The Phantom Tollbooth
Black Fades
Artist: Beauty For Ashes
Label: Independent
Time: 7 tracks/30:38

This is an exciting time for underground music, if you like all things eclectic, experimental, and funky-cool. There are a lot of bands--Burlap to Cashmere, Spinoza, Stickman Jones, etc. --drawing from various influences and cultures and bringing in horns, strings, percussion, and so on to create innovative new music.  Six-member Beauty For Ashes (two women, four men) is right there with this debut. Their melancholy sound, while original, should bring up a number of appealing associations for some.  The male lead vocals are a cross between Mike Knott's low voice and the slightly trembling nasality of Breakfast with Amy's lead singer, for example, and several songs recall the more accessible tracks from Havalina Rail Co.'s latest, especially with the female vocals.  The overall sound is scratchy psychedelic meets goth meets moody modern rock meets Eastern European ethnic stuff.  Throw in lots of cello, violin, tambourine, clarinet, and bassoon, and it is a musical potpourri, fragrant to some and pungent to others.  The lyrics are quite solemn and yearning with many straight Old Testament Scripture references mixed with worshipful poetry. The production is sparse  but adequate. Some will find this to be like Havalina--an interesting but too-strange listen--while others will gush for hours. Either way, this is a cool album and a good start.  A more polished, mature full-length will be waited for with baited breath.

By Josh Spencer (8/14/98)

Bassoon solos don't sell.  That doesn't bode well for Beauty for Ashes, regrettably.  They are the kind of band that is as likely to break into a violin solo, or some other instrument uncommon to rock and roll, as they are to crank out a standard guitar one.  Everyone knows that violin solos just don't sell albums.  Pity.  This is one record worth checking out for just that reason.

In the now classic argument about whether a "Christian band" can be just a band or needs to add ministry to their repertoire, Beauty for Ashes manages to walk that rather precarious line with style.  They are both Christians and musicians clearly concerned with making an artistic statement, encouraging faith and challenging unbelief.  How they've done it is rather unique. Calling themselves a Biblically-based band, they've penned song lyrics largely taken from the Bible itself in the form of musings, responses, or commentaries. The result is a collection of overtly Christian Psalms ranging from laments to worship-songs.   For example, a stand-out cut, "Isaiah," takes
its inspiration from Isaiah 55:8-11:

      As the rain comes down and the snow from heaven
      And does not return there but waters the earth
      And makes it bring forth flower,
      Gives seed to the sower
      And bread to the eater
      So shall my word

      For my thoughts are not your thoughts
      Nor are your ways My ways
      For as the heavens are higher than the earth
      So are My ways higher than your ways,
      And My thoughts than your thoughts...

You won't find Beauty for Ashes fitting neatly into any musical genre either. They are truly alternative in two ways: they don't write happy songs, and their sound is truly atypical of pop radio.  On the one hand, they have a spooky, almost gothic-folk-rock noise, and on the other a nearly classical, renaissance-fair-gone-batty timbre.  Sort of like Cowboy Junkies meets The Cure on the jousting field.  This dichotomous conglomeration comes first from the use of traditional rock instruments such as acoustic, electric, and bass guitars and your average drum kit.  Secondly, they've added layers of tambourines, violins, accordions, cellos, clarinets, xylophones, and bassoons into the mix.  What unfolds from this uncommon combination sounds like an after-midnight Jewish wedding for spiritually-conscious specters.  The aforementioned sixth cut in particular, "Isaiah," has a very appropriate Israeli sound to it.  Yet nothing that Beauty for Ashes does comes off like some kind of history lesson on culturally relevant musical forms.  They rock too much for that, as the funky, boogie-woogie feel of "Never Alone" testifies most clearly.  As an added bonus, none of their songs sound the same.

Lead singer Joe Bacon sounds uncannily like he could be Brian (Dead Artist Syndrome) Healey's younger brother.  Not only is Bacon's voice deep, but his delivery and phrasing often evokes Healey.  Chances are your ability to sit back and enjoy this band will largely depend on how you react to deep vocals. Coupled with Bacon's bass/baritone, however, are the high-pitched harmonic vocals of Amber Meyst.  The combination of these two vocal layers together can create an unsettling element on this otherwise pleasant listening experience. Their two voices just don't gel well.  (To her credit, Meyst sounds great singing solo on the last cut, "Solace of Solitude.")  Subsequent to this recording, however, Lauren Taylor has replaced Meyst as background vocalist, which may benefit the band's live act but does very little, obviously, for the already recorded album.

On the downside, the production value of Black Fades is not exemplary. There is a lot going on in the mix.  A lot to hear and enjoy.   Probably their limited budget prevented them from the kind of production and mix that this band deserves.  Unfortunately, as good as this disc sounds, there is an amateurish quality to it that reminds you it is a demo and not a full-fledged recording.  Should they ever reach this point, the latter could be something
quite special.  (I hope they do.)

Beauty for Ashes is a band with a great unconventional personality and vast potential.  If you like bands like Burlap to Cashmere or Sixteen Horsepower or Rusted Root, bands that bring traditional instruments into a fresh setting, than you should certainly check out this band.  Black Fades is an encouraging experience with music that pleasantly diverges from the common path.  Why not write the band at the address below.  At $8, their disc is a
good deal.

Beauty for Ashes
507 Avenida Del Platino
Thousand Oaks, CA 91320

By Steven Stuart Baldwin (8/14/98)

For a demo,