Thursday, November 30, 2023

Stoney Spring: “My Mind Is Flowering Now” (2020) CD Review

Do you guys remember the year 2020? It was the forty-third year of the Trump presidency, and things were not going well. A pandemic was raging across the world and the leader of the United States suggested injecting bleach as the way to stop it. Even his moronic followers had doubts about that one (well, most of them). It was a time when we looked in other places for leadership, for humanity, and found it largely in music. Into this uncertain time came My Mind Is Flowering Now, the fourth album from Stoney Spring, the project of former I See Hawks In L.A. member Anthony Lacques. The songs had been written in 2018 and 2019, but felt right at home in the strange landscape of 2020. Anthony Lacques plays keyboards, drums, bass, guitar, jaw harp and even a washing machine on this one (bleach optional). He is joined on a couple of tracks by brother and Hawks member Paul Lacques on guitar, and by Marc Doten on bass and keyboards on a few tracks, and by Jimi Hawes on upright bass on one track.

The album opens with “Animal Solution To An Animal Problem,” which has a good garage rock sound, and moves at a fast pace. “It’s mechanical/And it’s digital/It’s completely natural/It’s an utterly human things to do.” It’s a short song, less than two minutes. Several of the tracks on this album are of a punk rock length. Here Anthony Lacques sings, “A machine is part of nature/And nature’s turning you into a machine,” lines he will return to a few tracks later. Marc Doten plays keyboards on this one. That’s followed by “Foot Stompin’ Time,” a cool and at times kind of goofy instrumental track that goes through different sections, with strong grooves and a loose feel. Perhaps the most surprising section is toward the end, when it feels like it is becoming more contemplative in nature. Once it lands there, it sticks with that feeling, and then fades out. “It’s a nervous system” is a line I love from “A Sublime Bolt Of Lightning (In The Forest Of The Mind),” the humor of it and the honesty of it. And weren’t we all nervous back in 2020 (and 2018 and 2019, for that matter)? “Laughing on the beach/Just out of reach.” There are some psychedelic elements here too, and some laughter and banter at the end, as he says, “They’re coming for us” (a different tone, but a thought similar to “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haa”).

On “Nature’s Turning You Into A Machine,” we revisit some thoughts and elements from the first track, including a breathy vocal bit at the beginning, but with a different vibe and pace. “And it’s natural, it feels natural.” Ah, but he sounds uncertain, wary. This is a seriously cool song, one of my favorites. “Yes, a machine is just part of nature/And nature is turning you into a machine/That’s why you feel so mean.” Right. After all, what is unnatural (other than a Republican with a conscience, I mean)? Interestingly, the new album from Stoney Spring, A Team Of Oxen Approaching Light Speed, which came out just a few weeks ago, opens with a song titled “Rejecting The Machine.” And speaking of nature, Anthony Lacques follows that with a song titled “Even A Monkey Could Live How You Live,” which has a great raw sound. “Click it, click it, click it one more time/Follow the signs, open the door/Here is where your food is stored/Even a monkey could live how you live, do what you do, be what you be.” We’ve all be trained well, haven’t we? That’s followed by “Spring Shower,” one of the album’s oddest tracks. It’s sort of an instrumental; that is, there are no actual lyrics, but plenty of vocal work. The rhythm is provided vocally, at least in part.

“My Mind Is Flowering Now,” the album’s title track, has a cool groove. This instrumental track features some really good work on drums. And on this one, Paul Lacques plays guitar, and Marc Doten is on bass. The guys deliver a delicious jam with some psychedelic influences and some nice work on keys. Marc Doten also plays bass on “Pleasant Is The Way.” At the beginning, the vocal work is done in a breathy, heavy whisper, an element also used on a couple of earlier tracks. The first line after that section is “That was fun,” which could be a comment on that first part. Then “A Full Throated Defense Of Stoney Spring” begins with the sound of water. It’s another instrumental track, this one with a certain beauty. And its title nearly puts the group in that category of bands having a song sharing the band’s name (I See Hawks In L.A. is on that list). There is something playful about that title. Paul Lacques plays guitar on this track.

An ominous-sounding single pound begins “Bland And Tough.” The first lines are “Don’t let ‘em see you think/Don’t let ‘em hear you weep/That’s a dangerous flavor/That’s evidence of anger.” This is another strong track, building wonderfully, and with something to say. “If you want to make it in this world/You’ve got to be bland and tough/Just feign some compassion.” Another line that stands out is “You may have one or two regrets when you get older,” partly because I’m getting older (aren’t we all?), but also because I’ve been wondering if some of the people currently running mad against democracy will at some point voice regrets. This is another of the disc’s highlights. Then “Now You Think TV Is Really Good” has a strange opening, feeling like it could be the soundtrack to a late-night television program, one of those eerie shows mixing science fiction, horror and mystery. It’s mainly that theme on keyboard which creates that vibe. In the second half, as this instrumental track progresses, it becomes more hip. It then turns back to that main theme before the end. Jimi Hawes plays upright bass on this one. Stoney Spring goes back to a sort of garage rock vibe on “Who’s In Charge Today?” The song asks the question, but rather than getting political, as one might expect, it stays in the musical realm, asking “Who’s The Beatles today?” And then: “Who’s Max Roach today/Who’s Merle Haggard today/Who’s Peter Tosh today?/Who’s Joni Mitchell today?” Then concludes, “No one’s in charge today.”  Though I would argue that Joni Mitchell is still Joni Mitchell today. The others mentioned there are all gone. At the end, he playfully adds Jimmy Carter to the group of musicians (well, a group of people named Jimmy, or Jimi).

CD Track List

  1. Animal Solution To An Animal Problem
  2. Foot Stompin’ Time
  3. A Sublime Bolt Of Lightning (In The Forest Of The Mind)
  4. Nature’s Turning You Into A Machine
  5. Even A Monkey Could Live How You Ive
  6. Spring Shower
  7. My Mind Is Flowering Now
  8. Pleasant Is The Way
  9. A Full Throated Defense Of Stoney Spring
  10. Bland And Tough
  11. Now You Think TV Is Really Good
  12. Who’s In Charge Today

My Mind Is Flowering Now was released on July 6, 2020.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Catbells: “Partly Cloudy” (2023) CD Review

Catbells is the stage name of a singer and songwriter whose real identity is something of a mystery. Her name is not listed on her website or in the press release, and photos of her (on the CD case and online) all have her face hidden behind a furry cat mask. The only conclusion I can draw is that she is in the Witness Protection Program and the government agent in charge was in a playful mood that day, handing out names from Beatrix Potter’s The Tale Of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. No worries, however, because it works. What is important is the music, and her music is excellent. She has released several singles and an EP, and has now released her debut full-length album, titled Partly Cloudy. She provides the vocals and plays acoustic guitar on this album, and is joined by Billy Mohler, who plays the other instruments and produced the album. Mohler also mixed most of the tracks, with Ali Chant mixing three of them. Partly Cloudy contains all original material.

The album opens with “Fade (Rainy Day Demo).” “I feel so numb,” she sings as the song begins. It’s a song about trying to move on, to put someone in the past, and the difficulties encountered in doing so. “You moved on so easily/I try and try to do the same/But I just can't seem to make you fade.” The song has a mellow, relaxed vibe, and while there is a yearning in her voice, there is also something soothing, something dreamy, that leads us to believe things are okay, as she sings at one point, “It’s okay, yeah, it’s okay.”  If not in that crazy world out there, at least in this other world that she’s creating with her music things are okay. A different version of this song was released as a single a couple of years ago. That’s followed by “Wilderness,” which has a beautiful sound from the start, particularly in her vocal delivery. And when a song begins with the word “hope,” I find myself paying even closer attention, especially in these strange days. Here are those opening lines: “Hope, it haunts me in my life like a ghost/It leads me there until I’m surely lost inside/The wilderness of my mind.” Those are excellent and compelling opening lines. And check out this line: “And though it surely seems I lost a friend, I lost myself instead.” Lyrics like these can help us get lost in the wilderness of our own minds, in memories and desires. But her voice is the perfect companion on any journey inward. This is one of my personal favorites from the album.

“Gone Too Far” is an interesting song. It has a rather gentle vibe, yet there is some electric guitar work that threatens at times to take things in another direction, toward a heavier place. Those moments help keep us completely engaged, and help make this track another of the disc’s highlights. “I can't say that I never felt the same way/But I’m to blame for the way things are, it’s gone too far.” Then “I Wish” has a kind of pretty instrumental introduction. “Please give me one more try/I promise I won’t fuck it up this time/Life was better when I was young/I didn’t feel this way back then, but I do now.” Songs that deal with aging, with memories, speak more and more strongly to me. “And I wish I could remember/I wish I could forget/The things that you once told me/Things that I regret.” There doesn’t seem to be sadness here, for she has turned it to beauty. This track features some good guitar work. And speaking of memory, she follows that with a song titled “Like A Memory.” The vibe of much of this music is like memory, and it helps us tap into our own memories, as well as into this dream she has created. It is like she is orchestrating our memories, the act of remembering, inserting herself into our pasts. “I feel like something lost in time/I feel like a memory,” she sings here.

There is something intimate in her delivery as she sings, “Don’t look back, I know that/I’ve read this all before” in “It’s Not Hard.” Sometimes it’s not a matter of looking back, but looking within, though the results might be the same. This music carries us along, and I wonder if each person who listens will experience something markedly different, depending on his or her own history and interior. Listening to this music is a very personal experience. “It’s Not Hard” is followed by “Same As You.” This one comes on with a brighter energy, yet interestingly it too looks to the past in its first lines: “Staring at the ground I see/Nothing but my distant memories/I can only see the faded images of what we used to be.” Sometimes we just have to let the memories have their way with us and move on. “I can only shut my eyes and hold my breath and let it move through me.” She sounds almost happy about it, which is encouraging. That’s followed by another interesting song, “Ask Me Tomorrow.” Check out these lines: “Ask me tomorrow/How I feel today/Ask me tomorrow/How was yesterday/Because I don't want to know/What I’ll say when you go/Ask me tomorrow Just not today.”

The lines “Don’t mistake my smile/You never had a chance” from “Ground Force” made me laugh out loud the first time I listened to this album. Those lines come as a surprise, and I love the attitude. There is a different sort of approach on this one, coming from a place of more strength. This is another of the disc’s highlights. Then “Distant Star” begins with a beat, and features a cool bass line. There is something familiar about this track, about its sound, taking us back to an earlier time. “Oh, and I’ll go/Where the night goes/There’s a light that shines alone.” This is yet another of the disc’s highlights. Then “Leaves” has a sweet, gentle pop vibe. “Leaves keep blowing ever slowly/Never knowing where I’m going.” That image of leaves blowing slowly, of time slowing just a bit, is an interesting one, especially for those of us who grew up in New England, for whom it calls up a certain time, a certain temperature, and a strange sort of loneliness.

Don’t tell me it’s okay, because it’s not,” the opening line of “Trying Not To Feel,” is one that grabs us. We want to say that things are okay because we want so desperately for things to be okay. This song features some excellent lyrics, such as these: “‘Cause in between the light and the dark/I found a place to hide, at least I try/But every night I lie awake/Wondering how much I can take/Trying not to feel/Makes me want to cry.” Fantastic. This is a beautiful and moving song that I could listen to over and over, while giving up trying not to feel, allowing myself to break down. It features an absolutely wonderful vocal performance and is one of the album’s best tracks, perhaps its very best. It was released as a single over the summer. The album then concludes with “Riding Tides.” This track uses the sound of static, like we’re listening to an old recording. That effect is not really necessary, but this is a good song, one that feels like the end of the day, when we’re alone. “And I’m floating out to sea/On a boat made just for me/Riding tides ‘til I find/The place that calls to me.” The search continues in our dreams.

CD Track List

  1. Fade (Rainy Day Demo)
  2. Wilderness
  3. Gone Too Far
  4. I Wish
  5. Like A Memory
  6. It’s Not Hard
  7. Same As You
  8. Ask Me Tomorrow
  9. Ground Force
  10. Distant Star
  11. Leaves
  12. Trying Not To Feel
  13. Riding Tides

Partly Cloudy was released on October 27, 2023, and is available on both CD and vinyl.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Stoney Spring: “A Team Of Oxen Approaching Light Speed” (2023) CD Review

A decade ago, Stoney Spring sort of emerged from the group I See Hawks In L.A., with original Hawk Anthony Lacques as its driving creative force. And “creative” is the key word here, for this group is not really bound by any traditional or restrictive ideas of genre, but rather lets the music go where it needs to go. There is a sense of adventure to the music that is refreshing and exciting. The group’s first album Right On Heliotrope! was released in 2013, and was followed by Don’t Let Me Die At Coco’s in 2015, The Natural Sweetness Of Cream in 2017, and My Mind Is Flowering Now in 2020. The band’s new album, A Team Of Oxen Approaching Light Speed (a title I love, by the way), continues the adventure. Unlike the previous releases, this one includes a cover song, a Beatles song. The rest of the tracks were written by Anthony Lacques. Anthony Lacques plays most of the instruments on this release, including drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards, and provides vocals. Joining him are fellow Hawks members Paul Marshall on vocals and Paul Lacques on guitar and lap steel. Matthew Lacques and Marc Doten each join Anthony Lacques on one track.

In these strange days when talk of the machines actually taking over has taken on a frighteningly realistic tone, it is great that Stoney Spring opens the new album with a song titled “Rejecting The Machine.” There is a sort of garage rock vibe at the center of this one, which is perfect. The song has but one line: “People are rejecting the machine.” It’s a line to make us all feel a little better about the world, and one to perhaps encourage folks a bit. Might humanity triumph after all? Certainly, if musicians have any say in the matter. Don’t feel bad for the machine. That’s followed by “Faerie Jam 2323,” an unusual instrumental piece that has some psychedelic elements along with something of a progressive feel, all with a blues rock heart pushing it forward. Even faeries and sprites get the blues. Matthew Lacques adds some great stuff on fiddle on this track, a surprising element that takes things in a different direction for a time.

Anthony Lacques released a cool video for “Black Planet” recently. This song is a catchy rock number driven by the guitar work. “Nobody gets out/This is where it's happening/Nobody gets out/This is where the action is/Black rock, black Earth, black planet of my birth.” There is a sense of humor to this track, heard in the line “I'm gonna pre-rock, I'm gonna rock, and I'm gonna re-rock.” Then Paul Marshall sings lead on “Backward Prophecy.” This one has something of a late 1960s hard rock edge. And check out these lyrics: “And they will invent a new language that has no verbs/And they will lay out a bright and shining path that has no curves/We need some places to throw rocks in L.A.” Yup, not your ordinary lyrics. There is a humor to this one too. But I do wonder if the machines will win after all, with a line like “And they will solve their human problem by removing the human essence.” This track becomes a good jam for a while in the second half, and features some cool work by Marc Doten on organ.

There is a funky edge to “Sweet Jesus, Help Me To Function.” And speaking of humor, the title of this song is funny and makes me smile. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “I know it’s only the death of rock ‘n’ roll/I know it’s only the death of the human soul/But it happened so fast, Jesus/What’s wrong with people today, Jesus?/Sweet Jesus, help me to function.” And when he sings of having trouble concentrating, I think we can all relate. That’s followed by “A Team Of Oxen Approaching Light Speed,” the album’s title track. It’s an instrumental track with a loose but heavy garage rock sound. And, yeah, you can hear the oxen beginning to take off, rushing forward. When they break the speed of light, where will they go? “Self Revealed” is another surprise, his vocals supported by percussion. It’s a short track, less than a minute and a half long.

“There It Is, Take It,” like the album’s opening track, has but one line, repeated. There is something of a Donovan vibe to this song. The track builds in energy as the line is repeated, the lyrics becoming part of the sound after a while, and the pace picks up. That’s followed by the album’s only cover, The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Anthony Lacques puts his own spin to it, delivering a version unlike any I’ve heard. The drum work is central to it, just as it is in the original version, but here the rhythm is different. And the vocal approach is quite a bit different. There is something of a folk rock vibe to it, which gives a different focus to the lyrics. Anthony repeats the line, “Listen to the color of your dreams.”  Then a seriously cool bass line sets “Soul Alive” in motion. There is a ska influence heard in this one. And Paul Lacques delivers some fantastic work here.  

“Get It In Gear, Mate” begins with a great rhythm. I dig that work on drums and the bass line. There is a different vocal delivery to this one. Plus, it includes a Hamlet reference, as he sings, “Got to be cruel to be kind.” In Act III Scene iv, Hamlet tells his mother, “I must be cruel only to be kind.” Things get even stranger and freer as this album progresses, as the instrumental track “Shards” shows. The album then concludes with “I Like All Peoples.” In a time when people are becoming more divided, it’s refreshing to hear a song in which he basically lists various groups of people, saying he likes them. The humor comes when he breaks that pattern, singing, “I like Moroccans, I like to put my shoes and socks on/And get around to where I can/I like to listen to Steely Dan, does that make me less of a man?/I don’t think so.” The song leaves us with this thought: “The future is groovy.”

CD Track List

  1. Rejecting The Machine
  2. Faerie Jam 2323
  3. Black Planet
  4. Backward Prophecy
  5. Sweet Jesus, Help Me To Function
  6. A Team Of Oxen Approaching Light Speed
  7. Self Revealed
  8. There It Is, Take It
  9. Tomorrow Never Knows
  10. Soul Alive
  11. Get It In Gear, Mate
  12. Shards
  13. I Like All Peoples

A Team Of Oxen Approaching Light Speed was released on November 6, 2023.

The Three O’Clock: “Sixteen Tambourines” (1983/2023) CD Review

It has been forty years since the release of Sixteen Tambourines, the first full-length album by The Three O’ Clock, one of the groups collectively known as the Paisley Underground (a term apparently coined by The Three O’ Clock’s Michael Quercio). Can you believe four decades have passed since this album came out? Crazy. The album has now been remastered and re-issued. The remastering was done by Bill Inglot and Dave Schulz. Most of the tracks were written by Michael Quercio and Louis Gutierrez. This new re-issue contains no bonus tracks, but does have a new album cover and sounds great. The new cover is a double-sided front, and so the track list is not included on the case, only on the disc itself. The band is made up of Louis Gutierrez on guitar and vocals, Michael Quercio on bass and vocals, Mike Mariano on keyboards and vocals, and Danny Benair on drums and percussion. Joining them on this release are Gary Bonie on trumpet, Barry Adam Saperstein on trombone, Michael Barbara on saxophone, Richard Dodd on cello, Sarah Dodd on violin, and Will Glenn on violin and viola.

The album opens with “Jet Fighter,” which was also released as a single. A steady beat is established at the beginning. I love this song’s opening lines: “Jet fighter man/That’s what I am/‘Cause tanks go too slow.” There is a cheerful vibe to this song, particularly on the chorus, even if he feels “so low.” And that is true of basically all this music. “And on the day when duty calls/I don’t think I’ll go/Airplanes fly and yet I feel so low.” This song was also included on the 2013 compilation The Hidden World Revealed. “Jet Fighter” is followed by “Stupid Einstein,” which was also included on The Hidden World Revealed. There is a great joy to the sound, and to the song’s rhythm, which is somewhere between pop and punk. What a great bass line! And the guitar work certainly owes something to the 1960s folk rock bands. “Can’t lose what was hard to find/Keep pictures safe to remind.”

“And So We Run” starts off slowly, easing in. “We are young/We have no fear.” Then the drums push the song into its main section. “We’ve begun/To think as we want to/And we’ve begun/To do as we want to/And we’ve begun.” Again, there is something so positive about this song’s sound and its lyrics. Its appeal has not lessened at all in the forty years since the album’s original release. “We have gone away/Did you know?” Ah yes, but they’ve come back, haven’t they? Then the work on keys and the vocal approach at the beginning tell us “Fall To The Ground” is a more serious song. “In her hands she held beauty/But now it’s dead and gone/She was treated so badly/That she can’t care at all.” But halfway through the track that part on keys seems to indicate that things might be all right. And we think that even if we fall to the ground, we’ll manage. Yes, we need this music now.

“A Day In Erotica” has an intriguing opening, particularly the way the vocals are layered. I love that vocal work. Soon the song kicks in to become a rather fun pop song, but returns at times to that opening section. The song shows an interesting mix of psychedelic and pop influences, and features some good guitar work. Halfway through, it opens up into some strange carnival land. Listen to this with headphones, and the sound will travel from one ear to the other, right through your brain, where I suppose the carnival is occurring. The song’s next section has a harder edge, which is fantastic. This song was also included on The Hidden World Revealed. It is followed by another interesting song, “Tomorrow.” There is something sweet about the feel of this one. “Oh, you’ll discover a sound, a street, a town/We could hang around/But will it be tomorrow?” It is a song that seems to look both to the past and the future. And the line “But memories aren’t real today” stands out. It’s a line that helps me immerse myself in the world and time of this song. “Remember a time when you were near/And things were clear/But will they be tomorrow?

“In My Own Time” is the album’s only cover, and it’s a fun one, a groovy rock song written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb. This is a song from the Bee Gees before disco completely changed their sound, when they were clearly influenced by The Beatles’ Revolver. Interestingly, Klaus Voorman, who designed the cover for Revolver, also did the cover for this Bee Gees record, Bee Gees’ 1st. The Three O’ Clock owes part of its sound to 1960s bands, and here these guys go directly to the source, and so it is no surprise that they do a fantastic job with the song. Check out that fantastic work on guitar. And there is also some wonderful stuff from the horn section. That’s followed by “On My Own,” which features another cheerful pop vibe with some catchy elements, plus nice work from the string section. “Discussing the reasons why I must go/Let’s think of the fun and not the sorrow.” At the end there is a sweet “Ooh la la ooh” vocal section.

“When Lightning Starts” is another fun one. The drums at the beginning announce it as such, and the horns come in quickly to back that proclamation. Here we get some disco elements, in that beat. This is one of the album’s best tracks, in part because of its delicious bass line. There is just a whole lot of joy to its sound. This song was included on that compilation. I could listen to this track all day. The album then concludes with “Seeing Is Believing.” There is a gentle and pretty vibe to this one, particularly in the vocal approach. It also features another strong bass line and some really nice work on keyboards. “Shapes in your eyes are all I can see/Seem to mean so much to me/Halfway there/Sent flying through the air/How your eyes can tear through me.”

CD Track List

  1. Jet Fighter
  2. Stupid Einstein
  3. And So We Run
  4. Fall To The Ground
  5. A Day In Erotica
  6. Tomorrow
  7. In My Own Time
  8. On My Own
  9. When Lightning Starts
  10. Seeing Is Believing

This special re-issue of Sixteen Tambourines was released on October 20, 2023 on Yep Roc Records. It is available on both CD and vinyl (the record is on transparent green vinyl, so of course I want to get a copy of it).