Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Parker Longbough - Bridges to Nowhere/Delirium in Lo-Fi

 
Parker Longbough - Bridges to Nowhere/Delirium in Lo-Fi 


This songwriting opus from Parker Longbough, Bridges to Nowhere/Delirium in Lo-Fi, is the second studio effort from Anchorage, Alaska born singer/songwriter/musician Matthew Witthoeft and represents a long-delayed follow up to the project’s first release Commander Comatose. Longbough doesn’t have any sort of fixed lineup, but Witthoeft’s songwriting has an unity of sound and intent that’s further refined on this release than we ever heard on the debut. His unique confluence of electronic pop textures with alt country flavor isn’t like anything else you’ve heard before. The band performance is stirringly rugged while still maintaining a high degree of musical value – that isn’t an easy tightrope to traverse for even the most fleet footed and seasoned of musical units. Matthew Witthoeft and his collaborators manage the feat with grit and artistry. Bridges to Nowehere/Deliirum in Lo-Fi is a weighty musical and written work that succeeds on multiple levels.
 
There’s a steady simmer to the way that the opener “Hall Pass” builds that makes it ideal for its starting slot. There’s a singsong quality to some of Wiithoeft’s vocal melodies, but it never gets tiresome because he fills the songwriting with such exceptional writing and the phrasing is always quite in tune with the demands of his words. There’s a strong urgency to the arrangement, particularly from the drumming and singing, but the guitar work makes everything richer as well. “Super Shitty” undergoes a patient transformation from its airy, keyboard driven opening passages into a much more raucous guitar-slanted attack. There’s some particularly effective keyboard playing near the song’s end in a way you rarely hear such instruments used. “The Bell Jar” is one of the album’s unquestionable highlights and Witthoeft deserves plaudits for the imagination he shows in capturing a disordered mental state through musical invention alone. The lyrics maintain a terrifying clarity in the face of this and Witthoeft brings listeners a vocal treated with some post production effects, but nonetheless practically leering at times with wild-eyed emotion. This, overall, is probably one of his finest singing performances on this release. 
 
“Pressure Receptors” invokes the spirit of alternative rock guitar and post punk at its most raucous, but never belabors its credentials and keeps things memorably simple. “Saint Jude” has some surprising pop song strengths, especially a good vocal melody, and the gentle swing of the tune is peppered just right but some expertly laid out guitar playing. Melody is an underrated part of his presentation because he doesn’t always approach it the way more commercially minded performers might and it hits the mark nonetheless. “April 23rd, 1991” has some of the same alternative guitar rock feel of the earlier “Pleasure Receptors”, but the velocity is looser here and there’s more of an emphasis on melody. The album’s penultimate tune and last lyrically driven song “Smiling Second Row” could have served as the final curtain for this album. The vulnerability, specificity, and desperation wafting through this relaxed and deliciously ramshackle tune sums up the album as a whole quite nicely. Bridges to Nowhere/Delirium in Lo-Fi hits in ways you might have given up on in modern music. Consider your faith restored.  


Montey Wright

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nathan Oliver - Head in the Sand


Nathan Oliver - Head in the Sand 


The improbably named band Nathan Oliver is led by its primary songwriter Nathan White and marks a triumphant return to the scene with their third recording Head in the Sand. This marks the project’s first output since 2009’s Cloud Animals and the world could have scarcely changed more in the interim. Some of the tenor of our times is reflected in Head in the Sand’s six songs, but never in a heavy handed way. White’s songwriting, instead, channels more than that – it brings together a living fidelity to the alternative rock style of his youth and has the same personal, yet imaginative, touch that distinguished the band’s prior releases. White works with bassist Duncan Webster and drummer Robert Biggers on this release and they prove early on to be ideal collaborators for this material. White is, certainly, the main mover behind this release, but there’s also no question that Head in the Sand never sounds like a solo vehicle in disguise. This is a real band and they establish that on each of the EP’s six cuts.  
 
“Marbles” shows, if nothing else, that Nathan White is eager to reassert this band’s identity. The first track is a near unrelenting blast of post punk raucousness with a lung-busting vocal from White and a viscerally recorded instrumental attack. Much like the other songs on Head in the Sand, “Marbles” doesn’t waste a second of the listener’s time and recalls the spirit of its influences without ever sounding beholden to them. The band’s songwriting has a real habit of making unexpected excursions and proves that for the first time on this release with the song “Clean Sheets”. This song, at its essence, is a track about longing and White embodies that emotional quality with ease. The poppier aspects of the song are quite a surprise following the slashing guitar chords and intensity of the opener, but the jarring effect produced from juxtaposing these songs is pleasing rather than challenging. “Little Belle” has a much more outright retro feel and shares some similarities on guitar with the previous song. The vocal presentation is a little more traditional as well, but it never lacks the same energy and effectiveness as White’s earlier singing performances. 
 
“The Exquisite Wait” wraps up a dollop of social consciousness, a helping of the personal, and some individualistic turns of phrase into a song that marries the best aspects of tracks like the opener with some of the relaxed commercial feel of the previous two tracks. White’s wide-open singing is another appealing aspect of track. The final track “Kim Mi Young” ends Head in the Sand with the same punch and musical variety that we’ve been exposed to on the preceding five songs. There’s no question that White’s capable of finessing his singing approach, but he has some great vocal muscle as well. The closer illustrates that quite nicely. Nathan Oliver’s Head in the Sand may be their first recording in nearly ten years, but it’s obvious that the project still provokes White’s songwriting imagination in memorable ways and Head in the Sand stands among the best alt rock releases in 2017.  


Robert Elgin

The Johnny Mac Band – Ace


The Johnny Mac Band – Ace 


The first single from The Johnny Mac Band’s second album Ace is the title cut of the release and an excellent introduction to what is certain to be an important moment in this band’s history. “Ace” is the kind of single that most bands dream of being able to lead off a new album – it exemplifies all the best qualities of the band’s initial release, Destination Memphis, while showing continued growth in the band’s songwriting ability to impart more and more of themselves to their original songwriting. This is a critical distinction between The Johnny Mac Band and a number of other bands mining the dependable veins of blues, soul, R&B, and rock is that Johnny Mac and his creative partners bring something of themselves to each performance rather than relying on a variety of poses and clich├ęs that pander to the audience but offer them little more.
 
Johnny Mac’s guitar makes its presence increasingly felt throughout the duration of the song. He’s, initially, content to blend in and the song’s first quarter does an exceptionally strong job of establishing the tune’s primary elements before shifting into another gear after that. The steadily mounting musical intensity from the midway portion on makes this a more rewarding performance as it develops. Mac’s fluid talent for moving back and forth between unadorned blues guitar runs and scintillating slide guitar passages enriches the song even more and strikes just the right balance. It helps, of course, that Mac has such a powerful instrumental presence. He has that classic warm brown sound with a combined approach of attack and feel that will appeal to both longtime admirers of the style and newcomers alike.  The production certainly sets him up in the front of the mix, but it never depreciates the contributions from other musicians in the band. 
 
The lyrics are, likely, the weakest part of their package. This reflects more on the merits of the performance’s musical and vocal merits rather than reflective of any deep flaws with the words. Mac certainly makes the most of the metaphors a title like “Ace” makes available for him, but it’s never to such a degree that it sabotages the track. Predictability isn’t always a bad thing. It helps, naturally, that his emotive vocal gets these things over so artfully. The passion at play in the song, however, makes the words and music all the more meaningful. The mix of biting guitar, solid rhythm section play, and a powerhouse production highlighting all the song’s best qualities make this a great introduction to the band’s second album. The Johnny Mac Band have earned their stripes in a multitude of ways and songs like this serve notice that they are far from done. “Ace” hits listeners in the gut and keeps them entertained throughout the course of the song.  


Bradley Johnson

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Paul Childers - Naked Poetry

 
Paul Childers - Naked Poetry 


Sometimes you just know. It’s easy to get a sense that Paul Childers is meant for sticking around before the first song ends. He has such smooth assurance, such certainty about his delivery, and a sharp sense of what he wants to accomplish with each song. The thirteen songs on Naked Poetry are polished while still quite connected to visceral, engaged vocals that never sound one step removed from the experience of the song. Childers’ unusual command over sometimes complex material lacks any sense that Childers is uncomfortable and his effortless melodic and vocal glide through the individual performances is truly bracing to hear. His skills are obvious from the first, but they never threaten to overwhelm thanks to the artistry of his performances and the excellent production he receives is a big part of its appeal. Naked Poetry is a powerful statement to open a career and its resounding impact cuts across genre lines and makes it a wonderful listening experience.  
 
It will move many from the first. “Music Will Pull You Through” reflects an essential truth about Paul Childers’ art – even at its most serious, Childers’ songs never abandon hope entirely and believe brighter dawns are ahead with the help we have in our lives. The message in the opener isn’t new, but the single mindedness he shows in this performance gives it bracing urgency. “The Art of Being Twenty” doesn’t have quite the same sense of urgency, but it does strike a memorable groove, the second of many memorable grooves on this release, and Childers serves up a highly evocative vocal that vividly dramatizes the lyric. “Why Don’t You Stay” finds him taking his first swing on the album at an R&B ballad and the results are quite satisfying. There are few outright instrumental breaks on the album; this is a collection where the band genuinely plays as such rather than sounding like a group of soloists tossed together and chomping at their bit. When there are some brief instrumental spotlights, like on this song, they are quite memorable. 
 
“At Our Own Pace” shows a little sleight of hand. It seems to begin as a piano driven ballad, but soon shifts gears into a delicious mid-tempo saunter that oozes confidence. “My Love of the Rain” goes in a much different direction. It opens with classical overtones before transitioning into an exquisitely crafted ballad. It’s quite amazing to hear how much Childers does with such a seemingly simple emotion and love. Another of the finest pop moments on Naked Poetry comes with the effortless charm surrounding “No One Goes Dancing Anymore”. He has a real penchant for crafting top notches choruses that sweep listeners up into the song’s world and this is one of the album’s best examples of that serving the release so well. The singer/songwriter sensibility informing much of the album reaches another high point with the tracks “Perfect Man” and “Disclosure”. They are both moodier than most songs on Naked Poetry, but the latter is more so. One of the album’s best qualities is this sort of diversity. Paul Childers is rarely content to follow one route and the wide-open creative vision he shows makes this collection all the more memorable. 


Alonzo Evans

Jupiter in Velvet - In2 the Arms of Love

 
Jupiter in Velvet - In2 the Arms of Love 


It’s virtually impossible to not be excited about this album and music. Jupiter in Velvet delivers an action packed sixth release entitled In2 the Arms of Love and it’s the same formula that’s made his previous albums stand out refined just a little more than before. No one should mistake this for implying a creative rut. It is clear, instead, that Jupiter in Velvet raises the bar for himself with each successive release – challenging himself to dispatch his idiosyncratic material in a manner that proves compelling each time out. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Jupiter has a message crossing national and personal borders with its universal themes of love and togetherness. This isn’t a performer mired in self-pity and morbid self reflection. Jupiter in Velvet, instead, is connected with joy and life on every song. It makes for one of 2017’s greatest listening experiences to date.
 
Title tracks don’t always start albums and it’s worth noting it when they do. “In2 the Arms of Love” has an affirmative rush carrying listeners along from the first. Much of Jupiter in Velvet’s material has an upbeat attitude and few songs embody that better than this number. The second song on the album “’Till the End of the World” has a physical presence few other songs on In2 the Arms of Love possess. The guitar playing sounds like it is too Neanderthal, too simplistic to work but it’s precisely the reason why this song is so effective. The drumming matches its tribal energies and the two sonic elements, in tandem, become the song’s defining musical moments. “How It’s Gonna Be” has a distinctly different air thanks to its use of acoustic instruments, but electric guitar makes its presence felt here in a much more artful fashion. “Supercharged” does an one hundred eighty degree turn from the aforementioned song into some manic guitar pop with a restless rock and roll spirit thrashing away deep within. It really hits its stride with the chorus and Jupiter in Velvet proves capable of matching the song’s energy without a single lull in his performance.
 
The album’s second half concerns itself less with guitar and more with pop overtones. Few songs make this clearer than the track “Nowhere 2 Run”. The high point of the song is another fine chorus that rouses listener’s spirits. Other tracks in the album’s second half have a more broad based musical approach that doesn’t favor the guitar but, rather, incorporates it with the overall modern sound. The electronic, rock, and pop elements never sound like they are working at cross purposes. “Mars Ain’t That Far” leans more towards the rock side of the spectrum, but there’s some inventive keyboard work enlivening the song and sweetening its punky edge. “Bang On” is one of the most melodically strong songs on the album while still retaining enough guitar firepower to give the track gravitas. Jupiter in Velvet’s In2 the Arms of Love has musical unity and coherence we rarely hear these days and it’s without a doubt born from the artist’s total confidence in his aims. He succeeds here in a big way. 


Dale Butcher
 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

We the Dreamers

 
We the Dreamers 


We The Dreamers isn’t necessarily remaking the musical wheel, but they do provide an unique listening experience on the modern scene. Myke Wilken and Ethan Rose, respectively, comprise the lineup of this Southern California based outfit. Their songs engage listeners on a physical level while still pursuing lyrical goals usually far beyond the purview of pop music. The seven songs on their debut release are referred to as an EP, but they clearly reach far beyond that as a whole and have the sort of resonance we expect from the best music. We The Dreamers never over extend themselves throughout the course of these seven songs – instead, they embody their intellectual approach quite capable in their music and it results in one of 2017’s most memorable collections of music. Myke Wilken and Ethan Rose have accomplished much with this release and we can feel rest assured that more will be coming from their camp in time. 
 
The opening track “Crystal” gets the duo’s debut off to an immensely stylish beginning. Myke Wilken’s singing is ideal for We the Dreamers’ material. He has just the right balance of forcefulness and delicacy, never going too far to one side or the other, and his phrasing is outstanding throughout, Piano plays a big role in many of We The Dreamers songs and “Crystal” is no exception, but the influence that it exerts over the songs never makes them sound more formal. It gives them a more pronounced emotional quality because of the restraint that Wilken and Rose show incorporating it the instrument into their larger scheme. “Parasol” has a much more luxuriant feel despite a noticeable increase in tempo, but the more commercial edge it manifests never makes it seem like less of a song. Instead, this seems like a much more emotive turn than we customarily hear from these sorts of bands and partnerships, but it works anyway because of the dramatic heights this particular duo are able to achieve. 
 
“A Spark” takes listeners back to more artful territory than we’ve traveled over the first two songs. This is never an outright pop song or outright anything; instead, this has a command of melodic fundamentals while still having just the right amount of theatricality to distinguish itself from a mere musical performance. “Wiser” has Ethan Rose’s guitar playing factoring into the final results in a bigger way than we’ve heard so far, but the songwriting continues to stress over striking the right balance between the electronic, rock, and pop elements in We The Dreamers’ songwriting. They close the EP with the band’s songwriting masterpiece, thus far, “Time”. It is lyrically reminiscent of the earlier cut “Wsier”, but it reaches further than that cut and aims for a more ambitious swirl of various musical elements. We The Dreamers have scored big with their initial release and the talent here promises that future work from this duo will score on an even larger scale.  


Raymond Burris

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Alex Lopez – Slowdown


Alex Lopez – Slowdown 


Alex Lopez’s initial musical inspiration, The Beatles and British blues/rock bands, can still be heard in his music. He has, however, considerably transformed that inspiration over the course of three albums and this latest release, Slowdown, surely ranks as his most individual and successful work yet. It is a product of both his natural growth as a songwriter but, surely, the scores of live appearances he’s logged with his band the Xpress at major venues and festivals throughout the southeast. His style now owes much more to artists like Buddy Guy and B.B. King than Clapton and others of his ilk, but Lopez’s desire to tether his style to longstanding icons like those men should never indicate he is beholden to their playing. His guitar work, instead, clearly filters it through his experiences and subconscious into something that owes debts, but is ultimately uniquely his own.
 
He gets things off to an ass-kicking start with the wah-wah infused guitar fury of “Dangerous”. Lopez’s snarling licks come crashing through the mix and lightning strikes of flash elevate this performance several notches above the norm. He possesses the needed vocal grit to make this sort of exercise work out – there’s not a sliver of weakness in his singing. Hard-bitten blasts of slide come through on a number of songs but few of its uses have a better effect than those we hear on “The Wildlife” – it augments the song’s inherently hard charging nature and gives it an appealing rough and tumble quality. The title track is a bit more nuanced than the aforementioned tunes, but Lopez succeeds just as well with the simmering intensity he wraps around this track. Lopez has a knack for making personal statements through his songwriting in a musical style that rarely showcases such talents. His instrumental talents are considerable, but on more than half of this album or better, Lopez makes the case that he’s a songwriting deserving of our serious consideration as among the best today.  
 
There’s a strong and nice echo of Led Zeppelin’s blues posturing heard in the track “Words of Wisdom”, particularly on the chorus, and the guitar does an excellent job of slightly aping Page’s guitar heroics without ever lapsing into outright imitation. The first of the album’s shifts in mood comes with the song “Enough of It” – it’s a sleek, sinewy number that pulls back on the guitar’s reins just enough to produce a notably different effect. Though the tempo is a little amped up for the comparison, this song might pleasantly remind some of the Rolling Stones spiked with a dash of rockabilly. “Exodus/Long Long Time” is far and away the moodiest number on Slowdown. It begins with the brief first half, a waterfall of electric guitar clustered together claustrophobically, before dispersing into the jangling folk song gloom of the song’s second half. Lopez’s plaintive whine in his vocals is particularly effective here.  
 
“Stolen” is the album’s purest example of slow, gut wrenching guitar blues while its following track “I Love You, Blues” takes on a smokier nightclub flavor and doesn’t rely so much on six string theatrics. The album’s final song concludes Slowdown on an important note. “War Without a Face” is another personal effort on an album filled with such moments and clearly conveys his passion for the subject matter without ever overwhelming listeners. Alex Lopez’s talents have earned him spots on some of the nation’s biggest stages and, with the release of Slowdown, that trend is sure to continue.   


Frank McClure