Germaine Gemberling, Generator
In country music (as in R&B and soul, its close relatives) far too often artists fall back on maudlinity for an easy heartstring-yank and a quick buck. It’s easy, goes the theory, to snag people when you make ‘em cry. Play it super slow, sing about how shitty life is, bang goes the sad pedal steel, and whammy! – you’ve got ‘em. Therefore, it’s always nice when country artists buck those trends, big time, like Germaine Gemberling does on Generator. While there are occasional melancholy and contemplative moments (what artist doesn’t have those?) this is, flat out, a damn happy record. She sings it straight off the top, too — “Here’s To Happiness,” an ode to feeling, y’know, good in your life; being in a place where loneliness and misery are waving goodbye in your rear-view.
That ain’t a bad thing, either, country fans. What that means in the real world is this — snappy tempos. Gemberling is in love with that kind of hopped-up rockabilly-tinged country that’s just spittin’ distance from flat-out rock and roll. Dig the deleriously chipper, mid-period-Byrds-ish “Reelin’,” for example, which is all whip-ass strumming and gorgeous harmonies, or the rockin’ (yeah, I dropped the “g” — it seems appropriate) “Dive Right In,” which, in another world, could be a Mike Nesmith song. Partner-in-crime Rich Mattson wraps these songs in careful, stacked arrangements that are somewhat removed from his usual reckless country rock, drenching everything, even the up-tempo stuff, in layers of gorgeous pedal steel that give everything a nifty, dusty iron-range sound.
That doesn’t mean everything’s up, though, folks; there are some damn gorgeous slow numbers here as well, though even those are colored by a comfortable feeling of hearth and home. I like the sultry waltz of “Windmills (Welcome Home)” particularly, with its mood of warm evening contemplation, and the the gorgeous “Hard and Plain,” an ode to band life and its ups and downs.
And let me talk for a minute about Gemberling’s voice. She was, let’s remember, originally the frontperson of SMUT, and she hasn’t forgotten the lessons learned from punk rock — namely, don’t half-ass your singing. She’s got a sweet but damn bold singing voice, which is equally capable of caressing a turn of phrase as it is of belting the fuck out it. And it sits quite nicely as part of a two-part harmony stack with Mattson in a kind of reverse Parsons/Harris thing (and why shouldn’t the male voice take a subservient role more often, dammit? You know that song that goes “I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June, if you be my Gram and my Johnny too?” Basically implying that she’s happy to play second fiddle and sing harmony atop a male singer? Bleh, I say!).
So, Generator is happy. Does that make it a less-effective country record? Maybe a less traditional one, or a less easy one, but certainly no less effective. It’s full of tremendous songwriting, great and snappy tunes, some lovely arrangements and Gemberling’s powerful voice. It is, essentially, the perfect early summer driving record. Give it a spin on your next trip up north and see how it catches you.
Germaine Gemberling’s alt-country ‘Generator’ more country, less alt
Published 05/23/2013, for the News Tribune
ALBUM REVIEW: The album recalls classic country music, the kind that Johnny and June made, and Gemberling shows a great willingness to have her album be more collaborative than many solo artists might.
Collaboration spices up alt, country solo album
One of the latest in a blitz of releases from local label Chaperone Records is Germaine Gemberling’s “Generator,”an album of alt- country nuggets recorded by Rich Mattson that features Gemberling backed by Ol’ Yeller & Junkboat, the band she and Mattson formed a few years back.
“Here’s to Happiness” starts things off with Gemberling asking to be rocked to sleep over a bouncy track that recalls Buddy Holly and the Crickets. A gently rolling drumbeat and acoustic guitar eventually cede control to multi tracked ,harmonized guitars,and it’s clear at this early point that the musicianship on this album will be something to savor: Tasty licks abound.
“Windmills (Welcome Home)” finds Gemberling crooning wistfully over a 6/8 beat, and the addition of pedal steel guitar in the second verse is a nice touch. ” Threw my last dime in this wishing well,” she sings, and the pedal steel illustrates her action with a neat little diving flourish. ” A ship in a bottle / lost at sea / that was before you ever held me” Mattson’s voice pops up a little later (as it does throughout the album), and his darker tone mixes well with Gemberling’s brighter one.
The third track, “Reelin’,” is an uptempo country track that features Mattson and Gemberling singing together for the whole shebang. Fishing metaphors abound, and the tune is knit together by some tasteful clean electric guitar.
“Don’t know why, but it’s been a long time / since I been sittin’ outside / just ponderin’ the sky,” Gemberling and Mattson sing on “Hard and Plain.” “It makes me feel old / when I look up and breathe / and see the airplanes go by,” the duo warble, stretching the word “by” into a soaring chorus. Some subtle violin joins in, and the track asserts itself as one of the best on the collection.
The garage – rocky Junkboat make their first appearance on “Woodsmoke,” a track that finds Gemberling singing a bit harder,her voice breaking slightly here and there. It’s a little bit incongruous after the first four tracks, but it’s not so rock as to be jarring.
” Don’t let go” sees Gemberling continuing the album’s theme of living in the moment while not forgetting where one came from, and the pedal steel makes a welcome return on this track. Wordless backing vocals lush the whole thing up, and it’s another high point. Some of the best parts of this album are the way the various instruments and voices come together at just the right moment to lift a composition, and this one’s a good example of that.
“Shooting stars / over the train tracks / light up the sky,” Gemberling sings on “Working in conjunction,” and the guitar goes clackity-clack to better set the scene. “Is it too real , too true for you?” Gemberling and Mattson ask, their overdubbed harmonies recalling Fleetwood Mac.(Maybe it’s Gemberling’s occasional vocal resemblance to Stevie Nicks making this happen, but whatever the reason, it’s real purty-sounding.)
Overall, “Generator” is an alt-country album that leans heavy on the country and less on the alt. It recalls classic country music, the kind that Johnny and June made, and Gemberling shows a willingness to have her album be more collaborative than many solo artists might. It’s a solid record, and it just begs to be played on vinyl.
Last time you read about Germaine Gemberling in these pages, we were positively ecstatic about the band Junkboat, which featured Germaine and all-around musical genius Rich Mattson (The Glenrustles, The Bitter Spills, Ol’ Yeller, on top of running Sparta Sound recording studios up on the Iron Range and taking the helm at SMA Records, the man is literally everywhere there’s a hint of music) along with bassist Al Schroeder and drummer David K. Loy. We urged you back then to get on board with the band, and though they garnered a respectable fan base over the intervening years, they haven’t become the household name we urged you to help them (deservedly) become.
That hasn’t slowed Rich and Germaine down a whit, though- if anything, it’s given the pair a chance to rightfully focus on Germaine’s own songwriting and fine tune her place as the leader of an outfit featuring Rich and the other talented members of Ol’ Yeller- drummer Keely Lane and bassist Dale Kallman- a formidable trio to front any way you look at it. Bringing (mostly) her own material to the studio and stage has brought out Germaine’s innate, fresh style and helped her immensely in morphing from a stand-out backup singer to a mesmerizing front person.
Her songs are mighty and memorable, and her self-confidence and inner light shine like a spot light in the eyes of a frolicking late-night deer on a lost highway between country juke-joints and big city clubs. But maybe we should go back in time a bit and give you an insider’s peek at Germaine’s wildly eclectic musical past. Born and raised in working class St. Paul, she began her flirtations with music as somewhat of a child prodigy, studying piano at the age of five and growing up in the wild scene of ’80’s Twin Cities punk and garage rock. Some of her earliest heroes were The Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum and The Jayhawks, and along with the AM radio pop and classic country nuggets she’d fallen for over the years, she mashed up the whole ball of wax and formed her first outfit, SMUT, an all-girl punk band when she was seventeen.
The group stood out enough from the pack to score a record deal with Spanish Fly/Twin Tone in 1992, but Germaine was moving musically in leaps and bounds and SMUT didn’t last long. She began to tire of the loud scene and non-stop bright light nights and not long after, moved to the decidedly more serene and lyric-provoking confines of the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota.
Which brings us to that fateful musical melding of the rock/folk/pop wunderkind Rich Mattson and the equally eclectic Gemberling. The pair clicked like the hammers on a pair of six shooters and soon found Rich gladly handing the main reins of Junkboat over to Germaine, who had (and is seemingly stuffed to the point of bursting) an amazing collection of songs already written and nearly ready for recording.
After brief stints in the outfits Darn Losers and Shotgun Daisy (which released one short-lived album on Rich’s SMA Records), the wily, honey-voiced singer/songwriter took up forces full-time with Mattson and Junkboat was born.
At this time, Junkboat isn’t officially dead and buried, but Rich had the foresight to take a step back with his guitar and the other members of Ol’ Yeller (who were chomping at the bit to get back in the studio and onstage). Rich encouraged Germaine to step up front and take over lead songwriting and singing duties, and working in his Sparta Sound Studios, Generator was lovingly crafted over the past year. Officially released through the Chaperone Label, the record (and I do mean record- you can pick up your
vinyl copy to accompany the CD) is a mind-melding work of art. Out of eleven tunes, Germaine takes full credit for six tracks, while four were co-written with Mattson and she translates one cut of his own. Three of the numbers were recorded under the Junkboat line-up. It’s one hell of an album (a doozy, as we’d call ‘er up North)- one that will stick with you long after your initial listen.
Opener “Here’s To Happiness” is a tongue-in-cheek, sweetly sung and played country-rocker, Gemberling’s honey-dripping voice clearly sending a strong message (it was co-written with Mattson) that the singer has finally found the perfect relationship (“Goodnight my love, goodnight my sweets/Goodnight my baby/Rock me to sleep…”) delivered in such a tender fashion that it would have sounded maudlin coming from Mattson’s (who co-wrote this one) own memorable, gruff pipes.
“Windmills (Welcome Home)” hits the mark dead-center with lyrics like, “A couple of grown-ups just trying to have fun…” Gemberling (Who penned this one all on her own) rolls along like a pedal-steel-infused jukebox nugget, with Germaine taking the listener on a dreamy journey through a timeless, music-perfect personal tale through her own romantic dreams. Frankly, there’s not a track on Generator that doesn’t perfectly match the music with the vocals and lyrics. Tough but tender, restless yet longing for home, Gemberling ensconces some of the deepest feelings early ’90’s bands/artists (and fans) still hold dear.
“Reelin,” (another one co-written with Mattson, who seems to have found the perfect musical partner in Gemberling) is more upbeat, with a sharp, stylish guitar line and a “made-for-the-dance-floor” groove to it, “Hard And Plain” -the perfect description for his music- is a tasty duet with Rich, the pair’s voices blending together as if they were meant to do so. Germaine’s “Woodsmoke” perfectly captures the hard edge of Fall in the North Woods, and is the kind of tune you’d want playing on an old-fashioned Walkman as you trod the snow-glazed, crisp Fall leaves underfoot. An absolutely snarling guitar riff in the middle of the track makes a perfect dichotomy with the bittersweet feelings inherent in the lyrics, and even before it’s over, you want to start it over again.
“Don’t Let Go” is another Germaine-penned nugget, her voice in perfect harmony with her near-magic backing chorus section and a skippety-beat that rolls you along towards that certain special someone. “Dusty Trail” another solo original) again features that super-tasty pedal steel and bounces along on a True Country groove, the kind of cut that would send shivers of jealousy down the spine of any you-name-’em fake Nashville act/”artist.”
Other stand-out numbers include the more rockin’ “Working In Conjunction,” the speaker-poppin’ pop wonder “Dive Right In,” the Bakersfield-influenced “Sleeping Sound,” and the album-encompassing “Blacker Shade Of Blue.” Gemberling may have spent some time in the so-called musical trenches- even nearly walked away from it all- but Generator is certain to take her personally over the top and garner her the fan base every artist needs to keep in touch with their ethereal muse.
Hailing from the frigid area of the Iron Range, Minnesota quartet Junkboat aren’t easy to pin down into any one category- their sound runs the gamut from Americana, pop-rock, classic country, punk, and even ’60’s-era California pop. Consisting of lead singer/songwriter/acoustic guitarist Germaine Gemberling proves that she’s put in her time flipping through the radio dial and record store bins over the years, expertly penning her shadowy lyrics with all the gusto and guts it takes to be a true Iron Ranger. The band also includes well-known area rocker Rich Mattson (The Glenrustles, Ol’ Yeller, etc.- here he plays lead guitars, sings background vocals, and handles production duties at his own Sparta Sound studio) bassist Al Schroeder, and skins man David K. Loy. The songs each stand on their own as aural masterpieces, and each one is lovingly crafted and could easily make a single on its own. Beginning the proceedings here is the rollicking, memorable number “Sink Or Swim.” which immediately impresses the originality and stand-out qualities of Germaine’s absolutely gorgeous vocals and intelligent lyrics. The band backs her up with an eerily spot-on edge, and the listener automatically knows they’re in for a treat the likes of which they have never been exposed to. “It Ain’t Wrong” comes wending darkly out with a country-rock/Nick Cave quality to it, and again proves Germaine’s voice is an instrument all its own- with the ability to switch up from Americana to punk in the beat of a heart. Phenomenal. “Kerosene” is upbeat musically, and does a bang-up job of mesmerizing its intended subject how she feels deep in the core of her heart. “Meathook” shimmies and sways with a universal appeal, and finds Germaine doing some delicious growling and laying down some heartfelt lyrical diatribes. “3 Strikes” brings things down a bit electric guitar-wise (though there’s a to-die-for power riff hidden in there,) giving the listener a chance to hear the from-the-gut togetherness of the outfit- this band was meant to play together and each member contributes something fresh and exciting to the proceeds. “Through The Ice” is chock full of honest emotion, “Honeybee” is a harmony-fest to end all harmony-fests, with a cowbell opening and crowd-pleasing hand claps running throughout, “Full Speed Ahead” proudly lives up to its title, “Mean Way” recalls rockabilly jukebox numbers of days long gone while breathing new life into the genre, “ and album closer “Waiting For Tomorrow” rocks and rolls like an avalanche, Germaine “waiting for a day that will never come…” One listen to this album proves that day has arrived, and that Junkboat’s self-titled debut album is only the beginning for an outfit that the world desperately needs- if you’ve been waiting for an album to come along that will re-infuse your inner need for fresh, hot musical memories, Junkboat is it. Buy this album, and catch ’em around town every chance you get. Highly recommended.
‘Round the Dial Magazine, Mpls.
From Minnesota’s Iron Range, the pine and lake country that Bob Dylan still quietly returns to, comes Junkboat. Junkboat’s Americana, Pop-Rock stew includes Classic Country’s lonely days and lonely nights, Rockabilly’s ass-shaking catharsis, Punk’s defiance and (perhaps most surprising) 60’s California Pop. Their dark, earthy guitars, in the pocket rhythm section and kitten with claws vocals are the polar opposite of the current crop of emaciated Country waifs. I believe Duane Eddy, X and Wanda Jackson would approve.
The band consists of: Germaine Gemberling (lead vocals, acoustic guitars and songwriting), Rich Mattson (lead guitars, background vocals and production), Al Schroeter (bass) and David K. Loy (drums). Over the past twenty-five years these four musicians have individually played in some of the Twin Cities best bands, including: SMUT, Shotgun Daisy, Ol’ Yeller, The Glenrustles, Otto’s Chemical Lounge, Blue Hippos, Widgets, and (the legendary) Urban Guerrillas. The bottom line is that they’ve all paid their dues and are simply doing this out of their all-consuming love of Rock and Roll.
Is there anything else you’d like to know? If you are, like me, a fan of American music, Junkboat might be the house band in the backwoods roadhouse of your dreams. The creaky structure is surrounded by Harleys and muscle cars and is a little intimidating to walk into. Will you wake up in an unfamiliar place? It’s possible, but it’s even more likely that you’ll have a ball dancing and partying with the locals. Welcome to Junkboat.
Electric Fetus, Mpls.
“A new northern Minnesota all-star quartet of sorts featuring Ol’ Yeller vet Rich Mattson and former Smut singer Germaine Gemberling, Junkboat will be at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall on Saturday with the Mammy Nuns, celebrating the release of it’s eponymous debut, a twang-punky collection boasting (rather excellent) traces of X and Neko Case.”
The Star Tribune, Mpls.