Tuesday, April 29, 2008

American Speedway "Ship of Fools"

American Speedway: Doing it Their Way

by Jesse Schmitt

On the debut CD release of American Speedway entitled “Ship of Fools,” there is a carefully studied, traditionally articulated punk ethos which may come off at first as same old hack. However if you listen a little closer to the subtle arrangements, the joyous rollicking, and the incisive lyrics, you will hear a band who is not only trying to do punk rock in the post-punk generation, but they are also positing that they do it on their own terms and with no apologies.

The album “Ship of Fools” begins with the title track. A simple looping guitar chord, heavy drums, and pretty shabby (albeit loud!) production values may at first glimpse turn off a listener. However there is an authentic mono-quality tinny sound in the record which brought back my earliest recollections of the classic LP. The opening track also has some pretty incisive lyrics “full speed ahead we plow with no remorse…where we’re going we might not survive; so cut to the end we’re not making it back alive.” Punk lyrics with a decidedly “un-punk” resonance in these times of tumult which exist in our world today; this rollicking band not only has a fair amount of angst, they also come off with a message that you need to hear to understand; are you listening?

American Speedway is a relative new kid on the block with a congealed lineage which extends only as far back as February 2007. Michael Thursby Speedway (guitar/lead vocals) Bill Angry (bass/vocals) Johny Griswold (guitar/vocals) and Chris Callahan (drums) make up this quartet who began as a high energy live act. Their ethos is simple: they play what THEY like; which is, according to them, the only “real rock and roll.”

Comparisons leap out at you from the moment you listen to their frenetic musical style. Mr. Speedway’s vocals draw sharp parallels with the likes of Bon Scott on “Highway to Hell” era AC/DC; the quickly cadenced kick drum beneath his high pitched growl you could think you were listening to “Holy Wars” era Megadeth; the simple, looping guitar riffs and naked bass lines could even lead you to believe that you were hearing some 311 outtakes. The fact is that American Speedway is able to effortlessly draw from all of these influences and create a sound which is refreshingly and honestly their own.

Just give a listen to a song like “One Foot In, One Foot Out,” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. At just under 2:40 and with a rapid fire lyric you could miss the tune before it’s gone. “Well I’m just like any other man; trying to live my life the best way I can, but something seems to veer me off that road.” It was then that I took a look at the American Speedway cover art for “Ship of Fools,” and I saw the spirit of this whole record: Four animated, pissed-off, rebellious young men at the helm of a pirate ship amidst choppy seas; doing what any four rebellious, pissed-off, joyous young men at the helm of a pirate ship amidst choppy seas would do:

Letting it all hang out.

Top down, balls to the wall, full throttle, fused with synergy, created with ability, conveyed with energy; if you are a hard-charging, balls to the wall, pissed-off, choppy-seas-sailing fan of absolute punk; check out American Speedway, the new paradigm for a lost art.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Record Review: Omara Portuondo "Lagrimas Negras Canciones y Boleros"

Whenever I hear the Buena Vista Social Club or any of its members, I am always taken back to my glory days in college when I convinced the director of our spring main stage production; Eric Bogosian’s “Suburbia” that we NEEDED to use The Buena Vista Social Club as part of the soundtrack to the show. Being the shows sound designer and also being familiar with the playwright’s work, I felt that I was best inclined to make this judgment.

I think I made everyone sick with the hypnotic beginning of their song “Chan Chan.” Not me! I thought it was great; a real breakthrough for my otherwise white, suburban college. But because this song led off the show and because nobody could get the blocking in the first scene right; we revisited those same familiar guitar chords over and over again.

So it was with a fair amount of interest that I recently was able to check out Omara Portuondo latest two disc release “Lagrimas Negras (Black Tears) Canciones y Boleros.” Portuondo was one of the singers from the Buena Vista Social Clubs 1997 Grammy award winning album and sang with the likes of Ibrahim Ferrer, Manuel Licea, Ruben Gonzalez, and others. Portuondo is also featured in the documentary Buena Vista Social Club which was directed by Wim Wenders.

This is a double disc edition and is inclusive of a number of fine songs form this commanding front lady. This album was “the result of an interpretive creation full of feeling, intimacy, and naturalness,” according to the liner notes. There is a great deal of feeling from this seasoned vet, all of which is on full display in the jangling, ambling, happy tunes.

Portuondo has been singing professionally for more than 50 years; she has a deft and impressive command of not just the notes and the harmony but also of the feeling which makes her fans swoon and was a large part of the crossover success of the Buena Vista Social Club. One commentator, Manolo Ortega has affectionately labeled Ms. Portuondo “Feeling’s girlfriend.” When it comes down to the music on “Lagrims Negras” it definitely shows.

Standout tracks on this double set are too numerous to mention; but include the laid back opener, “Incredible” where her sultry voice is accompanied by a jazzy saxophone and the gentle strums of a guitar; the lazy horns of “Vieja Luna;” the restrained exasperation in her voice on a tune like “Nosotros;” and a standout track of both discs “Como es possible” her duet with Pedro Rivero.

Unfortunately for me, I barely speak a very bad Spanglish; but the melodies are nice enough for me not to get too caught up in the fact that I have no idea what she’s singing about. It’s sort of like great opera at considerably less cost! There is no reason anyone who is able to appreciate all styles of music wouldn’t be able to appreciate the sounds from a talented and versatile artist like Omara Portuondo.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Gifts of Poetry

Gifts of Poetry

by Jesse Schmitt

So I’ve recently come across this European singer, Roesy, and I wrote an article about his 2006 release “Colour Me Colourful;” a great record and one I hope they will release stateside soon. If you have a hard time finding his stuff then you should definitely make your way to an indie record store in your area or even virgin.com, cdbaby.com, or something like that to try and locate an international copy. Apple doesn’t seem to care that some of the best music I’ve heard in years is being made outside of the US.

World Wide Web. Humph.

Anyway, I was able to find some info on this guy from his myspace profile (note the spelling; not: Rosey – ROESY) and while Wikipedia wasn’t really much help, Google did get me to this section of his webpage www.roesy.net/music.php – It looks like http://www.roesy.net/ is under construction and should be in place in due course, but the above listed URL will get you a little more info.

As I cruised and perused the Roesy myspace profile, I was thrilled to hear more music. As I said, “Colour Me Colourful,” was from 2006 so when I heard this one tune, “Sober Clown,” I figured that this had to be new music; the production values were great (for myspace) the sound was mature, the lyrics, brilliant. So imagine my shock and awe when I came to find that this was an even EARLIER recorded song!

In 2004, on the record “Only Love is Real,” comes this masterpiece. Beginning with a simple, ambling piano introduction, joined in time by a strong guitar strum, “Sober Clown” sounds like Sunday morning and all the rebirth and weekly catharsis inherent in that day. From his opening lines, this is obviously a song about loss, change, the end of something that was great, and the start of something uncertain.

“I’m glad you’re happy now; I know you did what you had to do.
It’s just that my road is clear of traffic, I’m going walking; but I wish to God I was walking with you.”

It is with those lines that we are taken on this journey of self-aware self-actualization. At first the lonely soul seems drowned in his own sorrows;

“I been spending too much time alone I’ve gripped the fact now that I’m on my own. Brooding too much on memories and I’ll admit that I was kind of bitter to the bone.”

As though there were any other way to be; the evocative nature of a phrase like “kind of bitter to the bone,” shows the depth and intensity of the relationship between the scorned and the heart-sick.

There is a certain blind invincibility one feels when they are living with the one that they love and on high. Naturally, then, there is a certain exposed feeling which is very apparent when that blanket is gone. The character in the Roesy tune, they know it too:

“Sun up and down and then the moon’s around
And all the while they’re watching us we’re in different towns”

Not only is the love lost victim feeling the loss of their partner, they are also feeling the grating glares of everyone who sees him now alone. Even though most of them probably don’t even know who he is, it can still be a shameful perp-walk many people feel that they must take when they are cast asunder.

There is more beautiful imagery in this song; more heart sick cries and so much emotion in this poor soul’s voice that you feel as though you were in his shoes; taking the walk with him. This is one of the true gifts of truly gifted artists; that they can make their audience “feel” right along with them, with their gifted gift of poetry.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

New REM CD Sold Out! Days Ahead of Schedule

New REM CD Sold Out! Days Ahead of Schedule

by Jesse Schmitt

Is nothing sacred anymore? I remember in my younger days, when getting all excited for a new release of a new album by a favorite band used to mean something. There was some kind of solidarity in the understood “waiting” for something. Tuesday. That was the day when records were released. Tuesday. And while the facts have become muddled in my old age and the lines of black and white have frayed to grey, there are some things I’ve always felt responsible for; among these is holding to tradition.

So it was with some shock and awe earlier today (FRIDAY) that I stumbled upon a horrific entry into my daily life’s journal. This was a thing which made me mad, sad, and indifferent; it had to do with the new release of the latest album of my favorite band, REM. I had been looking forward to this release with some anticipation (this COMING Tuesday) however when I achieved the golden ticket earlier this Friday, I felt sad because it’s true that all that glitters isn’t necessarily anything more than pixie dust.

When I went into the coffee shop of record this morning it was not with the intention of writing an expose. In fact, I was quite content to just grab a cup and go. However the story goes that I stepped up to the counter of the Starbucks Coffee shop on Allen Street in Chinatown in New York City, I saw a thing which I’d been anticipating for days!
For those of you who don’t frequent this chain of coffee store, you would have a hard time distinguishing this place from a music store with a coffee counter if you didn’t know any better. In recent months Starbucks has become your home for all things audiophile including new releases of records. So it goes and the aforementioned shock and awe was quickly replaced with a feeling of intense guilt. I knew that this record didn’t go on sale until four days following; what the heck was it doing in their racks?

I was met with a turn and a shrug at the counter of Starbucks on Allen Street in Chinatown when I queried to the gent at the counter. I snatched it up nonetheless and turned it over to read the track listings and be sure that I wasn’t imagining things.

“The manager just told me to put these out, you know?”

I bought it anyway, and that was when I felt a strange sickening feeling and wanted to return it. I have memories of standing on lines in the middle of the night; long, epic lines with my muggle wife to get things like the latest Harry Potter book. Come to think of it, there hadn’t been too many record releases of recent memory which had shook me in any real way. Then I thought more about it and realized that this release wasn’t so special at all. No, in fact you can hear the whole album online. And event though I’ve listened to the tracks in their entirety online, I’ve only done so once! REM is my favorite band! Why don’t I care more that this new record is out? Why don’t I feel more guilt that I’ve gotten this secret stash so soon?

A footnote in this disappointing chapter: New REM CD Sold Out at Allen Street Starbucks; Days Before Release. And Nobody Seemed to Notice; And Nobody Seemed to Care.

Roesy's Masks

Roesy's Masks

by Jesse Schmitt

I don’t know where my head has been these last years. I’m very impressed how so-so musical acts can get all this play, everywhere; and for the last four years or more this amazing singer, songwriter, and guitar player has been lurking in the shadows. Alas, this is the way for the American music industry (“Can I get a what-what”) but never fear as the world stage continues not to let us down.

From the Irish artist known as Roesy comes the 2006 release “Colour Me Colourful.” When I first heard this record I was flummoxed with a mixture of restrained jubilation and anticipatory depression as I felt I’d already missed something huge. The fact is that Roesy is still around and for any fans of off-the-mainstream, acoustic pop, his soft spoken excellence will sweep you off your feet and take you off and away.

Roesy’s image, standing in a purple chef’s jacket holding his guitar on the blacktop backdrop which is colored in psychedelic Rastafarian paints; I was taken back to the late 1980’s. To the uninformed eye, you’d think that this poor guy stumbled onto the photo shoot at a Milli Vanilli sound stage. It seems as though that this photo shoot is where his album title came from. Further research would reveal that Roesy actually has an impressive art resume as well. But on this record, the art is in the music and the Colours are certainly there in the songs and in the musician.

Roesy’s sound seems a strange amalgam of every one of my favorite musicians of the last fifty years. It’s a little bit hard to describe. He’s European; Irish, so, there you go; there are definite vocal similarities with Crowded House; but there are also hints of Cat Stevens, those Gallagher brothers, and, on first listen, I kept going back to Thom Yorke. Maybe it was the Euro lilt; though it seemed to be much more. Roesy’s songs are nothing like Radiohead. They’re more like Radiohead doing lullaby’s. Or Jazz. There is a definite homage to some of the American jazz greats; Duke, Louis; but there’s a free form about the music which reminded me of Mingus, Coltrane, Cobham. I hear the Eagles, I hear Steely Dan, I hear Paul Simon and I hear none of them. This is a sound which washed over me with its simplistically beautiful originality.

Colour Me Colourful starts out with fingers snapping, wind blowing, jazzy electric piano, soft saxophone, hypnotic harmonies and this lead singer who has the commanding presence of Leonard Cohen. “Shape shift me, walk with me, stay a while; trying to shake the devil down.”

As one door closes, a second opens wide and you feel like you’re listening to The Counting Crows or some other lively pop band. His plaintive cry on “One of the Same,” reminds me or Adam Durnitz which made me feel as though this is some mix CD. I was vexed until Roesy broke out in this songs chorus, “And I said baby we’re all one in the same; together in joy, together in pain.” And there he is again; this large voice which opens up and calls out “nobody’s got it stitched or got it all sewn.”

It kept going on and on like that; I was repeatedly challenged every time the track changed. I had to listen to this record twice just to be sure I heard it all right. From the hypnotic conspirator of “Get to the Ocean;” to the gentle strumming of “Home It Has Flown;” or the aggressive beat of “Propellor” to the gentle finale of “Don’t Be Afraid;” you are never sure what it is that you’re listening to.

And that’s okay. As music gets more and more the same old stuff just rehashed in uninteresting and dull ways, it’s really encouraging to hear an artist who is able to take what’s come before him and honor the sound without raping it. Roesy is hopeful which seems to be congruent of the mood of many in my circles. It’s not sugar-coated however; Roesy’s a realist as well. Listen closely to the lyrics, as he sings on the finale track, and you’ll know too; “In these modern days, a troubled mind is all the rage, oh please when you fall low, know that I will hear you, know that I won’t judge you.”

In a music industry that’s just reeling and stifled and groping and feeling, Roesy is an artist who brings promise for a brighter tomorrow.