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Interviews

Pamela Claire

Pamela Claire

With its percolating mix of indie-pop, funk, and jazz, “Directing Traffic”, the latest single from Australian singer/songwriter Pamela Claire offers a welcome respite from the gloom of the current pandemic. Oddly enough, it was her previous song, “End of Days,” unexpectedly released right before the virus enveloped the world stage seemed to predict, at least in its title, what could seemingly unfold. But that doesn’t overshadow the colorful charms of “Directing Traffic,” which is like a hip cross between the folk experimentation of Joni Mitchell with the streetwise rhythms of Luscious Jackson.

Q: It seems eerily fitting that you released a single called “End of Days” before the pandemic we’re experiencing happened. What are your thoughts on what’s happening?

A: Music has a life of its own and part of that is recognising how the listener grabs, and ‘owns’ it. Music can be very personal and a few people have shared that “End of Days” sums up how they are feeling about the current crisis, as in not being able to see the people they love or fearing the loss of the people they love. “End of Days” was written a while ago (4 years) and recorded last year (2019) before the current crisis. Maybe we are eternally ending? “End of Days” may speak to the moment you finally realize you are at the end of something, not a pretend or maybe end but the very end. The salt in the wound being that by the time you realize it’s over, it’s already long gone. I just hope everyone is close to people that care about them and supporting each other in these unsettling times.

Q: Being a professional musician is a difficult path in life to take. What made you decide to embark on that journey?

A: It’s hard to deny your creative self, you can try but you end up all twisted up inside. In many ways it’s an extension of who you are. Life can be difficult whatever path you take, whatever profession you pursue. You may as well pick a path that you can enjoy. Writing songs is something I have always done. It helps me process myself and the world around me.

Q: What are the personal challenges you have gone through as a musician, and how did you overcome them?

A: Over the years I’ve been challenged by a lack of confidence and connection. For years I wanted to ‘make something’ but didn’t credit any ideas I had as good enough to make. I’ve been lucky enough to be around really good musicians in my life. It was always so much easier and enjoyable for me to sit in the audience than to ‘pick up and play’. There came a time about 5 years ago where I gave myself permission to stumble and create. At first it was just for me, an audience of one, incredibly personal and confessional. Eventually I braved it and shared the music with some close friends who were very encouraging and supportive of me developing the music. I developed a demo then connected with the very talented producer and arranger Justin Ossher who started to build the songs into the vision – giving it a big wide landscape and many different moods and musical idioms.

Q: In terms of musical style, where do you see fitting? It can be more than one.

A: Absolutely. The album is a real mixed bag of lollies or sweets as you may say in the U.S. There are hat tips to jazz, country, blues, rock and disco. Terms like ‘Retro Pop’, ‘Alt folk’ have been thrown around but I’m unsure- maybe you can tell me? The music at times sounds nostalgic with modern storytelling. The album has some of Melbourne’s finest musicians playing on it. Diego Villalta (guitar), Adam Spiegel (bass), Damien Ellis (drums), Fabian Acuna (trumpet), Carmen O’Brien (violin), Luis Poblete (percussion), Huw Gregory (piano), Terry Mcleod (sax). All talented musicians influenced by various styles from jazz, classical, blues, country and rock.

Q: What was the first slice of music that ignited your imagination?

A: I come from a family of more music lovers than players and was lucky to be introduced to a wide range of music as a little one – Janis Joplin, Creedence, Bruce Springsteen, Cream. I remember being fascinated with Janis Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “White room” by Cream – I was seven.

Q: Tell me your artistic influences and how they affected you. What did you learn from them?

A: Tom Waits I adore. His songwriting, voice and feel. Tori Amos is so beautifully emotional and otherworldly. David Bowie, an incredible artist famously quoted for “Don’t play to the gallery”. Sarah Vaughan and her magnificent voice. All different artists but so uniquely able to very quickly transport you. I’m drawn to artists that create a world for you or are able to share their inner world.

Q: Can you describe how you have evolved creatively throughout the years?

A: I sang in musicals as a kid. I played ‘Fagin’ in the school musical Oliver when I was 11 years old. Strange but true. I was an actor in my late teens/early 20’s in a few theatre productions. I then became involved with filmmaking and editing and ran a small business making music videos for Australian artists. I left that world behind and focused a decade on studies and community service work. I picked up a guitar and started writing again 5 years ago when I was home with our baby daughter. As most parents can relate to, you are very housebound in the early years and creatively I had 20 years of emotional back catalogue to process, so it was perfect timing. Making this album (Lonely Sets Me Free – out late 2020) with Justin Ossher and some of Melbourne’s finest musicians was in every way a dream come true. The process pushed me way out of my comfort zone and off the cliff. I have a background in film making so writing and directing the music videos for the album allowed me to creatively and visually take the storytelling to different place. There are many ways you grow creatively over time: by allowing yourself to take risks, to make mistakes, to take time to develop ideas, to embrace the multi faceted ways in which you grow and the way ideas fully express themselves – are all part of it. Also knowing when to back yourself and learning when to listen to people who you trust and who respect your ideas – are all so important. My intention, from the beginning, was that the music was realised to its fullest potential. As challenging as it can be at times, it is such a wonderful experience being able to create your own work. It’s incredibly creatively satisfying and when others connect to the work you have made- well that’s the cherry on top.

www.pamelaclaire.com/about

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Music Reviews

Mark St. John

Mark St. John

King Orange

“King Orange” is a raw, yet fun and engaging single from Mark St. John, a talented singer/songwriter with a lifelong passion for real back-to-basics rock & roll a la Lou Reed.

Recently, he took to the Internet to release “King Orange.” On YouTube, there is a cool video of “King Orange” with a lot of images relevant to the track and its meaning. One of the most distinctive elements of this release is definitely St.john’s unique voice. He reminds me of iconic performers the likes of Joe Strummer as well as Elvis Costello, only to mention a few. The arrangement is a catchy rock with a strong melody, and it really makes me think of what it might sound like if Tom Waits had an opportunity to go and jam with Huey Lewis and the News. The structure of this song is refreshingly simple, fueled by a creamy, driven electric guitar tone. In addition to that, there is something truly special about a track that flows so seamlessly and spontaneously, channeling the authentic feel of rock music and more.

At the end of the day, this is a song that is entertaining, but also very thought-provoking, making for a unique feel.

www.markstjohnsongs.com

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Music Reviews

Jake La Botz

Jake La Botz

They’re Coming For Me

Hi-Style / Free Dirt

Jake La Botz’s music is almost as eccentric as his life. La Botz was a juvenile delinquent, punk rock busker who was tutored in the art of the blues by an old Maxwell Street performer in Chicago. He makes records, plays in bars and shows up in movies as an actor. Maybe you saw him on True Detective playing Conway Twitty. Jake’s music is rooted in blues and Americana with absolutely no fidelity to tradition. He’s happy warping expectations, seriously making music that doesn’t take anything too seriously.

They’re Coming For Me covers a lot of emotional territory, from Noir paranoia to absurdist comedy. “Snow Angel” is a rather bleak story of petty criminals on the run. The lines “Detroit coming into view/ Skeletons stretching out to the River Rouge” reminds me of seeing the ghost of Michigan Central Station coming into view as I drove into town. The song captures some of the sadness of being lost and abandoned like the station. “They’re Coming For Me” is a dark story of paranoia and conspiracy. The song opens “I left this note beside the bed / In case I disappear / in case I turn up dead.” La Botz sounds a little like Tom Waits being a fatalistic curmudgeon on “Terrible Game.”

Like Eric Idle at the end of Life of Brian, La Botz sees the bright side of life, or at least it’s absurdity. “Nashville, Nashville” combines all the trivializing comments non-musicians make to working musicians. “You’re a musician / Tell men what do you play / What kind of job do you do during the day?” Another song starts out like it’s going to be a pop gospel song. The character in the song cheerily sings. “I found a nail in the road today and I thought about Jesus / I picked it up and put it away and I thought about Jesus / It would be a shame to catch a flat tire out here in the rain.” What starts out sounding all Kumbaya takes a dark turn a few chorus later when it turns out our Jesus contemplating buddy is an armed bank robber. I dare you not to crack a smile when you hear Jake doing his best Dr. John drawl the talking blues, “Hey Bigfoot.” You know with all the craziness in the news these days, people aren’t spending as much time on cryptozoology. Bigfoot laments, “I’m trying to get back in the news / I’ll do interviews.”

The bonus track, “This Comb” is a very over the top gospel blues song. It feels like Jake is taking the standard sales job interview question, “sell me this (insert trivial item here)” to it’s most hyperbolic extreme. This is a mighty good comb. It had magic powers and I got it mass produced in China, just for you!”

www.histylerecords.com

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Music Reviews

Chip & Tony Kinman

Chip & Tony Kinman

Sounds Like Music

Omnivore Recordings

Growing up in Georgia during the late ’70s, early ’80s didn’t exactly offer much in the way of culture. College football and southern rock were the norms. I couldn’t stand the oversized influence of football, and while I saw my fair share of boogie rock shows, by the time I graduated from high school in 1980, my listening was either the Stones, or punk. The Clash and The Ramones had (thankfully) cured me of my Molly Hatchet listening, but still, entire genres lay before me. One evening in the mid-’80s I was at the house of a guy who worked in a record store, and his living room was wall-to-wall LPs and tapes. He was in the habit of tossing me cassettes with the notion of expanding my musical knowledge. That night his gifts changed my life, in a way. He gave me Thelonious Monk’s 1968’s Underground, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble’s first, Texas Flood and the debut record from a band from Austin, Rank and File.

Now I was somewhat familiar with jazz – although Monk blew my little Georgia mind – and I was quick to get into SRV’s wailing, but Sundown from Rank and File, well, that was country. But it was on Slash Records, home to punk acts! But it was twangy, and as the opener “Amanda Ruth” played, followed by “(Glad I’m) Not in Love”, I was hooked. It was an entirely new vista for me, one I subsequently embraced. To this day Sundown is one of my favorite records, due in large part to the songwriting and heavenly voices of the Kinman brothers, Chip and Tony.

Now at the time I had no idea of The Dils, their first notable band, but I was entranced by the brothers, who, along with roots superstar in waiting Alejandro Escovedo formed R&F. So when I got notice of this collection from Omnivore, Sounds Like Music, I was thrilled. Little did I realize how chameleon-like Chip and Tony were, musically. The Dils (who’s “Folks Say Go” shows up here) were straight-up Cali punk, but I had no idea about their other pursuits, Blackbird and Cowboy Nation.

Blackbird has the most cuts on this collection, and you really can’t get further away from their previous sound. Formed after R&F broke up, Blackbird sounds a lot like Eno’s rock albums, very electronic and post-punk (with a nifty version of Tom Waits “Jersey Girl”, sounding a bit like early Suicide), and it’s arresting in its eeriness. Cowboy Nation returned, somewhat, to the country sound of Rank & File, and throughout all 22 cuts on this collection, it’s the harmonies of Chip and Tony that grab you. An alternate version of “Lucky Day” from Sundown is included, and the sound of those two voices, well, it melts my heart. Sadly, Tony died in 2018, but thankfully the music he and Chip made is, by virtue of this record, and Chip reuniting The Dils, remains accessible. Chip and Tony Kinman were incredibly influential in a wide variety of styles, from punk to country, and suffered the slings and arrows that befalls pioneers. So pick up this collection and change your life.

www.omnivorerecordings.com

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Music Reviews

Mark Cline Bates

Mark Cline Bates

King of the Crows

His producer, the renowned Don Dixon calls Bates a “hillbilly Randy Newman”, and that’s pretty close- I find him akin to a piano-playing Richard Thompson at times (such as on the haunting “Mississippi”), but in reality, Mark Cline Bates stands alone on his second release, King of the Crows. Recorded essentially live in the studio, Bates, along with a great backing band- Jim Brock, drums, Michael Lipton, guitar with Dixon on bass – has crafted a tremendously engaging work on these 12 cuts.

Opening with “Animals”, onto “Mississippi” and “Self Control”, Bates sounds like he’s holding onto life by a desperate clutching of the piano keys – never giving himself or his upbringing a break. The protagonist of ‘Baby Don’t Like” – a plate-smashing abuser that one hopes isn’t based on himself – is a character rarely voiced in pop culture, and Bates captures the evil with a mournful gut punch. The narrator of “Caged Up Bull” fares little better, a man frustrated by “the push and the pull”, Tom Waits blaring as he rides thru his small town. Vivid captures of unglamorous people, living day to day in troubling circumstances, lives that Bates transforms into art. Not happy art, to be sure, but a poetic and unapologetic glimpse nevertheless.

By the time the record ends with “My Heart Is Good” – a call for redemption and mercy – the listener has been on a somber, emotional journey that leaves you with unanswered questions, and well-earned respect for the craft that it took to achieve. Mark Cline Bates has created one of the year’s best releases. Easy listening it’s not…but life rarely is. Kudos to Bates and Don Dixon, whose understated production makes the songs shimmer with a certain low intensity. Can’t wait for the next chapter.

markclinebates.com

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Music Reviews

Bernard Fowler

Bernard Fowler

Inside Out

Rhyme & Reason Records

If you don’t recognize the name, you may recognize the voice. Bernard Fowler has been on the New York music scene for decades. Back in the day, he sang with Tackhead and jazz/funk visionaries, Material. Since then, he’s been a voice for hire for everyone from Philip Glass, Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono and Public Image Ltd. Since 1988, Bernard Fowler has been part of the extended Rolling Stones family. Inside Out finds Fowler stripping mostly deep tracks from the Stones catalogue and reconstructing them as mutant funk meditations.

In Fowler’s hands, “Sister Morphine” becomes a downtown jazz standard by way of Tom Waits. Fowler intones the lyric over a funk groove. His voice floats over the rhythms with a Miles Davis inflected trumpet playing tag. “Sympathy for the Devil” is driven by congas and minimal piano. Sure, they’re recognizable as Stones songs, but it’s a totally new way of hearing it.

“Undercover of the Night” is turned into a Last Poets-style recitation. The words sound like a stream of consciousness tour of the underbelly of NYC. Crooked cops and hustlers square off on the streets while Sonny Rollins blows his horn on the Brooklyn Bridge. “All the Way Down” becomes a greasy funk number sounding like something from a Pam Grier movie playing in a grindhouse on The Deuce. “Time Waits for No One” takes on a Gill Scott Heron fronting War vibe.

I really appreciate what Fowler does on Inside Out. Tribute albums to a particular artist are pretty common these days. Fowler deconstructs and reconstructs these Stones songs and really makes them his own. Bringing new life and new ways of hearing songs takes the cover song from the common to the extraordinary.

bernardfowler.com

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Music Reviews

Mandy Barnett

Mandy Barnett

Strange Conversation

Thirty Tigers

If a better reason to have ears has been released this year, I ain’t heard it. Strange Conversation by songstress Mandy Barnett is intoxicating, sultry and yes, strange – cue up “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done”, a duet with John Hiatt – but the record’s ten tracks give you a glimpse of this powerful singer and interpreter.

Starting with the sexy “More Lovin'” with Arnold McCuller on guest vocals, you can see why Barnett decided to record in Muscle Shoals – the record is endued with that certain Southern heat and funk that is a hallmark of that upper Alabama sound. The Tam’s “It’s All Right (You’re Just in Love)” follows with a nifty bit of vintage soul/pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a airing of American Bandstand back in the ’60s. Barnett’s musical reach is vast, from a take on Lee Hazelwood’s “The Fool” to an absolutely swampy and stirring romp on Tom Wait’s “Puttin’ On The Dog” that makes you sweat even sitting in air conditioning. Lawdy.

The record ends with a barn-burner of a take on Andre Williams’ “Put a Chain on It” with the great McCrary Sisters lending their voices alongside some great guitar from producer Doug Lancio. Mandy Barnett can sing it all…and really well at that. Try a little Strange Conversation. You absolutely won’t regret a moment.

www.mandybarnett.com

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Music Reviews

Chris Butler and Ralph Carney

Chris Butler and Ralph Carney

Songs for Unsung Holidays

Smog Veil

How come there are no more silly bands?

That is the question Ralph Carney asked Chris Butler that spawned this collection of bizarre tributes to holidays that almost no one celebrates. Carney and Butler have been friends and collaborators since the mid ’70s. They played together in Tin Huey and the Waitresses. Over the years, Carney has played reeds with everyone from Tom Waits to Medeski, Martin and Woods to Les Claypool to his nephews Patrick Carney’s band The Black Keys. Butler was the songwriter for the Waitresses and an in-demand producer and session musician. Both men have been prolific solo artists. This batch of silly songs is the last project Carney worked on before his death in 2017.

The tunes on Songs for Unsung Holidays are as weird as the days they commemorate. “Introduce A Girl to Engineering Day” (February 23rd) has narration about career opportunity in engineering punctuated by a Devo does the Chipmunks chorus. It’s unrepentantly goofy and probably my favorite song on the album.

“Bubble Wrap Day” (March 18th) has it’s charms too. I can’t resist a song that liberally uses kazoos and proclaims the superiority of bubble wrap to peanuts and newspaper for packing fragile things. Foods are well represented with “Tapioca Day” (July 15th), “Lobster Day” (June 15th). “Salami Appreciation Day” (September 7th) and “Cheese Ball Day” (April 17th). I guess “Buffet Day” (January 2nd) celebrates all of the above.

A couple of tunes seem to take their holiday to task. “Bath Safety Day” (June 3rd) turns out to be a ode to taking showers. “Bald and Free Day” (October 14th) is more about berating those who insist on wearing rugs on their heads.

In the days of free-form FM radio when DJ’s could pick their own playlist, I could see these tunes popping up through the year. I know I would be pulling out this disc pretty regularly if I were still doing a radio show. I like serious music, but as some Irish philosopher once said, there still time for dumb entertainment. Put on your “Gorilla Suit” (January 31st) and have a walk around.

www.smogveil.com

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Music Reviews

Kinky Friedman

Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys snuck onto the music scene in the early ’70s with satirical country songs. It’s no surprise that songs like “Ride ’em Jewboy” and “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” never cracked the top of the pops. When his music career stalled in the ’80s, he turned to writing offbeat mystery novels that featured a fictionalized version of Kinky as a New York City private eye. He also ran for various political offices, including justice of the peace, agriculture commissioner and governor. Circus of Life is Kinky’s first collection of new songs in forty years. If you believe his press release, he got to writing because Willie Nelson told him he was watching too many Matlock reruns on TV.

Circus of Life is a collection of story songs about down and outers and stray dogs. The opening track, “A Dog Named Freedom”, combines pathos and humor as Kinky tells the story about a homeless vet and his three-legged dog. Kinky’s voice, mellowed by age and cigar smoke is perfect for conveying the world-weariness and defiance of the character. “Jesus in Pajamas” finds Kinky describing a 3am encounter with a homeless man in a Denny’s in Dallas. “Help me if you can, ” is the request from the divine. Like many of us, Kinky might have been able to help, but he beats a retreat leaving the homeless man drooling at his table.

Musically, Kinky is playing a laid-back brand of country music similar to what Willie Nelson is doing these days. “Autographs in the Rain” pays tribute to Willie, the help he has given people like Kinky and his devotion to his fans. The people inhabiting Kinky’s songs come from the same dives and backstreets as Tom Waits characters. “Sister Sarah” sounds like the sort of person who you’d find hanging out with Tom’s “Gun Street Girl”. I haven’t been waiting with baited breath for a new Kinky Friedman album, but I am glad that he heeded Willie’s advice. There will always be Matlock reruns on TV.

http:/www.kinkyfriedman.com

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Music Reviews

J.D. Wilkes

J.D. Wilkes

Fire Dream

Big Legal Mess / Fat Possum

Fire Dream has iconic cover art. A banjo-plucking everyman stares into a hobos barrel fire, seeing a seductress rising from the flames. It’s a great piece of art that gives an accurate visual preview of what’s inside. J.D. Wilkes steps away from the Legendary Shack Shakers to take us on a hallucinatory walk on the underside of the American dream.

The album opens with the Tom Waits sharing a bottle of Muscatel with R. Crumb hallucination that is “Fire Dream”. It’s a club footed dance by an orchestra from a Max Fischer cartoon. In my imagination, I see the fire goddess from the cover dancing with ghosts and demons. The song is wonderfully warped, timeless and out of time.

“Hoboes Are My Heroes” takes me to another time. There isn’t much romance about homelessness these days, but there was a time when the Hobo was a romantic figure, free to travel and roam the nation hopping freight trains and living in camps down by the switching yard. Wilkes brings that fantasy to life with this song.

I also love the mariachi blues of “Walk Between the Raindrops”. The tune is a soft shuffle, a wistful ode to doing something impossible. No one can walk between raindrops, at least not in this reality. Then again, Wilkes is creating his own reality as he goes. Fire Dream may just be a classic of hallucinogenic Americana.

jdwilkes.com