Ball of Wax 35 closes with one last low-fi ukulele recording. Portland’s John Vecchiarelli, an old friend last heard from way back on Ball of Wax Volume 2, sent me an email out of the blue with this little beauty attached. “Would this little uke song be worth taking the time to record properly and pass along?” he asked. I listened once and said I’d be honored to skip that “record properly” nonsense and include this very recording, and that’s what I did. John claims this is the only “lovey dovey” song he’s ever written, but I hope it’s not the last. The words are sweet and simple, one lover talking to another about his wishes for a life together, but combined with the minor key, softly plucked ukulele, and John’s soft, yearning voice captured through the humble iPhone microphone, the result feels more profound and intimate than any old “lovey dovey” song. I’m so thrilled to be able to share another song from this wonderful songwriter. Thanks for reaching out, John. I hope Marc and Ali appreciate their song as much as I do.
Local surfy instrumentalists The Pornadoes take their tongues out of their cheeks and bring the volume and tempo down for this very sweet love theme. If we’re talking Northwest guitar heroes, “Makes My Heart Sway” is less The Ventures and more a late night, minimalist Bill Frisell with no looper, no effects, no horns or strings; just softly brushed drums and rooted bass supporting a lovely guitar melody. I’m really happy that we ended up with three wordless love songs on this volume – and that they all, while sounding very different from each other, work so well as love songs. Love and music, two universal languages joining forces to make hearts sway worldwide!
If you’d like more Pornadoes in your life – and why wouldn’t you? – check out their newly released In Space, an early front-runner for best local cinematic-country-surf-jazz-rock album of 2014. (But seriously, it’s really good.)
I can’t claim to know the inspiration behind Robb Benson‘s spirit animal, the shelk (an elk with a shark’s head, obviously), but at least half of it makes perfect sense. Robb is one of the most prolific songwriters I’ve ever known; like the head half of a shelk, he doesn’t stop moving for a second. This January he self-released Seen Too Much, his second solo album under the name Robb Benson and the Shelk, mere months after the first. In addition to writing and releasing two solo albums in less than a year, he is also active in Stereo Embers, The Glass Notes, and The Great Um. And that’s just what he’s up to right now, never mind the prolific and impressive 15-odd years he’s been making music in our fair city.
“Twin Peaks” is that ever risky thing, a song about itself; a beautifully apologetic ode to a lover who (sort of) regrets time spent on other commitments (see above list of bands) and love songs unwritten. Robb sings “I’m sorry my music takes up so much time that I ignore what really should be your new love song; instead I come home and I complain, when I should just be happy to be back home with you again,” and partnered musicians across the globe nod and shake their heads in recognition. “Please know,” he sings for us all, “my heart still revolves around you.” Robb won’t be able to join us at the Ball of Wax 35 release show tomorrow at LoFi (I think one of his seventeen other bands has a gig elsewhere), but I might just get a boom box and hold it up over my head on stage to play this song for
my wife everyone there, Dobler-style.
Peter Colclasure is a former member of the Foghorns whose contribution to Ball of Wax 35 is a surreal kiss-off in waltz time. “Cynic” contrasts Colclasure’s derisive lyrics (“you got yourself seen at all the right places / all the hip parties and happening show”) against a darkly whimsical boardwalk carnival arrangement of strummed guitar, bass and synth strings. The song is marked by odd combinations, like the harsh put-downs sung by Colclasure’s clear, guileless tenor. A creepy monophonic solo (maybe a suitcase organ?) in the middle played atop canned audience laughter and applause sets a bizarre tone of nostalgia and dread. Colclasure scores extra points for having a song that, as an (anti) love song in 3/4 time, works for both volume 34 and volume 35.
I can’t believe it’s been over a year since Werebearcat! graced us with one of their minimalist drum-and-voice jams, but indeed it has. They made their first Ball of Wax appearance on our “No Guitars” volume, and unlike some of the artists on that collection, these guys were not trying on the guitarless look for one song. Werebearcat! does a lot with very little, marrying live drum kit and droning synth with Holly Small’s Rihanna-worthy hooks for a delightfully sweet/savory pop confection that will have you singing along by the second chorus. (And OK, there is a little sweet guitar action at the very end of the song, but they obviously do just fine without it.) We have yet to be graced with a live Werebearcat! performance at a Ball of Wax show, but here’s hoping for next time.
Bandolier gets things off on the right foot with the iconic pum—pum-pum-thwack! of the indestructible “Be My Baby” drum beat. Almost immediately gritty synth organ and a tinny melodic figure (a guitar with tremolo?) emerge below reedy vocals singing “[I] turned to see her leave / I thought she looked at me.” Already we’re eyeballs deep in a classic boy/girl pop predicament, perfect for the love theme of volume 35. As the song builds steam, the drummer sheds the Spector beat for straight fours and the singer reaches for an octave he can’t totally handle to deliver a chorus hook that’ll be lodged in my skull for days. This is great, amber-tinged power pop for fans of Big Star, Okkervil River and the Left Banke. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I was unaware of Bandolier before hearing “Steady Love,” but this song plus the fact that they cite the Aisler Set in their influences has me totally on board and excited to share the stage with them at the Ball of Wax Volume 35 release show – In Love with Love Valentine’s Day at the Lo Fi. You should totally come.
Webelos front man James Smith brings us a lo-fi, poppy little sad sack of a tune with a fairly self-explanatory title. It might not be the kind of song that first comes to mind when one thinks of love songs, but the “unlucky in love” genre is certainly a rich lyrical vein to mine, and you can’t say it’s not about love. The upbeat, slapback-reverbed guitar and oohs and ahhs provide the perfect counterpoint to Smith’s cleverly phrased catalog of amorous woes. While on the one hand you feel bad for the guy, you kind of want his hard times to continue so he’ll keep writing gems like this one.
Levi‘s contribution to volume 35, “5 Year Plan,” veers away from the rumble and fuzz of his recent work with the Library and returns to the organic folk simplicity of his earlier recordings. Acoustic guitar and voice sit way up in the mix, with Levi singing a simple homage to domestic peace and happiness in the face of the social pressures of planning and ambition. Levi sings sweetly and without guile, “and maybe I am simple / but where I am is where I want to be” and “and here’s my ten year plan / our animals, our friends and you and I.” It’s a pretty, contemplative song both humble and fully-formed as a love song – if you were to sing this song in earnest to a partner or spouse all heart strings would be appropriately plucked.
Kate Noson‘s voice was first heard by Ball of Wax listeners harmonizing with Sam Russell on Volume 30′s “All These Passing Fields.” Sam, plotting his own love song for Volume 35, recommended Kate’s country ballad”Fly” for this volume, and I’m glad he did. She has proven herself a more than able vocal accompanist, but it’s wonderful to hear her take the lead on one of her own songs. As with a lot of these songs, “Fly” is not just a straightforward declaration of love. She seems to grapple here – as many of us do – with the balance between surrendering to one’s own creative passion and drive and making oneself available, emotionally and physically, to loved ones. “I want it all and I want it now,” starts the first verse, but by the end of the last verse she sings “Where are you my love? I’m ready to come home,” and closes with a humbled variation on the chorus. It’s a beautifully rendered song, relatable and intimate yet devoid of cliche. Welcome to Ball of Wax, Kate!
Joshua Schramm is a busy fellow. Outside of his country band Modern Relics, he has at least two other more or less solo projects, both of which submitted lovely love songs for Ball of Wax 35. Jon has already delved into the hi-fi splendor of Joshua’s collaboration with Fairy Robot; Harbor Island (at least in this recording) is a much more lo-fi affair, appearing here with a one-take direct-into-laptop-mic voice and ukulele recording (possibly the second ukulele on this volume, and definitely not the last). But with this simple little tune, beautifully sung and played as it is, you really don’t need much more.
We will be fortunate enough to experiences both sides of the Schramm coin, with performances from Harbor Island and Joshua and Fairy Robot, at this Friday’s release show for Ball of Wax 35.