Friday, September 28, 2007

CD REVIEWS: Gulcher Records special

Gulcher Records, originally out of Bloomington, IN, produced some of the more important work of Midwest Artists in the '70s, such as the Gizmos, MX-80, and even John Cougar (Mellencamp). Label owner Bob Richert has, since the CD revolution, been releasing lost works by many of the artists that appeared on the label, or leased out to him through connections. Here is a recent batch of material Bob sent me to review.

Gulcher Records is determined to release just about every possible show of Indiana’s own indie rock band, THE GIZMOS, and may even eventually match Pearl Jam’s releases show for show. “Live In Bloomington 1977/1978
(www.gulcher.gemm.com/) is the latest Gizmos 2-disker, with over 2 hours of material. And while the first disk is recorded only a year before the second, the difference is a river’s width. The ’77 version is the classic Ted Niemiec, Kenne Highland, Rich Coffee, Eddie Flowers, et. al (Gizmos are one of the largest populated bands in underground rock history), a loose conglomeration who modeled themselves more along the lines of the MC5 and Sonics than the Ramones. Their songs could run from the sublime (“That’s Cool”) to the ridiculous (“Human Garbage Disposal”, “Pumpin’ to Playboy”). All this is evident in the two shows represented from 1977 (one of which introduced by Gulcher label-mate, John Mellencamp, then known as John Cougar). The ’78 version, represented by five shows, is the phase two Gizmos (the one I saw play at Max’s Kansas City). Ted also fronted it, but the rest of band was mostly new. They continued playing some of the classics of the old phase (e.g.,“Gimme Back My Foreskin”, “Ballad of the Gizmos”), but there are also a bunch of new tunes, and some covers (like Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” and the Outsiders’ “Time Won’t Let Me”). While missing the high-end personalities, this band could hold their own as they are much tighter. There was something to the absolute weird charm of Gv.1, and the development of Gv.2. Actually, I wonder if Gv.2 should have even been called the Gizmos, but whatever, this is a fun document. Lots to listen to and lots to enjoy. – Robert Barry Francos

Keeping up the Gizmos ethos into the modern era is MYKAL XUL with “Gizmo My Way” (www.gulcher.gemm.com/). Mykal covers 12 songs by Kenne Highland (with other Gizmos of the period, such as Solomon Gruberger, Ken Kaiser, and yes, Mykal Xul). So, if you’re unfamiliar with the Gizmos, these names here and above may not mean much to you, but how many people could name members of the Sonics these days? Recorded from 2004-06 in the Hoosier territory of Whiteland, Mykal does a good, if barebones honor to the early Gizmos with songs like “Juvenile Delinquent”, “Refrigerator Rappin’”, “”Nobody’s Girl”, a tribute to Andy Shernoff of the Dictators, “Ode to Adny’s Dics”, and I’m guessing more recently, “Webzine Pussy”. Mykal definitely has the Gizmos methodology down, but with a whole lot less musicians floating around. Plain, simple, and to the point. Midwestern, funky rock’n’roll based on two chords and I-IV-V, a Kenne canon. Kenne definitely deserves as much a tribute album as the Fuzztones, and for now, I guess this is it. – Robert Barry Francos

CRAWLSPACE is a power trio led by ex-Gizmo (see a trend here?) Eddie Flowers, whom I had always thought as cool (along with Kenne and Rich C). I’m not sure when they recorded “The Spirit of ’76 (www.gulcher.gemm.com/), whether this reflects to ’76 or that when they taped it, but it’s an bizarre little document. Basically, it sounds like they went into a room with a cheap tape recorder, plugged into their amps, and recorded it live. The sound is muddled and way over-modulated, and the band performs more like they are making up the playing together as they’re, well, playing together. There are a few original songs (including the noise-fest “Theme For a Wet T-Shirt Contest”) and a lot of covers, like the Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil” (at over 8-minutes plus 3 minutes of what sounds like a beach, gunfire and helicopters….hell yeah, I listened to the whole damn thing), Mark Lindsay’s “Just Seventeen”, Gizmos “Califawnia Gurls”, the classic “Hey Joe” (via Patti Smith), and even Allan Sherman’s take on “Rat Fink”. Sometimes it’s a bit hard to listen to, but it also sounds like they were having a lot of fun jamming away. – Robert Barry Francos

The JOSHUA JUG BAND 5 (www.gulcher.gemm.com/) CD is a compilation of two separate previous releases, an eponymous one, and another called “Damascus Doldrum”. I’m not sure what to make of this, or more importantly at the moment, how to describe it. JJB5 play the kind of music you may find in some of the trendier New Age bookstores. It’s a bit dissonant, but at the same time the sound is very chant-worthy. Mind you, with exception of a couple of chants here and there, this is solid instrumental with lots of esoteric sounds and echo effecting – thereby affecting – the whole zigheist of the tone (and sometimes it’s atonal). The pieces (I don’t know if I’d use the term song) are about 10 minutes each, are nearly psychedelic, and run into each other. At over an hour long, there is a lot to digest, even when the melody is a round, repeating with variations. It is well recorded, and reaches what it attempts. It’s a bit too harsh to be used during massages, but it’s not far away from having an oil lamp projected onto a screen at the old Fillmore. – Robert Barry Francos

Well, on the “Warp Sessions 1972/1973” (www.gulcher.gemm.com/), THE SCREAMIN’ MEE-MEES & HOT SCOTT FISCHER has proven something I have felt for a while: Not everything that is recorded is needed to be added to the musical historical document. I know I’ve made tapes as bad as this of bands and no one is ever going to hear them. The first of the two disks is recorded on a balcony in 1972. Basically, it sounds like shit for so many different reasons. First, the recording itself is terrible; it’s like listening to it on a distorted cell phone. Because it is a free-form rave-up taped onto crappy equipment, it just sounds bad. I get the feeling they were trying to achieve what the Velvet Underground did on some of their more out there material, like “European Son” (they supposedly do a cover of “Sister Ray” here, but it’s unrecognizable), and I respect that, but perhaps under other circumstances it may have been successful. Disc two (Lou Reed help us) is two sessions recorded in a basement. The sound quality is much better, but I can’t say the same for the style. Still nose, still off key, continually abrasive. Thing is, while I am not trying to say DON’T do this, I’m asking why. This is what’s below lo-fi…lower-fi? – Robert Barry Francos

Thursday, September 20, 2007

CD Reviews in a Singer-Songwriter Vein

Despite an impressive body of work that, with the release of “Folk is the New Black” (Rude Girl, c/o cookingvinyl.com), includes twenty albums, JANIS IAN is still basically known for two songs from early in her career. This is an injustice. Ian’s guitar playing is strong and her vocals just keep getting better with time. This CD starts off strong with a couple of lefty political pieces, “Danger Danger” (about closed-minded citizens) and “The Great Divide” (focusing on power structures, such as politics and religion). Most of the rest of her songs look at life, from love to daily living, from the downtrodden to the look for hope. It’s all done tastefully and never preachy when that road could have been easily taken (“Life Is Never Wrong”, for example). There’s even some humor with the final and title cut (“We’ll be singing hootenanny songs/Long after rock ad roll is gone”), which is almost a poking-yet-positive answer to the sarcastic and snide vision of Phranc’s “Folksinger”. There’s also a humorous poke at her own future with “My Autobiography”, as Ian is taking this year off to write hers. – Robert Barry Francos

Every once in a while when I get a new pile of review CDs, I’ll give a woo-hoo, which is how I reacted when I saw “Departure”, by THE MAMMALS (signaturesounds.com). I thoroughly enjoyed their last release, “Rock That Babe.” On this, their sophomore issue, they see as a move away from their reliance on traditional folk sounds and more on a rock feel. Well, Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and part of what he meant by that is that the form has a strong influence on the content. True here, as well. There are banjos and fiddles (occasionally made to sound like a cello), ukes, harmonicas, as well as the traditional rock instruments, which definitely effects – and affects – the outcome of sound. Yeah, there is a bit less twee sound, but the folk and Americana syle comes through quite strong, especially on cuts like “Kiss the Break of Day.” I’m saying all this as complementary, as the Mammals are an amazing group, and have been since they formed In 2001. The quality and wide swath of their choice of covers shows their originally Vermont liberal bearings (they’re based in Woodstock, NY these days), such as Morphine’s “Do Not Go Quietly Unto Your Grave” (the centerpiece of a trilogy of anti-Iraq sentiments, along with “Follow Me to Carthage” and “Alone on the Homestead”), “Satisfied Minds” popularized by Dylan, and Nirvana’s “Come as You Are”. They make them all their own. Of course, they also show their dry brand of humor with “Tryin’ to Remember What City I Know You’re From”. – Robert Barry Francos

Her song, “Hurricane”, was one of my favorites of a previous release, so I was excited to receive the newest by KRIS DELMHORST, “Strange Conversation” (signaturesounds.com). Brooklyn raised/New England-based Kris is one of those singer-songwriter types who refused to be two-dimensional. She sings from both her heart and soul, and also a determined bucket of brains. What she has done here, on her fourth full release, is taken some classic poetry and either put music to it, or used it as an influence for a piece (in this case, both the "influencer" and "influencee" works are given in the booklet). The poems include the likes of Robert Browning, Walt Whitman, James Weldon Johnson, George Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, John Masefield, and the only one not from the 20 century, Jalaluddin Rumi (1250s). Her melody choices are as interesting as the poems, including Dixie Jazz (Eliot), country (cummings), and blues (Millay). Kris has a strong, honey voice, and her backing by the likes of Kevin Barry’s guitar only helps to compliment her voice. – Robert Barry Francos

With a beautiful voice, STACIE ROSE has released her sophomore “Shadow & Splendor” (Enchanted Records c/o stacierose.com). It makes me both happy and sad to listen to this collection of adult contemporary pop rock. The happiness comes from the beauty of her voice, how well written and intelligent are her songs, and for the musicianship that backs her up. Her songs are strong, as is her voice, which is lush, complex, and better than anything that’s been on the charts for the past I-don’t-know-how-long. And here is where the sad part comes in. Her producer, high roller Robert Smith, guides the production with a heavy hand, overproducing the tracks with a glass-like sheen, geared for top-ten-ability. I don’t blame them for wanting her to have hits, really, her voice is an instrument of beauty. I’m just into more of a simple, lo-fi beauty. I want to hear a guitar and a singer, or even a band. I don’t want to be made conscious of the production, but rather have it organic and invisible. The enhanced CD also includes a video of her possibly (and rightfully so) breaker, “Consider Me”, and a six-minute video called, well, “Six Minutes with Stacie Rose” (my computer couldn’t read it, unfortunately). I’m looking forward to hearing her stripped; that is without all the “goo”, just musicians grooving the sound. – Robert Barry Francos

BUFFY is Buffy Hobelbank, a Boston-based singer-songwriter, whose release, “Highs & Lows” (buffygirl.com), presents notice for the listener not to try to pigeonhole her into one genre. Her vocal dexterity is very adaptable to the styles she showcases here, including blues, jazz and soft rock, though one gets the clear impression that if she wanted to rock out, she damn well could. Her songs tend to focus on sour relationships – both inter- and intra- – with drug use being a common theme; one could even say threat. This woman pulls no punches, and yet these songs could be just about all played on the radio. Her melodies also hold up, such as on “Lock Stock”. She is backed up by some fine musicianship as well, with some of the special treats thrown in (e.g., melodia, didgeridoo, and even some Jamaican barking dogs), all of which are done appropriately (meaning, not hitting the listener on the head with “look what I got”-ism). Includes a cover of Phish's “Strange Design”. – Robert Barry Francos

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A visit to Boston, 9/07: Lyres, My Own Worst Enemy, JoJo Laine

I really needed to get away this past weekend (9/15-16/07), and figured to take a quick run up to Boston, using the opportunity to visit a 30-year pal, Joe Viglione (aka The Count). It was certainly event-filled.

After a decent supper at a buffet restaurant filled with families zoned out on carbs, we headed off to Club Bohemia at the Cantab Lounge, in Cambridge. Mickey Bliss runs the shows at the Lounge, and this particular evening was hosted by another one of my oldest friends, Nancy Neon (affectionately known as NanSuzy to me). We used to hang out almost nightly at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s in the day.

At the Cantab, Nancy introduced me to a few people, including Joey Boy, of the band Red Invasion. He was DJ-ing that night, pulling up some new sounds and some old classics, like Televisions “See No Evil” and the Pistol’s “No Feeling”. I look forward to checking out his band.

I was too late to see the opening act, Corolla Deville, but got there just in time for another band I didn’t know, MY OWN WORST ENEMY(MOWE). Sharing the lead are partners Sue and Steve on guitars, and AJ on drums (yep, no bass). The camaraderie between Sue and Steve is obvious, and they play off each other well. The songs are spirited, and well written with sharp melody lines and biting lyrics. Sue stomps her foot for emphasis every once in a while, and it sure does look like they’re having fun up there. Definitely an indie sound (yeah, I know that’s a cliché term, but they possess what made it important in the first place), going along with other quirky college radio friendly intones like the Pixies, the Neighborhoods, and Salem 66 (though not as quirky). Less morose than most indie bands of the style, they tend towards uptempos and less dissonance. They did a great cover of Patti Smith’s “Redendo Beach”, to which I danced with Nancy…nothing like dancing to a song about suicide. I’m glad I got to see them, and hope I get to see MOWE on a New York stage.

Next up was the classic Boston band, the LYRES, fronted by Jeff “Monoman” Conolly on vox and Vox, and tambourine, while being backed by the standard guitar/bass/drum set-up. I’ve seen the Lyres a few times now in New York, including during the garage revival hey-day of the ‘80s and at a Cave-Stomp around the Fin-de-Siecle. I also may have seen them once at the Rat, but I’m not sure. But this show was pure classic Lyres, so I'm glad I had the opportunity to see them play this night.

It’s amusing to me that Jeff has his set list on a two-sided sheet of paper with a list of the songs he plays, and then he picks and chooses (see on my photo page, the link below). And his picks were, of course, great as always. These garage-tinged songs included a cover of the Stoic’s “Enough of What I Need” (though for me it’s more a cover of the Mystic Eyes, which I find to be the definitive version).

[ffoto: Nancy and Sue] During this tune, while I was taking pictures, Nancy and I caught eyes as we both sang along. It was a cool moment. To me, the Lyres are more than just a collection of old vinyl (or CDs), they epitomize a sound and a certain style and sound, as do the Chesterfield Kings with a bluesy garage and the A-Bones with rockabilly garage (in fact, I kept looking around, almost expecting to see Billy and Miriam).

Joe and I left after the Lyres, which turned out to be fine as the last band, Lady Kensington & the Beatlords, were a no-show.

Soon as I got back to Joe’s place, my head hit the couch and I was out.

[In ffoto left to right: Larry, Doug, Ernie, Joe] The next day, Sunday, Joe drove us up to Salem, where we made an appearance at a local Boston music-related radio show on WMWM-FM, at Salem State College. We got there toward the end of the show, and the DJ, Ernie Lang, included me into the show, along with his pals Doug Mascott and Larry Oak (who gave me his CD, “Tuesday’s At Al’s”), along with Joe, of course. They started off by challenging me, asking who I thought was going to win the game that night, the Red Sox or the Yankees. I pleaded by fifth by saying something that was approved, but actually makes no sense: “I go with the team that has the best opening band.” We all shot the breeze, discussing Boston bands from the ‘70s and ‘80s, a topic inspired in part by local “scene-ster” Brent Milano’s recent book “The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock and Roll”, which some like for its content and others don’t for its omissions. I haven’t read it. As I have a lot of Beantown bands I like, from Willie Alexander to Dogmatics to Boys Life to City Thrills, to name just a few (all of which I’ve seen), it was easy to keep up with the topic.

Oh, and the Yankees won that night.

Before heading back to Boston, Joe drove us to St. Mary’s Cemetery to pay our respects to the late, great, JOJO LAINE (nee Joanne Patrie). She was the ex-wife of Brit phenom Denny Laine, a lover of Rolling Stones’ (etc.) producer Jimmy Miller (among others), a legend all her own in New England, and a good friend of Joe’s.

Back in Boston, Joe taught me how to add pictures to this blog, and I’m certainly grateful to him for that. And soon after that, I was on my way back to New York, with fresh CDs in my bag, photos in my camera, and stories to tell.

All the rest of the photos: http://community.webshots.com/user/ffranzos2006v1

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A memory of the day after 9/11/01 and then 9/11/07

The Day After 9/11/2001:
The following day I headed to work. I was on a train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and EVERYONE in the car was reading a newspaper. No one spoke... As we went over the Manhattan Bridge, nearly everyone (including me) quietly walked to a window and looked out at the pillar of smoke where the Towers were supposed to be. We all stood there, silent, from the time the train came out of the tunnel until the time we went back in. Then everyone went to their seats, back to their newspaper, and continued their silence for the entire ride.

9/11/2007:
On the same train ride over the Manhattan Bridge: as soon as we hit the bridge, the air was abuzz with cell phones waking up. The sound volume tripled with voices informing others with "important" messages that they were "on the bridge", etc. Then, suddenly, over the PA system, the conductor starts singing an a capella, very slow, R&B-ish -- and quite tonedeaf -- version of "The Star Spangled Banner". He made it all the way through, and just as we were about to enter the tunnel again, he finished with "God bless all of you, and God bless America."

Friday, September 7, 2007

CD reviews: Varied Mix

While this may seem random, there is a thread that runs through this...and only a few will know (manical laugh goes here).

In an earlier incarnation before ROCK E. ROLLINS released this, his second self-produced solo CD, “Superheterodyne” (Vinyl Frontier, c/o rockerollins.com), he was known as Sal Baglio, leader of the almost legendary Boston rockers, The Stompers. I became aware of the Stompers from their own-released single, “Coast To Coast,” which was a great pop rocker back in very early ‘80s. When their LP came out in ‘83, I bought that (at Sounds on St. Marks for $2.49) and found that producers Ritchie Cordell and Glen Holdkin has de-balled the band and the record was, well, bland. Yes, I still own both. So does his new persona make me want to rock, jump and holler? The music is mostly strong, melodic and fueled by some straight-ahead, almost post-big hair rock. I’m talkin’ guitar solos, shouting, and 4/4 beats. On this new collection, Rock E./Sal wrote all the songs, played each instrument, and mostly recorded it in his “room studio” on a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder. [Rock corrected me here. He says "the Superheterodyne cd was recorded on GarageBand except for Pumpkin Man/Anarleen/Hobo Song, which were recorded on a Tascam 4 trk". I appreciate the correction, Rock!] There is a bit of excess where the music gets drowned in electronica, like “U Turn”, the sample-heavy “Kissing Cobras”, and the noisy opening, “JetAgeSuperTrashWhitesStarHero” with use of every possible knob, beep and squeak on the said recorder. But when he just plays and wails, like on “Temporary Anesthesia” and “The Train to Liverpool”, and even the off-kilter “Pumpkin Man” (which could have come right off “The Who Sell Out”), he more than shines. While a bit of a mixed bag, I’m still impressed by the zeitgeist of what Rock E. is trying – and occasionally achieving – in his work. At nearly an hour, there is definitely some American fun. -- Robert Barry Francos

Reminiscent in modus of Harvey Pekar, JEFF MASTROBERTI writes and reads this words/poetry, and the music behind him is performed by various artists on his “This Land is Jeffland” (melodicverse.com), a follow-up to his previous work, “Caution: You Are Entering Jeffland.” Both are an experimental exercise in spoken-word-with-music. The poetry is personal and expressive, such as “I Haven’t Written Anything Lately” (ironically one of the longest pieces here), “Back to Nature, Back to God”, and the live-taped “Pre-Election Thoughts”. Religion plays a heavy role in his ruminations, but it is never preachy. The music and sounds behind him vary from acoustic guitar instrumentals to harmonicas, to vocals by the likes of Stephanie Monticello, Ed Hamell (of Hamell on Trial), and even a Gregorian Chant. As always, Jeff brings divergent elements into a beautiful mixture of headspaces. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve had the chance to meet recently. -- Robert Barry Francos

Also in the artist putting out his own material category is Boston-based KEN SELCER, with “Breaking the Glass” (
kenselcer.com). Put together with love and I’m sure bucks from his own pocket, guitarist/writer/singer Ken (with friends doing backup vocals and instruments). Each original song has a distinct style, from straight singer-songwriter to pop to rock to even funk (with a touch of rap in Blondie/”Rapture” mode). My only real grumble is that the songs are a bit long, averaging 5 minutes each, but the musicianship holds up with his nimble guitar playing. Using the studio wisely, Ken walks the walk successfully of using various effects without overdoing or overproducing, which shows he knows how to listen to the engineer and/or producer without his ego getting in the way. Even when Ken’s voice is a bit vanilla at times, it’s is a matter of the listener’s taste more than the singer’s talent, but there is no question it’s worth a try. -- Robert Barry Francos

Also co-led by the prolific Ken Selcer, along with Jill Stern, is the pop rock group SOMEBODY’S SISTER: “Circuits to the Sun” (tiac.net.com/users/kselcer). My question is, why can’t mainstream music sound more like this? While definitely pop music, it’s such a higher quality than just about anything one can hear on the top radio stations. It’s like SS refused to take the easy and dumbed-down route. The songs are catchy without being screechy (lClarkson), melodically all over the map (Aguilera), or just pretending to be on key (Spears). Plus Ken and Jill’s voices are so well suited for the sound that, in a more fair world, it would be SS on the charts, making listenable pop. Highlights include “Dancin’ Wild” (regular and extended mixes) and “Dirty Little Secrets”. -- Robert Barry Francos

New York-based JEFF TUOHY falls somewhere between singer-songwriter and rock, proving on “Breaking Down the Silence” (jefftuohy.com) that he can comfortably slide between the two. His songs definitely have a solid sound with strong back-up, and his vocals and lyrics move in the s/s mode, though he does know how to get that growl going. Also, he knows his way around a catchy lyric and melody line. This is shown with a powerful start with the opening cut, “Unaware” and follows through right to the end. Boston is both known as a center for both singer-songwriters and for rock bands, and Jeff is easily comfortable in both camps. -- Robert Barry Francos

While I have to admit that reggae – dancehall in this case – is not my forte, I have to ask, is it common practice to use other people’s songs and just change the words? According to the press release, DEZ I BOYD “Can write a complete song within minutes.” I bet not having to write the music makes it somewhat easier. The lyrics on this release, “Thanks For Life” (newcreationrecords.com), are okay, and emotional, which is nice, and his harmonies with the co-singer work well, especially on “Shake Up Yuh Natty”, a commentary on the present status of dancehall styles. I’m just distracted by the reused music (such as the awful “Moondance”). Perhaps Dez I can work with someone who will write some appropriate melodies? Please? -- Robert Barry Francos

JOSEPH QUOTE shows a more rounded release with “No Credit For This Journey” (newcreationrecords.com). He mixes different shades of reggae and R&B, sort of Marley meets the Miracles. There are many of the classic topics, like praising Jah, Mother Africa (“Strong African Woman”), and self-reflection (“No Credit”). While staying within the reggae framework, Quote still finds ways to be musically diverse and memorable. -- Robert Barry Francos

Dancehall is totally foreign to me. I mean, I once reviewed Shabba Ranks and thought it was awful, misogynistic, and boring. While NEGRIL WEST forays into the same territory with a sampling of his work in “Mixology” (newcreationrecords.com), what I can make out seems so far superior. Yes, it’s still a bit out of my league, but Negril West doesn’t bore, partly by covering different styles within the genre. Only thing disconcerting is that some songs are complete, and some are fragments of different sizes, which is how NW can fit 15 songs in 38 minutes. If you want a taste, this is the place. -- Robert Barry Francos


As always, comments are welcome.