Workhorse - Chris Klondike Masuak & The North 40 (I-94 Bar)
It is actually quite hard to review the work of someone you know and I tend to avoid it wherever possible.
You know what it's like yourself. Your friend asks you to come and see his band and they're just this side of all right. Next time you see the guy, there is this expectation that you're going to tell him how awesome his band was. I won't get into how few people actually understand what the word awesome means and why being awesome might not be your best course of action - because that's another story all together. It's just what's expected in the course of polite concesation. Suffice it to say, the temptation is to provide a review that in essence says nothing beyond a nod of approval.
I took up this review because this album doesn't need the damnation of faint praise. It doesn't need me to make excuses for it. It does the business all by itself. It stands on its own two feet and walks. It is an object lesson of the rewards of hard work. You know how, when you hear the first album by a band, it is all the material the band has been playing live for years. The vocals are phrased and honed by live performance. The solos have developed their peaks and troughs and crescendos. The rhythm bounces to the nods, taps and sways of a barroom crowd. That's why first albums are generally so righteous.
Now this, of course, isn't Chris's first record. It's not even his first solo record. It does, however, have the virtue of sounding like a first album. It has all the certainty and road miles of songs tempered by getting up there and doing the hard yards. Let's face it, if anyone is in the running for the title of "hardest working man in show biz", Chris Masuak is in there with a chance. How many bands has he played with in the last 12 months? I'm guessing even he's lost count. This album, however, is something different. Everyone knows he can play guitar. Here, he has to front a band too and that's easier said than done.
Last year, when Chris began his lengthy Tuesday night residency at the Sandringham Hotel in Newtown, he did not make his life easy. He wrote songs in keys at the very high end of his vocal range. He wrote complicated riffs that often crossed those vocal lines. There were baffling arrangements and lengthy set lists. At first, there were flat notes and an air of relief just to get from the beginning of a song to an end. Most of us lesser mortals take short cuts at this point. We have our tricks of changing keys, down tuning guitars and creating arrangements where we power our way through verses with long sustained chords. Chris Masuak laughs at our tricks. He wants what he wants and, no matter how difficult that something is, he's going to do it. He'll do the work that is required. As the weeks of the residency progressed, so too did the strengthening of voice and resolve.
That brings us to the "Workhorse" album. It shares themes and influences with its predecessor "The Straight Path" but here the sound is galvanised and confident. The arrangements seem tighter and the pop element is bought more to the fore. Here, the songs take precedence over virtuosity and the lyrics are open, honest and quite often witty and funny. Middle Eastern musical themes wrap around the classical early 1970s American rock sounds. Often the two forms call and respond to each other in the voices of different guitars. Of course you'll hear bits of Radio Birdman in there and a sprinkling of Sonics Rendezvous Band. You'll hear a bit of country and more than a couple of big descending melody lines. It's an eclectic blend full of clever musical counter points and ironies.
"I Believe" begins with swaggering country blues before hitting with a pure pop chorus. The next song up, "Let go", begins in Big Star territory and moves on from there. There's the epic stomp of "She's gone away", the powerhouse slam of opener "The Dreamer" and the sixties West Coast pop of "Mad and Fail". "Better than Dreaming" is a song the Hitmen could easily slip into their set as one of their own. You get the picture?
If this sounds inconsistent or muddled or confused, it's not. These varying styles are grafted together by artistic vision, intellect and sheer force of will. And hard work. Let's not forget the hard work. An album well worth your attention, investigation and investment.- Bob Short
Is there a better blues-based rock guitar player on the planet than this Ukranian-Canadian-Australian, currently hanging his hat in Spain? I think not. Impeccable tone, clean attack, monstrous vibrato – Klondike's got it all. That said, his last album, "The Straight Path", was somewhat less than the total cosmic mindfuck it could have been – lapidary pop-rock until the "bonus tracks" at the end, when it became bone-crushing '70s-style heavy blues-rock. Now he's back with another generous full-length – just shy of an hour, including the dead air before the bonus track, "Shining White" appended to the end of the closing "Submarine" (remember back in the '90s when everybody used to do that?) – that's a better integrated showcase for his strengths and enthusiasms.
Workhorse explodes out of the gate with "The Dreamer," a high-strung rocker that chugs along with the nervous energy of any number of Deniz Tek compositions. Masuak displays his ongoing interest in Arabic-sounding scales before pealing off a characteristically scorching solo that employs his distinctive, pickups-out-of-phase Strat sound. The heavy-bottomed "She's Gone Away" sounds like a muezzin's blues to a dervish rhythm. "Mad & Fall" manages to conjure the spirit of Revolver-era psychedelia without invoking its letter, while "Better Than Dreaming" alludes to Sonic's Rendezvous Band's "Electrophonic Tonic" without resembling it formally – a neat trick.
Masuak's exposes his country roots on "I Believe," which could have been a hit for Steve Earle in his "Copperhead Road" heyday, and the loser-at-love's lament "Let Go." "Hey Go" is a peppy pop-rocker with fun gang vocals and a guitar hook that recalls the one from the Clash's "All the Young Punks." "Dogs from the Northern Lands" and "Man in the Mirror" are throwbacks to the daze when every budding guitarist knew from Chuck Berry and the Stones' '69 strut was a common influence. "Gravity" is a minor blues a la "House of the Rising Sun" that includes the line "sweeter than Sheryl Crow," so you know this guy's got a sensahumour. "Slow" works off a nice Hendrixoid riff and two gorgeous solos, one heavy on the whammy bar and the other nicely fuzz-and-wah-drenched.
If there's a flaw here, it's that the lead vocals are a little lackluster, but that's probably not a deal breaker for anyone who's read this far. Workhorse is an aural feast for guitar fans and appreciators of the rock (not Rawk) in the grand old style. - Ken Shimamoto