Summer may be drawing to a slow, sad close, but there's still plenty of time to pack up the family wagon and head for the hills. We took a bag of local releases along on a recent road trip, and while barreling down the highway, we discovered that the local musical landscape is a lot like a drive through Wyoming. Sometimes it's pretty and inspiring, sometimes it's flat and boring, sometimes it smells of cow manure. But there are almost always surprises along the way.
Noise Between Stations
Combo Plate Noise
God bless the computer age. Before it, kids haunted by the weird sounds in their heads -- and the desire to combine them into larger, weirder wholes -- had to resort to labor-intensive sessions in front of tape recorders and clunky microphones. All that rewinding and recording, rewinding and recording: Audio collage was a pain in the ass. These days, though, all you need is a decent PC and a sampler, and -- voilà! -- the world gets albums like this one from Noise Between Stations, an eight-track-long experiment in found sound and colliding melody, a pop-cultural potpourri reminiscent of both Negativland and Captain Kangaroo. Combo Plate utilizes diverse sources, including an old-fashioned radio routine (the nearly infinite loop of a comic exchange on "Is It Green?"), dogs barking ("Arf Art") and a sardonic narrator (who begins the track "I Don't Need Money" with the following pronouncement: "I often find myself the recipient of unsolicited face lickings" -- a dilemma, indeed). A guest vocal from Rainbow Sugar's Cindy Wonderful ("This and That") adds a curious danceability to the music here, while the sixty-second warped instrumental of "Erik Van Halen" suggests what the long-lost brother of Eddie might have done had he been born in a post-WWII German housing project. Bill Gates may not dig this stuff, but we should thank him for making it possible. (www.mp3.com/nbstations. P. O. Box 470385, Aurora, CO 80047-0385.)
Knowledge Is Power
As bassist, vocalist and pianist, Jody Hildebran leads his Denver-based metal trio through this screeching recording -- but from the sound of things, he might consider leading his bandmates (guitarist Chris Hildebran and drummer Dorian Cornwell) back into the practice space with a bit more frequency. Knowledge Is Power alternates between the amphetamine thrash of speed metal and a slower, more listless noodle metal, never stopping to indulge the inconvenience of a melody or anything that might be construed as a "song." The liner notes promise that the recording contains ten tracks, but it's difficult to determine where one ends and another begins. Drums crash arbitrarily, guitars wank endlessly, and Hildebrand screams angrily throughout, though the listener is never really sure just what he's on about. Knowledge Is Power leaves you with the somewhat sullied feeling of having accidentally stumbled into a preliminary band practice unannounced and uninvited, or -- worse yet -- opening the bathroom door on a stranger in the process of you-know-what. Seeping Knowledge is a bitter reminder of why you shouldn't complain when you hear your neighbors playing their instruments in the basement: It's better than having them roam the streets unsupervised, which can lead to recordings like this one.
Every now and then, along comes a record that gets both a) better and better, and b) weirder and weirder with each listen. Yeah, Buddy!, an eclectic, curious love letter of sorts to Buddy Holly from local sonic archivist Jim Ratts and his wife, Salli, is such a record. The CD -- which will see official "global" release in September at the Buddy Holly festival in Holly's home town of Lubbock, Texas -- finds Jim, Salli and a host of local players offering variations on Holly classics in traditional and decidedly non-traditional ways. The group reworks "Well, All Right" as a classically styled bluegrass number, for example; "That'll Be the Day" begins with an ethereal collage of found sounds (including the voice of a Lubbock television announcer and snippets of Hispanic radio and Holly himself); a mini-medley of "Everyday"/"It's So Easy" features banjos, pedal steel, flutes, and a glorious harmony between Mr. and Mrs. Ratts. It's no surprise that this project springs from Jim Ratts, the man behind the ambitious (and, some might say, compulsive) compilation Those Fabulous Sixties, wherein he gathered sound bites and his recordings into a condensed audio encyclopedia of an entire decade. Here he limits his memorializing to only one songwriter, but Holly's music can bear the weight of these variously successful interpretations. A strange, and ultimately pleasant, recording. (P.O. Box 2333, Englewood, CO 80150.)
Last One Standing
The type of music found on Last One Standing has seen more incarnations than the Dalai Lama: soul-infused, slightly funky, in-your-face Windy City blues that are more about getting down than being down and out.
For the most part, though, Homebrew manages to extend the genre's welcome through a combination of skilled playing and instrumental playfulness. There's a warped slide-guitar warble here, a harmonica solo there, sax and trumpet throughout. Vocal harmonies between dueling divas Little Mary, Marry Ann Scarpino and Maxine Carter accent the drivin', guitar-heavy "Fly in the Ointment," as much a road song as the kind of tune you expect to cut through the smoke in some wine-and-whiskey Chicago tavern. And on "Wicked Ways," a saucy female vocalist sings a blues that would make B.B. King blush, or at least feel guilty about somethin'. These sounds are about as new as the buzz of an electric guitar, but as long as people continue to have the blues, bands like Homebrew will continue to try to rock them away. (homebrewtunes.com.)
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Singer/songwriter/guitarist Monica Augustine exhibits a flair for the dramatic on this ten-track debut: The album's second cut, "Echoes," features a symphonic arrangement of cello, piano and drums that would give a seasoned orchestra conductor a decent workout. Yet like many of the tunes included here, "Echoes" suffers from a melodic listlessness. Though Augustine's meanderings are often pleasant, her compositions come off more as meditations than as well-crafted songs. ("Sweet Scent," with its distorted guitar and organ interludes, is a solid, emotive exception.) Augustine deserves credit for braving both topical and revealing subject matter in her music; themes of spirituality, intimacy and introspection abound, as do personal narratives. "We Can Change" is an honest, probing glimpse of a person dealing with depression, while "Telluride" addresses the frustrations of trying to make it as a working musician. And though her acoustic strumming is kaleidoscopic and clean, Augustine's singing (enhanced by the backing vocals of Zuba's Lisa Oxnard) is the real attraction here -- and possibly reason enough to venture Beyond Innocence. (email@example.com.)
Drag the River
Fort Collins's infamous Blasting Room studio (the launching pad for much of the recorded output of Owned & Operated Records and its offshoot, Upland) is the physical source of this collection, ten recordings committed to tape between 1996 and 1997. But it is the creative symbiosis between Drag the River's Chad Price and Jon Snodgrass (also of Armchair Martian) that drives these singles; Hobo's finds the pair confidently wrangling with an earnest, back-roads sound that recalls fashionable country revisionists such as Son Volt and the Bottle Rockets, as well as Neil Young in quieter moments ("Back to God") and story-mode Springsteen ("Bug Country"). A cast of able characters -- including pedal-steel player Zach Boddicker and "Little Chaddrexx," who fills in with some down-home mandolin stylings on three tracks -- helps make it clear that the River-draggers have come to play, and adapt, a song-driven form of country music rather than merely evoke some of the genre's mechanisms for ironic or tokenistic purposes. A solid, sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes carefree release from a fine group of hoboes. (P.O. Box 36, Fort Collins, CO 80522; oandoracords.com/upland.)