Labor Day Records: Beautiful Locals

Just Beautiful

For fans of the Locals, here’s a disc just for you

*This dates to 2005. I’m going to leave it mostly as-is.

Though its membership seems to be increasing, the group of people who really know local music — who have it in their regular rotation, in their car, and can talk knowledgeably about it — is fairly small. Perhaps regular readers of “The Beat Report” [my column in the Portland Phoenix at the time] make up a large portion of that group. So here’s a test (answers appear in “Sibilance,” linked off the music page [this refers to print – we didn’t bother to change it on the web page]) that might serve as an initiation requirement:

1. Name the original five members of Rustic Overtones.

2. What was Lincolnville’s name before it was Lincolnville?

3. Which former King Memphis member now plays in Harpswell Sound?

4. What text appeared on Twisted Roots T-shirts?

5. Name all the Spencer Albee-fronted bands.

6. What was Munjoy Hill Society’s original name?

7. What band contains members of former Portland bands Goud’s Thumb, Twitchboy, Tripe, and Ku-Da-Tah?

8. Which Horror member was once a member of the hip-hop group kNOw Complex?

9. Which former Silos frontman died in an accident in 1993?

10. Name three bands with whom Neil Collins has played.

Okay, how’d you do? Did you pass? Anything above 60 percent and I’d be pretty impressed, even if #4 is a gimme. If you even thought hard about the answers, though, you’re going to be thrilled with a project, to be released March 1, that’s been organized by Mark Curdo, honcho of the brand-new Labor Day Records and a guy who’s been involved in Portland music since he worked as a DJ at the St. Joseph’s radio station WSJB in the mid-1990s.

Beautiful LocalsRiffing off the Goud’s Thumb song title “Beautiful Local,” Curdo has createdBeautiful Locals, an album consisting exclusively of Portland bands covering songs by other Portland bands, both past and current. It’s inclusive, diverse, interesting, and, most importantly, makes for a great listen.

If you haven’t heard the back story yet, I’ll give you the capsule review. After some time in the music industry proper, and New Jersey (ick), Curdo returned to the Portland scene looking to do more than just manage bands, as he had done with bands like Rotors to Rust and Rocktopus. He wanted to work with lots of bands, so it made the most sense to start his own label.

But, he says, “I didn’t sit there and say, ‘I’m going to start blah, blah records.’ I was looking for a more honest way for me to start this venture.” Remember, he wanted to work with lots of bands.

“I’m a big fan of covers,” he says. “But I don’t like compilations. Most are crap. The ones that work are those with a very odd pairing of things. A soundtrack to a Wes Andersen movie or something. I thought that I could do something of a compilation of Portland bands, but I didn’t want them to just put out their songs. Anybody can do that.

“I just thought about these bands getting together and somehow bringing together what’s happened over the past 15 years specifically — which I think is where it’s been strongest — and really trying to tie it together, which I don’t think anybody’s really been able to do. So I thought, ‘How about Portland covering Portland?’ ”

Not surprisingly, “The ideas of who would do what started racing through my head and I thought this could be really cool.”

Curdo started out with a list of about 60 bands he saw as possibilities and then started narrowing the project down using the following criteria: “classic artists balanced with new stuff, bands that are just breaking through. To get young kids who are listening to ’CYY to find out about, say, Twisted Roots or Goud’s Thumb, and, vice versa, to get people who used to go to the State Theatre but don’t know about the Press or Eldemur Krimm. I like turning people on to music and this is a way to do that.”

Then it was just a matter of making tough decisions about whom he would approach and whom he wouldn’t. “That was the toughest part,” he says. “It wasn’t the biggest bands. Sometimes, it was just some bands I knew better. Some bands I felt had to be a part of it; it couldn’t be complete without them. And I wanted to take some chances with bands who’ve been working their asses off and deserved a shot with something cool.”

The end result is definitely weighted toward the musicians you might find hanging out at the Big Easy on a Saturday night, and it could be said that the hip-hop, punk, and roots scenes are under-represented, but it’s not like Curdo is working with public money here. It makes sense that the project is also a reflection of his own musical tastes and the bands that began his own love of local music in the first place.

Further, by taking such a tight-knit group of musicians and putting them on to a project like this, Locals winds up being Greetings From Area Code 207 to the next level, not only showing off the incredible talent we have residing here in Portland, but also allowing that talent to pay homage to the scene itself, reveling in the minutiae and details that only people who’ve been directly involved would appreciate.

That’s why, though it’s a collection of covers, the compilation contains very few instantly recognizable songs for the casual fan. Few of these songs have been on the radio, despite the fact that many local songs get play on our commercial stations. Few of these songs are “singles.” Instead, the bands on the album have chosen their favorite tunes, those songs that inspired them and got them amped up to play their own songs, deep cuts from albums that personally affected them.

This also leads to one of the album’s few problems, in that many of the bands seem to so respect the bands they’re covering that they don’t fully make the songs their own. Sometimes, the songs don’t sound that different from the original version.

“The toughest thing [for the bands] was who to do,” says Curdo. “I didn’t want to dictate any of that. The fun of it was them choosing the songs. I think I could have matched bands and songs really well, but I wanted the bands to do that.”

For instance, “Twisted Roots were really psyched to be involved. They were very pro Darien [Brahms]. That pushed me over the top to get hold of Darien. Turned out both of them wanted to cover Manny Verzosa, so the two of them had it out and talked it over.” In the end, the Roots took Verzosa’s “Tuesday,” and Brahms had the band back her up for Mark Farrington’s Cattle Call tune “Take Control.” That’s what’s so right about this project.

Verzosa’s incredibly respected by the local community (note his two songs on the GFAC discs), but little known by the general public. Brahms told me a story once about being on tour with Verzosa for her 21st birthday, where he pumped her full of booze like any good older brother would, so she wound up playing hungover as hell for the little geniuses of Simon’s Rock College. That’s the way I’ve come to see Verzosa in total, as a kind of older brother to the Portland music scene. And Twisted Roots strike me as his metaphorical high-school buddies, those kids who came over all the time to eat out of the fridge and who you wanted to impress.

Their “Tuesday,” which they only ever had a bathroom demo of, comes with a spare opening that gets to Verzosa’s roots with just a backing rhythm guitar and faraway drums, but then launches in to the full Twisted Roots, anthem-rock treatment, full of Giordano’s soaring vocals and blasting guitars.

And they get Brahms a bit out of her shell, too (not that she’s really in one). Her opening to “Take Control” wouldn’t sound out of place on her last album, but once the coda takes over, with Brahms and Giordano trading off with plaintive “take me home”s, she really seems like she’s ready to kick some ass.

Then there’s Pigboat doing a crunching “Epiphany,” a Rotors to Rust song that was never even released on record; Tony McNaboe doing the Troubles’ “Heartfull of Heartache,” a deep cut off the classic-rock band’s Here We Go Again, with full R&B arrangement; and Adam Flaherty taking his ultra-indie voice to Lincolnville’s “Kill the Show,” which always played second fiddle to their smash “Heavenly Calm.” Even hardcore fans are unlikely to recognize the Horror stretching out Eggbot’s concise pop gem “Heaven Needs Babies, Too” past eight minutes with psychotic abandon. Eggbot has yet to release it himself.

Not that everything’s obscure here. It’s thrilling to hear the album open with Dave Gutter, Portland’s signature frontman, taking on 6gig’s “Hit the Ground,” possibly the biggest rock radio single to ever come out of Maine. Paranoid Social Club amp up the rhythm and throw in some explosive samples. Tony McNaboe’s WCLZ smash “Destination” is here, too, recorded live by the Pete Kilpatrick Supergroup, a direct opposite to the studio construction of McNaboe’s solo project, where he played all the instruments.

It’s fitting, too, that the now-defunct Even All Out’s take on the album’s namesake is the best track. It’s central to the disc, coming in at track #10, and is pure radio rock. Billy Libby demonstrates the pipes that thrust Even All Out into the public consciousness in the first place throughout the opening verse before opening up into an expansive chorus, “and it seems like you forgot, and I knew you would.” Yes, most us have pretty much forgotten about Goud’s Thumb, haven’t we? Here’s a great reason to remember them.

King Memphis, however, seem to be having the most fun of the lot. Normally confined to the genre-specific and exacting world of rockabilly, the Memphis boys really play with Eldemur Krimm’s rocking “Chopper.” They pick out the opening “Now this here’s a story . . .,” guitar, bass, and drums locked into a little walk, then blow your doors off with some serious surf and Robbins vamping it up all over the place, especially on the chorus burlesque. Then follows a ripping guitar break (what would a King Memphis song be without one?) nearly a full minute in length, a final verse, and then a finishing voiceover, as though the band were wishing a crowd good night.

“We hope you had a good time,” says Robbins. Then he asks drummer Gary Burton, “Gary, did you enjoy yourself?” He screams. Then, “How bout you Chris, did you have a good time yourself?” Chris Day screams, “Woooo.”

Yeah, the musicians on Beautiful Locals are pretty clearly having a good time. How else can you explain 16 bands getting together to record 16 tracks in about three months’ time (mostly with Jim Begley over at the Studio) for a project they really have no vested interest in? That pure love of the project tangibly carries through to the music, and that’s something you just have to hear.

The Popsicko: Frankenstein Presents the Popsicko, Vol. 1

Albee alone

With a new band and a growing résumé as a local producer, Spence makes a name for himself outside of his Rustic day job

Originally published Oct. 13, 2000

Frankenstein is an apt name for Spencer Albee to adopt. The whole that he projects is certainly the sum of a number of parts. He’s the keyboardist for Rustic Overtones, and like everyone else he’s waiting for the album [what would be Viva Nueva] to come out so they can get on with their musical lives. That’s a given. But as of October 14, with a performance at the Skinny as part of the Shebang music festival, he will be the frontman for his very own band, The Popsicko. Albee will then release a 14-song album —Frankenstein Presents The Popsicko, Vol. 1, on which he sings and plays 90 percent of the instruments — October 31 through his own imprint: FPFC, the Fun Portland Fun Club. 

He’s the man in the big cowboy hat, curled up and weather worn. He’s Captain Beautiful on the 1995 Rustic Overtones record Long Division. He’s currently sporting a pinkish stripe of a goatee, saying with a straight face that he’d like to be known as Frankenstein. “Do you think I’d run into copyright problems with that?” he asks earnestly. He figures that as long he doesn’t use the image he’ll be fine.

And that’s not all. Albee has become the producer-in-demand around town. In the past year he has manned the board for Loud Neighbor’s initial 10-song demo, No Gain; four 6gig tunes, including the single “5” that’s getting all kinds of radio-play in anticipation of Tin Can Experiment’s release on October 16; and a good portion of Jeremiah Freed’s five-song demo. He even produced the last song, “You Could Be Mine,” on Jenny Paquette’s latest album, See What You Do, and, starting late this month, he will begin production on a new Hawthorne album, Traces of the Muse, which will appear in early 2001.

Whether he’s Albee, Frankenstein, or the King of France, he is a driving force in the Portland music scene, and more than just an industrious 24-year-old. He’s talented as hell.

Just ask Shawn Saindon, local singer/songwriter and the organizer of the Bull Moose Shebang event that will feature 14 local bands in all. He signed up The Popsicko before the band had even played a show together, or even practiced together as a working band. “I heard the CD from Spencer a couple months back and it blew my mind, and I knew it would be successful,” says Saindon, an admitted pop fan with a penchant for the Beatle-esque sounds that pervade the disc.

Saindon was also impressed enough with Albee’s production abilities to enter into talks with him to produce his next album, though their schedules have so far precluded setting a date for getting in the Studio (capitol “S” intended; it’s the sometimes confusing name of Tim Tierney’s studio on Casco Street in Portland). His production is “really slick for a local producer,” says Saindon. “He’s got a lot of talent for using the technology he has to get that national-act sound. He and Jim Begley are really into the music that they do.”

It is telling the Saindon mentions Begley, as he and Albee have become inseparable as a producer/engineer team, working together as early as the 6gig project, and even earlier than that. “The people we were each living with were both coincidentally getting married,” recalls Begley. “So we were left as bachelors, and we ended up living together for about a year.”

They discovered that they had a lot of mutual interests — Spencer a performing musician with Rustic Overtones, Jim with a degree in music performance from UMass Lowell and a trained studio engineer working at the Studio — and they ended up doing their first recordings right there in their kitchen. Begley would bring mics home from the studio and they’d work with whatever they had on hand getting some of what would eventually be The Popsicko on tape.

It was only a matter of time before they started collaborating on professional projects. Finally, the opportunity presented itself. “He was friends with 6gig,” says Begley. “So I set it up at the Studio, and Spencer sold us as a team.”

Albee has a penchant for recognizing a break and going for it. “I was at Prime [Artist Studios, a local practice space] when Walt [Craven, 6gig’s lead singer] was at Prime,” recalls Albee. “And then Steve Marquis [6gig’s guitarist] was in with Rig, his old band, doing “Hit the Ground” at Big Sound, and I said, ‘We really need to get that.’ ”

Albee and Begley ended up recording and mixing four of the songs that would eventually wind up on Tin Can Experiment. Ultimatum Records licensed and re-mixed their original production, combining the result with the efforts of legendary producer Ron St. Germain, who has heavyweight albums by Creed and 311 on his résumé.

“That was my real foot in the door,” says Albee.

It didn’t hurt that Albee went through the experience of recording the Overtones album for Arista. “I learned a lot from working with Tony Visconti, David Leonard, Roger Sommers,” all seasoned industry producers, says Albee, “I got to sit and watch them work, and now I can listen to records and say, ‘I know how that happened.’ ”

If the new Popsicko album is the evidence, it’s pretty clear that Albee now knows how to make things happen as well. The record was put together in bits and pieces, whenever Begley, Albee, or Studio head engineer Steve Drown could get away from the grind to record. “We all hit it off,” says Begley. “Spencer and I did a few tunes, Spencer and Steve did a few tunes together, we did a few tunes with all three of us. It would be whoever was available.”

The same was true of the “guest musicians” that play on the project. Eggbot plays the coronet. Jeremiah Freed guitarist Nik Goodale lends soaring guitar riffs. Spencer’s sister Katherine sings backup and plays some horns. Begley plays drums. Drown plays guitars. Overtone Ryan Zoidis lends some saxophone. Overtone Jon Roods even recorded a bass track in the old kitchen. When the Popsicko plays out, Albee will be out front on guitars and keys, while Eggbot handles the rest of the keyboard duties. Begley, who also fills in for Motor Booty Affair on occasion, will play drums. Pat Hodgkins will play bass. Albee’s old friend Adam LaCasse will come up from Boston for lead guitars, and sister Katherine will lend backup vocals and horns.

Because of this catch-as-catch-can approach, each song on the disc takes on its own personality. “The cool thing about doing tunes one at a time,” says Begley, “is that every song sounds completely different.” Some are decidedly low budget, where they were going for an old-school production value; others are very, very slick, making use of every effect available. Each song is clearly a different experience for Albee, and it seems natural that each song should have a different sound and feel.

“Two Feet,” the first single, is driven by Albee’s blues piano and a crescendo of voices in a very hip radio chorus. The production talent is in the little things: a bridge that consists of an apparent lunatic rambling in the background; a fade-out of Albee whistling the melody while he snaps his fingers to the beat.

What directly follows is a Ween-esque send-up of the Portland bar scene: “Beer Goggles.” This time it’s space-age synth effects, wild yells in the background, and crunching guitars that define the sound. Blur-like “whoo-hoos” carry the song home, until Albee sneaks in a little classical piano over the distinctive sound of someone scanning the radio dial for something different.

Which is then, of course, what the listener gets, with “The Mess I’m In.” All of a sudden we hear Albee over the top of simple synthesizer chords that reveal his undying reverence for Paul McCartney’s Wings. It’s Beatles with a disco ball, Sergeant Pepper in a vinyl suit. There are soaring George Harrison “oohs,” “aahs,” and guitar solos. The high-pitched John Lennon “yeah” feels so right.

“I love the Beatles, but there’s something about Wings that’s just different,” says Albee. “They’re the one band that define the ’70s. I feel like I was born at the wrong time; I wish I was 24 in 1970, so I could witness the birth of heavy metal and synthesized funk.” And if we take “The Porno Song” as an example, he’s also interested in living some of that decade’s depravity. “Spread your cheeks, show me that ass,” says an anonymous porn star repeatedly in a seamless splice. “Do you still want me?” he asks. “Yes I do,” replies the imagined blonde. What follows is a hilarious plea to be “like the guys in the magazines, getting laid, getting paid.” Surrounded by serious songs about world peace, getting over bad relationships, and dealing with corporate greed, it is a calculated risk. Yet, says Albee, “it’s my mom’s favorite song. I mean, some parents may be offended by it, but if they’re parents they had to have had some porno in their lives at some point.”

It’s all part of Albee’s æsthetic, which is appealing to more and more folks all the time. “He knows that I am looking for him to bring us into hipness,” says Hawthorne lead singer Mike Falkingham. “Our big weakness was that we were writing what we thought were really good songs, but were missing a very tiny thing that could turn it from a mediocre song to a very high-quality single or album cut.” Falkingham believes that Albee can provide just the right amount of mojo. “Spencer will not change what Hawthorne is,” he says, “but he can do anything and everything he wants to make the sound better, throw in effects, a sample, anything.”

All of this points to questions about whether this solo activity as producer and frontman might be a safety net against a worst possible Rustic scenario. Could Albee and Begley become a producer/engineer team on the level of Mitch Froom and Tchad Blake, who work with Cheryl Crowe, Los Lobos, and Soul Coughing; or Mark Howard and Daniel Lanois who oversee albums by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris? Is Albee ready to take his pleasing pop voice and step out from the shadows like a Phil Collins leaving Genesis? We’ll find out.

“It’s just something else that I like to do,” says Albee. “I really enjoy being in the studio. I like working with other people and artists, and right now, it sure beats all the shit jobs out there. The work may have its ups and downs, but I can keep my life simple.”