Boulder-based Starkland Records, owned and operated by Tom Steenland, has issued some of the most idiosyncratic discs imaginable during its years of operation: Take, for example, the recordings of Tod Dockstader, a onetime sound editor for Mr. Magoo who went on to become an influential musical avant-gardist. (See the August 24, 1994, Feedback for more details.) But the quirks inherent in Starkland's previous offerings pale in comparison with those found in Garland Hirschi's Cows, by Phillip Kent Bimstein, an opus that, thanks to a summertime profile of Bimstein that aired on National Public Radio, may turn out to be the modest imprint's most prominent and popular release ever. But that's as it should be. After all, Bimstein, who is both a prolific composer and the mayor of Springdale, Utah, is plenty quirky himself.
Bimstein calls his music "alternative classical," but don't let that term scare you off. Although his efforts are not exactly Top 40 fodder, they'll likely strike listeners familiar with ambient and electronic music as surprisingly accessible. The CD's title selection, which clocks in at just under twelve minutes, is a charmingly oddball opus built around speech samples from Garland Hirschi, an elderly Utah farmer, and the technically altered lowing of Hirschi's cattle. The elements bring out the prankster in Bimstein; the piece's three sections are called "A Little Bit About My Cows," "Pasturale" and "Moovement." But the result is no joke. The manipulation of these sounds is positively virtuosic--which probably explains why the work earned Austria's Prix Ars Electronica prize in 1992. And while Bimstein admits to being more inspired by John Cage and musique concrete than by more recent pop-music developments, anyone familiar with the Orb's "Fluffy Little Clouds" will recognize in "Garland Hirschi's Cows" and "Dark Winds Rising" (a four-segment effort performed with the Turtle Island String Quartet) numerous production techniques currently being used by producers on techno's cutting edge. In fact, Bimstein could likely teach these trendsetters a thing or two: It's doubtful that any of them could pull off something like "The Door," a charmingly bizarre soundscape in which he transforms the squeaky door to his studio into an unexpectedly versatile musical instrument.
Cows also features "The Louie Louie Variations," in which Bimstein (with the assistance of the Modern Mandolin Quartet) makes something new from the notes used by the Kingsmen while playing the old frat-rock fave. But Bimstein's enhancement is not at all elitist, perhaps because he got his start as a rock performer. He was part of a Chicago-based band, Phil 'n' the Blanks, that experienced some regional success during the early-Eighties new-wave period. Today he says, "I like esoteric classical music, but I also like Nine Inch Nails and Sonic Youth." He adds, "I liked the Chemical Brothers CD, but I found it to be too static; they get a certain thing going, and then after that, it doesn't surprise you too much. But on the other hand, it makes me realize what a fool I am to try and do something eccentric instead of just establishing a groove. If I did, maybe I could make some money from this."
Actually, Bimstein's music has lately become more profitable as a result of an honor he received from Meet the Composer, a New York-based organization. "They give thousands of smaller grants each year for living American composers to speak and perform concerts of their music," he explains. "But I received their biggest grant, which they give to five composers around the country each year. It's a three-year grant where I'll be paid a salary and receive a budget for the production of my works. The goal is to make the composer more a part of community life rather than to be separate from it." As part of this project, Bimstein is writing a string quartet based on Refuge, a book by Utah author Terry Tempest Williams that interweaves a narrative about her mother's death from breast cancer with the story of birds perishing near the Great Salt Lake.
Environmental concerns inspired Bimstein to run for mayor of Springdale, a town of 350 near the entrance to Zion National Park. He's proud that since his election in 1993, "Springdale has been a fly in the ointment" regarding numerous attempts by conservatives to promote development at the expense of the land, air and water in the state. "We're the town that stands up and says, 'We're in favor of wilderness. It's good for the quality of life,'" he points out. To that end, he has testified before Congress to oppose a wilderness bill sponsored by Utah's own Senator Orrin Hatch and has been interviewed by Newsweek, USA Today and all three major television networks.
Although he plans to run for re-election later this year, Bimstein makes it clear that music is his first priority. "I'm a composer for a career and a mayor for a hobby," he jokes. To that end, he spends the time between town meetings putting together aural experiments that he hopes will be every bit as provocative as those found on Garland Hirschi's Cows (available in area record stores or by writing Starkland at P.O. Box 2190, Boulder 80306). He's already completed "Casino," which utilizes a musical track constructed from the sounds of dice being tossed, poker chips being stacked and money pouring from slot machines, and he's in the midst of assembling "a piece for frogs and oboe. I'm into the sound of frogs right now. But while purists like Paul Winter would never think of altering the sounds of nature, I feel free to play with them--to freely transpose them down an octave to get a more deep, guttural sound.
"As sonic material, that's fair game to me," he declares. "And I don't think the frogs would mind."
Discs? Oh. Duck!
Red Yak received some ink earlier this year for being the first local act to issue a self-produced enhanced CD. Morder, the effort in question, does indeed contain impressive graphics, including virtual rooms, videos and loads of information on the band--and although the computer elements were done on the cheap, the results are as good as or better than those found on many enhanced discs put out by major record labels. Too bad the music does not quite reach so high a level. "Another Day" is sufficiently crunchy, "Blood" has a persuasive rumble to it, and the metallic cover of Devo's "Freedom of Choice" is fairly clever, but too many of the other tracks are merely competent. That's okay, though: High-tech is where the money is in the Nineties, and in that environment, these guys will do just fine (available in area record stores). Front Range is a bluegrass act whose name tells you all you need to know about its connection to this region. Featuring Denver native Mike Lantz, the combo has put out five CDs on the Sugar Hill imprint since 1992, and the most recent, Ramblin' on My Mind, offers plenty of clues as to why the band continues to thrive. The title song is a classic blues that Lantz, Bob Amos, Ron Lynam and Bob Dick transform via a flurry of flying fingers, "Fergus County Jail" is a touching lament and "With Body and Soul" slows down a Bill Monroe favorite to evocative effect. Because Ramblin' is so modest, it may take a listen or two for it to sink in. But it's worth the effort (available in area record stores).
Before being chosen as the new drummer for the Samples, percussionist-about-town Kenny James put together In the Beginning..., a cassette credited to a group he dubbed the Witching Hour, and it could not sound any less like the work of his current employers. "Shocking" is thick with primal beats, industrial samples and fuzzy guitar pummeling, "When I Die" has a melody that's thoroughly gothic, and "I Am Corruption" is a metallic wailer updated with modern production touches. Not all of it is successful, and some of it is downright crummy, but the brighter moments imply that James could make it on his own if he ever gets sick of being a hired gun (CTM Entertainment, P.O. Box 101231, Denver 80250-1231). Suzy Nelson loves those shlockmeisters: On her CD Busman's Holiday, she covers compositions by Michael McDonald, Richard Marx, James Taylor and Kenny Loggins, among others. She has a fine, clear voice, but she is severely handicapped by her choice of material and an instrumental approach that's as fresh as an episode of The Waltons. A disturbing soft-rock flashback (Resounding Records, P.O. Box 205, Loretto Station, 3001 South Federal Boulevard, Denver 80236).
Acoustic Food Chain, which has a self-titled CD to its credit, specializes in instrumentals (like "Where's Chet?") that depend upon the rich interplay of guitars played by Jammin' Jimmy Sferes and Steve Glotzer. They certainly know their way around a fretboard, and their work on "Apt. #3," accented by Bill Unrau's vibes, comes within spitting distance of virtuosity. But even the vocal tracks ("Slipping Away," "Ain't Gonna Cry Me No River" and "Run and Hide") tend to fade into the background. Pleasant but rather routine (Flatbush Ain't Flushing Productions, P.O. Box 1836, Lyons 80540). The disc the Toasterheads have named after themselves has a handful of passable pop-rock moments, "Matter of Time" and the Squeeze-like "Down the Line" chief among them. John Petty's saxophone provides a nice touch or two as well, but the recording as a whole is resolutely unexceptional. Maybe they should have let it stay in the toaster a little longer (315-2500).
The eight-song demo by Morsel is not the first recording you'll think of when the term "high fidelity" is mentioned; it hisses more than the boa constrictor in The Jungle Book. But by turning up the volume of my boombox to the pain threshold, I discovered an act led by Robyn Gisbert that jangles in the approved manner. "Nothing" and the garage-y "Speak" qualify as rock, but the players seem most comfortable moving at a mid-tempo gait that's diverting but not quite compelling. There's some promise here, but it's hard to tell how much (783-2153). Accidental Superhero is among the more ballyhooed bands in Colorado Springs: The musicians got together just last year, but they've already acquired a substantial following and an agent in L.A. The cassette-single "Sometimes"/ "Gone" demonstrates why: The quintet is every bit as commercial as Dishwalla--and just about as forgettable. Singer Jonathan Kuiper has a persuasively scratchy voice (think Bryan Adams crossed with Gavin Rossdale), but musically this Superhero is wearing the emperor's new clothes. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there are a lot of flattered performers out there right now (Big Hat Records, 2407 Lark Drive, Colorado Springs 80905).
When Al Ferguson was profiled in these pages ("The Profit of Jazz," March 20), he made a point of emphasizing the commercial calculation behind Fascinating Rhythm, Vol. 1, his tribute to the work of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers. In listening to the CD, however, it's hard to imagine its becoming a smash. The playing of violinist Daniel Flick, guitarist Ed Stephen, bassist Tom Virtue and Ferguson (on guitar) is tasteful in the extreme, but even the songs on which Ferguson adds his singing-in-the-shower vocals are utterly unassuming. "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "S'Wonderful" would sound fine as you and your tuxedoed pals circled the wine-and-cheese table, but it's not exactly foreground music (Top Hat Productions, 1743 South Marion Street, Denver 80210). Fort Collins music journalist Tim Van Schmidt is a brave man: He's not only a critic but a songwriter who puts out recordings of his own, even though he knows that by doing so, he becomes an easy target for anyone he's panned. On the CD Sunshine Songs, Van Schmidt covers his bets by enlisting such experts as John Magnie, Dave Beegle, Liz Barnez and Spencer Bohren to supplement his efforts, which are mainly shaggy and high-spirited (an exception is the funereal "Garcia's Gone"). As a singer, Van Schmidt makes a pretty good music writer, and the disc as a whole is wildly uneven, but "In the Morning Time," "Ballad of the Wolf (Lobo)" and "Dark Heart" are respectable compositions (Walkabout Projects, 420 West Street, Fort Collins 80521).
Ether, an act signed to Denver's Terraform imprint, impresses on a new EP, Slow Violence. My package includes little information, so I don't know whether or not I should credit Terraform's John Chamie with shaping the sound on display here. But whoever manned the boards deserves a pat on the back for the hooky opener, "Shape Shifter," the intricate "Steel Transmission" and the other five numbers on hand, all of which find a common ground between big beats and rich atmospherics. First-rate (Terraform Records, 784-4841). On its self-titled demo, the Doc Ross Band blithely ignores current trends in favor of the sort of hard rock and boogie that was the bee's knees during the Seventies. "No Show Joe" has a wanky but fleet guitar solo to go along with its big riffs, "Grizzly Bear Bop" reworks "Move It On Over" to predictable effect, "This Is Love" sports a power-ballad feel, and "All the Dreams" has biker bar written all over it. Thought you'd want to know (Rocky Mountain Precision Machine, 274-1960). Bray is the name under which Bray Ghiglia, a veteran of bands featuring Firefall's Rick Roberts and the Eagles' Randy Meisner, performs. He lives in Boulder these days, and his new CD, Soulsounding, finds him in familiar territory. The opening number, "Slow Down," features background vocals from Meisner on a ditty that recalls early Neil Young; "Motor Car" moves along at a pretty good clip; "Time" is an endless opus; and "Desert Song" sounds like a little piece of Marshall Tucker, thanks to the inclusion of Bray's signature instrument, the flute. The ten songs here have a been-there-done-that aura about them, but those of you who still have a fondness for mid-Seventies country rock may be charmed. As for me, Soulsounding is a flashback I'd rather not have (Ghiglia Publishing, 3580 16th Street, Boulder 80304).
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Singer-songwriter Munly doesn't live here anymore; he's relocated to Austin and formed a kind-of-country band that performs under the awkward handle Munly De Dar He. Check out his latest incarnation on Saturday, August 30, at the Boulder Theater, with Slim Cessna's Auto Club and DeVotchKa.
The Reejers are the winners of a recent battle-of-the-bands contest called "One Shot to Stardom" (sponsored by Jim Beam, not Lee Harvey Oswald). The combo will represent Colorado at the competition's finals, which take place September 8 at the House of Blues in Chicago. Best of luck to them and theirs. The same goes for the folks putting together the Rock Out AIDS events on Friday, August 29, and Saturday, August 30, at Herman's Hideaway. Acts include Opie Gone Bad, Zeut, Bad Rufus, the Galactix and Carolyn's Mother, and all proceeds are earmarked to benefit the Colorado AIDS Project.
Also beneficial. On Thursday, August 28, Buck-O-Nine joins Sketch and Left Foot Green at the Boulder Theater. On Friday, August 29, A&M Records signee Big Back Forty spreads out at Soapy Smith's; Johnson slips into Cricket on the Hill, with Safety Club and Turbo A.C.'s; the Big Town, from Los Angeles, plays for the first of two nights at 9th Avenue West; the Wendy Woo Band shows up at Round Midnight; Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass headline at the Fox Theatre; and the four-day Taste of Colorado bash kicks off at Civic Center Park with a lineup that includes (I'm not saying this just to frighten you) Maria Muldaur and Loverboy. On Saturday, August 30, Martyn Leaper of the Minders celebrates his birthday by performing at Across the Street Cafe with Neutral Milk Hotel and Marbles (the solo project of the Apples' Robert Schneider), and AKA Streisand & Onassis drops names at Penny Lane. On Sunday, August 31, Liquid Air gets trippy at the Fox. On Tuesday, September 2, Sweet 75, a new group featuring ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, opens up for L7 at the Ogden Theatre. And on Wednesday, September 3, Phantasmorgasm requires no cover at Seven South, and Liz Queler and Julie Hoest do the entertaining at the Mercury Cafe. No further information is available at this time.--Michael Roberts
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@ westword.comMichael_Roberts@. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com