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 www.jerseybeat.com, for my
Quiet Corner column at www.jerseybeat.com/quietcorner.html. New reviews should be up there shortly. If you are interested in my reviewing your release, contact me at rbf55@msn.com 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 antennasupmusic.com), 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 (blackwaterrising.com) 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 (myspace.com/bluerace) 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 (anniecranemusic.com), 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 (antennafarmrecords.com), 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 (kungfugriponline.com), 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 (miserablyhappy.com). 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 (Chinamountainrecords.com), 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 (myspace.com/benmallott), 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 (manicrecords.net). 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 (doghouserecords.com), 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 (vanessapeters.com), 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 (Rockville-music.com). 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 (rubythroat.co.uk). 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… (highwayofdreams@gmail.com), 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 (surburbanhomerecords.com), 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 (heyday.com), 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 (myspace.com/rosettaswain) 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 myspace.com/brettermusic). 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 (towerofpower.com). 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 johnwatts.co.uk), 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 (whiterabbitsmusic.com), 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.


  1. Hey there,

    Kyle from Antennas Up here. Thanks for listening to the disc, and sorry it's not your thing. We're working on new material right now, and should have a record by the end of the year, if you want to give our new disc a chance.

    Thanks again,

  2. Hey, Kyle:

    I certainly appreciate both your effort to get yourself out there, and the fact that I was not a fan of the style of the release, that's cool too. Too many times I've had people rail at me because I didn't enjoy a particular disk. I'm just a particular person who has a particular taste in sound, as does everyone. Whether I care for a piece or style of music or not has nothing to do with anything, really. Music is truly subjective from the heart of the artist to the heart of the listeener, no matter what anyone thinks of it, just as my writing my opinion turns people either off or on. I try to explain what the music is like, as well as what I feel about it, because there are certainly listeners out there with different tastes who may read it and think, "Oh, he didn't like it, but it sounds like something in which I'm interested." I am almost always willing to listen to anything at least once (and nearly always all the way through), so feel free to send it to Jersey Beat. I truly wish you luck in your endeavors, Kyle.

  3. Jim Basnight Here Robert. Thanks for the great review and it is flattering to be in such fine company.

    If you ever need anything please go to jimbasnight.com or message me at jim@jimbasnight.com if you have any questions large or small.

  4. Hey, Jim, thanks for the kind words, and as always, it's a pleasure to reviwew your work.