Saturday, August 22, 2015

Total Babes. Heydays.

Total Babes.  Heydays.
Wichita Recording, 2015.  Total Babes:

Dance to this.  Shake your rear. Bop your head. At least keep time with your foot or hand, or other appendage if you can’t otherwise move. Do something for this extra fine band and their new EP. Well, maybe it’s an EP.  Eight tracks isn’t a full album unless they’re all like, seven minutes long, and nothing clocks over five minutes here. It doesn’t matter because the music is really great, except that there should be more of it.

Total Babes was started by Christopher Brown and Jayson Gerycz in Medina back in 2010, apparently as a side project that has a life of its own. And after all, somebody has to start bands in Medina. Brown was (is?) in Swindella, Gerycz is the drummer for Cloud Nothings (which Baldi fronts), Nathan Ward is from Smooth Brain, and John Elliott was in Emeralds. Wow, talk about cross-pollination. The music is power pop/punk with synthesizers and jangly guitars and distortion, or something like that, with hints (are we wine-tasting?) of Emeralds, Cloud Nothings, R.E.M., and probably other stuff if you listen hard enough. Nearly everything is high energy and fun, with speeds ranging from pretty fast to breakneck. Harmonies hit just the right spots (who’s singing harmony?) for garage rock (check “Circling” and “Repeat Gold”). The guitar is cool, the drums dominate (no surprise), and it all comes together. I like the fact that almost nothing here is a love song. Thank you! “Sunny Side” is a piano track, sort of like Jefferson Airplane doing “Embryonic Journey,” but sounding nothing like it. “Repeat Gold” is as close to a ballad as it gets, and it’s a catchy tune with a nice vibe.

Since I have the advantage of seeing other people’s reviews of the album (Metacritic shows eight), I can critique those too. Sorry, Consequence of Sound, but this rates higher than a C+, and isn’t just Cloud Nothings lite. DIY and the 405 are closer to my opinion, and therefore entirely reasonable. We just missed their concert at the Happy Dog, but they’ll probably pop up somewhere. In the meantime, groove to this.

Personnel:  Christopher Brown (guitar, vocals, bass, piano), Jayson Gerycz (drums), Nathan Ward (bass (sometimes), John Elliott (synthesizers), Dylan Baldi (saxophone on track 4, and maybe some vocals).
Tracks:  Blurred Time, Heydays, Bone Dry Eyes, Circling, We’ll Come Around, Sunny Side, Repeat Gold, Can I Turn You On.

Ron Yoyek

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Vinyl Note

While we await somebody or other to come up with a new review, here's a link to a really great article on the FreshWater Cleveland site about the popularity of vinyl in Cleveland and the unique density of record stores. Go vinyl!

We'll be posting soon, I hope!


Friday, July 31, 2015

Ray Anthony. Young Ideas/Moments Together.

Ray Anthony and His Orchestra.  Young Ideas/Moments Together.
Phono, 2014  (Originally released 1957).  Ray Anthony:

You have probably heard Ray Anthony’s music without realizing it.  He made top-selling recordings of “The Bunny Hop” and the “Hokey Pokey” in the early 1950s that are still played at weddings. He had other big hits with TV show themes from the period, including Dragnet and Peter Gunn. His influence is wide-ranging in both television and movies. Anthony, born Raymond Antonini in Bentleyville, PA in 1922, moved with his family to Cleveland and there he took up the trumpet, starting his own band as a teenager. He joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra by the age of 18, then did a later stint with Jimmy Dorsey, as well as having a Navy band during World War II. After the war he signed with Capitol Records, and eased into a long career of touring and recording, intermixed with television and film work. If you’ve read this far, you may want to know that Anthony is still alive and working, at the age of 93.  He and his orchestra have released 126 albums.  Beat that.

For those of us who are of the boomer generation, easy listening music (as it has been characterized since the 1950s) is anathema. The movie Good Morning Vietnam’s verbal exchanges between the disc jockeys over what music to play were real, about massive shifts in aesthetic taste between those who lived through World War II and those who came after. Growing up, most of my friends despised all music that came before rock, but I had a few differences with them. Secret differences. I was exposed to easy listening through my parents, through the radio stations they listened to, the albums my mother owned (or borrowed from my Aunt Emily). I found the style interesting, sometimes enjoyable, and just one more genre that was worth pursuing in some measure, depending on my mood and inclination. The category itself is a construction (like all others) that includes non-jazz/non-classical orchestral music, some pop vocalists, and a range of other artists who were popular sellers in album format in the 1950s-1970s but didn’t fit other categories. Ray Anthony has come to fall into that category by default, being a bit too sweet to be considered big band jazz (although he has his moments).

This recent import combines two albums, both released in 1957, that show two sides to Anthony and his orchestra.  Young Ideas is all instrumental, a collection of standards by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and others, all played in a style that Glenn Miller would have found perfectly suitable. The album title is odd, considering that it’s all middle of the road big band material, at the sweet but classy end. No novelty tunes, no long solos, and no jive. Anthony displays his strong trumpet playing and the arrangements are tasteful, never gaudy. Four cellos are included for a more mellow sound than a big band is commonly known for. I could listen to this for hours.  

The second album, Moments Together, removes the cellos and replaces them with the Ray Anthony Chorus, a cloying group of vocalists who sing partial lyrics, echo refrains, punctuate stanzas, run overtop of the melody, and make themselves a general nuisance. I wish he had kept the cellos. This style of vocalizing was popular for a period in the 1950s, but went out of style fairly quickly. Percy Faith and a few other easy listening stalwarts used it as late as the 1960s. Here it sounds dated, limiting to the music. The band performs a dozen more standards, Rodgers, Gershwin, and others, none of whom need the “woo--woo” and “ah--ah” of the Chorus for improvement. Now, in a different context of the same period, doo-wop, background vocals were vital to the style, often the most important part in simplistic music with few chords, insipid lyrics, and little instrumentation. Here it seems like syrup poured over ice cream. Too sweet by far.

Thus, Phono Records, a European label, has given us a mixed bag, and one that will not fully appeal to all. You can tell which half of the album I prefer, and you can decide for yourself if you like the vocal stylings of the Ray Anthony Chorus. As for Anthony himself, he should keep doing what he’s doing, since it seems to be working for him.

Personnel:  Ray Anthony (trumpet, bandleader), with orchestra, the Ray Anthony Chorus, and unnamed cellists.
Tracks:  Young Ideas: Moonglow, Why Do I Love You?, I Love You, Nice Work if You Can Get It, Lonely Night in Paris, Button Up Your Overcoat, You Turned the Tables on Me, Just One of Those Things, That Old Feeling, Coquette, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, Young Ideas.  Moments Together:  Love is Here to Stay, Careless, Everything I Have is Yours, Many Faces, Goodnight Waltz, No Other Love, Please Mr. Sun, The Things I Love, With You in Mind, Oh! What It Seemed to Be, In Time, If I Ever Love Again, Cello-Phane*, The Lonely Trumpet*.

Jeff Wanser

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ohio Light Opera. Oh, Kay!, by George & Ira Gershwin

Ohio Light Opera.  Oh, Kay!, by George & Ira Gershwin
Performance of Saturday, July 18, 2015, Freedlander Theatre, Wooster, Ohio

This past weekend was quite hot and humid, and so my wife and I felt ourselves fortunate to have booked tickets for the Ohio Light Opera and its air conditioned theater months in advance for Saturday and Sunday. We have been attending at least a couple of productions each summer since 1999, enjoying both the operettas and the local delights of Wooster (We highly recommend both the Broken Rocks Cafe and Matsos Family Restaurant). The 37th season of the OLO continues to provide its audiences with top notch operetta and early musical theater. Beginning with a core of Gilbert & Sullivan, the organization has expanded its offerings to include a variety of European and American operettas, and early 20th century and Golden Age musicals.

Oh, Kay! fits into the musical category, a madcap comedy that opened on Broadway in 1926.  It had excellent runs in both New York and London, and initially starred Gertrude Lawrence.  While some of the music is familiar (“Clap Yo’ Hands,” “Do-do-do”), the work is particularly remembered for one song, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which has entered the canon of standards. Set during Prohibition, the plot is the usual mix of silliness, involving two crimes, bootlegging and bigamy, and the efforts of the Duke of Durham, Lady Kay, Larry, and Shorty to save their stash of booze hidden in the basement of a house in Southampton. Jimmy, the owner, has suddenly appeared with a new bride (sort of).  As it turns out, his previous marriage was never annulled, much to the unhappiness of present wife, Constance, and her father, the Judge. Meanwhile, the bootleggers pretend to be previously unmet domestics awaiting the return of the squire, while plotting to move the liquor. Thrown into this mess is a revenue officer and a pair of ditzy sisters. Jimmy, of course, falls in love with Kay and tries to get out of his impending marriage to Constance. All is eventually resolved, but it’s a bit obscure as to just how, as the plot is intentionally a confusing mass of multiple roles (bootlegger as butler, etc.), mishaps, misunderstandings, and near misses. However, the plot is barely the point, as it merely serves as a coathanger for the music and lots of one-liners. And the music is gorgeous.

The cast for Oh, Kay! is outstanding. Nathan Brian is utterly engaging as Jimmy Winters, the unintended bigamist. He acts, he sings, he dances, and he does them all with the aplomb of a young Steve Martin. Equally delightful is Emily Hagens, who has a great deal of fun with her part as Kay, changing accents at a moment’s notice, and doing both the comedy and the love scenes with charm and ease. The bootleggers were in fine form, with special kudos to Samus Haddad as Shorty, whose jokes were so awful they were funny, and Spencer Reese, who  showed off his  dancing abilities in the number “Fidgety Feet.” The Ruxton sisters, played by Sarah Best and Alexandra Vecchio were simply a hoot. There were no dull moments here; every scene was captivating, every song worth hearing. Only one thing threw me. Emily Hagens had her big romantic moment with “Someone to Watch Over Me,” but I was a bit startled by her choice of a rather operatic voice.  I’m used to hearing it more as a sultry torch song.  However, with only a bit of digging, I discovered that Hagens was performing it the way Gertrude Lawrence did in the original run (you can hear it on YouTube). Leave it to OLO to be authentic in its presentation.

As usual, the orchestra performed the music seamlessly and with great enthusiasm (I’m still humming the tunes). The scenery was delightful, the costuming exactly right, the lighting a wonder. Ted Christopher and J. Lynn Thompson are to be congratulated on a job well done. If you haven’t yet experienced the Ohio Light Opera, please go.  It is a hidden gem that cannot be found anywhere else. The season only runs through August 8th. Get thee to Wooster.

Cast: Caitlin Ruddy (Molly Morse), Katherine Corie (Peggy), Kyle Yampiro (The Duke of Durham), Emily Hagens (Lady Kay), Spencer Reese (Larry Potter), Samus Haddad (Shorty McGee), Sarah Best (Phil Ruxton), Alexandra Vecchio (Dolly Ruxton), Nathan Brian (Jimmy Winters), Jessamyn Anderson (Constance Appleton), Boyd Mackus (Judge Appleton), Benjamin Krumreig (Revenue Officer Jansen), and others; with ensemble. Ted Christopher (Stage Director, J. Lynn Thompson (Conductor), The Ohio Light Opera Orchestra.
Musical Numbers: The Woman’s Touch, Don’t Ask, Dear Little Girl, Maybe, Clap Yo’ Hands, Do-Do-Do, Never too late to Mend-elssohn, Someone to Watch Over Me, Fidgety Feet, Heaven on Earth, Oh, Kay.

Jeff Wanser

Friday, July 3, 2015

Cloud Nothings. Here and Nowhere Else.

Cloud Nothings.  Here and Nowhere Else.
Carpark Records, 2014.  Cloud Nothings:

Yay! I get to review an album that came out over a year ago! Thanks, Mr. Editor (Editor’s Note: You were my third choice). They just released a new album, sharing it with Wavves, but I get this one. Anyway, all the accolades have been written, it got a great review from Pitchfork, another from Consequence of Sound, and things seem to be going pretty well for the band.  They performed at Coachella this year, and it looks like they’re touring out west right now, so maybe they won’t read this. The band seems to be lucking out with producers. Their last album, Attack on Memory, was produced by Steve Albini, and this one by John Congleton. I guess it goes to show what moving out of town can get you.

The band sounds even better this time out than on some of their earlier albums. Moving from a quartet to a trio has changed the sound a bit. Punk and grunge predominate, but I think there’s some other stuff there too. There’s a lot of melody and some nice hooks, but some screaming. They’ve knocked out some of the low-fi/power pop sound they started with, and Here and Nowhere Else seems to continue that trend. Now they’re all pretty much all high energy, which suits me just fine. Fewer highs and lows than the last album. It’s focused and consistent (unlike me), and I don’t hear any loser tracks. Every song is good, but I especially like “Pattern Walks,” partly because it rocks out for seven minutes. Nice guitar work from Dylan Baldi, and some seriously cool drumming from Jayson Gerycz. “I’m Not Part of Me,” is great too.  I guess I like the longer tracks. The lyrics are cool, with a lot of angst mixed with a few glimmers of humor and hope. Try, which has some commentary from Dylan Baldi about the songs. He says that he likes to write stuff that’s hard to play, which makes him practice and get better. Good strategy, and it seems to be working.

What else is there to say? Great band, great music. If you don’t know them, check them out.

Personnel:  Dylan Baldi (guitar, vocals), Jayson Gerycz (drums), T. J. Duke (bass).
Tracks:  Now Hear In, Quieter Today, Psychic Trauma, Just See Fear, Giving into Seeing, No Thoughts, Pattern Walks, I’m Not Part of Me.

Ron Yoyek

Friday, June 26, 2015

Ottawa. Random Lights.

Ottawa.  Random Lights.
Self-produced, 2014.  Ottawa:

I am writing this on a morning when Imagine Dragons appeared in concert on the Today Show.  Ottawa is far, far better than them--stronger musically, lyrically, and stylistically. They’re a new band, having formed on Cleveland’s west side in 2014, although the musicians themselves aren’t brand new. Random Lights is their first release, and it’s a fine one, reflecting influences as various as Fleetwood Mac and Oasis, as well as the inevitable Black Keys. The result is a sound that is pop-oriented rock with an edge, part blues and part punk, taking them to a level above many other groups.

They have a several things going for them. First is some excellent material to work with. The songs are really good, all original, with excellent lyrics, sophisticated structures, and nice hooks.  A great example is the title track that starts off the album, with its upbeat, insistent rhythm, slightly punkish attitude, and tempo changes and bridges that are consistently interesting. Other songs follow suit, without seeming imitative. Second is Dale DeLong’s vocals, which are not exactly pretty, but highly appealing, and help to sell the songs. He strains at the lyrics, wails a bit, and has a ragged edge (a higher-sounding Billy Idol?). He certainly holds the listener’s attention. The harmonies are good too, especially noticeable in “Tarantino” and “Tempo,” two songs that I find highly appealing. Enormous energy is the third quality, as exemplified by the second track, “The Good Kind,” and its overpowering sound. Finally, the musicians are very capable, with Tim Czajka’s guitar the most noticeable ingredient here. His guitar breaks and punctuation are memorable, stabbing and slashing, and adding to the high energy delivery. The band itself is tight, and the rhythm section is strong. They know what they want to do and do it in a way that is both efficient and organic. They sound like they’ve been playing together for years.

A couple of tracks fall flat for me. “Blondie” is the closest thing to a ballad, and doesn’t move me the way most of the other songs do. “Separator” sounds like Black Keys lite, and the lyrics seem less interesting than the rest of the songs here. Those quibbles aside, the band has done a remarkable job for a debut album. This is music that can stick in your head, which is the key to rock music that lasts. Ottawa will be playing at the House of Blues in August. Catch them when you can.

Personnel:  Dale DeLong (vocals), William Hooper (guitar, piano), Tim Czajka (guitar), Chris Williams (bass), Steve Crobar (drums), with additional instrumentation by Suzy Scullin and Jim Stewart.
Tracks:  Random Lights, The Good Kind, Lie to Me, Separator, Tarantino, Tempo, Dodge City, Blondie.

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith.

Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield.  Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith.
Ramseur Records, 2015.  Seth/Jessica:

Elliott Smith is a classic story in tragedy. A singer-songwriter known for his songs of loneliness and desolation, his death in 2003 has sparked numerous musical reactions, including tributes of various sorts (including pianist Christopher O’Riley’s Home to Oblivion) and an upcoming documentary on his life. Here, Avett and Northeast Ohio native Mayfield team up to do their version of a dozen of his songs, and it’s unlikely that a more appropriate duo will repeat or surpass this album. They capture the essence of Smith’s work and add their own spice to it, creating something new and sparkling in the process. I must confess that I have never been a big fan of Smith, and I suspect that it had to do with his singing. Some excellent songwriters deliver their music in a way that I enjoy (Gordon Lightfoot), and others not so much (Joni Mitchell). Others will, of course, vehemently disagree.  Dylan, anyone?

Part of Avett & Mayfield’s success is in their approach. Both singers express themselves in a style similar to Elliott, which certainly helps. Mayfield’s previous albums as well as those of the Avett Brothers, while coming in some respects from a different genre (they’re more Americana, Smith is more alt.rock and unplugged grunge), there’s a meeting place with these ballads. They get the music and the feeling. Another aspect is their voices, separately and together. Each brings something Smith-like to the table vocally, whether Avett’s light and airy tenor, slightly stronger than Smith’s, or Mayfield’s ethereal voice that brings out a different quality to the music.  Together they harmonize beautifully, adding a dimension that Smith generally created by overdubbing his own voice.  To me, Seth Avett sounds eerily like David Mayfield, Jessica Lea’s brother, which could be why the harmonies sound great, but also familiar.

The arrangements are generally faithful to Smith’s work, with some changes that seem appropriate. They rock out a bit more “Roman Candle,” and it sounds great. They take the piano jauntiness out of “Baby Britain,” but add some gorgeous harmonies, and I have to say I prefer theirs over his. Actually, I can say that about most of the songs, which display stronger vocals, more varied instrumentation, and a fuller sound in general than Smith’s originals.

Elliott Smith purists may not be so fond of these remakes of some of his classic songs (“Miss Misery” is not among them). Others may discover Smith’s music who (like me) had overlooked him before. This is an excellent album, and I recommend it for both Smith fans as well as fans of Avett and Mayfield.

Personnel:  Seth Avett (vocals, guitar), Jessica Lea Mayfield (vocals, guitar), Paul Defiglia (bass), Joe Kwon (cello), Tania Elizabeth (violin, viola), Scott Avett (banjo). Somebody plays piano.
Tracks:  Between the Bars, Baby Britain, Fond Farewell, Somebody that I Used to Know, Let’s Get Lost, Twilight, Ballad of Big Nothing, Angel in the Snow, Pitseleh, Angeles, Roman Candle, Memory Lane.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Macy Gray. The Way.

Macy Gray. The Way
Kobalt Records, 2014. Macy Gray:
Macy Gray has the joie de vivre to create within her. Even with a sizable career and stream of past exploits the woman has continued to move forward, with more sentiment than ever present in her creations. This album breaks early and surfs on verse after verse, sweeping you along with it. One way to describe the vivacity of "The Way" is by interpreting it is as though Macy Gray was staring down the God of Dispassion and telling it to go screw itself.
There are ten tracks to traverse on this release, each in and of themselves flipsides to the dreariness and angst found in the content of incredibly successful yet depressed megabands. The mood on Gray's The Way is charged not only because of its lyrical content and rhythm but because of its aim, to move and flex across its emotions and impulses.
Power lights the horizon immediately when first appraising The Way with your ears. One could put this album on shuffle while on a road trip and have a good time with whatever popped up. And speaking of which, let's do that now.
You might toss and turn at night after hearing number 4's "I Miss the Sex," a mournful yet elegant number that is probably one of the more profound, original pieces about the deed that's been written in a while. There's longing in the air but nothing too melodramatic. The second track, "Bang Bang," does indeed please with full-blown, toothed guitar riffs, burning more with attitude as it goes on. I could easily hear an instrumental of this one playing during an episode of Cowboy Bebop with the gritty style behind its sound.
Track six "The Way" starts out sounding like a very particular portion of Irving Berlin's "The Near Future" but then shoots a boost into the tempo and leaves questions hanging on its notes. "Hands" brings about thoughts of what it might be like to be in the center of a roller disco in the seventies, making it one of the bouncier songs on the album. "Life is beautiful" sings Gray on the final track of the album, repeated again and again with a basic message that cuts a path of feeling through the oft inevitable and dithering melancholy the world can throw at us, the perfect foe to be countered with music.
The remaining tracks have just as much intrigue and allure in them. Flitting from one song to the next whets the appetite and with each one truly being different from the next you get a variety that is as toned as it is successful. The texture is an accomplishment that really sets itself apart from the standard stock of any genre where the tendency to stick to the same path time after time appears too tempting to resist, making Gray's work all the more laudable here.

"The Way" holds up well when compared to past releases by Gray, and the rust of predictability doesn't show around the edges for this fare. It's distinct from what she's done before and though it's strong I couldn't say I found it as memorable as some of the content on the her 2010 release The Sellout. Is there cross-over for some of the subject matter? Yes, but it is expressed differently enough that it's a whole new landscape to deal with, and if appraised on its own or as a continuation of past themes on other albums it makes sense. Regardless, this is a fully-developed disc that continues Gray's evolution as an artist, enough that by the end you are encouraged to wonder where she is creatively heading to next.
The technical merits of this album, as with the previous ones, are as huge as they are complicated, with a sizable mass of producers, engineers, musicians, and others behind the construction of each song. There are extremes out there for the recording process, with the punk rockers and rappers on one end carving out their musical inspirations in a bare bones basement or warehouse, and then there is the other avenue where the business is done in a professional recording studio or two to get the desired sheen where it should be. Miss Gray would be the latter for this one so those seeking something with an indy sound and feel would do well to plumb the far realm of elsewhere.
And then of course there is the alchemical marvel that is Gray's voice itself. It can only be attributed to collective unconscious blunder why this woman has not been compared more with other singers and musicians that use their voices the way they so desired, types like Tom Waits and Ma Rainey. A gut reaction might find such a comparison oblique but Gray really does possess her own beauty in delivery that balances between smooth and gruff in a nuanced way, and such skill places her among the greats that know how to do that. Simply put, her style is an experience that's a welcome deviation from the norm.
People already know who Macy Gray is most likely because of past hits like "I Try" and they have all the more reason to continue knowing her most recent work by giving The Way some good listens. For a time Marilyn Manson was in the same high school with her, she has appeared not only in Spiderman but Training Day, and even has a bronze nude of herself that resides in her garage, but for all the glory Macy Gray has in her life already she can say that she's got even more to give with her newest release. There's splendor here and a vintage aftershock in your memory that reverberates long after the last song finishes.
Personnel: Macy "Natalie Renée McIntyre" Gray (Vocals, Producer), Royal Z (Producer and various instruments), Jason Hill (Producer), Booker T. Jones (Producer), Zoux (Producer), and many, many others.
Tracks: Stoned, Bang Bang, Hands, I Miss the Sex, First Time, The Way, Queen of the Big Hurt, Me with You, Need You Now, Life.   

Robert Gojo