Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: The Great American Robber Barons - Reno Nevada...and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice, and Betrayal

Sometimes the darkest tragedies lead to some of the brightest art.

And when San Francisco-based musician Keith Dion’s parents both suddenly died while living in Reno, NV, the artist channeled those experiences into his music. “Their deaths made me face a lot of stuff, and I keep peeling back the layers and finding these dark aspects inside of me,” Keith says. “Every song on the album is about gambling, vice and betrayal, and we really mean it.”

Dion was no newcomer to the music scene, having worn hats as diverse as musician, producer, songwriter, and filmmaker, performing with groups such as “New Zealand’s classic cult band The Ponsonby DC’s, as well as San Francisco alternative groups The Ophelias, 3:05 AM, and Corsica.” In addition, he’s shared the stage and recorded with “members of The Kinks, Thin Lizzy, Santana, The Counting Crows, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra,” among others.

Harnessing those dark moments led Dion to the formation of The Great American Robber Barons, a collaboration with former Jefferson Starship lead vocalist Diana Mangano, and the recording of Reno Nevada…and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice, and Betrayal. With Dion handling the musical arrangements and Mangano holding the vocal reins, the duo set forth to create a full-on multimedia experience, packaging the album as a CD/DVD package. The DVD purports to use “imagery from the fading glamour of Reno, and the dark underbelly of the 1960s and the Vietnam War,” coming across as “harrowing and
bluntly truthful, spanning Tijuana bullfights, real Vietnam battlefield footage, and the decaying elegance of the American dream.” In addition, the DVD also features footage of Dion’s early days playing with other bands.

But the music is the star here and, joined by such solid backing as Prairie Prince, who’s worked with artists such as Chris Isaak, Todd Rundgren, and Tom Waits on drums and contemporary jazz wunderkind, Ricardo Scales, offering up gorgeous piano licks, the table is set for a dark and wild ride. And what a ride it is; sixteen tracks in all that span themes that range from both social and political realms, engaging ideas like women’s rights, gun control, animal rights, and more. It’s a whirlwind of concepts all tied up in an eclectic folk-based package.

The sound of the record is somewhat out of time, ebbing and flowing across the years with a sound that is at once familiar and at others, well, completely other. Opening up with a somewhat dated sounding arrangement, “At the Hands of the Robber Barons” Dion’s plucky guitar recalling elements of the 70’s, while “Nowhere Left to Go” provides something altogether different in an acoustic jazz flow.

Colorful piano tones and Dion’s spoken word vocals, a trait that informs several of these tracks, give a rakish and enjoyable flair to “Shut Up and Deal” while there’s a frenetic, almost too loose vibe to “Hoo Hoo Man.” “Nobody Saw It Coming” is a fine blending of the two stars, Mangano showing off killer vocals, a highlight of which she manages on “Reno NV” and Dion’s almost playful spoken word delivery. “Last Tango in Ponsonby” almost sounds like a pirate chantey, the acoustic guitar holding sway while “Too Big For Your Boots” carries those acoustic tones another direction, Dion doing a bit more actual singing in tandem with Mangano.

If there’s one criticism to be leveled here, it’s that perhaps the Barons shot a bit too far in the scope of this project. Sixteen songs is quite an undertaking for both the artist and the listener and, while the variety and expression is appreciated, one wonders if perhaps there couldn’t have existed a set of even better songs had the band trimmed just a little in terms of the song list and focused in a bit more on the remaining.

Yet, even with those issues addressed, The Great American Robber Barons have created an album that is a compelling listen. Granted, it won’t appeal to all listeners nor is it intended to. But for those with an ear for compelling, if eclectic, musicianship, soulful vocals, and a unique view of life, Reno Nevada…and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice, and Betrayal is what you’ve been waiting for.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: Candice Russell - So Much More

Some artists find their musical calling by accident, stumbling upon the art from without any planning and finding a gift. Others are born knowing what they’re called to do, bursting forth from the womb with a song in their hearts. Count rising pop artist, Candice Russell, among the latter and, on her debut release, So Much More, the artist displays the heart, passion, and talent she’s spent the past twenty-one years of her life cultivating.

Russell’s musical gifts were first recognized by her mother at the tender age of one, marveling as the toddler crooned through a pitch-perfect rendition of “Jesus Loves Me.” From there, the child took to singing in church, joining the choir while showcasing her vocals in various high school singing groups as well, earning praise and acclaim along the way, listeners remarking about the young singer’s growing poise.

She would then go on to win the singer-songwriting competition at the Oregon Fine Arts Festival and then get the call to head to Hollywood on American Idol in 2012, garnering her even more experience. Shortly after her Idol experience, Russell was introduced to longtime producer, Dave Lubben, best known for his work with Christian rock act, Kutless, and the seeds for her debut record were sown. Soon after, Russell, Lubben, and Russell’s brother, Aaron, gathered together to craft the ten original songs that comprise So Much More.

The album is a straightforward pop rock flavored affair, performed by top session musicians from Los Angles, Nashville, and Portland, lending the record plenty of sound appeal. Lubben holds the production reins and, assisted by Aaron Russell, helps to forge a soundscape that is fresh and clean, letting the artist’s songs really speak for themselves.

And the message those songs bring is one of hope and encouragement. Speaking to that end, the artist shares, “I want to reach people with music that I have written and hopefully uplift and help them.” That viewpoint allows the album an air of spirituality that pervades many of the tracks, offering up elements of Russell’s faith alongside honest tales of love, relationships, and more.

The album opens up with the fresh-faced pop sounds of “Too Into You,” Russell singing of a narcissistic suitor who’s “too into the man in the mirror” while “Escape” finds her relationship in a better place, warm keyboard tones setting the mood with mid-tempo percussion which gently pushes forward the youthful tale of love. A darker tone is set with “Good Luck With That” as Russell finds herself in the place of the jilted lover, moody guitars joining with some programmed beats that hammer home. The darker tones allow Russell a chance to showcase her vocal range despite a simple lyric in the chorus.

Russell’s vocals get even more of a chance to shine on “Loved By You,” a track that carries the love theme further and finds Russell dueting with a male vocal which shows her ability to blend and harmonize which she does beautifully. This is a radio-ready hit that just begs for airplay. “My Friend” offers up the hope of grace in the lyric, Russell finding the accepting gaze of a dear friend something amazing as a persistent guitar lick pushes the track onward.

“Remember” is a lithe, lighthearted track reminiscent of work by artists like Bethany Dillon and is one that would fit fine on Christian radio worldwide with its spiritually-tinged lyric and beautiful delivery. Those spiritual themes continue on “So Much More,” as Russell looks for more to this world while supported by an energetic musical arrangement.

It’s a slow build of heartbreak on “Someday,” the artist experiencing the pangs of lost love and heartache before the appropriately upbeat programming of “Summer Nights” turns her frown upside down, Russell singing multiple vocal parts that dance together solidly. The artist’s search for true love helps to close out the album on “When I See You,” Russell almost singing a prayer of sorts to her future lover accented by an airy and ethereal background.

On So Much More, Candice Russell shows that she’s got plenty to offer this world as an artist. Shining vocally throughout, the artist has crafted a sound collection of tracks that showcase her talents well. And while the album finds the artist still in need of a bit more original identity, the personality that listeners will find here is more than enough to draw them back again for this talented young woman’s next act.