Friday, February 24, 2017

James Patrick Morgan - Art + Work = Love

 

James Patrick Morgan - Art + Work = Love 


The EP release from James Patrick Morgan, Art + Work = Love, is a stunning opener to Morgan’s career as something like a musical polymath. You can’t pigeonhole him into one particular style. Morgan has a strong enough voice to inhabit a rock musical texture, but he also has the chops to pull of soul or R&B influenced tracks, pop songs, and hard-charging singer/songwriter material. Despite the plethora of influences, nothing comes across too cluttered and there’s a clarity of intent picking up with the first track and carrying the entire release. Morgan’s vocals are vibrant and suggest he has a strong stage presence backed up by the skills needed to make live performances pay off. Art + Work = Love comes out of the starting gate with a lot of heart and a little attitude and, while he alters his approach from song to song, it never loses any of its spirit and energy along the way.  

It sets the bar high from the start. “Expected” has overall quality that any performer, at any level, would be proud to feature on a release. It’s jaunty groove makes it a perfect opener and Morgan’s clearly hot to sing it. He artfully tumbles through the lyrics, never stumbling over his phrasing, and brings home the lyric’s situation with eyebrow arching clarity. It’s a winning track and all around charismatic. There’s a rousing quality to “Alone” that Morgan and his collaborators play just right. The keyboards help propel the song along at a brisk enough pace without ever rushing its development. It’s one of Art + Work = Love’s more mainstream moments, but it’s never so poppy that serious music fans will reject it; quite the opposite. If anything, they will be impressed at how substantive it really is. Melody distinguishes a lot of what Morgan does and few songs show that better than “Sign Language”. The brief piano introduction is soon fleshed out further by compelling drums and strong acoustic guitar playing. It’s fascinating being able to hear glimpses in each song of its birth; it’s easy to imagine that many of these cuts began with a single guy working out the initial structure on acoustic between building onto it in the studio.  

“Right Mistakes” may be the album’s best song. It doesn’t have the same energy as the opener, but it’s an overall more thoughtful and considered bit of songwriting that Morgan clearly goes all out to elevate with his shattering vocal. The guitars working their way through this song hold everything together musically and do so quite nicely. His cover version of “Fly Like an Eagle” seems like a gift to his fans. He does a fantastic job refurbishing this Steve Miller classic for a modern audience without ever losing its connection to the original’s spirit. Despite this not being an original, it still reveals many of the same moves making the earlier songs so special. James Patrick Morgan is a risk taker – he isn’t afraid to reach out for his audience and lay himself bare to connect with the crowd. This is an EP that connects solidly with its intended listeners and should appeal to a broad based cross section of music fans. 

9 out of 10 stars 


Scott Wigley

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Matt Hannah – Dreamland


Matt Hannah – Dreamland 


Dreamland is a ten song album from Minneapolis headquartered singer/songwriter Matt Hannah. This second album from Hannah, following up his 2014 release Let the Lonely Fade, should raise Hannah to a place of preeminence among his contemporaries. The album doesn’t aim to be merely some memorable hodgepodge of different songs but, instead, is threaded together by a loose concept that seems almost novelistic in intent. The production presents all of Hannah’s songs in excellent fidelity and captures significant details that a less professional job would have missed while the album’s running order seems perfectly arranged. Hannah has really went the extra mile here; Dreamland more than reaffirms the talents on display during his debut, but takes a step further towards something with the potential to endure posterity’s judgment.  

He opens it up with a strong title track. Hannah’s acoustic guitar work is one of the album’s consistent strengths and the basis of all his songwriting, but the title track is one of its best illustrations. It’s joined at critical junctures by wonderfully atmospheric pedal steel guitar playing that perfectly complements Hannah’s playing. “Broken Hearts & Broken Bones” kicks off with some hard-edged, clipped acoustic guitar before the full band comes in. It never gets too heavy handed, but the song has a nice stomp to it and swings like a mother. “Dandelion” is much more of a solo performance than the preceding songs, but Hannah is a more than capable musician who can pick up a tune single-handedly and carry it to its completion. It’s his best character portrait on the album and the lyrics are full of delicately rendered details that will engage listener’s imaginations. “Banks of the Mississippi” has some electric guitar making low-key contributions near the end, but much of the song is dominated by Hannah’s acoustic guitar. 

The guitar means a lot to the song “Set Free”. The lyrical content is quite exceptional and Hannah really makes it go thanks to his energetic, but tempered, delivery, but it’s the instrumental break and resulting guitar solo that really seals the deal for this song. “The Night is My Home” has minimal accompaniment from other instruments except for a very light of touch of keyboards in the background. The center of the performance is Hannah’s voice and guitar playing. It has a tender touch that makes the most of the song’s melody without ever making things too precious. “Different Kind of Light” is a song with intelligent lyrics and a dynamic arrangement gradually scaling upwards in terms of musical intensity. These are the sort of dramatic shifts we usually associate with rock songs; Hannah makes excellent use of these turns to enhance what might have otherwise been a more delicate track. The final blast of blues on Dreamland comes with the steel guitar opening of “Gone”. This is, in some ways, the album’s most commercial track and has a strong musical and lyrical hook to draw listeners in. Dreamland is one of the young year’s best releases and transcends musical labels. 

9 out of 10 stars  


Charles Hatton

The Righteous Hillbillies - Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway


The Righteous Hillbillies - Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway 


A lot of music fans dismiss the blues as a relic of America’s musical past, a carnival of clich├ęs recalling the distant past without any relevance to modern music. The Righteous Hillbillies would certainly dispute that idea. The ten songs on their fourth studio album, Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway, are ripped from modern life and surrounded with a vital blues rock backing that’s handled with considerable skill and isn’t ever used as a cudgel. Instead, the band understands the slightly behind the beat and emotive value inherent to the blues without ever pandering for the audience’s attention. Vocalist Brent James and lead guitarist Nick Normando stand out from the pack on many of the album’s songs, but the other three band members are equally strong in serving this material to its maximum potential. The band’s three preceding albums make perfect sense when hearing this new release – rather than settling for staid invocations of the musical past, they’ve scooped up this time-tested American art form and set squarely in the present without any hint of irony.

The feeling of inspiration on these tracks comes with the first song. “Rollin’” highlights drummer Barret Harvey’s crucial role in making The Righteous Hillbillies’ engine hum. His series of rolls throughout the track shows great timing and Nick Normando and vocalist Brent James’ guitar work spars over the top with great spark. “Throwing Stones” brings Normando’s slide guitar playing more to the surface and the tempo gives it a high stepping, groovy energy that never abates. Brent James’ singing matches that tempo in both feel and inspiration without ever laying things on too thick. “Shake This Feeling” has a great barrelhouse roll from the start and James’ gives a leering, entertaining vocal that makes the song all the more enjoyable. The title song stands out from the other nine as one of the album’s most considered tracks, full of original but blues-derived imagery that shows off James’ songwriting talents in perhaps unexpected ways. James throws himself head long into the long slide guitar drawl of “Down to Memphis”; in the hands of lesser bands, this would all sound like hollow posing, but The Righteous Hillbillies nail songs like this with total sincerity and a significant amount of style. 

“Drama Zone” has a big, sludgey blues riff that makes everything go, but everything would be a little paler without the sympathetic rhythm section work and another great James vocal. Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway finishes up with “Rock Salt & Nails”. Some might expect such an ending after the bluster and chest-beating soul preceding it, but the effect is still strong to end this album with an understated acoustic blues. The Righteous Hillbillies bring a lot of fire to these songs, but they harness a variety of approaches to get this collection over. There isn’t an unsuccessful song on this release, but it isn’t because the band aims their sights low. Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway is a powerful effort that will invigorate blues fans and has the potential to earn many new fans for the band. 

9 out of 10 stars  


William Elgin III

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Sound of Curves - Gone Gatsby

 
The Sound of Curves - Gone Gatsby 


Gone Gatsby, the fourteen song third release from San Antonio alternative rockers The Sound of Curves, finds the band still reliant on their unmistakable mix of vibrant guitar work, dynamics, and vocal harmonies, but also sees them taking more risks than ever before. These risks never run the chance of taking them off course from their customary focus, but instead, it makes those elements stick longer and run deeper in the listener’s consciousness. The album runs too long, there’s easily three or four songs they could have shaved off the track listing without diluting the album’s final affect, but even the excess material isn’t distinguished by subpar musicianship, energy, or vocals. The band is overreaching with such an enormous collection but, while we may not be able to praise such an overreach, longtime music fans will be hard put to find fault with their ambition.  

The ambition is evident from the beginning. Songs like “Galaxy” bring electronic music to the fore as added color for the band’s predominantly guitar oriented approach and it’s quite a good match, but bringing great vocal harmonies together seals the deal. Other songs like the title track are much more in an alternative rock vein, eschewing the electronica influencing other tunes, and this example in particular works as a spectacular call to arms begging for an airing in front of live audiences. Lead guitarist Aaron Montano-Teague deserves just as much mention for the musicality of his lead work as the twin singers Leonel Pompa and Roger Mahrer, but Montano-Teague also brings a jagged attitude-driven edge that takes these songs from the realm of pure alternative rock into something much more passionate, much more on the edge. “Summer Radio”, as its title might imply, is pure pop guitar rock energy and hinges, in part, on the vocal melodies to reach its potential. The chorus is particularly effective and will stick in listener’s minds long after the song has ended.  

The elegiac melodic beauty of “Josephine” stands out, even on this collection, because it is so clearly conceived. The band clearly realized they had something a little more special than average with this track as evidenced by the differences in its arranging style from the other material and the surprising variations they’re able to wring from the melody. It also elicits very passionate vocals from both Pompa and Mahrer as further evidence of their inspiration. “London” is one of the album’s best unexpected rockers, at least initially, until the verses come in and they adopt a sort of art alternative rock texture that’s steps high and has a decidedly positive tone. “Waves” has a sort of quasi-U2 sound and the band handles that sort of airy grandeur with unexpected sophistication, taking their typical balance of light and shadow and imbuing it with powerful inspiration. The album’s final high point comes with “The Road” – unlike the usual song in this vein, The Sound of Curves subverts listener’s probable expectations with a healthy dose of electronica and an unusual arrangement that doesn’t follow the usual parameters. There’s a little bit of everything here for listeners. Longtime fans of The Sound of Curves will undoubtedly find much here that’s familiar, but it’s clear that the band is attempting to push themselves into new areas and succeeding. 

8 out of 10 stars 


Michael Saulman