Credible Excuses

Bright days ahead for Mark Norman and Ghetto Cowgirl

"I had the words for ["Brand New"] for about seven years. As we were finishing up the album, I wanted to put another slow one on, and Malmstrom came up with this piece he had and it seemed to close the record out nicely."

Recorded in bits and pieces at Tempe's Mayberry studios over the better part of 1999, Norman drew inspiration in the East Valley scene's communal spirit, something he found sorely lacking in L.A.

"That was the beauty of doing it here, and at Mayberry in particular," says Norman. "Basically it was one of those things where whoever came in the door got nabbed and ended up on the record."

To the point: Ghetto Cowgirl, from left, Phil Beach, Thomas Laufenberg, Mark Norman, Chris Serafini and Mike Hill.
Paolo Vescia
To the point: Ghetto Cowgirl, from left, Phil Beach, Thomas Laufenberg, Mark Norman, Chris Serafini and Mike Hill.
There's something about Jonathan: Richman makes a rare Valley appearance this Friday
There's something about Jonathan: Richman makes a rare Valley appearance this Friday

That informality accounts for the handful of familiar guest names on the record, including songstress Carrie Johnson, organist Tim Rovnak, Gas Giants guitarist Dan Henzerling and Dead Hot Workshop drummer Curtis Grippe.

Despite the piecemeal recording process, Excusesis a thoroughly cohesive-sounding affair. Unlike a number of recent "self-recorded" local efforts, the album actually sounds produced without coming off as too polished.

Norman credits that crucial sonic balance to engineer and co-producer Scott Novak, who helped finalize the album's sequencing and mix at Sound Lab studios.

The record itself is a likable, if unspectacular affair. The knock against Norman has long been a deficiency in the lyric department. While he's the first to admit that his songwriting is hardly Dylanesque, Excuses is brimming with enough melodic hooks and signature tar-and-whiskey vocals to push the album into the realm of palatable, radio-ready rock.

The album's biggest highlights come courtesy of former Dead Hot Workshop and current Peacemakers guitarist Steve Larson, whose "half-ranch, half-raunch" fretwork puts an irresistible stamp on the title cut as well as buoying the rapid-fire vocal punch of the album's other standout, "Thing Like That."

Former Sledville guitarist Brad Brown makes a memorable cameo, providing some tasteful mandolin touches on the smoky-alt blues of "To the Point." Carrie Johnson's fluttering harmony vocals bolster the evocative (if lyrically trite) "Same Sad Story" -- which is also repeated as a "secret" acoustic bonus track at the end of the disc.

Norman is optimistic for both the local potential of the CD and the band's national prospects. Along with several other showcase gigs, it appears likely that a major-label suitor may front the band some money for additional recording. Though modest about his own contributions, Norman feels that Excuses is more than just a calling card to offer label reps, that the album could potentially stand on its own.

"Realistically, the things we've done are not going to get that much better. So it's probably past the point of doing more demos for a record label," he admits. "It's funny because some of the people we've talked to really like the way the album sounds, production-wise. These big labels are like, 'Wow, you're a great producer,' and of course I had to keep a straight face when I heard that."

Ghetto Cowgirl's CD release party and performance is scheduled for Friday, February 11, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Gloritone will headline the show, with the Muddy Violets opening. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Surrender to Jonathan: "Eccentric" and "cult figure" are the two terms that seem to crop up most frequently in underground rock circles. Overused terminology to be sure, but probably the best and most accurate ways to describe Jonathan Richman. From his days as the founder of Boston protopunks the Modern Lovers to his overlooked solo forays in the '90, to his recent resurgence (thanks to a bizarre role in the film comedy There's Something About Mary and frequent appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien), Richman has definitely earned his, dare we say, weird reputation.

After his current tour, the singer is set to begin work recording a follow-up to 1998's Ric Ocasek-produced I'm So Confused. Richman has been a frequent visitor to Arizona, playing Tucson's Club Congress on a regular basis -- due in part to the fact that his drummer Tommy Larkins is an Old Pueblo native and Giant Sand vet -- but his Friday show at the Balboa Café in Tempe will be his first Valley stop in while, and certainly one not to be missed (for more about Richman, See what's happening in this week's CALENDAR).

As a bonus, the concert will feature an opening set from Tulane Black Top, a group led by Brett Hinders, formerly of the Jennys. According to Hinders, Tulane Black Top (the moniker being a pun on the 1971 Monte Hellman buddy picture starring James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) heads deeper into the alt-country territory he had begun to pursue while in his last combo, Crashbar.

Jonathan Richman is scheduled to perform on Friday, February 11, at the Balboa Café in Tempe, with Tulane Black Top. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.

Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: bob.mehr@newtimes.com

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