When I tell people that I spent four years chronicling the music scene in Portland, Maine in the late ‘90s, I always get the same question: “Portland, Maine has a music scene?”
And I always give the same answer: “Hell yeah it does.”
I started as an intern at Face Magazine, Portland’s premier music mag, and worked my way up to editor-in-chief. When I began working there in 1996, I was living in my car and using the showers at the school I’d graduated from only two months before. I ended my tenure as the highest-paid employee on staff, and it still wasn’t very much – there isn’t a lot of money in free music publications, honestly. But in those four years, I found myself tapped into a rich, diverse musical environment. Whatever style of music you’re into, someone in Portland does it, and does it very, very well.
Life at Face was never boring. One week I would be talking to a jazz saxophonist who had composed a suite based on fractal mathematics, the next I would be interviewing some up-and-coming metal band fresh out of high school. And the next I’d be talking to one of my idols over the phone for one of our regular cover stories on world-famous acts visiting the area. And the week after that, I’d be laughing hysterically as a local disco-pop band conducted their interview with me in character, as aliens from the planet Funktar.
The best part was, I didn’t have to pay to see live music while I was there. It was my job, and I got into every show for free. Some were a chore to sit through, but once in a while, I would get to see a band that any city would be proud to call its own. Face being what it was, I became much more entrenched in the rock and metal scenes than any of the others, so I got to meet and see bands like Colepitz and Twitchboy and Gouds Thumb that were making innovative, terrific, heavy-as-shit music, and pulling it off on stage.
But if Portland had a superstar band, it was Rustic Overtones. I know, it’s an unlikely name for a popular act, but while I was there, everyone in Portland knew Rustic. Funny story – they started out as a three-piece while I was in high school, and during my freshman year of college, they decided to put together their soon-to-be-trademark horn section. So they auditioned a trumpet player who lived across the hall from me in my freshman dorm. He didn’t work out, but he did give me Rustic’s pleasant first album, Smile, on cassette. I had no idea that the band would soon be everywhere.
By the time I’d graduated college, Rustic had recorded and released their signature album, Long Division. Here was the Rustic sound – heavy, often funky rock with a full horn section, led by a singer (Dave Gutter) with a superficial resemblance to Dave Matthews, but a much more soulful edge. The songs were long, massive affairs that remained danceable even at their most thunderous. And the album contained “Simple Song,” and you couldn’t get away from that damn catchy tune in 1996.
By that time, I was working at Face, and I got to help chronicle the band’s ascension. They released the excellent, diverse Rooms by the Hour in 1997, and then signed with Arista – when that news hit, Rustic were heroes. They’d signed a major label deal and gotten out of Portland. Alas, it wasn’t to be – they recorded their major label album, but parted ways with Arista before it could come out. The less-than-stellar Viva Nueva (which ironically means “new life”) was released on Tommy Boy in 2001, but it was too little, too late. The Rustic boys moved on to other things – most notably, Gutter and Jon Roods’ project Paranoid Social Club.
That story’s been repeated time and time again in the Portland scene. An extraordinary band gets close, tantalizingly close, to national recognition, and then it all falls apart. I’m sure it’s the same everywhere, but I got to see it up close as the public face of Face. Rustic’s fall was sad and surprising, because they have everything one would think you’d need to make it big.
And maybe they’ll get another shot. After five years of working separately, the seven members of Rustic Overtones have reunited, and they have a new album, called Light at the End. None of them are saying whether this is a permanent deal, and the album title certainly lends credence to the theory that it’s a temporary, final outing, but I’m overjoyed to report that if this is the last Rustic record, it’s a much better way to go out than Viva Nueva.
Light at the End contains both old and new material – five new recordings with local legend Jon Wyman, and four tracks from the Viva Nueva sessions, produced by Tony Visconti. The five new ones are the best – I found Viva Nueva overbaked and underdeveloped, but Wyman’s light touch makes the new tunes seem like classics. “Rock Like War” is all over Portland radio, as it should be – it’s a stomper of a song, horns blazing.
But it’s “Troublesome” that takes the prize – it’s awesome, just a tight, melodic pop song. The title track is terrific, and the folksy political rant “Letter to the President” is a nice surprise – Gutter really nails this one. And I don’t want to give the impression that the Visconti tracks are no good. They’re just thicker and more plodding. “Oxygen” is a flurry of drums and horns accompanied by a string section, the best of the Visconti tracks, but “Carsick” has a great percussive riff, and the extra production works well on the dreamy “Carnival.” And the new “Hardest Way Possible,” a song that’s now appeared on three Rustic albums, is good as well.
Overall, though, this album is a treat, and it’s great to hear the mighty Rustic Overtones flexing its muscles again. They were the biggest, and they were among the best, and Light at the End is a good reminder of why. If this is the last Rustic album, then at least we got one more than I expected we would. And if this is the start of the second phase of their career, then count me in for the long haul.
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While Rustic were just starting out when I arrived in Maine, Twisted Roots had been together for some time already. They released their first full-length, Turn to Stone, in 1993, at the height of the grunge revolution. By the time I got to interviewing them, on the occasion of their superb 1999 album Body in Trunk, Brick on the Gas, they were already the elder statesmen of Portland rock – I called the article “Still Here, Dammit!,” a statement with a double meaning – the band was still together, but still in Portland, when they deserved much wider recognition.
I lost track of Twisted Roots after leaving Maine, so I was heartened to see, on a recent trip up north, that they’re still together, and still releasing albums. T-Roots remains Pete Giordano, Adam Powers, Mark Lennon and Sonny Robinson, their lineup for the last 10 years, and they’re still making superb, heavy music.
From the band name and their album titles, you might get the idea that Twisted Roots is a metal band, and that’s not quite accurate – they’re more of a heavy rock band with a strong blues influence, and it’s clear even from their most recent stuff that they came up during the Seattle craze. Their focus is on energy and on Giordano’s clear, powerful voice. Still, I can imagine the surprise your standard metal fan may feel if they pick up T-Roots’ new disc, 12 Skies, Fire and the Black, just based on its title and foreboding cover art, and when they press play, they get the acoustic opening of “New Monday.”
Things certainly get heavier from there, but they don’t get less melodic – these nine songs are the finest to ever bear the band’s name, and even though the album is only 27 minutes long, it’s the best thing they’ve done. The songs are compact – most don’t even break the three-minute mark, and they don’t have to. “New Monday” is bluesy, but “Dig” is a monster with a pummeling riff, and “Fire and the Black” is a four-minute epic with enough ideas for five separate songs.
I remember being disappointed with Twisted Roots live, because they just crank everything up to ear-bleeding levels and assault the audience. Their albums, including this new one, have many shades, and the production by the band and Lance Vardis is crystal clear. You can hear every nuance of the band’s twin-guitar arrangement on “Refugee of Tomorrow,” and even the more explosive tracks, like the oddly-spelled closer “See Through Mee,” are beautifully recorded.
But it’s the songs that win the day here, and the skilled performances of the four band members, who by this point must know each other’s playing styles inside and out. There are benefits to sticking together for more than 15 years, and Twisted Roots are reaping them. 12 Skies is a great little disc, and I’m thrilled to see that a band I admired when I was little more than a kid can still rock with the best of them.
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It’s nice to see the old bands are still together, or reuniting, but what about the new ones? I’m less connected to the Portland scene than I once was, so I don’t know what new high school or college band is tearing up the clubs now, but I can tell you about a new band made up of local legends, one that deserves all the success they’ll undoubtedly get.
The band is Lost on Liftoff. My friend Shane Kinney is the drummer – he’s one of the few people I’ve stayed in touch with since leaving the Great White North, and a nicer and funnier guy you’re not likely to meet. He’s also a great rock drummer. Kinney has joined forces here with Walt Craven, a guy who has tasted national success twice now, with Gouds Thumb and 6gig. Craven is a gifted songwriter, a good guitarist and a compelling singer.
Last year, Lost on Liftoff released a four-song EP that hinted at their sound – melodic and tuneful, guitar-driven, almost power pop. Craven has been mining this territory for a while, and he’s very good at it, but he’s never been better than he is on LOL’s full-length debut, Mixtape Blackouts. And I have to think it’s the musicians he’s playing with, including Nicholas Lamberto on guitar and Dan Walsh on bass, that has pushed him to these heights.
Every song here features a soaring chorus, a thick and powerful arrangement, and a focus on strong songwriting. I had commented to Kinney some time ago that the songs here maintain the high standard set on the EP, but after a few more listens, I think they’ve surpassed it. “Husk” remains a favorite for this melody addict, and I find myself singing along with the chorus every time. “Greens and Yellows” has some superb stop-time work, Kinney just nailing it, and “You Idiot” and “Sunburnt” simply rock. The band reprises “Naked and Wasted” and “40 Miles” from their EP, and they fit in nicely.
But the finest of the new songs is the most atypical – “I Can Hear You in Stereo” shimmers to life slowly, and rises and falls dynamically throughout its five minutes, Craven’s vocals at their most plaintive. “For all we know, it’s impossible to know for sure if we will make it through another day,” he sings, and then leaves the final minute-plus up to the band. They turn out a beautiful coda, and if LOL had chosen this song to end the record, I wouldn’t have argued with their decision. (Actual closer “Still Remember” is a rocker with a great concluding riff, so I can’t complain.)
And then there is track 12, “Don’t Change.” I listened to this album straight through the first time without realizing that this song is an INXS cover, so completely do Lost on Liftoff own it. This is what a cover should be – the band takes the core of the song, rearranges it to suit their style, and slots it right into their catalog, sounding for all the world like an original. It’s just great.
My only complaints about Mixtape Blackouts are a guitar-heavy mix that sometimes drowns out the bass and drums, and a consistency of style that gets slightly wearying after 13 tracks. But Craven, Kinney and company have produced a terrific debut here, hopefully the first of many records to come, and they offer further proof that the Portland, Maine scene is alive and well.
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Next week, I’m aiming for seven reviews, including new ones from Mae, Eisley, Teddy Thompson, Suzanne Vega and the great Julian Cope. And maybe the return of the weekly Doctor Who report.
See you in line Tuesday morning.