Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: Roxanna - Exotica

It’s the rare individual who has that perfect package. These are the artists that shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” spend months searching for, trying to find not only the next great voice but also that person with the right look and charisma to take it to the next level. Rising singer-songwriter Roxanna is just such an artist.

Originally born in Iran and raised learning English from her musical heroes Olivia Newton-John and Julio Iglesias, the artist later migrated to Toronto due to the increasing strife between her home country and Iraq. College followed which allowed her to fine tune her English skills as well as develop her voice further, largely through her involvement in a choir which expanded her musical palette that much more.

But it was through her furthered education as a nurse that Roxanna truly found her potential in the most unusual of ways. Both in her training and in her budding career as a nurse, the artist witnessed firsthand the healing power of music, seeing her voice bring joy to a patient with dementia and lead her to eat while on another hand it aided a young man undergoing cancer treatments. And when a patient’s relative inquired as to why Roxanna wasn’t pursuing music full time, the stars aligned as that person stepped forward to pave the way for Roxanna to engage her dream.

The result of that winding road is the artist’s debut project, Exotica, and it captures the heart of the artist perfectly. Blending elements of adult contemporary, jazz, and Latin and flamenco rhythms, the album benefits greatly from the deft production of Mark Portmann (Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Barbara Streisand), carving out space for the real star of the show which is Roxanna’s rich and luxurious voice.

Things start out smooth and sultry with the Latin flair of “Only You,” an English version of the Iglesias hit “Como Tu,” and sets the standard for a theme that is recreated throughout the record as smoldering guitars and organic flairs of percussion steal the show. Tracks such as “Unforgotten,” a painfully personal tale of the artist being left at the altar, and the title track follow suit, the latter providing some sweeping strings and the opportunity for Roxanna’s voice to truly shine.

“Hello” carries those rhythms forward, blending them with hits of jazz fueled by some sensual trumpet work while “El Amor” is full on Spanish as the artist covers another classic from Julio Iglesias with passion. “Fresh” mines some spicy flamenco guitar and smoldering vocals from the artist as “Today” keeps the Latin sounds rolling with more amazing guitars and bold percussion, Roxanna letting the instrumentals hold sway this time out.

“Here With Me” boasts smooth trumpet work and a jazzy flair courtesy of Chris Botti while “Close Your Eyes” feels like a Celine or Streisand B-side, the arrangement rich and orchestral, Roxanna’s voice clearly up to the task. A lighthearted acoustic pop vibe colors “My Best Friend (Miko),” a playful track about the artist’s dog which provides some welcome texture as her cover of The Hollies harnesses more horns and emotive strings that lay a framework for the artist’s big vocals. Pop meets jazz on the smooth sounds of “Loved” and things get downright poignant on “Beautiful Rose,” a soaring ballad that honors Roxanna’s late mother, further accented by work from the Prague Orchestra and further soul from Botti.

With Exotica, Roxanna makes her first big significant step toward stardom. With her rich and resonant vocal tones and smooth phrasing accented by great production and solid songwriting as well, this record should go far toward pushing her to the  next level, a level that is in need of her strong perspective and sublime voice.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review: War Poets - Hot & Cold: American Relationships

Minneapolis, MN-based War Poets are on a mission and they’re not taking any prisoners. Ever since the release of their expansive, two-disc revelation Dulce Et Decorum Est, the band has continued to churn out new music, wrapping their passion for social justice and equality together with an equal passion for great music. Further supporting that sense of mission is their new label home, Rock the Cause Records, whose efforts go toward creating community involvement through concerts, workshops and releases, a perfect fit for the mission minded band.

For the uninitiated, that band is composed primarily of lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Rex Haberman, and bassist/vocalist, Jenny Case, who also serves as musical director. Both artists have had their histories with other bands and recording opportunities but combined have proved to be a force to be reckoned with, their musical talents forming a cohesive unit, cemented with their shared sense of justice as well. The result thus far has been a growing collection of albums that echo with sentiments of protest and a need for change, framed over sounds reminiscent of bands and artists like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Fleetwood Mac, supported by some of the Midwest’s finest session players.

Hot & Cold: American Relationships is the second installment in the duo’s “American Trilogy,” following hot on the trail of American Police State which explored the ideas of gun violence, Native American rights, and the plague of income inequality. This record takes a slightly more personal view, looking into the ups and downs of modern relationships, exploring everything from finding the right person to the unique joys and difficulties shared with love and relationships, something that evolves far beyond an American label.

Tracks like the Case fronted “Bits and Pieces” provides that classic sense of longing, that “sense of mystery waiting for me,” that so many folks find themselves wanting, Haberman’s rich guitar chops cutting a friendly swath through the track, letting Case’s warm and soulful vocals take hold. Haberman carries the rest of the lead vocal load throughout the rest of the record, with “Know the Way” offering up a rambling rhythm and a lyric of promises and commitment, a touch of horn providing some added texture.

“Ones Who Love” is a better fit for Haberman all the way around, letting his vocals express their rich grittiness and his guitars to blast out with some solid crunchiness while “Perfect One” taps into some old school vibes, a strong percussion section laying the foundation for bright guitars and a hopeful lyric. Rich 80s rock gets a solid nod on “Say No More,” Haberman and Case trading vocal duties and harmonizing beautifully while singing of difficult relationship elements before giving way to the rousing questions of “Upside Down,” smooth B-3 fills and churning guitars hammering home the lyric.


On Hot & Cold: American Relationships, War Poets continue to march their multiple messages ahead. This time that message is more of a picture, shining the light on the multiple facets found within relationships, pointing to the hopes, the fears, the pain, and the joy found by all. In those themes, War Poets appeals to a large audience and their solid musicianship just makes the listening all that much easier.

Review: Beautiful Mess - Word's Getting Around EP

It’s pretty hard to deny that many parts of this world that we live in are headed toward a dark place. It seems every day that we turn on the news and hear of yet another school shooting, of another racial injustice, or of yet another broken marriage, leaving a family trembling and hurting in its wake. Yet, there are those who dare to rise up and stand against that darkness that threatens to blot out the light, pointing to a source of strength far greater than anything this world has seen, giving true hope to a world in need.

Northeast collective Beautiful Mess is among the latter and they’ve been bringing their message of hope and faith to a growing set of audiences since 2009 when father and son Mike and Tim Ehrhart, along with Mike’s brother Chris, decided to pool their talents, hobbies, and resources together to form the group.

"Tim was learning to play the instruments, I was writing lyrics, and Chris was singing on worship teams and we did these things all independent of each other before finally deciding that maybe we should try putting these all together," shares Mike.

It’s been an organic process of growth for the band but is one that has continued to morph and develop over the years and that growth is apparent on the band’s latest effort, Word’s Getting Around.

Things open up with the bright tones of “Crazy,” layered organic percussion, keyboards, and guitars providing a warm and accessible foundation reminiscent of work by bands like MercyMe and Casting Crowns. Lead vocalist Chris Ehrhart’s strong vocals help to draw this comparison as well, his voice very similar in tone and texture to Bart Millard and Mark Hall as he sings through a lyric that shares, “It’s staying the same that’s insane/Wasting time playing the game/What if your dreams really were true?/Would it change what you say and what you do?

Smooth grooves and hits of rich organ fills color the title track, the playful romp fun and engaging with a lyrical tale that takes a renewed look at what true success is, layering vocals in and out. It’s a solid track that, with a little more enhanced production value on the vocal, which feels a little muffled initially, could be a great track. Things head down an acoustic road with “Holding On” and it’s a welcome walk, the rich tones befitting the track’s praise filled lyric with an engaging hook.

“Alright” tackles the question of our run till you drop society, feeling the need to constantly be entertained or active, oftentimes finding us chasing after fleeting idols while working a moody arrangement into the mix, a solid acoustic plucking through gentle hits of keyboard and drum before building to an explosive ending, the theatrics hammering home the message powerfully. “Home Forever” closes things out, a slow building anthem featuring more layered vocals and solid musicianship, with Ehrhart passionately honestly singing, “Tired of empty days with nothing to say/Tired of all those games that shadows play/It was a past I had to leave/Moving towards a promise I believe” before coming to the stirring conclusion that “My past is washed away/I have a purpose for today/I have a home forever/I have a home,” ending the EP with a resounding note of hope.

With each release, Beautiful Mess keeps getting better and better and Word’s Getting Around is perhaps their best yet. Bringing together solid songwriting, well-crafted arrangements, and a great vocal, this collective is on the right path to bring their message of hope to the masses. Here’s to hoping that message gets the audience it deserves.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: The Glass Child - I Must Be Gone And Live, Or Stay And Die

Let’s be honest, the life of a music reviewer isn’t one that’s laden with too many perks. Granted, we get to hear many albums prior to release date and get kept in the loop a little bit more than the general public on musical happenings here and there but we’re also tasked with meeting deadlines, trying to write intelligently about the albums, and are constantly on the lookout for new synonyms to color our reviews. Add in the stellar pay rate (sarcasm fully intended) and you might find yourself wondering while we even bother, right?

Artists like The Glass Child are exactly why reviewers keep writing, for the sheer opportunity to run across an artist with such great promise that you’re sure to find yourself saying one day, “Yeah, I was listening to them back in the day.” Yes, friends, The Glass Child and her latest release, I Must Be Gone And Live, Or Stay And Die is that type of album, the elusive diamond in the rough that helps keep reviewers like me going when all the music threatens to sound the same.
Yes, kids, it’s a great album and is one you’ll be glad to give a listen to when you get a chance.
The Glass Child, better known to her friends and family as Charlotte Eriksson, is an artist who gives new life to the concept of fully believing in her dream, leaving home at the tender age of eighteen to move to London, dedicating herself mind, body, and soul to her craft. And over four years, largely due to her ability to harness the power of social media, the artist has released five EPs and a full length record, scored high on the charts, and is now set to release her latest offering, I Must Be Gone And Live, Or Stay And Die.
Eriksson operates in a creative space that’s very alternative pop, drawing favorable comparisons to artists like Florence and the Machine and Paramore yet her sound is still resolutely hers as listeners will find through the thirteen tracks found here. Her voice is strong and resolute, her phrasing beyond her years, giving her a stiff leg up on the competition as she delivers soulful takes all along the way.
“The Fall” is an instant hit right off the bat with great lyrics like “I never knew that love could be/This much pain and misery” while surrounded by emotive keyboards and a warm, acoustic-based arrangement that frames the artist’s voice perfectly. Some eclectic percussion infuses “Heroes” before the artist lets loose and lets the rock out, her voice showing its full range and impressing while “Yesterday” showcases her voice against an acoustic guitar backdrop, her passion evident throughout.
“I’m Hidden So Well” is an inviting contrast between subdued tones and rocking notes, fueled with raging guitars and pounding guitars while “Winter Girls” is pleasingly experimental and atmospheric, hitting a stride at the end that presses things forward to the end. A poignant piano intro lays the groundwork for that ultimate question of youth, “Who Am I,” infusing some near reggae tones within before “London” offers up more acoustic vibes.
Relational angst colors the pulsing beat of “The Water’s Edge,” resounding guitar threads providing extra emotion as “Running Up That Hill” showcases Eriksson’s vocal creativity, layering vocals over against a sparse piano lead that is one of the more intriguing tracks to be found here. “Who I’ve Grown to Be” celebrates the artist’s journey to this point, breathing in the victory of her accomplishments and hard work with humility and honesty while “I Took His Smile Away” is a rocking explosion tempered by moments of quiet, Eriksson’s voice haunting. Things arrive at a close with an unplugged version of “The Water’s Edge,” still powerful in its stripped down setting and acoustic track, “Lonely In This Love,” which ends things on a high note.
I Must Be Gone And Live, Or Stay And Die is a great album from a wonderfully promising artist. If the Fates go the way of justice, this is an artist that we’ll all be glad to say that we were listening to back in the day for the road is bright ahead of this budding star.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: Barbara Lusch - Rock Me Sweet


A great song is a great song no matter what. If a song is truly great, it can transcend genres, artists, and interpretations and still deliver on its musical hook and impact with an emotional intensity. With her latest record, Rock Me Sweet, singer, model, and actress Barbara Lusch puts this theory to the test in a big way, taking on some of the biggest songs from the 80s and recreates them in a torch song setting, infusing each track with her own emotion and story. It’s a daunting task but Lusch delivers something rather interesting here for open minded listeners.
Inspired by an idea from friend and popular executive producer Tom Nunan, who suggested reinterpreting classic 80s male-fronted ballads in a jazz-flavored setting, Lusch took the idea and ran with it, drawing from eleven nostalgic classics from artists like Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, and U2, among others. The addition of Earl Sweet as arranger and orchestra leader only helped to strengthen the deal and give the recording even more polish.
Drawing from her acting experience, Lusch chose to approach these songs in a unique manner, seeking to find the unique story within each for her interpretations.
"I worked on these songs as if I were preparing a monologue,” she shares. “My acting experience has taught me story-telling techniques, and now it is so rewarding to perform this music, knowing that the lyrics have a deep significance for me and hoping this will be communicated to my audience as well."
The overall result is an album that brings something new to listeners as well as a renewed respect for Lusch of the artists whose work she draws from.
"Once we brought the tempos down, the emotions and stories contained in the lyrics emerged so clearly. I began to love these songs more and more, and to gain new admiration for the artists who conceived them,” she says.
Those emotions range from lovelorn and emotionally tortured to downright sultry and seductive from one track to another. Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” is envisioned as a siren song, Lusch’s vocals warm and inviting, flirtatious in their delivery while “Dancing In the Dark” is treated to a slow, string-laden arrangement that tempers the lyric, putting it starkly at the front and echoing with a touch of sadness.
Bits of horn and subtle percussion color Lusch’s take on “Living on a Prayer,” the track infused almost with a touch of samba while “Sweet Child of Mine” is a light and airy affair, gentle strings and guitar pressing it forward, a far cry from the Guns ‘N’ Roses original. “Hungry Like the Wolf” is another sultry delivery, Lusch teasing listeners with the lyric and the easy going composition as “Hot Blooded” amps it up even more, rich swells of horns providing a sonic wink and a nod throughout.
“Owner of a Lonely Heart” has a blues tone to it, the horns continuing to provide added emotion alongside some smooth percussion and keys, Lusch crooning effortlessly through the track, evoking thoughts of a smoky singer in a classic pulp fiction noir. But the artist’s finest effort might be her rendition of the U2 classic, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Engaging listeners with a tone that evokes sadness at the outset, the track builds, resonant strings providing a sense of movement before moving from sorrow to joy, Bono’s lyric as powerful here as ever.
Barbara Lusch’s Rock Me Sweet is not an album that will be for everyone but, for an adventurous listener, there’s a lot to be heard here. Taking on some daunting classics, the artist boldly dives into these eleven songs and infuses them with healthy doses of herself while maintaining the integrity of what are still great songs.

Review: Jay Soul - Stay With Me


The UK has been a hotbed of soul music singers for years, giving launch to artists like Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Adele, and most recently, Sam Smith, who has taken the recording world by storm. Now, South London born and raised Jay Soul is set to toss his hat into the ring, hoping that his signature style of eclectic blues, R&B, and pop will keep the trend going. 
The eldest of three siblings, Soul was raised in a single-parent home that encouraged him to pursue his talents. Among those talents was a genuine proclivity for working with technology, which the artist was able to parlay into a successful career as an IT professional. Yet, another muse also called to him, that of music. Taking time to work on his vocal skills as part of a gospel choir and later being afforded the opportunity to perform background vocals for several UK urban acts. Now, he’s stepping out of the shadows and is taking the mic into his own hands, set to deliver his own brand of Soul.
Part of that brand involves providing a dichotomy of sound, offering up some bright, sunny tones alongside darker, moodier vibes that evoke elements of the highs and lows of life, that same tone bleeding into the lyrical content as well.
“People will be surprised when they hear the album because I want to cover a broad range of subjects,” Soul shares. “It won’t just be a bland R& B album about love and relationships. It will also be about what I’ve witnessed around me, although I’m no activist. I believe in capitalism but also in presenting people with opportunities. I have been presented with opportunities but I have also looked for them. Everyone in this country is lucky in that sense." 
Soul gets things off to a strong start with the title track, framing his warm, smooth vocals against a sparse backdrop that really lets him shine. The subtle instrumentation really allows for the nuances of the artist's voice to stand out and proves to be one of the record's strongest tracks. "Any Day" takes another approach, offering up a beat-laden dance jam that lets Soul have a little fun, layering vocals and getting the party going. That's an angle that he echoes on the appropriately titled "Dance" as well, evoking thoughts of classic 90s R&B and pop jams.
"First Love" drops some more old school vibes, with rich and resonant keys highlighting Soul's tight baritone while "Get a Job" tackles some unexpected territory with a kicking groove that provides some sonic texture. But Soul is at his best when things are stripped down and "Afraid Reprised (Live)" and "Thank You" find the artist at his best, drawing both emotion and integrity into his sound.
While there are a lot of strong tracks, there are a few stumbles, namely when Soul tries to do too much as he does on "Up," the beat almost losing the richness of his voice and the layering of the vocals just feeling overwrought. Those same layering issues color "Inspiration" as well, the arrangement subdued but the layered vocal and a less than successful falsetto letting the artist down this time out.
But thankfully, those hiccups are the exception to the rule here and the whole of Jay Soul's Stay With Me showcases a bright artist on the rise. Soul evokes thoughts of an old soul while infusing plenty of his own unique charm into these songs, making this a promising debut that will have listeners hoping to hear more.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: The Mercy Alliance - Some Kind of Beautiful Story

Songwriter Joe Rathbone had lived in several big cities along the East Coast, hanging his hat in towns like Philadelphia, Nashville, and Atlanta. But there was something about his new home place of Washington, D.C., that simply called to him, awakening his muse and drawing him into a place of reflection and creativity. And with the help of a few old friends, Rathbone has brought those reflections to life with the September 9th release of The Mercy Alliance’s Some Kind of Beautiful Story.

Those friends include Rathbone’s longtime drummer and collaborator, David Lopez, who smooth rhythms have played foil to Rathbone’s crunchy guitar tones. Also along for the ride are some featured percussion parts from former Counting Crows drummer Steve Bowman, bassist Brad Jones, and David Henry’s string work providing the final cherry on top. Helping to keep it all together is producer Thomas Johansen.
Sonically, Some Kind of Beautiful Story toes the fine line between indie pop and rock with touches of Americana thrown in for good measure. Opening track “Washington” is a solid collision of all three, Rathbone’s sweeping composition rich and breezy, his vocals warm and accessible with gentle notes of hope throughout. In contrast, “Angel of Mercy” segues fully into indie rock mode, Rathbone’s guitars gritty throughout, grinding against a melodic lyric and kicking percussion while “All For the Love of You” keeps those hardcore guitar licks flowing, accenting them with some compelling string work.
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Some old school rock textures and a moody vibe color “Moving In Time,” Rathbone and company evoking some tension with minor chords as “This Is How They Know” lightens the load, bright tones and some tasty drum work and percussive notes, with more of Henry’s strings bridging things together. “I Can’t Do It” is a simmering pop rock gem, Rathbone’s guitars playing just along the surface, their textures willing the track to just the edge and being brought back by swells of strings and his own smooth vocal delivery before “Libertine” allows him the opportunity to let the cat out of the bag, delivering a funky groove that really shines. It’s a rich, bluesy jam that showcases his flexible vocals and creative guitar work and is one of the album’s clear highlights.
“Save Me” finds things drawn back into a mid-tempo flow, Rathbone delivering some solid falsetto notes and pleading tones across lines of reaching guitar and Lopez’s consistent backbeat. And perhaps saving their greatest creative moments for the last, The Mercy Alliance close out their latest offering with “Drifting In,” a track that offers up a plodding yet engaging path, guitar feedback echoing thoughts of static reflected in the lyric as a myriad of textures build in the background. It’s a track that closes without any real resolution but, for some reason, that seems to work here.
Joe Rathbone and The Mercy Alliance have conceived of an album that is right in their wheelhouse, allowing for each component to shine while still contributing to the whole. At the forefront are Rathbone’s well-crafted lyrics and vocals, crooning throughout these nine tracks with purpose, while his guitar playing shows stellar creativity and musicianship, giving the rest of the members a launching point. And they build upon that and have crafted a worthwhile listen in Some Kind of Beautiful Story, a listen that will no doubt have many going back for more.
For more info on The Mercy Alliance and Some Kind of Beautiful Story, visit www.facebook.com/themercyalliance.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Review: Hello Echo - Echo

Today’s musical landscape is littered with a plethora of indie rock bands, each trying to develop and to promote that certain something that will help them rise to the top. All you have to do is screen through obscure music site after music site to see the incredible breadth of bands, all fighting to stay above water with gimmicky names and clever tricks. Yet, for rising act Hello Echo, there’s no need for tricks, gimmicks, or over-the-top antics; they simply let their music do the talking.

The band was formed when vocalist and guitarist Sean Aylward, who’d spent two years recording and touring with Apollo Sunshine, headed to the West Coast and began working on some solo material. A chance meeting with Mike Silva (drums, vocals) and Mike Sarno (bass) while on a surfing excursion in Baja, Mexico, led to an impromptu jam session and an explosion of chemistry which the trio couldn’t deny, leading to the birth of Hello Echo. Their debut release, Hello, grabbed great reviews and that’s something that’s bound to continue with the release of their sophomore project, Echo.
Drawing from a template that does recall acts like Modest Mouse and The Pixies, Hello Echo still crafts music that is altogether their own, bridging together elements of rock, folk, surf, punk, and blues, stirring it together to create a savory gumbo.

“Growing Old and Sleeping” kicks the party off to a shuffling start, the arrangement simple and almost sing-song like before giving way to the garage rock of “Country” with its big bass lines and gritty vocals. “Watch Through the Lines” connects a lot of dots, with a funky island groove in the bass lines while a rocking guitar riff rages over the top while “Coffee Cups” hints at some old school rock influences with its melodic jams and radio ready sound.
“Under a Spell” is appreciably funky, a swirly guitar line weaving its way through the composition with some creative flair which gives way to the plaintive Americana folk of “Tumbleweejy” and its sweeping strings and plaintive piano tones. In contrast, “Lion” is a slow builder assembled around Silva’s tight percussion and ambient tones that gradually develop while “A Drop is an Ocean” is a good, old fashioned blues rocker, Aylward’s guitar work and vocals well suited to the task.

Keeping listeners on their toes, the band then delivers the lighthearted island-tinged jam “Big Sur,” bright and simply beautiful before seguing into the ambling “I Wore it Too,” a track that hints at island tones with a plodding drive and smooth harmonies. “Don’t Add It Up” shifts gears back into the more creatively eclectic, blending harmonica, strings, guitars, and more to deliver a subtly moving soundscape before closing the record out with “And We Both Know,” a track that is gentle and moving.
On Echo, Hello Echo continue to impress, delivering hefty slices of creativity alongside solid musical chops and a poignant delivery. The result is an album that you want to hear again and again and there’s no better compliment to give than that.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Kicklighter - The Fascinating Thinking Machine

It’s a rarity in life to be given a second chance, let alone a third or fourth to excel at just about anything, especially for a dream as big as doing that which you love. Yet, for newcomer Everett Young, he’s been graced with chances time and time again and this time he’s taken the bull by the horns and isn’t letting go, living in such a way to avoid any and all regrets as he releases his latest record The Fascinating Thinking Machine.

Young’s life has been a study in multiple failed starts, from an early attempt to learn piano as a child to a flirtation with becoming a pop star in college to get girls, an experiment that failed when he just couldn’t get his mind around the guitar. He managed to release an album in his 30s but the fallout from the divorce he found himself in the midst of drew all of his attention, leaving him little if any energy to promote the album. After a few more stops and starts, Young thought his musical days were behind him until he again decided to give the guitar one last go.
“About 1½ years into it, around 42 or 43 years old, I realized that something unique was happening,” says Everett. “I was getting to the point where I could really play the guitar. This was something that a lot of middle-aged people had tried to do but virtually no one had ever done. About the same time, I went looking for a guitar teacher and in my search I learned that teachers couldn’t relate to me; they had no idea how to teach anyone my age or in my position. The person that helped me the most turned out to be a life coach. He taught me to stay the course, to embrace the adventure, embrace myself, take it day by day and stay in the moment, if I wanted to succeed in playing guitar.”

Drawing inspiration from that experience and leaning on his newfound abilities, Young himself took to teaching the instrument, allowing his wisdom and understanding to help other older learners. But his true passion lay in making his own music and he finally has all the pieces in place for his latest.
The Fascinating Thinking Machine is an album that resonates with singer-songwriter charm, Young weaving together earnest 80’s styled pop templates to complement his intelligent lyricism, a key ingredient for the artist.

“I’m trying to make sophisticated, intellectual pop,” he shares. “I want the album to have deep lyrics and be philosophically stimulating. I want the melodies to stick in your head and be yummy pop melodies — a gourmet meal, not fast food.”
That meal opens up with the moody textures of “Until I See the Sun,” a haunting note leading into a track that opens up into a mid-tempo rocker while “Says A Tender Mind” opts for brighter textures and jangly guitars. “When Howie Dressed Me Down” is a vintage 80’s jam, synthesizers and more merging together to form a perfectly retro vibe while Young infuses his own mojo into the proceedings as “Kid” holds court with a restless sense of wisdom and energy, Young’s vocals rich and pleasantly just touched with grit.

Young’s also possessed by a softer side and, quite frankly, it’s that side that dominates more of this record as tracks like “Building a Robot,” the jazz-influenced “The Sultan of Brunei,” and “Saying Goodbye” show. These find the artist taking things from a more laid-back, acoustic approach and the result is reminiscent of 70s torch songs, the vocals smooth and framed by arrangements warm and subtle. Of special note is “After the Healing,” a song informed by gentle piano and snippets of trumpet that carry along a message of hopeful reconciliation between lovers, a tale just about everybody can identify with.
It’s been a long time coming but Everett Young has finally managed to do what he’s wanted to do for so long, placing his heart and passion into song. The Fascinating Thinking Machine is a solid listen, particularly for fans of 70s and 80s flavored pop and while there are a few moments that beg for just a bit more energy, Young has done a job worthy of hearty applause by Mr. Kickliter, the artist’s high school choir instructor and band’s namesake.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review: Hillary Reynolds Band - The Miles Before Us

When Hillary Reynolds sings the powerful lines, "Have you ever been to the bottom of a bottle/And wanted just a little bit more," stark instrumentation framing her soulful voice in the intro to the song "Can't Let You Go," you're know you're in for a treat. With their third album, The Miles Before Us, the Hillary Reynolds Band delivers a plethora of these moments, laden with emotion and richly textured with strong Americana that's flavored with elements of folk, country, pop, rock, jazz, and bluegrass. The result is an album that is well worth the listen.

The collective formed when they met at the vaunted Berklee College of Music, coming together over a love of traditional music, and they quickly gelled and took to one another. Now based in Boston, the band has enjoyed a number of accolades and opportunities, performing on the stages of the "Northeast Pennsylvania Bluegrass Festival, Mile of Music Festival in Appleton, WI, the Blue Plate Special on WDVX Knoxville, the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, and Green Bay's Meyer Theatre and Fox 11 morning show “Good Day Wisconsin.” Further praise has come their way from critics and fans like fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss and they've seen their songs work their way onto the playlists of multiple radio stations while individual members of the band have been afforded the chance to work with "notable artists like Wyclef Jean, Imogen Heap, and The Click Five, and Michael Manring."
All of these accolades come honestly as the Hillary Reynolds Band is a talented quintet, making music that is alternately honest and enjoyable. With Reynolds managing lead vocal duties, she's joined by Connor Reese on guitar, Trevor Jarvis on cello and backing vocals, Jeff Hale on drums, and Chris Mewhinney who shines on electric and acoustic bass. There's a strong chemistry that's evident throughout the whole of the record and it's no doubt due to the strong ties this group shares.
The Miles Before Us starts simply with "Took Me a While," a breezy pop-tinged track with singsong vocals and bright piano and twinges of strings that give it that touch of country and "Pretending I'm In Love" continues that same vibe, Reynolds' vocals smooth and rich and somewhat reminiscent of Norah Jones in its lower registers. "Honey Come Home" marks a shift, the pace slowing to a gentle acoustic shuffle, brushed drums and plucks of banjo and swells of cello lending emotional tones before seguing into the gem that is "Can't Let You Go."
Forrest O'Connor guests on "I Surrender," which opens with a soul-stirring Appalachian a cappella feel before breaking out into a barn burning acoustic jam, mandolin, guitar, and more raging forth with passion while "Braver Than We Think" pulls things back to a gentler, rolling listen with warm harmonies. "What It Is" picks up those sunny melodies and runs with them followed by "Balloon & Kite," two tracks that are playful but are among the few that fail to truly register here.
"Crossing the Line" returns to where the band really excels however, a strong acoustic arrangement providing the framework for Reynolds' voice to shine as "This Love of Ours" makes a case for the highlight song of the album with its powerful instrumentation and lyrics like, "Oh, take my heart when you leave/In the morning/Leave your love on the pillow/So I can love you/While you're gone." It's rich with emotion and makes the best of Reynolds and company. The goodness continues with the stark sounds of "I Didn't Know Who Else to Call," the band working a "less is more" approach that really works while they let it all hang out on the rock-inspired "Keep On Driving," ending things out with plenty of energy and leaving listeners chomping at the bit for more.
And that’s exactly what’s bound to happen after folks give The Miles Before Us a listen. The Hillary Reynolds Band shows here that they’re the real deal and deliver your money’s worth and more, crafting compelling Americana-flavored jams with authenticity and passion. And that’s a formula that will have you reaching for the “repeat” button time and time again.

Review: A Is For Atom - Song For You EP

The best source material for an artist clearly comes from real life and on his second EP under the moniker A is For Atom, New York transplant Mike Cykoski mines his personal experiences for five songs of bittersweet melancholy. While his first recording dealt with the pursuit of love and the deep desire for a relationship, Song For You deals with the other side of that equation, having loved and lost and learning to deal with the consequences. To accomplish this task, the artist draws deeply from the well of experience alongside some powerful literary allusions that work well in his intelligent indie rock digs.

Cykoski's no newcomer to the music world, having been part of a successful Denver band on the cusp of breaking big but, when those streams ran dry, he drew inspiration to pursue a solo career after auditioning for none other than Gavin DeGraw.
“That was the trigger on the path to becoming a solo artist,” Mike reveals. “I was in his apartment and he played many songs on the piano; they were all so good and he impressed me. It was right before he flew to LA to do the showcase that got him a record deal.”

Inspired by a passion for songwriting, Cykoski embarked on his own journey, taking classes at NYU and at Julliard, constantly learning and making the connections that would lead him in developing his own sound and musical signature. That sound has drawn him favorable comparisons to acts like The National and The Flaming Lips but it's still one that is very much his own. And on Song For You he continues to nurture it along, drawing together an eclectic soundscape to stand alongside his cerebral lyricism.
Song For You is undercut throughout with an element of pain, a bittersweet thread running throughout the five tracks even when the musical accompaniment suggests otherwise. "Load Up on Guns" gets things moving forward first, the bright, singalong composition contrasting with the almost militaristic and war-tinged lyric, Cykoski singing about the pain and loss felt through relationships. He brings in some interesting electronic elements to lend something unique while a persistent backbeat presses things forward.

The title track follows and is easily the most accessible and compelling of the bunch. Here Cykoski layers his solid vocal against a subtle backdrop, an almost jazz-influenced hit of guitar running throughout and helping to hammer home the power of the lyric. That lyric was inspired and drawn directly from the artist's life, being the last thing his ex-wife said to him, that he had never wrote a song for you. The poignancy of the lyric permeates the track and even when he employs some dissonant keyboard notes alongside, it rings true.
"Bombs Away" is a bit more upbeat, insistent guitar bridging the track through and through while the lyric builds upon the metaphor of an "all or nothing" approach to love, more war-themed imagery playing into the artist's songwriting. The melody is lighthearted but the lyric heavy as he sings, "War is hell," speaking of the difficulty of love and relationships, the guitar blazing a trail to emphasize the point. Such language carries along on "India" as well, inspired by the experiences of the artist's father and his work at a missile silo during the times of the Cold War. The pressures of the potential dangers and catastrophes inherent in such a position lend themselves powerfully to Cykoski's lament of love and loss, framed in a solid indie rock wrapping.

"The White Dress" is the artist's most cerebral track as he places himself in the shoes of Emily Dickinson's lover, attempting to pen letters back to the legendary poet. The arrangement, driven by piano and infused with flourishes of trumpet and more, is undercut with a sense of pain, the task of matching his lover's words clearly impossible but his task is driven ahead by that love in spite of the circumstances. Infused with plenty of literary references, this one is no doubt one of Cykoski's finer tracks on the EP.
Mike Cykoski's latest, Song For You, is a solid blend of creative instrumentation and solid songwriting. The EP's five songs draw from deep wells and present a somewhat sad but still hopeful look at love and life. And doing so with arrangements that continue to be interesting after the initial listen, Cykoski shows himself to be a force to be reckoned with and is hopefully a voice we'll be hearing from again soon.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: Matty Ride - Self-Titled EP

Summertime is once again upon us and that means it’s time to lock in some killer jams. You know what I’m talking about; they’re the kind of songs that are perfect for cruising to the beach, the top down, hair blowing, and the sun warm on your face as you soak up the rays and good times. And to that end, please allow me to introduce you to none other than up and coming artist Matty Ride and his self-titled debut EP.

Ride comes with a strong pedigree, being born in southern California while being raised in the heartland of Idaho before being invited to Music City, U.S.A. by none other than legendary producer and player Tommy Sims (Bruce Springsteen, Jonny Lang, Garth Brooks) to write and record. With Sims’ tutelage, Ride was exposed to a whole new side of Nashville, a side that would have a large impact on the budding artist.
“I was blown away by the level of musicianship I was exposed to,” he shares. “I was all at once inspired, humbled, and motivated. But I knew that if this was the type of music being created in Nashville, this was where I was meant to be.”
He took quickly to the town and the town took to him as well, seeing his already solid talent increase and grow, his name and work becoming more well known. It even garnered him the chance to work with blues star Jonny Lang, the two collaborating with Sims to pen the track “Breakin’ In” for Lang’s latest album.
But Ride was focused on his own music and his debut captures the man in a nutshell: fun loving, lighthearted, upbeat, and immensely talented.
“That Girl” opens the record up, a bright, danceable guitar groove leading the way while Ride steps into the track with rich, smooth vocals a sound that recalls touches of Maroon 5 and Dave Barnes. His delivery is solid throughout and the hook keeps the toes tapping before bridging into the danceable playfulness of “All Over Again.” Again, solid soul undergirds the proceedings with a chunky arrangement that are bright and breezy. “Come On and Dance” will have you doing just that, Ride tapping into his old school soul for some classic tones, thumping bass notes merging with a smooth and sunny keyboard fill while the artist croons out his lighthearted lyric.
But it’s “First Day of Summer” which really helps to make this a great summertime listen. With guest work from Beta and Fyutch, Ride delivers a track that is pure summer with shiny tones and a danceable arrangement. There’s a nostalgic element to the track, something which is reinforced even more on the music video which features a plethora of 80s related throwbacks from the “Back to the Future” DeLorean, Day-Glo colors, and a riffing guitarist who rocks a classic Stryper shirt. If it sounds like a lot of fun, that’s because it is and with his foils Beta and Fyutch providing a solid contrast, Ride works it like it’s his.

 
“Hold Me Closer” closes the EP out for Ride and again finds the artist digging deep into the past to showcase a silky soul ballad. The beat is perfectly gentle and the arrangement full of emotion and polished instrumentation as Ride delivers great lines like “I can hear the melody/But I can’t play the song/Once upon a time I knew the words/Nowadays I’m struggling/Just to sing a verse.” But, chances are, once Ride’s music has got its hooks into you, you won’t have any trouble singing along.
There’s a good reason that Matty Ride was tapped to come to Nashville to kickstart his young career and his debut EP showcases the solid talent and potential resting in the young artist. Smooth, polished, and ready for action, Ride takes listeners on a delightful romp through summer love and invites you to come along.

Review: Broken Quote - Foreshadowing Sunlight EP

Music represents many things to many people. For some, it’s a source of fun and partying. For others, music serves to fill in the gaps, pushing back the silence. For rising artist Broken Quote, music has been a lifesaver.

The Houston, Texas native took to music early on, taking to songwriting even before he could read a note or play an instrument, offering him a way to relate to and process the world around him.
“Music opened up a part of me I didn’t even know was there,” the artist shares. “It taught me lessons, comforted me, scared me, challenged me and brought focus to my life, helping me grow as a person. Writing music is how I process my experience."

He soon took to taking up instrument after instrument, learning to play by ear but it was when the artist was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition that threatened to sideline his musical journey. Yet, the artist dug deep and persevered and continued to expand his horizons, learning guitar, piano, synthesizer, sampling, and even steel drums while taking in the influential sounds of artists like Eyedea, Bjork, Radiohead, and Parliament Funkadelic, setting the stage for a diverse musical platform.
That’s a platform that Broken Quote puts to good use on his latest EP, Foreshadowing Sunlight. Here the artist taps into his pain alongside his inspiration and the result is something very dramatic. Playing like an ambient film study soundtrack, Foreshadowing Sunlight presents five experimental tracks that showcase a dark, moody soundscape that seems to resonate from the artist’s daily pain.

“Ghost Train” leads the EP off, programmed beats and an ethereal electronic filter laying the groundwork for gently sung vocals, the occasional twinges of sound that appear providing a sense of mystery along the way. Ambient sounds open “Late Night Ocean,” the slight distortion lending itself to thoughts of being underwater before being joined by some ambling percussion and the surprise sound of steel drums which tap out a bright rhythm that is juxtaposed against the music’s darker landscape.
Broken Quote taps into his piano skills for “Glass Ceiling,” opening with a restless note that merges into a dissonant backbeat and a trippy explosion of sound. Restless and energetic, the song threatens to come into form as something more conventional but then blasts out again into an experimental vibe complete with distorted electric guitar trilling its way through the track. Those elements subside a bit and the steel drums return on “Sparks Water the Seeds,” the artist continuing to show a unique ability with the instrument as he coaxes some compelling rhythms from them while album closer “Mispronounce” is the album’s most conventional track. Here, Broken Quote revisits his earlier lyric, singing around a subtle acoustic guitar embellished by some simple electrical elements that lend it a dreamy quality while his voice, honest and weary, gives it grounding.

Broken Quote’s life has been one of perseverance and hardship and that reflects in his music, especially here on Foreshadowing Sunlight. Yet, despite the darker tones of the artist’s sounds, there is beauty to be found here in the truth and authenticity through which it is delivered. Not an easy listen and definitely not Top 40 material but for those willing to explore and experiment, much like the artist himself, there is plenty good to be found here.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Review: War Poets - American Police State EP

When we last encountered the Minneapolis, MN-based pop rock outfit, War Poets, they’d just released their two-disc opus, Dulce et Decorum Est. Boasting seventeen songs, that project saw the band staying true to their messages of social justice and equality and matching it with solid musicianship throughout. However, the sheer breadth of the record presented some problems, showcasing some chinks in the armor which resulted in a record that was certainly good, but not great.

With their latest release, the American Police State EP, War Poets seem to have really taken those early criticisms to heart and have really worked at filtering their vision into a much more accessible space, in this case five solid songs of pop-rock intensity. The powerful lyrics and messages are there, this time finding the band tackling issues like income inequality, Native American rights, and gun violence as is the strong musicianship, these arrangements continuing in line with their signature sound that’s earned them comparisons to Fleetwod Mac and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Things get off to a rocking start with “Better Place,” Rex Haberman taking lead vocals right off which he holds throughout the whole of the EP, as a thoughtful rhythm presses the song along while he sings, “I look to my left/I look to my right/I close my eyes and see a better place/Take me there, baby/To a better place/It doesn’t matter/I don’t know the way.” Rolls of rich electric guitar fills lend bonus emotion as do Jenny Case’s soulful backing vocals, leading into the staccato rock of “Closing In.” Haberman seems to chew off the lyrics, raging guitars roaring around him, even mimicking a siren of sorts as he tells a tale of forced insanity and of those forced to a place of self-medication in order to simply get through the day. The frenetic arrangement is rocking and serves the song’s lyric well.

“8:05 On a Saturday Night” is a surprising track, opening things up with a mid-tempo jam, fueled with a swelling horn section and a killer groove that eventually flows into a spoken word/hip hop flow that closes out the track, ending things on a note that carries the song to the next level. It also deals with the topic of gun violence, which Haberman and company are passionate about, sharing, “What is a gun really for? It’s for killing people. I realize I have strong opinions on gun violence, but we’re musicians, not politicians. We put our views out there by singing so people can think about this.”
The next track asks a poignant question, “Where Has Love Gone?,” bridging into multiple issues while a rocking arrangement carries things forth. It’s a solid message that is buoyed by a great guitar and saxophone solo, showing some strong musicianship that undergirds the lyric while “Red Lake” closes out the record with more simmering angst and rock although it’s the least successful of the bunch, the lyric a bit too wordy throughout, losing its overall punch.

With American Police State, War Poets continue to beat their drums of protest and outrage but do so in a way that is much more concentrated and controlled than with previous efforts. The result is a more consistent set of tracks that are much more accessible which serves both the listener and the message equally well and that leaves one wishing for just a bit more, which is a good thing.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Review: Cinco Santos - Duplicidad

There is one truly universal language in our world and that is music. It’s a force and power that transcends boundaries, whether they are political, national, social, or other. Music runs deeper than all of these, tapping into something primal and visceral within each and every one of us, and speaks to deep places, conjuring emotion and feeling. That’s why it’s so engaging to take on a review of a project like Cinco Santos and their debut release, Duplicidad. For even though this is a foreign language release, its heartbeat steps across the barriers of the spoken word and speaks instead to the soul.

The brainchild of guitarist, songwriter, and visionary Lorenzo Montero, Cinco Santos came together after a two-year-long search across Los Angeles as the artist sought out the perfect members of the team to create the band’s signature sound. And, with time, Montero found just the men he was looking for, bringing together lead singer Daniel Jimenez, Lorenzo Montero on  guitar and vocals, Jesse Stern on bass, Willard Lozano on guitar and shredder, and Emiliano Almeida on drums. With members boasting an eclectic citizenship that ranges from Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, the United States, and Canada, this was a musical collective bound to bring some excitement to the table.
That excitement grew in 2012 when the band opted to dive in and collectively develop original songs rather than seeking out demos from others.
“Sharing in the creative process solidified the band as an artistic entity and yielded our strongest material,” Montero shares. “The next stage of our evolution happened as we experimented with how to fuse our different stylistic elements together, and add electronic beats to give our music a unique groove and very contemporary feel.”
That fusion turned into a beautiful thing and helps to make Duplicidad a truly delightful listen.
The album’s sound draws broadly between borders, finding the multicultural group sample from obvious Latin elements and bridging them with healthy doses of pop, rock, and even electronica, creating a sound that is altogether Cinco Santos. “Candela” gets things off to a fiery start, rich, full guitar chops layered across tightly played percussion and accented perfectly with Jimenez’s pitch perfect vocals while “Azuca y Amor” shines with its bright Latin acoustic guitar and soulful rhythms.
Those same elements color tracks like “Caramelo,” organic percussion bringing extra life, and “Te Cantare Todos Los Dias,” which is solid bridge between the old and the new, traditional sounds leading into more contemporary pop flair. “Te Quiero Aqui” makes the transition complete as Cinco Santos deliver a stirring pop ballad with vibrant energy and musicianship but it’s the title track, “Duplicidad,” that really surprises. It’s a jam that finds the band infusing their roots alongside some powerful rock notes, chunky riffing guitars alongside acoustic fills that form a killer sound while Jimenez continues to deliver vocally. And the sheer energy of “No Me Digas,” complete with a raging string solo, really highlights the band’s great musicianship, allowing all the parts to shine.
There’s only one track that really doesn’t register strongly here, and that is “Loco.” It’s hampered by a musical soundscape that is one of the more uninteresting, although still masterfully played, as well as a chorus that is a bit too repetitive to really have any staying power. But its one small hiccup on what is otherwise an impressive output of spirit and sound.
Cinco Santos’ debut, Duplicidad, is truly an album that escapes borders and stereotypes, tapping into the simple emotion that music is. As tight knit a musical collective that you’ll find, this record showcases them at their best, delivering a compelling mix of traditional and modern rhythms, resulting in an album that will find you coming back for more.

Review: Joe Tripp and the Hops - 6 Songs

It’s been an uphill battle for Joe Tripp and the Hops. From having to change their name to avoid identify conflicts with a UK-based band to earning their stripes playing gig after gig in and around the windy city of Chicago, theirs has been a band in a constant battle for survival.

“We are a band of talented individuals, but maybe not talented enough,” Tripp humbly offers. “We have had many ups and downs. At some of our low points it seems like we have lost every contest we’ve entered but then something turns around like being named one of Chicago’s best local acts by the Illinois Entertainer.”

It’s those moments of success that Tripp and company continue to mine for inspiration and encouragement, continuing to work at their music and tirelessly promoting themselves. Their 2011 release Won’t It Be Fun was a big step in the right direction, garnering some solid praise as well as the opportunity to work with Doug McBride (Fall Out Boy, Veruca Salt.) And now the band is set to try to maintain that moment with their latest release, the aptly titled EP, 6 Songs.

The band’s been compared to acts like Weezer, Incubus, and The Gin Blossoms and those influences are definitely evident throughout these tracks, replete with plenty of pop accessibility, but there’s also something of an old school punk vibe that undergirds their overall sound, lending just the right amount of edge when needed. “Signs” leads things off with a jangly lead guitar and three-part vocal harmony that works well, giving added energy. That’s followed by “There’s Something” which draws from much of the same cloth, a set of bright keyboard fills and some vocal distortions providing contrast.

“Fantasma” ups the energy with a rocking intro and more harmonies in the chorus while “Heart Cries Out” slows the pace, Tripp showing off his vocal chops although this time around the harmonies don’t deliver quite as true, hindering an otherwise well-crafted jam. “Let Go” is another slow-jam, its effervescent feel hinting at a lazy day lying along the beach with solidly pop-flavored guitars and strong beats from drummer, TJ Walker. Lastly, the band closes things out with the gently rolling “Who Knows,” atmospheric guitars providing a launching point for Tripp’s impassioned vocals.

6 Songs does suffer from the occasional hiccup, less than stellar harmonies at one point and a production that feels somewhat muted at points, leaving vocals difficult to discern in some junctures and contributing to a boxed in feeling at others, but, those issues aside, there’s plenty to recommend here. Joe Tripp and the Hops showcase some strong chops on this EP and as they continue to develop their signature sound, there’s a good chance we’ll be hearing from these guys again down the road.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: Leslie DiNicola - Some Greener Yard EP

“I want to share my experiences in song so that others can see their lives mirrored and pass through the door of whatever is troubling them or holding them back,” shares NYC-based singer-songwriter, Leslie DiNicola, and on her latest EP, Some Greener Yard, the artist does just that.

DiNicola’s spent the past couple of years rising through the ranks, earning the chance to work with some great music professionals like Ron Allaire (Keith Richards, Madonna, David Bowie, Shakira), Julian Coryell (Aimee Mann, Leonard Cohen, Jewel, Alanis Morisette), Erich Gobel (John Mayer, Ray Charles), Mark Schulman (P!nk, Cher, Foreigner), and Ellis Traver (Diane Birch, Fischerspooner, Sean Lennon, and Mark Ronson) while releasing some celebrated work like 2011’s Draw Back Your Bow EP which found the artist offering up a playful and imaginative set of cover songs. It was time well spent as the artist just basked in those classic songs and drew inspiration and knowledge from the experience.
That experiences colors the five tracks of Some Greener Yard and lends a depth and emotional quality throughout as things kick off with the rock-tinged country of “Shaky Wire,” whirring organ fills providing color over against thudding drums and a chunky guitar part as the artist shows off her talented and obviously well-trained voice as she plunges headlong through the passionate track. “Give Me Away” lets the artist flow into even more country-feeling fare, her vocals rich and resonant as she is supported by an arrangement sporting brushed drums and moody keyboards which mirror the darkly painful lyric.
“Stay” is step back in the direction of the fun and playful, the tone bright and cheery with a Motown feel and peppy backbeat as DiNicola sings of love and the euphoric joy of a new relationship. It’s one of the better tracks here as the artist lets her hair down and seems to have a blast, lending the song an unseen smile throughout.
That smile becomes bittersweet with the entry of “Weight” onto the scene, DiNicola opting for a subdued piano and acoustic strings to carry home her ode of love to a lost friend, her voice aching with pain and loss, tears brimming as she sings, “No one here can get me through the night/Even God Himself could never make this right.” Producer Julian Coryell manages the tone just right and helps to deliver another killer song before DiNicola offers her swan song with “It’s Alright,” a gentle closer featuring folksy guitars and another painful yet hope-filled lyric to one who’s lost someone.
Leslie DiNicola is an artist who is all about painting pictures in sound and word and Some Greener Yard does that through and through. Bridging from sounds that draw from country, folk, pop, and more, DiNicola has crafted five powerful songs that evoke mental and emotional pictures, drawing you in and refusing to let you go.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: War Poets - Dulce et Est Decorum

Minnesota, MN-based rock outfit, War Poets, and on Dulce et Decorum Est, the collective uses their musical chops as weapons in the war.
Inspiration can come from any number of sources. A romantic relationship, a pivotal moment in time, or a baby’s birth, these have all been the fuel in which many a musician has found his or her Muse. Yet, perhaps there’s no greater motivation for an artist than witnessing an injustice that occurs. And social injustice is exactly what motivates

Even in the very structure of the group is the band’s emphasis on justice and equality seen as group founder and lead singer/guitarist Rex Haberman actively sought to give fellow vocalist and bassist Jenny Case a pivotal role.

 “I have a strong opinion about the status of women in music because I find it a really male-dominated world,” he reveals.

A conversation with longtime friend and collaborator Matt Kirkwold led to the suggestion of Case, who’d sharpened her skills fronting many a cover band as well as her own while serving as the Executive Director of the She Rock She Rock Foundation.

“We work together like we’re on a mission,” Haberman explains. “Jenny has high standards. She’s a perfectionist in the studio and really pushes the band’s performances. She’s super talented and highly professional.”

The rest of the band is made up of a revolving crew of talented Midwestern musicians but each brings their own flair and voice to the group, aiding in garnering War Poets some solid acclaim, even in 14 short months. In that time, the YouTube video for their first single, “Close Enough,” has garnered 250K+ views and they’ve garnered national airplay on AAA and college formats. Film and television licenses have come as well and the band has had the opportunity to play at the Red Gorilla Music Festival during SXSW, a perfect forum for their blend of Americana-flavored rock and lyrics of protest and change.

On Dulce et Decorum Est, War Poets engage a number of issues across two discs, seventeen songs in all which is a feat that not many seasoned artists would try, let alone a relatively new one. The band splits the tracks, filling one disc with their rock edge while offering up a more subdued collection of ballads on the other. The result is an expansive album that has both hits and misses.

Most of the hits come by way of the “Rock” disc, the band well earning their comparisons to acts like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen, and Fleetwood Mac as they roar through tracks like “Don’t Look Back” with its muscled guitars and Haberman’s rich vocals or “Dominica’s Been Sent” and it’s rich tapestry of sound and Case’s stunning rock vocals. “Good Company” is a great jam, the old school honkytonk rock ‘n’ roll feel perfectly delivered with Jerry Lee Lewis-flavored keyboard work while “Another Lie” holds the most contemporarily accessible sound, Case’s bright delivery giving the song extra legs. And “Close Enough” is a track that captures the best of the band, highlighting both their solid musicianship which is almost jazz-like in the way they ebb and flow, allowing each part to sing, and their intentionally pointed lyricism as they offer a musical statement in support of same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, the band’s “Ballad” side doesn’t quite hold as much power, tracks like “Montserrat” and “Paint You the Sun” reading as pleasant but offering little to come back to. “Running Back to You” suffers a similar fate but the stark piano and Jenny Case’s plaintive vocals on “Partly Naked” make it a highly listenable track. Haberman makes use of a similar tactic on the album closer, “Be Like You,” and it works nearly as well, his delivery honest and heartfelt against the rich keyboard, ending on a high note.

War Poets are a gifted act with plenty to say. Dulce et Decorum Est is a record that is ambitious, perhaps in some ways a little too ambitious, but is one that showcases this band in many lights, most of them positive. Haberman and Case show themselves to be able songwriters and their stable of rotating musicians deliver solidly each time out. They’re a band that has all the pieces in place for success; the next step is up to them.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Review: Ashley Davis - Night Travels

Growing up, we were always taught the old adage that one could tell a lot about a person by the company they kept. And as we stick to that tried and true teaching as we take a glimpse at Ashley Davis’ latest, Night Travels, I think it’s safe to say that we’re in good hands as Davis is joined by a stirring list of guest stars like Sara Watkins and Celtic music legend Moya Brennan. Not only does it hint at what good lies in these tracks, it also hints at the work Davis has put in to get where she’s at.

The Kansas born and bred Davis began traveling around the Midwest, singing and performing at the age of 14 and soon headed off to Nashville’s Belmont University where she immersed herself not only in music culture but also in Irish, British, and Latin literature. Not long after she would pursue and earn her graduate degree from the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, under the direction of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and would then head off to an Artist in Residence position on the Isle of Man. Then, interestingly enough, the artist found herself drawn to Sin City by Michael Flatley in 2010 as she was the featured soloist for “Lord of the Dance.”
Night Travels is the artist’s fourth release and marks a shift for the vocalist and songwriter, as she shares, “On my other albums I would have been more cerebral, more academic. This one I really let go and allowed myself to understand that sometimes simplicity is elegance."

The term “simplicity” here is misleading, however, as it’s a term that fails to capture the grace and beauty that Davis brings to the recording.
That beauty begins right from the start as Davis duets with Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek fame on “His Bride I’ll Be,” acoustic strings and emotive fiddle notes framing the stunning vocals as Davis delivers a tale of whimsy and love. “I’ll Follow You (Leanain Thu)” taps even deeper into the singer’s Irish love, lush guitar work providing the space for her soulful and ethereal vocal delivery to shine. She then joins with Irish guitar great John Doyle to deliver a painfully bittersweet version of the traditional classic, “Barbara Allen.”

The title track follows, laden with fiddle reels and more of Davis’s sensitive vocals while “The Blackest Crow” is reminiscent of work by Alison Krauss. Fiddler Eileen Ivers makes an appearance on the hauntingly beautiful “With You Love,” the ethereal elements recalling Loreena McKennitt as “In The Blue” samples from both Irish and Americana camps, the piano notes lovingly accented by accordion fills.
Moya Brenna is Davis’ guest on “Beside You Near,” a song the artist crafted specifically to highlight her friend and mentor’s voice and it does that and more, proving to be one of the definite highlights of the record. “Alone With Me” is another strong track, largely in that it’s a bit of a departure from the rest of the album, bridging into a touch of country yet still tinged with Celtic leanings. Davis then closes things out with “Horses” and the almost theatrical “Dreams Will Come.” It’s the type of track that feels as though it’d fit perfectly into a musical and that seemingly tells the story of Davis’ life, of a life that’s had her dreams come true.

Ashley Davis has worked hard to achieve the status that she’s achieved and it’s all well-deserved. Night Travels highlights an artist who continues to grow in her craft, writing compelling and heartfelt songs and delivering them with not only poise, but passion. Ashley Davis is the real deal and for fans of Celtic flavored sounds, this is one journey you’ll want to join up with.