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2011/09/26

From Good Homes

By Jav Rivera

An album’s cover art is easily one of a band’s first selling points.  I remember walking through the aisles of Best Buy when I was in college at the time when they used to place selected CDs with headsets.  As I walked down one aisle I noticed the cover for From Good Home’s second album, “Open Up The Sky”.  I briefly stopped and then continued walking.  But something made me turn around to look at it again.  I was drawn by the artwork and couldn’t help but wonder what kind of music was hiding inside this unknown band’s album.  I took a chance and bought it.  As it turns out From Good Homes (FGH) quickly became one of my favorite bands of all time.

Album cover for "Open Up The Sky"
In the early-to-mid 90s, The Dave Matthews Band made their mark on the world and people everywhere were suddenly discovering “jam-bands”.  Jam-band is a category for bands whose songs are often elaborated on by live improvisational performances.  Sometimes a three-minute song can turn into twenty minutes during a live show.  And it’s this style that made “Dead Heads” (Grateful Dead fans) follow the Grateful Dead around from town to town.  Well…that and probably the drugs.  But these interpretations would change every time depending on the mood of the band.

Although bands like the Grateful Dead already performed these types of concerts, Dave Matthews helped to reintroduce it to a new generation.  Some would say he lead the wave of 1990s jam-bands, making that style famous again (or at least helped create the category since “jam-band” wasn’t an official term when the Dead were around in the 60s).

Jam-bands seemed to be the alternative to Alternative music in the 1990s and the general public started to take notice of other closely related bands like Phish and Blues Traveler.  But there was another unrecognized jam-band with something that the others did not have: Hick-pop.  It’s the term coined by one of their critics to help describe their unique style of rock, folk, jazz and Celtic influences.

L-R: Todd, Patrick, Jamie, Brady, Dan
FGH consists of Todd Sheaffer (vocals, guitar), Brady Rymer (bass, vocals), Patrick Fitzsimmons (drums, vocals), Jamie Coan (guitar, mandolin, violin, vocals) and Dan Myers (saxophones, vocals). Originally Todd, Brady and Patrick began playing together in high school and by 1990, they had added Dan and Jamie; they were on the cusp of their FGH namesake.  They had a bit of a run in with the law for breaking into a bar where their instruments had been locked up when the bar owner decided to close early.  Since they hadn’t performed yet, they broke in and performed “as scheduled”.  The judge sentenced them to community service instead of jail time, declaring that they seemed like they were “from good homes”.

In 1994, they released their debut album “Hick-Pop Comin’ At Ya!”  Released independently, the album has the sound of a very young and enthusiastic band.  There are several stand out tracks: “Maybe We Will”, "Comin On Home", "Black Elk Speaks", “Scudder’s Lane”, and “Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’”.  But the album feels as if it comes from a band that still hadn’t tapped into their true potential.  It wouldn’t be long before they found their songwriting talents, when their debut was quickly followed up with their first major label release “Open Up The Sky” in 1995.

Album cover for "Hick-Pop Comin' At Ya!"
“Open Up The Sky” is the album that proved they could develop their songs with more innovation, focus and arrangement. It has a very simple and natural sound to it with styles varying from rock and folk.  It’s a flawless record with every track bringing originality and a powerful sense of emotion.  With themes of isolation, frustration and the search for a new life, it’s a great album for anyone traveling long distances.  Writing meaningful, thought-provoking lyrics is only half of their strength.  They also know how to make an audience dance.  Even their slower tunes gives you the sense to tap your foot.

Suggested tracks: “Let Go”, “Rain Dance”, “Sunshine”, “Radio On” and fan favorite “Head”.  (Side Note: “Head” has had many incarnations throughout its life.  It was even turned into a bluegrass tune on the debut album of Todd’s other band Railroad Earth).

L-R: Brady, Patrick, Dan, Jamie, Todd
FGH not only were critically successful, but they also impressed their musical colleagues.  They toured with Dave Matthews Band, Ratdog (with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead) and Hootie and the Blowfish who applauded their outstanding live performances.  In fact, it’s their live shows that helped gain FGH their huge following, much like the Grateful Dead.  Although I’ve never personally witnessed their live shows, based on their live recordings it’s clear that this band doesn’t write music simply from a technological point of view, they create it on instinct and feeling.

Image from official website: www.fromgoodhomes.com
In 1998, they released their self-titled studio album; a record ranging from somber and atmospheric to fun and jazzy.  It’s miles away from their previous album but similar in quality and innovation.   I was surprised by how flawless it was considering they had written such a perfect album prior.  Suggested tracks: "The Butterfly And The Tree", "Cold Mountain", "Ride All Night", "Goin' Out", "Broken Road", "Kick It On" and my personal favorite "The Giving Tree".

I was excited by the future of this band and curious as to what would be next.  Unfortunately, they decided to part ways around the time of this album.  Of course, this was 1998 and the Internet hadn’t become as widely used for news as it is today so I was unaware of their breakup for several years. 

Album cover for "From Good Homes"
That entire time I was waiting and by 2001, I learned that Todd formed a new band (Railroad Earth).  Fortunately, Railroad Earth’s debut was incredible.  Todd created a band nearly unplugged to shape a very natural, bluegrass sound.  Once again, the band gathered a huge following based on their live performances. 

Album cover from "The Black Bear Sessions" by Railroad Earth
At the same time, Brady started making his solo records beginning with the amazing “Good Morning, Gus” which is an accidental album.  Brady wrote most of these songs for his son Gus and eventually the songs made their way to the ears of friends and family – and the demand for the songs became high.  Based on the enthusiasm for the record, Brady formed a touring band and began releasing more and more children’s records.  He was recently nominated for a Grammy for his children’s record “Here Comes Brady Rymer and the Little Band that Could”.

Album cover for "Good Morning, Gus" by Brady Rymer
Drummer, Patrick released his solo records in a very unique fashion.  He sold pre-release albums to help pay for the recording process.  Basically, he was selling the album before it was even made and the people who bought the pre-release were given a bonus CD as a thank you.  This was a concept foreign to most artists (and shoppers) and tested nearly a decade before Kickstarter was online.
Album cover for Patrick Fitzsimmons's 2nd record "Dance"
Dan Myers founded the recording studio Dirt Floor Studio and has worked with such artists as Sam Champion, Adam Green as well as with Todd and Brady.  Jamie Coan writes and records music while also playing fiddle and dobro for The Red Top Ramblers.

Many fans, including myself, can only hope that one of their reunion performances will lead them into the recording studio to continue what they started back in the 90s.  It’s honorable that they have all remained friends while continuing their individual projects but the audience isn’t done with FGH yet.  We’re still waiting for more Hick-pop to come at us.

For more information about FGH, visit their official site here: www.fromgoodhomes.com

TRIVIA: Originally, the core members went under the name "Old Crow" and later "The Dogs".

2011/09/19

Saving Fish From Drowning

By Lisa Adamowicz Kless


Amy Tan introduces her novel Saving Fish From Drowning with a story from "real life": how she wandered into a New York library to escape bad weather one day and found the material for the book as she passed the time.  Or, so many readers thought; later, people began to look into the supposedly true events and people that inspired the novel, and many cried foul when they couldn’t substantiate Tan’s claims.  There are websites with comment after comment from readers, lamenting that they feel duped by the author.  I‘ll freely admit that I was one of those readers who took the opening story at face value, but I’m more inclined to say “bravo” to Ms. Tan.  Having read some of her other work and already knowing what a talented storyteller she is, her “sleight of hand” on the page gives me more admiration for her as a fellow writer.  It’s not always easy to draw readers in to your work and interweave multiple plot lines, and Tan’s possibly faux preface does both things exceedingly well.


The novel revolves around a quirky socialite and art dealer named Bibi Chen and a group of her well-to-do friends who are planning a holiday time trip to China and Myanmar.  After making the arrangements for their adventure and designating herself as tour guide, Bibi dies unexpectedly and mysteriously.  Brand new to the afterlife, she still goes along with the group, trying to figure out how to navigate her new existence along the way.  Despite Bibi’s sudden passing, her friends go forward with the vacation, justifying it by asserting that Bibi would’ve wanted them to forge ahead.  Tan’s use of Bibi as a wacky, unreliable storyteller is pure fun.  What follows is a winding, complex comedy of errors that culminates with the group disappearing into a jungle on Christmas Day.
Amy Tan

Though this isn’t a quick read (it has 474 pages), the commentary from Bibi Chen throughout amps up the adventure.  Sometimes sarcastic and always opinionated, Bibi gives us glimpses into the characters' faults, attributes and frailties.  It’s through these insights from Bibi that characters who seem a little bit cloying on the surface are given more depth, and we can even empathize.  While much of the novel is somewhat light-hearted and funny, political commentary, misunderstandings (and just plain ignorance) of other cultures and beliefs also play a large part in the storyline.  There were a few characters that I would have liked to have seen expanded on even more, and some reactions from the characters that seemed rather unrealistic considering the circumstances.  All in all though, this novel maintained a perfect record: there hasn't yet been a book from Amy Tan that I haven't enjoyed. 

2011/09/12

The Grays | Ro Sham Bo

By Jav Rivera

Most music-lovers typically have most of the classic albums in their collections such as Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” or The Beatles “White Album”.  Every so often, however, you find an album that should be in their collection.  “Ro Sham Bo” by The Grays is one of those.

Album Cover
The Grays released their first and only album “Ro Sham Bo” in 1994.  The album has a classic rock sound, with polished guitars, incredible production value, and what feels like a cross between The Eagles and The Beatles.  The band consisted of Jason Falkner (vocals, guitars, bass, keyboard), Jon Brion (vocals, guitars, bass, keyboard), Buddy Judge (vocals and guitars), and Dan McCarroll (drums).  

And despite it being the only album they ever released, it has been critically applauded for years.  It was produced by Grammy Award-winning music engineer and producer Jack Joseph Puig.  Puig also produced albums for U2, The Black Crowes, Weezer, Fiona Apple, The Counting Crows, Stone Temple Pilots, and Sheryl Crow.

L-R: Jason Falker, Jon Brion, Dan McCarroll, Buddy Judge
The album produced the single “Very Best Years” which had minor airplay on the radio.  Their music video didn’t get much attention on MTV or VH1 either.  I distinctly remember hearing the tail end of it on the radio and hoping for the DJ to announce the name of the band.  But as luck would have it I would have to wait until another few weeks, while driving my car, to discover its creator.  I immediately bought the CD and still claim it as one of the best albums in my vast collection.


In a way, The Grays could be referred to as a super group, albeit none of them had achieved much popularity before forming.  But it was a collaboration from musicians who had already established themselves as solo songwriters.  The album is so flawless that it's hard to pinpoint the best tracks to suggest, however, here are some of my favorites:

Everybody’s World” (by Buddy Judge)
Buddy Judge has been establishing himself as a composer for films and documentaries. “Everybody’s World” is a good example of layering and production mixing.  The track begins with a grungy guitar that slowly builds into the main theme, much like a film's score crescendoing to the pinnacle of a scene.  

Both Belong” (by Jason Falkner)
Something in my brain loves the sound of an acoustic guitar. Jason Falkner’s “Both Belong” proved that a rock band could still function as powerful without the use of a loud electric guitar.  Of course I would later be exposed to such classic albums from bands such as The Who and Boston who often used acoustic guitars to compliment the electric lead and rhythm guitars.

"Same Thing" (by Jon Brion)
One of the many things that I love about The Grays is their song dynamics.  "Same Thing" is a great example of the band's ability to change their musical emotion and tempo within the same song.  Their compositions can start light-hearted and take a dramatic turn somewhere in the middle and come back around to playful melodies.  "Same Thing" also showcases their guitar solos which helped strengthen the intensity of the overall piece.  Their solos never sound contrived or arrogant; they simply add to the song with technical and emotional skills.  It’s rare to find an album composed of songs that feel this established and perfected while maintaining their spontaneity.  

Is It Now Yet” (by Buddy Judge and Dan McCarroll): Judge and McCarroll may not have gained as much attention as Falkner and Brion but their contributions to this album made a huge impact.  “Is It Now Yet” introduces the album’s more dark sound. A crude view at life, the song possesses one of the band’s best features: their harmonies.  As depressing as the lyrics may be, one can't help but sing along to the harmonic chorus.

Friend Of Mine” (by Jason Falkner): Twang guitars that sound like a modern version of a classic Eagles tune mixed with a typical composition by Falkner make “Friend Of Mine” a side step to alternative music.  It’s one of the strongest tracks on the album and yet probably the reason most teens in the 1990s didn’t “get” The Grays. It’s somber and yet aggressive.  It may have twang but this is certainly not a country-pop tune.  It's definitely ahead of its time and much more grown up than the Grunge music that was beginning to form at the time.  

"No One Can Hurt Me" (by Jon Brion)
Jon Brion could be described as a visual composer and when you listen to the tracks he wrote on this album you can’t help but feel that mindset. “No One Can Hurt Me” begins with a slippery bass line and unusual instrumental elements floating in and out within the background.  The acoustic guitar’s main riff slowly strums in and after the track’s long intro the main song begins.  This is where the band treads on alternative and progressive music.  

The individual band members each have had great success.  Jon Brion has composed music for several films including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, Punch-Drunk Love, and Magnolia.

Jon Brion
Dan McCarroll was recently promoted from Senior Publishing Executive to President of Capital and Virgin Label Group in North America.

Buddy Judge has composed music for several films including This Is Where We Take Our Stand, Beer Wars, Certifiably Jonathan, and for the DVD of David Fincher's film, Zodiac. He has also recorded with such artists as Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, Liz Phair and The Wallflowers.

Jason Falkner has gone onto produce several critically successful solo records.  He has also performed on albums for several musicians including Paul McCartney, Susanna Hoffs, Beck, Aimee Mann, and Daniel Johnston. *Side Note: Falkner was approached by Paul McCartney after he heard Falkner's album "Bedtime with The Beatles," an instrumental interpretation of The Beatles music made for newborns.  Additionally, McCartney contributed to the followup, "Bedtime With The Beatles Part Two."

Jason Falkner's album "Bedtime With The Beatles"
Jason Falkner's album "Bedtime With The Beatles Part Two"
Falkner is one of the many artists who have inspired me to experiment with the production of a song.  Instead of working with session musicians to play the other instruments, he often layers his own performances to create a band-like sound.  His album “Necessity: The 4-Track Years” is an excellent example of his layering.  This was made, before digital recording, by use of an analog 4-Track recorder. (Falkner used Tascam's Porta One Unit).

Jason Falkner
For those of you unfamiliar with this device, it’s basically a tape player that can record up to 4 instruments/tracks separately.  In Falkner’s case, he used the process of sel-sync (selective synchronous) recording which allowed him to record on a separate track while playing back the previously recorded track – hence layering.

iPad's digital version of the Porta One
"Ro Sham Bo" has an experimental feel to it and it could be theorized that these were four incredible musicians attempting to collaborate on a passion project.  So it’s a shame that The Grays parted ways because their techniques, though seemingly perfected, had plenty of room for further exploration.  I respect them for following their own paths but I can only imagine what direction they would have gone on a follow-up album.  It’s unlikely that the band will ever get back together but fortunately we have “Ro Sham Bo” to celebrate.  

At the time of posting this article, there was no official download of this album.  Hopefully it will be re-released in the near future but until then here's a link to a myspace page with some of the tracks available for previewing: http://www.myspace.com/thegraysroshambo

And for more information on the band, visit:
Jason Falkner: www.jasonfalkner.net
Buddy Judge: www.buddyjudge.com
Dan McCarroll: n/a

TRIVIA: Grammy Award-winning music engineer and producer Jack Joseph Puig, who worked on "Ro Sham Bo", also produced albums for U2, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, The Black Crowes, Beck, The Counting Crows, and Roger Hodgson (of Supertramp). 

2011/09/05

Radio Girl (RG) Productions

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

Mentioning old time radio shows probably puts you squarely in a scene of nostalgia like the one above: families in a bygone era huddled together around the radio in their living rooms, eagerly awaiting an evening of entertainment. In the present day when sight, sound and special effects are available at the press of a button, long gone are those radio show days when imagination played a key role, right? RadioGirl Productions, or RG, as they’re commonly known, would be happy to have you pull up a seat and get comfortable so that they can prove to you that the answer is a resounding “no”.

RG is the creation of three women from varying backgrounds: Nita Hunter, Joan Roehre and Leslie Utech. Nita’s goal was to bring old time radio out of the past and back onto the airwaves, not only resurrecting classic shows but to showcase new productions as well. Along with a cast of dynamic voice actors and a talented crew, she and her two fellow founding members have been doing just that.


Hunter, executive producer of RG Productions, has won two awards for her original radio plays "And On the Eighth Day," (a re-telling of the Scopes Monkey Trial), and “Rebecca Diamond: Private Eye". Influenced by Orson Welles and “A Prairie Home Companion“, she's happy to stay mostly behind the scenes, but will occasionally grace the stage. Roehre is a veteran stage and radio actress, performing in not only RG Productions’ events but local theater as well. She also directed RG’s production of “The Shadow, Silent Avenger”, originally a 30s era radio show whose main character was voiced by Orson Welles at one point. Rounding out the trio of founding “Girls” is Utech, a producer, director and actor. Bestowing a compliment that proves how deeply she commits herself to her roles, an audience member once commented that when Utech played Gracie Allen, she was Gracie Allen.

More than twenty other actors and crew members make up RG Productions, most of them from the region in between Milwaukee and Chicago. Performing mainly at venues in that same area, RG Productions’ shows have a little bit of something to appeal to everyone. Whether they're in a historic site or a modern facility, RG uses live music, sound effects and costumes to enhance their live performances. Staying true to the tradition of old time radio shows though, their work is also broadcast on WGTD 91.1 FM out of Kenosha, Wisconsin three nights a week.

Doug Despin as Rick & Leslie Utech as Ilsa in a "Casablaca" promo shot


Branching out into collaborative ventures, in October of last year members of RG were a part of “Nosferatu”, a multi-discipline arts event in Kenosha, WI centered around the silent film classic of the same name. This fall, they’ll be part of a “Sci-Fi-O-Rama”, performing “Flash Gordon” and “Space Patrol”. With the driving passion of Hunter behind the scenes supported by the dedication and enthusiasm of the rest of the RG Productions family, younger generations will be able to discover the appeal of old time radio for a long time to come.
 
To learn more about the myriad projects that RG Productions has been involved in, see their upcoming show schedule and to hear some of their past broadcasts (including Dracula, The Grapes of Wrath, Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, The Shadow and more), visit their website at http://rgaudioproductions.com/.