It used to be that when a band made a Spartan, bare-bones studio CD with a live, roomy sound and few overdubs, budget and time constraints were likely among the reasons why. One day of band tracking, one day of vocals and one day of mixing were about what you got for your Mom’s thousand dollars; and if the return were a document that did justice to your live show, you were more or less content with your investment and your box of 1,000 coasters, even as you dreamed of the day you could afford to experiment, linger and art-party in the studio like the big kids do.
But now that every bedroom in the county is a viable overdub studio with a decent Chinese condenser mic, a hard drive full of synths and samples and Garage Band, Reaper or an Ableton crack, it has become a kind of perverse extravagance not to layer, layer, layer all the day long. It requires discipline and a firm command of “no” to keep the ukuleles, xylophones, brass quartets, toy pianos and choral solipsism out of your songs. And sometimes they show up anyway, creeping in overnight via the cultural ambiance.
I personally can’t get enough toy pianos, brass quartets and solipsistic choirs, and I do feel that, perhaps, they should be required. But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the ballsy and strict realism of the Jonny Monster Band’s album Bad Times Before. This courageously undecorated, rocking CD fills all the empty spaces with empty space in a way that only a happening, empathic and road-tested rock trio can.
And of course it didn’t have to be this way. The Jonny Monster Band is one of the highest-profile and hardest-working bands in the region of the last few years. Keeping it raw, keeping it live was their aesthetic intention, not their only option.
Jonny Monster’s thing is demonic Strat abuse, unvarnished blues rage with a tender belly, a sneaky melodicism that surfaces in the Stonesy choruses and in a few exquisite solo Dobro performances that are as much “Little Martha” as rural blues. But this is not a frontman/backing band arrangement; it’s a level battlefield, an (em)power(ed) trio. Roger LaRochelle on drums and Pete Newman on bass enjoy autonomous voices in the trio conversation and plenty of clearance and distinction in these open, spacious mixes.
With all that latitude and airspace, the songs partake of the loose, interactive swirl of acid rock, just a titch – but a full titch – removed from psychedelia. Grounded in Jonny’s blues-life tropes, we find no electric marshmallow ragas here; just some of that liberated, freewheeling rock counterpoint of the great trios of the 1960s and ‘70s. There are enough arranged riffs, breakdowns and tight groove changes to keep things from descending anywhere near the dreaded realm of noodle and wank.
The Stratocaster, let’s face it, is a homely, naked and quacking thing that makes its player work extra-hard. Most anyone can sing through a cranked Gibson, but it takes a special kind of player to wail with a duck-voiced Strat. And Jonny surely can and does, squeezing every last drop of expression and fire out of the Strat’s characteristically fragile and thin tone. “Dreambats” honors the soulful prettiness of the Hendrix ballad, but most of the time the playing here is stinging, cathartic and possessed. In the tradition of the great bluesmen and the great Jimi, much of the genius of Jonny’s playing happens in the spaces between vocals – that one-man call-and-response thing – and in his swinging rhythm playing. The solos are rad as well.
As a singer too, Jonny’s all about plain dealing, in a voice somewhat jagged, somewhat small. But it’s a voice whose honesty and intention are never in doubt, and one well-suited to the lyrical themes of forthcoming hurt, past-shedding and coming clean. Kudos to Jonny and engineer Rob Kissner for keeping it plain, resisting the temptation to add a soothing bed of background vocalists, excessive ambience or stylized toughening via filtering and studio grit.
It’s that raw, natural vibe and the deep trust in the ensemble that makes this fine CD work, top to bottom. And if the Jonny Monster Band does decide to make a more ornate studio album next time around, let it be an over-the-top psychedelic freakout and not a smooth, uptown modern blues affair. This band should be all about keeping it wild, one way or the other.
Jonny Monster Band, Friday, June 28, 10:30 p.m., Oasis Café, 58 Main Street, New Paltz; www.jonnymonsterband.com.