GROOVES & CUTS – ENOUGH WITH THE PANDEMIC SONGS – JUNE 2021 John Apice
Slim pickings this month of miscellaneous releases. Why? Many sound the same, with recycled song formulas, lame singing, poor choice of song subjects, rehashed progressions, no ingenuity, creativity, originality, or arrangement. Lots of coasting. PR boasts how it was all recorded remotely in different places due to COVID. That’s not a novel idea. That’s how many classic LPs ultimately were recorded. It was called tracking. I don’t need to explain it – but not all musicians were in the studio at the same time when they laid their parts down.
And please – stop singing about the pandemic. It’s getting old. It’s a tired song subject because singers just bellyache about how bad it was & how it affected them. This will date their music in 10-years. I can barely get through “Woodstock,” now by CSN&Y & “The Big Muddy,” by Pete Seeger. Do one song if necessary but not an entire album.
Sing about what you did to HELP someone instead. There’s a challenge. Sing with optimism. How about growing a pair & write about how this may have been planned? Yeah, that’s controversial. Takes guts & that’s what songwriters do.
Janis Ian sang about “Society’s Child,” in 1965 when no one sang about interracial relationships. Randy Newman did “Short People,” but he wasn’t talking about little people – he was talking about people who were short-tempered, small-minded, racists & bigots. Took guts to write that.
I’m overloaded now with processed vocals, special effects, beautiful tunes with foul language, a lack of personality & character in the vocals. Lots of computerized studio concoctions that add no presence, no compression, no atmosphere or ambiance. And many believe this is good stuff?
It’s good – if it’s temporary.
OK. Maybe it isn’t the artist’s fault. But the production team, producer? I wonder. Is anyone giving these talented artists studio guidance? Many play their instruments proficiently, though few have compositional originality in their plan. The Beatles were great right? But they had George Martin in the studio. The 5th Beatle. Don’t believe you can accomplish it alone. Not everyone is Brian Wilson.
Or maybe this is the musical generation of throwing it up on the wall & see if it sticks? I once believed the independent artist to be the one to “create” something because they had the freedom. But slowly, I’m beginning to believe that the word independent is a synonym for inferior. I hope not.
There are lots of talented people – but it’s like it’s on the truck but not being delivered (all the time). About 60% of the albums I receive have singers with nothing to say. I sort through everything & review pieces that are compelling, have weight, substance, originality, & ingenuity. But everything lately is a formula. Poorly mixed, & sometimes you can hardly distinguish any instruments with power & brilliance. Maybe these newcomers should go back to the original rock pioneers, blues legends & jazz masters to listen to their clever LPs, resourceful songs, & daring performances. Some artists don’t even come up with a well-thought-out song title.
And, if anyone sings in that valium-induced breathy angst-ridden vocal — it’s the reject file. There has to be someone with a real voice that can hit notes without sounding like an air-raid siren or they just ran a marathon.
I read other reviews on blogs, websites & magazines that were indeed well-written assessments. But the kudos are bloviated. These writers proclaim artists as geniuses & use the same words used in the press releases. I suspect they just want to get their review quote on the artist’s website. It’s like canned laughter on a TV comedy show. I’d rather tell the truth.
I won’t write harshly because the majority of artists are independent. They invest their own money & sweat. They deserve to be assessed honestly. If I dislike a work – I usually politely pass. However, if I criticize I offer suggestions — how to make it better. I don’t ridicule. No one should. It’s not an easy business. Some people should never step into a studio. That’s for sure. But it’s painstaking. Write songs someone would want to hear, record them, go out, play them – sell them. It is, after all, a business.
OK…onto the music: How about the solo artists who for reasons unknown never caught on with the public or seem to not find an audience. Virginia’s Gene Ryder’s done many things in music even though his brand of rock (Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp) tradition didn’t click. It’s a shame too, because though he was on a major label (Mercury/Polygram) perhaps they didn’t push hard enough in the right markets. Didn’t introduce him to the audience that would’ve appreciated his work.
Ryder had lyrics, (could’ve been a little edgier – which would’ve made him the male version of Lucinda Williams). But marketing at a major label? It’s dicey. It sounds like someone didn’t want to do homework or research. “Last Cigarette & a Blindfold,” sank like pebble & was Ryder’s only 1989 Americana solo release. The same thing happened to singer Heather Mullen covered in an earlier Grooves & Cuts.
As of 2-years, ago Gene recorded with Lorie Lawson as HoboBlue. A well-produced 13-cut Americana CD released in 2019 “Curve of the World,” is quite good. https://hoboblue.com/music
A legendary pianist with Eric Burdon & The Animals, Englishman Alan Price, whose piano skills even impressed Bob Dylan (check “Don’t Look Back” documentary). Price had a steady solo career which provided several dynamic tracks. However, even while covering 2 early Randy Newman songs “Simon Smith & the Amazing Dancing Bear,” & “Tickle Me,” Price began to pen his own. From his self-titled 1977 LP that charted & received FM radio play were songs (“I’m a Gambler,” “I’ve Been Hurt” “Rainbow’s End,” & “Life Is Good”).
Price was responsible for soundtracks: Music for “O Lucky Man,” (Golden Globe Nomination), “The Plague Dogs” & “The Whales of August.”
Price recorded many memorable songs. “A Little Inch (Your Way),” a beautiful early ballad. The poignant “I Love You Too.” The rollicking piano-ignited “Pity the Poor Boy,” dips into nostalgia but never goes retro. If only Dylan had a piano solo in one of his songs as dynamic as this.
The rocker “I’m Coming Back,” & the ballad “Love You True” — worth checking. This is an artist who should’ve had a major career.
Alan’s been known to be very adept at covering the blues, (“A Gigsters Life For Me,” & “Covers with The Electric Blues Company”), & show tunes (“Hi-Lili-Hi-Lo”). At nearly 80 Price continues to issue an occasional CD – but it’s his fiery piano that needs to be heard.
SPILLED MERCURY: As mentioned earlier, pickings are slim. However, singer-songwriter Brandon Jenner has a 6-cut EP out now. “Short of Home” (Nettwerk) finds the soft-spoken singer overflowing with sincerity in his vocals. What tipped the scales for me was his bravery covering an Elvis Presley classic “I Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Jenner covers it exceptionally well. His voice is suited to the gentle poignant words & superb melody that for decades captivated audiences.
“Wolves,” is also a wonderful atmospheric tune. Jenner has a soft acoustic vocal just short of the compelling style of a Nick Drake. His songs aren’t as clever or dark. His dynamic is rooted in the similar work of The Blue Nile – a quiet strength in each melody & carefully selected lyrics.
Also, from Nettwerk is the Netherlands-based upbeat jangling guitars & pub singing joyous voice of multi-instrumentalist Graeme James.
His summer EP Field Notes on an Endless Day (July 30 drop) concludes his 4 seasonal EPs. Mindful of an 80s similar vocalist Sam Leno whose 1975 LP “Ordinary Man” was produced & arranged in this style. James does it here & picks up where Leno left off. James’ entire repertoire is a good listen with a cold lager. Interesting fellow. Not to be missed.
Ryan Curtis’ debut solo Rust Belt Broken Heart, (American Standard Time Records) sounds good with his raw vocals ala Jon Dee Graham. Songs are edgy & storytelling sharp. The musicians are excellent. The songs have an attractive country lift. Waylon & Merle would’ve listened to this, hell, Jim Reeves & Boxcar Willie would’ve listened to it too.
The music deserved better CD art. This cover looks like something K-Tel would’ve slapped together in the 70s for TV consumers. Curtis’ music is better than that. What were they thinking with that typeface & orange color? The image is fine, the graphics are poor. The music? It’s all good. I listened more than once. I set the cover aside. Some people put sugar in their coffee, Ryan Curtis puts in Jim Beam.
Another singer-songwriter/pedal steel guitarist Spencer Cullum on one song “Imminent Shadow,” sounds like the song’s channeling his vocals & Adam Stockdale’s acoustic guitar picking toward Nick Drake. May have emulated a little too close.
It’s an admirable job though but the magic of Drake is sorely missing. The music itself is compelling & attractive in a way that the late acoustic guitarist Duncan Browne (“In a Mist” “Give Me Take You”) presented. Spencer Cullum sounds like he knows what he wants to do & isn’t noodling. Spencer’s recorded vocals are what suffer on the majority of the songs. It’s muddy. He needs to be mixed upfront or get him a better microphone. A microphone that creates presence & color on the voice. These songs sound at times like demos. The chorus with female vocalist Erin Rae is haunting. Nice job. It’s peaceful music. Spencer’s debut LP “Coin Collection,” is due Sept. 24th (Full Time Hobby).
While the sound is capable, the songs well-fueled, I believe they have to rethink the production next time around.
All CDs are available as noted or at the artists’ websites.