Monthly Archives: June 2017

Fred Mills: Old Loyalties, New Music, and Boise’s Like A Rocket

For a music journalist, there’s no better feeling than finding out your initial instincts were correct. Meet one of Idaho’s best bands.

BY FRED MILLS

Musically speaking, Idaho tends to ping the national radar only occasionally; for the indie-rock milieu, Josh Ritter and Doug Martsch (Built to Spill) are probably the best-known Idaho native sons. Yet the state does in fact have a thriving music scene, with plenty of bars and breweries on hand to play host. You can count Boise’s Like A Rocket among the extant talent, championing regional breweries and arriving soon with their third full-length, High John The Conqueror.

The trio— guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Bobby “Speedy” Gray, bassist Andy Cenarrusa, drummer Max Klymenko—powers straight outta the gate with raucous, roots-rock raveup “Ain’t It All A Work Song” (it’s below, and also at their Bandcamp page for purchase as first single from the album), sending a sonic statement from the get-go they are here to kick up some dust and kick some ass. Sinewy yet deeply melodic Americana is the name of the game, from the twangy, Georgia Satellites-esque “Follow Me Down (to the party by the river)” and slide guit-powered stomper “The Devil of T.V. Paul’s” to the straight-up country rock of “Tuxedo and Anna Leigh” and lovely, Latin-infused cowboy ballad “Magdalena.”

There’s also the album’s psychological centerpiece, “Dark Blood.” Following the stage-setting, 30-second title track, a rippling acoustic guitar instrumental, this rumbling, brooding blues unfolds as a fatalistic tale of mortal sin and retribution: the former, at the hands of Gray’s haunted protagonist; the latter, courtesy album namesake High John, a living, breathing hellhound on the singer’s trail. Classic blues imagery abounds—roosters that are crowing, muddy waters that keep flowing, slaves on the block, “Tarrytown,” ropes dangling from trees—as Gray, voice framed amid a steadily rising chorus of snarling psychedelic guitars and tense martial percussion, realizes his time is near (“Brother, dear brother, take my fine young wife/ ‘cos I got a meeting comin’ with High John’s knife”). It’s a masterful performance, part Steve Earle, part “Sympathy”-era Stones, part Robert Johnson, all Like A Rocket.

As a band, this is a fluid, flexible beast, shifting easily between multiple styles while maintaining a taut, focused core. (A perfect example of this style-shifting is “Cry Baby Cry” which, with its low, echoey, shantylike vibe, initially suggests classic cosmic twang; but as the tune progresses, it ascends and turns anthemic, a marriage of gospel-inspired vocals and power pop guitars.) With songwriter Gray as their not-so-secret weapon—he seems to have absorbed a lifetime’s worth of influences yet instinctively knows when to put them on display and when to deploy them subtly, and nuanced—the three men also demonstrate a collective gift for arrangements that allows them to transcend the physical limits of a “mere” trio.

Ultimately, with High John The Conqueror, Like A Rocket is—pardon the painfully obvious cliché—clearly poised to take off.

***

Full disclosure: For yours truly, there’s a bit of a personal connection here. During the mid/late ‘80s, in my capacity as music editor for a Charlotte, NC, alt-weekly, I covered Gray’s early band, Helpless Dancer, on multiple occasions, and I instinctively gravitated to their glammy, hard-edged brand of power pop. (I still own a 45 they released during that time.) Their fan base was broad, and devoted. By that point Gray was already a scene veteran with serious chops he’d honed as a teenager touring as part of a gospel group, and after Helpless Dancer he wasted no time in forming a terrific post-punk group dubbed The Dollmakers. After I moved to the Southwest, however, I lost tabs on him, so to not only discover his current outfit now, many years later, but also learn that he made a similar move westward, also in need of a change of scenery, not long after I did makes for an oddly satisfying bit of synchronicity.

See, I’ve always felt that time and distance shouldn’t diminish memories or undermine old loyalties. Support the home team, so to speak. Here in 2017, I frequently encounter favorite musicians from back in the day who are still making stellar art, and in a weird way, having that type of insider knowledge about their backgrounds seems to subtly enhance my appreciation of their current efforts. It’s not necessarily a matter of comparing one incarnation to another one, but rather of having something relevant in common, and I’d reckon anyone can identify with that.

To all the rest of you, there’s plenty about Like A Rocket that, if you have an appreciation for honest, well-wrought, immensely tuneful American rock ‘n’ roll, you’ll be able to identify with. Crank up the stereo (you can get a quick taste at the aforementioned Bandcamp page, including a five-song EP, Raucous, comprising additional material cut during the album sessions) and make up for lost time—just like I’m doing now.

Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT magazine and Blurtonline.com

 

Tim Hinely: THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… California Oranges’ “John Hughes” (2000)

california oranges

Ed note: We continue our series devoted to tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Next was Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulling back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’s Let Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). After that we dipped way back to 1970 for the proto-power pop of Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back,” penned by frontman Michael Fennelly. Now Prof. Hinely dials the wayback machine to 2000, as John Conley talks about his band the California Oranges and their pop gem “John Hughes.”

BY TIM HINELY

You’d think that being two hours east of San Francisco that Sacramento would be a veritable wasteland of musical talent. Ah…but you’d be wrong. Oddly enough for the capitol city of the Golden State (with a population of under 500,000) this hamlet has produced some of the best indie rock music out there. From Tiger Trap to Rocketship to Baby Grand to Arts & Leisure to too many others (you’ll see ‘em below). Well, a big part of that fabric is the music of the crew of John Conley and his sister Katie, the Levine Brothers (Ross and his brother Matt) and Verna Brock (who was also in Rocketship for a time as well as doing her solo project under the name of Beanpole). They’ve been spread out amongst bands like Holiday Flyer, Desario and Soft Science, but there was one band that all of them had passed through at one point: California Oranges.

For their self-titled debut from 2000 (On Darla Records) the band was a trio of John, Verna and Ross. For later albums both Katie and Matt came aboard to make the band a 5-piece, but this particular song, “John Hughes” was from the previously mentioned debut.

For those of us used to the (mostly) very soft sounds of Holiday Flyer, “John Hughes” came popping out of the speakers like an M-80 stuffed inside a high school locker. A joyous blast of unbridled melody. The song is all about a guy trying to get the courage to ask a girl out, which, as we males know, in those high school years were the mostly nerve-racking, anxiety-inducing experience (personally I had to know 100% that the girl liked me before I would even ask her out and even then I’d be ready to have a heart attack while other guys in school, those with no fear at all of rejection, would walk up to any girl an ask them out, usually getting shot down and laugh about it).

“John Hughes” is one of my favorite songs by the California Oranges and I was curious about its origins. I shot some questions over to John Conley and he was more than happy to give me some answers.

BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?

CONLEY: Well, I guess John Hughes and his films. As I teenager I could really identify with the characters. I must have been re-watching at the time. I was also really into Kevin Smith (he is referenced is the song) and his films reminded of the Hughes.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

If I remember correctly, it came together pretty quick.

I think it was one of the last songs I wrote for the first album.

I had the main guitar riff and the melody and first verse.

I remember showing the song to Verna and Ross, and they both really liked it.

I think we knew at that point it would start the album.

Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (i.e.: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?)

I’m pretty sure it was one of our most popular songs. I was going to be featured in a documentary about John Hughes. Ross Levine and I were interview for the movie and the band rerecorded the song to be included on the soundtrack. We were told we made it through the 3rd or 4th cut of the film. During the editing process of the movie John Hughes passed away and the music portion of the movie was shortened.

Here are some links about the film:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0fPLN459_I

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don’t_You_Forget_About_Me_(film)

john conley

Was it a staple of your live sets ever years later?

It stayed in the live set up through the 3rd album.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

No, I think it’s a good snapshot of where I was as a songwriter at the time.

I wanted to do something very different from Holiday Flyer. I feel we mostly succeed. When the band started playing live, one comparisons we got was Belle and Sebastian meets Ramones.

I always liked that.

Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?

I think the recording came out cool. We wrote and recorded that album very quickly. Verna (Brock) and I each had 5 song ideas. We rehearsed with Ross (Levine) 3 or 4 times and recorded and mixed the record in the evenings or a week. JH is my favorite song on that album. I do have some problems with the production on that album as a whole, but “John Hughes” came out great. We also recorded a cover of Vanilla Blue by Naked Raygun during that session that is one of my favorite recordings California Orange did.

How do you feel about it now?
I still really like this song. It’s so different from what I’m doing now in Desario, but I’m proud of this period in my music career.