THE INDIE REVOLUTION
The major record labels would have you believe that any artist worth the price of a CD can only be found in their realm. (To be honest, a lot of so-called “independent” labels play the same game.) In my many years walking the pop culture beat, the Reverend has discovered that talent and passion and entertainment value come in many packages, not all of them with the designated imprint of corporate acceptance. As such, we’re going to use this column to pay our respects to some of the talented artists who, while tilting at windmills, nevertheless represent the true spirit of rock music…
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t mind receiving a beautiful woman’s phone number, but in this case, Liz Aday of Superlush wrote it across the gorgeous cover of the band’s self-produced debut, Under My Skin. This minor cavil aside, the music under the cover is a revelation. Aday’s vocals on Under My Skin are loud, lusty, provocative and powerful – in short, everything a female rocker would want to be. Backed by guitarist Chad Quist and a rhythm section that knows when to whisper and when to SHOUT, Superlush cranks out meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll. How Quist, who recently toured Europe with Big Brother & the Holding Company, has managed to fly underneath the radar for so long is a mystery, the Superlush axeman coaxing both jazzy flourishes and razor-sharp riffs from his instrument. Ditto for Liz Aday, who has both the songwriting and the performing skills to play in the big leagues.
“Sticks and Stones” could be a monster of a radio hit, the infectious chorus matched with a chaotic swirl of guitars and a big beat. The funky “I Am A Stone” hits a rocking groove behind Aday’s sultry vocals while the clever “Children In The 80’s” showcases the singer’s vocal gymnastics in an ultra-cool song that revisits the decade of MTV, disposable pop and funny haircuts. Word is that Seattle’s Superlush has gone on “hiatus” due to personal situations. Under My Skin is well worth the investment both for its entertainment value and as a collector’s item for that inevitable day when Aday and Quist have become major stars.
Portland, Oregon’s Maggie’s Choice has also released a strong debut, the band’s self-titled album showcasing an invigorating blend of roots rock, swamp rock, blues rock and country rock. Guitarists Abe Cohen and Mateo Bevington share vocals, songwriting and six-string duties to fine effect, their harmonies dominated by Cohen’s warm baritone and supported by the finely crafted instrumentation of each song. Bevington’s lead vocals are also distinctive, with a slight twang and a friendly cadence. Marian Hammond’s piano and keyboards add another dimension to the pair’s songwriting; her imaginative rhythms complimented by steady six-string work that sounds like Toy Caldwell reborn.
Maggie’s Choice, the album, offers a number of songs that would play well to the alt-country crowd, infused as they are with reckless country soul and down-to-earth honesty. Cohen and Bevington remind me a lot of Uncle Tupelo’s Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, both solid songwriters with a lot of heart, a flair for imagery and the ability to translate complex emotions into a three-minute song. “Where We Were” offers fleeting glimpses of a relationship, described by Cohen with a jigsaw puzzle of imagery. The wonderful “Moving Towards The Center” shows Dylanesque brilliance, the song’s oblique lyrics matched by Bevington’s strong vocal delivery. A Byrdsian guitar riff opens “Saturday Morning,” the six-string sound swelling into a stream-of-consciousness romantic tale of an angel taking flight while “The Same Mistake” tries to grab the same angel, her gilded heartstrings considered with bittersweet vocals. Maggie’s Choice is a hell of a talented band, their debut album well worth your consideration. .
Journalistic integrity forces me to admit that singer/songwriter Jim Testa is an old acquaintance. As editor of the Northeast music zine Jersey Beat for the past twenty-plus years, Testa has published the Reverend’s CD reviews for better than a decade. Of course, Jim has read enough negative reviews to realize that if his own musical debut, Songs My Father Never Sang, wasn’t up to snuff that I’d hit him with both barrels faster than you could say “weapons of mass destruction.” He has nothing to fear from these quarters, however, Testa’s charming five-song EP filled with the kind of witty eccentricity and pop/rock intelligence that critics like yours truly live for.
A cross between a Greenwich Village folkie and a Hoboken rocker, Testa’s whipsmart lyrics are matched with a cool, complimenting retro sound. “Bad New York Band” is the funniest, darkest song here, Testa’s savage lyrics slamming the NYC rock scene with authority. Supported by an ‘80-styled synth beat and bluesy harp, Testa’s chorus of “you’re a bad New York band and nobody likes you” results in the proclamation “Joey Ramone died for your sins!” The nostalgic “I Was A Teenage Frankenstein” provides a high-school nerd with his long overdue revenge while “Jean Shepherd” revisits childhood memories while paying homage to the popular New York humorist.
With nifty sci-fi synthwork and a doo-wop heart, “Incredible Shrinking Man (I Love You)” reminds me of Zappa’s Ruben & the Jets, and that’s a good thing. Songs My Father Never Sang is Testa’s first, tentative step into the world of music that he has long documented with some intelligence, the EP a too-brief collection of tunes that is refreshingly honest, heartfelt and a hell of a lot of fun. (View From The Hill, 2003)