Ampeater Music

Welcome to Ampeater Music. You'll notice that we've totally stripped the design. We were getting tired of the old one, and the best way to force ourselves to fix it was to dive in head first. We've unpublished all our past posts, and we're starting at the beginning, revamping each entry one at a time. They'll all be back up on the site soon enough! In the meantime, we hope you'll take the opportunity to reacquaint yourself with our back catalog. We'll also be making incremental improvements to the look and functionality of our dear old Ampeater over the coming weeks and months. Please be patient, and stay tuned for some really cool stuff. It's coming, we promise.

AEM033 Freshwater

AEM033 Freshwater

Generally I write about bands but today I’m going to write about an album, Cold Duck Complex Presents Freshwater: Bad Love. Skirting the gray area between solo album and full band release, Bad Love is a collaborative effort, the musical voice of Joe Cardozo (alias Freshwater) filtered through the hip-hop/rock/jazz machine that for the last 7 years has been called Cold Duck Complex. Our story begins in Amherst, MA in 2002 when the Cold Duck Trio, a jazz and funk group featuring Cardozo on bass, Makaya McCraven on drums, and Jeff D’Antona on keys, began collaborating with rapper Platypus Complex.

The first time I saw Cold Duck Complex play was in the winter of 2004 in my high school gymnasium. It was a pretty thin crowd, maybe 40 or 50 kids standing around with their hands in their pockets, not really getting into the groove. A lackluster sound system, shitty acoustics, and faculty chaperones sipping coffee in the corner didn’t contribute much to the mood. But in spite of the uninspiring ambiance, I was floored. Cold Duck Complex grabbed my ear and wouldn’t let go.

Admittedly, that was a long time ago. I was an impressionable seventeen-year-old with a budding interest in jazz which seemed completely at odds with my secret love for hip hop. By hip hop, I really mean main stream chart topping MTV jams because this was before I delved into the wide world of underground hip hop. I was confused. I hated popular music on principle. I had recently begun playing the bass, and consequently viewed funk as the pinnacle of musical evolution. I spent my days salivating at Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten solos. I couldn’t respect a genre in which the music took a back seat and the vocalist got all the glory, but something about hip hop moved me.

And then I saw Cold Duck Complex. This wasn’t some guy spitting raps over an uninspired sampled beat. It was a funk band with a rapper. Platypus Complex knew how to tear up the mic, but he also knew when to step down and let the band indulge in a ten-minute extended funk jam. And jam they can. The name Cold Duck Trio is a nod to the jazz standard “Cold Duck Time” by Eddie Harris so as you might expect the band is well schooled in jazz and funk. Moreover, they play together with incredible synergy, each member an astute listener and participant a musical conversation. Eureka.

Now that I dwell on it, I might have been one of those kids with my hands in my pockets but if I was, it wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm. If I wasn’t dancing, it’s because I was straining to catch every word, every note. And I’m pretty sure I was nodding in silent agreement. After the show I picked up a copy of Figure Heads and popped it into my player the second I got back to my room. It stayed there for months. And although my musical tastes have evolved considerably over the past 5 years, Cold Duck Complex is one band that I’ve kept coming back to.

If you’re gonna like Cold Duck Complex you have to accept the fact that this is a white boy rapping. And yes, he does sound a little like Eminem, at least until you listen to what he’s saying. But Platypus Complex is one of my favorite lyricists out there. His rhymes are sometimes profound, sometimes goofy, but always clever and delivered with impeccable flow. And in an era where both culture (pop stars) and counter culture (hipsters) are obsessed with image, it’s refreshing that Platapus Complex doesn’t try to be somebody he’s not.

“I ain’t wholesome authenticity trip for hip hop, aight? I grew up in a town without a stoplight.”

And so I was pretty disappointed in 2007 when the band started to dissolve. First D’Antona left the group. He was replaced by Darby Wolf but before long McCraven moved west to Chicago, while Cardozo and Platypus Complex headed south to New York. Although Cold Duck Complex had acquired a solid fan base throughout the northeastern United States and Europe, logistics made regular collaboration and performance impossible.

And then from the dust Freshwater was born. Cardozo was offered a grant by friend and studio/venue owner Ed Wierzbowski of the Art and Music Factory which allowed him to dedicate himself fully to his musical endeavors. He proposed to his band mates that he take the lead on a project focused on his work as a producer and composer and they agreed. So it began. Two years later, in July 2009, Cold Duck Complex Presents Freshwater: Bad Love was released.

Cardozo composed most of the music on the album but all members of Cold Duck Complex added their own touches. Cardozo explains, “whether someone plays a part I came up with or not, they always add their own flavor to it.”

Essentially, Freshwater is what happens when you take Platypus Complex’s unique lyricism and flow along with the funky instrumentals of the Cold Duck trio and pimp them out in the studio. Extra vocals, more instruments, and a masterful production job make for a big sound. The epic builds that Cold Duck Complex hinted at in songs like Lucky Me, are executed to extremes under the umbrella of Freshwater. It’s often over the top, but that’s part of the fun. The chiller numbers sound a bit like G Love n Special Sauce, the heavy and often politically charged numbers approach Rage Against the Machine, and the sexually charged funk jams are reminiscent of vintage Red Hot Chili Peppers.

A-side “They Don’t Wanna Dance” most closely falls into the first category. A catchy instrumental hook, tight beat, and picked bass provide ample momentum in this laid back jam. Normally I’m skeptical of any rapper that spends to long talking about rap, but in this case I think it works pretty well. For the most part, it’s reflective rather than egotistical. One of my favorite lines — “to the melody of my melancholy machine, I do my best to forget what I mean.” The chorus expands upon Platypus’s personal chronicles, lamenting the way so many musicians take themselves too seriously and have forgotten how to have fun. “They don’t wanna dance no more, they just wanna watch the clock tick.” And dance is exactly what Freshwater does (in a metaphorical sense) in the song’s triumphant ending which features a peppy trumpet section and Alecia Chakour’s one woman gospel choir.

B-side “Coming Home” is lyrically a bit more edgy. Platypus Complex gets up on his soapbox does some old fashioned preaching, weaving extended metaphor after extended metaphor.

“Been a prisoner of flesh, a servant to nerve endings
A straight and narrow arrow in a curve bending
Been the archer and the target, the marcher and the carpet
The civilian and the sergeant following free markets”

At first his message seems political, but in the final line of the first verse he shifts directions — “But all I’m trying to say is I’ve never been in love like I love you today.” In context, it sounds as if he’s confessing his love for the music. And so, it’s only natural that the last two minutes the music pushes its way to the front of the mix. Again, Cardozo builds another epic ending in the studio. Perhaps this one takes it overboard, with stadium-rock drum fills and more stacked vocals from Chakour. But I love the soaring bass solo (if such a thing isn’t an oxymoron) which rises to the top despite by being drowned in fuzzy effects. It’s the great transition into the end, a quiet fizzle, which fades without a bang, making it hard to delineate where the music stops. A perfect choice for the final cut on the album.

In short, kudos to Cardozo for taking the initiative and keeping things going (and I truly mean going, not just maintaining the status quo) despite the geographic distance. All I can say is that I hope Freshwater doesn’t remain exclusively a studio project, because this kind of music is so much fun to see live.

AEM025 Swimming in Speakers

AEM025 Swimming in Speakers
  • Personnel: Chris Clarke, Meadow Eliz

I love the internet.  It’s great to live in an age where two ordinary friends in a small town in Upstate New York can self produce an extraordinary EP and rise to indie fame in a matter of months.  Or perhaps multi-instrumentalist Chris Clarke and vocalist Meadow Eliz were not so ordinary to begin with.  Nevertheless, the pair have done pretty well for themselves considering that they met little more than a year ago.  Here’s a short chronology of their efforts: October 2008: Eliz and Clarke meet at bowling alley in Saranac Lake, Population 5041.  Shortly afterwards, they cross paths at the deli in which Eliz is working.  From these humble beginnings a strong friendship is formed.

Fall 2008: Eliz and Clarke work together composing music for a student theatre production at St. Lawrence University.  They enjoy collaborating so much that they decide to continue making music after the production ends.

Winter 2009: Eliz and Clarke find relief from the snowy subzero climate of Saranac Lake in Clarke’s home studio.  Armed with a Casio keyboard, a laptop, a hodge-podge of analog equipment, and a bit of instrumentation help from some friends, they record and produce an EP under the name Swimming in Speakers.

From there, it all happened virtually overnight.  Eliz and Clarke quickly become “darlings of the internet.” They’ve been interviewed on a number of blogs and radio stations and their song “In Knowing” was aired on BBC 6 Music with an introduction by Tom Robinson.

Everybody loves a happy ending, but happy beginnings are nice too and Swimming in Speakers has had an unusually happy beginning.  Sure they’ve gotten a few lucky breaks, but that’s not to say that their success is undeserved.  On the contrary, I think they have potential to be huge.  And with any luck, this feature in The Ampeater Review will catapult them into the upper echelons of stardom (or more likely, their success will help this modest website get a few more views).  That said, I’m going to stop pontificating for a moment and give the music a chance to speak for itself.

A-side “In Knowing” is the first cut and obvious radio single off Swimming In Speakers EP. It has a strong grove and enough hooks to catch any listener.  The recording is masterfully produced, with bubbling synths bouncing around in stereo and layers of vocals overdubbed in all the right places.  Normally I’m a bit wary of any band that uses a Casio keyboard en lieu of a drummer, but in this case it’s the perfect fit.

However, if the catchy synth-pop instrumentals are what grabbed me on the first listen, its Eliz’s soft voice and off-kilter lyrics that have made a lasting impression and differentiate “In Knowing” from other infectious jams.  The verses are meandering and verbose and don’t follow a clear rhyme scheme.  One of my favorite lines:

“I complete this representation of a utopian love affair within which you perform.”

The chorus, in contrast, is a simple refrain.  It’s easy to remember, but packed with ambiguity.

“In knowing how do you decide…”

Eliz’s delivery is completely relaxed.  Although her voice is produced, it retains a distinctly natural quality.  And yet, it never seems at odds with the glossy instrumentals.  The two interact playfully, like the best of friend.

Like Eliz and Clarke.  Perhaps that’s a good way to think about Swimming in Speakers…  It’s the kind of music that only friends could make.  Eliz and Clarke have remarkable chemistry.   In an interview for American Indie, Clarke explained their songwriting process.

“Usually, I will write a phrase or riff or beat or all three – Meadow will listen to all the ideas I have come up with over a couple of days – if something sparks her interest, we’ll lay down some vocals. If we like what we have, Meadow will hunt for some lyrics, and we’ll refine the melody.”

Or, for a better glimpse into their creative process, check out this lyric sheet.  Clarke typed the lyrics, and Eliz is responsible for the corrections, doodles and all.

Swimming In Speakers - Lyric Sheet

Both Eliz and Clarke are self taught musicians. In fact, Eliz explains that as a child she was prohibited from taking voice lessons because her mom “didn’t want someone tinkering with my instrument.” An unusual decision, but definitely the right one.  Uncorrupted by theory, the pair embrace their natural understanding of music.

Although Swimming in Speakers began as a studio project, fueled by their success, Clarke and Eliz have recruited a number of friends to help flush out their live set. The current lineup includes Kyle Murray on drums and percussion, Christina Grant on cello, and Colin Dehond on additional instrumentation. Live, they have an incredibly organic feel and employ an amazing array of strings and percussion, as well as instrumentation you couldn’t imagine (e.g. didgeridoo, mouth harp, etc).  Since the transformation of Swimming in Speakers from a studio project into a performing band, the group has moved in a slightly new direction, putting more focus on acoustic instruments.

B-side “Nevergreen” is a stripped down acoustic ditty.  The arrangement is remarkably sparse; the only instruments are a tinny lightly-picked acoustic guitar, and a sweet cello.  On the second verse, reversed sounds bounce around in stereo, but only peripherally, as an extra color rather than a focal point.  The nuances of Eliz’s voice are more readily apparent when not competing for attention with heavy synths.  While the lyrics of “Nevergreen” are relatively simple, but she does a lot with her phrasing and articulation.

“Oh wait, once more, will you come back to me…”

She plays with that “me” for three times the length of the phrase, bending in and out of a soft falsetto.

As Swimming in Speakers rounds their one year anniversary, it will be interesting to see how they evolve.  How will the calm sounds of Saranac Lake mesh with the bustle of NYC?  Eagerly awaiting a full length album.

  • Music has been removed at the artist's request.

AEM024 Tres Coronas

AEM024 Tres Coronas
  • Location: Andover, MA
  • Personnel: Thomas McDonell (guitar & vox), Jeremy Beecher (bass), Jami Makan (drums)

Tres Coronas was formed in early 2004 by students at one of America’s most elite boarding schools. Surprising? Well, perhaps it is, but in a way it makes perfect sense. Without Stalin could there have been a Mandelstam a Bulgokov? Without the Vietnam War, could there have been a Woodstock? Maybe I’m getting a bit carried away with my metaphors, but the point I’m trying to make is that often art is reactionary. What use is rebellion without something to rebel against? And so it came to be that Tres Coronas, one of the edgiest bands out there, was born in a stuffy and sterile environment.

The energetic 3-piece features Thomas McDonell on vocals and guitar, Jeremy Beecher on bass, and Jami Makan on drums. Front man McDonell is the driving force behind the band. He wrote most of the band’s material alone, then brought his sketches into the practice room where Beecher and Makan flushed them out with a bit of their own flavor.

The name Tres Coronas is a nod to Beecher’s hometown Corona del Mar, California and also a clear reference to la cerveza mas fina (underage drinking was an offense worthy of probation).

Their music is filled with fiery adolescent spirit. A-side “Sick Parade” comes from their self titled EP, recorded during their boarding school days on shoddy equipment in a tiny music practice room. Needless to say, it isn’t a hallmark of high fidelity. There’s some pretty heavy clipping on the drum fills and the cymbals crash with so much force that they were jokingly dubbed the “death gong” by the band. But it’s hard to imagine how Tres Coronas could have recorded a more perfect album. The lo-fi aesthetic meshes beautifully with their raw and punchy attitude.

“Sick Parade” is a punk anthem. And in traditional punk fashion, it’s practically impossible to make out the words. A few key phrases emerge from the dust…. control, girls, alone. But I’ll be honest; I’ve listened to this recording dozens of times and I still have no idea what McDonell is saying. His voice exudes sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. You don’t need to understand the words to feel the attitude. This isn’t incredibly nuanced music. It’s three musicians beating the shit out of their instruments. And they do it better than almost anyone. Although the result is raw, it’s never sloppy. Makan’s fills are crisp, hits are in perfect unison, and McDonell’s singing (er… screeching?) is spot on. It’s one thing to achieve precision in the studio but it’s another thing to achieve it live, and “Sick Parade” is essentially a live take.

B-side “The Horror” reveals Tres Coronas at a very different stage in their musical and psychological development.  The track was recording during a one week recording session in Trinidad, California on the northern shores of the Pacific Ocean. The result is 3-track EP with a surprisingly relaxed vibe. The change is almost as pronounced as their change in location, as shocking as the difference between snowy New England and the sunny California beach, and this difference is epitomized by “The Horror”, the first cut from their “Trinidad” session.

Whereas A-side “Sick Parade” is extremely concise, “The Horror” stretches on lazily. At 4:36, it’s a full thirty seconds longer than the longest cut off their first EP. The band is in no rush, and why should they be when it’s so damned nice outside? The recording quality is undoubtedly better too, by which I mean less abrasive, although I must confess that I miss the “death gong” and clipping.

Unlike “Sick Parade”, this is the kind of song you can sing along with after one listen…

“I’m not gonna waste my time
Loving you means something more
I swear, I swear”

The pre-chorus will probably catch you by surprise the first time around. The reflective verse is interrupted by crashing drums and a blaring B-3 organ. But the second time around it seems a bit more congruous. And when the final chorus hits, the song falls together and soars onto a new plane.

“The horror of love…”

It’s one of those catchy ironic refrains that can repeat indefinitely. In this case, it only goes on for a minute, but it feels like three. A bluesy organ solo from Beecher sneaks in at the end. Those four uplifting chords (conventional as they may be) capture all the highs and lows of love, the horror but also the hope. And above all, they’re brutally catchy.

So is this Tres Coronas reinventing themselves as a pop band? “The Horror” is certainly a stylistic leap, but it’s still very much a Tres Coronas song. McDonell’s voice retains its characteristic bad-ass punch but adopts a more melodic quality. Makan’s machine gun fills find their place in the mix, just not so loud. Sometimes a band needs that one soft song in their set. This is that song.

Today, Tres Coronas is quasi-defunct. The trio is spread across the country, so they don’t have much time to gig. They only reunite for the occasional show or recording session.  I’ve listened to their complete works so many times that were they on vinyl, they’d have been reduced to a pile of dust long ago. Luckily, they’re on MP3 so I can keep going back for more. And if the band is reading this now, I’d like to remind them that they still have at least one dedicated listener ready to greet any new material with open ears.

AEM015 James William Roy

AEM015 James William Roy
  • Location: New York, NY
  • Links: Website

James William Roy has been making music since before I was born.  He picked up the bass in 1982 and the guitar shortly afterward.  He began recording his own music at home on an 8-track long before it was considered ‘retro’ to do so.  Over the years he’s been in more bands than one could comfortably keep track of; Tin Honey GoldIdiot Purge, and St. Bastard, to name a few.  If you’re looking for a few hours of entertainment, a full listing is available at thejamesrocket.com.  Currently Roy plays bass in A Bunch of Girls, which he describes lovingly as “the last rock band in NYC.” And in between gigs, he somehow finds the time to hold down a full time job, maintain a healthy marriage, and to write and produce some pretty fresh music.

Roy isn’t the hippest of rockers, if you couldn’t tell by his press photo.  He confesses that he’ll never be featured on latfh.com “because I’m older and wiser and married and work and have some self-respect… but mainly because I’m older.” With his busy life, Roy likes to keep his music short and snappy.  No pretension, no deadweight, and no holds barred.

“I do my songwriting and recording I generally only have a few hours at a shot to get something down in rudimentary form, and anything thereafter I have to add as I can. If the lyric, especially, isn’t finished quickly, a song can linger on unfinished for years; I’ll get sick of it, and get stuck unless I can move on to the next one. So it’s better for me to have a short lyric and a short tune that I can tie up quickly in an afternoon, then mix over the next week or so in little shots, and stick a fork in it and call it done.”

Roy’s lyrics are intelligent and a bit off kilter.  They’re often edgy but he also has a sensitive side, and isn’t afraid to appeal to it.  A-side “Shiny Dark Bar” concludes

You look like shit but you feel like a star
Get out of your head in the shiny dark bar
I accept you for who you are
So lay down your guard in the shiny dark bar
I’ll kiss your face if you lead me that far
Let’s keep it right here in the shiny dark bar
Give up your keys and forget your car
And lay down your head on the shiny dark bar

Roy’s voice has just the right amount of attitude.  It’s whiny when it should be whiny, smooth when it should be smooth.  Vocals are supported by crunchy guitars and drum machine.  The lush harmonies that come in at the extended chorus offer a nice repose from the heavier verse.

On B-side “The New Red Scare”Roy demonstrates a penchant for sarcasm and rebellion reminiscent of early punk, which perhaps isn’t so surprising since he was a teenager at the time bands like The Ramones and The Clash were starting to blow up.

Hide your pistols and hide your grandma, Census bureau’s
Here comes another load of shit, stinks to heaven and it fills the streets
It commands our attention and it keeps our asses in the seats
Or so they seem to think but
Someone’s screaming
That the commies are coming
That they’ll take all our money
And if you believe that, I got a bridge to sell ya…

“The New Red Scare” is a whopping one minute and twenty-two seconds long.  Perhaps that’s taking the whole short and snappy thing a little too far.  But it leaves this listener wanting more, and when two listens clock in at less than three minutes, repeat listens are easy to justify.  Simply while writing the last two paragraphs, I made it through 5 consecutive listens.  I’m about to go for six.  Already I fear that I’ll be up all night singing along.

According to Roy, both tracks are merely demos.  His greatest hit is probably Paper Valentines which, incidentally, is soon to become a play along chart on Rock Band.  But he chose “Shiny Dark Bar” and “The New Red Scare” over some of his more polished material because they are what he’s working on at the moment.  And perhaps that’s why Roy’s music seems so real.  After almost thirty years, he’s still living in the moment, always creating something new.

 

AEM014 Rosalind Schonwald

AEM014 Rosalind Schonwald

Providence-based singer Rosalind Schonwald is my Model Martian Moon Girl and here’s why… She’s got a great voice and sings with remarkable maturity for a nineteen year old. Well versed in both jazz and classical music, she approaches pop with a strong theoretical background, but she isn’t too haughty to have a little fun with it. Her music is accessible but intriguing enough to warrant repeat listens. And while her lyrics are superficially cute and clever, they don’t shy away from heavier topics. Consider the A-Side, a love song for a non-existent “Model Martian Moon Boy.”

Schonwald claims that the refrain, “You’re my Model Martian Moon Boy,” is nonsensical, but beneath the silliness she questions the danger of dependency.

Oh, when you finally find yourself under all those good intentions
I want you for myself in a way I’d rather not mention

You’re the armor that protects me…
And I’ll keep you if it wrecks me

Schonwald alternates between the hyper-metaphorical and the specific, so the listener never knows exactly what imagery to expect.

Right now you’re the treetops that sweetly grace the stars
Right now you have the only shoulders I want to lean on.

Her controlled vibrato on the high notes conveys a sense of ambiguity, both the power and vulnerability that love offer.

Clocking in at nearly seven minutes, “Model Martian Moon Boy” isn’t exactly a radio hit. There is so little harmonic variation that with a few small cuts the song could be reduced to three minutes. But it’s no accident that Schonwald allows it stretch on luxuriously. She delivers her lyrics deliberately but slowly, so that you never know quite when the end of the phrase is going to fall. Surrender and enjoy the lullaby.

Schonwald wrote “Helen’s Song” about her grandmother. Although thematically quite different from “Model Martian Moon Boy,” Schonwald explains, “I conceived of both of them as a series of images within a world with fantastical properties while I wrote them. My grandmother never sat in her living room yanking a chain relating to fate, and I’ve never seen a treetop graze a star, let alone making contact with one, but in both cases I found the creation of such imagery to be a very real and concrete release of emotion.” Real emotion behind the fantasy.

Her mind stays sharp but her body is breaking
Always giving never taking
It’s preposterous to me
How she could cease to be
I can’t see I can’t hardly believe

Until the refrain, the music is repressed, tense, sparse, and hesitant. But in the last minute of the recording, Schonwald builds into a powerful and uplifting bluesy progression.

You’ll see that she is flying, she’s flying, there she goes…

Her voice soars along with the lyrics, and when she finally returns to the beginning theme, it’s with a heightened sense of awareness.

Schonwald is often compared to Regina Spektor and it’s easy to see why. They have similar voices, play the piano, are heavily influenced by jazz, and share a penchant for quirky lyrics. If you like Regina, particularly her earlier work, you’ll probably like Rosalind Schonwald. But let’s not dismiss Rosalind Schonwald as a mere Regina Spektor imitation, even though that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. Schonwald’s style is more minimalist than Spektor’s. She avoids conventional song structure, preferring to take things slowly, allowing her songs to develop at a relaxed pace. She doesn’t over-complicate and she doesn’t dumb it down… and the result is something really pleasant. She could be a hit in any coffee shop from Brooklyn to Timbuktu!