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

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Flotation Device Warning - The Machine That Made Us


Flotation Device Warning - The Machine That Made Us 
 
First coming together on London’s north side and literally working their way up from regional status, Flotation Device Warning are cutting edge without ever sounding elitist or removed from the audience’s experiences. They often tackle larger than usual musical structures far removed from pop song formulas, but there’s plenty of qualities in the songs included on The Machine That Made Us that you’ll never forget this is fundamentally sound songwriting that, thanks to layering of instruments, often sounds much more complex than it really is while still readily connecting with listeners. This is the first full length follow up to their debut Bluffer’s Guide to the Flight Deck and the band’s talent for memorable titles proves to be strong on this new release. There’s a lot on The Machine That Made Us that is familiar, but very little that is predictable.  
 
They take the occasion to walk fine lines between quirkiness and a traditional approach with songs like the opener “Controlling the Sea”. Keyboardist Vicky Wood joins Paul Carter in a loose vocal harmony that has a pleasing rise and fall that speaks directly to the listener. Rarely are melodies on The Machine That Made Us so comfortable and direct. Any sense of the peculiar heard in the first song is amplified to the ninth degree with the song “Due to Adverse Weather Conditions, All of My Heroes Have Surrendered” and it hangs together as a coherent bit of songwriting despite multiple turns in the arrangement. In the hands of the band’s lesser contemporaries, these sort of melting pots of musical ideas comes off as a handful of different sections ramroded together in an attempt to suggest a cohesive song. Flotation Device Warning, however, are quite talented at writing extended pieces that make total sense and it’s a talent they further expands on the deeper we go into this album. 
 
The lush beauty of “A Season Underground” lulls listeners into a near trance like state and maintains a straight ahead musical thrust for the duration of the song. There’s a pop sheen that makes the song glow slightly, but it keeps a low-key pace that doesn’t even rise to a mid tempo saunter. “I Quite Like It When He Sings” begins life as a practically ambient piece with vocals but, a considerable way in, evolves into a second half more in accord with the album’s other languid tracks. The first half is especially successful thanks to its atmospherics and the post production effects applied to her voice never drag it down. It’s arguable that the band never comes closer to embracing any commercial inclinations than they do with the song “When the Boat Comes Inside Your House”, but its commercial inclinations on their own terms and firmly grounded in the pensive orchestrations that are a hallmark of their style. “The Moongoose Analogue” is divided into four distinctive sections, alternating over the course of twelve and a half minutes, and has a thoughtfulness and inward looking quality to its plaintive keyboards and threadbare melodies that justifies its length. The Machine That Made Us is a bracing release thanks to its immense creativity and the sense of a band willing to take chances that are all their own. Flotation Device Warning has released a sophomore full length album that sets a new standard for their work.  
 
Shannon Cowden

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Johnny Mac Band - 'Ace'

 
The Johnny Mac Band - 'Ace'


The Johnny Mac Band is a Long Island, New York/Metro based band that plays Blues, R&B, Funk, and Reggae as well as their own brand of original music. The Band has wracked up hundreds of successful performances since its inception in 2012. As early as the 2nd grade,  Johnny was trying to put together his own band styled after the Jackson Five with fellow students in his class. Soon thereafter, he started guitar lessons.

His musical journey changed forever the day he snuck into his older brother’s room and put on his stereo. His latest full-length album – Ace, comes recommended for its well-earned place in his catalog.

The band come in swinging with “Makin’ Changes” and it’s important to not get too carried away at the beginning because there is a point to the lyrics of this song that steers you in the right direction to get you going. It’s a motivation song that way and the perfect way to open such a great collection of original, organic songs. The wailing guitar solo makes you know this isn’t going to be a boring Blues album, which so many can be. It gets the blood pumping just right for the occasion and lets you know it’s going to be a good album. What better way to open the card game.

“Om Badi” is an instant change of pace and an immediate reason as to why the variety on this album is so strong. You have-to commend the band for going this far right away to widen the musical path with a Reggae song that would even make Bob Marley and Peter Tosh proud. You can’t help but tap your toe and move around to this terrific dance-along number. And it even comes with a Reprise at the end, which swirls right back into your head with a silky-smooth effect. They play in unison and it’s best heard on headphones if you want to really hear how it comes out.  
 
“Soul Angel” is pretty good too, when it boils down to the better tracks, but it does play things a little safer than some others that dare to go to lengths and do succeed at it. But it’s just not the be all to end all when there’s tracks like “Part Time Man” that essentially outclass it in every way. Now this is more like it, with a completely grand effort that nothing else on the album can surpass.

There are tracks that tend to meet it though, but it’s what the album’s best made of. Everything about it checks out from top to bottom. You don’t hear this every day, so don’t skip this track.

“5 Reasons To Leave” goes over and above the mark at times, but always finds its way back to its good self and makes it easy to see why they kept it on the album. Maybe it’s just displaced among the rest, but nobody’s perfect. These are all great tracks at the end of the day, with some more serious moments to go with the general playfulness that surely dominates it.

Also check out “Waiting,” “Give Me Some Of that Loving” and the wonderful likes of “Goodbye Orlando” with some of the best playing to be heard as well. And if that isn’t enough “Groove Machine” will knock your socks off.


Jeff Turner

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Liz Kennedy - Hike Up Your Socks


Liz Kennedy - Hike Up Your Socks 


Liz Kennedy has carved out an indelible reputation as a formidable singer/songwriter/storyteller and her songs often fall in the realm of Americana, Folk and AAA (Adult Album Alternative) music. It scarcely encompasses what she does, however. This isn’t a collection of blues songs with all the predictable changes but a textured and superbly produced affair that covers the gamut of roots music influences while still showing off a distinctly modern flair. The album is produced by Kennedy’s longtime collaborator Joel Jaffe, known for his work at Studio D in Sausalito, California, a host to legendary recordings from artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana. The conditions are ripe for Kennedy to produce a first rate collection and recording – she doesn’t disappoint. Hike Up Your Socks is one of the most complete musical experiences released in recent memory.  
 
It begins well with the track “Everyone Knows How It Goes”. This is evocative, artfully handled blues with more than a few traditional elements accentuating the feel and a great vocal duet between Kennedy and guest star Taj Mahal. His gruff, heartfelt bellow pairs up with Kennedy’s voice in an unexpectedly successful way and his musical contributions to the piece, namely his banjo playing, brings more musicality to the proceedings. “Attention” is a less cluttered blues than the opener but the atmosphere, in many ways, remains just as strong. The lyric is one of many sharply written texts Kennedy calls upon for Hike Up Your Socks’ songs. She has a lot of variation in her vocal delivery, despite favoring the blues, and that versatility serves her songs well. “Say the Words” is another deeply affecting lyric this time turned to the service of a pop song and the gentle ballad she concocts is one of the best moments on this album. Kennedy gives one of her most sensitive vocals on the album. 
 
“Love Gave Me Away” features Taj Mahal’s contributions once again, this time via his harmonica playing, and it brings even more color to an already soulful piece. The relaxed gait of this tune makes it all the more likeable, as well, and Kennedy gives us a vocal that matches the song’s graceful swing. “Hello Romance” is a generally bright and hopeful tune with a lot of welcome musical substance. The arrangement shifts tempo at a few key points in the performance and the band never misses a step. This song, like the other tracks included with this release, have a strongly live, intimate feel and few songs make better use of that attribute than this one. The title song is the album’s musical magnum opus, a twisting composition with strong internal logic and a layered mix that renders multiple instruments with an ear turned towards balance. It is one of the more memorable personal statements, as well, that Kennedy seems to make on this album. The backing vocals are more limited than usual and the mood more muted on “The Signs”; it’s just another indication of Kennedy’s stylistic dexterity that she can so convincingly inhabit a variety of sonic landscapes and seem quite at home in them all. Hike Up Your Socks is as complete of an effort as Kennedy could hope for at such a point in her career. This is the point, customarily, when artists’ careers show a perceptible slowing down or else slip into stagnation. There’s no danger of that with Liz Kennedy.  


Craig Bowles

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Souleye – Wildman


Souleye – Wildman 


Souleye’s eleven song album Wildman immediately garners consideration as one of the best hip hop oriented releases in 2017. His message of fulfilling one’s own destiny and asserting your identity is as strong as ever, but Souleye continues improving each time at expressing those beliefs clearly and with well chosen moments of imagery. He has an effortless swagger that never comes off too strident and does a good job of following the music rather than pushing his voice against the arrangement. The musical side of Wildman is dominated by synthesizer, a generous amount of sampling, and an electronic rhythm section, but there’s a satisfying amount of melody present throughout the album. Souleye has been out there in the arena of modern music for some time now and the aforementioned attribute has always been one of the defining elements in his work. It is rendered more powerfully than ever here.  

“Dream Come True” has a lot of the energy implied by the title. The exuberance coming through the multi-electronic layers, restless percussion, and resonate bass notes is impossible to ignore and the vocal from Souleye has the right combination of phrasing fireworks and confidence. The layered attack of the opener gives way to a more bare bones approach on the second track “Classic” and the addition of a couple of other singers in guest spot roles make this all the more memorable. Each of the voices introduced in this song, including Souleye’s, effortlessly lock into the feel of the arrangement and move with the same confidence through the song. “Wildman” has the same emphasis on establishing a strong groove and, despite the electronica nature of the arrangement, carries a warm sound throughout that gives Souleye a lot to work with. His voice inhabits every second he’s on with total conviction and clear-eyed passion filling his tone. 
 
“Soul Expression” is just that, an expression of Souleye’s appreciation for the soul genre filtered through his typical musical approach. The warmth of the performance is an unmistakable nod to its influences and Souleye brings his best approximation of the vocal tone common to the style. His commercial skills inform the track “Follow Your Heart” without ever compromising the highly physical and raw boned structure common to Souleye’s best songs. The sentiment the song expresses may seem very familiar, but leave it to this talented writer to find a new way of expressing this age old advice. “Fountain of Youth” has a guest slot for indie band leader Wade Morissette and the contributions made by Alanis’ twin brother are sympathetic enough to Souleye’s own that their working together comes off seamlessly and seemingly meant to be. “Snow Angel” and “Hip Hop Medicine” close out Wildman on contrasting notes. The first song has a featured star turn from Souleye’s partner and wife Alanis Morissette while the finale features the contributions of Dustin Tavella. This is an epic effort from Souleye and the sheer assertiveness of it, along with the natural musical and lyrical strengths, position this release as one of the best in Souleye’s career.  


Scott Wigley

Ashley J - “Unbreakable”

 
Ashley J and her New Single, “Unbreakable” 


Most would agree most popular artists out there have something truly special to give to their fans. This goes above the typical attributes like raw talent, amazing songs, nice voice, or even a very marketable look, sound & image. There's something truly infectious at the core of these artists that simply makes us feel good when we listen to them. Whatever "it" is - they all seem to have "it".

Today I listened to the newest song from Ashley J entitled, “Unbreakable”. Venturing to her website I get the impression this is one artist that is extremely determined and passionate about the songwriting craft. From start to finish this single from Ashley J delivers and is a very entertaining musical experience. It has a very warm invitation and pop quality to it. It also reminds me of many talented singers in the present and past pop scene.  Any fans of any of cool and infectiously catchy pop music will enjoy this latest release from Ashley J. It's clearly marketed for those who like a female vocal front. I get the impression Ashley J is letting it all hang out via this compelling introductive single for many. In other words she hits the mark remarkably well by just by being who she is musically. The chorus is definitely the greatest aspect of the track. The songwriting is very powerful and digs a bit deeper than the next independent artist. Ashley J bares her soul and delivers what I would call pure musical mojo. It offers much in the way of passion and compelling-thought provoking lyrical content. The playing from Ashley J production crew spot on and just makes the whole song even more enjoyable. The overall vibe of the production is very uplifting and cheerful with pockets of hope shining through. 

As far as sound quality goes the music is slightly loud and bright sounding. I noticed I kept reaching for the volume knob as I listened to it. Not sure why this is - all I can say is the song sounded very overbearing on my high end stereo system and when I reduced the High Gain, reduced my Treble and maxed out the Bass it helped a lot.  

 
I see Ashley J as a diamond in the rough, with an amazing amount of potential. As time goes by we will no doubt hear more from her. She is a multimillion dollar record contract waiting to happen. I also wouldn’t be surprised to hear her music on the radio someday or even in a film. I’m also eager to see what the future holds for Ashley J as it looks bright. In close most famous artists out there have "it" I'm not so sure what it but Ashley J have whatever "it" is.


Carl Butler

Dizzy Box Nine - Electric Illusion

 
Dizzy Box Nine - Electric Illusion 

Who Dizzy Box Nine are is basically down to Randy Ludwig, as he comes out of Southern California with melodic, radio-friendly pop that carries an experimental aspect to it that renders their songs unique and not of the same old static-pop formulas. Make no mistake he’s the one behind it but there’s a fine band underneath it when you hear the album -Electric Illusion. It’s not an illusion though, it’s more like a reality trip with a good ending when the journey is over, and you just want to go back and have another ride. It’s a recommended experience I hope pop, punk and even folk lovers get to hear.

“Open Up To Me” is the right choice to open this album with because while it doesn’t come on too strong, it prepares you for the truck-load of great tunes to come. Most of what’s going on with this record is covered in this song, from the melodic vocals and killer guitars, to what sounds like an intended rough production with smooth corners. It’s a solid opener even though you could probably choose any song on this album to open with.

The follow-up “Oh Yeah” is rather tremendous with all the energy they’ve got. This just takes it to another level and gets you ready for more. It’s highly motivating and even somewhat spiritually uplifting. It flows like no other song on the album, with a precision that’s hard to compete with. It sounds like the perfect single.  “Good” is another track that is in competition for best song.  I still can’t seem to get that chorus out of my head, “I’ll take you anywhere with me, yeah!” 

 
So is the clever and melodic track “When I Look At You” with its captivating guitar that seems to instantly hook you. This is a smoking track that shouldn’t be missed. It’s as if Randy Ludwig has cracked the secret code behind how many times to repeat a line, and with each repetition you become more and more hooked.  It’s like a pleasant dream, “And when I’m with you it’s all ok...” It brings you back to better days, with plenty of sunshine and hope to share.  
 
“Rosie” is seemingly a song about a girl who works at a diner, and yet, it manages to describe all of us to some extent, doesn't it? It’s layered with electric and acoustic guitars, with a killer vocal, and an even more killer background vocal. The background vocal kind of makes the song!  It’s like a song from 1997, with a background vocal from the mid 80s, that all “works itself out” cleverly in 2017. Make no mistake, this song rocks as good as any on the album, and is sure to be a crowd favorite. 

Pop lovers of every sort should find Electric Illusion to be pleasing to the ears, and to the soul. With songs like “Crazy Superstar” and “Plane Song” it’s chock full of what’s missing in today’s music, which is a proper mix of pop and rock without leaning too far in either direction. Dizzy Box Nine seems to have found that balance. 


Alan Foster

Saturday, September 16, 2017

John Brownlow - The Summertime

 
John Brownlow - The Summertime 


There’s a real sense of cathartic musical independence here via this latest work from this Ontario based musical act and screenwriter John Brownlow. 
 
While everything on his latest work entitled “The Summertime” is, shall I say, exceptionally entertaining, and it also manages to cover a pretty wide range of musical styles as well. A few tracks notably stand out for me in particular. “Kingdom Come” and “Sunshine On The Radio” are 2 strong songs that deliver pure grooved magic and an impressive vocal tandem. While the movement presents dynamic beats, hooky horns, smooth Guitar lines, classic driven vocals and lyrics that let it all hang out. Despite this somehow the music has a more of an organic feel as the CD hits solid stride.  
 
This album serves as a great example of a musical genius who isn't afraid to take any risks and grow as a musician. The musicianship is very commanding and fully entertaining, as former Spice Girl and current AGT judge Mel B would say – off the chain. The vocals and lyrics: equally as clairvoyant and fascinating. Brownlow really draws you in. Another highlight for me is “Radiation” and “The Pink Raincoat” which to me exemplifies Brownlow core sound to the hilt. The more I listened to Brownlow, the more interested I became. As I mentioned earlier, he's not afraid of playing with other styles and genres and even though the Britpop seems to feel more comfortable around this particular realm of music, he also proves he can dig into Jazz, Country and Post-punk with the same ease. Something not all musical acts and bands can achieve.

The Summertime by John Brownlow offers a mix of music and emotions that bursts to life via a bittersweet voice which ties it all together. Brownlow demonstrates his individual musical talent and abilities without being to over the top about it all. I get the impression he fun to see in a live setting. So are you thinking what I’m thinking? Somehow all the above is not compatible with the superficial musical times we live in. John Brownlow is well-suited for audiences that enjoy this flash back style of music that simply refuses to die.  


Brittany May

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Barbara Jo Kammer - One Song at a Time

 
Barbara Jo Kammer - One Song at a Time 


This collection of covers includes one original from Barbara Jo Kammer, but these covers aren’t your ordinary garden variety riffs on other songwriter’s material. One Song at a Time feels patiently curated to best represent Kammer’s experiences as a recovering addict and it’s accompanied by lights out playing that shows great command over the material as well as superb instincts for entertaining its target audience. This is certainly a retro themed collection, in some respects, but it’s presented in the best possible modern light and listeners will never get the sense that its invocation of old tyme music is some sort of empty vehicle for Kammer to claim musical authenticity. Instead, her musical partners on this trip are every bit as key to realizing the potential of the material as Kammer’s vocals are and they come together with great energy and imagination.  
 
The energy and imagination is evident from the beginning. “I Can See Clearly” is a song many listeners are going to be familiar with, but Kammer rebuilds it in a way much more sympathetic to her designs for One Song at a Time. It’s a solid bluegrass number in this incarnation and she puts it over with all the exuberance that an opener demands. “Choices” requires a different sort of energy, one that behooves Kammer to dig deeper, and she plumbs deep into her personal experience to give this lyric about addiction the gravitas it deserves. Fiddle player Jake Simpson acquits himself quite well here as he does throughout the entirety of the release. “Hard Promises to Keep”, like “Choices”, comes from the traditional country school of song craft and makes a strong impression thanks to the merits of a duet between Kammer and second vocalist Greg Blake. Blake contributes backing vocals elsewhere on the album, but he’s particularly effective as an equal partner for Kammer and they recall past glories in the genre with their turn here. 
 
“Medicine Wheel” and “The Winning Side” are a little different fare than the album’s other tracks, more grounded in a singer/songwriter folk tradition than outright country, but many of the same instruments appear and the musicians bring every bit of their talent to full use on both performances. We go back to the deep south for the performance of “New Shoes” and the instrumental breaks alone are worth the price of purchase. “Bluegrass Melodies”, the album’s penultimate tune, comes from the musical imagination of one of The Statler Brothers and hits its mark from the outset. Kammer does a remarkable job of making listeners see every line of the song and the musicians complement what she’s doing quite nicely. One Song at a Time concludes with “Mule Skinner Blues”, a Jimmie Rodgers cover, but if Kammer has any butterflies tackling a song from one of the Kings of country music, she doesn’t show it. This uptempo final curtain for the album puts a definite end to one of the best Americana themed releases of 2017. 


Stephen Bailey