Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Samantha Leon - s/t (2017)

Written by Lydia Stewart, posted by blog admin

This is an EP that pulls no punches. Samantha Leon culled the funds for her first self-titled release as a result of a Kickstarter campaign that has enabled her to express herself in a way few artists do anymore. She’s not afraid of staring loss in the face. She’s likewise emboldened to declare her continuing wounded strength over the course of these seven songs and surrounds herself with musical backing that frames her sweet, aching voice with great aplomb. The EP’s production, despite its DIY funding, is obviously astute in how it frames her pained and praise worthy narratives with a distinctly theatrical tinge that never flattens or gussies up the emotional authenticity of her material. Samantha Leon is undoubtedly real and the lessons she learned from influences like Cat Stevens and others inform this debut in a multitude of ways while still allowing her to sing with individuality.

The opening track “Bright Yellow Shoes (No Turbulence Mix)” proves to be an excellent opening curtain. We’re immediately introduced to all the elements defining her work. There’s tremendous atmospherics coming through in her phrasing, the way she elongates certain words while passing over others, and how she tailors her voice to the accompaniment. This is moody music, but make no mistake that it is despairing. Instead, much of this collection is about experience, surviving it, and what lessons we can glean from that survival. This theme is given a darkly comic twist with the track “High (You Only Love Me When You’re Fucked Up)”, but even the light comedic touch doesn’t mitigate the heartbreak at the heart of the song. This track is musically distinguished by some particularly inventive percussion and guitar work that never attempts competing with her voice but, instead, helps shape its presentation in such a way that further highlights her strengths. “Run Away” is, arguably, the angriest track on this EP, but Leon is never so cheap as a writer or performer that she undercuts the track with bellicose bile. The vocal, as always, is technically superb and understated, but there are real teeth in her emotions capable of cutting into any listener.

“Perfect” features Danny Matos collaborating with Leon on an acoustic track with some great percolating percussion and shimmering acoustic guitar. This is a singer and group of musicians with considerable finesse at their command, but they never let their technical excellence undercut the raw feelings burning in the song’s heart. The musical intensity ramps up in the song’s second half and Matos’ emergence with his rapping style helps seal the deal that this is one of the EP’s best tracks. The full band version of the opener “Bright Yellow Shoes” has a less ethereal quality than the previous version, but the laidback vibe remains strong. There’s even some nice strings augmenting the song and its light melodic touch helps further enrich the inherent melancholic quality of the song. Soulful pop rarely sounds as good as Samantha Leon’s debut and she’s certain to make a deep impression on anyone who hears this release.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Natalie Estes - 20/20 Vision (2017)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

Natalie Estes’ future is certain. This is a vocalist and performer who will impress everyone from young music listeners all of the way to experienced devotees of top shelf pop tunes. Her four song EP 20/20 Vision covers an astonishing amount of ground despite its short running time and she strikes a commanding presence from the outset. It’s a likewise immaculately produced affair that presents her as the center of everything, yet emphasizes quality instrumentation surrounding her and presents everything in a nicely balanced fashion. It’s an outstanding all around effort for a talented Nashville native who has made waves with whomever she’s encountered. The EP’s recording at the Los Angeles House of Blues illustrates her ever growing profile and she’s clearly surrounded herself with some of the best talents working today in the music industry.

“Until I Do” is a memorable opener. It begins with a light piano tinkle before segueing into an evocative vocal melody. Estes’ voice is far from all atmospherics however – her exceptional vocal phrasing ties in very well with the steady build given to this opener. There’s certainly a strong pop influence driving this work, but there’s nicely understated bluesy tone in her voice that makes the struggles and triumphs depicted in her songs ring with unquestionable sincerity. It sets up the second track very well. “Where’s There’s Smoke There’s Fire” draws out her most powerful vocal yet and she fortunately enjoys the benefits of a musical arrangement and crack playing that matches her intensity every step of the way. I’d arguably have flipped the running order and began the EP with this track, moving “Until I Do” to the second slot, but it’s a minor quibble. If there was nothing else of value on 20/20 Vision, this song alone would make it worth the price of purchase.

“Reminds Me of You” has a laidback feel driven by tasteful guitars and a appropriately played vocal from Estes. One of the more remarkable things about this performer is the sure hand she shows for how much force to put behind her performances despite her youth and relative inexperience. Some singers, male and female alike naturally, just come out of the gate swinging and she’s definitely one. The song “Bad Game” concludes the EP on a romping, faintly R&B note with hard driving drums and a deliriously joyful vocal from Estes. This is a performer who clearly revels in her ability to sing and get inside a song. This talent enables her to put a vivid exclamation point on this release and, if the merits of the collection are any indication, she is poised for a remarkable future.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Real Hooks - Damn You (2017)

Artwork by Odandiee

Written by Ed Price, posted by blog admin

The irrepressible bounce of The Real Hooks’ music has been undeniable from the first. The band initially debuted in 2009 and success came early, but their profile increased exponentially with the 2012 release of their debut EP. Subsequent peaks have followed – most famously, the band was jettisoned off an important tour with pop star Aaron Carter after Carter believed his opening act was stealing the spotlight from him thanks to their impressive live performances. There were challenges following that moment, but the band has come through each time thanks to their innate familial talents and the willingness of important and talented music industry figures willingness to place their faith in an act that has tremendous commercial appeal as well as featuring top notch musicianship. They added more firepower to their arsenal by opting to work with outside writers and “Damn You” shows what kind of quality results this decision has produced.

Guitarist and lead singer Kyle Hooks is the nominal focal point of the band and with good reason. He has a voice seemingly groomed for pop stardom and his musical skills are closer to that of a multi-decade veteran than what they are a young performer while still bubbling with youthful energy and charisma. The band makes excellent use of harmony vocals throughout the course of the track, however, and it lends an even brighter hue to the bounce that this track shows from its first notes on. Vocalist and oldest Hooks sibling Nick has a natural rapport with his brother Kyle, but drummer Raleigh Hooks may be the band’s secret weapon. His drumming, much like Kyle’s vocal and instrumental skills, certainly doesn’t sound like those of a young performer. He shows a great ear for figuring out what this song needs without ever overstating his percussive presence.

The humor that comes along with the songwriting has a slightly bittersweet edge, reflected by its title, but the mood is never so fraught that it drags the song down. People will want to move when they hear this music and vocal and surely a smile will cross their face at key points in the performance. The song has an ideal length and stellar construction that never bites off anymore than it can chew. The sure hand that the band exhibits on “Damn You” will entrance many audiences and draw them into the family’s musical world with a warm, inviting glow. There’s immense style here and pure pop rock artistry, but there’s also musical substance that bodes well for the band’s bright future. The Real Hooks are continuing on their inexorable upward ascent and one gets the feeling that the road ahead is much clearer for them than it has been in some time. Casual fans and music devotees alike will appreciate the skill and emotion they pour into this outing and clamor for more.

Jim Hagen - Jazzical (2017)



Artwork by John Lind Whitby

Written by Ed Price, posted by blog admin

Jim Hagen’s 2017 release Jazzical is both an outstanding sophomore effort coming on the heels of his 2012 debut as well as a self-consciously styled tribute to his former musical partner vibes player Rod Bennett who died tragically as a result of a hit and run accident. The Kansas City native has a strong background din both jazz and classical music and it enables him to move freely from original compositions (like the album’s title track) as well as incorporating solid standards like the Miles Davis’ classic “All Blues”. Despite the fact that this is quite deliberately styled as a tribute to Hagen’s fallen comrade, the mood is often anything but somber and Bennett’s playing is prominently featured. The nine songs on Jazzical invoke a variety of moods with class, tastefulness, and musical distinction.

One of the originals on the album opens Jazzical quite nicely. “Pismo Beach” has a slightly elegiac tinge to its sound, but it also has an underrated playful edge as you can audibly hear some of the happiness contained within the individual performances. Hagen’s guitar is a little more dominant here than it is on other tracks. The keyboards, vibes, and guitar strike up a seamless marriage from the outset and find just the right approach for this performance so that it appeals to both longtime jazz fans and listeners familiar with a variety of moods and approaches. His cover of the Bossa Nova classic “Manha de Carnaval” is particularly fleet footed and never over stresses its tempo and stylistic origins. It is surely a mark of a first rate musical talent when a player can take a recognized standard and refashion it in his or her own image. Hagen does that here and superbly well. “D-Tuna”, another original, has interesting construction and a more high flown feel than the first two songs. This feels more experimental, jammy somehow, and it’s quite compelling to hear Hagen and his collaborators bring this together with such style.

“All Blues”, the aforementioned Miles Davis cover, has a decidedly straight forward feel in comparison. The familiar tropes of the genre are musically present and the pleasing sense of inevitability that results from hearing this track makes it one of Jazzical’s more memorable cuts. It’s an excellent prelude to the album’s title song and this number gives Hagen a chance to show off his command over various musical backgrounds without ever sounding incongruous or showy. Bennett, in particular, distinguishes himself with a first rate vibes solo that, in light of his tragic end, possesses a near spectral quality. The album’s finale, “Lazy Sunday”, concludes Hagen’s second album on a decidedly relaxed note, but there’s also some hints of melancholy that come throughout while never dragging the song’s mood down into unhappiness or despair. Jazzical is a major work from an impressive musician who sounds like he’s at or nearing the peak of his powers.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Chris Bartels - Myths and Mold (2017)

Myths and Mold / Album Video Teaser #1:

Written by Lydia Stewart, posted by blog admin

Chris Bartels wears many hats. He’s, first and foremost, a husband and father. His artistic world is consumed by work with the synth pop outfit Bora York, an ambient project with the moniker Elskavon, and the intensely melancholy dance pop of Hi-Fi Call. He’s adding to that impressive roster with the second release under his own name, Myths and Mold. The five song collection combines many of the aforementioned projects qualities with a generous helping of his poetic vision. It’s a vision manifesting itself in both his lyrical and musical approach alike. Bartels accomplishes many of these effects through a decidedly impressionistic style, accumulating effects rather than unveiling songs in an arch conventional way, but the ultimate emotional impact is never remote. The five songs here have distinctly different moods, but there’s an unity of purpose and sound heard in the techniques that Bartels uses to communicate. The evocative production, reverb-laced atmospherics, and concise length of the material sonically sustain the collection, but Bartels’ voice is at the center of it all and guides the release from the first to the last.

The swell of sound beginning the opener “Blind” soon dissipates when Bartels’ multi-tracked vocals enter the mix. This initial amorphous fanfare segues into a sprightly tempo anchored by tasteful drumming and bass playing that’s powerful, but stripped down and direct. There’s a variety of guitar textures employed during the course of the song and the vocal arrangement fits perfectly with the song’s architecture. Words and phrases like “ambient” and “dream-like” can be used to accurately describe this music, but they aren’t enough. This is painterly stuff full of colorful sound. “Missoula” begins with the sound of chirping crickets before it transitions into a melodically hypnotic and deceptively simple guitar figure. Bartels takes the same vocal approach here as he does in the first song, but it has a more diffuse style than we heard on the opener. The harmonies are spread out more throughout the piece and the prime mover here is the arrangement rather than his voice.

Another hypnotic musical passage anchors the song “Stay”. It comes courtesy of piano this time and the lyrical simplicity and beauty of the playing stands in sharp contrast to the distanced effects of the instrumentation on earlier tracks. The EP’s title track is, surprisingly, it’s shortest and the most clearly ambient of the collection. Bartels’, once again, introduces ghostly and often quite beautiful piano to the mix and the windswept cinematic quality surrounding the song is an excellent match for more of Bartels’ haunting, multi-tracked vocals. The finale “Counting Hands” has a much brighter demeanor than the aforementioned four songs but much of the same approach to sound and orchestration heard on the earlier performances dominates this one as well. Bartels utilizes a variety of vocal approaches that gives the relatively brief tune impressive musical diversity. This is a release with wealth you uncover only after multiple listens and solidifies Bartels’ standing as one of the most fascinating songwriters and performers on the scene today.

Myths and Mold / Album Video Teaser #1:

Cranford Hollow - Color/Sound/Renew/Revive (2017)



Written by Robert Elgin, posted by blog admin

Southern based five piece band Cranford Hollow has undergone a gradual change since they first debuted five albums ago. Much of these changes can likely be lain at the feet of the extensive live experience they’ve accumulated since first forming and their respective personal journeys, but the band that once began as a four piece added a fifth member, Yannie Reynecke, and made a move from the classic country rock fare of the band’s birth towards a fully rounded approach incorporating theatrical elements as well as a stronger rock and singer/songwriter influence than before. The eight songs on Color/Sound/Revive/Renew explore an impressive array of human experiences through a variety of musical textures and poetic tinged lyrics. There’s no one like Cranford Hollow working in the heart or along the fringes of Americana music today and they show no signs of slowing down.

“Songfield” is an opening statement that sets a tone for the album from the first. The dramatic introduction is guided by a spartan dialogue between bass, drums, and swelling guitars that glide into the main part of the song. Eric Reid’s violin playing makes a great foil for Yannie Reynecke and front man/second guitarist John Cranford’s six string work. Cranford’s singing takes center stage when they launch into the verses and the band lays back until critical moments when they make their presence felt quite exquisitely. “Long Shadows” makes a little more active use of a traditional approach with its introductory harmony vocals and the prevalence of Eric “Thunder” Reid’s fiddle in the arrangement. There’s an intensely lyrical edge to his playing that listeners will find impossible to ignore and, even at its most overwhelming, sweetens otherwise dark songwriting with its beauty.”Noise” is much closer to a top shelf rock track with a decidedly intelligent bent than what it is shit-kickin’ and whiskey drinkin’ country or bluegrass. Reid’s fiddle work plays a dominant role once again, but it has a distinctly more compositional form here than on the previous track.

“Bury It Down”, however, picks up the mantle of traditional bluegrass/country sounds and runs with it to spectacular effect. The nicotine strained agony of John Cranford’s voice is shrouded in a light echo and the mid-tempo amble of the track will exert a pleasing hypnotic effect over many listeners. There’s some nice guitar flourishes scattered throughout the song and Yannie Reynecke’s piercing lead guitar is a highlight of the album as a whole. “And You Brutus” opens with some surprising swaths of keyboards before transforming into a meditative, slightly theatrical opening. The drums kick in and Reynecke’s lead guitar imposes tasteful authority over the song. The bluesy vocal for this performance has a decidedly different, brighter hue than the album’s customary singing approach and the ample harmony vocals are quite memorable. Color/Sound/Renew/Revive is an important new work in a career distinguished by many songwriting and performing highlights. Cranford Hollow, long after their birth, remains just as committed to exploring their potential as ever.