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Band Bites Back!

The phrase “You wouldn't know good music if it bit you on the ass” takes on a whole new meaning when Philadelphia trio Maggi, Pierce and E.J. take the stage these days. Fronted (backed, actually) by canine roadie Pokey (Pocahontas Illinois Cloud, formally), the phrase becomes more than a euphemism, at least in my head, for anyone who thinks they know rock music and discounts this band deserves a good bite in the ass. These days, one can almost forgive the public, inundated beneath huge piles of releases from seemingly every corner of the planet, but there is no excuse for major labels, who have ignored these guys for over ten years! It merely proves that the so-called music industry deserves the plague they've brought on themselves.

As for Maggi, Pierce & E.J., I haven't heard such impressive and innovative music outside of Gruppo Sportivo and the Bare Naked Ladies. Multi-instrumentalists extraordinaire, apparently, the critics have charged them with everything from the musical equivalent of yelling “Fire” in theaters to giving fans whiplash as they attempt to keep up with instrument changes (It's hazardous having talent, I tell ya!). On record (er, CD), they let the music take them where it may, showing a certain irreverence in a respectful kind of way. The band's website lists others' descriptions of their sound, including “Abba meets Zappa”, “Fleetwood Mac meets the Pixies”, “Ween meets Joni Mitchell”, “Bette Midler meets Wilco”, “Sonic Youth meets The Beatles”. The novice could use those for a ballpark idea, but one should add to the mix Manhattan Transfer, 10CC, Pink Floyd, Daddy Cool, Chilliwack, the Bobs, Clannad, West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and a few hundred others. Which is a roundabout way of saying these guys know their shit. And they ain't copycats (that's an aside).

They came together innocently enough. Pierce and E.J. were playing with The Goats when Maggi signed on as gofer and videographer. During down times, the three did a little innocent busking on the street corners (Hey, they had to EAT!) and when The Goats ran out of things to eat (it's a JOKE! Sheesh!), they became a band. Something clicked. Years later, it's still clicking.

The beginning was The Beginning thanks to a creative edge-and-a-half. All three attacked the studio with abandon (after all, they were, drum roll, A BAND! Damn it, Pierce, sign me up! ) and a simple plan. Record the best music they could write, never forgetting that it should be fun. We all know that many musicians take their music a bit too seriously at times and it was a trap our trio wanted to avoid. Songs were written and tracks laid down until they completed their first album, 1995's The White Album, seventeen musical pictures of what they were to become. A bit less produced than later albums, it still betrays a depth beyond most more seasoned pros. Production is great, but it has to fit the song, and in this case, it does. From the basic country-inspired laugher Won't Happen Twice ( E.J., you dawg!) to the light power pop rock of 50 Miles (Outside N.Y.) to the classically influenced folk of Don't Go Away (the guitar, anyway) to the poppy, floating What's the Point, these guys nail one after the other until you come out of the other end of the tunnel convinced. Folky, poppy, full of twists and turns and odd chord progressions and surprises around every corner, it is a great first effort. Who knew they would get even better?

By 1997, the band had found its feet. Numerous local gigs had generated enough praise and interest to warrant continuance. And all three had been writing. Again, they decided to self-produce and gathered another handful of friends and musicians to help out. A more confident and powerful trio emerged, not that they lacked confidence the first time around. Sweeter was given lead-off status and The Black Album , in terms of variety, seems to step it up. A mini-composition, Sweeter combines powerful guitar, odd harmonies and a sense of pop which pushes the envelope. You almost don't notice it until Pierce's manic George Harrison-like lead which leads into a bridge of wavering guitar on top of E.J.'s solid bass riff and finally the stacked harmonies (“Sweeeeeeeter, Stroooooonger”) which are counterpoint to Pierce in psychedelic overdrive. And why not follow it with a sweet pop thing about California? Complete with dip-diddly-ips and bump-diddley-umps, they borrow from the likes of 10CC and throw a spacey break in for good measure (you have to really dig the humpbacked whale sounds as it stretches out--- nice touch). That's just the start. Maggi gives us musical magic with Smyle, losing herself and finding herself in melodic magnificence, with Pierce and E.J. providing their usual odd-but-incredibly-right-there harmonies. And that break! Powerful, psychedelic, symphonic--- it is all of those and more. Bands solidly ensconced in rock history would kill to summon such a muse. E.J. prefaces his developing style with Scared of a Word, a song which combines rock and roll with a jazzy Manhattan Transfer-style vocal and it rocks! Deviant and idiosyncratic, it gallops at a dizzying pace through lines that either make you laugh or shake your head in wonder (thinking, damn, why couldn't I write something that good)--- lines like “The symphony's scored---second line you get bored/Staff lines intertwine--- turn a major to minor (7)” and that “(7)” makes a huge difference (You have to hear it). I could go on and on, and I will (Okay, no I won't, but I could--- that's my point).

Pregnant pause-----

1998. The Red Album (Are you seeing a pattern here?) If you don't think these guys are insane by now, you may be a bit off the deep end yourself. Juxtapose E.J.'s One More Time with Maggi & E.J.'s Beans and you have to wonder. First verse: “I tried heroin last night/And you know what? I liked it!/A lot/But don't worry 'bout me, I won't get hooked/I can put it down just like a book/Or a good friend...” Now, them's lyrics, Skeezix! Throw in a cup of “Watchin' the daisies die/The water smells funky, did you pay the bills”... to “It's getting' cold and the heat is gas/Do you know what that means?/Another week of beans”... Man, are these people even on the same planet? But hey, who cares as long as they're in the same studio occasionally. More genius musicianship, too, from E.J.'s sometimes funky, sometimes pounding and frenetic bass to Pierce's all-over-God's-green earth guitar (Damn, that guy can play!) and Maggi's there too, pushing them beyond the edge before bringing them back (Pierce and E.J. evidently need someone to establish boundaries for them--- besides the authorities, that is). And there are high points--- Implode is classic Maggi with insane and somewhat musical-nonmusical break for good measure. And when Maggi takes a Bath, you'll line up with the rest of us because, as usual, it is cosmic. It is even communal as her voice leads and Pierce and E.J. follow, making the high that much higher. The way they use harmonies, I tell you... sigh. And there just aint nobody out there sounding like these guys! Nobody!

They titled 2000's CD Blue, but it is subtitled For, with a hand drawn rendering of friend and colleague Jeff Buckley, who tripped off this mortal coil only God really knows how or why (in other words, for those crayon-challenged, For Jeff). Perhaps it is out of respect or because the band was maturing, but the music is a bit toned down here and that is hardly a bad thing. A bit more introspective, a real bent toward jazz emerges in MPE's personna and, per usual, it works so well you don't even notice. The mini-symphonies turn a bit serious, especially the depth and instrumentation of Burning the Sun. You may have thought these guys had peaked, but WHOA! Space is something else again, relying on what sounds like mandolin and banjo in a spacey folk/jazz/rock amalgam which demands crackers on the side. Not Hurting has to be Maggi's personal tribute and goodbye to Buckley, in spirit if not fact, and it's eerily pounding and symphonic in structure, with tympani and recorder adding that classical edge along with what could be amplified bass notes of a didjeridoo--- or a synthesizer. The insertion of the traditional blues number Butterfly pushes the whole concept over the top. Slow and dirge-like, it is Stormy Weather on Planet MPE and is magnificent. Truth be told, this of the eight MPE releases will be the hardest for the non-musician to handle, but musicians should revel in the care given to every aspect of Blue. Indeed, some are possibly at this very moment separating the instruments in their head equalizers, listening closely to every note and amazed at what is there. If they aren't, well, they lose.

By 2004, it must have been apparent that universal success was truly elusive and that MPE's only chance for a gold record was to give themselves one--- thus, The Gold Album. And once again, we're taken on an MPE carpet ride, full of those surprises and magic tricks we're beginning to actually expect (and, yes, even treasure): old time saloon piano on Memphis, MPE's warped tribute to country music; scat lyrics supplied by Pierce as addendum to Scott Young's excellent vamp song Jaded (hmmm-- will he get royalties?); the acoustic guitar and harmonica Brit-base for Back; the light and jazzy backing on Mr. Moon, which also utilizes DJ 1 Take Willie to maximum effect (don't miss the recurring “chorus” of “What the world needs now is love, sweet love”. It ain't Jackie DeShannon); the Ken Nordine/Manhattan Transfer jazz of The Coffee Song; the incessant country twang of Fate Train; the totally serious (hey, I know, but they CAN be totally serious, honest!) lullaby Kiss Me; the disarming beauty of Dagger with harmonium and tabla straight out of the late 60s. And what better way to cap everything off than a song about a lazy afternoon among friends, and you have a feeling that friendship to Maggi, Pierce & E.J. is way beyond the friendships that most of us know and maybe even wish that was you on that porch swatting flies and listening to Pokey show MPE what real vocals can do for a song.

Just when you thought you'd get a break, MPE decides to put out a greatest hits album. Hits? Closest they have come to this point is weak attempts at the local softball field. Anyway, they bribed their landlady (whose name shall remain anonymous to protect the innocent) to pick favorites off of the five they'd released to the infamous one hand clapping (in spite of the previously claimed creativity and excellence) and this is what they came up with. Sixteen great tracks spanning a number of years but previewing what was to come. And what was to come was---

SILVER!!! Again, just when you think they've peaked, they simply step it up. The thing is, they make it seem so effortless. This time, it's a three-discer, which they titled, individually, Morgen, Mittag, and Nacht (that's morning, noon and night, to those Deutsche-illiterati). As with everything MPE, they are titled thus for a reason. Now, if someone could tell us what that reason was... Just kidding! It has to be the styles of music. Softer, seductive folk-dominated tracks inhabit Morgen and it is beautiful. You can close your eyes and float away (if you're not driving or doing the dishes, that is), only occasionally being awakened by the sparsely placed breaks (there is one, though it be acoustic in structure). Mittag takes it up a notch, but only a notch. More power pop and adventurous, it is halfway up the wave of the day and (first time through, at least), setting us up for a musical pipeline (Every review needs at least one surfing analogy). Nacht rides that wave and it becomes the wave of the year. From the frenetic rhythm guitar and slash Maggi vocals of Yipee-i-a (even the kid roadie gets a shot here--- what was his name again?) through the pounding grunge of One Hand, to the seemingly Pink Floyd-inspired InSeine (it is rumored that E.J. actually knows which one is Pink) to the Zappa-esque 706, it is pure genius. Respectful but irreverent? God knows how they do it, but they do it. But I digress. A brilliant treatise on the set has been published by a person more expert than myself. Go bother him.

Because there is one more CD to dissect. Had MPE asked any one of their legions of fans whether they should record an album of favorites (meaning covers), most would have screamed “Nooooooo!”, but even the Beatles have their Twist and Shouts. Well, they hand us twelve of theirs on Live Covers and while you may not want to hear a skating rink-driven Brand New Key or a lightly ragtime cover of Van Halen's Could This Be Magic?, by the time you get through all of the CDs leading up to this, you won't mind. In fact, you may find it fun, and it will give you a chance to acquaint yourself with Maggi, Pierce, and E.J.--- individually. Songs covered were recorded for a reason (liner notes give insight into the process) and if nothing else, it is at times great humor. Plus it gives the band a chance to take music a little less seriously (yes, though it seems they are loose cannons in the studio, they are actual professionals) and cut loose. And whose music better to cut loose on than that not your own? Safe AND refreshing.

Of the eight CDs listed here, only seven are really available. Play Their Landlady's Favorites has dwindled to a handful and are being horded by certain family members who know a future collectible when they see one (you know who you are). Word is that Gret Gentile of Oboe Lane placed two in a drawer hoping they would reproduce, but has thus far only been bless with two partial CD singles of dubious quality. Still, we can hope. The other seven are available, though, if not from MPE, then from somewhere else (a simple check at CDbaby should produce pleasurable results).

An aside and testament: I was turned on to MPE through the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange, for whom I sometimes write reviews, and found enough on that CD (three, actually--- it was Silver) to pique my interest. Since then, a copy of Play Their Landlady's Favorites magically appeared and I have laid out cash money for the rest. Indeed, I am now proud owner of and incessant listener to the entire MPE catalogue, thank you, and a fan of the first water. Please forgive my unbridled enthusiasm, as it were, and fanatic support of the band, though I know there be nothing to forgive. Truth is, I have not heard anything quite like Maggi, Pierce & E.J., though there was Gruppo Sportivo--- but that was another time and place.

Let me leave you with something I have taken to heart along with the music--- a quote on the back of Play Their Landlady's Favorites which captures for me the struggle of the independent musician: “Listen you all,” it reads, “don't go scorching any CDs on your own 'cause this independent, hard-working band needs the cash to feed all the animals and pay the rent. Buy 'em!” Whatever the cost, it is indeed a small price to pay for what they give us. Small, indeed!

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More Finds of the Future, Today:
SCOTT BOYER/Talks About the Capricorn Rhythm Section
CAPRICORN RHYTHM SECTION/Alive at 2nd Street Music Hall
GABRIELLE GEWIRTZ/Great Music, Wonderful Voice
GILEAH/Chaos of Love, Fury of Life (Breathtaking!)
THE GRIP WEEDS/Updated '60s-style psych/pop of the best variety... a great album!
(Perry Jordan &) HEARTSFIELD/Guitars A-Blazin' Country Rock!
GREG LASWELL/Taking One For the Cause
JENN LINDSAY/This Is Your Brain On Power Pop
AUDREY MARTELL/Great Indie R&B, Pop--- Five Stars!
BILL PILLMORE/Former Cowboy Returns to the Studio
JESS PILLMORE/Dancing On the Edge
EMILY WELLS/The Yaks Are Laughing
STEVE YOUNG/Songlines--- A Fortuitous Return to the Past

Gems From Rock's Past:
SETTING THE RECORD(s) STRAIGHT/Correcting Injustices of Rock's Past
CARGOE/From Tulsa to Memphis
Ardent's JOHN FRY/A 1975 Interview
NOTARY SOJAC/A Pacific Northwest '70s Rock Legend
WHITE ELEPHANT/Jazz Had Hippies, Too!!!
STEVE YOUNG/Rock Alt. & Nails

More indies and rock history here.