MOVE THE NEEDLE TO GROOVE: In an extraordinary career that began in the closing years of the twentieth century, the Long Beach, California-based vocalist and composer Lisa Mychols has consistently thought outside of the box to produce a rich and diverse body of work that is at once both familiar and challenging. With the release of her all new Sugar album for the Strataplastic label, Mychols has taken her vision a decisive step forward in that respect. Blitz Magazine recently spoke with Mychols about how that project came to fruition, as well as the various musical highlights that came about along the way (Click on above image to enlarge).

By Michael McDowell

In the process of conducting an interview and/or composing a review of a given release, it is more often than not likely that reference will be made to a given artist or track whose inspiration seems apparent within the work at hand.

Over the past half century, there have been very, very few releases which at once sound familiar yet unique. That is, one in which the artist in question draws from universally acclaimed inspirations, but in the process creates a work that defies comparison to others. 

One such album is legendary songwriter Lori Burton's 1967 Breakout! album for Mercury Records. In spite of the inclusion therein of her earlier Nightmare single as the Whyte Boots (which has long been regarded as a hallmark of the vocal group genre), Burton's work in that landmark release stands tall on its own merits. 

More than a half century later, another work has at last come along that at once suggests a variety of familiar inspirational sources, but which cannot be decisively affiliated with any of them. That album is Sugar, the latest Strataplastic label release by the veteran Long Beach, California-based vocalist, composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Lisa Mychols. 

With producer Steve Refling handling all instrumental responsibilities, Sugar was recorded at Lincoln Lounge in Venice, California. And while Refling and Mychols have taken decisive steps to present a richly diverse and unique cross section of material in their eleven collaborations therein, the sense of familiarity and solidarity is accomplished through the album's cover design. 

The brainchild of Now Sounds Records' founder and CEO, Steve Stanley, the cover of Sugar draws freely from the inspiration of classic Warner Brothers albums of the early to mid 1960s by such label front runners as Petula Clark, Joanie Sommers, Dick And Dee Dee, Connie Stevens, Freddy Cannon, Barbara McNair, Piccola Pupa and Peter, Paul And Mary. 

"I have always wanted to design a record for Lisa, and was thrilled when she asked me", said Stanley, whose recent projects also include serving as art director for ABKCO's long awaited CD and LP compilation of the 1966 - 1967 Hideout and Cameo label 45s by Bob Seger And The Last Heard.

"My only instruction for the design was to create something frosty and sugary. Lisa sent me a few photos that immediately echoed the vibe of some Petula Clark records in my collection. I like the way she looks simultaneously elegant, inviting and tough. Lisa gives off a similar attitude".

Sugar is the latest and possibly the most ambitious in a long line of Lisa Mychols releases. Like Jeremy Morris, Dana Countryman, Adam Marsland, Rob Martinez and Kyle Vincent, Mychols has been plying her trade prolifically since the closing years of the twentieth century. Yet only now is this informal cadre of like minded visionaries being recognized as the front running up and coming generation of influential singer/songwriters.

"When someone brings a lot to the table, it kick starts the process of defining what you have", said Steve Refling.

"It also allows you to pull things out of thin air".

Steve Stanley concurred with Refling's observations.

"Many of the musicians and artists I know now I met back in the 1990s", he said.

"I can now honestly say that out of all of them, the one I thought was the most robbed by not achieving mainstream success was Lisa. She was overqualified for the times and the scene in terms of charisma, writing, vocal ability, musicianship and overall talent. 

"But fortunately for all of us, whatever lack of commercial success didn't sway her from following her muse and pursuing her art. And we are all the richer for that."

In this recent exchange with Blitz Magazine Editor / Publisher Michael McDowell, Lisa Mychols discusses not only the impact of Sugar on her exponentially expanding base of hardcore devotees, but how her earlier work with the Wondermints, Nushu and the Masticators have helped ensure her commitment to stylistic diversity in a field where genre myopia has often taken its toll on the creative process. 

BLITZ: From the onset, you have adopted different personae in the studio, from your solo work to Nushu and most recently the Seven & Six. Yet the collective mission statements of each seem to have only minor variances in their respective goals. Is this done in part to accommodate any potential variations in vision of your respective collaborators? 

MYCHOLS: Well, my first collaborators were the Wondermints for Lost Winters Dream, which all started from a bunch of emotional turmoil I was going through, writing down and putting to music. Once I brought those songs to Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, he brought in Nick Walusko, also of the Wondermints.

From sadness came the magic of the Wondermints and the future of Lost Winters Dream. It was a lot of fun collaborating on that project. I never felt anything was being taken away, or that any song might be losing its message. It was more like the project was being continuously loved and nurtured. I will forever love those Wondermint boys!

The Masticators were a band I put together for some new songs I had written. Patrick McGrath on guitar and keys, Robbie Rist as drummer, producer and engineer, and Severo on bass helped create our sound by simply bringing in their own individual musical expressions instrumentally and vocally, making everything we did together a whole lot of fun! I feel that we all complemented each other. It really showed in every song we recorded.

After that band disbanded, I brought in a bunch of new songs to Tom Richards of the Waking Hours. He was able to work with me to release Sweet Sinsations and In This City. Tom knows the kind of music I love, and created a new kind of sound for us to play with.

Even with the limited recording space he had to work with, he made those albums happen! We also had some friends play on some songs, making those songs that much better. All which include members of the Waking Hours and the incredible Debbie Shair!

As for Nushu, working with Hillary Burton was a type of collaboration where we would bring in songs and have the other either add to it or just be players and singers on each other's songs. Steve Refling had lots of cool sounds in his studio, so there was a lot of freedom to create and/or just come up with ideas in mid air.

As far as our collective vision and goals, at least for me, I felt like our lives were taking on a ton of major changes in some parallel kind of way. We were loaded with inspiration and a bit of edgy mystery. Nushu was a great and timely unit to creatively express through!

The Seven & Six, the current project and band of Tom Richards and myself, have a collaborative sound and message more for the current age of the mass collective. Tom and I collaborate very closely in this band. We actually have conversations about the lyrics, because they are absolutely worth talking about!

Seriously, if Tom changes even one thing during recording, it will affect something in the lyrics. But it's so much fun creating this way, as I think it keeps us actively inspired.

BLITZ: You are based in Long Beach, California. The city is known in part for a collective image borne of seemingly disparate components, from the traditional beach community of Belmont Shore (which interestingly enough is a beach community without the key attribute of a beach, given that the Pacific Ocean's geographical particulars there are not conducive to surf because of their southern exposure) to the consistently changing face of the downtown area, from the demise of Buffums Department Store to the short lived Long Beach Mall to serving as the base for KNAC-FM in the 1980s. Not to mention the historical significance of the presence of the Queen Mary and the shipping industry in neighboring San Pedro.

Given that so much of your work draws from a sympathetic third person perspective if not consistently a first person one, has the atmosphere of the city been an asset or a liability in your creative process in that respect?

MYCHOLS: Long Beach for me has been less of an influence and more of an ongoing backdrop of my inner world. It's a very pleasant city, though. More of a place I go out to when I am not in creative mode. A place I never take with me, if that makes sense.

BLITZ: The cover graphics of your Sugar album were inspired by early to mid-1960s Warner Brothers label albums, including the stereo logo. The label's roster at the time included Petula Clark, Barbara McNair, Piccola Pupa, Freddy Cannon, Joanie Sommers, Joan Barton, Connie Stevens, Lynn Gold, Dick And Dee Dee, the Marketts, Dorothy Provine, and Peter, Paul And Mary. In light of the label's richly diverse cross section of artists, and given that your work differs from theirs as much as each of theirs differs from one another, was this as much a profession of solidarity with their individual mission statements as it was a proclamation of thinking outside of the box?

MYCHOLS: I love most of those artists you've just mentioned. The other names I just don't recognize! Musically and/or fashionably, they have influenced me in one way or another, and on a deep level. Steve Stanley, who created the artwork for Sugar, somehow captured all of that. Whether it was intended or not, the cover radiates that very essence. I cried when I first saw it!

BLITZ: One Revolution from your Sugar album cleverly invokes record collector terminology, including "move the needle to groove" and "you wanted to do a full revolution". To what degree does that perspective impact your writing process, as opposed to painting a lyrical portrait borne of experience for the sake of the art itself?

MYCHOLS: A journey that might appear to be going in circles. Yet it might not, at least not for long. The imagery is quick enough to think one knows where they are going. But it's all happening on an energetic level, really.

I suppose that sometimes I get lost in the writing itself. Or maybe it's that the writing is using me to write. So it's kind of hard to answer this one!

BLITZ: To that effect, is there an undercurrent at play of endeavoring to raise the bar on behalf of that demographic, some of whom profess regret with respect to their perceived cultural disenfranchisement?

MYCHOLS: "Journey through the soul with me, for there is where the answer will be".

BLITZ: He's Got Me Dreaming is interesting, in that it features a 4/4 march tempo not unlike that found in the Monkees' Birth Of An Accidental Hipster. Even more so, both pieces find unique lyrical routes to a common goal. Was that intentional?

MYCHOLS: Hmmm. I don't think so. I mean, when I wrote the song, it could have just been how I happened to be strumming at the time.

Although, Steve Refling had a big part in arranging the songs on this album. So it could have been something he just heard. So I would probably say not intentional.

BLITZ: Next To Impossible draws from the slow 6/8, high drama template of Lesley Gore's I Don't Wanna Be A Loser. But interestingly enough, Next To Impossible transforms its firm resolve and propensity towards independence into an atmosphere of both dependence and despondency. Given your trademark relentless optimism outside of a musical setting, could this be considered a scenario which was not borne of personal experience?

MYCHOLS: Wow, you certainly have a good sense! Steve Refling brought in this delightful gem for us to record. As far as the lyrics went, Steve started me off with the brilliant title, Next To Impossible and gave me complete freedom to write the rest. Although I did on occasion call on his help when I would get stuck.

It was a tricky song that needed to be absolutely right. And even though this song may not be drawn from a past physical experience, I feel that I have fully experienced it. So I connect with this one quite a bit!

BLITZ: However unintentionally, you have become an integral part of a burgeoning movement of prolific vocalists and composers that have been plying their trade since the closing years of the previous century, yet whom are suddenly finding common ground and growing acclaim commensurate with their current work. Their ranks would include Jeremy Morris, Dana Countryman, Kyle Vincent, Adam Marsland and Rob Martinez, some of whom you have worked with in various capacities. What do you envision as your own role in these developments? Do you see the potential for future collaborations with any of those colleagues?

MYCHOLS: Collaborations indeed, and "Hey!" to all of those wonderful friends.

I'm excited to report that I am currently working on a song written by the very talented lyricist and songwriter, Elizabeth Racz, along with another song by my amazing friend, Jordan Oaks, the writer of Yellow Pills

I will also be singing on a song with Kai Danzberg for his upcoming album. Have you heard his music yet? He's one of my absolute favorite current artists!


CHRISTMAS (TAKE A RIDE)!: Veteran rocker Mitch Ryder's all new Christmas album for the Cleopatra label is but one of several great new releases that celebrate the most wonderful time of the year. Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell takes a closer look at some of the Christmas highlights of 2018 brlow. (Click on above image to enlarge).

By Michael McDowell

It has been said that familiarity breeds contempt.

Perhaps no recurring occasion best exemplifies this dichotomy than the annual Christmas celebration. Originally intended to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas has in recent years been the subject of seemingly endless promotional opportunities in the retail sector. The late musical satirist Stan Freberg suggested as much in 1960 with his somewhat prophetic Green Christmas single for Capitol.

The mainstream media has often followed suit, with several prominent North American radio stations adapting an all Christmas music format weeks before the 25 December holiday. More often than not, despite the wealth of material extant, those mainstream outlets often opt to emphasize some of the most overly exposed standards in their regular rotation, such as Andy Williams' It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year and the otherwise impeccable Nat "King" Cole's The Christmas Song.

Thankfully, a number of prominent veteran artists have risen to the occasion in 2018 by releasing brand new albums of Christmas-themed material that presents a fresh perspective on the holiday with inspired original material, occasionally augmented by clever and astute variations on the familiar.

Most welcome and prominent among them is Christmas Party, the long overdue celebration of the occasion by the Monkees. The beloved veteran quartet was of course Blitz Magazine's pick for Best Band of the Twentieth Century, as well as the recipient of Blitz Magazine's award for Best Album of the Twentieth Century (1967's Headquarters for Colgems). 

Interestingly enough, Christmas Party is not the band's first such venture, when taking into account the unofficial release, The Monkees' Christmas Album. That CD collection was issued in a limited edition among musicologists and record collectors in the previous decade, and was comprised largely of solo endeavors by band members. Given the limited release of that collection, expectations were high for the current project.

True to form, the Monkees did not disappoint. Curiously, the band drew entirely from outside material here, including relatively recent contributions from musicians who have acknowledged the Monkees as being among their primary inspirations. Highlights include the upbeat Unwrap You For Christmas (composed by XTC co-founder and front man, Andy Partridge), Adam Schlesinger and Michael Chabon's psychedelic saga, House Of Broken Gingerbread, and (most encouragingly) drummer Micky Dolenz's inspiring testimonial, Jesus Christ (written by the late Box Tops lead vocalist, Alex Chilton).

In turn, the more familiar cover material is invariably presented in a manner that most decisively sidesteps any possible suggestions of redundancy. The Leroy Anderson-inspired pizzicato strings and Dolenz's second to none vocal delivery each underscore the point on Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmas. Likewise, bassist Peter Tork's take on James Chadwick's 1862 composition, Angels We Have Heard On High (in which Tork accompanies himself on banjo; with backing by long time colleague James Lee Stanley). Dolenz rounds out the proceedings with a powerhouse rendition of Charles Brown's signature single, Merry Christmas, Baby.

Happily, the Monkees also drew from the 1991 solo album by the band's late co-founder, David Thomas Jones for two selections. Aided most capably on backing vocals by his daughters, Jones delivers two of the highlights of this project with his interpretations of Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby's Mele Kalikimaka and Silver Bells.

However, it is Monkees lead guitarist and resident visionary, Michael Nesmith who most decisively reinvigorates the familiar here. Fully recovered from emergency bypass surgery and buoyed by his enormously successful subsequent reunion tour with the First National Band, Nesmith summoned his inner musicologist most sublimely in this collection with his gorgeous, dreamscape reinterpretation of Claude Thornhill's 1941 Columbia label single, Snowfall (assisted most capably on all instruments by his son, Jonathan Nesmith). 

Nesmith further demonstrated his formidable skills in that respect by taking on the most omnipresent of Christmas standards, the aforementioned Mel Torme-penned The Christmas Song. First recorded in 1947 by the enormously influential Nat "King" Cole (whose substantial recorded legacy includes such masterpieces as Calypso Blues, L-O-V-E, Send For Me, The Good Times and a wealth of groundbreaking tracks with the King Cole Trio), The Christmas Song in Nesmith's hands reflects an otherworldly persona, augmented by subtle echo and sympathetic steel guitar from Pete Finney.

Completists will want to opt for the bonus edition of Christmas Party, which is offered exclusively through the Target Department Store chain. The Target edition includes two of the Monkees' most treasured earlier Christmas outings, their 1976 cover of the Christmas Spirit's 1968 White Whale label single, Christmas Is My Time Of Year, and their sublime 1967 acapella Riu Chiu, which was taken verbatim from the Kingston Trio's 1961 recording of Guardo El Lobo on their Goin' Places album. Between the regular release and the bonus edition, the Monkees have musically assured a Wonderful Christmastime with this essential release.

Another veteran artist who has at last made his mark in the world of Christmas music is William "Mitch Ryder" Levise. The Los Angeles-based Cleopatra label has provided the forum for Christmas (Take A Ride), in which Ryder embraces such familiar fare as Stevie Wonder's Someday At Christmas, Bobby Helms' Jingle Bell Rock, Ernest Tubb's Blue Christmas, Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride and the Jackie DeShannon/Dave Clark Five sympathetic yet all season Put A Little Love In Your Heart with the same fire and passion that characterized such earlier career triumphs as Jenny Take A Ride!, I Hope, What Now My Love and Sugar Bee.
And in terms of veteran artists, few have the vision and discernment to interpret the Christmas season musically in authoritative fashion as does the Portage, Michigan based composer, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, producer, session musician, record label president, family man and Foursquare denomination pastor, Jeremy Morris. With more than five dozen albums to his credit over the past four decades, Morris has maintained his rightful status as the successor to the late James Brown's "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business" title in 2018 with several acclaimed new collections on his JAM label, including the groundbreaking Dulcimer Dance and the straight-ahead Gospel outing, Joy In The Morning with the Jeremy Band.

Morris, whose releases are generally evenly divided between psych, garage rock, prog and Gospel, brings it all to the table in the twenty-track instrumental collection, The Gift. Comprised primarily of original material, The Gift covers all facets of the Christmas experience, from the ethereal Ocean Waves (with two takes included here) and the haunting Star Of Wonder to the hard rocking reinterpretation of Canon In D and mesmerizing, prog-inspired Heavenly Peace. The set is balanced impeccably with fresh and invigorating takes on such familiar Christmas fare as O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy To The World and Silent Night. True to form, Morris' overall mission statement is captured beautifully with the benediction in the accompanying art work from Romans 3:23: "The Gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord".

In terms of challenges, perhaps no veteran artist has put a greater one on himself with his new Christmas release than has one time Tidal Waves bassist, Robert Slap. Long hailed as pioneers of first generation garage rock, the Tidal Waves established a brief but enduring legacy in 1966-1967 with three treasured singles for HBR Records and Jack Chekaway's SVR label, Action (Speaks Louder Than Words), I Don't Need Love and their definitive take on Don And Dewey's often covered Farmer John.

Like fellow first generation garage rock pioneer, Robert Balderrama (co-founder and long time lead guitarist for Question Mark And The Mysterians), Slap has expanded his musical vision as of late to include improvisational music. Nonetheless, Slap put himself to the test most remarkably in that respect with his newest release, offering as a CD single yet another rendition of The Christmas Song

Accompanied by Charles "Buddy" Smith on vocals and Larry Minne on harmonica (with Slap assuming the remainder of the instrumental duties), Slap opted to further confound expectations by playing it relatively straight. While the short term impact may not be immediately apparent, forcing both long term devotees and recent converts to his cause to think outside of the box is certain to reap ongoing dividends.

One such artist not encumbered with the expectations commensurate with a decades long track record is Erin Harpe And The Delta Swingers. A recurring fixture on the Vizztone Records roster in recent years, guitarist Harpe and her three piece band (Matt "Charles" Prozialeck - harmonica, Jim Countryman - bass, Chris Anzalone - drums) remain true to the label's "more blues, more often" mandate while nonetheless managing to work around the genre's often rigid parameters in their latest offering, The Christmas Swing. To that effect, the early Yardbirds feel of Merry Christmas serves the point well, as does Harpe's countrified adaptation of Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 poem, The Night Before Christmas, and their euphoric cover of Leadbelly's Christmas Is A Comin'.

And while the bulk of her musical focus in recent months has been centered upon her King Of Hearts and Last Goodbye singles and her forthcoming Adrian Gurvitz-produced album, vocalist and Days Of Our Lives / Hallmark vet Jen Lilley has also found herself fielding inquiries about her 2015 Christmas album, Tinsel Time, which sadly is out of print for the time being. However, Lilley (who is currently the subject of an extensive interview elsewhere on Blitz Magazine's web site) is enjoying the best of both worlds this Christmas season with the 01 December release of Mingle All The Way, her latest film for the Hallmark Channel.

In turn, fellow Hallmark great and beloved vocalist, composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Debbie Gibson has taken a slightly different approach to the Christmas celebration. Gibson has recently joined forces with the online based Cameo to produce personalized Christmas greetings for her legions of devotees, who are collectively known as Deb Heads. Gibson is currently in rehearsals for the forthcoming Mix Tape tour, which launches in the Spring of 2019.

As for radio, the ultimate thinking outside of the box online alternative, big8radio.com has expanded its extraordinary play list of more than six thousand classic tracks to include a wealth of Christmas rarities. Music Director and CKLW veteran Ric Allen (in tandem with Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell as ad hoc Technical Advisor) drew from his extensive archives of Ontario and Michigan-based musical archives to come up with more than a hundred unique and rarely heard Christmas offerings, from the great Jack Scott's 1963 Groove label single, Jingle Bell Slide, Nathaniel Meyer's Mister Santa Claus, several rocking Christmas sides from Bill Haley And The Comets, and the Gaylords' brilliant comedic spoof, It Wasa Da Night Before Christmas to recent and duly engaging offerings by Karen Newman, Alice Cooper, Tommy James and the aforementioned Mitch Ryder. Station mastermind (and fellow CKLW alumnus) Charlie O'Brien summed it up succinctly: "Super!"

To be certain, Jesus remains the primary reason for the season. That said, with the celebration of the occasion in song from the artists in question, a Wonderful Christmastime is at least guaranteed musically.