A Day At The Races

It was Mark Twain who eruditely said something like: “It’s a difference of opinion which makes a horse race.” That mobius strip of an assertion draws people from all strata of society to the horse track. Some come simply to watch the magnificent horses sprint around an oval track, some come lured by the possibility of winning the mortgage on a parlay of the perfectly placed superfecta wager. Some come to be seen, a faction of distinction, to be sure. Some come to watch those who wish to be seen.

I guess I fall into the latter category. On a chilly Sunday in December I ended up at the Portland Meadows for “Oregon Championship Day.” The horseracing season in Oregon runs from the middle of October to the middle of March. I’m no authority, but if I were a horse, I’m not so sure how much I would enjoy sprinting in the neighborhood of a mile through the miserable chill and the sort of slop an Oregon fall and winter might dump on a racetrack. It seems like those months would be better spent down at sunny Santa Anita. If I were a horse, I certainly wouldn’t mind galloping around a track every once in a while with some hobbit on my back under the Oregon June sun. No problem.

But hey, I’m no aficionado. My guess is the horseracing associations around the country reserve the spring and summer seasons for the important races: the Derby, the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, etc. I don’t think a lot of attention is paid to the racing stables of the Northwest. So, if you want to see horse races in Portland, you better bundle up.

I was in attendance only because my girlfriend, Lesley, a true horse lover, was researching an article she was writing about women jockeys, and there just happen to be a couple of pretty good ones who ride in Portland during the season. I don’t necessarily share Lesley’s passion for horses. Ever since I was five, when one bit me on the leg attempting to wrest sugar cubes from my pants pocket, I have had a primordial fear of the equine species. And, like dogs, horses can smell or intuit or suss out your fear of them. They’re pretty smart.

I know this to be true, because when I was a kid, my family used to head down to the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon to visit friends, who had a modest farm—a couple dozen cows and maybe ten horses. The rest of my family was always hot to trot on those horses, ready to ride up into the hills, the dry summer wind blowing warm balsam in their faces and all that horseshit. I was not so enthusiastic. For one thing, it always seemed as if the horses were flipping coins to see who would get to take me for a ride. Apparently, I was an obvious mark.

Our friends knew of my issues with horses and always proceeded to set me up with Feathers or Buttermilk: some passive horse whose most aggressive gestures so far had been whipping at flies with a practiced tail. But, by God, put me on the back of Buttermilk and all of a sudden she thinks she can do six furlongs in a minute flat.

The outcome of these episodes was invariably the same. Buttermilk or Feathers or Cloudy, or whoever, would throw me. From my experience, getting thrown from a horse is no fun at all. I find it comparable to playing defensive end in football and being afforded the grand opportunity to knock down a pulling-guard and two running backs on an end-around.

Horses were never a big part of my life. I went to the dog races once, with Lew Jones and a mutual friend—with the express intent of gambling. Our buddy knew the dogs and was reasonably certain that we could come out ahead. I think we bet, like, two or three bucks on each race. That was twenty or thirty bucks. We were broke back then. Just like now. We did end up coming out ahead, a little bit, enough so that we paid for all our bets and beer—which was a considerable tab on a warm spring afternoon. I had a hangover for three days, and eight dollars, I think.

But I didn’t accompany Lesley to the Oregon Championship to wager. I’m too easily distracted by number combinations like 1-4-5, or by prime numbers, a Fibonacci sequence, birthdates or phone numbers, to be able to satisfactorily bet on a horse race with any real effectiveness. As Mark Twain implied, betting on the horses is no easy matter, especially at the Portland Meadows level. You’ve got to get to know the horses and the trainers and the jockeys and the track. And then show up every Monday and Wednesday for six months for the actual races. It’s a science. And then there’s always the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Not really. Maybe.

No, I went to the horse races because I was curious. I suspect it is this unbridled curiosity of mine that leads me to write arcanities such as this uninformed blather. If you’ve learned something (or think you have) or have seen something (voila!)—(apparently) unique or unusual, it is only human nature to wish to expound upon that discovery for as long as the human attention span will allow (140 characters). In that regard I must admit that I may have already overstayed my welcome. But I’m not finished yet. Say what you will.

So, there we were at the Portland Meadows at 11AM on a cold Sunday, grey cumulus clouds dappling the sky. The Meadows are located in a non-descript light industrial part of town, near Delta Park just east of I-5. The pleasant surprises began almost as soon as we walked through the doors. It’s certainly not the environs, which resemble most the prototypical ‘60s high school football stadium. But admission is free! I guess they figure they’re going to get your money on bets and beer, they don’t need to saddle you with another five or ten bucks just to get in.

We entered the building, and, it was weird. There were hip representatives from the illustrious Voodoo Doughnuts franchises providing complimentary confections, perhaps tamed down a tad for the non-sequitur occasion. Ristretto Roasters served complimentary cups of coffee as well. An unexpected festive atmosphere hung in the air. I think that’s what it was.

The layout of the premises was rudimentary. To the right, outside swinging glass doors was the paddock where the nearly eighty horses incrementally awaited, in groups, their turns to run. A rich variety of humanity encircled the fenced area. Some had the knowing look and vague manifestation of the gambler’s breed. Others appeared to be horse guys and their horse families. As might be expected, there were a lot of horse girls. Girls who love horses. They spring abundant.

From a distance, the horse girls all looked alike. As a fashion statement for horse girls, aged 12 to 25ish, the preferred mode of attire appeared to be a dark hoodie sweatshirt and those jeans that have the ornate embroidery all over the back pockets. I always wondered who bought those. I’d seen them advertised in Fred Meyer flyers and stuff. I figured it was probably mostly junior high girls. But after my day at the races, I am convinced those jeans are the stylistic preferred choice of a large demographic swath of horse girls. I did not further pursue the subject to ascertain as to why this phenomenon existed. Just one of those mysteries left to the ages.

Next to the paddock were the stairs up to the grandstands. Directly in front of us was a bar with a whole passel of tables strewn about for ostensible patrons whom at that time of the day had yet to arrive. To the left, beyond the coffee dispensary table was the inner sanctum. That was where the real gamblers hung out. They didn’t come to the Meadows to view the races. This was obvious from the fact that all the benches in the auditorium faced away from the track. There was an enormous bank of television monitors stretched out across the room, suspended about twelve or fifteen feet in the air.

On the array of television screens were broadcast the feeds of horse races from all over the known universe (including, coincidentally, the Meadows’ races occurring just out back), all football games, basketball games, jai alai games, rugby and soccer matches, Keno numbers and stuff that I haven’t the slightest idea what it was, but it was contentious, therefore someone among the rabidly comatose crowd of onlookers most certainly had some money on the outcome.

Behind the Church of Wager was a vast expanse facing the track where disinterested people sat amidst a sea of tables waiting for something—though it was entirely unclear as to what. They didn’t seem to be particularly aware of those herds of horses stampeding just beyond the concourse outside. Most of them just sat talking, watching various football games being broadcast on the in-house feed, not doing much of anything. I considered that maybe some of the people were, like myself, new to the horse racing game and didn’t realize there was live entertainment outside.

We found seats in the stands upstairs where every other space was afforded a small television (a necessity for viewing the races in their entirety). And while Lesley ran off to talk to the jocks and arrange for further interviews, I checked out the racing program and surveyed the track.

First off, it’s a mile around the damn thing. The near side of the oval seems far enough away, probably a couple hundred yards. But the distant arc is way the hell down there, maybe five or six hundred yards. At that distance, to the unaided eye, the horses look like blurry, dark smudges gushing forth, like an onrushing flood of muddy water steeds.

The view in the stands was greatly impeded by the elaborate metal framework of windows that adequately protected from random inclemencies of the elements, but in a lot of ways rendered pointless the experience of witnessing the entire race (or most of it) from a decent vantage point. Just the same, one could catch a reasonable view of the homestretch, if positioned properly up in the stands. We had properly positioned ourselves.

There was much to see. A lot going on. Hustle and bustle. Many, many horse girls and hay boys, mostly wandered around, or congregated in pockets. Next to our table, a party of older adults was gathered, having drinks and munching on food from the grill, occasionally placing bets at one of the self-service terminals. For them, the afternoon seemed to be a sort of low-key party. I was never able to tell if any of them won or lost any money. They just seemed to be having a good time.

From my vantage point the aforementioned grill, located behind us in the “clubhouse,” was turning out some nicely prepared sandwiches and baskets. The 15 piece breaded shrimp basket for $7.25, looked especially appealing, as waitresses whisked by with orders for various tables. There’s even a garden burger (!) and a chef’s salad on the menu. The food is nothing astonishing, but it’s a good value for the modest prices.

But the food is just gravy on the biscuit. The real meat of the matter is horseflesh. In the case of the horses trotting out onto the track, those were spectacular specimens. In their brightly striped silk outfits, the jockeys looked like ornately decorated marshmallows on the backs of those massive animals. Here again, Twain’s “difference of opinion” weighs heavily in the equation. Because it’s hard to understand why a horse would even bother going through with the whole race thing unless it kind of liked it.

The bugler guy in the red uniform with the long horn knocked out the familiar call to post, wrapping it up with a nice Christmas song reference at the end. Sweet. At the sound of the clarion call, Lesley reappeared, just in time for the first races, a couple of preliminary 350-yard quarter horse dashes whose purpose seemed to be mostly to get the people strolling around the grounds to sit down and pay attention, which they more or less did.


Eliska Kubinova

The two women Lesley was interviewing were rated as among the Top Five in both the Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse jockey standings. Deborah Hoonan-Trujillo served as the wizened veteran, shrewd to the techniques of the sport. In the role of impressionable rookie, was Eliska Kubinova—recently arrived from the Czech Republic—a tiny, young blond with bright features and an impish smile.

But, in a betrayal of her seeming delicate ingenuousness, she currently ranks as the number two jock in both breed types. She’s skilled and tough in her own right. In fact, it’s noteworthy that in only one race out of the nine in which they competed did one or both of the women jockeys not finish in the money.

After the sprints, the remaining eight races were a mix of distances. Several were six furlongs—about ¾ of a mile—and the rest were in the neighborhood of a mile, give or take. Most of the horses participating in those longer races came in at well under two minutes. Isn’t that, like, thirty miles an hour? I think it is. Yikes!

It’s gotta be a real trip for the poor horses. First they’re stuffed into those weird starting gate contraptions. Some of them are so startled when those gates slam open and the bell rings, that they practically fall sideways out of the chute. The jockeys seem aware of that propensity, and redirect the startled creatures into more or less the proper direction. A snap of the rein, a jab of the heels and a flick of the whip, and off they go. It’s pretty amazing to watch.

Coming down the homestretch, some of the horses exhibited an unexpected intensity. They were really competitive. Sure, the jockeys were doing their best to encourage their charges, imparting their own motivations into the mix. But there were horses that clearly wanted to win. They wanted to win bad. You could see it.

I always thought horses just wanted sugar cubes. It never occurred to me they had that whole horse eat horse instinct thing going on. Thought provoking. Horses radiate a handsome, dignified pride that’s strangely disquieting, though decidedly warranted. God knows I respect the beasts.

Once a race had finished and the brief ceremony for the winner that followed was wrapped up, there was about a half hour of down time. That was when the waitresses fired into warp drive, filling orders from the grill. In addition, people began to wander, to migrate, in search of something. Hard to say what that might be at a horse track, besides money. But I’m naïve to these things.

Of special note, and actually the inspiration behind this whole fiasco, was a contingent of eight or ten well-turned hipsters who were treating the Oregon Championship as if it were the Kentucky Derby—dressed in their finest vintage finds. I was charmed by the sense of Felini-esque grandeur they lent to the festivities, as they paraded by from time to time. They seemed coolly bemused at the attention they were receiving as they tramped up to the second level to hit the “clubhouse,” and back on down to the track level, when the action started winding up again.

I thought what they were doing was cool. I would suspect that their appearance was special to the “event,” and that they do not attend every meet on the schedule. I could be wrong. Perhaps there was a Voodoo Donuts connection. Who knows? I liked the direction they were heading. Good stuff. I approve. C’est si bon!

It got me to thinking that the Meadows could pump new blood into the place by featuring rock bands in the “clubhouse,” on some nights. Maybe they don’t want new blood at the track and don’t want a bunch of broke hipsters wandering around trying to bum enough money for a schooner of PBR. I suppose they know their clientele better than I. Just a thought.

Lesley went back down to the jockey’s dressing room to interview her subjects during the 9th race, the only one in which neither was riding. After about twenty minutes or so, she returned. We went downstairs and outside to the concourse to stand at the finish line for the 10th race.

It was incredibly impressive to see those determined horses hurtling toward us down the home stretch, the muffled rumble of their hooves moaning the loam. Down there at ground level, you get a definitive idea of what’s going on, how much, uh, sheer horsepower is involved. It’s an awe-inspiring display of pure living energy.

I must say that attending the horse races at the Portland Meadows was far more enjoyable than I had anticipated. It’s possible to get many hours (four in our case) of very unusual fun entertainment for absolutely free—if you’re really on a budget. But take $20 to bet and another $20 for dinner and a coupla beers and yee-haw, pardner, you’re ridin’ purty high in the saddle.

Shakers’ Sessions

Various Artists

Shakers’ Sessions
Burgerville Records 

Yeah, you read it right. Burgerville Records. This is the biggest corporate coup since Andy Pribhol (Pribal) hooked up with Plaid Pantry. And before you start turning up your nose at the Burgerville connection, there are a couple of things to remember. First, Burgerville is locally owned.

If you, like me, participated in Bank Transfer Day, moving your money into a local bank or credit union, then you’ll appreciate the fact that Burgerville is a locally held business, founded in Vancouver (they recently had to close the original store after fifty years of service). As much as a fast-food hamburger joint can, they have committed themselves to going green whenever possible. They are sustained one hundred percent by wind power. They compost their food waste and conscientiously recycle.

They have even begun offering occasional live music events at the Hawthorne Boulevard location in Portland, featuring a variety of local bands. The mood is Fellini-esque, to be sure, but one can take comfort in knowing that the French Fries incense is one-hundred percent trans fat-free canola oil, which is then recycled (about ninety thousand gallons a year). Even a vegan would have to admire their business practices.

In the spirit of all this, comes the debut recording for the Burgerville Records label. And, as if that were not cache enough, one-hundred percent of the profits from sales of this album will go to the Brian Grant Foundation, a non-profit organization that serves as a resource for people stricken with Parkinson’s Disease.

Shakers’ Sessions is a compilation featuring an array of Portland-connected artists, including, Pete Droge, Storm Large, Fernando Viciconte, Steve Wikinson (Gravelpit, Mission 5, Wilkinson Blades), Bart Ferguson (Renegade Saints), Austinite Ian Moore (of the Lossy Coils), and Rob Stroup (Baseboard Heaters, The Blame) singing songs penned by Portland musician, and Parkinson’s patient, Rob Barteletti.

Given the circumstances, some stink has been made locally over the euphemistic title of this venture. Those making the complaints would probably be horrified to know that the annual benefit for Parkinson’s organizations is called the “Shakers’ Ball” and that this project started out with the working title Tremors.

In his book “Always Looking Up: The Adventures Of An Incurable Optimist” Michael J. Fox says that one advantage of Parkinson’s Disease is that the uncontrollable, jerky movements can turn any regular toothbrush into the most powerful electric model. Then there’s Fox’s involvement with the Shake It Up Foundation for Parkinson’s research in Australia. Whole lotta shakin’ goin’on.

The point here being that it would appear as if those afflicted with the disease seem to be desirous of maintaining a sense of humor and a positive outlook regarding their predicament—a perspective that might benefit some of those who criticize from afar.

Barteletti is no stranger to the local music scene, putting out a solo album, Sombrero, in 2005 and sharing the bill with Reina G. Collins for another release in 2007. Ferguson and Nick Peets have lent Barteletti support over the years and contribute tracks to Shakers’ Sessions as well. With the addition of selections from Casey Neill (Norway Rats), the celebrated Mike Coykendall (Old Joe Clarks), Ken DeRouchie and Barteletti himself, the result is a well-rounded set of a dozen very capably crafted songs. Cohesive, from song to song , yet uniquely different from one to another. Stylistically the material falls in the folk/rock category, but with threads of traditional, country and blues sewn through the fabric as well.

The support band(s) is (are) not named anywhere that I can find (at this advanced date), though it sounds as if the same players back each cut—workman-like performances, which add skillful tertiary washes behind the specific primary colors of the individual singers. Rob Stroup serves as producer and facilitator without whom, it is certain, this effort could not have been completed.

Fittingly, Stroup inaugurates the proceedings with “Being Jesus Again.” Plaintive slide guitar and Wurlitzer electric piano provide the foundation beneath a prickly finger-picked electric guitar. Stroup’s voice, a weary whisper reminiscent of Mark Knopfler, maneuvers through the contemplative subject matter. “Time I ride to the rescue/Time to bring her salvation/There I go being Jesus again.”

Fernando adds his gritty, edgy voice to the mournful “Queen of Sheba,” a familiar tale of woe, which depicts the beguiling ways of an unrequiting “hussy.” Over bluesy electric guitar and rumbling organ, Fernando intones, “You are Jezebel heart hard as a stone/You are my Delilah, don’t need a comb/You’re my Lucretia Borgia, Mrs. Ghengis Khan/You’re a vampire beauty, drink my blood ‘til it’s gone/You’re the queen of darkness/You break my heart.”

“Mr. Heartache” bears a strong resemblance to the chorus of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” (with a breath of John Denver’s  “Rocky Mountain High” blowing through the turns and a hint of Merilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning” at the chorus) and Nick Peets’ vocal bears much of the same easygoing resignation as Taylor’s.

One of the stronger songs in the collection, “Ask Me Why,” is given to Pete Droge and his reading doesn’t disappoint. Droge’s low, smooth baritone offers distinctive color to Barteletti’s pensive ballad. A lonesome, laid-back JJ Cale atmosphere pervades, atop a doleful low-string guitar theme, with organ and piano beneath. “Ask me why/Do you really see me when you look me in the eye/I was never your redeemer, but I gave a try/Ask me why.”

A “John Barleycorn” motif informs Ian Moore’s version of “The Box.” Moore’s gruff, raspy voice underscores the palpable tension tightening just beneath the song’s polished exterior. Another winner.

The highpoint of the album is Storm Large’s poignant rendition of “Voices,” a restless wind of a song, with a Stevie Nix-ian forlorn quality rustling the leaves. Storm navigates the pretty melody with expert precision, a voice full and rich, and evocative. A moving delivery frees her to soar at the most heartfelt passages with an emotional falsetto, as she sparrows winsomely the darkened limbs of a song sad tree. An AOR hit, to be sure. Lovely.

Ferguson adeptly navigates the familiar waters of  “Fool That Is Me,” waltzing a brash harmonica intro upon a John Prine-like mood, a desolate introspection of remorse and regret. More of a country feel buttresses Steve Wilkinson on “Bird On The Wing.” Steve calls to mind Brad Paisley or Blake Shelton, a burnished old saddle of a voice, resonant but without the country twang thang. “Love from a distance/ is like a backwards telescope/You’re looking at the cosmos baby/But it seems smaller without hope.” Not, perhaps, groundbreaking existential insight, but a pleasant homily.

“Reckoning Day” bears a strong similarity to Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt.” Mike Coykendall’s low tone and haunting delivery capture the desolation of the lyric. “It was a day of reckoning today/It was a day of reckoning for him/The fallout of his actions finally ushered in/It was a day of reckoning for him.” Stark electric guitar and soft military snare rhythms create a gray hovering aura around Coykendall’s expression of rain dreary sentiments.

JJ Cale is again brought to mind, this time with the “After Midnight” chooglin’ swamp feel of “Wild Woman Blues.” DeRouchie’s turn at the vocal wheel steers a great vehicle for his gruffly nasty snarl. Yaow, Yaow! It’s moved up two keys and goes in a completely different direction, but “Under Icy Falls” unwinds with a chord progression very similar to that of “Ask Me Why.” Here Casey Neill echoes post-Kingston trio John Stewart with a rich, reverberant rendering of Barteletti’s original song, which is deeply rooted in traditional Americana folk music.

Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and blowing a bit of harmonica, Bartelletti sounds a bit like Prine, Waylon Jennings or Jerry Jeff Walker—a worn tumbleweed of a voice, bounding across the barren musical landscape of “Her Man, Her Lover, Her Friend.” It’s an inspirational conclusion to a well-accomplished undertaking.

Rob Barteletti isn’t a great songwriter. However he’s a very good one. His songs and their subject matter are simple, basic. They explore everyday emotions honestly. Here, they are consistently well rendered. Pete Droge and Storm Large could easily have hits with their offerings—certainly movie soundtrack friendly.

So, it’s a very good album in support of a great cause. With the proceeds from sales of the record going to the Brian Grant Foundation, money could not be better spent—nor with a bigger return on investment.  The kickoff event for this release is scheduled to take place at the Hawthorne restaurant on November 15th with live guest performances by many of the musicians found here.

The Shakers’ Sessions album will then be available at all thirty-eight Burgerville locations, but only until January 1st  (Burgerville taking a page out of the Starbucks playbook there). But hey, Burgerville’s not making anything out of this other than civic goodwill. They should be commended and supported for that, as should everyone else involved in this tremendously worthy production.

link to info about show.

Maria Catherine Callahan


Maria Callahan is a seasoned veteran in the local music scene with a career stretching back to the early ‘90s, first as shredding guitarist with Insane Jane, then through the ‘90s as part of Doris Daze, and as a member of the “supergroup” Sophia Starlight in the early ‘00s. In that time she has distinguished herself as a solid singer and songwriter and a very talented multi-instrumentalist, though her specialty is guitar.

With this, her first music project in several years, we find Maria exploring a country-tinged style, sort of a folk-country approach, maybe reminiscent of Rosanne Cash, Alison Krause or Mary Chapin-Carpenter. Not shit-kickin’ country. Actually, what Maria plays could be called “Oregon country” music, a stylistic departure from the Nashville variety. No matter. For, whatever style of music Maria plays, the results sure to be top-notch.

Here, her talent on a variety of acoustic and electric guitars is everywhere to be found and, as always, very tasteful. Expert Telecaster twang and incendiary slide guitar work are impeccable in execution and precise in detail. Maria is a real pro. She is also gifted with a smooth understated vocal instrument—with the timbre of Patsy Cline, the tonal color of Emmylou Harris, the muscle of Linda Ronstadt and the sonorous vocal quality of Paula Cole (“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”).

Joining Maria on this outing is Danny O’Hanlon who, besides engineering the venture, contributed drums, bass and more guitars. O’Hanlon, a member of the Irish folk group Cul an Ti, capably maintains an air of subtlety and tasteful discipline throughout the project. Seven or eight of the eleven songs presented receive sparse but effective support from a handful of local musicians.

“Looking For Love” kicks off the set. This is not the Johnny Lee country drudge from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack but a chunky, rock-flavored sauce peppered by Maria’s Tele twang, and the thick roux of her simmering slide guitar. The lyric and feel seem somewhat similar in texture to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown,” though her smart, knowing vocal delivery adds distinctive flair.

The bold beat behind “Girl You Used To Know” punctuates the jangle of Maria’s acoustic guitar as she launches into an “it’s not you, it’s me” narrative which resolves in a very nice hook hung around the title line. A good song. “Country Song” is worthy of Bonnie Raitt and right in her stylistic wheelhouse.

Behind O’Hanlon’s big beat, guest Cody Feuerborn adds a proper atmosphere with his smoky pedal steel guitar clouds hovering over “Don’t You Let Me Down.” Maria’s low-string fret thunder echoes across the intro and turnarounds, while a faint but succinct organ somberly sobs in the background. And her mournful vocal expertly captures the tumbleweed mood and lonesome prairie yearning of the ‘50s chestnut “The Wayward Wind.” Another sweet, soulful song.

Understated backing decorates the dreary story of “Emily”: a thump of drums, high-capoed guitarreplicating a mandolin. Accordion? Either an accordion or a keyboard to seem as such. A soft, stringy, shimmery sound supporting a wistful lyric and vocal.

O’Hanlon again bangs out solid drums on “Fool In Love,” a “Someday Soon” (Ian and Sylvia, Judy Collins, most recently covered by Suzy Bogguss) sort of rodeo song. Trace Wiren’s whirlwind harmonica kicks up little dust devils in the proceedings. This song ends too soon. It’s sometimes the case that a band will repeat an outro ad infinitum to the detriment of a song. The opposite is rarely the case. But it’s the case here. It all ends too abruptly. Another thirty seconds of send-up send-off would have been frosting on the cake.

“Laugh Someday” is another sturdy little song that briefly catches the melody of the Terry Jacks ‘70s gem “Seasons In The Sun” before releasing it back into the stream of all tune. There’s a hint of the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” circling around the hook as well. Maria demonstrates a deft facility for invoking historical musical touch points in her songs, grounding them in a tradition without stealing or copying anythingnuanced references blow through her songs and drift away, firing a fleeting flicker of familiarity in the dark cosmos of recollection.

The distaff perspective of the typical country cheatin’ song, “Nothing In It For Me” contemplates the consequences of a pending assignation in the cold light of hard experience. “You know I live alone when you’re just passing by pretending to be on my side of town/I thank you kindly for thinking of me, but I don’t need married men hanging around.” Further along, Maria says “And aside from confused I’m afraid/of making mistakes that I’ve already made.”

A certain strangled restraint pervades upon “Tornado,” imitating the gripping barometric pressure gradient just prior to a storm. Feuerborn returns with lightning flashes of brilliant pedal steel, while Maria’s resolute banjo plunks forlornly beneath the gathering dark of the musical sky. Soon a cyclone of drums and bass sweep the song into the dust-blown distance: “…find a solid beam under the kitchen floor you’re a tornado, you’re a tornado.”

In 1978, Heart put out a song called “Dog and Butterfly” on the album of the same name. The song is very mellow for a Heart number. Quiet. Contemplative. Philosophical. Here, on “Little Bird,” Maria sounds just like Ann Wilson a full, rich voice, knowing and resigned to all that is known. A fine performance.

A full band and backing chorus join Maria for “He’s Your Problem Now,” a good-natured country-flavored G chord jangler, expressing a sentiment that is pretty much summed up in the title.

Maria Callahan may have come late to playing “country” music, but the transition has been a natural one. Her voice is comfortable in the milieu, reserved but not detached. Her tendency toward deadpan masks, in a way, the heartfelt context of many of the songs. If there is one failing, it is that Maria occasionally seems emotionally detached from some of her heavier lyrics.

But that shortcoming in no way diminishes the mastery she displays as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist. Maria is a skilled musical artisan, deserving of wider recognition than she has ever received. With Dry she stakes her claim on a barren stylistic landscape earning a hard-carved harvest. Here’s hoping she continues to thrive.


Buko Magazine Attends The Om-Hoffies

Greg Georgeson, of the band Sequel, displays his "Shardie". photo J Galarneau

You’re right. The “Ommies” or the “Hoffies,” maybe. There’s probably a better name for them. The awards themselves sort of look like the shards of a shattered windshield.  Maybe the Shardies.  There’s something vaguely mountainic about the objets. Like Mount Hood. Maybe the “Hoodies.”

They’re very nice awards, don’t get me wrong. But Oscars were awarded before they became known as Oscars—they were probably called “Academy Awards” or something pedestrian like that. Then, so the story goes (and it’s greatly disputed), Bette Davis named the award Oscar in honor of her then-husband (whose ass supposedly resembled that of the statue). And there you have it.

This is the sort of lore that is sure to eventually develop around the awards for the Oregon Music Hall of Fame: OMHOF. This year’s celebration of the fifth annual OMHOF awards ceremony took place at the Newmark Theater on Saturday, October 8th. And it was a festive, if casually paced, affair that because of its setting was availed of a certain air of formality that seemed somewhat out of place given the context of the event’s essence: sex, drugs and rocknroll, etc…

From our perspective the evening seemed off to a bleak start, when the very gracious OMHOF staff at the door were unable to find any sign of previously-affirmed comps for us, which creates one of those awkward situations one really hates to see arise. But, owing to the sheer immensity of the magnitude of my comportment when insisting upon the vastness of my standing within the Portland music community, I was able to bullshit my way into scoring us some great tickets. Totally dumb luck.

One of the women on the staff fortuitously decided to give us tickets belonging to someone she was pretty sure would not be attending the gig: lord knows whom, half-apologizing that they were located in the “pit.” I had horrific visions of having to stand around with a bunch of fifty-year old slam dancers or something.

So, anyway, she handed us a packet and our tickets, and we were in. When the usher showed us to our spots, holy shit oh dear, we were parked upfront, second-row, dead center. Whoever it was who probably wasn’t showing up must have been quite the dignitary, indeed. TV’s Brenda Braxton, off to our right, did not have a seat as high-profile as ours, nor did Tim Robbins in row one sitting just in front of her. Wow!

When I looked in the packet there were two VIP laminates and some other swaggy stuff. Jeez. We scored. Thank you OMHOF staff for going along with the charade. I have nothing but profound admiration for your incredible good-judgment.

By the time we finally got settled, Johnny and many Distractions were accepting a “Shardie” for something. I thought they already were inducted, so I’m not sure what the new award was for, but there it was. After a couple of rambling thank you speeches, performed by guys who are used to keeping up a line of innocuous chatter while simultaneously replacing and tuning a broken B string, the Distractions eventually embarked on a pretty hot set.

It took a while to figure out who everybody was, because I don’t know about you, but it’s been like thirty years since I last saw any of the guys play together—oddly enough, most of them have changed (in some cases drastically) in appearance.

Anyway, very early Distraction (when they were metamorphosing from the Wasted Rangers) Ron Stephens contributed hot guitar, partnered with guitarist Bill Feldman, drummer Kip Richardson and bassist Mark “Larue” Todd from the prime days and guest Evan Schlaes on Hammond B3. They all provided solid backup to lead vocalist Jon Koonce, who was in fine fettle.

His voice isn’t as Springsteen ragged and raw as in those beery olden days, but he still displays power with more of an eruptively smooth Van Morrison growl. His moment of silence for the death of the middle-class displayed solidarity with the Occupy Portland protesters camping in Chapman and Lownsdale squares just a few blocks away. A riveting moment.

They breezed through a strong set of Johnny and the Ds favorites, eliciting a warm response from the crowd—especially from some very vocal guy who seemed to have been in a thirty-year timewarp since the band hung up their musical cleats. Apparently, for him it seemed, they had never left.

From there, the event proceeded pretty much as anticipated. A few presenters unaccustomed to standing at a podium without the cover of a musical instrument, stumbled awkwardly through their introductions of some truly deserving musicians in the lineup.

The Dharma Bums looked great accepting their award, announced by Mike Quinn. Jeremy Wilson kept his remarks thankfully brief. The late Jeffrey Frederick and the Clamtones, Sequel, bassist Phil Baker and radio legend Bob “the Big BA” Ancheta were honored as well.

There were plenty of highlights. After a sweet introduction by Marv and Rindy Ross from Quarterflash, Wheatfield took the dais to accept their OMHOF award. And once they all got onstage, they practically outnumbered the spectators. After guitarist Don Ross (no relation to Marv) told his lengthy life story to an anxious audience, about half the group broke into one of their current staples, a spirited acappella doo-wop version of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” which was very well-received by a grateful throng— perhaps thankful that no one else in the band had anything more to say.

Godparents of the Portland punk scene Fred and Toody Cole endearingly introduced drummer Sam Henry, whose pedigree in the local music scene is about as stellar as it gets—if just for the fact that over the years he has backed, the Coles, Greg Sage and Chris Newman in various bands—and they’re all in the Hall, so Sam rightfully belongs there too. He was humble and shy, of course. And charming.

Honoring another recipient, Fred and Toody also introduced Satyricon founder, the celebrated George Touhouliotis who, in the evening’s biggest disappointment, was unable to attend the party: ostensibly touring in Greece—but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that one. Whatever the case, he wasn’t there and that was a little disheartening. I was really looking forward to seeing him.

Artist of the Year, Esperanza Spaulding also phoned it in, but she is a busy young musician with her star still in sharp ascent, so it’s entirely possible she had a gig somewhere. But, hey, it’s not like you’re inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame everyday either. C’mon!

Guitarist Norman Sylvester’s selection to the Hall was followed by a short concert performance in which he was joined by Lenny Rancher. Lenny more than held his own with the resident blues legend, matching the master riff for riff. Later in the evening Lenny returned to add blazing guitar to the Crazy 8s’ energetic star-studded set.

Todd Duncan doesn’t appear to be young anymore, bepaunched and a bit red-faced, but he still radiates a lot of energy and conviction. The horn section of Danny Schauffler, Tim Tubb and Lewis Livermore shone brilliantly. Punchy, with a hard edge. Guitarist Mark Wanaka reeled off several fiery solos, sharing the space with Jon Koonce, Nu Shoozer John Smith and Lenny.

Lenny Rancher is an amazing guitar player. He’s always been good. Underrated in this city. But he has become a superlative player. Not only did he throw down incredibly concise tone-clenching leads with the 8s, his rhythm guitar work on several songs was absolutely out of this world. Look for a new album from Lenny Rancher later in the year. It’s going to be great.

The guitar auction in the middle of the show during the intermission, hosted by a quite enchanting cross-dressed man, really sucked the energy out of the presentation. It dragged on (so to speak) far too long and it would seem that few in the audience had enough disposable personal income to bid more than six hundred bucks for a nice looking Gibson SG signed by the band Montrose, or a pretty Strat signed by the members of My Morning Jacket. Hell, the guitars alone were worth more than that.

While the money garnered from the auction goes for a good cause (Music Education programs in the schools), there must be a better way to present the instruments in order to receive higher bids. If the OMHOF benefit were a contest on Donald Trump’s Apprentice, somebody would be “fired.”

At the same time, mention also must be made of Tony Starlight’s witty, understated performance as master of ceremonies. His irreverent, off-the-cuff sarcasm hits just the right note for the solemn sincerity often voiced by the award winners. Lighten up, you guys!

Still, it was only the fifth year of an event that will hopefully continue on into perpetuity. It’s still in its infancy. And each year the program improves and smoothes out, so there is every reason to expect that to continue. The move from the Roseland to the Newmark Theater certainly lends the ceremony a welcome touch of class. However, the Newmark is in no way prepared to deal with a crowd of rowdy music-loving imbibers. The lines for beer were interminable. Worse than at the Schnitz. Someone ought to inform the Newmark Theater administration that they could make a ton of money just by wheeling a couple of kegs out onto the concourse and pumping the beer out to the masses as fast as humanly possible.

And maybe it’s time for participants in the affair to upgrade their choice of attire. Jeans and work boots seems a tad too proletariat. A little dress up wouldn’t hurt some of the acts. There’s a first time for everything. Take a cue from Norman Sylvester, people. That’s the way to dress for a function such as the Shardies.

Y La Bamba on NPR

On the heals of an extended tour, garnering praise from the media and public alike, Portland stars of tomorrow Y La Bamba recently performed a mini-concert as part of National Public Radio’s “Tiny Desk” series. Mostly acapella, the concert allows vocalist Luz Mendoza to shine in a way only she can. Listen to the impromptu concert here and marvel.

Y La Bamba on NPR

“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.”

Editors/admins note: Almost a year ago, in a preview of their release “Lupon,” SP Clarke was the very first music journalist anywhere to predict stardom for Mendoza. His erudite prognostication is rapidly coming to fruition. Look for a new album from Y La Bamba soon. You can read SP’s previous review here

Rachel Taylor Brown

World So Sweet
Penury Pop

Put on your thinking cap, it’s another Rachel Taylor Brown album! You may have misplaced your thinking cap since Rachel’s last release in 2009 (Susan Storm’s Ugly Sister), so we’ll wait here until you find it. While you’re at it, better put on your scrutability belt–because there’s a lot here that’s not particularly scrutable. And without your scutability belt in place, you’ll recall, your pants of discernment will fall to the floor. If not your scrutability belt, then better wear your best ironic underwear.

This is Rachel’s seventh release–her sixth album–as the Christmas recording 7 Small Songs from 2007 is only fourteen minutes long, fer cryin’ out loud. That doesn’t count. We have to draw the line somewhere. Everything she has ever put out displays a knack for arcanity–virtuosic compositional skills married to deep, dark lyrics dredged from some faraway farrago of the remotest subconscious. Idiosyncratic Christian symbology moves through it all like a ribbon of fudge through a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Have you found your thinking cap and scutability belt? Great. Let’s continue.

We begin the festivities with “Sweetness on Earth” which is mostly a variation on an F chord played by fifty acoustic pianos. Think of the a scaled down version of the 5000 Fingers of Doctor T executing the final coffin chord of “A Day in the Life,” fused (in a more melodic context) to the concept behind Glenn Branca’s 13th Symphony for 100 guitars–Hallucination City. Fifty of anything probably sounds pretty good–the choral effect and all. Fifty elephants simultaneously honking an F note would probably be majestic, to say the least, but would certainly create a much bigger mess at Sherman and Clay than fifty pianists probably did.

Anyway, after an extended stretch of the fifty piano crescendo, a vocal choir moves in to sing “sweetness on earth and all the world rejoices.” A proper introit to the service that is about to unfold. “Sister Jean” bleakly and obliquely recounts the tale of Jeanette Maples a fifteen-year-old girl from Eugene, who died in 2009 of extreme abuse at the hands of her mother. As is often the case, Jeanette more or less fell through the cracks before she could be saved by a social services system too overburdened to rescue her from the horror of her short, miserable life.

Over a jaunty, jolly “Martha My Dear” style piano, Rachel depicts the Pilate clean hands of a blissfully apathetic world. “We’re so sad about what went down at home/nothing left to do, you know we all regret it, we’re upset/there’s nothing anyone wouldn’t have done if only we had known/nothing we could do, you know we’re all upset, oh we regret it.” A swell way to kick off an album.

Stylistically, “Taxidermy” borrows from Kate Bush, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple (whatever happened to Fiona Apple, anyway?): wide open piano punctuated about halfway through by ghostly, slippery cellos. Lyrically, the first verse seems to be a masochistic literal deer-in-the-headlights perspective of a hunted animal. “You got me you shot me and will you hang my head/on the wall of your kitchen or over your bed?”

But the second verse seems to imply that the “taxidermy” in question is actually plastic surgery. “I can help, I can do it, I can do it myself/on a not-busy Monday, the fifth or the twelfth/take a whack crack me open, plant a needle right there/on the spot where the skin barely touches my hair.” Then again, maybe the song is a follow-up autopsy on poor Jeanette Maples.

Initiating the first of several homages to three-quarter time, “Modesto Waltz”  sets an ominous scene–over dancy piano, a gray nimbus hovers: “Carrion birds are circling outside the car/I look up and wonder just where we are.” I remember having the very same sensation of San Joaquin Valley dread when I was nine, and the family car broke down in Lodi in the ninety degree heat of July, and we spent the day at the park watching black swans glumly steer around Lodi Lake in the withering sun.

Two other waltzes, “Your Big Mouth” and “Mercy in Nebraska” head in different directions–the former a fairly direct circus theme of the macabre with implicitly enigmatic interpersonal references in the lyric. “Mercy…” has a swirly-whirly, neo-romantic quality, with nineteenth century brass and winds buzzing and wheezing in accompaniment.

The story line is an elusive narrative investigating the recent enactment of the “Safe Haven” law in Nebraska, where disaffiliated parents have been inexplicably allowed to legally dump their unwanted children at any certified hospital in the state. This song is the story of one guy who unloaded nine kids, but kept one–to remember the others by, one would suppose.

The closest thing to a “single” this set has is “Pritty Pinny,” and it’s a good one. Sort of Kristen Hersh-y. John Stewart’s big beat drums drive the song like a team of horses. It’s a charming little ditty about a one in-a-million girl. “Pritty Pinny in your pocket stick your finger in a socket/sparkle like an atom bomb and lay waste.” The low howl of a chorus only deepens the mystery. “What makes you so unkind?/You trip like a buried mine.” Sure! I think I’ve met her!

The sweet, sad ballad “Scotland” is a tribute to Scott Moritz, known as Scotland Barr of the band the Slow Drags, who died of cancer about two years ago. A simple lyric winds like a creek to the wonderful river of “every minute makes a minute/every hour has decades in it/so maybe a day can last forever/maybe a month will make it better.”

“How to Make a World Class Gymnast” is a harrowing koan comprised of the voices of random people, culled from the Woodstock Deli and an unnamed library, intoning the words. “You get them when they’re young and then you bend them/First an arm/Then a leg/Then the heart/Then the head.” This is either an obscure reference to something someone connected with the Chinese National Gymnastics team said. Or it may be further exposition regarding poor Jeanette Maples–or both, maybe. An exquisite form of torture, regardless.

A Bach-like counterpoint sifts through the prayerful “Didymus the Twin v. the Divine Sparkler,” which loosely contemplates the life of Judas Didymus Thomas–ostensibly Jesus’ twin; and one of four brothers and a couple of sisters born of Mary and sired by Joe, a busy couple they.

And, finally, “Joe/The Sacred Remains” not only serves as a bookend to “Sister Jean,” an echo of “Scotland,” but also as an extroit to “Didymus…”, not easily deduced from the cerebrality of Rachel’s introspective world view. But angelic choirs usher the album out as they ushered it in, to shine in a ray of sun, divining a gray rain cloud.

You can’t just throw on a Rachel Taylor Brown album and set about to washing the dishes or cleaning up around the house, or to watch TV with the sound turned down (although it could possibly work with Criminal Minds). No, with Rachel’s work you have to gird your rhetorical loins for an onslaught of contemplation that may be anathema to the typical American psyche.

Still, there are rewards. For it’s always of interest to observe an artist in her element creating some beautifully horrific scene for the betterment/appallment of all humankind. This, for Rachel Taylor Brown, is another morbid stop along the way to salvation. Like any well-constructed artistic car accident: it’s gruesome, but impossible not to gawk at.

Now you may rest your weary head. And pull up yer pants.

CD release show July 29th.

Steven “Pearly” Hettum

The Jangler + 2 Unreleased

Steve Hettum has been a presence within the local music scene for the past thirty years. He first made his name as the manager for Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods back in the early ‘80s. He managed other acts as well. He had his fingers in numerous pies. His affable, accommodating nature has always stood him in good stead in the greater Portland musical community.

Steven “Pearly” HettumSomewhere along the line, Steve became a performer. He’d always dabbled at songwriting–he co-wrote several songs with Rancher, way back in the day. But it’s probably been at least twenty years, now, that he has been a solo musician. Because of his personable gregariousness, he has always been one to lead various open mics, or to be the main cog around song-circles or open-ended jams. Since April of 2010, he has been hosting an open mic at Eugenios on Wednesday Nights.

As happens, as one gets older–and we all do, Steve has had some health problems of late. He had one of his hips replaced last November, which left him with a severe limp and a reliance upon a cane–not because of the replaced hip, but because of the one still intact causing him intense pain.

So, with the aforementioned in mind, it was especially painful for Steve to discover last August a growth under his tongue. After practicing the well-known avoidance gambit for seven months, it wasn’t until April that he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. Not very hopeful news for anyone to hear. And for an exuberant singer/songwriter, not good to hear at all.

Last month, Steve underwent surgery. He had a significant portion of his tongue removed. Skin grafts were taken from his forearm to replace what had been cut away. He had numerous lymph glands surrounding his tongue removed as well. It appears that Steve has dodged a bullet. The cancer has not spread and the surgeons got it all.

His recovery has been phenomenally positive. Within a week of being released from the hospital, Steve was back at his post at Eugenio’s as host for the Wednesday Night Open Mic. Because his vocal chords were damaged during the operation, Steve doesn’t currently have much of a voice–hardly more than a whisper. But, fortunately, that condition is only temporary and he’ll be back to singing and raising hell very soon. Stop in and wish him well.

A couple of years back, Steve released an album called The Jangler, which contains eleven original songs, including three co-written with Billy Rancher, way back when. That album is a good primer for anyone unfamiliar with Hettum’s work, full of good-timey, country-tinged music, augmented by the likes of drummer Dennis Elmer, guitarists Jon Lindahl and Houston Bolles and bassist J. Michael Kearsey. Great ensemble work from everyone. There’s an element of Hank Williams in all of it–stylistically a good point of departure.

But there are variations. “Over Easy” one of the songs co-written with Billy Rancher sounds as if it could have come from Dire Straits in their prime. Lindahl’s Mark Knopfler-style guitar is impressive, and Steve’s raspy, edgy vocal is Knopfleresque in it’s own right. “English Rocker,” a boogie tribute to the late great Brit, Mike Khan, is sung in blimey cockney.

And, if one wanted a lesson in concisely clever songwriting, one need look (nor listen) any further than to “Young Love,” which Steve co-wrote with Mike Khan. Stir Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love” into Sonny James’ “Young Love” and pore it over a melodic essence of Chad and Jeremy’s “Summer Song” and you have a sweet little pop song confection for the ages. Special.

The other two tunes Hettum wrote with Rancher are extremely catchy as well. “Then Again” has an Eagles-like country/rock feel, while “Party By Myself” rings of the country Stones circa “Dead Flowers.” Steve‘s compositions “If There Comes a Time“ and “That’s Bein’ Country” are soulful ballads, a little reminiscent of Jackson Browne.

Just a short time before he went into the hospital, Steve ducked into the studio to record as much material as he was able–with the understanding that it was a possibility that he might not be afforded the opportunity again for a while–if ever. Two of those tracks, “A Cowboy’s Song” and “For Pete’s Sake” display more of Hettum’s ready knack for crafting thoughtful, catchy blues-tinged, country/folk/rock.

On “A Cowboy Song” Steve’s jagged vocal sounds like Van Morrison fronting a Texas country band through a jangly, minor-key manifesto. A soupcon of Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” in the melody. As infectious as it is componently strange.

“For Pete’s Sake” is an introspective country-flavored ballad–a reminiscence upon wisdom inherited from the homilies of some past sage: simple advice, but practical and true. “It’s hard when you are young/Just can’t wait to turn twenty-one…” The upshot being–“For Pete’s sake slow down, son/Learn to walk before you run/You don’t have to be a rolling stone/Find a woman and keep her safe/Cherish all the friends you make/Slow down son, for Pete’s sake.”

Sound counsel, no doubt, but certainly nothing that a genuine human-being under the age of twenty-one would ever actually consider. So, the intention in this exercise would seem, ultimately, to be ironic in function. But plainly and succinctly put, all the same.

Steve Hettum has been traversing a gravelly path of late. But, it’s sure that he will overcome all obstacles with the same determination and grit reflected in his songs.


Jared Mees & the Grown Children

Jared Mees and the Grown Children - only good thoughts can SayOnly Good Thoughts Can Stay
Jared Mees & the Grown Children
Tender Loving Empire


Generally, when a label owner releases his own band’s work on that label, suspicion might suggest “vanity project.” But Jared Mees is no ordinary label owner and the Grown Children are no ordinary band.

Jared is the proprietor of Tender Loving Empire. TLE is a record label, but it is also the name of a curious retail store located at the upper end of the Pearl District. Nothing about either of these enterprises is typical.

Sort of like Chad Crouch of Hush Records, Jared has an ear for a quality up-and-coming band. Crouch was the first to put Esperanza Spaulding out on record with Noise For Pretend (soon to be re-issued). The Decemberists, Laura Gibson, Loch Lomond, Nick Jaina, Norfolk and Western, Kaitlyn Ni Donovan and Peter Broderick all got their starts with Hush.

Just in the past year, Tender Loving Empire has released an album and EP from Typhoon, an album by Y La Bamba (with another in the hopper) and Loch Lomond’s new record. The Grown Children are natural successors to that lineage. Like the others, they do not fit neatly into a generic box. That fact is a great indicator of the label as well.

This is, technically, the Grown Children’s third album, although the first, Swimming With the Sharks, from 2007 was pretty much a solo album. And 2008’s Caffeine, Alcohol and Sunshine was created with the help of various session players, and longtime musical partner, Megan Spear, who contributes backing vocals, keys and percussion.

Though Jared has always maintained something of a revolving door regarding the support for his endeavors, for Only Good Thoughts Can Stay, Mees has created and actual band to perform the material- a band that is currently in the midst of an extensive tour throughout the western half of the United States.

Of the dozen songs presented here, fully half are memorable after the first audition. There is a rough-hewn quality to the material. Mees has a gravelly voice- that doesn’t always hit a melody square on, but it’s evocative enough to lend every number a sense of immediacy and depth.

The lead track, and the one the band touts as the “recommended track,” is “Hungry Like a Tiger,” which bears no resemblance whatsoever to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like a Wolf,” although it does give rise to the question: How come bands aren’t doing spiffy remakes of Duran Duran songs? The time is right people. I can hear new versions of “Is There Something I Should Know” and “The Reflex” swirling around in the contemporary music ether, even as we here commune.

But in this instance, “Hungry Like a Tiger” sounds as if it could be a song by Stephen Malkmus and Pavement or some other band that sounds like Pavement. Vocally, Jared skims over the jumpy beat that drives the song forward, with a homely vocal over homespun lyrics- “I’m breathing good air through good lungs with a good heart beating/And a problem ain’t a problem ‘less you keep on feeding it.”

Then into the lively chorus. “Coz it’s hungry like a tiger/We’ve got the tiger by the toe.” Maybe not the best place by which to have a tiger, but one cannot be choosy in such situations. A certain precocious quality, reminiscent of the very earliest Talking Heads albums, informs this jaunty piece with a sunny buoyancy not often found in the murkey abyss of current musical expression.

For “Limber Hearts,“ Joe Bowden’s sometimes insistent drums serve as fulcrum in the balance of Spear’s jangly piano and Javier Madrigal’s sparse lead guitar majesty; with Jared’s unadorned vocals upfront and a string ensemble floating around in the background. Inexplicably, a hint of Thunderclap Newman’s late 60s hit, “Something in the Air,” wefts the warp within the melody. The likelihood that anyone in the Grown Children would have ever heard that song are vastly remote, at best. Still, these things do go around.

Adorned by Spear’s pretty harmony vox, light-handed piano phrasings and dark organ textures, “W.W.J.B.D.” is a fable about someone’s troubled experiences- with references to being away somewhere and a possible longing to be back home. This is purely speculative. None of it seems to relate to Jack Bauer. So the initials are even more of a mystery. The strings come to the forefront on this song- contributing to the plaintive wist of the arrangement.

A heartbreaking recollection of the death of a childhood pet (among other events) sets the scene for “Billy Bird,” a song easily sprung from the headwaters of the Kinks’ Village Green… or Arthur albums. It’s not a sad song, particularly. Ironic, one would suppose. Sprightly horns and Quilty Kim’s fluid basslines add to the upbeat nature of the piece. Jared’s lyrics provide a wonderful sequence about the transformation of a tree into a tree, that could pass for its own spiritual evocation. Nicely done.

“Even Little Mountains” bears almost all of the same attributes. Mees refuses to sink to the lowest common denominator. His poetry is brainy and astute without being ponderous or pretentious- a fine line, to be sure. “Metronomes couldn’t compete/With the perfect placement of our heartbeats/Lying here before the curtain ascends/The silence fades and the day begins/And the paradox ensues- a Catch 22…” A bit beyond Duran Duran, to be sure.

It is firmly established with “Juicy Fruit” that someone listened to a lot of their parents’ albums, or managed to absorb music from that era (late ‘60s/early /70s) anyway- as this song bears a distant, yet distinct, musical reference to the song “Sweet City Woman” by one-hit-wonders, the Stampeders, from God only knows when, but it was a long time ago. Jared’s delightful falsetto chorus is the icing on the musical cake.

Heading in a completely different direction (bit of uptempo AltCountry twang) altogether, “Graverobbers” briefly repeats a C-A chord progression in the intro, that first showed up in “Even Little Mountains.” But here the overall feel is decidedly jovial and good natured- until towards the end of the song, where things turn contemplative and resolve in a sort of loose anthem. Neat trick.

The line “only good thoughts can stay” appears in the final track “Shake,” where it underscores the triumph of optimism in an uplifting paean to the vicissitudes of life in the 21st century.

It’s impossible not to like Jared Mees and the Grown Children. Their sound is versatile and varied, while sticking to a thematic sense of wry acceptance, paired with a joyful positive outlook. The line in “Shake,” the title of this album, underscore precisely what makes them so much fun. They really mean what they are saying. In this vain, cynical world, that is a major achievement indeed.



Decemberists - The King is DeadThe King is Dead
Capitol Records

Well, with this, their sixth full-length album release, Colin Meloy and the Decemberists seem to be at a musical and artistic crossroads. As has been documented elsewhere, recently- it is the intent of Meloy and the band to “take a break,” explore other projects, try other things, blah blah blah.

It is not apparent whether the Decembrist’s contract with Capitol was a five-record or three-record deal. One gets the impression it must be a three-record deal,  as most record companies would have a major solid gold cow if one of their acts decided to hiatus in the middle of their contract. Especially riding a hit album like this should turn out to be. Cue the Greatest Hits package.

But what’s strange is- it would seem that their most recent previous release, The Hazards of Love from May of ‘09, was truly the final Decemberists album, not this one. While there are a few songs here that bear the characteristics of former Decemberists recordings, most don’t. Oh, it’s obvious that Meloy wrote and sings the songs. Pretty hard to hide that, unless he were to sing everything in falsetto, in Spanish. Even then…

No, what we have here is essentially a Colin Meloy solo album, with benefits. This sounds more like a follow-up to Colin Meloy Sings Live! (2008 live solo album) than a true Decemberists album. Stripped down? I guess so!

It’s not that the other members are absent. They’re in the mix alright. But certain changes have taken place- most of them in Meloy. His songwriting, the songs’ arrangements, even their musical reference points have shifted pretty dramatically.

Whereas in former days we grew to know and love our young Colin and the band as purveyors of strange old British folk tales, steeped in imaginary history and a certain odd sort of whimsy. The anachronistic absurdity of their entire thesis was the foremost feature of their allure. Who but Colin Meloy would aspire to be the Edmund Spenser of the 21st century?

But here, the perspective has shifted- attributable in part to the vocal presence, on seven of the ten tunes, of Americana songstress, Gillian Welch; and the visitation on three numbers by noted guitarist Peter Buck of Tuatura. No, uh, REM.

REM. That’s a good jumping off point. Colin has chucked his 19th century British nautical/military melancholia for 20th century Americana folk revival. A strange, but no doubt necessary artistic decision. The Crane Wife flew away. William and Margaret are happily married, busy begatting little pebbles of their own.

It is the good old American harmonica that sounds the clarion call on this album. Loud blaring harmonica- like Bob Dylan. Like Neil Young. In fact, keep those seminal Folk-rootsists in mind. We’ll be returning to them later.

When last we left the Decemberists, William the wounded white fawn and Margaret, the rustic country girl, had set up shop as rocks in a river after a rigorous adventure that involved all sorts of evil-doing. The mayhem was initiated, primarily, at the behest of William’s wicked Queen mum and carried out by her malevolent ward, that nasty Rake (who got his in the end when his murdered kids came back to haunt him), whom she hired to screw things up. Because, she saw young Will as a good bet to “marry up” in station- and she was not about to allow him to blow it all on some rustic country girl.

So, as we resume the tale here, there’s no sign of Bill or Meg. Instead, with “Don’t Carry It All” we are gently crossing the Willamette on the Cripple Creek Ferry, headin’ out Happy Valley way, where the good life lies. Joey Moen’s big-beat, stripped down kick and snare support Colin’s acoustic guitar and resoundingly reedy harmonica. Flourishes of Nate Query’s ba-wooming bass and faint fiddle by Annalisa Tornfelt add texture. However the lyric is no less inscrutable than you would expect.

“A monument to build beneath the arbors
Upon a plinth that towers t’wards the trees”

Okay. So good so far. Good to see that Colin hasn’t lost his penchant for two-dollar words. Plinth. Sure. One might picture a great marble temple, such as the Parthenon, being constructed in the majestic splendor of a wooded glen. But whoa, whoa, whoa!!

“Let every vessel pitching hard to starboard
Lay its head on summer’s freckled knees.”

So where are we?  On some boat somewhere making a hard right on someone’s freckled knee? Now that’s an image that’s sort of hard to pull together. What happened to the Parthenon? Is it north of the freckled knees? But we’re bound to get this all straightened out soon.

“And there a wreath of trillium and ivy
Laid upon the body of a boy
Lazy will the loam come from its hiding
And return this quiet searcher to the soil”

It is not at all clear where this boy came from. Maybe he was on board the vessel? Or perhaps working on the temple? But he died. Oh, the Decemberists may be in the midst of evolving (or hibernating), but Collin Meloy will never completely change. Plinth. Yeah. Trillium and ivy.

Welch makes her presence known in a pleasant non-obtrusive way- as if she had been there in the mix all along. Buck may be playing a mandolin- but he is pretty much a wisp of smoke in the mix on this one.

Instrumentally, and this is going to be hard to feature, the arrangement of “Calamity Song” sort of reminds of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.” Colin’s windy twelve-string acoustic, is joined by Moen’s chunky drums in a fashion similar to that of Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood. The song departs from there, riding Buck’s chiming electric guitar.

While we’re talkin’ ‘70s, “Rise to Me” has a Graham Parson’s meets Emmylou Harris quality about it- Chris Funk’s doleful steel guitar sliding wistfully behind bass and keys. Colin adds harp. Think of the Band. Neil Young’s Harvest. Colin’s stuff is still antique as a burnished brass bowl. It’s just of a more recent heritage. A good chorus. A well-built song.

And, “Rox in the Box” maintains the ‘70s as a reference point. I urge people to seek out the album: In Search of Amelia Earhart recorded in 1972 by the British folk musician Iain Matthews with his band Plainsong. The final cut on that album is called “Raider.”

“Raider” is not included in recent CD versions of the album, as Matthews didn’t write the song (written by the ‘60s folk duo Judy Henske and Jerry Yester) and so, apparently, acrimoniously dropped it from the set. Sad. However, vintage vinyl versions contain the song. Colin Meloy’s song “Rox in the Box” captures the American gothic spirit to be found on “Raider,” their Bluegrassy meets British folk elements are nicely interwoven between each of the two songs. Energetic.

Early Paul Simon comes to mind with the lovely “January Hymn.” Oddly, Jimmy Buffet’s “Tequila Sunrise” (“some people claim…“) is briefly quoted melodically before sliding neatly into a section parallel to Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” (with a hint of “Mr Tambourine Man” for good measure). Simple, slick, sly and very touching. Among Meloy’s best.

Buck returns for the masterful “Down By The River.” It’s a track to out REM: REM. Think of “Out of the Blue, Into the Black” era Neil Young sitting in on a re-make session of “Driver 8.”Buck adds his own characteristic sheen, while Colin does his very best Stipe- and a pretty good one it is.

There are some odd choices made by producer Tucker Martine on this number, namely Jenny Conlee’s accordion solo seems misplaced. Maybe the Buckster wasn’t available for a guitar solo. But certainly Chris Funk could have ordered up something appropriately tasty. As talented as she is, Conlee’s accordion sounds like foam on top of a stout beer- it froths up an otherwise hearty brew. All the same, this is one of the great Decemberists songs of all time. It’s a concise, direct and simple track; powerfully memorable.

The Stoneses countrified version of “Honky Tonk Women” is called forth on “All Arise.” Bolstered by Ms. Tornfelt’s sassy fiddle and driven by Moen’s Wattsian smacksmanship- they provide all the impetus necessary. It is only Colin Meloy’s unmissable voice that gives any indication that this might be a Decemberists hoedown.

The spirit of  a very young Paul Simon is again harkened with “June Hymn,” reminiscent of Simon‘s “April Come She Will.” A tender pastoral ballad. “Summer comes to Springville Hill.” Simple and simply perfect.

“This Is Why We Fight” sounds like the work of a completely different band. Tough, ominous, surly. Here Colin’s harmonica howls like a siren in the distant darkness. You could hear Stipe sing this one- if it wasn’t Meloy. The verses quiet down a bit- Funk’s worried guitar phrases wringing fingers beneath.

“Come the war. Come the avarice
Come the war. Come hell
Come attrition. Come the reek of bones
Come attrition. Come hell.”

Well, that lyric could have been ripped from today’s headlines: Tucson, Cairo, Wall Street. But wait:

“Bride of quiet. Bride of all unquiet things
Bride of quiet. Bride of hell
Come the archers. Come the infantry.
Come the archers of hell.”

Jeez, all of a sudden we’re lost in a chapter of Lord of the Rings. Archers? Well that casts the whole thing in a different light. So this is Robin Hood, Magna Carta stuff? Who knows? Who cares? It’s great.

Finally “Dear Avery” settles things down to a contemplative gait. Funk’s pedal steel slips pliantly beneath Conlee’s electric piano. The final chords signaling a certainAbbey Road sort of finality to the whole matter. Who are these guys?

Well, that is a question to be answered at some future date. It will be interesting to hear how Colin Meloy stretches his artistic wings and to see where he flies. The journey awaits our literary explorer. This is as fine a send off as any, though not, perhaps, as satisfying as what might have been hoped- ending not with an exclamation point, but a question mark; not with a period, but an ellipsis.



Typhoon - A A New Kind of House (EP)

Tender Loving Empire

The past year has been a busy one for Kyle Morton and the ever-malleable Typhoon. Last May saw the release of their highly-praised first (real) full-length album, Hunger and Thirst which has been at the very top of innumerable Best of 2010 lists, both locally and nationally. And rightfully so.

Hailing from Salem, Typhoon was conceived about five years ago as a songwriting project between Morton and percussionist Devin Gallagher. An eponymous album was released within a year of the band’s inception. After a hiatus that began in 2008 and ended a year later, the band regrouped and have been hard at work ever since- Hunger and Thirst and this EP being the product of those efforts.

There appear to be somewhere in the neighborhood of eight or ten core members in the band including two ladies in the string section, three guys in the brass section and two in the drumming contingent with two more percussionists, with bassist Toby Tanabe and guitarist Dave Hall playing in support of Morton on guitar. Many are founding members- undaunted, apparently, by the unwieldy.

All, among the dozen or so people listed as contributors to this project, lend vocal support. A rock ensemble to execute a choral symphony, to be sure. Can Beethoven’s 9th be far behind?

A New Kind of House is not some compendium of rejected tracks from the album. Not in the least. The five songs presented here show a definite, fully-realized progression in terms of Typhoon‘s approach.

Perhaps the most obvious point in support of this assertion is the extenuation of the song “Claws Pt.2, from Hunger and Thirst. The sequel, “Claws Pt. 1” (don’t ask me), is performed far more powerfully here than its predecessor. One would hope the band decides to do an updated version of the song on everything they release.

However, the first song of this set, “The Honest Truth” is targeted as the single. It is not unlike “Starting Over,”  the first song on Hunger and Thirst, in that the new song similarly creeps in on little cat feet; before exploding into the full complement of instrumentation- which matches the drama of Morton’s woe-wrought tale of  thoughtful despair.

“The Honest Truth” lurches along on sputtering brass; sliding on the double-time quadruplets of Morton’s acoustic guitar flurries. The song itself sounds as if it could have fallen from Colin Meloy’s guitar case- though, lyrically they differ substantially: Morton being more direct and not so inclined to aspire to be the Edmund Spenser of the 21st century. Nor are their voices similar at all.

Kyle’s voice is worn and world-weary, finely encrusted with a coat of many sorrows; an impassioned vibrato fluttering lightly beneath: full, rich and evocative. Those familiar with Peter Gabriel’s work with Genesis in the 70s (especially the Foxtrot/Selling England By The Pound period) could probably find antecedents in Kyle’s vocals. A cool brass interlude ends the song.

The driving 6/4 time signature is impetus for “Summer Home,” another song that takes some time to coalesce. An exquisite rhythmic clatter builds to a peak before dissolving into a beautiful, windswept chorus; limbing sweetly great trees of sound. It’s a song of lost love, or lost family, or both. Evocative of antique sunlight through a spring sky window.

As mentioned, “Claws Pt. 1” is absolutely wrenching in its presentation. Like it’s predecessor, it seems to be almost a collection of several songs, neatly knitted together. If not, then the arrangement gives that impression, all the same. It is not a reconstruction of the former song, instead embroiders the cloth of that song with new emblemation. It’s a tributary of Pt. 2- but, perhaps, more to the point, more complete than the first version.

It also answers the age old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? According to Typhoon, the chicken came first.

The song begins building from where it left off on Hunger and Thirst– a toy piano, or glockenspiel, and what sounds like a banjo flit behind the scene, lapping waves on the glistening musical surface. An angular, guitar/bass (?) theme bounds across the verse, slowly adding depth and movement. Then they advance upon the dramatic turn in the middle of the song.

Through the course of the “Claws” suite, David Hall’s forlorn lead-guitar broods impatiently, a gather of dark clouds- before finally pouring forth, in a deluge, the signature riff. While in its former incarnation it was a twangy, passing riff, here it sounds as if all the sky is crying; soaring, a swooping swoon.

Hall is met by an impassioned vocal chorus and the entire delegation of brass and strings- which melt into a gorgeously evocative guitar solo that carries the song out to its extended fade. A masterpiece.

The short song, “Kitchen Tile,” maintains a householding theme that pervades the entire work. The Home: A Concept Album. The composition sounds as though the kitchen tile in question were actually used for acoustic reverb in places within the song.

On “Firewood,“ Kyle plunks out a familiar progression a homely upright piano, singing in his upper register- sounding a little like Neil Young on his song “Birds” from After the Goldrush. A somewhat somber procession dirges sweetly in 3/4 time, enembered of radiant hearth. Warm and familial. All gathered: funereal, a melancholy second line; dancing through the streets of the spirit.

We in Portland are very fortunate. “Portlandia” notwithstanding, there aren’t many places in the country, or in the world for that matter, that can claim to nurture such a fertile creative community. The music being generated in this city is second to none. There are ten or twenty really great, world-class bands from Portland floating around out there. It would be remiss not to place Typhoon near the top of that list.

© 2011 Buko Magazine