The Top Ten

The Top Ten
By Greg Baker
Not a sound is heard from the music industry that isn't calculated. Artists are not signed, records are not released, videos are not made -- unless the suits are certain a promising marketing strategy is in place and that much money can be made. The songs might as well be pork-belly futures for all they care.

That's not My Only Problem. "We took the music seriously, but nothing else," says Lee Frank, who, along with Natural Causes guitarist Joel Schantz, compiled the album for release on their own label. The promotional poster for My Only Problem, like most promotional posters, features quote blurbs. "A musical feast and journey" comments "somebody's cousin." "A healing experience for the entire planet," is attributed to "no one in particular." "Pathetic," says "name withheld." That such tomfoolery isn't the best road to hype glory is a fact lost on Schantz. "There's this thing with the media and business and music," he says. "But music is for all of us." Forget the media, ignore the business, and all you're left with is what mattered in the first place.

And My Only Problem matters. Haunting emotions -- unleashed by a clever and compelling mix of English-language words against sonic backdrops bubbling with evocative guitar lines -- can have a cathartic and visceral power rarely found outside of great literature or religion. A few chords and some words become a mandate -- you will feel this, you must feel this, you will think you can change and you can change the world, too. All those idealistic notions might not be true -- but you believe them nonetheless when you're wrapped up in rock and roll whose motivation comes from human life, not the profit margin. Call it art.

A cool melody that sticks in your head, that you can hum in the elevator, doesn't hurt either. My Only Problem has everything a great rock record should. And more.

Joel Schantz came up with the idea about a year ago. He would choose ten of his own personal favorite songwriters A people he met while attending Miami Beach High School, or in his native New Jersey A and record one song by each for release on CD and cassette. Lee Frank came in as his partner. "We talked to all these artists and they sent us tapes," Frank explains. "We found a studio in this guy's house in South Miami, a sixteen-track home studio."

Several of Schantz's chosen ones happened to be in town simultaneously, others live here, one flew down from New York to record his cut. Most have never recorded anything for commercial release. The album spotlights these people as singer-songwriters, but a number of musicians contributed instrumental parts. The result is absolutely shocking -- a couple of non-industry idealists produce and release a record that blows away anything Warner Bros. or Sony or MCA has issued this year. Perhaps money really can't buy love, or greatness.

And you have to love the greatness of R.W. Kingbird's "Conflict." -- bare chatter of drums, splashes of warm guitar riffing, and a self-confident but not dominating melody are the firmament in which Kingbird plants his impossibly moving vocal inflections, words that are like golden branches you can hang from or that can stake you through your heart. "What's a car without gas/What's speed without fast/What's matter without mass...What's eternity if it don't last?" Kingbird asks, turning these little lyrical wordplays into a fist that punches a hole in your chest and grabs ahold of your gizzards and squeezes everything it can out of you while filling you up at the same time.

Kingbird's was the first song Schantz and Frank recorded for this album. "He did the vocal in one take," Schantz says, "The bro laid it down." Heart over head A never think too much. "Most of the stuff was done in one take," Schantz adds. "Sean Edelson's guitar solo [on "Conflict"] A he heard the song for the first time that day. While he was getting his [guitar] sound, Sean played this solo. I said, 'Time to go to the beach.' Sean tells me to shut up, that he isn't even set up yet." That untuned solo appears on the final product A that solo smokes like a firebomb tossed in a swimming pool.

Schantz met Kingbird, who now lives in Deal, New Jersey, back at Miami Beach High. "He's a street poet in the Dylan-Springsteen-Feiles vein," Schantz says. "He sings on the streets of Greenwich Village. He has a wealth of songs, but he's never recorded anything, so no one's ever heard of him. Lyrics are his life, and performance is his vitality."

The momentum is sustained as the artists weave through a number of styles. The second track, "Pieces of Pieces," could have been written and performed by Dylan -- if Dylan had Arlan Feiles's talent. Feiles steps out of his usual role as Natural Causes singer-pianist to play guitar and sing this eccentric but linear treasure. (Feiles says he'll play guitar at the My Only Problem release party this week.) "I didn't want the Causes on this," Schantz says of his regular band. "They're in their own element, and we have our own release [the extended, CD version of Bomb in the Shelter] coming out. I had to be consumed by songwriting inspiration. The Causes weren't the inspiration."  

Another cut, the truly eerie and engrossing "Spooky Situation," features Causes keyboardist Karen Friedman. "I've known Karen for years," Schantz says, "long before the Causes. I've always loved her voice and unique songwriting approach A somewhere between Mary's Danish and Pink Floyd. Everyone in the Causes writes outside of the band, but the band is strictly Arlan's songs. The Causes all get behind that. Karen's always written, and I wanted her voice on tape."

If these songs seem a bit serious, turn to Whistling Tinheads's "Homer Goes to Hollywood" A the story of a Titusville man who goes west in search of cinema stardom and ends up making porno movies: "Lube Job," in which Homer takes a liking to front-end adjustment; the S&M classic "James Bondage;" and, if you ever wondered why a dog's man's best friend, "Homer and the Exuberant Poodle." Jokes aside, the damn thing is one of the most infectious funkfests since F.O.C. broke up and the Red Hot Chili Peppers went mainstream.

It was a stroke of brilliance to insert the Tinheads's hilarity between Friedman's ethereal side-closer and Wurle B. Free's emotional powerhouse "Ernie," an ode and remembrance to a best friend who died that's so overwhelming even Garland Jeffreys or Ian Hunter would approve.

Side two begins with the squall of three guitars at war. As the chaos subsides and a gentle acoustic guitar line replaces it, Miles Iroquios delivers "Marlene." The juxtaposition of gentleness and rage -- this guy can scream like nobody's business -- lends the song a schizophrenic edge that doubles listening pleasure. Iroquios is the Brandeis-educated son of published authors, and is himself writing novels while traveling the world.

Johnathan Blake traveled from New York to Miami to record his cut, "Hide and Seek Woman". "He's another Jersey boy," Schantz says. "I met him through a friend six years ago and was intrigued by his songwriting. I recorded a demo for him in '89 and I asked him to be on this. He'd never really been in a band or studio -- he's like Kingbird and Arlan, he's a street poet." The inexperience is unnoticeable as Blake twists his phrasing -- imagine a cross between Donovan and Springsteen -- around this leisurely groovefest.

Floyd Freeman, who played bass for the Tunnel Feelers and has been a friend of Schantz's since high school, contributes "It Must Have Been a Dream," which follows "Drain Fetish," by Crust. Freeman's semi-whispered "Dream" is almost surreal, punctuated with solid drumming (by Joel's brother, Ari Schantz), and it explains why Joel Schantz says Freeman "inspires my dark side."

The album closes with the thought-provoking instrumental "Death of Pan," by David Chaskes, a highly intelligent local musician who can be found playing bass with a gospel group one day, pounding percussion with an Indian outfit the next. On this track Chaskes plays sitar, classical guitar, steel-string acoustic guitar, and electric guitar, creating a new world of sound.

While My Only Problem is a songwriter's record, the production values could not be higher. "Joel had so much confidence," Lee Frank says. "We wanted our production fingerprint, a fine line through the album even though each cut is stylistically different. We wanted a tasteful, natural production. And we wanted the artists to be happy, too." They should be -- listeners will be.

It must be noted that this project wasn't 100 percent altruistic. For one thing, Frank says, bringing ten disparate acts together can help all of them. "Let's say Arlan sends this to one of his connections in the industry. That person will hear all ten artists."

Furthermore, Schantz intends to use this CD/cassette as a production resume. In recent months Schantz worked with legendary producer Tom Dowd on a Natural Causes project and traveled to noted producer Daniel Lanois's Kingsway Studio in Louisiana to play guitar on Steve Ellis's new album. "I learned a lot of little things," Schantz says. "And after working in those situations, I can't wait to produce more stuff."

But, he says, the production resume is a small part of his Only Problem. "Separate from everything else," he says, "was being inspired by songwriters, a few I grew up with, some I met in recent years, but ones who were not getting heard. Some of them didn't care about getting heard, they just write songs. But I thought, Wouldn't it just be incredible to not let this stuff go by, to record it and not wait until the big money comes around."  

The My Only Problem record release party takes place tomorrow (Thursday) at 10:30 p.m. at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission is free. Seven of the artists on the album will perform live sets.

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