Thursday, August 23, 2012

Who is Northeast Ohio?

The question of which artists “belong” to Northeast Ohio is not as simple as it sounds.  Depending on the yardstick we use, we can extend the possible number to extremes or narrow it to the point of triviality.  At one end of the spectrum, for example, place-based musical organizations are prime targets:  The Cleveland Orchestra, the Akron Symphony, and the Ohio Light Opera should be unquestionably included.  At the other end, many artists come to the region to record for Telarc, Azica, or some other record label who have no other connection to the region.  It seems appropriate to exclude them entirely.  Others fall in between, and reasonable people can disagree about where to draw these lines.  For example, is it appropriate to include an artist such as Marilyn Manson, who left the area after tenth grade (although members of his family still live in the region)?  We needed a classification scheme to guide us. Forgive me, I am a librarian, and I love to classify.

1. Place-based entities:  Those that by definition are associated with the region.  Examples include the above-mentioned organizations as well as the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, the Mahoning Valley Button Box Club, and Burning River Brass.

2.  Artists associated with Hiram College or the village of Hiram and nearby vicinity.  These include faculty members who record (Randall Fusco, piano), as well as alumni such as Michael Stanley, and very local artists such as Crypts of Paris (rock) and Foster Brown (folk/children’s music).

3.  Artists who were born in the region, attained regional popularity, and have stayed largely within the region (except to tour).  Examples include Ernie Krivda (jazz), Alex Bevan (folk), and many bands such as Hillbilly Idol (rock), Yiddische Cup (klezmer), Brigid’s Cross (Irish), and the Hank Haller Ensemble (polka).

4.  Artists who were born in the region and attained fame elsewhere, but live locally, maintain roots in the region or who regularly return to play locally.  Examples include Joe Lovano (jazz), Sean Jones (jazz), and Chrissie Hynde (the Pretenders).  These are included in the collection, and are likely to be reviewed.

5.  Artists who were born or achieved some fame in the region, but left for greener pastures.  Their continued connection to the region is unknown.  Examples include Anne E. DeChant (left for Nashville), and Mystery of Two (left for Brooklyn).  These have been included in the collection, but future releases may not be included, depending upon circumstances.

6.  Artists who were born in the region, left before they achieved fame, but whose continued connection to the region is tenuous or unknown.  These are often artists who are touted as “from Cleveland” or “from Canton,” but who seldom perform in the area.  This category includes a wide variety of artists, including Nine Inch Nails, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and Tracy Chapman.  These are included on a case-by-case basis.  In the words of one student, “If you leave out all the famous musicians, all you have left are the ones nobody cares about.”  While we disagree with the facts, we also sympathize with the “favorite son/favorite daughter” thinking implied in the statement.  

7.  Artists who were born elsewhere, but who live and are employed in the region.  These include members of area orchestras, faculty members of universities and colleges in the region, and occasional other individuals.  Examples include Richard King, Principal Horn for the Cleveland Orchestra (born in New York), and Robert Lockwood, Jr. blues artist (born in Arkansas).  

8. Deceased artists who people may no longer associate with the region, such as Henry Mancini or Vaughan Monroe.
Some other artists are simply difficult to categorize.  Joe Walsh is a excellent example.  Born in Wichita, Kansas, he began playing in bands while attending Kent State University.  His initial fame came with the James Gang, then Barnstorm, both Northeast Ohio bands.  He joined the Eagles in 1975 to considerable success.  Both Kansas and Ohio could claim him, as well as California to some extent.  We include his James Gang and Barnstorm output, as well as solo albums, but would not include his Eagles-related material as germane.

We'll keep working on it.

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Great One from Last Year

Rainy Day Saints.  All These Strange Ghosts.
Get Hip Records, 2011.   Rainy Day Saints:

This came out back in October, but we’re playing catch-up with the new blog.  Besides, we want everybody to know about the good stuff.  I could call this band a lot of different things including garage rock, psychedelic rock, and indie rock, and all these designations would be right.  But what they really are is a damned fine Cleveland band that put out a truly fine, tight, listenable, grooving album.  I don’t say such things lightly.  I’m of boomer age, I’ve listened to rock music for 50 years, and it takes a lot for me to be impressed by a contemporary band.  I’m impressed.


They take a bit of a kitchen sink approach to rock.  They borrow (or steal, as Dylan would say) ideas from other bands, but what they do with their influences doesn’t sound the least bit derivative.  Sure, I hear the Who, Cheap Trick, a bit of Sweet, (maybe even the Seeds) and lots of other sources, but that hardly matters.  Somebody else will hear other bands, real or not, but what really matters is what they did with all of this sound they produce.  And what they did was marvelous.

Dave Swanson seems to be the busiest of the group, having written the songs and played a whole batch of instruments, but it’s clear that everyone is upfront and contributing at some point or other.  Keith Pickering provides some great lead guitar on a few tracks, and Marianne Friend gives us some sweet saxophone interludes at just the right time.  Vocals are appropriately rough, but filled with harmonies that work just right for the gritty but psychedelic sound they’re going for.  Bombastic keyboards take us into a congealed garage/art rock place that the Brits sometimes try to pull off, but don’t.  There isn’t anything I would call a ballad until the last track.

Most songs are mid-to-uptempo and strong in melody and lyrics, with a good deal of musical complexity, mostly in the form of layering of studio tracks to produce a thicker sound.
The title track takes a basic Bo Diddley beat and ads surf/psychedelic swirls and a great guitar solo, all while sounding like music from the old Munsters TV show.  “This is Not the Way Back Home” is a strong rocker with lots of forward motion and drive.  My favorite track is “All Gone Wrong,” a garage rock styling that suggests a lost song by the Seeds. I could go on, because there are no clinkers here.  My one complaint is the lack of a lyric sheet, since the singing is not always crystal clear. Good variety, excellent musicianship, and a fine feel for what’s important in rock make this one my vote for best Northeast Ohio rock album of the past couple of years.

Personnel:  Dave Swanson (guitars, drums, vocals, keyboards, bass, percussion), Brian P. McCafferty (bass, mandolin, harmonies, accommodations), Marianne Friend (saxophones, harmonies, glamor, medicine), Keith Pickering (guitar), with assisting musicians.
Tracks:  Where Are You?, Underneath the Dreamer’s Moon, She’s Long Gone, Memories, Lose My Mind, All Gone Wrong, All these Strange Ghosts, Sylvester Greene, Reward, This is Not the Way Back Home, Gone, Everybody Shows the Way, Where I Stand.

The Grand Wazoo

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Macy Gray's Latest

Macy Gray.  Covered.
429 Records, 2012.   Macy Gray:

I find Macy Gray fascinating.  She is quirky, eclectic in taste and genre, ranging from R&B to rock, and one never knows which way she’s going to move next.  I have heard her compared to Billie Holiday in vocal style, and it’s easy to hear that in both timbre and delivery.  Growing up in Canton as Natalie McIntyre and attending Western Reserve Academy (and later the University of Southern California), she had a family before having a music career, and her maturity and sophistication are on display in full force with her sixth studio album.
Covered is mostly, well, covers.  She pulls songs from the Eurythmics, My Chemical Romance, Arcade Fire, Kanye West, and other artists, mixing styles with abandon, and changing the originals to suit herself.  She largely succeeds in this project, and brings some remarkably strong vocals on “Sail,” “Here Comes the Rain Again,” and “Wake Up.”  My favorites may not be someone else’s, and I prefer the rock to the rap, but there’s plenty to choose from.  She even gets her kids involved on a couple of tracks, with her son, Mel Hinds, taking the lead vocals on “Mel Rap.”  In fact, she gets all kinds of help, not only from her regular band, the Sex Fiends, but from a whole batch of background vocalists and percussionists.  They lend power and breadth to the tracks, but never get in the way.
For me, the least successful parts of the album are the short comedy bits, interspersed among the songs, which may please some people and annoy others to no end.  The first time through, they are pretty funny, with people giving her advice about her performance or introducing her, but after that, they just get in the way of the music.  Fortunately, one can skip them or program them out.  The songs are the strength here, and Gray’s voice is the key.

Personnel:  Macy Gray (vocals); the Sex Fiends: Martin Estrada (guitars); Ronald “RJ” Kelly (drums); Mike Torres (bass); Zoux (keys and synths, organ, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, programming); and lots of assisting musicians and background vocalists.
Tracks:  Here Comes the Rain Again, Creep, You Want Them Nervous, Smoke Two Joints, La La La (Teaching the Kids), Teenagers, The Power of Love, Nothing Else Matters, Sail, I Try is Cool and All, but..., Maps, Lovelockdown/Buck, Mel Rapp, Bubbly, Wake Up, Really?


Saturday, August 4, 2012

So, What Are We Doing Here?

I've been at Hiram College for a lot of years, and I've always been fascinated by the complaints students have that we are in the middle of nowhere.  Come on, folks, we're in the middle of everywhere!  You can be in Cleveland, Akron, or Youngstown in less than an hour.  Kent is less than a half hour.  There's stuff going on all around us (and stuff on campus too).  What we need to do is change our perceptions of what constitutes nowhere.  That's what this blog is partly about, to expose the musical network of Northeast Ohio all around us, and be a part of that larger conversation.
Since 2006, the Hiram College Library has been developing a collection of Northeast Ohio music.  We're closing in on 600 CDs (still a drop in the bucket) in all genres:  rock, pop, rap, metal, jazz, classical, folk, country, polka, gospel, world, and who knows what else.  We're looking for new music to review, while building our back collection.  It's all about making connections with the surrounding landscape, and making our campus community a part of it.  More on this later.  In the meantime, take a look at what we've got at
Jeff Wanser