Frank Gutch Jr: The Best of the First Half of What the Hell Do I Know (It’s 2012, I Think) and That Dorm Guy…..

I’m sitting here piecing together the albums I think are the best of the year so far and ready to sing the praises of Sydney Wayser and her magic kingdom, Bell Choir Coast, when the Craig Elkins train t-bones me and scatters what could have been an easy column to the winds.  Who am I kidding?  It is never easy to write this column, especially when I’m comparing apples to oranges which is pretty much what any “Best Of” or “Greatest” list is.  The Truth is, there is no greatest or best of because music is so intensely personal and of the moment that what anyone chooses today they might not choose tomorrow (or even one side) later.

The “side” reference is for the kiddies who don’t remember albums and how important sides were— were they Side One or Side Two, Side A or Side B, or the infamous This Side or The Other Side (or maybe That Side).  It is a reference to time more than it is a reference to music and the fact that music has become so ensconced in “one song at a time” (thank you, digitization,  you incredible bastard) shows a generational gap in music which may be unbridgeable.  How do you explain the importance of sequencing songs and sides when they only want one song at a time?  I have often wanted to hogtie the young and force them to listen to the truly good albums made better by sequencing.  They would appreciate it.  Right?  I am tempted to go into the variations of sides— how Barnaby Records put music on only one side of two discs of the Sand album so you could stack the two discs and listen to the album straight through (and, yes, one side of each piece if vinyl was blank— and they had this promotional campaign which went “One album on two discs for free flowing Sand!”), or how some double albums were marked sides one through four but in such a way as to allow Side One and Side Two to play and when you flipped the two discs over, Side Three and Four.  Those were the days when you stacked records on a spindle and let them drop and grind every little particle of dust and grime into the grooves but didn’t mind because who knew that the records lasted longer when you cared for them properly and, hell, you grew tired of the music after a short period of time, anyway, didn’t you?  And do me a favor and don’t ask what is a spindle.  You’ve got the Internet.  Use it.

Ah!  But back to the musical train wreck.  People who know me know that I am an oil-and-water kind of guy.  I’m lazy too.  The way I pick my favorite albums is letting them choose themselves.  If I like them, I play them.  If I’m playing them after I’ve reviewed them or just listening for pleasure, they slowly work their way toward the surface.  Whether they make it there is up to just how impressed I am.  Wayser’s album floated to the top very quickly.  Elkins’ album sank to the depths until I started really listening.  It is now bumping up against Wayser and I am feeling torn.  Bear with me here because there are numerous albums trying to bump their ways to the top.  And please forgive me if I repeat myself.  These albums are important to me for a reason and I find it impossible to not write about them.  If it bores you (I do have a tendency towards redundance), you do not have to read it.  I won’t take it personally.  I promise.

The Best of the First Half of 2012…..

To my friends and the few people who seem to care about the music I write about, my love affair with Sydney Wayser and her music is no surprise.  I fell in deep love with her voice when I listened to and reviewed her last album, The Colorful, one of the most imaginative albums I had heard during that period (early 2009).  The songwriting was shockingly good and the use of toy instruments and machine tools to produce rhythms and sounds makes me laugh even today.  So I reviewed it.  And reviewed it.  And kept reviewing it, even if it was just for blogs or this column.  It is a magnificent album.

So when she announced a new album and let slip a couple of rough tracks onto the Net, I was a bit nervous.   The first thing I heard/saw was a video of Wolf Eyes, a song which did little to alleviate any consternation I may have had.  It was good, I knew that much, but it wasn’t La Di Da, a song so hip and so very cool that I couldn’t stop listening.  I mean, the production on La Di Da is so over the top that I was surprised I was even ready to listen to more Wayser.  But I did.  I listened to and watched Wolf Eyes (click here) numerous times, yet was still unconvinced.  It was good, but…..

But I was an idiot.  I should know myself better, especially after decades in the music business.  When I got a link to  Wayser’s Bell Choir Coast (posted on bandcamp), I started listening in earnest and was soon completely overwhelmed.  Wayser basically had a band on The Colorful, but she definitely has one on Bell Choir.  Soon I was hankering to hear Alright, a song which floats on the edge of pop but which is so much more.  I found myself singing “alright” at the oddest moments and knew it was having an impact.  Next, Wolf Eyes broke through and began destroying brain cells.  Wayser’s voice, sense of song and the combination of island music (it is, but it isn’t) and Brill Building chipped away until I was worn down in a completely uplifting kind of way.  And when I finally got Geographer, I got Wayser— or what she was doing on this album.  She tried to tell us.  It is my fantasy land, she said.  I get it.  It is mine too, though my view is substantially different, I am sure.

I feel sorry for people who don’t hear this album, or maybe what I mean to say is I feel sorry for people who don’t get how albums like this can move them.  Sure, you can listen to the individual songs and they are surely worth hearing, but you miss the big picture.  You miss what Wayser has really done— created a world of music— or maybe created a world from music.  Album of the year?  Maybe.  Top Ten?  Without a doubt.

That Crazy Elkins’ Train…..

Talk about another world.  Craig Elkins and Sydney Wayser surely live in different ones.  I know where Wayser lives, but haven’t quite figured out Elkins.  But this is where the guy in the dorm room comes in.  Back in the 60s I was in college— University of Oregon before it was bought and paid for by Nike, in fact— and lived in the dorms.  The folk boom was winding down and rock was cranking it up and I was lucky enough to be in the crux.  Here’s the thing.  Every dorm I lived in had That Guy— the guy who was musically way ahead of everyone else, the guy who was off the beaten track, the guy you looked toward when you wanted to talk about something substantive.  Yeah.  That Guy. Well, That Guy, in retrospect, taught me one hell of a lot.  He taught me that being an individual, en masse, was a bunch of shit.  He taught me that truth was a matter of perspective.  He taught me that most everyone had an agenda but not all of the time, which made people harder to read.  But mostly he taught me about how diversity in music can be a life-altering thing.  Well, showed me rather than taught because That Guy didn’t teach.  He just was.

There were a handful of That Guy’s during my college career.  Mostly, they kept to themselves, though they were on the whole not antisocial.  They seemed to be comfortable, more than anything— comfortable with who they were.  They kept their doors open when they didn’t mind company, though they rarely went out of their rooms except to eat or perform the proper bodily ablutions.  They always had music on, whether it was the local radio station of choice or on their stereos.  They always studied, when people like myself would let them.  Their rooms always smelled of cigarette or pipe smoke because to a man they smoked.  And they talked, but only when the situation warranted it.  I sometimes found myself taking a textbook into their rooms to study and listen to music, sitting on their bed while they leaned back in their desk chair.  Sometimes, there were neither words nor acknowledgment.  But there was always music, usually played at low volume.  In those rooms, I discovered Pentangle and Simon & Garfunkel and Robbie Basho and John Fahey and the hidden sides of Phil Ochs and Leadbelly and the blues side of The Rolling Stones and, later, Fleetwood Mac.  I couldn’t have bought a better music education.   

So when Craig ElkinsI Love You came along, it came with the waft of smoke and the comfort I used to feel in those rooms.  You see, I found Simon & Garfunkel there and not Sounds of Silence or Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme, but Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. and Bob Dylan and not Highway 61 Revisited but Bob Dylan and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.  I heard Odetta and Buffy Sainte-Marie and Gordon Lightfoot long before he became the go-to folkie.

Those times are, of course, gone.  Sometimes I yearn for them again for there was a tremendous energy then, especially when it came to music and its attendant philosophy— truth.  And when I hear Craig Elkins sing “when was the last time that you just shut up and listened to what somebody else had to say and actually let them finish talking— no formulatin’— no interruptin’— just listenin’” or “Agin’ hipsters and fair-weather friends/disconnect me before the fun begins/so I don’t have to try/I’ll have an alibi”, I am back in those rooms and it feels good.  Really good.  Because I loved those guys and those days and am sure that if they still happened, Elkins would be providing some of the background music.  I doubt that such experiences  happen much anymore, but if they do, I hope Elkins and this album are there to give the young music freak that little push which opens up that young head.  He is that good.

Will Elkins survive the digital revolution (though the real question should be will the music industry survive it)?  I believe he will.  He has a musical vision beyond the norm and won’t lose it any time soon.  Unless he becomes disillusioned.  God forbid.

Let’s call I Love You a starter album for what I am sure will be a long line of Elkins albums for the intelligentsia.  For That Dorm Guy…..

It’s About Time…..

Says so right on the front insert of the new Strawberry Alarm Clock CD, and they are right.  These old geezers (who are almost as old as am I) let themselves be talked into recording a new album and, worse yet, many of their old tracks.  Bad idea, right?  All I can say is that if every bad idea turned out like the new album (actually titled Wake Up Where You Are), everyone would be rushing to the bad side.  Over half of the songs on this album are retreads from SAC’s golden period (the late sixties) and that over-half are gems from the gold mine.  The band not only recreated its unique sound, they embellished upon it.  The instrumental parts are more mature and a bit less rushed and the vocals…  well, they couldn’t have done a much better job.  The stacked harmonies are there and hold the band in good stead with their old fans and the new songs fit seamlessly in the mix.  One, World Citizen, has a War-like rhythm edge mixed with Gypsy-like vocals and if you knew how much I like Gypsy, you would have a small inkling of how big a compliment that is.

Normally, I wouldn’t consider an album of cover songs (plus a few) Album-of-the-Year-worthy, but SAC does it with a real flair and steps over the hump.  In the end, Wake Up Where You Are is simply a flat out good album.  What can I say?  These guys rock!

You can have The Avengers, I’ll Take Ticktockman…..

Once every so often, a band comes along which I call a musician’s band.  There have been more than a few I have considered such over the years— Living Colour, King’s X and Tempest (with Alan Holdsworth) to name a few.  They are/were the bands musicians line(d) up to see and hear.  Tight, concise in their instrumentality (and seemingly so in mentality also).  The Three or Four or Five Musketeers.  All for one, one for all.  You can hear it in their music.

Welcome to Ticktockworld, my friends.  When I first heard their self-titled album (listen here), I was enthralled.  It was Captain Beyond all over again but in a slightly different direction.  They are powerful, and thanks to the chops of drummer Brock Lowry, a hurricane force on record.  Not to take anything away from the rest of the band.  They are a machine, cranking on all cylinders, and the loss of any one could cause major loss of power.

Ticktockman is one of those genre-less bands in that they bring so many influences to bear at certain moments, you don’t quite know what you’re hearing— jazz, prog or hard rock.  The thing is, they’re so tight you don’t care.

I know this isn’t an album for the masses, especially in this day and age, but there are few musicians who wouldn’t be impressed to see these guys live.  If they sound anything like they do on record, that is.  Excuse me.  I’m listening now.  I need to sit down.  Wait.  I am sitting down.  Damn!  These guys are even better than I thought!  Put them in tights and capes and they’d kick The Avengers’ asses, I’d wager.

Following a Bad Map…..

That could well be the reason that the Bay Area’s Mist and Mast has not broken into the Billboard Charts.  Frontman Jason Lakis has this sound in his head, see, and refuses to let it go.  He had it through his previous band’s existence (The Red Thread, which released three albums) and carries it into Mist and Mast, which just released their third.  Titled Follow a Bad Map, in fact.  Get it?

The thing you have to know about Lakis is that if he had more hooks and relied more on major chords, he could well break through, but that is just not how he works.  He is more like one of those guys who has worms on the inside eating their way out.  The worms are his sound and every time one breaks out, it seems like a triumph.  Well, to me.  I ranked the last album in the Top Ten for that year also (Action at a Distance – 2009).  I couldn’t help it.  I just love that sound, you know?

You can listen to the new album here.  Don’t be a putz.  Give it a chance to sink in.  Then, when you have assimilated enough to hear what they’re doing, click on the album jackets to the right and hear what they have done.  Time for these guys to get some respect, don’t you think?

You gotta have Faith…..

That’s right.  Faith.  Until a week and a half ago, I didn’t know that Alcoholic Faith Mission even existed.  Now, they’re crowding into my ‘best albums’ list.  It didn’t take much.  A night of incredible music, live, at the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, Oregon.  An hour-and-a-half drive home after the show listening to the band’s new Ask Me This album.  Two or three days of intense listening to that album and the others, available for streaming on bandcamp.  A realization that if had Cam Carpenter not told me about this band, I could have ended my life not hearing this music.  It’s downright uncanny the thin line we walk.  Steve Turnidge has me convinced that I was meant to hear this band.  I think he’s right.

Few bands could pull of what these guys do on Ask Me This, incorporating influences (thought not really influences but sounds) such as Singers Unlimited, Talking Heads and early Peter Gabriel into a sound all their own.  Musically, the album is incredible.  Live, the band is even better.  The power is more.  The voices are better (singer Kristine Permild‘s high, almost childlike voice stunned me with her Marianne Faithfull phrasing on certain songs).  The musicianship is outstanding.  Still, in spite of that, I find the album excellent in its own right.  It is almost like hearing two different bands play the same album.  The studio band more than holds its own.  Click on that bandcamp link.  Take a listen.  I love it!

Two legs of Green Pajamas plus the Bronte’s = Goblin Market…..

Especially their latest album, Beneath Far Gondal’s Foreign Sky.  Some critics have basically labeled Goblin Market as the Green Pajamas‘ poorer cousin, but that only emphasizes the care you must take when reading any critique of music, mine included.  True, GM has only two members of what I consider to be one of the premier bands of the past 20+ years, but those two (Laura Weller and Jeff Kelly) have carved out a niche all their own.  They have taken influence from the likes of the Bronte Sisters and Joyce Carol Oates and have turned it into some of the most unlikely music you might expect.  Unless you know the music of the Green Pajamas.

Kelly and Weller hinted of this leaning toward the goth side of rock on earlier Pajamas’ tracks, but saved the best of them for the GM releases.  When you listen, listen from front to back.   The music deserves that much, at the least.

The Winterpills… and call me in the morning…..

If I don’t go on about The Winterpills or the next few bands and albums, it is because I have written so much about them in the past that I figure most are tired of reading about them.  They are one of my real treasured finds in that they tread along the edges of what I like to call folk/psych but which is also way beyond that description.  Just be aware of the band and their last  album, All My Lovely Goners.  Another pick for the best of 2012, for a good reason:  the music!

Sage Run…..

Again, I have written so much about this album that I am reluctant to write more, even though this album deserves it.  Put together by a single person, David Stace-James, it has a band feel way beyond most solo projects.  Spacey, reverent and at times bordering on the majestic, the music wraps you in a warm coat and makes you feel comfortable if not totally at your ease.  You can stream the music here.  It speaks for itself.

On a Carrousel…..

Carrousel is the musical dreamchild of one Joel Piedt who decided to hold off the real world after college by putting together an album struggling to bust out which he titled 27 Rue de Mi’chelle.  It is smooth, beautiful and one of those albums I can only describe as unique.  The reason behind the album was a breakup with a girl.  It is a musical dreamscape you have to hear to get.  Stream it here and you’ll get what I mean.

This just in…..  The Major Labels Suck!

Courtesy of a link provided by good buddy Nathan Hill:  A question posted on having to do with Seattle recording magnate Steve AlbiniQuestion:  “Have you ever regretted not taking royalties on the albums you’ve produced?”  Albini: “No.  I don’t take royalties because I am ethically opposed to them as a means of compensation.  I think they unfairly siphon money from a band who has earned it.  It is patently ridiculous to work on a record for a couple of weeks in a secondary capacity and get paid for it in perpetuity.  I prefer to set a price for my time and get paid like anybody else who works for a living.  My wife, on the other hand, regrets my position on royalties.”

If what Albini says is true, and I have no reason to believe it is not as I have never heard a negative word said against him, it contradicts the whole premise of the major labels’ position on payment.  They have held musicians at gunpoint for decades and are still doing it with their posse of lawyers and paid-for politicians.  It is what the whole battle over The Copyright Act of 1976 is all about.  Getting paid in perpetuity is their right, according to them.  Some mumbo jumbo about taking risks and investments and a whole lot of other Wall Street-type crap.

Nate says Albini is a standup guy.  If Albini’s stand on royalties from a producer/engineer standpoint is factual, so do I.  He’s a guy those of us who stand against keeping The Copyright Act of 1976 from being fully enacted want speaking for us.  The majors have bled musicians for too long.  Don’t let the idiots with deep pockets and buildings full of legal eagles stretch it out any longer.  Put that sonofabitch into action and let’s move forward.  And I challenge any clown from any of the major labels, including the major labels’ henchmen at the RIAA, to respond.  Yeah.  Like that’ll do any good.

Let’s talk Arborea for a moment…..

…because they were just tagged with one of those NPR Tiny Desk Concerts and it freaks me out.  Not that they were tapped to play one.  That they pulled it off so swimmingly.  I mean, they are not your standard folk group nor are they rock in any way, shape or form.  They live within the realm of medieval and renaissance, folk, space and electronica (though acoustic electronica, if that makes any sense.  Buck Curran sent me a link and I watched the video and am super impressed.  For one thing, Buck plays an electric guitar!  I had gotten into the mindset that electric was just Buck’s thing, but that shows you how little I know.  Wife Shanti pulls out the stops with her light and breathy vocals and her soft touch on her chosen instruments.  On one song there is a guest (Bob Boilen) playing an instrument I am not sure about (it has a pump and sounds like one of those old church organs you see in old Hollywood Westerns being carted across the plains to the promised land— I think it’s called an Harmonium) and the whole thing is a bit other-worldly.  But that is the kind of music I hear when I hear their albums— other-worldly.  It can be hauntingly beautiful or hauntingly eerie, depending upon movement and depending upon vocals.

Then again, I am prejudiced.  I drove over 60 miles to see them one night a couple of years ago, only to find out that they would not be allowed to play.  We spent time outside the venue talking, and I found them to be extremely personable and committed to their music.  Buck is one of the biggest Robbie Basho enthusiasts I have met since my days of That Dorm Guy and promotes others as much as he does Arborea.  A class act.

Here is the link to their Tiny Desk Concert.  If you think you know of others who would like it, please pass it along.  That’s what That Dorm Guy would have done.  Oh, and here is the link to their website.

Notes…..    I’m a happy man.  Zoe Muth & The Lost High Rollers just announced a release date of their up-and-coming EP of cover songs titled Old Gold.  You can purchase it in late July, but you can hear a sample now.  Just go to their ReverbNation page (click here) and click on “Heart Like a Wheel” (It’s a cover of an Anna McGarrigle song).  Even better news—  Zoe and drummer Greg Nies recently announced their engagement.  I saw that one coming and I hardly know them.  Very cool, Greg.  Very cool…..  My power is infinitous!  I mentioned in my Notes section two weeks ago that my computer streams Lisbee Stainton‘s new and excellent single Sidekick in burps and fits, so Clive at Marionet, Stainton’s label, popped a physical copy of the CD in the mail.  It arrived today.  I’m thinking about asking for world peace next, but I’m not sure my mailbox is big enough to hold it.  Thanks, Clive and Lisbee!  And that’s not all.  Just saw on Facebook that Lisbee is at presently working on a low budget (her words) video to support that single.  Could be interesting…..  Getting ready to dive on feet first to the world of Fort Worth’s 60’s teen scene via a rockumentary titled Teen A Go Go: A Little Film About Rock and Roll History.  I know a little about Fort Worth and its contributions to local and regional rock music, but I am sure this will enlighten me even more.  I’ll keep you posted…..  Maxine Dunn has recently had a number of songs mastered (by Steve Turnidge, no less) and Laurie Biagini is working towards another albums worth.  The wheel keeps turning…..  I know I posted this before, but here it is again for musicians who might be interested:  This passed along by Howie Wahlen at Green Monkey RecordsNPR has a format for submitting music.  I’ll keep it on my computer should you need it in the future, but here is a link to the page should you wish to be considered at all.  Thank you, Howie!…..  Now I have new recordings in my head.  Along with Maxine Dunn and Laurie Biagini, new releases are imminent from Vegas With Randolph, BRAAM (whom I refer to as the Brothers Braam, because they are…  brothers, that is), Dissonati (a Seattle progrock band which is much more than prog— you will be hearing from me about these guys in the near future), and, of course, the Research Turtles (their Mankiller Pt. 2 is almost a dream, it has been so long since they announced it).  Might be a whole column coming up of new music to keep in mind…..  Here’s a friendly reminder that guitarist Jon Gomm will be visiting Canada in early August.  Again, this is a guy you have to see and hear to believe (watch this).  Don’t miss it.  Here are the dates:  Hugh’s Room in Toronto on August 2nd (8:30 PM); The Canadian Guitar Fest in Kingston, ON on August 3rd (check festival schedule for times;  Festival Jazz Etcetera di Levis in QC on August 11th (again, check festival schedule); and at L’Astral in Montreal (8 PM)…..

Frank’s column appears every Wednesday

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Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

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