Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: Roxanna - Exotica

It’s the rare individual who has that perfect package. These are the artists that shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” spend months searching for, trying to find not only the next great voice but also that person with the right look and charisma to take it to the next level. Rising singer-songwriter Roxanna is just such an artist.

Originally born in Iran and raised learning English from her musical heroes Olivia Newton-John and Julio Iglesias, the artist later migrated to Toronto due to the increasing strife between her home country and Iraq. College followed which allowed her to fine tune her English skills as well as develop her voice further, largely through her involvement in a choir which expanded her musical palette that much more.

But it was through her furthered education as a nurse that Roxanna truly found her potential in the most unusual of ways. Both in her training and in her budding career as a nurse, the artist witnessed firsthand the healing power of music, seeing her voice bring joy to a patient with dementia and lead her to eat while on another hand it aided a young man undergoing cancer treatments. And when a patient’s relative inquired as to why Roxanna wasn’t pursuing music full time, the stars aligned as that person stepped forward to pave the way for Roxanna to engage her dream.

The result of that winding road is the artist’s debut project, Exotica, and it captures the heart of the artist perfectly. Blending elements of adult contemporary, jazz, and Latin and flamenco rhythms, the album benefits greatly from the deft production of Mark Portmann (Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Barbara Streisand), carving out space for the real star of the show which is Roxanna’s rich and luxurious voice.

Things start out smooth and sultry with the Latin flair of “Only You,” an English version of the Iglesias hit “Como Tu,” and sets the standard for a theme that is recreated throughout the record as smoldering guitars and organic flairs of percussion steal the show. Tracks such as “Unforgotten,” a painfully personal tale of the artist being left at the altar, and the title track follow suit, the latter providing some sweeping strings and the opportunity for Roxanna’s voice to truly shine.

“Hello” carries those rhythms forward, blending them with hits of jazz fueled by some sensual trumpet work while “El Amor” is full on Spanish as the artist covers another classic from Julio Iglesias with passion. “Fresh” mines some spicy flamenco guitar and smoldering vocals from the artist as “Today” keeps the Latin sounds rolling with more amazing guitars and bold percussion, Roxanna letting the instrumentals hold sway this time out.

“Here With Me” boasts smooth trumpet work and a jazzy flair courtesy of Chris Botti while “Close Your Eyes” feels like a Celine or Streisand B-side, the arrangement rich and orchestral, Roxanna’s voice clearly up to the task. A lighthearted acoustic pop vibe colors “My Best Friend (Miko),” a playful track about the artist’s dog which provides some welcome texture as her cover of The Hollies harnesses more horns and emotive strings that lay a framework for the artist’s big vocals. Pop meets jazz on the smooth sounds of “Loved” and things get downright poignant on “Beautiful Rose,” a soaring ballad that honors Roxanna’s late mother, further accented by work from the Prague Orchestra and further soul from Botti.

With Exotica, Roxanna makes her first big significant step toward stardom. With her rich and resonant vocal tones and smooth phrasing accented by great production and solid songwriting as well, this record should go far toward pushing her to the  next level, a level that is in need of her strong perspective and sublime voice.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review: War Poets - Hot & Cold: American Relationships

Minneapolis, MN-based War Poets are on a mission and they’re not taking any prisoners. Ever since the release of their expansive, two-disc revelation Dulce Et Decorum Est, the band has continued to churn out new music, wrapping their passion for social justice and equality together with an equal passion for great music. Further supporting that sense of mission is their new label home, Rock the Cause Records, whose efforts go toward creating community involvement through concerts, workshops and releases, a perfect fit for the mission minded band.

For the uninitiated, that band is composed primarily of lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Rex Haberman, and bassist/vocalist, Jenny Case, who also serves as musical director. Both artists have had their histories with other bands and recording opportunities but combined have proved to be a force to be reckoned with, their musical talents forming a cohesive unit, cemented with their shared sense of justice as well. The result thus far has been a growing collection of albums that echo with sentiments of protest and a need for change, framed over sounds reminiscent of bands and artists like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Fleetwood Mac, supported by some of the Midwest’s finest session players.

Hot & Cold: American Relationships is the second installment in the duo’s “American Trilogy,” following hot on the trail of American Police State which explored the ideas of gun violence, Native American rights, and the plague of income inequality. This record takes a slightly more personal view, looking into the ups and downs of modern relationships, exploring everything from finding the right person to the unique joys and difficulties shared with love and relationships, something that evolves far beyond an American label.

Tracks like the Case fronted “Bits and Pieces” provides that classic sense of longing, that “sense of mystery waiting for me,” that so many folks find themselves wanting, Haberman’s rich guitar chops cutting a friendly swath through the track, letting Case’s warm and soulful vocals take hold. Haberman carries the rest of the lead vocal load throughout the rest of the record, with “Know the Way” offering up a rambling rhythm and a lyric of promises and commitment, a touch of horn providing some added texture.

“Ones Who Love” is a better fit for Haberman all the way around, letting his vocals express their rich grittiness and his guitars to blast out with some solid crunchiness while “Perfect One” taps into some old school vibes, a strong percussion section laying the foundation for bright guitars and a hopeful lyric. Rich 80s rock gets a solid nod on “Say No More,” Haberman and Case trading vocal duties and harmonizing beautifully while singing of difficult relationship elements before giving way to the rousing questions of “Upside Down,” smooth B-3 fills and churning guitars hammering home the lyric.

On Hot & Cold: American Relationships, War Poets continue to march their multiple messages ahead. This time that message is more of a picture, shining the light on the multiple facets found within relationships, pointing to the hopes, the fears, the pain, and the joy found by all. In those themes, War Poets appeals to a large audience and their solid musicianship just makes the listening all that much easier.

Review: Beautiful Mess - Word's Getting Around EP

It’s pretty hard to deny that many parts of this world that we live in are headed toward a dark place. It seems every day that we turn on the news and hear of yet another school shooting, of another racial injustice, or of yet another broken marriage, leaving a family trembling and hurting in its wake. Yet, there are those who dare to rise up and stand against that darkness that threatens to blot out the light, pointing to a source of strength far greater than anything this world has seen, giving true hope to a world in need.

Northeast collective Beautiful Mess is among the latter and they’ve been bringing their message of hope and faith to a growing set of audiences since 2009 when father and son Mike and Tim Ehrhart, along with Mike’s brother Chris, decided to pool their talents, hobbies, and resources together to form the group.

"Tim was learning to play the instruments, I was writing lyrics, and Chris was singing on worship teams and we did these things all independent of each other before finally deciding that maybe we should try putting these all together," shares Mike.

It’s been an organic process of growth for the band but is one that has continued to morph and develop over the years and that growth is apparent on the band’s latest effort, Word’s Getting Around.

Things open up with the bright tones of “Crazy,” layered organic percussion, keyboards, and guitars providing a warm and accessible foundation reminiscent of work by bands like MercyMe and Casting Crowns. Lead vocalist Chris Ehrhart’s strong vocals help to draw this comparison as well, his voice very similar in tone and texture to Bart Millard and Mark Hall as he sings through a lyric that shares, “It’s staying the same that’s insane/Wasting time playing the game/What if your dreams really were true?/Would it change what you say and what you do?

Smooth grooves and hits of rich organ fills color the title track, the playful romp fun and engaging with a lyrical tale that takes a renewed look at what true success is, layering vocals in and out. It’s a solid track that, with a little more enhanced production value on the vocal, which feels a little muffled initially, could be a great track. Things head down an acoustic road with “Holding On” and it’s a welcome walk, the rich tones befitting the track’s praise filled lyric with an engaging hook.

“Alright” tackles the question of our run till you drop society, feeling the need to constantly be entertained or active, oftentimes finding us chasing after fleeting idols while working a moody arrangement into the mix, a solid acoustic plucking through gentle hits of keyboard and drum before building to an explosive ending, the theatrics hammering home the message powerfully. “Home Forever” closes things out, a slow building anthem featuring more layered vocals and solid musicianship, with Ehrhart passionately honestly singing, “Tired of empty days with nothing to say/Tired of all those games that shadows play/It was a past I had to leave/Moving towards a promise I believe” before coming to the stirring conclusion that “My past is washed away/I have a purpose for today/I have a home forever/I have a home,” ending the EP with a resounding note of hope.

With each release, Beautiful Mess keeps getting better and better and Word’s Getting Around is perhaps their best yet. Bringing together solid songwriting, well-crafted arrangements, and a great vocal, this collective is on the right path to bring their message of hope to the masses. Here’s to hoping that message gets the audience it deserves.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: The Glass Child - I Must Be Gone And Live, Or Stay And Die

Let’s be honest, the life of a music reviewer isn’t one that’s laden with too many perks. Granted, we get to hear many albums prior to release date and get kept in the loop a little bit more than the general public on musical happenings here and there but we’re also tasked with meeting deadlines, trying to write intelligently about the albums, and are constantly on the lookout for new synonyms to color our reviews. Add in the stellar pay rate (sarcasm fully intended) and you might find yourself wondering while we even bother, right?

Artists like The Glass Child are exactly why reviewers keep writing, for the sheer opportunity to run across an artist with such great promise that you’re sure to find yourself saying one day, “Yeah, I was listening to them back in the day.” Yes, friends, The Glass Child and her latest release, I Must Be Gone And Live, Or Stay And Die is that type of album, the elusive diamond in the rough that helps keep reviewers like me going when all the music threatens to sound the same.
Yes, kids, it’s a great album and is one you’ll be glad to give a listen to when you get a chance.
The Glass Child, better known to her friends and family as Charlotte Eriksson, is an artist who gives new life to the concept of fully believing in her dream, leaving home at the tender age of eighteen to move to London, dedicating herself mind, body, and soul to her craft. And over four years, largely due to her ability to harness the power of social media, the artist has released five EPs and a full length record, scored high on the charts, and is now set to release her latest offering, I Must Be Gone And Live, Or Stay And Die.
Eriksson operates in a creative space that’s very alternative pop, drawing favorable comparisons to artists like Florence and the Machine and Paramore yet her sound is still resolutely hers as listeners will find through the thirteen tracks found here. Her voice is strong and resolute, her phrasing beyond her years, giving her a stiff leg up on the competition as she delivers soulful takes all along the way.
“The Fall” is an instant hit right off the bat with great lyrics like “I never knew that love could be/This much pain and misery” while surrounded by emotive keyboards and a warm, acoustic-based arrangement that frames the artist’s voice perfectly. Some eclectic percussion infuses “Heroes” before the artist lets loose and lets the rock out, her voice showing its full range and impressing while “Yesterday” showcases her voice against an acoustic guitar backdrop, her passion evident throughout.
“I’m Hidden So Well” is an inviting contrast between subdued tones and rocking notes, fueled with raging guitars and pounding guitars while “Winter Girls” is pleasingly experimental and atmospheric, hitting a stride at the end that presses things forward to the end. A poignant piano intro lays the groundwork for that ultimate question of youth, “Who Am I,” infusing some near reggae tones within before “London” offers up more acoustic vibes.
Relational angst colors the pulsing beat of “The Water’s Edge,” resounding guitar threads providing extra emotion as “Running Up That Hill” showcases Eriksson’s vocal creativity, layering vocals over against a sparse piano lead that is one of the more intriguing tracks to be found here. “Who I’ve Grown to Be” celebrates the artist’s journey to this point, breathing in the victory of her accomplishments and hard work with humility and honesty while “I Took His Smile Away” is a rocking explosion tempered by moments of quiet, Eriksson’s voice haunting. Things arrive at a close with an unplugged version of “The Water’s Edge,” still powerful in its stripped down setting and acoustic track, “Lonely In This Love,” which ends things on a high note.
I Must Be Gone And Live, Or Stay And Die is a great album from a wonderfully promising artist. If the Fates go the way of justice, this is an artist that we’ll all be glad to say that we were listening to back in the day for the road is bright ahead of this budding star.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: Barbara Lusch - Rock Me Sweet

A great song is a great song no matter what. If a song is truly great, it can transcend genres, artists, and interpretations and still deliver on its musical hook and impact with an emotional intensity. With her latest record, Rock Me Sweet, singer, model, and actress Barbara Lusch puts this theory to the test in a big way, taking on some of the biggest songs from the 80s and recreates them in a torch song setting, infusing each track with her own emotion and story. It’s a daunting task but Lusch delivers something rather interesting here for open minded listeners.
Inspired by an idea from friend and popular executive producer Tom Nunan, who suggested reinterpreting classic 80s male-fronted ballads in a jazz-flavored setting, Lusch took the idea and ran with it, drawing from eleven nostalgic classics from artists like Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, and U2, among others. The addition of Earl Sweet as arranger and orchestra leader only helped to strengthen the deal and give the recording even more polish.
Drawing from her acting experience, Lusch chose to approach these songs in a unique manner, seeking to find the unique story within each for her interpretations.
"I worked on these songs as if I were preparing a monologue,” she shares. “My acting experience has taught me story-telling techniques, and now it is so rewarding to perform this music, knowing that the lyrics have a deep significance for me and hoping this will be communicated to my audience as well."
The overall result is an album that brings something new to listeners as well as a renewed respect for Lusch of the artists whose work she draws from.
"Once we brought the tempos down, the emotions and stories contained in the lyrics emerged so clearly. I began to love these songs more and more, and to gain new admiration for the artists who conceived them,” she says.
Those emotions range from lovelorn and emotionally tortured to downright sultry and seductive from one track to another. Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” is envisioned as a siren song, Lusch’s vocals warm and inviting, flirtatious in their delivery while “Dancing In the Dark” is treated to a slow, string-laden arrangement that tempers the lyric, putting it starkly at the front and echoing with a touch of sadness.
Bits of horn and subtle percussion color Lusch’s take on “Living on a Prayer,” the track infused almost with a touch of samba while “Sweet Child of Mine” is a light and airy affair, gentle strings and guitar pressing it forward, a far cry from the Guns ‘N’ Roses original. “Hungry Like the Wolf” is another sultry delivery, Lusch teasing listeners with the lyric and the easy going composition as “Hot Blooded” amps it up even more, rich swells of horns providing a sonic wink and a nod throughout.
“Owner of a Lonely Heart” has a blues tone to it, the horns continuing to provide added emotion alongside some smooth percussion and keys, Lusch crooning effortlessly through the track, evoking thoughts of a smoky singer in a classic pulp fiction noir. But the artist’s finest effort might be her rendition of the U2 classic, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Engaging listeners with a tone that evokes sadness at the outset, the track builds, resonant strings providing a sense of movement before moving from sorrow to joy, Bono’s lyric as powerful here as ever.
Barbara Lusch’s Rock Me Sweet is not an album that will be for everyone but, for an adventurous listener, there’s a lot to be heard here. Taking on some daunting classics, the artist boldly dives into these eleven songs and infuses them with healthy doses of herself while maintaining the integrity of what are still great songs.

Review: Jay Soul - Stay With Me

The UK has been a hotbed of soul music singers for years, giving launch to artists like Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Adele, and most recently, Sam Smith, who has taken the recording world by storm. Now, South London born and raised Jay Soul is set to toss his hat into the ring, hoping that his signature style of eclectic blues, R&B, and pop will keep the trend going. 
The eldest of three siblings, Soul was raised in a single-parent home that encouraged him to pursue his talents. Among those talents was a genuine proclivity for working with technology, which the artist was able to parlay into a successful career as an IT professional. Yet, another muse also called to him, that of music. Taking time to work on his vocal skills as part of a gospel choir and later being afforded the opportunity to perform background vocals for several UK urban acts. Now, he’s stepping out of the shadows and is taking the mic into his own hands, set to deliver his own brand of Soul.
Part of that brand involves providing a dichotomy of sound, offering up some bright, sunny tones alongside darker, moodier vibes that evoke elements of the highs and lows of life, that same tone bleeding into the lyrical content as well.
“People will be surprised when they hear the album because I want to cover a broad range of subjects,” Soul shares. “It won’t just be a bland R& B album about love and relationships. It will also be about what I’ve witnessed around me, although I’m no activist. I believe in capitalism but also in presenting people with opportunities. I have been presented with opportunities but I have also looked for them. Everyone in this country is lucky in that sense." 
Soul gets things off to a strong start with the title track, framing his warm, smooth vocals against a sparse backdrop that really lets him shine. The subtle instrumentation really allows for the nuances of the artist's voice to stand out and proves to be one of the record's strongest tracks. "Any Day" takes another approach, offering up a beat-laden dance jam that lets Soul have a little fun, layering vocals and getting the party going. That's an angle that he echoes on the appropriately titled "Dance" as well, evoking thoughts of classic 90s R&B and pop jams.
"First Love" drops some more old school vibes, with rich and resonant keys highlighting Soul's tight baritone while "Get a Job" tackles some unexpected territory with a kicking groove that provides some sonic texture. But Soul is at his best when things are stripped down and "Afraid Reprised (Live)" and "Thank You" find the artist at his best, drawing both emotion and integrity into his sound.
While there are a lot of strong tracks, there are a few stumbles, namely when Soul tries to do too much as he does on "Up," the beat almost losing the richness of his voice and the layering of the vocals just feeling overwrought. Those same layering issues color "Inspiration" as well, the arrangement subdued but the layered vocal and a less than successful falsetto letting the artist down this time out.
But thankfully, those hiccups are the exception to the rule here and the whole of Jay Soul's Stay With Me showcases a bright artist on the rise. Soul evokes thoughts of an old soul while infusing plenty of his own unique charm into these songs, making this a promising debut that will have listeners hoping to hear more.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: The Mercy Alliance - Some Kind of Beautiful Story

Songwriter Joe Rathbone had lived in several big cities along the East Coast, hanging his hat in towns like Philadelphia, Nashville, and Atlanta. But there was something about his new home place of Washington, D.C., that simply called to him, awakening his muse and drawing him into a place of reflection and creativity. And with the help of a few old friends, Rathbone has brought those reflections to life with the September 9th release of The Mercy Alliance’s Some Kind of Beautiful Story.

Those friends include Rathbone’s longtime drummer and collaborator, David Lopez, who smooth rhythms have played foil to Rathbone’s crunchy guitar tones. Also along for the ride are some featured percussion parts from former Counting Crows drummer Steve Bowman, bassist Brad Jones, and David Henry’s string work providing the final cherry on top. Helping to keep it all together is producer Thomas Johansen.
Sonically, Some Kind of Beautiful Story toes the fine line between indie pop and rock with touches of Americana thrown in for good measure. Opening track “Washington” is a solid collision of all three, Rathbone’s sweeping composition rich and breezy, his vocals warm and accessible with gentle notes of hope throughout. In contrast, “Angel of Mercy” segues fully into indie rock mode, Rathbone’s guitars gritty throughout, grinding against a melodic lyric and kicking percussion while “All For the Love of You” keeps those hardcore guitar licks flowing, accenting them with some compelling string work.
Some old school rock textures and a moody vibe color “Moving In Time,” Rathbone and company evoking some tension with minor chords as “This Is How They Know” lightens the load, bright tones and some tasty drum work and percussive notes, with more of Henry’s strings bridging things together. “I Can’t Do It” is a simmering pop rock gem, Rathbone’s guitars playing just along the surface, their textures willing the track to just the edge and being brought back by swells of strings and his own smooth vocal delivery before “Libertine” allows him the opportunity to let the cat out of the bag, delivering a funky groove that really shines. It’s a rich, bluesy jam that showcases his flexible vocals and creative guitar work and is one of the album’s clear highlights.
“Save Me” finds things drawn back into a mid-tempo flow, Rathbone delivering some solid falsetto notes and pleading tones across lines of reaching guitar and Lopez’s consistent backbeat. And perhaps saving their greatest creative moments for the last, The Mercy Alliance close out their latest offering with “Drifting In,” a track that offers up a plodding yet engaging path, guitar feedback echoing thoughts of static reflected in the lyric as a myriad of textures build in the background. It’s a track that closes without any real resolution but, for some reason, that seems to work here.
Joe Rathbone and The Mercy Alliance have conceived of an album that is right in their wheelhouse, allowing for each component to shine while still contributing to the whole. At the forefront are Rathbone’s well-crafted lyrics and vocals, crooning throughout these nine tracks with purpose, while his guitar playing shows stellar creativity and musicianship, giving the rest of the members a launching point. And they build upon that and have crafted a worthwhile listen in Some Kind of Beautiful Story, a listen that will no doubt have many going back for more.
For more info on The Mercy Alliance and Some Kind of Beautiful Story, visit