FREE: Despite being separated by continents, vocalist and composer Rob Martinez (above) and long time collaborator and Karma Frog label head Adam Marsland managed to turn in one of the most engaging new releases in recent months with Maybe Miss America, Martinez's third outing for the ambitious Southern California label.  Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell takes a closer look at their collaborative efforts below (Click on above image to enlarge).


Jon Batiste (Verve)

It takes a village.

In recent years, that phrase has often been invoked to highlight a variety of socio-political concerns that are most assuredly outside of the subject at hand.

But in terms of music, the Village (that is, Greenwich Village) has served as a geographical touchstone of sorts for a number of musical landmarks. Such iconic visionaries as John Coltrane and Herbie Mann both recorded live albums at Village locales, each of which contributed substantially to their respective formidable legacies. 

Recorded live at the Village Vanguard (a staple of the Greenwich Village music and arts community since 1935), Chronology Of A Dream is multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste's latest bid for co-keeper of the flame. A fixture on late night television for the past several years, Batiste has taken a decisively cerebral approach to his own work.

For example, Batiste aligns himself herein in spots with the mission statements of such pioneers as Lou Donaldson and Horace Silver. To that effect, Soulful takes the basic template of the latter's Song For My Father and gradually crescendos into the proceedings with a combination of deference and assurance that does the concept justice. 

Likewise, Higher drifts in and out of the otherworldly atmosphere that frequently graced the recordings of Bill Evans and Vince Guaraldi. In true Village tradition, the audience voices its decisive approval during Batiste's sympathetic keyboard solos. 

Conversely, the rollicking Kenner draws from such boogie piano masters as Zez Confrey, Fats Waller and Leroy Carr, in particular professing solidarity with Carr's 1930 Vocalion label Papa's On The Housetop collaboration with Scrapper Blackwell. That euphoric momentum is sustained effectively (albeit in a decisively different vein) with the set closer, Ordr.

Most assuredly, Greenwich Village and its celebrated musical outlets have long been a key factor in realizing the dreams of those who made their mark in a substantial way. For Jon Batiste, Chronology Of A Dream  concurrently represents a decisive step towards making that dream a reality.

The Doughboys (RAM)

In today's polarized society, finding common ground can ultimately prove to be beneficial.

While the Doughboys themselves may not necessarily be a cut and dry example of the modern day overall socio/political dichotomy, theirs is nonetheless a mission statement which in recent years has exhibited subtle signs of fragmentation. As one of the few still active pioneers of first generation garage rock, the venerable quartet has seen its share of differences of vision in its collective mission statement. 

To wit, drummer Richard X. Heyman has recorded concurrently and prolifically as a solo artist. Although his most recent release, Pop Circles (for his own Turn-Up label) does not follow as closely the purist perspective evidenced in his previous albums, among his colleagues, Heyman has nonetheless remained the most steadfast in his resolve to maintain the vision initially set by the band via the release of their pair of classic 1967 singles for Larry Uttal's Bell Records. 

Conversely, during the Doughboys' protracted hiatus, co-founder Myke Scavone persevered for a season with Epic Records veterans Ram Jam. That band's signature single, a most hard hitting interpretation of Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter's Black Betty, showcases a penchant for the amped up basics hybrid that has carried over into much of the Doughboys' most recent work. In turn, lead guitarist Gar Francis (who succeeded Doughboys co-founder Willy Kirchofer in that capacity upon the latter's passing in 2005) has demonstrated a considerable passion for a like minded overall approach in his own prolific body of solo and extracurricular ventures.

On the surface, such deviations from the straight and narrow may not seem to be of much concern or consequence. Even so, among the most dedicated of artists, the splitting of lesser hairs has been known to facilitate even greater reaction in some musical circles. As such, it was inevitable that a band whose members were astute and discerning enough to have persevered off and on for more than a half century would be able to recognize and address such matters before they became of greater concern.

While perhaps not as esoteric as hoped for among the band's most discerning devotees, the resultant Running For Covers nonetheless irrefutably demonstrates that the basic tenets of the Doughboys' original mission statement is more than sufficient to both sustain them and to endure any subsequent collaborations that might give precedence to individual vision. To that effect, given that their founding principles were driven by their allegiance to first generation garage rock, the choice of Question Mark And The Mysterians' 1966 signature Pa Go Go and Cameo Records single, 96 Tears may appear to be a curious one. 

Curious in that Question Mark And The Mysterians remain active to the present day, and likewise have dozens of singles and albums to their own credit. And while the much loved Saginaw/Bay City area quintet's overall repertoire remains ripe for cover, any such attempts by definition will omit a crucial component of its basic template without the prominent keyboards that characterizes the bulk of their repertoire, especially its most obvious example. And as a basic guitar, bass and drums outfit, the Doughboys at best in this specific instance can only offer an earnest tribute. To their considerable credit, they did just that. 

Most encouragingly, the remainder of the material herein fares somewhat better in that respect. To wit, while the one/two punch of beloved virtuoso guitarist Derek "Lek" Leckenby on Herman's Hermits' original My Reservation's Been Confirmed serves as a prototype of sorts of the Doughboys' own contemporary work, herein Gar Francis remains comparatively subdued in that respect, with much of the slack taken up by Scavone's harmonica fills. Likewise, their interpretation of the Joseph "Joe South" Souter-penned Yo Yo owes more to the approach of such second generation garage rock aspirants as the Unclaimed or the Lyres than it does to the Billy Joe Royal original.

With any such expectations duly downplayed  as a result, the Doughboys are then free to throw caution to the wind and simply celebrate a cadre of songs that speak to them for reasons that are subject to no further degree of scrutiny over and above their personal preferences. The beneficiaries of such artistic license are spirited renditions of the Band's The Shape I'm In (which interestingly enough was also a staple of the aforementioned Herman's Hermits' live set throughout much of the 1970s), David Essex's Rock On, Lambert, Hendricks And Ross' sublime Moanin' and  Neil Diamond's Bang Records-era staple, Solitary Man. The Doughboys even made a most hearting reaffirmation of solidarity with largely faithful recreations of their own Bell Records singles, Rhoda Mendelbaum and Everybody Knows My Name

How the Doughboys will take this renewing of their vows into their future work remains to be seen. But as any band that has opted to Play With Fire (as they have herein with their upbeat take on the Rolling Stones' 1965 cut of the same name) is fully aware, it can indeed be a refiner's fire for the most resilient.


Richard X. Heyman (Turn-Up)

Sometimes a circle contains only 180 degrees.

As his long time bandmates in the Doughboys take a brief hiatus from their seemingly fragmented mission statement to reaffirm their original vision as still active veterans of first generation garage rock via their Running For Covers album for RAM Records, drummer Richard X. Heyman has opted to confound expectations by going in a different direction with Pop Circles, his latest in a long string of acclaimed solo releases.

Heyman has long been the most inclined towards the purist perspective among the Doughboys, who have persevered off and on for more than a half century with three-quarters of their original line up intact. Nonetheless, Heyman herein seems more inclined towards the softer and more introspective, like minded approach of the equally prolific, Washington-based composer and vocalist Dana Countryman.

While Countryman draws the bulk of his inspiration from the occasional gems that surfaced during the overall protracted aesthetic musical slump in which the musical mainstream found itself for much of the early 1970s, Heyman herein astutely keeps such touchstones at bay in order to better showcase his diverse compositional skills. The results are at once both familiar and refreshingly novel, as evidenced in the classic singer/songwriter template of As Love Would Have It, the otherworldly high drama of Marlena, the quasi-country vibe of In A Sunlit Room, the latently first generation rock-flavored Upside And Down, and the somewhat telling mid-tempo Everything Must Go.

To at least endeavor to remain true to form (and perhaps peripherally placate the most discerning amongst his faithful in the process), Heyman closed out the proceedings with five tracks collectively known as Richie's Three-Chord Garage. While not exactly purist in the most sublime first generation garage rock sense, Until Now, Long Way Down, Land, Route 22 and Until The Clock Strikes Doom do at least suggest a profession of solidarity with the Doughboys' subtle variations on their basic mission statement found in much of their recent work. And that, in keeping with Heyman's own astute observation in the final moments of the twelve basic tracks that comprise the heart of this album, is Where Circles End.

Rob Martinez
(Karma Frog)

What were once vices are now habits.

When Frank Sinatra began work in the early 1990s on the two multi-artist collections that eventually became his Duets albums for Capitol, he endured a surprising amount of negative feedback from faithful followers and purist musicologists alike for not being present in the studio at the same time with some of his collaborators. "Mechanical" to "phoned-in parts" were some of the observations offered by the dissenters.

Despite those professed concerns, Sinatra's Duets projects did not suffer aesthetically in the process. Ultimately, they became the swan song for one of the most storied careers in music history.

Nearly thirty years after the fact, such liberties in the studio are now commonplace. Among the most recent to soar in that respect is front line composer and vocalist Rob Martinez with his third Karma Frog label release, Maybe Miss America.

In Martinez's case, the studio concerns developed more out of necessity than by design. On this latest project (recorded between August 2017 and January 2019), Martinez is joined by Karma Frog head and five tool player, Adam Marsland. Currently enjoying an extraordinary career renaissance in part via the runaway success of his internet series, Adam Walks Around (now in its third season), Marsland as such presently divides his time between the Philippines, Cambodia and Southern California.

And if absence (in the studio or otherwise) makes the heart grow fonder, it is readily apparent in both Marsland and Martinez's cases here. Both shine with a renewed sense of purpose in their respective roles. As multi-instrumentalist (contributing, among other things, backing vocals, keyboards, bass, drums and harmonica) and producer, Marsland draws from his lengthy expertise (having worked with such giants as Evie Sands, Dragster Barbie bassist Teresa Cowles and Beach Boys guitarist David Marks, to name but a few) to contribute on the spot commanding adaptability to the not so subtle nuances of Martinez's increasingly diverse and engaging compositions. Most fittingly, the legendary Earle Mankey once again oversaw the mastering here.

"A lot of what makes (Rob's) stuff great are the bass lines", said Marsland.

"I play bass on his records. But they're generally his lines from the demos".

As for the music itself, various inspirations avail themselves throughout the proceedings. From the sublime Sunflower-era Beach Boys harmonic bliss in the bridge of Summer Of Love and the timely Left Banke-like high drama lavishness of Genevieve Chasteau to the first generation garage rock / Fixx hybrid evidenced in Wrong From Right and the Paul McCartney / Jason Mraz interplay of And I Always Will, Martinez once again demonstrates a remarkable flair for making the familiar fresh and taking it to the next level.

"I laid down most of the tracks in the ten days before I left the United States", said Marsland.

"I spent the next two years making sense of it! It's bigger, lusher and a little weirder".

And in the process, all the more sublime. For those who still wonder if technology and heart make strange bedfellows, Maybe Miss America should dispel any such concerns in short order.

Ola Onabule
(Rugged Ram)

"I'm gonna stand on my own two feet".

So sang beloved composer, vocalist and Stepney, East London native Kenny Lynch in his monster classic 1964 H.M.V. label single of the same name. Lynch's release was a landmark prototype among a series of like minded singles to follow, including the Impressions' We're Rolling On and Les McCann and Eddie Harris' Compared To What, among others.

A half century later (and buoyed by the benefit of added perspective), Islington, London's Ola Onabule takes the recurring mission statement a step further with his most recent release, Point Less. From the double entendre implications of the title through the richly varied musical tapestry evidenced in the fourteen selections therein, Onabule champions the not so paradoxical approach of driving the point home through seeming detachment.

Detachment in that by emphasizing a rich tapestry of musical styles (evidenced most strikingly in the jazz / vocal harmony interplay of And Yet), Onabule draws the listener in through compelling performance; drawing immediate attention away from the subject matter in the process. By the time the listener is able to pause and reflect, the first impression made by his delivery supersedes any potential misgivings and / or dissent with respect to content.

To be certain, if there were any such reservations, they would be borne not out of any lack of credence from the subject matter at hand (which ranges from suggestions of hypocrisy in the title track to a successive decline in optimism, as showcased in Conceive It), but in the potential for impasse suggested by the artist's unwaveringly upbeat and technically savvy delivery. 

To wit, long time Count Basie Orchestra vocalist Joe Williams was occasionally taken to task for his signature track, Every Day I Have The Blues, in that his relentlessly optimistic execution of the piece belied its relatively somber subject matter. In turn, Onabule's seeming prioritization of technique and demeanor could suggest to some that the subject matter at hand is of secondary importance.

But while lyrical content is not a one size fits all default in terms of music appreciation, in Onabule's case, the potential impasse is easily resolved by revisiting the proceeds in greater detail after an initial listen. To be certain, Onabule even provides pertinent points of entry to that effect along the way, typified by the Johnny Mathis-like overtones of the opening bars of the otherwise thought provoking Ballad Of The Star Crossed.

In other words, Point Less is an album for thinking people, who appreciate a nod to the familiar that nonetheless consistently challenges the listener to take the appropriate (and inevitable) steps to the next level. And in that respect, Onabule is anything but pointless.

The Tol-Puddle Martyrs (Secret Deals)

It is most heartening to see veteran artists be even more prolific in the studio in the present day than they may have been at the onset of their careers.

To that effect, first generation garage rock greats the Electric Prunes released more new material in the twenty-first century than they did for Reprise Records in the late 1960s. Composer, vocalist, producer and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Morris likewise continues to produce one or more albums per year, which he has been doing for more than four decades.

One of the more unlikely success stories in that respect are the pioneering Victoria-based garage rockers, the Tol-Puddle Martyrs. Formed by vocalist, keyboardsman and composer Peter Rechter after a successful run fronting Peter And The Silhouettes, the Tol-Puddle Martyrs released the instant classic single, Time Will Come in 1967. Rechter went on to form the Secrets, who released a number of acclaimed records, and are not to be confused with the Secrets who recorded a quartet of sublime singles for Philips in 1963-1964.

Since the onset of the twenty-first century, the Tol-Puddle Martyrs (with Rechter currently joined by long time collaborator Graham McCoy on guitar and drummer Chris Cook) have released several world class albums that more than maintain and enhance the band's original mission statement. To that effect, the band's 2007 Psych Out USA and 2009 A Celebrated Man each earned top honors from Blitz Magazine upon their release.

For their latest effort, the band has taken a decisive leap forward lyrically. Unlike previous efforts, which for the most part (though not unwaveringly) encouraged through motivational and inspirational themes, Brain Fade at times tackles the inevitable issues that all face in life commensurate with longevity.

To that effect, the curiously Starbuck / Sanford Townsend Band - like title track speaks of "No change. Nothing has been gained....Don't let your world be shattered" as a defense of sorts against the complacency that besets many in life. In turn, The Fall cautions of "Greed and shame, evil ways where dead men pay" and "Don't you know that you're crossing the line" in a way that resonates at all stages of life. 

To underscore the point, Paralyzed articulates the consequences of ill informed decisions with a latter day variation on the basic Kinks' All Day And All Of The Night template, while Get Over It matter of factly sidesteps the victim perspective with the sometimes difficult to accept "Don't feed the're not insane" mandate.

To be certain, Rechter speaks from the inevitable experience borne of longevity in these circumstances. In the process, that longevity has also increasingly sharpened and refined his acumen as an arranger, with Brain Fade showcasing a much fuller bodied sound than that found in most trio settings. Once again, the Tol-Puddle Martyrs have risen to the occasion, and delivered most competently. And in the celebratory fashion that closes out the proceedings, Two Coffees represents the savoring of yet another victory.