Archive for March, 2015

Fred Thomas

All Are Saved

Polyvinyl Records, 2015

Review by Kent Manthie

Ann Arbor, MI’s Fred Thomas has been around a while, a kind of cult favorite, a pretty solid fan base, who’ve come along from either some of his seven previous solo albums or from some of the bands in which he’s played, for example, another Polyvinyl band, Saturday Looks Good To Me, whose last album was reviewed here, on Independent Review sometime last year. While SLGTM had some good points to their stuff, I was actually surprised to hear (after already having listened to Thomas’s latest solo work, All Are Saved (Polyvinyl)), that he was a member of SLfred thomas coverGTM. It threw me for a loop, I guess, at least at first, because this album, in my opinion, has a different feel from the more jangly, retro-sound of Saturday Looks Good to Me. Fred’s musical style definitely fits in with the Polyvinyl Records mode: intelligent, well-crafted, even unique artistry which defies a label or comparison to any old standards, that some newer bands evoke sometimes. As I mentioned, All Are Saved is typical of a lot of Fred’s labelmates’ efforts: the fiercely independent, outstanding music with lyrics that seem to come bubbling up from his unconscious. In a couple reviews I’ve read, while searching the internet for some more biographical information on Thomas, one particular sentence I saw in two different reviews, which I think, was actually originally taken from the description of All Are Saved on Polyvinyl’s website: https://www.polyvinylrecords.com on which, in describing the first “single”(?) (“Bad Blood”) at least described as “the first single off the album”. Since they really don’t make “singles” anymore, for instance, gone are the days of the 45 rpm records which contained singles that were samples of the full album. Jeez, I could sit here and go through a ton of stuff, back from the 80s – hell, even back to the 50s & 60s, that were on these 45s- as opposed to what’s known as the “7 inch” release, which is usually not necessarily a “single” in the music industry standard definition of the term, but could be, like, 2 or 3 songs that may or may not be on any other album, but, say, in between full-lengths, some indie artist or band may decide to tide the fan base over with a little treat: on a “7 inch” record, which is a little bigger than a 45rpm record, which is more in the neighborhood of 6 inches, also, a phenomenon which is nothing new, but goes back to the early-mid 80s, when hardcore ‘punk’ was going strong and there were a lot of DIY projects that were coming forth. Some of these DIY bands may have evolved and eventually won a place on a good indie outfit, release some albums, and in between there would sometimes be some collaboration with a fellow labelmate or just another band who happened to be friends with the other artist or band and they’d do a “split” 7 inch. on which one band would put out two songs, and on the other side, there’d be one or two songs by the other band or singer. Of course, this “split” thing is still very much a part of the indie scene: many bands who are alike, etc, will team up with another and put out, these days on CD or now, in the new digital music paradigm, split MP3 items.

Anyway, the point is, that the first song to be sprung on fans who just can’t wait until the street date of All Are Saved of April Seventh, so Polyvinyl made available “Bad Blood”, in a CD-single format, as a sneak peek, so to speak. “Bad Blood” was a good choice. I’d say it’s one of the stronger tunes on the album, full of his typical sing-speak style, wherein he chooses to just speak in a rhythmic tone to accompany the music, while on others he does put out a full-fledged singing voice, such as “Bed Bugs”, which, like “Bad Blood”, has a very good lyrical style. In other places I’ve heard it described as almost a “stream-of-conscious” flow of words which form the basis of the song; however, I think that the lyrics are not so instantly forthcoming, but rather the product of a great songwriting talent. I’m sure there was a lot of spontaneity that went into some of the songs, maybe some random thoughts that he wrote down as they came to him which were later formed into the song lyrics you hear on All Are Saved. A couple other examples of songs that are full of introspective memories and energy are “Expo ’87”, a song that seems to recount some particular event or series of events that swirl around a certain larger going-on that came to define this period, like whatever “Expo” was going on in 1987, on which Fred goes back to his speaking with the music style.

The album’s opening cut, “Every Song Sung to a Dog” sets the tone: the lyrics swing back and forth between the sing-song vocal style and the plaintive crooning, which he saves for punctuating the vibe of the song. As for the wide variety of instruments on this song, you hear some keyboard, horns, guitar and as for percussion, it’s made up of cymbals, riding the rhythm. That song goes right into the next one, “When They Built the Schools”, which starts off with an oddly recorded guitar riff, then stops and starts again with a full-on guitar playing the notes that add up the melody. “Cops Don’t Care Pt. II” is a nice, airy song that emits a kind of summertime vibe, with lyrics that describe various interactions with police, the ways that calling the cops, even when you’re the one who called and is in need of assistance, can end up being almost more of a hassle for you, who called or at least, at best, you both lose, it also goes into the typical activities/doings that one can expect when at any sort of public protest/demonstration:  in this era of the passive-aggressive protest, where protesters are not willing to make a lot of noise and, as an act of protest in itself, get themselves arrested, you can’t expect much and the cops know this, so it’s so much easier to put down a protest, when one comes up that really does matter, like, for instance, protesting the Bush/Cheney administration, police brutality, revelations of the NSA spying on American citizens in sweeping ways, which the NSA leaders systematically denied was happening, despite evidence to the contrary.  Those are things worth protesting for, but, unlike 48-50 years ago, when protesters were heard loudly and clearly by the government (even though they never stopped the Vietnam War, they did manage to get much of the country- or many more who were on the fence, on their side), today apathy reigns, ergo, FBI infiltration, agents provocateurs are much easier to plant in these groups, etc.

Anyway, bottom line: I like this album. Like it a lot. It goes well with many of Polyvinyl’s other bands, fits in with the eccentricity, originality and the complete freedom to do what they want, as far as complete control over the albums they want to make. So, I would say, if you’re already familiar with Fred Thomas and his work with the bands with whom he’s previously played and/or his solo albums, go out and get this one too, you won’t be sorry; and to those new to Thomas, I’d say, either take my word for it and just dive right in, pick up a copy at https://www.polyvinylrecords.com (or elsewhere, like www.amazon.com, etc.). If you go to the Polyvinyl website, you can hear the pre-release single, “Bad Blood”, which is an amazing tune, one that is, in my view, a great pick for the preview single, that it will get under your skin and entice you into checking out the full album. Enjoy!! -KM.

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Here’s a nice example of Romeo Crow’s work (re:  2 reviews ago):  it’s a new video of his new song, “Shoes”.  Continuing in that same vein that’s on his current album,They Come and go Like Rain, Romeo really rocks.  His vocal on this track are really strong and they complement his fine guitar playing.  The song, in Romeo’s own words, is “about going on a journey, moving forward, not getting stuck in a rut, pushing onward to find new opportunities, making progress…and shoes!) [italics, mine].

Hope you enjoy the video. It’s a sort of homemade travelogue of his and his wife’s New Year’s trip from London to the Amalfi Coast in Italy.  As a bonus, there’s an entire “playlist” of Crow’s videos, so, after this one, stick around for more new videos to go along with the music from They Come and go Like Rain. -KM.

Lowlands

The Whale, 2014

Review Kent Manthie                                                                 the-whale-cover

Over the past four years, Seattle’s Lowlands was born (2010), then broke apart (2012) and again, came back together for a new birth of sound that has been evidenced on their latest CD, The Whale, an album that was recorded in 2014, but whose songs the band has been playing in live shows since 2013. Why I’m only hearing about it now, I don’t know, but maybe it’s finally getting that “breakout” they so needed.

On The Whale, frontman, Tom Rorem wrote a slew of new songs, with some of the music and complex arrangements, atmospherics and textures created by bandmates, Ben Jahn, William Mapp, Steve Miller (no, the other one) as well as Alex Huth.

The band has a gift for creating a diversified repertoire; a band whose sound, to which various musical labels won’t stick. The stuff that Rorem and co. have put together for The Whale is a wonderful potpourri of genre-bending, bi-polar ups and downs. The music’s antipodal force builds up tension and then, cathartically releases said tension through a mixture of apt lyrics set to music played with a real passion that, besides the lyrical themes, also releases its own “voice” or “messages”; music that resonates in a way that really hits you right in the gut (but not too hard).

One of the more popular songs on The Whale as well as just a damn good song, is “Passionate Soul”, a song whose title is also very apt at capturing the essence of the parts which make up the whole song: a song about love, longing, yearning and burning, with a mellow, but simultaneously…well, passionate, for lack of a better word and that passion really comes through. It doesn’t take a loud, heavily produced album with swirling guitars and a kind of “tilt-a-whirl” sound that just spins you around, at least (somewhat, anyway) metaphorically. Another good song worth noting here is the title track, which, I think, smartly captures the heartbreak one can feel when suffering an immense loss, whether it be a relatively long and, yes, passionate relationship or the loss, through death of someone special in one’s life: a longtime close friend, a lover who succumbs, far too early, in many cases, to some kind of ravaging, terminal illness. The name of the song, “The Whale” can be thought of as a good metaphor for that feeling of loss, that broken-hearted sadness; the pain from something like that can be so powerful and so heavy a burden to shoulder that “Whale” is a perfect symbol to use for it.

Anyway, The Whale was recorded in October of 2014, at Jupiter Studios, with Martin Feveyear producing. The foundation of the album was the rhythm section: the percussion and the bass, whose tracks were laid down first and on top of which the rest of the music and the vocals were layered. Their goal was to record an album that had a distinct sound but also was not limited in scope, but has a wide ranging depth and breadth. -KM.

Romeo Crow

They Come and Go Like Rain

Self-Released, 2013

Review  by Kent Manthie                                                                              
Romeo Crow pic

Just received this new album from this London-based cat who goes by the handle, Romeo Crow. His new album, They Come and Go Like Rain, it’s a six-song EP, full of great, original rock and roll stuff. It opens up with “Storm in the City”, a good, raw, rocking tune. The song has this cool riff that it starts off with, then it keeps going, a gritty, rough tune with some stylistic chord changes here and there which punctuate the tune all the more. He’s quite good on the guitar. On this opening number, he flashes a bit of his genius on a really rippin’ solo.

The next tune, “Get Like This” has a nice rhythm to it, it’s a fluid, smooth but rocking song. Some of the music is reminiscent of some of the great stuff that was out in the early 1970s, certain bands which, obscure, though they may have been, still left their mark. Bands such as Captain Beyond, which featured the first lead singer of Deep Purple, Rod Evans, the future AOR, mellow-minded, singer, who later had a pop-hit, with “What You Won’t Do For Love”, Bobby Caldwell, who, in Captain Beyond, played drums and wrote a lot of the songs.

Anyway, getting back to Romeo Crow, he slows things down a bit on “Sharing Time”, which has a ballad-esque quality to it; it sounds like it’s about a guy who wants to “share some time” with his lover. Later on, “Fat Freddy” has a blues-tinged angle to it, a rough-and-tumble jam which includes Romeo’s great guitar licks. The way he keeps jamming, throughout the song, not just on solos, reminds me a little of Stevie Ray Vaughan or even the great Albert King, who was extremely dexterous on his trademark Gibson “Flying V” guitar and I just love the way it ends: just sort of implodes and then it’s done.

Finally, They Come and Go Like Rain wraps up with Romeo’s self-described favorite tune, “Would You Hold it Against Me”. This is definitely a strong song. It’s a bit slowed-down, but it’s got a kick-ass guitar solo, there’s a passion that runs throughout it. It may be slow but, not dull or dry. There’s a real bite to it. It’s also a perfect finale for a great album – between singing, he really goes off on the guitar; giving a big shot of venom to the song. Yowza! I can see why Romeo would say “Would You Hold it Against Me” is his favorite tune; it’s probably my favorite tune on there too.

The album, as well as Romeo, himself, have a little of that classic “English, White Blues” that was made famous by UK bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker’s, The Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac (the ORIGINAL Fleetwood Mac, with Peter Green, before it became an L.A.-based awful pop-band, circa the second self-titled album in ’75 and Rumours, in 1977. There was that period after Green left, when Bob Welch and Bob Weston were in the band, when they were, OK, “mediocre”, but, after Buckingham and Nicks came aboard they went straight downhill), Cream and even Blind Faith. Also in Romeo’s music is a little bit of Mike Bloomfield’s rough and ready Chicago blues, like when he played in Paul Butterfield’s Blues band and so on. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that They Come and Go Like Rain is a great antidote to the saccharine bullshit pop music of today (not the stuff I review here, though – this is an honest, independent music and/or DIY music which is so far from the corporate crap that radio stations try to shove down your throat! Stick with this stuff and you’ll be not only better informed about the good music going on, but, with Romeo Crow, you’ll get a taste of some stuff that is so rare to hear these days, that it’s rare. Go to www.bandcamp.com and check it out! -KM.