I’ve had the privilege to be friends with Tom Kanach for some 35 years now. Kanach got his start with the well-known Monmouth County punk band Mischief, and he hasn’t looked back since. Mischief released one record before disbanding out of the need for growth. Tom then went on to form a band called Well of Souls, which was a continuation of Kanach’s pop sensibilities and songwriting prowess. Influenced from everything from early Beatles, to The Dead Boys and David Cassidy, Kanach honed a lean and mean craft as a writer, moving way beyond the average rock aficionado birthed in garages, and becoming a true contender on the scene.
I had the privilege to work with Tom in the early nineties when I joined Well of Souls, replacing their guitar player and joining Tom in the joyous labors of writing and shaping the mid-nineties with dozens of well-written songs that should have taken us out of New Jersey and onto bigger and better things. But alas, that didn’t happen and even with the ammunition of great songs, a crack band and lawyers, moving past the regional area just didn’t happen. But I must credit Tom for not giving up. As I switched gears and eventually became a music writer, Kanach stayed the course, writing and performing over the course of the next decade.
And the main project that Tom was working on was to become an album called Undertow. To his credit, Kanach started working on this disc a good ten years ago and didn’t stop until it was just as he wanted it to be. As someone who had given up on the musical dream, I can remember him sending me ever-changing versions of the disc, wondering what he was going to do and why. But clarity presented itself the more I heard. Songs lined up, and the overall theme presented itself in a way that made sense and sounded great. When he was finishing up the latest recording that would become the record, he sent me this final version for review here, and I’m happy to say that I jumped at the chance to put some of his musical visions into a written perspective.
Recorded at the studio of Billy Siegal (Billyville Studios in Flemington, NJ) the disc was co-produced by Kanach and Siegal, and mixed and mastered by Alan Douches and Matt Crawford of West West Side Music.
The musicians that graced Undertow were also a veritable cornucopia of local scene “who’s who.” Players such as Joe Rowley on bass, Russ McAdoo on drums, Steve DeVito guests for a guitar spot, as does Gary Oleyar, who handles fiddle on “She Wants That.” Chris O’Hara does drums on a tune, and Tom Coughlin does sax for “Bittersweet.” Yours truly is featured on mandolin for a track, and Matt Crawford handles percussion. Sean Marks also does a sax track on the disc.
To understand Undertow, you must understand the overall and underlying theme behind it. This record is not a regular 12-song record, and this is a musical story that has over 30 songs in its content. And this isn’t just a same-themed rock record; it’s a story of a life told from the mind of Kanach. The story is told over the course of a single day and goes from evil, dust-covered decay to the eventual realization of acceptance and resolve and it’s a gnarly journey. While I don’t have the space to cover every aspect of this 30-song bonanza, I will try to explain it as succinctly as possible and give you a fascinating look into what I consider to be one of the best songwriters out there today.
The disc opens with “Rise.” It starts with Kanach’s conception. In the dark of space and POV flies thru the darkness of development into the light of birth and then as it flies through the dream landscape of his life, brief images of life-altering moments from his past flash by in sequence. Each one of these memories is only seconds long and poignant. They pass by like the viewer is a rock in the middle of a fast-flowing river and the images are bubbles that flow. Guitars are flourishing swatches of tremolo covered brilliance as drums, bass and keyboards cover the bases all around, creating a surreal and glittering backdrop that takes you into the next piece of the journey.
“Shine” takes the listener to the next level of Kanach’s musical otherworld. “Shine” is a fantastic song written with all the vim and vigor of Stiv Bators before he died so prematurely. The scene dissolves around him. Retreating outward from the center- changing from heaven to abandoned bedroom in a decrepit house. Kanach spins dream-like imagery for the listener. In the song, his glow diminishes, switching from hot white to dingy gray. The sheet is now dirty. He is currently in a filthy bedroom, lying on a broken-down bed on the floor of an abandoned room. The imagery continues in this vein as Kanach layers his imagination on top of solid beats and hooky choruses. Solid, smack-down guitar chords hover over steady bass and drums as Kanach goes through the next section of his story. An overall great song performed with complete punk-rock panache.
“Shivering” is up next. This song literally cuts to outside world. Like a breakfast cereal commercial, bright and colorful. Overstimulation. Kanach continues his foray into self-realization as he cuts a severe song with all the sad bravado of Nirvana. Kanach’s imagery pushes the vision of personal abandonment as he sings his lyrical magic over trem-laddened guitars and solid bass and drum action.
“Shivering” is a Kinks-styled song that covers the theme of parental discord and the aftermath that is left on the family. Kanach’s vocals are toned and smooth as the band bounces along behind him. This song Segway’s into “Icicles.” Harmonies meld with handclaps, guitars and outstanding 1960s rhythms along the lines of old Manfred Mann. The lyrical content is much darker than the musical material and covers parental abuse within the story.
Moving around the disc, I came to a song called “She Wants that.” This song features the able assist of Gary Oleyar on fiddle. Oleyar is well known for his work with Loggins and Messina. He is also well known for his touring work with Bob Segar. “She Wants That” is a bonafide down-home country-flavored hit and I can see this song getting the attention it deserves on the radio.
Another excellent tune on this roller coaster of living life is called “Purge.” “Purge” is a rollicking jaunt through Rolling Stones territory via Kanach’s original theme and style. The chorus is absolutely killer, and the lyrical hook is undeniable as Kanach says, “Behold the magnificent fragile little truth/Bow down before the suddenly evident tragedy/Me? I turn my head and purge.” Billy Siegel’s Farfisa-like line kicks things off before ragged, distortion-laced guitars join in. Kanach excels at lyrical delivery, and “Purge” is a stellar example of lining up the right words with a killer musical background. Drums and bass march with keys and guitars in the chorus as Kanach and company wind up and deliver exemplary musical skill and delivery. Feedback drenched lines mix with Siegal’s keyboard wizardry and heavily chugged verses as Kanach soars effortlessly to dizzying vocal heights. Another great song that takes its place in the lineup of stories within a story.
The next song is “Momentarily Gray.” If ever a song shined with influential gold, it has to be this one. Strong memories of George Harrison merge with Charlie Pride keyboards before turning into a Matchbox 20 chorus free for all. Kanach shows his songwriting prowess yet again as he melds intricate verse work with super catchy choruses and complex bridgework. The middle-eight takes me back to Sgt. Pepper’s. The band’s penchant for intricate rhythms and catchy hooks is entirely evident, and this song works like gangbusters.
Moving around a bit, I came to “Feed Your Monster.” High-pitched keyboard work swirls with Kanachs signature guitar chug as bass and drums nail this to the floor. The chorus is bone-chilling work that is immediately hummable for weeks. Kanach once again demonstrates his prowess for excellent songwriting with “Feed Your Monster.” Kanach explores the often-horrifying subject of relationships here, and he covers his bases like a true veteran of love. Once again, you have to hear the song within the context of the overall record, but it’s also a tremendous standalone tune.
Another excellent tune is “Bittersweet.” If you dig the 1960s vibe of The Munster’s, you’ll love this song. Sax-work comes courtesy of Tom Coughlin and helps give the piece a very Jack Marshall vibe. Keyboards swirl with grungy guitars and hand claps to beat the band. Kanach’s relaxed crooner style compliments this song correctly, and once again the songwriting compositional style is exceptional.
I have room for one more, and so it has to be the disc namesake. “Undertow” reminds me of early Who in its delivery and style. Freeform guitars range over the top as pianos, bass, and drums scatter musical droplets of perfection over the back. Once again, Kanach brings George Harrison to mind as he layers vocals and harmonies that literally sing in unison. Steve DeVito sprinkles his original brand of lead guitar over the tune as well, and it’s a winner. This song is more of a back-porch dive into music performed by the Band or Leon Russell than any punk or hard-edged rock and its great stuff. DeVito reminds me of Ron Wood or Mick Ronson at times, and Siegal’s piano work is true Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones fame.
There are over 30 songs on Undertow, and I can’t get them all, but if you’re in the market for a great local artist that has something exciting and vital to say, you owe it to yourself to get Undertow for yourself. Tom Kanach continues to play locally and release new music and Undertow is one of this year’s top releases in my book. For more information on Tom Kanach and Undertow, head over to Facebook and look him up. Undertow is available on CD Baby, iTunes, and Spotify.