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.
Deciding to go the single name root, reggae singer Ruth A. Brown is now known simply as RUTH. While she has a full album in the making, she had released an eponymous EP (bran-nu.com), with five songs. The production is solid, glossy, and could easily be comfortable in the Top-10. But I decided to listen to it all the way, anyway. All five cuts are about love, as in being starry-eyed and at full tilt. While the best cut is “Unfamiliar Feelings,” the absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder “Jamtown” (slang for Jamaica) comes in an easy second. “I Love You” is good, if a bit predictable, and “Chillin’ with my Baby” is mostly fine, though the repeated title chorus gets a bit much. But then again, reggae is oft-times based on a repeated rhythm, so perhaps I am being narrow-minded. Now, I’m not sure if it’s the singer’s ego or she has a punk attitude (meant as a compliment, of course), but having an opening track of that professes her love for her guy while slamming music reviewers, “Here Come the Critics,” is nervy. Good for her. That being said, this isn’t hardcore reggae but with a definite pop feel to it, but she does apparently have a better voice than the limited amount I’ve heard of the over-produced and auto-tuned Rhianna. Now Ruth just needs to get a wider market.
KELLI SCARR has had quite the career, with the bands Moonraker, and Salt and Samovar, plus an acclaimed stint writing film soundtracks. Heck, she’s even toured with Moby (for which I will forgive her), as both his opening act and in his band (she co-sang his “Wait for Me” with him on the 2009 release). On Piece (Silence Breaks, c/o myspace.com/kelliscarr), her style is slow ballads reminiscent of Julee Cruise (though not that laconic). Along with some break-up tunes (“Break Up,” “So Long”), there is also lots of introspective life reflections, such as lullabies to her son. Definitely 33 in a 45 world, the tunes are mellow, but hardly dull. There’s a bit too much self-vocal overdubbing, but her voice is sweet so it all comes out on the positive side. The music is a bit electronic keyboard heavy (her instrument) but not obnoxiously so. In fact, she wields the instrument incredibly well, with no rinky-dink plunking, just using the right amount to highlight the songs. Good second cup of coffee in the morning music.
Ubber German metal flash guitarist Michael Schenker was in the bands Scorpion and UFO during the mid- to late-1970s, and, then he formed his MICHAEL SCHENKER GROUP in 1980. Now there is the nearly 2-hour, 2-CD 30th Anniversary Concert: Live in Tokyo (in-akustik.com), a reunion of most of his original orchestra taped early in 2010. Schenker is a helluva guitarist, whizzing up and down the fretboard of his custom Flying V guitar, and there is the occasional solo by other musicians, such as excellent bassist Neil Murray (from Whitesnake), drummer Simon Phillips (whose huge kit include a double bass) and rhythm guitarist / keyboardist Wayne Findlay, but this is Schenker’s show. My biggest problem with the band, though, is lead vocalist Gary Barden, who has bounced in and out of the band over the years. He’s a decent singer, but his style is formulaic for the genre, and his vocals are, well, certainly not idiosyncratic, like Joey Ramone, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Bon Scott, Lemmy, or Donna “She Wolf” Nasr. He certainly does seem to be having a lot of fun though, as is the Japanese crowd. However, the first number that really got my attention was the 10th one, “Into the Arena,” which I realized most of the way through was an instrumental. From the short (“Welcome Howl” comes in under 2 minutes) to the lengthy (“Rock Bottom” is nearly 13 minutes), there is a fine range of styles and feel, speed and tempo. I’m never going to be a metal head, but I can appreciate what the band is doing, and they manage it with surgical precision. There is also a DVD of this concert available from Inakustik.
What a difference a finger at a console makes. FRED SHAFER has a new release, Resistor (fredshafer.com), and the possibilities for this solid rocker are far and wide. His songs are pretty strong with a firm rock bottom, but... This was co-produced by Shafer and Jamey Perrenot, the latter having worked with the likes of Taylor Swift and LeAnn Rimes. In other words, Perrenot knows all the tricks of the trade to make this release so slick that it collapses under its own weight. Yeah, this can be played on the radio as is now, and that most likely is the goal, but this is just so slick that there is no room for it to breathe, all compressed and balanced to the point of the loss of soul (small “s”). There have been a number of great bands that have been damaged by gloss, like Get Wet, Blondie after the first album, and the Dead Boys’ second. I would like to hear him live to see what he actually sounds like. Meanwhile, there are some decent songs here, like “Mama” and “Going Blind,” and his vocal has the right amount of growl in the back of it. It’s just a bit too mainstream for my taste these days.
Imagine if Patti Smith had listened to Delta folk rather than the Rolling Stones before recording “Piss Factory,” and that could give you some idea of what PEG SIMONE and crew do on Secrets From the Storm (myspace.com/pegsimone). Starting off with the epic 22-minute poetry piece “Levee / 1927,” based on songs by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, the twangy guitar goes on for a while before the spoken word verse begins, telling of a dead body that’s come to the surface after being buried in mud for a while. After the poem part, Peg sings the next part. It’s an interesting and intriguing experiment. The other four pieces, all originals by Peg (and sometimes Holly Anderson) average around four minutes, but are of similar style, with a bluegrassy slide guitar and bass (and occasional piano and drum), and Peg either talking, whispering, or singing over it. It definitely kept my attention throughout. This is thoughtful and complex, even though it is apparently based on simple riffs, but its depth is surprisingly effective, even if the lyrics / poetry is sometimes cryptic.
THE SUPERBEES release, Top of the Rocks (acetate.com), sounds like it could have come out in 1977, or they could have been on a double bill with the Heartbreakers or Gizmos. They have a raw and solid post-New York punk sound that will definitely rock you. Solid musicianship with great songs makes this too-short 6-songer fly by. “The Lonely Kind,” backed with extra vocals by Reggie Kat, just wails. The Superbees sound like they’d be a riot live by any indication of this release. I may have to search out their previous full-lengther. Not a bad song here.
RUSTY WILLOUGHBY was in the bands Pure Joy and Flop: opposite names with the same result of career stagnation. Here is his second solo release, Cobirds Unite (Local638records.com), and while I can’t predict success, I will say this is a well-thought out collection. Well, the ‘80s post-psych and ‘90s grunge were unsuccessful for him, but the neo-country he’s doing now is definitely a step up. An example of this success is definitely “Streets of Baltimore” (where he shares the vox with Rachel Flotard). His press keeps comparing him to Gram Parsons, which is ridiculous, but it can give you some idea of the direction Rusty is going. A question I have is whether this course is what he wants to do, or the track he thinks will work – two very different things, though I ask it as rhetorical. Rusty does seem to be comfortable in this genre of mixing country with soft rock, mostly leaning toward the latter, thankfully, since it works better with his voice, such as on the short opener “Wrecker of the Heart.” Topic-wise, a lot of it is wishin’ and hopin’ for love. He has a good feeling for melody, and sounds good in harmony. Hopefully, this will be his successful milieu.
I’m going to assume you have been reading this column for a while and know where my music heart snuggles. Here’s some info about Nova Scotia’s “atmospheric indie” (as they’ve been called) band WINTERSLEEP: their last album won a Juno (Canadian equiv of the Grammy) for Best New Band, and they opened for Pearl Jam; so where do you think I sit with their fourth release, New Inheritors (wintersleep.com)? Well, the press release compares them to Pearl Jam, Band of Horses and Interpol, three bands that have never meant anything to me. And Pearl Jam always seemed a bit harder than this. Don’t get me wrong, these guys play the crap outta their music, but it’s just a bit slick for me, almost like neo-prog. I mean, “Blood Collection” is pretty good, but I’d want to hear them more stripped down without all the studio overlays. But then, when dealing with an “atmospheric” band, that’s just about what a fan of the genre would want to hear, right? I’m torn, because I can tell this band is certainly talented, and know their way around their style and instruments, and also around a studio, but it’s not something I would ever go out (or stay in) to listen to without a specific reason. I don’t know, perhaps they’re more interesting live. Again, this is me talking about what I get outta the band, not the way they are performing (which is why this is a review, not a critique). Okay, rambling aside, if you like the bands mentioned as comparisons, perhaps check them out, or hear some of their samples. If this band touches you in your musical heart, all the better.
KATHY ZIMMER has such a lovely voice. I find people who have some operatic training tend to force their vocals, but not Kathy. The proof is further expressed in her new 5-song EP, Opening Band (kathyzimmermusic.com). It’s by sheer luck I ran into Kathy at a Tamara Hey show a couple years back, but I’m grateful, because now I have the chance to introduce you to her, once again. Right from the first song, “Fairytale,” she lilts and tilts her tunes over and around her acoustic guitar. Swirling about as well are an electric guitar, violin and percussion. She continues the light ballad trend through all the originals here, giving the listener a warm, cozy feeling. All five are keepers, so go for it. Oh, lest I forget, my only complaint about the whole thing is that all the CD covers are hand-put-together, so no two are identical, and being the collector I am, I didn’t want to break the seal! But I did, and it was worth it…