Sunday, November 18, 2012
This is the last album by the great Michael Brown, the creative force behind the Left Banke, Montage and Stories. The record doesn't feature much of the chamber pop of the Left Banke, instead it is largely power pop, arguably the hardest rocking record that Brown ever made. The group formed in 1974 after Brown left Stories and hooked up with three musicians from the Kansas City music scene, Scott Trusty, Mayo James McAllister and Gary Hodgden (the latter two were in Chesmann Square, a band that was huge in Kansas City but never broke nationally.) Hodgden and Brown wrote all the songs on the album and Hodgden and Trusty handled the lead vocals. They both have high, sensitive voices that remind me of Steve Martin's vocals for the Left Banke although neither are as good as Martin. It opens with "Right By My Side (Etude)" which like all the songs on the record is a love song. It features a driving beat, sparkling harmony vocals from Tommy Finn (ex-Left Banke bassist), pounding piano riffs from Brown and lots of ringing guitar lines, pure power pop bliss. One of my favorite cuts. "River Bayou" is a lot more delicate, driven by Brown's piano, strings and Hodgden's quavery vocal. It sounds more like the baroque pop that Brown did with the Left Banke. "Midnight and You" is a rocker sung by Trusty who is a more forceful singer than Hodgden. Some nice stinging guitar lines on this song but the vocal harmonies and jangly rhythm guitar keep it in the power pop camp. "Fran" returns to the sound of "River Bayou" - strings and piano. It's a lovely song. "Other Side Of Town" continues the slow/fast dynamic of the album mixing rollicking verses with a smooth harmonic chorus. The song features prominent percussion and strings for a very rich sound. "Song Called Love" is another rocker with Brown's energetic piano licks duelling with the guitar riffs and a soaring vocal from Trusty giving the song extra oomph. It is another one of my favorites. Side two begins with Brown pounding his piano on "Can't Be Alone" before being joined by the band for another fast paced song. Hodgden's vocal sounds strained, he can't match the frenetic pace of the song. "River Song" keeps up the fast pace and features some of Brown's most exciting piano playing. "On The Morning That She Came" returns to chamber pop for a tale of a lost love. It manages to be moving and emotional without being sappy, which has always been one of Brown's gifts as a songwriter. "One of These Days" reminds me of Badfinger with its dense sound of shimmering harmonies, jangly guitars mixed with slide guitar licks, strings and cascading piano lines and a structure alternating sensitive verses with a hard-riffing chorus. Hodgden's vocal even sounds a bit like Pete Ham. It is archetypal power pop and another one of my faves. "Run Jenny Run" is a rousing rocker that gives the album a strong finish. This is such a good record, but it made little impact in its time. When I think back to all the crappy music that was on the radio back in 1976, this record is infinitely superior to 99% percent of that stuff. Michael Brown is truly one of the great lost talents of rock and roll. He deserved a better career but I'm grateful for the few records that he left us - there is not a bad one in the bunch. Recommended for fans of Big Star.
Friday, November 9, 2012
The Curious Mystery
K Records KLP206
I was sorry to see that The Curious Mystery broke up last September after releasing two albums on K Records. I'm a big fan of K Records. If the price is right I'll buy anything on their label and so far that has worked fine, I've never heard a bad record from them. This is no exception. I didn't know very much about The Curious Mystery when I bought it a couple of years ago. I loved their name and the album cover and that was enough for me. Shana Cleveland, who played various string instruments in the band, wrote and sings "The Preparations" which is a slow moody song punctuated by the clang of a jangly guitar over the dirge like background music. The song seems to be some sort of apocalyptic relationship song. I"m not really sure what she is preparing for, but it doesn't sound good. Cleveland strums an autoharp on her "Black Sand" which starts out slow then picks up speed as it rolls along and ends up rocking quite forcefully with a great guitar jam at the end. The lyrics of the song provide the album title. I find the song pretty enigmatic, I pick up images of ennui and escapism which suit the melancholy yet restless tune quite well. Whatever her point is, Cleveland sings it with a lot of urgency. Guitarist Nicolas Gonzalez wrote the comparatively jaunty "Teeth of All Types" which he sings. He emotes less than Cleveland, delivering the song in a laconic drawl. Despite the title, there are no dental references in the song which seems to describe an extremely lethargic slacker. The song segues seamlessly into Gonzalez's "Go Forth & Gather" which begins with an autoharp solo from Cleveland, that's not something you hear every day on an alternative rock album. Although it is traditionally a folk instrument, I find the band's use of it contributes to their eerie, melancholy sound. In Cleveland's hands it doesn't sound folky at all. She sings the lead on this one and provides a dreamy yet expressive vocal. The song is another slow one but the rhythm section gives it some punch. In the lyrics I hear the usual ennui and angst as well as references to a dysfunctional relationship. Cleveland's "Gone In Time" starts slow again for a lengthy instrumental intro, but rocks out when Gonzalez starts singing. It slows down again at the end for some more jamming to close out the side. I have no clue to what the song is about, but it appears to involve more dread of the future which seems to be a favorite theme of the group. Side two begins with the raga-like guitar intro to Gonzalez's instrumental "Nicaragua." It builds in tempo and force becoming a frenetic display of the band's virtuosity. Gonzalez's "Strong Swimmers" keeps up the fast pace. His nasally vocal can't match the power of the song which is the most powerful rocker on the album. The interplay of the guitars riffing on top of the pulsing rhythm section is really exciting. It is one of my favorite cuts on the record. The song uses the metaphor of swimming to describe negotiating the turmoil of a relationship. Gonzalez also wrote "Outta California" which starts out chugging and then slows way down when Cleveland takes the mike. She's a strong enough singer to make the song interesting even when it is so slow that the melody is practically disintegrating. After she's done the song picks up the pace again until the end. I think the song is about escape although I'm not sure what they are running from. It sounds like they are moving just to be moving. Cleveland's "Its Tough" could use some of that movement, it just crawls along. The music stops and starts as Cleveland slowly intones the lyrics. In the middle of the song her vocal gets distorted until it sounds like a cross between Frankie Valli's falsetto and a cat howling. The song features Cleveland vaguely complaining about how difficult her life is. Cleveland also wrote the album's closing song "Wrong Way," which fortunately for me ups the beats per minute. Cleveland and Gonzalez share the vocal on the song which employs travel imagery to describe a relationship. It has a bit of a Middle Eastern sound to it and I really dig the guitar work on it. It borders on being psychedelic, at times it reminds me of Quicksilver Messenger Service. The song is another one of my favorites and provides a strong finish for the album. This is such a good debut album that I'm really bummed about the group breaking up. I have to admit at times their songs are a little too slow for my taste, but I admire their commitment to guitar noise as well as the somber and melancholy tone that pervades their vision - I just eat that sort of thing up. The Curious Mystery had a distinctive sound and a quality lead singer in Shana Cleveland. I think they had a lot of promise. They lasted seven years which I guess is pretty long in band years, but I'll definitely miss them. I really regret not seeing them live when I had the chance. Recommended to fans of Low and Mojave 3 who wish they'd kick out the jams once in awhile.