Wednesday, April 28, 2010

MARTIN RUSHENT: Producing Pete (Shelley)

Text by Joan McNulty, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Article & interview © 1982; RBF intro © 2010 by FFanzeen
Images from the Internet

The following interview with British producer Martin Rushent was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #9, in 1982. It was conducted and written by Joan McNulty.

It’s a well known secret that Joan was the American girlfriend of Pete Shelley, the Buzzcocks’ British lead singer, around the time she wrote this. She also ran the Pete Shelley post-Buzzcocks’ fanzine,
Harmony in My Head.

Martin Rushent is a well-known producer of many British artists of the period, such as the Buzzcocks, Human League, Hazel O’Connor, the Stranglers and Fleetwood Mac. There’s a whole lot more info about the still-working studio artist on Wikipedia, so go look it up, as he is still going strong.

A few years after this interview, Pete and Steve Diggle reformed the Buzzcocks, and have been touring on and off since, including being interviewed in a hotel room for the cable access show,
Videowave, for which I was the cameraperson (see the video at the end of this interview). – RBF, 2010

On a recent trip to New York City, I had an opportunity to interview the infamous Martin Rushent. Martin has produced countless bands (Human League, Altered Images, Yachts…) over the years, as well as being the Buzzcock’s primary producer. At present, he is working incredibly hard with launching Pete Shelley’s solo career, as well as his newly formed Genetic Records label. I found him to be honest, genuinely nice, and most of all, enthusiastic. I have no doubts that he’ll achieve all he sets out to do. Having long been my “idol,” I felt it time to get some personal remarks from him.

FFanzeen: How did you get into the field of producing?
Martin Rushent: Around 10 or 11 years old, I got my first record player. I used to listen to a lot of records; Buddy Holly – and I noticed that some records had an exciting edge to them, some sounded better than others. I think after that I began to pick up on names; Spector and the like. By 12 or so, I was in a school band and learning to work equipment… and I started to find it more interesting than actually performing. The result was my working toward becoming a producer in the end. Now, after all this time, I find myself drifting into a more artistic vein.

FF: Were you partial to a particular type of music? It seems that most of the bands you produce come across sounding similar.
Martin: No, not really. My work is based on broad field experience and techniques. I find that people are more important than the music. It’s hard to explain, but people tend to gravitate toward me and I then decide to work with them. Hard work and dedication to a project are of utmost importance to me.

FF: How did you meet your co-worker, Alan Winstanley, and begin work on your studio and the entire Genetic operation?
Martin: I first met Alan back in 1976, and started working with him. He was an engineer at the time. In fact, one of the first projects we worked on together was the Buzzcock’s “Orgasm Addict” single. Alan has since started producing bands as well [Tenpole Tudor and others – JMN], bringing his talent up to the forefront. Even back then we had dreams of building our own studio the way we wanted it. In fact, the entire Genetic operation/label was all preplanned from the beginning. The artist(s) and the label as well as producer… all working together as a unit, similar to the Motown operation of years past, because I had admired it and it was effective as well. Basically an everyone-does-everything type of deal.

FF: What or who had an influence on your production style?
Martin: Actually, no one person or thing in particular; more like a bit of each of my personal experiences grouped together. I want the artist to feel like an individual, although the high production starts that a Spector had, and the caring, is in as well.

FF: How did you first become involved with Buzzcocks? How did it continue?
Martin: Back at the time when Buzzcocks were first beginning, there weren’t any producers who would touch “New Wave” – or whatever you’d like to label it – music. After hearing some of the band’s music, I realized that I didn’t want to refine their sound; I wanted to capture the real excitement of it. Unfortunately, many of the big name producers who cashed in on it all later, made the sound too slick. I guess I started producing it to defend it from being done by the wrong person. After I had done a few and people seemed to enjoy it, the band included, they’d ask, and I’d do the work.

FF: Was it raw potential you saw as well?
Martin: Yes, especially in the songwriting ability. We released “Orgasm Addict” basically because of public cult demand. “What Do I Get,” which did quite well in England, was the one I thought would break them. “Fiction Romance” has always been my favorite, though.

FF: After the breakup, how did you get involved with (just) Pete Shelley?
Martin: That’s a bit complicated. It all started after A Different Kind of Tension was finished. It was a problem for many reasons. The band had a lot of restrictions; musically, it was very limiting. The sound was so well defined. It was down so pat everyone was afraid to do something different, but I knew Pete was tired of it and wanted to branch out. I felt I was becoming redundant as a producer and although I was inspired by certain parts of the material, I didn’t really want to produce Buzzcocks again. All the subtlety in the songs had become lose.

FF: But after some time had passed, you did produce Part 3 of the singles series, “What Do You Know.” Why?
Martin: I did it as a favor to Pete, basically. He phoned me up and asked if I would. I loved the song, but there was something missing. When Peter came down to do the demos for the fourth Buzzcock album [including “Homosapien” – JMN], we were so pleased with the results, that was where the temptation for leaving began. We both knew they wouldn’t sound the same after the band did them.

FF: What end result did the two of you come to? Both of you seemed to have dabbled into electronics in the past. Was there some connection?
Martin: Actually, we saw no reason to change from the demo, period. It was a finished product. Finally, Pete had an opportunity to do it his way. I guess you could say it stemmed from both our interests in electronics, as well as available technology.

FF: With all the bands you’ve produced and all the work you have piled up, how did you come to spend a lot of time on Pete?
Martin: I think it all stems from doing Part 3 out of my love for Pete. It was actually done by the two of us in the studio. It was the forerunner of our relationship; it made quite a difference.

FF: How do you juggle the workload along with all the work involved managing Pete?
Martin: I have all the success I want. I love being involved with Pete. I am, however, looking for management; someone to join and share the work, that special third person. I mean, Pete doesn’t expect someone to look after every little thing. He feels better because he has a stronger say in everything. Maybe that was the problem with the Buzzcocks. I know there’s no simple answer. There was frustration, Pete’s depressions… Pete needed the last say in things although he felt awkward in a power position. He’s basically not a loud-mouthed leader. It’s the same problem as America tends to have in the White House. Carter and Ford were nice guys… but people find it hard to consider them power figures. They cannot lead people. And also I’ve seen, in many cases, when the drummer and bass player do not contribute, material-wise, they tend to want more of a say in the arrangement of things, maybe out of insecurity. It was pulling Pete apart.

FF: What are your future plans for Pete, career-wise?
Martin: I want Pete to become a huge star and retain his artistic credibility. Pete wouldn’t have it any other way. I want his work out in the open so many people can appreciate it.

FF: Any additional comments?
Martin: We’ve got many exciting plans for the new year, including live shows, videos, and whatever else comes along and catches our fancy, and which we find is interesting. We’re going to do it right this time. The future is very, very bright.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

ERNIE BROOKS: A Lover Looks Back at the Roots of the Modern Lovers

Text by John Morace, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Interview © 1981; RBF intro © 2010 by FFanzeen
Images from the Internet

The following article about Boston-based bassist Ernie Brooks was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #7, in 1981. It was written by John Morace.

By the time I saw the Modern Lovers in 1977, Ernie Brooks was no longer in the band. I did see him play a couple of times backing up other musicians, but never really got to know him personally, or as an individual musical entity. He certainly has had quite the career so far, as the list below will attest, as it is only partial. – RBF, 2010

Catfish Black Bassist (1969-70)
The Modern Lovers Bassist (1971-74)
Elliott Murphy Bassist (1976-)
David Johansen Bassist (1982)
Jerry Harrison Bassist (1990)
Gods and Monsters Bassist (1994-)
Gary Lucas Bassist (1994-)

[The original Modern Lovers; Jonathan Richman, Ernie Brooks, David Robinson, John Felice, Jerry Harrison]

FFanzeen: This is Ernie Brooks, formerly with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and is now with the Necessaries.
Ernie Brooks: Yes, and you could also add formerly with Elliot Murphy, formerly with the Love of Life Orchestra [LOLO], and formerly with what was pretty much my own band, the Flying Hearts, which included Dave van Tiegham, currently of LOLO, Larry Salzman, who now plays guitar for Peter Allen, and Arthur Russell, who’s been making disco records. The Flying Hearts played about. We played at the Ocean Club a few times… (The Ocean Club) was on Chambers Street. It was owned by Mickey Ruskin [d. 1983]. He’s a famous New York character. He was the one who started the original Max’s (Kansas City) and made it the hang-out for everybody. The back room at Max’s in the late ‘60s was where the Velvet Underground and the rest of Warhol’s super stars used to go. Plus artists, poets, scenemakers of all descriptions. Mickey was great. He was almost a patrol of the artists and musicians, letting them run up tabs. Painters could sometimes settle their bill by giving Mickey a piece of their work to hang on the wall. He runs One University Place, but it’s not the old Max’s. Anyway, the Ocean Club had a lot of Tribeca artists and musicians hanging out, just as the whole punk-New Wave thing was starting. He used to occasionally have bands play there.

FF: So you used to hang out at Max’s.
Ernie: Yeah, when I used to come down here from Boston. In fact – it was before I knew him – Jonathan (Richman) was a bus-boy at Max’s, but I think he dropped so many things on people that he got fired [laughs]. Before starting the Modern Lovers, he used to come to New York. He’d hang out with Lou Reed, sleep on his sofa, and listen to the Velvets rehearse.

FF: So he goes way back with them.
Ernie: Oh, yeah. It’s interesting because in a way, Jonathan is the other side of Lou Reed’s coin. I mean, Lou was always very openly into drugs and every kind of sexuality and perversity. Jonathan’s thing was that while he borrowed a lot from Lou in terms of musical style – in his guitar playing and vocal phrasing – in his lifestyle he took an opposite course. He never touched drugs as far as I know, including alcohol and cigarettes. He was against casual sex. He put girls on pedestals and worshipped them, and met them more on the astral plane than in the flesh. It’s interesting, a stance of innocence, of purity like Jonathan’s, can seem perverse when it’s taken to an extreme as it is in some of his newer songs, the ones about how beautiful everything is and how beautiful he is. I mean, something about songs like “Ice Cream Man” bothers me. He's repressing the dark side of his nature. Why is he writing all these songs for children? In a way it’s neat, so maybe it’s just a matter of taste that I like the old songs better.

FF: When did Jonathan first get a band together?
Ernie: Ah, it must have been about 1969. He started it with David Robinson as the drummer and a bass player named Rolf. Soon after, John Felice, a long-time neighbor and friend, joined as a second guitarist. He was in and out of the band for years, finally leaving to start his own group, the Real Kids. Jerry (Harrison) and I joined the group a couple of months after it started; I think it was 1971. It’s hard to remember. It was when Jerry and I were in our senior year at Harvard.

FF: How did Jerry Harrison hook up with Talking Heads?
Ernie: There were the three of them, and I ran into Chris (Franz) at a place called the Local near the Bottom Line (in NYC). Mickey Ruskin ran that place, too. Well, we started talking and they were considering adding a keyboard player at that point. I was with Elliott (Murphy) and Jerry wasn’t really doing anything besides going to architecture school. So they sort of got together. That’s when he started commuting to New York to try and work it out… and jamming and it worked out, so they got together.

FF: So the Modern Lovers played around Boston.
Ernie: Yeah, we used to play at all the college dances, and all the so-called mixers. We could always get a job once; then they found out what we were really like [laughs]. We had a great song called “The Mixer.” It was like “Hey girls, do you notice the smell?” Things like that. It pointed out to the people at the mixer all the ridiculous things about a mixer, which was like a lot of guys and girls standing around pretending that they were having a good time.

FF: How many songs did you have? About nine of them made it onto the Modern Lovers album.
Ernie: We had lots. We recorded some stuff with Kim Fowley, which I assume is the stuff they might release. That was about another 10 songs. Plus, I have some, and David Robinson has some tapes. Two songs, “I’m Straight” and “Government Center” have been released on a Warners' discount LP called Troublemakers.

FF: How did David Robinson hook up with the Cars?
Ernie: I don’t know exactly, but I do remember the bass player and Ric Ocasck were around Cambridge for a long time. I had met them before. They had a band called Milkwood, a folk-rock band. I remember when the Cars were getting together. It was funny, David said this was the last band he was ever going to join. He was so fed up, he’d been in so many bands.

FF: And it worked.
Ernie: It worked; it worked incredibly. They have been one of the most successful bands in the last couple of years. Their albums are just… You see, they’ve made a perfect combination of somewhat New Wave, somewhat quirky lyrics with really simple, basic pop formulas, in terms of their hooks. They’ve taken their hooks and they’ve twisted them just enough and put in a bizarre synthesizer like here, a bizarre word or two there. It’s a perfect combination.

FF: Do you think it’s contrived, or is it just what they feel like doing?
Ernie: It’s not… Yeah, I think it’s contrived. But in a good sense. I think it’s really well-crafted. I really respect it. It doesn’t move me a lot. But I love the way it sounds. It has an incredible sound.

FF: One thing about rock music that’s different from other kinds of expression is that for it to be successful it has to generate an audience to pay to support it because of all the expenses involved in touring, equipment, and albums. That, of course, has an influence on the music.
Ernie: It’s always a compromise. But at least in rock’n’roll, there is something very honest about the fact that you’re doing what you’re doing; nothing else. In a certain sense, it’s very ironic because on the one hand rock’n’roll is the most commercial, most compromised of arts, and on the other it’s the most honest and has the most integrity of the modern art forms because it’s so direct. You’re there in front of your audience. Either you turn them on or you don’t; you’re not supported by state grants. You’re not kissing the ass of some humanities foundation so you can get a grant and go off into a cabin in the woods and write poetry. You’re not involved in the university system, making friends with a professor so he’ll make you a teaching assistant so you can survive to write your novel. Ya know, that’s what I like about rock’n’roll.

FF: But some people are contrary to that opinion, such as the Copeland brothers on IRS, who are distributed by AM. They say that the size of the act depends upon how much A&M likes them and not the act itself.
Ernie: I think that’s partly true in the sense that a group can be hyped by a record label and the record label can put a lot of money into advertising and promotion and stuff like that, but unless the goods are there and people like it, it’s still not gonna sell. Kids can only be hyped to a certain extent. Not to say that kids always have good taste. There are some really good groups that are really big, but you can have groups like Styx and Foreigner, who I find really boring. But you understand that they are competent. Copeland, I think, likes to paint himself as the adversary of the big record labels.

FF: Getting back to Jonathan Richman, I notice that some of the songs are about people who are intellectually recognized; Pablo Picasso or Cézanne, for instance. The way he treats them is very different from the way most people treat them. He is very casual about them.
Ernie: Yeah, in a way it was a self-conscious thing, to take Pablo Picasso and describe him in very weird terms. Ya know: “Pablo Picasso would walk down the street / And girls would turn the color of an avocado / And girls could not resist his stare / And Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole” [See video below – RBF, 2010]. But I think he really believed that. He used to think these guys had some real incredible magical quality. Obviously, he never met Picasso, but I think he sort of got his vision of him walking down a street and this is his description of him. I the case of Cézanne, he used to go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts a lot, and he was really into that.

FF: It think that’s very different from rock people, outside of Factory people like Andy Warhol and John Cale, who were into all kinds of art forms.
Ernie: It’s true, and that’s where Jonathan’s work was really seminal, in a way, for a lot of the art-rock bands like Talking Heads. They deal with issues, artistic or literary. It opened up the concept of a rock’n’roll song as being able to deal with a whole range of issues that it never dealt with before. Of course, a lot of people did that; Dylan certainly did, and the Velvet Underground. Jonathan was just another person who helped open it up.

FF: How did John Cale get involved in producing the album?
Ernie: Well, the Velvet Underground was sort of looked up to by the band. And Cale had produced albums, like the Nico album and the first Stooges album, which were really important.

FF: Or the Patti Smith album.
Ernie: Yeah, but this was long before that. The first Stooges album was in ’69. Iggy’s been around for along time. He was someone who totally gave himself to an audience, even to the point of hurting himself. He’d jump into the crowd, offer his body to the crowd. He’s great; he’s one of the best.

FF: I remember reading about a Velvet’s show at Farleigh Dickinson (University) – one of their multimedia presentations – and people just freaked. They started throwing bottles at the stage.
Ernie: Sure, I remember in the Modern Lovers, we played with Lee Michaels and Tower of Power in San Bernardino, in California, in this huge arena. A real redneck town. People driving their El Caminos up and down the street outside. People went crazy. There was just this angry roar from the crowd and all of a sudden this stuff started coming up on the stage; bottles, cans, all sort of trash.

FF: That must have felt great.
Ernie: Yeah, right. Warner Bros. had also brought all their people out to see us, their great new group. It was great.

FF: Was that John Cale’s doing?
Ernie: Yeah, he was an A&R man, and a producer for Warner’s. But that didn’t last long.

FF: Who did the record finally come out with? Not Warner’s.
Ernie: Beserkley Records, a small label that has been through every conceivable distributorship. It’s run by this genial madman named Matthew Kaufman. He was the guy who wanted to manage the Lovers when the original band was still intact. And he had the idea, even back then, of starting his own label. And Jonathan always really liked this guy. After the band broke up, he started managing Jonathan and issued a Beserkley Chartbusters record with a few songs of Jonathan’s on it. Then he had the idea of putting out an album of the original Modern Lovers, which was just a demo tape we made for Warner Bros. He came to us and asked if he could buy the tapes from Warner Bros. No one else was really interested in them then, so we said OK – which I realize now was probably stupid. If we had waited and held on to them we could have made some real money off the tapes, I suppose. I’ve never gotten any royalties… When I get rich enough to afford a lawyer, I’ll sue them.

FF: How did the band break up?
Ernie: Well, it was philosophical differences about the music; Jonathan wanted to go in a more acoustic direction. He started thinking that electricity was too weird… At various points he decided he didn’t want any guitar. He didn’t want anything besides voice because that was the thing that was – real. Voice came from your soul and everything else was just trappings; extra. And we wanted to keep it a real rock’n’roll band. After all, David played drums, I played electric bass and Jerry played keyboards. And that’s what we wanted to do. And so we had these big arguments about that. Ya know, we were all living in this big house, just off Sunset Boulevard. It was big with a red-tiled roof; one of those Spanish palazzos. We were out there and we were totally dependent on Warner Bros. We’d have to go down to Burbank every couple of days and get some money from them. There we were, all these hardcore Easterners in LA, and I sort of loved it in a way, but it was also disorienting and crazy. Too many beautiful mindless people out there. We were all just crammed together in this house and had nothing else to do but get on each other’s nerves. It did make me realize the importance of just being together as a band. When you have to deal with the record company, when you have to deal with the business part of rock’n’roll, you really have to be together or you can be destroyed very quickly. That was really one of the problems. If we’d had a manager that we could have trusted, that would have made a big difference. Warner Bros., already worried by what they'd heard about Jonathan’s changing musical ideas, would call our house every day to talk to him. They really freaked out when he told them, “Yeah, we’ll make a record, but when we go on tour - if we go on tour – we won’t play any of the songs on it.” As his ideas about the sound of the band changed, he also changed his mind about the songs we were recording, decided most of them weren’t valid anymore.

FF: They must have loved that.
Ernie: Oh, yeah. That’s just what a record company wants to hear when it’s spending a lot of money on a band. Again, if only we had a manager at that time to mediate between ourselves, and between us and the record company.

FF: Where did the name Modern Lovers come from?
Ernie: That was Jonathan’s invention. The idea was to do modern love songs. Almost all of the songs that we did, in one way or another, involve girls and are about relationships that always involved, somehow, with the modern world of suburbs, shopping centers, beltways – a bleak but often beautiful landscape. That was part of it. Also, Jonathan always had the idea of being, along with the rest of us in the band, a “modern lover,” a modern romantic believing, as the song says, “I don’t want a girl to fool around with / I don’t want someone just to ball / I want someone I care about / Or I want nothing at all” [“Someone I Care About” – Ed.]. Of course, that wasn’t a modern idea, but expressed in a rock song and combined with the image of the group, it was at least different.

FF: Did Jonathan find what he wanted?
Ernie: I don’t know. Maybe he has. Maybe that’s why his new songs seem happier. This ties in with and half-contradicts what I said earlier: maybe the old adolescent pain and sexual frustration are resolved; maybe he has really exorcised the darker side of his character. Maybe I like the older songs better because I’m still adolescent at heart or maybe it’s true that repressed sexual energy sparks the best art [yawns].

FF: I notice all the songs on the first album are really simple, or repetitive. Even I can play “Roadrunner” on guitar.
Ernie: Sure, it’s two chords: A and D.

FF: Why was he doing that?
Ernie: Well, it was partly the fact that he picked up a guitar and didn’t know how to play it and he just started doing what he could do. And also, he believed there was a virtue in simplicity. Again, that’s certainly something the punk thing picked up on, because the whole idea, in a way, of New Wave was that technique didn’t matter. That it was the emotion and the feeling. If you did something with confidence you could do it. That’s always a part of rock’n’roll. What really mattered was the emotion, not the technique.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ode to a Mixed Tape – "2003"

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

This was another tape made for some long drives I was making at the time. As always, I have tried to find the original release of the song as it appears on the tape, and if that’s not possible, a live version. However, much of the music I listen to is indie stuff, so it’s kind of hard to find.

Oh, and FYI, I strong resent and hate the new ads that are popping up on video sites like Vevo and YouTube.


CadallacaThe Trouble with Public Places
Closely associated with Sleater-Kinney, this Cali trio has a great alt-indie sound that’s sharp, in both intelligence and beat. The live version of the song below (mine is off the studio CD EP) is hard to make out, but it tells of being pestered by some drunk (or druggie) while waiting for a band to show up, leaving the question of whether go home to get away from this tool and miss the band, or stay and be annoyed. I loved this song from the first time I heard it, and still do. Best cut on the EP.

Mike Brown and the SneakiesFuck You
While the whole CD is great rock’n’roll in a bar/garage format, this song is a killer. It starts off with a callous phone message from the girlfriend telling the singer she’s leaving him, while bragging she’s been “lying and cheating…so, fuck off.” This song is the response, and it’s so well written, with lines like “Fuck you and your suicide sidekick / Fuck you as you both spiral down / I’m through with the lies and the bullshit / I won’t be there when you both hit the ground.” There’s a very catchy chorus that has to go through the mind during a break-up after the listener has heard it.

Syd StrawThink Too Hard
Syd was in the Golden Palominos, among other collectives, and has a great rock-meets-country sound. Surprise, the album this cut is taken from, though, is solid pop (with a country flair). Lots of pounding rhythm, gloss studio work, and I think a weakening of a great sound. That being said, there are a couple of really good cuts on it, including the Michael Stipe joined “Future Forties”, and especially this one. It’s a foot pounder, for sure, and manages to show Syd’s unique range. Sadly, I couldn’t find the video that goes with it, which is directed by Diane Keaton, of all people (who also did her “FF”) .

Mystic EyesTurn and Kiss Me Goodbye
There are a number of compilations that feature the Mystic Eyes, and this is one that made it onto the Lonely Planet Boy comp, but not either of their (excellent) albums. This tune's a rip roarin’ number, with Bernie Kugel getting’ all in your face, with a scream of “We’re the Mystic Eaaayyyeeeeezzzz.” As with most of Bernie’s songs, there are a couple of amazingly great written lines, one such as in this case “I see your face / I see your eyes / The genius things / That only I surmise.” And, as is usual with a BernieTune, it has a melody line that is both sing-a-long, and a pleaser. When is someone going to do a tribute album of his songs, already? I mean, the Cynics did a wicked cover of his “Girl, You’re on My Mind,” and the Dark Marbles have already covered “Walk Around the World.” There is just so much more that needs to be heard. (RIP Eric)

Molly and the HaymakersJimmy McCarthy’s Truck
Solid country, this is another rave-up. I found this CD at Sounds (St. Mark’s Place) for $2.99 a while ago, and keep coming back to this song about first love. She states, “Jimmy and I, you know that we were tight / In that cabin we learned about the night / My mama said, ‘What do nice girls do / ‘Til 25 to 2?’ / We were riding around in Jimmy McCarthy truck.” There’s a couple of lines I’d love to excise from the song where she states that growing old “becomes a growing fear,” which brings down the mood just a bit. Still, every time I hear this song, I’m happy.

California SpeedbagShitlist
Off a compilation collection called Pies and Ears, this is one of the great punk country “I kilt my wife” songs. Takes a long time to get to its point, with a slow pounding melody, and then Gary Lupico’s creaky vocals come in, to a song that never lets up. The protagonist, in prison, wonders, “Am I on your shitlist Jesus / I know I’m no saint / They tell me that I’m worthless / Jesus tell me that I ain’t.” He further explains, “I never would have loved her / If I know’d she walked the line / And I never woulda shot her / If I know’d I’d do the time.” His voice sounds like he really has had a rough and tumble, hardscrabble life (RIP Gary).

MelanieAlmost Like Being in Love
I heard this as a bonus track on the CD release off the Melanie album. She takes the tune from Brigadoon and makes into something completely else, using dissonant notes and a sweeping melody (rather than the original hokey love ballad). With harmonious backup singers, she shows that she wasn’t just some hippie singer, but a well-rounded, talented New York musician. Though I’ve seen her in concert a few times, I regret that I didn’t get to meet her when she was recording in a studio while I was working in the office (early ‘80s); didn’t know she was there until after she left. The live video below is pretty close to the studio version on my tape.

Life UnderwaterLead Me On
Author/musician/poet JD Glass is the core of Life Underwater. This live cut is one of LU’s strongest cuts, though all of them are well written and played. They’re sort of a cross between rock and singer-songwriter, depending on the line-up at any particular time. LU have a new name now: The Charm Alarm, and I’m looking forward to hearing more of their tunes.
Read an interview I did with lead singer JD here (Part I; see list on right side of page for link to Part II:

Manitoba’s Wild KingdomThe Party Starts Now
When rhythm guitarist Top Ten left the Dictators, they broke up, but they couldn’t stay apart (yet). Handsome Dick Manitoba, Andy Shernoff and Ross the Boss (along with a new drummer) reformed into essentially a leaner, meaner Dictators. This song is a kick-ass rocker that equaled the ‘Tator’s material. The video is kinda cheesy in a rock-chick filled mess, but the song holds up. Yankees lovin’ HDM’s gum-chewing is a more funny than distracting, but the only sad thing about this song is more people know this video than any of the Dictators canon. Perhaps it’s the women wearing sports gear? Not sure, but this is solid fun anyway.'s+Wild+Kingdom

Slickee BoysGoing All the Way / Glendora
The Slickee Boys were one of those bands who deserved to get a lot further than then did, whether Martha Hull is singing with them or not. Mark Noone’s vocals are great on these songs, and Kim Kane (the tall thin guy) has such a great presence. The medley of these two songs are so good, that I had to add in another song that I love as much as the one’s here (I’ve seen them live a couple of times, once at CBGBs, and they are an amazing live band). “GAtW” has a strong driving melody and rhythm, and “G” is a hilarious cover (once sang by Perry Como, though the SB’s take is closer to the underrated Downliners Sect’s version). See two early renderings of this song after the blog) about falling in love with… naw, I won’t give it away.

Bonus Video, just because it is so good:

Barbara ManningSmiling
I only have one album by Manning, and it’s really decent lo-fi, high kitsch, in a way that twee artists like Adam Green have been trying to reach for years. Her voice is vague on melody, but so full of richness, it doesn’t matter. Just very simple and easy. (Note that I may have the name of the song wrong!) Manning

Media Ecology UnpluggedHands of Captain Ludd
MEU is acoustic songwriters John McDaid (taking lead here) and Bill Bly, who tend to sing, both directly and indirectly, about culture, technology, and politics. For example, “HoCL” is about the Luddites failed violent revolt against the rise of the industrial revolution. This dissonant chorded (hence tense) piece tells not only the story of one of Ludd’s followers, but a technological history of how machines have been used as a means of control (“When the Roman Empire fell the Church used the bell for a hell of a devious scheme / To summon their flock they invented the clock, they made time with their new machine”). MEU have songs that are hysterically funny and deadly serious. You can download all their songs free here:


The CrampsGarbageman
“You ain’t no punk you punk!” starts off one of the great songs of the Cramps that came in their important transition period, between voodoobilly and garage-billy (i.e., post-“The Way I Walk” and pre-“Goo-Goo-Muck”), when they were arguably at their strongest. There are lots of driving rhythms and wild guitarwork around this drug seller tale, but it’s the great bon mots that come out of it that helps make this such a great take-away: “If you can’t dig me you can’t dig nothin’” Lux spits out. With fevered pitch, he repeatedly asks, “Do you understand?” The video was shot in less than an hour, and looks as good as many of the MTV-level ones from the period. (RIP Lux; RIP Bryan)

Joey RamoneStop Thinkin’ About It
Joey’s one and only solo album was full of songs of hope and promise, as he was battling the cancer that claimed him. “Nuthin’ lasts forever, and nothin’ stays the same,” Joey looks positively ahead. The song is slick without being overly so, in a non-Top-Ten kinda way; he certainly didn’t embarrass himself like the “Funky Guy.” Joey could have had a long career as a lone act, more so than the other bruthas, but was tragically cut short, just like the other bruthas. (RIP Joey)

Mary Lou LordLights are Changing
MLL opened her 1995 EP with this Bevis Frond tune (backed up Juliana Hatfield). It sounds almost out of place with the rest of the release, with its high production value (the rest on the EP is simply her voice and guitar). That being said, the whole thing is amazing and I can listen to all the songs straight through (except the last cut, a cover of “Speedy Motorcycle,” a song I never cared for whoever did it). The video is a different version from a EP release, but it holds up as a great song nonetheless, using imagery of her history of subway busking in Boston. MLL is another who deserves a bigger shot (read my interview with her here:

The MurmursYou Suck
The Murmurs have a phenomenal and dedicated (mostly female) following. This song is just one of the reasons. From their sophomore release (before they became more rock based and then changed their name, eventually broke up both the band and their relationship). This song is one of their strongest, and one of two videos that were made off this album (the other is “Bad Mood”). People who have seen the video know it for the chorus “Right now there’s dust on my guitar you fuck / And it’s all your fault / You paralyze my mind / And for that you suck.” But there’s also redemption in the song that’s no less clear than in “I Will Survive.” The harmonies are sweet, the melody is memorable, and the tension just builds beautifully. I haven’t seen a video where the “f” word isn’t cut out, so here you go.

Transparent Anything (In 3)
In the heady Punk Temple days in Bensonhurst during the early 2000s, I saw Transparent play. They were one of the first bands to give me their (4-song) CD to review. From Providence, RI, the band had (I’m using past tense assuming they are not a viable as a unit as their Web site doesn’t exist) a strong sound. This particular song, which stood out during their live show as well, is a great grinding punk piece, with singer Keith Allen yelling out on the chorus, “And I would do anything / Just to keep you satisfied.” Pure romantic angst at its finest. Some bands may not last long, but they have the potential of releasing some excellent sounds, such as this one. Other members were Adam Riley (guitar), John Farley (rhythm guitar), Sweet Chris (bass), and Rich Bocchini (drums).

She WolvesHundred Bucks
There are different versions of this song by varied line-ups of this band (though two of the three have remained the same), all of which are worth a listen, but this one from the first EP is my favorite. Solid Ramones-influenced metal gnashing with Donna She Wolf screaming out “All I fuckin’ need now / Is a hundred bucks / it’s not for drugs!” The music is solid drive. This tune is short, simple, and relentless. Newer versions are more Ramones-metal than Ramones-punk, but it’s still just killer stuff. Check out the She Wolves’ (so far) masterpiece full sludge-crunch-metal CD, 13 Deadly Sins. While this type metal is not a genre I commonly listen to, the She Wolves are so amazing that it is one of the bands I truly miss being away from NYC. Big hugs Donna and Tony (and whoever is playing bass now). (though their MySpace page seems to be more up-to-date).

John OtwayBeware of the Flowers Cos I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You (Yeah)
John Otway is one of those guys who either you’ve never heard of or you just like. There is an amazing greatest hits collection that I listen to all the time. From the first time I heard him in the late ‘70s (when he had long hair) and had the opportunity to not only see him play a couple of times, not to mention interview him for my fanzine – thank you Janis Schacht - I knew he was worth a listen. He reminds me of a British Willie Alexander, but more in a more rock vein. Along with then-partner Wild Willy Barrett, he would tour around and just smash away, but with imaginative tunes and lyrics that were, well, John Otway written as only Otway could. Whether he’s writing about “Louisa on a Horse” (a song produced by Pete Townsend) or “God’s Camera,” he takes simple concepts and blows them up into a sing-along melody and words. There are so many wonderful songs he’s written or covered and made his own. And so, this is the big one, proper.

MorphineYou Look Like Rain
Actually, I find most of Morphine’s output to be pretentious and boring, but I really do like this song. It’s almost growled and could have been easily turned into a leer, but it’s more about desire than lust, and that’s to the singer Mark Sandman’s compliment. Morphine were trying to reinvent rock’n’roll, but ended up being some cross between rock and jazz, and, in my opinion, failed at both. But even artists who do not interest me in general may have a cut that I will enjoy. I’m usually open to find some nuggets. (RIP Mark)

Planet SmashersFabricated
Message to Gwen Stefani: this is ska, not the crap you produce (or ever had). Okay, the Planet Smashers are a ska band from Toronto, and from the first listen, it was solid Madness / Specials / Bad Manners, but even faster. As a student of Media Ecology, “Fabricated” spoke to that side of technopoly that Neil Postman and Jacques Ellul posited. The chorus states, “We are fabricated / we are regulated / We will fight to control the truth.” I don’t have much more to say about this, except give it a listen.

Do I really need to explain about Walter Lure? Is there anyone who reads this that needs more info on him? Well other than checking out the interview on this blog ( the second part is on the same day in the blog). The Waldos still exist, and their Rent Party album is as fine piece of work all the way around as the Heartbreakers. In the song, Waldo kicks out a groupie who was expecting more (“Next thing that I know you’re making eggs and cheese / Next thing that I know you want to live with me / I gotta go, what can I say / Sorry you took it that way”). As with most of the cuts on the CD, this one is guitar-driven and chain-saw revs. The video is a more recent live version. (RIP Tony; RIP Richie)

Washington SquaresD Train
Made up of an ex-New Wavers (Lauren Agnelli of Nervus Rex) and two ex-punkers (Tom Goodkind of U.S. Ape; Bruce Jay Paskow of the Invaders), the WS developed a beatnik look of wearing black (or black and white horizontal stripes), including sunglasses and turtlenecks, and sang both modern and traditional folk, but they did it with a sense of both respect and irony, playing the Civil Rights edge as a response to Reganomics. About half their songs were covers, the others original (all three contributed). This one touched a nerve, not just because it’s a rave-up. At the time, my pal Alan lived on the D line, so he could relate. Ironically, after some major subway construction, the D train was rerouted in Brooklyn (replacing the B) and became my train. But the song isn’t really about the subway, it’s about being stuck in a mundane job. Other WS videos are available, but not this one. (RIP Bruce)

Linda RonstadtClose Your Eyes
As I’ve stated before (much to the chagrin of a reader), Linda’s country period of the early-to-mid-‘70s was her strongest (before she started trying to be more pop with covers of Buddy Holly and Motown). This James Taylor song is a strong example of why I believe that. It’s smoky and sensual, definitely Linda at her best.
Gotta go find it as embedding not permitted by these corporate suits:

Mystic EyesI Thought I Saw a Tear
Mystic EyesShare
I was relistening to their Our Time to Leave album when I was making this tape, and as I love these songs (actually, I like all the of the material on it), I added them on. “ITISAT” is typical Kugel pop; in other words, a marvel of songwriting, in this case fueled by Scott Davison’s rapid-fire drumming. But with “S,” bassist Craig Davison takes charge, writing / singing / playing just about everything in his then-home basement studio, proving that he is a Renaissance man with this strong kiss-off tune that has a hint of pathos (“Go to your cross-town love / You are now his alone / You’d rather share your love / Than to be mine alone”). Oh, and check out Craig’s blog at (link is also on the right of his page).

Mason WilliamsClassical Gas
This is one of my favorite instrumentals, period. I own a large collection of his works (both music and print), and the album this comes from, The Mason Williams Photograph Record, is one of my favorite records of all time (along with The Mason Williams Ear Show and Music). “Classical Gas” had a resurgence when it was used as the theme to the Bruce Willis / Michelle Pfeiffer ’99 film The Story of Us (redone by Eric Clapton;, but I’ve been listening to it all along. This is a guitarist’s dream piece, and I’ve heard it played excellently by the likes of Glen Campbell ( , Chet Atkins (, and Jim Stafford ( The video is a live version, but has the integrity.

Bonus videos:

Saturday, April 17, 2010

THE UNDEAD: Just a Modern Folk Band!

Text by Julia Masi, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Article & interview © 1982; RBF intro © 2010 by FFanzeen
Images from the Internet

The following article about New York-based hardcore metal band The Undead, led by ex-Misfits Bobby Steele, was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #9, in 1982. It was written by Julia Masi.

While I never saw the Undead play (nor the Misfits, for that matter), I did get to hang out with Lori Wedding (of the band Suburban Berlin, who was Bobby Steele’s girlfriend at the time) and Julia, while Julia photographed her for the front cover of the issue. The one thing I remember her saying was that she was not attracted to handsome men (and so I hoped she did not find me winsome).

Bobby Steele is often on social networks, going off on right wing rants against us liberals (though I wonder if he would consider himself more libertarian, but I’m not sure), and for that I respect him (and not). There are actually many right winger punkers (like Johnny Ramone, for example). Whatever his political affliation, Bobby made some fine pulse-pounding music, and still does to this day. – RBF, 2010

The Undead are an uncanny mixture of politics, personality, and high-volume, high-intensity rock’n’roll. Bobby Steele, vocals and guitar, Natz, bass, and Patrick Blank, drums, who have just released their first EP on Stiff Records, Nine Toes Later, are often inaccurately pigeon-holed into the hardcore category. But they prefer to describe their music, which often incorporates a twist of rockabilly or a flair for the satirical, as modern folk.

“We’re a modern folk band,” says Natz, who tries to convince interviewers that he’s Che Guevara: “We’re, like, puttin’ the word across music.”

“Folk music used to be acoustic because the world was a lot quieter,” Bobby adds. “Now you’re competing with a lot of things in the background. You’ve got trucks and heavy traffic. You’ve got jack hammering. You’ve got atomic bombs blowing up and everything. So, you’ve gotta sing your folk songs a little louder. You’ve gotta amplify them.

“Our music is our own kind of music. We can do a soul rock song, or we can do a rockabilly song if we want. We’re not locked into a certain category. A lot of bands make the mistake of categorizing themselves, then they’re locked into that category. Then they’re stuck in that category and it’s what the people expect, like George Reeves is Superman.”

Patrick, whose lanky body and horn-rimmed glasses recall the stereotype of the Science Club president, feels that the Undead “try to avoid the trends, because trends are just that – trends.

“We’re a rock’n’roll band with something to offer. There is politics and you have to talk politics; the point is you can’t get too serious.” He sees the band’s politics as a form of anarchy. “Not like writing an ‘A’ in the circle on the corners. Only in the ideas of no rules. That’s the problem. There are too many rules.” He further explains, “We can’t get put in any groups, because once you do that you become a trend. And if you become a trend, then once you get accepted, you’ll change. And if rules weren’t observed, if rules weren’t thought about, then nothing would ever get done. The rule there is a universal rule, to reach people through quality. Quality means giving your all – 150% towards quality.”

Their ability to abandon the rules is evident in the unorthodox way that the Undead presented themselves to Stiff Records. The band had been hanging out in a bar one night last March when they heard about a private party at Stiff. Immediately, Bobby started to cook up a scheme to con his way into their consciousness.

“We grabbed this wino off the street,” Bobby remembers, “and said, ‘You’re our manager tonight.’ And we just walked up to the door at the place and told them, ‘We’re the Undead and this is our manager.’ We just went in there and we graffitied and spray painted the whole place. And then a few days later we went down there and coated the whole building with posters, and made sure we never showed our faces again.”

For months the band teased the record company by sending flyers and press releases to their office, always careful to make sure that they arrived the day after an important gig. Stiff got so frustrated by this mysterious band that they sent an all-points bulletin into the streets to find them. But Bobby’s phone number is classified information and his friends wouldn’t tell Stiff where to find him. Finally, DJ Tim Sommers brought the Undead and Stiff together, and the band was signed.

Shortly afterward, they went into the studio to record their EP, which includes their own “1984” and “I Want You Dead.” But just as the recording sessions got underway, they had to be interrupted so that Bobby could have his toe amputated. “It was rotting away and stinking up everything,” he explains. Hence the title of the EP, Nine Toes Later.

Recently, the Undead completed a brief tour of the Midwest: Dayton, Detroit and Indianapolis. The audience reception was warmer than they expected and the band is anxious to get back on the road again. Patrick is hoping that he’ll eventually play Ireland, “Because the scene is so sporadic that the kids are starved for music over there.” Bobby’s goal is a little more patriotic: he’d like to play “El Salvador. It would be fun. Join the USA,” he grins.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Photo Essay: Street Scenes, July 2007

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos, 2010

I enjoy taking photos of people and places, usually unposed to catch them at their most real. Here are some I took in New York. The main locations were out my office window, and on Fifth Avenue, in the high 40s and low 50s. Photos can be made larger by double clicking them.

[Wanna ride?]

[More is more]


[Painting on the steps of St. Pat's]

[Vendor confab]

[I love this hat, with no sarcasm implied, nor desire to own]

[Dave's deliveries]

[Yippies when they age]

[Cowbow School tour]

[Puke Green School tour]

[Too much stuff]


[Ladies man]

[Monk with a backpack]

[Bored teens on vacation]

[Reading on the steps of St. Pat's]

[Taking pix]

[Natural color?]

[Italian tourist]

[Great tats]

[guitar slinger]

[Batgirl, possibly unknowingly walked in front of DC Comic's office]

[What the shirt?]

[Colorful truck with '70s flashbacks]

[Ignoring the kids]

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

CD Reviews: Quiet Corner Column, Spring 2010

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

This was originally published in Jersey Beat fanzine at, for my
Quiet Corner column at New reviews should be up there shortly. If you are interested in my reviewing your release, contact me at and I will give you the address to ship off CD, DVD, etc. - RBF, 2010

I really tried to like ANTENNAS UP’s self-title release (Plastic Artifice c/o, but is was just too borderline to early- and late-‘70s white soul/R&B that relies on a mix of synths and disco, with songs that are just a bit, well, facile. Take 5P4C35H1P (aka SPACESHIP), for example: the beat is thumpa-thumpa-thumpa through sampling and the lyrics are just lame. They accomplish what they set out for, but it’s just not the direction I want my listening attention to be going in. This review should not reflect on their ability, just my opinion of their target. Sorry guys, just not my thing.

BLACK WATER RISING ( is a solid metal unit that comes out of Brooklyn these days. Led by singer and tunesmith Rob Traynor (ex- of Dust to Dust) this foursome has released a self-titled collection. This isn’t hair band with make-up crap, BWR is, in their own words, “no frills riff rock” (or so says their PR). Well, while metal is not necessarily my forte, I know enough to recognize solid workmanship. This type of metal relies on such stalwarts as guitar with a heavy bottom and chants, and this has them both. Traynor’s voice is like a runaway train going wherever the hell it wants. None of this high pitched squealing like other metal outfits, he has a solid voice that can carry the tune, no matter what the decibel he’s blaring. The songs are political, based on issues that are on the news every day, and from what lyrics I can make out, they’re well written. There are a few standouts here, like the opener “The Mirror,” “Black Bleeds Through,” and my fave cut, “No Halos.”

Usually, I find full 74-minute CDs as, well, enough already; retrospective collections, however, are an exception, especially when it’s the quality of work provided by JIM BASNIGHT and his many bands (e.g., The Moberlys, the Rockinhams). He shows on We Rocked and Rolled – The First 25 Years of Jim Basnight: The Moberlys and Beyond (Disclosed, 241 E 14 St, New York, NY 10003) that his quality has been consistent since ’76. Basnight still consistently tours, mostly around his Seattle home base, which keeps his performing at high excellence. This is true power pop rock the way it was meant to be, with flashy guitars, memorable hooklines, and near-Mersey Beat rhythms. I’ve been listening to Basnight all these years, and he has never disappointed. This collection is nicely comprehensive, and his descriptions in the booklet of each song are good self-commentary, explaining to the listener what he was thinking at the time. And thus we are also given a timeline for his gliding through his musical morphings.

While BLUE RACE members are not, well, new to the music scene, they show in their first release, World Is Ready ( that they are indeed ready to bring out their sound to, er, the world. The music falls somewhere between classic and soft rock (with a bit harder edge on occasion). They also have a nice way with a melody that works with the lyrics to make some catchy phrasing that lingers after the CD is back in its case (such as the title cut, “You are Here,” and “Never Be.” Bassist and songwriter of some of the tunes here, Thom Gencarelli, told me in his humorously self-depreciating way that he is proud of the release, and rightfully so.

Over the past few years, there has been a strong rise in Americana style of performing. I am happy to add ANNIE CRANE to recent releases that have impressed me. On Through the Farmlands & The Cities (, she uses an aerie voice to tell us stories, of an ice storm in her home town of “Seneca Falls” (NY), of “Pennsylvania,” the skyscrapers of “Empire State,” a “Southern Town,” and tales of people like “Our Families,” the complicated relationship of “Martha and Richard,” “A Song for Dolly,” and “Where the Money Is,” for example. These are all originals except the one traditional “Foggy Dew.” Fiddles and banjos weave through these slices of life and memory that feel like they should be coming out of an old cathedral-style tube radio, but with better production values that are simple yet clean. People like Annie, Allison Krauss, and Rachel Harrington are helping to revive a sound that is as “American” as jazz and the blues.

The female-led THE DRY SPELLS take a familiar formula, though underused, and put their strong stamp on it. On their debut release, Too Soon for Flowers (, they weave a lush and harmonious Americana folk, and imbue it with electric instruments. While one may immediately think of, say, Steeleye Span, they’re softer than that, sort of a cross between the Rankin Family and the Corrs, though less Celtic. You still with me? Even with covers such as “Black is the Color,” the piece becomes almost unrecognizable, but no less enjoyable, than the “standard” versions. A wonderful example of their style is the title track, a luxuriant and vivid song with many musical and melodic eddies that are simply beautiful. Sure the song topics are on the side of loss, desire, and misgivings, but it plays out strikingly.

Cousins Anthony K. and Ricky Wells are sure prolific. Fortunately, they’re also talented. Across many of their groups and collaborations, their sound may be described in general as hard progressive alternative punk. Say what? While their group KUNG FU GRIP has a touring band, here on Two (, their sophomore release, they play everything: Anthony handles vocals, guitars and drums (and songwriting), and Ricky does lead guitars and bass. Those who are familiar with them know how talented Ricky is as a guitarist, and what an amazing Keith Moon-like wild drummer is Anthony. Well, they are BOTH strong songwriters in the post-grunge style, and they deserve whatever kudos they are given. There are 11 songs here, and each one has its own level of power. They are as fun live as they are on this CD, so I recommend both.

If there were any musical justice in this world, TAMARA HEY would be on a tour level with Dar Williams and Patty Larkin. Her last CD, Right This Minute, was one of my favorites of the past couple of years, and now she has released Miserably Happy ( What I like about Tamara is that she has a unique voice, both in her vocal style and writing. Even her love songs have a different twist on them, such as the title track and “Long Dog Day,” but one point of what makes her perspective distinctive is that she looks at some of the raw emotions, both internal and without. On “Round Peg,” she discusses someone (I am assuming her “other” self) who feels comfortable in their own plus size skin without being pulled into the culture of the too thin. She also looks at break-up (“Umbrella”) and the need to love (“Somebody’s Girl”). Tamara is also has a great “eye” for relationships in crisis, such as “David #3” and the brilliant internal opener “You Wear Me Out,” and the external friend in trouble, “Isabelle” (“If you say that he’s the one / Then I’ll have to hold my tongue”). Her vocals are razor sharp without being pitchy, and she has a unique tone that does not sound like everyone else. Tamara makes me want to gush about her talent, and this release is an example why.

Through the gloss and electronica flourishes on Goodnight Human (, CARY JUDD is actually a solid singer-songwriter. Perhaps I need to hear him do the man-with-guitar/piano to truly hear what I need (what, did you think these reviews were not totally subjective?). Let me start off by coming to my point: I like this guy and I think he writes killer pop singer-songwriter songs. He has a very pleasant voice and a way with a melody line. His topics are of relationships with women, Jesus, and God (mostly the former, I am happy to say). As a first single, “Huang Shan (The Ah-ha Song)” was picked, but this is the lowest-common-denominator piece here, and though perhaps it has the best shot, it is hardly the best song. “Angel with a Cigarette” or “See Through Rocks,” as with others, are better. I do wish him luck and success, but more, I hope he occasionally sees his way to a striped-down sound.

While steel guitars weave their way through Look Good, Feel Good (, do not be fooled into thinking that BEN MALLOTT should be put into the country and/or western category. Never mind that he’s based in Austin. If anything, the man is solid Americana, with roots in singer-songwriter, with just the whispery influence of bluegrass and country. The two years of work spent writing and recording this collection is obviously time well spent, as this is as firm as they come. Ben looks at some of the seedier sides of life, but with a touch of humanity, as he tells tales of “Heartbreaks,” “Shotgun Suzy,” “Love is Cold Water,” and the beautiful “Just like Angels.” While those are some of my faves, this really is one good song following another. I just hope we don’t have to wait another two years for his next one.

IAN McLAGAN AND THE BUMP BAND does really well in covering the bases of genres on Never Say Never ( Ian, who used to be in both the Faces and Small Faces back in England, flows across into singer-songwriter, rock and maintains an influence of his own earlier bands. His rough vocals work superbly in this cross-over dream. Whether it’s a ballad like “Where Angels Hide,” to rockers like “I Will Follow,” Ian’s songs and lyrics show he is a force to acknowledge. Even “Killing Me Love” is a mix of British show tune with a Country flair (this was recorded in Austin), and yet it works. Boogie blues shows up confidently with “I’m Hot, You’re Cool.” Despite – or perhaps because of – the variety of styles, Ian remains consistently top-notch. Yeah, I liked this

Anyone familiar with DAVID MOORE’s previous work with the likes of Split Lip, Chevy Downs, or especially Chamberlain, knows that the man can sing and construct a song. Now on his first solo project, My Lover, My Stranger (, he works with producer John David Webster to construct nearly an hour of new material. Webster takes Moore’s work and weighs it down with a wall-of-sound that Moore successfully manages to rise above, but barely. The songs are fine with melodies that are memorably – especially “Breaking You Down” and “When You Fall,” but there is such a burdensome surround sound, “Jericho,” which could actually be a breakthrough, would get lost if not for the level of Moore’s presence, though it seems he has to scream, losing some subtly in the mix. Moore’s talent shines through, but he needs a more gentle hand in support.

VANESSA PETERS AND ICE CREAM ON MONDAY is, in my opinion, what singer-songwriters should attain towards. On her second release, Sweetheart, Keep Your Chin Up (, Vanessa’s fine vocals present us songs that are both intelligent and accessible. One of the points of this well-written release is that there are many themes running through it, just take a pick. There’s lots of heartache with an occasional dash of redemption (“Okay From Now On”); there’s a mythical element that’s mostly used to promote what she is saying, rather than what it is about (Odysseus, Penelope, Pegasus, Icarius, St. Anthony, for example); most songs have a theme of water, be it “Drowning in Amsterdam” or “The Grammar of a Sinking Ship”; then there is travel of all sorts, including cars, boats (naturally) and especially planes; then there are the tragedies, with 9/11 mentioned directly or indirectly more than once; but mostly present is dissolving, with well written phrases like, “”But I’m tired of chasing medals / I’ll never run as fast as you backpedal” (“Medals”), or “You came along when my brain was concrete / freshly poured and now I have the imprint / Of every word you said” (“First Lesson”). Through it all, Vanessa presents us with mind pictures to go along with the emotions, and that’s just wonderful. There is not a bad cut here, but along with the others I mentioned, I’d also like to add “Austin, I Made a Mess” to the list of those that I really liked. Last, I want to make sure to complement Vanessa’s partner (guitarist and co-vocalist), Manuelo Schicci, for his subtle and fine support here.

THE KEITH REID PROJECT is a product that’s larger than the sum of its parts, in the form of The Common Thread ( Along with producing, Reid wrote all the lyrics here, not surprising since he is known for “Nights in White Satin,” when he was in Procol Harem all those years ago (is there any review that won’t mention that?). This “project” has assembled a group of musicians that take each song as it’s own, so each has a different musician writing and playing the music (though some appear more than once), with Reid being the only thread that run throughout the nearly hour long disk. There is some beautiful music here, in a classic rock mode (and an occasional country influence). Some of the more sparkling aspects include, in no particular order, the Springsteen-esque “Silver Town” (with Steve Booker), the goofy yet poignant “The Only Monkey” (Chaz Jankel), the hauntingly solemn “Potters Field” (Bernie Shanahan), and “Ninety-Nine Degrees in the Shade” (Southside Johnny). Others who help out include Chris Thompson (of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band), John Waite (Bad English and the Babys), and of course, Terry Reid. The only problem I had with this was it’s stuck-in-the-‘80s production of some of the pieces, with the hollow, steady drums and the overuse of echo; “I want mah MTV” days. There is definitely an audience for this sound, as a mix of classic ’60s and ‘80s – er – equals ‘140s!

If I had to chose one word for MARGO REYMUNDO’s voice on My Heart’s Desire (Organica Music Group, 1380 Summitridge Place, Studio Suite, Beverly Hills, CA 90210), it would have to be sensuous. She uses Latin-based rhythms, be it sambas, bossa-novas, or flamenco, for example, as she grooves her vocals through plush beats and instrumentation that infuses a richness that is both smooth and yet Adult Contemporary. What is also pleasant is that she has an intonation that is both hard and soft at the same time, making even the three covers among all the originals in the nearly hour-long release her own. An example would be her rendition of “You Belong to Me,” a song I am not fond of in its original incarnation, but Margo wraps around it and makes it enjoyable. Another is the classic “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a song I adore, which Margo takes and rearranges beautifully without ruining it. Lots of the originals are sparkly and worth a listen, including the title cut, “Between Us” and “I Saw You.”

KatieJane Garside, vocalist for RUBY THROAT, has the kind of style of which I’m kind of partial, as she amply displays on The Ventriloquist ( It’s sort of a meandering lazy diction, which almost seems to skip over the music, rather than be, say, like Diamanda Galas, who can pinpoint a note at a half-tone (though I like Galas, as well). Supporting her musically in this duo is Chris Wittingham, who plays an moody-but-not-quite-ambient style of synth sounds…at least I think it’s electronica, as his credit just reads “everything else.” Like KJ’s voice, there is not a lot of exactitude here, from the flow of the sounds to the way the CD is packaged, with only some song lyrics, and those that are present are written so small and in script it makes it hard to tell what is what, especially since there is no rhyme or order to them on the sheet. But I digress. Best I can tell, most of the songs have to do with a multitude of matters of the heart, both positive and negative. Some are surprising, like “Happy Now” (“I’ll break your legs if I find out that you are fucking him”), and the suicide of “Naked Ruby” (“He fell onto the knife / Naked Ruby cried / All night”). There is an artiness level that doesn’t come off as artificial as it often does with others, that is refreshing. In the center of it all is a 16 minute piece, “John 3.16,” which I couldn’t begin to tell you what it’s about, but it does display KJ’s multi-octave range well.

PAMELA RUBY RUSSELL has an aerie kind of voice, almost mythical, as she sings from the heart, often of loss on Highway of Dreams… (, yet also of soaring love. There is a lilting hint of Celtic in there, with the fiddles and other strings, but she also envelops many other styles, including calypso. One of my fave cuts is “Make You Cry,” and another is the title cut closer. Her guitarist, Peter Calo, is someone I also admire for both his solo work and collaborations (including Carly Simon and Mary Gatchell). But again, I digress…

When JON SNODGRASS fronted Armchair Martin, he played hard. For Dry the River, he slowed it down. Now, on his solo release, Visitor’s Band (, he slides into an amazing alt-country sound that fits his smoky voice. There is the occasional rave-up, like “Not That Rad,” but most cuts are slice-of-life and of relationships. With guitar-work that matches the voice, 10 incredibly strong cuts start this off without a slacker in the lot. But he’s not done: as an interesting addition, the final cut, named after the CD, is practically the entire she-bang over again in one groove, but this time it is all of the demos with just Jon and his guitar; it also includes a bit of conversation between him and the engineer. A nice touch and the whole collection is highly recommended.

I’ve known RANDY STERN for a long time, having seen him perform both in a group and solo, and I certainly admire his work. Though I have not heard this newest back-up on his first solo release, Give (, it is always a pleasure to listen to him sing. Why? Well, first of all, Randy can write the hell out of a song. Whether singer-songwriter, as he is here, or as in his days in a rock-based punkish band, he has a way with both melody and lyric that make his songs instantly memorable without being lyrically or musically redundant. Secondly, Randy has a great voice that sounds like, well, Randy, and not like a pick-one-from-column-A. Though my favorite is just Randy with a guitar and a microphone, he shows some weave with a group to give his positive messages some power, such as “Into Your Heart,” “Life is Good,” “Ain’t Dead Yet,” the country-based “Rita,” and one of my favorites, “Better Days.” If you see Randy on the F train busking from car to car, say hello, because he is one of the more open and friendly musicians I know.

It took me a long time to appreciate full-on gospel, but I had my “ears” opened a while back by Sweet Honey and the Rock. ROSETTA SWAIN has a lush, yet down-to-earth (no pun intended) contralto that makes even a heathen like me smile. Yes, From Me to You ( obviously has lots of Jesus as presented by Pastor “Momma” Swain, including an interesting revamping of Bobby Hebb’s classic, with Jesus taking “Sunny’s” place. One aspect I really like about this collection is the wide range of gospel the Buffalo-based preacher presents, from solo vocals with piano, to sometimes full band, and occasionally she nearly rocks a Philly sound. Her love of Lord is obvious, and it joyously comes through in selections such as “It’s Already Alright,” “Some Days,” “Everyday I Spend With You” (a straightforward love song), the lengthy “Thank You Lord,” and the aforementioned Hebb-inspired “Jesus.”

New England singer-songwriter BRETT TERRY has a new one out, titled Instant History (Leverkuhn, c/o While mostly filled with originals, he also does a cover of Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone,” and has a couple of videos of other Beatles’ tunes up on YouTube. Obsession? While Brett’s vocals sound a touch like it’s coming from his nasal passages rather than his chest, he brings earnestness to his music. Many of the tunes are well formulated with a harmony (no vocals are listed for lead/electric guitarist Eric Lichter so I am assuming its overdubs) and catches, and are memorable, like the opening and best cut, “Alexander Street,” “Piece of Mind,” “Baby,” and “Slow Moving Train.” The song “Rock Star” has gotten some notice, though I found it a bit trite (mind you, some great musicians had their corny songs as among their most popular, such as Melanie’s “Brand New Key” and Paul Simon’s “50 Ways”). To sum up, Brett’s work is well done, especially bolstered by Eric’s guitar work), but there seems something thin to me, something missing I can’t quite put my finger on. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to hear some more over time.

And how does TOWER OF POWER release their first new CD in 5 years? Why, by putting out all covers. Hey, they are Tower of Power, and they show why on The Great American Soulbook ( ToP always had a Temptations kind of vibe to me (sans falsetto), and that solid R&B shines through here. The covers are pretty eclectic, such as Marvin Gaye and Kim Wetson’s “It Takes Two” (with Joss Stone filling in), Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You ” (with Tom Jones here; Sam Moore joins in on Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful”), a non-disco version of Tavares’ “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel,” Aretha Franklin’s “Since You’ve Been Gone (Baby, Baby, Sweet Baby)”, and four – count ‘em four – James Brown songs in a tribute medley. If there are any weak points here, it is the near-copying of Brown and Billy Paul’s “Me & Mrs. Jones,” rather than putting more of their own stamp on them, but ToP more than redeem themselves with a powerful conclusion of Bill Withers’ “Who is He (And What is He to You)?” There are others here, and all fun to reminisce of when R&B was soulful.

JOHN WATTS has literally sold millions of records. Why have you not heard of him? Because he was part of the British punk movement, and most of what he sold was in Europe (though he told me that he remembers playing in New York during the ‘80s at The Ritz). Over the years and a few bands later, Watts is now a solo artist, performing his own version of pop with a somewhat more powerful force. He usually performs solo with a guitar, but on Morethanmusic & Films (SoReal, c/o, he has a full band behind him, and having heard his live show, I can tell you they’re both effective. His first song off this collection, “URSo,” is a charming apology song that any man can identify with. But it doesn’t stop there, as each selection has its own sound (i.e., they don’t all sound alike), mixed with his unique vocals, to produce songs that are both likeable and, er, singalong-able. As one listens, you can hear the dancehall influence that most Brits grow up with (while we Yanks have Tin Pan Alley, etc.), but his tunes are accessible to all. Just fun stuff. And I want to add a note of thanks to John who was ever so gracious when I had the opportunity to talk to him for a while in September.

I have a soft spot for bands based in Brooklyn, such as WHITE RABBITS. They’ve just released their second full-lengther, It’s Frightening (, and while I don’t believe I’ve heard their first, this one is pretty solid. I’m definitely enjoying their power-pop rock more on the second listen. What drew me in was their sharp drumming, placed right up front in the mix, which is rare. Most of the songs are produced as pretty standard and unremarkable, but enjoyable nonetheless. The biggest miss is that they rely a bit too much on polish, while the substance that is obviously there gets a bit bogged down in the trying to make it “radio-friendly.” And, really, they should be on the radio as they’re better than most of what you hear there. I just like this stuff with a bit more of an individualistic sound.