Sunday, May 21, 2017

Maria Andersson-Succession

Whatever became of the Swedish musical invasion which was constructed and purported to be the next big thing around 2002?  Part of the answer can be found in hearing this release from Maria Andersson.  She was previously the lead singer of Sahara Hotnights, a Swedish female foursome who were on the verge of a mainstream American breakthrough a decade or so ago. This mature and elegiac solo effort is something entirely different from Sahara Hotnights’ Joan Jett takeoffs and emulations of the Eyeliners.  It’s imbued with that Scandinavian sleekness, spareness and streamlined elegance that is both familiar and foreign.  The rousing and sweeping opener “Lift Me Up” would not sound out of place on the “The Official Music of the 1984 Olympics” record and would have aged better than the actual Loverboy inclusion.  The standout “Birches” expresses the “Life in a Northern Town” desire to return to a time when things were seemingly less impeded, but also acknowledges a pragmatic take-it-as-it-comes acceptance of the forces pushing in particular directions. This bend-with-the-wind theme would not be out of place on a Jens Lekman recording. Echoing the airy, but grounded dance & retail floor vibes cast by New Order, “End of Conversation” was selected as the lead-off single of this album. The closing two songs, “Wild Thing” and "The Girl who Loved Islands" are somewhat hushed under blankets of sound and layers of snow swept up by those relentless Nordic winters winds. Andersson’s voice frequently expresses the persevering determination to slice through life's noise and nonsense and get to the elusive essence-which frequently, surprisingly and paradoxically shows up in the noise and nonsense. Succession presents eight variations on the theme of the attuned adjustments that are necessary for heightened awareness of the ongoing moment, branching out and growing towards the light.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Brazilian Octopus

For some reason, Brazilian music awash in bossa nova seems to really beckon when the daytime temperatures start to climb into triple digits.  The summer winds have blown this reissue north of equator and offers an overall fresh, playful and effervescent listening experience.  Upon initial listens, I was most struck by flights of flute which are evocative of the music that would accompany film strips in ‘70s classrooms or Jerry Goldsmith’s theme to Room 222 (an ABC-TV series that ran from 1969-1974). Subsequent listens revealed the details like a "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” (from Cinderella) organ quote in “Canção Latina” and a switched-on moog in “As Borboletas.” The backstory on this ensemble is that a well-heeled São Paulo businessman gave the musicians the impetus to band together in order to play sophisticated affairs and soirées for his fashion company. The same businessman also commissioned this 1969 album for the large outfit.  Their multiple instruments converge together to make for a well balanced and proportional amalgamation of sound somewhere between Sérgio Mendes & Brasil '66 and Quarteto Novo.  “Momento B-8” is a go-go number that could be retroactively said to be the entire circuit board that the mid-nineties Shibuya-kei acts (Pizzicato 5 and Cornelius) fused their sound upon. The breezy and lush “Summerhill” features that aforementioned fluttery flute which evokes soft-focused memories of Roselyn Bakery commercials from childhood. This zingy album exerts a playful push and a lighter gravitational pull, but is not lightweight due to strong compositions and inventive arrangements.  It's melodically propelled by the trinity of organ/guitar/vibes and rounded off by a teeming number of other instruments. This is definitely a rewarding and refreshing half-hour for those who like bossa nova bubbling in their jazz or for those who enjoy their jazz percolating in their bossa nova with no Portuguese required.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Dull Brights: Chandler's Walker Brothers

Garage Band, AZ, U.S.A.
While they shared many of the same experiences, common denominators and influences of countless garage bands across the United States, there is a major departure here from the standard narrative. As with so many other mid-sixties combos of the time, an affinity for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones was the main catalyst in spurring them to pick up instruments and making a go at it. They also had the proverbial close encounter where they were one break away from having their name distorted and submerged somewhere on a psychedelic San Francisco ballroom poster. While it was certainly a distinguishing characteristic to have three related brothers in a band, it was still not anomalous as the Beach Boys, the Bobby Fuller Four, CCR, the Everly Brothers, the Chambers Brothers and the Isley Brothers spring immediately to mind as examples of national acts of the era featuring true brothers.
Between Ranges, Stages & Sidelines
This is where their story veers from the usual garage band experience as these brothers adeptly straddled and balanced different worlds in a time of turmoil and transition on local, national and global levels. They were from Sacaton, the capital of the Gila River Indian Community and birthplace of Ira Hayes which runs along the south border of the Sun Lakes/Chandler city limits. At that time, Chandler was a Future Farmers of America town patched together between cotton fields and cattle barns. The band was comprised of Ronald Walker on bass (Fender Precision/class of '70), Rudy Walker on rhythm guitar (Fender Stratocaster/class of '69) and oldest brother Fernando Walker on drums (class of '68).  Armando Cordova rounded out the configuration with his lead guitar and vocals. In addition to their involvement in music, the Walker brothers were all standout athletes for Chandler High.  While it wasn’t uncommon for the young in the mid-sixties to overlap both music and sports, the brothers played football and baseball at such high levels that the school records they set stood until this century.  In fact, Fernando was the starting quarterback for the Chandler High Wolves and went on to play in the 1968 Arizona State High School North-South All-Star game that took place up in Flagstaff. His brothers Ronald (wide receiver/later quarterback himself) and Rudy (split end) were the recipient of many of Fernando's passes “I had it easy, all I had to do is drop back and fling the ball, while my brothers had to run around and catch it.” recalls Fernando. “Music and sports kept us out of trouble. We would play a football game and then have to be back to play the dance in the gym following the game.” Any attempt to achieve greatness involves sacrifice and this was the certainly involved in the Walker family “Our dad worked 10-12 hour days/ 7 days a week and we had to wait hours after practice ended for him to pick us up in his truck from the Emmit’s hamburger stand across from Chandler High,” adds Fernando.
Fernando Walker wearing the Chandler Wolves helmet
Desert Proving Grounds & Doors of Perception
From the start, the brothers were supported by their family. “Our parents always found time for us and actually managed the band.” says Fernando. In the charged atmosphere of Beatlemania and the Sunset Strip bands just starting to cross state lines, the brothers became inspired to teach themselves to play their instruments. "One time we were in a club in the Scottsdale area, and we look up to hear a man announcing that the Doors would be taking the stage. We thought, 'What kind of name is that?', recounts Rudy. "They proceeded to play "Light My Fire" just before going back to California to record it."  The brothers' intrepid efforts were bolstered by the addition of  Armando Cordova who had the ear to dissect the sounds which surrounded them. They were first known as the We Four, before settling on the apt band name of the Dull Brights for this area where the abundance of the sunlight frequently diminishes contrast and dimensions in a summer that stretches into November. For years, it seems like Chandler's music has been perennially overshadowed by the the sounds and stories of the Scottsdale, Tempe and Phoenix groups--when the legacy and lore of the local big beat sound is documented and discussed. Nevertheless, it was in Tempe, that the Dull Brights had their moment in the sun. "We had a gig at an Arizona State University fraternity house and had to go upstairs in their motel-like building," recalls Fernando. "There was already a band set up with extensive equipment, but they were simply playing from music stands while the crowd just stood around listlessly and listened. We set up our minimalist gear in a corner and had everyone dancing within seconds." Their R&B/soul orientation aided the cause while their boundless energy, led the charge. Correspondingly, their set list included numbers from Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb."
Fernando Walker (Class of '68), Rudy Walker (Class of '69), Ron Walker (Class of '70)
1967 Battle of the Bands-Arizona State Finals 
In June of 1967, with instruments furnished from Chandler Music Center, they were runner-ups in the state-wide Battle of the Bands which transpired at Chandler High School. The local winning band from Mesa supposedly went on to compete at the National Finals of the Jaycees Battle Of The Bands competition held in Braintree, Mass. in August 1967. A 2 LP set of live recordings was issued at the time to commemorate the national event and now commands high prices in collectors circles. Besides playing dances, parties and other gatherings, they had to be versatile enough to pull off the country numbers in order to play the numerous country bars which once dotted the local area. They also played a Mexican set (that was popular on the reservation) with Armando handling the Spanish lyrics. As 1967 transformed into 1968, the band incorporated the heavier rock sounds that were starting to become predominant. Fernando, who would usually harmonize with Armando, belted out the lead vocals on their version of the Doors' "Love Me Two Times." To reflect the rapidly shifting cultural landscape, the band's name changed to Inner Blues Feeling. Also around this stretch, they opened for the Spiders/Nazz up in Phoenix who would go on to shock the world as Alice Cooper. In 1968, they were hired to play a dance at a high school in Carson City, NV. They got up there a few days early and they were able to secure a gig at the Golden Nugget Casino. "There was a scout for the Fillmore West and he made an offer to our father, explains Fernando, "but it was not in cards as we had to get back to school and our lives in Chandler."

Fillmore Southwest
From the sun-cracked parking lots of Chandler to almost ascending the stage at the Fillmore West, the Dull Brights had the quintessential mid-sixties band trajectory and so much more. During this era of upheaval, they had a role in connecting the city and reservation through the common ground of their athletic and musical efforts.  On the reservation, brothers Marlin and Randy Johnson used to be around during their band practices. They went on to form their own band which is now the Gila River Coyotes. "We actually lived in a mudhouse back then,” recalls Fernando. “Kids from the city actually preferred to hang out on the reservation.”   Later on, the Walker family would have a street named after them, near where the mudhouse once stood. Today, the cycles continue, as Fernando looks after his parents, participates in master Native rodeos across the Southwest and is involved with the Chandler Special Olympics. Despite their illuminating musical trailblazing in Chandler and beyond, "The biggest honor of all is still being recognized by our tribal elders," summarizes Fernando.

Acknowledgements: Fernando Walker for his recollections, Rudy Walker for calling in when visiting from Oklahoma, Nate Meyers, Curator of Collections for the Chandler Museum, for the yearbook scans, Dan Nowicki for background on the 1967 Doors in Arizona, Billy Allen for sharing his Gila River Indian Community history and knowledge.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Traces of Tinsel Mecca: The Thomas, Garvin & Thomas Story

My Two/Three Sons
When I found out about a 1968 record from a band named Tinsel Mecca with a W. Tulsa St. Chandler address listed on its Toad Records label, I initially thought it was a social end product of a hippie house, not a 45 from the humble ranch of a former ex-major of Chandler (1976-1979).  Like the band’s evocative name, this elusive record and group took on a tinge of mystique and mystery when absolutely no information surfaced on the internet.  After reading through Jean Reynolds’ Chandler Mayor Stories interview with Ken Thomas, I surmised that possibly a few of his sons would have been teenagers in the ‘60s and possibly into music based on the family history that stated Ken Thomas’ mother was a contralto.  The same Jean Reynolds acted as a bridge to connect me with the two musical brothers behind the shrouded sounds.

On the Arizona Air
Keith mentioned with pride that the record was placed into rotation on Phoenix/Glendale's KRUX-AM by "Good Guy" DJ Al McCoy who went on to become the voice of the Phoenix Suns of the NBA.  “One time another student and I were returning back to Chandler from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and we heard KRUX play the Tinsel Mecca record on the car radio,” recalled Keith.  Keith (Chandler High class of ’65) said he was busy with school up in Flagstaff during this time and the record was actually recorded at the famous Audio Recorders in Phoenix on one of the university intersessions.  He deferred to his younger brother Rick (Chandler High class of ’68) for more information on what was going on musically in Chandler at the time.  At first, Rick seemed embarrassed about the band’s name as it could be construed to be taken as insensitive to the current political climate in the world. “I still don’t recall how we came up with the name of the group as we were headed into the studio and quickly needed a name,” said Rick. “The song, “Life’s in Vain,” in particular reflects when one is 19-20 years old, with limited life perspective resulting from living only for one’s self and without notions of the grander picture.”
There’s a Place
Still there was a war raging on and growing disillusionment with the direction of the country was going. It was also an accelerated decade where each year contained a decade worth of changes starting around 1963.  Like countless others, Rick quickly became enamored with the Beatles. “It all pretty much started with the Beatles.  Sure there was Elvis, but the Beatles were the real deal because of their writing legacy and they influenced the world and still do,” reflected Rick.  “They directly inspired me because my background is of a writer when it comes to music.”  With all the seismic shifts, it was truly a charged time because no one knew how it was going to turn out.

The Toads Emerge from the Mire
Fittingly, for an incipient band known as the Toads they forged their sound in one of the area’s rare murky basements (an anomaly due to the local rock-hard soil) and on the outskirts of town. “The Toads practiced in a basement in Higley at one of the band member’s house at the time. His name was Danny Slocum. We'd also practice at Bobby Ryan's family ranch by Ryan Rd. & Arizona Ave.”  While they are still spoken with a sense of reverence by locals, Rick adamantly downplays any notions of being local legends. “The Toads never made a record or played anywhere but the Williams Air Force Base and the old gym at the high school,” laughed Rick. In fact, it was in the Chandler High old gym, that the Toads participated in the 1967 Arizona State Battle of the Bands, in which the Dull Brights (comprised of the three Walker Brothers and Armando Cordova) placed second in the state. “Growing up, we played ball with the Walker Brothers,” remembered Rick.  “They were from the Gila River Indian Community.”

Towards Tensel Mecca 
Rick was effusive when speaking of his brother Keith’s musical contributions. “We could pull off a cover of the Associations’ “Six Man Band” because we could do the harmonies and my brother Keith’s extensive singing experience and operatic training,” explained Rick. “He started taking voice lesson from an ASU professor when he was in junior high. He was in All-State choir throughout his years at Chandler High. He went on to major in music at NAU and sang one of the leads in a campus production of Madame Butterfly.”  However, when asked about his own musical background, Rick was succinct on his formative years: “I actually took lessons from Randy Garvin (Chandler High class of ’66) who was one of the best guitar players in town during the ‘60s, but other than that I was pretty much self-taught.”
Keith Thomas, Randy Garvin & Rick Thomas
From Audio Recorders to the Capitol Tower
Tinsel Mecca’s “Life’s in Vain b/w “Things That Do Exist” was recorded at the legendary Audio Recorders in Phoenix and released in late 1968 on Toad Records (#777), but supposedly did not include any Toads beyond the two Thomas brothers. As the ‘70s approached, the band was comprised of Rick Thomas, the aforementioned Randy Garvin and Keith Thomas and operated under the CSN&Y-like moniker of Thomas, Garvin & Thomas.  Rick was able to clear up some of confusion regarding band names and recording line-ups.  “The recordings we did were always with Thomas, Garvin, & Thomas, even when we used the names like Fencepost or  Tinsel Mecca on the Toad Record Label, clarified Rick. “Our first record together as Thomas, Garvin & Thomas was “Someday” (later “Love's Day”) in 1969. Sadly, the engineer didn't have the right levels and messed up the sound,” added Rick. “Audio Recorders was a nice facility, but we got a sound engineer who didn't know what he was doing.”

“When I told him the recording sounded distorted he said it was because of our bad amps. We were just kids, what did we know? When I went to California to try and push the record, someone at Capitol Records told me that the sound levels were all wrong and had nothing to do with us.”

Brother Records
The group later re-recorded on “Love’s Day” as the B-side of “I’m With You Jesus” on their own Brother Records imprint and featuring a W. Butler St, Chandler address. This time they were happy with the results. “I'm With You Jesus/Love's Day" had the backing of the ASU Jazz Band and ironically was recorded at a studio in Tucson, which would be hard to duplicate even today,” said Rick.  With Keith’s lead vocals “Love’s Day” naturally unfolds with its pull of undercurrent verses giving way to the sweep of the chorus waves.  The depth, layers and accomplished musicianship can be best heard on the 45 pressing.  This gem is reminiscent of the later New Colony Six and “Here, There and Everywhere” if composed and sung by George Harrison.

Musical Crossroads
In 1978, Thomas, Garvin & Thomas were based out of Seattle and the group committed to a gospel music direction which they continue to this day. “I went on to graduate from Arizona State University and then studied at a small bible college in Seattle where TG &T played in church, and then got my masters at NAU. Garvin also graduated from ASU as an art major. Some of the good musicians that I remember around Chandler were John Clapper, Tommy West, Steve Brown and the Cortwright Brothers who worked with us on the session of “I'm With You Jesus”/”Love’s Day.”  For the past 25 years, Rick has been instrumental in the lives of students in the Phoenix school districts as a music teacher. 
Randy Garvin, Rick Thomas & Keith Thomas
Photo taken by Ken Thomas at the San Marcos Hotel in Chandler, AZ
Shifting Sands of Time
This Chandler music history seems so elusive and vanishing as we sweep by the half-century mark. While the pieces are now closer together and patterns have emerged, sometimes the sought answers are not answers.  After all, it’s about appreciation in hearing the previously unheard sounds, encountering differing perspectives and keeping a sense of enigmatic mystery intact.

Acknowledgements: Jean Reynolds for aligning the stars, John P. Dixon who initially made me aware of the Tinsel Mecca record and provided the label information,  Keith Thomas for his recollections and connecting me to brother Rick.  Rick Thomas for sharing his memories and music, Lita Jo Thomas for all the photos and hand delivering a “I’m With You Jesus”/“Love’s Day” single.  Nate Meyers, Curator of Collections for the Chandler Museum, for the yearbook scans.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Louie Louie-Friend of a Stranger

Friend of a Stranger is like descending into a sacred miracle cave, however this is not a tourist trap or a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. allusion.  This is a sonic exploration to where it’s always 66 degrees with these cave dwellers of subterranean Philadelphia. After the gathering call of "Come Over," the directness of the Troggs and the Seeds branches off through passages illuminated by girl group gems to the foggy notions of  the Velvet Underground. Within the song “I Want to Dance with You” sense of time recedes as its soaring harmonies climb to forefront and fill the majestic cavern while a swelling organ cast flickering shadows upon the wall. These troglodytes lead you down some unexpected turns and tunnels where roped-off grottoes to the Feminine Complex, the Luv’d Ones and Slumber Party glow out of the darkness.  Their dashing cover of “You Still Want Me,” is one of the best covers of a Kinks song since the Pretenders presented “Stop Your Sobbing” as their first single.  Emily Robb’s voice actually takes on a Belinda Carlisle inflection that works within the context. "Do It (In Your Mind) " and "Miles Around" finds them marching in cadence down the angular steps of some herky-jerky new wave.   They quickly find their footing upon the Danceteria vibe of the early-Talking Heads, the B52-s, Double Fantasy-era Yoko Ono and even Julian Cope.  The watery and floating Asiatic organ of "Will to Find" taps into their underlying hypnotic pull, while transporting visitors to fuzzy new realms.  Hidden gold is found with "What a Man Can Do" which evokes the Bangles before they applied the super high gloss production.  The :35 minute tour fittingly winds up with “Keep on Dancing” which is not the Gentrys song, but an unearthed Ronettes number which manifests their ability to integrate their voices into an unified whole. Explorers of timeless sounds will resurface in exaltation and head out knowing that groundbreaking sounds are still echoing strong.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Pen Friend Club-Wonderful World of

"We find only the world we look for."-Henry David Thoreau

Due to the elaborate complexity and the competency required to produce the multiple layers of melodic sounds, it’s understandable that there are only a handful of bands around the world that attempt to carry the torch of the Wrecking Crew into century 21.  Since their 2014 debut album, Japan’s Pen Friend Club have been the worthy heirs of the studio group behind some of the biggest and lasting hits of the sixties (e.g. “California Dreamin',” “Good Vibrations,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Up, Up and Away”).  For a contemporary group, they have been quite prolific as this is their 4th album in as many years.  While the band's lineup has fluctuated at times, the group’s main catalyst, Yuichi Hirakawa, has been the stabilizing element in emanating his particular sunburst pop visions.  His distinctive “yellow & orange” approach consists of “building castles in the air,” over a detailed foundation of Japanese-accented girl group vocals, vibraphone embellishments, and stacked harmonies.  While covers of the most enduring, yet not overdone songs associated with Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Jimmy Webb are the towering spires, by writing, arranging and producing his own incandescent originals, which stand on their own, he makes sure the outfit is far removed from any reenactment acts.
With each successive album, the number of originals have gradually become balanced against the amount of covers.  This year’s release evenly splits the difference with five well-chosen covers and five uplifting originals.  It’s interesting that a few of the originals are now being sung in their native Japanese, which is a good thing.  As the group has gained more experience and momentum, they have obtained the smoothness and slight swank necessary to be in contention for a possible J-pop hit and/or television & movie placement in their native market.  (It appears from Google translate that Hirakawa did indeed write a song for RYUTist, an idol pop group.)  The standout cover this time around is the 5th Dimension’s wonderfully byzantine “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” which the now defunct KOY-AM would play from time to time.  While this has introspective mellow metaphysical 1971 written all over it, other sweeping and ebullient songs recall the sunlit days when Hallmark stores played Bread & the Carpenters softly in the background, American Spring records were in the racks and floral prints were all the rage. These jet stream California sunshine sounds soar out of this current harsh world--to a better place suspended between Japan, the United States, winter, summer, the ‘60s, and now.

"...and the emergence of spring is merely the outward manifestation of a process which has never seen any lapses in its motion." - Ben Edmonds

Friday, January 20, 2017

Khyber Mail by Sohail Rana

Get on board to discover some adventurous, vibrant, and bending music from Pakistan. At first, this reminded me of the watery organ music that I used to hear playing at the Hawaii Supermarket in San Gabriel, CA circa 2005-07. Subsequent listens of this 1970 album, revealed an unpredictable, yet accessible instrumental set that was written to capture and express both the overlooked details and the expansive vistas of  a train ride departing coastal Karachi and traveling 32 hours inland to Peshawar. With his breadth, depth and panoramic wide-scope, composer Rana could be conveniently compared to the grand Italian Ennio Morricone.  However common their final destination of producing state of the art soundtracks, they take their own singular initial approaches towards conducting sounds. While Morricone rides (South)West and constructs the colossal, Rana veers Eastward--slanting towards a deconstructive “Cubist” angle.  On Kyhber Mail, he first fractures the canvas of sound.  He then proceeds to recombines his main musical elements (organ, swirling sitar, vibes) and seemingly disparate shards (click-clack percussion, guitar twang, Doppler effects) into a cohesive whole. It all converges into a layered, propulsive and ultimately sweeping sound collage.  To place into a Western pop framework, it’s sort of a song cycle on the playful periphery of the pocket symphonies of Brian Wilson’s “Smile,” the exploitative and enduring sounds of the Nirvana Sitar and String Group, the lush villages of Martin Denny and Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade’s theme “Baroque Hoedown.” With these tracks, it’s possible to explore unexpected sonic realms while rearranging your train of thought somewhere between the East and the West.