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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - Kathy Cashel

eclectic reviews and opinions

My friends make records

Kathy Cashel,

The Question Is Yes

(Exotic Fever Records, 2004)

John Sharples,

I Can Explain Everything

(Gowanus Records, 2004)

Tim Walters, et al.,

Let Nothing You Dismay

(Doubtful Palace, 1993-2004)

In a world where senior administration officials can have ties to enormous defense contractors and no one appears to care much, it seems silly of me to worry about the journalistic integrity of reviewing records by people I know, but I do. In fact, I've hardly ever done it unless it was assigned by a magazine I was writing for, and even then usually with a lot of extra hemming and hawing. I know plenty of publications run reviews of friends' records with no disclaimer whatsoever. At least part of my reluctance to do that stems from the fact that the pathetic caverns started as a reaction against things I don't like about the music review community, like undisclosed biases. Lately, instead of including disclaimers, I've completely avoiding reviewing albums where I knew anyone directly involved.

I was concerned about disclaimers on a couple of levels. First, it's kinda name-droppy of me to trumpet my personal connection with artists. But, you know, stuff happens. You like somebody's music, you say so, maybe you wind up having a conversation, or a whole bunch of them. You meet someone and later discover that the person happens to be a recording artist. (And honestly, it's not as if any of the people I know are household names.) Second, and worse, I feel that when I attach a statement of personal bias to a review, people could interpret that as my distancing myself from my stated opinion of the record. As if it's code for, "I don't really like this album, but I don't want to hurt so-and-so's feelings." If anyone was ever inclined to think that, I probably made it worse, because I usually went out of my way to say something negative about a record by anyone I knew, to decrease the perception of favorable bias. I have a feeling I overcompensated.

On the other hand, the whole point of the pathetic caverns is to expose people to cool stuff they might otherwise miss. And if it happens that friends or acquaintances are involved with cool records that deserve broader notice, then maybe I'm doing a disservice to those friends if I deny them the sort of courtesy I'd extend to strangers.

So yeah, I know these folks who happen to have recent releases in the past few months, but that doesn't mean their albums aren't good. In fact, I failed to write about earlier records that I also like by each of these three people, just because I happened to know them.

Kathy Cashel's new album The Question Is Yes is a mostly acoustic guitar/voice affair, with a few friends helping out and rocking up a song or two. I find it perennially tricky to describe Cashel's music. I'm tempted to refer to Pedro the Lion, because she has a number of things in common with David Bazan -- she tends to write songs that have fairly deliberate tempos but that don't feel slow even when they are, and like Bazan, she often sings in a slower tempo than she plays: what are effectively quarter notes in the vocal melody take a half or full measure in the instrumental part. Lyrically, Cashel also tends to be interested in morality and ambiguity. On the other hand, there's the whole avowedly Christian aspect of Pedro the Lion tyat makes it a potentially misleading referent, and Bazan's songs are more narrative-oriented whereas Cashel is more impressionistic. Unlike many acoustic singer songwriters, she uses single- or double-note figures at least as much as she uses arpeggios or strums chords. She has a contralto voice and she plays and sings beautifully.

The Question Is Yes is available from Cashel's label, Exotic Fever, and at

(I did write about Kathy Cashel once before I met her, when she was in Cry Baby Cry. Their album Jesus Loves Stacey was my favorite of that year. I never wrote about Kathy Cashel's first solo record, The Rare Animal Zoo, and though it and The Question Is Yes don't sound alike, if you like one, the other will probably be rewarding too.)

John Sharples doesn't write songs. He plays drums, guitar, bass, and keys, and he sings. He describes his approach to creating I Can Explain Everything as "What Would Ringo Do?," which translates to: get a bunch of your talented friends to donate songs and play on your record, and round it out with some of your favorite covers. Those talented friends include a handful of names pop aficianados might recognize: Matt Keating, Hub Moore and Jules Verdone, as well as less well-known (but not less talented folks) like Paula Carino, Grahame Davies (The Crowd Scene) and Bradley Skaught.

I think the cover tunes do an unusually good job of charting Sharples' aesthetic. George Harrison ("Long, Long, Long") is a key influence, as is Michael Nesmith ("Papa Gene's Blues"). Knowing John, I'm a little surprised that there's no Cheap Trick or Blue Öyster Cult, but the loud power pop/rock side is represented here by Ian Samwell's "Move It" performed in homage to the Razz -- the '80s band that featured Tommy Keene and Ted Nicely. One of the other ace covers is of "A Big Hunk O' Love" -- probably my favorite of the songs Elvis performed, and possibly his rockingest.

The people I know who really like power pop and its roots-rock cousins seem to have an endless appetite for the stuff, and everybody who ever drooled over a Not Lame catalog should drop everything and order Sharples' record right now. I'm a power pop dilettante myself -- I like some of it a lot, but much of it leaves me cold because it seems too formulaic and/or simplistic -- and if like me you're choosy about power pop, you should still go get Sharples' record.

I Can Explain Everything also gets my personal award for best cover art of the year -- a careful, funny, and faithful re-creation of the photo of Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home. It's available from his associate label 125 Records and at the obvious

(This is Sharples' first record under his own name, but I didn't write about The Lovely Luna by Circus Guy, his previous band. Circus Guy's Michael Culhane contributed a pair of songs to I Can Explain Everything, but much of "Luna" has a cheesy '70s rock vibe -- not in a bad way, mind you --that's quite different.)

I don't think any of these three artists is easy to pigeonhole, but Tim Walters is the hardest to pin down. His body of work spans electronic and computer-assisted composition and improvisation, techno pop, British Isles-style folk, a capppella trios, musique concrète, and, er, "rock." I won't even try to list the instruments he plays; I know I'd miss some in the crush. Let Nothing You Dismay includes works under the names of a number of his projects: Circular Firing Squad, Conjure Wife, The Damnation Army, Mercaptan, Pledge Drive, Slaw, and Tim Walters. It's held together by three common denominators: Walters' wicked sense of humor, which is frequently in evidence; his penchant for working with well-trained soprano voices; and the fact that the 12 songs that make up Let Nothing You Dismay are seasonal songs recorded over the past 11 years.

The pièce de résistance here is probably last year's "Christmas Rhapsody," a side-splitting and devastatingly accurate parody of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," although the 1993 "Jingle Bells" (one of two versions), which transforms the familiar melody into a dirge by setting it over a dark chord progression à la Prokofiev, is perhaps a close runner-up. All in all it's one of the strangest holiday recordings you will ever hear. It's often deliberately ugly, even verging on nasty ... which makes the startlingly beautiful moments all the more startling and beautiful.

Let Nothing You Dismay is not officially released in any physical format, but it's available free for download (along with lots of other music by Tim Walters and other folks) at The Doubtful Palace.

(I did eventually write about Pledge Drive's I Gave at the Office, but the record of Tim's I feel most guilty about not discussing is Slaw's Snakes and Ladders, an amazing and stunningly packaged collaboration with Heather Perkins. It's mostly musique concrète, and part of why I didn't write about it is I didn't feel I had the vocabulary or background to do it justice. Fortunately, there are a number of samples at the Doubtful Palace site, so you can hear for yourself.)

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