CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for May 18 2006 – Zach Hexum, The Animators, Josh Sason

Zach Hexum, The Story So Far

Zack Hexum’s sound harks back to the seventies and eighties (think Paul McCartney, Tears for Fears, and Squeeze) – a keyboard-heavy soft rock with power-pop highlights. Nothing at all like his brother Nick’s band, 311.

But while the sound and sensibility aren’t new, the songs are outstanding, and as I’ve mentioned a gazillion times before, good songs are what it’s all about. The lyrics are both fluid and sharp, often putting a unique slant on common feelings, as in “Simple City”: “I saw a yin yang girl today she was black and white/She was a pile on a chair pale and dark/She wore a shirt that left her breast for all of us to see/I wanna color her and then maybe we’ll be/In Simple City soon/Just staring at the moon/Will you be there?/Can I take you there?” And the melodies are fresh and catchy and quirky all at once.

“All I Want,” “One Spin,” “Sun Still Shines” and “Met a Girl Like You Once” are are among my favorites, but the songwriting shines throughout. Hexum’s voice is a flexible though not amazingly strong instrument; he makes the most of it, singing his intelligent lyrics archly enough to be interesting and emotively enough to be lyrical.

Very highly recommended.

The Animators, How We Fight

The Animators’ sophomore effort is almost like two albums on one CD. The first five songs make up a set of gorgeous power pop. Several of these songs borrow, and sometimes exaggerate, the grunge technique of quiet verses and loud choruses. “It’s Good To Be Here” establishes the pattern, with meaty guitar refrains and the plaintive, sensitive-guy delivery that lead singer Devon Copley is very good at but not restricted to. The section ends with “How Do I Get Over You,” a power ballad that feels to me like the heart of the album and deserves to be a classic.

The rest of the CD is more varied and experimental, starting with the acidic “The Senator Goes To Hell” with its Dixieland tuba and angular honky-tonk piano. The song – about, I’m guessing, Strom Thurmond – pulls no punches: “no matter how deep they bury him, he’s gonna smell/the senator goes to hell.” The circus-y arrangement of “Good Day” would make Brian Wilson proud, while R&B flavored, anti-consumerist call to action “Buy Buy” with its irresistible chorus suggests something Pete Townshend might have written after accidentally wandering into a Wal-Mart.

“Take It So Hard” is a well-written but rather standard relationship song, but the title track gets more creative. Sung in gentle Simon and Garfunkel harmonies the lyrics get deep into the strange subtleties of love and the hardening thereof: “what’s the harm in hiding something/this is how we fight/and how we come together… I don’t mind the tears this time/we’re strong enough that we don’t feel it/we’re smart enough that we don’t mean it/as long as we don’t read between the lines.” “Ordinary Moment” is, lyrically, a straightforward ballad, but musically a fascinating piece of chamber pop. And the last track shows that the Animators can artfully mix a metaphor: “We only know a golden age/On the morning after.”

This is one of those CDs that takes a couple of listens to fully appreciate. Fortunately it also has enough catchiness to draw in the casual pop-music seeker. Check it out.

Available at CD Baby.

Josh Sason, four song demo at

Josh Sason is a promising young singer-songwriter from my “home town” of Long Island NY. As evidenced by these four songs, he’s got a good sense of melody and musical drama. His dense, almost orchestral arrangements show plenty of skill on guitars and keyboards and in the studio (he does everything), and his heated, passionate tenor is just the thing to melt girls’ hearts; his list of inspirations starts with Coldplay, but his phrasing is closer to that of Oasis’s Liam Gallagher. The songwriting needs a little more focus: only the ballad “Your Name” has a strong enough hook to really stick in the ear. But that will come with practice and maturity. Meanwhile this is a kid to watch.

OUT AND ABOUT: It’s been a quiet couple of weeks for me, nightlife-wise, but I’ve been checking out a lot of bands at Myspace. Although it’s not about a band, I just had to share this nugget from Indie Roundup’s Mixed Metaphor Police, who spotted this title on a naked girl’s Myspace blog post: “Christmas is starting to rear it’s [sic] ugly head around the corner again.”

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

CD Review and Interview: Hillstomp, The Woman That Ended the World

Come hell or high water – and the latter, at least, certainly seems to be on its way – people are never going to tire of music stripped down to essentials. You see this in a number of seemingly disparate styles: thumping dance music in the clubs; two- and three-chord punk at all-ages shows; elemental rock, from Neil Young to Pearl Jam and from “Wild Thing” to its descendent, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; and, in another realm, the once-again popular ancient musics of Gregorian Chant and Hildegard von Bingen. Simplicity or uniformity of rhythm, melody, or both characterize all these strains, notwithstanding any complexities, hidden or otherwise, that may also adhere.

American folk music, too, has always relied on simple building blocks, but right now there’s a special emphasis on raw, “authentic” sounds and compositions. No band exemplifies this spirit and trend better than Hillstomp, the Portland, OR duo that has just released its second full-length CD. I caught up, electronically, with the band – otherwise known as Henry Kammerer and John Johnson – as they toured California before returning to the Pacific Northwest.

The band, which proudly calls itself “Portland’s third greatest guitar / bucket-n-can duo,” creates a unique sound out of trance blues, hillbilly grit, and an undercurrent of goofiness. With only voices, a guitar, and a “drum” kit made of buckets and other assorted objects – plus, occasionally, a little harmonica and keyboard from friends – they bang out traditional songs like “John Henry,” country blues nuggets by R.L. Burnside and his mentor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and original songs. Tempo and mood vary but a certain gloomy glee remain fairly constant. Hillstomp’s ragged sound comes out of who they are, but it is also reactive, as percussionist Johnson explains:

It comes naturally to us because those are the elements of blues and country that we like. From a performance standpoint, it comes naturally because it’s really the only way we really know how to play. It’s [also] a reaction, even if unintentional, just because we don’t like the kind of polished and pretty blues and country you’re talking about. For us, blues is all about grit and dirt. It’s not about notes, or technicality or any of that crap. Does it make you want to shout and holler? Does it make you feel a little dirty? These are things it should do. If it makes you say, “Wow, the production on this is impeccable! Mr. Segal’s solo over the bridge on track 3 is really hot,” you should be slapped.

As a reviewer who finds himself saying just such things now and again, I consider myself duly slapped. Kind of like the guy in the cowboy hat on the cover of Hillstomp’s new CD The Woman That Ended the World is about to get slapped if he doesn’t let go of that woman’s arm and let her get on that train. She must have realized she could do a lot better; Hillstomp, on the other hand, hasn’t tampered with its successful formula. The production on the new CD is a little cleaner (*slap* ouch!) but that is of little importance. More significant is that with their single method and limited palette the duo can create enough different musical statements to make two full-length Hillstomp CDs a good listen all the way through.

“Nope,” from their earlier CD One Word, is a sweet love song that contrasts blaringly with the hard scratching of Bukka White‘s “Shake ‘Em On Down.” The stately raga-like solemnity of Burnside’s “Goin’ Down South” leads into the hearty good humor of the band’s own bluegrassy chant “Lucy’s Lament,” vocals grating out through vintage Turner bullet microphones, the kind usually employed to give blues harmonica players their flattened, raucous sound.

On the new CD, in addition to the slightly sharper production, the musicianship has improved. Kammerer’s vocals are a bit stronger and surer and his guitar riffs more varied, while Johnson’s percussion kit technique has expanded. If anything, there was a slight sense of hesitation in the playing on the first CD, which is gone on the new one. But you have to listen closely for these changes; they’re subtle and not critical.

The band also stretches their song structures a little more on the new CD. The easy shuffling beat of “In The Hole” belies a macabre story of a boy who falls in a hole and meets first a rat and then an unexpected fate: “My mother said you live until you die/I never thought my mom would tell a lie/Black rat and me just keep on keepin’ on/We’re dead down here and still singin’ this song.” “Shake It” is a Chicago-bluesy soul jam assisted by David Lipkind on harmonica and Lewi Longmire on Hammond B-3 organ. And “Boom Boom Room East Blues” pounds like a sledgehammer: “I got a woman/She long and she tall/Sleeps in the kitchen/Legs out in the hall… Born as a baby/Into a girl/Became The Woman/That Ended the World.”

Not surprisingly the band got an enthusiastic reception overseas. Audiences in the UK “went apeshit!” Kammerer reports, noting, however, that “they often do that over here [in the US] as well.” But “people in UK are into blues, and into the offshoots of.”

Far from the first rootsy American act to find acclaim across the pond, Hillstomp is planning a more extensive European tour this Fall, after which they’re going to play a few shows in the Midwest and then take some time off from the road. “We’d really like to get back in the basement and start drinking beer and just playing music together for awhile,” says Johnson. “That’s how this thing was born, and we’d like to get back to that for a bit. It would do us some good.”

Johnson evinces a very healthy, realistic attitude towards a music career: “Making a living at this would be great. For me especially, it would be a dream come true. But, we aren’t really willing to do it without regard to consequences, if that makes sense. We don’t want to wake up in five years and realize we don’t have any fun playing this stuff anymore and that we haven’t really lived any kind of life. Hopefully we can find a reasonable balance. This music has longevity in it if we don’t burn it and ourselves out.”

The traditions Hillstomp builds upon certainly do have longevity. Just ask the ghosts of Fred McDowell or Dock Boggs. Or Hildegard von Bingen. And look out for Hillstomp – coming, if you’re lucky, to a stage near you.

Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.

Celebs Oppose Brooklyn Development Containing Nets Stadium

A group of prominent actors and writers, including Heath Ledger, Steve Buscemi, and Jonathan Lethem, is lending star power to a neighborhood movement opposing the Frank Gehry-designed Brooklyn development that would include a stadium for the National Basketball Association‘s Nets.

Although the stadium gets the most attention, it is only a small corner of developer Bruce Ratner’s plan, which would essentially drop a whole new city of high-rises into the midst of established, low-rise Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn has announced the appointment of a 30-member advisory board comprised of prominent citizens of the surrounding neighborhoods who agree with the community group’s contention that the plan, which includes office space as well as (mostly rental) residential units, is really a “destructive, secret, taxpayer-subsidized sweetheart deal” that would benefit the developer and not the community.

The advisory board also includes prominent local ministers, entrepreneurs, musicians such as Dan Zanes, actors Michelle Williams and Rosie Perez, and novelists Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Safran Foer. For extra political punch, it also counts US Congressman Rep. Major Owens (D-NY) as a member, along with Susette Kelo, the lead plaintiff in Kelo v. City of New London, the case that led to last year’s extremely unpopular Supreme Court decision favorable to eminent domain.

The proposed development has its own star power, and some community support: rap superstar Jay-Z is a Nets investor and a supporter of the project, and the local chapter of ACORN favors it because of the jobs and housing it would create. There is also favorable sentiment in the poorer nearby communities because of the construction jobs the development would create and the economic benefits that could be brought to the neighborhood by the presence of a major league sports team. (Brooklyn hasn’t had one since the baseball Dodgers left for the West Coast in 1958).

Opponents, however, contend that the number of permanent jobs and truly affordable housing units would be small, that the creation of new office space doesn’t make economic sense in a city that already has more than it needs, and that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the train yards over which much of the development would be built, failed to get the best price for its land. Some of DDDB’s objections could be construed as NIMBYism, but many are substantive.

Aside from community opposition, the proposal, which is favored by Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg, and Borough President Marty Markowitz, still faces procedural and legal hurdles before it can become reality.

Theater Review: Troika: God, Tolstoy & Sophia

From the long and storied life of the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina more than one substantial dramatic work could surely be culled. Peter Levy’s Troika: God, Tolstoy & Sophia is not one such, but it is an interesting and crisply written piece about Tolstoy’s last days. The great man’s domestic responsibilities, the sense of social justice that urges him to renounce his possessions, and his religious devotion collide with one another and with the conflicting desires and loyalties of the friends and family members who surround him – particularly his wife, who fears the loss of her inheritance – as his long and titanic life draws to a close in the years before revolution transformed Russia so violently. It is subject matter that lends itself easily to a drama of passions and ideas.

The staging and acting in this production do not serve the script well, however. The actors, for the most part, give one-note performances: Tolstoy (Mike Durell), scowling and bitter; his wife Sophia (Catherine Hennessey), loud, whiny and melodramatic; the publisher Chertkov (Seth D. Rabinowitz), slimily sycophantic; and so on. Only the two youngsters, Kristin Ledingham as Sasha Tolstoy and Mark Comer as the aging writer’s green but wily and romantic new secretary, Bulgakov, show some depth and chemistry in and between their characters. Yet even their love story is constricted by stodgy, uninspired staging.

In short (to use an expression not often associated with Tolstoy), the great author deserves better. Levy captures enough of the old Count’s life and times to hold the viewer’s attention, but this production just makes one wish for more and better.

At the 13th Street Repertory Theater in NYC through June 17.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for May 4 2006 – The Holy Fire, Jeremiah Lockwood, Scott Weis

The Holy Fire, In The Name Of The World

The new EP from The Holy Fire is pure, lively rock with driving rhythms, take-no-prisoners vocals and progressive touches. Each song is a little seismic world of its own, full of sound and fury and signifying something, with lyrics like these: “And kiss me right here with your mouth all sick from/Smoke and beer/As the bombs are going off in the distance/Outside the windows.” Good songwriting, soul-stirring sound, and serious (if sometimes obscure) lyrics wrapped in music that never lacks a sense of fun make this a worthy aspirant to a place on your modern rock shelf.

Jeremiah Lockwood, American Primitive

Jeremiah Lockwood is an avatar of urban Americana. The native New Yorker, who developed both his musicianship and his street cred playing in the subways with a well-known local bluesman called Carolina Slim, takes gritty blues, banjo music, low-fi folk and a honky-tonk drawl and twists these thick roots into the musical equivalent of a Clive Barker horror story – strange, disturbing, and hard to put down. Even the sweet songs, like “Love in the Dungeon,” with Elizabeth Harper on harmony vocals, sound skewed. Lockwood’s nasal, Axl Rose voice, Stuart Bogie’s clangy production, and the unexpected arrangements, which include horns as well as stringed instruments, all contribute to the distorted effect. The rhythms sway and totter as if drunk – “Going to Brooklyn” sounds like it might grind to a halt at any moment. “You Are My Shadow” is Lockwood’s update of “You Are My Sunshine” – it starts like the old chestnut, then wings off into a vortex of odd chord changes. His cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do” features a guitar solo and an antic sax that keep threatening to wander into another key. The banjo-blues “The Moon Is Rising” sounds like something Led Zeppelin might have done if they’d taken different drugs, and “Stolen Moments” is Residents-weird.

The CD, on local label Vee-Ron Records, may not be to everyone’s taste, but if anything in the above description appeals to you, it’s surely worth checking out.

Scott Weis Band, Have a Li’l Faith

On the flip side of the blues, The Scott Weis Band crunches in with a new CD of horn-driven Memphis soul and muscular, gravelly blues-rock. Has there been a lack of Joe Cocker in your life lately? How about that guy from The Commitments – whatever happened to him? Pop in this CD and get your fix. Deeply soulful, full of authentic religious feeling and chunky grooves, this is satisfying stuff.

Available at CD Baby.

OUT AND ABOUT: Jefferson Thomas churned out a tight, melodic and altogether impressive set of original, seventies-style soulful rock at Arlene Grocery last night… The St. Cecilia Chorus, which includes singer-songwriter Ari Scott, celebrated a hundred years of musicmaking with sparkling performances of Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony last week. Their legendary conductor since 1965, David Randolph, is still going strong into his nineties… New York City’s equally legendary CBGB is really – really, this time – going to be closing down in a few months. You still have time to catch my band, Whisperado, playing at CB’s Lounge on Saturday, May 13. For you out-of-towners, it’s a perfect opportunity to come and say goodbye to the old dump.

CD Review: Dion, Bronx In Blue

When I played the New York Irish bar circuit in the 80s and 90s doing oldies and classic rock, the songs that went over the best always included some of Dion’s hits, especially “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue.” With and without The Belmonts, the Bronx’s Dion DiMucci had a raft of hits from the late 50s to the late 60s. Going beyond doo-wop cliches, the songs were such raw and spirited fun that they’ve remained popular to this day, and in 1989 Dion was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So we always knew Dion could write great songs. And we always knew he could sing. But did we know he could sing traditional blues? And did we know he played a mean guitar? No sir, we did not. Introducing Dion, the bluesman. Far from the vanity project one might have feared – especially given the song choices, many of which have iconic versions – the man’s new acoustic blues CD is a joy. Without trying to sound self-conscously authentic, accompanied only by his own acoustic guitars and a percussionist, he tackles hoary standards like “Crossroads,” Who Do You Love,” “Built For Comfort” and “Walkin’ Blues” with skill, gusto and humility. His voice and attitude are clear and strong but also seem wise and experienced. His sense of fun is undiminished, as shown by the double-entendre original “I Let My Baby Do That.”

What this CD shows is that a street poet is a street poet, whether from the Deep South or the Bronx. “Black music, filtered through an Italian neighborhood, comes out with an attitude,” says Dion. “Rock & Roll. The music on this CD was the undercurrent of every song I did… even the foot stomping on ‘Ruby Baby’ I got from John Lee Hooker’s Walkin’ Boogie.'”

The liner notes provide background on each of the selections, so a blues neophyte could get a bit of an education from the package as well. But whether you’re an oldies fan, a blues fan, or both, get this CD because it’s just plain good. (Then play it for your musically knowledgeable friends and make them try to guess who it is.)