Friday, May 31, 2013

Review: Greater Alexander - Positive Love

There are few great catalysts for artists to draw inspiration from than good old fashioned life experience. While there are exceptions, one would most likely not find Justin Bieber discussing thoughts of the depth of life, nor would you hear an artist like Bob Dylan musing about his crush. There’s a depth that living brings to art and the best artists know how to tap those wells and draw deep.

If experience is any indication, Greater Alexander, better know to his mother and father as Alexander Vlachos, has it in spades. Drawing inspiration from his hometown of Southfield, Michigan, “by way of New York and Athens, Greece,” Vlachos is an artist who, even at a relatively young age, has been around the block a few times, holding over thirty different jobs. That journey has seen the budding artist juggle everything from being a barista to a healthcare provider, and several in between. And through it all, Alexander has emerged knowing that love is the one power capable of making a difference.

Alexander channels that knowledge and power into his debut release, aptly titled Positive Love, to great effect. Offering up accessible and intelligent lyrics that harness the celestial seesaw of life, as we ebb and flow through our experiences, enjoying great peace as well as struggling through great hardships, Alexander weaves a tapestry of indie folk that meshes with subtle pop influences, resulting in a warm, soulful, and encouraging journey of sound.

The Wayne State grad opens up his opus on love and life with “Any Way Out of It,” and from the get-go, his artistry is evident. Stunning finger-picked guitar is accented by layered harmony vocals from Alexander, presenting a full, yet subdued, vocal sound that flows throughout the majority of the album. The sound is reminiscent of artists like Joshua Radin and, to a lesser extent, Sam Beam of Iron and Wine fame.

The title track showcases more solid guitar alongside some falsetto tones from Alexander and a few extra bells and whistles, keeping the mood warm and cozy before giving way to the slightly moody and pop-friendly “Baby Steps.” More layered vocals color the laidback canvas of “Spinning” while “Better Days” hints at the warmth of memories as we reflect back. “Feel of Summer” is a just that, a fresh sonic breath of summery sunshine, given a light and fresh feel with some playful whistling throughout before the short but sweet “Chances,” with an almost choral feel to the vocals and some real instrumental intricacy taking place.

“Everlasting” is a slow-builder that utilizes some piano tones to build an additional emotive depth and “Let It Be Me” hints at some Latin influences before segueing into one of the album’s biggest highlights in “Oh, You.” Starting with a light, airy feel, gentle guitar and crooned vocals, Alexander utilizes finger snaps and subtle piano to layer textures later on that simply result in a great sound. The artist closes up shop with the slightly sad-tinged “Negative Fears” and “In The Stillness of Water,” which starts with a stark intro and then flows into a full and passionate ending that closes out this record in solid fashion.

Greater Alexander may be an artist that is new to the scene but, with talent like this, he should be received with open arms and welcomed in without qualms. Managing to conjure up everything from stellar guitar work to lush vocals, with cunning and inventive percussion in between, Alexander shows himself to be a real artist. Add to that the ability to write honest and insightful lyrics and you’re faced with the whole package. Fans of artists like Simon and Garfunkel to Bon Iver will find plenty and more to enjoy here on Positive Love.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Beth Duncan - Comes The Fall

The jazz music genre is one of those areas where, for a vocalist at least, there’s no place to hide. While singers of other styles, whether it be rock, pop, country, among others, may manage to “get by” with subpar vocal deliveries and the help of digital helps like Auto Tune and ProTools. Yet, in jazz, where the vocals manage to be front and center, oftentimes taking on an instrumental quality in and of themselves, there’s no room to run. And thankfully, in the case of rising jazz artist, Beth Duncan, there’s no need to.

Duncan tracks her lifetime love of jazz music to her childhood where she recalls, “As a little kid, my older brother loved jazz. He painted his room black, had bongos, and I would hear Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and Mel Tormé wafting out of his room,” she says laughing. “That music from down the hall led me to the path I am meant to be on.”

And, judging by the sound of her latest recording, Comes the Fall, that’s exactly where she needs to be.

Comes the Fall was tracked by producer/engineer, Guy Kowarsh, who challenged the artist, pushing her to “add nuances and layers to her recordings, encouraging her to do vocal harmonies,” wrapping them around an “orchestral approach within a lean bass, drums, guitar, and vocal format.” Performing original arrangements written by composer Martine Tabilio, as well as some classic covers, Duncan found herself joined by a set of world class musicians to complete her vision. Among them were her longtime guitarist, Steve Homan, Mike McMullen on both flute and tenor saxophone, bassist Bill Douglass, trumpeters Frankie Bailey and Steve Roach, and percussionists Babatunde Lea and Brian Kendrick, with some assistance from producer Kowarsh as well. The result is a strong, mature record that will satisfy jazz fans from all walks of life.

The title track is a nice look into Duncan’s abilities, surrounded by a warm arrangement of hushed drums, Homan’s great guitar, and McMullen’s tenor sax fill as she sings were way home, harmonizing with herself perfectly and delivering a perfect start to the record. “Wish I May” keeps the good going with Homan taking the guitar solo to nice levels while Duncan adds a playful vocal delivery while “How High the Moon” uses percussion to move things forward.

“I’m On a Cloud” is a track that would make Ron Burgundy smile, with its sublime use of jazz flute while Duncan’s delivery of the classic, “Moon River,” is stark and compelling. It takes a listen or two to get adjusted to it but it works while “Quiet Nights” taps into some Latin roots, letting the artist strut her stuff a little bit more.

“No Rhyme or Reason” is a moody affair, somber notes holding sway early before the album’s real opus, a rearrangement of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” by guitarist Steve Homan, is presented. Duncan works hard and nails it on this most difficult work. “There wasn’t a lot of room for bending notes, I had to just purely sing,” Duncan says.

And singing is what she does best, finishing the final tracks just as heartily as she tackled the first. On “Almost Like Being in Love,” Homan continues to show his supreme prowess on guitar while Duncan skits and scats beautifully on the pleasantly invigorating, “Simple Life.” “Embraceable You” finds the artist teaming only with Bill Douglass’ bass and delivering a sultry song as “Wish Me a Rainbow” close things out with a jazz-styled jam, all the instruments getting their due and Duncan showcasing her range and skills further.

While jazz may not be everyone’s cup of tea, for those open and hungry for it, Beth Duncan is an artist who has plenty to give. Comes the Fall offers skillful arrangements and great musicianship, a nice blend of original songs and covers, and, ultimately, Duncan herself who stands poised to take the next step into jazz stardom.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: Jensen Reed - The Left Coast

What’s that? You say you’ve never heard of Jensen Reed? Well, you might be surprised. Because, since his move to The Left Coast, this kid’s steadily been making a name for himself.

The rising artist’s career started humbly in the Tar Heel state of North Carolina when a classmate asked him to duet on the Beastie Boys’ “Pass the Mic” for a talent show. The crowd loved it and so did Reed. He set his sights on the big time and, drawing heavily on the influence of the Beastie Boys, along with bands like The Doors, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, among others, and set about making music. Eventually, Reed was performing with his college band, Plan B, for crowds of 5,000 in Raleigh-Durham. Yet, the artist soon found himself feeling the need to make a move.
So, in 2007 the budding artist set his sights on Los Angeles. While keeping his day job as a tennis pro, as well as stepping out and getting his real estate license, Reed kept pushing ahead with his musical dreams in the difficult L.A. scene.

“At first it was somewhat intimidating,” he admits. “But then I rocked a couple of shows and it gave me a lot of confidence.”
That confidence has brought Jensen Reed far, seeing him sign a deal with a publishing company and has "had song placements in the lauded series “Friday Night Lights,” Showtime’s “House of Lies”, the Oscar-nominated film “The Messenger” and several MTV and VH1 shows. And with the release of his debut album, The Left Coast, his star is only sure to rise higher.

For, with this release, it’s easy to see what the buzz is all about. Reed carries himself musically in a way that is far beyond his years, crafting quality rock and hip-hop elements together into a mélange of power and poise. Underlying many of Reed’s tracks is an overwhelming side of darkness and moodiness, as evidenced in standouts like “American Psycho,” colored with Kid Cudi-esque riffs and effects and the Linkin Park-feeling “Countdown,” complete with riveting keys and a haunting arrangement. “Ricochet” carries the theme along as well as on “Throw You the Rope” which features a guest performance from Johnny Pacar.
Yet, all is not epic and moody with Reed as he ably displays throughout the rest of the recording. The title track is an appropriately sunny, driving track that begs airplay on a hot summer afternoon, windows down, as you drive to the beach, while “Something Missing,” featuring The Mowglis, is another bright ray of sunshine, the communal chorus lines bringing a distinctly indie feel to the proceedings while incessant piano tones plunge things forward. “Rocketship” pushes ahead with positive lyrics and a driving bass drum kicking throughout as “Lights Come On,” which showcases Lauren Mayhew, is a pop driven track that lets Reed showcase his skills as an arranger.

The keyboards play a role once again in the multilayered “Can’t Downplay (Going Home)”, accented by a catchy percussion arrangement and “So You Know,” which finds Reed drawing help from Drew Seeley, is another worthwhile listen, Reed’s synth fills meeting with the percussion notes nicely and forming a great gumbo of sound.
Jenson Reed? You might not know him now but, mark this reviewer’s words, you soon will. The Left Coast is a great record and it’s only a matter of time before this young artist is rocking the charts hard. Reed’s about to blow up and we’ll be glad to say that we knew him when.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: Lisa Bell - The Italian Project

The old adage holds that one should not judge a book by its cover. And perhaps that adage should extend to include the title as well. Because, to those unfamiliar with the music of Lisa Bell, the title of her latest album, The Italian Project, could have listeners anticipating hits of accordion, perhaps some stellar operatic notes, or at least a decent cover of “That’s Amore.” So hopefully they’ll be wonderfully surprised to find that Bell’s record is anything but that, instead offering up a warm array of Americana tinged country and jazz notes, sounds that the artist comes by honestly.

Bell boasts a B.A. in Vocal Performance from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has, for the past eleven years, set herself on a path toward expanding beyond the jazz standards she was known for to embracing a sound and style that encompasses everything from jazz, blues, country, roots rock, and more, all with a positive spin, believing that that sort of music truly does help to change lives. Along the way, she’s had the opportunity to perform with a number of powerful performers such as Christopher Cross, Boney James, and Oleta Adams, as well as guitar great, Stanley Jordan.

And along the way, Bell found her way to Italy where she not only gained fans with her powerful performances but she made friendships that would last a lifetime and add to her musical repertoire, owing to the creation of The Italian Project.

And, as mentioned before, while this bears a European name, the sound is all Americana. Bell harnesses the worlds of country, jazz, blues, and even adds a few Latin influences in order to create this world that she inhabits with her honeyed vocals. Bell opens the album in a warm, country fashion with “Bring the Love,” playful lyrics merging with the artist’s great vocal work, drawing to mind an artist and sound like Bonnie Raitt. It’s those more roots-flavored tracks that seem to find her at her best, as further evidenced by songs like “Come My Way,” colored by a more contemporary arrangement, and “Walk With Me” which reads like a Patty Griffin B-side. Add “Love Hurts” and the toe-tapping tones of “The Best of Me” to that and you’re assured that at least one half of this record is more than solid.

Yet, don’t let that lead you into thinking that the other half is any slouch. Rather, the remaining tracks find Bell erring more on the side of her jazz and singer/songwriter influences, which hearken back to her early days. “One Face One Race” bridges lyrics of unity together with a hybrid of jazz, Latin percussion, and some adult contemporary while “A Brighter Day” continues in that same vein, shakers providing some nice texture around Bell’s vocal delivery, recalling elements of Carole King and the like. “Quilt” continues those singer/songwriter elements, an acoustic arrangement providing a humble canvas for warm vocals as “From the Outside Looking In” and “I Can Be Anything” round out the record before closing up shop with the one real disappointment here, “Set It Free (The Boomba, Boomba Song.)”

But, one disappointment isn’t enough to detract from the overall promise of the rest of Lisa Bell’s The Italian Project. Filled with plenty of grounded songwriting, near-flawless vocals, and great musicianship that runs the gamut from country to jazz and back again, Bell has crafted an album that plenty are sure to enjoy.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: Take Me To The Pilot - What Makes You EP

Canadian-based power pop quartet, Take Me To The Pilot, wants to know What Makes You on their sophomore EP, but for those of us in the dark, perhaps its best to start by understanding what makes them.

The band is the brainchild of lead vocalist and songwriter, Mike Bilenki, and simply started with a song. While tinkering in his basement, Bilenki found himself between bands and not really sure what direction he wanted to head when he started work on a new composition. As it turns out, that would be the song that would reenergize the young musician and lead him to record the track, build a MySpace page to promote it, and would soon add fellow members Adam Brown (bass), Eric Grabowecky (guitar), and Jonathan James (drummer) to the mix, completing the trifecta. With all the pieces in place, the band has garnered a fair amount of success, traveling across their native Canada multiple times and performing with acts like The New Cities, Fefe Dobson, Alyssa Reid, and Brighter Brightest, among others.
And one listen to What Makes You helps listeners to understand the quick rise of this young band. Featuring an overall sound that is reminiscent of bands like Yellowcard, Fall Out Boy, and Relient K, Take Me To The Pilot crafts a fine blend of power pop and rock, giving thing their own spin, largely through the able songwriting craft of Bilenki and his able crew of musicians. There’s plenty of the requisite hard hitting percussion, jangling guitars, and up tempo jams throughout this release.

“Baby We’re Gonna Be Rich” kicks things off with a solid punch, a simple opening flowing into a solid burst of sound as Bilenki sings of youthful love, Grabowecky’s solid guitar chops holding things in check as “Time’s Up” adopts a slightly more organic sound throughout, with some “wah wah” guitar notes and plucky bass from Brown. “Melody” delivers some nice synth tones to start while Bilenki is aided by some vocal effects and hand-clap percussion before the EP segues into “the song.”
The song that birthed the band is “Carry You Back,” and, by and large, it’s a solid track. Love-based lyrics are surrounded by a full-fledged pop sound, Bilenki showcasing some nice harmony vocal work and the overall appeal ending in something rather encouraging, buoyed by some soulful string section work throughout. “What About The Time” plugs the synth back in and gets things rolling from the start before things pull out into a more traditional flow, Brown’s bass getting plenty of work as the whole bands goes into overdrive, pulling together hook-laden, catchy pop fare.

Persistent guitar kicks off “Right Now” and when the rest of the band kicks in, bolstered by Bilenki’s passionate vocal delivery and the rolling bass line from Brown, listeners are going to be glad they tuned in to this upbeat track. Some acoustic notes and a quiet intro open “Travlin’ Heart” up and closes things out on a slightly subdued note that provides a nice contrast to the rest of the EP.
Take Me To The Pilot is a band on the rise, and with a median age of 21, they’ve got plenty of time to make that trek. And while What Makes You isn’t a perfect record, it’s not half bad. As these young men get a few more miles under their feet and diversify their sound just a little bit more, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.