Friday, February 12, 2016

Apollo’s Fire. Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering.
Avie, 2015.  Apollo’s Fire:

In 2015, Apollo’s Fire released Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering. When I think of Apollo’s Fire, baroque music immediately comes to mind. I was unaware that the group had delved into the folk tradition. The following is a description of this “crossover” tradition from the CD liner notes, which helped me to understand the background of Sugarloaf Mountain:

"Since 1999, Apollo’s Fire have developed a unique ensemble of crossover artists who are steeped in the folk traditions as well as the improvisatory idioms of the 17th and 18th centuries. Exploring British Isles, early American, and Sephardic traditions from a historical perspective, the ensemble strives to break down the modern barrier between art music and popular music to revive the “crossover” spirit of the 17th century, when great composers regularly wrote artful variations on street tunes and tavern songs."

This is their fourth crossover album, with Scarborough Fayre, Come to the River: An Early American Gathering, and Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers preceding this. A new album, Sephardic Journey, is just coming out.

On to the content of Sugarloaf Mountain--a series of ballads and reels brought to the Southern Appalachian region from the British Isles, combined with American minstrel tunes and African American spirituals. And who better to interpret this music than Jeannette Sorrell (having been lived in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley from age 14), and Amanda Powell (who lived in the same valley within sight of Sugarloaf Mountain). The musicians, including Sorrell and Powell, play these airs, jigs, reels, ballads, and spirituals on period and folk instruments, including fiddle, wooden flute, pennywhistle, cello, lute, hammered dulcimer, guitar, gourd banjo, long-neck dulcimer, and harpsichord. The music is arranged in sections, invoking first the melancholy and sadness of leaving home (the British Isles), and last the enthusiasm of begging those still in the old country to come to this lovely land. Let me take you on this journey and comment on some of the highlights.

The Prologue. “The Mountains of Rhùm” sets the sorrowful mood of the leavetaking--”how can I leave you, my mountains of Rhùm?” (from the traditional Scottish). Crossing to the New World. “Farewell to Ireland/Highlander’s Farewell” introduces a different atmosphere, with dance music (Irish and Appalachian reels), while “We’ll Rant and We’ll Rave/Farewell to the Isles” is a sea shanty with lovely fiddle and voices filled with false bravado--a looking forward to the shores of America. Dark Mountain Home. “Cruel Sister”--now this is where the Scots-Irish darkness takes hold. In this ballad’s bizarre telling, there are two sisters, the younger of which is courted by a young man. The jealous older sister pushes the younger off the cliff into the sea. The younger sister begs to be saved, but is ignored by the elder. Later, the suitor finds the body, makes a harp of her breastbone, and strings of her yellow hair. He takes the harp to the father’s house, and plays a song. “Hang my auld sister,” it cried. Cruel sister indeed. For me, a dismal story, but beautifully performed.

Cornshuck Party. “Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” is quite vivacious--lots of fiddle, flute pennywhistle--and a great story! I picture Peter Spier’s illustrations in a children’s book of the same name. “Oh Susanna!” is a song most of us will recognize, but do we realize that it’s a minstrel song from 1845, written by one Stephen Foster of Pittsburgh, PA? Love and Loss.  “Once I Had a Sweetheart” is a haunting piece laced with misery, which morphs into “Wayfaring Stranger” by way of a slow fiddle, moaning low and mimicking a spiritual (Kentucky Harmony, 1816). “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” from 1864, is a lovely but mournful solo interwoven with another Southern spiritual, “Go March Along.” Glory on the Mountain. “Glory in the Meeting House” is a lively, upbeat Kentucky fiddle tune accompanied by hammered dulcimer and flute, while “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” a Souther spiritual, is sung by male and female voices. Appalachian Home. In “Sugarloaf Mountain” the contented immigrant tries to convince his love and his family to join him. “Oh, leave our sad island, its troubles unending…. Come to our mountain and stay with me.” (Adapted from the traditional Scottish).

And finally, there is happiness! Interwoven into these appealing vocals are several instrumental interludes, showing the various talents of all the musicians. My absolute favorite is the enchanting hammered dulcimer. Those of us who pay attention to Northeast Ohio traditional music should be humbled by Tina Bergmann’s prowess on this instrument. I remember hearing her way back when she was a teenager at the Cuyahoga Valley Folk Festival, and she was good even then.

I was captivated by everyone on this CD. I now want to go back and listen to Come to the River: An Early American Gathering, from 2010. If you like this traditional vein of music, give this a listen. If not, try it anyway, because you never know.

Personnel:  Apollo’s Fire, Jeannette Sorrell (harpsichord, direction), Amanda Powell (vocals), Ross Hauck (vocals), Tina Bergmann (hammered dulcimer), Susanna Perry Gilmore (fiddle), Kathie Stewart (wooden flutes), Brian Kay (lute, guitar, banjo, long-neck dulcimer), René Schiffer (cello).
Tracks: Prologue: The Mountains of Rhùm. Crossing to the New World: Farewell to Ireland/Highlander’s Farewell, We’ll Rand and We’ll Roar. Dark Mountain Home: The Cruel Sister, Se Fath mo Buart Ha (The Cause of All My Sorrow), Nottamun Town (Round #1044), Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, I Wonder as I Wander/The Gravel Walk/Over the Isles to America. Cornshuck Party: The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night, Oh Susanna!, Pretty Peg/Far from Home. Love & Loss: Once I Had a Sweetheart, Wayfaring Stranger, Pretty Betty Martin/Katy Did/Red Rockin’ Chair, Just Before the Battle, Mother, Go March Along. Glory on the Mountain: Glory in the Meeting House, Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep. Appalachian Home: Sugarloaf Mountain.

Linda Spear
Jeannette Sorrell

Monday, January 18, 2016

Burn Rubber City, Burn! Akron, Ohio: Punk and the Decline of the Mid-West 1975-80.
Soul Jazz Records, 2015.

I was not here for the fluorescence of the punk scene in Akron or Cleveland. During the late 1970s I lived in Binghamton, New York, another dying manufacturing city, but a town that didn’t know it was well-suited to the genre. It relied instead on metal, disco, hard rock, and whatever was transported from New York City to the Southern Tier by college students (mostly Springsteen, I recall, followed by New Wave). Thus, I cannot claim first-hand experience, as many around here can (or some who may claim to but can’t). I was, of course, familiar with Devo and the Waitresses through their hits, and the Bizarros because of their connection to New York. As a result of my poking around in Northeast Ohio music history, Rubber City Rebels, Tin Huey, and the Numbers Band have become familiar (and enjoyed). Most of the rest are largely unknown to me, some having a moment in the sun, others not. Thus I enter the discussion with a bit of trepidation.

This album is the fifth punk compilation from the British label Soul Jazz. The first four concentrated on the British and American scenes, proto-punk, and Cleveland (we’ll get to that one soon). As such, it is a late-comer to the dissection of the late-70s Akron punk/art rock/New Wave scene that coalesced in the wake of Akron’s industrial decline. There have been other releases, notably Stiff Records’ The Akron Compilation, and two films, It’s Everything, and Then It’s Gone, and If You’re not Dead, Play. There have been reunions, cover bands, and much mythologizing, and everyone seems to have a slightly different version of what happened, ranging from the glorious to the “who cares?” So, what does this CD add to the pile?

First, for the newbie, or those too young to have experienced these bands in the raw, the CD provides an entryway into a particular time and place (late 1970s, Akron/Kent) and the heady mix of local bands influenced by the art scene (and shootings) at Kent State University, the decline of the rubber industry in Akron, and the local music scene (that also included Cleveland) of the time. The accompanying booklet is pretty good in outlining major events (although they spell it “tyre”), although it could have done much more. But it’s the array of music and styles that are the real draw here. Akron “punk” was far more, and not easily categorized, except by music industry. It included a great deal of art rock, experimental rock, garage rock, and blues, put in a blender with the top off, resulting in fascinating chunks of music going in all different directions. Little holds it all together except point of origin, common history, a certain sense of aggression, and the fact that the bands influenced each other (and even shared personnel). Quality of sound is very good, and given that the Stiff Compilation is out of print (as are most of the original albums of the artists, other than Devo’s), this is the place to go for this material. Rachel Sweet is missing, but there are compilations of her material elsewhere.

There are some wonderful surprises. Jane Aire & the Belvederes is a great band. They apparently followed Chrissie Hynde to England to join the music scene there, and their albums seem to have never been reissued in CD. Denis DeFrange did some fascinating experimental work with synthesizers (not exactly a punk instrument). Chi-Pig, on the scene since the 60s in one form or another and the only all-female band, combines punk with elements of experimental music to considerable effect. The lesser known artists are surrounded by the Bizarros, Rubber City Rebels (my favorite), Tin Huey, and couple of demos by Devo, all of whose tracks provide great listening, especially as juxtaposed here. The Numbers Band rounds out the album with their usual combination of experimental rock and blues. The result is an indication of the creativity and complexity of the music scene in the region for a time when much was bleak, but anything was possible. In all, this is an excellent compilation, and well worth the time.

Personnel/Tracks:  The Bizarros/I Bizarro; The Waitresses/The Comb; Hammer Damage/Laugh; Devo/Mechanical Man; Tin Huey/Squirm You Worm; The Bizarros/Lady Doubonette; Chi-Pig/ Ring Around the Collar; Devo/Auto Modown; Rubber City Rebels/Kidnapped; Denis DeFrange and Mark Frazer/The Minkin Shuffle; Jane Aire & the Belvederes/When I Was Young; Tin Huey/ Puppet Wipes; Chi-Pig/Apu Api (Help Me); The Bizarros/Nova; Rubber City Rebels/Such a Fool; Denis DeFrange/Sector Wars; Ralph Carney/Closet Bears; 15 60 75 The Numbers Band/Narrow Road.

Jeff Wanser

Monday, January 11, 2016

Chimaira. Crown of Phantoms

Chimaira. Crown of Phantoms
eOne Music, 2013. Chimaira:

One head howls. The other shrieks. Another growls. The legendary monster known as the chimera has always commanded allure among the creatures in Greek mythology, and with so much ferocity amongst the bestiary to name yourself after any of them takes gall and daring to live up to the source. Unfortunately, with their final album Crown of Phantoms the late Chimaira meets their end with a plain, acceptable departure. This album is not the ichor and excellence of legends but at least at the beginning…

“It's alive.”
The opening track detonates into a blast of promise with a gale of electric guitar riffs and pounding drums to boil the notes for Crown of Phantom's genesis.

“We have died a million times before Every struggle opens a door.”
At the start it's like a climactic showdown, and the solos ring with an amped uproar, a true blitz of sound that foretastes something grim and grand. Isolation, resentment, ire at the artificiality of the entertainment industry, there's plenty in the targeting reticles of the imagery for Crown of Phantoms.

“No more lies, no more lies, no more god damn Hollywood vampires.”
Disgust abounds. Many a band has slammed the gaudiness and predatory glamour of Hollywood for all the fraud, faux wisdom, and seduction that its altar is built upon, and the indictment contained in the above lyric from "No Mercy" is reminiscent of songs like "Lost in Hollywood" from System of a Down.

“All that's left is blood.”
“It's just a holiday in this plastic wonderland.”

A familiar metalcore story slinks into your ears, a gray tale about hardened souls stacked against the inevitable, punishing trials of life, with never a hint of surrender in the words. Would that it all developed into something more interesting.

Instead, this release felt like a capped venture. Think of a movie touted by an awesome preview that, upon viewing, actually ends up being an okay experience. Therein lay a comparable feeling for what Crown of Phantoms offers. While not something to be completely discarded the album suffers from anything really distinguishing it from the pack of the overall rock genre. If you were killing time in your car on a lunch break or wanted to liven up a senior living center then these tracks could serve such purposes, the latter possibly being met with some objections.

Aside from the very tempting track at the beginning the impact fades. There's nothing amateur here so much as uninspired, and while for the most part everything is well-played by the group and finely screamed by Mark Hunter the flames of allure diminish with bright spots in the blandness. The instrumentals are tactful and sharp, notable for the line-up since most of the personnel on this album were all recent additions to Chimaira's line-up. No one fails to perform their roles well but it's simply that the total end product is not anything all that memorable.
A comparison to past albums does not amount to much because there is simply little to explore here. Metalcore enthusiasts may very well be perfectly happy with this release the same way a college fraternity would be satisfied with a case of cheap vodka being thrown onto their porch. That's not intended as a put down since the high-octane followers of this subgenre reward hard punches of music, and there's no lack of those with Crown of Phantoms. Have chasers ready from other Chimaira albums and you could possibly pull some songs from here to make a playlist for a buddy or a road trip.

In ancient lore all the heads of the monstrous chimera were different, be they breathing fire, snaking a long tongue, or snapping a beak. From the perspective of this heavily belated review the defining characteristic for this album's head is that it appears to have peacefully nodded off. As the last chapter in the story of this band they could have done worse.
Rest in piece, Chimaira, and rest assured that this is not a bad album, just an average one.
Crown of Phantoms

Personnel: Jeremy Creamer (Bass Guitar), Austin D'Amond (Drums), , Emil Werstler (Lead Guitar), Matt Szlachta (Rhythm Guitar), Sean Zatorsky (Keyboards, Additional Instruments, and Backing Vocals), Mark Hunter (Lead Vocals).
Tracks: The Machine, No Mercy, All That's Left Is Blood, I Despise, Plastic Wonderland, The Transmigration, Crown of Phantoms, Spineless, Kings of the Shadow World, Wrapped in Violence, Love Soaked Death.

Robert Gojo

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Allison Bencar. First Call.

Allison Bencar. First Call.
Self-released, 2014.  Allison Bencar:

You’d think a librarian would remember that thing about books and covers. I hesitated when I looked at the pictures on the CD from this fresh faced Cleveland-raised, Nashville-based singer. Never having heard her, I thought, “modern hippie, singer-songwriter. Not my thing. Hand her off to another reviewer.” But I decided to give it a listen. Boy was I wrong. I’ve kept the CD. It’s quite remarkable. Bencar is anything but what I conceived her to be. Her frame of reference is different from almost anyone else her age. This is a musician who grew up listening to Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline, but sounds like this decade at the same time without falling into contemporary pop cliches. Her voice is a rich and strong alto, her songwriting is seriously sophisticated, and the variety of styles represented here suggests a breadth of talent that demands attention. Country, rock, ballads, pop, and stuff in-between make for a rather heady stew, and her backing band (including Clevelander Rob Muzick, with whom she co-wrote a couple of songs, and co-produced the album) is excellent.

While her influences are listed in her bio on the website, it was pretty easy to guess some of them while listening to the album. The first obvious one is Roy Orbison, in the track “Where Do the Lonely Go,” which seems like more of a tribute than an imitation. I think he would have been happy to sing along with this. “Before I Die” is haunted by Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac in her more bluesy vein, complete with keyboards, and Linda Ronstadt’s sound shows up in “Light It Up,” a song eerily similar to “You’re No Good” (which Bencar covers in a YouTube video). This is not to say she’s derivative. Lots of people are influenced by others (or maybe they wouldn’t have become musicians), and you can hear it in their songs. But nobody yells at the Rolling Stones for having tried to sound like Sonny Boy Williamson.

Other songs by Bencar are quite different, but clearly relate to sounds from other times and places, and that’s a good thing. This is part of her charm, because she sounds like nobody else around now. Her tunes are hook-filled, too country for rock, and too rock for country, which could damn her to the purgatory of Americana. “The Party” is a good example, part country, part cabaret. “Broken Porch” is another, a bit of a country weeper, but with chord changes that sound like indie pop. She starts to really rev up with “Before I Die,” and continues to rock out with “Won’t Be Coming Home,” country rock with a hard kick. The last two songs, “Anywhere with You” and “Who I Am,” have a gentle feel and soft flow that might make the hearts of older gentlemen melt. The band she has assembled is beyond reproach, adding just the right touches when needed, and playing well in any style.

Bencar shouldn’t be surprised to find a wide demographic for her music. I hope she gets some airplay on the radio for her songs. She deserves a huge audience. Her music is familiar but fresh, her voice endlessly listenable, and everything about this album is top notch.

Personnel:  Allison Bencar (vocals), Rob Muzick (guitar, pedal steel), John Senchuk (bass), Corey Hughes (drums), Eric Fritsch (accordion, toy piano). All songs written or co-written by Allison Bencar.
Tracks: First Call, Going Out, Where Do the Lonely Go, Sorry, The Party, Broken Porch, Before I Die, Won’t Be Coming Home, Light it Up, Anywhere with You, Who I Am.

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Swap Meet. Trailer Hitch

Swap Meet.  Trailer Hitch.
Self-released, 2015.  Swap Meet:

This six-song EP is a most welcome holiday season debut. The Northeast Ohio Americana / country / gypsy jazz group has been making the local rounds lately, from Wilbert’s in Cleveland, to the Lime Tree in Warren, to the Regency Wine Store in Akron. It’s tough work for folks who have day jobs, but they seem to be managing well. They’re certainly a talented and skilled group with a different sound--multiple guitars, two women vocalists and four-part harmony, percussion delivered via rub board and washboard--with a mix of styles that fit together nicely.

“Gypsy Desire” starts off the album, with a sound reminiscent of an old radio broadcast, Michelle Reyna’s deliberately distorted vocals providing a 1930s nightclub atmosphere, leading to vocals by the others. They quickly switch to country music with a spiritual flavor with “Waters Blue,” with really sweet guitar work here (and that extends to all the other tracks), provided by the combination of Peter Nario-Redmond and Stuart Abrams. “Drunk This Morning Again” takes us in the other direction, with some surprisingly raw lyrics about drinking and sex (I don’t see one of those parental warnings on the CD). A Doobie Brothers riff begins the bluesy “Moon Beams Fall,” with sexy vocals by Kari Rutushin and great guitar solos. Back to country on “A Broken Heart Gets No Relief,” which despite its title, is quite a lot of fun with its great harmony vocals. They finish up with a rouser, “What’s So Good About Being Happy,” where the title refrain is shouted, and makes one wonder about irony. They seems to be having too much of a good time.

In all, a fine batch of songs sung and played with great enthusiasm and comraderie. I enjoyed every track, and recommend the band to anyone who likes Americana music. They’re having a CD release party somewhere in Cleveland Heights on January 12th. Check their Facebook page for updates.

Personnel:  Kari Rutushin (vocals, rub board, flute, ukulele), Michelle Reyna (vocals, washboard), Hoseff Garcia (stand up bass), Stuart Abrams (lead guitar), Walter Genutis (vocals), Peter Nario-Redmond (vocals, guitar). All songs by Peter Nario-Redmond.
Tracks:  Gypsy Desire, Waters Blue, Drunk This Morning Again, Moon Beams Fall, A Broken Heart Gets No Relief, What’s So Good About Being Happy.

[Full Disclosure: The reviewer is a colleague of one of the singers and an employee of the same college. But if I couldn’t be honest about the review I wouldn’t have done it.]

The Grand Wazoo

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rachel Brown & the Beatnik Playboys. Once Again.

Rachel Brown & the Beatnik Playboys. Once Again.
Self-released, 2014.  Rachel Brown:

This album had me confused at first, thinking that Rachel Brown had gone all Charles Ives on us, and was overlaying two songs at the same time. It would sort of make sense, then suddenly not, while she would sing two parts of different songs, then quick rhythms would come in over a slow beat. Very pretty, but dissonant and rather oddly modernist. Then I realized that while I was listening to her CD on my laptop I also had her website up, and it was playing her songs too. Nevermind. Pay no attention to my Saturday morning ravings.

We reviewed her previous album, Just Look My Way (2012) in 2013, so we seem to be right on time (or late as usual) with her 2014 release. Brown has the same band, and the combination of Watson, King, and Huddleston are more than able to keep up with their dynamo lead singer and pianist in the variety of styles she works in. Loosely described as Americana, she works in country, blues, jazz, gospel, and pop, sometimes all at once (although not in the way I described above), and approaches them all with a sense that is both casual and natural, like it’s no big deal, but still maintains the posture of a consummate professional. It’s hard to do both. She wrote all the songs except “Gone is Gone” (Nathan Bell), and “It’s Not Easy,” by bandmate Bill Watson. Thirteen out of fifteen ain’t bad.

The album begins with the title tune, a real cry-in-your-beer country ballad, showing off Brown’s sweet/sad vocals at their finest. “Mama & Daddy” harks back to the style of early Johnny Cash, (and even old folk songs) with Huddleston supplying deliciously ominous guitar. Classic honky-tonk is the style of “Maybe Tomorrow,” with some great piano by Brown, and a fine guitar break by Mr. Huddleston. “It’s Not Easy” takes us in a bit of a swing jazz direction, with Brown sounding a bit like Patsy Cline. A bluesier style appears with “Pretty Damn Damaged,” one of my favorites, and as you can see, we’ve covered a whole batch of styles in only the first half of the album. This versatility extends to the second half, with some Latin phrasings in “Mary Lynd,” a gospel number in “Bittersweet By and By,” a sweet duet with Alex Bevan on “When it Comes to You,” and delightful country/folk with “I Wish You Well,” Two tracks toward the end I found especially enjoyable. “Wind in My Hair” is a real earworm, with a really nice hook, a cool electric guitar break, and some great blues piano. The last track, “Gone is Gone (When You’re Dead),” is a fine driving closer, funny, thoughtful, and a great finish (no pun intended) to a great album.

So, the songs are excellent, the musicianship first class. But what holds the album together in all its variety is Rachel Brown’s riveting voice, strong, rich, and endlessly enjoyable. The band will be playing at the Music Box Supper Club on December 26th, and the Barking Spider in early January, while Ms. Brown will appear with some friends at the G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula a couple of times. Go listen.

Personnel: Rachel Brown (lead vocals, piano, acoustic guitar), Bill Watson (string bass, electric bass, vocals), Roy King (drums, percussion), Dave Huddleston (electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, vocals), Chris Hannah (organ). With special guest, Alex Bevan (vocals, guitar, on “When It Comes to You”).

Tracks: Once Again, Mama & Daddy, Maybe Tomorrow, It’s Not Easy, Jimmy C, Simpler Times, Pretty Damn Damaged, My Best Friend is My Song, Mary Lynd, When it Comes to You, My Namesake, Bittersweet By and By, Wind in My Hair, I Wish You Well, Gone is Gone (When You’re Dead).

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mr. Gnome. The Heart of a Dark Star.

Mr. Gnome. The Heart of a Dark Star.
El Marko Records, 2014. Mr. Gnome:

This album is a year old, and so has already been reviewed in numerous places, including Consequence of Sound, Cleveland Scene, and even NPR. It made the Rolling Stone College Album charts, CMJ charts, and probably several others. They are now officially cool. The duo have a biography in AllMusic (surely a sign of having made the big time), where they’re described as alternative rock, indie rock, art rock, and sadcore. I’m not sure what these categories mean anymore, but I would describe their music as simultaneously hard and delicate, noisy and lovely, ever-shifting and hypnotic. We reviewed the excellent Madness in Miniature back in 2012, and so forgive me as I try to come up with new and clever things to say about this latest offering.

The band is consistent in both sound and presentation. Madness in Miniature was similar in some respects, but it seems that their musicality is a bit more sophisticated, as is their studio work. Layering is an important quality to their work, with multi-tracking of the vocals a major feature of their work. That is not to say that the music is less present, because it’s upfront in many tracks, and often the swell of guitars overwhelms everything else. They seem to like to alternate longer and shorter tracks, with a couple clocking at 4-5 minutes and others a minute or less. Combined with their tendency to shift rhythms and moods within songs, it’s difficult to tell without watching the time (I’m using a laptop) or reading the lyrics where we are. I like this. It makes for a coherent listening experience despite its pastiche approach that often disorients.

I hear a stylistic differences as well, particularly in the way they are now incorporating more  elements of folk and gospel into the psychedelic swirl. The last track, “The Sea,” is reminiscent of gospel music, and “Odyssey” takes a folky start before the electric guitars come in and add considerable fuel, ending up in a strange mix that suggests the Pogues on acid. “Rise & Shine” has a similar feel. “Follow” is one of my favorite tracks, with the layered vocals giving the song a 60s feel, combined with the anthemic qualities of arena rock, without being retro in the slightest. I also enjoy how it blends right into the next track, “No Place like Home,” as if it were a coda to the first song. This happens elsewhere, also to good effect.

But I’m at the end of the album. Let’s go back to the first track, “Melted Rainbow,” as it sets the tone. Echoing the lyrics, I can’t explain why this song reminds me of early Moody Blues, but there it is. Perhaps it’s the combination of spacey atmospherics and gently layered harmonies. Others will hear other things, and I betray my age and musical references. “Mustangs” has more of a dance feel to it, but specifically 80s dance music. “Star Stealers” is harder rocking, with an almost punk/metal quality to it, although the psychedelic elements are never far away and take over in the bridge (if we can identify it as that). Flamenco sounds build into a curious hard rock piece in “Storm,” which then fades to almost white noise. “Light” is the longest track, and one of the slowest tunes, with interweaving vocals and a drifting, hypnotic atmosphere.

I found this a rich and rewarding album, complex and gorgeous, one best listened to in its entirety, which I believe is what Mr. Gnome had in mind. A concept album in the 2010s?  Unbelievable. They are currently touring the Midwest and West, but will be back in town for a concert at the Beachland Ballroom on December 19th. I can’t wait to hear how they do all this live.

Personnel:  Nicole Barille (vocals, guitar, piano), Sam Meister (drums, piano, vocals), Jonah Meister (guitar on “Star Stealers”). Somebody does a lot of handclapping.
Tracks:  Melted Rainbow, Dark Star, Rise & Shine, Mustangs, Folk Lonely, Star Stealers, Storm, Light, Hangunder, Odyssey, Follow, No Place like Home, The Sea.

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Michael Stanley. And Then...

Michael Stanley.  And Then...
Line Level Music, 2015.  Michael Stanley:

Quite some time back, Neil Young suggested that “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” I guess that could be good advice for some, but it seems that there are alternatives. Michael Stanley has found a third way, one that was followed by luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin. In his later years, Franklin was Ambassador to France, participated in the Constitutional Convention, and wrote abolitionist works. Continue what you do, and if it’s good and honest work it will be rewarded and remembered. In recent years, despite more than 40 years in the music business, the Cleveland heartland rocker has produced such a consistently fine material that it reminded me of old Ben. One album after another, from The Hang, to The Ride, to The Job, he’s turned to an autumnal renaissance of excellent music. And Then… continues the annual feast.

The new album is in some sense typical for Stanley, but unusual in the world of popular music of the moment, in not having been written by a stable of Swedish songwriters. No cheap pop here. Stanley wrote most of the songs, with credits for one shared with Marc Lee Shannon and one other borrowed from David Grissom. There’s a lot of variety--anthemic rockers, power ballads, softer ballads, a bit of Americana--but it all fits nicely within his aesthetic and musical sense of the world. Lyrics speak to separation and loneliness, love and loss, hope, and more than one political comment. It feels a bit more uptempo than The Job, but less so than The Ride. Most of the rockers are in the first half of the album, with the more pensive material towards the back, but it’s a good mix.

I’m a fan of uptempo songs so I tend to concentrate on those, but I have to mention “Long Ohio Winter,” a beautiful ballad on a subject many of us relate to, which of course he uses as a metaphor for missing someone he loves. Bob Pelander does some gorgeous piano work here. A couple of the other ballads are heartbreakers too, especially “In Your Kiss,” with Ed Caner on viola in the background. Of the rockers, I particularly enjoyed “Snakes,” and “Don’t Say Nothing,” both of which I interpret as social commentary (although I’ve been know to be wrong). Both have a hard edge that shows off the power of the band. He throws some R&B flavor into the mid-tempo songs where the whole band shines. “All Together Now” is anthemic, with a singalong part that will be a big hit in concert. “Shifting Gears” is one of my favorites, partly because of the vocals (nice trick with the background vocalists finishing the verses), and the prominence of Pelander’s organ work. The odd song out, but not in a bad way, is “Sweet Spot,” which has a country flavor courtesy of Ed Caner’s violin.

The ensemble is strong, nearly a big band except for horns, and the guitar work is great throughout. There are no weak tracks. The only weird thing is the cover, which as you can see is a bit creepy. It was not photoshopped, which is even more creepy, but appropriate for the Halloween season. Fans of Stanley need not be convinced, but if you like solid rock & roll, give this music a try. As for concerts, he’ll be playing Hard Rock Live at Northfield later in December. Get your tickets now, because he always sells out.

Personnel:  Michael Stanley (vocals, guitar, bass), Tommy Dobeck (drums), Bob Pelander (piano, organ), Danny Powers (guitar), Jennifer Lee (vocals), Marc Lee Shannon (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Rodney Psyka (percussion), Ed Caner (violin, viola), Don Dixon (vocals).
Tracks:  All Together Now, Radio Waves, Sound of a Train, Shifting Gears, And Then, Snakes, Sweet Spot, Long Ohio Winter, Hang on to this Heart, Don’t Say Nothing, Good Day for the Blues, In Your Kiss, Circadian Rhythm.

Jeff Wanser