Now Hear This

Reviews of new CDs by Jim Rioux, Notches, and Von Berwick

Darlings of the Soil by Jim Rioux
Burst and Bloom Records

Darlings of the Soil by Jim Rioux

One need only listen to the first track, “End of a Story, to know that Jim Rioux is a poet. His stories, told in his crooning baritone voice, recall the type of hard-luck tales with which Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard tugged on the heartstrings of America 60 years ago. Like those outlaw country singers, there are rarely any heroes in Rioux’s stories; these songs feature not “the less fortunate,” but those completely without fortune.

Rioux not only brings his lyrics to life through masterful narration, but also uses his music and sounds to enhance the mental picture. In “Tombs,” the band uses a hollow clopping percussion to emulate the “hooves hollow gavels on the stones,” as Balaam’s mule ascends the Moriah’s high hills. The use of tremolo to open “Ahab’s Ghost” kick-starts an eerie, dreamy effect for a tale of a friend who was too smart for his own good, relaying philosophical wisdom right up until his sudden suicide.

Rioux couples all of these stories with melancholic, moody music to capture the heart of his stories. The tempos move like molasses, with hushed percussion allowing the bellow of Rioux’s voice to encompass the sonic atmosphere. With multi-instrumentalists Guy Capecelatro III and Marc McElroy handling the melodies, and Rioux’s father Jerry on drums, “Darlings of the Soil” serves as a soundtrack for those downtrodden days when hope isn’t in plain sight.

Elements of the album, like the lap steel on “Mr. Whisper” and the banjo on the album’s star track “Rocketship,” give it a country tinge. But, like the dizzying number of instruments credited in the album’s insert, “Darlings of the Soil” touches lightly on a vast number of different genres. Elements of rock and folk pervade, hints at psychedelia are peppered in, and the music even features some electronica. It’s hard to categorize Rioux’s music as definitive “country” or “folk”; instead, it’s an experimental hybrid.

Regardless of genre, it seems clear that “Darlings of the Soil” is less about the songs and more about accenting Rioux’s poetry, the kind that shines a spotlight on characters overlooked by history.

Learn more here.

Change My Mind EP by Notches
Dead Broke Rekerds

Change My Mind by Notches

Notches receives much acclaim and attention in the underground punk scene, but the band is growing out of the youthful stranglehold that is unfairly associated with “punk rock.” A different side of the band started to bud in “High Speed Crimes,” a full-length album released earlier this year. Now, on the five-song EP “Change My Mind,” Notches makes the daring leap from the fast-loud rules of punk to more melodically constructed alternative rock — a leap made previously by such bands as The Replacements, Superchunk, and The Lemonheads.

Of course, the punk numbers are still there. “Smoking Stem,” hidden in the middle of the track list, is a minefield of energy set to an explosive tempo. And “Don’t Speak” brilliantly ends the EP with intensity, leaving the listener craving more. But “Word,” and the EP’s opening track, “Generic Sad Person,” are slower and more danceable. The music is still well suited for pogoing and head banging, but less appropriate for moshing and thrashing.

Bassist Zac Mayeux and guitarist Ezra Cohen share vocals, each with his own distinctive style. Yet both sing with emotion generated right from the bleeding gut, with the same infectious major-key mope as pop-punk heroes like The Ergs. Any of the choruses could be the band’s next classic anthem.

While the band’s songwriting is catchy and worthy of several listens, the real hero is drummer Dante Guzzardi. Guzzardi showcases an amazing ability to execute light-speed fills without missing a beat, and then continue washing the whole production of the songs with sound. The mixing and mastering might have something to do with it, but the percussiveness of Notches’ melodies presents an interesting task for any drummer, and Guzzardi tackles it with the deft fluidity.

“Change My Mind” is a great next step for this punk trio, proving that though they may be sad, the guys in Notches are far from generic.

Find the album here.

Von Berwick by Von Berwick

Von Berwick

Everything about this project merits the label “experimental.” Esteemed local trumpeter Chris Klaxton conceived the idea at the First Parish Federated Church in South Berwick, Maine, where he is the choir director. Saxophonist Mark Small and keyboardist Mike Effenberger join Klaxton in Von Berwick, and the trio has recorded 24 songs in the purest tradition of jazz: completely free.

Some of the songs, like “Viriditas” and “Persephone” credit composers. But, according to Klaxton, even the songs that are “composed” follow only a fraction of an idea, “a couple bars of melody and chords.” The rest of the album hinges on total improvisation, or, as Klaxton puts it, “free music … just take a breath and start playing.”

Like most free jazz, chances are slim that you’ll understand it at first listen. American listeners tend to search for traditional song structure. With Von Berwick, no such structure exists. There’s no intro riff, no chorus or verses, sometimes there isn’t even a beat.

What instead fills the album is a series of melodies in suspended animation. Rather than following a path they’ve prearranged, the musicians find their direction as they play, calling and responding to each other like they’re lost in darkness and guiding each other to the light.

Von Berwick’s songs are available online as singles, each with its own artwork. Some feature other musicians outside of the core three, including Sunniva Brynnel on accordion, Eric Von Oeyen on drums, and Klaxton’s brother Eric on soprano sax.

Each tune evokes a vivid mental picture. “Lead Me,” for example, recalls memories of church music. With its choral chants and melancholic melody, it’s almost as though you’re being swept down the aisles, half expecting to hear a priest at the end saying, “Please be seated.” “Spanx,” on the other hand, calls to mind a smoky underground jazz club, where the band is just warming up for a long night of funk-tinged jams.

Though the music is “free,” the album does have an overarching feel or theme. The band creates a balance between grandiose melodies with dramatic church tones (“Liber Vitae”) and manic, nightclub-style jazz (“Ladders and Chutes”). Von Berwick’s ability to marry such differing vibes into one project speaks volumes about the richness of the Seacoast’s jazz scene. Whether you’re at a club on a Saturday night or in a pew on Sunday morning, the music, when played by these musicians, is always appropriate.

Check out Von Berwick’s music here.