Of all the local albums to be released in the past year hell, the past five years one of the best is Grace Basement's New Sense. The music is smart, and the tone is varied without being scattered; specifically, it's a genre-hop through alt-country, basement pop, fuzzy rock and acoustic folk. More surprising is the source, 27-year-old Kevin Buckley, who plays every instrument on the record and who is primarily known for his mastery of the fiddle. Buckley performs traditional Irish music frequently at McGurk's in Soulard and Llywelyn's in Webster Groves but he's just coming into his own as the leader of a rock band. (Having recently settled on the moniker Grace Basement, Buckley performed under the title Harmony Band for much of the past year.)
Perhaps it's not surprising that Buckley chose a band name with "basement" in the title, as the songs on New Sense began there. "Everything on there is just stuff that was done with no album in mind they were all recordings that I was just making and doing for fun, " Buckley says. His home recordings were passed around to friends, many of whom encouraged Buckley to formally release the tracks. Soon enough, the project began to take shape and the best songs revealed themselves over time. "The further along I got in the whole thing the more it became clearer which ones to do. Like 'Santa Fe' I made a conscious effort to record that song. That's the best recording I've done; it's really crafted and clean."
"Santa Fe" is one of the standouts on New Sense, and its deceptively simple structure and sucker-punch lyrics are emblematic of many Grace Basement songs. It begins almost like an Eagles song, with a simple acoustic guitar strumming over a loping beat. Little by little, the instrumental elements reveal their intentions: Double-tracked vocals provide a kind of Greek chorus, and a slippery Telecaster meanders over the tracks. A once-bubbly organ begins to growl and spit as the song's bridge begins, with the lyrics presaging a darkness on the edge of town: "I fear the new dark age is coming/I've seen the billboards on the highway." It's a heavy couplet for such an unassuming song, a sleight of hand that Buckley pulls throughout the record.
"Honestly, I like the bummer lyrics mixed with poppy, accessible music. I think that's what rock is good at," Buckley explains. "There's always a problem in each song it's like a story. There's gotta be some sort of conflict or who cares? You're not sitting down with a guitar singing about stuff unless something is causing you to do that. It's not just for music's sake."
Most of Buckley's musical life has revolved around the fiddle, and his involvement in the Irish music scene in St. Louis has made him something of a pillar in that community. While there is nothing resembling a reel or a jig on New Sense, Buckley sees a kinship between Irish folk music and the rock-oriented songs he writes.
"Irish music is my foundation, it's my musical bed," he says. "It's all melodies. That's all Irish music is melodies and then you improvise on them. And that's a good place to start with anything."
His ear for melody is unmistakable; New Sense is packed with simple harmonic riffs, complex vocal harmonies, and tossed-off lyrics that spring to life in the record's joyful atmosphere. "Green Machine" begins with a self-harmonizing Buckley singing "When guys see you, they like what they see," a lyric as brilliant as it is dumb. In the context of a Guided by Voices-like basher, it comes off as catchy and universal as the Beatles singing "She was just seventeen/you know what I mean."
Having settled on a four-piece band for live shows, Buckley forsees keeping the recording process a solo endeavor. And while he's more comfortable moving from the relative anonymity of his Irish music gigs to take center-stage with Grace Basement, Buckley hopes to get back to the basement soon. "That's what means the most to me having a really cool record. And it's shitty because no one really buys records anymore and they're so expensive to make," he says with a laugh.
Christian Schaeffer 9 p.m. Monday, July 16. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $7. 314-773-3363.
Something for Everyone
While jazz vocal duo the Cunninghams is, by its own reckoning, "journeymen" rather than household names, the pair has had quite an interesting journey. Together now for nearly 30 years, St. Louis native Don Cunningham and his wife Alicia have traveled the world, performed with many jazz greats and even earned a Grammy nomination back in 1989. Now the couple is returning to St. Louis for the first time in more than twenty years for a concert at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
Don Cunningham got his start playing local clubs in the Gaslight Square era, then spent seven years touring as a percussionist for Johnny Mathis. Seeking bigger challenges, he moved to Los Angeles in 1969. He fronted his own band there for several years, until a booking agent told him that adding a female singer could triple their earnings. Alicia, a classically trained vocalist and pianist, auditioned and got the gig. "I heard her sing 'Lush Life' and it just blew me away," he says now. "I thought to myself, 'This girl is going to be great one day.'"
After marrying in 1979, the couple spent most of the 1980s and 1990s touring Asia, finding particular success in Japan. "They are really the biggest jazz market in the world," said Cunningham, noting the attentiveness of Japanese fans. "They don't dare talk when you're performing. They're really listening to you."
Cunningham also earned international attention a couple of years ago when the San Francisco label Luv N' Haight reissued Something for Everyone, an album he cut in 1965 while his group was the house band at the St. Louis Playboy Club. Inspired by Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Les Baxter and music he heard in Hawaii while touring with Mathis, Cunningham incorporated those exotic sounds into his own act, eventually cutting an LP and pressing up 500 copies to sell at the club.
More than 30 years later, one of those copies found its way to Luv N' Haight, which included a bootlegged version of the song "Tabu" on a multi-artist compilation aimed at DJs. "Tabu" caught on with record spinners in Brazil, Japan and elsewhere, prompting the label to locate Cunningham and arrange an authorized re-release of the entire album. "It seemed like a panic button got pushed, and they said 'We better find this guy,'" Cunningham says with a laugh. "I was just happy that this thing had caught on."
The Cunninghams' St. Louis concert will include guest appearances by two of the musicians who played on that LP Marion Miller on piano and Manny Quintero on percussion as well as Don Cunningham's old friend Chuck Tillman on tenor saxophone. The first half will feature straight-ahead jazz, showcasing the duo's vocal skills that a Japan Times reviewer once compared to the Manhattan Transfer and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. For the second half, Cunningham said they'll revisit material from Something for Everyone, giving another generation of St. Louis listeners a chance to enjoy its distinctive blend of Latin jazz, lounge and exotica. (The Cunninghams can be found online at www.myspace.com/thecunninghamsjazz.) Dean C. Minderman 7 p.m. Thursday, July 12. Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Boulevard. $20 to $30. 314-533-9900.