Ryan McCalmon: Come Home

Home is where the heart is

Ryan McCalmon skips town with an R&B lovefest

It would be hard to pile up a better local-music resume than Ryan McCalmon has over the past five years:

  • 2001 – Hooked up in Inside Straight, with Rustic Overtones Dave Noyes (horns; Seekonk, too), Ryan Zoidis (horns; Soulive, too), and Tony McNaboe (drums, lead vocals; released a solo album in 2003); hip-hoptress Sontiago; Relishgruv and Five Above’s Andi Fawcett; the Awesome’s Katherine Albee and Pete Dugas, and various and sundry others to play guitar and sing in a Motown/soul band that packed the Big Easy for about 100 Mondays in a row.
  • 2003 – Played guitar and collaborated with singer/pianist Tony McNaboe, whose Destination was one of the best local albums of the year, with a couple singles getting full rotation on WCLZ.
  • 2003/2004 – Toured with McNaboe, at one point having Ray LaMontagne open for their band. Hosted solo nights at the Big Easy.
  • 2005 – Wrote and recorded an album of solo material, getting help from Averi’s drummer, Matt Lydon, and Gruvis Malt’s Gavin Castleton on keyboards (we’re stretching New England-wide here; they’re from Boston and Providence, respectively)
  • 2006 – Played CD-release shows for Come Home (mixed by Jon Wyman and mastered by Adam Ayan at Gateway) in Portland and Boston.

Still, does McCalmon have a full-time gig occupying your attention?

Probably not.

It’s possibly because he’s no big personality. He sings soulful and thoughtful R&B, pop, and soul and he belts out lyrics like, “Had to lose you before I learned to love you.” For his press photos, he’s got his hands in his pockets while he walks anonymously along an overcast beach. No doubt, there’s a sensitive-guy-loving clique of gal fans who just can’t get enough of him, so there’s no need for him to be out there flogging the press for attention.

True crooners demand attention, they don’t ask for it. Come Home is McCalmon’s dropping of the gauntlet.

The disc is amply filled with a robust eight songs that comfortably extend past the five-minute mark, without bothering you or recalling jazz or jam. Everything’s languid, but it’s sultry Couvossier languid, not groggy morphine languid. Fireplace-in-front-of-a-bear-rug languid.

This album could easily get you laid.

There’s no need to read his resume to get his McNaboe connection. These two clearly developed a similar musical taste, enamored of ’70s soul and dropping Donny Hathaway references (Nigel Hall’s another guy in town doing the same thing). The result is the fork in the road where soul music branches off into hip-hop and R&B. Where MCs clip syllables with a staccato delivery, McCalmon rounds everything up and out, with a breath of finish, like watching a soap opera where everybody’s just a little bit fuzzy like you’re looking through a slightly fogged window.

It’s always snowing outside, while candles burn and everybody wheres silk pajamas.

On “Had to Lose,” you can feel the soft leather of remorse when McCalmon tells us, “I still smell her sweet perfume of the collar of my winter coat.” A cymbal-only backbeat and a finger-picked acoustic with some atmostpheric keys open the song before opening up into a moog-filled chorus. That’s right: “I had to lose before I learned to love you.”

Organ fills and crescendos combine with a glockenspiel mirrored by bits of acoustic and classical guitar picks. The levels in the production are pretty interesting, a subtle touch guiding what’s to the fore and what’s sitting just a breath below. The drums ring out crisp and assured while McCalmon reaches for the falsetto. Every once in a while you can hear the room that surrounds his vocals, like he’s bending away from the microphone.

Castleton’s spacey keys, like Jamiroquoi aping Stevie Wonder, keep the song moving late, as McCalmon does a lot of that R&B style of singing where’s he’s just doing it to have the voice stay in the mix and so repeats the same lyric over and over.

This can be grating on some people, but I like the Police and the White Stripes, so that kind of thing is clearly right up my alley.

He could take a breath every once in a while, though. After the great second part of “Walking Away” chorus, where he alters his delivery like he’s changing his mind, he launches right into the next verse when I would have really liked a ripping solo. There should definitely be more ripping solos on this album. It could be more fun than it is. It’s a little down in the mouth, when it could be a little up in the corner of the mouth.

The song finishes with a great bridge leading into a final chorus that includes just a dash of backing vocals for the first time in the song, lending a narrative character. He introduces a swagger, bending his vocals where he’s normally pretty even keeled.

If there’s anywhere he breaks from McNaboe, it’s in a reluctance to go full on gospel.

The lack of theatrics reminds me of Percy Hill’s most recent album, After All. I couldn’t pick a song for a single. It’s not about the hook. These songs play out and are enjoyable as dinner music (or after dinner music, for that matter), but you might not be bumpin’ this on the headphones while you work out.

[bonus content: For this column, written in 2006, the news bit section we used to run in the Phoenix was at the bottom of the Word file I saved. Kind of fun to see what was news in Portland in 2006. Plus, another Dave Noyes reference.]

Sibilance starts now

The big news on the local live-music front is the new management at the Asylum. Steve Woitasek, once manager of Colepitz and a Wonderdrug Records/Mass Concerts guy who runs Eye90 Productions, has been running the city’s most perplexing venue for the past five years or so. As the only midway point between a room like the Big Easy and a cavern like the State Theater, the Asylum never could seem to figure out what it wanted to be. All-ages punk and hardcore shows mixed with ’80s DJ nights and WRED hip-hop and the early salad days of Wilco and G. Love and Maceo Parker seem to have faded away. For 2006, however, Tim Reed has taken over management and booking. A “new floor has been put in,” he writes in an email, and “the walls and bar are being painted. We are redoing the bar itself.” He also reports new DJ sets, new security, and a “more upscale feel.” One Friday, Reed found himself co-hosting WBLM’s morning show with the Captain! That’s so not Steve Woitasek, for better or worse.

There’s a brand-new Web site at http://www.asylumlive.com you can check out, which as we write features a February 3 gig called “Aural Fixation” (nice graphics, by the way), with sets from hip-hoppers Sontiago & Moshe, Ill Natural, Bread, Meat & Potatoes, and DJs Moshe, Mayonnaise, Mike Clouds, Deejay Mota, and Newscreen. Moshe will also be hosting every Saturday night, with his Mr. T’s Old School 2 New School Hip Hop Dance Party. We pronounce that a mouthful. A glance at the upcoming gigs hints at some continuance of the Asylum’s schizophrenic nature. Or you could call it variety. Depends on your perspective. You’ll find Boston punk, Assembly of Dust, a “white trash BBQ and Beauty Pageant,” Paranoid Social Club, Wheatus, Comedy Central’s Todd Barry and Nick Di Paolo, even Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips. We were disappointed by Phillips’s collaboration with Nickel Creek.

Matt Shardlow (8 Track and Zeno’s Arrow; once and current soundguy for Inside Straight), checked in to say guys from his other old band, Zion Train, including Mike Taylor, Nate Soule, and Pete Dugas of the Awesome and Seekonk’s Dave Noyes, are teaming with Gary Gimetti (I-Rates) and Lucas Desmond (Esperanza) to kick out the jams doing “real reggae” at the Big Easy every other Thursday, starting Feb. 2. Combine this notice with the “Beat Report” and try to empathize with the “Sibilance” staff if we screw things up every once in a while. We mean, jeez, how the frig are we supposed to keep track of all these people and their bands? Are we supposed to, like, have a database or something? We can barely check our email in a timely fashion. Also, Shardlow tells us that he’s got a bunch of recordings of the old Clash of the Titans nights the Big Easy featured last winter, with local artists putting on musical costumes to battle it out between, say, AC/DC and ZZ Top (the Top didn’t have a chance; how do you fuck with “Hells Bells”?). There’s talk of these recordings becoming commercially available. Should you happen to chance upon one of these gems, do the smart thing and buy it. There’s a bunch of fun classic rock to be had played well by lots of locals despite huge amounts of booze and little practice time.

Headstart!: Our House

The House that Headstart! built

Let’s just say it’s more Amityville Horror than Victoria Mansion

How did that CSN song go? “Our house/ Is a very, very, very fine house/ With two cats in the yard/ Life used to be so hard/ Now everything is easy, cuz of you.” That’s it.

For Headstart!’s new album, that ain’t it. Nothing is easy (except for the singalong choruses), everything is hard (even the rock, from time to time), and while the house may be fine, what goes on inside it is more Korn than CSN. Actually, that might give you the wrong idea — Headstart! never get near Korn’s eardrum-damaging sonic assault, but they do riff on similar themes of Middle American family strife, going well beyond the mental anguish suffered by the protagonist of their last album, Sincerely Yours, who simply couldn’t get the girl.

In fact, they take albums like 6gig’s Mind over Mind, which explores father-son physical and psychological abuse themes, one step further by supplying a full narrative in storyboard, by way of an enclosed screenplay that includes every word sung over the course of the 11-song work — but also a great deal more, some 13,000 words, actually.

I challenge you not to read along while you listen and to resist rewinding (not that you’re winding anything anymore) in trying to keep up.

Our House is a departure and a creative leap forward for a band both entrenched and living on the edges of the Portland music scene, adding depth and purpose to what was already a very smart group. Despite making a name for themselves over two highly successful albums as an ironic and sarcastic pop-punk outfit, Headstart! have played few high-profile gigs over the past couple of years, and have now turned inward with a soul-searching and thoughtful piece of art.

The album plays out as dark and tortured anti-Broadway, the tale of a family torn apart by an abusive father and pulled back together by a mother strong enough to kick the family’s “monster” to the curb. Such is the culmination of the story in the powerful “Saved by Subtraction,” featuring Ry Cook (Even All Out) and Katherine Albee (the Awesome). The music aptly follows the path of a woman who is initially so disheartened that she dispassionately notes, “There is still a piece of my hair on fire/ I’d put it out but I’m just too tired.” Yet, by the song’s conclusion, she feels no remorse for forcing her husband out.

“You’re the one who said we would make it,” she accuses. “All along I knew you were faking/ So I wouldn’t take back anything that I’ve done to you.”

But it’s what this monster has done to his family that’s unforgivable.

The album’s best song, “The Boy Who Died in Stereo,” is a heartbreaker as much as it is a winning piece of nearly indie rock. It’s like the Shins on HGH, with a great rhythm guitar and breathy, reserved vocals from frontman Kevin Kennie, supported by Cook’s Even All Out singer, Billy Libby. Kennie penned all of this, and perhaps this song best represents what he’s trying to say.

With Nate Warren’s bass thumping like a heartbeat behind Adam Parvanta’s cymbal-heavy lock-step, we empathize with a boy who tries to escape a smoking, drinking monster of a father through music, only to be told, “hush, hush,” which does, indeed, share some sentiment with Till Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.” At this point, the mother cares very much about public perception, as she entreats her son, “And don’t you let it get around town/ That inside these walls all the speakers fall in pieces to the ground.”

This son was “living on tiptoes,” trying to avoid his father’s wrath, while he remained an embarrassment to his father. In the end, though, the son refuses to play the victim: “You were half in the bag while I was faking my sleep,” he accuses. Meanwhile, the “townspeople” sing an alternate lyric throughout the chorus, wondering what could be the story of this house that might from the outside seem to house any other nuclear family.

It’s as much indictment of society, the prying eyes of which may force people into unsafe situations for fear of gossip and judgment, as it is of the father in this story. From the packaging to the enclosed script to the varying musical styles, Our House asks the listener for much more than either of Headstart!’s previous albums. Let’s hope they get something in return.

Photo Credit: Matthew Robbins