Ask the average listener to name the most important musical development of the last decade, and he or she is likely to think in terms of style, be it rap, thrash, house, techno, or any of a dozen other sub-genres.
Ask the average musician, on the other hand, and you're as likely to hear about technology as music -- particularly if the players you speak with have gotten to the recording stage of their careers. Because on a practical level, nothing has changed the way musicians work today quite as much as the wide availability of cheap, professional-quality recording equipment.
Where once a group would have to spend thousands merely to buy a couple of days of studio time, now they can spend the same money on equipment and cut tracks at home. As a result, acts that previously would have been priced out of the music market can now afford to record and release whole albums of their material.
And nowhere has that change been more evident than on the local level. Baltimore is hardly the music center cities like Austin, Atlanta, Miami or Minneapolis are -- far from being nationally known, the scene here is sometimes invisible even to locals -- but that hasn't kept area musicians off the record.
Quite the contrary. With several local labels and dozens of album-making acts in place, the Baltimore-Washington scene is ambitious and populous enough at this point to support an annual convention, the Music Business Forum (which concludes today in Washington). So perhaps this is an appropriate time to survey some of the albums Baltimore-based recording artists have released recently.
But first, a note on availability. Although many of the titles reviewed here can be found in locally owned record stores (including Recordmasters, Record and Tape Traders and An Die Musik, to name a few), it isn't always easy to find them. Thus, mail-order information has been included where possible.
disappear fear. "Live at the Bottom Line." (Disappear DR 1005.)
It's not hard to understand why disappear fear is so often compared to the Indigo Girls. Both, after all, are female folk duos whose material depends heavily on close harmonies and naked emotions to make its point.
But the similarities end there. Unlike the Indigo Girls, whose music plays off the folk-pop approach perfected by Simon & Garfunkel a quarter century ago, disappear fear's sound is neither as openly derivative nor as commercially polished. Although some songs draw directly from the folk tradition (who can hear the harmonica part in "16 Roses," for instance, and not think of Bob Dylan?), others owe more to the singer-songwriter boom of the '70s, or the more recent women's music movement.
More to the point, the Indigo Girls are every bit as at home with stripped-down acoustic duets as with full-band studio sessions, whereas disappear fear -- as this album makes all too evident -- is better served by dressing its songs up.
"Sink the Censorship," for example, comes across angry and assured in the studio recording included here, while seeming strident and shrill in concert; likewise, the combination of romantic drama and harmonic invention in "Box of Tissues" works far better in the controlled environment of the recording studio than it does in the club atmosphere of the Bottom Line. As a result, this album ends up a mixed bag, offering more promise than actual achievement. (778 Waugh Lane, Ukiah, Calif. 95482.)
Monkeyspank. "Blue Mud." (Merkin MM323.)
Given the growing interest in thrash-funk fusion acts like Primus, 24-7 Spyz and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Monkeyspank's mix of metallic guitar and bass-heavy beats ought to make the group eminently marketable. Even better, "Blue Mud" is well enough engineered that the album is easily able to convey all the kinetic power of the band's sound.
All of which would make this album a winner, were it not for one thing: The songs stink.
As is too often the case with rhythm-driven bands, what Monkeyspank offers in the way of material is simply a loose collection of riffs with lyrics attached; most are little more than elaborate, two-bar chants. That's not to say the album is without a few ear-catching moments -- "Nasty Scratch," for instance, positively begs to be blasted -- just that those moments aren't enough to sustain an entire album. (301 E. Biddle St., Baltimore 21202.)
Karen Goldberg. "Slipping Thru the Cracks." (Corbett COR-004.)
Let Goldberg slip into her whimsical-folkie mode -- as she does on tunes like "Hotel from Hell" or "Princess Blues" -- and this album is only mildly entertaining. But when she turns her attention to more serious subjects, as on eco-conscious numbers like "In the Name of Progress" or "Earth Day Song," her music seems much more gripping.
Easy as it might be to ascribe such divergent results to the shift in her lyrical focus, the truth is that it's the music that ultimately makes the difference. With only her acoustic guitar to fall back on, Goldberg's performances seem disappointingly pedestrian. But give her an interesting instrumental background -- whether as Joni Mitchell jazzy as the title tune or as synth-slick as "90 Miles from Cuba" -- and the results are inspired. (P.O.B. 4543, Baltimore 21212.)
Jeff Order. "Keepers of the Light." (Order OP 3009.)
Tempting as it might be to shrug this album off as New Age fluff, the fact is that for all the mystical baggage Jeff Order's liner notes try to attach to these tunes, the music here is pretty damned catchy. Granted, its soft jazz, all-instrumental format leaves it better suited for background music than active listening, and a few of these numbers ("Voyager's Prayer," for instance) verge on outright earwash.
Taken as a whole, though, Order's work avoids the sort of witless reiteration and melodic fragmentation that makes most New Age albums so unbearable. Tuneful and focused, "Keepers of the Light" deserves hearing. (6503 York Road, Baltimore 21212.)
L Edge City. "Great Expectations." (Red Wheelbarrow RWR 1001.)
Obviously, what songwriter Jim Patton had in mind with this album was to capture the same blend of Dylanesque lyrics and bar-band rock that made Bruce Springsteen's early albums so arresting.
Trouble is, Patton's writing is too word-heavy, piling so many syllables onto each verse that the listener quickly loses any sense of melodic direction, a problem compounded by Patton's limited range (imagine Lou Reed with fewer notes). Worse, his habit of pitching these songs at the very bottom of his vocal register means that he's sometimes semi-inaudible, to boot.
As such, the best moments here are when singer Sherry Brokus takes the helm. But that happens too infrequently to keep "Great Expectations" from sinking under the weight of its own ambition. (8 E. 39th St., Baltimore 21218.)
Panic Lions. "Bananas and Doughnuts." (No label.)
Although there's no denying Scott Ligon's way with a melody, there's something distressingly glib about the songs here. For one thing, although the lyrics consistently address major issues like love and death, they never have anything to say; life for these guys, it seems, is one unending string of non-sequiturs.
For another, the music -- though relentlessly melodic -- never seems to lead anywhere. Like painters who fill up every inch of canvas in the belief that enough details can make up for a lack of ideas, the Panic Lions cram every available space with tuneful tidbits. But it's all overkill, for instead of enhancing the songs, this avalanche of hooklets merely obscures the material. (605 Park Ave., #7, Baltimore 21201.)