Friday, February 16, 2018

Sule - Love Me



Sule - Love Me 


You don’t hear songs like “Love Me” much anymore. There’s no unnecessary bells and whistles with this tune masquerading its lack of melody or merit, no hip language designed to capitalize on the zeitgeist of the moment. Instead, Sule’s “Love Me” gets over with its intended audience for all the classic reasons – there’s immense attention paid to melody, accessible yet well worded lyrics, vocal excellence, and superb production virtues defining the song, but the heart of it all is driven by a sincere and deeply felt performance from Sule. To put it bluntly, he means every word. It comes across without any pretense or apparent strain and further benefits from being cut to an ideal length. “Love Me” is this Canadian performer’s finest performance to date and poises him for a brighter future than ever before.  
 
The swing aspect of the songwriting definitely sets the performance apart from typical fare in this mold. Sule and his supporting musicians never over-emphasize this element to the exclusion of others and there’s an overall coherence to the piece that brings all of those components together in a highly complementary manner. If Sule or the musicians have any self-consciousness about pursuing a long-forgotten style for popular music, it never shows. Instead, there’s an easy going nature surrounding this tune that comes across from the first and never feels forced. Moreover, the recording has a level of intimacy that sounds like the tune is specifically recorded for you alone and Sule’s cool, finessed yet emotive vocal underscores that closeness even more. This song is an ideal example of the possible results when musical artists work closely together to produce an unified work of art and it will likely win you over from the first hearing as it did me. 
 
Make no mistake, however, that Sule’s singing is the showcase moment of this performance. His voice has a wideness and vividness thanks to his talent for incorporating a number of moods into its sound. It’s satisfying on every level. There’s real sweetness, a little melancholy, and even some soft pedaled sensuality that comes through in his performance and it all springs from a blues/jazz foundation that’s a perfect fit for the Americana tendencies of the songwriting. His upbringing in a very different nation doesn’t have any detrimental effect on the piece – if anything, this outsider point of view brings a fresh interpretation to this style that few of his contemporaries can readily match. It’s obviously one of the more inviting and personable singles to come down the pike in recent history and has a strong performance at its center that promises to open a new chapter for Sule’s career and life. “Love Me” will satisfy both longtime music fans, those who already admire Sule’s considerable talents, and any newcomers willing to take a chance on this fantastic track.  


Laura Dodero

Monday, February 5, 2018

Universal Dice - birth, love, hate, death


Universal Dice - birth, love, hate, death

Written and produced by Gerry Dantone, Universal Dice is an ambitious rock project and their latest release birth, love, hate, death is being billed as a flat out rock opera that throws back to the great work of everyone from Queen to The Who.  With 16 songs and none of them sounding very much alike, even though certain muscular musical ideas and serious lyrical themes that tackle life, death, love, loss, triumph and failure tie the entirety of this record into a cohesive whole.  Simply put, these songs belong with one another and anybody that’s got a hankering for some forward thinking yet oddly classic, blues-nuanced rock n’ roll is going to go buck wild for this release.   
Songwriter/singer/bandleader Dantone is joined by a host of rock-solid musicians including lead guitarist Bob Barcus, bassist Eddie Canova and keyboardists Walt Sargent and Vincent Crici that make for a very full, very powerful sound with a big, bold backbone that hits hard more than it goes for the soft stuff (although the band is adept at ANY mood).  The album wanders between full on rock n’ roll bangers to slithering blues guitar deviations to poppy-inflected numbers that even bring home a few honest to goodness ballads along the way.  

The album starts off with pure abandon as the full-on rocker, “Welcome to the World’s” road ready, hard rock riffs go for broke only to simmer down to a slow boil for “I Wish I Could Tell You This” late 70s, knife-edge power blues complete with wah-soaked guitar licks and baroque organ playing.  It’s a sonic one-two, opening punch that kicks and sticks to the memory and practically cements the record as an instant classic.  Of course they still need to maintain momentum beyond the intro couplet but these guys know their stuff and maintain momentum they do.  There are some hints of Seger and other crunchy singer/songwriter legends on the crawly “Your Son” which furthers those big, brutish blues-inflections, the overcast lifting once again to provide some no-frills, riff-ready hard yet pop-leaned rock on “The Prophet’s” mix of KISS and The Who.  “My Hands Are Tied” follows a similar strutting attack pattern but goes for broke on the chorus harmony vocals, where a cosmic melody really twists the tune into a slick sing-a-long number.  I think Dantone himself does all of the percussion programming for his group, but only if you listen on close can you tell that the drumming is electronic and not manually performed and it too enhances the record in this quirky, cool way that perfectly works for the album’s epic intentions.  
“Take Me Home” is a real crunchy, crisp-riffed composition with some of the guitar-fury and rhythmic heft lifting on the heavily piano enhanced, positively gorgeous vocal musing and melodies of “Danielle.”  Again, these cats have far more sides and moods than the duo of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…  It seems that the record never loses its peak moments and continually keeps cresting as it goes from strength to strength.  Whether pulling off some keyboard/vocal tenderness with “Honestly” and soulful closer “Forever,” or coming straight from the rock n’ roll gut on “I Love It When They Hate It” and “Better Man,” Universal Dice can do absolutely nothing wrong on this record.  If you long for the days when musical giants walked and ruled the Earth, then birth, love, death, hate will be exactly the kind of sonic reminder you’ve been hoping to hear for ages.  What an album, what a band; highly recommended!    
David Shouse

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ashley J – Satisfied



Ashley J – Satisfied 

INSTAGRAM: https://www.instagram.com/ashleyj_music/ 

The kinetic energy and passion generated by Ashley J’s latest single “Satisfied” seems powerful enough to light up a city block or more. It’s the latest in a string of strong singles that have seen her venture forth from her Orlando, Florida upbringing, experience a brief foray in Nashville, and now finds her in California working with some of the best high profile behind the scenes talents in the music world today. Those creative partnerships have transformed Ashley J from a work in progress into an increasingly realized artist who has the rare skill for entertaining and illuminating her listeners alike in a full on pop music vein. “Satisfied” definitely contains strong components of EDM, but Ashley J is far more than just some pretty face and body tacked on as window dressing for a shallow musical vehicle. Instead, she’s the beating heart of this song and consumes it whole like true artists always do.    

“Satisfied” has an impressive groove that most songs, surprisingly considering the track’s EDM origins, memorably lack. There’s a lot of bells and whistles added to dance/electronically oriented tracks today that rob them of their potential for connecting with listeners and this decision is fortunately one Ashley J avoids. Her focus is, instead, on presenting a well rounded package of her voice and the arrangement. They work superbly together. The synthesizer dominated backing has a streamlined quality that keeps its layered effects from ever becoming too cluttered and overwhelming the listener while the rhythm section has great warmth and a fat sound. It gives her singing the compelling platform it deserves so it can make maximum impact on listeners.  

The impact is real. Her voice absolutely rivets your attention from first line to last and shows more emotional variety than three singers of her ilk can typically muster combined. She’s truly a prodigious singing talent likely capable of tackling any sort of song, but she has truly found her fit in this mold because it doesn’t restrict her in anyway and she possesses the talent to change its formulas as she sees fit. The lyrical content gives her more to work with here than most of her contemporaries enjoy and she makes the most of it. There’s some particularly excellent transitions in her range and the way she attacks the chorus shows great aggressiveness, but just the right amount of restraint as well. It’s an all around wining performance that makes this single fly and it leaves her excellent earlier work in the dust. We’re witnessing the maturation of a great singer with this release and there’s little question that Ashley J deserves to write her own ticket from this moment forward. “Satisfied” will likely linger in your mind long after the first few hearings and merits repeated listening. You’ll be hooked for the more that’s sure to come soon.  


Pamela Bellmore

Monday, January 1, 2018

Theo Czuk - The Black Bottom


Theo Czuk - The Black Bottom 


Theo Czuk’s multi-pronged artistic life encompasses prose, poetry, songwriting, and musicianship with such all consuming energy you’ll be forgiven if you wonder when he finds time to breathe, let alone sleep. You can hear the unfettered joy of creation come across in each of the dozen songs on his newest release The Black Bottom, a collection subtitled Cultivating Jazz: The Full Measure, and the full measure he alludes to is the mighty task of surveying an entire genre within the course of twelve relatively brief songs. The level of musicianship behind these performances is extraordinarily high and never tests the listener’s patience. Much of that can be attributed to his seemingly endless wellspring of melodies at his disposal and the chemistry between Czuk and the musicians he’s enlisted to help make this album a reality. The Black Bottom is a powerful release, but it doesn’t beat on its chest with false bluster. Instead, it makes its case through inspiration and a commanding mastery of fundamentals.  
 
“The Black Bottom” starts the album off impressively thanks to its bass line and wildly inventive keyboard playing. It’s also an early illustration of how these musicians never get carried away with themselves as the organ work could clearly overstep at any given moment but never does. His personality and charisma really comes across with the song “Cold Corridor” and he does a miraculously effective job of dramatizing the lyrical material. His writing doesn’t intend to remake the wheel, but it is nonetheless extremely sharp and it’s impossible to not be impressed by his talent for selecting memorable details. His charisma comes through again as a singer with the song “Let It Swing” and, for pure entertainment value, it’s arguably one of the finest moments on The Black Bottom. Another entertaining track comes with the songs “Nika Nightingale (Is It Real?)” and “Wooden Nickels” and they are particularly distinguished by Czuk’s undeniably funny but truly unique sense of humor, punchy choruses in each song, and a solid approach to the vocals. Sandwiched between these two songs, rather improbably, is his musical adaptation of Kenneth Patchen’s poem “Lunch Wagon on Highway 57” and it captures every bit of that Beat poetry married to music feel that Czuk is obviously seeking.  
 
“Good Night’s Sleep” is a romping jazz number with a memorable mix of the serious and comical that is as polished as someone could hope for while the track “Pi to the Nth Degree” has great ambiance recalling the earlier “Cold Corridor” but with a distinctly upbeat slant. It sounds wide-eyed and enchanted with great melodies and changes carrying the day. “Catalina Eddy” is another loose, yet expertly delivered number with a warm spirit and even tosses in some play instrumental nods that will bring a smile to listener’s faces. The Black Bottom wraps up with a final instrumental, “Closing Time”, which plays to some popular tropes in the style but proves to be convincing closer in every respect. Theo Czuk’s bold experiment has paid off handsomely and it’s sure to bring tremendous enjoyment to anyone willing to give it a chance.


Pamela Bellmore

Friday, December 22, 2017

Kelly McGrath - O Holy Night


Kelly McGrath - O Holy Night 


“O Holy Night”, a long standing fixture of the Christmas music tradition, receives a new coat of paint courtesy of singer/songwriter Kelly McGrath. Instead of following tradition with the tune and re-imagining it as a big production number for a modern audience, McGrath chooses to strip the song down to its essential dramatics for a near solo performance that proves affecting from the first and only deepens its effects as time goes on. She never belabors her presence with the audience. “O Holy Night”, on no level, is the sort of self indulgent Yuletide fare so common to popular music in the 20th and 21st centuries. Instead, her version of “O Holy Night” gets over with you as a showcase for her singing and the high quality collaborators she’s aligned herself with, but it also sounds like an intensely committed and personal vocal that stretches itself emotionally and embraces being vulnerable with its audience. Every choice McGrath and her creative partners make in this performance pays off with enormous dividends.  
 
If you’re a guitar fan, it’s impossible to not admire both the sound and playing of the six string work on McGrath’s single. The guitar is often an instrument for extroverts and sometimes expecting a first rate guitarist to shelve their egos for the good of a song ends up being a bridge too far, but there’s none of that here. McGrath is working with a top notch cadre of musical imaginations who are audibly inspired to bring her artistic and musical dreams to fruition. It means that “O Holy Night” is one of finest examples of how this sort of material doesn’t need to have a narrow appeal just because of its subject matter. This is music and a powerful theatrical experience you can continually revisit and likely take away something new each time out. 
 
McGrath’s effect on the listener is hypnotic. Her rich voice fills so much of the musically empty space on the song that it’s tempting to hear her as omnipresent, but that’s never the case. Instead, she brings an amount of true presence to “O Holy Night” that never seems too put on or hammy. She sings with a voice of reverence and experience and the musical backing only enhances the positive results of hearing her sing. It’s her phrasing, perhaps, that we should hear as the crown jewel of her attempt to tackle this song and it imbues every second of the performance with a tangible spiritual quality other takes on this tune don’t ever have. Kelly McGrath’s “O Holy Night” comes at listeners with such feeling that it’s almost like she’s trying to put every earlier version into dust; of course, she isn’t, but the performance is so confident and deeply felt that it’s entertaining to consider her working with such confidence. This is a must have for anyone interested in holiday music, music history, and meaningful full-rounded performative experience.   


Craig Bowles

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Django Mack - 100 Page Tattoo


Django Mack - 100 Page Tattoo 


Django Mack’s returned with their latest studio release, a half dozen songs on an EP titled 100 Page Tattoo, and the same high artistic level marking their earlier recordings remains intact with this new offering. The EP is produced by lead vocalist and songwriter Brandon Butrick along with bassist Tom Donald and drummer Tim Vaughan; it’s abundantly clear that the band understands themselves well and knows how to highlight their skills in the best possible way. They exhibit a surprising amount of variety considering the limited running time of an EP release and there’s never a second guess or moment of indecision marring the performances. The songs on 100 Page Tattoo sounds like they were worked out well in advance of their recording, but they come across with a gloriously live air despite the obvious overdubs and post production work done to further enhance the release.  
 
The EP’s title song makes for a great opener. “100 Page Tattoo” challenges anyone expecting pure blues or blues rock to adjust their preconceived notions and duly rewards those who can with a wonderfully flexible, powerful R&B and funk workout driven largely by the rhythm section and capped off with an effective vocal from Butrick. His lyrics are equally up to the challenge of a good song and sport a surprising, for newcomers to the band, way with words that makes the experience all the more deeper. The band continues to stay hot for the EP’s second track “Lookout!” and it does an exceptional job of conveying the title’s urgency despite its mid-tempo trajectory. There’s less affectation on Butrick’s vocal, as well, and the relatively clean presentation he provides neatly dovetails with the musical arrangement. “Knock Me Down” takes the band in an acoustic direction, but their love of rock and blues still comes through with a striding chorus and strong verses that sweep listeners into each new refrain. It is quite a contrast with the EP’s obvious primary track “Knife Fight” and Django Mack does an exceptional job of exploiting the potential of this song title without ever lapsing into heavy handed theatrics.
 
The EP’s final two songs strike a distinctly lighter note. The first, “Roadrunner”, is a love letter to the singer’s favorite car put in the form of a song and the tasty drumming and guitar work alike share its pawing, fun loving spirit despite staying quite moored in the blues idiom. The final track “Rooster in the Henhouse” is another good time romp, much rockier than the earlier cuts, but sufficiently lit up with blues influences that fans of the form will flock to its musical and lyrical turns alike. Butrick’s singing has a strong go for broke quality that’s sure to make new fans for the band and please those who’ve followed them this far. They’ve come a long way, but 100 Page Tattoo serves notice that this band plans on going even further yet.  


Dale Butcher

Monday, November 20, 2017

Cameron Blake - Fear Not


Cameron Blake - Fear Not 


Residing with his family in the Michigan area, Fear Not represents, in some important respects, a look back on the first quarter of Cameron Blake’s journey through life. Fear is something that he has a close acquaintance with – a near nervous breakdown marked his years in music school and Blake’s willingness to experience life at multiple levels has put him in contact with men and women who experience daily fears about what we normally take for granted. This profound understanding of life and self informs the dozen songs included on his second album Fear Not and there’s an extended array of sounds that goes into making these songs memorable. Cameron Blake might benefit from a music school education, but those academic pursuits never mean his music and lyrical content is staid, studied, and otherwise lifeless. Instead, it helps shape his approach to songs like those found on Fear Not and gives him the grounding to explore large themes like the influence of fear in a near-conceptual fashion. He’s utilized a vast assortment of instruments, as well, for the album and a supporting cast of nearly fifty musicians to help bring this release off.  
 
“Fear Not” stands out for a lot of reasons, but one of the key things distinguishing it for listeners is the vocal melody. Despite his music school training as a violinist, Blake obviously has a keen ear for how to arrange vocals in an interesting way. It helps get a plaintive, yet eloquent, lyric over to any even greater degree and the strings bring another colorful layer to the performance. There are a couple of occasions on Fear Not when a pronounced Americana influence comes through and it’s far from hackneyed and the first is “After Sally”. Instead, the same nuance Blake brings to bear on the other styles casts a long shadow here and makes the tracks stand out for their low key artistry. One of the best tracks on the release “The Only Diamond” has a strong musical pedigree backed up with the most dramatic chorus payoff on Fear Not and, certainly, one of its finest story lyrics. There’s some jazz overtones that come through over the course of the album’s track listing but few of them embody them more clearly than the song “Queen Bee”. This song is a little weaker lyrically, but it’s one of the more interesting musical arrangements and gets off to a fine start. 
 
“Tiananmen Square” is a song that should serve as a glaring example of Blake’s range as a songwriter. He has the rare gift for taking such a pivotal historical event, immortalized in the picture of a lone figure facing down a military tank, and making it speak to personal history as well as the global. This song is the most crystallized vision of orchestral styled popular song he offers the audience on Fear Not. The album’s next flirtation with an Americana/alt-country sort of sound comes with the song “Old Red Barn”, but it’s another hybrid in the end when Blake brings unexpected touches like horns into play. “Wailing Wall” foregoes any drumming in favor of a wafting musical accompaniment that some people might not think, initially, is enough to sustain the song, but it does so spectacularly. “Philip Seymour Hoffman” is another wonderful song, coming late on the album, but sparkling with another inventive vocal melody and backing that mix the now familiar style in a different way. He shifts the mood again on the album’s penultimate tune “Sandtown” has its musical dynamics arranged in a fashion we normally associate with rock songs and transitions dramatically from a restrained opening into a maelstrom of sound during the song’s middle and into the second half. It settles once again before concluding. Cameron Blake’s Fear Not is a beautifully rendered musical work with obvious care going into each of its dozen songs. It’s hard to fathom where he might go from here, but rarely has a work seemingly meant so much to its creator – the sincerity is evident in every note.  


Scott Wigley