Your Friends and Neighbors

Last week Westword published a mammoth roster of 1998's top national CDs--but locals have put out some impressive recordings during that same period as well. Below you'll find an alphabetical list of my twenty favorite discs and cassettes issued by Colorado-based acts and recent graduates of the scene over the past twelve months. The variety and quality of these long-players is yet another argument against taking the musicians in your own backyard for granted.

BlastOff Heads
Making H Sounds
(Greazy Chicken Records)

According to most indie-rock fans, too much production is a bad thing--and usually, they're right. Nonetheless, getting a clean, crisp sound that stops well short of slickness is important, as renowned Denver dial-twister Bob Ferbrache knows. On Making H Sounds, he keeps the focus on the BlastOff Heads' guitars and beats, and by doing so, he ensures that songs like "Toetapper" will actually cause toes to tap. Entertaining, energetic, and straight to the point.

Boulder Creative Music Ensemble
Between the Lines: The Complete Studio Recordings

A reissue of a vinyl release from 1989 that's supplemented with a handful of bonus tracks from the same period, Between the Lines spotlights the challenging interplay of performers such as saxophonists Fred Hess and Glenn Nitta, trumpeter Ron Miles and trombonist Wade Sander. The selections are wide-ranging: The opener, an exuberant orgy of contrasting colors called "Harmonic Convergence," leads directly into a daunting drone, "Circular Runes," which is followed by "Dead Man Blues," a sprightly Dixieland march that would earn Lester Bowie's stamp of approval. The music was made almost a decade ago, but it sounds as fresh as tomorrow.

Saint Bartholomew's Feast
(Oxford Road Records)

A lot of U.S. performers who work in the world-music arena sound like tourists, but the recordings by this veteran Celtic-folk act seem as authentic as anything coming out of Ireland. Saint Bartholomew's Feast is no exception: Under the studio supervision of Charles Sawtelle, frontman Mick Bolger and his accomplished crew (Brian Mullins, Mike Fitzmaurice, Rod Garnett and Jean Harrison) combine deeply felt renditions of traditionals with original compositions that do them justice. Bring your appetite, because Feast offers a delectable spread.

(Careful Productions)

This cassette is the work of three of the more intriguing electronic-music experts in the state: Communique brainiacs Justin Hardison and Dave Sota and producer Jim Stout, a guiding force behind Nebula 9. The music here is of a comparatively restrained stripe, but the participants manage to infuse their drum-and-bass techniques with a warmth that the form often lacks when it falls into less skilled hands. On "The Fifth Level of Lofi," the lead track, a disembodied voice repeats the phrase, "Happy blastoff"; the rest of Kinetic goes on to provide one.

Hamster Theatre
Siege on Hamburger City
(Cricetus Records)

When this Theatre first opened, David Willey, a veteran of the Denver Gentlemen, was just about the only man in the company; he played virtually every note on 1996's Songs From the Hamster Theatre, the act's striking debut. Since then, Willey has assembled a fabulous lineup of performers to help him realize his vision--and what an exotic vision it is. If Eastern European folk music and jazz are the primary influences, they're hardly the only ones. The album is so abundant with invention that it yields fresh surprises with every spin.

Hillbilly Hellcats
Our Brand
(Rockin' Cat Records)

Chuck Hughes, the guitarist and vocalist at the heart of the Hellcats, could probably make a nice living playing rockin' versions of Fifties staples. Instead, he writes songs that share the spirit of the rockabilly classics he loves without making them seem like fodder for the time capsule. Our Brand is a generous serving of twenty tunes from Hughes's pen, played with wit and ferocity by the main man and the brawny rhythm section of bassist Lance Bakemeyer and drummer Taz Bentley. Rock lives--as long as these guys are cranking it out.

I Reign Omnipotent
(3 Da Hardway Records)

Too much Colorado hip-hop remains several leaps behind the cutting edge: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, a lot of local rappers have left their inspirations feeling mighty good about themselves. But there's no need to grade I Reign Omnipotent on the curve. Kingdom is not beyond borrowing from those who came before him, but his rhymes are better than most, his vocal presence is thoroughly captivating, and the disc's production is consistently clever and funky. Kingdom has upped the standard for local rap; now it's time for him and others to match or exceed it.

Celeste Krenz
(EMR Records)

Coloradans already know what a national audience is likely to discover soon--that Krenz is a talented artist whose stylings appeal equally to aficionados of country and folk. With the help of singer-songwriter/producer Bob Tyler and two former Subdudes, John Magnie and Steve Amedee, Krenz lends her gentle pipes to an array of tunes that are touching and uplifting. Wishin' is a subtle offering, but it lingers like a pleasant daydream.  

Art Lande & Mark Miller
World Without Cars

Saxophonist/flutist Miller and pianist Lande share indisputable skill and a passion for exploration. On World Without Cars, they treat some pieces with the utmost delicacy and hammer away at others. But throughout, they prove that the best way to honor the jazz artists who came before them is to try to extend the boundaries of the genre rather than be content to remain within them.

Denise Mangiardi
River of My Own

Lyrically, Mangiardi is so determined to create poetry that she sometimes winds up with its opposite. But she has a spectacular voice that achieves its effects effortlessly: She never over-sings, which demonstrates a complete command of her instrument. Just as important, she has exceptional taste and an obvious aptitude for choosing accompanists. Tony Dagradi, Eric Traub and the rest provide the sort of tastefully jazzy backdrop she needs to excel--and she does.

The Minders
Hooray for Tuesday

To put it mildly, the latest by the Minders, who relocated to Portland, Oregon, earlier this year, isn't an epic: The disc clocks in at several minutes short of half an hour. But that's more than enough time for Martyn Leaper and his bandmates to deliver a dozen indie-pop charmers that are as catchy as the Asian flu yet infinitely more desirable. Although Robert Schneider, the performer at the heart of the Apples and the Elephant 6 collective, produced the disc, it's Leaper's baby, and he's raised it right.

Mollie O'Brien
Big Red Sun
(Sugar Hill)

O'Brien is sometimes overshadowed by her brother Tim, a country/bluegrass artist with a successful tunesmithing career (he co-wrote a tune that appears on the multi-platinum Garth Brooks CD Sevens). But Mollie's a bewitching vocalist in her own right, and with a little help from friends such as E-Town mayor Nick Forster and folkie Peter Rowan, she's come up with a sparkling platter. She handles blues, rock, folk and plenty more with aplomb, proving once and for all that this sister can do it for herself.

Clark ov Saturn vs. Recone Helmut
(independent release)

Formerly with LD-50, Clark ov Saturn and Recone Helmut are participants in the electronic revolution, but they don't treat the movement like a gifted child. Typical is "Proverbial Kicks," in which samples of Frank Sinatra are inserted into a techno ditty whose jocularity doesn't come at the expense of danceability. In the final analysis, ph10 is strong stuff. That's elementary, my dear.

(Roja Records)

Dan Owens, Devon Rogers and Josie Fluri play fast and loud, but they're not punks; they're artier than that. They aren't afraid to stretch out their songs via riff wars that begin and end (and begin again) with startling suddenness. Register is challenging but never inaccessible, providing the kind of emotional rush that's far from common these days.

16 Horsepower
Low Estate

Lineup shifts have felled numerous bands over the years, but not 16 Horsepower, which emerged from a 1997 shakeup as an even more impressive act. The sonic integrity of Jean-yves Tola, Pascal Humbert and Jeffrey-Paul is more than matched by singer-songwriter David Eugene Edwards, whose exceptional intensity resounds across a dark musical landscape overseen by PJ Harvey veteran John Parish. The quartet remains one of Colorado's finest exports.

Space Team Electra
The Vortex Flower
(Luminous Records)

If this disc isn't quite up to the standards of the Spacey ones' mesmerizing live shows, it's still an excellent introduction to the band's musical dramaturgy. Lead singer Myshel Prasad doesn't so much sing these songs as inhabit them, and Bill Kunkel, Greg Fowkes and Kit Peltzel whip up an instrumental maelstrom that allows her to flourish. Naysayers may accuse the players of pretentiousness, and at times, they're guilty as charged. But given the beauty of The Vortex Flower, what difference does it make?

(Denver Coffee Achievers)

Tarmints leader Kurt Ottoway would like to get out from under his association with Twice Wilted, the band he led for much of the Eighties and Nineties. Fortunately for him, the quality of this disc should help him establish a new identity. The songs are rough but effective, allowing Ottoway to dig into the music with renewed vigor. It's Tarminty fresh.

Thinking Plague
In Extremis
(Cuneiform Records)

Prog rock has a bad name in certain quarters, and understandably so: Pomposity and bluster can be hard to take, especially when it's put at the service of empty virtuosity. But Thinking Plague, whose roots stretch back to the Eighties, has never suffered from this particular malady. Group leader Mike Johnson and his wizardly associates can play, sure, but their album succeeds grandly because their songs are as noteworthy as their chops.  

Various Artists
The New Frontier: A Collection of Colorado Punk Bands
(Soda Jerk Records)

It's hard to imagine a better introduction to one of this region's most vigorous musical scenes. The New Frontier brings together first-rate selections by acts well-known (Pinhead Circus, the Nobodies, the LaDonnas) and up-and-coming (Fast Action Revolver, Qualm, Tanger). Thirty propulsive tracks, no waiting.

The Perry Weissman 3
The Perry Weissman 3
(Infinite Seven Records)

Neither a jazz band nor a lounge ensemble, the Perry Weissman 3 specializes in instrumentals that defy expectations in the most appealing manner imaginable. Performers such as guitarist Mike Serviolo and trombonist Rick Benjamin-Tebelau don't view having fun and taking musical chances as mutually exclusive pursuits. The result is music that sounds as good in Colorado as it would anywhere else.

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