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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1306

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Squamous Eddie: Back to Basics
by George Graham

(Sonic Spa 1966 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/18/2002)

Despite what many fans might think, being a good professional-level musician is not often a secure career path. For most performers who do manage to get paid for their work, music is at best a part-time job, with most musicians, even some at world-class level, holding down so called "day jobs." For many musicians, the day jobs are a matter of survival, a way to earn a living when they would rather be doing music. But for others, music can be an avocation -- done for the artistic satisfaction while maintaining an unrelated career. For example, there are actors like Kevin Bacon who play in rock bands and members of the clergy have had careers as jazz musicians.

This week we have another interesting example -- an eclectic retro-influenced rock band headed by a busy oncologist, a skin cancer specialist. The band is called Squamous Eddie, which happens to be a type of skin cell, and it's led by Dr. Christopher Conti.

Conti, who is based in the New York area, has had a fascinating career. Involved with music since the age of five, Conti eventually opted for the medical path. He also is a visual artist, whose paintings adorns the Squamous Eddie CD.

One of the down-sides of musicians who have lucrative careers in other fields is what people in the business call "vanity records," CDs financed by would-be artists, who usually prove that they are better off sticking with their day jobs. Squamous Eddie is indeed an example of a self-financed project by someone with a career outside of music, but there the similarity ends -- Conti's music is thoroughly worthwhile on its own terms irrespective of what the artist does for a living, and from the biography supplied with the CD, Conti seems to have no desire to give up his medical career, and does not anticipate taking his music on the road. Conti also tends to avoid the limelight, doing lead vocals on only one tune, and actually not playing at all on one track. But he wrote all the material, which shows influences from the Beatles, the Doors, Neil Young, Motown soul and jazzy cabaret, and for the most part is heard playing a variety of instruments including keyboards, guitar and bass.

Conti, who also served as the CD's co-producer, is joined by a fairly regular group including Sean Harkness on guitars and electric bass, Randy Crafton, who served as the other co-producer, on drums; Dave Richards on acoustic bass plus three vocalists who take turns on eleven on the twelve tracks, the bluesy-sounding Walter Parks, Renee Collogne, and Dayna Kurtz who provides a high-tenor lead for several of the tracks. With the different vocalists taking turns, and the varied styles the group does, the CD can sound like the work of several different bands. But the eclecticism works well, and the material is strong both musically and lyrically.

Back to Basics starts with one of its more contemporary-sounding pop songs, Goodbye, which deals with parting, or actually breaking up an affair. Renee Collogne does the vocals on this piece which is much less of a standout than other material on the CD.

Tangled Up in You also features Ms. Collogne doing the vocals. The track highlights the intriguing mix of retro elements that mark the CD's better moments. Conti wrote this love song for his wife, but appears on the track only as a producer. <<>>

It's probably safe to say that Conti's career treating cancer patients probably influenced at least the title of the soulful and bluesy song Find a Pill to Take Those Blues Away. Dayna Kurtz provides the vocal on this worthwhile track. <<>>

Vocalist Walter Parks appears on Fortune Over You, with lighthearted lyrics and another bluesy setting. <<>>

In a rather different mood is The Silence Reigns Forever, which was written for Conti's father, with whom Conti had apparently had a difficult relationship. Kurtz does the vocal while Conti is heard on the piano and some rhythm guitar. <<>>

The bluesiest track is Living Proof, with Parks again providing the vocal, and some nice slide guitar played by Sean Harkness. Conti is heard on electric rhythm guitar. <<>>

If there is one track that falls somewhat short it's Can't Let Go, with the vocal by Kurtz, and Conti back on the keyboards. The bluesy torch song never seems to gel, while Kurtz is probably not the best choice for the song. <<>>

The CD ends with the only track featuring Conti's own vocals, Bring Back Yesterday, which in keeping with its title, harkens to the 1960s for its influences and philosophical lyrics. Though Conti puts in a respectable vocal appearance and has a certain charm, one can understand why he brought in the other vocalists who dominate the CD. <<>>

Skin cancer specialist Dr. Christopher Conti and his group Squamous Eddie have created an enjoyable and quite eclectic CD of rock that looks back a two or three decades for most of its influences, though the music itself is quite original in the way those ingredients are combined. The musicianship is first-rate, and avoids the ego trip of so many so-called vanity records that are released by career people who feel they have some musical talent. Conti plays the role of composer, producer and backing musician for most of the CD, letting the material speak for itself in the hands of the talented band members he enlisted for the project. The result is an album that is a standout irrespective of the career path taken by its principal creator.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." Everything is well recorded, studio gimmicks are generally avoided, and there is a decent dynamic range for a rock album.

"Don't quit your day job" is the cliche uttered by many a critic to an aspiring artist. Christopher Conti has no intention of giving up his non-musical career, but his CD Back to Basics shows his music on the level of the best who do pursue music full-time.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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