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(independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/12/2005)
The roots rock phenomenon picked up steam in the early to mid 1990s with groups like the Jayhawks, Son Volt and others who eschewed the ubiquitous synthesizers of pop music, and drew on the stylistic elements that were indeed at the roots of rock such as folk, country and blues. But the roots-rockers were not pure revivalists, they generally fused those influences into an original synthesis.
Since then, roots rockers have come in different varieties depending on their main source of inspiration, from folk and bluegrass to jam bands. But generally, such groups tend to have a fairly defined style. This week we have an interesting roots rock album that covers a much wider range than is typical for the movement. And it's also a rather amorphous band, with personnel that varies a lot on the CD. The group is called Teeter Gray, and their debut release is called Blue Love.
Teeter Gray the band is primarily the creative outlet for guitarist, singer and songwriter Chris Koch [pronounced "coach"]. After performing in the Ithaca, New York area, Koch moved to New York in the late 1980s, and played there in different bands. His autobiographical sketch says he performed once with beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and also at the funeral of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Koch creates memorable songs that range from introspective to something approaching commercial country music. There is a distinct twang to Blue Love with a nearly ubiquitous pedal steel guitar or Dobro, played by John Widgren. But there is a bit of undercurrent of jazz, thanks to two experienced jazz players on the CD, drummer Ben Perowski and bassist Jim Donica, who often plays acoustic bass. The rest of the band is a largely rotating cast along with special guests including Eric Weissberg, who on the early 1970s helped to spark a revival in bluegrass though his music to the film "Deliverance" which featured his performance of Dueling Banjos.
Koch himself comes across as a personable performer whose vocals can sometimes resemble those of James Taylor. His music reflects Koch's wide-ranging interests, from folk-singer-songwriter to Western Swing to Tin Pan Alley, from serious songs that consider the state of the world to tongue-in-cheek novelty numbers. It adds up to a worthwhile recording that takes one to a lot more musical destinations than your typical roots rock album, or singer-songwriter recording for that matter.
The CD commences with Love Unreal (For the Unknown Rider), a piece that combines the roots-rock sound with light-hearted lyrics about falling in love with someone one only sees in the distance on a train. It's the sort of subject that might have come from one of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters of decades past. <<>>
One of the most thoughtful sets of lyrics comes on Burrow Back to Center, which takes a jaundiced look at the state of the world, and then weaves that into a song of personal relationships. Eric Weissberg makes an appearance on banjo, while the fiddle is provided by Charlie Burnham. <<>>
Much more toward the pop mainstream is Almost Hear a Heartbeak, which with its weeping steel guitar exudes "Nashville" in its sound. Naturally, it's hardly the most musically original track on the CD.<<>>
The following song takes a musical trip to Texas, with the Western Swing of Anne Louise. The lyrics also take a light-hearted turn in another tale of infatuation, in this case, a country singer who can't function when the song's namesake is in the room. <<>>
Koch's more than passing vocal resemblance to James Taylor is apparent on the title song Blue Love, perhaps the most pop-oriented song. Tastefully played as it is, it is replete with musical clichés. <<>>
With some tasteful bluegrass-influenced picking is the song called The Ketchum Hollow Trail, which also features Eric Weissberg on banjo, as well as the Dobro of John Widgren and the fiddle of Charlie Burnham. In the contaxt of those fine players, Koch demonstrates that he's no slouch on the acoustic guitar. <<>>
Another strong track on the CD is Don't Come Back, with amusing lyrics and an energetic rockabilly arrangement. <<>>
Blue Love ends with These Hours, an introspective performance by just Koch and violinist Leenya Rideout. It's another song that seems as if it came out of Tin Pan Alley in the 1930s. <<>>
Blue Love, the debut CD by Teeter Gray, a band assembled to do the music of Chris Koch, is an enjoyable, wide-ranging recording that features lots of good songs, and covers much more musical ground than you are likely often to find on the roots rock scene. There's everything from rockabilly to songs that might have been written by Cole Porter. While some of the CD does get dangerously close to the commercial Nashville sound, and some songs are obviously better than others, the quality of the lyric writing is high throughout, and Koch himself is an appealing vocalist, backed by a well-chosen cadre of supporting musicians, who form a rotating cast on the various tracks.
Sonically, we'll give the recording close to an "A." The mix is well-handled and there is good clarity. The producer and engineer was Peter Min, who also wrote the music to one track on the album. The dynamic range, the span between loud and soft compared to recordings from the early CDs days is not great, but above average by today's sonically degraded standards.
While roots rock bands offer a often refreshing alternative to pretentious, manufactured pop, such bands' music can be homogeneous. Chris Koch and Teeter Gray offer a nice variety within the genre.
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