Hummingfish are not a well known band in Portland. Though they’ve been together for over a year, the fact that they gig only infrequently; and that they confine their performances, primarily, to Eastside venues has made of them a somewhat obscure commodity. The release of this thirteen song sampler will serve as an excellent introduction to a thoughtfully philosophical four-piece folk/rock unit.
The band’s strength lies in the capable song-writing and distinguished vocal talents of Deb Talan. Adding percussive rasquedos on acoustic guitar, Deb tackles the chunky “Fear” with fierce assurance. A hard bitten edge and a winsome girlish quality inform her voice with rich dynamic textures. Lead guitarist Jeff Inlay interjects a biting riff over the smart stride of Andrew McGough’s drums to form the rhythmic foundation of this engaging number.
Deb’s rendering of the laid-back and pretty “Call Waiting” gives rise to an easy comparison to Edie Brickell (and Deb does not suffer from the comparison). But her folk roots run deeper and purer than those of Mrs. Simon, veering nearer to those of the late Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell and– oddly enough, our own Cheralee Dillon. Mark Buchanan’s stuttering bassline provides the impetus through the verses, leading to a memorable chorus.
The galloping gait of “Makers” is mirrored by the more successful “Queen Of Emptiness,” where Inlay’s country-tinged chortles on guitar reflect Talan’s slippery octave-flitting vocal– calling to mind a mellow version of Throwing Muses circa Hunkapoppa. A condescending lyric recounts the inadequacies of a woman whose hopeless view of the world seems tied to her advancing age and hopeless situation, offering “I guess I’m supposed to feel this way/when I hear you/ I’m only twenty-five,” as some sort of ingenuous excuse for the inability to comprehend the plight of another. How convenient to stand by, idly enumerating someone else’s pain, while simply writing off solipsistic indifference as the provincial birthright of privileged youth. The sun turns for everyone else folks and thank St. Jude or anyone who listens, that it doesn’t turn for you.
As if to underscore the insouciance of the previous number, the Fish take a stylistic turn toward Cheryl Crow-ville with “Lately,” a comely number, propelled by Inlay’s full-bodied guitar riffage.
The high point of the set comes with the gorgeous “Herons,” the lyric penned by Buchanan. Talan approaches the song with subtle restraint; her voice soft as a gentle wind in the boughs of giant redwood trees: evoking the detached majesty of Sade fronting the New Bohemians. It’s a tender tune that buffets a soothing melody beneath well-crafted poetry– creating a rare and special musical moment. A hit song.
“George Washington’s Bones” investigates metaphysical concepts rarely touched upon in contemporary song and nicely balances the callow irresponsibility purveyed on “Queen Of Emptiness”– “A lot of people say, hey/Live for now, cause/Tomorrow’s not ours anyway/But I say we live on through our children/And in other smaller, stranger ways…” Talan intones the lyrics with effortless facility, skillfully skating across her upper register like Tanya Harding at a mall opening.
The hopeful spirit of “Pipedream” resolves itself upon a McGough’s cradle-rocking beat and Deb’s sensitive reading of the lyric– her lilting trills floating like tendrils of smoke above Inlay’s arpeggios and Buchanan’s jaunty bass.
The final four tracks, while sustaining a high level of musicianship and execution, lack the vitality of the previous nine. Especially questionable is the band’s choice of a reggae arrangement for “Shakin’ Us Off,” which proves to be a distraction in contrast to the chromatic qualities of the chord progression.
The sound quality is great throughout the project. A rare venture into the real music world for Rex Recording. The mix occasionally seems excessively dry, failing to allow the separate tracks (especially guitar overdubs) to properly meld. Instead, the tracks seem nearly too distinct, too clearly demarcated.
But these are paltry quibbles. Hover is a rousing success for Hummingfish, showcasing Talan’s gift with a song and the band’s knack for cohesive ensemble work. And whatever the band may lack in chops is more than compensated for by the judicious application of those which they do command. In essence, that is the true mark of a good band.
Acoustic Blues Trio
Robb and mates come up with an original blues-trio sound. Most of this is attributable to Greg Fisher’s smashing drumwork behind Robb’s and rhythm player Alan Hager’s acoustic guitars. Generally, with music of this nature, a bass is the third instrument of choice. Fisher’s drums give these songs a decided kick. This is dance music all the way, even if it’s toned down a bit.
All thirteen songs are covers of some of the blues greats: John Lee Hooker, Elizabeth Cotton, Rev. Gary Davis, Sun House, McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters) and Mississippi John Hurt among them. And the trio come out smoking with Hurt’s “I Need Lovin Now,” where Fisher’s throbbing tom fills in the verses and solos give Robb enough support to cut loose with several admirable turns on the leads.
Robert Wilkens’ “Long Train Blues” is given a laid back bottleneck treatment. Robb provides much of the percussion with the lightening-quick snap of his slide on the strings. The late Alan Wilson’s one chord wonder “My Mistake” fits like a glove on this trio– doing more with it than Canned Heat ever could. And the trio’s version of Son House’s “Death Letter” cooks nicely in its’ own juices. Robb’s superior slide technique is of such an high order, that in the verses his guitar sounds more like a piano rocking away in the background. A choice cut.
Robb demonstrates his mastery of the highly syncopated “Cotton picking” style, rendering “Washington Blues” nearly Joplinesque. Curtis Salgado turns up for a couple of harp solos on Waters’ “Sugar Sweet.” It’s a well turned roadhouse romper that, with the addition of Alan Rada’s bass for this track gives the trio a decidedly bigger sound. Robb goes with the flow, vocally mugging his way through.
Vocally, but especially instrumentally, Robb’s versatility cannot be overstated. The guy moves through traditional blues styles like a termite in a lumber yard– chewing them up at an amazing rate. Check out his work on the straight-ahead r&b of Walter Jacobs’ “I’m Your Fool,” and contrast that with his searing slidework on Waters’ “Honey Bee.” Except for the precision and grace of the presentations, it’s hard to believe it’s the same guy playing.
And as a vocalist, Robb has matured into an articulate purveyor of the many blues styles– witness his facility with the more uptempo “It Hurts Me Too” “Sugar Sweet” and “Death Letter,” measured against his interpretations of more delicate pieces like “Chump Man Blues” and “My Mistake.” To his credit, Robb has developed a vocal style that has given character to what was, for a long time, a somewhat innocuous voice.
The ringer here is the final cut. Dedicated to Robb mentor John Fahey, “Let Go” has nothing in common in the blues, but instead is a concentrated performance of fine folk fretwork with mild jazz undertones. While it does not fit the context of the previous twelve cuts, it does portend for another direction the Trio might one day pursue. Fisher’s Joe Morello inspired drum solo is adeptly controlled and sublimely compact.
Anyone looking for an introduction to the myriad blues styles from which an artist must choose, need look no further than the colorful palette served up by Terry Robb and the Acoustic Blues Trio. Their flare for capturing the essence of these various styles, while imprinting the stamp of their own creative forces onto their work, makes of this a most enjoyable recording.
I’ve always thought of the Duffy Bishop Band as a Washington band. But we have to look at the facts here. They’re on a Portland label (Burnside Records), recorded the project in a Portland studio (Dead Aunt Thelma’s), using two of Portland’s better known blues front women (Paulette Davis and Lily Wilde) as back-up singers. They even cover two songs written by Jeff Hudis, drummer for Portland’s own late great Razorbacks. How Portland can you get?
Duffy has a big, deep contralto which she bitchily maneuvers through tightly woven blues charts. She stakes out her turf early, sounding like Janis Joplin on Chester Burnett’s “Evil,” smoldering hot and sultry on Bessie Smith’s “Reckless Blues,” turning torch singer on “As Life Goes On.”
Her crack four-piece back up band navigates these various stylistic excursions with slick touches at every turn. Steel guitarist Henry Cooper lends a soulful harmonica on “As Life Goes On.” Guitarist Chris Carlson adds fine flourishes throughout.
Hudis’ “Tell Me Why” is given a rip-roaring treatment, skittering like an old Ford Falcon with the speedometer pegged, the radio turned up full blast, a funnel of black smoke pouring from the tailpipe; cooking down the musical highway. Duffy reaches into her vocal bag of tricks for this track– intoning, cooing, grousing menacingly, squealing and screaming vengefully. This is the cut to seek out. Carlson’s ham-fisted riffs chew up the musical periphery. Tough.
And the robust, Stonesy feel of Hudis’ “Lonely” adds a tasty new dimension to the somewhat predictable nature of the bands’ own original material. It’s a simple song, gospel-tinged– that gives Duffy ample room to stretch the legs of the lion of a voice she keeps caged. Another winner of a tune.
The bands’ traditional-folk flavored “Fall Right Down” hints at an entirely different direction they could go, if they ever wearied of the almighty blues. Those of you aware of October Project’s Mary Fahl, take note. And their original tune “My House” shows promise too.
It’s a funny thing. Duffy Bishop sings the hell out of the blues/r&b thing. And, doubtless, without all those good paying blues gigs, a lot of bills would go unpaid for the Bishop Band. But the band, and Duffy especially, seem far more comfortable with the other styles mentioned. And these other styles have a far wider range of commercial appeal (yeah, I know, the blues are making another comeback). I think I smell a compromise here.
I’m sure fans of the band will love this well-recorded, well-played effort. But newcomers may have a difficult time figuring out exactly where Bottled Oddities and the Duffy Bishop Band are coming from musically. This recording gives rise to the notion that it may be time for them to decide.
It’s probably safe to assume that most of Portland is unaware of Chelsea Rae, despite her high profile with last month’s Mia Zapata Benefit series. And it’s probably safe to assume, too, that some of those who are familiar with Chelsea and her band Alphabitch are put off by her approach. See, Chelsea tells the truth–and she doesn’t candy coat it. And a lot of people can’t swallow the bitter truth. It’s gotta be sweetened up. Unh-unh. That’s not Chelsea.
So maybe some people will pass this three-song EP by, simply for that reason. Too bad. This is powerful stuff– with a real point; confronting social and interpersonal issues with candor and honesty. The bonus is that Chelsea is a decent musician, a solid singer and a compelling songwriter, who delivers a heavy, hardhitting message.
Check out the sludge of “Bad Girl.” Surrounded by ragged, swirling guitars, bassist Brian Casey provides the propulsion here as always, constantly pushing the beat and challenging the framework of the arrangement. Over this, Chelsea intones a low, ululating uvular wail– which mounts to a guttural howl in the chorus: a withering fusillade about personal disjunction and dissociative sociopathy. Oddly enough, comparisons can be drawn between the directness of Chelsea’s delivery and that of the late Mia Zapata. The band sounds more like Alice in Chains than the Gits.
“Psalms (Hallie’s Song)” is the pick of the package, a hard charging stampede of a track. Chelsea rampages across the top exhorting in the chorus “High, high high, high high,” with one of strongest unintelligible hooklines to be heard in sometime. Impossible to dislodge from the brain.
Alphabitch are in the midst of preparing to record a ten-inch single this Spring in advance of a full-length CD to be released in the fall. One would do well to take note of this EP and those upcoming recordings– that is, if one is prepared to hear the unadulterated truth. That’s all you’re going to get from Chelsea.
The Final Showdown/ Pain Of A Poet
Some people are just ahead of the curve. Tim Otto was anticipating the advent of Country/Rock (with surf and psychedelic overtones) ten years ago. The re-release of this six year old recording proves this point.
The Eagles meet Soul Asylum sound Tim creates for “Final Showdown” is the perfect medium for his apocalyptic vision– World War III? Germ warfare? Nerve gas in the subways? Natural disasters? He’s got it all covered in his musical crystal ball.
Even more spine chilling is the strange premonition that is “Pain Of A Poet,” a song that not only accurately predicts the coming of Kurt Cobain, but captures the mood and madness surrounding his suicide as well. Some things are just woven into the astral fabric I suppose. It is unclear how else that Tim could have so clearly foreseen the future. For this song means something completely different from what it did six years ago. But what’s especially odd is that it means much more now than it ever did then.
Some people are just clairvoyant I guess. Tim Otto is one of those people. I wonder what he’s writing about now. I guess we will know for sure in about six years.