Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Saint Blasphemer - Simon Templar

Southern California is home to a lot of things and, unfortunately, has suffered from the ills of the same heroin epidemic that’s swept so many areas in the United States. Saint Blasphemer’s debut release Simon Templar is a five song EP that chronicles the lyrical and musical reactions to a plethora of deaths and destroyed lives resulting from this epidemic. Fronted by vocalist and lyricist Thomas Monroe, the band and singer alike create a cohesive vision of a modern American hell. The unsparing language and detail thankfully resist any glamorization of a subject that, frankly, possesses no glamour whatsoever,. John Castellon leads the way musically but he has two able partners in bassist Steve Shell and drummer Steve Ybarra. The production highlights their ability to combine pulverizing power with the ability to move with surprising fluidity and it isn’t every band, whatever style, able to pull it off. 

It kicks off at a high level of intensity and only occasionally lets up. “Nullify” is a particularly churning, tormented song, but Hudson’s lyrics don’t abandon hope entirely. There’s some fight buried beneath the withering depiction of a drug addict’s life and the music does a first class job of sonically embodying that lifestyle. Castellon’s six string work stands out in the song and it never runs on too long. “Simon Templar”, the title track, stretches out a little more in comparison but eschews the guitar theatrics heard in the first song. Despite the fact that the arrangements share similar tempos, it’s obvious that Saint Blasphemer is taking much more care here to invoke atmosphere. The lyrical content is full of imagery, but it is the storytelling aspect that leaps out most vividly. Hudson’s voice often interjects itself into the songwriting and does it again here.

 The third song “Scarecrow” is a much more tightly wound and focused than the preceding tracks, but it also plays more with light and shade. It has a more theatrical air than the earlier songs as well. The writing has painfully vivid detail and Monroe attacks the listener with often repellant imagery that brings home the reality of an addict’s use with more clarity than we’ve heard so far. Their experiments with different textures expand with the EP’s second to last song “A Perfect Rose”. The song’s imagery is somewhat familiar, particularly the rose, but his personality shapes the song in a much different direction than it might have otherwise followed. “Breaking Just to Bend” continues the EP’s tradition of lyrics with strongly physical imagery and the intelligence burning through the text and music alike cannot be denied. Simon Templar is a well constructed and written first release from a band of longtime music veterans who clearly share the same artistic vision. There are few debuts with such a well-rounded sense of completion. Southern California has produced a lot of quality music acts over the years and Saint Blasphemer is ready now to join that august company.  

9 out of 10 stars  

Scott Wigley

Sterling Witt – Satyagraha

Rock and roll hasn’t died by a long shot and one of its many cousins, punk rock music, has fertile ground in these modern times to make the same incendiary impression that has long defined the form. Classifying Sterling Witt, however, as a punk rocker alone is a grievous mistake. Much of this album has an almost singer/songwriter bent, albeit filtered through muscular guitar work and raw, open-wound production work, but these sonic elements never change the fact that much of Witt’s songwriting is engaged with complex themes and thorny philosophical issues that Witt admirably boils down to their essence. The thirteen songs on his fifth full length studio effort Satyagraha gain much from their presentation – the aforementioned production virtues and the physical music – but the burning heart of these songs is Witt’s actual voice and the imposingly intelligent lyrical content that is also brash, street smart, and unafraid. "Perception Deception” starts Satyagraha with an excellent illustration of the musical and lyric excellence dominating the release. It also introduces listeners to the album’s predominant theme of what exactly is truth and who do we hear it from in this modern life. Witt never frames things pretentiously. Instead, these tough subjects are explored with carefully chosen language that somehow manages to shrink their implications into a comprehensible and abbreviated form. “Who Do You Listen To?” continues the theme with an impressive musical performance that finds Witt and his two musical compatriots weaving their way through some challenging tempo changes that never leave them undone or unable to connect with the listener. Witt avoids a lot of the heavy-handedness so common to these sorts of lyrics from other writers – he has a point and makes it with little, if any, excess baggage.  

“Let Love Out” begins with great gentleness, befitting the song’s title, but soon segues into some more fire breathing guitar work that finds the melody quickly and never lets go. Witt is a master of juxtaposing his smart, sometimes denunciatory lyrical content with well-conceived melodies, but the contrast is flipped here with the positive message of the song strongly contrasting the gritty musical attack. On the other hands, “Just So You Know” is one of the angrier tracks on the album both musically and lyrically, but even when the songwriting mood darkens, melody remains the first priority. “Safe to Say” is, arguably, the purest punk moment on the album and easily the peak of Witt’s rage against the modern world, but his aim finds its target and, despite the short running time and fierce musical attack, this remains a coherent track from beginning to end.  

“I Love You More Every Day” is a fantastic power rock number with strong commercial attributes thanks to the ever-present melody and unity of its guitar work. Everything that goes on in these songs flows off of his guitar and never disappoints. There is a solid social and personal message in Satyagraha’s songs, but the musical content wins listeners over at every turn. If you are a fan of intelligent punk rock with balls to spare, this album won’t disappoint.  

9 out of 10 stars.

David Shouse

Friday, October 21, 2016

TnT Music - Pieces

New York based songwriter Joy Tolbert and Pennsylvania resident Tim Toz have written more than a dozen songs since beginning their Internet collaboration. A chance encounter and mutual admiration formed on the Soundcloud website led to their earliest efforts and it quickly became apparent to both artists that they experienced an unique chemistry when working together that had no natural antecedent in their lives. The latest release from their partnership, “Pieces”, is distinctly modern, yet the most significant reason for its success is how artfully it obeys rock and roll’s expectations while still peppering the mix with added instrumental voices. While the songwriting embraces fundamentals and makes great use of them, Toz and Tolbert aren’t content produced canned, paint by numbers rock tracks. Instead, “Pieces” has hints of a higher sensibility noticeable in the mix. The production chores, largely handled by Toz, are discharged exceptionally well – “Pieces” never sounds anything less than outstanding. 

A swell of keyboards and voices in orchestrated harmony open the song before exploding in a full-born guitar fanfare. The sound is sleek and sharply defined. Toz plays with a great deal of lyricism and melody before the introduction ends and they move without a hiccup into the first verse. The blaring electric guitar work dissipates into jangling acoustic guitar, but the melody never disappears. Tolbert’s vocal melody is extraordinarily well suited for this work – her voice falls snugly between the spaces and rolls in lockstep with the playing. The lyrics, likewise, weave well around the musical content. There’s something in the arrangement that brilliantly mimics the rise and fall of human emotion and Tolbert zeros in that, particularly on the chorus. 

Her vocal performance is largely understated, but she unleashes the full force of her throat and lungs on the chorus and bridges. Even then, however, she never goes completely over the top – instead, she continues listening to the lyrics and attempts exactly matching her vocal to the drama inherent to the arrangement. She knows when to turn up the temperature and when to back off into a more nuanced approach. Songs like this can easily collapse into total melodrama, but mature songwriters and performers like Toz and Tolbert know exactly how to play such moments. As a result, one never experiences the feeling of being pandered to and finishes the song feeling fully satisfied.  

The musical and emotional fireworks conjured by TnT Music have tremendous commercial appeal, but they are likewise the result of artistic depth. There are superficial things galore to admire about this song, but its truest rewards come with multiple listens. There isn’t a single word or note out of place throughout. TnT Music shows, conclusively, that chemistry isn’t always about being in the same room together – creativity is no respecter of miles or postal code. They’ve captured something quite special with their teaming up and will likely continue to score big with future releases. 

Dale Butcher

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kathy Muir - Second Life

The work on Kathy Muir’s first two albums has lead her here. Her third release Second Life is the summit of her accomplishment thus far and improves over her two fine past releases. If there’s any remaining justice in the modern music world, the merits of this effort should catapult her out of the indie scene and onto a much larger stage than she’s occupied so far. Muir’s approach is a blend of different influences and happily difficult to categorize. She’s certainly an advanced lyricist, a writer capable of exploring serious themes and narratives without ever overwriting. The same principle extends to her musical talents. The songs are crafted with an idea that they should do their job with the audience and get out with a minimum amount of fuss and not a single song falls short of that goal.  

The first song assured to grab listener’s attention is “Better Man”. In some ways, the subject matter is rather familiar to anyone who listens to a lot of serious songwriters, but Muir spins it in a different direction. Much of the responsibility for that comes from her skill with characterizations – both central figures in this song emerge full-bodied from the song with the same level of significant detail one expects to find in a fine short story. “Stop Messin’ Me Around” is definitely a throwback number that does a fine job approximating a rockabilly attitude, but it is certainly much more lyrically sophisticated than the typical efforts in this vein while still remain great, raucous musical fun. She pulls everything close for the tender turn she takes with “I Want To Lay Down” and the plaintive wanting of the title is reflected in the lyrics. This is quite a beautifully wrought and patient song. 

“Born by the Water” is certainly a little less sophisticated musically than what Muir has, to this point, spoiled us for, but it becomes clear soon enough that the primary focus here is lyrical rather than musical. Muir unleashes some poetic fireworks here, but they are decidedly low-key and never unnecessarily gaudy. There are a variety of interpretations and Muir’s playful vocal certainly seems to relish not entirely spelling things out for her listeners. She comes close to the blues with the immensely stylish and witheringly honest “Never Felt Like a Woman” – it will be difficult for anyone to not be impressed by the equal parts technique and sincerity required to make this song such a success. The contemplative and yet very proud “Like Warriors” harkens back to Muir’s folkie roots – it’s a nice interlude from the more frequent bouts of Sturm and Drang on the album’s second half. The closer, “Second Life”, is a title song very much from the school of making big statements. Fortunately, it highlights a forward looking vision for her life, and by extension her art, while never disavowing the experiences bringing her to where she is today. This sort of remarkable maturity and wisdom defines Second Life personally and artistically. 

9 out of 10 stars 

Aaron Ellis

Angie and the Deserters – You

Not all bands or performers succeed with the EP form. This condensed musical release often leaves those charged with the track listing a challenge in illustrating the diversity and avoiding a release that sounds too “samey” within an abbreviated space. The six tracks compromising You, the latest release from California-based Americana inspired Angie and the Deserters, stretch the definition of an EP release to its breaking point and smashes through any particular obstacles the form might present. This merits the same attention as a full length release. Angie and the Deserters have achieved a stunning balance of diversity with the EP’s jaunt through weighty ballads, inspired singer/songwriter fare, well-heeled honkytonk, a waltz, and even a little peppering of Southern Rock near the EP’s end.  Angie and the Deserters exhibit a wide-ranging confidence as songwriters and performers alike that goes far beyond their comparative few years on the scene. Bruyere, in particular, is more revelatory with each new release. 

Her ongoing evolution is apparent on the opening song. “Stay” is quite well written, but it’s plainly emotional center makes it ripe for amateurish interpretation in the wrong hands. Instead, Angie Bruyere continues here ongoing ascent into the upper echelon of popular music singers with a spine chilling vocal that pushes the song’s emotive qualities just enough and no more. The band creates a perfect musical backdrop for her, especially with their use of mandolin. “Forgetting to Forget” is one of the EP’s songwriting showcases and sounds, to this ear, much closer to the work of Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark, and others of that ilk than what it does to the heavy-handed melodramas often produced generations before by Billy Sherrill. A song like this has the artful quality of playing, not too crassly, for the listener’s attention in its clever title hook, but alternating that with just the right amount of restraint in the verses and instrumental treatment. Angie Bruyere’s phrasing is the crucial final ingredient.  

The unusual time signature of the title song gives Bruyere and the band a chance to create a memorable musical and lyrical statement unlike any before. Their ability to pull it off seamlessly, each part cleanly interlocking with the next, helps “You” be one of the EP’s most satisfying performances. “17 Days” and “When the Nighttime Comes” are quite the contrast and certainly show some forethought – there’s a tangible rise in tension culminating with the latter song. “17 Days” gives listeners a gentle nudge from the outset and never relents. This honkytonk number has a light swagger and Bruyere locks in tightly with its swing. Guitar theatrics have a presence on the EP’s second to last track, “When the Nighttime Comes”, and it recalls the way bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd might have employed it. The rock strains never take over, however, and the undercurrent of mandolin and acoustic guitar supporting the song is constant. You will find a lot of favor from Bruyere’s current fans, but this should win over a bunch of new converts as well. Few artists, particularly younger, have tapped so successfully into the spirit of this music while coloring it with their own experiences, ambitions, and personality. 

9 out of 10 stars 

Dale Butcher

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Von - 3nity

The Von has come a long way since their 2013 formation. The band, led by vocalist/bassist Luis Bonilla, has logged appearances at the SXSW Festival in a showcase slot and made numerous national appearances. Their South Florida home base remains their core geographic area of strength, but The Von are clearly ready for much bigger stages in far flung locales. Any doubt of that should be completely dismissed after a listen to their three song mini-masterpiece 3nity. This explodes on the promise of their debut release Ei8ht without losing a single degree from the heated spark giving birth to their initial emergence in the music community. It might seem easy, at first listen, to categorize The Von, but each additional listen reveals a wealth of influences informing their music to a certain degree. 

The band’s pop inclinations certainly come through on “I Know It’s Love”. The Von are consistently strong songwriters with melodic hooks being one of their stocks in trade. This song is a particularly excellent example of the raw, crackling energy a power trio can generate bringing their talents as rock musicians together with their melodic instincts. The fierce rock and roll side of this song is largely pushed ahead by the thumping rhythm section of Bonilla and drummer Elisa Seda while guitarist Marek Schneider freely moves back and forth from explosive flares of rock guitar and lively melodic fills. They opt for a groove centered approach on “Nature of the Beast” with further coloring from Schneider’s guitar playing. Bonilla’s voice is capable of surprising sweetness within this electrical storm, but he moves away from that characteristic on this track and instead invests his voice with a great of spit and fire. Their indulgences with well-known lyrical stapes, beginning in this case with the song title, shouldn’t hamper a listener’s enthusiasm for the song. Instead, The Von brings them back to full, vivid life by using them in new contexts and unexpected ways. 

“My Love Machine” ends 3nity emphatically with a wide-screen epic confined to a relatively small space. Unlike other bands, The Von seem resolutely focused on keeping their songwriting on point and avoiding all of the musical extravagances of so many contemporaries. Even on this final song, there’s no towering Schneider solo that goes on too long, but nothing feels rushed. They develop the song at just the right pace and, by its conclusion, it is clear why they chose this particular track to close 3nity out. This makes most EP’s sound paltry. The Von do more in these three songs than many rock bands pull off in ten and it certainly leaves you clamoring for more. Bands like this are in increasingly short supply. The aforementioned reasons set them apart from many, but it’s the overall intelligence driving this project that remains in prime, inescapable strength. They may traffic in a popular art form, but The Von’s intentions are far removed from the trival. 3nity reaches for the stars and grabs every one of them.  

9 out of 10 stars 

Joshua Stryde

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Stefanie Keys - Open Road

Stefanie Keys and her San Francisco based cohorts score again with Keys’ third consecutive barnburner of an album, Open Road. This ten song collection hits all of its marks as a convincing slab of electric guitar fueled Americana, but this isn’t merely some elaborate and talented tribute act. Keys uses these time-tested forms as a vibrant vehicle for her explorations of her own life, character studies, and ingenious re-inventions of longtime songwriting tropes and conventions. She’s ably assisted by guitarist and co-producer Dave Shul – his backing vocals, likewise, provides an excellent counterpoint to Keys’ marvelous voice. Keys has endless variety. She’s quite capable of conjuring a desperate, bluesy spirit on some songs infused, as well, with a hard-bitten rock and roll spirit. On the album’s more delicate cuts, she shows off her well honed sensitivity without ever allowing the track and its lyrics to tumble head over heels into sentimentality. 

You know that an artist is confident and on point when they are willing to open their album with the title track. “Open Road” doesn’t tread on new thematic territory for this sort of music, but Keys brings enough of her personality and personally unique imagery to bear that it draws a sharp distinction between this song and others of its ilk. Shul and her other cohorts in the band deliver restrained and eminently tasteful performances throughout all of these songs and the opener clearly announces their intentions. It isn’t easy for a top flight musician to forgo their ego. When you hear a group playing this tightly and serving the song first, it’s a sign that you, as a listener, are in exceptionally good hands. That feeling continues with the album’s second song “No Tomorrow”. Again, Keys’ songwriting doesn’t necessarily find some revelatory new ground to cover with this relatively familiar theme, but the singer and her band mates take the song on with unabashed enthusiasm that makes it an enjoyable experience.  

She hits another peak with the song “3 Hours Till Yesterday”. It’s a song with a hard push on the listener and undeniable spirit resounding from its first minute on. There’s even a lightly raucous edge that she manifests that the band plays off of in very thrilling ways. Open Road takes a sharp turn into the bluesy and soulful with the next song, “City Life”, and the spark for that is one of Keys’ most exceptional vocals to date. It has spontaneity or at least the suggestion therein, as her vocal displays tremendous emotion like she’s engaging it in live performance for the first time during recording. “Amos Cain” has plenty of corresponding antecedents in popular music, story songs about a particular character, but none are quite like this. Keys shows some genuine literary flair with this composition and the band provides her with exceptional backing. 

Open Road marks a new high water mark for Keys and her songwriting. There’s an abundance of accessible songwriting here while there’s an equal amount of material that plumbs much deeper and shows a fearlessness that defines all great songwriting. Stefanie Keys has left her mark, but she isn’t done yet. This exceptional performer and writer continues to grow and her latest effort marks the next inevitable stage in her development.  

9 out of 10 stars.

Michael Saulman

Skyward - Self titled

Skyward are originally a product of the Harrisonburg, Virginia area and the five members initially met during their shared time at James Madison University. The band is based out of the Charlottesville, Virginia now and has played in the neighborhood of five hundred shows since they began active gigging. The next logical step in their path to notoriety, a full length album release, finds the band turning in an eleven song collection full of melody, compelling synth sounds, and bombastic, but never nonsensical, guitar. The lyrical content is, likewise, top notch and brings an additional level of quality to the release. Superb production is the sonic icing on the cake – the eleven songs on their debut are presented in the best possible way with clarity and balance an apparent principle in the final mix.  

It opens with two interlinked tracks. “Daily” and “Casualty” are works dealing with serious themes, but Skyward presents their lyrical narratives surrounded by a vast canopy of sound that sets the mood as intensely dramatic, but ultimately triumphant. The speakers in Skyward’s songs take their share of lumps from life roughhousing them, but no one is ever completely defeated. Jordan Breeding’s guitar work often sounds like he is wrestling with his guitar neck, trying to wring out new sounds and tones that match the intensity around him, and invariably succeeds. “Animal” is much more stripped back when compared to the rest of the album and has a low- gritty menace not readily connected to the other material. Breeding’s guitar is much more restrained and concentrates intently on strengthening the song’s rhythmic spine. “Stand-Ins” is another memorable moment thanks to the rolling riff and strong groove propelling it forward. Groove based are at a preminum on this release, but the band shows a strong penchant for them when they so indulge themselves.

Much more of the heavy-lidded menace heard in “Animal” finds its way into the later song “Burn”. Skyward are talented enough as songwriters that they can invoke mood with only a few notes and this track is, arguably, one of the album’s premier expressions of that skill. Anna Breeding’s contributions as a second, largely backing, vocalist are critical for the balance they provide. The musical intensity continues to climb with the album’s seventh track “Now”, a wide-eyed passionate workout that never really relents from the first note on. There is much of the light and shade dynamic heard in earlier rock cuts, but Skyward can never quite resist the temptation to pepper the track with a number of subtleties contributing to the overall whole. “Crows and Wolves” utilizes a smattering of natural imagery previously unheard on the album to darken another much more meditative outing for the band. This isn’t an outfit who needs to overwhelm listeners sonically in order to establish mood. Instead, “Crows and Wolves” achieves its effects through the marriage of music alongside Huang and Breeding’s different, yet equally magnificent, voices. This is a debut album of many different colors, sounds, and emotions. Skyward takes listeners on a highly imaginative and often deeply personal journey that helps the release stand out as one of the year’s finest efforts. 

9 out of 10 stars. 

Joshua Stryde

Josh Birdsong - Simple Geometry

Produced by Stephen Leiweke at Yackland Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, Josh Birdsong’s debut EP Simple Geometry contains five songs that, if nothing else, illustrate what sort of genre chameleon Birdsong is. Three of the album’s five cuts are shrouded in ambient textures – delays, reverb applied to his guitar, and an echo surrounded the other instrumentation – that are quite atmospheric without ever sounding gratuitous. The other two songs are obviously slanted towards a much more singer/songwriter dominated ethos – acoustic guitar figures into both songs and the delay and reverb defining so much of the EP’s sound disappears in favor of a much cleaner, organic approach. Birdsong never adopts a dull tempo – excepting the final song, Simple Geometry makes much of its reputation based on its willingness to subvert, even slightly, the audience’s expectations. It does a fantastic job of doing so without ever losing the pulse that first drove Birdsong to sing and create. 

 “Unspeakable” opens the album with a substantial taste of Birdsong’s considered and eloquent guitar playing.  The warm delay and reverb applied to Birdsong’s guitar never distracts from the beauty of his phrasing. His vocal phrasing is equally appealing – he tightly tailors his singing to the arrangement and the lyrical quality is highlighted by his deliberate approach. The song makes much of its impact through a slow build. Percussion slowly comes into play rather than immediately announcing itself and, by song’s conclusion, is every bit as much a part of the musical tapestry as Birdsong’s guitar or vocals. “Radio Waves” shows the same attention and care, but follows much of the same trajectory as well. The gradually mounting musical drama, however, has much more tension thanks to the dense clusters of notes Birdsong unleashes and creates through the use of delay. The obvious dreamlike feel of songs like this complements the lyrics and vocal delivery alike. Birdsong’s writing shows a significant talent for compelling metaphors and much of this track is built around the use of this literary device.  

The mood of the EP shifts some with “Drive”. The guitar presence is still strong, but Birdsong lays an acoustic guitar part underneath the top line electric that makes the attack much weightier than before. His vocal lacks a lot of the tension heard on the second song, but the lack of urgency is actually relatively welcome just for the change in color it provides. The tension returns with the penultimate song of the release, “Why?” It adopts much of the same approach of building the song and showing patience about bringing new sonic elements into the picture, but there’s no question that the song has a stronger push than the first two tracks despite their similarities in composition and sound. The final song, “You and I”, goes in a completely different direction. The trickery and manipulation fall away leaving listeners with nothing beyond Birdsong’s beautiful voice and steady acoustic guitar. The intimacy of the performance is impressive and it brings Simple Geometry to the ending it deserves.  

9 out of 10 stars.

Joshua Stryde

Alex Di Leo - So We Go

The first release from solo artist Alex Di Leo, So We Go, marks his first recorded work since the breakup of South Florida band Wyld Fly in 2014 and sets the stage for a memorable career on his own. Di Leo’s wide ranging songwriting talents are based from a complete command and grasps of the basics – each of the six compositions on this EP has a solid skeleton that allows Di Leo a chance to further flesh it out with an assortment of contributions. Electronic instruments play an important role in the artistic success of So We Go, but his vocals and the production are far and away the most critical sonic elements driving the musical train here. Di Leo’s voice has range that might surprise some and certainly an emotive capability that adds much to the performances. He is clearly an attentive singer as well and carefully tailors his vocal to the song’s needs. The production might strike some as a tad affected, but beauty is proverbially in the eye of the beholder. Many more will note the distanced recording style, the prevalence of echo, and enjoy the ambiance it creates for these songs.  

There are eighties influences creeping through the music. The title song sounds like the best music of the era re-envisioned and filtered through a much more refined musical sensibility. Di Leo invokes the bounciest pop elements of this sort of material while avoiding all of the standard pratfalls and moments of tastelessness. His voice steers the song with strength and confidence, but never overplays itself as the song’s center. “Making It Easier” packs a tremendous amount of musical punch and accumulates much of its power along the way thanks to a snaking arrangement that never allows listeners to get too comfortable. It springs with ebullient, brightly-colored glee and Di Leo’s vocal easily matches the mood and impresses listeners again with his substance and charisma. The songwriting effect is much more restrained on “Reason”. This is perhaps the most mature bit of songwriting found on So We Go and, at very least, makes sharper use of dynamic contrast than the other material. Di Leo’s skill for composing memorable choruses is an across the board strength on So We Go and this song has one of the EP’s best. 

“When We First Met” might take a very familiar trope for its subject matter, but the song and its sonics are thoroughly modern sounding and the track highlights probably the best use of vocal harmonies on the release. Dynamics drive “I’ve Been Waiting” and the shifting musical moods give the song surprising dramatic power. Di Leo wisely doesn’t try matching the musical firepower harnessed here and, instead, underplays his vocal in comparison, focusing on phrasing and nuance instead of presence. The closing tune “Waking Up” could have worked just as ideally in the opening slot and shows the sort of flexibility much of Di Leo’s material has. It’s a sweeping, beautifully arranged ending to the EP. Di Leo has scored big with this initial release and, recognizing full well the quality of these first solo songs, we can only be stoked for future music to come.  

9 out of 10 stars 

Shannon Cowden 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Juliet Huns - Behind the Scenes

While scientists release papers asserting that modern pop music is in the throes of a continual “dumbing down” process that makes intrinsic elements of the art like melody more uniform and predictable than ever, they ignore the brightest stars in the firmament because they haven’t yet achieved the same notoriety as their more highly paid and visible counterparts. Juliet Huns is one of those bright stars. This young Kenyan born singer’s debut release, Behind the Scenes, is a three song EP with some of the best pop songs heard in recent memory. However, pop music isn’t her only approach. The three songs on this brief release dabble with other complementary elements, like the sort of approach rock bands take to writing and constructing their material, and certainly attempts raising the bar about how articulate pop songs can or should be. The production is equally solid while eschewing predictability. It would have been very easy for Huns’ collaborators to focus the production on her voice, but instead, they wisely take a balanced approach that looks to blend her voice in with the instrumentation so listeners enjoy this material as the fully-rounded songs they are intended to be.  

The opener is, arguably, the most traditionally pop minded effort on Behind the Scenes. “Realized” gains a lot from the crescendos and breakdowns that Huns embeds within the track, but it’s just as invigorating without them. She sings with a combination of passion and joy that never sways her from pursuing the most spot-on phrasing that she can muster. The lyrical content is sharp and intelligent without ever denying listeners entry into the experience of the song. The EP’s second track, “Gone”, is cut from a much rougher cloth that sonically embodies the experience of the lyrics. The desperation and pain coming through in her words and vocals never dampens a listener’s experience of the song because it’s rendered with such emphatic resolve. The guitar sounds introduced here are an interesting stylistic twist that she sounds quite at home with; if anything, particularly on the chorus, these unusual sounds for a pop song of this stripe seem to further inspire her.  

The EP’s final track, “Red Line”, alternates more sedate passages with intense musical interludes within a small amount of space. None of the songs run too long, but this closer might be the most perfectly orchestrated track on the release. Huns shows a great deal of sharp minded judgment to exert just the right amount of emotion during the verses but yet pick up her game for the choruses./ The imagery from this song will strike all listeners as being familiar, but Huns handles it differently with her well-phrased lyrical content and phrasing that makes something new out of something familiar. Behind the Scenes ends on this passionate final note, but it merely whets listeners appetites for her next release. This is a rare talent with an assortment of skills – she isn’t just a capable singer, but an all-around artist. 

9 out of 10 stars 

Montey Zike 

John Hickman – Remnants

John Hickman is an indie as it gets. Self-financed thanks to his previous career as an aerospace engineer, Hickman isn’t beholden to a record company or any other sort of tastemaker for his first full length release Remnants. It shows. This is a far-reaching collection that exceeds anyone’s reasonable expectations for a debut because of how hard it goes after different approaches and succeeds each time. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who has literally spent years refining and reworking his craft in anticipation for this moment, Remnants doesn’t sport any filler at all. Instead, each of the album’s dozen songs are exquisitely tailored in such a way that they will connect, at least at some point, with virtually every listener over the age of thirty and many younger. This isn’t music for a teenager, but there’s little question that Hickman writes, sings and plays with the gusto of a young man setting out to conquer the world for the first time. 

Drums like those opening the first track “Cascade” certainly sound like a call to arms. The heavily rhythmic percussion and accompanying synthesizer lines usher listeners into the track with great drama and the energy only keeps rising from there. Hickman’s vocal brims over with confidence and he sounds like he’s with every line. “Escape” has a much different tone, closer to uncompromising hard rock, but Hickman is wise enough to alternate it with different passages where he pulls back some on the six string assault. His voice never sounds out of place in this environment. Another stylistic about face comes with the striding, confident “Hello Hello” and Hickman’s accompanying vocal full of inspiration and light. The mood shifts again with the vibrant acoustic colors and textures invoked in the understated and gorgeous “Passing Thru”. Even when Hickman revisits long standing clichés in song, he hits them with such panache that they assume the veneer of the new and sound remarkably refreshed by his treatment.  

The cinematic grandeur of “Remains of the Human Race” takes a seemingly bare bones structure and builds a monumental effort from it dependent, primarily, on Hickman’s strong storytelling aspects and the remarkably detailed science fiction vision the song pushes on listeners. He reverts back to a much more down to earth approach on the next song “Soiled Dove”. It’s another strong example of Hickman taking familiar tropes in popular entertainment and song, the fallen woman, and investing it with something entirely different than most of us have heard before. His empathy for the character comes through in his vocal and never sounds patronizing. “What Have You Done?”, the first of three huge ballads near the album’s end, soars thanks to Hickman’s wide-eyed willingness to explore his vocal range to the fullest extent. The lyrics, as well, rank among the albums finest and Hickman does a brilliant job conveying their message. The album’s final cut, “While Everyone Was Sleeping”, is a return to Hickman’s rockier roots and he acquits himself on guitar quite well for a final time. Remnants is an invigorating listen from first song to last and anyone who encounters this album will likely find themselves wondering aloud when he’ll release another.  

9 out of 10 stars 

Aaron Ellis 

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Good for Nothin’ Band - Maniac World

After a recent history of playing two hundred plus live shows in the New Orleans area, The Good for Nothin’ Band has their act honed to perfection. Their first studio release entitled Maniac World features ten songs that are a cross-section of American music, relying primarily on the jazz and blues idioms, but they have a freewheeling fluency that reaches far beyond some stupefying imitation without spark or personality. The band is a five piece with a trombonist and trumpet player and every instrument in this band is charged with the business of accentuating melody and listening to the surrounding players. The Good for Nothin’ Band is a group of exceptional musicians, but they work together as one unit and never fail serving the song. 

It begins beautifully with “Fishin’ for Stars”. The lyrical imagery is evocative without drawing too much attention to itself and the word choice is acutely tuned to the percussive needs of the track. The slightly languid, mid-tempo sway benefit greatly from Brendan Bull’s drumming. Vocalist Jon Roniger shines brightly on the album’s second song “DNA” which rides a spot-on metaphor for everything its worth and draws out a nearly raucous vocal from Roniger. The smart humor heard through the first two songs comes out in a much bigger way on the album’s third song “Falling from Trees”, but even here, the band never lays on the laughs with a dragline. This songwriting hits all of the right musical notes, overplays, and finds it lyrical measure in observing the peccadilloes of lives and human characters. The lyrics throughout Maniac World have a particular shine for character, but they capture an unique narrative voice that helps the outfit stand out.  

Blues comes into play on the album’s title song. There are plenty of hints on the album’s first quarter that the band would excel if they turned to this form and their inevitable first effort in that vein doesn’t disappoint. “It Is What It Is” packs an energetic buzz and really makes an impact with its stripped down shuffle tempo and the horns practically scat sing throughout the track. It’s difficult to adequately sum up just how much the trombone and trumpet bring to the band’s sound, but this song is a perfect illustration of its impact in full effect. The Good for Nothin’ Band gets a small chance to shine instrumentally on the song “Romeo in Rags”. It’s a much cleaner blues than before, more mournful, and the acoustic framework has a slow moving grace that’s handled quite tastefully. “Snowing in New Orleans” is a showcase of sorts for drummer Brendan Bull and the multiple percussion voices he makes use of keep this track popping from the first bar onward. The energy dissipates on the album’s final song. “One Last Call” is the best of all possible endings for this release and Roniger throws himself wholeheartedly into the album’s last smiling, but slightly woozy vocal.  

Maniac World could have contented itself with hitting some customary marks at an acceptable professional level and the band would have a viable product to peddle at their live shows. Instead, the five pieces show themselves to be serious musical artists with surprisingly broad literary skills and an absolute command over the fundamentals of their musical genre.

9 out of 10 stars 

William Elgin III

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Clay Melton Band

This is not a country band by any means, it’s just a Texas thing. What they are is a hard rock band with alternative, classic and southern influences of the last five decades. That’s a pretty bold combo and they do it with ease and grace. I am liking everything about this, as I’m already hooked on every track, which is only four on this one. But four powerfully laid down tracks. The well-produced EP begins and ends on a high note, as “Tonight” starts the show off. The percussion carries this to far-away places while Clay Melton establishes his multi-faceted musical prowess. It’s a grand slam this one, on what is not a perfect but still second to none effort. And that is on a whole concerning that. This is always the best way to start.

And then there is always the follow-up to such a grand opening salvo, and “Home” is exactly where it’s at. The acoustic guitar lines set up another killer number. This swirls in and out with loud and quiet parts that interact seamlessly with some mild piano to top it off. The diversity displayed on this track alone speaks volumes along with the ultra-production. Vocal harmonies to die for are what this is all about with nothing contained within that loses the listener on any level. This is essentially the alternative rock cut of the bunch, with both hard and soft rock qualities. It almost rings of bands like 10cc. You can easily get wrapped up in the jubilant performance of it all. It takes you away with a remarkable effort to absorb your time.

“Remember” has more of a pedestrian vibe and probably not the best these tracks, but it’s still lots of fun and the guitar just makes it along with some chanting in the background, as the vocals either also save it for you or they don’t. This would have to be the one place where that can happen or not, because not only is Clay Melton a superior guitarist, he is just as good of a vocalist, as all vocals included on every number. It’s just that this one tends to distract from the overall seriousness of the band, and takes them into less polished territory. It’s not a complaint, just an observation because I still like it. There is something for every rock fan here, but until you listen you will have to take one person’s word for it.

The EP comes to an end with “Stop And Listen” as they get back to the standard in which they started. This is probably where most of their influences can be detected but also where they go out in style. Everything is on point here with a huge guitar sound that goes from chunky to absolutely incendiary, covering the vernacular of rocks vast spectrum of good clichés. Your attention is demanded from beginning to end and you’re left wanting more, as this one could use another minute or even two. It reminds me that in the last five years or so I hear a lot of bands placing some of their best tracks at the end of the track order. Hopefully this is a trend that lasts. 

Every single track is packed full of what it takes to rock my world, and it takes a lot to do that. I’m usually not giving younger bands enough shots but this is a chance I’m glad I took. Don’t get me wrong it’s not life or death but I am grateful to know there is still kids out there who can put the right stuff into every minute of their sound. It goes the distance where others can’t travel, and knocks them out of the way so all you’re hearing is the cream of the crop. Clay Melton Band has that quality and more. It’s packed with the values that are hard to come by anymore, and to think he has his whole life ahead of him, as well as his band mates. It has me asking why we can’t have more of this from bands, whether trios or full ensembles recording albums or EP’s. 

Cory Frye


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Project Grand Slam - The Queen’s Carnival


Robert Miller heeded his icon’s musical lessons well. There is a dizzying array of musical moves on auditory display for listeners with Project Grand Slam’s latest release The Queen’s Carnival. A masterful bassist and composer, Miller certainly leads the way at many points during the album, but he’s equally content and continually focused on providing the eleven song collection with a solid backbone. The surrounding players are equally fluent practitioners of their art and invest the songs with equal parts command of the material and the necessary invention to put a distinctive stamp on the songs. Project Grand Slam, despite their extensive musical pedigrees, never fails at writing and performing accessible music. This might have an outstanding skill level outstripping the talents of many contemporaries, but it never goes anyone’s head.  

Melody is a big reason for that. Even on their audacious cover of the classic Kinks rocker “You Really Got Me”, Project Grand Slam has clearly chosen a song with those virtues in abundance and underscores them with daring and imagination. Only signature parts of the track bear any meaningful similarity to The Kinks original, but when those moments come, Project Grand Slam captures every ounce of the rambunctious spirit powering the original. Lucy Woodward’s vocal never overreaches and dramatically complements the arrangement. The album’s title song is a robust Latin-spiced offering with an energetic tempo and fully bodied, diverse performance from the band. Though the band typically shuns vocalists in favor of instrumental material, Project Grand Slam aren’t some nebulously minded jam band, but instead construct tightly integrated material meant to be executed with one part precision, another part passion.

The same dynamic informs the fusion influenced rock poses rolled out in the song “Gorilla”. Giving lie to its heavy handed title, Project Grand Slam balances light and shade with extraordinary ease and ends up with one of the album’s best all-around songs. The streak continues with the large-screen musical treatment they give to “New Folk Song”, a self-conscious but never pretentious attempt to fulfill the promise of its title. There are a number of climatic moments scattered through the arrangements and everything hangs together with a sharply organic feel. Project Grand Slam toys with much more expansive textures on “It’s the Beat”, eschewing their typically tight focus on melody in favor of a more painterly approach towards composition. This is a song that, ultimately, is much more the sum of its parts than earlier efforts. The instruments pile on effects until a larger sonic picture emerges and, as always with this artistic unit, it is a rich and rewarding musical tapestry.  

The finale “Lullaby for Julesy” is a gently lilting melody that brings a relatively raucous album to a peaceful close. It has a distinctly affectionate and warm edge while never overstaying its welcome. The preceding sentence is an excellent way to describe the band’s work here as a whole. They often come on with rough and tumble attitude, but it’s never enough to overly coarsen an affectionate and warm presentation. The Queen’s Carnival is one of the year’s best efforts.  

9 out of 10 stars. 

Lance Wright

Seth Swirsky - Circles and Squares

Primary URL: http://www.seth.com/ 

Seth Swirsky is a man of many hats. Since selling his first commercial jingle in 1980 at the age of 20, Swirsky has enjoyed considerable artistic and commercial success as a songwriter. He’s an author, activist, and visual artist with a respected across the board following. He’s brought his music to the listening public through a variety of projects over the years, band-oriented efforts, but his latest release Circles and Squares marks the third time Swirsky has released a collection under his own name. It is overdue. Circles and Squares is a sustained burst of creativity with few parallels in the music industry of diminished expectations presently enjoying sway. There are sixteen songs packed on this colossus, but not a single song is a miss. Some, naturally, stand out from the pack, but the many years spent honing his craft as a writer and musician has paid off enormously for Swirsky. The release of this album marks a moment when it pays off for listeners in a big way.

An album like this needs an ideal, pitch perfect opener and none could be better than “Shine”. Many listeners will draw the obvious connections between Swirsky’s musical style and the Beatles, but such comparisons only tell a scant part of the story. The strong touch of the personal Swirsky brings to his songwriting, namely in terms of specificity and style of imagery, makes him come off much differently. Some Beatlesque influence persists on the title song, but once again, Swirsky never allows his Fab Four admiration to entirely color the song. Instead, influences such as this and the other iconic acts of the era effortlessly blend with Swirsky’s own well defined pop sensibility to deliver something different.  “Old Letter” breaks the orchestral pop spell with some tempered, but ragged rock spirit creeping into the mix. Swirsky’s vocals are well suited for this sort of middle-ground rock – it doesn’t demand the histrionics of its more dramatic, hamfisted counterparts while still carrying some very assertive swagger.  
Circles and Squares come back to the top shelf pop that begins the release with “Far Away”. This profoundly cinematic ballad has lush textures and subtle musical depths that Swirsky tops off with a stirring vocal. “Let’s Get Married” mixes the gentle with wisps of fiery guitar in the introduction and instrumental break, but it’s a brief confection leading listeners into a much grander song to follow. “Trying to Keep It Simple” is one of the album’s best songs for its artful understatement alone, but the sheer beauty of the melody and its measured tempo takes its audience for an entertaining ride. Much like “Let’s Get Married”, “I Loved Last Night” illustrates Swirsky’s skill for crafting diamond hard pop gems. The multi-tracked harmony vocals work particularly well here. 
The intensely rhythmic drumming and dollop of brass opening “Sonic Ferris Wheel” sets a tone Swirsky soon counterpoints with a jangling acoustic guitar attack. Melodies seem to roll out of these songs wholesale, unbidden, and this is no different. It isn’t difficult to hear the influence of the seminal American folk rockers The Byrds on the opening guitar fanfare for “Table”, but it soon shifts into something much more signature. The album’s closing curtain, “I Think of Her”, begins with a brief bit of ambient noise – a sample of surf crashing into shore. It’s perhaps one of the album’s most delicate tracks with a fond, yet melancholy touch. It’s a perfect quiet closer to an album full of color and ends things with a satisfying note of intimacy. 
4/5 Stars

Lydia Hillenburg