Y La Bamba

Y La BambaLupon
Y La Bamba
Tender Loving Empire

You know, sometimes, but only occasionally, the story is bigger than the album release. As great as it may be (and this one is ground-breakingly good), the saga behind these songs looms even larger than the songs themselves. That is what is at play with this fabulous recording. The tale is nothing short of an epic. Chapters of which would serve as thought-provoking subjects for several films.

Luzelena Mendoza’s life story reads like fiction, but it is true and fascinating and worthy of many, many more albums to come. I could not possibly begin to tell- and that is not my job here. But a short Powerpoint presentation might look something like:

  • Grew up in a strict Catholic family the only daughter of a Mexican immigrant father and mother who was American, born in Mexico.
  • Family settled in Bay Area
  • Family moved to Ashland where father worked in a lumber mill.
  • Luzelena spent her girlhood summers in the orchards of the San Joaquin Valley- where she acquired a love for traditional Mexican folk music.
  • In 2003, on a spiritual quest, Luzelena traveled to New Zealand and India. In India she contracted dysentery and giardia, losing 60 pounds, while battling insomnia and a near loss of sanity. Worst of all she lost her faith.
  • Upon her return to the US, after initial punk forays, she began to craft songs of a different style and play open mics, etc
  • She eventually met a few like-minded musicians in Ashland, then in Portland; a convocation musicians who understood the eclectic nature of her music, who hoped to help her achieve her artistic revelations.
  • A band coalesced.
  • Touring ensued.
  • Eventually Decemberists guitarist (and perennial nemesis of Stephen Colbert), Chris Funk, became attracted to the idea of producing a record with Luzelena and the band

Thus: voila!

Y La Bamba band shot

It isn’t like Luzelena has difficulty drawing attention. She is a statuesque six-feet tall, with a veritable graphic novel illustrated upon her body. She is availed of an amazingly unique vocal instrument that calls to mind comparisons to some of the best vocalists in the idiom of the popular song. But she is no sum of anyone’s parts. Her voice is only her own.

But, here. Let me try:

The dulcet smoky delivery of Peggy Lee or Dusty Springfield singing the sophisticated blues of the ’30s Billy Holiday. Tonality, somewhere between the haunting Astrud Gilberto and the haunted Beth Orton. Songs windblown and wuthering, like Josephine Foster or Joanna Newsom. The plaintive duskiness of Tracey Thorne of Everything But The Girl morphs into the dusky plaintivity of Mimi Parker of Low. Hovering over it all are the murmuring essences of Chavela Vargas and Lydia Mendoza.

“Monster” is Low-like- a dusty, dreamy tale of a murdering, incestuous uncle. Luzelena sings over her simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, a lonesome lament- harrowing in it’s simplicity of execution and delivery. A whining organ toys and winds in the background creating as much agitation as support. Soothing sirens sing backing harmonies, calling to mind those in “O Brother Where Art Thou.” Enchanting.

Meanwhile, “November” is more uptempo, in a mood reminiscent of “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None The Richer from back in the late ‘90s. David Kyle’s handful of a guitar figure in the verses melts into a jangly Cranberries-ish confection at the turns, at which point Luzelena evokes the ululations of Dolores O’Riordan. A nice change of pace.

Drummer Mike Kitson’s ephemeral vibraphone washes nicely compliment Eric Schrepel’s timeless accordion phrasings, with session strings underneath- on the lush, sensual ballad “Soy Capitan;” wherein Luzelena’s angelically smoldering contralto remains moltenly motile just under a fine gray ash of surface. And a great chorus. How exquisite .

The sultry lullaby, “Crocadile Eyes,” relates stylistically to “Monster,” but has an early blues quality about it that harkens to the earliest days of recording. A traditional spiritual from times of long ago gone by. A sonorous bowed saw contributes ethereal fog. Kittson and bassist Ben Meyercord provide warmly moving, anachronistically opaque harmony vocals.

Here and everywhere, whether it is Luzelena backing herself, or contributions from Kittson and Meyercord, the supporting vocal harmonies are rich and full and, at all times, really nicely delineated. Special.

The insistent cloudy waltz of “Abduction” speaks unflinchingly and frankly to Luzelena’s familial issues- “I’m sorry dear father/I’m your only girl/I’m your only daughter…” Above majestic harmonies, soars Luzelena’s poignantly gorgeous vocal. A voice so quixotically intimate and distant. Come closer, stay away. The heartrending final bars: like psychic fingernails clawing at the fabric of existence. You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.

“Juniper” is a pastoral pastiche with all three contributing vocally to the forlorn campfire quality of the song; with only concisely subtle bass, drum and guitar augmentation. The sound of a tumbleweed in motion across a hot dry desert basin.

The instrumental admixture that blended so well on “Soy Capitan,” strings, Kittson’s fleeting vibes and Eric Schrepel’s wistful accordion, reprise their positions on “Festival Of Panic,” a song with an intoxicating chorus that swirls around the line “Who said I could have it all?”

An unique conclave of musicians create a very special musical milieu here. Luzelena’s effortless vocal intonations are simply flawless. Cascading guitar/vibe filigrees shimmer into the extended fade, where disembodied voices ghost an eerie calm. Somewhere along the line, “Festival Of Panic,” melds into the busker’s waltz of “Winter’s Skin.”

Oompah-pah bass, accordion and spidery nylon stringed acoustic guitar flit and flicker behind the moody haze of Luzelena’s otherworldly delivery. Yes. Otherworldly. Not from around here. Midnight cats in summer heat- a pounding heart. “Sing me to sleep.”

Violins and cellos, like dreams, enthresh the scenery; a sudden chill of autumn in the air. A circus unfolds, mysterious musical saw moaning amid the ferris-wheel and carousel dance. Bertolt Brecht would be proud. Come hear the music play. Come to the cabaret old chum.

The elyptical tango of “Isla De Hierva Buena” is supplemented by noble brass interludes. Luzelena sings the song in Spanish- although that is not really at all detrimental, as just hearing her mouth random syllables with her sensational voice would suffice.

“Memories Of A Poor Start” again revisits issues Luzelena faced while growing up. A solitary electric guitar supports her marvelous vocal gift.

Back in early 2002, I was fortunate enough to catch a set from an impressive young trio called Noise For Pretend. They were an adventurous jazz ensemble, propelled, on vocals and bass, by a young woman named Esperanza Spaulding- at the time a recent graduate of Benson High School. I consider myself blessed to have a copy of their only full length album, “Happy You Near.” It’s apparently no longer in print.

Way back then, in early 2002, after seeing the band and seeing and hearing Esperanza play and sing, I predicted that she would be a huge star one day. Nowdays, the girl is world huge with a bullet in Jazz universe. And while she never fails to mention her difficult Portland upbringing in her bio, Noise For Pretend are sadly nowhere to be found- which is a downright shame, because that was a really good band and she should be proud of it.

Anyway, I only bring this up, because, I predict, here and now, without hesitation, without equivocation, that one day, much sooner than later, Luzelena Mendoza is going to be a name on everyone‘s lips, nationwide. Worldwide. She has only just begun to explore the gift of her fantastic vocal instrument. A Stradivarius voice, to be sure. And she plays it like a true prodigy. It will be exciting to see where her talent takes her.

I challenge any of you to listen to this album three times and then try not to listen to it over and over again after that. It is impossible. These songs and their impeccable arrangements bore a hole into the shadows of the unconscious, where they reside with other treasured thoughts and recollections across the arc of all being.

Read SP’s review of Esperanza Spaulding and Noise For Pretend in the Two Louies June 2002 Pgs 9 and 17

© 2011 Buko Magazine


Reporter- Time IncredibleTime Incredible
Holocene Music

Reporter have been together under this particular domain name for about three years now. In their former life, they were called Wet Confetti, but they were informed via a cease and desist order that there already was a band called Wet Confetti in Rhinebeck, New York and the Portland band were forced to change their name.

No, that’s not true. I just made it up. But, just the same, I bet there’s some other band called Reporter out there already, so you kids look out now.

The name Wet Confetti kind of implies some Macarthur Park-ian product of a post-parade rainstorm; whereas, Reporter sounds cool, cosmopolitan and officious. Professional. That more or less describes the musical differences between Wet Confetti and Reporter, as well.

Wet Confetti were sort of an earthy, organic, minimalist garage band for six or seven years. Without changing personnel, they rather suddenly metamorphosed from a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly of disco electronica, informed with Neopolitan flavors. Italian, French and German.

They are often compared to Portland’s other disco electronica band, Glass Candy, although the two organizations are considerably different in how they approach their musics. The only real similarities between the two lie in the predominance of breathy female vocals and the heavy usage of synths. Stylistically and referentially they are significantly different.

Temperature-wise, Reporter are far cooler than Glass Candy. Where Ida No of Glass Candy sort of smolders, Alberta Poon of Reporter shivers orgasmically. And for every breathless Deborah Harry coo, there is the murmured purr of Donna Summer, and the whispery Andrea True “connection.”

Today’s disco flavored electronica is constructed in ways similar to the original stuff in the ‘70s. But software has replaced the Linn drum machine, a Prophet 10 synthesizer and a midi sequencer. Drum triggered beats and riffs in a rainbow of sound colors are really very easy to access these days and for a righteous price. Synths are ubiquitous. Any sound known to man is available. What’s your choice?

Everything can be recorded (or stored, anyway) to a computer. That makes studio-quality productions entirely portable to any nearby club that will have you on a bill. Lay a band, say, Wet Confetti, over those tracks and woo-hoo- disco ball and crazy X sex. You have the best of both worlds: electronic precision and garage band ethos.

I couldn’t, for the life of me, ever begin to compare their music to others, especially Ms. Poon‘s ethereal vocals. Nico ( a little bit), Lena Lovich (hardly- except for the occasional goosey falsetto stuff) and Nina Hagen (barely at all) have all been tossed out there elsewhere.

I suppose, in order to fill a void, I would have to include Diamanda Galas to the list- if only to be the first to make that ridiculous comparison, no matter how ludicrously inaccurate it is (too). Diamanda Galas on helium. Now there’s a thought.

She’s closer to Beth Gibbons of Portishead. But not that close. Maybe Julianna Hatfield in an alternative universe. Perhaps Miki Berenyi of Lush. I guess she sounds like Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki too. Some piece of promo compares them. Sinead O’Connor. Don’t forget her. They all sing in a high, breathy voice- which, I guess, is what I‘m trying to convey.

For Ms. Poon’s vocals, Reporter add loads of swirly echo that bounces around your head like an empty gymnasium- vocals similar to those of Elizabeth Fraser in the Cocteau Twins. Put it all together and what have you got? Bibbity bobbity boo.

Musically, it is squiggly electronica, with a good beat and inventive arrangements. Reporter create great dance music- with a lot of variety, inside the fairly rigid constraints of what it is they are trying to do.

“Geronimo‘s Bones” begins with Daniel Grazzini’s treated guitars bubbling under Mike McKinnon’s insistent ostensible kick drum punches (what is real and what is synthesized is entirely arbitrary in this musical scenario). Slowly, loops and themes begin to add themselves to the mix, in some cases, by subtraction. Figure that one out.

Near the two-minute mark, the song turns into what it is going to be: an otherworldly paean to the ineffable inexplicability of the mysterious. At five-minutes, the band breaks into a very cool concluding groove, that could easily be a transition into another song, if the band desired. But not here.

Instead, while maintaining a straight-ahead kick beat, at about the same tempo as the previous track (who‘s counting?), “Total Fascination” creates a sense of drama- or as much drama as you can squeeze from a circuit board, anyway. Ms. Poon’s cool, surreal backing vocals are one of the main attractions here. Some very well executed, very well developed electronic interplay concludes the song.

Maintaining the tempo, but changing the beat and the feel, “Click Shaw,” heads away from the disco mainstream into something more thematically 80s pop- vocally related to Kate Bush and (yes) Lena Lovich in it’s nervous falsetto. A real cool bassline, that sounds as if it was actually played and not merely “generated,” drives the song.

“One Night” develops slowly, rather stuttering and meandering at first, before breaking into the familiar driving disco tempo (around 120 bps). Some fine guitar work from Mr. Grazzini, and possibly well-articulated bass work (presumably on a real bass in tandem with a synthetic one- but who can tell these days? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery) by Ms. Poon. The silvery, shimmery extended fade is very nice indeed.

The relentless kick escorts the album to the instrumental “The Moon,“ augmented by crazy hand drums that may or may not be the work of Mr. McKinnon and little plinky synth ornaments, before a spaghetti western guitar swings the piece into a darker, more shadowy area. Synth hand claps. You don’t hear that enough anymore. A very nice pastiche. Film score stuff, for sure.

Mr. Grazini’s jagged guitar figure saws through the underside of “Lab Test,” as Ms. Poon’s dreamy vocals float upon a pelting rain of drony, arpeggiated synth splashes. Again with the insistent kick beat- here sounding like someone punching a leather sofa. Still more hand drums, in the background, add a crazy cool accent, daddio. When the song finally kicks into high gear, a succinct happy-skippy bassline propels the song (at times). It might be the work of Ms. Poon.

“Silent Running” rolls out with- wait for it- the unmerciful kick drum object throbbing like a goats heart after a voodoo ceremony. Underneath that is a tinkly synth arpeggio, creating a faint sense of foreboding. Faint, child-like vocals initiate the ceremony.

But, unexpectedly, at around one-minute, forty-seconds mark, the song launches into a wonderful disco pastiche that evokes the days of Studio 54 or Les Bains Douches. O mon dieu! A pretty piano filigree weaves a design for a while and then it’s back to something more tribal.

The title track is notable for the fact that the four-to-the-floor kick beat is replaced by a slight (welcomed) variation. Mr. Grazzini contributes a nifty, Andy Summers sort of lick- and, again, Ms. Poon executes solidly concise bass. But, soon enough, the song wanders into a different vibe, before returning to the main theme.

Wraith-like, hallucinatory vocals float around, trying to puncture the thin plastic film that wombs the arrangement. At four-minutes forty they go somewhere else, more electronic, with great results. Reporter are nothing if not adventurous and creative. They typically crowd three or four pieces into one whole. But they do it really well.

The instrumental “Love Sounds” serves as a lovely coda to the proceedings: downright pastoral and primordial- until a bit of edge creeps into the mix near the middle. Very nicely done.

Reporter are a remarkably talented bunch. This album more or less flies by, connected by the pulsations of the kick drum; but with each song ornamented individually, with special attention to detail. Time Incredible is a wonderful “concept” album, where the concept is the music. What a concept!

What is really clear here is, that despite good quality recording methods (murkily pristine, perhaps), it’s hard to tell what is being played and what is being manufactured. And, at a certain point, who cares? This is really great music. Slick, but warm enough to mistake the hologram of a warm hand for the real thing.

© 2011 Buko Magazine

The Quick & Easy Boys

Red Light Rabbit - The Quick & Easy BoysRed Light Rabbit
The Quick & Easy Boys
Per Capita Records

Since the late 60s, when Portland first allowed live music in local clubs, the city has always been fortunate to play host to some of the best “bar bands” to be found in any city, anywhere. There used to be more bar bands in Portland than there are today. The probable cause for that is the advent of the computer generated home recording studio.

Bands used to make a name for themselves by playing their music in the clubs and then, eventually, perhaps, releasing a recording. Presently, a band is just as likely to stake it’s claim on a good recording. Some bands now find their way into the clubs via their recording, totally reversing the whole process.

To be successful in the clubs, it was once necessary for most bands to play an entertaining form of music- more approachable maybe, certainly more lyrically light, though not always entirely vapid. Alcohol played an important role in the process. The debauched revel was once far more popular than it is today.

At present, there are so many more mind-altering agents from which to choose, that one is not solely confined to the big three (alcohol, pot and coke) anymore. The certitude of the experience of the popular drugs of the past, helped to assure a reliable expectation as to how the entertainment might unfold on stage. Things were simple then.

Today’s club bands are no less entertaining, nor are the agents of highdom. But, the public is more discerning than they used to be. Though still vastly popular, and rightly so, getting drunk and possibly laid, does not have the cache that it once held. All things must pass, one would suppose.

Among examples of the finest bar bands to grace Portland stages over the years, to name but a few, were Sleezy Pieces in the ‘70s, along with numerous Blues bands. Good God a’mighty, Portland loves their Blues. Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods were exciting in the early ‘80s. The funk band Cool’r and the ska-informed Crazy 8s in the mid ‘80s, were popular- along with sloppy funkers Slack in the late ‘80s.

There were the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Drunk at Abi’s in the early ‘90s, later Sweaty Nipples and the Dandy Warhols sprung up. But, with the advent of the new millennium, the local club scene began to change- as the national music industry itself was undergoing drastic alterations, the reverberations of which are still to be felt today, never again to return to its former, “glory.” Thankfully.

Still, the bar band abides. One look at the monumental success of Blitzen Trapper gives support to that assertion. Blitzen Trapper embody all the crucial attributes necessary to attain greatness in the clubs.

The first identifying feature of a top-rate bar band is that they are entertaining. It is imperative that the band be fun. Their music must be approachable, friendly- not requiring a great deal of reflection. And they have to be talented. Without talent, a bar band never gets out of the bar.

That being said, it is wonderful news to report that the Quick & Easy Boys are a fucking great bar band. Mixing the sort of rock/funk fusion- which Joe Walsh’s James Gang were purveying in Cleveland in the late ‘60s- with a faint country element and an undercurrent of sweet soul music- the Boys celebrate the glory of the power trio: the compact majesty of over-the-top understatement.

Formed in Eugene in 2005, the Q&EBs eventually made their way North to the big city: um, Portland: to seek their fame and fortune. Snap guitarist Jimmy Russell, is nicely paired with the satisfying bass work of Sean Badders and the sinewy drums of Michael Goetz.

The release of their first CD in 2008, Bad Decisions With Good People, was met with a reasonably warm response among the local constituency; such that the band took off on a US tour to buttress the visibility of the album. More touring is anticipated in support of this new album. One would think that playing in the clubs is what this band was meant to do. The bigger stages? Sure. But in a hot, sweaty bar is where this band would shine.

In the intro, Russell kicks off “ Foster, I…“ with a great guitar tone, similar in texture and context to Jeff Tepper’s intro on Captain Beefheart’s “Ashtray Heart” from his groundbreaking 1980 album Doc at the Radar Station. But from there the Q&EB’s song heads toward a sort of funky rock sound, mixing in a reference to the Knack’s “My Sharona” along the way.

“Take Your Medicine” is straight out of the Funk/Soul/R&B songbook, recalling JJ Jackson’s hit from ‘68, “But It’s Alright.” Slippery rhythm guitar and falsetto vocals, like that on the Ohio Players’ 1975 hit “Love Roller Coaster,” propel the song. Slick.

A touch of swamp seeps through ”Black Panther,” which also seems to resemble the Presidents’ “Dune Buggy,” although I am at a loss to explain how, exactly. It’s just got a similar, loosy-goosy feel, I guess. Drummer Goetz lays down a syncopated beat for “7 Ways,” a song which seems to call upon James Brown’s “Sex Machine” for inspiration (except the Q&EBs’ exhortation is to “Get on down,” as opposed to the Godfathers’ “Get on up”), with more funk than Brown soul.

The title track runs wide open, with Badders providing a rolling bassline foundation for Russell’s high-speed guitar acrobatics. Whereas “Senorita” twists upon the gnarled funk of Russell’s guitar and his staccato vocal delivery. “Sweet Anticipation,” is closer to straight ahead rock, with sort of a Lenny Kravitz attitude. How else to describe?

“Spicy Paella” resembles “Black Panther,” for its chunky Dead-like feel, though, perhaps, even more reminiscent of the Band’s lurching “Cripple Creek,” maybe as if played by an early 70s funk band. Finally, Daggers” is a real change of pace, circling around the blues without ever actually landing, before soaring off in a completely different direction at about the four minute mark. The song affords Russell the opportunity to showcase his virtuosity on guitar. Hot, without being flashy.

In a former era, the Quick & Easy Boys would have made for a great bar band. They are entertaining and a lot of fun. Their music is accessible, but not real deep. And they are quite talented. Especially Jimmy Russell who obviously spent a lot of time listening to his parents’ record collection. Russell can really play the guitar, though by his understated manner, you might not think so at first. Give him and the Boys a listen. They are a first-rate bar band.