Around this time of year, the recording industry slows down and enters a kind of commercial hibernation. With the exception of a preponderance of seasonally themed recordings (see Michael Roberts's "Holidaze" wrap-up in the December 14 issue for the best and worst of those), release schedules grow slim as most Americans grow fat on holiday fare and too much eggnog. Yet local artists can always be counted on to fill the void with their own discs, for better or worse. A look at recent regional offerings suggests that while some Front Range artists are capable of keeping our stereos happy and busy until the industry reawakens in the spring, others might want to head back to the cave.
The Front Range is a breeding ground for stylistic fusion; local acts have never shied away from mixing genres like paint, even if the resulting sound is sometimes muddy. In Voted Most Poplar, Cottonwood, a Denver-based acoustic four-piece, carries on the tradition by dabbling in everything from traditional Irish ditties ("Gone the Rainbow") and bluegrass standards ("Cripple Creek") to rootsy takes on modern music (a yee-haw variation on Tracy Chapman's soulful "Give Me One Reason") and pure goofs: "Tarantula" was written from the perspective of plucky guitarist Kenn Amdahl's deceased pet spider, while the shmaltzy "Neo Nazi Samba" is dedicated to all the SS men who "don't have enough love in their lives." This is fun, funny stuff, made all the better by the earthy, malleable vocals of Barb Henry (who also occasionally displays her skills on the "mouth trumpet"), especially when they're harmonizing with electric bassist Bill Wilton's own fine tenor. Cottonwood is a house regular at Angie's Place in Lakewood, which seems fitting: Like a hot cup of joe, the band's curious, rustic blend is both comforting and stimulating in small doses. (Cottonwood Music LLC, P.O. Box 778, Broomfield, CO 80038.)
Also best in small doses is Two Faces: A Rock Novel, by the Shakes. It's a concept album in which the songs seem to chronicle the spiritual trials of the musician, while accompanying liner notes tell the tale of a man growing increasingly dissatisfied with his cubicle-confined existence. It's an interesting idea, and one that's well presented in the snappy album cover. The written story is pretty decent, too. Unfortunately, it's the music that makes or breaks an idea like this, and the Shakes fall terribly flat in that pursuit. Two Faces inexplicably lies somewhere between an overly indulgent Rush epic and a Tubes medley. The album is nicely produced, and the players themselves aren't bad, but this novel calls for a rewrite. (theshakes.net.)
Patrick Rooney is a computer-systems architect with a background in music theory and composition, which might explain why he was compelled to work from a palette of wholly computer-generated, synthesized sounds on Melting Sun. But while the thought of "electronic mood music" could strike terror into the hearts of those who (rightfully) fear Yanni and his contemptible kind, Sun shines with a more refined approach to electronic music. There are a lot of sounds at work here, yes, but Rooney manages to avoid the sweeping overdramatics that so often characterize the genre. His sense of adventure is evident in the array of world-style rhythms he employs, including African, American Indian and Celtic, as well as his occasional use of organic sounds -- notably, a fiddle solo by Celtic artist Mark Brissenden on "Bohemian Rhapsody." With its tinny artificial drum loops and Dr. Who interludes, Melting Sun is likely to wear thin on those who think spacey synth music is best suited for observatories, not CD bins. Fans of the genre will regard it as a bright surprise. (Patrick Rooney, 1169 Hillsdale Lane, Louisville, CO 80027; firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Also in the realm of borderline scary instrumental music is Tyler Rice's self-titled smooth-jazz debut. Twelve instrumental songs long, this recording is so innocuous, it barely registers on the radar screen of consciousness: After I popped the disc in the stereo and momentarily left the room to get a drink, I asked a friend how it sounded. "Huh?" he asked, looking up from a newspaper, completely oblivious that there was any music on at all. This is Yamaha jazz, whiter than bleached flour, the soundtrack to a thinly veiled soft-core porn flick on the USA Network. According to Rice, the album is selling well on the Internet (tylerrice.com), and there's clearly an audience for this kind of stuff. (John Tesh is possibly more beloved in Midwestern households than George W.) But while it's harmless enough -- some might even call it romantic -- I can only hope that Charlie Parker and Miles Davis are too busy playing cards in heaven to notice what's passing for jazz these days. (Twin Records, 4828 East Kingston Avenue, Highlands Ranch, CO 80126.)
It's probably Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman -- not Miles and Bird -- whom bandleader Sam Bivens would want to impress with Uptown, a collection of original and standard big-band tunes that evoke a long-gone swinging era. Uptown is the first recording to emerge from the Denver Jazz Orchestra, the brassy twenty-person ensemble that's become a Denver staple with its weekly performances, currently hosted at the American Legion at 17th Avenue and Federal Boulevard. It was there that this eight-song live offering was recorded, a fact that, unfortunately, led to the album's biggest flaw. Although Bivens's arrangements of his own material ("Midwest Express," "4-Points" and the title track) and others' (Arlen and Mercer's "Come Rain or Come Shine," Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?") are energetic and exacting, the disc's production quality is poor. Uptown sounds as if it was broadcast through a Gramophone -- which might be a nice nostalgic touch, if it didn't interfere with the listener's experience of the music. Too bad, as the DJO is one of the city's unique musical treasures. For now, it's a treasure best experienced live. (Dingbat Productions, P.O. Box 9639, Denver, CO 80209-0639; mp3.com/ sambivens_DJO.)
As a recent transplant to the area, jazz chanteuse Bonnie Lowdermilk arrives accompanied by some national -- and international -- cachet: This Heart of Mine, her full-length album, was recorded in New York City with the excellent Fred Hersch Trio and later released by the Parisian imprint AxolOh Jazz. Lowdermilk's a confident, personable vocalist with a wide range and Ella Fitzgerald's flair for wordplay. Her style is alternately romantic, saucy and playful, as the tunes (which range from originals such as "Ephemeral Dream" to standards like Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me") require. This is cool jazz for a cold night, peppered by Lowdermilk's deft scatting and occasional piano playing (most of the time, Hersch handles that job just fine). Isn't it romantic? (84 rue Vergniaud, 75013, Paris, France.)
Also imported (this time from Georgia) is the folksy two-piece Rachel & Andy, an acoustic guitar-driven duo that excels at making the most of relatively spare instrumentation. The first two tracks on So Much Left to Say, the band's debut CD, are simply joyful exercises in Everly-esque melodicism; the opener, "Bridges Burned," soars along beautifully as the pair demonstrates a nearly Fleetwood Mac-ian ability to imbue a hearty, wide-open harmony with a marked sadness, to change the sentiment and tone of a melody in the space of one short measure. "What Was That Song" is decidedly more straightforward, a flower-child anthem that recalls seasons in the sun. There's a seamlessness to the ways in which Rachel (Simring) and Andy (Ard) interact musically -- it's a conversation expressed not only in the fluidity of their dueling guitars, but in a kind of psychic subtext that carries through the band's stylistic experiments (the almost ragtimey "Dr. & the Mrs."; the kick-up-your-heels, traditional-sounding "Veronica"; the sensual, devastating "Will You Tell Her?"). Rachel & Andy don't always hit -- the ballads "Eleanor" and "You Don't See Me at All" are a little too sincere and not nearly as fresh as the rest of the songwriting. For the most part, though, So Much Left to Say is a reminder that acoustic music is limited only by the imaginations of the people playing it. Not a problem here. (rachelandandy.com.)
White Shadow, Mix 13 is the latest in a series of sound mixes compiled by DJ Bedz (aka Cassidy Bednack), a young, local hip-hop steel-wheeler who cut his teeth as a resident DJ at Decades, an all-ages urban nightclub in west Denver. Bedz is clearly clever, with a keen sense of toilet humor; White Shadow is chock-full of dirty jokes, sex sounds and fuck-laden diatribes culled from recordings of local artists, found sounds and familiar hip-hop discs. It's kind of a fun journey through a gritty hip-hop landscape -- a bumpy boat ride through a different kind of Wonka factory, one populated by guns, hos, Gs and green. It's Bedz's world, but Dan the Automater he ain't. Considering that every kid with a turntable wants to be a DJ these days, he isn't doing anything that isn't being done every night in every hip-hop club in America. The mix is erratic, uneven and shoddily produced. It's not funny enough to simply sit there and listen to, nor is it funky enough to get up and dance to. Bedz's work might translate to the dance floor, as his art emerges spontaneously through a manipulation of his turntables. As a sound recording, though, it's half-baked and muddy, a pretty unappetizing combo. (djbedz.com.)
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