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Rift Valley Stranglers | History & Future

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Folk: Alternative Folk Rock: Americana Moods: Type: Acoustic
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History & Future

by Rift Valley Stranglers

Genre: Folk: Alternative Folk
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
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1. Cold Winter
4:57 album only
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2. Three Tragedies & A Feud
3:57 album only
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3. Off The Reservation
4:56 album only
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4. Marlow
6:42 album only
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5. It's All Been Done
5:34 album only
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6. Copper Keddle
5:13 album only
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7. Bill
4:41 album only
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8. Boat House Painted Red
5:19 album only
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9. Iron Gates
3:43 album only
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10. Kinglets Lament
3:30 album only
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11. Rock Salt And Nails
5:19 album only

ABOUT THIS ALBUM


Album Notes


Rift Valley Stranglers Take the Laid-Back Road to Success

David Thoreau once wrote, “In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.” Of course, Thoreau lived two centuries before The Rift Valley Stranglers, who managed to hit targets they weren’t even gunning for.
CMI Records’ latest up-and-coming act is currently putting the finishing touches on “History & Future,” which has the feel of a deeply significant concept album - yet without the concept. Although most of their songs evoke images of colorful characters enmeshed in carefully plotted tragedies, some of the lyrics were actually written on the fly by lead singer and guitarist Sinesiou, leaving listeners to wonder at what deep meaning may be hidden in his words. The group’s name likewise seems pregnant with meaning, but was actually selected almost by accident. All three members admit to not making the Rift Valley Stranglers a high priority in their lives, in part because they all have young children; half of the songs were recorded informally in the living room of Rochester’s enigmatic rock legend, Cash Mattock; drummer Ethan Ragland, jokes about being routinely unprepared to jam; Sinesiou, considers himself more of a “dabbler” than a musician and says that the first incarnation of the band started as something to keep them while drinking casually. Yet despite not taking themselves overly seriously or worrying excessively about production values, the finished product sounds more polished, professional and evocative than they ever intended to strive for.
The laid-back approach that colored both the songs and the whole production atmosphere is not surprising, given that Sinesiou’s major musical inspiration is The Band, of ‘60s folk rock fame. Their influence is instantly recognizable on the album, which also has roots in Sinesiou’s love of jazz, old blues and rural music from the ‘20s and ‘30s and his dedication to tracking down lost 78 vinyl records from the era. Some of his most distinctive musical influences from the modern era include Bob Dylan and Neil Young, whose spirit infuses much of the record.
“I’ve loved them so long I think it will always end up coming out sounding like them,” he said, then laughed at the occasional comparisons of his vocal style to that of Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz. “I always tried to sound like Rick Danko because he was one of my favorite singers.”
He started playing guitar in eighth grade and played some graduation parties as a high school freshman, but “never played out at a bar or anything like that.” Sinesiou would jam informally on occasion with bassist Jason Gorman, but that was about it. “He and I grew up together and we had some of the same musical influences,” Sinesiou said. “And then Ethan came into the mix.”
The missing ingredient was his future brother-in-law, Ethan, who began playing drums at age 18 and hooked up with one of Rochester’s most recognizable rock acts, The Priests, after moving here from Boston. Like Adam, Ethan loved music but didn’t want the chore of committing to a formal band.
“After the Priests broke up I wasn’t really interested in getting back into a band, but I was still interested in playing,” Ragland said. Thereafter his admiration for Ringo Starr and renowned session drummers like Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner could be heard in informal jam sessions with Sinesiou and Gorman. The three formed a short-lived band called Old Stone Heap after a bar that has been standing on the outskirts of Ithaca since the 1820s. Before Gorman moved to Ithaca they made some 4-track cassette recordings, but that was the extent of their ambition.
“It was more something to do while we were sitting around drinking,” Sinesiou said. “It was a lot of fun and it was definitely fueled by a lot of alcohol.”
He and Ethan recall those sessions fondly but it might have ended there if not for the efforts of one of Mattock, who helped Old Stone Heap with some of their initial recordings. Mattock, the president of CMI Records, is perhaps best known for his eclectic concept album, “Sexy 21st Century Sleaze,” which debuted in 2005. Since then he has played on or helped produce albums by CMI’s other artists, which include such well-known artists as The Moviees, Lovematics, El Destructo, SLurblown and Butch Barnette. After he became deeply involved in this project the band changed its name to reflect the new direction and made him a member.
Mattock’s influences run the full spectrum of music, but during the production of History & Future he was most inspired by Sufjan Stevens, M. Ward, Wilco and Iron and Wine. He was in charge of playing, “Everything else. I’m not going to name them all because there’s too many of them.” Some of the varied instruments he plays were dubbed in, “but the main part of the songs are live.”
“It was recorded in my dining room. Ethan didn’t use drumsticks; he used a brush made out of bamboo. It was half-broken and he wrapped duct tape around it. He put a T-shirt over the snare,” Mattock said with a laugh, then added that he recorded them without a PA. “I’ve never tried to record anything like that before.”
Ragland may also joke about being “always unprepared,” yet is clearly talented enough to improvise sets out of ordinary items to tailor the sound to his liking. In place of drumsticks, “I also had broom bristles that were taped together,” he said. “I muffle my drums, I put T-shirts over my drums, just to dampen them and give them a different sound.”
“I’d say we did half in his living room and the remaining half in his basement. It was very laid back, there was no pressure or anything.”
The resulting album resonates with some obvious influences but is nonetheless hard to categorize. “It’s sort of eclectic-American. At times it’s more like alternative folk, at other times it’s a little more modern,” Mattock said. There are “a lot of Americana references” to topics like the Civil War and making moonshine, but the sound is much closer to that of rural American folk music than to the country and western genre. Although the band had a good time recording the record at its easy-going sessions, the “folky sound” also has “definitely got dark tones to it,” Ragland said. Sinesiou says the record has a “countrified, easy-going, laid-back kind of atmosphere,” in part because of the 19th Century American folk overtones in his music. He confessed a certain “weariness” in his own songwriting and said he was glad to have Mattock on hand to give it a “fresh perspective.”
The two co-wrote “Cold Winter”, “Boat House Painted Red”, “Off the Reservation” and “It’s All Been Done.” The last of these is distinctive for its sparse, jangling accompaniment and because it is the only song in which Mattock sings lead instead of harmonies. “Off the Reservation” features the story of a man going insane and “Bill” relates the violent tale of Confederate guerrilla Bill Anderson, whom Sinesiou recently read about. “Boat House Painted Red,” however, is one of several songs that appear to have an important message behind them, but actually says nothing in particular. “Marlow” hints at a storyline, but how do the “thieving cattle” it speaks of relate to the “world war” it mentions? Another example is “Three Tragedies and Feud,” which implies a tale of some kind in its very title, but contains no deep meaning.
“Sometimes we just needed words,” Sinesiou said. “I just took different situations and just pasted them together. Some were about things I read, some of it’s a little autobiographical, some of it was just made up.”
At times the lyrics were just cobbled together out of Sinesiou’s active mind for the sake of necessity, according to Mattock. “I would just give him a subject matter and he’d run with it,” he said.
“Rock, Salt and Nails” was originally written by the late folk singer Utah Phillips and was recorded by Dylan in 1967. The group also performs Albert Frank Beddoe’s “Copper Kettle,” which was also recorded by Dylan and such other well-known folk singers of the ‘60s as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Bassist Chris Kemp, formerly of such prominent Rochester acts as Phoenix Red, The Q, Hello Goodbye and Asyd Malaise, lent his talents to the latter song as well as “Marlow” and “Iron Gates.” “Cold Winter” showcases Sinesiou’s mandolin talents while Kinglets Lament features distorted vocals and Sinesiou’s electric kazoo.
“He owns an electric kazoo!” Mattock said in amazement. “I never saw anything like it in my life. It has a cord with a quarter-inch jack.”
Despite his aptitude for several instruments and unique songwriting style, Sinesiou remains as humble as the rest of the band. “I can’t do a lot with the guitar, or with the mandolin, or with the harmonica. We’re by no means professionals at this. I felt pretty limited. I felt I dabbled more than anything else.”
In keeping with the band’s laid-back philosophy, no grueling world tours are planned. They may have a CD release party, or play a couple of live shows as time permits. “I would definitely be interested in doing something,” Ragland said. “Maybe we’ll play a show in a small coffee shop together.”
Another idea the group has discussed is doing a live Webcast, according to Mattock. “We also talked about doing some Internet shows. It would be like a live podcast. You could do a live show right inside your house anytime you want to.”
At the moment the group is focusing on finishing the album, which may be released in late April or early May.
“People will be able to get it through any traditional digital retailer,” Mattock said. It will also be available through the company’s website, www.cashmattock.com . CMI might eventually distribute some CDs locally as well. “It would be cool to have a vinyl version someday, but we’ll have to see how it does.”
Whether it sells well or not, the Rift Valley Stranglers appear to have met their primary objective: having a good time.
“One of the things I like about playing with them is that nobody’s pretentious,” Sinesiou said. “Nobody’s pretending to be something they’re not. Nobody’s uptight. Nobody has the typical band guy ego.”
“I really enjoyed writing songs with the guy, he’s a creative dude,” Mattock said of Sinesiou.
Ragland concurred with his bandmates. “I had a great time doing it. It was great to play music and not have to worry about results, then walk away with a smile I guess.” The Rift Valley Stranglers may have aimed for smiles at their recording sessions, but they also got the results.


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