Men of various types are on hand this week. The first guy is fictional, the hero of a radio play. The group Modern Man consists of three men presenting comic songs on their third album, and a jazzy Jack Donahue has released his third CD, too. Lastly, a group of five groovy dudes known as The Catz in the Hatz.
If you're in the mood for an unusual theatrical musical adventure, and have a taste for rock and risk, check out Transmitter Man. Structured as a radio play (it's about radio waves - more on that later), and with an aura of paranoia in an Orwellian future society, a story is told though songs. Most of the numbers are very short, as are the segments with narration or dialog. The doings are broken up into 38 separate tracks. This is certainly in the style of rock opera, but don't think "overblown" and huge. But it's rock for sure, with pounding drums and often very electric guitar-driven. One of the guitarists is George Griggs, the composer-lyricist who also takes the role of the title character. Our Transmitter Man is a guy who, somehow, has his private thoughts transmitted (and sung) over the air waves where they can be heard on every radio station.
There's little evidence of traditional musical theatre influence but some elements will remind listeners a little of rock operas like Tommy and commercial pop-rock music with a dark edge. Sung dialog tells the tale, with bits of spoken dialog here and there. Some of it is relentless in its force, appropriate to the saga which involves panic atatcks, both personal and city-wide as anxiety and antagonism rule the day. Spoken news reports and narration help us follow the plot.
There is some musical variety here, with angst the operative word. Repeated musical phrases, sometimes to the point of relentlessness, form some of the songs' structures. Some seem more like fragments that could be developed. The packaging offers only a few sentences as far as plot synopsis, but much can be gleaned from the songs that are narrative or mini-scenes like "This Is a Break-Up Song" (you can't be much clearer than that).
The lyrics are functional but not the kind that make you admire them for their craft, wordplay or poetic images. When they repeat, it emphasizes that. (Examples: "We're getting to your brain/ We're going through your brain/ You'll never be the same." and "I hate this pain, but that's how it is.")
The songwriter in the lead role does well, despite a smallish voice that doesn't prevent his character from venting and exploding -quite the contrary. Chris Sheehan as the psychiatrist is especially effective and the early scenes with overwhelming authority are more interesting than much of what follows. For those more easily offended, there are several instances of strong curse words and a segment briefly suggesting orgasmic cries. Some of the lower-key moments work best, such as the "Trying Not to Stare" song where Owen meets an attractive woman (sung by Rachel K. Myers). There are a few well-done glimpses of satire in depictions of the future society ways and the kinds of things people say that are then normal ("I design packaging for cranium implants"). It is effective at times without being easy to take. One feels as if run over by a musical truck, and the plot's anxiety attack won't be the only attack for some listeners: the almost non-stop attack of wailing guitars and head-banging rock may be too much pound per pound. But several of the songs are catchy and quirky, such as "Pills for Owen" and "I'm Never Bored When It Rains."
The CD is produced by Todd Tobias who also plays several instruments. Transmitter Man transmits a high dose of rock energy, but may not sustain interest throughout, especially for those wanting more polish or tradition. It has its raw appeal and a dash of whimsy and satire, but may be more notable as rage-worthy than stage-worthy if it were to be a theatrical piece.
Tongue-in-cheek observational humor characterizes the songs and how they are performed by the trio Modern Man. All three sing, write the songs, and play instruments - the group is made up of David Buskin (guitars and keyboards), Rob Carlson (guitars and harmonica) and George Wurzbach (keyboards and drum programs). The members' past experience includes folk and pop music, and lately their amusing ways have found their way to New York nightclub life. On Wednesday, they perform at The Metropolitan Room, presented by Jamie deRoy, who has championed and sung their songs, and presented them as guests in her variety shows. Wednesday is a CD release concert for their new CD Assisted Living.
The album's title song gets things off to a fun start. Much of the appeal comes from the fact that the songs are not just clever and offhandedly wise-guyish but also very musical with passing references to a variety of old songs and styles. This opening track adopts the rap style, of all things, but it mocks it with a neat juxtaposition, combining the tough essence of the contemporary music style with the lyric's subject of the woes of aging. A musical sound that mismatches the intent of the words is a special skill; an ever-so-tender singing style on "Your Puppy" (written by George) is purposely at odds with the content: a threat to kill someone's dog if affection is not returned - for a lover, not the dog. Don't take any of this too seriously - Modern Man certainly doesn't.
Along the way, they musically reference everyone from Cole Porter and The Beatles (in passing) to the Everly Brothers (at length). Musical flavors include calypso and country and laidback rock. In fact, the cheery casualness of not taking anything too seriously is a big part of the sensibility. The jokey songs are sometimes snide but never mean-spirited or smutty. Although there is wit, some of the attitude aims at or affects a lowbrow, good ol' boy attitude. The simpler and sillier numbers with one-joke premises may wear thin with repeated listenings but I confess to whistling the catchy "Folk Music in the Nude" and continuing to laugh at the politically incorrect saga of "Theme from Abdul (The Reluctant Martyr)." Then there's "Much Better View of the Moon" about looking at the bright side of bad luck that seems like just one more goofball item at first, but there's a wistful quality lurking underneath. It becomes - dare I say - even philosophical.
The playing and singing are unpretentious and direct with no frills, but some zing and a knack for pastiche and encouraging a philosophy to grin and bear life's ups and downs. It's all done with a big wink at human foibles and good musical cheer.
Becoming increasingly jazzy and introspective as a singer with passing years, Jack Donahue presents an eclectic mix of material on his third CD. He's a work in progress, it seems, morphing from cabaret to jazz, but often somewhere in between. Recently performing at Birdland, I caught his CD release night where he performed this material which works quite well on disc. Some tracks are more accessible than others, but I've found the CD increasingly rewarding to hear as I've gone back to it again and again.
There are some similarities to his second effort, Strange Weather from three years ago: each has a song by Suzanne Vega (the elusive title song), Cole Porter (this time, a slow-burning "Get Out of Town") and one by Alec Wilder (he does well by the classic "I'll Be Around," avoiding its borderline martyr torch-carrier potential: "I'll be around/ No matter how/ You treat me now ..."). And again, he takes on the job of songwriter with two more collaborations with Peter Eldridge of the group New York Voices. Their "Chamego (Betty's Bossa)" features the album's co-producer on background vocals, singer Kate McGarry, while the other producer, keyboardist Randy Ingram is on this and half a dozen others. The Donahue/Eldridge "Busy Being Blue" is the album's closer and one of the most rewarding selections, an especially good showcase for Jack's skills at pensive ruminations mixed with some more emotional content and richer singing.
Jack uses his attractive tenor voice sparingly at times, as if rationing its power, opting instead for a laser-beam intensity and restraint. It is a more intellectual approach, often coming across as personal examination or even absorption with thoughts. These songs transformed into inner monologues of thoughts sometimes make a listener feel like a voyeur. But despite the "blue" theme, he never drowns in misery where raw emotion would win over the tendency to analyze or comment. The old tune "Black Coffee" is often sung as a bleak, self-pitying look at pining away for someone. Not here. Jack is not casual, but there's little agony mixed in his endless cups of black coffee. He projects instead a more relaxed sipping of a double cappuccino with extra foam as he seems to be relaxing with his feet up, intellectualizing about the general workings of troubled relationships.
There's a real subtlety throughout the album. The very varied selections include rhythmic excursions and two jazz songs by Norma Winstone and the superb jazz pianist Fred Hersch, who plays on two tracks, but not those he wrote. The accompaniment also includes sax, vibes, accordion, clarinet, guitar and cello in addition to piano, bass and percussion. There are no long, extended instrumental solos.
Despite some tracks that might not stick in your mind or a few that are on the abstract side and less satisfying dramatically, it's a classy and textured effort. There are times I wish Jack would vocally "let go" more and whip out a handkerchief to encourage a few more tears in this bluefest, but A Small Blue Thing is no small achievement.
UNDER THE RADAR
THE CATZ IN THE HATZ
The über-chilled-out group known as Catz in the Hatz never break a sweat. They are laidback, though not devoid of real feeling in the singing and playing on this album with vocals and instrumentals. In the last two years, they issued CDs called Take One and (you guessed it) Take Two. What's now released as Resilience is actually a combination of the two albums, with 14 selections and a generous play time as most are on the long side.
Baritone Steve Johnson takes the vocals, at times projecting a sense of languid detachment. He creates a more dramatic feel, albeit low-key, with "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)." His version of the oft-recorded Rodgers and Hart "My Funny Valentine" (70 years old this year, with no sign of slowing down) shows some thoughtful phrasing, but Ervin Drake's "It Was a Very Good Year" is not soaking in bittersweet nostalgia as it could be. Originally doubling as the group's drummer, Steve has turned the sticks over to Steve Boggio, and sticks to vocals. Terry Copley is the bassist, Mikes Wiens is on guitar, and Mike Cross is on keyboards (he is also the album producer). These two Mikes get a chance to stretch out on the instrumentals and work especially well together. (Joey Sellarole is now the pianist for the quintet.) Of the instrumentals, "Riviera Paradise" is especially attractive and the surprise item, Beethoven's "Fur Elise" sliding into the folk song "Scarborough Fair," is welcome, too.
With the relaxed vibe, non-showy playing and mellow tones, plus string sounds from a a keyboard, parts of this CD may at first feel like a Prozac-ed "lounge" cocktail time-out. But it's far more musical and hip than any kind of wallpaper background thing. Mellow? Yes, but funky, too. It pays homage to old styles while tossing some original ideas into the mix, finding snappy instrumental licks to base an arrangement on and give familiar songs a slight shake-up, like "Fever." Particularly satisfying and staying in a definite groove are two originals by Johnson, "Into the Smooth" and "Whisper Low," and he sings them with flair, using his deep voice to great advantage. What the California-based group calls "jazz with an attitude" won't be for everyone, but it's a rather nice change of pace.
Thanks to these very different men in our listening life this week. And now this man must say goodbye til next time.