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Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Larsen, Heyman, Everybody Else, Assembly, Brooklyn Rep

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Olav Larsen & the Alabama Rodeo Stars, Love's Come to Town

This charming set of Americana-by-way-of-Norway hits all the right notes, so to speak. The band brightens up Larsen's traditional sounding, but occasionally quirky, roots-rock and country songs with homespun energy. The musicians bed the songs in endearingly shambling arrangements that perfectly complement the songwriter's jaunty, somewhat wobbly vocals.

This band of Europeans has thoroughly absorbed, digested and done right by Americana music, while giving it just enough of their own flavor to make it interesting. The songs range from Dylan-esque wistfulness ("May the Sun Always Shine") to bluegrass shenanigans ("Ain't Got Time"); from a splash of dixieland and ragtime ("Atomic Bombs and Wine") to sweet, shimmering rambles ("Love's Come to Town," "Like Daisies"); and from the hillbilly gospel of "The Sweet Saviour's Arms" to the grim, cautionary "Unhappy/Dreamer":

I never thought that you would leave this town behind.
Your unpredicted departure almost destroyed my mind.
You didn't even say goodbye to your friends: unkind.
I guess there's something bigger going on this time.

The slightly off-kilter lyrics – perhaps from English not being Larsen's native language – has a paradoxical effect of making them seem sly and heartfelt at the same time. How could anyone resist this: "When you say jump, I'll jump for you baby. / When you say run, I'll run for you too. / I'll do anything you want me to / And you can call me baby!"

Highly recommended for country-rock and Americana fans. Hear some full tracks at their Myspace page.

Richard X. Heyman, Actual Sighs

One-man rock band Richard X. Heyman's new release is a blast from power-pop's past and a new work at the same time. The CD is packed with twenty songs, the first fourteen of which are new recordings of old compositions – most written in the early 80s – that never got recorded before. The last six are a reworking of the EP Actual Size, which Heyman put out himself, to critical acclaim but with limited distribution, in 1986.

It's hard to imagine any Heyman fan not being over the moon with this collection, or any fan of rock, classic rock and power-pop not finding much to like. No doubt, Heyman's musical vision is a little old-fashioned, but mainly in the sense that it is a powerful, emotional tapestry of male rock without whininess. Heyman fits together big collections of instruments and tracks – all played by him, except for the strings and horns – into ever-evolving, mind-grabbing, crisp but not cluttered arrangements – the rock equivalent of what a great classical or Broadway orchestrator does.

The greatest studio bands of past decades – like Yes, Led Zeppelin, Crowded House, Smashing Pumpkins, and of course the Beatles and George Martin – could orchestrate pop in that way. Most rock bands and producers nowadays, too worried about trying to sound like somebody else, shy away from the interesting.

Heyman doesn't have that problem. He's an original. The opening orchestral theme of "Kenyon Walls" (it suggests Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," but played on real horns and strings instead of a Mellotron), leads straight into the pounding, multi-voiced chorus. Right away we're introduced to Richard X. Heyman the confident guitarist and piano player, but above all (or behind all) the frighteningly good drummer. (This is borne out in live performance; it's worth seeing anyone he's backing up on the skins.)

If there was any doubt, the thunderous drum intro of the fist-thumping "Stockpile" blasts it away. Think Georgia Satellites on speed. Heyman does more things on the drums in these two and a half minutes than most drummers do in their band's whole set.

There's no let-up in the midtempo "All In the Way You Found Me," with its rueful Byrds/Petty chord changes, rich pop harmonies, and throaty organ solo. The deceptively simple-sounding "Winter Blue" harks back to art-rock. If you're old enough you might remember when Genesis toned its histrionics way down, but hadn't yet made the move to machine-pop. Such references aren't out of place with Heyman, who's been writing songs since 1969, though his major label period was twenty years later.

More highlights: the caffeinated, drum-drowned rave-up "Twelve Boxcars and I Still Have the Blues"; the groovy, Zombies-like harmonies of "In a Boxcar": and the grandiose marching lines of "A Fine Line." And that's only on the first half. Small gems like the ballad "Written All Over My Face," together with ambitious ones like "The Gazing Moon," poke out of this overstuffed CD's "Side B" like fighting limbs. It's too much to listen to straight through, actually. On the other hand, Heyman is one of the few artists who can put out a twenty-song disc without ever succumbing to a flaccid or disinterested vibe.

With all the sound and fury, not every song here will appeal to everyone. But it's certainly fair to say that smart rock doesn't get much better than this.

Hear extended clips at CD Baby.

Everybody Else, Everybody Else

Speaking of power-pop, it ain't just old-timers like Richard X. Heyman bringing the joyful noise. Score another one for The Militia Group for their pickup of L.A. trio Everybody Else.

Mixing Squeeze-like pop sophistication with bubblegum, then spiking it with raunchy guitar, the band has hit on a sweet formula for their debut full-length CD. There's nothing terribly original here, but with their smart use of pop conventions and powerful knack for hooky melodies, Everybody Else has no need to reinvent the wheel – they just have to set it on fire, and they do, with songs like the infectious, anti-love callout "Meat Market" and the Matchbox 20-like "I Gotta Run." "In Memoriam" is an irresistible nostalgia trip, while "Born To Do" grinds out the jagged edge of love, with choked-off chords evoking the sinister humor of the Toadies. "Rich Girls, Poor Girls" is funny, imagistic and touching all at the same time:

the rich girls see the curving of the earth
when flying over Kansas city
but ice cream music floats along the hills
of where we're living
and those poor girls know the feeling of
the playground bench with darkness bleeding
like a palm tree, dreaming

i love you even though you got no dough

rich girls, poor girls
i just can't decide…

The fine songwriting continues throughout the CD – there isn't one weak song. "The Longest Hour of My Life" sounds like a lost 1970s pop hit, while "Button for Punishment" shows the band can also do a memorable acoustic ballad. The CD actually closes with one of its strongest tracks: the electronica-flavored "Alone in the World" is the kind of song Duran Duran might have had a smash with.

An impressive, spirited debut, highly recommended.

Assembly of Dust, Recollection

Assembly of Dust is the current project of Reid Genauer (Strangefolk, Phil Lesh and Friends). The band tours on the jam band circuit, but the best songs on this, its third studio album, have roots in 1970s country-rock with a progressive glint, as much Steve Miller and Steely Dan as Grateful Dead.

Arena-rock hooks, colorful, imagistic lyrics, emotional lead guitar from Adam Terrell, and shimmery piano work from Nate Wilson (who co-writes the songs with Genauer) are all here, but the most distinctive characteristic of the set is a sunny disposition. Even the songs with serious or sad lyrics are still move-your-body music.

The band front-loads the CD with its best songs. The jumpy, mid-tempo "Grand Decision" evokes The Band (think "Ophelia") and a bit of Boz Scaggs, while later in the CD, "Bootlegger's Advice," which slows that groove down, isn't as strong a song. The bracing "Telling Sue" cheerfully adapts its soaring hook from the Dead's "U.S. Blues," while "Truck Farm" aims for a similar, simple, goofy grandeur but doesn't quite hit the mark. Maybe Genauer just sounds too nice to represent the kind of guy who's set a fire in anger after buying a lemon vehicle.

"Zero to the Skin" and "Whistle Clock" are fully realized works. They're successful because they're not trying to be anything but what they are, and because their music and lyrics evoke the gritty, poetic, somehow-we-survive American heartland spirit.

You may serve them roses.
You may serve their delight.
But when the working day closes,
I sing you sweetly goodnight.

The climax comes in the chorus of "Samuel Aging," a nova of a song about a writer's tragic life that could be any of ours.

Well he raked his eyes and read what he had laid down.
His tongue was dry, his eyes were moist and red.
Exhausted from the work and went and laid down,
and the writing read and the writing read.
Run walk or stagger to your old life's hanging.

Next comes "40 Reasons," a pretty but not entirely convincing attempt at Neil Young's sort of minor-key pathos. The rather hollow "The Honest Hour" is notable mostly for inheriting the language of its guitar solo from Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer." And on the evidence of the aimless "Walking on Water," "Desperado"-style ballads aren't the Assembly's strong suit.

Even the less successful songs have well-considered lyrics and a sensitive soul. But what we have here is an excellent band delivering half of an excellent album.

Hear some full tracks at their Myspace page.

Brooklyn Repertory Ensemble, Pragmatic Optimism

You don't hear too much ensemble jazz any more, and when you do it's usually in an educational context (meaning, most of us who aren't in school never experience it). For one thing, it's awfully expensive to gather and rehearse a big jazz band. The musicians are hard to herd because they're always off scrabbling for the next paying job, which is usually with a smaller combo, or backing up a pop singer, or teaching.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, the resourceful drummer and composer Wade Barnes has expanded his highly regarded 1990s group, the Brooklyn Four Plus One, into a powerhouse seventeen-piece ambassador for what he accurately calls "America's classical music," and done it in an unusual way: by incorporating the band as a 501c3 non-profit organization.

Fear not, however – far from being a dry, academic exercise in preservation, the B.R.E.'s new CD (and, I would imagine, its concerts) is living, breathing jazz. Precisely energized ensemble playing, sophisticated Ellingtonian arrangements, quirky solos, un-everyday instruments (vibes; tuba and euphonium; a French horn and a mellophone), and buttery vocals from Tulivu-Donna Cumberbatch add up to a redolent hour-plus of satisfying music.

The band's spare take on "Blowin' in the Wind" opens the CD straightforwardly, deep brass pulsing. Delicate solos from pianist John Nam and guitarist Yoshiki Miura, along with Cumberbatch's semi-operatic vocals, turn the folk classic into a meditative cloud. The other familiar tunes are a smooth partially sung "Stolen Moments" featuring clarinetist McDonald Payne, and "Body and Soul."

Subtle polyrhythms underpin Barnes's own "Passive Volition," which features vibraphonist William Ware, III among others. The leader's other compositions incline towards the meditative – they have titles like "The Power of Feeling" and "The Power of Thought" – and do not feature vocals, but there's always something on the surface to tickle the ear and Barnes's gossamer drumming driving everything along. "Little Big Sis," in 5/4 time, builds into a pentatonic scale rave-up and may be my favorite track in spite of its melodic (though not rhythmic) simplicity.

Hear extended clips of this unusual set at CD Baby.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • nick

    Speaking of the underground/indie-rock craze at hand

    A must listen to, is the new album from Hot Rod Circuit, “the underground is a dying breed”. I went to their myspace and listened to the new tracks up, and it sounds like pretty good stuff. Plus it turns out they been “underground” for quite some time now. I really believe all of you will enjoy this new stuff so go check them out at their myspace.