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.

Rustic Overtones: Light at the End

There is a Light

Is it at the end, or just the beginning?

The shows are starting to pile up. What started as a pair of Rustic Overtones reunion shows at the Asylum has turned into what you might call a tour: “Yep,” confirms drummer Tony McNaboe, as if he can’t believe it himself, “we’re going to all pile into the van again…”

In a world where supply and demand are intricately linked, the Overtones — McNaboe, guitarist and vocalist Dave Gutter, keyboardist Spencer Albee, bassist Jon Roods, and horn men Dave Noyes, Jason Ward, and Ryan Zoidis — have got the factory running at full steam to crank out enough product to please the newly teeming masses. Exhibit #1 dropped Tuesday, July 24 [2007, which is when this review initially ran], in the form of Light at the End, which was initially advertised as an effort to bring some old tapes to light, but sure feels like a cohesive and impressive album, and certainly isn’t a reason for a kick-ass band to go back to not being a band at all.

This Saturday and Sunday, Rustic Overtones will play their first plugged-in, full-band shows in more than five years for a crowd that bought up all the tickets in less than a week, forcing the band to add two more shows the following weekend, if only because they felt bad for the kids ponying up as much as $50 (possibly more!) on eBay and the like. They’ll also now play shows at old haunts like Harper’s Ferry in Boston, a new haunt like the Stone Church in Portsmouth, then a gig in Albany for good measure.

Why stop there?

In answer to that question, McNaboe sounds a lot like Terry Francona — let’s not get ahead of ourselves, folks. But the man who got this whole thing going again sounds positively ecstatic about what they’ve accomplished in just a few months, “and things are going pretty well — who knows?”

What I know is that this is likely the band’s best album, with all apologies to Rooms by the Hour, which, judging by Bull Moose sales, is being discovered for the first time by plenty of new fans despite the fact that it was released first in 1998. (How popular are Rustic in this town? The manager of Beal’s Ice Cream tells me people even there freak when she plays Rooms over the cone joint’s tinny speakers.)

First of all, Light’s got the best version of “Hardest Way Possible,” which was on Rooms and Viva Nueva, the Tommy Boy release that ended a years-long odyssey from label signing to CD release in 2001. Why release this song a third time?

“This is the way we’ve always wanted to release it,” says Albee, “and now we finally can.” Featuring vintage, five-year-old Gutter vocals and a full string arrangement, it’s the most R&B of the three versions, and least aggressive, but don’t worry: They left in that crazy falsetto that finishes the tune. There’s a test for Gutter, should they choose to play the song live. His voice has definitely aged, gaining a smoky, world-weary quality that allows him to convey more emotion than ever before, but doesn’t keep him from grabbing you by the throat when the occasion arises.

Other old favorites are here as well, including live favorite “Rock Like War” (the inspiration for fan-blog www.rocklikewar.com [sadly, this no longer exists…], to which I am forever in debt for supplying me with an unbelievable live track of Rustic playing Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”). “Rock” is basically a song in two parts, a war and peace, if you will. In the front half, digitally enhanced horn blasts pound through the speakers in the chorus, just after Gutter has asked us to “wake me up in the summer, not the winter” (how’s that for fitting, what with the whole reunion in the summer of 2007 thing? Maybe I’m pushing it). In the second half, “we can stand out in the storm and fill this bottle full of rain and sing along” with a gentle keyboard bounce and horns that “sing” a “nah, nah, nah.”

Then get ready for a bang-up transition into track three, “Dear Mr. President,” a song that confers incredible power with nothing but a ukulele, acoustic guitar, and a simple bass line. In a nuanced and narrative collection of verses typical of Gutter’s hip-hop flavored writing we are introduced to a stinging indictment of the war, care of “a soldier with the 82nd Airborne stationed overseas/ My family and my friends are praying that God is watching over me/ Even God can’t save us now.” The chorus runs reggae just enough to remind you of Marley’s best populist moments. It’s thrilling, really.

To put this track in such a prominent spot on their first disc in six years, to reintroduce themselves this way to a fanbase that’s had plenty of time to move on, shows real guts and conviction. And lest you think this smacks of piling on, remember that Gutter and Roods’ Paranoid Social Club was one of the first local bands to write and perform anti-war material following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Later, in “Oxygen,” we’re implored to “make love not war” in a track that was recorded while the invasion of Iraq was just a Bush daydream while he whittled away hours between executions in Texas.

Other new tracks include the uber-singalong “Troublesome,” the biting and sarcastic “Black Leather Bag” (listen for Gutter’s high harmony on the bridge), and the title track, which comes last at track 10, punctuated by piercing horns and a swirling keyboard part. As with many songs here, Rustic finds a way to take dark material and infuse it with hope. Though “this wicked world is twisted sideways,” “all things will turn around.”

Oh, and speaking of hope, let me just say this: There is a hidden track, and Rustic nerds are going to freak out. Freak out to the point where you “can’t stop laughing,” maybe.

The song here that gets me in full freak-out is “Carsick,” with fat-bottomed horns and the single best chorus on the album, a wonderful mix of pleasure and nostalgia: “The radio is loud, but nothing’s on.” There’s an extended instrumental break that shows you what the seven-piece band can do without a single player soloing, and then we’re reminded, “If we drive slow/ We won’t get there at all.”

That’s right, as Twisted Roots would say, “Brick on the gas.” Next stop, Albany.