Should musicians be praised and have the spotlight shined on them simply because they’re Asian American? Of course not. But if some of us AAPI bloggers didn’t pay attention to the Asian American artists out there, they may go quietly under the radar and not get any attention at all. Not that we make such a difference — success in the music biz is such a random, arbitrary brass ring no matter what you are or who you are.
That’s the conversation I found myself having with Joe Nguyen of asiaXpress.com, the Pho King of the World, Ultimate Expert on all Asian American performers criss-crossing the country, and the ones who hail right here from Colorado, the other night during the Release Party for Hello Kavita‘s very excellent “To a Loved One” CD at the Hi-Dive, a popular local music club.
Actually, this conversation took place before Hello Kavita hit the stage, during the opening act, Houses, which had a keyboard player that we figured for a Hapa, either Japanese or Korean mixed race. The fact that we focused on the guy because of his ethnicity even though he wasn’t the main player in Houses got me thinking that it’s silly to write about Asian American performers just because they’re Asian American.
And yet, that’s the reason I made my way late on a Saturday night to see Hello Kavita. After a long career as a music critic, I’m not big on going out to clubs to see bands anymore, but this one is special. Joe had been raving about them for a couple of years, and he has good taste. The band’s led by Corey Teruya, who’s Japanese American born in Hawai’i and raised in Boulder. The music’s credited to the entire band, but I’m guessing he’s the creative spark that runs the engine under the musical chassis.
It’s still so rare to find a rock band fronted by an Asian American — with the exception of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, who paved that road from the Denver area 20 years ago — that I wanted to make my way out to catch their live show.
I had bought the Denver band’s first CD, “And then We Turned Sideways,” and that sealed the deal for me. Hello Kavita’s talent is clear for the hearing.
The songs from the debut CD are good — subtly catchy, gentle hooks that grab with with a tug, not a tackle. The low-level vocals tread the path of world-weary sounding singer-songwriters that have become the genre of choice on cool TV shows, but without the navel-gazing mopiness that afflicts so much of the genre.
I’m tempted to call it folk rock, but it’s at once more pop-ish and more alt-rock than mere folk. They wear their influences on their collective sleeves — Neil Young and Wilco are only the most obvious — but the songs and musicianship are good enough for Hello Kavita to withstand comparisons and stand on its own.
The new album, which is not yet available on Amazon.com’s MP3 store but is available now on iTunes, is just plain terrific. It hangs together a little better as an album than the debut. Songs such as “OK,” “Sunday (It’s a Chrome Tide),” the jaunty and hooky “Light Up in the Blue” and the blatantly folksy, fingerpicked and banjo-plucked “Colorado” all drill into your head on the first listen and keep tugging at you to play them again. At times strings cast a chamber-music glow on the proceedings; on
Overall, “To a Loved One” is a dreamy dream of a release that manages to encompass the hip touchpoints of alt-rockdom but also evoke an earlier era’s psychedelia,
Bassist Jimmy Stofer plays fluid lines and tosses in lead riffs all over the place, and is invaluable with his pure, keening harmonies. Lead guitarist Luke Mossman is the definition of restraint, supporting the songs with just the right rhythmic emphasis here, a perfect fillip there. Then he plays a solo that takes the spotlight, but doesn’t steal the show. Drummer Leor Manelis doesn’t just keep time, he plays melodically and like everyone in the band, as an organic element of a whole. On the record, as Teruya explained to Westword (my alma mater) last week, his drums are captured with a 1970s aural smack that gives the entire album a nuevo-retro feel that, like everything else, is subtle but deeply satisfying. Ian Short brings a classical musician’s (I’m guessing he is) structural expertise and sureness to the keyboards and violin.
Short’s sister Adrienne guests on the CD playing violin, as do Casey James Prestwood on pedal steel, Jeff Eliason on trumpet bringing an unexpected bit of mariachi to “Pillar”) and Brad Warren on cello.
Adrienne Short and Jeff Eliason joined the band onstage at the Hi-Dive and the set was over way too soon. The band started by playing the first five songs in order from the new album, then mixed it up a little bit. My immediate reaction was that even though I was standing right in front of the stage, the band’s music isn’t the louder-than-god aural attack I’d endured for so many years. It was nice to see a band live and actually hear the words.
Short and her sister played a lot of violin, and when Short played keyboards, Adrienne continued playing the violin, and her counterpoints to the melodies I thought made the great songs even better; afterwards I wished the entire album had her playing throughout in the studio.
Before the band — with all the members of Houses joining them — closed the set with a cover of Neil Young’s “Alabama” from his “Harvest” album oh-so-many years ago, a tip of the hat to Teruya and co’s pre-birth roots, Teruya thanked the audience, and invited them all to buy the new CD at the back of the bar for $5 — a steal — for that night ol;y. In fact, he said, if people didn’t have five bucks, they just take a CD, or give a buck or whatever they could afford.
It fit the night’s feeling of artistic generosity that they’d want everyone to have a copy of the new stuff. The move made me like them all the more. This is a band that deserves some serious national attention.
Oh and by the way, it’s very cool that Hello Kavita has Corey Teruya front and center. And yeah, it matters to me that he’s Asian American.
Here’s a promo video Hello Kavita shot for “To a Loved One”: