Emilia Dahlin: God Machine

All that jazz

Emilia Dahlin delivers on her potential with God Machine

With natural charisma that fills up any room she’s in, Emilia Dahlin hardly has to take chances. She could stand up on stage, her five-foot frame half hidden by a big acoustic guitar, and sing just about anything, daring the audience not to fall in love with her. Instead, she’s assembled a crack band, delved into creative jazz phrasings, and nearly completely thrown off an early reputation as your standard girl-power singer/songwriter.

It’s taken a fair bit of work, of course. Dahlin has never shied from gathering a fanbase, promoting herself and using the folk infrastructure to get her music in front of people whose opinions other people take note of. From showcasing for college booking agents to making the finals of the NEMO and Telluride Music Festival songwriting competitions, winning the Best Music Poll in surprise fashion in 2005 or as the favorite this year, Dahlin has used what’s out there to build the impressive resume of a professional musician [this review originally ran in June 2006].

In 2004, she released Emilia, a reintroduction of sorts to the Portland scene, building on songs first worked out on her Stealing Glimpses EP. There was some plus songwriting, and touches of the aggression and self-confidence she exuded in person, but now, with her sophomore full-length, it appears Dahlin is ready to fulfill her ample potential. In these days of independent releases, we often hear what would have been demos as debuts and have the opportunity to watch artists evolve on successive albums. When a performer works as hard is Dahlin, and is willing to let other musicians contribute, it’s worth watching.

On her new album, God Machine, Dahlin has fully embraced the jazzy sound she introduced with “No End” last album. Right out of the gate, with the infectious and tantalizing “Candy,” Dahlin meshes her capable band, which seems to want to push her into interesting arrangements and upbeat flourishes. “Candy” opens with Dahlin on a freakin’ accordion, for cripe’s sake. But she’s still a songwriter at heart, and “Candy” also has her talent for turning a phrase on display. How’s this for an opening couplet? “Candy was the sweetest girl, as sweet as sweet could be/ And all the boys with sweet tooths wound up with cavities.” It’s delivered, too, with a burlesque affect, dripping with sass. It threatens to get a little too cute, but Dahlin senses that and cuts it off at 2:12.

That leaves Adam Frederick to open the next tune, “Home to Grey,” with an urgent break on his standup bass, which you’ll have a hard time ignoring throughout the disc. Here Dahlin puts on her best charm, using her true voice, which doesn’t have a hint of husk or breathiness, and delivering a fisherman’s song, of leaving home on the ocean to make a fortune and missing home. Later, in “Sad Affair,” we get a tale of an illegal immigrant, which is certainly politically poignant, and Dahlin does her best Nelly Furtado in trying to sell it and mostly succeeding. Drummer Seth Kearns trades in his kit here for the sabar and kashini (think congas), and Dahlin’s flamenco turn on her acoustic guitar completes the effect.

This song particularly, but the album as a whole, is mic’ed exceedingly well by recording engineer Jim Begley, whose work at the Studio and on the Big Easy soundboard is always above average. There’s virtually no feeling of a room, but neither does the disc sound manufactured. Every sound is crisp and well placed.

The album’s title track starts with a nice Begley touch, a hollowed out guitar and vocals, like listening to a transistor radio, lending the creepy, historic vibe the song requires. Dahlin leads with the old children’s rhyme, “Trot, Trot to Boston,” then segues into a Cab Calloway tale of a religious nut who thought he’d found God in industry. But Dahlin wags her finger at him, “oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” super sexy, with multiplied vocals tracks going higher and higher in the register. Here, too, newly found guitarist Maxwell Cantlin is excellent with his work on the electric guitar, doing a nice Pat Metheny impersonation at times.

The resulting album as a whole establishes Dahlin as a genuine chanteuse, less annoying than Diana Krall and not nearly as coy as Nora Jones. She’s got the female empowerment thing going on, clearly, but she doesn’t try to cram it down your throat and you get the impression she’s having a great deal of fun. Like her live shows, you’ll be won over right out of the box.

In the second half of the disc, she actually scats her way through “Loneliness Is …” Seriously. When was the last time you heard scat on a local album? It’s been years for me. It’s a ballsy choice, but it’s a chance that Dahlin likely took without a second thought, and I dare you not to love it.

Photo credit: Featured imaged by Sam Cousins.

Kino Proby: Live at the Big Easy

Let’s get Russian

A live album for a dead rock singer from Kino Proby

The quick back-story on Kino Proby: Three Mainers take a liking to the Russian band Kino, and its legendary lead singer Viktor Tsoi, who died in a car wreck in 1990 after becoming maybe the single most famous Russian rock star (which isn’t saying a whole lot, admittedly, but the guy could definitely rock out and dying early generally helps your rock fame). They put together a tribute band (Kino Proby is Russian for something like “a sampling of Kino,” and Kino, itself, means “film/movies/cinema”) and not only acquired a considerable following playing gigs in the Old Port, but eventually even played in Tsoi’s hometown of St. Petersburg.

Now, they’re scattered about and only get together for a show or two each year. This Friday [January, 2011] they play the Port City Music Hall, in fact, and at the same time release an album called Live at the Big Easy.

Yes, they sing all of their songs in Russian. It’s the first rock/indie rock record released in Portland sung all in a foreign language that I can remember since Jose Ayerve’s Cinco Pesos, released in 2002. Perhaps more impressive, a solid portion of the crowd on the live disc can be heard to sing along in Russian.

And the songs do lend themselves to singalongs. While there may be a perception (perhaps lent by the stateside success of Gorky Park and their hair metal hit “Bang”) that Russian rock is mostly ’80s glam, Kino Proby do great justice to Tsoi’s talents as a songwriter, on the live album churning out some fun pop rock. “Cuckoo” (and please keep in mind that I’m translating Russian titles using my college Russian minor and a dictionary) wouldn’t be out of place in a Phantom Buffalo set, opening with a set of “la-la-la” and featuring a languid downtempo chorus. “Trolley Bus” is classic white-man’s reggae, more Clash than Police, with a throaty and insistent chorus. “Blood Type,” the title song from Kino’s 1988 album, the first to gain international traction, features an homage to Duran Duran’s guitar tone, like, say, what Andy Taylor was rocking on Seven and the Ragged Tiger.

“A Star Called the Sun” gets the best crowd reaction, with a noticeable perk in attention when Jarlath McGuckin (Viktor I) gets to the Russian word for “sun,” “solntsa.” Moving from an opening verse with just bare guitar chords and a bit of high hat, the song fills out into a pop jam, like a quickened waltz with a catchy repeating riff. And when they finish, they transition smoothly into “Cuckoo,” as they do a number of times during the set, borrowing some jam band live tendencies, as they do again when they stretch their encore out past 12 minutes.

Considering they’ve only got three pieces going, that’s tough work. Really, they do the three-piece thing at least as well locally as Loverless, whom they thank during one song break, Paranoid Social Club, or Sidecar Radio. Adam Kurtz (Viktor II), who’s shown before he can shred with imaginary bands, does yeoman’s work holding the melodies together, while Jess Greer (Viktor III – apparently the rest of Kino’s band members don’t do much for Kino Proby – it’s all about Viktor) keeps them tight and focused. 

In fact, you get quite familiar with Greer’s drums and McGuckin’s bass as the mix on the album is pretty heavy on the rhythm section. It sounds as though the recording is taken from the crowd and not through the mixing board, so the vocals can be muted and hard to catch at times. And, yes, I understand that none of you will be able to understand the lyrics. Plus, the crowd can be a bit much — not quite big enough sounding to be impressive, just enough over-exuberant at times to make you wonder if there’s a heavy concentration of girlfriends and school buddies.

Most of the time, though, the performance is good enough to get you past any sonic foibles. “Aluminum Cucumbers” (it’s hard to say that translation is solid – I may be missing a word in my dictionary) has a great cowpunk vibe, old-time rock like Chuck Berry, and as sunshiney as anything the Leftovers do. “Me and You” is vampy and dark, with swaggering strut in the bassline, completed by the guitar, something like the clipped keyboard sounds you heard so much of in the ’80s. “Close the Door Behind Me, I’m Leaving” opens with huge guitar riffage, upbeat and forceful without getting metal, and moves into a raging jam that still manages to convey a world-weariness.

Maybe the worst thing about this album is that it makes me feel like a dink for not being way more into this band when they were playing out more regularly five years ago or so [now 13 years ago or so; I still feel this way]. Their schtick never gets old during a long set, they execute the songs very well, and the band they’re paying tribute to still has something to offer the contemporary listener.

Overall, as they say in Russian, it’s ocheen horosho.