Last year I wrote my first Tech Rap recommending some standout CDs for our Como Audio Musica owners (or anyone with a CD player). That one article received more positive feedback than any I have written to date. Having made some exciting new discoveries since then, I figured a follow-up was in order. Here are five CDs of varying genres, some having been released a few months ago, others several years ago. Be on the lookout for Part 2 which recommends five additional titles. The numbered ranking does not start with the best, or the newest, or even alphabetically. It has more to do with how quickly I can complete the written recommendation for that CD after getting responses to my interview questions. As far as I am concerned, these CDs are all number one. I am confident you will enjoy reading about these titles along with the related interviews, but I know you will enjoy listening to them on your Musica even more. If you own more than one Como Audio system, or plan to, you can group the units together and hear the CDs you play on Musica throughout your home. I have included links to purchase these CDs at the end.
1. The Flat Five: It’s a World of Love and Hope; Bloodshot Records BS 711
Back in the 1960’s there existed a music format called “Sunshine Pop”. A couple of examples of this distinctive sound include The Association’s Cherish, Windy, and Never My Love, and The Fifth Dimension’s Aquarius and Up– Up and Away. The genre was as harmless as whole milk and equally fattening, but alas, it did not enjoy the same staying power. The Chicago-based vocal throw-back group, The Flat Five (Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough, and Alex Hall), are about as close as you will get today to Sunshine Pop. I heartily applaud them for taking a defibrillator to this special kind of music and giving it new life.
The Flat Five have been impressing audiences with their vocal charms for the last decade-plus, mostly as Chicago’s clean little secret. So much so they could have called themselves Goody Ten Shoes. Despite the group’s longevity, It’s A World of Love and Hope is their first and only full-length album (as of this writing), and it shows The Flat Five are anything but flat. In fact, they will tickle your musical fancy until your fancy can be tickled no longer.
The band’s makeup is a fragmentation of very busy members of other established groups that unite when schedules align to produce their unique music. Kelly Hogan has a couple of solo records under her belt and Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough are both members of the current NRBQ line up. However, The Flat Five are not NRBQ-light.
All the lyrics on It’s A World of Love and Hope were written by Chris Ligon, older brother of band member Scott Ligon, and he recorded several of them himself over ten years ago on his Look at the Birdie album. His lyrics have a child-like playfulness to them. Birmingham serves as a good example of what you can expect as you audibly unpack the twelve tracks: “We pulled off the road so I could pee / And you stood guard so no one else could see / I know it was wrong to hit your mother / But she had it coming all the way.” They had me at “pee”. Florida and Almond Grove are very close behind. Buglight is simply the bee’s knees: “My girl likes to stay home at night just to watch the bugs pop on her bug light.” Sounds like my kind of gal. Fun, thy name is The Flat Five. This is Your Night is the standout and like most of the tracks, sounds like something you would have heard on AM radio in the late 1960’s: “Slip into an Irish Spring / Rub-a- dub-dub you dirty thing.” Hmmm…unintentional musical product placement? Why there is even a song for all of you fashionistas out there, I Could Fall In Love With You: “As long as you don’t wear yellow / As long as you don’t wear blue / As long as you don’t wear orange / I could fall in love with you.” Truth be told, there is not a bad track on the whole CD. I wish they had included a little booklet of printed lyrics with whimsical illustrations, but that is the only criticism I can manage. The only other thing that could have made this CD even better is if the cover had been made out of crispy bacon.
“In fact, they will tickle your musical fancy until your fancy can be tickled no longer.“
The group’s record label, Bloodshot Records, put me in touch with The Flat Five’s Kelly Hogan for a quick Q&A:
PS: What is it about the blending of human voices that makes us go weak in the knees?
KH: It’s physical. Vibrations. It’s a perfect feeling. The first time I ever sang harmony (around age 11) it felt like flying. With a choir it’s like being part of a starling murmuration. Incredible. And with the folks in the Flat Five, we found that we had a natural effortless blend — and when you find folks you blend with vocally, you handcuff them to you and swallow the key.
PS: Do the quirky lyrics require you to approach the songs in a certain way or do you treat them like any other songs?
KH: We don’t ever sing “with a wink and a nod” — we treat a song with quirky lyrics the same as any Hal David trophy-winner. It’s like having a friend with a weird sense of humor. It’s refreshing. You just gotta go with it.
PS: Any particular story behind the album cover?
KH: We just wanted to be bringing something beautiful to folks. And all the flowers were from Nora’s backyard 🙂
PS: Are The Flat Five planning on releasing any new music this year?
KH: Most certainly. I’m listening to a final mix as I answer your questions. We have a whole (as yet untitled) album almost in the can. We’re not quite sure how we’re going to get it out with the current state of world affairs, but we’ll figure out a way. It should be out in some form in the next few months.
PS: Any plans for a US tour after the virus settles down?
KH: Nope. It’s a bummer — but because all of us are committed in part to other bands (and our drummer/engineer Alex Hall to running his Chicago studio, Reliable Recorders) — The Flat Five is not really a touring band. We do some Midwest regional touring, and with a herculean effort (including nine months of saving our gig money to afford it) we made it out to the Pacific Northwest for our last record, but that was about it. And touring is not a profitable enterprise for a peanut-sized band like us. It’s not will you lose money on tour, it’s “how much.”
PS: Lyrically, what’s the strangest song you’ve ever sung?
KH: Personally, “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee (written by Leiber/Stoller, I think) — and in the Flat Five, hmmm…I sang lead on “Busy Doing Nothing” when we performed the entire Friends album by the Beach Boys. That song is essentially Brian Wilson giving you directions to his house. It was so hard to learn and sing, but I loved it.
Because their flamboyant music does not exactly conform to most popular commercial radio formats, you are not likely to hear The Flat Five on your favorite station. That alone should be reason enough to add this quirky quintet to your Musica CD collection. One listen and The Flat Five will have you convinced it really is a world of love and hope. Just be sure you have plenty of Fun Insurance in place because you will have to file a claim afterwards. At last count the CD was rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon. As hard as I have tried, I fear my article does not do The Flat Five’s music justice, so allow me to conclude by categorically stating It’s A World of Love and Hope is one CD you have to have. And do be sure to get the CD version because you will no doubt wear out the vinyl record in pretty short order. Now, I am stepping outside to watch my bug light…
Trivia (supplied by Hogan): Which mild-mannered member of the Flat Five, with less than 24 hours-notice and absolutely no rehearsal, went on tour to sing lead (!) in Brian Wilson’s band for their Pet Sounds tour for two weeks in April of 2017?
Unscramble for the answer: SYCEA HOGMUCNDO
2. Lindsey Webster: A Woman Like Me; Shanachie Records 5475
I first heard Lindsey Webster while listening to a smooth jazz Internet radio station on a Como Audio Duetto about three years ago. The song was Fool Me Once. I was hooked, but at the same time, I was paranoid she would be a one-hit wonder and I would be unable to feed my addiction. I would quickly come to realize my concerns were unfounded. Move over Sade, Lindsey Webster is here to stay. Webster quickly became my favorite female contemporary jazz vocalist along with Maysa. I pre-ordered Webster’s latest CD, A Woman Like Me, and it has been giving my Musica a cardio workout since I received it in the mail a month ago. The timing was apropos considering last month was Jazz Appreciation Month (“JAM”).
Webster is a native of Woodstock, NY…not exactly a hot bed for jazz. Her parents, whom she has called “responsible hippies”, listened mostly to rock music…The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and the like. She took up the cello in elementary school and loved singing Maria Carey and Whitney Houston songs. As a young adult she took her talent public to an extent by singing karaoke at local pub. As it so happened, it was that very pub where she met Keith Slattery in 2009, whom eventually became her song writing partner, keyboardist, and later, her husband. The two have since divorced but remain close and continue to collaborate.
In addition to playing keyboards/piano and co-writing every song on A Woman Like Me (except the last track), Slattery also produced and engineered the album. As Webster stated in her press release: “I could not have done this album with anyone else. Keith is an amazing example of understanding and compassion. First and foremost, Keith and I were friends before anything. Then we became musical partners. Then we became romantically involved. We spent all those years creating something amazing together. I can say that with Keith’s guidance and wisdom, I have become a better person.” To Slattery’s credit, the recordings are polished without going over the top, something some contemporary jazz albums easily fall victim to. As a side bar, Slattery has been busy putting the finishing touches on his own album. More on that in the interview portion.
Webster has enjoyed a good deal of success and has worked hard for it. She toured the US, Europe, and the UK, and has had multiple hit songs including A Love Before, Back to Your Heart, A Love Inside, Where Do You Want to Go, Open Up, It’s Not You, It’s Me, Next to Me, and as I mentioned, Fool Me Once. Fool Me Once from 2015 was the first #1 “vocal driven” song on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart since Sade’s Soldier of Love from 2010. Webster was also Billboard Magazine’s artist of the year in 2016 & 2017. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
Her fans and supporters helped launch her first three CDs through crowdfunding on Kickstarter, raising nearly $48,000 combined. For this, her fifth studio album, she stayed the more traditional route, continuing with her label, Shanachie Entertainment. She joins other jazz greats who call Shanachie home, like David Benoit, Vincent Ingala, Najee, Euge Groove, and Rick Braun. Webster and Slattery are joined by regulars Mike Demicco, Chris Harris, and Tommy DePaolo on guitar, bassist Fred Doumbe, Isaac Civitello on drums, and saxophonist Ken Gioffre. Special guests include drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Nathan East, and Luis Conte on percussion.
With her band of heavy hitters behind her, Webster comes out swinging (pun intended), with the first four tracks being the strongest of the eleven. The first single off of the album, Feels Like Forever, peaked at #14 on Billboard. Equally chart-worthy are Close to You (no, not The Carpenters’ song), the biting Running Around, and the uplifting One Step Forward: “Steady climbing / Going to find my way / Because there is no denying / Gotta seize the day.” A Woman Like Me debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart and #1 on iTunes. The CD is currently rated 4.9 out of 5 stars on Amazon.
I see A Woman Like Me as Webster’s coming of age album. In comparing her current CD cover to the cover shots from her previous titles, she looks older and more confident. Her CDs have turned into a kind of unintentional time lapse photography. Again, from her press release: “I’ve been through a lot of changes in my personal life. I joke and say that I had to finally become an adult when I turned 30.” Her song Perspective perhaps best expresses this: “I have found a chance for me to get to know myself / Beautiful / Is the person that I am above all else / All because I’m changing my perspective.”
The album closes out just as strong as it started with a cover of the classic Somewhere Over the Rainbow, an audience favorite during Webster’s live performances dating back to 2009. Her rendition is enough to melt the Tin Man’s heart. “If a song doesn’t make me smile, think, or cry,” she said in her press release, “I don’t really care to hear it. I am not interested in hearing about the other night in the club. I want to continue to keep people in touch with the music, emotionally.”
“With her band of heavy hitters behind her, Webster comes out swinging (pun intended)…“
Like other artists, all of Webster’s scheduled live performances got postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak, so starting mid-last month, she and Slattery have been showcasing weekly, live, hour-long performances for fans via Facebook. Unapologetically, I do not do Facebook, and I admit I am very old school when it comes to music and concerts, so the whole Facebook concerts thing was uncharted territory for me. It was strange to this viewer to watch artists, as if on cue, immediately reach for their smartphones for comments, questions, and requests at the end of each song. The audio is Wi-Fi not hi-fi, when it is not dropping out that is. Even with the video setting maxed out at 720p (“HD”), the quality looks like a paint by numbers picture by someone incapable of staying within the lines. However, Webster has invested in a better camera, so the quality should improve going forward. Expecting but not hearing deserving applause after each song was slightly jarring, like a funny TV sitcom without an audience laughing. You will hear a lot of inconsequential talk between songs, interspersed with some questionable jokes, taco eating, and no pressure appeals to donate if you wish (yes, I made a donation to Webster’s PayPal: firstname.lastname@example.org).
That said, it is very special to see Webster and Slattery performing as a duo. Slattery is often a figure in black, sometimes donning dark sunglasses, perched in front of his Yamaha Montage keyboard, while Webster is nicely attired, mid-riff exposed, and barefoot. Slattery’s dog, Sheba, even made some impromptu cameos. The other major plus to these kinds of performances is it allows artists to let their hair down (or hair extensions, as the case may be) and perform little musical gems you might not have heard from them before. In Webster’s case, killer covers like Besame Mucho (sung in Spanish), Fleetwood Mac’s Song Bird, Chaka Kahn’s Ain’t Nobody, Aretha Franklin’s Until You Come Back to Me, Bill Withers’ Lean on Me, the latter having become a coronavirus anthem of sorts.
Since the performances are live and unscripted, you never know what is going to happen. At the end of her second concert, before shutting the camera off, Webster ordered pizzas using her personal cell phone and came dangerously close to giving out her number to her entire Facebook audience, stopping herself after the first three digits. Since I was taking notes for my article, I already had pen and paper at the ready. I am sure she would have taken my call. Ahem.
These kinds of events also prove equally therapeutic for the artists. As Webster said toward the end of her second streaming gig, “I love this. Honestly, everyone who is watching right now, doing this, being able to see your comments, it’s obviously not as good as doing a live show, but it has made me feel the closest thing to normal since all of this happened.” After five studio recordings it is time for Webster to consider a live concert CD with her full band, whenever live concerts are allowed to resume. Her live performances are far too good to be relegated to Facebook.
At the end of last year, I had the great thrill of meeting Webster and Slattery. If fame and fortune go straight to one’s head, Webster never got the memo. A lot of people who find fame end up with an ego the size of your grandfather’s Buick, yet she struck me just as her music does…beautiful, approachable, and relatable. She and Slattery made some time in between preparing for their Facebook concerts to address my questions:
PS: What drew you to jazz?
LW: My influences include jazz singers, pop artists, classical musicians, and classic rock bands. Keith grew up playing classical and loves jazz and R&B, as well. While I wouldn’t call our music jazz, I think that our music reflects the very many influences we have had over the years.
PS: What goes into creating a hit song?
LW: I think witty and unique lyrics have a lot to do with song success. We have never had any formula, per se, to writing. A song like “Fool Me Once”, that was our first single to make it to #1, came of a simple idea on the Wurlitzer and a creative lyric. I think people are drawn to things that sound new and different, while also maintaining a sound.
PS: You picked a very difficult career that became a lot harder thanks to the coronavirus. What keeps you going?
LW: The ability to stream these live performances has been a Godsend. It helps me feel connected to all the people that we don’t get to see at shows anymore.
PS: How was it doing your first “virtual concert”?
LW: It was great. Getting to hear from all sorts of people via the comment section was a lot of fun! It lifted me out of my seclusion depression for sure.
PS: Keith, was working on this record bitter sweet for you or was it just like any other?
KS: It was not bittersweet at all! Lindsey and I continued doing what we do best together, which is create music. If anything, it was a healing experience.
PS: Keith, can you share any tidbits about your first solo record?
KS: My album is a mixture of classical and jazz fusion. It features some amazing musicians, like Vinnie Caliouta, Nathan East, Luis Conte, Mike DeMicco, and more. We have a lot of downtime now and it is perfect for being able to focus on it. It will hopefully be released in September!
I can just picture Webster in LA’s United Recording studio with the lights down low, clutching her headphones as she sings, and slowly grooving. You will find yourself doing the same as you listen. If Lindsey Webster is not yet a household name, this latest release should just about do it. You could pick any one of her CDs to play on your Musica and not go wrong, but I would strongly suggest starting with A Woman Like Me. You will be glad you did, and you will thoroughly enjoy discovering why Webster is the woman she is.
Trivia (supplied by Webster): Before Webster and Slattery met in 2009, she was studying Cell & Molecular Biology in college, thinking her career would be in the medical and research field.
3. Jake Shimabukuro: Trio; Music Theories Recordings MTR 76012
Let us address the elephant in the room. The ukulele has long been considered by some as the offspring of guitar inbreeding, with no place in “serious” music. The mere mention of the diminutive instrument conjures up visions of Tiny Tim making a spectacle of himself. The poor little ukulele must suffer from guitar envy. After all, when it comes to stringed instruments, size matters, right?
Yet the ukulele seems to have come into its own and has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Without even being conscious of it, there is a very good chance you have heard it in TV commercials (Otezla, the psoriatic arthritis drug, for one). Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole’s classic take on Somewhere Over the Rainbow has been featured in commercials for Axe and Rice Krispies, in movies such as K-PAX and 50 First Dates, and TV shows like ER and Lost. Mainstream artists are integrating the instrument into their pop songs. George Harrison and Tom Petty played the ukulele, as does Paul McCartney and Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes. Amanda Palmer released a mostly-ukulele record. And the uke featured prominently in Train’s hit Hey, Soul Sister and Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours.
Long before this revival, ukulele extraordinaire Jake Shimabukuro was flying under most people’s radar, at least until a YouTube video of him covering George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps went viral. The Hawaiian-born Shimabukuro has been described as the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele. He has collaborated with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Yo-Yo Ma, Cyndi Lauper, and Bela Fleck, and made appearances on Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, and The Today Show.
I was intrigued to say the least and had to see for myself if all the hype was true. Earlier this year I trekked all the way up to Beverly, MA on the North Shore to see Shimabukuro perform live at the historic Cabot Cinema, celebrating its 100th year in operation. This was well before the pandemic shut down all concert venues. Shimabukuro opened his set with an incredible cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the song that catapulted him into the spotlight. He gradually integrated the other members of his trio, Dave Preston on guitar and Jackson Waldhoff on electric bass (filling in for Nolan Verner), as if carefully adding the ingredients to make a decadent dessert. The music was primarily instrumental and was all over the place, and I mean that in a good way…originals, compositions based on traditional Hawaiian and Japanese songs, and rock covers, too. Shimabukuro did a cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. I will pause while you giggle…Pink Floyd via ukulele? Trust me, he nailed it, as he did with his tender treatment of The Beatles Elenore Rigby. He closed his show with a playful audience sing-a-long to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. I think my favorite was not a cover song at all, or a Shimabukuro-penned song, but the lovely instrumental Summer Rain, composed by Shimabukuro’s guitarist.
Shimabukuro’s enthusiasm and passion lit up the stage as if he was trying to compete with the spotlights. We do not just listen to music to hear it, we listen to music to feel it, and Shimabukuro filled the Cabot with so much positive energy they could have shut the power off and saved on the electric bill. I hesitate to call the evening magical because that word has become such a cliché, but I cannot think of a more accurate description. Call me crazy, but I think the constant pain from my sciatica temporarily vanished during his performance.
Like all musical innovators, Shimabukuro pushes the limits of his instrument. He uses pedal effects with his ukulele that heretofore had been reserved the for electric guitar. He bangs on it for percussive effects. He somehow manages to convincingly transform it into a thirteen-string Japanese Harp when he plays his Japanese-inspired songs. Dare I say it, Shimabukuro has brought new respect to the ukulele and rightfully earned himself a dedicated and loyal following in the process. I count myself as one of the converts.
Shimabukuro does another innovative thing: He sells professional digital recordings of his live concerts on his website made by his sound technician. You can buy a recording of the very concert you attended just 72 hours earlier. How cool is that for a souvenir?
Before his Queen encore, Shimabukuro humbly thanked the Cinema staff by name along with all the volunteers and security. Students part of a “ukulele orchestra” from Cutler Elementary School were in the balcony and his message to them specifically was to pursue whatever their passion was, study hard, and stay away from drugs. He had met with all of them before the show to give them some lessons. He set up his own charity to help students in Hawaii. What a rare and inspiring role model for kids and anyone wanting to learn music. I bought a ukulele about three years ago with the intention of taking lessons, but I did not have the spare time to give it the dedication it required. I ended up selling it. Now I feel guilty.
“The Hawaiian-born Shimabukuro has been described as the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele.“
Several of the songs I mentioned can be found on Shimabukuro’s wonderful new album Trio, produced by the legendary Alan Parsons, who engineered records for Pink Floyd and The Beatles in addition to many recordings by his own successful group, The Alan Parsons Project. Trio is rated 5 out 5 of stars on Amazon.
In the end, did he live up the hype? You bet your sweet bippy. Make no mistake, this not Don Ho on acid. Throw away whatever preconceived notions you might have about ukulele music. From twelve rows away I sat in amazement as I watched Shimabukuro’s fingers fly across the strings with lightning speed. Four strings, no waiting. I felt privileged to be able to meet him after his show and personally thank him for such an amazing, uplifting performance.
I took the liberty of emailing Shimabukuro’s PR agency, Jensen Communications, to toss a few quick questions in his direction:
PS: Why did you decide to take up the ukulele as opposed to some other instrument?
JS: My mom played the ukulele and started teaching me basic chords and songs when I was four years old.
PS: What is the most challenging aspect of playing the ukulele?
JS: Playing the ukulele doesn’t “feel” challenging. It’s just fun. Pure joy!
PS: Is it difficult to arrange an existing pop or rock song for the ukulele?
JS: Arranging songs can be very simple, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Of course, you can always add more complexity, but usually a pop song in its most basic form isn’t very difficult. A lot of familiar tunes don’t require more than 2 or 3 chords.
PS: How do you determine whether you will perform a song solo or with other musicians?
JS: I always try to arrange songs as if I’m going to perform them solo. That way I’ll have a better understanding of the song as a whole. Then, when an opportunity to play the song with someone else comes up, I can always trim away and simplify what I’m doing to make room for the other instrument.
Returning to the Jimi Hendrix analogy, Shimabukuro did not play his ukulele with his teeth or set it on fire at the end of his performance, but I got the distinct feeling I was experiencing greatness right before my very eyes and ears. If the virus retreats long enough for you to see one concert this year, make it Jake Shimabukuro. You can also catch him live from Hawaii on his Facebook page. Either way, savor his Trio CD on your Musica hi-fi system right now.
Trivia (supplied by Shimabukuro): Jake Shimabukuro’s childhood hero was Bruce Lee.
4. Bandits on the Run: Live at the Power Station; Self-released
Bandits on the Run are my newest favorite band. In fact, I am unilaterally anointing myself “the fourth Bandit”, and in the true tradition of the Bandits, assigning myself an alias. Henceforth, I shall be known as Johnny Smallpox. Now that I have dispensed with the formalities, this cohesive, Manhattan-based trio earned their chops deep in the bowels of New York City’s Underground (read: subway), playing to the swiftly moving masses between the din of trains cycling in and out. Not exactly tumbleweeds and the wild west, but a very challenging environment nonetheless. Their music is difficult to roundup, but I would describe it as a young, acoustic, folks-y/country/Indie sound, with a buckshot of retro.
The three outlaws that comprise this musical posse are Sydney Torin Shepherd (cello, glockenspiel), Adrian Blake Enscoe (guitar, suitcase drum, piano), and Regina Strayhorn (melodica, xylophone, tambourine, percussion, glockenspiel, and accordion). Shepherd and Strayhorn began writing songs together in college, while Shepherd met Enscoe by chance, where else, in the subway. All three have been playing instruments for years, though Strayhorn only picked up the accordion 18 months ago. Having been coerced by my father to take accordion lessons for a year as a teenager, something I am still in psychotherapy for, I can personally attest to the difficulty in taming this beast with bellows.
The Bandit’s first and only (so far) full-length album is 2017’s The Criminal Record, launched by a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $16,000. I reckon many a new group would give their left spur to raise half that amount. I like the tracks Paris and Loser, but by far, my favorite song from the album is Blue Heaven. It is a catchy tune about love that will linger on your lips like a Muleskinner long after the first listen: “Yesterday I lost someone I love / And this keeps happenin’ to everyone I know / Losin’ your heart / The wreckage of the road.” The group’s sumptuous three-part harmony, combined with their clever lyrics, are a gold rush for the ears.
Love has been the inspiration behind many a great song, and it is a common theme that runs through a lot of Bandits tunes. I blame it on their youth. Unfortunately, my hormones stopped raging against the machine decades ago. In March, coinciding with their six-year anniversary, the Bandits celebrated the release of their new single, Love in the Underground. The title sounds deliciously seedy, but it is actually a very sweet love song concerning Shepherd and Enscoe, the Bonnie and Clyde of the group: “I don’t know how / What a strange and sudden sound / We’re not strangers now / Finally found love in the underground.” The trio actually recorded two versions of the song, the second being more forlorn. The Bandits will tell you the song contains a broader meaning…an expression of their collective love for New York and its people.
Although only an EP, I’m recommending Live at the Power Station which the group feels best represents their sound in the underground. For this recording, the group slipped into the Power Station’s iconic Studio A literally under the cover of darkness. That is the very same NYC studio used by Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen. All four tracks, including an Amy Winehouse cover, are great, but Sweet Thing and Potted Plant really shine like a rhinestone cowboy.
The Bandits might challenge me to pistols at dawn for saying this, but some of their best musical heists are not on CD or digital download at all. Head on over to YouTube (after you finish this article, of course) and there you shall rustle up unexpected and arresting “stolen” (as the Bandits would say) versions of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean, Etta James’ At Last, Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet, and The Beatles’ In My Life, to name a few. Welcome to flavor country. The Bandits make each cover their own whilst paying their respects to the original- not an easy accomplishment. A couple of traits you will find in just about every Bandits video…miles of beautiful smiles and endless enthusiasm, making the band as contagious as, well, a certain virus. My personal request…I would love to hear these scalawags apply their unlawful talents to The Chordettes’ Mr. Sandman (in return for my suggestion, I will expect an unpaid cameo appearance in the music video).
“The group’s sumptuous three-part harmony, combined with their original lyrics, are a gold rush for the ears.“
In March, the Bandits released their latest entry to NPR Music’s Tiny Desk contest (they had one of the top entries in last year’s competition), We Battle Giants, a song written for Shepherd’s Birthday last year. To further bolster their submission, they kicked things up a notch by inviting New York’s Urban Choir Project to sing in the video. You can judge the results for yourself, but I think they have a winner. Coincidentally, “Giants” is a fitting song for what we all have been going through with the pandemic over the last few months. As the band wrote on their Facebook page: “…the song has taken on a far greater meaning than we could have ever imagined. It’s a reminder of our collective desire to make the world better, an acknowledgement that there are forces among us that will not only take a whole village, but a whole world, to fight. We hope this song urges you to join forces with your loved ones to battle the giants big and small — and even microscopic — that we all face today. And it’s our sincerest wish that when you watch this video, (filmed before social distancing was a household name,) that you feel empowered. You are not alone, Times are hard. There’s a lot that needs to change. Stay hopeful. We battle giants together.”
When the group’s March road trip was cancelled (including a gig at the prestigious Kennedy Center) due to the coronavirus, the trio took advantage of the down time to write new material and practice new covers. They were one of the first bands to pioneer streaming free live performances via social media. The Bandits have been putting on a series of hour-long, live performances (“musical stickups”, they would say) via Facebook and Instagram from such diverse locales as an Airbnb cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains (back when you could still book Airbnb), outside on Shepherd’s Mother’s deck, and inside a groovy Dodge conversion van. Playing a mix of fan favorites, covers (check out their super version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams), new songs, and a select few requests, I guess you could call it cyber busking or a virtual Bandits-palooza. For those musicians’ part of the gig economy, performing live is their bread and butter, so when that primary revenue stream dried up due to the virus, it created a serious financial strain. If you are in a position to do so, consider becoming a financial first responder to your favorite band(s) during this difficult time by repeatedly streaming their songs from a music service, buying their “merch” (the Bandits bandanas are quite fashionable and serve a purpose), or contributing to a relief fund (a virtual tip jar if you will) as I did with this one for the Bandits.
Eager to learn more about my new musical discovery, I sent some written questions to the Bandits’ alter egos via Pony Express:
PS: Is a van the strangest place the Bandits ever played?
Bonanza Jellyfish: We’re pretty acclimated to playing strange locations, in fact we sorta prefer it 😉 We’ve played in elevators, barns, motorcycle garages, rooftops in the south of France, on a boat, on a gondola landing platform at 59th St., on a train, on a bus in London, on the boardwalk at Coney Island, in front of a police station, and of course any public transportation platforms and/or streets in any city we encounter :).
PS: How is it determined who takes the lead vocal on a song?
Clarissa: Well, we are a band of 3 songwriters, and our general rule of thumb is that the main writer of the song sings the lead vocal. So, the main writer, or “captain” will sort of take the reins on a song, but we all contribute to each other’s writing processes and help to add and edit and arrange things.
PS: What’s the biggest haul the Bandits ever made from busking?
Roy Dodger: People don’t only give us money, sometimes we get showered with gifts! One night while busking on the subway platform we made at least $200, and people gave us a bottle of wine, a case of beer, and some costume jewelry! We had quite a lil’ party afterwards that night. We’ve also been gifted marijuana from a man we came to know as “the weed fairy” — but we won’t tell you what we did with it ;).
PS: What’s the strangest encounter the band had while performing in the subway?
Bonanza Jellyfish: One evening we were playing on the platform of the G train at Metropolitan Ave, and a tall, dark and handsome stranger approached us and asked us if he could play along. He was holding a recorder. Like those little plastic ones you play Hot Cross Buns on in elementary school. Obviously, we said yes. We began playing and he joined in with a beautiful melody. As he was playing, he reached into his coat and pulled out ANOTHER recorder and began playing them at the same time, harmonizing with himself. THEN he pulled out a THIRD recorder and was playing ALL THREE at the SAME TIME harmonizing three different melody lines. It was so beautiful. We made friends with him after that. His name is Martin. He’s great.
PS: Can you tell me a bit about Swept Away?
Roy Dodger: Heck Yeah. Swept Away is this nifty little project that I’m attached to that’s a stage adaptation of the songs of the Avett Brothers. It’s not about them, per se (it takes place on a stranded whaling ship in the 1880s) but John Logan’s script beautifully ties their music in using these epic themes of life, passion, brotherhood, and sacrifice that pervade all of the Avetts’ tunes. Before the coronavirus struck, the show was slated to premier this summer at Berkeley Rep in a production directed by Michael Mayer (of Spring Awakening). Needless to say, it’s been pushed back for now but we’re still all stoked about it. The Avetts are personal heroes of ours since their journey as a band that pulled itself up by its own bootstraps is one that we humble bandits really identify with. (If you want a great recap of their history, go watch May It Last, the documentary Judd Apatow made about them a few years back).
Occasionally, the Bandits stray a tad off the wagon trail, such as their Tiger King composition (“Let me know your will / I’m happy to kill”), inspired by the Netflix docuseries of the same name, or when they use a mini bullhorn as a microphone. Then again, blazing your own trail is precisely how you make your mark, not by following the easier, well worm path made by others.
Hopefully, when Bandits on the Run finally get out of Dodge (the van, not the city), they will perform a musical stick up or two here in our great Commonwealth. When they do, they are welcome to hide out at my homestead. Take it from me, Johnny Smallpox- play their CDs on your Musica and party like it is 1899. Giddyup!
Trivia (supplied by the Bandits): Which Bandit speaks Russian? Which Bandit is a champion four leaf clover discoverer? Which Bandit is afraid of mushrooms? Roy Dodger (Adrian) speaks Russian; Bonanza Jellyfish (Sydney) is the clover champion; and Clarissa (Regina) has Mycophobia.
5. Zazi: Siren Song; Red Line Music 22 242405
In early March (well before virus travel restrictions were put in place) I was in the Netherlands for meetings with our logistics partner and to review some of their procedures. As I stood alone in the hotel lobby one cold morning waiting for my taxi, listening to a local music station, I heard an unfamiliar but most appealing song come over the Bosch ceiling speakers. I quickly whipped out my smartphone and launched my Shazam app. I have extolled the virtues of this amazing free app before. Within seconds, Shazam identified the song as Turn Me On and the group as Zazi, which meant nothing to me, but Zazi! Went the strings of my heart. As soon as I had some free time at the end of the day, I Googled them and checked them out on YouTube. I was captivated by their vocal prowess, impossible supermodel looks, and diverse mix of instruments all of which they play themselves: piano, ukulele, banjo, guitar, accordion, omnicord, percussion, bass, mandolin, and cello. Whew! With its plaintive wail, I always considered the cello to be the most somber of musical instruments, but if the cello was indeed born with severe, chronic depression, Zazi is its Prozac.
If Bandits on the Run as a group had a doppelgänger it would have to be Zazi. Okay, Zazi hails from Amsterdam, not New York, and they are three girls instead of two girls and a guy, but cut me some slack. I could easily imagine the Bandits “stealing” Zazi’s Afraid, Pretty Fly, or Red Yellow Blue (I will expect a cameo in one of those videos as well).
Sabien Bosselaar, Margriet Planting, and Dafne Holtland formed Zazi in 2009 and are best known in Holland, but have performed in the USA and Europe. They sing in at least five different languages including English. Turn Me On from their Siren Song CD was a minor hit and the easy, breezy video is about as much fun as three beautiful young women can have without doing something illegal. Their CDs are few and far between, are not cheap, and are not easily found in the USA. I bought mine on eBay from a seller in the Netherlands and paid more for the shipping than the CD cost, but it was well worth it.
Without a doubt, Siren Song is a feel-good kind of CD that will immediately put you in a good space. Think of it as Febreze for the ears. If some of the songs do not have you up on your feet you should probably check your pulse. I am sure the ladies had a lot of fun creating this recording and that sensation rubs off with every listen. On the face of it, Turn Me On is a song about listening to songs from a radio, but just underneath, it is flirtatiously fun: “I can whistle, I can sing for you / I can listen, listen to / Every night until the morning dawn / You just have to turn, turn me on.” Basically, Turn Me On is a big, wet, musical lipstick kiss from Zazi. All You Need and Black Irish are also fine tunes. One unexpected surprise is Zazi’s cover of Harry Chapin’s classic Cat’s in the Cradle, though it is sung in their native language. Even so, not all is lost in translation. Tour De France is sung entirely in French but is as satisfying as a fresh baguette and a glass of chilled white wine, as is Porque Te Vas sung in Spanish. But fret not. Music is a universal language which your Como Audio Musica speaks fluently.
“Without a doubt, Siren Song is a feel-good kind of CD that will immediately put you in a good space.“
I emailed Zazi a few questions by way of their press contact and Margriet Planting graciously responded on behalf of the group (they have not been together due to social distancing):
PS: How did the three of you meet and form the group?
MP: Sabien and Dafne were in the same class, so they knew each other from school (age 12-13). When [I] lived in a fairy tale-like house in the woods, one day Victor (a mutual friend) introduced us to each other after he fell in love with [me]. A few years later when [we] were all in Paris at the same time, we sang a medieval French drinking song on the stairs of the Sacre Coeur. That was an epic moment in time, which would to be continued in 2009, when we won a contest for French Music. This was the official start of our career …
PS: From where did the band’s name, “Zazi”, come from?
MP: Zazí comes from ‘Zazie dans le Metro’. We saw the name on a poster (it’s a French Film inspired on the book). It’s actually a girl’s name, but apparently in South-Korea it means penis (LOL), so we had a big hit over there with our song ‘Turn Me On’ – You’ll understand why 😉
PS: How would you describe your music?
MP: Our Music is best described as multi-instrumentalist Pop-Folk.
PS: How old are each of you?
MP: Isn’t this a question you should never ask ladies…? We were born in 1982, 1987 and 1988… Now you may guess 😉
PS: English is not your native language. Is it more difficult to master a song in English?
MP: The three of us all happen to be blessed with good learning skills. Good education makes it quite easy for us “Dutchies” to sing in English. For example, German and French are also taught very well at school. Spanish or Norwegian are a little more difficult, but still very fun to sing in! It makes our repertoire for sure very unique and Pan-European.
PS: Are you working on any new Zazi music for this year?
MP: Unfortunately, not at this moment… We do still perform at private events such as weddings and business gatherings and conferences, and for sure we hope after this Corona epidemic, we will be able to perform again.
PS: Do you think you will perform somewhere in the USA later this year?
Again, not this year for sure… But to be honest, touring in the USA was one of our absolute highlights. We would love to come back to the West-Coast and play, for example, at the Joshua Tree Music Festival again…
It amazes me to think if I had not been in that precise place at that precise time, I would never have discovered this great girl group. If you are unable to source their Siren Song CD, you can listen to Zazi on your Musica via Spotify. They are very easy on the ears and even easier on the eyes.
This concludes Part One of Tech Rap Recommended CDs. Part Two brings you five more excellent titles and will get posted soon, so stay tuned!
Links to purchase CDs:
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016. If you have a comment or would like to suggest a topic for a future Tech Rap, Peter can be reached directly at email@example.com