Friday, February 24, 2017

James Patrick Morgan - Art + Work = Love


James Patrick Morgan - Art + Work = Love 


You can sometimes tell a budding major talent from the push they receive. Music label A&R representatives and the counterparts in public relations sometimes get behind the wrong horse, but invariably, these evaluators of talent fix their aim on the right targets and some amazing careers are born. It’s hard to escape the feeling that’s what is happening with James Patrick Morgan’s EP Art + Work = Love. The five song collection from this talented Georgia born singer/songwriter and live performer gives him a sharp uplift into the early stages of his recording career thanks to an inspired and tightly focused set of songs delving into personal experiences without ever risking obscurity. Morgan’s wise enough to know his audience isn’t likely interested in musically moribund confessionals and the accompanying arrangements percolate with sharply observed turns and physically compelling tempos. Art + Work = Love is obviously a labor of love and superb work of top flight commercial music. 

Popular music today doesn’t often get more top flight than the opener “Expected”. Morgan spends a lot of time, like most popular songwriters, mining personal relationships for song subjects, but he brings an unique point of view to the songwriting. “Expected” combines enough heartbreak and humorous cynicism into one song to make it combustible from the outset and the excitable, jumpy arrangement only makes things better. The sound couldn’t be more different on the EP’s second song. “Alone” has a more mid-tempo pace and a slightly exultant air, but the musical arrangement is driven forward on the backs of keyboards and synths while other instruments take on more of a supporting role. There’s a different side of the same commercial edge heard on the song “Sign Language”, but Morgan pulls back considerably on the electronic textures employed in the other song. He, instead, favors piano on this song and the way it matches up with the guitar work is quite memorable. It isn’t nearly as memorable, however, as the searing vocal Morgan gives us that makes the most out of another interesting lyric.  

“Right Mistakes” has a big, bold sound unlike anything before it on the EP. There’s some hints of rock creeping into the song, namely the well placed use of electric guitar, but the signature elements of Morgan’s sound to this point likewise remain intact. There’s some particularly nice turns of phrase in the words and the insight required to write this song in the first place sets Morgan further apart as a writer. As if to wind down and relax while making his “exit”, James Patrick Morgan ends Art + Work = Love with a cover of the Steve Miller Band radio staple “Fly Like an Eagle”. It’s a great workout on a perhaps unexpected choice, but Morgan makes it work with the same skills in use making this debut one of the year’s best releases. Morgan’s four originals are the sort of work great careers are, in part, built on and Morgan is well on his way to the promised land.  

9 out of 10 stars.


Pamela Bellmore 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Matt Hannah – Dreamland


Matt Hannah – Dreamland 


The second studio album and sophomore full length from singer/songwriter Matt Hannah anchors his position as one of the best performers working in American roots music today. His songwriting transcends the narrow confines of genre thanks to its abiding melodic value and there’s enough of a varied approach over the course of the album’s ten songs that no listener can ever accuse him of taking a one-note or cookie cutter approach to recording an album. Dreamland has a powerful sensibility driving it as well. Hannah’s efforts to structure the songwriting in such a way that the work, as a whole, transforms into an often highly personal look into specific themes illustrating the considerable talents at Hannah’s disposal. Few songwriters are turning their hands towards something like this today. He might be predominantly a folk singer in approach, but Matt Hannah’s skills extend far past labels and hints at greater things to come. 

“Dreamland” is a fantastic beginning to the album. Like a poker player, Hannah isn’t interested in playing all his cards at once and the opener has a feeling of scene setting and holding things back. His acoustic playing is the indisputable star of this particular musical show, but there’s a weathered emotiveness surrounding Hannah’s voice that’s very effective on songs like this. The track “Broken Hearts & Broken Bones” has a little dark humor undercutting its blues, but others will hear it as enhancing a song that could, in lesser hands, sound like a recitation of woes born from self pity. Hannah, himself, seems to keep a semi-ironic distance from the track that enhances its darkly comedic effect. The blues coming through here is handled quite credibly. “Set Free” has a similar musical pedigree, but Hannah’s arrangement takes on those influences in a much different fashion. The song boasts a great guitar solo that never overreaches its boundaries and strengthens the performance as a whole thanks to its melodic flair. “The Night is My Home” is beautiful from beginning to end. The revolving, almost hypnotic, guitar figure never loses its charm and Hannah narrates this often scenic lyric with a lot of understated invention. There’s very little added adornment in this song and it is better as a result. 

The last part of the album brings things to a satisfying conclusion. “Different Kind of Light” uses keyboards in a colorful but very under the radar fashion and transitions from an acoustic guitar oriented beginning into a stylish electric guitar informed bit of singer/songwriting genius. The sustained note of pedal steel opening “Gone” kicks off the song and when the track shifts into full gear, the pedal steel guitar is joined by electric and acoustic guitars alike. This track has a brisk, but relaxed, pace and a strong bluesy influence. “Morning Song” finishes Matt Hannah’s second album with all of the introspection and consideration for the preceding experience that listeners might expect. It’s another delicately wrought acoustic guitar centered arrangement and Hannah delivers one of his more thoughtful vocals. Dreamland raises Hannah’s profile and standing a number of notches without ever veering far away from his core artistic strengths.  

9 out of 10 stars   


Scott Wigley

The Righteous Hillbillies - Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway


The Righteous Hillbillies - Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway 


These sorts of albums used to be commonplace. Our popular music world once rang out with much more than just an assortment of pop releases all revolving around the same narrowly defined melodic conceits, the same regurgitations of pop’s long standing subjects, and pandering to the lowest common denominator. Once upon a time the popular music world hosted both the empty pop idols and a substantive variety of musical genres that remained faithful to their respective forms while still affording the recording artists with an opportunity to find exciting and highly personalized variations of the formula within which they work. The fourth album from The Righteous Hillbillies, Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway, harkens back to a time when bands sported their familiarity with the past as a badge of honor instead of a source of shame. Most importantly, however, that badge of honor has its own distinctive color here; it’s blues, but it’s blues as understood by the five members of The Righteous Hillbillies.  

Many fans will hear that their understanding of the genre is total. “Rollin’” benefits immensely from drummer Barret Harvey’s great sense of time and he keeps things percolating thanks to the steady series of rolls that keep the song moving. “Throwing Stones” isn’t nearly as light-footed and airy as the opener, but Harvey keeps all of these songs moving with a loose limbed swing that never lets the songs sink into hamfisted theatrics. Brent James’ singing on Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway hits the highest peak with the title song and the best part of the track is how James’ singing follows the music rather than trying to overcome or outshine it. Every song on the album has an ideal length, but the title song plays out in such an imaginative way that it signals a possible new direction for the band’s songwriting. “Down to Memphis” turns the album back towards a much more traditional slant, but the track shares the same space with the band’s other originals in the sense that it doesn’t lack originality, yet clearly understands the tradition within which it works. Nick Normando’s slide playing is a big reason why many of these tracks are so successful and there are few where that element is more key to the final result than this song. 

They dive even deeper into gutbucket blues on the growling “Call Me a Doctor”. Some listeners might hear this song as a pose, but their reactions are shallow. Instead, a closer listen to both the lyrics and the inspired band performance reveals a collection of musicians with great chemistry and the ability to transform the traditional into something all their own. “Drama Zone” is another of the album’s hard hitters and hinges on Normando’s outsized blues riffing, but James’ vocal brings a musicality that might otherwise be missing to this banging performance. The Righteous Hillbillies wrap up their fourth studio album with the acoustic blues “Rock Salt & Nails”, a typically downtrodden country crawl complete with one of the more soulful vocals from James on this release. This is powerful, often heady stuff that has some familiarity with listeners, but is played with such reckless abandon and even a willingness to take chances that one cannot help but admire it.   

9 out of 10 stars 


Scott Wigley

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Sound of Curves - Gone Gatsby


The Sound of Curves - Gone Gatsby 


The third album from The Sound of Curves, Gone Gatsby, is the most comprehensive release yet from the San Antonio four piece. Led by vocalists Leonel Pompa and Roger Mahrer, the band specializes in the sort of alternative rock popularized by bands like Minus the Bear and Kings of Leon while filling their music with vivid personality that helps it escape any hints of imitation. They have brought in keyboards and synthesizers into their template in an effort to separate themselves from the pack and the effort is largely successful; some of the most memorable moments on Gone Gatsby are the result of this stew of electric guitars and electronica touches. Melody is, equally, an important factor in what these young musicians are aiming to accomplish and there are a few songs on Gone Gatsby that absolutely sparkle thanks to their facility for creating catchy tunes.  

The high gloss production really makes a number of these tracks fly and frames the band’s strengths in the best possible light. “Galaxy” takes some unusual turns at the outset, but soon settles into a track of enormous guitars, tone setting rhythm section playing, and Pompa and Mahrer’s well matched voices. The album’s sole anthem, the title cut, never plays down to its potential by simply hitting on a few standard clich├ęs and the chorus, in particular, sets it flying even higher into the stratosphere. Another song with a great chorus, “Summer Radio”, zips past listeners with all of the exuberance of its title and the feeling of celebration and liberation pouring out of its big chords and thunderous drumming will physically engage listeners rather than keep them at arm’s length. This band is all about communication – they clearly identify with their audience and hope for the same in return on songs like this.  

Some tracks have a much more personal edge. “Josephine” is one of the album’s more sensitive numbers and the band provides the song with a nuanced arrangement and performance alike. The vocals, especially, seem to spend more time than usual attempting to nail just the right phrasing needed to bring this song to life and do an excellent job. The hard charging surge of “Crawl” gets a great start from the drumming of Josh Leija and the guitars follow his lead with a performance just restrained enough to hold the song’s form while still rocking out with enjoyable abandon. “London” undergoes a quick transformation from a bluesy influenced rocker into an unusual alt rock gem with buoyancy that many of the other tracks don’t possess to such a degree. Synthesizer lines swirl bob up from the mix around the vocal at the beginning of “Midnight” and the band’s continuing efforts to fill their alt rock canvas with unusual colors reaches a solid peak with this song. The beautifully stormy chorus of “Blinker” is another high point on an album that’s full of great choruses, but the guitars in general on this song make this something special. This album is something special, even with a few near misses tossed in, and shows The Sound of Curves to be a band willing to evolve and take chances with each new release. 

9 out of 10 stars 


Dale Butcher