Thursday, September 21, 2017

Sarah Donner - Black Hole Heart (2016)

Written by Larry Robertson, posted by blog admin

Sarah Donner’s latest release Black Hole Heart finds her continuing to successfully mine the same rich musical territory that has brought her considerable notice thus far. The twelve songs on Black Hole Heart make use of traditional instrumentation like mandolin and piano alongside the customary acoustic guitar, but she also shows the daring to bring different instrumental voices under her tent like trumpet and organ. Her lyrical talents are well displayed on Black Hole Heart and her ability to marry metaphor with melody sets her apart from a score of her contemporaries. There are no great shows of musical virtuosity here; Donner, instead, concentrates on communicating melodic ideas and creating complementary vehicles for her songwriting. There isn’t a single miss on this album. Donner has created an exquisite work rife with the vulnerability and melodic gifts that have drawn such attention.

“Phoenix” is one of the marquee tracks on Black Hole Heart and it’s obvious why early on. There’s a nice combination of an upward slant to the melody accompanied by a light percussive shuffle that makes for some likeable listening. Her voice is a perfect match for the song’s evolution, picking up more and more energy along the way, and paying off nicely in the end. “Black Hole Heart”, despite its relatively foreboding title, strikes an ultimately hopeful note. In the hands of lesser talents, acoustic guitar can wear out its welcome as a limited melodic imagination will rely on variations of the same two or three phrases. Donner runs no risk of that. She is endlessly inventive with the instrument and has the sort of tastefulness you don’t often find. Her tunes have exactly what they need and no fat to be found.

“Tamsen Donner 1847” is a perfect example of that. The acoustic guitar work provides just enough musical color for enhancing Donner’s lyric. Her writing takes on a storytelling air with this performance and she excels with it every bit as she does with her more common personal and impressionistic style. “Athena” has a light bluegrass/country music influence, but the same pop sensibilities distinguishing much of the album come into play here and there’s some particularly strong vocal harmonies that make the chorus all the more memorable. She brings trumpet and organ into the mix for “The Flood”. The latter adds some discreet color to the song while the former makes for an impressive instrumental break thanks to Mike Batchelor’s fine playing. The breezy shuffle of “The Longest Road” has some sharp and even humorous lyrics that benefit from Donner’s emotional singing. It’s never emotion that leaves you dispirited – there’s something about Donner’s voice that’s gloriously life affirming and makes even the darkest song a healing experience of sorts. “Sinking Ship” is similar to the earlier “Tamsen Donner 1847” in the sense that it is depicts character and narrative. It doesn’t have the same lyrical focus as the aforementioned tune, but it is a fine track nonetheless with condensed lines, well chosen language, and some atmospheric harmonies. Sarah Donner’s Black Hole Heart ranks among her finest achievements and sets the bar higher than ever for any following releases.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Grace Freeman - Shadow (2017)

Written by Stephen Bailey, posted by blog admin

Grace Freeman’s first solo collection Shadow includes eleven songs largely adhering to Americana and singer/songwriter influences while still taking opportunities to branch out at key points. The two primary instruments on Shadow are acoustic guitar and piano, but the six string is far and away the defining tool for bringing Freeman’s songs to sonic life. It is balanced against Freeman’s singing in a very artful and proportional way – one never gets the feeling that a choice to highlight any one element at the expense of another ever entered into the equations for recording this album. Instead, Shadow has bearing and a satisfying completeness that’s difficult to find in modern releases. Freeman may be very young, but her musical aesthetics and songwriting vision harken back to an earlier era and have mastered the sort of fundamentals required if the work is intended to endure.

It begins in a memorable way with the weighty statements of both “Oliver” and the title song “Shadow”. The former is the first of many acoustic guitar powered tracks and has a dark, mournful air surrounding its guitar work. Freeman’s voice doesn’t opt for doubling down on that mood and, instead, positions herself as a foil to the musical mood with ethereal vocals that will touch all but the most cynical listeners. The title song has a more forceful spirit thanks to welcoming drums and bass for the first time on the release, but Freeman exerts her vocal strength more here than we hear in the opener. “Trying to Say Goodbye” is, arguably, the most commercially minded tune on Shadow, but this isn’t an insult. Freeman approaches this sort of variation the same way she treats any other songwriting – her interests lie with recording the best possible performance rather than groveling for widespread attention.

“Blue-Eyed Boy” visits some of the aforementioned Americana roots you find after digging deep enough into Freeman’s core sound. Freeman delivers one of her most deeply felt vocals for this release and she effortlessly glides through the verses. We are back in nominally more modern settings with the song “Another Long Night” and there’s certainly quite a contrast between the near angelic vocal delivery and Freeman’s despairing lyrical content. It’s one of the album’s loneliest moments. The deliberate and slowly evolving melody of “Muddy Puddles” gives listeners a chance to focus on the song’s lyrical content and relax into the song’s seamless changes. Piano returns on the song “God Forbid” and her avowed influence from singer/songwriter Regina Spektor is obvious, but never painfully so. This remains recognizably Freeman’s song from beginning to end and the frame of reference established by the similarities only serves to make the track more familiar. Shadow is a personal and intensely creative journey that rewards the listener in every song.  

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

KALO - Wild Change (2017)

Written by Stephen Bailey, posted by blog admin

Wild Change is the fourth overall release from the Oklahoma-based power trio KALO and marks a new high point in the band’s songwriting and recording career. Led by vocalist and guitarist Bat-Or Kalo, the band has co-opted the sound of electric blues and other American forms like funk and R&B, filtered it through their own consciousness and experience, before re-emerging with tremendous individual flair that many of their contemporaries lack. This is never blues by the numbers. The eleven songs on Wild Change go far beyond merely hitting some customary genre marks – instead, KALO reinvents while paying proper deference to tradition. The band’s voluminous live experience and the bonds forged from touring together over countless miles no doubt contributes much to their presentation, but it’s equally clear that there are musical fireworks innate to this particular configuration and time has only deepened their explosive potential.

“One Mississippi”, “Isabel”, the title song, “Only Love”, and the album’s second to last track overall “Bad Girl” constitute the band’s most outright blues variants on the album. The first song opens Wild Change with a quasi-boogie that swings so hard it’s difficult to believe this lineup has only played together for a short time. The majority of KALO’s efforts in this area are devoted to blazing, loud, and dramatic blues rock originals like “Isabel”, “Wild Change”, and “Bad Girl”. Despite the assertive sound and instrumental attack on these songs, however, you never get the feeling that Kalo and her band mates are overplaying and weighing the material down with excessive baggage. The title track is propelled by a particularly biting, memorable guitar riff while “Bad Girl” underlines the atmosphere of live playing and spontaneity that hangs over the entire album. “Only Love” is the album’s sole concession to slow blues and is pulled off with a lot of credibility and immense stylishness.

KALO ventures off the blues path at key moments. “Upside Down” is an ultra confident strut of sorts with great horn arrangements mingling in very nicely with a more restrained instrumental performance than what we’ve yet heard from the musicians on this album. The later “Pay to Play” goes even further and drops some straight forward funk into the band’s mix. KALO never abandons the guitar entirely, despite its more orchestral role here, and comes brilliantly alive during the second half. “Smile and Blush” covers in part the band’s penchant for more muted, introspective point of view, but it isn’t, unlike the last song :”Calling All Dreamers”, an essentially solo performance. It is the most vulnerable moment on the release, but also the most inspiring and listeners will be grateful she has ended it on this note. Wild Change shows the continuing evolution of one of the nation’s best guitar driven acts, regardless of genre. KALO will likely build to even greater heights than before with this new release.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dust of Days - Analog Mind Bender (2017)

Written by Craig Bowles, posted by blog admin

The fury conjured by New Jersey’s Dust of Days on their newest full length album Analog Mind Bender is balanced out against equally attention grabbing dynamics and expert contrasting of light and shadow. They aren’t afraid to confound your expectations and challenge you with textures a hundred and eighty degrees different from what you heard in the previous song. This is the hallmark of a band with the legs to carry them through long careers. Analog Mind Bender’s twelve songs are flush with rough and ready guitar, but Frank Lettieri Jr.’s songwriting raises this a few notches above the rebellious and brooding semi-juvenile spirit typically presiding over these sorts of efforts. Dust of Days makes rock music for adults who want some challenging subject matter and intelligence to come along with the thrashing riffs and bludgeoning rhythm sections.  If the band’s 2012 full length debut established them as a promising band to keep your ears open for, Analog Mind Bender solidifies and expands on that potential in enormous ways.

The title song kicks off the release and it is, arguably, one of the album’s “lighter” efforts musically. Make no mistake that the guitar punch present in Dust of Days’ music is quite real and present on every track, but “Analog Mind Bender” has some distinctive melodic touches that later songs lack. Lettieri’s vocals are impassioned, but he has a deceptive range and the ability to get the material over in a variety of ways. That’s illustrated quite nicely on the next song “Aurora” – Lettieri alternates between speaking and singing in an effective way that never seems too theatrical or a drag on the song’s energy level. There’s a harder edge present in this song, as well, that shows Dust of Days off as a fiery outfit while still emphasizing the solid, attention grabbing songwriting that Lettieri turns in one song after another. “Mustang” takes their talents in an entirely different direction as this number embraces a more clear-cut alternative rock feel than the first two songs. The emphasis on rampaging guitars is certainly less than before and Lettieri’s vocals are far more concerned with phrasing and emotive potential than they are in competing with a sonic storm raging all around. “Little Angel”, likewise, hails from a similar music lineage as the aforementioned tune, but the guitars are amped up much more here and regain the crunch they exhibited to open the album.

“Death Vibrations” is a sleeper track on the album that hopefully doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. It couples a streamlined and focused rock stride with notable punk rock tendencies and spirit to spectacular effect. Lettieri gives one of his best vocal performances on the album and you can really hear how intent he is on getting this song over with the listener. “Porcelain” is the album’s final moody quasi-ballad and the uncluttered texture of the song gives performer and listener alike plenty of room to allow their imaginations to meander and fill in the spaces within the composition. “Ghosts” closes Dust of Days’ Analog Mind Bender on a challenging note. The song is split into two halves – the first part is a brief acoustic track colored in a darker hue than anything else on the album and the longer second part is more electronic in nature while still retaining the same glowering intensity of the first half. You won’t hear many albums in this musical vein capable of surprising you as much as Dust of Days’ latest release. Analog Mind Bender definitely deserves being mentioned among the best albums of 2017.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Chris Murphy - Hard Bargain (2017)

VIDEO: (“Cape Horn”)

Written by Raymond Burris, posted by blog admin

The musical and personal experiences of a lifetime coupled with sharp skills and the discipline to do what it takes to create and get his music out there defines Chris Murphy’s artistic journey. It’s a trip that’s carried him from his New York City beginnings to the sunny climes of Southern California, appearances on television and film, and a growing discography of original compositions that, frankly, entitles him to consideration among the nation’s best songwriters. The latest release Hard Bargain was recorded in front of a live audience and it’s obvious from the start that Murphy drew a very live, enthusiastic audience for these songs. The songs are, uniformly, quite excellent. Murphy is one of the rare talents who can revisit familiar musical vehicles and appropriate the language of traditional music without sounding like a hamfisted dilettante. He comes across as the real deal here, without question, one man holding an audience spellbound with his voice, words, and precious little instrumentation.

The title song is the first moment that leaves a mark on listeners. The song has a very simple structure and Murphy lights it up with his tale of bad luck and woe . It draws deeply from the blues tradition and Murphy nails those time-honored changes with head-down energy that sparks the audience to life. “Ain’t No Place” and “Bugs Salcido” temper the mood considerably. The first track is a gospel influenced number that inspires Murphy to a soulful instrumental and vocal performance. This is a near perfect example of how Murphy sounds utterly convincing adopting the language and tropes of traditional music – this song could easily be confused with a half dozen fine gospel numbers from the early 20th century and its obvious Murphy knows his stuff, but he never makes a great show of those moments and always uses them in clearly personal contexts where they assume added resonance.

“Holcombe Creek” definitely pursues a more Appalachian style and has an intensely cinematic quality in its violin playing common to Murphy’s best work. “White Noise” and “Last Bridge” are high points on the album thanks to their accessibility – rarely has Murphy written such undeniable hooks for his songs and they hang together so well that they are pleasures to hear from first note to last. Murphy seems to sense this, as well, and delivers one of his most inspired vocals on Hard Bargain with his turn on “Last Bridge”. “Trust” is another gut wrenching number with a mood ranging from despairing to stormy. Murphy really understands how to pare his musical and songwriting language down to the essentials to really get to the heart of what he wants to say. Things don’t noticeably brighten with the finale “Friend” but a close listener will take heart from the fact that the “I” behind all these songs is searching, never throwing in the towel, engaged with life. These songs are engaged with life – they examine how we spend our days alive without sparing punches and treating us to a dramatic musical experience. Hard Bargain is an often searing musical journey you won’t regret taking.   

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

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