The Motor Primitives
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The Motor Primitives

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"CD Review: 'Be The Engine' (Boat Records)"

By Tom Laskin
The Motor Primitives' crisp pop-rock seems to spring from another era. Singer-guitarist Pam Barrett's lulling, melancholy vocals sometimes recall Chrissie Hynde, but the band's songwriting and arrangements owe more to classic '60s scribes like Del Shannon and Roy Orbison. Barrett's vibrato delivery on the album's moody closer, "Sundown," brings chills; so does Matthew Sanborn's lowdown, cowboy-music-inspired bass part on the artfully roped-in folk-rocker "Canopy."

With a running time of under 20 minutes, Be the Engine is quite short. In fact, it feels more like an EP. On the upside, the Motor Primitives are a very economical band, and hardly a note is wasted. - The Isthmus Weekly, February 16th, 2006

"CD Review: 'Be The Engine' (Boat Records)"

by Rick Tvedt

Last summer's debut CD by the Motor Primitives was one of the year's highlights; singer Pam Barrett crooned and snarled her way through twelve tightly constructed rock tunes. Be The Engine is a five-song EP cut over a single weekend at Coney Island Studios just before Christmas. Be the Engine follows somewhat closely on the heels of the debut album which received glowing reviews. These could be songs left over from the first disc or brand-new ones but either way it's another fine collection of confident performances and the growth in the band is measurable, even if the blue-print is similar.

The move to Coney was a good one; the guitars shimmer and the rhythm section packs much more punch. The first release was also a bit over-compressed and Be the Engine sounds freer and more open. Given the limited time to record, the EP doesn't have much in the way of vocal harmonies; Barrett's singular voice plays through much of the material. "Sundown" is another story, however, a gorgeous piece of minimalist Americana. Barrett's vibrato fits the pulse of the song and there is a very cool backing vocal track. The guitar tones are sweet and the melody infectious - a great piece of music.

Guitarist Kat Spring gets a bit more daring on these songs as well, turning in a gutsy solo at the end of the opening track. She comes up with several nice parts to augment Barrett's rhythm guitar, especially on "Canopy," another strong song.

The title track is "Be the Engine, Part 1," a cool acoustic guitar statement that is driven home by relentless rhythm and a thick bottom end. "Part 1" begs the question of whether there is a "part 2" in the making and either a full-length that may include some of these songs, or a continuation of the band's evolution in the form of all-new material. My bet is on the latter as this band is far too confident about what they have to offer to look back. - Rick's Cafe, March, 2006

"CD Review: 'The Motor Primivites' (Boat Records)"

By Rob Thomas

I had expected something a little brasher and rawer from a band that in a recent press release exhorted local media to (and I'm paraphrasing here) "get your finger out of your nose and come see our live show."

But the debut album from Madison's The Motor Primitives isn't so brash at all. In fact, it's a dynamite collection of superbly-crafted pop-rock songs that carry real weight. Led by singer-songwriter Pam Barrett, who has the kind of dreamy yet direct singing voice that invites Chrissie Hynde comparisons, the MPs play melodic rock with surprisingly sophisticated arrangements. In all the right ways, this sounds like a band's fifth album, not its first.

A sinewy groove slithers through "Universal Man," while "Behind the Clouds" is a sparkling pop song where guitars and vocals pair up to satisfying effect. The jittery "He Said, She Said" and the hypnotic seven-minute-long "Beautiful Mind" show the band can rock the house when they want to. But this is a rock album for grown-ups, one invites the listener inside rather than rushing out to greet them, and certainly one of the finest local debuts of the year. - Wisconsin State Journal 6/16/5

"CD Review: 'The Motor Primivites' (Boat Records)"

By Rick Tvedt

The Motor Primitives is the newest entry in the Boat Records catalog and a logical choice to carry on the label's penchant for melodic, accessible rock music and well-tailored songwriting. Part pop, part roots rock with occasional jazz, alt-country and samba flourishes, the Motor Primitives are quintessentially Madison' homegrown and crafty without being overly polished.

The focus here is squarely on the lyrics as they sit alone on top of the mix, and there's good reason for that. Pam Barrett, who wrote all of the CD's twelve +1 songs, is an exceptional lyricist and her smooth voice is by turns sultry and sassy. The Pretenders comparisons are undeniable as she coaxes the same hypnotic tremolo from her voice as Chrissie Hynde and at times a similar half-spoken sarcasm. At other points a comparison to Aimee Mann seems more appropriate. Barrett's softer side comes to the fore in "Say It," with a beautifully melodic chorus augmented with hushed backing vocals. Here the vocal tremolo is used to great effect as well as on the acoustic ballad "Always Been This Way."

In addition to "say It" there are several other tracks that bear mentioning. The band rocks on "Are You Really There?" a well-reasoned stab at the Establishment and "Perfect World," a radio-ready hit that features the album's grittiest guitar tones and a killer lick. "Universal Man" swings coolly while the chorus is one of the other melodic highlights of the album. Just when you think you've got the MP modus operandi figured out they come along with "Beautiful Mind," a cool-groove roller, and "favorite Dream," A country-leaning rocker with a polka beat.

The Motor Primitives was recorded at Ultimate Audio with Tom Blain engineering and mastering. The group's bassist and multi-instrumentalist, Matthew Sanborn, is credited as producer and at first blush the recording has an almost reserved vibe to it. But with repeated listening the songs begin to sink in and hook the listener. The pristine quality of the mix, although a tad over-compressed, reveals a surprisingly strong identity for a debut recording. Nary a hint of distortion can be detected on this collection, the guitars are mostly clear and shimmering and instrumentally The Motor Primitives recalls Blind Man's Zoo-era 10,000 Maniacs. Guitarist Kat Spring does a splendid job fleshing out the personality that Barrett brings to the songs, making her an ideal right-hand woman to Barrett's earnestness. There is little doubt that Sanborn has the producer's gene and where the Motor Primitives go from here will be one of the more interesting and no doubt enjoyable journeys for both the band and its fans. - Rick's Cafe 7/2005

"Show Review: Are you experienced? The Motor Primitives use maturity to their advantage"

By Tom Laskin

The Motor Primitives aren't working to become the "it" band of the Madison club scene. They all have full-time jobs, and a few have advanced degrees. In fact, at 28 lead guitarist Kat Spring qualifies as the baby of the group, and any rock 'n' roll fantasies the easygoing Canadian might harbor are balanced out by the rigors of finishing a dissertation in film studies.

Despite the outside commitments, the Motor Primitives (whose name derives from neuroscience, not the grease pit) are definitely a serious band. Frankly, watching them gallop through an hour-long set of melodic, strangely portentous folk-rock at the Slipper Club last week, I was struck by how much focus and drive they display on stage. You won't find any punky flailing in a Motor Primitives set, just a practiced foursome putting over well-turned folk-rock. In front of a modest, friendly crowd, chief songwriter Pam Barrett employed a throaty, quavering vocal style on hooky '60s-flavored originals like "Perfect World" and "Look Away" and communicated an emotional maturity that just isn't apparent in most local singers. The interplay between drummer Robin Davies, bassist Matthew Sandborn and guitarist Spring also added an extra level of complexity to Barrett's songs.

Having studio habitué Sandborn and longtime local musician Davies (Tar Babies, Booty Froot, the Bar Tabbies, etc.) in the band clearly helps ground the Motor Primitives. But having experienced players involved may not be as important as the band's very visible willingness to bring out -- and, when it's appropriate, lean on -- each other's strengths. After just two years of playing local clubs, the members of the Motor Primitives have learned their place in the music and are more than willing to subsume individual ambitions for the sake of a compelling group sound.

During a relaxed, attitude-free interview at the Slipper Club, Barrett even goes out of her way to praise Sandborn for "massaging the arrangements" and turning her strong guitar-based originals into full-blown pop tunes. And the other band members nod in agreement.

Which isn't to say that the Motor Primitives are shy, self-effacing and just grateful to have a few gigs. They're currently working on a debut CD, and they admit that keeping up a regular schedule of local live shows is as important as it's ever been to them. They may be mature, but they're not about to settle into a comfortable routine of one-a-month rocking.

They're also open to bigger opportunities. But the music veterans in the band know that turning a well-paced live set of hummable songs isn't so easy. Asked about how he'd like to see their career evolve, the matter-of-fact Sandborn squints hard behind his glasses, then says quietly, "I don't know what it takes to get on Conan O'Brien or one of those shows, but we'd be great. The question is, How do you get there?" - Isthmus Weekly, 5/4/5

"Interview: 'A little bit primitive, a little bit mature'"

By Beth Lucht

The Motor Primitives rock, but they aren't really very rock 'n' roll. This is a good thing. Kicking back on drummer Robin Davies' Rutledge Street front porch after practice one recent evening, the members seem level-headed, unpretentious and focused, and unlikely to bust out a rock-star move like driving a car into a swimming pool or overdosing on some illegal substance. Davies struggles to come up with a word to describe the band and then arrives at mature. Ranging in age from late 20s to early 40s, the band members have houses and responsibilities and regular day jobs. They aren't looking to make it big - they just want to have fun.

That said, bass player Matthew Sanborn adds, "We take our fun pretty seriously. We want to do music that has integrity. It's not just a blow off steam kind of band, but we're not the kind of group that wants to be famous with record deals."

Assembled about two years ago by lead singer and guitarist Pam Barrett, the current members of the Motor Primitives were supposed to be temporary fill-ins for her regular bandmates, who were unable to make it the night of a benefit they were asked to play. They enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to stay together permanently.

Barrett has so far handled all the songwriting duties, bringing in what she describes as "some lyrics and basic melodic bare bones." She credits her fellow band members with having "a good ear for developing the intricacies of the song to make it more interesting."

The Motor Primitives' sound is difficult to define. There's a somewhat retro feel; Barrett cites Nick Lowe and Ray Davies are[sic] songwriting inspirations, and guitarist Kat Spring's leads have a certain understated but classic quality. The group is regularly compared to the Pretenders, partially because it's clear that Barrett has an affinity for Chrissie Hynde's songwriting and vocal styles, but perhaps also because they're both bands led by woman. No matter the reason, Barrett says she consideres it a compliment.

The band's self-titled CD was released in June of this year and has enjoyed strong local reviews. The group chose to release it on Boat Records, a local cooperative label run by Mad City Music Exchange owner Dave Benton. The label has a notable past - started in the late '70s, it released albums by well-known local bands such as the Rousers, Firetown and Ivory Library before taking a hiatus for a number of years. "I was thrilled to be part of it," says Davies, who appreciates the cooperative nature of the label. "I like the idea of artists working together to share their work with people in other places."

Davies himself has a notable past, having played bass for local punk rock legends the Tar Babies. He says he doesn't miss the years of touring and playing high profile gigs: "I still go to see punk shows, but I'd much rather play earlier and not have to sleep on scuzzy floors."

Sanborn has also played a lot of music, both in Madison and in Boston. Barrett, on the other hand, says her primary group musical experience prior to the Motor Primitives was playing guitar and mandolin in a Filipino folk band when she was in high school. Spring says she was never in a band before, but when prompted by her fellow band members, admits she once played in an Allman Brothers cover band.

Spring is perhaps the band's biggest surprise. Though quiet and unassuming, she produces some memorable solos and catchy licks. For her part, Barrett appreciates Spring's mild demeanor, "We've got a lead guitarist that is humble," she says, asking, "Where else are you going to find that anywhere?"

The band's plans for the future include more recordings, and possibly some new songwriting configurations as other members of the band start bringing in compositions. Other new ground shouldn't be too hard to find - they've yet to play outside of Madison. Spring jokes that they want their fans to be able to bike to all their shows. Soon the band is bantering back and forth about why they've only played in town, and whether they might be ready to hit the road.

Barrett, as she often seems to, has the last word. "That's something," she says, smiling, "best talked about over beer." Perhaps they are a little rock 'n' roll after all. - Core Weekly, 11/24/5

"CD Review: 'The Motor Primitives' (Boat Records)"

By Todd Beemis

As an avid collector of vintage 80's pop/new wave vinyl, I spend hours in thrift stores. And for every twenty Foreigner records, you find one solid gem. I'm pleased to report that The Motor Primitives are like hitting a mother lode of Pretenders, Split Enz, Squeeze... hell, I swear there's even some X in there.

It's probably impossible to write a review of The Motor Primitives without remarking on lead singer Pam Barrett's uncanny channeling of a certain Ms. Chrissy Hynde. That said, hers is much more than a lazy imitation of rock's ultimate supervixen voice - instead, Barrett seems to be saluting a personal heroine while doing a damn fine job of making her own mark on pop rock and roll.

You want glistening, trebley guitars? Check. You want everything from lo-fi rollicks to an almost Martin Denny-esque bossa nova? Check. You want full-on rockers? Well, the Primitives offer those, as well.

Some of the musicianship isn't perfect here, but that's not the point. Fans of timeless party rock will enjoy this CD, and the real winners are those lucky college kids in Madison who get to experience them live - I bet it's a real kick.

These guys are great fun - and they saved me a whole afternoon of rooting in the thrift store record bins because all the sounds I'm looking for are right here, on one CD. -, January 7th, 2006


The Motor Primitives (Boat Records), Self-titled
1. Look away
2. Are you really there?
3. Seven questions
4. Universal man
5. Behind the clouds
6. Say it
7. He Said, She Said
8. Beautiful Mind
9. Always Been This Way
10. Play Me
11. Favorite Dream
12. Perfect world

The Motor Primitives (Boat Records), Be The Engine
1. Be the engine
2. Canopy
3. In the rise & fall
4. Silent one
5. Sundown

Be the Engine > Long Play
1. Silent One
2. In the Rise and Fall
3. Canopy
4. Be the Engine, Part I
5. Sundown
6. Deranger
7. Shine
8. Batter Up
9. Nothing That You Need

1. What's the Matter
2. Classified
3. Transform
4. The Flame
5. Horsemen



The Motor Primitives are a four-piece band from Madison, Wisconsin. The MPs play rock'n'roll that varies from simple power chords to sophisticated arrangements. Most people find it quite danceable.

Formed in 2003, these Madison favorites keep growing in popularity. During live performances, the Motor Primitives lead their audiences through sets that span high-energy, dance-inducing tunes to mid-tempo head-bobbers to warm, grooving, melodic songs.

2005 marked the release of their self-titled debut album which garnered a bevy of positive reviews. In early 2006, they released the gritty follow-up, Be the Engine. In 2007, new members have given the group an updated sound and upgraded energy level. The group is currently working on a new EP due out later this Spring.

Pam Barrett has surrounded herself with punk rock veterans, including Kenn Busch on drums, Ed Feeny, formerly of The Appliances SFB (Ruthless Records), and Jeff Muendel, formerly of Backbiter (Man's Ruin Records). What does that mean? These guys spent a lot of time touring in rusty old vans but having a blast anyway!