Text © Robert Barry Francos, 2011
Originally in Jersey Beat webzine, 2011
Images and video from the Internet
Here are the reviews that were in my Quiet Corner column at the excellent Jersey Beat webzine (jerseybeat.com). Rather than publish all the reviews at once, I will be publishing them on this blog a few at a time. If I found a video of an exact version of a song from the release, I attached it. Other videos by these artists (usually live) exist, so you can check them out.
If you are in a band and want me to review your release, be it CD, vinyl, DVD or digital, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or if it’s digital, just send it along.
LED TO SEA is Alex Guy, her viola, and an array of loop pedals. While this has the potential of be an electronica nightmare, her release Into the Darkening Sky (ElevenRecords.com) shows that one can still be loopy and musical. In fact, she has quite the lovely voice, and she employs the strings in a melodic manner (more often plucked than bowed), using it to enhance the sound she’s going for, rather than to mask it. With unusual timing phrases in the structure of the song (i.e., putting spaces in unusual places, or taking an extra beat between choruses, such as in “Rust”), she makes the music experimental, but keeps the integrity of the song. Yes, there are moments of dark and atmospheric sounds and lyrics, but led by Alex’s voice, the veracity remains intact; note it works with the occasional instrumental songs, as well. The lush parts have more of a floating underwater feeling of freeness rather than skimming, and others bouncing on airbags, landing on her voice and viola with a comfortable thud. There is a lot of great music here, such as my fave cut, “Is This the Last Time.” The tunes are recognizable enough to be comfortable, yet off enough not to be formulaic, and kudos for that. It’s not often a viola is the lead instrument in an alternative setting, and especially when used in such a diverse way as Alex does. Yeah, it’s worth getting.
I know APRIL MARTIN has released Pennies in a Jar (Shrimp Toast c/o aprilmartin.com) in a CD format, but at its heart, it really is an LP, with two sides; but I get ahead of myself here… Coming into being as a singer-songwriter in the form of an artist rather than a consumer a bit late in life, April shows that some things are worth the wait. She has a very clear voice, which is smartly put right up front by producer Peter Calo, along with his own, show he has sharp ears), resonates in a way that feels like she is sitting in the living room singing to the listener, and there is some comfort in that. Backed by Peter on guitar, along with some other fine musicians, she is obviously singing from the heart. The first “side” of this release focuses in on the feeling of a slight lack of control in one’s life, where things are just out of reach, or mysterious. “Out of My Hands” (“All my schemes are written in sand”), “Got a Way to Go” (“Don’t know where there is / But I’m heading down the line”), “I Don’t Know” (“I don’t know just how much is in our hands / “I don’t know, is there any sort of plan?”), and “Love’s Been a Long Time Coming” (“Thought it would surely be here by now”) bring life’s experiences of “hunh? wha?” to an emotional depth that is far from alienating an audience, but rather touches the heart gently. The tone of the CD changes with the sexy “When She Says Yes,” or as I like to call it, the start of side two. From here we enter different phases of love from the aforementioned lust (along with an amusing flapperish ‘20s rag style “It Ain’t About the Chassis Anymore”), affection (“One Kiss in the Rain” and “Warrior of the Heart”), and the goodbye (told in both sad mode with “I Won’t Make That Mistake Again” and the Lisa Loeb-style empowering “Bye-Bye”). Not a bad cut here. This may be her first release, but I’m hoping it won’t be her last, nor that it will be too long a wait.
JIM McCARTY was a key player in two major Brit groups during the ‘60s experimental period, being the drummer for both the Yardbirds and Renaissance, as well as being a major songwriter for both. After a few post-period bands and solo excursions, his latest is Sitting on the Top of Time (Easy Action c/o jamesmccarty.com). For this release, he plays drums (as expected), writes all the music (ditto), and fronts the top-notch musicians called in to record this collection. The songs definitely lean more toward Renaissance than Yardbirds, with a prog tone touched with mellow notes, some excellent guitar flourishes, and lush melodies. The topics are about life being impermanent, and accepting with peace one’s place as time passes. In “Temporary Life,” he states, “Feeling all the time go by / Accelerating every day / Letting go the fear I find / That everything is just slipping away.” With “Hummingbird” (one of my fave cuts here), he posits, “Moving through the air transforming / Into dignity / With a new found poise that’s really free.” Rather than dwelling on the short visit on earth we all get, he joyously feels the peace that one can find with age. There is also a smattering of really lovely instrumentals. Now, my one contention with the set is not Jim’s vocals, which is well and good, but that he double-tracks them all. Once in a while, the harmony is nice, but throughout is unnecessary, as he sounds fine. Perhaps it’s lack of vocal confidence, or experimenting, but I’m just putting forward that he does not need that studio heavy-handedness, and he should be as at peace with his voice as he is with the rest of the music.
BEN MILLER / degeneration plays his multiphonic guitar while it’s still on the stand, with pick-ups all over it and electronic doohickeys attached, employing it more as a totally different instrument than classically called for. On his one-man Eyelands Under Eyelid (gulcher.gemm.com), recorded in New Jersey, Miller produces sonic soundscapes that are idiosyncratic and certainly amelodic, but at the same time keeping it interesting. It’s definitely more Brian Eno than the static feedback noise of Metal Machine Music, but it is also not formulaic in any sort of way. As is common in this kind of experimentation, the pieces are longer than standard song length, as once a groove is reached, it’s up to the artist to figure out where it must go from there. Using an SK1, electronics, radio, and tape, these pieces are all improvised and played live in the studio, without overdubs. While listening, I kept imaging this as the backdrop to panning images of planets on something like Nova show. Very ethereal and esoteric, this could be good music to get totally wasted to, but as I don’t imbibe in recreational hoo-ha, it’s just an assumption.
STUART MOXHAM first came to light as a member of Young Marble Giant, and he has had a thriving career as a solo artist (including as Gist), songwriter, and producer. He has collected some of his rare output into a nearly hour-long anthology titled, Personal Best (youngmarblegiants.com). Moxham has a definite flair for songwriting, on a low-fi scale. In fact, about half of this I found kind of uninteresting, honestly, with a plunky keyboard and rhythm machines, but the half I did find remarkable was majorly so. Songs like “Warning Signs 2,” “No More Words” and “Cars in the Grass” show that within the frame he’s shown, there is huge possibility achieved. The tunes are catchy without compromising his aesthetics. Two cuts here that immediately perked up my ears, were “My First Gun” and “Untitled #2,” which appeared on Barbara Manning’s excellent “Barbara Manning Sings With the Original Artists” in 1993 (another CD that’s also worth looking up). Now mind you, this is all my opinion, which doesn’t really account for much in the real world. Low-fi seems to work better for me in some genres than others (the ‘80s garage revival, for example), but considering how many cuts here I did like, I feel it’s easy to recommend the whole lot for fans of the genre.
Someone once told me that they thought Dana Carvey was not funny on Saturday Night Live because his impressions were so accurate to their subjects that they were indistinguishable from the reality. In addition, there is a history of songs that became embraced by the very style they were initially meant to mock, like Blotto’s “Metalhead,” Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck,” and “Cooky Puss,” the first rap by the then-hardcore Beastie Boys. These two thoughts are the issues I’m having with AARON PETA and his release, I’m Not a Hipster (aaronpeta.com). I just didn’t get it at first, because it sounds too much like what it’s trying to mock, but at the same time is successful at it. Peta is pop in a Plastic Bertrand mode, with a bouncy melody line, a smattering of electronica, and (for others, I’m sure) infectious rhythms. They lyrics are wry, such as “You you you you you you you you / Everywhere we go, everything we do / It’s always always always always always about you,” from “You You You”, or “I got the rock / I got the talk / Can’t find my keys (aw man) / The door is locked,” from the title cut. While not my speed (though “Ca plane pour moi” still gets to me), I can appreciate what Aaron is aiming to accomplish, and that he is successful at what he is doing so well, perhaps the same kind of Blotto-Dees-Beasties success may follow. I’ll be with him in spirit and respect, but I probably won’t have it on my player again.
I had wanted to hear some of the legendary O. REX recordings for years, and now thanks to the 2-CD My Head’s in ’73! (gulcher.gemm.com), I can get my fill. In the early years of 1973-74, covered in the first hour-long, 18-song disk, the “band” was primarily Solomon Gruberger and his younger ‘tween bass-master brother Jay (d. 1993 in an auto accident) who lived in Brooklyn, and Krazee Kenne Highland (he would go on to cult fame in bands like the Gizmos, the Korps, Kenny and the Kasuals, and Kenne Highland and His Vatican Sex Kittens). Kenne, the king of I-IV-V, would travel down from the Rochester area to play with the bros (about 350 miles). They were all fans of the likes of Alice Cooper, Mountain, Black Sabbath, and other touchstone bands of that period, and along with occasional others like Kenne’s friend Bill Rowe (who would later be immortalized in Kenne’s classic “Jailbait Janet”), they would record themselves on a very cheap reel-to-reel. The needle must have been consistently in the red, because there is high distortion and lo-lo-lo-fidelity. All of this, of course, makes these tapes of songs that average about 2-minutes each, legendary, if occasionally painful (and I say that with a smile). It is cool to hear them working out their sounds from the beginning, as each of them trade off instruments (which they occasionally tune), vocals, and songs. Right from the start there are some covers, like the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and Link Wray’s “Rawhide,” but there are so many originals, which despite the crappy sound, one can see the unpolished gems there just waiting for some polishing (and hopefully, better recording equipment). For example, there’s Kenne’s “I Shoot Up” (inspired by Lou Reed’s “Heroin”) and “That’s Cool (I Respect You More)” (sung by Jay here; it would become a Gizmos highlights), and Solomon’s “When I Get There” and “Schizoid Girl.” The second hour-long, 24-song disk covers 1976, in which Eddie Flowers, who was with Kenne in the Gizmos at that time, and later would be (and currently still is) in Crawlspace, played in this group. Starting the year with a cover of the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things,” most of the first batch of 8 songs are Solomon’s originals, influenced by the likes of Blue Oyster Cult and Brownsville Station. The following group of tunes was recorded in the fall, which is after the Ramones influence was introduced to the band, shown in tunes like Solomon’s “Next Time” (which is essentially “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”). Their cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Solomon’s “My Head’s in ’73” are also clear examples of possibilities. The song’s topics are occasionally period pieces wallowing a bit too much in their rock misogyny (such as “Crazy Jill,” “Right Between the Hips,” “Make Her Know She’s Getting Fucked,” and “Star Girl”), and even some questionable racist overtones (“Boogying With the Jubas”), but it was a different time. I could go on and on about the potential presented on these disks, but I’ll cut this “short.” The next stage of this band is when Kenne, Solomon, and Jay joined with Ken Kaiser and formed the superior Afrika Korps, who released some truly killer tunes. The booklet to this set has members of the band discussing their memories of the songs and their recording, with both humor and hindsight. Whether this is a meaningful 2-hours plus depends on the listener, but I found it worthwhile, despite being questionably amateurish.
JACK PHILLIPS is a singer-piano man, and his release is To Whom It May Concern (Magnolia Group c/o jackphillipsmusic.com). There are a smattering of different styles on here, and most work well for him, especially the Elton John-ish ones such as the title track, “Alowishus,” and the gospel-inspired closer, “Bright One.” His foray into C&W with the traditional style “Motherlode” succeeds for his voice as well. The ‘80s sounding “The Trip Will Make You Well” is a bit retro, but it’s okay. My biggest complaint about this collection is the song order. It starts with his weakest cut, “I Can’t See,” and it isn’t until halfway through that he starts to pick up some real steam. While I can understand why the highly produced (it works here) “Bright One” is the closer, but I would actually have liked this more if the rest of the songs were in the reverse order: start strong and work your way down. As for the songs themselves, the melodies blend well with the lyrics, which are occasionally a bit abstract, especially in the early cuts. The second half of the songs, however, tend to be repetitious, especially lyrically. Entire stanzas and chorus are repeated, sometimes more than once, sometimes in a different order, but the point is made, so either add stanzas or move on (in my opinion). I like Jack and his songs, despite the issues, and I am hoping future releases by him are a bit stronger in the songs themselves, even though the music backing it is pretty solid.
DAVE RAVE has been associated with some great rock bands, like Teenage Head and the Dave Rave Conspiracy. But as the years went on, he bent increasingly toward his origins, which is more on the pop side. Oh, I’m not talking about Top 10 radio, I’m talking Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe ‘60s style (I remember my first conversation with Dave in the 1980s being about Edmunds). Presently, he’s had a relatively recent yet lasting work relationship with jazz aficionado and musician Mark McCarron, and a partnership with ex-rocker, folker, and more recently chanteuse Lauren Agnelli. On top of adding to his pop side with his long-standing relationship with producer / musician / music historian / fellow Canadian Gary Pig Gold, his more melodic side is gaining momentum. In fact, this whole collection is like old home week with various members of Teenage Head and Rick Andrew (from Dave’s first group the Shakers back in Hamilton, Ontario) making some contribution here. Even Richard X. Heyman and Michael Mazzarella (of the Rooks) make an appearance. One would think with all these varied artists chipping in, it would be a complex mess, but just the opposite seems to be true. Even with the diverse recording spaces, such as New Jersey, London, Paris, and various Ontario studios, it all sounds cohesive. Live with What You Know (bongobeat.com), put out by ex-Diodes manager / musician / poet (and also Canadian) Ralph Alfonso, is a culmination of all those influences into a beautiful package of songs, starting strong with “Anne-Marie,” and never letting up. Some other toppers (though they are justthisfar from that level) include “One of a Kind,” the later-Beatles sounding “One Day Your Sun Will Shine,” the country-twinged “Silverline” (where Dave gives up the lead vox to the lovely voiced Kate MacDonald), the sweet ballad “Rows and Rows,” “All the Love You Can Handle,” and… well, I could just go on. Most of Dave’s CDs are a reason to celebrate, and this one is especially so.
What pleases me about alt-country THE RUNNING KIND (named after a Merle Haggard ditty) is that their sound is just a bit off. On The Girl For All the World (Bossanova Music, c/o therunningkind.net), the vocals are shared by real-life Massachusetts-bred couple Leslie Ann Bosson and Matt Bosson (also on acoustic guitar), and their sounds are not what one would expect for the genre. Leslie Ann has a forced operatic (excuse the redundancy) tone that adds an unusual but effective element; Matt sounds a bit like he’s straining at times, especially on the Neil Young cover, “Don’t Cry No Tears.” When they sing together, it reminds me a bit of Rank & File – not in sound, but how two different and non-formulaic voices can blend and be idiosyncratically interesting. Along with some really fine originals, such as the outstanding “Old Girl” and “I Still Love You (Like I Loved You Before),” there are a couple of noteworthy covers of Gram Parson’s classic “Return of the Grievous Angel” and the George Jones standard, “Life to Go.” The rest of the band holds Leslie Ann and Matt up with strong support.