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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1386

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Cantinero: Championship Boxing
by George Graham

(Artemis 51550 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/15/2004)

Paradigm shifts in pop music occur regularly. The promulgation of entirely new styles is what gives the music appeal to successive generations, especially to young fans who are looking for something that does not sound like what their parents listen to, or better still, music that will drive their parents up the wall. Nevertheless, with all the changes over the years, such as hip-hop's influence toward dispensing with melody and harmony, and synthesizers and samplers resulting in music constructed of pieces of other people's records, some influences remain remarkably durable over the generations. And one of the most profoundly long-lasting has been that of the Beatles. Forty years after their triumphant crossing of the Atlantic, there are still new generations of young artists drawing on the Fab Four's influence, specifically their appealing combination of tuneful songs, strong vocal harmonies, and an insistence that there be something a little different and interesting in each song.

While successive generations of rock artists have re-discovered the Beatles and incorporated their influence into their music, in some cases appealing to fans who might never have heard the Boys from Liverpool, it seems that we are now in a particularly prolific period of revival in Beatles influence.

This week we have an interesting new recording by an artist with an interesting story that absorbs the musical principles that the Beatles set out without necessarily borrowing riffs. The CD is by Cantinero, and it bears the title Championship Boxing.

Cantinero is essentially a one-person band, the musical alter-ego of Christopher L. Hicken, who in some ways followed the Beatles path from England to the US, where he has been living for more than a decade.

Chris Hicken grew up in the northern English city of Birmingham, and was in a succession of bands, none of which were signed to a record contract, to his considerable frustration. While a member of a group called Bigmouth, an increasingly discouraged Hicken was ready to drop out of music, though he was not sure what he would do otherwise. Bigmouth's guitarist suggested that they tour America, and proceeded to book some gigs. So in 1993, Hicken and band found themselves in New York City and quickly discovered fans there among the British expatriate community, an experience that reinvigorated Hicken. He and the band returned and toured with another Birminham group, UB40. The experience led Hicken to decide that he would move to the US. But he soon found himself again disillusioned after the self-released Bigmouth CD went nowhere, and his goal of signing with a major record label went unfulfilled. This time he did give it up, and took a job as a bartender in the East Village, while taking philosophy courses at the New School.

A friend and roommate, Johnny Cragg of the band Spacehog was getting into making computer music. Hicken found himself drawn to it, and began once again to get into the musical creative process, though this time mainly for his own amusement. He made some demos which got into the hands of one of the founders of the Artemis Record label, and Hicken found himself unexpectedly with the record deal he had been seeking for all those years. So he used the advance money to outfit a spare room in his apartment with recording equipment and set about making Championship Boxing. He also enlisted the help of some friends and former bandmates, but a great deal of what is on the CD is Hicken himself.

Now in his mid 30s, Hicken draws on some of his experiences for the new CD and has made a recording that embodies that Beatles mix of an appealing exterior with first-rate vocals with lots of interesting musical ingredients, including unexpected little sonic or stylistic touches in almost every track, and lyrics that transcend most melodic pop in their philosophical bent and poetic adroitness. The result is an album that has a lot going for it, with layers one can peel back with each successive listen. Hicken's sense of experimentation does lead to some tracks that are less successful than others, but overall, it's a CD that can appeal to people from fans of the trendiest alternative rock to those who delve into the confessional lyrics of singer-songwriters.

The CD opens with one of those sets of lyrics worthy of a folkie pouring his heart out, So Low, with the album's trademark melodic pop setting. <<>>

That leads into one of the CD's highlight tracks, The Machine, which is full of the musical and sonic twists and turns at which Hicken excels. <<>>

Somewhat more cryptic are the lyrics to the song That Guy, which are a put-down to some apparently unsavory and unnamed character. I'm guessing that it may have been inspired by Hicken's work as a bartender. <<>>

There are a couple of love songs, though of course with twists. Make Me an Offer is a good example. The protagonist is apparently trying to play hard to get, while the musical setting is chock full of interesting convolutions. <<>>

According to the Cantinero website, the song The Conversation is about the death of Hicken's farther. It's oblique and could also apply to other situations. <<>>

For me another of the CD's highlights is Astronaut, a dreamy waltz that also seems to be about the loss of a loved-one. <<>>

One can infer some veiled political commentary in the song called Beautiful Mistakes, another track that sparkles with clever musical ideas. <<>>

The CD's closing track, the mostly acoustic Happy When I'm Down is presumably autobiographical, drawing on Hicken's emotional troughs for which he underwent a fair amount of therapy. In the end, the result is quite positive. <<>>

Championship Boxing, the new, first nationally distributed recording by Cantinero, the creative outlet for New York-based British expatriate Chris Hicken, is a pleasant surprise. It's clearly of the current generation, but the CD draws on the tried-and-true Beatles philosophy of an appealing exterior with musical creativity and outright and more subtle cleverness. It's all very well done and brimming with more musical and lyrical ideas than you're likely to hear in half a dozen other albums in the current retro-pop movement. Cantinero, by the way, is a nickname given to Hicken, apparently from his singing on his bartending job.

We'll give the CD a grade of "B" for sound quality. With the recording made in a spare apartment room, there were some sacrifices in the sonic clarity. Hicken also said he recorded the sessions with his window open to the street below, so there some subtle background noises. The dynamic range, the difference between loud and soft moments is unimpressive with a lot of sonic compression, though that does go with the musical territory.

Very often, interesting music comes with an interesting story. Cantinero's Championship Boxing has both, and it's also a fun record.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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