Monday, March 16, 2009

CD Reviews: A Blast of Sounds

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet
Originally published at www.jerseybeat.com/quietcorner.html


Named after a bar in Grand Central, New York-based THE CAMPBELL APARTMENT has released Insomniac’s Almanac (Blacktop Records, RR#4, Langton, Ontario N0E 1G0). A popish trio, vocalist/guitarist Ari Vais shows a bit of imagination with his songs, which covers such topics as being unreciprocated in his being in love with someone else’s wife (he names the someone, but not the wife) in “Wife,” stating how “Long Distance Relationship (Is a Four Letter Word),” and how they are (like the Diodes) “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired.” There is also a strong sense of humor with cuts like “Addicted to MySpace.” Ari’s vocals are a bit rough, but the message gets through, is fun to listen to, and isn’t that what’s important?

I had never heard of ANI DiFRANCO the first time I saw her play the Falcon Ridge Festival around the time Not A Pretty Girl came out. Since then, she’s become a one-woman-from-Buffalo indie industry, thanks in part to the success of her own label, Righteous Babe (who has Hamell on Trial among its roster). Continuing in her prolific work(wo)myn way, now comes Red Letter Year (righteousbabe.com). One of the things that make her so special is that her music is so uncategorical. Yeah, she plays folk festivals, but putting her solely in the category of folk, or singer/songwriter…or ANY single slot is just not possible (at least not and be accurate). She sticks her toes into many genres (well, maybe not hardcore), and she’s not afraid to use some ambience and electronica in the blend. Her sound is sort of a Milligan’s stew of styles. Here, there is a lot of dissonance, and strange mixtures of sounds that puts the listener as slightly off-center as she is, especially considering how beautiful her voice is in the middle of it. Most of her songs are first person, with an occasional first and third thrown into the mix. All are with a bright light on the topic and no shadows, exposing all flaws and lines in a sense of purpose towards revealing the human in herself, and of others. The image may not always be pretty, but it is in a form that is consistently just stunning. Not a bad cut here.

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of All the While by the sextet FRANCES (giganticmusic.com), who have been called “chamber pop”. They sort of remind me of a more straightforward version of the finally appreciated They Might Be Giants, with many more hands in the pot. Let me start at the top and work my way down: Frances is the brainchild of bandleader Paul Hogan, Ph.D. in Music. His voice is sweet and clear-cut, singing about the mundane and the odd (songs include “The Brain,” “Lighthouse,” “Telephone,” “The New Decoy”). Along with the vocals, he also handles the keyboards. And then there is all the rest, including (but not inclusive) guitars, violins, “glockenspiel, a Suzuki Omnichord, and a Tennessee high school marching band,” a “litany of (literal) bells and whistles,” a ”field of tubas” and “sundries” (according to their press release). Anyway, through all of this mishugas, it usually works. Occasionally there are the parts that sound a bit rinky-dink or dissonant to the point of annoyance, but mostly it’s well orchestrated and definitely different than most releases I’ve heard recently. Gotta give ‘em that, big time.

One of the aspects that has endured (and endeared) about the 28-year-old FUZZTONES is how they can take the genre of voodoo garage and stretch it, as they have with their new release, Horny as Hell (ElectriqueMud.com). Leader Rudi Protrudi lives in Germany and has adopted a version of garage that is prevalent there, which includes horns and female chorus, giving the sound a bit more of a soulful edge. In this tweaked form (which is basically the old one with a new layer, I’m actually happy to say), there is still an ecstatically high energy level on the rank of the Fleshtones, the Cramps, and the Chesterfield Kings (even though they all use a similar foundation, each lives in a separate building). Along with updated versions of some of their classic hits, such as “Ward 81”, “Highway 69,” and “She’s Wicked,” there are also quite a number of newer tunes and covers. There are way to many to list them all, so I’ll just posit that every cut here on this nearly hour-long release is worth a listen. But if you do, be sure you wear your dancing shoes. Just TRY to sit still during numbers like “Third Time’s the Charm”!

What year is this, again? RACHEL HARRINGTON‘s City of Refuge sounds like it came off a John Lomax recording from the Appalachian area during the FDR era. Which is why the timing is so perfect for this new CD (skinnydennis.com), as we face a new Depression. Seattle-based Rachel pays tribute to lots of icons here, including a stubborn old man named Harry “Truman,” who died on St. Helen’s when he refused to come on down, traditional orality in music with a superb medley of two religious standbys, “Old Time Religion/Working on a Building,” and even a nod toward country with Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe.” There is a heavy reliance on banjo and fiddle, giving this an even sweeter sound, completely complementing Rachel’s exquisite voice. A couple of my fave cuts are the original opener, “Karen Kane,” about a woman who took off to the Yukon to look for gold, and the traditional “I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World.”

Rather than playing every instrument, as he did on his first release, BRETT HARRIS has a band backing him on Side Two (EP) (brettharris.com). It was worth the effort by the 4-song, 16-minute end result, which is solid ‘80s style power pop. This could have been the Romantics, or one of those new wave kinds of pop bands that were so big around the start of MTV. The standout is “Red Dress” (two different version here), which was such a flashback, with that electronic wall of sound feel, crashing on the beats. This would have been a big hit at some of the larger, more general clubs back then, like Hurrah’s.

Yes, this is the same IAN LLOYD who did “Brother Louie” with his band Stories. He’s had a couple of other hits, but he’s mostly remembered for that. I wonder if he gets tired that just about every review mentions it. Perhaps not, because even in this new release, In the Land of O-de-PO (machinedreamrecords.com), he covers his own hit. But more on that later. All these years later, I actually believe his voice may be strong than it was back then. That being said, this release is produced with a heavy hand, tripped out in an excess of sounds, especially its opening cut, “Wonderful World” (that is, after the introduction of “Frogpond,” which is just what the title implies). This is certainly radio friendly for classic rock and even some dance stations, but there is not enough of his Steve Tyler-ish power that made him such a strong RnB flavored rocker. Without saying anything here is bad, because the potential is right there, it desperately needs to be scrapped down to more of its bare essentials to focus on Lloyd’s voice and growl, not on the “wooga-wooga” of synthesizers, overdubs, and not just a wall of sound, but a tsunami of it; it is just too distracting. It’s like the game “Operation”: you worry more about touching the sides than the actual task of removing the bone (or whatever). “Rip It Out” is the closest to actually showcasing his voice rather than the production; many other cuts like “Heat” are so overdone that they have an ‘80s feel (can anyone say Animotion?). The CD officially ends with a disco-y version of “Brother Louie,” and who needs that? It sounds a lot less committed than the hit from years ago, which is what made it such a hit. There are two bonus tracks (why are they called bonus tracks? Is there another version of this CD?), “Sensetize” [sic] and “Island,” both of which are actually a good songs, despite the washing-machine rhythm track of the former. I’d like to hear this entire CD redone without synthesizer and rocked the fuck out.

PHIL MINISSALE is sparkling and friendly, youthful and enthusiastic. Then he plays his music, such as on his new CD, Home to Me, (myspace.com/philminissalemusic), and one is tempted to think, is this the same guy? Yep, it is. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Phil’s sound is solid delta blues, with a jangle in a House Son steel string style to rattle the roof. All but the first cut are originals, and LI- and PA-based Phil shows he has was not a one-EP wonder. There is the sprightly “Just Getting Started” somewhere in the middle, but most cuts are pretty straightforward blues. While his group ably supports him here, special notice should be given to mouthharper Ken “The Rocket” Korb. Yeah, one can hear the white on him, but Phil blows a lot of white blues artists away, even at his age. He should be playing at places like the House of Blues or B.B. King’s regularly. If your muse is blues, or if you just want to choose to hear what’s what, check this out.

It has been 10 years since I first interviewed the Staten Island-based PROFESSOR and MARYANNE, after their second release. They have continued to put out music, and now their latest is Every Day is a Good Day…If You’re Breathing (professorandmaryann.com). For those uninitiated in PandM, the duo consists of vocalist Danielle Brancaccio and acoustic guitarist / vocalist / songwriter Ken Rockwood. Danielle has one of the more amazing, and easily identifiable voices around today, with a vocal style that is lazily seductive and equally charming. She lulls the listener in, and by the time one realizes just what Ken’s words are saying, the trap is already sprung. Ken also has a sweet, welcoming voice, though he only sings two of the cuts here (love her, and yet would like to see him sing more as well). The melodies are whimsical without being slight, and the lyrics are uncommon songs about love, passion, and death (I teased him once about the latter). Ken is actually a strong songwriter in a Jacque Brel sort of way, in that the songs are more intense than one may expect from the music, but they both play off each other so symbiotically.

Folk music is as varied a genre as any other. Calling CHRIS STEWART and BACKCOUNTRY Americana is probably a bit more accurate. Their CD Crooked Man (christstuart.com/crookedman) is more traditional than most, with an occasional slip into country. This is chock full of fiddles, banjos, pennywhistles, mandolins, and the like. Chris handles most of the vocals and songwriting, with Janet Beazley writing and singing two of her own here. Despite two songs about the Canadian Maritimes, the band hails from California (though a few of them taught at a workshop up there). There are lots of different blends here, from traditional Kingston Trio type through the King George period, and ending with a modern gospel ballad. It’s all done extremely well and is exceedingly listenable, if one enjoys this kind of sound (and I do). Stylistically, I can easily imagine them playing the Newport Folk Festival in the early ‘60s. A lot of good work in here.

Hailing from Omaha, McCARTHY TRENCHING has released another living room self-recording, Calamity Drenching (team-love.com). His reason for this method is “there is so much snow-shoveling to do during the winter.” Despite this collection more or less being about varying shades of rejection by others to him and vice versa, there is also a strong sense of black humor that runs throughout the recording. His voice is a bit off kilter, sort of like a cross between Greg Brown and Russ Tolman (of the Totem Polemen), but in this case it just makes it more personal. The style is mostly leaning toward Brown, but MT has some singer-songwriter, blues, alt country, and even a bit of jazziness in there sometimes. It’s for certain an interesting listen.

UP FOR NOTHING has been going for half a decade now. Their first release, 7-songer Keep It At That (myspace/upfornothing1) was a self-release, in a totally different incarnation as a solid foursome of pop punk (punk pop?). And yet now that they are a power trio, their new full release put out by Boston punkers the Dimwits, We’re Singing Our Last Breath, (myspace/winterstreetrecords) is possibly even more solid, due in part to the manic drumming of Jesse, and the bass and vocal counterpoint of Steven. But it’s the consistency of vocalist/guitarist/backward-hat-wearing Justin that is the lynchpin in this group. His vocals are just the right of yell and pop. While most of the songs are told from a personal perspective, I would hardly call this navel gazing as much as life observation, i.e., it’s not overly sentimental. What you have here consists of solid Brooklyn punk playing, singing, and songwriting. Remember, UFN = FUN.

Despite some personnel changes, it is so worth checking out the New York hardcore WORLD WAR IX and their 7” vinyl 4-song EP, Brown Bagging It (Red Black and Blue Records, PO Box 982, Vernon, NJ 07461). They come from a solid GG Allin influence - as do a so many other bands lately, like SQNS, Chesty Malone and the Slice-Em-Up, Kissy Kamikaze - except that these later bands are more focused than GG ever was (his recordings were great, but his shows, not so much). In typical WWIX fashion, the songs here are quite humorous, with one half being the Drinks Side, and the other the Other Side. All four tunes are fast and loud, and luckily mostly legible. The standouts are actually from the Other Side, “Jesus Freak” and the LMAO “Employee of the Month.” The other two are also very well written and performed. And when you’re done listening to this, check out the comic books about GG Allin (and others) by the band. Now, GO!

Married couple WRECKLESS ERIC and AMY RIGBY has released their first collaborative, self-titled CD (stiff-records.com). By themselves, both are a bit quirky, and together, they blend into an overlapping skewed pop-singer-songwriting duo. Lyrically, American Amy holds her own to the Brit Eric, though stylistically he seems to have the upper hand. I don’t mean this to sound like some kind of contest, just that both are a bit different in their solo presentation. Amy has rocked out power pop rock (e.g., “Dancing With Joey Ramone,” “I Don’t Wanna Talk About Love”), but here she is showing a softer, sometimes goofy side (“Astrovan”). I’m more familiar with her stuff than his (even though he’s one of the original Stiff artists in the ‘70s), so I don’t know where he compromised. I do know there is a strong electronica overlay (e.g., oscillator, talkbox, mellotron, synthesizer) that I find kind of distracting, especially on the “Revolution #9”-ish “Trotters.” There are a few memorable tunes here though, such as “The Downside of Being a Fuck-Up,” “Please Be Nice to Her,” and “Round.” I will add that vocally, they quite complement each other, and – er – make beautiful music together.

2 comments:

  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Ruth

    http://fendisite.com

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  2. Hey, Ruth, thank you SO much for the kind words. Hopefully I won't disappoint! I try and put something up once or twice a week, though at times the space is shorter or longer, depending on what is on my mind (or before my eyes) at that point. Feel free to comment any time!

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