Framed by burgundy velvet curtains, Hillary Maroon’s crimson dreadlocks glowed in the red gels at Tonic one evening last month. After a few adjustments on her vocal effects box, she and her quartet gently launched into a Radiohead tune, “The Tourist,” one of a handful of pop/rock covers that appear on Maroon’s second studio release, Who The Sky Betrays. Mimicking Tom Yorke’s grudging, impassioned vocals, Hillary and her band, co-founder/keyboardist Benny Lackner, drummer Lance Carter, and bassist Derek Nievergelt, established a dreamy, relaxed atmosphere for the fistful of fans who braved the icy winter extremes.
Attempting to diversify the sonic realm of jazz, and deliver its music to a culture that grew up on quick, over-produced pop songs, Maroon combines raucous, highly affected solos and catchy melodies, with graceful jazz rhythms and improvisation. The album includes special guests Marc Ribot (guitar), Nate Wooley (trumpet) and Alex Hamlin (alto). The extra trio’s expansionary prowess propels the quartet into an advanced realm that builds on their airy core.
Maroon’s vocals often come across whiney and wispy, especially on the Soundgarden song “Black Hole Sun,” which depends on clear, direct delivery to make its point. The Pretenders' “Show Me” takes the fast, tightly delivered tune and loosens its slick core into a lazy, instrumental-dependant jazz version. It has our nostalgia-pulse ticking at first, but once we reach the second chorus we’re craving that polished early ‘80s pop that gleamed off the original.
For reasons the covers falter, the five originals succeed. With compelling lyrics, they ooze with political overtones and deeply personal ponderings. “Will It Matter Who We Were” aches with remorse while highlighting the vulnerable beauty of Maroon’s voice accompanied only by pure, un-effected piano, bass, and drums. Lackner’s sweet, melancholy piano solo rings with innocent sophistication.
Extinguishing all innocence, Ribot arrives on the last track, John Lennon’s “Isolation” with a frayed, manic guitar solo. His coarse, vindictive vamps cut through Maroon’s fervid vocals as she sings the legendary songwriter’s lyrics with their mix of political angst and torn-apart heart.
“Bully On The Block,” a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy, could be a Broadway hit. The rock beats, dark suspicious chords and menacing keyboard underlie Maroon’s punchy, spiraling vocal decent—apropos for a “No blood for oil!”—exclaiming Mrs. Hannigan.
Track Listing: 1. Is This The Time? (Benny Lackner/Hillary Maroon)
2. Bully on the Block (Benny Lackner/Hillary Maroon)
3. Will It Matter Who We Were? (Benny Lackner/Hillary Maroon)
4. The Tourist (Radiohead)
5. When the Storm Comes (Hillary Maroon)
6. Show Me (Chrissie Hynde)
7. Black Hole Sun (Chris Cornell)
8. Beyond the Bliss (Benny Lackner/Hillary Maroon)
9. Spun Me Shaky (Hillary Maroon)
10. When I Fall in Love (Victor Young/Edward Heyman)
11. Isolation (John Lennon)
Personnel: Hillary Maroon: voice;
Benny Lackner: piano, electric pianos, synth;
Derek Nievergelt: acoustic bass;
Lance Carter: drums.
With special guests:
Marc Ribot: guitar (tracks 1, 4, 5, 8, 11);
Nate Wooley: trumpet (tracks 1, 5, 8, 10);
Alex Hamlin : alto sax (tracks 1, 5, 8).