Featured Artist October 2007: Rich McCulley

Okay, everybody. Throw away your preconceived notions of what you thought Americana music was supposed to sound like. Rich McCulley, the Twirl Radio Artist of the Month for October 2007 has just released Cerro Gordo. And this changes everything. For the better!

About a decade ago, Fresno native Rich was in a band called Sparklejet, (Twirl Artists of the Month back in June). Together, they were cranking out 100% all-American rock throughout the Central Valley of California. As Sparklejet got deeper into hard rock, Rich ultimately left to pursue his rootsier solo career, first in San Francisco, and now in Los Angeles. He even did a brief stint with Sacramento’s beloved Sweet Vine, long since disbanded.

Let me just put it out there: I love Cerro Gordo! This is one of those albums that you put on the car CD player, start driving around, and before you know it, you’re already on track 8. By that time, it’s too late–you’re hooked! Driving around on a warm day with this album playing is as natural as breathing air (smog to us Californians).

Confessional. Familiar. Comfortable. Self-deprecating. Tough, without being nasty. It’s not rockabilly. Nor is it country-rock. Cerro Gordo, Rich’s fourth album, is the new face of Americana music. Much like his influences, Paul Westerberg and Jeff Tweedy, Rich does have a classic Americana raspy voice, and pays close attention to his storytelling. He sweats the details. But the album doesn’t exactly sound like the music created in the genre’s traditional heartland hotspots of Belleville, IL or Minneapolis. Instead, Rich has defined the California strain of Americana.

Sure, there’s some twang on Cerro Gordo, like the low-slung riffs on I Finally Lost. This 3:47 of ear candy sonically ingratiates itself deep into your soul, while speaking of a guy who regrets his youthful arrogance and ruthlessness. There’s some tasteful mandolin licks on Forever California, one of the centerpiece tracks of the album. But there’s a lot more going on than this use of an instrument associated with country music. This upbeat song defines the essence of California as well as any Brian Wilson epic. You can practically feel the warmth of the sun, see the sparkling water, and hear the roar of the Mustang convertible propelling you and your loved one forward along Pacific Coast Highway.

There’s also the Grass Roots-like pure pop bliss of Sad Sound. The leadoff track, Forget It All Again, has a slightly ominous tone as Rich cautiously enters a new relationship, wiser and more careful than before. And the other centerpiece track of the album is the wonderful duet with Amy Farris, I Never Really Loved You, which works well for me on many levels. First of all, Amy’s vocals step to the forefront on this one. And those lyrics–Rich and co-writer Mark Bransfield both summarily dismiss their previous 10-year relationships with their women:

I never really loved you / I just drank too much
Once I got to know you / I couldn’t drink enough…
I must have been high / To stay on that ride…
3,650 days / is all it took to get away

A powerful statement, indeed. Rich’s declaration of independence, more witty than bitter. In fact, this whole album is rather upbeat–more optimistic about relationships than his previous effort, 2005’s Far From My Angel, which he told me was “a concept album, the concept being divorce”.

All in all, Cerro Gordo is an extremely listenable ten song collection. No filler songs here–in fact, Rich doesn’t even know the meaning of “filler song”, because he is literally incapable of creating one! Congratulations to Rich McCulley, for being the Twirl Artist of the Month for October, 2007!

Featured Artist August 2007: Amanda Walker

What comes gently drifting out of New Orleans like a comforting, warm cup of cafe au lait on a cold winter’s day? Why, the soft alto voice of Amanda Walker, the Twirl Radio Artist of the Month for August 2007, of course. And like that familiar cup of joe, Amanda’s songs soothe and warm you inside when you need them to.

Make no mistake–on paper, Amanda’s Rabadash Records debut CD, Amanda Walker looks to be a spare album. Nothing but Amanda’s vocals, piano playing, and songwriting. But it’s anything but spare.

In reality, Amanda is an incredibly talented musician. The first thing that struck me is that alto voice of hers. It’s soft and warm, and the perfect vehicle to deliver her very personal compositions. Most of these songs have to do with relationships. She’s young; she’s been through some disappointments, but I get the impression that she remains optimistic. In the liner notes to her album, she wryly thanks “various ex boyfriends for your continued inspiration”.

Believe starts off the album with Amanda telling us that as bad as things are, they will get better. It’s an amazingly beautiful and inspirational song–a post-Katrina lullaby, to convince herself that everything will be fine. This is where the world is first introduced to Amanda’s voice, reminiscent of Tasmin Archer’s. The piano playing starts off very solemnly. But surprisingly, at 1:24 into the song, she does a little roll of the keys, which to my West Coast ears, sounds like what New Orleans is supposed to sound like. For me, this one-second moment sets up the entire album.

Other standout tracks (and there are many) include California Sun, a wistful song about a growth moment which came when letting go of a relationship. Paul McCartney is a clever song about how the ex-Beatle is “the only crush who will never let her down”–most guys can’t live up to that ideal. In Glass House, Amanda sees a slightly younger version of herself about to make the same mistakes she made, and hopes her advice is taken. The melody and piano playing for “I Don’t Think It’s Me” sounds like classic New Orleans. Rosie is a nice love story about how her grandparents came together. Brighter Day is an uptempo travel song, and it caught my ear immediately. Lively piano playing on this one–again, reminds me of a classy honky tonk in New Orleans.

Most of them are fairly mellow–but they all sound different from each other. The melodies are by turns catchy and then haunting. The reason this album works so well is because of Amanda’s talent for creating interesting songs, and using just the right touches of piano and vocals to bring them to life. Oh yeah–did I mention that she painted the album cover too?

I have two wishes for Amanda Walker. First, I hope that the Starbucks chain will pick up her CD to play and sell in their stores. It would be a great fit–classy, elegant, and heartfelt. And secondly, wouldn’t it be great poetic justice if someday, some male singer sings that “Amanda Walker will never let him down”! Congratulations to Amanda Walker, for being the Twirl Artist of the Month for August, 2007!

Featured Artist July 2007: Birgit

I know what you’re thinking…because I thought it too. I have to admit, when the True Stories I Made Up CD arrived in my mailbox at the radio station, I found it hard to get past the album photos of the lovely Birgit, the Twirl Radio Artist of the Month for July 2007. As a music fan and DJ, I like to think that the music takes precedence over everything. But the first thing you see are the stunning pinup type photos of the Dutch celebrity actress and singer-songwriter. But then I remembered–my friend Art Herman at Zip Records regularly combs the globe for the best pop music available. And since he’s the one who sent this to me, I knew that it would be good, even before it hit my CD player.

Wow–what an album! The first minute of the first song, Tsunami, grabs you, bowls you over, and doesn’t let up. It’s a driving rocker, and it hits you like a, well, a tsunami! This is exactly what I look for in modern rock–driving guitars, a gutsy vocalist, and a guitar riff that sticks to your ribs. If you find yourself playing air guitar to it, then it’s a winner. And yes, I was. Very embarrassing at the traffic lights, but well worth it! My other favorite is track 4, Baby Please. It’s a great midtempo alternative-type pop song. This one also stays with you. I’m calling these two as the hits for American radio–they’re instant Twirl classics.

Birgit has an intriguing persona. She looks like a classic 1950’s pinup girl. Her album photos would have made Marilyn Monroe or Betty Grable proud. She is a bona fide star in the Netherlands–a stage and television actress, a DJ and a voiceover artist. Her part-Asian background is touched upon on True Stories, in Guniang, which seems to be Chinese for “girly girl”, and in the “Breathing Exercise” vignettes. There are also some arrangements which have Asian instrumentation in the mix. And–she’s from the Netherlands, but her songs are all sung in flawless English. (Oh yeah–when you visit her website at http://www.birgitmusic.com, be sure to click on the American flag, unless you understand Dutch.)

There are a lot of contemporary pop songs on the album. Hardrocking Diva and Take A Better Look are graced by a touch of R&B. Sleeping Pill, Not Just Anyone and especially the melodic Bring Me Back would fit on a soft rock station. Take A Better Look and Celebrity Trash are slightly harder, and would be at home on a Gwen Stefani album–they sound like they come right out of Orange County. A tasty cover of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights finishes off the album.

True Stories is not Birgit’s debut–she released Few Like Me in 2001. But this may be America’s first real look at her. And speaking of that–aren’t we the lucky ones on the West Coast–she’s touring the U.S. from July 20-28, 2007, playing only dates in California, from San Francisco to San Diego. The closest she’ll come to Sacramento is the Empire Theatre in Stockton on July 27th–but hey–that’s only about 40 miles away. And the great news is that I will be interviewing her on Twirl on Saturday, July 21st, just hours before she hits the stage in San Jose. I’m looking forward to meeting the lady who may just be the next Madonna! Congratulations to Birgit for being the Artist of the Month for July, 2007!

Featured Artist June 2007: Sparklejet

What do Nirvana, the Pixies, and Sparklejet have in common? They have all worked with legendary Chicago recording engineer Steve Albini! And where does Sparklejet differ from those other two little-known groups? Well, Sparklejet is the Twirl Radio Artist of the Month for June, 2007!

Okay, okay. So maybe you have heard of Nirvana and the Pixies. But I’m here to tell you that you need to hear Sparklejet, as well. Sparklejet hails from the unassuming California Central Valley city of Fresno. This power trio consists of Victor Sotelo on vocals and guitars, Wade “Wade-o Tornado” Krause on drums, and Geoff Anderson on bass. And when they blazed north to mount a triumphant return to Sacramento last month, Victor was nice enough to spend some time with me on Twirl Radio on May 19, 2007.

If I could pick one word to describe this band, I would choose “metamorphosis”. Or “dynamic”. Or “students of rock”. Oops–you caught me. I guess I need to pick only one word. Well, let’s go with the incredible metamorphosis these guys have undergone over the last decade.

Sparklejet started in Fresno in April of 1997. They had a rootsy, bar band sound, which ranged close to Americana music. They put out an album called “Soap”, and played in Sacramento. A lot. They were considered an extension of the flourishing local scene here (Fresno’s only 180 miles away down California’s mother road, Highway 99).

The scene changed here in Sacramento, and for Sparklejet as well. Some of the rootsier local acts (Grub Dog, Natalie Cortez and the Ultraviolets, Sex 66) broke up or moved on. And Sparklejet underwent some personnel changes. Original members Victor and Wade teamed up with bassist Geoff Anderson, and beefed up the sound. The sound became harder, and more focused.

In 2006, the guys released their most recent disc, Beyond the Beyond. They decided to take it to the next level, and worked with renowned engineer Steve Albini. They arrived in Chicago, well-rehearsed and prepared to lay down seven of the album’s eleven tracks at Albini’s Electrical Audio studios. Of the three Sparklejet albums I have heard, this is by far the best sounding one. Victor’s voice is powerful and clear. Wade’s drums snap and thump with immediacy, propelling the songs forward. The guitars are fairly incendiary. And most important to me, you can hear Geoff’s bass loud and clear on every track. To me, that is the mark of a great recording, and Albini captured the bass extremely well. At times, such as on the explosive leadoff track Message to My Ear, the bass actually sounds like a lead guitarist, in perfect lockstep with the drums. The Comeback reminds me of AC/DC at their greatest, with a tense riff played by both Victor on guitar and Geoff on bass. This frees Victor up to take his solo, with Geoff playing lead on bass.

Other standout tracks include Let’s Behind This Place, with its infectious pop hookiness. This one sounds quirky enough to be my favorite track to play on Twirl Radio. Clever Personality is a straight-ahead rocker; Bomb The Maze rocks hard and intelligently; and Knock ‘Em Around veers dangerously close to punk rock territory, with its brisk energy and 1:50 length. Wade told me, “Sparklejet is a bit more bombastic now than we were on Soap”. And Victor used the word “angular” quite a bit to describe the newer songs. Indeed–they went from a folksier rock sound to something that sounds more challenging, confident and important.

The most stunning metamorphosis is Victor’s voice and singing style. In the interview, towards the beginning, we hear Rock and Roll is Sleeping off of Soap, and then we compare it with The Comeback from Beyond The Beyond. Victor sounds like two different singers, and the band sounds like two different bands. Listen to it, and you’ll see what I mean. They now sound like they could fill an arena, and Victor could easily lead the charge.

Among their career highlights, Sparklejet has been featured in Billboard Magazine’s Best New Artist Spotlight, their music was used in ESPN’s Extreme Games, and they performed their own rendition of The Who’s Tommy in 2002. Not bad for the self-proclaimed “Second Best Band in Fresno”!

The guys are planning an East Coast tour for this summer or fall, so that when all those great bands from back east come here, we Californians can return the favor with pride and share Sparklejet. Congratulations to Victor, Wade, and Geoff of Sparklejet for being the Artist of the Month for June, 2007!

Featured Artist May 2007: Jeff Heiskell (Former Judybats Frontman)

Each month, Twirl Radio scours the country (and sometimes the globe) to bring the finest musical talent to the airwaves. As you might recall, last month we landed in Knoxville, Tennessee. Well, this month, for the first time, we just stay put–and keep ourselves parked in Knoxville–because we are celebrating Jeff Heiskell, and his new band Heiskell, as the Artist of the Month for May, 2007.

Back in the early 1990s, Jeff was the leader of the Judybats. I cannot overstate how innovative and creative they were. Their Native Son debut came roaring out of Knoxville. This landmark CD provided a showcase for Jeff’s inventive songwriting, his versatile vocals (which ranged from Stan Ridgway-like quirkiness to pure crooning), and the group’s ensemble musicianship, led by Peggy Hambright’s stellar keyboards. You could say that their sound represented the fun side of alternative music. Gosh, we really liked that band! They were rewarded with a fair amount of fame. Alternative radio airplay, and MTV and VH1 video exposure followed. Unfortunately, after a few more albums, and mishandling by their record label, they were overshadowed by the louder (and grungier) music coming out of Seattle (Nirvana, anyone?)

Fast forward to 2007. Jeff teamed up with the last incarnation of the Judybats (Doug Hairrell, guitars; Mike Hairrell, drums; Rob Bell, bass) and formed Heiskell. As Jeff told me, it was the rest of the band’s idea to use the name Heiskell. And it’s not just Jeff’s band–it’s a very democratically run band, with all four musicians contributing and making decisions.

After having gotten somewhat burned by the ravages of the music industry, Jeff is a little older and a little wiser. Life happened. But his songwriting instincts are sharper than ever, and they form the foundation for the debut album from Heiskell, Soundtrack for an Aneurism.

I know what you’re thinking: “does Heiskell the group sound like the Judybats”? Well–yes and no. There are some moments where Aneurism reminds me of the now-legendary opening five song salvo on Native Son, or the great songs on Pain Makes You Beautiful. But this new band introduces some new sonic textures as well. Let’s explore the album.

The opening track, Your Touch, is completely radio-ready–out of the box. Just press “play”. If this album has a hit, this is it. It’s an upbeat-sounding pop song, equal to anything Jeff did under the Judybats brand. A love song with edgy lyrics–a nervous start to a relationship. Who hasn’t been there before? Another song that sounds great from the first listen is The Death of Knoxville Cool. Again, great pop sounds–but with troubling lyrics, based on a real life observation, turned into a storytelling tour de force. And unlike the typical Judybats/Heiskell sound, there’s a guitar solo by Doug Hairrell at the end–very tasty. I wish the solo could have gone on for another minute or so.

A third instant standout–Farewell, Green Eyes–sounds like something R.E.M. might have recorded on their late 1980’s album Green–you know, the one where Michael Stipe finally started enunciating the lyrics clearly, and you realized what you had suspected all along–that the lyrics really were profound. The vocals sound ominous, and the mandolin and acoustic guitar are prominent in the mix. Jeff said that this one originally had a drum, but it annoyed Mike Hairrell (the drummer!), so they just turned off that track, and wound up with this quiet but intense song, written for a band associate who committed suicide.

I’ve already played those three compelling songs on my radio show, but everything else is standing up well to repeated listening. Songs like Beneath the Garden, Like A Vampire, and Love Again all have a good mid tempo alternative rock sound. Gasoline has a really rootsy feel, with dark lyrics. There’s a cover of the Lindsey Buckingham Trouble, with intimate, whispery vocals–Jeff tells me his intent was for the song to sound “creepy”. Actually, the vocals are fairly prominent throughout the disc–more so than in Judybats albums. All in all, there are about 7 or 8 songs off this album that I’ll be playing on my show. It’s really a strong collection.

It was so interesting talking to Jeff about his songwriting. Many of his songs start out based on real-life experiences and observations, then become an exercise in storytelling. I was amazed to find out that my favorite Judybats song, Convalescing in Spain, off of Native Son, was actually a true story. I’ve always been impressed with the clever way in which the main character dealt with the heartbreak of a failed relationship. Little did I know that Jeff was the main character, and he really did go to Spain!

All in all, Soundtrack for an Aneurism is a magnificent start to this phase of Jeff Heiskell’s career. He and the band have crafted a fine album, which should please Judybats fans, garner some new ones, and at the same time reassure us that brilliant songwriting and musicianship are alive and well. I wish Jeff well in this first post-Judybats effort, and am honored and pleased to have him hold forth over Twirl Radio as Artist of the Month for May, 2007!

Featured Artist April 2007: Scott Miller (and the Commonwealth)

I recently discovered a time machine! This fabulous device can take you back to when music used to sound good. It can also take you back to the battlefields of the Civil War, or across Appalachia on an Amtrak train as recently as last year. The time machine has a name–it’s called Scott Miller and the Commonwealth, and Scott is our Artist of the Month for April, 2007!

This Virginia-raised Americana singer-songwriter, who makes Knoxville, TN his home, has a history of being “discovered”. After college, he moved to Tennessee, where his live performances with the V-Roys quickly earned him a contract to make records with Steve Earle on his E-Squared label. After the demise of the V-Roys, rootsy Sugar Hill Records grabbed him quickly. Good idea–because he then got discovered by Jeff Foxworthy for the popular WB “Blue Collar TV” program. He and the Commonwealth were the house band for the show during its entire two year run. And if that’s not enough, his music has been produced by such notables as Jim Dickinson (Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Big Star) and R. S. Field (Webb Wilder, Sonny Landreth). Whew! As Scott might say during one of his performances, “are you with me”?

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Scott when he came to Sacramento, touring in advance of his live album Reconstruction, coming out on April 10. I found him to have two personas–intellectual historian, and outgoing, fiery live performer. Both were present that evening.

Reconstruction was recorded during a 10° cold snap at the Down Home, in Johnson City, TN. Scott tells me that the Down Home is one of the best live music clubs in the country–but they don’t turn the heat on until showtime. 200 hardy fans came in and helped him heat up that room, and the results are evident on the album.

Scott’s music, a mix of rockers and ballads, seems to hit two themes again and again–personal songs about himself and his friends, often utilizing self-deprecating humor, and respectful songs about his forebears. The songs are almost always personal–he brings his characters to life. Sometimes, he’s the character. Some of the uptempo rockers are I Made a Mess of This Town, Goddamn the Sun (which are the two hardest-rocking songs in the set), It Didn’t Take Too Long, and Jody. Jody has an unlikely companion piece, the ballad Dear Sarah. Jody is a first-person tale of an average guy who joins the military, ends up fighting “over there” while his best friend moves in on his wife, watches his TV, drinks his beer, and plays his guitar. My favorite line is “he’s eating sugar while I’m eating sand!” Dear Sarah comes directly from his great-great-grandfather’s letters home from the Civil War battlefields. Scott told me that most Virginians, with their sense of history, have letters like this somewhere. The tone of the letters was always that of a man who felt very small, who was forced by others to fight in what he termed “the calamity”. Never anything about “Northern aggression”–he just missed his family. Scott really brings the man to life. Both songs give us a sense that war is really terrible, and that it’s regular people like you and me who are forced to fight.

Last year, Scott and the band toured by Amtrak train, and a couple of songs relate to that trip–Amtrak Crescent and Still People are Moving. As he said in his introduction to Amtrak Crescent when I saw him at the Blue Lamp, he refers to a lot of places that people west of the Mississippi just don’t care about. But the Amtrak Crescent is a legendary train route which goes from New Orleans to New York (interestingly, it’s also the subject of R.E.M.’s Driver 8). Unfortunately, he’s right–people in our country really don’t know or care much about history or geography, two of Scott’s strengths. The guy who played the first set that night even referred to Scott as being “from Texas”! I’m sorry to hear that from a fellow Sacramentan. Texas and Tennessee both begin with “T”, but are in fact, different states. If you look at a map, they’re even shaped differently! Incidentally, on Scott’s most recent studio album, Citation, he reconciles that difference with a song about Sam Houston (called Say Ho), who hailed from Tennessee and was pretty much the founding father of Texas.

A humorous ode to big cars, Eight Miles Per Gallon, Stephen King’s favorite drinking song, Drunk All Around This Town (really!), a cover of Neil Young’s Hawks and Doves, and a singalong of Miller’s gospel prayer Is There Room on the Cross? are some of the other standouts. Scott utilizes humorous between-song patter, and even references an obscure comment from Steve Martin’s comedy album Let’s Get Small. He definitely engages his audience.

I recently read a blog post by one of Scott’s fans back in Tennessee, and she was hoping that us folks on the West Coast would “get” Scott and his music. We do get it! He may be “regional”, but his themes are universal. And what does regional mean, anyway? Everybody comes from somewhere. The music and stories are good, and that’s all that counts. Congratulations to Scott Miller for reigning over Twirl Radio as Artist of the Month for April, 2007!

Featured Artist March 2007: Winzenried (aka Hollywood Drunks)

Winzenried–the band, and the singer/songwriter (Eric Winzenried)–is the Featured Artist of the Month for March, 2007, as announced on Twirl Saturday, March 3. What does that mean? Well, it means we’re going to be featuring a whole lot of their great music on the show this month. It also means that I got to do an on-air interview with Eric himself on Saturday, March 17th. Congratulations to Eric, guitarist/co-producer Lloyd Stuart Casson, keyboardist Paul Sandberg, bassist Carl West, and drummer Sebastian Sheehan.

This L.A.-based quintet released their debut, Hooray, back in 2003. There was something instantly familiar and comforting about this potent stew of rap, metal, alternative, and straight-ahead rock. What was it? Twirl Radio doesn’t really play a lot of rap or metal music (less than 0.001 ppm, as verified by an outside auditing service). So what did I find so appealing? In short, everything! Specifically, the singing, songwriting, guitar work, keyboard work, and wry humor.

Eric Winzenried has a strong voice, much like you’d hear from some of the better-known metal singers. But–he uses his powers for good, not evil. He doesn’t wail and flail, but uses his voice very nimbly. He’s a very able rapper. And his sense of songcraft is incomparable. There’s a lot of attitude in these songs, but there’s a lot of heart, too. The sound is equal parts Ugly Kid Joe and Freedy Johnston. No, really!

On Hooray, the track Ohio is probably the most representative example of the Winzenried sound. Each verse starts with a rap, then Lloyd’s crunchy power chords kick in. As the band dives over the edge into the chorus, Eric sings “here I am, once again with…you”. Listen to the way he powers through the word “with”. This one word showcases the guy’s hard rock roots coming through! Looking Backwards is an uplifting rocker. Smarter One and Soul Is Mine, both keyboard-driven, are also positive, the former is an exercise in humility, the latter, a reminder of our worth as individuals. But the ones that really crack me up are Can’t Stay At My Apartment and Punchline. Anyone who’s an adult has been the victim of freeloaders and bad relationships. Eric fights back with his music, while making us laugh. THAT is what I find comforting and familiar. These songs remind me of getting together with my best buddy over drinks, or at the game, and commiserating about the rough parts of my life. That’s what many of these Winzenried songs are about. And you do feel better at day’s end.

Swell continues the theme. The songs remain positive and funny. Carried over from the first album are the references to the unappreciative, low-tipping customers from his days as a pizza delivery guy. And the secret weapon of the band, as on the first album, is massively talented guitarist Lloyd Stuart Casson. He plays everything from funk to alternative to hard rock, and is the single most important element of the Winzenried sound. Without him, this would be a different band. Songs like That Age and Getting Young acknowledge that we’re growing up, getting older (and better), and that others are now depending upon us (such as his newborn). Wake You addresses being the oldest guy at the party. Sort of a modern take on Jethro Tull’s Too Old to Rock ‘N Roll, Too Young to Die. And there’s a delightful cover of the Sesame Street theme song. It never occurred to me to cover a song like this, but the Winzenried treatment reminds me of what a great song this is. It’s fun hearing it performed by a bunch of adults! There’s definitely some personal and musical growth on this album, and Eric’s vocals get more sophisticated, reflecting his life changes.

So grab your copies of the two Winzenried albums, and put them on after a long day. On those days where you start to ask yourself, “am I crazy, or…”–Eric’s your bud–he understands, because he’s been there too. And I’m proud to have him and his band as the Artist of the Month for March.

Featured Artists February 2007: The Taters

Quick question–who are the luckiest people on earth? Quick answer–the people who live in and around Richmond, Virginia. Why? Because they can go see The Taters play live any time they like. Oh sure, California’s got the beach, mountains, nice weather, movie stars, blah blah blah. But what good is any of this if we don’t have The Taters?

Formerly known as Burnt Taters back in the 90’s, vocalist/bassist Craig Evans and vocalist/guitarist Brad Tucker became “unburnt” in 2002. They play a fun mix of Americana music. But labels just don’t do these great talents justice.

Craig and Brad have been Twirl favorites since 2000, when their early albums Vox Box and Strange But True found their way west to Sacramento. And Craig was nice enough to ensure that Twirl Radio’s Taters collection was complete with the other two discs: 2003’s Recess, and the 2005 live set, Just One Night, both featuring wonderful drummer Stu Grimes.

So what do The Taters sound like? Well, for starters, Craig’s amazing voice sounds like Roy Orbison at times, Elvis Presley other times, and well, like himself the rest of the time. And sounding like Craig Evans is still better than most vocalists out there. His tenor absolutely soars and makes good use of vibrato. Brad’s versatile guitar work can do everything from folk to country to harder rock riffs. And whether he’s taking the lead vocal or singing backup, his harmonies perfectly mesh with Craig’s voice–the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. These guys would be equally at home at the Grand Ole Opry or on the old Stiff Records label as Nick Lowe’s and Elvis Costello’s labelmates. But no matter what, they don’t forget to have fun.

On Just One Night, there are some absolutely magical vocal moments, as in Waiting Game, where Brad and Craig blend perfectly, and Man With A Plan, where they raise the stakes. Craig goes absolutely through the stratosphere on this one–if you didn’t get shivers down your spine, I question whether you even have one. There’s some tasty steel guitar licks and horn blasts to round out the sound. Most of the tracks are Tater originals, but there are some choice covers of tunes by Steve Earle, Simon and Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, and a fun, surprising cover of Delilah, the song made famous by Tom Jones, which features the “non-existent Tater Horn Section” (playful vocal sounds where the horns would be). The guys are straining to keep from laughing. Lots of life and energy on this live set. I wish I were at that show.

Since I was two albums behind, I need to mention that on Recess, the boys really stretch out and do some new things. Going Over the Hill is a really catchy track, with a really funky organ (a la Les McCann) and buzzy, sinewy guitar lead. Almost makes you forget that the song is about a middle-aged guy whose buddies all got married, and he’s left to go it alone. There’s a Taterized version of Sunshine, the early 70’s Jonathan Edwards tune, which I think would be a great live raveup. That’s Me reminds me of something Greg Kihn might have done in his heyday, but again with Craig and Brad at the vocals, it becomes something greater and more dramatic. And Required By Love sounds like it came straight out of a mid-career Elvis Presley movie. I can picture Elvis driving the red convertible, with Ann Margret by his side while this track is playing. The album closes with Raphael, a caring look at the life of a migrant farm worker from his point of view. Of the Taters’ four albums, this is my favorite.

My only dilemma–I can only listen to one of these albums at a time. The Taters have something for everyone, and for that, I am proud to feature them on Twirl throughout the month of February, 2007.

Featured Artists January 2007: Boswalos

Real alternative music is back. Not grunge, not angry rap-metal. Alternative. The purveyors of this sound are Boswalos, a quartet from Canada. These guys just put out their debut album, Boswalos, and were nice enough to send me a copy in the hopes that it might catch some airplay on Twirl. Never a doubt–little did Paul Alexander (vocals/guitar), Jason Hoddinott (lead guitar), David Alexander (bass/vocals), and Dave Joyce (drums) know, but their music sounds like one of my favorite genres, and would indeed have a home on my radio show.

Boswalos is a six-song EP which reminds me of some of the best music from the early 1990’s. Kind of like what happened when you took ’80’s music, and removed the synthesizers. Soaring, atmospheric guitars, and yearning vocals. Driving riffs like in Under Black Lights and Seconds–sounding like a beacon cutting through the fog of their native Newfoundland. Syncopated drumming in Pilots. The bass gets to be front and center in sections of Credo. And these songs just sound important–like mini anthems, a la U2. My words don’t do the songs justice. Tracks 1, 2, 4, and 5 rock pretty well, with great melodies, and just have an overall feel and sound that reminds me why this genre, labeled as “alternative”, is so great.

Only two things I can find fault with. I wish that Boswalos were a long-player. These six songs are great, and I wish there were six more just like ’em. The other issue: these guys are based out of Toronto, so it may be a while before they play here in Sacramento. But this CD blew me out of the water, and serves notice that Boswalos is here, and ready to rock!

Featured Artist December 2006: Raistalla

The next big thing is here. Period. And her name is Raistalla! Let’s get the categorization out of the way. She does techno music, or perhaps you could call it dance music. True. Okay, now let’s get the disclaimers out of the way. I’ve checked out what the other reviewers are saying about Raistalla, and the consensus usually goes something like this: “This is not the usual genre of music I play on my show, but…” And that’s true of my show, too.

So then why is Raistalla the Featured Artist on Twirl this month? Because she ROCKS! And she has a great singing voice. And because I can’t stop playing her infectious music on my radio show. It’s too addictive. I had the pleasure of interviewing Raistalla on Twirl on Saturday, December 9, 2006.

Raistalla is an L.A.-based singer-songwriter and dancer (she’s worked with Madonna and Outkast, among others) who released her self-titled debut album, Raistalla, this year. The album is divided into three parts, “Act I”, “Act II”, and “Epilogue”. Many of the songs within each part blend seamlessly into the next, which is an effect not seen much in rock.

Her music generally sounds like what would happen if you took a voice that swims in the same vocal waters as Dionne Warwick’s, add Beck’s sound effects and production, and made the songs more driving and danceable. This is a true hybrid of rock and techno. We rock DJs usually don’t see liner notes like these, where some of the songs are “produced and programmed”. But there is enough guitar and bass, along with really driving percussion moving the songs forward, to satisfy the rock fans among us.

So rock fans, rejoice. Raistalla has just introduced you to a new genre of music!

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