Hooks and riffs are funny things. When a simple, repeated element of a tune grabs a listener's ear with its beauty and perfect distilled essence it helps create memorable and often timeless music. But when those simple, repeated elements are, well, simple and repeated elements the result can be less than sterling. Such, unfortunately, is too often the case with many of the tunes on "Escape Goat." On the positive side, The McGuffin is good at a gamut of styles that run from a hippie horn jam to Allman Brothers/Marshall Tucker Southern rock to trippy drug dream-music. The quality vocals make good listening since they are as varied in style as the songs. But too often the songs lock onto a guitar part or a rhythm and dog it to death. This could be called creating a groove but on tunes such as "Designs on the Smokehouse" or the plodding "Paradise Beach" it's more like stomping a musical idea into the ground. That's not to criticize the technical execution of the tunes, but more to wonder why these songs don't have more of a beginning and an end. The lengthy "The Cold Ground" begs for someone to reel it in and put it to rest. "Good Day to Die" is a nice sonic mix but the lyrical hook carries none of the conviction one might expect from a song's central focus. Likewise, "Sandman" starts promisingly enough only to end the CD on a half-hearted sputter. All of that said, there's nothing really wrong with this varied bag of songs that a little outside production guidance or a more objective ear couldn't help. Sometimes it's as much about what you leave out as what you play. Ames Arnold
Devil's Workshop Big Band "Idle Hands" (self-released) ****
If a late night Devil's Workshop Big Band show is outside your behavioral parameters (they've been sticking to Monday nights), their self-published debut recording "Idle Hands" is a close-to-ideal document of what you're missing. Right down to the ambience.
Recorded live at Bogart's Back Room last summer, "Hands" captures the applause, glasses clinking at the bar and inebriated chatter in the quiet sections. Add smoke and it's just like being in front of the loose-limbed consortium of 17 VCU jazz program alumni during one of their gigs.
Like a typical Devil's Workshop set, the CD opens with an unplanned, "free" workout. Amorphous and chaotic at the start, within a couple of minutes the playing coalesces around a six-tone baritone sax riff, with countermelodies and fragmentary solos weaving in and out. During the course of the improvisation the riff lightens, becomes more lyrical, and finally dissolves into a solo piano segue into the flamenco-tinged opening to "Spanish Stanford."
Echoing the theme to the '70s' TV show, the song typifies the playful, powerful and sometimes surprisingly beautiful playing of the band. The selections are originals with the exception of John Hiatt's "Have A Little Faith in Me." The head arrangements are clever and loose, allowing a fair amount of latitude for such a large group.
By no means technically pristine, the occasional off-mic playing and the faint yapping of a customer are more than compensated for by the immediacy of feeling, and the sense that these talented players are having a genuine good time. Someday they may record in the perfectly controlled confines of a studio. For now, their unconfined enthusiasm is an unfiltered delight. Peter Mcelhenney
The Devil's Workshop performs at Bogart's Back Room Monday nights at 9 p.m.; they will have a CD-release party Saturday, March 1, at 10 p.m.
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