Friday, February 24, 2017

James Patrick Morgan - Art + Work = Love

 

James Patrick Morgan - Art + Work = Love 


Few singer/songwriters in recent memory have emerged with the same musicality and confidence James Patrick Morgan shows off on his release Art + Work = Love. This five song collection highlights his sleek yet substantive style in a way that never seems forced or straining for effect. There’s one cover included, Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, but even there Morgan manages to carve out his own interpretation of the song that artfully straddles the line between faithfulness to the original and a new way of hearing a bonafide classic. His vocals and songwriting are undoubtedly the stars of the show, but the musical backing has a richness all its own that gives the recordings real urgency and impetus. Art + Work = Love might strike some as a slightly pretentious title, but there’s not a note of premeditation or pretension heard over the course of its running time. Instead, audiences are treated to a young performer throwing everything into his performances and coming up with aces on every hand.  

“Expected” is the first winning card in the EP’s hand. It comes out high-stepping and never loses any of its verve along the way. Morgan seems to deliver the lyric with a shrug and smirk, but those qualities never stop him from giving his performance every bit of the same pace and energy level listeners encounter in the arrangement. The biggest musical reasons for the song’s success are the backbeat and churning acoustic guitar running underneath it all. “Alone” succeeds because of its melodic value and persistence. This is another song that never lets up on listeners for long and keeps coming time after time with its catchy, but electronica based musical attack. Any sensitivity implied in the title doesn’t show up in the actual song – instead, it has thrilling, wide-eyed urgency. “Sign Language” is another swirling, musically active song, but the tempo varies some in comparison to the first two tracks. It sports another fine lyric that Morgan fills with a lot of finesse, keen eared phrasing, and enough emotion to break down anyone’s resistance to his music.  

“Right Mistakes” has a slightly more orchestrated, layered feel than some of the earlier songs. This has a lot to do with how the various guitar sounds appearing in the song are woven around the other instruments and the final effect creates a dense, but nonetheless light, musical effect. This track has real weight and the blending of its lyric, arrangement, and vocal will make a deep impact on many listeners. His aforementioned cover of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like a Eagle” is entertaining and musically rewarding, but it shows off another element in this performer’s character that will serve him well in years to come. Morgan is, intensely, his own person and never adheres too closely to audience’s expectations. Instead, on Art + Work = Love, Morgan gives of himself and wins you over on that basis alone. It’s the sort of iconoclastic entertainer we need in this day and age.  

9 out of 10 stars 


Dale Butcher 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Matt Hannah – Dreamland


Matt Hannah – Dreamland 


Songwriters like Matt Hannah are a different breed. Hannah ascends into rarefied air with his second full length release Dreamland. Let the Lonely Fade, his 2014 debut, served notice that a promising new songwriter had arrived on the scene, but recurring themes dominated his initial offering of songs, united by sound and purpose, but often exploring a variety of themes. Dreamland, in contrast, is a much more focused collection. The ten songs included on this release are tied together by variations on a common theme. Hannah’s intention is to explore the nature of our memories and these songs inhabit an indefinable land between the consciousness and unconsciousness where the narratives of our lives can often seem much different to us than they really are. The songs are largely acoustic, but there are certainly a few moments on Dreamland where the guitars rise quite assertively to the fore and a full band unleashes some rousing passages during instrumental breaks.  

The title song opens Dreamland and lulls listeners into the album. Hannah consistently strikes an ideal balance between his often exquisite acoustic guitar work and dry, even distanced, voice, but there’s generous amount of emotion, vulnerability chief among them, slipping in between the cracks in each of Dreamland’s songs. He roughs things up some for “Broken Hearts & Broken Bones” without ever giving the album an entirely different tenor so early on; the arrangement blends the acoustic and electric elements of the track quite effectively. Hannah, moreover, is accompanied by some top flight players on the album. When they have a chance to indulge their talents some, none of them overstep the song’s borders and keep things tasteful. “Set Free” plays a little with the sort of clich├ęs you often hear in songs like this, but you can have different takes on that as a listener. In some ways, it makes sense that a song about leaving things behind you is semi-crouched in familiar language or imagery that makes sense to us universally. The electric guitar in this song isn’t omnipresent in any way, but it does get to cut loose occasionally with fantastic results.  

“The Night Is My Home” rates as the purest folk song on Dreamland. There’s a faint melancholy edging in on this song Hannah wisely never pushes too hard and it makes the imagery carry more of that message. The introduction of pedal steel during the song’s second half underscores melancholy. “Different Kind of Light” opens with a light keyboard swell before segueing into another fine slice of Hannah’s acoustic guitar work. The intensity, however, rises another notch when more instruments, particularly stinging electric guitar, enter the musical picture. There’s a small battery of guitars employed to get over the album’s penultimate track “Gone”, but it’s also one of the album’s breeziest performances and has a loose-limbed, inspired blues feel that’s nearly impossible to resist. The finale “Morning Song” returns us to Hannah’s comfort zone with a suitably low-key acoustic ending. Dreamland benefits immensely from its running order and, in particular, the first and final tracks help create the unity defining the album as a whole. This is a great achievement for Matt Hannah and opens further doors to his future. 

9 out of 10 stars 


Montey Zike

The Righteous Hillbillies - Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway


The Righteous Hillbillies - Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway 


The power and passion brought to bear on the ten tracks compromising Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway marks a significant leap forward thanks to the added spike of songwriting talent enlivening the songs. The Righteous Hillbillies are quite talented at calling upon tradition to inform their songs, but their fourth studio album finds them upping the ante with an increased emphasis on songwriting outstripping the band’s laudable past accomplishments while still remaining true to the original impetus driving their creativity and sound. Vocalist/rhythm guitarist Brent James, lead guitarist Nick Normando, keyboardist Chris Bartley, drummer Barret Harvey, and bassist Jeff Bella are at or near their collective and individual artistic peaks within this context and they are stretching in ways they only hinted at on previous releases. Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway might be rooted in the blues and blues rock, but they aren’t content with merely revamping a bygone form. Instead, the album’s ten songs are a sturdy reminder of what great songwriting can do with old forms.  

Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway begins with the memorable opener “Rollin’”. The Righteous Hillbillies are just one of those rare, but great bands, where each individual member is crucial to bringing the proper final effect. The building blocks of the ten songs invariably are focused on the rhythm section and one of the best examples comes with this song. Barret Harvey’s drumming and Jeff Bella’s bass playing. Brent James gives a great vocal here and on the album’s second track “Throwing Stones” that ranks among the album’s best moments. The second song has much more firepower than the opener, or at least utilizes the band’s talents in a much different way, but it illustrates another key strength of the band. The union between guitars and the organ are a big part of the band’s sound on “Throwing Stones”. It’s certainly just as true on the album’s third track “All Down But Nine”, but there’s another aspect to this track not as pronounced on the earlier numbers. Brent James’ songwriting has a spartan style, ideal for the blues because he doesn’t waste a word, and creates strong characters through a keen minded use of imagery. Those storytelling strengths are used in a slightly different direction and come into sharper focus on the title track, but the major story with this song is how well integrated the acoustic and electric guitars are around the typically strong rhythm section playing. 

The wasted, jagged beauty of “Call Me a Doctor” comes from a place of lusty desperation and Chris Bartley’s piano is a big reason for that. The lyrics run through a well arranged cavalcade of blues tropes, but James guts it out with such unbridled gusto that it’s difficult not to like it. The uptempo quasi-shuffle of “Shackles & Chains” reeks of the yearning of freedom implied in its title. James lays down a vocal that has every bit of needed punch to get those lyrics over. Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway gets over thanks to a fair amount of gravel and grit dredged up from the details of the their lives. It scores big and will make plenty of fans happy. 

8 out of 10 stars


Dale Butcher

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Sound of Curves - Gone Gatsby


The Sound of Curves - Gone Gatsby 


The unique confluence of power and outside the box creativity going into the third release from San Antonio’s The Sound of Curves is unabashedly crossed with energetic vocal harmonies and a genuine sense for substantive pop music. This four piece has managed to earn quite a bit of respect since their 2009 founding for their ability to bring rather disparate sounds together under the same tent and retain coherence of sound and theme. Their style will draw comparisons with other bands of this generation, like Kings of Leon for instance, but The Sound of Curves pursue a brighter sound in general, something with a lot of uplift that never wastes the listener’s time with extended displays of the member’s musicianship. Their fourteen song third album Gone Gatsby features all of the above mentioned elements and shows a band who has learned to diversify their songwriting results enough to set them further apart from their peers and claim more of their own style.  

Vocal harmonies are a big part of their musical presentation and it is obvious from the outset. Singers Leonel Pompa and Roger Maher have uniquely simpatico voices that cry out from the mix, never allowing themselves to disappear under wave after wave of guitar muscle, and make a tremendous impact on the listener. The first real illustration of this comes with the title track. “Gone Gatsby” might be an anthem, but it doesn’t earn the listener’s attention in a cheap or shabby way. Instead, it is exhortative without being insulting, and the immense guitars and rhythm section work come together to push the vocals even higher than they might otherwise go. “Disco” is an impressive energetic tune that sounds like it might run off the rails at any minute. It never does, naturally, but the suggestion of flying by the seat of their pants makes the song one of the most exhilarating tracks on Gone Gatsby. “Josephine” will have many fans. This song features the album’s best pure melody, initially quite uncluttered and played on guitar with a surprising lack of sonic clutter, but the band builds the song’s riffs around the same melody and, thus, the song as a whole gains even more power and immediacy. 

“Crawl” and “London” rank among the album’s best outright rockers. The former marvelously undercuts its own title with uptempo energy and great, clashing guitars while the latter comes remarkably close to straight blues, but the band can’t resist twisting things around to give it a voice all their own. “Midnight” is a rocker as well, but this song relies a little more on keyboard and synth sounds to further flesh out the potential color in the tune. “Blinker” and the album’s final number “Whiskey Wrongs” are the band’s final nods in this stylistic direction and combine their talent for alternative rock with refurbished takes on traditional forms. Their creativity is beyond question on Gone Gatsby and The Sound of Curves have laid the solid groundwork with this album that’s needed to take their music even further on future releases.  

9 out of 10 stars


Joshua Stryde