Proper steel guitar from a Montana country artist sets the scene for this tasteful, gentle seduction without promise of tomorrow song. An understated but damned polished arrangement, Caroline Keys‘s “Dance Wax” feels rooted to a place, with honest small town imagery. “I saw you shaking out the salt, making it easier to walk,” says a lot. It’s good songwriting. Leading to the refrain command “Sway, just sway.” If you have time to listen to this a few times, it pays dividends. The composition and dynamics alone are a kind of masterclass in subtle country folk.
The joy of limitations. Who Is John Smith‘s “Chasing Frogs,” featuring polyrhythms that might have been tapped out on an acoustic guitar [actually that’s Yaw Amponsah on hand drums and prempremsoa -ed.] against a set of pinched guitar chords, is mesmerizing. There is that unique joy when simple recordings layer together and find that organic mesh. This was a pleasant surprise, and a reminder of how much can be done with what is easily around us. This piece could possibly be composed in a studio apartment with nothing but a single microphone and an iphone, but the effect of the piece is equal to what accomplished five-piece bands pull off with Nords and drums and mallets.
Who Is John Smith – Yaw Amponsah, Greg Campbell, and James Whetzel – will bring this intimate sound to Conor Byrne for the Ball of Wax 49 release show on Saturday, August 19th.
When he’s not flying to Seattle to squeeze the accordion with the Foghorns* or writing clever/righteous/wistful pop songs or DJing on Santa Clara college radio or rocking the keys with San Jose band Cola*, Peter Colclasure is sitting down at his piano and composing beautiful music in the contemporary classical vein. He recently released Antigo, a whole album of this stuff, and it’s highly enjoyable listening, like the soundtrack to the movie you wish you were watching instead of whatever you finally settled on after an hour of desperately clicking through Netflix.
The world of newly-composed music that could broadly be called “classical” is large and overwhelming. It includes everything from atonal minimalism to cornball romanticism, and honestly it’s just not a very helpful term at all, but here we are, all these pianos and strings and a need to put things in categories. To get a bit more specific, the music on Antigo – especially “County K” – is somewhat reminiscent of the work of Yann Tiersen. (Whose name you might not know, but you know that one tune from Amelie, right? Of course you do.) I do like the weird, discordant stuff, but this hits a sweet spot for me, emphasizing harmony and melody and counterpoint, but not to the point of being cloying or lacking in tension. Enjoy “County K,” and then go ahead and get the whole album already.
*The Foghorns and Cola happen to be playing with my own band next Wednesday at Conor Byrne. Just throwing that out there.
Writer/musician Steven Arntson makes his Ball of Wax debut with the aptly titled “Minor Yodel,” a brief, tantalizing dollop of concertina and voice (Arnston is backed up by our pal Anne Mathews of the Lonely Coast) that leaves one wanting much more. Thankfully there is more on offer, as this is but one selection from Without Haste, Without Rest, a full-length album that should be out any moment. Keep refreshing stevenarntson.com for more info on the album and some kind of CD release event; I know I will be. In the meantime, just keep this on repeat and feel your state of mind improve with each spin.
If not for its one reference to texting on a cellphone (and a contemporary eff bomb) you might think this track from Michele Khazak was recorded many decades ago. With its minimalist piano over a gothic, soulful blues vocal and a sound like one mic in a bar after closing time and a sentiment to match, this song is, for me, quite evocative. The verses unroll slowly to reveal the singer struggling to recapture the feeling that gave meaning to . . . to what exactly? The desire to make music? To get up in the morning and face the day? You don’t quite know from the words but you do, of course – who wouldn’t? Later verses reveal loneliness, crisis of purpose, and regret at repeated mistakes, but also an acknowledgement of dignity and perseverance: “No it’s not like you’re not trying. You just gotta go and try it again.” Each verse then opens up minor to major into a repeated and hopeful chorus reminding herself and the rest of us, “but you’ve got to be willing,” which is oh so true, so true. Great song.
Michele will open up the Ball of Wax 49 release show with a rare solo set at the house piano. Don’t miss it!
The full title of this new song from our Utahan barber/songwriter pal Drew Danburry is “Mediocrity, for Denis Villeneuve (who is amazing and not mediocre),” which gives you some idea of the artist’s intentions. The song seems to be about the feelings we all struggle with that we are not good enough, or interesting enough, or whatever-it-is-we’re-trying-to-be enough. (The fact that it’s addressed to the acclaimed director of Arrival and the soon-to-be-released Blade Runner 2049 is a fascinating wrinkle. I guess we all need a musical hug from time to time.) But if the title makes you think you’re in for a rousing pick-me-up of a tune, I should warn you that there are no easy answers here. The music is beautifully arranged and composed, the tune and lyrics heartfelt, and at the end it feels more like an expression of sympathy and solidarity than an answer to anyone’s problems. And sometimes that’s all we really need.
A couple of years after the release of the relatively aggressive LP Modern Dystopia (and man, how apt that title feels right now), Solvents seem to have pivoted back to their strummy/croony roots – at least for the soft, wistful tune “Sea.” It’s fun to hear them getting rowdy with a full band, but I really do love the sound of Jarrod and Emily’s voices and fiddle doing their thing over some softly strummed chords. They’ve been doing just this – playing guitar and fiddle and singing – for years, and it shows. Like the body of water it’s named after, “Sea” is the perfect thing to cool you off by a few degrees in this sweltering summer heat.
Temple Canyon is a newish local rock band fronted by the powerful voice and guitar of Mariko Ruhle. They refer to themselves as “Nostalgic Seattle Rock,” but – at least on their newly-released EP Thank You for Not Caring – the nostalgia that infuses their music is of a more recent vintage than your usual Ballard stompin’, clappin’, longhaired, bearded fare. From the big drums to the strummy/stabby guitar interplay to the woozy keyboard lines, it’s hard not to hear some of the best elements of ’80s alternative pop at play here. Mariko’s vocals sound great in mellow mode, especially playing back-and-forth with guest vocalist Noble Monyei, and even better when she kicks into high gear, with a few moments that would make you swear Chrissie Hynde snuck into the studio for a second. They take the song some interesting places, too, slowing down to a rubato breakdown in the middle that leaves you a little stranded before bringing you back to the hook with a hug and a few handclaps for good measure. Welcome to Ball of Wax, Temple Canyon! Looking forward to hearing more in the near future.
Portland master-Krautrock-practitioners Møtrik make their Ball of Wax debut with “Impossible/OK,” from a forthcoming album that I haven’t heard yet but that has already ratcheted (or maybe sprocketed) to the top of my 2017 favorites list. That driving motorik beat is the perfect way to kick off this grab bag of new and strange music from across the nation. This is the first I’ve heard Møtrik’s instrumentally-oriented music with vocals, and the deadpan, wry delivery of the inscrutable lyrics (“Impossible” “OK” “Everywhere you go” “Circus parade”) combined with those signature rhythms, guitar strokes, and woo-woo-woo noises is almost enough to make you think you’re hearing an unearthed Can or Neu! outtake (or at least it is if, like me, you know just enough about Krautrock to make that reference but haven’t immersed yourself in the genre’s intricacies). Whether you have any idea what I’m talking about or not, “Impossible/OK” is a straight-up jam, destined to be the perfect soundtrack to many a midnight summer drive.
Posted in Ball of Wax
Ball of Wax 49 Release Show
w/Who Is John Smith, Caroline Keys, Robert Deeble, Michele Khazak
Saturday, August 19, 9pm
Conor Byrne Pub
In case the drought conditions and ludicrous temperatures hadn’t already alerted you to the fact, I am here to tell you that summer is here. And soon enough, the Summer 2017 installment of Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly will be unleashed upon the world, packed with 19 assorted musical gems from Seattle and beyond – perhaps including your personal song of the summer. (Watch this space for our track reviews, which will be rolling out from now until the release date.)
As always, a musical celebration is in order. Join us at Conor Byrne for a delightfully diverse evening of music. Michele Khazak will entrance us at the piano with her spellbinding songs; Ball of Wax mainstay Robert Deeble will bring in some string players to help him preview some songs from his long-awaited new album, Beloved; Caroline Keys and co. will haul across the mountains from Missoula to share their subtle, moody take on Americana with us; and Who Is John Smith will bring the sounds of West African palm wine music to a beer-soaked room in Ballard.
Don’t miss it!