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.