Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: Matthew Heller - Invitation

Protest music has a long history throughout the world of music. Yet, while it has considerable roots, most only think of its earlier incarnations when it’s mentioned. Artists like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan tend to enter folks mind, their acoustic-driven, folk sounds being that which people so often identify with the genre. Yet, while those artists are for sure among the figureheads, protest music has reached much farther than that, seeing it enter into genres as diverse as punk, rock ‘n roll, blues, and even country.

And those are the places that anti-establishment musician, Matthew Heller, goes in order to get his message across.
The Portland-based artist has plenty to rail against, largely due to his life experiences. The son of a heroin addicted mother, who would eventually fall prey to her addiction, Heller has seen a lot of dark times and his music reflects that. Adding to those experiences, he shares, “I’ve lived in the Mission district in San Francisco, in the Puerto Rican parts of Brooklyn, and in the South Side of Chicago. In Chicago I saw a man freeze to death outside.” Those are the kinds of experiences that color in a life and, in Heller’s case, provide the angst to his passionate artistry.

That artistry comes forth in a plethora of forms on Heller’s latest outing, Invitation. One form finds the artist channeling the muse of indie and alt-flavored garage rock as he does on tracks like the energetic “Shake It” and the percussion-heavy “Another Dose.” And with his vocals playing back between references to Jack White and Billy Corgan, Heller continues to deliver his personal brand of vitriol on “Drone Strike,” passionately and loudly calling out the government for the use of drones.
The alt-rock elements come forward on tracks like “Father’s Son,” opening with warm acoustic notes before bursting into an electric chorus, complementing the song’s heartfelt lyric, while “Space Girl” is a plethora of sound and experimentation. Album closer “Dismay King” is a surprisingly approachable track and is one that should be considered as a radio single if opportunity arises, complete with choral vocals and insistent piano chops, while “Sink or Swim” is simplicity personified, seeing the artist settle in quietly and allow things to rest for a moment.

The other form that Heller’s musical persona seems most comfortable in is that of a rousing blues musician. Emerging from the poignant and powerful instrumentation of “Interlude,” Heller lets his inner bluesman slowly emerge through the tale of a drug addicted girl on “Howdy From Hades” and “Mercy” before “Man’s Prayer” finds his true blues emerging in a raging, acoustic storm. “Jaclyn of Spades” keeps this same vibe rolling, with help from guest artist Nathan Trueb, of Alpha Tango Alpha fame, providing slide guitar work. And further listens find that blues element running through many of the other tracks, something it’d be exciting to see Heller pursue further in the future.
But, as his current direction holds, Matthew Heller is doing things right. Eclectic and artistic as he is, these things don’t always add up to a listenable product. Yet, Heller manages to combine a flow of compelling meaning lyrically into tracks that ooze with enough creativity to stay interesting but not so much to alienate. It’s a fine line to walk and the better part of Invitation manages it well. Heller’s music has legs; it’ll be interesting to see where this collection of tracks takes this compelling artist.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: Jamie Block - Whitecaps on the Hudson

The music business is notoriously fickle. It seems as though in today’s music market it’s really not all about the music anymore. If that were the case, artists like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and more would be blowing up the Top 40 airwaves instead of pop stars like One Direction, Justin Bieber, and more. And while there are a good number of artists who fall in between, managing quality hooks alongside compelling lyricism, there are even more who fall between the cracks, their artistry either too far ahead of the times or their luck just that poor.

Jamie Block is such an artist. The New York-based singer-songwriter rose to indie prominence in the mid 90’s with his album, Lead Me Not Into Penn Station, which lead to some solid opening gigs, performing on the same stage as artists like The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Bob Mould, and They Might Be Giants. Soon, Glen Ballard came calling and signed Block to his Capitol imprint, Java Records, and released Timing is Everything, a record that scored solid critical acclaim and landed several tracks on assorted film soundtracks.
Yet, whether it was music that came before its appointed time or perhaps Block had simply run out and Capitol Records dropped the artist and he headed to Wall Street. However, when WFUV deejay Claudia Marshall began to play Block’s music once again and put out the plea for Block to return to recording, the artist simply couldn’t say no, releasing The Last Single Guy in 2006.

Now, Block’s back yet again with his latest collection of tracks, Whitecaps on the Hudson, and it’s a doozy.
And Block didn't come alone. With the help of producer and engineer, Dean Sharenow, Block benefits from a sound stable of accomplished musicians backing his quirky and compelling compositions. Featuring the talents of musicians like

Erik Della Penna (Natalie Merchant, Joan Baez) on guitars, Mick Rossi (Paul Simon, Phillip Glass) on keyboards, and Byron Isaacs (Olabelle) and Jeff Hill (Rufus Wainwright) sharing the bass duties, Block recorded the album in two Brooklyn sessions in order to capture the magic live.
And what magic it is.

Block presents himself in essentially two ways. The first incarnation is that of the Americana-flavored singer-songwriter found on tracks like "Black Eyed Susan," "Henry," "Can't Sleep," and "I'll Keep It With Mine." It's on these songs that the artist adopts a typically more acoustic approach, with lots of organic tones and a vocal delivery that hints at influences as diverse as Willie Nelson and Neil Diamond while still lending its own originality as well. These tracks are all warm in tone and tend to provide subtle canvases for Block's solid lyrics, as is the case with album closer, “Far Away.” If the artist were content to rest here and filled out the rest of the album with similar tracks, listeners would still have little to complain about.
However, Block's no one-trick pony and his second persona is perhaps the more interesting, if less accessible, side of his music. This side resonates with healthy influences of Tom Waits while maintaining a decidedly "Block"-centric flair and offers up musically-tinged spoken word deliveries that both baffle and delight, all in the same moment. From the rootsy rock and hooting horn section, complete with its playful pop culture references of "B.A. Man" to the percussion and piano-heavy "Somebody Beat the Wiz," Block drops lyrics that puzzle while bringing a smile to one's face at the same time.

The title track comes close to bridging the gap, with the artist's spoken word coming elegantly close to being sung, buoyed by persistent shaker sounds and a slightly demented guitar lead that weaves its way through the track here as the song builds more and more, the lyric recalling the heroics of the Revolutionary War. More free-form guitar meets piano notes of the same on Block's "Sam Patch," a track told with a sneer in his voice while "1993" jumps from moody to lighthearted with spoken and sung lyrics throughout as “My Head” is a short, if cerebral, walk through the artist’s creativity.
And while Block's style cannot be for all, there's something compelling here, something that lends itself to a second listen and perhaps even a third. Whether you get it or not, you can't deny Block's artistry and Whitecaps on the Hudson delivers a smorgasbord of word and sound that you truly won't hear anywhere else. If you're an adventurous listener, give this one a shot. It's well worth your time.