Thursday, December 29, 2016

Little Diamonds - New Orleans Bound


Little Diamonds - New Orleans Bound 


Young singer/songwriter Luke Leblanc, performing under the name Little Diamonds, began seriously pursuing music as his passion between his twelfth and thirteenth birthday. He successfully committed himself to learning a number of instruments and two formative events further solidified his future musical path. He attended a Bob Dylan concert in 2008 that awakened the artistic possibilities of a musical career and later won a Dylan impersonation context that garnered him much attention for his vocal talents. His songwriting developed at a brisk pace and his debut album 1st Rail earned praise from numerous quarters for its undeniable quality and the inspiration fueling its performances. Little Diamonds is an un-ironic practitioner of a tradition that has an increasingly niche audience with each passing year, but he approaches his traditional minded material with absolutely no suggestion that these are museum pieces, modern approximations of dusty relics from a bygone time. His second full length album New Orleans Bound finds him discovering much more of an idiosyncratic songwriting voice than ever before and taking more musical chances. There’s plenty of confidence on the album’s dozen songs that would even be impressive from a veteran artist. 

“I Don’t Know About You” begins New Orleans Bound in an understated way. Little Diamonds has an approach that underplays the heavy emotions his songwriting discusses in such a way it actually underscores how much this is affecting the speaker. The guitar work is never too intricate for its own good, but every song has melodic substance coming either from his six string or the fiddle often joining him. He indulges in band efforts at a couple of points on New Orleans Bound and the first outing, “12-12-12”, hits a nice folk rock stride without ever sounding contrived or out of place with the rest of the album. “Too Early Gone” is one of the album’s sadder cuts and Little Diamonds sings with a conviction that explores the song’s emotions without ever wallowing in them. 

“Lord, Come Down” has hushed intensity from the outset and Little Diamonds never lets up on it. His vocal strikes a more serious note than any of the preceding songs and lines up very well with his equally focused guitar playing. The guitar playing on “Duluth Grandma” gives the song every bit as much of a marquee feel as the lyrical content. The words are very good – Little Diamonds’ greatest talent as a lyricist might be in rendering characters through his songwriting with three-dimensional clarity. “Old Man Al” isn’t quite as involved musically, but the vocal and lyrical content are both up to the same level.  

The album’s title cut is the second song incorporating a larger band format. Little Diamonds sounds just as comfortable as he does in the earlier song and genuinely moved to even greater heights by this particular track’s mix of musical styles. The mesh of traditional country with New Orleans jazz proves to be an excellent match and gives him a platform from which Little Diamonds gives his most convincing vocal performance yet. It wraps this album up with a strong conclusion that embodies the assurance he shows throughout the preceding eleven cuts. New Orleans Bound is a vital and completely modern work that just happens to utilize a number of time tested forms.  

9 out of 10 stars 


Scott Wigley

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Erica Sunshine Lee - Elixir


 
Erica Sunshine Lee - Elixir  


The southern flavor of this collection is impossible to ignore. It would be even if Lee didn’t make a big deal about her regional roots. However, none of the regional flavor heard in Erica Sunshine Lee’s music prevents listeners from different areas getting into her music. The subject matter of her songwriting has universal appeal and even her most personal concerns have an overarching common theme of humanity that any feeling person will respond to. Her seventh studio release Elixir runs a little long with fifteen cuts, but she retains immense likability even when she’s repeating herself a little. It’s purely speculation, but it’s a valid interpretation to hear this abundance of music as a self-conscious attempt to knock one out of the park artistically and make an emphatic statement of her creative vitality. It certainly highlights her productivity and impressive consistency, but some will conclude that you are most likely to create a masterpiece when you are relaxed rather than flexing too much muscle to force the issue.  

You will be hard pressed, however, to hear any outright holes in this album. It starts off with a blast. “Shut Up Heart”, naturally, deals with some weighty issues of the heart but the lyric and vocal delivery alike play up the darkly comic aspects of the song much more than its painful elements. “The Bottle Ain’t Enough” is the first of a handful of bluesy stompers that Lee includes on the album. She handles these sorts of songs with such wide-eyed, uninhibited glee that she carries listeners along for the ride with minimal effort. These chest-beating rock influenced numbers, however, seem to convey less of her inner life than songs like “My Favorite Word”. There are a number of instances on Elixir where the posturing of songs like “The Bottle Ain’t Enough” falls away and listeners come face to face, ear to ear, with the unvarnished Erica Sunshine Lee. Beautiful, almost classically themed, piano playing is the musical highlight of “My Favorite Word”, but her stunning singing matches it every step of the way. 

There’s piano in “Jesus and Georgia”, but it is much more understated. Acoustic guitar provides much of the song’s musical body and tasteful, brushed percussion stylishly accentuates everything. There isn’t one dominant musical element; instead, the approach here is much more orchestral with Lee’s singing having a crowning effect on the piece. “Medicine” is a slow burn country ballad that rejects a minimalist approach in favor of a slightly weepy mid-tempo jaunt. There’s piano lines diving in and out of the mix and precise, but never too thought out, drumming that sets a definite tone. “Drunker” is quite a playful tune this late in the album and its backing vocals, along with the jaunty tempo, give it different feel than any other song on Elixir. “Take the High Road”, the album’s closer, is a sharp contrast. The straight-ahead country beat, combination of acoustic and understated electric guitars, plus the climatic chorus are never heavy-footed at all, but quietly assertive and affirming the bedrock musical values informing Lee’s tradition and her own take on songwriting. It brings Elixir to a solid finish that will leave many listeners satisfied. 

8 out of 10 stars


Michael Saulman

Thursday, December 22, 2016

StonerPop


StonerPop
Maudie Michelle and Jimmie Maneuva, otherwise known as StonerPop, are a Louisiana based twosome whose five song self-titled debut introduces a vital new creative force to electronic music. Few experienced fans of the genre will fail to be impressed by the considerable confidence that these songs show and the patient development of each one that results in them being so memorable. There’s no sense here of two musicians who want to show off or overreach. They set an assortment of goals for each of these tracks that the performances comfortably reach and the bar is invariably high. The apparent ease of their achievement isn’t some knock against the overall quality of the compositions, or lack of, but rather a testament to their mastery of the technique needed to realize their ambitions. Few musical units of this strain could hope to emerge so strongly and conclusively, but StonerPop’s songs are unusual and promise much. 
Their surprisingly held back approach on the opener, “Preachers”, serves early notice that StonerPop does things differently than most. The electronic instruments drop distinctive touches throughout the song, never landing the same way twice, and Michelle mixes up her vocals as well, sometimes pulling great emotion out of herself, others times adopting a straight, affect-less approach. “Running”, naturally, has much more musical and vocal urgency than its laid back predecessor. This urgency is intermittent however; the song veers from a tense to breathless mood throughout its duration. The duo never falls prey to one of the most popular misconceptions about electronic music – the instrumentation has a wide range of color and always breathes with a warm glow flush with vitality. 
“You’re Never Listening (Get Over Yourself)” isn’t entirely successful, but interesting. The lack of melody here compared to earlier songs asks the audience to adjust accordingly and some may not enjoy the shift. This is a much more pyrotechnic display of electronica than before and can be accused of self-indulgence, but others will rightly hear it as merely another side of the duo’s musical character. “Monsters” is probably the musical and lyrical highpoint of the EP. The duo’s strengths come together here in a very obvious way – the lyrical complexity is greater than before and suggests a personal experience, the intimate manner Michelle uses to handle the singing reinforces this, and the arrangement manages an inspired balance between melody and moody atmospherics. The EP’s last track “Fox” foregoes any of the aforementioned moodiness in favor of a more clearly upbeat ending and the beautifully phrased piano playing scattered throughout the song gives it a flair that earlier songs lack. 
This debut EP from StonerPop has a distinctive character most artistic units don’t achieve until their second or third release. They clearly began the recording process with a clear idea of where they wanted to go with each song and enlisted the right collaborators to help achieve those goals but, ultimately, it’s emboldened young talent that make this recording succeed so well. StonerPop’s debut EP will please all fans of electronic music. 

8 out of 10 stars
Charles Hatton
 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Jesse Eplan – Dreams


Jesse Eplan – Dreams 


Jesse Eplan’s dreams are coming true every day. This young musical artist’s latest single “Dreams” promises that his live performances will only increase, his recent television appearances will be followed by more of the same, and talented potential collaborators will seek him out to help elevate him even higher than before. Eplan, however, is gifted enough that facilitating his own rise isn’t any issue. His latest self-produced single “Dreams” has the stuff of greatness confined within its three minute running time. Eplan is a multi-instrumentalist, so it might surprise some that he contents himself with employing a variety of electronic instruments to realize the song’s potential, but this is a completely modern artist informed by the past, but never beholden to its templates. It is quite clear, furthermore, that the nature of his instruments never restricts him from making credibly emotive music.  

“Dreams” begins sparsely, but comes together quickly and lays down a meaningful groove that Eplan will ride, in one variation or another, for the entirety of the track. The groove is centered on the bass and percussion he adorns the track with. Neither are assertive in the way that live musicians are, but manifesting assertiveness isn’t the mission here. Eplan wants to conjure a contemplative, deliberate R&B backing and this succeeds at doing so without ever allowing the theatrical nature of his atmospherics become the whole story. He’s included a number of short, but critically important, dips throughout each musical passage that gives the song some added drama, but it hits its big peaks and valleys throughout and contains some surprisingly rousing notes.  

His vocal is thoughtful yet entertaining. The wordplay is a bit advanced for typical songs in this genre, but never so much so that it seems pretentious or Eplan has trouble managing his phrasing. Everything rolls out of him with a smoothness of delivery that few, if any, will find fault with. He also knows when to raise the bar on his vocal intensity and those moments help to provide “Dreams” with some of its most memorable moments. The lyrical content has an almost confessional, singer/songwriter sensibility – Eplan certainly wants us to enjoy ourselves listening to this song, but he also wants to share what his experience getting his music out to the public and chasing stardom has been like for him. His sense, popping up throughout the track, that even these first inklings of commercial success can disappear as quickly as it came is an astonishing admission from such a young talent, but it further illustrates how he’s cut from a difficult cloth than a lot of artists working today. 

Jesse Eplan is a major talent. He may have spent a lot of time toiling in semi-obscurity with self-produced works appearing on websites like SoundCloud, but he’s no longer pop music’s best kept secret on the Internet. Instead, “Dreams” establishes him as an artist on the rise and it’s certain that his future follow ups to this fantastic cut will only continue to build on the success of this track.  


Dale Butcher

Friday, December 16, 2016

Big Tribe - In This Together


Big Tribe - In This Together


East Coast based three piece Big Tribe are much more than the sum of their parts. This is a creative collective held down by three primary members, a core group if you will, while still soliciting freely from the musical imaginations of their many guests. Over thirty musicians have brought their own distinctive gifts to Big Tribe’s songwriting through two studio albums and their contributions to the band’s second release, In This Together, help make this a far greater experience than what we would have if the band chose to confine themselves to their work as a trio. There’s a dozen songs on this outing and each one has an unique arrangement and sound that seems to challenge the musicians each time out and inspire them to different heights than those scaled in the preceding track. Big Tribe has two primary vocalists, songwriter Peter Panyon and Bonnie Eyler, and the use of these two radically different voices contrasts quite nicely and ensures there’s something here for everyone. 

The title song, “All in This Together”, has a lively feel and a number of unexpected musical elements. The dependability of the rhythm section creates a compelling juxtaposition with Panyon’s unusual vocals and the production brings these varying elements together in such a way that it sounds natural after only a brief listen. “10,000 Years” is Bonnie Eyler’s first vocal on the album and a slice of highly metaphorical songwriting with a decidedly airy, low-key approach. The majority of In This Together is devoted to acoustic or otherwise low fi sounds, but songs like “The Final Boat Out” are spiked with numerous electric guitar fills and powerful, but never overbearing, drums. There’s a wealth of lyrical detail in the song and leans towards a vaguely apocalyptic air that helps it stand out from the rest of the pack. The likely peak of the album, performance and songwriting wise, is “How the Mind Wanders”. Eyler gives listeners her most deeply felt vocal yet and it’s an excellent match that makes the most of the intelligently phrased and observed lyrical content. The music embodies every ounce of the nuance heard in the lyrics; nothing here is rushed and the patience they exercise during the performance pays off with one of the album’s best tracks.  

“You Lied” is one of the album’s true surprise, an often blistering outright rock offering that shows great discernment and never becomes too heavy-handed. Eyler’s previously docile vocal performances offer no hint of her capabilities in this area; she’s utterly believable in her role as a rock singer and Big Tribe responds accordingly. The band confounds audience expectations yet again with the song and first album single “July Carol”. Big Tribe transposes the idea of a Christmas carol to the summer months and brings all of the holiday tropes along for a grand time. The backing choir of voices is a clever and unexpected touch, but the songwriting and lyrical content remains as exceptional as ever and the song’s true drawing power. In This Together will satisfy a wide variety of fans – rock fans, unrepentant folkies, and rootsy devotees. Big Tribe are endlessly inventive songwriters and performers and they show themselves able of carrying off this material with an ample amount of personality as well. 

9 out of 10 stars 


Dale Butcher 

The Cavalry - Build Your Own Empire


 
The Cavalry - Build Your Own Empire 


Many potential listeners for The Cavalry’s debut Build Your Own Empire will be mislead by preconceptions of the Nashville rock genre being inherently disposable, but the five songs on this first release and accompanying performances are quite capable of dispelling any such cynicism. The Cavalry has great rousing musical energy and a surplus of melody, but Tristan Jackson’s vocals are among the deepest feeling in the genre and refrain from taking any short cuts towards satisfying the listener. Instead, the songs touch on experiences virtually all listeners can share while still speaking from a very personal place. Tristan Jackson throws himself wholeheartedly into this material and never backs down once from investing it with all of the energy and passion that it deserves. It benefits, lastly, from exceptional production that renders everything in vivid color and hits a great balance between the competing sounds.


The strengths of that production are evident on the first song. “JFK Intro” sets a strong and eloquent tone for the remainder of the album without ever sounding out of place despite its decidedly different musical slant from the EP’s remaining four songs. It never goes on too long either and, as a result, doesn’t throw the album off balance. “Don’t Mean You’re Gone” has some predictable lyrical and musical turns for the genre, but The Cavalry are adept at pouring old wine into new bottles and the genuine verve that Jackson and his cohorts bring to this performance redeems any familiarity. The predictable path that the track takes is doubly smooth thanks to how well both vocalist and players execute its changes. Kristie Lane guests on the ballad “Wake Up Call” but, rather than dueting with Jackson, she provides beautiful and impassioned counterpoint to the primary vocal. There’s a melodic density to the song that makes it one of Build Your Own Empire’s most unusual and lasting achievements.  

One of the EP’s best moments comes with “When the Radio’s Gone”, a deceptively simple bit of songwriting that, after repeated listens, reveals a wealth of undercurrents sure to please a wide audience. It is clearly the song most clearly aimed for commercial success and a number of factors make this possible. The strongest of these qualities, however, is the subtle uptick in tempo that comes with the chorus and its rousing effect on the song is impossible to ignore. The last song “Red, White, & Blue Jeans” hits on some common, universal imagery that hits immediately hits home with the audience embedded into a strident and strongly arranged Nashville Rock track. It ends Build Your Own Empire with a big number that emphasizes The Cavalry’s ambitions with this release. Tristan Jackson obviously intends on making the deepest possible impact with this release and the quality enables him to succeed. The EP’s five songs have a variety of moods and aren’t ever just simple-minded and straight forward pop country songs – instead, the personal and universal meet here with memorable and often combustible results.  

9 out of 10 stars 


Charles Hatton

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Uncle Frank – Fountains


 
Uncle Frank – Fountains 


The Europeans have always had a take on electronic dance pop that their American brethren rarely share. Frank Benbini and his band aren’t just as assemblage of musicians and electronics mavens looking to make people dance and cash checks but come off, instead, as well-rounded songwriters and performers intent on providing audiences with a good time and connecting with them emotionally. The first single from their forthcoming second album Love Lion entitled “Fountains” is a reminder of many things, but two are most prominent. The first that this is an art form capable of saying much more to its target audience than just forget about your cares and dance and the second is that, in general, this music doesn’t have to be made be machines alone and, instead, it is better served being performed by flesh and blood musicians working at or near the top of their form.  

There’s certainly no question, even hearing “Fountains” for the first time, that Frank and his accompanying musicians are playing at their peak of their respective powers. Benbini immediately takes charge with all the nuance and style that he can bring to bear as singer. His technique is to tie his voice tightly to the movement of the song and he does that to superb effect here. His phrasing has a way of weaving around the warm bass thump courtesy of bassist Luke Bryan and Junior Benbini’s  rock solid and grooved out drumming that makes this band, this performance, a practically impossible combination to beat. The song kicks off by hitting the chorus first and, while it isn’t an unheard of move, it’s relatively audacious enough to deserve particular note. By doing this, Benbini and his band brings listeners directly into the experience of the song.

The experience is much more upbeat than the lyrics might sound on first hearing. They express a desire for escape to someplace better, an escape from loneliness, and uses perfect language to convey that sentiment. It’s a blend of the specific and general – we never really know what exactly the fountains are Uncle Frank is referring to in the title or why dreaming of such deliverance constitutes shooting off his mouth, but there’s little doubt that the vast majority of listeners will draw their own conclusions and profoundly relate. There’s equally little doubt that the longing in his voice is inextricably connected to the song’s experience and, together, they conjure a spell for listeners that gives this song a lot of impact. 

Based on this single alone, Love Lion is set to be one of 2017’s most meaningful releases in the genre. Few bands, collectives, or solo artists can boast the same skill set that is on display here. Instead, Uncle Frank and his band of talented players reach deep for the heart of the audience and capture it, but they never forget to get them moving as well. 


Joshua Stryde

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Magic Music


Magic Music 


There’s something for everyone on Magic Music’s first album. Very few debuts in any genre have the sort of quiet confidence that’s clear in this Colorado band’s songwriting. They sound very much like what they are – longtime friends and respected peers in the Americana scene who have come together to write and record some of the most unique traditional music to emerge in recent history. The band first formed in 1969 and enjoyed some popularity they parlayed into performances alongside legendary performers like Cat Stevens and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band among others. Those glimmers of success never erupted into full on fires and, as a result, the band called it quits in 1976. The friendships of the men involved never ended and they continued to meet for reunions where they played for family, friends, and admirers. A new opportunity for the band to record their first album came about in 2011 and over four years were spent assembling the material, recording, refining, and soliciting contributions from talented peers like Little Feat’s Bill Payne and bassist/producer Jimmy Haslip.  

They put their best foot forward with the one-two punch of “Bring the Morning Down” and “Bright Sun Bright Rain”. They are highly credible Americana numbers featuring mandolin, acoustic guitar, and flute among other touches, but they are equally melodic and have a surprising pop sensibility that immediately hits listeners. “Mole’s Stumble” is a well written and highly finessed performance without a single sliver of daylight in the playing. This is chemistry and it can’t be taught. The players intuitively respond to each other and nothing sounds unnatural or slapped together for the sake of effect. “Gandy Dancer” has impressive intricacy without ever seeming like some self-indulgent virtuoso trip and further illustrates the last point about how well this six piece plays together. Their understanding of what the songs need apply to their vocal approach as well and this track has a graceful take on the singing.  

There’s an assortment of textures working throughout “Carolina Wind” and the storytelling strengths of the song are the crowning touch on its appeal. The vocalists bring such attention to detail that the phrasing dramatizes every line. Nothing that has come before, however, prepares listeners for the excellence of “Eldorado Canyon”. This song is the apogee of their efforts and has a wealth of specific imagery and detail for the audience without ever obscuring the potential for listeners to connect with its experience. The guitar work is particularly good here and contributes much to its overall worth. 

“Hayin’” has some interesting musical turns, but it’s as close as the album comes to pure entertainment. It seems a little put on in certain lyrical respects because of how hard it tries to convey a country atmosphere, but it doesn’t prohibit enjoyed the track. “Our Song: Colorado Rockies” is a rich ode from the band to their home state and listeners will be hard pressed to not like this track. Their sincerity comes through with such vivid clarity that it redeems any self-consciousness that might have otherwise been present. Everything about this debut seems honest as a heart attack, often deceptively simple, and full of real love for the forms they excel in performing.

8 out of 10 stars 


Raymond Burris

Friday, November 25, 2016

Redbelt - Beautiful Surround


Redbelt - Beautiful Surround 


The secret of why young men are attracted to guitar rock is no secret at all. The physicality of rock guitar, in all its sub-genres, remains one of the abiding staples of 20th and 21st century popular music. Some bands prefer to bludgeon listeners over the head with the forcefulness of their playing while others, like Milwaukee’s RedBelt, marry that power with melodic virtues that deepen the impact they have on a potential audience. Their debut album Beautiful Surround is a welcome revisit of the power hard-hitting rock music gains when it’s hooked up to melody-fueled songwriting and exceptional vocals. There are thirteen songs on this first release and not a single one of them lack the inspiration needed to get their point across to audiences. This is music of the body, but there’s ample intelligence behind this work as well and an undeniable spirit that gives each song its own specific energy.

“Crossed Wires” might seem, on an initial listen, to be all aggression and precious little nuance. However, set aside the clashing guitars, and you’ll hear a band who pays as much attention to the melodic possibilities inherent to the tune as they do to their riffing and volume setting. Lead singer Kevin Brown, also the band’s second guitarist, has a strong voice for this sort of material and the band’s penchant for harmony vocals is a surprising turn in a genre that doesn’t often go in for such things. “American Mercy” is even better. This is the first example of the intelligence present in their work and mentioned earlier in the review. Multiple listens will reveal more and more to the audience about how good this track really is, but there are further surprises in store soon after. Lead guitarist Mike Mann whips out some satisfyingly nasty slide guitar on the song “Shoot It All the Time” and the rhythm section establishes the deepest groove on the album that gives him a great foundation from which he can singe the listener’s ears.  

The middle of the album, however, is relatively content to mine the punk rock vein. Songs like “Sweet Release” and “30 Seconds” largely desert the band’s earlier concern with melody, but they still have big choruses that will capture any listener’s attention. “Cold” is an unusual track on the album that plays, frankly, like the band’s clearest commercial track with an unbelievably hooky chorus that the band wisely revisits a number of times throughout the song. The final half of the album has two of Beautiful Surround’s best songs. The first, “Throw Away”, represents the fullest realization on the release of their desire to bring melody, longstanding rock tropes, and punk rock attitude into the same package. “Bones”, however, is much more overtly theatrical than any of the previous songs and shows a pleasing side to the band that earlier songs don’t hint at. This is a powerful debut from a band that’s quite obviously energized by the chance to get their songwriting out on a national level. They are talented players and songwriters alike. RedBelt’s Beautiful Surround sets the stage for this four piece to have a long and potentially brilliant run.  

9 out of 10 stars


Gilbert Mullis

Jemima James - When You Get Old


Jemima James - When You Get Old 


The thirteen song When You Get Old marks only Jemima James’ second album in a thirty seven year span. Her first recording, At Longview Farm, is being released in conjunction with it and it displays a clear evolution from her youthful 1979 compositions to When You Get Old’s much more stripped back, emotionally sophisticated songwriting. She has become a singer of great understated nuance in that time as well. Many of the songs on When You Get Old have a strong blues pedigree and James proves herself quite capable of flexing some gritty muscle in that direction without ever sounding unconvincing or else like she’s straining for effect. Her smiling, sleepy vocals on some of the more country-ish numbers stands in sharp contrast to the seriousness of some of the lyrics but, like you can with blues, a certain amount of this pose can be considered as part of the smiling to keep from crying school of singing. She has great emotiveness in her voice and a canny talent for winding her singing tightly into the arrangement of each song. 

While there’s some blues influence in this album, the most important strains laced through this music are decidedly country and folk in origin. James doesn’t have an overpowering voice, but none of the material on this album requires vocal pyrotechnics. Instead, When You Get Old focuses much more on intimacy than strength. The title song opens things and illustrates these points quite well. James, as a songwriter, has a masterful way of delivering weighty sentiments with smiling aplomb. She caresses each line out of her vocal chords with sensitivity and never adopts an aggressive vocal posture. The second song “Magician” emphasizes this strength. She revels in the literary possibilities that the subject matter affords to her and gives listeners quite an inspired vocal without, once again, ever overwhelming the listener.

This song first philosophy continues for the duration of the album. “If I Could Only Fly” will resonate with many listeners because James writes so well and, as a vocalist, completely inhabits the imaginative landscape she creates with her songs. “If It’s the End”, one of the album’s best songs, is perhaps the pinnacle of her ability to marry low-key traditional country music with nuanced lyrical material. The words, standing on their own, are serviceable and have great strength, but it’s James’ ability to create subtext through her phrasing that distinguishes songs like this from the rest of the pack. “Sensible Shoes” revisits the opening song from At Longview Farm to great effect. The full-band arrangement that powered the original is forsaken here in favor of the same bare bones approach that characterizes the whole album. 

“Golden Boy” is a solid traditional country song with bluesy color shooting through the arrangement. It’s a lyrically affectionate song, easily one of the album’s most affectionate numbers, and James delivers it with great phrasing while still avoiding any overt sentimentality. “Tennessee Blues” continues her exploration of classic country musical textures infused with a blues influence and the lyric, quite simple on the surface, gains much from another strong James vocal. The restrained mid-tempo shuffle of “One and Only” has great drumming and another top shelf performance from James’ collaborators. The album’s final track, “Nothing New”, brings this artful album to a satisfying conclusion and allows James a chance to perform a completely solo piece. When You Get Old carries underrated power and panache in the same streamlined package and anyone who loves folk, country, and a little blues will undoubtedly find this to be one of the year’s best efforts in that vein. 

8 out of 10 stars.


Montey Zike 

Martin X. Petz - Broken Man


Martin X. Petz - Broken Man 


The best songwriters resist pigeonholing. It might be easy for the uninformed to give Martin X. Petz’s latest full length album Broken Man a single listen and slap an ill-fitting label on it as faith-based or intended for adult oriented radio play. The source and appeal of this nine song work, however, is much broader. These are songs that attempt to dramatize Petz’s own interior struggles, but they just as often look outside the confines of self and connect wonderfully with facets of our lives that, undoubtedly, resonate with a wide swath of potential listeners. His lyrical content avoids inaccessible or high-flown moments of pseudo poetry, but make no mistake that Petz isn’t a superior writer when compared to many of his contemporaries in the field. There’s great intelligence and literacy driving these songs. He emerges from this album not just as a gifted songwriter and musician, but as a storyteller with a voice that’s an ideal vehicle for communicating with his audience. 

The title song incorporates a full band, but their touch is light. Petz keeps this track clipped and doesn’t waste a word or note, but the atmosphere of the song keeps the energy level at an engaging medium. It’s a credit to his songwriting skill that Petz never lets things get too overwrought, but his plain-spoken depiction of despair will be an affecting listening experience for many. “Noble Blues” takes on some of the full band trappings heard on the first song but tempers them somewhat. The result is a much more intimate approach for the song’s first quarter before Petz opts for ramping up the musical stakes during the remaining duration. The album’s third track “Fall” is constructed around a tasteful half shuffle tempo accentuated by understated drums. His vocal shows all of the care and sensitivity for phrasing apparent on the album’s first two songs and there’s some tasty lead guitar here as well. 

A classic count-in opens “Heart & Home” which, as the title implies, celebrates the connections that sustain our lives. The arrangement is full of the sound musical decisions and compelling playing that characterizes the album as a whole, but it does more than that. The song has a great uplifting swing that picks listeners up and keeps them engaged throughout the song. “Count” reaffirms the virtues that guides much of the album’s songwriting with a clean, uncluttered track primarily centered around Petz’s evocatively recorded vocals, his guitar, and light percussion. “They Say (You’ll Know)” has much of the same breezy confidence heard on the album’s best songs and a light shuffle pace that keeps things moving without ever forcing them along. Broken Man’s final song, “Chained”, has much of the same musical focus characterizing earlier tracks like “Count” and relies on intimacy to make its case to the listener.  

There’s deceptive simplicity here, but Petz is a songwriter who realizes the virtue of a song having no more than it needs to get its message/point across to the listener. The nine songs on Broken Man do not pretend to remake the wheel artistically – instead, Petz is a fine product of the singer/songwriter school of popular music and excels at giving his audience entertaining musical material along with substantive words that will reach and touch many hearts.  

9 out of 10 stars 


Lydia Hillenburg

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Django Mack - ‘Round Christmas


Django Mack - ‘Round Christmas 


You can help but admire someone pushing blues music so convincingly and artistically as Django Mack. It’s more than that though. Over the course of two albums, Mack has carved out his own unique niche in the genre as a creative lyricist who has co-opted the lexicon of blues and Americana music for his own uses. There are often some surprising poetic turns that elevate his words over the typical efforts from this music and Mack’s delivery completely inhabits the music. The newest release from this Sam Francisco based performer is the song “’Round Christmas”, a dramatic and emotionally heavy song teamed with a bonus track entitled “Big Black Dog”. They have a lot of punch, but they hit different areas on the listener. Mack has ensured both songs receive even-handed production that underlines their strengths and keeps things in balance. Everything comes across with startling clarity.  

The single “’Round Christmas” will sink the mood of many listeners, but it’s a facile way of hearing it. This is a very theatrical blues, not in a bad or hackneyed way, but instead it turns the narrator’s personal drama into a quasi-epic where everything is rendered in near life or death terms. Images of ruin and desolation litter the lyric. Mack manages a number of graceful verbal turns and his phrasing takes full advantage of his talents in this area. The arrangement is propelled forward by tasteful but steady drumming with a couple of guitars working their magic over top. The six strings have contrasting sounds and give it a sort of signature edge that makes it different. Mack’s influences have often been referred to as performers like Leon Redbone, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen, but the funereal emotiveness he summons for this song hits hard and never seems overwrought or imitative.  

He covers familiar ground in the genre with the second song, but pulls it off with every bit of the style that makes “’Round Christmas” sound nothing like many modern offerings in Americana music. “Big Black Dog” doesn’t pretend to have the same seriousness of subject matter and it revels in its humor. The inspired blues piano vamps and tosses in rave up after rave up without ever losing its handle on following the song. Mack and some backing singers give a performance that’s equal parts skill and pure, joyful gusto. This is a song that’s having fun from the moment it hits until the last note plays.  

Go back and check out his two albums to date if you don’t already know. Django Mack is as first class as it comes with this style of music and easily would have occupied a place alongside his idols in another generation. He’s that good and shows no signs of peaking yet. “’Round Christmas” and “Big Black Dog” entertain audiences in very different ways, but the final satisfying effect on listeners remains the same and this sort of musical and songwriting quality will keep them coming back for more.

YOU TUBE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8sF4YgT3uU 

Charles Hatton

Kelly McGrath - You and Me Today


Kelly McGrath - You and Me Today 


Despite the omnipresence of it in our lives, physical and otherwise, very little of our art concerns itself with examining death. Invariably, when a songwriter or poet turns their attention to the subject, it’s from the point of view Kelly McGrath adopts in her latest single “You and Me Today”. McGrath sings from the point of view of a survivor, one of those left behind to pick up the pieces after a close loved one dies, and her stirring performance never risks the hackneyed or overwrought. Instead, she approaches this event in song with the same grace the reality of her loss demanded from here in real life. Everything about this song rings true. There is a sense of hard-won wisdom emanating from the mid-tempo arrangement and the plaintive tone of loss infusing McGrath’s voice is unmistakable. She doesn’t subject the listener to a single note longer than the song needs and it’s a little astonishing that she manages to so comprehensively touch on a deeply emotional experience within three minutes eight seconds.  

It is remarkably patient for such a relatively brief song. One expects that such a profoundly requires a larger stage to communicate its enormity, but McGrath’s less is more approach belies more incremental ambitions. “You and Me Today” succeeds, in no small part, thanks to how well it understands its listeners. The rising and ebbing of human emotions, especially after such a transformative event, mimics the lightly handled orchestration so evident in this track. It starts off in muted mood, McGrath’s voice accompanied by acoustic guitar, and slowly climbs in intensity. The rhythm section gives the song a sturdy skeleton that McGrath’s other musical cohorts surround the skeleton with sparkling color that nonetheless has a darker, moody side. The mid-tempo pace that the song takes is ideally suited for both the subject matter and McGrath’s voice. 

The lyrics are tightly written and, like the arrangement, never waste any energy with extra material that means nothing to the song. The focus is laudable. She plumbs to the depths of this experience without ever relying on familiar turns in the form – she never plays to the audience’s pity, doesn’t over-sentimentalize her relationship with her father, and fills the track with a great mix of the personal and general. Instead, she is intent on relaying the reality of this experience with clear, startlingly direct language that never cheats the listener and tries to gaze into the face of this grievous change to her life without ever blinking or flinching. Her attempt is wholly successful and quite admirable. 

Anyone who has lost a loved parent will understand the pain in this single. “You and Me Today” is a song that sees the connection between father and daughter as unalterable, even by the grave, and while the song isn’t a catalog of platitudes for the deceased, it is a remarkable tribute to the enduring power that certain figures hold over our hearts and lives. As a preview of her forthcoming album, Kelly McGrath couldn’t have re-introduced herself to the music world in a better way.  


David Shouse

Monday, November 21, 2016

TNT Music - Pieces


TNT Music - Pieces 

Collaborations either catch fire or fall flat. It’s hard to identify the needed elements for combustion because they vary so wildly from context to context. Certain artists require particular dynamics for a creative partnership to flower. Other performers/artists are completely adverse to these partnerships from the outset. The founding of websites like Soundcloud and others of that sort have provided invaluable forums for collaborative-minded artists. Tim Toz and Joy Tolbert, long time veterans of the music industry, initially met through Soundcloud and soon struck up a rapport. That conviviality has resulted in over a dozen songs written and their latest release, “Pieces”, reflects the growing depth of their team work. This could scarcely be a more complete recording – production, songwriting, arranging, playing, and vocals are all attended to with a professionalism benefitting the seriousness of the presentation. TNT Music moderate their ambition – this is exactly what it purports to be and no more. However, it is something spectacularly entertaining and embodying real depth. 

The lyrical content is well suited to the music. It’s for sure that the duo isn’t writing about some new subject never before broached in the annals of pop history, but Tolbert is a deceptively simple lyricist who can quite clearly draw from her own personal experiences to craft a compelling emotional and quasi-conventional narrative for her listeners. Accessible lyrics are key, but they never dumb them down so much that their audience will feel pandered to. She gives everything a gusty reading too and seems almost supernaturally attuned to the spirit of each passage. Vocalists with such emotive deep who consistently give well-rounded consideration to the song are always going to stick with listeners no matter what technology or new fad rushes in to seemingly replace basic human interplay.  

The music opens in a very brash fashion with Toz handling a variety of instrumental chores, but after a short introduction, things become much more sedate and laid back during the verses. Toz and Tolbert work extremely well together, but Toz’s effortless ability to steadily elevate the sonic tension contributes to making this song a real piece of musical magic. Despite containing no exhortations, no call to arms or storm the ramparts, “Pieces” has a surprising anthemic quality sure to capture the attention of many. The song never runs on too long either – TNT Music are looking to move listeners and seize their imaginations, so not one note or word is wasted in their effort to do so. 

This is collaboration that’s caught fire. TNT Music stands out from the pack of four piece bands and larger thanks to the utter sincerity of their work, the profound talents at their disposal, and the steady confidence to create music full of melody and experience built to stand the test of time. These are the sort of fundamental truths behind all great acts and bands. TNT Music has a firm handle on that with their latest single “Pieces”.  

Montey Zike

Friday, November 18, 2016

Jemima James - At Longview Farm


Jemima James - At Longview Farm 

The ten song release At Longview Farm is a thirty-seven year old recording that only sees its first distribution this year. James, a descendant of iconic American writers Henry and William James, worked at Longview Farm Studio located in Western Massachusetts during the late 1970’s and got to know some of the most iconic artistic figures of that era during her employment there. The Rolling Stones, Arlo Guthrie, and John Belushi, among many others, spent time working on projects there and James took advantage of her good fortune by further honing her own artistic skills during this period and, as well, recording what was surely intended to be her debut album. The songs on At Longview Farm have commercial value, but they are also the product of an artist with a shrewd understanding of the tradition forming the bedrock of her technique and the ability to transform it into something uniquely her own. 

Her ability to bring commercial elements into play within this context is particularly valuable to the album’s success. It’s evident from the first song, “Sensible Shoes”, that her talents for folk rock never prevent her from crafting material capable of reaching an even wider audience. Other songs like the second track, “Havana Cigar”, are cut from a much more traditional cloth and emphasize storytelling elements in their lyrical content while still exhibit enough folk rock appeal that it escapes the land of the purist folk and reaches for something much broader and more inclusive. “Easy Come, Easy Go” shows off her commercial talents at their near zenith on the record and zips past the listen with confidence and light-footed musicality, but it isn’t a vapid piece and makes a real impact on the listener. There’s a much more global feel on “Esperate” that goes far beyond the constrained limits laid down by Americana forms and James handles the singing of such exotic material with the same adept style she exhibits on the more traditional textures.  

The tandem of “One More Rodeo” and its follow-up “Jackson County” bring the album’s compelling contrasts in sharp relief. The former is another breezy folk rock track spiced up with some pop strains, but it isn’t lightweight in any respect, just more musically exuberant. The latter song “Jackson County” revisits the storytelling virtues heard in earlier songs like “Havana Cigar”, but it does so with a much wider scope and greater attention to detail than before. “Billy Baloo” has a similar approach that concentrates, this time out, on giving a believable voice to the song’s subject and succeeds quite well thanks to both the nuance in James’ writing and in her vocal. The tensions working within the songs on At Longview Farm are perfectly orchestrated and there’s never any sense of those influences leading her down any artistic blind alleys. The songwriting also escapes any hint of self-indulgence, a remarkable feat alone for a first time recording artist who, undoubtedly, hoped to impress listeners. It’s the abundant skill and cool confidence that makes this such a pleasurable experience.  

9 out of 10 stars.


David Shouse

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Leo Harmonay - The Blink of an Eye


Leo Harmonay - The Blink of an Eye 


Few albums come as sincere and straight-forward as this. It is certainly common in the folk music genre to find a spartan approach to both songwriting and production; in some ways, brevity is one of the form’s pre-requisites. However, simplicity alone is not artful. The simplicity must be shaped, given form, and above all else, imbued with more than a touch of the self whose hands are molding it into a statement of some sort. Leo Harmonay has the technical chops to pull off anything he wants to do in the genre; his first album, Somewhere Over the Hudson, conclusively and quickly established that. His second album, The Blink of an Eye, does something very different. It shows him to be a recording artist and writer in full command of his powers and, for whom, simplicity is a by-product of knowing exactly what he wants to say and how to put it for his listeners. This sort of certainty is a pleasure to hear from anyone. Conviction plays well. 

The conviction doesn’t gradually emerge. It’s apparent in even the introduction to his opening song, “Up to You”. Stormy guitar and accompanying drums come in and briefly swell before dispersing. The song begins in earnest with a boot stomp charged tempo while acoustic and electric guitar trade complementary melody lines. It varies little from this course and Harmonay delivers an impassioned vocal with the arrangement that plays to its musical strengths. “River Dancer” is a much more obviously structured song with a bit of idiosyncratic character, but it’s also much more of a straight down the middle folk song than the opener ever intends to be. Another idiosyncratic side of the songwriting emerges on the song “Washing Myself Clean”, but it also draws from a deep well of spiritually-inspired imagery that connects well with personal reflection. 

Harmonay dives into the blues once again on “Gone Are the Days” and its layered instrumental attack shows a great deal more obvious sophistication than on the earlier “Up to You”. Harmonay’s vocals are among his best here, particularly on the chorus. “In the Morning Light” is about as far from his rootsy influences that Harmonay goes on this album thanks to the rock and roll attitude heard in its use of electric guitar, but he doesn’t continue in that vein from here. Instead, the next song “Dirty River Town” is the clearest folk song in the collection and resists any temptation to expand its musical aims. Harmonay’s vocal here is excellent as well and his phrasing deserves most of the praise. His final two full songs are the title number and “The Joy in Our Sadness”. Both are lovely and deeply wise creations with as much musical merit as lyrical excellence.  They are also the album’s longest tracks, but there’s never a second when Harmonay sounds like he’s bitten off more than he can chew. Instead, The Blink of an Eye has a wide-reaching steadiness derived from the confident performances he gives of each song. He clearly spent a lot of time readying this material for recording and eventual release. The result is a second album that far exceeds his fine debut and hints at even greater glories to come. 

9 out of 10 stars 


David Shouse