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.]

Cult Maze: The Ice Arena

Cult of personality

Warming up to the Ice Arena

If you’re in Nashville and you play on somebody else’s record, you’re a session musician. If you do it in Portland, you’re just like everybody else. If you’re doing a pop-rock record, call in Spencer Albee and go record with Jon Wyman. If you’re doing a jangledy indie rock record, call in the Extendo-Ride All Stars.

This latter crew debuted with some shows in 2001, Jay Lobley, Peet Chamberlain, and Joe Lops playing musical chairs on stage, with the basic aesthetic being whoever wrote the song gets to play guitar. That crew, with Brandon Davis, then produced the excellent You Are at the Top Level, You Can Not Go up Another Level, released by Pigeon Records in 2002, where they displayed a wide repertoire of musical genres and generally impressed with the songwriting ability.

Lops followed a photographic career out of town, but Chamberlain, Lobley, and Davis stuck around, hooking up with the likes of Andrew Barron, Sydney Bourke, Jeremy Alexander, Aaron Hautula, and Casey McCurry in bands like An Evening With, Diamond Sharp, Satellite Lot, Isodora, Phantom Buffalo, and Esprit de Corps, part of a tight community of indie-pop/rock musicians alternately lining up behind varied and sundry songwriters.

Eventually, says Barron, Lobley “decided he wanted a band for his material and he asked the three of us [Barron, Chamberlain, and Hautula] to help him out.” The result was the Funeral, but that was the name of some metal band, so now it’s Cult Maze, who managed to release a very interesting full-length earlier this summer [this originally ran in the fall of 2006], The Ice Arena, recorded with Marc Bartholomew last year.

All of that is to say that this is Lobley’s record, but it is informed by years of collaborations and co-bills, and the sound is very familiar to those who’ve become fond of a certain sect of musicians in town who are fond of this jangledy indie sound.

But what if jangledy indie pop doesn’t jangle, but rather sort of buzzes and groans? What if Architecture in Helsinki and the Arcade Fire decided to dress themselves like Pavement for Halloween? The result might be something like Cult Maze’s 10 songs here, swimming in ’80s nostalgia while dressed in lo-fi ripped jeans and Goodwill T-shirts.

Remember that lo-fi sound I was all excited about that Marc Bartholomew carved out for Ruler of the Raging Main? Well, it works to lesser effect here – there’s nothing wrong with the sound, per se, but the melodies Lobley crafts suffer without a crispness, and the lyrics are largely lost in some of the wash and scrabble. It’s hard not to wonder, actually, if the vocals aren’t intentionally buried.

Still, Lobley’s bouncy guitar hooks from You Are at the Top Level presage the jolt of melody that opens Ice Arena and “Another A to Z,” and much of the admiration of the pop canon that filled that first album helps this succeed in similar fashion. In this case, the vocals are deep in the mix and sound like they’ve been sampled through a Casio keyboard from 1982, but they develop a sneer for “We Are the Dead End Streets,” which plays with rushing and stalling rhythm. There are echoes of the UK here, whether it’s the shoegazer set or the Madchester crowd.

“A Shell in the Waves” is more upbeat, with a climbing bass line that finishes with a back-and-forth curlicue of sorts from Hautula (who’s since left to focus on Satellite Lot full-time, replaced by Joshua Lorring, formerly of Certain Numbers). Maybe elucidating his songwriting style, Lobley sings, “I talk to myself/ With anyone else/ my imagination is my friend,” somewhat reminiscent of early-Cure Robert Smith. The chorus has a call and response period, with the response slightly clipped, like it’s barely making it through a bad connection. In the bridge, Lobley’s guitar and the bass feed off one another, building off Barron’s steady time on the drums.

“Vox Torsion,” opening with a keyboard line form Chamberlain, is probably the best song here, with a swagger like the Stray Cats and shouts like Big Country. Chiming and descending guitars introduce a bass providing a repeating melody for Barron to perform over. Like many songs here, if this tune had radio ambitions, the chorus would be more distinct, the verse quieter, but this tune doesn’t have radio ambitions (even if WMPG did play it all the way through at one point this summer).

Perhaps most thought-provoking is the nine-minutes-and-more “On a Branch,” something of an anomaly among mostly three-minute pop numbers. A singer-songwriterly opening with a picked out guitar line is pretty weepy. Finally, the cymbals enter and drive the anticipation that isn’t quite consummated by the fairly off-key balladeering that follows: “We make mistakes to hide from the truth/ I’m haunted by the ghost I gave to you.” The song ambles into some Springsteen rock and some vamp before announcing, “they can’t touch us anyway.”

The music fan with an extensive catalog will spend much of this album trying to put a finger on just what these songs sound like, and just what this band is trying to accomplish. In the end, it’s hard to argue the sound isn’t original and consistent, despite its many influences, and that may very well be a goal attained.

The warm nostalgia is an added bonus.