It's time for a long-overdue look at what kind of "product" is coming out of the local music scene. The number of tapes submitted was so large this time that one week won't cover them all. Be prepared for a second installment to run soon.
The variety of local music continues to expand. This batch included everything from a studio jazz ensemble to techno-dance grooves.
All of these tapes and CDs can be purchased at local record stores or from the bands at live shows. Other than going out to see live music, the best way to support the local scene is to buy these cassettes and CDs. If this group is any indication, the quality of what's called "local" can be surprising.
DON REEVE Spirit Wild
(Crash Landing Productions)
Go ahead, pick up a copy of Spirit Wild. Check out the picture of the handsome neohippie with his acoustic guitar. Read where he states that his new recording is "dedicated to the life forms of Planet Earth." Now, what kind of music do you expect to hear? Maybe the usual lush paeans to Mama Nature sandwiched between the sounds of canyon winds and soaring eagles? Thank Don Reeve for shunning the knapsack of new-age cliches and offering instead a unique approach to guitar playing. Faster than you can say "your mantra," Reeve bounces between finger-hammering his instrument into sitarlike drones and spewing out frenetic passages of 100 well-placed notes. Though Reeve may share the philosophies of other new-agers, his machine-gun playing sets him apart from the lullaby guitar work of less competent players. When reaching for sentiment in "Roses"-a title that preps the listener for cosmic sappiness, if ever there was one-Reeve turns out a fine balance of warmth and dark edge. His morose guitar isn't gently weeping, it's beating out a warning that makes you question the nature of the beast called romance. Reeve is playing as much for the thorns as the petals, you might say. The unsanded presentation is very refreshing.
No one-note musician, Reeve directs his masculine guitar pounding in a number of directions. His ax-whacking is playful on "Tickle," meditative on "Rain" and damned near danceable (if you jig) on "Celtic Cross." Obviously, this guy didn't whet his frets just listening to new-age patriarch William Ackerman. Bet he's got some well-played John McLaughlin and Stanley Jordan albums in his collection. Reeve deserves a lot of praise for not aping his high-minded, whole-grain musical brothers and their cosmic drudgery.
LOST EUROPEAN Lost European
The aptly titled Lost European is a band of local techno types with a self-described "Euro-British" sound and a stated "function" of providing "techno art rock for the masses."
The band's lofty goal is served pretty well, though, on this ten-song CD. Most credit goes to British-sounding singer Roy Lund, who, oddly enough, actually is British and not some Arizona schoolboy faking a Monty Python accent.
Lost European's credibility is further fueled by a slick studio performance enhanced by even slicker advanced recording techniques. Three of the band's founding members claim to be "degreed aerospace engineers," which helps explain the professional sound quality.
Unfortunately, the band members' claims at songwriting don't hold up as well. Much of Lost European's music flails through ideas borrowed from INXS and the Fixx. Indeed, anyone with the slightest recollection of Fixx songs like "Stand or Fall" or "One Thing Leads to Another" will blanch at Lost European's "Spiral Staircase," with its peppy tempos, mountains of polyphonic synths and staccato, "oh-oh-oh" vocals.
Still, computer smarts can count for a lot in the sterilized world of synth-pop. And Lost European has the chops-and chips-to reach whatever masses still yearn for the "rock of the Nineties" sounds of 1983.
JOE MYERS House With Nine Rooms
(Chameleon Dogs Artist Group)
Every Thursday at Mesa rockhaus Hollywood Alley, Joe Myers nudges the alternative bands from the stage to ply his own intelligent and elegant new-age wares. He packs 'em in, too. For an excellent sampling of this excellent musician's work, try his latest CD, House With Nine Rooms.
Myers is, first and foremost, a guitarist. House begins with "Visiting Planets," an acoustic-guitar instrumental that serves primarily to warm listeners to the more complicated offerings to come. The thing is, the deceptively benign rhythms in "Visiting Planets" are absolutely intoxicating. A single, selfish complaint might be that, at two-and-a-half minutes, it's just too doggone short.
Fortunately, there's plenty more on House to be mesmerized by.
Given Myers' prowess on his Reuter six- and 12-string double-neck guitars, bass, Moog and even chimes, it's easy to overlook his sleek and mature vocals. Gems like "In Winter" and "Wild Rain" are triple threats: extraordinary lyrics interpreted in soothing, stunning fashion, aided by some of the finest acoustic guitar work in the Valley.
Hey, set the warm body of your choice on the sofa, pour some heart-healthy red wine, snuggle under an afghan and put on House With Nine Rooms. Ooooh, baby.
Although the band takes its handle from those drippy, cheap-to-run saviors of the broiling Southwest, Swampcooler's music shares very little with those frustrating machines. It's reliable pop-rock that doesn't bang, leak or give out just when you need it most. The Byrds, R.E.M. and the Seattle scene are the influences this quartet blends seamlessly in its originals.
Recorded, as the liner notes say, "in our apartment," the sound quality on this four-song cassette doesn't show the band in its best light. Still, what comes through the muddy production has potential.
Tunes like the soft, strumming ballad "Time for Us" and its sidemate, the up-tempo "Last Words," show that, although his voice can slip in and out of tune, Jim Hanusa is a competent vocalist. And it's tough to judge in just four tunes, but guitarist Ron Barry seems like a comer. Look for more from these guys. One tiny suggestion, though: No one outside the Southwest will ever understand the name.
RON WALKER Blue Diamond Man
"Solid" and "shiny" are the words here.
Glendale rocker Ron Walker likes to do things his way. On Blue Diamond Man, he sings everything and takes all the writing credits-save for the tape's single ballad, the sad but pleasant "Echoes of Laughter." Walker also takes the lion's share of the string and keyboard work here and lets no one sit behind the drum kit but himself. His one-man-band approach is rock-sturdy. From the Beatlesque, shake-it-up-baby "Stay Out of the Rain," to the Romantics-flavored, drum-heavy fun of "U Don't Know," Walker has permitted these musical influences to be no more than just that.
On the funkified-and most lyrically polished-song "Don't Take My Advice," Walker's fine, rangy voice shows its brightness and versatility. Overall, Blue Diamond Man is a steady-at times downright flashy-howdy-do by a musician who should be around for a spell.
CHUCK MAROHNIC Pages of Stone
Imagine the "Mona Lisa" done in neon lights. Or Gravity's Rainbow done as a pop-up book. There's something to be said for simplicity.
Same for the acoustic piano. Ten years ago, Chuck Marohnic used the instrument for some stellar recordings on the prestigious Danish jazz label SteepleChase. But these days, the Valley's resident patriarch of jazz has taken a fancy to the synthesizer, laying out the results in Pages of Stone.
Mostly what we get here is great playing buried in some less-than-complimentary tones. "Green Dolphin Street" goes for a keyboard sound that's almost guitarlike-not irritating, but not advantageous, either. "Blues at Ten" is done with a tinny feel that makes an old Hammond B3 sound like a church organ. Marohnic is out-and-out aggressive on "Autumn Leaves." The keyboards embody a modern approach, a la Weather Report's Joe Zawinul. But the song is too familiar and delicate to be dressed up in such freight-train-horn tones. But though we may be sitting on the tracks as Marohnic barrels toward us, at least in "Autumn Leaves" we come face to face with the pianist's wealth of ideas.
Thankfully, none of the synth sounds hide Marohnic's rock-solid feel for jazz. The best tunes, "Once? She Said" and "Not Guilty," are performed on acoustic piano and show a vulnerable touch that the electric gadgetry drowns out. When not washed away as well, the nationally famed talents of drummer Joe LaBarbera and bassist David Friesen blend perfectly with Marohnic.
Let's get him back in the studio with the same material and tell him this time to get Unplugged.
THEORY OF EVERYTHING Theory of Everything
Synthesizers may be the best thing to happen to music since the metronome. Then again, maybe not.
Theory of Everything is a local synth band built from the remains of Avatar. T.O.E. combines that group's acoustic-electronic instrumentals with more commercial, synth-based dance grooves. There's no doubt that guitarist Mark Blythe, synth whiz/vocalist Anthony Barker and keyboardist-violinist Lynn Barker are excellent musicians. And their tape may be the cleanest-sounding local tape I've heard.
The band's only problem is one it shares with all techno-dance groovers: There's not a lot of passion here. What is here is a drum machine and every keyboard variation known to man. But, like most dance-floor fluff, T.O.E.'s dance drones-complete with disembodied, British-accented vocals-get empty and cold. The only nonprogrammable instrument here is Mark Blythe's Mahavishnu-influenced electric guitar.
Artists need to grow, and I don't want to whine about "liking the old stuff better," but Side B of this tape, with its Avatar-style instrumentals, is excellent. Lynn Barker is a swirling, inventive electric violinist in the tradition of Jean-Luc Ponty. Obviously, Theory of Everything hopes its commercial side will support its more interesting, noncommercial stuff. It's an appealing trick that very few are able to pull off. But considering the talent in this trio, the odds are in T.O.E.'s favor.
If Spin interviews with Tom Petty and Michael Stipe have led you to believe that folk music began with Roger McGuinn and Bob Dylan, check out FireLine for a taste of what the Byrd and the bard of Sixties acoustic music built their styles on. Arizona's own J. Gahar has his roots in the pre-"Tambourine Man" sounds of the unamplified guitar minstrels of New York's Greenwich Village, protest singers who made the Martin guitar synonymous with social commentary.
FireLine begins with the title song, a tribute to Arizona prisoners recruited to fight local forest fires. In this one song, Gahar demonstrates not only flawless flat-picking but an ability to rustle up a grassroots feel for the characters without sounding oh-so-politically correct.
Gahar shows a populist distaste for yuppie ethics in "I Can See Your Aura," in which he lambastes both the unidentified antagonist and new-age creeds from reincarnation to vegetarianism. But the best jabs are saved for pop music. It's hard to argue with Gahar when, on "AM Radio," he sings "Everybody sounds alike there in between the call-in shows/Osterized, homogenized musicians sinking low/Nothing's worse than AM radio."
The lyrics of "Do You Photograph Well?" drive the knife even deeper, every line adding to the portrayal of how corporate rock poisons and prostrates what we hear on the dial.
Gahar and band stir the ashes of the too-brief folkie scene that surfaced between the milquetoast music of Bobby Vinton and Pat Boone and the beginnings of that soggy, pop-rock bone of contention we've come to gnaw today. FireLine is a brave move, Mr. Gahar. These days, if you're going to turn out grassroots music with aggressive lyrics, you're going to have to be a Trooper.
SONS & LOVERS Sons & Lovers
(Loft Studios Music)
What do you make of a local trio that uses breathy, big-breasted female singers to sing-speak-whisper-moan songs titled "I Swallow You" and "Sweet Sticky Thang"?
How do you figure a collection of cock-tease tunes glorifying the taste, touch and smell of sex-but played with all the energy of a funeral march through a topless bar?
Don't ask. Don't even wonder why.
Instead, check your logic at the door and experience the special charms of Sons & Lovers, a decidedly lusty techno trio that bumps and grinds against the syncopated sounds of industrial-dance music.
Sons & Lovers is led by some guy who calls himself Sir David V and lists himself as the producer. But, really, who cares?
Concentrate instead on singers Tess and Kaki (rhymes with "tacky"), a couple of full-figured Eurasian sisters who pose as lead singers. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that Tess and Kaki pose better than they sing. It's also somewhat obvious that such concepts as subtlety, imagination, romance, love and companionship are completely lost on these wacky, boy-crazy girls.
Subtlety, for example, is nixed as soon as you see the photograph of one of the sisters (I'm guessing it's Tess) falling out of her bikini on the cassette's front cover. As for imagination, it's limited to the orgasmic testimonial doubling as lyrics for "Making Love to Myself." And any chance of stumbling on the notion of higher love literally chokes on the epic "I Swallow You," which climaxes with such poetry as, "I swallow you/You like me to." There have been a lot of local cassettes released over the years... and this most definitely is one of 'em.
BILLY TAYLOR TRIO AND THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA STUDIO JAZZ ENSEMBLE Fiesta in Tucson
(Celestial Harmonies/University of Arizona)
Pianist Billy Taylor, long the ambassador of jazz education, has come up with the Ultimate Final Exam: students back teacher on a CD for all the world to hear. The class is UofA's Studio Jazz Ensemble, and the pass-or-fail essay question is a trilogy of Taylor-penned tunes called Fiesta in Tucson.
This professor goes easy on his pupils. Taylor subjects the ensemble's skills to rather short, simplistic melodies-sometimes repeated endlessly-while students bare their chops. Everybody gets a good grade, but it's obvious when Taylor enters on piano just who stands behind the desk. His fluid and confident feel for the music shows the difference between what school can teach about jazz and what has to be felt in the gut in order to swing.
The "Dreamwalker" movement of Fiesta in Tucson offers the best interplay between Taylor and the ensemble. The experienced piano man plays pensively with his gorgeous bit of melody while the UofAers wisely support him with subtlety.
Taylor bows out for the rest of the album, leaving the kids to their own jazz devices. Too often, they weave a suit of chintzy jazz-pop in need of Taylor's good taste. "Tasha" is aural cotton candy that's so vapid you wonder what the students define as jazz. Most of the other cuts are also sophomore-level stabs at jazz-if, as is the case with the cut-and-dried "In Memory of a Dream," it can be called jazz at all. The playing and production are uniformly perfect, but, hey, anything can be gilded.
Remember how we would forget test material as soon as we handed those exam books to the front of the class? Same goes here. The ins and outs of improvisation take a lifetime to learn, and a class in jazz is hardly a guarantee of classy jazz. But professor Taylor has shown that the group can succeed if it will drop the eraser-throwing bravado of material that they will outgrow. Keep at it, ensemblers, time will show that swing's the thing.
SPINNING JENNY 17th Street
The latest in what seems like a quarterly issue of Spinning Jenny tapes finds the Tempe guitar band stretching its scope with added edge.
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Indeed, 17th Street continues the Jenny's push from the comfortable charm of old Beatlemania bits toward a more strident sound, best reflected in the ragged efforts of new lead guitarist Freddy Gildersleeve.
The rougher treatment helps make older, more established Spinning Jenny songs sound urgent. The travelogue tragedy of "Fastest Car in Town," for example, now seems to make more sense, while "Back in the Light," the band's best song, adds depth to its skinny-tie power-pop.
But the Jenny's tough-guy approach costs the band a little something, too. The cool guitar touches on the chorus of "Back in the Light" are downplayed too much on the cassette, and the band's secret weapon, the back-up croon of bassist Damon Doiron (formerly of the Jetzons and the Strand), is hardly heard behind singer-guitarist Stephen Easterling's lead vocals.
Even so, Easterling is clearly one of the better pop songwriters in the Valley, and 17th Street confirms Spinning Jenny's position as one of Tempe's better bands. For proof, check out the title cut, which literally brims with a communal come-on to suburban Tempe. It's a good song with an inviting feel, and a perfect example of people not having to be told that a music "scene" grows best when it's pushed least.