Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Saint Blasphemer - Simon Templar

The four members of Southern California’s Saint Blasphemer aren’t musical babes in the woods. Thomas Hudson, John Castellon, Steve Shell, and Steve Ybarra have been kicking around the Santa Ana music community for a number of years and their union under this moniker is an unique marriage of complementary artistic aims and sheer, undeniable chemistry. Their five song EP Simon Templar is a powerful and often frightening examination of the ongoing heroin epidemic that has felled many of their friends and family while simultaneously sweeping across much of the community. They play a very distinctive brand of hard rock/heavy metal infused with an audible strain of punk rock attitude and the production captures them as a very live sounding unit who play with a great deal of fire and spontaneity. Saint Blasphemer has a message to deliver, but they are never too preachy and even the direst of their warnings isn’t without genuine compassion and warmth.  

Simon Templar opens with a blast of rugged riffing entitled “Nullify”. The song eloquently and, sometimes, explicitly describes the mindset of a sick addict better than perhaps any other song of this ilk. It’s instrumentally quite excellent, particularly John Castellon’s lead guitar. There are only a few scattered moments on this release where the instruments take any flashy turns so, when they do, Saint Blasphemer makes those moments count enormously. The typical use of guitar on the EP comes with the second and title song “Simon Templar”. It has a compositional approach that looks to mesh well with the bass and drums, but looks as well to tailor itself to the musical backing. Hudson’s lyrics speak with the authority of the survivor – there’s horror, anger, and grief in ample measure heavily weighing on this song. The mid way point of Simon Templar comes with the track “Scarecrow”. If the first two songs bowl listeners over with their wealth of detail, Hudson turns up the heat even more with this gruesomely specific vision of the long term soul-stripping effects of use. The musical backing practically bristles with tension, but they make excellent use of theatrics moving between darkness and light before ending the song as suddenly as it began and concluding it with a decidedly muted coda.  

“A Perfect Rose” has an exquisitely crafted and careful opening with Hudson’s vocal yowl taking on an appealing haunted, blue tone. His emotive range is a big part of Simon Templar’s success with “A Perfect Rose” because you can feel his pain for the song’s subject in every line and he never delivers those lyrics in a histrionic or heavy-handed way. Simon Templar ends with the song “Breaking Just to Bend”, a wonderful title considering an addict’s typical wont for demanding everything or nothing at all from nearly every situation. The band tackles the song’s uptempo pace with unmatched vigor that ends the EP on a definite high note. None of the EP’s five songs are very long, but taken as a whole, this release provides a fair window into the extent of this band’s talents and hints at future glories to come.  

9 out of 10 stars 

Aaron Ellis

Sterling Witt – Satyagraha

This decade is nearly in the books, but it has more gems to share. The most recent addition to any listener’s “best of” lists for the second decade of the 21st century should include the fifth full length release from Kansas City headquartered songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Sterling Witt. His new album Satyagraha debuts his latest configuration, a power trio, and the format is ideal for the work’s thirteen songs. Melody isn’t in short supply here, everything Witt plays has a purpose and a plan, but it’s equally obvious that Witt’s artistic vision for this album stresses a live, “three on the floor” sound  as well as a minimum amount of excess or dross to divert listener’s attention away from his always solid and occasionally quite exceptional lyrical content. He has a definite personality as a vocalist as well – these songs are well served from his laid back, laconic vocals, but he has a deceptively wide range and is able to summon regret and rage with equal facility.  

The first two songs of the album are devoted to sharp and melodically gifted rockers that eschew much in the way of subtlety in favor of getting over its message to the listener. “Perception Deception” and “Love Me to Death” are likely slotted for their respective positions in the track listing because much of Satyagraha plays like a live show – Witt clearly wants to put his best foot forward kicking things off and two attention-grabbing guitar workouts like this are guaranteed to garner attention. There’s a shift that comes with the third song, “Who Do You Listen To?” that much more clearly defines the album’s thematic ambitions. In Witt’s world everything is up for examination and rightly so. “Who Do You Listen To?” confronts a world full of misrepresentations without flinching and does so with crackling guitar work and lyrics that never bite off any more than they, or the listeners, can chew.  

“Make It” has more attitude than most songs on this album and that’s saying something. Witt’s cynicism comes through, but it’s difficult to find fault with his observations and the music frames his thoughts in quite a bracing way. “Just So You Know” matches “Make It” in the attitude department and gives Witt a chance to fully vent his spleen, but it’s never artless. Instead, the go for broke abandon doesn’t denote a band and songwriter mindlessly blasting away, but manifesting commitment in the most uncompromising way possible while still strictly adhering to musical principles. The pensive roll of “The Answer” is a welcome shift, however, because it reinforces the aforementioned ideas while allowing the band a chance to show off their diversity.

The album’s final peak, “I Love You More Everyday”, is the album’s lead single and the choice couldn’t be better. It brings sharp lyrical observations together with a little underplayed humor Witt’s vocal is the vehicle for that humor and his wry, nicotine and whiskey voice has phrasing skills that continuously surprise listeners throughout the release. Satyagraha is the sort of album that reveals more and more with each additional listen and forever buries the idea that there’s nothing particularly new in this genre/. Artists like Sterling Witt, with a voice clearly their own, revitalize the form with inspiration and conviction.  

9 out of 10 stars 

Aaron Ellis

Friday, October 21, 2016

TnT Music – Pieces

Tim Toz and Joy Tolbert are longtime veterans of the East Coast music scene and the long years spent honing their craft are apparent on their latest release under the banner TnT Music, “Pieces”. The song is ripped from the tradition of dealing with heart ache and the songwriting expresses itself with magnificent eloquence without ever sacrificing its accessibility or actually tilling new ground. Their collaboration largely exists over the Internet, but they haven’t let their distance dictate the direction of their work. Instead of feeling constrained, they’ve proven quite prolific and have produced over twelve songs since their initial meeting on Soundcloud. The latest “Pieces” rank as their most fully realized collaboration yet and touches, even lightly, on a number of stylistic voices that they bring together artfully and without any visible stitching.  

It’s clearly a studio confection at certain moments. The opening has a pleasing mesh of lightly applied keyboards and harmonized vocals before giving way to a brief, but very flashy, electric guitar introduction. Everything feels a bit studied and constructed before the first verse. The pomp and circumstance clears out and a warm acoustic guitar wafts out of the rubble. Tolbert’s voice joins in with a refined blues tone guiding the way. Her vocal is really the song’s gleaming highlight. She takes care, without ever becoming too stiff and rigid, to mold the words around the musical accompaniment and it pays off in giving the track a much more considered air. The carefulness she shows extends to Toz’s musical response – in contrast to the brash opening, the verses and even the impassioned choruses are tastefully and organically laid out for listeners. The changes move in a very coherent fashion and, when the ending comes, “Pieces” clearly resolves itself.  

The lyrical content is a rung above the usual text in songs like this. Tolbert, fortunately, isn’t content with trotting out a familiar series of tropes that merely hit the marks for songs of this subject matter. Instead, she seems quite intent on rendering her experience and feelings in the most personal terms imaginable. There isn’t any overt suggestion of a confessional mode working here – while she writes from a first person point of view, Tolbert’s focus is on making universal points rather than weighing us down with the minutia of her heart ache. The singing aims at a similar effect through her refusal to overplay her vocal. There’s never a moment in her performance when the weight of her vocal pulls the song down into ham-fisted dramatics. Instead, the aforementioned attentiveness serves her well for seamlessly bringing both the musical backing and voice together.  

“Pieces” reminds those of waning faith that even veteran musicians in the indie scene are still producing work that invigorates and challenges their audience. Toz and Tolbert work supremely well together and it doesn’t seem to be a labored process – based on their productivity alone, they’ve obviously discovered they share a sympathetic musical vision. TnT Music might not be headlining Madison Square Garden, but they certainly play and invest their enthusiasm into the material as if they were.  

William Elgin III 


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Clay Melton Band drops new EP

Clay and his group, Clay Melton Band – featuring drummer Zach Grindle and bassist Raymon Minton – have developed a guitar driven pop-influenced alt-rock style that draws dynamically on his blistering Texas guitar influences.

It usually takes a few times to set in before getting completely won over by anything, but this only took one time to conclude it is a majestic sound to behold. Clay Melton Band is an EP that rocks to the core around a soaring guitar sound that fills every crack and makes it all the more solid. This isn’t a virtuoso thing but then maybe it is, as Melton himself shreds like a guitar god on this. Every track features awesome guitar playing, with songwriting that varies from radio pop rock to harder forms of the same, but obviously shows they can play anything. Even if they have a long way to go, it sounds like they started years ago. I think it’s worth taking a deep look into this set of terrific gems. I have not one qualm about that.

If you love rock music and this doesn’t turn you on, nothing will. The Texas guitar influences kick right in on the lead single “Tonight.” The riff is clearly of that region but then it goes into a more mainstream rock direction but it’s a very fresh sound over all. The guitar continues to make its presence at every opportunity throughout what is an epic opening jam of an opus. The drums are pulverizing as the bass pulsates heavily all the way. It’s almost overwhelming and hard to process at first, but it winds up being a thing of beauty worth repeating time and again. It really makes you wonder what’s to come next, with three more tracks left to go. Boy is that a lot to start with.

After all of that fire and brimstone a delicate acoustic guitar comes in on “Home” and brings a holy sound with it before the big moments kick in, and another great track is born. This is a very well-crafted track that competes with all heavy hitters. It sounds like some 80s and 90s influences are what mostly bring out the best in it, but it isn’t devoid of modern touches. The Texas side of things shine a little less but then there are a lot of influences to touch on. Just as one comes along another stamps it out and then Clay stamps the next out, and so on. But this is easily as good as anything on here, and that is all that matters in the grand scheme of describing it. It just has everything the first track has and more, so far so good.

Next up is the gangbuster laden “Remember” with its almost industrial vibe. This comes with a chugging riff and some clean vocals to swim against the tide and make for an eclectic track. Nobody sounds ill at ease or forced to play outside of the box, but they manage to go there nevertheless. It’s not so easy to describe but this is amazing, and that is the only word for it. There really isn’t anything to advise concerning such a serpent of a sound they have. This is certainly as good as the other tracks, so it’s worth as many repeated listens, as they shout over his voice in the background. You have to love everything about this, if you get wind of it you will see. The proof is always in the pudding, and this flavor is decadent.

You really find that out by the time it is over with the mesmerizing “Stop And Listen.” Now this is the type of ballad many bands from the Austin area seem to be coming up with, but Clay Melton has his own twist on it by not staying in one groove. This is classic but it’s also a new signature for him to work with, because it can bring back what embodies it if they stay at it. It just bubbles along so nicely it’s almost. Unbelievable, and you’re drawn in for the duration and want to keep it on loop. In fact the whole EP is a loop worthy title. Clay keeps it real with some pleading at the end of this which gives it all the honesty it needs to keep it from being too glossy, and that’s just one of his assets. And he has many assets.

Scott Prinzing


Seth Swirsky - Circles and Squares

There’s a bit of the bittersweet sprinkled throughout the sixteen songs on Circles and Squares and it begins with the album title. Seth Swirsky’s songwriting makes great hay of the eternal struggles between men and women in the name of love and his unfettered sincerity will win over many. His skills go far beyond mere earnestness however. Swirsky’s compositional style thinks big picture and even the album’s minor songs are driven by inspired, high flown melodies and spot on harmony vocals. It’s a skill set he’s honed over a thirty plus year career as a working songwriter and the sixteen songs compromising Circles and Squares reflect the mastery of technique that raises his artistry up another level.  

“Shine” opens the album with a Beatlesque flair of melody and an airy arrangement that never seems to touch the ground. “Circles and Squares” is one of the album’s marquee numbers and features a number of inventive tempo changes and turns in texture capable of drawing even the most cynical listeners into its web. Swirsky pulls out some light rock chops on the slightly unsettled “Old Letter”, but even this rawer moment is driven by a strong, definable melody. Swirsky’s quite capable of working up the extra oomph required for this song. He takes his first run at an enormous, cinematic ballad on “Far Away” and its glittering surfaces are served further by the song’s elegantly phrased melodies.  

The mid-tempo saunter and warm, lighthearted vocals of “Trying to Keep It Simple” help make it one of the more likeable songs on Circles and Squares and creates an interesting contrast with the sometimes bittersweet nature of the lyrics. The tempo varies some on “Belong”, but eventually settles into a steady  but non-aggressive groove that slowly rolls over the top of the listeners. It has an understated odd edge, a slightly twist on the melody that distinguishes it from its obvious influences. “The Simplest Way” is one of two absolute stunners on the album that are unmitigated love songs. This is the more fragile and delicately wrought of the two despite its moderate pacing and has a sensitive, but palpably charismatic vocal from Swirsky. “With Her Now” is a song of pure longing. The hushed quality Swirsky brings to his vocal doesn’t make the longing any less apparent; instead, it has the feeling of desire barely restrained. The second brilliant love song on the album, “I Don’t Have Anything (If I Don’t Have You)” has more of the earnestness mentioned earlier than, arguably, any other song on Circles and Squares. It hits all of the expected, satisfying notes musically and sets itself apart lyrically thanks to Swirsky replacing all the standard tropes from songs of this type with genuine personal confession that anyone familiar with his biographical details will recognize.  

Circles and Squares isn’t bashful about flouting its influences, but those influences never dictate the songwriting. Instead, they infuse the tracklisting with an added strain of color and provide a frame of reference for some listeners to hang onto. Seth Swirsky has been at this a long time, but it’s well past time that his audience gets a true solo effort from him, released under his own name, the spotlight his alone.  

9 out of 10 stars. 

Shannon Cowden

Kathy Muir - Second Life

The stunningly complete and beautiful third album from Scottish born singer/songwriter Kathy Muir is a cause for celebration. Second Life is an eleven song collection concentrating primarily on relationships, but it isn’t strictly a downbeat affair. Muir explores a full range of human emotions connected with the experience of sharing our lives with other people and her songwriting abilities enable her to create ideal sonic landscapes for exploring these themes. She has surrounded herself with a first class assembly of collaborators who help elevate the drama far above the mundane. Not all of the songs adhere to a strictly Americana label – instead, some utilize pop and rock song dynamics with unexpected musical approaches. The primary thrust of the album is acoustic, but there’s a rowdy spirit in some songs that undercuts the laid back feeling pervading the album as a whole. 

Some of that rowdy spirit comes through on the first two tracks. “Lucky One” and “Better Man” both start out as muted acoustic based numbers but gradually build a head of steam before transforming into full blown band numbers by the second half of the song. The gradual mounting of tension on both tracks is handled with great patience and good instincts “Simply That” finds Muir moving backwards by design and serving up the album’s purest example of blues with a stripped back, essentials-only feel. She responds to the musical change of mood with her own shift downgear and brings a lot of surprising, to some perhaps, gravitas to her singing. The lyrical content on the aforementioned songs is all quite superb, particularly “Better Man”.  

“Stop Messin’ Me Around” revisits some of the album’s rowdy early spirit in a distinctly different package. The rockabilly thrust of the album is quite different from any preceding songs, but it isn’t a purist affair. Instead, it’s a retro nod with a strongly modern air and assertiveness that never becomes unduly aggressive or slips off the rails. “Born by the Water” features stunning lyrical imagery paired with a powerfully consistent, direct acoustic guitar attack. Muir’s voice, seemingly aware of the lyrical quality, sounds much more inspired here than her earlier fine performances and it helps make this track a less-than-obvious sleeper on the release.  

The album’s second to last song, “Troubled Town”, is Muir at her most vulnerable. The song is nothing but her voice, words, and piano accompaniment. The songwriting and her singing must stand on their own more than ever before in this context both succeed spectacularly. “Troubled Town” has vividly written lyrical content that seems to focus on both the personal and a larger macro and the haunting music matching her on keys is perfectly tuned to the narrative mood. The album’s finale is a title song that hints at whole new directions possibly opening up for Muir. The union of classically themed backing with her vocals pays off nicely and creates a great deal of epic drama on Second Life’s final song. The lyrics also strike a strongly redemptive note that ends the album well.  

9 out of 10 stars 

Charles Hatton

Angie and the Deserters – You

 Third releases carry a certain weight. Many longtime music fans know that by the second or third album is when a band or solo performer finds the true range of their skill and delivers the fullest realization of their potential. Angie and the Deserters’ third recording You has six songs certainly showing that Angie Bruyere and her band have established a new level of excellence for their songwriting and musical performance alike. The good news is that there is no evidence they cannot and will not further develop with additional albums. Taken on its own and reflecting on previous releases, it is all but inarguable that You represents another entertaining leap forward for Bruyere and her accompanying musicians. These are songs that sturdily invoke tradition while completely rewiring the clich├ęs and tropes for a new era and an individual experience.  

“Stay” shows depths and skills an emotive vocalist that Bruyere began hinting at with the previous release now fully bloomed. She caresses and slowly draws out the verses, playing off against the mandolin and guitar alike, weaving her voice through the creases of the song. There’s a beautiful artfulness to the construction of “Stay” that raises it far above the typical weepy modern country radio fare. There’s authenticity and real emotion. The same qualities make “Forgetting to Forget” equally memorable, but this song moves a step beyond with its exceptional lyrics that make use of tradition for greater purposes than tribute. In some ways, the song is reminiscent much more of outlaw country ballads with its deeper emotions than classic country from an even earlier era. “You” has a light-footed, graceful movement thanks to its time signature and Angie Bruyere takes great advantage of the waltz tempo to give an unusually emotive vocal. The theatrical aspect to the performance never undermines its credibility and instead helps make the unhappiness of the lyric softer and less grievous.  

We are back to first principals with the next song “17 Days”. This is one of Angie and the Deserters’ most respectful nods to traditional country crossed with a slightly rambunctious honkytonk edge. Her vocals clearly relish the song’s mix of personal imagery with many of the popular totems of American song – the highways, the empty beds, the taste of regret. It’s never too heavy handed, however, and the loose limbed approach from the band makes everything quite enjoyable. “When the Nighttime Comes” has its roots veering much closer to rock music than anything preceding it, but Bruyere and the band use it as a stylistic affectation rather than ever allowing it to drive the train. They layer the stringed instruments in with the addition of acoustic guitar and mandolin, but the crowning achievement of the song comes from Bruyere. She sings this just right, playing to the song’s need for atmospherics without ever crossing the line into the sophomoric and overwrought. It’s the last dramatic zenith on an EP packed with memorable moments. Angie and the Deserters have scored big with You.

9 out of 10 stars.  

Charles Hatton

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Von - 3nity

Few power trios escape the leaden thud so common to the configuration like South Florida’s The Von. The band has established a great and growing reputation as one of the best young rock bands on the scene since their 2013 formation and their second recording, 3nity, solidifies that growing standing with a loosely threaded conceptual work that never forgets to entertain its audience and rocks out with conviction. None of the album’s songs run over four minutes in length and the opener is especially brief, but these are songs that lack nothing. Instead, they contain sonic multitudes and exhibit a stunning combination of finesse and power. The production is another notable strength – there’s a big sound here driven by intimacy. The Von sound like they are playing in a crowded, hot, and sweaty club sometime before last call and still in full flight. 

“I Know It’s Love” is the EP at its power pop best. It bears mentioning that the type of power pop The Von brings to bear is considerably more powerful than average entries in that realm. Bassist Luis Bonilla and drummer Elisa Seda form a powerhouse tandem in the engine room, but they bring great fluidity together with their sheer sonic force. The practically acapella beginning kicks things off in an unusual way, but it doesn’t sound out of place at all. The Von are quite talented at making the music breathe and leaving artfully shaped and chosen spaces of silences in the song that added a lot to the listening experience. 

“Nature of the Beast” is the EP’s high point as The Von delivers a swinging knockout with a fierce guitar attack and meaty rhythm section work that makes the breastplate rattle. This is a perfect example of the observation made in the first sentence – The Von’s performance here is hard hitting, but never immobile. The lyrical quality here, as elsewhere, is very high – they never lean too heavily on standard tropes, only just enough to create some resonance for the listener. The song title, for instance, is a loaded phrase with multiple meanings for many people and engrained in our cultural lexicon. It’s a mark of highly intelligent songwriting.  

The final cut on 3nity, “My Heart Machine”, gives us a glimpse of the band’s affinity for psychedelia. It’s more of a genre hybrid than it is a straight bit of psychedelic music, ala Hawkwind or other similar “space” acts, and retains enough hard rock credentials to make labeling difficult. Bonilla delivers his most nuanced performance yet on vocals – he brings full throated fury to bear in some passages while showing a seamless ability to lean back and concentrate on relaxed phrasing. It’s a wildly successful conclusion to this EP and achieves all of its effects honestly rather than relying on cheap pandering to the listeners. The Von never indulges themselves too much and maintains a resolute focus on delivering maximum effect with little visible strain. 3nity is a memorable effort. 

9 out of 10 stars

Montey Zike

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Stefanie Keys - Open Road

California based vocalist par excellence Stefanie Keys’ third album Open Road is the peak of her recording career so far. The ten songs included with this new release are a deceptively ambitious group of compositions that doesn’t necessarily experiment, but it certainly explores virtually the full purview of Americana music with a wide open spirit and impeccable chops. The songwriting doesn’t attempt to remake the wheel but instead begins with the fundamentals and builds from there. She isn’t afraid to move from a gently rendered acoustic track into a slow burning and muscular soulful rocker. Credibility and confidence alike come from every song. The album has superb production that gives it a spacious quality while still surrounding it with the right amount of musical weight.  

The title song starts the album on an excellent note. She’s obviously a patient performer and songwriter on this release, content to allow songs to develop organically, and never attempting to force the song’s potential to bloom too fast. Her vocal phrasing is dramatic and attempts to fully embody its imagery and storytelling aspects. “3 Hours Till Yesterday” is one of Open Road’s cleverest bits of songwriting, but it doesn’t crassly announce itself or pander. The same energetic but careful confidence electrifying the earlier songs is present here as well and the band’s inspired response makes the song even better. Her storytelling talents as a lyricist come to the fore on “Sleeping Lady”, but it reaches high musically and makes a sonic impact as well. Her penchant for a well-assembled song comes through here too. Few listeners will expect the late turns it takes, but they will be happy they came along for the ride.  

“City Life” is an immensely stylish outing, but it isn’t all gloss and no substance. Keys’ musical cohorts turn in their most nuanced performance yet and create a deeply felt and bluesy landscape for her voice to inhabit. The slowly unwinding, even stately, quality propelling “Cold Day” forward is quite appealing and Keys’ writing skills shine through once again. The vocal effects applied to Keys’ singing in post-production might not appeal to some, but others will undoubtedly find that they add much to the song’s mood and narration. “Highway To Your Soul” is one of the album’s most convincing and rugged tracks. The solid base the band gives Keys to work from allows her the chance to let loose her most passionate vocals yet. Open Road’s highest point, lyrically and musically, comes with the character-driven track “Amos Crain”. There isn’t a single other moment in these ten songs when vocalist and musical arrangement come together in such a simpatico fashion.  

Open Road ends gently with the track “9 O’Clock”. There’s a lovely effect achieved with ending the album this way – it works as a final, emphatic period on the album’s overall coherence of mood and theme. Much of Keys’ work is centered on character and voice and this last song embodies those strengths quite well. Her third album is truly a moment when it all comes together for this great singer and songwriter.

9 out of 10 stars  

Gilbert Mullis

Josh Birdsong - Simple Geometry

Everything has changed. If Billie Holliday or Hank Williams Sr. returned today to survey the modern music world, they would understand little. Even songwriters achieve prominence in vastly different ways than before. The idea, even thirty years ago, that young men and women could pursue high level college degrees in the art of writing popular song was unthinkable. It is now par for the course. Birdsong has been academically honored for his musical talents by the University of Michigan, Belmont University in Nashville, and has garnered awards for his lyrical talents. These laurel leaves give Birdsong a burgeoning reputation as a bright young talent that his debut EP, Simple Geometry, will only further burnish and expand upon. The five songs making up this first release show Birdsong isn’t ever confined to one style and approach. Instead, he is an open-ended conduit of his own talent who feels an obvious freedom to touch on different styles and approaches in a single song as well as the entire recorded work.  

 Everything has changed perhaps, but maybe for the better. We have more sources now. It’s hard to see these particular developments as a bad thing when you hear a song like “Unspeakable”. Despite our familiarity, as listeners, with things like effects-laden guitar, the see saw struggles between men and women, personal transformation, this song sounds truly new. Much of the responsibility for this comes from Birdsong’s distinctive approach to his instrument and how he completely merges his vocal with the arrangement. The dynamics of the first two songs owe much to the classic build for rock songs – new sounds are introduced along the way and, by the time the song moves past its mid way point, the full band is working at top volume. “Drive” is a much more relaxed effort, comparatively, but there’s great energy here despite that difference in moods.  

Birdsong returns to the winning formula of the EP’s first two tracks for the fourth, “Why?”, but he can’t resist twisting the template for the better. This is a more dramatic outing than either of those earlier songs thanks to the underlined focus on contrasting muted passages with much busier sections. Birdsong sounds completely at home here and that confidence enhances the song overall. Simple Geometry concludes with the solo performance “You and I”. This is Birdsong at his most vulnerable, armed with only his voice and an acoustic guitar, and he proves himself every bit as able to believably carry this sort of material as he proved to be with the earlier performances. While the lyric’s subject might not be particularly new, Birdsong sings with such passion that you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s the first guy to ever sing about relationship issues.  

Simple Geometry is part of a new paradigm. With songwriters emerging now in such a wide variety of ways, the music is deepening and reflecting those diversities of background. The intelligent and literary presentation here on Simple Geometry never comes into conflict or otherwise undercuts the musical value. Josh Birdsong’s talents are formidable and we only get a tantalizing taste here.  

9 out of 10 stars.  

William Elgin III

Alex Di Leo - So We Go

After the break up for South Florida mainstays Wyld Fly, Alex Di Leo didn’t lay fallow. The results of the interim since their dissolution are fully heard on his debut solo release So We Go. This six song EP is a collection focused, in equal parts, on the basic elements that make a great pop song along with a strongly individualistic bent that twists his obvious influences in unexpected directions. Di Leo has clearly listened long and hard to modern acts like Fleet Foxes, Coldplay, and others of that ilk, but he’s learned different lessons than most from the attention paid. The songs on So We Go bristle with youthful energy and confidence, but the instincts shaping the EP’s art belong to a much more developed sensibility. Di Leo wants to impress us with So We Go and, by that measure; the release is a resounding success.

 Di Leo bravely starts things off with the title song. It’s a dramatic, expertly plotted piece of musical theater thanks to Di Leo’s eye for expansive sonic textures. Even though the songs rarely exceed four minutes in length, they feel much wider, bigger. Di Leo generates impressive energy on the EP’s second song “Making It Easier”, but the real highlight of this track and others cut from the same cloth is the skillfulness with which he manipulates emotion through movement in the music and seesawing back and forth from a full-on musical attack to passages much more lean and stripped back. This approach reaches one of its peaks with the third track “Reason”. There is a fair amount of Di Leo’s heart-stirring pop theatrics rising to the fore here, but it’s the sincerity and individuality of the piece that truly makes the deepest impact.  

Another of the EP’s peak moments arrives with the song “When We First Met”. It’s hoary but dependable subject matter for a pop song, forever resonate, but Di Leo expresses his narrative in language all his own and the sonic vocabulary has a totally modern slant that will, nonetheless, appeal to older listeners as well. Di Leo’s songwriting does a superb job of alternating dramatic and muted sections on the EP’s penultimate song “I’ve Been Waiting”. The positive point of view dominating the lyrical content continues here, but like elsewhere, it’s never a Pollyanna interpretation of adult life. Instead, songs like this underline the bittersweet interludes we all face while promising ultimate happiness and/or resolution. The EP’s closing number “Waking Up” is the crown jewel in So We Go’s crown. It’s almost classical in its ambitions despite the relatively mundane running time and has a bevy of layers, both lyrically and musically, for listeners to explore. Di Leo could have scarcely concocted a better closer and So We Go would have strained mightily to be any better than it is. This is as fine of a debut as you’ll hear this year and the future is boundless for Alex Di Leo’s musical future.  

9 out of 10 stars. 

William Elgin III

Monday, October 17, 2016

Juliet Huns - Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes is a great title. The three songs on Juliet Huns’ debut album do take listeners behind the curtain of her heart and reveal to anyone listening an artist of great passion and skill. She is a singer with a wide emotional range; her voice traverses a path from passion to playfulness, determination, and soulful reflection. She is accompanied by a bevy of keyboard and synthesizer sounds that never strike listeners as having been constructed thanks to their warmth and the lack of omnipresence in the mix. Some performers in this area rely too much on those artificial sounds at great expense to the songwriting or else fail to achieve an interesting balance with broad-based appeal. This Kenyan born performer never sounds foreign to our experience and the material on Behind the Scenes will resonate strongly with anyone who has a beating heart. 

The first song “Realized” is an ideal way to begin the EP. It’s the closest thing to straight pop song that you’ll find on Behind the Scenes and shows her authority with this sort of material is absolute. Huns’ phrasing and her confident trajectory are the stuff that distinguishes veteran performers, but she brings a surplus of energy to her vocal that sparkles with youth. Even the relatively bitter experience related by the lyrical content never turns into drudgery with her skillful voice manipulating the lines for maximum dramatic impact. The traditional pop elements at play here help immensely in putting the song over, particularly the effective crescendos marking the song at its midway point and near its conclusion.  

“Gone” bears some resemblance to the opener, but Huns marshals different sounds to make her point. The quasi-guitar lines, courtesy of the wealth of electronic instruments employed on this EP, give the song a jaggedly edgy appeal. The chorus is probably the song’s high point and doubles down on the guitar-oriented sound with Huns delivering a very emphatic vocal. Like the other songs on Behind the Scenes, Huns never taxes her listener’s patience and keeps the running time well within the lengths of the typical pop track. 

Behind the Scenes concludes with “Red Line”, a song with many moods. The verses rely on a relaxed, laid back approach but the song has excellent dynamics that build those restrained passages into an assortment of memorably climatic moments before the final curtain. The imagery is a little unusual for a familiar subject, but it gives a pleasantly fresh spin to otherwise standard fare in the genre.  

Juliet Huns lays her heart bare over the course of these three songs. The synthesizer and keyboard work never deprive her voice of its humanity or musicality and complement it quite well. Behind the Scenes is a short release, but she never fails to explore a variety of moods and sounds to make it sound like a much bigger experience than its duration might otherwise suggest. We will be hearing more from Huns and, undoubtedly, it will continue to build on the stunning success she’s achieved here. 

9 out of 10 stars.

Michael Saulman 

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Good for Nothin’ Band - Maniac World

The ten song first release from New Orleans Dixieland jazzers and blues aficionados The Good for Nothin’ Band doesn’t confine itself to one or two narrow representations of these classic American forms. Instead, Maniac World veers across the full expanse of that area on the musical map and takes chances that lesser bands would have avoided. They are clearly as well versed in blues music as they are jazz, but the album only features a few nods in that direction. The addition of a trombone and trumpet player to these songs makes them take on new shapes, highlights melodies, and competes with vocalist Jon Roniger for a vocal role in the mix. It’s almost like the band has three vocalists and some of the most remarkable harmonies and counterpoints in modern popular music.  

The first song that will likely grab every listener by the lapel is the album’s second track “DNA”. The band’s writing flair gets a real exhibition here as they make outstanding use of the central metaphor and pull out impressive variations on it. It’s vocally dead on from the first line to the last and Roniger’s vocal only strengthens the inherent qualities in the lyric. The Good for Nothin’ Band raise a worthy racket with this song and the energy is palpable. The album’s title song, “Maniac World”, has a lot of musical style, but the lyrics don’t quite measure up because they are working within a tradition that the writing can neither transform nor transcend with the personal. Another school of thought is that this is solid songwriting for exactly that reason – it plucks on a resonant chord in all listeners./ The blues backing is very theatrical, sometimes a little heavy handed, but ultimately ideally atmospheric for the song.  

“Bosom of Extremes” steers back to a much jazzier direction, but the band’s touch remains light and distinctly melodic. Time after time on this album listeners will hear just how important the trombone and trumpet are for adding color to this album. “Romeo in Rags” is an acoustic based blues vividly augmented by the brass section’s contributions. Roniger really knocks his vocal out of the park here and it’s the album’s best blues pastiche yet. The closest the band ever comes to rock and roll comes on “Lips Like Candy” with its high energy level and an appropriately stirring vocal. “Snowing in New Orleans” is an incredibly percussive tune with a variety of pulses that the other players weave their magic around. The lyric is, likewise, quite good with its invocation of place so crucial to the band’s identity. It’s an excellent prelude to the album’s last song “One Last Call”. This is the long, deliberate goodbye that listeners deserve and it feels like one of the album’s more personal statements. There’s an almost perfect circular quality to this album, a sense of classical unity that’s difficult to achieve on a music album, but that’s what we have here. Maniac World is a fantastic achievement by any measure.  

9 out of 10 stars. 

Scott Wigley