Lost All Faith
It’s been a couple of years now since the Baseboard Heaters’ last release. In that time they replaced original drummer Jason Kryzmarzick with Derek Brown; and, with the help of producer deluxe Luther Russell, have honed their Alt/Country sound to acute sharpness on this, their sophomore release.
Lead singer Rob Stroup still has an affable twang about his voice, reminiscent of early Glenn Frey of the Eagles. Guitarist Matt Brown, especially , has matured as a musician, his guitarwork (and occasional injections of lapsteel and banjo) display rampant versatility, as well as taste and chops. The rhythm section of drummer Brown and bassist Matt Souther seems to have tightened up substantially the band’s mid-section.
The album begins on a somewhat strange note with the Gospel-tinged ballad “Truth.” Maintaining his existential worldview, Stroup lends the song a sense of martyrdom that is not fully explained by the oblique lyrics. Things get up to speed with the second tune, “Over Before It Started,” a shit-kicking two-step rocker and one of the best songs of the fourteen included here. A fairly memorable chorus and a rumbling low-string guitar solo by Brown make of this song a standout.
“Away” sustains the tenor and lyrical stance of several songs by the Eagles on their early album Desperado. Also, singer/songwriter JD Souther (an associate of the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt) comes to mind as well. One wonders if bassist Matt Souther is in any way related to JD Souther. It’s a small world after all. “Think” moves along on a sporty beat and jangling guitars, but is unable to amount much of a chorus or hook.
Scaling back a bit, “Worst Enemy” is a steamboat chugging though a boggy moss-draped bayou. Jaunty banjo and slippery lapsteal are the prime motivators here. A rousing guitar riff propels “I Don’t Deny” with serious firepower. Russell’s staccato piano fills and soulful organ pads add delicious texture to the mix, while lending a distinct late ‘70s element to the song as well. But, for all that bluster, the song doesn’t quite manage to uphold interest. Still, Russell’s expert production values are the key here.
A gentle waltz, “Goodbye Rain” is another candidate as a Desperado outtake. It’s a strong song with a solid chorus and great production. “Last Seen” uses a powerful chorus and some tasty guitar interludes in the solo section to qualify as one of the strongest numbers in the set. “Slow Way To Die,” a propulsive rocker, could almost pass for Everclear in the balls department, the basic chord-progression mirroring that of Art Alexakis’ “Heroin Girl.” Another winner.
Mining more of a Country-roots vein, the acoustic flavored “Offsides” and “Blood & Water” stay true to form, almost to the point of predictability on a musical level. Similarly, “Defense” resembles the Stones’ “Dead Flowers.” One half-way expects “Take me down little Susie” as a lead in to the chorus. “Everybody Needs” with it’s swirling backwards guitar fills works well with a strong chorus. “Ode To The Barroom” sounds as if it were recorded with a mic at fifty paces, but fits the mood and intention of the song.
The Baseboard Heaters show a lot of growth with their second recording. The band demonstrates a willingness to improve their songwriting, developing strong choruses on at least half the songs presented. Still, the band seems a little faceless at times, often border upon caricatures of the early Eagles. Their material has yet to make a real impression with me. I came away from listening to this album singing Fastball’s “Fire Escape.”
But hope springs eternal. And while it is unreasonable, given the genre they have chosen to pursue, to hope for complete originality, further examination of the obscure and arcane in that genre would not hurt Baseboard Heaters in the least.
Half Way Down
Luther Russell is everywhere. He produced the preceding album. He produced and played on this one too. Last month he produced and played on a couple of albums, And the month before that too. Luther is everywhere. Here he is aiding the efforts of the fledgling A.C. Cotton, a band constructed around the talents of Alan Charing.
This album bears an organic resemblance to that of the Baseboard Heaters. The album kicks off with a solo effort by Charing, “The Death Of Me,” which, within the lyric, explains (sort of) Charing’s decision to rename his act: “You know I’m gonna change my name to Cotton and move down to the South/Love you like nobody’s ever known/Never have forgotten the sweetness of your mouth/Or the way you left me here alone.” Okay, so it doesn’t explain anything. But the name of the band is in there.
Then, as with the Baseboard Heaters album, the second song is the rousing rocker that brings everything to life. In this case it’s “A Lot Of Water,” a song that sort of resembles Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance,” with its raw energy. Charing’s whining vocal and jagged rhythm guitar are supported by Brett Davis on lead guitar, Todd Corbett on bass and Sean Oldham on drums.
“Rusty Chain” is a Beatlesque piece, with Charing providing the Lennonish vocals, while Davis delivers Harrisonian guitar figures. “Alright For Audrey” is a raucous slice of rock pie, with Charing and Davis churning away on their guitars, while Corbett and Oldham push the beat even harder; as Luther fills in with a soaring organ tone.
A Costello-like waltz, “Punches” dances glancingly, Charing’s agile voice embraces the chord progression with care and precision. A very cool song. Again, as with the Baseboard Heaters album, the producers elect to toss in a backwards guitar solo, rendered better here than in the countless ofther recordings containing the trick. Enough with backwards guitar solos already! “Great Divide” rides on Oldhams’s driving toms in the verses and hard hitting snare through the chorus. An anthemic chorus catapults the chiming “Half Way Down.”
Swinging on an insistent 12/8 beat, “Real Damn Shame” proves to be a winning tune. “Lucky Thirteen” is a downhome country number augmented by Davis’ sweeping lapsteel guitar and Russell’s organ musings. “Santiago” is an old fashioned, straight-ahead rocker, that features guest Fernando Viciconte’s screaming Spanish background vocals. “Ugly Stick” is another straight ahead rocker.
The bluesy “New Independence Morning” echoes Bob Dylan in the way Charing vocalizes the lyrics, Neil Young in the fiery tones elicited by the musicians. “All The Way Back To Zero,” with it’s simple piano accompaniment, could easily pass for Randy Newman.
A.C. Cotton have their moments here, but they sound like a new band still feeling its way through the material and their relationship to it. Charing is a good songwriter, though only a few of those presented here would qualify as being among his best. But given more time to evolve a sound of their own, A. C. Cotton would seem to be certain to flourish. And, sculpting his material for the new band sound, Charing would seem capable of crafting stronger songs. Given those elements, the band has definite possibilities.
It’s been over two years since Nine Volt Mile last registered an entry in the local album sweepstakes. In that time the band replaced Don Schwarz, the original bassist, with former Haymaker bassist Jeff Farnand, while tightening up immeasurably their presentation. Vocalist Jason Lee Elliott has a powerful voice like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, without any of the latter’s many vocal mannerisms. Guitarist Dirk Sullivan, who made his name with Love On Ice in the ‘90s, adds tasty licks galore, as Farnand and drummer Sean Moultrie lay a foundation strong enough to hold a skyscraper. At this point, Nine Volt Mile are a band with which to be reckoned- thoughtful and powerful.
Every song among the baker’s dozen presented here is a gem, tightly woven, intricately embroidered, smartly executed. There are no weak moments or pedestrian passages. This band is tough, intelligent and skilled. They take no prisoners. They ask no quarter.
Elliott is the consummate rock vocalist, with a supple apparatus, an evocative delivery and stalwart accompaniment that indelibly etches each song with the mark of greatness. This is a great band at the very top of its game. Sullivan’s inventive guitar wizardry at time calls to mind Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Brian May of Queen, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin Dean DeLeo of Stone temple Pilots and Stone Gossard Of Pearl Jam, sometimes within the span of a verse and chorus of a single tune. Between the two of them they create songs, many of which have that mark of true greatness, as within the work of the aforementioned bands.
Moultrie ushers the album in with a series of tom rolls which eventually set up a syncopated beat for skittering guitar/bass inflections of the first verse of “Part Of me,” the initial track. A familiar vocal chorus, over Sullivan’s blustery guitar riffs, makes for a vital combination. The second verse rips into overdrive, riding Sullivan’s slashing guitar figures. the breakaway middle section spins in a dizzy grunge squaredance, before a segue back to the chorus. Brilliant.
“Butterfly” picks right up from there, a Stonesy/Zeppy storm of riffage wherein Elliott sounds like Robert Plant singing with Eddie Vedder’s vibrato. Sublime stuff. The anthemic chorus to “Say What You Say” is so big you could drive an earth mover through it. Impassioned and profound. “Playgod” manages to up the ante even higher. Jagged guitars alternate behind Elliott’s sinewy, almost Peter Gabriel-like vocals in the verses give way to pretty British Invasion harmonies in the chorus. Sullivan’s majestic guitar arias in the background are simply stupendous.
The contents of “La Luna” are about what one familiar with the Portland music scene might expect— “no one’s in the front row/ they’re all drinking in the mezzanine.” A gentle waltz of a song, breaks into 4/4 in the homestretch. “I Can” is militant march in the war of affirmation and self-actualization. Echoes of Queen and Cheap Trick reverberate through “Up The Country,” a jaunty tale of living life like Bonnie and Clyde. “We could be on the run/having fun/with a gun.” Oh Yeah!
From there, the band continues it’s musical tour de force, with “Read” and ‘Sleep Alone” flitting in Jellyfish territory. And. oddly enough, “Told You,” the last song of the set, sounds like a Tracy Chapman song, with Elliott sounding a lot like her, vocally.
Certainly this will be considered one of the best local albums of the year. Nine Volt Mile display top-notch Pop sensibilities in their performances. While sounding something like their influences, the band is in no way imitative, but entirely original in the means by which they develop their material. It would seem a lock that Nine Volt Mile will be signed to a major label contract. They most certainly are deserving of national attention.
Save The Swimmer
It was a year ago in March when we first met Dizzyfish in these pages and the name Henry Curl, lyricist and vocalist extraordinare. Inexplicably the band Dizzyfish remained entirely intact, but changed their name to Jonah. Nothing against their new name, but Dizzyfish was a great name. Perhaps there was already a band of that name in Peoria or something. Who knows? Still, the band remains great, regardless of their nomenclature. the three songs they previewed in the Spring of 2000 are to be found here.
Henry Curl is one of the better poets in the Portland rock scene today. In addition he has a sweet, lithe voice that swings effortlessly into falsetto. “Radio Murders” is a good example. An inscrutable lyric is layered with Chris Hayes’ exotic slide guitar textures. Drummer Jake Endicott and bassist Matt Rogers provide indomitable structure to the proceedings. But it is Curl’s elastic vocal exercises that are the most winning of all.
“Wishes” is a pretty song with a nice guitar and synth string arrangement underscoring a pliant lyrical plaint: “And now she’s alone, empty planet/The ending is clear but she denies it/And now sleepers rise to receive me/The general at arms won’t believe me/And I stand still/Tonight we sleep upon our wishes/And they can’t break my will/ Tonight we sleep with the fishes.”
Another of the stronger new songs is “Grand Design” a cheerful waltz that is buoyed by the uplifting quality of it’s lyric. Still, two of the best songs were presented on last year’s demo. “Lunar Song” is a pretty little ditty. And “Pepto” remains as the band’s most complete musical statement
While Jonah may be a name that conforms better to the band’s chosen dogma, Dizzyfish was the better name. But this is a band that displays a lot of promise regardless of their name. A tighter focus on the structures of some of their songs will benefit the band. Concentrating on hooks and strong choruses will make them more memorable. Seeking common lyrical ground with the listener could benefit the band as well. Curl has occasionally very astute observations to impart to the diligent listener, which would be more sagacious still were he to abandon his propensity for preaching. Still, Jonah are a very good band which deserve encouragement and recognition for their accomplishments, not derision for their shortcomings.