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Ryan Michael Block - "A Box at the Dog Track" (Single) TDRCO-073

Early April in my home state of Vermont is shifty at best—in fact, there’s a saying: “You don’t like the weather in Vermont, just wait 5 minutes.” It’s also vice versa of course, if you do like the weather, don’t imagine it’s going to last. This year’s weather especially, it seems, can’t make up its mind. Warm and sunny one day, with daffodils starting to emerge, can flip to snow or slush the next day, and cold.

All I can say is: at least it’s spring somewhere.

Ryan Michael Block’s new single, “A Box at the Dog Track,” is steeped as much in spring fever as it is in Portland, Oregon whimsy. In fact, I’ve never heard anything quite like it. Not usually one for overt genre blending, I was pleasantly surprised by Block’s incredible skill for combining the essence of dub, folk, doo-wop, and saxophone-led blues to highlight their brilliant subtleties, without losing any of each genre’s catchy, gem-like simplicity.

“A Box at the Dog Track” begins with at least two guitar lines—the main riff, and a few more ornamental threads—and a steady rush of snare drum. The playful beat and fizzy melodic lines sound a bit like a fusion of 70s singer Melanie’s clean, dancing tunes, and the wacky instrumental genius of Juan Garcia Esquivel, the “king of space age pop.” This is especially true in Block’s use of repetition in the guitar melody, but instead of creating a dreaded “ear worm” in the listener, it creates more of an…”ear glow worm”…a fancy, perhaps magical worm that you want in your ear.

Saxophone solos perfectly punctuate this repetition however, adding depth and the refreshing lilt that seems to be Block’s trademark. Vocals serve the same purpose in terms of depth and refreshing layers, but are more part of the repetition than a punctuation tactic. The sax solos, on the other hand, add surprise, forward movement, giving the tune a call and response, “jack in the box” feel, both in the tune’s structure as a whole and its instrumental idiosyncrasies.

For example, when the saxophone first punctuates the melodic streams of guitar and drums, it’s a singular, low register solo—bluesy, deep. The second time the instrument arrives, it’s shifted to mid-range and doubled up with another sax, softer this time, almost an echo. These slight timbre shifts, as well as the ones that follow, add momentum and suspense to the tune: something extra fun is on the horizon, and listeners can feel the excitement in their bones.

And Block delivers. After two more sax shifts—one into high range, wispy improvisation solo, and one back into low and doubled, though louder this time—comes the most satisfying key change I’ve heard in anything I’ve reviewed thus far. The modulation tumbles from the sax solo into a burbling brook of chatting instruments. Falsetto vocals immediately follow that shift—another surprise—with “shoobeedoowops,” no less! This sudden, but completely fluid glimmer of 50s doo-wop is so pleasurable I could hardly contain my joy.

There are two more shifts in key before the song ends, one that reverts back to the key in which we began, and one more modulation up. Each one, though, brings with it something new, something wrapped up in the bow of repetition: the first, backwards key change arrives with an overdub of an announcer’s voice, as if at a dog race; the second, modulating key change brings along a new element of percussion, light and subtle (like wooden spoons or guitar slapping), but as ear perking as candy to the tongue. Both of these surprises serve as the “jacks,” or perhaps in this case, the dogs, popping up from the proverbial box.

In other words, Ryan Michael Block is true to his style, and his implicit promise by calling himself a cross-genre musician: he’s an original, and an artist in the truest sense of the word. “A Box at the Dog Track” does indeed provide a visual in its musical delivery: a hundred dogs, their excited, conversational selves, bursting from the box, breaking it open, breaking it to pieces--like confetti, or shiny bells, or glitter--and running, covered in sparkles. (ALICE NEILEY, April 28, 2016)

Release Date: April 8, 2016