CD Review: The Headwhiz Consort Moderne Internationale 


Picking up where 2005's Baobob left off, the latest album by this 10-member group — which has its origins in nine countries but is now based in Cleveland — unleashes an avant-garde sound that's downright strange at times. Songs like "A Treat I Do Not Desire" and "Blue Tinge" hint at the exotic, readymade for, say, your next yoga session. From the electric guitar that drives "Tortoise Shell" to the six minutes of desperation in "Who Darkened the Sun," the group brings a different mood and scene to each song. Most of the album is instrumental, with a few rugged lyrics thrown in. Either way, it's filled with welcome WTF moments



Stained Bliss

      What does one make of the title to John McGrail's latest disc, Stained Bliss? From the artist's mouth: "A happiness that is tainted. A good life with imperfections." Works for us and, apparently, for the host of characters who wander through McGrail's dusty tales. The singer-songwriter and guitar maestro entwines experimental flair and indie-rock pathos with jangly folk rock, greasy blues and haymaking country on this winner. But like his compatriot Susan Weber, McGrail is not content to stop there, making those styles hauntingly ethereal. The bluesy "90-Year-Old Man," "Fallen Angel" and plaintive "To His Knees" definitely have the ghosts of others in them; the jangly warmth of "All Our Fallen Tears" feels like an old friend and a campfire in September and "Anger," which offers decidedly lo-fi indie-folk vibe with its nods to Dylan and Ochs...? Well, it offers numbness in the face of stark, raving violence. Credit where it's due… this is a great, chilling recording from someone who has managed to stay below the radar in Cleveland. To be fair, McGrail isn't for everyone... but when a songwriter makes you wonder if it's his heart or the blood from someone else's on his sleeve, well, that's gotta be worth something.

     On his latest disc, singer/songwriter/guitarist John McGrail weaves strands of rootsy folk-rock, blues and country with twittering percussion, droning guitars, ambient sounds and eerie, often heavily processed vocals. He covers some adventurous sonic terrain here, roughing up or expanding upon relatively simple melodies, sparse arrangements and raw production, and mixing them in unexpected ways to create an edgy sound on tunes that deal with sober topics ranging from racism to aging and death. "All Our Fallen Tears" opens with a flurry of sound effects before resolving into the song. The disorienting "Anger" juxtaposes violent lyrics with an almost deadpan vocal, plush harmonies and delicate music. Rattling percussion gives "One by One" a noisy bounce until it wraps up with some quiet acoustic guitar. Other songs feel positively ancient. The stark, a cappella "I'll Not Be Fulfilled" feels like a newly discovered traditional mountain ballad and "90 Year Old Man" exudes a mournful blues vibe. — Anastasia Pantsios, The Cleveland Free Times


Songs For Troubled Times


     Local singer-songwriter John McGrail tackles a lot of socio-political issues on his disc called Songs for Troubled Times. Not only is it his first solo release in almost a decade, he quickly sets out to tell you that not much has changed during that time. Except, perhaps, that he is an even better guitar player and lyricist than the last time you heard ‘em.
Fairly or unfairly, McGrail gets roped into the “folkie” category. Truth is, he has quite the historical handle on a lot of different musical genres—progressive rock, modern jazz, classical, folk, classic rock and world music. And to complicate things even more, he’s one hell of a guitar player who knows how to coax tones out in just the right way.

He gets a lot of rich, crystallized guitar tone on the set opener “Earthday,” which picks at Dubya’s dad even as McGrail himself picks at tone quality the likes of Eric Johnson would be proud of. He switches gears with the following modern rock track, “Sometimes We Just Forget,” which would make a fine bedfellow for the recent Push Stars disc.

It’s when McGrail really turns up the heat on the political issues that he tends to earn those folkie armbands he’s probably grown used to wearing. Not that it’s a bad thing. Tunes like “Losing Our Voice,” “Almost Funny,” “Just Like Tim McVeigh” and “What Would Jesus Say?” are weighted with folk rock leanings and rather obvious intent.
And then there’s “Genocide Johnny,” a song that McGrail wrote about a fictional (or not?) co-worker “jerk” who myopically wants to destroy all Muslims. “He said, ‘I’m proud to be an American because we’re always right/War is good so long as we get to pick the fight,’” McGrail growls, linking this particular Johnny to Saddam Hussein.
Maybe somewhere in Cleveland, McGrail has voice mails saved from Michael Moore and Bill O’Reilly—one asking him for the rights and one telling him he’s wrong.

  Of all the anti-Bush records in recent months, John McGrail's Songs for Troubled Times is likely to be the most musically ambitious and lyrically heavy-handed. McGrail pulls no punches and has much to say, but he isn't going to let you get away without doing some thinking of your own; this is protest music that goes beyond sloganeering.

     Ostensibly a folk singer, McGrail is all over the place stylistically; folk takes a backseat to hard rock, alternative rock, and country rock. "Earthday," his screed against environmental abuse, is an excellent U2 impersonation, and "Sometimes We Forget" will have listeners over 50 remembering the Byrds' classic 1967 "Notorious Byrd Brothers." Two bouncy tunes, "Genocide Johnny" and "Just Like Tim McVeigh," are McGrail's most obvious, as is the metal-flavored "Almost Funny." This won't appeal to everyone, but it shouldn't be ignored.

What Folks have said:

"He’s got blockbuster ones (songs) as he showed... not only has a strong resonant voice, but he also knows how to play a guitar

Jane Scott, Cleveland Plain Dealer

"...shouldn't be ignored. "

Steve Byrne, the Cleveland Scene

"quite the historical handle on a lot of different musical genres" and "he’s one hell of a guitar player

Peter Chakerian, Cool Cleveland

"there’s an imaginative mind at wok here"

Anastasia Pantsios, Notations

"Impressively performed"

Glass Eye, Toledo OH