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Credible Excuses

It's hard for even the most jaded and cynical of critics not to occasionally be swayed by the enthusiasm and personal charm of the artists we encounter. Such is the case with singer Mark Norman. It's difficult to pin down exactly why he engenders such goodwill. It could be Norman's...
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It's hard for even the most jaded and cynical of critics not to occasionally be swayed by the enthusiasm and personal charm of the artists we encounter. Such is the case with singer Mark Norman.

It's difficult to pin down exactly why he engenders such goodwill. It could be Norman's fresh-faced, almost cherubic appearance, which calls to mind a grown up Peter Brady. Or maybe it's his conversation, one that's filled with skateboarder patois and "whoa, dude" sentiments.

A fixture on the local music scene for years before ever fronting a band, the Southern California native has logged time in a number of combos including Cottonmouth, Gravy and most notably, Sledville.

Though his penchant for career-boosting hustle and hype is well known, his current exuberance is understandable. Norman's new group, Ghetto Cowgirl, is about to release its full-length debut on the self-financed Migraine Records.

Though he's Ghetto Cowgirl's chief architect, Norman's reputation, for the most part, has been that of a lead singer about town. He even fronted Doug Hopkins' first post-Gin Blossoms group, the short lived Eventuals (which also featured future Refreshments P.H. Naffah, Brian Blush and Gloritone bassist Nic Scropos). Norman would go on to achieve a modicum of prominence during the mid-'90s while fronting college-rock quintet Sledville. The group's original lineup included guitarists Thomas Laufenberg and Phil Beach, bassist Brad Howsman and drummer Gary Sanchez. Though the band found some success during its three-year run, a series of personnel departures and defections effectively brought things to a halt in late 1997.

"We only had the illusion of a band in '98," chuckles Norman in between pulls from a beer and puffs from a Marlboro. "At that point, Thomas [Laufenberg] had left to joint the Pistoleros and Brad Brown came in to replace him. Phil Beach eventually moved to New York to become a recording engineer, Brad Howsman moved to Colorado -- basically, things just fell apart."

Despite playing a handful of local gigs and out-of-town events, Sledville officially called it quits in the spring of '98.

"After the band disintegrated and everybody went their separate ways, I said, 'Well, I'm going back to L.A.' This was at the tail end of '98," recalls Norman.

"I went out there and I ended up writing a lot of stuff, about 30 songs. This entire record was basically written during that period, after Sledville stopped and I was trying to figure out what to do."

Though his SoCal sojourn stimulated his creative juices, Norman had a hard time finding any sympathetic and capable musical comrades among Tinseltown's session-hack elite.

"So, I'm in L.A. writing all these damn songs, and I couldn't find anyone out there that was remotely as good as the guys I was playing with in Tempe -- and I jammed with tons of people out there," notes Norman dryly. "The guys that are good enough are either too snobby or too hard to get to out there. That whole experience made me realize how deep and accessible the talent pool is out here."

Norman had more luck on the business end after a chance meeting with L.A.-based manager David Skye, who accidentally stumbled upon a three-song demo the singer had recorded under the name Ghetto Cowgirl.

Immediately taken by the tracks, Skye began touting his new discovery to record company bosses, and Norman quickly found himself in the unlikeliest of positions -- taking meetings with major label executives, talking up an album and a band that didn't yet exist.

Shuttling back and forth between L.A. and Phoenix, Norman began piecing together a backing group to help him finish recording the songs he'd been working on, and to perform with him at an upcoming label showcase. He was quickly able to secure the services of his onetime Sledville mate Thomas Laufenberg, Pollen bassist Chris Serafini and Yoko Love drummer Mike Hill.

The Ghetto Cowgirl lineup was finalized last fall when former sideman Phil Beach -- then working at New York City's Baby Monster studios -- was persuaded to return to Phoenix after joining Norman for a Big Apple jaunt/performance paid for by Atlantic imprint Lava Records (the boutique label run by Jason Flom, the man responsible for -- or guilty of -- launching the careers of Matchbox 20 and Sugar Ray, among others).

The irony of having such intense industry interest foisted upon him virtually overnight was not lost on Norman.

"You spend all those years writing songs and playing shows and just trying to keep a band together and make something happen, and then it's when you don't have a band or a record or anything that suddenly people are interested," he adds, shrugging his shoulders. "It doesn't make any sense but that's how it happened."

In September, Norman released a limited-edition maxi-single (featuring a quartet of early Ghetto Cowgirl tracks) that met with considerable local enthusiasm. Casting the business concerns aside, Norman refocused his efforts toward completing a full-length album, finishing work on the record early last month.

Although Norman ended up collaborating on a handful of tracks with various co-writers, all but two of the nine cuts found on the final version of Excuses are solo compositions. The exceptions being the chunky guitar workout, "Rock Pig" (a rehearsal jam fleshed out by Laufenberg) and the maudlin "Brand New," for which veteran local guitarist Neil Malmstrom provided the music.

"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."

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, Excuses is 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: [email protected]

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