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.