IHERE I STAND: For their latest album, Into The Sun, the California trio MONOGROOVE draws from a rich variety of inspirations, from obvious heroes to fallen colleagues.  Editor / Publisher Michael McDowell takes a closer look below (Click on the above image to enlarge). 


Susie Blue And The Lonesome Fellas

Sometimes the due diligence of perfectionism is necessary to cover all of the bases.

In the case of the Chicago, Illinois - based vocalist Solitaire "Susie Blue" Miles, such attention to detail is a prerequisite when meeting head on the demands of two seemingly disparate factions. Factions that nonetheless comprise a significant portion of her target demographic.

On the one hand are the hard core musicologists and record collectors, for whom allegiances to much of the material in this collection have been long set in stone via earlier renditions. They vary widely in scope and range, from Ben Selvin's often covered 1925 standard, Oh How I Miss You Tonight and Ronnie Love's mesmerizing Chills And Fever single for Dot to Neil Sedaka's One Way Ticket (To The Blues) and Ruth Brown's Lucky Lips. The issue is exacerbated somewhat with the latter track in view of a definitive 1963 interpretation on Epic Records (also Columbia in the UK and Capitol in Canada) by Cliff Richard And The Shadows, who soar therein with career high brilliance. 

On the other hand is a curious group that somehow juxtaposes and justifies the seemingly incongruous elements of hipster conformity with professed allegiance to artists with such a strong sense of history, Yet they do so with minimal knowledge of and no sense of interest nor obligation towards that history itself. 

Both camps are almost invariably unwavering in their allegiance to their respective stances. All of which could cause all but the most resilient of artists to view any attempts to overcome such an impasse as an exercise in futility. 

Thankfully, Miles is equally resilient in her own right.

The former camp often maintains that the technical limitations under which many of those earlier versions were recorded are an integral component of their appeal. But the fact that Miles exercises great attention to detail in order to maintain the essence of those foundational classics in the cleaner digital atmosphere more often than not will at least elicit a begrudging acknowledgement from even the most demanding observers in terms of solidarity in perspective.

While the methodology placating and / or breaking through to the other camp may not be as cut and dry, there is nonetheless an open door. And it is one that Miles continues to walk through with subtle effectiveness. 

By definition, the notion of history flies in the face of the hipster cartel, whose priorities more often than not lean towards peer group placation over artistic integrity. But given that such a group generally has at best a scant awareness of any such history (and places the lowest priority on that of which they may be aware), Miles in matter of fact manner simply delivers the goods without any such perceived baggage and lets it stand on its own numerous merits.

To underscore the point, Miles herein adds to the proceedings with faithful and spirited interpretations of such diverse fare as Carl Perkins' Forever Yours (as a duet with Dominic Halpin), Dolly Lyon's Apollo label Palm Of Your Hand, Charles "Chick" Bullock's Hummin' To Myself and a vocal version of Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn Theme. As always, the eight member Lonesome Fellas and a trio of backing vocalists rise to each occasion, treading the fine line between technical accuracy and an understanding of the heart of the material itself. And while her Blue Train and that which graced the legendary John Coltrane's January 1958 Blue Note label LP of the same name may have boarded at different stations, each ultimately heads down their respective tracks full steam ahead, with even the most demanding of passengers ultimately all on board.

Roxanne Fontana (Sprezzatura)

Among other things, Roxanne Fontana is a realist.

That is, a realist in terms of her reaction to her surroundings, as it applies to her musical vision. Reactions that are tempered by an unwavering resolve to maintain a tightly focused musical mission statement that offers minimal wiggle room in terms of a cross-genre reference. Not borne of genre myopia, but because of her ongoing deference to it within a long-term vision that remains a work in progress.

To that effect, Phantasmagorgy, the composer, vocalist and New York native's fifth album, was recorded in 2020 and 2021, with the world in the throes of the pandemic. The results reflect what she has termed an atmosphere of, "doom and death, with a dash of surrealism".

That may indeed be the case (which in and of itself at least guarantees her a core audience). But Fontana has also brought a bit of a survivor's inclination towards hope into the proceedings with an undercurrent of the Renaissance-inspired otherworldliness that continues to surface upon occasion to the present day within the dreamscape sub-genre. 

To wit, while not downplaying the basic nihilistic elements of Kula Shaker's Into The Deep, Fontana at least provides herein a bit of a comfort zone (albeit from a "grasping for straws" perspective, given the basic template of the original version) via the lyrical benediction to take flight, tempered with a slight seasoning of psychedelia.

In turn, the transition from The Peak to (Eat The) Morning Glory takes the listener from the folk/psych romps of the Incredible String Band to the Rolling Stones' Lady Jane before segueing into the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea. That the overall proceedings wrap with Donovan Leitch's Hampstead Incident (from his Mellow Yellow album for Epic) suggests that even in the worst of times, there remains at least a shred of optimism, if not immediate reasons to be cheerful.

"It's doing very well, Yay!", Fontana said to that effect.

Or, to invoke a couple of other touchstones from the aforementioned Donovan Leitch album, a Bleak City Woman becomes (by default) a Writer In The Sun.

Brian Gari (Original Cast)

The overwhelming evidence suggests that record collectors and musicologists make better musicians.

From Jive Five front man Eugene Pitt, Kingston Trio mastermind Dave Guard, Canned Heat's Al Wilson, Bob Hite and Henry Vestine, Jefferson Airplane / Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady, and Guess Who alumni Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman to Unrelated Segments co-founder Barry Van Englen, the Rearrangements' Pat "Pasadena" Supina and Jeff Shoemaker, and the Balancing Act / Thee Holy Brothers multi - instrumentalist Willie Aron, that aspect of their respective mission statements has enabled them to greatly enhance their creativity and productivity on stage and in the recording studio.
In the case, of veteran five tool player (vocalist, composer, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer) and New York City native Brian Gari, that particular attribute also comes with a peripheral set of perks that has served him extraordinarily well throughout a career that has spanned roughly a half century. The grandson of pioneering recording artist Isidore "Eddie Cantor" Iskovitz  (which in and of itself offered him many hands on crash courses on a doctorate level), Gari has also parlayed his considerable acumen as a journalist into the authorship of several acclaimed books on his extensive experience in the industry (Close Encounters Of The Celebrity Kind, We Bombed In New London and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To My Stress Test), in addition to working in various capacities with Teensville / Rare Rockin' Records CEO Ash Wells on a number of the label's acclaimed anthology albums.

Gari's own ventures into the recording studio began in earnest in the mid 1970s, via a series of singles for Vanguard Records. By 1988, the Original Cast label was serving as an outlet for his self-penned musicals, beginning with his late 1987 Late Nite Comic (with Julie Budd), and followed by 1991's A Hard Time To Be Single. 

Most recently, Gari's Names and Names, Volume Two albums have revealed an extraordinary gift for a turn of phrase. Therein, his penchant for the collective whimsy of such dreamscape visionaries as Harpers Bizarre and Samuel "Buddy Clark" Goldberg found a sympathetic outlet through Gari's Gilbert O-Sullivan flavored naivete borne of hard earned wisdom style of execution. 

Held accountable in that respect by such like minded colleagues as Peter Millrose (who provides much of the instrumental support here) and Dana Countryman, Gari has taken it a step further with Expose Yourself. While much of the engaging material in the Names series espoused a rose colored glasses perspective not unlike that perfected by the aforementioned Buddy Clark in his 1946 signature single, Linda, Gari herein takes a somewhat more cerebral approach, which the late Harry Chapin also took to the next level via attention to the details of realism in his modern lover with a flair for the timeless approach.

"(I'm) influenced by Rupert Holmes and Jimmy Webb (in that respect)", said Gari.

Taking its cue in part from Holmes' and Webb's flair for structural diversity, Expose Yourself opens with the bouncy Pronto From Toronto, in which distance and transportation factor into the story line in much the same way found in Chapin's 1972 signature single, Taxi. So much so that a bit of artistic license (the reference to Canada versus Ontario in the chorus) was invoked in order to sustain the momentum.

"(It's) a song about wanting my girlfriend to come back fast", said Gari.

"She was in Toronto, and the rhyme seemed cool".

From there, Expose Yourself glides with seeming effortlessness from one stand alone epic to another. From the brush with anguish articulated in Almost Lost You (highlighted by the recurring observation, "You can't calculate what loss will cost you") and the variation on the melancholy atmosphere of Debbie Gibson's Lost In Your Eyes found in Don't Send Me Home (underscored sublimely via a guest vocal from his wife, Jeanne) to the Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan resolve of No Longer The Ingenue (via Susan Hayward's Helen Lawson character in Jackie Susann's Valley Of The Dolls, punctuated succinctly with the judicious incorporation of the word "crap" in much the same fashion invoked by Reverend Brad Powell of Plymouth, Michigan's NorthRidge Church upon occasion to underscore the most salient points of a given observation) and the reality check of Isn't Anyone Free Anymore (and its classic everyman tag line, "Did God pull a fast one and make me the last one?"), Gari has once again proven himself to be a tunesmith with a most unique vision.

To be certain, just as Rupert Holmes invoked "what if" regrets in Terminal, and Jimmy Webb mourned the loss of opportunity in Richard Harris' game changing rendition of MacArthur Park as a springboard towards perseverance in the face of adversity, Brian Gari herein takes a modern romanticist approach to strengthen his resolve in the quest of relentless optimism. In his own words, it is a mission statement that, among other things, makes the observer Think Again.

Monogroove (Reverb Nation)

There is a train of thought that has long run throughout record collector and musicologist circles with regards to the lowest common denominator.

That perspective asserts itself on the presumption that those within such circles are somewhat more astute and better educated on the cerebral aspects of the industry. It is often demonstrated in the competitive sport manner that has come to represent record collecting in the present century.

The case was stated sublimely on a social media post in recent weeks that set off a firestorm among collectors and musicologists in short order. The original post was based on the subject of fashion decorum (or lack of same) within collector circles. 

To illustrate the point, a conventional t-shirt featuring a Tamla label 45 by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell centered on the front was pictured as Exhibit A. To the right of it as Exhibit B was a brightly colored button down shirt, which was covered in a haphazard array of images of various 45s on Atlantic, Reprise, Vee Jay's subsidiary Oldies 45 label and others of note. 

The original poster (who is a prominent and highly respected musician, author, collector and musicologist in his own right) invited commentary on each offering from a fashion perspective. One commentator in particular touched off no small amount of controversy with her response.

"If I saw a guy wearing the one on the right (the button down shirt), I'd keep my distance", she said.

"Seems like the kind of guy who would 1). Talk my ear off about something he thinks is impressive, but I have no interest in whatsoever or 2). Completely talk over me because he doesn't think women know anything about music". 

Subjectivity of the lowest common denominator perspective aside, that respondent did bring to light the obvious chasm (however self-imposed) between the presumed industry elite and the rank and file of the world at large. 

In turn, the collector / musicologist contingent has endeavored to keep that chasm in place to varying degrees, if (for no other reason) than to maintain an upper hand in the competitive sport aspect of it all. To that effect, inquiries on the subject from outside of those circles are often adjudicated on the premise that those who namedrop any one of a trilogy of artists that are pretty much universally regarded as the most notorious and universally recognized from within those circles suggests that the enquirer knows little or nothing about the subject overall.

The three artists in question are Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, arguably the three artists that maintain the greatest amount of name recognition across the board in both camps. From the musicologist / collector perspective, defaulting to any of those three from the onset creates the impression in the mind of the collector that the enquirer knows little more than the most rudimentary aspects of the industry, and (like the candid respondent to the social media inquiry above) has little or no interest in expanding their horizons in that respect.

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong at play in such a standoff. Such perspectives are a matter of individual preference. But what happens when such a scenario avails itself among a band of veteran artists that have long been hailed as being among the best within the various industry factions?

In the case of Monogroove, the lone cover found on the band's previous album, There's Something Here was a fairly faithful rendering of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. And with their latest release, Into The Sun, the central California - based trio digs themselves in a bit deeper in that respect with a spot on cover of the Rolling Stones' Stupid Girl from their 1966 Aftermath LP for London.

All of which has some of the band's faithful wondering how a band that has long endeared itself to the more cerebral factions of their demanding and discerning audience could put themselves in such a position.

The answer is simple. Familiarity might breed contempt. But in Monogroove's case, familiarity also brought about a few thinking outside of the box moments to confound expectations.

In other words, Monogroove took the familiar and made it their own. In the case of Magical Mystery Tour, the band called upon the services of veteran session musician Probyn Gregory, who added a unique horn chart to the arrangement, giving it a bit more bite than the original without losing its essence (think Maynard Ferguson's bombastic interpretation of the great Richard Harris' Jimmy Webb-penned MacArthur Park, albeit with the heart that was lacking in Ferguson's preoccupation with technique). And on the current release, bassist Woody Cross (the newest member of the group) brought a baggage - free perspective to Stupid Girl (given that he was not introduced to it in its initial chronological / socio - political setting) and presented a personalized perspective that instead showcased its most universal and enduring attributes.

Ultimately, that selection of outside material was not so much a bowing of the knee to the lowest common denominator perspective as it was a reflection of the band's collective experience. Aside from his celebrated work in the indie band Teeni L, drummer Ken Cratty was also a member of the original touring cast of Beatlemania

In turn, guitarist and band founder Rin Lennon's working relationship with Probyn Gregory dates back to the 1980s, when Lennon was fronting the acclaimed On The Air and Gregory (who has long been a sideman and principal guiding light within Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson's backing band) was making inroads as a member of the surf rock band, the Wedge. Both bands often shared the stage in the heady and richly diverse Southern California musical movement of the day. 

And it is that collective experience that fuels the main focal point of Monogroove's mission statement: their original material. 

Simultaneously full bodied (which is not always the easiest attribute for a trio to attain and sustain) and melodic, many of the originals that comprise the bulk of Into The Sun maintain the inspiration of Lennon's On The Air experiences. In fact, several of them bring to fruition ideas that originated from Lennon's collaborations with On The Air's late and much missed charismatic bassist, Anne Bogen. Those well rounded offerings include a brooding rewrite of the Monkees' (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone (Down On) to a playful swipe at a cut from the early 1980s debut five track album by a certain quartet that was also active in the Southern California musical movement of the day (What I See In You). Likewise, Lennon and Bogen's Times Out (also featured here) dates back to a 1984 - 1985 collaboration during their On The Air days, and proves to be cathartic.

Happily, the Lennon, Cratty and Cross team also joins forces as composers here, with unwavering success. The undercurrent of UK psych evidenced in Walk In The Park provides an uplifting adjunct to the engagingly melodic, mid-tempo I Only Know. In turn, what Darlin' may lack title-wise in terms of originality (given the acclaimed duly named originals by the Gainors, the Beach Boys and Frankie Miller) is more than compensated for by a rich, harmony-laden arrangement that gives a most subtle of nods to Gainors front man Garnet Mimms in execution. Long time animal rights activist Lennon provides the album's lone call to arms (however inadvertently) with SPCA, another Bogen-era moment of inspiration that is executed with the disarming relentless optimism of a Gary U.S. Bonds or Jimmy Soul party in the studio session.

All told, for all of its judicious incorporation of the band's collective experiences into the proceedings, Into The Sun proves that sometimes familiarity brings content instead of contempt, along with a bit of food for thought. As such, there is no doubt that a Monogroove cover of Elvis Presley's Do The Clam would be something to hear.