SOFIA HARDIG: AND THE STREET LIGHT LEADS TO THE SEA

(SOLARIS EMPIRE; Swedish import, 2016)

Street Light II

It’s not easy reviewing an artist as important as Sweden’s Sofia Hardig. She is a singer/songwriter who pushes the thematic and conceptual envelope beyond what we associate with that category, a rock guitarist who is not interested in showing off on the instrument and sometimes buries the sound or zeroes in on one little minimal tone, an electronica innovator who is after something far more ambitious in her compositions than simply making you dance or showing you the cool sounds she can generate on her latest equipment. No, Sofia is after something more significant, something more primal and mysterious, something that is a bit of a secret unless you can either get on her wavelength or follow the “light” she alludes to on this new recording down to, well, the literal or metaphorical “sea” this music tells you to experience. Hardig is concerned about humanity, about things fractured or falling apart, about things sadly NOT working out the way they should because, y’know, PEOPLE and stuff. She is a lonely spokeswoman for angst-ridden characters searching for meaning, but she is not interested in spelling everything out clearly. You’ve got to think a little. “Let, let, let, let love in,” she declares on the opening “Streets,” obviously a universal sentiment, but she sings it like she is surrounded by men with weapons pointed right at her, with a few clangorous chords refusing to let the sentiment simply make its way easily to your ears. Few female artists so convey the urgency of an emotion the way Hardig does. She’s been doing it over the course of half a dozen stellar releases for the past decade or so, and you get the sense that her work is equal parts therapy and humanitarian dissertation. Yet this stuff does rock madly, as on the frenzied “Swim” which is a pretty sexy atonal little creation that INSISTS you listen to it.

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: EMMA GUNNARSSON)

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: EMMA GUNNARSSON)

“The Norm” is primarily a spoken word rant that finds Hardig addressing the “Citizens of the world” somewhat straightforwardly. “It’s not right what they do. They’re not experts on anything. But they think they are. Because they read a little line about what your heart should be. And what your eyes should be. And what your dreams should be. But they’re not right. We know better, you and I,” Hardig declares, then singing the repeated refrain “Keep dreamin,’ baby,” which I like to think is aimed at both the populace that desperately needs to keep having uplifting dreams for a better future, and the oppressive forces almost everywhere these days, that mistakenly THINK they can continue to run things as badly as they have. Hardig has absolute authority throughout this music, and most artists could not pull it off. The clanging, supercharged squall of music behind her helps considerably. Nothing lilting or easy about this sound in any way. It’s gloriously messy and discordant. “Sitting Still” is an ironic title for the next song, which is an ass-kicking rocker that brings to mind Hardig’s countrymen in the band the Knife, who covered some of this sonic territory on their last release, SHAKING THE HABITUAL. The tune just surges madly through a battlefield of opposing forces… no bridge, no chorus, just a furious, short flight past a stressful landscape of the worst of humanity. That’s how it struck me, anyway. After that, “Closed Eyes” is ALMOST lulling, but not quite. There’s a steady rhythm, and some carefully constructed verses, but Hardig’s vocal can’t settle for being merely emotionally resigned and descriptive… real pain rises up in her delivery and the sonic assault of the music is beautifully fierce and controlled, reminding in moments of the Doors on “The End,” the Velvet Underground or various other artists you may think you’ve heard. But this stuff is mostly stunningly original.

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: DANIEL PEDERSON PHOTOGRAPHY)

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: DANIEL PEDERSON PHOTOGRAPHY)

“Low and Slow” is another slam bang rocker, with the guitar firepower turned up high, and Hardig’s underlying punk attitude sneeringly coming to the surface. Only PJ Harvey and Chrissie Hynde come at all to mind when I listen to Hardig, and that’s more because they have a similar kind of absolute authority and rock and roll pedigree, rather than what the music actually does. Hardig comes across as a lonely warrior on these tracks, a woman who looks at the reality of both human folly and the flaws in the human psyche that lessen the quality of relationships and the chance for normalcy. On the brittle, repetitive “Bring It Home,” she seems on the verge of losing it, but the music is absolutely compelling in its driving simplicity and fearless edge. There’s a remix of it (along with one for “Closed Eyes”) on which the lyrics are a bit easier to hear, and the guitars seem to imitate a police siren several times, wailing towards the scene of an emotional crime that has probably inflicted tons of damage. “I lost control of my mind/I’m just skin and bones by your side/I’m layin’ all alone in despair/I can’t control this love that I lost/Come on honey now, bring it home!” Hardig darkly recites, suddenly blasting out those last two lines over and over, and it’s a blistering refrain that takes your ears prisoner while your feet tap along admiringly. With most of these songs, you can’t possibly hope to know the full story. But you don’t NEED to with this Swedish firebrand of a musician; you’ll hear enough and understand enough to get lost in the electrifying power of modern electronic rock and roll, and marvel at the way that mysterious thing called EDGE still exists, at least in whatever studio this woman works in. Sofia Hardig is a welcome antidote to slick audience-pleasing formulas, and a cry in the artistic wilderness for challenging what true self-expression in music should be, with anger and despair rising up to club bland acceptance and positive thinking mantras right over their thick skulls, guitars blazing and passion-infused vocals helping to land the blows. She’s a truly important, powerful sonic auteur who is slowly building a peerless recording catalogue that deserves the full attention of rock fans around the world.


INSECT ARK: PORTAL/WELL

(Autumnsongs Records; 2015)

insect-ark-portal-well

For many years, I’ve worn it as a badge of pride that I was almost always the one, at whatever publication I wrote for, to champion the weirdest, darkest, most challenging music the publication received. I developed an interest in ambient and experimental music quite early, and although I don’t just automatically like things BECAUSE they are weird and dark, I sure can tell when a creative aesthetic is at work, and when the practitioners CARE what they are doing. There is no doubt that Insect Ark mean it, man. This PORTAL/WELL release, their debut, is a stunning journey to places most folks just won’t go. We’re talking serious, concentrated creepy atmospherics, a sonic template where drones exist at a frequency outside the comfort zone and metallic sounds emanating from a dark urban alley may be from a decaying structure trying to return to its original nature or from the titular “portal” to some very threatening subterranean place. And also, something WICKED this way DRUMS… the pounding, ominous percussion here on tracks like “The Collector” (I would NOT wanna know what he collects!) and “Octavia,” though played by a human being named Ashley Spungin, does NOT represent the sound of physical release, It simply is not the rhythm of anything but perhaps a tortured psyche. Spungin isn’t the auteur here, though. Remarkably, Insect Ark is almost entirely the vision of a woman, a remarkable female composer/multi-instrumentalist named Dana Schechter. Her past music includes the more luminous Bee and Flower project, and she is an animator and video artist working in the film business.

Insect Ark (Dana Schechter) (photo credit: LAUREN BILANKO)

Insect Ark (Dana Schechter) (photo credit: LAUREN BILANKO)

I can only guess Schechter’s reasons for making such unsettling, alien music. She’s probably heard some records by Lustmord and Nurse With Wound, or who knows, maybe she is working through her own inner demons with this stuff. The Insect Ark website helpfully relates: “Creating a personal soundtrack to the human psyche’s underbelly, Insect Ark weaves a brooding textural landscape, a starless night spiked with light and flash.” Yeah, THAT! Gosh, I am not seeing much light, though. “Portal” and “Parallel Twins” could be soundtracks for a modern horror film, something by a European director, perhaps, who pushes the envelope too far. Life is NOT a safe, fun thing as expressed in this music. And yet, there are moments of eerie, spellbinding ambient beauty, as on the haunting “Low Moon,” which fully falls into the genre category of “dark ambient” and probably bests a few male composers of that style in its purity. Not to put too fine an oh so sharp point ON it, but we’re not used to hearing women make music like this. It’s potent, scary and damn self-assured. Insect Ark do NOT want you to sleep comfortably or, in fact, to draw too much inspiration from the beauty of life when there’s plenty of nightmarish stuff also deserving of your attention. But still, this is only a record in the end. A vital, off-center, somewhat unhinged soundtrack to stumbling through the darkness in dangerous times. I admire what Insect Ark have conjured. It’s got a good “buzz” and you can TRANCE to it…


ACID KAT ‘ZINE FOURTH ANNIVERSARY SHOW: THE COWBOYS/SODA BOYS/WRAY/THOSE JERKS/TUBBY TOM

(February 13, 2016; FOAM, Saint Louis MO)

Carlos relaxing in the Foam lounge (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Carlos relaxing in the Foam lounge (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

I’ve been to Foam exactly twice now; the first time was for an interview with Beth Bombara and, now, for this show. Wray, the evening’s headliners (even though they eventually went on third of five acts), and I arrived at approximately the same time (6:00 PM), due to the venue’s web-site giving the start time as 8:00 PM (or, 8:30 per the Facebook page for ACID KAT ‘ZINE). Around about 10, the sound guy/bartender told someone that it was probably time to start the show; fifteen minutes later, rapper/performance artist (and AK’Z contributor) Tubby Tom began a bizarre set that we’ll discuss shortly. Foam is a very cool place, with a great vibe, friendly staff and really good coffee but, if this is a standard occurrence, they’ve really got to rein in these acts (especially the locals) and keep things tight, on schedule and moving along. So, anyway, having arrived early, I had the pleasure of hanging out with a young Hip-Hop artist named Carlos (see above photo). It’s really cool to see someone so passionate about music… not only his own work, but just music in general; I mean, that’s why I started writing more than twenty years ago… a passion for music. Carlos may or may not have what it takes to get to the next level or to be a huge star but, I certainly heard enough to tell you that I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more from this young man somewhere down the line.

Tubby Tom (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Tubby Tom (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Performing a patently odd style of Hip-Hop over old Disco, Soul and pop records, avant-garde rapper Tubby Tom’s set seemed to be,,, uh,,, divisive. The material proved to be particularly well received by a small contingency of female revelers, while a smaller contingency of patrons merely decided to visit the rest rooms of to step outside for a smoke. Most of the tunes were kinda dorky little ditties about lust, love found and love lost. However, the very short set ended with a very compelling piece; the tale of kidnap, abuse and eventual escape was as urgent and claustrophobic as the scenario implies. By any musical standards, the song, with a distinct Gothic horror feel, was a brilliant use of lyrical imagery and a stifling musical bed to add to the emotional chaos. I gotta admit, I was rather ambivalent about most of Tubby Tom’s set… that final, extended dose of weird definitely upped my estimation of the man’s talents. I have no idea if any of this material is available in any recorded form (or if they are merely spur-of-the-moment fever dreams) but, if they are, they’re well worth checking out.

Those Jerks (Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony; Nasty Jordan; Terrible Tony) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Those Jerks (Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony; Nasty Jordan; Terrible Tony) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

According to advance promotions, Freeburg Illinois noisemongers Dem Scientist was scheduled to play their final show as part of this bill; I have no idea what happened but, they were replaced by an apparently thrown-together three-piece who, when I asked their name after the show, decided that Those Jerks worked as well as any… after much Stooges-like (of the Moe, Larry and Curly variety, not the Iggy and the… type) debate. The band also came up with the rather descriptive personal sobriquets of Nasty Jordan, Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony. Given the tight confines of the Foam stage, the guys set up on the dance floor, with drummer Tommy facing the stage and the others, hanging close to the stage, facing each other. Their music – a combination of barely formed originals and impossibly obscure covers – was a rambling, shambolic skree of fast and loose old school punk; in short, Those Jerks’ set was the virtual epitome of dumb, stupid fun. And, we all know that there just ain’t near enough of that sorta thing in the world today.

Wray (David Brown; Blake Wimberly; David Swatzell) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wray (David Brown; Blake Wimberly; David Swatzell) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unbeknownst to me (and, probably, the listening public at large), there is a burgeoning experimental music enclave in the unlikeliest of places: Birmingham, Alabama. Sure, I’d heard of (and listened to) Through the Sparks, Wray and, of course, Communicating Vessels (the label home of both) founder Jeffrey Cain’s group, Remy Zero (not from Birmingham, by the way, but the connection is valid), but… you really don’t envision this type of Eurocentric music to come out of Alabama. Wray plays an unrepentantly jangly, gauzy type of shoegazing elegantia, with throbbing bass, powerful drums, layered, effects-laden guitar and, hovering above it all, wispy, nearly whispered vocals; with a visual presentation (actually, a series of images and visual stimuli created – or chosen – by the band to augment each song) that is as mind-bendingly beautiful as the music, their show is a multimedia tour de force. Bassist and primary lyricist David Brown handled most of the vocals, while guitarist David Swatzell was content to build soaring layers of sonic Nirvana, adding the occasional backing vocal or a short, atmospheric lead with a voice as ethereal as Brown’s. Blake Wimberly followed where the music led, sometimes diverging from any type of standard time-keeping percussion but always bringing his playing back around to the rhythmic thread, all of which contributed to the hypnotic vibe of the song (most of which were from of the band’s latest release, HYPATIA). A highlight of the set was the group’s subtle, amazing cover of Faust’s Krautrock classic, “Jennifer.” Unfortunately, with the late start, rearranged order and other variables, Wray’s set was woefully short (somewhere around thirty minutes), but, without question, the highlight of the evening.

Soda Boys (Austin Nitsua; Jordy Shearer; Austin Nitsua) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Soda Boys (Austin Nitsua; Jordy Shearer; Austin Nitsua) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Like Those Jerks, Soda Boys play fast and loud; it’s punk, if tinged with a defiant dose of pop and a distinct Saint Louis flavor. Local scenester and founder of ACID KAT ‘ZINE, Austin Nitsua, is the band’s guiding light, a genial spaz in a Steak ‘n’ Shake paper hat, shouting lyrics over bass-heavy tunes like “Creamy Soda,” “Burgers and Fries” and the coulda-been-a-hit-in-another-era “Soda Girl.” These Boys (especially Nitsua) ran, jumped and rolled around the floor in a punk rock frenzy, obviously enjoying their set as much as the dwindling audience. Unfortunately, the only other band member I was able to identify was drummer Jordy Shearer, who somewhat reminded me of the late, great Tommy Erdelyi, the original skin-beater of the Ramones; as with Shearer, the unidentified guitarist and bassist more than held their own, but this show was unquestionably all about their charismatic (enigmatic?) singer, Austin Nitsua.

The Cowboys (Zackery Worcel; Jordan Tarantino; Mark McWhirter) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Cowboys (Zackery Worcel; Jordan Tarantino; Mark McWhirter) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Cowboys, from Bloomington Indiana, may have been the closest thing to a rock band playing on this Saturday. Their music is equal parts hard rock, psychedelia, punk rock and echo-drenched Rockabilly, delivered with an alcohol-fueled zeal. Celebrating the release of a compilation of the best material from their three cassette-only releases, the group – led by main songwriter and vocalist Keith Harman – charged through a set of tunes that included “Thumbs,” the trippy, late ’60s psychedelic groove of “Aqua Marine Love Machine” and the loopy hillbilly punk of “Cool Beans and Godspeed,” which featured some cool effects from guitarist Mark McWhirter. McWhirter proved himself adept at a variety of styles, including the riff-filled Buddy Holly inspired “Cindy Lou” and a fuzzy, screeching solo on “Creature of the Deep.” The rhythm section of Zackery Worcel on bass (and backing vocals) and drummer Jordan Tarantino were suitably sloppy while somehow managing to stay in the pocket throughout the night. Yeah, the night started off in a somewhat suspect manner, but the folks who stayed around for the finish were treated to a fun – if occasionally disjointed – evening of musical diversity.


DAVID BOWIE: BLACKSTAR

(ISO/SONY RECORDS; 2016)

Blackstar

KEVIN RENICK review:

Things can change just like THAT. One day the reality is THIS, the next it is something very different. That is certainly the case with BLACKSTAR, the newest album from the (unexpectedly) late David Bowie. The narrative should have been (and clearly WAS for the early reviewers) that Bowie was back doing experimental stuff, returning to his glory days of the late ’70s, at least in terms of creative daring, and adding to the thrill of his “comeback” on 2013’s THE NEXT DAY with an even more classic, incredible album. The pioneering artist is back! He’s challenging us again! He’s made another boldly original statement! The tone of some early reviews of this record is painful to ponder now, and in some cases, even embarrassing. David Bowie has died. It was a huge, huge shock. It was anything but common knowledge how sick he was except perhaps to his family and a few close friends, so all of us waking up the morning of December 11 to hear the news were devastated. Bowie? The beautiful conceptual architect behind Ziggy Stardust? The “Thin White Duke”? The “Berlin trilogy”? GONE? Impossible. He was bigger than life, this man, an artist so entrenched in the full history of classic rock from the end of the ’60s to right now that a world without him seems unthinkable. It’s a world greatly reduced somehow, with a music industry wobbling in a more unstable manner. We NEEDED David Bowie… he represented the consummate rock icon, the master of disguises, the ultimate creative auteur who could control his image and take his audience on a wild, unpredictable ride. Bowie was HUGELY influential, often thrillingly weird and original, and the master manipulator of image, fashion, and the entirety of the “rock star game,” whatever that means. He shouldn’t be gone. We should have been better prepared… why didn’t he tell us he was so sick? Except, why SHOULD he? The amazing thing about BLACKSTAR is that it is an incredibly rare example of someone making a powerful artistic statement almost certainly KNOWING they are dying, laying down sounds and sentiments that are not often presented in such a choreographed, “this may be FAREWELL, folks” manner. But Bowie infuses this album with so much mystery, so many unanswered questions, that you hunger for more as you listen. You wonder whether he was suffering as he recorded these tracks… it’s known that he loved to work FAST, but was there added urgency because of his ill health? How much did he know about when the end would come? Were tracks like the title track and “Lazarus” intended as messages to his fans, perhaps intended to be comforting in the coming “after period,” or were they just his latest songs? We don’t know. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time producer and collaborator, simply said “Bowie did what he wanted to do; he’s always done that” in a recent interview. We don’t know all the things we’d like to know, that’s for sure. Bowie took many secrets to the grave. And the outpouring of grief has been steady since he died, from musicians of all stripes, fans around the world. Not David Bowie. Not HIM! He CAN’T be gone! But… he can be, and he is.

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

So, listening to BLACKSTAR now, knowing it’s the last album David Bowie made as the purposeful, visionary artist he’s always been, is an utterly haunting, unforgettable experience. It is a phenomenal album, one that ranks extremely high in the Bowie canon. A friend asked me if I would think so highly of the album if Bowie hadn’t died. Yes… I had heard two of the songs before the news came, and I was riveted. I heard something new, eerie and boldly experimental in those two tracks (including the long title cut) and couldn’t WAIT to hear the rest. What Bowie’s death does to the listening experience is mostly about adding layers of sadness, forcing you to hear a “last testament” in these grooves, a place that Bowie knew he was going to that his fans could not follow, a place he himself had never been. The back cover of the CD jacket, the disc itself and the pages of the insert booklet are all black, with some shadowy photographs inside and the lyrics and credits almost unreadable as they, too, are black. But despite the darkness permeating this entire presentation, the music is vividly, powerfully full of life and wonder. It’s beautiful stuff from start to finish, reminiscent of the Berlin trilogy in many ways, but a new, jazzier kind of experimentalism that represented a new direction for Bowie. The 10-minute opener finds Bowie singing a perfect fifth harmony with himself that is mesmerizing, building a LOW era-vibe that keeps expanding outward, taking you on a journey to an unknown destination. There’s a solemn, minor-key mood that unexpectedly changes after a few minutes to a major key, almost upbeat section that features some of Bowie’s most plaintive vocals EVER, giving chills at the originality of the music. Ironically, though, Bowie sings this widely quoted lyric here: “Something happened on the day he died/His spirit rose a meter and then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/I’m a blackstar/I’m a blackstar.” The word “blackstar” appears throughout this track, along with curious star negations such as “I’m not a popstar… I’m not a gangstar… I’m not a film star,” always followed by “I’m a blackstar.” It’s overwhelmingly unsettling to learn that the term “blackstar” is an oft-used term in medical literature to refer to a kind of cancerous tumor due to its appearance under close examination. This is something missed by the early reviewers of the album… they were looking for a more cosmic, outer-spacey sort of meaning, and perhaps Bowie wanted that interpretation to be valid as well. After all, one panel of the sleeve does indeed show a starfield, with a particularly bright star in the lower left corner. Whatever Bowie meant we can only guess at, but I’m betting that the significance of the “blackstar” concept was very much on his mind as his mortality came more and more to the front and center of his reality, and he had to wrestle with it in his own unique way. It makes this very daring track impossible to forget; it’s a soundscape worthy of immersion on every level. Mark Guiliana’s drums on this track are worth singling out… he’s called upon to do some unusual things, and he matches and holds down the weirdness Bowie himself is putting down on multiple other instruments. “’Tis a Pity She’s A Whore” continues the thrilling art rock with riveting saxophone from Donny McCaslin, one of the musical stars of this record. There are echoes of HEROES, LOW and SCARY MONSTERS in what we get here, but McCaslin plays with atmospheric bravado in a way that Bowie must have been thrilled by. The song rocks, rolls and soars madly, and Bowie sounds like he is having a blast in the studio. On the other hand, “Lazarus,” a song made into a morbid, unforgettable video, is going to be regarded by most of us as some sort of epitaph. With squonking horns again and some of Bowie’s most impassioned singing, we get lyrics like these: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now… You know I’ll be free/Just like that Bluebird/Now ain’t that just like me.” How can fans NOT react emotionally to stuff like this? It’s simply impossible to separate the reality of Bowie’s passing from the immediate reality of what this track does. “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is a snarling, frenzied rocker that would’ve almost been easy to enjoy for its madness and musicality except that Bowie yells out at one point “Sue… Good bye!” and then you have to deal with truth again. “Girl Love Me” is a pretty weird song, with the repeated refrain “Where the fuck did Monday go?” (a question a lot of us probably ask from time to time, although more about OTHER days, I imagine) and it has an impatient, aggravated sense of ennui that is uniquely Bowie and his vocals reflect it. But the two closing tracks really KILL emotionally… that would be “Dollar Days,” an elegaic ballad and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” In the former, over a plodding rhythm and that McCaslin sax again, Bowie seems to be heading out right before our ears and his voice trails off over these lyrics: “I’m falling down/Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.” That penultimate passage is just too much to take in light of reality, and someone is gonna shed tears if they bother to strain their eyes to read the black lyrics on the black page. Finally, in “I Can’t… ” Bowie gives us one last classic, a melodic, beautifully sung gem with a haunting refrain (that title), airy synth, and a band that is in absolute perfect lockstep with him. It sounds like the end of his story, frankly, and I can’t hear it without getting chills. “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent/I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY.” That title is in a larger point size in the lyrics… maybe it isn’t as significant as I think. Or, maybe, Bowie was clearly saying to us, “Some things have to remain a mystery. Figure it out yourself. I can’t spell out all my secrets for you.” Whatever the case, he left an astounding final musical statement. BLACKSTAR is a sad, haunting classic, a soundtrack to the final journey of one of the greatest musical adventurers and multi-media artists of all time. We won’t see the likes of the former David Jones ever again, and it’s fitting he went out with one of his greatest recordings. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty LOW that one of our most important musical HEROES is now a true starman in the great beyond. Bowie titled a recent career anthology NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Sadly, that’s not true at all. EVERYTHING has changed with his departure.

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

BILL WINER review:

I bought David Bowie’s new album, BLACKSTAR, the day it came out, on his 69th birthday. It’s haunting, adventurous, sonically beautiful… everything you would expect from him and more. Very different from his previous album, THE NEXT DAY, which was his first in ten years. I played BLACKSTAR all weekend, then found out Monday morning, he had passed away after a long battle with cancer. To say I was shocked and stunned would be an understatement. BLACKSTAR is such a wonderful album… now, it has turned into his swansong and his epitaph. The title song and “Lazarus” are the longest tracks and are haunting in every respect. I must also add that his backing band are New York Jazz musicians, including Donny McCaslin, who plays some of the most haunting saxophone I have ever heard on a pop or rock record. Mark Guiliana is a wonderful percussionist and is all over the place with great fills and superb drumming, adding to the sonic depth of the album. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is one of the best rockers on the album; two of the middle songs “Sue(Or In a Season of Crime)” and “Girl Loves Me” are very strange; “Dollar Days” is a great piano ballad. The real kicker is the last number, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which is Bowie saying goodbye with a wonderful song and he sings his heart out on it. I’ve seen some of the video for “Lazarus,” which is one of the most haunting and bizarre music videos ever. He sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and his body starts floating away. BLACKSTAR is a must have album and as good as anything he has done. The fact that, now, it becomes his swansong makes it even more important. As Bowie’s longtime friend and producer, Tony Visconti, said, “His death was no different than his life… a work of art.”


DOYLE/ELEMENT A440/HUNG LIKE A MARTYR/THE SUPERMEN

(November 21, 2015; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

DSCN3500

So, this is the second metal show I’ve seen in the past five days and, like the Amaranthe show at Pop’s, this one had its fair share of drunken yahoos and intolerable idjits; in fact, several of the drunken yahoos and intolerable idjits from Pop’s were performing the same functions at the Ready Room. Even before the lights went down and the first band took the stage, a woman who seemed relatively sane five nights previous (her twelve year old son was with her then) was already so sloshed that she was slurring her words and was unable to navigate her way across the floor to the rest room, but we’ll get into more specifics as we go through the evening’s festivities, beginning with…

Supermen (Jimmy All-Dick; Valiance Jack; Gaius Julius Sensei Almighty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Supermen (Jimmy All-Dick; Valiance Jack; Gaius Julius Sensei Almighty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Supermen, an unrepentant mish-mash of punk, metal, misogyny, soft-core porn, comedy and wrestling from the StL. This band is pure, mindless mayhem and their stage show had so much happening that it was hard to find a focal point; I’m sure that a majority of the males in attendance spent most of their time focusing on the barely-dressed dancer/dominatrix who, according to the Supermen’s Facebook page is called (Hail the New) Dawn and is listed as “Property.” For the ladies, there was Tiger Mask IV, the male counterpart to Dawn, who is the group’s “Lead Partier” and was, likewise, barely dressed, sporting a Luchidor mask, wrestling trunks and boots. The rest of the band have also adopted wrestling gear and names (Maxxx Loads, “the Prom King,” plays bass; Valiance Jack, “the Promiscuous Protomartyr,” plays drums; Jimmy All-Dick, “the Alpha Male,” plays guitar; Gaius Julius Sensei Almighty is the singer; and the “manager” is Osama Bin Erickson, the Dean of Debauchery). Musically, think early punk laced with liberal doses of Motorhead-style metallic speed; lyrically, look to bands such as the Cramps or Dwarves for like-minded reference points (translation: Don’t try to read too much into what’s going on with the Supermen; they don’t take themselves too seriously and neither should you). Even though the look and songs do, in fact, border on the cartoonish, don’t miss out on the fact that these guys are actually really good players. The band’s twenty-minute, ten song set included such instant classics as “White Women In Distress,” “Live Punk Sex Act,” “I Kill Everything I Fuck” and their call-to-arms anthem, “Blood, Honor and Pussy.” A fun time was had by all, except for a fellow cameraman, who was continually hit or shoved from behind by (surprise, surprise!) a drunken tool who would wander to the back of the room and then charge to the front, yelling, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” to whoever happened to be on stage at the time. Music reviews should not focus so much on the audience’s behavior, but when that behavior actually hinders your enjoyment of the music, it must be addressed (in an effort, hopefully, to curtail such incidents in the future for the enjoyment and safety of everyone involved).

Hung Like a Martyr (Mark Nicol; Bruce Morrison; Paul Dontigney) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Hung Like a Martyr (Mark Nicol; Bruce Morrison; Paul Dontigney) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Another local act, Hung Like a Martyr (who, coincidentally, have opened for Doyle’s old band, the Misfits), offered more of a straight metal sound that was not unappreciated by yours truly. Bruce Morrison’s voice has a certain Vince Neil quality, but carries the emotional weight of a John Corabi (thus embodying both Crue singers in one), though the actual music was heavier than the Crue’s pop metal. The dual guitars of Erik Spiller and Paul Dontigney reminded me of the Phil Campbell/Wurzel two-pronged guitar attack of Motorhead’s mid-’80s to mid-’90s period… rough, fast and insanely melodic; the rhythm section of bassist Adam “Adamned” Fuchs and drummer Mark Nicol managed to keep things brutally heavy while never giving up their funky groove. The set built from the frustration of watching this country crumble under the weight of internal strife and increasing violence, as well as attacks from without, with the opening song, “Bent,” a battle cry that lets everyone know that we may be bent but we’re not broken; “Kill Your Own King” and “Watching the World Burn” are laments to the fact that America is so divided that we can seemingly no longer find a common ground on which to come together; “The Reaper” and “Nuclear Salvation” follow the same apocalyptic message. The final number, “Dead Body Dumptruck,” is basically a dark hymn to what we have to look forward to if we don’t get our act together: Death from within and annihilation from without, leading to a sort of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD zombie apocalypse of rotting corpses in mass graves. The songs – while very much in the horror/science fiction vein – had an angry spark of truth, delivered with a conviction and energy that was hard to ignore… even the drunks and idjits behaved during the set. All of the tunes, aside from “Bent,” are from earlier incarnations of Hung Like a Martyr; with a new record eminent, I, for one, am excited to see where new vocalist Morrison leads the group, lyrically, from here.

Element A440 (Kat; Halo; Katt) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Element A440 (Kat; Halo; Katt) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Though I’m not really into the “Anti-Christ Superstar” imagery and lyrics of groups like Marilyn Manson, I must say that Element A440 serve up their version with something that Manson frontman Brian Warner could never offer: Talent. Add to that a genuine conviction for what they’re doing (a seemingly concerted effort to not just shock or offend for the sake of being shocking and offensive… I mean, this FEELS real coming from this group) and, whether you agree with their stance or not, you have the makings of a fiery, evil set of industrial metal that is hard to ignore. Where the band does appear to be pandering to the lowest common denominator is the over-the-top attempts to titillate with sophomoric pornographic lyrics and visuals; a shame really, as the horror and religious elements of their set are what drives the narrative. It would appear that vocalist Halo (who also does programming and plays guitar… at least in the studio) is the mastermind behind the look and sound of Element A440… he is the sole songwriter and, I would guess, the visual designer of the band’s appearance and onstage set-up; the set was structured with a smart ebb-and-flow at the beginning, eventually ramping up to a chaotic close with the entire band donning some of the creepiest half-masks this side of the original Slipknot… the only thing we didn’t see was Halo’s fire-breathing (a matter of strict fire laws and low ceilings, I would guess). The musicians – guitarist Graven, drummer Kat and bassist Katt – were tight and scalpel-sharp, delivering their brutal, misshapen pop with a glee that never quite matched Halo’s but… that didn’t keep them from trying, pushing each other (and their manic leader) to ever harsher heights of musical mayhem. The songs that had the most impact, for me, included “Dance Dead,” “Wasted,” “Godless,” “Freak” and, I suppose, “Porn Star,” though for different reasons than you would think. I would definitely like to see a full Element A440 headlining set with the group pulling out all of the musical and effects stops… perhaps outdoors at Pop’s? Naturally, the drunks were back from their sabbatical during the last set, as the “Hey! Hey! Hey!” guy was back, seeking the acknowledgment from the stage that would validate his coolness and, the seemingly sane mother from five nights ago was all but molesting a couple of young men in the front row.

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein; Alex Story) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein; Alex Story) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With a new band, a new album and a tour with Glenn Danzig highlighting the last few years in the career of Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein, the Misfit guitarist is building on those successes with a headlining run through the States. Doyle (the man and the band) brought their ABOMINATOR TOUR to the Ready Room on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and absolutely destroyed! Doyle’s signature slash-and-burn style of guitar playing meshes well with the howling, growling vocal gymnastics of Alex “Wolfman” Story (he of Cancerslug fame) and, with bassist Left Hand Graham and drummer Brandon Pertzborn laying down a rhythmic bottom end denser than a graveyard fog, the crowd hung on every note, every scream. The set, as may be expected, was heavy on music from ABOMINATOR (ten tunes) and classic Misfits (eight songs). In fact, until the final four numbers, the group alternated three Doyle songs with three Misfits numbers; that pattern was broken up by a cover of KISS’ “Strutter,” which we’ll discuss later.

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein with Brandon Pertzborn; Doyle) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein with Brandon Pertzborn; Doyle) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Kicking off with Abominator,” the band proved their metal mettle (sorry… couldn’t resist), with Doyle already stalking the stage and hammering his guitar mercilessly. As much as I enjoyed Story’s vocals throughout, it wasn’t until the fifth song, the classic punk of “Ghouls Night Out.” I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention that our screamer did change up the act a bit for the headliners; his mantra now became, “Doyle! Doyle! Hey, Doyle,” which at the beginning of the set was directed at Alex Story. The inebriated Mom, cajoled and egged on by this goof between bouts of yelling his lungs out at the band, even made it onto the stage, a little to the right of Graham, where she just kinda swayed to the music until the tour manager took her arm and led her off, at which point, I assume, she began cozying up to the brothers who had been fending her off the entire evening. So, anyway, after “Skulls” (from the WALK AMONG US album), it was back to new material, including the wickedly awesome “Dreamingdeadgirls” and Love Like Murder.”

Doyle (Alex Story; Alex with Left Hand Graham) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Alex Story; Alex with Left Hand Graham) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The musical merry-go-round continued with three of the best tracks from EARTH AD, “Green Hell,” “Bloodfeast” and “Devilock.” Now, of course, hearing all of the great Misfits songs, when I sat down with Doyle after the show, I had to ask the question that has been on every Fiend’s mind since the original group broke up nearly 35 years ago: “Are the reunion rumors true and, if so, where do things stand now?” Doyle tells me, “I’m workin’ on it. I’ve got two fuckin’ bulls to deal with, ya know? One dogs lookin’ this way, one dogs lookin’ that way and this guy’s sayin’, ‘What do you want from me?’” What more can we hope for? Well, for one thing, a second album from Doyle, the band but, more immediately, the final round of ABOMINATOR songs, including the heavy, atmospheric Mark of the Beast,” and the graveyard mysticism of “Cemeterysexxxand “Drawing Down the Moon.” This was the point where the guys broke the cycle, tearing into “Strutter.” It’s also the point that the two drunks actually managed to get Doyle’s attention; the woman was attempting to lift her shirt up, an occurrence that the gentleman just couldn’t let pass without alerting the guitarist: “Hey, Doyle! Doyle! Doyle! Look at these!” In mid-solo, without missing a beat, Doyle replied, “I don’t wanna see those nasty old things.” Crest (breast?) fallen, the duo were utterly lost, put in their places by the one guy in the whole building you didn’t want to cross. With a smirk on his face, Alex introduced the final two – and possibly the two most well-known – Misfits numbers, “Last Caress” and “Die Die My Darling,” which has attained legendary status among fans and punks everywhere. Closing with “Hope Hell Is Warm,” Doyle, Alex, Brandon and Graham left the crowd with ringing ears and memories of a great night of punk and metal.

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Before leaving this review, I should probably explain why I spent so much time relating the actions of two very drunk people. The reasons are really simple: First, your actions made you a part of the show to the group of people around you, ruining what may have been their only night out for the entire month (or longer… considering the economy, live shows are very much a luxury nowadays). Second (and most important), there is no way that being fall-down drunk before the show even started can be construed as “just having fun,” miss… you have a serious problem that could endanger your life; please, take your actions into consideration, as you have a twelve year-old son to think about… how would you react if a stranger old enough to be his mother spent the night hitting on him? Plus, to both of you (and anyone else who decides to drink to excess), I don’t want to be on the road, worrying if you’re behind the wheel of one of the vehicles in my general vicinity. I understand that we all need a little release from time to time, a chance to let go and have a good time but, please, remember that there are others who have to put up with you and your drunken shenanigans and… please, don’t be the fatal statistic who crashed and burned on their way home from a killer night of Rock ‘n’ Roll.


PAUL MCCARTNEY

(October 21, 2015; JOE LOUIS ARENA, Detroit MI)

Paul McCartney Out There US Tour

Well, this is something like my umpteenth time seeing Sir Paul in concert and he never disappoints. I wasn’t planning on making this trip but, after speaking with my cousin, who lives in the area and has never seen McCartney, I decided, “Why not?” Not only do I get to see a favorite perform again, I also get to hang out with someone I don’t get to see very often. The experience of a McCartney show just never gets old: Sir Paul, aged 73, still has the fire and enthusiasm of someone half his age (or, maybe, a third his age) plus, his great band – Paul “Wix” Wickens on keyboards, Brian Ray on guitar and bass, Rusty Anderson on guitar and the brilliant Abe Laboriel, Junior on drums – provide all the back up he needs. Paulie, himself, plays bass, electric and acoustic guitar, piano and ukelele.

Paul McCartney (photo credit MJ KIM/copyright MPL COMMUNICATIONS LIMITED)

Paul McCartney (photo credit MJ KIM/copyright MPL COMMUNICATIONS LIMITED)

Oh… and, did I mention he also plays a ton of Beatles, some Wings, some classic solo stuff, as well as some more recent material. In fact, this time around, the set list actually included several songs I’ve never heard him play live before: “FourFiveSeconds” (the song he and Kanye West wrote, produced and appeared on for Rihanna’s ANTI album); “Hope For the Future,” which he wrote and recorded for use in a video game called DESTINY; a raw version of the Beatles’ “One After 909”; one of the first songs he wrote with John (Lennon, just in case you needed reminding), “Another Girl,” from the HELP soundtrack. He also dusted off the solo rarity, “Temporary Secretary,” an odd electronic track from MCCARTNEY II. The use of a nice, big video screen behind him and his band was great to accompany a lot of songs… “Back In the USSR” and Lady Madonna” were definitely enhanced by the visual accompaniment.

Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

It’s not just the greatest catalog of popular songs that make a Paul McCartney concert special; it’s also his interaction with the audience, his abundant energy and, at times, it actually seems that he is having a better time than the crowd. Of course, he has been doing this for over fifty years now and he is a magical stage performer. Singing along with an arena full of people to “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Band On the Run” and… well, the list just goes on and on… is still great fun. The poignant moments of “Blackbird” and “Here Today,” his tribute to John, are still heartfelt. Actually, I loved his version of Harrison’s beautiful “Something,” which started slowly with Paul on ukelele before rocking away; it is a truly great tribute to George. The big crowd was great – rowdy when it needed to rock and quiet for the more solemn songs. At his age, its hard to tell how long he can keep up this pace but, until that time comes, an evening spent with Sir Paul McCartney is always memorable.


THE EDUCATED GUESS/SYNA SO PRO

(August 21, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Wear the Educated Guess home!

For whatever reason, the tag “local band” is anathema in these parts; unless, of course, you’re talking about a cover – oh… I’m SO sorry… I meant a “tribute” – band playing in the corner of a bar somewhere. I’ve never quite understood that mentality, ’cause every band is local SOMEWHERE… right? Now, obviously, there are exceptions – bands and artists who offer a sound so unique or simply too good to be ignored… even in their hometown. The Educated Guest is one such band. This Friday night saw a packed house at Off Broadway, there to see the self-proclaimed symphonic pop brainchild of Charlie Brumley rock the rafters. And, as we’ll impart later, they most certainly did!

Syna No Pro (Syrhea Conaway) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Syna No Pro (Syrhea Conaway) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The evening kicked off with Syrhea Conaway, a solo artist doing business as Syna So Pro. Initially, I thought, “Oh, great! Another singer/songwriter with a keyboard! How imaginative!” Man, was I wrong! Syrhea picked up a guitar, punched a couple of buttons on her keyboard and tapped a pedal or two with her feet and played a series of power chords while intoning a line or two of lyrics into a mic; she then hit another few buttons, looping everything, before picking up a violin and repeating the process. The piece eventually brought her back to the guitar, where she played a rather intricate progression of notes that, once looped and re-looped, brought the whole thing together. The really cool thing about the way Conaway works is the fact that most of her songs seem to emerge fully realized BEFORE she starts adding layer after layer of guitar, vocals, keys or violin; watching her basically produce a new piece of music on the spot was mesmerizing. Aside from the digital trickery, it is quite apparent that Syrhea Conaway possesses a massive amount of talent as both musician and composer. Another quirky aspect of the live set was the stage banter, with Syrhea holding a conversation with herself, via pre-recorded comments, questions and jokes; they didn’t all work, but it was still a neat touch. At one point, her digital recorder misfired. A lot of performers would have had a major meltdown; Syrhea’s incredible stage presence and self-effacing humor came to the fore, as she kept the crowd entertained while fixing the problem. As ultimately enjoyable as this performance was, I would kinda like to see Conaway in a full band context (she has played in several over the years), creating these mind-boggling soundscapes while bouncing ideas off a group of like-minded musicians. Even if that never happens, I will still have this six-song set by Syna So Pro stuck in my head as one of the most imaginative performances I’ve ever seen.

The Educated Guess (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Educated Guess (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Charlie Brumley’s eleven piece (yes… I said eleven piece!) band worked as a well-oiled machine, delivering a show that was part Motown Soul, part Vegas spectacle, all 1960s-style pop brilliance. An Ike Turner/mad genius type (without the violence and mounds of white powder that not-so-mysteriously disappear up his nose), Brumley acts as lead vocalist, keyboardist and musical director, leading a four-piece brass section (Devin LaRue and Kenny Summers on tenor and bass trombone, respectively; Zack Hall on trumpet; Jim Scheffer on alto sax), three background singers (Arrika Rayburn, Jess Speropulos, Jamie-Lee Green) and a soulful rhythm section (drummer Brian Pincus, bassist Jon Venegoni, guitarist Grant Alexander) through what one would imagine an early ’60s pop or Motown live extravaganza would look and sound like… without a feeling of nostalgia or the kitsch generally associated with such endeavors.

The Educated Guess (Charlie Brumley, Jon Venegoni, Arrika Rayburn) (photo credit DARREN TRACY)

The Educated Guess (Charlie Brumley, Jon Venegoni, Arrika Rayburn) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The tone for the show was set from the get-go, with the wonderful “Sweet On You (and Getting Sweeter).” Brumley’s deep, soulful voice plays well off the backing and harmony vocals of the three ladies, while the horns add a warm, rich layer that many like-minded bands cannot hope to recreate. As the band (and the crowd) loosened up, their sound took on an even funkier groove, interspersing – of course – the poppy dance tunes with a slow jam or two. One such song, “The Best Part,” taken from the group’s new album (get it here), is a kind of Righteous Brothers ballady thing. That number was followed up by another track from THE EDUCATED GUESS, a Sunshine Pop confection called “Saint Monday (Love, Love, Love).” Later, another pair of songs from the new recording highlighted, not only Brumley’s writing and arranging abilities but, the talented members of the ensemble; “Get You Girl” has a loose sorta “I Can’t Help Myself” (the Four Tops song commonly referred to as “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch”) with a pumping bass, beautiful backing vocals and a nice solo from saxophonist Scheffer, while “Maybe” is a slow building tune that again features Scheffer, this time as singing counterpoint to Brumley, who adds his own amazing piano signature.

The Educated Guess (Arrika Rayburn, Jess Speropulos, Jamie-Lee Green) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Educated Guess (Arrika Rayburn, Jess Speropulos, Jamie-Lee Green) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The twelve song set ended with an absolutely stunning “remix” of R Kelly’s remix of his own “Ignition.” Other highlights of the set proper included “A Good Kisser (Don’t Kiss and Tell),” “Wandering Eyes,” and “Playing For Keeps.” Not close to having their fill, the audience demanded – and received – an encore of “Tell Me Honey” and “Missin’ Me Some Kissin’ Blues.” Most of the Educated Guess’ recordings and previous performances featured the Emperor Norton Orchestra, so one would have expected the sound to be… uh… a little thin. Far from it, the musicians and singers filled any void that may have occurred due to the (relatively) smaller pop-oriented group. This was, simply stated, an evening filled with fun music, meant to evoke the warm fuzzies and to get toes tapping and butts shaking. If you haven’t seen (or heard) the Educated Guess, you owe it to yourself to do so at your earliest convenience.

The Educated Guess (Zack Hall and Jim Scheffer; Brian Pincus, Grant Alexander and Jon Venegoni) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Educated Guess (Zack Hall and Jim Scheffer; Brian Pincus, Grant Alexander and Jon Venegoni) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)


DANIEL LANOIS/ROCCO DELUCA

(May 5, 2015; THE DUCK ROOM at BLUEBERRY HILL, Saint Louis MO)

Daniel Lanois with Jim Wilson and Kyle Crane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Daniel Lanois with Jim Wilson and Kyle Crane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

For a guy who’s NOT a household name, Canadian musician/producer Daniel Lanois has sure had a huge impact on modern music. He engineered some of Brian Eno’s early ambient recordings, collaborated on Eno’s 1983 masterpiece APOLLO and some later works, co-produced U2 with Eno on seminal albums like THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE, THE JOSHUA TREE, ACHTUNG BABY and more, did peerless auteur-style producing duties for albums by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and others, and released some terrific, pleasant solo recordings of his own, among them ACADIE, FOR THE BEAUTY OF WYNONA, BELLADONNA and his brand-new FLESH AND MACHINE. Lanois is a gentle, philosophical musical visionary who seems utterly tuned in to the deepest aspects of artistic intent and maximum creative impact. His show at the Duck Room was surprising in the dynamic range of what was performed and the sharp-edged clarity of the sound.

Rocco DeLuca (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Rocco DeLuca (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The audience was first treated to a handful of songs by opener Rocco DeLuca, who has a soft voice of incandescent, emotive clarity, double the impact of similar intonation by, say, Bon Iver. “You sing like a bird, Rocco,” Lanois told him early on, in an apt compliment. The sound crew were clearly on their game right from the start, and this made every tune stand out, from the loud to the more gentle numbers.

Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Lanois delivered both about equally, with a major tribal aspect to the rhythmic foundation that had the audience really riveted. “Sioux Lookout,” a track from the new album, was introduced as a piece “about the balance with nature,” as Lanois explained the challenges and daunting experiences faced by the indigenous Canadian tribes he has so clearly been influenced by both musically and philosophically. And a beautiful instrumental piece was introduced with the comment “I wrote this song when I saw the empty eyes of a native compadre.” Lanois is adept at both instrumentals and “conventional” songs with vocals, and the show was divided roughly equally that way. A rousing, aggressive piece called “The Burning Spear” was put together “like a punk thing,” the artist told us, and indeed, it rocked and tranced the crowd out in delerious fashion. But then Lanois would turn around and do a tender song like “I Love You,” from 2003’s SHINE, which featured simple lyrics that expressed that sentiment unpretentiously, something he said that more songs need to do. Also performed from that album: “JJ Leaves L.A.,” one of several tunes showcasing Lanois on his “trusted friend,” the steel guitar. It’s definitely a signature element of his sound. And he did one of his best-known songs “The Maker” from ACADIE, drawing a tremendous response from a crowd that kept growing throughout the show, it seemed. Lanois was effusive with his praise for the audience and their enthusiastic reactions to the material. A highlight was the communal “Congregate,” which featured Rocco again on strong vocals, and which inspired a short commentary by Lanois about the value of gathering for special, magical moments in life. The crowd ate these moments up.

Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Worthy of special praise were the vocal harmonies by Lanois and “mighty” Jim Wilson (his bass player and sideman for over a decade). Wilson is a consummate musician who has sung and played guitar in another revered band called Mother Superior who have performed and recorded as Henry Rollins’ backing band. Lanois clearly has the utmost respect for Wilson judging from their amiable musical partnership and back and forth comments, and Wilson, all smiles at the show, obviously feels the same way. From the hypnotic rhythmic elements all night (courtesy of Kyle Crane), to the well-paced variety, soothing instrumental passages, and the affable warmth of master Lanois himself, this was a truly delightful, pleasing show all around. Lanois is something of a rare gem in the music industry, a guy whose actions and enthusiasm ripple throughout different genres, with lasting impact. One hopes he will return to St. Louis again before too long, and judging by the enthusiastic response tonight, that’s more than likely.


HERE COME THE MUMMIES/SUPERFUN YEAH YEAH ROCKETSHIP

(April 10, 2015; THE PAGEANT, Saint Louis MO)

Here Come the Mummies (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Not exactly knowing what to expect from a band called Here Come the Mummies, I packed up the ol’ sarcophagus and lumbered across the mighty Mississippi (our very own version of the Nile) to see what the archaeologists had dug up down in Nashville (that is in Egypt, isn’t it?). I found myself rather surprised that the Mummies’ acolytes were a more… mature crowd than I had anticipated for a group with such a moniker. That didn’t mean that they were any less vociferous than the youngsters… I mean, there was rump-bumpin’ aplenty and the audience participation was unparallelled in the annals of the ancients. But… I proceed myself; let’s back things up to the beginning (of the show… not Genesis; just wanna be clear on that), shall we?

Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship (Correy Goodman; Christopher Eilers) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship (Correy Goodman; Christopher Eilers) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The comedic duo of Corey Goodman and Christopher Eilers – better known as Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship – took the stage, flanked by cardboard cut-outs of Fabio and a herd of hot dogs (a fourth wiener, Franklin, is missing and – though there have been no ransom demands – presumed to be held hostage) and, thus, a totally improbable evening of rock, pop, disco, ska and, yes, the funk of five thousand years was upon us. Between their familial in-joke bantering, local boys Corey and Christopher delivered some truly danceable and utterly outlandish doses of rock and roll, including “Throwin’ Up,” “Randy Savage,” and a stunningly obtuse cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Eilers delivered sheets of metallic riffing as Goodman’s apoplectic shenanigans and not-so-sly wink-and-a-nod lyrics virtually bulldozed the crowd into joining the frenzied frolic of the Rocketship’s forty minute flight… as if they weren’t already hyped in the extreme for what was yet to come. Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship proudly wave their influential flags high: Comic books (“Magneato,” “I Like Marvel, You Like DC”), professional wrestling (“Randy Savage,” “The Undertaker Joins the Avengers”), cheesy ’80s teen movies (“Totally Awesome,” “Throwin’ Up”). Yeah, they may an acquired taste but, like your Mom used to say when she wanted you to eat your Brussels sprouts, “How do you know you don’t like ’em if you don’t try ’em?” You can take Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship out for a test drive at their Bandcamp page, but… you gotta be quick, as their furious dance moves and hard-rocking tune-age may soon be swept up in an undercover vice raid!

Here Come the Mummies (Java) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (Java) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

After a surprisingly short intermission, the houselights dimmed and a martial drum coda permeated the electric crowd. This being my introduction to live Mummies (yes… I realize the dichotomy of that phrase), I assumed it was a recorded intro before the band took the stage; shortly, however, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, as the group entered from the back of the venue like the percussion section of a marching band. The crowd erupted as the eight rotting players took to the boards, stage right, before ripping into one of the coolest intro tunes ever, “Carnal Carnival,” a funky New Orleans celebration of lust and death. Percussionist and head instigator Java, playing the demented ringmaster, stalked the stage, leering like a serial killer on a bloody bender. All I could think was, “This is even better than I thought it would be! Play that funky music, dead boy!” For the next 90 minutes, Here Come the Mummies had the Saint Louis faithful roiling and stewing in their own libidinous juices, with crowd favorites like the Mexican banda vibe of “Ra Ra Ra,” the hard rocking funk of “Single Double Triple,” the lonely-loin lament of “Everything But,” the barely disguised double entendre groove of “Booty” and “Attack of the Wiener Man,” and, of course, the Mummies’ mission statement and national anthem, “Freak Flag.”

Here Come the Mummies (Mummy Cass) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (Mummy Cass) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The music of Here Come the Mummies, like that of His Purple Majesty, is littered with sexual innuendo and sweaty crotch-thrusting that borders on the misogynistic. If I had to describe them in one sentence, I would say, “Imagine George Clinton and James Brown had a bunch of 5,000 year old funky dead babies.” While the music is awesome, it takes a back seat to the stage show, with its manic pace and Motown-on-crack choreography coupled with a brilliant use of lighting and smoke effects. Guitarist and primary vocalist, Mummy Cass, gets the funk out with Princely rhythm work and, while he may not be the reincarnation of Eddie Hazel, he definitely embodies the equally late and great Gary Shider. In other words, the ol’ carcass can PLAY! The horn section (BB Queen on trumpet, The Flu handling the baritone sax and Mummy Rah blowing tenor sax and shaking that trunk-fulla-junk that Mama Mummy gave him) is loose and funky at times, tight as a military corner at others; the soloing is soulful, highlighting the individual player’s creativity and obvious (if unstated) musical pedigree. And… did we mention the dance moves? Most mummies I know can’t move like that!

Here Come the Mummies (BB Queen, The Flu, Spaz, Mummy Rah) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (BB Queen, The Flu, Spaz, Mummy Rah) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The rhythm section displayed some pretty nice moves themselves. We already introduced you to vocalist, percussionist and maker-of-mischief, Java; when he’s not out front, inciting the crowd, or leading his fellow Mummies in another syncopated dance routine, he handles a variety of percussion instruments that aren’t part of a standard drum kit, including – naturally – the cowbell; at one point, he strapped a mallet and cowbell to his waist, showing his… uh… musical acumen via a series of pelvic thrusts. Eddie Mummy is the powerhouse that keeps time, never missing a back-beat or a vocal part; Eddie’s drumming is the epitome of jazzy precision and funky hard rock fills. The Pole, whose deep-in-the-pocket groove is in monstrous lockstep with Eddie, stalks the stage, letting his sonorous Bootsy-like bass “trombipulation” do his talking for him. Keyboard player Spaz fills every conceivable sonic void with everything from a classic piano or organ sound to varying blips and bloops and synthesizer noodles; he earns bonus points for not looking like a Jonathan Cain-type idjit when he joins the others at the front of the stage with keytar in hand.

Here Come the Mummies (The Pole) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (The Pole) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Obviously, this is a group who, while having honed their craft to a razor’s edge, don’t take anything too seriously. Except the funk and grind and, of course, delivering a butt-shakin’ good time every time they take the stage. As I mentioned in the intro, this is my first Here Come the Mummies experience… it will not be my last!

Here Come the Mummies (Eddie Mummy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Here Come the Mummies (Eddie Mummy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)


WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 2

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

It’s interesting how certain albums come to mean so much to you, the longer you are an active music fan. From 1976 to 1979, I worked at a major record store, which increased my access to all kinds of new and upcoming artists. I also began to read music magazines obsessively, so I was able to follow the music scene really attentively. Hundreds and hundreds of albums crossed my path during that time and beyond. I went to college from 1980 to 1983, and that, too, brought a ton of new artists into my life. So-called “new wave” music ruled at that time, with artists such as Elvis Costello, the English Beat, the Clash, the Cars and many more finding favor among people I hung out with, and my friend Tina Carl and I began trading and sharing and even dancing to a lot of the music at that time. There was so much stuff I loved, but the sheer volume of it probably prevented most of it from becoming INFLUENTIAL. And that is my focus here: what were the albums that actively, in a meaningful way, became an influence on my life and creative journey? So, here is part two of that list of 25, carrying us from the late 70s to the present…

14. TALKING HEADS: FEAR OF MUSIC and REMAIN IN LIGHT (tie)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

This is the second time I am cheating by calling a TIE between two albums. I pretty much HAVE to, because each of these albums by the New York new wave group fronted by David Byrne was HUGE for me. FEAR OF MUSIC came out while I worked at Record Bar, in the summer. It was an amazing piece of work, quirky as hell, rhythmically unique and heavily atmospheric. Songs like “Air,” “Cities,” “Animals,” “Drugs” and the new wave dance anthem “Life During Wartime” were like catnip for my ever-growing interest in offbeat music. And the hypnotic piece “Mind” became the unofficial breakup song for me and that girl who looked like Joni Mitchell. I loved this band, and the fact they were produced by my new hero, Brian Eno, was a bonus. But the following year, while I was attending Webster University, the incomparable REMAIN IN LIGHT came out. Influenced by African high life music, and featuring Eno again as producer and even co-writer of many of the tracks, this was just a full-on masterpiece of innovative modern rock. I absolutely went gaga over it, and “Once In A Lifetime” remains, to this day, one of the most instantly captivating weird songs ever recorded. Topping things off, MTV was becoming a going concern, showcasing this new “music video” art form to a fast-growing, interested public, and the Heads’ video for this song got huge attention. My friend Ted Moniak and I also discussed this album at length in college, and I remember him taking a long verse from the song “Crosseyed and Painless”, and writing the lyrics on a piece of paper which he posted on a door in the theatre conservatory to make a point. These were major, heady days of music listening for me, always intense, always communal. REMAIN IN LIGHT is truly one of the greatest and most interesting albums of all time, and that coincided with it being influential for me in its awesome creativity, its often dark and globally inclusive mood, and a palpable sense of ALL things truly being possible now. It made me want to learn about ethnic music, and my mind just kept opening more and more…

15. NICK DRAKE: FIVE LEAVES LEFT

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

I didn’t know anything about Nick Drake when he was alive and making music (1969-1974). It was some years later that I learned about him through my friend, Ted. The doomed British singer/songwriter, who died at the age of 24 either through suicide or an accidental drug overdose (theories differ on that), was an instantly compelling new “find” for me. Nick always sounded like he was apart from the rest of humanity, a lonesome figure who couldn’t fit in and related more to nature and quiet moments than anything else. I probably identified a little too much with this, I have to say. FIVE LEAVES LEFT was his first album, and it’s one of the best debut albums ever. I love every song on it; “Time Has Told Me,” the gorgeous “River Man,” “Cello Song” and “Fruit Tree” are just a few of the timeless, intimate songs on this album. I began performing “River Man” as a musician myself some years later; the mood of isolation combined with a deep reverence and connection to nature, was a recurring and potent theme in Nick’s music. Also, the way his career never took off (fame eluded him during his lifetime; it took a clever Volkswagen commercial using his song “Pink Moon” to catapult him to real fame after his death) and the aching solitude made me start thinking much more about the uncertainties of being an artist and the pain of being perhaps too sensitive. This is essential singer/songwriter stuff, and will likely always be one of my top 10 albums of all time.

16. BRIAN ENO: ON LAND

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

I already covered Eno’s album DISCREET MUSIC, which found him inventing a new kind of music that baffled many listeners and critics at the time. And in 1979, he basically announced ambient music as an “official” new genre with the release of MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, labeled as “Ambient 1” in his new series at the time. That album was influential, for sure, but 1982’s ON LAND was so far ahead of the game in this genre, so much farther than his own DISCREET MUSIC, in fact, that in a way, my life instantly changed right then and there. If DISCREET MUSIC had made me feel like dreams had come to life, ON LAND recreated the experience of being lost in nature, and thinking about the most private and long-gone of memories while doing so. It was a series of rather lengthy pieces with titles such as “Lizard Point,” “The Lost Day,” “Lantern Marsh” and “Unfamiliar Wind,” all of which were made in such a mysterious process that almost no recognizable instruments appeared on them. Eno had traveled deeply into new, mysterious musical territory, and in these heady days before the internet, finding albums like this and maybe, just MAYBE encountering another human being who liked it, made you part of a cult in a way. I was utterly, utterly shocked and amazed that an album like ON LAND, which vividly captured the way I felt when I was out in nature, watching birds and feeling the glorious solitude of my surroundings, could exist. I had literally never been so affected by an album before, and I went a little nuts. I started collecting every article and review of Eno I could find, even compiling a scrapbook. More significantly, I decided I had to write to Brian Eno himself and express my admiration. It was a crazy, bold impulse, but I was unstoppable; I wrote about a 25-page letter to Mister Eno telling him about how I had long dreamed of a kind of cinematic, pastoral music that would evoke landscapes and the mysteries of life, and how in awe I was that HE had single-handedly created this music. Late in 1982, one day when I was at Webster University, I was flabbergasted when Eno answered my letter. He was warmly appreciative of my enthusiasm, hand-wrote a 3-page letter to me, and shared some of his thoughts about this bold new music that was happening. We corresponded several times, and it was a highlight of my life. It’s possible that ON LAND is, in fact, the MOST influential album of my life, it depends on how you want to measure these things. But the way this album combined many of my interests, veered sharply into unknown and haunting new sonic territory and carried with it an entire new philosophy about recorded musical art, was to change the big picture for me forever. And the time I played it on my car stereo at sunrise while driving into the Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the most unforgettable listening experiences of my entire life.

17. COCTEAU TWINS: VICTORIALAND

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

Ah, the Cocteau Twins. Their fans sigh and swoon at the mere mention of this so-called “shoegaze” band (a lousy label that some critic made famous, even though none of the dreamy sounding bands saddled with that label could stand it). You’re lucky in life if you meet friends who introduce you to some new band that goes on to really affect you, a band you might not have encountered otherwise. That was the case with my first introduction to this ethereal Scottish trio. Liz Fraser, the sublimely gifted female singer who fronted the band, sang like no one else EVER, not even singing understandable lyrics until the last years of the band. Instead, fans were treated to wailing, intoning, swooping and soaring, shiver-inducing tones and unearthly vocal bursts that were uncategorizable. With her partner at the time, Robin Guthrie, who conjured one of the most recognizable and groundbreaking painterly guitar sounds to ever come along, the Cocteau Twins (joined by bassist Simon Raymonde on most of their albums) earned in instant cult following with their visionary sonic palette. Many of their albums are now considered classics, but VICTORIALAND, a largely acoustic and sparsely played recording, has some of their most singularly beautiful moments. It’s music that is not easy to describe. In many ways, it is ambient, because Liz Fraser does not sing understandable lyrics, and the overall mood, a haunted one, is what you respond to most. The music is wintery, solemn and desolately beautiful, filled with mystery and destinations unknown. Some friends and I listened to it one day while we were all sprawled out on the floor together at a party, in a totally receptive mood. There was a sense of discovery at this time in the mid 80s that was magical, and by the time the internet came along and music like this was analyzed and discussed to death by countless pundits, some of that mystery went away. But the Cocteaus’ powerful music endures (though they disbanded in the late 90s), and Robin Guthrie is now a prominent ambient musician and soundtrack composer, continuing the awesome legacy of this pioneering band.

How it influenced me: By proving that truly wondrous music could render lyrics irrelevant, by emphasizing mystery over almost everything else, by demonstrating that a female voice could power a kind of “new form of ambient,” and by partially inspiring me to start writing my first novel, a story about a girl who worshipped this band, and happens to get embroiled in a supernatural murder mystery. Not sure if the novel will get finished or not, but if it does, I am contacting Robin Guthrie to compose the score.

18. REM: AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

This Athens, Georgia band became heroic in the ’90s for their status as one of the ultimate college bands and for helping to create the very notion of what “indie rock” meant. Michael Stipe had a unique, stylish approach to vocals (in the early days he utilized a kind of beguiling mumble), and there was something about the SOUND of these guys that was able to keep growing an audience year after year. “Losing My Religion” became their most classic song, but in 1992, they released AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE, an evocative song cycle about loss, change and disillusionment. Three of my favorite themes! This was an autumnal album, one that I played constantly and featured regularly on road trips with a couple of friends. It was conceptually solid, deeply moving and strangely comforting. I reacted most to the melancholy songs like “Try Not to Breathe” (a painful song about an old person’s last moments), “Sweetness Follows” (heartbreaking song, with potent cello playing, about the aftermath of a death in a family) “Nightswimming” and a personal favorite, “Find the River.” This album made me cry a few times, and I have to mention in particular that the song “Sweetness Follows,” a truly haunting piece, was something I listened to on the fateful day I found out that a close friend, and the founder of a publication I had written for, was killed in a horrible car accident coming home from Chicago. I was on the highway the same day, maybe an hour behind her, and didn’t find out ’til the next day what happened. It was a huge, tragic event. There were many upbeat REM songs, and I had fun growing with them album after album for almost 30 years. But it was their softer, more intimate songs that ultimately affected me the most. I don’t play this album that often because it brings back some painful memories, but it definitely had an impact.

19. PETE NAMLOOK: AIR 2

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

Considering that most non-aficionados consider “ambient” to be nothing more than background music, something probably with repetitive droning or tinkly keyboards and not much variety, it’s a huge surprise to discover that there’s actually a HUGE diversity of sounds and approaches in the world of ambient releases. That topic will be discussed in depth another time on this site, but I have to include a Pete Namlook album on my list because Pete, like Eno, created an entire world of ambient releases. He launched a private German record label called Fax in the early 90s, and began releasing limited-edition recordings that became collectors items fairly quickly. The releases spanned the musical spectrum from straight ambient to stuff heavy on beats to weird experimental things to jazz stylings and beyond. Fax fans were challenged by all this and discussed Pete’s work on several key websites. One of the best pairs of ambient recordings on Fax was the first two volumes in a series called AIR. These were meant to be expansive, “ethno-ambient” projects that included instrumentation far beyond mere drones and keyboards. AIR 2, in particular, was a spectacular album. It’s hard to even describe, because it constantly changes, from hypnotic travelogue soundscape (with subtle rhythms) to breezy synth to chanted middle-eastern sounding vocals to glassy, wind chimey stuff and more. “Traveling Without Moving” is the subtitle of the work overall, but it is so filled with diversity, and so enthralling to listen to while driving, that it became a personal landmark for me. I played the entire thing in my car while driving in the mountains of Colorado one evening, with some dangerous conditions happening, and it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life. This is real musical art, raising the notion of “ambient to a much, much higher level.”

How it influenced me: By creating a bold, fascinating new vision of what ambient could be, and by allowing me to lure friends and other newbies into the ambient “fold” by providing a stellar, immersive and unforgettable listening experience.

20. RADIOHEAD: OK COMPUTER

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

Radiohead took the music world by storm with this album. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it was said to be an epic meditation on millennial angst and the growing encroachment of technology in our lives (with the subsequent alienation we were sure to face). I was utterly enthralled with this recording; it really did achieve some sort of pinnacle of creativity for a rock album. Having always loved high, emotive male voices, Thom Yorke’s singing on stunning tracks like “Paranoid Android,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “Let Down,” and “Lucky” was spine-tingling, and the arrangements (and production by Nigel Goodrich) maximized the emotional impact. I listened to this one over and over; it was a thoroughly modern rock masterpiece that took me back to the days of listening to Pink Floyd, Yes and the Moody Blues when I was a teen. The underlying anxiety about the future and the ups and downs that were soon to come with the pervasiveness of the internet and other technologies, were deeply ingrained in the musical aesthetic of this record.

How it influenced me: By announcing a new candidate for “Best group in the world,” showcasing powerful new songwriting and arrangements in a neo-prog rock idiom, and reminding me clearly of the power of writing music that echoed the times and tried to make people think and feel about our fate as humans.

21. THE DOMINO KINGS: LIFE AND 20

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

This is the only Missouri album on my list, and at this writing, it is out of print, sadly. The trio of guitarist Steve Newman, upright bassist Brian Capps and drummer Les Gallier, based in Springfield, play roots music that blends barroom country and early rock and roll into a snappy, lively formula that is a genuine pleasure to listen to. But that’s not why the album is on my list. It’s here because the album came out when I was an active music journalist for a publication called NOISYPAPER, and I was assigned to review a show by the Domino Kings. I met Brian Capps and struck up a friendship with him. Just a few years later, when I saw Brian in concert again, I was about to endure one of the most painful relationship breakups of my entire life, and Brian’s songs not only served as a bit of a soundtrack for this period, they made me want to dance through the heartache. The Kings were (and still ARE) crack musicians, capable of playing the kind of alcohol-fueled, lost-at-love rave-ups that patrons have been dancing to and enjoying for years. On this album, the Capps tunes “Borrow A Lie,” “Alice” (a wickedly catchy stomper about a bad, bad woman), “Don’t Be Indifferent” and “Steppin’ Out Again” all deal with the kind of women and relationships that tear a man’s soul apart. As this happened to me at the end of 2003 and the first part of 2004, I got to hear Brian Capps perform live several times, with most of these tunes in the mix. And he was kind enough to discuss relationships with me and tell me his own stories of romantic woe. Very cathartic and significant. Additionally, the Kings’ music increased my awareness that Springfield, Missouri was a center of musical vitality. Not far in my future at this point was a deep connection and involvement in that city that would affect my own music career dramatically.

22. EPHEMERA: BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

It’s funny how one little action can end up leading to something much bigger, something you couldn’t predict. By 2002, I was working at an advertising agency, getting into the groove of internet communication and browsing, and trying to learn about new music and discover new things. I had read a few things about Norwegian music, just sort of casually, and I ended up purchasing a CD called THIS IS NORWAY on impulse. It was a compilation of Norwegian pop and rock bands, and there was a track by a band called Ephemera on there. I had never heard of them, and knew nothing about them. The song, “Last Thing,” featured several female singers offering beautiful, tight vocal harmonies, and unusually crystalline keyboards and production. It stood out, and I wanted to know more about this group. Nothing by them was available in the US, but I ordered this album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE. Lordy. It so far exceeded anything I could have expected, that it’s hard to put into words. It was like realizing your eyes have been impaired for a long time, causing you to never see certain details, and then being given a pair of stunning new glasses that brighten up the entire world, with colors, details and landscapes you were never aware of appearing vividly before you. The three women of Ephemera – Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen – are singer/songwriters of peerless, diamond-pure talent. Since I have an interview with Ingerlise pending, I’ll save most of my thoughts for that piece. But I was bowled over by this magical trio from the start, and they are one of my absolute favorite musical groups in the world. On BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, tracks such as “Act,” “Air,” “Bye” and the title track are such heartbreakingly beautiful, with emotive, delicate singing and a level of purity that I had almost never heard on an American record. I love literally every song this band has recorded, and I came to the conclusion early on that they don’t really know how good they are. They are some kind of magical musical goddesses that simply do what they do, and trust that some people will like it. Ephemera opened up a new world to me, the world of Scandinavian pop music, which I would, within a year, be writing about regularly for a couple of different publications. They actually changed the way I LISTEN to music, because after absorbing the beauty of their vocals and the genius production techinques of their producer, Yngve Saetre, I could no longer respond the same way to typical American pop records. Here’s how passionately in love I am with Ephemera’s music. If there was a fire or a coming tornado, and I could only save a limited number of CDs from my collection, I’d grab an armful of ambient CDs and then use my other hand to grab my small stack of Ephemera CDs. They have been a HUGE, huge influence, and when I became a musician, I kept their intimate vocals in mind at all times as I advanced in my own career.

23. DANIELSON FAMILE: TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL' CHOPPIN' BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

I never, never found so-called “Christian groups” musically interesting; the vast majority of what I heard in that vein seemed like the most shallow, over-reverent, musically insipid crap I could imagine. Nothing against Christianity, only something against boring music. But Lord God almighty! The Danielsons changed that in a big way. It is, of course, not cool or even accurate to call them a “Christian” band. In fact, they are so weird and arty that their first label, a Christian one called Tooth and Nail, dropped them after one album. Instead, Daniel Smith, the composer and frontman for this band along with a rotating cast of family members and friends, began to attract a following from the fringes of indie rock and outsider music. Smith has a very, very high voice, and he makes it even higher by singing one of the highest falsettos in the history of pop music. It is showcased on several tracks on this amazing, visionary album. But the entire album is notable for the focused PASSION on display, the extremely original songwriting, and the sense of communal empathy that pours from the whole thing. Less important than the Christianity of the band is their deep, poignant humanity and concern for the well-being of everyone, meaning every single listener. They really don’t PREACH per se, they simply share their souls, and they do it with powerful music that ranges from Beatles to Beefheart in influence. I’ve tried to share Danielson music with various friends, and it is honestly too much for a lot of them. When Smith ascends to that remarkable falsetto and starts ranting about something in the modern world, it results in a singular, aggressively original sound that is not meant for all. But the humanity and intensity of this album is undeniably hypnotic, emotional and yes, quite beautiful. Some of their later albums, although I like all of them, are at times spotty. But TELL ANOTHER JOKE… is a masterpiece to me.

How it influenced me: By demonstrating that religious themes on an album can be musically riveting, that the subject of confessed vulnerability (one of my favorites) is worth examining, and that weirdness and focused passion are absolutely compatible bedfellows, something I have kept in mind ever since.

24. LISA GERMANO: LULLABYE FOR LIQUID PIG

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

I decided to include this one among some of the final “candidates” for this list because it was a crystal-clear example of a dark, depressing album being cathartic at a time when I was lost. The very offbeat, non-commercial style of Ms Germano is an acquired taste, but fans of originality and darker artsy/folksy stuff can find a lot to love in her work. LULLABYE… was released to little fanfare late in 2003, right as I was breaking up with a girl named Star in an unexpected manner. I went into a downward spiral for a time, and this record is about just that, a downward spiral. Although I’d found other dark, sad albums in the past to be compelling, such as stuff by Neil Young, Lou Reed, Joy Division and others, Lisa Germano really let her worst fears and sorrows hang out, and the album was willfully uncommercial. Yet it had a lot of fragile beauty on it. There were some verses, and eerie sounds (inspired by struggles with alcoholism, reportedly) on this album that could absolutely get under your skin. One verse that almost brought me to tears, was “Without you here/Without your love/The world’s just THERE/It doesn’t move me.” The songs are generally short, and Ms Germano really sounds like she is fighting off a breakdown, which oughta sound familiar to anyone who has suddenly lost their love, or found themselves on the wrong end of a battle with substance abuse. This is not a fun album, but I’ll never forget how it provided therapy and catharsis during a pretty rotten four month stretch for me.

25. In order for this list to have a sense of “completeness” for me, I have to put FILM SOUNDTRACKS

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

for the final slot. I don’t mean loose collections of songs, I mean orchestral scores. I grew up with film music and I love it, and my brother is one of the most knowledgeable film soundtrack buffs in the country; he writes a column about it. Film music has been described as the “first cousin” of ambient music; it’s generally instrumental, generally evocative and mood-setting, and able to be created in many different musical idioms. Watching movies and TV shows all my life, I have to say that I always noticed the music, and the mood-enhancing nature of movie music got deeply into my psyche. When I write songs now, there is always part of me that hopes to capture something subtly cinematic. There are tons of soundtracks in my collection, but to round out this list of influences, I will pick three different ones: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the beautiful Elmer Bernstein score for the classic Gregory Peck movie (with a main theme that everyone loves and remembers); DANCES WITH WOLVES, a rapturous, Western-themed score by John Barry that covers as much terrain as the epic film itself does, and NEVER CRY WOLF, by the prolific Mark Isham, whose 1983 score was one of the first ambient soundtracks ever. Isham stated in interviews that he was influenced by Brian Eno, so… it figures I could identify with his movie work!

TEN OTHER INFLUENTIAL RECORDINGS THAT MISSED OUT ON THE MAIN LIST:

NEIL YOUNG: ZUMA… THE WHO: TOMMY… MIKE OLDFIELD: OMMADAWN… XTC: ENGLISH SETTLEMENT… THE SAMPLES: NO ROOM… THE RESIDENTS: NOT AVAILABLE… PHILIP GLASS: GLASSWORKS… HAROLD BUDD AND BRIAN ENO: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR… MUM: FINALLY WE ARE NO ONE… PINK FLOYD: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON

SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION:

ROBYNN RAGLAND: MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

Although it didn’t feel right to place this on the main list of 25, I need to include Robynn Ragland’s record because, first of all, it was one of the most well-written and well-produced collections of songs by a local artist during my early years as a writer, first for NOISYPAPER, and then for PLAYBACK STL and fLUSH. Appreciating artists in Saint Louis wasn’t always easy, but Robynn made it a cinch. Her true significance for me was that we became close friends, and she really encouraged me with my own writing and creative pursuits. And in a twist that neither of us could have foreseen, when I had my surprising success with the UP IN THE AIR song, Robynn became my manager for a few years. She was singularly responsible for my spectacular trip to Japan to promote the movie, and I could hardly forget something like that!