Dig Up The Astroturf
Black Apple Records
The theme for this year’s Houston Astros post-Enron baseball team? No, this is the first solo album from Jeff Trott. Trott has never been in a successful local band. He is not the toast of Paris and four countries. He has never had an album in the local Top Ten. His is not a household name.
Yet, Jeff Trott is one of the most successful musicians ever to inhabit our soggy environs. We have all heard his songs sung on the radio, but not by him. We have instead, heard the voice of Sheryl Crow, who counts Trott among the foremost of her songwriting partners, referring to him as “My musical alter-ego.” She has also said of their writing relationship: “I love writing with Jeff, because he and I have a really similar vocabulary, as far as music goes. We kind of draw from the same influences.”
Crow and Trott crafted fourteen songs for her first second and third, multi-platinum albums, SHERYL CROW and THE GLOBE SESSIONS, including the hits “Everyday Is A Winding Road,” “If It Makes You Happy” and “My Favorite Mistake.” In addition, Trott has performed as a guitarist and producer, working with the likes of latter-day Tears For Fears, Stevie Nicks, World Party, Pete Droge, Jeremy Toback and Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde.
Here, Trott has enlisted the services of a host of local musicians to back him up: drummer Jeff Anthony, who most recently has worked with Pepe and the Bottle Blondes and Julie Larson; and Keith Schreiner of Dahlia (and Auditory Sculpture— see below) who supplies electronic keyboard atmospherics. Other guests, including Gregg and Brent Williams, James Beaton (who worked with Everclear) on Wurlitzer and Hammond B-3 keyboards, Rob O’Hearn, Nancy Hess and China Forbes, among many others, make appearances as well. A true all-star cast. But the star of the show is most definitely Jeff Trott and the album bears his indelible mark as a writer and producer.
Among the ten songs presented here, one of which, “Maybe That’s Something,” first appeared on Crow’s “The Globe Sessions” album, Trott demonstrates strong abilities as a musician on an array of guitars and keyboards, as well as the French horn, bass, mandolin and other sonic effects. The cadre of guests provide strings, horns, backup vocals and a wide array of percussion and other intangibles.
The album leads off with “Walk A Cloud,” a Beatlesesque number, replete with Gordon’s Ringo-like drumming, Jeff’s backwards guitar and Schreiner’s swirling sub-surface keyboard effects. A pleasant chorus helps to offset a couple of somewhat jarring edits. Oasis and Karl Wallinger of World Party come to mind on “Cosmonaut” where a melange of buff guitars play against chiming B-3 pads and jangling mandolin, as Trott sings over the top, in a somewhat non-descript fashion.
An impeccable guitar figure plays against Lars Fox’s drum loops and Beaton’s burbling B-3 on “Dalai Lama,” a curious song, which features the mystical line “Calling Dalai Lama/ What happened to your mama?” Well, that’s certainly a koan worth contemplating! “Good Luck Club” fires on all cylinders, easily worthy of all the aforementioned references, especially that of Karl Wallinger. Trott’s multiple layers of buoyant acoustic and majestic electric guitars reflect against O’Hearn’s dynamic Moog bass and piano flourishes, Dean Baskerville’s keenly programmed drums. and Nancy Hess’ ethereal vocal passages. A very well put together production.
A nice change of pace, “The Few That Remain” traces it’s course on Trott’s gently strummed acoustic guitar and plaintive string interludes. Simple, yet sublime. Infectious guitars and Lars Fox’s groovy drum loops give momentum to “Atomic Halo” as Jeff trots out a biting lyric. “There’s a makeshift superhuman atomic halo glowing over you/So how can you be so lonely when you’re immortal…/You’ve got a tower of Babel rabble futuristic rainbow with a pot of gold/Ninety thousand slaves are singing ‘Sweet Virginia’/ There’s a sound that keeps on flashing in the back of your head, you ignore it/ You say ‘why do I feel so empty when I’ve got everything?’” Another satisfying production, perhaps vaguely reminiscent of T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong.”
“No Substitute” rides on Trott’s pulsating Wurlitzer piano phrases and Schreiner’s subtle electronic washes. A riveting guitar solo, seemingly broadcast in from some other solar system, nicely pulls together the entire song. Jeff’s version of “Maybe That’s Something” benefits from Dave Revelli’s punchy drum work and a mantle of pristine guitars. Still, this take seems a bit sterile when compared to Crow’s version, lacking her propensity for getting inside the lyric.
The dense environment of “Nevermind Me” calls to mind E. and the Eels in its thoughtful urgency; plodding meticulously, awash in moody sonic detail, including Derek Sims’ pensively muted trumpet. Trott’s finger-picked acoustic guitar on “Hard To Say” has it’s antecedents with John Lennon’s “Julia,” while his solitary vocal track harkens to Lennon’s WALLS AND BRIDGES period in the mid-’70s. A long, lush fadeout completes the song and the album.
As a production, this album is flawless. Every instrument— every sound— on every song is meticulously placed and exquisitely rendered. Jeff Trott is a consummate musician/technician, whose ears should be insured for a billion dollars. Most certainly his status and reputation in the music industry are hard-earned and well-deserved.
The quality of the songwriting is, of course, consistently high, though no song seems readily identifiable as an instant hit. Trott’s lyrics are a tad oblique. That circuity, coupled with a general dearth of truly memorable melodic hooks or choruses, lends the material a certain faceless quality. Jeff’s prosaic vocal delivery, while at times sounding like Noel Gallagher, or Karl Wallinger, or John Lennon, lacks the distinctive vocal magnetism necessary to fully draw the listener into his songs. There is a certain emotional ambivalence (or detachment, perhaps), which drains the passion from his productions. They are beautiful and ornate pieces, but sometimes remote and sterile, too. “Good Luck Club” and “Atomic Halo” stand above the other songs. But it is unclear whether this is because they are truly better compositions, or merely more effective productions.
Those minor shortcomings aside, however, this is destined to be one of the best local albums of the year; destined too, to draw attention from the national music press, for its faultless execution and sheer musicality. It seems assured that Jeff Trott will find his own voice soon enough. Once he discovers a means to communicate more honestly, more directly, to his audience, there is every reason to think that Jeff Trott could become a big star, in his own right.
Auditory Sculpture Music
Keith Schreiner is one busy young fellow. Besides releasing an album eight months ago with Dahlia— his undertaking with vocalist Jennifer Folker; and contributing to Jeff Trott’s project (see above) in a big way; he was also recruited by Sheryl Crow to bestow upon her forthcoming project his specific genius as a keyboardist and sonic landscape architect.
Ostensibly the fifth release for the Auditory Sculpture wing of the Schreiner operation, this ambitious two-disc set purports to expose Keith’s hemispheric musical personalities, exploring the duality of all things. Disc One, identified as “RGE” (think: “URGE”) focuses upon dance beats, and percussion driven performances: obviously culled from his experiences in the local club scene. Ultimately the first disc is a more linear listening experience. However, by the end of that disc, the softer more atmospheric material comes to the fore, presaging the second disc.
Disc Two, entitled “Me,” is more of an ambient musical affair, not so reliant upon hard-driving, club-oriented dance beats. There is an obvious thread which runs through the fabric of both recordings ( each more or less an hour long), that being Schreiner’s singularly visual approach to his musical inventions. He creates not only tones, but shapes and textures around the tones. Those sculpted tones are not static, but evolve, transform and transfuse in a very unique sort of musical animation. Cartoons for the ears.
Or, soundtracks for films of the mind. Schreiner’s renderings are quite organic in nature, which, intrinsically, open and unfold like living creatures. The progress he has made in the short time since the release of his album with Dahlia, is palpable. It is readily evident that Keith is finding his own voice as a musician, having discovered the way to integrate these two sides of his musical personality.
The first track on Disc One, “Shards Of Glass,” places, perhaps, too much emphasis on the beats. Schreiner pushes the bpm envelope, speeding the beats up to fluttering pulses, which have more tonal value than rhythmic. This is probably the least successful of his audio experiments. More interesting is “Failed Experiment,” wherein Keith utilizes guest Rachael Gross’ wordless voice to create a winsome sound collage— sort of like the Cocteau Twins with frenetic beats behind them.
“The Bust” begins with a moody setting, before kicking things up a notch, temporarily, a minute or so into the proceedings. Then, a recycling process of the two themes begins and continues on from there. A disquieting melange of crying/wailing voices forms the foundation for “Other Voices.” A slippery, octave jumping bassline holds down the focus, until wild, arpegiated sitar sounds leap to the sonic forefront. “2in1” heads off in one direction for about a minute and a half. Then, Schreiner plays with a roiling dobro guitar figure, which seems reminiscent of that found in Beck’s “Loser.” Schreiner cleverly twists that riff inside out, while continuing his onslaught of agitated beats.
A more meditative milieu surrounds “Slow Motion Pillow Fight.” While the beats remain frenzied, the soft, amorphous undulating organ tones beneath are as measured as a human breath. The final track on Disc One, “Roberts Decision,” calms down somewhat, foreshadowing the more contemplative aspects of Disc Two. Here the beats seem to drag the slowly developing instrumental aspects along for a while before petering out all together. Thoughtful.
The first track on the second disc, “Surreal Shop Class,” for a time, sounds like a western gamelan ensemble playing the music of Harry Partch, before developing into a more meditative piece and re-circulating from there. Rachael Gross returns, adding vocal coloration to “Who Knows.” Its utilization calls to mind the pioneering work of Deep Forest.
Middle Eastern percussion forms the foundation for the billowing, dark chords of the meditative “Deptank.” “A Lonely Day” calls to mind the aural installations of Klaus Schulze or Tangerine Dream. Perhaps the most accessible piece of either set is “Pollack,” a short cut, predominately atmospheric. Veering closer to the work of John Cage, “Atmosphere 1.42” combines symphonic flutes with jittery synth washes to create an ominously pensive mood.
The final track, “Last Song” rides upon a synthesized bassline, aguring the return to the “Urge” aspects of Disc One. This goes on for a couple of minutes, before descending into an extended silence that lasts for nearly thirty-five minutes, before erupting into a couple of minutes of rabid beats and dittering synth tones. An odd choice for Keith as a summation of his musical message.
Keith Schreiner is a work in progress. Whatever it is that he is to become, as a musical entity anyway, is still in its formative stages. He is blessed with abundant tools and skills as a crafter of intricate musical pieces. As yet, however, he has not mastered his technique with drum samples. It is probably his work with beats that is the least satisfactory part of what he does. If asked, he would probably have a very good explanation for his decisions, on occasion, to kick out the jams and head out for 300bpm territory. However, that sort of arrhythmic distortion does not meld well with the style of music he produces. Instead, it has the effect of alienating the listener when everything else is beckoning him in. This would seem to be a paradox that will require further investigation in the future.
Just the same, Keith Schreiner would seem to be the best we have, from the cut and paste school of music. His development as a cutting edge electronic technician, while still transpiring, is beyond dispute. Any attempt to project the arc of his current trajectory would be foolhardy (though he seems, at times, nearly up there with the likes of Danny Elfman and Carter Burwell, in his potential as a soundtrack composer). For Keith Schreiner, it would seem, the sky is the limit. It is really just a matter of time until he finds widespread success in his own distinctive fashion, on his own artistic terms.
Jon Koonce and the Honky Tonk Trio
What does one say about the career of Jon Koonce, that hasn’t been said a hundred times before? Here is a guy who was up in the big leagues for three albums with Johnny and the Distractions; all the while being kicked around and mistreated by his label, before being cut loose and cast adrift. Unwilling ever to be treated that way again, Koonce has been carving out a career for himself for the past twenty years, but on his own terms, in his own way. Fiercely independent, Jon Koonce, more than any other local musician (other than Fred Cole perhaps, who is cut from the same fabric as Koonce), embodies what the Portland music scene has been about for the past quarter century.
Any attempts to name all the bands, configurations and permutations Koonce has fronted or played with would be a futile endeavor, but the pre-Distractions Sleezy Pieces, Mystery Train and the Gas Hogs were three of the most memorable. Still, he learned the business the hard way with the Distractions.
Johnny and the Distractions’ eponymously-titled, independently released first album sold 10,000 copies in the Northwest alone, between the fall of 1978 and early 1980, before being signed by A&M records to a three-record deal. What resulted, though Koonce would never say it himself, was a classic case of label abuse. The producer of the first A&M release, who had signed the band in the first place, lost interest in them before they even got the first album recorded. By the time of the third release, Koonce was begging to be let out of his contract.
Since that time, Jon has gone his own way, following various musical tributaries to their headwaters. This eleven song (three captured in a live setting) outing, of which he penned six of the tunes, finds Koonce exploring all of those influences, as well as a few new ones. Backed by a trio of fine musicians including drummer Kenny Sawyer, multi instrumentalist Paul Hirschmann and his wife, bassist Debbie Smith, who honed her chops as a founding member of the Blubinos, playing with Monti Amundson for ,many years. In addition, Koonce has surrounded himself with longtime friends Bill Feldman to aid in the recording and production of this project.
What is most unusual with this album are Koonce’s references to gospel music which bubble up with regularity. If Jon has suddenly come to embrace the lord, he’s doing it in the most mild-mannered way possible. Songs such as “Mysterious Ways,” “Walking In The Light” and “Good Boy Now” allude to values and attitudes associated with a Christian lifestyle, without being heavy-handed in the least.
The title track is a gentle love song. Koonce’s voice sounds calm and at peace, which is sort of strange coming from the guy who used to sing “Octane Twilight.” A mandolin-like accompaniment elegantly supports Jon’s JJ Cale-like vocal delivery.
“Amsterdam” finds Jon returning to his more familiar assertive vocal stance which sounds a bit like Springsteen and John Mellancamp— but is pure Koonce, singing about life in that notorious Dutch city. “Everybody down here is a rebel/In grand style, below sea level/It’s just another night in Amsterdam.” A stirring lead guitar figure serves to add a sense of anthemic urgency to the song.
Jon adds a fiery guitar solo to the loping waltz, “Borderline.” The band’s rendition of the Country chestnut “One Foot In The Honky Tonk,’ allows Hirschmann to display his mastery of the pedal steel guitar. “Walking In The Light” is a Dylanesque Folk ballad with tinges of familiar old-time gospel tunes marching through the verses. Hirschmann adds authentic sounding dobro guitar in the solo section.
Hirschmann’s contributes a fiery Duane Allman-like lap steel guitar intro and solo to“Train Fare Home,” a song that cleverly uses an analogy to the story of Elvis Presley, to make it’s point. “Young boy from Tupelo sang the Blues/Kicked the whole world’s ass in blue suede shoes/His mama died young, his brother did too/After that, he didn’t know what to do/They dressed him in gold and they crowned him king/Lived in a palace, had two of everything/None of it would buy his train fare home.” Very poignant.
“Good Boy Now,” is a rousing, truck drivin’ tune, an original number that sounds very familiar. Hirschmann’s slick pedal steel guitar work adds just the right touch to the proceedings, as Jon good-naturedly intones: ‘Used to chase all of the senoritas/Used to hang from the ceiling like I was Cheetah.” The band’s stirring instrumental rendition of Bert Kaempfert’s “Spanish Eyes,” made famous in the ‘60s by Al Martino, benefits from swirling pedal steel guitar and a bazouki like sound that is particularly well-rendered.
At this late stage of the game, Jon Koonce is not likely to begin compromising himself for the sake of his musical career. It is obvious that he and the Honky Tonk Trio are playing that they like and that they thoroughly enjoy working together. For a real musician, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Living Room Records
It is impossible to calculate how many songs and how many albums Lew Jones has released in his thirty year career. That he has written thousands of songs seems without question. That he has released over thirty recordings seems more than reasonable. So, after all this time, there is no reason to suspect Lew would be turning any musical corners at this late date.
But, without question, this is the finest album Lew has ever produced. Recorded live, with just a mic or two, this seventeen-song set (including nine original tunes and eight traditional covers) finds Jones in fine voice, while his skills as a guitarist have never been keener. We even discover Lew’s nascent abilities on the harmonica, which heretofore had been given only cursory exposure in the Jones oeuvre.
But the best thing about this collection are the inclusion of several new compositions, which are among Lew’s best songs ever. “Golden Days Are Coming” is simply a gorgeous little song. Lew’s idiosyncratic guitar-playing, often seems to be cramming five measures of basslines, chords, lead lines and other information into four measures of song— a sort of nouveau Folk flamenco style, with multiple parts whirling in their own separate spheres. Here, it all seems to fit together supporting a lovely melody. Especially nice is Lew’s Neil Young via Bob Dylan-style harmonica solo, wherein Lew briefly sounds like an entire big band chiming against a lovely chromatic chord progression.
Lew’s guitar softly calls a syncopated response to his vocal melody line on “One For Me Has Come,” another gem, could pass for the early work of Donovan; while his harmonica solo is another piece of blowing inspiration. “Summer’s Ghost” has a Satie-like simplicity, its cadence invoking warm sunshine and gentle breezes, as Lew provides a lyrical tour of Eastern Southern California, while singing in a gravelly whisper, similar to that of Dave Matthews when he is trying to sound like Peter Gabriel. A new and evocative vocal technique for Mr. Jones.
A beautiful, Irish-eyed vocal melody, especially in the bridge, decorates “Emperor Bought New Clothes.” Lew’s simple (by his standards, anyway) guitar accompaniment, and abrupt harmonica interlude add the perfect mood to this brief, compact gem of a song. “Save Me” flirts with a Latin feel, while Lew croons a candid lyric. “Save me from this repetition/of the past, of the facts/Save me from this inquisition/Never going back, I’m never going back.”
Lew Jones has been around Portland for so long, it’s easy to take him for granted; easy to overlook him. But the guy has been playing in Portland for over thirty years. One wonders just what he must do to receive due recognition for his efforts. It will be hard for anyone to overlook this album, for it is an unique piece of contemporary Americana.
The Surf Cowboys Collection (1984-1986)
Almost Paradise Music
Tim Otto, an occasional cohort of Lew Jones (or perhaps it’s the other way around), has had his own story in the music business, going back to his alliance with Norman Petty (the man who discovered Buddy Holly and co-wrote many of his early songs). Petty, whose untimely death cut short Tim’s ambitions to become the next Buddy Holly, recorded three of Tim’s songs in his auditorium/studio in Clovis, New Mexico. But after his death, the tape could not be located.
After Petty’s death, Tim came to Portland, forming the Surf Cowboys shortly after his arrival. The band was, for the most part, a quartet with Otto in the role of frontman singer/songwriter, rhythm guitarist, while lead guitarist Greg Paul, who later went on to play with Sing Sing Sleepwalker in the later ‘80s, and the Speeding Ferlinghettis in the ‘90s, bassist Chris Charles and drummer Brad Pharis were his backup band.
These recordings were culled from the three year lifespan of the band, over which time there were some personnel changes in the lead guitar and drum positions. But, as many of the fifteen songs collected here clearly attest, Otto was the centerpiece of the Surf Cowboys. His odd, idyllic vision of the “Surf” motif, was clearly influenced by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, whereas the “Cowboy” aspect seemed more a product of the Eagles’ “Desperado” character. Together, the two images proved to be a fertile source for material.
What is really surprising is how fresh and clean these recordings sound, nearly twenty years after their conception. The songs are fun and well performed. “Rattlesnake Whip” slithers on a snakey riff, while the rhythm section holds down a pulsating beat. “Shoulda Run Away” and “Don’t Doubt My Love” Bad Dream” and “Asking Too Much” are pure Holly, the latter a good-natured plea for the good life “Hang out with the duke, make love with the duchess/Swing on chandeliers, hey hey with the monkeys/Take a movie star for my wife/ I could be happy for the rest of my life.”
A powerful change of pace is “Jaguar” a Reggae upstroke inflected piece of molten rock, somewhat reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives.” “Dizzy Little Rich Girl” takes it’s musical cues from Devo and Gary Numan (“Cars”), with Julie Nunez’ elemental Farfisa lines. The desperado/Armageddon number “Final Showdown” has more political pertinence today than it had in those Reagan-era days of Iran and Contra battles.
Tim Otto and the Surf Cowboys were a good band in their day, playing on bills with all of Portland’s finest Pop bands. This album affirms that the band was no fluke. Their songs are catchy, if for the most part a little light; and ultimately true to the spirit of the music of their time. A fun walk down memory lane.
Vickers Spitfire was playing around town under the name Ash, until it was discovered that there was already a band in the UK with the name, so PDX Ash changed their name. It was a good thing, because the UK Ash recently won the “Best Single” award in the Brit press, narrowly beating out the Dandy Warhols. So it would seem that the name is already taken for the foreseeable future,
The band is comprised of drummer Michael Hageman and the brothers Vickers, Aaron on bass and Evan, the songwriting Vickers, on guitar. All three Spitfires sing, showcasing abilities with vocal harmony. For this three song demo, Aaron and Evan enlisted the services of their father, Mark Vickers, to add electric and acoustic guitar backing.
Tight three-part vocal harmonies decorate the straight-ahead chorus of “Sliver” which offsets the syncopated upstroke of the verses, where early Talking Heads come to mind. “Apple Tree,” a mildly philosophical little ditty, again finds its strength in the lads’ well-blended harmony vocals. “Broke Me Down” heads in a different direction with an Offspring-like approach: Chunky powerchords backing a muscular lead singer.
Vickers Spitfire is a very young band, who display some potential as songwriters and vocalists. There’s is a long road ahead and there is much to learn. But these guys seem like they’re up to the task.