A Stealthy Portion
When Renegade Saints, the Eugene-based tie-dye jam band, broke up a few years back, the two primary songwriters, guitarist Dave Coey and guitarist John Shipe went their separate ways. Coey resurfaced first with the popular acoustipop outfit Kerosene Dream. Shipe rebounded with an album release in the Spring of 1999, Sudden And Merciless Joy, which still shows up in Top ten lists throughout the Northwest region.
Shipe’s songs are introspective to say the least. Here they deal with emotional loss and redemption (where applicable). A smart, capable writer, his lyrics are often like naked light bulbs baldly glaring upon the subject matter, which is usually lost love.
This live album, comprised of 15 songs, several of which appeared on SAMJ , serves as a vehicle for his new band, the John Shipe Trio. In their current configuration, Shipe and his guitar sidekick Erhen Ebbage are joined by young cellist Elisabeth Babcock. It’s an interesting sound that sometimes sounds like Jackson Browne fronting early Electric Light Orchestra, but other times attains a certain bittersweet piquancy about it.
The lead track, “Junkies On Film” fits into both categories, neatly referencing Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful world” along the way: “I don’t know much about reality/I don’t dwell in the spiritual realm/I’m just glad my life’s a whole lot better than the junkies on film.” “Imitation Man” chugs along on Babcock’s sonorous cello lines in the verses, stretches out in the choruses.
“Better Off Without You” displays certain megalomaniacal tendencies, as well as Shipe’s propensity for using “doot doot doo” when he backs himself into lyrical corners. Resolution for 2001: I will use “doot doot doo” only once per album. Other times, such as on “Spontaneous Combustion” the imagery becomes nearly Dali-esque: “The woman was in heat, burning like a furnace at a thousand degrees/With psychological herpes/They couldn’t put her out with a bucket of Slurpees.”
“Joshua’s Birthday,” a sad, somber number is one of the most astute in this collection, dramatically imbued with solemn majesty over the premature death of a lost friend. Very moving. Babcock’s cello is especially compelling here. “Justice” finds Shipe vocally resembling folky Marc Cohn, whose “Walkin’ In Memphis” is a staple on KINK. Babcock’s cello is put to fine use on “Breakfast Chaos,” where a sterling riff is nicely buttressed by her classical technique.
“Minotaur” features another fine use of the cello, whose sonorous high end is wonderfully captured in the elegant opening motif. Ebbage’s subtle vocal harmonies and sparse lead guitar figures help to flesh out “Waiting On You.” “Road Story” takes a page out of Neil Young’s “Last Trip To Tulsa,” but here the fireworks take place in scenic Barstow, California.
There is very little merciless joy in this album, sudden or otherwise. It is more like utter relentless pensiveness and dark depression. Shipe’s unyielding misery, while highly literate and literary, makes for a miserable night on the town, as the audience on this live effort can attest. While the addition of a cello to the proceedings more or less guarantees an accent on solemnity (when was the last time you heard a cello rockin’ out?), the songs are well suited to the classical accents.
The John Shipe Trio play very well together, with Ebbage and Babcock trading and sharing riffs with grace and aplomb. But listening to the whole album is an emotionally taxing experience. There is no relief from the inexorable anguish unleashed here. One would hope that in the future, Shipe could occasionally loose himself from his angst to focus on some optimistic feature of the universe. Even with George W. Bush in office, there are still a few things in the world in which to find a modicum of bliss. It should be Shipe’s job to find them. He is a very talented guy. It is a shame that his talents should be squandered on incessant grief and misery.
Don’t Go In The Basement
Alice Street Productions
Mark “Sparky” Spangler has been in the local scene for over 20 years, though usually as a sideman guitarist, often for Jon Koonce— from Johnny and the Distractions to several other projects down the line. Here, joined by a veteran rhythm section of drummer (and former Distraction himself) Kip Richardson and bassist Jim Wallace, Spangler steps out front with eleven songs, ten of which are original compositions. The basement reference is real. Pictures within the packaging show Wallace playing bass next to a washing machine, a basket of laundry nearby.
Spangler’s songs are barebones affairs, often sounding as if they’re held together with spit and bailing wire. His voice is nothing to shout about either. But, despite what might seem to be lackluster components, he manages to connect on a visceral level. His songs maintain a sense of humor and a philosophy that is obviously borne of thoughtful retrospection.
The first song “Heavy Memories” and the last, “Babylon Saturday Night” feature Mark by himself with no other accompaniment other than his solitary acoustic guitar. The remaining songs are sparse as well, featuring the rhythm section and Spangler, with possibly an overdubbed vocal or lead guitar in the monophonic mix. Some of the songs have a Stonesy raunch, others have the droll simplicity of Tom Petty. Spangler’s guitar style is somewhat akin to that of Mark Knopfler, with occasional flashes of Neil Young thrown in.
The familiar chords of “Be Here Now” are augmented by Richardson’s big beat. It’s a simple song that speaks to the workaday worries of the common man. No huge message, but meaningful all the same. Richardson’s tom-heavy drums drive “Natalie,” a solid song that could easily be from the Gin Blossoms catalog. “New Workin’ Man Blues,” though mostly a vehicle for Spangler’s fretwork, speaks to the plight of all wage workers in the world. “Bossman scares me half to death/With his Type A ways/For everything that he’s denied/You can bet somebody pays.” A familiar scenario to be sure.
Though on the surface, it’s not readily apparent, “Legend In His Time” is the Kurt Cobain story, spelled out very specifically. “He lit out of Aberdeen/At a very tender age/Lookin’ for a little hope/To counteract the rage/Seeking the alternative/To life inside a cage.” The familiar story ends all too predictably: “Then one day he had to run again/Just like he did before/Discovered by the handyman/Face up on the bedroom floor/And with his song upon their lips/The crowd called out for more.”
Another song that speaks directly to Spangler’s life and lifestyle is “Teaching Lawyers To Play The Blues.” “Got a job behind the counter at the local music store/Giving lessons in the back/When he’s not on the floor/’Cause there’s everything to gain and nothing left to lose/Teaching lawyers to play the blues.” The rocker “Caffeine, Nicotine, Alcohol (& Me)” furthers the autobiographical theme with rousing vigor.
Another uptempo winner is “New Soul Sensation.” Though there is hardly any Soul music to be found on the track, a strong chorus and some interesting second guitar additions make this one of the more memorable cuts on the album. “Trouble Today” features subtly flashy lead-guitar work over a riff reminiscent of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper.”
Mark Spangler isn’t going to set the world on fire with this outing. His vocals are too subdued, his songwriting too undistinguished. Still, there is something quite engaging going on here. Spangler’s unassuming demeanor plays into the pretext. But it’s a solid album, if barebones, achieving a modest splendor.
Twisted & Lifted
E Platinum Entertainment
It’s been several years since rapper Pete Ho, the Pete Miser, left the Five Fingers of Funk. But the band managed to stay intact despite the departure of their mentor. The core of the band, bassist Allan Redd, drummer Talbott Guthrie and percussionist Todd Smith, as well as (occasionally) the horn section of saxman Ted Hille, trumpeter Josh Prewitt, trombonist Curt Beiker, and rapper/turntablist DJ Chill, kept the band together, uniting a new attitude and different ideas with some of the basic F3 formulae.
The addition of rappers Rabel and U. G. Neek widens the palette of ideas for the vocal presentations; while the augmentation of the band with guitarist Uday Narafimham expands the musical spectrum. While Ho’s direct and witty social commentary will always be associated with the Five Fingers, and while he will always be missed, the remaining members and the new additions have proven that the band has evolved beyond it’s original incarnation, into something altogether different and unusual.
“When We Ride” is a fast-talking spin through a Five Finger world, full of booze, weed and temptuous females, purring like kittens, where the party never stops. A solid rhythm section supports Narafimham’s lush guitar phrasings, while a hauntingly familiar synth theme twirls in the background; as Neek unleashes a slippery rap.
On “Hatin’,” Redd and Gutherie lay down a reliably forceful beat (with a slight reggae feel), while guest keyboardist Joey Porter (late of Rubberneck) lays down a few Rhodes chords, off which Narafimham plays against on the guitar. “Relax Your Mind” spins on some cool Funk grooves laid down by Porter and Narafimham over Redd and Gutherie, as the horns add some sharp brass stabs to the mix, while the subject matter stays fixed on weed. “Trippin’” rides on solid drums and bass, slathered with DJ Chills samples and scratchwork.
The chunky organ pads and gritty guitar lines propel “Rahlos Groove,” Hille stepping forward for a smooth sax solo, as bass, drums and the rhythm of the scratches steer the course of the beat. “Bounce Bounce, smoke about an ounce” is the theme for “Who’s That?” another hard-driving number. The MCs move to the forefront on “What’s Your Name?” Great samples and fine hornwork accent the proceedings with real zest appeal.
With Narafimham turning psychedelic, “Chaos Theory” head’s into space jam territory. The title track moves on some spectacular slide guitar dripping down a trancy groove. ”The Five” states its manifesto right at the top— “I’m buck stankin’ naked at the Motel 6/Wit a coupla bisexual bitches talkin’ about how they usually don’t like dick/But I’m a seasoned vet/So ya know the way I turned ‘em out, man they never forget.”
The Five Fingers Of Funk have forged a new sound, while maintaining the best parts of what made the band a success in the first place. Great execution and superlative musicianship make of this a very fine recording, displaying the aggressive chops necessary to guarantee that the band will remain at the top of its game.
Fly Lyla Records
Somewhat anachronistic, but still a lot of fun, Betty Already are an energetic four-pieces (plus one) guitar band, that combines boy/girl vocals álà X (or Jefferson Airplane, Timbuk 3 or the B52s for that matter) with tight, crunchy ubertempo arrangements that turn on a dime. Leader Scott Young has assembled a cast of like-minded souls dedicated to making the Pop New Wave rise again in the despondent seas of Brittany Spears wannabes.
While the songs are always clever and abundantly well-performed, they are practically interchangeable. the tempos are generally the same, over which hard charging guitars work four (or so) chords with feverish intensity. Vocally. Scott and his partner Kitty are as seamless as a wetsuit. Scott especially has the chipmunk on helium sound of Johnny “Rotten” Lydon in his days with the Sex Pistols.
Other bands come readily to mind when listening to Betty Already: the Ramones, the Stooges, Missing Persons, the Buzzcocks and Cheap Trick to name a just few. “Amerimaniacs” is a biting social commentary. “Fire Drill” is just biting, with the key line, “She’s like a firedrill/Bells are ringing /But nothing’s burning.” is describing young Amy, who’s “beautiful/Sixteen and crazy.” “Must Be” smolders, while describing the life of a rich girl. “Vampire In The Sun” bites in quite another way, but makes it’s point with a memorable chorus.
Betty Already certainly have the chops to make the grade as some sort of a retro unit. Scott and Kitty create an image that is unique, yet familiar— though somewhat dated. Young’s songs demonstrate an acerbic sense of humor with a powerful undercurrent of sarcastic cynicism. But they tend to become predictable after a while, which tends to lessen their impact, over time.
The band shows obvious care and maintenance, with muscular musical precision. But there are times when they seem almost robotic, like Devo in the later years. Mechanical. This is unfortunate, for the Bettys seem capable of being more than that. Otherwise, they seem like a theme band ready to break into Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” at any moment. This would not seem to be the band’s intention. Time will tell with Betty Already, as to the direction into which the band eventually takes its sound.
With the rousing success of their previous album, released about this time last year, it seemed assured that the quartet would eventually release a followup. And here it is. But, if possible, this time around the group is even tighter and better integrated than in their eponymously entitled first foray. Terry Robb, Paul Chasman, Doug Smith and Mark Hanson are each a clinician in his own right.
Each comes from a slightly different musical perspective that is played out succinctly among the baker’s dozen tracks offered here. Each musician gets to be the lead man, each plays a supportive role, laying out altogether on a tune if that is what’s called for. The unselfishness and cohesiveness that was displayed last year is only heightened here.
From Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” to the standard “Mr. Sandman,” From Robb singing Elvis’ “Mystery Train” to Dougs version Pat Donohue’s version of the old Bing Crosby chestnut “Swing On A Star” entitled “Would You Like To Play The Guitar,” from a rousing version of Mark Knopfler’s “Sultans of Swing” to Jorma Kaukonen’s “Embryonic Journey,” this fearsome foursome is razor sharp in its intricate exactitude.
Chasman and Smith are exquisite in their implementation of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy,” with Chasman etching out a gorgeous solo comprised entirely of guitar harmonics. The ensemble’s rendition of “Muskrat Ramble,” which many people would recognize as Country Joe and The Fish’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag,” is a sterling example of the delicate interplay the group achieves. Impeccable technique, coupled with wide-ranging influences makes each piece an enriching musical experience.
It is not often, among the lofty realm of guitar “stylists,” where one will find four musicians willing to put aside their musical tastes and personal pursuits to unite in a venture such as Acoustic Guitar Summit. Each player’s individual contribution to the total sonic presentation enhances the complete sound, polishing each tune to a highly refined state. The local music community is fortunate to have these guys around— pushing the envelope of musical expression upon the acoustic guitar and the boundaries of what can be accomplished by a group of talented, like-minded individuals.