Sunday, November 19, 2017

FXRRVST - May XXVI

 
FXRRVST - May XXVI 


Nine songs hits just the right note for FXRRVST’s debut studio release – it makes a more substantial statement than an EP could have while still reflecting one of their key strengths for not overstating their talents or aims. Their first album May XXVI is a thoughtful collection of tracks with a couple of critical influences vying for supremacy – Holly Forrest’s influences like Tegan and Sara are placed squarely against the guitar driven pop hooks and alternative rock flourishes that her partner Matthew Fuentes brings into play. Some might think it’s an incongruous match, but each of these songs proves the opposite to a greater or lesser degree. The Toronto duo doesn’t allow their indie status to stand as some sort of obstacle preventing them from presenting a polished, professional product – May XXVI is every bit the sort of high gloss release you’d expect from a major act and the songs are correctly framed by the production rather than botched.  
 
“Road to Nowhere” shows the tandem’s mastery of solid songwriting fundamentals as well as their ability to shake those up a little without sending the song off course. Forrest is a talented singer whose ranges becomes more and more apparent with each new song on May XXVI, but the opener makes the best possible impression thanks to her blend of emotional depth alongside technical excellence along with the superb lyrics that could have, perhaps, risked cliché, but never come close. “Picture Frames”, likewise, holds the potential to lapse into self-indulgence and cliché, but Forrest’s control as a writer prevents this from ever coming to pass. The same control extends to the musical arrangement and, despite a more deliberate tempo than we heard on the first song, his guitar contributions to “Picture Frames” are more dramatic and, ultimately, meaningful. “Drown Me”, however, gives his six string room to fly freer than anywhere else on May XXVI and Fuentes doesn’t disappoint. His lead work near the song’s conclusion is particularly inflamed. The chorus is strong, but Forrest’s paint peeling wail on the payoff line will grab all but the deadest inside. This is a song surging with vitality and life.  
 
“Tidal Wave” is one of the most all-around evocative pieces of writing featured on May XXVI. Fuentes’ guitar work avoids rock posturing here in favor of more melodic and atmospheric embellishments and the solid musical base underpinning everything he does enhances this tune, arguably, more than any other on the album. “Safe House” is one of the album’s shorter numbers and the condensed lyrical qualities of both the music and words alike bring this closer to pure performed poetry than any other song on May XXVI. There’s the same kind of focus guiding the climatic number “Roofs” and a wandering imagination that gives them the courage to incorporate a handful of different musical feels into a relatively stripped down framework and never make it feel cluttered or overwrought. “Roofs”, in some ways, sums up all of their best across the board qualities and closes things on a clearly stated note. May XXVI is one of the most formidable debuts in recent memory and that’s doubly impressive considering how the album never announces itself in a chest-thumping sort of way. Instead, this is a subtle and beguiling experience, drawing you deeper in with each new song, until you find yourself fully immersed.  

 
Joshua Beach

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Gina Clowes - True Colors



Gina Clowes - True Colors  


The dozen songs featured on Gina Clowes’ True Colors reveal that Gina Clowes is a creative force beyond her current role as the as being far more than just the banjo player for Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. Her first solo effort shows that she’s not just a first class musician, but she’s a top shelf songwriter and capable vocalist as well. The album is largely devoted to songs with lyrics, but Clowes fortunately doesn’t resist the temptation to add some instrumentals to the track list and their inclusion makes True Colors a much richer, more varied release. She adheres to the bluegrass style for much of this album, but that sound comes about in different ways for her. Some of the songs on True Colors are straight forward traditional bluegrass while others put off a more confessional, Americana songwriter type of vibe, but she seems equally comfortable with both approaches. A couple of songs veer away entirely from the bluegrass mold and have more folksy origins, but they sound perfectly in keeping with the album’s mood and sonic architecture. 
 
The clawhammer banjo of Clowes’ brother Victor Furtado and Clowes’ own banjo playing team up with stylish effect on the album’s opener “Puppet Show”. This is certainly a more sharply worded, even a little barbed, reflection on a relationship and Clowes sings the words with just the right amount of resentment without ever careening over the line. There’s a low-key, simmering musical mood driving this song that exerts a strong effect over the listener. “Saylor’s Creek” brings all of the typical instrumentation to bear, but another family member contributes much to the final outcome. Sister, Malia Furtado’s fiddle playing has a lot of influence over the atmosphere of this instrumental inspired by an American Civil War battle and it adds a tremendous amount to other tunes throughout the course of True Colors. The album, as a whole, has quite a live sound and excellent separation of instruments – the players on this song in particular weave a colorful tapestry of sound that conjures the dramatics of the song’s subject matter. 
 
“Dust Can Wait” is another gem of an instrumental that sweeps the listener along at a brisk pace and has a little more stripped down sound compared to the previously mentioned tune. “For Better or For Worse” utilizes the guest vocals of Heather Berry Mabe to memorable effect and she gets deep inside this narrative about a struggling relationship. This is a song that knows more than it says and has real maturity that will resonate with many listeners. “Goodbye, Lianne” has the salutatory air implied in its title and trots along at a fine pace with each of the primary instrumentalists taking their turn with melodic breaks. “I’ll Stay Home” is much more of an acoustic singer/songwriter type of track and retains all of the personal touches common to the earlier songs whilst taking a different approach. We’re lucky to hear and see Gina Clowes’ many different faces on True Colors and it reveals a musical artist who has only begun to reveal the many layers of her considerable talents.  


Stephen Bailey

Donna Ulisse - Breakin’ Easy



Donna Ulisse - Breakin’ Easy  

URL: http://www.donnaulisse.com/ 

Breakin’ Easy will likely end 2017 rating high as one of the best releases coming from the Americana or Bluegrass genres. Donna Ulisse’s vocal talents, songwriting skills, and astute choices for collaborators comes together on these dozen songs in an astonishingly complete way that makes this a solid listen from first song to last. There’s really no filler to speak of – she comes out of the gate with great energy, subverts a few expectations along the way, and never disappoints with pandering to the lowest common denominator. Purists of the form will find nothing disagreeable here as well; it’s apparent, on every song, that Ulisse has logged the needed time to be considered a genius of sorts with the style and she brings a clear vision for what she wants to accomplish to these tunes with the brilliant hand of Doyle Lawson in the producer’s seat. Breakin’ Easy is sincere, skillful, and relaxed.  
 
Well-known for her Bluegrass and traditional country flavor, Donna even indulges in some blues along the way. The influence of blues on “Without Trouble Please” lives in its lyric and, lesser so, vocal, but there’s other forces shaping this song as well. The predominant style working here is bluegrass and Ulisse is easily at home with the material. “Back Home Again Feelin’” is a tune even casual fans will relate to and its breezy familiarity never feels put on. It is definitely within the bluegrass tradition, but Ulisse’s take on the form isn’t fixed towards one end – this doesn’t sound like some ancient bluegrass song plucked from the distant past but, instead, sounds completely modern while still using a long standing form to communicate with its audience. “A Little Past Lonely” tips its hat to Ulisse’s honky tonk past, surrounding its changes and the melody is largely carried by the album’s unsung instrument, the fiddle. It has a suitably melancholy atmosphere without ever slipping into bathos and the fiddle’s tone dovetails neatly into Ulisse’s voice.  
 
“Baby Back Again” is one of the album’s more meditative ballads and gets a lot from another head turning Ulisse vocal. She takes her time setting up this song, following the arrangement, and maximizing the relationship between her singing and the superb backing she receives. “We Are Strong” is one of the album’s best cuts, if for no other reason, than the fact that it takes a positive message that might have risked corniness, treats it seriously, and instead turns into a wholly believable and rousing bit of songwriting. The lyrical imagery is especially pointed and helps make for a better song. “Where My Mind Can Find Some Rest” and the album’s finale “We’ve Got This Love Thing Figured Out” are very different numbers lyrically and, even, musically, but they make for an ideal final curtain when taken together for that very reason. The former is another tune suffused with weariness, but hope lives there as well. The latter brings Breakin’ Easy to a close on the same life and heart affirming note that has inspired much of the work. Donna Ulisse has turned in a winner here and she deserves every bit of the praise that’s her due for its excellence, and probably more well-deserved awards to come.  


Scott Wigley

Romeo Dance Cheetah - Magnificent Man



Romeo Dance Cheetah - Magnificent Man  

URL: https://romeodancecheetah.com/ 
 
The cover of Romeo Dance Cheetah’s Magnificent Man gives some warning, for novices, of the whacky and distinctive point of view dominating the album’s nine songs. It’s gaudy, assertive, and colorful, but there’s real luster surrounding its imagery and feel. He certainly demands that you don’t take him seriously throughout much of Magnificent Man, but he likewise presents the material with such a knowing flair for what will work captivating his target audience that one ends up respecting the design and spirit of this album. His humor definitely can be heard as going over the top by some at a few points during Magnificent Man, but never so far over the edge that you feel an urge to turn off the song. There’s a natural exuberance coming across with these songs that is definitely the product of youth, in some respects, but there’s also a major part of Cheetah’s talent is wider and wiser than his age might otherwise imply.  
 
“Magnificent Man” doesn’t have any shame. Cheetah grabs the eighties arena rock style by the throat and gives us his best imitation but it never lacks ample style. The production has a ton of muscle, but there’s a lot of open space in the sound that lets these impressively large tracks breathes quite freely. The other songs of that type on Magnificent Man, “Party Poopin’” and “The Air Guitar Song”, hinge on the production and vocals. In both cases, Cheetah strides across the recording stage with immense confidence and owns these tunes with a level of authority we’d normally associate with older artists. The thrashing guitars of “Porcupine Love” come roaring out of the speakers and get up in the listener’s face. Like the other tracks on Magnificent Man, this one never overstays its welcome but it impressively maintains a high level of energy for its entirety without a discernible lull coming at any point.  
 
“Gone with the Wind” has a light bluesy panache that might seem like a surprise, but the guitars and vocals carry it off with equal aplomb. His vocal alternates between an oddly, at first at least, self conscious tone and more traditional singing./ We go back to more conventional ground with the song “1970’s Disco King” and this late song rates as one of the album’s possibly more underrated moments. It never comes off with the overblown production and sound of the earlier tunes, but it’s an effective number in its own way. The final one two punch of “Laser Beam Makeup” and “Live the Dream” couldn’t hardly be any more different. The sheer freakiness of the first song is completely flattened by the latter’s sensitivity and rousing emotion. The sheer amount of variety on the album will be surprising for those expecting some sort of one trick pony there’s clearly more room to run for Romeo Dance Cheetah if he continues the approach we hear on Magnificent Man. It’s a hell of an album and entertaining all the way through.


David Shouse

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Commotions - Volume II


The Commotions - Volume II 


Great R&B/soul acts like this are scarce on the 2017’s music scene. This form, complete with horns and a strong blues influence, is often viewed as a retro or archaic musical style lacking any modern relevancy. While it has seemingly fallen out of commercial favor, the artistic potential of the music has never been exhausted and it is as true as ever that bringing something of yourself to the music is essential for making this style rise above its vast past. The Commotions’ songwriting brings that quality to the fore along with a depth of intelligence informing every aspect that’s quite unlike anything we’ve heard from the genre in many years. The Commotions hail from the Ottawa, Canada area but their upbringing in the Great White North doesn’t seem to impede their understanding of such an inherently American form. Volume II blows their fine debut release out of the water and the sprawling nature of the release isn’t taxing at all – instead, it comes off as a true creative outpouring.
 
“Good Enough” nicely winds up and gets off to a sweeping start with Noelle’s singing backed up by some great backing vocals. The good attitude coming off of this performance is impossible to ignore and Noelle taps into that energy without ever dominating or obscuring the musical quality. The horns are a big part of why this song succeeds with such ease. It’s a great beginning. :Masquerade” will make a great live song and promises to be one of the album’s best chances to garner some radio play. There’s more of an instrumental quality driving this song than the orchestral approach you hear on many of the other songs included with this release. Noelle gives us one of her best vocals with the song “Let Me Kiss You, Baby” and it raises the musical fire of the song up several degrees thanks to the way the players feed off her vocal pyrotechnics. “Too Little, Too Late” is another great uptempo number and pairs up nicely with the aforementioned song. Jeff Rogers gives a nicely soulful vocal performance on the song “Say Yes to Me Tonight”, but this song might have benefitted from being slowed down a little further.  His vocal for the song should pick up its energy level a little, but there’s no such quibbles with the song “Right Kind of Wicked” and Rogers digs deep with this one in a way that will leave few, if any, unimpressed.  
 
Rogers scores again with the bluesy “Don’t Walk Away”, but there’s some funkier elements sneaking their way into that track. The band’s one attempt at a slower, more intimate ballad comes with “Loving You” and it affords listeners a nice change of pace from the across the board liveliness of the earlier songs. The final cut “Come Clean” is a Rebecca Noelle gem with the same bluesy atmospherics as the earlier “Don’t Walk Away” but forsaking the funky aspects. There’s something on this album for everyone. The Commotions’ Volume II has ambition to burn, but they keep things accessible throughout and are definitely out to please the audience.  


Laura Dodero
 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Dynamos - Shake, Rattle, & Roll

 
Dynamos - Shake, Rattle, & Roll 

URL: http://www.dynamosmusic.com/ 
“Shake, Rattle, and Roll” is Dynamos’ first release since their debut EP Cold Comfort landed on the scene with a roar. The Southern California based band boasts five members, including bidding superstar vocalist Nadia Elmistikawy, who come together on their past recordings and new single alike with combustible chemistry that positions these young performers as one of the most promising musical acts today. Top shelf production helps accentuate the band’s interplay with a warm blanket of sound enveloping the material and performance that never draws attention to itself and, instead, serves the musicians and songwriting alike as it should. “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” has a deceptive simplicity, but there’s some sly winking going on that the band never plays up and, instead, contributes to the intelligence and bright, boisterous spirit that defines the best rock and roll. Dynamos have upped their game with this release and are poised to ascend to the next level.

Nadia Elmistikawy’s vocal is the song’s defining strength. She doesn’t show up immediately in the tune, but after a brief introduction, and it has a powerfully transformative effect when her presence exerts its influence over the track. Her extensive vocal training allows her to pursue a variety of approaches over the song’s condensed running time and she never oversteps her boundaries at the expense of her surrounding players. Instead, her emotiveness brings a richer, more meaningful feel to the lyrics and helps highlight the slightly under the radar intelligence informing the lyric and song structure alike. Rather than positioning her voice against the arrangement, Elmistikawy shows the good instincts to sing alongside the instruments instead and it results in a much more unified performance than we would have otherwise experienced. She’s a multi-faceted vocal talent who gets under the skin of a song and makes it an expression of her personal identity. 

 
The players serve the track well. The way “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” opens with the rhythm section setting the early direction with jagged guitar contributions soon takes off into full fledged rock flight that couples power together with undeniable stylishness. Bassist Nick Schaadt and drummer Ian Nakawaza make for an impressive rhythm section tandem and they give the guitars of Jacob Mayeda and Carlos Barrea a strong platform from which they can weave crackling rock magic. The instrumentalists never succumb to any sort of over indulgence – these are players, despite their young age, who recognize that the notes you don’t play often have more weight and value than those you do. Despite the brash rock and roll spirit on display here, the performance is thankfully tasteful and never relies on cookie cutter histrionics common to heavy handed, artless rock tracks. Dynamos, instead, stand out from the pack and their single “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” grabs the presumably moribund genre of rock music and gives it a jostle guaranteed to shake some life into the form.  

I-TUNES: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/shake-rattle-and-roll-single/id1292043281  

Scott Wigley

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Stranger Friends

 
Stranger Friends 


With a musical style that combines the harmony of the Everly Brothers and the grit of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Stranger Friends will release their self-titled, self-written EP on October 20. Band members Jamie Floyd and John Martin met through a mutual friend in 2010. To their surprise, songs came naturally, as though these strangers had been friends all along. And their vocal blend was instantly, undeniably special. Since that time, they have followed their musical instincts from recording sessions in a garage in Nashville to writing songs for television and film. But that’s just some of their background.

These two have been together a while now and their efforts are starting to really pay off with the recording of the soundtrack for the Burt Reynolds movie - Dog Years - featuring their track “Yet To Come” which will be out in 2018.

Their new EP comes with much to prepare for that, and it should get heard by their fans combined with it over the next year. The production is pretty-slick, as with most good country and rock artists. They come blazing out on the opener with “Country Song” and you can’t deny how awesome they are on this killer track that contains every good element they consist of. 
 
They only prove to improve with every track, as the following “Sacred Garden” offers up with the greatest of ease. It has a charming groove to it that keeps you interested the whole time, like being on the beach or somewhere with a cool breeze. They immediately get under your skin with a fun-loving track here which has everything going for it. You get invited into the garden of peace, as they sing together about it. This is a truly remarkable song from beginning to end, with a captivating spirit all its own to wash over your ears with its fabulous melody that won’t go away, even once it’s over.

“I Ain’t Dead” is the peaking point on the EP, with a hypnotic track of epic-level efforts. Led by the vocals of John Martin, this is a wildly delivered track that doesn’t grab you quite as much the first time as it does with repeated listens. But once you’re in the groove this is the track that stands out the most if you let it do its magic all the way. It’s worth the price of admission alone to me. Don’t let the other tracks fool, because they’re all one hundred percent efforts.

It should just be noted this track is a must hear without a doubt, as they captured all their best in-the course of laying this one down.

Between the lines you’ll also find much solitude in the lyrics of “November & June” with Jamie Floyd coming through stronger on this one. It brings the mood back up to happy and keeps the EP grounded before it’s all over with the closing being the last-but not least of the bunch as well. “Don’t Get Back Up” is a love song with a great message of positivity and it works as well as any other track, so it marks no dips in the EP to speak of. Once you get used to these songs, they’re hard to stop playing, and that’s a testament to it and them. Stranger Friends have arrived in their own ways.

Randy Jones