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Steve Lieberman The Gangsta Rabbi, Blast-O-Rama

29 Dec, 2015 Dan MacIntosh

steveliebermanthegangsta7If you think of Mark E. Smith and Johnny Lyndon as tuneless singers, you haven’t heart nothin’ yet. Once you get a load of Steve Lieberman, The Gangsta Rabbi, you may be reaching for your Fall and PiL CDs just for a little melodic relief. This is because Lieberman’s Blast-O-Rama is a great, big, billowing blast of noise.

The sound Lieberman creates can best be described as noisy jazz. The beats, as on “The Whole of the Moon,” are driving rock grooves. This music does not swing, though, like Basie, Goodman or Ellington, even though there are horns in it. The drums, instead, flail away like Keith Moon (of The Who).

Lyrically, Lieberman leans toward the Captain Beefheart side of the artistic spectrum. For example, a song title like “Big Bad Carburetor 429” sounds like something Beefheart might have called one of his creations. Or perhaps Tom Waits might have created such a thing. “76 Trombones (72 Short of the Big Parade)” is actually an almost cover of that famous The Music Man soundtrack song. It’s likely, though, if Lieberman ever came to town playing the role as of the music teacher huckster, parents would push all their children even harder to become doctors and lawyers and such.

Chances are good that if you’re a typical music fan, you’ll be scouring your thesaurus to find synonyms for ‘cacophony’ while listening to this music. Words like discordance, dissonance, disharmony, unmelodiousness, harshness and, let’s face it, noise are all words that come to mind while this release plays. And why? Well, as was mentioned earlier, Lieberman can’t hold a tune and doesn’t even try. He doesn’t want to be the prettiest belle at the ball; he doesn’t even want to get dressed up for it. Instead, he wants to express himself. And the best description of his expressiveness is that of cynicism and disgust. When he sings about those 72 trombones, it’s as though he’s railing at the devil himself, not a glorious brass band instrument.

Musically, Lieberman sounds like he records all his tracks in one take, letting the chips fall where they may. He does everything on this record by himself from the playing of guitar, bass,flutes and four types of trombones,production and engineering, as he did on his first 23 cd’s. . Except for the drumming, which is provided by a Yamaha drum machine dating back to the mid 1980’s  a1most always seems to be right on the beat, things like guitars, bass and horns all seem to be marching to the beat of their own internal rhythms.

Although some of Lieberman’s past music has dealt directly with his cancer battle, these new songs – at least on the surface – do not appear to include reactions to such health concerns save the songs “Transfusion Pole”, “Blast-O-Rama”and “Popsicle Song”. In fact, Lieberman sounds truly feisty throughout,  as  a terminally ill man using his last bit of strength to produce as much product he could before the time comes when he can’t do this.

Lieberman’s music is certainly not for everybody. If you’re not the slight bit adventurous, these sounds may just drive you stark raving mad. However, if you like to throw a monkey wrench into the machine, just to see what happens, these sounds might just spark your interest. After all, artists like PiL and The Fall appeal to us, at times, because we grow sick and tired of all the studio perfectionism ruling the airwaves. Some of the best music comes from mistakes in the studio. New sounds are discovered by throwing out the rulebook just to see what might happen. Granted, Lieberman sometimes sounds like he’s never even heard of the rulebook. Nevertheless, if you’re in the mood for a little discordant glee, pick up Blast-O-Rama and let it blast. Let it annoy your neighbors or play it for friends that may not realize what’s hit them.

Reviewer: Dan MacIntosh
Rating: 3

Benskuba, Celebration

18 Feb, 2015 Dan MacIntosh

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Benskuba is your basic one-man-band now, although you might say the music created for Celebration is haunted by one of it’s sole leader Kevin Cholerton’s former band mates, drummer Blair Polischuk. Spike, as Polischuk was known, passed away from ALS in 2012 and eventually Cholerton was all that was left of his band.

This makes Celebration sort of an odd title. After all, losing a best friend is no real cause to celebrate. Even so, funerals – at their core – are meant to be celebrations of departed loved ones’ lives. This album’s title track finds Cholerton singing, “Gonna celebrate in real time,” over a moody instrumental backing. Oddly enough, his singing voice has a bit of a cowboy twang to it here, which is doubly strange when you take into account that Cholerton is from Canada (not exactly twang central).

Cholerton was raised on a healthy diet of surf and ska sounds, which likely fueled his growth as a burgeoning musician. The sounds found on Celebration, though, are far more sophisticated. The group that keeps coming back to mind when listening to these songs is The Police, back when they’d evolved beyond their original reggatta de blanc reggae/ska inspirations and grown into more of a world music-influenced act.

One titled “Well I”m Gone” includes sonic hints from a surprisingly unexpected source. Cholerton’s affected voice leaves him sounding more than a little like Steve Miller. The track’s slightly funky groove sounds just a little like Miller’s big hit, “Fly Like An Eagle,” in fact.

Benskuba follows this one up with “My Life,” which has a John Lennon-esque psychedelic vocal. The song’s chorus, however, sounds a little like an African pop music chant, which gives the track an unusual elemental juxtaposition. Another one called “Good Bye” also has a Beatle-esque, psychedelic feel. (You may also recall how the Beatles famously had a song titled “Hello Goodbye”). One wonders if this is one of the songs about his lost friend, especially when he sings the questioning line, “Is it time to let go?” Knowing when to let go of a dying friend is one of the most difficult points in any relationship.

This is a collection of thought-through, calculated, yet still inspired tunes. Cholerton keeps his lyrical subjects close to the vest. You won’t get the impression at any point along the way that he’s being confessional and spilling his guts. Instead, he hints around at what he’s singing about most the time, which allows the listener to draw their own conclusions. This is sometimes the very best sort of songwriting.

Celebration will never compete with the Kool & the Gang hit song of the same name. It won’t burn the dance floor at any clubs, nor will it cause those listening with headphones to bop around uncontrollably. With that said, though, it has all the earmarks of a complex piece of music that will reveal itself layer by layer, much like pealing an onion. And these are the albums that leave lasting imprints upon listeners. This is not frivolous music. It isn’t disposable pop music, by any measure. Rather, this is serious music created by a man that’s driven by the unwanted circumstances of his life to create. Perhaps even Cholerton doesn’t know what it’s all about yet. Many times, songwriters just write down what’s going through their heads at that moment, as though recalling a vivid dream, before they can make complete sense (or an approximation to the same) of what they’ve created.

The good news is that this is work kind of memorable dream that makes more and more sense with each repeated play. Benskuba is a talented band that demands our immediate attention. Based upon this evidence, we can safely say the rumors of quality pop music’s death are greatly exaggerated. Benskuba is a rare example of truly smart pop.

Reviewer: Dan MacIntosh
Rating: 3

 

Steve Lieberman, Cancer Ward

06 Jan, 2015 Dan MacIntosh

 

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Upon first listen to Steve Lieberman’s Cancer Ward, it’s difficult to suppress the temptation to call this  one ungodly mess. That is until you realize the album’s title is no joke: Lieberman was diagnosed with myelofibrosis leukemia in the spring of 2013.

One also gains more respect for the noise that is this album after realizing Lieberman is a bit of a musical legend. Known as the Gangsta Rabbi, Lieberman is a Jewish-American punk rocker from Freeport, New York. He’s shared concert bills with Weezer and Misfits, for instance. He also signed with Jewish indie label JDub Records, former home to Matisyahu. Although his day job is as a comptroller, Newsday once dubbed him the worlds only orthodox Jewish heavy metal musician with a record deal.

According to his press material, this is Lieberman’s 22nd full-length album. Sonically, this album doesn’t sound like Lieberman has learned over the years how to become a slick studio cat. Instead, many of these tracks sound like songs coming over AM radio when driving under a bridge and listening in the car. In other words, they kind of fade in and out. The musicianship is Not Quite Ready For The Garage Prime Time, as the guitars grind with dirty feedback, the bass bangs simplistic 4/4 notes and the drummer bashes right along.

Vocally, Lieberman sings a lot like The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten. Each phrase is delivered with equal parts rage and sarcasm. Unlike Rotten, though, you really can’t understand what Lieberman is singing. Whereas Rotten went to great lengths to make sure his angry rants were understood, Lieberman isn’t quite so articulate.

This album includes 18 tracks, with many of them dealing with Lieberman’s health issues. Some of these are quite tragic, too. “My Last Chanukah” and “”My Last Good Day,” for instance, have titles that strongly suggest impending death.

The album closes with a most unusual cover of Terry Jacks’ 1974 hit, “Seasons In The Sun.” That, you may recall, was a song where Rod McKuen put words to a Jacques Brel melody. In its original form, the song was a gentle meditation on facing death. In Lieberman’s hands, though, it’s an angry rage against the dying light.

 Cancer Ward is a tough road to travel for anyone that’s a casual music listener. This music does not fit well into the background. You can’t hum along with it, nor can you dance to it. It’s a collection of confrontational sounds. Just as Lieberman must face up to his impending death, his music forces the listener to face this horror right along with him. It may not be pretty, but it’s no doubt real.

On a technical music level, this is not what one would call ‘great music.’ But as an artistic statement, it’s  pretty darn good. Musical sounds should always fit their subject matter, and nothing matches the prospect of death better than angry punk rock music. Lieberman is a ranting and raving man, and with good reason. He wants to go out with a bang, not a whimper. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Death, be not proud. Let me embarrass you one last time before I go.’

You probably won’t listen to this album over and over again. It doesn’t get any better or worse upon repeated listening. But it will make you stop and think and reconsider your own mortality. And perhaps that’s Lieberman’s true intention. Rather than skate through life thinking about trivial things, we should be aware that death is always right around the corner and maybe even closer than we think. These are sobering thoughts, indeed, but thoughts certainly worth taking into consideration.

 

Reviewer: Dan MacIntosh
Rating: 3 out of 5

Dwight Townsend, Finale: Omega to Alpha

08 Oct, 2014 Dan MacIntosh

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Dwight Townsend’s Finale: Omega to Alpha, is categorized as ‘Music of Yesteryear’ on CDbaby.com because it is a collection of old songs. Townsend is recommended if you like guys like Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Robert Goulet, all of whom are no longer singing – at least not on this earth anymore.

At a whopping 38 songs in length, this is an album that presents a fairly comprehensive overview of yesteryear’s music. Accompanied by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Townsend sings each of these familiar songs with his powerful baritone voice. Although he may like to be compared with cats like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Townsend – to put it bluntly – doesn’t swing. This is not such a negative, however. It just is what it is. Unlike guys like Sinatra, and to a lesser degree Martin, Townsend sings these jazz and pop songs as though, perhaps, an opera singer might take them on. On the other hand, Sinatra and Martin were guys that loved swinging rhythms just as much as fine lyrics and memorable melodies. Granted, Sinatra played it fairly straight when he sang ballads backed by Nelson Riddle orchestrations. However, if you’ve ever seen any of the video footage of Sinatra, Martin and Sammy Davis doing their thing as the Rat Pack in Las Vegas, you’ve witnessed these performers in their natural element. About the only factor Townsend shares in common with his vocal heroes is a deep love for many of the same songs.

The downside to hearing Townsend singing these songs is the fact that he sometimes comes off just a little uptight stylistically. By singing them so straight, they end up sounding dated. Granted, he probably shouldn’t have given them pop or R&B arrangements; however, he could have very easily taken a few more liberties with the arrangements. The listener ends up thinking to him or herself, ‘Well, that was a nice little tune,’ without much of a driving desire to listen to it again and again.

In some cases, there are songs that are so identified with great artists of the past; they shouldn’t really be covered again. This is particularly true with “What A Wonderful World.” Perhaps it was the movie Good Morning Vietnam, starring the late Robin Williams, which re-popularized Louis Armstrong’s singing of “What A Wonderful World.” To many ears, this song is forever identified with Armstrong’s soulful offering of its lyrics. Adding to the problem, Townsend takes a few of this song’s lyrics as spoken word segments for added drama. The tactic doesn’t work, though, and only slows down the tune’s momentum. This one should have been left in Armstrong’s court. Unless somebody thinks of a wholly original way to reinterpret it, it should forever remain associated with Louie.

Townsend has a fine singing voice. Nevertheless, it does weaken at times when he tries too hard to reach low notes he cannot comfortably hit. Townsend is a good singer, but not the kind of singer – as they used to say – that could sing the phonebook – back when folks still used phonebooks to look up phone numbers, of course. He stays on key most of the time, but he doesn’t have the vocal tone one might easily get lost in.

The verdict on this release is that it’s a good, but not a great effort. Dwight Townsend certainly doesn’t embarrass himself with his readings of these songs. At the same time, though, he never makes us forget other better versions of these songs, such as the Louis Armstrong version of “What A Wonderful World.” When the trumpet solo comes in during “Long Before I Knew You,” it may make the listener wish this project had taken a little more liberty in the instrumental coloring.

While there are more definitive versions of these standards available, Townsend’s album would make a fine additional to any collection.

Review By: Dan MacIntosh
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)

 

Michele Thomas, Messenger

29 Aug, 2014 Dan MacIntosh

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Michele Thomas takes her inspiration from Stevie Wonder, even covering some of his most familiar songs on Messenger. However, as jazzy as Wonder can get, Thomas is even jazzier than the iconic Motown artist.

She opens with “Have a Talk with God,” which leans heavy upon funky electric guitar. Thomas also reveals a bit of a feminist strain when she refers to god as ‘she’ toward the end of the track.

Another religious one (then again, God has been all through Wonder’s work over the years) is “Jesus Children.” This song was likely originally inspired by the Jesus People movement of the late 60s/early 70s, particularly in Southern California where churches like Costa Mesa’s Calvary Chapel were accepting hippies of that era with open arms, while many mainstream churches were trying to hold these long-haired, sloppily-dressed young people at arm’s length. Thomas’ version includes plenty of brass horn work and female backing vocals.

Perhaps the most straightforward jazz song on this collection is “Dee Song (For Andrea).” It’s backed not by a funky guitar part, but with a gentle, Joe Pass-like traditional jazz electric bed, and built upon complicated jazz chords. It’s a soft song that Thomas sings prettily.

“Higher Ground” is sung with the necessary anger. When Red Hot Chilli Peppers covered it, they did so as though it were some sort of fun funk workout. And while the funk groove is undeniable, to sing it without vitriol directed toward the powers that be only gets it half right. Thomas’ version is jazzy, with horns and more of a jazz-fusion feel, rather than some sort of 70s funk. Oh, and she sounds really angry on it.

For “They Won’t Go When I Go,” Thomas transforms the tune into a percolating number that has African music elements running through it. The guitar part sounds a little Nigerian in places. Thomas holds back her vocals when singing it and lets the guitar and simple organ part take up much of the sonic space. At one point, Thomas works in a few lines of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which was a hit – and a popular Civil Rights song – from the 60s.

Thomas gives “If It’s Magic” a breezy jazz feel. The track swings with a shuffling groove. It’s colored by acoustic piano and busy drumming. It’s also a little on the Latin side, stylistically.

On “Triple Play,” Thomas performs her most complicated jazz vocal. The song sounds to be in 6/4 at times, but it’s by no means any sort of waltz. Thomas spars with her electric guitarist throughout, which makes the song into a sort of guitar versus vocal duel. Thomas even scats a bit on the tune.

The album closes with “Big Brother,” and it returns a bit to the African roots Thomas explored with “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Once again, percussion is upfront in the mix. Her take on this song may remind you a little of Paul Simon’s Graceland recording. The song’s lyric is quite dark, as it’s sung from the perspective of someone living in the ghetto. Even so, Thomas infuses the track with a bright, upbeat feel. It’s almost as though she’s fallen in love with the melody; which, in this case, takes priority over the lyric. Even so, it sounds strange to hear Thomas singing in a Chaka Khan-like voice about roach-infested apartments.

Overall, this is a fun collection of reinterpretations. When someone can take such liberties with the original material, and never spoil the memories of Wonder’s version, shows just how strong Stevie’s compositions are. They’re so great melodically other artists can play with them and come up with new and beautiful covers. You may not even reach back for the old Wonder records quite so quickly after listening to this one.

Review By: Dan MacIntosh
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)