ALBUM REVIEW: Kvetch by Rubin Witz

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Rubin Witz is a guitarist/songwriter (and fumbler of bass and keyboards) hailing from Seattle. His music is a unique fusion of genres, which Mixing Engineer Jeremy Serwer describes as ‘off-road jazzy stunt rock’ or simply ‘out-jazz’. More specifically, it’s a potent meld of jazz, rock, folk, Americana and indie strongly influenced by two avant garde artists who fused rock, blues and jazz, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Lyrically, there is an influence as well, with the dry, sardonic humour of Zappa and the verbal prankster style of Beefheart.

Indeed, to fully appreciate this eight track album it pays to be musically and culturally literate, with references ranging from Thoreau and Nietzsche to the A-Team. Musically, while in parts it hits the surreal heights of the Captain’s uber-bizarre magnum opus Trout Mask Replica, generally it is more along the lines of his later more accessible Doc At The Radar Station era. The quirky vocal style by longtime collaborator Tragic Jack Jorgenson is more in line with Zappa for the most part, delivering with deadpan wit and understatement.

It starts with The Inadequacy Of The Light Of Nature, beginning with arpeggios on clean jazz guitar, then combined with some biting lead guitar courtesy of Patrick Carmody. As the music shifts through some angular chord changes, the first lines show Witz uses words in the same challenging and intelligent way as he does music: “As we work in vain for what we think is transcendent, Thoreau not thorough enough, Everything not forbidden is now compulsory”. No one could accuse him of dumbing things down….

Next comes a section of wall-climbing guitars and Zappa-centric jagged riffs before settling down into a dreamy slow-paced section. It circles round beautifully to the opening introductory section and a final verse. A restlessly inventive opener.

They Never Left is another fascinating condition of jazz and blues, with a rather melancholic lyric about people seemingly trapped in one place. It features some great accents and syncopations, punctuated by brass with murmurs of mournful viola throughout. Witz mostly employs fairly simple time signatures, but the rhythmic variety in each section is very creative.

Duelling Mullets is perhaps the most manic piece of Trout Mask-esque musical Dadaism on the album, melding disparate sections in a riotous manner. It starts out sounding like Tom Waits fronting a metal band on crystal meth, gorgeous but brief laid-back guitar interludes and intense heavy rock duelling with blues and progressive jazz. Tragic Jack really sounds like he’s channeling the great Don Van Vliet when he roars, “There hither – the whiskey witch, guard your loins against her pitch.”

Living Downtown is simply a continuous fireworks display of jazz, blues, soul, funk and rock with spoken word interventions that add a little more to the avant-garde vibe. This musical kaleidoscope is highly influenced by the colourful sound and intricate arrangements of Zappa’s classic Hot Rats.

Ubermensch in the Yurt perhaps sums up Rubin Wits best, and feels like the centrepiece of the album. It is where we first find our album title, captured in the hilarious lines: “Rainy days don’t always, if ever, get me down but Mondays often do. The ubermensch in the yurt won’t spend the time to kvetch. If we do the rain god might come down and gonna smack us, come down harder than B.A. Baracus….”.

As with the first track, the lyrics appear to be satirizing the sanctimonious tone of New Age spirituality: “You told me things in this lower, preliminary state that engage our interest are transitory and corruptible but I told you I lived in a yurt, so….”.

This highly humorous lyrical tone continues into AYTD (Amusing Yourself To Death) with inspired lines like, “That prison scrawl decorating your phalanges tells me that you bathe in East L.A.’s spiritual Ganges….”. The backing vocals are absolutely superb on this one, with some dizzying electric guitar near the end before exploding in a brass blowout. The title track is a gem, a slinky fast-paced piece of out-jazz with a truly bizarre second section and lyrics simply described as ‘standard non-Gentile kvetching’ (kvetching is complaining, for the uninitiated.)

The final track There Must Be A Murder, is perhaps the most accessible thing here. It’s the closest to a traditional song albeit one about a strong dislike of the sleep disturbing qualities of crows! Perhaps unexpectedly, it delivers a fantastically anthemic chorus that Kings Of Leon would be proud to have in their arsenal: “I’m angry at the crows for breaking us….”. It’s the albums epic at six minutes and a fantastic way to finish, with a storming final section.

Overall, Kvetch is simply one of the most original albums I’ve ever heard. Taking the abrasive, avant-garde edge and wilful surrealism of Beefheart and Zappa, combined with his own natural gift for melody and unique lyrical style, Witz has created a heady musical brew that repays the listener for repeated listens with intricacies that keep you coming back for more.

VERDICT: 9 out of 10 

Alex Faulkner

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SINGLE REVIEW: The Key of Black (They Want us Dead) by The Black Tones

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The Black Tones are a three-piece blues/punk band hailing from Seattle, Washington. They consist of siblings Eva (vocals/guitars) and Cedric Walker (drums), and Robbie Little on bass. They describe themselves as ‘a mixture of Kurt Cobain and cornbread’, and there is certainly something of Cobain’s punk rock spirit in the music of The Black Tones. Previous releases include Arrows and Stones, Woman In Black and Too Many Times.

This single, The Key of Black (They Want us Dead), is their first release for a while, but for their fans it will have been worth the wait. It’s an epic six-minute piece of blues/punk that marches to its own drum. Whereas many artists contrive their music to reach the chorus in thirty seconds, The Black Tones simply let their music breathe. Starting with drums and a killer low end guitar riff, it develops into a focused jam-style groove for the first few minutes.

Eva Walker plays some nice wah-drenched lead guitar with Robert Little keeping it tight on bass, in sync with Cedric Walker’s solid-as-a-rock drumming. It builds to a call and response section with Eva’s message of racial prejudice echoed with a chant: “We want love, they want us dead…..we want peace, they want us dead…“. For a relatively short vocal section, it certainly packs a lyrical punch.

Overall, this is an interesting and unique combination of musical style and lyrical content. While they cite Kurt Cobain as an influence, I see them more as a modern equivalent of Gil Scott Heron or a blues/punk version of Kendrick Lamar, who both blend a positive message with strong awareness of racial issues in the world. The Black Tones’ music and message seems more relevant than ever, so long may they reign.

 

VERDICT: 8.3 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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ARTIST REVIEW: Susan G

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Susan G is a singer and songwriter hailing from Seattle. She possesses an authentic, rich soul voice and you can hear the influence of classic soul singers like Etta James and Mavis Staples, along with modern pop singer/songwriters like Sia and Sara Bareilles. Musically, she fuses the retro-soul sound of Amy Winehouse with 90’s pop/RnB to create a unique synthesis.

In 2009, she released her first album The Way To Here and then the single No Room For You in 2014. This was followed by the Some Freedom EP in 2016, featuring the classic song A Better You, which became regularly featured on IHeartRadio. The same year she experimented with a more urban sound, releasing the single Need You Here featuring the rapper Redhead.

In terms of live performance she has shared the stage with Colbie Caillat, Sony artist Ryan Cummings, The Voice’s Austin Jenckes, Zarni de Wet, amongst many others as well as selling out venues all across Seattle. She is due to release another album later this year, and her YouTube Channel is helping her reach a wider audience, featuring a mix of original material and covers of well known songs.

Usually she performs with just vocals and keyboards, and I particularly enjoyed her interpretations of The Weeknd’s I Feel It Coming, her cover of I Fall Apart by Post Malone and a haunting rendition of the Amy Winehouse modern classic Back to Black. She also does excellent versions of well known hits like the ubiquitous Shape of You by Ed Sheeran and Look What You Made Me Do by the current Queen of Pop, Taylor Swift.

But it is her own original material that showcases what a great talent she is. The epic six minute ballad Push and Pull had me enthralled from start to finish and the lilting Unafraid, featuring the guitar talents of Skylar Mehal, is another fine piece of songwriting that could appeal to country audiences. Indeed, she has the potential to appeal right across the musical spectrum.

Overall, Susan G has everything it takes for major success in terms of singing ability and image. If her upcoming album is as strong as her previous work, there’s no reason why her fanbase won’t increase exponentially. Her soulful yet modern sound is perfect for the times. This could be a name you’ll be hearing plenty of in the future.

VERDICT: One To Watch!

Alex Faulkner

www.instagram.com/susangmusic 

ALBUM REVIEW: Ghost Into The Fog by Red Martian

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Red Martian are an alternative rock/shoegaze band hauling from Seattle, Washington. They formed back in 1999, emerging from the Seattle D.I.Y. punk scene. They cite their main influences as shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, glam rock band New York Dolls and punk rock legend Iggy Pop.

They describe their style as ‘neue shoegazer’ which front man Stephen Jones sees as “a rebirth of the late 80’s, early 90’s progression of post-Paisley Underground”. They have previously released five CDs, six vinyl LPs and four acetate limited edition EPs through their own label, and this album, Ghost In The Fog, is their sixth. Notably, it was produced by Gordon Raphael (The Strokes, Regina Spektor).

The title track opens the album with an ominous bass line and haunting guitar line before bursting into an intense short section of serrated-edge high end guitar. The verse strips back to acoustic guitar, with Stephen Jones’ distinctive vocals immediately capturing the attention. Though his voice his set back in the mix, his Elliott Smith-esque tone is compelling.

The lyrics are impressionistic and opaque, which works perfectly with the other worldly sound of the music: “See the ghost out of town, see them laugh as a frown…”. Though there is no obvious chorus, the title repeated proves an addictive hook. There is a brooding quality throughout achieved by subtle layers of guitar noise, which is the hallmark of shoegaze. A fine opener.

Second track None is even better, starting with a section that makes clever use of syncopation, breaking up the rhythm effectively. It then develops into a colossal wall of sound driven along by a pulsing, ascending bass line. Here Jones sings at the top of his range, which in itself creates a sense of musical tension.

As the track continues, the My Bloody Valentine style lead guitars become more and more layered, joined also by some ‘out there’ guitar effects until it is a veritable tsunami of sound. Once again, the lyrics are somewhat dark and mysterious: “Down way to carry you, bury you in down a ground no sound no sound….”.

The third track on the album is called みなぞう (good luck announcing that on radio). It’s another blistering song that starts out like something from Sonic Youth’s classic Daydream Nation album. The energy continues its momentum on the verse with an addictive high end riff and leads to the great line: “You’re a monster, a friendly kind… from my home town“. This is one of the most instant songs on the album and would be a good choice for a single. It completes a powerful opening trifera.

Track four, Undertow, continues the overall sound though at a slower pace. The way the vocal melody climbs on the chorus is ethereal, as are the reverb-drenched backing vocals/harmonies. Once again, the lyrics add to the mystery and read almost like a haiku poem: “Reaching gives a sign, there is no place this time, be mine, I do not mind to be a kind…”.

By contrast, the lyrics to the fifth song Use, seemingly about a psychologically unhealthy relationship, are altogether more direct: “Abuse me, beat me up and bruise me, push me to the ground from the inside then down…”. Though these lyrics sound literal, they still keep one foot in the world of the surreal: “You take me to the shore and burn it down once more…”. It’s another album highlight, whatever its true meaning.

This is followed by another four and a half minute track, Won’t, which features a guitar sound that, not for the first time, makes ample use of the tremolo bar. As with all the best showcase/alternative rock there is a gorgeously pretty vocal melody amidst the barrage of noise, and Red Martian have perfected this dichotomy.

Seventh song Ingenting is a nice contrast, with acoustic guitar taking over from the army of electric guitars and at a slower pace than the rest. A haunting theremin-esque synth adds to the musical mystique and the lyrics are difficult to decipher even by their standards: they are in Swedish.

Final track Ago returns to more familiar fare, with another vibrant Joy Division/Interpol style bass line driving the music forward. It’s actually one of the most melodic songs here and a nice way to close a fine album. Lyrically, it’s typically enigmatic: “Tomorrow seems so strange today, we always want to stay underground, the empty sound is on the ground…”.

Overall, this is an excellent album that takes the best elements from their favourite genres and combines them to form a unique, potent sound. Whereas some shoegaze music can be self indulgent, or incoherent, Red Martian are equally influenced by punk which ensures their music is always focused. They may “want to stay underground” but if there’s any justice, this album should propel them to new heights of success.

 

Alex Faulkner

Verdict: 8.8 out of 10