Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Chris Murphy - Water Under the Bridge (2017)

Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

Hailing from Los Angeles, California Chris Murphy drops one off the most excitingly innovative yet truly vintage sounding LPs of the decade.  His debut with The Blind Baker Blues Band leaves no stone unturned in its compositionally impenetrable and harmonically cascading musical hybrid.  A true mad scientist’s potion that seamlessly and intoxicatingly meshes together blues, pop, singer/songwriter folk, rock, rockabilly, swing, jazz, soul and sweeping, lush multi-tracked movements into a cohesive shakedown where genre and style have no place.  In Murphy’s world passion and playing mean everything.  These two components of Murphy’s music truly mean everything and are worth their weight in pure gold. 

Though steadfast and stalwart implementations of organic instruments are the main theme of this record, they are practically incorporated into each song in quite unique and transcendental ways.  Yet Murphy’s adherence to the classic ways on Water Under the Bridge keeps this record devoid of pretentious inclinations and showboating just for the sake of it.  Water Under the Bridge is packed full of honest to goodness songs that are daring in their tried and true instrumentation but willingly stretch the boundaries of somewhat set in stone musical styles (country, blues, pop, rock, rockabilly, folk, soul, etc.).  It’s the jazz element on this record that makes it dangerous and unpredictable and that dynamic is in full bloom on opening shack-shaker “Moveable Feast” and its blitzing acoustic/electric violin attack, rockabilly rhythms, crystalline acoustic guitars and fierce, surprisingly aggressive piano playing.  This anything goes formula carries over into the more moderately paced and tongue-in-cheekily titled “Joan Crawford Dances the Charleston.”  The speedier rushes of the opener are reduced to a simmering blues crawl with a 1940s country slow dance permeating the measured pacing and thoughtful piano melodies.  Six shooting vocal harmonies draw a bead on your eardrums as guitars, banjos, violins, upright bass licks and brimstone chucking fiddle playing hurtle in every direction on the road-burning bluegrass scorch of “Table for Two.”  The overload of attitude and melody make this track a keeper across the board and Murphy’s understated, honey-coated vocals paint memorable lines throughout.  This ditty meets its polar opposite in “Riverboat Blues’” creeping blues wail where extensive violin licks underpin a workingman’s rhythmic groove and searing acoustic bits. 

If anything, Water Under the Bridge is completely airtight from the first note to the last and the songwriting is of a high melodic standard yet unafraid of experimenting with genre parameters.  “I Swear I’m Going to Learn This Time” implants an accessible pop vocal harmony into an angular old school piece that gets jazzy, halts to a soulful flicker and then layers on a successive series of instrumental blows where each instrument gets a chance to shine with a lead bit.  “My Spanish Lover” has shades of Al Dimeola in its graceful, elegant acoustic guitar lines and spicy time-signature switches.  “The Lemon Rag” returns to a bluegrass blitzkrieg where speedy pacing and layer upon layer of stringed instruments coil around the tightly woven piano melodies.  There’s something for everyone on Water Under the Bridge.  Chris Murphy is a multi-instrumental visionary that really knows how to compose enrapturing music.  If anyone in the last 20 years has been a virtuoso of these particular genres, it’s without a doubt Murphy and the Blind Blake Blues Band.     

Alpha Mule - Peripheral Vision (2017)

Written by Larry Robertson, posted by blog admin

Country n’ western meets folk when Alpha Mule dons their instruments for a down-home BBQ full of tight melodies and rising vocal harmonies.  With touches of bluegrass, blues and other rural Americana sounds; Peripheral Vision is the band’s debut of original songs and there’s some great stuff to behold here.  Lots of quick banjo, acoustic guitar shakedowns with verse vocal patterns giving way to grandstand choruses that really make you want to sing-a-long at the top of your lungs.

“Corpus Christi” kicks things off in dusky bluegrass mode; relatively upbeat instrumentation smothered by a layer of production darkness that creates a nice sonic blend.  Banjo and acoustic guitar duel while the group’s two main players cook up some delicious vocal harmonies.  The group, comprised of Joe Forkan on guitar/vocals and Eric Stoner banjo/vocals manage to cover a lot of ground as just a duo while bringing in a few players to handle additional instrumentation like upright bass, etc.  “On the Moon” is decidedly more upbeat with more twinkling to the stringed instruments and a cleaner, more arid sound, as particularly fat, beefy bass lines drive the action as the banjo and guitars glide overtop.  The end result has an overall happier feel with some cool lead vocals paving the way into listener’s memories.  The title cut is a classic Nashville tearjerker with the stalwart steel guitar accoutrements coloring in all of the dark spaces and making for a soulful slow-burn full of authentic country twang thanks to the acoustic guitar n’ banjo duel that happens in the body of the song.  “The Distance” tempers the old school country style with jazz piano and it’s another strong piece that comes in and hits you in those low emotional places. 

Turning to that boogie upright bass pluckin’ of the rockabilly style, “Pavlov” is a funky number with emphasis on the rhythm section as the guitars and banjos crackle n’ fade alongside some husky low-toned vocals.  It’s obvious that these two are in tight control of their sound at all times.  Similarly driving and uptempo “Mule in the Mine” has that river panning, coal miner’s tinge borrowed from bluegrass but it comes off as more far country than farmland.  It’s an interesting old school track that’s catchy but expressive at the same time.  “Step Outside” brings the steel guitars back into focus before “The Ballad of Huell Howser” goes back to a body shakin’, country two-step.  The flamenco flavored, Spanish guitar of “Music of Our Hearts” is another unique aural deviation from the band’s core elements and “Empire” ends the album with a dark-folk apocalypse.  Some B-side bonus tracks and alternate duo versions of the album tracks (without the extra instrumentation) round things out for a very complete listen that covers all of the ground that you want it to when the listening is all said and done. 

Peripheral Vision is a modern classic of the country genre that nobody should miss out.  With excellent and tight playing, powerful words and vocals and a production job that brings out every song’s greatest strengths, there’s a lot to discover here for fans of the way back style.  Anyone that digs country, folk, bluegrass and beyond should have a heck of a time with this one.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Blue Apollo - Light Footed Hours + Circles (2017)

Written by Raymond Burris, posted by blog admin

Blue Apollo’s 6 song debut finds this trio getting started off on the right foot and then some.  With a rocking sound equally composed of melody and unusual indie rock swerves that include dramatic build-ups, trippy texture work and some musical arrangements that are almost symphonic in their delivery.  Light-Footed Hours is an EP with enough musical variety happening that it hits with the satisfaction of listening to a full-length. 

The back to back attack of the dexterous and speedy “Walls” which muscularly flexes its way through pop punk tempos, diamond sharp indie riffs focused on higher-end melodic pinches, busy drums with a steady tom-tom battery, beefy bass grooves, spitfire guitar solos and guitarist/vocalist Luke Nassar’s gorgeous melody vocals are wonderfully complimented by the slower paced though no less gnarly “Feeling Right.”  “Feeling Right” seems to cherry pick its deep, bustling bass grooves from funk while the guitar work and heartfelt vocals are straight out of the soulful r n’ b department.  All throughout both tracks Nassar threads the material tightly with his pointed indie licks that enjoy minor keys and noisy 90s indie melodies but somehow smoothens out the rough edges for the creation of some really snazzy pop leaned stuff.  The band’s more rocking grooves reach an apex on third cut, “Therapy” where a fuzzy rock riff is filtered through an 80s style sonic production tone with rhythmic dedication and cresting melodic vocals that complete this piece to perfection.  There’s not a bum or sour note hit throughout this three track marathon and then the album starts to morph and shapeshift into its next phase. 

On the second side of this EP the trio draws down the mood on the plaintive and sublime “Avalanche” where Luke’s voice is accompanied by a piano in a lengthy intro movement that ratchets up the melodic drama more and more with each passing moment.  As the backbeat begins to fill in thanks to Jeremiah Jensen’s stern kick drum thump and a budding root system of guitar/bass inflections, the tune eventually reaches a climactic point where things step up into some melodic rockin’.  They ply the same mindset to “Meant to Be” but hold back on the piano accoutrements and replace that stylistic component with some showering drops of acoustic guitar and another deliberate climb to a summit of groovy indie pop.  It’s a cool facet of the band’s sound that even when they are tackling full on ballads that they always set the songs up to go somewhere truly special and noteworthy.  Finale number “Circles” is a bonus track but it fits in with the framework of the rest of the tunes without a hitch.  The rushing tom-tom percussion creates a busy, swatting backbeat that’s colored in by radiant guitar licks and lush, organic bass lines.  A few dabs of piano and some fully fleshed vocal hooks round this track out into a pyrotechnic explosion of atmosphere and ambience that’s all wrapped up by a bow of stellar songwriting. 

Light-Footed Hours is an ear pleasing EP with all killer and no filler.  Blue Apollo know how to rock and they are a truly “alternative” sounding band with a style that would have really made during the 90s or the indie/emo surge that went into the early two –thousands.  This is a solid release and it comes with a high recommendation for fans of the genre.

Shofar - s/t (2017)

Written by Raymond Burris, posted by blog admin

Shofar’s initial run in the early 2000’s sparked a great deal of deserved attention as the band, led by singer and songwriter Larry Hagner, married a compelling rock sound with a definite spiritually minded message without seeming like a pulpit blocked their guitars, drums, and basses. They have returned after a long absence with a self-titled EP release that shows they have further refined that balance they so artfully achieved on initial recordings. This new release is well in keeping with the Minneapolis area’s long standing reputation as a musical nerve center and puts forward a band who is more than capable of entrancing their audience with considered lyrical ideas and messages alongside gripping musical works. The new EP re-launches their recording careers quite effectively with a thoroughly modern sound that still makes great use of familiar effects .

“Running” gets the EP off to a fast start. This is one of the EP’s best mixes of light and shadow as it builds from a brief keyboard driven introduction into crushing riffage before settling into much more melodic verses. There’s no question that this is all-out rock with some singing from Hagner that shows equal parts abandon and adventurousness, but Shofar gives audiences a gripping listen. “Powerman” is cut from a much more classic cloth and has some echoes of The Beatles and The Kinks in its presentation. Just the right amount of backing vocals make this a further enjoyable tune and the light, commercially-minded melodicism of the tune helps win over listeners as well. There’s a bit more rock power being channeled with significant passages in the tune “Shades of Grey”, but they never get anywhere near the bulldozing heights of the EP’s first track. Hagner’s quite comfortable working in a singer/songwriter vein and few songs make that more apparent.

“Hands Down” is going to be a rousing live number for the band that’s guaranteed to score some heavy audience participation. It has the sort of wide swing and swagger we haven’t heard from the EP’s earlier cuts and Hagner takes over the lyric with a cool confidence that elevates the lyric a few extra notches. They indulge themselves with some apocalyptic warning in the song “Countdown”, but the songwriting point of view is implied rather than belabored and it makes for an entertaining, though chilling, listen. “The Coming” doesn’t tumble head first into a morass of self indulgence, as it likely would have in a lesser band’s hands, but it’s definitely a piece where Hagner and Shofar see fit to stretch themselves a little to excellent effect. It concludes Shofar’s “comeback” EP with an emphatic musical statement that seems to say, yes, they can get any audience up off their feet and moving, but songs like “The Coming” are in their future as well because they are emboldened by the conviction they have something important to say. And say it they shall.

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

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