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

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