All Access Magazine Articles

July 19, 2007

Sound Bites ~ little nibbles of recent releases

CD Reviews

By Rob Swick

Gold Rings, Silver Bullets ~ by: Jay Gordon and the Penetrators

You’ll never paint a picture of the USA without plenty of blues on your brush. This homegrown musical art form called the blues colors our audio environment across the board, breaking barriers and bridging generations with every re-interpretation by each new bluesy crooner and six-string slinger. One of the latest sensations on the blues scene comes out of North Carolina by way of Chicago, in the form of a fast-fingered fellow named Jay Gordon, with several albums already to his credit, who has earned the admiration of noted maestros such as Eric Clapton. On Gold Rings, Silver Bullets, Jay and his band, the Penetrators, breathe fresh spice and spirit into what might be called the electric-boogie blues, with heavy emphasis on slide-guitar stylings. Gordon opens the 16-track CD with “Pain,” exploring a familiar yet ever-pertinent theme of the blues while showcasing his expressive fretwork. During “Lost In Time,” the slide-man energetically ushers the faithful into his pluckin’ parlor with this invitation: “Take me back to the Delta, son – Mississippi, Chi-Town, Detroit City, all the way to Europe too – I’m pickin’ these slide blues for you!” With a sound this big, there’s room for everyone to rock along. It’s hard-drivin’, straight-crankin’ blues, carrying the message from old friends to new believers.

Gordon is backed by able yet frills-free bass work from John Schayer, while three different drummers get credit on the CD: Ric Daly, Johnny Walker (cheers!), and Lee Davis. The guitarist complements his playing with an energetic voice that’s a bit reminiscent of Sammy Hagar, with maybe not quite as much range, but just as much earnestness. He brings a taste of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s dryly plaintive vocal inflection on “Driving Me Wild,” and while Jay doesn’t clone Stevie’s guitar tone, he has at least paid attention to the late Texan’s technique. In this case, we’re getting a re-imagination, not a duplication – and Jay’s imagination is wild and creative. In other songs, such as “Let It Ring,” Jay forgoes the true blues format and lays down his own rhythms, which work just fine. But then again, on “Fire and Brimstone Boogie,” Gordon nods to John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, ZZ Top, and a host of other blues brethren, calling out, “Boogie children – how, how!” Yes, this is familiar yet hallowed ground we’ve all stomped on before, and we’re glad to tread the time-honored turf again, because Jay plays with a feeling that’s more than flash, that says more than simply, “See how fast I can play!” When the musician instructs himself to “Tell the story!” before busting into an extended jam on a Hendrix-worthy cut, “The Original Sin,” the listener can believe that Jay himself has the blues in him, and if we really have the blues in us, the primal patterns never get old, and an ace picker like Jay Gordon makes all the children wanna boogie. Bring it on home, indeed.

Broken Chord ~ by: Jeffrey Halford and the Healers

Liner notes don’t reveal whether there’s any family connection at between Jeffrey Halford and the metal icon who shares his last name, Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford. But even if they’re long-lost cousins across the water, there’s not much kinship between the music of the two. Jeffrey Halford and his band seem to have more Dixie swamp-water in their veins than Newcastle ale, celebrating a rootsy heritage that seeps into titles such as “Louisiana Man,” “Chicken Bones Jones” and “Rockabilly Bride.” These boys indeed can rock, but they’re more like big-hearted good-ol’-boys than high-voltage hellions.

Besides Halford on vocals, guitars, and production duties, the Healers consist of Rich “Goldy” Goldstein on additional guitars, Paul Olguin on electric and string bass, and Jim Norris on drums. The sound is rounded out on several cuts by stellar session men such as organist Augie Meyers and harmonica hero Jellyroll Johnson, who both bring their chops to the Katrina-themed political complaints of “Louisiana Man.” Keys elsewhere were also contributed by John R. Burr and Skip Edwards, and co-producer Bruce Kaphan added guitars to the 10-song CD.

The rousing refrain of “Rock ’n’ Fire” resounds like much of John Mellencamp’s best heartland rock, complete with vintage organ-plinking from Augie. Songs such as “In a Dream” feature old-time melodies that seem inspired by the singing cowboys of yore. “Running Crazy” is a fast-paced funny-family tale with a juke-joint beat that’s sure to get the juices flowing and the feet going. Broken Chord closes with “Two Kings,” a subdued acoustic ballad that highlights the expert craftsmanship Jeffrey Halford and the Healers employ to bring various slices of Americana to musical life.

900 Pound Gorilla (self-titled CD)

Here’s a baker’s dozen of peppy, punchy, punk-pop tunes from a tight Valley-based power trio, consisting of drummer Jeff Edwards, bassist Donat Kazarinoff, and guitarist John Baker. All three musicians sing, with gruff enthusiasm. The mailing address for 900 Pound Gorilla is in Canoga Park, the west-SFV subdivision with an indigenous name that’s home to strip malls and storage units, small-scale industry and suburban family lawns; adult films and fourth-generation pre-adult gangbangers. All these diverse influences and more are filtered through the compact compositions on this very listenable disk, which is long on momentum but refreshingly short on extended solos and pretentious posturing. Only one of the 13 tracks exceeds three minutes, the fun and frisky “Monday Promises,” which features chipper chords and vocal harmonies that almost hearken back to British Glitter glory days, à la Badfinger or Sweet.

900 Pound Gorilla is all about fun from the git-go, as the band opens with a spoken-Spanish intro (yelled-Spanish, actually) that sounds like an announcement for a Mexican wrestling match (credited to “The Great Fernando Escandon”). The fellows have a brief good time with a 54-second Primus-like piece called “AAAARRRGGHH!” – the lyrics of which consist chiefly of that expression of exasperation, followed by some Sublime-ish dialogue, after which the boys poke fun at Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons in the next track, with a mock advertisement for a “KISS Coffin.” These guys are frank enough to good-naturedly call one cut “Pop Song,” and poppy it indeed is, albeit with the expected punkish overtones. The disk closes with a feisty cover of the venerable “Ghostriders in the Sky,” in which the three members of 900 Pound Gorilla acquit themselves admirably and aggressively. 900 Pound Gorilla indeed appears to be a current local musical force to be reckoned with, yippie-ki-yay!

Them vs. You vs. Me ~ by: Finger Eleven

Finger Eleven is a five-man band that seems to be in touch with what lots of today’s listeners are hungry for: lively original music that’s hard enough to sound good when played loud, yet that’s not particularly thrashy or screamy. Scott Anderson handles vocals, backed by the guitars of James Black and Rick Jackett, boosted by the bass of Sean Anderson and the drums of Rich Beddoe. All five artists receive writing credit, and the 11 songs on this solid effort serve up a big buffet of KROQ-friendly emo-pop. The number-two cut, “Falling On,” opens with an insistent riff that might get some heads bobbing, and the song sports racy rhythms and creative breaks throughout. “Lost My Way” lays a wistfully-moody foundation for intermittent eruptions of crunch, while the subsequent “So-So Suicide” bubbles with some kind of actual anger and emotion throughout. “Window Song” and “Talking to the Walls” seem to go together, as both songs sail through acoustic structures that have a fair bit of an emotional feel – and the cuts are validated by compelling refrains that suggest these boys are no strangers to the Beatles’ catalogue. (In another Fab Four-flavored ditty, “Change the World,” the band follows a time-honored yet tired tradition by rhyming “world” with “girl,” oh well. It’s still a good song.)

“Gather & Give” successfully pairs fuzzy electric tones with acoustic chords, as David Bowie did back in his Ziggy Stardust days – but the band also employs current imaginative production accents to keep the sound fresh. Finally, Them vs. You vs. Me closes with a substantial chunk of riff-rock, “Easy Life,” that fades off into the distance with an attitude of hope. Finger Eleven presents pleasing portions of radio-ready audio product, and their promo literature hints that these guys might be a real hoot to see live, so here’s a band to keep tabs on, to listen to now and to check out when they come to town.

Kings of Spain (self-titled CD)

All Access Magazine’s promo copy of the new Kings of Spain CD was lacking liner-notes, but it sure came packed with tasty tuneage. On the opening cut, “Amplifire,” the singer sounds a little like Frank Zappa, and heck, the whole song has the kind of creative structure and innovative fills that could have been constructed by the late, great “Mother of Invention” himself. Frank’s skewed brand of humor is there too, as heard in “Carpet.” And oh, yes, when the vocalist narrates his tale of bad love on “Black Widow,” he still seems to be channeling Moon Unit’s papa, over a simple yet compelling chord foundation that could have come from the mind of Kurt Cobain. A similar irreverent vibe comes through on the country-flavored “My Big Woman,” which even features a brief kazoo solo, while “Tiny Woman” (clever fellows, giving equal time to both ends of the size spectrum!) goes straight back to the blues, with harmonica and all. The boys aren’t shy of combining acoustic and electric vibes in the same song, as heard in “Back to the City,” or “Lost Our Spark,” a wistful, layered lament of love gone bad that includes high, lonesome background vocals that bring to mind the harmonies of Exene and John Doe in old X tunes, or Grace and company in even older Airplane. “Fish Tank” is all-instrumental, building on an old blues lick that AC/DC lifted to good effect a time or two – but the Kings take the tune in directions that Angus Young and his Aussie bandmates probably never imagined.

The new Kings of Spain CD delivers varied rhythms, blues, and skewered views, with a voice and a vibe that bring back happy memories of bygone times, while setting the tone for good times to come. Definitely worth checking out!

EverBlue (self-titled CD)

EverBlue is certainly a band that can stir emotional responses from the listener. The band is helmed by keyboardist-singer-songwriter Adam Exler, who composed all 14 tracks on the self-titled release. Supported by guitarist Nigel Taylor, bassist Russell Anguiano, and drummer Mark Pohl, all of whom also sing, Exler carves out pleasantly-compelling slabs of sound that seem bound to get many listeners humming along.

Adam is self-assured enough to open with a guitar-led charge in the opening cut, “Somebody Like Me,” which somehow has echoes of old Journey, but with an overall melodic-rock vibe like that of Hootie and the Blowfish.. This perception is doubly emphasized by the similarity of Exler’s voice to that of Hootie’s lead singer, Darius Rucker – and that’s a good thing, mind you, because we’re talking about some seriously evocative pipes here! Adam pounds out a lively piano on “The Way You Look at Me,” and he lays a soulful organ behind Nigel’s bluesy intro on “Travelin’ Time.” The traveling mood continues with the two-chord intro to “Hideaway,” that’s like the Allman Brothers classic, “Dreams I’ll Never See,” and the band again sounds like the Allmans, for moments, as they leap into “I Need You,” using those jazzy segues that have been employed by such diverse boogie bands as Charlie Daniels and Atlanta Rhythm Section. Exler and Taylor can jam, but they don’t seek to dazzle the listener with outrageous leaping licks; instead, they complement a given tune with appropriate emotive accents. “Yestergirl” breathes new life into a basic three-chord progression that you’ve heard before, but don’t mind hearing again, swaying to the rhythm. Same thing with “Take Me To Ride” – it’s not exactly to a brand-new destination, but the ride along the coast of convention feels pretty good, with Exler’s ringing piano chords accented by fluid licks from Taylor’s guitar. Fact is, this solid EverBlue album ought to leave a lot of fans feeling pretty good all the way around.

The Morrison Street Project EP ~ by: A Dark December

This is a band that has been plugging away for a while, as can be seen from the fact that The Morrison Street Project EP began production back in 2004. The band consists of Antione on lead guitar, Cole Strem on vocals and guitar, Jason Sears on drums and Frank Ferguson on bass, and they all get writing credit. This seven-song compilation has shades of both “emo” and “screamo” elements, and like Finger Eleven’s Them vs. You vs. Me CD, this EP feels like it could gain friendly reception on today’s modern-rock airwaves. The disk’s first track, “My Own,” opens with some powerful percussion from Jason before Antione and Cole introduce a studied balance between strummed and stroked, effects-laden chords from one and crisply-plucked patterns from the other. The song is punctuated by high-energy screams that might remind one of Linkin Park, and similar piecing incursions recur throughout the disk, although Cole’s overall singing tone is controlled and melodic. This band likes to make use of ominous bass tones, as seen back-to-back in the openings to “Farenheit” and “Midnight Sun,” while the counter-pointed guitar work of Antione and Cole also comes repeatedly into play, leading to hopes of hearing this interplay reproduced live. And since the handful songs on The Morrison Street Project EP might serve only as an appetizer to some listeners, then another obvious hope for many might be that A Dark December will soon be forthcoming with a full-length platter of pieces.

Lost In Aurora ~ by: The Appearance

The Appearance is another four-man band that knows how to play swift-paced, guitar-based rock-&-roll as a foundation for today’s popular emo-laden vocal melodies. Alan Oakes handles guitars and vocals, accompanied by Chad Kulengosky on guitars and backing vocals, with Jason Nelson on bass and Justin McCarthy on drums, and together these gentlemen concoct a batch of driving beats on which they build a bunch of songs about love and loss in the new millennium. Titles include “Broken Hearts,” “Lights Off,” and “The Hurting,” and lyrics tell of loneliness, suffering, and ruined yesterdays – and yet these guys look pretty ordinary, not goth at all … so it seems they’re simply tapping into a valid vein of feelings that so many folks can relate to, no matter one’s age or background.

There are no real ballads on Lost In Aurora, although “All System Failure” slows down a bit from the overall brisk tempo of the disk. In general, pop and punch are predominant, only occasionally coming across “lite” in delivery. With a dozen songs that are mostly choppy, chunky, and even somewhat chipper in execution, despite the lyrics, The Appearance would appear to be poised for possible breakthrough, since they appear to touch some serious nerves with their solid sound.

Horizon ~ by: Matthew Jordan

A heartfelt compilation of 12 piano-based ballads dreamed up by someone who looks suitably dreamy on the cover photos, such as when he’s staring out to sea from a rocky coast. But this Matthew Jordan is more than just a dreamer, since he not only played all keys and sang all vocals on the album, but he also programmed the drums and added bass and the occasional guitar, and he co-produced the 12-song effort with his writing partner, Robert Strauss.

Like Jackson Brown, Matthew Jordan relies mainly on the piano as the basis for his well-crafted songs about winners, losers, and relationships, and he sings in a pleasant midrange voice that occasionally squeaks into the upper register. The CD’s starter cut, “I’m On My Way,” kicks in with an urgent piano riff that complements the song’s exploratory message. The singer-songwriter follows with a flock of lyrical excursions that touch on all manner of moods and meanings, evoked by lush arrangement and production. Horizon ends with “Passengers,” subdued piece that includes ocean imagery, in keeping with the seascape photos on the cover, and which closes with the line, “I don’t know where we’re going – do you?” Actually, Matthew Jordan is an already-accomplished artist who’s very likely on his way to good places, and Horizon provides a pleasant soundtrack for the journey.

Crazed + Dazed ~ by: DJ Insane + The G-Man

A blast of trance for your dancing pleasure, Crazed + Dazed is a batch of eight disco biscuits for the new millennium. According to the accompanying press release, the rhythm tracks on this all-instrumental album were cooked up by one “DJ Insane” (Marcel Oosterom) in the Netherlands, then combined Stateside with hypnotic harmonics via the musical expertise of “The G-Man” (Scott G). Let it be noted that the G-Man is shown playing a Minarik Inferno guitar, thereby exhibiting excellent taste in instruments.

A local listener who has been overseas reports that The G-Man is well-known and respected on the European rave scene, while DJ Insane is an up-and-coming talent who’s just now getting his name known, starting with his homeland of Holland. Both artists create insistent, beat-intensive tracks that can be extended and blended for the all-night dance parties so popular in cities all over the world. The tracks on Crazed + Dazed are more urban than industrial, and like many other such productions, the grooves are essentially instrumental, though a few snarky spoken comments do come through occasionally, as in “Your DJ’s Selection,” for instance. But overall, DJ Insane and The G-Man are essentially about providing plenty of beat for plenty of dancing feet, and the eight varied selections found here are admirably propulsive and toe-tapping, expertly arranged and fleshed out for your swirling, twirling edification and entertainment.

Reviews by Rob Swick
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