Chris Newman’s name came up last time in my review of Mike Coykendall. Chris has been a very busy fellow over the past year or so. I wrote about his self-produced (on his trusty Teac 4-track) album King Shit last January, and included a review of his previous album, Beachcomber (produced by the legendary Jack Endino) released in May of last year. So between the twenty-nine songs dispersed across those two records and the fifteen here, we’ve got two score and four. And with the recent addition of an 8-track machine to his studio arsenal, there is every reason to believe there will be more from Chris very soon.
But Nobody was recorded on the 4-Track and sounds like it (that’s meant to be a compliment as much as a criticism). As on the previous outings, Chris, plays the guitar, occasional piano, a couple of harp interjections, and an organ pad from time to time. He’s again expertly supported by bassist Nathan Jorg and Doug Naish on drums. And, as with King Shit, the arrangements are pared down and primitive. There’s not much room for a lot of fancy-dancy overdubs, tricky punch-ins, or doubling here. It’s mostly live to tape. Raw and real.
Chris isn’t reinventing the Newman wheel here. His influences remain at the forefront, really no different than they were when he first got rolling 35-40 years ago (at this stage of his career he stands as one of those influences: as launcher of the early grunge ships). But he presents his songs in such a variety of styles, from blues to psychedelia, any Chris Newman recording is a real sonic adventure. And there are always nuggets to be unearthed in the program—and this instance is no different. In fact, there are many inspired performances to be found.
The album begins with the languid “Castaway,” which seems to pick up the narrative thread that left off on King Shit. The verse traverses ground similar to the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” until midway, whereupon Chris launches into an elephantine solo, his guitar emitting a great pachydermic wail. Oh yeah!
Vocally, Chris fuses Captain Beefheart with Fred Cole, exorcising his dark interpersonal demons on “Drivin’ Me Mad,” while paving a black-top, two-lane grunge highway on guitar that drives hard from here all the way back to Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.”
The prototypical primordial grunge of “Homo a Go Go.” Thick, churning clouds of guitar hover low over the brimstone collision between human introspection and a fast-changing species. Joy Division meets Interpol in a dark cavern. Sublime. The rueful ballad “Bad Television” arrives, full circle, at the other end of the musical telescope, recalling “My TV,” a gem from Chris’ days with the Untouchables at the beginning of his career.
But where the former was a bit of a cheery ode to the companionship a television occasionally offered—the new song affords a far darker view. “I blame bad television, in all its encompassing nature.” Much has changed since Chris wrote “My TV” thirty-five years ago, the cultural landscape since laid to waste is starkly captured here. A touch of moody cocktail piano adds just the right touch of cynicism to the presentation.
“Elsewhere” is a bit of Floydian psychedelia, circa the Syd era. There’s a shadow of early Who hanging over the production as well. Chris invests a Leslie-like tremolo to his mournful solos, a tone that fits the ‘60s mode to a T. The moody psychedelia continues with the spacy, somnambulant ballad “Rings of Saturn.” Chris’ sparse, soaring guitar leads conjure Explosions in the Sky in scale of epic sonic majesty.
Jimi Hendrix watches over “Cryin’ All the Way Home,” a moody, bluesy number with incendiary solos, and banshee harp interjections, delivered over Naish’s rock-solid beat. Chris’ stinging, whipsmart fills fall somewhere along the line between Jimi and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Yow! The ghost of Jimi returns for “Deadman Blues,” with Chris firing off blistering solos over a “St. James Infirmary,” “House of the Rising Sun” setting. The nasty, roadhouse blues “Cleopatra Don’t Mind” is buoyed by Chris’ jazzy barrelhouse piano. Low, dirty vox spell out a tale of some gray, brooding voogum.
Following that extended blues interlude, the mood returns to lurching sludge with “City on Fire.” This time the keyboard ornamentation of choice is a smoky organ, but the guitar burns hot lead, distinctly maintaining Jimi in the arc of its manifestation.
A brusquely unique nylon string acoustic guitar propels “Dreamworld,” an energetic, ‘60s-informed rocker with a familiar turnaround. The focus here is lyrical. Though the vocal is buried just enough to make the deciphering of the lyrics difficult, the sense is that Chris is experiencing a great deal of confusion in his life, not all of it of his making. This song is a nice departure from the others.
The title track slaloms a hard driving two-beat, sliding downhill at a breakneck pace, until it tumbles into a heap momentarily, before resuming its cartwheel descent. Vocally, Chris occasionally invokes the wry Beefheart croak, a jagged broken windshield at other times.
Chris Newman is a musical treasure. His significance within the Portland music scene (and well beyond) cannot be overstated. And while Chris has experienced fallow times in his life, he is now undergoing an inspired period in which he is producing high quality material on a low-budget.
In bassist Jorg and drummer Naish, Chris has found solid support, similar in reliability to the olden days of Napalm. Justifiably, Chris has bemoaned the paucity of attendees to some Deluxe Combo shows. But the truth is that so much of the population in Portland is new to the city, recently arrived, that the sense of history once so highly valued within the local musical community has dissipated.
There is good music everywhere to be found in this town, the relative importance of one act against another is such, that older musicians often fail to attract a younger demographic that might actually enjoy the artistry, if there was any real name recognition. For some genres, the blues, for instance, the demographic in this city is aging right along with the chief proponents—well, it’s the old story of the spirit being willing but the flesh (and the pocketbook) being weak.
Chris Newman merits wider recognition. It seems so odd to even be making that statement, over thirty-five years into his career, but there it is. He is certainly still relevant, still cranking out great songs at a pace someone one-third his age would be hard-pressed to rival. But he is decidedly unglamorous.
Glamor and image, increasingly, seem to be what the denizens of New Portlandia crave most. Of course that’s entirely at odds with the very qualities that drew them to a backwater hardscrabble burg like this in the first place. The image of the “artist” that attracted the Nouveau Upwards here has drawn so many to Portland that the newcomers are now crowding out the “artists” they came to be among. That worked out well.
Mike Coykendall has been a longtime fixture in local music, involved in nearly every aspect of the scene. Since moving to Portland from San Francisco (where he and his wife Jill led the Old Joe Clarks) in 1999, he has quietly gone acquired a reputation for good ears and good musical taste. In 2003 he worked closely with M Ward on his third release, The Transfiguration of Vincent, subsequently touring with Ward in support of that album. Later he played with She & Him for their recordings and tours. He also collaborated with Gillian Welch, Bright Eyes, Jim James, and Victoria Williams, among many others
In addition to working as a sideman, Mike has served as producer and engineer on countless local recordings. We caught him here a couple of years ago, producing and playing on Little Sue’s New Light, wherein he was…ahem…instrumental in the outcome of that project.
He’s worked with countless local alt-folk musicians, in one capacity or another over the years—producing and recording the likes of Richmond Fontaine, Blitzen Trapper, Sallie Ford and her band, and the late lamented Amelia, to name a few. An early supporter of the career of Annalisa Tornfelt, Mike produced her album The Number 8 (released last March) and recorded her on his trusty 8-track analog recorder.
As if all that weren’t plenty enough on his plate, he’s released self-produced albums of his own from time to time. This is his fourth, the previous record being Chasing Away the Dots in 2012. For that outing he enlisted the aid of many of the big name stars he’s worked with in the past. Here he pretty much goes it alone. Because he’s been producing his own side projects for quite some time—he’s acquired an intrinsic personal sound and style that doesn’t necessarily require a lot of fanfare or fireworks.
But, left to his own devices, Coykendall is capable of amassing sonic munitions if the occasion calls for it. His drum-work, as demonstrated on Little Sue’s album, can be ruthless. When he’s of a mind, he tortures his modest kit. The rest of the time he is said to be employing “the rig,” a jerry-built percussion device, which doesn’t amount to much really, just a few household items. But when you hear it in action, it manages to fill all the necessary rhythm spaces quite adequately, whatever it is.
Mike’s placement in the Americana arc would be a point located near that of Blitzen Trapper—with many similar reference points. But one can readily tell that he’s well versed in the classics, as his music reflects familiarity with the work of the masters.
There’s a Petty vibe in places among the ten songs (and two instrumentals). You can hear that brittleness in tracks such as “All That I Wanted,” “Just South of Levitation,” and the wry “You Don’t Have to Treat You That Way.” You hear Dylan, and mainly John Prine, in “Hard Landing,” wearied JJ Cale over jagged, smoky guitar in “Spacebaker Blues,” and the introspective lyrical poignance of Danny O’Keefe or Steve Goodman in “Burn on Re-Entry.”
But there’s more to Mike Coykendall’s music than that. Much more. For one thing, the two instrumentals included in this package demonstrate a distinctive, if somewhat primitive, studio savvy—after all, the guy’s only working with 8-tracks, although I thought I read somewhere that he ping-ponged to the 8-track from a 4-track cassette. But any way you cut it, we’re talkin’ lo-fi, DIY, down in the trenches, seat of the pants creativity. There’s wizardry here, but it seems born more of necessity than by design.
“Killing Time” marches onto the scene in a whirring din, before snaking into a repetitive, low-strung guitar filigree riff. Elements of Duane Eddy, Link Wray and even Neil Young circulate through the rumbling bloodstream of this forlorn sonic koan. Similarly, “Paranoid Eyes” hovers in an overblown cloud (with a thrown rod) before unwinding and finally settling into a cartoon-sprinkled swirl of peculiar sound. Accessible stuff, but weirder than shit.
But two of the strongest songs of the set are covers. Obscure covers to be sure. He gives Roger Miller’s “In the Summer Time” (a hit for Andy Williams in 1960) a fairly straight-ahead, goose-step two step treatment—while possibly employing the vaunted “rig.” Whatever it is, it’s raw, and raucous, and reverberates like a garbage can tipping over in a windstorm. Vocally, Mike is a sawblade cutting through brick: gritty, raw and tightly compressed; resembling some of Eric Earley’s early exhortations for Blitzen Trapper. “East of Cheney,” culled from the Coykendall back-catalog, has a bit o’ the Blitzen running through it as well.
Even better is Mike’s take on Syd Barrett’s nugget “Late Night,” from his ill-fated debut solo album The Madcap Laughs, released early in 1970. Maybe it’s just me, but everything about Mike’s presentation reminds me of Chris Newman—his gritty vocal, his molten guitar, his basement recording. Which brings to mind an interesting hypothetical admixture: Chris Newman and Mike Coykendall in a project together. I don’t know if they even know each other, but we live in a small town magical world, anything can happen.
Mike Coykendall knows what to do with what he’s got, and what he does, he does very well. His idiosyncrasies and quirks render him not so much a flavor as a spice. A versatile spice to be used in many different dishes, such as those found here.
Brownish Black are an unique strain, a funky soul octet with elements of r&b floating though their lineage, and they are a distinct anomaly within the current Portland music scene. They’ve been together about five years, adding positions to the ensemble along the way, gradually expanding the scope of the group’s musical purview to include a line of horns and occasional keyboard/organ fills. The songs presented here touch thirteen separate stylistic bases (referencing mostly ‘60s and ‘70s) and never land for long on any single reference. It’s easy to generalize about the band, but hard to summarize.
And unique. Brownish Black are not descended from the funk/soul of the old days in the Portland music scene hierarchy, such as Pleasure, Cool’r, Nu Shooz, or the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and other seminal local acts. The Brownish material and delivery is harder, and more honest, closer to the Daddies in that respect. They exhibit a boldness and social consciousness worthy of Sly & the Family Stone, or War, or Gil Scott Heron.
Lead singer, M.D. Sharbatz, a Detroit native, brings with him a bargeload of Detroit r&b/soul freight. He is availed of a slippery falsetto and a thin, but respectable Wilson Pickett/Otis Redding/Joe Tex/Mitch Ryder growl. Meanwhile, the music and arrangements cast a broad net, often closer to early ‘70s: Temps, Ojays, Spinners, and the like. But in truth they’re all over the place.
They frequently exhibit an offhanded smartassedness. Like the children of Steely Dan, or the cousins of the Flock, they use similar settings to create the new soul paradigm for the 21st century. Music with a message. An amalgam. As an example, “Le System” resembles somewhat middle period Steely Dan, with a funk groove circa Earth Wind and Fire, and a brief Edwin Starr reference. The strange Mexicali middle that may or may not work.
The melody to “Passing Time” waves at the Supreme’s “Where Did Our Love Go” as it floats by. “Fight It” calls to mind the Temptations doing a “Get Ready”-like follow-up to The Family Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher.” It’s a stew. But it cooks, without being imitative. This is in homage territory. No frills. Not ironic. A lot of irony in music today, tongue buried so far in cheek it’s coming out of the ear. One thing nice about Portland. Some bands are not ironic. Brownish Black are not ironic.
The quality of the recording is sparse, clean, punchy, no frills and to the point— such that it is right in the pocket with 1965-1972 soul releases played on the radio back at that time. John Neff co-produced the album with the band, and his previous work with Curtis Mayfield, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker clearly demonstrate his bona fides. He reveals his chops unobtrusively, subscribing to the “less-is-more” school of engineering.
Not really soul at all, the ballad “Singing a Song” is closer to ‘60s R&B ala the Drifters—or even closer to a female ballad, like Barbara Lynn’s “You Lose a Good Thing.” “You Can Taste It,” is Was Not Was-y and different from the rest of the material. “Louder” rides on Detroit Wheels.
While not sounding the same at all, Brownish Black have a lot in common with our very own Quick and Easy Boys—who also proficiently produce a brand of music that’s just as hard to pin down (i.e. kind of Parliament-ish funk at times, other times ZZ Top). It’s a hard road, as on the face of it, those odd choices would seem anathema to success in the current music market. But one thing about current music markets: they are subject to change. What’s old is new and it generally sneaks up from behind you.
There are a few others like them out there in the world. Trust that Brownish Black honor their r&b/soul heritage, without being a knock-off band. They take the genres to the next level. This is cool stuff that grows on you very quickly.
Here’s a productive side project that’s a real mind blower. This is one of the strangest releases I’ve ever run across. Strange, not in a musical sense whatsoever, but strange in the genesis of the recording. It’s not clear how it came to pass. And once it was finished, it really isn’t clear what the subsequent plan was. The label certainly doesn’t know.
This much we do know. It was Portland’s own Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) who first arranged to place local vocal treasure Luz Elena Mendoza (Y La Bamba, Los Tiburones, et al.) with Sergio Mendoza, leader of the Tuscon-based band Orkesta Mendoza—who has also worked with Devotchka and toured as sideman with Calexico.
And while the Mendozas aren’t familially related, their dedication to the traditional music of Mexico both folk and popular, unites them for this album (all songs but one are sung in Spanish), which Berlin produced (his influence is subtle, but pervasive); and which was released to little fanfare—as in almost none. The recording seemed to come as a complete surprise to young Jessica who was handling the phones at Cosmica Records, when I called for information. She didn’t know about it. She knew Orkesta Mendoza, because they are distributed by Cosmica Records too. But Los Hijos de la Montaña? Never heard of it. Them.
I asked after a one-sheet, or any information about who played on the record (because there is some really great playing going on in the nine cuts: and brief instrumental). Anything. I got her email address and sent her my email address so she could send me information when she finally got a hold of some. Nada. So far the only information online about the album is the same scant stuff that came out just after it was released at the end of May.
I don’t know why the ball was dropped on this project. There are a lot of great songs, which appear to be Mendoza/Mendoza originals—though Luz sounds herself in a musical place not quite like any other in which she has sung before. It’s great material, well-produced, wonderfully played and sung. I’m not sure what the hell is the problem. But it kinda seems like no one wants anything to do with this one.
“Amor de Lejos” spins on a dark guitar figure, reminiscent of the Robby Krieger intro to the Doors’ “People Are Strange.” The arrangement then dissolves into a noir-ish fog, with Luz sounding passionately mysterious, accompanied by the festive thrump of acoustic guitars and classic lowslung spaghetti-western guitar themes. The song itself could pass as the soundtrack to one of those films, windswept and parched.
A sprightly dance rhythm propels the charming “El Tamalito,” with jaunty keyboard flourishes backing Luz in her element (this could easily pass for an Y La Bamba tune). The chorus is charmingly bilingual, with the hookline “Ay, si!” sounding very much like “I see.” Clever.
The one song sung in English, the moody “One Breath, One Soul,” is given one of Luz’s rapidfire vocal treatments, so that it is difficult to tell what language she’s singing in. But it’s not like her choice of languages has ever been an obstacle. She sings with such fluidity and emotional expressivity that language is not a factor.
A burbling synth figure threads against the persistent chuckle of a charango, or a ukulele, or some other small, stringed instrument. Mariachi brass join in the turnarounds, providing a keen, lamentational wail behind Luz’s own windy call. Sergio sings a verse of his own, a portentous cloud, jarring when it shows up. But well-placed!
“Compañera” is a song steeped in customary flavors of Mexico—more horns, organic, flamenco-like percussion and wistful acoustic guitars. Luz sings at the very lowest end of her register, like a shadow giving voice to some long unlit emotion, dark and smoldering. The ballad “Mi Sangre es Tu Ventana” (from my elementary Spanish: “My Blood is Your Window”?) is darker still. Heavily wrought. In the tradition.
Breaking up the torchy mood is the romantically edgy “Manos En Las Bolsas,” replete with stirring strings, whammy guitars and a hook in the chorus strong enough to hang up a winter coat. Luz’s impassioned vocals bespeak a sense of desperation, a hint of danger and intrigue. Again faithful to musical culture, in the ranchera style, while taking it to a new and different place. Great stuff. Very exciting!
“Lengua De Leon” plays with a cumbia disposition, a ska-like limp in the rhythm. And the ballad “Adonde Voy” is a sweet farewell to a place to which there may be no return. The band did release a subsequent track, “El Chumina,” which does not appear on this album, but should. Another superlative track.
Luz and Sergio Mendoza, guided by Steve Berlin, have taken us to a very special place in popular music, where there are no borders or boundaries—to the common denominator between humanity and music. It’s a shame more of the world hasn’t heard it.
It’s been three years since we last heard from Matt Sheehy and his smart synth pop band Lost Lander. In that time he has undergone several life transforming experiences, many of which are reflected in the cohesive program presented in this sophomore effort. The focus is more acutely drawn here, more clearly defined. Which is saying something given the precision their chosen genre demands.
Lost Lander toured extensively in support of their first release, DRRT— acquiring a prestigious list of critical accolades along the way. Perhaps the most prominent among Sheehy’s post-tour activities was his creation and performance of the first ad for the much-maligned Cover Oregon campaign (I looked all over the internets for a link and I’ll be damned if I can find a copy of that ad. Laura Gibson’s subsequent commercial is still floating around, but Matt’s contribution is, sadly, nowhere to be found).
It’s sort of a Guthriesque, “This Land is Your Land” affair, entirely in keeping with Matt’s ulterior career as a forester. More’s the pity the clever production is no longer available for viewing. It wasn’t like the ads were big budget affairs to begin with, though they did serve as symbols for the boondoggle the entire campaign became. It must be said that, for all that went wrong, it certainly wasn’t the fault of the commercials.
Other calamities in Matt’s life more definitively shaped the context of this album—a sense of loss and redemption hovering over it all. His mother died and it is clear that her passing had a profound impact on his psyche. Her recurrent dream of Lost Land Lake was the inspiration for the band’s name when they first convened in 2011, and her passing cast a longer shadow over the philosophical perspective expressed here.
Then, on top of that, Sheehy witnessed the disintegration of his intentions to marry and the subsequent breakup of that relationship, adding yet another layer of anguish to his woe. But in the midst of that adversity, Matt and Lander keyboardist/vocalist Sarah Fennell began to forge a deeper bond beyond their musical affinity. That sense of renewal and reconciliation manifests in this new recording as well.
For this second outing, Sheehy has again aligned forces with Brent Knopf (Menomena, Ramona Falls)—who serves as producer and contributor on keys. That would be considered a wise choice, as Knopf did a masterful job in both capacities on the first go around. Here he only exceeds his previous work, as nothing, not a single note, seems out of place here. All is as it should be, and it is glorious.
Last month I took Sleater-Kinney, or more specifically their producer John Goodmanson, to task for the unnecessarily ornate, gaudily overwrought aural picture the team painted with their new album, No Cities to Love—a cake with way too much frosting. By contrast Lost Lander’s Medallion, also heavily produced, creates quite the opposite affect. It’s a presentation filled with open air, where every of the varied instruments (and sounds) has room to luxuriate, a space all its own, before it disappears.
Sheehy and Knopf (sounds like a book publisher or a law firm) work in a 21st century manner, exchanging files of their projects and pieces online, rather than regularly meeting together in person in the studio. This aloofness does not translate at all in the music, for it sounds like Knopf lives inside Sheehy’s head most of the time. It is impossible at any given moment to ascertain just exactly whom is executing a particular part, or precisely what instrument is being played.
Which was pretty much the case with the first album, but here the process is even more refined. The production is world class, and somehow that pronouncement seems to shortchange the album somewhat. It’s truly a pleasure to listen to. Breathtaking.
Sheehy, Knopf and the band come from a distinct ‘80s synthpop perspective. At various points one can hear sonic references to all of the great synthpop acts of the era: Tears For Fears, Depeche Mode, Human League, Erasure, Howard Jones, Spandau Ballet, Ultravox and middle-period New Order, most obviously. But better. Much, much better. The technology that could only have been approximated and intimated in the ‘80s is here, now, for the savvy musician. Lost Lander are very savvy. They know how to use the technology as well as anyone.
This is no easy achievement, given the dappled emotional light and intense depth of field imparted within the subject matter. Still, at no time do the music or arrangements ever overtake the sentiments being expressed, instead at all times they compliment them.
A brief introductory interlude called “Pre” emerges into the first real track called “Gemini.” A halting flutey organ motif, underlain by a wiry synth bass play against jittery, ostensible electronic drums. Matt enters the vocal picture with the observation “There is an animal that finds us in the night/I see its eyes reflected in the soft light/I see trouble every time I look for you”—accented by a lone, low, muted trumpet figure of seven notes that appears then vanishes until it is called upon to fill the same space later on.
The mantis-like synth turns rubbery in the second verse and momentarily dominates the scene. All turns quiet for the turn at the chorus, a chattering synth in the background and Fennell’s expert backup vocal. At that point the chorus bursts into an Afro chant, Sheehy’s pleasant tenor turning grittier, calling to mind Curt Smith of Tears For Fears. “One by one we share a troubled… heart.” A sense of deliverance. Break down to a trumpet theme provided by guest Kelly Platt of Beirut and a weird wobbling synth feature. As might be expected, it all comes together down the homestretch, but never crowded, instruments speak their piece and get out of the way, a minimum of sustain to soak up the panoramic vista. A place for everything and everything in its place.
Every song in the set is laid out with the same precision and attention to detail. “Flinch” comes in with an early Eurythmics (and hint of Psychedelic Furs circa “Love My Way”) setting, but as if ABC’s Martin Fry or Neil Finn in his Split Enz days were applying the vocal where Annie Lennox might typically be. In reflection of his mother’s passing Matt sings “I need to keep a piece of what you leave when I’m alone again and feel your presence,” the intensity of his proclamation is Bono-esque, but free of creaky histrionics. Another anthemic chorus lodges the song securely in the memory, seamless harmonies the bond.
The obvious hit of the ten tracks presented is “Walking On a Wire.” Sparkling piano droplets sweep with a flourish across an insistently sputtering synth. It’s a song the Killers might do, although—as it has accurately been pointed out to me—better. Sheehy has a voice comparable to Brandon Flowers, with a similar slightly operatic delivery, coasting through the verse: “It seems so long since you sat on the bed with your hair all around you/Nothing there between us we were young, we were young.”
Things turn more urgent at the stirring chorus: “Hold on to that thread/We will not sleep until we’re dead.” A second, even more ornate filigree piano motif springs up, sounding as simple as the first until you try to sing it. This leads to a stirring bridge, which resolves in permutations of the chorus, the two piano themes intertwined in alternating sequence, tying it all together in the inspired finale.
Purportedly the lyrics to “Feed the Fever” were taken from transcripts of interviews with hero traitor Edward Snowden, although on the surface they would seem to pertain to anyone whose conscience was weighing heavily in an untenable situation. “You never run straight, coz that’s how they catch you/Feed the fever, sign away your life.” The arrangement is Howard Jones meets Depeche Mode. Tidy, compact. The production values are exquisite. The hook could snag a marlin.
It is difficult to put into words how complex these productions are—crafted with such meticulous care. The shifting clouds of tones and timbres on the introspective love song “Give It Time” burst like constellations in the firmament. Luke Price contributes a plaintive viola solo, which adds rapturous, windy wisps to the scene. Over another Afro tinged chorus, and with a voice sounding like Bono in a rare sincere moment, Matt delivers a heartfelt lyric. “I will crawl to you/Crawl out of my skin/And find myself again.”
Of late there has been a revival: resurgence in the appropriation of African chant. It’s that choral “Whoa-oh-oo-oh” sound that you hear in a lot of car commercials or any other ad attempting to purvey some sense of energetic espirit de corp (reference Imagine Dragons’ “I Bet My Life” Sprite/Jeep Cherokee campaigns, or more recently X Ambassadors’ “Renegade”—also for Jeep Cherokee).
For a long time I thought the whole tradition could be traced back to Dream Academy and their hit from 1985 “Life in a Northern Town.” But after giving it some thought, I believe the whole thing started with Paul McCartney and his Hawaiianish finale for “Hello/Goodbye.” It probably goes back farther than that.
Whatever the case, Matt interjects some of that inspired, tribal character into several of his songs. My guess is this is not intentional—or premeditated anyway. It seems as if the triumphal outbursts are more likely a result of real emotions and emotional realizations, not a pitch for Jeep Cherokee legitimacy. As such, they can be accepted as genuine expressions of individual transcendence.
“SunBurns” is an example of just such an uplifting motif. A shimmering arpeggiated synth gives way to the very sort of chant of which I speak, resolving on a key call-and-response line: “We hold out…” upon which Fennell bolsters the back half with a clarion call, “for the feeling.” An intrepidly uplifting song.
Though she only sings back-up in the essential scheme of this album, Sarah Fennell provides the sort of stalwart vocal efforts one might expect from Stevie Nix supporting Lindsey Buckingham. The blend isn’t always perfect, but the level of commitment to the material is at complete unity between Matt and Sarah. The result is often quite stirring—as with Fleetwood Mac.
The pair demonstrate that vocal compatibility in “Never Go Easy,” wherein their commingled duet in the choruses produces a powerful effect, as if the couple are reassuring themselves and each other. Stuttering low-synths and chortling guitars inform the scene with nervous unease. In the bridge, Sarah is afforded a rare moment to stand in the spotlight. The peeling exigency in her presentation calls to mind a similar quality often found in Elizabeth Fraser’s (Cocteau Twins) work.
The track heads home on a familiar, spaghetti-flavored guitar solo riff, vaguely akin to some things the Allman brothers did in the bridge of “Jessica” (of all things). My first impression was that there wasn’t much guitar on the album, but after sundry auditions, I have noticed that there are numerous moments of inconspicuously understated guitar flourishes throughout the program. But it’s just like the rest of the instrumentation here: fleeting. You’ll hear a musical figure or phrase, and then you won’t hear it again for quite a while. You’ve got to pay attention!
An example of one of the many songs that unfold slowly, opening like a flower bud, is the pretty ballad “Trailer Tracks.” Matt wrote the song while on retreat, staying in an Airstream at the time of its composition and it reflects a sense of incisive introspection. “It takes every creature/It takes every kind/A momentary/Lapse of the mind/I am in the moment/I’m perfectly here/I can’t shake the past off/Can’t get myself clear.” A molten guitar solo, evocative of latter day Talk Talk, melts down to the core in the conclusion.
“Crush” reflects a mood and setting similar to that of “Walking on a Wire,” dauntless in the face of adversity, yet self-confrontational. “Self, please tell me what’s the answer/There’s no other way, to stay/Pull you through the mirror.” And, as with its predecessor, the chorus is indomitable. “Welcome to the miracle club/We are here on the other side.” Elements of Depeche Mode and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, with a flash of Simple Minds, invest the production values—although the final minute, blown out synth bass and “quirky” guitar solo, head off in a different direction entirely.
A sinewy feature similar in character to the work of Arcade Fire (perhaps with Brandon Flowers fronting the band) graces the hymn-like “Alpine Street,” a number that could easily fit on The Suburbs. There are many moments here where the playing sounds as if it were executed by a real band, rather than individual instruments, more like a band. Drippy backwards flutes notwithstanding, this cut is probably the best representation of what the band sounds like live: which is pretty damn good, but different from the quixotic electronic ensembles assembled for the rest of the material.
In recorded music, the idea of “production” is a nebulous term, totally dependent upon just how much participants wish to alter and enhance the process and finished recorded form of their music. In the case of Sleater-Kinney (and they are certainly not alone), the choice was made to slather on the butter. In this instance, Matt Sheehy, Brent Knopf and engineer Jeff Saltzman went for the less is more approach, realizing a state of aural feng shui, where the sonic chi moves within the shifting environment.
As in life, there is not a lot of sustain in this album. Things fall away. Every musical part is clean and concise. Each struts its moment in the spotlight, then disappears—perhaps (or not) to return again at some other time. But in its disappearance the ambience shifts: the ear attracted by some other tracery. The workmanship here is artisanal.
But above and outside of the rabbit hole fixtures one chases down through the eleven songs presented here is a lyrical latticework that binds each song, holding the entire project together. Matt Sheehy’s mature lyrical insights reflect efforts of deep personal work and transformation. His intrepid emotional honesty when confronted by the dogging demons of the soul reflect great courage. His valiant spirit and force of persistence are unmistakable.
This is an album to be treasured—for all the life survived in order just to conceive it, for all the energy expended to craft it, for the joy it brings to experience it. The timeless feelings and delicate sensitivities conveyed, combined with consumate implementation, render this endeavor into a modest epic.
I had recently returned to Portland after a decade-long stay down in the valley. It was late 1980 and I was doing my best to become familiar with the burgeoning Portland music scene. I ended up at Euphoria one night, to see somebody, but I forget who. Because, I only remember the band I hadn’t come to see, and the guy who fronted them. They were the Untouchables.
They were a new wave band, part punk and part pop. Bassist Dave Koenig, drummer Chon Carter and rhythm guitarist Mark Nelson lent great support to the big fellow in the middle. Chris Newman. He had an unruly mop of tousled black hair plopped atop his head, wore black slacks and a sharksin suit jacket. His voice was huge—an operatic baritone with a superlative falsetto.
On top of that, the guy could really play guitar. I want to say he was playing a white Strat that night, but I’m probably confusing it with the instrument I saw him play at one or another of the hundreds of his gigs I’ve attended over the years. He often displayed a Hendrix edge to his playing. He was renowned to use a pink Strat—maybe that’s what I saw that first time—the trademark Flying V would enter the picture several years later), but there was a Steve Cropper tone in his style as well. The complete rock guitarist!
Still, beyond even that, beyond his powerful voice and amazing fretwork, were his songs. I still remember several in particular as though I heard them only yesterday—“Walk On Water,” “Soylent Green,” Fake ID,” the apocalyptic “(Let’s Go Surfing On a) Lake of Fire,” the thoughtful “If Jesus Played Electric Guitar,” and my favorite, “My TV.” It was an unforgettable set (for me anyway). To that point I had seen none finer, but for Elvis Costello and the Attractions in Eugene at the Lane Country Civic Center in February of 1978 (which was a life-altering event). The two performances had many things in common, not withstanding their (at times) occasionally analogous guitar stylings and similarly impactful vocals. Smart, wry songs.
As I filed my way down the tunnel and out the exit at Euphoria, I caught sight of Chris and the boys standing right in the entryway smoking cigarettes and laughing goofily. I stopped as I often did (and still do) to tell Chris that I thought he and his band were gods and blah blah blah. Once and always a fan. Chris guffawed aw gawrsh like he was all stoned, which in retrospect, he probably was. I went on at some length (which I still do) even though I had no credentials to present to the lads at the time, other than my good intentions. They accepted my drivel congenially, thinking (probably accurately) that I was just a typical blithering idiot.
My interaction with Elvis had been quite a bit different. There was a strange vibe in the church-like Lane County Civic center. Talking Heads had been co-billed, but bailed on the gig at the last minute. So it was left to Elvis to carry the show, with only the non sequitur Eugene band the Hotz to serve as openers. The Attractions had been touring the US relentlessly since the previous October (including their infamous Saturday Night Live performance in December of 1977). So I would say they probably knew what to expect.
There was a small “dance floor” in front of the very modest stage, which stood perhaps a foot and a half high. What was really odd is that the only inhabitants on the dance floor were a bunch of guys who were dressed just like Elvis: horn rims, snug suit coat, tight jeans, skinny ties. Except for me, I didn’t look anything like Elvis Costello, maybe more like Tom Petty with wire rim glasses, or John Denver. They all stood in a half circle about twelve feet from the stage, with their hands in their pockets, gawking awkwardly up at their role model.
That wasn’t my style so I did what I usually did. I walked right up to Mister Costello at the mic, who, given the low stage and his modest stature, stood barely taller than I. He was singing “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea.” I stood right in front of Mister Costello as he sang, attempting to grok his shit. To suss him out. To see what made him tick. What made him special. Elvis put up with me standing well inside his comfort zone, staring at him, for about a minute, before he dodged away from the mic, ran behind drummer Pete Thomas and hid back there for an extended guitar solo. And he didn’t come back out until after I vacated the vicinity. I don’t know what that was all about. Shy, I guess. Or he didn’t want me stealing his secrets. Maybe he didn’t like John Denver. I’m not sure.
Hardly a year after my first of many encounters with the Untouchables, they found out that some band had already registered that name. So Chris decided to call the group Napalm Beach. I saw a very early Napalm Beach gig at Accuardi’s in Old Town at 2nd and Davis. From the first incredibly loud roarstroke of Chris’ anguished guitar, it was evident that the lightness of the Untouchables had been supplanted by dark, grungy sludge.
The grungy sludge heard round the world. Chris began using the legendary Big Muff foot pedal around that time and it made a big difference in his guitar tone. In reviews at the time, I referred to Chris as a rock and roll Pavarotti, a 21st century Pagliacci. But I had no idea that within ten years he would launch a thousand ships of sludge from the Northwest, each bearing the grunge flag.
The mantle of grungity is typically bestowed upon Mark Arm (who ostensibly coined the term “grunge” for a new generation in 1981) and his band Mudhoney’s EP Superfuzz/Bigmuff released in 1988. But compare Mudhoney’s “Sweet Young Thing…” from ’88 to Napalm Beach’s live takes of “Get the Nerve” or “City of Night” from five years earlier on Live at the Met. Or check out several tracks released in 1983 on the Greg Sage produced Rock ‘n’ Roll Hell—the track “Pugsley” often cited as a grunge predecessor. The seeds were obviously sewn at the beginning of the decade.
Certainly by the time of the release of the cassettes Teen Dream in 1985 and the eponymous Snowbud and the Flower People and the subsequent Snowbud cassette Vegetable Matter in 1986, Chris had created a punk/metal fusion that sounds a lot like everything that was to come after. All that was ever missing was that Chris seemed to resist screaming over his songs, generally preferring to drawl across the top,
Mark Nelson continued to serve as rhythm guitarist for a couple of years after the transition from Untouchable to Beach-head. In 1982, Sam Henry (of the Wipers and the Rats) became the Beach drummer. The band remained a four-piece until around 1986, when Chris started using the Flying V. At that point the band became a power trio for the rest of its days. But the position of bassist was always in flux. A dozen men tried to fill the post over the course of six or seven years, until Dave Dillinger took the reins in 1989.
Napalm Beach stayed together until 1995, when Chris’ life began to take a well-documented,long, slow downturn. They recorded their final studio album In My Tree in 1994. That same year Chris released Volunteer, backed by drummer Lance Paden, which primarily consisted of reworkings of early Napalm Beach songs from some of the very first cassette releases in the mid-‘80s. But that was pretty much the last we heard from Chris Newman for ten years, until his tentative return with Tarp Town Years in 2004.
Chris has spent the past decade repairing his legacy, where necessary, while furthering it with a succession of diverse projects—the Divining Rods (with Untouchable Mark Nelson), Lost Acolytes (with Sam Henry on keys and one of the earliest Napalm Beach bass players, Dave Minick), Snow Bud, the Chris Newman Experiment, Boo Frog, and now the Chris Newman Deluxe Combo. Napalm Beach regathered for a few spotlight gigs in the years after1995. But on July 11, 2013, as he celebrated his 60th birthday, Chris declared the band officially defunct.
Frankly, it’s nearly impossible to estimate how many recordings he has released in the ten years since his return to form. More than ten. Fifteen? Twenty? All of them bearing the mark of Chris’ greatness, whether recorded in a studio, or lo-fi in his basement.
Laid down in just three days, Beachcomber was released in May of last year. The project, engineered and produced by the legendary Jack Endino in his home studio, cleanly captures the work of Chris and drummer Doug Naish with no unnecessary frills. A few vocal and guitar overdubs and we’re good to go. The material is pure, classic Chris Newman. Fourteen songs, three of which are interspersed instrumentals. In addition there are short sound collages at the beginning and end of the recording. The eleven songs with lyrics are, each and every one, monumental pieces of work.
After the brief opening tableau, Chris leads off the set with the instrumental, “Hotrod Motorcade,” a bit of a spaghetti western piece—the motorcade ostensibly of the funereal variety. It’s a dark, foreboding number, heavy on the tremolo solo guitar, but a simple start to the affair. “Broken Glass” crowds an amazing amount of riffage into a two minute space. A familiar ‘60s inspired chord progression leads into a hard-hitting rocker that hits right in the pocket of Chris’ classic voice. You can hear Arthur Lee and Love (circa “7 and 7 Is”) in this, for sure. Murky, smudged Chuck Berry-like chord chortles scuttle along this lost highway of a song.
Against a sensibility reminiscent of the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” Chris’ penchant for croaky Beefheartish vocals rises to the fore with “Gold Braided Curtain.” Funky, Hendrixy fills are delivered with deliberate crunch. “I don’t know what I’m doin’/I don’t know why I’m here/I am an ancient ruin/I am an unknown queer/If I don’t make it baby/Tell ‘em how I feel/ If I can’t take it/At least that shit was real.” Drummer Doug Naish contributes particularly adroit fills in the cool breakdown, before the big finish.
Another breakneck, two-minute special, “Play!” rocks hard on a tough, slashing chord progression—that veers off in very satisfying directions from what might be expected. The second half of the song is filled out with thick piano chords. While the album is guitar-based, Chris contributes bass and piano throughout, as well. His raspy vocal here partners perfectly with the rough-hewn arrangement. Classic stuff.
In a throaty, broken voice reminiscent of Peter Gabriel just after he left Genesis, Chris intones the poignant lyric to “White Sands.” It’s a stirring Bowie-like ballad, though fans of Interpol will hear antecedents as well. With incredible anguished dejection, Chris renders the desolate lyric. “When the alien boy landed in the sand/He walked a thousand miles across the unknown land/Determination kept him going/And the secrets he was knowing/He brought to life another showing/He didn’t need…Approval.”
The entire song fulcrums upon that single word “approval,” and its repetition—carrying with it so much gravity, expressed with such heart-rending elegance. Not even Richard Butler of Psychedelic Furs has ever sung in such a sadly melodious monotone. Spanish flavored acoustic guitars commingle with a great moaning guitar that cries in the background throughout. It’s a mature song, deep and introspective. An epic sense of resolute erudition hangs over the presentation like an inexplicable mushroom cloud. The wisdom of age.
The mood is lifted with “Woman and Man,” a buoyant riverboat shuffle, with Hendrix-styled turnarounds and a fiery solo at the end. Chris’ vocal calls to mind John Hiatt—a comfortable couch of a voice. The title track is an instrumental that includes subtle keys and xylophone. A lonely nocturne worthy of a David Lynch film. The other instrumental, “Sting Ray,” is closely modeled after the rhythm of the Champs’ “Tequila” with overtones of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” but with a definitive surf twang that distantly recalls “My TV” from all those thirty-five years ago.
“Life of Circles” is set in a Hendrix-like milieu, somewhere near Electric Lady Land. In a slow, affable dirge, Chris addresses the human condition “Bodies we climb over, trying to stay strong/Fingers we step on, climbing the rungs.” When the piano enters in the middle section, the complacent mood of the verses turns dark, desperate, and more intense. “Those who assist you/Those wishing you’d come to an end/They won’t even miss you/And your little friend/Supposed to feel grateful/They ever let you in.”
Classic vocalists such as Arthur Lee or Eric Burden come to mind on “His Will,” a deep, soulful number that intimates Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Needs a Woman”. Reedy organ and smoldering slide guitar bolster the white-hot coals of this fiery blues-tinged masterpiece. A drone-like Eastern flavor permeates the lengthy intro to “Gods of Yore” before launching into a majestic litany of verses that slowly build in force. “I loved you/You really showed me/How to love too/How to shine through/All the darkness/The lonely darkness/The drugs and women/The lonely women.” Raw honesty. Enough to rip your guts out if you should care to play along.
Naish expertly directs the graceful nocturne “Moonlight Dancer” through a series of time changes with deft precision. One might think that Chris would never again find a drummer the caliber of Sam Henry, but in Naish he’s discovered someone certainly equal to the task. He’s sure-handed at all times, pulling off some great fills and rolls along the line, as for example several found in this instance. Not showy, but solid and punchy. Dependable.
The intro sounds sort of spacey-Doorsy, so maybe it’s Jim Morrison, but the body of the song is pure grunge at its finest. So it’s more likely Kurt Cobain. Or maybe it’s Jesus Christ on smack. Or maybe it’s just smack. But “He Come Back” resurrects somebody or something, with a shockwave blast. The quiet build-up only makes the launching of the attack seem that much more ferocious. Chris takes his voice through the stations of rock from sleepy, angelic choirboy to firebreathing dragon, to sandpaper voogum spewer. Over a riff that rocks and rails like an 18-wheeler in a hurricane, Naish provides short, smart drum solos that hold everything together with effortless proficiency. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the true and indisputable Grunge. Capital G. The headwaters.
I never heard it in his work before, or even expected to hear it, but there is a (fine though it may be) thread that extends from the Beatles through Chris’ work. George and Paul are vaguely represented at one point or another along the way. On “Life Without Meaning” you can hear Lennon insinuations, with a touch of that heretofore unanticipated John Hiatt aspect as well. In some ways, this song is the coda to “Life of Circles,” a soul search on the order of Lennon’s “God,” with a lyrical twist that is easy to miss: “Life without meaning/Is hard to imagine.”
Well, that was the best three days ever spent! From start to finish, this album puts you in a special place—all its own. Jack Endino’s imaginative production is perfect. Straight-forward, no frills. There are enough thoughtful overdubs to fill out the sound, this is (an imaginative) duo, after all. But where he could have gone all nuts and overproduced, he kept it simple. Authentic. True. Powerful. Real. Personally, I’m just proud to have even had the opportunity to hear this brilliant album.
King Shit Self-Produced
By contrast, the just released King Shit sounds more like a demo. Recorded in Newman’s basement studio on the same trusty TEAC 2340 four-track machine upon which he captured countless other ventures (including the bulk of the Snow Bud catalog) over the years, the fidelity here is not as translucent, the performances not so crisp. Without question Jack Endino’s input on Beachcomber had a lot to do with it. Plus, the team certainly had far more than four-tracks to work with for that project. Chris was incredibly centered for Beachcomber. Given the circumstances surrounding that session he was able to channel all his emotions and frustrations into his work.
Here, it’s obvious that he must concentrate his energies on many different concerns in the recording of King Shit, wearing many different hats in the process. The scattered focus is audible. Chris isn’t in his best voice. The playing is on the sloppy side—though there are abundant flashes of brilliance between he and drummer Naish (as well as bassist bassist Nathan Jorg). All that being said, King Shit is even more adventurous, more eclectic, than its predecessor. There are musical places in the thirteen songs presented here where Chris has never gone before. It’s as if he has dug down even deeper into his subconscious to uncover a new strata of buried musical influences.
The title track rumbles out of the gate on a wagon of self-effacing sarcasm: “King Shit on Turd Island,” through a murky sludge of Stooges-like density. Vocally, Chris occasionally veers into the Beefheart realm, but otherwise gives it a straight reading. “No Redemption” recycles the riff to Cream’s “White Room,” affording Chris the space to cut loose with a couple of solos to rival the great Clapton himself.
“Gator Canal” is a dark, swampy tale, moving slow as a backwater. The (by necessity) mostly monophonic output on this album, here adds a constrictive claustrophobia to the atmosphere that serves it well. It’s hot and sweaty and the humidity is 100%. Chris’ moaning harp glints like razor teeth in the half-light. This sounds like a soundtrack well-suited for the True Detective television series. “Everyday is Friday” is another hunk of bayou, this time in the Creedence Clearwater Revival channel of the big green river of rock and roll.
Naish provides the bronto Bonham beat to the heavily Zep flavored “After the Rain,” the riff of which has a bit in common with “Misty Mountain Hop.” Chris dispenses some tasty slide guitar interludes along the way, while his vocal is straight ahead. The droogy “Blue Dream” is a brooding mood piece. Vocally, Chris drones ala Paul Banks of Interpol. “Something is happening today/It comes in a dream they say.”
The brawling “Tugboat Jennie” again strikes some Zep veins with Naish’s big beat, Newman’s bluesy guitar, and his raucous harp playing. Leslie West and Mountain come to mind here as well. This a great rocker, insistent and infectious. After a brief, jazzy intro, “Big Butt Boogie” settles into a groove you might expect from a song with such a title: a musical mindset perfected by early ZZ Top and Captain Beefheart in his “Diddy Wah Diddy” days.
A three-quarter time soul ballad, “Something Else” could be the work of Van Morrison doing Otis Redding, or vice versa. “Explorer” continues the waltz in 12/8 with a bluesy sentiment, wherein Chris calls up a Peter Green moment, with compact, unrushed guitar flourishes throughout the somber elegy. “Nowhere is somewhere/Now that I’ve been there.” We’ve all been there, man.
“Listen My Friend” is a fitting tribute to Bay Area band Moby Grape and their similarly titled anthem from 1967. Chris’ take rocks harder and grittier. But anyone familiar with the former will hear the homage in the latter. Similarly, one might hear faint strands of the Stones’ “I Am Waiting” in the solemn ballad “Now Forever,” a ghostly finale to a stark, soul baring venture.
No adornments or studio trickery here. King Shit is the straight shit. Chris Newman and cohort cover all the bases, freely baring their influences without sounding the least bit imitative. Chris has been doing this far too long to really sound like anyone else but himself. He wears his numerous influences like a coat of many colors. And it fits him custom made.
With Beachcomber and King Shit Chris Newman reclaims a legacy of more than thirty-five years. In the twenty-nine different pieces of audio information spread out across these two recordings, you hear all the bands that he has subsequently spawned over the decades. Because, stylistically, he’s not “reaching” at all here—merely bringing it all back home.
Certainly there are ‘60s and early ‘70s influences abounding throughout these affairs, but they only serve as logical launching points from which all of punk, new wave and grunge were derived, extending into the present. Chris Newman represents the perfect assimilation and he always has.
He has his own style. His own acerbically wry and witty point of view. Lyrics lived, not imagined. He has his own story to tell, and he tells it very well, without being the least bit repetitive. His music still sounds vital and new. Authentic. Raw. Real. Wise. Insightful. After the long road he’s been down, you wouldn’t think the guy would still have it in him. But he does. Chris Newman is an overlooked genius at the peak of his powers and we’re lucky to have him in our midst.
In my most recent review—of Monica Nelson and the Highgates—I mentioned that Kathleen Hanna was inspired to form Bikini Kill after seeing Monica perform with the Obituaries in Olympia back in the late ‘80s. It was Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill, and other early riot grrl bands of the early ‘90s that first inspired Evergreen College students Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein to take up guitars and engage the fray.
For Brownstein it was with Excuse 17. For Tucker it was in Heavens to Betsy. In those bands the young women first honed their chops. So when they came together at the end of 1993 to form Sleater-Kinney, their punk ethos was fully formed. Accompanied by Aussie drummer Lora (Laura) Macfarlane, the pair traveled Down Under in 1994, to celebrate Corin’s college graduation. It was while they were in Australia that they recorded their eponymously titled debut album, released in 1995.
In 1997, drummer extraordinaire, Janet Weiss joined the team before they began work upon the band’s third release, the seminal Dig Me Out— an album which cemented for Sleater-Kinney a national presence with fans and critics alike. Over the next eight years, the succeeding four albums only found the band growing in popularity and prestige. Taking advantage of their newfound visibility, they became spokeswomen for LGBT, feminist and array of humanitarian causes.
The members of Sleater Kinney have always shared a spirit of adventure and have individually formed or played with many other bands over the years. Hell, Sleater-Kinney began as a side project. Corin formed Cadallaca with Sarah Dougher in 1997 and continues that concern up to present, though on a back burner for several years. Carrie recorded with Mary Timony of Helium an EP in 1999 under the name the Spells. Janet’s services have always been in constant high demand for side projects. One of those stints was in 2000 with the Go Betweens. In the late ‘90s she participated on three albums with her ex-husband Sam Coomes and their band Quasi.
Then, when Sleater-Kinney “broke up” in 2006, the three women went their separate ways. Weiss continued to sit in with any number of highly visible acts, including Connor Oberst and Bright Eyes, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, while maintaining her seat in Quasi, and later teaming with Carrie in 2010 to form Wild Flag with Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole. Tucker took the time off to be a mother to her son, who is going to be fifteen this year. In 2010 she released the low-key 1,000 Years, an album she herself called her “middle-aged mom record.” She bounced back in 2012 with the release of Kill My Blues, which was a record much nearer to what a fan would expect to hear from her, and far closer to the vocalist we find here.
Carrie Brownstein’s meteoric post-Sleater-Kinney rise has been the most visible, as she has been pretty much incessantly everywhere in one form of media or another since she left her thirty-month tenure at NPR in 2010. That was the year she formed Wild Flag. She’s always been attracted to acting and had participated in a variety of independent film projects before she began teaming up with Fred Armisen in 2005 in a comedy duo called Thunder Ant. They made a variety of video shorts. That eventually led, of course, to Portlandia, which has ruined permanently our city for all true natives. For that I hold Armisen solely responsible, as I have long contended that Carrie can do no wrong—and I’m not about to change that opinion at this late date. But just the same: No Cities to Love, indeed!
After nearly nine years out of the pop music picture, it’s not entirely clear what prompted this reunion. Yes, it is the twentieth anniversary of the release of their first album. And perhaps they wish to view the world from the other end of that telescope, now with the adultly jaundiced eyes of middle age. No longer riot grrls, angry homemakers, perhaps.
There are other explanations, too, perhaps best mapped out by Tucker in the first song, “Price Tag.” “I was lured by the devil/I was lured by the cause/I was lured by the fear/That all we had was lost/I was blind by the money/I was numb from the greed/I’ll take God when I’m ready/I’ll choose sin till I leave.” Whatever the case, this is not the band that rolled out Sleater-Kinney in 1995. But, then again, that estimation is nothing new.
Fans were bitching fifteen years ago that trio had lost their punk bona fides, that TheHot Rock wasn’t edgy enough in 1999, so my own misgivings about certain aspects of this project are not without historical precedent—though the bulk of the mushiness can be attributed to John Goodmanson’s production choices. The band’s rawness has been deeply seared to a dry char. There’s still smoky, meaty flavor there, but all the juice has been cooked out. In this particular instance, the overcooked piece of meat is served smothered in mushrooms and gravy.
Remnant shards of the jagged riffs Brownstein broke off on The Woods (and with Wild Flag) have all been polished smooth in the mix, doubled and re-doubled. Fans acquired through David Fridman’s more stark production with The Woods, might find the return of Goodmanson’s thicker, denser mix (as last heard on One Beat in 2002) somewhat disconcerting. Perhaps more so, because Goodmanson seems to have procured a number of new effects devices and a replenished penchant for multi-tracking.
Fifty years ago communication theorist Marshall McLuhan introduced the idea that the medium is the message (also that the “medium is the massage”). That point is proven here. To a T. Gone are the unabashed anger and fury, replaced by effects and caution. It’s a good sounding record. You’ll marvel at the production. But at a certain point the actual music is overwhelmed by that production, to the point where one must hack through a jungle of sonic distractions just to get to the clearing where the real song is camped.
This is the fifth crack Goodmanson has had at producing a Sleater-Kinney album since his first opportunity with Call the Doctor back in 1996. With each succeeding album his imprint on the finished product has become more evident, to the point where the band really can’t recreate the studio wall of sound on stage. Nor should they. Check out the studio version of “A New Wave” and weigh it against their performance of the song on a recent David Letterman show.
I could not begin to appreciate this album until I stopped trying to hear it as a recording by Sleater-Kinney. It’s not. It’s a work created by three women who were highly influenced by Sleater-Kinney back in the day, and they have many things in common with that band. But this isn’t a Sleater-Kinney album. It’s something else. And once I started to listen to it in that light, I was finally able to start enjoying it for what it is: a really well put together record.
Carrie leads off “Price Tag” with a characteristically gnarled guitar riff: richocheting gunfire, wanged out to the max in either ear (doubled and delayed just so), moving toward a guitar synth (of all things) sound: Belewery, Frippery, Carlos Alomar. Corin delivers a rather restrained vocal through the verses, stepping it up in the back half somewhat. But by the chorus, she’s in a full-on holler rage and clear the decks! Whereas Corin used to sound like a kid yelling at her mom, she now sounds like a mom yelling at her kid. But either way, I wouldn’t want her yelling at me. As I have observed before, she is the female Zach de la Rocha and no one else sounds like her.
The lyric addresses the everyday mundanity of the typical, working class American and the price we pay to purchase the things we love, a price appraised by our own decline as a culture. “We love our bargains/We love the prices so low/With the good jobs gone/It’s gonna be raw.” Janet pounds home the bridge and final chorus of the song with punchy ferocity—kick and toms thumping like a herd of charging horses. But then a lot of needless sonic bullshit goes on to distract the listener down the homestretch. The women still have plenty of power all their own, it seems strange that such pyrotechnic clutter was deemed necessary. But there it is.
There is some stunning ensemble work on “Fangless,” with Carrie’s fiery riff dancing against Corin’s mock-bass lines, over Janet’s unrelenting drums. But the production wangery on the periphery—apparent buzzing synth dribbles—is so distracting it becomes impossible to actually concentrate on the track. Maybe it’s me and my ADD, but I don’t think so. Corin belts out the verses and Carrie carries the choruses, a tale of the fallen mighty. Dig it out, if you can.
Goodmanson is at it again with the quintessential S-K anthem, “Surface Envy.” He feels compelled, for some reason, to jack up the side-fill guitar flourishes, to the extent that they distract from Corin’s smoldering vocal. “Throw me a rope, get me a line/I haven’t seen daylight in what must be days.” There’s certainly a lot of great playing going on here—most of it pinched between twinned wheels of whirring musical information lodged at the exteriors of the stereo field. Maybe there’s so much great playing that Goodmanson couldn’t decide which parts to include or where. But those parts could have been parsed out over the course of the entire song, instead of competing with themselves for attention.
The performance, especially the muscular interplay going on in the “center” channel, is quite powerful—like 21st Century Go-Gos on steroids, they got the beat! Shit, yeah! “We win, we lose/Only together do we break the rules.” This song is going to end up on every cardio workout mix in the nation, no doubt. Just the same, there are occasions when one might prefer to hear the band simply stripped down to the essentials found in the middle of the mayhem. That band sounds like Sleater-Kinney!
Finally some space, some room to breathe in the title track. Carrie’s angular guitar figure scrapes majestically against Corin’s churning “bass” lines. And Carrie takes the insouciant vocal reins here, distinctly calling to mind Debora Iyall of the ‘80s band Romeo Void (think “Myself to Myself”), with detached aplomb. “Atomic tourists/A life in search of power/I found my test site/I made a ritual of emptiness.” Now that’s anomie!
The curious chorus is bound to rouse the rabble, with gang vocals that sound like a mob armed with pitchforks and torches—though the precise message, “It’s not the cities, it’s the weather we love,” is a difficult mantra to contemplate, and may overstate the message to a certain degree. The pretty bridge is very well built, but the conclusion: “I’ve grown afraid of everything I love,” doesn’t seem to fit contextually to the rest of the obviously obscure lyric. Maybe this is a song about climate change and I’m just not getting it. The cut sounds real good. Urgent. It’s just not entirely clear what all the urgency is about. The weather?
“A New Wave” is chock full of so much frosting, it’s hard to find the cake—perhaps an audition for John Goodmanson’s next project, but a real mess all the same. Weiss’ stuttering drums lead into another of Carrie’s sterling twisted guitar figures. Goodmanson’s penchant for splitting the lead guitar, either electronically or by doubling, is in especial evidence here. Personally, I think the idea of recording a three-piece band freaks him out.
Bordering on incoherent, the lyrics hold together long enough to get to a catchy chorus: “No one here is taking notice/No outline will ever hold us/It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me,” which would be catchier still if it was a turnaround for an even more attractive hook. Just the same, it’s a memorable number that is bound to have emotional currency for someone.
All desperately grappling for attention in the chaotic mix of “No Anthems,” writhing coils of Page-like (think “Dancing Days” from Houses of the Holy) cobra licks strike venomously against blown out synth bass and curious “ukulele” applications. Even Corin of the muscular shout is interred in the mix, wherein the chorus is perhaps more self-referential than even she might be willing to acknowledge. “I’m not the anthem, I once was an anthem/That sang the song of me/But now there are no anthems/All I can hear is the echo and the ring.”
I think she’s wrong about the first part. There are anthems galore on this album, even if most of them have a somewhat cumulonimbus mission statement. But I’m with her on the second part, because all I too can hear is echo and ring: cho-ring, cho-ring, cr-ing, cr-ing, cr-ing—echoing and ringing through the fog.
“Gimme Love” is a bit of an outlier on this album. And, as such, it hardly sounds like Sleater-Kinney at all. But for the relentless piercing clarion of Corin’s bullhorn voice, you would not recognize it as such. Built on a tireless gyre of triplets (as with the title itself), no one seems to have any idea what to do with the song. Carrie gives it a try, grinding out gritty bone meal guitar. But Janet sounds as if completely cornered. And, when his services could actually be put to some practical use, Goodmanson backs away and wipes his hands of it.
Janet delivers the Bonzo in the intro to “Bury Our Friends,” with a cut time salvo worthy of the master. Because she plays a vintage four-piece Ludwig kit, Janet can often sound like Ringo, or a stripped down Bonham. Carrie’s guitar figure sounds welded to a Franz Ferdinand frame. But soon we are whisked into a waltz in the verses; the guitar weaves and stutters, as Corin and Carrie trade vocals.
They come together for the powerful chorus, perhaps the fiercest and most focused statement presented in the set. “Exhume our idols and bury our friends/We’re wild and weary but we won’t give in/We’re sick with worry/These nervous days/We live on dread in our own gilded cage.” That’s a message that comes across loud and clear, despite the goop Goodmanson ladles on, and it’s another among several cuts with real radio-friendly memorability, though mostly unintelligible.
“Hey Darling” sounds like a real, honest-to-goodness pop song of indeterminate origin: ‘60s girl group transported to the present, perhaps—not necessarily S-K—until the chorus when Corin cuts through the bluster with characteristic chainsaw amplitude and we remember where we are. It’s not unusual on this album for Sleater-Kinney to not sound like themselves, but here they don’t really even sound like the band who recorded the rest of the material. This is such a weird album!
For the final track, the apocalyptic “Fade,” Carrie knocks off a pretty decent facsimile of Slash’s prickly intro to Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.” From there the opus launches into a mini rock opera of epic proportions, worthy of Kate Bush or Tori Amos in their most ambitious moments.
There are at least four separate sections to the piece, possibly more, the most gripping of which is the chorus: “All of the roles that we played/Hit your mark, push the walls, stretch the stage/Oh, what a price that we paid/My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end.” Talk about dark! The melody here sounds like an extension of Kate Bush’s “All the Love” from The Dreaming.
Without question, this is the most puzzling, the most complexly perplexing record I have ever chosen to review. It is of a breed like no other, perhaps a portent of the future, the sound of things to come. Or maybe the final sayonara from a band that aren’t entirely sure they should have regrouped at all in the first place, ten years after dissolution. Because the report from the trenches they populate crackles with midlife crisis and self-conscious second-guessing.
Beyond that, however, is the bald fact that this is the first album I have ever reviewed where the band (and still a very good band) was subservient to the producer. I have been wracking my mind trying to recall an occasion in rock music history (there are probably many, but none come to mind since the days of Phil Spector) where such a thing has happened. Much of pop music released today is dictated by the tastes of the producer, rather than the artist. There are countless examples of that.
But in the rock arena it simply isn’t done. George Martin was integral to the Beatles sound, but his production choices didn’t dictate the final sonic outcome, even when his involvement in a track was to the extreme. In the ‘80s everyone went with Steve Lilywhite. He would put his mark on the recordings he produced, no doubt. But he did not commandeer them. Even Brian Eno couldn’t do what John Goodmanson has managed to do here. He has taken a band with incredible amounts of raw energy and a readily identifiable sound and managed to render it nearly identifiable. Close the offramp, it’s Sleater-Goodmanson now.
For what it is, this is a good album. The songs have catchy hooks and memorable choruses galore. But I’ll be damned if I can find the band in all of this. Maybe that was the their intent all along, but if so, then that’s a pretty cynical choice and sounds like a sellout. Maybe the members’ musical tastes have changed so radically in a decade that it makes sense to drench their “message” in barrels of aural treacle. But I don’t get it.
Each of these compositions could have stood on its own, captured with just the band performing beneath a single mic. The component parts are in place. All the members seem to have improved or refined their individual styles and techniques. The songs may be impenetrable (the lyrics have been called “inscrutable” elsewhere. Inscutable, hell. A lot of the lyrics here sound pasted together via the William Burroughs cut-up technique), but all but two or three are certifiable hits—that you’ll recognize the moment you hear them on the radio (or in the stream).
The only problem is: you won’t recognize who’s performing them. For a band that is celebrating its golden anniversary this year one would think they would emphasize the strengths that brought them to this point, rather than try to bury them. But buried they are. This recording is gaudily ornate, needlessly dense, and ignores its own virtues. Gone are the riot grrls. Here come the acquiescent old gals.
I first saw Monica Nelson perform at the Long Goodbye in the fall of 1986, they were opening for somebody. I don’t remember who. I was playing keyboards in Ed and the Boats and we were headlining the upstairs stage that night. Down in the basement, the Obituaries were scheduled to open for some long-forgotten outfit. I had heard of the Obituaries via a positive review Dianne Hollen had written about them for Two Louies a few weeks earlier. I wanted to see them for myself.
I will never forget the spectacle I saw that night. It was the early days of the band. Laura O’Donnell was still the bassist. I don’t remember who the drummer was. The band sounded like the Grand Canyon caving in, with guitarist Rob Landoll riding cowboy over the chaos, driving the band over and through all obstacles. In the middle of that was Monica at the microphone stand.
Holding on for dear life. She was young. I don’t know how young she was but she may or may not have been around twenty. Maybe twenty. Maybe fifteen. She was drop dead gorgeous in a Eurotrash sort of way that doesn’t translate all that well thirty years later, you had to have been there. She had a distinct Marilyn Monroe quality about her. I seem to recall her attired in something vintage, like a full-length, wellworn ivory-colored evening gown with some sort of a scarf or sash accessory.
She had both hands on the mic, wobbling precariously, screaming at somebody in the audience who had gotten on her wrong side somewhere along the line. I don’t know if she was drunk, or high, or what, but she seemed to be melting. Literally, physically melting down to the floor. As she continued to scream at the unfortunate soul, Rob rodeoed the troupe into a deafening stampede and she just kept screaming like it was the first line of the song.
As things progressed, Monica slowly slid down the mic stand, despite clinging to it desperately, as if it were an oar extended from a life raft. She was still shrieking at the top of her lungs and you could still hear her, even though she had left the mic back at the top of the stand. By the end of the song, she lay pooled in a sweaty clump at the base of the stand, wailing and crying. Spent.
I don’t know if it was performance art or catharsis, or what. In the realm of my existence, I’d never before seen that sort of compacted expenditure of energy from a single human being. Critical density. It was like watching a star being born. Literally and figuratively. It was part encounter session, part punk rite of passage and part Portland rock music history.
Monica Nelson is one of the most influential vocalists in that Portland rock music history. Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, etc) has freely admitted to being inspired, as have many others within the former “riot grrrl” movement of the ‘90s. It would appear that Courtney Love probably saw Monica in action a time or two somewhere along the way. That is pure conjecture, of course. But, voila!
Anyway, I met Monica and Rob that night. I don’t remember anything about that encounter. But I did end up going over to some house in inner southeast around Cleveland High one afternoon shortly after that to hear the band rehearse. It was a single story bungalow. There were ten or fifteen people passed out, hanging out, or milling about the living room, as Monica led me through the crowd down to the basement where the band was rehearsing. It’s my recollection that it was an unfinished basement: unfinished in that it appeared to have a dirt floor and dirt walls. I may be wrong.
The band sounded good the way good punk bands sounded back then. What they lacked in skill and finesse they more than made up for in passion and determination. Rob was the obvious ringleader. He was the brooding type, clearly street savvy in a very unassuming way—extremely protective of Monica—himself a true force with which to be reckoned.
Monica seemed completely different from the young woman I’d encountered at the Long Goodbye. She demurely sat on a stool, shy and quiet. Studious. And when the band cranked into a song, she would simply sit up straight, clasp her hands together and scream bloody murder. From the sound of it, her lyrics were fashioned directly from her life—the topics ranging from one form of abuse to another, a litany of anger and pain. Raw and unfiltered. Unflinchingly honest. I’d never heard anything like it. Thirty years later, I still haven’t.
At the height of their popularity, throughout the late ‘80s, the Obituaries commanded stages all over the Northwest (it was a show in Olympia where Kathleen Hanna first saw the band and determined to form Bikini Kill). They shared the stage with acts such as Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, and Alex Chilton, and many others; as well as with a host of better and lesser known Seattle bands, including Green River, Mother Love Bone, and the Gits (Mia Zapata and Monica shared mutual admiration). In early formations, Soundgarden and Nirvana opened for the Obituaries.
By 1990, the Obits were disbanded. Rob went on to form M-99 and Monica split for New York City. There she produced several records (including Candymeat) during her hiatus, all showcasing a poppier side to her voice—where, among other things, she perfected a vocal quality comparable to that of her idol, Ronnie Spector (of the Ronettes: “Be My Baby”).
Monica was away from Portland for over fifteen years, though she made frequent trips back to Portland. She occasionally reunited with Rob on some of those return visits. That activity culminated in a reunion of the Obituaries in 2007, along with the release of The Obituaries, an epic compilation CD with tracks culled from nearly every one of the many different incarnations of the band to take the stage over the five chaotic years of their existence.
Monica finally returned to Portland to stay shortly after that. It was my great good fortune to serve as her accompanist on keyboards on a couple of occasions in the fall of 2007. She experimented with a number of musical configurations and combinations in the intervening years after that. All of them showcased the eclectically wide nature of her vocal prowess. But none of them stuck.
A couple of years ago Monica was contacted by the members of a local trio called Sick Broads. They weren’t strangers by any means. Sick Broad guitarist Johnny Naylor was bassist for the Obituaries during their “middle-period.” Johnny and bandmates, bassist Jeff Larson and drummer Joe Sanderson go back even further than that, however—clear back to the mid ‘80s and a band called the Terminally Hip, who were in the mix in the Portland alternative scene. Larson went on to play with Nervous Christians and for many years with Mark Sten and the Oblivion Seekers.
Larson and Naylor played with Steve Wilkinson in Crash Landing, in the early ‘90s. Naylor and Sanderson played in Plunger about that time, releasing a few sides on the prominent Tim/Kerr label. The three Broads hung together over the years, officially reconvening about four years ago.
Larson happened to bump into Monica sometime after her return to Portland and eventually the musicians founded the Highgates. That was about a year or so ago. While there have been some demos floating around, this wonderful six song EP was “recorded, engineered, mixed & mastered” by the legendary Mike Lastra at Smegma Studios. Lastra, a longtime bastion in local DIY underground music, provides the Highgates the perfect sonic environment—quiet, open, airy, without affect. Honest and true.
And the music here deserves that sort of attention to detail. Monica’s poetry has always been direct, naked, with no protective artifice. Even stalwart female poets of a similarly barren expository nature, say Marianne Faithfull, Patti Smith, or PJ Harvey—for example—have erected some defensive barriers within their work, affording themselves a bit of emotional distance from their listeners.
Not so with Monica. Her lyrics cut and tear at the tender underbelly of life with serrated precision. She doesn’t mince words. She doesn’t hold back. She speaks the unvarnished truth about relationships and life. Her point of view may have changed somewhat, maturing in the past thirty years. But the ferocious intensity of her performance remains intact. In that time she has learned to control her magnificent voice, every nuance and unique peculiarity. Her voice is now a fine instrument and she wields it like a true virtuoso.
And she’s found just the band to give her the support she needs. These guys know punk like the back of a tattooed hand. You hear it in the riffs, the style. It’s punk all right. But this is punk supperclub music (I mean this as a compliment). Peggy Lee with a black leather jacket. Billie Holliday riding a Harley. Janis Joplin wailing an operatic aria. Patti Smith standing next to the piano in an evening dress, holding a glass of wine, bawling her guts out. Etc. Instead of a typical sloppy punk sonic onslaught, we get sensational interplay between Monica and the other musicians, and deft execution, though no less punk in spirit.
To put this all in perspective one need venture no farther than the first track, the overheard conversation of the dirgey “Two Drunks.” Over Naylor’s turbulently bluesy guitar phrasings, the band creates a mood of taut, frayed tension. With spited constraint Monica intones a Bukowskian tale of cold cruelty. “Didn’t have the decency to break it to her/The fact that I didn’t want her anymore.” Suddenly for the next line Monica’s choked voice sounds like a ripping sheet. “Not that I ever really did.”
The final observation in the dreary account is probably the harshest of all. “Such a sweet girl but no one seemed to teach her about people like me.” Larson, Naylor and especially Sanderson’s steadfastly controlled drumming, display a great sense of dynamics with tight, ensemble work throughout. The final minute of the song is an impressive pastiche, with four bars of backwards guitar that segues into a fierce chord exchange reminiscent of the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” prefacing Monica’s return for a wrathful final verse. Pretty damn remarkable!
“Revival” smolders beneath a thick volcanic crust of crunchy guitars, molten bass and pyroclastic drums. Monica belts out the vocal with unbridled fury, though always within the parameters of the broad range of her nuanced abilities. Always within herself and her incredibly expansive skill set. It’s a marvel to behold. Truly.
For a showcase of Monica’s formidable talents, check out the amazing performance she renders on “Nowhere But Up.” Over the years she has defined her own style and all of those various elements—from punk, to blues, to pop and Ronnie Spector—come to the fore here. Monica has developed a timeless voice of her own that rivals those of any of her influences.
With strategically-placed, memorable licks that never crowd the aural space, the band is understated but powerfully muscular. Concrete Blonde and Spirit of Eden/Laughing Stock era Talk Talk come to mind for the sparse subtleness of the execution. Lastra’s impeccably clean recording techniques lend the entire project an aura of intimacy and immediacy that I have rarely heard in a local production.
Naylor employs a ballsy chord progression on “Hypocrites,” the tone and texture of which recalls Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl”—as if played on three shots of espresso and a nose-full by Kurt Cobain, circa Nevermind. A big, thick sound bolsters Monica hoarse exhortations: “Oh shit, I’m in trouble again/Nobody here understands my process/You’d think acceptance would be a virtue/It seems that I have exhausted all avenues/My so called family disowning me/You snobby little hypocrites/With all your dirty little secrets”
It’s a tale of familial vengeance, played out against a storm of focused collaborative mayhem. Sturdy, compact and precise, the band sludges relentlessly through the arrangement, though with crisp attention to detail, such as pregnant fermata and timely rests. Naylor nails a brief soaring solo, while Larson and Sanderson do the heavy lifting. Vital stuff.
Anyone familiar with the six stories in Hubert Selby’s harrowing novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn, will understand the torturous contextual terrain navigated in the downright short (1:30) “Topless.” The song begins with a prancing, jaunty riff, before the chord progression turns dark beneath the verse. Over that, Monica fiercely chronicles several curt tales of hapless people living at the edges of society.
The quiet ballad “My Need” allows Monica to explore the tenderer aspects of her spectacular delivery, those Ronnie Spector features she has so eloquently mastered. Willowy acoustic guitar joins the compliment of muted electric guitars in auxiliary to a wispy filigree above which Monica compellingly courts a plaintive melody, while lyrically confronting duplicitous social barriers that restrict the human spirit from reaching its full potential.
Between them the six songs found on this EP barely add up to sixteen minutes in duration. But those sixteen minutes are pure gold—more valuable, more real than eighty minutes of the typical recorded schlock to be found on the market today. Monica Nelson and the Highgates are a formidable band. They play together especially well, their individual parts intricately interwoven with great care and precision: in a musical genre rife with the subtlety of a car wreck, emotional gradations ranging from black to darker black.
There are colors here… and shades. Tones and textures. Mike Lastra deserves reverential praise for the tremendous contribution he has made toward the creation of this production. After listening repeatedly to this recording over the past week, I recently happened to put on Sleater Kinney’s new album. What a jarring juxtaposition!
Sleater Kinney used to be raw back in the day. Raw, raw. Maybe not Obituaries raw, but damn raw. Their new album [a full review is in the works] is anything but. It’s slick and tame compared to the expertly performed, gentle punk ferocity presented here by the Highgates. Listening to the two recordings side by side is a real eye opening experience that I recommend to anyone. It’ll blow you away!
Love is Hell/Voodoo Saved My Life
Voodoo Doughnut Recordings
Just last December, Monica Nelson and the Highgates were afforded the opportunity to contribute the twelfth in a series of limited edition singles released on the vaunted Voodoo Doughnut Recordings label. Their contributions to that project are the songs “Love is Hell” and “Voodoo Saved My Life.”
While these cuts, recorded in drummer Joe Sanderson’s basement studio, may lack a bit of Mike Lastra’s sonic majesty, they are no less fearsome in attitude and artistic acuity, nor exacting in their implementation. It’s not the recordings, after all, it’s the band who produces them.
Perhaps the most accessible number among those reviewed here “Love is Hell” is a laidback 21st century blues, full of empty space, and dashes and splashes of tasty fills, perfectly crafted musical support for Monica’s incredible vocal. Finessing the full range of expression at her command, she dials in the sweet Ronnie at the head of verses and the explosive, Janis Joplin banshee qualities in her voice at the tailend, traversing with a restless spirit the barren emotional landscape of an icily austere lyric.
“Voodoo Saved My Life” rocks hard, classic Monica raining jagged gusts from the cumulus roil of the bass and guitars, closer to Bon Scott than Brian Johnson within the vaguely AC/DC-like themes and schemata—though the classic punk metal droog is very deep as well. There is some bad, bad donut voogum going down here. The final minute of this track is a wonder to behold. The ensemble displays hard-driven discipline, a balloon about to pop—which eventually bursts in the jagged crags of Monica’s unbridled finale. Wow!
Because she was absent from the local scene for fifteen years, Monica Nelson has not received the deep and abiding respect from the local public and press that she most certainly deserves. It’s entirely possible that is by her own design—as she has never seemed completely comfortable in the spotlight. Still, it must be said: there is no singer like Monica Nelson anywhere else on the face of the planet.
And, in the august days of her career, she has surrounded herself with the perfect supporting cast. John Naylor, Jeff Larson and Joe Sanderson are true professionals. They never go for the easy approach. In every instance among these eight songs there is a profound sense of unity and solidarity among the contributing individuals. It’s the sound of four musicians doing their utmost to do the best for their band and muse. And what they do is quite special. Quite special, indeed.
When Pete Ficht moved to Portland from New Orleans in 1995 he wasn’t expecting to immediately find success similar to that he had experienced back home—where he recorded for a local label an album with his band, the House Levelers, that was produced by the late Jim Dickinson (who had previously worked with the likes of Big Star, Alex Chilton, Mojo Nixon and the Replacements, etc). But Pete probably never thought it would take twenty years, either. With the sort of songwriting prowess he displays, and with his keen ability to communicate his songs, it’s surprising he hasn’t met with more success—on the local level, at the very least.
And it’s not like he’s been shrinking in the shadows all these twenty years. He formed his band Noisecandy (a band conceived in New Orleans) about a year or so after arriving in Portland and joined Joy Pop Turbo as bassist and backup singer not long after that. He teamed up with Corinna Repp (most lately of Tu Fawning and recurring appearances on Portlandia) for Scenic Overdrive—which evolved into The State Flowers. After that, Pete played keys for King Black Acid, in addition to subsequent stints with Lisa (Miller) & Her Kin, National Anthem and the Strange Effects. Pete Ficht may be many things, slacker is not one of them. But by 2003 he pretty much retired from the “business” of local music in order to pursue something like a real life.
Still, as any musician worth his downbeat can attest, the siren song of music is sure to one day lure him back toward the rocky shoal. It is inevitable. And such has been Pete Ficht’s fate. Sometime in 2011 he connected with drummer Scott Pettitt. The two had worked together fifteen years earlier in Noisecandy. They brought in guitarist Craig Stahr (Quags, Mission 5) and the three of them immediately began to develop new material. The original three Wild Bells (the name taken from the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem “Ring Out, Wild Bells”) and a couple of guests recorded two songs with Tony Lash at the board in early 2012.
About that time the trio of Bells decided to become a full band. Sean Tichenor (longtime bassist with King Black Acid, with intrinsic contributions to James Angell’s latter-day output) came on board in the fall of 2012 and keyboardist Sean Farrell was added a few months after that. For the time being the line-up was set. A coincidence of note: Ficht, Tichenor and Farrell all played with Daniel Riddle’s King Black Acid, though never at the same time together. Ah, the incestuous Portland music scene!
Once the positions were filled, the Bells initiated a (successful) Kickstarter campaign to finance the production of the remaining nine songs that are contained within this album. And it was at that point that Ellen Louise Osborn joined the band to flesh out the vocal duties and thus the sextet we find here. They recorded the new material in the summer of 2013 with Lash and Riddle dividing time behind the board. Lash produced, mixed and mastered.
As a singer and songwriter, Pete Ficht could pass for Elliott Smith’s sunnier cousin—his songs move more quickly, with a jauntier (by comparison) and more buoyant disposition—less of the heavy lyrical morosity. Though Pete is no lightweight, by any means. Ficht and Smith do have Tony Lash in common. Tony worked with Pete in the past on several occasions, including stints producing various projects by Joy Pop Turbo, State Flowers and King Black Acid.
Pete Ficht’s chief musical feature is his uncanny knack for crafting exquisite bridges—an art unto itself. The bridge is that part of a song that sometimes shows up (though not always) after the second or third chorus. A couple of verses alternating with a couple of choruses, and more complex songs will often jump into a third part, a bridge. The bridge generally only appears once in a song, and lyrically it sums up the “message” of the verses and the choruses, or perhaps interjects a different point of view, often times within a melodic key change as well. Typically the bridge will resolve in a repetition of the chorus or into a solo over the chorus, but it could head into a verse. Nothing is written in stone. Whatever the case, Pete is quite skilled at building such devices.
Stahr kicks off “Precious Time” with a molten, Peter Buck-like riff over the chords to the chorus. Ellen joins Pete for lead-vocal duties, sounding in a way like an updated Human League for the 21st century. They alternate lines in the verses, harmonizing in the turns—a sort African tribal chant setting—and the memorable chorus. There is a certain Matthew Sweet-ness to the chorus, a voice we hear again on the next cut, “Carrion.”
Over the heartbeat of Pettitt’s pulsing toms (think Phil Selway on Radiohead’s “There, There”). Stahr and Ficht create a celestial power chord array to set up the instantly familiar mood—intrinsically evocative of “Life in a Northern Town” from back in the ‘80s. It’s a song worthy of Wild Flowers period Petty with a touch of XTC floating around in there too. The chattering interplay between the guitars in the verses, coupled with the majestic power chords interspersed throughout make of this a memorable number.
Sean Tichenor takes over the vocal duties on “Parasite,” an acoustic, country-flavored ballad, reminiscent of Wilco or the Gin Blossoms perhaps. “Wide awake, I took a break—it’s so much harder to call/Knock on wood, I think you should—you heard crying from the next stall.” There is great mystery in that couplet, especially shadowing around the word “stall.” Anxiety inducing.
Sean Farrell’s Wurlitzer piano sound holds firm against the acoustic guitar, corralling the verses with weathered fence-post chords. A weary song. Emotionally conflicted. Ellen’s harmonies lend the presentation a Simon and Garfunkel vocal quality, the way her pretty soprano intermingles with Tichenor’s boyish vocal. And, speaking of bridges, Stahr’s comet guitar suspends one of them here. It’s a two-part bridge, with a gorgeous exit into the chorus. Very nice. That’s how it’s done, ladies and gentlemen!
A rowdy rocker, “Housewarming Party” (a true story) lives up to its name. Big, ballsy, chunky guitars shout down Farrell’s wheezy keyboard, blowing into the scene like the guy with the keg. It’s an infectious handclapper with a fistful of British bluster and an air of spilled beer and fun. Echoing the early era Bee Gees (“New York Mining Disaster 1941”) in the verses, “Skyscraper” evolves into a Lennonesque pastiche in the chorus, chock full of Beatles references: yer oos, yer ahs and lalalas in the background vocals, yer extended fade at the end etc. Farrell contributes a compellingly strange synth solo, and throws out some great circus game show organ fills in latter verses, while Stahr’s solo the second time through burns white hot.
Farrell’s dreamy keys lend distinctive ambiance to “Beauty Mark.” Pettitt’s toms provide the subtle propulsion through languorous pools and eddys of rippling bass and guitar. The catchy chorus could pass for Paul and Linda, classic Wings (circa Ram or a little later). A haunted song with a ghostly wind of a finale, leaving icy traces in its wake.
Tichenor threads a rigid, staccato bassline on “Lunchbox,” another among Bells songs with that winsome weariness of a Gin Blossoms plaint. Again, Sean takes the lead vocal role, with Ellen providing harmonies ala Tilbrook and Difford (Squeeze), or Neil and Tim Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House). Short but sweet.
Another number from the Wilco/country breadbasket is “The Light,” a sprightly ramble sparked by a crisp blend of jangly acoustic and electric guitars. Pete leads the band through several structural twists and turns in the verses before arriving at the downhome, Dead-informed hayride of a chorus. And the song could well stand with just those pieces in place.
But Pete erects yet another of his well-hewn bridges into the middle, sweeping the song into delightfully different territory—pop, supplemented by Farrell’s watery piano fills. “When you find you swallowed something/And you can’t spit out the lies/Holding out for explanation/When complacency arrives.” A splash of Buddy Holly in the homestretch and it can be proclaimed: all the bases have been touched. Yee haw!
One of the most charming among the eleven wonderful songs presented here is the lovely ballad “Golden Boy,” the lyrics of which Pete wrote with Paul Custodio. Ellen Louise takes over as vocalist, and she spills maternal warmth upon a deep, touching lyric about the brief evanescences of life. Lay down your lazy head/It’s harder than they think/Some dreams were never meant to be/Lay down your weary head/You tried, but days turned into years.”
Backed for the most part by a singular acoustic guitar, Ellen’s dusky mezzo (near the bottom of her range in places) is maternally soft. Warm and hazy. The ultimate message is about growing up, as somewhere in the midst of the song, the “golden boy” has grown up and is looking back over an expanse of childhood.
The summation of the journey is the koan: “young is wasted on the young is wasted on the young…” A sentiment most people have no doubt considered a time or two within the context of their lives. I contend that “age is wasted on the old,” because by the time one is old enough to have a few things figured out, he is too old to enact them. I recently heard it offered that: “were it not for time, everything would be happening all at once.” I contend that everything is happening at once and we are merely sluicing through the debris.
The final two songs of the set are the first two, recorded in 2012. “Never Learn (Not to Learn)” (someone oughta mention this concept to creationists and science deniers. It would make life better for everyone) actually rides on the hook line “It’s never too late to learn,” which would seem like a fine enough title. But surely there is a message in all of it. It’s a straightforward country flavored song with plenty of sturm and twang. But out near the resolution of the chorus, the chords break in unexpected ways against the melody, making special something that would otherwise be completely predictable. Shins-y with a hint of Soul Asylum. Nice.
The forlorn “Curtain Call” could pass for Michael Penn or Neil Finn with a touch of Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” from Ziggy Stardust… in the delicious chorus: “Take your electric eye/And you’ll finally find why/with your slip and slide/sadly rally inside/Ride your motorcade/It’s a lonely slow fade out/So take your curtain call.” From there the band smoothly meld the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” with “Dear Prudence” into an extended section. A well executed turn.
With good reason, Pete Ficht gives credit to the band’s versatility in providing him the vast sonic palette his songs require. And it’s true. There is no single style presented here, rather an assortment of them, from country to pop to harder rock (playful as it may be). The assembled aggregation perform in an understated fashion. Perhaps because of Lash’s input, there is space and perspective to every song, to every portion of every song—as the mood can sometimes change many times.
Since the release of this album, Craig Stahr and Ellen Osborn have departed the band. Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Porter has taken over Craig’s position as lead guitarist, offering other textures such as bass, mandolin, Dobro, lap steel and pedal steel guitars. And Rachel Coddington has replaced Ellen. Most recently she has sung with a band called Tripwire. The group core of Pete, Scott, Sean T. and Sean F. remains intact. The newly reconfigured band is currently in the studio working on an EP with Daniel Riddle behind the board. Their first shows with the new lineup will take place February 6th at Mississippi Pizza and March 7th at Secret Society.
Renditions of Wild Bells’ songs are readily recognizable even at only the second listening. Like hearing the voices of old friends. As a songwriter, Pete Ficht has assimilated all that has gone before in the rock realm over the past fifty years. And the band consistently supply inventive supporting instrumentation equal to the material, without stepping beyond whatever the song calls for. Every note counts. Nothing is wasted.
Wild Bells don’t quite have the resourcefulness of the Beatles (nor the resources, for that matter), but clearly they have studied assiduously from the masters the art of creating highly skilled individual musical vignettes—which stand alone as tiny productions unto themselves. Good songs done well. Well done!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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).
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.
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!
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!
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.
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 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 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.