Tony McNaboe: The Cost of Living

Regardless of the cost

Tony McNaboe testifies on sophomore release

If you were concerned that the return of Rustic Overtones would mean the ends of their various side projects, it’s clear now that was a fruitless worry. The ancillary releases have intensified as the Overtones continue to hone their second post-break album. The new year already brought us a Plains album featuring Dave Noyes (a limited edition, but still), and this summer [of 2009] will see releases from a new Dave Gutter project (a duo release with Evan Casas), Spencer Albee (not that he’s an Overtone anymore), and now Tony McNaboe, who’s crafted another soulful solo album, both self-produced and -recorded (though Jonathan Wyman did the mixing).

As is the rage, nowadays, there are guest spots by the likes of Gypsy Tailwind’s Dan Connor and fellow Overtones Nigel Hall and John Roods, but this is very much NcNaboe’s album. It is more overtly spiritual than 2003’s Destination, more personal, raw and dispirited, and it’s no tossed-off, let’s-see-what-happens affair. He both moves himself forward artistically, drawing on hip-hop and chanted singer-songwritery fare a la Citizen Cope, and creates songs with substance.

In fact, The Cost of Living [the record is in very few places online, even Bull Moose is out, but it does exist at Down in the Valley, which is like the Minneapolis Bull Moose, I think] reads like a trek through a deep winter and a man who’s just coming out the other side, touched up by a bit of frostbite. In 2003, Ray LaMontagne was opening for him. Nowadays, McNaboe’s got his band back together with another album on the way. What happened in the middle? “Tired eyes, ain’t slept in two days … I swear I’m killing myself a little bit every day”; “Lately if you see me/ I apologize … I failed my family and friends”; “There’s beauty in this somewhere/ and I just got to find it.”

Whether he’s playing a role in individual narratives, or testifying about his own faith, McNaboe doesn’t blow smoke up anyone’s dress on the new record. There isn’t, however, any sign of self-pity or resignation. On the six-minute title track—housing the potentially maudlin line, “he can’t feel a thing from his neck to his feet/ but he can still feel a heartbeat”—he takes pains to finish the chorus with vocal move up, so that the cost of living doesn’t seem like a burden, but rather a jewel to be coveted, as though what you get back is always worth what you pay.

If anything, McNaboe doesn’t go as far with his music as he does with his message. At times, there’s full-on incongruity. For “Doomed,” a slow piano ballad indicates a love song, and the first verse indicates he’s, like, doomed to love this girl forever, but then he’s failing his family and friends (“that’s what people do”) and that faithful, grateful guy is gone and I’m depressed but snapping my fingers and singing along.

In the finishing “A Prayer, Pts 1 + 2,” he’s thanking Jesus, confessing all, asking to be taught to stand up and walk again, savoring every word of every verse like a gobstopper, but the synths that drive the melody feel really cold. It’s such an organic message delivered in such a digital way. There are times when you can just see the ProTools screen in front of you and McNaboe painting in the bass line (“I Know You Hate Goodbyes”).

So, maybe it’s just taste, but I find myself gravitating toward “Miracle,” where his voice is most naked, the piano is pretty-sad, and when the effects enter it’s like the sun coming through a window and lighting up all the dust in the air, an accent instead of a means.

“We know tomorrow’s on the way, and it’s a brand new day,” but seeing is believing, and there’s a difference between being told something and actually hearing it.

[Photo thanks to WCYY. I believe it’s an Alive at 5 gig from the week this album was released.]

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.