I know a lot of musicians. And sometimes, some of the musicians I know will do something extraordinary, and I’ll want to share it with you. So for the past few years, I’ve written these People I Know columns, all about the marvelous musical minds I get to call friends. But it’s not often I get to write about a project I’m part of. I get to do that this week, and I’m pretty well ecstatic about it.
I’ve been talking about it for three weeks, so here’s the full story. The project’s called Made in Aurora, and it’s a series of vinyl albums bringing together local artists from the Aurora, Illinois area. It’s the brainchild of Steve Warrenfeltz, owner of Kiss the Sky, the record store I’ve gone to once a week for the past six years. It’s one of those stories that warms your heart: Steve saw a huge amount of local musical talent going ignored, so he decided to invest his own money to bring in some much-deserved attention.
He hooked up with my good friend Benjie Hughes, owner of Backthird Audio in Aurora, and set out to find the best bands and artists he could. He ended up with an extensive list: Dave Ramont, Jeremy Keen, Andrea Dawn, Greg Boerner, Noah Gabriel (more on him in a minute), Kevin Trudo, Dick Smith, Hoss, Peter Hix, and on and on. That list of names might not mean anything to people outside the Aurora circle, but if you live here, you know that’s a damn fine lineup.
Needless to say, I’m honored to have contributed to this. The first Made in Aurora album came out in April, on Record Store Day, and it was a huge hit. I played piano on Kevin Trudo’s song “Once a Week Won’t Kill You,” and I wrote the liner note essay. The record was (almost) entirely made up of original tunes, and contained some absolute corkers: Jeremy Keen’s “Charlotte Ave.,” Dave Ramont’s “Piece of the Sun,” Dave Nelson’s amazing “Blue Sally,” Dick Smith’s “Hunker Down,” and Trudo’s “Cost,” to name a few. It was a slab of Americana so good, you’d never guess it was a local artists compilation.
And now, here is Made in Aurora Volume Two, subtitled City of Lights. This one’s a little different – it’s a Christmas album, it’s almost entirely covers, and it includes a number of local artists who weren’t included the first time around. But like the first one, it’s pretty wonderful.
Let me get my full disclosure out of the way up front: I again played piano on Kevin Trudo’s track, a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas.” I also sang on the big group piece, John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” and I again wrote the liner notes. I’m involved, pretty heavily, so if you want to dismiss this review as self-interest, that’s your right. But even if I hadn’t been under the tent on this one, I’d still recommend the hell out of this album. Let me tell you why.
To begin with, while most Christmas albums I know are pretty consistent in tone (see all three of my reviews last week), this one’s remarkably varied. I’ve taken to describing it as the White Album with Christmas songs. The first side alone begins with a plaintive reading of “Happy Xmas,” followed by Hoss’ horn-driven cover of Trip Shakespeare’s “Snow Days,” Jeremy Keen’s skipping acoustic version of Low’s “Just Like Christmas,” and Andrea Dawn’s sad, slow piano original, “Mr. Evergreen.”
As you move through the record, you’ll get dirty Delta blues (Scott Tipping and Dave Nelson’s “Christmas in Jail”), cello-fueled hippie funk (“Dollar Store Christmas,” by Funktional Family), head-spinning Gypsy polka (Dick Smith’s “Gold Front Tooth”), heart-stopping soul (“Merry Christmas Baby,” by Mary Lou O’Brien) and a jazzy would-be standard (“Christmas is the Warmest Time of the Year”) written by the mayor of Aurora. It’s enough to make you dizzy, but somehow it all works on one piece of plastic (or two pieces of vinyl). Thank Kyle Schmidt, the magician in the mixing and mastering booth, for much of that.
I could spend the next thousand words talking about each track, but I’ll just bring up a few of my favorites. Made in Aurora Volume Two is the lead-singing debut of Mary Lou O’Brien, and she knocked me flat – her soul-stirring “Merry Christmas Baby” is unbelievable, and she somehow breathes new life into Joni Mitchell’s often-covered “River.” (Those high notes! Held for so long!) Hoss takes an old Dan Wilson song, “Snow Days,” and rocks it to the ground, with an assist from Dave Ramont. (“Mrs. Braintree, you’re a chilly northern woman…”)
Andrea Dawn, whose new album comes out early next year, has a stunning voice, and her sleepy, jazzy tune is a winner. Greg Boerner does his Greg Boerner thing all over “Winter Wonderland,” with splendid steel guitar by Chris Walke. Benjie Hughes gathered his friends together, including singers Ben Thomas, Lisa Gloria, David Yeager and Andrea Dawn, to run through the manger story “The Friendly Beasts,” complete with a wonderful backing vocal arrangement. And yeah, the track I’m on is pretty great – Kevin Trudo sings the hell out of it, and the band, which usually goes by Meathawk, is tight and terrific.
Really, though, it’s all good. You won’t be sorry you picked it up. Even if you’re not from around here, and you’ve never heard of anyone on this record, it will still bring you hours of holiday joy. And you’ll be helping out a great cause – proceeds from the sale of Made in Aurora go to the Paul Ruby Foundation, which raises money for Parkinson’s Disease research. You can’t beat that. Go here to check it out.
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Noah Gabriel has been a part of both Made in Aurora albums – that’s him playing one of the sweet, sweet electric guitars behind Mary Lou O’Brien on “Merry Christmas Baby.” But he’s also one of the most prolific local solo artists. He’s released six albums since 2005, and is working on two more. Despite that, even people in this area aren’t too familiar with Noah, and I think they ought to be.
His two new records show both sides of his musical personality – the sparse Mercy Street is his lonely-at-home album, mainly just Noah and his acoustic, while the sprawling Ghosts of Tomorrow shows off his blistering live band, and plugs into a rich, full sound. They’re both worth hearing, since they capture Gabriel moving forward, developing as a songwriter and band leader. And while I still haven’t heard that song yet from him, that tune that stays in my head for weeks and defines him as an artist, the 23 tracks on these two records are very fine indeed.
In many ways, both these records are about performance and vibe, even though they take different roads to get there. Mercy Street was released on vinyl, and you can hear why – it’s an album that makes you feel like you’re right in the same room with Gabriel as he strums and sings. The more sedate first half includes the very pretty title track, and the aching “At World’s End.” Neither of these songs go much of anywhere, but Gabriel sings them with such emotion that you won’t care.
Things pick up on side two, which opens with the brief “Poor Flat Bastard” and then jumps into the (literally) stomping “Cold Blooded Blues.” “Powder Blue” brings in a subtle organ, which is a really nice touch, although the song meanders. The album ends with “Crazy Dream,” the song Gabriel and Greg Boerner recorded for the first Made in Aurora album. It’s still very good, and the electronic drums, while surprising, work well. But before that plays, you’ll hear my favorite thing here, the spooky banjo ambience of “Them Bones.” There’s so much reverb on this it could drown, but the effect is terrific – the song brings chills.
But Ghosts of Tomorrow is by far the better effort here, in my opinion. Credited to the Noah Gabriel Band, this is the one that turns the amps up. Ghosts captures the experience of seeing this band live, and though it gets by more on searing guitar playing and a tightly-wound vibe than on memorable songwriting, it’s an enjoyable and diverse 53 minutes. While I like “Tennessee,” the surprisingly slow-burning opener, to me this record doesn’t take off until “Another Bad Day,” with its soaring guitar solo.
After that, it’s a pretty varied ride. “Fire Fields” is a ballad with some sweet fiddle, while “Fade” brings in the banjo and harmonica for a sweet and folksy five minutes. (I just wish it had a killer chorus. It’s crying out for one.) “Fix It” is an anguished cry, while “Where’s Your Love” cranks up the blues-rock, and “Tomorrow” hits a Jack Johnson groove with a saxophone solo. It really does go all over the place, but every destination finds Gabriel and his band playing with remarkable skill. And, near the end, he whips out “Baby Calm,” one of his finest songs – it’s memorable in a way many of these other tunes aren’t.
And yeah, that’s my one issue with Noah Gabriel – I wish his songs had more immediate melodies, and went more fascinating places. What he does, though, works well. Both Mercy Street and Ghosts of Tomorrow showcase a strong talent that deserves a wider audience. Check him out here.
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Next week, a couple of late-year winners, and this year’s honorable mentions. I can’t believe it’s already that time. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.