Sunday, October 22, 2017

Gina Clowes - True Colors

Gina Clowes - True Colors 

Gina Clowes has this music in her DNA. Her siblings Victor and Malia Furtado join her on the first solo release of her musical career, True Colors, and there’s a sense of community pervading this album that’s inescapable. This is close-knit music, heedless of fashion, and speaks from an intensely personal space both lyrically and musically. It adheres to traditional bluegrass at various points, but it’s also unafraid of deviating from its course and exploring different possibilities within a familiar context. She makes use of a variety of approaches without ever adhering too strongly to one particular line of musical thought. True Colors shows that Clowes’ true colors contain a multitude of shades and never settle for one look when the music’s possibilities are so vivid. There are a couple of guest singers on the album and some instrumentals, even one cover, but this is unquestionably Gina Clowes’ album when it’s all said and done.  
True Colors begins with “Puppet Show”. It’s the first of Clowes’ bluegrass tunes with a more modern sensibility and joins other songs like “True Colors”, “The Wayward Kite”, “I’ll Stay Home” and the penultimate instrumental “La Puerta Del Diablo” as the marquee cuts on True Colors cutting against traditionally minded fare. “Puppet Show” is chiefly distinguished by one of the album’s finest lyrics and an equally excellent Clowes vocal while “True Colors” expertly mixes the past and present with a surprisingly strong pop music appeal. The energy she pours into her vocal really puts it over the top. “I’ll Stay Home” is the closest thing on True Colors to purely singer/songwriter material and dispenses with the mandolin, banjo, and fiddle in favor of a straight forward acoustic guitar attack. “The Wayward Kite” and “La Puerta Del Diablo” shows a more experimental side of her musical nature that refuses to be pigeonholed as a bluegrass artist. Instead, the former flirts with classical elements while the last manages to mix Latin influences into her natural Americana roots. 
The more traditional songs on True Colors that stand out are “Saylor’s Creek”, “Looking for Sunshine”, and “Good Old Fashioned Heartbreak”. The latter tune is an excellent example of the blues lesson that sometimes you shrug your shoulders and make a joke of your pain to keep from crying. The mood isn’t overdone and it never descends into farce. Guest vocalist Scott Brannon and his harmony partner Chris Henry have the skill to pull this off and never put a foot wrong throughout. “Saylor’s Creek” is a condensed cinematic marvel that accomplishes much with an artfully minimal amount of effort and “Looking for Sunshine” has such unassuming, unfettered grace that it makes its desire filling the lyrics all the more effective. True Colors would be an impressive debut from anyone, but the levels she reaches on these dozen songs are so impressive that you can’t help but wonder how much further she can go. Based on the evidence in these songs, there may be no limit.  

Edward Price

Donna Ulisse - Breakin’ Easy

Donna Ulisse - Breakin’ Easy 

Quite simply, the latest This album from Donna Ulisse will pick up your spirits if you’re having a bad day. Breakin’ Easy is Donna’s 10th album, but her first on the Mountain Home label. It hits all the right notes throughout its twelve song duration and brims over with a light, freely moving spirit that wants to entertain and relate to its intended audience. The songs are fortunate to have such a supremely gifted interpreter … but then, having written all but two of the tracks, Uliise is the perfest storyteller. Donna is known for vocals that are capable of evocative atmospherics, seamlessly blending with others in harmony, and scaling thrilling emotional heights, often times within the same performance. The album has an inner consistency and logic reflected in how its track listing unfolds and there’s an intimate, but gloriously live, quality to the musical and vocal performance alike that makes listeners feel like this album is happening mere feet away and not a recording of any sort. The spirit of this album will linger with you long after it’s over, surely a credit to Ulisse’s collaboration with the brilliant Doyle Lawson as producer. 
“Without Trouble Please” starts the album off nicely with its mix of bluegrass, blues, and country music sounds percolating through the arrangement. Ulisse sings the lyrics with a tremendous amount of gusto and there isn’t a single note that short changes listeners. Everyone, surely, will be able to relate to this song about having enough of the bad times and just wanting things to get better, but the song manifests an all important belief that things can get better rather than reveling in pain. “Drive This Cold Out of Me” mixes some bluesier strains into the songwriting and it further flavors this strong ballad into something majestic and deeply felt. Ulisse really showcases her singing skills on a number of the album’s slower cuts, but never with the same powerful effect that she does here. The fiddle playing on “A Little Past Lonely” makes sure the song keeps one foot, at least, in the bluegrass world, but this is largely a five star country ballad that anyone familiar with the genre’s golden years and classic material will recognize. Ulisse and Lawson opt for a contemporary production style allowing the song to play as something much more organic and believable, yet with a sense of tradition. 
“We Are Strong”, like the aforementioned number, mixes bluegrass in with country, but the star here is unquestionably another fantastic Ulisse vocals vocal and the album’s best lyric. The attention paid to nailing the words distinguishes it from the other fine material on Breakin’ Easy and really pops with significant specific details. “Whatever Winter Brings” is the last of the album’s slower and personal ballads and it ranks right behind “A Little Past Lonely” as the best examples of the form on this release. Another of the fine cuts coming near the end of Breakin’ Easy is “Where My Mind Can Find Some Rest” and the powerful longing burning in the heart of this stately and often times stunningly beautiful tune will leave no one unaffected. Donna Ulisse’s Breakin’ Easy is a fantastic album from a seasoned pro, further solidifying her position as one of the genre’s pre-eminent talents.  

Charles Hatton

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Commotions - Volume II

The Commotions - Volume II 

Volume II, the dozen song release from Canada’s eleven piece R&B and soul act The Commotions, explores a variety of styles under that musical umbrella with a confidence level and steadiness that we often associate with older players and long standing musical units. Sax player Brian Asselin, vocalist Rebecca Noelle, and guitarist David Gaw handle the band’s songwriting on this second release and the trio of songwriters achieve an unity of sound and approach that’s surprising considering they bring three distinct strands of influence into play here. The Commotions’ Volume II uses a horn section to fantastic effect and relegates the guitar to a secondary role and features strong production that emphasizes a chunky bottom end for the band’s sound. This is one of the best releases you’ll hear in 2017 regardless of genre and Volume II is such a high quality it seems to promise even more formidable releases to come. 
“Good Enough” propels this album towards the sky without a hint of hesitation. Rebecca Noelle’s vocals figure in a number of the songs on Volume II and her effect on the tracks is uniformly transformative. This specific song comes off as a near perfect example of how musicians and singers can seemingly feed off one another and make a song’s natural build all the more dramatic. The horns take up a big portion of the song’s sound but The Commotions show they are capable of shifting gears with the next song. “Bad Girl” lets guitarist David Gaw roam a little more freely and his contributions emphasize the bluesy influences in the song. The blues influence in the band’s music doesn’t announce itself in any overt way, but any serious music fan will realize that it forms the essential bedrock of everything The Commotions do on Volume II. 
“Let Me Kiss You, Baby” will win over anyone still listening by this point and not entirely convinced. Noelle is absolutely on fire as a singer for this one and, much like the opener, the audience can allow themselves to be carried away by the sound of musicians responding to a once in a lifetime moment, Second singer Jeff Rogers gives a coolly confident performance on the song “Say Yes to Me Tonight” and the optimistic sweep powering the track comes at a great place in the album’s running order. Rogers is a little wilder and less formal with his singing on the album “Right Kind of Wicked” and the pumping soul energy of this tune is cut with a dash of funk to make it work even better. It concludes the album’s, arguably, most potent run beginning with the song “Let Me Kiss You, Baby”. The energy here is off the charts. 
Jeff Asselin’s drumming on “Last Look” is quite impressive considering how busy it is and how it never misses. Noelle shows another side of her vocal talent on the song by combining her liveliness with a looseness that other tracks don’t exhibit. Volume II ends on a bluesier note than some might expect with “Come Clean” and the smoky qualities of Rebecca Noelle’s singing are deliciously theatrical without ever sounding overwrought. The Commotions are a wonderful outfit that manage a massive sound that never sounds too cluttered or asks too much of the listener and Volume II seems to show them realizing their vision of music with brilliant results.  

Montey Zike

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Dynamos - Shake, Rattle, and Roll

Dynamos - Shake, Rattle, and Roll


The new single release “Shake, Rattle, & Roll” from Los Angeles headquartered five piece Dynamos places the young band among the forefront of modern rock acts and hints at rich ground they have only begun to harvest. There’s a wry form of homage to their influences laced through this song, never loudly announced, and the production and arrangement alike are geared in such a way that they highlight the track’s abundant strengths without ever sounding gimmicky. Lead singer Nadia Elmistikawy is, obviously, put out front as the band’s ascendant star, but the band are equally talented in their own way and the seamlessness of the presentation makes for a powerful package. Dynamos capture listeners’ attention with a wallop of attitude and a dollop of blues to make this even more convincing. “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” will blow away anyone who hasn’t yet heard this band with their conviction and kick in the doors attitude and remind any existing fans that this is the sort of rock act we need going into the future. 

Elmistikawy’s upbringing in New Jersey included opera training as a young girl and later musical education that’s helped shape her technique into something expressive and technically accomplished. There’s definitely a strong blues sound that comes from her voice, but its blues in the best sense that all rock singers embody and she takes over the song with a strong attitude to go along with her considerable chops. Her voice seems to focus on the rhythm section as a reference point, but there’s nothing she does that fails to match the song’s guitar driven intensity and complement the six string heroics. A shallow listen to the song might mean you lose the nuance of Elmistikawy’s phrasing, but she’s undoubtedly a dramatic interpreter of the band’s material who never passes up a chance to elevate the lyrics through her attention to vocal detail.

The musicians involved in this release have, presumably, not been playing together for that long, but nevertheless demonstrates the sort of fiery chemistry we more often associate with bands that have been playing together for quite some time. They opt for the customary two guitar approach, one lead and the other rhythm, common to most rock bands and it gives Dynamos a full, rich sound further deepened by outstanding rhythm section play and a mix that underlines the physicality of the song’s musicianship. They have hit a grand slam with the song “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” that goes far beyond what we commonly hear from modern rock acts and it’s clear that Dynamos have a clear creative vision for what makes them who they are and where they want to take their music. There’s confidence coming out of every passage in this song and the assurance they project stands as a harbinger for even brighter greatness to come.  
Mike Yoder

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Stranger Friends

Stranger Friends 

Jamie Floyd grew up as the daughter of performing musicians in West Palm Beach, Florida, and landed her first record deal at 11 years old. While working as a waitress, she co-wrote the exquisite title track to Ashley Monroe’s Grammy-nominated album, The Blade. A native of Stillwater, Oklahoma, John Martin played football for Baylor University while continuing to write songs. He received his first cut in Nashville with one of his musical heroes, Garth Brooks. With a musical style that combines the harmony of the Everly Brothers with the grit of Tom Petty. Stranger Friends - is their self-titled EP, releasing this October.

“Country Song” opens the EP with flying colors, because it nails all perspective for them to establish exactly what they are. And that is a country act with some essential rocking aspects to keep them on the strong side of country in a modern world full of fakery. They’re the real thing in a sea of what is not what it used to be in any music genre, but that’s part of today’s land of musical opportunity.

They just happen to get up and deliver all they can to achieve it and this opening track is a testament to that, when they could’ve done everything to achieve the opposite. They came out smoking all the way on it.

They do all they can to come from another place and find themselves right in the middle of-the road on “Sacred Garden” which plays like a waltz through the trees with acoustic instruments. It’s an organic piece of music with lovely lyrics and vocals led by Jamie Floyd and well-accompanied by John Martin. You get all the la, la, la’s and everything with this sweet track, especially if you like songs about togetherness and the adventures it can take you on. It seems to hold its own with the rest of these cuts but it doesn’t stand out over and above any of them. It still belongs to the EP though.   

The second song on the EP worth all raving about is the deep, dark and illustrious musing of “I Ain’t Dead” with its narrative feel and bombastic breaks. This is a track that instantly sweeps you away or turns you completely off. There is no dimmer switch when it comes to the classic country essence going on here, you’ll either want to hear it over again or give it a pass, with the latter not being recommended. I was blown away by this song the first time I heard it. There is only one thing left to do and that’s play it again, as they break all boundaries with a standard they can ultimately be very proud of. You will be moved or you will not.
The same can’t be said for “November & June” but it’s not something you want to skip either, or the entire EP won’t bode as well. It’s not always about the big tracks, it can often be just as much about the lighter-hearted stuff. This track harks back to the second track on the EP, where it fits in best, but you can’t place five tracks together as well as you can four tracks, so one or two can get misplaced in the arrangement, and this is the lesser of those two for me.

They bring everything back around on the awesome “Don’t Get Back Up,” so, not all is lost in the mix, and they take it out with her lovely voice featured.

Terry Smith

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Altre di B - Miranda

Altre di B - Miranda! 

Miranda! is the third album from Italian four piece indie rockers Altre di B and their likely peak at this point. There’s a marvelous amount of diversity spread out over the album’s ten songs and there’s never a moment when you’ll feel like they are over-indulging their mandate with the audience. Instead, these are songs with rich tapestries of sound but never wasting a second of the listener’s time is a watchword for each of the ten songs. There’s a mix of instruments that bring these songs off primarily dominated by the trio of synths, guitar, and drums. The drumming, in particular, is produced in such a way that it occupies a significant portion of the mix, but there’s enough of a balance maintained throughout the course of Miranda! that there’s no listeners who’ll feel like there’s some lopsided performances included on the album.
“Pungi” has enjoyed some success as the album’s first single and it’s easy, in one sense, to see why the track rated as a choice for that spot. The opener is, arguably, the straightest rock track on Miranda! and one certain to connect with both indie rock fans and probably older alternative rock fans as well. The band’s talent with hitting on a memorable chorus is exhibited here and their ability to create powerful dynamics within their songwriting and playing is hinted at as well. “Salgado” has a harder edged guitar attack than the opener, but it shares much more space with synthesizers and keyboards in the mix. The result, however, is quite successful. The added grit and gravitas imbued in this song is a near perfect way to follow the opener. The drumming hooks into an irresistible swing with the song “Polilao” and the guitars and keyboards dancing around that beat have a bright, inspired air. It’s one of the most upbeat numbers on Miranda!, musically, and the vocal serves it well.
“Erevan” is another gem. This is a more muted number that makes great use of space and timing in the arrangement, but it also comes with a vulnerability that will draw listeners closer. It’s amazing how, despite their style and band configuration, the band achieves such a live, intimate sound, but Miranda! engages listeners viscerally and leaves you often feeling like the band is performing mere inches away from you. The mix has that much immediacy and punch. “Tapis Roulant”, however, strips away that intimacy for an abrasive and raucous post punk guitar workout that pushes the vocals to their limit without ever once revealing any cracks or strain in the presentation. “Taxi”, the album’s penultimate number, has a restless quality in its playing that perfectly embodies the subject matter of the song. It’s an album well worth hearing and giving repeated plays to because, frankly, you won’t catch all the nuances on the first go-around. The band’s willingness to work hard and grow as songwriters has paid off quite handsomely with Miranda and the next phase in their musical journey is one we all should pay close attention to.  

Shannon Cowden

Matt Hammon - Silver Suitcase

Matt Hammon - Silver Suitcase

When different outlets start compiling their lists of 2017’s best indie releases, Matt Hammon’s Silver Suitcase will make the grade with many. This outstanding ten song set is played, mixed, and arranged by Hammon alone, but the strain of such a heavy load never shows on the performances or writing. There’s a crackling baseline of energy Hammon maintains from the first song through the last and he’s obviously been able to draw from the best material he’s written in his years playing a supporting role to artists like Bob Mould and as part of bands like Mineral, Verbow, and The Rebecca West. It results in a fistful of barn burners, anthemic style guitar rock with some unusual textures and instrumental additions that spin it in an individualistic way. Stylists are often some of the most well regarded musicians and songwriters working in popular music and, despite the influences on Silver Suitcase, you’ll finish it convinced that no one else really writes a Matt Hammon song. There’s a distinctiveness to how he pulls things off that’s subject to influence but, ultimately, under no one’s spell.
“Pictures” introduces listeners to Hammon’s writing style, among its other qualities. His songwriting has a natural penchant for seizing on imagery that lodges itself listener’s memories rather than strictly trading in generalities and clich├ęs. The musical template for much of Silver Suitcases is set with this song as well, though don’t mistake Hammon as a songwriter afraid to mix up his approach. “The Table” has less of a focus on his vocals and lyrics, but the music more than makes up for it as Hammon grabs onto a full on post punk rock guitar assault, but Hammon never deserves style entirely in favor of pure energy and attitude. “Never Say So” is one of the album’s more naturally commercial numbers thanks to the vocal melody and the way he orchestrates the guitar work in a balanced and appealing way. His vocals are, once again, one of the best qualities of the performance. “Silver Suitcase”, the album’s title number, shows Hammon’s ambition stretching some, at least in terms of the lyric, and his grasp proves to be the equal of his reach as it all holds together in a vivid and accessible way.  
“Colorful Regret” is one of the album’s quirkier musical numbers and twists his influences in a highly individual way that recalls the collection’s base sound without mindlessly repeating it. The thoughtful sequencing that went into making this album a reality peaks with the choice of its final two songs – “Sleeper’s Town” is one of the album’s most interesting lyrics and an acoustic driven performance while the finale, “Name Game”, is a departing blast of guitar and sports another biting lyric from Hammon’s pen. The artfulness involved in this release is real, but Matt Hammon is a musical performer and writer who burns with passion that shapes any technique in a powerful new direction. The sense of anything goes here is palpable and makes Silver Suitcase all the more memorable.  

Joshua Stryde