Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: Keznamdi - Bridging the Gap EP

Some folks are simply destined to follow in their family’s footsteps. Whether it’s the proud son following his father into the family restaurant business or a family legacy like the Williams, where Senior begat Junior who begat Holly and Hank III, sometimes it’s just bound to happen. Such is the case with up and coming reggae star, Keznamdi.

Keznamdi is the child of the lead singers of the internationally known reggae troupe, Chakula, and, for as long as the artist can remember, music has been a part of his life. He spent his “early years touring the world and (was) present while they were recording their ten albums in the recording studio located in his own home” which was found on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica. In fact, he recorded his first song at the ripe young age of five, entitled “Mix a Color,” “an educational song about color mixing” that he then performed at his mother’s release tours for her children’s album, Save the World.

Music schools dominated the lives of Keznamdi and his sisters growing up and each child took to the arts in their own way, his sister marrying reggae artist, Jah Cure, and recording with established artists such as Calico while his other sister pursued her musical dreams in Kingston. A three year stint in Tanzania as well as the completion of high school in Ethiopia would hone Keznamdi’s ears that much more and once he landed at St. Mary’s College in northern California, the artist was set to take his sound to the next level.

“This is not a choice or hobby for me; music chose me,” the artist shares of his path into music. “It’s a way of life and the only thing I have ever known.”

And that path looks mighty promising from the early sounds coming from the artist’s debut EP, Bridging the Gap. Featuring six songs that cull aspects from the artist’s influences, boasting vibes that hint at elements of Damian and Stephen Marley and ranging from dancehall reggae, R&B, and hip-hop, Keznamdi is an artist set to carve his own way through the musical landscape.

“I Don’t Wanna” kicks things off with a smooth island breeze, layered singsong rhythms and an acoustic backdrop leaving listeners with the scent of the ocean on their ears while “My Love” is a pop/hip-hop inflected jam that would play fine on the radio, bookended by tracks by Bruno Mars and Usher. The artist’s voice is smooth and soulful and the backing track follows suit, making this one of the highlights of the collection.

A bit of hip-hop flow colors “Darkness,” a moody jam that lends some different textures before those rap notes grow even more with “Is This Love.” Buoyed by a solid horn section, Kez showcases a nice blend of traditional reggae tones with modern sensibilities while he takes things back to that traditional element with the upbeat and encouraging “Just Vibe.” Another classic, laid-back reggae roll, it keeps the artist anchored into his roots.

Saving the best for last, “Weekend” closes the EP out, each and every element coming together just right. Kez’s vocals are spot on, whether singing or flowing out tight rhymes, and the unique blend of musical influences blends together solidly, making this yet another standout. And once again, it’s a track that’s ready-made for radio play without any tweaks.

In short, Keznamdi is the real deal. Boasting a great pedigree as well as a boatload of influences, both personal and musical, he’s an artist who’s gifted not only with experience but with pure talent. His rich vocals, uplifting lyics, and ear for a catchy hook and melody help make this debut something that should and, dare we say, will be heard around the world. It’s quality music that deserves a listening ear. Here’s to hoping he gets just that.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Review: Oh, Jeremiah - Tall Tales and Tiny Fables EP

Modern music is finally beginning to re-embrace the world of great, acoustic driven and Southern style music. Bands like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and The Civil Wars have done a tremendous service in helping to show the glory that is at the roots of so much Americana-flavored stylings. Now, indie recording artist, Jeremiah Stricklin, better known to some as the band, Oh, Jeremiah, is out to add his name to that circle of rising stars.

Stricklin hails from the Deep South where he’s long been drawn to quiet, honest conversations, whiling away the days over tall glasses of iced tea while sitting on the porch. An early love of music would send the artist to study at the University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Music while, interestingly enough, exposure to a Blink 182 video and a track by The National, would work to shape the artist’s journey even more.
That journey would eventually find some of its lines colored in by the sounds of artists like Ryan Adams, Shovels and Rope, and Josh Ritter, among others, working to forge his own take on the Americana singer-songwriter sound. The result is his debut EP, Tall Tales and Tiny Fables, a five song collection that shows a whole lot of promise for the future of this bright artist.

Stricklin opens up the proceedings with the fiddle and string-laden “Better Man,” singing a tale of longing and pursuit while accompanied by some pleasant female harmony vocals which help to balance out the tone overall. Buoyant percussion and passionate acoustic guitar drive the song home while “Circles” is a quieter conversation, fingerpicked acoustic guitar primarily holding the spotlight over a tale of love and longing.
A dramatic string section opens up “Happy Now,” it’s near-theatrical opening bringing a sense of excitement to the track as Stricklin plays back and forth with the heartbroken lyric, strong fiddle notes rolling throughout the track and accented by more pounding drum work. His lyrical take is spot on and the emotion, fueled with both anger and loss, is readily evident before allowing more fingerpicked guitar to take center stage on “Mississippi, I’m Yours.” A beautiful ballad, merging Stricklin’s nuanced vocals again with some nice female assistance, it’s a moving and warm track that conjures the mind to reminisce of times growing up.

“The Scariest Thing” closes the EP out and is the most sonically diverse tune on the record. While it still features the requisite fiddle notes and acoustic guitar push, as well as Stricklin’s female counterpart, a thumping electric bass offers a whole new dimension to this song, alongside some plucky piano notes, allowing it the most contemporary feel, for better or worse, to be found here.
And while it’s tough to make large decrees based upon five simple songs, it’s safe to posit that Jeremiah Stricklin is an artist with a solid future ahead of him. Offering up poignant and honest lyrics alongside great arrangements with ties to the Deep South, Stricklin and his project, Oh, Jeremiah, have hit upon a musical gold mine. Here’s to hoping Tall Tales and Tiny Fables is but the first of many tales we’ll get to hear.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: David Alter - Songs for Sale

David Alter’s child just might have a future as a musical talent scout. As Alter recalls, “My ten year-old heard my music and said ‘This stuff is great, you gotta do it, you gotta live your dreams.’ That was the defining moment for me.”

That moments been a long time coming for the singer-songwriter, who boasts a day job as “a highly esteemed cardiologist and an epidemiologist scientist that’s published over 125 manuscripts” as well as starting his own organization, Vigour Projects, which is “dedicated to applying, evaluating and promoting the benefits of music on health and medical outcomes.” And while Alter ultimately chose medicine over music career-wise (he had originally studied piano at a conservatory), his love for music has never left.
Songs for Sale is just a tip of the iceberg that showcases Alter’s songwriting skills as he culled ten songs from a staggering one hundred-plus, written over twenty years, and that feature something of an autobiographical journey for the artist. And inspired both a disdain for his own vocal stylings and the advice of producer, George Koller, who suggested, “Why don’t you get out there as a songwriter and have others present your music?,” Alter found the confidence he was looking for. Gathering some of the better vocal talent from around Canada, Alter presents his sound and stories in a great package.

That package is one that hearkens back, by and large, to the great and soulful singer-songwriters of the seventies and early eighties. With heartfelt lyrics and arrangements that recall artists such as Elton John, Billy Joel, and James Taylor, Alter’s compositions carry an old school feel with hints of timelessness that let them be enjoyed today. Those Taylor/Jim Croce elements are readily heard on the opening track, “Travelin’ Down Country Roads” with its quiet acoustic backdrop while the piano-driven pop of “Never Look Back” easily hearkens to the sounds of Joel and John and is skillfully delivered by the soulful vocals of Michael Danckert.
Further strengthening those ties to a generation gone by are tracks like, “Brother,” sung ably by Mark Kopman and Alex Samaras and telling the tale of a family that struggles with caring for a developmentally disabled family member alongside soaring chorus lines and piano pop and the low-key acoustic offerings of “Sobriety,” again featuring the vocals of Danckert. Alter takes up the mic on “Lai Lai Lai” and “Start Again,” his tenor vocals managing well over more subdued soundscapes that let the artist’s lyric stand stark and true.

And while Alter continues to deliver a more soft and quiet approach throughout, providing tracks such as the tale of “Jennifer,” telling of a challenged street performer and her dreams who boasts “lines on her face” that “cannot be erased, but she doesn’t seem to care,” and “Still the One,” driven by piano and telling the story of the artist coming to grip with the death of his mother, it’s a rather unexpected track that steals the thunder here.
That track is none other than “Live for Today,” performed by Yvan Pedneault, who boasts vocal delivery that brings to mind early Richard Marx or Leo Sayer. It’s a classic pop rock ballad, starting gently and building, offering the right flourishes of electric guitar and throbbing bass at just the right times, creating a wonderfully emotive experience and drawing the listener into the track with each and every progression. Pedneault’s vocals soar and Alter’s lyrics rise above, marking this as the must listen of Songs for Sale.

And with the continued rise of the singer-songwriter genre, and the listening public’s drive for something more substantial than the usual Top 40 fare, David Alter may be just the breath of fresh air many listeners are looking for. And, if things go that way, Alter may need to set his scalpel aside for a time and keep his pen busy writing more because there’s a very good chance these songs are going to sell out.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Review: Andy Palmer - Hazard of the Die

It’s always interesting to chart the path of an artist, to see where they came from. In the case of up and coming alt folk rock artist, Andy Palmer, that story is that much more true.

Palmer seems to have always been a wandering soul, searching for peace and contentment in the highways and the byways. A shy individual by nature, Palmer took to writing songs in his early twenties as a way to express himself, admittedly writing tracks that “were introverted and filled with angst.” His searching brought him to a spiritual retreat in Maine where he lived for six months in near solitude, meditating for up to four hours a day in search of an inner peace.
 “I believed I had become too attached to myself and to the physical things around me. So I challenged myself to live without a strong sense of identity or creature comforts.” Among those creature comforts was listening to music; however, he supplemented listening to music with playing his own as he sought out his own voice.

After that intense journey, Palmer took on an even bigger challenge as he pursued the path of law and eventually served as a public defender in New York City. The gritty and harsh realities he faced there color in the lines of the eight tracks that compose Hazard of the Die.
In addition to his experiences, perhaps the most interesting element of Palmer is his voice, which he uses to full extent here. A gravelly and worn hybrid reminiscent of artists like Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Leonard Cohen, Palmer uses his voice as an instrument, his vocal intonations simply giving more pop and power to his eclectically dark compositions.

“The Monk” opens things up, an autobiographical tale of the artist passing a Franciscan monk walking twice while on a road trip and ebbs and flows into existential thoughts, buoyed ahead by a mid-tempo mélange of guitar, percussion and strings before opening up into the spoken word poetry of “Heart of Colfax,” which finds the artist really working his voice powerfully as he tells of an urban dark side.
Smooth blues notes accentuate “Broke Down in Bellevue,” Palmer using some of his instrumental fills to almost push the listener to a point of discomfort that works wonderfully well with the slightly haunting lyric. Those blues vibes continue with the more upbeat and rocky “Good Son” while “Moreya” is a more subdued affair that subtly builds and is easily one of the more accessible tracks found here.

That accessibility doesn’t last long, however, as Palmer delivers “Muy Algo Muy Mal”, translated, “There is something very wrong.” This is an area where Palmer’s vocals grate as oppose to intrigue and the repetition within the chorus of the Spanish title are jarringly frustrating. Thankfully, “The Defendant” and its dark tale of injustice, fueled with moody tones does a lot to right those wrongs. Birthed out of an experience Palmer had in court as a public defender, it’s one of the album’s standouts, complete with its wailing harmonica before the funkified flavors of “Fancy That” step in to close things out.
Palmer’s an artist that won’t garner Top 40 airplay anytime soon but that shouldn’t deter him in the least. A lyricist who writes openly and honestly and delivers those words couched in colorful and creative blankets of sound, all hinged upon his unique vocals, Palmer has plenty of promise. Fans of Waits and Cave should find plenty to enjoy here as will those willing to expose their ears to something new and out of the proverbial box.