Tuesday, December 23, 2008

ONA Year In Review: 2008


That's the first word that comes to mind when looking back on this year.

I often wondered about the fate of One Note Ahead, thinking it might simply fall by the wayside as more pressing obligations took up time that I would have otherwise spent blogging. I needn't have worried. True, the posts on ONA became less frequent and, until September, fewer in number. But in the process, the quality improved. I stopped writing whatever I could think to write just for the sake of having something new here, and I never had to remove anything I posted in 2008.

2008 was also the year in which One Note Ahead finally started to receive the respect I always thought it deserved. Artists who'd gotten plenty of press elsewhere told me how thrilled they were to be reviewed favorably here. People in radio complimented my writings and record executives sought out and expressed appreciation for my services as a reviewer. My circle of frequent readers grew to include some extremely discriminating music connoisseurs! There's a definite sense that this blog is making a difference just by existing, and that makes it all worthwhile.

On the minus side, I've had less time to devote to interviews, works of history, and the quirky opinion pieces that used to add more diversity to One Note Ahead. But the review-dominated format of 2008 was simply an accident of fate, not a deliberate attempt at a makeover. In other words, One Note Ahead remains open to whatever I deem suitable.

And now, a few of 2008's ups and downs.

Words I must never use in 2009: "wonderful," "energy," "intriguing," and unless absolutely necessary, "rock" and "roll." Of course, I'll continue to overuse all of those words anyway.

My favorite ONA lines from 2008:

But in person, the four-man outfit in the tight-fitting clothes played an exciting fusion style combining the aggressiveness of rock with the feel-good energy of roll. Or, as I told the band’s product manager and their street team leader after the show, “The Redwalls are amazing!!!!” (from The Music Breathing Dragon)

This was the day when I started thinking I didn't have the easygoing disposition necessary for a festival of this type and magnitude, and I seriously wondered whether I'd actually make it through all four days. But this was also the day that one of the food vendors told me I looked "chill." I am most definitely NOT a "chill" person, but this was such a "chill" festival that the, um, chills must have been rubbing off on me. (about Day Two of the XPN Festival, from XPoNential Value)

"She's basically Roy Orbison as a Jersey Girl, so I have no choice but to love her." That's how I described the fabulous Nicole Atkins to friends who were not familiar with her. I also told people that if I went to this festival and missed Nicole, I would not forgive myself. Even the most ardent advocates of forgiveness would have understood my sentiments if they'd seen Nicole and her band The Sea at the XPoNential Fest. (about Day Three of the XPN Festival, also from XPoNential Value)

I didn't dare go to the meet and greet line because that thing was long enough to extend all the way to hell and back. (about Back Door Slam on Day Four of the XPN Festival, also from XPoNential Value)

Oh, the joys of being a music industry insider! One Note Ahead favorite Matt Duke’s second album won’t be released to the general public until September 23rd, but my fellow insiders have been giving me their opinions of it for nearly four-and-a-half months! (from Album Review: A Duke And His Kingdom)

Give me a Jersey Girl who lists Gene Pitney among her influences and dedicates her most sarcastic material to Paris Hilton, and I might forget to check whether she has any actual talent before declaring myself her biggest fan. Well, singer/songwriter/guitarist April Smith is a Jersey Girl. She lists Gene Pitney among her influences. She dedicates her most sarcastic material to Paris Hilton. Oh, I hope she has talent......(he listens closely to her music)......yes! She has talent! (from EP Review: April All Year Long)

In a more electrified vein, "Get It Over With" is actually a simple pop song at heart, frosted, drizzled, and sprinkled with a bewildering series of stops and starts and impenetrable layers of solid sound. In its own strange way, it's one of the best tracks on the album. (from Album Review: Lipke, Volume Three)

One thing I love about Ingrid is her sense of humor. Another is her down-to-earth charm. In these performances of her hit "The Way I Am," both qualities just pour out of her like water out of a.....thing that you carry water around in and that thing got a hole in it and the water started pouring out. (from ONA Live: Ingrid Michaelson)

If it ain't one thing, it's another: About Gillian Grassie's only full-length album to date, I wrote that "
choosing the 'worst song' on Serpentine makes as much sense as picking out the 'fattest woman' in a room full of Victoria’s Secret models." I got in trouble for that line, of course, but I still stand by it. Come on, a room full of Victoria's Secret models? The "fattest woman" in that bunch would still be skinny, just as the "worst song" on Serpentine would still be good. Sheesh. (See the infamous piece, which Gillian actually liked, here and also here.)

Must-Hear Track of the Year: "Get It Over With" by Andrew Lipke. I'd heard the song live many times, but the recording took me by surprise. The juxtaposition of alt-rock motifs with classical elements, the free-flowing execution of such a rigidly constructed song and arrangement, and the daring length all make this track a truly surreal experience in the best way possible. And not to slight anyone else involved in this recording, but it would be nowhere near as memorable without Krista Nielsen's otherwordly cello and Dave Perrin's fancy drumming.

Breakout Star of the Year: Jake Snider. When I was in high school, I was making crude lo-fi DIY recordings and singing in front of my classmates in the school auditorium. But in the same stage of his life, Jake Snider has already made a professional EP and played proper gigs at major venues in the Philadelphia area. And why the hell not? He is an accomplished singer, songwriter, and keyboardist who posesses more raw talent and professionalism than an embarrassingly large percentage of today's hottest chart-toppers. And in the mere eight months since I discovered him, he's just gotten better! This guy's got what it takes to go all the way. Read my review of his EP here (and here, for that matter).

Overall, I'm quite pleased with the way One Note Ahead has evolved in 2008 and I am extremely happy about the music and musicians featured on the blog! I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported One Note Ahead in some way. I'm ready for 2009, and I can only imagine what will be in store for ONA in the coming year. Until then, I hope you enjoy whatever holidays you may be celebrating this time of the year, and stay tuned! I don't plan on going anywhere yet....

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

ONA Live: Ingrid Michaelson

The grand finale is upon us, and what better way to end this year's roundup of live videos than with a few good laughs?

To which some music critics would retort, "Laughs? Because Ingrid Michaelson's music is a joke?"

But not me! If you read my XPN festival blog, you know how and when I became a card-carrying Ingrid fan. Well, actually there's no card, but maybe there should be. One thing I love about Ingrid is her sense of humor. Another is her down-to-earth charm. In these performances of her hit "The Way I Am," both qualities just pour out of her like water out of a.....thing that you carry water around in and that thing got a hole in it and the water started pouring out.


Here is the "Rap Remix" (yes, "Rap Remix") from "The Bob & Tom Show" earlier this year:

But THIS is pure gold, although whoever filmed it does seem to be fixated on singer/guitarist Allie Moss.....at any rate, this bit of goofing around took place at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston on May 15th, 2008:

I last covered Ingrid Michaelson in Day Four of my XPN festival blog: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2008/07/xponential-value.html

And that does it for this year's edition of One Note Ahead Live. Like what you saw? Dislike what you saw? Wonder why your favorite wasn't included? Please send me some feedback. After all, the feedback I got last year inspired me to do this again.

Thanks for watching! We now return to your regularly scheduled One Note Ahead.

ONA Live: Matt Duke

So I gave Matt Duke's latest album Kingdom Underground the most negative review I've ever given an album on One Note Ahead. But I still had nice things to say about at least six out of the ten songs! I was a big Matt Duke fan when I wrote that review and I still am. You can imagine my dismay in not being able to find any great live videos of songs from KU. But this amateur video of Matt laying down an acoustic "I've Got Atrophy On The Brain" does have its own quirky charm. Besides, I witnessed this performance in person at MilkBoy Coffee in Ardmore, PA on July 21, 2007, so it holds special significance to me.

My infamous Kingdom Underground review: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2008/09/album-review-duke-and-his-kingdom.html

The grand finale is next!

ONA Live: April Smith

So far, we've seen that a lot of Philly-based artists like to play in New York City. Well, it's time to get even.....

Seriously, Jersey girl April Smith is currently based in New York City, but she is a favorite in certain circles here in Philadelphia. They just can't get enough of her on "The 10! Show," a local morning variety series from which this February 12, 2008 performance and interview was taken. I remember watching this on TV, lamenting the fact that the lousy weather was keeping me from seeing her in person at the Northern Liberties Winter Music Festival that night. (Proving that it is a small world after all, Andrew Lipke was also on the bill for that night of the festival.)

They love her in Asbury Park, NJ as well. Here's a cool stripped-down version of "Wow And Flutter" from The Saint, August 15, 2008:

"Stripped-down" was perhaps too appropriate a term for that song.....

April Smith on One Note Ahead: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2008/09/ep-review-april-all-year-long.html

The party continues!

ONA Live: The Redwalls

I've already written plenty about these guys this year, so let's get on with the rock 'n' roll!

Here are The Redwalls playing "Modern Diet" on "The Late Show with David Letterman," January 23, 2008. The guitarist who opens up the number is Andrew Langer, who recently left the band. The remaining members are Logan & Justin Baren and Rob Jensen. Since I've previously remarked about the Barens' personalities, I'll point out that Logan is singing lead here and Justin is singing harmony.

I first covered The Redwalls in my MAD Dragon Records blog: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2008/02/music-breathing-dragon.html

I last covered The Redwalls in Day Two of my XPN festival blog: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2008/07/xponential-value.html

ONA Live ain't over yet!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

ONA Live: Nicole Atkins

A major label artist who's toured internationally and appeared on top-rated TV programs would normally not be considered a candidate for inclusion on One Note Ahead, but my blog about this year's XPN festival broke all the rules. And Nicole Atkins actually thanked me for what I wrote about her, which is more than I can say for some artists who need the publicity a lot more than she does. So if she appreciates being featured on One Note Ahead, why not keep featuring her?

Well, if she suddenly started sucking, that would be a good reason. But let's hope that doesn't happen.

On my 27th birthday (that would be September 16, 2008) Nicole Atkins and The Sea performed the splendid "Maybe Tonight" on the British series "Later with Jools Holland." As Jools himself would say, "Nicole Atkins! Marvelous!"

I'll make a shocking confession: "The Way It Is" is not one of my favorite Nicole Atkins songs to listen to. But it IS one of my favorites in a live setting! This October 30, 2007 clip from "The Late Show with David Letterman" should demonstrate why:

Yeah, Dave was so obviously smitten!

I last covered Nicole Atkins in Day Three of my XPN festival blog: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2008/07/xponential-value.html

Stick around for more One Note Ahead Live.

ONA Live: Andrew Lipke

I don't know what's up with Andrew Lipke. I had to exclude him from last year's One Note Ahead Live because I couldn't find any high-quality live videos of him. Now there are a few, but nowhere near as many as there should be. So I present to you these two solo acoustic performances captured at The Bitter End in NYC on June 4, 2008. These clips lack the awesomeness of Andrew's band The Prospects (formerly known as Bandrew), and they don't necessarily show that Andrew is precisely 20 feet tall, but they're good for what they are.

"On My Way":

"The Barker Song," which I like to call "The Bob Barker Song" (apparently I'm not the only one):

Both of these songs are on Andrew's new album Motherpearl and Dynamite, which I reviewed here: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2008/10/album-review-lipke-volume-three.html

Stay tuned! We'll be right back after these messages.....

ONA Live: Gillian Grassie

On stage, the beautiful Gillian Grassie radiates such warmth as she gently infuses every word with emotion while lovingly caressing her harp.....and patiently tolerating an intransigent mic stand.

Can a mic stand be considered intransigent?

You can decide for yourself as you enjoy this performance of "Silken String," one of my favorite GG songs. This was filmed at The Bitter End in New York City during the November 6th finale of the New York Songwriters Circle's 2008 Songwriting Contest. You might like to know that Gillian won 2nd place!

Gillian Grassie on One Note Ahead: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2008/09/spotlight-on-gillian-grassie.html

The very same piece was also published on Crunkbox: http://www.crunkbox.com/articles/articles/131/1/Spotlight-On-Gillian-Grassie/Page1.html

More One Note Ahead Live coming up!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

ONA Live: The Brakes

I wasn't sure who should go next in this year's compilation of live video clips. Seeing The Brakes last night made my decision easy. No band has a right to be as tight and accomplished as they are in a live setting. It's fitting that their current album, Tale Of Two Cities (Hyena Records), is a collection of live performances from their spring 2007 residencies at New York's Knitting Factory and MilkBoy Coffee in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, PA. The album's strong musicianship includes the drumming of Josh Sack, who unfortunately passed away in May of this year after putting up what sounds like a hell of a fight against leukemia. His legacy looms large in the consciousness of The Brakes and their fans, but the band plays on with Spence Cohen aptly filling Josh's shoes for the time being. Here's Spence with Zach Djanikian, Matt Kass, Adam Flicker, and Derek Feinberg playing "Danger Blues" at NYC's Mercury Lounge on June 2, 2008:

I last covered The Brakes in Day Two of my XPN festival blog: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2008/07/xponential-value.html

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

ONA Live: The Swimmers

Last year's One Note Ahead Live! was a simple concept: post some live video clips of ONA artists so my readers can see what these folks are like in concert. It was so well-received that I'm doing it again this year, only bigger and better. Instead of posting all the videos in one blog entry, I will devote a separate blog entry to each artist. Some artists will get more than one video, if there are enough good videos available and if the mood strikes me. The selection of artists will draw from across the One Note Ahead spectrum: longtime ONA favorites who've been featured here within the past year, artists who were formally reviewed here since the last ONA live roundup, and some of the acts I included in my XPN festival blog.

Let's begin with The Swimmers. Now, any band can play a song live. But it takes a special type of band to play a song live.........while marching and rolling a piano through the streets of Philadelphia:

Heaven [live]

The Swimmers on One Note Ahead: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2008/03/album-review-swimming-into-trees.html

Stay tuned for more One Note Ahead Live in these last weeks of November.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Album Review: Lipke, Volume Three

"Bodies broken by the roadside, sad to say it's nothin' new to me/I'll offer up a piece of advice: if you close your eyes, you never have to see." (from "On My Way")

One Note Ahead favorite Andrew Lipke currently has just one word in the "Sounds Like" section of his MySpace page: chutney. And nothing sounds more like chutney than his third album, Motherpearl and Dynamite, which drops on November 11th. More consistent than his first (Ghosts) and more demanding than his second (The Way Home...), Motherpearl is an intriguing effort whose highlights far outnumber its misfires.

Indeed, by my count there are only one and a half misfires to be found among the album's nine tracks. The half-misfire appears in the form of "Forgive and Forget." The lyrics are unusually mundane by Andrew's standards, and the melody is not ideally suited to his voice or range, but this recording of it does have a pleasant rootsy sound. I'm afraid I can't even be that kind to his Neil Young cover, "After The Goldrush." Andrew most definitely should not have tried to sing the song in Neil Young's key, and he doesn't help matters by leading The Prospects (formerly known as Bandrew) through a tedious arrangement.

Happily, the remaining tracks rise to a much higher level. Andrew has always split his energies between folk and rock, and this album contains some of his finest work in both genres. The best folky numbers on Motherpearl are all quietly intense ruminations on life and death. The haunting "On My Way" is my personal favorite, while "Flesh and Bone" is alarmingly nonchalant considering its weighty subject matter.

In a more electrified vein, "Get It Over With" is actually a simple pop song at heart, frosted, drizzled, and sprinkled with a bewildering series of stops and starts and impenetrable layers of solid sound. In its own strange way, it's one of the best tracks on the album. "The Barker Song" aptly fills a niche for quick-and-dirty rock 'n' roll, with wry lyrics and a quirky vocal. But for pure drama, nothing on the album can measure up to "Mindgames," a complex and disturbingly accurate analysis of sexual psychology in which Andrew's affinity for '90s alt-rock collides head-on with his love of Led Zeppelin. Andrew's blistering Rickenbacker solo should go down in history as one of the greatest rock guitar solos of all time.

The self-produced Motherpearl is Andrew's second album for MAD Dragon Records, and it seems to be getting more of a promotional push than his MAD Dragon debut The Way Home... ever received. In a sense, this is unfortunate. Home... contained many great songs that were also ultra-commercial. Motherpearl has a lot of strong material, but aside from "The Barker Song," nothing on it really sounds like an obvious single. Thus, while this album will likely receive more attention than its predecessor, it probably won't become the breakthrough its predecessor could have been.

Andrew Lipke's Motherpearl and Dynamite: the perfect addition to your next samosa tray.

For music and more info: http://www.myspace.com/andrewlipke

One Note Ahead review of The Way Home... : http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2007/02/album-review-lipke-goes-home.html

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

EP Review: April All Year Long

Give me a Jersey Girl who lists Gene Pitney among her influences and dedicates her most sarcastic material to Paris Hilton, and I might forget to check whether she has any actual talent before declaring myself her biggest fan. Well, singer/songwriter/guitarist April Smith is a Jersey Girl. She lists Gene Pitney among her influences. She dedicates her most sarcastic material to Paris Hilton. Oh, I hope she has talent......(he listens closely to her music)......yes! She has talent!

April’s debut album, loveletterbombs [sic], was released by the tiny Indigo Planet label in 2005. Most of its tracks were guitar-heavy, cathartic rock mini-dramas sung in a punky voice. It was a solid effort, but there was no way it could prepare anyone for what was to come. As her self-released EP Live From The Penthouse demonstrates, the new April Smith offers beguilingly melodic pop opuses which draw from various elements of vintage popular music while retaining a thoroughly contemporary attitude. “Drop Dead Gorgeous” is a good example of this delicate balance: it sounds at times like a 1950s teen idol ballad, but lines like “You’re so enchanting when your mouth is closed” and “A pretty face is all you’ll ever be to me” would never have been uttered by Frankie Avalon. The delightfully naughty “Wow And Flutter” also excels at bridging the gap between old and new, its music hall style offset by many eyebrow-raising proclamations: “My mouth is wide open, ready to explore,” “I’m gonna spin you around and play you like a record,” and pretty much anything else a woman might say to get a man both aroused and a bit frightened.

All of the songs on the EP have something special to offer. “The Battle of Eliyahu” combines a jazzy melody with a sunshine pop arrangement and lyrics worthy of a sassy cabaret act, while “Beloved” is an extremely touching ballad. “Colors” is a rousing sing-along and one of my personal favorites. April likes to dedicate this one to our troops serving overseas, and while that is a kind gesture, “Colors” is simply too cheerful for me to associate it with something as bleak as war.

Throughout the EP, April is supported by her band The Great Picture Show. These performances have all the rawness and quirkiness you would expect from a live show, and they are mostly quite good. April’s throaty, elastic voice has really matured into a full-bodied instrument, and The Great Picture Show prove themselves to be no slouches. The slow numbers sound great, but the up-tempo “Wow and Flutter” and “Colors” are both a blast in this live setting. “The Battle of Eliyahu” suffers somewhat from an uneven vocal, but it must still be enjoyable because I’ve certainly played it enough times! This EP is well worth the purchase if you want April’s newer songs or if you’re looking for a handy document of her (and her band’s) live work. Be sure to look for it online or at April's shows.

For all things April Smith:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Spotlight On: Gillian Grassie

Gillian Grassie writes catchy, intellectually-stimulating pop and folk-rock songs. She sounds like a classically-trained opera singer trying her hand at jazz—and succeeding. She plays the harp.

Yes, you read all of that correctly.

The Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter/harpist (ahem) has two self-released records, both of which benefit from the substantial talents of producer/multi-instrumentalist Tim Sonnefeld. But Gillian is always the star of the show. She makes her harp sound at times like a piano and at other times like a guitar, but her playing is so naturally graceful that these auditory metamorphoses never sound forced. Her lucid voice is capable of conveying a wide range of emotions without ever losing its character.

Here is the breakdown of her two releases:

To An Unwitting Muse (EP, 2005): There are some moments when the songwriting could use a little tweaking or when Gillian’s vocals get a tad overdramatic. But overall, this is an impressive debut, especially when one considers that Gillian was barely 19 years old when it was released. The delightfully Celtic “Steps” is an exemplary piece of contemporary folk-rock songwriting, while “Oceans” includes the startling confession, “Women are like oceans, as whimsical as tides/They swell up with emotions and then forever change their minds.” The wonderful “Mr. Houdini” stands in a class all its own as the only harp-driven, psychedelic pop-jazz song ever to contain the word “erotomaniac.” At least I think it’s the only one....

Serpentine (full-length album, 2007): This album reveals itself in new ways with each listen, and clocking in at 37 minutes, it avoids the two-headed evil of being either too short or too long. “No Answer” kicks off the album in high style, Gillian opening with some echoed harp and an Erin McKeown-styled vocal before the track evolves into a distinctive slice of Triple-A heaven. “No answer is an answer; it’s just not the one you were waiting for.” “Pulse” exemplifies the principle of beautiful dissonance, whereas “Silken String” isn’t dissonant—just beautiful. The chilling “Tamlin” references classic folklore and literature, but you needn’t understand the allusions to be emotionally devastated by this heartbreaking masterpiece. The album closes with the pensive lullaby “The Train,” one of Gillian’s most haunting compositions. Not everything is wonderful; the graphic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics of “Tell Me” are not for the squeamish, and though the politically-charged “Sweet Metallic” has noble intentions, it could stand to be more focused both lyrically and sonically. But I hate to complain about such a likable album. After all, choosing the “worst song” on Serpentine makes as much sense as picking out the “fattest woman” in a room full of Victoria’s Secret models.

For music and more information:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Album Review: A Duke And His Kingdom

Oh, the joys of being a music industry insider! One Note Ahead favorite Matt Duke’s second album won’t be released to the general public until September 23rd, but my fellow insiders have been giving me their opinions of it for nearly four-and-a-half months! Long before I got my hands on a promo copy, I knew that Kingdom Underground (Rykodisc/MAD Dragon) would be a controversial offering. For example, one of my peers raved to me that this album is simply amazing and that it captures Matt’s raw intensity so much more than his debut album, Winter Child. But I recall another one of my friends in the biz moaning to me that KU is a too-polished effort, that all of its best songs can be found in its first half, and that its last few tracks sound like a bunch of random B-sides.

My opinion falls somewhere in between these extremes.

For starters, Kingdom Underground is a strange title for an album that really has nothing “underground” about it. If “radio friendly” was the phrase of the day for Winter Child, “pop friendly” is Kingdom Underground’s guiding principle. Unusually for Matt, all of the songs are noticeably hooky, while Marshall Altman’s production and arrangements ensure that even the folkier and rockier tracks are sweetened a bit. Thus, acoustically-based numbers like “Spilt Milk” and the gorgeous “30 Some Days” are fleshed out with full bands; “I’ve Got Atrophy On The Brain” doesn’t get to be the riff-driven heavy rocker it wants to be; “Rose” could have been cut at a Sheryl Crow session; and “Sex and Reruns” loses its folk-rock edge in a sea of electronic effects. Still, the bottom line is that these cuts all sound good—simple as that. And as a vocalist, Matt does have more mad moments than he’s had on any of his previous releases, displaying at least some of that rawness which was largely absent from Winter Child.

What about the material? Out of KU’s ten songs, the first five range from solid to fantastic. “The Father, The Son And The Harlot’s Ghost” is a logical successor to Winter Child’s “Tidal Waves,” and none the worse for it. “Sex And Reruns” is about neither sex nor reruns, but the art of muddling through: “When you suck at life but you’re much too scared to die/Embrace the sweet indifference with your brothers and we’ll march in time.” The improbably-titled “I’ve Got Atrophy On The Brain” goes from muddling through to barely holding on, with declarations such as “You’re sick, the time you’ve lost, you choke/The bile’s in your throat.” Its brilliantly gloomy lyrics are rivaled only by one of Matt’s best melodies yet. (The other songs on the first half are “Rabbit” and “30 Some Days,” both released on a digital single over the summer.) Does the second half of the album pale in comparison to the first? Unfortunately. The last five songs aren’t terrible, but Matt has better songs that would have been more welcome and one has to wonder why they weren’t used. Of KU’s second half, “Rose” stands out as a fun slab of rock ‘n’ roll with a cool “Lady Marmalade”-styled refrain. The disconcerting “Walk It Off” affords Matt the opportunity to freak out vocally, and his emotionally-packed performance on “Spilt Milk” might just make listeners think there’s more to the song than there actually is.

Kingdom Underground was recorded in less than a month. While it is not a bad album, it could have been a great album if only more time and care had been put into it. The entire body of work could have been as strong as the first five tracks, but in the final analysis, KU comes off as a rushed effort that tries to do right by the artist, but does not always succeed. But that’s just my opinion, and of course....everybody has one.

One Note Ahead article on Winter Child:

Music and more info:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

EP Review: Snider Gives The Green Light

You might expect a 17-year-old singer/songwriter from the suburbs to sing about fake ID’s and how his mom won’t buy him a new cell phone. Of the six songs on Jake Snider’s EP Green Lights For Granted, only “Say Farewell” will meet such expectations. More commonly, you’ll encounter moody masterpieces such as “To The Ocean,” with mind-boggling lines like “I went to see the warriors of virtue with you” and “Breaking open the calluses created by your mind.” How many 17-year-olds are writing lyrics like that and pairing them with beguiling, classically-influenced melodies? Jake’s first professional recording, Green Lights is mostly a collaboration with his buddy Jeff Berman, who handles both bass and drums with equal ease and provides a strong backdrop for Jake’s impressive keyboard work. The tracks generally have a stripped-down sound, although “Early Morning Somewhere” is fleshed out with Jake’s guitar and layered vocals, and the glorious “How?” needs little adornment to cement its position as a sublime slice of jazz-pop. Despite its upbeat musical qualities, “How?” is also the darkest offering on the EP, its lyrics almost disturbing in their portrayal of a man on the brink. While some of Jake’s vocals on Green Lights are a bit rough, his voice is so smooth and robust that with a little work, he should eventually earn his place as one of the great singers of his generation. Lately, Jake has been performing in Philadelphia and the western suburbs where he grew up. If you can make it to a show, you will be in for a treat as Jake jams with his friends and family, plays a wider variety of music than you might expect, and harmonizes superbly with fellow teenaged singer/songwriter Emily Bach. If you can’t make it to a show, get your Jake Snider fix by purchasing Green Lights For Granted on CD Baby or iTunes.

For music, videos, and more info:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

XPoNential Value

Thousands of people converging on the Camden, NJ waterfront. Lines of food and beverage vendors and Port-A-Potties. A zero-tolerance policy for glass containers. Radio personalities seated behind fences, shouting excitedly into microphones. The sounds of rock, soul, blues, folk, hip-hop, and alternative pop filling the air. A sensitive, delicate-voiced singer/songwriter......rapping. What else could it possibly be but the 2008 XPoNential Music Festival, the current name of the annual shindig hosted by WXPN, a leading public radio station based in my fair city of Philadelphia, PA. Thursday and Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening. Loads of terrific live music for a terrifically low price, and a great opportunity to get sunburned in the process! This year was my first at the festival, and as an XPN member I enjoyed many perks, including the chance to meet certain artists whom non-members did not get the privilege of meeting. Top local acts and XPN favorites from other cities and countries graced two stages in Camden's enormous Wiggins Park, the large River Stage and the more intimate Marina Stage (there was also a Kids Corner stage). I didn't see every act, nor did I like every act I saw, but there was so much of interest at this year's event that I had to document some of the highlights for posterity. (Click on the links for images; I tried to post images directly to this blog, but they kept ruining the formatting.)

Day One: Thursday, July 10, 2008

Free for XPN members and Camden County residents (Camden County includes the City of Camden and many other municipalities in South Jersey). I didn't know what to expect, but I was getting into it and seeing a lot of familiar faces.

Kicking off the festival was Philly favorite Jim Boggia. I'd heard so much about this guy, yet I'd never seen him. After witnessing his powerhouse performance, in which he was supported by a mammoth 11-piece band, I had to ask myself HOW I'd never seen him before. An engaging performer with intriguing material, a soulful voice, and an irresistible sense of humor.

Image 1: When I met Jim Boggia, I told him he could call me either "SJ" or "Dibai." See how he signed my festival guide.

The Salvador Santana Band had me wondering if they'd be any good. See, Salvador is the son of Carlos; I'd hoped he wasn't just coasting on his famous name. I needn't have worried. Salvador's band delivered a high-energy fusion of hip-hop, funk, rock, and Latin dance music which attracted an impressively diverse crowd and had practically everyone from every imaginable demographic dancing. (Well, those who were physically incapable of dancing were probably nodding along!) Like his father, Salvador Santana knows the importance of surrounding his own talents with those of others. The Salvador Santana Band is truly an integrated unit in which the members trade moments in the spotlight, play off each other, and work together to bring on the good times.

Day Two: Friday, July 11, 2008

This was the day when I started thinking I didn't have the easygoing disposition necessary for a festival of this type and magnitude, and I seriously wondered whether I'd actually make it through all four days. But this was also the day that one of the food vendors told me I looked "chill." I am most definitely NOT a "chill" person, but this was such a "chill" festival that the, um, chills must have been rubbing off on me. This was also the day that I met beloved XPN deejay Matt Reilly, who was gearing up to leave Philly and go back to his former home of Austin, TX. Peace out, Matt.

The Brakes are Philly rock royalty. I'd seen them before about two years earlier and caught them on local TV recently, so my expectations were high for their festival set. Well, they didn't meet my expectations; they exceeded my expectations. A tight, solid band that put on a genuinely entertaining show and got the crowd (myself included) groovin' right along. I met most of them later on, and they were all very nice and truly appreciative.

Friday evening was my first time seeing the highly-touted Dar Williams, and she was a riot. If you like your brainy singer/songwriters to be hilarious on stage, you need to make it out to one of her shows. Being right across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, many artists referred to the city in which the festival took place as "Philly," but Dar Williams actually thanked the City of Camden for letting her call it Philly on several occasions! She was so charming and had such a fully realized stage presence that I keep forgetting she was the only one on stage.

As for Alejandro Escovedo, what word can I use to describe an artist whose arrangements included guitars that threatened to break the sound barrier and overdriven psychedelic cello solos? Oh, right: intense.

One Note Ahead readers know I like The Redwalls, and I saw them on the Marina Stage (my second time seeing them overall). I was especially taken by the personalities of the two brothers in the band, Logan and Justin Baren. Logan is the most prominent singer in the band, capable of a satisfyingly aggressive shout which gives his vocals a distinctive edge. Yet when I met the band afterwards, Logan was the silent one. He just sat there signing whatever people handed him but I never heard him talk to anyone and rarely saw him look at anyone. Mind you, he didn't come off as snobby; just withdrawn and perhaps shy. Conversely, Justin was quite personable. We fans were meeting the band under somewhat rushed, chaotic circumstances, but Justin was easygoing and took the time to talk with people who had something to say. Justin also struck me as the tough guy in the band, which I just had to respect, as I've had to play the role of "tough guy" many times in my own life.

Image 2: Logan Baren might not be the most talkative person, but he sure has a robust autograph. He almost shoved Jim Boggia's off the page!

Day Three: Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chill. That's the way I was truly feeling as this day progressed. I knew I'd have to come back on Sunday. Must have been something in the complimentary beverages available to XPN members. This was also the day that I had the pleasure of meeting David Dye, host of the nationally-broadcast public radio program World Cafe, which originates from XPN. And I made a few new friends as well. Always great to make new friends through music!

I was vaguely familiar with Wilmington, DE's The Spinto Band, so I checked them out. They played a fun style of indie rock, and even though they weren't the sort of band I could see myself becoming a huge fan of, I fondly remember trying to dance to their music while balancing the plate of hot food I was eating! (I didn't spill anything.) I had similar feelings about another popular local band, Fooling April: I couldn't see myself becoming a huge fan, but it was nice to see them.

A friend of mine who works at XPN was particularly keen to see two of the festival's acts, one of whom was Jesse Ruben. This friend of mine is quite fond of One Note Ahead favorites Matt Duke and Andrew Lipke, so I trust her judgment at least to a certain extent! In fact, I had seen Jesse perform a few songs at an XPN Philly Local concert in May, so I decided to try taking in a full set of his. He fits neatly into the singer/songwriter subgenre, the pre-blues John Mayer being an obvious influence; he has a good voice and a lot of strong material. In particular, his song "Point Me In The Right Direction" left me spellbound; its detailed story of a war veteran reminded me of an uncle who served in Vietnam and was never quite the same afterwards. Jesse was also eminently likeable, down-to-earth and personable on stage and off.

Image 3: Jesse Ruben signed my festival guide with a smiley face!

"She's basically Roy Orbison as a Jersey Girl, so I have no choice but to love her." That's how I described the fabulous Nicole Atkins to friends who were not familiar with her. I also told people that if I went to this festival and missed Nicole, I would not forgive myself. Even the most ardent advocates of forgiveness would have understood my sentiments if they'd seen Nicole and her band The Sea at the XPoNential Fest. Nicole Atkins & The Sea rocked. Yes, rocked. Nicole's music doesn't rock on record, nor does it always rock live. It seems to depend on the show; all I know is that she and her band laid down a heavier, more aggressive sound than I was used to hearing from them, while still retaining the focus on her sweet sweet melodies and her amazingly beautiful voice. It was loads of fun to stand right up front and have Nicole look down at me and smile whenever she caught me dancing; it was even more fun to watch her put her guitar down and rock out herself, her long brown hair and shiny blue dress creating a whirlwind of activity around her. I'd seen Nicole and The Sea once before at the top Philly venue World Cafe Live (which is actually located right next door to XPN and is named after David Dye's program). They didn't rock there, but they were wonderful all the same. Though I'd met her and talked with her after that show, I didn't expect her to recognize me at the festival. "That was three and a half months ago. She meets so many people. I mean, she might remember me, but I'm not holding my breath." So when I went to the meet and greet area and it was my turn in line, she smiled at me, gave me a hi-five, and said, "Hey, man! Good to see you again!" I replied, "So you remember me?" I still had my doubts, but she said, "Yeah......World Cafe Live, right?"

I think I was on Cloud Nine for the rest of the night.

Image 4: While waiting in line to talk to Nicole, I spotted her keyboardist Dan "Cashmere" Chen. Maybe it's because I used to play keyboards, but I am often drawn to keyboardists, and Dan is a damn good one. I asked him to sign my festival guide and his huge autograph hardly left any room for anyone else's! He must not be used to signing his autograph. Or maybe he just has a big ego!

And then there was Amos Lee. Soulful, bluesy, and just plain cool. Nothing more to say.

Day Four: Sunday, July 13, 2008

Exactly how much sleep was I not getting by this point? It was catching up to me, I tell you what. Still, I wanted to see some of the acts who were scheduled for Sunday, and I also wanted to see some friends who were planning on being there. So off I went for one last day!

Back Door Slam are the heirs to Cream's throne. The young British trio gave us a healthy dose of heavy, blues-based rock with rich vocals and wild guitar solos. The sun was really beating down on the crowd and the humidity was high, but we couldn't help moving to such energetic music. I didn't dare go to the meet and greet line because that thing was long enough to extend all the way to hell and back.

I don't know why I felt compelled to see Ingrid Michaelson. Going into the festival, I didn't have any strong feelings about her either way. Perhaps I just thought this would be a good chance to see what she's like in person. Or maybe I just really wanted to hear "The Way I Am" live. Having seen her on TV once, I thought we'd be in for a low-key, pleasant-but-uneventful set of mellow singer/songwriter music. Was I ever wrong about THAT! If Dar Williams was a barrel of laughs, the adorable Ms. Michaelson was two and a half barrels. She didn't even have to try; she just opened her mouth and unbelievably funny things came out. Audience participation played a big role in her set; she even taught us our parts, acknowledging that many of us were probably not experts on her music. And yes, she did perform the XPN (and Old Navy commercial) favorite "The Way I Am," but being sick of doing it the same way over and over again, she opened the song.....by rapping. And rapping. And rapping. At one point, she led us through an impromptu singalong on the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. As if her natural humor and charm weren't enough, I was impressed that she had WOMEN in her band! No disrespect to all the wonderful female artists with all-male backing bands, but it's nice to see a woman who actually employs female musicians; two women played right along with two men in Ingrid's fine band. Yes, Ingrid Michaelson is an easy target for critics because she has a sound which is common for female singer/songwriters of today. But she is a truly special performer with many quality songs, and I am now officially a fan.

One more thing: in the meet and greet area, most artists sat or stood behind a table, the separation between artist and fan well-established. Ingrid stood on the same side of the table as the fans who waited in line to meet her, talking face-to-face and letting us hug her! She has to get mad props from me for that.

Image 5: For some reason, Nicole Atkins signed under Ingrid Michaelson's picture, leaving Ms. Michaelson to scribble an autograph over her own forehead!

I was fading fast, and I knew I couldn't stay at the festival 'til the end. But remember my friend who so wanted to see Jesse Ruben? I was intrigued that the other act she most wanted to see was Matt Nathanson. What a pleasure it was to hear and see him. An enjoyable singer/songwriter with a lot of heart and soul and an off-the-wall sense of humor. He was at times snarky and at times inappropriate for an ostensibly family-friendly event, but he made me laugh regardless. I also have to hand it to him for demonstrating why the folks running this event should not have allowed artists to do their grand finales only to say, "Let's have another song!" Matt Nathanson did a wonderful grand finale in which he engaged the audience in a rousing singalong. Then someone in a position of power had him come out and do another song, and he admitted that he had no idea what to play because he hadn't planned on doing an encore. Fortunately, his former touring buddy Ingrid Michaelson was observing him from the rear of the stage, so he brought her up to duet with him. Even more fortunately, the duet worked.

And that was it for me. There was more festival left, but I was half asleep and ready to call it a day...weekend...weekend plus. Whatever. It was a rollercoaster ride, but the highs were incredibly high and the pleasant surprises especially sweet. I'm already looking forward to next year's event. Are the tickets available yet???

Missed the festival? Didn't miss it but want to relive it? No problem: http://www.xpn.org/festival08/media.php

Original text copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

One Note Ahead Update

What times these have been! Last December, I reached two major turning points, one right after the other. First, I joined the indie music website Crunkbox as a staff writer. Days later, I was offered a job as the publicist for One Note Ahead favorites Downtown Harvest; of course I took it! From that point onward, I became more and more entrenched in PR work, and when I did turn back to music journalism, my attentions were split between Crunkbox and ONA. In addition, my being Downtown Harvest's publicist meant I could no longer write about them myself. Now, my days as DTH's publicist are over, but in the meantime I began representing another ONA favorite, Laura Cheadle. Therefore, it would now be a conflict of interest for me to write about HER! For all of these reasons, ONA hasn't been updated as frequently as it used to be, but the time is upon us for some news.

Two of our most beloved acts, Andrew Lipke (MySpace ONA) and the aforementioned Downtown Harvest (MySpace ONA) are busy working on new albums and have been previewing the new material at their shows. If you've missed out on the songs Andrew's had on his MySpace page for the past several months, check them out. Judging from what I've heard thus far, both acts are proving that they are not about to get stuck in a rut anytime soon.

Though it would be a conflict of interest to write about her per se, I'm certainly allowed to simply mention that Laura Cheadle (MySpace ONA) is also working on a new album, Live On, and is in fact previewing new material on her MySpace page.

Of course, our biggest celebrity around here is the one and only Matt Duke (MySpace ONA). His second album, Kingdom Undergound, is ready to be released on August 26th. Some of the new songs are currently playing on his MySpace page, and if you're particularly impatient, you can now get two of them ("30 Some Days" and "Rabbit") on iTunes. Having heard several of its songs live and on MySpace, I predict that Kingdom Undergound will be a case of building strength upon strength.

That's all for now. Stay tuned!

[July 14, 2008 update: Matt Duke's album is now scheduled to be released in September. Expect reviews of both Duke's and Lipke's new albums here in the relatively near future.]

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Obscure Originals, Vol. 2

This is the second installment in a series spotlighting songs that are best known by artists who did not record them originally. As in Volume 1, the histories presented herein are not meant to be exhaustive or unbiased.

Song: “Dazed and Confused”
Best known by: Led Zeppelin
Originally recorded by: Jake Holmes
The story: Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” sounds like a work of such striking originality that it’s hard to believe there is actually almost nothing original about it! First of all, Zep didn’t write the song—Jake Holmes did. The American singer/songwriter recorded it in an acid-folk style with Dylanesque lyrics, an eerily minimalistic arrangement, and a vocal that can only be described as frighteningly intense. It was included on his album The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes in 1967; in August of that year, Holmes opened for The Yardbirds in New York City, where Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty found himself spellbound by “Dazed and Confused.” At McCarty’s suggestion, The Yardbirds worked out their own arrangement of the song, complete with one of their classic “rave up” instrumental breaks and heavy riffing courtesy of their lead guitarist at the time, a fellow named Jimmy Page (ahem). As was his wont, lead singer Keith Relf habitually messed around with the lyrics and blew into a harmonica on the break. Page played his guitar with a violin bow. Audiences went crazy. But The Yardbirds were coming apart at the seams, and they finally disintegrated in the summer and fall of 1968. Thus, for all their electrifying live performances of “Dazed,” The Yardbirds never got around to recording a proper studio version; meanwhile, through a long, convoluted series of events, The Yardbirds morphed into Led Zeppelin by the end of 1968. Page knew a hit song when he heard one, so Led Zep took the basic elements of The Yardbirds’ arrangement, rewrote most of Jake Holmes’ lyrics, and cut a thick, screaming rendition sounding as if Satan himself was at the producer’s chair. Released on Zep’s eponymous debut album in 1969, it became one of the all-time classics of hard rock. But, of course, Jake Holmes was screwed because Page and Robert Plant claimed authorship of the song! To this day, ASCAP’s database retains two separate copyrights: one for a “Dazed and Confused” written by Holmes and one for a “Dazed and Confused” now credited solely to Page! In order to learn how ASCAP allowed such things to happen, it looks as though we’d need to consult another Holmes—namely Sherlock. As for Jake Holmes, he found his fame as the composer of commercial jingles: “Raise your hand if you’re Sure,” “Be all that you can be in the Army,” “Gillette, the best a man can get,” and many, many, many more. His version of “Dazed” has become readily available thanks to ItsAboutMusic.com, but good luck obtaining the Yardbirds’ rendition of it; several live recordings have been released, sometimes legitimately, but Page keeps finding ways to get those releases off the market.

Rare footage of The Yardbirds performing "Dazed And Confused" on French TV in March, 1968:

Song: “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
Best known by: Ray Charles
Originally recorded by: Don Gibson
The story: He was popular for decades, but during his late ‘50s/early ‘60s peak, Don Gibson was country music’s ultimate sad sack. His song titles from that era say it all: “Oh, Lonesome Me,” “Lonesome Old House,” “Blue, Blue Day,” “Bad, Bad Day,” “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles,” “Sea Of Heartbreak”—okay, he didn’t write that last one, but the point still stands. Under the skillful guidance of the one and only Chet Atkins, Gibson was one of the first country artists to cross over to the pop charts in a big way. In 1958, “Oh, Lonesome Me” became his first major pop hit; in those days, B-sides often became hits, too, and though the tears-in-my-beer balladry of Gibson’s self-penned “I Can’t Stop Loving You” petered out at #81 on Billboard’s pop charts, it was a Top 10 country hit. Ray Charles was not the first to break it out of its pure country shell (Roy Orbison did a delicious Nashville pop rendition in 1960, for example), but Brother Ray’s version was nonetheless revolutionary. A lifelong lover of country music who was trapped in a world that rarely accepted black artists as practitioners of the genre, Brother Ray dared to cut the album Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, from which “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was the lead single. Musically and chart-wise, the track transcended numerous boundaries, topping Billboard’s pop, R&B, and adult contemporary charts in 1962. Moreover, it began a run of popular country covers that earned Ray Charles the approbation of many in the country music establishment.

[Note: Don Gibson re-recorded many of his ‘50s hits for the Hickory label in later years. Look for compilations released by or licensed from RCA or its parent company, which is currently Sony BMG. Roy Orbison re-recorded “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in a radically different arrangement in 1972; these days, the 1960 version can be found most easily on Roy Orbison Sings Lonely And Blue.]

Song: “Land of 1000 Dances”
Best known by: Wilson Pickett
Originally recorded by: Chris Kenner
The story: Chris “I Like It Like That” Kenner was a fixture on the New Orleans R&B scene in the 1950s and ‘60s. He wrote “Land of 1000 Dances” (and later gave Fats Domino co-writer’s credit so that Domino would cover the song) but the only movement Kenner’s version elicits from this writer is to walk to the nearest bed and lie down. Kenner’s sluggish, monotonous rendition represented the New Orleans sound at its least inspired, but it must have gotten some sales or airplay somewhere, because it actually hit the charts in 1962. Fortunately, it didn’t become enough of a hit to make an indelible impact. The song made its way to the East LA scene, where seemingly countless Chicano bands thrived on obscure R&B. Vocal group Cannibal & The Headhunters worked up a smoldering mid-tempo arrangement; lead singer Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia couldn’t remember the lyrics on stage, so he ad-libbed the na-na’s that we now consider an essential component of the song. Cannibal & co.’s record became a Top 30 hit in 1965, and fellow East Los Angelenos Thee Midniters had a minor hit that same year with their competing version. The song was getting faster and faster, and Wilson Pickett’s supercharged Memphis soul reading cranked up the tempo to the max. It was just what the Billboard charts were looking for: #6 pop, #1 R&B in 1966. Even though Pickett’s version is often regarded as the ultimate, that hasn’t stopped the song from being one of the most popular rock ‘n’ roll cover items of all time.

Song: “Do Ya”
Best known by: Electric Light Orchestra
Originally recorded by: The Move
The story: Birmingham, England in the 1960s was overflowing with bands of various stripes. Though The Move never quite caught on in the United States, they had massive success in the UK and “on the continent” during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Roy Wood led The Move, while a young Jeff Lynne led The Idle Race, a Birmingham band with close ties to The Move. Having lost some Move members around the end of the 1960s, Wood invited Lynne to join The Move and Lynne accepted. The early ‘70s Move, led jointly by Wood and Lynne, continued to have hits, but both Wood and Lynne were getting tired of the band and wanted to, er, move into symphonic rock. In 1971, they started Electric Light Orchestra as a side project, but it was soon to become a full-time endeavor. The Move’s final single, “California Man,” came out in 1972 and reached the UK Top 10. However, its throwaway B-side “Do Ya” was plugged as the A-side in the US and picked by many American tipsters to become a hit. In a bizarre twist of fate, the Lynne-composed “Do Ya” became The Move’s only song to make Billboard’s Hot 100—where it peaked at a measly #93. And that was it for The Move. ELO continued on, although Wood left after the group’s first album due to creative differences with Lynne, and in 1976 Lynne elected to dig up “Do Ya” and give it the ELO treatment. Whereas The Move’s version was just loud, crazy guitar rock, ELO’s version had the requisite orchestral and spacey touches. Needless to say, it became a much bigger hit, making #24 on Billboard in 1977.

Song: “Dedicated To The One I Love”
Best known by: The Shirelles; The Mamas & The Papas
Originally recorded by: The “5” Royales
The story: Goodness gracious, this is a strange story. Lowman Pauling of R&B vocal outfit The “5” Royales [sic!] shared the writing credit on this tune with his group’s producer Ralph Bass. The “5” Royales cut a bluesy version of the song, complete with raunchy guitar fills, in 1957. Released at the end of the year on the mighty King label, it went nowhere. The Shirelles sneaked into the lower rungs of the Hot 100 in 1959 with their streamlined rendition, released on the fledgling Scepter label. In late 1960, The Shirelles hit the big time with the now-inescapable “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (the word “still” does not technically appear in the title). Scepter, now on its way to becoming even mightier than King, reissued The Shirelles’ version of “Dedicated” as the follow-up. It reached #3 on the Hot 100 in early 1961, but not without some competition: King had noticed that Scepter was giving The Shirelles’ version another go and re-released The “5” Royales original. The two recordings went up against each other briefly, but The “5” Royales’ version ultimately could reach no higher than #81 on the Hot 100. The song was hardly recognizable in The Mamas & The Papas’ elaborate sunshine pop reading, but America’s favorite hippies took it all the way to #2 in 1967.

[Note: If you’re seeking The “5” Royales’ rendition, you should know that there are at least two variations: the original and an awkward overdubbed version. If you get the track on Volume 10 of Ace Records’ excellent Golden Age of American Rock ‘n’ Roll series, you will get the superior version without the overdubs. Other compilations or albums might contain the overdubbed version instead.]

Song: “Hush”
Best known by: Deep Purple
Originally recorded by: Billy Joe Royal
The story: For a few solid years, Billy Joe Royal was the main voice for fellow Georgian Joe South’s compositions, with South himself producing Royal’s records. Though this relationship initially yielded strong commercial results, Royal’s 1967 single of “Hush” didn’t exactly reach the same heights as “Down In The Boondocks,” stalling out at #52 on the Hot 100. Its appealing country-soul style presaged the sound that brought Elvis back to the top of the charts in 1969, but it was perhaps a bit premature in ’67. Lest you think the song’s catchiness went unnoticed, it spawned numerous international covers which experienced varying degrees of success in their respective countries. One such cover was recorded by British singer Kris Ife, whose frenetic soul-rock reading smacked of the Mod scene and got a lot of spins in the UK dance clubs (hear it on his MySpace page). A new British band by the name of Deep Purple learned of the song from Ife’s version and recast it in a low, menacing key, giving it a heavy rock interpretation with a psychedelic jazz slant. Despite doing little business in the UK, it was an enormous US hit in 1968 (#4 on the Hot 100) and has been one of Deep Purple’s signature songs ever since. Incidentally, it was released in the US on Tetragrammaton, a short-lived label co-owned by Bill Cosby! Joe South himself cut the song with a funky country-rock feel, and his version came out on his Games People Play album in 1969. Naaaaah na na naaah na na naaah na na naaaaah....

Stay tuned for Volume 3. Meanwhile, don’t forget The Originals Project: http://www.originalsproject.us/

Copyright © 2008
S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Spotlight On: The Idles

Forty-some odd years ago, Liverpool was at the center of a rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and people praised the British Invasion for bringing rock ‘n’ roll back to basics. Now, The Idles are hoping to put Liverpool at the forefront of another rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Are these guys a bunch of Merseybeat revivalists? Hell no. The Idles lay down the kind of raw, badass sound that you might find yourself rockin’ out to in a crowded pub on a Friday night; Dirty Rock ‘n’ Roll is the title of their four-song demo, and dirty rock ‘n’ roll it is. But like many great Liverpool bands of the past, The Idles grab hold of rock ‘n’ roll and whittle it back down to its basic essence. Driving guitars, rolling basslines, spastic drumming, hoarse vocals. Songs that say what they need to say in just a few short minutes—and with no tempo changes, complex chord sequences, or flowery lyrics. But don’t mistake The Idles for a band whose range of talent encompasses the mastery of three chords and the ability to scream like a banshee. These guys know how to play, how to sing, and how to write songs that draw upon their strengths. The crude sound of their demo might provoke some to label them a garage rock band, while their finger-in-the-air attitude (guess which finger) might cause others to call them punks. In reality, The Idles don’t fit into any category but rock ‘n’ roll, pure and simple. Each track on their demo has its own appeal, from the Idles-as-idols “Rock ‘n’ Roll Room Service” to the soulful, melancholy “Rescue Me” and the high-octane shout fest “Wasted.” But “I Don’t Really Think So” is the standout by far, its propulsive rhythm and instantly memorable refrains making it a hit waiting to happen. Or, more appropriately, dirty rock ‘n’ roll at its finest.

For more information and to hear The Idles: http://www.myspace.com/theidlesrocknroll

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Album Review: Swimming Into Trees

“When she comes out, she causes accidents in the street…”

Whether you bake them into a pie, stir fry them, or serve them raw with a zesty salsa, eating your words is never easy. But when I found myself asking for a review copy of The Swimmers’ debut album Fighting Trees, deep down inside I suspected that I’d have to do just that: eat my words. After all, why would I have asked for a review copy unless I thought I’d like it? And yet, just a few weeks ago in my writeup of a MAD Dragon Records concert, I said that the Philadelphia-based indie pop quartet’s “energy on stage was incredible,” but “having heard a few recordings of theirs, I can say that the recordings don’t do the band justice.” Indeed, the highest compliment that I could bestow upon the band’s recordings was the phrase “smile-inducing ear candy.” Smile....inducing....ear....candy. So now I sit here at the dinner table, my napkin tucked into my collar, my words resting upon a bed of Basmati rice and drizzled in a spicy curry sauce. And the specters of guitarist/frontman Steve Yutzy-Burkey, his keyboard-playing wife Krista, bassist Rick Sieber, and drummer Scott French all staring me in the face saying, “Bon appetit, SJ.”

So how about this: The Swimmers sound different on record than they do in person. In person, you have all four of them playing and singing, sometimes switching between instruments during the course of one song, and they get happily caught up in each musical moment, singing with gusto and playing with (you guessed it) an incredible energy while still remaining tight and focused. The sound on the self-produced Fighting Trees is more calculated. The arrangements are complex and sophisticated, the productions multi-layered and carefully crafted. Scott focuses more on his amazing technical virtuosity than the livewire presence he maintains on stage, while Steve (who wrote and sings lead on all but one song) employs a breathy, even whispered vocal approach throughout. Since The Swimmers are a pop band, and a skilled one at that, they manage to make this restraint and precision work in their favor, giving the sound of these recordings a sense of purpose. In particular, the breathy vocal technique is very much in vogue in indie music these days, and thus it gives a decidedly contemporary personality to an album that contains numerous unabashedly retro elements: the crunchy power-pop guitars and lush sunshine pop harmonies heard on most of the album, the ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll triplets on “All The New Sounds,” the almost new-wavey arrangement of “St. Cecilia” (I said almost), the fab Beatlesque production of “Heaven,” the dirty cool Duane Eddy-styled guitar runs on “Pocket Full Of Gold,” and so on. Not content to simply do what’s already been done and not content to simply do what everyone else is currently doing, The Swimmers recall the past with today’s attitude, creating an intriguing sound in the process.

The lyrics are often mysterious and subject to much interpretation on the part of the listener, but one thing is certain: whether the songs are, as I interpret them, tongue-in-cheek (“It’s Time They Knew,” quoted at the top; “Goodbye”), wistful (“Heaven”), or philosophical (“We Love To Build”), they all end up bursting with good cheer thanks to the band’s spirited playing and vivid harmonies. Even “Home,” with such bleak lines as “I close my eyes, the ceiling drops/I fall asleep, my heart stops” brings a smile to this angry young man’s face. “Pocket Full Of Gold” is a true gem, its blue collar sentiments and dense sound conjuring up images of Springsteen as an indie kid. “St. Cecilia” is totally out of left field; written and sung by Scott, it pairs a downright unorthodox structure with off-the-wall lyrics and is highlighted by Krista’s atypically hyperactive keyboarding. It’s a divergence, but a welcome one. A more curious change of pace is the title track, a folky ballad which is not really suited to Steve’s voice, but hipsters will probably tell me that his fractured vocal brings a lot more pathos out of the song than a pristine performance would. Not having an ounce of hipster credibility, I’ll just take their word for it and enjoy the Beach Boys-influenced harmonies.

Fighting Trees is not a mind-blowing, earth-shattering album. Few pop albums are, and that’s part of the appeal of pop music: it’s fun, it’s easy to take, and it makes you feel good. Fighting Trees is an album for pop lovers who are looking for something a little outside of the mainstream to complement their spring and summer days or warm up their fall and winter nights. The Swimmers are currently touring behind the album’s national release, and if you have a chance to see them, please do. A good time is almost certainly guaranteed.

For music and more information:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Music-Breathing Dragon

I need not recuse myself.

Sure, MAD Dragon Records is Drexel University’s innovative student-run, faculty-supervised record label. And I like most of what MAD Dragon puts out.....and I went to Drexel. But I am not unfairly biased towards MAD Dragon because it’s associated with my alma mater. If that line of reasoning were true, I’d own every book written by my former professors (I haven’t even read most of those books) and I’d attend every remotely interesting event on Drexel’s campus (I’ve attended only two events on campus in the past year—both MAD Dragon concert showcases). MAD Dragon just so happens to have a knack for spotting and nurturing talent. The label’s initial release, the first in the Unleashed compilation series, came out a few months before I graduated. Though I was a history major who had taken a grand total of two music courses at Drexel, I was nevertheless intrigued enough to buy the CD, a respectable compilation of Drexel artists. I watched as the label expanded beyond Drexel acts, snagged a national distribution deal with Ryko, and garnered all sorts of positive attention in the press. Before long, I found myself writing about the label’s artists. Having met some of the devoted faculty and many of the impressively driven students who make the MAD Dragon breathe its musical fire, I know that this label has the potential for greatness. Maybe it’s already reaching that potential; the MAD Dragon Concert Showcase which took place at Drexel’s Mandell Theater on February 8th was one of the best shows I’ve ever attended. So good, in fact, that I feel compelled to write about it. Now, anyone who knows my work knows that I don’t write concert reviews. But this is not a concert review; this is a document of a cutting-edge label whose latest live showcase proved how much it has on the ball.

While concertgoers waited in the lobby for the doors to open, unannounced guests Hoots and Hellmouth offered some acoustic entertainment. Their American roots style is grounded in folk and bluegrass with rock elements sprinkled in. I’d been familiar with this band for quite some time and I’d never denied their talent, but I’d never felt that their music fit my tastes, either. That said, I was impressed as these guys jammed before the show and again between acts during the show. They handled their instruments effortlessly and raised their voices in harmonious glee, filling large rooms without any apparent amplification. Besides, it’s no longer common to see someone rockin’ out on an upright bass, and it’s never been common to see someone rockin’ out on a mandolin!

The show got underway in earnest with “special guests”—i.e., not MAD Dragon artists—The Takeover UK. The Pittsburgh pop-punk band played a brief, lively set and had an amiable stage presence, making for a decent, albeit unexceptional, opening act. But let’s not dwell on a band that’s not even on the label.

Kicking the show into high gear was guitar-slinging singer/songwriter Andrew Lipke, a One Note Ahead favorite over the past year. Andrew appeared with his under-acknowledged band, “Bandrew,” featuring Dave Perrin on drums, Joe Divita on bass, Joe Vasile on guitar, and Krista Nielsen (my hopeless rockstar crush) on cello. Andrew had promised me a mix of older songs and newer songs and he sure delivered. Hearing classics—you know, songs released a whole year ago—like “Untitled Song #1” and “Green Street” was a powerful experience. Andrew’s music has such a cathartic quality to it that you can heal many wounds by letting yourself get lost in his songs. I got to chat with him after the show about two newer songs I particularly enjoyed: the arrangement on “Get It Over With” had blossomed beautifully over the course of several performances, while the mood-shifting “Mind Games” contained an eerie, “Stairway To Heaven”-ish passage which still haunts me as I write this. In person, Andrew’s voice is so otherworldly that one must ask, “What IS that sound and where is it coming from???” My one minor complaint is that ever since Andrew and Bandrew played at a Sgt. Pepper tribute concert last June, they’ve been fond of performing a supercharged “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” as a live novelty. They do an excellent job on it, but as a rare Revolver man in a world of Sgt. Pepper-ists, I wonder who else is up for an Andrew Lipke cover of “I’m Only Sleeping”....ahh, I can hear Krista’s cello now.... Anyway, Andrew’s currently working on a new album, and his MAD Dragon debut The Way Home… is readily available.

Andrew Lipke and Bandrew in the official video for "Untitled Song #1" (2007):

The Swimmers graced the stage with their distinctly 21st century take on new wave and power pop. This was my second time seeing The Swimmers, and their energy on stage was incredible both times. Having heard a few recordings of theirs, I can say that the recordings don’t do the band justice. To be fair, the same can be said about a lot of artists, including several that I’ve previously written about. Capturing that live energy in the studio is next to impossible without that give-and-take between the band and the audience, and of course a performer might be less inclined towards free-spiritedness when the performance is being fixed in perpetuity as an auditory representation of their work! That said, the best of the Swimmers tracks I've had the opportunity to listen to are smile-inducing ear candy, and I suspect that their forthcoming MAD Dragon album Fighting Trees will be a favorite among indie pop collectors. What I know for sure, however, is that The Swimmers are a wonderful live act with a great ability to make people feel good. They still have some growing to do, but they also have a lot of potential and I think they are better equipped to live up to it than much of the competition. Additionally, it was a joy to meet the band’s frontman Steve Yutzy-Burkey and learn that one of their best-known songs, “St. Cecilia,” is at least in part about pipe organs.

[March 4, 2008 update: Watch me eat my words about The Swimmers here.]

The Swimmers performing "St. Cecilia" at The Khyber in Philadelphia, 2006. Slightly glitched, but it will do until a better, more recent clip of this song is made available:

Next up was one of the very first artists featured on One Note Ahead, singer/songwriter Matt Duke. It was good to see that Matt is still working with bassist Dane Klein and drummer Nate Barnett—together, the three of them have a sound. Matt was his usual self, which is to say that I had no idea what he was going to do, say, or play next. He had his mellow moments, his silly moments, his frighteningly intense moments (those are always the most rewarding), and those seemingly inevitable Murphy’s Law moments which he handled with a typically ridiculous sense of humor. But the most intriguing aspect of the night’s set was the actual music. Instead of playing it safe, Matt laid down a bunch of newer, less familiar tunes. That meant no “Oysters,” no “Weeping Winds,” no “Tidal Waves,” no “Yellow Lights,” nothing from the XYX compilation or the Winter Child album. It would have been too much to ask him to play “Don’t Ask (For Too Much).” What he gave us was a host of fantastic-sounding songs whose lyrics I’ll need several more listens to totally absorb and whose titles I either don’t know or can’t remember yet—typical Matt Duke fare!—plus the strangely atmospheric “Love Buried” (featured last year on the label’s worthy Unleashed 3), which afforded Matt the opportunity for a Hendrix-style guitar freakout. He announced that his next album will be out in June. I’m already tired of waiting.

Closing out the night were The Redwalls, the only non-Philly act among the actual MAD Dragon artists who performed in this showcase. The Chicago band’s story is well-publicized, but the long and short of it is that Capitol Records had put out one album by the guys, who recorded a follow-up album only to get dropped by the withering major before the damn thing was released. Unusually, Capitol let The Redwalls keep the follow-up, which found a sympathetic home at MAD Dragon. Released last October, The Redwalls is a strong effort, building on the band’s Beatles and Kinks influences with doses of neo-psychedelia, orchestral rock, power pop, and American roots music. But in person, the four-man outfit in the tight-fitting clothes played an exciting fusion style combining the aggressiveness of rock with the feel-good energy of roll. Or, as I told the band’s product manager and their street team leader after the show, “The Redwalls are amazing!!!!” All the complex arrangements on the records were reduced to two guitars (one a Rickenbacker, no less), bass, drums, and three voices. This lean, mean sound called for each Redwall to play his part to the hilt, and all of the guys rose to the challenge. The harmonies were impeccable and the energy they gave to the audience was infectious. I was particularly impressed by the dreamlike “Each And Every Night,” which was surprisingly effective without the mock Phil Spector production of the album version, and the stripped-down treatment of “Build A Bridge,” a Capitol-era song recently featured on an AT&T/Cingular commercial. Of course, not everyone shared my positive sentiments. On my way out, I ran into someone I’d been chatting with before The Redwalls’ set. I said, “Hey, man! What’d you think of The Redwalls?” He smirked and replied, “They played how many different songs tonight? Two, right?” I simply paused to mull that over and groaned, “I didn’t find THAT funny. I’ll see ya ‘round.” And I walked away.

MAD Dragon gets inside The Redwalls' heads at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, 2007:

For more information: http://www.maddragonrecords.com/

Matt Duke on One Note Ahead: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2006/10/winter-child-for-all-seasons.html

Andrew Lipke on One Note Ahead: http://onenoteahead.blogspot.com/2007/02/album-review-lipke-goes-home.html

Original text copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.