Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: Elisa Korenne - Concrete

Some artists are great musicians, crafting sweeping, stirring arrangements that move the soul. Others rely on their songwriting abilities to do the same, letting their words conjure mental pictures that cut to the heart. And while there are some that manage to do both to varying degrees, it’s the rare breed that is great at both, tying truly great musical compositions together with lyrical prowess that shines.

Elisa Korenne is a singer-songwriter who falls into the latter category.
Korenne’s story is one that reads backwards compared to many budding artists whose journeys have led them to the big city in search of fame and fortune. In fact, Korenne’s story found her moving from the busy streets of Brooklyn, New York to New York Mills, Minnesota, a hole in the wall town boasting a population of 1,197. And it’s this formative time in her life that the artist mines for her latest release, Concrete.

The album comes at a time where Korenne has already seen more than her fair share of accolades, earning songwriting awards from the Plowshares Songwriting Contest, Sisters Folk Festival, and Great American Song Contest, among others, while having work used in productions by HBO, VH1, and ABC. Artistic fellowships have come her way as well as she’s toured both stateside and internationally, gracing the stage and headlining at the Nevers-a-Vif music festival in France while drawing favorable comparisons to fellow artists such as Liz Phair, Sarah McLachlan, and Melissa Etheridge.
Korenne starts things off simply with “Know Better,” a solid adult contemporary acoustic pop rocker fueled with something of a sitar solo that sets it apart before moving into the jazzy vibes of the title track. Buoyed by a low-key, sultry arrangement that features some bright trumpet fills that provide an extra edge, “Concrete” is the tent pole of the album, showcasing solid lyricism and capturing the album’s emotional soul, representing the shifts taking place during the artist’s life at the time she’s singing about.

“In New York, I was surrounded by concrete, the streets, the buildings, and the sidewalks. But, at the same time, I didn’t have emotional concreteness,” she shares.
“Keep It In My Heart” finds the Korenne drawing moody notes together over a subdued composition while “Color Me In” draws with brighter tones, it’s tale of love buoyed by a flexible vocal delivery. Some road trip worthy fare is found on “Yours for a Song,” the acoustic guitar and persistent drumbeats laying forth a warmhearted trail for listeners to follow as “Ferris Wheel” mellows out with steel guitar swells and fingerpicked guitar.

And while those are all fine tracks, it’s when the artist really digs in, pushing the limits somewhat, that she really shines. “Love to Love” is a great case in point. Based upon the life of pioneering feminist, Victoria Woodhull, the track is filled with gritty lyricism that is almost growled rather than sung and a blues rock vibe that really frames the track perfectly. “Lean Into the Curve” is another rousing highlight, the artist jamming out over a funky blues arrangement complete with a kicking horn section and “wah wah” guitars while “100 Miles to Nowhere” finds her tapping into her Americana roots, a restless country note resounding through.
“Trail of Broken Hearts” is something altogether different, almost recalling the eclecticism of Regina Spektor offering up an almost vintage-flavored soundscape, Korenne’s vocal adapting to the old school sonic template while the track pushes forward with a smile. Percussion carries the near sensuous “A Little Bit of Salt,” the artist utilizing some vocal elements to play off the throbbing drums and showing plenty of soul while “Take Me Slowly” rounds out the highlights, smoldering and unashamed in its sexual connotations. It’s an appropriately slow builder, Korenne’s vocals smooth and teasing the track to its amped up conclusion.

Elisa Korenne’s Concrete captures more than an artist crafting great songs; it’s bound to catch the ear of any and all listeners fortunate enough to come into contact with it. Concrete is a stirring album filled with solid musicianship, soulful vocals, and well-crafted lyrics. If you like strong, thoughtful music, this one’s for you.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: Mark Lassiter - Endlessly EP

Doctors, preachers, first responders, social workers; some people are just called to help others. “Dentist to the Rock Stars” Mark Lassiter is one such individual drawn to bring help and healing. Lassiter’s sensitive spirit and keen attention to detail, ensuring the best care for his patients, has allowed him to work alongside a high profile cartel of clients that range from the Foo Fighters to Collective Soul and more. That same mentality, merging emotional sensitivity together with excellence in delivery and technique, colors the artist’s musical leanings as well, leaving him in a fine place to deliver his signature brand of acoustic-flavored pop.

“Music is a great jumping off point for conversation with patients. It builds trust and eliminates anxiety through establishing a human connection,” the Norwood, North Carolina-based dentist/artist says. “The common thread between my practice and my music is healing.”
Drawn to music after dental school where he found catharsis in writing and composing his own work during a difficult stretch of life, Lassiter took to recording his music and, using the rising wave of social media, was able to share it with some of his favorite artists. Not long after, he found himself providing care for some of those artists as well as collaborating with them musically. His debut record, Living Past, boasted help from members of Blind Melon, Collective Soul, Foo Fighters, and The Wallflowers and garnered him a "Top 20 Indie Album of 2009" nod from website

Now Lassiter is back with his sophomore effort, the Endlessly EP, a smooth, effortlessly delivered set of four songs that shows the artist’s deft touch and warm, rich vocals. Lassiter kicks off the EP with the title cut, a track that shows off those vocals to good measure, the John Mayer-esque vocal tones resonant over a mid-tempo acoustic backdrop as the artist sings of encouragement through dark times. His lyricism is as solid as his delivery as he sings, “When you feel like/The world’s gone crazy/And the face in the mirror is looking kind of strange/When your hopes and your dreams/Are dying in the streets/I’ll be there for you/Endlessly.” That track is also treated to a remix which almost doubles the song’s length but the electro-pop vibes and fills do little to take the song to a better place. It’s an interesting experiment but the original in this case is the superior.
Channeling some piano into the mix, “Life’s Like That” is a track that doesn’t shy away from facing the pain of life while again reminding listeners that hope is inevitably just on the other side. It’s a tale that rings true for the artist and is the glue to this three song vignette, capturing a slice of the artist’s true life as he moved from heartbreak to healing.   “It’s unapologetic,” Lassiter explains. “It’s: ‘This is who I am. I’ve been through hell, but I’ve glimmered the other side.’ My biggest recurring theme is optimism after difficult events.”

“You’re My Favorite” delivers on that promise of hope with its upbeat lyric and embracing melody colored with buoyant electric and acoustic guitar, swelling B-3 organ fills, and bright percussion which support the artist’s vocals as he breaks into a joyous outburst of, “My heart is full, my heart is full!” It’s a satisfying ending to a solid selection of songs.
Mark Lassiter is clearly a good dentist, testified to by his demanding list of clients, but he’s also shown that he’s got the chops to hang in the music world as well. Supported by his patients/rock star friends, Lassiter’s Endlessly EP is the type of album that you don’t want to stop listening to as the music is just as heartwarming and enjoyable as the message.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: Gabriela Pepino - Let Me Do It

The music market has experienced a keen influx of soul singers from the United Kingdom over the past several years, seeing performers like Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse, and, perhaps most notably, Adele, flood the market with their signature fusions of old school vibes with modern sensibilities. And music lovers have eaten in up, buying up their albums in droves and launching a soul revolution throughout music.

Now, it’s another country’s turn to shine in the soul spotlight as Brazilian native, Gabriela Pepino, makes her Ultra Music Records debut with, Let Me Do It.
Pepino is no stranger to the music world, having studied at both Brazil’s Babaya Escola de Canto and the prestigious Berklee College of Music here in the States. She’s taken that experience and knowledge and has thus far parlayed it into a successful career that’s found her performing worldwide at festivals worldwide, showcasing her chops with genres as diverse as jazz, blues, soul, and pop.

Those are the very building blocks the artist uses to build her sonic foundation on Let Me Do It, drawing from what she knows while stretching herself as well, choosing to produce the album herself while performing the record in English, her second language, citing simple musical intuition.
“It was bigger than me! I've been writing these songs for the past four years!" she shares.

It was four years of hard work that’s paid off for the most part as Pepino delivers plenty of retro blues and soul backed by a stirring band. Gilvan de Oliveira provides the musical arrangements and plays guitar while musicians such as Lincoln Cheib (Drums) and Adriano Campagnani (Bass) provide plenty of skillful support.
Campagnani’s throbbing upright bass sets the tone early on in the title track and with Pepino’s first notes, listeners are drawn in. Her voice is smooth and sexy, the sensuous vocals wrapping around the lyrics with ease, teasing each note for all it’s worth, scatting along the way. “If I Lived In France” hints at some French elements with a lighthearted keyboard line and playful delivery from the artist while “Headache” finds Pepino chewing lyrics off and spitting them out with vigor, the soundscape classic soul.

Pepino’s voice shows some smoky notes on the bluesy “Dose of Scotch,” tasteful hints of saxophone lending depth to the track and “I Don’t Wanna Fight” bridges things into more adult contemporary territory, letting her vocal range warm up before soaring for the heights on the piano-driven ballad, “Unexpected.” “Deepest Shadow” draws strength from some moving strings and well-placed keyboards that lend an extra emotive note as Pepino duets with guest, Marina Machado.
“Change” moves things back into soul territory, horns and organ fills giving life while “I Can’t Wait” showcases some funky bass notes and solid percussion before Pepino declares herself even more capable of blues on the appropriately titled, “My Blues.” Saving her most prominent jazz roots for last, Pepino slips into her most comfortable, crooning effortlessly through the longing lyrics of “Someone to Light Up My Life.”

There are only a few missteps on this most promising of albums. “My Dream Is You” is the first of those stumbles, the soulful arrangement lost due to some muted production, a theme that pokes its head out at various junctures throughout the record, and a rather stilted vocal performance from the artist. “Baby” is the other downfall, the peppy piano fine but Pepino’s vocal just seeming to stumble a bit, her phrasing just not as sound as is found throughout the rest of the work.
Yet, two errors don’t erase the fact that Gabriela Pepino is a young woman with considerable talent and an old soul. She continuously conjures up images of classic soul singers, bringing a retro vibe to contemporary songs that blend jazz, blues, and soul together seamlessly. It’s the rare artist who can manage that and there’s little doubt that Let Me Do It will be the album to help propel Gabriela Pepino into that next level.

Review: Peter Calandra - Ashokan Memories

Music, in a lot of ways, has a lot in common with food. One of the most obvious elements is the sheer variety that is produced. And with all of that variety, our palettes will oftentimes long for something different just about each and every day. While one day we may want something sweet, the next we may crave the salty or savory. The same is true of music. One day we may find ourselves needing that guilty pleasure pop music release and the next may find us in a place where we’re in pursuit of rocking out or searching out love through some quality singer-songwriter fare. And some days, we may simply need something simple and relaxing to calm out nerves and soothe our soul.

If that’s the place you’re in, allow us to introduce you to Peter Calandra and his latest release, Ashokan Memories.
The truth is, you might already know of Calandra and not even be aware of it. The New York based artist, whose musical lineage stems from inspiration given by his amateur musician mother, has amassed a professional portfolio of epic proportions. To date, the talented “composer and keyboard player has scored forty films, written over two thousand compositions for television broadcast, including thirty-seven theme packages, and performed as a musician in the Broadway productions of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, The Phantom Of The Opera, The Lion King, and Little Shop Of Horrors.” Along the way, he’s also released three solo albums exploring genres and sonic textures that touch on elements of world music, Christmas music, jazz, classical, and more.

Now, with Ashokan Memories, the artist turns to a personal place for his muse, drawing inspiration from the Catskills in New York where Calandra and his wife own a summer home. “There is something spiritual about this part of New York that goes beyond what is visible to the eye. If you spend some time there and pay attention, you feel it,” he shares.
The album finds Calandra trying to capture those hidden gems of the mountains and bring them to listener’s ears through the sole instrument of solo piano. Throughout the eighteen tracks, he guides listeners on what is essentially a tour of this hallowed ground, the music accompanying with what feels like simplicity but is clearly not as Calandra weaves tapestries of sound together, fusing touches of classical, jazz, and others along the way.

The trick to finding those elements is listening closely, although this is an album that is perfectly fine to tune in while sitting on the front porch, glass of wine in hand, while the sun sets, washing the cares of the day away. However, more focused listens will find pleasant New Age vibes to songs like “Awosting Morning” and “Woodland Valley” while snippets of classical and modern jazz color the title track and “Tubin’ the Esopus.” There’s a moodiness to “Ver Noy Falls” that is refreshing and “Stone Ridge” showcases a keen use of spacing, allowing some silence to speak through the notes while “Buttermilk Falls” draws the album to a satisfying close.
Peter Calandra’s Ashokan Memories may not be an album that you’ll be in the mood for every day, but on that day that you feel the burden of the world on your shoulders, that aforementioned glass (or bottle depending upon just how bad a day it’s been) and Calandra’s smooth, gentle piano work may be just the balm your soul needs.

Review: Eileen Howard - Blues In the Green Room

The old saying holds that we are not to judge a book by its cover. And that’s something to be kept in mind when you tune into Eileen Howard’s latest effort, Blues In the Green Room, as the unassuming wife and mother out of New York City will surely take you by surprise.

A large part of the artist’s intrigue lies in her story itself, boasting a life story that includes a childhood in Chicago at the height of the civil rights movement, eventually seeing her have the great opportunity and privilege to march with none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That childhood saw her also being raised if a radical leftist religious organization before she’d eventually head out on her own, marrying and raising two children and living and travelling all over the world.
Those experiences have greatly led to influencing Howard’s art. Not only a singer, she’s also a distinguished actress who’s received numerous accolades for her work in the theater. And combined with her keen musical talents, which have found her crafting five albums with sounds ranging from jazz and classic standards from the American Songbook to an album of original contemporary Christian work. Now, with Blues in the Green Room, Howard’s able to add yet another genre to her impressive stable of work.

“Blues ties together my acting, my spiritual side, and, of course, my music,” she says. “It brings together all these pieces as a performer because the songs have a narrative and I can really connect with that.”
And connect she does.

The album was recorded live at The Green Room in the historic Garden Theater in Columbus, Ohio on April 14, 2012 and finds Howard surrounded by a more than capable stable of players. The efforts of Ed Moed (Keyboards), Chris Ciampa (Bass), David Bennett (Guitar), Randy Mather (Sax), and The Governor Gregg Peirson (Drums) set the perfect sonic table for Howard to fill with her vocal chops. The band is flawless and smooth, their familiarity with one another resonating through every bluesy note.
But Howard is the star here and she ably holds her own throughout these thirteen great songs. Interpreting familiar classics like “Fever” and “Frim Fram Sauce,” Howard and company’s delivery is reminiscent in ways of Eva Cassidy and Chuck Brown’s The Other Side. Her vocal skills are in full bloom and she rocks the house, nailing her notes and putting swagger into every line, her personality finding its way not only through the playful in-between track vignettes “Eileen’s Reason #3 to Sing the Blues”, coupled with another, but also through her rendition of a song like “Built For Comfort,” which she mines for additional humor.

“It’s Easy to Remember” finds the artist mining her jazz roots, her vocals smooth and soulful and Ed Moed’s keyboard work carrying things home while “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” lets David Bennett shine a bit, perfect burst of guitar fills supporting Howard’s soaring vocals soundly. She infuses the “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” of “I Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl” with plenty of playfulness and fun while tackling heartbreak and rebirth with “Black Coffee” and “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.” “Body and Soul” finds her returning to jazz, allowing the band another time to really showcase their skills, jamming out, and “Lost Mind” and “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” close out this display of musical prowess on a warm, sensuous note.
Eileen Howard may be an unassuming blues and jazz chanteuse but from the moment she opens her mouth and the notes flow out, listeners are bound to be captivated by her artistry. And when surrounded by such a strong band as she is here on Blues In the Green Room, the results are wonderful. Fans of artists like Diana Krall and Eva Cassidy need look no further for some new inspiration; Eileen Howard is the real deal.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: Heather Stewart - What It Is

Sometimes you’ve just got to step out of your comfort zone and go for it. For rising artist, Heather Stewart, that concept is what has defined her life since she did just that. At one time a producer on the E! Network’s “Talk Soup,” Stewart found herself a natural working behind the scenes. Yet, when she found herself drawn into the show’s playful sketches, stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight, if but for a moment, the artist found herself thinking, “This is what I need to be doing.”

And that’s what she did, leaving a plush job for the hard streets in pursuit of her dream of acting and music. She eventually landed a gig performing with the Inda Eaton Band, gaining tons of experience as a backup vocalist and having the opportunity to open for acts like Hootie and the Blowfish, Leann Rimes, and Blues Traveler. She also worked on writing her own material, writing and starring in her own one-woman cabaret act, as well as recording her debut album, Life of the Party, in 2008. Making herself a triple threat, she continued to act and splits her time between her acting gigs and music.

Stewart’s sophomore album, What It Is, was written after the death of her father and reflects those painful and conflicting emotions throughout. “Music to me serves such a dual purpose, emotional catharsis and escape,” she says. “I wanted these songs to capture the rush and multitude of what I was experiencing, from ‘Life is so f*cking short so I better make my mark,’ to ‘What the hell is this all about,’ to ‘Oh yeah, love!’”

And while the lyrical content is strong, it’s Stewart’s voice that gets top billing here. She possesses a vocal tone that is strong and clear, resonant in its delivery while colored with a sultry sexiness as well. She sings with poise and precision and every note seems specifically chosen for the moment, conjuring just the right amount of emotion out of a line as she croons lazily through the title track or rocks out on “Another Perfect You.”

Stewart’s ensemble of players isn’t too shabby either. Featuring a stable of players whose credits boast session work with artists the caliber of k.d. lang, Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams, and John Mayer, Stewart’s compositions find themselves in more than capable hands. Further enhancements come by virtue of Greg Critchley’s inspired production, choosing to record the record in a “live off the floor” mode, capturing the energy and emotion in a setting as close to live as you can get.

And when all of those elements are put together, the results are truly enjoyable. Stewart and company navigate an Americana-flavored set of tracks colored with elements of rock, blues, country, and more. Tracks like the high-energy and rocking “Underneath” recall work by Brandi Carlile while the open air country flair of “Tell Me Who” hints at Bonnie Raitt’s influences. “Black and Blue” appropriately brings some bluesy notes and a boozy vocal delivery that shines like a Lucinda Williams B-side.

But while Stewart’s influences do make themselves known, she’s clearly her own person and is about crafting her own art. On “I Lied,” she lets a smooth, guitar lead and plodding drum line move her sensuous vocals around, bringing to mind a stripped-down Bond movie them while “What It Is” is a lazy river ride of warm country fills and heartfelt vocals. “We’ll Learn” is an upbeat roots rocker and “Had It All” tones it down, the painful lyric confronting the frailty of life alongside a contrasting acoustic backdrop.

Heather Stewart’s latest is, quite simply, a great album. All the components are in place; great vocals, killer musicianship, and quality songwriting. Americana music fans of artists like Bonnie Raitt, Brandi Carlile, and Lucinda Williams will find plenty to enjoy here as will fans of what is simply great music. Let’s just say if you’re wondering What It Is, is good.

Review: Stone Diamond - We Stole the Stars From the Black Night

Rock and roll is a genre of music that’s oftentimes dismissed by more “serious” fans of music as raucous and uneducated. Its three chords, played LOUD, supported by more loud drums and throbbing bass. And the lyrics and vocalists? Oh, don’t get us started on them. And while there are no doubt plenty of fly by night bands who unwittingly help to support this viewpoint, the deeper music aficionado knows that there is a lot more to rock ‘n’ roll than just loud guitars. And that music fan might readily point to independent act, Stone Diamond, as a case in point.

The players of Stone Diamond each came to music at an early age, Cy (vocals/guitars) kicking off his musical journey by jamming with his uncle at the age of six while, Josh (vocal/guitars) followed suit, beginning playing at eight as The Tongue (drums) started humbly banging a lone drum at the age of six. The youngsters would eventually meet at form a garage band, working to hone their skills together as a tight-knit unit. Now, older, wiser, and well-seasoned, Stone Diamond is ready to unleash its debut, We Stole the Stars From the Black Night, on the world.

The music is intensely all Stone Diamond’s, largely due to Cy’s tackling of producing, songwriting, and engineering, insisting that the band record the album on livetracks, bolstering the live sound and delivering the band’s signature sound just like it’s apt to feel in concert. And with some assistance from drum legend, Ricky Lawson, keyboardist, Toby Philippen, mixer, Noah Shain and for mastering, Grammy Award winner, Brian Lucey, the results are great.

Lawson makes his cameo in the first track, “Love Stays,” a mid-tempo track buoyed by some jangly rhythm guitar and Chris Cornell-feeling vocals. That moody vibe leads into the sterling blues-tinged flow of “Let It Roll,” filled with plenty of soulful guitar licks. The Tongue’s heavy drum beats open up “Flavor of Tears,” banging out a steady intro that unveils a driving guitar line and brooding vocal delivery while “Tattoo” is an emotive rocker that showcases some shredding guitar work, moody and edgy.

“Dark Lover” holds sway with a dark vocal delivery and lyric but the arrangement is bright and energetic, possessed by just a touch of funk before segueing into “U Know,” one of the top tracks on the album. Featuring guest vocals from Mimi Moo, the duet is a slow burner and more vocals reminiscent of Cornell inform the track. The guitar work is solid and Moo’s brooding voice provides the right note of that something extra, giving the track even more life.

Unfortunately, “When We Were Young” drops the ball a bit, largely due to its overly repetitive chorus line that becomes redundant very quickly. The song as a whole feels like it’s trying to do too much and just feels forced. “No Boundaries” rebounds nicely though, bluesy guitars paving the way for solid vocals and an energetic chorus. It accomplishes the juxtaposition of quiet and loud in a way that “When We Were Young” just didn’t. “Just 4 1 Day” follows after, The Tongue banging out a heavy beat while Cy and Josh carve out a bright melody.

“Traumatized” is a track that hearkens back to the great mournful rock ballads of the past, the music sparse yet heavy while the vocals capture the listener, soaring effortlessly and making this another must hear on the record before closing things out with the high energy of “Long Hard 5 Days,” a touch of Lenny Kravitz-styled vocals and funky guitar ending things on a high note.

It’s been a long journey for Stone Diamond, from junior jammers to garage band to what is now a polished and studied rock outfit. And on We Stole the Stars From the Black Night they showcase it all, their musicianship sound and solid as they perform stirring arrangements that provide broad canvases for great vocals. It’s a win-win all the way around and any fan of quality rock and roll will find something worth a listen here.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Chris Leigh and the Broken Hearts - Broken Hearted Friends

Somewhere in the past several years, country music has experienced a shift in style. While subtle
elements like songs about the everyday man and love and family still undergird things to some degree, there’s been a swell of raging rock ‘n’ roll guitars, dancehall riffs, and more. Sure, there’s a steel guitar fill here or a touch of banjo there but, suffice it to say, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish country from the pop and rock that’s ruling the charts these days.

And while the good or bad of those shifts in the country style are always up for debate, there are some who’ve continued to make hay performing true, classic country music. Artists and musicians like Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam, Jim Lauderdale, Shooter Jennings, and more have fought long and hard to preserve country music culture and authenticity while making great music. And along the way, they’ve inspired countless numbers of rising artists, artists like Kentucky-based Chris Leigh and the Broken Hearts to forge a path true to that of classic country and on his debut record, Broken Hearted Friends, he does just that.

“Three years ago my wife left me,” Leigh shares. “I sat there in an empty house wondering what to do with my life. I thought about all the things I should have done and picked up the guitar and started playing. These songs just came out.”

Those songs are cut from the same thread as great artists like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lyle Lovett, among others, managing to capture slices of life that celebrate and lament the process of love and loss, redemption, and everything in between. Leigh’s lyrics are such that capture the seriousness of these situations, conveying the sense of pain and heartache that accompany much of this journey while always managing to keep something of a smile at the edge.

A great case in point is the great weeper, “If You Make It To Heaven,” where, surrounded by a plodding acoustic guitar lead and steel guitar fills providing key emotive vibes, the artist sings of the woes of the world before hitting the chorus where he sings, “If you make it to heaven/Tell ‘em I’m not doing well/Could they send me an angel/’Cause I’ve done my time/Here in hell.” It’s a serious lyric but, somewhere in there, you can picture a smile in Leigh’s eye as he sings it, perhaps since he’s experienced the redemption the song hints at.

And while Leigh has not shortage of heartfelt moments, with songs such as “Like I Love You Forever,” carrying a homespun father’s love along a mid-tempo, swaying arrangement, the artist clearly still likes to let loose, something he does with abandon on “Ramblin’ Man.” The type of track that clearly sees him drawing comparisons to Yoakam and Cash, complete with a “boom chicka” guitar line, Leigh chews off his vocals with pleasure, chewing them up and spitting them out with country-flavored gusto.

Classic country sounds get a heartfelt nod with tracks like the tear in my beer weeper, “Heartache & Misery,” while “Whiskey River” takes a more direct nod, naming the point of its homage, none other than Willie Nelson, within the lyric. Leigh also harnesses the great story songs of country gone by as he sings out “The Ballad of Bobbie Sue.” Despite its longer track length and vintage lyrical style, it’s actually one of the more contemporary sounding songs here, the chorus ripping with emotion fueled by Leigh’s capable vocal delivery.

While country music fans continue to battle over what country really is, there are still artists like Chris Leigh who shoot from the hip, drawing from their life experiences, and putting it to music. Inspired by the great musicians of then and now, Leigh takes those inspirations and weaves them into a sound that, while reminiscent of the past, is resolutely his and that honest authenticity permeates this entire release. For those weary of country radio’s slick, pop-laden fills, Chris Leigh and the Broken Hearts’ music is a breath of fresh air.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review: Jody Quine - Seven

The pop music scene is littered with more than its fair share of pop tartlets these days. From the aging attempts of artists like Britney Spears to the antics of a twerking Miley Cyrus, music seems to have become secondary to being an artist. That’s not to say that some of these young ladies can’t sing but, as further advances in technology like Auto Tune and the like continue to press their way into the mainstream, it’s making having real, well-honed talent a secondary consideration.

Yet, for all of the fluffy pop out in the world, there are still intelligent, talented women making great music. Following along in those footsteps and making a name for herself is rising artist, Jody Quine. Quine first discovered her love for music at an open mic night when, closing her eyes and letting loose her voice, she silenced the room in awe. She honed that talent and has performed as part of Balligomingo, serving as lead singer and songwriter for the band, as well as with Sleepthief. Along the way, she’s had her music featured on television shows such as “Queer as Folk” and “Dead Like Me,” among others.
Now, Quine’s stepping out on her own, letting her heart speak for itself.

“I used to date boys for song fodder,” Quine jokes, “but since I met my husband I’ve been happy and lacking material to write about!”
And while Quine may joke, on Seven she shows that she still has plenty to say.

“You Are” opens the record up with a soulful, organic acoustic arrangement that easily draws reminders of Sarah McLachlan. Quine’s voice is clear and resonant and the gentle arrangement frames her voice wonderfully, letting her lyrics of love hold center stage. The artist brings more energy to “Tonight,” poignant piano setting the stage against a set of electronic influences that press the track into a mid-tempo pop flow while “To Be Frank” reins things back in, threatening to break out with some electronica-tinged fills but never quite going all the way there.
Quine aims for some radio play with the keyboard driven “Piece of My Heart,” her voice rich, resonant, as the arrangement colors itself with guitar and perky percussion and the lyrics speak of lasting love and remembrance. She returns to an acoustic template with the simply titled, “I Love You,” and continues to shine vocally, singing both her own lead and backing vocals and harmonizing magically while an ethereal keyboard swell lends an emotive note.

“Finch Diving” lets some strings set the tone before a pop-tinged R&B vibe drops, recalling recent work by Ellie Goulding. The composition is tight and performed with ease by Quine and is easily on of the best tracks on the record. Quine closes out the record with “Come Back Home,” letting her voice do most of the talking, supported by some orchestral strings and a solo piano that present something of an epic feel to the song as Quine showcases her power and range to full effect.
Jody Quine is the real deal, not only possessing a voice that any artist would love to have, let alone listen to but also a keen mind for songwriting and composition, crafting intelligent and hooky songs here on her solo debut, Seven. That’s no small feat but it’s one that Quine does time and time again here. If she can keep up that streak, she’s bound to go far.

Review: Grand Old Grizzly - Grand Old Grizzly

The past several years have seen a revival of roots music and, along the way, a resurgence for that heartfelt genre known as Americana. Artists such as The Civil Wars, Jim Lauderdale, Slaid Cleaves, and more have done their part in contributing to that revival. And while they’ve been hard at work on their various niches, the great state of Texas has had its share of contributors as well as guys like Robert Earl Keen, Jr., Tom Petty, Wilco, and The Old ‘97s have honed their craft. They’ve never needed a revival, as their signature sound is as fresh and relevant as it’s ever been, inspiring artists from all over the Lone Star state.

Count Will Thomas and the crew of Grand Old Grizzly among those inspired and influenced. Comprised of a selection of seasoned players, boasting credits playing for artists ranging from Kate Stuckey, Mike Stinson, The Small Sounds, and Beetle, the band came together when front man and principal songwriter Thomas began putting pen to paper. As a member of Stuckey’s band, Thomas had the opportunity to write a few songs for her and received good feedback so he kept writing. Then, during a break from touring, Thomas drew his bandmates together to perform his original compositions.

“Everyone was so prepared. It was wild to sit around for two hours and play my own songs with a band,” he says, recalling that first rehearsal.

Soon after, inspired by a margarita fueled night on tour where Thomas dubbed himself “Grizzly,” the band was named.
Comprised of Thomas (vocals/guitar), Paul Beebe (guitar/vocals), Mark Riddell (bass/vocals), and Chris Lewis (drums) and boasts a sound faithful to their Houston-based roots. The classic elements are there, the resonant “boom chicka” sound of the guitars and the woefully soulful vocals and lyrics, capturing the attention of listeners already with their authentic sound. Local stations have already been drawn to their work and the local Houston Press has nominated them for “Best New Act” and “Best Folk/Americana” awards.

After one listen to their self-titled debut and you’ll understand why.
From the first strains of the catchy toe tapper, “The Mad Ones,” listeners are drawn into GOG’s earnest Americana, jaunty electric guitars and live drums bolstering Thomas’s honest, Petty-feeling vocals. “The Sundowners” follows with more plucky guitar, the “boom chicka” acoustic strums pushing the track ahead like a lonely train down the line and Wilson doing his best Rhett Miller impression while electric strains provide additional color before seguing into the heartbreak of “Indecision,” finding Thomas singing, “My indecision led to her decision not to stay/She had a large outstanding balance/We all knew she’d never pay.”

A touch of banjo lends some breath to “Morning,” the shuffling guitars holding sway against a “give a damn” type of lyric while “Tallahassee” plugs in and rocks out while lamenting heartbreak on the road. Slowing things down to an acoustic crawl, “I Was Thinkin’” is a simple track filled with heartfelt relationship issues as “Marvelistic Coward Band” is a musical fun fair as the band plays at some playful self-mythology.
“Approaching Cars” is a solidly written track but the subdued arrangement, while well performed, just leaves you wanting more but the acoustically atmospheric “Lament” rights the course with persistent percussion and a driving lyric that Thomas delivers with comfort and ease. The chorus is a frenzy that sits well before flowing out into album closer, “Pretty Little Head,” which showcases some stellar guitar work and more strong lyricism and emotive vocals.

Grand Old Grizzly is a band that does a great job of nodding its head at its predecessors, giving props to those who’ve paved the road ahead of them, while still carving out their own place within that niche. The band’s self-titled debut is a warm, skillfully performed collection of ten Americana-flavored tracks that are perfect for a drive down a long Texas road or for listening to contemplatively under a full night sky. Either way, you win.

Review: The Nikhil Korula Band - The Solo Sessions EP

Every young artist has that dream of one day playing alongside their musical heroes. They grow up listening to those albums, soaking in those influences, practicing those riffs, and hoping to one day just meet those influential voices and thank them. Unfortunately, it’s the rare person who truly has that opportunity to meet their creative muses let alone to play with them. But, Nikhil Korula is something of an uncommon person and he takes full advantage of his experiences and, on his latest recording, The Solo Sessions EP, sees his dream come true.

Korula’s musical journey began early as five-year-old child prodigy, his classically trained vocals leading him to share the stage with a plethora of talented artists from multiple genres. Yet, it wasn’t until the artist hit college and deeply encountered the freedom found in jazz, R&B, funk, and pop. Drawn to that “creative liberation,” Korula began crafting songs that spoke to his heart and drew from several different disciplines and soon joined forces with some of L.A.’s strongest session players, musicians who’d performed with the likes of Herbie Hancock and more, to form the tightly knit Nikhil Korula Band.
And, for the past ten years, Korula and company have taken their music, informed by a variety of influences including Dave Matthews Band, Van Morrison, Sting, John Mayer, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and more, and stirred it up into their own signature gumbo of sound, leading them to perform alongside some of the biggest acts in music. In addition to garnering strong airplay on college radio and showcasing their skills at festivals like Bonnaroo and Summerfest, the six-piece group has also shared the stage with the likes of Jason Mraz, Ben Harper, Tim Reynolds, The Roots, and, most specially, Dave Matthews Band, among others.

That connection to the Dave Matthews Band is a special one as the Korula was fortunate enough to have Jeff Coffin (sax) and Butch Taylor (keyboards) play on the record. Speaking to that, the artist shares, “It’s come full circle for me. I used to see DMB play stadiums, then the NK Band played shows with them, and now I’ve had the opportunity to record with them. It blows my mind this happened.”
And as Korula’s mind stands blown from his musical dreams coming true, listeners are equally blown away by the musicianship of The Solo Sessions EP.

“Spark” kicks things off with a distinctly DMB feel, playful acoustic guitar plucked out by Korula and supported by smooth backing vocals informed by a solid R&B groove while Taylor’s killer keyboards provide subtle notes that carry the track ahead just right. Korula’s lyric is hopeful and he delivers it with gusto, his rich baritone weaving and flowing its way through the sonic jam before “He Said, She Said,” steps to the fore. The longest track on the album at nearly eight minutes, it takes full advantage of Coffin’s presence on sax, letting him riff through a number of soulful grooves that set the tone while Korula’s vocals huskily tramp through a gentle soundscape.
Rich organ tones open up “Broken Roads,” soon joined by plucky acoustic guitar and Korula questioning, “Where is the fork in this road?” before the percussion drops and some backing vocals join in, electric guitar wailing out some southern-flavored soul as “Silent Tears” brings in some powerful strings to convey an extra dose of emotion. It’s one of the strongest tracks here as Korula’s voice comes across as very vulnerable and open, the arrangement actually better for its simplicity. Album closer “Fade Away” steps up to bat and kicks the pace back up, peppy percussion, great piano fills, and plenty of rich electric guitar supporting Korula’s further hope-filled lyrics and rising vocals, ending on a strong note.

Nikhil Korula is an artist who’s done what many artists only dream of, getting to not only meet his musical idols but to play with them and be accepted as a peer. And with The Solo Sessions, it’s easy to see why. The Nikhil Korula is a tight-knit collection of players, each strong in their own respect, and their knowledge and respect for the music oozes through each note they play, invoking thoughts of their inspirations but coloring them with their own flair. For fans of something more eclectic and inspired, The Nikhil Korula Band’s The Solo Sessions EP has just what you’re looking for.

Review: Solveig & Stevie - Zombie Lover

Solveig Whittle and Stevie Adamek come together from two different worlds. Adamek has held record contracts and performed with a variety of bands over the years from the See Band, Bighorn, and most notably composed and performed with The Allies, who was one of the first bands to boast a video on the fledging MTV. Since then, Adamek has continued to perform with bands throughout the Seattle area, mentoring, producing, and collaborating with artists across a wide variety of genres.

On the flip side, Whittle began performing in college, taking on covers from the top singer/songwriters of the day like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Linda Ronstadt. She then took to music as a sideline to her marketing job, performing in multiple bands and even scoring an opportunity to work with Heart guitarist turned solo performer, Roger Fisher. Along the way, she joined up with the Seattle-based pop folk band, Shades of Red, leading to Adamek calling in 2010.

That call led to the two teaming together and the evolution of their debut recording, Zombie Lover. Produced and arranged by Adamek, the seven-track recording a slice of the old and the new, blending a couple of older recordings, such as “Keep Your Eyes on Your Heart” and “Fire,” from the artist’s Allies days, and blending them together with more contemporary fare like the hip-hop mix of “I Just Can’t Breathe.” Undergirding the arrangements are classic 80s elements that support the entire project and lend it a sense of nostalgia.

Those 80s influences are readily apparent from the start as the title track bursts forth with throbbing bass and drum notes, recalling great metal riffs as Solveig’s strong vocals emerge and step to the forefront, sexily slinking through the lyrics with ease. Adamek creates some ample space for Solveig and she takes full advantage of it before seguing into the strangely ambient sound of “Creation.” Another 80s-flavored track backed by filling keyboards and programmed beats that fall on both sides of the equation, both good and bad depending upon who’s listening.

The duo’s cover of The Allies’ “Keep Your Eyes on Your Heart” is a solid success, however, the acoustic intro pressing into the thumping bass notes of the full verse, Solveig’s vocals accented by Adamek’s harmony vocals, providing some needed emotion and texture while some electronic samples, ala Alex Clare’s “Too Close,” lend the track even more gravitas. Yet, the band’s true highlight here comes with the following track, “I Just Can’t Breathe.” Opening with a moody acoustic tone, guest vocalist, UltraLOVE (Michael John Wagner) steps in with a slightly distorted vocal as he channels his version of Eminem while Solveig plays the femme fatale, crooning in and out. The arrangement is beat heavy and filled with crunchy electronic elements that draw you in. It’s easily the highlight of the record.

“Fire,” another Allies cover, finds Solveig and Stevie blending their voices again to solid effect, the harmonies providing a sense of lightness juxtaposed against the darker electric guitar and keyboard fills while “Waiting on the Thunder” falls back into Solveig’s wheelhouse, the R&B influenced jam providing her the acoustic space to let her vocals shine and they do. It’s subdued but beautiful but finds itself marred by a somewhat abrupt fade out at the end, leading into the closing track, “Menta E Rosmarino,” a cover originally performed by Zucchero. It’s a classic 80’s ballad, emotive keyboards building the platform for Solveig to soar but is marred somewhat by elements of flute that take away from the darker tones of the track.

Solveig and Stevie are a tandem that boasts years of experience between them and on Zombie Lover, much of that experience comes to bear. The two sound great together and Adamek’s arrangements are solid although sometimes they fall on the side of being almost too eclectic, leading listeners to question what direction the band is really heading. But while there are a few hiccups along the way, the duo provide enough sound material here to warrant a second listen and to build some anticipation for more.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Jeffery Straker - Vagabond

Every so often an artist emerges from the masses with the ability to evoke thoughts of a vintage time but color it in modern tones. Canadian-born and bred artist, Jeffery Straker, is such an artist and on his latest recording, Vagabond, he takes his listeners on a musical trail that links great Elton John-flavored piano pop together with Neil Young-inspired folk.

While that might seem like something of a leap, Straker is the type of musician and songwriter who has just the pedigree behind him to attempt such a thing, boasting a teacher-student lineage that literally travels back to Beethoven. Born to a church organist mother and auctioneer father, the artist followed his musical dreams and ambitions to “the Royal Conservatory of Music and received his licentiate diploma in piano performance from Trinity College, London when he was just nineteen.”

Since then, Straker has done just about everything an artist can dream of, boasting a schedule that finds him playing over one hundred shows a year at venues as diverse as intimate house shows to large theater settings such as his recent sold-out show that featured the Regina Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he’s had a music video chart in the top ten on Much More Music Canada and has even toured Africa. Along the way, he’s received nothing but accolades.

And after a few listens to Vagabond, it’s easy to see why.

The first key lies in the steady production hand of fellow Canadian and singer/songwriter, Danny Michel. Michel produces a space for Straker that is sparse and intimate, no doubt recalling the artist’s house shows. In addition, the arrangements are captured in a way that feels live and warm, as though recorded in the round, as opposed to being tracked and then assembled like so many songs these days. It’s a difference that really gives the songs an immediate heart.

But the rest falls to Straker and his performance. From the first thumping drumbeats of the excellent “Birch Bark Canoe” to the final, playful tones of “Foolish,” Straker proves himself time and time again. On ‘Canoe,’ the artist showcases a strong arrangement that features his great piano skills and strong, rich vocals, accented by some additional falsetto notes, and a great chorus that finds him singing, “But if just you and me/Were floatin’ out to sea/In a broken old, birch bark canoe/We’d both find a way/To come back again/Together.” It’s easily one of the brightest tracks on the album.

And while Straker delivers his share of Elton-tinged piano pop, he also plunges into other realms, letting soulful strings carry along the emotive notes of “Rosetta Stone” while “Burn the Boats” takes things into moody waters, dark percussion informing a lyric of loss and searching. “Botanic Gardens” lightens the mood, happy piano undergirding Straker’s hopeful lyric as soulful harmonies and saxophone add to the lightness. It’s a sliver of the old school and its pure nostalgia.

“Sans Souci” is something of a letdown, some of Straker’s additions leaving the upbeat track feeling a little too pushed toward the past despite the artist’s valiant and energetic vocal delivery. Straker quickly returns to form with “Raven,” big percussion paving the way for more great piano and the artist’s solid lyricism as “Cathode Rays” delivers more beautiful string work which interweaves with the artist’s keyboards magically, lifting the track out of obscurity. “Myopia” is the last full-length track here and Straker pulls out all the stops, guitar and piano and drums banging out a fervent cacophony of sound that hits notes old and new before seguing into the aforementioned “Foolish,” a short, piano-driven coda to what is ultimately a rather strong album.

Fans of great piano-pop and solid folk-flavored sounds will find much to enjoy in Jeffrey Straker’s Vagabond. With an earnest vocal delivery and virtuoso skills at the piano, Straker unpacks and album that captures time in a bottle, shakes it up with some of the present, and unleashes it in a new, beautiful form that will no doubt draw plenty of fans.