Monday, December 29, 2008

Paul Genova 1954-2008

Most often my musical touch points are bands, albums, and songs. But there are a few instances in my life when the touch point is a person from my past. Paul Genova was such a person. And sadly, he passed away on December 13, shortly before the winter Solstice and Christmas.

I first met Paul when I was perhaps fourteen. He was my youth advisor at our church and I also babysat for his two youngest kids. As a budding music fan, going to Paul and his wife Noel’s house to babysit was a revelation. There was all of this amazing music I had never heard—bands like Love Tractor and Pylon. And Paul was cool. He was one of the first adults that I really felt like I could identify with and talk to. Paul never condescended. He truly listened and cared. And looking back now, he has had a profound impact on the man I’ve become, especially as a father.

I know where I believe Paul is now. But wherever his spirit is, I know there’s music.

And thanks for everything, Paul.

I don’t know if Paul ever listened to Gas Lamp Anthem. But the band’s song “’59 Sound” has been in my head every time I think about him.

Well, I wonder which song they're gonna play when we go.
I hope it's something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow.
when we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms,
I hope we don't hear Marley's chains we forged in life.
'cause the chains I been hearing now for most of my life.

Did you hear the '59 Sound coming through on Grandmama's radio?
Did you hear the rattling chains in the hospital walls?
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over?
Did you hear your favorite song one last time?

02 The 59 Sound.mp3 -


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Best of 2008

For me 2008 was a year of great, great music. I discovered many new bands that I really enjoyed. What follows is a roundup of my favorite albums. I’ll have my list of the top shows and local music next week. If there’s any trend for the year, it’s great music recorded in cabins, as The Low Anthem, Delta Spirit, and Bon Iver all made their albums in this setting. That said, here’s my list in alphabetical order as, in the end, all of this music really moved me and it’s impossible to pick a favorite.

Also, I hope you like my new custom-made banner from Iron Design.

Top Albums

Beck: Modern Guilt
Wow! Take Beck and mix in Danger Mouse and Cat Power and you get Modern Guilt. While I love the whole record, “Walls” was one my 2008 musical obsessions. Thankfully, repeat and headphones exists. The beats, melody, and lyrics work so well together. This song is dark and speaks to the lassitude that so many of us in our country felt in the past year leading up to the election. I can’t help but to feel how this song, and really the whole album, is a reflection of our lives after 8 years of W—and damage that has been done to us and the rest of the world, not just physically and financially, but more important spiritually.

Bjorkestra: Enjoy!
You have to give Travis Sullivan credit. It takes not only vision, but also no small amount of courage to take the music of a much beloved and genre-bending performer and arrange it for a new musical setting. And a new setting, indeed, it is. Sullivan has taken Bjork’s music and re-arranged it for an 18-piece jazz band—The Bjorkestra. It’s amazing and exciting to hear the songs reinterpreted this way.

Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago
Recorded in a hunting cabin in Wisconsin, Bon Iver's album captures beauty, pain, and isolation in its songs and sounds. For Emma, Forever Ago is full of haunting music that stays with you as you close your eyes to go to sleep at night.

Cat Power: Jukebox
Cat Power (Chan Marshall) returned with her second disc of cover tunes, Jukebox. She recorded the album with the Dirty Delta Blues Band. This is another great album by Cat Power. There are some gutsy choices here, such as “Don’t Explain,” which was made famous by Billy Holiday and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” To attempt and successfully re-interpret songs by some of the great vocal stylists goes to show what an immense talent Chan Marshall is.

The Clash: Live at Shea Stadium
This live recording of The Clash’s epic gig at Shea Stadium, opening for The Who on October 12, 1982, is chill inspiring stuff—and that’s what matters most about this album. It’s a testament to the fact music can save your life. For me, The Clash was one of the first bands that proved this to me. However, Live At Shea Stadium shouldn’t be viewed as an epilogue to The Clash’s greatness. It should be viewed as further proof of their continued power and influence.

Delta Spirit: Ode To Sunshine
Delta Spirit fit into that amorphous rock, folk, Americana milieu. That isn’t to say they’re derivative, because they aren’t. From the first notes of Ode To Sunshine, the band’s debut on Rounder Records, it shows us its—well—spirit of music. Recorded live in a cabin, the San Diego-based band has produced one of the most immediate and best sounding albums of the year. No studio trickery, just great musicians playing excellent songs.

Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ Fight
Like many others who look to the Internet to find new music, I found Selkirk, Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit on YouTube. They write quirky/clever lyrics—but in a very intelligent way. The band also covers some of the big themes of life—such as religion—in addition to love. “Heads Roll Off” is a really lovely tune about faith and the belief that death isn’t the end. With two albums complete, the buzz is now building around them in the US and they’re poised to reach the much wider audience they deserve to.

The Low Anthem: Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
This record kicks off with what I think is the most beautiful song of 2008, “Charlie Darwin.” This indie-Americana trio played all of the various 27 instruments (including pump organ, zither, and a Tibetan singing bowl) used to make the album. And in doing so created a masterpiece that speaks to our search for meaning in a chaotic world.

Ra Ra Riot: The Rhumb Line
Syracuse’s own Ra Ra Riot released The Rhumb Line, their full-length debut, this fall. This fierce band uses both a cello and a violin as centerpieces of its sound. But the band is no chamber-pop outfit. They rock. The use of the strings works great with its sound. It integrates the cello and violin into the overall fabric and texture of their music. This album is beautiful. Poetic. And together the lyrics and the music produce what I keep describing to myself as joyous melancholy. Yeah, I don’t totally know what joyous melancholy means. All I know is this is how I can describe the way the music makes me feel—and I like it. Or perhaps this sound and the feeling it creates are connected to the rhumb line—a path of constant bearing.

The Watson Twins: Fire Songs
The Twins first full-length album, Fire Songs, is a beautiful collection of originals and one cover. Sonically The Watson Twins exist in the alt-county/folk/indie sphere. While this is well-traveled terrain, Chandra and Leigh definitely have their own sound and approach that lets them stand out in the crowd. Certainly the excellent songwriting featured on the record does not hurt. The tunes explore a world mixed with struggle and hope, sadness and joy. The Twin’s version of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” is so very lovely and does what the best covers do: pay homage to the original, but still take the song in a new and compelling direction. The sister’s version transforms the song from the joy of the present to the melancholy of memory. In the end, The Watson Twins are wonderful singers who write powerful tunes—and that’s what makes Fire Songs so great.

Favorite Songs 2008
Top Songs Playlist

Favorite Shows
Neko Case at the State Theatre
Getting the opportunity to see her in a great venue like the State Theatre was a huge treat. The State is so intimate for a 1600 seat theater and even in the balcony the stage seems very close. But what made this show even more special, was the fact she was out for a very short tour to road-test new songs for her album that will, hopefully, be released in early 2009.

Billy Bragg at the State Theatre
It was Billy playing his guitar—mostly electric, but some acoustic as well—on a simple black stage. And I want to say that his influence as a songwriter in general is never questioned, but his amazing guitar playing is not often singled out. He really has his own sound on the instrument and I can totally say that he didn’t need a backup band to rock the theater. This show had the crowd sing-along of the year with “A New England.”

Cassandra Wilson at the State Theatre
As a performer, she and her amazing band didn’t disappoint. They were a tight, serious, and playful band adding guitar, piano, bass, drums, and percussion to her vocals. What this means is all of these elements, built on Ms. Wilson’s incredible voice, created an evening of transformative music. When I closed my eyes and listened it was as though I was floating. I’m not sure how else to describe it. This was one of those concerts I’ll never forget by an artist that I’ve wanted to see live for over a decade.

Emily Arin at the Montour Falls Harvest Festival
It was with great pleasure that I first heard recent transplant Emily Arin playing a lovely set at the Montour Falls Harvest Festival of all places. I was sitting on hay bails with my wife kids listening —pretty blown away. Her performance is definitely a nice highlight from 2008. She’s a great talent to be watched. And I hereby start the campaign to get her booked at the 2009 Grassroots Festival.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Once and Future Small Kings

Ithaca has no shortage of bands to go out and see live and support. But there’s certainly room for another, especially one as great as The Small Kings. This past October, the band released their debut album, “Eating Oranges After Dark.” Since then, the band has been playing live all over town. They held their CD release party at Maxies Supper Club and have also played at the ABC CafĂ© and Felicia’s Atomic Lounge, among others. In the near future, December 10 will provide the next opportunity to catch the band live as they play the Pourhouse in Trumansburg. They’ll likely be booking additional gigs, so go to, to check on their upcoming shows. I recently got the chance to ask Bass and Ukulele player Mike Levy some questions about The Small Kings.

Dynamic Meter: What is your history with the Ithaca music scene?
Mike Levy: I've been on the fringe of the scene in several different capacities. I used to maintain an internet radio station (Radio Free Ithaca) that streamed music from Ithaca almost exclusively. So I spent two years immersed in the Ithaca scene. I didn't listen to much else during that time. I got the feel for what made this town's music unique. Even though I was spinning a wide variety of styles, it all fit together because of a common energy and a common devotion to keeping it real, for lack of a better term. Then I reconnected with the scene as a freelance journalist, writing a bit about bands at the same time I was writing about local food, politics and more. But all along I was performing under the radar with The Marty Withers Band, which later became the Small Kings.

DM: How did the band come together?
ML: I met Frank Raponi when I was a substitute teacher in Dryden around 1999. We connected immediately and began playing together here and there. Then Frank met Jeff McCaffrey, and the three of us began playing shows at the Moosewood when they first expanded and opened their cafe. At this point we were called the Marty Withers Band (it's a long, long story). Joel Blizzard came by around that time. This was before he'd taken up drums and long before Thousands of One was a glimmer in his eye. He brought his bongo to a show and tapped along a bit, and we put it out there that whenever he felt up to it, he was welcome to be a part of the band. Even then, our prime directive was that friendship and fun were the priority. Joel fit the bill, and so we always tried to leave room for him to be a part of it. But he was reluctant back then. I can still see him crouched out of site while he lightly plugged away at his drum.

We would mostly play covers in the Marty days, but then we started adding original songs that Jeff had in his pocket. Jeff kept writing, and we collaborated on a few here and there, and before we knew it, we were an original act with a tight, original sound. By this time, Joel had developed into quite the drummer, and we changed the band name to The Small Kings when he hopped on board. We were ready for a serious name. Or, perhaps the serious name was ready for us. Several different folks came in and out of the fold over the years—Chris DeCicco on percussion, Jenna Goodman on fiddle and Benjamin Costello, who played keys and sang on most of the CD. But the core has always been Jeff, Frank, and myself, and later Joel. We've been playing a lot of acoustic trio gigs. Joel's been pretty busy with Thousands of One, and we want to make it as easy on him as possible. So, I play my upright bass when he can't make it, and we all plug in when he's with us. Being able to do both has really expanded our musicianship, I think, and added to our flexibility on stage.

DM: You describe yourselves as playing melodic rock/pop fantasy music. Can you elaborate on this?
ML: We all come from such different places, musically speaking, and our style has taken on just as many flavors. Joel's got the hip-hop and reggae background. Jeff knows every glam rock song worth knowing and also is immersed in power pop and singer-songwriter stuff. Frank has every Dead, Neil Young and Dylan song swimming in his head. And I've got funk talking to me, and I'm a lifelong devotee of the Beatles. So the music we play tends to have all of that—Jeff writes very elaborate pop songs, but we still groove on them and expand on them live and we add harmonies wherever possible. We are also notorious for changing songs on the spot, whether it's tempo or rhythm. As a result, we've gotten very, very good at listening to each other. I like to say that we're like an excellent basketball team—we don't have to look to know where to pass the ball. We've got each others' backs all the time, devoted to pushing the boundaries of our songs and having the most ferociously fun time while we're at it.

DM: What are your influences?
ML: Individually, our influences are pretty varied. But as a unit, we tend to lead toward bands like Wilco and the Jayhawks. They speak to our collective vibe.

DM: I love the cover art (pictured) for the album. Can you tell me about it?
ML: The drawings came from my friend Dave Palmer, an IC graduate who went on to create the "Blue" character from Blue's Clues. He's now an animation director for another huge hit, The Backyardagins. All the parents out there know what I'm talking about. I sent Dave the rough mix of the recordings, and he sent us about a dozen sketches based on what he heard. We didn't give him any direction whatsoever, knowing that the music would carry him in the right direction. We liked a bunch of them, so we decided to go with the "Let it Be" look. I get to see Dave mostly on New Year's Eve, when we have a traditional 2 am poker game. Dave didn't ask for any compensation for the work he did, but I'd like to think he was paid handsomely over the years, one chip at a time.

DM: You guys have been playing around a lot. How’s that going?
ML: We're having tons of fun, and that's the primary goal. After a bit of a quiet period, we're right back where we left off. The CD release show went off without a hitch, which was amazing since we hadn't played an electric show in over a year. Now we're furiously adding songs to our repertoire. With lots of shows lined up, we're looking forward to varying the set lists and surprising ourselves, and others, when we go out there. We've scheduled a bunch of out of town shows this winter, which is unusual for us. Since the CD is out, we thought we'd test the waters and see what sort of reaction we might get.

DM: Who are you listening to that might be kind of under the radar?
ML: I've been way into the Felice Brothers lately. They've taken over where Dylan and the Band left off. Dr. Dog is another band that's keeps coming back on my stereo. The best way I can describe them is Paul McCartney tunes recorded by an awesome garage band: they have amazing harmonies, playful, fun lyrics, and their songs flow just perfectly. My kids and I have been listening to a lot of the Wiyos, which is sort of a vaudeville, Americana type act. The play songs that Leon Redbone might choose, but as a full band. I first saw their bass player, Joe Bass (aka Joe DeJarnette) at the Clifftop fiddle convention in 2007. He's just a madman on the upright bass, and he can play night and day. Over the course of five days in one campground in West Virginia, I probably saw him play with 30 different people at one time or another. He's the one old-time bass player who plugs stops and starts into his rhythm, and he somehow gets away with it. Plus, he's got an unfathomable slapping technique, so whenever I wasn't playing myself, I was nosing around to see if I could spy him at yet another camp. I haven't been very good at keeping up with the music scene outside of Ithaca. Other than the above bands, I've mostly I've been listening to a lot of old-time music: the Chicken Chokers, Highwoods Stringband, Leake County Revelers, and the Freighthoppers.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Wow! So busy

Wow! I've been super busy with family and the day job. So, fine readers, I haven't forgotten about you. Stay tuned for my year end wrap up and my one year anniversary coming soon and some other big announcements!