SAM LLANAS IS BACK WITH A SURPRISE CALLED “RETURN OF THE GOYA, PART 1”

You can’t beat a personalized copy of the new Sam Llanas CD Return Of The Goya, Part 1. In the name of political correctness, no international grocery aisle comments please. Photo courtesy Sam Llanas

It’s great to have Sam Llanas back on the blog! We’ve covered Sam since his debut solo album 4a.m. which remains one of my favorite pieces of work to date. I think I need to break it out again as I need to get a lot of things in the studio done (midi up live tracks, finish writing the last song on my last album…) and I LOVE to work late at night.

Llanas first came to my attention through Gary Tanin, whom I became associated with through the Roger Powell album Blue Note Ridge and then again with Fossil Poets. (Don’t go on your anti-Utopia 2018 reunion tour, Jeff, we know Powell isn’t participating and you doubt replacement Ralph Schuckett, while an extraordinary player with Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, this tour promotes the newly released box set of material with Powell, NOT Schuckett, the harmonic sensibilities employed by Powell will be long lost and they are an integral charm with the REAL Utopia. Don’t be fooled by imitations! Save it for another blog…) Then Tanin had the idea of getting me involved with both Llanas and a project Llanas became involved in, a two man show with Doug Vincent detailing Vincent’s own tragic encounter with addiction and suicide, punctuated by profound performances by Llanas from his solo works.

I identified with the author of the show, Doug Vincent, so much, it became a labor of love to promote his show A Day For Grace. Check the blog search field to see if I migrated them from the syndication to the new site. I am pretty sure they are there. You can also search Sam Llanas, and see all the reviews in our history. Needless to say, Llanas is a favorite here. A particular favorite of ours here at the blog is the Absinthe album. Those songs are so dark, they immediately draw in a death hag like me (even learned a couple of tunes on guitar, fun stuff!).

This time, however, the new Llanas disk came to me through new producer and long-time Llanas band member, Sean Wiliamson. Williamson promises that the music is “country, but good country”. I am not totally unfamiliar with the genre. Local cover bands always made me play southern rock, if not other country-tinged acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, so on and so forth. But to be honest, if I were to fill out an online dating profile, I wouldn’t exactly list country as a choice for the matchmaking algorithm.

But Llanas turned me on to Americana, I followed him there, I trust him. If for no other reason, his story telling is consistently fascinating. The day after I returned home from the NYC Llanas/Day For Grace experience, I went to see another really talented local blues/Americana performer, Ed Randazzo. Holy shit, here’s this diminutive guy, afflicted with MS I might add, he got up on the mic and the next thing I know his booming voice knocked me on my ass!

Llanas has one of those characteristic voices that lends depth and breadth to already large tales. Lately, a TV commercial for something or another keeps playing over and over and the music in that commercial is the song “Come And Get Your Love” by 70’s act Redbone. Their big claim to fame was that they were a Native American band. I think Llanas would make a killer cover of that song. His voice is big enough to convey the emotions of the song.

Right now, let’s check out what Llanas has to offer with The Return Of The Goya, Part 1.

Our little hoedown starts off with the VERY peppy “Follow You Heart”. While the vocal is pure Sammy, there is an unfamiliar twang to it. Llanas seems… happy. ?!?!?!?!? Drummer Ryan Schiedermayer not only counts in but brushes the tempo jauntily forward. And as one might expect from Country (and after hearing a few bars, I can attest this IS Country). The chorus vocal is lilting, his own down south Hallelujah Chorus.

By the time you hit the second verse, those vocals are still peppy, even upbeat! The bridge lyric of following your heart through the blue sky reeks of optimism. This is good for Llanas. As I mentioned, he had become somewhat morose (mind you, again, I am not complaining, I love morose) in his lyrics. The guy wrote a tune about Jeffrey Dahmer for fuck’s sake, a little light and laughter might do the guy some good. Not to mention the ongoing, continually nasty and uncalled for feud between he and his former band. Uncalled for in that Llanas has little to gain by dwelling on a bad past, and everything to gain by going out, stretching his arms and fingers and legs and toes and flying into the bright blue sky.

Propelling him upward is Sean Williamson’s pedal steel work during the solo. It has many components of the melody yet has it’s own direction. Williamson has the sense not to beat it into the ground with a nice pace and lots of countermelody.

They break back into the lilting chorus. Schiedermayer adds some bells, most likely a cajon set type that bands on the foot. He used one with Llanas when he backed Llanas up on percussion at the Rockwood Music Hall. On the second go ’round, Llanas lets his voice out to play a little with some ad libs.

Nice!

Then he slips us the mickey and breaks down the whole song to just his third verse vocal. But the band is back after two lines and they double up on the “follow your heart” line into the chorus, with bells, lap steel, and many Sammys overdubbed in harmony. THAT’S the Llanas I know!

Llanas’ vocal kicks off the next track, “Recipe”. Which again, sparks a cheery message of creating a master plan for a good life. You can even hear some joy in Llanas’ vocal. I won’t shy away from it, yeah I’m no expert at Country music, but it seems to make Llanas really happy. I remember him saying that he grew up in a house that was rife with big time Country influences. When I found out about the direction, it was a surprise, but not totally out of the realm of possibility. The guy was brought up around it.

Putting together a plan to have a good day with loved ones, share a meal, laugh a little, so on. No contemplating death, petty jealousies, anything negative. Llanas has thrown away the ill will and is thriving on happiness. Maybe he had to go the Country route to properly convey his happiness or make it a totally new vehicle for said happiness.

The solos are split between a reasonably strange lap steel solo and harmonica, executed by Llanas.  Once the chorus ends, a large crash cymbal brings a dead stop before verse three. Wrapping up this fine day. After repeating that line twice, a series of notes ends the tune.

On one fine day.

Fixated on days, some tremoloed guitar brings in “All Day” along with some vocal doot-doos (and who doesn’t love doot-doos?). Hats off to Williamson as producer, the rhythm track has an entirely different feel and sound. Good for breaking up any potential monotony. I wouldn’t mind hearing a touch more bass played by Matt Turner.

The arrangement is cool. Llanas’ vocal, some brushed snare drum, and the rest of the band only coming in for double notes on the one of every eight beats. The lyrics almost depict life on the road in a van band (Van Band: A small economical unit where the musicians take as little gear as possible with them in a van or van with trailer and drive themselves to gig after gig, i.e. “The guys from Miracle Legion unloaded from their van, into the Boot & Saddle”).

The trombone harmonizing with Llanas’ vocal seems to highlight just how boring touring in a van can be. So naturally things like blunts and booze are employed to make the trip a little less coma inducing (just make sure your driver doesn’t get too much second hand smoke as the five-oh will bust all of your asses regardless of the minute amount of THC that is found in the illegally procured blood sample, less I digress).

A break recalling that they can’t recall when the joy tour started gets a laughing response from the trombone before round two of the doot-doos sets in. But accompanied by trombone, dutifully performed by John Simons. It follows him into the ‘All day’ chorus.

Seeing as they’ve been at this all day, people are tired, people are hungry, but the drive to get home won’t let them stop. We’re back into the double notes on the one of eight beats again. Then into the ‘All day’ chorus and another round of embellished doot-doos. New drummer Kevin Dunphy rolls the toms into the end on the ‘All day’ lyric with a tremoloed guitar and crash thump ending.

Llanas counts in “Heroes” but not the Bowie. Although the chorus and intro vocals are “we could be heroes”. The melody is different, the lyrics are different. This is a minimalist track, acoustic guitar, finger-snaps, and vocals. As they add things into the second verse, they bring it right back down again. But there is no set point to stay at. The song goes by so quickly, you barely have a chance to get familiar with it and it’s gone…

Okay, this could be Country Pop, “A Little Song”. A snappy rhythm track and some husky vocals tell a tail of a young Sam meeting a golden boy on the rocks of the Fox river in Waukesha WI. The golden child has his little doot-doo song to keep him company. In the second verse we learn fishing is not the priority, but rather falling into the flow of the river and incorporating its strength as your own.

A brief slide solo before the third verse reveals our golden child has decided to risk his life for one of the many wars the US finds itself in, going to Afghanistan no less! Llanas warns golden boy (hey, like the Tubes song of the same name, I just got that!) to keep low and bring his little song with him. Then Llanas flashes forward to how he reminisce about GB, and what his experience must have been like. The rhythm track is different, as Llanas and the band strike double note chords through the lyric about the golden soldier and how his comrades in arms may be falling, wounded or dead. Praying that GB simply return home alive.

In the current global politisphere, coming home alive IS too much to ask I’m afraid.

But our protagonist returns triumphant to his rock on the Fox. In fact, golden soldier returns a hero, having saved some children. And spreading his little song globally through them.

We happily doot-doo our way out to a doubled slide solo and a whole note hold end.

But we’re not done with little songs just quite yet. You see, Llanas has another little song, it’s called “A Little Song II” and if Emmet Otters Jug Band were still going today, they’d still have no chance in hell of playing this. The rhythm track is tight and while reserved in the mix, it has the dynamics to qualify it as bombastic. And speedy as hell.

The lyrics simply detail a song that is used as a coping mechanism (and boy, do we need coping mechanisms). The second verse asks the question if Llanas were to experience midnight dementia, would anybody hear/care/notice/etc.

I’ve read your Facebook posts Sam, a lot of people would care. I know I would.

We return to the opening lyrics one more time, before the handclaps yield to verse three. Now Llanas may be asking too much about eavesdropping on his somnambulistic speech. Crawl inside his brain? I like ya Sammy, but just not that much.

Back to the intro/chorus lyric, twice actually. I need to mention that Turner’s bass is at a level I prefer for this one. Enough to move my subwoofer, not enough to make my cats piss where they stand.

Not done with being alone, “All Alone Again” rings in with pedal steel through in the intro. The intro lyric fairly pathos, with Llanas knowing he is not the chosen one, going nowhere, on his own. The following verse, alludes to Percy Sledge, about being out of the line of sight of someone. These lyrics are more of what I was expecting from Llanas. We back to the chorus for two times.

The break details the length of dysfunction right before another ethereal slide solo. Right outta something George Harrison might have laid down with the Wilburys.

Back to the lengthy dysfunction break and return to verse form for the lyric with an instrumental break down. About how love can pervert over time. Equating the whole relationship to a woulda coulda shoulda situation. But that doesn’t help Llanas from being all alone again to the slow down cymbal crescendo ending.

A textbook almost Mel Bay taught Fender Stratocaster guitar leads the intro to “Rio”. Of course in my musical snobbery, my mind immediately went to the Michael Nesmith song “Rio”. There’s another artist I like who dabbles in Country, in fact, Nesmith is preparing a tour with his County ensemble The First Nation Band.

Maybe Llanas is on to something, upon my further research, it keeps becoming more and more apparent that Country music may be on the uptick… Hmmm…

The first set of lyrics have to do with an older performer, and Llanas trying to mine his insight. The chorus is his answer about how the music elevates his inner hope. The next verse about how the performer still performs but to reduced crowds. But he doesn’t care. The performer’s singing keeps his hope alive, keeps him going, but now that something is inside all of us.

A rest break into a new vocal pattern over the chorus structure, has many Sammys singing “singing” while a lone Sammy does vocal ad-libs. This is a really nice part and features that husky dusky voice of Llanas’. Too bad it’s the end.

Once again, Llanas is one of those performers you just can’t get enough of. I know I felt that way at his Rockwood Music Hall show in NYC.

Some shuffle drums and a lot of mixed sounds intro “Long Way Home”, with the intro sounding very Petticoat Junction (for you young-uns, YouTube Petticoat Junction Theme Song, you’ll get the reference, damn I’m old). But this song has some familiar dark territory to it, sounds like Llanas is still kicking around the bad juju. I LOVE IT!

Verse one describes Llanas in a car, on a late night a long way from home. He didn’t name it that for nothing. All the lyric lines are split with “Oh-ay-oh-at” ad libs. Pipe! Next verse details the conditions in the cab of the car, radio tuned low, so on. But it’s still a long way home. The chorus starts off with “But in my dream I’m there by morning light”… What are you asleep at the wheel???

All along Dunphy keeps the train beat going and Williamson’s lap steel lines add a lonely quality to the music. I really like the way the lap steel is raised audibly in the mix to intro the solo, a classy touch! This solo has some fire to it, as the drums migrate to a more straight beat so as not to compete with the solo. More tasteful playing by Dunphy.

We are back to wanting to get home by morning to see his beloved in that light. Road weariness kicks in. Been there, done that, nearly drove off the PA Turnpike once. But despite the fatigue, nothing will stop Llanas’ train from getting home. And with some cymbal crashes we are done save for the falling lap steel notes.

Llanas counts down into the final track of the CD (where did it go???), that being “Down The Line”. When the intro lyric talks about being on a musical journey, I sorta cringe. As I alluded to earlier, Llanas’ musical trip has had a couple of dead ends. Let’s hope Llanas finds the light at the end of this disc.

So down the line means his progression through the music biz, with that aforementioned/not named former band, into being the solo performer he is today. I even kinda wish he would abandon the “Formerly Of…” tag in his billing. He’s Sam Llanas of the Sam Llanas band. I thought about going back into his catalog with that band, but I will wait until things are less volatile to even think about spelunking down that abyss.

Now, wait a minute, did I hear that lyric line right? “Yeah I was born with the soul of a loner” we got that when we met him. “I like to drink and I’m kind of a stoner”… Wait a minute, I wish we knew that, we would have smoked up with you in the hotel room! Hell, I’m smoked up now!!!

Oh, and listen to Llanas’ acoustic part on this. I love when he plays percussion acoustic. When he was playing on stage with Doug Vincent, and he was playing that style of percussive acoustic, he hit the guitar in such a way that a beautiful harmonic just cut through the air. Also aided by very competent sound by Ellen Rosenberg from (the now defunct) Stage Left Studio in NYC.

From what I can determine, down the line is code for further up in the music business. Which can often feel like a downward path.

His heart takes a beating everyday. This breaks my heart because I know what he’s talking about. None of the musicians I cut my teeth with back in the day are as dedicated to music as I still am. In that regard, Sam Llanas is my hero, my role model.

Integrity.

But nothing will let my role model get in-between his goal and he. He confesses that there have been some bumps in the road. He even changes the bridge line from being a stoner to being born with the soul of a stranger, and being attracted to danger…

…Have you heard his Absinthe album?

But this song has the perfect tempo, mood and storyline of the last song on the disc. The song order is terrific by the way, nicely compiled, even with “A Little Song” and “A Little Song II” being back to back. So what, the Little Song suite. Shut the fuck up.

The whole structure of the song is Llanas’ percussive acoustic, Williamson’s lap steel (putting the WHEE back in Country) and the steady, pulse inducing bass bringing up the low end.

Nothing says Country like Johnny Cash, high as kite, eating cake under a bush. Photo courtesy the internet.

For verse three in the first two lines, it is just Llanas’ vocal and Williamson’s lap steel to break the pattern, and keep it interesting. Me, I’m glued to this song as lately I have been studying and analyzing some record industry trends, lawsuits, and trying to figure out where the next step is for the faltering music business. Yeah vinyl sales are up, but that vinyl is mastered from digital recording equipment. There are no master ‘tapes’ so that warmth everyone thinks they hear is a placebo. Find a record that was originally pressed in the analog era, and find that same album from the new generation of vinyl, and you will only then see that new vinyl masters are false.

I hate to tell all those purists, but I could get that same warmth out of a CD through a decent EQ. Stick that in your 180 gram vinyl and smoke it. You’ll be radically carcinogenic, but go ahead!

The quiet verse is about the loneliness of the choice of committing to getting down the line. Then he twists it to be that down the line means the afterlife. The Pope came out on Good Friday and said Hell doesn’t exist. Now I have nothing to look forward to.

Attaboy Sam, you changed that lyric back to being a stoner!

The bass is elevated in the mix to add some depth to the backing behind the lap steel solo. With delay!

I hope Llanas gets down the line to a happy career in music. They add harmonica. Some harmonics on the lap steel and things swirl in the mix. But getting back to the career thing, no one deserves success more than Sam Llanas, if for no other reason than for the hell he’s been through trying to find his path. Yes, he had a modicum of success with that other band. But things change, people change and maybe he outgrew that other group.

But the song ends BUT DON’T TOUCH THAT STOP BUTTON!!! You see on one of my preliminary listens, I was late getting to the stop button and ANOTHER TRACK STARTED PLAYING! (Maybe they are more like Mark Mulcahy and Miracle Legion than I first imagined.) It isn’t listed on the track listing, and I could pester Williamson to find out what the name of that track is, but it’s more fun to see who weighs in after the review to make the contribution. Any of you readers who are on the inside, it would be cool to get that info!

It’s an acoustic and vocal intro, kinda raw sounding. The lyrics are depressing, about a lost girl, wishing on the moon. Verse two has us on the good side of town, just as lonely. Economy knows no restrictions. She too wishes on the moon. A whistle solo over verse structure moves us along. A bridge comes in and details the similarities between the rich and poor girl.

And if that ain’t enough, and by gawd don’t you think it ought to be, if you let the disc run, you hear “Oh god… make it stop make it stop”!!! My wife, the former Country radio DJ (the overnight shift, with all the lonely cowboys calling in to talk to the lady DJ and play one more “my-best-friend-stole-my-girl-and-my-truck-and-my-dog” song, feels the hidden track is her favorite. ESPECIALLY with the little sketch at the end.

You get out of it what you put in.

The real irony above and beyond all ironies is, if you read my recent reviews of Mark Mulcahy and Miracle Legion, a folk rock act and a college band act respectively, you know I saw them… in a country bar. Llanas’ music would level the Boot & Saddle (it don’t get more Country than that) in Philadelphia. Yes, you read right, a country bar in Philly.

Hell, maybe Llanas knows what he’s doing! The Boot & Saddle has been off the venue range until recently. My first time there was to see Miracle Legion in April. I returned for their lead singer’s solo set in November. Llanas would fit right in there.

This music moves me. Which says a lot for the artist as I am not a big country fan, I wasn’t a big fan of Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue album. This music sits better with me than Costello’s attempt!

During that sprint in NYC, I interviewed Tanin and Llanas to promote the shows and the 4a.m. album. Unfortunately, my video camera bit it. I did manage to upload the interview to my (currently infirmed) Mac. When that Mac gets back online, I may ended up transcribing that interview. It’s too important to let languish.

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