Thursday, January 4, 2018

Michael Askin - Road by the River (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

As the title track to this 5-cut EP crashes into its first peppy snare beat and the swinging southern-fried acoustic gravy rolls over top of a swaying bass line, it becomes instantly clear that New Jersey singer/songwriter/guitarist Michael Askin is firing on all cylinders.  Primarily a guitarist, Askin found himself in the role of a solo artist when he decided that he wanted to express his musical interests in a more in-depth way.  He played in the bands Divine Sign and My State of Attraction but mainly as lead guitarist.  Now he finds himself as not only lead guitarist but lead vocalist, bassist, drummer, organist, composer and arranger on Road by the River; the third in a series of EPs he’s been releasing since 2013. 

Eschewing fancy playing for multifaceted instrumental layering, acoustic/electric texture balance and utilizing keys/organ where it’s needed most, the entirety of the music on Down by the River is exciting and engaging.  “Nashville” dials down the twitchy rhythms and high-speed acoustic guitars of the opening track for a stalwart, bluesy churn that wavers between slow and mid-tempo timekeeping.  The distant hum of synths color in the background alongside slight electric riffs and a largely acoustic groove that rocks as hard as it smoothly rolls.  All throughout Askin’s unassuming but strong vocal timbre harnesses a downplayed blues vibe that’s all about contagious melodies and occasional 2-part harmonies.  Slide guitar only heightens the melodic stakes on the table and if this track cuts and deals the deck, “Sun Going Down” wins the game with gusto…”house rules’” style!  Crumbling, heavy blues rock riffs and smoke-cured vocal grain are offset by a humming organ/keyboard support system that adds yet another layer to the arid, open acoustic guitar chords and gnarly electric grooves.  Askin holds down the rhythm end with forlorn blues beats that tell a story while ensuring that drumming doesn’t overtake the guitar.  He takes the same approach in terms of the bass’ numerous stops/starts and half-step pacing. 

Combing the melodic folk country of the title track opener with the chunky, dense blues of “Sun Going Down,” “Hard to Make a Living” contains just the right amount of rock n’ roll alongside it’s bristling acoustic swerves and church organ enrichment.  One of Michael’s catchiest, hookiest vocal melodies appears in the chorus of this journeyman tune (which describes the life of a touring musician trying to cut their teeth on the road).  Rounding out the EP, “Last Train” wanders in on the same type of country kickin’ folk that The Byrds or even the Guthries pioneered although Askin shakes up the mix with keyboard oscillations that incrementally raise the volume until things reach a noisy, Pink Floyd sort of progressive climax. 

Road by the River has nary a dull moment or wasted note in its short, 20 minute running time.  Askin excels at the blues, is a capable rock n’ roller, tender folk traveler and just about anything else you can imagine as a songwriter and a player.  This record is uplifting and flat out rocks.  It’s easily the strongest of his 3 EP efforts to date and should be a favorite for old fans and newcomers alike.

Sarah Morris - Hearts in Need of Repair (2017)

Written by Laura Dodero, posted by blog admin

The third album from Minneapolis headquartered singer/songwriter Sarah Morris, Hearts in Need of Repair, is an eleven song outing outstripping her fine duo of previous releases and clearing the decks for Morris’ future. Morris has wisely opted to work with many of the same musical talents who made her first two studio albums sparkle with deeply felt emotion and unquestionable artistry, but Morris and her creative partners stretch even further with this album and raise the bar for this outstanding recording artist. It is Morris’ first release since 2013’s Ordinary Things, but Morris has been far from fallow over the last four years – she’s earned respected awards and experienced meaningful chart success, but Hearts in Need of Repair expands her artistic profile in a way those earlier fine releases did not.

Her sensitivity for the material is on full display with the first song and title track. “Hearts in Need of a Little Repair”, abbreviated for the album title’s purposes, is one of the highlights on this release and amply illustrates just how far she’s come since her debut. Her progress as a vocalist is most notable with this song. The title cut has a less identifiable structure than many of the album’s other more archly traditional tunes, but it proves not to be any sort of impediment for her. “Good at Goodbye” moves her into that aforementioned more traditional territory and shows off one of the album’s across the board strengths in its memorable chorus. Morris, likewise, couldn’t hardly have better accompaniment for this collection and one of the band’s peak moments comes with their supporting performance on this tune. The spikes of strong drumming and electric guitar in “Helium” give it a more of a rugged texture that it would otherwise like while banjo carries much of the melody. It avoids the stereotypical frantic picking common to bluegrass but introducing that musical voice to the collection makes for one of its more memorable moments.

The blues comes out most strongly on the songs “Falling Over” and the later “Shelter or the Storm”. The former is easily the more delicately wrought of the tune, more low-fi in character, while the latter has a light blues rock bite that makes it stand out from the pack. “Course Correction” has some country rock influences you can hear in its electric guitar work, but it’s an element she backs off during the verses where the focus falls more squarely on her vocals. The same shifting tempo that defined the title song returns with this number and has a positive effect on the overall result. “Empty Seat” is note perfect. No joke. There isn’t a single moment in the arrangement or lyrics that don’t get over with listeners in a big way and it should exert broad based appeal thanks to its excellence. It’s easily the best turn on a great album. A final exceptional moment arrives with the album closer “Confetti” and it has the effect of a leaf wafting to the ground – profoundly graceful and full of the same aural lyricism defining the release overall. Hearts in Need of Repair is a profoundly moving work, both musically and lyrically, and the center of it all is one of the nation’s best musical artists working on the scene today.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Joe Olnick Band - Downtown (2017)

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

Led by experimental, innovative guitarist Joe Olnick, the Joe Olnick Band is a sizzling instrumental power trio rounded out by Jamie Aston on bass and drummer Jamie Smucker.  Downtown is the project’s 6th outing and this release is filled to the brim with diverse influences that mix rock, funk, jazz and cinema soundscapes into a prog-rock brew that’s nearly impossible to nail down. 

The blazing title cut struts wildly with a funky bass groove atop a floor thumping beat; immediately setting on an aggressive yet danceable aesthetic.  Olnick’s trippy, wah-ed out guitar work is a glorious reminder of greats like Jimi Hendrix, Tommy Bolin’s funkier jams off of Teaser or even some of the crazy German rock from the late 60s/early 70s.  It swings in a distinctive way that hooks you in and scrambles your eggs with glee.  “Philadelphia Moonlight (Part One)” is more surf-y and splashy, peddling an easygoing and laidback groove propelled by some tight, agile fill-work.  Aston lays down an alley cat prowl while Smucker locks on like a pair of crosshairs.  Olnick’s tasty licks and clever lead n’ rhythm jukes constantly comments on the rhythm section’s raucous antics.    

“Parkside” ratchets up a repeating, hypnotic funk groove by adding thoughtful layers in bite-sized pieces; a slinky flux on the bass lines here, an extra couple of snare interjections there and a hot-blooded lead bit right on top.  It never changes tempos much but the textures are constantly piling up higher and higher.  The minimalist hum of “Philadelphia Moonlight (Part Two)” is a humming, alien drone piece with a lot of amplified weirdness and single note string-strangeness to give the ears an off-the-wall, atonal workout. 

Living up to its name, “Rush Hour” burns rubber on a tire fire barrage of electrified riffs and licks as the silly slappin’, power groove of the rhythm section takes absolutely no prisoners in clearing a path to the holy groove.  Closer “Sports Complex” rips wide a full-throttle combo of punk and psychedelic guitar scorch that couldn’t possibly serve up a more teeth-kickin’ finale.  The guitar work spirals out into endless rays of that late 60s/early 70s aggressive psyche rock.  Overall, it’s a killer finale to an album that showcases many strengths from track to track. 

I feel like I’ve been hiding under a rock by just discovering Joe Olnick’s music right now in 2017.  It’s never too late to get into someone’s art but I certainly feel like I’ve been missing out.  Olnick, Aston and Smucker possess a solid funk background and some superbly melodic free-jamming chops but a willingness to explore the more dangerous, threatening boundaries of rock n’ roll and that’s what makes this record a pleasure to experience.  It really is best treated as an experience, so that means getting a pair of headphones and playing it from start to finish without interruption.  Stick with the longer, winding jams for the ride because this power trio packs each tune with subtle changes that make for a challenging but rewarding listen.    

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

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