The power’s out on much of the east coast as I write this. Strangely enough, some people have even begun blaming Gray Davis.
From the “Why Does Life Have to Be So Complicated Dept.”: On their sloppy, overly long album Pork Soda, Primus included a little ditty called “DMV,” the lyrics of which included lines like “Been to hell, I spell it, spell it DMV, and if I had my druthers I’d screw a chimpanzee.” I didn’t know what they meant then, but I do now. I’ve just recently discovered that I’ve moved to the state with the single most difficult motor vehicle registration laws in the whole country. This isn’t just my opinion, either – qualified professionals from my insurance company have confirmed my assessment. Maryland’s DMV is the most insane, inane, maddening, labyrinthine clusterfuck in the grand ol’ USA. Lucky me.
Registering my car in Maryland requires a lengthy (like, months long) process that teeth-gritting rage prohibits me from properly explaining, but I will tell you about trying to get my Maryland driver’s license. This is a trip. In every other state I’ve lived (which includes Massachusetts, Maine, Indiana and Tennessee), obtaining a license is a simple matter of taking a vision test, and then showing the nice people at the DMV one’s old license, one’s birth certificate and one’s proof of residence. Easy.
So I show up at the Maryland DMV, expecting the same treatment. After waiting in the preliminary line (30 minutes to reach the information desk), I’m informed that I have – get this – the wrong birth certificate. Really. The one I have, notarized and sealed by the bureau of records in the county in which I was born, is not good enough. Maryland only accepts birth certificates from the state vital records department – in the case of Massachusetts, in Dorchester. But, good news – I can mail order a birth certificate from the vital records department. For only $50.
In the middle of all this, I learn that the line I’ve just stood in for half an hour isn’t even the real line. Had I been cleared by information, I would have been herded into the actual line. Average waiting time 90 minutes.
Now, here’s the screwed up part. In the absence of a birth certificate, the DMV will also accept a valid passport as identification. I have one of those – my mother has kindly sent it on down. Here’s the thing, though – I realized that I got the passport the same way I expected to get my driver’s license. I showed my old license and my birth certificate. The same birth certificate that’s not acceptable in Maryland. As Johnnie Cochran said on South Park, “That does not make sense. I’m not making any sense.”
Whatever. Further updates will likely follow. That chimpanzee is looking pretty good, though.
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You wouldn’t really think it from the outside looking in, but Maine has one of the most vital, diverse and exciting original music scenes you could ask for. During the four years I worked there, the cover of Face Magazine – nearly always reserved for local original acts – featured Mainers working in metal, bluegrass, jazz, country, folk, lounge, rockabilly and ambient noise. Yet the rest of the country has heard only a very few of Maine’s best – Devonsquare, Rustic Overtones, and, um… right. That’s my point. And I doubt if many of you have even heard either of those two bands.
Believe me, it’s not for lack of trying. I can name half a dozen bands that were “on the cusp of stardom” during my time in Portland, and there have undoubtedly been more since. Jeremiah Freed, for example, has snared a recording contract with Republic/Universal, but their competent, crowd-pleasing rock hardly represents the Maine vanguard. Most of the best bands in Maine live hand to mouth and show to show, selling self-released CDs to pay back recording costs, and those lucky enough to get record contracts (Rustic, Colepitz) rarely catch a break.
An excellent case in point is 6gig, a melodic rock quartet who originally formed from the ashes of four of Portland’s better acts. (Ku-Da-Tah, Gouds Thumb, Tripe and the Vampire Lezbos, since you asked.) If ever a band can be said to have taken its hometown by storm, it’s 6gig, and within weeks of unveiling their sound and show, they were local superstars. A few months later, they were signed to Ultimatum Records and were recording their debut, 2000’s Tincan Experiment. It rocked. So they decided to make another one in 2002. They called it Mind Over Mind.
Before it could be released, however, things started falling apart, as they always seem to when a Portland band gets to this level. The band replaced founding drummer Dave Rankin with Jason Stewart last winter, a fact which made the tragedy of Rankin’s death in May of last year no less affecting to the group. Rankin died suddenly at his home at the age of only 31, and the world lost not only a great drummer but a hilarious and sweet guy.
Rankin did, however, complete all the drum tracks on Mind Over Mind before his death, and the rest of the band touted it as a testament to him when discussing its impending release. That was a year ago. It’s still not commercially available. It seems that Ultimatum lost its distribution, and the only way fans can get a copy of the new record is online at www.ultimatummusic.com. Hard to get a nationwide hit that way.
The shame of it all is that Mind Over Mind is superior to Tincan Experiment in every way. (Well, except one, but we’ll get to that.) It was produced by Matt Wallace, who has worked with Faith No More and the Replacements, among others, and he delivers a thick, clear sound that de-emphasizes their modern rock leanings and boosts the melodic elements. First single and leadoff track “Whose Side Are You On” crashes in on Walt Craven’s chiming guitar and strong voice, and when the rest of the band kicks in, it’s pure rock bliss.
Wallace has also helped push Craven to new levels vocally. He’s always been one of the biggest draws of the band, but this time, he’s let the emotional warts show, and it’s often revelatory. The acoustic “Say Goodbye” is driven by Craven’s straining, cracking vocals, and it’s a brave performance. Likewise, the droning, spaced-out “Deadbeat” floats on his nuances. He’s grown immeasurably as a singer since Tincan.
I hope using words like “spaced-out” and “acoustic” doesn’t leave you with the idea that this album doesn’t rock, though. “Just One Tuesday” is a powerhouse, one pummeling riff leading into another before a soaring chorus kicks in. “Start Again” has one of the album’s best hooks, buoyed by the twin guitar interplay of Craven and Steve Marquis and the solid bass of Craig Weaver. Even a twisty little number like “Ghosts in the Room” is propulsive.
And, of course, there’s Rankin. Truth be told, Dave was never a flashy drummer, and he rarely calls attention to himself on Mind. If you’re listening, though, you can hear just how good he was, delivering exactly what the song needed at every turn. He was the foundation, the bedrock – the rest of the band was free to be as melodic as they liked without fear of losing their momentum. That you hardly ever realize he’s there, working for the song, is the greatest testament to his talent.
There is just one problem with Mind, and that’s its ending. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare them, but Tincan concluded with a huge, string-laden epic called “Willlie,” a stunner that imploded at its end, leaving only the violins to announce the album’s finale. Mind, unfortunately, just kind of ends with “Squeezed Out Plot,” a rocker no better or worse than most of the album’s tracks. Especially after Craven’s emotional vocals on “Say Goodbye,” it’s a bit of an anticlimax.
But no biggie. Mind Over Mind is a good enough record that 6gig should be selling out arenas and riding its hit singles to fame and more lucrative contracts. It’s got everything radio is looking for, and a few things that radio desperately needs. It’s being treated like a direct-to-video movie, when in fact it should be a huge summer blockbuster. Check them out at www.6gig.com, and help their fortunes turn around.
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Maine isn’t all guitars and hooks, however. There are darker, stranger places, teeming with the bizarre and the wholly original. And one of those places houses Cerberus Shoal, masters of the oddly beautiful. If there’s one band I’m most glad to have discovered during my time up north, it’s these guys.
Cerberus Shoal – named after Cerberus, the three-headed dog, not Cerebus, the three-foot-tall aardvark – started as a more layered slowcore band, but quickly grew to epic proportions after joining forces with fellow locals Tarpigh. The six-member incarnation of Cerberus recorded four astonishing albums, most notably the amazing Homb and the delightfully scattered double-disc Mr. Boy Dog. Their sound? Well, words don’t often fail me, but they almost always do when it comes to Cerberus. How about world-music-influenced jazz ambient? Seriously, listen to Homb and tell me how you would describe it. Yeah, I thought so.
Cerberus Shoal’s golden age seemed to come crashing to a halt in 2000 when the three Tarpigh guys left for their own projects. The three remaining Shoalers – guitarist Caleb Mulkerin, bassist Chriss (sic) Sutherland and drummer Tom Rogers – regrouped and welcomed vocalists Erin Davidson and Colleen Kinsella, as well as lyricist Karl Greenwald, to the fold shortly thereafter, and the new Cerberus began the process of finding their new sound.
The results have been less than spectacular, unfortunately. Their debut single, Garden Fly Drip Eye, revealed their new vocal-heavy direction, and it sounded a bit like the B-52s playing carnival music. Subsequently, the band embarked on a series of split CDs with some of their favorite acts, and by and large their contributions have been somewhat lacking. The 18-minute “Ding,” for example, is wonderful for about two minutes, and then becomes dull and repetitive. And “A Man Who Loved Holes” is pretty much unlistenable – they brought the strange, but not the beauty.
So I wasn’t expecting to like Chaiming the Knoblessone, the first full-length from the new lineup. In fact, I’ve been dreading it. Finding out that it contains seven songs that together run 77 minutes – longer, in fact, than the 2CD Mr. Boy Dog – did little to allay my fears. And then North East Indie Records sent it to me, and I knew I’d have to listen to it and probably trash it.
But then a funny thing happened. The album turned out to be marvelous.
The Cerberus Shoal sound is still pretty much indescribable, but now in a completely different way. I’ve discovered that my negative reaction to the new lineup’s first efforts stemmed from the impressive difference in sound from the Homb band’s output. Where the old band was atmospheric and spaced-out, the new group focuses on chops and harmonies, on creating odd-shaped puzzles into which not all the pieces readily fit. They clang, they clatter, they offer up dissonance and bursts of noise and unearthly three-part vocal arrangements that spit and shout and moan.
It’s only on Knoblessone that the breadth of their achievement becomes clear – Cerberus Shoal has completely reinvented itself, and they still sound like no other band on earth. Five of the album’s seven songs blow past 10 minutes, but rather than repeat and build, like Shoal songs in the past have done, these numbers twist and progress and diverge into spectacularly arranged sections. Knoblessone is easily the most musically complex disc to bear the Cerberus Shoal name, and the sound of the recordings (produced by the band and Scott Colburn) is stunningly dense.
Everything here is leaps and bounds ahead of the new lineup’s tentative first steps. The percussive, staccato guitar-bass-drums sections lead into long stretches of beautiful, symphonic dirges. Guitarist Mulkerin is constantly searching for new ways to augment the sound, new corners to explore. The three vocalists have learned how to circle one another, often propelling the songs to new places with soaring, multi-level arrangements. This album proves that they haven’t lost their penchant for the breathtakingly beautiful, but they’ve gained a new sense of humor and a supremely confident swagger.
If you’re going to have three vocalists, it stands to reason that you’re going to need words for them to sing, and I’ve taken lyricist Greenwald to task before for his self-consciously artful nonsense poetry. I was surprised, however, at just how often I was able to roll with Greenwald this time. The singers seem to have fun with his phrases as well – witness their reading of the line “My eyes are like radishes, spicy and cold” on “Sole of Foot of Man.” He still isn’t saying anything that makes immediate sense, but for the first time I get the feeling that there’s more hiding in his lyrics, waiting to be discovered.
While I could do without the intermission (“A Paranoid Home Companion,” the spoken-word tale of a “zek” who leaves “the fold” before he can become an “ex-zek” – get it?), the remainder of Chaiming the Knoblessone is wonderful, miles above anything I had expected. It’s 77 minutes of the strangest, most unpredictable music you’re likely to encounter, assembled with uncompromising artistry and confident grace. It also comes packaged in gorgeous and appropriately bizarre artwork by Kinsella, easily the band’s best-looking presentation to date. This is certainly not for the musically timid, or for those looking for background for their next get-together. I don’t claim to fully understand it, but Chaiming the Knoblessone is a fascinating work worthy of the band’s legacy.
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Next up, a long one featuring many diverse musics.
See you in line Tuesday morning.