REVIEW: John T. Baker, “Woodgrain”
John T. Baker is a talented man.
Whether he’s pounding drums for Stolen Sheep, singing harmony vocals and shredding guitar for the Westside Daredevils or creating otherworldly sound textures as part of experimental ambient music collective, he’s a credit to the East Tennessee music scene, a go-to guy for local session work and just a hell of a nice guy all the way around.
Nowhere, it seems, is he more in his element than when he’s making straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, which makes his new album, “Woodgrain,” all the more magnificent. It’s worlds apart from the ambient instrumentals of “Ohm,” released a couple of years back and steers clear of the electronic effects that burnished “Rainbrella,” his last traditional solo effort. This is the John T. Baker fans fell in love with in bands like Martini Age and The French Broads, the guy who can craft a song that’s so infectious it works its way into your head like bacteria into an open wound, resulting in a case of what I like to cleverly call “brain-grene” — the inability to get a melody, a line, a hook out of your head.
“Woodgrain” opens with the jangly, breezy “Drugs in the Water,” a quintessential Baker song — filled with bouncing acoustic guitar and sweet melodies wrapped around his environmentalist’s eye for socially conscious subject matter; in this case, all the pharmaceuticals flushed down toilets and into the nation’s water supply, meaning a guy who pours himself a glass ends up drinking “residue from someone else’s bout with San Francisco sex or Philly pain.”
Baker’s struggles through song are classic themes woven into every one of “Woodgrain”’s songs — from the social, like the aforementioned album opener or “Foreign Relations,” a sunny, upbeat-sounding song instrumentally speaking that simmers beneath the surface with Baker’s anger toward gun nuts and opinionated and overbearing jerks; to the self-reflective, like “Useful” and “Fair Exchange.” There’s even the tale of a violent love story — “Judith Hits Chapman” — about a woman’s struggle to keep her man-child on the straight and narrow.
The liner notes reveal that Baker plays just about everything on this record, including harmonizing with himself. Former V-Roys drummer Jeff Bills guests on one track, as does Westside Daredevil drummer Gray Comer (on guitar) on another; and econopop/Stolen Sheep bandmate George Middlebrooks (who designed a hell of a cover for the record) is all over the record’s final song, “Home.”
In a music scene rife with talent, Baker is one of those guys who flies under the radar — but does so just as capably as anyone who soars above it. He may not have the flamboyance or outrageousness or the brashness of some of his peers, but he’s got the chops, and that’s even better. He makes solid music worth hearing, and for those who may get a little uneasy around music that falls outside the parameters of what they consider “normal,” this is the John T. Baker record with which to get on board. It’s acoustic pop at its finest, and it’s the kind of album that makes you give a little prayer of thanks to live in a town so awash in talent.
John T. Baker CD release show
WITH: Econopop, Jake Winstrom, Greg Horne
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23
WHERE: Sixth floor of The Sunsphere, in World’s Fair Park, downtown Knoxville
HOW MUCH: Free
REVIEW: Quartjar, “42″
Randall Brown and co. come out swinging on “42,” the band’s new album. Literally. This is blues-rock, Brown’s forte, but this is no languid my-life’s-in-the-crapper-so-I’m-gonna-play-some-sad-slow-blues-licks-with-a-little-slide-on-the-side music. This is the kind of dirty, fast-and-furious stuff preferred by bands like the Black Diamond Heavies, only Brown can sing a hell of a lot better.
“Waitin’ on a Bus,” of course, is just the first track, and an indication of where this album is headed. As eclectic and quirky as “Years of a Monkey” was, a lot can happen in three years, and Brown has certainly found a groove that suits him well on “42.” Perhaps it’s the solid lineup — Tory Flenniken on drums and Malcolm Norman have been his partners-in-crime for a while now, and while Quartjar isn’t a band you’ll see out and about every weekend, there’s something to be said for solidarity and practice.
That’s the thing that rises to the surface after repeated listenings to “42″ — this is a crackerjack blues-rock commando team, with Flenniken laying down licks that allow Norman to get in the pocket and bang away on some nice bass grooves, while Brown tops the hill and leads the whole unit into the breach. Whether he’s shifting gears and throwing down a gritty, skittering run as a song like “In the Thick of It” momentarily shifts gears or bringing out the heavy rock guns for the track “Noble Rhino,” Brown is more intense here — concentrating on the power of rock ‘n’ roll to batter fans into submission as much as he is making them laugh with a clever turn of phrase.
He doesn’t sacrifice that sly wit — “Not a Cowboy,” if anything, is a love song in reverse, with the protagonist (Brown, presumably writing to his beloved Becky) talking about everything he’s not; and “Someday (I’m Gonna Die)” is atypical Brown — ruminations on death delivered with the casual sort of laid-back vibe you get when you meet the man in person. Even on a bruiser like “Noble Rhino,” he takes the time to give a nod to the great beasts of the African plain, including the tortoise.
Humor in whatever form has been an East Tennessee tradition dating back to the days of Smokin’ Day and the Premo Dopes, and Quartjar carries that on with admirable flair. (It’s no wonder that Smokin’ Dave front dude Todd Steed opted to cover Quartjar’s “Crosstown Waltz” on the WUTK-FM “ReDistilled” compilation a few years back.) But when it’s employed as part of rock ‘n’ roll, the music has to be more than good, or else the funny stuff falls flat and feels awkward. It’s a testament to Brown’s personality and skill that “42″ still is funny while seeming more serious — and certainly heavier — than the band’s last album.
The album closes with two interesting tracks of note — “My Green Heaven,” a shambling, sprawling epic that’s equal parts Neil Young and The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and the instrumental engine-gunner “18 Miles to Maryville / What If?,” which, if somebody ever makes a “Smokey and the Bandit”-style road movie taking place strictly along Alcoa Highway, should definitely be included on the soundtrack.
IF YOU GO
Quartjar CD release event
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3
WHERE: The Disc Exchange, 2615 Chapman Highway, Knoxville
HOW MUCH: Free