Loco For Local

Roach Thompson Blues Band
(Hot Productions)

Only four of the eleven tracks are cover versions, a decent percentage for any blues record, a double-dose delight to fans who've come to expect a bounty of interpretation from the Roach stompers' live shows. Thompson's originals glisten, even next to the likes of Magic Sam, Lowell Fulsom, Jimmy Reed. The material easily justifies the praise heaped on RTBB in the past year. So does the musicianship. So does the production quality. So why isn't this the greatest blues album ever made?

Maybe because of the inherent and unfair standard it must be measured against: RTBB's live shows. Maybe because even bad blues can be good; the nature of the genre is such that variety plays a lesser role in quality than it does in personal appeal. You like this one, I like that one, and neither can be said to be "better than the other." Then again, maybe this is the best blues album....

It's certainly worth some listening to, if for the grooves only -- they're deeper than Koko Taylor's bathtub. The instrumental "Roach's After Hours" -- all laconic drum shuffle and smokey-jazz slowgressions -- provides the perfect place to get lost in, and check Vernon "Piggy" Teague's tenor sax solo on the bright mover "Rockin' Good Way." Or just check the whole thing. Many laurels have been heaped on this good ol' band lately. Nice to see they live up to all the crowning on this album.

Riding on the Rims
(Little Silver Records)

Iko-Iko, who recently celebrated a decade as the house band at Tobacco Road, have been through more line-up changes than Steinbrenner's Yankees. Yet the Bronx's pampered purveyors of the national pastime could learn a thing or two about teamwork from the local blues blasters. Although founder/bassist/vocalist Graham Drout is the only player who has been an Iko longer than two-and-a-half years, they sound like they've been stalking the Road as a unit since the venerable saloon received Miami liquor license 001 in 1912. Their greatest accomplishment may well be that gestalt, their most defining characteristic their unselfishness.

Riding on the Rims, the band's second album, was recorded live at the Road on November 10, 1991. As it says on the liner notes, "Live recordings are mysterious things." Several of the songs here (notably the soulful cover of John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery") benefit from the palpable speakeasy atmosphere; others sound unfocused. It's a lot like a night at the Road: chase it with a beer, add a select friend or two, don't look at it too critically, and you've got a party.

On the other hand, it is not the most ambitious album of 1992. Five of the twelve cuts are covers, four of the tunes ("Snowstorm in the Jungle," "Walk with the Zombie," "Black Leather Woman," and "Don't Mess with the Voodoo") appeared on the band's prior release, 1988's Snowstorm in the Jungle, and one of the cuts ("Drums") is an extended percussion riff -- a clever take on the obligatory drum-solo mentality, but filler nonetheless. That leaves "Party Car," a serviceable up-tempo swamp rocker, and "Riding on the Rims," the title tune, a delicate, eclectic collage of musical traditions as melancholy as it is bluesy. One cannot help but wish the band had included more new material, assuming they had any on par with these two cuts.

Iko-Iko can create some tasty music when they put their minds to it, but there aren't many surprises on this release. Accomplished musicians all, they are not so precocious as to make jaws drop at their sheer virtuosity. Iko fans and Road regulars, especially those in attendence on the night this album was recorded, might want a copy for the archives, but the rest of us are probably better off putting on our dancing shoes and heading over to the club on a Saturday night to hear the band live, and quaff a few cold ones in the bargain. Riding on the Rims does little to disprove the tag that, as recording artists, Iko-Iko are a great bar band.

Amanda Green
(Demo cassette)

Of all the local albums reviewed here, none features more complex and professional studio production. Every fader trick in the techno-revolution book pulled, pushed, pumped into the rotting, stinking carcass that is dance music. The Sound Machine isn't this technically proficient. Bomp-thump-clank-bump-thomp-bomp-ba-loo-bomp-bomp. Be it a ballad or a busta-mover, each track bounces and boings, clatters and honks, just as it should by intent. And twenty-year-old Amanda Green's voice is right up there with Expose, Glorita, and the rest. Somebody get this girl an oxygen tank.

David Andrews
(Demo cassette compilation)

A singer-songwriter could do worse than to sound like a Springsteen/Mellencamp hybrid. David Andrews sounds about as close to the two darlings of the heartland as one can get without going over the top into parody or outright impersonation. But with better range. Andrews sings in a big, rich, all-American voice that would launch him into the megastars' orbit if only his songwriting were as impressive.

Unfortunately, this is where the arena rockers have a big edge. Andrews's songs, like the Boss's or the Cougar's, are fairly straightforward musical compositions, heavy on the three-chord progressions, but a trifle short on hooks. Springsteen's and Mellencamp's lyrics are a huge part of their success ("Small Town" excepted, of course), striking, as they do, a responsive chord in the gullets of their listeners. Andrews's lyrics, while not bad, are light years away from "The River," or even "Jack and Diane."

Of course, one can learn to write good lyrics. Lungs like Andrews's are essentially a gift. Combined with a mainstream rock sensibility, that gift could chauffeur him all the way to Lucky Town.

Up Snake Creek without A Paddle
(Snake Creek Records)

The credits of this tape include the names of three trumpet players and a saxophonist -- the horn section, as it were. It also states, "All songs written, arranged, performed, and produced by Lucian Williams." At least one reviewer was so overwhelmed, or absent-minded, that he complained about the incompleteness of these credits. Great stuff, the review stated, but who are all these guys? "Performed" is the clue word -- all these guys are Lucian "Lew Willie" Williams, even if you might think Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Manhattan Transfer, and a few decent orchestras must've sat in at the sessions.

Big-band swing jazz pop -- that's all one genre here, relaxed but hypermelodic mega-structures, each element interlocking perfectly with the others, not a stumble, bumble, or fumble to be found. The polish, in fact, wipes away any cloying the nostalgia might dust on, leaving a thoroughly modern sonance that'll nonetheless make you feel like it's the middle of an apple-blossom afternoon in 1949. That's entertainment, and surprisingly, despite the Copacabana flashback feel -- as if you were a character in a noir movie visiting a nightclub for a really big show -- Willie tosses in a few sociopolitical curveballs (e.g., some of the lyrics in "Yankee Ingenuity"). But you know that going in: There's a cover sticker that reads, "Warning: This music contains points of view and may cause discomfort to those lacking one." In my view, Up Snake Creek fits the proverbial "one-man tour de force" accolade. And the horn section's real good, too.

Natural Causes
(Demo cassette)
By Greg Baker

If the three songs on this tape are not a hoax, the very first thing you should do right now is get to a club to see this band live. The symptoms of their potential to rule the planet: depthful arrangements, soul splitting guitar leads, solid rhythm foundations, smart songwriting, vocals that travel to more places than George Bush's armed forces -- everything that makes rock and roll worth living for, none of it bogus or forced. Natural. What causes it? Dunno. The effect: Overwhelming. The day the major labels begin releasing rock of this substance and vigor is the day I start shopping at Spec's.

Cell 63
(Demo cassette)

Guitar-driven rock with an edge has found a worthy exponent in Cell 63, a guitar-bass-drums coalition of survivors of the local original rock wars that conjures up ghosts of the Clash and the Replacements.

Composed of former members of the Naughty Puritans and Jobbernowl, among others, Cell 63's experience shows. The band is tight, loud, and fast without yielding to the temptations of too much distortion (apologies to those who feel a band can never use too much distortion), muddy vocals hiding bad lyrics, or lead guitar work that confuses speed and volume with passion. Instead, the tenants of Cell 63 are an intense lot, vocalist Milton Peabody doing a better Paul Westerberg than Westerberg does these days.

Picasso Trigger Is Dead!
(unreleased album)

I caught a comment somewhere recently about how the notion of rock and roll achieving profundity was a major stretch, a ridiculous imbuing of an over-rated diversion with serious and undeserved weight. Unfortunately, plenty of rock musicians themselves readily accept this sucking into the vortex of the MTV generation; buy into it, or, worse really, invest in it. It's only rock and roll, and to suggest it could be something more is pretentious, naive, grossly misguided. Proselytizing poseurs are the only ones foolish enough to make rock and roll that might supposedly matter. Sure, soapbox singing can come off as superficial and overwrought. And this is where a distinction needs to be made.

Crafting tunes that say in certain terms that war kills, oppression sucks, politics smell funny is more often than not an annoying intrusion. Just look at U2. But the same holds true for any art form or media enterprise. Blatancy only works when it's wrapped in something more than a simple, straightforward stating of opinions. Great art doesn't tell anyone anything, it shows them how to tell themselves. And rock and roll can be great art.

In the case of Picasso Trigger, that lofty level is reached by painting widely varied, rhythmically intense, and smartly melded sonic colors onto listenable, enjoyable, even danceable canvasses while also inserting threads that at once tie together and further unravel the band's cosmic vision. (For that cosmic vision thing, you'll have to hear the music yourself.)

And as Talking Heads once did, Picasso Trigger schizophrenically mines two crazy fields: mindless sweaty abandon and deep thoughts; the raging pulse and multi-harmony of "We Dress the Monkeys" is matched with the troubling concept that those monkeys are "dressed in army colors," "Hell Before Sunrise" could be a Tom Waits song as produced by a reborn F. Scott Fitzgerald, "King of Fright" is wicked abandon (iced by the muscular horns of F.O.C.) but with sassy lyrics and vocals Peter Murphy would die for. Front man Oscar Herrera (Sleep of Reason) might be your dirty boy, but that's just one of many roles.

This is a finished album, and the band is looking for a label to release it. (Maybe Andy Sidaris could direct the video?) We hope some label gets smart soon -- the public deserves it. There are many things you can do to this music. It'll do a few things to you, too.


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