taking a listen
reviews of local & state music CDs
Stephen Kay — Stephen Kay, Volume 1
Just about every bar has them. I’m talking about the guy over in the corner diligently churning out a mix of drunk-friendly cover tunes and carefully couched originals. Singer/songwriter Stephen Kay is often that guy, and as for his originals, he wants them to be heard. After toiling on every aspect of the album from performing each instrumental track to designing the album artwork — the scan of a hand-colored butterfly (or is it a flower?) alludes to the album’s sunny content — Kay’s debut release Stephen Kay, Volume 1 is a reality. Recorded with Come Hell or High Water drummer Shane Doggett, Volume 1 is at times an exercise in patience through an artist’s initial trials and errors, and other times it’s a downright infectious listening experience. The album’s opening notes on “Kristin” sound generated from an old Fisher-Price 3810, and joyfully dot his guitar’s low rumble and hard beackbeat as he sings a plea for forgiveness. “Back Through” is an exercise in dissonance that leans on a tedious drum machine beat and heavy reverb, but it’s really the album’s only real stumbling point. He steadily amps up the islander vibe from there, starting with the spritely “Near the Ocean” and reaching a zenith on the acoustic reggae jam “Music Is Legal.” “Come On” is a mostlyspoken-word dance floor breakdown that doesn’t hold up that well as a standalone track, but would play far better in a live context. Kay saves the best for last on “More Than You,” a luminous country rocker that best shows off his skills on guitar.
Stephen Kay will perform at Cooper’s Ale House on Saturday.
North Elementary — Southern Rescue Trails
For North Elementary’s currently-nonexistent follow-up to their recent and multifarious release Southern Rescue Trails, you get the feeling that they could be one of those bands that brands their MySpace band page as “crunk/ghettotech/melodramatic popular song” and not be completely ironic about it. In its entirety, Southern Rescue Trails is a little bit country, a little more rock and roll, and just a tad bit… electro? On their second full-length in two years, North Elementary strikes a curious balance between synth-soaked power chords and winsome folk. It’s an album clearly meant to be consumed in one sitting, as the deft twists and turns throughout defy usual conventions. At its core, it’s a more fleshed-out exposition of themes explored on their debut Not For Everyone, Just For You. If asked for one simple definition, “pop” might suffice, but lyrically it’s often too abstract to fit even that giving mold. The one constant is John Harrison’s languid, rigid voice. Rarely does his timbre break from it’s tortoise-like cadence, as layers of reverbed or fuzzed-out guitars and steel wash all around it. Some of the few exceptions come when keyboardist Betty Rupp on lifts him up with her expressive vocals on the straightforward Americana numbers “Midwest Bug” and “Sons of Turbo Town,” two of the few of their kind on the album. Given their success on these tracks, it makes the grizzled guitar blasts of “War for Kicks” and the transitive thump underneath “Sharp Ghost Mind” seem almost unnecessary. Overall, it’s still a fine album marked by dense layers of well-constructed sound, but like its predecessor, it’s still lacking a cohesive identity.