Sunday, June 30, 2013

L.A. Knights: Rubber City Meltdown

L.A. Knights.  Rubber City Meltdown.
Detained Records, 2013.  L.A. Knights:
No, we’re not covering California bands.  L.A. stands for Los Akron, however there’s no

indication of any Latin music leanings.  Before this album, the group was a cover band, with influences ranging from Motley Crue to Guns n Roses to Van Halen.  But here they break out with their own tunes, and the result is a hard rocking, enjoyable album with lots of hooks in the 80s-90s metal vein of their ancestors.
The first track, “Welcome to the Realm,” is an intro piece of sorts, clocking in at under a minute, that suggests we might be about to hear a concept album, or some sort of film music.  Hard to tell.  Track two takes us immediately to the essential sound of Los Akron Knights, guitar-driven hard rock with pounding percussion all in concise 3-4 minute slices.  Sometimes they sound a bit like one of their influences (the Axl Rose-like vocals are particularly evident on the title track and on “Light It Up.”  Even scarier, I hear a bit of Meat Loaf in “To the Bone.”), but the similarities are not annoying, rather they’re more entertaining.  I never particularly liked Guns n Roses, but when Los Akron Knights try to sound like them, it sounds pretty good.  I suspect that this has to do with a combination of factors, including time and distance, and the musical talent of these guys.  It’s as if they’ve taken the styles of former decades and added some indefinable quality that makes them sound not so much dated or period, but rather informed by them and more current.  

Four things stand out to me.  First, the vocals of Dave Franz are high quality.  He’s a really good singer, strong, melodic, and versatile.  I suspect he could sing in other styles if he wanted to.  I’d like to hear him try a Sinatra song.  Second, Jozey’s guitar is truly massive and sparkling, with appropriate pyrotechnics and virtuosic solos.  However, he isn’t just floating in space, but undergirded by Poder and Jaeger in a fine, strong rhythm section with serious forward motion.  Finally, the vocal harmonies drive the songs up a notch in quality.  This is a tight band, and there’s no filler.  My favorite songs are “One More Round,” and “Sure Fire,” but others listeners are likely to pick other tunes.  They only do one ballad-like tune, “Forever,” and it’s pretty good.  My least favorite is “Why Do You Do,” with it’s spoken word phone call intro that frankly, turns me off.

The photos make the guys look tough in a sort of parodic way--two versions of Little Steven, one metal man, and a Howard Stern look-alike.  It works.  Los Akron Knights have put together a fine album that should get significant acclaim.  As it says on the CD booklet, “To be played at maximum volume.”

Personnel:  Dave Franz (vocals), Jozey (guitar), Troy Poder (bass), Dennis Jaeger (drums), Everybody (background vocals), Brian Haskins (guest musician, doing something undefined).
Tracks:  Welcome to the Realm, One More Round, Light It Up, Don’t Cha, Forever, Rubber City Meltdown, To the Bone, Sure Fire, Why Do You Do, Time to Go, Tonight.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Kid Cudi: Inicud

Kid Cudi.  Inicud.
Universal Republic, 2013.  Kid Cudi:!Twitter
Kid Cudi is a bit of a Cleveland Hip-Hop darling and his music is popular but unusual. “Day n Nite” was a big hit a few years ago and the world at large got to meet the lonely Cleveland stoner as he pondered his existence like a modern Descartes. He is a depressive Jim Morrison, stoned rocker murmuring raps and poems over esoteric beats (I guess that would make him later career Jim Morrison). His newest album, Indicud, features heavy themes of faith and resurrection and love/lust. The album dedication is even a portentous declaration, “This album is dedicated to Ben Breedlove and all my fans that have passed away. I will continue to guide in your honor. Love always, forever and infinite.” Most of the songs have solid beats but lack any real hook that is prevalent in the current music scene. A few songs are what would be qualified as “catchy” but Kid Cudi rises above the formulaic expectation of albums and refuses to stray from what he’s known for, creating music and raps that people who are down and out can relate to. He doesn’t sing to be used in a Jazzercise class, (Pitbull). In fact, I think I picked up on some nerd energy, with songs named “Lord of the Sad and Lonely” and “The Flight of the Moon Man” I envision him creating these tracks in his basement, probably in his Druid cape, conjuring up spacey music favored by Stoner Rockers and Pink Floyd fans. Actually, that’s the real comparison. He doesn’t make 20 minute songs but Kid Cudi is the Pink Floyd of hip-hop in the current world. Welcome to the dark side of the Moon Man.
I will say that Kid Cudi manages to find complementary artists who add great layer to his songs, and only in country music and hip-hop does the craft of album-long storytelling really exist with any consistency. This is Kid Cudi’s break from the Man on the Moon series and each of the tracks on Indicud feel like they belong to each other, working and twisting into the next like shoots of new growth. He blends rage, discontent, and Holden Caulfieldesque bitterness that churns his songs.
I have mixed feelings about hip-hop as a musical genre. Frankly, I hold it hostage only because I think it should be better and more constructive than what it currently it. Sure we have Cudi, Macklemore, and Nas. But this is the musical genre that started with Grandmaster Flash and N.W.A; I feel that the genre has slipped into sweaty dance club hits that talk about how a large ass made a man fall to his knees instead of a nightstick. Not to disparage large asses, but it’s not as impressive. I’m just going to say it. Hip-hop lost its creativity and street credit. But Cudi, even when he writes songs that make me want to stick my head in a toaster oven, (“Girls” Featuring Too $hort, I’m looking at you), he’s still creating and it’s different from the masses, even if it is cheap. Also, Too $hort is never allowed to sing again, ever. But as soon as I get sick of his discussion of how everyone should be more open minded and “fuck” people of mixed nationalities (Medgar Evers would have been so impressed with how far we’ve come) then he busts out songs like “Red Eye” and I have to go back to begrudgingly appreciating his craft. Cudi took a true leadership role with the album, including designing the artwork and executive producing the album, and deserves a lot of the credit. He also plays guitar, keyboard, and drums on most of the tracks and that gives his work a more rock quality. His work is more musical and less rapper over backbeat. Is he a member of the women objectifying misogynist squad? Yes. Can he contribute good art? …Yes. Does that make my heart cry? Do I really need to answer?
Indicud is complicated work and an impressive one that is what hip-hop is often not, contemplative.
Personnel:  Kid Cudi; King Chip; Father John Misty; Kendrick Lamar; Too $hort; A$AP Rocky; Michael Bolton; Haim.
Tracks:  Resurrection of Scott Mescudi, Unfuckwittable, Just What I Am (featuring King Chip), Young Lady (featuring Father John Misty), King Wizard, Immortal, Solo Duo Part II (featuring Kendrick Lamar), Girls (featuring Too $hort), New York City Rage Fest, Red Eye (featuring Haim), Mad Solar, Beez (featuring RZA), Brothers (featuring King Chip & A$AP Rocky), Burn Baby Burn, Lord of the Sad and Lonely, Cold Blooded, Afterwards (Bring Yo Friends) (featuring Michael Bolton & King Chip), Flight of the Moon Man.
Lauren Parker

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Brian Lisik: The Mess that Money Could Buy

Brian Lisik.  The Mess that Money Could Buy.
Cherokee Queen Records, 2012.  Brian Lisik:

Let’s begin with the obvious.  Brian Lisik has remarkably hairy arms.  I only say this as a warning to folks before they see the cover of his CD.  His dark hair contrasts against his light skin on an otherwise mostly deep-blue cover, and the effect is jarring.  However in many respects this contrast is reflected in his music, running from rock to country and back, sometimes somewhere in-between.  Lisik is in full roots mode on his third album, moving from strength to strength with well-played, melodic tunes, using his sandpaper tenor to highlight eleven new songs with the help of a fine band.

Much has been made in the music press about Lisik’s Akron origins, how the soup of Northeast Ohio music has influenced his sound, his similarity to Wilco or the Replacements, or some other touchstone band.  I suppose that could all be true, and some of it is flattering, but I hear other things too.  Hell, in his dynamite opening track, “Small Town Royal Family,” I hear the Beatles in the guitar playing and the Kinks in the song structure, and the third song, “To California,” is reminiscent of Tom Petty and John Mellencamp.  Critics and fans can play this game all day long.  the question is whether Lisik is worth hearing on his own.  The answer is yes.

I really like his first three tunes on this album, more or less as a single unit.  While each is different in structure and intent, they are all strong rockers with a big, full sound.  Each uses a memorable repetitive riff or hook and each has a tightness that you don’t often hear these days in songs.  For most of the album, Lisik is a three minutes and out kind of guy, no nonsense, no extended soloing.  The fourth track, “The Longest Day of the Year,” is the longest song on the album, clocking at nearly four minutes, but it’s a power ballad and it takes time to tell a story.  It’s a good song, but I tend to like his faster tunes.

Deeper into the album, he starts to sound a bit more country in style, although he moves back and forth.  “I’m Satisfied,” along with the last two tracks run along these lines.  It’s on these where you can hear some really fine instrumental work, with just a few instruments.  Jennifer O’Neal shines on violin in “Last Words,” (she’s great elsewhere too, such as on “Yesterday wasn’t Real”) and Steve Norgrove’s guitar playing in “I Want to Go Home” has a delicate quality that I find charming.  The remaining songs are mostly great, especially “Five Other Rooms” and “Yesterday wasn’t Real.”  From my perspective, the only real misstep is “Nights in Shining Armore,” where Lisik tries to go too high in the vocals.  It sounds forced.

The Mess that Money Could Buy is a fine album, and I encourage folks to check it out.  If I have one complaint, it’s that Lisik tends to end his songs rather abruptly.  I’m not sure how one should necessarily end a song, but it seems that there ought to be a better way than just stopping on a dime.  And I wish I had a lyric sheet, because what I could make out I enjoyed, but I couldn’t make out everything.  

Personnel:  Brian Lisik (vocals, electric & acoustic guitars, Fender Rhodes, percussion), Steve Norgrove (electric & upright bass, resonator, Ashbory, backing vocals, percussion, electric guitar on “Rooms,” and all instruments on “Home”), Craig Lisik (drums, electric guitar, slide guitar), Ben Evans (piano, organ, Wurlitzer), Jennifer O’Neal (violin, cello, vocals), Drew Clair (drunken hollering guy on “Satisfied”), Christian Lisik (backing vocals on “California”), Clint Holley (harmonica).
Tracks:  Small Town Royal Family, Change on Your Own, To California, Longest Day of the Year, I’m Satisfied, A Mess, Nights in Shining Armore, Five Other Rooms, Yesterday wasn’t Real, I Want to Go Home, Last Words.  (Listing based on CD metadata, rather than the back cover--there are spelling discrepancies that make librarians crazy!)

Jeff Wanser

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Florence Mustric: Symphonies Spectacular and Sublime

Florence Mustric.  Symphonies Spectacular and Sublime.
MSR Classics, 2012.  Florence Mustric:

What do Trinity Lutheran in Cleveland, Marcel Dupré and Rudolf von Beckerath have in common? Quite a lot if Florence Mustric’s CD of Dupré’s Three Preludes and Fugues, published as his Opus 7, recorded on the Beckerath organ at Trinity Lutheran is any measure by which to make a judgement.

Mustric writes that she sees the Opus 7 as “a virtual symphony.” I’m not sure I agree with her entirely. I have come to regard the Opus 7 as perhaps a set of three miniature organ symphonies. For those of you who find yourself asking ‘how can anyone possibly write a symphony for one instrument?’, organ symphonies technically aren’t symphonies at all – they are more like suites or sonatas that make use of the symphonic colors available on the organs of late 19th century France.

While I could go on at length about the relationship between the music of composers like Dupré and his teacher and predecessor at Saint Sulpice in Paris, Charles-Marie Widor and the organs they played, I will simply say that it is a fascinating relationship out of which I have spun more than the occasional research paper.

Rudolf von Beckerath’s work is generally associated with the music of German Baroque composers like Bach more closely than with French Romantic music. So it naturally comes as something of a surprise to find someone performing such music on an organ, much less to find a recording of French organ music on a Beckerath. However, the Dupré and Franck are quite effective on the instrument at Trinity Lutheran.

Mustric’s tempi for the entirety of Dupré’s Opus 7 are slower than those taken by most other performers I’ve had the opportunity to listen to, but too often French Romantic organ works are rushed, losing clarity and sinking into forgettable morass. Her playing in the B-major is crisp, clear and hauntingly beautiful. There are moments, especially in the prelude where I was clearly reminded that Dupré was a student of both Widor and Vierne.

Following the B-major is the Prelude and Fugue in F-minor, where the flutes are really given an opportunity to shine. The themes in the second prelude and fugue are even more lovely and haunting than the B-Major. In a show of compositional genius (or perhaps just cleverness) the fugue theme opens with what sounds like one of the accompaniment figures from the prelude just previous.

The G-minor prelude is a dizzying flight around the room on beautiful flutes for the hands with the melody in the feet (how very organistic!). Once again the playing is clean and very crisp, with speed that other players might take traded for clarity of thought and playing. In the G-mionr fugue, Mustric once again demonstrates the full organ, and shows the versatility of the Beckerath.

Mustric follows the Dupré Op. 7 with three Chorales by César Franck, also a leading French organist of his day. Like the Dupré Preludes and Fugues, these each feel like organ symphonies in miniature. They were each well executed, cleanly played, and wonderfully crisp. The only blemish on an otherwise stunning recording is that after some time, I find myself wishing for some new colors from the Beckerath. This is not Mustric’s fault, nor the fault of Herr Beckerath; it is a slight mismatch between instrument and repertoire. That Mustric was able to convincingly pull off this recording of French Romantic music on an instrument that was designed with an eye to Bach and Baroque counterpoint is a testament to her abilities as an organist and to her great familiarity with the instrument at hand.

Personnel:  Florence Mustric (organ).

Tracks:  Marcel Dupré: Opus 7: Preludes and Fugues: in B major; in F minor; in G minor; César Franck: Three Chorals: Choral in E major; Choral in B minor; Choral in A minor.

Don Daley

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Robert Ward: The Crucible

Robert Ward.  The Crucible.  Opera performed at the Kent State University Stark Theatre, Canton, Ohio.  Kent State University Stark Theatre:
Robert Ward
Led by stage director Brian Newberg and music director and pianist Judith Ryder,  Kent State University vocal faculty members, guest artists, and vocal graduate students collaborated in a vocally, musically, and theatrically compelling performance of Robert Ward’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera The Crucible on June 7th to 9th at the Kent State University Stark Theatre. The performance was a fitting memorial for a composer who was labeled a “traditionalist” during a time when traditionalism was anything but mainstream.  Ward (1917-2013) was a Cleveland native, attending John Adams High School before moving on to the Eastman and Juilliard Schools of Music.
Commissioned by the New York City Opera and premiered in 1961, The Crucible, which is the best-known of Ward’s five operas, is set to Bernhard Stambler’s adaption of Arthur Miller’s well-known 1953 play. Loosely based on historical facts, Miller’s play is ostensibly a dramatization of the Salem witch trials, but beneath this veneer is a thinly-veiled analogy of the hysterical distrust of the McCarthy era, the consequences of which Miller himself suffered personally. The play reveals a twisted societal paradigm in which slander, suspicion, and the evil spirits of past infidelities are used as psychological weapons in a quest for power and possession, a paradigm in which integrity is punished and deceit rewarded. The title suggests the intense “heat” to which members of this society are subjected and the inescapable situations in which they find themselves. The timelessness and universality of the complex paradoxes explored in Miller’s play have made it a classic of American theater repertory. Ward’s operatic setting has become one of the best-known and most-performed 20th century American operas.  

Although rooted in tonality, Ward’s setting of Stambler’s textually thick libretto is harmonically and contrapuntally dense and vocally demanding. Chromaticism, dissonance, and driving melodic and harmonic motion propel the drama forward, creating an aura of irresolvable tension. While the melodic writing is lyrical and idiomatic, it also includes angular leaps that follow the inflections and drama of the text. Judith Ryder’s interpretative insight, coaching expertise, and pianistic strength and sensitivity resulted in a musically seamless, deceptively effortless musical performance.  Director Brian Newman’s creative yet spare, efficient staging provided an effective contrast to Ward’s restless, thick orchestration, juxtaposing the stark asceticism of the Puritans with the complex web of fear and confusion that lay below their surface culture of simplicity,  order, and respect for authority.  
Operatic protagonists are often sopranos and tenors, while mezzo sopranos and baritones are more often cast in roles that include deception and deceit. Perhaps to illustrate the dangers of societal stereotyping, Ward reverses the operatic fach stereotypes. Baritone Brian Johnson gave a vocally and dramatically commanding performance of the stern but emotionally complex John Proctor who, like the Christ of the Passions, sacrifices himself for the good of his society. Tenor Daniel Doty played the paranoid and power-hungry Reverend Samuel Parris, Abigail’s uncle. Melissa Davis’s crystalline light lyric soprano voice belied a deceptive, seductive, frighteningly determined Abigail Williams, while the upright and uncompromising Rebecca Nurse, who in the end chooses execution over dishonesty, was played by mezzo-soprano Denise Milner-Howell. Soprano Laurel Seeds’ insightful portrayal of Proctor’s anxious wife, Elizabeth, invoked sympathy for Elizabeth’s emotional distance from her husband.  Baritone Robin Rice convincingly succeeded in transforming Reverend John Hale from a self-congratulatory, overzealous witch-craft expert to an empathetic but sadly impotent supporter of the accused. The vocally and dramatically versatile soprano Lindsey Leonard captured Mary Warren’s shifting emotional instability.  Tenor Tim Culver’s penetrating tenor radiated a sense of unyielding authority to the steely, self-assured Judge Danforth. The large cast also included strong performances by Mary Francis Miller as the frightened slave, Tituba;  Kenneth Kramer as the greedy and conniving Thomas Putnam; Lara Troyer as his hysterical wife,  Ann Putman; Alfred Anderson as her husband, Francis Nurse, an enemy of Thomas Putman;  Jim Gray Smith as the honorable Ezekiel Cheever; and Alfred Leonard, Dan Weisman, Megan McConnell, Megan Radtke, Maureen Thomas, Rebecca Seiler, Lauren Paulis, Jenna Stolarik, Jennifer Kirchner, Mark Miller, and Collin Rowe as Puritan community members. The ensemble was supported by Judith Ryder’s masterful and accomplished performance of the piano score.  
Dawn Sonntag

Thursday, June 6, 2013

May Additions to the Collection at the HCL

May Additions to the Collection at the Hiram College Library
Although the Library doesn’t publish its usual A Fistful of Music newsletter, listing all the items we’ve added to the collection, during the summer months, we have been adding items that will appear in the September issue.  Here are some older Northeast Ohio CDs:

Susan Cowsill.  Just Believe It.  (Yes, from the Cowsills family, for those old enough to remember them.  Susan was born in Canton, later became a member of the Continental Drifters, then put out several solo albums.)
The Margot Catcher.  The Line is a Dot. (Alternative/emo/grunge is how they describe themselves on MySpace.)
Dan Miraldi.  Thirsty.  (We reviewed his Sugar & Adrenaline, but this was his first album)
Public Outcry.  Funny Time’s Over.  (A metal band from Dover)
St. Agnes’ Eve.  Emotional Eclipse.  (We’re not sure if these folks are from Massillon, but they recorded there.)

Michael Grady.  Still Gone.  (Just Michael, his voice, and his guitar)
Walkin’ Cane.  A World of Blues.  (Austin “Walkin’ Cane” Charanghat plays Delta-style blues; these are concert recordings from festivals.)

Tom Knific Quartet.  Lines of Influence.  (Tom teaches at Western Michigan University, but has lots of Cleveland connections, including son John, who appears on the album, and lives and works in Northeast Ohio.)
Dave Morgan.  The Way of the Sly Man.  (Dave teaches at YSU.  Folks on the album include Jack Schantz and Jeremy Haddad.)

The Cleveland Orchestra, with Franz Welser-Möst.  Strauss, Haydn, Ravel, Brahms.  (A varied program, from 2001)
Highlights from the Cleveland International Piano Competition, 2003.  (Includes pianists Kotaro Fukuma, Soyeon Lee, konstantin Soukevetski, and Andrius Zlabys)

The Grand Wazoo

Monday, June 3, 2013

Django Billy in Concert at the Blue Rock Café

Django Billy.  In Concert at the Blue Rock Café, May 24, 2013

I don’t get out nearly as much as I used to, so it was a real treat to head over to Hudson’s Blue Rock Café for the debut of a new band that bills itself as playing a combination of Gypsy jazz and bluegrass.  Django Billy is new, but the band members have played around the region for some time, in various bands, guest gigs, and solo projects.  Josh Rzepka would seem to be the most “famous,” with three solo CDs to his credit, but they are all well-known in Northeast Ohio music circles.  First, a disclaimer:  while I had never met any of the members of the group, I do know Peter Nario-Redmond’s spouse, Michelle, who is a colleague at Hiram College.  She has had absolutely no influence on my positive review of this concert.  (Hi, Michelle!)

I was surprised to discover a few days before the concert that they were going on earlier than expected (6:00 pm), and were the opening act for Blue Lunch.  I would have liked to stay around late to see them too, but I just don’t have that kind of stamina anymore, and so my review is limited to the three sets Django Billy played from 6 to 9.  I must, however, say a few words about the venue.  My wife and I showed up about 5:00 pm, since she was hungry and wanted dinner before the concert.  The Blue Rock Café is a small-to-medium-sized bar/restaurant with stage in front and a fair amount of seating, bigger than the Beachland Ballroom, but not by much.  It’s a very friendly place, with a fine staff, good ambience, and excellent food.  I highly recommend it for a casual dinner, even if you’re not coming for music.  But come for the music.  They have a variety of acts, mostly roots music, with some other stuff too.  A lot of Northeast Ohio musicians play there regularly, and the acoustics are just fine.

Back to the band.  As a first outing, these fellows did a very good job.  Their three sets consisted largely of standards, with a couple of originals by Peter thrown in.  My first concern was how Rzepka’s trumpet would fit into either Django-style jazz or bluegrass, but that didn’t seem to matter much, because he sounded just fine.  As it turned out, there wasn’t a lot of bluegrass to be had (notice the lack of banjo and mandolin, and the absence of vocal harmonies), and the tunes that weren’t jazz tended to have more of a country flavor.  Advertising aside, the guys played some fine standards, some with more of a Brazilian influence (“Black Orpheus,” “Blue Bossa”) than Gypsy jazz.  Many of the tunes are old favorites, and swung (swang?) nicely.  Lucas Kadish provided the heavy lifting on guitar, at least from what I could hear toward the back of the room, and he is a very fine guitarist, with the Django style down pat.  In the first set, I was particularly impressed by their renditions of “Caravan” (a personal favorite of mine, by Barney Bigard), “ Black Orpheus,” and the closer, “Sweet Sue.”  I have to admit, a couple of songs passed me by, because we were surrounded by several tables of Hiram College folks, and there was much talk and distraction.  The beverages were delicious.

Each of the other sets was equally well-done, and they kept playing songs I like, so I couldn’t help but listen as attentively as possible given the distracting surroundings of friends and noise.  You can’t go wrong with “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (well, you could but they didn’t), and “Lady Be Good” was given a fine treatment.  Not surprisingly, many of the tunes were famously done by Django Reinhardt himself, including “Limehouse Blues” and “Minor Swing.”  Even “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” which I mostly recall as an Andrews Sisters tune, worked very well.  I can’t say much about Peter’s singing of a couple of tunes, because I had a bit of trouble hearing.  It sounded okay amidst the noisy throng.  The miking early in the concert was a bit off, but once it was fixed, Kadish’s guitar chimed through loud and clear.  In all, it was a fine show.

I certainly hope that these gentlemen appear together again soon.  If so, please go see them.  I think you’ll enjoy their music as much as I did.

Personnel:  Peter Nario-Redmond (guitar, vocals), Josh Rzepka (trumpet), Jeremey Poparad (double bass), Lucas Kadish (guitar).
SET1: Caravan, All of Me, Honeysuckle Rose, *Anxiety, Djangology, Black Orpheus, *Happy and Malcontent, After You've Gone, Undecided, Sweet Sue.
SET2: Nuages, Ain't Misbehavin’, Mister Sandman, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, *Washing Bin, Lady be Good, Sweet Georgia Brown.
SET3: *Lana, Limehouse Blues, Avalon, Blue Bossa, It Had to be You, Exactly Like You, Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen, Minor Swing
(*Indicates Peter Nario-Redmond original)

Jeff Wanser

Smooth as Raw Silk

Silk.  Smooth as Raw Silk.

Kismet Records, 2012.  Originally released in 1969 on ABC Records.

What were you doing in 1969, assuming you were around?  I was still in high school, listening to FM radio in New York, and discovering progressive rock, blues, and other stuff they didn’t play on Top 40 radio.  I had never heard of Silk, and still hadn’t until this year.  They never really broke through, but their effects are still with us.  Why review an obscure 40+ year old reissue?  Because one of the members was Michael Stanley, then known as Michael Gee.

Members of Silk were a few years ahead of me chronologically (they were college-age), having just changed their name from the Tree Stumps.  They were just about getting ready to break up when a producer named Bill Szymczyk (well-known for working with B.B. KIng, later with J. Geils, the Eagles, and others) was sent to Cleveland by ABC records to search for talent.  He came up with two bands, Silk, and the James Gang.  We’ll talk about the latter group some other time.  Szymczyk produced Silk’s first and only album, Smooth as Raw Silk.  Szymczyk saw some potential in the band, and helped them create a showcase of sorts.  He later went on to produce albums for the Michael Stanley Band.  

The young band was certainly a product of its time.  It was talented, but unsure of itself, derivative but capable of moments of brilliance as well as silliness, ultimately a flash in the pan, as most bands are.  One could look at the album as a chance for them to show off all their skills in multiple popular styles (even a country song!), or even as a concept album, a peculiar artifact of the period when the album was supplanting the single as a medium for musicians to express themselves.  This became particularly true for progressive and experimental rockers and others who took to long-form compositions.  Silk didn’t do all that, but Smooth as Raw Silk has that feel, part hippie, part blue-eyed soul, with a willingness to try anything because they could.  

The album opens with the sound of an airplane taking off, and the Captain (Szymczyk) speaking to the passengers.  It is mercifully short, and thank goodness they didn’t end with a similar piece of nonsense.  This is followed by a rocker, “Foreign Trip,” sung by Randy Sabo that works to the extent that Chris Johns plays great guitar.  It is a mish-mosh of blues rock with horns reminiscent of Blood, Sweat & Tears, but without the quality.  Two songs are covers, “Long-Haired Boy” and “Custody,” both sung in large part by Michael Gee.  The first is an old Tim Rose song (who also wrote “Hey Joe”), now dated in style and references, but Michael does a fine job of balladeering here.  The second is a country song about child custody from the perspective of the father, a maudlin weeper complete with speaking part, and dreadful in almost every way, unless they were intending a parody, in which case it’s not bad.

“Not a Whole Lot I Can Do” also features Michael on vocals, but here we have a pretty damned fine tune that rocks well, and the BS&T-style horn section isn’t bad.  “Scottish Thing” takes us into Moody Blues country, with Randy on lead vocals, alternating psychedelic whimpering with rocking keyboards, then Scottish bagpipes and handclaps.  The Moodies could pull off this kind of thing, but Silk simply couldn’t.  This is followed up by a dynamite piece of blue-eyed soul (a bit of Moody harmonies left over), with high energy vocals, psychedelic guitar solos and full-on power organ.  Great stuff, nearly the equal of any hit on the radio at the time.  They do something similar with “Come on Down Girl,” another moment where they have their act together, Young Rascals/Tommy James-style.  These two songs and “Not a Whole Lot” could have formed the core of a hit album, if they had more good tunes in the wings.  Smooth did, however, break into the very bottom of the Billboard charts.  

The other tunes vary, from the largely forgettable “Hours” to the I wish I could forget it “Walk in My Mind,” to the closer, “For All Time.”  The Moody Blues-like sound is back in all of them, with added strings and hippie lyrics, and none of them have the substance or technique needed to make them long-lasting, although the closer is very pretty in a “Nights in White Satin” style.  So what we have here is a mixed bag of music from 1969.  Some of it shows great potential and portents of things to come, while the rest is consigned to the bargain bin of Northeast Ohio musical history.  Still interesting as a historical document though, it’s worth listening to if you’re of a “certain age.”

Personnel:  Courtney Johns (drums), Michael Gee (bass, vocals), Chris Johns (guitars), Randy Sabo (keyboards, vocals), Bill Szymczyk (vocals, other things here and there).  No idea who played the horns.
Tracks:  Introduction, Foreign Trip, Long-Haired Boy, Not a Whole Lot I Can Do, Custody, Scottish Thing, Skitzo Blues, Hours, Walk in My Mind, Come on Down Girl, For All Time.