Cartoon’s song-craft and chill-down-your-spine harmonies have helped define what’s good about State College music for nearly decades.
Cartoon has a reputation for making music that is straight-forward and unfussy—a combination of narrative lyrics and a unique vocal blend, backed by acoustic guitars, electric bass, and hand percussion. The style draws from folk and bluegrass, is influenced by music of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and shaped by four talents who came of age musically in State College, PA. It’s one part walking blues, folk-styling, slightly bent humor, rock `n’ roll, the ache of sweet yearning, and grit enough to make it all real.
What endures about Cartoon is the strength of its songwriting: Jon Rounds’ “Carolina One Time,” “Steel Wings,” “I’ll Have to Make It”; Kevin Dremel’s “Lady Jamaica,” “Red-Haired Girl,” “Let the Radio Play”; and Glenn Kidder’s “Round and Round,” “Forgettin’,” and “Walkin’ Down the Street.” All of this stamped by the singing and vocal arrangements of Randy Hughes.
The band formed in State College in 1981 when Kevin, Glenn, and Randy began jamming together at local clubs under the name Menagerie. Soon, Jon joined and the name was changed to Cartoon, reflective of the group’s gift for fun and imagination.
Over the next three years, Cartoon became one of the most popular groups in the region, playing dates across the state from Pittsburgh to New Hope and venues in between. It was during this period that the band became an Arts Festival staple, over the years playing to thousands on the Old Main Lawn and packing venues like Schwab Auditorium.
Now, despite being scattered up and down the eastern U.S., the band members, and their fans, are drawn together by the special magic and familiarity of almost 30 years of performing; their guitars and voices slide back together like coming home.
At some point during or after each Arts Festival for the last dozen years, one of us would say, “We’ve got to do another album,” reason being, we’d written and performed about two albums worth of new material since our last album, In the Living Room, in 2002. Also since then, Kevin had assembled and mastered the use of professional recording gear for making his own demos and for use in his role as coordinator of the Keene Music Festival. He’d also developed a lot of music contacts in Keene and found a favorite recording venue—an old stone chapel tucked away in a leafy cemetery.
So Keene seemed the obvious choice for the recording session, and over the winter of 2009-10, we began talking seriously. The problem was geographical. Glenn (Milton MA) and Jon (Portland CT) live within three hours of Keene, but Randy lives in Pinehurst, NC, which is a two-week trip by horseback. But we began talking venues and dates, and finally, by mid-April, we’d carved out three days in May when everyone was free. When Randy announced he’d made plane reservations, we knew it was going to happen.
All the prep involved—coordinating vacation times, arranging for responsibilities at home, making hotel and plane reservations—actually helped drive the project. It was a level of commitment that made everyone feel we had to come away with an album’s worth of material in three-and-a-half days.
As many of you know, “musicians” and “well organized” are rarely used in the same sentence without the adverb “not.” But here’s an exception: “The musicians in Cartoon were well organized for the Chapel Sessions recording project.” It’s true. When we arrived at the chapel on Sunday evening, Kevin and co-engineer Noah LeFebvre had the gear set up and were ready to roll. We actually recorded a song that night, “You Again,” and though it didn’t make the final cut, the trial run was useful in helping us launch the project and get our studio legs.
The next three days, we would arrive at the chapel at 9 a.m. and work until 5 or 6 p.m. We recorded the lead vocal and rhythm guitar in the first pass. In some cases, as on Glenn’s and Jon’s songs, this was one guy playing and singing into a couple of mics. On Randy and Kevin’s lead vocals, Jon played rhythm guitar. This process--doing the lead vocal and guitar together--was a significant recording decision. You get more pristine sound when you record tracks separately, because there’s no bleed between guitar and vocal mics. It’s also “safer” to record them separately, because you can go back and fix a glitched note in one track or re-do one or the other track entirely. But the feel of the song is often better when you play and sing in one pass because that’s how you’re used to performing it live, and there’s also the chemistry between player and singer; they respond to each other’s dynamics.
After we had a take on the basic tracks—it rarely took more than two or three tries-- Randy would put down bass guitar, then we’d do harmony vocals in one pass, then percussion, then second guitar. Using this system, we got three or four songs done each day.
Listening to the CD, you can hear the mindset we had going in and the effect of the compressed time span. The songs are unadorned, direct, honest.
released July 9, 2010
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