BY SAM PFEIFLE
POINTS NORTH: Kate Schrock has employed a talented cast of hammerheads from
north of the border on Indiana.
Local musicians, don’t take offense. Kate Schrock certainly meant none in traveling all the way to Hamilton, Ontario, to find a backing band to support her piano and vocals for a brand-new album, which she’s titled Indiana. She didn’t even think she was going there to record an album. It just sort of worked out that way.
We should all be so blessed with pleasant surprises.
Schrock has been around the block a few times during her decade (and five albums) in the music biz as a fiercely independent performer. Along the way, she befriended producer Dave Rave DesRoches — whom Schrock calls Canada’s Joey Ramone — who is ensconced in Hamilton and surrounded by that town’s talented players (they’re called, affectionately, hammerheads).
Maybe you know Hamilton, actually. Producer/performer Daniel Lanois (U2, Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel) is from there. He’s kind of famous. And there are literally hundreds of active bands in the Steel City. As Schrock puts it, ÒHamilton has a really amazing music scene.
So, when DesRoches called up last year and asked Schrock if she’d like to come out and do some recording in an old Hamilton church, it seemed like a good idea.
He said, Why don’t you come out and we’ll just use these guys, says Schrock. DesRoches told her these guys had helped out on the last Joe Mannix album. I had to go to them.
It was as relaxed a project as I’ve ever been involved with, she says.
Basically, I just showed up and Dave started calling his buddies. We didn’t realize we were making an entire record.
The bulk of the work was put in by Bill Becker on the guitar, Keith Lindsay on keys and accordion, Peter Ribhany on bass, and drummer Ray Farrugia. Again, you may know them. You’ll find Ribhany on a number of old Motown records. Farrugia’s Junkhouse is a pretty popular band up north. Then there were folks dropping in to provide a woodwinds section, backup vocals, some acoustic guitar, and all manner of instrumental help.
The band ended up producing one hell of an album — warm, inviting, and easily conveying the relaxed atmosphere of its creation. The songs slide effortlessly into one another, Schrock’s dreamy ether of a voice dancing above her own rolling piano and the nearly-always spot-on instrumentation put together by DesRoches and partner Glen Marshall.
Maybe the fact that Schrock slept in the back of the church for the four days in which they were recording has something to do with the record’s palpable immediacy.
Right from the album’s first track, Lives I Have Touched, the interplay
between the languid guitar and Schrock’s pressing piano grabs you right by the gut. With the drums, they create a wonderful tension, continually threatening to break out into a barnburner, but, instead, teasing further with a chorus that moves ever more minor.
I listen to the AM radio and I stare at the walls, Schrock sings, by way of
the song’s reluctance to excite, with her voice becoming more urgent as it climbs into the icy high notes in mimicry of her explanation that I become emotionally frozen.
I’m guessing the church was bereft of very much sensory stimulation, as it seems to have suited Schrock’s soul searching. You won’t find much narrative in her lyrics: The first and second person dominate, and though the music still seems mildly depressing in its construction, she seems, rather, just anxious that her current good luck will end.
In Need, her call of I don’t need much more than this, sung in a manner to make this song the disc’s most memorable, is echoed by responses that imply her happiness might be transitory. But the repetition is enough to make you actually believe that she’s content with the uncertainty.
Her gospel influences are showing through, not only in the construction but also in the resignation.
The Master, with its intriguing Rhodes intro, and some muted, dirty guitar, is similar: We thought we knew each other so well, Schrock sings. But we mistook the road to heaven/For the road that leads to hell. Like the best of gospel, she’s able to adeptly pair guttural, low-end power with crisp, high-end delicacy. Listen for the memorable delivery of the phrase beautiful boy, followed by the subtle little guitar lick. Then compare it to the falsetto she employs on Òit’s your life and at the end with the repeated are you too proud? Very cool stuff.
As is her mid-song piano break, one of the few true solos on the disc,
twinkling like broken glass right along with the Rhodes break. The contrast of sounds threatens discordance and makes you split your attention.
But the sounds here are varied. If Loving You is more than a little bit ‘80s, marking time like a quiet Duran Duran tune – and something about her delivery reminds of Simon LeBon, too. Of note here is the esoteric backup vocals, floating far below Schrock’s vocal track.
There’s a jam-band influence here, too. A Light on the River, sounds like Jerry’s guitar, circa Terrapin Station, really excellent, and the drums
behind the piano are a rat-a-tat-tat march that keeps the tune upbeat despite the vocals. Later, the intro to Follow Through mimics a thoughtful, late-set Phish jam, or maybe a large orchestra warming up.
Of course, it’s hard not to make comparisons to Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan — and the Elton John Tiny Dancer chord bite in Boy from the North — but that’s good company to be in. I’d say she’s more like the latter of the two piano-playing women, especially when Schrock turns to more spare arrangements like those on Bird on a Wing or Set Me In Motion or One Horse, where her voice is paired simply with the piano, maybe the organ, or some light drums breaking through. And I know McLachlan’s depth is her stock in trade, but I’d say Schrock’s the more honestly soulful.
This comes most to the fore on the album’s namesake, Indiana, which also closes things out. Like William S. Burroughs in a mid-bennie rant, Schrock cackles and murmurs in a total change of vocal pace — slightly low in the mix, matter-of-fact, clipped and quick in delivery, and more nonsensical than normal. It’s like we’ve been invited inside her diary.
These soulful, downbeat arrangements are what Portland audiences will be treated to via live concert. Unfortunately, the band won’t be making the trek to Maine for Schrock’s CD-release party tonight, February 27, at the Asylum — or maybe I should say fortunately, as Schrock says some people like her better when it’s just her and the piano. She’s returning to the club that saw her open for Sophie B. Hawkins earlier this year, when they turned it into a nice-vibing listening room.
Here’s hoping the locals turn out similarly to embrace Indiana.