JUST AFTER ZERO: ALCHEMEDIC

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

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

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

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

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

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

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

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

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH JOHN LIMING OF “JUST AFTER ZERO”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

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

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

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


WEEKS ISLAND: DROSTE

(SELF-RELEASED DIGITAL EP; 2020)

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

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

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

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


EPHEMERA: SEASONS

(EPHEMERA MUSIC; 2020) (UPDATE BELOW)

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

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

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

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

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

SEASONS is available digitally on iTunes, Tidal and Spotify.

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

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


JON HASSELL: VERNAL EQUINOX

(NDEYA RECORDS; 2020 reissue)

Some artists stubbornly resist pigeonholing. I could put any number of Jon Hassell records on (and I have a fair number) at a social gathering, and I’d bet that at least one listener would come up and say, “What the heck is THIS?” It’s strange music, that’s all. And being helpful by saying “it occupies a space between ambient, Miles Davis-type jazz and world music” may or may not prepare the uninitiated. Hassell himself would eventually start branding his recordings as “Fourth World,” to signify a kind of foreign, multi-ethnic sound that, while centered around his very distinct trumpet style, would also take you somewhere new. A sort of “traditional” sound from a country that doesn’t truly exist.

JON HASSELL (David Rosenboom, Jon Hassell in 1977) (uncredited photo)

His first official album was VERNAL EQUINOX, which initially came out in 1977. It has now been remastered and reissued on Hassell’s own label. It’s kind of a disorienting little beast of a record, but it was original enough to catch the ears of Brian Eno, who wrote liner notes for this edition. Eno, of course, would go on to collaborate with Hassell on POSSIBLE MUSICS in 1980, and to produce a few records for the artist after that. For whatever it might illustrate, the noted music website Pitchfork included VERNAL EQUINOX as one of their “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” (it was listed at #47). And the evocative, often spacious quality of Hassell’s compositions does indeed fit comfortably into an ambient (albeit the edgy reaches of the genre) mode.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Most of the six pieces here are exotic, a bit misty-sounding and in thrall to the otherworldly timbre of Hassell’s trumpet. The instrument is sometimes processed to sound either partially muted, or vaporous, wafting through the air of whatever planet it’s coming from. “Viva Shona” features birdsong and sparse background instrumentation, the trumpet placed front and center. “Hex” lets Hassell carry on a very distinctive conversation, his tones developing in such a lively manner that you listen close to catch the amazing process as it evolves. What sounds like rainstick and bass adorns the background. Most listeners will be especially riveted by the two centerpiece tracks “Blues Nile” and the title track. The former piece gives us a slightly distorted, granular-sounding drone over which Hassell delivers sonic bursts that sound for all the world like a warning or “call to attention” for the citizens of an alien culture. Could be a pending invasion from that tribe over the hill! The clear separation between the trumpet and the sharp-edged drone is dramatic and compelling. Around the climax of the piece, Hassell lets loose a series of notes going up and down the scale of his chosen key, and you’ll likely stop whatever you’re doing to listen closely. As for the nearly 22-minute “Vernal Equinox,” it’s thoroughly engrossing, setting up a sparse but hypnotic landscape of background drone, hand drumming and a casually meandering trumpet, as though Hassell were patiently walking a lush rainforest trail, stopping to observe here and there but recording his observations in music with great passion at appropriate intervals. It’s a marvel, this track. I can only imagine the reactions of listeners encountering it for the first time. Things finish off with the short closer “Caracas Night,” with nocturnal nature sounds and some Miles-style blowing to bid you adieu in a slightly more traditional manner. It’s not a long album, this outing, but it will definitely make you feel like you’ve been somewhere.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Hassell’s later outings with Eno would bring him more acclaim (POWER SPOT is one of those distinct offerings), and there is more textural richness on the dramatically titled THE SURGEON OF THE NIGHT SKY RESTORES DEAD THINGS BY THE POWER OF SOUND and DREAM THEORY IN MALAYA, to name just a couple of gems. But it started here, with …EQUINOX. He’s a genuinely visionary player who took a much featured instrument and did things with it no one had ever done before. That takes a special kind of musicality and love of exploration that should certainly be celebrated.


BRENNER AND MOLENAAR: UNINVITED SAVIOR

(NEFARIOUS INDUSTRIES; 2020)

It’s a lonely life sometimes, being an ambient music fanatic. You move about each day among the uninformed, knowing you’re not like them, knowing that only this weird droning stuff speaks to you, while they’re behind the wheels of their cars uninhibitedly singing the chorus to some hip hop or indie rock thingy they recently heard streaming. Sometimes you get pulled into a conversation where you gotta answer questions like, “What IS ambient?” (this happened to me just recently), and you mumble something like, ‘Well, it’s this kinda background music that’s also interesting, that you can immerse yourself in if you want to.” Your well-meaning friends might have HEARD of Brian Eno (“didn’t he have something to do with U2 for a while?”), but start dropping names like Stars of the Lid, Biosphere or William Basinski, and more than likely you’re gonna get blank looks. That’s okay, though. I’m proud of being able to explain why ambient is NOT the same as “new age,” what qualities characterize “dark ambient,” and how some drones really transport you to another realm, while others just…drone on and on. Kinda like some of your friends. And if you get TWO ambient aficionados in a room together, well, it’s likely gonna be a LIVELY discussion. And those guys will probably stay friends. Ambient has that effect.

BRENNER AND MOLENAAR (Dave Brenner, Christian Molenaar) (photo manipulation: DAVE BRENNER)

So, David Brenner, known for his gritty sonic excursions in GridFailure, and Christian Molenaar of San Diego’s Those Darn Gnomes, have made this 82-minute monster dronefest that doesn’t really lend itself to an “easy” review. I could tell you that it sounds like the inhabitants of a nearby planet enduring yet another stormy day in the harsh environment on their planet, or you in a sort of druggy state driving your car, caught in a relentless traffic jam where you only move a few yards every 10 minutes or so, and you’re losing your ability to tell reality from haunting scenes from your subconscious, which are intermingling randomly, your desire to just sleep continuously stymied. Or, I could quote from an actual press release for this’un, which reads: “Infusing vocals, electric/acoustic/bass/pedal steel guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, organs, xylophone, harmonica, 1970s cult field recordings, resynthesis, tape manipulation, contact mic and power electronics effects, and other instrumentation tactics embodied in a vaporous haze, the three lumbering movements range between 20 and 35 minutes in length, suspending the listener within its abyssal vacuum.” I kinda like that phrase “abyssal vacuum.” Because for sure, this heavy dose of sound is dark enough to change your perception, your sense of WHERE the hell you are. “Burial Delerium” (unsettling title, that) is rather hypnotic and indicative of an unfriendly environment, sonically speaking, with sirens appearing a third of the way through, and some recognizable guitar stuff breaking the potential tedium of the ultra-thick drone. As the press release says, there is also plenty of other stuff going in and out of the mix.

As unsettling as this track might be, it’s almost PRETTY compared with the mega-darkness of the nearly 26-minute “Transfixed.” The music journal CAPTURED HOWLS has a good line: “Feels like the disorienting soundtrack that might be playing in the waiting room outside an executioner’s chamber.” I was going to say that this music would be appropriate to accompany footage of some hopeless middle east slaughter, like seeing dozens and dozens of innocents in northwest Syria blown to smithereens as they try to flee the madness of relentless attacks. It’s THAT dark, desolate and grim. The prominence of big bass flareups and elements of distortion would likely make it impossible to relax to this stuff in any way. T’ain’t pretty. When it ends, you may feel grateful.

BRENNER AND MOLENAAR (Dave Brenner, Christian Molenaar) (photo manipulation: DAVE BRENNER)

Oh, but the aural carnage is not over yet. We go from a 20-minute track to a 26-minute track to the 35-minute “Hallelujah (27 Years).” It begins with a background organ that is rather soothing compared to what preceded it, although it doesn’t last long. That’s soon swallowed up by abrasive background static with not-quite-decipherable human dialogue in the foreground. The dialogue grows more prominent until you can start making out distinctive utterances like “I have a terrible burning feeling inside.” Which you, the listener, may have in your eardrums by this point, in fact. A section that follows could be appropriate for watching the end of the world unfold: It’s just all-out apocalyptic, crossing the line from “ambient” to what I would call “hardcore experimental music.” Thick, unsympathetic dark drone. In a lengthy section about halfway through, the drama intensifies when two combative voices go at it again, possibly a pissed-off exorcist and a devilish entity of some sort. Byrne and Eno might have dug this sort of thing when they were making MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS, but that album was easy listening compared to the relentless stuff assaulting the listener here. “In the name of Jesus,” one voice yells late in the mix, “You are defeated, Satan.” God, I hope so. I wouldn’t want this quarrel to continue much longer…

You may wonder at this point, “Well why, then, would I want to subject myself to this kinda thing?” It’s a valid question. There’s a place for punishing music, otherwise extreme death metal and the like would have no audience. Personally, I find most contemporary pop on the radio almost as unpleasant as this. And I’ll certainly allow that this brutal last track pushes the limits; I would likely NOT leave it on my car stereo past maybe the 20-minute mark unless I was in one of THOSE moods. It’s relentless. That said, I admire the aesthetics here. Clearly Brenner and Molenaar put serious hours of recording into this project. They wanted to create a dark, swirling SOUNDSTORM, something you could get completely lost in and overpowered by if you’re that sort. And I’d genuinely love to hear their thoughts on good and evil and the state of the world today. This record is somewhat of an apt soundtrack to the completely deteriorating state of modern civilization and morality, a real end-times missive. No, it won’t be anyone’s idea of a good time, except the most depressive fans of super dark drone-based ambient, perhaps. But it does carve out a space at the very edge of a certain kind of listening experience, and the experimental freedom you can claim when there are no commercial considerations to bother with whatsoever. I admire this UNINVITED SAVIOR project. And I did get caught up in a big chunk of the maelstrom these two guys plunge us into. But no, I won’t listen to this before I go to bed, or driving on a scenic road or anything. I mostly listen to ambient to remind me of the beauty and hope that are still out there. UNINVITED SAVIOR sounds a little too much like the wretched results of greed and hate that are pretty much wrecking up the world these days. If you need that catharsis, okay. But don’t say you haven’t been warned.


THE DOMINO KINGS: THE DOMINO KINGS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2019)

If you have followed the music scene in Springfield, Missouri even casually for the past twenty years, you probably know who the Domino Kings are. Steve Newman, Les Gallier and Brian Capps are absolute stalwarts in the music community in this distinguished Ozark burgh; on every other weekend, one or more of them are probably playing somewhere (all three perform in multiple combos). And, when the legendary Lou Whitney was still alive, manning the controls at “The Studio,” the famed downtown recording site, these guys and their many associates would be in and out for music-making duties with regularity. At the turn of the millennium, the DKs released two punchy, well-received recordings – LONESOME HIGHWAY and LIFE AND 20, signed at the time to Slewfoot Records. Capps left the band after that second disc, but Newman and Gallier carried on with two more mostly decent records. Then Slewfoot went away and so did the music industry as most of us knew it. The three musicians still turned up at each other’s shows periodically, and once in a while there were even Domino Kings listings on the local calendar. But there was no particular reason to think there would be another DKs record, especially with all three original members as a focused unit. They had no label, they had widely varying schedules, and Springfield’s most famed studio went away not long after Lou Whitney’s death from cancer in 2014.

THE DOMINO KINGS, circa 2000 (Brian Capps, Steve Newman, Les Gallier) (uncredited photo)

Ah, but here’s the thing that casual fans couldn’t have known. In 2011, before Whitney died, he got the boys into the studio for another go-round. Yes, the original trio. A record was made, we heard, but then… silence. The great and powerful Lou got sicker and sicker and headed for that never-ending music festival in the sky. There was a feeling that the motivation to put out the new record wasn’t really there. I know, ‘cause I tried to ask the band about it a few times. It was in the category of “shelved,” it seemed. And, whatcha gonna do if ya ain’t got no label? Happily, we finally have that answer: PUT IT OUT YOURSELVES. This self-titled fifth album is now available, and it’s a corker. If you’re a longtime fan, you’ll definitely be smiling at the rollicking sounds on this new, Whitney-produced tunefest. “A nice surprise” is a good way to sum it up.

,  The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

THE DOMINO KINGS is an uncommonly democratic affair: Four songs penned by each musician, plus a short group instrumental at the end. There’s a palpable atmosphere of cooperation, and a consistent groove that just won’t quit. Newman, the trio’s truly stellar guitarist, offers up absolutely RIGHT-sounding tunes such as “The Only Thing She Left” and “Nobody Knows,” tunes that won’t leave once they lodge themselves in your brain. The influence of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard among others lurks in the background, but Newman’s songs have a casual truthfulness about the head-scratching nature of chasing love that rings clear and true. His best here is perhaps “2nd Luckiest Guy,” which is a foot-tapping, melodic number that documents the angst of having lost your gal to another, watching HIM take the prize love thang that you blew it with. The tune does this with about as much wit and musical verve as any song I’ve heard lately. I wrote in my notes that “the scenarios these guys write about are truly relatable for most of us guys.” And you have to tip your hat to the flawless arrangements of songs like this, as well as Newman’s vibrant guitar playing. At THAT, there is no fear of him coming in second. “How Does Gone Feel?” is a smidge lesser of a tune overall, but still kickin’.

THE DOMINO KINGS, 2015 (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: STEVEN SPENCER/SPRINGFIELD NEWS-LEADER)

I’ve always been a fan of Les Gallier’s approach to songcraft; the word “pretension” is not in his vocabulary, and he’s a tremendous hooksmith. His raucous number “Another Drunken Fool” is a gritty little hard Rockabilly tune that has an admirable toughness about it, possibly masking some real bitterness – the kind of thing listeners can ponder privately. Imagining this one coming together at the studio makes me smile. The band is having FUN here, undoubtedly. But even better are “Can’t Be Too Much Longer” and “Some Kinda Power,” easily two of this album’s best songs. The former makes plain the impatience of waiting for new love when a couple of situations ended badly, and it does so with sterling songwriting and the whole band laying down an awesome guitar-driven groove. Oh, and by the way, Gallier is a fantastic drummer; his style has been referred to as the Tulsa shuffle, but no matter what you call it, it makes an impression and always sounds like a master enjoying every minute of his work. “Some Kinda Power” is big-time Rock ‘n’ Roll in the service of pondering what it is that women do to men to make them wig out. “I can open up your tight jar/And I can fetch your little car/I can answer your every call/You can make me do it all/Cause you hold some kind of power over me… you hold the power like a freight train/Every time I lose you gain/You hold the power that stops my go/Every time you tell me NO,” the lyrics relate. The band is simply firing on all cylinders here, with superb Newman guitar work and Mister Gallier singing the living crap outta this number. Marvelous stuff.

The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

As for Brian Capps, primarily known as the band’s standup bass maestro, he has proven his chops as a solo artist, with the Kings, with the commercial stint he did for some years with “Branson on the Road,” and in his current incarnation as half of The Widowmakers (with Cliff Boone), serving up classic Country and early Rock and Roll, show after show. Capps’ vocalizing on the first two Kings’ recordings was some of the best in the genre, and gems such as “Two Nights Without Sleeping” and, especially, “Alice” were definitive examples of angst-ridden existential hard Country. That latter tune is permanently in my “Liquor-fueled rockers about pain caused by manipulative women” Hall of Fame. It is literally a perfect example of a miserable real-life scenario being turned into life-affirming bar-room sonics. Although the songs here aren’t quite as transcendent, “I Don’t Want To Forget” and “Devil’s Den” come close, with insight and self-awareness beyond the ability of most songwriters. These songs deserve to be covered widely, and “Devil’s Den,” which Capps recorded in a very different version on an early solo album, gets a just as fetching take here with the Kings crowning it musically. Awesome stuff. And it’s a delight that “Saturday Night is New Year’s Eve,” a song I’ve heard in several versions, really hits its stride with the Domino Kings doing it up proud here; the energy feels right, which wasn’t quite the case in at least one prior version.

The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

Some songs on this album feel LIVE all the way, Gallier’s “Would You Let Me Be Your Man” being perhaps the best example, and Capps’ “I Don’t Want to Forget” close behind. There is no muss, no fuss overall. Spontaneity and pure GRIT dominate the atmosphere, and Whitney clearly was not interested in polishing anything too much in the studio. LIFE AND 20 may have been a bigger, more attentive production, but there is a raw feel to the proceedings here that serves the sound of the Domino Kings quite well. This is a fun, energetic platter. The concluding instrumental, “Thrown Clear” is a zippy little energy burst that puts the topping on the freewheelin’ atmosphere displayed throughout the recording. They can play fast, these guys, and this song shows it, although the whole album moves at a brisk tempo… no filler at all. It is worth stating clearly that Newman, Gallier and Capps are all veterans at the art of traditional, rootsy American songcraft, with the ability to construct hooky tunes in a familiar musical milieu around simple, often wryly humorous but always universal lyrics about man’s favorite pastime (which doesn’t always produce the desired romantic results). If there’s an art to pairing upbeat arrangements with sometimes sad or restless themes, these guys have mastered it. The music of this band soundtracks a simpler world: Where men chase after women, women decide whether they want to be caught or not, bars are always at least half full, and musicians gigging in the corner always know at least half the greatest Country and Rock and Roll songs ever written and are skilled at getting the patrons out on the dance floor, ready for another shot after that. This world is reassuring, timeless and full of promise and enthusiasm. Just like this kick-ass trio themselves.

(Not available in stores but you can order the Domino Kings recording by sending check or money order made out to “Domino Kings” for $10, to Domino Kings, c/o Brian Capps, PO Box 612, Lebanon, MO 65536)


ARIANA AND THE ROSE: CONSTELLATIONS PHASE ONE

(12” EP; POOKIEBIRD RECORDS, 2019)

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart (or maybe in my head) for Pop music. As a youngster, I had a thing with ABBA, Leo Sayer, even Gilbert O’Sullivan; later, I tended to lean toward Synth-Pop like the Human League, Soft Cell and Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark. Now, that soft spot has found a new love: Ariana and the Rose. Remember when Prince was writing songs and producing records for Shiela E, Vanity, or whichever girlfriend he was with on a particular Tuesday? In a thinly veneered nutshell, with a gooey Synth-Pop filling, that is exactly what Ariana’s CONSTELLATIONS PHASE ONE brings to mind. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the EP is available on beautiful, beautiful vinyl (well, actually, it’s wax, but… ). Ariana and her cohorts offer up four catchy, groove-induced tracks with more than a little bit of darkness around the edges… just the thing for this Pop junkie’s needs.

ARIANA AND THE ROSE (Ariana DiLorenzo) (photo credit: LOUIS BROWNE)

Night Owl” starts with a breathy Ariana vocal backed only by a synth delivering majestic church organ swells and fingersnaps (also synthesized?) for percussion. The tune slowly builds into a joyful celebration of the night life, featuring live bass and an energetic groove that’s too hard to ignore as Ariana’s higher range vocals and well-placed backing singers kick the tune up to another level. This one is sure to be hit on the dancefloor. I’m pretty sure that the word “catchy” was created just for “You Were Never My Boyfriend.” The song is the ultimate diss track, a deluxe kiss off and the perfect empowerment tune for taking back your life from someone who doesn’t deserve to have you in theirs, with lyrics like: “Every promise that you never kept/We won’t see Paris, the way we said/You made me think that it was in my head,” “You can’t save what you never had, don’t pretend/You were never my boyfriend,” “I’ve stuck it out through some stormy weather/But you can’t seem to get your shit together/And all my friends say I deserve better” and “Maybe with some time we can mend/But I don’t really wanna be friends/Sorry I was crazy while you were being shady/I guess it’s for the best in the end.” Plus, there’s an undeniably dark vibe that I really like, with an ultra-cool bounce, some really nice backing vocals and more of those synth-produced handclaps. And, all in less than three minutes!

Honesty” is the diametric opposite of the last number… sorta. Along with “You Were Never My Boyfriend,” this is the track that turns Ariana into a true artist, playing the heartstrings like a true lyrical genius: “You fall asleep, so at peace/So let’s live our new life/And everyday that you wake/I can feel myself dying.” If the live shows are anything close to this emotionally charged, she will have transformed herself into more than just a Pop Diva with nice choreography. So, naturally, just to prove that she can still bring those Pop Diva vibes to a song, Ariana drops “True Love” on you. The lyrical chain that binds the four cuts together is still here, just with a little more of the positivity of “Night Owl.” There is a bonus track of sorts in the form of “You Were Never My Boyfriend (Great Good Fine OK Remix).” I don’t usually like remixes and, while this one is better than most, it certainly pales in comparison to the version offered earlier on this set. The original set a slow, almost somber pace with just the right amount of instrumentation and various other accoutrements; here, the additional BPMs and basic feel makes it sound like it was produced expressly for the dance floor. And, that’s okay. I just find the original far more emotionally appealing. As the name of the record implies, this is part of a bigger project that will be released over the next few months and I, for one, cannot wait to witness the continued growth from Ariana into the musical ARTIST that she is quickly becoming.


TIRILL: SAID THE SUN TO THE MOON

(FAIRY MUSIC; Norwegian import, 2019)

In a world turned increasingly ugly and amoral, sometimes all you can do is listen to your heart, and hang onto beauty wherever you can find it. That might be on the faces of loved ones, in the changing of the seasons, or in watching waves rolling into some wild shore. Norwegian singer/songwriter Tirill Mohn clearly thinks about such things, and her new album, SAID THE SUN TO THE MOON, is an elegantly simple, melancholy and yet hopeful reminder that all we see and feel is worth pausing to appreciate. The strong impression this lovely recording leaves overall is that of a weary traveler stopping for tea at the home of a trusted friend, having a sweet and empathetic conversation while unburdening his sorrows, and then continuing his journey, now just slightly more centered. Or maybe that’s just the way I felt, wishing I was that traveler, and appreciating what Tirill has to say here.

TIRILL (publicity photo)

Let’s start by mentioning the cover, the sort of thing more typically seen on ambient albums. I will never tire of seeing a CD become a beautiful object itself, in this case, one featuring a minimalist, darkish grey shoreline under a mostly cloudy sky, with photos in the booklet of leaves, seascapes and in one case, a fog-enshrouded dock, adorning the individual pages along with the lyrics in a script font. It’s all quite lovely and beckoning. “This album is dedicated to the shift of the seasons, to the beauty of nature in all its phases and changes, and to the human heart that wanders along with it, moon after moon, lifetime after lifetime,” the notes on the inside sleeve tell us. I was already shivering after I read this; I’ve never thought more about that “human heart” than I’ve done in the past couple of years. But then the music starts, as delicate as soft rain on a wooden boat dock or living room window. Tirill’s voice is gentle, soothing, with casual wisdom underscoring the words (some she wrote, some written by others). Soon you’re responding to Uno Alexander Vesje’s evocative harp playing, Sigrun Eng’s cello, Bjarne Magnus Jensen’s violin, other almost medieval-sounding instrumentation and Tirill herself singing like a woodland goddess, playing guitar sweetly for all who will listen. Season-centric songs such as “Autumn” and “Winter” are short and evocative; nothing lasts too long on this album. But there is a lovely, inspired cover of Nick Drake’s “Clothes of Sand”; it’s worth mentioning that Tirill is a devoted fan of Drake and took part in a tribute concert to him a few years ago. This is one of the best Drake covers I’ve heard, truly. The whole album is dedicated to Rudolf Steiner, who wrote about and developed a spiritual philosophy of the “relationship between nature and the human spirit,” with many of his poems here being translated by Owen Barfield for Tirill’s ethereal musings, principally those titled after individual seasons. There is a poem “associated” with the exquisite chamber-folk piece “To the Realms of the Spirit,” but it’s presented here as a string-laden instrumental, a haunting one. “Spring” is a bright and beautiful song fragment, with that harp really luring you in, but then the song is over in just a minute and 15. Much too short, like the actual season of Spring itself. Two of the best tracks are “Shapes of a Dream,” a rumination on mother and son that Tirill penned which has an aching sadness suffused throughout (is it about an unwanted separation? A tribute to the loving memory of one who departed?) and the title track, featuring lyrics by Kathleen Jessie Raine. That one is about change, how it is both inevitable and something to face with understanding and clarity. The quiet, folksy sound of this piece could induce tears, and Tirill’s musicians play with the most evocative, understated grace for such a timeless theme. “Iridescent Horizon” begins sounding like an eerie ambient sonic, but is actually one of two spoken word pieces here, and it’s worth following along with the words if you have the patience for this kind of thing. It’s subtitled “To a Beloved,” and in fact, many of these pieces have a subtitle clearly chosen for what the song’s added meaning might be (the Drake cover says “To a Past Love”, the memorable “Under the Small Fire of Winter Stars” is subtitled “To a Friend”). In that one, a whispering goddess, half-dream meditation, which comes and goes on a nocturnal ambient breeze, Tirill implores her listener “And if it happens that you cannot go on or turn back/And you find yourself where you will be at the end, tell yourself in that final flowing of cold through your limbs, that you love what you are.” I could use such gentle persuasions and all the other impossibly empathetic sentiments Tirill gifts us with on this fragile song cycle, as I continue winding my own way across the sometimes mean, merciless landscapes of modern times.


THE APRIL FOOLS: THIRD; MICHAEL OWENS: THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY

(BLACKBERRY WAY RECORDS; 2019)

In the past, whenever I got bogged down with too many records to listen to and review, I would lump a lot of like-minded releases (straight-ahead rock, Jazz, Country, compilations,,, whatever) together, giving each a nice little paragraph (or more, depending on how many I had to write about… I remember doing something like fourteen Punk records in the course of one review) about each. I still do that occasionally, when it makes sense to do so; this one is a no-brainer: Michael Owens produced both releases, Fools Brian Drake and Terri Owens do some backing vocals on THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY, both records were released by Michael’s Blackberry Way Records on the same day. It really wasn’t my intention to review them together, but the final piece seemed to fall into place when the Owens record showed up at my door in the same package as THIRD. The die, as the saying goes, was cast.

THE APRIL FOOLS (Scott Hreha, Brad McLemore, Terri Owens, Brian Drake, Ben Kaplan) (photo credit: ERIN DRAKE)

The April Fools’ third release (thus the name of the record) features a retooled band, having lost guitarist Clay Williams, whom, I assume, has gone on to greener pastures. Williams was replaced by two musicians, guitarists Brad McLemore and the aforementioned Terri Owens. The result made the original quartet’s tight sound even tighter as a quintet. This is borne out on the opening track, “Bell of Stone,” a sort of updated psychedelic Americana. Vocalist Brian Drake has a rather world-weary rasp that is immediately the crowning glory of this song and album, somewhere between Bob Seger and a young Levon Helm. The guitars (by McLemore, Owens and Drake) seem to shimmer and there’s an undeniable sting and bite to the solo. Ben Kaplan offers up some solid drumming and an insistent, melodic bass line by Scott Hreha gives the whole thing a certain buoyancy that is not unappealing. “Long Shadows” is a tune that reminds me of both the Band (musically) and the Dead (vocally). It’s a slow ballady sort of thing that highlights the group’s four part harmonies. The piece borders on overstaying its welcome, but seems to end at just the right moment. Graham Gouldman’s (by way of the Hollies) “Bus Stop” is a shimmering piece of Pop history that gets a fairly faithful retelling here. The guitars may be a bit more urgent and Terri Owens’ mandolin adds a new flavor, weaving in and out of the mix, just under Drake’s pleasantly gruff delivery. For some reason, the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” comes to mind listening to “Shaky Ground.” Could be the wah-wah guitar and utterly haze-inducing solo; maybe it’s the swirling vocals that are brilliantly scattershot, alternately overlapping each other, then complimenting the rest with a great harmony part. Owens is a lady that certainly knows how to write a great ‘60s acid burn of a tune! “If I Can’t Make Her Happy” is sort of a throwback to those star-crossed tragic lover songs from the late ‘50s, all gussied up with a new millenial sheen, and highlighted by some really pretty guitar work and backing vocals.

The Fools put a nice gloss on Dylan’s classic “My Back Pages.” This version features finely understated vocals and a Byrdsian approach to the instrumentation that has always worked so well on the Zim’s music. There’s more of the brilliant guitar solos that we’ve come to expect from this band, with the rhythm section highlighting their ample abilities with a great Hreha bass line and a solid backbeat and fills from Kaplan on drums. Terri Owens takes on the vocal duties for “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast,” a slow-burning rocker written by Julie Anne Miller (originally recorded for the BUDDY AND JULIE MILLER album in 2001 by, well… Buddy and Julie Miller). The track features killer guitar throughout, as another awesome solo rides the cut into the fade. “Summer Sun (Redux)” has a slightly psychedelic Blues groove, a distinct highlight of this remake from the Fools’ first album. I know I’m sounding like a broken record by this time but… again, great guitar, both straight and effects-laden. Scott’s rumbling bass, Ben’s spot-on drumming and an idling organ part from guest Glenn Manske (of which we’ll hear more later) add to the lazy feel of the song, the musical equivalence of the lethargic feeling brought on by the summer sun. Closing out the record is “15 Minutes.” It’s a Country-flavored tune that features a brilliant bass part that could very easily have appeared on an album by the Jam or Elvis (the important one, not the dead fat guy). With a dobro and Terri’s mandolin filtering through the swampy miasma of the instrumentation, the drums offer a lot to enjoy just under the current. The backing vocals are a nice counter to Brian’s gruff voice. As an introduction to what’s happening in the Minneapolis music scene today, you can definitely do worse than the April Fools’ THIRD.

MICHAEL OWENS (photo credit: LARRY HUTCHINSON)

Cementing the connection between the Minneapolis of the Replacements, Prince and Husker Du is producer/recording studio owner/record company owner/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist (and probably another string of slash marks that I’m missing) Michael Owens. Owens’ latest record, THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY, is fourteen tracks (and one bonus cut from a reunited Fingerprints, Michael’s late ‘70s band) that is as varied as the scene that spawned that first major wave of the “Minneapolis sound,” as well as Michael’s own Blackberry Way Studio and the record company that shares that name. The first track, “Comic Book Creep,” features some awesome boogie with a little bit of woogie thrown in for good measure. Owens has a pleasing, better than average voice; there’s some very nice guitar leads and solo from guest artist Curtiss A and Owens himself and excellent piano from Glenn Manske, who plays a major role on this record. “A Song For You” switches gears from a rockin’ Blues to a slow, tragic type of girl group sort of song that features strong backing vocals (as such songs require) from Robert Langhorst and Terri Owens. Also on display is an echoey, reverb-drenched solo and another strong piano part from Glenn. Sounding very much like vintage Monkees, “60 Cycle Rumble” sees Michael delivering an over-the-top vocal performance that reminds me of a younger, still-alive Wolfman Jack. Manske’s organ and outstanding guitar work from Owens make the Pre-Fab Four comparison even more relevant. As the name implies, “Used Blues” is a slow Blues that falls somewhere between Stevie Ray and Michael Buble on the Blues authenticity scale. Owens former Fingerprints bandmate, Robb Henry, offers up some solid lead work and a soulful solo. “Without Sin” sounds a little like “Minnesota boy does the Eagles” during the intro.Thankfully, it morphs into another slow-burn number with a strong Bill Grenke bassline. I kept waiting for a child’s voice to say “Mommy, where’s Daddy?” during the breaks leading into the guitar solos and, of course, anything that elicits memories of the Coopers ranks very high on my list. However, the cut, at more than seven minutes, does tend to drag on; thankfully, though, it doesn’t overstay its welcome by much. Up next is “Old Man Joad,” a kind of jangly Byrds-cum-Tom-Petty thing, only without the jangle. Continuing a nice little theme here, the number features some nifty lead and backing vocals, more solid bass from Grenke and a killer guitar melody throughout. In a different time, this one coulda been a hit at AOR, Adult Contemporary or Country radio. Unfortunately, as radio has become ever more genre-centric, it’s unlikely that today’s programmers could figure out what to do with such a great song! “Chase the Rain” is yet another slow tune with some nice guitar. Grenke continues to impress on bass as does Manske with some more great organ work. I guess the title comes from the sounds of falling rain at the beginning and end of the track.

“Falling” is not a cover of the Tom Petty song; this one has more of an Alternative Celtic feel to it (if that makes any kind of sense). The Celtic vibe is enhanced with Manske adding strings and flutes to his solid piano playing, while Kevin Glynn (another refugee from Fingerprints) adds a little added thump to Owens’ programmed drums with some live tom toms. The vocals blend into the hazy mist of the musical backdrop, leaving the listener with a gooey warm feeling somewhere around the heart. A short little ditty called “Over the Moon” follows. With a jaunty, bouncy feel, it’s simply a fun love song, evoking the feeling the name conjures in one’s mind. Gifted with one of the best song titles ever, “Just Got Over Being Hungover,” has a melody that puts me in mind of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help.” The cut is loaded with an abundance of honky-tonk piano, organ accents and lots of guitars doing guitary things. “You Can’t Get In” is a frantic little piece of Swamp Punk, with Glynn offering some percussive help while a weird Replacements vibe permeates the whole 1:48. Some cool backwards guitar and massive riffage courtesy of Robb Henry informs “High Price Shoes,” a Beatlesy piece of Pop fluff. Not surprisingly, the piece features more heavy lifting from Glenn on organ and Bill on bass. All of the above makes this one a current album favorite. “Hole In Your Pocket” is another tune that sounds vaguely familiar (Minnesota’s favorite sons, Bob Dylan meets Prince maybe?), with a tinkling piano coda and a vocal mostly buried in the mix to good effect. The sing-songy partially spoken lead vocals definitely gives rise to Dylan comparisons. The lyrical coda, “I know there’s magic out there,” isn’t indicative of this song, but… if the lyrics fit, right? There’s a slight echo on the vocals on “The Last Thing,” adding a bit of a dreamy feel to another strong offering.Again, the cut features strong organ, bass and guitar leads and solo; the backing vocals are nice, as well, with Brian Drake joining Robert Langhorst and Terri Owens for this one. A bonus track, “14 South 5th Street Blues,” features four fifths of Fingerprints (bassist Steve Fjelstad was missing from the recording/performance with Michael taking over those duties). The song, featured in the documentary, JAY’S LONGHORN, is an ode to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Minneapolis scene’s venue of choice, the title derived from the address of the legendary club. Besides Owens on bass and guitar, the other featured Fingerprints are lead vocalist Mark Throne, the previously introduced Robb Henry on lead guitar and Kevin Glynn moving to an ancillary percussionist role due to Owens’ very organic-sounding drum programming. The quartet are augmented by former Figures guitarist Jeff Waryan on slide, Chris Osgood of the Suicide Commandos on additional lead guitar, the legendary Curtiss A on harmonica and the by-now ubiquitous Glenn Marske on piano. The rollicking paean to past triumphs is a fitting close to solid release from a man who should be a household name outside of the relatively small Minneapolis region.


ALICE COOPER: THE BREADCRUMBS EP

(10” EP; EAR MUSIC; 2019)

Alice Cooper were a product of the dirty underbelly of Detroit rock and roll and reveled in the debauchery of that scene. The band’s erstwhile singer (who, by no fluke, shares his name with the band), well known for his hedonistic tendencies during the group’s rise to the top of the rock heap, could still only claim second place in the debauching olympics behind their much-missed guitarist, Glen Buxton. Alice, along with Dennis Dunaway, Neal Smith and Michael Bruce, has cleaned up his act. A devoted husband, doting father and golfing junkie, the Coop still retains a certain edge and a distinct love for Detroit and the sounds that can only be produced by someone who calls that city home and, yearning for a return to the sound that defined his band, he has brought together some of the city’s best-known (or infamous) survivors for THE BREADCRUMBS EP, seven songs spread over six tracks (can you say “medley,” children?) on a limited, numbered edition 10 inch slab of vinyl.

ALICE COOPER (Johnny “Bee” Badanjek, Paul Randolph, Garrett Bielaniec, Wayne Kramer, Bob Ezrin, Alice Cooper) (uncredited photo)

Detroit City 2020” is a reworked number, the original coming from Alice’s 2003 release, THE EYES OF ALICE COOPER. Simply put, the track is a love song to the much-maligned city, with gang vocals and some stinging, nasty, sloppy guitar from Mister Wayne Kramer, just like the original (Mark Farner and the Rockets’ new guitarist, Garrett Bielaniec, are along for this ride, too). Of course, it’s always good to hear Johnny “Bee” Badanjek pounding away behind the Coop, with memories of WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE bouncing around my brainpan. The second “original” is called “Go Man Go” and continues in the same vein as the opener. Namely, a filthy back-alley groove that dares you to ignore it; you do so at your own peril. Badanjek and his partner in rhythm, Paul Randolph, pummels away on a track that, lyrically, brings to mind the KILLER classic “You Drive Me Nervous.” Letting his Detroit show, Vince digs WAY deep, into the back of the crate for the Last Heard’s debut single, “East Side Story.” Of course, the Last Heard is best known as the precursor to the Bob Seger System. This is a cover that woulda fit right in on the first side of SCHOOL’S OUT with a chugging rhythm that’s straight out of Them’s “Gloria,” a suitably dirty, garage band guitar solo and a pounding, primal beat.

ALICE COOPER with Bob Seger (uncredited photo)

Side two kicks of with the Mike Chapman/Nicky Chinn-penned “Your Mama Won’t Like Me.” In typical Alice gender-bending fashion, the Suzi Quatro rocker is played straight, as in no changes to the defiantly feminine lyrics (“I wear my jeans too short/And my neckline too low”). While specific guitar credits aren’t listed, the solo sounds very much like something Mark Farner woulda played on Grand Funk Railroad album and, like the original, horns (provided by Nolan Young on sax and Allen Dennard, Junior on trumpet) add a funky touch to this version of what may just be Suzi’s best song. The only thing that would have improved it would have been a duet with the original artist. Remember somewhere toward the end of the introduction above that I mentioned “medley?” Well, here it is. The couplet kicks off with “Devil With a Blue Dress On.” The song, of course, was a big hit for Badanjek’s first band, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. So, it’s kind of weird hearing the Coop tackle this classic as the slow-grind Blues of Shorty Long’s original. Things speed up on the second half of the medley, “Chains of Love.” The 1967 soulful original is combined with the Dirtbombs’ more raucous cover of (more or less) three-and-a-half decades later; it still sounds sorta odd in Cooper’s hands. Some funky guitar and the hard-hitting Randolph/Badanjek rhythm section kick things into overdrive before things morph back into the chorus of “Devil… .” A nice touch has Frederick “Shorty” Long, as well as the songwriter of “Chains… ,” Mick Collins, doing vocals behind Alice. The EP comes to a close with a very cool version of “Sister Anne,” written by Kramer’s MC5 bandmate, Fred Smith. The piece features a minimalist guitar sound with a solid late-sixties type of solo (I’m assuming the solo is all Wayne). Alice breaks out the harmonica – a rarity these days – and lets loose with a solo that perfectly matches the vibe of the tune.

With the Hollywood Vampires’ debut album and this BREADCRUMB, Alice is exploring his roots and rediscovering the sound that made the five-headed beast known as Alice Cooper such a potent entity. Word is that an impending album of all-new originals from the Coop will be very much in this vein, with the EP standing as a stop-gap between 2017’s PARANORMAL and the new set, scheduled for a 2020 release. I sure wouldn’t mind the man further exploring those roots and bringing in the rest of the originals and more of the old Detroit vanguard to really tear the roof off.