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2004-10-20 - Clear Channel Review (Audio Revolution)
Common Rotation is a band notable for several things. First and foremost, they’re really entertaining, a quality which brings their other attributes into focus. The music is catchy, the lyrics are consistently original and intriguing, the energy is through the roof and principals/lead singers Eric Kufs (who also plays lead guitar and does the bulk of the songwriting) and Adam Busch have strong, appealing voices whether they’re taking turns on lead vocals or harmonizing together. Stepping outside of what it is that Common Rotation does musically, the band has collectively put its money where its mouth is in terms of musical independence. Sure, a lot of acts talk a good game about wanting to sidestep corporate control, but how many bands that can fill the Roxy (as Common Rotation has done) choose to play concerts literally in people’s living rooms all over the U.S. and in the U.K. in order to ensure that their sets stand the best chance of being heard as intended?

Kufs and Busch, as borne out by the Clear Channel EP (and confirmed by a multitude of interviews), are serious about this business of getting music from artist to audience with a maximum of connection and a minimum of outside interference. In a spoken-word intro to a live rendition of the title number, Busch explains that they are tired of dealing with club owners, sound systems, high ticket prices, bad parking and other bands who give them grief, so they are taking music to the people. Common Rotation’s new release Clear Channel consistently illustrates the benefits of this philosophy, interspersing studio cuts (engineered by Jon Griffen) with live tracks (engineered by They Might Be Giants’ Brian Speiser) from shows where it sounds like the attendees are having a terrific time.

The opening song, a studio version of “Clear Channel,” is a decEPtively gentle-sounding toss of the gauntlet. Kufs’ pensive, finger-picked guitar, backed by accordion, subtle drums with judicious use of the cymbal and some odd, eerie instrument lay the background for Kufs’ sung plaint about the radio station/music venue-owning conglomerate. He doesn’t sound exactly thrilled by the largely homogenized content designed to feed the machine: “It’s a clear channel that gives hidden clues to the mystery of this bad taste.”

“True Hollywood Romance,” also a studio track, begins with a splashy blast of guitar and drums as Busch launches into an infectious, playful paean to industry self-delusion that also touches on trying to impress the unimaginative Powers That Be: “Yes, it’s important what they might say/They all stay put with a vengeance.” Busch and Kufs trade off absurdist “we’re so fabulous” lines on the bridge: “You look like Greta Garbo with a 1960s shag,” “I look like the young Marlon Brando – all dressed up in drag!” The song ends with a musical sweep that sounds as though it should be wrapping out a bigscreen Technicolor kiss.

“Everything Under the Sun” is a live version of Kufs’ folky, apocalyptic love song that sounds happy despite some unnerving imagery: “Hold me as the morning sky blacks out/Hold me, there’s no time left now to doubt” the chorus urges. Cheerfully rhythmic guitar, quick (and subtly martial) brushwork from drummer Ken Beck, harmonica and vocal harmonies from Busch all come together for an effect that is warm and all-embracing musically and lyrically: “My love, she is nothing – she’s only everything/She’s everything under the sun.”

Next up is a live version of “Indie Rockin’.” The more traditional rock rendition opened Common Rotation’s previous album, “The Big Fear.” This live edition is real indie rockin’ – one acoustic guitar that goes from fast vibration to furious thrashing and two guys singing their guts out. An altered lyric – “There’s no backbeat!” – reflects the stripped-down state of the piece. Busch and Kufs trade off lead lines on a number that’s wryly self-referential – as the duo provide their own back-up “woo-oos,” Busch interjects in sing-song, “Every song on the radio goes ‘woo-oo’.”

“Party People” is another live selection, with Kufs’ strong guitar work and lead vocals painting a picture of contemporary Belfast, with an exuberant refrain picked up distantly by the audience – “The party’s still on!” – at the same time lyrics point to a certain lingering territoriality: “These are my murals and these are my flags/These are my children and these are their tags …”

“Heaven Help Me” is probably the most traditionally folk-sounding track here, with a twinkling picked acoustic guitar and harmonies recalling ‘50s groups like the Weavers. Kufs takes the lead on a sort of reverse gospel theme: “Heaven help me, I don’t believe in Man, I’ve never talked to God, the Devil won’t shake my hand.” It’s sing-along, toe-tapping agnostism.

The next track, my favorite on the EP, is a slow version of “Oklahoma,” previously captured on a buoyant cut on the Common Rotation’s first album, 28 Orange Street. Here, the music is slowed down to haunting guitar, harmonica and a spare helping of percussion and maracas as Busch sings of memory and a sense of non-accusatory, wistful dislocation. Our narrator sounds as though he’s trying to reconcile himself to life’s limitations, even as it supposedly offers so much: “I decided I’ll just reach for a happy medium/Check off my list of points and what other people see in ‘em ...” In its softer incarnation, “Oklahoma” is one of those great songs, like Gerry O’Beirne’s “Western Highway,” that gives musical tenderness to the way the mind turns on itself in the throes of melancholy while still feeling the impulse to communicate.

Track Eight brings us back to “Clear Channel,” this time in a live version and Busch’s slightly breathless spoken intro as Kufs launches into the brooding finger-picked tune as he sings strongly and cleanly, backed by Busch on accordion. It’s about as appropriate as a musical arrangement can get for a comment on the limitations of commercial radio at the moment – while it would be wrong to say the playlists are thoroughly homogenized, chances are you won’t hear songs like this, consisting of one voice and two acoustic instruments, getting mainstream airplay, despite the fact that it is as contemporary as the produced-to-the-teeth “la la la la” music parodied in “Indie Rockin’.”

Clear Channel closes out with another live cut, a cover of Lyle Lovett’s “God Will,” which comes as close as any track in memory to capturing the mood of an audience. There’s an audible “shush” by someone in the throng as a couple voices won’t pipe down at the start. The crowd actually laughs out loud at the lyrical punchlines, as Kufs gets to the first chorus in which we realize that what seems to be a proclamation of devotion is actually a declaration of someone who’s thoroughly fed up with another person’s lies. Kufs and Busch trade verses, getting a spontaneous singalong on the second chorus. This seems to be the experience Common Rotation is seeking to create – the audience connecting and feeling completely involved with the performance, so that it matters that music and listener are in the same place at the same time, rather than the cynical tradeoff of music as background noise, listener as dollar sign.

The stereo sound on the album has a strong aptly you-are-there quality, though the beginning of “God Will” is a little wavery (but on balance worth it to catch that intent “Shhh!”). On the spoken-word “Clear Channel” intro, Busch mentions a documentary about the live shows at people’s homes, which promises to be very interesting. Meanwhile, Clear Channel represents a sincere and so far successful-on-its-own-terms effort to bring music directly to people who are into modern folk/rock, with inventive lyrics, fine musicianship and beguiling vocals. It is well worth having.


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