Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Midnight Slander. The Long Way Home.

The Midnight Slander.  The Long Way Home.
Spectra Records, 2014.  The Midnight Slander:

The Midnight Slander is a Cleveland band, I think. But the lead singer spent time in South Carolina, so you think you’ll hear something Southern. I guess there is, but not as much as you’d expect. They’re a trio.  But they sound like a four-piece outfit, because the drummer also plays keyboards at the same time (I can’t brush my teeth and scratch myself at the same time). Their music sounds familiar, but not in a ripoff kind of way.  More of a comfortable way. Laid back Chili Peppers with early Doobie Brothers mixed in. Mellow Black Crowes. Van Morrison living in Ohio. Is there such a thing as alt.roots rock? I don’t know if these are actual influences, but this is what I hear as I work my way through their first full-length album. They put out an EP before this, but I haven’t heard it.  Maybe I ought to, because this one's really good.

Most of this was recorded at Lava Room Studios in Cleveland, with some unspecified stuff done in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine tunes, and each one is something different. The instruments are the same, but the band changes styles, going from rockish to funkish to swampish. Dave Conner, the lead singer, moves with it, and while sometimes he paces himself like Anthony Kiedis or Chris Robinson, he sounds sort of like a folk singer too. It’s a good sound, because he doesn’t really sound like anybody I can think of.

“Shattered” isn’t the Rolling Stones tune. It’s probably the most “southern rock” song on the album. Solid, chunky rhythms make it kind of odd, but cool.  “Runaway” takes off faster, and gives me that Doobies feeling, and Conner’s singing on “Bright Lights” reminds me of Meat Loaf, but the rhythm is solidly Creedence in style. “Ohio” isn’t the CSNY song, and I’m glad. It’s funkier and not such a downer, with a Paul Simon lyric takeoff. Conner’s voice gets gruff and dirtier (not that way) on “Love.” The organ solo is a nice touch. A couple of obligatory ballads show off their tender side. There are a lot of damn fine tunes here!

It’s not an earth shattering album, but they say on their website that they’re not trying to do that.  The music’s fun.  Excellent rhythms keep you moving, vocals are engaging, and the musicians do a great job.  My game of “catch the influence” shouldn’t stop you from checking these guys out. They’re on the bill at the Agora this Saturday, so no excuses.

Personnel:  Dave Conner (guitar, vocals), Mike Gray (drums, keys, vocals), Al Rodriguez (bass, vocals).
Tracks:  Shattered, Runaway, Bright Lights, Ohio, Chords, Love, Open Road, Tennessee, For You.

Ron Yoyek

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Hey Mavis. What I Did.

Hey Mavis.  What I Did.
Self-produced, 2015.  Hey Mavis:

We reviewed Hey Mavis’ previous album, Honey Man, almost exactly two years ago. It seems like more but here it is, and we are exceedingly happy. Much of the core of the band is the same, except that Brent Kirby has been busy with some other projects and appears on only a couple of tracks here (and co-wrote four songs with Laurie). I really enjoyed the vocals Kirby brought to the group on the previous album, but Caner, Caner, and Thomas shoulder on with help from some other fine musicians. Recorded in churches in Bath and Kent, with production by Adam Aijala (of the Yonder Mountain String Band), and engineering by Don Dixon, the album has a crystal clear quality to it, whether listening to it with good headphones or cheap laptop speakers. It seems fuller, more expansive than previous albums.

The group’s sound has changed a bit too, but not so much that you wouldn’t know it was them. They're still an Americana band in the truest sense of blending folk, country, jazz, and other musical elements into a seamless whole. They continue to refine their sound and their vision of what it is they want to do. So, where to begin? The problem is that there is no single thing to point to that makes it a great album. It’s not just Laurie’s banjo, or her voice, which makes me slightly weak in the knees (yes, I admit it) with its combination of sweetness and strength, darkness and light. Eddie’s soaring fiddle and moaning viola add enormously to the overall feel, but that’s not the whole of it. Bryan’s bass brings solidity and depth to the music (and he’s so much fun to watch on stage!), but no, it’s not just him. The songwriting on this album equals or surpasses, on average, the amazing songs on Honey Man, but they only come to life in the performance. All of these things work together, and perhaps the explanation is that the group is just two years older and further along in the sophistication of their interaction as a band.

I also find it difficult to single out favorite songs, because each time I listen I end up with a different two or three. The first time through, it was the trio of songs near the beginning, “Looking Back,” “Longing for the Past,” and “The Love We Give,” two of which were co-written by Laurie and Brent. In the first two Laurie’s voice alternates between hurt innocence and bitter resignation, the harmonies are gorgeous, and the instrumentation full and rich. The third has a faster tempo, the hooks are strong, and the solos are a delight. It’s no wonder they chose this one as their first professionally produced video ( Next time through I was in more of a “Mon Bijou” mood, with its sultry atmosphere set by the fine viola and guitar work, but “Wedding Gown” caught my attention with its country mood, and the harmonies in “What Am I Without You” stand out.  My wife thinks the title track is the best song.  

Hey Mavis is clearly on an upward trend, with this album just one obvious example. They appeared on the NPR show Mountain Stage, and are scheduled to reappear on May 1st. They’re getting more press and more airplay. The CD release show at the Happy Days Lodge in Peninsula was packed and fabulous, with the addition of drummer Anthony Taddeo and guitarist Kevin Johnson. And they’ll be playing in Lakeside, Morgantown, and Pittsburgh.  See them when you can.      

Personnel:  Laurie Michelle Caner (banjo, lead and harmony vocals), Eddie Caner (fiddle, viola profunda, string arrangements), Bryan Thomas (bass, percussion, Chank-o-Matic 6000); with additional musicians: Adam Aijala (acoustic guitar), Don Dixon (electric guitar, percussion, other cool stuff), Mark Gonder (drums), J. J. Juliano (drums on tracks 1 & 4), Brent Kirby (acoustic guitar on tracks 1 & 4).
Tracks:  What I Did, Looking Back, Longing for the Past, The Love We Give, Graveyard Stone, Mon Bijou, Wedding Gown, What I Am Without You, Hairbrush, Honey on the Hill.

Jeff Wanser

Monday, April 13, 2015

Henry Mancini. Music for Peter Gunn.

Henry Mancini.  Music for Peter Gunn.  Performed by Harmonie Ensemble/New York,
Steven Richman.  Harmonia Mundi, 2014.  

Why are we reviewing this?  Although the band is from New York, Henry Mancini was born in the Little Italy neighborhood of Cleveland, and despite the family moving to West Aliquippa when he was young, we can still claim him.  We are greedy and tenacious with regard to our musicians, and Mancini is much too hard to just give away to Pennsylvania.  His fame and fortune came in the 1950s in Hollywood, where he scored numerous motion pictures, then television shows.  The 1958 TV series Peter Gunn was one of his breakthroughs, in which jazz, specifically cool jazz, was featured prominently in the series, leading to many imitators as well as an increasing acceptance of jazz in mainstream media.  In 114 episodes from 1958 to 1961, Gunn, played by Craig Stevens, solved crimes in a fictional riverfront city in a sophisticated and hip fashion.  So hip was the show that jazz musicians made cameo appearances, including Shelly Manne and Shorty Rogers.  While the show was popular in the heyday of crime TV shows, far more popular was the music, which won Mancini best selling albums, Emmy and Grammy Awards.  The music has been recorded by others, including Ray Anthony (who grew up in Cleveland, by the way).  The music was intended to be essentially “incidental” music, as background to the action of the show, but it’s all so good that it became a central feature and has had a life of its own far beyond the half-forgotten TV series.  

While some of the music has appeared here and there, nobody recently has tackled the bulk of the music as a unit until Mr. Richman and his ensemble.  Harmonie Ensemble tackles both classical music and jazz, ranging from Stravinsky to Miles Davis.  However, much of their bread and butter comes from the gray area in-between:  Gershwin, Copland, GrofĂ©, Ellington.  Mancini fits somewhere in here as well; not exactly a jazz musician (although he worked with Tex Benecke in the , not really purely anything else, but so massively talented a composer that he could move in any direction.  The challenge for the group is to make the music sound as authentic as possible while not ending up with a period piece.  They succeed admirably.

The Theme is of course the most famous piece on the album.  Part jazz, but with some rock chops built in, it’s no wonder the tune became a favorite among surf music bands.  Here, it punches just right, with a strong guitar coming up against the brass and saxes.  The tune is magnificently constructed for maximum effect as an earworm.  Other tunes fit other moods, ranging from the extra cool “Sorta Blue,” to the cheerful “The Brothers to Mother’s,” to the soft cocktail moments of “Dreamsville,” to the heavy action of “Spook,” each depicting an appropriate feel for a scene.  Richman never strays far from the original, but he doesn’t really need to.  The music stands tall, and the group plays with strength, style, and reverence.  

This is music to get lost in, to paraphrase Chet Baker.  Cool, sophisticated, and delightfully played by a fine ensemble (trombonist John Fedchock is also a Clevelander), this is an excellent album for anyone who enjoys big band music, cool jazz, or television theme music from an earlier era.  I’m knocked out.

Steven Richman
Personnel:  Steven Richman (conductor).  Reeds: Mark Gross (alto sax, alto flute), Lawrence Feldman (alto sax, alto flute), Lew Tabackin (tenor sax, alto flute), Lino Gomez (tenor sax, alto flute), Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax).  Trumpets: Lew Soloff, Dominic Derasse, Joe Giorgianni, Stanton Davis.  French Horns: R.J. Kelly, Alexandra Cook, Eric Davis, David Peel.  Trombones: Larry Farrell, John Fedchock, Mark Patterson, Frank Cohen.  Bob Mason (guitar), Christos Rafalides (vibes), Lincoln Mayorga (piano), Francois Moutin (bass), Victor Lewis (drums).
Tracks:  Peter Gunn Theme, Sorta Blue, The Brothers to to Mother’s, Dreamsville, Session at Pete’s Pad, Soft Sounds, Fallout, The Floater, Slow and Easy, A Profound Gas, Brief and Breezy, My Manne Shelly, Blue Steel, Blues for Mother’s, Blue Street, Spook, Peter Gunn Theme (reprise).

Jeff Wanser

Henry Mancini

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Valentinos. Lookin' for a Love.

The Valentinos.  Lookin’ for a Love: The Complete SAR Recordings.
ABKCO Music & Records, 2014.  

You may be wondering who the Valentinos are.  They also went by another name, the Womack Brothers, who might be more familiar either through their gospel music, or through Bobby Womack’s rather larger musical career.  Brothers Friendly, Jr., Curtis, Bobby, Harry, and Cecil (as fate would have it, only the oldest two are still alive) began their career at their father’s church at East 85th & Quincy.  They cut a secular single in 1954 for Pennant Records, a Cleveland label, but it didn’t go far.  However, they happened to meet the Soul Stirrers when they were coming through town, and the lead singer, Sam Cooke, changed their lives.  He signed them to his SAR Record label in 1960 and they recorded two more singles under the Womack Brothers name.  When they didn’t hit, Cooke suggested they try soul music, and they changed their name to the Valentinos.  They recorded for SAR from 1961-1964, until Cooke’s death.  After a hiatus, they were picked up by Chess, and later Jubilee Records.  Eventually, the brothers did background vocals for Bobby on his albums.  I’ve skipped over all the scandal and personal stuff, and you can look that up for yourself.

This package contains 23 tracks they recorded for SAR from 1961-1964. Included are the two gospel songs  to start off the album, “Somebody’s Wrong,” and “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Sing.”  Two other gospel tracks (the B sides) bookend the soul tracks, having been released under the Womack Brothers name.  Aside from the lyrics, the styles are nearly identical to the soul tracks, the Brothers having transferred a great deal of their singing style over to the secular side.  Bobby sang some leads, Curtis sang others (with Curtis sounding a bit like Sam Cooke).  Songs were written by various folks, but most prominently Curtis, Bobby, and Sam Cooke himself.  

As for the songs themselves, they’re exquisite, shining gems of early 60s soul music. I can’t believe how quickly I was transported back to that time, even though I have never heard most of the tunes.  Some made the R&B charts, but only two are recognizable (aside from the gospel song “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” which is a standard in the genre).  “Lookin’ for a Love to Call My Own” was an R&B hit, but I doubt if I heard it back when I was a 10 year old suburbanite.  It’s familiar because it was recorded by the J. Geils Band in 1971, and remade by Bobby Womack in 1974.  The other was a big hit not for the Valentinos (their version peaked at #94 on the Billboard Charts), but for the Rolling Stones.  “It’s All Over Now” was covered by them a month later, a blow that was made less painful by the royalty check Bobby got as the co-writer.  But whether the songs are familiar or not, they’re a pure delight to a fan of the music of this period.  Soul with strong gospel and pop influences, a good dose of Sam Cooke, a touch of Chuck Berry, and occasional doo-wop vocals (“Don’t Go Away” is a classic in this regard).  Every song has something special, and each is a time capsule, delivered in less than three minutes.

The final track on the album features Sam Cooke giving instructions to the group on how to handle the tune “Sugar Dumpling,” directing handclaps and initial harmonies. This is a remarkable collection and a well-produced historical document of a time of sweet soul music and young artists with remarkable potential and the world before them.

Personnel:  Friendly Womack, Jr. (vocals), Curtis Womack (vocals), Bobby Womack (vocals, guitar), Harry Womack (vocals, bass), Cecil Womack (vocals, guitar), Rene Hall (session leader, 1962, 1964), Harold Battiste (session leader, piano, celeste, 1964), various session musicians.
Tracks:  Somebody’s Wrong; Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray; Lookin’ for a Love; Darling, Come Back Home; I’ll Make It Alright; I’ve Got a Girl; Tired of Livin’ in the Country; Don’t Go Away; She’s So Good to Me; Baby, Lot’s of Luck; It’s All Over Now; I’ve Got a Love for You; Rock in the Cradle of Love; Somewhere There’s a Girl; Sugar Dumpling; Bitter Dreams; Everybody Wants to Fall in Love; Put Me Down Easy; To Show My Love; Shakin’ This Way and That (Lassie); Tired of Livin’ in the Country; Yield Not to Temptation; Somewhere There’s a God; Sam Cooke in the Studio.

The Grand Wazoo

Friday, March 27, 2015

Abandoned Playground. The Trouble with Angels.

Abandoned Playground.  The Trouble with Angels.

I am constantly amazed at the variety and quality of music found in Northeast Ohio, as well as how much flies under the radar, known and appreciated by an ardent core of fans.  My current case in point is this album by Ray Carmen and Jim Wieser, the two musicians of the group Abandoned Playground.  Mr. Carmen wrote the music, and is apparently a highly prolific composer.  His blog lists numerous recordings under his name or with bands he appears to play with, all released by his Cut and Paste Records label.  He writes in a variety of styles, but the present album is all instrumental, with a few spoken word interludes dispersed amidst the somewhat ambient tracks.  I say “somewhat” deliberately because some of these pieces could be turned into  pop songs or even soft rock music given a vocal track and a few other considerations.

One might casually perceive this album as having a religious theme, given the cover and the opening vocal excerpt from the film The Trouble with Angels, where it is announced that Hayley Mills will be entering the convent.  However one wishes to interpret the music from this point is up to the individual listener.  There is no hint thereafter of what the music “means,” and there are no explicit religious references.  Let the music take you where it will.  The rest of the tracks consist of well-composed and nicely arranged instrumental works with hints of folk music, rock, and more ambient sources.  All eleven works are short, with none more than three minutes in length.  Carmen chooses to call these experimental works, although his meaning here is a bit obscure. To me, experimental music takes one out of the usual range of melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic experiences, into realms of noise, found sounds, or even less pleasant musical phenomena.  Few such things are found here, except for the vocal excerpts.  There are two other tracks with vocal material.  “We All Fall” contains a British shortwave radio broadcast concerning the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, backed by music.  “A Skyfull of Voices” also contains bit of found vocals, although they are muted, and relate to Middle Eastern musical influences.  After the fourth track there are no voices, and the music takes the listener in various directions, all really quite delightful.  Limited in modulation and generally rather quiet, the works flow well from one to another, with few peaks or troughs.  Jim Wieser’s contributions on violin, concertina, and electric guitar are notable and lovely.

I must seek out more of Mr. Carmen’s albums, as I have found this one to be quite enjoyable.  Readers of this blog who are interested in ambient instrumental works may find it as interesting as I have.

Personnel:  Ray Carmen (guitars, bass, keys, percussion, drums, odds and ends); Jim Wieser (violin, concertina, electric guitar).  Borrowed vocal excerpts from the film, The Trouble with Angels, and British shortwave radio broadcasts.  Produced, recorded, and mixed by Ray Carmen; mastered by Alan Grandy.
Tracks:  The Trouble with Angels, Grenadine, We All Fall, A Skyfull of Voices, Wildwood (I Can’t Hear You), Hope for an Early Spring, Going Back to an Empty House, Pictures on the Way We Used to Be, You Are Always Beautiful, First Day of School, Pajama Day.

Gottfried Klass

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Brian Lisik and the Unfortunates. Curtisinterruptedus.

Brian Lisik and the Unfortunates.  Curtisinterruptedus.
Cherokee Queen Records, 2015.  Brian Lisik:

We reviewed Brian Lisik’s last release, The Mess that Money Could Buy, back in 2013 and said nice things in the process.  We shall continue that tradition in large part because the Akron native and his band do another fine job on their latest album.  We’re not sure about the origin of the title or who Curtis is, but we suspect he’s in trouble.  These Akron-based roots rockers provide us with 14 concise tracks with no lack of interesting hooks, vocal harmonies, and top-notch musicianship.  And I like the jangly guitars.

The songs were written mostly by Lisik, or co-written with bandmates Steve Norgrove and/or Benjamin Payne, with two tunes by Norgrove finishing up the album.  They start off with their first single release, “Jan. 13,” a well-constructed rocker, followed by the even stronger “Never Was” and “Beaten Up Blue.”  No “I love you baby” stuff here.  This three-song intro gives us vignettes of a somewhat darker nature, the upbeat tunes disguising lyrics that suggest unhappy lives and tough times.  Sex is suggested, but it’s hardly joyous.  Many of the other songs follow this overall theme, including ballads such as “Marietta” and “Paramours.”  Others take on different topics, such as “About Me Back Home,” about a murder, and “Tattered and Broken,” about life in general.  “Needles and Pins” is a gorgeous little song, perhaps the best-sung ballad on the album, with poignant lyrics and simple presentation.  “Chaos is a Friend of Mine” is a close second, a faster but still acoustic tune, with beautiful guitar lines.

“Normalcy” takes us back to rockers, and I like this one best of them all.  The band takes the bridge in high gear and everything sounds right.  Sweet harmonies combined with chugging rhythms follow on “St. Patrick’s Day (Alex),” about one of heroes, Alex Chilton. “Needles (Reprise)” is a lovely instrumental.  They should do these more often.

Lisik said that “An album is about taking a 40-minute vacation from wherever you are.” Given that criterion, Curtisinterruptedus is a success, a fine mix of songs that will take you into a world that isn’t always pretty but is certainly vivid and memorable, which makes it highly recommended.  They’ll be playing the Beachland Ballroom at the end of March and various places around the region in April.  

Personnel:  Brian Lisik (lead and backing vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, percussion), Steve Norgrove (lead and backing vocals, electric and upright bass, Ashbory, electric and acoustic guitars, piano, organ, percussion, castanets), Benjamin Payne (guitars, drums, percussion, banjo, backing vocals, organy sounds), Raymond Arthur Flanagan (electric guitar and ass (Is this a typo?)), Joe “Motion” Waller (bongos), Craig Lisik (drums), Curtis Henderson (harmonica), Tim Longfellow (piano, organ, accordion), Michael Houff (violin), Matt Reese (cello), Rachel Roberts (vocals), Rotumba, S’Phyllis, & Madge--The Beekeeper Singers.
Tracks:  Jan. 13, Never Was, Beaten Up Blue, Marietta, Paramours, The Beekeeper, Born on Needles and Pins, Normalcy, Chaos is a Friend of Mine, St. Patrick’s Day (Alex), About Me Back Home, Tattered and Broken, Needles (reprise), Swagger Sway Fall.

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, March 15, 2015

On the Subject of Buzzards

The Buzzards are returning to Hinckley, Ohio, as they do every year on March 15th.  We thought we would note this annual event here, since our blog is named after these noble creatures.  Rather than go into detail about the similarities between Northeast Ohioans and buzzards, we thought we would just let a link and a couple of photos take care of it.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Charlie Mosbrook. A Time Long Gone.

Charlie Mosbrook.  A Time Long Gone.
Open Mike Records, 2015.  Charlie Mosbrook:

We reviewed Charlie Mosbrook’s last album, Something to Believe, back in 2013, and were quite impressed with his songs, his voice, and his musical skills.  Now, nearly two years later, he’s come out with album #11, a set of postcards as he calls them, of places, events, and people in his life.  Using simple arrangements, his intention is to capture these moments musically with the help of a bunch of friends.  All the songs are his, with the exception of “Hold Me Close” (by Alvin Loki Baird) and the closer, “I Bid You Goodnight” (traditional), both fine tunes.  

Let’s begin with the more upbeat (rhythmically, anyway) tunes, toward which I gravitate.  “Up Above the Stars” is the opening tune, and has a bright, sweet sound, and with help vocalist Cindy Langmack, the song makes a lovely start to the album.  “Emeryville,” which documents a train trip from Denver to California, is an old-timey song, rather jaunty in tone.  I very much enjoyed “Hemlock Hill,” a song about childhood, and Mosbrook asked Becca Bessinger to sing along with him, an excellent choice.  Clearly, “Howlin’ at My Door” is about winter in Northeast Ohio, and manages to make the recent extreme weather seem a bit less awful.  Despite the lyrics about infirm old age with impending death in the near term, “Easy Win” still provides a bittersweet smile in the small victories.  

As for the slower ballads, I find a great deal here to admire, and even more to contemplate in terms of their messages. “Minister Creek” is a case in point, about making life decisions as a youth, out in the wilderness where one can think.  Again, Mosbrook enlists the aid of a female voice, in this case Rachel Brown, to provide a nice contrast to his own vocals.  “Anywhere Else but Here” is a heartbreaker about love gone cold, and is possibly my favorite ballad on the album.  Lastly, I’ll mention “Accidental Fruit” as another vignette, of the sadness of being left but refusing to believe it.

Enough description.  What you need to know is that A Time Long Gone is an excellent album, finely conceived and gorgeously sung.  The more I played it, the more I enjoyed it. I have to warn you, there are some tearjerkers here, and songs that will stick with you long beyond the playing. Mosbrook shows himself, once again, to be a remarkable songwriter.  He seems to be scheduled out of town for awhile, but will be playing on April 25th at Coffee Corners in Burton, and the Barking Spider on May 12th.  

Personnel:  Charlie Mosbrook (vocals, guitar, bass, mandolin), with other musicians on selected tracks.  Bill Lestock (mandolin, guitar, fiddle), Cindy Langmack (vocals), David Krauss (harmonica), Jon Mosey (mandolin, banjo), Xe La (vocals), Jim Brentar (dulcimer), Rachel Brown (vocals), Becca Bessinger (vocals), Becca Rhodes (violin, vocals), Laura Joy (vocals), Stephanie Morris (vocals), Davidione Pearl (vocals), Kaitlin Emmett (vocals), Mackenzie Brooke Cox (vocals).
Tracks:  Up Among the Stars, Emeryville, Minister Creek, Hemlock Hill, Hold Me Close, Howlin’ at My Door, Anywhere Else but Here, Accidental Fruit, Easy Win, I Bid You Goodnight.  (Lyrics available on Mosbrook’s web page)

The Grand Wazoo