Janet Place and Mike Nicholson—leaders of the bands Great Big Gone and Stratocruiser, respectively—have been at this music thing for a while now. Vocalist/ guitarist Place got her start with D.C. alt-country pioneers the Slim Jims, later forming the Kickbacks and Great Big Gone forebears Brown Mountain Lights after moving to the Triangle's outskirts. Guitarist/ jack-of-many-trades Nicholson has served in numerous area acts, from the power-popping Bullwinkle Ghandi to the instrumental combo the X-Rayons, while also masterminding Sparklefest during the pop-rock gathering's nearly decade-long run.
Although the term doesn't do justice to Place's and Nicholson's abilities, these days they're musical hobbyists, making music when they can find the time while balancing families and careers. Both have just self-released records into a hyperbole-driven, multiple-exclamation-marks world in which the recipient of a description like "skillful" or "steady" feels damned with faint praise. It's also an overstocked world where it's easy to be damned with faint press.
Running the risk of being an agent of damnation, I declare these two releases to be solid, expertly played representatives of their genres. For Great Big Gone, that would be Americana, with the first four songs on Threadbare Heart positioning the five-piece as its poster children. The Cajun number "Great Big Gone" is the Americana wildcard. "Written in the Scars" is a vintage-country ballad complete with word-twist payoff, while "Running Board" offers a more rocked-up arrangement. And the Gram-ish "Can't Go Back" comes courtesy of Telecaster man/ part-time vocalist Greg Bower (who, small world, was in Bullwinkle Gandhi with Nicholson). That pattern repeats throughout, right down to Bower taking the lead every fourth song. That tight framework often refuses Threadbare Heart too much room to soar. ("Paper Thin Walls," the album's subtlest song and one that needs to find its way into Emmylou Harris' hands, is its highest riser.) But with the group's collected experience and chops, cruising altitude still proves plenty entertaining.
That same summary could apply to Egg Shells, Stratocruiser's latest exercise in classically melodic rock. Despite Nicholson's usual bottomless bag of riffs and tireless efforts, the fire lit by the album doesn't climb quite high enough to attract a wave of new followers. It will, however, click with the faithful, that being Velvet Crush fans and the kind of LP fiends with death-grips on their Move, Bad Company, Billy Squier and Dwight Twilley Band records—in other words, those who attended Sparklefest. Clay Howard, Nicholson's partner in writing and production, possesses a voice that's technically impressive and arena-ready, though it can come off colorless, like an anchor man who's been instructed to deliver the news. When Howard lets personality shine through, like on "I Think So," a winner that's part British Invasion rock, part jangly confection-pop, and all Hollies, Stratocruiser is at its best.
So a pair of durable releases that get good marks—even exemplary marks on occasion. Just not an abundance of exclamation marks.
Great Big Gone plays at Cary's Sertoma Amphitheatre at Bond Park at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6. Stratocruiser splits a 10 p.m. Slim's bill with the Boss Martians Monday, Sept. 8.