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Celebrating Pennsylvania Music, Present and Past

Archive for the tag “Album Review”

The Hooters

May 15, 2012
By Key Rock Review


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The Hooters

The Hooters owned the Philadelphia music scene in the mid 1980’s. This was no small accomplishment in a city rich in musical history, from jazz to rock to soul, but this band worked hard and took no sector of their audience for granted. They expanded beyond the typical night club scene and tapped the high school market in the Philadelphia area by performing for kids too young to get into clubs but with plenty of enthusiasm. Soon Hootermania swept across Southeastern Pennsylvania. But far more important than their popularity was the music this band composed and performed, fusing 1980s pop/rock with elements of reggae, ska, and folk, and the edge of unique instrumentation including that weird instrument which gave the band their name.

The band formed in the wake of a 1970s cerebral trio called Baby Grand, which had limited success with their two studio albums. Keyboardist Rob Hyman had met guitarist Eric Bazilian while they were both science majors at the University of Pennsylvania, but soon these Ivy Leaguers would choose music over more traditional (and lucrative) careers in chemistry and medicine. With the dissolution of Baby Grand, Hyman and Bazilian worked on forming a more mainstream band as well as started composing new material.

The Hooters, Early 1980sThe Hooters were formed as a five piece in 1980, with guitarist John Kuzma, bassist Bobby Woods and drummer David Uosikkinen joining Bazilian and Hyman. They took their name from the nickname for the melodica, a unique type of keyboard harmonica which originated in Germany. Starting on July 4, 1980 the band spent the next two years playing everything from clubs to high schools and appearing on local television shows around Philadelphia and other areas of the East Coast. During this time, the band recorded several tracks to be released as singles including “Man in the Street”, “Fightin’ on the Same Side”, “Rescue Me”, and “All You Zombies”, and started to receive significant airplay on prominent rock stations.

During this time, the band was managed by Hyman and his girlfriend. The climax of this early era of the band came on September 25, 1982, when The Hooters opened for rock legends The Who during one of their farewell tour shows at JFK Stadium. However, the group decided to separate in early 1983 as Hyman grew tired of managing in lieu of composing and the rest of the band began to burn out from constant touring.

Rick ChertoffThat same winter, Bazilian and Hyman were enlisted by another Penn classmate, producer Rick Chertoff as session players on an album he was producing for a young singer/songwriter named Cyndi Lauper. Bazilian played bass, saxophone, and added vocals to the album, which would become the Grammy winning album She’s So Unusual. Hyman played keyboards and co-wrote the international smash hit “Time After Time”, which was also nominated for a Grammy. Following this hugely successful project, Bazilian and Hyman decided to give The Hooters another try in late 1983.

Uosikkinen returned on drums but Kuzma and Woods had moved on to another band and were replaced by John Lilley on guitar and Rob Miller on bass. Club owner Steve Mountain was brought in as full-time manager, leaving Hyman and Bazilian free to concentrate on the music. The reformed band immediately started work on their first album.

Amore contains the original versions of several songs that were re-recorded for the band’s major label debut, 1985’s Nervous Night, such as “All You Zombies”, “Hanging On a Heartbeat”, and “Blood From a Stone”. These original versions have a pronounced ska bounce and the production is not overpowering, there is a distinct live show energy. Upbeat and danceable rock that used keyboard/synth sounds were all the rage in the early 80’s, but The Hooters surrounded them with guitar, mandolin, real drums (from a drummer who hits ‘em really hard), and vocals from guys who can carry a tune but don’t have “perfect”, processed voices. These were the Hooters and their signature sound owned that term long before before it became synonymous with calendar girls in tight t-shirts serving chicken wings to drooling patrons adopted the same name.

With the independent release of Amore selling over 100,000 copies regionally and a radio contest to have the band play at your high school receiving millions of enties, the major labels were paying attention and the band was soon signed by Columbia Records. Unfortunately, around the time when the band was getting ready to sign, Rob Miller was seriously injured in a car accident and had to drop out of the band. Andy King, from the Delaware band Jack of Diamonds, was recruited as the band’s new bass player and completed the lineup that would take the band through the heart of their mainstream success.

The Hooters In the Mid-1980sThe music was the core of the band’s appeal, but Steve Mountain’s marketing was crucial to their success. They enlisted the help of a fashion consultant, a personal trainer (Pat Croce, who trained some of Philly’s finest professional athletes and eventually became owner of the 76ers), and for the stage and publicity photos, each Hooter had a primary color – Bazilian always in black, Hyman in light gray or white, Uosikkinen in Yellow, Lilley in red and King in blue. During shows, when the lights came up, they all wore old west style dusters in their assigned color, it was a very cool image that went with their music. While it was surely a gimmick, it wasn’t over the top and certainly not something to look back at in embarrassment 25 years later.

Image was important at this stage as they were marketing themselves (all the members were in their thirties) to a much younger audience. The album was good, but the live shows were what kept the fan base growing. The band toured as the opening act for Squeeze and at one show, The Hooters were so well received that they played about two minutes over their alotted time before the power was cut and their set ended abruptly. Rumors circulated that it was a member of the headlining band who pulled the plug in a fit of envy.

While Nervous Night was the product of slick production by Chertoff, the songs themselves remain true to the roots established on Amore – driving reggae influenced rhythms and interesting arrangements with traditional folk influences. Reggae and folk are not usually closely associated, but the Hooters managed to blend them into their own version of pop/rock. The new, six minute version of “All You Zombies” was the lead national single from the album and, although it failed to reach the Top 40, endures as one of the group’s signature songs to this day. The three following singles from Nervous Night each did reach the Top 40 – “And We Danced” released in late 1985, with “Day By Day” and “Where Do the Children Go?” released in early 1986.

This was the absolute zenith of the band’s popularity and they were involved with some of the historic concerts of the era. On July 13, 1985 they were the opening band at the Philadelphia Live Aid benefit concert, performing for an international television audience. On May 18, 1986, they participated in “America Rocks”, the concert portion of the 1986 celebration of the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Then on June 15, 1986, The Hooters participated in a benefit concert on behalf of Amnesty International, before a packed Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The band also embarked on an international tour including several dates in Australia.

The Hooters at Live Aid, 1985

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The Hooters (Pt II)

May 15, 2012
By Key Rock Review


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One Way Home by The Hooters After two years of extensive touring, The Hooters returned to the studio to record One Way Home, co-produced by Chertoff, Bazilian, and Hyman. The album was heavily folk and Americana influenced and  a testament to the Hooters desire to put the music first. It was a marked departure from the pop sound of Nervous Night. This makes sense since the Hooters had just been on tour and were discovering new influences and instruments along the way. It includes an updated version of “Fightin’ On the Same Side” from Amore – still upbeat but with a slower tempo and the addition of an accordion. “Karla with a K” is about a hurricane written while on tour in Louisiana, while “Johnny B” is a haunting song about fighting addiction with an outstanding guitar solo and harmonica accents. This latter song is very popular to this day with the band’s German fans. “Hard Rockin’ Summer” was inspired by a group of “heavy metal” kids who would hang out outside the band’s rehearsal space. Although One Way Home did not enjoy the mass commercial appeal of its predecessor, it did open up the European market for the band due to the popularity of  “Satellite” across the Atlantic. In fact, after the band performed the song on Britain’s Top Of the Pops in December 1987, they were privileged to meet their idol Paul McCartney. A month earlier, on Thanksgiving night 1987, The Hooters headlined a show at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, which was broadcast live on MTV and Westwood One radio network simultaneously, perhaps the absolute pinnacle of their American success.

Fran Smith, Jr. replaced Andy King on bass prior to The Hooters third and final release for Columbia, 1989’s Zig Zag, a politically charged album which dealt with some of the issues of the day, including the Tienanmen Square massacres earlier that year. The album features “Beat Up Guitar”, which became an anthem for Philadelphia music. It also contains the band’s rendition of the traditional folk song “500 Miles”, which became an international hit, further broadening The Hooters appeal overseas. However, Bazilian later confessed that this was his least favorite album, calling it the “what on Earth was I thinking album” and further stating;

“…we had come off of our second big tour, we were a rock and roll band and we were kicking ass live, and we should have made a major rock and roll record…”

In the summer of 1990, the band participated in Roger WatersThe Wall, Live in Berlin concert, backing up Sinead O’Conner and members of the classic group, The Band for the song “Mother”. As the new decade dawned, the band’s popularity in Europe continued to grow as it inversely subsided in the U.S.

Violinist/guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Mindy Jostyn joined the group in early 1992 and stayed on through their 1993 album Out Of Body, released on MCA Records. The album was co-produced by Joe Hardy, and recorded in Memphis, TN. The recording process for this album was significantly different than their traditional practices as Hardy took tracks directly from the demo tapes and employed a practice of “commit and move on”. As a result, the album was recorded in just four weeks, whereas previous albums by the band had taken several months to record. One of the songs on the album, “Private Emotion,” would later go on to become an international hit single for Ricky Martin in 2000, while “Boys Will Be Boys” was co-written by Cyndi Lauper who also provided vocals, returning the favor a decade after Bazilian and Hyman contributed to her debut album.

While not a commercial success in the United States, Out Of Body found a large audience in Europe, especially in Sweden and Germany, and the band set out on a world tour for the first time as a six-piece. Some of these shows were recorded for the band’s initial live album (American release called The Hooters Live, international version Live In Germany) the following year. Soon after, the band would enter an extended hiatus period which would last nearly a decade between live tours and fourteen years between Hooters studio albums. The band members decided to take a much needed break and concentrate on various solo projects as well as spending some much deserved time with their families.

In early 1995, Bazilian and Hyman again worked on a Chertoff-produced studio project, the debut album by Joan Osbourne called Relish. Eric wrote the worldwide hit “One Of Us”, which was originally not intended for Osbourne, but became a Grammy-nominated international hit for the young singer. The album itself went triple platinum and reached the Top 10 on the Billboard charts. Sony released the band’s long awaited compilation album entitled Hooterization – A Retrospective in 1996. This features songs from The Hooters three Columbia releases in the late 1980s, along with some previously unreleased material such as Hyman’s version of “Time After Time” and a live version of The Beatles’ “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds”.

Album Review of Largo

The songwriting team next moved on to compose what was planned to be the next Hooters album, but ended up being something quite different. Largo would end up being a quasi-concept album with Hyman providing the bulk of musical direction.  The impressive Largo ensemble includes David Forman, Cyndi Lauper, Taj Mahal, Joan Osborne, Carole King, Willie Nile, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson from The Band, as well as members of the Chieftains. Unfortunately, this gem of an album got lost in the shuffle during the corporate merger involving Polygram Records and was all but out of print within a few years (as of 2010 however, mp3 downloads of Largo are now available at Amazon.com).

Eric Bazilian left the Largo project before its completion and, as the new millennium approached, he would focus on writing and performing solo work. In 2000, he released his impressive solo debut, The Optimist, which is a solid rock effort stacked with well-composed tracks. Bazilian released the album on newly-formed independent label, Mousetrap Records.

Album Review of The Optimist by Eric Bazilian

Bazilian would release a second solo album, A Very Dull Boy, in May 2002. While the band was on their extended hiatus, Bazilian and Hyman scored anther international hit when Ricky Martin covered “Private Emotion” (originally released on Out of Body) for his Grammy-nominated self-titled debut album in 2000. The song became a top ten hit for Martin in five countries.

The right opportunity arose for a full Hooters reunion on November 21, 2001, when they performed at the Wachovia Spectrum in Philadelphia for one show celebrating the 20th anniversary of disc jockey Pierre Robert at local rock radio station WMMR, the first major station to ever play The Hooters back in the early 1980s. The band next reunited for a 2003, 17-city tour of Germany, where they were still very popular. They went on two European tours in 2004 and 2005, extending to cities in Switzerland and Sweden. During these tours, the band wrote and performed many of the songs for what would become their first new studio album by The Hooters in 14 years.

Time Stand Still by The Hooters In October 2006, recording began at Hyman’s Elmstreet Studios, which he had built in suburban Philadelphia in 2002. The result was Time Stand Still, released in Europe in 2007 and the U.S. in early 2008. The album contains many qualities of projects worked on during the long hiatus, including the Celtic influence from Largo and the high-level pop/rock from Bazilian’s solo efforts (“Until You Dare” from Bazilian’s The Optimist was remade for this album). The album also includes the beautiful ballad “Ordinary Lives”, along with its share of retro material, “I’m Alive”, a cover of Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer”, a hidden track called “White Jeans”, and the album’s title song. As Hyman stated;

“…a key line in the title song is ‘if I had a way to make time stand still’ and in many ways, it really describes our efforts to make music and keep this little band of ours alive all this time…”

Concert Poster, 2007After another European tour in 2007, The Hooters returned to their hometown of Philadelphia to play two shows at the Electric Factory during Thanksgiving week. As a teenage rock fan in the late 1960s, Bazilian would attend shows at this venue and take pictures of the bands to sell later, often back to the bands themselves. For the Hooters 2007 shows, the fans in attendance received a free advance copy of Time Stand Still, which was not officially released in the United States until February 5, 2008. Back at work in the Spring of 2008, the band again entered Elmstreet Studios to begin work on a new album, accompanied by violinist Ann Marie Calhoun. They recorded acoustic arrangements of 12 previously released songs and combined these with live material from the Electric Factory shows for the double-CD Both Sides Live, released in November 2008.

On October 23, 2009, in one of the last concerts at the historic Spectrum in Philadelphia, The Hooters played along with other local legends Todd Rundgren and Hall & Oates. 2010 saw the release of the EP Five By Five, the most recent release by the band.

In 1985 at Kings College in Wilkes Barre, PA a young high-schooler trapped in the rural mountains had finally gotten to see the band she had become a fan of a few years earlier. She introduced her friends to their independent Amore album, but all of her “Hooter” experience was strictly of the vinyl variety up to that point. When the band hit the stage, there was instant energy and nothing ever hit her like the electrical charge of this band. The band worked so hard on that stage as if it were the most important show they ever performed. They didn’t stop moving, the timing and musicianship were outstanding and they looked like they were having as much fun as the audience. This was the magic of The Hooters.

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Largo Review

May 14, 2012
By Ric Albano


LargoOriginally planned to be The Hooters sixth studio album, Largo became a much larger and more complex project which involved top-notch talent from across the rock spectrum in both style and era. The album started as just another studio album for producer Rick Chertoff and the songwriting team of Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian. Together this team had produced three albums for The Hooters along with Grammy-nominated albums for Cyndi Lauper and Joan Osbourne, both of whom would lend their talents to the Largo project.

Antonin DvorakBut soon the album grew to become more of a “concept” album on the American experience from diverse points-of-view. The main theme is based on Antonín Dvořák‘s slow-moving (or “largo”) second movement of his 9th Symphony. Throughout the album there are several different versions of “Largo”, which act as breaks to separate the other themed songs. Written in 1893 and commonly known as his “New World” Symphony, the piece was inspired by the Czech composer’s extended time in America where Dvořák became interested in the Native American music and African-American spirituals he heard in America. In December 1893, he explained how Native American music had been an influence on this symphony;

“I have not actually used any of the Native American melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.”

Taj MahalThe album is bookmarked by instrumental versions of “Largo” performed by Irish musical group The Chieftains, with the opening track sounding more like something performed near a camp fire in the old west than traditional Celtic music. After this calm intro piece, the album breaks into “Freedom Ride” led by bluesman Taj Mahal, who provides lead vocals, harmonica, and barks between verses. Taj Mahal is a self-taught musician who incorporates elements of world music into his music and the rocker “Freedom Ride” includes bag-pipes and excellent percussive effects. He returns for two more tracks later on the album, “Needed Time” where he adds a dobro to the short porch-blues piece and “Banjoman”, which curiously has no banjo, but does include a good bass riff and an excellent, bluesy guitar lead.

David FormanJoing Taj Mahal on “Banjoman” is singer/songwriter David Forman, who lends his deep and resonant voice to seven tracks on Largo. On “Gimme a Stone”, perhaps the best track on the album, Forman shares lead vocals with Levon Helm of The Band on a song with good, upbeat overtones and lyrics about taking up the challenge against heavy odds. Another member of The Band, Garth Hudson adds the almost psychedelic instrumental “Garth Largo”, where he plays saxophone, allen organ, synthesizers, and accordion. On “Medallion” Forman shares vocals with Willie Nile in a driving trance song about a cab driver with Middle-Eastern flavor that later morphs into “The Star Spangled Banner”. The retro closer “Before the Mountains” is credited to “Little Isidore”, an alternative stage act by Forman, and has an almost Frankie Vallie-like quality. On “Disorient Express” Forman shares lead vocals with Hyman, on this unique, two part song which starts with a banjo and trance like, bass-driven rhythm and morphs into a completely different coda section lead by Hyman’s bright electric piano.

Rob HymanHyman teams up with Joan Osbourne on two duet ballads, “Cyrus In the Moonlight” and “Hand In Mine”. On the former there is persistent percussion and good piano accented by really cool tremolo effects, while the latter is phrased as a classic American folk song with subtle electric guitar effects above calm melody and instrumentation. Both of these songs have a movie soundtrack quality to them. Hyman adds his own Hammond organ instrumentsal “Vishnu Largo”, while Osborne returns towards the end of the album with a memorable lead vocal on “An Uncommon Love”, a song co-written by the legendary Carole King.

Cyndi LauperOne of the most striking moments on the whole album is Cyndi Lauper’s superb vocal performance on the bluesy ““White Man’s Melody”. Lauper, who was apparently “very pregnant” with her first child at the time, provided a classic vocal to this extended, seven-and-a-half-minute song which also has interesting instrumentation and accents, especially by the mandolin and 60s-style organ, and a great guitar lead later in the song.

A review of Largo on AMG states that it “is everything Americana should be” and “easily one of the most ambitious albums of the digital era”. But what Largo can claim in quality, it did not have in commercial and industry fortune as it got caught between major-label mergers and customer confusion over the plain “Largo” cover. However, there has long been talk of a Broadway production and a couple of the songs have become regulars by Who singer Roger Daltrey, keeping the music alive until digital versions have sprung back to life on iTunes and Amazon.com in recent years.

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RA


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Dave Uosikkinen

May 7, 2012
By Karyn Albano


Dave UosikkinenThe signature sounds that have defined The Hooters for over three decades would not be possible without the rhythm section laying down those ska and reggae beats. While there have been several bassists in the band over that time period, and even a percussionist for a short time in the early days, the constant through it all has been Dave Uosikkinen, who has been with the band since its inception in 1980.

Dave’s distinctive drumming is the backbone of The Hooters sound. To put it bluntly, he hits those drums hard and with an intensity that keeps the sound loud and right up front. His style was especially refreshing within the context of the 1980′s, when many popular bands were using more electronic or treated drum sounds to replicate an effect that only a true drummer can produce. While electronic drums can keep a steady beat, they are not a satisfying substitute for the nuances of the real thing.

I’m very been a Hooters fan since the beginning (even before the crayon-colored stage image) and I remember how I was drawn in to the sound of the band’s debut album Amore by Uosikkinen’s drumming, which provided a perfect canvas on which the unusual instrumentation of the other band members were given room to explore. From the reggae/ska of the original “All You Zombies” to the pure pop-beat of “Hanging On a Heartbeat”, the drummer did not miss a beat on the band’s impressive independent debut.

Aside from playing with The Hooters for years, Dave has been a teacher, entrepreneur, and session musician. His current project, In The Pocket: The Essential Songs of Philadelphia, pays homage to some of the great songs from Philadelphia bands by re-recording songs that were written or performed by Philadelphia artists of the past. The project includes live performances with a revolving lineup of Philly musicians. Proceeds from this project benefit the Settlement Music School.

When Dave is not teaching or touring with The Hooters, he has built a solid reputation as a session drummer. In fact, thanks to the digital age, you can have Dave add his drumming to your song, for a flat fee, through his web service DaveUDrums.com.

Despite the stellar drumming, he may be best remembered for being that guy in yellow pants walking on his hands in the “Day by Day” video, which is quite unfortunate because he should, in reality, be heralded as a solid and consistant drummer.

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The Optimist by Eric Bazilian

May 6, 2012
By Ric Albano


The Optimist by Eric BazilianThe Optimist is the debut solo album by Eric Bazilian, released in 2000. It is kind of odd to consider that this artist’s “debut” anything would come at the dawn of his fourth decade of professionally performing, writing, recording, and producing. But all of the previous recordings by Bazilian were done for acts such as Cyndi Lauper, Joan Osbourne, and of course, his primary band The Hooters. But at this point in time, that band was smack dab in the middle of a 14-year period between studio albums, with Out Of Body being released in 1993 and Time Stand Still not coming until 2007.

The Optimist is a pleasing assortment of well-crafted rock songs released on the indy Mousetrap Records label. It is clear that Bazilian’s songwriting is cut from the Lennon/McCartney cloth, but he masterfully adds many of the sonic developments in the thirty years since the Beatles breakup, right up to including some drum loops by Gota Yashiki, “The Groove Activator” who played a big part in forging the rhythm on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. The album is a hybrid of demo tapes dating back to 1996, many self-composed and recorded parts, and some professional mastering. Bazilian was spending his summers in Sweden with his wife’s family and recorded some of the album in his in-law’s barn on his Macintosh laptop.

The album begins with “Driving In England”, an almost-punk-like composition with an infectious drive that makes an excellent beginning to the album. The song, which was co-written by guitarist Randy Cantor, contain vocals with much grit and an air of desperation and drums by fellow-Hooter Dave Uosikkinen. Cantor also co-wrote “Gemini Yo Yo”, with another drum-fused rhythm, distant fuzz guitar, and a half-serious/half-pureness element reminiscent of Cheap Trick.

Although The Optimist is pretty solid cover to cover, there are a few gems which rise above the rest of the material. The first is “Until You Dare”, a moderate acoustic ballad with strategic electric overtones. The song’s lyrics address summoning the courage to take a chance or leap of faith and getting out of your comfort zone to make an attempt at greatness -

  “How you gonna learn how to fly when you’re so busy crawling?”

A more melodramatic, piano-led version of “Until You Dare” was recorded by for the Hooters’ Time Stand Still album in 2007.

“Hopelessly, Relentlessly” is a subdued, melancholy song, written about the end of summer with a larger allegory for life itself. It contains, perhaps, Bazilian’s best guitar work on the album. “Be My Woman” is another gem on the album with a retro sounding guitar and lyrics that explore some of history of rock n’ roll, my favorite being –

“I’ll tell you what it is with the Stones, they kind of suck without Brian Jones…”

Eric BazilianMuch of the rest of the album is a fusion of the millennial sound along with some entertaining infusion of diverse instrumentation and styles. “Bye Bye Baby”, co-written by Glenn Goss contains a saxophone driven riff with vocals that perfectly mix Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, and just a touch of Lenny Kravitz added to the blend during the choruses. It also contains a nice coda crescendo to top off the vice. The pure pop song “U.G.L.Y.” dated back to sessions in 1996 with the finished product co-written with Amanda Marshall in 1998, while the fun “Kid from Outer Space” contains some crisp, layered, and entertaining guitars and exceptional bass – all recorded by Bazilian.

“Fiddlesticks” is the type of song which could have been a big hit in different era, while the closing title song, “The Optimist” is a deeply philosophical tune written and recorded in the barn in Sweden. The CD also includes a hidden bonus track, the original 1995 demo of “One of Us” which Bazilian presented to Joan Osbourne in the studio before the song would go on to international fame and acclamation.

Aside from the “Until You Dare” inclusion, It seems like many of the same themes about time and life are continued on the Hooters next effort, Time Stand Still in 2007. Still, there is something about hearing this artist completely liberated, without consideration for input or opinion from band members, that makes it a more pure and honest effort.

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Idaho by Pete Bush & the Hoi Polloi


This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on January 21, 2012.

Idaho by Pete Bush & Hoi PolloiPittsburgh’s Pete Bush got his start playing guitar in a hard rock band in the late 1990′s before making the radical transformation to stand-up bass in a “jazz-sex-pop” band called Salena Catalina. He next moved up to frontman when he formed Pete Bush & the Hoi Polloi, a jazz/fusion trio with whom Bush provides vocals, guitars, and various other instrumentation. Idaho was released by the group last May and adds some nice sonic additions to the base live sound. This sound is an unsual blend of jazz, rock, blues, rockabilly, and even a hint of punk. Finding a specific genre in which to market their sound has been a struggle for the band from the beginning.

Along with bassist Jesse Prentiss and drummer Christian Catone, Bush recorded the sonically adventurous Idaho in a studio owned by Jawbox’s lead singer J. Robbins in Baltimore, MD.

The 8-song album leaves no moment wasted for filler or throwaway tracks. The opener “Ceiling Mirror” starts the album off perfectly as a fusion of all the group’s styles, arranged masterfully for maximum effect of the rock parts. It gives the listener an immediate display of the range of styles present on the album. Other highlights of the album include the croning jazz ballad “Montebean”, the pleasant closing title song “Idaho”, and a couple of strongly Latin-influenced numbers, “Sacramemento” and “How Apropoe”, the latter of which is built on a choppy, electric guitar riff.

Even with the release of the album the band still looks forward to their live performances to express their passion for music. Still, Idaho simultaneously captures the rhythmic flow of a well produced studio album while maintaining a sense of spontaneous improvisation usually reserved for the live performance.

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This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on January 21, 2012.


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Perfect 10


This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on June 27, 2011.

Perfect Smile by The Cellarbirds Often overlooked as just a subset of The Badlees, this band may have put out one of the best recordings by a Pennsylvania artist over the past decade. Perfect Smile by The Cellarbirds is excellent through and through. It’s one of those albums that just gets better with each listen. It combines various styles and influences; simple riffs and arrangements like Tom Petty or The Byrds, complex instrumentation and experimentation of later-era Beatles, some contemporary post-grunge and modern punk elements, all along with the Springsteen-esque and smoky Americana vocals of Bret Alexander. Song sequencing is important here, the album constantly morphs along a journey of themes from love and possibilities, to the two sides of expectation, to acceptance, to the breaking point and aftermath and the fresh (or not really so fresh) start. Upon its release in 2001, it was universally acclaimed by critics but could never really catch on with widespread public support. In this sense, it has been the best kept secret of the past 10 years.

Formed in 1998 by guitarist and vocalist Alexander along with bassist Paul Smith and drummer Ron Simasek, the Cellarbirds were (and still are) all active members of the Badlees. The Badlees were signed to a major label but were facing endless delays in the release of their latest album due to corporate entanglements. The trio developed a live show, distinctly different from the Badlees, and played in between the big band’s tours and recording sessions. When Alexander and Smith opened Saturation Acres Recording Studio in 1999, the trio became the default session band for the studio, backing up many artists on their professional recordings. Finally, by the spring of 2001, the Cellarbirds recorded their first (and to date only) album, Perfect Smile.

Busy with several other projects, Perfect Smile was written and recorded in a hurried and frantic pace. According to Alexander, for 14 straight days the band would show up in the morning with no song and leave in the afternoon with a potential track. In the end, they just picked the 10 best tracks from the group and made a record. This was only possible because the group was such a tight unit live and seasoned at adapting to dynamic situations in the studio. The end result was an accurate reflection of the band’s talent as well as the studio’s production style.

“I think Perfect Smile is as good of a touchstone for the Saturation Acres vibe as anything out there…Bret Alexander”

And that “vibe” involved trying to make versatile songs that could simultaneously entertain a 5 year old with simple hooks and rhythms while still offering substance for a serious adult listener, much like the balance the Beatles so aptly struck.

The opening, title song was written by Alexander in the car on the way to the studio and recorded that very same day. Its theme was inspired by a quote from Bruce Springsteen; “The true challenge of adulthood is maintaining your ideals after you have lost your innocence”. It also contains a really cool lyric (“my heart’s a gnarled tree”) based on the Native American logic that the trees that face the hardest struggle for sunlight ultimately grow to be the strongest. Musically, the song’s backdrop is a consistently strummed 12-string with some nice decor by a Moog synth and an e-bow. It continuously builds from beginning to end and it jumps keys for the climatic third verse, something suggested by drummer Simasek.

“Uncommonly Blue” is heavily influenced by Steve Earle’s “Transcendental Blues” with a lot of retro instruments like the sitar, the accordion, and the mellotron. Lyrically it contains a mish-mash of lines from discarded songs penned by Alexander and co-writer Mike Naydock, a sort of song collage for the verse, with the brilliant “I see beauty in my mind, makes the world seem colorblind” for the chorus hook. All in all the song seems to be about writer’s block giving way to possibilities.

An experimental guitar sound introduces “Happy Home”, a song completely built in the studio through trial and error by producers Smith and Alexander, including an extreme, exploding guitar lead that shouldn’t really work but somehow does. The song’s theme is covers anger, cynicism, sarcasm, victimization, and revenge – all the happy stuff to fill the happy home.

Almost as a counter-point response to the previous song, comes the perfectly Petty-esque “Someone Nice”. Alexander, at the time, described its theme as “nice guys finish last, but be nice anyway” and claims the phrase “you’ve gotta get up off the ground, boy ’cause time won’t wait for you now” as a candidate for his own tombstone. Musically, the rhythm guitar is pure Byrds while the overdubbed guitar is pure George Harrison as it maintains the overall feel of Tom Petty, all resulting in a flowing, lush, folk-rock sound. This was originally developed as a Badlees song, but they couldn’t quite get it to work. Thankfully, it got a second life with the Cellarbirds.

A smoky room in an off-track betting parlor is the setting for the next track, “Open Ended”, written by Mike Naydock. It is about how getting through some low times can makes the good times all the more enjoyable – “You do for me what hunger does for poetry”. The song contains a slow and spacy guitar and some interesting effects on the vocals in the last verse.

Inspired by the movie American Beauty, “Lester’s Breaking Even” was written on the spot in the studio. A steady, thumping verse rhythm gives way to a grungy chorus hook. Simasek’s percussive excellence really shines through on this one while Alexander doubled up his vocals with octave falsetto harmonies and Smith played a bunch of cello tracks sweeping up a scale for the effect near the end to add true originality to the song. The overall arch of the album kind of changes with this song – Lester’s had enough of trying to be “someone nice”, living in a make-believe “happy home” and looking at the “uncommonly blue” sky of sunny possibilities. No more “perfect smile” for him – he’s taking charge and “breaking even” – marching along to his new freedom from the trappings of trying to keep up with expectations.

“Time For Pride” was written pretty quickly from scratch in the studio. It borrows its theme from several artistic sources and contains some cool new-waveish backing vocals by Smith and a lead synth riff which contribute to its overall, early-eighties feel. The melancholy and dramatic ballad “Starting Over Again” contains watery guitars on top of a rather sparse arrangement. Its overall message is about building on experiences, whether positive or negative.

With lead vocals by Paul Smith, “Any Given Day” is a rant on televangelism and hypocrisy – “blessed are the meek and feeble hard up for self-respect, blessed are my five accountants processing the checks.” The song also has a thicker, heavier feel than most of the rest of the album.

“You Annoy Me” closes Perfect Smile with a Ramones-like punk screed that uncovers and exposes false humility. It was co-written by Naydock with the band adding the “come on” bridge section in the studio. This is like a taunt – I have finally have had enough of you so I am going to lay it all out there. The “come on” chorus is like an invitation to give it right back. In the end, the band blows up all the philosophy and depth with a simple, energetic, in-your-face, garage rocker.

After recording was wrapped, the album was mixed by engineer Dave Goodermuth and released to the world. As mentioned earlier, it was less than a raving success commercially but that in no way diminishes its true quality, which is still quite evident 10 years later.

~
This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on June 27, 2011.


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This Is Cabinet, Set 1


This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on December 27, 2010.

This Is Cabinet, Set 1A blue grass jam band from Wilkes-Barre with some virtuoso playing, Cabinet has put something together that is truly original with the live This Is Cabinet -Set 1. Recorded at the River Steet Jazz Cafe’ in Wilkes-Barre as well as venues in Erie and Cleveland, the album was produced by Bill Orner, Eric Ritter, along with the group themselves.

The sound is amazingly tight for the pace, amount of improvisation, and amount of musicians. There are six members of the band including J.P. Biondo on mandolin and vocals, Mickey Coviello on acoustic guitar and vocals, Pappy Biondo on banjo and vocals, Todd Kopec on fiddle and vocals, Dylan Skursky on bass and Jami Novak on drums. The recording is pristine for a live situation, with each instrument and voice well-repesented in the mix. It follows the band’s self-titled 2009 debut studio recording and, perhaps, proofs that Cabinet is much more effective as a live band.

The album starts with a medley “Tower/Salt Creek” which establishes the undeniable blue grass backdrop while also giving hints that there is something a little more here. In the instrumental “Treesap”, the band interjects a strategic dose of reggae rhythms while the intense, long jam “Coalminers” has some theatrics and talks of digging and digging all day”, in an almost nineties grunge-style manner. The nearly nine minute instrumental “Shifty Shaft” closes the album, leaving the listener hungry for more, as a member announces “We’ll be right back” at the close of the song. Back soon with This Is Cabinet – Set 2? In fact, Coviello has stated that he hopes this is, in fact, the first of a series of albums.

This may be by design, as the group intentionally books sparsely in their home Scranton/Wilkes-Barre region to assure that all their shows are a true “event”. The group is, in many ways, reminiscent of seventies virtuosos Little Feat and The Charlie Daniels Band. But their is also something really original and edgy about Cabinet and I feel we’ll be hearing much more from them.

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This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on December 27, 2010.


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Two States


This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on November 5, 2009.

Love Is Rain by The BadleesIf you are looking for a fluffy, happy review of the new CD by The Badlees, stop reading now. The band’s new release, Love Is Rain, is flawed. The first of these flaws are right up front and immediate. Now, we realize that the art of song sequencing is evaporating with the advent of digital downloads, but as consummate professionals these guys should know that you start off with some of your stronger material. That is not the case here as the first two songs, boilerplate pop songs, are perhaps the weakest of the album.

A few songs down the road are a pair of tunes that have been kicking around the local scene for several years now – “Don’t Ever Let Me Down” and “Well Laid Plans”. Each of these had featured guitarist and primary songwriter Bret Alexander on vocals in their original form, but each have been reconstructed as Badlees songs by dropping in lead vocals by front man Pete Palladino. For us, as local music fans, this seemed like an odd thing to do and begged the question – why?

Although Palladino is the lead vocalist for most of the songs, the true “voice” on the album comes from Bret Alexander. Since the last Badlees release in 2002, Alexander has continued to compose and perform as a solo act as well as with various musical arrangements. It has become clear that he was the driving force behind the Badlees’ success of the 90’s and has become even more refined in his songwriting and arrangements this decade.

But if Alexander is the heart and soul of the Badlees, what is Palladino – the hair and teeth? And, as such, was it preordained that this new album have a quota of Palladino-fronted tunes? Well, it’s not quite that simple. The truth is that this album may, in fact, contain some of Palladino’s finest performances of any Badlees album.

This is most evident in the song “Anodyne”, a shining example of the combo of pop and rock that has made the Badlees so successful in the first place. Palladino’s powerful yet controlled vocal shines brightest on this tune co-written by longtime collaborator, Mike Naydock. It is a perfect concoction – enough 90’s style pop for “that” crowd and enough thought provoking lyrics for “this” crowd – coupled with the rare art of the improvised coda (never has “fading away” sounded so good) that ranks this Badlees song with some of the elites of their past.

This brings us back to the two “do-overs”. The ethereal soundscape of “Don’t Ever Let Me Down” with its appregiated piano riffs and quasi-rap lyrics is a gem unlike any other. Still a fine song with Palladino on vocals, we contend that this was better in its original Alexander-led form. “Well Laid Plans”, upon further review, is a better fit for Palladino’s vocal skills and is a solid and entertaining pop song.

“Radio at Night” is another fine Naydock collaboration that perhaps should have led off the album as it is a nostalgic nod to the Badlees own past. On the surface happy-go-lucky, deeper listening will uncover a tinge of melancholy, a reflective tone that says, “the past isn’t so bad – embrace it and reminisce a bit”.

Then there is the other side of the album – the other “state” if you will – that includes several Alexander-led songs, starting with “Drive Back Home”. Here the album takes a quantum leap as this powerful and emotional song paints a stunning portrait of the journey of life –

“…All my life is like a drive back home/there ain’t no where that you can run to/there ain’t no where that you can go…”

The past is inescapable, always there and part of who you are – a universal message that especially rings true with the mature listener.

“Part of Rainbow” and “We Will” are probably the two most exotic songs ever included on a Badlees album. “Part of Rainbow” is reminiscent of 60’s psychedlia with Harrison-esque guitars, while “We Will” arrives like an early Glenn Campbell tune with an AM radio vibe and use of strings as creative and cutting-edge as Johnny Cash’s use of horns on “Ring of Fire”. Both of these songs feature guest musicians (Aaron Fink on the former, Nick Van Wyck on the latter) and both contain a tinge of “social commentary” that Alexander delivers perfectly – avoiding the trap by playing neither propagandist nor apologist nor preacher – using philosophy and poetry to state his point.

The next couple of songs are a bit lighter on substance, but heavy on style and soundscapes (but the similarities end there). “Way Back Home” reaches the band’s heavier edge and includes driving rhythms and another outstanding vocal performance by Palladino, while “Starthrower” is a melodramatic waltz through Americana sung by Alexander.

All these diverse roads of songs ultimately lead to the twelfth track “Two States”, which is quite simply a masterpiece. Deep does not aptly describe this – to write this song was down-right courageous. It brings the listener to a place remote yet familiar. Unlike the up-front, soft, nurturing love of a mother, there’s the sterner love of a father. Something we possess but rarely tap into. Further, it explores the transformation and revelation we all go through, from a child, “living in a world where heroes never fall” to the old man living in a world where “heroes have all fallen…”

We would be remiss if we failed to mention the absolutely flawless quality of the production of this album as well as the pristine timing and execution of drummer Ron Simasek and bassist Paul Smith – the world’s greatest rhythm section. Further, the ambient sounds that flavor this album throughout are sonic candy to music lovers. The instrumentation and arrangement by producer Bret Alexander are simply masterful. This last point is best illustrated again in “Two States”, where he provides an incredible mix using authentic, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjo.

The song sequencing in the second half of the record – in contrast to our opinion of the opening sequence- is masterful. Following the heart-wrenching climax of “Two States” comes the light-hearted, McCartney-ish “Alright Now”, which provides the ride off into the sunset as life goes on. As this musical odyssey concludes, the serious listener is left in amazement at the transformation that takes place between the ears, from the beginning of Love Is Rain until the end.

Yes, we stick to the assertion that this album is flawed. It kicks off with a couple weak tracks, uses the wrong vocalist on another, and, heck, even its title sounds like gibberish absent the proper qualifying context (…struggle is the thunder/Love is rain…). But this lack of perfection should not distort the fact that this may well be one of the finest musical pieces to come out of our region – ever. We do not claim this lightly and we encourage all music lovers to buy this, listen, and send us your own assessments.

In the past we were amazed by how a local band was able to produce an album like River Songs that sounded as good as anything put out by the major labels. Now, we believe the Badlees have put out an album that is miles ahead of your typical production anywhere.

In the past Bret Alexander’s songwriting has been compared to that of Steve Earle, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. Now, we believe that these comparisons may no longer be relevant. The only one you can now compare Bret Alexander to is himself.

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This review was originally published at DAMES Of PA on November 5, 2009.


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