Friday, April 21, 2017

Gwyneth Moreland - Cider


Gwyneth Moreland - Cider


The personal nature of Gwyneth Moreland’s songwriting is a hallmark of the best folk music, but her musicality is equally powerful. There’s melody galore filling the album’s ten songs and rousing vocal performances that never takes the path of least resistance and, instead, obviously invests enormous emotional capital in getting over the lyrical content. There are country and blues music influences making their presence felt throughout the release, but the guiding spirit behind these recordings is Moreland’s phrasing and the highly literate quality of her material. Much of the credit for the album’s presentation must fall on Moreland’s producer David Hayes, a veteran of working with no less of a legend than Irish singer/songwriter Van Morrison. In the end, however, Gwyneth Moreland rises to the occasion time after time again with a wide ranging interpretation of her own material that never risks imitation despite her countless influences. 

One of the strongest added influences on Cider is, certainly, classic country music. “Movin’ On”, on the basis of title alone, certainly invokes those motifs, but Moreland never goes in for a craven regurgitation of that style lacking any personal punch. The shuffle beat never manifests a lot of energy but it’s an excellent way to introduce listeners to the album’s musical world. She definitely restrains herself even more with the second song “Broken Road”. Moreland has an interesting skill for writing material full of obvious love and deep feeling, yet bring emotions to bear connected with loss and heartache. There’s a craftsmanship emerging from the album early on that will completely bring listeners into her world. She invokes traditional folk music at a number of points throughout Cider and one of the zeniths of that inclination comes with the song “Little Bird”. The language of her songwriting, however, is never remote from our modern experience and it makes it clear she views the traditional music template pursued her as a vibrant vehicle for her own emotional explorations.  

“Farmhouse” is one of Cider’s more musically direct cuts with straight-forward strummed guitar and big, blocky chords that strongly announce themselves yet never lack their own melodic value. It’s certainly one of the album’s lighter musical number, in the sense that there’s no real feeling of downcast to be heard throughout its duration, but nonetheless fits in quite nicely with the remainder of the release. “The California Zephyr” is a traditional folk song ripped from an uniquely geographic experience, yet it magically invokes both country and folk traditions without any stylistic confusion. “Danny Parker” is Moreland’s finest writing on Cider – hands down. This is a lyric rife with detail and the music is equally up to the task of dramatically depicting the emotion it invokes. The album’s closing cut, “Summer Song”, ends Cider surrounded by a brighter hue than many of the other songs aim for and this slightly surprising final turn is perfectly in keeping with the sense of daring that makes much of the album work so well. Gwyneth Moreland’s talents are considerable, but perhaps her greatest talent is for understanding exactly how to present her own vision in a way that promises to draw in the most listeners.  

9 out of 10 stars 


Dale Butcher

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rhett May - Creatures of the Night

 
Rhett May - Creatures of the Night 
 


The latest release from Australian based singer/songwriter Rhett May, Creatures of the Night, is a thirteen song collection solidifying his standing as one of the indie scene’s best musical artists. It’s the next bracing step in a thrilling musical journey spanning forty plus years, two continents, and brushes with iconic artists. May brings many of his formative influences to bear on the album’s songwriting but, despite his age, the tracks on Creatures of the Night bristle with modernity and an adult point of view full of vigor and imagination more commonly associated with much younger artists. The production snaps with the top flight fidelity we associate with major label acts and there’s a sharp balance achieved between the instruments that makes the thirteen songs sound like an unified, coherent listening experience. Creatures of the Night is an entertaining and highly intelligent reminder of what a quality songwriter and musician can accomplish.  

 

The opener is such an important number from any musician or band. “Somebody’s Watching You” brings newcomers into the burning heart of May’s creative with its combination of rugged rock and roll guitars, scintillating lead work, and surprising amount of melodic value. May isn’t just a superb songwriter and musician – the song’s lyrical content is quite good and May’s observational powers shine through. The title song, “Creatures of the Night”, is one of the vivid experiments on the album and wholly successful. May’s arrangement for the song has a surprising amount of delicacy while still ably managing to conjure reams of atmosphere. “Latex Lady” is one of the stellar tracks that make Creatures of the Night really fly. The same quasi orchestrated approach May takes on the album’s most successful rock tracks hits a peak with this number and the adult subject matter of the songwriting never hits a prurient note.  “Sandy Sweet As Candy” is a hard rocking number with gutsy and tough-minded guitar work – the lead guitar playing is rather fiery.  

 

“Space Between Breaths” is another meditative, moody track tailored to a similar length as the other tracks. May’s focus throughout the release is one of the great strengths of the album and few tracks better embody that strength than the title song and this track. It takes a substantial amount of talent to bring these disparate elements together in a track with a definite shape and thrust. “Elixir of the Gods” is the lengthiest song on the album and shows off May’s wont for challenging listener’s preconceptions. Some of his eastern musical influences come through here and the exotic feel adds much to the song, but what makes it work in the end is how May combines those twists with solid fundamentals. “Lexxi Mccoy” and “Bella My Baby” are two more solid shots of pure rock and roll that are entertaining, but there’s equal parts intelligence and artistry driving these tracks. May surprises us a final time with the album’s closer. “When We Make Love” is a stab in the direction of classy jazz and doesn’t sound out of place at all with the album’s numerous rock performances. Creatures of the Night will appeal to a wide swath of fans and those introduced to its charms will bring him countless new fans. 

 

9 out of 10 stars 

 


Montey Zike

Friday, April 14, 2017

Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally Band - Baby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home


Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally Band - Baby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home  


The mix of original songs with a duo of covers comprising the first full length studio album from Nell Robinson and the Jim Nunally Band find these two Bay Area based musicians assembling a collection from the four EP’s they have sold from the merch table at their live performances. It speaks well of them that the bulk of Baby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home is devoted to original compositions. Too many artists working in this area are content reworking traditional covers and maintaining a strong, albeit cold, fidelity to the genre’s musical tropes. Robinson, Nunally, and their all-star band go far beyond the purview of mere entertainment and recreation. Instead, they reach for something individualistic and take it firmly in their grasp. Baby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home features an impressive cross-section of songs exploring a variety of styles with sure-footed grace. 

The grace is evident from the first. The title song “Baby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home” has a beaming demeanor and beautifully arranged interplay between the various instruments, but the quality really carrying it off above all others is the way Robinson and Nunally’s vocals sync up as a charismatic whole. The lyrics for the album’s third song, “Tempest”, are inspired by the Michael Ondaatje novel The Cat’s Table, but Robinson’s words never succumb to pretentiousness. Robinson, instead, takes great care to deliver the lyrics in an atmospheric, but utterly accessible way. Nunally draws upon some solidly country influences for his track “Hillbilly Boy” and it has more of the same relaxed grace defining the album that we’ve heard up to now. Things take a distinctly different turn with “I’m Brilliant”. This is a brooding piece, both musically and lyrically, but it does a substantive artistic job of exploring a difficult theme and making it resonate even with those who haven’t endured such an experience. Robinson takes great obvious care to get these words right and the performance ranks among her best on Baby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home. 

Pete Grant’s pedal steel adds a generous and effective amount of color to the song “Home’s Where I Long to Be” that helps bring this well-executed shuffle up several levels. The vocals demonstrate the same amiable personality that has made fans out of so many audiences they’ve appeared in front of and come at a nice place in the album’s track listing. “Sophia” is much more of a folk song than anything in the classic country or bluegrass tradition, but it pushes the envelope. The song never quite comes together in a recognizable shape and, instead, gathers its effects through accumulation rather than convention. “Complicated” is one of the more surprising outings on Baby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home thanks to the effortless jazz style they affect for the tune – it isn’t a purist approach, certainly, but it gives the song’s a distinctly different feel than the others surrounding it. This album is full of pleasant surprises – Robinson and Nunally have teamed with the right people to make an album fully representative of what they want to do. 

8 out of 10 stars 


Shannon Cowden

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Brielle Von Hugel - “Stronger” FT B.o.B, (Exodus and Sweet & Sour Remix)



Brielle Von Hugel - “Stronger” FT B.o.B, (Exodus and Sweet & Sour Remix)

 


 

Brielle Von Hugel’s professional story is one about an indomitable spirit determined to find her place at the table and unwilling to be denied. It simply isn’t enough to just be talented – you have to possess the fortitude to keep pressing and pushing, to overcome and grow as both an artist and a person. Brielle Von Hugel checks off all those boxes. Her latest single “Stronger” is ripped straight from her heart and surges with the raw vitality of youth and passion, but it’s also a superb vocal and musical composition with enormous entertainment and personal value. Audiences will likely hear this as a statement of purpose; whatever roadblocks and challenges are thrown in Von Hugel’s way, she will plow through them and emerge steadier as a result of having endured them. The production, with a mix courtesy of House DJ’s Sweet & Sour and famed producer Exodus, keeps this track fiery from the outset.

 

The fire takes the form of synths, occasionally coloring the track with enormous flourishes, as well as bass and drum machine. The usual knock on such instruments that they lack the warmth and humanity of more traditional instruments is invalid here. Hugel wants genuine humanity and producer Exodus provides that in tandem with the mix from House DJ’s Sweet & Sour. There’s real warmth and vitality in the way the creators approach this track. The song’s music makes a number of dramatic turns and shifts throughout its duration, but it isn’t restless or inattentive. Instead, there’s a clear path it takes from the beginning without ever sounding too predictable and fat bass pulse emanating from its center provides a meaty anchor upon which Hugel and guest rapper B.o.B are able to hang their compelling vocals. They make the most of it.

 

Hugel’s vocal is the stuff of music devotee’s dreams. She soars, returns to earth, and fills the lyrics and counterpoints the music alike with the sort of wide eyed emotion that has been her hallmark from the outset. It’s never a hamfisted approach however. Instead, it’s a perfect blend of emotion and objective technique derived from countless hours and years of practice and the discipline it takes to become a great singer. The direct and conversational lyrics have deceptive eloquence because they don’t waste a single syllable in their attempt to depict life’s struggles. Hugel is able to elevate them with her vocal treatment and never risks self indulgence once during the song. B.o.B. clearly relates to Hugel’s theme and the lyrics he offers up during his appearance in the song’s second half provide a great counterpoint to her own contributions. He raps with more than a little swagger and deceptive sensitivity. The chemistry between the voices, lyrical contributions, and backing track come together in “Stronger” to result in Brielle Von Hugel’s greatest achievement yet since her star-making appearance on American Idol. There’s nowhere for her to go from here except even higher than before.   

 


 

Montey Zike

 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Susan Calloway - Time for This


Susan Calloway - Time for This


Hailing from the Motor City, Susan Calloway’s path through modern music has led her to occupy some of the world’s great stages from London, Tokyo, and New York City. She’s earned a great deal of much deserved success from her contribution to the Final Fantasy video game franchise with the song “Answers” and that collaboration with producer Gerard Smerek continues with the singer’s latest single “Time for This”. If this isn’t a personal bit of songwriting, Calloway certainly treats it as a full representation of personal experience. The song clocks in at a little less than four minutes, but the spartan arrangement and the power of Calloway’s vocals invokes an entire universe of experience and emotion far dwarfing its relatively brief duration. Smerek’s production brings together the narrow range of musical elements in an intensely artful fashion; some might think that so few instruments in the mix might make this production a sure thing, but fewer sonic bases to address doesn’t mean a day off for a song’s architects. Even the most sparsely arranged tracks can still fall flat. There’s no danger of that here. 

The vocals are, obviously, why we are here. There’s a physical presence Calloway’s capable of manifesting the conflicting emotions of the speaker with every bit of the same impact as the piano playing. It creates a dialogue of sorts between Calloway and the atmospheric melodic strengths filled in by the piano. The keys bring a winding, strongly circular quality to the performance that’s formal without ever sounding ornate and Calloway’s smoky emotiveness strikes a strong contrast with the arrangement. Calloway’s accompaniment hits the right peaks at all of the right moments and it gives “Time for This” a rising and falling sense of theatricality many listeners will love. It is impossible to hear the musical work on this track and not admire its skill. 

Calloway is a very beautiful woman and brings a definite veneer of sensual allure to an otherwise emotionally wrought performance. She has rare qualities for a modern singer. The blues influence in her vocals is extraordinarily powerful and she’s able to manipulate it at will to maximum effect.  She carries each line with enormous focus, elongating all the right words, pushing the lyric when she needs to. It’s a lyric that couldn’t be any better suited for the performance. Every word seems tailored to lock in tight with the musical accompaniment. From a writing point of view, it’s clear the song wants to accurately represent the experience of the track but carefully weighs each order to do the situation justice. “Time for This” accomplishes a lot through plain-spoken honesty and a near perfect marriage of lyric, vocal, and music under one banner. Susan Calloway has earned the considerable mainstream attention she’s already received and this song promises further exposure. “Time for This” gets Susan Calloway’s 2017 off to an excellent start and the year has scarcely begun.  


Bradley Johnson

Kanisha K - Bet on Me


Kanisha K - Bet on Me 


The sultry, bluesy timber of Kanisha K’s voice is an ideal fit for her newest single “Bet on Me”. Originally conceived as a love song, Kanisha’s own interpretation of the track’s lyrics evolved to a place where she also heard the track as a statement of self-affirmation, a reminder to herself and any would-be naysayers that she has all the necessary ingredients to realize her dreams. She’s clearly in the process of realizing her music dreams thanks to a string of successful, award-winning single release and her national exposure is increasingly exponentially with each new outing. Joe Vulpis co-wrote the song with Kanisha, but his hand is virtually invisible and this feels one hundred percent like something torn from Kanisha’s heart alone. The mood is, in turns, indefatigable and rousing. “Bet on Me” is entertaining, but it’s also a deeply emotional experience unafraid to communicate with its audience. 

Kanisha is the center of its communicative power. She hurls herself into every passage of this song without any fear, especially on the chorus, and that commitment to getting this song over is one of its finest qualities. It isn’t all exertion and bloodied passion however. Her phrasing skills and the instinct for when NOT to sing is equally important; she’s able to step back and allow the band to help her without ceding any of the spotlight and it makes her contributions all the more impactful. When the song’s pinnacles arrive, she’s there with every word and makes the most of the song’s relatively terse lyrical content. Lyrics are a vehicle for self-expression, but they have to be carefully orchestrated in such a way that they dovetail into the musical content rather than overshadowing it and she strikes that balance here with great skill.  

“Bet on Me” benefits greatly from its musical backing. The guitar playing has a warm, gritty bite connected quite tightly to same qualities in her vocal while the piano playing gives the song’s movement a stately mood while creating tender, deeply felt melodies. There’s not one musical moment when the players opt for overwrought expression. Instead, everything is carefully modulated and never errs too far from one side to another. The balance, without ever risking any undue clutter, is quite remarkable and something one doesn’t often hear in this musical genre. “Bet on Me” maintains a firm pop sensibility while still making substantive musical, lyrical, and vocal statements. You can bet on Kanisha K because, with this caliber of talent, she’s not going anywhere but upward and onward. It’s a fantastic performance from start to finish with top shelf material and supremely skilled backing that makes its mark on the infant year as one of 2017’s best cuts thus far. This is a musical artist who will be around for many years to come not just based on talent alone, but her will and drive to succeed.  


Michael Saulman

The Magnifiers - For the People


The Magnifiers - For the People 


The four song second EP release from Chicago based The Magnifiers isn’t your average punk rock. The four piece consists of siblings ranging from seventeen to ten years old and their 2014 debut Report Card announced the arrival of an uniquely talented unit. The Dombrowski kids play with all of the expected musical chemistry and the songwriting has a surprisingly sturdy quality that hints at the extent of their combined talents. They are early on in their careers, but they play with confidence and intelligence going far beyond their years. They don’t play like a bunch of teenagers and pre-teens. Instead, The Magnifiers play like an unit in their prime of their twenties and have poised themselves for a brilliant future. This is a band, as well, that has the potential to cross over in a big way; appearances in a Target commercial and in an episode of The Aquabats Super Show are just the first of those possibilities they’ve realized. 

The sort of talents that’s secured them those spots is obvious from the beginning. “Mostly Harmless” has a delightfully playful edge. Rarely do The Magnifiers opt for bludgeoning the listener with heavy guitar and the opener picks up the EP with just the right amount of muscle and bounce. Eden Dombrowski is young, of course, but she has some great edginess in her youthful voice while also showing her capacity for playing up a chorus and making the most of melody. The vast majority of the songs on For the People confine themselves between three and four minutes in duration, but the performances never feel hurried. There’s a sense, instead, of a band who knows what they want to accomplish with a given performance and never waver about reaching those goals. Their one concession to brusing guitars comes with the second song “TV Hat”. Elliot Dombrowski unleashes torrid blasts of lead guitar, but Eden reaches the high level he establishes with an electronically treated vocal that, nevertheless, snarls and seethes with a fiery spirit. They offer up some soft pedaled social criticism with this track but it has a sarcastic and dismissive tone that seems youthful and intelligent all in the same breath. “Anarchy Sucks” shows off more of their songwriting creativity, in some ways, than any other song included on For the People. One might be tempted to call this track a spoof of sorts, mocking the typical punk rock attitudes, but the song has a visceral instrumental directness and great lyrics. The chorus is one of the EP’s high points and carries the energy level to a whole other level. 

“Transfiguration” takes an unexpected turn in context with the preceding three tunes. The Magnifiers abandon the sonic firepower fueling the first three songs in favor of an acoustic track that brings For the People to a rather gentle, surprisingly introspective ending. It seems cliché to say that the band produces material far beyond their age group, but there’s no other way of putting it. The four songs on For the People are geared to catch listeners’ attention and they definitely succeed. Wildly. 

9 out of 10 stars


Shannon Cowden