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The Vegetarians “A Vegetable Radio Soup”

11 Jan, 2011 Stafford Davis

As an experienced international pop rock act, The Vegetarians understand the particular flavors and combinations of popular music that the world craves and demands in the early 21st century.  They understand this so well in fact, that they won’t be heard within the modern structures of the world they play to.  Fortunately this comparatively small hiccup won’t stop them from their honorable pursuit.  Formed in the late ‘90s by Swede Hans Annellsson and American John Marshall Gibbs, the duo have collaborated on three previous releases before delivering A Vegetable Radio Soup.  The four song EP is a fun tour de force through multiple styles of pop that blend seamlessly into one another through the use of strong songwriting and expert production techniques.  The eclectic duo’s short offering is sure to please fans of diverse and all-embracing forms of contemporary music.

Beginning things with a bang, The Vegetarians, with the help of Pelle Jernryd on guitar and Nate Zane on trumpet, stomp and nimbly tiptoe their way through “(Carry On) River Of Life.”  Starting with a heavy and distorted bass playing a funky pattern against a backdrop of electronic beats, the song immediately grabs a hold of the audience’s imagination and prepares all willing passengers for a crazy ride.  A happy cacophony of sound ensues as guitar, organ, percussion, Zane’s muted trumpet, and background vocals provide the tonal pallet of space and color needed for the Robert Plant-like lead vocals.  The song moves and sways between hard driving verses and halfway laid back yet commanding choruses, with flourishes of slide guitar and muted trumpet lines that are reminiscent of a forever hip Miles Davis in his ‘80s crossover period.

Next up, and assuredly not to disappoint is, “Drifting.”  A funny baritone robot voice sings an R&B aria with minimal electro beats until a wah treated bass leads the whole ensemble into the groovy meat of the song.  The party’s in full swing as ‘70s funk harmonies glide over a deep, rutted out groove that is so funky and mean, it threatens to trip up the very band playing it, but like an aged broken in pair of platform shoes dancing in lockstep time, the groove majestically throbs as the central heartbeat of the song.  While it’s probably criminal to compare the EP’s third song to a familiar Swedish pop group of yesteryear, it’s also a valid comparison as well as a high compliment.  “Thunder & Rain” exudes a positivity and charm that will lighten up anyone’s day.  Comforting synthesizers and warm vocals are part of the verse, and eventual buildup to a joyful chorus that cradles and soothes with its message.

For the last song, “Space & Time,” The Vegetarians go postmodern.  There’s a slide guitar tonality that eerily echoes David Lindley’s work on Jackson Browne’s “Running On Empty” and “You Love The Thunder”, as well as a singing tone that recalls a whiney Tom Petty-like voice on an off day, with an added Jon Bon Jovi-esque east coast accented style that tries really hard to pull off a southwestern drawl in a cool way, but just like Jon’s vocals, aren’t believable.  Second generation vocals aside, the song is decent and acceptable, but merely a weak closer when compared to its three predecessors.

A Vegetable Radio Soup is a strong and professionally crafted EP that doesn’t need the time to grow on one’s tastebuds like a disagreeable vegetable.  As musicians and songwriters, The Vegetarians go far beyond the constricted wasteland of FM friendly pop, and consequentially reach for the exciting and boundless possibilities that the pop music genre has to offer.  The duo have creatively marked their territory outside of the territory they inhabit, thus finding themselves in a place that is remote, and not easily heard within the hearing range of the sort of mass appeal they might desire.  Nevertheless, this position will insure their imaginative risk taking with a legacy that will be cherished by a few appreciative fans, and see their music endure the constantly haphazard, disposable onslaught of trendy fads around them.

Review by Stafford Davis
Rating:  4 Stars (out of 5)

PU55YF00T1N “Battledrum”

11 Jan, 2011 Stafford Davis

“Battledrum” is the newest single from the eclectic Norwegian duo, PU55YF00T1N.  Formed as the result of an online discussion forum by Fionn McGrath and Helene Alexandra, the pair quickly realized their mutual artistic potential and decided to collaborate.  Initial arguments in cyberspace across national boundaries eventually turned into a solid friendship that found Fionn relocating from his native London, to work with Helene in Bergen.  The moniker, PU55YF00T1N is at once, idiosyncratic, crass, obnoxious, and bewildering, as well as being a fine choice for a project that aims to stand out and grab an unsuspecting public’s attention.

For the first single from their as yet unfinished debut album, “Battledrum” was written and played by Fionn and Helene, and later sent to famed American mixer, Justin Gerrish to produce.  In a sense, Gerrish who has previously worked with Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Vampire Weekend, is PU55YF00T1N’s first fan, in that he took on the assignment because he “dug” the track.  Since its release in late 2010, the song has been picked up and put into the regular programming rotation of Norwegian national radio P3.

An R&B inflected, yet minimalist punk approach opens “Battledrum” with a bass drum thumping on all fours, while Helene’s voice matches a bass and guitar to play a synchronous melody.  Twenty-two seconds in, the song makes itself known with a bombastic, memorable chorus that tells of weak knees and hearts beating like a battledrum in a throbbing, disco laden sound.  Simple guitar lines and a big retro snare drive the musical attack as Helene’s crystalline vocals lead the charge against the bloated Goliath of conventional pop music.

With “Battledrum”, PU55YF00T1N have staked their uncompromising flag in a pop territory that will simultaneously greet them with equal amounts of approbation and scorn.  A sanguine electro European flair mixed with the divergent sounds of American R&B and punk, give the duo their unique aesthetic.  If “Battledrum” serves as a declaration to what will follow, then PU55YF00T1N will surely find their international niche audience, in addition to challenging the accepted perceptions of modern pop music.

Review by Stafford Davis
Rating:  4 Stars (out of 5)

Adrienne Osborn & S.T.A.R. “The Phoenix, The Flame”

10 Jan, 2011 Stafford Davis

The Phoenix, The Flame is the debut release from the Boulder, Colorado based funk rock band, Adrienne Osborn & S.T.A.R.  Half of the moniker is powerhouse vocalist Adrienne Osborn, a veteran of the Denver-Boulder music scene that’s seen her play in a variety of scenarios such as a corporate event band, an all female world beat jazz ensemble, as well as performing at the Telluride Jazz Festival.  The other half is the acronym S.T.A.R., which stands for Spontaneous Thin Air Radio, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek nod to the band’s mile high hometown and its famous quirkiness.  Consisting of guitarist Alec Sims, percussionist Kyle Comerford, and bassist Otis Lande, S.T.A.R. is a highly skilled and able-bodied group of professional musicians that deliver stellar performances on The Phoenix, The Flame.

Beginning with the songs “Jigsaw” and “Faster Disaster,” one is immediately made aware of the level of musicianship associated with the performances.  “Jigsaw” finds the band in full funk mode complete with an additional saxophone and organ provided by guest musicians, Andrew Vogt and Matt McDaniels respectively.  Funky grooves and bouncy bass lines lead the way as Osborn sings of puzzled relationships through half spoken deliveries and sensual yet sarcastic vocalizations.  “Faster Disaster” shows the harder rocking side of the band as it begins with Sims’ bluesy guitar licks and power chords played within the deep pocket provided by Comerford and Lande.  For the next 4 minutes, the whole band moves through standard blues rock progressions that prove the group’s ability to read and satisfy an audience that knows exactly what they want to hear.  While these characteristics are good and highly desirable for a live band, they don’t quite come across with the same validity on a recording.  This is the conundrum found on these songs and the album as a whole.  What defines a good performance and execution of music on stage doesn’t necessarily translate with the same impact and resonance on a CD.

On “Alchemy,” Phrygian atmospherics and psychedelic devices make it one of the strongest songs on the album.  The lyrical meaning in the last chorus that finishes the song, “King’s gold crown, queen’s silver gown / Lighting flashes, thunder resounds / With your spirit, mind, body and soul / You can turn your mettle to gold” shows the mutual concurrence between the words that not only support the music, but also enhance the overall effect of the song.  “It’s Mine” finds S.T.A.R. in a hard rock vein that’s on full display as the rhythm section plays single note runs that provide a heavy and highly danceable foundation.  Alec Sims plays a short but profound solo in the comparatively gentler middle section, and Osborn sings some of her most self-effacing lyrics found on the album.

Finishing the disc is “One,” a song that appropriately closes the 12 song set with lyrics the pay homage to unity; “I am you, you are me / We are one, someday you’ll see that / We are nothing, we’re just dust and light / In the end, we’re just energy.”  These words, the emotional delivery of Osborn, and the dynamic musicianship serve to make “One” a last reminder to the listener of the potential performing power of this band.  A potential that might attract people to a show, or from a fan’s perspective, instill the need for a live album after a show.

The Phoenix, The Flame is obviously the work of seasoned musicians.  Yet, the music they play is unoriginal and lacking in the kind of creative spirit that drives blissful naiveté to artistic fulfillment.  While the music and approach are indeed diverse, the band doesn’t exceed any expectations set forth by the genres they play to make them especially relevant.  Subsequently, they succeed in playing skillful adaptations, in the form of songwriting and delivery, that a well-trained and multi-genre act would be expected of.  The band also keenly intuit, but basically already know, what kind of sound their particular audience wants to hear in a live, upbeat setting.  In essence, Adrienne Osborn & S.T.A.R. know how to connect with an audience from the stage, but on their first album that energy isn’t transmitted and represented in a way that would attain the same or complimentary connection.

Review by Stafford Davis
Rating 3 stars (out of 5)

Stephen Harrison “The Colour Of Black Is Black”

05 Jan, 2011 Stafford Davis

In the sense that the right amount of imperfection is perfection, Stephen Harrison has achieved this quandary of an artistic feat on his newest release, The Colour Of Black Is Black.  Born in London and transplanted to Edinburgh while still a teenager in the late ‘70s, Harrison embraced the punk and new wave movement in full force as a member of the group, Metropak.  Since leaving the band in 1979, Harrison has busied himself as a singer/songwriter exploring introspective themes that resonate with the common populace of his surroundings.  On The Colour Of Black Is Black, Harrison’s command of his craftsmanship is evident on every song in both performance and composition.  The album has a rough quality that implies it was recorded alone at home, with minimal instrumentation and production.  The sparseness of the music combined with Harrison’s David Bowie and Nick Cave influenced vocals give the album a closed in feeling that, along with the photographs of an icy lake and adjoining cold landscapes found in the CD artwork, comfort the listener in the same fashion that the warmth of a rural cabin would comfort a cold traveler.  Here, the warm reprieve from that harsh environment is the deeply personified and honest music of Stephen Harrison.

On the title track and first song, acoustic guitars and an odd sounding drum machine prepare the way for Harrison’s dark, yet comforting vocals.  The first verse, “When all around is cold / And all around is closed / And everything turns to grey / And smoke fills the city / And all that I know runs away / And the colour of black is black” reaffirms the somber front cover with a mood that points toward loneliness.  In fact, the song feels like a drifter passing through a small town on an overcast day where everything is shut down for a holiday to everyone but him.  Such are the inferences when the delivery is so succinct and dead on.

The music on “Little Bird” has subtle jazz inflections underneath its surface in the same way that Van Morrison songs like, “Into the Mystic” and “Philosopher’s Stone” do.  The playing is loose and at times, in regard to the piano, trepidacious.  This, and Harrison’s wavering voice, is the cracks on the surface of high quality.  Acknowledging the music’s weakness with human frailty gives the song an imperfect and human value that only appears sporadically and usually by accident in the arts.  “Somewhere High” and “Summer Song” both offer a brief break in the clouds allowing some sunny skies to be seen on The Colour Of Black Is Black.  On “Somewhere High,” Harrison sings in his best early ‘80s Bowie voice of dancing and flying; “Fly away with me / Into the sun / Fly away with me / Somewhere high.”  “Summer Song” evokes the season in its name as well as, preserving friendships and cherishing good times.

Rounding out Harrison’s eleven-song journey, is “When Darkness Comes.”  Though not as bleak as the title suggests, the song does touch on themes of loneliness and yearning as well as, uncertainty and risk.  Sung in his clearly articulated baritone, Harrison perfectly communicates the human condition in a way that everyone over time can empathize with.

Not many independent, or professional artists for that matter achieve the kind of artistry found on The Colour Of Black Is Black.  In a career that’s spanned over thirty years, Stephen Harrison has carefully honed his talent to the much-coveted position of dignified imperfection.  His somber testament is in many ways reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s classic, Blood On The Tracks.  In every way that Dylan’s record is genuine, honest, and individualistic, Harrison’s album is too.  With his stylistic new wave leanings and folk deliveries, Harrison is a man that has arrived at his own niche of originality, and this is expertly communicated to his audience on The Colour Of Black Is Black.

Review by Stafford Davis
Rating:  5 stars (out of 5)

Gavin Knox-Grant “The Salt Road”

03 Jan, 2011 Stafford Davis

’Eventually the pain will pass and only beauty will remain, but it’s a long road and there’s no turning back.  A long road.  Sometimes a dirt road.’  ‘A salt road.’  He said after a while.”  An excerpt of the story, The Salt Road begins the listener’s musical and poetic journey along Gavin Knox-Grant’s bumpy yet redemptive road.  Born to popular television personalities in South Africa, Gavin Knox-Grant discovered music early on in life.  First with the piano, then the trumpet, which he eventually studied at a university level, and finally the guitar.  Along the way he financed his studies in graphic design by performing, while dually discovering a love for songwriting.  After recording an album pseudonymously and performing in the U.S. and U.K., Knox-Grant felt confident enough to record under his own name and present the world his turbulent document, The Salt Road.

“Pull Me In” begins the album and one is immediately made aware of the quality of production and execution of the music.  A soft and delay treated piano opens the piece with Springsteen-like tinkle in a Born To Run fashion, while guitar, bass, and drums eventually enter and take the song to a lofty pop perch.  Knox-Grant’s soaring vocals are on full display and lead the audience into the lyrical imagery to follow.  “This moment is ours, and no one knows that I fell for you.  So tell me now what would you do if I swam out to you.  Let’s run away and let’s leave tonight love.”  While these are obviously personal words from its author, Knox-Grant is also keenly aware that his lines could be applied in a sincere way to a lot of people’s lives.  This is important, because “Pull Me In” is a microcosm of the whole album.  Like a life-bearing DNA molecule taken from its parent body, “Pull Me In” has all the ingredients of The Salt Road within its 4:35 length, and all the features of a pop song that has the ability to attain a wide audience.

On “Escape The Corner,” Knox-Grant’s trumpet skills make an emotive appearance behind the sounds of rain and a distant sounding soliloquy on space and reality.  The song makes use of pop flavored smooth jazz mechanisms that will appeal to fans of both genres.  Diverse and incredible playing make “Jaws O Winter” one of the best examples of musicianship on the album.  The bass and percussion drive a strong groove that is accented by guitars and a trumpet.  Lyrics like “Through the jaws of winter I will pull you through this into summer sleep” showcase Knox-Grant’s use of metaphor and allusion.  The album’s information lists Sting and Peter Gabriel as influences, as well as people Gavin has met.  The use of metaphor is widely used in all written forms, but on The Salt Road and this song as an example, Knox-Grant uses the device just as Sting does so often; as an allusion to something else that’s communicated in a way that never alludes too much to the subject matter at hand.

Toward the end of the disc, everything slows down.  “Morning Star” and “Borderline” respectively close Gavin Knox-Grant’s story and personally documented passage with sparse music that helps to accentuate his words.  On “Morning Star,” he sings of trying to find someone after an emotional expedition across the world before the morning star comes, which could be Mercury, Venus, the Sun, or the very person he’s seeking in a circuitous way.  On “Borderline,” the instrumentation supports lyrics that expound on the wonderful feeling of insanity when one falls in love with another like-minded person.  It’s a short and fitting end to the travels of its composer.

The Salt Road is an excellently played and produced album that beautifully projects and conveys Gavin Knox-Grant’s story of personal tribulations, ‘heart on sleeve’ confessions, and ‘soul searching’ redemptions.  The big problem with this, however, is that it’s been done countless times before.  The chord progressions and vocal melodies found on The Salt Road are very common in pop music and have been time tested and approved over that last fifty years as communicative devices that evoke emotion in a wide variety and abundant amount of people.  In a word, the album is conventional.  Yet it works, even though it takes very little risks and tells of emotions that everyone’s familiar with, be it personal experience or a familiarity with the themes of pop music.  All this of course, will potentially help The Salt Road reach a large audience, but will do little to establish its maker as an innovative and artistically credible success.

Review by Stafford Davis
Rating:  3 stars (out of 5)