Tiny Lights
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Prayer For The Halcyon Fear, 8/10
Hazel's Wreath, 7/10
Hot Chocolate Massage , 7/10
Stop The Sun , 7/10
Milky Juicy , 7.5/10
The Smaller The Grape The Sweeter The Wine , 6/10
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I Tiny Lights furono uno dei gruppi piu` originali di folk-rock degli anni '80. Provenienti da Hoboken (New Jersey), facevano leva su tre talenti naturali come Donna Croughn (canto e violino), John Hamilton (chitarra) e Jane Scarpantoni (violoncello).

Le loro canzoni amalgamavano i loro eclettici talenti in un folkpop tenue e innocente, venato di jazz e di funk, che riportava alle atmosfere utopistiche e agli esperimenti naif degli anni '60, secondo un approccio e una musica che facevano pensare alle tenere allucinazioni di un Joseph Byrd (USA). Si presentarono con Prayer For The Halcyon Fear (Uriel, 1985) nelle vesti di tardi hippie ammaliati dalle atmosfere celestiali e dalle armonie gentili, rifacendo il verso ai Mamas & Papas in Country Song con intrecci vocali d'epoca e cadenze sbrigliate, e ai primi Jefferson Airplane in Singing At Your Door con ritornelli in crescendo e magie strumentali, aggiornando le marce hare krishna in Sweet Solutions e il raga-rock nella danza esotica condotta in punta di piedi di Song Of The Weak. G Does The Limbo riporta all'era spensierata dei girl-group, Blue Dot Cleanser riporta all'era idealista degli esperimenti psichedelici.

Dominato dagli interventi quasi jazz di Scarpantoni, Hazel's Wreath (Gaia, 1988) raffino` ulteriormente la loro pudica scienza di arrangiamenti, quel situarsi sempre fra folk e madrigale rinascimentale, sfruttando al massimo la suggestione di soavi armonie vocali e semplici melodie (Around It Goes Around), divagando ogni tanto in bislacchi blues-jazz da night club (The Bridge) e invitanti canti di palude equatoriale (Before You Go). Il disco e` un festival di fisarmoniche, sassofoni, tabla, sitar, mandolini, violini, flauti, mellotron, tromboni e tube; strumenti che si infilano dappertutto nelle armonie, ma sempre con decoro e discrezione. Capricious Yearnings e` caratteristico di questo loro imbastardire il folkrock con un misto di riff danzanti alla Neil Diamond e di arrangiamenti sinfonici alla Moody Blues. Il loro e` un circo surreale di brani mutanti, policromi, eterodossi, in cui melodie, ritmi e arrangiamenti si rincorrono come su un otto volante (Colors And The Light, Grown-Up Fish).

Know It You Love, registrato nel 1989, rimarra` inedito. Alcune canzoni verranno resuscitate per l'antologia The Young Person's Guide (Bar None, 1995).

L'album della maturita' e` Hot Chocolate Massage (Absolute A Go Go, 1990), ancora legato al dualismo fra cantilene delicate (Moonwhite Day) e rock and roll grintosi (Wave, degna dei Led Zeppelin, e Sweet Romance, un po' "hendrixiana"). Sono al culmine soprattutto le capacita' strumentali del gruppo (adesso un sestetto), che si permette qualche licenza come nel pasticcio blues, jazz e gospel di Closer. La maestosita' della melodia di Lavenderman passa in secondo piano davanti alla complessita' del ponte strumentale, che riesce a intrecciare con naturalezza passi di raga e di folk. Riescono cosi' a cesellare una vignetta anni '30 come Big Straw Hat. Se manca un tema unitario, i Tiny Lights rimangono fra i promotori piu' creativi del folkpop in chiave minore.

Persa Scarpantoni, ma con arrangiamenti d'archi ancor piu' lambiccati del passato, Stop The Sun (Dr Dream, 1992), attenua l'immagine eterea e pastorale, ma non la capacita' di comporre soavi scavi psicologici come Sugar e Everybody's In The Park, da far invidia ai 10,000 Maniacs. Il lato tenero del gruppo risalta anche nella jazzata e sognante It's Really A Happening (un'ode sulla morte) e nel lento svenevole di Papermoon. Gli onnipresenti violini sono particolarmente efficaci nell'elegia solenne di All To You e nell'eroica cantilena di Big Ghost. Un po' di kitsch infierisce sotto forma di una fanfara di fiati rhythm and blues in Curlyeyed Open Stare e Better, ma torna invece utile al gran finale di Planet Love, lunga jam con coro paradisiaco. Ci sono persino alcuni brani rock, dal "rave-up" strumentale di Facedown alla vibrante Miss Hose. Ogni brano vive di tremule emozioni, convogliate in squisite melodie.

Croughn e Hamilton mettono insieme una nuova formazione per Milky Juicy (Dr Dream, 1994), forse il loro album piu` eclettico, certamente un ambizioso summa della loro arte preziosa. Catherine Bent al violoncello, Andy Demos alle percussioni, Dave Dreiwitz al basso, Andy Burton al piano elettrico e John Kruth al mandolino e al flauto rinforzano le armonie. Nelle partiture piu' scipite (la scenetta da discoteca di Spinning e quella ouverture funky-jazz decostruita che e' Ashtray) si avverte l'influenza di Zappa, ma in generale le canzoni hanno fondamenta molto piu' semplici (anche se le piu' svariate, dal dixieland scatenato di Less Is More all'hard-rock a tutto volume per Shoulderback). Il marchio di fabbrica e' semmai quel modo di deformare tutto con una lirica ed eccentrica sensibilita': un rantolo degno di Neil Young come Rattling si fregia del controcanto angelico di Croughn, la filastrocca folk di I Don't Enjoy Life finisce in un bailamme di armonica e mandolino. Circle Sky e' un capolavoro post-moderno che in due minuti riesce a ripercorrere le strade del rhythm and blues, delle marcette di Tommy Roe, del riff di Hang On Snoopy e delle armonie vocali dei Beatles.

The Smaller The Grape The Sweeter The Wine (Bar None, 1997) segna invece un capitolo stanco nella storia di questo grande gruppo.

I Tiny Lights hanno raccolto l'eredita` piu` sottovalutata degli anni '60, quella di sperimentare in maniera ingenua e innocua, e non pedante o violenta, con la forma della canzone rock, e l'hanno sposata ai nuovi climi intellettuali e alienati di Hoboken.

Summary.
One of the most unassuming and probably the most endearing folk-rock combo of the era, the Tiny Lights, hailed from Hoboken, New Jersey. Prayer For The Halcyon Fear (1985) capitalized on the talents of Donna Croughn (violin), John Hamilton (guitar) and Jane Scarpantoni (cello). The tenuous harmonies, studded with jazz and funk accents, and the gentle, celestial atmospheres, argued in favor of latter-day hippies, who frequently evoked Joseph Byrd's United States Of America. A stronger jazz, neoclassical and folk underpinning (accordion, saxophone, tabla, sitar, mandolin, violin, flute, mellotron, trombone, and tuba) sustained the dreamy circus of Hazel's Wreath (1988). A six-unit line-up crafted the elegant vignettes of Hot Chocolate Massage (1990), which, given the combo's instrumental prowess, sounded like mini-jams. Despite Scarpantoni's departure, Stop The Sun (1992) boasted baroque arrangements, but still retained that feeling of meticulous incubation of tender melodies. The ambitious Milky Juicy (1994), almost a summary of their career's experiments, was basically progressive-rock with a soul. Equally versed in free-form jams and riff-driven rave-ups, the new line-up used its versatility to increase the emotional depth of the music.
Reviews.
(Translation from the Italian by Nicole Zimmerman)

The Tiny Lights were one of the most original folk-rock groups of the 80's. They were from Hoboken, NJ, and leveraged the 3 natural talents of Donna Croughn (vocals and violin), John Hamilton (guitar), and Jane Scarpantoni (cello).

Their songs blended each one's eclectic talents in a folk-pop that was light and innocent, coming from jazz and funk, that transported listeners back to the utopian atmospheres and experiments of the 60's, with an approach and a music that made listeners recall the fragile hallucinations of Joseph Byrd (USA). The group presented itself with Prayer For The Halcyon Fear (Uriel, 1985), while dressed like later-day hippies. The celestial atmosphere and the gentile harmonies called to mind the Mamas & Papas in Country Song - with period vocals and unbridled pulses woven together, and also early Jefferson Airplane in Singing At Your Door - with refrains in crescendo and instrumental magic. Meanwhile, they updated the harsh "hare Krishna" in Sweet Solutions, and the raga-rock in Song Of The Weak. G Does The Limbo transported listeners to the sounds of the carefree girl-group era, and Blue Dot Cleanser transported listeners to the experimental and idealistic psychedelic era.

Dominated by the jazz-like interventions of Scarpantoni, Hazel's Wreath (Gaia, 1988) subsequently refined their rather reserved science of arrangements that was always rooted between the folk and renaissance hymn styles, and exploited the sweet vocal harmonies and simple melodies to the utmost. The group digressed every so often into extravagant blues-jazz (The Bridge), and in inviting songs with an "equatorial marsh" or perhaps tribal sound (Before You Go). Like a festival of accordions, saxophones, tabla, sitars, mandolins, violins, flutes, mellotrons, trombones, and tubas, the instruments slipped in and out of the harmonies, but always with tact and discretion. Capricious Yearnings was characteristic of the groups corruption of folk-rock, which contained a mix of dancing riffs like that of Neil Diamond and symphonic arrangements like that of the Moody Blues. The disc was like a surreal circus of mutant tracks: multi-faceted and skeptical, in which the melodies, rhythms and arrangements fly around like a roller coaster (Colors And The Light, Grown-Up Fish).

Know It You Love, recorded in 1989, remained unedited. Several songs were revived for the anthology The Young Person's Guide (Bar None, 1995).

At the height of maturity, the group produced the album Hot Chocolate Massage (Absolute A Go Go, 1990), still anchored to the dualism between delicate chant or sing-song (Moonwhite Day), and gritty rock and roll (Wave, worth of Led Zeppelin, and Sweet Romance, a little in the style of Jimmy Hendrix). Here they culminated, above all, in the instrumental capacity of the group (at this point a sextet), that permitted some poetic license in the jumbled blues-jazz-gospel of Closer. The majesty of the melody in Lavenderman was a close second due to the complexity of the instrumental bridge that easily and effortlessly weaved together raga and folk. The group also succeeded in creating a vignette of the 30's in Big Straw Hat. Even if the group was missing a unifying theme, they remained among the most creative promoters of folk-pop in minor key.

The group lost Scarpantoni and, even with string arrangements more refined than in the past, Stop The Sun (Dr. Dream, 1992) weakened their ethereal and pastoral image. Uneffected, however, was the capacity to compose sweet psychological excavations like Sugar and Everybody's In The Park, envied by 10,000 Maniacs. The tender side of the group showed in the jazzy and dreamy It's Really A Happening (an ode to death), and in the slow and emotional Papermoon. The omnipresent violins were particularly effective in the solemn elegy of All To You, and in the heroic lullaby of Big Ghost. A bit of sentimentalism raged under the form of fanfare in the rhythm and blues of Curleyeyed Open Stare and Better, but returned to the functional in the grand finale of Planet Love, a long jam with a heavenly choir. There were even some rock tracks, from the "rave-up" instrumental of Facedown to the vibrant Miss Hose. Every track was alive with tremulous emotions, conveyed in exquisite melodies.

Croughn and Hamilton put together a new formation for Milky Juicy (Dr Dream, 1994), perhaps their most eclectic album, which was certainly an ambitious compendium of their precious art-form. Catherine Bent on cello, Andy Demos on percussion, Dave Dreiwitz on bass, Andy Burton on electric piano, and John Kruth on mandolin and flute reinforced the harmonies. In the less interesting scores (the disco scene of Spinning and the deconstructed funky-jazz gesture that is Ashtray) listeners felt the influence of Zappa, but in general the songs were fundamentally simpler (also more varied, from the dixie-land style that broke out in Less Is More to the hard-rock at full volume of Shoulderback). The group's trademark was, if anything, to deform everything with a lyrical and eccentric sensibility: such as in a rant worthy of Neil Young like Rattling illuminated by the secondary vocals of Croughn, and the folk carol I Don't Enjoy Life, which finished in an uproar of harmonica and mandolin. The post-modern masterpiece Circle Sky, in just 2 minutes, retraced the path of rhythm and blues, with the reassurance of Tommy Roe, a riff like that of Hang on Sloopy, and the vocal harmonies of the Beatles.

The Smaller The Grape The Sweeter The Wine (Bar None, 1997) signaled a tired chapter in history of this great group.

The Tiny Lights have, received a heredity most undervalued - that of the 60's - which consisted of experimentation in an ingenuous and harmless manner, without being pompous or violent like in rock, and have espoused themselves with the new intellectual climate, alienating Hoboken.

Andy Demos plays on singer, songwriter and avant-folk guitarist Pamela Wyn Shannon's album Nature's Bride (2002). Jane Scarpantoni has performed with Natalie Merchant, REM, Indigo Girls and many others.

Donna Croughn and John Hamilton are married (Hamilton is now a Harvard professor). Dave Driewitz (bassist) has been recording and touring with Ween and has a side project, Instant Death.

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