Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Going the Way of the Dinosaur

Here’s yet another break from the bass action so I can throw some oil in your gears… and also I’m too lazy to start a new blog site!

I still refer to a collection of songs circulating around the thirty-five minute mark and numbering around a dozen- finely tuned without a weak spot; a “record” or an “album”. Yeah, I’m ancient, but I’m a creature of habit and I’m not about to change because digital media was dropped on the earth like a maelstrom of chaotic audio sensory overload. The marketing and consumption of music in all of its forms has long since been turned on its ear, and the sound the other ear is listening to is DIY indie artists emptying the cash register, music executives scooping up whatever loose change is left; and cries from A&R people in a free fall for a safety net that was never set up. There was simply no way to anticipate the complete upheaval a simple MP3 file would start.
                                                      Sucks to be you…

The ashen landscape left most ‘recording artists’ fighting for the scraps. Some of my favorite iconic bands growing up are now veiled in the dark corners, where the sunny exposure of the mainstream eludes them. They’re the people I care about because I remember a time that they mattered, and it’s all I wanted to be “when I grew up”!!

So where does that leave the listener- the wide eyed and hopeful neophyte, the music enthusiast who is pining for something to stretch their wallet and leave a pleasant musical aftertaste?  I don’t have an answer. And it’s not because I don’t have an opinion, I just don’t have the mind (or body) of a young person whose parents have an unlimited and endless flow of expendable green to co-pilot their musical journey. Ouch. That was a backhanded compliment, even if that’s not what I intended…

I want to re-evaluate how adults (you and me), who grew up with a savory view and fondness for entire records, cassettes or CD’s now look upon a media explosion and generation of “lazy listening” with disregard.  Take heed kids: I am talking to you as well!

There’s no surprises here- the shuffle on an iPod or MP3 player will leave most people lazily and haphazardly “scanning” through to their favorite tracks and relentlessly abusing the shorter, catchier songs, while longer, more developed tracks get the boot.

If you’re a scanner, then you're probably skipping over all the meat here! Go back and read!!
                                               I do this because I love ya!!
                                                Peter… please, pay attention.

Walking to school every day afforded me the luxury of blasting Garage Days Revisited or Black Flag on my Sony Walkman as I shuffled to High School. What I wasn’t afforded was a ‘shuffle’ option or the blank reasoning behind hurrying through to “Last Caress”, or flipping to side two of “My War” so I could hear Bill Stevenson’s characteristic bass drum throb and propel track 2, side two. Damn, it would have taken me five minutes just to cue it up! That song is only 6 & ½ minutes long!

Artists and performers wrote songs for themselves and with the listener or established ‘fan’ in my mind, with little thought of how it would be marketed and distributed. Even Ben & Jerry knew there was a ton of other ice cream companies! They used unique flavor combinations, quirky labeling and quality ingredients. Records weren’t built with emulsifiers and filler either- they had a strong foundation from the epic (and sometimes short & intense) opening track to the “single”, somewhere early on; album tracks (the meat of the album) and the closer which often gave you the cathartic release that the opener hinted at. 

I often reference The Deftones “White Pony” or Muse’s “The Resistance”. As current as “Resistance” is, there is no doubt that the boys in Muse grew up listening to Queen’s “Night at the Opera” and T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior” in their entirety, without lifting the needle once...

My 16 year old nephew has given me a glimpse into the young, burgeoning music listener. Maybe not as avid for change and occasionally, influenced by peers, he’s not that far removed from me at his age. But he’s never known the beauty of going to a Record Store (Tower Records, anyone??) with a ten spot, walking out holding a copy of Iron Maiden’s ‘Piece of Mind’ and then spending an afternoon sprawled out on the basement floor while demolishing an old pair of Fisher speakers and god knows what kind of turntable. Reading each printed lyric word for word, exhausting the last seconds of each track in preparation for the next; the crackle from the needle and the imperfections apparent in the occasional ripples or skips during “The Trooper”. The satisfaction of these kinds of experiences won’t ever be felt by my nephew and maybe there is less appreciation of music in general. No, there’s no doubt in my mind that teens, tweens (wtf?) and youths of all varieties in all parts of the world will miss out on the subtle distraction of making music a centerpiece- not just background noise while they text friends.

                                        There is something lost with progress.

                              I have no regrets!!! Ok, I wish I had listened to all of Yes’s 
                              Fragile, not just “Roundabout”!!

Next write-up I will reconvene with the bass-tastic goodness I started, and yet another player you may have snoozed through. I’m here for you. See you then!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

I Don't Know Nothin'!

Beginning this piece with a double-negative pretty much guarantees you can disregard me as a professional writer. That being said: I don’t do this for YOU. Well, that’s not entirely true- not even remotely. I really believe that we push ourselves to succeed on some level that initially makes us happy, and then of course we attempt to “share” under the guise of improving others. Yeah, right. The dog will run to fetch you the chew toy and he requires a good head rubdown and ear scratch every time!

So, I’m not a professional writer and am no longer a “professional” recording artist (that doesn’t even sound like it makes sense!); so what exactly makes me an expert in anything?

The key here to realize anyone’s value is to understand their *POV, otherwise known as point of view or *Perfect Opportunity (to) Vent. Let’s not derail this train right away- I don’t mean to vent mercilessly towards others; I just mean to pass on the goodness that someone shared with you once. This is the value system and center of gravity that is not just a perception, but your own solid ground to stand on. Here’s a few of mine that keep me from steering of course:

  •        The world is round and I am not the center of it! The truth is that 100’s of years ago, people believed we would certainly fall off our ‘flat’ world, but eventually that myth was squashed. I am not the owner of the only opinion in the universe.
  •         I take time and others for granted. Believe me, I have better things to do with my hours- I just like Grumpy Cat memes or watching episodes of Family Guy I’ve already seen! My friends are important, but I haven’t always made that opinion clear either.        

  •        I don’t know nothin’! When it comes to music and musicianship, I think my opinion is the only one that matters, but I know that is a seismic pile of steaming dung!

My son reminds me that my love for hummus isn’t universally shared and he’s only 8, so I guess that not everyone is going to think the first two (and only) Quicksand albums are the greatest thing ever. I also realize that if I had the money, I’d easily buy untold amounts of music gear and I would have a more well-rounded view of what was good; NOT JUST WHAT I CAN AFFORD. Also, I am the slowest typist on Earth and the difference between knowing and not caring becomes apparent. Dear Santa, I would like Dragon software for X-mas; a Zon bass, Markbass 2x12 cab, that barista at the coffee shop downtown…

I welcome you and your POV to my ‘flat’ world. The comment section below is where to vent. Enjoy.

Monday, May 13, 2013

K. Alvarez

‘Word of mouth’ is still the best 'free' marketing via social media, but there was a time when we actually used OUR MOUTHS to tell friends and family about what was cool and happening! Picture High School kids with haircuts equally bad as today’s styles, except that flash drives were not exchanged and iPods were not being shuffled!! We dubbed cassette tapes and used the glorious Sony Walkman! And that is not to be confused with Dubstep!? We we’re like the first cavemen scripting onto walls and translating dinosaur escapades, as we recorded generation to generation of albums and store bought cassettes, passing them to each other at soccer practices and sleepovers; the sound quality degrading with every pass. I first heard and got into some of my favorite bands this way, and at the time; there was no digital studio recording, auto-tune or Pro-Tools to make everything sound pretty- so a .49 Maxell cassette would do just fine. Some of my favorite bands were discovered in this way: Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, Black Flag, Metallica (take that Napster!) and U2. 

One of the favorite bands circulating during my senior year (the year I started to really devote time to the bass); was the band ALL. Formed at the end of pop-punk band The Descendents successful run in the eighties, the band continued on under a different name with the departure of singer Milo Aukerman. The band remained essentially the same, with the core of guitarist Sephen Egerton, drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Karl Alvarez. They released a handful of recordings with a few different singers eventually settling on gruff and tumble vocalist Chad Price. But only two of their “dubbed” cassette masterpieces made it into our hands that final year in High School: Allroy’s Revenge and Allroy for Prez.

With songs like “She’s My Ex”, “I Hate to Love” and lyrics that professed a bygone lover who “chewed me up, and spit me out like bubblegum”; ALL countered there stumble’s with love by playing some of the most upbeat and engaging pop-punk to creep from the Valleys of California, sweep across the Midwest and blast me and my Pennsylvanian buds into a blissful cauldron of sun and sand we couldn’t possibly reach. These songs literally helped some of my close friends “get over” High School crushes and anchoring the whole thing musically without remaining stagnant was the fluid and pulsating bass of Karl Alvarez.

Sitting in between the concise and hyper drumming of ex-Black Flag drummer Bill Stevenson and the wiry and strained power chords of Stephen Egerton, Alvarez had a knack for moving the bassline and song into an almost danceable groove complete with plummeting eighth notes and pentatonic runs at any interval. “Wrong Again” off Allroy for Prez is a perfect example of his largely open but well-constructed lines that move all around Egerton’s straight forward chord strum. It pulls and shifts the melody along and doesn’t mind if you follow- in fact the bass invites you to the warmth and depth that Karl creates. “Daveage” at the close of Allroy for Prez has a swinging bass part in the verse with liberal use of major fifths (and really the whole arpeggio of the major & pentatonic scale in varying patterns) and the 7 chord while not stepping on the open chord guitar part. The tone is warm with a mild punch and he draws the progression out until the songs' close. The album “Allroys Revenge” follows similar patterns and again you here the driving use of the major chords; root to octave and it never sounds forced. Every bass part sounded well-conceived and executed and as a burgeoning musician- I was eager to soak up new and foreign concepts (I didn't see much use past the eighth fret at the time!).

The thrill of my life came to me some fifteen years or so later when I was fortunate enough to be on The Warped Tour for a week with the band I was playing in. We got to see so many great bands daily like ALL, The Deftones and Bad Religion, and on the first day of the tour; Frank (the singer of the band I was in) and I happened on Karl Alvarez trolling the merchandise alcove looking over the wares being sold. Frank immediately struck up a conversation with him as I stood there clueless and maybe a little awe struck. He was a genuine guy and I held off on the “Hey man, do you know how important you were to my development, blah, blah…” The significance of the moment was that nothing needed to be said at the time- he had unknowingly assisted in helping me pursue a dream. Even this blog can’t thank him enough, although I hope you check out these releases and ALL’s later releases where Karl progressed even more with his tenacious style abusing a G&L ASAT bass. Word of mouth hasn’t gone away; the exchange from hand to hand just needs a Wi-Fi connection, IPod and an iTunes account.

Often unheralded, but no longer overlooked…

Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Defense of Cheap, Crappy Basses

Thought I'd take another break from the series of worthwhile bassists you managed to sleep through... so wake up!!!

If you're like me- you're poor. Poor like this: I haven't changed the strings in 6 months on my Hamer Velocity four string that depreciated to the tune of $299 the moment I purchased it. Now it's worth exactly 49$ bucks and it is almost pointless to sell it on E-Bay, save for begging my good friends at Guitar Center to give me $100 on trade. Did I mention it is translucent red and I'll throw in a gig bag?

Like so many bassists and music aficionados, I have purchased, bartered, traded and sold off no less than 30 or 40 basses. I've had basses that I literally owned for such a short period I don't remember them! Fernandes? Yup! Ibanez? Yup! Tobias? Yup! Some bass that had 8 strings (forget the name)and was stolen at a gig? Fuck yea!! So, why not sell all of my current basses (I own 6!) and seek out the holy grail- the bass that breathes life into me, the instrument that has playability that is impossible to believe and finally; a bass that you literally want to take to bed with you. Sure, that sounds uncomfortable, but don't tell me you haven't thought it at least a few times?! And honestly, I've slept with much worse...

I had an enormous thrill when visiting Sam Ash Music in Time Square last summer. There was a unmistakable face there "helping out" that day and I knew immediately by the recognizable Ray-Ban shades he was wearing and distinct hair style that I was standing before Larry Hartke! What an awesome moment, to be there with a bass amplification icon!!  I asked to see the low cost Japanese Gary Willis fretless. He pointed at the wood colored, American made $4000 version and said "play that one!". I grumbled about the cost and he laughed it off "Hey, man its cool, doesn't matter to me!". Well, little did Mr. Hartke know, but he was in the presence of a cheap ass bass guitar hoarder, probably not the first time; but I obliged realizing that this bass that was worth more than all the basses I personally owned! While sitting there attempting to keep my intonation in the realm of "suck-free"; I drooled from a distance at the beautiful Sadowsky's literally cluttering the half wall (and the 1st time I had seen a Sadowsky!)- seeing price tags that started with 4,5, and 6's, followed by three zeros- I knew I was in a strange and distant land. Yet as I feigned interest in the Willis fretless, I imagined what an ultimate tease it would be to play a Sadowsky Metro (and with black hardware? Forget it!!).

I realized I should enjoy the moment of just being around all these lush and glorious instruments. There simply wasn't $600 in the bank to even afford the Japan version of the Willis/Ibanez bass- so I left. My view changed in that moment, if only on an appreciation level; and maybe a holy grail didn't exist or maybe I need to love my beat to hell Fender Jazz (with enough paint chips you'd think it had freckles). I've seen some of the best musicians with junk drum sets, guitars built with Warmouth parts and bassists' like Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden; playing Mexican made P-basses with 6 month old strings?!! It's merely a vessel, don't caught up in it. I miss my Peavey Dynabass and even my first Squier Jazz and its uneven frets and boiled strings (you've tried it!!). Own what you have and don't fret what you own;) And don't sweat it if you aren't cranking a Hartke bass cab- Larry is cool with it either way...

Sunday, May 5, 2013

M. Colvin

The early 90’s saw a huge “changing of the guard” musically. There were ‘hair’ metal bands that saw a glorious run of success in the previous decade, now clambering for some revised sense of purpose, as a new wave of dirty looking and even more unpolished sounding bands began to cram the airwaves and MTV. They didn’t have to like it, but the fact was that they had become mostly obsolete by 1993, maintaining their core following while saying goodbye to mainstream (and fickle) audiences.

There were a lot of bands being signed by major record labels at the end of the eighties who had no real connection with the vain, misogynistic ‘Hair’ metal lifestyle, and record companies had not yet seen that there was gold to be mined in a popular Northwest mecca. The Houston market had seen the rise of a venerable and majestic sounding group of artists that were honing an ‘otherworldly’ sound- full with melodic hooks, harmonic vocals and guitars that were full on, as they vacillated between clean and distorted tones. Everyone in the Houston area had caught on to the band King’s X and by 1998, they had released their second album to much critical fanfare.

Galactic Cowboys were another Houston band that utilized a lot of the same musical styling as Kings X, and in 1991 released their debut for Geffen Records. The same year that Geffen released an album by a band called Nirvana. The Cowboys were lost in the shuffle.

Ask any band and they will tell you that following trends is a death sentence. Music is emotive and should not rely on flashy image and a shimmering veneer. If you could see the early ‘Seattle scene’, you would know that they did not possess the sharpened, pretty and sometimes manufactured look of the latex and leather wearing ‘Hair Bands’. The early ‘grunge’ bands hadn’t even been labeled yet and they were a product of their environment. Dirty, unkempt; wearing flannel because it was cold- not because it was cool, and tattoos that looked like they were solicited in prison! The Galactic Cowboys held true to their metallic shifts into clean and lush sounding harmonies without notice of anything outside of their musical vision.

In 1993, they released what I feel is the most underrated album of the early nineties: “Space in Your Face”. The thematic space musing from the first album starts out the album and the main driver in the overall tone was Monty Colvin’s thick, but precise 12 string bass onslaught. It opens up your auditory senses immediately, and you know you didn’t just pop Warrant’s new cassette in your deck (yes we still used cassettes in 1993!). There is no doubt in my mind that he was interval in the shaping of the immense sound on this record. Let’s look at his technique, his resounding presence and his trademark lyrical humor (Why not, doesn’t have to be all bass, all the time).

I spent many hours researching the origins and intricate details of “Space in Your Face”, regardless of the fact that I have listened to it no less than 1,00,030 times (not an exact #). How can someone memorize every affect and every taut musical tempo change and not really feel like he knows the bass playing? Colvin was unique in that he chose to use a 12 string (Hamer, I believe) bass on the entirety of this recording. By 1993 I had been playing bass for about five years and only recently updated to a 5 string bass (a Peavey Dynabass- who’s the man?), so comprehending 12 strings of anything was hard getting my head around! But for a majority of beginner and intermediate bassists, a twelve string bass is an anomaly and probably not something you’ll even find at the local music store. The 12 string bass has the standard four strings (E,A,D,G) and then has two high (what are essentially) guitar strings doubling the original bass strings. What comes from this conglomeration is a massive booming tone that is so full it allows the guitar to be stringier and branch out from the major or minor chords the song relies on (think Cheap Trick). And at times, the tone of a 12 string bass sounds like an amped up muscle car with the exhaust purring and you can hear that in the arrangements from this recording. Puurrrrrrr…

Applying the use of this, Monty Colvin turned many of these already complex arrangements into an exercise in forced precision. Utilizing a pick, he propels the opening pattern (triplets, for you music nerds) of track two “You Make Me Smile” and as the tempo moves to double time, the song breaks into a ‘thrash’ style riff that is teetering on Anthrax style precision, but with the difficulties of keeping that 12 string playable and sounding good. If you don’t believe me that no effects pedal can duplicate the tone of a twelve string bass, then check out the note run at .46 seconds, when they drums and guitars drop out and it’s just Monty. You just have to hear it to believe it.

“Circles in the Fields”, is a sarcastic poke at desperate sycophants and their sad attempts at re-creating alien visitations in the cornfields of our American Midwest (complete with a lumbering tractor, sputtering off at the close of the song). The up-tempo thrash is again apparent here and the use of the 12 string to lay down a foundation for the aromatic blues of guitarist Dane Sonnier. When the bass and guitar are doubled in the airy bridge- they ascend together in a way that the aliens themselves might decide to return with them- to sing harmony on the chorus! I think this song is a great representation of the overall sound that the Galactic Cowboys achieved on this album. The following cut “If I were a Killer” also utilizes a unique build in the bridge section (layering of sound, as they call it), with the bass, guitar and the dynamics slowly growling back into the cathartic finale, and complete dissolution at the outro.

The last track is a good example of Colvin’s wit and sarcasm coming through lyrically (he wrote a majority of the lyrics). Sure, it’s got a thick slab of a meaty bass intro, and yes, there’s a super revved up thrash style breakdown with tempo changes intact. It’s the lyrics of the clueless (Colvin goofing on himself?) protagonist within the song who wonders where the girls he mused over in High School have gone. The comical poke ends with the aimless daydreamer (Colvin himself) calling old girlfriends and they have no idea who he is, and are ambivalent to say the least. He is a major musical talent and the sense of humor is a nice touch. Haven’t we all thought of our High School sweetheart now and then?!?

“Space in Your Face” seems hard to locate, as it is neither on iTunes or Rhapsody, but please make a concerted effort to find it. The recording is a rare musical gem amidst a sea of flannel and stale Aqua Net fumes.

Often “Unheralded”, but no longer overlooked…