One) of HCE’s play, “The Insult Song,” comes to us via A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lysander launches a verbal assault against Hermia within the confused love quadrangle that serves as the plot for Shakespeare’s romp. The Bard is somewhat renowned for the remarkable versatility he displays in crafting an affront and here we find a fine collection culled from Act 3, Scene 2: “Hang off, thy cat, thou burr! Out tawny tartar. Out loathed medicine. O hated potion, hence. Canker blossom. Thou painted maypole.” Nothing but the hits!

Hermia and Helena

Hermia and Helena

The pretty ballad “Starve Our Sight” derives from Act 1, Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Hermia providing the chorus, while her BFF Helena contributes the words for the verses.  Rene’s moody piano arpeggios and Captein’s slippery double bass accent the complexly gorgeous vocal harmonies between Rene and Michael in the chorus. “We must starve our sight/From lovers’ food till morrow deep midnight.”

“The Course of True Love” and “Reason and Love,” also with roots in the first act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream venture from the script with additional insights inserted by HCE. “What Fools These Mortals Be” is very short, just the nugget of an observation from Puck to his fairy boss Oberon: “Shall we their fond pageant see?/Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Extracted from discourse between Romeo and Mercutio in the first act of Romeo and Juliet, “Children of an Idle Brain” is the latter’s extended depiction of the world of Queen Mab, “the fairies’ midwife.” Michael gives an insightful reading, not exactly singing over the musical backdrop, but certainly in time with it—which emphasizes the rhythm in Shakespeare’s language, made real by our young actor’s way with those words.

Juliet and Romeo

Juliet and Romeo

Rene and Michael portray Juliet and Romeo in the touching call and response duet “Of Pilgrims and Saints,” taken from an incredibly romantic interlude near the end of Scene 1. In this instance, Shakespeare provides luscious rhyming poetry for lyrics, which the pair engage with obvious love and understanding (for the language—and the subject matter). The second half of this piece is an extended solo. While Captein pops a funk jazz informed bassline over a tumbling waltz, Al Torres returns for a wondrous trombone hiatus that hovers over the song like the cloud hanging over the young lovers’ doomed romance.

Mercutio

Mercutio

“A Plague” finds Romeo and Mercutio at the other end of their friendship in Act 3, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio has been stabbed on a cheap shot from Tybalt, a member of the Capulet Gang, the Montague Boys’ arch-enemies (except for Romeo and his thing with Juliet, of course). Rene vocally portrays the dying lad, who was friend to both of the feuding families, among his final words a familiar curse. “I am peppered, I warrant, for this world/A plague on both your houses!”

Rene Orme-Jarmer

Rene Orme-Jarmer

Rene’s solemn Lennon imagined electric piano delineations serve as Mercutio’s waning pulse, Glide’s bass a fading consciousness. Michael’s vocal at the chorus again calls to mind Brandon Flowers, sailing on a sea of troubled strings.

Friar Laurence in the Weeds

Friar Laurence in the Weeds

The brambled ramble of “Opposed Kings” finds Friar Laurence extolling the many virtues of the various plants, potions and philters at his behest, the bounty which mother earth provides her creatures. One of those elixirs will put Juliet in a state resembling death, convincingly enough that Romeo will then kill himself over it, so that when Juliet eventually awakens to find him dead, kills herself for real—because that’s just what lovestruck youngsters do.

A Radiohead disposition invests the musical atmosphere. Over a brittle electronic drumbeat, and Rene’s thick electric piano sound, Michael’s muttered tenor could pass as relative to that of Thom Yorke singing: “Within the infant rind of this small flower/Poison hath residence and medicine power/For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part/Being tasted, stays all senses with the heart.”

This is such an ambitious album. Deep. It assumes upfront that the typical denizen of Portlandia might have some fleeting whit of an acquaintance with the playwright Shakespeare. Certainly, it should go without saying, the audience is greatly narrowed by the subject matter. But that is precisely why the Jarmers and Here Comes Everybody are the perfect heralds. Their words and music, their productions have always been difficult and intelligent.

This album is no great leap for them, but for the fact that the pair are forced to work with language that is over four hundred years old. And while Shakespeare’s use of the English language could not be considered contemporary, exactly, his command of human nature and the machinations we trivial beings contrive is no less accurate nor insightful all these four centuries later. And though his voice may be quaintly unmodern to our sophisticated ears, it is no less astute nor intuitive—nor rich with musical poetry —after all this time.

Through the course of this album, you can see the manic desperation of Robin Williams’ Hamlet foretold. The state of our nation, our world? “Denmark’s a Prison.” Can we not find echoes of the stupid deadly territorial skirmish between Tybalt and Mercutio rampant in the Arab world? And can we not see the enduring Romeo and Juliet like tragic aspects in the love between Kanye and Kim?

There are several songs that stick in the mind here. “The Play’s the Thing” stands out. “Ophelia’s Song” is two and a half minutes of pure pop pleasure. The haunting quality of “What a Piece of Work” remains imprinted on the psyche. “Song of Indecision” is a fast paced piece with a memorable chorus and a mouthful of bon mots.

Rene and Michael Jarmer: Here Comes Everybody

Rene and Michael Jarmer: Here Comes Everybody

Yes, the appeal of this album will be limited. That seems almost certain. But HCE knew that going in. And, given those limitations, the band produce superlative music to support timeless themes incomparably expressed.

The lesson to be learned from this two-act aural play is simple. Nothing much has changed about the human condition in the twenty generations since the ideas contained within were first presented to the public. Humans are screwed up and inscrutable. In the history of the English language, no one has illustrated that fact better than William Shakespeare. And Here Comes Everybody do a remarkable job of lending 21st century musical color to the presentation.

 

 

 

Posted in CD Reviews, Music News | Tagged as: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pacific Mean Time

cover-mediumPacific Mean Time
Self-Produced

Pacific Mean Time. What does that even mean? Some of us may be familiar with Greenwich Mean Time. Greenwich Mean Time was developed by the British in the 19th century to help the trains run on time. Great Britain being the center of the universe back in those days, it came to pass that all other time became calculated worldwide using Greenwich Mean Time as the absolute reference point. In essence, the given time of any moment on the planet is relative to moment zero in Greenwich, UK. That’s where time begins for the rest of us peons.

3360 SE Division. Former location of Ho's Auto Repair. Ho Hoang my mechanic for 17 years.

3360 SE Division. Former location of Ho’s Auto Repair. Ho Hoang my mechanic for 17 years.

In considering Pacific Mean Time we need recalibrate our clocks. As of today, time begins in Portland, Oregon. Moment zero is here. Now. So, something has changed. Some perspective has shifted. What perspective might that be? Well, certainly Division Street is nearly unrecognizable from maybe five years ago. That’s certainly a perceivable change. But those sorts of things are going on daily all over this city. The Portlandia-ization. No, something else changed. Something changed abruptly

That would be Little Beirut.

Little Beirut

Little Beirut (Edwin Paroissien left, Hamilton Sims right)

Little Beirut put out three albums between 2004 and 2010. The band was the brain-child of lead vocalist Hamilton Sims and Edwin Paroissien. Before forming Little Beirut, Sims and Paroissien were partnered with fellow Tulane University alums Carlos Marcelin and Eric Flint in Silkenseed, a band that met with some local acclaim in the ‘90s. Marcelin and Flint went on to co-found Sally Tomato with Ms. Tomato herself in 2001.

Little Beirut

Little Beirut

All three Little Beirut albums met with critical praise, especially 2008’s High Wire, which found the band at its creative peak. But, as Little Beirut prepared their follow-up to Fear of Heaven (released in 2010), an insurmountable artistic impasse divided the members of the band. Sensing that the band had reached a dead-end, Little Beirut broke up.

Edwin Padroissien

Edwin Padroissien

In 2012 guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Paroissien lost his job, which initiated for him an intensive period of soul-searching—a re-evaluation of his life’s goals and the part music would play going forward. In lieu of immediately seeking a new job, Edwin set about completely reconfiguring his musical direction.

Little Beirut was a pretty nice wheel in the first place. Their sound didn’t exactly compel complete reinvention, but perhaps merely a new design twist here and there. Carbon rims: or the musical equivalent thereof. And that’s precisely what Edwin Paroissien brought to the table.

Hamilton Sims

Hamilton Sims

Tinkering with guitar, drum machine and synthesizer, he slowly began to mine a new stylistic vein, amassing a veritable pile of nuggets over the course of several months spent sluicing around. It was about that time that Hamilton Sims was contacted by Matthew Morgan.

Working as a studio engineer at Jackpot Studios a while back, Morgan met Sims and Paroissien when they dropped by one day to lend background vocals to a project being assembled by an Alabama-boyhood friend of Hamilton’s. So it was benign kismet that at the time he would be needed most by Little Beirut in their darkest hour, Matthew would happen to check-in to see what was new with the fellas.

Matthew Morgan at the Console

Matthew Morgan at the Console

At some length Morgan became an intrinsic member of the new band, not only as a producer and facilitator of unique sound pastiches, but also as a contributing musician himself. He added drums to six of the ten tracks. And that was the final aspect of the band’s transition. Little Beirut was no more. They had morphed into Pacific Mean Time.

Anyone who regularly reads my reviews (I can think of seven or eight people off hand) knows that I maintain a “three listens” standard. I make no appraisals of a record until I have listened to it at least three times. Typically it takes that many auditions for me to get a real handle on where the musician’s artistic intentions lie—to get inside the arrangement and the message beneath that.

But every once in a great while I hear something that sounds like a “hit” the first time through. The songs are instantly memorable, familiar; the arrangements catchy and unique to the ear on the first pass—not a mere confection, but a full five-course meal. Friends, that’s what we have here. It’s a damn sonic banquet!

Hamilton sketching lyrics

Hamilton sketching lyrics

Beginning at the first measure of the first song, “Blindfolds.” Through atmospheric clouds, possibly of slide guitar origin (though indistinct at best) floats an indifferent balloon portrayed by a wandering clarinetish toned vehicle—which bounces against a naked drum beat and flitting droplets of acoustic guitar. Into the scene descends the fog of Hamilton’s vaporous lead vocal, singing “baby’s all still and hard to find/so I keep turning on the lights.”

It sounds like Beck singing a National song, especially in the memorable chorus, hauntingly delivered against the punctuation of a little Afropop guitar turnaround. A pretty, flute-like keyboard solo skitters across the frame pointing the way to the thoughtful bridge. “November minds might best be left alone/those shooting starless skies you’ve always known.” A great start.

John Hulcher

John Hulcher, bass

For “Minutes to Midnight,” the first single from the album, Morgan’s pulsing kick drum fleshes out John Hulcher’s sinewy bass lines. Paroissien embroiders delicate filigree capillaries with the unique sounding charango, an instrument which, in this instance, evokes the exotic resonances of hammered dulcimer, mandolin and banjo reverberating across an ever-shifting sonic terrain.

The song sounds like a convergence between Sparklehorse and Snow Patrol, with a vague dusting of Fleet Foxes sprinkled throughout the catchy chorus. There is also an ineffably faint shadow of Blind Pilot hovering here. Morgan’s occasional jacked up gated-snare effect will sound just like a blown mid-range to those of you in the audience who listen to music through actual real speakers.

Inside your phones it merely sounds as if part of your skull is collapsing. Its entry against Sims’ boyish vocal sometimes gives the impression he is being beaten with a sack of mashed-potatoes. Boosh. Boosh. All the same the song is instantly memorable by the turn of the first chorus. And a well-crafted bridge only further enhances that appeal.

KBC has he best vintage keys!It is within “New Blood” that the true essence of the new Pacific Mean Time begins to coalesce for the listener.  The introduction is comprised of acoustic and electric guitar accompaniment, which graduates in instrumental composition through the verses. The B Section is reminiscent in places of Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, with superlative keyboard latticework—strung between a chortling birdlike keyboard figure and the low-tension suspension wire timbre of deep-voiced synth bass.

inspirational cardsFor most bands, those two musical passages alone would suffice in the construction of an outstanding song. But then the lads launch into the real chorus, which elevates the song to even loftier heights—nearing the dramatic grandeur of the ex-Mister Paltrow’s Coldplay, with the overpowering hook on “nobody saw where you went/new blood is blowing in/it’s all necessary wind.”

“A Simple Thing” is driven by a mechanical drumbeat, and synchronized keys and guitar duetting a ghostly riff ala Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien circa In Rainbows. Over that bedding Sims croons dreamy Bryan Ferry. A moody change of pace.

Thick, chunky piano chords block out the parameters of “Bo Derek.” It’s a familiar pattern until just when you think it should start heading back up again and it goes down one more step. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a hook—at its purest and simplest.

Matthew Morgan and Catherine O'Dell

Matthew Morgan and Catherine O’Dell

A sad hopefulness, similar to something E (Eels) might express, invests the wistful sentiments of the lyric, “seems like the perfect day/for losing my mind/for falling out of touch/to see what I find.” The mood is augmented by bell-like keyboard tones and Catherine O’Dell’s plangent cello phrasings.

A brooding pastoral passage, worthy of 10cc in their prime, evolves into a Shinsy anthem in the final movement of the song. Layers of skittering guitars and burbling keys swirl around Sims’ worry weary vocal. “There’s something in my heart/that’s made it this far/and I’m not throwing that away.” Uplifting.

Nathan Jr.

Nathan Jr.

The ballad “Straight Shot Towards the Sun” begins similarly to its predecessor, shaded with big, dark piano chords, plunging into a stream of frozen snare beats to create a brittle crystal setting, wherein Hamilton coolly moons a lonely plaint. A sweeping melotron figure from guest Nathan Jr. and O’Dell’s careening cello trails add cinematic drama to the pensive mood afogged of the overcast musical landscape.

Over fractious guitar, erstwhile starling Muse-ish electronic accoutrements swoop and sweep in “Perfect Rose.” Again the mix of melotron and cello confuse the reality of a bewildering track.

Edwin post bike mishap

Edwin post bike mishap

A complete change of pace is “How To Cheat Death,” a churning rocker cut whole from Blitzen Trapper cloth. A folky acoustic guitar figure intro explodes into a spirited crush of electric guitar, syrupy bass, and low-vibrating synth riffage. The persistent jangle and crunch march in lockstep to Morgan’s jack-booted drums—while, like a 21st Century Mike Love, Sims drolly recites his secret to life: “and I know what I know/and we go wherever we want to go.” Westcoast Psych 101. It’s a hit!

hamilton3 The gentle waltz “White Blackbird” twirls in an elegant melange between warm electric piano, flutey melotron-like frosting, and acoustic guitar, as Hamilton intones a misty verse. “Always loved seeing double/the double life’s twice as fun/wrapping my dreams in trouble /even the best ones.” This is a very simple, straightforward song, by far the most directly accessible arrangement on the album—a light aperitif to follow the bluster of the previous number.

Appropriately, the last song on the record is entitled “The Last Song on the Record,” which allows all involved to fix their location in the grand scheme of things. It sounds like the last song on a record too: sort of a summation of all that has gone before. It’s a lush, ethereal musical setting.

A shiver of mudthick sludge samples serve as percussive underpinning, while electric guitars shimmer and flicker against wraith-like otherworldly sounds swirling around Sims’ simple vocal statement: “And I don’t care how/I need to be there now.” And off the guys go singing into the distance.

Dave Friedlander

Dave Friedlander

This very complex album is quite an achievement on several levels. As a piece of sound architecture it is spectacular. Matthew Morgan’s imprint as engineer and co-producer cannot be minimized. Everywhere there are subtle touches and flourishes. He and Diamond Dave Friedlander’s finished mix is texturally ornate without being cluttered or intrusive.

On top of that, there’s not a bad cut here. In fact none fall short of being instantly memorable—each song with its own personality, a production unto itself. There are hooks galore. Sometimes clusters of them. The entire record is an endless conveyor of tasty morsels produced by the Pacific Mean Time Ear Candy Company.

Pacific Mean Time

Pacific Mean Time

But the heart of the band beats with the blood of Edwin Paroissien and Hamilton Sims—whether one calls them Little Beirut or Pacific Mean Time. John Hulcher’s contributions on bass throughout this project cannot be minimized. It’s stellar work.

Paroissien and Sims

Paroissien and Sims

Still, Paroissien and Sims are in their third decade of partnership, and that is not a status often achieved in the ego-riven realm of the rock band. The pair have vaned numerous changes of direction in the pop music winds without compromising their artistic sensibilities in the least, only enhancing and expanding them. And that is no easy achievement.

Posted in Music News | Leave a comment

Rachel Taylor Brown

RTB Cover2Falimy
Penury Pop

What are words to describe Rachel Taylor Brown? Her cartoonly brawl? As seemingly congruent as that might appear on the surface, it is merely an anagram—despite its indisputable aptness: for which I take entire and complete credit. For Rachel Taylor Brown the cartoonly brawl is her everyday battle with you, me, us, them, this, that and anything in the equation I might be missing. Rachel is incredibly sensitive, and the presence of a city-like exterior world within the limits of her bucolic interior city is something she finds distinctly and quite uniquely disquieting. In a good way.

Rachel Taylor Brown

Rachel Taylor Brown

Rachel has been releasing an album every year or two for the past ten years. She first appeared on my radar screen in 2004 with Do Not Stare, an album that clearly introduced her quirky quirks: musical, lyrical and possibly psychological, though it’s certainly none of my business. I have, however, reviewed all or most of her six or eight (including one Christmas) albums over the years, though I’ll be damned if I can find a couple of them. Down the Buko magazine wormhole, I guess.

Where in the Choir is the Titian-Haired RTB? (Hint: She's Not the Strawberry Blond in the Front Row)

Where in the Choir is the Titian-Haired RTB? (Hint: She’s Not the Strawberry Blond in the Front Row)

It was way back in ‘04 that we learned of Rachel’s considerable credentials. She has sung as a soprano soloist, and as an ensemble vocalist with the Portland Baroque Orchestra. She has performed as a back-up singer in the studio for dignitaries such as Foreigner and the Chieftains, among others. She’s worked as a DJ at KINK.

For that first (to us) album, Rachel played all the guitars. Here she plays all the keyboards. So it is readily apparent then that she is musically quite adept. In addition, taking her quirky quirks into deep consideration, she is a fine, if defiantly off-beat songwriter. Don’t listen to Rachel if you don’t want to think, because some of the things she will make you think can be at times troubling in a wholly organic way. I’m talking 21st century Bronte girls here. You can hear the wind sighing through the trees.

Want an indication of, a locus, for Rachel’s lyrical point of view? Here’s a cool little verse from Jonah Days back in 2005: “You know I never meant to maim—just scar for life/And though you never looked the same, I kept the knife/It’s kinda weird how a simple tool can make you cruel.” Brrr. Did it just get a little chilly in here?

tb8So we know what to expect from Ms. Taylor-Brown. She’s no punch-puller. Still, it must be said, that here her lyrical approach is a little more sensitive to the subject matter and not, perhaps, so obsessed with the gory, entrails. Here the focus is primarily on the family. The nuclear family.

Yeah. Nuclear. It is obvious from the title of this album, that there may be aspects of our “falimy” in question that could be perceived as dysfunctional. But then, who are we to judge? And it wouldn’t be a Rachel Taylor-Brown album without at least a little dysfunction, at least on the peripheries.

The two songs to roll out this affair are two of the most poppy concoctions Rachel has ever formulated—and that is saying something, as her knack for the sharpened hook and the handsome turn has long been evident. But with “We’ll Have A” she outdoes herself.

First we have the “three to the floor” verses reminiscent of Regina Spektor—the chunky, Mccartney-esque drive of the piano, while Rachel coos a dove-like vocal. “There’s no one to comfort you, no one to care/There’s only this want and my pitiful share.”

Her answer to her own stated predicament is punctuated by a stirringly raucous, Gospel-tinged chorus belted out by a twenty-voice (at the minimum) choir. “So let’s have a family!/We’ll have a family.” Yeah. That’s the All-American answer for everything: a baby. Well, a baby and a gun, I guess. This is a formidable entry into the world Rachel intends to create. The intense sonic majesty of the vocal section is not something to have come out of Portland before. Not in a “rock” format anyway.

Our Boy, Athos

Our Boy, Athos

Now as we all know Athos was among the brutes—Gigantes—rowdy Greek lads born of the mother earth and father sky (you don’t want to know how), who challenged the authoritah of the pantheon of Olympians (the big name, major league gods). Athos happened to get pissed enough at Poseidon or whoever (records are not exactly clear about any of this) that he threw a mountain at him, which got batted down into the Aegean Sea. After kicking Athos’ ass, Poseidon went ahead and just buried Athos under his own damn mountain. Nuff said. Thank you very much!

Poseidon Looking at his New Mountain

Poseidon Looking at his New Mountain

Somebody, Homer? Ovid? One of those storytellers from antiquity decided to name the mountain after the guy buried underneath it, not the guy who batted it down, as you might expect. Reasoning was different back then, for better or worse.

As an example, some guy thought it would be a reasonable idea to carve the whole mountain into a bust of Alexander the Great after he died in Babylon. Later the Virgin Mary is supposed to have stopped by and, really loving the locale, asked her one and only boy to make the island her garden. There’s obviously a lot of argument over that point!

No Girls Allowed!

No Girls Allowed!

Speaking of which, and probably more to Rachel’s point, after the gods moved on to some other part of the sky, and all the appropriations for proper Christianity were made, Mount Athos subsequently became something of a high-end monastery of quite some repute. Vow of celibacy? Well of course! Price of entry.

So somewhere around the year 1000, somebody got the idea that the whole celibacy and the righteous spiritual path to Heaven thing would be a helluva lot easier if there were no women around to “tempt” the guys, or whatever. This has been a convenient male argument for a lot of stuff over the years, actually. And, humans being humans, there was an obvious fallacy in that plan anyway, of course, but hey, it was pretty much the Dark Ages. We know better now, eh?

Anyway, and this is a hell of a build-up, so it better be worth it—our point of departure for Rachel’s song “Mt. Athos,” is this: “For the lumbering beast of male spirituality in that neighborhood at that time it was deemed best, for all involved, that the girls should be considered to have cooties and banished from the mountain peninsula altogether. Sure, what could go wrong?

Outta My Way Woman!

Outta My Way Woman!

And, ostensibly, her song “Mt. Athos” quite accurately and succinctly describes that mindset. “I’m trying to get to heaven, but there’s a woman in the way/There’s a woman in the way of men on their way.” Those unfamiliar with her work might miss the incredible sarcasm Rachel brilliantly displays on many occasions. So her assessment is most likely much deeper than it might seem.

What exactly are we meant to take from this? Especially in the context of the previous song, which was all about having a baby to make up for other deficiencies in a relationship and life in general, etc? Well, apparently that plan didn’t work out. Uh-oh.

Rachel and Leigh Marble, Photobombed by Foam Head

Rachel and Leigh Marble, Photobombed by Foam Head

Now, as for the actual song presentation it is the rockiest thing I can ever remember her doing. Behind the insistent plinking of Rachel’s piano, guitarist Leigh Marble’s power chords grind through the song like Pete Townsend turned up to 11, while bassist Jeff Langston and drummer Liz Savage drive the song relentlessly forward. Yeah, just try to stop this Cootie girl!

The wordless bridge is magnificent, with its “oh-oo-oh” harmonied vocal lines and boisterous instrumental performance. This is two minutes and twenty seconds of pure rock confection with a lyrical theme so ambivalent as to divide the hemispheres of the brain into sugared walnut halves.

The intro to “Robin” is a piquant little thimblerig of a piece, whirling and spinning, resolving on a brief series of minor-key vocal scales against thick piano chords, before melting into the prettiest little song you’re ever gonna hear.

The mood is like the traditional lullaby “Hush, Little Baby.” “Sing little robin from your lonely tree/Make it pretty like you hear on Sunday/Sing little robin for only me/I love you, and we will leave here one day.” In the thematic scheme of things, it would seem little Baby Tuckoo has arrived and now our falimy is three, although seemingly all is not idyllic. Mister Mount Athos seems a tad absent from the bleak trailerpark landscape.

rtb7Affixing a mood and sensibility analagous to Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” to the eerie “Trade,” Rachel steers the brittle piece with a stilted piano part, that sounds somehow wrong, though perfectly suited to the context of the song. The concise lyric, sung in a low, plain voice, very much like Vega’s, is bleakly stark: “I gave up my hands to save a girl on fire/So I can’t do most anything I’m meant to/I can’t hold a hammer like I used to/I can’t make a cradle or a chair/But I can look for her and she is there.” Jesus!

Bill Byrd Whe He's Home

Bill Byrd When He’s Home

The song re-circles—the second time Rachel is joined by the choir to sing the same lyric in a sort of motet William Byrd might have knocked out back in the day. Where this song fits in with the view of what may be a concept is not entirely clear, but deductable: Kindly Grandpa saves Baby Tuckoo from a French fry grease fire in the doublewide or some similar sad story—the bare bones of which may be chalk outlined here. Whatever Rachel means by it, it’s a harrowing tale and worthy of the long lineage of creepy-assed predecessors she has crafted over the years, served with ripe aplomb.

The heartless clockwork piano of the erstwhile “Little Fucker” enhances the unrelenting doom broadwashed across the entire production. Nothing good can come of the individual described in the song. Nothing good can come of the song describing the individual. It’s a scree scrabble melody and arrangement, which veers in unexpectedly unsettling ways, perhaps as the perfect portrait of the individual in the spotlight. “Little Fucker, you go around fucking people over/Little Fucker, you’re on the town fucking people over/You’ve got a lot to go around.”

Here again the choral braid of harmonies, all woven tightly around the plait of Rachel’s voice, augment the twisted quality of the production. Rachel’s sister, Katie Taylor, Lisa Stringfield, Harriet Saltzman, Elizabeth Gross, and Amanda and Jenni Price provide those other vocal colors.

The arrangement slows and speeds, stumbling ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly. You’ll never be able to quite find the downbeat, with Langston’s bass and Ben Landsverk’s honking viola just as irritating as the bastard being described. It’s not exactly certain as to which gender our fucker is, but for the purposes of the story arc I have scribed (accurate or not): it is our self-centered young Mister Mount Athos, doing what he pleases and conveniently blaming the results on everyone else.

With “Me Hurting You,” our understanding heroine, Miss Cootie, responds with predictable sympathy. It’s all her fault. She almost seems guilty. Did she have an affair? Does she regret ever having the relationship with Athos in the first place? Or is she merely blaming herself for her husband’s indiscretions?

“I couldn’t help it that I saw my destiny there/Believe me when I tell you I tried not to care/The heart wants what it wants and I’m a romantic too/You’ll never know how hard it was for me, hurting you.” But maybe Athos is giving Cootie the big kiss-off. The Dear Cootie letter. Everything is a melodrama. Hard to say. Could go either way. But it doesn’t bode well.

The musical turmoil here is more closely aligned with that of, say, Tori Amos in a bad mood. Hard-driving piano is enhanced by Savage’s understated drumming, Marble’s jagged guitar inferences and Langston’s sputtering bass. It’s the sort of song one has come to expect from Rachel. She likes to zig just when you think she oughta be zagging. Just contrary that way.

With rain, or budgies, or rain and budgies as accompaniment, “Litany of the Family” is an actual liturgical multi-tracked chant as, perhaps, conducted by Laurie Anderson. One thing becomes immediately apparent. The subject is an attractive family of four. According to my interpretation of the scenario, the piece would seem to be an old aural photograph from a peaceful, hallowed time when all was, well, “well.”

RachelF-1

As a Child

“Mother and Son/Dad playing with his new baby/Mother playing with her baby/Couple with their daughter/Father holding son laughing.” Seemingly unending joy here. The acapella-voiced ritual petitions go on and on. And on. But it’s all idealized. Something is wrong. It’s too perfect. Rachel Taylor Brown does not typically accede to the grandeur of such grandly grand grandiosity. There’s way, way too much smiling here. Something is very, very wrong, indeed.

And we find out just what that is on the subsequent track, “Family.” As the title might imply, this song would seem to complete the (life) sentence begun with the very first song: “We’ll Have A.” According to my (now copyrighted) screenplay, this song would also be called “Miss Cootie’s Lament,” and would provide something of a back-story as to her arrival into the purview of this tragic tale of forbidden love.

The setting, initially heavy on the six-piece back-up vocals, elicits a familial mood akin to those frequently created by the semi-retired but sorta still around Roche Sisters. “Family–you were so good to me/I had to run away from/Family–oh no don’t run after me/Like I know you wanna.” Well, there you go.

But it doesn’t take very long before the child-like piano scales behind the cheery deliveries get dark and the atmosphere turns sinister through the Jack and Jill sequence. From there, the emotions overflood the damn and the Ives-ish, dueling rounds eddy and spill all crazy like, warily down the stream.

The upshot of the story (if I may) seems to be that “Jack,” Mister Mount Athos, may have continued his journey on up the hill to pursue matters of higher importance (to him), while kicking “Jill,” our Miss Cootie, to the curb and off the peninsula. We have to try to tie these loose threads together as best we can, given our arcane perspective. Whatever it is, the situation is rather chaotic and the vocal themes seem (by deign of composition) to represent two distinctly opposing characters singing at each other, not with each other. And who hasn’t been there a time or two? Hoo boy!

RTB 2Rachel gives “Men in War” a straight-forward treatment—just piano and her voice, punctuated in places by Landsverk’s lone viola. It’s a torchy war song in the manner of something possibly emanating from the ‘40s. Maybe something Doris Day might have, swooning earnestly, crooned to the boys across the pond. “The things we say to men in war to keep them moving forward/The world will never be the same if you do not go warward.” Well if that don’t launch a thousand ships I don’t know what will.

The very brief “Bird” is a haunting restatement of the intro to “Robin,” but portends foreboding. In my context it means Mister Mount Athos might have gotten hit by a big rock while marching around at war. The beautiful “One Brave Soul” could be construed as a hymn to our fallen soldier. But it’s a not. It’s a wish upon a star.

Baby Tuckoo and Miss Cootie Going It Alone

Baby Tuckoo and Miss Cootie Going It Alone

“All I need is that one brave soul, who’ll be kind/I am sure that’s all it takes/Is one small word, I know,/From one brave soul.” That’s a tough one, because the brave souls are the ones sent warward, but you get the point. This is a touching little song, just Rachel and her piano and would seem to be the epilogue to our fateful, Shakespearian tragedy: Freed by Fate from her loveless, abusive relationship, Miss Cootie is hoping for a better life for herself and Baby Tuckoo. The end.

Jeff Saltzman

Jeff Saltzman

There is nothing exactly pretty here. Oh, it’s played impeccably and recorded so lovingly and faithfully, that it sounds positively analog! Rachel co-produced the album with the brilliant Jeff Saltzman and made a conscious choice to employ a minimum of effects—if any at all.

For that reason, you can hear every vocal nuance, every change in timbre, each shift in color and shade as if you are sitting there in the room—an overused cliché, but actually true in this case, thus pretty hard to avoid.

But, here’s the deal with this album: every time you think you know where something is going, musically, be prepared for a sharp turn into the ditch. And that turn is intentional. Are you happy now? And to reinforce the intentionality of her purpose, Rachel Taylor Brown writes incredibly complex lyrics, full of the dense thickery of the human condition and the moist, fetid psychology that seeps inevitably through it.

Were she given a choice, I think most of Rachel’s songs would last about two and a half minutes. That’s certainly MORE than enough time for her to totally fuck with your head—musically and intellectually, so why take the carriage for unnecessary extra laps around the park, eh? It’s overkill. That’s meant as the sincerest form of flattery in this instance, brevity being the soul of something or other. I never learned that one. Seemed not to apply to me.

Janie Bailey

Janie Bailey

Anyway. It’s quite possible that my portrayal of this album as a rock opera is entirely fictive. But, it’s more likely that I’ve got the wrong rock opera in mind, not that Falimy is not one. The repeating piano exercises that begin many of the songs invoke Little Janie Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. So it may be true that the authentic view here of the “family” in question, as portrayed by Ms. Taylor Brown, is perhaps less flawed than from my jaundiced perspective. But I kind of doubt it. I mean, I’ve listened to all her other albums.

Bottom line is: Rachel Taylor Brown is brilliant. Her musicianship is brilliant. Her poetry is brilliant. She makes brilliant, very unique production decisions, unlike any you’ve ever heard before, though the outcome is typically familiar. Comfortable. Everything seems okay. Her songs are catchy and meaningful and artfully crafted, but they’re just twisted as hell! I don’t know how to say that any more politely.

rtb4Imagine if Fiona Apple went off her medication. No. No, don’t imagine that. That’s too harsh. Imagine if Tori Amos needed medication but was off it. That’s what this material, these songs, these productions, this album, sounds like, though it pretty much doesn’t sound like Tori Amos at all—which is exactly my point.

It takes Rachel Taylor Brown a while to conceive and produce an album. A couple years or so. There’s a reason for that. It probably takes her a while to recover from the primal therapy of the undertaking after she’s gone into the studio. But don’t be fooled. She knows exactly what she’s doing and she is seriously messing with you.

Posted in CD Reviews, Music News | Tagged as: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jeremy Wilson

coverEmpty Through Empty Space
Mastan Music

 Jeremy Wilson has been on stage playing music in Willamette Valley bars for over thirty years. That’s pretty impressive! Especially when one considers that he is only now in his mid-forties. I have seen it said somewhere that he and his band the Watchmen were rumored to have played the infamous Oregon Museum tavern in Salem, but I don’t think that’s possible as that “event” took place in 1981 (with Sequel and Jenny Jeans on the bill). But who knows?

And—regardless—just how that youngster and his bandmates were able to get into bars when he was barely in his teens must be a story unto itself. But there it is. Obviously his precociosity preceded him. It’s in his genes.

One of my earliest recollections of Jeremy is seeing him in 1986, fronting his high school band Perfect Circle (tellingly named after an REM song) at the Pyramid Club. With a cast on his leg—which he attributes to a “soccer/ballet/skateboarding” injury—he jogged and turvied around the stage like a one-legged Dervish. At seventeen he was already a force with which to be reckoned.

The Dharma Bums - (Photo by Gates)

The Dharma Bums – (Photo by Gates)

My buddy Lew Jones and I felt an immediate affinity for the lad when we met him. And when the Dharma Bums came to the fore in early ‘87, Lew and I were among their earliest fans. In those embryonic days, a Dharma Bums show was a transformative experience. Because, amidst the roiling turmoil of the Bums’ presentation: Eric Lovre’s smoldering guitar, Jim Talstra’s volatile bass, and John Moen’s incendiary drums, Jeremy would invariably simply detonate upon the stage with impassioned ferocity. Jeremy had been sky diving from monitor side-fills long before Eddie Vedder was even beginning to think about swinging from the stage light rigging with Mookie Blaylock.

Photo by David Ackermann

Photo by David Ackerman

That Seattle connection went deeper. It’s well known that a fledgling Nirvana opened for the Bums on a regular basis. Accounts differ as to how and when she met him, but Ms. Cobain herself (not always the most reliable source) is purported to have suggested that she and the mister met at a Bums show at Satyricon. She was well known in the club scene at the time, and is reputed to have frequented Bums shows. So who knows?

Of course, it’s a well-known piece of local lore that the Bums were on stage in the middle of “Pumpkinhead” when Bruno and Steven Spyrit stopped the show that fateful spring night in 1990, when Officer Rocky Balada over-reacted to Satyricon owner George Touhouliotis pissing on a wall outside the club, and thus instigated the infamous “riot” in which no one rioted, but stood in the parking lot across the street from the club singing “Goodnight, Irene.” Six people, including George, did get beat up. But only the cops rioted.

welcomeThe Dharma Bums were one of the Northwest’s favorite acts in the burgeoning “alternative” scene at the turn of the ‘90s. But just as they hit the crest of the wave in 1991, with the release their third album Welcome on the Tim/Kerr label, their manager Rebecca Gates left her position to form the Spinanes, and the Bums seemed to tailspin rapidly after that, for whatever reason. They broke up the following year. Whether or not those events were at all connected has never been divulged. But it all came down just in time for them to see their opening act, Nirvana, go all grunge on the whole damn world.

PilotJeremy promptly took some time off to travel. But never one to wander far from home for very long, he soon went on to form Pilot with a couple former members of Perfect Circle sometime in 1994. They put out an EP that summer, got signed to Elecktra, and recorded an album for them that was never released. Once past that disaster, they managed to release three more full-length records pretty much on their own between 1996 and 1999, before managing to get squashed by the relentless implosion of the “music industry” in the spirit of consolidation and profits uber alles—that last grab for the cash among the dollar-eyed, tone-deaf chieftains of commerce.

The new millennium brought new challenges for Jeremy. After setting up his Mastan Music Studio for recording, while embarking upon other related enterprises—but before he could manage to complete and release a solo project of his own—his well-chronicled lifelong health difficulties began to rear up in earnest in 2006. He was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, an electrical disorder of the heart, which led him to four surgeries over the course of the next seven years.

As a result of the financial devastation he incurred (one with which I can identify, having gone through similar experiences) from such drastic medical intervention, Jeremy ended up doing what anyone who knows him would expect him to do. He looked outside his own situation and he thought how others might share similar circumstances, and how he might help them. The realization of that goal was the Jeremy Wilson Foundation.

The Foundation launched in 2010 with a very specific mission statement: “A nonprofit musicians’ service organization dedicated to providing emergency financial assistance in times of medical crisis and to improving the overall well-being of individual musicians and their families.” I know! It’s hard to believe there are musicians out there without insurance. Pulling down those exorbitant fees for doing nothing all the lolly dang night. Sure.

Jeremy Wilson

Jeremy Wilson

With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, and (hopefully one day) the Cover Oregon program, routine medical insurance should be available and affordable to even the most destitute of musicians—which is most. But any one among us is only a step away, a fainting spell away, a bad check-up away from some catastrophic event that can literally bankrupt us and change our lives irrevocably, beyond even the physical injury we must endure. Jeremy Wilson knows this. He’s lived it. And he is dedicating his every effort to make certain that prospect is one that his fellow musicians will never have to endure.

Finally, ten years after he first entertained the notion, Jeremy was able to return to the idea of recording his music. But rather than to continue from the point he left off, he decided to scrap the earlier project and to begin anew. Having recently undergone the dissolution of a relationship, Jeremy used the opportunity of a cross-country trip from Florida to Oregon to realign his focus.

The result of all Jeremy’s turmoil is this mature, introspective album—one which finds him wrestling with the plight of the human condition: his own and everyone else’s. It’s an adult album. Occasionally somber, always uplifting and inspiring—this was an album worth waiting for, worth the time it took to make. Worth the existential effort it takes to listen to it.

jeremy1

Wilson, Ratchford, Vance

Jeremy’s two primary accompanists (thus creating “The Triangle”) in the dozen songs presented are singer-guitarist Dylan-Thomas Vance, featured several times in these pages with albums of his own, and Matthew Ratchford, who in addition to his electric bass-work contributes cello-like bowed bass interludes that add dramatic depth to the presentation of several songs.

In addition, several friends drop in to make contributions, including keyboardist Jenny Conlee-Drizos, drummers Ezra Holbrook and Luke Strahota, Sean Flora on guitar and backing vocals, Paul Brainard on trumpet, and Matt Brown on euphonium (a brass instrument), and other brass and reed players. In addition, all the former Bums gather to execute one of the tracks. Former Bums drummer John Moen (also Decemberists and his own aggregation Perhapst) makes frequent appearances elsewhere, as well.

Sean Flora

Sean Flora

Through the rainswept intro of the title track, Eric Lovre (Bums) and Searn Flora contribute dappled guitar arpeggios, creating the sound of falling precipitation, and countered by the crash of a chiming G5 chord, evocative of the Beatles’ “Rain.” Vance’s slide guitar drips and dribbles in the background, with Moen splashing and thundering in the distance. Ratchford’s arco bass lends a mournful moan.

The sound quality is impeccable. There is little here of the usual aural “veil” between purveyor and listener of recorded music. The ensemble sounds as if it is sitting in your living room or head, or… As soon as he vocally enters the scenario, Jeremy’s familiar, weary worn voice besings the heartrending biography in his words: “Driving like a madman in search of a human race…Driving on empty through empty space.” Fasten your seat belts. This is gonna be a bumpy ride.

John Moen

John Moen

“The Whisper” is a loping waltz in a traditional alt-folk vein. Moen’s rumbling tympani thunder toms resound against the low-whining groan of Rotchford’s stand-up bass, and the windy, murmuring sighs of Flora’s Hammond organ calls. Ghostly.

Jeremy’s voice resonates with Westerberg grit, like John Prine singing a Townes Van Zandt tune: “The greatest gift I ever received/came from the hardest bargain.” The earnestness of Jeremy’s introspections underscore the barren emotional landscape outstretching from the previous song. “Some draws the portraits & some draws the rain/Its easy to get lost in the distance/The hardest line I ever did hear/Came barely as a whisper.”

Ezra Holbrook

Ezra Holbrook

Lyrically, “The Sliver” burrows even deeper beneath the skin of the previously delineated relationship— chalk-outlined on the highway of love. Contributions from Ezra Holbrook on drums and Jenny Conlee-Drizos on organ, and Ratchford’s electric bass add a harder edge to the country twang of the proceedings. Jeremy renders the chorus with impassioned gravel: “But you don’t want me around/You shoot your bows and arrows/You don’t want me around/To pull out the sliver.” It’s a deep song which confronts the abandonment issues that can often doom a relationship.

As I’m listening, I’m trying to think who it is that Jeremy sounds like. His is a very familiar voice, one that sends my analogy meter way into the red. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Early ‘90s. Westerberg meets Prine (okay, he’s not ‘90s) meets Stipe, with Cobain bite, Greg Dulli anguish and Dave Pirner serration. It’s such a classic rock and roll voice! Distinctive. Who’s he sound like? Oh yeah, I know. He sounds like a more mature version of the guy I remember hearing sing on an album called Welcome, by a band called the Dharma Bums. Congratulations, Jeremy. After all this time you’ve managed to sound exactly like yourself, only a little more world-worn and weary.

Dylan-Thomas Vance

Dylan-Thomas Vance

Sprightly handclaps and Holbrook’s lumbering floor tom propel “Mary.” Ratchford’s washtub bass-like thumps accent Vance’s slippery slide work, creating a backwoods milieu that Jeremy plays up with a thick drawl. “I was walking wounded thinking one day/I do love her, want her, need her this way/I’m lost in her beauty, real or imaginary somebody save me cuz I’m in love with Mary.” The song is upbeat and jovial, and something of a respite from the intensity of the previous three.

“Running Out” is a soulful campfire song, just Jeremy on acoustic guitar, Vance on lap-slide and Ratchford on bass, with echoes resounding in the distance, as Moen tips percussive rocks down the hill, the next valley over.  The older Bob Dylan gets, the more his voice resembles that of John Prine. And on “Hey, Jerry” Jeremy hits the raspy spot between the two.

The essential instrumentation is basically the same as the previous tune, with Jeremy on acoustic guitar again and Thomas-Dylan sliding along upon his lap guitar. The significant difference here is Ratchford’s return to the bowed stand-up bass— which creates an ominous cloud of tone that darkens the mood distinctly.

The lyric would seem to be a straight-forward letter from Jeremy’s better angel to himself, with a clear perspective: “You got love in your heart and a thousand new parts/So worried, the future done come/You’re hungry and numb and you ain’t so young/But the verdict, it ain’t wrote.” This resolves in a lovely, waltzing repeating chorus, “Everything comes and goes/Ebbs and flows.” The aforementioned horn section (led by Brainard) and a backing vocal trio join him the second time through the chorus creating an elegant, elegiac mood. A moving, transformative song.

Luke

Luke Strahota

With Moen on the drums and Flora supplying another layer of guitar, “Softer Calling” provides a philosophical perspective similar to its predecessors—catharsis and a completed cycle. Along with the horn section, Strahota and Conlee-Drizos return to add depth and color to “Let a Poor Man Beg,” a Dylanesque parable, of a homeward journey seen through the eyes of a wiser self: “Make time stop/And let a poor man beg/In the light of a fare young made.” Certainly many among us have made fares in our youth that, perhaps, we later come to regret the cost of the trip.

The arrangement is reminiscent of some of Jackson Browne’s more enduring moments. It’s a harder sound, with Jeremy strumming electric guitar and Vance’s slide crying out Lindley-like against the open space of Conlee-Drizos’ far-spreading Hammond.

Jenny Conlee-Drizos

Jenny Conlee-Drizos

Elizabeth Taylor died three years ago. Apparently “The Day Liz Taylor Died” was written that day under extremely trying circumstances. “Caged in the forest/A mud saloon in the dark/Scribbling on this paper/Like some freak in the park/The day Liz Taylor died.” Here, Drizos and Moen join the high-energy fray. It’s an upbeat fast paced ballad, with repetitive stanzas and an insistent refrain reminiscent of Dylan circa John Wesley Harding with Paul Westerberg as lead vocalist. Vance’s exemplary slide work again stands out.

Julia Cramer’s ghostly keyboard tones hover like fog over “Oceans Far and Apart.” Thick Fender Rhodes and rumbling acoustic pianos add a hazy atmosphere to Jeremy’s lone acoustic guitar accompaniment, a weary, Layne Staley-like whiney growl delivering a soul-searched lyric—from the anguished perspective of a broken heart. This is soul-wrenching stuff.

Jeremy Wilson

Jeremy Wilson

And then he goes deeper. As if the Shakespearian aspects of his love life were not material enough, Jeremy becomes young Hamlet wrestling with the (possible) death of his father with “I Can’t Bury You.” Echoing Cat Stevens, circa Mona Bone Jakon/ Tea For the Tillerman, the sound is harder here, as it’s the Dharma Bums re-formed playing here. And they burn as bright as ever!

Moen slams a primitive beat, a jawbone on a log, as Eric Lovre simmers a smoldering cauldron of fiery guitar. The mood is unlike any other on the album—far darker than the surrounding material—with a rockier edge. 21st century Bums. Jeremy’s lyric reflects John Lennon’s wrenching “Mother” from his first solo album. “I say Daddy don’t you leave this plane/I can’t bear you gone/And don’t feel no blame/Daddy, please just don’t leave/I say Daddy please don’t leave/I can’t bury you.”

“For a Moment” is a woozy send-off (in many ways), with drunken horns wobbling around Jeremy’s acoustic guitar. But he emerges from the haze to appear in the most stark of settings—as if right in front of the listener. Eventually a far calling horn filters through the mist. Then an angelic chorus enters to lead the way upon the long and winding road back home. The lyric is a kind sayonara to all that went before here, but it doesn’t offer much light of hope or redemption, and only a nod toward resolve. “Coming to peace in my mind is gonna take time.”

jeremy3This is a naked piece of work, in almost precisely the same manner that John Lennon’s first solo album was in 1970. It’s stripped down to essentials. There is no gloss or glitter. No artifice. Primary and secondary colors only. No tints, nor shades. Jeremy Wilson lays his life in front of us and with unblinking honesty says—“Here, have look.” The other points of the “Triangle,” Vance and Ratchford, provide Jeremy with a musical milieu conducive to the emotions he must express in order to unburden his soul.

Empty Through Empty Space is about as real as it gets in the popular music realm. The songs are presented not as a means for entertainment, but as the tracing of an arc of personal transcendence. The topics are deadly earnest. Unflinchingly forthright. Adult. The music and presentation are top-of-the-line and reverberate with sonic clarity and communal focus. It’s a stirring album, probably unlike any you will hear for some time to come.

 

Posted in CD Reviews, Music News | Tagged as: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

— Update! !Pearly Redux! Update! —

The Starday Tavern 65th and Foster

The Starday Tavern 65th and Foster

While we would love to see this as testament to the power of the press, there is no such thing as either (power or press). There is, however, breaking news to report in regards to Steve “Pearly” Hettum’s Wednesday Night Open Mic exodus from Eugenio’s to the Starday Tavern: the Division Street camp has relented.

Eugenio's 35th and Division

Eugenio’s 35th and Division

That is, Eugenio and his landlord, the recording studio, have managed to come to some sort of agreement on the subject of music on the premises. Apparently said landlord has relented. Somehow Eugenio was able to impart to his landlord the financial benefits in having a Wednesday Night Open Mic. It’s typically a dead night, transformed into a room packed with patrons by the music. At last the landlord finally saw the potential for remunerative reward in the scenario—and called off the dogs.

Acoustic Open Mic at Eugenio's

Acoustic Open Mic at Eugenio’s

The upshot of all this is, beginning March 5th, Pearly is taking his Wednesday Night Open Mic back to Eugenio’s. It will be all-acoustic there of course. We don’t want to go hog wild with the volume, fer chrissakes. But there is an added upside to this turn of events.

Owner of the Starday Tavern, Jon Wallace (who also owns Duff’s Garage), graciously allowed Pearly to move his open mic there to Thursday nights. So there’s a great two-for-one piece of kismet in all of that.

Glue Horses

Glue Horses

In addition, the small stage and lack of volume constraints at the Starday will allow Pearly to open his festivities to bands with drummers and musicians with electric instruments. The opportunity will be for small groups that used to be able to play at Eugenio’s, but—owing to the volume of their presentations—can no longer. They have found a new home to present their talents. I’m looking at you Glue Horses (http://vimeo.com/28697652). Are you guys still around?

Steve "Pearly" Hettum - Master of Ceremonies

Steve “Pearly” Hettum – Master of Ceremonies

So the vibe will be different for those Open Mics. But not much different. Because if Steve “Pearly” Hettum is serving as master of ceremonies, one can be certain of an air of conviviality and encouragement to musicians of all stripes and types and talent levels. And for a person, such as myself, who just loves uncovering music at the ground floor, Steve is the one to bring those musicians to the fore.

Starday Stage - Photo by John Koontz

Starday Stage – Photo by John Koontz

Now, two different Open Mics from whence there once (recently) were none. Wednesday Night Open Mic will be returning to Eugenio’s, beginning in March. And also beginning in March, the Starday will provide their small stage and PA for Thursday Night Open Mic. These are golden opportunities for musicians looking for knowledgeable and appreciative audiences for whom to perform their creations.

Posted in Music News | Tagged as: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pearly Takes It to Starday

Steve Hettum (photo by John Alcala)

Steve Hettum (photo by John Alcala)

 

My buddy Steve “Pearly” Hettum has been running an Open Mic for a long time now. For many years he hosted the Wednesday Night Open Mic at Eugenio’s on Southeast Division to ever-increasing success. Steve’s good-natured affability and knack for commanding attention always served as the foundation for those affairs. Many of the nights that I was in attendance the room was filled with an appreciative audience for the long list of musicians who waited for their turn to play.

It’s been an ongoing battle for quite some time, one that Eugenio’s finally lost. Always low-key, usually acoustic in nature, live music at Eugenio’s has still been a relentless bone of contention between the restaurant and their neighbors: a recording studio. Ironic perhaps. Like a nut processing plant next to an allergy clinic.

And it’s well known that the hours between 7PM and 11PM are incalculably valuable in the area of music creation—that being the only time of day that many musicians are conscious and functionally cogent, to the extent that such a thing is possible. So the collision of forces would seem obvious. Here’s a clue to the outcome. That recording studio makes a helluva lot more money than the restaurant. Just sayin’. Game over. Money talks.

The upshot is that Pearly had to move his Wednesday Night Open Mic to another location. That’s easier said than done, I might say. Location. Location. Location. But, destiny and providence conspired when the owners of Duff’s Tavern recently opened up a cozy little club on the suddenly vibrant and hip Foster Road (we’ve seen it happen before on the eastside, first on Belmont then Hawthorne, now Division. Apparently Foster will be next).

The Starday Tavern at 65th and Foster is a narrow room with comfortable booths arranged down one side of the building and a bar running the length of the opposing wall. There’s a small stage to the left, just inside the entry and a game area at the very back. The place can’t hold a lot of patrons. But neither can Eugenio’s. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t jam a lot of people inside the place if the night is right.

So Pearly has moved his Wednesday Night Open Mic operation to the Starday. I think he’s been up and running about a month now. It takes a while for the energy around those sorts of hootenannies to take shape. Not all of the Eugenio’s regulars are likely to make that two-mile trek. But every week, so far, there has been a new twist to the proceedings, with an incremental increase in participation and a comparable membership upsurge in audiences of appreciative listeners.

guitar-repairOn the last Wednesday in January, toward the end of the night, some newcomers took the mic. I’d seen Matty Charles around. He’s the good-looking, tattooed bartender at the Starday (I came to find out he also does guitar restoration and repair). Consequently, he’d poured me a few beers on a couple occasions, for one thing. I was also told that he has been a bartender at Duff’s, but I don’t remember him when I’ve been there. That, however, means absolutely nothing.

Matty Charles and Katie Rose

Matty Charles and Katie Rose

Thus, it came as a bit of a pleasant surprise when the evening’s bartender surreptitiously sat down at the mic with his guitar to perform an all-Americana duet with a tall, pretty, dark-haired woman named Katie Rose. And from the first syllables out of their mouths to the final note, their short set was entrancing. It just goes to show.

They reminded me most of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris during the Grievous Angel period, although Matty has a better voice than Parsons, and Katie has less of Emmylou’s hickory pliancy, but a purer tone.

mat and kat 2Still think of Parsons and Harris singing Lowell George’s “Willin’” (from Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel) and you get a good feel for their presentation in the plaintive “Glorietta.” “Had a drunk in Reno/Got a flat in San Antone/Met a girl in Chino/But I ended up alone.” I think we’ve all been there (figuratively, at least).

I didn’t get around to asking if their songs were originals, but I never heard them before, so my guess is probably yes. That being the case “What I Want” affords Matty the opportunity to explore the lower end of his reedy baritone register, recalling the forlorn nomadic reserve of Townes Van Zandt (“Pancho and Lefty”). He and Katie share a country twang in the rendering.

It’s a love-gone-wrong type of country song that tells a bittersweet tale of heartbreak, remorse, and regret-filled reflection. As a song, it could benefit from a bridge (an interesting twist might be a turn from the woman’s perspective, sung by Katie), but a strong chorus brings it home, nonetheless.

mat and kat2Though Matty Charles has been playing music for quite some time (in Brooklyn, apparently), he and Katie have only been working together for six or eight months, so it’s a bit of a new enterprise. Still the precision in the delivery of their vocals indicates obvious care and attention to detail in the creation. Having only heard them once, and briefly at that, I am not sure of their entire repertoire, but I would like to hear Katie in the lead vocal role occasionally.

And there is certainly no denying their very special vocal blend.It will be fun to watch the progress of Matty Charles and Katie Rose in the weeks and months to come. Look for them to open for Birds of Chicago at the Alberta Rose Theater on March 6th.

starday

Photo by Jesse Newell

Look, too, for Pearly Hettum’s Wednesday Night Open Mic at the Starday on Foster to continue to grow and thrive. Since his days as manager for Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods, way back when—Steve has always had the propensity for bringing people together to work in harmony. As we all know: that’s a real gift!

The width and breadth of talent that he helped to showcase at Eugenio’s is sure to follow him to the new digs. It’s only a matter of time. Matty Charles and Katie Rose have already shown up for a showcase and I expect they will be returning again quite soon. After all, it’s a very short walk for Matty from behind the bar to the mic.

 

Posted in Music News | Tagged as: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Professor Gall

mag rootsMagnetic Roots
BEW Records

Drew Norman is a lofty balsam among the abundant flora in our local music scene— one whose own magnetic roots burrow back the better part of twenty years. We remember him as guitarist of notable shreddery for Porcelain God, and the subsequent mach-two version: the Cow Trippers. There, he occasionally contributed the odd song, typically delivered in a gruff, somewhat salacious manner, perhaps in a community neighboring Tom Waitsville. It was back in 1999 when the Cow Trippers first introduced the strange character Professor Gall to the world, with their album of the same monikker.

Professor Franz Josef Gall, the Father of Phrenology

Professor Franz Josef Gall, the Father of Phrenology

As the Cow Trippers’ linked review notes, Professor Franz Josef Gall, born during the enlightened era of the mid-eighteenth century, was a German physiologist, reputed have to have been the Father of Phrenology—which was quite a thing of which to be parent back in the day, one would assume: a footnote of medical quackery devoted to the study of brain functions attributable to the shape of one’s skull. And, certainly, who is there among us to dispute such a claim to paternity? Certainly not you, Bulbhead!

Anyway, as these things often go, about eight years ago Drew decided to grab the wheel of his destiny and steer his own ship through the turbulent seas of the regional music business, first with a solo album Safe at Home in 2001. But Professor Gall is now the captain of this odd little craft, one manufactured from some bodgy materials first milled in that Cow Trippers album back in 1999.

Professor Gall by RJB Photo

Professor Gall by RJB Photo

It’s not a sailing vessel, mind you, it’s a riverboat. There’s crazy cajuns wailing Hasidic Dixie niguns in a smoky, pre-flood 4th Ward dive. There’s cool jazz cats backing a honky-tonk cowboy aboard a beer bottle prairie schooner. The album’s only about half an hour long, which is just as well. You couldn’t take much more of this arid voodoo voogum in one sitting anyway. Wear a helmet, Easy Rider, you’re likely to fall on your head.

This is the Professor’s third voyage up the Nung with Colonel Kurtz to hang out in the Star Wars cantina. In 2006 he took the rig out for her maiden voyage with Intravenous Delusion. Then he followed with The Psychology of Booze & Guilt in 2010. It would seem obvious that the Professor does not view life lightly, but he confers his surly sermons with unique gusto and aplomb, so one is not always aware of the esoteric undercurrent flowing in the murky river beneath the hull. Cerebrate. Cerebrate. Dance to the music.

Andrew Alikhanov

Andrew Alikhanov

“Nola” is precisely what you’d expect from the title: a big-beat zydeco jazz concoction of Dr. John vaudvillian proportions. Scott Johnston’s decorative sax and Andrew Alikhanov’s burbling clarinet bob and weave around a lyric that speaks to the soul of a proud city unwilling to surrender to nature or man. “Evidently no desire is too costly/to rebuild the spirit of this sacred place/ where every face is exempt from labels and the rant/where the raves are put into a pole position/and ageless grace is in full motion /and it’s through this code of humanity/that breaks the proverbial chain/and the wind never blows strong enough to turn that freedom train.”

prof gall 3

The Professor in Action

Dark, prickly banjo pizzacatos bleed against John Stewart’s pounding kick drum, before “Somewhere Else” swings into a steamy Nuevo Piazzolla tango, sax and clarinet in lieu of strings and bandoneons, though producing a similar effect. The lyric wanders across existential terrain with the occasional ethereal turn in the road. Tricia Beck warmly embosses the vocals—perhaps expressing the basic duality of Man’s nature, singing “I’m a, a a fake/ and you’re not a REAL/and we’re not a here we are/Somewhere Else.” We shall be availing ourselves of this piece again later, in a different form.

With the longest introductory motif heard in a pop song in quite some time, “Nature vs. Narcissism” saunters along pastorally for over a minute and a half before finally kicking it up a few notches. One would be inclined to think the second section as the more Narcissistic between the opposing forces, Nature seemingly far less willing to put much energy into Narcissism—pretty much defining beauty and all.

But that’s where we would err in our suppositions, as that paradoxical introduction is fulcrummed by the telling verse: “as we peer into the reflective pools /we fall in love with ourselves /well Freud was in love……….with his MAMA.” From there Nature rampages a stampede fueled by the vanity of Humanity— not so much a didactic inquiry as a battle to the death. “So what on earth makes us think we can be one with nature /with what’s left of our heavenly place /in a forty foot recreational vehicle /a comfy starless living room on wheels /with a built in DVD /and a remote and a useless shelf /and basic Ode to Self, HA!” Rawhide meets Fiddler on the Roof, fronted by Captain Beefheart grabbing the bull by the Delta klezmer horns. No problem.

Monte Skillings (Photo by Chris Campbell)

Monte Skillings (Photo by Chris Campbell)

The title track, a bracing instrumental, is a banjo-driven handclap hoedown barndance, augmented by crazy Dixieland horns: Johnston’s sax and Monte Skillings’ trombone, all propelled by some weird-assed strangled tom, presumably a bongo struck with a drumstick, veering like a drunken wooden-legged cowpoke with a bladder problem. [It would appear that the percussion was generated by Norman on a stombox and a banjo head, which in no way diminishes the quality of its impact, in fact, only enhances it].

Scott Johnston (Photo by Casey Campbell)

Scott Johnston (Photo by Casey Campbell)

Off in a different direction, Doctor Drew moves into a Byrne-ian/Bowiesque vocal guise, gruffing and chortling rhapsodically over jingly acoustic guitar and a relentless locomotivic two-step rhythm. An XTCish sort of exposition, with an Hasidic nocturne of Steely Dan-style horns punctuating the onslaught. That is, until you reach the troubled prancing waltz of the midsection. At that point in the proceedings who’s to say where the hell you are, musically? This is uncharted territory. Every man for himself. “The unsacred cow will lead a miserable life/Devoid of cud and covered in mud/Reaching with his head through that aluminum fence for hay.” Sure. Then Johnston launches on an extended squirrely sax solo. Thank you very much.

The Professor revives “Somewhere Else” from earlier in the show, this time to invoke as a bleak, spoken-word incantation that treads turf trod by Tom Waits (oh, say “Chocolate Jesus” for starters) and Jim Morrison in their moments of sheer shamanic poesy. The mood and milieu of the Doors’ “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer” from “The Soft Parade” or the entirety of “Horse Lattitudes” from Strange Days, blows a windswept, prairie-wide breeze across the Professor’s fervent ghostly lines: “And there is no missing link to rid ourselves of this misdirected God/And there is no upright monkey, with a past address on Mars/Only the stars have infinite dirt.”

Standard Handcar

Standard Handcar

Last, but not finally, “Funky Water” serves as a satisfactory summation of all that has gone before. And there’s definitely been something going on here, but I’ll be damned if I can figure it out. The setting for the conclusion of our festivities: a Dixieland cabaret, infused with the essences of Raymond Scott and other jazz eccentrics (Carl Stalling comes to mind) who lent cartoons of the ‘30s and ‘40s their distinctive whacky soundtracks. Don Henson’s jolly rollicking xylophone, reeds, trombone, and Mark Chervin’s sassy muted trumpet ride Stewart’s energetic trap set like gandy dancers on a railroad handcar.

Professor Gall

Professor Gall

Meanwhile the good Professor goes off like some crazy western yarnspinner character in an off-kilter acid-soaked rendition of Paint Your Wagon. “Well my boots are strapped with leather/but held together with shoe goo/If I had to skin a rat for dinner/I’d surely make the ghosts of Lewis and Clark drool.” It only coils off all Pynchon-like from there. The overall effect is stunning. Not quite like anything ever heard before that I know of.

It’s a metaphysical Dionysian steampunk gypsy caravan medicine show and I dare to ask, why not? Sure it would be easy to toss this album off as plain peculiar and just let it go at that, except this challenging music was entirely premeditated. It is articulated so precisely and with such gusto, and the lyrics are so mystical, in a genetically mutated, 21st century schizoid sort of sense, that there is no way in hell of explaining this rodeo—only to observe that it was all very carefully planned and executed with incredible proficiency.

It’s difficult music, not always pleasingly melodic, in the contemporary sense of the term. But then again Robin Thicke wouldn’t entertain the notion of calling his musical cartel Professor Gall, so all is well with the universe. But for those among of us who are tired of the same old thing, this heapin’ helpin’ of Bayou gefilte gumbo is sure to hit the musical palate in a spot it’s never been hit before.

prof gall 2

 

 

Posted in CD Reviews, Music News | Leave a comment