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Rick Berlin meets Hey Ice Machine - Q&A (+ CD Release tonight for Berlin @ the Magic Room!)

Posted by Jonathan Donaldson  October 25, 2012 10:22 AM

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Welcome to installment #3 of Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man-where unrelated Boston musicians are made to review each other's records. I am your friendly moderator, which I guess would make me more of a Lou Costello than a Bud Abbot. If you catch my drift. In this installment we have Rick Berlin, who is like, Willy Wonka-talented and has been around forever...and then over here very impressive newcomers Hey Ice Machine, who up until recently were known as Shelterbelt (but how new can you be though when your band features members of Fuzzy(!), Frank Smith, Muy Cansado and Mittens?) Both Mr. Berlin and Hey Ice Machine have new records out, discussed below in an exchange between the two parties and in fact, Rick Berlin's CD release party for Rick Berlin and the Nickle & Dime Band's Always On Insane is TONIGHT at the Magic Room in Allston (see details below). As always, my take on the two albums very much informs the questions. But see for yourself just how unexpectedly things play out between Hey Ice Machine's Jonathan Ulman and Rick Berlin. Mwa-ha-ha.

Hey Ice Machine Album Cover.jpgInsane_Cover-01_RGB_web.jpg

Inbound Sounds: Question for Rick. On their self-titled debut, Hey Ice Machine play rock & roll with somewhat of a New Orleans style blues flair. You can hear it in the r&b intonations and the bayou rhythms; however despite how the music sounds the singing is pretty straight. Whereas on your Always on Insane, you sing with a definite twang—almost like a modern day Uncle Remus--yet you often veer into more straight-up pop (see “Galway Girl”). How do you feel like Hey Ice Machine is juxtaposing the idea of the inner-Northerner and the inner-Southerner compared to you? Do you see them as a Northern swamp band?

TITTY STORE copy.jpg Rick Berlin: Many of the greats (writers, bands) from the South share one thing strong & sure in common with the greats from the ‘Nawth’—alcohol. Both records have booze in the grooves. Since I know Tom [Novotny] (who I’m pretty sure sings most of Hey Ice Machine’s tunes), it’s hard for me to think of his vocals as being ‘straight.’ I inevitably hear his idiosyncratic view of life, life and the world in his clear-as-a-bell songs and voice. What I hear is a bit naughty ‘50s prom dance stuff. Hot dates in strapless dresses, flasks in the pockets of the underaged, etc. This band is super-consistent, fierce, and ‘verb/delayed in such a cool way. Maybe New Orleans, maybe ‘Wall of Sound.’

Inbound Sounds: Question for Jonathan. The members of Hey Ice Machine haven't been around the music scene as long as Rick Berlin, yet your music is more retro. It's almost as if you are eschewing any ‘80s influence whatsoever, although a little ‘90s creeps in with the alt-country thing. Rick on the other hand, has lots of ‘80s influence in the music in the arrangements and some of the performances ("No one can be Everything" has that sneaky palm-mute thing). Yet, it's not really fair to call the ‘80s a Rick Berlin-influence because people like Rick helped make (what was good about) the '80s. So, work with me to make the distinction. How do you feel like Rick is able to take a wide range of eras and styles (I hear everything from the Kinks to '80s pop to singer-songwriter, etc) and synthesize them into something that feels very now and happening?

Hey Ice Machine.jpgJonathan Ulman (Hey Ice Machine): I think it is important to recognize that like you said “people like Rick helped make the '80s.” His style is as original to anything else that came out of that era and while you can hear aspects of that generation in the music, Rick is able to counteract with his own variations. This to me is what allows him to consistently make his music fresh and skirt the boundaries of traditional—which is what Rick certainly is not. On a few occasions Rick incorporates two distinctly different styles into one song, which is terribly difficult to do effectively, but he does it seamlessly. I think that is one of Rick’s best qualities and what has allowed him to be successful for so many years. These days with so much music out there and so many bands, it’s nearly impossible to hold the attention of the average listener. Keeping your fans wanting more music after five albums is remarkable feat in itself. Keeping your fans wanting more after 15 albums, you’ve officially crossed over into legend status.

Inbound Sounds: Rick, what do you think? Do you feel that it's understandable that Hey Ice Machine would want to insulate themselves to a degree in the music of Dylan and the Band ("Trees") and Dr. John ("Make Me Feel Good"), etc? Do you think blocking out more contemporary pop influences is a valid choice based on what can (and did) go wrong with that decade?

Rick Berlin: When I think of the ‘80s, I gulp. Reagan’s repulsive silence on the AIDS pandemic; the [explitive]-til-ya-drop disco ball; the ridiculous giant hairdos, etc—not a bad idea to let that sleeping dog die. On the other hand, there was some good pop music back then (and Boston radio was rockin’ for the local and unsigned). But I doubt Hey Ice Machine is consciously choosing one influence over another. As far as the Dylan thing goes, I hear a taste of that at the beginning of “Trees,” but that ends as soon as they get into the bulk of the song. “Make Me Feel Good” seems country enough, but includes a skinny dip across the pond to the UK and back. In the end, they’re just plain great songs with great melodies and smart arrangements…and a serious locomotive chug on each track.

Inbound Sounds: Jonathan - What caught you off-guard about Rick's record?

Jonathan Ulman (Hey Ice Machine): One of the things that did catch me off guard on Always on Insane was how well the songs complimented each other. Because of the diversity in musical styles that Rick uses in his music I had preconceived expectations of how the flow of the album would be. My initial assumptions were immediately negated as each of the 14 songs blended seamlessly one right after another (not sure why I would ever doubt that). It’s such an attest to Rick and his ability to take his listeners on a journey that touches on so many levels of innovation and creativity. Its easy to for a listener to lose themselves in the lyrical creativity that weaves in and out of every song on the album, so its important to listen to this album multiple times for the primary reason that the music itself is just as spectacular. Each song is perfectly written so the vocals and instrumentation compliment each other rather than compete which creates a sense of balance that blends each song into another. The album traverses around many different sounds from funky to jazzy, poppy to grungy and everything in between, but most importantly the album is honest and true to Rick’s infectious style.

Inbound Sounds: How would you summarize the others album in 10 words or less?

Rick Berlin: (on Hey Ice Machine) Ouch! Phenomenal melodies, songs, vibe. Artful rock as a party.

Jonathan Ulman: (on Always on Insane) A captivating and intelligent album that defines Rick’s illustrious musical career.

Rick Berlin
The Straightjacket CD release party for
Oct 25, 2012
$10, 8:00PM, 21+

w/ Old New England Weather and Mount Peru

155 Beacon St in Brighton, MA

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About the author

Jonathan Donaldson is a Boston-based musician, writer, and second-generation music junkie. An Ohio native who moved to Boston in 1998, Jonathan's musical loves include R&B, psych, punk, bubblegum, country, electronic, More »

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