The reviews are in!
Put your trilobite in gear, grab your mammals, and get ready for a wild ride on the Fossil Freeway with Ray Troll, Russell Wodehouse and the Ratfish Wranglers! This new CD by Ray and the gang shines like a sheet of Visqueen on a cool Alaskan night. Walk, run, or swim and get yourself a copy today!
The tunes are tight and the performances are right for educational dancing! Cool plus!
Jeff Brown- program director KTOO Radio, Juneau
FAIRBANKS NEWS MINER- The phrase “dinosaur rock” is generally considered an insult, but for Ketchikan artist Ray Troll and his loose configuration of musical cohorts called the Ratfish Wranglers, it’s a term of endearment. On “Paleonerd,” a track on the outfit’s new album, “Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway,” Troll writes about “Those giant beasts that seemed so real / One hundred percent sex appeal. I’m a paleonerd don’t you understand? / I’m a paleonerd baby I’m your man.” (If only more fossilized spandex rockers could so happily embrace their reptilian muses.)
For those unfamiliar with the musical side of Troll’s universe, this album, much like the group’s first, offers a menagerie of musical styles coupled with lyrics praising the weird things that paleontologists excavate out of the earth’s layers. It’s sort of a “Sedimental Journey,” filled with trilobites, tuskers, and pterosaurs, and driven by rhythms ranging from blues to bluegrass, hip-hop to ska.
This album accompanies the book of the same title that recounted Troll’s fossil collecting trip across Middle America with Kirk Johnson of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Johnson shows up in the album’s central track, “I am a Paleobotanist,” where he raps about his day job and declares that in the world of organic decay, “It’s not ashes to ashes, it’s gas to gas.”
Troll mostly confined himself to lyric writing and the occasional backing vocal this time out, while Washington State-based multi-instrumentalist Russell Wodehouse who receives equal billing composed and performed much of the music. An assortment of friends handled the lead vocals and other instrumentation weaving in and out of the mix.
Seattle’s Big Dirt Band joins in for the country rock-styled “Take Me Back,” which pines for simpler times when mammoths wandered the plains. “Time Traveling (With a Shovel),” featuring a guest shot by rapper Art of Verse, is a funk driven celebration of digging for plankton in the former ocean now known as Kansas. And on “Ammonite,” vocalist Missy Ingersoll, backed by a 1980s-type new wave groove, makes cephalopods sound disturbingly sexual.
“Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway” is a rock opera of sorts, one that’s fun to listen to and educational as well. These dinosaur rockers have left a fine set of tracks for everyone to dig. (Oh, and this being a Ray Troll project, the album artwork is exceptional.)
Check out this track: “Hell Pig” is a brilliant send-up of death rock with screaming guitars and lyrics about the Archaeotherium, a carnivorous Eocene-era wild boar. Not even the most demonic of leather-clad metal-heads could match the poignancy of lyrics like these: “Stand before the ancient beast Gorging on his putrid feast of flesh / Rip the victim asunder Hear the roar of their thunder… Hear the wail and the moans / As he grinds on your bones / Burning in the smoke and flame / So it goes in this bloody game of life.”
David A. James lives in Fairbanks.
By Eric Morrison | JUNEAU EMPIRE
Ray Troll and Russell Wodehouse accomplished a unique feat last fall after holing themselves up for a week in Ketchikan to write music - the world's first bluegrass song about trilobites.
"I know it's not the first trilobite song, but I'm pretty sure it's the world's first bluegrass trilobite song," Troll said. Trilobites are extinct marine arthropods that first appear in the fossil record during the Early Cambrian period some 540 million years ago.
"Trilobite" appears on the new Ray Troll/Russell Wodehouse & The Ratfish Wranglers album "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway," released last month. The album features the same name as a book by paleontologist Kirk Johnson and Troll, published in 2007, that documents their fossil-seeking road trip across the American West.
The book spawned an exhibit currently showing at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington through May 31, and Troll decided a pseudo soundtrack would be beneficial to the project.
"I just think that, I don't know, you walk into a space and look at art, sound is the other aspect to it," he said. "Basically my job is bringing fun."
Troll contacted Wodehouse, a previous musical collaborator and Ketchikan expatriate living in Washington, and the two set out on a journey to create the sound of the Fossil Freeway. Wodehouse returned to Ketchikan for a week in October and they set up a makeshift recording studio in Troll's house and let the music begin to flow.
"We set up shop in his living room and didn't sleep a lot, drank a bunch of wine and wrote," Wodehouse said.
The "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway" book wasn't necessarily a roadmap for the musical adventure the two embarked upon, Troll said.
"It is pretty closely tied. They pretty much go hand in hand," he said. "That said, we weren't like, 'Chapter 2, we've got to write a song.' We basically used it as a starting point. A lot of it was as things would kind of come together."
Wodehouse had some of the music already written before arriving in Ketchikan and the two took images and ideas from the book and turned them into lyrics over the course of a week.
"It was one of those things that we were lucky because the muse was there," he said. "It was one of those things where things just kept rolling. So it was like, 'Sweet, let's not stop.'"
Troll decided to depart from the Ratfish Wranglers' previous album - "Where the Fins Meet the Frets" released in 2008 - and wanted to work behind the scenes more on the latest release.
"Part of the whole M.O. this time is I learned things from the first CD," he said. "I like being more of an almost producer kind of guy on this one, realizing my musical abilities are only so limited."
Troll wrangled musicians together from throughout Southeast Alaska and Washington to create a musically diverse sound that differs from song to song like changes throughout the geologic ages.
The album's namesake song kicks off the 16-track CD with a blend of bluegrass, ska and doo-wop, juxtaposed to the electronica and hip-hop sound of "40,000 Mammals" and the hard-rock sound of "Hell Pig."
"We did everything except for opera on this one," Troll said.
The song "Ages of Rock" takes Troll's passion for science a step further by blending music with a lyrical cadence of the different geologic ages that may soon be finding its way into science classrooms.
"I kept thinking it really needed kids on it because it's kind of, 'Hey kids, let's learn your geologic ages,'" Troll said. "It really is a song that's kind of easy to remember and by the end of the song you know your geologic ages. So that was a fun one."
Troll said the new album is a true collaboration of musical talents, with Dave Rubin, Shauna Lee, Andrew Heist, Alejandro Chavarria, Patricia Clark, Curtis Edwards, Stephen Jackson and Wodehouse all providing lead vocals on the CD. The album also has tremendous talent on a wide variety of instruments, he said, including his son, Patrick Troll on guitar, Juneau's violin impresario Bob Banghart and standup bass player Maridon Boario.
Johnson also appears in a spoken word explanation of his job on the track "I am a Paleobotanist."
"We put a microphone in front of him and said, 'Alright in two minutes tell us why it's cool to be a paleobotonist, tell us why it's cool to collect plants and dinosaur bones," Troll said. "So off he went. I think he talked for like 45 minutes, but then from there Russell culled the best bits. By the end of the song you have a real appreciation for why plants are cool."
Troll said the project united his passions of art, music and science. A lyric booklet that accompanies the CD contains a colorful collection of his signature art that helps bring the project full circle.
"It's science rock-and-roll like you've never heard before," Troll said. "It's just plain fun. You will be smarter by the time you finish this CD, more than you wanted."
Wodehouse said he hopes people have as much fun listening to the album as they had making it.
"People can hear you smiling when you're singing," he said. "People know when you're having a good time and I really think that's what happened and translated. I think it's a fun album because it sounds like we were having fun, because we were having fun. I think that's infectious."
Alaska artist Ray Troll's prehistoric panoramas share center stage at Seattle exhibit
By MIKE DUNHAM
Published: February 27th, 2010 04:45 PM
Last Modified: February 28th, 2010 08:43 AM
Ray Troll has something going on right now that happens to very few Alaska artists -- a big show at a big museum in a big city in the Lower 48.
But it's not exactly a solo exhibit.
All of the art on display at "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway" at the Burke Museum in Seattle -- some 20 paintings plus five murals -- is by Troll, who lives in Ketchikan. The pictures share the spotlight with assorted shells, skulls, bones, impressions and other fossils from the Burke's collection. Together they form an eye-popping, walk-through version of the book, also titled, "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway," written by paleontologist Kirk Johnson and illustrated by Troll.
The skeletal maw of an enormous fish greets visitors as they come through the door. Xiphanctinus audax chased prey in seas over present-day Kansas an estimated 85 million years ago. With a powerful, snake-like body, reinforced jaws, boar-like tusks in its lower jaw and fangs jutting out from its top lip, it's scary to look at even when dead.
Next to the fossil is a time-traveling self-portrait of Troll (or someone who looks like him) in shorts and baseball cap, standing on a little boat and fighting to reel in one of these prehistoric monsters with a fly rod.
Elsewhere we see the head of a "killer pig," Archeotherium, next to Trolls' depiction of the beast as found in the book. The large picture titled "Saber-toothed Everything," with images of extinct fanged salmon and kangaroos as well as contemporary walruses (which Johnson calls "saber-toothed seals"), is accompanied by skulls of various saber-toothed felines. As a special bonus, there are colored glasses next to the painting; put on a pair and the painting pops out in 3-D.
"I knew about Ray very early in the Troll days because I saw people wearing his T-shirts, 'Spawn Til You Die' and all," said Johnson in a phone call from Denver, where he's a curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
Johnson, who grew up in Seattle, got hooked on fossils at the Burke, which is located on the campus of the University of Washington. He returned to the city for a convention of paleontologists in 1993. The event coincided with another Troll show at the museum.
"I'd done the 'Planet Ocean' book," said Troll. That book brimmed with his famous fish images and included depictions of ancient sea life. "I had all this artwork and it dawned on me that maybe a natural history museum was the place to take it."
The Burke mounted that show and hosted a reception that Troll attended. "This giant guy came up to me and said, 'I've been a fan of yours for years,' " Troll recalled.
An expanded version of the "Planet Ocean" show at the Denver museum with a greater emphasis on prehistoric oceans emerged from that meeting. The Denver collaboration led to the two teaming up for seven years of grand road trips throughout the Western United States. Their visits to digs and displays produced the colorful, fact-packed and frolicsome "Fossil Freeway" book in 2007 (excerpted in the Daily News Feb. 24, 2008). The book begat the exhibit, which will tour after it closes in Seattle on May 31.
All of the fossils in the exhibit are from the Burke's collection, said MaryAnn Barron Wagner, the museum's communications director. Those who have previously visited the place to see its natural history and anthropological treasures -- it has some prime Northwest Indian art, among other things -- may be surprised to see how much paleontological material it's had tucked away.
"All the cool stuff's in the back room," said Troll.
But, at least for the moment, it's up front. Not only fossils connected to Troll's pictures, like a giant extinct mollusk, but fine specimens of a long-necked, flippered elasmosaurus, a carnivorous theropod and a spiky stegosaurus on display in an adjacent space, along with modern animals like an albatross and a killer whale skeleton.
Also on display is a respectable cast of a cheeseburger mixed in with the bones and shells. Images of the ubiquitous roadside food can be found throughout the show (and the book). Such depictions of life here and now are a hallmark of Troll's illustrations. In his pictures slumbering people are haunted by dreams of creatures from millions of years ago, pranksters tip over long-defunct members of the elephant tribe, a tyrannosaurus rex roams the streets of Seattle.
The surreal anachronisms are Troll's way of emphasizing the connection between past and present, to reveal the presence of diverse life in a given place over a span of time.
"I didn't want to do just straight illustrations," he said. "Other guys do that better."
"Ray is his own category," said Johnson. "His imagery is so wonderfully full of puns and verbal twists. When we were working on the book, often I would write something and he would draw it. I get these ideas and I know he can bring them to life."
For example, the idea for "Saber-toothed Everything" came from a dream that Johnson had of all sorts of animals that had developed such fangs.
Troll said the 3-D nature of some of his paintings caught him by surprise. A reader first stumbled upon the effect in his "Planet Ocean" book.
"Drawing on dark surfaces lends itself to these 3-D glasses," he said. "Basically the glasses let the warm colors come through quicker. Reds, yellows and oranges pop; blues and green stay back. So I paint a red salmon surrounded by blue and -- showmanship!"
Another facet of showmanship involves music, a CD of songs mostly written by Troll and Russell Wodehouse and featuring a number of other performers.
"We wrote all these tunes in different styles," Troll said. "Ska, doo-wop, folk, heavy metal, bluegrass."
The "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway" CD includes songs about the table of geological ages, trilobites and the joys of fossil hunting ("Paleonerd"). It features some nice vocals, particularly by Shauna Lee, and commendable instrumentals, like Andrew Heist's mandolin-picking. But the numbers tend to be short on melody and long on quirky words, like these lyrics from "Ammonite."
"Your Fibonacci sequence speaks volumes to my soul/ I trance your inner coils and I start to lose control/ These armored squid enthrall me they octopi my time/ Dreaming of your sutures, calamari so divine."
The most memorable music comes from songs not directly tied to the most engrossing parts of the book, "Soundwaves" by Curtis Edwards and Troll's anthem-like "Big Blue Marble."
The most memorable cut is not actually a song. In "I am a Paleobotanist" Johnson talks with sparkling enthusiasm about his field. To get this take, Troll got Johnson talking about flora of yore and recorded it. The paleontologist's remarks were then dubbed over drums.
Johnson was just as animated on the phone as he is on the CD. "In paleontology, one of the great things about botany is that there's so much of it that you never get skunked," he said. "If you want to reconstruct ancient landscapes, that's what you study."
He gave a contemporary example of Denali Park, where one might see a pack of wolves take down a moose, but it would be a rare and fleeting sight. Mostly what one sees are the hills and rivers and trees that stay the same around the clock for years.
"The bigger reality is the story of landscape and vegetations," he said.
Johnson's love of "time travel with a shovel" is shared by many, Troll noted, including himself.
"It's what makes paleontology such a good gateway to science for a lot of kids," the artist said. "I'm no different. The first thing I was drawing was dinosaurs when I was 4 years old. Here I am, 50 years later, still drawing them."
The partnership of painter and paleontologist has been rewarding for both men, Johnson said. "Ray's the kind of artist who collects scientists, and I'm the kind of scientist who collects artists."
In fact they're planning their next book, tentatively titled "Cruisin' the Eternal Coastline: Baja to Barrow." It will follow the "Fossil Freeway" format, focusing on America's West Coast.
For that book, Johnson plans to join Troll for expeditions to Alaska fossil sites this summer.
While Alaska is not famous for digs, Troll said it still offers a lot.
"The mantra is that fossils are everywhere; you just look under your feet."