Dominic and the Lucid: Season of the Sun

We had joy, we had fun

Dominic and the Lucid release Season of the Sun

It’s hardly rare for bands to borrow local talents to add flare here and there to a record, but Dominic and the Lucid — essentially a three- or four-piece band — have gone above and beyond the usual guest spots. Fifteen musicians play on Season of the Sun, their 11-song follow-up to 2006’s break-through release [this originally ran in fall, 2008], Waging the Wage, and backing vocals are provided by an 18-strong chorus that recorded with engineer Jack Murray in USM’s Corthell Concert Hall.

I mean, there are three different trombone players listed here: John Maclain, Eric Ambrose, and Dave Noyes.

That kind of talent convergence can be hard to harness, but the new disc sounds cohesive and manages to be dense and interesting without making the listener feel claustrophobic. As he did with Wage, frontman and songwriter Dominic Lavoie shows a great feel for pacing the record, mixing in love-song pop, bouncy rock, and languid string-filled ballads to create a throwback album that’s not quite a “concept,” but certainly demands that you listen to it from front to back.

There are times, though, when I wonder whether Lavoie didn’t gorge himself at the musician and talent trough, adding in backing vocals (the screamed piece mixed to the back of “Simpleton’s Hymn” at the finish) or percussion (the recurring ratchet in “Cement”) because he could and not necessarily because the song demanded it. Some of the bouncy pop numbers, like “Come out and Play,” come off a tad manic.

That said, Lavoie also makes some inspired decisions with the guest players, as with the pairing of pedal steel player Cartwright Thompson and Kallie Ciechomski’s viola on “Covered in Colors,” producing a sublime and liquid dream-state behind vocals that positively glow. Long-time drummer Chuck Gagne is great here, too, completely restrained and using his cymbals especially well to punctuate each note of the melody.

In a way, Lavoie seems to have evolved into Portland’s John Lennon (a step up from Portland’s Chris Martin, which is where I had him pegged previously): a guy who can manage to make peace, love, and harmony seem cool without devolving into sentimentality and cheese. Like Lennon’s “Imagine” or “Give Peace a Chance,” Lavoie is able to create whole songs out of very simple themes and repeated phrases while remaining artful and interesting (U2’s “Peace on Earth,” from All that You Can’t Leave Behind comes to mind, too). “Be in Love” is bouncy and upbeat with some great phrasings, centered around the idea that “I’ve been around the world once or twice before/ But the answer isn’t found in starting wars/ I promise you this/ A treaty can’t touch the peace within a kiss.” So where is the answer to be found? “The answer’s in love/ Be in love, being loved, be loved, be in love.”

So, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear in “Simpleton’s Hymn” that “all the little boys and girls/ Need love, need love, they need love.”

Appropriately, this talk of love makes up the heart of the album, with the first three and last three songs providing the rib cage. Themes from the opening “Dog,” gray skies above a dog chained by the side of the road made musical by Nate Cyr’s thrumming bass beside a swirling organ, are revisited in the penultimate (and longest) “Swiveling Moon, All Temptations, All without Fearing,” where “Oh, God, chained dog/ You’re life’s the same as mine,” made slightly Zappa. In the ninth tune, “Song for Us to Sing,” we hear echoes of the third, “Cease to Exist,” when Lavoie revisits the “Cease” bridge: “I mean every word that I say/ When tomorrow comes, better to fade away.”

Finally, there is “Of the Sun,” where piano and strings leave us uplifted, Lavoie’s voice (stronger on every recording thus far) cracks just enough to emphasize his vulnerability, and it’s more than clear that “I’m in a dream/ Where everything shines.” It’s a fitting finish to what ultimately feels like a psychedelic return to the Summer of Love, an aesthetic that’s easy to embrace, all the more so because as popular as “Imagine” might be as a song to sing on American Idol, it doesn’t seem enough people have really gotten the message yet.

Darien Brahms: Number 4

She’s all okay

Darien Brahms is better than ever on Number 4

With one of the longest continuous careers in Portland music, Darien Brahms has been many things to many people. She was my first real local-music crush when I moved here in 1999 [this review originally ran in 2008; image is from 2012], after I first saw her frontgal, lounge-jazz strip-tease act at the Skinny with the Munjoy Hill Society. I know I’m not the only one who’s been captivated by her as chanteuse.

She’s been pegged, too, as an alt-country diva or anti-war activist, but on her solo records she’s mostly been an old-school rocker, who loves her guitar and knows how to spin a chorus. So, five years after the spectacular Green Valentine, it should be no surprise Brahms leads Number 4 with the most down and dirty tune that’s been rumbling around in her head.

“Cream Machine” is maybe the best blues song I’ve heard since the last Black Keys record, a cycling and dirty riff supported by a Bayou rattle and panting breaths. Her promise that “I won’t be your cream machine” is deliciously profane; she even purrs like a jaguar. I’m a little bit frightened. Sneering slide guitar tells you, “don’t even bother baby … chocolate (grunt) cream/ Cinnamon steam/ I know you can be sweet to me, baby.” A throaty organ from Jack Vreeland enters for the bridge, by which point you ought to be completely enthralled.

Cartwright Thompson’s pedal steel (Brahms gets a fair amount of help on this record. Guess she plays a good host at her home studio) next provides the underpinning for a dark and lumbering menace of a song, “Shut up and Be Quiet.“ Here’s the first of some nice poetry on the record, too: “Coded whispers fill the room of my unfurnished body/ Secret message, a new voice you finally gave/ And it’s not just another vacant figure of speech.”

On “For Crying out Loud,” we get this gem: “Does she suffer from too much religion/ Or every former lover’s final decision?” Paul Chamberlain’s bass is high in the mix here and lyrical, but it’s not nearly his best contribution. He also served as the packaging designer, and I’ve got to say that the CD booklet that comes with Number 4’s jewel case is the best I’ve ever seen from a Portland band, and right up there with anything nationally or internationally. It’s like he graphically depicted every one of Brahms’s rough edges and toothy smiles.

There’s a fair amount of Brahms history, here, actually, including the soothing and sanguine “We’re All Okay,” with just Brahms on guitars and multiple vocal tracks, from 2001’s GFAC 207, Vol. 2. And I’ve got to assume the instrumental “Slide Song 1993” is what it says it is. Actually, with the tape hiss and metallic whine, it’s hard to tell it’s a guitar at some points; often it sounds more like a humpback whale’s mating call. In a good way.

I think the single here is “Sweet Little Darling,” which opens with a toy piano and Ginger Cote’s bass drum building in. Though she’s often aggressive or languid, Brahms here is in baby doll mode, a great ’60s rock pop take, with a cool electric guitar move in the chorus: “You’re my sweet little darling, sweet little darling, sweet little darling, yeah.” It’s delectable and irresistible, so pretty and electric in its appeal. Dave Noyes on the cello late is a great move forward, joining himself in the finish with the melodica, one instrument in each channel.

I guess after five years of work, it shouldn’t be surprising that the album is both dense and expertly organized, with a fun-with-samples take in the middle for disconcerting comic relief in “Kitty’s Trapped in the Well,” and a special “bonus track” you might remember from the last presidential season: “Too Late for Whitey.” There’s variety here in genre, but the nakedly raw emotion is just about universal.

In the Rolling Stones rocker “I’m So Afraid,” Brahms is as honest and bare as any kindergartener, a naked accounting of fears: “I’m so afraid of losing my job/ I’m so afraid of being robbed/ Being raped/ No escape/ Being bored/ And flipping out on the Doors/ Love me two times baby.” It’s compressed into a perfect 1:59 track that finishes with this admission: “I’m so afraid of God falling down … I’m shaking baby and it’s not from love/ It’s from fear.”

The horse whinny at the finish is strangely appropriate.

Even if Brahms was never really that Little Bundle of Sugar (2000), it’s never been hard to be sweet on her. Now she’s let us closer than ever before and she’s never seemed sweeter. Though maybe she’s a hard candy.

And she probably wants to punch me in the face for that “sweet” nonsense.