Mountain Tracks Volume 1
Yonder Mountain String Band
Frog Pad Records
You can still feel the potential energy leap off the cliff and burst into kinetics any time you tune into radio Yonder Mountain. They've just released their second album, a live one, and it plays like a second set at one of their split-personality concert gigs. Last year's studio album, Elevation, was packed with tight, clean songs aimed at the pure tradition of bluegrass music. Mountain Tracks: Volume 1 captures the expansive jamability of the band.
The album opens with a Stanley Brothers cover, "Sharecropper's Son," but three minutes later it's moved into an epic "Keep on Going" jam, a song by mandolin-man Jeff Austin that blends recurring Yonder Mountain road imagery with the Jimmy Cliff anthem "Legalize It," a String Band affirmation of the diggitty dank. As unassuming and organic as YMSB is in performance, there's a clear-thinking game plan beneath the surface -- long, neo-hippie jams interspersed with short traditional banjo-mondo-guitar-stand-up-bass covers -- turning their young audience onto hard-core bluegrass with equal doses of "old-timey single-mike" songs and their own original improvisational explorations.
Mountain Tracks is culled from the band's September gigs at the Fox Theater in Boulder, and the CD captures the band's confidence in the musical compass that drives them. They stretch out on original tunes like "Snow on the Pines," the Austin-penned homecoming homage that evolves into a 35-minute treatment with traditional numbers like "Whiskey Before Breakfast" and "Elzic's Farewell," seamlessly juxtaposed against J.J. Cale's "If You're Ever in Oklahoma."
There's nothing aimless about the journey YMSB is taking, either on stage or in the studio. They are playing with all the assurance of a band whose creative peak keeps rising with the ongoing tectonic shifting of their foundation. They manage to bring the mountains with them wherever they play, making no concessions to water down their sound for the flatlanders.
Keller Williams joins the ranks of solo-acoustic-guitar-toting white boys who've had an infusion of funk, in tradition with masters of the craft like Willy Porter and Martin Sexton. To follow up on his last album, Breathe, a studio collaboration with his musical kinfolk, The String Cheese Incident, Williams has released Loop, a live solo album, sort of.
Although Williams and his 10-string guitar (a modified 12-string) are the only instruments on the album, Williams takes advantage of technology to back himself up on multiple parts, both instrumentally and vocally. The process is to sing or play a riff, capture it in an on-the-spot recording, then replay it on a loop, backing himself up with the recorded riff while he continues to play new music live, often adding additional layers as he goes. Just about any description of the process sounds like a techno turnoff, but the result is surprisingly fresh, never straying from its inherent acousticity.
If anything, the complex layering undermines Williams' talent on the guitar. He risks letting instrumentals like "Rockumal" slip into underappreciation if listeners assume the best licks are somehow technologically engineered. Occasionally he sticks to a simple, accomplished rendition of songs ranting about "perpendicular teeth in Little America" in the playful boogie of "Kidney in a Cooler" with its double-decker, double-wide fantasies of jacuzzi-dipping on the tour bus at 80 mph mixing in with echoes of Deep Elum blues.
Williams' grooves are hard to resist, and when the lyrics are no more than playful, it's still good play. There's a luxurious quality to his music that can hit you as overboard if you're in the wrong mood. He can be histrionic in his musical approach, doing some things just because he can, but the limitations of a live album keep Williams from slipping into self-indulgence. Williams shows an empathy for his audience, flugeling along a fine line of percussive, rhythmic layering and looping, always careful that the song is not lost in the clutter.
Sugar Spun Elephant
R-V-Zoo's new CD came to my attention as I was wading through a stack of unsolicited CD releases, an onerous task that puts The Gong Show to shame for tolerating pathetic sub-mediocrity for so long -- all of 20 seconds -- before banishing a performer to the inner circles of Purgatory. Pulled randomly from amidst a hodgepodge of death rap and slammer jam, the debut release of Sugar Spun Elephant is a refreshingly creative attempt at breaking the mold of predictability and market-tested pop formulae.
The experimenting hits its zenith on "The Great Abyss," which is not profound the way its weighty lyrics may wish to be, but it has a sound that hits a rarely struck chamber of the inner ear and elicits an experiential response that is beyond surface-level literality. Maybe it's the backtracking, the wailing Eastern echoes, or just the dreary cadence of the uttered-word lyrics. I'd rather not even think about what "the artist formerly known as Dave Arvizu" is getting at. The sound triggers a definition for the song that easily eclipses any lyrical intention.
There are pitfalls, to be sure, on the trail of the elephant. Do you really need someone to tell you how Zoo succeeds with a song called "My Little Flower" that features a harp accompaniment? And there's something strangely bold about including a gentle cover of "My Favorite Things" if you're not a novitiate who will never, I fear, become a nun. And although he challenges the market for songs co-written by an 11-year-old girl, he's still got Peter and Amanda Rowan to contend with, and, for the gender-tolerant, John and Julian Lennon.
Arvizu is best when he relaxes into the hazy reverberating vocals and the occasional faded lick from a psychedelic riff. He lays it on thick through much of Sugar Spun Elephant, but it's never so thick that a kindred spirit can't shine through.
Music from Rancho deVille
The class of the season of Colorado releases has been Charles Sawtelle's Music from Rancho deVille, an album that Sawtelle was polishing between bedside jams with his best musical buddies as he lay dying of leukemia two years ago. Tim O'Brien, Sawtelle's Hot Rize bandmate, says Sawtelle "spent a lifetime getting ready to make this record," and his co-producer, Laurie Lewis, calls it a "musical calling card," capturing the varied forays Sawtelle took both recording and producing.
Far better than any tribute album or retrospective treatment is the chance to hear 16 Sawtelle renditions of new songs, seven originals and the rest covers of everyone from Woody Guthrie to Ralph Stanley. Most of the work was done over a two-year period, culling from endless sessions in Sawtelle's studio outside of Boulder. In addition to Sawtelle's stately guitar presence throughout, we're treated to Michael Doucet trading fiddle runs with Laurie Lewis on "Chez Seychelles" or jamming on Slade's "Waiting on Red" riff, giving a Cajun-blues feel to an old Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers number. Vassar Clements' stirring fiddle graces a couple of the tunes, alongside David Grisman's mandolin trills, and Clements' achingly rare vocals elevate "Mom and Dad's Waltz." Norman Blake joins Sawtelle on a few Carter Family revivals, and the tender instrumental "My Life Is in Your Hands," with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Todd Phillips, is one of the gemstones of the album.
"Aragon Mill" is one of only two songs featuring Sawtelle's vocals. Apparently, he didn't feel his voice was up to the task for most of the recording, and though he expected to add the vocals when his health improved, in the end it is his musical comrades who take his place at the microphone, lending breath to an enduring voice, resonating through the world of acoustic music.
The String Cheese Incident
As String Cheese Incident's concert identity continues to evolve toward higher and higher elevations, the band members gave themselves the daunting task of returning to the studio to re-establish the flip side of their identity.
The album is a statement of sorts, a funked-up documentation of the distance the band has traveled since their last studio album. It's String Cheese in their Incidental element, bringing the relaxed, organic attitude of their stage shows into the studio to lay down some grooves. One of the most representative songs on the album is Kyle Hollingsworth's "Latinissmo," a piano-centric byte of Latin jazz jam in which the spare electric mandolin leads and violin breaks perfectly complement Hollingsworth's ivory tickling and organ grinding. It's an instrumental, and despite well-intentioned lyrics throughout, the album is at its best the farther it delves into the band's musical vibe.
Outside Inside finds Cheese playing with such assurance that they easily get away with the platitudes of "Joyful Sound," spouting lyrics about the satisfaction of a job well done, doing unto others and playing a phat bass run. Best of all, the album exhibits the strength of the band's convictions and signals their aim to continue crashing through barriers by maintaining their musical integrity, foregoing the easy opportunities to pen a batch of three-minute ditties designed to attract widespread attention.
The music is always at the forefront of Outside Inside, raising the bar on songs with lyrics that can't otherwise bear much weight. The lyrics feel like exposed subtext, a glimpse of insight into the thought walking point on the musical adventure. After delivering a few civil-rights oriented lyrics, Michael Kang's "Black and White" ends up feeling like a Southern Baptist church revival. And his "Rollover" is the epic highlight of the album, an environmental statement whose elongated musical expression sets ideas free from the confines of a lyric sheet to tap into the original boogie at the core of creation.
Singing to Ghosts
Big Ball Records
All right. How did this group of scraggly Colorado Springs hacks come up with such a damned fine CD? Lazy Spacemen put an awful lot of time, effort and thought into this debut, and the pay-off is thorough. It is short on songs (only eight) but not in quality or spirit. There is no filler.
If you like your rock thoughtful, tight and unsentimental, the stuff for crying in your non-import beer, this is it. Lazy Spacemen provide the missing link between Bruce Springsteen and Paul Westerberg. Leader Chuck Snow, risen from the ashes of perennial local bad boys The Autono, sounds newly inspired, expressing a creative confidence not seen in years, mournfully and forcefully wailing at the top of his lungs. Mike Amend, also briefly in Autono, is the truly expressive and tasteful lead player.
"Shine" starts the disc with a little nod to the psychedelic-era Beatles, as good a springboard for these guys as any. The song morphs into solid blue-collar rock -- Mike slashing his guitar, Chuck musing gutturally, bass player Alan Stiles adding a little piano dressing. "Let Go" is the first of two truly transcendent songs on the disc, a rouser of a rock song that, after several listenings, will convince you it's been your anthem for as long as you can remember. Drummer Steve Schaarschmidt (say that five times fast), late of Big Back Yard, adds delightful background sopranics. By the way, Steve is a great drummer, and apparently completely ambidextrous (sorry, ladies, he's recently married).
The CD ends with the other great number, "Fishdriver," a song that will drill its way deeply into your subconscious if you don't watch out. I don't know what it's about, but it makes me cry anyhow. I can't believe it's not a Replacements song.
The only thing better than this CD is a live Spacemen show; do yourself a favor and catch them in one of their frequent area appearances. There is some amazing music in this town, and these guys top the heap.