JON ANDERSON: 1000 HANDS, CHAPTER ONE

(BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

Jon Anderson has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in the world; as lead vocalist for prog rock titans Yes for the bulk of their storied career, his pipes became the vocal signature on dozens of vibrant rock classics such as “And You and I,” “Roundabout” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” Why Anderson is not still with Yes can best be left to another discussion, but the man still has a commanding, healthy sounding voice; he hardly seems to have aged at all despite his nearly 75 years of age. 1000 HANDS, Anderson’s latest opus, has been gestating for a number of years and earned its title at least partly from the exaggerated number of individuals who contributed to it. That includes former Yes associates like Steve Howe, Alan White and the late Chris Squire. So it stands to reason this dense new album will be of interest to Yes fans, but it’s also just a solid musical offering that anyone into lush, upbeat pop with classical leanings should be able to appreciate. It’s filled with spritely melodies, Anderson’s lyrical optimism and plenty of engaging instrumental interplay.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: DEBORAH ANDERSON)

The album is bookended by two versions of a simple mostly acoustic song called “Now” in a brief into, then “Now and Again” as the fuller light rock song that ends the record (Howe guests on guitar here). “Ramalama” is a fun little piece that Anderson has said emerged from vocal exercises he was in the habit of doing. While one Anderson sings a repetitive “Dit di da,” another sings some lyrics about light, togetherness, finding your center and other standard Anderson concerns. The piece may remind some of Yes’ album 90210, especially the Rabin-penned “Leave It,” which I thought was extraordinary, myself. I’m hearing a banjo on this number, I believe, and that is kinda cool. By the time this song ends, it has thoroughly grabbed you and demonstrated Anderson’s absolute love of sheer sound, a real trademark of this iconic composer. “First Born Leaders” is an unlikely marriage of calypso and gospel stylings, featuring Larry Coryell guesting on guitar, a small choir and Anderson opening with a burst of smooth a cappella. “Everybody wants what they cannot have/Everybody needs what they cannot see/Everybody wants what they haven’t got at all,” goes the repeated chorus, and that’s pretty dang down to Earth for ol’ cosmic Jon. This is a melodic, upbeat tune that should please most music fans.

JON ANDERSON, 2016 (photo credit: JOE KLEON)

“Activate” features classical guitar and flute (by none other than Ian Anderson) and is one of the two tracks Chris Squire guests on, but at nearly 9 minutes is slightly too new agey for my taste. Anderson can’t stop his searchingly humanistic lyrics from simply pouring out in this song, and truthfully, they resonate quite well for the most part: “In accordance with the facts of life, we resolve to show the truth,” goes one lyric; “Don’t get in the way of the light that shines” is another. But I especially love this directive: “All you gotta do is mesmerize my heart and soul,” something I wish more artists would keep in mind. And the very poignant verse “And the only way we have of contacting you for sure/Is the melody of music and the harmony of love.” Although Anderson has voiced such sentiments countless times, I love the context here and it really moved me as a fellow musician. I only wish the song itself had contained more of the delicate beauty Anderson has been known to effortlessly conjure at times.

JON ANDERSON with ANDERSON PONTY BAND (photo credit: ROBIN KAUFFMAN)

“Makes Me Happy” and “I Found Myself” are sugary pop truffles, the former a ukulele-featuring melodic rush that could get the kiddies dancing; it has uncommon musical efficiency and a genuine spark of joy. The unlikely guests here include Rick Derringer, the Tower of Power Horns and, golly, the “human beatbox,” Michael Winslow. Clearly Anderson kept the sonic palette wide open for this outing. The latter is a romantic love song that features acoustic guitars, violin and (I think) a double-tracked vocal by Jon, before a woman’s voice responds in pure affirmation of his loving expression. If you’re into birds, you’ll notice the prominent call of an Eastern Phoebe throughout, so either Anderson had his windows open when he recorded this, or he made it a point to include sounds of nature in the mix. Again, it’s worth noting the simplicity and directness of tunes like this; no cosmic couplets needed to be transported somewhere special.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: TAMI FREED)

The next three songs represent a sort of climactic and Yes-influenced sequence, with “Twice in a Lifetime” featuring instrumentation that evokes “Turn of the Century” a bit, and “WDMCF” (“Where does music come from?”) featuring lovely harmonies, a piano showcase by Chick Corea, and the kind of celebration of MUSIC that Jon Anderson has made a career out of (see “Awaken” and “Sound Chaser” among others). If you’re a fan of Yes, go straight to this track and turn it up loud; it’s the best song here. There is something riveting about hearing Anderson sing “Music, music/Music… come up, music come up” that hits the bulls-eye of Anderson’s many thematic targets. He’s the right guy to ask “Where does music come from?” and although he might take 20 minutes or more to answer such a question in conversation, here he does it in a sublime five and a half minutes. Stellar, man. “1000 Hands (Come Up)” is the second song in a row to repeatedly use the phrase “come up,” and here we get some overtly jazz stylings (Billy Cobham joins the ensemble), some fancy keys (Corea again) and a sharp bit of violin by Jean-Luc Ponty. Not to mention Squire again making a welcome appearance. Anderson sounds more casual and circumspect on this 8-minute-plus track, and it feels like slightly new territory for him. The whole intricate arrangement comes over like the work of a composer/sonic architect who has been around for a long time and is still searching for sparkling new sounds.

Which Anderson HAS been, and clearly IS. When he sings “Come up with me” on that previous song, it’s not just an invitation to listen, it’s a plea to move your entire vibration to a higher level in life. That’s sound advice, no pun intended, for this era in particular. Anderson may sometimes be cloying, and the overall success of his solo work (and even some Yes recordings) depends on how organically his aesthetic and lyrical explorations nestle into those intricate proggy sound beds his band is known for. When everything gels, the results are transcendent (stuff like “Awaken” and “Heart of the Sunrise,” and at least a couple of tracks here). When it doesn’t, or if you ain’t in the mood, the love-peace-togetherness vibe can get a bit tiresome. But it’s immensely reassuring to have a good Jon Anderson album out there right now, and to hear him sounding happy and caring about humanity as only he can. High vibration, go on… indeed. This enduring musical soul is more than worth listening to on these matters, and would that EVERY legendary musician could still sound so focused and healthy at his age.


JOE OLNICK: WINK OF AN EYE

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

You gotta have patience to appreciate straight drone music. You know that expression people commonly use where someone talks too much? They’ll say of the party in question, “Oh he just drones on and on… ” In other words, someone is making a repetitive noise that someone else quickly gets tired of. Many listeners would say that about a lot of ambient music, especially the sub-genre that is primarily drone-based. But as a devoted ambient acolyte, I appreciate a good immersive drone, and Joe Olnick offers three of them on this here self-released outing. Olnick is a guitarist and producer mostly known for a sort of rock/funk/jazz hybrid that his Joe Olnick Band traffics in (“Funky Traffic” and “Downtown” earned spins on college radio). But he also digs ambient, and has been exploring the possibilities of what the guitar can do when, well, you process the shit out of it so it doesn’t hardly sound like a guitar anymore. WINK OF AN EYE apparently began as brief sections borrowed from an earlier ambient recording called BRIGHT PAINTINGS, and Olnick used what he calls “advanced processing techniques” to conjure up some layered space music.

There are only 3 pieces on this disc, curiously titled “Slow Funky Buildings,” “Slow Bright Buildings” and “Slow Modern Buildings.” All three are, you got it, slow. These are drones that can work as background ambience, and they are pleasant and captivating enough to hold your attention should you choose to pay it. But you won’t be suddenly bombarded by rude sonic bursts of weirdness, either. The “Slow Funky” track is most assuredly NOT funky… it’s made of subtly changing soundwaves that might remind you of a wild seashore, where the water comes into shore dramatically and then recedes. “Waves” is really the best word to describe this stuff. Not that much happens, but it’s still hypnotic. At 26 minutes, the “Slow Bright” track is longest, and it starts off more abrasive and metallic than its predecessor. I was reminded of Fripp and Eno’s “An Index of Metals,” only not as ominous as that opus. Olnick is not out to unnerve anyone; this really seems to be an exercise in how ambient a guitar can get when you manipulate the output very thoroughly. The answer? VERY ambient. You could possibly drift off to sleep with this one, although I wouldn’t call it “serene” or anything. “Slow Modern Buildings” does approach a kind of serenity, though. It’s a modest 11 minutes long, and turns the “evocative” dial up to at least “7.” You could take chunks of this piece and use ‘em in some arty indie film or documentary about wild places. Without any such context? You basically get a Joe Olnick ambient drone trio, which will be enough for some of us. No less than the legendary Robert Rich mastered this recording, which should tell you two things: One, it sounds terrific and enveloping, and two, Rich thought highly enough of the sonic excursions here to put his name on them.

JOE OLNICK (publicity photo)

You could say of virtually ANY ambient disc, “it’s not for everyone.” And this may bore non aficionados, for sure. But there is something very comfortable and unassuming about Olnick’s relaxed space music; he offers it up with the confidence that some folks will find it worthwhile. Olnick is NOT one of those artists who simply “drones on and on” without purpose. He’s got plenty of other things on his plate, but knowing he is into at least the occasional drone-fest makes WINK OF AN EYE rather special. I was a contented participant in the conversation that Olnick started with this release.


JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES: INVASION

(SELF-RELEASED; 2019) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

John William Lowery, better known as John 5, currently plays guitar for both Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie and even logged time with David Lee Roth in the late ‘90s. His solo spans some fifteen years and nine studio albums, beginning with VERTIGO in 2004. His latest release with his band, the Creatures, INVASION is the topic of this review.

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5, Logan Miles Nix, Ian Ross) (publicity photo)

The album’s title track opens with some percussion and the eerie sound of wind whistling through the darkness; the creepy vibe almost reminds me of a Rob Zombie project, with its dark, percussion-fueled sound. A filtered guitar with a phaser slides over the top, playing a simple melody ‘til the end. All in all, the tune sets a good tone for the album. “I am John 5” starts with a robotic voice repeating “I am John 5” over and over again before the blistering lead kicks, something we’ve all come to expect from John 5. The tune shifts to the chorus, then into another solo section, even faster than the first and up an octave. The song breaks into a really groovy clean section with a funk feel and back into another phenomenal solo, extremely clean and distorted. This song is incredible! John does instrumental songs and albums as good as, if not better than some of the accepted greats (Satriani, Vai, Gilbert, Malmsteen). A badass riff kicks off “Midnight Mass.” The drumming on this one is also not to be overlooked… Logan Miles Nix is a monster on the kit. The song is an incredibly good metal track, even looking past the soloing (which, as always, is brilliant and super technical); it sounds like a cross between groove and extreme metal. The second half of the tune has the best riff and best soloing, as John breaks up the shred style for a minute, adopting a blistering Blues style that’s definitely killer. “Zoinks,” the only song I’d heard from the album before I sat to listen to the whole thing, is my favorite John 5 song to date and is VERY close to my favorite instrumental guitar piece of all time. It has everything you could possibly want: It begins with an amazing, slapping bass riff from Ian Ross that has enough pop and funk to make Flea jealous before moving into a section that sees John incorporating shred and sweeps and tapping into the overall melody; repetition of this part throughout the song is what won me over. About two and a half minutes in, the number breaks as the slapping part comes back heavy before John tears into a high speed solo with a really cool ascending and descending lick and a ridiculous sweep at the end before heading back to the original melody shortly before the end of the track. “Howdy” explores John’s “chicken pickin’” abilities. For those that are unfamiliar, chicken pickin’ incorporates your middle finger, ring finger and pinky finger, as well as a pick in your strumming hand to play extremely complex (usually Country or banjo-style) licks on the guitar. It’s extremely difficult and there are only a couple guitarists within the world of metal music who can do it well. As an avid banjo player, John 5 is one of the few. Along with the chicken pickin’, John adds some “traditional” Country licks over the two-step Country beat, very reminiscent of Les Paul and Chet Atkins. The tune also features a harmonic section in the middle that is really cool. About two minutes in, we’re hit with a VERY Les Paul-inspired section of licks that is beyond cool. After, the beat speeds up extremely fast and John breaks out an actual banjo! What a cool song!

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5 playing with Rob Zombie, 2016) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The album’s second half kicks off with “Crank It”/“Living With Ghosts,” which has a very strange sound indeed, sort of metal mixed with EDM at the start; when the melody/solo comes in, it’s just an absolute showcase of 5’s abilities. He does such a good job bringing the solo to you in a way that doesn’t feel excessive. It is incredible! The middle section between the two tunes slows things down with a clean section leading into a heavy, dirty rhythm guitar as John goes into a slow melodic solo with a wicked two guitar harmony section. There’s more insanity as the soloing heats up. The song ends after one more round of the dark, slower part. “Cactus Flower” opens with a quote from the Stephen King movie CARRIE and goes into a very different direction than anything we have heard so far on this album: The guitar sound is cleaner, the pace slower. It’s a great song for allowing yourself to drift away… super moody and great at evoking emotions, making you feel what John was trying to convey. The opening salvo of “I Want It All,” an arpeggio sweeping lick into a very intricate sliding lick, just shows how absurdly talented and amazing John 5 really is. The song dropped my jaw a couple times; as a guitar player, I’m in shock… it definitely showcases John’s abilities. Nestled toward the end of an album of killer music, “I Want It All” is a must listen. John throws a talk box in throughout the song, intoning the track’s title whenever there’s a break from the soloing. The main riff is full of everything you could want: Emotion, shred, distortion, unbridled technical prowess… just a killer track, an absolute GEM for any guitar player or fan of guitar instrumentals. To this reviewer’s ears, “I Like the Funk” almost sounds Tom Morello-inspired, FULL of that man’s emotion and undeniable groove. It’s got plenty of wah, pop and slapping, with some moments of absolute killer shred and insane bends that just make you… move. There’s a really awesome section at about 2:50 in, a call and response with a sample of a female singer (Lisa Forman) saying/chanting “I like the funk” and 5 just RIPPING licks afterwords. As a point of interest, Cinderella’s Fred Coury plays drums on the cut. The last song on the album is “Constant Sorrow,” a cover of the folk classic “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” written by Dick Burnett in 1913 and first recorded by Emry Arthur in 1928; it’s the song that George Clooney’s character sings in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?. Side note: My favorite version comes from a 2002 live Alison Krauss and Union Station. If you’ve never heard of Union Station, PLEASE PLEASE go check them out; they play Bluegrass and Country and are incredibly talented and woefully underrated. The song’s appearance here is John 5 paying tribute to the tune’s message and staying power. As always, John’s version is full of technical wizardry and skillful playing. I don’t know what more I can say about it; it is a solid instrumental cover and a really cool way to close out this album.

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5) (publicity photo)

If you have the time, sit yourself down and give the whole thing a listen. There is not a bad song on this album. I loved it! Every second is something worth hearing. If there is a complaint, it would be this: I would have liked to hear him slow things down just a bit more; I feel like those slower moments are the ones that make it original, setting it apart from other people. All in all, though, a solid 9 out of 10 and one of my favorite guitar albums ever. If you ever had any doubts about John 5’s talents, this record goes a long way in showing that he really is an incredible musician, one of the best guitarists on planet earth. He’s made great progress with these solo albums, with his playing maturing and changing, while still maintaining his original style. So, what are you waiting for? Check it out!


SCOUT DURWOOD: COMEDY ELECTRONICA, VOLUME ONE

(EP; BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

There are a few ways to be funny in a song. One is to do a straight-up parody, a la Weird Al Yankovic or, in the old days, Spike Jones. Another is to offer a song packed with wryly humorous observations about human life and behavior, which John Prine and Harry Nilsson did quite often. And you can generate laughs with complete bizarre vocals and instrumentation, too… I have plenty of examples of that in my record collection… Ween comes immediately to mind. But to make electronic pop music with silly, often riotous lyrics that you have to pay attention to in order to fully enjoy, well, that’s a bit different. And for actress/writer/comedian/singer Scout Durwood, the sheer panache needed to produce something like COMEDY ELECTRONICA, VOLUME ONE, a 5-song digital EP that is undeniably entertaining, is worth pausing to appreciate. Durwood can count TAKE ONE THING OFF, a 22-episode digital TV series which got plenty of attention (and her debut recording of the same name) among her previous accomplishments, and a stint on the Oxygen Channel’s FUNNY GIRLS. She’s also done at least one comedy special. Born in Kansas City but based in LA these days, Durwood seems to be an unstoppable bundle of energy. With many different talents already on display, it’s curious that she wants to record goofy original songs. But she’s done just that here.

SCOUT DURWOOD (photo credit: SCOUT DURWOOD)

Durwood lures you in subtly, by starting this EP with “Steal UR Girlfriend,” an infectious, synth-driven rocker that sounds commercial and catchy from a distance… something that no one would object to casually. Start listening to the lyrics, though, and you realize something different is going on here. It moves real fast, but I caught lines like “I’ll take your princess home and I’ll ‘Leia’/You thought you’d have a threesome, but you left with your Han solo.” There was also a reference to Justin Bieber and a recurring phrase about a “predatory lesbian.” Durwood can sing and manipulate words and she’s a hottie, so there are plenty of ways she can get attention. To make you tap your feet and laugh a bunch seems genuinely ambitious to me. “I Don’t Want to Hold UR Baby” is next, and you gotta watch the YouTube video to fully appreciate this bit of nuttiness. Surrounded by dancers of both genders clad in ridiculous pink swimming attire, Durwood speaks assertively for the contingent of folks who, that’s right, have ZERO interest in holding your cute little infant. “”You’ve always wanted to be a mom/So you know, so you know, so you know/I’ve never even wanted to be an aunt/Maybe I could handle like a distant aunt, like a once a year aunt/Who drops off a gift and gets high in my car/Cuz babies freak me out.” This is zany stuff period, but coming from a woman, the comedic impact is undeniable, and Durwood wrings every bit of mockery the topic clearly inspires, from both the song and the video.

For those of us who are writers and musicians, “Sad Ukulele” is some kind of classic, though, with endlessly quotable lyrics. “Sad songs are inappropriate when you sing them on a ukulele,” Durwood begins, playing said instrument almost guiltily. The simple theme here touches on unsatisfying relationships, a sad tale of a sick old man in Durwood’s building and his cat that may need care, and random bursts of existential dread that eerily come close to actual conversations I’ve had with one of my own musician friends. “Sometimes I wake up in the dead of night/Having a panic attack that sexual slavery exists… what dark part of humanity can possibly explain it?” After many lines of this sort, Durwood can only conclude “It’s hard to acknowledge social justice on a ukulele.” To hear such sentiments sung in this context is somehow both bold and blackly comic, underscoring how, in many cases, laughter may be the ONLY remedy for some of us. “Sky Dancer” is a kind of exaggerated dance song with raps included… Durwood’s musical approach does allow her to explore this kind of musical setting, but the arrangement feels a bit frantic and cluttered to me. Much better is “Sexually Implicit,” a creatively ribald wordplay exercise that’ll having you listening close to catch everything. Mostly the listed words either SOUND sexual or are sex-related in nature. But Durwood mixes it up for maximum silliness. “Nut butter, Oedipus, oral, panties, peacock, penal code, pendulous, penultimate, pounding… pro bono,” one section goes (not totally sure about a couple of those). This is actually, by my reckoning, a pretty ambitious song, and a listenable one. Maybe Durwood will inspire some listeners to look up a few words, or to just get in the mood. But she’s doing something fun, witty and even literate here, and it’s been a while that I’ve been able to say that about a pop offering.

SCOUT DURWOOD (photo credit: SCOUT DURWOOD)

I haven’t heard Durwood’s previous full-length recording, so I can’t make comparisons. I can only say that, as a newcomer to her kooky, upfront talents, I was truly entertained by both the music and the two videos I watched. Anyone likely named after a beloved character in Harper Lee’s classic novel immediately puts me in a certain frame of mind. And this “Scout” is doing some “mocking,” all right – birds, babies, business and a whole lot more. Well worth your time if you want to giggle at life’s absurdities and enjoy a fresh, bracing new talent.


SHE GIVES ME FEVER

A LOVE-NOTE TO PEGGY LEE, ONE OF THE GREATEST SINGER/SONGWRITERS OF THE RECORDING ERA (by STEVE WAGNER)

A tip of the top hat and genuflection to Miss Peggy Lee, today celebrating the centennial of her birth. Peggy has long been one of my very favorite singers, from the day a friend turned me onto her album SUGAR ‘N’ SPICE in 1984. In the years since, I have delved deeply into her catalog, which is truly a gift that keeps on giving. Peggy was a towering figure in 20th century popular music. A singer for the ages, she was also one of the most accomplished lyricists in music history, and mostly at a time when very few women were songwriters, much less singer/songwriters. She was an innovator throughout her six-decade career, and, like most great artists, was restless, experimental, uncompromising, and a perfectionist. It is said she ran her sessions with no patience for lip, or amateurs. One simply did not question Miss Lee’s taste, or decisions, if one wanted to stay on her record.

PEGGY LEE, 1946 (photo credit: RAY WHITTEN PHOTOGRAPHY/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)

As someone who really values great vocals, I find Peggy’s oeuvre to be an indispensable primer on what makes a great singer a great singer. Frankly, most current singers leave me cold – I’m distracted and irritated by the faux emotion, self-indulgent delivery, calculated moans, endless vocal gymnastics at the expense of melody, and puzzling lack of awareness of what THE SONG is asking for. Peggy never exhibited such rookie behavior; she accomplished what every song called for with the exact opposite approach – rich tone, perfect pitch, intuitive timing, impeccable phrasing, and thoughtful understatement. She was a master of the “less-is-more” style, which I find much more moving than the egoic wailings we are frequently inundated with now. Peggy’s voice flourished across so many styles and genres – pop, jazz, cabaret, torch, blues, and comedy/novelty – while always remaining utterly singular and instantly recognizable.

PEGGY LEE on THE FRANK SINATRA SHOW, 1957 (photo credit: WALT DISNEY TELEVISION/GETTY IMAGES)

It would be impossible to summarize her long career here, suffice to say it is very telling that it closely mirrored that of Frank Sinatra’s throughout the decades. They both had their introductions as singers fronting the top big bands of the swing era – Frank with Tommy Dorsey and Peg with Benny Goodman – with both quickly becoming breakout stars on their own. Both dominated the charts as solo artists in the 1940s. Peg scored over twenty Top 40 songs in that decade, with her “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” the number one song of 1948, and Capitol Records’ top-selling single for sixteen years, until the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964. Both branched into acting in the mid-50s with Oscar-nominated performances (Frank for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Peg for PETE KELLY’S BLUES), and both also pioneered the concept album during this period (Frank with IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, and Peg with BLACK COFFEE). Both managed to survive the explosion of rock and roll, maintaining a consistent chart presence throughout the ‘60s – indeed, they were really the only two singers from the big band years to remain commercially viable through that decade, even recording songs that are now considered amongst their best work. And both were ultimately defined by seminal songs late in their games – Frank for the testimonial “My Way” and Peg for the existential “Is That All There Is?” – which finally garnered her a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance in 1969, at the height of the classic rock era.

PEGGY LEE on stage (photo credit GEORGE RINHART/CORBIS HISTORICAL/GETTY IMAGES)

As a songwriter, Peggy is up there with the greats. She collaborated with many giants of the form – Harold Arlen, Mel Tormé, Victor Young, Cy Coleman, Sonny Burke, and Duke Ellington. Her songs graced numerous films, among others THE JAZZ SINGER (1952); TOM THUMB (1958); ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959); THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966); WALK, DON’T RUN (1966); THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968); and, of course, Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955), for which Peg composed the songs, and sang and voiced the parts of the female characters, not to mention two very devious Siamese cats. So many of her songs are timeless standards: “It’s a Good Day,” “Golden Earrings,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Mañana,” “He’s a Tramp,” and “I Love Being Here with You,” just to name a few. And while her career-defining hit “Fever” was originally penned by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport, Peggy added two original verses (“Romeo loved Juliet… ” and “Captain Smith and Pocahontas… ”) for her definitive version, and also came up with the idea to transpose the key up a half-step for each verse, which perfectly communicated the “rising temperature” motif. When the dust settled, her songs had been recorded by the cream of 20th century crooners and canaries: Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Mose Allison, Della Reese, Jack Jones, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Annie Ross, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, Mark Murphy, Dionne Warwick, Michael Feinstein, kd lang, and Madonna.

PEGGY LEE with PAUL MCCARTNEY, 1976 (photo credit: JAMES FORTUNE)

If you’ll indulge me a few anecdotes I feel speak to Peg’s unique impact: She gave Quincy Jones a commercial biz leg-up in the early ‘60s, hiring the jazz wunderkind to arrange and produce for her. She gave her longtime lover Robert Preston singing lessons in preparation for his role as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN. She was a favorite of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, charting one of their gems, “I’m a Woman” in 1962, which stands with Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as a proto-feminist anthem. Jerry and Mike claim that a few years later she threatened to have their legs broken if they didn’t give her “Is That All There Is?” (which also became the first hit to feature Randy Newman, who was arranger). She was the inspiration for “Miss Piggy” on THE MUPPET SHOW and essentially the genesis of the Jessica Rabbit character in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, her immortal “Why Don’t You Do Right” the song Jessica breathlessly sings to a mouth-agape Bob Hoskins. In addition to cutting nearly every substantial tune from the Great American Songbook, she recorded songs by rock/pop innovators Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, George Harrison, John Sebastian, Buffy Saint Marie, and Ray Davies. Paul McCartney, a huge fan, specially wrote the song “Let’s Love” for her in 1973, one of her last singles. kd lang, one of today’s most acclaimed singers, considers Peggy to be a primary influence. Peggy’s nightclub performances are the stuff of legend – extended residencies at Basin Street East in New York in the early ‘60s attracted a veritable who’s who of show business glitterati nightly. The Beatles were said to have wanted to attend when they first came over to do the Sullivan Show, but knew that Beatlemania would overwhelm the club and respected her too much to disturb. And finally, Peggy sang at Louis Armstrong’s funeral. Mic drop.

PEGGY LEE at the first Grammy Awards, 1959 (photo credit: WILLIAM CLAXTON/courtesy: DENMONT PHOTO MANAGEMENT

If you have the time (and who doesn’t, these days?) I implore you to explore this incredible artist. Recommended albums: BLACK COFFEE (1956); DREAM STREET (1957); BEAUTY AND THE BEAT (1959); BASIN STREET EAST (1961); and MINK JAZZ (1963). Below, please find several songs and videos that I hope bring Peggy’s brilliance into deeper perspective.

Enjoy, and HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, PEGGY!

First, here is an amazing film of Peggy at Basin Street, performing “See See Rider” with a presence that is, in a word, riveting. Tell me she doesn’t have the most expressive face this side of Elvis.

Peggy’s celebrated score for Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP in 1955 remains among her best known and most beloved work. It’s easy to hear why. Both the lyrics and vocal delivery are laced with lighthearted humor and cleverness. The two most famous songs from the movie – “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” – easily rank with the very best in the entire Disney animated film canon.

“He’s a Tramp”

“The Siamese Cat Song”

A wonderful example of Peggy’s singular approach to the blues, “I’m Looking Out the Window” is a simple sad chord progression in no hurry whatsoever to reach its destination, and only becomes a blues number because of the way Peggy interprets it. She takes what would be a straightforward melody and bends it into a poignant lament on waiting for a love that never arrives. Note that her take on this tune uses the same structural trick as her version of “Fever,” bouncing the key up a step with every other verse. This would normally produce a sense of hopefulness, or at least growing excitement. Peggy tempers this expectation by phrasing the lines more and more languidly as the song progresses.

One of the great, and still mostly overlooked, tunes from the standards era, this longing ballad (written by THE WIZARD OF OZ composer Harold Arlen in 1941) was recorded by nearly everyone, but never became a sizable hit for anyone. Among those who cut “When the Sun Comes Out” were the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, and Nancy Wilson. Notably, it was one of Barbra Streisand’s earliest recordings, the B-Side of her first single, 1962’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” (later re-recorded for THE SECOND BARBRA STREISAND ALBUM in 1963). But to my ears, Peggy’s version is the best of them all. She never strays from the melancholy feeling the lyrics demand, never falls prey to affecting a “big finish” beyond allowing her voice to become more emotional as the narrative builds. The arrangement rightly follows suit. This is a song that is meant to evoke, not entertain, and Peggy’s version does just that, perfectly.

A great example of how to subtly turn a jazz number into relatable pop, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin” is a co-composition by Peggy and Duke Ellington featured in the classic Jimmy Stewart courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A MURDER in 1959. Peggy’s lyric masterfully matches the jazzy intervals while winking at the listener throughout. She’s out to “catch me a trout,” alright, and her vocal supplies all the needed innuendo even if one can’t discern the barely concealed true intent in the lyric.

Paul McCartney loved Peggy, and composed this soft nugget for her in 1973, where it became one of her last singles and the title of the album on which it was featured. “Let’s Love” is unmistakably a McCartney melody, but Paul clearly strove to create a song that would allow for and accent Peggy’s personal style. This is one that every Beatle fan should know and serves as both love letter and testament to Peggy’s bedrock influence on the pop artists and songwriters—at least the respectful ones—who followed in her footsteps.

Peggy should absolutely be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and not just as an influencer, but as a singer who deftly made the transition from easy listening into the more hard-edged styles of the rock era. This recording alone should be enough to deem her worthy. Written by the great songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, “I’m a Woman” ranks with their best, and Peggy simply hits it out of the park.

Peggy’s two most famous songs show the wide range of her talent as a vocalist, bringing precisely the right emotion to the needs of each. “Fever” is the quintessential torch song, and Peggy sings it with a brusque beguile that is always on the verge of boiling over while maintaining a shrewd detachment. This wise woman schools us on sex as she works us into a lather. Conversely, “Is That All There Is?” is the ultimate world-weary take on life and loss and the eternal question of “to be, or not to be.” I remember being stunned, at the age of nine, by the directness of this song, as I realized what Peggy was really singing about. This is one of the most unique songs to dominate the 20th century pop charts, and Peggy sings it like someone who has lived it. Because she had.

“Fever”

“Is That All There Is?”


A FRAGILE TOMORROW: MAKE ME OVER

(MPRESS RECORDS; 2015) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

South Carolina four-piece A Fragile Tomorrow features the brothers Kelly – Sean and Dominic, two of a set of triplets (the third passed away several years back), and their non-multiple sibling, Brendan – and bassist Shaun Rhoades. MAKE ME OVER is the group’s fifth studio album and first for indie label Mpress Records; lead vocalist Sean Kelly is the primary songwriter and his glam rock tendencies drive the sound, so… fans of Marc Bolan, David Bowie and, for the power pop-minded amongst you, Cheap Trick, strap in for one heck of a fun ride!

A FRAGILE TOMORROW (Brendan Kelly, Dominic Kelly, Sean Kelly, Shaun Rhoades) (photo credit: TOM MOORE)

The album kicks off with Sean’s paean to the legendary Slade vocalist and glam rock icon, “Make Me Over (Noddy Holder).” Actually, the track is Kelly wondering if pursuing the rock and roll lifestyle is really worth all the trouble: “Maybe we can start all over/Change our name and make me over.” Now that I see that in writing, that happened to Holder and his band before glamming up their image and purposely misspelling key words in song titles. The song features a pulsing, hard rock undercarriage, courtesy of drummer Dominic Kelly and the double whammy of bassist Shaun Rhoades (he of the standard electric variety) and guest musician, Ted Comerford (he of the twelve-string version). And, just that quickly, this record is off and running. “Tie Me Up Again” slows things down a bit, though it is equally as introspective as the first song. There are guitars aplenty from Sean and his non-wombmate brother, Brendan; I’m reminded of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” (in a very jangly and precise way) and very early psychedelic Alice Cooper (via a sped up guitar freakout, a la Glen Buxton). The number also features a string quartet (cellist Ward Williams, violist Rachael Jones and violinists Diana Brewer and Lyais Hung, who crop a few more times later on), quite a nice addition. Musically speaking, “Billion” is sort of Beatlesque thing which quickly morphs into a spry little Power Pop affair that could very easily have outstayed its welcome; as is, it kinda ended at the perfect time. A ton of cool guitars keep things interesting, as does the bouncy drumwork. Another lush, jangley, pop tune, “One of Two, Two of Three,” hearkens back to such 1960s psychedelic-pop acts as the Jefferson Airplane, Roy Wood’s (and, later, Jeff Lynne’s) the Move, PET SOUNDS-era Beach Boys, as well as early ‘60s Phil Spector produced “Wall of Sound” records. Even the “trippy” title and the lyrically vague implications are drawn from that same general time period and fertile asthetic; the words still ring agonizingly true today: “One of two, two of three/Everything is as it seems/It’s not black and white, cut and dry.” Next, we have “Kissing Games,” a heartbroken power pop ballad that SOUNDS far happier than the words imply. It’s actually more of a self-empowering note that this person is finished being used and is taking control of his own life for once. The string quartet returns and is more upfront than on “Tie Me Up Again.” Rachael Sage offers up some very nice piano and bassist Rhoades delivers one of his best performances here. “Tell Me How To Feel” is shiny, poppy and pretty with a definite “Then He Kissed Me” vibe during the intro and with the drums throughout. It’s one of the few tracks here to feature the group’s four core members alone; only the odd guitar signatures save it from being the most disposable song on the record. The first lines of “In My Mind” says everything you need to know about A Fragile Tomorrow and MAKE ME OVER: “Oh, unrequited love/It’s kind of my thing.” Shimmery and solemn, the number is another “everything PLUS the kitchen sink” kinda thing with sleigh bells, timpani, guitars of varied stripes and, of course, the string quartet. Even though it seems like the song is about to take off a couple of times, it remains in first gear all the way… Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

A FRAGILE TOMORROW (Brendan Kelly, Dominic Kelly, Shaun Rhoades, Sean Kelly) (photo credit: TOM MOORE)

Hit Parade” is about the ultimate search for that ever illusive “Hit Single.” Unlike most of the rest of the album, the song features the four band members exclusively along with an actual guitar solo; it’s very catchy, in an XTC sort of way with lyrics that include: “Same old turn of phrase/Here’s your chord change/Please make way for the hit parade/All my dignity’s gone.” That pretty much sounds like every musician I’ve ever met! “Interlude” is an odd little ditty that features absolutely none of the actual band members, with samples by Michaelangelo, drums by Russ Broussard (even though I really didn’t hear them) and, naturally, the by-now obligatory string quartet. “Siouxsie” is obviously a song about X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene. With vocals by Dominic and guest artist Mark Hart (of Crowded House fame) providing organ and lap steel, it is actually a tune extolling the (many) virtues of Siouxsie Sioux and her undeniable influence on – not only punk and Goth – but popular music in general. It’s fun and bubbly and you may catch yourself humming along to the melody… in a totally anarchic punk kind of way, of course. John Cowsill and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson add their voices to “Everybody Knows,” another wicked swipe at stardom. The track is sort of a lo-fi avant-surf masterpiece with a guitar/trumpet (the latter provided by Clay White) interplay that’s echoey and (maybe) backwards; that alone makes the song, at the very least, quite interesting. “Can’t You Hear Me” is another cool power pop thing that features, of all things, a singing saw performed by the multi-talented Clay White. Everything is hitting on all cylinders on this one; it’s a definite favorite on what is a fairly solid record. I think that the term “bonus track” may have been applied to “One Way Ticket (Coda)” simply because it features Joan Baez (THE!) and Indigo Girls Amy Ray (on mandolin) and Emily Saliers (on banjo). I mean, those are some heavyweight names right there! Did I forget to mention that the cut also features White and his saw? This song alone makes MAKE ME OVER worth owning. Yeah… it is THAT good. Of course, you get the additional bonus of the first twelve songs, too. So, what are you waiting for? Pick up your very own copy from your favorite dispenser of fine music… now!


NYAH: DISCONNECTED

(EP; INRAGE ENTERTAINMENT; 2020)

InRage Entertainment is a Los Angeles-based artist development company formed by Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Bruce “Automatic” Vanderveer as sort of a proving ground for up-and-coming talents. Hailing from Florence, Oregon, sixteen year old Nyah Vollmar is the first non-Californian signed to their roster. One listen to Nyah’s debut EP, DISCONNECTED, tells you why. The multi-talented teen (she sings, she writes her own music, she dances, she acts) is light years ahead of many singer/songwriters who’ve been in the game for more years than she’s been alive. Are there moments throughout the five tracks that highlight the fact that she is only sixteen (fifteen when the tracks were recorded and, in many cases, younger when the songs were written)? Sure. But, her vocal prowess more than makes up for any cringe-worthy teenage moments.

NYAH (photo credit: JEREMY DAVID CREATIVE)

The opening tune, “Midnight,” is a pumping, ethereal piece of Pop confection with a slight Middle Eastern vibe, particularly in the percussion. Nyah’s vocals are strong and confident, while maintaining a rather wispy quality… kinda like early Stevie Nicks. The number starts strong and finishes the same way. “Empty Spaces” features some nice acoustic guitar and keyboards, lending a more rocking sound to the proceedings. Producer Vanderveer’s multi-layering of Nyah’s voice bolsters the already hefty sounding lead vocals. A brief return after a full stop presents a whimsical, 16 year old’s idea of a “wild” remix (vocals sped up to a chipmunky squeal and otherwise manipulated). Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but it does work.

A Thousand Wishes” is a love story to a best friend, a family member, a planet misunderstood and hurting. The lyrics convey a very mature concept for someone who just turned old enough to drive. A very cool Middle Eastern/Asian vibe in instrumentation and vocal melody lines inform “Legends In the Stars,” a girl-meets-boy narrative, unfortunately hampered by standard-issue Pop-production tropes. The tune, thankfully, is saved by Nyah’s lyrics and flawless vocal performance. Undoubtedly, my favorite track on the unfortunately short EP is “Flowers On My Grave.” An ebb and flow of piano-driven orchestration on the verses and a throbbing Pop Punk intensity on the choruses is the perfect combination for the dark sentiments of the song: “Would you care to be so kind as to lay flowers on my grave/Let them wither, let them fade so I don’t die alone.”

NYAH (photo credit: JEREMY DAVID CREATIVE)

As with any collection of songs, DISCONNECTED is not without flaws. Those flaws, however, are minor and in no way detracts from the whole of the work. Nyah appears to be on the verge of something wholly spectacular and I am definitely excited to see where she goes from here.


JUST AFTER ZERO: ALCHEMEDIC

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

Any time a new artist releases a full CD, they should be applauded. It takes a whole lot of courage and chutzpah to put a disc out these days and to feel you have something worthwhile to add to the cultural dialogue. For the listener, your general response will be based on two things: “What is different about this entity?” And maybe, “Do the songs grab me?” What we’ve got here is a Saint Louis act called Just After Zero, the musical brand name for one John Liming, who has a flair for observing the nonsensical, consumerist realms of existence, impressive musical chops, and a preoccupation with the sometimes-cinematic and sometimes just taxing side of life. There is cynicism and humor running through these ten songs, and above all, a keen diarist’s sense of the absurd. Fortunately, Liming has the raw beginnings of a pretty original style here, with a healthy dose of David Byrne-ish quirkiness (although Liming’s lyrics are more personal and his delivery less detached) and a touch of Nick Cave’s brooding but vulnerable side. The inherent drama of his vocal delivery works fine when the arrangements match it, which fortunately they do on at least half the compositions on his debut, ALCHEMEDIC. And you get the sense you’ve just met a highly original new songwriter.

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

Liming wisely begins the disc with his strongest track, “Coming Down,” an ultra-cool little chunk of sonics with edgy acoustic guitar, bass, and an insistently simple drumbeat that you’ll tap your foot to. He’s in masterful control here; the guitar playing is terrific, with an economic and surprising electric solo a couple moments in and possibly the best vocal on the record. There’s a vague sense of threat that the narrator is sharing, with the line “I should get out of this town” repeated enough to qualify as a hook. Musically, this is just a solid song all the way. “Backlot” starts with a similarly bracing riff, although it is shorter, and keeps the attention on Liming’s voice. This may be an acquired taste for some… but he doesn’t really sound exactly like anyone else, which I’d say is good. There is a slight tinge of implied paranoia but also a strong sense of survival determination that makes the journey he takes you on less jittery than it might have been otherwise. My favorite of his odd little tunes is “Electric Cicadas,” which is Liming adding memorable flourishes to the template he’s created for himself. There’s undeniable punk-ish energy happening here. “These electric cicadas got me down,” he sings repeatedly, with a brittle, wiry electric guitar solo popping up at just the right moment. And I like the “Oh, no, no, no” exclamation, the best use of that kinda thing since Paul Simon in “Paranoia Blues.” Good stuff, with kinetic energy!

“Building Code Under Fire” will remind you of a Talking Heads title, “Love Goes to a Building on Fire,” and it takes on messed-up societal processes, a thing Liming seems to think about a great deal. The drama is supplied entirely by Liming’s vocals and a solid acoustic guitar track. Then it’s time for an atypical highlight, “Harvest Song (C’est la Vie),” which is airplay worthy. Serious existential contemplation is taking place here, as Liming sings “I met the devil in a truck stop, he was waiting for a ride/He snapped his fingers to the radio that was playing from inside.” A little bit later, we get “I met the devil in a truck stop and he reeked of kerosene/He said, you better pay attention when you see the things I see.” This is a well-constructed tune that features the most singable chorus on ALCHEMEDIC, and it’s fun to ponder what might have prompted this composition. Another voice and acoustic guitar thing, the song proves Liming cares about the songwriting process… he has good ideas to spare, certainly one of the requirements for an adventurous new artist. “Only Monika” is a somewhat dour little tune that may have a girl’s name in the title but clearly it’s NOT “only Monika” causing the blues here. Then we get another surprise – “Tex Mex,” which is a rather zippy little instrumental that shows Liming can really play guitar, quite energetically, in fact. This is a nice trick for a newcomer to have up their sleeve. And “Irene’s Call” begins with part of a computerized voice talking about credit eligibility, which the subsequent song then proceeds to make a mockery of. Liming’s close attention to the irritations of modern life should provide him material for plenty of future songs, no doubt. He does sarcasm pretty well.

JUST AFTER ZERO (Adam Long, John Liming) (uncredited photo)

At times, a few of these songs aren’t too far past demo stage; Liming benefits from the ones that feature drums, which were played by Ralph Noyes. Liming handles guitar, bass on some songs and of course, vocals. There is a theatrical bent to many tracks, and when Liming gets the balance just right, as on “Coming Down,” “Electric Cicadas,” “Backlot” and “Harvest Song,” you really feel you’re being courted by a bracing new talent. The man has something to say, an eccentric style and presence and a pretty good flair for arrangements. I think we’re going to hear more from him for sure, and the riffs and refrains from some of these tunes are already firmly lodged in my brain. That seems like a pretty good sign to me.

ALCHEMEDIC can be ordered from Bandcamp at: https://justafterzero.bandcamp.com/album/alchemedic. Physical CDs can be ordered for $10 from JustAfterZero@gmail.com.

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH JOHN LIMING OF “JUST AFTER ZERO”

Q1: What is the significance of branding yourself as “Just After Zero” rather than your own name?

John: Truthfully, I was tired of people mispronouncing my last name. The original plan was to go by “One”, a three-way reference between the track from Metallica’s …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL album, which was the first guitar song I learned in high school, my status as a one-man act, and coming up with the name around 1:00 AM the morning before my first open mic. But I worried about it getting mixed up with “Won” and “1”, so I switched over to the more memorable and easily communicated “Just After Zero.”

Q2: Every artist ends up getting asked about their stylistic touchstones or influences. So, what are yours? They don’t just have to be musical artists. But what would you say are the things that led you to making your kind of music?

John: Funnily enough, my biggest influence is from film, not music. I’ve always been a big fan of low budget horror movies, particularly the shot-on-video variety that popped up after the renaissance of cheap VHS camcorders and digital editing software. It’s fascinating seeing filmmakers not much better off than myself just throw themselves at a production and make something on a shoestring budget with precious little technical skill, driven only by a desire to make the movies that scared them as teenagers. The movies end up sweaty, generally ugly, and always fascinating in their interpretation of universal fears. They taught me to not shy away from imperfection, or at least not to trade technical competency for impulse. This inspiration also serves as fodder for a few songs on ALCHEMEDIC, specifically “I Write Horrorshows,” “Backlot,” and “Building Code Under Fire!,” all very literally about the different aspects of cheap production values. Musically, a huge influence of mine is Primus’ Les Claypool. His ability to turn mundane people and places into macabre jokes and character studies is uncanny and guides a lot of my songwriting efforts. Also, “Puddin’ Taine” makes for a fantastic vocal exercise before a performance along with “Life During Wartime” from Talking Heads’ STOP MAKING SENSE album. That’s my hot tip to any musician readers out there.

Q3: “Electric Cicadas” is one of my favorite songs of yours. It’s got a hypnotic weirdness to it. What inspired this song? How would you summarize it for the casual listener?

John: Glad you like the song! I once had to fill out a ReCAPTCHA to log into a website (one of those tests where you type in a couple of words to prove you’re not a robot) and my words were “electric” and “cicadas.” I started thinking about how ungodly irritating a robotic cicada swarm would be (a combination of obnoxious clicking and bits of hot metal banging into windows at all hours, aluminum legs landing unprompted on your arms with no malice but no real purpose, nobody’s really quite sure why anybody invented something so loud and invasive but surely somebody had a good reason for it), and the words sounded fun to say together. So the song just wrote itself as an acoustic guitar song I could play on the open mic circuit. Then when I got the chance to do a full treatment of the song, I took the formerly human acoustic guitar parts and stripped all the warmth out of them with aggressive gates and filtering to get the feeling of chaotic sterility across.

Q4: Is it fair to say you are more of an introvert than an extrovert overall? What kind of release does music provide for you? It seems on the evidence that you are pretty driven… is there tension for you between ordinary survival type stuff and the energy and focus it takes to make music?

John: I’m an introvert normally, but Just After Zero provides me the chance to be an extrovert for a few hours at a time. In fact, this entire musician gig just started as a New Year’s resolution to play guitar at an open mic to convince myself to get out of my apartment a little and meet some new people. And as it happens, the Saint Louis open mic scene is bustling enough to support an independent musical career almost all on its own.

Music, to me, is the chance to tell a good joke or spark a conversation. When I learn something new (You ever notice how Building Code Under Fire is on every Universal movie newspaper? Wonder what’s up with that.) or come up with a weird hypothetical (You think there’s somebody out there that’s so down in the dumps that a call from a telemarketer is actually a formative event in their life?), the first thing I want to do is tell the nearest person about it. Music is a chance to share that insight and maybe, if I’m lucky, make somebody smile or think about that next spam call a little differently. There’s value in that. Making music is effectively a survival type activity at this point. I get twitchy and hyperactive if I go too long without it, so in that sense it jives really well with the more mundane psychological requirements like sunlight and spicy food.

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

Q5: Let’s imagine that this guy, we’ll call him Buford T Injustice, a fictional record industry dude, agrees to a meeting with you after hearing the awesome song “Coming Down.” He seems like he wants you to be honest, but you’re not sure. What would you say to him about your goals and aspirations for your music? How much compromising would you be open to, to sell records? If he pairs you up with some known producer, how much freedom would you give the producer? If Buford starts pissing you off, could you tell him you don’t like this direction, or would you quietly take all his suggestions under advisement?

John: I would approach Buford and ask him directly what he saw in “Coming Down” and what, specifically, he wants to see in my future work. I would expect some compromises to be asked of me and I would evaluate them fairly against what Buford would give me in exchange. I wouldn’t necessarily think of it as a chance to just sell records, though. I would try to think of it as Buford getting me in touch with people who want to hear my music, an extremely valuable resource for the increasingly dense musical landscape we’re living in. I would accept the chance to work with a producer on the condition I still get to play guitar and write my own songs. One of the unique aspects of a one-man band is that you don’t get a lot of creative input or pushback, so that could be a really good chance to take Just After Zero somewhere interesting.

Buford’s pissing me off would be a shame but I’ve worked for irritable bosses before. I would try to keep impartial and determine how much of the friction is actually impacting Just After Zero’s music. Some personal disagreements and irritation are a small price to pay for a publishing deal. If the music begins to suffer or my existing fans start disagreeing with the direction, it would be time to consider hitting the road.


WEEKS ISLAND: DROSTE

(SELF-RELEASED DIGITAL EP; 2020)

All musical genres evolve and change, no matter what they started as. When Brian Eno coined the term “ambient” for the dreamy, drifty sound he became enamored with in the mid-’70s, it would have been impossible for him to imagine the different directions this stuff would go in over the next nearly half a century. APOLLO, the absolute ambient classic Eno created with his brother Roger and producing partner Daniel Lanois in 1983, found Lanois doing a strange thing: Introducing the pedal steel into otherwise spacey, Eno-esque soundscapes. It was an attempt to comment on astronauts reported fondness for traditional country music. Although viewed as sacrilege by ambient purists, somehow this new and unfamiliar blend worked.

Jonny Campos of Weeks Island (an ambient side project for the guitarist in Cajun band the Lost City Ramblers) was listening. He has just released DROSTE, a 5-track EP that features pedal steel and atmospheric background drone that removes almost every trace of anything you’d call “country.” This is meandering, often haunting ambience that makes a statement without wearing out its welcome. “Raccoon Island” could be the soundtrack for a couple lost in a swamp somewhere, evoking a non-panicky sort of displaced feeling, very much of the background-ish aesthetic that good ambient music excels at. “Fleur Pond” is more sparse but still gently cinematic, with Campos playing his chosen notes with definite deliberation. “Bayou La Chute” doesn’t vary too much, but the bending of a single string upward or downward adds drama and an evocation of being pretty far away from any familiar scenic touchstones. Curiously, this stuff is more purely ambient than Lanois’ diversions on the previously mentioned APOLLO. “Cybrien Bay” adds a repeating low-register tone for something a shade more intense and it contrasts nicely with Campos’ by now characteristic fluid pedal-steel flourishes. And the piece never makes it to the 3-minute mark, The opening “Point Fortuna” is nearly twice as long and represents Campos’ intention here the most memorably.

WEEKS ISLAND (Jonny Campos) (photo credit: WILL HAGAN)

With any sort of weird ambient music, it’s a given that it’s an “acquired taste.” But this is actually a nice little surprise… short, purposeful and totally authentic in its aims to create a southern-tinged atmospheric mini-set that has ambient textures but with pedal steel and the processing of it at the forefront. Let’s keep an eye and an ear on Jonny Campos; he’s demonstrated that he has a feel for this stuff, and meatier works may be in the offing down the road.


EPHEMERA: SEASONS

(EPHEMERA MUSIC; 2020) (UPDATE BELOW)

The last time I had the chance to review a new album by Ephemera was late 2004, just after they released their brilliant fifth CD, MONOLOVE. I’d already grown so fond of this sublime Norwegian female pop trio by then, that I wondered if they were simply too good to be true. Who makes music this sparkly so seemingly effortlessly? The gorgeous, impossibly gentle voices employing flawless harmonies; economical and universal lyrics that summed up dilemmas about life and love in simple but relatable terms; inventive arrangements that seemed to always have one extra “earworm” than you’d expect, and a genius producer in Yngve Saetre. Ephemera had already won the equivalent of the Norwegian Grammy (called the “Spellemannprisen” award) for Best Pop Group twice for previous albums, and enjoyed at least one international hit with “Girls Keep Secrets in the Strangest Ways.” MONOLOVE was seemingly a gift for “deep listeners,” as it was a sonic treasure for those who liked more complex textures in their crystalline female pop, and it was a creative peak of sorts for the band. So, were they too good to be true? Or were good things just not meant to last? One couldn’t help but worry when the trio vanished after 2005 into the Norwegian cultural wilderness. Though the group’s songs are in English, there simply weren’t any articles in either language for a while, that made clear what happened. As year after year passed, the dedicated fan would have had to dig deep to discern Ephemera’s plans, and there were no clues on solo albums such as Christine Sandtorv’s FIRST LAST DANCE or Ingerlise Storksen’s ALL THE GOOD THINGS. You were free to speculate, but you probably were just gonna have to WAIT. The simple explanation, however, was that the three women all got married, had children at varying intervals and chose to live a calmer life for a while. They needed a break after five straight years of being a busy Nordic pop sensation; some reassessment was in order. But fans had to be delighted when an unexpected pair of new singles, “Magic” and “Hope” (words aptly associated with this trio), turned up in the latter half of 2019. Yes, they still had the gift! And now at last we are treated to their sixth album (seventh if you count the compilation SCORE), simply titled SEASONS. The girls love one-word titles! It appears right in the middle of a daunting, world-wide pandemic. And it is, simply, a soothing little gem. Whew! We’ve still got one of the finest girl groups in the world out there, serving up wisdom and life stories. Det er en lettelse!

EPHEMERA (Jannicke Larsen Berglund, Ingerlise Storksen, Christine Sandtorv) (photo credit: CECILIE BANNOW)

All the truly great artists have a sound, a style that contains their own flavors and seasoning. Ephemera are purveyors of lilting pop music which alternates between little stories that feature a melancholy undercurrent (sometimes overt, in fact) and upbeat, rapturous odes to love, self-realization, and getting lost in life’s beauty and wonder. They have a gift for making the listener rapturous, too… a few listens to any of their best songs and you start feeling like the world is a bit more awesome than you told yourself yesterday. There is unquestionably a vibe of empathy and inclusiveness in Ephemera songs – they are NOT detached or cynical. They are with YOU all the way, whether you’re mourning a loss or celebrating new love. They make you feel cared about, a somewhat rare trait for most pop ensembles. And with songs like “When the Best Ones Are Gone” and “Heartbeat,” both written by the luminous Christine Sandtorv (although that first tune is sung by Jannicke Larsen Berglund in a mode of absolute goddess-like wisdom and understanding), you can hear the most effective element in music holding you tight: Universality. Few things are more powerful than a great song at making you feel or at least ponder the ups and downs of life. “When the Best Ones Are Gone” is simply one of the most achingly beautiful songs Ephemera have ever recorded, with a gorgeous piano arrangement and a patient introduction of their patented harmony that pays off stunningly. “Everything falls apart/Everything breaks up/Somehow you must start/To pick up the pieces/And your broken heart,” sings Berglund, and then the trio together. If those simple words don’t get absolutely stuck in your head after a couple of listens to the haunting arrangement here, well, you may wanna have your ears checked. The concluding bridge is vintage Ephemera, with the word “undertow” standing out. It could have been an alternate title for this whole record. And “Heartbeat” has a similar timely impact, with Christine’s acoustic guitar and a more elemental but evocative keyboard part setting the scene: In her most sincere, winsome voice, Sandtorv sings “Do you have a heartbeat/Hidden hopes and dreams/As long as you have a heartbeat/You can get back on your feet.” Simply reading such lyrics won’t convey the power of hearing them sung sweetly amidst airily perfect instrumentation. And hearing such things in the midst of a dire time for humanity is overwhelmingly emotional. Many of us are sick right now, or angst-ridden. But the doctor is IN, with the name “Ephemera” on the office door. The doctor will see you now, and the prescription is some beautiful songcraft…

And there is so much more. Ingerlise Storksen is truly one of the most distinctive vocalists in all of Scandinavia; I shouldn’t try to analyze what she does because it is so transcendent when she’s at her best. And she IS here, on “Stranger,” a leisurely sung, dramatically paced slice of perfection with surprisingly minimal lyrics. The theme here is sadness over the sometimes inexplicable distance between people – in this case, the titular but unknown subject. A repeated sequence of four glistening high tones is soon accompanied by a lush string arrangement, on its way to setting up a chorus you won’t forget. The world holds its breath, and then there is a dramatic shift in Ingerlise’s delivery as she sings: “Birds are flying away/I can no longer count the days/I run but time keeps lead/I pray to see you again.” This passage is not merely a peak moment on SEASONS, but one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard on a record. In a single moment of emotive ecstasy, aiming for musical heaven and getting there, Ingerlise will surely have some listeners fighting back tears. The economy of the whole track is simply a marvel, and the sheer vulnerability this trio manages to capture in songs such as this is unprecedented. Then there is Berglund’s songwriting contribution, one of my absolute favorites, called “The More You Give.” Not generally as prolific as her two partners, Berglund has been responsible for some past Ephemera gems such as “One Minute” and “City Lights.” Her tune here is a potent combination of dreamy and weary, with at least three memorable earworms (or “hooks”). As the band’s keyboard player, she often lays down distinctive synth parts that are sometimes merely textural, sometimes the most memorable adornment in a song. They’re always beautiful, and they are truly an Ephemera trademark, especially the repeating swirl of coolly descending tones we’re treated to here. “You always want to be the best you can be/And you always want to see all that there is to see/Just remember to let them deep into your heart/All of those who were there for you right from the start,” she sings; a simple enough sentiment given emotional heft by the sterling arrangement, and the way Berglund’s more laconic delivery contrasts with Sandtorv’s sweeter voice on a couple of lines. Simply great stuff. It seems to UP the sophistication factor for Ephemera, as does Ingerlise’s “Too Good To Be,” a disarmingly sincere missive to someone about, probably, a commitment issue. It’s slow and patient, and true to Ephemera form, vulnerable and beautiful. A gradually ascending piano progression at the end is accompanied by that trademark eerie synth ascending right alongside it, and then the familiar vocal blend – did I mention that this group serves up melodies that always burrow deeper into your psyche the more you listen? And that few acts anywhere manage the splendiferous arrangements that these three women and their uncannily sympathetic producer achieve, song after song? Golly, and I haven’t even touched on the big singles yet: “Magic,” which revels in the band’s full three-part harmony and a can’t-be-beat Sandtorv melody that really DOES bring the magic, and “Hopeful,” a rocking Storksen tune that is probably the most upbeat, conventionally “fun” tune on the album. But the thing is, Ephemera just aren’t conventional. Not by a long shot. Yes, they write catchy tunes that you can tap your foot to, and yes, they experience all the same deep, conflicting emotions YOU do. But these three women happen to be uncommonly gifted as songwriters and arrangers. They’ve been at this for 25 years now (they formed in 1994 and their first CD, GLUE, came out in 1996), they have an enduring, resonant friendship, and by now, they really understand that not only is music a superlative way of delivering portraits of the deepest of human experiences, but they have a quirkily brilliant, musically distinctive and uncommonly delicate way of doing so. There are other girl groups out there, for sure, but Ephemera, like their tunes, offer something both “Hopeful” and something rich in the kind of recorded “Magic” that has earned them fans around the world. SEASONS is a short album (37 minutes) – it’s not as meaty as MONOLOVE, not quite as winkingly industry-friendly, perhaps, as AIR, their acclaimed 2003 effort. But SEASONS comes into a world where the music industry is kind of a mess, royalties are diminished, artists are working with much more restrictive circumstances, and the world itself is in grave peril – the current pandemic being just one sign that civilization has to learn and grow, or it may just burn out. When the stakes are high, Ephemera music sounds better than almost anything – it’s comforting, wise, communal, gently lulling, and always with an ear to your heart. Save yourself an expensive psychiatric bill – just listen to these Norwegian muses instead, and try to remember what a beautiful, exhilarating challenge life can still be…

EPHEMERA (Christine Sandtorv, Jannicke Larsen Berglund, Ingerlise Storksen) (photo credit: CECILIE BANNOW)

SEASONS is available digitally on iTunes, Tidal and Spotify.

EPHEMERA (Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen Berglund) (photo credit: DYVEKE S NILSSEN)

(UPDATE) It’s a mixed blessing that the first new Ephemera album in 15 years would arrive in the midst of a global pandemic. That limits promotional activities and public appearances severely. On the other hand, when they can release a video for perhaps the album’s most beautiful song, one that should be seen by everyone, the healing effect and “we’re all in this together” vibe are profoundly moving. Here is the new video for “When the Best Ones Are Gone.”