Crown Point

Crown Point Curtains Album Cover

Curtains EP
CD Baby Records

After three years together, Crown Point are the perfect example of how a band evolves. When singer-songwriters Jon Davidson and Russell Stafford first aligned at the beginning of 2010, both came to the project with industry pedigrees. Stafford was actually signed to Sony Australia before he moved to the US. Davidson and Stafford put their band together slowly, methodically, with intention. They released a six-song EP, Wolves, a couple of years back.

That record met with modest acclaim. The single “Back to You” received airplay on over one hundred radio stations across the continent, a tally which may or may not have the cache it once had, as—with the advent of the internet—there’s three “radio stations” on every block. Still, the song was well-enough liked to be played over the airwaves and that is Mission One for most bands. Mission accomplished.

Not long after the release of Wolves, the team added drummer Kaycee Kay to the line-up and hit the road in support of the record. As is evidenced on any piece of promotional material you might find about Crown Point, they’ve logged over 70,000 miles touring the nation over the past three years, relentlessly plying their material in front of the public. These guys are pros and they know what it takes to succeed.

If one were to base his impressions of the band upon the six songs found on that EP, he might reasonably conclude that the Pointers might be a Christian rock band—not that there is anything wrong with that, necessarily. But it is a genre unto itself, with its own musical touchpoints and historical references, perhaps unknown to the everyday secular world. Many of the songs on the EP suffer from breathy, moany, gushy vocals familiar in the context of one attempting to express his relationship with God as a sexual encounter—the ulterior, high-octane, Christian double-entendre lyric meter running way in the red. Or not. But that’s what the lyrics sounded like.

Combine that with a safe, proficient ‘90s artistic sensibility, akin in places to Extreme circa the “More Than Words” period, or Bon Jovi around the reformation of the band early in that decade. Put that all together and what have you got? I’ll let you tell me. I’m no expert.

Russell Stafford and Jon Davidson (Photo by Mike Lyons)
Russell Stafford and Jon Davidson (Photo: Mike Lyons)

And if all of that was what we had here, why… we wouldn’t have it here! But I heard this new album first. And two years and 70,000 miles removed from Wolves, Crown Point are an altogether different band with an altogether different sound and presentation. Viva la difference.

It is not clear when, exactly, but at some point in the intervening two years the trio became a quartet—adding bassist Peter Arvidson. That served to solidify the rhythm section. And it also to freed guitarist Russell Stafford (with support from lead vocalist Jon Davidson) to broaden his sonic palette, adding richer colorations to the seven new songs found here, as well as embroidering finer, more ornate detail into the fabric of the mix.

Produced by the band at Black Diamond Recording in East Portland, this record bears a glistening sheen: radio-friendly, right out of the box. “Curtains Drawn” begins with the comets of Stafford’s soaring guitar lighting the path forward. Reminiscent of U2’s Edge or (now former) Editors’ guitarist Chris Urbanowicz, but most of all of Jorge Barcala from an unfortunately widely-ignored Miami band from the early ‘90s called Nuclear Valdez, Stafford bestows a veil of incendiary cosmic urgency to the introduction.

Jon Davidson (Photo by Mike Lyons)
Jon Davidson (Photo: Mike Lyons)

Davidson does not over-emote vocally but, instead, allows the song to develop its own intensity. His phrasing is vaguely reminiscent of Bono: operatic rock tenor—displaying a deft falsetto and wonderful vocal control. This is especially valuable while pronouncing lines such as: “Wait and see, wait and see, morning banishes the night/Wait and see, wait and see, morning bares the recondite.” Find me another song with the word “recondite” in it. I dare you.

The song culminates in a lovely, haunting chorus. Imagine A-Ha’s Morten Harket singing the chorus of Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Go ahead. I’ll wait here. That might take a while to conjur. Well, this chorus sounds nothing like that, but at least it will put you in the proper mood and give you the necessary perspective to understand where this song goes, entirely in a 21st century context, mind you. Nicely turned.

A reverentially ecclesiastical number, “The Room” begins quietly with organ-like tones resonating solemnly to set the mood. The vocalist (possibly Stafford) aches and ponders vocally, accompanying himself with chiming rhythm guitar, before the military march of Kay’s snare propels the procession forward. Vocally, the noble perfect 5th interval is utilized as a means of passionate melodic expression. And while it connotes a sense of strength, it is nearly a cliché among the more operatic singers in rock world today for its heroic overstatement. There are certainly more evocative choices in the realm of note selection. That one’s been wrung dry.

Russell Stafford (Photo by Mike Lyons)
Russell Stafford (Photo: Mike Lyons)

The band maintains a sense of restraint throughout the second verse and through a well-built bridge. The chorus is pretty and pretty memorable. Stafford’s guitar work especially does much to fill in the sonic spaces of the arrangement with deftly placed filigrees. Stafford also plays a fundamental roll in “Afterbirth,” a song that has much in common with the first track. Another triumphal guitar intro, and dazzling fills and interjections, bring the song to full fruition, as Davidson sings, “Here in the afterbirth I long to know/What has become of tainted embryo/What in the name of freedom supervenes/Sanctioning predilection for the obscene.” Holy shit! You better hope this recording comes with dictionary included.

So obviously it can be a tough slog through the words to these songs. Not unpleasant. But a challenge. I have a pretty good vocabulary and I know what those words mean, but I have no idea what Davidson is attempting to convey. I’m thinking he’s saying: “Here in this mess I wonder what happened to the dream—what caused fucked-up shit to be accepted as okay?” That’s my guess, but who’s to say? And while all this deliberation is going on, Stafford is nailing down every loose end with riveting guitar lines. He makes the song special.

With “Head First” the creeping sense becomes apparent that a theme of birth is being explored (or at least alluded to) in the lyrical presentation of these first four songs. The libretto often being so dense (though penned by both Davidson and Stafford) it is sometimes difficult to understand what the hell the band is trying to say. They are earnest, certainly intelligent; but sometimes unintelligible too. “Triple point, we will melt to freeze again/Misannoint a scapegoat for our sin/Where’s the judge? I’ve forgotten my crimes/You begrudge, and again I’m doing time.”

Crown point 1
Crown Point

Crown Point must run with a pretty esoterically erudite crowd, because, if that verse is in regard to an interpersonal relationship, it is way too circumspect to accomplish much. And if in regard to faith or a deity, the analogies and parable-like indirectness would seem only to serve the spiritual conundrum most people would hope to have resolved. Either that or this is a new form of Zen Christianity, where the question is the answer and one dare not ask wither. In other words, these guys really need to get to the “point.”

If we take “Head First” as a sonic collage, with the vocal serving as an instrument and not as a conveyor of words specific to the intent or meaning of the song, we are offered a languorous presentation— Stafford’s vergeless, cloud-like guitar hovers above a box of rocks drum loop, while Davidson croons in a whisper the sound of words as vapor. A vigorous chorus jumps to the fore, followed by a simmering solo from Stafford.

The intro to “Set Fire” sounds like something from Interpol’s Our Love to Admire, Stafford’s ringing guitar attack, reminiscent of the work of Daniel Kessler. The chorus breaks into one of those anthemic chants where one expects a crowd rife with arms aloft, lighters waving wildly in up-thrusted hands. A good choice for a single for just that reason (although it would appear that “The Room” bears that distinction). Here the lyric seems to reference touring: “We’re gonna pack our bags and hit the interstate,” but by the final verse, you’re lost again. However, the simple chorus saves the song from becoming too pedantic, which is a step in the right direction.

Reaching back to their roots, Davidson and Stafford perform as a duo through the verses of “Better Run For Cover,” just two voices and two guitars, without bass or drum accompaniment. Their vocal harmonies recall the Rembrandts, whom are probably best remembered for giving to the world the Friends theme (“I’ll Be There For You”) and “Just the Way It Is, Baby” in the ‘90s. Here, the undertone is more indistinctly apocalyptic, intimating imminent disaster of some sort: a hip, pop prophecy of pending doom.

“Record On the Radio” is another laidback affair. Pretty much just the two voices and a couple of guitars. Stafford sings without a lot of pretense and facade, which confers upon the uncomplicated song an authenticity the other songs seem to lack. There is also an abbreviated “radio edit” version of “The Room” included in the package I received—but I prefer the extended version, where the mood is allowed to grow organically.

Crown Point
Crown Point

Crown Point present a musical and philosophical puzzle. Let’s see if we can piece it together. First of all, I think they are a very good band. They write and produce excellent music. But it’s a victory of style over substance. The band sounds great! Everything is in its proper place and is executed with great precision. The arrangements are solid and well plotted.

But there is also a seeming lack of sincerity, or emotional honesty perhaps— in what seems an attempt to mislead an unsuspecting public as to the band’s veiled righteousness. It seems as if Crown Point are unwilling to commit to their real beliefs. And that’s not being fair to their music, their faith nor to an audience that might benefit from the insight they have to impart. There is a veneer to the presentation that is artificial. It’s not true. If the lyrics are written to make a point, the point is completely ambiguous and vague. They seem romantic, but they aren’t. They seem to speak to romantic relationships, but they don’t. Not really.

I don’t want to get into a big philosophical debate over the subject. Not here. Music is too precious. And there is a place for every kind. Music we love, music we don’t care about, music we hate. There’s room for all of it. But it is important that the musicians purveying it believe whatever they are playing and saying, whether it is deathmetal, polkas or lounge music. Music expresses an unique energy to the listener. But if the presentation is artifice or somehow duplicitous, there is a danger of losing the entirety of one’s audience, unless they are all in on the joke.

Check out Dan Reed’s new single called “Only Love.”

In many respects, Crown Point’s music is similar to that of Dan Reed. The intent is inspirational. But Dan is at peace with himself as a musician and a human being. His songs are always very spiritual in a very direct way. They are not religious. His lyrics refer to love, among other genuine human conditions. He isn’t trying to hide his feelings or to portray them as anything they are not. His admirers love him for that directness.

Crown Point Live (Photo: Mike Lyons)
Crown Point Live (Photo: Mike Lyons)

It may be true that their disciples love them and understand precisely what the band is saying. If that is the case, then Crown Point has a crucial choice to make. Either they can continue to proceed down their current path, surely acquiring a body of loyal fans as they go, fans in tune with the implied significance of the material—or, as appears they desire, the band can take the risk and attempt to appeal to a wider base. As it is here, we have a really good band that can’t seem to fully articulate the message they wish to reveal. They are simply talking in riddles and rebuses—a reverberant glossolalia.

Various Artists

Rise and Shine
Burgerville Records

Over the years I’ve reviewed dozens of various artist compilations comprised of the works of local artists. KGON produced a couple of collections in the early ‘80s. I reviewed Volume 2, the Homegrown album back in 1982. KKRZ, Z100 gave us in Pride of Portland in 1986. Since then, there have been other radio station related promotions, such as Church of the Northwest in ‘96. There have been theme-oriented productions, such as Used to Be—Blues From the Pacific Delta, surf albums: a couple of volumes of Hot Rods to Hell and PDX a Go-Go, which I reviewed a month or two ago.

Live at the Laurelthirst 2

There was Rose City Blues Festival – The Album from 1987, the inaugural year of the fest. That record stands out as one of the best local live albums of the ‘80s. Actually, we’ve seen tons of blues compilations: All My Friends Can Sing from 1997, A Taste of the Blue Rose from 1998, and Portland Genuine Blues from 2003. Venues have always been a source for live (or otherwise) anthologies. Satyricon sponsored a studio venture, but in addition there was Dean Fletcher’s incredible series of Live at the X-Ray cassettes in the early ‘90s. Later there were others, such as a couple of Live at the Laurelthirst editions in 1994 and ‘98. There was Live From Mt. Tabor in ’95.

Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel 2001

Local labels have regularly released compilations. Mike Jones’ Schizophonic label was one of the first in 1990, gathering eleven high profile bands and a poet for the initial I-5 Killers series, which ended up numbering three that I know of. Cravedog Records released at least a couple volumes of Can’t Stand the Smell. There were non-sequitur packages, such as From Portland with Love in 1998 and Ramen Holiday in 1999. There was a various artist concept album, Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, conceived in 2001 by the ubiquitous Chris Slusarenko.

25 Years on the Edge 1994

Then there are the circumstances wherein bands contribute their creations for a greater cause, such as the Rose City Project supporting the Rose City Music Foundation, which provides musical instruments to school music programs across the city, and 25 Years On The Edge-A Benefit For Outside-In from 1994. But—of all the myriad various artist compendia ever to have been released in this region—none can touch this one. Not even close.

Dandy Warhols

For one thing, it’s a two-disc set with forty local bands (!)—each kicking in a song to the package. And what a varied array! There are a ton of top tier acts here: Dandy Warhols, Blind Pilot, Blitzen Trapper, Pink Martini, Black Prairie and Y La Bamba, Typhoon, Ramona Falls and Lost Lander. Elliott Smith makes an appearance via a submission from David McConnell of Goldenboy.

Floater

There’s a solid line-up of local performers, such as Radiation City, Loch Lomond, Minus 5, Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside, Horse Feathers, Weinland, AgesandAges, Dolorean, Floater, Casey Neill and the Norway Rats, and many other exciting veterans and newcomers, each donating one of their best tracks to this noble cause. Heck, police chief Mike Reese’s band the Usual Suspects toss in a tune. That’s dedication!

How did the constabulary get into the picture, you ask? Well, because this effort is in support of the Sunshine Division, which is overseen by the Portland Police Bureau. The Sunshine Division has been in operation since 1922, distributing emergency clothing and food supplies to people in need throughout our community. During these trying times, their resources are being severely challenged. So, obviously, they need all the help they can get, especially as we move toward the darker, starker months.

That’s where Burgerville restaurants became involved. Though short, Burgerville’s illustrious career as a record label (and sole retail vendor) has been almost as successful as their Pepper Bacon Cheeseburgers. Their inaugural musical venture, last year’s Shakers’ Sessions, benefitted the Brian Grant Foundation—a resource for victims of Parkinson’s Disease.

A Check for the Brian Grant Foundation

Burgerville ended up contributing $54,000 to The Brian Grant Foundation after selling all copies of Shakers’ Sessions. They’re displaying this compilation for a limited time—as long as supplies last—and, at only $12 per set, they probably won’t last long. Profits from all sales go to the Sunshine Division.

As mentioned in the Shakers’ review, Burgerville is a locally owned venture, founded in Vancouver in 1961. They have committed themselves to going green whenever possible, sustained one hundred percent by wind power. They compost their food waste and conscientiously recycle. They make every effort to use fresh, local produce, natural beef and cage-free eggs. Burgerville even provides health care for their employees—unusual in the fast-food industry. And they help to fund this and many other worthy projects through the course of the year.

Befitting the title and theme of this album, one of the discs is referred to as “Rise,” while the other is “Shine.” Perhaps by design, most of the “big names” make their appearances on the “Shine” portion, while more of the up-and-comers open the show on “Rise.” Taken literally, the names of the discs would vaguely indicate those consignments. Although, this is not to say that the first disc is in any way inferior or less professional compared to the more star-studded latter. There is a lot to recommend the “Rise record.

Casey Neill and the Norway Rats

It falls to Sara Jackson-Holman to lead off. She provides “For Albert,” from her new album Cardiology, which was reviewed last month in these pages. It turns out to be a smooth, cool disco number after an unwinding of Beethoven’s Für Elise. She is followed by McDougal, a solo performer of some gusto. He belts out “Ready, Begin” with a Woody Gutherie flair, while living up to comparisons with Tom Waits and the Avett Brothers. Casey Neill & the Norway Rats give us “All Summer Glory” from 2010. The Rats are an all-star cast including Jenny Conlee (Decemberists), Little Sue, Chet Lyster (Jessica Williams, Eels) and Ezra Holbrook. Neill’s gritty drawl is Stipe-ian in context in the verses, turning supple in the anthemic chorus, buffeted by buoyant vocal harmonies.

Parson Redheads

Star Anna Bamford turns in a faithful acoustic version of the Stones’ “Sister Morphine,” replete with detached, somnambulant vocal. Speaking of REM, the Parson Red Heads traveled to North Carolina to work with Chris Stamey (db’s, and has worked with everybody) and Mitch Easter (Let’s Active, “Drive In Studio”) on songs, that were released on their new album, Yearling, last year. Easter engineered several early REM albums and the smooth vocal texture of Redheads Evan and Brette Marie Way on “Burning Up the Sky” exhibits a similar attention to sonic detail. The Redheads gained some local acclaim earlier this year, appearing on an episode of Portlandia, where they participated in the musical skit “Dream of the 1890s.”

New York Rifles

Allalujah Choir’s “I Swear I Saw You” brightens from the input of Weinland’s Adam Shearer, the song’s vocal arrangement sounding all feathery Crosby, Stills and Nash-like. As for Weinland, they submit a sadly sweet “Los Processaur,” the folk swept title track from their new album, due out at the end of the month. Similarly the glam-punk New York Rifles (propitiously named by Courtney Taylor) add “Girl Shaped Girl,” which is the title track of their new album. Vocalist Scott Young channels Patti Smith imitating the Divinyls’ Christina Amphlett while fronting the Dandy Warhols doing the Buzzcocks. An interesting little ditty to be sure.

AgesandAges

From Alright, You Restless, their album of a couple of years ago, we are bequeathed “So, So Freely” from AgesandAges. Breathless momentum (sounds like the intro to “Get Back”) propels campfire harmonies. A comparable energy drives “Anthem” from Water Tower. Water Tower are preparing to move to California for a year, in order to build their fan base down south. They sound sort of like the Pogues with teeth, here recorded very live. Kenny Feinstein’s intense and muted acoustic guitar and energetic vocal (reminiscent of Gordon Gano from Violent Femmes) resonates over Josh Rabie’s  mournful fiddle and Gordon Keepers’ festooning upright bass. And then the hardcore barndance gets down to serious business.

The Usual Suspects

Police Chief Reese’s Usual Suspects produce about what you might expect from hobbyists, although they don’t embarrass themselves on “Tell Me Why”—out in basic country-rock land, circa 1976, give or take. With “Teenage Gravity,” Kasey Anderson and the Honkies map out a grittier form of country a little reminiscent of Jerry Joseph and Jackmormons or Tom McGriff and X-Angels turf. John Prine, John Hiatt would be more familiar touchpoints. Ty Bailie’s intricately simple keyboards add a touch of subtle sublimity in support.

The Dimes at Burgerville

Scoring a Ford Explorer commercial that aired on New Year’s 2011 football games, Derby cemented their fame in the annals of local lore: no longer reserved for Pink Martini and the Dandy Warhols. Here, “Common Sense” displays an obvious knack for a pop hook without overt imitation. The Dimes’ “Take Me Away,” is the perfect prelude to Typhoon’s “Summer Home” with Dimer Johnny Clay demonstrating a similar knack for antique hauntage as Kyle Morton—in Clay’s case without the orchestration Morton receives with Typhoon. Y La Bamba’s “Ponce Pilato” from last winter’s Court the Storm nicely captures the graceful and refined windlorn vocal interplay between the incomparable Luz Mendoza and guitarist Paul Cameron.

Dead Rock West

Brothers Andrew and David Voigt, as the electronic dance band 1491, create an atmosphere somewhat akin to that of a distant disco cousin of Lost Lander. The song, “Night and Day” comes from their February EP release, Everyone Knows But You. It’s an ‘80s sound they propound. You can hear touches of Depeche Mode along with a dash of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Cindy Wasserman and Frank Lee Drennan of Dead Rock West come to the party with quite a pedigree. Their hymn “God Help Me,” (written by William Reid of Jesus and Mary Chain) from the recently released album Bright Morning Stars, produced by Peter Case (Plimsouls), combines jagged guitar and rumbling drums to create a feel reminiscent of X (Exene Cervenka and John Doe actually make guest appearances on the album)—not surprisingly, as JD Bonebrake mans the drummer’s chair throughout Bright Morning Stars.

Richmond Fontaine

Staking out the Russian/Eastern European klezmer gypsy territory to be found here, Chervona remind of Gorgol Bordello, with perhaps a dusting of 17 Hippies. Leader Andre Temkin came to Portland in 1995 lured by the sirens of the Portland scene, and has been striving for recognition ever since. Here we are given a strange Russian dixieland band with accordion and gritty, guttural vocals. Every city needs a band like this and these guys are ours. Richmond Fontaine cap the first set with “You Can Move Back Here” from their 2009 release We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River. Singer songwriter Willy Vlautin is a local treasure, his reputation secure. Here he conjures gray skies, sage and sand—fleshing out with practiced precision the taupe tones of his artistic vision.

Blind Pilot

Appropriately enough, disc “Shine” commences with the frivolous drolleries of the Dandy Warhols— dispensing the T-Rexy “Sad Vacation” from their recent album release, This Machine. The Americanapunkjugroots band Sassparilla counter with the homey, Wilco-infused “Threadbare,” from their new album called Magpie (produced by Chet Lyster). The father/son team of harpoonist Ross and washboardist Colin MacDonald serve as flavor agents for the soup of Kevin Blackwell’s various musical excursions. Blind Pilot tosses in the delightful “Half Moon,” from last year’s We Are the Tide. Cello and mandolin moan and flit beneath Israel Nebeker’s haltingly haunting vocals.

Priory

Textures come to the fore with Priory’s “Put ‘Em Up” from their upcoming 2013 release on Expunged Records (label to Blind Pilot and Sara Jackson-Holman). This talented young band, with the energy of Arcade Fire, the lyrical acuity of XTC and the artistic sensibility of Wolf Parade present a sunny ditty prefaced with African highlife guitar highlights and jangly, dappled piano in the intro and verses, before sliding into a strong, jaunty chorus, with slippery synth drips and a childtren’s chorus la-la-la-ing. “Boys will be boys/who like boys who dress like girls/and that’s all right. We’re hanging with the boys who look like girls tonight.” Well, hell ya!

Black Prairie

Elliott Smith’s aforementioned turn with Goldenboy on the original tune, “Summertime” is absolutely poignant, to say the least. Blitzen Trapper give us the protypical “You Might Find It Cheap” from last year’s American Goldwing. Black Prairie are the aptly named Americana string-band off-shoot of three members of the Decemeberists: guitarist Chris Funk, bassist Nate Query and accordionist Jenny Conlee. Together, along with guitarist Jon Neufeld of Delorean (and Jackstraw) and violinist Annalisa Tornfelt (Bearfoot, the Woowines) the band offer “Do You Believe,” a piece they composed for Eric Coble’s children’s play, “Storm in the Barn.” Tornfelt’s winsome vocal captures the lone, dry desolation of the Kansas town the band are emulating.

John Moen

Fellow Decemberist, drummer John Moen (with quite the pedigree of his own: Dharma Bums, the Maroons, Jicks, Minus 5) has a solo project, Perhapst, which allows him to explore his own musical ideas. His “Incense Cone” comes from his self-titled album from 2008 and sounds sort of like a home recording of the Dandy Warhol’s circa 1996, with buzzy low-budget keyboards and pedestrian guitars and John’s laidback gauzy vocal. But it’s certainly catchy, all the same.

Delorean

Digging deep into the historical Portland musical archives, Delorean found “I Wanna Live” from the 1972 Elektra album, Portland, by Gary Ogan and Bill Lamb. It’s a mellow, vocal-centered affair, reminiscent of a lot that was coming out in the early ’70s ala Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young). “Wondering” is a track from Floater’s 8th album, 2010’s Wake, and substantially jauntier than their customary fare. Vocalist Rob Wynia sounds like Danny Elfman fronting Oingo Boingo (without the horns). Those who think they have Floater figured out and pigeon-holed owe it to themselves check out this new, leaner, poppier version of the band. Nice Brian May-ish guitar solo in the middle from Dave Amador.

Radiation City (Mike Harper photo)

Voted this year as Willamette Week’s “Best New Band,” Radiation City demonstrate many of their strengths with “Hide From the Night” from Cool Nightmare, an EP released earlier this year. Vocally alternating between ‘60s girl group (think the Murmaids and “Popsicles, Icicles”) featuring keyboardist Lizzy Ellison in that role, while guitarist Cameron Spies’ baritone sounds as though it could be Ian Curtis or Julian Cope singing. Then the solos between Ellison’s keys and Spies’ guitar call to mind Raymond Scott jamming with a bunch of ‘80s German electronic guys—like a Bugs Bunny/Kraftwerk cartoon.

Holcombe Waller

Whoever assembled this package knew what they were doing, for it is not carelessly that the honey-tenored Holcombe Waller, accompanied by Fender Rhodes, violin and cello (backup band—the Healers), precedes Loch Lomond. Waller’s beautiful “Hardliners,” from last year’s Into the Dark Unknown captures much of the timbre and tenor of Ritchie Young’s approach on “Kicking with Your Feet,” an exciting new cut released earlier this year—and only available (until now)—in Europe.

Brent Knopf

Furthermore, as an echo of the Perhapst track, some version of Scott McCaughey’s Minus 5 perform the lovely “Magnavox Lane,” the origin of which I have yet to determine. And Brent Knopf (a former member of Menomena with whom Holcombe Walker will tour this fall) produced Lost Lander’s beautiful “Afraid of Summer.” Brent Knopf’s band, Ramona Falls, come through with “Spore,” another gorgeously uplifting song, as it would seem Knopf is only capable of creating. With a sentiment similar to Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago,” Knopf sings “Take off the veil/Let yourself be found/I bet you’re scared/People on the prowl/Ready or not, here I come/And I refuse to believe that it’s hopeless/I set my course straight for the abyss.” For this project, that’s a mission statement. This is the theme song. Worth the price of admission.

Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside

Between Lost Lander and Ramona Falls, we are treated to Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, who come from a completely different musical direction. Sallie hails from the Bessie/Ella vocal tradition, with a helping of Gwen Stefani thrown in for heat and spice. “Not an Animal” comes from their 2010 EP of the same name. Ford joins Black Prairie to perform “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man With the Bag” for the upcoming Starbucks Christmas compilation.

Say Hi: Eric Elbogen

Formerly called Say Hi to Your Mom, Eric Elbogen’s Say Hi are predominantly a solo recording act, where Eric performs all instruments and vocals. The soulful “Devils” (featured in the film Scream 4) from Elbogen’s 2011 album Um, Uh Oh has a distinct ‘70s sheen, calling to mind David Essex’s “Rock On” and Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire.” Very cool—one of the many nice surprises to be found on this spectacular collection.

Horse Feathers
Horse Feathers

Pink Martini toss in “Aspettami” from 2004’s Hang on Little Tomato. And Horse Feathers end the disc with “Fit Against the Country,” a delightful pastiche taken from their April release Cynic’s New Year. Justin Ringle’s whispery tenor is countered by stark strings: Lauren Vidal’s cello and Angie Kuzma’s violin, and Justin Dybvig’s drums. Rustic chamber music with a lost soul heading the wagon train. What could go wrong?

So, you get forty songs from forty bands, more than two hours of music, for only twelve dollars, exclusively from Burgerville. I think that is the strangest sentence I have ever written, but it’s the facts, so what can I do? As far as local talent goes, this is only the tip of the iceberg. But if any of you out there want to demonstrate to the uninitiated just what incredible musical talent we have in this city, we have the consummate package for you here—the perfect Christmas gift. And the profits go to a worthy cause. Why, it’s tax deductable! And better than that Rise and Shine is two great discs of music—and it’s all locally grown.

 

The Corin Tucker Band

Kill My Blues
Kill Rock Stars

It’s been six years since Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus. For many music lovers, myself included, June 27, 2006 will forever remain a day of black sadness. Oh, it had been in the air for quite a while. It wasn’t exactly a surprise. But still.

Early Sleater-Kinney

Within the preceding twelve years, Sleater-Kinney had released seven albums, several of them transformative classics. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker founded the band in late 1993. In 1994, on a trip to Australia in celebration of Tucker’s graduating from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Brownstein and Tucker, along with a local Australian drummer, Lora (Laura) Macfarlane, recorded what was to be Sleater-Kinney’s eponymously entitled first album.

Heavens to Betsy

But even before Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein and Tucker had acquired notoriety around Olympia and beyond—Carrie as the chief singer and guitarist in a band called Excuse 17. Tucker acted as lead vocalist and guitarist with her fledgling group Heavens to Betsy and was one of the harbingers of the rowdy “riot grrrl” movement that thrived in Olympia the early ‘90s. Even at that early date Corin’s abilities as songwriter and lead banshee vocalist were already acquiring for her a bit of a reputation in these here parts.

So, then Carrie and Corin formed Sleater-Kinney, a band with a tough, vaguely militant feminist stance, and the brains and talent to get the point across. They released that first album, and recorded and released their follow-up LP, Call the Doctor, in 1996, with Macfarlane (who in the interim had moved to Washington from Australia) drumming. That album garnered for the band increased attention, not only in the Northwest, but nationwide.

Janet Weiss

In 1997, rock goddess drummer, Janet Weiss, late of Motorgoat, Quasi and Jr. High joined the firm in time to take the chair for Sleater-Kinney’s third release, the seminal Dig Me Out. Propelled by Weiss’ incomparably solid percussive fusillade, and Tucker and Brownstein’s constant development as musicians and songwriters, that album jettisoned the band into national prominence, which they maintained and expanded upon for the remainder of their run.

One Beat

By the dawn of Century 21, S-K had carved for themselves a very secure niche in the national music scene. Renowned music critics Greil Marcus and Rober Christgau championed the band. In 2001, writing for Time magazine, Marcus called Sleater-Kinney “America’s Best Rock Band.” After taking most of 2001 off, so that Tucker could take care of her newborn baby boy, the band regrouped to continue with their musical onslaught. With the release of One Beat in 2002 (reviewed in Two Louies September, 2002, where you will also find a more detailed bio of the band) their ambitions for world domination began to find real traction.

Sleater-Kinney was at its creative zenith and, going forward, the possibilities seemed endless. After touring North America with Pearl Jam in 2003, the band incorporated elements of their newfound “arena rock” sound into their sonic foundation while preparing to record their next release. But, there was more talk of a longer break. Corin mentioned in several interviews the difficulties she was having in balancing riot grrrldom with motherhood. Carrie was exploring other opportunities outside of music. And Janet Weiss will never have to look for a gig. Ever.

The Woods

Sleater-Kinney released their final (to date) recording, The Woods, in early 2005 (reviewed for Two Louies May, 2005). A year later they were on hiatus and going their separate ways. Always in high demand, Weiss has gone on to drum for numerous high profile acts, most notably Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Not missing a beat, Carrie Brownstein quickly began blogging for NPR in 2007, while conducting several high-profile interviews for the network as well. She then formed Wild Flag in 2010 (with Weiss, Mary Timony from Helium on guitar and the Minders’ Rebecca Cole on keys). Their wonderful self-titled debut album hit the streets in September, 2011. And then, of course, there is her star-turn as writer and actor with the cult-hit and Peabody Award-winning television series Portlandia on the Independent Film Channel—now in production for a third season. Put a bird on it.

CTB: Lund, Tucker, Lorinczi

Corin Tucker did indeed become a stay-at-home mom for her son Marshall, and later begat a baby girl, Glory! in 2008. But in 2010 she returned to the fray, recording what she called her “middle-aged mom record.” And 1,000 Years was a departure from Corin’s work with Sleater-Kinney. Supported by drummer Sara Lund (Unwounds) and guitarist Seth Lorinczi (Golden Bears) whom she had known since the Olympia days, it was a mellow affair, more so than any predecessors. Corin hardly delivered any of her requisite elk-call vocals. While the album met with modest critical praise, longtime fans bemoaned the new more “mature” perspective. Those hoping for the Corin of old were sadly disappointed. The lukewarm response was not dissimilar to that Liz Phair received at the release of her maternally domestic third album, Whitechocolatespaceeg.

CTB: Lorinczi, Tucker, Clark, Lund (Photo by Robin Clark)

Now, rapidly approaching forty, she has rebooted for her sophomore effort: Corin Tucker 2.0. With Lund and Lorinczi once again in tow, and with the addition of Jick, Mike Clark, here as bassist and keyboard contributor, long-time fans will be happy to know that Corin Tucker is back! All the way back. It is a mature album, she’s long departed from her Evergreen days to be sure. But the voice, womanhood’s answer to Zach de la Rocha, is here present and accounted for: a satisfying album. A little something for fans from all eras.

It takes about thirty seconds into “Groundhog Day” before you figure out that this album is nothing like the first, and that the former Sleater-Kinney fireball still has gas left in the tank. Prickly guitars front a gentle verse before the chorus explodes full scream. Lyrically, Corin tells the tale of what she’s been up to for the past few years. “Hey, que pasa/I’ve just woken up…I took a rest/ took some time off/Be a mom have some kids.” But then, raising her voice, in the second verse she begins to question the passions that she and her generation knew, pioneering the women’s movement in the music industry. “Hey, what’s up y’all/I thought we had a plan…” The chorus rocks hard and serves to define the musical terrain for what follows.

The intro to the title track, “Kill My Blues,” is driven by a familiar-sounding serrated Fender Rhodes sound, a spiffy riff—radiohead-y—playing seven against eight before the song breaks out with muscular droning guitar in the turns and chorus. Corin alternates hot and cool vocals from line to line. A tasty two-string-octave solo skims into a stirring bridge and resumes the solo, which slides into the keyboard intro and out. Well played, CTB, well played.

Energetic, chirping guitars beckon the way to “Neskowin.” Corin’s lunging vibrato wail flails in all its majesty here. “Darling I know/I don’t go/Like the other girls/It’s just I enjoy/Other toys/Other faculties.” She details what sound like the fairly innocent adventures of a couple of teenage girls on a family vacation. I can’t tell lyrically, but somewhere along the line, all kinds of hell broke loose on that vacation. The surf-y middle break moves into a Lene Lovich section, then to an extended chorus where Corin displays a wondrous swooping intensity, ululating like a fluted peacock British police siren.

Corin as Poly

Producer Alicia Rose’s video depiction of this song is dedicated to Poly Styrene of X-ray Specs (one of Tucker’s big early influences). But vocally, Corin doesn’t really sound that much like the late Poly— except that they both shout a lot. Actually, Tucker sounds more like Styrene on “I Don’t Wanna Go” where she does some serious bellerin’.

Calling to mind the riff from the Stones’ “Paint It Black,” the exotic guitar intro of “Constance” dissolves into a beat in the verses of which Phil Spector would heartily approve. A raspy Farfisa adds more ‘60s flair in the turns, leading to the churning chords of a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” inspired chorus. Then the slippery Farfisa returns for the bridge: a medieval affair with delicate vocal rounds. The Farfisa takes a brief solo and goes all gurgly Philip Glass, before the Nirvana thunder of the chorus kicks in again. This song is what we in the business refer to as a “tour de force.”

With the ‘80s new wavy, “No Bad News Tonight” Lund wheels driving toms and a hard-hitting surf snare. Corin’s vocal melody follows the chattering single-string lead guitar figure in a duet. She fires off a groovy guitar solo, which crashes to an ending that sort of fizzles to an abrupt halt.

CTB Live

Lund’s opening snare salvo on “Summer Jams” gives one the mistaken impression that they are about to hear a slightly speeded up version of Blur’s “Song 2,” but no. CTB heads in a different direction with tight bass/rhythm guitar interplay, churning against two-crunchy chords. At the turn, the song floats into infectious backing vocal chortles: “woo-oo, woo-oo-oo, woo” calling to mind the Dandy Warhols more than Blur. A sterling instrumental break, a lively African Highlife bass and guitar dance, follows—then into an intricate clockwork section, ticking methodically—which segues to a rock-y finish. Like Throwing Muses or Belly for the 21st century. A very satisfying track.

Church-like organ and dappled piano lend “None Like You” an ecclesiastical feel, buoying a mysterious  lyric. “Come gather children/Gather around/Night of December, our mother found/She lifted us with light touch/She put us down/Candle in each window led us back to her now.” It’s difficult to say what the song is about, exactly. Themes of motherhood, but something darker, like a fairy tale. Maybe witchcraft?

CTB Live

A nervous rotisserie of guitar and subtle electronics slowly begins to spin above the low inferno of the arrangement, amplifying the tension of the ominous lyric. Suddenly, dramatically, Lund sprays Gatling snare shots into the scene and the song gallops off like a frightened steed. The influence of Patti Smith seems to linger in the atmosphere surrounding Corin’s vocal on this song. She urgently repeats the lines of the chorus until she is drowned out by onrushing drums and a throaty sluice of overdriven guitar.

“Joey” is not the Concrete Blonde song of the same name, but it may be a reference to Joey Ramone, who was memorialized in an S-K song, way back when. Prickly skip stumblefall intro riffery and smackage resolve into straightahead verses and a lullabye chorus. But at the backend of one of those choruses Corin erupts into an intense “Joey-eeee” yowl. A fine interplay of tortured guitars wrestle an extended solo and back to the chorus, where the guitars gnarl pure elegance behind Corin, baying mournfully. A very well-controlled piece.

Stirring piano accompaniment and filigree guitar figures buffet the torchy “Blood, Bones, and Sand.” It’s a low-key affair, with a powerful vocal— without being over the top. Nice. The final cut, “Tiptoe” is strung along a jagged guitar line, sort of Zeppish in consistency, backed by thundering Bonham-washed toms.

CTB Live

My girlfriend thinks Corin sounds like Geddy Lee. I’ve conceived of many female vocalists with whom Corin Tucker is in a league, but not a male vocalist—and Geddy Lee never would have occurred to me, though the observation is not inaccurate. I’m more inclined to think of Ann Wilson. Whatever the case…jeez. Corin can kick it as well as just about anybody. Maybe a little more organic than the others. Wheezy organ accents wither and flit between a fiery guitar solo, back briefly to the vocal turn, back to a smoldering second solo and wham. Lights out.

1000 Years, the first Corin Tucker Band album, was pretty much her performing with a backup band, not a lot of interplay. This album is executed by a fully formed unit, running perfectly on all four-cylinders, blowing blue flames out the exhaust pipe. CTB is now a real (and quite formidable) band.

Seth Lorinczi and Mike Clark are simply superlative in everything they contribute to the record: guitars, bass, and keyboards. The instrumentation is varied and very powerful, but cohesive and of a kind—and always in support of a song’s arrangement. Always the perfect choice. Sara Lund proves herself to be an absolute monster on drums, expertly bashing through the heavy sections, imparting great sensitivity in the more delicate segments.

Corin Tucker

The evolution of what once was Sleater-Kinney is now set fully into motion. All the members are now officially growing as artists on their own—individually moving toward new challenges. All three of them are emerging as stars in their own right. Understandably, Corin Tucker has held back. She took five years off to raise her children, and her first return to music and recording was tentative. Now, two years later, Corin would seem to have completely recovered her confidence as a singer and performer. It’s all here in spades. Kill My Blues is a great album.

 

 

Sara Jackson-Holman

Cardiology
Expunged Records

Things have been moving awfully fast over the past couple of years for talented young Sara Jackson-Holman. The story is fairly well known: about her casually opportune interaction with Anthony McNamer, head of Expunged Records—Blind Pilot’s label—via her random post on the band’s fan page. Subsequently McNamer arbitrarily checked out Sara’s MySpace page, where she had posted home recordings of a few of her songs, a decision that eventually led to her signing on with the record company without the benefit of so much as a demo. Ah, kismet!

In May of 2010 under the guidance of Blind Pilot producer Skyler Norwood, Sara released When You Dream, her debut album on the Expunged label. Seemingly within weeks “Into the Blue” a song from that album was chosen as soundtrack for the climactic last scene of the Season 2 finale of the ABC series Castle wherein Beckett is forced to confront Castle’s apparent emotional indifference toward her and their relationship (or so I gather online, I’ve never seen the program). Sara’s halting ballad—her fluttery vibrato all slippery quivery, with sad strings sobbing behind her—melted hearts across the nation, the song standing on it’s own musical merits, while carving her name into the hearts of thousands.

Though songwriting is a relatively new component in her musical career, Sara has a background in classical piano. She was studying music and writing at Whitworth University when her career had its auspicious inauguration. She had only been writing songs two years and had no previous studio experience when her first album was released. In short order she learned about the music business: how the music is created, and the wheels of commerce that turn behind it.

When You Dream was met with moderate public acclaim—enough so that laying the groundwork for her sophomore effort was begun almost immediately. Over the ensuing year, Sara spent her time immersed in the songwriting craft. Still in her early twenties, she began to think for the first time in terms of the scope and sphere of music production and the studio experience, creating several dense, multi-track demos at home, which she brought to this project.

Along with Sara’s increased input, Skyler Norwood has returned to the producer’s chair for Cardiology. In addition, Keith Schreiner (Auditory Sculpture, Dahlia) is on board to contribute beats and synth programming. He also had a hand in producing several of this album’s stronger tracks (there aren’t actually any weak ones).

The result is a natural progression from the previous record, yet a bit of a jarring departure at the same time. What was classical folk pop keyboard flavored music has evolved here into technoclassical popfolk electronica. It’s not at all heavy-handed in execution. But Sara Jackson-Holman’s music is all about nuance and subtlety. Any new addition creates a stylistic domino-effect that reverberates through the entire project.

We begin with “Cartography” a moody, slow moving number ornamented with wheezing organ, wincing splinters of keyboard accent, humming synth, and watery washes of treated piano. From that, Sara’s uncertain vocal unfurls in “Copper fields and half dreamt dreams…” a sleepy confession of infatuation. “Cut the corner, circle round/Where you are then I am found.”

In singing that line Sara gives indication that she be may be suffering the initial stages of the dreaded Colin Meloy “Affected Enunciation Disease,” an impediment—which, if left unchecked—can become, as Mister Meloy will attest, almost impossible to fully eradicate. Take steps now, Sara. This disease is preventable. Don’t do it. It’s a bad habit. A lovely braid of harmony vocals wrap around the sweet chorus of this delicate, if directionally indeterminate number.

“Can’t Take My Love” has a distinct soul vibe at its core. Vocally, Sara renders a fair assimilation of Macy Gray’s “I Try,” with a touch of Aretha’s “Until You Come Back to Me.” Over mechanical drums and drippy piano drops, brooding cello and violin cry—winding tensile tension with swelling intensity. Across that, Sara’s snaky vocal slithers through the verses, before opening up in a chorus that calls to mind Fiona Apple and Annie Lennox.

Yeah. Annie Lennox. That’s accurate. There are comparisons to the Eurythmics and “Here Comes the Rain” that could be made here. A little zippier arrangement or a tarted up re-mix and this is a totally mainstream radio-friendly hit song, not that it isn’t radio friendly already.

Befitting of her penchant for classical music, echoes of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” serve as thematic inspiration for the intro and chords to “For Albert,” one of a number of songs written in response to the recent passing of Sara’s grandfather. After a brief, solemn intro, the song busts out into a full-on mini-simulation of Giorgio Moroder-gilded disco sensibility. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof, given our distant proximity to that era at this advancing date. The ironic drum machine-like snare is a nice touch. There is an Adele meets Florence and the Machine quality about this song. The Eurythmics are circulating through as well.

The lush “Freight Train” is a ballad dappled with piano and emotive strings—another tribute to her grandfather. Elegaic. Feist and Norah Jones come to mind as vocal/musical references. A piquant little gem of a song. The Schreiner produced ballad “Break My Heart” feels a little like the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” (without the driving synth riff). Kate Bush and latter-day Tori Amos come to mind as vocal references in the chorus. Nice.

Julee Cruise’s theme from Twin Peaks could serve as the model for “Empty Arms.” A stumbling low synth figure bounces ungainly as Sara vocally evokes Leslie Feist with a haltingly understated vocal delivery. Somber but uplifting—in a determined sort of way. Skyler Norwood’s production of “To Be Bright,” is (over?) wrought with white noise gunshot beats. Those beats tend to get in the way of an awful lot of cool sonic information and may not be necessary to the betterment of the song. Otherwise, Fiona Apple and Adele meet Kate Bush over at the Eurythmics’ house. Great song.

With just voice and solitary unadorned piano, “Oh My Honey” seems more indicative of who Sara Jackson-Holman really is, behind the sheer veils of studio “magic.” “Come By Fire” is similar in construct—but for the sightest coloration near the end of the tune. More than any others found here, those two songs hearken back to the first album.

Drippy hollow-log synth tones set the mood for “Risk It All,” before the song slips into the bluesy soul-essence feel as heard on “Can’t Take My Love.” Driven by gurgling synths, and schizophrenic drum patches (it may be Skyler Norwood on drums—but they sound treated), Sara purrs and coos like Macy Gray. It’s a new vocal style she’s trying on here, so she’s not self-assured in the presentation. But just the same, Sara has hit upon a sound that could work for her going forward. She could easily out-Adele Adele at some near future date. Schreiner’s burbling synth line in the chorus is nicely executed.

Another hit in the making is the Schreiner produced “My Biggest Mistake.” The song dithers around in the verses, stuttering on crazy syncopated drum beats before busting out on an especially memorable chorus. Here, Sara registers one of her strongest, most original vocal performances. A harbinger of what she’s capable of attaining. Annie Lennox again comes to mind, in Sara’s clipped phrasing in the chorus, especially.

“Do I Make It Look Easy?” is one of the best creations of the set—an Appleish minor key piano prance. And finally, producer Norwood provides a real, big-beat, drum kit which lends considerable oomph to the proceedings. Compared to the other songs, it sounds like arena rock! Sara contributes a fine vocal— maybe: Apple meets Macy Gray. Sneaky sassy. Nicely done.

A moody, tender ballad “Cardiology” is very pretty, but is marred by a rather annoying martial beat. Sad synth figures fill out the peripheries, while the center ripens with angelic vocal harmonies and slow, pizzicato heartstrings, melding with the melodic bark of a wounded synth flute.

Impeccable, pristinely sparse, understated arrangements are rife on Cardiology. But, at the same time they are sort of solemn, sterile and gloomy: morose. So, for the most part everything has this depressed, desolate Portishead-like sensibility. Sullen landscapes, thirteen shades of Sara gray.

But her musical influences would seem broader than a scale from black to white. Here she presents a highly stylized sound—quirky synths, no guitars whatsoever, string and piano accoutrements, electronic-like drums and/or hyperactive percussive support: not always a solid foundation upon to which the real substance of Sara’s songs might rest. This is especially true on some of her more soul oriented songs. But this will be the sort of choice Sara will confront as her career progresses. Who does she want to be? How does she want to sound?

Sara Jackson-Holman is a minor-key soul, no doubt. And, still being new to all this, she is not yet fully actualized as an artist. She’s still maturing, still developing a musical style and vocal persona. Just the same, the essence of a major talent is right at hand. Even with lyrics more cerebral than most pop works, Sara is quite capable of producing a hit song. She seems destined for big things. Any day now, for that matter. And when success befalls her, she can then make all of her choices on a grander scale, with a wider palette from which to choose colors for her accessibly charming music.

JVA

Let’s Make a Problem
Thon Music

I’m pretty sure we went all through this about six or eight years ago when I reviewed one of Jim Walker’s albums (Terrible Pictures of Harriet, 2005), here and (earlier, in 2003) here, for Two Louies in what we at Buko refer to as “the waning days.”  I remember that Walker had been going by the name Jeroan Van Aiken when he arrived in Portland from Los Angeles in the early ‘90s. He’d pretty much done it all, as far as a SoCal musician can do it—forming a band that achieved modest notoriety, performances in community theater, songs and scores for films, voice-over work for high-profile clients—pretty sweet deal.

Hieronymous Bosch, Self-Portrait

But, he ended up coming to Portland, as all musicians eventually must, where the livin’ is easy and the competition less fierce for all those influential gigs where you get paid what you were paid in 1992. (Fortunately, all musicians in Portland are independently wealthy and not availed of the necessity of “making a living,” as you people call it). So Jim came to Portland and he was Jeroan Van Aiken for a while. He probably was completely unaware of the fact that a variation of that name coincidently belonged to Hieronymus Bosch five or six hundred years earlier. It’s amazing how quickly these things depart the collective consciousness.

Garden of Earthly Delights – Bosch

Then, about five years ago, a Virginia band named Gregor Samsa (named, of course, after Kafka’s man-bug) released the lovely song “Jeroen Van Aken” to marginal response. It would not seem that their election to tribute Mister Bosch by name had anything to do with Jim Walker’s determination to stop using the name, seeing as how he made that decision many years in advance of the Samsa’s release. However it remains unclear as to whether Bosch’s people had been in touch with Jim at some earlier date. Word is they can be a tough bunch.

Whatever the case, at some point Jim Walker as Jeroan Van Aiken became JVA. The significance of all this is beyond my scope as a “reporter” to further elucidate. Those are the facts. Arrive at your own conclusions.

Jim Walker

The consummate songwriter, Jim has been plying his craft long enough to understand the structural components of a pop song and the proficiency required to fashion something original from them—a process not unlike the composition of haiku, wherein a certain precision and attention to detail are necessary just to get one of the damn things off the ground. Jim’s songs are familiar in context, but they tend to zig when you expect them to zag. After one hundred years or so of songwriting in the popular musical vernacular, I believe that is the highest compliment one can be paid.

Here we are given fourteen Walker originals. This is a true solo album, wherein Jim plays all the instruments and provides all the vocals (except backing vocals by Tiffany Carlson on a couple of tunes). The arrangements are uncomplicated, straightforward, succinct and varied in presentation, in some cases almost jarringly so.

The title of this endeavor, Let’s Make a Problem, might lead one to conclude it to be a biting polemic regarding the vicissitudes of unprotected sex. So, perhaps appropriately, we begin with “Sin.” It’s an acapella all-percussion accompaniment number, sort of Bobby McFerrin in nature, but much steamier than anything Bobby ever did (especially impressive is the tambourine)—and the “jungle” knob is dialed up to about 11. The dubby, “Baby, would you do that?” section is especially exotic. A memorable hook. Unusual.

Jim Walker in Concert

“Concrete Hearts” moseys off in a whole ‘nother direction. It’s a twangy Tele, western-tinged tune with subtly supple piano and acoustic guitar backing. Vocally, here and elsewhere, Jim demonstrates the gritty edge of Glenn Frey and Don Henley with a touch of Timothy Schmitt sweetness. Eaglesesque. That’s a nice word for this song. A well-honed bridge sharpens the focus—“The days fall hard as rain and I can’t stand it/no place to go nothing to do/Each night’s an empty space, just how I planned it/Just passing time without you.” Walker’s Mark Knopfler-inspired guitar solo lends a windblown winsome quality.

Returning to a more modern production approach, “Kiss of Glass” rumbles with tumbling hand drums, creating an atmosphere rife with tension. Eerie. Rubbery bass and tightly clenched guitar play against a ghostly ‘80s synth wash in the turns. A middle-eastern flavored middle section adds to the smoky, mysterious atmosphere.

Acoustic guitar, piano and a big drumbeat drive “Come and Gone,” a Paul Simon-like  composition. In a boyish tenor, Walker sings “Don’t tap the thin glass in my head/Coz the blackbirds circle there again/I see her faces in my sleep/So crowded in my dreams, I count a million fucking sheep” in a memorable bridge. “Bones” could be the work of “Dirty Laundry” era Don Henley—coarse in texture with a creamy pop center. Fine vocal harmonies and a catchy hook make this a memorable tune.

A solitary piano introduction leads the tender ballad “Oranges” toward a more uncomplicated backing of light drums, bass, and dueting acoustic guitar. Lyrically, Walker weighs his world from a William S. Burroughsian perspective “Oh Maria, dressed in black/Desert heat and vodka thin/Empty seed pods scuttle in/Dead palms shade like insect wings.” Dig it.

Jim Walker

“Into the Sea” is dead ringer Eagles, circa Hotel California. Jim’s grainy voice is buoyed upon a wave of foamy acoustic guitar and sinister electric guitar fills. A familiar twine of melody wraps sinuously around the arrangement. Nicely turned. “Love Coming Through” is tougher in context, the grit in Jim’s voice more metallic, while the sentiment is softer. “Once” is mellower still, as Jim sounds like Glenn Frey uttering quiet confessions over simple acoustic guitar backing.

Dark apparitions shadow the lovely “Carry the Ghost” “I breathe my last in the cloak of the night/cold as a grave…” A moving chorus follows, then Jim’s most ambitious bridge of the set. “Don’t make me walk this lonely, lonely earth.” Well hewn.

Latin percussion, a Rhodes-toned keyboard and Spanish guitar decorate “Human Sea,” the most lyrically complex song among the fourteen. It’s an in-depth study of human nature, an immoral morality play, resembling somewhat Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” in its thematic admixture of dark, carnal passion and heroic outlaw justice. “He stayed behind so carefully/Far enough so she didn’t see/And I stayed several paces down from him/I knew what he was waiting for/That electric moment where/He’d catch her for an instant in the din/Finally she turned a corner/Instantly he was upon her/Covering her mouth before she screamed/I put my blade up to his throat/Pulled back hard and watched it flow/Tipped my hat to her and made my way/Back to the human sea.” Nice.

Simple, unadorned piano supports the quiet love song “Perfect Idiot,” creating a mood of heartfelt intimacy. A Tom Pettyish “Learning to Fly” acoustic guitar jangle informs “Z.” The pacing of the song is quick, yet halting—akin to something the Eel’s Mark “E” Everett might create. Vocally, Jim sounds like E on this song, as well. Tasty backing vocal harmonies (some provided by Ms. Carlson) and a different feel from the rest of the material make of this one of the best songs on the album.

“Luxury” bathes in low-string pathos akin to the intro guitar line on Boy George’s “The Crying Game.” Walker meets the atmosphere with an evocative vocal, quietly delivered. Here again, another fine bridge helps to take the song to a higher level. Jim displays a keen understanding of the purpose of a bridge and how to use it.

Long-time musical partner the Zesty Tim Ellis and Jim Walker

Let’s Make a Problem is a wonderful exhibition of technique and skill. Jim Walker’s abilities as a songwriter are a cut above most. He creates refined compositions that bear clear evidence of careful attention to detail. His arrangements are simple, but direct and to the point. Jim’s not a great musician, but surely quite good—and a fine technician. Besides, great musicians never made for a great song. But a great song has made many good musicians sound great. Consider Jim Walker to be among the latter contingent.

 

Various Artists

PDX a Go-Go
Acme Brothers Records           

You wouldn’t think a little town this size could sustain more than a couple of surf bands. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the genre, and Portland has always had a history of providing some pretty good ones over the years. Satan’s Pilgrims and Surf Trio come readily to mind. But there have been many others lurking in the margins of the local music scene. Since the ‘80s anyway, there have always been a few surf bands playing around.

Which is sort of weird. Think about it. This is Portland not Malibu, man. There are probably more surf bands here than in all of Orange County today and there ain’t nobody ridin’ the wild surf of the Willamette. Doubtless this is a contributing factor in what makes our dear Portlandia the eccentric outpost it is so widely known to be.

So, I don’t know, should it come as any surprise that this compilation features five really great local instrumental surf bands? I guess not. Because this quintet of combos are each slick and tight and unique in their performances. A heapin’ helpin’ of spaghetti (western) is served, to be sure. And, yes, it’s true that surf music isn’t particle physics, but it’s a musical form, like the blues. It has its place in the rock vernacular. It’s valid, or whatever.

Dick Dale

Surf rock has a concisely definitive history in the annals of popular music. Purists point to the Rendezvous Ballroom on Balboa Peninsula in sunny Newport Beach, Orange County, California, as the surf band seminal loci of the early ‘60s. In the summer of 1961 legendary left-handed guitarist (he played his left-handed Strat—called “the Beast”—strung upside down as if a right-handed guitar—you figure it out) Dick Dale launched his career at the Rendezvouz. Employing distinctive staccato notes in the lowest register and utilizing Arabic pentatonic scales from his Lebanese heritage, Dick Dale altered slightly (but noticeably) what was the prevailing guitar instrumental sound of the day. His “Miserlou,” released in 1962 and a hit, and later revived in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction, continues to be widely imitated to this day.

Duane Eddy

Dick Dale did have a few antecedents—Duane Eddy and Link Wray probably the earliest. Duane Eddy had a more country feel to his playing, derived, to an extent from Chet Atkins’ approach. But, in very early 1958 he put out a tune called “Moovin’ ‘n’ Groovin’” (produced by Lee Hazelwood) that featured the bass-note twang sound that became his signature. Hazelwood fashioned an echo-chamber out of a two thousand gallon water tank, which added a familiar reverb effect for which Eddy was also to become renown. The follow-up, “Rebel Rouser,” a rebuild of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” was his biggest hit of all.

Link Wray

At nearly the same time as Duane Eddy released his single, another guitar player bestowed upon the world one of the most revered and influential pieces of rock of all time. The instrumental had originally been called “Oddball” and was the result of a jam from a live show a few months earlier. When Link Wray issued “Rumble” (name suggested by Phil Everly) in April of 1958 all of popular music became forever transformed.

With overdriven amp, vibrato via whammy bar, tremolo set to stun, holes poked in the amp speakers (a trick used by Ike Turner’s guitarist Willie Kizart on “Rocket 88” in 1951, and later exploited by the Kinks’ Dave Davies on “You Really Got Me” in 1964 ) for distortion, Link Wray strummed the first power-chords—creating a sound that has been imitated in one way or another by every rock band to come along since.

Then there was “Apache” by Jorgen Ingmann, a soulful instrumental that appeared in June of 1960. Supported by galloping tom-toms, Ingmann explored the gamut of available popular effects, with the addition of echo, to effectively lay the groundwork for all rock guitar to follow. The elements of the firmament were fixed: reverb, distortion, vibrato/tremelo, echo. Thus rock God rested.

The Ventures

Well, not quite. Rock may have been created in the musical cosmos, but surf was not yet formed. It took a little combo from Tacoma, Washington to suss out that final foaming crest. In the fall of 1960 the Ventures turned out a number Chet Atkins had recorded in 1957, called “Walk, Don’t Run.” And that tune had something that its predecessors did not. It had a beat. Not just any beat. A surf beat. A little syncopated skip on the snare. Voila! Dick Dale, you may proceed.

The Ventures had such a big hit with “Walk Don’t Run” in 1960 that they released an updated version in 1964. By that time, bassist Nokie Edwards and lead-guitarist Bob Bogle had exchanged instruments (Bogle soloed on the original version). Nokie Edwards was one of the first to make use of a fuzz distortion pedal, as well as the electric twelve-string guitar. After late 1961 (especially with the addition of drummer Mel Taylor in early 1963), the Ventures rocked, standing out as the premier instrumental surf band, even though they never contended to be anything more than an instrumental guitar act. The Ventures’ influence became bigger than the band.

Billy Strange

The next generation of surf rockers started to appear. While the vocal surf bands, in particular the Beach Boys, grabbed the national spotlight, instrumental bands such as the Marketts (“Out of Limits”), the Chantays (“Pipeline”) and the Safaris (“Wipe Out”) were able to maintain interest in the genre, though, by the mid 60s the unique guitar stylings had been appropriated for the mainstream—as witnessed by every spaghetti western film ever distributed, and (member of the Wrecking Crew) Billy Strange’s reworking of Peter Gunn into a version of the James Bond theme, as well his generating the Batman and Munster television series themes.

At that point national musical interest moved on to more lyrical and more intricately executed fare: Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and the like—though it was clear that the old masters were plainly owed a debt of gratitude for pioneering the craft and the sound that the metal guys later furthered into the stratosphere.

Surf music underwent revivals from time to time over the years, owing to a movie or a television commercial advertisement or just to the American propensity for recycling its artistic successes (in lieu of generating something original: sincerest form of flattery and all that). A resurgence of the surf beat appeared in the new wave movement of the 1980s and led to a new generation of admirers.

Man or Astro-Man?

In the 90s, surf saw yet another renaissance, with a host of bands—many space age oriented—pumping out a new, nitro-laced version of the stuff, all feuled up for the new millennium. Bands, such as Man or Astro-Man? The Space Cossacks, Laika & the Cosmonauts, The Mermen, and Los Straitjackets were prominent in the resurrection. So surf rock has never fully disappeared from American pop music consciousness. It’s merely been fully assimilated.

The references on PDX a GoGo are both obvious and subtle. There is a lot of variety among the five bands in approach and presentation, with roots spreading across a wide swath of surf space and time. But each band displays its own individual variation on the style.

WaveSauce

We profiled WaveSauce earlier in the year hereGuitarist Pete Vercellotti displays versatility in his guitar playing, capturing a mostly ‘60s sensibility. Drummer Doug Powers and bassist Joel Boutwell provide solid support for Pete as they explore a sound they describe as “spyfi-pulp,” which covers a lot of sonic turf, to be sure.

What separates WaveSauce from the others are Michele “Cookie” Heile’s abilities on the theremin (there is a fairly detailed description of the device in that same article). The exotic sound of the instrument mirrors a couple of oddities sprung from the early ‘60s: “Telestar” by the Tornados from the UK, who made use of a clavioline, and “More” the theme from Mondo Cane, by Kai Winding, which offered the airs from an ondioline. As with synthesizers, which eventually followed, the theremin was essentially father to all those pieces of electronic gadgetry.

The two tracks WaveSauce present in this compilation give full reign to the theremin. Pete’s heavily tremeloed guitar opens “Phantom Strut” with a touch of menace, which Cookie intensifies with her entry into the mix at the turnaround. Powers provides “Die Laughing” with a big rock beat, over which Pete power chords, while Cookie supplies an eerie electronic wail that sounds like a woman screaming. Now that’s rock‘n’roll!

The Surf Weasels

Members of the Surf Weasels have been playing around town for decades. Drummer Paul Barrall (Pauli Weasel) has backed scores of bands, including the Die-Jobs, and many others. Tri-Met hero, Ageless Arthur Beardsley (El Bajo) has been the bass fulcrum for a ton of local bands as well, including Walkie Talkie, New Creatures and Pink TV. Kyle Alaniz (El Monstro Surfer) from the Verbtones, Planet Crashers and the Del-Rods, serves as rhythm guitarist.  Weasel guitarist and chief songwriter James Davis (Jaime Redondo) learned to play surf music watching Steve Bradley and Jim Mesi performing in the clubs when he arrived in Portland in 1981. He and Paul Barrall formed the Surf Weasels about around the year 2000 and they have been riding that wave ever since.

Owing to an absolutely disastrous chain of events this year the two tracks submitted here were recorded under duress (although you wouldn’t know by listening).  First, Jaime Redondo, who wrote both the tracks, sustained a brain injury in May and was unable to attend the recording session (he is now on the mend).  So, in an emergency, Mister Micky Tiki Tavi Weasel (aka Mike Dion) sat in on lead guitar for these tunes. Pauli Weasel fought through a severe spinal cord injury and Alaniz was forced to play bass when El Bajo was unable to make the recording gig. Jeesh!

The Weasels’ brand of surf tends toward the Duane Eddy end of things, with a ladle full of spaghetti sauce on the side. “El Nino” evokes Billy Strange’s ‘65 take on “Secret Agent Man.” Over Barrall’s intense, classic surf beat, Dion launches the sauce, slathering on the reverb as if it were extra mozzarella cheese. Think of Mel Taylor from the Ventures bashing behind Alessandro Alessandroni’s memorable “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” guitar lick and you get a feel for what’s going on. “Ponderosa,” of course calls to mind, “Bonanza” and guitarist Al Caiola who made that tune memorable, but also a couple of Duane Eddy numbers as well.

Susan SurfTone

Susan Yasinski (Susan SurfTone) has been rockin’ it for about as long as the Weasels, going back to the ‘80s. Her guitar tone and style are not always so much surf as a crystallization of Chuck Berry and other early rock groundbreakers poured over ‘60s punk backing (think “Talk,Talk” by the Music Machine). She has her own approach. For the two tracks submitted for this venture, Wave Saucer Doug Powers serves as the drummer, while SurfTone sidekicks—bassist Dan Ferguson and Avory Gray on Farfisa—contribute well-oiled backing.

Cookie Heile from WaveSauce joins the band for “Rock Candy.” A brief Dick Dale meets the B-52s’ lobster intro gives way to tough power chording and whiny keyboard, creating an atmosphere similar to that of “Liar, Liar” the hit from ‘65 by the Castaways. Cookie enters, delivering the theremin suprano love call, as Susan breaks into an “Out of Limits” segment that eventually circles around to a Berry-ish two-string guitar solo.

“Salt Water” weaves Ferguson’s sprinting bassline with a rock-y guitar solo rooted mostly around chords (ala Berry). Susan has an original and easily-indentifiable sound, that bespeaks the many years she has spent plying her craft.

Shade 13

Shade 13, who hale from Bend, play their surf with a bent toward Man or Astro-man?’s penchant for using audio samples from obscure films. Bassist Bob Warrenburg and drummer John Sterling lend sturdy support to guitarist Mitch Johnson’s energetic surf excursions. Johnson and his mates demonstrate a firm grasp of the genre.

“Tucu’s Law” samples a fragment from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly before sliding into the faithful requisite of Dick Dale-isms—generated with impressive gusto. A nicely executed Link Wray-on-Four Red Bulls twang bar wang at the end of several phrases is well placed. In the middle section, Johnson sort of launches off into a metal realm unknown to the early pioneers, but that would seem in keeping with influences perhaps acquired from second generation ‘90s surf revival bands.

The autobiographical instrumental “Shade 13” begins with a hammer-on low-string salvo worthy of Jimmy Page, then resolves into a fast-paced romp built around the old one-four-five in a minor key. The tempo here is more along the lines of Los Straitjackets or Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet: vigorous.

Outer Space Heaters

The most exotic of the five bands contributing to this project, Outer Space Heaters, cite Pink Floyd and Explosions in the Sky as influences and you can hear that in what they do. But they at times implement their own, far more complex interplay with admirable skill. Their sound is familiar, but quite original. Guitarists Chad Van Dyke and Andy McMillan interact very precisely with drummer Will Veale and bassist Auston Jubb.

Most of the credit to the band’s characteristic sound goes to Van Dyke, whose dexterity on the guitar is really quite amazing, in an uncommonly eccentric way. Les Paul’s early work in his experimental multitrack studio comes instantly to mind on “Aphelion.” It would appear that Van Dyke is either inordinately nimble-fingered ala Fripp/Belew King Crimson, or his guitar intro is doubled in speed via Paul’s technique—probably the former. More familiar ground is covered following that interlude: a spectacular Dale-ian overture with a hunk of pulpy Ventures lopped on for good measure. This is some cool shit.

“Space Cowboy” starts off sounding like Interpol’s “The Lighthouse” from Our Love to Admire, capturing a supremely Italian sensibility with a very heavy accent. Van Dyke’s lonesome low-slung theme shakes palsied over McMillan’s wobbly tremolo-washed backing guitar. Then all hell breaks loose with Van Dyke screaming through a shadowy thicket of hyper For a Few Dollars More thematic brambles at a sustained gallop. Then, out of nowhere, the dust settles and the end of the song resolves sort of like Clapton and Allman winding down “Layla,” with country-flavored suspended-chords and slide guitar sighing. Ah.

For what it is—a compilation of music by local instrumental surf rock bands—PDX a Go-Go is really great fun. All five bands demonstrate originality in their presentations, while adhering to the intensely devoted surf ethic. The musicians are all quite adept and play well together. Tight. This is the perfect album for a summertime get-together or impromptu beach party—nothing more to ponder than the next gnarly wave. Cowabunga, dude.

 

Duffs Garage is featuring a PDX a GO-Go CD release party on Friday, August 17th starting at 9PM. WaveSauce, SusanSurftone, Outer Space Heaters and others are scheduled to perform.

Nu Shooz

Kung Pao Kitchen
NSO Music           

I’m late in getting to this album, as it was released at the end of May. But seeing as how these previously-unreleased tracks were originally recorded between 1989 and 1992, it didn’t seem like an extra month or so would matter a whole lot one way or the other. In the case of Kung Pao Kitchen, “I Can’t Wait,” will not be appearing. John Smith and Valerie Day waited twenty years for this one.

I remember Nu Shooz from day one. My recollection (always subject to dispute) is that in the spring of 1980 I heard them in their formative stages over at my girlfriend’s house. Her roommate, Jonathan Drechsler, was the bass player in the band and they were rehearsing in the basement. Well I think it was their basement. It might have been some other basement—basements being what they are. Many of them (especially in inner southeast Portland in the early ‘80s) are amazingly similar.

Felicadades with John Smith, Scotty Wardinski, Danny Schauffler and Dave Graffe, among others.

Be that as it may, those were the seminal days of the Nu Shooz concept. John Smith was the bandleader. It seems like he might have been a horn player then (sax?), and that he was in the process of picking up the guitar—although that may have just been my perception at the time. He’d been a self-taught keyboard player and arranger with the salsa/soul band Felicades in the ’70s. I didn’t know the man and the band were going to evolve into Portland legend thirty years later, or I would have taken better notes. At the time, they were just another band in a basement. With a horn section, the Shoe Horns. And back-up singers, the I-lettes.

Back then, with punk and new wave fully formed and advancing on a tide of musical change, with the disco balls still twirling to Donna Summer, Madonna and the Village People. With Michael Jackson. Van Halen, Journey. Etc. There really wasn’t a big call for horn bands. Earth, Wind and Fire were pretty much the end of the line for that musical movement. But John Smith seemed to know what he was after. He wanted to develop a sort of blue-eyed soul funk revue/orchestra. In and of itself, that combination did not initially generate a lot of local response. Interest in existing local soul bands was already on the wane.

Smith’s artistic vision evolved over the years. At first he employed a female lead singer named Molly Ingram who had briefly sung with another stalwart Portland soul band, Slow Train. Though he tinkered with the structure of the band many times, the horn section remained, in one form or another. However, due to financial concerns, the I-lettes were abandoned. John did keep one I-lette on board: his wife Valerie Day, who played congas and sang back-up with the band.

Can’t Turn It Off (1982)

Subsequently, Ingram left and David Musser joined the team to assume the singing duties. His paring with the diminutive Smith made the band appear to be like Hall and Oates west, which, at that time, wasn’t necessarily a bad comparison for the Shooz. That version of the band released an album called Can’t Turn It Off in 1982, while slowly cutting a swath toward prominence in the Portland music scene. Musser eventually left the band to become a chef and Valerie stepped from behind the congas to front the band.

Tha’s Right (1984)

It wasn’t immediate, in fact it was a perfect example of “overnight success” requiring endless hoop jumping over several years of struggle. But in 1984 the band recorded and released an EP called Tha’s Right, which happened to have a song called “I Can’t Wait” as its lead track. By the Spring of 1985, the single “I Can’t Wait” was beginning to generate heat locally and regionally.

In their attempt to either cash in or ruin the band (something for which the label displayed an amazing propensity) Warner Brothers entered into a demo deal with the Shooz, but later passed on them with the curt statement, “We’ve already got Madonna.” Whatever that was supposed to mean. No one ever accused major record companies of knowing anything about music. Bunch of accountants and lunch takers.

I Can’t Wait (1985)

But, fate always being the unseen hand in these sorts of things, in late 1985 some Dutch guy went and re-mixed “I Can’t Wait,” and it immediately started receiving heavy dance club rotation all over everywhere. And with that success, the Atlantic label promptly entered into the picture. And thus began for John and Valerie and Nu Shooz the magical, whirlwind year of 1986.

Poolside (1986)

By the spring of that year, the band had completed recording Poolside, their debut album for Atlantic and by September “I Can’t Wait” was sitting at # 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. In October the album went gold. In November, “Point of No Return,” their second Atlantic single release began climbing the Hot 100 chart, stalling at #28, though topping the Billboard Dance charts for a few weeks. At the end of the year the Shooz were nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist, losing to the madcap Bruce Hornsby and the Range who had a hit with “The Way It Is” and not much else.

Told U So (1988)

After six months of touring, the Shooz returned to the studio to record their follow-up album for Atlantic, Told U So. It took another six months before the album was completed. And in the Spring of 1988 the first single off the new album “Should I Say Yes,” was unveiled—soon peaking at #41 on the Hot 100 charts. The follow-up “Are You Lookin’ For Somebody Nu?” was a bona fide dance hit, but failed to make any of the broader charts. The album broke the Billboard Top 100, but went no further than #91.

Late in1988 the label picked up the option on a third album from Nu Shooz, demanding it forthwith; despite the fact that they had been working incredibly hard, without a break for the preceding four years, and really needed some time off. But, doggone it, you know how those darn major labels are. They don’t have much interest in that whole “creative” thing. They’ve got projections to meet, y’know?

It took four years for the band to complete the tentatively titled Eat & Run in 1992. In that time, however, the national music mood had turned again and Nirvana had arrived in a big way and everything had changed. Nu Shooz really weren’t the flannel types. Four years in real time is like twenty-eight years of label time. Things change very quickly. Empires are built, princes are crowned and it all falls to waste in the snap of a finger. In four years, the members of the team at Atlantic that were behind Nu Shooz were long gone and a new regime was busy looking for the next Pearl Jam. The label unceremoniously dumped the band from their roster before even attempting to release the first single from the album, “Time Will Tell.”

Pandora’s Box (2010)

At that point John and Valerie retired the band. It had run its musical course. Times had changed. They each explored their own separate musical inclinations, before John evolved the Nu Shooz Orchestra in 2007, a sort of Pink Martini affair. That organization put out an album a couple of years ago called Pandora’s Box that was a distinct departure from all that had gone before.

Over the intervening years, many have wondered whatever happened to the Eat & Run material, which has never seen the light of day. According to John and Valerie, it’s not likely to. That album, those songs, belong to Atlantic one would suppose. But, during those four years putting the album together, the band gathered together a ton of songs, recording a lot of them.

What we have here in Kung Pao Kitchen is some of the best of that demo material, remixed and re-realized earlier this year. The result is a long walk down a twenty-five year old musical memory lane for a lot of people who might not be able to otherwise remember that far back.

But, before we begin our journey, the lay of the terrain should be established. The songs here were recorded up until 1992. Ostensibly there were overdubs and sweetening that took place this year, but they were done with such care so as to be indistinguishable from the original tracks. With all that in mind: these songs sound dated.

Yeah, those ’80s

Not the songs so much. The instrumentation and arrangements are really from about ‘87, ‘88. All the brrrpppp-whap-a-kunka drum-machine drums you could want (I believe all drums are programmed here, no drummer listed, though there are human percussionists involved) and a lot of smoochy, squeaky, rubbery synth bass (there are real bassists participating too—good bassists, including Phil Baker). The keys are mostly programmed and sequenced, but Jeff Lorber is in there too among the zeroes and ones. Ultimately, they’ve got that mechanical precision that was so cool at the dawn of the MIDI era.

Valerie day (new millennium)

Nu Shooz music has been described elsewhere as a “suburban pop/freestyle hybrid.” I have not the slightest whit of an idea as to what that might mean. But whatever it is, this material resembles, stylistically and instrumentally, the band’s golden days, circa “I Can’t Wait,” “Point of No Return,” and “Should I Say Yes.” The musicianship is impeccably tight and precise. And Valerie Day’s voice sounds great. It’s possible that she recorded some new vocals as in a few places her voice sounds warmer and fuller than in her more girlish epoch. As if Madonna evolved into Ella Fitzgerald. Well, that’s a bit dramatic, I suppose. But there is a sense of maturation in her voice that comes out from time to time.

The album kicks off with the infectious “Anytime.” The accompaniment is driven by drippy, squirty synth-bass lines and basic slap, smack, and dash drums—with a lot of cool percussion: cowbell in particular, of course. Valerie sings in the sort of muted coo Paula Abdul (later bequeathed to Britney Spears) manifested at about the same time as this song was recorded. Seductive in a moany, purry sort of way. You know the drill.

Melodically the chorus reminds of En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” (which also came out around just that time, as well), which isn’t exactly much of a coincidence, given that we’re talking about two notes, so what the hey? This song would have made a fine single.

“I Would If I Could” is completely different. The bass sounds real, as do the snare and percussive accoutrements, laid over not a whole lot more than a click track and some squirty keys. But it’s Valerie’s vocal that particularly stands out—Ella buttery—richer and more refined. My guess is these tracks were recorded more recently over the bed of chiming dithery synths. Not a great song, but the band did everything they could do to make it work.

John Smith (millennial)

And “Didn’t Want to Tell Ya’” more or less combines the two previous cuts. Valerie in her more smooth voice, fronts the funky motif, propelled by Smith’s slippery slick rhythm guitar phrasings. A nice single-line chorus, fairly memorable, if a bit non-descript. I’m not sure why, but the groove (especially the exotic vocal theme repeated a few times) to “You Put a Spell on Me,” sounds like something Donna Summer might have employed—with the Earth, Wind, and Fire horns thrown in for good measure. Mostly groove, not a lot of content.

The ballad “How Did We Fall in Love” alludes to the Smiths long marriage, dating back to the ‘70s. This song, too, seems to bear a sheen of more recent attention—the arrangement sounding not as dated as some of the others.

The funky “I Just Wanna Talk About You” is driven by a syncopated, kissy synth figure vaguely reminiscent of that on “I Can’t Wait.” A satin sax flurries up at times, in a wailing moan, in all likelihood generated by Maceo Parker (James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, etc), because he gets an extended solo in the middle, and he’s listed in the liner notes as taking part in the project. It’s a hot solo, whoever played it. The vocal breakdowns are fresh and a step forward.  But, unfortunately the chorus falls flat and doesn’t really go anywhere. C’est la chanson.

Another nice ballad is “Different Kind of Love,” with mellow percussion, including congas, and a nice interplay between keys and rhythm guitar. Atypically, Valerie places her voice up in her throat and face, nearly achieving Madonna’s adenoidal throttle, but the mood is closer to Sade. The band claim this song was inspired by Cheech and Chong’s ‘70s classic, “Basketball Jones,” but, honestly, I can’t hear it.

“Stop Pretending” features several musical flourishes anomalous to much of the rest of the record. In many ways that’s a shame. Because this is really good stuff, of which there should be more. The arrangement here is tougher than the other songs. The drums are punchier than elsewhere. Smarter horn/key charts, not so derivative. Even John’s slinky rhythm guitar has more body and definition. And Valerie sings the verses paired with a male counterpart pitched an octave lower. It all makes for a very solid song—the best execution of the nine songs presented.

Maceo Parker

The rudiments of  “When I Think of You” call to mind Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Its laid back atmosphere and chromatic chord progressions provide a similar foundation for the Shooz number. Sparse, block-chord keyboards and a funky drum rhythm augment Valerie’s sweet, seductive lead and the ethereal backing vocals. Out of the blue, another sax solo makes an unanticipated appearance, as there are no other horns anywhere else on the track. This again may be Maceo Parker, the intent being: “Hey, he’s here and there’s an open space, go for it.” It’s a bit of a non sequitur, a flagrant solo, comprised primarily of burbling squonks. Odd. Especially for such a low-key, sexy number. If it wasn’t Parker playing, there seems no other reason for the solo to even be there.

Kung Pao Kitchen is very much like a Chinese dinner. There are dishes from Column A and dishes from Column B, with an assortment of sides. Fans of Nu Shooz will really like what’s here, as there are several good singles to be found and plenty of great music, the band sounding just as you remember it. And it would seem that the intent of this release was to appeal to just those fans of the band, not necessarily to seek new converts. Otherwise, ditching some of the drum machine and synth tracks for more modern (and exotic) loops would have been in order. It might have been interesting to hear one cut given to such an experiment.

John Smith and Valerie Day

Still, this is a good, fun album that is bound to remind you of the ‘80s, whatever your references and associations for that might be. And it will remind you too that Nu Shooz was a fun band in a strange, musically transitional era.

Valerie Day’s recent bout with breast cancer, and an appendectomy in June, show no sign of slowing her down. Nor is John retired from the business, moving ahead with the Nu Shooz Orchestra—producing music that continues to evolve and renew itself.

Sally Tomato’s Pidgin

Planets
Severe Recordings

It seems like every century some composer decides he wants to take a crack at the solar system as artistic inspiration. Over the years this has gotten successively more difficult to create. In 1916 when Gustav Holst completed his orchestral suite, The Planets, Pluto hadn’t even been discovered yet. So his view of our little corner of the universe was decidedly incomplete and a tad bit smaller than our more enlightened satellitelian digital vantage point of today. In the past 90 years or so, Pluto has undergone the indignation of being batted about like a cosmic badminton birdie. Today it’s a planet, tomorrow maybe not. Actually, today it’s not a planet (I don’t think). However that is the topic of another story.

Holst crafted his planetary vision from an astrological standpoint, most likely owing to the fact that astronomy hadn’t really changed a whole lot in the preceding three hundred years since Galileo. Certainly William Hershel (a composer himself whose interest in mathematics actually led him to astronomy from music) livened things up at the beginning of the 19th century spotting Uranus and its two largest moons, Titania and Oberon—he had a thing for Shakespeare. But that was about it until 1930 when the new generation of telescopes allowed young Clyde Tombaugh to confirm “Planet X” at the Lowell Observatory in Kansas.

Pluto

After a big contest it was decided that Pluto was its name-o. Now, after like twenty-five years spent searching for the damn thing throughout the early 1900’s, the International Astronomy Union has determined that Pluto should be demoted to the status of “dwarf-planet,” as if it were some asteroid like Ceres or Eris (granted, Eris is slightly larger than Pluto and even farther out there—but hey—maybe Eris should be a planet too! No, no, no. The IAU has its rules, even though they shift polarity every so often). There may be extreme pressure from the astrology lobby. Who can say?

So it’s hard to guess if Holst would have made a run at today’s solar system. Hell, at first he didn’t even name The Planets, The Planets. That didn’t come until late in the game. At first the suite was called Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra and referred not at all to the planets in play but only to their astrological presentations. Strange how these things evolve.

Carlos Severe Marcelin

That brings us to Carlos Severe Marcelin. Carlos has been playing around our happy little mizzle-stop for the better part of twenty years. In the ‘90s he was lead guitarist for intellirockers, Silkenseed. Then, in the early Oughts he married fortunes with Sally Tomato, whose eponymously named band has been the source for a lot of strangely inimitable artiness over the years—Carlos responsible for a great deal of it. As a guitarist especially, but also as a controller of keyboards, Carlos has consolidated his considerable talents for the formidable task at hand.

Earth

Carlos wrote “Earth” about ten years ago, as a stand-alone piece. It’s pretty obvious that most of us don’t think of Earth as a planet necessarily. It’s simply the only place we know. It’s just here. Planets are out there, out yonder. Look, there’s Venus in transit across the sun! Carlos had always admired Holst’s attempt at the subject. About three years ago, he started to launch various pieces into orbit. And from there things seemed to slowly fall in line. Voila. A concept album was born.

Eric Flint and Carlos Severe Marcelin

Thus Carlos created the planets and the firmament. But he didn’t do it completely alone (although he probably could have). He is joined in places by Ms. Tomato herself (as well as by a few other special guests). And longtime Sally Tomato drummer Eric Flint dispenses his usual spot-on sonic rocketry. But even by Tomato standards, this project is pretty impressive. In this configuration they call themselves Sally Tomato’s Pidgin. I don’t know why.

Andrew Latimer of Camel

Though he professes not much familiarity with the genre (and at age forty he is too young to have been around for the original manifestations) of prog, Marcelin’s work has much in common with the artistic leaning of many well-known prog guitarists—including, especially, Andrew Latimer of Camel.

Robert Fripp

But one can hear stylistic similarities to the work of Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Robin Trower (Procol Harum and solo), John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra), Steve Hackett (Genesis) and the two guys from Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell and Ted Turner).

Steve Morse

Subsequent guitar heroes, such as Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple), Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie (of course) are also represented, it would seem, in one way or another. Carlos touches all the bases without being in the least bit imitative. He’s his own player.

Sun with Venus in Transit

In a display of acute astronomical awareness Carlos elects to begin our journey with the sun—old “Sol.” He could have, of course, followed Holst’s lead, which was astrologically Copernican in construct. But Carlos chose the more accepted course, unless you are among those yayhoos who believe that the earth is the center of the universe, and only six thousand years old, and man walked with the dinosaurs etc. If that is the case, you probably aren’t reading this masterpiece in the first place.

As might be expected, Sol is a rather bright and majestic object of real gravity in the musical construct. After a brief spoken prologue, intoned by Ms. Tomato, Carlos launches a fiery flare on guitar, evoking the prog-ish nature of Hot Rats era Zappa. Zappa would seem on the surface to be a touchstone influence—but that is hard to fully ascertain. I know for a fact that Carlos has never heard of Camel or Andrew Latimer. So there you go. In this context the theme is a soulful one delivered with great élan.

Venus

The next stop on our trek would be “Mercury.” Over Flint’s merciless polyrhythms, Carlos wields the sound of twin guitars (cue the Wishbone Ash reference), which soar in close precision. “Venus” is given a more exotic treatment—squishy guitar-synth driving the piece­—possibly elementally derived from somewhere around Discipline era King Crimson. The brief “Luna” could easily have been composed from random frequencies generated by the cold, cold orb. Talk about trickle down!

Terra Firma

A compendium of detritus is carefully inventoried (“Lepers, cartoons, and spiders. Men and women in intimate positions”) on “Earth.” Reverend Tony Hughes (Jesus Presley) delivers the benediction, sounding not unlike Fee Waybill of the Tubes: “Welcome to our not so humble abode in the cosmos—a flying chunk of dirt called Earth.” His observations are alternately punctuated by a chorus singing “We have it all” like an ad for an all-night convenience store. Reverend Hughes further elaborates. “It’s the human condition. Life after death: the ultimate mission. Black velvet paintings. Corn dogs and cotton candy. Mysterious scenes, novels, theater and TV in 3-D!”

The Reverend later returns, reporting “World of Now, twenty-four, three sixty-five. We all come back for a sigh or a laugh or something we lack. It’s the missing link. It’s hard core funky. Come on down and see the singular monkey.” From there the bugs come out and tell a tiny story of their own, while a disinterested voice injects, “Infinity is not a destination, it’s a state of mind.” Au revoir.

Mars

Concluding our tour of the four “inner planets” Marcelin’s portrayal of Mars as less martial in intensity and more reflective of rivers of red dust and perhaps a civilization long ago gone by. Dense keyboard pads and Flint’s precisely complex drumming underscore Carlos’ ornate pointillistic riffs and staccato lead figures. For some reason the Denny Dias/Jeff “Skunk Baxter twin-guitar solo intro of Steely Dan’s “Bodhisattva” comes to mind. You be the judge.

Asteroid Belt

Next up: the asteroid belt. Honestly, I would have plotted the asteroid belt out farther, out around Neptune. But then, I have always thought Michigan lay east of Wisconsin and that Indiana and Iowa abutted, so what the hell do I know about geography, earthly or terrestrial? Anyway, the asteroid belt officially circuits between Mars and Jupiter. Deal with it.

As asteroids go, most of them are pretty damn flimsy and only of interest if we need to get one out of our way, or if there is some mineral or ice deposit worth going after. Profit motive, etc. But there are some (four) larger asteroids out there. They’re not that big—the largest being about a quarter the size of the moon (or of Pluto, for that matter). But Ceres and Pallas are two that often draw the most attention.

Ceres

Ceres, the largest chunk in the asteroid belt—at six hundred miles across (Earth is about 8,000 miles in diameter)—was discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazza and became designated as a planet not long after that. Assigning planet status was pretty much the only alternative to calling these bright objects in the sky comets or stars, until William Herschel coined the term (and concept) “asteroid.” And voila! Pallas was spotted in 1802 and was also given the planetary nod until the mid 1800s when astronomers cleared the deck—setting ground rules for planethood and the like. Always so formal, those sky guys.

All three brief “roid” sections interlock among the debris. Carlos introduces us first to “Pallas,” which can be found sort of in the middle of that spatial spread. The rest of the belt follows, en masse. Then “Ceres” concludes the excursion. All three pieces are quite regal and chipper in their own right, showcasing in spots Carlos’ more metalic persuasions.

Io

As we journey on toward Jupiter, we stop off at Io, the largest of the “Gallilean moons” and nearest to the giant gasbag; the fourth largest moon in our solar system (vying with our very own moon). The volcanic nature of that orb is given ethereal treatment: a ghostly instrument—e-bow? sax? synth? all three? interprets the subtle colors of the clouds of dust and ash.

Jupiter

The scope of “Jupiter” befits the massive planet known since antiquity. A giant red spot of distorted guitar rumble lumbers across the sparse atmosphere of helium and hydrogen. It’s a big body with no density. Ephemeral. Somewhere past mid-point a whizzy fizzy synth comes in to effervesce the scene, before resolving into a pensive mist, which recalls Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41.

Onward we fly toward “Titan,” the largest of Saturn’s fifty-three known moons. It’s thought that life could possibly exist on Titan, speculation underscored by the stately dignity of Ray Woods’ keys on the short piece. Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s take on “Picture’s at an Exhibition” is reflected here.

Saturn

Soaring intervals bound across “Saturn.” Endless guitar sustain (Ebow?) swirls and slides like a siren call, glissading from one note into the next. A second section chords its way through a little Pete Townshendish (circa Tommy) sort of endeavor.

Dione and Saturn

Leaving Saturn we pass by another of his many moons, “Dione.” As a compositon, the short piece is rooted in a sound-collage derived from signals sent back by the Cassini spacecraft in 2007. Again Ray Woods adds subtle keyboard support.

Slowly approaching the blue ice giant “Neptune,” we note in awe its windy surface. Carlos offers a pastoral depiction— indistinct as hydrogen and helium, sketching parameters upon a lighter than air acoustic guitar—evolving into a more orchestral pastiche augmented by synth strings.

Neptune

Now, I know what you’re asking right about now. Why is Neptune portrayed here in planetary order before Uranus, when in actuality it lies beyond? I asked Carlos Marcelin this very question.

Some people think they switched about a billion years after the formation of our solar system. We have them in this primordial order on the album for thematic purposes—it was more fluid to have Neptune follow Jupiter before moving into the chaos and weirdness that is Uranus and Pluto.

In (what many will recognize as) a tremendous show of restraint, I will forgo my usual litany of Uranus jokes and just move along. Nothing to see here. Except Uranus.

Uranus

With a short statement from our sponsors we fly swiftly by big, old, hard and chilly Oberon, the Uranian moon mentioned earlier, discovered by composer William Herschel. Uranus is atypical in that its axis is tilted sideways in relation to the sun. So its poles are where our equators are, and vice versa. Trying to work that out in your head will freeze it up pretty good.

Flint’s crazy, Phil Selway-influenced, cross-time drumming neatly sums up the arcane perturbations that comprise the planetry components of the coldest spot in all the solar system: Uranus. Carlos steers us with a strange, perky permutating theme. Overblown guitar skips merrily at times in the planet’s rarified atmosphere, before going all magisterial in the alternating passages. A schizophrenic piece, to be sure.

Approaching the outer reaches of our little corner of the galaxy, here comes poor, much-maligned Pluto. Pluto is a planet, a dwarf-planet, a plutoid, a plutino—or just a big ball of rock spinning around, way the hell out there, pick yer poison. Pluto’s orbit is so eccentric that sometimes it slides inside that of Neptune. I’m telling you: it’s a wacky galaxy. To capture Pluto’s mood (low self-esteem?) Carlos employs a music box scenario to back the other-worldly voice (text borrowed from the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet) that delineates the belief structure surrounding what used to be the ninth planet.  It’s very confusing out there.

Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud

Pluto spins around in the Kuiper belt. The Kuiper belt is similar in construct to the asteroid belt, but it’s quite a bit more massive. And it’s located three times the distance from Earth as Pluto! Way the hell out there. The belt is about as far from the sun as it gets in our neighborhood. Most of the stuff floating around out there is either ice balls, or chunks of planet-like items that got smashed up once upon a time, long ago. There are a few more “dwarf planets” drifting around out there too.

Haumea and moons

One of those dwarves is called Haumea, a potato-shaped object with two irregular moons. Carlos gives “Haumea” an exotic voice—mystical. Yoko Ono-esque. Another of the dwarves is Eris, the final stop on our trip. Eris is bigger than Pluto, so for a long time there were astronomers who wanted to bring Eris into planethood. But that opened up the can of worms that eventually got Pluto kicked out of the club, so there you go.

Eris and moon Dysnomia

Anyway, Eris (formerly known as Xena) is possibly involved in the upcoming Nibiru cataclysm, accepted as gospel by Doomsday fans everywhere, and occasionally linked to the whole Mayan calendar deal on December 21st of this year. So Eris has been presumed to be lurking out there, just waiting for the big day so it can come on in and pop earth a good shot. At least that explanation would account for why the Mayans decided to cut things off at that date. “Oh yeah, that mystery planet’s going to smash into earth on that day, so why bother?”

But back in 2003, just when the typical American sense of mindless, groundless fear generated by some unfounded rumor was about to ramp up, grumpy Mister E.C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, stepped in to quell the hysteria.

In particular, several threads of irrational thought have created an internet phantom, the secret planet Nibiru. It’s the bowling ball, and Earth is the pin. There is no such planet, though it is often equated with Eris, a plutoid orbiting safely and permanently beyond Pluto. Some insist, however, that a NASA conspiracy is in play and that Nibiru, looming in on the approach, can already be seen in broad daylight from the Southern Hemisphere. It was supposed to become visible from the Northern Hemisphere, too, by last May, but like a fickle blind date, it stood up those awaiting it.

Class M-3 B9 Robot and Will Robinson

Damn fickle planets of Doom. If you can’t count on them, who can you count on? For Carlos’ part, he decided to go Lost in Space with “Eris,” lots of actual loops of the original Class M-3 Model B9 exclaiming. “Danger, danger, Will Robinson. Warning, warning.” Idiosyncratic guitar stylings, reminiscent of Adrian Belew, color the piece.

As ambitious as this project is, Carlos Severe Marcelin can only go outward if he wishes to continue along these thematic lines. The Milky Way.  Norma and Outer Arm. Perseus and Cygna. Although, one would suppose, he could go inward and explore theoretical physics or cells, molecules and atoms and all the sub-atomic particles. Quarks and Bosons and Hadrons. Oh my!

Mention must be made of engineer Diamond Dave Friedlander’s contribution to the sonic grandeur here. Clean and pristine, his mix is as uncluttered as space itself. The perfect complement—truly spatially open and expansive.

Carlos Severe Marcelin

Planets is certainly grand in scope. Big. Real big! Carlos combines the familiar with the futuristic in uncommon ways, approaching this mission with musical exuberance and lucidity, sounding as the culmination of forty years of progressive rock guitar exposition. He isn’t showy. But he is consistently diverse and ineluctably imaginative in embroidering each of the twenty tracks with a distinctive design, while maintaining a cohesive conceptual aggregate. Not easily done.

But he does it almost effortlessly. The fluid sureness of his execution, supplemented by Eric Flint’s always compelling drum accompaniment, makes for a robustly stellar experience—difficult to compare in a rock context. Far more comprehensive than Gustav Holst’s treatment of the subject, Carlos Marcelin finds the music in the spheres that astronomer/composers such as Herschel always sought. This is a worthy effort toward that aim.

Wilkinson Blades

4:00 AM
Shiftone Records

Singer/songwriter/frontman Steve Wilkinson has been plying his craft around Portland for going on twenty years. Jeez. I remember him as a young pup with Gravelpit, back in the days of Belmont Inn. Why do I recall Steve as the original drummer in the band early on? And a different lead vocalist? Or maybe he sang lead from the drums. Or maybe it was a different band. Thrillbilly? It was a long time ago. Anyway, when Steve took over the duties as front-man, that was in the earlyish mid ‘90s, Gravelpit seemed to jell as one of Portland’s chief purveyors of Post-Nirvana grunge.

Steve Wilkinson

Steve has always projected a Vedderian sense of operatic grandeur. With Wilkinson Blades, his angst seems to have mellowed to a ragged apprehension. Whether or not that is a positive psychological arc, I am in no position to judge. But, here we are.

Grant Cumpston (Photo by Kirsten Fussell)

Gravelpit had to change their name, when it was discovered in 1998 that there was already another Gravelpit in Godknowswhere, West Virgina—or some place. Hell, there’s gravelpits all over the country—I grew up near one. Well, so our Gravelpit ended up becoming Mission 5. And Mission 5 went on, in one formation or another (always with Steve as loci and guitarist Grant Cumpston orbiting very near by), until just a year or two ago. Which brings us to the recently formed Wilkinson Blades.

One wonders why in the hell a band would name themselves after a relatively well-known British manufacturer of razor blades. Especially after having already been through the whole “Gravelpit” debaucle. But some seem doomed to repeat history until they finally learn something about litigation.

By the way, that’s Wilkinson Sword Classic Double Edge Razor Blades [which have been] improved by Wilkinson’s famous triple coating process of chromium to resist corrosion, ceramic for added durability, and PTFE for less irritation. Hey man, if anybody’s gonna score some cash off of this fiasco, it might as well be yours truly. If I can swing a promotional deal with the real Wilkinson Blades, why, ka-ching!! Watch for a link coming to this page soon.

Where was I? Oh, yes. This Wilkinson Blades. Apparently the razor blade company has yet to notice the tarnishing of their good name by these nefarious grizzled misfits. At least not so much as to bother issuing a routine cease and desist order. Be that as it may, the newly created Shiftone label, a Portland via Austin collaboration (the commutes must be horrendous) have chosen to throw in their lot with the Blades, for better or worse.

With the weight of all this TMI bearing down upon us like some Sisyphusian boulder, we are given to this place. 4AM . It’s a familiar stop along the weary highway, a dusty outpost for the misbegotten where troubles are coin of the realm. There’s a certain gray brown aspect to all of this, similar in shade to Richmond Fontaine’s Wily Vlautin’s perspective. Although the material here (let’s start with the two covers—Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning” and Chris Newman’s “Crippled Mind”) is absolutely cheery by comparison.

Neil Diamond: Just For You

Long ago, before he was an American music icon, Neil Diamond was a Solitary Man. He spoke to the brooding (primarily male) loner in all of us, writing and recording an incredible number of great songs—many of them hits—for the Bang label. Songs such as, “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Red, Red Wine,” “I’m A Believer,” “Shilo,” and many more. An amazing string.

And that is where we pick up our tale. Because on “No Exit” Steve Wilkinson sounds a great deal like a young Neil Diamond, specifically singing “Shilo.” Matt Berninger of the National comes to mind as well, but Neil Diamond is the one. There is a yearning quality in Steve’s barren baritone. A sense of resignation and remorse etches the chiming drone of guitars. Grant Cumpston’s fiery solos burnish the song to a polished sheen.

The first time I heard “Bug River Blues,” I thought it was Fernando Viciconte singing. Jagged electric guitar ripples across the western skyline with rustling acoustic guitar beneath. The song’s style and setting vaguely recall Greg Kihn’s “The Breakup Song” from the early ‘80s, while capturing that traditional prairie wind of songs like “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Thunder Road.”

There is also strong melodic and structural resemblance to Townes Van Zandt’s “Rake” in there somewhere—and Steve’s voice and delivery bear some similarity as well. On top of all that, the slashing guitars of the bridge sound very much like early-day Love, circa “7 and 7 Is.”

The shimmering, electric 12-string descending bass line of “No One Alive” calls to mind that on the Byrds’ song “Chestnut Mare,” with a Tom Petty veneer overlain. A hint of Vedder-like intensity creeps into the vocal, intense, but not angry.  A sparkling guitar solo in the middle ratchets up the zeal factor by a power of ten.

Professor Gall/Drew Norman (photo by Scott Docherty)

A horse of a completely different color is the old-time, blues-on-acid voogum of “Scared of You.” Some sort of mini-marimba, along with eerie banjo and slide guitar from Professor Gall (Drew Norman) lend a general creepiness to this short piece. Vocally, you have Steve portraying a young John Lee Hooker. Cool.

The Blades’ take on Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning” is faithful, but Steve’s voice is more tuneful, like Johnny Cash, and guest Sara Jean Zito is everything Nancy Sinatra wished she could have been (on pitch, for one thing). Wendy Berner’s plaintive cello instills a sense of  wary mystery.

Chris Newman’s “Crippled Mind” is rendered with consummate grunge oblige, smoother perhaps than Chris himself might do it—but there is no doubt that Steve makes the song his own with great power. The arrangement sews a thread of Neil Young’s “Helpless” into the cloth. And, speaking of Love, there’s an element of “Signed, D.C.” from their first album in Chris’ original composition as well. It’s a deep and heavy song. Very real.

Anthony Lambright (Photo by Foxxy Cotton)

It might seem sort of weird, but the verse of the poppy “Sunshine Now” vaguely hints at the verse of Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son,” but with more of a Wilco/Jeff Tweedy feel. Yeah, see? Weird. Anyway, guest Anthony Lambright fires off a rocket of a guitar solo, while regular Blades stage drummer John Beyer contributes solid punch in the breakdown. The outro is solid Hollies, “Bus Stop” era.

“Holding Me Down” walks on the country side of town, a touch of classic Glen Campbell croonery and John Hartford deadpan, filtered through the darkened glass of Drew Norman’s prickly banjo and moony slide guitar phrasings. Steve’s somber assessment of the passage of time and emotional tide reflect hard-worn regret without spite or rancor.

Storming onto the audio landscape like Peter Buck on REM’s “Driver 8,” Lambright shines on “It Might Hit Me” with lead guitar that sounds like a bucket of bolts rattling around in the back of an old pick-up truck—amplified multifold. A brittle, broken cry creaks into Steve’s weary voice as he mutters solemnly, not unlike Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner or Paul Westerberg of the Replacements mixed with Michael Stipe. Lambright’s brief, fiery solo in the middle compliments the tension created in the arrangement—in which Steve plays all of the other instruments. Powerful and memorable.

Rich Landar
Pete Vercelotti

Tinges of remote bitterness and detached, introspective anger shade Steve’s lower vocal range, that early Neil Diamond-meets-Matt Berninger brusque edge, on “Wishing I’d Never Known You.” Rich Landar’s whining B-3 organ tones and Pete Vercelotti’s low-slung twang guitar add ambient angst to a tale of incipient drama. “Eyes are shut the mind is racing through the hours of the day/Time is moving slowly, I somehow find a ride to move away/Drifting off, faded out, washed-up in the center of our space/Wishing I’d never known you then.”

Rob Stroup

Producer/engineer Rob Stroup’s militant snare and haunted, moaning lead guitar cry supplement the pretty ballad “Walking In the Snow.” Vocally, Steve moves well beyond his comfort zone into new, very satisfying territory, displaying depth of feeling and a range of emotions he has previously not explored with such intensity. It’s his own voice. It doesn’t sound like anyone else. By George, I think he’s got it. A beautiful song beautifully rendered.

Steve Wilkinson isn’t re-inventing himself on this album. The actual band, the Wilkinson Blades, never actually perform together here. This is a solo album with benefits. In that regard, it is perhaps the most accessible album he has ever produced. While he does so occasionally, Steve isn’t required to at all times compete with the sonic onslaught provided by a complete rock ensemble. The more restrained instances afford him the opportunity for vocal reflection—which occasions the comparisons to Neil Diamond, which he would not necessarily otherwise receive.

Wilkinson Blades (Photo by Kirsten Fussell)

The songs here are solidly written, delivered earnestly and with substantial command. At this point Steve Wilkinson is a seasoned veteran. He is not likely to alter his musical stance or perspective much. Still, if he continues to mine the vein he explores in “Walking In the Snow” it is quite possible that there may yet be a diamond of his own to be discovered.

Wilkinson Blades celebrate the release of 4AM on June 9th at Secret Society Ballroom

Photos from Wilkinson Blades CD release show 6/9/2012

The Girl From Y La Bamba

(Photo by SPinPDX)

Very tall and slender, longish, straight black hair, swatched in gray, Luz has a location-perfect, life-sized heart embossed upon the book that is her tattooed body. But where her heart truly lies is with her family. She measures the world in family. Her brothers, her immigrant parents. Her family. Music and her family. Mexico and her family. Her culture, her heritage, and her family. The band. It is all family to Luz. It is all interconnected in her world. She is constantly in process, tracing her Mexican American heritage in Oregon back to its cultural headwaters in Mexico.

Luz speaks in a lilting sonorous cadence, in a lulling rhythm very similar to the way she sings. Though her mind works so fast that she often abruptly deserts a thought mid-sentence to change course in some other direction—her passion for the subject matter always burns through with laser-like clarity.

You grew up in California, is that right?

I grew up in Oregon. But I was born in San Francisco and I spent a lot of summers and other times of the year down in California with my family. I grew up in Medford. And Ashland in my adult years.

When did you move there?

I moved to Ashland after the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City [2002].

What did you do in Ashland?

I was working in a body-piercing tattoo shop.

I find that hard to believe. So, did you play your first gig in Ashland, then?

No, I was playing everywhere. I was playing in Medford. Like, Osprey.

Do you remember your first gig?

It was at Jackass Café, I think. But that was, like—I was playing at churches and stuff and other events. The first gig I did was Jackass Café in Medford. It was like a little open mic.

But you were playing in a band in Ashland before you moved to Portland?

I was playing in a band called Romance Forgery. It was very high energy. Rock’n’roll. Really, just kids.

You played original material?

Zapato Electrico

Always. And then after that Mike Kitson, the drummer we have now, and Sean Rogers, my boyfriend at the time on bass and Indeara Rose, who played concert harp. We all played together in a band called Zapato Electrico.

And that’s when we started doing music together. And then we moved to Portland and we started playing around here.

You went by the name Elena Mendoza in those days?

On my birth certificate its Luz Elena, but I have used it both ways. I went by Elena for so long because it seemed like when I was growing up it was hard to say it all together.

When did you first start writing songs?

Always. Since I was a little chipmunk. I’ve been writing since I can remember, for whatever it was worth at the time. I have no idea. I was just doing, well see, that’s one thing I never learned, I mean how do I articulate this?

Writing music and that expression has always been a part of my being, my existence. So I never knew anything else. It’s the thing that’s been the most consistent. It’s never changed. It’s only gotten—well look where I am now.

Then when did you start taking them seriously? Writing them down?

I picked up the guitar when I was seventeen, didn’t really become acquainted with it until eighteen, like actually feeling confident. Chords. I taught myself.

You know those instrumentals? CD singles’ instrumentals. R&B songs? You’d get the single and there’d be an instrumental track. Well my big thing was to write my own melodies, or my own words to other people’s music. And I was. It was awesome. It was like Cherry Garcia band, but without the drama.

Did you play any instruments before you played guitar?

(Photo by Nathan Hazard)

I played violin when I was little. I played the clarinet. And I played around with a keyboard that my dad got for me. A Yamaha cream colored keyboard. It had programmed beats, certain things I would write songs to, like a drum machine. So, I’d do whatever. But it wasn’t until I picked up the guitar that I actually started to put music and words and actually be manipulating the sounds and how I wanted it to be. Getting to know that part.

But I’ve always written songs, even before I had—it’s not like I was writing songs on the violin. I was a little girl.

Is your family musical?

No. They’re not musical in the sense they play instruments. But music is a really big thing in our culture. So I was around music all the time. And my dad loves music. You could sit down and talk to him and he’d tell you about the differences between boleros, mariachi songs. Different kinds of styles. He knows about time signatures. He just knows all this stuff. Because he’s moved by it. He himself would have loved to be a singer. I always mimicked–he would sing really loud at parties, to music with all the other Mexicans, and I would sing along.

How does your family feel about your being a musician? Did they approve right away?

I think when I was younger, because I’m such a fiery person– They gave me, well they rented a violin and they encouraged that, but once they saw that I started to become myself—they got kinda freaked out and they weren’t as encouraging. But that goes along with other things too. They were just really paranoid and scared for their children to be exposed to the American influence. They were pretty strict about everything. I had to sneak out to start a basketball team! So, if it wasn’t music, it was something else. But music, they were just scared that something bad was going to happen to me. And they saw how much attention I was giving it, naturally. It’s not like I told them ‘I want to do that’. They just saw it. They were trying– They didn’t know. They didn’t know how to encourage me at all.

So, now that I’m older, I’m almost thirty, my mom’s like, ‘Oh, when are you gonna get a real job’? And my dad is–the last thing he said, when I saw him last year, he was like, ‘I want you to contact Emilio Estefan so he can help you’. But before that he’s always been quiet, far-watching, not really giving me his opinion. He’s real judgmental. He doesn’t really know how to accept it. I can see that now he knows. And he knows that he knows that that’s what I’m doing.

Lupon

You said ‘the last thing he said’, is your dad still alive? From what I read, it doesn’t sound like your parents are still together. I read about your mom working in a sawmill.

Yeah, my pops is still alive. He lives in Atwater, California. They both have worked really hard in their lives. Still fucking going and it kills me. The sweat on their brow is what has inspired me to be who I am.

Have they ever come to hear the band?

Yes.

And you received a good response?

My pops doesn’t say much. He said something and I don’t want to say it. And that was just recently. Mostly he doesn’t— My mom’s a different story, more like, ‘You’re really doing this’? She thinks it’s funny.

How are you with them being so—

Aloof to it all? Well— I think there’s beauty behind the reality of things. There’s a reason why things happen the way they happen. For instance—I saw this Daniel Johnston interview, a documentary. They were interviewing his parents. And his parents just, like, had no idea, like how much attention Daniel Johnston was getting.

He’s just their kid.

But he was, like, a crazy kid. And he’s also a genius. But they never get it. They never spoke about it the way we get it.

I don’t know. I like it the way it is. Even though it sometimes torments me, like when I hear my mom, when I get sick, ‘Oh I just wish you had benefits’. And I’m all like, ‘Oh, I’m trying’. Sometimes it’s hard to do regular daily life things. I’m always living out— ‘Oh, we gotta create this, do this, dutta, dutta, dutta’. Then I’m hard on myself. It is what it is, right now.

I think what life is all about is to cultivate these relationships and I think with my family it’s all about convincing them of how people are perceiving me. It’s more like me evolving with the way it is. It’s something that I’m going through, trying to exist and be present with my family and life—and what it all means.

I’d think that with all the touring you’ve been doing it’s hard to maintain a center, your personal gravity.

I don’t mind touring. I love, love, love the boys in the group. We all get along. We’re all super different. But there’s this one thing that makes us jell. We all share the same ability to tap into our expression through music.

But it is hard to tour all the time and come back and be all ‘Oh, my cat’s sick’. ‘Oh, my mom’s mad or my brothers’re mad’ because the only time I get to see them is when I’m on the road and I stop in town and they get angry. They get, like, ‘You don’t make time’, for a day.

How many brothers do you have? Older? Younger? I know you’re the only daughter. Are you also the youngest?

I have three brothers—two older, one younger. Daniel Mendoza, Rolando Mendoza and Gerardo Mendoza. I am right in the middle of lovely hermanos. [Clarity lights in her eyes].

Ramon Ayala

My big thing, after coming back from Mexico, my focus is, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to go back to Mexico.’ I need to be playing with these people. And I want to get closer and closer to, like, one day be on Spanish radio.

You were there recently, right?

Yeah, I just got back from being in Mexico for six weeks.

What part?

I was mostly in Mexico City. I had a friend who bought me a one-way ticket there and I just decided to go. It was really bad timing.

Bad timing?

Yeah, she just bought it and surprised me with it. So I decided to go and stayed in Mexico City. Traveled outside of Mexico City, but not that far. Saw Xochimilco, did all the tourist-y kind of things. The Pyramids of the Sun and Moon in Teotihuacán. So that, and then I hung out. I got to know the city in, like, the poorer areas, the middle class areas too and the music scene.

You’ve never been in that area before?

Well I went to Mexico City when I was a lot younger, with my parents—so not as an adult. And I don’t remember—and obviously I’m absorbing new things and my perspective is constantly being challenged and changed.

It was really cool to be staying at my friend’s aunt’s house on an old street in a barrio in Mexico City. It was humble and poorish. And the whole street, there were a lot of families that lived there for many years, a lot of generations. With them, and then leaving, and to go into the city center and have that experience. It was cool. I’m definitely going back.

Is there much of a music scene in Mexico?

The music scene there, especially Mexico City, they love music there. They love music in a way that’s different. And I know if Y La Bamba was to go to Mexico, I know people would, like, not—

They wouldn’t see you as posers?

No. We have our own aesthetic. Our delivery is different. They love music from the States. Like, you go to every single bar, you hear the Cure playing, or the Smiths. They love the Smiths.

It’s something I want to work toward. End of this year, beginning of next year or, shit, if it happens, ‘Oh, you got an international booking agent. It starts in Latin America’! Then I’m like ‘Sweet. I’m in’.

But in Mexico City there isn’t just the traditional folk. I think, in America, people are like, “Oh yeah. Mexican music. It’s ranchero, banda, cumbia’. Or if I said mariachi, they wouldn’t know the difference.

Your promotional material says some of the songs on Court The Storm reflect a mariachi style, but I didn’t really hear that.

(Photo by Buko)

Yeah, well, we had horns and stuff. You know, it’s definitely our own thing. We add things, but different.

What I was saying about Mexico City, they have other music. The last few weeks I was there I was meeting people, went to a couple shows, got the chance to play a couple solo shows. Just by meeting those people.

And I was blown away how talented and intelligent these people are. Like, my people. The music. It’s not just the traditional folk. There’s— Check out this band called Hello Seahorse. They’re from Mexico City. Metric was playing Mexico City and Hello Seahorse opened up for them. They play with another band called Zoe.

Who were your musical influences growing up?

For the longest time, the only thing we would listen to as a family collective was Mexican music. That’s it. Classical Mexican music, folk. Everything.

And it wasn’t until junior high that I was starting to listen to hip-hop and r&b and Nirvana and the Cranberries. Northwest grunge. Totally into that, if it wasn’t Aliyah or SWV.

Any vocalist you really liked especially?

CoKo Clemons

I was really drawn to the lead singer [CoKo Clemons] of SWV [Sisters With Voices]—the r&b girl trio. Loved them so much, and Aliyah, her first album [Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number] that came out in 1994. I used to sing along with that. This is American music. Vocalists, like Mexican? I loved Javier Solis, Gerardo Reyes, Vincente Fernandez, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete. When I was little I liked Selena. She really inspired me. She started the style called tejano. She was a huge inspiration. She really was. Me, as a little rascal, like growing up with my Mexican heritage, like being in America and seeing Selena. Selena was to girls my age what Lady Gaga is today.

Gloria Trevi

Gloria Trevi. Loved Gloria Trevi. Crazy story about that woman. Crazy scandal. But she was also a huge inspiration. She wasn’t traditional Mexican music. She was, like, rock, crazy, like, grungy rock. Back in the late eighties, early nineties. Crazy, like, awesome vocalist. With an attitude. Every girl wanted to be like her

What prompted your spiritual quest, I mean, other than questing for spiritual—

Life is messed up, man [chortling rhetorically]. I think I’ve been on a spiritual quest since I was born. When you start developing your own philosophy and know what it actually means to you. Exploring new things. Exploring life. Making sure that you’re understanding the responsibility. And I grew up Catholic. That can get confusing. But it only gets confusing when you realize it’s getting confusing.

There’s a lot of ritual in the Catholic church.

Which I’m still stuck with the ritual. I’m just working with it. What I think it means where I am now.

How old were you when you traveled to New Zealand and India?

I was twenty—and I turned twenty-one. I was twenty-one.

Why New Zealand?

Because there was a school there. Actually this certain school is like everywhere around the world. In different parts of different countries and I chose New Zealand. Because the year before I left, I went to the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and I met a couple of kiwis there. Kids from New Zealand. It was all Christian based. And we were teaching snow boarding to little kids during the Winter Olympics. And I was there for a month and I met all these people and they talked about this program called Youth with a Mission. YWAM.

I just fell in love with the idea of New Zealand. I just saw pictures and stuff. And all I did was to save up until I actually had enough to pay for this school. It was a school of biblical studies and I went. Non-denominational. And I went by myself. I went to India. Came back to New Zealand. And I stayed longer than I was supposed to on my quest. And I came back and I never went back to the church. That’s what all of that did to me.

What was in India?

Well, it was a mission. Only five of us from the school went. And we just worked with the people on the street. We built homes for widows. We did missionary work. We worked at the Mother Teresa orphanages around Calcutta. We didn’t know anything about India. It’s huge! Especially Calcutta. I think that’s where I got sick. I was in Calcutta and Vara Nasi. Vara Nasi was the place that started to change things for me, the perspective that was in my face. I was young. I was like ‘Something’s different.’

You have said you lost your faith there. Have you regained it?

You and I were talking about Catholicism. I’ve lost— Like, you’re married. Like, you’re born into this religion and married to this faith and you’re not second-guessing it. You’re always second-guessing your motives, if you’re right or wrong. But you’re not second-guessing God itself. And it was when I was there that I started second-guessing. What type of god and the information attached to it and what it all meant. I was questioning the God that I was being taught to believe in. Versus not questioning, I was questioning other things. And that was the first time ever that I had the opportunity to– Somehow, something opened up then in India like a sponge, soaking everything in. And I’m like ‘Man, this country is so out of touch! America is so— There’s no Americans here’.

[Tears of frustration well in her eyes]

And I’m here and we’re trying to teach these people our God. But I was so distracted by all their gods and their rituals and the way they. And all that stuff. Just quietly turned off. I sub-consciously turned off. I was just with the people, seeing the people. What they did. What they ate. How they ate, why they ate. Why they prayed to their gods. How many gods. What are all their names?

The poverty. The wealth. I was just so conflicted. When I got back to New Zealand I decided to still do the school of biblical studies. And I did it and we, like, read the whole Bible. I read every single book. We studied certain words in each book, because it changed the context. Like ‘love’. I can’t even articulate everything I learned. We did that, and like slowly but surely, because I made an effort and I wanted to learn more. I just became more—depressed. [Very sadly].

So I came back to the States after being gone a total of eleven months from America, not knowing what the heck to do.

I remember ordering these books on tape about creation versus evolution. So I was into that kinda thing. It was like—‘Oh, I need to know more’. I was stepping outside. I listened to a Bright Eyes album, like obsessively, around that time. Lifted… [Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground]. And the album helped me not– I just stopped going to church. And I just listened to the album over and over and over again.

That became your church.

(Photo by Buko)

Totally. And I was really depressed that I couldn’t go back to church and feel the same high that I did before. I was like—‘why did the universe take this away from me’? I had been so happy. I was on a mission.

I was pissed off. I was mad at everything. And there were certain events that happened. Because I’m intense. When I fall in love, I fall in love. When I commit, I commit. And I’m faithful. Therefore I was faithful and committed and in love and I was like totally doing the work to be what I was being taught to be under the Christian religion. But I grew up Catholic. I did the whole Christian thing on my own.

Yeah, it was a heartbreaking thing. It was like divorcing my love.

It seems like that turmoil is still coming out in your music.

Oh yeah. Sure

Do you have any specific goals for yourself or for the band, going forward? From music, the music business, or a career. I hate that word.

What I would like to see, because we all have invested so much in doing this, but not– I think the original intention was just to have fun and hang out with homies. I mean, take it seriously for the sake of taking someone’s expression seriously. And because this is something I’ve always done, I’m always going to be doing what I’m doing. We have this intention and we’re at where we’re at.

What do I want out of the music business? Shit man, I don’t know. It’s flighty. Who knows what could happen? All I want is some sort of mental stability and perspective constantly, and just to grow. It’s just a growing experience, you know?

Do you see yourself as being a singer—a professional musician—all your life?

[Long pause]

Well, in this context— It’s so hard to answer that, because— I can see myself doing what I’m doing now, but it’ll change, I’m sure.

If you weren’t singing, what would you be doing?

Probably be dead.

Oh! That’s not the answer I anticipated.

I’m so dramatic. I don’t know how to answer that, because I don’t know anything else. To be honest with you, right now, because we have down time right now, I’m like ‘what the fuck am I doing’? ‘What the fuck am I gonna do’? And everyone’s encouraging me: ‘No. This is what you’re supposed to be doing’. Well I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing, I’ve been doing it my whole life. Now I’m getting old. Like, what am I doing? I’m scared. You know? It’s kind of a scary thing. But this is my perspective. And I’m hoping, like, that something changes, but it’s up to me. But that’s because I’m sensitive and emotional. I hope that I’m able to understand the music business well enough where I’m not so aloof to it. And get really upset, and not know how to—like, because the business— I’m not, like, a business oriented person.

I’ve frequently contended that it’s called the ‘Music Business’ for a reason. Capital M, capital B. Most capital M musicians are terrible capital B businessmen and vice versa.

When I see musicians who are business oriented, and they’re good musicians, and they’re doing really well, I’m like, ‘why is it that I can’t be…’ For instance, we’re supposed to be turning this thing in, and there’s a deadline. I have no idea what the fuck it is. And there’s a deadline today at one [within about forty-five minutes] and it’s my fault, because it’s hard for me to understand all these little nooks and crannies of what you’re supposed to get done and, like, I don’t know and I always beat myself up for it because I don’t know how to do that. If you were to ask me if I see myself as a professional musician, I would like to learn how to be that, but I don’t consider myself as a professional, like it’s my profession. I still don’t consider myself like that. I don’t. I need to learn to understand all that and then maybe, you know? Once I understand it, maybe we can talk and I’ll answer you. Do I want to do this? I don’t know. I’m doing this because it’s all of this. And it’s, like, my family. Like writing—I see my mom and my dad and my brothers—

That really comes across.

Well there’s so many things coming up to the surface all the time.

If you look at popular music in general—most of it is pretty shallow. There’s not a lot of that introspection out there.

Well, those people are really good at the business side of things and they really know how to work it.

[Returning to the original question]

I mean, I’m gonna try. It’s not like I’m gonna sit there, ‘Oh woe is me. Blah, blah, blah’. And there’s people—we’re helping each other and there’s people in the band and like that who know how to do certain things that the others don’t know.

But it can be draining, because then those people get stuck doing that shit all the time. I’m trying to learn how to do all that.

Why?

Because I have to. Because other people are not going to—

Is that what they say? Or is that what you—

Luz Elena Mendoza and Paul Cameron (Photo by Buko)

I can’t just sit there. And I do that. I do just sit there and, like, ‘Oh, they’ll figure it out. They’ll figure it out because I don’t know how’. It’s enabling me. I should at least try to learn. And I am. But it’s so hard. I mean, interviews and like that. I don’t mind interviews. At least they don’t have to do the interviews and I do. Paul’s [guitarist Paul Cameron] in the same boat. Paul and I—we’re just like ‘I don’t know what’s going on’.

Like, I’ve had this job right down the street at Zilla. I’ve been working there the past four years. And it’s, like, a family business. We’re all family there. We’re like super tight. They’ve been really, really nice about my touring schedule. I come back and I always have a job—that security. This year, however, because of how much I’ve been gone, and I took that personal trip to Mexico [the aforementioned “bad timing”]. I don’t have a full schedule there anymore. So the reality check is, I’m only working there two days a week.

And everybody knows in this town that we’re in a band, and that, if we were trying to get another job—like, it’s hard to find a temporary job. And, like, that’s where we’re at right now.

YLB on NPR

So, trying to be psychologically stable. And be like, “Okay, is this going to work’? And try to figure out how to pay rent and have food on. It’s a reality. Eric [accordion], he has a family, but he also has a job where he can, like, leave and do it on the road. So can Mike [drummer]. And Scott [percussion]—he has so much work. He’s a DJ. He can do so much stuff. Then, as for me, I mean, I can, like, do what I do there, but really, my job is to wake up in the morning, and, like, play my guitar and, like, be really hard on myself and rewrite it five times and then ask Paul to come over and we just play and then we’re supposed to be looking for a job. Chances are they’re not going to hire us, because we’re…

Because you’re flakes [Sarcstically].

Well, not like that! We can’t— We’re like, ‘Oh yeah, can you hire us, but we’re gonna be gone all of March. But we’ll be back in April. And maybe in May we’ll be gone for two weeks’.  So how do I make that work? I don’t know. It’s not like I have anything to compare it to. I’m adding it to my adult learning experience memory files. Maybe next time I’ll learn how to do it better.

You still have a long way to go. You’re not…

If this works— I’m just being blunt. But it’s all coming. At the end.

You know, I think you and the band have a real bright future. Just keep doing what you’re doing and trust your musical instincts. I think you’re on to something.

Thank you. That’s really encouraging. We’re all just homies trying to get by and stay true to our expression and not be so hard on ourselves. Keep confidence and keep doing it.

When did Paul join the band?

Two years ago. That’s so crazy! Two years ago. Yeah. But the band as a whole has been together for five years.

But some members who were on Lupon left after it was recorded, right?

Just one. It was David Kyle[David Kyle and the Invisibles, The Shadow Grounds], the guitarist.

And what happened to Sean Flinn?

Luz and Sean Flinn

Sean has his own project [Sean Flinn & the Royal We]. And what happened was that both of the bands were receiving similar attention at the time and there were scheduling conflicts and Ben Meyercord and myself were singing with Sean too.

We had to make a very conscious decision and try to do what was best for both projects—he should focus on his stuff and we should focus on ours. You know what I mean? Here in Portland everyone’s playing in everyone’s band and it gets frustrating, but at the same time. How can you not? You’re constantly inspired. And then we’re all super-sensitive on top of that.

Super-sensitive musicians. Imagine that!

We take it to a whole new level. There’s plenty of things to be— Things are pretty intuitive.

Your vocal blend with Paul is amazing in places on Court The Storm. ‘Hughson Boys’.

On ‘Hughson Boys’, when we originally wrote it, we had this vocal blend. It was synchronized and smooth. Then after performing it for some time, we kind of lost the original way we sang it. Then when we recorded it, I remember Paul pulled me aside, and he said let’s try to sing it like we did at first. And we were really in tune and we ended up doing it live together in the studio. That was awesome!

Well the thing about the Beatles and the Beach Boys and the classic r&b vocal groups of the ‘60s was that they all sounded related when they sang. Their harmony and blend was that close. It sounded like family members and you two sound like family members.

We are!

How did you guys hook up with Neko Case?

Neko Case

Neko Case was on a personal trip. She came to Portland. And she was hanging out, you know? Whatever. On her own. She got tattooed. And she was downtown strolling around and she walked into Tender Loving Empire, looking at the music and our album was playing in the store. This was, like, September of two years ago. She was, like, ‘Who is this’? ‘Oh, it’s Y La Bamba, duh duh duh. They’re record is actually coming out next week’. [Lupon was released in late September 2010]. So she buys it and tweets about it. And she’s ‘Oh my God. Portland music lover’. Blah, blah, blah. And then next day we got an offer to tour because of that. I had friends say, ‘Did you see? Neko tweeted about you’. It went from that to the next day to the next day. It was pretty cool. Last year was really a good year for us. And we didn’t have this album out yet. And Neko did sing on one song, ‘Court the Storm’.

I can hear a bit of attitude in places toward the end of the album. There’s that energetic, more traditional…

Luz, Ben Meyercord and Mike Kitson- Eric Schrepel obscured (Photo by Buko).

‘Viuda’. I love playing that one live. We all love it. It’s our jam. [laughs]. One of my favorite songs is ‘Idaho’s Genius’. Ben Meyercord sings lead on that.

I like ‘Bendito’ a lot.

That song’s fun. It’s going to be our second single. The first one is ‘Squawk’. On the twenty-eghth [February 28th],the day of our CD release, ‘Bendito’ is going to be released on Latin I-Tunes. And that is exciting and I hope that that song, and I don’t hope for much, but I hope that song reaches Mexico City. I hope something happens. I hope something is manifested with that tune. If it doesn’t, whatever, oh well, I’ll do what it does. Whatever it wants to do. It’s just because I got back from Mexico and I feel so inspired.

Can you say something about the polyrhythms and polymeters on the new album? Court the Storm is rampant with that stuff.

Just wait ‘til the next album! We have like, ‘River in Drought’, ‘Clarijs,’ and ‘Pictures of a Dog’.

Did you record this album here in Portland?

Yeah. I think it’s called Acoustic Alchemy [Audible Alchemy]. Alchemy Studio on Mississippi.

And Steve Berlin’s [Los Lobos, producer of Court the Storm] in Portland now?

Yes. Yeah, he has his family here and stuff. His daughters live here. He has a beautiful family.

How did you guys run into him?

There was a New Seasons thing— Mississippi Studios? The album release for the last album. That’s when I first met him. From there he was like homie.

Any plans to go back into the studio?

We have this thing we really want to do it this year. An EP with Nick Delffs. Old Shaky Hands? We wanna do stuff with him somehow. We wanna do at least an EP this year. I would love to and I think the band wants to too. Keep the momentum and the stamina going.

You guys all seem very free of ego.

You should see us all on tour. In the van, they’re always doing Scrabble and nerdy nerd. And I’m, like, in the back—

Worrying about everything?

[She laughs sheepishly]

We all want to take care of each other and understand the fruits of life. It’s what makes us human—to create and be inspired. One van, one girl, five dudes, crossword puzzles, coffee, herbs, and limes.

Photo by Buko)