The Alt/Country tag in the realm of Pop music is an interesting one. The term presupposes that it is some new hybrid form: a random musical mutation in Rock ‘n’ Roll. But, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Since the early days of Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash; to Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers; recycled by way of England via the Beatles and the Stones; from whence it was then re-integrated in the US in the Early ’70s by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Eagles, the latter-day Byrds and most of all by Creedence Clearwater Revival, perhaps the definitive Alt/Country band— Country music has been as intrinsic as Rhythm & Blues in constructing the foundation of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
In the ’80s the Country banner in Rock was carried by John Mellancamp, but upstarts such as REM and Elvis Costello, as well as the Replacements were in the parade as well. In the ’90s, Soul Asylum and the Wilco contingent adopted County elements. The entire Grunge movement could be seen as rooted in the revivalist days of the early ’70s: plaid flannel shirts and all, the father of which has been deemed to be Neil Young. In truth, Country music has always been an integral feature of Rock music and it always will be. Alt/Country is just a hype term to get the kids to buy something they think is new and different, Like the Swing thing.
Anyway, there has always been a strong “Alt/Country” scene in Portland, from the days of Triggers Revenge, Wheatfield and Hurrman Burrman, to current times with the likes of Haymaker, Thrillbilly and Sunset Valley. Add to the list Baseboard Heaters, a likable quartet who combine strands of the Replacements, Soul Asylum, the Outlaws, the Eagles and even, on occasion, Counting Crows to weave a muscular, jangling sound of their own.
Guitarists Rob Stroup and Matt Brown are joined by bassist Matt Souther and drummer Jason Krzmarzick to create a hardscrabble joyful noise, like the sound of a well-tuned Chevy pickup crunching down a gravel road in the musical heartland. Stroup writes and sings most of the songs, though Brown contributes a tune or two as well, while fulfilling his role as lead guitarist.
Astute local scenesters might recognize Souther’s name from his former job as a managerial type and occasional radio personality with KNRK radio, as well as from his current position with KINK. But, as with all the various forms of media largess we might encounter within our beloved musical community, we need only ask if Matt can do the job to which he is assigned. And the answer here is yes, he fits in fine in this scenario.
And the scenario, with just a couple of exceptions, is a high-energy affair that owes as much to Carl Perkins as it does to the Replacements. The band alternates between chunky and biting, power-chord dominated opuses and more homely rockers that percolate with smart fervency.
“Roll The Dice” is of the former variety. Over slashing, Neil Youngish chords, Stroup’s twangy drawl bears a vocal resemblance to a young Glen Frey as he ponders his younger days— “I turned the page on my photo book/’Til I saw the strange and innocent looks/In eyes too young and cynical/When life had everything to offer and heaven held all the answers/We knew who hung the stars made them spherical.”
Brown’s “Minneapolis” finds him longing for his homeland “To see my saviors where they play guitar and sing.” Apparently they don’t do enough of that here in Cocktail Town. “You lose the beauty of the melody” and all that. A churning riff, reminiscent of Costello’s “Pump It Up,” propels the tune. With a truck drivin’ rhythm and some flashy County licks by Brown, “Cigarette Girl” chugs along on a nicotine high, backing Stroup in his adolescent tale of sexual fantasy regarding that young woman who hawks the Camels in a bar near you tonight.
The early Eagles come to mind on “Road,” a slowed down remake of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man,” with cowboy boots and prairie dogs as the props in this wild wild western tune. The jagged rhythm guitar chords of “In The Morning” illuminate Stroup’s soberly mature lyric (for a song based on Country values) that curiously considers the morning after, the night before. A jarringly jaunty Country flavored bridge hotwires this runaway tractor.
The ballad “So Far To You” treads familiar musical cornfields, though here again Stroup’s oddly existential lyrics add interesting spice to the proceedings: the bitter last days of a dying relationship. “Demon” recorded live on KBOO, benefits from a good mix of Krzmarzick’s crispy snare smacks to drive a minor key rocker. Brown’s “We’ll See,” also recorded live on KBOO, is an all-around shitkicking two-step yahoo romp, chock-full of aw-shucks guitar pickin’.
Baseboard Heaters are as comfortable as an old pair of sneakers. Their songs lack classic hooklines or choruses, yet they resonate with enough dusty charm to pass muster. Stroup’s familiar vocal twang isn’t memorable on its own, but rings with a certain vibrancy. Brown’s edgy guitar stylings are a spirited sprint through cowpie heaven, with enough crunch in the clinches to rock out when necessary.
All in all, the Heaters generate enough warmth to take the chill off a room, but it never quite gets toasty or steamy. Refinement of their promising songwriting ability would bode the band well as would a concentration on the individual songs’ presentation. There is much to like about the band, but not quite enough (as yet) to set them apart from other bands of their breed.
Old Man Motel
Crave Dog Records
Fernando Viciconte, teamed with producer/prodigy/multi-instrumentalist Luther Russell, turned in one of Portland’s best albums of 1998 with Pacoima, a raucous and tender tribute to Viciconte’s Hispanic heritage. The sad/joyous piquancy of that Spanish sung masterpiece stands in testament to the special musical abilities that both musicians demonstrated with uncanny regularity.
Because this new album is a May release, the advance copy received contained no information whatsoever regarding the lineup of musical contributors. So, it is impossible to determine with absolute certitude that Russell has indeed returned to produce and play on this outing, but all the elements are in place to hazard an educated guess that he probably has.
For this is another wonderful record, full of a rich musical heritage that spreads its Latin roots through the fertile ground of such disparate Rock influences as the Beatles, Creedence and Neil Young, the Blues and traditional Folk genres; with succinct instrumental accompaniment and very few wasted strokes. The marriage of Fernando’s rich voice and intelligent songs with artful arrangements and clever instrumentation makes for a marvelously eclectic collection, nearly as endearing as its predecessor.
The album “starts up” with the driving “Ride” a chunky piece of swamp dog, raw and sinewy. A simple electric guitar figure, sort of like a twisted version of that found in Creedence’s “Born On The Bayou,” floats over an insistent upstroke Tex-Mex rhythm guitar and buoyant bass, an urgent cowbell pushing the beat of the catchy chorus, as Fernando shouts down some bad voogum vocals. Rootsy and timeless. Very cool.
Very cool too is the Beatlesque “Same Ol’ King,” Lennon inspired piano plunking and close-harmony vocals call to mind something from the Sergeant Pepper period. Even more John-like is the stirring “Jesus,” in which Fernando captures precisely the visceral angst of Lennon’s “Mother,” while smoldering Neil Young inspired guitars rumble and flare beneath. Tough stuff!
“So. California” echoes Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” A fluttering acoustic guitar butterflies across a meadow of grazing cello-like guitar accents; faint breezes of flute sounds and chimes of steel-guitar whisp and whirl on the periphery. Yet a cloud of sadness shadows the vocal melody, making of this a hauntingly memorable song. More Neil Young riffage with the churning guitar chords of “Couldn’t Believe,” a dead ringer for “Ohio” from the CSNY days. Fernando’s slippery vocal delivery in the verses and Lennon-flavored cries in the choruses move the tune away from the mundane toward the sublime.
Keyboard flutes and chattering maracas flicker as if in dim candlelight, as waltzing rimshots play against Fernando’s gentle vocal and lilting harmonies in the choruses of “Deviant.” Another touchingly pretty song. Fractious glancing guitar stabs and glaring organ pads parry with Viciconte’s gutsy vocal on “Swing Low,” a slow, lurching number with a menacing fervor at its core.
The title track is driven by a skittering piano and jittery upstroke rhythm guitar chops, well-blended harmony vocals meld at the center of the mix, angelic amidst the chaotic surroundings. “Another Victim” has a strong chorus and a molten guitar solo section. “Rainin’ Outside” is a jagged piece of slap-back pie, a Carl Perkins crust with inspired vocal filling; whopping dollops of slide guitar and rickety drumsticks dancing on the snare rim lopped on the top. The ensemble takes the arrangement up a notch in the back half, grinding out some gritty Rock, a milieu in which Viciconte is entirely within his element. Tasty.
“Angyline” moves from the intimate cabin jam of the intro into a Country flavored rumble down that dusty old dirt road. A darker passage lies in the moody “In The End.” A solitary acoustic guitar is the only accompaniment to Fernando’s lone accompaniment, with a harmony vocal joining in at the turnaround. Midway, a churchy organ joins in the mix, joined sometime later by slide guitars and drum backing building to a forceful finale. The “bonus track,” “El Legale,” sounds like an outtake from Pacoima: a rollicking Tex Mex enchilada smothered in cheese and hot sauce. Yeow!
Fernando Viciconte, and presumably Luther Russell, have concocted another minor masterpiece with Old Man Motel. They mine rich veins of musical gold, utilizing well-planned arrangements and magical production choices. They are obvious students of the crafts of writing and producing Rock music. They are tapped into the wellspring of genius at the fountain of inspiration drinking down all that their minds and souls can possibly hold.
It’s been five years already since Kaitlyn Ni Donovan first appeared on the scene, with a penchant for unique, ethereal song suites and hauntingly beautiful vocal presentations. Some believed she would have found wider success by now, with her unusual style. But Kaitlyn has taken a somewhat longer road. Regardless. As evidenced by the three advance tracks included among the four on this EP, she is clearly at the threshold of achieving the recognition to which her rare musical gifts had always given so much promise.
Kaitlyn has surrounded herself with a deep pool of auxiliary talent including, among several others, guitarist Jonathan Drews and bassist Eric Furlong— who, between them, have played in a bazillion bands in their five or so years in the local scene; as well as production god Tony Lash, whose contribution here is immeasurable. The result is a gloriously original sound which might be categorized as falling somewhere between Sarah McLachlan, the Cocteau Twins, Loreena McKennit and Portishead in the grand celestial scheme of musical things. But Kaitlyn’s sound is singularly her own, derived from her “morphed” chord progressions on guitar and Celtic influences on the violin. She is one of a kind.
“Ceiling Tiles” begins with a drum loop, slightly compressed to resemble Portishead’s style, as grumbling guitar sounds whir mechanically into the frame. Kaitlyn enters with gentle acoustic guitar arpeggios, while amorphous sounds formlessly hover in the sonic æther. Suddenly a green rain of mournful Celtic violins cascade upon the scene. A moody electric piano paces the landscape beneath. As Kaitlyn begins to sing, the instruments receding into the mist, only the piano and her guitar to guide her as the drum loop clocks relentlessly in the spatial distance; her voice a vaporous honey whisper. This song would be perfect soundtrack material for Jane Eyre orWuthering Heights.
Glistening mandolins dance like snowflakes in the moonlight on “Tiny Twigs.” A soaring dove of a violin glides among the heavens, Kaitlyn’s angelic voice hushing a sweet lullaby from above. Hypnotically resonant, similar to portions of Terry Riley’s minimalist epic In C. Simply beautiful. Acoustic and electric guitars weave a sonorous brocade on “Awake In The Sand,” Kait’s delicate voice tripping lightly across the flimsy fabric. A melancholy cello passes through the chorus and bridge, as layers of sumptuous harmonies choir in divine resplendence.
The home recorded “Wingside” hearkens to Kaitlyn’s beginnings, but demonstrates precisely the evolution this EP represents. For she has lived up to the challenge of channeling her extraordinarily phenomenal propensity for melody. A voice for the new millennium, exquisitely ephemeral, magically enchanting. Kaitlyn Ni Donovan may have taken the long road on her journey to discover the means to her own musical expression. But with this recording, there is no doubt that she has indeed arrived at her destination.
I Go Zoom
Mary Margaret Music
Mary Kadderly has sung out in the vibrant local Jazz scene for many years now, regularly gigging with pianist Steve Christofferson in a duo format for several of them. Here they are joined by a stellar sidecrew, to create a refined Pop sound, with smooth Jazz undertones. Kadderly can, with facile zeal, sing rings around 99.9% of her competition. Her easy contralto effortlessly navigates a wide swath of musical styles— so diverse, it is difficult to describe exactly from which bag she may be actually coming. But every stylistic guise she dons seems as if it were one she has worn all her life.
And talk about a sterling backup band! All nine songs overflow with big name players, including Christofferson on a variety of keyboards, drummer Jeff Minnieweather and Joey Seifers on electric and standup bass. Dan Faehnle alternates lead guitar chores with the legendary Jerry Hahn whom, in every instance, gives rise to a profound sense of wonder and astonishment at his marvelously subdued and constrained approach to the instrument. His peerless tone, unmistakable when it appears in the mix, supports a fluid Jazz-savvy fret technique that is a complete education for anyone who might fancy himself to be a guitarist. This guy is a master.
As if that were not enough honey in the mead, Valerie Day adds percussion to a number tracks, while guitarslinger Trooper Tim Ellis makes several appearances in an auxiliary role, fleshing out zesty rhythms on acoustic guitar in some parts, comping faithfully on electric in others. Trumpeter Paul Mazzio and saxman Lee Wuthernow sweeten a number of cuts. Even violinist Skip Parente sits in on a tune.
A few of the songs are well-enough crafted to seem like standards or, at the very least, standards-to-be. Kadderly had a hand in the writing of all the songs, creating a varied palate of melodies for the intelligent poetry of lyricists Todd Schultz and Brett Bender, as well as for a several of her own verses. Schultz, especially, distinguishes himself in his two lyric contributions, with an actual and distinctive style of writing that is literary in its construction, intellectually incisive and emotionally perceptive.
For the most part though, the aural focus is on the stalwart musicianship that drips from every tune. Christofferson kicks off the title track with swinging boogie piano licks, as Kadderly delivers a light lyric with a smooth and assured vocal with a great sense timing and energy. “Someday Sometime” is a pretty ballad, a little predictable lyrically, but with a sophisticated arrangement that calls to mind some of Jim Webb’s most memorable songs.
“Sea Of Love” funks things up in a mellow way: kind of like a toned down version of Steely Dan’s “Parker’s Band,” Christofferson’s Hammond chattering and purring in the foreground. Hahn fires off a staccato onslaught of well-aimed notes in a brilliant solo that touches all the bases in the process of hitting it out of the park.
“It’s Not Over Yet” couples Day’s spicy bongos with Minnieweather’s hip-hoppy drum patterns against Seifers’ satisfying standup bass— as Mary throws down a space age vocal melody over Faehnle’s Wes Montgomery flavored guitar voicings. Schultz’ clever lyric adds to the sensually charged atmosphere, creating a rich tension in its own right. “Can You Feel It” play’s on the traditional Bo Diddly rhythm, adding New Orlean’s juju with Christofferson’s chunky Hammond and stride colorations on piano.
The piece de resistance of the set is theis the marvelous torch ballad “Love Is Losing,” where Hahn is allowed to showcase his incredible skills. Over a quiet Jazz trio scenario: Minnieweather massaging his snare with gentle brushstrokes; solid underpinning by Seifers on standup bass, Hahn layers ghostly chords behind Kadderly’s smoldering vocal. She wraps her voice around a supple marriage of her classic melody and Schultz’ inspired lyric: “Fact or fiction/You decide/So we’re in love/Somehow that’s not enough/You were so real/Now you dodge and conceal/Dead love is cruel/I’m a memory fool/Love is losing, it’s the end of the ride.” Hahn’s flawless timing and graceful phrasing is as supple as fine leather. Trumpeter Mazzio casts a lovely Jazz-blue light upon his wonderful solo, stretching each note with confident luxuriousness.
To front a collection of pros such as these requires that a singer have a lot of fortitude and considerable chops— just to keep the listener’s attention from straying too far into the background: to explore the awe-inspiring instrumental terrain. Mary Kadderly never fails to remain at the center of the session displaying versatility and appeal at every turn. This album is a tremendous showcase for her quite significant skills. She meets every musical challenge with complete style and class.