SKY DIVING PENGUINS – Album Review: “Sky Diving Penguins”

Who would ever expect to find an act with a music style and sound similar to the Beatles in the tiny nation of Georgia? Well, such an act exists in the form of Sky Diving Penguins, the brainchild of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gia Iashvili, who on December 1st released his debut self-titled album Sky Diving Penguins. Based in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Gia is an interesting guy with a fascinating life story, some of which I learned about in a great review by Iain Key for webzine Louder Than War

He grew up in a time when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, and though Western music was frowned upon and even illegal, he managed to get his hands on some Beatles albums, which had a life-changing impact on the impressionable young teen. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, he was able to openly revel in the music of Nirvana, Beck and Elliott Smith, among others, all of which have had a major influence on his sound.

In 2001, Sky Diving Penguins released Outspoken EP to critical acclaim, and were on the verge of signing with a record label when Gia decided to relocate to Japan, where he began studying cinematography and Kyudo (archery). One day, while practicing Kyudo, an arrow accidentally struck his left ear, leaving him deaf in that ear. After a lengthy convalescence, he went off the grid in the Mount Fuji Five Lakes region, where he spent the next eight years in a kind of self-imposed exile. Once he emerged, he moved back to Georgia, where he had a serendipitous encounter in Tbilisi with Georgi Kinkladze, the Georgian former player for the Manchester City Football Club who’d become a cult hero.

After talking and reminiscing about their time in the Red Army together and living in Manchester, Gia felt reinvigorated. He began writing music again, including co-writing the 2016 Georgian Eurovision entry “Midnight Gold” for indie rock band Young Georgian Lolitaz, performing with the band Z for Zulu, and slowly rebuilding his fan base. He recorded the songs for Sky Diving Penguins over the past three years or so, with the help of his friend and producer Mark Tolle, who sadly passed away before the album was completed. Additional production was handled by sound engineer Kote Kalandadze, who also mixed the songs with Tolle. Mastering was done by acclaimed mastering engineer Pete Maher.

For the album’s recording, Gia played guitar, bass, mouth organ, electric piano and percussion, and sang lead vocals, and Dimitri Oganesian played drums. Additional musicians performing on individual songs included Kote Kalandadze on acoustic or electric guitar, Nika Kocharov on electric guitar, Tiko Kvaliashvili on flute, Vako Saatashvili on trumpet, Beka Berikishvili on French horn, and Evgenyi Inchagov on cello. Gia’s wife Maria Charkseliani sang backing vocals.

Sky Diving Penguins features ten tracks touching on the sadness and pain that’s an inevitable part of life, but softened with glimmers of optimism and the belief that things will usually be alright in the end. About the album and it’s quirky cover art, Gia explained: “I always wanted my first album to feature this artwork. It’s a picture of me from when I was a child, holding a toy machine gun; it’s kind of weird and cute at the same time. Every word and every note that I recorded on this album is honest. It took me three years to complete. This is also the last piece of work my producer and friend, Mark Tolle, was involved in. He died a couple of years ago. I wouldn’t change a bit of this album.”

The album opens with “I Don’t Want, I Don’t Care“, a melancholy but lovely song with a strong Beatles vibe. The piano and horns are marvelous, and Gia’s gentle vocals hover in a sweet spot between John Lennon and George Harrison. The lyrics speak to feelings of ennui that keep one from accomplishing anything or moving forward: “I’ve got many things to do, but I don’t do. I’ve got many things to share, but I don’t share. Indifference is everywhere. So I don’t want and I don’t care.”

On “Serotonin“, he successfully melds grungy Nirvana-esque vibes with more lighthearted and melodic Beatles elements, but most of the album’s tracks have a soothing Beatles sound. Case in point are “This Is Breaking Me Apart“, highlighted by enchanting flute and Gia’s delicate heartfelt vocals, and the hauntingly beautiful “Hating Waiting“, which sounds like a song John Lennon could have sung on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Gia’s layered vocal harmonies are wonderful, and I love the horns, xylophone and glittery guitar notes.

The pleasing two-minute long “All Goes Back In The Box In The End” sounds a bit like a Bob Dylan song recorded by the Beatles, highlighted by a cheerful mouth organ and fluttery guitar notes. The lyrics advise us to not get caught up too heavily with material things, and to try to keep our perspective on the more important things in life: “You can build the biggest house by the water. You can deny all your friends. Big cars won’t make you feel better, no matter. All goes back in a box in the end.” “About One Hermit” has a quiet introspective feel, with gentle acoustic guitars, horns and strings creating a somewhat melancholy feel. Gia’s vocals sound more like George Harrison here as he sings words of encouragement to another: “This pain won’t last forever. Stupid self-destruction ends. All of us dig at our own pure holes.”

Run Boy” is a bouncy, lighthearted song that continues on the theme introduced on “All Goes Back In the Box In The End”, that we should make the best of this life we’re given: “You dream of the place where ice-cream mountains and melon sun. There’s only weekends. Cops are playing with water guns. And there’s no trouble. Everyone’s a Beatles fan. You got no time boy. Find this place just live and Run boy, life’s not forever. Run boy, you got to get on a bus boy, take it, be clever. Run boy, find the place where you belong.”

Depressed or Bored” is a charming tune, despite its rather dour title. The humorous tongue-in-cheek lyrics speak of a general feeling of discontent with life and perhaps ourselves: “All the questions that I’ve come across, I’m the first in line to get the answer. Wish I was David Hasselhoff, brave, young with toned muscles. Ohhh, depressed or bored.” Once again, I must make note of the strong Beatles vibe, especially in the George Harrison-esque guitars and lilting vocal harmonies. “Headache Will Cause Migraines” is decidedly more downbeat, with lyrics that speak to our sometimes fragile emotional well-being: “Back to my emotions. Rituals of my childhood years. Still get pretty strange notions. But crying with sun-dried tears. Headaches will cause migraines.”

As its title suggests, album closer “Tripping #9” has a delicious psychedelic vibe, with spacey atmospheric synths and watery guitar notes layered over a droning melodic rhythm. The appropriately trippy lyrics are somewhat ambiguous and surreal, but seem to describe conflicting feelings of euphoria and fear: “Air is only distance between me and the stars, but It’s too far. Laughing at the treason. Crying for the sin, where have I been? Mind is the trigger, feeling is the gun. Ever since you’re gone, drink without permission. Glass of diet sky, with no ice.” It’s a haunting and beautiful song.

Sky Diving Penguins is marvelous, and such a delightful listen that made it a joy to review. Gia Iashvili and company have crafted a really brilliant album, and I for one am happy he came out of exile and gifted us with his wonderful music.

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Purchase on BandcampWebsite

RUBBER CLOWN CAR – Album Review: “Go.Do.”

One of the more uniquely fascinating acts I’ve written about in my nearly six years of blogging is Rubber Clown Car (I love their name!) Based in the far western Chicagoland suburbs, the band is the brainchild of singer/songwriter and ace guitarist Dirk Prysby, a wildly imaginative, creative, and all-around nice guy. His songs often feature zany titles, but with deeper lyrics touching on the minefields of love, relationships and this crazy thing called life. As I’ve previously noted, his quirky, off-kilter vocal style wouldn’t get him very far on The Voice or American Idol, but it’s incredibly endearing and well-suited to his eccentric songs. Besides Dirk, Rubber Clown Car includes Fred Beasley (drums, backing vocals, guitar) and Tony Pantalones (bass, keyboards and everything else). Their eclectic alt-rock sound has been compared to such acts as XTC, Bob Mould, the Damned, the Who, GBV, the Replacements, and Matthew Sweet, with one reviewer describing them as “the Beatles on Quaaludes”.

Formed in the mid-2000s, Rubber Clown Car started out making fairly straightforward music drawing from rock, grunge and punk elements. Their first release was the excellent 2006 album Make the Noise, featuring one of my favorite of their songs “Home in the Suburbs”, a no-holds-barred commentary on the American Dream. They subsequently began incorporating more psychedelic and alternative elements into their music, which can be heard on their follow-up 2008 release Music “They” Don’t Want You To Hear, with songs like “The Boy With the Plexiglas Head” and “Gene Pool Party”. Since then, they’ve been quite prolific in their output, releasing ten more albums and EPs, featuring clever titles like Jesus is not a WeaponCake Solves Heartaches, Let’s Go Bowling and Slave to the Algorithm.

In May 2019, I reviewed their brilliant eighth album Horse Logic, an ambitious and trippy tour de force featuring 18 tracks ranging from rock to psychedelic to blues to ballads, and everything in between. Two years later they’ve returned with their latest album Go.Do., which dropped on May 28th, and I’m finally getting around to reviewing it. The delightful album features 11 tracks, including seven original songs and four covers – the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Long Way Down”, the Association’s “Never My Love”, the Gin Blossoms’ “Found Out About You” and the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride”.

The album opens with “Everything to Everyone“, a terrific guitar-driven banger, fortified by a fast-paced punkish groove punctuated with gnarly psychedelic guitars. The lyrics speak to the futility of always trying to please everyone: “You bend over backwards with your head up your ass. Nothing in the world kills attraction so fast. You give and give and give and ask not in return. And wonder why you’re alone, won’t you ever learn?

Among the album highlights for me are “The Math in Her Head“, with it’s slow, infectious guitar-driven melody and Tom Petty vibe. The lyrics address a woman who’s reassessing her feelings about the relationship, and not for the better: “She’s doing the math in her head. I’m starting to wonder, is it something I said? She won’t talk to me. She won’t talk to me. She won’t talk to me anymore.” Another song that seemingly channels Tom Petty, with a bit of the Beatles and Jayhawks thrown in for good measure, is the hopeful “What If“, with lyrics written by Natalie Rose, who also provides backing vocals. “What if I said ‘I loved you’? Would you say that you loved me too? What if I said I need you? Would you say that you need me too?

Dirk’s skill for writing cheeky lyrics and hard-driving bangers is nicely showcased on the rousing “Out of State Plates“, my favorite track on the album. The song touches on the joys and perils of playing the field, and how it sometimes gets you into trouble: “Out of state plates keep me coming back for more. Out of state plates keep me coming back for years. Out of state plates got me running out the door. Out of state plates probably make me lose my mind. She’s coming round in a wedding dress. I probably should have been a little clearer I guess.” I love the song’s frantic punk-like beat, thunderous percussion and intricate, mind-blowing riffs that set the airwaves aflame! The way the guitars fade out in a wave of distortion and reverb is fantastic.

Rubber Clown Car does a fine job on the four covers, but my absolute favorite is “Found Out About You“. Their interpretation is slower and more introspective than the original by the Gin Blossoms, with Dirk’s lovely acoustic guitar and plaintive melancholy vocals providing the only sounds we hear. The result is a beautiful and deeply moving song that really captures the heartbreak and disappointment expressed in the lyrics in a way the Gin Blossoms’ version did not (though I do love their original too).

Another standout is “Great Guns“, a grungy, psychedelia-tinged tune about a woman’s fears and paranoias that led her to buy a gun for protection. Dirk serves up dark and heavy riffs dripping with gnarly distortion, brilliantly conveying the disconnect between the woman’s fears and her false sense of security that owning a gun brings: “She bought a gun. She liked the way it fit her fingers, and she’s #1. She’ll never feel this way again cause Great Guns are coming round./ She found a way out of her problem situation.” 

Album closer “Mannequin Casino” starts off with tribal drum beats, then launches into a reverb-soaked barrage of grungy psychedelic guitars and trippy vibes. My take on the song’s meaning is that it’s about being abandoned by a lover at the Mannequin Casino, which seems to be a metaphor for a dead, lonely house without love or even the presence of an honest human being. Dirk laments “Something was wrong, you couldn’t find a way to say it. You couldn’t make me understand. All alone at night at a Mannequin Casino. What goes at night at a Mannequin Casino? Something just ain’t right at this Mannequin Casino.

Go.Do. is a very fine album, and while I don’t think it’s quite as strong or innovative as Horse Logic, Rubber Clown Car nevertheless delivers more of the offbeat alternative rock we’ve come to love and expect from them. The outstanding guitar work, catchy melodies and relatable lyrics all make for a fun and thoroughly enjoyable listen. 

The wonderful album artwork was created by Logospilgrim, a talented and lovely writer, artist, singer and fellow blogger from Canada who’s a friend of both mine and the band. Check out her blog at https://logospilgrim.com/

Connect with Rubber Clown Car on Twitter 
Stream:  Spotify / Soundcloud
Purchase:  Bandcamp  / iTunes