Here Comes The Blood Man
JVA is the current nom de band of one Jim Walker, who, for most of the past ten years, has masqueraded in these environs as Jeroan Van Aichen. Walker is no Jimmy-come-lately to the music business. He was deeply entrenched in all aspects of performing long before he ever showed up in Portland. He was highly involved in community theater in his hometown of Los Angeles, even before he formed the band Lost Anthony, which regularly played in clubs throughout Southern California.
Later, Walker contributed songs and scores to several films as well as lending his voice to countless radio and television jingles- eventually doing voice-over work for the “Aladdin On Ice” touring show and the Teenage Mutant Turtles’ “Six Flags Tour.” For a short time, while still in California, Walker (as Jeroan Van Aichen) signed recording contracts with RCA and Geffen: deals which both quickly evaporated.
Tiring of the LA music business grind, Walker re-located to Portland in the early ‘90s, seeking a fresh start in the burgeoning Northwest scene. To make ends meet, he began doing voice-over work for local commercials. It was in that capacity, while portraying a character in a children’s video series, that Walker met Craig Carothers (who also had a role in the video). In 1995, Walker became the keyboard player in Carothers’ band. They worked together on numerous projects after that.
This particular album, JVA’s sixth, was recorded over a period of six years, by Walker and engineer Craig Brock (here referred to as “CB Rock”), who recently moved his Poundhouse Studio operation to Mexico, although it is rumored that, due to unforeseen circumstances, he may soon be returning to the United States. It is mostly a true solo album, with Walker playing all the instruments on many of the ten (eleven, counting the “secret track”) songs. However, drummer Gregg Williams makes a couple of appearances, as does bassist Willy Barber. A few other musicians also fill various backup roles, as well, through the course of the project.
For the above reasons, this is a fairly laidback affair, with Walker’s boyish vocal delivery given center stage on all songs. There’s often a raspy, edge to the Paul Simon-like ingenuousness of his voice, as if Walker picked up a little of Craig Carothers’ vocal grit to add to his own presentations. At other times he sounds like the sensitive songwriter type, ala Elliott Smith, Mark Everett, better known as E of the Eels, or the Swedish sensation Sondre Lerche. Only on the hilarious secret track, “Bakersfield,” does he depart from that sort of personae, to become someone other. Musically, Walker covers a wide range of styles, venturing from straight-ahead folk-rock arrangements to blues and reggae, even landing briefly in the Sting/Peter Gabriel sphere of arena-emo-rock. And “Bakersfield” is something altogether different.
The lead track, “Beating,” starts the album off on the right foot, with Walker’s piquant acoustic guitar backing his forlornly wispy vocals on a song that seems wistfully reminiscent, in structure and mood, of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” “He is teeth, and he is sinew/He is muscle. He is meat/Veins are swollen with his anger/Pounding with the blood and heat.”
Walker’s percussive, palm-muted electric guitar backing on the eerily dark “Rachel,” creates a taut, tight tension and a suffocating atmosphere- which is perfect for his subject matter: apparently about the murder of the aforementioned Rachel and the quick disposal of her lifeless body. “Green tractor at an old red barn. A dog barks from a pickup truck/The crick chubbles beneath my feet. I’ve got a body tied up in a sack/Pawprints in the raccoon mud. Wet nettles on my gooseflesh skin/Dirty water to my cold, dry lips. I’ve got my Rachel in my arms again.”
At the end of the tale, a scene unfolds, as evocative as any image from the surreal ‘50s film classic “The Night of The Hunter.” “I float my sugar down the river’s joints. I watch it carry her and lay her down/The sun rises on her sinking nails. She’s going under now without a sound.” Harrowingly effective stuff.
The sauntering waltz “Laughing Now,” recalls latter-day Glenn Tilbrook and Squeeze, with various keyboard textures providing most of the aural scenery; until twin guitars solo in the middle. The clunky, chunky rhythm guitar on the verse of “North Beach Tuesday” gives way to a chorus seemingly copped directly from the Monkees songbook: the logical successor to their hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” In fact, Walker’s cooing vocal could easily pass for that of Davy Jones (Mickey Dolenz sang on the original). His perfect organ tone on the solo echoes those played by the Fireballs’ on “Sugar Shack” and Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” Sublimely rendered.
A loping shuffle, “Pelican,” a track that took several years to complete, feels like an old Neil Young song from the days of Harvest, although Walker sounds nothing like old Rusty. A nice guitar solo decorates the middle section. A moody, bluesy number, “Sleeping In Your Arms” traces a descending chord progression in the verses, moving to fine, Beatlesque three-part vocal harmony in the turns. Smolderingly restrained. “All Up To You” is a straight-up reggae number, propelled by a lunging organ tone and fine horn charts contributed by the Woolies (Clark and Gavin Bondy and Tom Hill). A classic nocturne of a guitar solo in the middle helps this number to simmer without boiling.
The murkily ethereal arrangement of “Sleepwalking” creates a foggy ambience. The song begins by sounding like an early Peter Gabriel number, perhaps like the Gabriel who sang during his last days with Genesis, although Walker’s voice is about a half an octave higher than Gabriel’s. The chorus swings more toward a Sting-like arrangement, from his “Fields Of Gold” period. A lovely overdriven guitar solo spills like frosting all over the middle of the song. “Thin Air” is an appropriate hymn to end the album.
However, there is that “secret track” tacked on at the end. “Bakersfield” has no antecedent anywhere else on the album. It is certainly one of a kind. Think of Sean Mullins and Lee Hazelwood doing a mournful duet on “Some Velvet Morning.” Then add in Harry Nilsson’s recording of his original song “JOY,” and you have some small idea of the emotional gravity of this opus : a tale of one young man’s unfortunate experiences in scenic Bakersfield, California (I could tell you of some others, but I won’t), where adult cruelty and hatred rears it’s ugly head for the first time in the boy’s life.
Over a familiarly repetitive descending keyboard line, distantly related to Bach’s “Air On A G String” (hence, related to Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade Of Pale” and Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”), a choir of ranch hands sing the powerful chorus- “Bakersfield, hot town of heat/A hamlet like heaven above/Bakersfield, river of dust/Showering big dreams and love.” Wow! It seems likely that this is a true story- rather terrible in an everyday occurrence sort of way- which makes the whole production even more operatic than it might seem at first.
This is an album that invites repeated auditions; offering rewards to those willing to give these thoughtfully deep songs a chance to seep into their consciousness. Jim Walker is a real songwriter, a true storyteller. His songs contain poetry that requires an attention span. His (and Brock’s) arrangements, while stripped down and sparse, still contain a powerful impact.
That there is a lot of stylistic variety could be off putting to some, but there are enough elements which remain in place (specifically, his vocals) to lend cohesion to the album, as a whole. Walker’s music is accessible, without being trite. It is intelligent without being condescending. It is complex without being obfuscatory. Obviously, Jim Walker has spent most of his adult life mastering the craft of songwriting. It plainly shows in his work.
The Die Jobs
The Die Jobs have been tormenting the local punk scene for the past two or three years, with a hard-driving sound, combining elements of X, the B-52s and any number of pertinent SoCal rockabilly punk bands. This five-song EP was recorded last year at Jackpot Records and was mixed by Larry Crane, lending the band a big, tough sound that crackles with pure energy. It couldn’t have taken too long to record, as no song is much over two-minutes in length.
The band is more or less an all-star team, fronted by guitarist/vocalists Lisa Furr (Lady Speed/Lady Speed Stik) and Steve Casmano (Sado-Nation, Jackals, Flapjacks), who goes by the name of Toot Moses here, bassist Zoe Masser (the Ex-friends) and drummer Billy Brahm who has played with Aunt Ida, the Miss-U’s and the Shandies.
The first half of the album is dedicated to Furr’s hard-bitten rowdy rants, while the back-half belongs to Casmano’s more esoteric creations. The band is relatively tight, performing some interesting tricks over the course of this short set.
“Bitch Whore” pretty much sums up most opinions on the issue. Furr’s swooping guitar figure acts as the loci, while she yammers on about a certain unsavory female counterpart. She then fires off a gnarled, twisted guitar solo that seems to lock the entire piece into focus. Celebrating the joys of a cough syrup high, “Tussin’” merrily rolls along, with another kick ass guitar solo in the middle by Furr. Funny stuff.
A slower strut, reminiscent of Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever,” kicks off “Psycho Jacko” as the intro builds slowly, before bursting forth with the frenzied urgency we’ve come to expect from the Die Jobs. An extremely strange break in the middle adds to the excitement. It almost seems as if the band stalls in mid-flight, before pulling out of the nosedive. As far as can be ascertained, this song seems to not be about the noseless one, Michael Jackson.
Casmano takes over the lead vocal duties on “Martians Are Comin’ And They’re Pissed,” the intro of which makes a brief allusion to the five-note figure popularized in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (this musical reference has been utilized many times before by several bands, beginning over twenty years ago). Eventually, the song lurches forward with a 1-4-5 chord progression that calls to mind the riff to Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run,” although this version considerably meatier than the original.
“Rhinestone” is a moody number, in a minor key, that features a straight-ahead guitar solo from Furr, right off the bat. The song seems to be dealing with the issue of misplaced personal values in an ever more impersonal society. A succession of fiery guitar solos puts the capper on the set.
Subtlety is not a word in the Die Jobs’ vocabulary. They are about as subtle as a car crash. But, that being said, the band displays a sense of unity and cohesion in their presentations. They display a sense of humor in their songs- most contain wryly sarcastic lyrics. They are reasonably tight as musicians (the guess is that they are playing down, somewhat, in order to conform to certain stylistic imperatives imposed by the punk ethic). They play well together and seem to be having a great time. And that, after all, is what rock music is all about.
The Neins used to be the Nines, but most likely there was some band in Michigan (or somewhere) with the same name, so the Oregon version changed their name to the Neins (as in the German, the opposite of ja). So, one would suppose, Nein means Nein. These Neins are a sprightly quartet, who subscribe to a similar punk ethic as that of the Die Jobs. However, in this case the band is comprised entirely of male members (as it were), rather than distilling any distaff opinions into their world view. Purportedly, one of the members played with Poison Idea for a time, although extensive research does not bear that claim out.
As a unit, the Neins are a little loose around the edges, but they display a good sense of humor and, obviously, do not take themselves too seriously. This is not to say they are a pack of goofballs, only that they do not exhibit the usual sense of punk anger- even though their songs conform to other aspects of punk: most songs clock in at around two minutes and change. But with the typical exacerbated tempos, the lads cover a lot of musical ground in a short period of time. Also, the anger quotient is rather low here. There’s not much venomous shouting. And except for “Thawing Out” and “Safe Sound Blues,“ not a lot of venting. So maybe these guys are more of a garage band than a punk band. But- there it is.
Recorded at Smegma Studios by the legendary Mike Lastra, the eleven songs here find the band cutting out anything unnecessary. Drummer Steve Powell rarely even plays a fill (“Thawing Out” is the big exception), nor do guitarists Dave Kaufman or Joe Ennis play very many solos. In fact Ennis’ extremely cool organ solo, on “SPF 500,” and crazy antics on the epic “One Ugly Child,” distinct throwbacks to the instrumentals of the ‘50s and ‘60s, are practically the only solos on the entire album. But they’re a great ones.
Kaufman and bassist Charlie Nims share the vocal duties (on the nine songs that have vocals). Songs such as the raw and raucous, organ infused “Don’t Take It Personal” and “One Ugly Child,” catch the ear every time. The band displays a penchant for solid four-chord riffs, or the equivalent basslines- giving them a distinct Kinks meets Paul Revere and the Raiders, ‘60s feel, with ‘80s overtones and ‘00s sentiments. A band for the ages perhaps? Perhaps not.
Most of the songs are not so much memorable as familiar, though not specifically derivative, as such, and not bad. There are some clever hooks here and there. The instrumentals “SPF 500” and “Black Cat” demonstrate an allure, although the latter is just a bunch of chords strung together, without much meat on the bones, melodically- which probably works much better in a live setting, than within the permanency of the recorded medium.
The Neins display a certain charm. It really seems that with the material they write, that they should slow the tempos down a tad, concentrating on the songs, rather than the energy (which can always be re-added later- and probably will be anyway). The songs, for the most part, as they are, are incomplete. A little more time spent crafting the songs- sharpening their lyrical focus, and developing their musical points, might yield something more enduring.