Somewhere between New Wave rock and jazz fusion, somewhere between the ambient programmatic music of Brian Eno and the sound-tracks of Tangerine Dream, somewhere between the martial minimalism of Devo and the mix-nonsense of Frank Zappa, lies the music of However, a local quartet that has released a new album, as have Catfish Hodge and the Skip Castro Band.
For the past three years, However has been performing original music in Boston and Washington, music that reflects a kaleidoscope of pop, jazz and electronic influences. Its debut album, "Sudden Dust" (Random Radar RRR011) is by turns austere, lyrical, whimsical, foreboding and, above all, odd.
Delicate arpeggios from a 12-string guitar occasionally lend a quiet grace and subtlety to However's music. But these passages are fleeting; more often the unexpected is to be expected. While other bands try to rid their music of kinks and quirks, However prizes them. False endings, agitated rhythms, synthesized exclamations, unnerving sound effects, Hendrix-like guitar solos -- all are part of the game plan. So, too, are the clarinet, marimba, bassoon and vibraphone used to supplement the band's synthesizers, guitars and saxophones.
Individual voices and harmonies are also deployed, in this case more for their varying textures and cadences than as a means for conveying lyrics or messages. And if the music occasionally suffers from passages of eerie and bleak motionlessness and electronic overkill -- and it does -- at least it is seldom dull.
For example, the title track is unfocused and tends to meander. Yet the glaciers of synthesized sound that shift slowly from ear to ear are fascinating, and the accompanying effects are curious, to say the least. And, at its best -- the swarming electronics of "Beese" and the chaotic "Grandfather Was a Driver" -- However combines a playful sense of the absurd with quirky instrumentation. Its debut album is a pleasant if peculiar surprise.
Far removed from However's weird dreamscape is "Catfish Hodge and Chicken Legs" (Fanpower FPL001), the long-awaited album that teams the veteran D.C. rocker with several former members of Little Feat -- guitarist Paul Berrere, bassist Kenny Gradney, drummer Richie Hayward and percussionist Sam Clayton. Also joining Hodge are a couple of his frequent collaborators, including pianist Mitch Collins, vocalist Dixie D. Ballin and Freebo, who co-produced the album with Hodge.
Actually, to call it an album is a bit misleading. The record is a 12-inch disc featuring six selections, all of which appear on one side. As such, "Chicken Legs" is something of a disappointment since it confines the Little Feat alumni to supporting roles. Anyone who saw Hodge and Chicken Legs perform an exciting blend of Hodge and Little Feat originals in Washington recently, knows full well that one album wouldn't do the band justice, let alone half of one.
Apart from its length, "Chicken Legs" is an excellent sampler. For all the distinctive talent on this album, the group consistently performs as an integrated unit. There's no excessive soloing, no grandstanding, no attempt to upstage Hodge. And Hodge himself continues to grow and mature as a singer.
Up tempo rockers, songs such as the frenetic "Shake a Tailfeather" and the rousing "Holiday," have always come naturally to Hodge, and he pulls them off here with energy and big-hearted charm. But it's the anguish he wrings from the lyric "Drownin' in a Sea of Love" that reveals his strength on slower material. His phrasing is more controlled now, not so given to exaggeration, and Ballin softens the edges of his voice with comforting harmonies.
Another surprise is Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up." A full-blooded tribute to Chuck Berry, the song brings to mind not only Berry's classic "Too Much Monkey Business" but incorporates a few of his patented guitar licks as well. Barrere and Rick Vito get a chance to trade a few licks of their own on "Holiday." In fact, "Holiday," which leans heavily on Little Feat's rhythm section, best represents the sound of Chicken Legs -- rollicking, hard-won rock 'n' roll. Unfortunately, his serving of "Legs" is too meager a snack.
The Skip Castro Band, on the other hand, gets a full hearing on its new album "You're Killing Me" (Midnight Records SCB1480). The Castro Band seldom has a problem whipping a crowd into a lather when it appears live, but the excitement it brings to the stage isn't easily transferred to the recording studio. If anything, this album attempts to broaden the band's appeal outside the club circuit by fusing early rock and early R&B influences with more contemporary styles. Occasionally, it succeeds.
In "Frustration" and "Cheat," for example, pianist Dan Bierne has come up with a couple of catchy if not particularly imaginative rock vehicles. The hooks are sharp, the sound less dated, and the possibility for airplay seems good. Far more convincing, though, is the soulful "Love Sacrifice," with a biting saxophone solo from guest Ron Holloway. Holloway, a Washingtonian, gives the band the harder edge it needs. Bassist Ben Pastorfield's "You're Killing Me" also sounds fresh despite its doo-wop inflections.
But what holds several songs back on this album is the band's longwindedness. Too many of the songs simply stay beyond their welcome. Listening to some of the lengthier tracks, you wish the band would use its time more carefully.