· JOHNNYTWENTYTHREE — THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER
A J23 show, with their combination of Godspeed-esque sonic overload and simultaneous video projections, is always a moving experience. Their recorded debut, thirty pieces of silver, is (naturally) a soundtrack to a film by Stephen Imwalle, the band's "fifth member" and projection provider. The burning question is, can an audio recording approach the majesty of their audio-visual combination? The answer is pretty much yes. A few tracks languish without the context of video accompaniment ("Procession" and "Holy Ghost People"), but most of the music stands on its own quite well. All of the pieces are semi-improvised, ambient works of varying length with some overdubbed field recordings added for effect. "Exorcism" is the lone flirtation with vocalizing, and the result is astonishing. Sounding very Jeff Buckley-inspired, it's a mystery why the band employs this strength so sparingly.
J23 articulates best on "Rows & Columns/Thundershot" and the 14-minute "N.T." Either would be suitable for a film climax, with suspense and tension gradually building and releasing. Closing the album is a haunting piano piece embodying loneliness and despair (also very cinematic).
The recording itself is crisp, giving the listener the feel of sitting among the players and riding their storm surges. Instruments occasionally have mismatched intensity (a common side effect of improvised work), but the discontinuity is usually short-lived. Overall, the entire album is ear candy for fans of J23, and at least half of the tracks provide nice hooks for attracting new listeners. Johnnytwentythree performs Thursday at Northside Tavern with Farewell to Sunshine. (Ezra Waller) Grade: B-
· CAT CITY — IN & OUT
Double albums these days rarely work, but if an artist has a good game plan going in, the chances of success increase greatly. Local Jazz troupe Cat City understands this; their two-fer, In & Out, is more a complete calling card than some kind of conceptual manifesto. The Contemporary Jazz/Fusion band splits the set between an "In the Studio" side and a "Out in the Club" one, with the studio material written by the quintet's three composers (bassist Don Aren and pianist Lars Potteiger handle the bulk, while guitarist Ted Karas contributes "Katnip"), while the group tackles other writers' material on Disc Two. The tracks on each are sprawling and spacious, allowing each of the players (drummer Brad Elliott and saxophonist Steve Hoskins round out the band) to show off their laudable chops throughout.
The ranging dynamic of the writing keeps things interesting from start to finish. Aren's material tends to the "smoove" side, while Potteiger's compositions open up more and lay the groundwork for the best playing and arranging. On his high-wire "P.M. (Post Mortem) Five," Karas unspools chunky, progressive guitar riffs over the fluttering sax lines and soulful organ grinds (Elliott unleashes some incredible drum leads as well), bridging the gap between more modernized Fusion acts like The Yellowjackets with earlier pioneers like Weather Report and Miles Davis. In fact, that's what CC does throughout In & Out, showcasing most of the various sides of Fusion but retaining elements of each within each song. The album truly showcases the musical "personality" of each player, which, combined, makes for a never-boring listening experience. The live cover cuts (which actually sound as crisp as the studio material) continue the harmonious multiplicity, with CC's take on material by Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Lee Ritenour and Mike Stern. Cat City plays Blue Wisp Jazz Club every Sunday. (Mike Breen) Grade: B+
· ROGER DRAWDY AND THE FIRESTARTERS — OPEN SEAS, EMPTY SKIES
Mixing traditional Irish music with driving Folk sounds, Roger Drawdy and the Firestarters have unveiled another collection of outstanding songs, Open Seas, Empty Skies. The pounding bodhran and fluttering fiddle give the songs their Celtic flair, while acoustic guitar and electric bass outline and propel the tunes. Drawdy's voice is full of emotion and thick with the drawl of the Emerald Isle. His lyrics are equally evocative and charged with a balance of incendiary passion and thoughtful reverence. The remaining Firestarters contribute sweet vocal harmonies as well as melodic and rhythmic subtleties that push the group beyond the two-dimensional Irish bar band archetype into the realm of a solid, creative unit.
This is their third CD as a band, and their penchant for penning both rollicking crowd pleasers and unbearably dolorous pieces continues to evolve. Their last release, 2003's Live Fire, had the advantage of audience whoops and hollering to punctuate the songs, but for this studio work the band accomplishes this with overdubbed percussion, primarily hi-hat and cymbal swells. This approach detracts from the organic feel of the group somewhat, but without these additions the overall sound of the album might have been too homogenous. Drawdy and his band are staples on the regional pub and festival circuits, but as this CD illustrates his prolific writing has them poised to make a larger mark on modern Celtic music. Roger Drawdy and the Firestarters host a CD release party/concert at Jack Quinn's Thursday. (EW) Grade: B