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music reviews – John Ralston

Music Reviews by Kent Manthie

John Ralston: “Needle Bed” (Vagrant Records)
In an interview with the Miami Herald recently, John Ralston told reporter “I write everyday…it’s the only thing I do that really is something just for me.” On Ralston’s new CD “Needle Bed” it shows.
A few months back, Ralston was playing in South Florida’s Legends of Rodeo when things suddenly took a nose dive and their label deal fell through and it all fell apart. Ralston took things in stride, however and busily kept writing and writing until he had “1000 songs…” Next he took off with Legends’ drummer Jeff Snow and went to Knoxville, TN where they recorded “Needle Bed” with producer Michael Seaman.
The result is a brilliantly written, lush production whose only fault is that it’s too short, at only 31 minutes. But sometimes brevity is a blessing in disguise, culling a lot of fat from the album to make it lean and leaving listeners wanting more. This has to be the best CD I’ve reviewed yet this year. I listened to it several times all the way through and each time I picked up different nuances and discovered new things. The music has that college-radio, modern-rock jangly, understated angst and cool breezes to it.
“Needle Bed” is just bursting with great melodies; calling it an aural treat is not saying too much. I think the track “Gone, Gone, Gone” is due to be a “single” – meaning that it’ll be pushed on radio stations, etc. Besides that there is the senescent “When We Are Cats”, the lovely “Time for Me to Ruin Everything” and the ringing, ethereal closing song “Our Favorite Record Skips”. The whole CD is great, though, whose shortness makes it much easier to listen to it all in one setting as though it were one long song. Imagine a twist between Brian Wilson and the late Elliott Smith and you’ll get a general sense of what I’m talking about; bittersweet is not an inapt adjective to use here. One can always find more information at: http://www.john-ralston.com or to find more about the label, Vagrant Records, go to: http://www.vagrant.com – KM.

Klyd Watkins with Family & Friends: “Harp All Made of Gold” (no label)
“Harp…” sounds more like something that might’ve come out in the early 1970s, back when there was some very ambitious, experimental, free-form freak-outs that were coming out left and right. It has a psychedelic undercurrent, with trippy synthesizers, jammin’ guitars, sound effects and a little fiddle here and there. I had expected more of some hippie-country kind of thing, but I was surprised to hear a more progressive-rock sound to it. The one kind of odd thing is the way the whole CD is a “concept” album- all the tracks fit together, meant to be listened to in its entirety at one seating. The lyrics to “Harp All Made of Gold” are more of a “narration”, which is spoken by Klyd Watkins.
The “family” here consists of some of Watkins brothers – Eric, David and Bob. The friends are others such as Loretta McKee on the fiddle, Steve Burgess on bass and Terry Thomas on drums.
Klyd Watkins, who does the so-called narration throughout the 19 minute opus has a Johnny Cash-sounding voice, a booming baritone that has a velvet feeling to it; his speaking has a mellowing effect.
The spoken word narration has a rhythmic cadence, not necessarily poetic, though. It doesn’t go against the grain of the beat of the drums & bass. When you get into it and get lost in the music you soon start getting entranced by Watkins’s clearly enunciated uttering of the words he wrote that go well to the music in the background. It’s quite a left turn from the average crap that comes out today. This has no pretense of following any kind of trend or bandwagon-esque mediocrities. It would sound especially ethereal if one could be out in the middle of the wilderness on a pitch-black night where the only light comes from the stars and a sliver of the crescent moon in the sky and be listening to this on one’s headphones.
It is this sort of creativity and originality that is sorely lacking in general in the world today. Instead of doing anything new or out of the ordinary, most bands just use the same old formulae over and over again, only rarely covering truly new ground. This is definitely a new formula and one with some interesting side effects. I hope that there is more originality to come from Watkinses & Friends.

Stiff Donut: “I Did It All for the Cookie” (no label)
These guys think they’re pretty funny, I bet. I remember years ago the question was put forward by this one guy who used to play the guitar: “Does Humor Belong in Music?” well, there is a fine line between funny and stupid.
Backed by a monotonous and limited range of chords and notes they can play, their lyrics are so damn juvenile, they read like something a seventh-grader with ADD might’ve written. With songs like “We Love Fat Chicks”, “Urethral Earthquake” “I egged Arnold Schwarzenegger” you can tell the high intellectual concepts are just flying out of here.
It plays like an unfunny joke that goes on far too long. But this is one of the negative consequences of the revolution in digital technology that has enabled recording gear to get smaller, easier, portable and so able to record an album in one’s bedroom; you end up with a wide variety of music out in the marketplace from a wide variety of talents or lack of talents; it’s like a pure form of democracy, wherein the littlest people can make CDs and sell them on the internet to eventually compete with the crap that comes out of Warner Bros or BMG or Sony. The concept is good; it allows truly wonderful stuff to get made and to break the monopoly of banality that is omnipresent in America and is numbing the senses of the dead souls who worship American Idol. The only contact info I got was their email (no website); it’s: mrhymson@aol.com – KM.

Blood Vessels (s/t) (Teenage Heart Records)
Wild, young and out of control: that’s the milieu one finds oneself in, listening to the new eponymous debut from Boston’s Blood Vessels. After kicking around the Boston club circuit for the last three years, the Vessels have taken their act to the recording studio to lay down something for posterity.
To be honest, I didn’t expect this to be so good, for a punk record. It really shines, the talent is there and can’t be hidden no matter how “lo-fi” they try to be; you can hear it in the sharp, blistering solos and the tight synchronous way they perform.
Blood Vessels have a vibe that harkens back to punk rock’s golden age – the mid 70s; you can hear the influences from bands like Germs, Dead Boys and Circle Jerks; in fact, Niff, the vocalist, has this scratchy swagger that reminded me of Keith Morris.
The first cut, “Catholic Zombies” is a humorous jam that starts it out on a relatively light note; “Escape From My Brain” is a frizzle-fry of a guitar opus and “Primal Urge” really shines as well; I could really go on and say something superlative about every song, but suffice it to say that it is an above-average punk album and they sound like they’d put on an exciting live show.
I don’t know what else to say, really, except that “Blood Vessels” just has this particular je ne sais quois to it; I can’t explain it, I can only say that I liked it a lot. It didn’t have a particular unique sound to it and there isn’t any one specific thing I can name that captures the essence of what I like about it. It just happens to have the right combinations of talent in the right place at the right time; the conditions were just right, apparently, for the sum of these parts to equal something synergistic. Maybe you should just go check out their website or the label’s website: http://www.bloodvessels.net or http://www.teenageheart.com – KM.

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