Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review : Brian Larney - At the Starting Line

It seems that within the heart and soul of many successful band members, there always lies that
powerful question of, “What if?” Most specifically, “What if I were to try and do this on my own?’ And, for years, band members have been stepping out of the shadows of their comfort zones and have tried to forge ahead with their personal visions. In some cases it’s been wildly successful while others have unfortunately met with far less success.

Rising artist, Brian Larney, knows all too well those introspective longings and questions. A longtime member and collaborator within local Northeast bands, Larney has long felt the urge to venture out solo, seeing if his particular brand of pop-rock could stand on its own.

“It’s a triumph of the spirit,” the Bridgeport, Connecticut artist says laughing playfully. “I always hid within bands so everything about this is like starting over, hence the title, At The Starting Line.”

The product of a longtime musical education, Larney spent his early years honing his songwriting and focusing on the “art of harmonizing.”

“I would get to school at 6:00 AM and go into the piano practice room and pick out songs and work on harmonies,” he says.

And while his initial efforts resulted in over the top, “overly complicated 7-minute opuses,” Larney eventually found his way, merging his personal tastes as a listener, which encompass everything from pop to bluegrass and everything in between, together with his work as a traveling musician where he worked with bands playing everything from pop-punk, power pop, post-punk, and hardcore. Through all of those experiences, Larney found the strength and the skill to step out of the shadows and being casting one of his own.

And with the early verdicts coming in, Larney has nothing to worry about.

Larney’s number one coup was in snagging Americana songwriter, David Mayfield, to produce, the singer/songwriter lending a refreshing tone to Larney’s work. But, while Mayfield’s production keeps things clean and clear, it’s Larney and his compelling songs that are the star here and they don’t disappoint.

Fueled by Larney’s humble yet smooth vocals and an eclectic sense of composition that fuses soulful harmonies, tasty indie pop-laden hooks, and elements of country and Americana together in a highly listenable gumbo of sound. There are elements of bands like Wilco and others to be found but, through and through, this record resounds with Larney’s own signature.

That signature is most notably heard on the album’s highlight track, “Why God Why,” which finds the artist dealing with the loss of his father. It’s a simple arrangement, surprisingly mid-tempoed and driven ahead by subtle percussive notes as Larney sings, “Wake up, Dad, I need you now/Is this the place you were laid down/And why are you still sleeping?/And I ask/Why, God, why?” It’s powerful, haunting, and lovely all within it’s two and a half minutes and captivates the listener.

Not afraid to tackle other heady topics, the artist wrestles with religion on the bluesy “Dogma (On a Leash),” calling out his take on swarthy preachers who repeatedly speak with “forked tongue” and coax parishioners into giving money that they use to line their own pockets. Soulful pockets of both acoustic and electric guitar bolster the track, lending it a vital, swampy note.

“Whistling Past the Graveyard” is a track that makes great use of the artist’s pop leanings, featuring great harmonies, killer keyboard chops, and a toe-tapping arrangement, making it another favorite. Ditto that for album opener, “You, Me, and Alison” which captures an expansive Americana vibe, perfect for long summer road trips, and harnesses the great line, “Jesus in your tears.” Flipping the tables, “Solace” slows things down with a lyrical journey that explores spiritual oppression with stringent honesty, offering up the thought that, “There ain’t no difference if you’re good on the outside/Still got your demons locked up inside your heart.”

Merging genres and writing honest, poetic, insightful lyrics that speak to the heart and doing so while providing a great hook, Brian Larney’s At the Starting Line is a masterful work. And while Larney may have been content to rest in the shadows for some time, he’s going to have to get adjusted to the spotlights because if he keeps making music like this, they’re going to be shining on him for a long, long time.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Review - Arlon Bennett : World of Possibility

We’re all drawn to honesty in music. No matter the genre, whether it is hip-hop or heavy metal, we long for our musical muses to reach out and touch us with sounds and lyrics that carry themselves with an air of authenticity, relevance, and connection. And it’s those best artists, those that have stood the test of time, that manage to continue to captivate audiences with their ability to, time and again, deliver honest music.

If he keeps on pace, Arlon Bennett is a name that will bandied about with those artists who have, and are, making music that connects in that way. Calling Long Island, New York, home, the artist is set on making music that carries his simple philosophy, “Shoot for the moon and ask questions later,” capturing elements of folk and singer-songwriter stars like Harry Chapin and James Taylor. Since the release of his debut album in 1998, Fountain of Dreams, the artist has seen solid success, scoring opening acts for Americana stars Glenn Tilbrook, Jill Sobule, and Tom Paxton while as being honored by being “twice selected by Noel ‘Paul’ Stookey (Peter, Paul & Mary) to perform in his Music-to-Life showcase at the Kerrville Folk Festival featuring America's best songs of social consciousness.”

Now, the artist continues his mission to bring his dreams to life, while igniting those of others, on his heartfelt new release, World of Possibility. Coaxing classic folk sounds from his guitar and writing lyrics about real life, Bennett captures and captivates the heart here. It’s not fancy and sports no frills, much like a meal at the county diner, but its “stick-to-your-ribs” good, leaving you full and satisfied at the end.

Bennett’s key to providing this satisfaction to his listeners is in large part due to his prowess as a storyteller. Through a simple, homespun tale of an elementary school janitor, “Sal,” Bennett manages to grab the heartstrings and teach a lesson. Likewise, the snow-laden sadness of “The Christmas Tree on Salem Street” weaves a tale of holidays left sad by the loss of loved ones in the military, daring one to not wipe away the inevitable tear. And the artist’s heartland-fueled personification of the U.S., “I America,” complete with its soulful harmonica fills, has the potential of adding itself to many a listener’s Independence Day playlist.

Inspired by an invitation to perform at an international Parkinson’s conference, Bennett wrote the title track, conveying an acoustic-driven melody that brims with hope and confidence while “Nothing Like a Song” captures some old school country vibes, telling of the power of music. It’s simple and, some might say, hokey, but there’s an inherent honesty to it all.

The highlight track here, however, is Bennett’s playful and unique song, “Question for Einstein.” Celebrating the joy and mystery of love, Bennett ponders questions to the great physicist, asking in the chorus, “Dr. Einstein/The question I would ask/If you were alive and I was sitting in your class/Of all the beauty in your mind/Of all you know of space and time/What is love?” Bennett plays with asking these questions of Einstein, adding in some soulful strings, and ultimately concluding in the end, “Well you ran out of time/Before you could find/The answer to all that is/But I will keep on searching/To find the inertia/Behind a single kiss.” It’s sweet, poignant, and from the heart.

And those are the elements that truly make up Arlon Bennett’s work on World of Possibility. Clearly working as a glass half-full sort of guy, Bennett presents warmhearted, honest songs of real life and real people, continually seeming to find the silver lining in each situation. He frames these tales in musical compositions that mirror their lyrical counterparts, coming across as accessible and inviting. So, come on in and sit a spell and let Bennett tell you a tale.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review - Zain Lodhia: The Leap

Most artists look back at their early days and recall hours of hard work, toiling away learning their instruments, honing their craft, and fighting the critical looks some would throw their way, calling into question the viability of a career in music.

Then there’s Zain Lodhia.
While the artist has no doubt fought hard to hone his skills, his early days recall a gentler, simpler time in college playing the now classic video game, Rock Band, with his roommates. Tasked with taking the mic and delivering vocals, Lodhia took a different path, discovering “his own musicality and embraced a new era of creative self-expression.” And most importantly, he found his voice.

That voice, as well as an uncanny understanding of what makes a great pop song, is a large part of what makes Lodhia’s latest effort, The Leap, so successful. Following the success of his 2011 EP, Memories, the artist enlisted the help of producers, Tim Brennan and Mark Sutor, formerly of the pop punk band, June. The result is a warm, creative, and polished record full of acoustic tones tempered with layered electronic elements and percussion with a purpose.
Lodhia’s sound has been likened to artists such as Maroon 5, The Script, One Republic, The Fray, and more but, through and through, Lodhia manages to craft a sound that, while revealing some of his influences, ultimately carves out his own comfortable niche within the music world. Perhaps the best example of that comes on “Send Me Away.” Compelling programmed percussion sets the tone while Lodhia’s smooth vocals press the track forward before bursting into the energetic chorus, featuring vocal assistance from Katie Foster. It’s as radio-friendly as you can get, the arrangement stunning and the delivery shows that this is an artist who’s ready to make an impact.

And the rest of the album manages to declare the same.
Songs like “Lost for Words,” which also receives the acoustic treatment, showcase a keen ear for pop sensibilities and production while “Beautiful Devotion” brings a slightly hip-hop element to the vocal, offering interesting sonic textures. Keyboards play a prominent role in “I Wonder,” giving the song that wistful, thoughtful edge as the title track carries across a plethora of percussive tones that hit all the right spots. It’s layered with notes that don’t just fill the voids but that contribute to the overall emphasis of the song and that blend solidly with Lodhia’s skillful acoustic guitar work.

“Long Run” showcases the artist’s ability to write a strong, ballad-based hook and deliver it which he does with passion and poise, maintaining a similar flow on the lyrically upbeat, “Close.” Acoustic guitar and skillful keyboards blend into a solid tapestry on “Keep Breathing” while “Shadow of Your Light” maintains a mid-tempo pace, accented with creative composition elements. Add in warm, heartfelt tracks like “Dreams Out Loud,” “Make It Through,” and hidden track, “Perfect World,” and you’re left with a smile on your face.
But perhaps no song captures the real essence of this record like the single, “Lifetime.” Upward bound with a lyric that focuses on second chances and the reward for hard work and sweat, blood, and tears, “Lifetime” hints at the heart of the artist behind it. And that artist is a grateful one.

“It’s a milestone being able to hold this album in my hands,” Lodhia shares. “Music has always been a passion of mine, but it wasn’t until later in my life that I discovered how powerfully songs can move us,” he says, pausing reflectively. “I’m so glad I didn’t let my fears hold me back.”
Don’t let anything hold you back from picking this one up either. Lodhia may be taking The Leap but if the musical gods are just, this is a job he’ll do doing for a “Lifetime.”

Friday, June 14, 2013

Review: Oliver James - Chasing the Sun

Some artists approach their art from a very free-form place, letting inspiration come from where it may and
grabbing ideas here and there. Their focus is on their art but how it comes together is left up to chance, so to speak. Others, such as rising artist, Oliver James, tackle their craft with a more thought out and concentrated focus.

“I want to write songs that touch people and come from a real place,” says James. And it’s this mentality that fuels the artist’s debut, Chasing the Sun.

Chasing the Sun is a collaboration between James and fellow collaborator, not to mention keyboardist and songwriter, Brett Levine. The two work together, offering their input, and liken the experience to a chess game. “I make a move on a song, go away, and come back to see what move he made,” Oliver shares. Their teamwork even extended to the production process, both artists sharing in the full development of the album, “uncompromising in quality and emotional intent” and working at “crafting a meticulous multi-dimensional album that keeps surprising after multiple listens.”

And by and large, they’ve done just that.

The duo opted to test the waters before the release of their record by offering up the song, “Keep Breathing,” early on. The track, colored by a beautiful instrumentation layered in piano and haunting strings, speaks of the dangers and horrors of war alongside the hope and love their loved one’s at home have for them. It’s slightly melodramatic in some senses but it apparently resonated with quite a few, garnering over 10, 000 radio spins and generating some early positive reviews online.

Those reviews are well warranted as evidenced by the rest of the record.

Album opener “Giving Chase to the Sun” is a lyrically strong tale of dealing with past decisions and the ramifications and consequences that come with the good and the bad set against an up-beat, acoustic driven soundscape before giving way to the more positive tones of “Running Back to You” with some Edge-esque guitar work at the intro that flows into pounding percussion and culminates in a great pop-rock power anthem.

“Pain” is a more subdued journey as the artist showcases some of the aspects that have drawn comparisons to artists such as David Bowie and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with heavy lyrics, tasteful strings, and some poignant piano tones. Album closer “Avenue of the Stars” is an almost country tune, complete with some mournful steel guitar in the background that comes accented with some banjo and more.

Yet, it’s near the center of this album that James really shows his stuff. “Lover’s Bridge” kicks off a great trifecta of tunes, rousing Motown horns blaring ahead of a fun-filled musical romp that features some soulful background vocals that give that certain amount of something extra. “At the Water’s Edge” follows and is entirely different, almost somber in it’s delivery of moody piano and layered vocals. James also employs a bit of sound effect, bringing in some sounds of waves crashing on the shore, which can oftentimes come across as just cheesy, but this time it works, providing that extra splash of texture the track needs.

But it’s on “Before He Turned the Gun on Himself” that the artist really hits his full stride. James’ lyrics are spot on, showcasing a great hook and plenty of insight, while the arrangement which features strings from a 15-piece orchestra and background vocals from David Letterman’s Late Night Gospel Choir. It’s a slow build but one that will inevitably find listeners singing along with the sad tale. This is definitely the highlight track of the album.

Chasing the Sun is an apt name for James’ first outing, offering up the idea of trying to accomplish a mission that is all but impossible. It’s a fitting metaphor for the music business at times, as artist after artist seeks after fame and fortune, only to be lost in the shuffle. And while the future is always hard to predict, if Oliver James keeps making music like he’s done here, he might just have a chance of doing that which so many have fallen by the wayside attempting, he just might catch the sun and become a star himself.