The masters: Seven local CDs
Atsushi Miura and the Dirty Round Eyes: Cheap & Fake
Though Tokyo Rose owner Atsushi Miura's tune, "I Hate Charlottesville," has been a local favorite since he started performing it, years went by with no released recordings in sight. The end of 2003 finally saw Miura and his band, the Dirty Round Eyes, drop their debut CD, Cheap & Fake, a combination of foreign influences and good old American rock n' roll. With Stephen Barling on acoustic guitar, bass, and keys, Brandon Collins on cello and keys, and Josh Mustin on electric guitar, drums, and keys, Miura's once solo sound has been fleshed out here, adding welcome volume to already intriguing songs.
From the first few acoustic strums and Dylanesque harmonica notes of "My Life," any expectations I might have had from second-hand impressions quickly dissipated. The song morphs from Dylan to an early '60s "Only the Lonely" style staccato pop tune, with Miura's high sweet voice singing of his culture shock on coming "From Japan / to America."
He sings, "I was looking for an American life / A life of freedom / But what I feel is just a loneliness / I guess to be free I needed to be lonely." Miura and the rest of the group romp around the vocals.
"I Hate Charlottesville" begins with a Spanish style flourish before harmonica, synth drums, acoustic guitar, and shaker continue with the Spanish theme. The melody here is fantastic, and when Miura sings on the chorus, "I hate Charlottesville / Too boring," you can see local lighters being held up across any venue where the group is performing.
Atsushi Miura and the Dirty Round Eyes' Cheap & Fake– worth the wait.
Atsushi Miura and the Dirty Round Eyes
Devon Sproule: Upstate Songs
From her roots in the nearby Twin Oaks commune to belting out songs on the Downtown Mall at age 15, Devon's rise to near-stardom has been intrinsically linked to Charlottesville. She has seemed, at least for the last half-decade, to always be around, playing a coffee shop here, a record store there, her near-constant presence at least a little taken for granted by locals. But her new album, Upstate Songs, just might turn the heads of the doubters.
Written in Woodstock, New York, the songs here show a level of maturity not found on her previous two releases. Where the songs from her second release, 2001's Long Sleeve Story (Third World Records), were more along the lines of Fiona Apple, with that certain darkness endemic to Maya Angelou-loving songstresses, the new album has a lighter, folkier feel.
On track two, "Come Comet or Dove," Devon sings in her sweet voice, "The heat had set in as the summer began/ I had just ceased to sing winder's sore tune," as softly strummed country-folk guitar, backed by even softer lead provided by Paul Curreri (the local guitar master, I'm convinced), provides an exquisite background.
The melody is long and winding, but that's a strength here rather than a deficit, and Devon shows total control of it at every point. Drums enter the fray on only one track of Upstate Songs: "Should Have Been Snow," a song reminiscent of some of the more rock-influenced pieces on her previous release.
Upstate Songs: just the thing to quench your cravings for a little rootsy pop.
King Wilkie: Broke (Rebel Records, 2004)
The Band's debut album on Rebel Records, Broke is a sizeable step above the group's last effort, the independently released True Songs (2003). Tighter tunes speak to the growth of the group as songwriters and performers (the CD was recorded live), but still nothing compares to seeing this group of young whippersnappers belt out their set of traditional and original numbers in person.
Broke begins with the instrumental "40 West" by Ralph Lewis, and right from the start you can tell King Wilkie is your ticket to a good time. Rip-roaring banjo and fiddle solos, provided by Burgess and Nick Reeb, respectively, fight their way out of the instrumental goulash for brief times in the spotlight before fading into the background cavalcade.
Burgess's "It's Been A Long Time" is up next– a banjo intro, a relaxed pace, and close harmonies by the three vocalists of the group (Burgess, Pitney, and guitarist John McDonald) set up an exemplary example of the King Wilkie sound– up-beat, traditional but with a contemporary energy, and just plain catchy.
Pitney's "Broke Down and Lonesome," a song which much impressed me the last time I saw the group perform, is on glorious display here. A slow mover with a melody that seems natural, it features tight harmonies on the chorus ("Honey it's a long, long road / I can't see what's coming round the bend / Too many miles on this old heart of mine / I'm broke down and lonesome again") that put the verse's strong solo vocals in stark relief.
Originals and traditional tunes like "Little Birdie" pepper Broke, making for a listening experience which comes alive with youthful exuberancedefinitely landing King Wilkie in contention as the best younger bluegrass band in town.
CD Cover from Tunes feature 0315 April 15-22, 2004
Small Town Workers: The Right of Way
Rampaging out of your speakers like some kind of mutant '70s riff-rock goliath, Small Town Workers' new album, The Right of Way, takes you to a place where the skies are dark, the choruses are huge, and the forecast calls for track after track of catchy guitar pop.
With this disc, the group is making an utterly feasible attempt to jump out of the puddle of the college rock circuit and penetrate the stratosphere.
The album begins with "Strange Life," a Mike Meadows-penned rocker that starts things off with a blast. Lines of vocals like "But you were there in space/To cool me down when I'd get carried away" are punctuated by crunchy guitar riffs and perfectly placed cymbal crashes.
The track begins with what sound like the first two seconds of the track spooled backwards, leading to an opening cymbal crash– shortly leading to frontman Meadows' fine just-ragged-enough voice belting out the verses.
The album takes off on track two, "Without You," also a highlight from their independent release, Blueprints.... Here, the rock kicks into overdrive, with staccato guitar providing fitting counter beats to the strong verse vocal melody– and this is all before the chorus has reared its insidiously catchy head.
Meadows– vocalist and one of two guitarists in the group– reveals, "Everything's coming up, coming up roses/Without you," as he and Devin Malone's twin guitar barrage floats up the power chord scale, leading to Malone's expected, but still damn good, guitar solo.
Springsteen would look on kindly on Small Town Workers– keeping the rock candle aflame for us all.
The Right of Way
Photos by Grabowski
VanDyke Brown: Out-giggling Murphy
After a few years of hitting the local club circuit hard, the four-piece rock ensemble VanDyke Brown decided sometime last year to pack up their equipment and head to the Big Apple. Hopes were high that the band would have more success with their music in a larger market. With a new EP, Out-giggling Murphy, recorded at Richmond's Sound of Music Studios and mastered by Kevin McNoldy at Crystalphonic Studios here, they just may have what they need.
Out-giggling Murphy is a step in the name of progress for VanDyke Brown. College rock tunes have given way to five maturely crafted, radio-friendly tracks that represent a large portion of the modern progressive rock spectrum. Track two, "Echoplex," tears a page from the Coldplay handbook by layering high, banana-nut-crunching falsetto vocals over top driving guitars and a melancholy piano riff. The results are quite pleasing. All in all, the EP is a very easy listen.
There are no groundbreaking concepts or completely original ideas here, but that's not to say that VanDyke Brown is stale or trite. There's plenty of sonic variation such as harpsicord-esque synth on the title track, and Pink Floyd-ish jam at the end of "Roam."
The closing track, "Kamala," is a clever amalgam of one-drop rock made famous by The Police and something called out from the spirit of Santana.
George Lakis writes intriguingly vague songs that seem to describe personal situations heavily laden with metaphor. Listening to his lyrics is like being an outsider who accidentally overhears an inside joke. Although engaging, at the end of the songs I felt as if I had missed out on something.
The highs on Out-giggling Murphy outweigh the lows. I find myself sitting with a grin thinking how far VanDyke Brown has come and the potential on every track. Although there's nothing seriously challenging here, that just may be the album's strongest asset: The music is easy to digest... except for maybe the title. I still don't know what it means.
There's a new kid on the block who seems to be stirring up a buzz: Travis Elliott. Elliot's presence around town has increased to the point that he's scored the Wednesday night spot at Orbit for the summer.
His self-titled EP is something of a modern rock epic filled with dead-on songwriting and raw, expressive instrumentation. I was warned that it's a rough representation of the group, and that they're currently recording an album with budget.
The grittiness of the demo/EP has an allure. I admire Elliott: He blends abstract concepts with a simplistic realism making it easy to attach the lyrics to a personal experience. When he sings, "You should have told me, caught in a lie, every one of your faces," The mood is drenched in melancholy. Much of that feeling comes from the underlying anguish in Elliott's tone and timbre. He often allows his voice to crack or fall slightly short of key. Even if unintentional, it gives personality to his music.
The EP is five songs of straight-ahead pop rock with bits of a twist. I could easily hear any of them on the radio. Yet because of Elliott's unique voice and personal style, he'll stand apart from what's already out there.
The band behind Elliott plays an adequate supporting role. The guitars and bass move well as a unit, never outshining Elliott. At times the drumming feels a bit choppy, but those moments were few. I look forward to hearing something professional from Travis Elliott and Co. I foresee the group getting tighter and Elliott's songs becoming more emotional and creatively sculpted.
Oblivion Records is one of the many hip-hop labels that has found a home in Charlottesville in recent years.
This year Oblivion introduced Righteous– a large, ominous figure with unkempt dreadlocks. His uniqueness is also expressed in his rhyming style and subject matter. His debut, Finally, is a 19-track long-player of mid- and slow-tempo tunes all produced by the combo Stick and Move.
I'm impressed by Stick and Move, whose mix of live instrumentation with sampling and programming puts them at the top of the production game. They blend elements of gospel, rock, raga, funk, and soul so that from track to track there's no telling what they're going to do. In fact, the production makes the album– especially on the songs "Verse Three" and "Obsessed Wit It," two absolute street bangers.
Righteous, on the other hand, is hit and miss. The kid can definitely spit a rhyme, and his voice is easy listening. He comes out of the gate strong on the first track, "Wilderness," before dropping into story on "Four Shots."
As a debut album, Finally is something Righteous should be proud of. By the end of the album, I felt as if I'd known him for years. The ability to be that personal as a rapper is an art rare in commercial hip-hop. My biggest beef with Finally is that 19 tracks is too many. This album could have more of an impact if it were, in the words of Wu-Tang's The GZA, "half short and twice strong." Or as Gertrude told Polonius, "More matter, with less art."