Free Weekly Staff
Strange Heroes, a dance-music staple in NWA from 2001 to 2005, is mounting a comeback with a flurry of recent gigs on Dickson Street, a nomination for NAMA party band of the year, a slot on opening night for this year’s Bikes, Blues & BBQ, and a new CD chock full of contributions from other area musicians … including one ghost.
George’s Majestic Lounge is hosting the CD release party from 8 to 11 p.m. Friday.
The spirit of the smooth-playing, hard-living, voluble Michael Lee Sloate haunts the tracks of Strange Heroes new, third CD, Between the Musk and the Moon. Michael Lee, as most knew Sloate, died in 2008 at age 55 of liver cancer.
Strange Heroes’ Guy Ames said Sloate’s songwriting genius was the genius that helped Strange Heroes bag the NAMA “CD of the Year” in 2004 for their CD Paths and Patterns. Ames said Sloate’s song were “too good, too compelling to not play” on the new CD.
Six of the 18 cuts on the new CD are Michael Lee tunes, so, even from the grave, Sloate continues to be a major voice in the band’s style and sound, which has always been eclectic but thanks in big part to Michael Lee, almost always dance-inducing, Ames said.
This third release by Strange Heroes is even more eclectic than the earlier CDs, and this from a band which, two years in a row, won the NAMA for “Best None of the Above,” the category for bands that defied categorization.
The title cut on Between the Musk and the Moon breaks into reggae choruses; the opening cut is funktastic; the final cut is heavy, boom-boom-boom, strip-tease-rhythm blues; “Hollywood Night” could be an AC/DC song; and “Walking in Daylight” features the Heroes’ Bruce Allen on electric sitar. Yep, sitar. The CD is strong with Strange Heroes’ signature tight three-part harmony from Allen, Ames and Lanier throughout the CD.
All but one (Tim Carnes, formerly of Ultra Suede) of the current Strange Heroes (Bruce Allen, Ames, Kirk Lanier, Carnes, and Jamie Ulick) lineup played with Sloate in at least one of several NWA bands, including Walter Ego and The Michael Lee Band.
One of Sloate’s songs, “Across the Grand Marais,” (on the first CD and a song about south Arkansas where Sloate was from) has become a Strange Heroes signature piece.
Michael Lee’s songs on this new CD range in style from beatnik-swing (“End of the Line,” which features the perfect-fit horn work of Opal Fly and Steve Carruthers), ’60s soul (“Meet Me”), hard-driving Southern rock (“Hollywood Night”), the ‘60s-slow-dancing “Cool Night,” to the enigmatic retro-bossa-nova-country-lounge song “Satin and Lace” about a prostitute’s simple acceptance of her job’s exigencies.
Sloate’s songs often allude to a hard life in the rural and small-town South, a life that Sloate, who suffered from chronic pain from a construction accident. knew well.
Sloate’s song “Blame It on the Band” is a rock-swing number, a genre Strange Heroes mine regularly for their dance music.
Like “End of the Line,” many of Sloate’s songs are lyrically complex and vocally challenging. Bassist Kirk Lanier does all the lead vocals to Sloate’s songs as a “labor of love.”
Ames, a talented song-writer himself, calls “End of the Line” a “masterpiece of lyrical jive.” It’s a smooth, swinging, fast-talking homage to some earlier, hipper time:
“Well, he was standing on the corner of the question just waiting on that downtown bus.
Easing his mind ’round the need for alleviation of the situation causing the fuss.
And he could see more than two destinations all floating around in his mind.
But there was too little time for investigation no searching for that reason and rhyme.”
Like almost all of Sloate’s songs on this CD, the vocabulary and melodic feel often harken back to the ’50s and ’60s, giving the songs a decidedly retro and classic feel.
The guest horn work of Opal Fly and Steve “Hot Buttered” Carruthers on several cuts is another highlight of Between the Musk and the Moon. Ames’ “Family Tree” and Allen’s monster funk piece “Follow Me” (which opens the CD with a funky bang) realize their full musical potential with Fly’s and Carruther’s contributions.
“Opal and Steve gave ‘Family Tree’ exactly the ’30s feel I wanted and could always hear in my head,” Ames said.
Other guests are: harmonica player Mark McGee (formerly of Strange Heroes and now with Snake Eyes and the Bug Band); the flautist Michael Allen (no relation to Bruce); violinist Ryan Cockerham (Kahula Gypsy Band, etc.). On the Ames-penned “Guantanamo,” Cockerham’s plaintive violin evokes the grief of a Guantanamo prisoner, while Allen’s growling, screaming guitar captures the rage of a man unjustly imprisoned.
“Guantanamo” is our only ‘political’ song on this CD,” Ames said, which is noteworthy because the Heroes’ second CD was almost all political and since, as Ames said, “People have tried to pigeon-hole us as a ‘political’ band, whatever that is.”
This CD was two to three years in the making. Allen and Ulick did most of the mixing in Ulick’s studio. The final mastering was done by Kelly Mulhollan of Still on the Hill at his Termite Tracks Studio.