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LIGHTNING STRIKES – Quick but essential reviews for the discerning listener

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Finally getting a chance to tidy up a couple of loose summertime ends, SEM takes advantage of the brief lull the end of the season affords to bring you up to speed on two albums that fell into our laps back in June and July and one that arrives September 29th that should hopefully keep your summer mojo goin’ through the colder days ahead. [feature photo: Trish Tritz]

kalinich tiv

STEPHEN KALINICH & JON TIVEN – “Each Soul Has A Voice” (MsMusic)

How many songs have you and your bandmates written in the last few years? The productive among you will say, what, fifty? Fifty-five? The prolific will top out at seventy-five max, for which kudos all around (especially as that’s 50-75 more than I’ve written. Ever.) Then there’s people like a certain Mr Pollard, writing songs with an almost mundane regularity as if it’s a side activity to keep himself amused while eating corn flakes or paying the water bill, Babybird’s Stephen Jones, who apparently amassed some two hundred fifty even before the first albuum, or, more famously, Rick Nielsen, who had an Olympus-sized trove to choose from well before he ever thought to put the words ‘Cheap’ and ‘Trick’ together. Record-holders all you might think but no, I say we need to cede the top step on the podium to Stephen Kalinich and Jon Tiven, whose partnership conjured at least seven hundred viable candidates for what would become a 14-track album. Now, that backdrop, and the odds it presents, should alone ensure a decent record – even a couple of shlubs with minimal experience could be reasonably expected to manage a 2% strike rate – but seeing as we’re talking about a widely-respected, erstwhile Beach Boy and PJ Sloan collaborator (Kalinich) and a guy (Tiven) that’s got a CV that includes writing for and performing with the likes of Big Star, the Rolling Stones, Steve Cropper (making an appearance here on the groove rock’n’soul highlight “Explosions of Love”) and countless others, those odds spike rather dramatically, a calculus Each Soul Has A Voice proves at every turn with a sure-footed charm and a deep – and deeply musical – sincerity.

Kick-off track “Rude Awakenings” sets Brian May loose on a hippie urban sprawl of a tune that sets a bar band vibe inside a swaying, rough-edged wall of sound, “Usually” introduces Chuck Berry to a basement Bob Dylan that maybe headed more towards his early Little Richard fixation than Greenwich Village, “1000 Nights” has a Stax-goes-N’Awlins swing to it, “To Each and Every Soul” preaches from the rock’n’roll pulpit with a gorgeous, hope-arousing emphasis, Tiven’s piano work triggering memories of both Nicky Hopkins and Billy Preston, and the title track has a Thursday night at Winterland, 1974 feel to it, unleashed harmonica solo and all, the song overall with a kind of joyous, Aquarian workingman’s roll to it, a sense of rock in its knowing prime.

In a way, that sense permeates Every Soul Has A Voice, there’s that masterful ease to it that’s very similar to what we hear when we return to the records bought during the Ford Administration. Not just the offhand confidence, the brash command of studio and instrument that we rather took for granted, but as well a banging busyness of purpose that makes this album sound as if there are legions of them crowded into the soundproofed confines when in fact, barring the handful of guests, it’s just the two of them with Jon’s wife Sally on bass and Cody Dickinson behind the kit. In rare moments, such as on the irreverent “Life Is A Fucking Zoo” and its literal menagerie of animal sounds, it’s an element that begs an editor’s reflex, but for the most part it’s a bonus, the tapestry on offer rich and textured.

Endowed with a popcrafter’s suss dueling it out with an incipient street smarts, ESHAV, released in July on MsMusic, was a summer charmer of a record that’ll cast a sharp shadow any time of the year, and make that still another pair of musicians we at SEM are happy to – finally – get hipped to. √√√


SNOW IN MEXICO – “Juno Beach” (Saint Marie Records)

Another summer release finally resonating through the endless hallways of the great unwalled offices here at SEM, this third outing from Italian synth wave duo with the somehow instinctively perfect name Snow In Mexico is four hypnotic, immersive tracks that obtain a level of lush-but-substantive flawlessness few in their genre manage. No pandering, not a shred of cheese, no overt pretensions to cinematic grandeur even as there’s no shortage of evocative soundscapes, Juno Beach simply presents a quartet of poptronic classicism with a minimum of look-at-me bother while retaining plenty of the wow and flutter one looks for in records like this.

Inherently escapist and, with the piece of vintage Roland equipment central to their sound, a shade regressive, these tracks nonetheless don’t reminisce about the timelessness embodied by their early 80’s forbears, they just apply a mid-2000 teens studio depth and become them.

Reminding of Eberhard Schoener’s 1978 classic “Why Don’t You Answer” (minus, of course, the presence of a then-still relevant Sting), “The Call” is plush and mesmeric, swathing its downtempo in a gorgeous uptempo arrangement that provides all the emotional backdrop needed to convey the telephonic ‘Dear John’ sorrow embedded at its core, “Juno Beach” limns that hazy horizon where a New Order melancholy gets enveloped in an imperturbable Air-y optimism and is therefore end-of-the-night chill-out dancefloor-ready at the drop of a neon-drenched Balearic beret, the perfectly named “Sunshine” is title-kissed and slips into the ear with the facility of a fleeting summer lover’s secret, a bit recherché in the beautiful sadness of the moment, while “Gentle Rain” arrives in sheets of allusive Twin Peaks atmospherics – favoring, one’s quick to point out, the mysterious undertow over the ominous overtones – and soon lapses into a, umm, gently narcotized, drum-machined, ravey lullaby of a closer that’s as close as you’ll get to being escorted toward the exit by memories of pure bliss in sonic form.

Easy to understand why this would be considered an ideal release during summer’s earliest blush – street date here was June 26th – but in truth the moods evoked herein are just as suited to the auburn mists of autumn, the delicate sparsities of winter, the eternal promise of spring. Seasonal affective disorder, I’d argue, can strike at any time of the year. At just 14 ½ minutes, Juno Beach offers a quick but, trust me, lasting remedy.√√√¼


HUGElarge – “HUGElarge” (HWY 61 Records)

Admittedly, an album like this – a 16-strong set of blisteringly unhinged rock’n’roll covers (OK, 15 covers, 1 quick original) – is maybe something you’ve gotta be in the mood for but I can guarantee you that even if you’re at best a long Madison Bumgarner-level throwing distance from being in said mood, this self-titled debut from singer/guitarist Robert Malta (Pawpawblowtorch, SF Mau Maus etc) and American Music Club drummer Matt Norelli’s HUGElarge will pull you in with a post-haste fury by dint of its musical gravitational pull alone. That it delivers its goods with a rampagingly clean spit’n’polish precision that suggests nothing less than Buddy Holly in the Ramones will make sure you stay for the duration.

Created in reaction to both musicians’ fatigue with the music machine’s usual grind, the duo honed their coiled, joy-in-just-playing sound in Matt’s Santa Rosa clubhouse (AKA garage) beginning in 2005. Though intending for it to remain nought but an outlet for fun for the two of them – hence the noisy minimalism, Matt blasting out bass and guitar through a vintage Silvertone amp, Norelli using a tiny ‘cocktail’ drumset – they were lured back into the spotlight about a year later to open for a pal’s punk band and the HUGElarge legend was born. In light of this backdrop and especially the Coca-Cola caffeine buzz laced throughout the evidence presented here that enters the bloodstream like some pure distillate of a jukebox Friday night from 1965, it should be no surprise this 2-man garage-styled wrecking crew has become one of Sonoma County’s hottest live tickets.

As gloriously serious as they are gloriously tongue-in-cheek, there’s nothing on HUGElarge that doesn’t blow one’s tube socks clear off with a seasoned exactitude that still manages to sound petulant. “Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home)” opens things with a punchy, breathless irreverence, honoring the Impalas’ original by nearly leaving it behind in its own dust, a common trick here truth be told. “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White”‘s snarl is as pitch perfect real as the chrome on a ’66 Buick Skylark, “Codeine” brings Quicksilver’s sprawl to condensed heel, the raucous slam of “Born To Lose” is lively enough to happily rattle the bones of its originator, the version of “Who’ll Be The Next In Line” adds a rough gleam that positions the word ‘Kinksian’ much closer to the word ‘Troggsian’ than might’ve been thought possible.

And so it goes everywhere, of course, and I’d be daft to over-elaborate lest I belabor the obvious. Why bother mentioning that both Marc Bolan tracks – “Motivator” and “The Slider” – manage to venerate their sacred textuality while simultaneously blowing them inside out with unstanched glee, or that the pair’s take on “No Fun” favors a snotty teenaged rambunctiousness over feral menace that singles it out as the Stooge monster’s only acceptable cover, or that the two tracks that close this hotrod ride out – a punchy-as-fuck “Poison Ivy” that sports a mid-American rocker’s drawl to it, and a maximum R&B riff-a-rama rerun of “96 Tears” – engage with such immediacy as to fully undermine and undo my heretofore held belief that I never really needed to hear those songs ever again. On the contrary, here I hit ‘repeat.’

In keeping with their barebones, for-fun-only ethos, HUGElarge’s intention is to never play outside their own turf and always as a support band. All well and good and understandable, but it’ll be interesting to see what if any pressure this album getting into enough hands and ears will put on that policy. Such best laid plans may, in the end, just be another thing this concisely explosive rock’n’roll album album blows up in its wake.√√√