Frank Gutch Jr: Musicians on a Mission: Dan Phelps, Julian Taylor, Wes Swing, and Jimmy Lee (formerly Lee’s Company)… Plus a lugubrious panorama of Notes
Meet Dan Phelps, if you have not already done so. I first ran across him over a decade ago when he was working with both Bill Pillmore and his daughter Jess Pillmore on their respective albums, Look In Look Out and Reveal. Bill was an original member of Cowboy and I had heard through Scott Boyer, another original member of that venerable band, that he was recording for the first time, to my knowledge, since Cowboy‘s excellent 1971 release, 5’ll Getcha Ten. When I contacted him, he was in full recording mode, working with Phelps, whom he had chosen to produce. To my amazement, Phelps did more than just produce. He was a sideman and a damn good one, a creator of good licks and solid musical ideas. It was a first look at a musician I would follow from that point on.
Not long after, Phelps agreed to take on Jess’s new album, Reveal. After many discussions and consultations, the album began to take shape and continued to morph until the final mix. Oh, there were stories— how Phelps reached out to Matt Chamberlain and Viktor Krauss to anchor certain parts of the album, how he had to turn bad guy and lock Jess in a warehouse room until she finally realized her vocals on one song, how they both spent long periods mixing and remixing certain songs until they were as good as they could make them, how the songs began taking on personalities of their own, some changing so much that they barely resembled the original idea. As I made my way through the album, needle-dropping on the way to make sure I heard things right, I saw the genius. Reveal slowly revealed itself as a true work of two strong individuals working together and against one another. Open My Mouth bared the first inklings of Phelps’s dive into the use of electronics and looping. It is a production gem.
Speaking of Chamberlain and Krauss, they were crucial to the evolution of Atlanta, a song originally written in the bluegrass style. Jess and Phelps were working their way through a few songs which somehow did not seem right and Jess stepped off by herself to try to figure out the vocals. Her voice, it seemed would just lock up and it was worrying. Things had been going well with the other songs but she just could not get Atlanta down. “We were both really frustrated,” she told me in an interview, “and Dan just started toying around with something else. At the same time (we were recording), he was working on his organica albums. I don’t know if he talked with you about this, but he does some amazing atmospheric music that kind of defies category. So he started to tinker around, which I thought was cool. So I started working on something else. And we let it breathe for a second and he started playing around with this really weird bass line and electronic drum pad beats and noises and things like that and I said, uuhhh, let’s just do that. He said, what do you mean? And I said, let’s just do that. Let’s just put it on that. I don’t know what. Let me say it or sing it or whatever, but just let me put it on that. Why don’t we just go there? Because that’s rad and what we’re doing isn’t working. Why not? And so we did. And it worked. It was weird, but it just worked. And later on, Chris Jones came in and put on that really cool keyboard intro to kind of pull you into it a bit more so that it was as abrupt. And now, we’re doing film-noir and deep poetry. And the melodies (and the bluegrass) went right out the window.” Now, put yourself into bluegrass mode and listen to the final result.
That is Jess and that is Dan Phelps. She called Reveal electronica, which is as good as anything, I guess, because it is a very varied album in terms of genre. And she called Phelps’ music organica. Think about it. It will make sense.
That is an interview Phelps did just a few days ago. I would have saved it for the end of this short piece, but it explains “organica” as well as anything.
After Reveal, Phelps began diving deeper. He tied up with Chamberlain and Krauss to produce his first real modular sound project. He called the group Modular and the album Sonic Explorations, in fact, because it is a central theme. From the discography page on his website:
Modular is a milestone project for me. Collaborating with Matt Chamberlain and Viktor Krauss, first improvising together, and then refining the best of those spontaneous moments, was inspiring, challenging, and educational. Matt and I had our laptops sync’d while we were recording, so a lot of the textures and drum effects were actually a part of the improvisation.
There are lots of things I love about this record. Matt’s drumming is gorgeous and evocative throughout, particularly on tracks like Creeper Vine and Cumulonimbus. Viktor’s bass playing is so right, so patient, and effortless sounding, in spite of it’s depth. A very special, standout moment for me is Eyvind Kang’s viola solo on the closing track, Ocean Shelf. It still makes the hair on the back of neck stand up.
This album was beautifully recorded and mixed by one of my most long-term collaborators Martin Woodlee.
Phelps has since worked on numerous projects, many of them his own, and has them for sale through links on his website (click here).
Please allow me an aside here. The Sonic Explorations project is available in a double album set and it is an absolute beauty! Check it out by clicking on the “Click here” notice above. Read the details. If you know someone who loves the idea of music-as-sound or sound-as-music, this is as good as it gets.
Julian Taylor is no spring chicken in terms of music. He has been playing solo and with bands for a number of years now, most of it around Toronto, probably awaiting his time. I always love it when the awards shows hand out rookie of the year awards to musicians who have been beating the drums for years and even have albums, sometimes quite a few, behind them, but because the people who control the supposed “industry” have not had the fortune to hear them, they are branded as “new.” Well, welcome to some of the best “new” stuff you will hear these days. (The picture of Taylor above is from the early years when he was forced to share the page with his imaginary friend, Julie. I’m kidding, but it has to be disheartening to show up at a venue with not-your-name on the billboard)
Like hitters in baseball, you sometimes have to wait to hit your stride and Taylor is right now hitting his. The guy is all over the field when it comes to genre, rocking out with the best of them, singing with real heart, dancing and cajoling and plain making people happy. He is known for killer live shows, for his charitable appearances and for his performance and songwriting skills. I wasn’t sold until I happened upon a live video (actually, it was crammed into my ears by fellow writer Pat Blythe) which had me singing praises before it ended.
Those who watch it will see how Taylor and band picks up steam as they go and the place is plenty steamy by the end. The video was produced to promote Taylor’s Desert Star album and it does a magnificent job. It didn’t take me long to delve into Taylor’s cache of videos and I came up with a real favorite.
When I heard that Taylor was leery of releasing another track from the album, Chemical Low, as a single, I almost fell off my chair. It didn’t have the beat or the punch he thought would give it credence, he said. Forget that it is a powerful and beautiful track, that its production ranks it right up alongside some of the best songs of any period, that the performance is way above the norm. With that said, and a nod to Blythe, who refuses to let go of the music in which she believes, here is the radio edit of one of the classics of the present day.
Wes Swing is one of many musicians who lived in Charlottesville, Virginia when I first found that it was a musical mecca. It took Danny Schmidt and Devon Sproule to convince me that there was more than just them and Dave Matthews in that fair city, but they did it in style. Schmidt started by laying out a list of musicians he had shared stages with and those he would love to in the future, Sproule extended the list and here I am, singing the praises of that fair city like others praise Los Angeles and London. Swear to God, C-ville, as it is called locally, has more outstanding musicians per square inch than any city outside of Austin, Austin standing by itself because so damned many people have moved there.
I missed Swing a handful of years ago and I don’t know how it happened. Sproule might have mentioned him or maybe Swing himself contacted me or maybe it was Spencer Lathrop, who has been one of the biggest cheerleaders the city has ever had, at least when it comes to music, but it got lost in the shuffle. Actually, I may have gotten lost in the shuffle because things have been a blur since I started writing again and God only knows what got past me.
Wes Swing did, but he contacted me not long ago asking if I would listen to and maybe consider reviewing his upcoming album, …And the Heart. I said of course, of course (and his name was Mr. Ed— sorry, I couldn’t resist), and he sent me a digital file and I am floored! I listened once and then had to backtrack to listen to his last album, Through a Fogged Glass, and I have to admit to either not remembering that album or maybe having never had the fortune to hear it at all. It is so good that I can’t imagine having forgotten it, but maybe so. I am sure I have lost a plethora of brain cells over the years. Still…
Here is what I heard upon listening.
Here’s the thing. I consider myself a consummate fan of Sproule. I have written about her numerous times and have scoured the Net for items which sport her name in any capacity and am devastated that I missed this. There are classical elements, pop, folk— and Swing has a solid voice to back up his very well-written songs. Trust me on this one, …and the heart is even better. I will be writing a review of the new album for No Depression and might even toss in a review of Through a Fogged Glass, as well. Wes, please accept my apology. I should have reviewed Fogged Glass upon its release.
If ever there were a work and an artist who belonged together, it would be Jimmy Lee and White Mansions. They have been somewhat joined at the hip from the time A&M Records released the US version of the album, which starred Waylon and Jessi Colter and a handful of other big musical acts. Little to most people realize that at the time, Jimmy Lee was touring with it. From a review I wrote for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange of Lee’s Company‘s release of White Mansions way back in 2008.
Lee’s Company may just do what Waylon and Company failed to do back in 1978 when the original White Mansions hit the street in a hail of hype— break out. The 1978 package put together by A&M was one hell of a package, full sized pamphlet packed with everything you needed to know about the story and recording, but for one reason or another sales fell short of expectations. That does not mean that it did not sell, rather that it did not evidently sell well enough because shortly after the pre-release and month of release blitz, it fell off of the label’s radar and, outside of a small but loyal following, off the map altogether. Maybe the world was just not ready for a concept album, at least not one of the country-ish variety, or maybe the world was not ready to embrace the Confederacy in all its glory. Whatever the reason, the album was never given its proper due, in my estimation, so it is good to see Lee’s Company take up the standard.
And no, this is no tribute album. At the time of the A&M release or thereabouts, he was touring and playing everything White Mansions and might have had a great run if an unethical manager had not absconded with all proceeds lining his pockets. Played Nashville, in fact, and did quite well, actually, and when you hear this recording you will know why.
Blessed with voice somewhere between Gary Cooper and Waylon Jennings, Lee was born to this music like moth to flame, as they say. Unlike the staged 1978 concept, Lee sings all leads (except for the officer on “Bring Up the 12-Pounders”) and one might think it would not work but it does. Lee sings with a kind of disaffected conviction which bleeds into each song—you soon forget which part he sings because it really doesn’t matter, it’s the story that counts. And it doesn’t hurt at all that the band nails not only the songs but the sound. It is an amazingly full sound this small ensemble creates, from bass to acoustic and electric guitars—and there are points at which Clare Juliet makes the accordion mellotron-like, I swear.
The story is one of the South, for those who know nothing of this Civil War inspired Paul Kennerley work. Of a struggle historically important enough to keep Confederate flag makers in business for a century and a half and misunderstood enough to make certain rednecks earn their general description, which cannot be printed here. It is of a tragedy beyond comprehension which, to this day, most Americans try desperately to comprehend, even if for just a year or so in high school history class. It is of blood and pain and lives destroyed if not lost. Kennerley caught a bit of that, but more he caught the glory and passion of a war long past. Leave it to a musician.
Lee’s Company recorded White Mansions in toto and live at The Blue Coconut in West Sussex, England. It was a good night. It was a very, very good night in fact. Everything clicked, beginning to end, and it is here in all its, need I say, glory. Never mind that Jimmy Lee sang all parts and never mind that Bernie Leadon and Eric Clapton and Steve Cash and John Dillon (of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils) were not there putting in their chops and that Waylon and Jessi were not there. “Story To Tell,” the opening track, put that to rest that night because you knew that everything which followed was going to be good. Maybe great. Some would certainly say so.
I am not really certain that that recording is still available, but here’s the thing. Jimmy Lee himself has yet another version, this one recorded by Jimmy Lee’s White Mansions Stage Show (with narrative and sound effects). Let us call this the broadway version. Lee has put together a band which, again, takes Paul Kennerley‘s country/rock opera and brings it to life.
I have to give Lee a lot of credit for persistence. He dug in his claws and has made a career out of it. He must love doing it. In fact, I am sure he does. And it is, as far as I am concerned, a great work.
You can check it out by clicking here. And while you’re there, check out his other offerings.
I would love to spend my next vacation in Edmonton, if Toronto is outside possibilities, because of the music scene and artists such as Colleen Brown, Kelly MacGregor, and Amy van Keeken. Here is a short clip during a recent show at The Needle Vinyl Tavern.
Another music tip from Christian Anger. A dude named Bill Baird. Nice stuff.
I am not quite sure yet how to react to this one, but I found it intriguing at the very least. I’m pretty sure it’s the same Bill Baird, but is in another realm.
Crushed Out, in their full-on live glory!
Tricycle Records has turned me onto Lila Blue, a singer/songwriter out of the Bay Area. I see a lot of potential, especially in her voice. Two albums to her credit, both noteworthy. Here she is performing live. Like I said, a lot of potential (and it’s already plenty good enough).
For those who are always saying, hey, I could do that, no you can’t. Diet Cig and cohorts could, though, and did. A little pop for your brain.
New from The Secret Sisters…..
Sometimes the subject matter is everything. Here are Thee Holy Brothers doing their version of Elvis in Jerusalem. Curses, spotted again!
Most of you probably think Transylvania is a made-up place just for the movies but guess what? It really exists! Here is a documentary about a band, Zmei3, from the area. The more I see films like this, the more intrigued I am about the music of the world. I lifted this from PRI in the hopes that it would give them exposure. You can check them out at http://www.pri.org. If anyone from PRI objects to this posting, notify me and I will have it deleted. This is pretty cool stuff, though.
New video from The Curtis Mayflower culled from their latest album, Death Hoax.
Lisbee Stainton does not release music fast enough for me. She has a new album dropping April 21st, but no videos as of yet. Here is a live song from four years ago. By the way, the new album is titled Then Up and my money is on it being another in a growing string of primo albums.
Ladies & Gentlemen, Tift Merritt. I love this girl. Well, her music, anyways.
It wasn’t that long ago that Elephant Revival was opening for what I considered lesser bands. They have come a long, long way.
Shades of the mid-seventies.
Frank’s column appears every Tuesday
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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.”