Friday, October 27, 2006

It Rocks. It Rolls.

Several beliefs about rock music and my thoughts on them:

1. There's a difference between "rock 'n' roll" and "rock."

Yeah, but the difference is so trivial that I don't always bother making the distinction. A lot of people are all too willing to point out that, during the '60s, "rock 'n' roll" became "rock." The attitude changed, the music got heavier and more complex, the genre moved far away from what it had been originally. In 1969, Dick Clark proclaimed, "The roll is going back into rock 'n' roll," explaining that everyone had been trying so hard to get far-out in the psychedelic age that they'd forgotten to have fun. Maybe so, but some far-out psychedelia is fun: Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," anyone? Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men," if you please? Or maybe you're a "Strawberry Fields Forever" kind of person? Still, I agree with Clark that the "roll" is what makes rock 'n' roll so much fun. Complementary to the fun of it all—the roll—is the "rock," that dark, aggressive energy that makes the music so viscerally exciting. Therefore, I believe that "rock 'n' roll" is an attitude, a "let's make some noise and have a good time" ethic that doesn't belong to any particular era or generation. Then again, before it was a style of music, "rock 'n' roll" was a black American slang term for sex…but let's not go there.

2. There's a difference between "rock 'n' roll" and "rock and roll."

Yes, there is. The change in spelling was a bid to make the music more respectable. I think it fails to capture the true essence of the music, so I always say "rock 'n' roll." Some people choose to spell the term "rocknroll," but even I find that excessive!

3. Rock 'n' roll was never the same after the '50s.

Damn skippy. Rock 'n' roll had a lot of enemies in its infancy. The sound of this wild, raunchy music was offensive enough to the WASP American middle class mainstream, but the fact that it was derived directly from black styles such as blues and R&B led many of its white opponents to dub it "nigger music." Then there was payola, which was customary in the music business at the time—why were you wasting a deejay's or programmer's time if you weren't offering a little something for his troubles? And payola was technically not illegal until many powerful music industry figures, politicians, and others charged that it was the only reason rock 'n' roll was so popular. The payola crackdown was not helped by the actions of some of rock's pioneers, such as Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13-year-old cousin and Chuck Berry transporting a female minor across state lines. To make matters worse, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Eddie Cochran died young in tragic accidents, while Elvis got drafted and Little Richard decided he'd rather sing praises to the Lord. The years 1958-1960 almost killed rock 'n' roll. However...

4. Rock 'n' roll died in 1959 and was not revived until the British Invasion of 1964.

Sorry, not buyin' it. Yes, in response to all the backlash against rock 'n' roll, we got cutesy teen idols (actually, I always liked Bobby Rydell), elaborately-produced pop records passing for rock 'n' roll, and the addition of orchestration to rock records to "legitimize" them. Some of the best and most popular early '60s artists, such as Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney, straddled the fence between straight rock 'n' roll and big dramatic pop ballads. But then again, we had the pounding, growling sound of Freddy Cannon; the minor-keyed guitar-and-organ drive of Del Shannon; the hard Southern stomp of Gary U.S. Bonds; the doo-wop-on-steroids of Dion and the early Four Seasons; the R&B-infused Northwest grit of The Wailers and the early Paul Revere & The Raiders; and the seemingly endless stream of West Coast surf bands. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

5. Soul music is rock 'n' roll.

That’s a really grey area to me. I could rack my brain for a thousand years and never make up my mind on that. So let’s just call soul music "soul," okay? If I get the urge to shout "Rock 'n' roll!" next time I listen to Otis Redding, so be it.

6. Rap music is rock music.

How? It may be a distant relative of rock, but it ain't rock 'n' roll. I'm not some rock snob who hates rap; I just don't get a rock 'n' roll vibe from it. Rap-rock? Well, that's rock music that just so happens to have rapping in it.

7. Punk rock started with The Ramones—or at least Jonathan Richman.

I beg your pardon? Listen to ? & The Mysterians' "96 Tears," The Bluestars' "Social End Product," The Standells' "Riot On Sunset Strip," or probably anything by The Monks, just to name a few examples of pure punk rock from the '60s. And check out the double-LP (since transformed into a CD box set) that inspired the '70s punkers, Nuggets. In his liner notes to this collection of '60s DIY bands, compiler and future punk rocker Lenny Kaye said that the music contained therein had come to be known as "punk rock"—and that was in 1972, long before The Ramones released their debut album.

8. Bill Haley sucks.

Okay, I've read or heard so many variations of this that I must address each one individually.

a. Bill Haley didn't know what he was doing.

One listen to "Crazy Man Crazy," his self-penned breakthrough hit from 1953, should dispel that notion.

b. Bill Haley ripped off black people.

Yes, he did. So did Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and every other non-black performer who had anything to do with early rock 'n' roll. Rock came about as a combination of many different styles; folk, swing, and country were among them, but so were jazz, blues, and R&B. As for Haley covering black people's songs for white audiences, it was called racial segregation, folks. It was the order of the day in America at the time, and often the only way a black person's song would get heard by white people was if a white artist covered it. And yes, Haley had to water down the lyrics to "Shake Rattle and Roll"—black audiences welcomed sexually explicit lyrics, white audiences did not. Frankly, I prefer the lyrics to Haley's version because I find the original lyrics quite disgusting ("I can't believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you," and so forth). In any case, Bill Haley's appropriation of black music was unexceptional.

c. "Rock Around The Clock" is not rock 'n' roll.

Are you serious? Again, it's a combination of styles. You can't point to one specific sound and say, "That's early rock 'n' roll, period." "Rock Around The Clock" had a hard-hitting beat, a wild electric guitar solo, lyrics brimming with youthful hedonism, and a teenage audience that loved to dance to it. Sounds like a prime piece of '50s rock 'n' roll to me.

9. Johnny Cash was a pioneer of rock 'n' roll.

Johnny Cash was every bit as rock 'n' roll as he was country. He was transcendent not only in his music, but also his image and personal life. Country performers of his day wore white or light-colored clothing; he wore black. He lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle: got famous, became a drug addict, earned a reputation as a destructive figure, ran afoul of the law, found (or in his case, rediscovered) religion and cleaned himself up. He worked blues inflections and motifs into country music, and didn't much of early rock 'n' roll come from the mixture of country and blues? Anyone who had the brilliance to write and sing, "Get rhythm when you get the blues, get a rock 'n' roll feelin' in your bones" is alright in my rock 'n' roll book.

10. Rock 'n' roll brought the world together before "globalization" was a buzz word.

In the '60s, bands in Uruguay, Sweden, and Japan were trying to look and sound like The Beatles. So what do you think?

11. Singer-songwriters are part of the rock 'n' roll pantheon.

Depends on the artist. I like James Taylor as much as the next guy, but if I see one more feature on him in a "rock" book, I'll have all of my Beatles CDs converted into nipple rings.

12. SJ, in item #3 you said that payola was customary in the '50s as if it's now a thing of the past. But doesn't payola still run rampant in the industry to this day?

I swear I have no idea what you're talking about. Payola's been illegal since 1960. People don't do things that are illegal, especially as far as music is concerned.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 23, 2006

SuperJimenez To The Rescue!

The name SuperJimenez may conjure up images of a Mexican cartoon superhero, but it actually belongs to the latest Irish rock ‘n’ roll sensation. Surprised? Good. SuperJimenez would have it no other way. Their labyrinthine melodies and unconventional song structures take the listener on a musical rollercoaster ride, while their effortless transcendence of stylistic boundaries makes for a veritable tour of Planet Rock. After getting punky on their fantastic debut single “Helicopters,” they then get funky on “Come Out To Play.” The atmospheric “Hear You Now” resembles a late ‘80s U2 production minus Bono’s histrionic wailing, and “Beau” swings along on a poppy groove while retaining enough fire and fury to avoid slipping into bubblegumland. Just when you think SuperJimenez will rock you until you can’t be rocked anymore, they bring out the folky, acoustic “Birth of Venus,” complete with sparkling harmonies and gorgeous baroque guitar work.

It’s even a tad misleading to call the band Irish. Yes, singer/guitarist Ronan Cunningham, lead guitarist Rhys Domagala, bassist Nicholas O’Laoire, and drummer Daragh “Daz” Coen are based in Dublin. But Rhys is an Aussie who came to join SuperJimenez through the most unusual circumstances. “Quite a freaky story when I think it about it now,” he muses. “I came over to Ireland from Australia in October, 2005, and my first day in Dublin I rang this guy about a spare room, as I was in need of somewhere to live. This guy—Ronan—was actually looking for a guitarist for his band as well, so I ended up moving into the house and joining the band. What’s weird is that their old guitarist had quit the band about two days before I arrived in Dublin! And it was his room I moved into!”

From such a story, one can reasonably conclude that the members of SuperJimenez have a natural camaraderie that allows them to work together as a fully integrated unit. Although Ronan founded the band and sings lead, the creative process is a genuine group effort. As Rhys explains, “The songs are essentially written by Ronan. Generally he comes to practice with the song and lyric and then we work on it as a band. The songs often change direction at this point with each of our contributions. For example, the noted rhythm in ‘Helicopters’ (da da da, da da da, etc.) was Nick’s contribution to that song, I wrote the lead guitar hook in ‘Beau,’ and Daz funked up ‘Come Out To Play’ with his drumming giving it a new feel. With all of our songs it’s an ongoing process!”

Ronan’s lyrics capture the angst and alienation of youth and the uncertainty of living in these turbulent times. Yet there is always a hint of optimism in the proceedings. In “Helicopters” he proclaims, “I sense the sweetest times between the parachutes, the deadly routes, the start of something new!” “Fearing the worst, I can’t curse myself. I cannot say what I want when I feel. [...] Come out to play,” he pleads in the obvious. In the chorus of “Beau” he declares, “I’m just a past time for her” and asks, “When is she expecting me to falter?” But he then explains that “once she’s got it” he wants to be “the one to rock her.” Ronan’s voice is lucid and buoyant, while his bandmates add texture with their distinctive harmonies. The band’s tight ensemble playing on the mostly uptempo material is enough to make a statue want to dance.

Don’t think this group’s talent has gone unnoticed. After they inked a deal with the Irish indie Reekus Records, “Helicopters” was released to rave reviews and garnered much airplay. An impressive run in the Irish Top 20 allowed SuperJimenez to enjoy more success their first time out than many bands experience after years in the business. Are they striking out for other territories yet? “We’re currently in talks with a couple of labels in the UK,” says Rhys. “We’re working with an English producer and feel that the UK is the obvious place for our music.” That producer is the famed Adrian Bushby, who is overseeing sessions for an album that should be finished by next spring. Meanwhile, check out SuperJimenez’s MySpace page,, for streaming audio and information on how to purchase the band’s music.

Many thanks to Rhys Domagala for the stories, interviews, and song lyrics.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

[July 16, 2007 update: The first two singles by SuperJimenez have been available on digital music services such as iTunes and Napster for quite some time since the publication of this article. The band's first album is now slated to be released in January, 2008. Visit for more news and music.]

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Winter Child For All Seasons

When Matt Duke was a teenager, he wanted to get an album out by the age of 21. Now he’s 21—and he has an album out. Sometimes dreams do come true.

I first became aware of Matt after he was signed by MAD Dragon Records, an imprint formed by Philly’s own Drexel University to give music students first-hand experience in running a label. In case you’re wondering, “MAD” is the College of Media Arts and Design, while “Dragon” refers to Drexel’s mascot, Mario The Dragon. So, have I made it painfully obvious that I went to Drexel…or what? In 2005, MAD Dragon placed a few of Matt’s songs on XYX, a compilation which also featured fellow singer/songwriters Trisha O’Keefe and Julia Othmer. Matt still considers this a great experience, albeit one with a downside: “We had to go on the road a bunch as a songwriter circle. The thing that always bothered me about that was that nobody could ever understand that it was a songwriter circle. They always thought we were a band.”

I understood that “XYX” wasn’t a band, and when I saw Matt and Trisha for the first time—Julia Othmer was absent from that particular gig—I was immediately hooked on these fine young talents. They’ve since gone their separate ways, and now Matt is celebrating the still-recent release of his debut album, Winter Child. I’ve followed him for almost one and a half years now, and as good as his recordings are, they cannot compare to the unpredictable thrill of his live shows. You never know what songs he’ll play, how he’ll play them, or even in what order he’ll play them. However, he has had two CD release parties—one in New York, the other in Philadelphia—and both were full band shows. How does he feel about that? “I think that full band shows, for me, help to keep me grounded,” he replies, but he’s quick to add, “When we were rehearsing, one of the main things that I did try to get the two of them to do—meaning [drummer] Nathan Barnett and [bassist] Dane Klein—was that they need to be able to complement a certain amount of spontaneity as well.” In spite of this drive for spontaneity, Matt’s set lists have become somewhat more restricted by the release of a new album; he hardly ever plays some of his older songs anymore. As he explains it, “I just think it’s a time thing, as you move forward there’s just certain ones that you give a little more weight to that may be a little more relevant to where you are at any given time. Obviously, with this record, I’ll be kind of focusing in on a lot more of those tracks.” Even with tighter reins, Matt is still a wonder to behold on stage, as he contorts, convulses, screams hysterically, and makes all manner of strange faces—even though he’d rather not. “The faces are totally unintentional,” he admits with some embarrassment. “I do not like to see pictures of myself at the shows. I can’t take it. ‘Cause I know that I make weird faces, but I can’t help it.”

One listen to Matt’s music lends credence to his biography’s claim that he counts artists like Jeff Buckley and Damien Rice among his main influences. But those are fairly obvious; I hear something funky in his grooves, especially live, and he even throws ‘60s soul covers into his sets on occasion. I had to ask him to what extent R&B music influences him. His response was surprising: “Growing up with my dad’s sort of music, we listened to a lot of The Band, Blood Sweat and Tears, Earth Wind and Fire, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, Sam Cooke. So I went through a potpourri of music. All those things, in one way or another, help shape you in the way you approach music.”

Still, Winter Child is a smooth blend of folk, rock, and pop with dazzling songs that often draw their inspiration from outside sources. “Don’t Ask (For Too Much)” (which differs significantly from the XYX version) is about an old friend of his whose father died abruptly; “Listen To Your Window” was written about a girl who was hopelessly in love with someone who had no such feelings for her. Yet Matt writes and sings these songs in the first person. “I think that human beings are generally by nature—depending on whom you happen to meet in your lifetime—we’re empathetic to certain types of situations,” he explains. “I mean, ‘Listen To Your Window’ is about obsession, and everybody at one point or another has experienced a feeling similar to that. Maybe not to that great of a degree, but we’ve absolutely felt it.”

Matt is also a voracious reader, so it’s not surprising that some of his songs are based in classic literature. He was so floored by Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” that he wrote “Ballroom Dancing” as a musical encapsulation of its essence. “The Love We’ll Never Know” namechecks Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Matt’s thinking behind the song—and the theory of natural selection—is striking: “The basic feel centers around the fundamental truth that we, in essence, are animals—a glorified species of animal that still succumbs to the instinctual need to survive. In that sense, love is a fruitless pursuit because natural selection and evolution would tell us that we must constantly adapt and protect ourselves in order to survive.” With a song about evolution on board, it’s only fitting to include an opus on the subject of religion. But with lines like “My tongue is tied from reciting inspired Bible verses and bullshit lies,” “Tidal Waves” is bound to rattle some cages. Maybe I’m just taking it too seriously. Matt: “It is a general idea that God isn’t there—a very nihilistic (or realistic, depending on who you ask) view about a higher power. We all, at one point or another, question the existence of God or an omnipotent spiritual deity, but the idea of the song is that sometimes we can get really hung up over it and that’s a very unhealthy thing. The fact of the matter is that we will never have all of the answers, but we can certainly bide our time and continue growing through questioning all the way up until we are dead and gone.”

Like all singer/songwriters, Matt comes up with some of his most intriguing material when he turns inward for inspiration. The anti-utopian “Yellow Lights” came about in a most unusual manner: “I’d written a song that was from a very anti-war, anti-conservative, more pro-humanitarian sort of—looking at life and looking at things as an ideal sort of way, like the way that we should approach the use of our land and everything like that. I figured it would be fun to rebuttal myself!” He couldn’t help throwing in another literary reference; the line “I think Henry would probably be proud” is a nod to Thoreau. As for the anti-conservative song, Matt didn’t record it—or the other anti-conservative song he wrote. In his opinion, neither was as good as “Yellow Lights.” Maybe fate’s trying to tell him something about his political views.

One thing that makes Matt’s songs so exciting is that they’re usually anything but typical. Rarely does a Matt Duke composition follow a standard verse-verse-chorus formula, and Matt almost never gives his songs obvious titles. The words “Don’t Ask (For Too Much)” don’t even appear in that song, much less in that order. “I’m actually not that good at writing titles,” Matt confesses. “I can write a body of work, but as far as a title that might accompany what the feel of the song is, I have a much harder time figuring out titles or trying to label what the song is.” So imagine my surprise when I heard Winter Child’s lead single “Oysters,” a simple tune with a verse-verse-chorus structure and an obvious title. I had no choice but to ask him whether he was trying to write a radio-friendly single. Matt’s response proved me wrong…sort of: “I know what the formula is for a radio hit single, all that crap, that Top 40 bullshit structure, I know what that formula is. And I think that most songwriters tend to avoid it, but as far as having just a fun single song, we wanted something that we could pitch to radio. I really, really like that song. I just think it made me happy to use such an absurd metaphor as oysters and pearls, and to do something so absurd as to do a whistling solo for the bridge. We’re pulling out, like, ‘Top 40 101,’ but in a very tongue-in-cheek sort of way, I guess.” The idea of turning the mainstream on its head even applies to the song’s out-of-left-field lyrics. “I’ve found a lot of oysters these days/And with all comes a pearl and a pretty hard shell to break” is a takeoff on the old adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

As impressive as Winter Child is, there is one glaring omission. The exquisite “Weeping Winds” was featured on XYX and has become one of Matt’s most enduring tunes. His impassioned live performances of it always bring down the house, with his loyal fans invariably mouthing along as he belts out the lyrics. So why wasn’t it reprised for Winter Child? “Weeping Winds is one of my favorite tracks that I’ve written. In the format that it was recorded, I don’t necessarily want to feel like I have to re-record it over and over again the more that I do it. Once it was done, it was done.”

With his two MAD Dragon releases and much touring of the East Coast and the South, Matt has built up a sizable following. His biggest audience can be found in Philadelphia and his native South Jersey, but he is definitely in demand in other areas as well. His records have national distribution, but his popularity is still regional. How does he feel about the regional-versus-national dynamic? “The most important thing is that you do set up a regional fan base. That is the most important thing because then you have a home base, you have a very solid following, and it’s a place where you can kind of explore different musical options and also you know that in the financial scheme of things you can do fairly okay for yourself. But everybody ultimately wants to be able to manifest farther across this country in whatever direction they’re heading, and also maybe even on an international level, they do wanna be heard, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. So it is always important to focus on the regional stuff.”

Regionally or nationally, Matt Duke is an artist on the move, and deservedly so. And like a fine wine, Vermont cheddar, or William Shatner, Matt Duke gets better with age. The future for this budding young talent looks bright indeed, but even in the present he has already built up a fine body of recorded work and a history of many wonderful live shows. If you doubt me, just ask any member of his loyal following.

For more info and to hear Matt’s music:

Many thanks to Matt Duke for the interview and associated correspondences.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Spotlight On: Andrew James

Andrew James is a singer and songwriter—but the term “singer/songwriter” does not do him justice. The British tunesmith has more of a rock edge than we normally associate with the singer/songwriter subgenre, but his pop-friendly hooks and graceful piano work keep the songs grounded. While his extremely talented supporting players rock behind him, he lets loose with rich, soulful vocals that glide across his sweeping melodies. He has an impressive vocal range, effortlessly switching from a smooth falsetto to a full-bodied baritone. When he makes a vocal downward swoop, as on the chorus of “Scared To Fall Down,” he takes you down the spiral staircase with him. James’ songs paint a picture of a man who has fought personal demons, doomed relationships, and an utter lack of control over the state of his world—yet he has overcome all of those things and finally found salvation. The lyrics are sometimes loaded with multiple meanings. Is “I Can’t Fight” about drug addiction, alcoholism, or unrequited love? One could simply ask him, but part of the song’s appeal is that it leaves the listener guessing. And with beguiling couplings like “Feel like I could lie undetected/Feel like I could die unprotected” (from “Safe As Houses”), James is sure to pull you into his world and keep you in his grasp until he’s sure you’ve got his message. At first listen he may remind you of David Gray, but it soon becomes clear that Andrew James is a talent all his own. Don’t miss out on him.

More info and music:

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.