Monica Nelson and the Highgates

cover

 I See Thee Still
Vinyl Fetish Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathleen Hanna, Riot Grrrl

Kathleen Hanna, Riot Grrrl

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

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

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

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

The Obituaries (Photo by The Ack)

The Obituaries (Photo by The Ack)

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

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

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

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

John Naylor

John Naylor (Photo by The Ack)

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

Jeff Larson (Photo by The Ack)

Jeff Larson (Photo by The Ack)

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

Larson, Lastra, Naylor, Nelson, Sanderson

Larson, Lastra, Naylor, Nelson, Sanderson

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Sanderson (Photo by The Ack)

Joe Sanderson (Photo by The Ack)

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

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

Monica (Photo by The Ack)

Monica (Photo by The Ack)

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

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

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

(Photo by The Ack)

(Photo by The Ack)

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

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

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

(Photo by The Ack)

(Photo by The Ack)

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Highgates with Jay Rubin of Voodoo Doughnut Recordings

Highgates with Jay Rubin of Voodoo Doughnut Recordings

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

Monica Nelson (Photo by The Ack)

Monica Nelson (Photo by The Ack)

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

(Photo by Anthony-Anton Long)

(Photo by Anthony-Anton Long)

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

 

 

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Wild Bells

coverWild Bells
Self-Produced

 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.

Pete Ficht

Pete Ficht

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.

Al Tennyson Having Rung Out a Few Wild Bells

Al Tennyson Having Rung Out a Few Wild Bells

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.

Seans Farrell and Tichenor

Seans Farrell and Tichenor

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.

Tony Lash

Tony Lash

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.

Farrell, Stahr, Tichenor, Pettitt, Ficht

Farrell, Stahr, Tichenor, Pettitt, Ficht

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

Sean Tichenor

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

Sean Farrell

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.

Scott Pettitt

Scott Pettitt

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.

Pete Ficht

Pete Ficht

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.”

Ellen Louise Osborn

Ellen Louise Osborn

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.

Jeff Porter

Jeff Porter

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.

Rachel Coddington

Rachel Coddington

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!

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The Cry!

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

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

Paul Revere and the Raiders

Paul Revere and the Raiders

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

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

Ramones

Ramones

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

Dandy Warhols

Dandy Warhols

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crace and Nelsen

Crace and Nelsen

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

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

Bewley

Bewley

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

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

Franco

Franco

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

Crace, Corsh, Nelsen

Crace, Corsh, Nelsen

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

corsh

Corsh

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

Ray Nelsen

Ray Nelsen

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

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

Thin Lizzy

Thin Lizzy

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

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

Yeah, Eddie Money!

Yeah, Eddie Money!

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

The Rutles: Ron, Barry, Dirk and Stig

The Rutles: Ron, Barry, Dirk and Stig

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

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

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

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

The Cry

The Cry!

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

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WaveSauce

WScoverStop Go!
Masher Music

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

Theremin

Theremin

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

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

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

Pete Vercellotti and Michele "Cookie" Heile

Pete Vercellotti and Michelle “Cookie” Heile

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

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

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

Cookie

Cookie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cookie (Photo by David Bales)

Cookie (Photo by David Bales)

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

Pete (Photo by Brock Kernan)

Pete (Photo by Brock Kernan)

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

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

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

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

WaveSauce

WaveSauce

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

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

 

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Quick & Easy Boys

qaeb_followusoverboard_coverFollow Us Overboard
Self-Produced

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

w mike

Sean Badders, Michael Goetz, Jimmy Russell

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

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

Steve Berlin

Steve Berlin

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

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

Isaac Brock

Isaac Brock

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

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

ZZ Top when they still rocked

ZZ Top when they still rocked

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

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

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

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

Sean Badders and Jimmy Russell

Sean Badders and Jimmy Russell

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

Coral Electric Sitar

Coral Electric Sitar

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

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

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

Larry Williams

Larry Williams

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

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

Stan Ridgway

Stan Ridgway

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

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

Russell and Badders

Russell and Badders

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

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

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

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

Quick & Easy Boys

Quick & Easy Boys

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

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

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Here Comes Everybody

shakespeare-cd-coverPlay:Songs From Shakespeare
Refrigerator Records

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

The Upstart Crow Himself

The Upstart Crow Himself

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

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

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

John Dowland

John Dowland

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

Thomas Morley

Thomas Morley

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

Donovan

Donovan

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

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

James Joyce

James Joyce

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

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

Monster Talk

Monster Talk

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

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

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

Hamlet

Hamlet

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

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

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

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

Polonius

Polonius

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

Claudius

Claudius

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

Dave Captein

Dave Captein

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

Hamlet Jerking Ophelia Around

Hamlet Jerking Ophelia Around

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

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

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

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

Ophelia in the Weeds

Ophelia in the Weeds

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

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

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

Michael Jarmer

Michael Jarmer

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

Hermia and Helena

Hermia and Helena

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

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

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

Juliet and Romeo

Juliet and Romeo

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

Mercutio

Mercutio

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

Rene Orme-Jarmer

Rene Orme-Jarmer

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

Friar Laurence in the Weeds

Friar Laurence in the Weeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rene and Michael Jarmer: Here Comes Everybody

Rene and Michael Jarmer: Here Comes Everybody

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

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

 

 

 

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Pacific Mean Time

cover-mediumPacific Mean Time
Self-Produced

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

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

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

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

That would be Little Beirut.

Little Beirut

Little Beirut (Edwin Paroissien left, Hamilton Sims right)

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

Little Beirut

Little Beirut

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

Edwin Padroissien

Edwin Padroissien

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

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

Hamilton Sims

Hamilton Sims

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

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

Matthew Morgan at the Console

Matthew Morgan at the Console

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

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

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

Hamilton sketching lyrics

Hamilton sketching lyrics

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

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

John Hulcher

John Hulcher, bass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Morgan and Catherine O'Dell

Matthew Morgan and Catherine O’Dell

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

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

Nathan Jr.

Nathan Jr.

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

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

Edwin post bike mishap

Edwin post bike mishap

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

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

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

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

Dave Friedlander

Dave Friedlander

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

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

Pacific Mean Time

Pacific Mean Time

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

Paroissien and Sims

Paroissien and Sims

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

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Rachel Taylor Brown

RTB Cover2Falimy
Penury Pop

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

Rachel Taylor Brown

Rachel Taylor Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Boy, Athos

Our Boy, Athos

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

Poseidon Looking at his New Mountain

Poseidon Looking at his New Mountain

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

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

No Girls Allowed!

No Girls Allowed!

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

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

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

Outta My Way Woman!

Outta My Way Woman!

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

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

Rachel and Leigh Marble, Photobombed by Foam Head

Rachel and Leigh Marble, Photobombed by Foam Head

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Byrd Whe He's Home

Bill Byrd When He’s Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RachelF-1

As a Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby Tuckoo and Miss Cootie Going It Alone

Baby Tuckoo and Miss Cootie Going It Alone

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

Jeff Saltzman

Jeff Saltzman

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

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

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

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

Janie Bailey

Janie Bailey

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

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

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

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

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Jeremy Wilson

coverEmpty Through Empty Space
Mastan Music

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

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

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

The Dharma Bums - (Photo by Gates)

The Dharma Bums – (Photo by Gates)

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

Photo by David Ackermann

Photo by David Ackerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremy Wilson

Jeremy Wilson

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

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

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

jeremy1

Wilson, Ratchford, Vance

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

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

Sean Flora

Sean Flora

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

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

John Moen

John Moen

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

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

Ezra Holbrook

Ezra Holbrook

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

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

Dylan-Thomas Vance

Dylan-Thomas Vance

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

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

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

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

Luke

Luke Strahota

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

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

Jenny Conlee-Drizos

Jenny Conlee-Drizos

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

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

Jeremy Wilson

Jeremy Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

 

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— Update! !Pearly Redux! Update! —

The Starday Tavern 65th and Foster

The Starday Tavern 65th and Foster

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

Eugenio's 35th and Division

Eugenio’s 35th and Division

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

Acoustic Open Mic at Eugenio's

Acoustic Open Mic at Eugenio’s

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

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

Glue Horses

Glue Horses

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

Steve "Pearly" Hettum - Master of Ceremonies

Steve “Pearly” Hettum – Master of Ceremonies

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

Starday Stage - Photo by John Koontz

Starday Stage – Photo by John Koontz

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

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