Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Samantha Leon - s/t (2017)

Written by Randy Jones, posted by blog admin

Samantha Leon’s debut EP is a good collection of songs that doesn’t take much getting used to. They all have something to keep your ear fine-tuned to what they’re about, or leave that and just let them move you, or not. This isn’t a veteran artist but she sounds like one. She has obviously been around the New York east coast scene or she wouldn’t come up with something so strong that pulsates like it’s been her longtime formula. For a debut record, this isn’t always the result without some years of hard work behind it. You can sense that before the first song is even over. Her influences run way back to the 70s and 80s stylings, with some of that singer/songwriter touch, and her voice has massive pop resonance, but it’s mostly classifiable as soul. This is easily defined in the first verse of the opening piece of a two-part song, “Bright Yellow Shoes.” This “No Turbulence Mix” differs more than slightly on a later “Full Band” version and it’s one of the highlight moments when you put them both together. This is done very cleverly and without it, the EP wouldn’t be as together as it seems. It’s like the release is centered on them and that’s the featuring concept, if you will.

On “High” you will be lyrically swept into another direction, and if it is your cup of tea you will be satisfied, because everything checks out if so, including the language it calls for if it’s your thing. Don’t get too loaded before she calls and you’ll be alright on this one. The message is clear and mindful, even if explicit. I liked how she worked this out and did it her way. It’s still a good groove. The same goes for “Run Away” which exceeds expectation at this point. This is a really-good track and a recommended single. But it’s not the same type of song as most of them on the EP. It’s probably the most radio-accessible one. She manages to break through on both commercial and harder levels on her first release and that’s not done every day like it used to be. It reminds you that such feats might not be a thing of the past if they keep up. For evidence of it all just check “Perfect (Featuring Danny Matos)” and see how she works with other singers and switches it up with the combo factor. This works undeniably well, for another solid track which shows she and her backing players have what it takes. There really are no clunkers, with even the slowest track “Hello, Goodbye” bringing on something fresh and vibrant. Get some today; it’s been out since May.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Natalie Estes - 20/20 Vision (2017)

Written by Shannon Cowden, posted by blog admin

20/20 Vision is a four song EP release recorded in Los Angeles by Nashville native Natalie Estes. Her journey from Music City obscurity to recording in the nation’s second largest city is inspiring without ever lapsing into cliché. Estes initially chose another path for her passions and performed ballet for many years before the possibilities of a music career revealed themselves to her courtesy of hearing Adele’s “To Make You Feel My Love” for the first time. This moment prompted her to shift her focus and the results are impressive Her work on 20/20 Vision has been facilitated by contributions from a fine supporting cast who frame her voice and talents in such a manner that she emerges from this collection as one of the most promising newcomers in many moons. Four songs might seem rather brief, but she makes the most of it with a nicely diverse approach that makes each of these individual tracks vividly stand out.

You know this is going to be a great release from the first song. “Until I Do” has a lot of pop magic, but there’s an equal amount of understated subtlety. Listen to how there’s a brief flair of piano bringing listeners into the track and how Estes’ singing fits the arrangement and the two elements strengthen each other. There’s a similar element driving the great number “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire” and it announces itself from the first. This song sounds like it needs and deserves a big brass section to carry it even higher but, as it plays, stands as arguably the most impressive song on 20/20 Vision. Estes definitely throws herself into with considerable effort and balances emotiveness with unbridled zest. Even the use of the title can’t drag this number down and it never sounds overly familiar.

“Reminds Me of You” comes across as an ideal single for Estes thanks to its likability and charisma, but it also has a sound familiar to the listener while still remaining close to Estes’ own distinctive take. The guitar work is especially delectable, but there’s just a nice overall feel to the song that will appeal to many. The EP’s final song “Bad Game” revisits the same themes we heard on the second track but takes on a more uptempo pace. The shift makes it an equally punchy number, but the same pop strengths distinguishing the EP as a whole are in evidence here. 20/20 Vision might seem small in stature, based solely on the inclusion of four songs, but there’s little question that Estes could have scarcely hoped for a better result. It’s pop with substance and some other understated influences that make it stand out even more.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Jim Hagen - Jazzical (2017)

Artwork by John Lind Whitby

Written by Robert Elgin, posted by blog admin

The story of Jim Hagen’s album Jazzical isn’t one of mere virtuosity alone. Make no mistake – Hagen and his collaborators have a lot of musical talent to burn and could put on a jazz clinic at will. The story of Jazzical, instead, is much more about love and fidelity. There’s obviously been great care taken by the musicians to nail these performers precisely without ever draining them of their life and robbing them of their ability to breathe. Hagen and his creative partners are obvious students of the form – some might call this music smooth jazz and they certainly would have it at least partially right, but the label is a bit of a misnomer. Jazzical, at its heart, is a purist’s exercise further enlivened by an unexpected and artful pop sense that never cheapens the material. The nine song collection is utterly steeped in traditional jazz, but it is never inaccessible to casual fans.

There’s a wonderfully understated luxuriousness surrounding the opening track and first single “Pismo Beach”. Hagen’s compositions have an abundance of melody, but another key component of their success is the ear-catching outside the box changes that popular music devotees will find quite entertaining. “Manna de Carnaval” has a loose Latin feel, but the main attraction here is listening to Hagen’s guitar exchange inventive lines with the keyboardist. Everything is tempered in just the right way – they create a definite mood without ever lapsing into showy pyrotechnics. Hagen takes on a bit of a departure with the next song “D-Tuna”. This has a little more of a nebulous approach at first before definite melodic lines emerge from the mix. The jangling guitars take it very close to rock/pop music territory in a way that few other songs do on Jazzical.

The mood darkens some with the meditative “Alexandra”, but Hagen and his musical partners never lose sight of their obligation to lay down a good melody for their listeners. The title “All Blues” might create an impression that Hagen’s track abandons his established style in favor of an outright foray into the blues genre. There are some strong bluesy influences running through this, particularly in its changes, but Hagen retains the same sound here that defines much of the material on Jazzical. The album’s title cut shows his willingness to take chances and mix other sounds into his personal stew – the introduction of classical elements into his jazz aesthetic gives this performance qualities the others lack and seems quite appropriate for the album’s centerpiece number. The penultimate number on Jazzical has a distinctly more upbeat, jovial mood with the song “Piece of Cake” but, as always, tastefulness rules the day and Hagen is carefully to orchestrate this number with just the right amount of force. This is as fine of an effort as you’ll hear in contemporary jazz and shows both fidelity to the form while still being unafraid to redefine it for the artist’s own personal use.

Grade: A

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

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