Girls Rock Asheville: Musical Chairs, Instrument Petting Zoos, and Heavy Metal Yoga

July 1st, 2015

Girls Rock Asheville (girlsrockasheville.org) is a six-day camp for girls ages 8 to 16. With no previous experience required, campers learn about making music, and working as a team. The 2015 camp culminated in a pair of showcase concerts at The Mothlight on Saturday, June 27.

The Girls Rock concept began as a college thesis project. “It started with a question,” says Girls Rock Asheville’s Executive Director, Erin Kinard. “’Can we do this?’ The answer was yes.” Soon thereafter, the first camp took place in Portland, Oregon. Today, says Kinard, “There are over sixty camps worldwide, including programs in Peru, Iceland, Austria, and twelve in Sweden.” Kinard got involved in the program through a friend. “One of my high school friends became the Executive Director of the organization in Portland.” After volunteering there, Kinard moved to Asheville with plans to start a camp here.

“I had been advised to take an entire year to plan,” says Kinard. “So we were originally thinking about 2015.” But once she put out the word out about her plans, “the momentum was so strong that we asked ourselves, ‘Why can’t we just do it now?’” The first Girls Rock Asheville (GRAVL) camp took place in July of last year. That camp included 34 girls; this year 36 girls will take part in the program.

GRAVL 2015 begins with band formation, an activity that Kinard calls “the craziest part of camp.” After soliciting musical genre ideas from the campers, the entire group takes part in a sort of musical-chairs activity. “When the music stops, you group up with the people around you, and have a little talk about [a specific music genre]. We do that four or five times, and then the last time, we tell them, ‘Now run to the genre you want to play.’ And then from there, groups are formed.” Kinard adds, “Maybe there are some tears, maybe not. Hopefully not. It went perfectly last year.”

Because no prior musical experience is required to participate in GRAVL, the camp features an “instrument petting zoo.” The girls take some time to explore various musical instruments. “Other camps assign the bands and instrument,” notes Kinard. “That might be smoother, but we feel that our way is more about the girls’ personal experiences.”

Each day’s camp experience includes band practice; instrument instruction; two workshops; and a lunchtime concert featuring female or female-fronted bands, followed by a Q&A session. Workshops include self-defense; media literacy; female-focused history; storytelling; performance techniques; and heavy metal yoga. Asked to describe that last item, Kinard laughs and says, “It’s just what it sounds like.”

Kinard emphasizes that GRAVL is “an organization for women and by women. A lot of times, [society teaches] women to compete, and to tear each other down. We feel it’s very important for girls to see women working together, leading, being strong in their roles.” The camp also offers full and partial scholarships to economically disadvantaged girls. “No questions asked,” she adds.

Erin Kinard and her GRAVL colleagues have even more ambitious plans for the future. “We’re hoping to launch a Ladies Rock Camp this fall,” says Kinard. That weekend event raises funds for scholarships. And they hope to expand the program to two sessions beginning in 2016. “The demand is there,” says Kinard. “It’s just a matter of staffing it.” If funds and resources allow, the Girls Rock Asheville organization hopes eventually to offer an after-school camp and an overnight program.

As a not-for-profit venture – Girls Rock Asheville is in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status – the organization depends on community support. “Right now,” says Kinard, “the most pressing matter is food donations.” The need for donated – or even loaned – musical instruments and audio gear is a close second. There’s an especially urgent need for guitar and bass practice amplifiers.

Yet another way to support the work of Girls Rock Asheville is via purchase of tickets to the showcase at Mothlight. “Capacity is 350 people,” notes Kinard. “Last year, a lot of people were turned away. We definitely [didn't] want that to happen again. So this year, [we did] two shows on Saturday, June 27: one at 2pm, and one at 3:30.”

(An edited version of this feature appeared in Mountain Xpress.)

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Album Review: Todd Rundgren — Global

June 30th, 2015

In one sense, the best artists are those who confound their fans. There’s certainly a place for the reliable musical act that releases pretty much the same album over and over again; entire careers have been built on doing just that, and it’s not without aesthetic value. “More of the same” is most assuredly not a bad thing in and of itself.

But the more intriguing creative artists are moving targets. They tire quickly of what they’ve just done, and are ceaselessly moving forward, trying new things. And that can make being a fan some pretty rough sledding. Perhaps no other currently-active musician better illustrates this situation than Todd Rundgren.

I won’t recapitulate his long and varied musical career-to-date here; for a tidy summary of his work from the late 1960s through 2004 – yeah, the essay needs updating – I’d direct you here. Suffice to say that Rundgren has made more stylistic detours than most anyone else you’d care to name. And the degree to which any of those tangential moves “works” will differ for each fan. When it comes to Todd Rundgren, the phrase your mileage may vary truly applies. For me, his Broadway-leaning material (1989′s Nearly Human and the related 1997 set Up Against It) is his least satisfying, though even those have some stellar moments. And I’m in the minority with my great admiration for the widely-maligned No World Order from 1992, a set in which Rundgren – temporarily rebranded as TR-i – takes on a sort of hip-hop-meets-Nine Inch Nails approach.

These days it’s fair to call the impossibly talented Rundgren a cult artist, though in a very real sense he’s always been one. His infallible sense of melody never fails him, no matter what musical context into which he places his music.

But cult artists don’t always have massive studio budgets, and that’s especially true of an artist who went bankrupt and sold off some of his recurring-revenue assets. Because of those realities – and, likely, owing to his actual desire to do things this way – his last several albums have been recorded on a computer, using the one-man-band approach that he (as much as anyone else) can be said to have invented.

After the stylistic missteps and dead end of Todd Rundgren’s Johnson (blooz retreads) and the truly wretched (re)Production (in which he essentially allowed other people to wreck his music), it was encouraging to hear Rundgren return to songcraft with 2013′s State. He did seem unnaturally interested in the latest trendy sounds and approaches, but he bent those forms to his own musical will.

And that’s pretty much what Todd Rundgren has done with Global. Continuing his 2004-and-onward practice of naming his releases with a single word (easier to remember than, say, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect), on Global, Rundgren presents perhaps his best set of melodies since 1995′s The Individualist. In fact, some of these cuts (“Blind,” in particular) sound as if they could have been written around that time.

Rundgren has always been a thoughtful (as in full of thought) songwriter, and he’s long concerned himself with big ideas. As the title telegraphs, the songs on Global are no exception. But he does so with characteristic good humor: paraphrasing Albert Einstein‘s remark about God not playing dice with the universe, he throws in an aside: “Doesn’t take an Einstein” to figure that out.

Global has been described in some quarters as Todd’s EDM album. And I’ll admit, that description very nearly scared me off. I needn’t have worried. Many of the songs on Global do indeed have some very kinetic, dance-ready beats (for those so inclined); boing-boing synths; Cylon-sounding vocal treatments; and other “modern” trappings, but the songs themselves are very organic, and include more “real” instrumentation that we’ve heard on some of Rundgren’s other recent releases. Bobby Strickland’s sax work on “Blind” is nothing less than thrilling.

“Earth Mother” features guest spots by friends and associates including Rachel Haden (bassist extraordinaire from a fine lineage of musicians) Janet Kirker, Michele Rundgren (she was great with The Tubes back in the 80s), Jill Sobule, and Jeff Beck associate Tal Wilkenfeld. At first, Todd’s exhortations (“Can I get a shout from my sisters?” feel a bit awkward, but it’s a groovy track. And old Utopia band mate Kasim Sulton shows up on “Skyscraper.”

Yes, it’s nearly all Todd all the time (save those guest spots) but if anyone can make that approach work – make it real, so to speak – it’s Todd Rundgren. Just when some might have counted him out – I nearly did after (re)ProductionGlobal shows that at 67 years of age, the man still has it. Whatever it is. Here’s hoping he keeps sharing it with his listeners.

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Album Review: The Fad — The Now Sound

June 29th, 2015

If you lived through the early 1980s in the United States – and were old enough to be at least somewhat plugged in to popular culture – you were aware of the proliferation of “new wave” groups. Many of these acts traded in a style of music that drew inspiration from the pre-“rock star” era, that is to say the time before the rise of the dinosaurs of rock. The wave might have been called new, but the streamlined sounds often recalled sixties garage, 50s rockabilly, and other styles that predated Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and all those kinda guys.

Something else you would have known about was the cassette. Designed as a smaller, more portable alternative to the LP record, the cassette had a few obvious advantages: not only was it small, but it was recordable. But it had one serious disadvantage: inferior sound quality. Say what you will; it was undeniably fun to stroll around with a Walkman (or, as in my case, a much cheaper JCPenney-branded alternative) with headphones blasting a life soundtrack of your choice directly into your skull, but the wow, flutter, and gauss could ruin the greatest music. That whooshing sound – sort of like a speaker being slowly dipped into a bucket of water, lifted out, and dunked again – is one that most any cassette owner has experienced.

Now, thanks to the intrepid archival efforts of the guys at Kool Kat Musik, you can experience not one but both of these early 80s treasures once again!

Philadelphia-based trio The Fad were not unlike hundreds – thousands? – of groups that sprang up in that era that gave birth to MTV. And like the better among that crop, The Fad rose to some prominence: regular small-venue gigs and the occasional opening spot on a bill supporting The Stray Cats, The Ramones, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (hey, two out of three ain’t bad).

During their time, The Fad relocated to Huntington Beach, California; they’d eventually return home to Philly and break up. But while together, they recorded and released a six-song EP and a half-dozen other tunes. All twelve of these are collected on the CD The Now Sound.

The good news is that these tracks are a lot of fun. They’re tight, snappy tunes that straddle the line between new wave and, let’s say, nerd-rock. Unlike some of their self-consciously counterparts with clip-on safety pins and accoutrements of the punk identikit, The Fad were a smiling, go-go kinda trio. Their outfits made them look like relatives of the Robinson family, heroes of the kitschy 1960s TV classic Lost in Space. Their gear featured Rickenbacker basses and twelve-strings through Vox amps, all of which would have been viewed as resolutely retro choices in the 1980s.

And their music matched it. While they could play with the tight force of, say, The Jam, their slightly nasally vocal delivery made them sound closer to Gary Lewis and the Playboys. They had the good nature to write and record their own theme song (“Fad Theme”) and the equally good sense to have it clock in just under minute, as if for the intro of their own (nonexistent) TV show. Their ginchy vocal harmonies were the cherry on top of their compact pop tunes.

The songs have a good deal of subtlety for what’s essentially vocal-focused power pop. There’s a wide-eyed innocence that recalls the 60s garage bands who drew their inspiration not from those dirty Rolling Stones boys, but from relatively cheerful, clean cut young men like The Turtles. At times (“Where the Colors Are,” for example), The Fad sound a bit like Jan and Dean with ’65 version of The Who backing them up. Put another way, Keith Moon would have loved these guys. Another quickie, the 1:04 “Lark City” is a twister-riffic tune that Los Straitjackets would be proud to count among their repertoire. “Watch the Sky” is The Fad’s contemplative folk-rock moment; here they recall The Beau Brummels or The Association with fewer vocalists.

The six songs that make up the second half of The Now Sound widen the group’s stylistic lens a bit, but the elements that made the original EP so appealing are all relatively intact. The Phil Spector-ish intro to “Tomorrow She is Leaving” gives way to a wistful tune. “Genie” is a speedy number with some nicely chiming guitar and impressive, near-whispered vocals. “Broken Hearts” features ba-ba-ba harmony vocals, and the three-part harmonies coupled with guitar jangle suggest a cross between early Beach Boys and The Records.

The Fad clearly aimed for, well, fads: the instrumental “Fad Twist” encourages the listener to do just that while guitarist Frank Max plays one long (and very tasty) guitar solo. And the set ends with “The Swing’s the Thing,” a tune that would have worked perfectly in the movie That Thing You Do! if the story had included some serious rivals to The Wonders. It’s a delight, as is every track on The Now Sound. It’s no exaggeration to characterize this CD as a collection of rescued musical treasures.

And that’s the good news. But as I mentioned earlier, you also get a flashback to the dreadful sonic qualities inherent in the cassette. All of the tracks on The Now Sound were sourced from the best media available. But that media seems to have been some unknown-generation cassettes. The sound is very much like what you’d expect if a friend made you a cassette dub of his cassette dub of somebody else’s dub, with all tapes in that lineage being Type 1 cassettes. Probably at least one of ‘em was a three-for-a-buck Realistic cassette from Radio Shack. Put more succinctly, the sound is a notch or two above “suck.” (The story goes that some of the audio issues are the fault of the EP sessions’ producer, who is pointedly not credited anywhere on the CD release.)

The thing is, the music on The Fad’s The Now Sound is so damn good that I can still recommend it in the most glowing terms. Don’t worry about the whooshy sound on some tracks. Just turn it up and enjoy.

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Rising Appalachia: Making Music with Intention (Part 3)

June 26th, 2015

Continued from Part Three

Leah Song relates that Rising Appalachia have many friends around the country who are involved in art and creative projects. “Many of them,” she notes, “end up being codependent on grants. They call it the Nonprofit-Industrial Complex. We wanted to have that feeling of being independent; and if we’re indebted to anybody, it’s to the community that supports us. We don’t want to be indebted to a third party. Because even if it’s a ‘silent donor,’ it’s something that we’re really not interested in. We want our responsibility to be to the fans, to the community, to our peers, and to our collaborators. So we decided we would [crowd fund] again. And we were really able to direct the funding we got into producing the most nuanced and delicate work we’ve ever done.”

As always, Rising Appalachia is about more than the music. “We were able to tie in some amazing nonprofit work. We did the first leg of our [current] tour via rail. At the headwaters of the Mississippi, we did some work with a Native rights organization.” She makes the point that if artists are paid enough, they can put their efforts into becoming spokespeople for the causes in which they believe, and they can do work that supports those values. “Then they’re not just overworked and exhausted and always eating grilled cheese sandwiches,” she says. The goal is to make the efforts “people powered, and involving everyone in the work. And that’s a very important part of it for us.”

The group has learned a great deal through their Kickstarter experiences. “You don’t just ask and then get a bunch of money,” Leah cautions. “It’s a ton of work. We’re still licking stamps and sealing packages. On the back end, I think it’s really wise to make sure you put together offers that you can [deliver on]. And you want to be able to do that right; you don’t want to just make your goal and, ‘Thanks! Bye!!’”

Long based in New Orleans – and closely identified with the varied musical scene there – Leah and Chloe Smith relocated to Asheville NC, a city with its own musical identity. “I don’t really want to be considered an ‘Asheville band,’ says Leah, good-naturedly. “I want us to be thought of as representing the South: the mountain culture, the urban culture, the swamps. We hold this whole region as our home base. And I think our relationship to New Orleans will continue to be cultivated and long-term.”

Leah explains the group’s reason for moving north to Asheville. “We came to the mountains to get some respite. We wanted the quiet relationship with nature, and we’ve been able to get parts of that on our off-time.” She sees Asheville as an ideal place to “get into the local crafts, and study the culture. We’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America and in New Orleans, so we wanted to make sure we were adding fuel to the mountain culture that is also part of our story.” Leah notes that she doesn’t intend for Asheville to be her forever home. “But,” she adds, “I don’t think that we know.”

The move to Asheville has certainly enriched the group. “An amazing team of musicians and leaders and management has stepped into our circle through this community,” Leah says. “It’s very powerful, and it has been very grounding for us.”

Another grounding experience was the group’s Amtrak tour. Train travel affords one a perspective on America that is very different from the one absorbed via airplane or car travel. Train travel was part of a larger goal of Rising Appalachia, the concept Leah calls the “slow music movement. Very loosely, it’s our entire philosophy of music, independence, and self-management. So as we fleshed it out, we asked ourselves, ‘What if it also entailed slower travel?’” The idea came about while traveling through Europe via train, something much easier done there than in the States. “We started looking into routes,” Leah recalls, “and we found that there was a lot we could not do. But there was a lot that we could do, so we built the first leg of our tour around the route itself.”

The trip highlighted both the advantages and limitations of the passenger railway system in the United States. “The resources and infrastructure are there,” insists Leah. “We have this vast country, with a codependency on fuel, on cars. And it’s really isolating. And that leaves out a whole population of people who can’t afford – or don’t choose to prioritize – a personal vehicle.” She poses a rhetorical question: “What would actually happen if we made rail travel a viable option? We feel mostly inspired. The tour involved labor and logistics, and there’s a lot to configure when you have a band and instruments, but it worked. And we went through rural areas that I had never seen in my life. You don’t see billboards and casinos and McDonald’s. You see open spaces, small towns. People sit on their porch and wave. It evoked a wonderful nostalgia and a slow pace, but it also worked. It was functional. You could see a labor force that was proud of their work. There is a beautiful pride in the work that you don’t always see at a gas station.”

There’s a similar pride on display in the music (and extramusical efforts) of Rising Appalachia. Like train travel, one of the benefits is a greater emphasis on interpersonal, community relationships. And like train travel, taking part in Rising Appalachia’s ongoing musical journey is – in and of itself – a big part of what the experience is all about.

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Rising Appalachia: Making Music with Intention (Part 2)

June 25th, 2015

Continued from Part One

In those years, music as a professional pursuit was never a goal. Leah Song says that even when she and sister Chloe Smith did begin making music, “we were just trying to create a project that paid homage to all of our musical influences. It was only later – three or four years into the project – that we said to ourselves, ‘Okay: we’re really going to take this seriously, crafting and cultivating what we want to be doing. Let’s think about what we want our lyrics to convey.’ And in that sense, all of those [earlier] travel experiences were important. And will be forever.” Rising Appalachia endeavors to tie in world culture. “We want to represent the South,” Leah acknowledges, “but in a context with the rest of the world.”

Rising Appalachia manage and produce themselves. From the beginning of their recording career, they’ve made a conscious decision not to take part in the machine, in the music industry as it used to be known. Based on the current state of that industry, the business choices that the sisters made in 2006 show their prescience in opting to stay outside many of the traditional distribution channels for music.

“We have a really hilarious and wonderful relationship with all of that,” Leah laughs. “We recorded our first album [2006's Leah and Chloe] in a day.” They recorded the album as a gift “for our dad, who was having a hard time. We had both left our home city, and we wanted to do a project that tied in all of our parents’ musical influences. And ours, as well. We recorded it in a basement with some friends, and made several hundred copies. We figured, ‘Cool. That was fun. We’ll be able to sling those albums for the next fifteen, maybe twenty-five years.’”

But that’s not how the story developed. “We were at a music jam. It was a once-a-week thing at a pub in Atlanta, and we were singing with our mom. The director of a Celtic Studies program came in.” He wanted Leah and Chloe to perform at a three-day concert festival that featured musicians from around the world, representing different forms of Appalachian and Celtic folk music. Leah chuckles as she recalls what the man said: “I want you to represent the young face of Appalachia.”

Leah thought the guy was crazy. “We hadn’t ever sung into a microphone at that point. We hung out in Atlanta. We sang folk music with our parents! It was like, ‘this isn’t…we don’t…we can’t.’ But…we did. We sang onstage with Grammy award-winning musicians at this showcase for about 700 people, three nights in a row. I was okay [regarding] stage fright; Chloe had some issues with stage fright. But we sold all of the albums that we had made at that show.”

The performance earned the sisters – at this point about 20 and 24 years old – some attention. They were approached by a record label that had been a big part of the festival, and that played a leading role in the emerging Americana music scene. “We went to Nashville,” Leah says, “and met with this record label. Chloe and I went to a dive bar afterward, and had a beer. We thought about it, and really talked about it. We thought, ‘We could sign this contract, and we would be handed a silver-platter career. We would be billed as those harmony-singing sisters who play folk festivals all around the world. We would be a well-supported project without having to think much further about it.’”

“And,” recalls Leah, “we said no. We decided, ‘if we want to do this, we want to do it on our own terms. We want to learn what we’re doing, and then decide how we want to do it.’ We didn’t really want fame, glitz, glamor. But,” she smiles, “it was nice to be asked.”

Leah reflects on what signing that contract might have meant. “We might have been turned into some sort of pawn. In those early days, we knew that our combining of folk music, Appalachia, hip-hop, blues and jazz was weird. And rare. There weren’t a lot of people who had all of those things in their upbringing since they were two years old. And we knew that there was no genre for that.” The music industry, on the other hand, often likes to put its artists into boxes, to give decisions about musical direction over to marketing people. This is especially true where attractive female artists are concerned.

“We were very aware that we were marketable,” Leah admits, “in our story, and our…aesthetic,” she laughs. “But we were not marketable in our genre. For the first several years that we worked, it drove the places we’d play crazy: ‘We don’t know where to put you.’ And we wanted to figure that out.” In the end, she says that “it took years for people to write about our music correctly, to not write ‘Girls with banjos! Playing bluegrass! And then they throw in this crazy, wonky, weird beat!’” Bemoaning the pandering aspect of some genre-fusion music (“It’s so piecemeal and awkward!”), Leah says that Rising Appalachia strives to “give air to what we hear, which is a very strange and wonderful conglomeration of influences.”

Continuing to embody the DIY ethos, Rising Appalachia has been at the forefront of self-funding and crowd funding. Recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios, Wider Circles is being crowd funded to the tune of $30,000. “This will be our second Kickstarter project,” says Leah. “Our first one was a really amazing honor, and very exciting. When we got to a place where we were ready to record this album, we thought long and hard about [whether or not to do] a Kickstarter. Because we’re not really interested in taxing our fan base. We don’t like to always be asking; we’ve been taught to be self-sufficient. And we did have some funding opportunities; we did have some donors who were interested. So we round-tabled it: Chloe and I will sit and have a glass of wine, and philosophize until we we get to how we want to move forward.”

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Rising Appalachia: Making Music with Intention (Part 1)

June 24th, 2015

Sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith lead Rising Appalachia, a renowned folk/world music group whose music is as intriguing as it is hard to classify. Their eighth album, Wider Circles, has just been released, and the group (also featuring percussionist Biko Cassini and bassist/guitarist David Brown) appeared onstage in their current hometown at Asheville, North Carolina’s New Mountain Theatre (Amphitheatre Stage) on June 13.

To the uninitiated, the group’s name suggests Americana. But even a quick listen to one of their songs reveals that such a term would be far too limiting. “We actually – years and years ago – wanted to change the name,” says Leah. “Because we did want to be exploring roots music and folk music from all around the world. We even put in some effort to change [our name].” 2008′s Evolutions in Sound: Live re-branded the group as R.I.S.E. “But our collective fan base sort of put their foot down and said, ‘No. You should stick with it; there’s a legacy that’s important for you to hold onto. You’re redefining what Appalachia[n music] means to the mountain culture.’ They really didn’t want us to let go of that. It was part of our initial identity; we had folk traditions in our upbringing.”

She elaborates. “Several generations [of our family] have studied and played Appalachian fiddle. We were also brought up in this wonderful, urban metropolis of Atlanta, with all that that includes. So we had the idea that we could rise out of the traditions, and see how they mixed. The name Rising Appalachia was an attempt to redefine that tradition, and to figure out all the other ways in which we have a folk tradition. So we have found the name limiting, but we have also found it a really, really valuable part of our pursuits.”

The sisters’ parents both have strong roots in the arts. The idioms in which they work differ somewhat from what Rising Appalachia does, but there is a common thread running through all of it. “We have one of those family dynamics that is really treasured,” observes Leah. “And it’s pretty rare. We were raised in a very modest, lower-middle-class, hard working family. We went to public school, and we played on all of the community sports teams.” But she says that there was always a strong foundation in art and culture. Leah characterizes her parents as “big jazz record-playing, NPR-listening people.” That common thread of the family’s everyday life was part of shared meals, discussions and debates. “Holidays weren’t necessarily built around ‘stuff.’” The focus was, she says, more about sharing the product of some or other creative expression.

“Our mom is a folk fiddler; our father is as well,” Leah notes. “And they both have been playing in contra dance bands and old time jam circles since we were babies. There was music in our house five days a week. And then on weekends, we’d attend a lot of old time folk studies; we’d go to fiddle camps; contra dances. We were very, very much musical. My mom started a sort of gospel/Appalachian/jazz singing group, a 12-woman project. They rehearsed at our house.” So in many ways, Rising Appalachia was predestined, an extension of the family tradition. Leah and Chloe were going to do something. They certainly weren’t going to grow up and go off to law school, now, were they?

“Well,” laughs Leah, “you never know! My sister actually thought she would go into entertainment law. And I think I was going toward [becoming a] college professor or some sort of social justice activism. Music was just a permanent part of our expression; I don’t think we ever thought it would be a career choice. It would always have been a [life] soundtrack, a front porch project. But we didn’t go into this at any point saying, ‘Yeah! Let’s make a band!’”

Leah does see Rising Appalachia’s raison d’être as very connected to her family tradition. She connects it to “how we were raised, and the stories we were given.” And the way they were raised does reflect itself in the group’s music and overall outlook. The sisters attended Atlanta’s inner city Henry W. Grady High School, a multicultural institution in which they were the minority. “It informed both of our approaches to music and to social justice,” Leah says, noting that local events, activities and gathering places all reflected the influence and character of many cultures. “The local farmer’s market represents 250 countries, and many, many languages. So we grew up with this incredibly vibrant relationship with diversity, in an urban community that represented so many cultures. Atlanta has strong black leadership, and incredibly powerful international business owners. Where we grew up was wonderful to be part of a community that had that many different perspectives: religious, educational, economic.”

She doesn’t view that community through rose-colored glasses, however. “It wasn’t perfect,” she stresses. “It wasn’t without strife. But there’s a really strong collective mentality. And in hindsight, I realize now what an unusual upbringing that was. And it’s something that we’re always trying to bring into our social and musical awareness. And we encourage our audiences to really think about what justice and equality look like.”

At eighteen, Leah left home to travel the world, most notably in Latin America. There she found herself “on the periphery” of the Zapatista movement. The sisters’ worldly, real-life experience gives their work a degree of authenticity that is sometimes missing in musical acts who merely suit themselves in the Americana identikit of vintage suits and the like. “I did want those experiences to serve as fertile ground for the rest of my life,” she says. But she wasn’t going about collecting life experiences as fodder for songs she might write in the distant future. The traveling was a World Studies project of sorts. “I was given really strong direction by my family: ‘If you want to travel, do it with intention.’ And Chloe – she’s my younger sister – would do the same.” Eventually the two “met up again, and started doing some traveling together. And music was a very different wellspring that we tapped into later.”

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Album Review: Little Richard — Directly From My Heart

June 23rd, 2015

For music lovers of a certain age range, the work of Richard Penniman is the sort of music that one might only rarely make an effort to hear. The name and image of Little Richard is a virtual shorthand for some of the best qualities music has to offer: excitement, bravado, melody, energy, skill, humor…on and on. And because of his larger-than-life persona – wildly in-your-face effeminate posturing and his (nearly but not quite outsized) estimation of his own importance) – he seems somehow to always be there, and the same is true for his music.

Thanks, too, to the fact that Little Richard exerted so much influence on those who would follow (no less a figure than Paul McCartney has long held as part of his own stock-in-trade a convincing Little Richard vocal imitation), generations who grew to age after Little Richard’s heyday still know his songs. Covered by an impossibly long list of artists, and used in everything from film soundtracks to television commercials, Little Richard’s classic music is deeply embedded into popular culture and our collective consciousness.

The downside of that ubiquity, however, is that listeners might forget to stop for a moment and appreciate just how superb – not to mention wildly innovative for its time – his music really is. To help us in our modern-day reconsideration of Little Richard’s early, best-loved material, Concord Music Group has compiled a 3CD set, Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty and Vee-Jay Years.

Penniman’s musical recording career began more than three years before he’d enter a studio to cut a demo for Specialty Records in early 1955. By the time he began recording for Specialty, Richard had released two albums (one each on RCA and Peacock) and six singles, none of which charted. Once at Specialty, Little Richard recorded in various sessions over a period of just more than two years; that body of work is the primary foundation upon which his musical legacy rests.

Surprisingly – or at least surprisingly to those who know the man’s work on cuts like “Long Tall Sally (The Thing)” – Little Richard cut a number of tracks that don’t have that wild, manic vibe at all. The first few cuts on Directly From My Heart are r&b/blues numbers, with none of the reckless abandon that would characterize his hit singles. They’re good, albeit a tad ordinary. Their inclusion on this set does serve to place those crazy, uptempo singles in a context more representative of Little Richard’s musical output of that era.

But it’s through the first (and a good portion of the second) disc that Little Richard’s Specialty work is chronicled. All of the greats are here: “Tutti Frutti,” “Kansas City,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’),” “Long Tall Sally (The Thing),” “Miss Ann,” “Ready Teddy,” “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” “Rip it Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Ooh! My Soul,” and quite a few others.

Renouncing the sinful ways of rock’n'roll, Richard left Specialty in late 1957, going on to cut religious-themed sides for several labels. But when The Beatles exploded on the scene – and in light of their championing of him as an influence – Little Richard returned to Specialty, where he cut five songs, a few of which are featured on this set. The most notable of these is “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” but they’re all rocking numbers.

From there he went to Vee-Jay (coincidentally, the U.S. label that had released early Beatles tracks), remaining with them for a year. The third disc of Directly From My Heart focuses on this lesser-known era of Little Richard’s music, and is notable in part for the appearance of pre-fame Jimi Hendrix as guitarist for several cuts.

The entire 2015 compilation is housed in a duotone (black and pink!) box, and the accompanying liner note booklet features lots of photos and an essay from Little Richard superfan Billy Vera. The booklet handily provides matrix numbers for all sixty-three tracks, but the compilers deigned not to specify (recording and/or release) dates for the tracks. The booklet makes no mention of the mastering involved in bringing this compilation to market, but the sound throughout is superb.

Beware of imitations: notoriously, Little Richard re-recorded many of his hits in greatly inferior versions, and an unknown number among the vast array of available compilations draw tracks from those. The surest way to get a tidy collection of the man’s best work is to pick up Directly From My Heart.

A few related items, if I may…

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Album Reviews: Four from The Residents

June 22nd, 2015

Though they initially submitted demo recordings to major record labels (the bootleg The Warner Brothers Tapes documents the most notorious of these), the inscrutable collective that once jokingly billed themselves “North Louisiana’s Phenomenal Pop Combo” released most of their albums on their own Ralph Records label. That entity – though not The Residents themselves – ceased operations in 2010. Since that time, The Residents have set about reissuing large swaths of their massive back catalog via the MVD Audio label. MVD is also the licensed distributor for new and current Residents album releases. Here’s a look at two archival reissues and two new titles, all from the world’s most mysterious musical outfit.

The Residents – God in Three Persons

This conceptual work from 1988 often employs a favorite Residents musical device: taking the signature melodic line of a popular song – say, The Swinging Medallions‘ “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)” and reapplying it in a different musical context. Musically rich and deeply textured, God in Three Persons features that tune re-contextualized throughout the record. The opening track is a recitation of the work’s credits, and the album features unusually (for the Residents, that is) melodic vocals from Laurie Amat, and brass and woodwind arrangements from Richard Marriot. It’s on a par with The River of Crime in terms of its musicality. But lovers of the outré need not worry: the horrifying story line (involving siamese twins, rape and other fun subjects) and its execution are just as transgressive as hardcore Residents fans could want. The album art is unabashedly risqué, too. Randy’s sung/spoken delivery suits the project perfectly.

The Residents – Our Finest Flowers

When it comes to The Residents, one should expect the unexpected. When they released a greatest hits (sic) collection (1997′s Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses), the group put all the songs in reverse-chronological order. The liner notes of this collection from 1992 celebrate the group’s “twenty long years of painful regurgitation.” The sixteen tracks recombine elements from The Residents’ vast catalog, proving that their mutated approach to song construction can provide endless — and endlessly fascinating — variation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Our Finest Flowers‘ new pieces draw greatly upon material from Commercial Album, a disc full of intentionally underdeveloped musical ideas. All of these tunes feature the southern drawl vocal delivery of the Resident Known Only As Randy, with synthesizers (samplers, analog synths, drum machines) providing the musical accompaniment, textures and sound effects. By Residential standards, this is fairly accessible material overall, though much of the music is nightmarish in tone.

The Residents – Marching to the See!

Another commemorative project of sorts, March to the See! documents The Residents’ “The Wonder of Weird” 40th Anniversary Tour. Starring Residents Randy (“singer for The Residents”), Chuck (“he writes all of the music”) and Bob (guitar), the album is a recording of their May 20, 2013 performance in Amsterdam. Howling electric guitar – a musical element not often found on Residents albums – is a prominent part of the sonic landscape on this set. Chuck’s hypnotic synthesizer lines provide more musical texture, and our pal Randy works the crowd like some bizarro-world cross between rock star and carnival barker. The music –  Marching to the See! is mostly about music, not story lines and narratives – is sweeping and cinematic, and a bit less creepy than most Residents albums. Note: there’s a 2CD version, The Wonder of Weird, that documents the complete concert, rather than just the highlights found here.)

The Residents – Shadowland

Subtitled “Part 3 of the Residents’ Randy, Chuck and Bob Trilogy,” Shadowland is musically very much of a piece with Marching to the See! A document of the tour of the same name, the live Shadowland features the loops, synths, textures and avant-metal guitar sounds that characterize the current (mid-2010′s) Residents. The group’s recurring Timmy character makes an appearance in the Shadowland storyline, but listeners more attuned to the aural weirdness of The Residents can safely ignore what Randy’s singing/talking about and just revel in the spooky sound ambience. “Herman the Human Mole” could well be an outtake from 2006′s The River of Crime; with the Residents, you never know if something is new, old, recycled, or somehow all of the above. All you know is that it never sounds like anyone except The Residents. (At press time, a Shadowland performance was scheduled for midnight, August 7 in Katowice, Poland.)

Note: if you enjoy reading about The Residents, you may want to check out some or all of the following:

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Album Review: stephaniesĭd – Excavator

June 19th, 2015

It’s rare that I review the music of artists based in my adopted hometown of Asheville NC. My reason is simple: I gotta live in this town. I feel it my duty to pull no punches when reviewing music, so if I perceive flaws or shortcoming in someone’s music, I’ll say so in my review. But when those people are my neighbors, my general approach is to take a pass, or (as I do quite often) write a feature/interview that explores the artist’s creative process and such, and leave the reviewing to others in other venues.

stephaniesĭd are the exception to that unofficial policy of mine. Both onstage and on disc, their music is distinctive, arresting, and compelling. I enthusiastically reviewed Starfruit in late 2011, and that album has worn well these ensuing three and a half years.

Excavator is the group’s latest, and it represents a darker, more contemplative and melancholy ambience than its predecessor. Ten of the eleven tracks on Excavator are written or co-written by Stephanie Morgan, an intriguing vocalist of uncanny expressiveness and range. On this record, there’s a kittenish, just-awoken quality to Morgan’s voice, and the arrangements – led primarily by Chuck Lichtenberger – are often spare, often using silence – the spaces between the notes, as they say – as the backing for Morgan’s vocalizing.

A sense of melodrama pervades the songs on Excavator. There’s a feel of regret and resignation that hangs upon the tunes. Yet despite the often minimalistic approach to the music, at times Excavator sounds like the exact opposite: the wide-screen arrangements of Polyphonic Spree.

When the band moves away from the heartbreak and melancholy – as they do on the uptempo “Battery Room” – they end up sounding like a postmodern rethink of Astrud and Joao Gilberto-styled Brazilian jazz, crossed with The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner-era Ben Folds Five. On “Baseball Player,” they sound a good bit like 2015 America’s answer to Radiohead (Morgan is on record as a big fan of Thom Yorke‘s group) circa Kid A. Halfway through Excavator, “Baseball Player” is the first instance of electric guitar taking a prominent – albeit exceedingly textural – role in the music. The album’s instrumental lineup (beyond Morgan and Lichtenberger) features upright bass, trombone, saxophone, bass clarinet, violin and cello.

As such, it’s difficult (not to mention pointless) to classify Excavator as a rock album. It’s certainly not jazz, though the group’s inventive reading of “My Funny Valentine” has elements of jazz, especially in Lichtenberger’s nimble piano work. It’s also not at all what one could call an immediate record; one has to immerse oneself in the music, or more accurately, allow the music to envelop the listener. That’s a tall order for a musical act to place upon a potential listener, but with Excavator, stephaniesĭd provide a handsome reward for the investment. Simply put, Excavator is worth the effort required to get into the current musical world of stephaniesĭd.

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Album Review: Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz

June 18th, 2015

There’s always a place for solid, midtempo, soft-rock. Or at least there was one before what passes for country music co-opted the style, watered it down and called it modern country (or, heaven forfend, bro country).

For a time in the mid to late 1970s, artists like Pure Prairie League, post-prog Ambrosia, Ace, Michael Martin Murphey, and even (dare I say this) The Eagles bridged the sonic gap between rock and singer-songwriter-oriented material, and for their trouble were often rewarded with chart success.

But not always: sometimes fine, solid albums sank without a trace. “Such,” writes Ed Osborne in his liner notes for the Real Gone Music expanded reissue of Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz, “are the vagaries of the music business.”

Their 1978 LP slipped right by the notice of this then-fourteen year old, but then I was into other things. Had I heard the record, I might have thought to myself, “this sounds a lot like Pure Prairie League.” And I would have been a very clever pubescent teen, because Craig Fuller was the lead singer on many of that group’s hits, 1972′s “Falling In and Out of Love” (though you may know it as “Amie”).

By the late 70s, Fuller had teamed up with fellow singer/songwriter Kaz for what would be a one-off collaboration. On Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz, the two take turns at the lead vocal spot, turning in borderline easy listening melodies, many of which fall into the sonic space where The Eagles’ “Desperado” lives.

All of Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz‘s ten tracks were written by one or the other singer, with the most commercially appealing cut (“Let the Fire Burn All Night”) the album’s sole co-write. Because of both musicians’ close connection to Columbia Records, they drew on a number of related artists to back them up on their eponymous disc. While the names Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Michael McDonald, J.D. Souther and Leo Sayer don’t suggest anything remotely approaching straight-ahead rock’n'roll, all were near the top of their soft-rock game in the late 70s, and their presence gives Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz a familiar air. Listening to the “expanded edition” (one extra track, a single edit of the original LP closer “Annabella”), one might think, “Hey, I’ve heard these songs before, years ago. Were they hits?”

One would likely be wrong on both counts, but the feeling of familiarity remains. David Campbell‘s string arrangements – most notably on “’Til You Come Back” – sound like the kind of thing Paul Buckmaster did for Elton John a few years earlier.

Ultimately, Ed Osborne’s liner notes essay – drawing upon in-depth interviews with both musicians – is the most interesting thing about the reissue. In one of those bits of trivia that supports the theory that everything is connected, Osborne explores Kaz’s earlier involvement with the proto-Latin rock version of The Blues Magoos.

There’s not a thing wrong with Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz. Polished to a shine, the album presents these yearning, often melancholy songs in the best light possible. But in the late 1970s, there was simply so much of this kind of thing that it was easy to miss a few efforts, however fine they might’ve been. Musically, the album drifts by pleasantly enough, but it leaves little lingering impression. “That was nice,” you might say after “Annabella” fades out. “But now let’s listen to something with a little oomph in it.”

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