Water Music: Kat Steih's "Hymns of the Huron" takes inspiration from Ann Arbor's liquid landmark

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Kat Steih

Photo by Jamie Chiu

The Huron River is one of the unifying elements of the greater Ann Arbor area, so it's not surprising that it has provided inspiration to a local singer-songwriter, Kat Steih, for her recent album, Hymns of the Huron: “I’d really like to focus on using my voice as a musician to make connections between things. I’d like to advocate for holistic music/creative education, women in creative fields, and water rights.” 

Steih will get to support water rights when she performs benefit for the Huron River Watershed Council on March 27 at Triple Goddess Tasting Room in Ypsilanti.

Hymns of the Huron features a fully realized sound, led by Steih’s rich, expressive voice. She’s backed on the record by Jesse Morgan, piano; Ben Lorenz, drums (who also produced); Jason Magee, guitar; and Kristin von Bernthal, bass and backup vocals. Steih wrote all the songs on the album. It opens with “Hole in My Heart,” placing sorrowful lyrics against a jaunty melody. The poppy “I Need a Friend” similarly establishes an infectious groove over a serious theme, while “I Haven’t Seen a Couple …” is a thoughtful heartbreak song. A sense of sadness and longing runs throughout much of the album, until “Don’t Push Me Away” brings in a sense of hope and “You’re Not Gonna Lose Me” concludes the record with a reassuring promise. 

Steih answered a few questions via email.

Bill Kirchen reminiscences on Commander Cody, Iggy Pop, and Bob Dylan before the Ann Arbor guitar legend's Honky Tonk Holiday

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Excerpt from Bill Kirchen's Holiday Honk Tonk 2019 poster

Ann Arbor native Bill Kirchen is instrumental in creating the rootsy country-rock-blues-folk mix we today call Americana. 

Kirchen hit it big early in his career as the lead guitarist for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen; he’s responsible for the dazzling guitar work on their enduring 1972 hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” He’s since become known as an absolute master of the Telecaster guitar, playing with a nearly endless list of impressive names through the years. 

Most recently, though, Kirchen has found one more way to shine: He’s become well known for his Honky Tonk Holiday tours, which showcase some of the most amazing, overlooked Christmas-themed gems you’ve never heard, alongside some other favorites from throughout his storied career.

On Sunday, Dec. 1, Kirchen brings his annual holiday spectacular home to Ann Arbor for a show at The Ark.

Dusting off should-be-classics like “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas,” “Silent Surfin’ Night,” and “Truckin’ Trees For Christmas,” Kirchen -- now based in Austin -- will appear with his backing band The Hounds of the Bakersfield, featuring Rick Richards on drums and David Carroll on stand-up bass. 

Kirchen took the time to answer a few questions via email, reflecting on the upcoming show and his time in Ann Arbor.

Long-running folk duo Annie and Rod Capps coalesced with a great band for its new album, "When They Fall"

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Rob and Annie Capps

Photo by Jennifer Prouty.

For fans of heartfelt and well-played acoustic roots music, a new album from Ann Arbor duo Annie and Rod Capps is always a treat. But with their latest, When They Fall, something’s a little different.

The songwriting, always smart and heartfelt, has become richer. The musicianship -- fleshed out on the record by Jason Dennie (mandolin and mandola), Dan Ozzie Andrews (bass), and Michael Shimmin (drums and percussion) -- is also better than ever. And the duo is making its most concentrated publicity push. It all feels like something of a step forward for a project that was already a vital and important part of the local music scene.

When They Fall goes from one highlight to the next, but among the most memorable tracks are “Poor Old Me,” showing a great sense of humor with the band sounding particularly lively; the touching “Happy New Year” and “Walking Through” (the latter featuring memorable lines like “I’m praying for the strength to grieve”); and “Build that Fire,” a warm and optimistic conclusion to a truly great recording.

Annie Capps answered a few questions recently via email.

False Figures make no-frills, minimalist Americana on their self-titled debut

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False Figures

There’s some irony in the name of the Ypsilanti band False Figures. Taken from a line in one of their songs, “Red Herring,” the name refers to fake idols.

But False Figures’ sound is anything but fake. The band is low-fi and low-profile (their social media presence is limited), creating a soulful, warm sort of Americana music that sounds like it might be played by friends around a campfire.

The core band has mostly consisted of Jim Cherewick, vocals, guitar, harmonica, and violin; Joel Parkkila, vocals, guitar and more; and Jason Lymangrover, bass and guitar. More recently, Stefan Krstovic has joined the band as the regular drummer. All the members have experience in other local bands including Human Skull, Best Exes, Congress, and Hydropark.

Their self-titled debut album is an accessible, engaging listen. The no-frills sound is well suited to the songs, which tend to be short and to the point -- one highlight on the album, “Matchbox,” gets the job done in just over a minute and a half. There’s a thoughtfulness to the lyrics, though, especially in songs like “Stay On” and “Out of Time.”

A second album is already in the works. And although the band has been primarily a studio project, they will play a live date at Ziggy’s in Ypsilanti on Wednesday, August 28 with Simon Joyner, Raw Honey, and Idle Ray. The show is being produced by Fred Thomas' Life Like Tapes.

The band recently agreed to answer a few questions via email.

Art and "Soul": Honey Monsoon's new album looks for the light within

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Honey Monsoon by Miles Marie

Photo by Miles Marie

For local band Honey Monsoon, music and art spring from the same well of creativity. 

That dedication to artistic exploration comes through clearly on the band’s second album, Opal Soul, which offers an engaging, irresistible mix of neo-soul and jazz with some world-music elements neatly woven in. For the album, Honey Monsoon's core musicians -- Ana Gomulka, guitar, vocals, keyboards, music, and lyrics; Taylor Greenshields, drums, percussion, recording, and mixing; Sam Naples, guitar, vocals, and mixing; and Binho “Alex” Manenti, bass and keyboards -- are augmented by a horn section and other musicians for a full, layered sound.

Opal Soul is very much about reflection and finding the light within,” Gomulka said. “I'm madly in love with exploration, healing, and the journey back to my higher self. Listening to this music is an invitation for all to make the journey with me.”

Both music and lyrics on Opal Soul reward a close listen. One of the album’s highlights, “Sign of Life,” starts out as fairly straightforward pop, then the horns jump into an avant-jazz groove, followed by an acid rock guitar solo, with all the elements ultimately mixing into a cohesive whole. 

Gomulka sings: 
“Looking for a sign, looking for a sign of life / Looking for a way, looking for my way out / Looking for a sign, looking for a sign of life / Looking for a place, looking for a place where my roots can sprout.”

All the songs on the album deserve attention, but two other particular highlights are “Cloud,” an irresistible, neo-soul single full of gorgeous hooks; and “Clarity,” a compelling song about finding that precious concept and learning to let go of the past that builds to a rich, extended groove.

Gomulka took the time to answer a few questions about the new album via email.

Fangs and Twang celebrate a monster of a new album at Ziggy’s

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Fangs & Twangs

The local band Fangs and Twang may have started out as a joke, but it’s turned out to be a really good one. 

Combining a rootsy, country-rock sound -- that’s the “twang” -- with songs about monsters and other scary things -- that’s the “fangs” -- the band has been sharpening its sound for the past four years, releasing three albums along the way. 

The core band consists of Joe Bertoletti on bass, Andy Benes on guitar and mandolin, and Billy LaLonde on drums. All three contribute vocals, and the band's sound is augmented by keyboards and fiddle on the album. “This band is all about collaboration and I'm really proud that this collaboration also extends to vocal duties,” Benes says.

Their latest album, the just-released Spirits and Chasers, perfectly balances Fangs and Twang’s offbeat outlook with the members’ first-rate musical chops. The band will celebrate the new album with a record-release show April 27 at Ziggy’s in Ypsilanti.

The title track on the new album is a standout, featuring some clever lyrics over a gritty roots-rock sound. “The Ballad of the Legend of the Saga of Swamp Thing” encapsulates the band’s goofy sense of humor. The infectious “Ogo Pogo” sounds like straightforward country, with a long instrumental intro that showcases the band’s instrumental abilities. The album’s six original songs are rounded out by a perfectly-on-point cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla.”

The band members jointly answered a few questions via email:

From Hip-Hop to Folk-Pop: Nadim Azzam showcases his hybrid sound on a new EP

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Nadim Azzam band

Nadim Azzam has a lot on his plate. He’s launching a new "music-based, local-focused media company," writing new songs, and doing social media and marketing as part of his day job.

But he’s recently carved out some time to record a five-song EP with the band he’s been fronting in recent years. Even as his new music is adding more electronic elements, he wanted to honor and preserve the sound he’s become known for -- a smooth, seamless combination of acoustic pop and hip-hop.

Azzam makes the blend work perfectly, with a typical song offering up a catchy guitar hook and traditionally structured lyrics that slide directly into a rap break and then back again. He’ll showcase the sound -- and in particular, the songs on the new EP -- at a Blind Pig show on March 15. (CDs will be available at the show; the EP hits streaming services in April.)

Sweetness & Fight: FUBAR leader Randy Tessier steps out on his own with "Sugar Town"

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Randy Tessier

Randy Tessier Explores New Sounds and Old With Solo EP

Area music fans know Randy Tessier first and foremost as the front man for the popular local band FUBAR, but he also works as a solo artist. Five years back he released a solo album called Hold Me Close, and now he’s following that up with a new six-song EP called Sugar Town

The EP showcases Tessier’s love for a variety of musical styles, yet all feature his trademark gravelly vocals and guitar. “It’s Too Late” is a new take on old-school soul, complete with a horn section. “He Lifts Me Up” is bluesy rock, while the title song is catchy acoustic pop. 

Tessier’s songwriting here is ambitious. “Texas Blues” paints a portrait of a young woman trying to escape, while “A Child Asked Me” is an anti-war song. “Incarceration: Marquette County Jail” includes the great line, “It’s not that I’m a spineless man / it’s just that I need help.”

Personnel varies from track to track, but primary contributors to the record include Chris Benjey, keyboards, producer; Geoff Michael, drum programming, engineer, and producer; Kim French, bass; and Don Kuhli, drums and woodblocks.

Tessier answered a few questions about the new record via email:

Ann Arbor folk-rockers Little Traps hide complexity inside a warm, inviting sound

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Little Traps

The local indie folk-rock band Little Traps brings sharp musicianship, an off-center outlook, and a distinctive sound with a banjo leading the way. Released late last year, their first full-length album, Can’t Count, is a welcome showcase of their work. 

The band charms listeners with its warm, inviting sound, but underneath lies a somewhat more complex tone. “Uncertainty, ambivalence, and second-guessing are the bread and butter of my lyrics,” singer-songwriter-guitarist Nick Bertsos says. 

In addition to Bertsos, the core band consists of singer-banjoist Annie Palmer and guitarist/pedal steel player Thomas Green. At various times other musicians help fill out the sound; on Can’t Count, Howard White plays bass and keyboards, while Ali Snyder plays drums. On New Tricks, a recently released EP of cover songs, Jessiah Hall is the drummer.

Bertsos answered a few questions recently via email:

Folk favorites Gemini celebrate a milestone birthday at The Ark

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Gemini

San and Laz Slomovits have been Ann Arbor folk-music mainstays since 1973.

The folk-music duo Gemini has been a vital part of the Ann Arbor music scene for more than 45 years. 

Twin brothers San and Laz Slomovits started singing together with their cantor father in their native Hungary when they were very young and started learning instruments at age 7. They continued performing as the family moved to Israel and then the U.S., but things really took off after the brothers formed a folk duo post-college and then moved to Ann Arbor in 1973. For decades they’ve been known for their beautiful harmonies, multi-instrumental talents, and original songs, particularly for youth and family audiences, throughout Michigan and beyond.

Now, the twins are turning 70 and their music is still going strong. They’re planning a “140th Birthday Celebration” on Jan. 3 at The Ark, where the duo has performed countless times over the years. A number of special guests will join the brothers, and the concert will be recorded for possible release. Proceeds will benefit The Ark, where former leaders Dave and Linda Siglin and others have supported Gemini for decades.

“We literally can’t imagine what our music and career would have been like without them. This is a small gesture of gratitude on our part,” the brothers agreed. They answered a few questions about the concert and their career for Pulp.