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2002-00-00 - 28 Orange Street Review (Audio Revolution)
Common Rotation may be one of the most fun and best-loved cult bands you haven’t heard of – yet, anyway. An upcoming concert at 14 Below in Santa Monica, CA sold out in under 12 hours (and we’re talking tickets that went on sale at midnight), fans travel great distances to see them and, at the live shows I’ve seen, most of the audience winds up on their feet, enthusiastically dancing. Granted, this is not unusual for live shows – unless the music is like what Common Rotation plays, something that is hard to cram under one genre heading, but tends more toward electric folk than what we normally think of as dance tunes. On some numbers, they sound as though they’re in the same musical ballpark as Barenaked Ladies (especially that band’s popular "One Week"), while at other times, they variously call to mind beatnik blues, jazz, a more rock-oriented Stevie Wonder and even, on one track, Melissa Etheridge – yet seldom losing that danceable edge. Part of the get-the-people-on-their-feet vibe can be credited to Common Rotation’s infectious energy, part is certainly due to "Professor" Ken Beck’s reliable, skillful work on the lively percussion and part is probably just that Common Rotation seems to thrive on the unexpected.
Common Rotation is headed up by Eric Kufs and Adam Busch, two New Yorkers in their early ‘20s. They swap duties on lead vocals, with Kufs playing acoustic guitar and writing the majority of the lyrics and a fair amount of the music; Busch contributes some lyrics solo, collaborates with Kufs on others, and the whole band sometimes works together on writing the music. Common Rotation was at one time the title of this debut album, and the band used to be called 28 Orange Street. The switch came about when bass player Chris Elsener (heard on the album) quit during a live show. In true "the show must go on" spirit, the remaining band members asked if there was a bass player in the house. Michael Uhler gamely rose from the audience to take up the abandoned bass, finishing the concert and joining the lineup thereafter. At this point, reckoning that they were now effectively a different band, the group became Common Rotation and renamed the album 28 Orange Street – since both were already on the CD cover, it was a painless alteration.
Nothing quite so dramatic as the aforementioned incident occurs on 28 Orange Street, although there are some entertaining live bits on several cuts – on "Oklahoma," Busch has an interaction with a ringing cell phone that may be shtick (the perfect timing of the interruption is a bit suspect), but is funny nonetheless. The band is joined on the album by guitarist Rick Birmingham (who tours with them when he’s available) and, on selected songs, guests Jason Crosby on keyboards, Jordan Katz on trumpet, Peter Balone on tenor sax and Kenny Lehman on alto sax.
Most of the album is studio-recorded, with a variety of sound effects. This a stereo recording, but I did most of my listening through my 5.1 home theater sytem with Dolby Pro Logic providing me with a little "simulated surround'. Sometimes the mix locates specific elements in specific places, while on other tracks, the sound is moved across the soundstage creating a great sence of depth and space.
The lyrics are sometimes deliberately at odds with the music. "I’m mad at someone," Kufs and Busch harmonize rather urgently on the opening track, "Did a Verse End?" (words and music by Kufs), but the upbeat tune belies the complaint, just as the springy guitar makes the lyrical claim "I’m not folky" hard to swallow. The song has a light country flavor, with sturdy drums, cymbals whooshing in the mains and a nice surround effect that puts guitars a bit to the rear of the listener.
"Rock Star," with lyrics by Kufs and Busch and music by the entire band, starts with a jazzlike sound that begins by having one of the guitars sonically impersonate a ‘50s-esque slap bass. Busch delivers the verse as "white boy rap" (the term comes up later on the album), with the chorus – a mocking homage to ego – delivered rapid-fire. The overall effect is a bit like a latter-day reincarnation of beat poetry, something you don’t hear every day.
The next track, "What We Have Now," has lyrics by Busch that reflect conflict over self-presentation – "These tics of desperation/Pass for looks of sophistication" he sings – but the anxiety of the words is again intriguingly offset by the music (another group collaborative composition), with a joyous horn that sounds like our consciously worried narrator may subconsciously be contemplating a strut in the park, backed by guitars and heavy cymbals.
On "Payback," Kufs displays a soulful wail as he presents himself as appealingly as possible in song: "I have no money/But I can be cute and I can be funny . . . just grant me the time of you" – hard to resist, especially backed by the warm rush of notes and indefatigable percussive beat surrounding him, even though much of the song concerns itself with the folly of trying to buy love (or at least sexual companionship).
On "Burgandy," Kufs’ lyrics reference, of all things, the old ballad "Tom Dooley," in another lyrically mournful, musically ironic contemplation of romance, likening failure to death. Busch takes the lead vocal but harmonizes a great deal with Kufs. This track separates its elements, with vocals and guitars (which have a very detailed decay at the end of the number) in the center and mains, while other guitar elements and drums are more prominent in the rears.
"The First Time," with lyrics and music by Kufs, begins with a precise finger-picking guitar riff that has an almost calypso flavor before Kufs and Busch launch together into the verse, while frisky guitar licks and very active drums fill up the room with a sound that can make even a solo listener start skipping around dancing. The vocals by Kufs turn to major tuneful pleading before the climax.
"Oklahoma" speaks for plenty of male listeners in Kufs’ lyrics: "When I was younger, I used to get angry at the girls/Now that I’m older, I just get angry at the world," Busch sings, with Kufs joining in on passionate harmonies. There’s humor here, but the driving guitars give the tune a wistful, reflective urgency, while the lyrics wind up providing a surreal twist that should make for some good post-listening conversation.
"The Crowd and I" begins with some low, rumbling bass notes before Kufs, who wrote the song, launches into an appealing, bluesy vocal, backed by rock ‘n’ roll keyboards. Vocals are in the center channel with drums and guitar, while the keyboards, other guitars and more drum sound are in the mains and rears; the vocals move into the rears on the final chorus.
"Dancer" is the most raw folk-rock number in the collection, with Kufs’ soaring vocals and a powerfully strummed guitar taking center stage in a contemplation of depression and the hope/fear of change.
28 Orange Street has a hidden track that turns up exactly 15 minutes, 50 seconds into the "Dancer" cut (roughly 10 minutes after "Dancer" ends). The track starts with a nice, hard music jam, followed by a very funny (albeit slightly annoying if one has discomfort about cheap shots at other celebrities) verbal riff by Busch about just what the heck these guys are doing on stage in the first place. The bonus track has an interesting mix, with Busch sounding live in the center but picked up by the rears on my 5.1 system, as if these are the p.a. system in the club where the cut was recorded.
To fully appreciate Common Rotation, it’s probably necessary to see them live. As delightful as 28 Orange Street is, it can’t convey the visual impact of Kufs reacting to what he’s singing with wide-eyed surprise, Busch near-swooning around the microphone, as if of the verge of passing out from the sheer ecstasy of performance, and the whole band bounce ceilingward, propelled off their feet by a surfeit of musical energy. However, the album definitely gives you the idea – Common Rotation is a blast.
Reviewed by - Abbie Bernstein Send us your comments.
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