Thursday, December 29, 2016

Little Diamonds - New Orleans Bound


Little Diamonds - New Orleans Bound 


Little Diamonds, since his 2010 recording debut, has received a flood of justified praise from critics and audiences alike. His modern take on traditional American music definitely works within the singer/songwriter vein and wears its influences on its sleeve, but he transmutes those traditions through his own strong personality and infuses the twelve songs on his second album with an unique identity. These aren’t merely tributes to old music or greater talents. This is the work of a young artist who has adopted an older form as a viable vehicle for self-expression. New Orleans Bound is a substantive musical work that hangs together without a single lull and has an across the board lyrical consistency. Despite his Minnesota upbringing, Little Diamonds can pull off a credible southern accent that invests the songs with some added atmosphere that never risks tackiness.

There are two full band songs on the album. The first, “12-12-12”, is a humorous yarn about the end of the world seemingly manifesting itself in a variety of ways and the narrator’s bemused contending with it all. Little Diamonds handles finding his place amid the added instrumentation with sure instincts and knows just how to pitch his voice against the other players. The drums present in this song really make a difference and give the song a shape that the solo numbers lack. The album’s second full band track, the title song, is the broadest number musically. Little Diamonds brings a jazzy influence, via the Big Easy, to bear on the arrangement and it creates a dramatic contrast with the steel guitars present in the song. Little Diamonds sounds genuinely inspired to be singing against this backing track and his voice jumps with the same liveliness he puts into the songwriting.  

The remainder of the album is divided between solo performances featuring Diamonds, his acoustic guitar work, and occasional harmonica sitting alongside other performances that normally feature fiddle in accompaniment with occasional fills from other stringed instruments. The opening tandem of “I Don’t Know About You” and “Never Met You at All” sound like pages ripped from the autobiography of bad relationships and Diamonds gives great performances on both songs that never play their somewhat bitter lyrical content with too heavy of a hand. “Lord, Come Down” is one of the strongest solo performances thanks to the intense lyrical clarity and the focus Little Diamonds brings to both his playing and vocal performance.  

Two of the most important songs on New Orleans Bound are character studies. “Duluth Grandma” and “Old Man Al” are supremely detailed distillations of character and highlight Diamonds’ storytelling abilities. The musical backing on both of these songs is written cognizant of the importance of the words, but they aren’t merely ornamental. The former song has particularly melodic guitar work. New Orleans Bound is one of the best traditional albums to emerge from the Americana scene in recent memory and deserves a wide audience. Little Diamonds is a multi-faceted talent who will only continue growing from here.  

9 out of 10 stars 


Michael Saulman
 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Erica Sunshine Lee – Elixir


Erica Sunshine Lee – Elixir 


If listeners expect Erica Sunshine Lee to be slowing down after seven albums, they are quite mistaken. Her seventh studio release Elixir is a fifteen song set that finds her as inspired and committed to great music as ever before. Her voice has an imposing amount of gusto on every song and it isn’t difficult to imagine her wanting to slump into a deep chair and rest, covered in sweat, after every performance. This sort of commitment to getting a song across to the audience and communicating isn’t easy to find in the modern landscape. Erica Sunshine Lee sounds like she is with every word on Elixir and, regardless if she’s singing about Jesus or drinking, she brings a tremendous amount of passion to bear and more than a little musicality. The result is a collection that’s sure to entertain longtime fans of the genre, but likewise will reach across the musical boundaries and draw fans into the music who might not otherwise listen to country or its rock influenced variations.  

The album’s first song, “Shut Up Heart”, carries some of that rock and roll spirit, but it’s predominantly country in approach. It isn’t entirely accurate to cite this as a example of the current school of thought in favor with the genre, but it definitely wouldn’t sound like a poor fit in a radio playlist focusing on that style. The second track “The Bottle Ain’t Enough” is a brawling track full of loud electric guitars, a big chorus, and an unabashed depiction of longing that no amount of liquor can quell. The first muted moment on the album comes with the track “Karma” and there’s some storytelling and comedic aspects to her songwriting talents that get an entertaining work out here. Elixir’s first big peak comes with the piano driven ballad “My Favorite Word” and the impassioned vocal Lee brings to the instrumental track helps push it to even greater heights. She may rely on a number of familiar things in the country genre, but she handles these devices with such creativity and artfulness that you’ll easily forgive her taking place in a long tradition.  

“Medicated” is the sort of damn the torpedoes, honest as a heart attack rocker with country flavor that few artists of any ilk have the nerve to tackle nowadays. Erica Sunshine Lee tears into the lyric completely and gloriously oblivious to its similarity with a half dozen other songs, at least, and you end up loving her for the devil may care attitude rather quickly. The fatalistic edge characterizing songs like this disappears on the bitter reflection of “Pills and Booze” – it’s the hand shaking aftermath of Sunday morning and the realization that something else has taken control of your life. She, appropriately, turns the songwriting in a spiritual direction on the tune immediately following it. “Jesus and Georgia” is a song, at its heart, that’s about connections and how the abiding ones in our life are invariably those that most clearly define us. “Mustard Seed” deals with spiritual matters as well, but its thrust is more in the direction of testimony and it pulls that off without ever sounding pretentious or hamfisted.  Elixir has a lot of different faces, musically and lyrically, and a vocalist at its heart who is capable of tackling any sort of tune. It might run a little long for some, but there’s never a second of it that falls flat.  

9 out of 10 stars 


David Shouse

Thursday, December 22, 2016

StonerPop - Self titled


StonerPop - Self titled  


Electro pop often takes an unbalanced approach. The artists in the genre frequently place more importance on their keyboards and synthesizers and reduce the important role vocals and lyrics can play to something akin to an afterthought tacked on for consumers. StonerPop doesn’t follow this logic. The five songs on their debut EP aim to provide listeners with an involving musical and lyrical experience. Vocalist and co-songwriter Maudie Michelle gives her audience a variety of “looks” over the course of her four singing performances and the different poses she strikes never ring false. She proves herself quite capable of holding up her end of each cut she’s featured on. Her artistic cohort Jimmie Maneuva contributes occasional vocals, but his musical arrangements are crucial for giving Michelle an attention holding platform for her to stretch her talents. 

She keeps her vocal presence on the first song “Preachers” every bit as understated as her musical accompaniment. There’s a lot of space in a song like this and some passages literally drop out of nowhere, with little preamble, exert their influence over the song, then disappear just as quickly. It isn’t an arbitrary thing, however. It becomes apparent rather quickly that there is a definable structure to the song that’s quite inventive, referencing the familiar while still delivering the unexpected. The duo dials the intensity up a few notches on the second song “Running”. Maneuva’s musical contributions invoke the song title artfully and there’s just the right amount of post production effects to give this a pleasing theatrical turn. The song is a little more packed with musical action than the opener, but StonerPop shows off here the same talent for orchestrating the elements of electro pop in mature, artistically useful ways. “You’re Never Listening (Get Over Yourself)” has a lot of the attitude detectable in its title, but StonerPop is never obvious about it. They opt, instead, for giving shape to those emotions with sharply defined synth lines and the right amount of ambient sound effects to hang omnipresent over the audience. This song and the one preceding are, far and away, the most intense musical turns StonerPop take on the EP and reflect their songwriting at its most challenging thus far. 

They finish their debut up with much more optimistic, cheerful fare. “Monsters” has a rather dramatic lyric exploring childhood memories and other themes, but it is a much more elegiac and approachable song musically than its lyrics would suggest. Michelle definitely gives listeners her most impassioned vocal performance yet, but it isn’t any sort of hollow pyrotechnic display – the most satisfying thing about her singing on this track is the obvious attention she pays to every line. The final song “Fox” has an even more pronounced commercial edge, but it never quite crosses over thanks to the sometimes fragmented nature of StonerPop’s often lovely melodies. They do what any great musical unit should do – filter their influences through their own personalities and create stylistically distinctive work that no one will mistake for anyone else. StonerPop have accomplished that five songs into their career and can now start work on expanding the scope of their achievement even further. 

9 out of 10 stars 


Joshua Stryde

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Jesse Eplan – Dreams


Jesse Eplan – Dreams 


Jesse Eplan identifies his particular style of music as “rop” – a personal anagram of his R&B, rap, hip hop, and pop influences that come together on every track with a signature feel that no one else can claim as their own. His musical trip commenced at seven years old with the discovering of bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin who inspired him to pick up a musical instrument for the first time. Eplan soon discovered he possessed the unique ability to master any instrument he picked up and this continued to be the case as Eplan further spread his wings and applied himself to instruments like guitar and bass. One of the most important discoveries he made, his talent for perfect pitch, has helped set his musical endeavors apart from most because Eplan has the ability to make a deep impact as a solo artist despite relishing a desire to collaborate with others. The avowed guiding principle, however, behind Eplan’s art comes through in every minute of the song – he delivers an inspired performance intent on inspiring his audience. “Dreams” fits the bill quite nicely.  

The backing track is solidly R&B from the outset. It achieves a great groove despite the electronic instruments thinks to how tightly its wound the arrangement is while still retaining a stylish and tasteful push. Some might long for more definitive percussion, perhaps even live drums, but the electronic percussion still sets a tone along with the scattered fat bass notes. The keys and synth lines fill the song with a lot of color as well without ever descending into the mechanical lifelessness so prevalent in electronica. 

Much of what gives it that life is Eplan’s vocal. He shows a lot of patience here as a singer and the phrasing has variety and subtle turns that engages his target audience. Eplan seems to look within, smirk, and turn his eyes downward throughout the entirety of the performance, but he gives a variety of emotional looks to the listener that make this quite a memorable outing. There isn’t a single needless word in the lyrical content and not one wasted moment in the vocal melody. Lyrics should serve the song first and foremost without regard to their ability to stand on their own and “Dreams” is no exception. The words are a perfect fit for the musical arrangement and Eplan knows where to place them for maximum effect. 

Eplan’s forays into the musical world have gained him an immense amount of attention and efforts like this ensure that attention will only expand. As he gathers momentum, Eplan has gathered a team around him to help highlight his talents and push him to the next level faster than ever before. “Dreams” is a profoundly personal work that provides a high entertainment value for fans of the genre and has such great quality that it is quite capable of winning over even people who normally don’t flock to this musical style.  


Montey Zike

Friday, December 16, 2016

Big Tribe - In This Together


Big Tribe - In This Together 


Second albums pose all sorts of difficulties. Does a band double down on what made the debut work so well, do they expand their creative horizons, or is it advisable to find some sort of middle ground between those two options? Big Tribe opts for the latter choice and it pays off on their sophomore release In This Together. Peter Panyon and his band mates Bonnie Eyler and Joe Heutte sound comfortable on every song, but the dozen songs on this release also find them pushing their creativity in often thrilling new directions. This is songwriting that’s not bound by any set rules or expectations and, working with that sort of personal freedom, it never strikes a false note even on the lesser compositions. Instead, no matter where their creative focus falls on a particular song, Big Tribe sounds confident and makes full use of their skill set within the context of each track.  

“Martha” is a fine way to begin the album and lets listeners know that this is far from business as usual. The lyrical content is open to multiple possible interpretations, but there’s a clarity here that allows various takes thanks to the specific details that Paynon works into his lyrics. The song certainly hints at a strong Dylan influence, but there isn’t an arbitrary line in the whole song – everything has a purpose rather than just a writer groping for a rhyme. The album’s quasi title song, “All in This Together”, marries rich vocal harmonies with a rock rhythm section that grabs listeners by the lapel and shakes them hard. Panyon’s distinctive vocals are in the lead role on this track, like the opener, and give it a character and tone that sets the band’s music apart from similar efforts in the field. Bonnie Eyler’s voice steps out for the first time, solo, on the song “10,000 Years”. This is one of the underrated gems of the album and the acoustic, low volume arrangement really gives the focus over to her beautiful voice. The writing, likewise, defies easy categorization – this is a song about many things, possibly, and it’s to songwriter Peter Panyon’s credit that its meaning isn’t easily parsed or pinned down. 

“The Final Boat Out” is another of the album’s best tracks thanks to its coupling of singer/songwriter, slightly folky, musical textures with shots of pure rock guitar bubbling out of the mix. The lyrics might remind some, thematically, of the first track, but Panyon takes this in a much stronger direction than we heard in “Martha”. “How the Mind Wanders” finds Eyler delivering what’s arguably the album’s most attention-grabbing vocal. This is thanks, in no small part, to the exceptional lyric that sounds like something Panyon lived through, perhaps numerous times, rather than some imaginative exercise. The album’s longest track, “Just a Boy”, has Eyler and Panyon alternating lead vocals to a spectacularly inviting effect. This is one of the warmest songs on the album and, despite covering familiar ground in terms of subject, it has its own take on the matter quite unlike other bands working in this vein. In This Together closes with a bit of a jokey, albeit quite affection, song entitled “The Boys of Autumn”. It’s a clever ode to Panyon’s love for baseball and the warmth and regard with which he holds the game comes through in a playful way. Big Tribe shows listeners a variety of musical faces on this release and they all hang together with coherence and musical quality. In This Together is a great follow up to their debut and sets the stage for Big Tribe’s continued evolution in the years to come. 

9 out of 10 stars 


Scott Wigley 

The Cavalry - Build Your Own Empire

 
The Cavalry - Build Your Own Empire

Nashville Rock, a mix of bluesy Southern Rock poses coupled with pop inclination and a assortment of traditional country tropes, has been one of the major commercial movers in the music industry over the last decade. The tide shows no signs of abetting, but we’ve fortunately been blessed to encounter a number of talented vocalists, songwriters, and bands who have enough artistry to elevate AOR radio’s natural heir far above their commercial level and closer to something resembling anthem-inclined high pop. The production on efforts such as this is usually top notch and Build Your Own Empire is no exception. The Cavalry’s first recording is a five song collection that, in turns, highlights songwriter and singer Tristan Jackson’s talents in each of the genre’s styles. He’s a full-throated rock singer, nuanced balladeer, and melodic performer who carries enough charisma that inhabiting any track isn’t much of a challenge. The band is largely a one-man affair, but Jackson shows the astute sense to surround himself with a capable cast of collaborators and co-writers.  
 
“Don’t Mean You’re Gone” is the album’s first full song and completely embodies The Cavalry’s approach to Nashville Rock. There are a number of guitar fills with considerable bite that enliven the track while the muscular drumming sets an authoritative tone that dramatically contrasts with the melodic virtues. The genre requires a bit of a musical balancing act that The Cavalry pulls off extraordinarily well. “Wake Up Call” has a ethereal mid-tempo lift and abundant vocal harmonies, but shares a lot with the other songs on this release. The instrumentation takes a resolutely compositional approach to song creation; each part dovetails into the next and no one player ever takes center stage for a self-indulgent display of their virtuosity. Another highly stylized track is “When the Radio’s Gone”, but it is clear that if there are two songs aimed almost exclusively for radio play it’s this and the EP’s last cut. “When the Radio’s Gone” gains much of its impetus from how the song smartly manipulates its tempo at just the right moments and, once again, from musicians’ far more in tune with when not to play rather than weighing down the song with needless fat. 
 
The concluding song, “Red, White, and Blue Jeans”, is pure Nashville Rock that takes aim for radio play and will likely score it in abundance. Naturally, given its title, the song has a much more anthem-like sound than those preceding it, but it never descends into cheesiness and over-exertion to achieve its effects. This final song on Build Your Own Empire is an emphatic exclamation point on the album as a whole and shows that Tristan Jackson, as The Cavalry, is operating on a different level altogether than many of his contemporaries. This is as good as an debut EP as anyone, any genre, has a right to expect. It is abundantly clear that Jackson entered the studio with a solid vision for what he wanted to achieve and he, along with the aid of his collaborators, hits all of his marks with room to spare. 
9 out of 10 stars
 
Aaron Ellis 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Uncle Frank – Fountains


Uncle Frank – Fountains 


Produced by the Uncle Frank Band and mixed by award winning mixer and producer Tim Latham, renowned for his work with A Tribe Called Quest and The Rolling Stones among others, the first single from Uncle Frank’s second album has hit and promises to build enormous anticipation for its upcoming release. “Fountains” is a clear evolution for the band over the fantastic songs on their 2015 debut Maximum Respect. This is a band who clearly knows that the best dance pop is constructed around solid grooves and it will be difficult for any listener, even those not fond of this genre, to not find themselves physically inspired by this song. There isn’t one wasted note in the entire track. Instead, the song comes out swinging and romping and Frank Benbini, the band’s namesake, commands attention with his stylish and musically attuned vocals.  

It is far more than just some vacant dance pop number about having a good time. This song has a definite message that the lyrics clearly express and will strike some listeners as more akin to singer/songwriter oriented material. The music might have persistent intensity from beginning to end, but the lyric has an uniquely optimistic turn despite the fact that the singer clearly regards himself as someone facing obstacles in life. The opening line refers to the world as a madhouse, but the remainder of the song poses all sorts of ways how the listener and singer alike might escape that pressure. The great themes of transcendence and redemption have always been a big part of what makes some of the best pop music work and, in the hands of these superior musicians and songwriters, “Fountains” is sure to become one of the more memorable entries in recent memory touching on those concerns.  

Benbini’s time as part of the band Fun Lovin’ Criminals means he is an experienced singer with tremendous technique and personality that adds a lot to the band’s material. He never pushes the envelope too hard and, instead, relies on a tasteful approach that still swings every bit as much as the massive rhythm section grooving behind him. The song runs just over two and half minutes long but it plays like a complete experience and Benbini takes control of the allotted sonic space in a way few performers working in this mode are capable of. His collaborators, including producer/guitarist Naim Cortazzi, bassist Luke Bryan, drummer Junior Benbini, and keyboardist Jay Lynz are a huge part of why this song so completely succeeds, but its chances of reaching the desired audience ultimately rests on Frank’s broad shoulders. He’s quite up to the task. “Fountains” is an extraordinarily, multi-faceted offering from a band capable of endless invention and they will likely continue on this upwards trajectory for some time to come. Get ready world because, for fans of this type of pop, 2017 will get off to quite a memorable start thanks to Uncle Frank and his cohorts.  


Lance Wright

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Magic Music - Self titled


Magic Music - Self titled 


Magic Music’s original run ended in 1976 before the band even recorded an album. Nearly forty years would pass before the opportunity to do would present itself again to these Colorado based musicians. By that point, the musical world had changed multiple times over and the style that had fallen out of favor by the time of their mid seventies breakup now occupies a comfortable and secure niche in the American songscape. Their debut album Magic Music is a seventeen song release that puts its foot in every style of traditional American music and never loses its balance once. Unlike many other retro performers, Magic Music’s style never seems forced or too studied. These songs seem like a natural and effortless expression of the experiences that go into the songwriting and they show outstanding technique as well. Each of the songs, even the instrumentals, don’t waste a single word or note trying to convey themselves to the audience.

Few songs make that more apparent than the opener. “Bring Down the Morning” is a brilliant modern folk song that’s never too precious or affected; it seems like an intensely sincere accounting of the speaker’s yearning and the poetic touches littering the song give it real added verve. “Bright Sun Bright Rain” pushes much harder against the listener and has an almost rock song like urgency without any of the histrionics. The lilting opening of “The Porcupine Flats Shuffle” shifts tempo slightly as it goes further in the song but it never turns into a full fledged shuffle as the title implies. It tumbles out, instead, with a slightly staggered pulse that’s quite pleasing all the while. The overlapping musical lines opening “Gandy Dancer” coalesce into another quasi-shuffle peppered with tasteful melodic splashes. The vocals are handled in harmony for much of the song with occasional changes and the instrumental breaks are kept relatively brief in comparison to the surrounding songs.  

There’s a gradual growth in the instrumentation of “Carolina Wind”. It begins with an almost skeletal melody and Magic Music shows great patience in developing it for the listeners. “The Flatbush Jig” is a brief instrumental with a haunting quality that seems to waft into form rather than emerging fully fleshed out. Acoustic guitar is the primary musical mover on “Eldorado Canyon” and lays out a very deliberate melody in the introduction. It shifts into a much more fluid mode for the verses but the understatement remains the same. There’s much more of a solo vocal at work here than the abundance of harmonies heard in other songs and it gives it a different sort of quality. There’s a strong blues influence in the later songs “Country” and “Better Days”, but much like the band does with other styles, they opt for artfully invoking its tropes rather than leaning too heavily on clich├ęs. Much of the men behind these songs emerges through their art and helps all of the songs on this debut sound like no one else could have written or recorded them.  

9 out of 10 stars


Charles Hatton

Friday, November 25, 2016

RedBelt - Beautiful Surround

 
RedBelt - Beautiful Surround 


Milwaukee has been a hub for rock music for many decades, a popular stop for major and minor touring acts, and remains a bastion for the form in uncertain times. The latest exponent of the city’s rock community, a four piece outfit named RedBelt, has debuted with a thirteen song collection entitled Beautiful Surround. The band has an obvious propensity for melodic punk rock, but they don’t restrict themselves to pursuing one avenue exclusively. Instead, they adeptly blend the punk rock influences in their music with generous portions of classic rock, pop melodies, and three part vocal harmonies that often raise the songs up a whole other notch. The album has few points that can referred to as a manifestation of pure punk rock – Mike Mann’s lead guitar work is clearly too sophisticated for such labels – but it makes excellent use of the genre.  

“Crossed Wires” perfectly illustrates that last point. The track is a romping musical thrill ride, but there’s moments scattered throughout the track when Mann’s lead guitar bursts from the mix and forces the track to take on a distinctly different tenor. The punk influences recede on the second track, “American Mercy”, in favor of a more singer/songwriter sensibility. This isn’t some sensitive, aching examination of American life, however; there’s just a little more lyrical depth here and a more carefully phrased vocal compared to the first track. “Shoot It All the Time” is much more an out and out classic rock tune. The presence of rhythm guitarist Kevin Brown’s acoustic running through deep in the mix combined with Mann’s fiery slide guitar makes this stand out from a crowded pack of excellent songs. 

It pairs nicely with the title song. The segue from such a resolutely classic rock themed number into a more detailed, layered alternative rock inspired title song. Brown adjusts his vocal accordingly and shows much more of an ear for slowly developing melodies for voice that enriches this song immeasurably. “Sweet Release”, however, doesn’t care for developing anything slowly or patiently. This is one of the purest shots of tough-minded punk rock on the album and has an almost claustrophobic level of intensity. “Cold” finds them shifting gears again. It retains the same wide-eyed enthusiasm of the earlier song, but the guitars are turned to work in a much more pop-oriented direction and empathizes melody over power. The vocal melody is particularly catchy. 

“Throw Away” joins “Sweet Release” as one of the album’s hardest hitting punk cuts. There’s much more art here, however, than attitude and Brown’s vocal far outstrips his efforts on the aforementioned earlier track. The concluding number on Beautiful Surround, “Hard Light”, is a stylistic turn that no one will expect. The guitar work is much more restrained here and, instead, RedBelt relies much more on their talented rhythm section to carry the musical day. It affixes an exclamation point to the end of Beautiful Surround; perhaps not one that the listener expects, but it’s nonetheless quite an effective ending.  

9 out of 10 stars 


David Shouse

Jemima James - When You Get Old


Jemima James - When You Get Old 


Released with her long-shelved debut album At Longview Farm, Jemima James’ When You Get Old is her most recent recording and finds her talents greater than ever after three plus decades away from recording new music. Her folk music roots, naturally, are the driving force behind the songwriting on When You Get Old, but everything is likewise firmly rooted in melody and strong lyrical detail. She has the natural inclinations of a storyteller and a pitch perfect interior ear for finding just the right image for her subject without ever slipping into overwrought writing or overly theatrical delivery. Instead, the thirteen songs on When You Get Old sound well “lived in”, finely tuned for maximum effect, and guided by a knowing artistic hand that brings just the right amount of creativity and force to the individual efforts without ever upsetting the artistic balance that has given birth to this album.  

The album opens with its charming and well written title track. “When You Get Old” takes a different approach to writing about the effects of aging by assuming a wry, slightly humorous stand, but nonetheless incorporating a more serious subtext to the song as a whole. “Magician” slides out of the speakers with lovely, sleepy grace. The lyrical content is perfectly realized – James takes full literary advantage of the double-meanings and metaphors implicit in the subject matter and it all works. “Beaver Moon” has a similar musical bent to the preceding track, but the lyrical content looks outside instead of within and there isn’t the same mournful undertow affecting the song’s mood as there is on “Magician”.  

“If I Could Only Fly” is different from the preceding songs in one critical way – though James is accompanied by other instruments, their prominence in the mix is much lower here than any previous track. This is predominantly a solo performance carried by nothing else except James’ acoustic guitar and her voice. Some strong, yet tasteful, drumming powers much of “If It’s the End”, but there’s a little light dark humor in the lyrical content that tempers the more serious implications hinted at by the lyric. The instrumental breaks are quite tasty, particularly the slide guitar work. She downshifts from the mid-tempo pace of that song into the slower, much more patience unwinding style of “Bats in the Belfry”. The muted musical accompaniment places James’ voice front and center.

“Tennessee Blues” can’t help but make me think a little about the classic country track “Tennessee Waltz” and the song even seems to hint at that with the light waltz twist of its arrangement. James’ vocal wraps around the melody in a very appealing way. The harmonica work gives listeners the biggest dose of blues in this track and hits its mark quite nicely. The fiddle filling “Slow Dancing With You” is a perfect touch for this slightly elegiac and outright romantic track. Much of James’ lyrics concentrate on forming images for the listener, but the imagery is never inaccessible. The album’s final song, “Nothing New”, is the clearest solo performance on the entire disc and balances its array of emotions quite nicely thanks to a James vocal that never leans too far in any particular direction. There’s an impressive unity to this album; When You Get Old is full of subtle shadings, emotion, and great musical fluency. 

9 out of 10 stars. 

Gilbert Mullis

Martin X. Petz - Broken Man


Martin X. Petz - Broken Man 


The latest full length release from Detroit native Martin X. Petz, Broken Man, is another fine work from a singer/songwriter who’s prodigious output in recent years is marked, among other things, by the uniformly high level of the material. Some experienced with his work might lump him into the contemporary Christian category, but they couldn’t be any further off. There’s no question that this album, as well as previous efforts, touches upon concerns about maintaining spiritual faith in an often faithless world. Other songs, however, look outside the micro and appreciate people’s trials and the effect it has on them. Petz has a real talent for characterization and adopting different voices through his lyrics. These thematic variations all point back to one central truth about him as an artist and performer – he wants nothing more than to communicate with his songs and the unvarnished simplicity and willingness to engage that each of them demonstrate is impossible to deny. 

“Broken Man”, the title song, is unlike any other song on the album. The loping bass groove established in the opening seconds continues throughout and there’s some top notch electric guitar work that further enlivens the song. He shifts into a more familiar gear on the album’s second track “Noble Blues” and will win over a lot of new listeners with his confident roots rock approach that never gets too brash for its own good. The lyrical content is a perfect illustration of the ability he has with drawing characters mentioned earlier in the review. A few songs on Broken Man adopt a largely acoustic approach and the first, “Fall”, is an intimate track that will move many emotionally. Petz’s acoustic guitar work is never fancy for the wrong reasons and, instead, concentrates on fleshing the melody out to its fullest potential.  

The pensive tempo and tasteful electric guitar that carries the bulk of “Castaway” helps set it apart as one of the finest crafted songs on the album. The sound and approach of the arrangement suggests that Petz took a great deal of time to make sure he got this song right; he coaxes it out with delicacy and a careful take on its lyrics that emphasizes the emotion behind the song. There’s a slight Tex-Mex feel to the musically saucy track “Run Ride Leave” that gives it a different color than earlier songs. Petz’s lyrics are a little regretful, but ultimately forgiving. The album’s second to last song “They Say (You’ll Know)” seems geared a little towards possible radio play and, if so, it’s certainly well-fitted to achieve that kind of success. Few songs on Broken Man are melodically stronger or quite as likeable overall.  

Broken Man works nicely from beginning to end and makes a deep impact without ever being overly ambitious. Petz picks his spots however; there’s a number of influences easily spotted in the music but, overall, he shows a willingness to follow his own musical path and has the skill to pull it off.  

9 out of 10 stars. 


Dale Butcher

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Django Mack - ‘Round Christmas


Django Mack - ‘Round Christmas


Performers like Django Mack promise to be among the rare performers tackling traditional popular music who may be capable of bringing something lasting to the genre while remaining faithful to its formulas. The only route to making this happen is through lyrics but, predominantly, the charisma of the songwriter/performer. Mack sings with sound and character that blues fans will certainly embrace, but it isn’t merely some overly dramatic bucket of blood nonsense despite the dirt and gravel in his voice. The two latest releases from Mack, the single “’Round Christmas” and its bonus track “Big Black Dog”, finds him fixed in on the goal of embodying the characters behind each song and doing a bravura job of it. This is exactly the sort of artists that this style of music needs to continue getting heard in our increasingly narrow world.  

His voice is, arguably, the most memorable quality of “’Round Christmas”. Mack’s speaker is a character locked in primal doubt, stripped of all comfort, and afraid to confront the future and his vocal spares no expense in getting us to believe that. It’s this sort of commitment that makes him special. The band turns in a stellar performance with a patient backbeat that brings the song to its peaks with great care while sparkling and often echo-laden guitar thickens the mood. This isn’t a light-hearted tribute to the season. Django Mack wanted to write a song exploring the theme in a different way and really hits it out of the park with the musical and vocal content. 

The words are, likewise, quite memorable. There are a handful of surprising rhymes placed in the song that are really quite bracing and natural. Any lyricist who can write an intelligent, lucid text that doesn’t seem like a bunch of individual lines sewn together deserves notice, but his skills are a step above that. 

“Big Black Dog” pops and rolls with woozy and bluesy rambunctiousness. Django Mack commands this track with every ounce of the authority he brought to bear on “’Round Christmas”, but he manifests it in a different way. Instead of playing up the comedic aspects of the lyric, Mack’s delivery is steady but low-key and never overemphasizes the song’s sad sack humor. The piano really drives things hard and takes off even faster with its brief instrumental breaks. The lyric is much simpler than its counterpart on the single, but there’s still the same guiding intelligence that saves this from sounding like a rote rework.  

Django Mack’s music will, undoubtedly, continue gaining a wider and wider audience. Tracks like “’Round Christmas” and its companion track will guarantee that. He has style to burn, but there’s genuine musical and lyrical substance between his compelling turns on each of these tracks. It’s equally for sure that he hasn’t even come close to his peak and will continue growing from here into, potentially, one of the transformative figures that the genre has needed for a number of years.  


Scott Wigley

Kelly McGrath - You and Me Today


Kelly McGrath - You and Me Today 


Kelly McGrath’s first single “You and Me Today” from her forthcoming fourth studio album is a clear illustration of how this singer’s prodigious vocal and songwriting skills are in full flower. This is the first taste of a follow up years in the making to her last full length release Heartstrings. The album produced a hit single for McGrath entitled “One Foot in Front of the Other” and propelled an extensive radio station tour that saw McGrath traversing the nation in order to spread her art. The success of Heartstrings and her tireless self-promotion resulted in McGrath amassing a larger following than ever before. She reaches for her highest pinnacle yet on “You and Me Today” thanks to her courage in looking over an event that must rank as one of life’s most painful lessons yet – the death of a parent. Mortality isn’t typically good pop song fodder, but McGrath turns her trauma into the highest art with sincerity, technique, and grace.  

McGrath’s singing has invited comparisons to a variety of female icons, namely Janis Joplin, but her range is far wider and the complements fail to do her justice. McGrath’s versatility takes its more startling form not from her lung power but, instead, the combination of her phrasing and vocal strength. She knows how to utilize her dynamics to their fullest potential while still possessing enough control over her voice to modulate its effects as needed. She is likewise particularly skillful at meshing her voice with the arrangement in such a way that it becomes a duet, as it should be, between her and the accompanying musicians. Many singers, men and women alike, take over songs with their ego or craving for the spotlight and it undermines the potential in a performance. McGrath wisely avoids such pitfalls.

The lyrics are very straight-forward without ever being too obvious. There’s a good mix of the personal and general, but the real accomplishment of her writing lies in its underrated literary qualities. These manifest themselves as a talent for making the intensely personal into something resonant, universal, by incorporating the right significant details into the lyric. Her phrasing wreathes these words with an additional dramatic quality, but as before, she never has pushes too hard to achieve those effects. Her fine text for the song matches the vocal melody quite well and more than carries their weight with its unflinching depiction of grief. 

The rhythm section is quite powerful and provides “You and Me Today” with the necessary ballast, but it’s the evocative acoustic guitar work that provides the track with much of its melodic punch. This is really quite a well-rounded song with no discernible flaws. Its release is a clear sign that the long wait for Kelly McGrath’s next album has always been well worth the time and our patience will be handsomely rewarded. This is a song of rare distinction from an even rarer performer.  


William Elgin III

Friday, November 18, 2016

Jemima James - At Longview Farm

 
Jemima James - At Longview Farm 


1979 certainly wasn’t the time for this album to come out. Jemima James faced the unenviable timing of debuting during a period when the value of singer/songwriters and folk-influenced performers couldn’t have been at a lower commercial ebb. Her talents, as exhibited on the ten song release At Longview Farm, are the equal of many of her much more famous peers of the era and At Longview Farm is a complete listening experience that touches on many American musical influences without ever ceding dominance to one particular style. She is surrounded by a top shelf supporting cast of musicians who know just what to add to her songs and when to temper their talents. James has a fantastic voice for the material and it’s full of nuance that helps her realize the dramatic potential of the arrangements and lyrical content alike. The album is immaculately produced – the often layered performances never sound cluttered and are juxtaposed perfectly against James’ vocal.

The song “Sensible Shoes” is an unique and understated fusion of a few musical styles. Jemima James the folk performer is visible and audible throughout, but there’s also a sharp commercial edge on this song with its chorus and other attributes that will reappear from time to time throughout the course of the album. The vocals are quite exceptional throughout and the elegant simplicity of the musical accompaniment is a perfect match for them. “Easy Come, Easy Go” continues with the commercial standard established by the opener, but it is a much more natural sounding track. It plays more like the result of a loose, good natured jam rather than a structured arrangement and it’s a testament to the skill level of the players involved that they can achieve that sort of atmosphere while keeping the performance disciplined and inspired. “Esperate” brings a slightly more exotic feel than the other songs, but it isn’t some overwrought stab into an uncomfortable style. James’ versatility is impressive and she glides vocally through the track with free-flowing, relaxed strength.  

“Book Me Back in Your Dreams” is one of the most interesting pieces of songwriting on the album and, surprisingly, one of the most traditionally minded efforts as well. The inclusion of instruments like steel guitar and harmonica isn’t unique, but they do give this song its own distinctive musical voice. “One More Rodeo” will reminds most listeners of songs like the opener and “Easy Come, Easy Go”, but it’s the best of the album’s more commercial tracks thanks to its compression and perfect unity of vocals, lyrics, and musical content. The second to last song on the album, “Billy Baloo”, features two lead vocals, but it’s by far the most rousing singing that she does on this album.  

Jemima James’ album At Longview Farm has found an ideal time and avenue for its emergence. Team Love Records has demonstrated a commitment to promoting and releasing some of the most interesting music coming out today and shining a light on some forgotten corners and performers of our time. This ten song collection stands proudly among the label’s other releases and will likely stand the test of time. 

9 out of 10 stars. 


Michael Saulman

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Leo Harmonay - The Blink of an Eye

 
Leo Harmonay - The Blink of an Eye


Leo Harmonay’s first album, Somewhere Over the Hudson, served notice that a talented new singer/songwriter in the folk tradition had emerged with a wide command of the genre and different ideas about how to manifest its traditions in engaging, modern ways. He isn’t a strict purist and both the drumming and guitar work on the album reflects his willingness to think outside the norm and bring new textures into the music. His second album The Blink of an Eye features eleven tracks that reaffirm the virtues of the genre while still reflecting Harmonay’s personal ambitions and musical excellence. He has the unique ability, certainly not shared by every performer in the field, for bringing these retro sounds into a modern context and making it work without much apparent effort.
The songs on this new album are either folk or blues in approach with stylistic deviations that set them apart from run of the mill efforts in this genre. Songs like “Up to You” and “Gone Are the Days” are the album’s clearest excursions into the blues genre and they work exceptionally well. The reason for their success, however, isn’t because Harmonay hits all of the expected blues notes. Instead, it’s because he takes the form and, instead of cutting a tribute with his songwriting credit attached, he tries to use it as a genuine vehicle for self-expression while never strictly serving up what the listener expects. A small handful of songs are cut from a purist folk cloth. The earliest of these, “River Dancer”, doesn’t flow as freely as some of the later attempts, but it’s probably the strongest lyrically. “Wounds of Love” and “Dirty River Town” have familiar elements, both musically and lyrically, but the mechanics of each performance are so vividly rendered that it redeems any flaw. Harmonay’s vocal tops off both of these aforementioned songs with its unsparing musicality, lively phrasing, and gusto.  
The remainder of the songs features varying blends of Harmonay’s styles and show across the board creativity that manifests itself in different ways each time. “In the Morning Light” is one of the album’s most striking moments thanks to the use of electric guitar. Rather than attacking the song conventionally, Harmonay uses the instrument for atmosphere and it gives considerable teeth to one of the album’s more brooding moments.  One of the album’s last songs, “Bridges”, is the most startling example of his skill for re-inventing traditional forms. There’s a surprising amount of dissonance powering certain passages and the raw, aggressive sound of the recording is unusual for offerings from this genre. The eleven tracks on The Blink of an Eye will please purist and iconoclastic tastes alike. Such all-around talents are rare. Leo Harmonay’s vocal style will even win you over after, perhaps, some initial hesitation. He has immense likability, intelligence, and a fantastic command of every musical style he touches upon. The Blink of an Eye will make any fan of his first album quite happy and, undoubtedly, win Leo Harmonay many more fans.  

9 out of 10 stars. 


Scott Wigley