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October 31, 2006

THE EXPLODING HEARTS -- SHATTERED

An aptly named CD for a promising band with a tragic story

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Rock's multi-death travel tragedies include the 1959 airplane crash that claimed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, as well as the 1977 plane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant and other Lynyrd Skynyrd members.

Lesser-known acts have lost personnel while on tour, too.

In 1995, two members of For Squirrels were killed in a van accident roughly within a month of Sony releasing the Florida band's Example CD.

And then there's The Exploding Hearts. On July 20, 2003, three members of the Oregon-based quartet died after a van accident that occurred while heading home from a gig in San Francisco.

The group had been on tour in support of Guitar Romantic, the first and only Exploding Hearts album -- until now. Shattered (Dirtnap Records) is a 16-track, video-enhanced collection containing singles, demos and previously unreleased material, including alternate takes from the Guitar Romantic sessions.

While the group's look suggested suburban shopping-mall punk, its sound actually walked the line between lo-fi power-pop and garage rock. Bratty vocals and youthful energy are in abundance throughout Shattered, while drum fills and guitar solos are kept to a minimum. The band had a knack for dynamics and tight arrangements. "Shattered (You Left Me)," different versions of which open and close the CD, has a brief bridge that arrives at just the right time, yet still comes as a surprise. The use of keyboards on several tracks adds color to the two-guitar attack.

Thematically, the Exploding Hearts never delve too deep, and they actually go to the other end of the intellectual spectrum with a cover of "Sniffin' Glue," a goofy song by the band FU2 that borrows a page from the Ramones playbook. Coincidentally, the Exploding Hearts and Ramones now only have one core member from their respective classic lineups still alive. And while the Exploding Hearts never had the chance to have a sustained career like Joey Ramone and company, they did make the most of their abilities during their brief time together.

-- By Chris M. Junior

October 27, 2006

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Fags' full-length debut finally sees light of day

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Over an exasperating two-plus years, The Fags signed a major-label record deal, completed their full-length debut album only to have it shelved indefinitely amid corporate reshuffling, and were quietly dropped by the company. But that doesn't mean the Detroit trio came away with nothing from the experience.

They will always have the humorous memory of their initial meeting with legendary Sire Records executive Seymour Stein, which singer/guitarist John Speck vividly recalls.

"We sat down to lunch with Seymour, and I was really stoked to meet him. And the whole time he had this huge glob of olive oil on his pink shirt and was totally oblivious to it," Speck said, chuckling heartily, on the phone from his Detroit area home. "Sometimes [drummer] Jimmy [Paluzzi] will still say, 'Maybe we should send him a shirt or something.'"

As for the deal The Fags eventually struck with Stein and Sire, Speck said, "I didn't have any expectations other than a free lunch."

Speck's expectations are even more tempered now, with the CD, Light 'Em Up, finally set for proper release Oct. 31 on Dallas-based indie label Idol Records. (The disc has been available on iTunes since July.) There is a good reason for that. Aside from the perks of major-label backing, the disc will be without another important marketing resource: the band itself.

As Speck tells it, The Fags "ran out of steam" between the time they signed their record deal in spring 2004 and their discovery this past summer that they had been let go by Sire, which is part of the Time Warner conglomerate. Without major-label tour financing -- and with Paluzzi busy with real estate ventures and bassist Tim Patalan committed to producing other artists -- The Fags gradually disbanded. They will play a record-release show Nov. 11 at Small's in Hamtramck, Mich., as a favor to old friend and Idol Records founder Erv Karwelis. (Idol also released The Fags' self-titled EP in 2002.)

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"I have mixed feelings about it," Speck said about Light 'Em Up's release. "I was at the point where I didn't give a [darn] if didn't come out. We got [yanked] around by our label. We found out we were dropped by the label when we got an e-mail from someone asking, 'Why aren't you listed on the Sire web site anymore?'

"It's typical of people who aren't in bands that work in the music business. . . . Our manager manages two bands in the Warner system, and they couldn't even get a straight answer from anyone. I don't know that they had a whole lot of motivation to put it out."

Light 'Em Up certainly is worthy of an audience, even if it is too late for The Fags to benefit much from its release. It is packed with indelible harmonies and punk energy, straddling the line between skinny-tie era tunefulness and heavy guitar rock.

Principal songwriter Speck -- whose voice at times recalls that of Cheap Trick's Robin Zander, only a tinge rougher -- delivers verses steeped in vulnerability, and when he sings "I drank too much, what else is new?" it's not just a throwaway line. In a booze-fueled encounter some years ago, he punched a record company exec who had just scouted his then-band's performance.

As agonizing as The Fags' ordeal was with Sire, at least it didn't end in fisticuffs. Speck and his bandmates had been around the business too long to pin their hopes on their major-label deal lasting too long, anyway.

"We went into it with the assumption that we wouldn't get a chance to make another (record)," Speck said, "so (we said), 'Let's make it a good one. It'll stand on its own.' "

-- By George Henn

October 19, 2006

IT'S PARTY TIME

Val Emmich returns to his indie roots

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Val Emmich says he has mostly fond memories of his time with the New Jersey bands Ben Trovato and Awake Asleep.

"I was hanging with my best friends in the world and just being creative," recalls the 26-year-old Emmich. "I am very nostalgic for those times."

He doesn't feel the same way about his stint with Epic Records, which re-released his full-length solo debut, Slow Down Kid, in October 2004.

The North Jersey-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist goes as far to say he was "lucky" that he was released from his multiple-album Epic contract in May. In fact, he's totally down on majors in general and their tendency to be conservative.

"If your music happens to fit the current trend, and they feel you are a safe bet, then a major label could be the best possible thing for you," he says. "They have tons of promotional money to spend on your behalf, but those acts are the minority. If words like integrity, creativity, control and longevity mean something to you and your music, then it's probably the wrong place for you."

Emmich has gone the indie route for his latest solo album, Sunlight Searchparty, due Oct. 24 via his Web site and MySpace page.

"It's full of songs where the protagonist is looking for answers," he says. "It's an album about life and all that it entails. It's both my personal story about my experiences the last few years and a universal tale about everyone and anyone."

Emmich isn't preoccupied with Sunlight Searchparty's sales potential.

"I left a label so I wouldn't have to think about those kinds of things," he says. "I hope it reaches as many people as possible so that I can continue to make music.

"My hope is that people focus on the quality of the record, not how much it sells."

-- By Chris M. Junior

Val Emmich concert dates (schedule subject to change):

* Oct. 21: Maxwell's -- Hoboken, N.J.

* Oct. 28: The Saint -- Asbury Park, N.J.

* Nov. 1: The Khyber -- Philadelphia

* Dec. 5: Sin-E -- New York

October 12, 2006

HAVING A BALL

Actor Jeff Daniels takes his hobby on the road

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In 2003, the year his beloved Detroit Tigers lost 119 games, actor Jeff Daniels wrote a song called "The Lifelong Tiger Fan Blues."

But every now and then, tunes -- just like movies -- have sequels.

"When the team got good [this year], that [first] song had to be retired," says Daniels, who considers music to be a hobby and has been writing songs for more than 30 years. "And the deeper we got into the [2006] season, the more I realized the Tigers were for real, so I rewrote it."

After "about a month trying to get a handle on it," Daniels ended up with "Tiger Fan Blues Revisited," a salute to the team that eventually finished second in the American League Central division and earned a playoff spot as a wild card.

"I was very proud of the forced rhyme that is 'Fernando Rodney and Omar Infante,' " Daniels says.

That song is available for download on Daniels' official site, which also contains samples from his Live and Unplugged album. He released the CD in 2004 to raise funds for his Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich., where he's performed fundraising concerts since 2001.

On Oct. 13, with his Tigers scheduled to continue their series against the Oakland A's for the A.L. championship, Daniels will begin a U.S. tour. He plans to play a bunch of new songs -- some of them funny, some of them serious, just like the movies he's made through the years.

-- By Chris M. Junior

Jeff Daniels on tour (schedule subject to change):

* Oct. 13: Grand Auditorium -- Ellsworth, Maine

* Oct. 14: Chocolate Church Arts Center -- Bath, Maine

* Oct. 20: Whitaker Center -- Harrisburg, Pa.

* Oct. 21: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall -- Troy, N.Y.

* Oct. 22: World Cafe Live -- Philadelphia

* Nov. 4: Corson Auditorium -- Interlochen, Mich.

* Nov. 5: Kaufman Auditorium -- Marquette, Mich.

* Nov. 10: South Orange Performing Arts Center -- South Orange, N.J.

* Nov. 11: Pollak Theater -- West Long Branch, N.J.

* Nov. 12: Sellersville Theater -- Sellersville, Pa.

* Nov. 13: Birdland -- New York

* Nov. 17: McDonald Theater -- Eugene, Ore.

* Nov. 18: Aladdin Theater -- Portland, Ore.

* Nov. 19: Triple Door -- Seattle

* Nov. 25: Michigan Theater -- Ann Arbor, Mich.

* Nov. 29: Bush Stage -- Mt. Pleasant, Mich.

* Dec. 2: Otto M. Budig Theater -- Covington, Ky.

October 06, 2006

CELEBRITY DUETS WRAPUP

Fox's Celebrity Duets is over. In case you missed it, here is a brief overview of the series.

THE CONCEPT: In the show, created by American Idol judge Simon Cowell, "celebs" with some degree of singing talent were matched with two different music "legends," chosen at random before the episode. The celebrities competed and one was voted off every week by the viewers at home. (For the first episode, the judges decided who was ousted.) The duet partners changed from week to week. The winning celeb won $100,000 for charity.

THE HOST: Wayne Brady.

THE JUDGES: Little Richard, Marie Osmond and David Foster.

THE CELEBS: Actress Lucy Lawless, actorAlfonso Ribeiro, former Olympic gymnast Carly Patterson, actor Cheech Marin, actress Lea Thompson, WWE superstar Chris Jericho, actor/comedian Hal Sparks and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy regular Jai Rodriguez.

THE FINALISTS: Sparks, Lawless and Ribeiro. When the dust settled -- or, more accurately, when the confetti and streamers settled on Sept. 29 -- Ribeiro stood tall (or as tall as he could next to the statuesque Lawless). Based on the run of the series, Ribeiro earned his victory. He was the most consistent of the singers and held his own with the myriad superstar singers he was paired with, including Chaka Khan, James Ingram and Gladys Knight.

Lawless was the runner-up, and although she slipped in and out of tempos and genres more than any other performer, she never sang with any passion. That may be due to her vocal training in musical theater, where singing the same lines the same way night after night is the norm, or it may be due to having too soft of a singing voice. Nevertheless, she appealed to an older audience by mainly sticking to softer hits and standards.

Third-place finisher Sparks was the token rocker. He threw in stage antics, played a little six string and had fun doing so. He wasn't a total joke (for that, see Marin) because he had a big voice that, although not always in tune, still commanded attention. Sparks also seems to have a bit of musical theater training in him, and a stint in the Broadway adaptation of The Wedding Singer can't be too far down the road.

THE FUTURE: Will Fox bring this show back? Hopefully, no. This show was a mess, from the poor choice in contestants to the self-serving judges to the out-of-touch superstar duet partners.This might be an all-time low in summer filler TV. This was not exactly a ratings bonanza, and it just wasn't interesting enough to merit a second go-round. Maybe Fox will do this as a variety show next season and not make the audience sit through it for multiple weeks.

-- By Mike Madden

October 04, 2006

SIRIUS BUSINESS

The Kennedys are enjoying their satellite radio show

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If Pete and Maura Kennedy aren't performing music, chances are they are playing music.

The folk-rock couple, on tour in support of Songs of the Open Road (Appleseed Recordings), also serve as weekend hosts on Sirius Satellite Radio's Disorder station (channel 24).

"We've been going for about two and half years now, and we love it," says Maura Kennedy. "We weren't looking to do a show. The program director, Meg Griffin, asked us if we'd do a show. She had interviewed us before; she knew that we were on the road a lot and really in touch with the modern singer/songwriter circuit. She liked our stories and our manner.

"We've always been able to play whatever we want to play and bring guests in," she adds. "It's like what we do normally at home if people come over. We'll say, 'Hey, check this record out.' "

Maura Kennedy says the inexhaustible feeling she and her husband had while making Songs of the Open Road, a covers project, also applies to their Sirius show.

"There are so many songs that we feel really need to be out there that aren't," she says, "whether they're old roots songs -- we're playing Willie Dixon and Sister Rosetta Tharpe -- to new stuff that's so underground or so indie they wouldn't get on [regular] radio, either."

Pete Kennedy says it's fun to "draw connections that will lead people to places they might not have gone before musically."

"Like if we played a current blues artist, such as Chris Smither, we would come out of that with a Robert Johnson song," he explains. "And from there you could go to a Thelonious Monk thing that's also blues but a different take on it. And since that's a piano thing, you could go into Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata,' which Ray Charles thought of as a really deep blues song. At some point, you're going to play something that a listener hasn't heard before. It's the opposite of Top 40 radio, where you hear all familiar stuff. We try to take people into uncharted territory."

Just like on their radio show, the Kennedys explore material by famous and under-the-radar artists on their new album. There's a Byrds theme throughout the disc, which includes versions of that band's hit "Eight Miles High" (written by Gene Clark, David Crosby and Roger McGuinn), plus "Gypsy Rider" (a Clark solo song) and "Sin City" (a Flying Burrito Brothers tune penned by ex-Byrds Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman).

Pete Kennedy has nothing but praise for the Byrds, individually and collectively.

"If you look at their early singles, Gene was underrated in a way," he says. "What they did was so amazing for the time, and it would be amazing now if a group came out doing the same thing. They blended deep roots, folk music with jazz and classical stuff. They made references to Bach and stuff like that, along with contemporary pop, world and Indian music."

The Kennedys will be on tour supporting Songs of the Open Road at least until early December. On Dec. 17 in Northampton, Mass., the duo will hold a guitar workshop geared toward intermediate and advanced players.

Meanwhile, check out the Kennedys on Sirius' Disorder channel from 7-10 a.m. ET Saturdays and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET Sundays.

-- By Chris M. Junior

The Kennedys on tour in October (schedule subject to change):

* Oct. 5: Joe's Pub -- New York

* Oct. 6-8: Folk Project Fall Festival -- Stillwater, N.J.

* Oct. 14: Vintage Vinyl -- Fords, N.J.

* Oct. 20: Faith Community UMC -- Baltimore

* Oct. 21: Seabury Center -- Westport, Conn.

* Oct. 28: Winchester Tavern and Music Hall -- Cleveland