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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Pearly Takes It to Starday

Steve Hettum (photo by John Alcala)

Steve Hettum (photo by John Alcala)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Charles and Katie Rose

Matty Charles and Katie Rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

starday

Photo by Jesse Newell

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Professor Gall

mag rootsMagnetic Roots
BEW Records

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

Professor Franz Josef Gall, the Father of Phrenology

Professor Franz Josef Gall, the Father of Phrenology

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

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

Professor Gall by RJB Photo

Professor Gall by RJB Photo

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

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

Andrew Alikhanov

Andrew Alikhanov

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

prof gall 3

The Professor in Action

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

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

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

Monte Skillings (Photo by Chris Campbell)

Monte Skillings (Photo by Chris Campbell)

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

Scott Johnston (Photo by Casey Campbell)

Scott Johnston (Photo by Casey Campbell)

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

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

Standard Handcar

Standard Handcar

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

Professor Gall

Professor Gall

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

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

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

prof gall 2

 

 

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Sally Tomato and Friends

coverLed Zeppelin III
Severe Recordings

It was in November of 1970 that notorious bon vivant and ferociously cranky rock critic Lester Bangs called Led Zeppelin the “ultimate Seventies Calf of Gold.” This was in the eleventh month of the first year of that decade, mind you. He wasn’t wasting any time. This proclamation came in reference to Led Zeppelin III , which he was reviewing for Rolling Stone. And none too favorably.

Their third album deviates little from the track laid by the first two, even though they go acoustic on several numbers. Most of the acoustic stuff sounds like standard Zep graded down decibelwise, and the heavy blitzes could’ve been outtakes from Zeppelin II. In fact, when I first heard the album my main impression was the consistent anonymity of most of the songs — no one could mistake the band, but no gimmicks stand out with any special outrageousness, as did the great, gleefully absurd Orangutang Plant-cum-wheezing guitar freak-out that made “Whole Lotta Love” such a pulp classic. 

In his defense, Bangs did go on to offer faint praise for a couple of songs as being “not bad at all.” And he was especially fond of the tender ballad “That’s the Way,” wherein “Plant sings a touching picture of two youngsters who can no longer be playmates because one’s parents and peers disapprove of the other because of long hair and being generally from ‘the dark side of town’.”

Through the dark glass of retrospect, some forty-three years later, that Zep album, in particular, is universally recognized as something of a turning point for the band. It set them free from the strictures of the blues—which had been their lot as the “New Yardbirds” of their first two records. It pointed the way toward the epic songs that were soon to follow: “Stairway to Heaven,” “Battle of Evermore” and “Kashmir” and all the others that incorporated traditional folk and middle Eastern music in new and unique ways that are still revered today.

Lester Bangs

Lester Bangs

Lester Bangs couldn’t have foreseen at the time what would fully follow with the legend of that band or with music in general. He died in 1982, just before the children of Zep (Van Halen, Metallica, Scorpions, etc) came into full recognition. That bunch was followed by another generation, ie Guns and Roses, and, uh, Kingdom Come, Black Crowes, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, and Porno For Pyros.

After them, yet another generation was begot in 21st century bands such as Wolfmother, White Stripes, Black Mountain and Rival Sons. It would seem Lester didn’t fully anticipate the extensive herd that Seventies calf of gold would propagate—before their reign was abruptly terminated with drummer John Bonham’s death in October of 1980.

Sally Tomato "Soup"

Sally Tomato “Soup”

I first ran across Sally Tomato (named after a character in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s) back in the summer of 2001 when I reviewed their debut album, Soup, for Two Louies—a recording that knocked me out for its originality and flair for the unique. I knew of Carlos Severe Marcelin. Before Sally Tomato he had been a guitarist for the folk/rock band Silkenseed, who put out a couple of albums in the ‘90s.

When Silkenseed broke up, flautist/vocalist Monica Arce retired to parenthood, as her husband guitarist Edwin Paroissien and vocalist Hamilton Sims  went on to form Little Beirut, while Carlos and drummer Eric Flint joined vocalist Toni Severe Marcelin (Carlos’ wife—whom most know to be Sally herself) to create Sally Tomato.

Toy Room

Sally Tomato in Toy Room

In the years since their inception, in addition to releasing conventional recordings, Sally Tomato have regularly pursued non-traditional projects. In 2008 they produced the semi-autobigraphical rock opera Toy Room, which they performed that spring for three nights at the Wonder Ballroom, involving a cast and crew of many dozens. Critics deemed the musical’s effects “Bjorkish,” and the concept and production comparable to a “female-centric version of Tommy.” Combine those two elements and you have a good idea of the impact of the play. The DVD version of Toy Room has won awards at prestigious film festivals all around the world.

The Planets

The Planets

Last year Carlos and drummer Eric Flint, “Sally Tomato’s Pidgin,” created an ambitious instrumental album, The Planets. That album served as a showcase for both musicians’ precocity, as well as a primer into the machinations of our very own solar system. For that release the band assembled a performance art installation, which they displayed for one day at Buckman Park in southeast Portland.

Sally Tomato: Eric Flint, Carlos Severe Marcelin, Toni Severe Marcelin

Sally Tomato

After preparations for a film were shelved for the time being, the Marcelins and Flint began looking for a new project for Sally Tomato. Last spring they hatched the plan to record Led Zeppelin III in its entirety. Now, there have been countless Led Zep “tribute” ventures over the past few years, just in Portland alone. And that’s great. There cannot be enough Led Zeppelin tributes.

But, typically, there are two approaches to such things. The first and most common is to find a guy who sounds and/or looks like Robert Plant, learn a bunch of Zep songs and put on a show “bringing back the live experience,” etc. The second method is to gather a bunch of acts together and have them do their interpretations of Zep songs. Both techniques have their obvious advantages and flaws.

Carlos Severe Marcelin

Carlos Severe Marcelin

Sally Tomato decided upon a third strategy. With Carlos performing as Jimmy Page and Eric as John Bonham, the duo pretty much re-recorded Led Zeppelin III in the Tomato basement studio. The guitar tones are spot on. Execution near flawless. Other musicians were brought on board, as were needed, to fill out the occasionally complicated orchestration. Owing to the expert musicianship, the resultant instrumental recording is very close to the original in every way, without being a mere copy.

What the band chose to do at that point was something very unusual and it turned out to be a great decision. They brought in guest vocalists to sing Robert Plant’s parts. The result is that every song is instantly recognizable by its accurate instrumental environment. But then some other voice starts fronting the band. In most cases that voice is drastically different from Bob’s.

In some instances that voice is almost better suited to the particular song than Bob’s. It’s utterly familiar music you’ve never heard before. This is not a tribute album. Not in the least. This is Led Zeppelin III. But Robert Plant took a holiday for this version. So John, Jimmy, and John Paul invited friends over to do the job instead. This album certainly stands on its own merits and rivals even the original for impact.

Steve Wilkinson

Steve Wilkinson

Besides Sally herself, Carlos sings a song. Steve Wilkinson of Wilkinson Blades makes an appearance. James Faretheewell (of the Foolhardy) jumps in for a song. Former Silkenseed bandmates Hamilton Sims, Edwin Parroissien (of Little Beirut) and Monica Arce take turns at the mic. And Drew Norman (Professor Gall, Porcelain God, Cowtrippers) commands the spotlight for one song, as well as adding banjo and an array of guitars to several other songs. Among modest appearances by numerous guest musicians, Ben Schroeder is the key musical addition, contributing mandolin and violin to a couple tracks, and rock solid bass throughout.

Dave Friedlander

Dave Friedlander

In an A/B comparison of the original with this version, the first thing one notices is that compression has come a long way over four decades. Engineer extraordinaire Dave Friedlander (see Pink Martini review last month) positively slams the mix for “Immigrant Song,” actually generating more power than Zep could muster (in 1970). The only thing missing instrumentally is a little tremolo-laden figure Jimmy lays in places on the right. Otherwise, this is it. Sally, supported by the eleven member Valkyrie Choir, gives the vocal a decidedly feminine perspective, but in the same vocal range as Bob’s “orangutan Plant” bellering.

The Tomato take on “Friends” is a slight variant, perhaps like an outtake. Schroeder’s violin is different in texture from the thicker violas found in the primary model. Sally’s vocals and the Valkyrie Choir lend the song a more ethereal component not heard in the Zep rendition. Friedlander’s magic is clearly evident here, with tricks at his command only dreamt of in those primordial days of rock. He adds subtle effects that contribute greatly to the otherworldly nature of the cut. Very cool.

Eric Flint

Eric Flint

“Celebration Day” lacks a bit of the hectic, sloppy urgency of its predecessor. Sally’s vocal actually seems like an improvement over Robert Plant’s (her pitch is better). He sang the song at the uppermost range of his voice, sounding pinched and whiny. A woman singing in that register is not nearly so annoying, although no Zep head worth his salt would ever own up to that shortcoming in our golden boy’s vocal arsenal. Carlos carries out the prototypical Pag-ian pyrotechnics with characteristic aplomb. And Flint’s Bonzo excursions are certainly worthy attempts (if considerably less alcohol fueled), though far less squeaky.

Things heat up quickly with “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” the song the Zeps found one of the most difficult to render when they recorded it (essentially) live in the studio. Full disclosure, truth in music reviewing be told, I played the elementally innocuous organ part on this track—and it is obvious from the start that I don’t hold a candle to John Paul Jones’ classical training. Fortunately, Ben Schroeder’s bass more than adequately handles JP’s pedal work to rescue the day.

And in the end it’s probably just as well—as Carlos and vocalist Steve Wilkinson need all the sonic space they can get. Wilkinson absolutely melts the ones and zeroes with his searing interpretation of the lyrics. His is different, even darker than Robert Plant’s reading. Steve clearly makes the song his own (who’s this Robert Plant guy anyway?), wringing raw power and passion from every phrase, every guttural utterance.

Carlos’ molten guitar excursions rival Page’s for intensity. In the extended intro solo Jimmy rushes the timing before settling in with a fiery burst. Carlos is more of a controlled burn, soulful in tone and relaxed in implementation, calling to mind Carlos Santana.

Jimmy’s solo in the middle is considered one of the greatest guitar displays ever rendered in recorded music (check out what he does—rather effortlessly—around the 4:00 mark). That solo alone made of the song a staple of the band’s live shows for many years. Carlos holds his own in that battle, though his style is different and not nearly as blues centered as Page’s always was. Still, in the end the Tomato version of this Zep chestnut is certainly radio-friendly on its own terms, because of Carlos and Steve. It kills!

Valkyrie Choir

Valkyrie Choir

Carlos takes over the lead vocals on a groovy little excursion through the riff heavy “Out on the Tiles.” His sneaky, snaky cool delivery is an octave lower and diametrically opposed in demeanor to that of Robert Plant. The Valkyrie Choir return for the memorable sing-along chorus. Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah-ah. A fun romp.

A number derived from some of what Lester Bangs called the “acoustic stuff,” that has stood the test of time is “Gallows Pole.” Without the help of the internet, Lester probably didn’t know the centuries old history of the song (“The Maid Freed From the Gallows,” “Child Song 95”). The Tomato’s version is a bit shorter, with a bit less country jam. Still, it’s quite spectacular, nonetheless.

Hamilton Sims

Hamilton Sims

Hamilton Sims fronts the procession, with Carlos on acoustic guitars and Ben Schroeder on mandolin and bass. Sims’ treatment is mellower at first, more quietly desperate in seeking his redemption. He begins the song an octave lower than Bob’s torn sheet shriek, before jacking things up midway to a fevered plea—Friedlander adding ghostly effects to amplify the impact.

Locomotion gathers increasing steam, with Flint joining Drew Norman as he steps in to pluck a banjo sprint over agitated electric guitar comping—provided by fourteen-year old Keelan Paroissien-Arce (Edwin and Monica’s daughter). Coming down the homestretch, Keelan knocks out a gnarled solo, portending for the foreseeable future a positive outlock for rock and roll.

Edwin Paroissien

Edwin Paroissien

The Tomato rendering of “Tangerine” is actually something of an improvement, in that Carlos is perhaps a bit more focused in the implementation of his guitars than Jimmy Page was when the song was originally recorded—the instrumentation and production are much cleaner. Edwin sings the lead vocal, joined by Monica for the high harmonies in the chorus. Edwin’s treatment adds a wistful quality and a boyish longing to the context.

Ben Schroeder (Photo by Chris Berry)

Ben Schroeder (Photo by Chris Berry)

Carlos nails the 12-string guitar motif—though with electric instead of acoustic—that yields to the harder middle section (a harbinger of “Stairway to Heaven”). Drew Norman returns with flamethrower lap-steel guitar in the soaring solo (calling to mind Duane Allman), exceeding even the Pagemaster himself in sheer awesome force. Riveting. Schroeder’s hard-driving bass and Flint’s adamant drums propel the production forward. It’s another stellar performance, unique, yet instantly familiar and contemporary.

The band handles “That’s the Way” in similar fashion: a loving laudation with just enough special detail to make the arrangement quite distinctive in its own right, without departing far at all from its model. What’s different here is precisely what makes it special. Sally and Hamilton Sims share lead vocal duties, poignantly alternating verses. In the process they transform a “touching picture of two youngsters who can no longer be playmates” into a song about star-crossed young lovers—a moving duet between Romeo and Juliet.

She sings “I don’t know how I’m gonna tell you/I can’t play with you no more/I don’t know how I’m gonna do what mama told me/My friend, the boy next door,” to which the heartbroken lad despondently replies “When I’m out I see you walking/Why don’t your eyes see me/Could it be you’ve found another game to play/What did mama say to me?”

The instrumental components here are identical to the antecedent. Over Sally’s introductory intonations, Carlos’ acoustic guitar is matched with Schroeder’s mandolin and Drew Norman’s lap-steel guitar—more mournful and less busy than Jimmy Page’s. The aural composition is earthier, less airy and dry. Very nice.

Drew Norman

Drew Norman

After Carlos deftly glides through the fingerpicked mastery of the extended intro (on electric rather than acoustic guitar), Norman steps forward for the scrappy tour de force “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp.” Invoking his Professor Gall personae Drew commands the vocal voodoo voogum with a bit more gravity than Plant’s more tentative assertions. He sets the mojo to “Stun,” working against his slithery resonator guitar (a perfect addition to the setting), pounding swamp stompbox, and the insistent march of Flint’s militant snare. Though not that far from the Zep edition, there are a lot of minor features in this presentation that are decided enhancements: specificially Drew’s gruff vocal and the delta guitar phrasings. Great.

James Faretheewell (Photo by Chris Berry)

James Faretheewell (Photo by Chris Berry)

Finally, what was a throwaway for Zep, the traditional blues-based “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper,” with just Page on bottleneck acoustic guitar and Plant on muffled harp-mic vocals, is transformed into a hard rocker with a sunny California sound. After a brief introductory interlude reminiscent of Dominic and the Dominoes’ take on “Little Wing,” James Faretheewell comes on like Sky Saxon riding tandem with Mike Love on a psychedelic surfboard, mumbling soulfully over the old I-IV-V.

The middle breaks sideways into a spoken word interlude (recited by Reverend Tony Hughes of Jesus Presley) called “I Hate the White Man,” written by the actual influential British musician, Roy Harper to whom the Zep song is dedicated, before veering back onto the Pacific Highway. Of the ten, this song sounds the least like the masters—not so difficult, seeing as how it didn’t have much of an identity to begin with.

Lester Bangs aside, Led Zeppelin III now stands as a groundbreaking album. It brought into clear relief aspects of English traditional music performed in a rock setting, a milieu soon imitated by the likes of Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span, Yes, Strawbs, Genesis and a host of others who used elements of British folk music in their presentations to greater or lesser degrees. Ultimately this album is father to all that.

In it’s primordial state, the parent album is a little loose. Performances are occasionally sloppy or spontaneous, or both. But the spirit of invention—especially present in Jimmy Page’s inspired feats of musical majesty are indelibly inscribed upon the pillars of rock and roll.

Carlos and Toni Severe Marcelin (Photo by Chris Berry)

Carlos and Toni Severe Marcelin (Photo by Chris Berry)

Some might perceive an effort to reproduce that album to be an act of naive hubris. But, performed from a perspective of profound reverence and respect, there is genius here. Sally Tomato and Friends didn’t copy the original so much as assimilate it. They have made it their own and reconfigured, while never losing sight of the original blueprint. The arrangements, while instantly familiar, are not identical when compared directly. There are alterations and enhancements along the way—vocals being chief among them, but not the sole instances of divine kismet.

Led Zeppelin III is not a simple tribute album, but a sincere homage honoring the innovation that the original version spawned. What’s old is new again. And this recording neatly bridges the many years between old and new in inventive ways, panegyric to a legacy that seems secure for generations yet to come.

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Blitzen Trapper

vii2VII
Vagrant Records/Lojinx

When Blitzen Trapper first came to the fore in 2007, with the release of Wild Mountain Nation, the band had already been in operation as a recording entity for four years with two releases prior to that. All the same their visibility on a national scale escalated incrementally from that point, with key support from Pitchfork online magazine, especially.

Before that third album had even hit the streets the Trappers had already signed on with Sub Pop to record a fourth, Furr, which they released in 2008. They made two more records for Sub Pop before leaving last year. Last spring on the band label LidKerCow, they re-released their eponymous first album on 180 gram vinyl, some versions of which contain five extra tracks (!). This is their first release for Vagrant Records.

So, that is to say that the band is now ten years old studio wise, and VII is their (as the title might suggest) seventh LP. Seven albums is quite an achievement for an eccentric little band from Salem—Typhoon also originally hale from Salem too. Perhaps there’s something in the Willamette down there. Whatever the case, Blitzen Trapper have managed to survive and thrive while remaining relatively anonymous in Portland.

The band’s career arc seems to closely resemble that of the Decemberists or the Shins (maybe on a somewhat smaller scale) in that they went national before they even had a chance to really go local. Esperanza Spalding erupted out of a vacuum, of course.

Some in the national press have lately remarked that the band has shucked its “Northwest roots” (however one might try to define those) in favor of embracing a more universal pan-Americana sound. But anyone familiar with Blitzen Trapper know that the evolution for the current species of the band began in the swamps of their earliest recorded efforts and are easily traced. So all that talk is a load of editorial hooey.

Eric Earley

Eric Earley

Leader, singer/songwriter Eric Earley is renowned for his homespun, campfire canticles. Though he denies having been exposed much to popular music in his formative years, and admits to being impervious to most forms of media, trying to toss a lasso around his musical inspirations would require quite a lengthy rope. But Americana would certainly be a logical point from which to start pitching the twine. Still, the field of influence widens obtusely from there.

Perhaps it would be more simple to list where Blitzen Trapper do not go musically than where they do go (if, at times, only briefly). I have never heard them play classical music, jazz or showtunes. No world music. So far no musique concrète or dodecaphony. Uh… They don’t really do death metal.

To an extent, the band have become comfortable with themselves, with their musical niche. That much is true. Although there are always instances within any Blitzen Trapper production where one can find indications of experimentation. This complaint of “complacency,” which I have seen registered around, can be made of just about every rock band. Very few are able to move very far from their comfort zones. Some do better than others. But how far did REM get in thirty years, for example?

Blitzen Trapper

Blitzen Trapper

Blitzen Trapper have been lumped by some as mere ‘70s rehashbacks, which misses whole decades of intrinsic musical influence. So, I’m not sure anybody really knows anything about the band (including yours truly). Perhaps they serve as the perfect musical mirror. You hear your own eclectic tastes in what they play—a little something for everybody. I don’t necessarily agree with all the references others hear in their music, but I’ll defend to the expiration date of my driver’s license their right to hear it that way. Here’s what I hear.

The band tosses in the proverbial musical kitchen sink on the first cut, “Fell the Chill.” It’s a standard issue Earley fable, something about wandering in the woods with a rusty pail and stumbling across a woman in her underwear. Just the usual BT modus operandi. Vocally, Eric renders his usual Bob Dylan-like growl. But here a fine, gritty texture in his voice recalls all the best things about the late JJ Cale.

A cool, incongruent synth figure punctuates the turns, occasional harmonica wails for emphasis, while prickly country Tele and what sounds like a Clavinet mingle in a very unique melange. The not unexpected banjo peeks in and out in the hoedown near the end. Gifted engineer Gregg Williams makes Brian Koch’s drums sound like rocket fire—which makes sense since he drums with Quarterflash, as well as having served as engineer on many great recordings by top local bands. Ubiquitous musician/producer/engineer Danny O’Hanlon (a member of the Minus 5 aggregation among many other enterprises) is also on board to lend his expertise.

Eric Earley and Marty Marquis

Eric Earley and Marty Marquis

A faint funk underpinning in the rhythm section drives the cheery “Shine On.” Eric Earley doesn’t really have much of a voice, but that being said, these guys do a lot with what he’s got. Here it’s as if Steve Goodman or Lyle Lovett were fronting the Black Keys. It’s a Column A/Column B thing with this band. Choose one style from each column and throw them together. It is true however that the Trappers often do create additional Columns of influence from which to draw on any given song.

This one has a feel as if it were performed by an Americana blues version of KC and the Sunshine Band. Ms. Liz Vice contributes soulful backup vocals. Slippery slide guitar textures take the song in a completely different referential direction. But that’s what it’s all about. A really fiery harp solo drives the blues supply side of this equation. Blitzen Trapper at their best! Ziggin’ and a zaggin’.

The parabolic quality of Earley’s songs is brought into clear relief with “Ever Loved Once,” wherein the band render one of what he calls  “those songs I keep writing over and over again, with all its regrets and tragic lost love.” The lyric is matched with an urgent vocal melody driven at first by acoustic guitar, Neil Youngy harmonica and guest Paul Brainard’s (Richmond Fontaine, among many) familiarly mournful pedal steel guitar. Spry banjo and “Witchy Woman” era Eagles harmonies kick in windily after the catchy chorus. Classic Blitzen Trapper.

Here’s an observation as to why Blitzen’s music is misperceived by the rest of the nation. Most of the country has no idea what Oregon really is. They think it’s Portlandia and hippies and the Willamette Valley (Go Ducks! Go Beavs!). They don’t know what a hick state this truly is at its core. Look. I was raised here. I have lived among them. I am one. It’s a state full of hicks. Just about everything south of Eugene and east of the Cascades. You got it. Own it.

John Day, Oregon

John Day, Oregon

So when the music aficionados of the world opine that the band must be breaking free of it’s so called “Oregon roots,” they do so not fully understanding that Americana, folk, bluegrass and especially country music, in all its various forms and formats, has always been rampant in this part of the world, they fail to acknowledge that Blitzen Trapper’s real growth has come in its ability to express those particular idiosyncrasies within the true Oregon lifestyle. They haven’t moved from Salem to Appalaichia or Nashville. They’ve moved to John Day.

“Thirsty Man” is a marvelous confection filled with juicy little details. A soft samba nylon-string guitar vamps hairpins while tinkly, harpsicordic keys, staccato rhythm guitar, and hummingbird mandolin flit among flares of distorted guitar and siren harp calls. All this going on, yet the arrangement is as wide open as the Oregon high prairie—another testament to expert production (Earley and bassist Michael Van Pelt) and facile engineering.

The wool sweater of Earley’s vocal is inspired not only by Dylan and John Lennon (who started sounding like Dylan by late 1964), there is the second ‘70s layer that includes Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty in Stealer’s Wheel (“Stuck in the Middle With You”), and Don Henley of the young Eagles. Later, the Dylan and JJ Cale (which begat latter-day Clapton) features wove themselves into Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. From that point thirty years hence, among the myriad permutations of the above, we arrive at Eric Earley.

blitzensThe song itself rousing, gospel infused at its soul, with a stirring chorus of biblical proportions. “I let you slip away like water right through my hands/Baby your love’s like rain in the desert to a thirsty man.” A blistering psychedelic organ solo, worthy of David Cohen of Country Joe and the Fish, or Ray Manzerak of the Doors follows. This is Blitzen Trapper at the top of their game mining three or four veins simultaneously—sluicing gold. That’s how they roll.

The mythic biblicality of “Valley of Death” maintains that lyrical reference point—perhaps from a bit more of a drunken perspective. Over a sparse, barren arrangement, Eric spins his tale, similar instrumental elements as its predecessor charting wide-open terrain. From there we dissolve into “Oregon Geography,” which might best be described as Beck’s “Loser” strained through the film Deliverance. Banjo over drum samples and rapped poetry. From there we river through the banjo stilted drum rapids of “Neck Tatts, Cadillacs.”

An exotic string loop is accompanied by classic wah-wah guitar phrases to set an Isaac Hayes mood for “Earth (The Fever Called Love),” from which the band immediately depart at the top of the verse. From there they head into more Mellow Gold era Beck, with Eric rapping over dobro and banjo straight from old Rocky Top. The middle break heads off in a completely different direction, but only briefly. And the ending digs into that soul vibe even more deeply with squawking sax nailing it down.

“Drive On Up” changes gears, capturing some of the same spunky momentum as “God & Suicide” from Furr. But here there is more of a Black Crowes meet Joe Tex attitude punctuated by wiry Clavinet, a squirty synth riff, sassy saxes, and gritty guitar: all resembling one another in the mix. Great interplay between harp and guitar in the solo. Nicely done.

Serving as the requisite Blitzen Trapper rewrite of the Dead’s “Casey Jones” for this outing, “Heart Attack” covers poppier ground while sticking to the primarily acoustic flavor of this album. Eric vocalizes a sweet, McCartney-like falsetto in the lead role not heard elsewhere. After the oddball solo section is concluded, I could be convinced this was a latter-day Badfinger song. Though this song’s chorus is not among the band’s best.

Michael Van Pelt

Michael Van Pelt

Maybe the most interesting spin of the dozen is the smoky “Faces of You,” which harkens vocally to JJ Cale or Mark Knopfler on the first Dire Straits album. So does the snaky groove, reminiscent of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” mashed with the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” motivated by Van Pelt’s rolling bassline. A memorable chorus sticks like gum to the bottom of the mind’s shoe. On an album that at times sounds a little like a band in search of a direction, this is one definitely worth continuing to explore—maybe, in some cases, without the exuberant solo. Different for Blitzen Trapper.

Finally, with “Don’t Be a Stranger” the band goes all California hippie country in the tradition of the Byrds, the Burritos, the Eagles and the Dead, et al. Merry banjo and the chuckling slap of electric guitar vie for the aural spotlight backing Earley’s capoed acoustic guitar and Priney Dylanesque vocal presentation. High vocal harmonies in the chorus mirror not only the Dead, but fall in the tradition other country rock bands from the formative years, such as Poco, the Eagles, Pure Prairie League and Firefall.

Blitzen Trapper

Blitzen Trapper

Blitzen Trapper have evolved in an atypical way over the past six years and the three albums between Wild Mountain Nation and this one. In essence they have devolved. If we were to view this geographically, it would be as if the little rock outfit (with Americana jam band roots) moved east from their home in the Willamette Valley. About as far east as La Grande. In other words, they have devolved from an off-kilter Oregon rock band into an off-kilter Oregona band as Pickathon ready as they come.

And while some may mourn the band they left behind, there is yet still much to love about Blitzen Trapper. For one thing the sound quality of this record is impeccable and it is readily apparent that a lot of care and attention to detail went into the composition of these tracks. And for just that reason, any “label” one might be inclined to attach to the band is inapplicable.

They have one foot in the ‘60s and “Rainy Day Women” period Dylan, another on hallowed Dead ground; one in the ‘70s and the dawning of “country rock,” and yet one more in the desolate “Western” territory that is home to lonesome cowboys like Richmond Fontaine. That’s four feet—like a coyote.

Photo by Robbie Auspurger

Photo by Robbie Auspurger

Fans of the old rock rendition of Blitzen Trapper of the Oughts probably don’t have much use for this one. Though the band is no less experimental, their experiments are fewer, if no less jarringly unexpected. But the truth of the matter is that they rarely rock anymore, instead yield to the sort of contemplation one is prone to over the course of a decade of living life.

Then again, Neil Young is free to make these zigzag transitions at will, so it’s difficult to question Blitzen Trapper’s artistic decisions. What they are doing now, they are doing quite well. But there is the sense of a band treading water here, looking for a new musical destination, while exploring uncharted directions, but only tentatively—as if marking territory rather than establishing new ground.

Eric Earley has never been the most profound of poets, though he bestows a homespun discernment that lends his tales authenticity, as well as often achieving a similar windswept context as Willy Vlautin for Richmond Fontaine. Earley’s lyrics are perhaps a bit more magical or fantastical in context. And, as an instrument, his voice is no more nor less capable than all those to whom he has been compared, with a skill for expression perhaps greater than the actual words themselves.

liveThis isn’t a great album. But several songs, possibly half of them or more, are very solid. The musicianship is, as always, subtly spectacular throughout. The guests added for the project help to extend the paths of exploration, if only incrementally. They add texture and hue. And that flair for the immediacy of aural tactility and color, as much as anything, is what distinguishes Blitzen Trapper from the run of the mill.

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Quarterflash

Cover***Love is a Road
Ross Productions

I’ve told the story before, probably more than once. Quarterflash and I go way back. Way back. Back before Seafood Mama. Before Beggar’s Opera. Back before Jones Road. Back to the days of Oregon College of Education. You won’t find that school listed in any current register! It’s called Western Oregon State University now. It’s in Monmouth, which is west of Salem and north of Corvallis, on the road to somewhere else.

It was there, sophomore year I think, I saw a young woman with wire-rim glasses play acoustic guitar and sing a Joni Mitchell song on the steps outside the Student Union. I think it was “Clouds,” but it might have been “Michael From Mountains.” I remember thinking she was pretty good. Nice voice. Clearly, she stood out from the other performers that day. I don’t remember any of them.

A year or so later, either Fred or Tom or Doug dragged poor young unsuspecting Marv Ross into the madcap living fray we shared at the L-shaped house on the S-Curve. Oh the stories one could tell, and I’ll try one day if I have the time. But, for Marv’s part, his stay was fortuitously brief, maybe only three months or so. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to fully corrupt him.

Still, in that time, he and I developed a songwriter’s guild of sorts, frequently jamming together and showing off our latest masterpieces. Soon a couple of his high school musician friends started visiting. Lew Jones and Allen Whipps became my lifelong friends, both talented musicians in their own rights. We mixed and matched among us for a few gigs over the next year or so.

Jones Road circa 1974

Jones Road circa 1974

When Marv moved out, he moved in with Rindy, whom I recognized to be that young woman I had seen singing at the Student Union. Already by then, Rindy and Marv were a team. And even then, Marv was a great songwriter, though not terribly prolific. Ever the perfectionist, he was methodically meticulous about every song he wrote. When he would finally reveal a new song it would be a complete gem.

But Marv was always a little self-conscious about his singing voice. In Rindy he had the ideal complement. She sang like an angel. And in Marv she found her perfect partner—he wrote great songs for her to sing. They formed a band and got married, or vice versa, I really can’t remember the sequence, and honestly—it’s none of our business, don’t you think, people? Give it a rest!

And it wasn’t all that easy. There were a lot of other musicians involved over the years and not all of those years were spent basking in the spotlight of unmitigated success. Still, in the span of a only a decade, my transitory roommate and his talented wife were suddenly signed to Geffen Records and responsible for a Top 10, platinum (selling over a million units) album, and were everywhere to be heard and seen on the radio and that fledgling MTV thing.

Platinum selling: Quarterflash

Platinum selling: Quarterflash (1982)

They had a certifiable hit in “Harden My Heart.” That song made it all the way to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the spring of 1982 and—though coming in behind Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”—at #13 in the Top 100 for the Year 1982 “Harden My Heart” outshone such classics as Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny 867-5309,” the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat,” Journey’s “Open Arms” and a lot of other memorable classics from bands such as Fleetwood Mac, Earth Wind and Fire, The Police, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones.

Quarterflash were by no means one-hit wonders, with several follow-up chart breakers. But they conformed to a familiar band trajectory back in those days, when it came to major labels—three and out. Our own Nu Shooz suffered a similar fate at about the same time. Even with several gold records under your belt, if your band couldn’t demonstrate reliably consistent chart action, with every album, you quickly became a liability and were cut out of the herd of corporate rock livestock.

Girl in the Wind (1991)

Girl in the Wind (1991)

Back then, getting dropped by a label was pretty much the kiss of death for a top band. The other labels wouldn’t touch you. Or if they would, it was through some shoddy deal. Rather than go through that, Quarterflash disbanded around 1986 after sales for their third Geffen release failed to meet expectations. About five years later, Rindy and Marv re-formed the band to create a fourth release for Epic. But because of sudden upheaval in the label hierarchy, that album ended up only getting released in Japan and Europe.

Quarterflash went into deep hiatus in 1991. Rindy and Marv then quickly became involved with the Trail Band. Inspired by Marv’s fastidious attention to historic detail, a total of eight versatile musicians chronicle the settlement of the pioneer West and Northwest. Through the course of eleven albums, including several Christmas/Winter themed works, they present traditional and original material in an accurately antique context.

The Trail Band

The Trail Band

In 2007came the culmination of Marv’s interest in Native American culture, with the presentation of his musical The Ghosts of Celilo. The production won awards for “Best Original Song,” “Best Original Score,” and “Best Original Musical.” What’s more, the music of the Trail Band has won for them widespread recognition and numerous honors as well, and that group is truly the subject for another article entirely.

Goodbye Uncle Buzz

Goodbye Uncle Buzz

In 2008, after seventeen years in hibernation, Marv and Rindy reconvened as Quarterflash for Goodbye Uncle Buzz. Considered something of a departure, that album featured laid back performances and was more like a bridge between the Rosses two very different bands. Quartertrail. With lyrics addressing such adult themes as cancer, suicide, broken homes and the shortcomings of the music business, the album was musically subdued, focusing foremost on Rindy’s vocals, with instrumentation serving as supplementary augmentation and distinctive coloration. It was close to being a Rindy Ross solo album.

Some fans of ‘80s Quarterflash—the rockers—found difficulty in adjusting to the new, more contemplative band—despairing the glut of mature topics and the dearth of the vengeful female-empowering shitkickers ala “Harden My Heart” and “Find Another Fool.” That only goes to show: you can’t please all the people all of the time.

Rock of Ages (What could go wrong?)

Rock of Ages (What could go wrong?)

While “Harden My Heart” occasionally appeared on ‘80s Hits compilations and the like, the Quarterflash brand received a boost when the song was included in the highly hyped and much maligned 2012 feature film Rock of Ages. Country singer/actress Julianne Hough and soul singer Mary J. Blige delivered a surprisingly straight reading of the song before the weird-assed, over-emoted breakdown in the second half. But it won for the band renewed recognition all the same.

And, most likely, no matter what Rindy and Marv do as Quarterflash, they always will be measured against their big hit. It could be worse, mind you. They could have no hit by which to be measured. There could be no one interested in making the measurement. They could be like most bands, playing in a vacuum with no expectations to fulfill.

Quarterflash 2013

Quarterflash 2013 (Photo Keith Buckley)

So with all that artistic baggage the band totes coming into this new album, the faithful fan might rightfully be unsure what to anticipate. The short answer is that all camps should find great satisfaction in what Quarterflash have created. For it is an unqualified success on all levels.

Lyrically, Love is a Road is a less personal narrative than Uncle Buzz—though still reflective of interpersonal relationships, meditations on life, and bitingly topical, socially astute insights. Marv Ross is nothing if not introspective. What’s really different is that, unlike its predecessor, this album rocks.

Sure, it’s got a scattering of the requisite tender Quarterflash ballads. But the heavy folk and Americana flavors are gone for this outing, replaced with straight-ahead acoustic and electric guitars. Big, brilliant, thick, tasty layers of them. Here several songs exhibit a new, funky, bluesy edge that’s only just hinted at on Buzz. And the album sounds fantastic! Certainly in a league with other big name acts such as Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty or Pat Benatar. Totally pro.

The first song of the set, “I Can’t Help Myself,” features Rindy smartly rapping the stacatto verses, which seem almost at the opposite end of the telescope from the lyrical message Marv was imparting with “This Business of Music” on Buzz. More upbeat and resolutely circumspect: “Yeah, we’ve been blessed and we’ve been conned/Had success and yes, we’ve bombed/And the only thing that keeps me hanging on/Is letting go, letting go.”

The familiar, triumphal chant of the memorable chorus reinforces a stadium-sized hook. Condense Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n Roll” with Teena Marie’s “Lovergirl” and you’re part of the way there. Get your lighters out. The album is off to a bright start!

L-R Front: Bixby, M. Ross, Fraser; Back: Williams, R. Ross, Kubik

L-R Front: Bixby, M. Ross, Fraser; Back: Williams, R. Ross, Kubik (Photo Keith Buckley)

Over Denny Bixby’s funky bass-line, Gregg Williams’ slamming beat, Marv’s jagged, Lennon-like electric guitar foundation, and sighing breeze background vox, Rindy again hopscotches a quick-paced lyric with “All Diamonds.” An anthemic feel drives the chorus, with faint antecedents, perhaps, in Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” though more philosophical and less confrontational.

“We are—one flame. We are—one arc/We are—all embers from the same spark/We are—all god. We are—one soul/We are—all diamonds from the same coal.” A short solo breakdown between Marv and lead guitarist Doug Fraser is certainly worthy of Zep in their prime. A pretty spectacular sixteen bars!

“I Want You Back” is the sure-fire hit of the nine songs offered. If the song got any more radio-friendly it would have to start its own station. If it got any more infectious it would require quarantine. Buh-boom. It lives up to any sort of hype. Over a wobbly guitar finger cluster intro, Williams’ Mick Fleetwood-like tom-fill accents hit like punches to the gut. Rindy enters the song with a big, strong voice, nearly unrecognizable in its lower register. She has never sounded so good.

Abbey Road Melotron

Abbey Road Melotron

What sounds like a melotron enters at the second verse, to wonderful affect. When asked how Quarterflash acquired a melotron Marv replied “The melotron is the one still sitting in Abbey Road Studio. As bizarre as it sounds Abbey Road sampled all the sounds on that melotron and you can purchase the right to use it over the internet. I was actually listening to ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ to dial in the sound we wanted ” That inimitable sound is easily identifiable the instant it is heard.

An unforgettable chorus moves the song into the major leagues. Fleetwood Mac-ish. Rindy sounds like Stevie Nicks (when she still had a voice)—a low, woody, windy cry. Terrific hook! You’ll be singing along by the second time through.

The melotron doubles Doug Fraser’s scorching lead guitar in the middle, calling to mind the textures of the Moody Blues. And the minute-long magical finale is so Revolver/Pepper Beatle-esque, one pictures the band dressed in silk marching band uniforms as they played it. Rindy even quotes the sax line to “Harden My Heart” as the circus unwinds ala the Beatles in “All You Need is Love.” (Most likely an edit of) this track is sure to make serious noise on some or all of the many variants of the Adult Contemporary charts.

Quarterflash (2013)

Quarterflash 2013 (Photo Keith Buckley)

In many ways this new song is the perfect bookend to “Harden My Heart.” But where the theme of the original was confrontational in nature, this new effort is conciliatory. Mature. And while parts of the arrangement have elements in common with Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” this cut is far better than anything Mac has done since then. Probably the best Quarterflash song ever.

Trail Band violinist Eddie Parente guests with ornate filigrees on the title track, a lovely ballad whose melody evokes the verses of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” Here Rindy sounds like the woman who sang “Harden my Heart,” though all grown up perhaps. Her Joni Mitchell yodel trill nicely oiled, she controls the song the way Linda Ronstadt would have at her zenith. Again the final minute fade is an intriguing Eastern-tinged instrumental interlude—adding depth to the presentation.

Marv’s vocal on the clever “More” captures the rhythmic enthusiasm of Dylan (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”), or Elvis Costello (“Watching the Detectives”) or Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Keidis (“Give It Away”), spittin lyrics with the best of them. “I caught the saints hiding in the steeple/Trying to squeeze a camel thru a needle/I said, ‘Won’t your miracles get you into heaven’?/They said, ‘No, we only got ten. We need eleven/More…’”

Marv Ross

Marv Ross (Photo Holly Johnson)

His gritty voice and Neil Youngy squawk guitar are met with the soul-drenched smoothness of background vocals from Rindy and second sax player Mel Kubik—who also plays the “Chopsticks” piano part here. Fraser absolutely burns Brian May through a quick solo. Kickin’!

Marv rocks an abrasive “Cold Turkey” riff over Williams’ solid, loping beat for the bluesy “Say What You Want About Love.” Rindy puts the hurt on the sassy verses sounding nearly unidentifiable as her former self, while she and Kubik duet on a buoyant chorus that would make Bonnie Raitt proud. The pair play clipped Phenix Horn-type punches in the break, before Fraser launches into another big, beefy solo.

Denny Bixby (Photo Tom Downer)

Denny Bixby (Photo Tom Downer)

Bassist and background vocalist Denny Bixby is afforded the opportunity to dispense the most mordant lyric of the set, with “Adios (The Funeral Song).” With the band sounding precisely like Steely Dan, circa Katy Lied—not an easy feat, as any major dude will tell you—Denny’s droll vocal emulates Donald Fagen at his most acerbic. A breezy, smooth jazz arrangement belies a biting sentiment. “You would have laughed at things they said/It seems you’re much more loveable/Now that you are dead/And if you were here you’d be half-plastered/Show up late and play the bastard/Leaving me to clean up after.” Adios, indeed.

It does not relent from there, though the band skates through the changes like bad sneakers and a pina colada, my friend. Over Marv’s curious glottal-toned Leslie-effected guitar, Fraser fires further Les Paul flame, reviving the memory of Skunk Baxter’s finest licks. I dare anyone to identify this music as Quarterflash’s without being prompted. The makeover is complete!

Marv and Rindy Ross

Marv and Rindy Ross

The forlorn ballad “Little Miracles (The Songs Rained Down)” is perhaps the most personal of the lot in context, a desolate gray narrative. “Though dad played down the end of our world/The truth cut like a knife/So, I went to my room to write that tune/And stayed there all my life.” In the mid section, a Band on the Run feel breakdown, with Rindy providing the gorgeous nightengale sax, heads off into miracle angel land.

Vocally, Rindy is the grown up version of the young woman I heard singing the Joni Mitchell song on the Student Union steps forty some years ago. She sounds like Joni Mitchell here as well, maturing in similar ways—a rich, burnished quality to her voice. Marv’s melody is deftly sculpted to the contours of that voice, each enhancing the other with expert facility.

“Rock On Little Brother” has a Lennon sense akin to “Power to the People,” with a similar intent to rouse and inspire. The clumpy thump of Williams’ kick and the clappy snap of his snare are as reassuring as Ringo’s, propelling the rhythm out to Norman Greenbaum sprint of biblical proportions. Buzzy slide guitar and gospel gang vocals add to the sparkling ambience.

Picasso After Velazquez

Picasso After Velazquez

As the years have passed, I’ve come to think of Marv Ross as similar in many ways to director Ron Howard. There are the obvious clean-cut qualities they share, of course. But both are very assiduous in the way they approach their crafts. Both are students of their art forms—producing consistently solid work. Both display the utmost respect for the traditions and influences that have helped to shape their work.

Musical allusions are lovingly employed on Love is a Road. The accoutrements of many songs imply music from a former time, in order to create a setting. Not in a nostalgic way, not in the least. It is more as if Marv Ross and co-producer Gregg Williams are attempting to recreate environment and atmosphere, giving deeper enhancement to the production. These ornaments are used as many musicians now use samples. However the riffs here are original. They merely bear some sonic similarity to the “source material.” Marv and Gregg use those colors and textures to engineer mood or milieu—nuances tailored specifically for the material.

Quarterflash Arrived 2013

Quarterflash Arrived 2013 (Photo Keith Buckley)

The songs here touch a lot of bases, both stylistically as well as thematically. All of them are the work of a highly evolved band. There is nothing re-tread or rehashed here. This is all new ground for Quarterflash. And it’s great! Without reservation, it can be said that this is their best and most satisfying album of all time. It touches all the bases—witty and wise songs, all cast in uniquely diverse settings, performed by absolute professional musicians. Voila.

A band doesn’t get there overnight, most bands never get there at all, but most assuredly Quarterflash have gotten there—they have at long last arrived!

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