Monday, November 13, 2017

Nick Black - Summer & Spring (2017)

Written by Bradley Johnson, posted by blog admin

Summer + Spring is the third album from vocalist and guitarist Nick Black and, taken as a follow up to his 2015 release Deep Blue, shows a musical artist growing by leaps and bounds during the interim. Much of this is likely attributable to the extensive live experience he’s continued to accumulate touring with his band and certainly there isn’t a single song on the new album that doesn’t sound, in some respects, like it was crafted with the stage at least partially in mind. Black handled production duties for the album with James Bennett and the mastering from Grammy winning engineer Brad Blackwood adds a glossy veneer to these great songs that makes them sparkle for both casual and obsessive fan alike. It’s a great album for Black’s existing fans and, as well, an excellent introduction for any newcomers chock full of accessible material.

Even the funkier aspects of the album are relatable. The sentiments in “Joy to the Girl” aren’t difficult to make a connection to as listeners and the musical fireworks generated by Black’s guitar and his co-musicians are substantial and, often, sound quite challenging as players. This is clearly a collection of musicians with a tight-knit connection and that chemistry is evident in every song. The more relaxed, mellower numbers like the title reflect the same chemistry deployed in a different way and his ability to shift gears as a guitarist, moving from the assertive sound of the opener to a more orchestral approach on the title song, reflects his growing versatility as a player. His increasing confidence as the band’s out front personality and band leader comes across as well on the entertaining romp “Nick at Night”, but it also reflects his depth of knowledge regarding the musical style’s traditions. He never sounds anything less than at home in the out front role for this band.

“Runaway Heart” might have a clich├ęd title, but the vocal and musical arrangement alike is soaked with such drama that it redeems any criticisms one might have. The guitar work is equally effective. There’s some straight up rock leanings in the track that he expands on with the next number “Neighbor”. The chin up striding quality that this song strikes makes for compelling listening and sounds confident throughout. The tandem of “When the Morning Comes” and “Lay It on the Line” find Nick Black working in full on funk mode and the latter song, in particular, leans heavily on his brilliant horn section for melodic drive. They are boisterous and energetic, but remain tasteful throughout. “When You Say Love” is a slow, soulful burner with a wonderful sound and unwinds at a warm, luxurious pace. The final track “The River” is a much more lo-fi affair than we are used to from Nick Black, but acoustic blues suits his voice well and it ends the album on a thoughtful, almost poetic, note. This is an important release for Nick Black as it sends him nearer and nearer to the mainstream while never losing sight of his roots.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Black Note Graffiti - Volume II: Without Nothing I'm You (2017)

Written by Bradley Johnson, posted by blog admin

Ann Arbor’s Black Note Graffiti’s second full length album, Volume II: Without Nothing I’m You, strengthens their standing as one of the fast rising stars on the indie rock scene and solidifies their reputations as not just energetic riffers, but savvy and thoughtful songwriters increasingly expert at pouring vintage wine into shiny, pristine new bottles. The eleven songs on this effort showcase the vocal talents of Ricardo Ortiz and, while the band has since added fifth member vocalist Gabrielle Bryant, he’s more than capable of conveying the emotional and musical depth of these compositions without sacrificing any of their inherent entertainment value. The band matches his conviction every step of the way – the rhythm section of bassist Adam Nine and drummer Kurt Keller play an enormous role in the success of this collection while Ortiz effectively teams with guitarist Kris Keller to provide Volume 2: Without Nothing I’m You all the music fireworks it requires to be memorable.

“No Love Lost” announces itself remarkably well for an opener. This is Black Note Graffiti in full hard rock/metal flight, but there’s never a sense with this band of them going for the easy bash-thud mentality of similar acts. There’s tremendous dynamics in what they do and the good taste to vary those elements at the right times. “Such Is Art” continues the hard rock and metal poses but, unlike many acts of their ilk circa 2017, Black Note Graffiti nail those moves credibly and never strain listener’s attention. Ortiz does an exemplary job of getting over the material, but it’s critical that he has superb material to work with, like it is with most singers, and the band’s songwriting skills never let him down in this department. Kurt Keller’s drumming is the marquee element in “False Start” and he guides the other three musicians through the song’s hairpin shifts in tempo without ever sacrificing the beat. Many of the numbers on Volume 2 seem ideally tailored to come to life on stage moreso than their studio counterparts and this song is no exception. It’s one of the sleeper gems, perhaps, on Volume 2 and an excellent representation of the band’s capabilities.

“Shadows”, however, shows more. The opening of the song is quite unlike anything else on Volume 2 and shows their skill at varying their typical hard rock, guitar heavy approach in favor of something more suggestive and subtle. The lyrical content is, like much of it on the album, decidedly less than cheerful, but never in a purple, overwrought way common to less talented or mature songwriters. “Relapse” begins with the guitar and bass in a tight, intensely dramatic dance before the song kicks off in full and it rates as one of the more emphatic and possibly personal numbers on the release. Anyone who is a fan of guitar heavy music will like this album, young or old, and Black Note Graffiti presents themselves in a thoroughly modern fashion while still locking in on all the fundamentals that makes music like this work. Volume II: Without Nothing I’m You is one of 2017’s best rock releases.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

YYY - A Tribute to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (2017)

Written by Bradley Johnson, posted by blog admin

It’s a powerful amount of self confidence that convinces any musician they shouldn’t just cover one of the Beach Boys’ greatest songs but, instead, cover their greatest album from beginning to end. Austin Carson has no compunctions. He further increases his chances by surrounding himself with the cream of the Minneapolis indie crop that enhance his own memorable efforts with equally intelligent and inspired performances of their own. This album, A Tribute to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, ends up being a community effort in a way and certainly reflects the outrageously high level of musical talent working out of and banging their way around the Minnesota music scene. They are, to a man and woman, performers and musicians who understand this material and uniformly respect it. It is, however, equally clear that the aforementioned respect is also the basis from which they are willing to remake the album in a way more fitting of their personal purposes. It’s a staggeringly successful effort.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” has the same effect on the opening of YYY’s tribute as it does on the original. It ushers listeners in to this musical world without any wasted preamble and lays down some early “ground rules” of a sort. We can expect YYY to use synthesizers and other keyboard based instruments to dramatic and even cinematic effect, in essence creating soundscapes for listeners, while still convincingly nailing down the vocal parts – if not outright, at least in spirit. The earnestness of the speaker in “That’s Not Me” really comes through in how YYY handles the song’s vocal and puts a spotlight on it as the key factor in the song. Ornate and more traditional electronic fueled pop sounds compete for their share of the aural landscape on “Don’t Talk” featuring the talented Elle PF. The vocal stands out as the song’s sole consistent thread from beginning to end as the arrangement explores a variety of interpretative textures. There’s always a certain amount of wistfulness surrounding the classic “Sloop John B” that covers often fail to capture but this isn’t one of them. Instead, the elegiac spirit of the original comes through here in a clear and sensitive singing performance with a musical arrangement tuned to just the right sound and mood. Lydia Liza and Cool Moon are big difference makers on the song “Hang On to Your Ego” and give it a distinctive sound compared to the original. “Here Today” veers wildly from near ethereal synthesizer laced orchestrations into stomping and joyous pop. The album’s title song affords YYY an opportunity to craft a near virtuosic array of synth sounds into an expansive sounding, but ultimately brief, near instrumental. It’s an excellent contrast to what he offers with the last track “Good Vibrations”. Arguably the band’s most identifiable song, YYY opts to keep some basic elements going from the original and Al Church’s contributions on guitar are very tasty. His tribute album is much more than mere tribute. It’s an emphatic statement about his own talents and aspirations that sets the bar high for Austin Carson’s future.

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

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