Far From Perfect
Duane Jarvis has been gone from the Portland music scene far longer than he was actually in it. Duane migrated to LA in the mid-80s, following a successful career here in Mizzletown playing guitar with such illustrious bands as the Odds and Map Of France. In LA he quickly made a name for himself as a guitarist with the Divinyls as well as with Dwight Yokum and Rosie Flores. A subsequent move to Nashville brought Duane into another musical circle, notably that of Lucinda Williams, who penned the album’s dedication.
As if Duane’s pedigree were not solid enough on it’s own, he enlisted Gary Tallent, longtime bassist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, to produce this solo project. The result is a fine piece of American roots music, a clever assimilation of everything that went before— from the Neil Young/Dylanesque “There Is A Light and the Buck Owens Country flavor of the title track, to the chuggling Creedence Clearwater meets Bobby Fuller feel of “Drive Back To You” and “Vanishing Breed,” to the NRBQcum Stonesy “You Met Your Match,” “Mr. Dependability” and “A Girl That’s Hip.” It’s all there, steeped in tradition thick as a molasses drawl y’all. Hee haw.
The presentation is clean and uncluttered, Jarvis’ jangly acoustic guitars meld with Paul V. Griffith’s punchy drums and the basswork of Tallent and Jeff Davis to form a formidable freight train of rhythmic consequence. Occasional piano and organ flourishes by second guitarist Steve Allen and Duane’s intermittent mandolin and harmonica phrasings create additional colors and textures to the mix.
As was alluded earlier, there’s nothing earthshatteringly original here in this recombinant tour de force. But, while simple in construct, Duane’s lyrics brim with wit and humor, while closely adhering to the strictures of classic country music— the subject matter is always about: A) love, B) drivin’ away from or headin’ on home to the loved one in question C) or drinkin’ as an option to A or B. And the songs are truly Joycean in the magnitude and quantity of references they contain to the musical corpus.
“Far From Perfect” integrates Duane’s Elvis Costello-like hoarse whine with the a stumbling intro akin to Buck Owens’ “The Race Is On,” before the song settles into an amalgam of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” the Kingston Trio’s “Tijuana Jail” and the Beatles’ “Ballad Of John And Yoko,” with a little Springsteenian sensibility thrown in for good measure. “Drive Back To You” sounds like Creedence’s “Lodi” in the verses before scooting into a nifty chorus which manages to incorporate elements of both Buddy Holly and the Bobby Fuller Four along the way.
“You Met Your Match” blends the sassy strut of the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman, with dashes of Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochrane, commingled with NRBQ’s snottily spot on delivery. The chunky “Vanishing Breed” calls to mind the Stones and John Mellencamp. Out of the blue, Duane cuts loose with a very pretty electric guitar lead in the middle. Ringing mandolins collide with the low rumble of electric guitars on the Hank Williamsish “I’m Not Gonna Let You Break My Heart.” Duane’s anguished harmonica plays nicely over the sprightly “There Is A Light,” a tune melodically reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Helpless.”
A faint Farfisa pad underpins Duane’s slinky guitar lines on “A Girl That’s Hip,” subtly suggestive of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Stepping Out.” “Cocktail Napkin” echoes, of all songs, John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads.” ‘Broken Clock” builds slowly, revolving around the hookline, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day,” uttered with Duane’s craggiest Blues voice. Jarvis unleashes searing slide guitar solos in the middle, as Allen’s organ slowly sifts into the sonic picture.
Duane Jarvis’ music is derivative to be sure, but in a way such as to pay homage to all the songs he heard while growing up; a rich mix of Pop and Country, with insinuations of Blues and R&B. His songs are well-crafted gems, that, because of their lineage, sound like standards. Eloquently understated and joyous in a subdued sense, Far From Perfect is a winning effort from one of Portland’s far traveled native sons. Certainly there is more to come.
It’s been a long, strange road for Sean Haffner and his band Red Footed Genius. Since moving to Ashland from Norman, Oklahoma in 1992 and then up to Portland in 1994, Haffner has garnered glowing praise from the national press, including Rolling Stone, the LA Times, Option and, of course, Two Louies. Haffner, the only original member, has been playing with the current lineup of Geniuses for the past year and a half. And with this, their second (for Haffner, the third overall) release, the band seems to have matured in many small but essential ways.
It has yet to be publicized, but Haffner has also widened his scope as a musician, taking on a sideman role with On A Llama, where he will play second guitar, keyboards and sing backup to Lea Krueger’s powerful lead vocals. This promises to be a rewarding venture for all involved; and would seem to bode well for the continued pairing of On A Llama and Red Footed Genius on future bills at local venues.
Other than that, Haffner remains committed to his venture as chief singer in Red Footed Genius, sharing songwriting chores with lead guitarist Aaron Santigan, while bassist Tom Simonson and drummer Bil Keeling provide the rhythmic foundation. In the end, Haffner would seem to have the best of both worlds in his very different functions in two separate bands. He can count himself as unique if he succeeds in his endeavor.
Be that as it may, this outing is a nice progression for the band, featuring more sensitive rock in the Toad The Wet Sprocket/ Matthew Sweet region of the musical ballpark. Tight vocal harmonies and spirited presentations abound, spearheaded by Santigan’s soulfully explosive guitar work and Haffner’s essential presence on guitar and vocals. Still, as on the final track “Sidewinding,” where he nearly ascends to Duane Allman’s majestic slide guitar peak on Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” the albums would seem to be Santigan’s shining moment. Nearly every track sparks with Aaron’s versatile, yet substantial solos and singularly colorful fills.
The best songs fall into two primary categories— either those of the earnestly introspective nature found on “Gravitate,” Delirium” and “Seaside,” or the more fiery uptempo rockers such as “Nothing After You” and “Head Above The Clouds.” But either mode benefits greatly from the solid fulcrum Simonson and Keeling provide in the rhythm section.
“Gravitate” is drawn toward a plaintive mood: mournful guitars recede beneath Sean’s dejected vocal, reminiscent of Toad’s Glen Phillips doing a Jackson Browne song. Sigh. “Delirium” is approached in a psychedelic drone, álà Echo and The Bunnymen. Tight Live-like vocal harmonies cling to piquantly shimmering guitar figures. Santigan’s ethereal solo captures a wordless cry, neatly falling into the evocative chorus. A nice one.
The smart stride of “Nothing After You” buffets Santigan’s moaning lead line. A memorable chorus nicely offsets the hardcharging crunch of the verses. “Head Above The Clouds” skitters on flicking guitar chords, as Simonson punctuates the alternating progression of Keeling’s halftime/straighttime drumwork. Both of these songs seem eminently radio friendly.
Red Footed Genius have congealed nicely as a musical unit. They execute their thoughtful, well-wrought songs with restrained passion, never overplaying, yet achieving an humble conflagration of emotion and desolation. Their parts fully integrated, they interact as a band far more intuitively than on their previous recorded effort. This has allowed Sean Haffner to step back a pace, to improve the content and impact of his lyrics and his approach to singing those words; finding his own true voice from among his many stylistic influences. Whatever the outcome of his decision to play in two high profile bands at the same time, he can rest assured that the future looks bright for him in either or both camps.
Be Careful With That Surfboard
There’s a certain incongruity in local bands glorifying the sport of surfing in Oregon, where regardless of the season, the ocean water is always guaranteed to be at or near 50°. Oh, and do watch out for those massive six-foot waves! Still, it’s probably true that the cult of Surf music has little, if anything, to do with the actual water activity. And better here than, say, Kansas or Nebraska. One doesn’t hear near enough about those Kansas Surf bands these days. However, rest assured, exist they must.
It would appear that the Brainwashers exist solely as a vehicle for guitarist Pete Weinberger’s amazingly authentic sounding musical flights down memory lane, back to the days when transistor radios blared the reverb drenched sounds of Dick Dale and the Deltones, the Ventures, the Chantays, Link Wray and countless other lesser known instrumental Surf bands— Jordan Christopher’s “Apache” hanging in the air like a musical ghost.
Pete was nothing if not astute in studying the elusive tonal qualities and subtle techniques of his teachers. The nine original and two cover songs presented here span the array of characteristic erata that make of Surf music what it is. “Lucky Surfer” is a familiar romp, Weinberger’s staccato licks happily boinking with intense reverb. He employs an interesting mandolin-like picking style on the chestnut “Bombora,” a number that echoes the aforementioned “Apache,” as well as any number of Ventures tunes.
Over drummer Bob Becker’s requisite snare beat, Weinberger unleashes a torrent of lightning quick notes on “Failed.” And “Oh Calcutta” closely mirrors the very early Beatles’ rare instrumental foray “Cry For A Shadow,” with nice chord turns and a solid arrangement. “Stacy” is a sinewy shuffle that shakes free for a moment from the relentless Surf beat. But “Vibro Surf” returns to form, Pete’s stinging guitar phrases skipping across the surface of the incessant rhythm.
Utilizing every trick in his arsenal, Weinberger drives “Dripper” with strict exactitude. The Brainwashers’ take on Link Wray’s “Blackwidow” adds a certain rockabilly countenance, acoustic guitar ringing in tandem with Becker’s snappy snare, as Weinberger trots out hyper Country riffs with unerring aplomb. “Barbie’s Coat” is a fruggy little number with a certain haunting quality. The Chantays’ “Pipeline” comes immediately to mind with “G.A.S.P.,” Pete throwing down any riffs he didn’t get into the previous songs. An elegantly simple pastiche.
The Brainwashers are easily among the best Surf bands in the region, owing to Pete Weinberger’s impeccable guitar style, anachronistic as it may be, coupled with his unerring penchant to create pieces of music that sound entirely from the era (from thirty to forty years ago) he is attempting to simulate— to such an extent that it is difficult to differentiate, the level of genuineness is so pervasive.
Other than as occasional soundtrack fodder for some Tarantino-like film genius, it’s hard to conceive of Surf music creating much of a ripple in the Popular music pool. But, if someone ever decides to film a big screen version (as they no doubt will) of Hawaii Five-0, this is the band to play the theme song. Maybe Tarantino could direct it. These guys could do the whole soundtrack. There is no doubt that they have the talent to pull it off. Cool. Very cool.
Deaf Jim Records
It’s a quandary, just what to make of Fuse. On the surface (that being the first three tracks and the last) they would appear to be a very capable Power Roots trio, favoring late 70s Southern Rock, with slight Country leanings; but lacking in any real musical identity. Yet, cut the fat away, and some pretty impressive guts are exposed. It’s a mystery as to why the band waited until the fourth track to get thing rolling musically. Typically, you’d wanna lead with your strongest tracks— y’know, to kinda draw the listener in….?
Well, Fuse chose to go another way. Kevin Nettleingham is a fine guitarist and an evocative singer, with a voice perhaps suggestive of John Stewart’s lone wolf howl. And the first three songs aren’t bad really, but they are pedestrian; though not not entirely without their own merits.
“Memory” is a high energy number in a familiar setting. Nettleingham exhibits a knack for a fiery solo, cutting loose with a gnarled mass of twisting guitars. And “Shirtless In The Rain” shows promise, with a swaggering sidewinder riff, somewhat akin to Frijid Pink’s original version of “Venus.” But the problem with those songs and especially with “Life Is Good” is that they are lyrically mundane: “All I need is a job to pay the bills/ one that’s not to boring, that can utilize my skills/I work 9 to 5 then come home to see your face/Sit down by your side, I’m happy in my place.”
Then something magical happens. For one thing, drummer Bert Pegg takes over songwriting and lead vocal duties. While not as powerful a singer as Nettlingham, and only slightly more focussed as a lyricist, Pegg is the better songwriter. His choruses are stronger. And emotionally, he seems more in touch with his songs. He lends them”Good-bye Girl” flirts with a chunky chord progression. Very strong harmonies by Nettleingham and bassist Scott Zastoupil dress up the chorus. And a very nice breakdown in the bridge adds nice texture.
But the crowning achievement lies in “So Much More?.” Nettleingham’s passionately pyrotechnic intro gives way to a slightly funky groove in the verses, evolving into a spirited anthem in the chorus, supported by buoyant three-part vocal harmonies. Napalm Snobudsman Chris Newman takes a vocal turn at the bridge. Nettleingham solos briefly with a neatly stated 8 bars. Then Newman jumps in with an extended solo worth the price of admission. Over crisply stacatto powerchords and measures of complete silence, Chris eloquently weaves a fervent web of crystalline notes, which burn through a couple repeats of the chorus, before erupting into a magnificent second solo that negotiates a series of peaks and valleys before culminating in a wailing denouement.
Nettleingham’s dark lament, “Boxcar Sky” benefits from better imagery than was found in his previous efforts. The song rolls like a mournful tumbleweed across a starkly empty prairie inhabited only by the wind, a portrait of desolation. Nettleingham turns in a ruefully fierce vocal performance of Pegg’s “One Time,” a song with surprisingly succint lyrics— “Cut me, slut me, chuck me, gut me/leave me to die empty/Quick me, dick me sick me, like a disease afflict me/leave me alone, never let me be/Take my soul away from me.” Very cool.
Pegg picks up the guitar on “All I’ve Left,” first with the acoustic 12-string guitar and later to solo on the electric, gently swaying to a bittersweet waltz before kicking into overdrive in the second verse. Pegg phrases his words Lennon-like, lulling the listener into an hypnotic trance. An exciting transitional segment, like a song within a song, rings the song to a dramatic conclusion.
Though they play well together a frequently arresting blend of styles, Fuse currently lack consistency in the quality of their songs. The middle eight songs of this album are relatively strong. They hold up quite well lyrically and musically, far better than the four run-of-the-mill songs that surround them. If Fuse were to concentrate on the craft of songwriting, relying less on cliché and more on deeper observation, honing their already considerable skills— it’s obvious that they are possessed of a somewhat unusual musical character, they could indeed one day succeed. This recording would have been much more auspicious as an eight-song release, and better still, had the four additional songs been even stronger than the strongest found here. Now that would be an album with which to be reckoned!