Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Gina Furtado Project: “I Hope You Have A Good Life” (2019) CD Review

The Gina Furtado Project is a bluegrass band led by vocalist and banjo player Gina Furtado, known for her work in Chris Jones & The Night Drivers. Musicians joining her in this band are Max Johnson on bass and vocals, Drew Matulich on guitar and vocals, and Malia Furtado on fiddle and vocals. Their new album, I Hope You Have A Good Life, features mostly original material, along with a couple of interesting choices of covers. On this album, Gina Furtado has some other musicians joining her, including Chris Luquette on guitar, Mark Fain on bass, Nathan Leath on fiddle, and Danny Knicely on mandolin.

The disc opens with a strong, lively track titled “The First Pebble,” written by Gina Furtado. This track has a bright, positive sound. “There was nothing but the open road and me.” Ah yes, now there is a line that holds a tremendous amount of appeal for me. And, as you’d expect, this song features plenty of good banjo playing. A good track to get things started. That’s followed by “Airplane Ride,” which has a groovier sound and rhythm. It’s a song about the dubious joys of air travel. I recall a time when it actually was a pleasure to travel by plane, but those days are long gone. “I settle down in my window seat/I let my time in the sky be a time to retreat/I turn my thoughts loose into the night,” Gina sings. Oh, I try that, but it’s nearly impossible on a full flight, when I spend most of the time in battle for a portion of the arm rest. This track features some really good playing, particularly on guitar, and it provides the album with its title in the line “I turn to my neighbor and say I hope you have a good life.”

I love the energy of “Shame.” It is a song that seems capable of just sweeping you up in its momentum, and features some excellent playing, the musicians taking turns at leads, as is the law in bluegrass songs. And check out these lines: “We haven’t slept a wink in days/And can’t fit everyone inside/And from your mansion up above/You brush away a single tear and shift the blame/Saying what a shame.” This song was also written by Gina Furtado, and is one of my personal favorites. Another of my favorites is “Princess And Pea,” an instrumental track with quite a different vibe, transporting us to a different realm, outside of our place and time. I especially I love the opening section, led by the banjo. Then after a minute or so the tune kicks in, and features some wonderful stuff on fiddle. That’s followed by one of the album’s covers, a nice rendition of Daniel Johnston’s “Story Of An Artist.” I was depressed that we lost Daniel Johnston this year. His was truly a unique voice in music. Gina Furtado’s approach has a sweeter aspect, her voice sounding less vulnerable. “You’ve got me wrong, says he/The sun don’t shine in your TV/So listen up, I’ll tell a story/About an artist growing old.”

There is something so delightful and adorable about “I Knew What To Do.” Partly it is Gina’s vocal line, partly it’s the song’s rhythm. “So when your heart stopped yearning for mine/And I knew that we’d run out of time/Believe me, I’ve never felt so blue/But I knew what to do.” I love this song more and more, each time I listen to this disc. That’s followed by “Take Your Time (I’ll Be Fine),” a jazzy bluegrass gem that is driven by the bass and features some good work on guitar. “I know that traffic must be pretty bad this time of day/And that your job has been demanding lately/Baby, it’s okay/’‘Cause you know me, I can always improvise/So don’t worry, take your time/I’ll be fine.” This is another of the disc’s highlights. Then “Dancin’ To Your Tune” is an enjoyable number with a catchy groove. “Nobody’s got it bad as me/Just look at me, I’m grinning like a fool.” Ah, yes. The album concludes with its other cover, “Can You Picture That?” This is a great song written by Paul Williams and Kenneth L. Ascher for The Muppet Movie. The Evangenitals used to do a phenomenal rendition of this one (maybe they still do, I haven’t seen them in a while). The Gina Furtado Project has a lot of fun with it, clearly getting into the spirit of the thing. There is a lot of wonderful playing on this track, and other vocalists join Gina on this one, the way several Muppets perform the song in the movie.

CD Track List
  1. The First Pebble
  2. Airplane Ride
  3. A Man Like That
  4. Shame 
  5. Try
  6. Princess And The Pea
  7. Story Of An Artist
  8. I Knew What To Do
  9. Take Your Time (I’ll Be Fine)
  10. Dancin’ To Your Tune
  11. Can You Picture That?
I Hope You Have A Good Life was released on September 27, 2019.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Fur Dixon & Steve Werner at Maui Sugar Mill Saloon, 12-29-19 Concert Review

Fur Dixon and Steve Werner
Seven years had passed since the last time Fur Dixon and Steve Werner put on a concert. So it was a delightful surprise to hear they were going to perform together again. Though I had seen each of them perform solo since then, there was a special magic when they shared a stage, and I was eager to experience that magic again. The show was held at Maui Sugar Mill Saloon in Tarzana, and was a benefit for Punks For Pussies, an organization that rescues cats and finds homes for them. The concert was titled “Punks For Pussies II,” as this was the organization’s second benefit concert. And though Fur and Steve’s music is pretty far from punk, for the past few years, Fur Dixon has returned to her punk days with a new band, and she (without Steve) performed at the first of the Punks For Pussies benefit concerts.

The show was scheduled to start at 2 p.m., but at that time the musicians hadn’t yet arrived, and folks were still in the process of decorating the stage with bright tinsel and posters for the event, giving me time to have a few pints ($6.50 each, not bad) and to get familiar with the venue. The place had a somewhat cozy, relaxed atmosphere and a friendly bartender who joked with the regulars. A little after 2 p.m., a woman arrived carrying cats in small cages. The regulars joked about adopting cats, but listening to them, you just knew that after a few more drinks they were going to go soft and end up taking home two or three of those furry little characters, waking up the next day with a headache and an amount of responsibility. Meanwhile, the decorations continued to go up, decorations that now included headshots of individual cats (presumably their resumes were printed on the back), cats with names like Roky, Rosie and Count Salem, mostly known for appearing in low-budget horror and skin flicks. And speaking of punk, one of the cats was named Pete Shelley. Well, I was right, it wasn’t long before one of the regulars had a kitten in his arms, and that kitten worked its magic on the guy. Success! And the show hadn’t even started yet.

The cover was a suggested donation of fifteen dollars, but the woman at the door said people could give more if they were so inclined. At 2:45 p.m., opener Joe Wood began his soundcheck, and ten minutes later started his set. He was joined by Jimmy Zollo on guitar. Known for his work in T.S.O.L. and The Lonely Ones, Joe Wood had also performed at the first Punks For Pussies concert, and was clearly the right man for the gig. “I have way too many cats,” he said before playing his first song. He indicated that he’d have a thousand of them if he had a bigger house. He delivered a good set of bluesy rock tunes, playing for approximately thirty minutes.

Less than fifteen minutes later, Fur Dixon & Steve Werner were getting ready to play. There was a little trouble getting the guitars to come through the speakers, and the decision was made to use a microphone for Fur’s guitar. “That means I’m going to have to stand very still,” she said. “You can’t do that, as I recall,” Steve joked. It was interesting to see them perform at a bar again, something they had basically stopped doing for a while before calling it quits as a duo. Among their best shows back in the day were those held in their back yard in Van Nuys. Plenty of good people, great music and positive vibes. We are in desperate need of that kind of thing, and I expected some of that would happen at the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon. That is what I was there for. I was not there to adopt a cat, no matter how many drinks I had. At 3:45 p.m., Fur and Steve kicked off their first set with “Journey To Another Side.” Perhaps the sound wasn’t perfect, but the ol’ magic was certainly there. What a joy it was to hear these guys again. So much of their music is about traveling, the open road and freedom, which is part of the appeal, particularly as it sounds genuine coming from them. They followed “Journey To Another Side” with “Brother Tumbleweed,” with Steve singing “A ribbon of road is all anybody needs.” I always liked the guitar work on this song. Toward the end, he sings, “I hope we’ll meet again somewhere down the line,” and at this show added, “And we did.” And though there aren’t plans for any further shows, it wouldn’t surprise me if these two are playing together again at some point down the road. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. After “Brother Tumbleweed,” Fur Dixon said, “Steve Werner, everybody!” She then joked, “He came crawling back,” which got a big laugh from the audience. Steve added, “Well, you got to crawl before you can crawl even slower.”

Before “Mulholland Highway,” Fur talked a bit about the origin of the song. This song is gorgeous, and it never fails to move me. They delivered a sweet and comforting rendition, a highlight of the first set. Steve then told the crowd, “Well, you knew it had to be time to yodel eventually, and it’s going to be that time now.” And they began “Homesick For The Highway Blues,” another favorite. And yes, this song featured some yodeling, their voices blending beautifully. And yes, the audience joined in, having fun with it. Afterward, Fur asked Steve about the tornado that went through Ventura Harbor recently. “I slept right through it,” Steve said. He was asleep on his boat in that harbor. They followed “Homesick For The Highway Blues” with “Where Are We Going?” It had a bit of an awkward start, but came together wonderfully. No question, but that everything I always loved about these guys was still present. Afterward Fur commented, “I think I played it in the wrong key.” “I think you played it in the right key,” Steve said. They then played another of those great songs of the road, “Ghost Of A Traveling Man,” and followed that with a fun cover of “Orange Blossom Special.” Steve then turned to Fur and asked her, “So, what have you been up to?” Fur talked about touring with a rock band in Europe last year and recording her album, and about fostering kittens. She pointed to one of the posters on the stage behind her and said, “That’s my kitten, Ruby, and let me tell ya, she’s a pistol.” Steve then asked the audience to give John a round of applause for putting this show on. “He did the impossible. He got me and her back together.” They then wrapped up the first set with a sweet rendition of “Every Day A Different Journey,” which – yes – is another of my favorites. Look, these guys are just unable to write a bad song. The first set ended at 4:25 p.m.

After a ten-minute set break, Steve returned to the stage to perform a few songs solo, starting with the absolutely excellent “Nothing To Hold Me Here,” which has an exciting vibe. “Remember me or don’t/I bet that you won’t/Nothing to hold me here.” He followed that with “Helms Alee,” a beautiful and moving song about sailing, then offered a cover of The Muffs’ “Something Inside,” which was a surprise. “I never met her, but that woman meant a lot to me,” he said about Kim Shattuck. He did a really good job with the song, giving us a passionate performance. Fur Dixon then came to the stage to do a couple of solo numbers, first a beautiful rendition of “When Will My Wandering End?” She then played “Daydream Walking,” a song from her recent release, Return 2 Sender. This was my first time hearing the song, and it really hit me. There is something gorgeous and haunting about this one, with a tremendous vocal performance by Fur. “I step out into the dawn/Troubles are long gone/I’ve got my daydream walking with me.”

Steve then returned to the stage, and the two played the rest of the set together, beginning with “Ventura County Line,” which had a cheerful and bright feel, with a sweet blending of their voices. “I never know how to end this song,” Fur joked moments before the end. They followed that with the beautiful “When My Face Is Covered Over.” This song was so moving that I was fighting back tears before long. It was certainly another highlight of the show. “Say my name and I’ll be by your side/Sing my songs and I will hear you.” Then Fur led them in another gorgeous song, “My Blue Yodel.” Yes, everything was working so well, their voices sounding wonderful together. That was followed by “Reputation Of A Rambler,” which was just as fun as I’d remembered it being. They then wrapped up the show with fan favorite “Backroads And Blue Skies,” a song they’d often choose to close their concerts, one that brings people together and has an optimistic outlook, something we all could use a little more of these days. The audience sang along. There was no encore, and the show ended at 5:22 p.m.

Set List

Set I
  1. Journey To Another Side
  2. Brother Tumbleweed
  3. Mulholland Highway
  4. Homesick For The Highway Blues
  5. Where Are We Going?
  6. Ghost Of A Traveling Man
  7. Orange Blossom Special
  8. Every Day A Different Journey
 Set II
  1. Nothing To Hold Me Here
  2. Helms Alee
  3. Something Inside
  4. When Will My Wandering End?
  5. Daydream Walking
  6. Ventura County Line
  7. When My Face Is Covered Over
  8. My Blue Yodel
  9. Reputation Of A Rambler
  10. Backroads And Blue Skies
Here are a few photos from the show:

Joe Wood
"Mulholland Highway"
"Mulholland Highway"
"Homesick For The Highway Blues"
"Where Are We Going?"
"Orange Blossom Special"
"Something Inside"
"Something Inside"
"When Will My Wandering End?"
"Ventura County Line"
"Ventura County Line"

Maui Sugar Mill Saloon is located at 18389 Ventura Blvd. in Tarzana, California.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Dead And Company at The Forum, 12-28-19 Concert Review

Dead And Company wrapped up their two-night stand at the Forum here in Los Angeles last night, the first part of the band’s four-show New Year’s run. And it was a good one. Considering the price of concert tickets these days, all shows had better be good ones. My ticket was $121.80, including all those damn fees, and we were by no means close to the stage. In fact, we were pretty far from the stage, though still with a good view, you know, if you squinted. But a Dead show was always about just being in the room. The vibes are as good in the back – or even in the hallways – as they are up front. As long as you can hear the music, have some room to dance, and can glance at the band now and then, just to check in, you were fine, all was well. And that’s how it is still, basically. We arrived at the venue a little after 6 p.m., and were able to walk right in, no line at that time at that entrance. My friend Jon bought a beer and a bottle of water, and tried the cap he’d brought, but it wouldn’t fit. For some reason at this venue, if you purchase water, they remove the cap before handing it to you. It’s weird and obnoxious. So we brought our own bottle caps in. The one Jon brought, however, didn’t fit. I had brought two different-sized bottle caps, and the second one – which came from a two liter bottle of cream soda – fit perfectly. Now no worries of spills, at least not from our bottles. We had some time to relax before the show. The concert was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., but the chances of it beginning before, say, 7:15 were nil.

At 7:29 p.m., the band took the stage, and during a bit of tuning, Jon and I – as well as those around us – made our guesses as to what song they’d open with. I said, “Bertha.” Jon said, “Shakedown.” The band said, “Viola Lee Blues.” I was excited to hear this song, which featured some groovy jamming. After a while, the groove started to break down a bit, went in some interesting directions, then suddenly bam, the song took off like a shot, speeding up, racing along. But the boys still kept a tight grip on the reins, not letting things get too far out yet, as it was only the first song. They didn’t finish “Viola Lee Blues,” leaving off the “letter” verse, and went right into “Bertha.” I was happy to hear it, though it still seems strange to me that they ease out of the “Anymore” refrain now, rather than delivering the song’s final rousing punch. But anyway, that led right back into “Viola Lee Blues.” A man handed a woman a glowing water below me, and the band was cooking along. But they didn’t finish the song this time either, instead just jamming on it. And then Bob signaled the others and they veered into… what? …a little tease of “Dark Star”? What they went into was “Jack Straw,” though with a bit of an awkward start. It wasn’t a very exciting rendition, not at first, with some uninspired jamming. But then they took us into beautiful territory, where the eagles filled the sky, and everything seemed to be working well. That was followed by “Big Boss Man,” the stage bathed in an orange light. A warning? Are we reading too much into the color orange these days? This tune featured a lively, cool lead on keys from Jeff Chimenti, and the band eased out with a little vocal jam. Then came “Friend Of The Devil,” delivered at an interesting tempo. It was slower than the fast studio version, but faster than the slow live versions the Dead did in the 1980s and 1990s. Bob sang that extra verse, and the song ended there. That was followed by “West L.A. Fadeaway,” which had a good slow mean groove, a groove that could mesmerize, hypnotize you. Yes, my mind wandered a bit. “Lost Sailor” came as a surprise, and this version was kind of pretty. Ah yes, “drifting and dreaming.” Of course, that led into “Saint Of Circumstance,” which was a whole lot of fun when it kicked in. “This must be heaven.” We always thought so. Well, almost always. Things went a bit weird there at the end, off into some slightly spacey territory, but then back for the “Sure don’t know what I’m going for” part. I thought for a moment that they might then go back into “Viola Lee Blues,” but as “Saint” was wrapping up, it was clear that was the set closer. The first set ended at 8:47 p.m., with “Viola Lee” still unfinished.

During the set break, the topic of conversation, as usual, turned to predictions of second set opener. However, knowing there is a prepared set list somewhere takes a little of the excitement from the game. I mean, several people knew already. Those folks at the sound booth, for example. You needed binoculars, not ESP, to figure out the set opener. Meanwhile, there was an inch of water (I hope it was water) at our feet, the results of a spill from behind us, we assumed. We managed to get the attention of the security folks, and I alerted them of the situation, and asked them to radio someone for a roll of paper towels so we could soak it up. Five minutes later one of the guys returned and handed me two paper towels. “Will that do it, or do you need more?” he asked. “I need an entire roll,” I repeated. He said he’d fetch the janitor. Then quite some time passed, and a few other employees asked us about the liquid and its status. It seemed to be taking way too many people to figure out how to get us a roll of paper towels. The guy who gave us the two came back to tell us that the bartender refused to give him more. Weird. Well, at 9:31 p.m., the lights went out, signaling the start of the second set, so that was that, we’d stand in water.

And what song did they choose to open the second set? “Viola Lee Blues.” They immediately went right to the “I mailed a letter in the air” verse – no jamming or anything. And within a couple of seconds of finishing that verse, the music exploded and the band moved into “China Cat Sunflower.” At that point, the janitor showed up with some thicker paper towels. At first, he wanted to give us only one, clearly not fully cognizant of the problem. I had to keep asking for more. He handed them to us one at a time. I kept saying, “Give us the whole stack, we are standing in a pond.” But the stingy bastard was incredibly reluctant to part with them. Were they his personal towels? Had he brought them from home? What’s the story there? And, you know, could this spill possibly be the result of them taking the goddamn caps off of the water bottles? He handed us four or five towels, and then walked away. We spread those few towels out the best we could and then focused our attention back where it belonged – the music. Because things were starting to cook now. The “China Cat” jam was a highlight of the show, taking off and pushing through, and eventually leading to “I Know You Rider.” This entire section was fantastic, and my wet shoes were dancing. That led to “Dark Star,” with a nice long jam before any vocals, as if the band were playing the song all the way through first as an instrumental to see how it would go. Well, it went extremely well, and the floor was in purple and green, my two favorite colors. The band tamed the beast, and now was making it do a few tricks, and once they had it there at their feet, they went into the first verse, the ceiling twinkling above. The jam after the first verse went in another direction, thumping and driving and pushing us through some barrier, or at least right up against it. Do we burst through this wall, or just melt into it? Or climb it? Or create a door? What’s behind the vibrating door? Giggling spiders and inquisitive electric rhinos. But we all found our way back, in time for Bob to sing the second verse. He held onto that “Lady in velvet,” stretching her out to incredible proportions. Where to next? Ah, “He’s Gone.” “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile,” and the sun beamed at us from above the stage, covering us in glorious yellow. That jam eased us into “Drums,” to a land half electronic, half organic. The drummers faced away from us, as if playing to the creatures of light dancing above at the back of the stage, like leading us in a ceremony. But it was not long before Mickey coaxed a new dawn, a new world from the ether, drawing the others back out for “Space.” They picked notes from the lights to help us through the forest.

And then? “Althea.” It was an odd choice to lead us out of “Space,” but there we were, and a damn good jam came from it, with some delicious work by Jeff on keys. It ended up being a really good “Althea.” Then suddenly, boom, we were into “Morning Dew,” which began with an explosion, the end of the world, you understand. Who knew there’d be this great beauty after the end? “Morning Dew” took us to some glorious heights, resplendent and pulsing. For a moment, I thought the set would end there, but Bob led the band into “One More Saturday Night.” That’s right, Bob, it’s Saturday night. I’ve never been excited to hear this one, but last night it featured some good stuff from Jeff, and of course there was a nice spark there toward the end. There was actually a false ending to the song, and the band kept it going. Unnecessary, but kind of fun. The second set ended at 11 p.m. And at 11:01 p.m., they were back on stage for the encore, “The Weight.” Both Oteil and Jeff received a whole lot of love from the crowd when they started their verses. Then, interestingly, the song went into a really cool vocal jam at the end, which was wonderful. The band took bows at the edge of the stage, and that was the night. The show ended at 11:11 p.m.

Set List

Set I
  1. Viola Lee Blues >
  2. Bertha >
  3. Viola Lee Blues
  4. Jack Straw
  5. Big Boss Man
  6. Friend Of The Devil
  7. West L.A. Fadeaway
  8. Lost Sailor >
  9. Saint Of Circumstance
 Set II
  1. Viola Lee Blues >
  2. China Cat Sunflower >
  3. I Know You Rider >
  4. Dark Star >
  5. He’s Gone >
  6. Drums >
  7. Space >
  8. Althea >
  9. Morning Dew
  10. One More Saturday Night
  1. The Weight
Dead And Company performing "Dark Star"

The Forum is located at 3900 W. Manchester Blvd. in Inglewood, California.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Vance Gilbert: “Good Good Man (2020) CD Review

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have grown up at such a time and in such a place that I was able to see some of the best singer/songwriters as they were just starting out. Folks like Ellis Paul, Jim Infantino, Jon Svetkey, Dar Williams, Martin Sexton and Vance Gilbert all performed at small coffee shops, churches and book stores in the late 1980s and very early 1990s, often trying out new material at the open mic nights at the Old Vienna Kaffeehaus in Westborough, Massachusetts (a place I spent a good deal of time in my late teens). Vance Gilbert is someone whose talent was immediately recognizable, and his stage presence was like no other. The energy and the joy he brought to performing were so remarkable that you kind of fell in love with him even before realizing how damn good the material was. And the material has always been good, and continues to be. His new album, Good Good Man, features some excellent original songs. On this release, he has some talented musicians joining him, including Herb Gardner on trombone and piano, Tommy Malone on electric guitar, and – on one track – Chris Smither on guitar.

The joy of Vance’s live performances carries well to the studio performances on his new album, and the first line of the opening track, “Pie & Whiskey” made me laugh aloud: “You can live on pie and whiskey, but you surely won’t live too long.” There is a gentle and friendly quality to his voice, to his delivery, that draws you in, disarms you. This track has a full and warm sound, and he is joined by Craig Akin on bass, Brad Hatfield on keys, Tommy Malone on electric guitar, and Marco Giovino on drums. “You can sing yourself a lullaby/Like your mama sang to you.” That’s followed by the title track, though with some interesting punctuation. The album’s title has no punctuation, but the title track contains two commas, “Good, Good, Man.” The first comma is expected, but the second one certainly is not. I asked Vance about it, and he said: “It’s the musical Oxford comma. Keeps the title from sounding like some sort of sidewalk candy salesman in Barbados.” He then added, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” So there you go. Vance’s humor is well known. In fact, he opened for George Carlin in 2007. “Good, Good, Man” is a beautiful and soulful tune with a bit of a 1970s vibe, particularly with those smooth backing vocals provided by Joey Dalton, Esme Goldfinger and Deborah Dill. “And I’ve done things there’s no excuse for/Ain’t no way to turn back time/Busy trying to fix tomorrow/By leaving yesterday behind/Here you come confusing love and forgiveness.”

“Trust” begins with a groovy beat and some nice stuff by Stacey Wade on organ. Plus, it features a kind of cool, funky bass line by Craig Akin. And it has another delightfully humorous opening line: “Don’t trust your daughter if she calls your boss by his first name.” This track takes on a glorious and funky energy on the lines “What were you thinking?/You ought to know better by now.” And we get some nice touches by Herb Gardner on trombone, helping to make this track one of the highlights for me. “Don’t trust the jury if you dated numbers two, three and five.” Then “Cousin Shelly’s Station Wagon” is an interesting track, with Vance’s vocals supported mainly by Herb Gardner on piano, then with strings and harp by Brad Hatfield. The sound is so serious, which works in delightful contrast with some of the humor of the lyrics, sort of like some of Randy Newman’s best material (before he sold his soul to Disney). “Making love in that old Chevy/Parked on cousin Shelly’s lawn/Now you’re pretty well past fifty/And your tooth enamel’s gone/And I know I’ll never get this message through to you.” This song is sad and funny and absolutely wonderful.

“Zombie Pattycake” has a playful, fun, jazzy vibe, with a delicious bass line by Crag Akin and some wonderful work on trombone by Herb Gardner. But of course it is Vance’s vocal line that makes this track a total joy. “Once upon a time when you were dead/And, you know, just wandering around/Biting and eating everybody all over town/Not a lot of  brain function/At the old spinal cord junction.” Zombies are popular these days, and I think shows like The Walking Dead would be even more enjoyable if they used songs like this one and Jim Infantino’s “You’re Delicious.” I mean, come on, they are missing an obviously great opportunity here. “So if you ever wake up and find yourself dead/And you and your zombie friends are walking around, scratching your head.” There are some surprising touches toward the end, which are hilarious. Vance Gilbert then changes gears with the beautiful “Flyby,” with Vance joined only by Mike Posner on backing vocals. This is a completely engaging and unusual song, another of the disc’s highlights. “They see us in orbit, admiring our closeness/But what they don’t see is this space in between us/The millions of miles that defy diagnosis.”

“Another Great Day Above Ground” has more of a back porch, loose vibe, even including a false start to show this isn’t going to be an overly polished number. This track features Chris Smither on guitar, and it is a total delight, with a message that folks shouldn’t need to hear but do. “I show up to work each morning and do the best I can/ And treat others like I like to be treated myself.” Then suddenly in the second half Herb Gardner comes in on trombone. I love his work on this album. Every day is a great day to be alive. I mean, the alternative isn’t all that appealing. The opening lines of “Hitman” make me smile: “I’ll be eighty-three in August/I probably shouldn’t drive at night.” It’s a song told from the perspective of an aging hitman, and Vance gives us another powerful and moving vocal performance. Tommy Malone adds a beautiful layer to the song on electric guitar. That’s followed by “When I Cross Over,” with Herb Gardner joining Vance on piano. “My burning question/With Heaven’s perfection/Why can’t we have that right here on Earth?

“Brunswick County” is a pretty song, and the vocal approach reminds me just a bit of Tim Buckley. Aine Minogue joins Vance on harp and backing vocals on this track, adding to the song’s beauty. That’s followed by the album’s sole cover, a really good rendition of Skylark’s “Wildflower,” a solo performance by Vance on guitar and vocals. It has an intimate sound, like Vance is playing this just for us in our living room. Here he shows us not only his vocal talent, but also his skill on guitar, and I prefer this version to the original. The album then closes with “The Day Before November,” which is delivered a cappella, as spoken word. As it opens, we hear the sounds of kids playing. It’s an excellent piece about childhood, and creates vivid images of the kids who populate the town, describing the scene and their lives in those moments. It takes place on Halloween, which they all agreed was the best day. “We were a hundred different hopes and dreams spray-painted on God’s wall/But the day before November was the best day of the fall.”

CD Track List
  1. Pie & Whiskey
  2. Good, Good, Man
  3. Trust
  4. Cousin Shelly’s Station Wagon
  5. Zombie Pattycake
  6. Flyby
  7. Another Great Day Above Ground
  8. Hitman
  9. When I Cross Over
  10. Brunswick County
  11. Wildflower
  12. The Day Before November
Good Good Man is scheduled to be released on January 24, 2020.

John Bowman: “The Hole” (2019) CD Review

John Bowman is a guitarist, banjo player and singer who is known for his work in the Isaacs and The Boxcars, and was briefly a member of Alison Krauss And Union Station. He is also fairly heavily involved in religion, as his work in The Isaacs and his solo career will attest to. His latest release, an EP titled The Hole, continues in that vein, the disc containing covers of religious and spiritual numbers, in the country and bluegrass realms. But, as with gospel, you don’t have to be a believer to enjoy this music. John Bowman is joined by several talented musicians on this release, including Kelley Back on electric guitar, Aubrey Haynie on fiddle and mandolin, Ben Isaacs (from The Isaacs) on bass and backing vocals, Gordon Mote on piano, Mike Rogers on drums and backing vocals, and Josh Swift on dobro.

The EP opens with “You Ought’ve Been There (Johnny Run The Pews),” a song written by Ed Easter and James Easter. It is a fun bluegrass number with some great harmonies and some delicious playing, moving at a good pace. John Bowman then changes gears for “I Didn’t Drive The Nails,” a slower, gentle number written by Mark Wheeler. I’m personally not religious, but this song is pretty, particularly those harmonies. That’s followed by “The Hole,” the EP’s title track, written by Skip Ewing and James D. Hicks (and included on Ewing’s Until I Found You album). This is a fun, bright number with an excellent vocal performance. Early in this one he sings, “Well, he set out to be a rich man/Happiness is what he thought he’d find.” But oh, it’s hard to keep from thinking that riches would bring happiness. Certainly money cannot ensure happiness, but it would help us purchase our way out of much worry and despair. My favorite lines from this song are “Use the one chance you’ve been given/‘Cause once you’re in the ground and cold/It’s too late to start living/You see, you can’t dig out of the hole.” I love those lines, and I love that work on fiddle.

“Little Bit,” a song written by Joseph Barry Hutchens, has a cheerful and uplifting sound. “I don’t want a little bitty blessing, lord/I want my cup running over.” This track too features some nice work on fiddle. That’s followed by a fun bluegrass rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Silverthorn Mountain,” a song from Haggard’s 1986 LP A Friend In California. Haggard’s original rendition features some wonderful stuff on fiddle, and in this new version by John Bowman the fiddle really soars. This track has such a pleasant, happy sound. It is raising my spirits, and might also raise you from your seat to get you moving. It is probably my favorite track of the EP. The disc then concludes with “I’ll Talk It All Over With Him,” another lively bluegrass tune with that good ol’ bluegrass gospel sound and plenty of positive vibes. The musicians all shine on this track. “So many things in this land I shall never understand/I’ll talk it all over with him/And by the savior’s dear side I will ever abide/I’ll talk it all over with him.”

CD Track List
  1. You Ought’ve Been There (Johnny Run The Pews)
  2. I Didn’t Drive The Nails
  3. The Hole
  4. Little Bit
  5. Silverthorn Mountain
  6. I’ll Talk It All Over With Him
The Hole was released on September 27, 2019.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

J. Graves: “Marathon” (2019) Vinyl Review

J. Graves is a rock band fronted by vocalist and guitarist Jessa Graves, with Barret Stolte on bass and Dave Yeager on drums. The trio is based in Portland, Oregon, and has released its debut full-length record. Titled Marathon, it features all original music, written by Jessa Graves. This band delivers some great garage rock with strong vocals and an unbridled punk energy. In addition, these tracks feature some seriously good lyrics. Take these lines from “Leap Year,” for example: “And oh my hands did take from you/The things that matter most/Did you forget that all along/That I was just your ghost.”

Side A

The record opens with “New Favorite,” a good, solid rock song with a driving beat. It is Jessa’s vocal performance that sells it. “I tell you all the things/I like about you/And I told you from the start/So tell me anything/You like about me/Because it’s tearing me apart.” I love that surprising moment when the other musicians drop out. Jessa is a singer who is not afraid of pauses, of silence, and this works to draw us in farther and give the music more power. And when she sings of someone who has lost control, she allows her voice to lose a bit of control. This song ends quietly with the line “I don’t know what you’re doing to me,” like a confession of weakness, which packs a harder punch coming from a voice with so much strength. “New Favorite” is followed by “Doctor,” which also has a solid rock sound. Yet the sound seems to surround a vulnerable center, as she sings, “I hope you meant it when you said you’d never leave again.” Interestingly, there is power behind her voice as she sings that.

“Unlove” rocks, a song to shake ourselves loose. This music reminds me of what made me fall for rock in the first place when I was a kid – that energy, that abandon, that strength. And it is delivered by a voice that has a raw power. “I need you/I need you now/It’s winding me up/It’s pulling me down.” Then “Eleven” begins rather quietly, which is a surprise. But it is not long before it kicks in. “Truth be told/I was telling you lies/And it’s hard to see the way/You come undone/Hard to say the words/And now you’re gone.” There is immediacy to her vocal performance which is incredibly effective. This track ends quietly with the line “And now you’re gone,” and by the final word she is on her own, even her fellow musicians have left her. It’s a wonderful moment. The first side of the record then concludes with “Over And Over.” I love the rhythm of this one, which has an undeniably catchy aspect. This is one of my favorite tracks in part because of that rhythm, but also because of Jessa’s vocal performance, which is exciting, at times intimate, then suddenly exploding. Just some fantastic work here. This track ends suddenly, which caught me by surprise the first time I listened to the record.

Side B

The second side opens with “Chapters,” the hi-hat work adding some fun to the rhythm, and getting you moving. As you listen to the lyrics, you get the sense that things are ending. “Did I come at a bad time/I feel it’s over now/And I feel it/When you’re down/And I feel it/It’s over now.”  But the song’s title seems to imply that it’s not, that this is a small section of a longer tale. And she ends this one with the line, “But I think it’s worth a try.” That’s followed by “Used To,” which features some intriguing lyrics. These lines stood out to me the first time I listened to this album: “And no one here/Will question me now/How could you do it?/How could you do it?” I love the moment when she allows us in, when she gets softer, more intimate, particularly as you know she’s going to explode again. Is she on her own? Are we on our own? What happened here? Jessa finishes this one with the line “You don’t know me anymore,” stated so simply that you know it must be true.

“Leap Year” has a raw punk energy that makes me think this group’s live performances must be intense and delicious experiences, leaving both the band and audience happily drenched in sweat. “You were all alone/And I hate to be alone.” Then “A Cabin” has a bit more of a bright feel, opening with these lines: “Maybe/I thought you could save me/But I’m feeling lately/That things will work out in the end.” Yeah, there is something cheerful about this one, right? Even as she sings “This is when it gets bad.” Still, this song has that raw, bare, honest sound to her vocals which is so appealing. The record concludes with another powerful, unabashed rock song “Animals,” which comes thumping in. This is another of my favorite tracks. “Want ‘til you want enough/Take ‘til you got it all.”  There is some really good work on bass, and toward the end, there is a cool section of bass and drums. When the song kicks in again, it arrives with a tremendous force, and then suddenly the record is over.

Record Track List

Side A
  1. New Favorite
  2. Doctor
  3. Unlove
  4. Eleven
  5. Over And Over 
Side B
  1. Chapters
  2. Used To
  3. Leap Year
  4. A Cabin
  5. Animals 
Marathon was released on September 13, 2019, and is available on both vinyl and CD.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Aaron Semer: “Cape Disappointment” (2019) Vinyl Review

Another excruciating year of the Trump horror show is coming to a close, a year when we watched democracy strangled daily on television, when we kept thinking surely this will end soon. But the hideous monster just won’t die. Fortunately, we have a lot of great music to help us get through this darkness, and just hope there is something left of the country when we finally come out the other side. There have been a lot of excellent albums released this year, and one of the best records I’ve heard is Aaron Semer’s Cape Disappointment. This one feels like a perfect record for where we are in life, at least for me and the folks I know, as we see ourselves aging, take stock in who we are, and wonder just what went wrong with everyone. The material is all original, written by Aaron Semer, and the music is basically folk, but with elements of country, rock and punk. These are songs with something to say, songs that will speak to you and perhaps for you as well.

Side A

The record kicks off with one of its strongest tracks, “A God That’s All Ours.” Check out these lines, which open the song: “Another God awakens/A God of our own making/Of information and wires/A brand new network of stars/A God that’s all ours.” Oh yes, we see the worshipers everywhere, staring at their phones as they move like ghosts through what used to be there lives. These lines, which follow, really stand out for me: “Here we stand before you naked/Our flesh exposed and aching/And you see us for what we are/Just apes looking up at the stars.” For all our information, for all our advances, what are we really? I suspect we know very little, if anything. This song kicks in with a glorious power, and features a passionate vocal performance. Aaron Semer doesn’t hold back here. “At your feet we all bow/What awesome truths will you show us now?/What will our God allow?” And in the end, we are devoured by the machine, disappearing within its supremacy. This is a fantastic song, one of the best of the year. By the way, Aaron plays guitar and drums on this track, and is joined by Michael Wohl on electric guitar. “A God That’s All Ours” is followed by “Bones For The Catacombs,” which has a brighter, more playful vibe right from the start, providing a way out from under the weight of our own introspection caused by the first song. This one features Gus Clark on accordion, and is a love song of sorts. “She asked him what he did; he said, ‘I push bone wagons for a living/And I shouldn’t be talking to a rich girl, please forgive me’/She said, ‘Hey, sooner or later we all end up alone/Because we’re all just bones for the catacombs.” This one addresses the larger concern of our mortality. But why not dance while contemplating our own inevitable demise? My friend Jason recently went into catacombs below a church to look at a collection of skulls and other bones housed there. It’s kind of morbid, certainly, but also helps put things into some sort of perspective. Right? Life is so damn short. Travis Curry is on drums, and Colin J. Nelson is on percussion.

“Settle In” has a sweeter vibe, and is both a relationship song and a song about identity. “Sometimes it feels like I didn’t choose this life/It feels like this life chose me instead/I’m just doing what my grandfather and my dad did/Hell, I guess it ain’t that bad.” There is something beautiful about this song, and the line “It took us many years to find one another” really hits home for me. My girlfriend sometimes says she wishes we could have met when we were younger, but I am just grateful to have her in my life now. I also really like the lines “But I know when my ship is coming in/That you’ll be waiting there for me,” for – as the main character is a fisherman – it is both literal and metaphorical. This is one of my favorite tracks. It is followed by “The Clothes Of A Dead Man,” which comes on strong. “But now he’s a dead man/And it feels like his eyes/Are watching everything now/From the skies.”  The idea of being watched by loved ones who have died is something I have always found unsettling rather than comforting, perhaps because I value privacy and don’t want anyone spying on me, living or dead. “And it feels like his arms/Are reaching down to help/But you’re all alone.” This track features some nice work by Kevin Bean on harmonica. The first side of the record then concludes with “Risingsun, OH,” which has a more intimate folk vibe. It tells the story of a woman and a small village (and, yes, Risingsun is a real place in Ohio). “Talk about a town with one stoplight/You can drive right through it in the middle of the night/And not even know that you had been in Risingsun.” The town where I grew up still has just one traffic light. It could have used two more, but instead someone had the bright idea of putting in two rotaries instead.

Side B

The second side opens with “We All Dance Together With The Band,” which has a sweet, gentle, familiar folk sound on guitar to start. I really like those touches on piano by Charles Wicklander. It’s a song about seeing local musicians cover tunes they all know and love. The line “Well, they’re not the best” makes me laugh every time. The song then kicks in, and in the next verse, the scope of the song is expanded to places across the globe: “Everybody’s got a little place to go/Where the lights are dim/And everybody sways/And we can dance our troubles away.” Ah yes, that’s what we need. Another couple of lines that stand out for me are “Let’s forget our pains/And all our plans.” What I love is that he adds “plans” to “pains,” that it is not just about dismissing our troubles for a time, but also letting go of the future, our hopes, to live in the moment. Seeing live music can certainly help us do just exactly that. Again, life is so short. This is a beautiful song. Its main line does remind me of that Who song, “Join Together.”

Then “(Little Black Square On My) Profile Pic” bursts in, another of this record’s most powerful songs, with an energy that is nearly palpable. We are facing dire environmental and political troubles, but what do most of us do about them? Nothing. And that’s what this song is about, the idea that engaging in symbolic protests on social media would have some effect, when of course it does nothing other than give you the illusion that you are involved. Hell, I’m guilty too, of doing so little when what I want to do is storm the White House, drag that lying sack of garbage out and kick the living crap out of him (then do the same to Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Devin Nunes and all the other greedy scoundrels out to destroy democracy). What would it take for us to get off our asses and actually do something? I wish I could play this song for the entire Facebook community. “I don’t want anybody to think that I’m a prick/I’ll put a little black square on my profile pic.” I wasn’t sure exactly what he was referring to regarding the black square, and had to look it up online. Admittedly, I try to ignore all trends on social media. Anyway, apparently the black square was used to protest the results of the 2016 presidential election. Then at one point, women covered their profile pictures with black squares in an effort to show men what the world would be like without them. Both of these things are silly and pointless and accomplished nothing. By the way, Aaron Semer delivers a great lead on kazoo on this track.

“Ball And Chain” is song that addresses going into debt to pay for college, offered in the delicious style of those classic country folk numbers. There is a verse about paying rent, and how it feels like throwing money away. Oh yes, I can relate to that. And rents are increasing all the time here in L.A., contributing to a serious homelessness problem. Kevin Beans delivers some wonderful stuff on harmonica. That’s followed by “I Hope My Johnny Comes Rolling Home.” As it begins, Aaron mentions “that useless war,” and soon we learn the war he is referring to is the war in Afghanistan after the horrors of September 11, 2001. This one kicks in to become a country rock song, with a chance to sing along. “The world was convinced we had to take out Sadam (I hope my Johnny comes rolling home)/So they moved his whole unit to the desert land (I hope my Johnny comes rolling home)/They wasted all the cities, they wasted every man (I hope my Johnny comes rolling home)/They took out all the leaders but they didn’t have a plan.” And there is a bite to lines like “Took out Gaddafi and we did it with pleasure.” The album then concludes with “The Time We Used To Kill,” which has an intimate folk sound, just vocals and acoustic guitar, no one joining Aaron on this one. “Moved into a van with a bed in the back/Packed it up full of drugs, whiskey, and Kerouac/Hit the road and said we’re never comin’ back.” I can’t help but still find something appealing about that. There is some humor in lines like “Well, if you’ll forgive me for being dismissive of your worldview/Then I’ll forgive you for tryin’ to kill me in the Black Hills.” The line “And nine months later our love turned into hate” surprised me. At the end, Aaron repeats “I used to think life would go on day after day.” Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but that line really hit me.

Record Track List

Side A
  1. A God That’s All Ours
  2. Bones For The Catacombs
  3. Settle In
  4. The Clothes Of A Dead Man
  5. Risingsun, OH 
Side B
  1. We All Dance Together With The Band
  2. (Little Black Square On My) Profile Pic
  3. Ball And Chain
  4. I Hope My Johnny Comes Rolling Home
  5. The Time We Used To Kill 
Cape Disappointment was released on November 15, 2019 through Pastures Of Plenty, and is available on both vinyl and CD.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Modern English: “Mesh & Lace” (1981/2019) CD Review

Along with After The Snow, Modern English’s Mesh & Lace has been remastered and re-issued. You’d think the album’s title comes from the lyrics to “I Melt With You,” but Mesh & Lace actually was released before After The Snow, so the song is referring to the album title. It was the band’s first LP, released in 1981, and is quite a bit different from the album that followed it. While After The Snow has a moody, dark beauty, Mesh & Lace has much more of a punk vibe and energy, and does not shy from taking chances. This remastered edition contains several bonus tracks, and – as with the remastered edition of After The Snow – new cover art for some reason (I prefer the album’s original cover). If, like me, you missed this one the first time it came around, here is a great opportunity to delve into this unusual and sometimes exciting album.

The CD opens with “Gathering Dust,” and right away there is a noticeable difference between this album and the one that follows it. For an opening track, it is rather daring, creating an odd mood at first, then thumping in with an intense punk energy, but also with strange science fiction disco sounds or something. It’s odd, but I’m digging it. “The pressure’s on, no time to lose.” However, this apparently wasn’t the opening track on the original release. It’s followed by “16 Days,” which was. This one also begins in strange territory, feeling like a harsh science fiction landscape. Then the first voices we hear are like those from a distant television. There are also repeated lines about the atomic bomb, something that was clearly on the minds of this band’s members. You’ll recall that “I Melt With You” is about a couple as atomic bombs detonate around them. But this was the early 1980s, the beginning of the horrifying Reagan years. You remember Ronald Reagan – he was the first asshole to promise to “Make America Great Again” (yes, that slogan was on his campaign posters). The song seems to burst at the end; things are falling apart, certainly, and we get caught up in the shreds of reality.

Yeah, this record is more experimental than what followed. I wish I had been turned onto this one when it was first released. “Just A Thought” feels like it opens in an aftermath, haunted voices howling out in pain. The line that stands out for me is “Space between the thoughts and acts.” There is some crazy energy here, to the music and to the vocal delivery, which is verging on shouting at times. This track is intriguing and engaging, and if you let the energy inhabit you, you might find yourself hurling your body around the room like a possessed acrobat bent on his own destruction. That’s followed by “Move In Light,” which has a great beat. And I love the repeated line “Exuberance leads to exhaustion.” Then “Grief” establishes a somewhat eerie atmosphere, an industrial landscape, dark and dangerous, populated by haunted fragments of humans. But light does eventually come in, shaking the dust from their skin, and it is only then that the vocals begin, nearly four minutes into the track. “Tears are moving down your face/Etching lines across your skin.”

The vocals to “The Token Man” have a different tone, almost mechanical, scary, the lyrics delivered without passion or compassion, as if by someone conducting experiments on human subjects. “Does it leave you all full of options/Or is there nothing to think about/Another lost man to join the millions/Fill him up, he will respond.” Then the drums come pounding, moving the track in a slightly different direction. That’s followed by “A Viable Commercial.” There is an excitement to this music, though that weird chime that comes in after a minute and a half at first makes me think it’s time to turn the page. Then we seem to be descending into some twisted subterranean lair as “Black Houses” begins. Once we reach a certain place, things level out, and a good, bright beat is established, as if to tell us that dancing is allowed in the dungeon, celebrate as best you can. “Religion can’t help/Religion can’t help/Religion can’t help/Religion can’t help.” The original album concludes with “Dance Of Devotion (A Love Song),” its deep pulse like a disembodied heart behind everything. This one begins in territory stranger than the others, but soon gives us a beat we can dance to, as its title promises. Then the thumping begins to take on an aggressive tone.

Bonus Tracks

Well, the disc’s first track, “Gathering Dust,” is actually one of the bonus tracks, originally released as a single in 1980. The rest of the bonus tracks are placed after the original album tracks. The first of these is “Smiles And Laughter,” which was released as a single in 1981. Interestingly, that single’s flip side is titled “Mesh And Lace.” The album’s title track was not on the album, but was a flip side to a single. This band must just have really loved that phrase, that image, using it as a song title, an album title, as well as a lyric from its most well-known song. “No way out/No way out/I’m trapped/Encased/Entombed/Mesh and lace.” “Mesh And Lace” is followed by “Tranquility Of A Summer Moment (Vice Versa),” here shortened to simply “Tranquility.” It was originally released as the flip side to the “Gathering Dust” single in 1980. It begins with the sounds of birds. And then whales? This track sort of eases in, and features an interesting vocal delivery, bordering on spoken word at times

“Home” was included on the 12” release of “Gathering Dust” (a record that also included “Smiles And Laughter,” “Mesh And Lace” and “Swans On Glass”), but was originally released on a compilation of new wave bands titled Presage(s) in 1980. I’ve mentioned this several times, but I need to make a mix CD of songs titled “Home.” There are so many good ones, by artists like Ellis Paul, Erica Blinn, Michelle Malone, The Evangenitals, The Spongetones, The Ides Of March, Joe Walsh, James Houlahan, Janiva Magness, Iggy Pop, Fernando Perdomo, Anton Fig, and Christina LaRocca. This track has an interesting approach, and reminds me a bit of Talking Heads. “Home” is followed by “Swans On Glass,” which was included on the Gathering Dust 12”, as well as released as a single itself in 1980. This one has more of a fun vibe. “I’m turning around/I’m turning around/I’m turning around.” The CD then concludes with “Incident,” which was the flip side to the “Swans On Glass” single. It is a good punk song, telling of a violent episode: “Old man doesn’t feel/The blow strike/Hits the concrete/Stains it just right/Youth is happy/With the incident/Runs off laughing/Into the moonlight.” All the bonus tracks were also included on the 1992 CD re-issue of Mesh & Lace.

CD Track List
  1. Gathering Dust
  2. 16 Days
  3. Just A Thought
  4. Move In Light
  5. Grief
  6. The Token Man
  7. A Viable Commercial
  8. Black Houses
  9. Dance Of Devotion (A Love Song)
  10. Smiles And Laughter
  11. Mesh And Lace
  12. Tranquility
  13. Home
  14. Swans on Glass
  15. Incident 
This remastered edition of Mesh & Lace was released on December 6, 2019 through Blixa Sounds.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Modern English: “After The Snow” (1982/2019) CD Review

The early 1980s were a wonderful time for pop music, even though a lot of it was just sort of mindless fun. Sometimes you’d purchase an LP based on the strength of a single song and end up delightfully surprised. Such was the case for me with Modern English’s After The Snow, which is one of my favorite records of that decade. I bought the album because of the song “I Melt With You,” which as everyone knows is a fantastic song. I hadn’t heard any of the album’s other tracks, but figured, what the hell, even if they’re only half as good as “I Melt With You,” the record will be worth owning. But the entire album is magnificent, without a single throwaway track. The music really stood out at the time, in part because it had a more serious sound and mood than a lot of what was coming out then. But it continues to resonate, and now After The Snow has been remastered and re-issued, with several bonus tracks. Also, for some reason, there is new album artwork (I always liked the record’s original artwork). If you love this album as much as I do, you’ll certainly appreciate having this remastered edition. And if you’ve never owned this album, this is the perfect opportunity to pick up a copy.

After The Snow opens with one of my personal favorites, “Someone’s Calling,” a song that now reminds me of that introspective space you get into sometimes on a long drive, where everything means something, you know? The reason for that is that one time in the mid-1990s, my friend Andy and I drove across the country, deciding beforehand to listen only to 1980s music the whole way there and back. I made at least fifteen mix tapes containing all the fun hits. But in case we needed a break from that stuff, which I was sure we would, I took two albums along with those mixes, albums from the 1980s with a more serious tone – Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions and Modern English’s After The Snow. We ended up listening to both a lot.  As this is the album’s first track, it reminds me of that time. “Someone’s calling in the night.” The disc’s bonus tracks include the remix version of this song, which is actually slightly shorter and really good. “Someone’s Calling” is followed by another of the album’s strongest tracks, “Life In The Gladhouse.” Modern English is sometimes referred to as “post-punk,” one of those terms I still find rather goofy and pointless, but this song is certainly one that has some of those punk elements, that energy, without really being punk. I love that insistent rhythm, and there is that great moment toward the end where the rhythm stands alone. The bonus tracks include the remix version of this song, which is longer, as was usual. It begins with the beat, and has more of that odd stuff you expect from 1980s remixes – echoes and whatnot, stuff that feels unnecessary and clunky. It’s interesting, but not nearly as good as the original track. Also included is the 12” mix. This one too begins with an extended section of the beat at the beginning, and is the longest of the three versions included on this disc. That section toward the end with the prominent percussion is extended. I really like this version.

“Face Of Wood” has an interesting, somewhat dark introduction before it kicks in. This tune has a cool bass line, and I love the way the song is allowed to develop. It is well over two minutes before the vocals come in. And then there are some beautiful touches. “Standing in front of the mirror/I draw and pinch my skin/Tired eyes portray reality.” That’s followed by “Dawn Chorus.” There is something pretty about this one too, though perhaps darkly so. Plus, it features some good lyrics, such as these lines: “Opening windows with a wounded cry/The rainbow’s lost its dreams of gold/And everything slows.”  Then we get that hit, “I Melt With You,” which was the first song on the second side of the record. This song always makes me feel good. It has a positive sound, which works in wonderful contrast to some of its lyrics. I mean, the idea of melting with someone isn’t really all that appealing. Sure, it’s better than melting alone at the end of the world, I suppose. And then lines like “I made a pilgrimage to save this human’s race/Never comprehending the race had long gone by” are pretty damn serious. Of course, the line “The future’s open wide” has a more positive ring, and is greatly appealing. It was to me certainly in my youth, and still is, even if the future seems narrower, dimmer at times now. That part where they hum toward the end never fails to make me happy. The 7” version of this song is included in the bonus tracks. I have always preferred the album version, mainly because it is twenty seconds longer. I feel like the single version cheats us a bit, but I am still glad it is included.

In “After The Snow,” the album’s title track, they sing “Like an angel crying from the sky/I can see its beauty after the snow.” I feel like I can see it too, listening to this track. There is great driving energy to this track as well, something of a punk thing, yet it’s really about mood, this one. It creates a strange and attractive and perhaps dangerous landscape. That’s followed by “Carry Me Down,” the disc’s prettiest track. “Slipping through the sand and the sand through your fingertips/Silence was the fear and the fear knew me all too well/Waiting at the edge of the sea.” The original album then concludes with “Tables Turning,” an engaging song with a driving beat and some good lyrics. “Content but not quite safe/I stood and watched you fade away.” Apart from the tracks I already mentioned, the bonus material includes “The Prize,” which was the flip side to the “I Melt With You” single. It’s an interesting song, and some of the vocal work reminds of me of David Bowie, particularly the line “The prize is in your eyes.” And these days when I hear the line “Lies and more lies, lies and more lies,” I can’t help but think of a certain scoundrel in the White House. The bonus tracks also include “The Choicest View,” which was the flip side to the “Life In The Gladhouse” 12” release. This one too is interesting, and has plenty of room for some musical exploration, as it is more than eleven minutes. You can definitely get immersed in it. All the bonus tracks, by the way, were also included on the 1992 CD re-issue.

CD Track List
  1. Someone’s Calling
  2. Life In The Gladhouse
  3. Face Of Wood
  4. Dawn Chorus
  5. I Melt With You
  6. After The Snow
  7. Carry Me Down
  8. Tables Turning
  9. Someone’s Calling (Remix)
  10. Life In The Gladhouse (Remix)
  11. I Melt With You (7” Mix)
  12. The Prize
  13. Life In The Gladhouse (12” Mix)
  14. The Choicest View
This remastered edition of After The Snow was released on December 6, 2019 through Blixa Sounds. Released on that same day was a similarly remastered edition of Modern English’s first LP, Mesh & Lace. And more good news: Modern English is apparently planning a tour for 2020.

Holland Greco at The Thirsty Crow, 12-22-19 Concert Review

Holland Greco performing "Easy Street"
The holidays are upon us, and it’s time to do your best to appear cheerful. Or, if you have a chance to listen to music as good as that performed by Holland Greco, no pretending will be necessary. Yesterday evening Holland put on a special holiday concert at The Thirsty Crow in Silver Lake, and the good cheer flowed freely. This, for me, is what the holidays are all about – music, alcohol, laughter, good people. Yes, the sky was turning grey, as Los Angeles was getting ready to deliver its version of a winter storm, but the vibe was warm and bright inside the venue, and the concert happened before the rain started to fall.

I like The Thirsty Crow. It’s a low-key, relaxed neighborhood place. There aren’t any stage lights, or any stage for that matter, so on a dark day like yesterday, the music happens in a strange sort of twilight, the grey light from the windows providing what illumination it can. However, they changed things up a bit yesterday. Rather than setting up in that corner by the windows, the band performed in that alcove in the back, which is actually one step up from the main floor, so sort of like a stage. Stockings hung above the entrance to the alcove, with names like Rob and Alex and Demetrius and Lysander (well, maybe not the last couple, it was hard to see them all), and some Christmas lights lined the back brick wall, giving it a cozy feel. There is even an old stove at the back of this little room, and the skull inside it kept things from being overly merry, you understand. The tables were removed, and the musicians sat on the padded bench that sort of circled the inside of the room, so that they were facing inward rather than out toward the main room, adding to the cozy atmosphere. Holland soon moved her keyboard to the entrance, however, so that folks would be able to better see her.

This show was part of Princess Frank’s residency at the venue. On Sundays, he does his one-man rock band gig there. Yesterday he backed Holland on drums, and it was great seeing them perform together again. It had been a few years since I had seen them play together. The band yesterday also included Josh Lopez on guitar, and Zak Schaffer on bass, and the music had a delicious jazzy feel, something different for Holland. Also different was the material chosen for the show, which consisted almost entirely of covers – Christmas songs and standards. Yeah, the concert was a rare treat.

At 4:50 p.m., without introductions or anything, Holland Greco counted off the first number, and the band started its set with a wonderful rendition of “As Time Goes By,” a song featured in Casablanca (probably the best film ever made), and one I don’t believe I’d ever heard Holland perform before. It was seriously cool, with Holland delivering a beautiful vocal performance, and Josh playing some nice jazzy stuff on guitar. That was followed by a sweet and pretty version of “The Christmas Song,” written by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé. How could one fail to get into the spirit of the holiday while listening to this performance? Holland then went into “Speak Low,” another wonderful surprise, which featured a romantic-sounding jam, as well as some nice work by Princess Frank on drums, and followed that with “Easy Street,” written by Alan Rankin Jones. This is certainly the jazziest I had ever heard Holland, and it was fantastic. I hope she dips into this material more often. She clearly has the vocal talent needed for these songs, her work rivaling the best versions you’ve heard.

Holland then donned a Santa hat before leading the group into a warm, mellow rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The rest of the set was made up of Christmas songs, with “Merry Christmas, Darling” following “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” “Merry Christmas, Darling” is a song by The Carpenters. After the show, a woman in the audience told me she thought Holland’s voice had the same strength and appeal as Karen Carpenter’s. “But every day’s a holiday when I’m near to you.” The best Christmas television special is A Charlie Brown Christmas, in large part because of Vince Guaraldi’s music. At this show, Holland performed the beautiful “Christmas Time Is Here,” doing the instrumental version, the only instrumental tune of the evening. Interestingly, rather than performing the lead on keys, she had Josh take the lead on guitar. Josh delivered some excellent work, and this tune also featured some great stuff by Zak on bass.

Holland Greco switched to ukulele for the remainder of the set, beginning with a totally fun rendition of “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” with Princess Frank adding some Christmas bells to his percussion. Holland’s vocal performance here was perhaps the best of the show, a surprise considering some of the excellent material she had nailed earlier. That was followed by that delightful Hawaiian Christmas song, “Mele Kalikimaka,” with Princess Frank again playing those Christmas bells. This one featured nice leads on both guitar and bass. Holland then concluded the set with its sole original number, “Santa’s Magic Trick.” As you might guess, it was a whole lot of fun, totally adorable. And I loved that classic rock and roll guitar part that Josh gave it. What a great way to wrap up the set. Talk about your holiday cheer! The show ended at 5:38 p.m.

Set List
  1. As Time Goes By
  2. The Christmas Song
  3. Speak Low
  4. Easy Street
  5. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
  6. Merry Christmas, Darling
  7. Christmas Time Is Here
  8. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree
  9. Mele Kalikimaka
  10. Santa’s Magic Trick
the skull
"Speak Low"
"Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"
The Thirsty Crow is located at 2939 West Sunset Blvd in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles, California.