Despite some past attitude and present whining, the Arizona music scene continues to spin. There still aren't enough places to play, and the musicians might cooperate with each other more, but these nine Arizona releases are proof that music of every shape and sound is happening in this state.
And a couple of encouraging musical events are looming on the horizon. Not one but two industry-media music showcases are currently in the works for Phoenix and Tempe. If all goes as planned, a one-day showcase will take place downtown in June, and a larger multiday, multiclub event will be staged in Tempe this fall. Both should focus attention, locally and nationally, on the music and the musicians who call Arizona home.
In our last local release roundup, we asked local bands and solo artists to send in their tapes, CDs or LPs. We didn't get any records, which must mean vinyl is truly dead. But we did get a varied batch of tapes and CDs from a rewarding cross section of Arizona musicians. All of these should be available for sale at local record stores. If you can't find them, ask why.
Our thanks to everyone who sent music in. To those who didn't: Ship those petroleum products our way. The next local music review is already taking shape.
RIVER ROSES When We Fall
One of the most notoriously up-and-down alternative rock-pop bands in Arizona history has turned up again with a vengeance. Guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Chris Holiman, whose thin, nasal voice and erratic personality are either the best or the worst things about River Roses, has put it all together on When We Fall.
The songs here are powerful. Tunes like the country-rock-flavored "Last Light," to which Bridget Keating's tasteful violin work adds a beautiful touch, are among the strongest tracks this band has ever recorded. Hooky choruses and tasteful strumming abound. River Roses even pulls off a convincing slop-rockabilly version of the classic "Mystery Train," which benefits from Giant Sands' Howe Gelb on piano. Drummer (now, sadly, former drummer) Peter Catalanotte-Reeves and his hyperactive, destroy-the-kit style are worth the price of this tape. The really surprising thing about When We Fall is the singing. Holiman's vocals are the best he's ever done, unfailingly expressive and impressive in range. The sound here is crisp and the production is flawless. This is the kind of alternative record a lot of major labels would like in their catalogues. Hopefully, an excellent record like this will be the shot that will turn this right-place-wrong-time band around. --Robert Baird
AUGUST RED Twist Into the Sun
"Alternative" has become such a powerful musical buzz word--and sales tool--that all sorts of nearby musical genres are now co-opting what they want from alternativeville to get a piece of the action. Hybrids can be either alternative with a hard-rock edge, or hard rock that knows how to jangle a guitar or trot through a midtempo melody. August Red falls into the latter subgenre. The group plays hard rock that at times sounds as sensitive and poppy as any American indie guitar band. The band has obviously worked long and hard on this twelve-song CD. Recorded at Chaton Recordings in Scottsdale, the sound is clear and the mix is even.
It's an odd criticism, but it seems like a well-chosen cover would have been a good addition for a young band whose original material, although brawny and full of promise, is still unripe. Musically, tunes like "Fine by Me," an ode to a teenage suicide, show that these guys have songwriting potential. But if you're going to do overpopulated, overworked music, then you have to try harder to sound different. Some of what's here is indistinguishable from the 5,000 other guitar bands that came out this year. But it's in the lyrics that their age shows. Rock star cliches like, "Well I've got my bottle and the boys in the band/I don't need your helping hand/You wanna hang out, you wanna be with me/Are you really so blind that you can't see" will hopefully improve with time and experience. Still, this is an intriguing beginning.--Robert Baird
VAMPIRE RODENTS War Music
These bloodthirsty vermin can't be taken too seriously--not with lyrics like, "Brush the teeth of a swaddled corpse/Envy his leisure/Hemmorhage [sic] in pleasure." But more often than not on War Music, there's a point to all the sickness and gore. Behind the butcher-block imagery of "Meat," for instance, lies a militant vegetarian message. (This ditty suggests--among other things--strangling fishers with their own tuna nets.)
Sometimes the carnage is more campy, as on "Extinction," a gruesome tale of mutant fish that turn into aquatic carnivores after gorging themselves on nuclear waste. The song's scenario is right out of a 1950s Them-style sci-fi movie, and its antinuke message is just as simpleminded. Fortunately, there's plenty of pitch-black humor in the lyrics: "No more proms and no more wishes/Now you're only food for the fishes."
The band's darkly humorous, apocalyptic visions are set to a cyber-aggressive postindustrialist beat. The Rodents throw in a lot of tape tricks and clanking electronic effects, but the music's mostly forgettable. The sole exception is "Momentous," which jumbles samples from funk records, Reagan speeches and a Twilight Zone episode ("My name is Talking Tina") into a surprisingly cohesive, danceable whole.
The Vampire Rodents aren't especially talented musicians. And despite all the blood they splatter here, the furry stars of Willard were more menacing. Still, any band that can casually toss off a couplet as twisted as "Lepers have more fun/Imploding glands for everyone!" can't be all bad, can it?--John Blanco
VIVA JAZZ Point of Departure
It's no surprise to discover that Jay Busch, drummer and bandleader of Viva Jazz, also teaches jazz history. Busch paces his ever-changing local crew through the same wide repertoire he would test his students on, zigzagging from the work of Tony Williams to Duke Ellington to Charles Mingus. By the time they were ready to cut this record, Busch and his cohorts had done their homework so well they were able to pull off Point of Departure as a live album.
The first side of Point of Departure is a competent and pleasing 201-level slide show of what made the band's mentors great. Singer Maribeth Gallagher delivers very convincing big-band vocal chops. She is supported by the sensible, supportive solos of trumpeter Steve Rentschler and others. Tenor saxman Brian Sjoerdinga shares "In a Sentimental Mood" with Gallagher and conjures up the memory of Coltrane's feel for a ballad. Elsewhere, he offers up a knowledgeable nod toward Sonny Rollins-style sparse accompaniment and quirky song vehicles on the drum-sax duet "Surrey With the Fringe on Top." Side two is a thicker mix of extra-credit jazz, dangling subtler melodies and progressions in front of the listener. This time the cuts also offer a hint of what this band will sound like, were it ever to forgo billboarding and develop its own personality. Listen to guitarist Eric Bart strip away all but his own style on "Geo Rose" and "Children of the New World." It's only a matter of time until some big-name jazzer sweeps through town and snags this guy for his own band.
Viva Jazz has the talented players to loosen up, throw away its textbooks and add the ragged instrumental fraying that a tune like "Better Get Hit in Your Soul" requires to come across as a gospel cry rather than music for a car commercial.
Viva Jazz is guilty only of being too scholastically reverent, of choosing to outline a chalkboard lesson on the greats of jazz rather than to stake out a vehicle for its own voices. But even if Viva Jazz never changes a lick, it's 100 times better to hear its members do Ellington with their own hands rather than settling for the lame local lounge acts that, in the name of jazz, rule the school.--Dave McElfreshMDRV
DARCIE DEAVILLE The Last Hitchhiker on the Lost Highway
If some of today's neo-bluegrass performers listened to Darcie Deaville's hyperspeed picking, they'd probably throw their fiddles down in shame. Deaville's fiddle and mandolin playing on The Last Hitchhiker on the Lost Highway has a deftness and a down-home spunk that are missing in much contemporary folk and bluegrass.
Traditional, mostly acoustic tunes like "Cotton-Eyed Joe" and "Little Birdie" benefit not only from her energetic picking, but also from Deaville's earthy, heartfelt vocals. She has also assembled a distinguished back-up band that includes traditionalist banjo player John McEuen, formerly of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
When Deaville strays from the traditionalist terrain, she doesn't fare as well: "Change in Me" is dangerously close to lite-rock, while "Icy Barrel of a Loaded Gun"--a ballad about incest--is sensitively handled but utterly out of place. Fortunately, the mandolin-driven stompers more than compensate for these slip-ups.
Now, who said Kentucky bluegrass can't thrive in the Phoenix desert? --John Blanco
MORNING STAR Another Way
Walt Richardson and the Morning Star Band (now streamlined to the more Nineties-sounding "Morning Star") are professional musicians. They work all over this town, all the time, and have been doing it for years. This record isn't going to change the mind of anyone suffering Morning Star burnout ("I've seen them a thousand times," goes the familiar refrain). But for those who dig what the band has always done, this live-at-Chuy's collection of recent originals is a shiny, poppy confirmation that these guys are a very good, very happy dance band. Like their new Nineties-sounding handle, Morning Star plays a pop-reggae cross that's slick, funky and very now. Aswad has made a career out of doing the same kind of thing. Although much "music with a message" is boring and pretentious, Morning Star's get-up, stand-up, universal-brotherhood shtick comes off as unobtrusive and well-meaning. And those who say this band doesn't take risks should check out the cover of Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl." That's what I call a risk.--Robert Baird
DUNCAN STITT Piano Pieces
If you put all the new-age solo piano records end to end, we would no longer have to figure out a way to get to Mars. And pianists who can make solo records without sounding repetitive after two cuts are the rare exceptions. At first glance it looked like longtime Tucson pianny tinkler Duncan Stitt had fallen from his usual offbeat joco-serious style into those evil depths. But have faith; Stitt hasn't gone new-age.
What he has decided to do on Piano Pieces is get introspective and personal. The music here is basically saloon piano with semiclassical touches. Personally, I didn't know he had this many tender melodies in him. There are some gorgeous moments, the best being the short and sweet "Leaving Home." And for a solo piano record, Stitt covers a lot of ground. He moves from the fragile "Hoff Alley Blues" to lively stride piano in "Flamingo Lounge" in turning out a quiet record that's a big success. --Robert Baird
THE SPELL Under the Spell
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This is more well-meaning but mediocre hard rock from a band that has obviously honed its stuff playing in Valley rock clubs. Written by guitarist Mike Flynn and bassist Tim Hoyt, the music works in a hard rock/FM-rock vein that takes a lot from Seventies bands like Boston and Head East.
All of it is listenable, although the lack of a real memorable tune hurts, and the constant fuzz of Mike Flynn's Kansas-like guitar gives the record a droning sameness. And although the lyrics mostly stick to the safe and generic side of the semantic street, they tend to reach into Dungeons-and-Dragons melodrama when they try to be profound. Even Rush couldn't get away with "alpha dream states," "neuro warlock covens," or the scene in which a "million suns rape concrete like Bunsen burning lab glow." Something a little more meaningful and a little less grandiose would help in the words department.--Robert Baird
CHUCK HALL AND THE BRICK WALL Loud and Proud (Live at Edcel's Attic)
Any guitar player who will put "Hey Joe" on a live record is either riding for a fall or damned sure of his abilities. Chuck Hall, the local guitar player whose version of the Hendrix standard holds its own on Hall's latest live set, qualifies on the second count. The guy is simply one of the more powerful musical presences in this Valley. Possessed of a strong voice and an even stronger way with a guitar, Hall with his power trio can lay waste to a club crowd quicker than just about anyone else. With the archetypal "Made to be played loud" slogan printed in bold on the inside cover, this is one hot and nasty live set. The three covers on this record--tunes by Freddie King, Chuck Berry, and Jimi Hendrix--are a perfect illustration of Hall's breadth. Mixing blues, roots and classic rock, Hall, drummer Mark Riggs, and bassist Scott Andrews lay out a smokin' set of uptempo rockers that depend on Hall's guitar for their solo licks. It's a good sign that Hall originals like "Good Mind to Quit You," the blues stomp that opens the record, work best. I couldn't help but think of Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush--Hall and his group have the same strong frontman approach. An essential live session.