Dizzy Heights #38: Pico to Colorado to Las Palmas — The Garrett & Amy Show, Vol. II

Time for another edition of Take Your Child to Work Day, though curiously, my employer is not celebrating it this year.

The kids have been itching to do another show, and they’re bringing all of the big hitmakers with them. Demi Lovato, The Weeknd, Muse, Grace VanderWaal and Panic! At the Disco all return to rub elbows with Selena Gomez, P!nk, Portugal. The Man, Charlie Puth, The Chainsmokers, Fergie (God help me), Julia Michaels, and a certain mega female pop star whose name I’m afraid to mention. Listen as the kids re-enact their favorite internet memes, with varying degrees of success. Though it turns out Garrett can do an awfully good Schwarzenegger impression, and his Tommy Wiseau isn’t bad, either.

If there is any influence of mine in this show, it’s in the funny bits, namely the Simpsons drop-ins and the final track of the show. ’90s-era MTV fans look at this show’s title and nod knowingly.

Thank you, as always, for listening.

Review: Grouper – “Grid of Points”

Grouper’s new LP – Grid of Points, out tomorrow via Kranky – is no Ruins, but its sparse pairing of multifaceted, ghostly voices with borderline-skeletal piano is nonetheless pretty engaging.

Working, surprisingly, from a palette that’s more stripped down and gray than that aforementioned 2014 gem, solo performer Liz Harris taps into a well of rich yet nuanced melancholy on the seven-song offering, and listeners will be surprised that something of this depth only runs 21 minutes. Harris, on retreat in Wyoming, composed the record, apparently, in a flurry of writing, which was disrupted only by a high fever. It’s easy to agree with her assessment that this is a complete work, however much you want the swells of voices to keep darting down endless echo chambers, and not something haphazard.

Ruins was a more textured affair and, while Grouper’s trademark tape hiss and angelic chorale remain, the austerity on display here lends it a kind of sonic isolationism, a desire to turn further inward. On tracks like “Birthday Song,” it becomes a kind of musical definition of loneliness. On “Blouse,” Harris sounds authentically devastated, barely able to push out the lead. “Breathing,” the closer, collapses under found sound.

Harris is working from sonic forebears throughout – while this work is more ambient in nature, it calls to mind the breathiness of 90s-era Cindy Dall and even the solo piano phrasings of Thymme Jones. (The artist Demen tried and largely failed to work in similar modes last year.) But what the listener is treated to, ultimately, is requia. Harris’ mournful compositions are like tombstones, marking the passing of emotions, or the capturing of them on tape, before they fade into ether, into something more intangible. It’s not her finest work but it’s still pretty great.


Soul Serenade: The Diamonds, “The Stroll”

Canada, a nation known for hockey, curling, poutine, and … soul? Yes indeed. I may seem to be on a mission to prove that soul music comes in all kinds of forms from all kinds of places but it only seems that way because it’s true. Sure, cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Memphis, and New Orleans are known as soul capitols but they are hardly the only places from which soulful sounds emerged. Last week I gave you soul from London in the form of the Foundations. This week we travel north of the border to meet the Diamonds.

Their history goes all the way back to 1953 when sound engineer Dave Somerville met three like-minded guys in Toronto. The thing they had in common was that they all liked to sing and as a result, a new vocal quartet was formed. They called themselves the Diamonds and in addition to Somerville, the original lineup included Ted Kowalski, Phil Levitt, and Bill Reed. They got a positive reaction from early audiences and 18 months into their career they decided to make the drive to New York City in search of fame and fortune.

The Diamonds found what they were looking for when they tied for first place on the popular Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts tv show. Their prize was a record deal with Coral Records. That, in turn, led to them acquiring manager Nat Goodman. Four songs came out of those early sessions the most memorable being a Lieber-Stoller composition called “Black Denim Trousers & Motorcycle Boots.”

The Diamonds

The Diamonds continued to move forward and DJ Bill Randle helped them to get a deal with Mercury Records. Success came in the form of a cover of the Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers hit which reached #12 in 1955 and was followed by the #14 hit “Church Bells May Ring” that same year. The group made their first appearance on the R&B chart the following year with “Love, Love, Love” which reached #14. Bigger things were still ahead.

The real breakthrough record for the Diamonds was their take on the Maurice Williams-written “Little Darlin’.” In 1957, the single made it to #2 on the R&B chart and the same position on the pop chart. “Words of Love” and “Zip, Zip” followed “Little Darlin’” into the Top 20 and then the Diamonds scored big again with “The Stroll,” a song written by Clyde Otis which reached #4 on the pop chart and #5 on the R&B chart. Yes, 1957 was quite a year for the Diamonds.

Despite the success, by the end of the decade, three original members of the Diamonds had left the group leaving Somerville as the only original member. Replacing Kowalski, Reed, and Levitt were Mike Douglas, John Felten, and Evan Fisher. The Diamonds continued into the ’60s but by 1961 even Somerville had left. He pursued a solo career as David Troy and he was replaced by Jim Malone.

The hit-making days of the Diamonds were done but they continued as a live act, playing often in Las Vegas. Inevitably there was a battle over who owned the Diamonds name which led to two different groups of Diamonds being on the road at the same time. In one form or another, a group called the Diamonds has continued touring in the new century.

TV on DVD: “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return”

It was nearly thirty years ago when Joel Hodgson brought his little “cow-town puppet show”, Mystery Science Theater 3000, to the Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central). After ten years split between Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel, the show was cancelled, presumably forever. The cast all went their separate ways, but some did later return for similar projects, such as Hodgson’s Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax, headed up by head writer and performer Michael J. Nelson. Fans of the show were intrigued when Hodgson appeared on Kickstarter wanting to raise money to bring the show back. The Kickstarter ended up earning over 6 million dollars in donations. Interest was definitely there, so Netflix decided to carry the new episodes, dubbed Mystery Science Theater: The Return (or Season 11). The show has subsequently been released on DVD and Blu-Ray from Shout!Factory (who liked MST3K so much they literally bought the company).

Fans of the show were concerned when we heard that it was going to be totally recast, both with known performers (Jonah Ray, Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt) and relative unknowns Baron Vaughn, Hampton Yount, and Rebecca Hanson. Could Hodgson and Company make the magic happen again? I’ll tell you what I liked and didn’t like about it.

First of all, it was encouraging to see show creator Joel Hodgson at the helm again. It made you feel confident that any changes from the original formula took place with his blessing. It seemed that everybody that was there was a fan of the original show, and wanted it to succeeed this time too. It’s also good to see that there’s still no shortage of cheesy movies to work with, and they focused mainly on giant monsters and science fiction this time, a genre that the show knows very well (although there was still room for a Hercules movie, some “whimsical” fantasy, and a talking monkey). We also had some great cameos from big time guest stars like Neil Patrick Harris, Joel MacHale, Mark Hamill, Jerry Seinfeld, and even Hodgson himself.

As great as the shows were, I still think there are spots where they could improve. For example, there really seemed to be too many riffs going on at times. They need to learn when to step back and let the movie breathe a little. Also, Hodgson mentioned that Vaughn and Yount hadn’t really had a chance to learn the puppeteering, so there were other people operating Crow and Servo. I also heard that the performers pre-recorded their riffs in a recording studio instead of doing them “live” on camera. Sometimes this made for a disconnect and lost some of the spontaneity that the original show had. And while it was fun to have all the guest stars, they were nearly all filmed separately and cut into the scenes instead of appearing in the same scene with the actors. Lastly, they occasionally resorted to a pet peeve of mine, the dreaded “wigglecam,” where the camera moves around a little bit to provide motion in an otherwise still shot.

I thought I’d conclude with mentioning a couple of my favorite episodes. One of them was the season opener, Reptilicus, a giant monster movie from Denmark. I think part of it was the “new car smell” of just having the show back again, as well as having what was arguably the best song of the season, “Every Monster Has a Country”. I also enjoyed Carnival Magic, a cheapo kid’s movie featuring the aforementioned talking monkey. And since I have a special fondness for Christmas movies, I liked The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, which gets extra love from me because my name is listed in the end credits.

The DVD also includes a documentary about the history of the show and how this new incarnation came to be, with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from the cast and crew. As with just about anything MST3K related, this comes highly recommended by me. It’ll also give you something to do while we wait for the next season of the show, coming soon!


Album Review: The Claudettes, “Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium”

The Claudettes fuse Chicago piano blues with the full-throttle energy of rockabilly and punk and the sultriness of ’60’s soul to write a thrilling new chapter in American roots music. Johnny Iguana pounds the piano alongside seductive singer Berit Ulseth, with bassist/singer Zach Verdoorn and drummer Danny Yost holding down the rhythm. Johnny, who toured for years with his cult-favorite rock band, “oh my god”, is also a member of the Grammy-nominated groups Chicago Blues–A Living History and the Muddy Waters 100 Band. He has also toured/recorded with Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and more. The band recorded this new album (their 3rd), Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium, with Grammy-winning producer Mark Neill (Black Keys, Paladins, Old 97’s, J.D. McPherson).

Bold and strident, “Don’t Stay With Me” opens the album with a deep, heavy sound and Ms Ulseth’s vocals are instantly seductive and warm; “November” is somewhat cacophonous and ponderous; “Give It All Up For Good” has a boogie vibe with a Dr. John feel, overall; “Pull Closer To Me” is a slower but sweet piece about relationships; “Infuential Farmers” also left me a little puzzled because the lyrics aren’t clearly audible, although the performance has a fierce intensity.  “Utterly Absurd”, the album’s closer has a sort-of ’60’s spy vibe but, yet again, the vocals aren’t up in the mix enough for me to really enjoy it.

While this album has some very nice moments – the arrangements are tight and the overall production is good; I like Ms. Ulseth’s voice a lot – it’s a bit uneven and didn’t really give me that certain excitement I hope for when I haven’t heard an artist’s work previously.  Also, the burying of vocals of some songs was a distraction, which is a shame as the musical performances are great and the balance isn’t there.

Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium is currently available







Album Review: Arkansas Dave, “Arkansas Dave”

From the opening notes of singer/songwriter/guitarist Arkansas Dave’s debut album, you’re first thinking “am I listening to an old Molly Hatchet record?” but quickly, you realize there’s a lot here to offer, not retreads of Southern rock.  Horns, arrangements, big, backing vocals, keyboards – it’s a bold and exciting stew of sounds so you can dismiss any biases immediately.  The Austin-based, Arkanasas-raised multi-instrumentalist showcases his natural penchant for blues and soul (with tinges of gospel and country) on this first collection of thirteen songs, recorded in just eight days (!).  It’s also more than noteworthy to mention that most of the instruments were recorded at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, along with members of the equally-legendary studio house band, The Swampers.

Like I stated, “Bad At Being Good”, the album’s kickoff track, is a beefy, balls-out sonic attack with an eye-opening sound and a freewheeling vibe; “On My Way” is down-home, modern blues with that soul punch and “Think Too Much” is a swampy, well-produced piece that sounds radio-friendly and pumps and throttles in a very Stones-y manner.  “Chocolate Jesus” is a tongue-in-cheek pseudo gospel piece about the joys of candy (!) with a New Orleans funeral style brass backing; “The Wheel” is the album standout – jazzy time signatures, crisp guitars and textures along with a very emotional vocal delivery and some classic psychedelic bits thrown in for good, effective measure and “Jubilee” is a warm, slower paced acoustic-framed number that (at moments) reminds me of The Black Crowes’ “Thorn In My Pride”.  “Something For Me” comes straight out of the Otis Redding-style book and Arkansas Dave nails it on-the-one, with a gorgeous arrangement and horns that would make Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love proud and “Coming Home” closes this initial bow in a subdued and tasteful manner.

An impressive debut, to be sure.  A great collection of songs, without a doubt.  There’s a lot to enjoy and slowly savor in the performances.  This one of those moments where you think that this performer has a lot more of quality to offer.  Nothing but pure goodness.


Arkansas Dave’s debut album is currently available


Album Review: Tami Neilson, “Sassafrass!”

If you’ve ever wanted to know what Wanda Jackson duking it out with Shirley Bassey in an alley while Rosanne Cash, Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse egged them on sounded like, look no further than Sassafrass!, the terrific new album from New Zealand’s Tami Neilson that’s coming out on June 1.

That Neilson is channeling so many strong women isn’t an accident. As she says in a press release, the record is the “mouthy lovechild of the current social climate and my own experiences as a woman, mother and daughter. It’s also my attempt at challenging a society that doesn’t yet treat women equally in order to shape a better future for my children.”

Brimming with attitude and a retro sound, Sassafrass! is a showcase for Neilson’s powerhouse voice, with 11 killer songs to match. She comes roaring out of the gate with the first single, “Stay Outta My Business.” The lyrics are an angry jab at the patriarchy, but backed by the Hot Rockin’ Band of Rhythm — Joe McCallum (drums), Mike Hall (bass), Brett Adams (guitar) and Neil Watson (guitar and pedal steel) — and a horn section, it’s also a rollicking, swinging soul stomp.

Of the others, she touches upon rockabilly (“Kitty Cat”), torch songs (“One Thought of You”), country balladry (“Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6,” written the day that Glen Campbell died), exotica (the double entendre-filled “Bananas”). “Smoking Gun” takes aim at the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. Best of all is “Miss Jones,” a tribute to Sharon Jones (“Swingin’ skirt, feet jumpin’ / Man, that woman’s sure somethin’ / Get your blood pumpin’ / Damn, the girl can sing“) where, if you close your eyes, you can practically see Jones working up a storm as the Dap-Kings work up a racket behind her. And the whole shebang, produced by Ben Edwards, is all served up with a heavy dollop of reverb and an occasional vibra-slap.

You can pre-order Sassafrass! at Bandcamp.