Reviews: Efren, Ape School, The Shrouded Strangers

Anthony Mark Happel

Greetings and salutations, everyone. It’s been a while. We’ve been dealing with some serious medical issues in our home for the past six months and I haven’t had as much time to write lately. I’m finally getting caught up with some of the music that has been piling up. A lot of great stuff has landed here recently, and it all deserves at least some coverage, so in addition to a few feature reviews I’m including some bullet reviews (a la MRR) of records that are worthy of mention. Better late than never. Thanks to our families and all of our special friends. Everything you’ve done has been greatly appreciated. And thanks to everyone in the music world for your patience. Things are looking up now, and we’re trying to get our lives back. Life is a precious jewel. Take care of each other.

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Efren, Write A New Song (Slo Pro)

Singer/guitarist Scott Low is at the eye of the storm in this band, but he’s joined quite effectively by Jonathan Brill, who also sings and slings guitar on several broad-shouldered, barrel-chested five minute- long down south rockers that do, indeed, draw from their self-proclaimed inspirations like Drive-By Truckers and Drivin’ n’ Cryin’. They can also change that southern drawl when they feel like it and throw a curve when you least expect it. The title track is a pretty darn good opener, all rugged, raspy alt-country bravado that even ventures into Buffalo Tom territory. “The Woods and Wild” has a drifty, atmospheric quality that leans over into the non-categorize-able category as it bends itself around itself. And the Lucero-like “The Last 40 Days” is muy excellente! The twangy “Family Tree Of Recovery” and “The Dirty Bourbon Blues” share the same obvious theme and are too on-the-nose, but they don’t spend much time on songs like those. At 61 minutes it’s a long ride, but, overall, it’s another yeoman’s effort by a band that’s on the cusp of something. And someone should definitely set up some shows for them with the aforementioned Lucero.


The Shrouded Strangers, Lost Forever (Izniz)

This boisterous best-buddy duo from Virginia (Aaron Carlson and Mike Scutari) hadn’t played as Shrouded Strangers for thirteen years, following the release of their debut in ‘99, having been sidetracked by numerous other projects. Namely, the Carlsonics, a “sociopathic proto-punk unit” that was on Arena Rock Recording, and another band they dubbed Nethers, that toured with The Decemberists and The Walkmen. Writer Dave Segal once called Aaron Carlson a “sociopath,” for whatever it’s worth, but I’m not sure why. There’s nothing immediately sociopathic about him or his music, not that I can detect. Sure, they’re irreverent and sardonic, but in a rangy, cut-and-paste, anything goes collage-mix kind of way. (At this point it’s appropriate to insert a Ween reference. Here it is: Ween is a point of reference for this band.) Not everything on the album is completely thought- through or fully developed, but the best of it works fine: “(Don’t Look at the) Pink Lightning” is Flaming Lips-esque in a good way, sort of in drone mode, with a ringing vocal that grabs a hold. “Black Tie White Atlas Shrugged” is cellar-dweller psych not unlike the Black Lips on a grumpy goof-off jam, all cheeky, self-amused, smarty pants rock, combining 1-2-3-4 rock-a-billy rhythms with a stoned Sentridoh-style experiment. These are the freaky-weird-drunk-guys that live behind your rural grandparents, who play half-baked noise-jam music like a couple of monkeys on a sugar rush, that none of the neighbors would ever dare speak to, but about whom every one of them has an opinion. So, squares, after thirteen years, who’s got the last laugh now?


Hans Theessink, Jedermann Remixed (Blue Groove)

This came out last fall but it only showed up around here recently, and I deemed it worthy of some well- after-the-fact coverage. Post-mod bluesman Hans Theessink (Tay-sink) has one of those earthy voices that can convey nearly any emotion within the context of a song. His first recording was at age 17, in a skiffle band in the Netherlands, and forty years later he’s still out there, somewhere, playing the blues or some fractious variation of it. I’m aware of sixteen other albums, and I think there are more than two dozen total. Internationally renowned, but barely known or appreciated in the states, he was asked to supply the music for a film by Hannes Rossacher entitled, Jedermann Remixed, which is a variation on the English morality play, Everyman. Theessink paired his own compositions with a variety of covers to create a complete soundtrack. He uses the term “Remixed” as a teaser, meaning it as a reference to the way some of the cover songs are re-worked or re-interpreted, but that is not to suggest the songs are purposely electronically altered/manipulated. Theessink plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, mandocello, mandoguitar and harmonica, and he’s joined by a couple handfuls of friends, and the semi-reclusive Richard Thompson even shows up and plays some guitar. It’s post-modern blues rooted in traditional models, for the most part, but also filtered through Theessink’s vast musical mentality and it’s widely scattered about the landscape. Obviously, a lot of it is Delta blues-connected, in its own circuitous way, and the slide guitar really carries the day. This disc contains 18 songs and clocks in at 75 minutes. Within the first few bars of the stunning “Way Down In The Hole” the album establishes itself as a major league entrant in the best albums of the year competition, at least in my neighborhood; and when the vocals come in after about thirty seconds the room fills with the vibrato in his tenor-bass. The sing- speak minimalism of his cover of “The Man Comes Around” takes it in a different direction, but the effect is largely the same. Theessink’s voice has a unique presence that many really good singers wished they possessed, and he has a developed an understanding of how to utilize it. He indulges in an interesting array of covers: Nick Lowe’s “The Beast In Me”… Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” …The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil.” This approach works well when combined with his own songs, and it’s symbolic of not only Theessink’s broad-minded attitude about the blues and how it informs what came after it, but it’s also indicative of the broad diversity of the present-day underground blues scene. Hans Theessink’s name should be common parlance in the popular music world. Welcome to reality, and welcome to the blues.


SHORT BITS:

Ape School, Junior Violence (Hometapes)

Mildly acidic post-pop-rock with some creepy cover art involving the hollow-head boy. “A New Low! It Sucks” is great, esp. the persistent outgoing refrain of “You fucked yourself…” The silliness of “Marijuana’s On the Phone” digs deep, as well. They’re not holding much back even when titling a song, “Cocaine and Guns ASAP” being a prime example. They lose a little steam on the second half of the album, but they still have a few things to say, as they make clear on the weird waltz of “Weak in the Teeth.”

The Corduroy Road, Two Step Silhouette (Self-released)

Athens, GA’s TCR are one band that probably doesn’t shy away from the alt-country label, displaying it proudly in all that they do. They amble in on “My Dear Odessa,” and they sit tall in the saddle on a what-you-see-is-what-you-get performance. “Love You Can’t Shake” raises the country rock stakes a might, and brings out a more complex facet of their sound. They can do the slicker radio-friendly version, but it’s much more interesting to hear them dig up some roots as they make their way through the soil, and venture outside their comfort zone. Keep it up, fellas, you’re on the right track.

Illdotlogic, Dreams In Stereo (Self-released)

Hailing from the Jacksonville, Florida area, Illington Dotsworth’s debut LP, following his mixtape breakthrough, is inspired and fairly amusing hip-hop dance pop. Parts if it reminded me of the underrated Just Jack. He shows off some seriously smooth pop vocals throughout the record. “Follow Me”, “The Last Race”, “Zebra 1 &2” and “Lazy Afternoons” are all ripe for remixes.

Videoing, Reader LP (Videoing Sound)

Austin’s Videoing shows off their love for the old skool, and some tinny percussion, sounding a bit like Chrome-lite early on, with some cool, spacey, ethereal vocals on “Crimson Wave.” Some of it also sounds like early Ultravox (circa Ha Ha Ha). “Driver’s River” is minimalistic with trilling keyboards and vibrating vocals, and that’s sort of emblematic of what they do best. It’s mechanical but can also be catchy as heck, though the production is a bit thin in some places. Interesting packaging, with a cardboard sleeve inside a transparent zip-locked plastic cover.

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