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We are witness to the rebirth of light rock
By Richard Thomas
The album cover features a ghostly woman, suggesting the music is grim, spooky or gothy. Worry not. It’s uplifting, funky jazz-rock. But how much jazz rock features a violin?
The band originally was, in 2018, the duo of lead vocalist/violinist Ren Cooper and guitarist Nick Muska. Later that year they expanded into a quartet with Nick Glass on bass and Cody Thoreson on drums and they’ve been a fixture on the live local music circuit since. This is their first album, which was supposed to get its official release show last April (4/20, of course) but it was derailed, like everything else, by the ‘rona. It was rescheduled for July 22 but postponed again.
The opening track, “Come On Over” set the tone of the album, a lighthearted, romantic tune in which the narrator entices a love interest to her place by offering sweets, “booze from somewhere overseas, 60 proof” and herself. Aren’t guys supposed to do the enticing? Times have changed, in this case for the better.
The band is probably going to get tired of hearing their music described as “breezy,” but they brought it on themselves, one because it’s an accurate description and two, the second track is titled “Breeze.” Again, the subject is romance, this time with a sailing metaphor: “Wind it took my map / Waves they took my oar / Darling won’t you pull me closer to the shore.” The music isn’t so dire, more like a sunny, leisurely sail.
The dour album cover does accurately reflect the title track’s lyrics. It’s about an artist who used to paint with bright colors but is narrowing down her palette, first to pink, then to grey. Sounds depressing, though the song says, “She’s pensive in her solidarity as she looks around her home / Is it boldness or just vanity that keeps her painting here alone?” So is she really sad, or is she experimenting with minimalism and preferring to be alone so she can focus? If it is depressing, you couldn’t tell from the music. It’s in a minor key, but it’s a spirited, catchy tune.
The music gets more intense with the longest track, “Deja Vu.” It starts slowly with a violin solo by Cooper, followed by a slow and mournful R & B number. During the bridge, Muska launches into a bluesy guitar solo that gets hair-raising, especially when Cooper rejoins with her voice and hits the high notes.
“Suitcase for Two” shifts the tone back to casual yet spirited. The video features Muska chasing a singing suitcase down the street, ending up at Cooper’s place.
“Tie Me Down” is as close to rock and roll as the band gets, not surprising given the title, though it’s only metaphorically about bondage. The fast-paced song gives Glass and Thoreson the opportunity to show off their chops on bass and drums, respectively.
“Where You Are” is a ballad and the slowest song. Muska sings for the first time on this one, though he’s dueting with Cooper. He sings, “I could play Jack Kerouac, you could be my Cheryl Strayed,” and I had to look up the latter. (She’s the author of “Wild,” the book that got turned into the Reese Witherspoon movie.)
He sings lead on the album closer, “Vera,” with the rest of the band providing backup. The song feels lightweight, like it could be the theme to a ‘70s sitcom titled “Vera.” But as stated before, times have changed, and in some ways they haven’t. Things we used to think were cheesy are now cool again. We are witnessing the rebirth of light rock, but no complaints as long as it’s done this well.
They had me at UWS Jazz Dept.
By Jim Lundstrom
Along with the debut CD Monochrome by the local band One Less Guest arriving at the office, there was a letter that looked as if it might have been typed on an actual typewriter with a few brief details about the band, such as the members met through the jazz program at the University of Wisconsin-Superior (go Killer Bees! – always happy to promote fellow Soup Town alums, can you hear me Arnold Schwarzenegger?).
The letter’s author, Nick Muska, the band’s guitarist and co-vocalist, also mentioned that since the April release of the album, the band has “amicably” parted ways with drummer Sten Duginski, and only mentions that the remaining members are now working with a new drummer “and are continuing to write and grow as a group.”
I had heard Muska and vocalist/violinist Ren Cooper in a virtual live session on KUMD a while back, but I had forgotten how the band sounded when I sat down to listen to the CD, and I purposely did not pull out the booklet to read the credits until I heard the full recording once.
In fact, I had forgotten there was a violinist in this band, but, two minutes into the lead song, and Cooper’s violin comes sweetly soaring in above the chunky funk groove already established by the bass, drums and guitar.
The interplay of the violin through-out the record is really sweet (aurally, I mean, like candy for the ears) and adds depth and texture to the aural structures the band creates.
Cooper’s other instrument, her voice, is also in fine form. When she growls on the album opener “Come on over baby,” you get the feeling whoever that message is meant for better take heed.
Also standout throughout is Nick Glass’ bass playing. He often takes a lead role rather than serving purely in the traditional rhythmic role. He’s got a lush, fluid style, heard to great effect on the title tune “Monochrome.”
As well as playing guitars and harmonica, Muska is the other lead singer in the band. He takes the lead on the second song, “Breeze.” His voice immediately reminded me of a guy by the name of Andy Fairweather Low who had some hits on the radio when I lived in England in the 1970s – I went to see him in Luton one Thursday night that was celebrated as Thanksgiving here but was just another Thursday there; AFL went on to play guitar with Pink Floyd at some point.
Muska has the same innocent yet world-weary sound to his voice as Andy Fairweather Low. But since I have yet to meet anyone who knows Andy Fairweather Low, not much use making that comment, but, too late now. Anyway, you can look him up.
On top of a great crawling bass line from Glass, Muska plays a searing and dramatic guitar solo on the fourth track, “Déjà vu.” He builds to a crescendo that Cooper rides in on for a final high-note assault.
The record ends with “Vera,” an upbeat song about the end of a relationship.
One Less Guest’s debut recording exhibits some well-crafted songs along with the sort of talented musicianship I would expect from the UWS Jazz Dept. (The woman who became my second ex-wife played trombone at UWS; she was in a Dixieland band and I was doing a story on the band when we met).
Catch One Less Guest in living color in a parking lot concert with Teague Alexy at 7 pm Friday, Aug. 7, at Wussow’s Concert Cafe in beautiful downtown West Duluth.