Chris Newman Deluxe Combo

nobodyNobody
Self-Released

Chris Newman’s name came up last time in my review of Mike Coykendall. Chris has been a very busy fellow over the past year or so. I wrote about his self-produced (on his trusty Teac 4-track) album King Shit last January, and included a review of his previous album, Beachcomber (produced by the legendary Jack Endino) released in May of last year. So between the twenty-nine songs dispersed across those two records and the fifteen here, we’ve got two score and four. And with the recent addition of an 8-track machine to his studio arsenal, there is every reason to believe there will be more from Chris very soon.

But Nobody was recorded on the 4-Track and sounds like it (that’s meant to be a compliment as much as a criticism). As on the previous outings, Chris, plays the guitar, occasional piano, a couple of harp interjections, and an organ pad from time to time. He’s again expertly supported by bassist Nathan Jorg and Doug Naish on drums. And, as with King Shit, the arrangements are pared down and primitive. There’s not much room for a lot of fancy-dancy overdubs, tricky punch-ins, or doubling here. It’s mostly live to tape. Raw and real.

Chris Newman
Chris Newman

Chris isn’t reinventing the Newman wheel here. His influences remain at the forefront, really no different than they were when he first got rolling 35-40 years ago (at this stage of his career he stands as one of those influences: as launcher of the early grunge ships). But he presents his songs in such a variety of styles, from blues to psychedelia, any Chris Newman recording is a real sonic adventure. And there are always nuggets to be unearthed in the program—and this instance is no different. In fact, there are many inspired performances to be found.

The album begins with the languid “Castaway,” which seems to pick up the narrative thread that left off on King Shit. The verse traverses ground similar to the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” until midway, whereupon Chris launches into an elephantine solo, his guitar emitting a great pachydermic wail. Oh yeah!

Vocally, Chris fuses Captain Beefheart with Fred Cole, exorcising his dark interpersonal demons on “Drivin’ Me Mad,” while paving a black-top, two-lane grunge highway on guitar that drives hard from here all the way back to Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.”

The prototypical primordial grunge of “Homo a Go Go.” Thick, churning clouds of guitar hover low over the brimstone collision between human introspection and a fast-changing species. Joy Division meets Interpol in a dark cavern. Sublime. The rueful ballad “Bad Television” arrives, full circle, at the other end of the musical telescope, recalling “My TV,” a gem from Chris’ days with the Untouchables at the beginning of his career.

But where the former was a bit of a cheery ode to the companionship a television occasionally offered—the new song affords a far darker view. “I blame bad television, in all its encompassing nature.” Much has changed since Chris wrote “My TV” thirty-five years ago, the cultural landscape since laid to waste is starkly captured here. A touch of moody cocktail piano adds just the right touch of cynicism to the presentation.

Chris Newman Photo by RJB Photo (Rob Butler)
Chris Newman Photo by RJB Photo (Rob Butler)

“Elsewhere” is a bit of Floydian psychedelia, circa the Syd era. There’s a shadow of early Who hanging over the production as well. Chris invests a Leslie-like tremolo to his mournful solos, a tone that fits the ‘60s mode to a T. The moody psychedelia continues with the spacy, somnambulant ballad “Rings of Saturn.” Chris’ sparse, soaring guitar leads conjure Explosions in the Sky in scale of epic sonic majesty.

Jimi Hendrix watches over “Cryin’ All the Way Home,” a moody, bluesy number with incendiary solos, and banshee harp interjections, delivered over Naish’s rock-solid beat. Chris’ stinging, whipsmart fills fall somewhere along the line between Jimi and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Yow! The ghost of Jimi returns for “Deadman Blues,” with Chris firing off blistering solos over a “St. James Infirmary,” “House of the Rising Sun” setting. The nasty, roadhouse blues “Cleopatra Don’t Mind” is buoyed by Chris’ jazzy barrelhouse piano. Low, dirty vox spell out a tale of some gray, brooding voogum.

Following that extended blues interlude, the mood returns to lurching sludge with “City on Fire.” This time the keyboard ornamentation of choice is a smoky organ, but the guitar burns hot lead, distinctly maintaining Jimi in the arc of its manifestation.

Chris Newman1
Photo by Kurtis Kirk

A brusquely unique nylon string acoustic guitar propels “Dreamworld,” an energetic, ‘60s-informed rocker with a familiar turnaround. The focus here is lyrical. Though the vocal is buried just enough to make the deciphering of the lyrics difficult, the sense is that Chris is experiencing a great deal of confusion in his life, not all of it of his making. This song is a nice departure from the others.

The title track slaloms a hard driving two-beat, sliding downhill at a breakneck pace, until it tumbles into a heap momentarily, before resuming its cartwheel descent. Vocally, Chris occasionally invokes the wry Beefheart croak, a jagged broken windshield at other times.

Chris Newman is a musical treasure. His significance within the Portland music scene (and well beyond) cannot be overstated. And while Chris has experienced fallow times in his life, he is now undergoing an inspired period in which he is producing high quality material on a low-budget.

In bassist Jorg and drummer Naish, Chris has found solid support, similar in reliability to the olden days of Napalm. Justifiably, Chris has bemoaned the paucity of attendees to some Deluxe Combo shows. But the truth is that so much of the population in Portland is new to the city, recently arrived, that the sense of history once so highly valued within the local musical community has dissipated.

There is good music everywhere to be found in this town, the relative importance of one act against another is such, that older musicians often fail to attract a younger demographic that might actually enjoy the artistry, if there was any real name recognition. For some genres, the blues, for instance, the demographic in this city is aging right along with the chief proponents­—well, it’s the old story of the spirit being willing but the flesh (and the pocketbook) being weak.

deluxeChris Newman merits wider recognition. It seems so odd to even be making that statement, over thirty-five years into his career, but there it is. He is certainly still relevant, still cranking out great songs at a pace someone one-third his age would be hard-pressed to rival. But he is decidedly unglamorous.

Glamor and image, increasingly, seem to be what the denizens of New Portlandia crave most. Of course that’s entirely at odds with the very qualities that drew them to a backwater hardscrabble burg like this in the first place. The image of the “artist” that attracted the Nouveau Upwards here has drawn so many to Portland that the newcomers are now crowding out the “artists” they came to be among. That worked out well.

 

 

October 2015

Mike Coykendall

Coyk frHalf Past Present Pending
Fluff and Gravy Records

Mike Coykendall has been a longtime fixture in local music, involved in nearly every aspect of the scene. Since moving to Portland from San Francisco (where he and his wife Jill led the Old Joe Clarks) in 1999, he has quietly gone acquired a reputation for good ears and good musical taste. In 2003 he worked closely with M Ward on his third release, The Transfiguration of Vincent, subsequently touring with Ward in support of that album. Later he played with She & Him for their recordings and tours. He also collaborated with Gillian Welch, Bright Eyes, Jim James, and Victoria Williams, among many others

Mike Coykendall (Photo by Christopher Sohler)
Mike Coykendall (Photo by Christopher Sohler)

In addition to working as a sideman, Mike has served as producer and engineer on countless local recordings. We caught him here a couple of years ago, producing and playing on Little Sue’s New Light, wherein he was…ahem…instrumental in the outcome of that project.

He’s worked with countless local alt-folk musicians, in one capacity or another over the years—producing and recording the likes of Richmond Fontaine, Blitzen Trapper, Sallie Ford and her band, and the late lamented Amelia, to name a few. An early supporter of the career of Annalisa Tornfelt, Mike produced her album The Number 8 (released last March) and recorded her on his trusty 8-track analog recorder.

As if all that weren’t plenty enough on his plate, he’s released self-produced albums of his own from time to time. This is his fourth, the previous record being Chasing Away the Dots in 2012. For that outing he enlisted the aid of many of the big name stars he’s worked with in the past. Here he pretty much goes it alone. Because he’s been producing his own side projects for quite some time—he’s acquired an intrinsic personal sound and style that doesn’t necessarily require a lot of fanfare or fireworks.

But, left to his own devices, Coykendall is capable of amassing sonic munitions if the occasion calls for it. His drum-work, as demonstrated on Little Sue’s album, can be ruthless. When he’s of a mind, he tortures his modest kit. The rest of the time he is said to be employing “the rig,” a jerry-built percussion device, which doesn’t amount to much really, just a few household items. But when you hear it in action, it manages to fill all the necessary rhythm spaces quite adequately, whatever it is.

coyMike’s placement in the Americana arc would be a point located near that of Blitzen Trapper—with many similar reference points. But one can readily tell that he’s well versed in the classics, as his music reflects familiarity with the work of the masters.

There’s a Petty vibe in places among the ten songs (and two instrumentals). You can hear that brittleness in tracks such as “All That I Wanted,” “Just South of Levitation,” and the wry “You Don’t Have to Treat You That Way.” You hear Dylan, and mainly John Prine, in “Hard Landing,” wearied JJ Cale over jagged, smoky guitar in “Spacebaker Blues,” and the introspective lyrical poignance of Danny O’Keefe or Steve Goodman in “Burn on Re-Entry.”

But there’s more to Mike Coykendall’s music than that. Much more. For one thing, the two instrumentals included in this package demonstrate a distinctive, if somewhat primitive, studio savvy—after all, the guy’s only working with 8-tracks, although I thought I read somewhere that he ping-ponged to the 8-track from a 4-track cassette. But any way you cut it, we’re talkin’ lo-fi, DIY, down in the trenches, seat of the pants creativity. There’s wizardry here, but it seems born more of necessity than by design.

“Killing Time” marches onto the scene in a whirring din, before snaking into a repetitive, low-strung guitar filigree riff. Elements of Duane Eddy, Link Wray and even Neil Young circulate through the rumbling bloodstream of this forlorn sonic koan. Similarly, “Paranoid Eyes” hovers in an overblown cloud (with a thrown rod) before unwinding and finally settling into a cartoon-sprinkled swirl of peculiar sound. Accessible stuff, but weirder than shit.

coyk bkBut two of the strongest songs of the set are covers. Obscure covers to be sure. He gives Roger Miller’s “In the Summer Time” (a hit for Andy Williams in 1960) a fairly straight-ahead, goose-step two step treatment—while possibly employing the vaunted “rig.” Whatever it is, it’s raw, and raucous, and reverberates like a garbage can tipping over in a windstorm. Vocally, Mike is a sawblade cutting through brick: gritty, raw and tightly compressed; resembling some of Eric Earley’s early exhortations for Blitzen Trapper. “East of Cheney,” culled from the Coykendall back-catalog, has a bit o’ the Blitzen running through it as well.

Even better is Mike’s take on Syd Barrett’s nugget “Late Night,” from his ill-fated debut solo album The Madcap Laughs, released early in 1970. Maybe it’s just me, but everything about Mike’s presentation reminds me of Chris Newman—his gritty vocal, his molten guitar, his basement recording. Which brings to mind an interesting hypothetical admixture: Chris Newman and Mike Coykendall in a project together. I don’t know if they even know each other, but we live in a small town magical world, anything can happen.

Mike Coykendall knows what to do with what he’s got, and what he does, he does very well. His idiosyncrasies and quirks render him not so much a flavor as a spice. A versatile spice to be used in many different dishes, such as those found here.

 

July 2015

 

Brownish Black

B&B FrLife Lessons
Breakup Records

Brownish Black are an unique strain, a funky soul octet with elements of r&b floating though their lineage, and they are a distinct anomaly within the current Portland music scene. They’ve been together about five years, adding positions to the ensemble along the way, gradually expanding the scope of the group’s musical purview to include a line of horns and occasional keyboard/organ fills. The songs presented here touch thirteen separate stylistic bases (referencing mostly ‘60s and ‘70s) and never land for long on any single reference. It’s easy to generalize about the band, but hard to summarize.

And unique. Brownish Black are not descended from the funk/soul of the old days in the Portland music scene hierarchy, such as Pleasure, Cool’r, Nu Shooz, or the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and other seminal local acts. The Brownish material and delivery is harder, and more honest, closer to the Daddies in that respect. They exhibit a boldness and social consciousness worthy of Sly & the Family Stone, or War, or Gil Scott Heron.

lead
M. D. Sharbatz

Lead singer, M.D. Sharbatz, a Detroit native, brings with him a bargeload of Detroit r&b/soul freight. He is availed of a slippery falsetto and a thin, but respectable Wilson Pickett/Otis Redding/Joe Tex/Mitch Ryder growl. Meanwhile, the music and arrangements cast a broad net, often closer to early ‘70s: Temps, Ojays, Spinners, and the like. But in truth they’re all over the place.

They frequently exhibit an offhanded smartassedness. Like the children of Steely Dan, or the cousins of the Flock, they use similar settings to create the new soul paradigm for the 21st century. Music with a message. An amalgam. As an example, “Le System” resembles somewhat middle period Steely Dan, with a funk groove circa Earth Wind and Fire, and a brief Edwin Starr reference. The strange Mexicali middle that may or may not work.

brownish 2The melody to “Passing Time” waves at the Supreme’s “Where Did Our Love Go” as it floats by. “Fight It” calls to mind the Temptations doing a “Get Ready”-like follow-up to The Family Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher.” It’s a stew. But it cooks, without being imitative. This is in homage territory. No frills. Not ironic. A lot of irony in music today, tongue buried so far in cheek it’s coming out of the ear. One thing nice about Portland. Some bands are not ironic. Brownish Black are not ironic.

The quality of the recording is sparse, clean, punchy, no frills and to the point— such that it is right in the pocket with 1965-1972 soul releases played on the radio back at that time. John Neff co-produced the album with the band, and his previous work with Curtis Mayfield, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker clearly demonstrate his bona fides. He reveals his chops unobtrusively, subscribing to the “less-is-more” school of engineering.

brownish3Not really soul at all, the ballad “Singing a Song” is closer to ‘60s R&B ala the Drifters—or even closer to a female ballad, like Barbara Lynn’s “You Lose a Good Thing.” “You Can Taste It,” is Was Not Was-y and different from the rest of the material. “Louder” rides on Detroit Wheels.

While not sounding the same at all, Brownish Black have a lot in common with our very own Quick and Easy Boys—who also proficiently produce a brand of music that’s just as hard to pin down (i.e. kind of Parliament-ish funk at times, other times ZZ Top). It’s a hard road, as on the face of it, those odd choices would seem anathema to success in the current music market. But one thing about current music markets: they are subject to change. What’s old is new and it generally sneaks up from behind you.

There are a few others like them out there in the world. Trust that Brownish Black honor their r&b/soul heritage, without being a knock-off band. They take the genres to the next level. This is cool stuff that grows on you very quickly.

 

June 2015

Los Hijos de la Montaña

Los Hijos FrontLos Hijos de la Montaña
Cosmica Records

Here’s a productive side project that’s a real mind blower. This is one of the strangest releases I’ve ever run across. Strange, not in a musical sense whatsoever, but strange in the genesis of the recording. It’s not clear how it came to pass. And once it was finished, it really isn’t clear what the subsequent plan was. The label certainly doesn’t know.

Luz Elena Mendoza
Luz Elena Mendoza

This much we do know. It was Portland’s own Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) who first arranged to place local vocal treasure Luz Elena Mendoza (Y La Bamba, Los Tiburones, et al.) with Sergio Mendoza, leader of the Tuscon-based band Orkesta Mendoza—who has also worked with Devotchka and toured as sideman with Calexico.

And while the Mendozas aren’t familially related, their dedication to the traditional music of Mexico both folk and popular, unites them for this album (all songs but one are sung in Spanish), which Berlin produced (his influence is subtle, but pervasive); and which was released to little fanfare­—as in almost none. The recording seemed to come as a complete surprise to young Jessica who was handling the phones at Cosmica Records, when I called for information. She didn’t know about it. She knew Orkesta Mendoza, because they are distributed by Cosmica Records too. But Los Hijos de la Montaña? Never heard of it. Them.

I asked after a one-sheet, or any information about who played on the record (because there is some really great playing going on in the nine cuts: and brief instrumental). Anything. I got her email address and sent her my email address so she could send me information when she finally got a hold of some. Nada. So far the only information online about the album is the same scant stuff that came out just after it was released at the end of May.

Sergio Mendoza
Sergio Mendoza

I don’t know why the ball was dropped on this project. There are a lot of great songs, which appear to be Mendoza/Mendoza originals—though Luz sounds herself in a musical place not quite like any other in which she has sung before. It’s great material, well-produced, wonderfully played and sung. I’m not sure what the hell is the problem. But it kinda seems like no one wants anything to do with this one.

Too bad.

“Amor de Lejos” spins on a dark guitar figure, reminiscent of the Robby Krieger intro to the Doors’ “People Are Strange.” The arrangement then dissolves into a noir-ish fog, with Luz sounding passionately mysterious, accompanied by the festive thrump of acoustic guitars and classic lowslung spaghetti-western guitar themes. The song itself could pass as the soundtrack to one of those films, windswept and parched.

A sprightly dance rhythm propels the charming “El Tamalito,” with jaunty keyboard flourishes backing Luz in her element (this could easily pass for an Y La Bamba tune). The chorus is charmingly bilingual, with the hookline “Ay, si!” sounding very much like “I see.” Clever.

The one song sung in English, the moody “One Breath, One Soul,” is given one of Luz’s rapidfire vocal treatments, so that it is difficult to tell what language she’s singing in. But it’s not like her choice of languages has ever been an obstacle. She sings with such fluidity and emotional expressivity that language is not a factor.

A burbling synth figure threads against the persistent chuckle of a charango, or a ukulele, or some other small, stringed instrument. Mariachi brass join in the turnarounds, providing a keen, lamentational wail behind Luz’s own windy call. Sergio sings a verse of his own, a portentous cloud, jarring when it shows up. But well-placed!

berlin
Steve Berlin

“Compañera” is a song steeped in customary flavors of Mexico—more horns, organic, flamenco-like percussion and wistful acoustic guitars. Luz sings at the very lowest end of her register, like a shadow giving voice to some long unlit emotion, dark and smoldering. The ballad “Mi Sangre es Tu Ventana” (from my elementary Spanish: “My Blood is Your Window”?) is darker still. Heavily wrought. In the tradition.

Breaking up the torchy mood is the romantically edgy “Manos En Las Bolsas,” replete with stirring strings, whammy guitars and a hook in the chorus strong enough to hang up a winter coat. Luz’s impassioned vocals bespeak a sense of desperation, a hint of danger and intrigue. Again faithful to musical culture, in the ranchera style, while taking it to a new and different place. Great stuff. Very exciting!

“Lengua De Leon” plays with a cumbia disposition, a ska-like limp in the rhythm. And the ballad “Adonde Voy” is a sweet farewell to a place to which there may be no return. The band did release a subsequent track, “El Chumina,” which does not appear on this album, but should. Another superlative track.

mendoza
Luz and Sergio Mendoza

Luz and Sergio Mendoza, guided by Steve Berlin, have taken us to a very special place in popular music, where there are no borders or boundaries—to the common denominator between humanity and music. It’s a shame more of the world hasn’t heard it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 2015