Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 1

March 2nd, 2015

Time for some more backlog-clearing hundred-word reviews. All of these are worth my (and your) time in some way, but because of the sheer volume of worthy material in my inbox, I regularly do these short-form reviews to keep them from languishing on my desk. Today’s four are all artists I’ve covered before.


The New Trocaderos – Frenzy in the Hips
Recently I reviewed the recent three-song disc from this Northeastern trio, and while I liked it a lot, I found the stylistic ground covered disparate enough so as to be confusing. This six-song disc repeats three of those cuts. The new three are reminiscent of some quality Southern acts of the 80s — specifically Georgia Satellites and Jason & the Scorchers — and serve better to define the group’s sound. Little Steven (he of the Underground Garage digital radio program) is a fan; he’s bestowed the “Coolest Song in the World” designation to two of the cuts on this disc.


The Well Wishers – A Shattering Sky
Jeff Shelton is one prolific guy; almost like clockwork a CD from him shows up in my mailbox every few months. And even though he’s not high profile, I cover his stuff because it’s good. If you’re the sort who picked up Jordan Oakes‘ peerless Yellow Pills powerpop compilation CDs back in the 90s (or most anything from Bruce Brodeen‘s NotLame label) then this is the stuff you’re looking for circa 2015. Any of the twelve cuts here would be right at home on a Yellow Pills set. Like-minded pals Chuck Lindo and Bradley Skaught help out on some cuts.


Red Jacket Mine – Pure Delight
As with their 2013 long player, on this six-song disc, Lincoln Barr‘s Red Jacket Mine is stylistically varied. Barr’s voice is the centerpiece of these well-assembled tunes, and some interesting keyboard textures (funky 70s-styled clavinet, some really well-recorded piano) plus some tasty synth strings give the disc a vaguely Ben Folds feel (minus the humor), even though Barr’s a guitarist. The soulful “Crow” and the sing/songwriter-flavored “AM” are both a bit of a left turn, departing from the group’s generally upbeat approach. “Nearly Marjorie” is retro in that “(Just Like) Starting Over” kind of way. “Get Paid” is wryly humorous.

Dewa Budjana – Hasta Karma
This Indonesian guitarist is a busy guy; like Jeff Shelton (see above), he seems to always have something new for his listeners. Of course where Shelton’s nominally powerpop, Budjana is progjazz, with a style that’s reminiscent of the better mainstream fusion albums of the 1970s (specifically Jean-Luc Ponty‘s albums). His music is ambitious and intricate while remaining highly melodic and accessible. Joe Locke‘s vibraphones keep things in a jazz vein, as does Ben Williams‘ upright bass (which often sounds like a fretless electric bass guitar). Recommended as a disc to spin for jazz friends who don’t think they like prog.

More capsule reviews to come.

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Bluegrass “Character Actor” Bryan Sutton Takes a Starring Role

February 27th, 2015

The Asheville music scene has its share of local-boy-makes-good stories. And with his 1997 debut onto the national scene, guitarist and Asheville native Bryan Sutton quickly made a major impression in bluegrass and the wider music community. Named IBMA’s Guitar Player of the Year eight out of the last fifteen years, Sutton has also won a 2007 Grammy. And his latest album, Into My Own, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Bluegrass Album category.

Though he’s now based in Nashville, Sutton’s local roots run deep, and inform his music. “My initial exposure to music was in Western North Carolina mountain towns,” he says, “with my grandfather playing fiddle and my Dad playing banjo.” Though he’s played – and still plays – rock and jazz guitar, his first love remains the mountain music of his heritage. “A lot of what I experienced as a kid growing up in Asheville – Shindig on the Green, for example – is still there.” He credits Asheville’s approach to music as part of his own musical development. “Anybody can fit into Asheville’s music scene; it’s really open and lovely. If I still lived there, I would be as active as I could be. When I come to Asheville, it really does feel like coming home.”

On Into My Own, Sutton adds something new: his vocals. But while his singing voice might be new to listeners, it’s not new to him. “I sang in a band we had when I was a kid; it was my Dad, my sister and a couple of our friends. I was never a lead singer, but I sang a lot of parts.”

“But in the last ten years, I’ve been leaning into wanting to do more lead vocal work. For me, it’s a good combination of a natural step and a necessary challenge. I never want to get too comfortable with what I’m doing.”

And even though he thrives on challenges, on exploring new dimensions in his music, Sutton is comfortable within the bluegrass idiom. “My goal is always to honor the traditions in bluegrass, but also to include what’s original to me, what might be considered more progressive.”

Sutton’s arrangements on Into My Own showcase the musical contributions of his fellow players; he immerses himself into the songs. He says that approach is a hallmark of two American musical forms that he loves: bluegrass and jazz. “The energy is about getting like-minded people together,” he observes. “I really enjoy that energy in the music of Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan and a host of other people in bluegrass. It’s a precedent that was set early on: one musician doing something, making a statement, and then another one coming along and answering that or adding to it.” It’s just part of what Sutton calls “the DNA of bluegrass.”

And Sutton brings that same sensibility to his work as an in-demand Nashville session player. “In the end, the session player is kind of like a character actor. The role of a session guy is to get your own self out of the way, to be the vehicle for somebody else’s ideas.” And while he showcases his own music on Into My Own, when it comes to session work, Bryan Sutton is as skilled a musical “character actor” as you’ll find in Nashville: “Any given day,” he says with justifiable pride, “I can be a rock’n'roll acoustic guitar strummer, or I can play a fanciful, classical-sounding solo. And hopefully I’m able to nail whatever I’m doing.”

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part Three

February 26th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Unlike their earlier deals with other labels, Pugwash‘s recent A Rose in a Garden of Weeds is not a one-off licensing deal. “Omnivore is our label,” Thomas Walsh says. “At this stage in our lives, we try to hold onto our records, but when it comes to Omnivore, they’re definitely our label. And we’re so proud and honored to be with them.” He goes on to reveal that the label has plans for Pugwash’s older material as well. “They’re doing full catalog remastering of all our albums. They have great people running the label from top to bottom. To say they’re seasoned campaigners would be an insult, really. They’re incredible successful music people.” He name-checks Cheryl Pawelski and several others at the label. “And it’s been Lee Lodyga, of course, who’s been our staunchest supporter. He’s a huge fan. And he’s taken on a lot more [with us] than he planned, I’m sure.”

Walsh reflects on the traditional relationships between artist and label. “There can be a lot of miscommunication between America and us in Ireland. Because we can be lazy fuckers, and Americans are so full of of energy. Noting that he’s long since put hard drugs and drink behind him, he chuckles and wryly characterizes Americans’ high energy level: “It’s consistently like they’re on drugs! And you know that they’re not on drugs. We equate it with a drug thing, but it’s really a lifestyle thing! These people are incredibly energetic and passionate. When you meet them you ask yourself, ‘Are these people freaks?’ They’re beautiful; they put us to shame. After a gig, we go back to our hotel room, and I think, ‘We’re a fuckin’ disgrace.’ But the energy that Lee has put into Pugwash is incredible. It would take us ten weeks to do [in Ireland] when they do in ten minutes in America.”

Pugwash did a brief US tour in late 2014 to support A Rose in a Garden of Weeds. “That tour was such an eye-opener,” Walsh says. “It was incredibly quick. And Omnivore have done exactly what they said they would, right from the very beginning. It’s not like some other labels where they try to do everything; they do what they do. Our drummer Joey [Fitzgerald] gets the gigs. We know what we have to do, and so does Omnivore. It’s a great relationship. I’ll be honest with you: I’m forty-five now. And most of us are in our forties. And even if in five or ten years if we say our goodbyes, I’ll still love these people. Straightaway, they’re friends.” I remark how unusual such comments are. “Well,” Thomas retorts, “They’ve been nominated for a Grammy. And I’m just trying to get an invite to the awards ceremony.”


Pugwash’s compilation A Rose in a Garden of Weeds is available from Omnivore Recordings, and the group’s as-yet-untitled album will be released on Omnivore sometime in 2015. Also keep an eye out for Omnivore reissues of Pugwash’s back catalog (five albums originally released between 1999 and 2011), and for Pugwash’s limited number of stateside concerts in March 2015 (mostly in the Northeast).

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part Two

February 25th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Some listeners might peg the music of Pugwash as “retro,” though in reality it’s classic pop in the best sense of the word. Many reviewers have pointed out sonic similarities between Thomas Walsh‘s voice and Jeff Lynne‘s. But the hallmark of Pugwash’s music is the song construction. At its best, it’s on a par with the finest efforts from writers such as Difford and Tilbrook (Squeeze), Neil Finn (Split Enz and Crowded House), and Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout). Walsh is modest when mentioned in the same breath as those names. “If I knew the hallmarks of a successful song,” he says, “I’d have written a hit by now! The thing is, I do know – and I’ve known for a long time – if you have any talent for writing a song, there are certain tricks you use.” He goes on to explain his craft in a bit more detail. “There’s a lot of chords in my songs. But they won’t do much else than repeat themselves.” Exaggerating slightly to make his point, he says, “If there are twenty-four chords in one of my songs, they won’t jump all over the place. They’ll stay in a nice little cage and wait to be fed. And I don’t do a lot of ‘bridges.’ At least I don’t think I do; I never check!”

“Funnily enough, Neil Hannon [of fellow Irish band The Divine Comedy] was over the other day, helping with stuff for the new record. There’s a song called ‘Oh Happy Days.’ The demo of it was up on the pledge site [for crowd funding of the next Pugwash album, due out in 2015]. So Neal says to me, ‘Did you ever even think of bothering your ass to write a second verse?’ I said, ‘No, nope…No.’ And he just laughed. The great thing is that Neil and I work so great together. He probably would have written an eight-verse life story of how happy the old days were, and how sad it could be now. That’s Neil, and I love him. But with me, it’s, ‘Oh happy days,’ then “ba ba ba,’ and then…goodbye. In two minutes.”

Walsh is an avowed fan of the leave-them-wanting-more style of songwriting. “There’s so many songs that I love, where you think, ‘Ohhh…this is going to be great for three and a half minutes.’ And then boom, it’s gone. That’s especially true of ’60s bands like The Kinks. And The Lemon Pipers. I’m such a fan of their ‘The Shoemaker of Leatherwear Square.’ It’s so short, like a minute-forty or something [actually 2:01 – ed.] I have to play it six times to get the feeling of having heard it once. There’s all that arrangement – harps, and flutes – and they did all that for such a short song!”

I point out the contrast between that approach and the one used on such tracks as Bob Dylan‘s seven-minute, nine-verse opus, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” Walsh replies, “I was an anti- ‘leave them wanting more’ person when I was younger. But I remember when I first heard Michael Penn‘s Free for All. I had to import it from Canada because you couldn’t get it in Ireland. ‘Free Time’ is the fourth track. And on the fade, you hear this great trumpet thing, and you think, ‘Why the fuck is he fading it? It’s so wonderful!’ It’s a mark of genius, really. Michael might have made me start thinking that way about songs. It’s something you’d think every writer would know, eventually.”

The aforementioned crowdfunding effort – a very successful PledgeMusic campaign – has helped raised funds allowing Pugwash to record their upcoming album. The crowdfunding concept is “great for bands like us,” Walsh says. He makes an analogy, then observes, “No, that was a shitty analogy. But you can make it sound brilliant in text, okay?” In essence, the point he endeavors to make is that free downloads do hurt the band’s ability to stay afloat financially. “We couldn’t sustain making records with people investing in us any more,” he says. “So we thought long and hard about how to do it. We could play a bunch of gigs and get the money up ourselves. But it would have been ridiculous. What this pledge approach does is reaffirm our love of people. Because all of these fans, some of them might have money and some might not. But they all put their hand in their pocket and gave us something. It’s an incredible thing to see. We got a hundred-odd percent [of our goal] in ten days.”

The crowdfunding model reminds Walsh of how things used to be when he was very young. “It’s almost like a revival of the old fan club idea,” he observes. “Instead of sending ten dollars and getting a membership card, you send ten dollars and get the album and get your name on it. I’d have been all for that when I was a kid. Not all of the new ideas are killing the old ethics of music.”

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part One

February 24th, 2015

Irish band Pugwash has been around for fifteen years, and during that time, leader and songwriter Thomas Walsh has worked with a long list of people whose names will be familiar to fans of what one might call guitar pop: Andy Partridge, Dave Gregory, Ben Folds, Jason Falkner, Nelson Bragg, Michael Penn, Eric Matthews and many others. But for whatever reason, in all the years they’ve been together, Pugwash has escaped the notice of most American listeners. Walsh believes he knows why this is the case. “We never had a label on the mainland of the U.S.” Thanks to fans who happened to own record labels, Pugwash has had their best music compiled on no less than three separate best-of collections: Australian label Karmic Hit released Earworm in 2003. Ape House, the label run by ex-XTC guitarist/vocalist Andy Partridge, put together the Giddy compilation in 2009. And now, Grammy Award-winning USA-based label Omnivore Recordings has released A Rose in a Garden of Weeds, a seventeen-track survey of Pugwash’s most timeless melodies.

Walsh says that early on, he and his Pugwash bandmates thought, “We could release an album in Ireland or Europe, and then people [all across the globe] would say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good.’ But no.” That’s not how it worked in the real world.

“We should never have gone into any business together” with Partridge, says Walsh. “Because we’re friends first. And you should never mix [business and friendship] with certain people. We all have our foibles. Andy’s such a lover of what he does; he’s such a passionate person about his music and all aspects of it – his label as well – that he has strong views about everything. He has strong views about milk! So it made itself into a bit of a clash that should have never happened, really.”

But Partridge’s love of Pugwash’s music didn’t pave the way for a proper stateside release of Giddy. “When it came to America,” Walsh recalls, “his deal with the people who were going to bring records to America wasn’t as strong as he thought it was. And it certainly wasn’t as strong as I thought it was. So it didn’t really come out there.” Walsh paints a description – kidding only slightly, one can assume – of boxes upon boxes of Giddy being unloaded on a New York loading dock, waiting for fans to come around and pick them up. And nobody ever did. “It just flopped,” Walsh says.

“It made a tiny bit of a ripple,” he allows. Certainly promotional copies found their way into the hands of some reviewers (this writer included), so some small level of buzz was set alight in the States. “But we knew that we’d only have a chance in the States if we got a label there. And then of course the whole Omnivore thing happened,” Walsh says, positively beaming. “They’ve done it so quickly, and so beautifully. In the last six months, it’s been like, ‘Where has America been all our lives!?’” He notes that he fully understands what it takes to have any chance of breaking into the market in the USA. “You have to embrace the wonderful people in the USA. You have to go over there and play. And we always wanted to do that, but we couldn’t before. It’s incredible how you won’t get any gigs, or any help, when you’re not promoting something. When you’re not on a label.”

Just like The Beatles discovered in early 1964, America is still where it’s happening when it comes to rock and pop. Part of that has to do with the potential that lies within such a massive market. “We’re not interested in playing in Ireland,” Walsh says. “We love our Irish fans, of course. But they can go to someone else’s gig for free for awhile,” he laughs. “It costs us a lot of money to play a gig in Ireland, and everyone [there] goes, ‘Ah, can you get us in for free? Stick my name on the door. And I’ve got nine people comin’ with me!’ I’ll tell you something: You can’t see the fuckin’ door for all the names stuck on ‘em. So we’re happy to get away from that for awhile. We can’t wait to get back to America in February and March.”

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Album Review: Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas – Secret Evil

February 23rd, 2015

It’s easy – too easy, in fact – to note that on Secret Evil, Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas sound a good bit like Amy Winehouse. Yes, there are similarities in both vocal style and instrumentation. But the comparison underestimates the strength and originality of Hernandez and her music.

The Detroit-based vocalist paid some serious dues to bring Secret Evil to the musical marketplace; originally signed to Blue Note, she recorded an album that ended up in the musical equivalent of what the film industry calls “turnaround.” Put simply, it never came out on Blue Note. Eventually she freed herself from the contract, released a EP, and now we have the first full-length from Hernandez and her band.

“No Place Left to Hide” has hints of KT Tunstall‘s early style, albeit with soulful backing from a full band. It’s a strong opening track for an album, but it’s eclipsed by the classic-to-be, “Sorry I Stole Your Man.” Equal parts trash-talking swagger and coyly knowing giggle, the song has everything a hit ought to have: great vocals with memorable “Ah-ooo” lines, solid musical backing with plenty of hooks, some subtle acrobatics from the players (check the descending organ line in the chorus) and a punchy mix.

Hernandez is equally effective turning out torchy, romantic numbers like the contemplative “Cry Cry Cry,” in which the singer shows off her precise vocal control. And she does it without the all-over-the-scale showoffy melismas so common to female pop singers. When Hernandez reaches for the upper register, she makes it sound like the most effortless thing in the world. She sings like most of us talk.

“Dead Brains” weds an effects-laden electric guitar figure to a pop-centric arrangement. The upbeat melody is almost bubblegum, but The Deltas’ arrangement gives it a harder edge, providing an effective backdrop for the lyrics-heavy track.

The band is strong and assured throughout the disc’s eleven cuts, and The Deltas manage to sound like a cohesive band rather than a group of musicians backing a singer. Hernandez’s vocals augment the instruments, and vice versa. The bridge of “Tired Oak” evokes a carnival carousel, but does so in an understated way. The track’s dynamics are emblematic of a group that sounds like they’ve been together for ages.

In “organic” styles of music, synthesizers must be used judiciously; otherwise the tunes can end up with a sterile, assembly-line feel. The synths (or treated guitars; it’s tough to tell which) on “Over” enhance the melody without overwhelming it.

On “Caught Up,” The Deltas open with a familiar drum pattern that gives way to a rocker. For those who fell in love with “Sorry I Stole Your Man,” this track may well be your second-favorite track on Secret Evil. It’s cut from similar musical cloth but isn’t a “Sorry” rewrite. The shifts in dynamics – and the great guitar solo – are thrilling, and a bit reminiscent of fellow Detroiters Dirtbombs.

“Neck Tattoo” – a rumination on romance and regret – affects a musical arrangement that feels film-noir-ish, and it curiously evokes some of John Lennon‘s better mid 1970s work. “Run Run Run” has an odd ambience that seems to combine a gypsy jazz feel with elements of techno, though it really doesn’t sound like either of those things.

Some clever horn charts enliven “Downtown Man,” a track in which Hernandez continues to demonstrate her skill at jumping vocally around the scale without distracting from her lyrics.

Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas choose a melancholy, low-key number to close out Secret Evil. “Lovers First” has a late-night, low-lights vibe. Restrained musical accompaniment from The Deltas showcases a vocal that’s both subtle and dazzling.

As a whole, Secret Evil is as impressive a debut long-player as I’ve heard from a vocalist (and her band) in some time. Recommended.

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DVD Review: Scarred But Smarter

February 20th, 2015

Plenty of bands have but one good album in them. In the old days – when record companies were still a thing – it went like this: band forms, usually around the songwriting skills of one or more member. Band gigs hard in obscurity. Band develops local following. Band gets noticed. Band gets signed. Band records album full of songs they’ve been honing to a sharp point for ages. Band releases album, tours heavily (perhaps as opening act) to promote album. Album sells, so band is rushed back into studio to record the followup.

If you follow rock music at all, you can probably write the next few sentences. There’s a reason that phrases like “the difficult second album” and “sophomore slump” exist. As the saying goes, you have your whole like to write the songs for your first album, and then ten months to write the songs for the second one.

Atlanta-based Drivin N Cryin somehow managed to avoid that particular pitfall. After releasing their debut – 1986′s Scarred but Smarter, a title that would presciently sum up their career over the ensuing thirty years – they followed up with Whisper Tames the Lion, an equally satisfying album.

Of course things began to go wrong with their third album. By their fifth, they had made some fundamental changes in their style, and for their trouble gained their highest profile to date. But while from an objective point of view (or at least one that doesn’t figure in the band’s earlier material) the harder-rocking sound of Fly Me Courageous is an excellent album, it started the band down a path that they would find unsustainable. To say that they crashed and burned with the next album (1993′s Smoke) is an understatement.

That could have been the end of the band. And it almost was. But they got their shit together, came back more focused than ever, and resumed a career – on their own terms, for the first time in a long time – and continue today.

Sure, summed up like that, the Drivin N Cryin story reads a bit like a VH-1 Behind the Music. And it could be, if told in a manner adhering to that arc: fame, fall, redemption. But in his documentary on the band, Eric von Haessler goes deeper. Scarred But Smarter is a film-length rumination on the nature of fame, a meditation on what is important and why. It’s not overly philosophical in tone, but a mature undercurrent informs the film.

A parade of personalities better known than anyone in the band help tell the story: R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, guys from southern rock sensation Blackberry Smoke, David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker), renowned producer Anton Fier. And for those (like me) who grew up in Atlanta, many familiar faces and places show up in the film: Michelle Malone, notoriously prickly music critic/book store clerk David T. Lindsay (mentioned but not seen), The Nightporters (Tim Nielsen‘s pre-Drivin N Cryin band), Ty Pennington (a local Drivin’ N Cryin’ fan who’d later make it big as a TV personality), the famous 688 Club. Von Haessler eschews narration, letting the people involved tell the story. Ex-members explain on why they left (or were kicked out), and pretty much everyone takes an unflinching, no-holds-barred approach to recounting their stories. The director weaves it all together with a minimum of visual gimmickry.

There’s lots of music in Scarred But Smarter. And for those new to the band, the selections will help drive home a fundamental truth behind the band’s lack of (by conventional standards) success: they’re all over the place. As Kinney relates near the film’s end, it’s near impossible to pin Drivin N Cryin down stylistically. Folk? Rock? College/indie rock? Hard rock? Southern rock? Yes and no to each of those. One onscreen personality calls them a “punk band,” but that’s probably overreach. What they were and remain is very good, and very underrated. Their 2009 album The Great American Bubble Factor is a winner, and the series of EPs that followed it played to perhaps the band’s greatest strength: their skill in a wide variety of musical idioms.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the story of Kevn Kinney and his band mates, it’s one similar to the lessons your parents tried to teach you when you were a kid (if you were lucky). Don’t follow the example of the kool kids (read: record company executives). Don’t get involved in dangerous drugs (read: dangerous drugs). Follow your muse, do what you love, and you’ll find success on your own terms. At its heart, that’s the positive message of Scarred But Smarter.

Asheville readers: Drivin N Cryin will play The Altamont on Saturday, March 7. See you there.

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Concert Photography in a Local Light: “Front Row Focus”

February 19th, 2015

In 2015, nearly every concertgoer carries a smart phone with a built-in camera, so snapshots of the onstage performers aren’t exactly a rare commodity. But there’s a long and proud tradition of legitimate concert photography, and it’s no hyperbole to call it an art form. Some of the most iconic images in music have come from the lenses of such giants as Elaine Mayes (her Monterey Pop concert shots of Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix are classics), Mick Rock, Jim Marshall, Anton Corbijn and Jenny Lens.

 

Avett Brothers Halloween 2014 Photo by www.DavidSimchock.com

Avett Brothers Halloween 2014 Photo by www.DavidSimchock.com

Asheville has its own modern-day exponents of concert photography. You’ve likely seen these characters at any number of local venues; they’re the ones who not only understand the rules (no flash photography, “pit photography” allowed for the first three songs only), but have a keen and discerning eye. Concert photography is about so much more than snapping the shutter at the right moment; it’s about synthesizing what’s special about a performer – someone who deals in sound and movement – into a still and silent visual image that captures the essence of that performer.

Three of the finest Asheville-based concert photographers have created an exhibition of their best work, on display now through April 15 at The Green Sage Café (Westgate). “Front Row Focus” presents arresting images from the cameras of Nick King, David Simchock, and Frank Zipperer. Though all three travel on assignments, “Front Row Focus” is drawn from the best images documenting local performances. Curated by Paul Rollins, the exhibit features dozens of color and black-and-white photos.

The works of the three photographers are displayed throughout the Green Sage’s airy, open space; while the room is well-lit after dark, the photos are seen to their best effect surrounded by natural light. Zipperer – a photographer whose tastes run toward jazz – presents his concert photos primarily in black-and-white format; that format allows the photographer to make visual statements about his subjects through controlled use of contrast. The shots are often up close and personal, and always lead themselves to contemplation and close study.

Much of Simchock’s work displayed at “Front Row Focus” features rich, deeply saturated colors that lend the images an almost three-dimensional quality. The hyper-realism and stunningly sharp focus creates a you-are-there ambience. Nearly all of Simchock’s photos document performances in Asheville; the few exceptions – photos taken in New Orleans and Philadelphia, for example — are so breathtaking and remarkable that their inclusion makes sense.

King’s work is superb in its capturing of those just-right onstage moments; though dealing with subjects who are constantly on the move, the photographer’s documenting of a split-second slice of the performance somehow captures and conveys all of the movement. And it does so with astounding clarity. Though he, too, sometimes works in close-up, King’s wide-angle lens brilliantly and effectively captures the stage as a whole.

All of the photos on display at “Front Row Focus” are available for purchase, but it costs nothing to view them at the exhibit. The photography installation is open for viewing during Green Sage’s normal operating hours (daily 8:00am – 7:00pm).

Who: “Front Row Focus” featuring the work of Nick King, David Simchock, and Frank Zipperer
Where: Green Sage Café (Westgate), Asheville NC
When: Now through April 15, daily 8:00am – 7:00pm
Door: Free, and prints are available for sale.

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Album Review: Dengue Fever — The Deepest Lake

February 18th, 2015

The band Dengue Fever has been together for about twelve years; prior to their latest album, they’ve released six full-lenth albums (including a film soundtrack) and three EPs. But somehow I’ve missed them until now. My only prior exposure to the group was via their curating a 2010 compilation called Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia. In my measured review, I put across the reaction that the disc was a bit exotic for my tastes. And my tempered enthusiasm for it stuck with me, making me (by extension) less receptive to music from Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever.

The loss was clearly mine, as I discovered when I gave the band’s latest, The Deepest Lake, a spin. Where the tracks on the 2010 compilation betrayed miniscule or nonexistent recording budgets and a musical sensibility somewhat alien to western ears, the music of Dengue Fever bears none of those characteristics.

Sure, it leans in a decidedly “world music” direction, but Dengue Fever’s music is firmly rooted in western styles – most notably (but by no means exclusively) sixties garage and psychedelic rock – with a pan-global sensibility folded into the music.

Right out of the gate, Dengue Fever employs an approach that seamlessly blends east and west: on “Tokay,” drum machines chug along right alongside “real” percussion by Paul Dreux Smith, and a southeast Asian-flavored melodic line is delivered using western instruments like Ethan Holtzman‘s venerable combo organ and synthesizer. Lead vocalist Chhom Nimol sings in an unfamiliar language (Khmer), but Zac Holtzman delivers some delightfully reverberated spaghetti-western electric guitar. The result is exotic and familiar all at once, and quite hypnotic. We don’t know what Nimol is singing about, but we like it.

“No Sudden Moves” is, if anything, an even more successful hybrid of Asian and western textures; David Ralicke‘s soulful horns nudge the group’s sound in the direction of bands like New Mastersounds and DC Fontana, and Zac Holtzman’s surf-n-spy guitar licks. But Nimol’s delightful, expressive and high-register Khmer vocals take the music other places indeed.

For “Rom Say Sok,” Nimol not only sings in English, but the band adds in backing harmony vocals; the result sounds not unlike X crossed with the go-go-dance aesthetic of The B-52′s, with some ultra-cool guitar and synth work layered on top. As good as the first two tracks are, with “Rom Say Sok,” The Deepest Lake really hits its stride. And Ralicke’s horn charts on the cut are thrilling.

“The Ghost Voice” dials back the energy, creating a gentle, swaying ambience. Nimol returns to singing in Khmer, and the stuttering beat of the tune – lots of cowbell – will draw listeners in. But everyone in the band contributes something interesting and valuable, so picking the song apart in one’s head yields further delights. That it all works together smoothly – that it’s not some sort of gruesome or precious hybrid – is a testament to Dengue Fever’s skill at songwriting and (especially) arrangement. (Composition of all of the band’s music is credited to the full band.)

“The Deepest Lake on the Planet” weds western ba-ba-ba vocals (from the Mamas & the Papas / Turtles school of pop) to a spooky, slinky melody with a dreamy Khmer vocal from Nimol. One could imagine the band playing this in some smoky Cambodian bar while a tuxedoed James Bond sips on a vesper nearby. “Cardboard Castles” continues in that vein, adding some appealingly twangy lead guitar licks throughout. Here, Nimol alternates effortlessly between Khmer and English.

I’m not sure if it’s a real or sampled flute that opens “Vacant Lot,” but whichever it is, the effect is lovely. Because of the Khmer vocals (and lack of a lyric sheet), it’s impossible to know for sure, but one can’t help wonder if Dengue Fever’s songs on The Deepest Lake concern themselves with melancholic and poignant subject matter; some of the titles certainly suggest it’s the case. The music on “Vacant Lot” and many of the album’s nine other tracks delivers beauty and sadness in equal parts.

The upbeat “Still Waters Run Deep” uses Nimol’s vocal lines as a musical instrument; the Memphis-styled horn battle that provides the song’s centerpiece is easily the most exciting musical moment on an already highly engaging album. “Taxi Dancer” is one of the few tracks on The Deepest Lake in which male (backing) vocals can be heard clearly; the English-language response to Nimol’s Khmer call is a bit unexpected, but it works.

The album closes with “Golden Flute,” featuring a stripped-down arrangement that feels like Martin Denny crossed with Parisian street music; it’s delightfully disorienting in its musical hard-to-pin-down-ness.

Listeners who are open to an album featuring little in the way of English-language vocals are strongly encouraged to give Dengue Fever’s The Deepest Lake a spin; the alluring performances and strong melodies will win over the open-minded.

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Album Review: District 97 with John Wetton — One More Red Night

February 17th, 2015

With exceedingly few exceptions, progressive rock is a man’s game. There’s certainly no law against women singing or playing in the style – Julie Slick, for example, is one of the best bassists around these days, irrespective of genre and gender – but the truth is that the progressive rock scene is one in which males vastly outnumber females. (Put another way, straight single guys shouldn’t go to a prog festival hoping to hook up with a nice chick; the competition is likely to be fierce.)

As is so often the case, it’s the exception that proves the rule. District 97 is prog rock’s exception. Fronted by the immeasurably capable Leslie Hunt (yeah, yeah: a 2007 American Idol semi-finalist; hold that against her and it’s your loss), their 2010 debut album Hybrid Child is a dazzling display of prog rock chops wedded to engaging songs and arrangements.

The world being what it is, the group’s success to date is thanks in no small part to having an attractive vocalist out front. But their skill and musical appeal is beyond question, so if a pretty woman who happens to have an excellent voice helps get people to take notice of the band, small or no harm done. District 97 have built a solid reputation on the strength of their studio efforts and their live performances, and they’ve become a fixture at many of North America’s prog festivals. (Compared to other music genres, the progressive rock world is a relatively small community, especially in the USA.)

Not long ago, the band came to the attention of John Wetton, the bassist/vocalist best known from his long tenure as the lead singer in Asia. Among longtime admirers of his work, however, its Wetton’s work with King Crimson that tops his impressive résumé. Wetton handled bass and lead vocals through one of King Crimson’s most creatively fertile periods, appearing on Larks Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless and Bible Black, the mighty Red (both 1974), and 1975′s live USA album.

Because King Crimson’s subsequent lineups were always possessing of a forward-looking bent, the opportunities to hear songs from Red played at all (much less in arrangements faithful to their studio versions) were all but nonexistent. The closest anything came was the group billing itself as the 21st Century Schizoid Band, populated largely by ex-Crimson members and fronted by Jakko Jakszyk (himself now in the current incarnation of King Crimson, “Mk VIII” as it is commonly known). But the 21CSB was too expensive a proposition to keep alive, and ceased activities after an all-too-brief run (2002-2004).

Luckily for fans of Wetton-era King Crimson (“Mk III” if you’re keeping score), the bassist-vocalist looks fondly upon his work from that period. And who better – who better, I ask – to back him up on a set of classic Crim than this crack midwestern prog band?

None better, as it happens. A brief tour took place in 2013, bringing the music of King Crimson Mk III to modern-day audiences through the musical vehicle of District 97 with John Wetton. And the cleverly-titled One More Red Night (you’ll get it if you’re a fan of Red) documents a single performance from the tour.

The small performance venue Reggie’s Music Joint in the band’s hometown of Chicago hosted the October 2013 set. From the sound of the live recording, one can assume that D97 came out and did a set of their own music first. And then at the show’s midpoint, they were joined by John Wetton at the mic (he doesn’t play bass on this set; that daunting role is ably handled by District 97′s Patrick Mulcahy). The group then proceeds to tear through largely faithful versions of songs from the four Crim albums that featured Wetton.

John Wetton is in fine voice throughout, hitting the notes with power, subtlety and just the right amounts of emotion (when called for). He’s ably assisted by Hunt, who sometimes trades vocal lines with him, and other times provides live accompaniment in places where Wetton had originally overdubbed his voice (she does both on “The Great Deceiver” and several others).

The band is stunning throughout. Playing any King Crimson material requires a level of finesse and precision unachievable by the garden-variety musician, but the members of D97 are clearly up to the task. And while they’re all on fire on this set, guitarist Jim Tashjian deserves special notice for his precise recreation of mid 70s Robert Frippery. Jonathan Schang‘s drum work compares favorably (and sounds a helluva lot like) drum master Bill Bruford, as well. If there’s a criticism of this set – and this really isn’t one – ace keyboardist Rob Clearfield is somewhat underutilized in this show. That’s due, of course, to the relatively minimal amount of keyboards called for on these numbers.

The band stomps through “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a song that dates from King Crimson’s earliest days when Greg Lake was their singer. But the song figured into Mk III sets, so its inclusion makes sense here. And it also gives Clearfield an opportunity to display his abilities within the context of the King Crimson material, making it even more welcome. A truncated arrangement of the malevolent and majestic “Starless” provides another opportunity for dark, Mellotron-flavored keyboard lines; it’s also a showcase for Wetton’s vocal. Serving up a severely abbreviated summary of the dissonant second half of “Starless,” the band segues into “Easy Money,” where Wetton and Hunt engage in some wordless vocal harmony.

With Bruford retired and Fripp otherwise engaged, One More Red Night is as close as modern-day listeners are ever going to get to a Red-era King Crimson reunion. Put this CD on, close your eyes, and you’ve pretty much got one.

Note: I haven’t a clue why the album is going for upwards of US$56 on Amazon (see box). But it’s available from the D97 web site at a vastly more reasonable price.

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