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Published: 2008/12/02
by Matt Brockett

Vida – John Biz and Higgins

Vida – John Biz and Higgins

tXXXs demos – John Biz

Industrial Park Records

If you come across an artist you’ve never heard before, and have the chance to introduce yourself to their music through both a stripped-down solo demo and a polished full band studio album, trust me, just embrace the opportunity. Such a surprise fell into my lap when asked to review John Biz's tXXXs demos as well as Vida, his collaboration with Higgins, an NYC-based band also signed to Industrial Park Records, the label the incredibly prolific Biz founded for himself and his friends.

First off, the tXXXs demos showcase the music of John Biz in its absolute purest form: just a man, his voice and his guit-box, making some beautiful noise. It’s a great raw, no frills introduction to Biz’s songwriting style and his myriad influences, as evidenced by a number of creatively executed cover tunes like his gritty and punchy rendition of the Wipers’ “This Time” and his emotionally-charged version of the late Syd Barrett’s “Dark Globe,” which drips with genuine love for the song. On the other hand, on Biz’s cover of Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why,” the song would have worked so much better if he just sang it as himself, and not as himself trying to sound like Neil. The majority of the original songs that appear on the demos are gentle and emotional (“Buried Alone”), at times even dreamlike (“Tu Tone Blue”), yet many of them also maintain a certain punch and driving urgency throughout (“Cut Rite Chainsaw”).

While the term singer/songwriter seems to commonly be mentioned in discussions of Biz, on Vida his music is really a far cry from the sounds and moods that typically come to mind with that blatantly overused description. If the tXXXs demos are the bare skeleton of John Biz’s music, Vida—engineered by the legendary Steve Albini—is most definitely the meat on those bones, and the full band environment gives him the chance to fully showcase the potential of his songwriting. On several tunes, especially the instrumental “Lover’s Lane” and the punky yet exploratory “%,” Higgins proves that Biz signed them to his label and invited them to record with him for good reason, as they effortlessly move from dizzying speeds and intricate climaxes into bouncy slow grooves on a dime.

If forced to lump all the songs on this rather far-reaching record into a single category, the best fit would most likely be alternative rock. From the fuzzy and distorted, yet oddly melodic grunge sounds of “Lonely Girl,” to the almost 1950s crooner style and tight horn arrangements of the poppy and catchy “Sweet Tooth,” to the heartfelt high notes of “Shake The Dead Leaves,” Biz is definitely all over the map on this one, yet it undeniably works.

With his cover of Hot Snakes' “Plenty For All" Biz’s teenage punk rock years rear their head in the form of a killer tune with a balls-out vocal delivery. This same spitting, punkish vocal style is only hinted at for a few lines on the rocking “Amplifier,” and is just one of many secret weapons Mr. Biz apparently keeps in his back pocket, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Biz has a penchant for distorted guitars, as even the more subdued numbers are not without some sort of fuzzy effects. This taste for explorations in distortion and his tendency to lean towards the heavier side of rock likely influenced Biz’s decision on a producer. For those of you who were hip in the 90s, Vida contains all the “raw yet polished” power one would expect from a Steve Albini production. And for those of you who weren’t hip in the 90s, Google Albini and educate yourself.

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