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