Looking Back: Dry River Yacht Club’s Family Portraits: Calm Mutiny

(Editor’s Note: This will be an ongoing series this week as I bring articles about some of my favorite local music of last year to my blog in extended formats, this first article originally appeared in an edited form in the March 2011 issue of JAVA Magazine.)

Family Portraits: Calm Mutiny
Dry River Yacht Club Return

Let’s face it, in the years since their inception, Dry River Yacht Club have become a local live staple—renowned for their drawing power no matter what venue they choose to bless with their presence.  If you are asking why, then it’s clear that you’ve never had the pleasure of basking in the glow of their performance. Dry River Yacht Club (or simply Dry River or DRYC to those who talk about them so frequently that they can no longer afford the time it takes to say there full name) always put on a great show, always—I have never once witnessed Dry River having an off night, they love what they do and do what they love and their audience is not only loyal, but lovingly appreciated by the band itself. This is something a lot of other artists could learn from—Dry River gives what they get and we get what they give in return. What do we get? We get insane Americana drenched indie Gypsy Rock from anywhere between seven and ten of the most musically talented people in Phoenix. If you want to see something special, check out a standing room only crowd at the Yucca Tap Room on a random Wednesday night hanging on every note delivered by this amazing outfit.

Most though, will recognize that Dry River Yacht Club are much more than a great live band.  In 2009, The Ugliest Princess revealed that this amazing crew could deliver a studio album that would capture them perfectly at that moment in time and space. Two years on and DRYC plans to do it again, this time with an EP, very nearly a mini-album of sorts, that once again timestamps their progression in the musical universe.  Family Portraits: Calm Mutiny is as much a masterful stroke as it is an unlikely turn for an unpredictable band to become even more, well, unpredictable—in short, two years ago, no one would have seen this one coming. Sure the first four tracks seem obvious, studio recorded signature songs that define their sound and collective persona in fine rhyme, time, rhythm and melody. It is what follows those where the real surprises lay in waiting. One a frenzied live recording and the other two, absolutely insane remixes, taking the Dry River Yacht Club into territory you never imagined possible based on their organic, earthy sound.  The results are utterly brilliant, territory in which few have dared to travel and a collection that is as unique as it is unlikely.

The EP begins with “The Tale Of Earl Augustine” and somehow it seems appropriate that it begins with the lone guitar strumming of Probst, before the violin and vocals hit, it’s Ryan there alone basking in the spotlight, an oft overlooked hero of the band known for his maniacal strumming and jamming dancing across his side of the stage. It’s nice to have that short moment with Ryan alone. The song itself is about murder, voodoo women and justice for the innocent—in recent months it has become a live favorite and it’s easy to tell why. In this first song alone, it becomes easily apparent that Family Portraits: Calm Mutiny has stepped up a few notches over The Ugliest Princess, for one simple reason—the recorded version does justice to how the band performs their songs live.

“The Rape Of Persephone” begins in an all together different tone, a melancholic number, which appropriately enough, according to lead singer Garnet is “Based on the Greek myth of how the seasons were created, inspired by Bernini’s legendary sculpture The Rape Of Proserpina.” Admittedly, the song was additionally inspired by a cell phone ringtone and the rhythm of a blinking light on a car. It is literally and figuratively haunting. Garnet’s vocals are the focus here, with sad strings serving to only accent the sorrow in her delivery. This song does however show that the band is not all gypsy rock and indie dance madness, no, here is a heart wrenching delivery that grips you by the core and shuffles your soul to a darker introspective place. Dry River Yacht Club delivers you to winter in a place that truly knows no such season as it is delivered to the rest of the world. The effect is amazing and truly warrants the moments it takes to arrest your senses.

Named after cellist Steve Bohn’s two daughters “Ramona Louisa” is very nearly an instrumental save for some lyricless vocals that complete the organic nature of the complete instrumentation.  After all, if you have ever heard Garnet’s voice, you know full well that it is as much an instrument as it is a channel for lyrical delivery. Nevertheless, here is where the band as a whole shines as one unit, delivering a lullabyesque journey of imagined lives spent from birth to youth to adulthood to old age. “It has a poetic arc,” Bohn commented. “From Pampers to Depends.” The entire band laughed at that one but seemed to smile and nod in agreement.  “It’s like a beautiful journey,” Henri Bernard added. Nothing truer could be said, it is a beautiful, monumental journey of very nearly modern classical music that moves the soul through the stages of life wonderfully emoted, primarily through the use of bassoon, guitar and cello.

“Sweaty Sax” has become another recent live favorite, if for no other reason than it shows off Fred Reyes for what he is—a madman behind the saxophone.  It is a pirate tale, a sweaty, sexy pirate tale told with funky sax. “I like how it’s creepy in the beginning,” Garnet commented. “Then it’s pretty in the middle and gets really funky in the end.” It is the ending that is the clincher at the live shows and on the EP as well, the beginning with the lyrical story introduces the themes, the middle carries the passengers to their destination with those words in mind and the end, well the end just blows your mind and soul with a sound so fine of the entire band becoming alive that it’s difficult to shake the miraculous sax-ual explosion you just experienced first-hand. Yeah, it’s that good and it is the finale of the studio tracks for this release.

Because of the quality of Dry River’s live performances you’d almost mistake the next song for something recorded in a full on studio, but alas, this took place at the Rogue and “Dead Mother Dearest” is simply amazing or as the band would happily agree with its lead singer’s opinion, “The live track is awesome.” Yet another live favorite, which is assuredly why they included it here, this song and specifically this live recording shows exactly what makes DRYC so great and at the same time so popular. They take music that is anachronistic and out of context, with lyrical content that is absurdly dark and brilliantly out of step with the times and make it all relevant, house crashing brilliant, beautiful dance music for those who just love to move to music made right. It’s that simple.  In this case it’s a song about “how rats kill humans”, plague material from two centuries ago, really—yet, it’s brought to life in the modern day with eclectic and esoteric musicianship turned on its head to present a number that finds crowds of hundreds dancing to it weekly. That’s amazing.

It isn’t to say that up to this point what we are given isn’t gracious, it is after all five new songs from Dry River Yacht Club that are all admittedly fantastic, but what follows is a departure heretofore unimagined by very nearly any fan of their music or their live show.  I am not a betting man, but if I were I would be willing to wager that these two tracks will only serve to garner more fans and cost them none. The Pickster One remix of “Sweaty Sax” only serves to emphasize or rather, re-emphasive the nautical nature of the tune and set it literally into a seaworthy hypnotic wonderland centered around ocean sounds, Garnet’s vocals and Freddies sax.  This should be submitted to every dance club in the country, but more specifically across the pond where it would be frighteningly successful as a drug endrenched hit of its own kind.

Senbad, on the other hand takes a similar beat and pace and rides it longer, quite a bit longer—nearly nine minutes in fact, but in a completely different direction.  In fact, it’s much more low key than the previous remix, but no less enjoyable. Garnet’s vocals are mixed to a point where all her sensuality is kept intact, but it approaches an Annie Lennox level of delivery with a Laurie Anderson level of understandability.  This may well be the crazier of the two mixes as Garnet’s vocals simply swirl around the speakers like disembodied melodic sounds designed to hypnotize the listener—which I’m pretty sure is the intent. It’s stunning, in that it is such a dramatic departure from anything ever done by Dry River Yacht Club before and honestly, one can only hope more of these sort of releases are on the horizon.  While this doesn’t have the “instant club hit”  sound of the previous remix, this may well be the one you’re more likely to throw on your iPod for pure psychedelic enjoy ability—if you get my meaning, that is to say, it’s a real head trip, a real enjoyable head trip.

All of this was finalized in live madness, on March 12, 2011, at the Yucca Tap Room in Tempe. It was a CD release party that set a new precedent for what a CD release party is all about and it started early—4PM to be exact, taking place both inside the Yucca and in the parking lot. The release was huge: two stages, over eleven bands and three of the finest DJ sets available in the valley for over ten hours of entertainment. I’m not sure there has ever been a local CD release event like this ever before, but there have now already been others like it. Simply said, it was an event not to be missed, though if you did, Family Portraits: Calm Mutiny will be available at Hoodlums and Stinkweeds or available for download from Amazon and iTunes.