Cover***Love is a Road
Ross Productions

I’ve told the story before, probably more than once. Quarterflash and I go way back. Way back. Back before Seafood Mama. Before Beggar’s Opera. Back before Jones Road. Back to the days of Oregon College of Education. You won’t find that school listed in any current register! It’s called Western Oregon State University now. It’s in Monmouth, which is west of Salem and north of Corvallis, on the road to somewhere else.

It was there, sophomore year I think, I saw a young woman with wire-rim glasses play acoustic guitar and sing a Joni Mitchell song on the steps outside the Student Union. I think it was “Clouds,” but it might have been “Michael From Mountains.” I remember thinking she was pretty good. Nice voice. Clearly, she stood out from the other performers that day. I don’t remember any of them.

A year or so later, either Fred or Tom or Doug dragged poor young unsuspecting Marv Ross into the madcap living fray we shared at the L-shaped house on the S-Curve. Oh the stories one could tell, and I’ll try one day if I have the time. But, for Marv’s part, his stay was fortuitously brief, maybe only three months or so. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to fully corrupt him.

Still, in that time, he and I developed a songwriter’s guild of sorts, frequently jamming together and showing off our latest masterpieces. Soon a couple of his high school musician friends started visiting. Lew Jones and Allen Whipps became my lifelong friends, both talented musicians in their own rights. We mixed and matched among us for a few gigs over the next year or so.

Jones Road circa 1974
Jones Road circa 1974

When Marv moved out, he moved in with Rindy, whom I recognized to be that young woman I had seen singing at the Student Union. Already by then, Rindy and Marv were a team. And even then, Marv was a great songwriter, though not terribly prolific. Ever the perfectionist, he was methodically meticulous about every song he wrote. When he would finally reveal a new song it would be a complete gem.

But Marv was always a little self-conscious about his singing voice. In Rindy he had the ideal complement. She sang like an angel. And in Marv she found her perfect partner—he wrote great songs for her to sing. They formed a band and got married, or vice versa, I really can’t remember the sequence, and honestly—it’s none of our business, don’t you think, people? Give it a rest!

And it wasn’t all that easy. There were a lot of other musicians involved over the years and not all of those years were spent basking in the spotlight of unmitigated success. Still, in the span of a only a decade, my transitory roommate and his talented wife were suddenly signed to Geffen Records and responsible for a Top 10, platinum (selling over a million units) album, and were everywhere to be heard and seen on the radio and that fledgling MTV thing.

Platinum selling: Quarterflash
Platinum selling: Quarterflash (1982)

They had a certifiable hit in “Harden My Heart.” That song made it all the way to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the spring of 1982 and—though coming in behind Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”—at #13 in the Top 100 for the Year 1982 “Harden My Heart” outshone such classics as Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny 867-5309,” the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat,” Journey’s “Open Arms” and a lot of other memorable classics from bands such as Fleetwood Mac, Earth Wind and Fire, The Police, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones.

Quarterflash were by no means one-hit wonders, with several follow-up chart breakers. But they conformed to a familiar band trajectory back in those days, when it came to major labels—three and out. Our own Nu Shooz suffered a similar fate at about the same time. Even with several gold records under your belt, if your band couldn’t demonstrate reliably consistent chart action, with every album, you quickly became a liability and were cut out of the herd of corporate rock livestock.

Girl in the Wind (1991)
Girl in the Wind (1991)

Back then, getting dropped by a label was pretty much the kiss of death for a top band. The other labels wouldn’t touch you. Or if they would, it was through some shoddy deal. Rather than go through that, Quarterflash disbanded around 1986 after sales for their third Geffen release failed to meet expectations. About five years later, Rindy and Marv re-formed the band to create a fourth release for Epic. But because of sudden upheaval in the label hierarchy, that album ended up only getting released in Japan and Europe.

Quarterflash went into deep hiatus in 1991. Rindy and Marv then quickly became involved with the Trail Band. Inspired by Marv’s fastidious attention to historic detail, a total of eight versatile musicians chronicle the settlement of the pioneer West and Northwest. Through the course of eleven albums, including several Christmas/Winter themed works, they present traditional and original material in an accurately antique context.

The Trail Band
The Trail Band

In 2007came the culmination of Marv’s interest in Native American culture, with the presentation of his musical The Ghosts of Celilo. The production won awards for “Best Original Song,” “Best Original Score,” and “Best Original Musical.” What’s more, the music of the Trail Band has won for them widespread recognition and numerous honors as well, and that group is truly the subject for another article entirely.

Goodbye Uncle Buzz
Goodbye Uncle Buzz

In 2008, after seventeen years in hibernation, Marv and Rindy reconvened as Quarterflash for Goodbye Uncle Buzz. Considered something of a departure, that album featured laid back performances and was more like a bridge between the Rosses two very different bands. Quartertrail. With lyrics addressing such adult themes as cancer, suicide, broken homes and the shortcomings of the music business, the album was musically subdued, focusing foremost on Rindy’s vocals, with instrumentation serving as supplementary augmentation and distinctive coloration. It was close to being a Rindy Ross solo album.

Some fans of ‘80s Quarterflash—the rockers—found difficulty in adjusting to the new, more contemplative band—despairing the glut of mature topics and the dearth of the vengeful female-empowering shitkickers ala “Harden My Heart” and “Find Another Fool.” That only goes to show: you can’t please all the people all of the time.

Rock of Ages (What could go wrong?)
Rock of Ages (What could go wrong?)

While “Harden My Heart” occasionally appeared on ‘80s Hits compilations and the like, the Quarterflash brand received a boost when the song was included in the highly hyped and much maligned 2012 feature film Rock of Ages. Country singer/actress Julianne Hough and soul singer Mary J. Blige delivered a surprisingly straight reading of the song before the weird-assed, over-emoted breakdown in the second half. But it won for the band renewed recognition all the same.

And, most likely, no matter what Rindy and Marv do as Quarterflash, they always will be measured against their big hit. It could be worse, mind you. They could have no hit by which to be measured. There could be no one interested in making the measurement. They could be like most bands, playing in a vacuum with no expectations to fulfill.

Quarterflash 2013
Quarterflash 2013 (Photo Keith Buckley)

So with all that artistic baggage the band totes coming into this new album, the faithful fan might rightfully be unsure what to anticipate. The short answer is that all camps should find great satisfaction in what Quarterflash have created. For it is an unqualified success on all levels.

Lyrically, Love is a Road is a less personal narrative than Uncle Buzz—though still reflective of interpersonal relationships, meditations on life, and bitingly topical, socially astute insights. Marv Ross is nothing if not introspective. What’s really different is that, unlike its predecessor, this album rocks.

Sure, it’s got a scattering of the requisite tender Quarterflash ballads. But the heavy folk and Americana flavors are gone for this outing, replaced with straight-ahead acoustic and electric guitars. Big, brilliant, thick, tasty layers of them. Here several songs exhibit a new, funky, bluesy edge that’s only just hinted at on Buzz. And the album sounds fantastic! Certainly in a league with other big name acts such as Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty or Pat Benatar. Totally pro.

The first song of the set, “I Can’t Help Myself,” features Rindy smartly rapping the stacatto verses, which seem almost at the opposite end of the telescope from the lyrical message Marv was imparting with “This Business of Music” on Buzz. More upbeat and resolutely circumspect: “Yeah, we’ve been blessed and we’ve been conned/Had success and yes, we’ve bombed/And the only thing that keeps me hanging on/Is letting go, letting go.”

The familiar, triumphal chant of the memorable chorus reinforces a stadium-sized hook. Condense Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n Roll” with Teena Marie’s “Lovergirl” and you’re part of the way there. Get your lighters out. The album is off to a bright start!

L-R Front: Bixby, M. Ross, Fraser; Back: Williams, R. Ross, Kubik
L-R Front: Bixby, M. Ross, Fraser; Back: Williams, R. Ross, Kubik (Photo Keith Buckley)

Over Denny Bixby’s funky bass-line, Gregg Williams’ slamming beat, Marv’s jagged, Lennon-like electric guitar foundation, and sighing breeze background vox, Rindy again hopscotches a quick-paced lyric with “All Diamonds.” An anthemic feel drives the chorus, with faint antecedents, perhaps, in Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” though more philosophical and less confrontational.

“We are—one flame. We are—one arc/We are—all embers from the same spark/We are—all god. We are—one soul/We are—all diamonds from the same coal.” A short solo breakdown between Marv and lead guitarist Doug Fraser is certainly worthy of Zep in their prime. A pretty spectacular sixteen bars!

“I Want You Back” is the sure-fire hit of the nine songs offered. If the song got any more radio-friendly it would have to start its own station. If it got any more infectious it would require quarantine. Buh-boom. It lives up to any sort of hype. Over a wobbly guitar finger cluster intro, Williams’ Mick Fleetwood-like tom-fill accents hit like punches to the gut. Rindy enters the song with a big, strong voice, nearly unrecognizable in its lower register. She has never sounded so good.

Abbey Road Melotron
Abbey Road Melotron

What sounds like a melotron enters at the second verse, to wonderful affect. When asked how Quarterflash acquired a melotron Marv replied “The melotron is the one still sitting in Abbey Road Studio. As bizarre as it sounds Abbey Road sampled all the sounds on that melotron and you can purchase the right to use it over the internet. I was actually listening to ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ to dial in the sound we wanted ” That inimitable sound is easily identifiable the instant it is heard.

An unforgettable chorus moves the song into the major leagues. Fleetwood Mac-ish. Rindy sounds like Stevie Nicks (when she still had a voice)—a low, woody, windy cry. Terrific hook! You’ll be singing along by the second time through.

The melotron doubles Doug Fraser’s scorching lead guitar in the middle, calling to mind the textures of the Moody Blues. And the minute-long magical finale is so Revolver/Pepper Beatle-esque, one pictures the band dressed in silk marching band uniforms as they played it. Rindy even quotes the sax line to “Harden My Heart” as the circus unwinds ala the Beatles in “All You Need is Love.” (Most likely an edit of) this track is sure to make serious noise on some or all of the many variants of the Adult Contemporary charts.

Quarterflash (2013)
Quarterflash 2013 (Photo Keith Buckley)

In many ways this new song is the perfect bookend to “Harden My Heart.” But where the theme of the original was confrontational in nature, this new effort is conciliatory. Mature. And while parts of the arrangement have elements in common with Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” this cut is far better than anything Mac has done since then. Probably the best Quarterflash song ever.

Trail Band violinist Eddie Parente guests with ornate filigrees on the title track, a lovely ballad whose melody evokes the verses of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” Here Rindy sounds like the woman who sang “Harden my Heart,” though all grown up perhaps. Her Joni Mitchell yodel trill nicely oiled, she controls the song the way Linda Ronstadt would have at her zenith. Again the final minute fade is an intriguing Eastern-tinged instrumental interlude—adding depth to the presentation.

Marv’s vocal on the clever “More” captures the rhythmic enthusiasm of Dylan (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”), or Elvis Costello (“Watching the Detectives”) or Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Keidis (“Give It Away”), spittin lyrics with the best of them. “I caught the saints hiding in the steeple/Trying to squeeze a camel thru a needle/I said, ‘Won’t your miracles get you into heaven’?/They said, ‘No, we only got ten. We need eleven/More…’”

Marv Ross
Marv Ross (Photo Holly Johnson)

His gritty voice and Neil Youngy squawk guitar are met with the soul-drenched smoothness of background vocals from Rindy and second sax player Mel Kubik—who also plays the “Chopsticks” piano part here. Fraser absolutely burns Brian May through a quick solo. Kickin’!

Marv rocks an abrasive “Cold Turkey” riff over Williams’ solid, loping beat for the bluesy “Say What You Want About Love.” Rindy puts the hurt on the sassy verses sounding nearly unidentifiable as her former self, while she and Kubik duet on a buoyant chorus that would make Bonnie Raitt proud. The pair play clipped Phenix Horn-type punches in the break, before Fraser launches into another big, beefy solo.

Denny Bixby (Photo Tom Downer)
Denny Bixby (Photo Tom Downer)

Bassist and background vocalist Denny Bixby is afforded the opportunity to dispense the most mordant lyric of the set, with “Adios (The Funeral Song).” With the band sounding precisely like Steely Dan, circa Katy Lied—not an easy feat, as any major dude will tell you—Denny’s droll vocal emulates Donald Fagen at his most acerbic. A breezy, smooth jazz arrangement belies a biting sentiment. “You would have laughed at things they said/It seems you’re much more loveable/Now that you are dead/And if you were here you’d be half-plastered/Show up late and play the bastard/Leaving me to clean up after.” Adios, indeed.

It does not relent from there, though the band skates through the changes like bad sneakers and a pina colada, my friend. Over Marv’s curious glottal-toned Leslie-effected guitar, Fraser fires further Les Paul flame, reviving the memory of Skunk Baxter’s finest licks. I dare anyone to identify this music as Quarterflash’s without being prompted. The makeover is complete!

Marv and Rindy Ross
Marv and Rindy Ross

The forlorn ballad “Little Miracles (The Songs Rained Down)” is perhaps the most personal of the lot in context, a desolate gray narrative. “Though dad played down the end of our world/The truth cut like a knife/So, I went to my room to write that tune/And stayed there all my life.” In the mid section, a Band on the Run feel breakdown, with Rindy providing the gorgeous nightengale sax, heads off into miracle angel land.

Vocally, Rindy is the grown up version of the young woman I heard singing the Joni Mitchell song on the Student Union steps forty some years ago. She sounds like Joni Mitchell here as well, maturing in similar ways—a rich, burnished quality to her voice. Marv’s melody is deftly sculpted to the contours of that voice, each enhancing the other with expert facility.

“Rock On Little Brother” has a Lennon sense akin to “Power to the People,” with a similar intent to rouse and inspire. The clumpy thump of Williams’ kick and the clappy snap of his snare are as reassuring as Ringo’s, propelling the rhythm out to Norman Greenbaum sprint of biblical proportions. Buzzy slide guitar and gospel gang vocals add to the sparkling ambience.

Picasso After Velazquez
Picasso After Velazquez

As the years have passed, I’ve come to think of Marv Ross as similar in many ways to director Ron Howard. There are the obvious clean-cut qualities they share, of course. But both are very assiduous in the way they approach their crafts. Both are students of their art forms—producing consistently solid work. Both display the utmost respect for the traditions and influences that have helped to shape their work.

Musical allusions are lovingly employed on Love is a Road. The accoutrements of many songs imply music from a former time, in order to create a setting. Not in a nostalgic way, not in the least. It is more as if Marv Ross and co-producer Gregg Williams are attempting to recreate environment and atmosphere, giving deeper enhancement to the production. These ornaments are used as many musicians now use samples. However the riffs here are original. They merely bear some sonic similarity to the “source material.” Marv and Gregg use those colors and textures to engineer mood or milieu—nuances tailored specifically for the material.

Quarterflash Arrived 2013
Quarterflash Arrived 2013 (Photo Keith Buckley)

The songs here touch a lot of bases, both stylistically as well as thematically. All of them are the work of a highly evolved band. There is nothing re-tread or rehashed here. This is all new ground for Quarterflash. And it’s great! Without reservation, it can be said that this is their best and most satisfying album of all time. It touches all the bases—witty and wise songs, all cast in uniquely diverse settings, performed by absolute professional musicians. Voila.

A band doesn’t get there overnight, most bands never get there at all, but most assuredly Quarterflash have gotten there—they have at long last arrived!

Pink Martini

get happyGet Happy
Heinz Records

 In one way, it’s hard to believe that Pink Martini are nearly twenty years old. In another, it seems like they have always been here—a living compendium of all easy listening music that has ever gone before. Music historians or gaudy anachronisms—opinions differ on their place in the realm of popular music. But one thing is certain: there is no other musical aggregation in the world that can approach the incredible feats of sonic perfection Pink Martini regularly demonstrate. Whether you like them or not, there is no denying that their music is always pitch perfect, spot on and impeccably pristine. In that regard, this new record is their crowning achievement.

Pink 1Prolific is one thing this band is not. This being only their fifth album since 1994 (they have also released a Christmas disc, A Retrospective—a compilation of Martini favorites, and 1969, a collaboration with Japanese singer/actress Saori Yuki), it could be said that they approach the recording process with a certain leisurely indifference. That, combined with bandleader Thomas Lauderdale’s legendary perfectionism and notorious attention to minute detail, and it’s a wonder anything at all has ever emerged from the recording studio.

But with that said, it would appear that the group have managed to average three-year intervals between their last three releases—Splendor in the Grass (2009) and its predecessors, Hey Eugene (2007) and Hang On Little Tomato (2004). So perhaps that’s the band’s flight path. Three years circling the runway. We should be happy with that. It beats Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel by ages.

And Thomas Lauderdale is no ordinary perfectionist. He is attempting to replicate eras (if they ever actually existed) that generated music and sound no longer available to today’s typical listener. At least not without an extensive primer—which is precisely what Lauderdale intends to offer. His music is not easily defined. But the four cardinal points would have to be in the directions of the exotica of Martin Denny, the space age bachelor pad sensibilities of Juan Esquivel, the flash and dash of Liberace and the champagne comportment of Lawrence Welk.

There are numerous tertiary points, including obscurely campy and kitschy popular and traditional musical references gathered from all over the world: China, Japan, Romania, Turkey, Iran, France, Cuba, Brazil—as well as a broad selection of material culled from the American standard songbook. Thomas Lauderdale and Pink Martini are out to change the world the old fashioned way. They are going to entertain you. Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy! That’s about as far from our times as a musical entity can get!

Storm Large and China Forbes
Storm Large and China Forbes

This new release marks the first recorded return of vocalist China Forbes since her vocal cord surgery in 2011. It’s also the debut for vocalist Storm Large, who substituted at live engagements for Forbes during her extended convalescence. And, as has become Pink Martini custom, several guest vocalists make appearances, most endearingly, Phyllis Diller, who only months before her death last year, recorded with Thomas a delightful version of Charlie Chaplin’s song, “Smile.”

Lauderdale and his orchestra create a world of their own, a world of crystal aural clarity and fine-cut dynamic refringence. It sounds better than the music to which it pays homage, with equipment and techniques undreamt of in prior technologies. And the wizard behind that sonic curtain is one generally unheralded Dave Friedlander, engineer deluxe (and here credited for the first time as a co-producer).

Across the Universe – Trip Shakespeare

Dave works at Kung Fu Bakery studios—he now even has his own room there (where, he emphasizes, he’s offering “affordable rates”). I’ve known him for over fifteen years, but he recently came to mind earlier this summer when I was rummaging through the 6,000 CDs in my garage trying to get them organized. In doing so I ran across my long lost Trip Shakespeare album, Across the Universe, one of my favorite albums of all time. I’d been looking for that thing for six or seven years. Finally had it back.

I set about to playing it and checking out the CD booklet, as it had been so long, it was like it was brand new all over again. As I perused the back cover I noticed something among the names in the “Recorded By” category. One was David Friedlander. First among the names of “Engineers” was that same David Friedlander. Then I remembered that before he came to Portland in the mid-90s Dave hailed from Minneapolis—where he worked on a few Prince albums in the same capacity. Across the Universe was released in 1990 by a Minneapolis band (a few members later became Semisonic, who had a hit with “Closing Time” in 1998). Hmm. It was great to see his name on one of my favorite albums, but not surprising.

Dave Friedlander
Dave Friedlander

And, though he has served Pink Martini well through all of their previous stellar recordings, Dave Friedlander outdoes himself here—so much so that beyond co-producer, it is almost as if he is another member of the band. He plays parts in the quiet of space, that add subtle touches which most listeners might not realize they’re hearing, though knowing that what they do hear sounds absolutely incredible.

So for this album, it’s all come together for Pink Martini. The ten-piece instrumental ensemble—together with the regular inclusion of the vibrant strings of the Harvey Rosenkrantz Orchestra—is in fine form, navigating musical styles drawn from all over the world. It includes, for the first time on any recording, both female vocalists. The material is first rate, the prestigious guest stars, tastefully employed. If you’re a Pink Martini fan—and let me tell you there are a lot of them across the nation!—prepare to be knocked out. If you’re not a fan, this album is worth auditioning, if only once, just to hear what a perfect recording sounds like. This one is absolutely flawless.

We begin our journey in Germany, with “Ich dich liebe,” and China in the role of starlet Mamie Van Doren in the 1964 German B-movie released in the US as The Sheriff Was a Lady. This is a truly faithful version of the spritely original, with bright, cheerful horns and lullaby strings. It’s a great song, especially wonderful considering how bad the movie is—but the kitsch factor is incredibly high here. China plays it straight, giving her all, demonstrating straight-off that her voice has returned to its former grandeur.

Storm steps to the mic, as we jet to Brazil for a brilliant reconstruction of “Quizás, quizás, quizás,” first performed by Maysa Matarazzo (who, because of her troubled life, later became known as “the Janis Joplin of Bossa Nova”) in 1964. Storm’s sultry delivery matches Matarazzo’s, registering similar heat on the vocal Scoville scale—an arrangement lovingly duplicated from the original version.

Meow Meow
Meow Meow

Australian cabaret star Meow Meow takes the lead on “I’m Waiting For You,” a number derived from ‘40s Chinese vocal legend Bai Guang. Bai’s version has been sampled and re-mixed by DJs several times in the recent past. Pink stick faithfully to the spirit of the original, but they add unique touches of their own, sounding like music taken from a Bogart film. Gavin Bondy’s silky muted trumpet solo contributes a smoky essence to the mood.

Authentic Persian instrumentation provides the backing for Storm on “Omide zendgani.” Utilizing santoor (like a hammered dulcimer), kamache (violin) and setar (guitar) the ambience is struck in an extended introduction. Thomas’ dramatic piano and chirping brass are prominent as Storm delivers a warm, straightforward reading of the lyric. This rendition is modeled after a Dinah Shore performance on NBC in 1965, although her original lacks the vibrant intro and Storm’s far more passionate vocal. Who knows where in the hell Thomas saw the Shore clip in the first place to be inspired to learn the tune!

Ari Shapiro and Storm Large
Ari Shapiro and Storm Large

Lush piano and stirring strings set the scene for NPR personality Ari Shapiro’s operatic guest reading of “Yo Te Quiero Siempre,” composed by famed Cuban pianist Ernesto Lecuona. It’s a somber song expressed with grave solemnity. What we here in the states refer to as a real bringdown. But tastefully done. A modern day Canio from Pagliacci. Laugh, clown, at your broken love.

“Je ne t’aime plus” features China paired with the eccentric French pop star Philippe Katerine, who has long been recognized in his homeland for his absurd (sometimes political in context) videos. The two of them composed this song, a sort of Franco bossa nova with dappled harp, evoking Joao and Astrud Gilberto’s “Corcovado.” A French bossa nova is entirely in keeping with a tradition dating back to the ‘50s and Henri Salvador. Here, the banter between the two vocalists consists of some poor schmuck berated by, and defending himself from, an (ex?) girlfriend. In other words, typical French fare—ça va.

Timothy Nishimoto Amaren Colosi
Timothy Nishimoto (photo by Amaren Colosi)

The jaunty presentation of “Zundoko-bushi” belies a rather downcast lyric. Pink percussionist Timothy Nishimoto leads a large supporting guest chorus through a rousing interpretation of a Dorifu (the Japanese Drifters comic troupe, who performed a forty-second long opening set for the Beatles in Tokyo in 1966) classic from the late ‘60s. The song rocks—or at least in a Pink Martini landscape it rocks—propelled by Anthony Jones’ high-impact kit work. Bassist Phil Baker’s prickly sitar solo lends oddball character to the proceedings as well.

Dave Friedlander
Dave Friedlander

The Romanian torch song “Până când nu te iubeam” was made to order for Storm Large’s vocal talents. What’s more, this track is Dave Friedlander’s true moment in the aural sun. Opening with pert piano chords and trotting pizzacato strings, an Arabian cum gypsy theme is voiced by the orchestra, soon joined by a skittering balalaika-like mandolin figure not to be heard on the original by Maria Tanase. Subtle, other worldly effects usher in the triangle and tambourine augmentation in the second verse.

Storm Large (Photo by Jennie Baker)
Storm Large (Photo by Jennie Baker)

There is a timeless majesty to this track. A golden twilit glow swirls around Storm’s seductive voice. Though Maria Tanase (known as the “Romanian Piaf”) sets a very high vocal standard for this song, Storm matches it with slow, simmering intensity. The arrangement here far exceeds the simple treatment, Tanase’s version received for her recording in the ‘50s.

Like so many of the pieces featured here, Pink Martini use the original arrangements from these very obscure songs only as basic templates for their own very respectful interpretations. And it is Pink’s inherent ability to embellish and enhance the arcane source material that makes the orchestra so special. No one else in the world does what they do with such faithfully staunch dedication. A labor of pure love.

Check out their loyal reproduction of Chet Baker’s take on the Rodgers & Hart chestnut “She Was Too Good to Me.” Trombonist (and co-producer) Robert Taylor delivers an uncanny imitation of Baker’s wan singing voice, while Gavin Bondy’s flugelhorn solo casts a darker shadow than the ’74 edition. The only real difference between Pink’s and Chet’s is that Thomas plays an acoustic piano where Bob James played electric piano—and this recording sounds even better than Creed Taylor’s original production on the CTI label.

China Forbes
China Forbes

With the Turkish delight of “Üsküdar’a Gider İken,” China takes her shot at a Maysa Matarazzo reproduction. Rich flavors of koto, harp and flute float through the mix. It’s a cinematic performance suggestive of some Bond soundtrack from the ‘60s.

The familiar mambo “Sway” probably has more in common with Rosemary Clooney and Perez Prado’s 1959 rendering than Dean Martin’s from 1954. With Storm taking the lead, Thomas’ prancing piano commingles with Maureen Love’s harp in glistening arpeggios, as chunky Latin percussion and low-humming reeds pool beneath. The Pacific Youth Choir breezes a soft moonlight chorus—captured in all its radiance by the ever-adept Dave Friedlander. His mixes are always spacious and panoramic without a lot of obvious gimmickry.

Thomas, China, the Von Trapps and Rufus Wainwright
Thomas, China, the Von Trapps and Rufus Wainwright

Members of the Von Trapp family (of The Sound of Music fame) provide angelic vocal support for guest Rufus Wainwright’s touching performance of his aunt Anna McGarrigle’s very strange ballad “Kitty Come Home.” Over subdued full-orchestral backing the vivid piece unfolds over Wainwright’s quavery vocal—with some (probably intentional) lyrical ambiguity as to whether the Kitty in question is human or feline.

China’s take on the Irving Berlin chestnut “What’ll I Do?” is straightforward, the instrumentation replicated by arranger Stephen Taylor to conform to Nelson Riddle’s score for the 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Wainwright and China join to re-create the famous duet between Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland for her 1963 television show, braiding together the depression-era nuggets “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” And while Rufus and China aren’t quite up to the level of those two celebrated divas, they give the songs their best efforts.

Thomas Lauderdale
Thomas Lauderdale

A brief instrumental interlude follows, primarily Thomas at the piano, with a simple setting of Scott Joplin’s composition “Heliotrope”—which serves as introduction to Phyllis Diller’s final recording, “Smile.” With simple backing from Thomas at the piano, Phyllis, sounding old and frail, still manages to bring to sparkling life the bittersweet lyric. In my case, hearing her voice made the hair on my arms stand up rigid. No song could possibly better suit her, nor be a better salute to her life and career. Very touching.

A Pink Martini album is like a film. There are scenes and acts. It is not simply the work of (an indeterminate number of) artists directly affiliated with the organization, but with the additional input of countless other musicians. A cast of hundreds! Few popular music bands in the world can pull off what they do. A simple rock band is incapable of such musical flights of fancy.

Pink Martini
Pink Martini

Pink Martini elevate nostalgia to the level of historical reference. They do not take their source material lightly. In all cases they appear intent on improving upon the originals. Sonically, they succeed in nearly every case. It’s a perfect recording.

As a critic once opined of Lawrence Welk, “This is the squarest music this side of Euclid.” Get Happy is Euclid ska-ware, no doubt. Euclid square SQUARED, perhaps! And while some of these cuts border on outright (better sounding) forgery, they stand as the sincerest form of flattery for music nearly lost, but not forgotten—not as long as Pink Marini remain in existence.


white lighterWhite Lighter
Roll Call Records

For most people the title of this album, White Lighter, would connote an inexpensive incendiary device of no pigmentary value. A white lighter is certainly something with which the average human might be familiar. You see lighters every day. Some of them may be white.

However, there are some walking among us (and I count myself as one) for whom the context is completely different. They are “white lighters.” They’ve seen the white light. Oh yeah, the vaunted white light at the end of the tunnel when you die. Sure. Most folks think that’s an urban myth, until they experience it for themselves. I began experiencing the white light at an early age and was availed of the occasion to experience it again a time or two through the course of my adult life. I think I know what Kyle Morton, leader of Typhoon, is talking about, and even though he refers to the BIC version a time or two, his thoughts seem not to be about firing up a joint or lighting a cigarette. He’s referring to what he calls “the pale light of certain death.”

Kyle Morton
Kyle Morton

It is fairly common knowledge that Morton was very sick throughout his childhood. Undiagnosed Lyme disease ravaged his body, resulting in organ failures and an eventual kidney transplant. He certainly courted death at a very young age. For some children, that sort of grave illness can produce a deep spirituality—a spirituality that arises from within and is not transmitted from the world outside. For many, the source of that spirituality is bathed in white light. It’s my guess that Kyle Morton is one of those white lighters.

Since their inception in Salem in 2005, Typhoon have moved in mysterious ways, in fits and starts. This is to be expected with a troupe that numbers in population somewhere near the dozen mark (plus or minus). It’s been over three years since the release of their well-received second full album, Hunger and Thirst and two years since their widely acclaimed EP A New Kind of House. Tremendous critical response to that recording led to an appearance on David Letterman’s show in August of 2011.

Early Typhoon
Early Typhoon

In some ways, Typhoon have something in common with the Decemberists, though musically they are very different. As performers Morton and Colin Meloy sound nothing alike.  But what both bands do share is a propensity for drama. In the case of the Decemberists, that drama is a façade for the playwright in Meloy whereby he directs his various imaginary players as they strut and fret their moments on his musical stage.

Rarely breaking the fourth wall, Meloy is typically somewhat distanced from his subject matter, where Kyle Morton is inside of his. He has lived it. He is still living it. His drama is real. It comes from within. He and his orchestra create deep, dense, complex folk music that often perfectly articulates Morton’s thick, organic observations about relationships and life.

Their new album finds the band taking great strides in the creation of ornate musical tapestries, executing them with hard-earned facility and artistry. Beyond that they are clearly making an effort to carve for themselves a musical identity (as did Meloy and the Decemberists) that should stand them in good stead for many more albums to come.

typhoon 3With abrupt and disconcerting pauses, stark stops and stutters, the band utilizes silence somewhat in the tradition of John Cage. You’ll hear their music on their terms, the way they want you to hear it—delivering the subtle message: “Don’t get too comfortable, things can easily go sideways.” It’s a good musical lesson. It’s an even better lesson about life.

The opening track “Prelude,” a mere seventeen seconds in length, is unmistakable evidence that even the softest and most peaceful of moments can easily dissolve into static and distortion. Better fasten your seatbelts.

The concept of light, in all its various aspects and forms is addressed head on in “Artifical Light.” The orchestra—expansive, organic, pastoral—kalaidescopes majestically through Morton’s fanciful explorations of the subject. Plaintive strings, proclamatory horns, drums, bass, raindrop piano, delicate acoustic guitars, brusque electric guitars and chiming mandolin ring through an arrangement for which Sufjan Stevens would be very proud.

Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens

Like Stevens’ more symphonic endeavors, there is a certain looseness to the arrangements. It’s not the Oregon Symphony we’ve got here. Or even the Junior Symphony. Instead these aggregations sound most like highly urbane high school orchestras. That is in no way a slam. All involved are very sophisticated musicians, obviously dedicated, but at the same time, they are not necessarily first chair at their instruments (although they are improving fast). Besides, that ingenuousness is highly endearing.

So, over this rushing flood of delicate instrumentation, Morton contemplates manifold instances of light he has encountered through the course of his life. His voice, urgent, wincing, a broken glottal groan, initiates the ceremony: “In the beginning there was once a source of light/It would die and come back every night.” The song eddies and pools in places before coming to a dramatic conclusion: “Life goes on /Comes back on/We’ll all be here /In my familiar halls/ Empty jar/ Stolen song /Wait for the light /to come back home.” An auspicious beginning. A great start.

And if that first song were not epic enough in context, Morton goes one step further with the incredibly dense “Young Fathers.” How it is that Kyle so effortlessly logs long, winding narratives into four minutes of music, is a bit of a mystery. Nothing sounds crowded or compressed. The songs breathe naturally, without any sort of artificial respiration.

The introduction to the song is a tangled, mangled mess of sudden edits, head-on collisions—as if the recording software had gone awry, maybe it did. Or possibly, rather than to attempt to properly splice the parts together, they just leave it to the listener to put it together for himself. Whatever the case, the effect is quite jarring. But at the same time, the listener is forced to decide whether to actually listen to the song, or to simply conclude that he bought a defective recording.

kyle and brassThe actual song eventually locks in, and the brief upheaval is soon forgotten—though a skittering hesitance remains embroidered within the unfolding of this Neo-Wagnerian saga. Jagged electric guitar, ringing mandolin, effervescent strings, acquiescent brass, luxuriant nylon string acoustic guitar, ragged slamming drums and faint backing vocals find surprisingly clear space in the mix in support of the weighty ponder for which Kyle is now renowned.

The lyric is nearly as lengthy as Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and almost as intense. In this instance the parable balances upon the fulcrum verse at its center. “Never went to church/thought a song was gonna save me/so I wrote a hymn on the guitar that you gave me/The signal once you spoke I built a fire with the spark/You know that hope is just a small thing.” It’s never altogether clear what Morton’s particular point is at any given time, as every verse is similarly open ended—in essence: lots of exposition and not a lot of summary. Just the same, there is a great deal of dizzy artistry in the steady beat of his conundrums. Mesmerizing.

The images of home, family, the flames of an exploding sun and general misfortune recur with “Morton’s Fork.” The cheerful, anthemic delivery of the chorus, betrays a far darker libretto: “And they’ll come through the fold/This is the sound of a wild pack of hungry wolves/I won’t lie to you /It’ll be painful/It’s in your nature to fear what is natural” And that’s the optimistic part! Even still, the uplifting choir of child-like voices hymn a winsome clarion.

typhoonThe fixation with stars and existence continues with “Possible Deaths.” Sweet instrumentation—warm electric piano, a plethora of light string sounds in exotic pizzacato and more fairy-like backing vocals augment the presentation. “The Lake” is a monumental construct worthy of Carson McCullers, all fireflies and youthful passion, though beneath that lies a much darker confrontation with sickness and death. “And then as my body turned against itself/I prayed for death that I might come back as anyone else.” A harrowing number that easily could have been pulled from Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoize album, somewhere between “Chicago” and “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”

With “Dreams of Cannibalism” the morbidity evolves into Romantic pastiche, evoking My Morning Jacket most likely performing an obscure tribute to Charles Dickens in the process. Over a Morriconesque framework, Kyle emotes. “I fled the country/I thought I’d leave this behind/ But I built the same damn house/ on every acre I could find/ And I tried to fake my own death/ Just shake the devils from my mind/ I said/ Unhand me I am not a criminal/And if I am I paid the man just let me go/ Soon enough you will be dancing at my funeral.” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Rip Van Winkle
Rip Van Winkle

Kyle Morton’s songs don’t really unfold the way most do. They amble. They meander. Often nearly formless they more resemble free verse poetry set to music, although there are occasional moments of traditional exposition. “100 Years” is an excellent example. Against instrumental calm and clamor, Kyle chronicles the tale of a futuristic Rip Van Winkle—a vision solemnly horrific as a morgue slab. “They laid me down and they stripped my clothes/They gave me a shirt that says/‘I survived my own life’/It was cold. It was cold. It was cold.” Later he serves as a Virgil to some other poor transmigrating soul. “We need heat where we’re gonna go/I have been there/I should know that/It was cold. It was cold. It was cold”


“Prosthetic Love” reanimates the quadruplely amputated corpse of the previous song, perhaps with a gift of appendages crafted from pure affection. The music a haunted trembling stumble, piano driven with loudly reported drum forays, tries to keep step with Kyle’s lurching vocal. “This time I wake I’m still alive/Now in my expiration date imagine my surprise/Some backwards take on the book of Job/His life was a wager and mine’s a joke.” Possibly the most straightforward number of the bunch.

Basically a long instrumental interlude in support of a brief lyric, “Hunger and Thirst” is not nearly as ponderous nor as finely focused as the other pieces. The music moves from the hum of a brassy beeswarm to moaning Indian flavored strings, then into a cheery brass passage that introduces a short soliloquy—which seems to have no real core. From there, the music flows toward an oriental theme voiced by child-like sopranos and brilliantly executed, delicate electric guitar filigrees. The strings sweep in to herald a darker region toward the close.

kyle and typhoonThe three compact verses (crafted with successive lines of four, five and six syllables) of “Caesar” contain a sequential consideration of the parameters of ambition and its ultimate uselessness. The final act of this passion play is enacted in the paean to the indomnitability of the human spirit, “Common Sentiments.” Over the smart, prancing gait of militant drums, in a pasture of bright guitar and verdant fiddle, Kyle sums a culmination of his difficult past to weigh against his pessimism going forward. “I’ve been trying to make myself better/So I can fare the fair foul weather/I write a song like a prison letter/I write a song maybe to make me feel better/It won’t break free my fetters.”

“Post Script” is just that—an epilogue concerned with the idea of unconditional love. In that study he discovers that there are no conditions to his unconditional love (this is not meant as sarcasm). And he requires none in return. The final two minutes of the song allow the strings to play a romantic, classically modeled piece that resolves upon a desolate single note on the organ.

kyle morton1Kyle Morton and Colin Meloy have a lot in common. Both are ironfisted captains of their ships. Whether Typhoon or the Decemberists, the two leaders present such strong personal visions in their work that the supporting cast is overshadowed entirely. It’s not that you don’t perceive the instrumentation here. It’s wonderful. Beautiful. Well-devised and expertly executed. But Morton’s persona is so powerful that he could draw the spotlight away from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. His ruminations are so deep and heavy, that, like Hamlet, he is constantly weighing the gravity of his very being.

Typhoon’s White Lighter is no romp through the forest with Maggie and Bill the transformed elk. This is hardcore life in the trenches—the stench of decay as thick as October fog. Not an opera, it’s a very precise song cycle, the order of the songs explicit. Where Colin Meloy is the cool, detached observer, Kyle is wrought with furious intensity, ripping out his soul. He sings as if every song may be his last. And, given his history, that possibility does exist.

But Kyle Morton is a smart guy, well acquainted with the other side. When his moment comes, he will know to join the other white lighters in the place of no dimension to reside where time is but the breath of wind.

 typhoon group