First the eight-track tape withered and died. Then the vinyl LP fell from favor. Next on the decaying-forms-of-playback-technology hit list is the cassette.
One of the most visible signs that the cassette is beginning to wane is that local acts are turning more and more to CDs. They hold more music, sound better and have become cost-effective. Most important, you can get more photos of babes and whiskey bottles in CD booklets than on cassette liners.
This local-music review features several CDs by Arizona acts whose professionalism is above average. To vinyl diehards, CDs will always be "The Great Satan." But to everyone else--especially those who have struggled through muddy cassettes of young bands playing their guts out--they are nirvana.
Also included in this review are a number of demo tapes. Demos can be a touchy subject. In general, they are meant more as audio introductions to labels and clubs than a profit-making venture. For the sake of this and all future reviews, demos are defined by any one of the following characteristics: tapes with nothing but four songs and a telephone number printed on them; tapes with the same set dubbed on both sides; and cassette liners that do not list band members, songwriting credits, recording information or even song order. Phantom bands--those who never play live but somehow have finished tapes--also fit into this category.
Someday, somewhere, someone is going to dig up this CD and wonder who Stefan George was and why such a skilled songwriter never gained more notoriety. The reasons aren't hard to figure. First, he lives in Tucson, a wonderful city, but not exactly the acoustic-music capital of the western world.
George's art is subtle--mostly sad and elegiac in tone, his lacework folk tunes are tinged with bluegrass, blues and barroom nights. No amps, no drum machines, just solid melodies and lyrics that speak eloquently of loss and lives in the balance. Although there are overt political touches, "1,000 Points of Light," for example, most of the politics here are quiet and wrenchingly personal.
On Song Tower, George has assembled yet another shining collection of bittersweet songs. Like his past cassettes, this 12-cut CD is dramatic evidence that he is a songwriter whose talent is the equal of any in Kerrville or any other supposed acoustic-music hotbed. His distinct gravel voice--a cross between Guy Clark and Jim Croce--is the glue that holds everything together. George is also his own best accompanist, playing 6- and 12-string guitars, lap steel, bass mandolin, bouzouki and keyboards.
After serving for years as the reason to listen to Tucson's gringo-beat mess Brain Damage Orchestra, George appears to have resolved to work solo or with his trio, Whitebread. The other two-thirds of this trio are George's longtime companion Lavinia White (her horn playing was the other good thing about B.D.O.) and Jan Daley. Both are strictly vocalists here, adding accents and harmonies throughout.
George's songs and performing style are the spiritual kin of Nanci Griffith's. If there was ever a tune tailor-made for Griffith, it's George's "Electric Avenue." She may be the only person who could add something to George's own atmospheric performance of it.
If there is one area where George continues to improve, it's in his lyrics. Along with serious lines like, "They tell me that you married young/Soon after I was gone/Trading one jail for another/With a sentence twice as long" (Sad Eyes"), George also displays a sly wit--Some of us are skipping our classes/And the school of life doesn't mind/Some of us have got to get glasses/From reading too much between the lines" (1,000 Points of Light"). Hopefully, people will notice this fine disc now and Stefan George won't have to wait for archaeology to bring him his fame.
Don't let the initials F.C.A. fool you. It's the band's own label. It just looks like a major-label acronym. Clever, huh?
Clever is this band's middle name. Since its inception, August Red has been a band obsessed with, and adept at, manipulating its image. The marketing and presentation have always been astonishingly professional for a local band. Wanderlust--the band's second, self-financed, full-length CD--equals any major-label product in looks and sound quality.
While these are accomplishments to be proud of, the music is what really matters. And therein lies the rub. August Red's music has never matched the drama or gloss of its come-on. On this CD, a band best known for its legion of teenage female fans shows signs that it's beginning to mature. Tunes like "The First Stone," which opens with "All I want is a young girl/A teenage prima donna/And I'll give her the whole world/She'll give everything to me," have nothing to do with attracting adults. They're just more honey to draw more teenage flies. If this band wants to be taken seriously as an adult act, it's time to lose the blond-haired, bare-chested, teeny-boppin' ego trip.
This CD proves that there is talent here. Overall, these guys work in a poppy, mainstream rock mode that has touches of what seem to be conscious retro overtones--most notably from Timothy Teal, whose voice has an uncanny similarity to Burton Cummings' of the Guess Who. The Great White North connection continues in "Hang the Blame," in which there are guitars straight out of B.T.O. or Trooper. The groove they work up is lightweight but likable. And while "Hang" represents what's good here, tunes like "Dirty Little Hippie" (more juvenile lyrics) and "Stay Away Sister," with it's hand claps and high harmonies, reveal the other side--sweet, middle-of-the-road fluff.
Again, there is obvious talent in this band. It will be interesting to see what happens to that talent if and when it decides to seek an adult audience.
West-siders long have enjoyed country warbler Chelsey and her "Company" of pickers and pounders at B.F.D.'s, the popular Glendale watering hole where the group performs five nights a week. When word spread that Chelsey & Company was set to go whole hog on its first professionally produced CD, denizens of B.F.D.'s, the band's many fans, friends and financial backers prepared for a long-awaited, local-girl-makes-good story.
Although this inaugural disc falls considerably short of its Nashville-or-bust aspirations, there's still much to applaud.
Most of all, Chelsey's Company proves itself as an excellent group of music-makers--particularly Wayne Holland's keyboard work on the quasi-rocker "I Think I've Got a Hold" and the album's best cut, the 'billyesque "I'll Scratch Your Back." Likewise, Benson Riffle not only commands an outstanding Music City/NASCAR name, but his guitar weeps wonderfully on "Loner in Disguise" and the otherwise flavorless ballad "I've Been Waiting for You."
Singer Chelsey--who consistently shines live--turns in a somewhat shaky, nervous-sounding performance. She's quite comfortable with the album's up-tempo tunes--especially those requiring the higher end of her register. Unfortunately, the ballads here will jerk few tears; "Don't 'Cha Know," wherein Chelsey attempts to plumb the lower scale, is particularly ineffective. To be fair, however, the downsides on this ambitious project are not just her doing.
The major culprits here are the songs themselves. Most are merely middlin', but several are downright dismal. "That Ain't No Woman"--about a six-foot-four-inch transvestite who wanders into a redneck honky-tonk, ostensibly lookin' for lovin'--attempts to be a chicken-fried "Lola." Nah . . . not even close. "Is There Anyone Left Like You" redefines "schmaltz," while even local producer extraordinaire Billy Williams and the talented Company can't rescue the banal ballad "Stealing Candy."
In fact, Chelsey & Company seems to have a generally tough time with the written word. Not only are the songs basically bereft of thoughtful lyrics, the liner notes are abysmal. The band's poorly written newsletter indicates that some 15 grand went into the production of this ambitious project. Apparently, none of that considerable amount of cash was spent on even a cursory proofreading of the CD booklet--an important element in a professional production.
Picky? Hardly. They notice that kind of stuff in Nashville.
The "unplugged" craze has gone too far. It's time to cut this musical misnomer down to size. First, "unplugged" is yet another MTV-created marketing gimmick turned musical trend. Are we going to let television (and Madonna) tell us what's cool and what's not? Of course we are, but it still bugs me. Secondly, acoustic music was written for acoustic instruments. On the other side, "Enter Sandman" was written with a wall of Marshalls in mind. Rarely does changing the voltage add much beyond being a novelty to either form. Have folkies been on the cutting edge all these years and not known it? Does unplugging "Back in the U.S.S.R." mean that "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" should be plugged in? No. Besides, a lot of today's "acoustic" instruments are really plugged in, anyway.
As for the notion that unplugged performances expose the quieter, more introspective sides of an otherwise plugged-in performer, I'd rather tip a pint with Sting/Bono (they've become one) or listen to Jon Bon Jovi try to explain how the socio-political-excretive history of New Jersey impacts his "music." And what about Eric Clapton's venture into juiceless performing? Despite the bespectacled video--run ad nauseam on MTV--Layla" still sounds better on the Derek and the Dominos album.
The only real value of unplugged performances is that it helps keep billowing rock egos in check. Seeing Axl Rose sitting calmly in a chair trying to sing can be a genuine thrill.
None of this means that Wild Whirled Studios' Arizona Unplugged is bad. It's not. Hans Olson's "Earthman" and Chuck Hall's slide-guitar-driven "Greasy Love Rag" are both fine, bluesy, guitar-man-on-a-stool performances. Are they electric tunes without the watts? No. Would they sound good with the switch thrown? No.
You have to give Wild Whirled credit for trying. And the talent here includes some of the Valley's best. Diana Lee's gospel entry "Movin' Out Back" is full-bodied enough to raise a fever. Instrumentals like Cliff Sarde's bland "Anyone You Know?" aren't unplugged, they're just instrumentals. Overall, though, a listenable tape with a couple of great moments.
Surprisingly tame considering this band's biological imperative handle. Meandering, undistinguished pop-rock cross that gets edgy and loud in spots. Song with a political message: "Pink Lemonade."
Rhymes With Orange
The Tempe singer-songwriter-harmonica player plows through a full set of mostly bluesy originals. His voice: okay. Guitar-playing: better. Harmonica: best. Catch this guy now before the sexist death squads close in and rub him out for romantic lead tune "Stretch Marks, Scars & Tattoos."
A two-song teaser from one of Tempe's more promising bands. The Swampers continue to improve, displaying a new tortured pop sensibility on "Happy the Hard Way."
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SHOW ME HOW
What can't take sunlight, lyrics that make sense or a lack of testosterone? Vampires and Ozzy Osbourne? You're half-right. The correct answer is speed metal, which is what these bruisers do rather well. The best thing about go-fast metal is that it thumps along at an energetic pace. The worst thing is that it's all over much too soon. Next.
It looks like a band. Sounds like a band. Yet this tape arrives with no personnel listed (there's a photo, of course). And after checking with several Valley music cognoscenti, no one has ever seen the band live. What's here is decent, mainstream rock. Nothing fancy. Vocals need work. Under the "Kids, don't try this at home" category: Once you've erred by covering the Who's "Behind Blue Eyes," don't compound it by trying to become the vocal reincarnation of Roger Daltrey.