August 1, 2004, by Bill Ribas
August 2004 CD Reviews:
The Alternate Routes, Over Your Shoulder
Nemo, Signs of Life
The Compulsions, 21 Powers Street
Basement 3, Fuzzyland
The Strines, Dog-ger-el
The Catholic Girls, Summer Vacation/Rock'n America
Jeanine, Paris By Night
Lemon, Weight of the World
Michael Hirsch, Lo Fi Holiday
Kimmy and Klassť, The Love of Music
Billi & Patti, Love and Other 4 Letter Words
Siggy, Cryptophasia (© 2004 Siggy)
If you saw the press photo for this band, you might think they were having a middle-age crisis four kindred spirits seeking to lock horns with their past, a nostalgic nod to youth. When you hear the music, however, you realize that they are perhaps more closely aligned with the spirit and substance of rock and roll than the bulk of today's disenfranchised youth. The music is approached in an understated fashion, no need to blare chords or blast the ears with a wall of distortion, and at times it almost seems too simple, like a garage band on its third practice. But the band members are sharp brain-wise and musically and the disc is an assault of emotional brutality and beauty. Singer Galen Buckwalter's voice wavers with pain and uncertainty, filled with angst like that of some of the more notable and offbeat singers rock has seen, like Tom Verlaine's nasal whine, or John Lydon's off-key bleating.
The strong guitar work of Ryan Howes propels the songs, as he meshes rhythm and lead duties with ease, never overplaying, and always there. Deborah Buckwalter on bass and Paul Netherton on drums complete the band. This disc ranks as one of the more surprising finds this year.
The Alternate Routes, Over Your Shoulder (© 2004 The Alternate Routes)
From Bridgeport, CT, come the Alternate Routes, a radio-friendly pop group if ever there were one. Usually for a polished product like this, you'd figure it would come out of L.A., or perhaps across the pond, but you'd be wrong. The songs are upbeat and cheerful, with no dirge anthems anywhere to be found. They remind me of someone, but I can't think of whom and it's just about driving me nuts. Tim Warren performs vocal chores, and his voice has just enough grit to give the music an edge. Guitar work is handled by Eric Donnelly, who, if you listen closely, plays many nice bits in the background of most numbers. Keyboardist Martin Barnes has a nice hand on the Rhodes stuff, and bassist Chip Johnson and drummer Tim Newton round out the group. While I am still trying to remember what band they remind me of, I'll just say their music is strong pop, with the occasional blues-based rambler like "Are You Lonely" tossed in for good measure.
"Hollywood" is one of the nicest ballads I've heard in a while. A very strong disc.
Nemo, Signs of Life (© 2004 Binge Records)
As the first beats begin banging out, I thought perhaps I put in some old '80s disc by mistake. But, no, it's a pleasant surprise, the music of Nemo that is, unabashedly '80s based, recalling big-sounding bands like the Cure and the Smiths. Oh, they have songs that can't be pinned so obviously, but the numbers still manage to trace their roots to the punk and new-wave explosion. And that's not a detriment, as anyone who lived through the era will tell you. Sure, there was a lot of shlock, but there was a tremendous amount of good music as well, and Nemo either exploits that fact or continues the tradition, depending on how you see it. Songs are lush and layered, with much in the way of overdubs. This tends to give the songs a real big sound, almost Spector-ish. The pacing is quite quick as well, with just 3 songs out of 17 clocking in at over 3 minutes. This gives the disc the feeling of a compilation, as songs blister in and out.
The music almost has an aquatic feel to it, as on "Signs of Life," an up-tempo number that seems to swell as it plays along. An interesting mix of old and new.
The Compulsions, 21 Powers Street (© 2004 Rob Carlyle)
Hmmm. One has to wonder what is going on here in June I reviewed a Compulsions EP, and now here is another one, and I can't understand why the two weren't just packaged together as one disc. Ah well, what do I know about marketing. The music on this four-song ripper is just as strong as the previous. And as with the first, it retains that Brit-influenced sneering approach to the job at hand. The songs are straight-ahead, no-frills rock, interjected with guitar solos (remember those?). A number like "Shake Hands With the Devil" will have you thinking along the lines of the Rolling Stones (at least when they were younger), while "I Was Right, You Were Wrong" veers more toward a heavier sound, almost GNR in feel. "Shoot My Way to Freedom" once again reels in the Stones feel, with the classic suspended chord riff. Solid stuff, just wish there was more of it.
Basement 3, Fuzzyland (© 2004 Merrymolemusic)
There are discs that you can easily describe, those that fit a certain category, like pop, or punk, and you can assign a few references that describe the band's sound, but in the case of Basement 3, I come up short. It's not that the music is bad, nothing like that at all. It's just one of those discs where you feel obligated to use the word "eclectic," and that word fits well. For example, the third tune, "Flower," starts off like a modern folk tune, with some unexpected melodic movement, until about three minutes in, comes a blast of horns, and there's almost a swampy, dark, Louisiana feel to the music. Yeah, I know, sounds strange, but it works. "Fall" begins as a standard ballad, slowly building, until, well, nothing unusual happens in this number, but it could have. And that sort of unknowing, that quirkiness, is what Kenny, who is Basement 3, is all about. Much in the same vein as the late, great Frank Zappa,
who had a remarkable insight to music, Kenny pushes the limits of music too, but also shows he has an ear for the straight ahead. Another interesting disc from Basement 3. [Click here for a review of the first.]
The Strines, Dog-ger-el (© 2004 INS Records)
Another band whose sound harkens to the days of new wave, yet manages to sound funky fresh is the Strines. Shades of Blondie, Pat Benatar, Letters to Cleo pound out of my speakers. Singer Georgia Haege has a crystal clear set of pipes, and her tone is ideally suited to the music. On "I'll Keep Waiting," for example, a mid-paced ballad, her voice shines through the layering of guitars and yet there is still a hint of emotional reserve, some restraint, as opposed to screaming or shouting. And while a reggae-influenced number like "Flying Free" may cause a comparison to No Doubt, Haege's voice again is clearer than Gwen Stefani's nasal tendencies, and the music is much fuller as well. Part of that is due to some excellent guitar work from Eric Kaye and Adrian Barrios. Distortion or effects are minimal, adding to the clarity of the mix. Similarly, the tightness of bassist Erika Szanto and drummer Chris McBurney make for an extremely snug groove.
The song "Barbie Fell" is so catchy it sounds like it could be the theme song of a popular teen show. I wouldn't be surprised to see this band getting big in a hurry. A refreshing release.
The Catholic Girls, Summer Vacation/Rock'n America (© 2003 Gail Petersen)
Although this is just a two-song disc, it is important in a sense because the band has essentially preserved the early punk/new-wave sound prevalent in the late '70s/early '80s. Originally formed in the '80s, the Catholic Girls
have played with a slew of big names, such as Tom Petty, REM, the Kinks, the Ramones, and others. So there's a chance you may have seen them in the past, and chances are I have too, I'm just scratching my head and trying to remember where or when. As for the two songs, the first, "Summer Vacation" is a heartfelt tribute to the late Joey Ramone, upbeat and perky in the verse, changing over to a minor-chord chorus. The other song, "Rock'n America" lives up to its title, garage heavy in sound, quick chord changes, reminiscent of early Ramones. Gail Petersen's voice can be easy or harsh, vacillating between a Belinda Carlisle and a Siouxsie (of Banshee fame). For me, however, there's a sense of authenticity,
of lineage, as the band stays true to its original sound and the days of its formation. Other bands may be influenced by the '80s; the Catholic Girls are the real deal.
Jeanine, Paris By Night (© 2003 Paris Passion Music)
Though the website, www.parisbynight.org, was not functional, that should not deter you from seeking out this disc and giving it a spin. Jeanine Acquart's
voice is smoky and deep. It's kind of like being serenaded by Marlene Dietrich. The music, however, is nothing to lay back and snooze over. Rather, it is dark, foreboding, almost gothic in attack and style. This is territory where Jeanine seems to thrive, as becomes evident from the opener, "Turned On Me," with its relentlessly pounding drums. On a moderate-paced ballad like "Go Back," the deepness of Acquart's voice meshing with the emotional sadness she purveys creates a feeling of empathy in the listener. Again on "Where I Leave," as she sings, "It was a good time, it was a great time, it was the best time when it was our time," there's a feeling of a nostalgic tug, of remorse, of reflection. The quality of Jeanine's voice is what makes the emotion seem genuine.
Though all the songs may not have a heavy hook, or grab your ears right out of the gate, when it does happen, she takes the dark material and somehow makes it lighter, or less intimidating.
Lemon, Weight of the World (© 2004 Roger Smith)
If you were to look at the picture on the liner, you'd think the music on the disc might be country, or perhaps instrumental layered like a wedding cake. Instead, you're greeted with a refreshing approach to soulful pop. Roger Smith's vocals are indeed soulful, and while he may not have the sheen of a Marvin Gaye or Al Green, he does embody the sounds of George Michael or Mick Hucknall (Simply Red) vocalists who work with the music as music and not as vocal exercises. Complementing his delivery is Thor Madsen, who handles guitars, keys, and all the programming of the drum boxes, et al. The result is a pared-down sound, no extraneous guitar solos or belabored fills, more like a hip-hop soundtrack with vocals instead of rapping. And though I find it difficult to embrace techno, electronica, and hip hop, nevertheless I found myself drawn to this disc again and again. Why? Good question, and one I've been trying to answer.
Perhaps it is the vocals, and the way that Smith attacks the lyrics. Perhaps it is the successful approach that Madsen took to the music and production. Maybe my mind is just becoming more accepting. All I can say is give it a listen at
Slang, Blue (© Slang)
You know, there's always someone somewhere saying how one thing is better than another, because it's different, or because others are too derivative. Music, for as much as it is subjective, is a universal thing and that is no more evident than here, as this Bulgaria-based band belts out number after number. The band could easily be mistaken for a big-name outfit stateside, for some reason Bon Jovi comes to mind. They go from rock to funk to blues in a heartbeat. "Celebrity," for starters, hacks away at ninth chords, while horns blow in the background, a la Tower of Power. "Empty Heart" is the big ballad that rockers always put somewhere on a disc, building slowly as it goes along. And "Flash of Light" is a funky rock number that ain't too far from what Lenny Kravitz puts out. The end result is a highly polished disc, coming from a place you might not expect your rock and roll, but that nevertheless delivers the goods.
Michael Hirsch, Lo Fi Holiday (© 2003 5th Night Music/Co Op Records)
Well, the title should have been a tip-off, as this is indeed a lo-fi production if ever there were one. And if you have issues with time or clean production, this is not the disc for you. Hirsch's goal was to create songs based on keyboards, yet numbers that would be played with only a guitar during performances. Along with that though, are numerous instances of studio errors, changes in time (no click tracks here), guitars not tuned, microphones clipping. His goal, I assume, was to generate the opposite of what is the norm today. That is, overly slick, errorless Pro-tooled discs, often with a generic sound. And in that respect, he has succeeded, since the lack of polish here is evident, often to the point of sounding amateurish. Those who thrive on counter-culture, who strive to run current to the ranks of the norm, will find solace in this disc. There are others who will no doubt see this as the offering of a slacker,
one who couldn't spend enough time to get it right. Me, I fall kind of in the middle the songs have a certain appeal, like "Laugh (It's a Joke)," but a number like "G2," with its incessant distortion from overloaded mics, drives me nuts. Decide for yourself at
Kimmy and Klassť, The Love of Music (© 2002 Kimmy and Klassť)
This trio of lovelies strays a bit from the normal rock stuff that generally comes this way, but I'm glad it crossed my path. At once recalling the big-girl groups like Diana Ross and the Supremes, the trio has a current sound that is incredibly easy to listen to, and so relaxing. Kimmy Kearse is the lead singer, with Johnita Wilson-Dillard alto and LeVondre Attidore soprano (and I assume they are Klasse). The disc opens with three originals, written and arranged by the group, and again, the numbers have the feeling of old-school R&B while still sounding modern. Following the first three songs is a track written by Wilson-Dillard, "Crazy," which is a bit funkier and heavier than the previous work. What the listener can appreciate, though, is the silky way the three voices mesh together as the tune plays on. The harmonies are sweet, and the backing instrumentation not overpowering, so the vocals can stand out.
The girls also put their spin on a few classics, like Rogers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine," soulfully arranged. And then there's the song made famous by one Aretha Franklin, "Chain of Fools." Thankfully, their version is not an exact copy of the original. If you need an injection of some smooth vocal harmonies delivered in a soulful way, here's a pick for you.
Billi & Patti, Love and Other 4 Letter Words (© Billi & Patti)
The duo of vocalists Billi Hall and Patti B. (for some reason, her last name is elusive) creates a tension not unlike the Indigo Girls, although only Patti plays guitar in this duo. Billi comes from a rock background, sounding a bit like Janis Joplin, while Patti has more of a country twang to her voice. Come to think of it, there was a show on cable recently that paired Heart with Wynona Judd, and Patti does at times remind me of that Wilson sister.
Anyway, this is a respectable offering, yet it does face the trapping of similarity. With no varied instrumentation, there is the risk that the listener will nod off, or chime that the songs have a tendency to sound alike. And, in fact, with just one guitar and two voices for the bulk of the disc, which clocks in just shy of an hour, that is a valid claim. When "I Love You" plays, for example, the arrival of a tambourine is almost a relief.
Then again, I could be just a jaded music critic who listens to too many discs. The songs are good, the vocal harmonies and hooks entrancing, but I think it would be interesting to hear a band behind these ladies.
Email columnist Bill Ribas
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