Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Spotlight On: Downtown Harvest

Cities like Philadelphia have wildly bustling music scenes in and around them, to the point that one can easily be tempted to look at a band like Downtown Harvest and, with nary a listen to their music, write them off as just another Philly band sweating it out in an overcrowded market. That, however, would be a colossal mistake. Here are four guys who know no boundaries. Across their two albums, they mix rock, funk, hip-hop, disco, R&B, jazz, rap, and electronica as if those genres are all one in the same. Electric guitars, keyboards, saxophones, and all sorts of percussive gimmicks drive most of the band’s arrangements. Each of DTH’s vocalists has his own distinctive sound, making for some attention-grabbing harmonies and vocal interplay. The band’s songs often employ sudden tempo changes, stops and starts, and other structural quirks, while their lyrics range from mysteriously poetic to downright unintelligible. In other words, if you’re looking for the next big thing in mainstream rock, keep looking. But if you’re looking for something truly different in a world of seemingly endless sameness, look no further.

Here’s the breakdown of DTH’s albums, both available from Malogna Records:

Downtown Harvest (2006): Impossible to categorize and quietly off-the-wall from start to finish. A subtle, fun album whose tracks tend to sound custom-made for a small houseparty. The presence of a continuous song sequence towards the end illustrates the point that this is more of a free-flowing, full-length statement than a collection of individual songs. Highlights of Downtown Harvest include the low key, mood-shifting “Rubber Band Song”; the funky “Hurry Before Worry”; “Hills of Beverly,” with its dreamlike new wave textures; the goofy quasi-electronica of “B.O.B”; and “Rattle On,” which has a lethargic, rootsy feel.

Golden Dragon (2007): Louder and more in-your-face than Downtown Harvest, Golden Dragon has more of a straight-ahead rock sound on its first several tracks, reserving its most daring experiments for its second half. Not as much of a cohesive statement as Downtown Harvest, but an entertaining collection with many strong tunes. Highlights include the kaleidoscopic “Full Circle”; “Something Elephants,” a bouncy, absurdist take on indie rock; the heavy New Orleans sound of “Four Hundo”; the psychedelic blues-rock of “MDK”; and “Clockwork Tangerines,” whose multi-movement construction is quite classical in nature. (No comments on the liner notes, which are said to resemble a Chinese food menu—this review is based on an advance press copy without full packaging.)

For music and more information:

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Funky Fresh Jersey Girl

How to describe the music of Laura Cheadle? It’s probably best understood as a rich stew—or, in the sweltering heat in which I am writing this, a summer salad—the recipe for which goes something like this: two cups of old-school soul; one and a half cups of acoustic singer/songwriter; one cup of classic pop; one tablespoon of rock ‘n’ roll; jazz and blues to taste. Best served funky.

The 21-year-old songstress grew up in a heavily musical family, which put her in a position to either love music or hate music. Fortunately, she took the former course: “Music is my life and is so natural and medicating to me,” she explains. “I need it just the same as I need air to breathe. I can't imagine living without it and I am thrilled to have grown up in such a musical environment.” Laura’s comments on the making of her current studio album, Falling In, reveal that music is still largely a family affair for this Jersey girl: “The main musicians [on Falling In] are myself on rhythm guitar and vocals, my father James S. Cheadle on keyboards, my brother Jimmy Lee Cheadle on lead guitar, Dave Sikorski on bass, Bill Grillo on drums and Justin Hirsch on percussion. […] I wrote all of the music originally on my acoustic guitar so it was a blast making this album with a live band.”

The songs on Falling In deal with the usual themes of love, lust, infatuation, and separation, but there is no mistaking this for a typical “been there, done that” affair by yet another pretty girl with a guitar. First off, there’s Laura’s smoky voice, which veers from a sultry, seductive whisper to an electrifying gospel-tinged shout. Then there’s her songcraft, based on ringing, textured guitar chords with jazzy chromatics, often employing tempo changes and slightly unorthodox chord sequences. “I taught myself how to play the guitar at age 15 and I don't really have a conventional way of writing or playing,” she says with some amusement. “I wrote all of these songs during different times of my life and just developed a style that felt like me.” Indeed, that style carries over to her lyrics, which often contain stream-of-consciousness musings related in a strangely poetic manner. For example, “Perfect Design” offers pairings like “I take you in my lips, devourin' every inch/Your charm and your mind, your whole perfect design”—phrases so pure and delicate I hesitate to apply such a stark label as “sexually explicit” to them. “Midst Of Your Mystery” is even more hauntingly down-to-earth: “It was kinda scary when the car said check engine/You just smiled and reassured we'd be just fine […] Deep down I wish we woulda got stranded, just to spend another moment with you.”

When combined with the musicianship of her band and her father’s production, Laura’s songs get transformed into intriguing sonic collages. “Bright and Beautiful” combines the funk of a vintage Stevie Wonder track with a summery breeziness reminiscent of Malo’s “Suavecito.” And that’s only part of the story. Laura: “For ‘Bright and Beautiful,’ we kept my music how it was written on the guitar but randomly decided to put a ‘jazz break’ in the middle of the song. I LOVE how it turned out.” The album’s title track starts off like the greatest ballad that Dionne Warwick never recorded, only to jump into a hip-swaying dance groove along the lines of War on happy juice. “Midst Of Your Mystery” marries the ethereal atmosphere of Rachael Yamagata’s gentler songs to the down-and-dirty sound of a bluesy bar band, while “Love Map” brings in a country flavor on its swinging choruses. According to Laura, “that was not intentional. My acoustic version of [“Love Map”] does not sound country at all. My brother Jimmy Lee enjoys country music and he was playing that guitar riff on the album.”

Two of the selections on Falling In differ so notably from the rest of the album that they deserve special mention. The ominous, minor-keyed “Replaying” is a quietly dramatic pop opus whose sound exists out of place and time, and Laura told me that it strikes a special chord with her: “I wrote ‘Replaying’ a few years ago and it's about a love that I had to let go of. I enjoy how this song came out because the music matches my emotion at the time. It's one of my favorite tracks on my CD because I was actually crying during the vocal.” Equally eerie is the acoustic “Surrounded,” whose lyrics are atypically abstract: “Affection takes over my world/All is surrounded by a single girl. Will she wander to an escape?/Cluttered with worries, there’s no steps to take.” Naturally, Laura can account for the singularity of this particular tune: “I wrote ‘Surrounded’ after my album was finished and about to be released. I went back in the studio to lay it down just to have it. I then decided to make it a bonus track. Many of my songs are love songs, but I wrote ‘Surrounded’ completely about life. I woke up with it in my head and wrote it down. It's really about figuring out different parts of your life and trying not to worry about what happens next.”

So that’s Laura Cheadle as an in-studio recording artist. But Laura Cheadle is more than just an in-studio recording artist; she’s a personality. For one thing, she is an eccentric free spirit. Friend her on MySpace and it’ll be just a matter of time before she fills your message center with random bulletins informing you of her latest road trip or the last Tower of Power concert she attended. She even poses all sorts of—you guessed it—random questions to her fans and shares photos and drawings in her bulletins and blogs. It’s clear that she believes strongly in being connected to her fans, which the internet allows her to do with some semblance of ease. However, it is in person that Laura gets to make the ultimate connection with her funky followers.

Whether you see Laura acoustically or with her live band (also featuring her dad and her bro), she is sure to get wrapped up in a world of her own, letting each song take her and propel her into a realm understandable only by those who truly feel the power of her music. In an acoustic setting, she lets the raw emotion of her songs do the talking. With a full band behind her, she takes control of the stage, shaking and swaying every inch of her dancer’s form to every single beat of the music. Either way, she banters freely with the audience, displaying a natural charm and a quirky sense of humor—both hard to resist. And in that moment when she looks out into the crowd and sees you dancing or singing along to her music and she engages your eyes, lingers for a moment, and winks, it is far beyond a mere connection. It is a genuine spiritual exchange. Or at least that’s my perspective as a fan. Happily, Laura’s perspective as the artist is similar: “Live performances are my favorite! The rush from the crowd is incredible and you get to be so spontaneous with the arrangements of music and performance. I live to perform. Acoustic shows are a great intimate setting where you can tell the crowd where [and] when each song was written. Full band shows are amazing because I get to dance and really stretch out vocally. I also love having that musical connection with all of my bandmates where we don't have to say a single word during a performance, yet we know exactly what each other is thinking.”

What’s next on the horizon for this rising young star? “I finished my brand new song ‘10 Weeks of Immortality’ and that is up on my MySpace page for a listen. I am working on a new album, which will probably be finished by next year or so. I have been writing like crazy and feel like I just keep growing and growing. I went away on vacation last week and wrote four more songs.” She adds, smiling, “It's hard to say how each song will turn out because I am getting inspired more and more every single day.”

In the meantime, Falling In is readily available in CD form and on iTunes, and Laura also has a fun(ky) live CD which you can order directly from her. At the time of this writing, there are also some highly entertaining videos on her MySpace profile (“The MySpace Funk” has to be seen to be believed). It is fortunate that Laura Cheadle’s music can be accessed so easily in this high-tech digital world, for she is an artist who has it all: the looks, the moves, the charisma, and the TALENT to back it all up.

Or, to put it more simply: Laura Cheadle is bright and beautiful.

For music and more information:

Many thanks to Laura Cheadle for the interview.

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.