FRIENDS FOR LIFE: The husband and wife team of JEANNE GARI and BRIAN GARI have joined forces to produce Jeanne, her debut album for the Original Cast label. Editor / Publisher Michael McDowell celebrates their relentless optimism below (Click on the above image to enlarge). 


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.

Jeanne Gari (Original Cast)

The two shall become one flesh.

That observation from Genesis 2:24 is a commentary on the inevitable meeting of heart, soul and mind that often results when a couple has been together for an extended period of time. Indeed, there are those who have been blessed as such who begin to think on the same page to the degree that they finish one another's sentences. 

In the case of Brian and Jeanne Gari, they now also finish one another's albums.

Inspired by his wife's contributions to his own most recent solo project, the New York-based composer, vocalist, author and multi-instrumentalist then encouraged her to try her own hand at recording. Recorded between December 2021 and September 2022, the resultant Jeanne album not surprisingly exceeds expectations on all fronts.

Brian Gari readily professes the ongoing inspiration of the classic so-called girl group vocal harmony genre, as evidenced in part by his ongoing contributions to the various like minded releases on Ash Wells' Teensville and Rare Rockin' Records family of labels. Even so, the fourteen originals that comprise this debut CD are (however unintentionally) as much a reflection of the otherworldly, dreamscape relentless optimism that was championed by such greats as Harpers Bizarre and the late Buddy Clark. 

True to form, just as Brian Gari has long maintained a penchant for a clever turn of phrase, Jeanne Gari herein demonstrates a subtle yet effective mastery of bringing those word plays to life. She does so in a manner that speaks not only to the universal appeal of the content, but in a way that also reflects its presence in their own lives.This attribute is especially effective in the melodramatic Don't Give Up Your Key, as well as the Brill Building by way of Broadway-inspired I Want Your Boyfriend.

The highs and lows of such ongoing drama are showcased effectively in the Burt Bacharach-flavored He's Not Home Yet and the the melancholy atmosphere of Trains. And just as the denouement sets the stage accordingly in a well written stage production, the Garis bring it full circle with the upbeat I Wanna Be Her and the delightful, doo-wop inspired finale, We're On The Same Page.

"I am deeply touched by her renditions and hard work", he said.

"Hope you can hear why I am so proud".

Indeed. In the words of the album's compelling opener, Jeanne is a magnificent musical personification of the notion of Friends For Life.

Librarians With Hickeys (Big Stir)

What's in a name?

It was a question that Blitz Magazine posed in an editorial many years ago, at which time the tag line, The Rock And Roll Magazine For Thinking People became an official part of the publication's title. The intention was to have a name that more accurately reflected the mission statement at hand.

To an extent, that methodology also applied among the artists, particularly during the heyday of first generation garage rock. Bands such as the Electric Prunes, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Driving Stupid and Harpers Bizarre astutely chose to showcase themselves in such manner in keeping with the ambitious nature of their respective repertoires. 

Interestingly enough, subsequent generations of bands inspired to varying degrees by first generation garage rock took a slightly different approach in the process of showcasing their visions. The common thread among the likes of the Sex Pistols, Barenaked Ladies and the D-mned was attention getting, with their choice of identification affording them a greater opportunity to do so. 

But in the half century that has elapsed since that time, attention getting simply is not what it used to be. For better or worse, audiences have become accustomed to such methodology. Indeed, one need look no further than the 1928 My Supressed Desire by the visionary scat trio, the Rhythm Boys (Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby, Harry Barris and Al Rinker) to realize how far and long that such aspirations have availed themselves.

All of which could have made it all the more difficult for the modern day aspirant to state their case. But to their considerable credit, the Akron, Ohio-based Librarians With Hickeys have found a way to draw from and maximize the best of both worlds.

Comprised of guitarists and keyboard men Mike Crooker and Ray Carmen, bassist Andrew Wilco and drummer Rob Crossley, Librarians With Hickeys immediately dispense with any such preconceived notions upon first listen by presenting a wealth of original material that draws its inspiration from virtually every generation of garage rock. The Farfisa and twelve-string driven foundation common to second generation garage rock is herein meshed with the stronger verse, chorus and bridge compositional skills of the first generation pioneers, getting the job done most effectively in the process.

To wit, what Over You may lack in terms of an original title (given the earlier duly-named singles by the Capreez, the Union Gap and Del Shannon) is more than compensated for with a strong 4/4 beat to support a call to arms vocal delivery, complete with prerequisite technical artistic license in the spirit of the Buckinghams' Susan. Likewise, the "I used to be stupid" and "Holding on to disappointments I can't let go" proclamations of the mid-tempo, reflective Stumbling Down Memory Lane suggests insights borne of a wealth of disparate life journeys. 

Conversely, the album's closer, Me And My Big Mouth brings everything full circle with a universal and enduing commentary on relationships that has availed itself since the dawn of the recording industry in the late 1880s. Indeed, it is that common attribute that best stands them in solidarity with those who set the standard before them without making such affiliations a prerequisite.

Handclaps And Tambourines is the latest in a long string of ambitious releases for the remarkably prolific, Burbank, California - based Big Stir label, whose impressive artist roster includes everyone from Standells alumnus Tony Valentino and the veteran composer / vocalist Lannie Flowers to the all over the map Chris Church and Dolph Chaney. And while Big Stir may upon occasion invoke familiar territory ("jangle-heavy tunes") to assist those with occasional challenges in terms of thinking outside of the box, in this case, the artists themselves have risen to the occasion by taking the proceedings to the most welcome next level. In the words of the title of the band's 2019 debut album, it is a move that has been Long Overdue.

Sonny And The Boys (CD Baby / Gunther)

So where does a veteran artist go when they have already been the recipent of an award for Best Single Of The Decade?

In the case of Belmonts guiding light Warren Gradus, the answer is back to the recording studio. Already a seasoned session musician at the time he joined the beloved pioneering vocal group in 1963, Gradus was one of the principal visionaries behind the Belmonts' landmark 1972  Cigars, Acapella, Candy album for Buddah.

Happily, their persistence ultimately paid off more than four decades later. The Belmonts reached their pinnacle in 2016 with the absolutely stunning Warren Gradus composition, Welcome Me Back Home. That single took top honors from Blitz Magazine - The Rock And Roll Magazine For Thinking People as Best Single Of The Year. And in 2020, Welcome Me Back Home was again hailed by Blitz Magazine as Best Single Of The Decade of the 2010s.

Sadly, that decade was also a time of tragedy for the Belmonts. It began with the passing of group cofounder Fred Milano on New Years Day 2012. In turn, long time front man Dan Elliott (whose lead vocals graced Welcome Me Back Home) succumbed to a lengthy illness in 2019. 

Since that time, Gradus and group cofounder Angelo D'Aleo have pressed ahead in various configurartions. Those developments have enabled Gradus to pause for reflection, which ultimately led to the extracurricular project at hand.

Referenced in the lyrics of Welcome Me Back Home, Sonny And The Boys are the brainchild of Gradus and Tridels, Duprees and Belmonts veteran (and Manhattan native), Jerry Steinberg. As two of the vocal group harmony genre's most storied pioneers,Gradus and Steinberg are among the few remaining artists who can take command of the genre from the standpoint of standard bearers.

Accompanied by such storied colleagues as guitarist Ray Burghardt, bassist Angelo Sophinos and a trio of saxophonists (with Gradus on drums), Sonny And The Boys herein present a wealth of the genre's standards in a whole new light.

Hopelessly Romantic opens with a captivating cover of Barbara Mason's 1965 signature single, Yes I'm Ready. The dreamscape arrangement affords the piece an otherworldly atmosphere that was beyond the studio technology available to Arctic Records at the time Mason's version was released.

Throughout the remainder of the proceedings, Sonny And The Boys are all over the vocal harmony map, from a spot on rendition of the Collegians' 1958 Winley label signature single, Zoom Zoom Zoom,. the Cadillacs' often covered Gloria and the Capris' monster classic Morse Code Of Love (presented in two different versions) to Little Anthony And The Imperials' I'm On The Outside (Looking In), the Duprees' My Own True Love and the Louis Prima - penned Harptones gem, A Sunday Kind Of Love.

The aforementioned otherworldly mix gives the proceedings an authoritative feel commesurate with the collective artistic acumen of its creators. However, Gradus emphasizes that it was not intentional.

"I just mixed it so that it sounded good to me", Gradus said.

"Not planned!"

Gradus and Steinberg have nonetheless reiterated herein their front runner status, In the process, they have raised the bar for the genre at large.

"When you are making records, most of the equipment you use (is) invisible to the listener", Gradus said.

"I love that about it. It allows the listener to dream".

And dream big they did. Hopelessly Romantic is an instant classic for the ages.