Sunday, May 26, 2013

Michael Stanley: The Hang

Michael Stanley.  The Hang.
Line Level Music, 2012.  Michael Stanley:

You may have wondered when we were going to get around to reviewing some stuff by Michael Stanley, since this blog is based out of Hiram College and Michael is a prominent alumnus of our esteemed institution (Class of 1970).  Well, here is a long overdue review of his album from last year.  We will also soon be posting something on his latest, as well as reaching back in time to his very first (and we mean VERY first).  

I must confess I’m not a local boy (if I had an allegiance in the land of heartland rock, it would be to Springsteen, since I grew up on the east coast, or Seeger, because I saw him in concert), and so have no stake in the legend that is Michael Stanley in Northeast Ohio.  I didn’t attend the concerts in the early 80s and wave a lighter, although I am familiar with his hits.  In that sense, I guess I can be objective.  He doesn’t have to either live up or down to my expectations.  I’ve heard glowing things about him and scathing comments that suggest that the landscape of Cleveland rock is complex.

I decided to jump in and review The Hang, in part because one potential reviewer decided that it was “too much of a downer,” and partly because it intrigues me.  I like it, maybe partly because it’s a downer (which is to say that it has intense and sad songs), but also because it’s about both change and stability.  My understanding is that Stanley has been through some tough times in the last few years, with the deaths of family and friends plaguing him.  The songs on this album mostly reflect these inevitable parts of life, and I certainly relate, since such events have affected me too.  His songs combine grieving for those who have passed, but also show glimmers of hope and resilience that come with being a survivor.  I knew him as a rocker, but there are few rockers on here.  He shows his abilities instead as a songwriter and singer of considerable depth and nuance.  

There are fourteen songs on here, all clocking at over four minutes, and so I will only cover the songs that stick in my head.  Stanley opens with “From Somewhere Else,” a mid-tempo song that could be about immigrants, but could also be about anyone coming from anywhere and the differences that are less important than our common fate.  It could easily be a song to close a concert, as the singalong refrain is extremely catchy.  “The Last Great Illusion” is an anthemic power ballad that refers to history and past love, a fine tune with another catchy hook that fans should clamor for in concert.  “Breaking Down” is, as you might imagine, a heartbreaker, dealing with loss and regret.  “Down in the Suck” has a good menacing feel, a slow burner about feeling hopeless.  Damn, the songs do start to drag one down.

Stanley pulls up the tempo with “Back in the Day,” another song about the differences between yesterday and today, with today coming in second, and while the tune is upbeat, the lyrics suggest more of a last hurrah than any sort of victory.  “Martha” is a truly sad and reflective piece, about impending death from the perspective of the woman he sings of.   He ends on a strong note with the title track, an R&B-influenced tune of toughness and deciding who to spend your time with.  The last secret track is a recording of a very young Michael in the studio with his father, a Cleveland radio DJ.  You can’t fault him for this indulgence, because it ties his past so well to his present, and the ever-present memory of his father.

I have to say that I didn’t care for the spoken dialogue in “A Damn Fine Way to Go,” although the music and sung portions are very good.  Stanley’s voice sounds just a bit too much like C.W. McCall’s, from that old country song, “Convoy,” which kind of ruins the mood for me.  And I’m never fond of songs that use the tune “Auld Lang Syne,” as does “Another New Years Eve.”  Others may feel free to differ.

I mentioned before that I think that this album represents both change and stability.  The stability is in Stanley’s consistent style, with a sound that isn’t all that different from music he made in the 80s, and that’s okay.  If he tried to sound “contemporary” the messages wouldn’t work.  The guy is 65 years old, and a phony new style is the last thing he needs to try on.  All the songs are by Stanley, except for “When It Don’t Come Easy,” by Patty Griffin, and a cover of Mark Knopfler’s “Romeo & Juliet,” which I gather was for his mother.  Everything is well performed, with members of the Resonators doing a fine job.  In sum, this is an excellent album, and one not to be missed by fans.  

Personnel:  Michael Stanley (vocals, guitar, bass), Jennifer Lee (vocals), Danny Powers (guitar, bass), Marc Lee Shannon (guitar, mandolin), Bob Pelander (keyboards), Tommy Dobeck (drums), Eroc Sosinski (bass), Rodney Psyka (percussion), Paul Christensen (saxophone), Al Moss (pedal steel), Ed Caner (violin, viola).
Tracks:  From Somewhere Else, The Last Great Illusion, How Many Guitars Do you Need, Breaking Down, When It Don’t Come So Easy, Fait Accompli, A Damn Fine Way to Go, Wonder Wheel, Down in the Suck, Back in the Day, Martha, Romeo & Juliet, Another New Years Eve, The Hang, Unnamed Track (Little Michael on WGAR).

Jeff Wanser

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Most Beautiful Losers: Bedroomer (Demos)

The Most Beautiful Losers.  Bedroomer (Demos)
Canton Records, 2012.  The Most Beautiful Losers:

I’m not really sure that this classifies as one of the band’s albums, since it mostly consists of Chris Bentley, lead singer of the band, singing with acoustic guitar accompaniment (probably his own) and little evidence of his bandmates.  These are indeed properly identified as demos, having been recorded in his bedroom studio with nearly no mixing or editing.  He claims to have been somewhat inebriated during at least some of the recordings, and while it sort of shows, it hardly matters.  After all, the group has made its reputation on the basis of its appeal to beer-swilling ne’er do wells, so the resulting product is entirely appropriate.  

If we do consider this an MBL release and count their EP, then this is their eighth album (at least from Canton Records), not a bad run since 2006.  The band plays mostly a cross between punk and country, with a heavy bar band persona.  They’re a good band, especially if you tend to favor Americana.  Bentley seems to have thought of this CD as part knockoff, part test run for new songs, which may or may not show up on the next album.  If they do appear, they will sound entirely different with the full band in all their electric glory.  So maybe we should look at it as his Nebraska.  Some of the songs are worthy of recording by the band, others maybe not so much.  It’s difficult to tell how well some will translate to a full band treatment.  Here are my guesses.

The songs, for the most part, are relatively simple and straightforward, mostly about drinking, women, and being a loser.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  However, by and large, they’re a pretty decent batch of songs that just need some polish to go somewhere.  “For All of the Drunks” ought to work well as a rocker.  It has the right kind of forward motion, and a singalong quality that would make it a concert favorite.  “Another Night on the Town” is in a similar vein, and “Girlfriend from Hell” is a winner as well.  “Nasty Jassy” has a Cars quality to it, but it’s hard to tell how good it will be, since the recording quality is worse than most of the other songs.  The opener, “Out of My Mind,” makes a good ballad, but I’m not sure what they can do with it as a band.  The four songs under three minutes all seem less than finished, and need some work.  The rest have potential, with interesting and funny lyrics (“Drunk and Disorderly” has the line “we were half drunk out of our minds as we stumbled out of a strip joint on McKinley” -- Canton denizens will appreciate the reference).

While this is hardly a hidden gem, it does not claim to be.  It has its moments, and fans of the band will likely want to hear it.  It’s also cheap ($5 from Canton Records).

Personnel (as far as I can tell):  Chris Bentley, vocals, guitar.
Tracks:  Out of My Mind Again, Wagon, For All of the Drunks, Another Night on the Town, Girlfriend from Hell, A Time Machine for My Heart, Nasty Jassy, June 1990, File under Sacred Music, Drunk and Disorderly, Worth a Damn, Loser Down.

The Grand Wazoo

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Jim Ballard: Human Harvest

Jim Ballard.  Human Harvest.

Skylyne, 2012.  Jim Ballard:

No, this is not the Jim Ballard who coached football for Mount Union, or Jim Ballard the “life coach,” or Jimmy Ballard the golfer, unless the one we’re interested in has multiple secret lives.  This Jim Ballard is the singer-songwriter, film music composer, and heartland rocker based in Akron, who has recently released his eighth (I think) CD. He’s been around since the days when vinyl walked the earth, and continues to turn out interesting and enjoyable music. Human Harvest covers a lot of territory, both lyrically and musically, much of it to great effect.  Ballard’s style is now outdated in terms of current musical trends; his music recalls Dylan, the Byrds (he even alludes to a tambourine), and the Midwest sounds of Seeger, Stanley, and others.  This isn’t a bad thing, it just guarantees that his audience is likely to be older and more local than he probably deserves.

Structurally, several of his songs begin as ballads, building to rockers as his emotional intensity increases.  This was one of the first things I noticed.  The second track, “Wildflowers,” shows the template for this, with the verses sung softly with acoustic accompaniment, and the choruses moving into rock anthem mode. Others are straight ahead rock songs, such as “L. A. Rain,” which has nothing to do with Los Angeles but everything to do with Lower Akron.  The Dylan/Byrds influence is strong here, where Ballard combines jangly guitars combine with McGuinn’s signature phrasing.  “Nothin’ on Me” moves into full “Subterranean Homesick Blues” mode, with lyrics about the barrage of media. His songs reference difficult beginnings, overcoming adversity, and life’s complexities, although he doesn’t leave out lost love, as exemplified in “Who Goes There,” a story about no longer recognizing someone he used to love.  Personally, I find the lyrics a bit obscure, but having them in front of me helps (they’re on his website), and there are convenient interpretations of his songs on the purchase page of CD Baby (these are listed as album notes, although they’re not with my CD).  

Ballard’s voice is pretty good, a bit ragged at times, but effective in putting across his songs.  Most prominent is his guitar, which he solos with on several tracks, most notably “Once You Get Started.”  My favorite song here is “Well Well Well,” which combines a great groove, fine guitar work, and his strongest vocals.  The last song on the album is the only true ballad, and is a tribute to his friend, fellow musician John Bassette.  All in all, this is a good album, well worth seeking out.  Get a copy with the album notes.

Personnel:  Jim Ballard (guitars, piano, harmonica, vocals), Whitebuoy Slim (drums), Ezra Case (Hammond organ), with guest musicans, Morgan Phelps (bass), Alex Bevan (vocals), Khearan Morgan (vocals), James Robert Ballard (a.k.a. Jim) (strings).
Tracks:  Stick Dance, Wildflowers, Who Goes There, Once You Get Started, Rainmaker, L.A. Rain, Nothin’ on Me, Little White Lie, Well Well Well, Save Me a Place.  (Lyrics available at his website)


Friday, May 3, 2013

April Additions to the Collection at the Hiram College Library

April Additons to the Collection at the Hiram College Library

Here’s another list of older recordings we have added to the Northeast Ohio Music Collection.  We’ve reached the 750 mark this month!

Cherry Monroe.  The Good, the Bad, & the Beautiful.
Devo.  Something for Everybody.
Ryan Humbert Band.  One Night Only: Acoustic Live.
Saul Glennon!  British Garage Invasion.
20Goto10.  Tears from the Electric Eye.

Wallace Coleman.  Wallace Coleman.
Robert Lockwood Jr.  Delta Crossroads.
Mennonite A Cappella Singers.  Come Let Us Sing.

Carlos Jones & the Plus Band.  Positive Vibrations.
Ken Peplowski.  A Good Reed.