One Foot in the Grave
Lookin' Good! Who's Your Embalmer?
Move over, California, Arizona now has the dubious distinction of being the novelty-rock-act capital of the world. We've even got both ends of the age spectrum covered--tots (Litl' Willie) and the tottering (One Foot in the Grave). In both cases, what were once great jokes have become bands serious enough to put out albums.
Also in both cases, it's easy to admire the spirit involved. With One Foot, it's a gas to see and hear two Sun City septuagenarians who ride around in golf carts by day bashing out watered-down punk at night. It's enough to touch even the most jaded rock n' roll heart. And anything that scandalizes the white zinfandel, cucumber sandwich and "Bring Back Reagan!" crowd gets my vote.
Lookin' Good completely encapsulates One Foot's brief but celebrated career. Although "Menopause" is its tour de force, so to speak, most of this band's best material is really geriatric lyrics put to known rock tunes. The most successful of this breed is the amusing "Mrs. Fletcher's Tribute (I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up)," which is set to the old Suzi Quatro hit "I Hear You Knockin' (But You Can't Come In)." After that, though, things go downhill fast. The two originals by the band's youth, 50-year-old Gavin Weiser, are dreadful slices of his career as an accountant.
Musically, the less said about this band, the better. The instrumental support is rudimentary at best. JoDina's voice is more a girlish squeal than a voice, per se. Her "You pig!" exclamation that closes her mom-on-the-rampage tirade, "Clean Up Your Room," is her best moment vocally.
But listening to this band is not the big attraction here. What One Foot is really selling is a sight gag. To listeners unfamiliar with the band's trip, this album and the resulting tour will be a kick--once. And therein lies the problem. Where does it go from here? Can a novelty act become an actual band? More important, are this band's rock n' roll fantasies fulfilled to the point where it's members can let it go? So far, they're gung ho to tour and make another recording. Whether Triple X or any other label will agree is another matter. Unless it gets serious--which may be impossible--One Foot is destined to become an old joke that's no longer funny.--Robert Baird Ted Newman
Where Does Love Go?
Mesa resident Newman's new collection won't send many hard-core, country-disco denizens two-stepping to record stores, but it's obvious that's not his aim, anyway. With a pair of exceptions, this is an album of warmly innocuous, G-rated love songs clearly designed to appeal to older folks whose idea of a big evening is a couple of brandy Alexanders, a foxtrot or two, then an early exit to catch the ten o'clock news at home.
And what's wrong with that? Songs like "Long Range Love Affair" and "I Can't Make You Love Me" are simply arranged, wholly danceable ditties with easily digested lyrics that prove perfect for parents and Eddy Arnold enthusiasts, while "I Can't Stand It" gently bemoans the nine-to-five routine without threatening to roust the neighborhood with an Uzi. Like his very gentle lyrics, Newman possesses a clear, clean tenor that matches his music well.
Still, while Newman's tunes are generally nontaxing, there are a few songs that are, well, a bit weird. "He Left the Bar Alone," for example, contains maudlin subject matter, but is married to an upbeat melody. And despite the strange title, "Happy Blues" is not an anthem for masochists. The two out-of-place offerings not only don't fit in Where Does Love Go?, but also border on the bizarre. "Gold of Superstition," a song about the Lost Dutchman Mine, sounds a bit like "Ghost Riders in the Sky" as performed by the Irish Rovers, while "Enrique Camarena," an ode to the DEA agent slain by south-of-the-border drug lords, contains the Raffi-like line "The sacrifice you offered/Was for all grown-ups and kids." Not words that will roil our righteous blood. Both of these songs should have been reserved for another project.
On the other side, however, "Weekend Love" is a fine, pure ballad which shows off Newman's impressive vocal range, and the album's best song, "The Phone Call," displays writer Newman's latent lyrical abilities with this outstanding opening line: "I was sittin' in a barroom/When I heard that telephone/Three guys hollered, 'I'm not here'/And a fourth said, 'I've gone home.' . . ." The lovelorn singer, you see, wishes it were for him. Now that's country!--Larry Crowley
One night years ago, I walked into a corner bar in the barrio in Tucson and sat down to listen. Along with a handful of other people, I watched a breathtaking solo talent work his spell. From that day until now, I've never wavered in the belief that Rainer Ptacek is a major talent. White bluesman, electric funk blues rocker, master of anything with strings, Rainer is Arizona's great undiscovered musical treasure.
Unfortunately, talents this quirky are hard to market. They resist easy labels. Which is why Worried Spirits is out on Demon, an obscure English label that's difficult to get in the States. If you're determined to get a copy, the big mail-order houses like Roundup Records in Boston, Midnight Records in New York and Roots n' Rhythm in San Francisco either have it or can get it. This album contains only Rainer's distinct voice--midrange, with lots of mumbly, nasal, Dylanesque phrasing--and his incomparable playing on a National steel-bodied guitar. Although he's a marvelous slide player, Rainer's gift goes far beyond playing the blues. At heart, Rainer is an idiosyncratic balladeer in the mold of Terry Allen. His originals display a bittersweet, Tom Waits-minus-the-booze world view. Having penned 11 of the disc's 15 cuts, Rainer also has a penchant for equally off-center songwriting. On the best original, "River of Real Time," the tense lyrics and moody singing come together in splendid fashion. But it's a cover of the beautiful traditional tune "Long Long Way to the Top of the World" (. . . only a short fall back down") where the breadth of Rainer's gift becomes apparent. His yearning vocals and busy guitar make for an exquisite and powerful whole. It's exactly the kind of performance that first convinced me of the genius that makes this moody disc shine.--Robert Baird
Jay Busch and Viva Jazz, Live!
Put on your bibs, Valley boppers, local drummer/manic jazz promoter Jay Busch has decided it's time to serve up a live CD of his group Viva Jazz. The taste test shows, no question about it, the playing is consistently solid. And, yeah, the tunes are meaty compositions penned by jazz notables like saxophonist John Coltrane and trumpeter Tom Harrell. Throughout, Viva Jazz reveals the chops that allowed the group to wedge itself into some prestigious European jazz fests this past summer--a fact Busch makes sure we catch by way of a few self-promoting closing comments.
But if jazz was an oral rather than aural experience, Jay Busch and Viva Jazz, Live! would be health food: good for you, but ultimately leaving a hunger that makes you wish you'd eaten somewhere more adventurous.
Not to say that a jazz band could be more nutritionally correct than what Busch's sextet offers. Live! seriously swings from the opening bash of drums, and mines a much more specific groove than the ensemble's history-of-jazz-in-45-minutes first release from a year ago. Here the meat is mostly dark slices of hard bop, an intimidating music built on the gloomy intellectualism of the 60s New York jazz masters. Saxophonist Steve Marsh and trumpeter Fred Forney show off confident, well-honed blowing that sounds as though the two have digested a mountain of old Blue Note label albums.
Guitarist Eric Bart chooses to play outside the hard bop groove, his dj vu tone and occasionally countrified riffs sounding more like late-'70s Pat Metheny or John Scofield. The contrast of styles, especially on "To Be or Not To Be," is striking enough to make Bart the only noticeable soloist on the disc. It's also as attention-grabbing as Live! gets.
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Beneath it all, drummer Busch, bassist Jon Murray and the light-touched pianist Peter Zale all chug along flawlessly, and with enough skill to be mistaken for more well-known jazzmen who have preceded them.
But there also lies the problem with Live! and the grad-school-level jazz bands in most major cities. Busch and his talented cohorts can whip off a mean version of Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus." The same goes for Live!'s two fine covers of the deceased John Coltrane's "Naima" and "Invitation." Viva Jazz becomes a perfect cover band for music from long ago (the 60s) and far away (New York). That's great if you're in a club, not so hot if you're at home and choosing between the Live! CD and a Coltrane anthology.
So who will listen to Live! when plenty of Henderson and Coltrane are available on CD for the same price? Probably friends, family members and jazz novices unfamiliar with the source material. Kudos to all six of em--Viva Jazz and Live! will succeed in addicting at least a few new ears to an old sound.
Meanwhile, jazz fans who are familiar with the original versions of these tunes will find their stomachs growling as they come to the end of the disc. They'll fish out the originals to play, since, as Busch and the band would agree, those entrees can't be topped if you're going to listen to music in your living room. Maybe Viva Jazz will opt for a menu change on the next recording and offer some new twist on jazz we can't already find in our record collection. The bottom line in the food chain of jazz is that unless a band cooks up a new flavor, it's doomed to go out of business. Skillful replication of the past masters is a starting point, not a satisfactory end product. What a shame if Viva Jazz lets all that Southwestern pepper go to waste trying to sell the same old enchilada.