Big Surprises, Small labels

(Appeared on October 16, 1997)

Sometimes big surprises come from small record labels, and the Big Room O' Music has been spinning lately with some great stuff that caught me off-guard. Sha-La Records released an album by Shotgun Symphony that could shape the future of hard rock, if anyone else is talented and daring enough to follow them. Renaissance Records gave us the debut by Jenny Labow, adult alternative rock from a massively promising newcomer. Lastly, Hudson Valley Records shone Full Moon Bay down on us with a solid, polished first production from a small independent label, which happens to feature a singing cockatiel. There's something for everyone in the Big Room -- check 'em out:

Shotgun Symphony -- _Forget The Rain_ (Sha-La Records, 1997)

Sporting a titular suggestion obviously intended for Ithacans, these formidable musicians from New Jersey set out to change the direction of hard rock music and wound up releasing THE album find of 1997 for any hard rock fan. There's really nothing else quite like it out there, which I know doesn't help you readers much, but comparisons really just scratch the surface of the accomplishment of the record. It is a relentless, mature, awe-inspiring combination of the best elements of progressive and melodic hard rock, laced with modern elements of psychedelia and grungy undertones. Charlie Calv's keyboards show power and craft, alternately the foundations and frills of the songs, appropriate but not excessive in the context of the other fine vocal and instrumental performances. The band rocks with the power of Dream Theater, but the tunes are what make the album such a success, from the twisted melodicism of "Two Wrongs" to the perfect Pop/Prog/Metal fusion of album-opener "Carousel Of Broken Dreams". Other critics have mentioned their power-pop songwriting sensibilities or their cleverly extravagant song-craft, and both elements are present on the record. One critic even described the performance (in spots) as a mix between The Cure and Yes, a cross-breeding I couldn't even _imagine_ until I heard this record. This is a brilliantly produced and performed album ready to challenge and thrill anyone with an open mind and a taste for aggressive rock. It successfully flies in the faces of conventions I never knew existed before as one of the best, most unforgettable albums I've heard in a long, long time.

Jenny Labow -- _Flourish_ (Renaissance Records, 1997)

Jenny Labow earns the comparisons she gets to Natalie Merchant or Shawn Colvin, but there's more to the aptly-titled _Flourish_ than the mature and sensuous vocals of the remarkable 23 year old. Her vocal performance is stunning, but what sets this record apart from albums from the other three trillion women singing adult alternative rock these days (it _does_ feel that way, doesn't it?) is Labow's songwriting and the band's performance. The tunes alternately convey the subtle melancholy of Natalie Merchant's best work, the soaring intensity of Sarah McLachlan, and the earthy sharp melodicism of Toad The Wet Sprocket's more recent tracks from _Dulcinea_ and _Coil_. The first single is "Angel Of Silence", but listeners who stop there will miss the overall power of the album. Standout tunes on _Flourish_ include "Graveyard Nights", which should certainly be the next single, the lean, percussive "Loneliest Road", "Fire And Ice", and the gorgeous, evocative album closer "Fade Away". This is an easy album to miss, coming from a label mostly known for re-issues, but for fans of this sort of alterna-pop, it is a welcome and wonderful surprise, easily in a league with the best in the genre.

Full Moon Bay -- _Back Into The Night_ (Hudson Valley Records, 1997)

This record has a singing cockatiel. It also has some slick, sweet folk-based pop music reminiscent of singles from Dan Fogelberg, Firefall, and other acts of that ilk. This is a uniformly beautiful record, gentle and sweet, with lilting acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies and an appropriately mellow rhythm section. And a singing cockatiel. Standout tracks are hard to find; every track is sweetly engaging, successfully geared to the folk-pop and Adult Contemporary music audiences. And there lies the only problem with the album, for me: There's diversity on _Back Into The Night_, lovely sax lines and accordion accompaniment, but there's no _grit_ to be found, no subtly aggressive percussion, no cutting electric guitar, not even a slyly sinister minor-key modulation in the songwriting. So, folk-ROCK fans may not enjoy it so much, but for folk-pop fans looking for sweet, beautifully performed, well-crafted music, Full Moon Bay is sure to hit the spot. And they probably won't be able to stop telling their friends about the cockatiel and its rendition of "Tequila", either.

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Eric Aaron is not a singing cockatiel. He is, however, a graduate student and a guitarist for Ithaca band The EFFECT who in past lives has done stints as a disc jockey, music columnist, songwriter and studio musician.


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