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.
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!
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…
(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.”
Some artists stubbornly resist pigeonholing. I could put any number of Jon Hassell records on (and I have a fair number) at a social gathering, and I’d bet that at least one listener would come up and say, “What the heck is THIS?” It’s strange music, that’s all. And being helpful by saying “it occupies a space between ambient, Miles Davis-type jazz and world music” may or may not prepare the uninitiated. Hassell himself would eventually start branding his recordings as “Fourth World,” to signify a kind of foreign, multi-ethnic sound that, while centered around his very distinct trumpet style, would also take you somewhere new. A sort of “traditional” sound from a country that doesn’t truly exist.
JON HASSELL (David Rosenboom, Jon Hassell in 1977) (uncredited photo)
His first official album was VERNAL EQUINOX, which initially came out in 1977. It has now been remastered and reissued on Hassell’s own label. It’s kind of a disorienting little beast of a record, but it was original enough to catch the ears of Brian Eno, who wrote liner notes for this edition. Eno, of course, would go on to collaborate with Hassell on POSSIBLE MUSICS in 1980, and to produce a few records for the artist after that. For whatever it might illustrate, the noted music website Pitchfork included VERNAL EQUINOX as one of their “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” (it was listed at #47). And the evocative, often spacious quality of Hassell’s compositions does indeed fit comfortably into an ambient (albeit the edgy reaches of the genre) mode.
JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)
Most of the six pieces here are exotic, a bit misty-sounding and in thrall to the otherworldly timbre of Hassell’s trumpet. The instrument is sometimes processed to sound either partially muted, or vaporous, wafting through the air of whatever planet it’s coming from. “Viva Shona” features birdsong and sparse background instrumentation, the trumpet placed front and center. “Hex” lets Hassell carry on a very distinctive conversation, his tones developing in such a lively manner that you listen close to catch the amazing process as it evolves. What sounds like rainstick and bass adorns the background. Most listeners will be especially riveted by the two centerpiece tracks “Blues Nile” and the title track. The former piece gives us a slightly distorted, granular-sounding drone over which Hassell delivers sonic bursts that sound for all the world like a warning or “call to attention” for the citizens of an alien culture. Could be a pending invasion from that tribe over the hill! The clear separation between the trumpet and the sharp-edged drone is dramatic and compelling. Around the climax of the piece, Hassell lets loose a series of notes going up and down the scale of his chosen key, and you’ll likely stop whatever you’re doing to listen closely. As for the nearly 22-minute “Vernal Equinox,” it’s thoroughly engrossing, setting up a sparse but hypnotic landscape of background drone, hand drumming and a casually meandering trumpet, as though Hassell were patiently walking a lush rainforest trail, stopping to observe here and there but recording his observations in music with great passion at appropriate intervals. It’s a marvel, this track. I can only imagine the reactions of listeners encountering it for the first time. Things finish off with the short closer “Caracas Night,” with nocturnal nature sounds and some Miles-style blowing to bid you adieu in a slightly more traditional manner. It’s not a long album, this outing, but it will definitely make you feel like you’ve been somewhere.
JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)
Hassell’s later outings with Eno would bring him more acclaim (POWER SPOT is one of those distinct offerings), and there is more textural richness on the dramatically titled THE SURGEON OF THE NIGHT SKY RESTORES DEAD THINGS BY THE POWER OF SOUND and DREAM THEORY IN MALAYA, to name just a couple of gems. But it started here, with …EQUINOX. He’s a genuinely visionary player who took a much featured instrument and did things with it no one had ever done before. That takes a special kind of musicality and love of exploration that should certainly be celebrated.
It’s a lonely life sometimes, being an ambient music fanatic. You move about each day among the uninformed, knowing you’re not like them, knowing that only this weird droning stuff speaks to you, while they’re behind the wheels of their cars uninhibitedly singing the chorus to some hip hop or indie rock thingy they recently heard streaming. Sometimes you get pulled into a conversation where you gotta answer questions like, “What IS ambient?” (this happened to me just recently), and you mumble something like, ‘Well, it’s this kinda background music that’s also interesting, that you can immerse yourself in if you want to.” Your well-meaning friends might have HEARD of Brian Eno (“didn’t he have something to do with U2 for a while?”), but start dropping names like Stars of the Lid, Biosphere or William Basinski, and more than likely you’re gonna get blank looks. That’s okay, though. I’m proud of being able to explain why ambient is NOT the same as “new age,” what qualities characterize “dark ambient,” and how some drones really transport you to another realm, while others just…drone on and on. Kinda like some of your friends. And if you get TWO ambient aficionados in a room together, well, it’s likely gonna be a LIVELY discussion. And those guys will probably stay friends. Ambient has that effect.
BRENNER AND MOLENAAR (Dave Brenner, Christian Molenaar) (photo manipulation: DAVE BRENNER)
So, David Brenner, known for his gritty sonic excursions in GridFailure, and Christian Molenaar of San Diego’s Those Darn Gnomes, have made this 82-minute monster dronefest that doesn’t really lend itself to an “easy” review. I could tell you that it sounds like the inhabitants of a nearby planet enduring yet another stormy day in the harsh environment on their planet, or you in a sort of druggy state driving your car, caught in a relentless traffic jam where you only move a few yards every 10 minutes or so, and you’re losing your ability to tell reality from haunting scenes from your subconscious, which are intermingling randomly, your desire to just sleep continuously stymied. Or, I could quote from an actual press release for this’un, which reads: “Infusing vocals, electric/acoustic/bass/pedal steel guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, organs, xylophone, harmonica, 1970s cult field recordings, resynthesis, tape manipulation, contact mic and power electronics effects, and other instrumentation tactics embodied in a vaporous haze, the three lumbering movements range between 20 and 35 minutes in length, suspending the listener within its abyssal vacuum.” I kinda like that phrase “abyssal vacuum.” Because for sure, this heavy dose of sound is dark enough to change your perception, your sense of WHERE the hell you are. “Burial Delerium” (unsettling title, that) is rather hypnotic and indicative of an unfriendly environment, sonically speaking, with sirens appearing a third of the way through, and some recognizable guitar stuff breaking the potential tedium of the ultra-thick drone. As the press release says, there is also plenty of other stuff going in and out of the mix.
As unsettling as this track might be, it’s almost PRETTY compared with the mega-darkness of the nearly 26-minute “Transfixed.” The music journal CAPTURED HOWLS has a good line: “Feels like the disorienting soundtrack that might be playing in the waiting room outside an executioner’s chamber.” I was going to say that this music would be appropriate to accompany footage of some hopeless middle east slaughter, like seeing dozens and dozens of innocents in northwest Syria blown to smithereens as they try to flee the madness of relentless attacks. It’s THAT dark, desolate and grim. The prominence of big bass flareups and elements of distortion would likely make it impossible to relax to this stuff in any way. T’ain’t pretty. When it ends, you may feel grateful.
BRENNER AND MOLENAAR (Dave Brenner, Christian Molenaar) (photo manipulation: DAVE BRENNER)
Oh, but the aural carnage is not over yet. We go from a 20-minute track to a 26-minute track to the 35-minute “Hallelujah (27 Years).” It begins with a background organ that is rather soothing compared to what preceded it, although it doesn’t last long. That’s soon swallowed up by abrasive background static with not-quite-decipherable human dialogue in the foreground. The dialogue grows more prominent until you can start making out distinctive utterances like “I have a terrible burning feeling inside.” Which you, the listener, may have in your eardrums by this point, in fact. A section that follows could be appropriate for watching the end of the world unfold: It’s just all-out apocalyptic, crossing the line from “ambient” to what I would call “hardcore experimental music.” Thick, unsympathetic dark drone. In a lengthy section about halfway through, the drama intensifies when two combative voices go at it again, possibly a pissed-off exorcist and a devilish entity of some sort. Byrne and Eno might have dug this sort of thing when they were making MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS, but that album was easy listening compared to the relentless stuff assaulting the listener here. “In the name of Jesus,” one voice yells late in the mix, “You are defeated, Satan.” God, I hope so. I wouldn’t want this quarrel to continue much longer…
You may wonder at this point, “Well why, then, would I want to subject myself to this kinda thing?” It’s a valid question. There’s a place for punishing music, otherwise extreme death metal and the like would have no audience. Personally, I find most contemporary pop on the radio almost as unpleasant as this. And I’ll certainly allow that this brutal last track pushes the limits; I would likely NOT leave it on my car stereo past maybe the 20-minute mark unless I was in one of THOSE moods. It’s relentless. That said, I admire the aesthetics here. Clearly Brenner and Molenaar put serious hours of recording into this project. They wanted to create a dark, swirling SOUNDSTORM, something you could get completely lost in and overpowered by if you’re that sort. And I’d genuinely love to hear their thoughts on good and evil and the state of the world today. This record is somewhat of an apt soundtrack to the completely deteriorating state of modern civilization and morality, a real end-times missive. No, it won’t be anyone’s idea of a good time, except the most depressive fans of super dark drone-based ambient, perhaps. But it does carve out a space at the very edge of a certain kind of listening experience, and the experimental freedom you can claim when there are no commercial considerations to bother with whatsoever. I admire this UNINVITED SAVIOR project. And I did get caught up in a big chunk of the maelstrom these two guys plunge us into. But no, I won’t listen to this before I go to bed, or driving on a scenic road or anything. I mostly listen to ambient to remind me of the beauty and hope that are still out there. UNINVITED SAVIOR sounds a little too much like the wretched results of greed and hate that are pretty much wrecking up the world these days. If you need that catharsis, okay. But don’t say you haven’t been warned.
(BARNHART FILMS/SABOTAGE FILM GROUP (85 minutes; Unrated); 2019)
Some cities are known for unique landmarks: We have the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge and its rich cultural history. Some cities have incredible skylines like Chicago and New York, or are hubs of vitality or historical significance. But poor Flint, Michigan? Not so much. This sad sack of a town first had to deal with GM pulling its factories out and decimating the employment situation, something Michael Moore covered in his documentary, ROGER AND ME. And not long after that? Well, there was kind of a water problem. You know, the color, the toxic nature of it, the corrupt state governor Rick Snyder refusing to do shit for years, people dying, that kind of thing. Talk about a raw deal! This was more like a raw SEWAGE deal, literally and metaphorically, as Flint residents kept asking questions about what was happening to their children and why no one would give them answers about the water crisis in their little city. It’s the difficult subject of a fine documentary by David Barnhart, FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY. Choose your beverage carefully when you watch this thing.
FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY (Screen Shot)
“The system here is telling you that you aren’t worth anything,” says one of the besieged local residents interviewed for the movie. “This isn’t supposed to be happening in America.” No, it sure isn’t. In accumulating detail, we hear from residents about how the closing of GM plants set in motion a horrible sequence of events for this industrial burgh. It depended heavily on GM for jobs and its significance in the scheme of things. “The plants were really the heart and soul of growth and development in Flint,” an African-American local sadly tells us, surveying one of many bleak landscapes left behind. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to that. When they started moving out, that took a toll on the city.” We get to hear all about how crucial water was for the auto industry, but the water was never the same after the industry departed. Phosphates and other pollutants accumulated in the water, and already aging pipes began deteriorating at an alarming rate. One horror after another occurs: 22 million gallons of crap poured into the main river in just two days, rising lead levels, a marked decrease in fertility for the locals (and rising fetal deaths), etcetera. GM had to shut off Flint’s water supply due to the dangerous acidity of the water and the corrosion in the pipes. And in numerous scenes from C-Span and other outlets featuring outraged officials challenging Governor Snyder among others, we get to hear about the cost-cutting measures that worsened the situation, and the attempts to sidestep accountability for how bad things kept getting. Snyder does not come off too well in this documentary. Surprise, surprise… Distinguished Democrat Elijah Cummings (who died not long after this film wrapped) is shown getting increasingly angry about the awful quagmire that enveloped Flint and he doesn’t mince words. “This is a community of people rendered invisible in a thousand ways. It’s environmental racism!”” he shouts.
The sense of futility among Flint’s residents is a thematic through-line here, though many of them keep trying to raise the issue to anyone who will listen, and a female pastor in the town is quoted frequently. We’re giving specific stats about the lead content in the water, how the water pipes had a “protective scale” that failed due to cost cutting, and the increasingly ill health suffered by residents, thought to result in perhaps 119 deaths. And if you’re not outraged enough, you get to learn about how Nestle was pumping water out of Michigan for its own profit, a development that made the news more than once. You can truly lose it watching some of this awfulness, and the film wants to make sure you get the point. Poor people (mostly of color) were the primary victims of this mess, and Snyder and other inept politicians may have thought the matter wouldn’t rise to the level of a national scandal. But they were wrong. The publicity grew so intense that steps had to be taken, although they weren’t enough. It’s important to note that Lansing, a nearby city, took preventive steps to replace similarly faulty pipes, at great expense. And we hear a sobering stat that “5300 US cities were found to have overly dangerous levels of lead in their water.” Visually we see numerous vacant landscapes, deteriorating buildings, and children in school attempting to lead normal lives, despite the impossibility. You can only feel awful at the fate of these families, and despite a few corrective measures eventually being taken, the problems remain. Talk about a bitter lesson about what can happen in America when greed and indifference hold sway over the health and needs of minorities.
FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY (Screen Shot)
This is not a fun film, but writer/director Barnhart has really put a searing indictment of the problem together, with help from skilled editor Scott Lansing. We don’t always get such an informative, powerful movie when a crisis such as this occurs. It makes you wonder about all the controversial things that go on that are simply swept under the rug or factually squelched before the media and caring officials can take action. The significance of FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY goes well beyond stirring your sympathies for some unlucky people in the industrial north. It’s an awful true-life tale of the perils of capitalism, the crucial (and often ignored) need for corporate regulation, and the way helpless communities are often victimized by cynical politicians. I doubt you’ll laugh even once watching this despairing portrait of the downside of America, but you’ll learn an awful lot. And you may hesitate even more about drinking your own tap water. To think that something as essential and basic as water could be a major problem for an entire US city, well, that’s hard to stomach.
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart (or maybe in my head) for Pop music. As a youngster, I had a thing with ABBA, Leo Sayer, even Gilbert O’Sullivan; later, I tended to lean toward Synth-Pop like the Human League, Soft Cell and Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark. Now, that soft spot has found a new love: Ariana and the Rose. Remember when Prince was writing songs and producing records for Shiela E, Vanity, or whichever girlfriend he was with on a particular Tuesday? In a thinly veneered nutshell, with a gooey Synth-Pop filling, that is exactly what Ariana’s CONSTELLATIONS PHASE ONE brings to mind. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the EP is available on beautiful, beautiful vinyl (well, actually, it’s wax, but… ). Ariana and her cohorts offer up four catchy, groove-induced tracks with more than a little bit of darkness around the edges… just the thing for this Pop junkie’s needs.
ARIANA AND THE ROSE (Ariana DiLorenzo) (photo credit: LOUIS BROWNE)
“Night Owl” starts with a breathy Ariana vocal backed only by a synth delivering majestic church organ swells and fingersnaps (also synthesized?) for percussion. The tune slowly builds into a joyful celebration of the night life, featuring live bass and an energetic groove that’s too hard to ignore as Ariana’s higher range vocals and well-placed backing singers kick the tune up to another level. This one is sure to be hit on the dancefloor. I’m pretty sure that the word “catchy” was created just for “You Were Never My Boyfriend.” The song is the ultimate diss track, a deluxe kiss off and the perfect empowerment tune for taking back your life from someone who doesn’t deserve to have you in theirs, with lyrics like: “Every promise that you never kept/We won’t see Paris, the way we said/You made me think that it was in my head,” “You can’t save what you never had, don’t pretend/You were never my boyfriend,” “I’ve stuck it out through some stormy weather/But you can’t seem to get your shit together/And all my friends say I deserve better” and “Maybe with some time we can mend/But I don’t really wanna be friends/Sorry I was crazy while you were being shady/I guess it’s for the best in the end.” Plus, there’s an undeniably dark vibe that I really like, with an ultra-cool bounce, some really nice backing vocals and more of those synth-produced handclaps. And, all in less than three minutes!
“Honesty” is the diametric opposite of the last number… sorta. Along with “You Were Never My Boyfriend,” this is the track that turns Ariana into a true artist, playing the heartstrings like a true lyrical genius: “You fall asleep, so at peace/So let’s live our new life/And everyday that you wake/I can feel myself dying.” If the live shows are anything close to this emotionally charged, she will have transformed herself into more than just a Pop Diva with nice choreography. So, naturally, just to prove that she can still bring those Pop Diva vibes to a song, Ariana drops “True Love” on you. The lyrical chain that binds the four cuts together is still here, just with a little more of the positivity of “Night Owl.” There is a bonus track of sorts in the form of “You Were Never My Boyfriend (Great Good Fine OK Remix).” I don’t usually like remixes and, while this one is better than most, it certainly pales in comparison to the version offered earlier on this set. The original set a slow, almost somber pace with just the right amount of instrumentation and various other accoutrements; here, the additional BPMs and basic feel makes it sound like it was produced expressly for the dance floor. And, that’s okay. I just find the original far more emotionally appealing. As the name of the record implies, this is part of a bigger project that will be released over the next few months and I, for one, cannot wait to witness the continued growth from Ariana into the musical ARTIST that she is quickly becoming.
In the past, whenever I got bogged down with too many records to listen to and review, I would lump a lot of like-minded releases (straight-ahead rock, Jazz, Country, compilations,,, whatever) together, giving each a nice little paragraph (or more, depending on how many I had to write about… I remember doing something like fourteen Punk records in the course of one review) about each. I still do that occasionally, when it makes sense to do so; this one is a no-brainer: Michael Owens produced both releases, Fools Brian Drake and Terri Owens do some backing vocals on THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY, both records were released by Michael’s Blackberry Way Records on the same day. It really wasn’t my intention to review them together, but the final piece seemed to fall into place when the Owens record showed up at my door in the same package as THIRD. The die, as the saying goes, was cast.
THE APRIL FOOLS (Scott Hreha, Brad McLemore, Terri Owens, Brian Drake, Ben Kaplan) (photo credit: ERIN DRAKE)
The April Fools’ third release (thus the name of the record) features a retooled band, having lost guitarist Clay Williams, whom, I assume, has gone on to greener pastures. Williams was replaced by two musicians, guitarists Brad McLemore and the aforementioned Terri Owens. The result made the original quartet’s tight sound even tighter as a quintet. This is borne out on the opening track, “Bell of Stone,” a sort of updated psychedelic Americana. Vocalist Brian Drake has a rather world-weary rasp that is immediately the crowning glory of this song and album, somewhere between Bob Seger and a young Levon Helm. The guitars (by McLemore, Owens and Drake) seem to shimmer and there’s an undeniable sting and bite to the solo. Ben Kaplan offers up some solid drumming and an insistent, melodic bass line by Scott Hreha gives the whole thing a certain buoyancy that is not unappealing. “Long Shadows” is a tune that reminds me of both the Band (musically) and the Dead (vocally). It’s a slow ballady sort of thing that highlights the group’s four part harmonies. The piece borders on overstaying its welcome, but seems to end at just the right moment. Graham Gouldman’s (by way of the Hollies) “Bus Stop” is a shimmering piece of Pop history that gets a fairly faithful retelling here. The guitars may be a bit more urgent and Terri Owens’ mandolin adds a new flavor, weaving in and out of the mix, just under Drake’s pleasantly gruff delivery. For some reason, the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” comes to mind listening to “Shaky Ground.” Could be the wah-wah guitar and utterly haze-inducing solo; maybe it’s the swirling vocals that are brilliantly scattershot, alternately overlapping each other, then complimenting the rest with a great harmony part. Owens is a lady that certainly knows how to write a great ‘60s acid burn of a tune! “If I Can’t Make Her Happy” is sort of a throwback to those star-crossed tragic lover songs from the late ‘50s, all gussied up with a new millenial sheen, and highlighted by some really pretty guitar work and backing vocals.
The Fools put a nice gloss on Dylan’s classic “My Back Pages.” This version features finely understated vocals and a Byrdsian approach to the instrumentation that has always worked so well on the Zim’s music. There’s more of the brilliant guitar solos that we’ve come to expect from this band, with the rhythm section highlighting their ample abilities with a great Hreha bass line and a solid backbeat and fills from Kaplan on drums. Terri Owens takes on the vocal duties for “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast,” a slow-burning rocker written by Julie Anne Miller (originally recorded for the BUDDY AND JULIE MILLER album in 2001 by, well… Buddy and Julie Miller). The track features killer guitar throughout, as another awesome solo rides the cut into the fade. “Summer Sun (Redux)” has a slightly psychedelic Blues groove, a distinct highlight of this remake from the Fools’ first album. I know I’m sounding like a broken record by this time but… again, great guitar, both straight and effects-laden. Scott’s rumbling bass, Ben’s spot-on drumming and an idling organ part from guest Glenn Manske (of which we’ll hear more later) add to the lazy feel of the song, the musical equivalence of the lethargic feeling brought on by the summer sun. Closing out the record is “15 Minutes.” It’s a Country-flavored tune that features a brilliant bass part that could very easily have appeared on an album by the Jam or Elvis (the important one, not the dead fat guy). With a dobro and Terri’s mandolin filtering through the swampy miasma of the instrumentation, the drums offer a lot to enjoy just under the current. The backing vocals are a nice counter to Brian’s gruff voice. As an introduction to what’s happening in the Minneapolis music scene today, you can definitely do worse than the April Fools’ THIRD.
MICHAEL OWENS (photo credit: LARRY HUTCHINSON)
Cementing the connection between the Minneapolis of the Replacements, Prince and Husker Du is producer/recording studio owner/record company owner/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist (and probably another string of slash marks that I’m missing) Michael Owens. Owens’ latest record, THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY, is fourteen tracks (and one bonus cut from a reunited Fingerprints, Michael’s late ‘70s band) that is as varied as the scene that spawned that first major wave of the “Minneapolis sound,” as well as Michael’s own Blackberry Way Studio and the record company that shares that name. The first track, “Comic Book Creep,” features some awesome boogie with a little bit of woogie thrown in for good measure. Owens has a pleasing, better than average voice; there’s some very nice guitar leads and solo from guest artist Curtiss A and Owens himself and excellent piano from Glenn Manske, who plays a major role on this record. “A Song For You” switches gears from a rockin’ Blues to a slow, tragic type of girl group sort of song that features strong backing vocals (as such songs require) from Robert Langhorst and Terri Owens. Also on display is an echoey, reverb-drenched solo and another strong piano part from Glenn. Sounding very much like vintage Monkees, “60 Cycle Rumble” sees Michael delivering an over-the-top vocal performance that reminds me of a younger, still-alive Wolfman Jack. Manske’s organ and outstanding guitar work from Owens make the Pre-Fab Four comparison even more relevant. As the name implies, “Used Blues” is a slow Blues that falls somewhere between Stevie Ray and Michael Buble on the Blues authenticity scale. Owens former Fingerprints bandmate, Robb Henry, offers up some solid lead work and a soulful solo. “Without Sin” sounds a little like “Minnesota boy does the Eagles” during the intro.Thankfully, it morphs into another slow-burn number with a strong Bill Grenke bassline. I kept waiting for a child’s voice to say “Mommy, where’s Daddy?” during the breaks leading into the guitar solos and, of course, anything that elicits memories of the Coopers ranks very high on my list. However, the cut, at more than seven minutes, does tend to drag on; thankfully, though, it doesn’t overstay its welcome by much. Up next is “Old Man Joad,” a kind of jangly Byrds-cum-Tom-Petty thing, only without the jangle. Continuing a nice little theme here, the number features some nifty lead and backing vocals, more solid bass from Grenke and a killer guitar melody throughout. In a different time, this one coulda been a hit at AOR, Adult Contemporary or Country radio. Unfortunately, as radio has become ever more genre-centric, it’s unlikely that today’s programmers could figure out what to do with such a great song! “Chase the Rain” is yet another slow tune with some nice guitar. Grenke continues to impress on bass as does Manske with some more great organ work. I guess the title comes from the sounds of falling rain at the beginning and end of the track.
“Falling” is not a cover of the Tom Petty song; this one has more of an Alternative Celtic feel to it (if that makes any kind of sense). The Celtic vibe is enhanced with Manske adding strings and flutes to his solid piano playing, while Kevin Glynn (another refugee from Fingerprints) adds a little added thump to Owens’ programmed drums with some live tom toms. The vocals blend into the hazy mist of the musical backdrop, leaving the listener with a gooey warm feeling somewhere around the heart. A short little ditty called “Over the Moon” follows. With a jaunty, bouncy feel, it’s simply a fun love song, evoking the feeling the name conjures in one’s mind. Gifted with one of the best song titles ever, “Just Got Over Being Hungover,” has a melody that puts me in mind of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help.” The cut is loaded with an abundance of honky-tonk piano, organ accents and lots of guitars doing guitary things. “You Can’t Get In” is a frantic little piece of Swamp Punk, with Glynn offering some percussive help while a weird Replacements vibe permeates the whole 1:48. Some cool backwards guitar and massive riffage courtesy of Robb Henry informs “High Price Shoes,” a Beatlesy piece of Pop fluff. Not surprisingly, the piece features more heavy lifting from Glenn on organ and Bill on bass. All of the above makes this one a current album favorite. “Hole In Your Pocket” is another tune that sounds vaguely familiar (Minnesota’s favorite sons, Bob Dylan meets Prince maybe?), with a tinkling piano coda and a vocal mostly buried in the mix to good effect. The sing-songy partially spoken lead vocals definitely gives rise to Dylan comparisons. The lyrical coda, “I know there’s magic out there,” isn’t indicative of this song, but… if the lyrics fit, right? There’s a slight echo on the vocals on “The Last Thing,” adding a bit of a dreamy feel to another strong offering.Again, the cut features strong organ, bass and guitar leads and solo; the backing vocals are nice, as well, with Brian Drake joining Robert Langhorst and Terri Owens for this one. A bonus track, “14 South 5th Street Blues,” features four fifths of Fingerprints (bassist Steve Fjelstad was missing from the recording/performance with Michael taking over those duties). The song, featured in the documentary, JAY’S LONGHORN, is an ode to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Minneapolis scene’s venue of choice, the title derived from the address of the legendary club. Besides Owens on bass and guitar, the other featured Fingerprints are lead vocalist Mark Throne, the previously introduced Robb Henry on lead guitar and Kevin Glynn moving to an ancillary percussionist role due to Owens’ very organic-sounding drum programming. The quartet are augmented by former Figures guitarist Jeff Waryan on slide, Chris Osgood of the Suicide Commandos on additional lead guitar, the legendary Curtiss A on harmonica and the by-now ubiquitous Glenn Marske on piano. The rollicking paean to past triumphs is a fitting close to solid release from a man who should be a household name outside of the relatively small Minneapolis region.
Alice Cooper were a product of the dirty underbelly of Detroit rock and roll and reveled in the debauchery of that scene. The band’s erstwhile singer (who, by no fluke, shares his name with the band), well known for his hedonistic tendencies during the group’s rise to the top of the rock heap, could still only claim second place in the debauching olympics behind their much-missed guitarist, Glen Buxton. Alice, along with Dennis Dunaway, Neal Smith and Michael Bruce, has cleaned up his act. A devoted husband, doting father and golfing junkie, the Coop still retains a certain edge and a distinct love for Detroit and the sounds that can only be produced by someone who calls that city home and, yearning for a return to the sound that defined his band, he has brought together some of the city’s best-known (or infamous) survivors for THE BREADCRUMBS EP, seven songs spread over six tracks (can you say “medley,” children?) on a limited, numbered edition 10 inch slab of vinyl.
ALICE COOPER (Johnny “Bee” Badanjek, Paul Randolph, Garrett Bielaniec, Wayne Kramer, Bob Ezrin, Alice Cooper) (uncredited photo)
“Detroit City 2020” is a reworked number, the original coming from Alice’s 2003 release, THE EYES OF ALICE COOPER. Simply put, the track is a love song to the much-maligned city, with gang vocals and some stinging, nasty, sloppy guitar from Mister Wayne Kramer, just like the original (Mark Farner and the Rockets’ new guitarist, Garrett Bielaniec, are along for this ride, too). Of course, it’s always good to hear Johnny “Bee” Badanjek pounding away behind the Coop, with memories of WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE bouncing around my brainpan. The second “original” is called “Go Man Go” and continues in the same vein as the opener. Namely, a filthy back-alley groove that dares you to ignore it; you do so at your own peril. Badanjek and his partner in rhythm, Paul Randolph, pummels away on a track that, lyrically, brings to mind the KILLER classic “You Drive Me Nervous.” Letting his Detroit show, Vince digs WAY deep, into the back of the crate for the Last Heard’s debut single, “East Side Story.” Of course, the Last Heard is best known as the precursor to the Bob Seger System. This is a cover that woulda fit right in on the first side of SCHOOL’S OUT with a chugging rhythm that’s straight out of Them’s “Gloria,” a suitably dirty, garage band guitar solo and a pounding, primal beat.
ALICE COOPER with Bob Seger (uncredited photo)
Side two kicks of with the Mike Chapman/Nicky Chinn-penned “Your Mama Won’t Like Me.” In typical Alice gender-bending fashion, the Suzi Quatro rocker is played straight, as in no changes to the defiantly feminine lyrics (“I wear my jeans too short/And my neckline too low”). While specific guitar credits aren’t listed, the solo sounds very much like something Mark Farner woulda played on Grand Funk Railroad album and, like the original, horns (provided by Nolan Young on sax and Allen Dennard, Junior on trumpet) add a funky touch to this version of what may just be Suzi’s best song. The only thing that would have improved it would have been a duet with the original artist. Remember somewhere toward the end of the introduction above that I mentioned “medley?” Well, here it is. The couplet kicks off with “Devil With a Blue Dress On.” The song, of course, was a big hit for Badanjek’s first band, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. So, it’s kind of weird hearing the Coop tackle this classic as the slow-grind Blues of Shorty Long’s original. Things speed up on the second half of the medley, “Chains of Love.” The 1967 soulful original is combined with the Dirtbombs’ more raucous cover of (more or less) three-and-a-half decades later; it still sounds sorta odd in Cooper’s hands. Some funky guitar and the hard-hitting Randolph/Badanjek rhythm section kick things into overdrive before things morph back into the chorus of “Devil… .” A nice touch has Frederick “Shorty” Long, as well as the songwriter of “Chains… ,” Mick Collins, doing vocals behind Alice. The EP comes to a close with a very cool version of “Sister Anne,” written by Kramer’s MC5 bandmate, Fred Smith. The piece features a minimalist guitar sound with a solid late-sixties type of solo (I’m assuming the solo is all Wayne). Alice breaks out the harmonica – a rarity these days – and lets loose with a solo that perfectly matches the vibe of the tune.
With the Hollywood Vampires’ debut album and this BREADCRUMB, Alice is exploring his roots and rediscovering the sound that made the five-headed beast known as Alice Cooper such a potent entity. Word is that an impending album of all-new originals from the Coop will be very much in this vein, with the EP standing as a stop-gap between 2017’s PARANORMAL and the new set, scheduled for a 2020 release. I sure wouldn’t mind the man further exploring those roots and bringing in the rest of the originals and more of the old Detroit vanguard to really tear the roof off.
Slipknot are back with their sixth studio album. Entitled WE ARE NOT YOUR KIND, the record is their first since 2014’s .5: THE GRAY CHAPTER. It is an absolute masterpiece of rage, brutality and destruction; I urge everyone to listen to it as soon as you possibly can. In an age of singles, it sits amazingly well in its entirety as a collection of musical mayhem. That’s how you’re going to want to digest it first: As an album. There are plenty of individual tracks to listen to and enjoy on their own merits.
The album opens with a hallucinogenic little intro titled “Insert Coin,” a bunch of trippy noises with a bit of vocals from Corey Taylor. This moves into “Unsainted,” which is a killer track. It opens with the Angel City Chorale singing the song’s chorus. Then Corey comes in with the chorus as well, before the whole thing goes into the absolutely SLAMMING verse riff. Taylor has crazy fire in his vocals during the verse as he barks the lyrics in a supremely dark way. The song is an absolute gem and one of the best songs from the ‘Knot in years. The contrast between verse and chorus work really well. There is also a really heavy breakdown in the middle that moves into a short chaotic instrumental section. Since the cut was released a few months back, it has grown on me the more I’ve listened to it. The next song, “Birth of the Cruel,” is another dark anthem, the last single to be released before the album’s release. It starts with an ominous, drum-heavy melody before moving into some clean vocals; the clean gives way to a really heavy groove and angry, screaming vocals. The chorus is amazing; I love the lyrics, “Death of the fool/Birth of the cruel.” What a wicked line! All in all, another solid track, capturing an amazing anger and darkness. There’s a ridiculously heavy groove that hits at about 2:50, coming off the back end of the chorus. Sid Wilson’s scratching is the highlight of this one as it adds a whole new element to the song. “Death Because of Death” is a slight interlude with strange sounds, tribal percussion and the repeated phrase “Death because of/Death because of you.” It leads into an absolute BANGER of a track in “Nero Forte.” This one is everything you could want in a Slipknot track. The drums stand out immediately, with the fills absolutely crushing you. It then moves into a nasty groove that has Taylor coming in with vocals like I haven’t heard from him in years. The song has some of everything that makes Slipknot original and awesome: Taylor’s rapid fire vocals make a triumphant return and the melodic vocals in the chorus are haunting. The break at about 3:10 is brutal. This all points to the fact that “Nero Forte” is one of Slipknot’s best songs… EVER! “Critical Darling” is more of the same, an absolute masterpiece of a metal song and everything you could want from Slipknot. While not as rapid fire as “Nero Forte,” the melodic vocal work in this one is worth the trade off. “A Liar’s Funeral” downshifts to a cleaner, slower, brutality filled dive into Taylor and company’s rage and aggression. Corey goes from singing beautifully over an acoustic guitar accompaniment to a slow, chugging groove with Taylor roaring “LIAR” over the distorted guitar. A great break to the fast paced assault up to this point, but not any less pissed off or aggressive. In fact, this could be the most aggressive song on the album. Again, an absolute masterclass in metal. Words can’t even describe how heavy “Red Flag” is! It sounds like it belongs on SLIPKNOT or IOWA. This is the heaviest song I have heard in 2019. It is absolute chaos… beautiful, heavy, brutal chaos. This is who Slipknot were when I was growing up. It reminds me of the Slipknot that trod the earth from 1999-2005. At about 2:15, the music stops, building into a breakdown where Jay Weinberg shows the world why he is one of the best drummers alive. From here to the end of the song, the drum work is absolutely inhuman. On an album with stellar songwriting and playing, “Red Flag” stands as another song that is among the group’s best ever.
“What’s Next” and “Spiders” are eerie and strange. The melody choice and use of piano leave one with a feeling of unease that flows throughout the couplet (“What’s Next” is an intro piece to the “full” song, “Spiders”). Uneasiness aside, Taylor uses really awesome harmony choices with his vocals in the chorus, making it another solid track. It manages to capture the same raw intensity that the rest of the album does, while recalibrating and giving you a nice reprieve before moving on to the closing numbers of the album. Shawn Crahan and Weinberg offer up a decent bit of percussion on “Spiders” that really adds to the eerie vibe. “Orphan” is my favorite track on WE ARE NOT YOUR KIND. The drum work is the most insane I have ever heard; I’ve listened to the cut numerous times and I am fairly certain that it is impossible for one person to play. The song is among the most raging and heavy thing I have ever heard from Slipknot. The groove, the vocals, the guitars, the percussion, and ESPECIALLY the drums work together on a level Slipknot has never realized before. Taylor’s trademark melodic vocals mixed with powerful, aggressive screams have never sounded better than they do here. You can hear Slipknot’s twenty-plus years of musical experience combined with an energy they haven’t had for the last fifteen years throughout this record, but it seems to all peak right here. “Orphan” is, to put it mildly, a perfect song. The perfection and immediacy is followed by a strange musical journey called “My Pain.” An ethereal intro with some disconcerting whispers moves into a section featuring an electronic drum kit and droning piano chords. The melody keeps things strange, kind of like an acid trip. Corey’s vocals are particularly haunting on this track. The lyrics are extremely dark and sad. It definitely feels like it’s building to something, but… what? There’s really not much more to say. “Not Long For This World” is amazing! It starts with Taylor singing over muted percussion before it pops off into the big riff at about 1:20, one of my favorite riffs on the whole record. It’s got pop, groove, and seems to live in total darkness; I love the way this song is written. It doesn’t feel rushed when the riff and chorus are introduced. At 3:20 in, this song becomes one of the heaviest parts of the album. Taylor’s vocals are fierce, hate filled. As the groove moves back into the original flow of the song with heavier guitars, it works quite well. The cut definitely elicits an emotional response from the listener. Sid Wilson shines here, as he is all over the track displaying his skill on the turntables. “Solway Firth” closes the album out with a bang. It starts with a spoken word piece from Taylor and then explodes; the percussion and turntables make the beginning really stand out and the track features some of the best lyrics on the entire record. The pace is incredible, slamming forward with a reckless abandon toward the listener, not caring whether you survive it or not. On an album of unrelenting brutality, “Solway Firth” may just be the darkest, the most brutal song on WANYK. There is ZERO reprieve, just fast-paced metal destruction. Some of Jim Root and Mick Thomson’s best guitar work of the entire album happens here. At about 4:28, a breakdown pushes the limits far past what has already taken place. This is close to the angriest song Slipknot has ever made. After too long a wait, Slipknot has released a perfect album; a masterpiece of mayhem. I cannot stress highly enough that you give this record a listen!
North London-born Mike Weston is Adult Cinema. It is Weston’s purpose – some would call it his destiny, considering his familial legacy and musical heritage – to tear down and rebuild classic Progressive Rock in his own thoroughly modern image. TEASER TRAILER is the debut record from Adult Cinema, recently re-released (to coincide with the release of album number two, THIS IS YOUR LIFE) on glorious vinyl. Mike handles virtually everything on the self-produced recording. This approach means that most everything sounds exactly as the artist heard it in his head while writing the album. Also, I’ve gotta tell you that, though the vinyl version is the latest, the track order reviewed here is actually the original CD version. And, so, after getting those pieces of technical info out of the way, let’s look at the music itself, shall we?
“Feel Your Eyes” gets things off to a very nice start, with a general approximation of early Steely Dan, some Doobie Brothers vibes, a Brian Eno era kind of Roxy Music psuedo-prog and just a sniff of early Gilmour period Floyd. The song features some great guitar, bass and a Hammond organ owned (but not played here) by a certain Mister Winwood. Adding to the atmosphere is some quite nice piano and Weston’s laconic, somewhat breathy vocal performance. Much of this album was originally released on a self-titled promotional/demo record before TEASER TRAILER was unleashed upon the world-at-large. Such is the case with the next song (as well as the opening track). Here, “Flowers” is presented in what I must assume is either a re-recorded or remixed version parenthetically called “Fallout Version.” I like this tune so much that whatever Mike wants to call it is fine with me. The number starts out as a very nice acoustic thing for the first couple of minutes before heading deeply into a Floydian psychedelia, complete with very Syd-like vocals. The track continues to mutate with a great hard rock ending, putting one in mind of early Uriah Heep or Hawkwind. “Asleep At the Wheel” is very trippy, with another solid dose of spacey Hawkwind noises, not a tribute to Ray Benson. The tune features a great bassline, while the piano and organ are very prominent throughout. Guest performer Paul Nelson’s guitar has a rather metronomic quality to it, adding to the late ‘60s psychedelic vibe. “Dreamt the Other Night (Prog Version)” would not sound out of place on DARK SIDE OF THE MOON or WISH YOU WERE HERE. Acoustic based, the song features understated guitar, powerful bass and a nice, simple drum pattern. Short and sweet, “Dreamt… ” really pulls you in. The album’s first half ends with a dramatic, sorta Styxian shanty, “We Sailed Across the Ocean.” The multi-layered vocals reinforces the Styx reference. There’s a thumping, swirling break before the tune begins ramping up with a slightly heavier organ sound and a dive-bombing bass pattern. This heavier turn is very Deep Purplish, save for a far lighter guitar sound (which is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way). The twist and turns in styles, if not genres, make the track a personal favorite.
ADULT CINEMA (Mike Weston) (photo credit: KENT MATTHEWS)
“Got To Prove Myself Today” features a far more powerful vocal approach than the previous cuts on the album, matching the heavy feel of the song. Nelson returns, with an intricate guitar weaving its way through the organ and above the massive bass and drums that underpin everything. It all gives way to an acoustic guitar and piano coda that drives home the tune’s intent. In sort of an English Folk meets Country way, “My Tangled Mind” is filled with a nice acoustic guitar lead, some solid bass, pretty vocals and some darned fine whistling. The beauty and simplicity does the memory of the Beatles and, in fact, the entire British Invasion sound quite proud. “Rowboat” is featured in two versions on the original 2016 CD of TEASER TRAILER. The first (and the one featured on the vinyl reissue) is the original. Trippy, watery machinations of Paul Nelson’s guitar and a lugubrious bass runs throughout the mostly instrumental tune. The vocals are purposely buried in the mix but, checking the lyric sheet, it would appear that the story revolves around a troubled individual who, apparently, has killed and disposed of someone in a watery grave. The second version, offered as a “bonus track” on the CD, is called the “Southend Version.” It’s definitely a heavier take, featuring some serious Hammond organ. The vocals and the number’s true meaning comes into finer focus on this longer version (more than two minutes are added to the original’s 3:47 running time). With the guitars, bass and drums pushed to the front, the studio trickery is gone until the end of the song. If I had to choose one version to listen to on repeat, it would most assuredly be the latter. “Witches” is a rollicking kind of Dancehall Jazz, with some nice period drums from Andy Russell, Nelson moving over to upright bass, a player piano and a traditional Jazz trio featuring Weston’s Dad, Tony, on clarinet. The piano coda from “Witches” wanders back in on “La La La La La,” a rolling kind of tune delivering the tune’s sole lyric, “La” over and over again. The birds chirp, the guitar dips in and out of the mix, cementing a rather pleasant end to what is a better than average album. Head on over to Mike Weston’s website to get a free download of TEASER TRAILER and, while you’re there, pick up a copy of THIS IS YOUR LIFE, too.