Monday, August 14, 2017

Rhett Repko - About Last Night (2017)

Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Acoustic guitars twinkle, riffs crackle and steady low grooves swing into action as singer Rhett Repko’s voice trembles with a higher-register bravado, conjuring up pop songwriting as if schooled by guitar rock on “Were You Ever Really Mine?”  All in a day’s work for this Maryland-based singer/songwriter during the aforementioned tune, one from his debut 6-song EP where any song could be chosen as a radio single; that’s the strength of Rhett Repko, he can push melodies to the forefront even when grittier musicianship is nudging the music forward. 

No two tracks sound alike on his latest EP and there’s a smattering of influences from 60s rock/pop to country to blues to 90’s fuzzy guitar and everything and anything in between.  He knows what he likes and the kind of music that help shape and forge rock n’ roll to what it is now.  It’s not an interest that most pop songwriters care about, so it’s good to see someone come along that places emphasis on heart n’ soul.  From the opener, Repko touches down in Dixieland with the saloon swilling swagger and Dylan-esque folk of “She Loves Me.”  Scorching guitar flurries emerge from the acoustic ash as the rhythm section yields proper push/pull dynamics to keep things lively.  Meanwhile Repko croons his heart out and shows that he wears his soul on his sleeve when singing.  “About Last Night” sheds the rock n’ roll fervor of the prior 2 tracks for sweeping acoustics, soaring chorus vocals and a soundtrack grandeur (breathtaking string arrangements are a plus), making for the type of song that could anchor a Hollywood film score. 

Changing the game again, “Inside of Me” is a bit-sized chunk of poppy guitar rock with punk’s simplicity informing a textured, harmony-rich affair.  “On the Run” returns to the southern-kissed atmosphere of “She Loves Me,” blending folk, country and rock influences into one stellar piece of songwriting benefitting from the stellar lead vocals of Repko and his backing band’s subtle support harmonies.  Rounding this EP out, “Bye Bye Baby” is a soft, gentle acoustic number with emotionally-charged vocals giving way to major pop hooks that you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. 

Rhett Repko’s EP About Last Night is a track for track winner that hints at a bright future for the musician.  Not only does he sing and play on all of his tracks, he writes them from the ground up as well.  It will be exciting to see where he takes this sound on a full-length outing but for now this EP is a great introduction to an artist that everybody should keep an eye on.  

Circus of the West - We'll See Ourselves Out (2017)

Written by Jay Snyder, posted by blog admin

Minnesota’s Circus of the West peddle a hard to pin down sound that probably has a similar taste and intoxicating effect that the best wagon-sold, ol’ time remedies.  The rousing musicianship and startling genre shifts contained on their debut We’ll See Ourselves Out is a testament to the fact that real rock n’ roll bands still exist in a crowded pack of formula.  Opener “Birdhand” is devoid of formula and certainly the better for it; a wispy 60s organ lick slammed into place by punchy punk percussion, rollicking bass grooves, acoustic/electric guitar shake-ups and composer/front man Edwin Caldie’s elegant lead vocals creating a rocking signature that’s absolutely made for the live-setting (like all good rock music should be). 

It absolutely foretells the fortune and fate of the music to come with the immediately hook-y, pop-inflected vocals melodies, stop/start guitar licks and breathy rhythmic exhales of “Some Connections” coming across as modern rock radio flair with an identity all of its own.  The massive chorus vocal harmonies will fondly conjure images of The Beatles and King’s X even if the music is like pop punk gone country and classic rock.  “Boxes’” twitchy, angular rhythms are led by bassist Jason Kapel’s teeth-gnashing grooves and Joel Leviton’s crunchy electric guitar further defining the bottom while Ben Court provides alternating acoustic/electric lead.  This one’s got some snarl and edge beneath the uplifting push of the vocals and tempo changes.

“Nothing Special” begins with Caldie tapping out a piano melody to match his vibrato-
smoothened, blues-based lead vocals while little bursts of electric guitar and acoustic make for a very atmospheric piece (Kapel’s 2nd layer of keys only adds more to the audio alchemy).  Edwin’s voice also starts off soft and finally goes for some cathartic tension release with a howling presence that is perfectly harmonized by Kapel.  The hard rock, western gospel fury of “Resurrection” excels thanks to fuzzy, hickory smoked riffs whipping across the busy snare/cymbal crunch and wailing church organs (see the 5:00 minute mark for absolute resolution where a towering riff joins the gospel keys).

A plaintive 6-string lick, pop synthesizers, tranquil drum/bass drones and a relaxed vocal presence make “Valentine Eye” the perfect stop for respite and refreshment after the show-stealing thunder of “Resurrection,” as it provides a gracious mellowness before “Looking In” tears down the asphalt in what can only be described as Joey Ramone’s songwriting threaded into a classic southern rock track.  “Finale’s” neoclassical arrangements and Flamenco-schemed guitars melodies ram into some serious guitar rock, whereas “Asma” is a bass heavy funk rocker that illustrates another 1-2 songwriting switch whenever “More” dig into poignant melodicism.  Closer “Epilogue” is an aching, heartbreak heavy country/blues number that’s only fault is that it is over before it takes off. 

We’ll See Ourselves Out is track for track an outstanding release by Circus of the West.  These cats are going to be one of the top bands to watch out for in the crowd of listeners that enjoy authentic, original rock n’ roll. They are off to a fantastic start and I’m hard pressed to find how they can develop even more for the next disc. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Julia McDonald - Gravity (2016)

Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

Keyboard-driven synth pop is the order of the day from singer/songwriter Julia McDonald.  The 19 year old sounds as good as any of the big leaguers on her debut EP, Gravity.  It’s evident from the rich textures and layered arrangements on the title track, that Julia is a force to be reckoned with.  Well-spaced keyboard twinkles, sparse acoustic guitar strum and McDonald’s quaking vibrato get things off to a captivating start, holding interest until the tune picks up with booming percussion and a deep well of cosmic keyboards that are spearheaded in by the singer’s dramatic rise in vocal volume.  Eventually, the tune settles on a swirling, mid-tempo pop number that’s exotic as it is infectious. 

The dance-y “Games” benefits from rapid fire, near rapped vocals that end up as an exciting stream of consciousness flow bouncing atop tropical drum beats and energetic guitar runs.  This song is a testament to Julia’s vocal ability, the strengths of her songwriting and the exciting working relationship she possesses with producer/co-writer Tavie Basarich.  A simple, pop-inflected chorus jets this piece into the stratosphere and renders it the catchiest track of the entire bunch.  “Pretty Committee” has a dipping, undulating r & b flavor cresting on a smooth groove beat and trippy bass lines while the lyrics attack the popular make-up crowd with hurried vocal melodies that have plenty of smarts. 

Piano opens “No Good for Me” as it layers more and more synthesizers onto the foundation with each passing measure of the verse until the chorus gives way in melodic key splashes and hearty soul vocals.  Another standout takes shape in the acoustic sweetness of “Something to talk about,” a more rock-leaned piece where the percussion stomps and the verse grooves shapeshift into an ethereal chorus.  Closer “Simpler Things” incorporates pure dub and electronica into the mix with the kind of pulse that would light up a rave in the wee hours of the morning as everyone gets ready to head home. 

Gravity is a charming, affecting EP from Julia McDonald that bullies pop into something greater thanks to its street smarts.  The songwriting utilizes bits and pieces of other genres for effect, while McDonald’s voice sound great whether working up an endless, rhyming flow or going to the heart of the lyric in a soulful croon.  If you’re tired of by the numbers sugar sweet pop, Julia McDonald’s music is an exciting discovery because it isn’t afraid to draw from multiple genres and thread them into an intricately woven fabric. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Jackson Howard - Just for the Mystery (2017)

Written by Lance Wright, posted by blog admin

Jackson Howard’s journey from a St. Louis upbringing to the precipice of global recognition is an ever timely reminder that talent will still win out. The thirteen song second album from Howard, Just for the Mystery, further elaborates on the prodigious skill his debut demonstrated and shows a young artist growing by leaps and bounds in both his confidence and skill level. It, naturally, helps Howard’s development that he’s logged a significant amount of time on the road since his first release and has a full slate of dates across the country scheduled for this year. The frequent interactions with live audiences and the exposure provided by traveling the country and seeing so many various walks of life surely proves to be helpful fodder for his expanding songwriting vision. Just for the Mystery is an across the board winner and avoids the sadly inevitable filler compromising some second efforts.

The album starts off with the title song. “Just for the Mystery” gives newcomers a nice overview of Howard’s talents on a number of fronts and has a tempered amount of ambition for getting this sort of material over with listeners. He obviously elevates the AOR form some with his focus on incisive, sharply written lyrics and nuanced musical landscapes, but he’s obviously steered this song towards achieving mainstream appeal. A gossamer thin sheen of keyboards opens “Run With Me” before it settles into an acoustic setting and some particularly atmospheric vocals from Howard. The lyrics don’t aspire to some sort of pseudo poetic posturing – instead, they are eloquently conversational without ever over-reaching for their effects. His cover of the Led Zeppelin IV classic “The Battle of Evermore” is revelatory in the best possible way. It’s pulled away from its Celtic roots and give a much bluesier feel than what we are accustomed to for this track and almost has a country twang that marks it apart even more. Rachel Horter’s contributions to the track are every bit the equal of Sandy Denny’s on the original Led Zeppelin track and Howard turns in one of his most emotive performances on the release.

Acoustic guitar and piano are the musical focal points of “Surround You” and Howard turns in another yearning vocal full of warmth and melody. “This Town” is another acoustic based track with stronger narrative qualities than many of the other numbers on Just for the Mystery and Howard gets over those storytelling aspects with an attentive and charismatic vocal. Outside a light smattering of keyboards, acoustic guitar steers “You Are More” much of the way and plays off very neatly against Howard’s ever appealing voice. The album concludes with its second cover, one that shows Howard’s comfort with surprising his listeners. “Unbelievable” revisits the early nineties smash for British dance pop rockers EMF to remarkable effect peeling away its electronica elements in favor of a straight forward rocker. It concludes with an exclamation point maintaining the same energy that its sustained from the first. Just for the Mystery is an across the board winner for anyone willing to explore its riches.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Kittens Slay Dragons - Big Big Heart (2017)

Written by Aaron Ellis, posted by blog admin

Sarah Donner’s electronica project, Kittens Slay Dragons, is definitely s departure from the folk offerings she has customarily served up for listeners. The ten song collection covers a remarkable amount of stylistic ground despite confining itself to a musical style not often associated with moments of expansive beauty. The electronic side of Big Big Heart radiates genuine warmth and musicality that experienced listeners, perhaps, may not expect when they dive into Big Big Heart for the first time. Much of the album’s success can be rightly subscribed to the power of Donner’s voice to overcome any musical backing. Her voice is the guiding force behind this release, much more than any electronic backing, and brings listeners into each song with much in the way of preamble. Big Big Heart is equal parts enlightening and entertaining.

“Gatekeeper” is an outstanding beginning to the project. There’s a wellspring of emotion coming from Donner’s voice that’s impossible to ignore and it’s juxtaposed against an electronic backing track that’s bright, warm, and lively. It’s an excellent introduction to the style of the album and its consistent strengths. The shimmering synthesizer opening to “Smile Pretty” helps sets the stage for one of Big Big Heart’s best numbers. The slowly developing vocal melody plays quite well off against the kinetic electronic backing and she once again invests a style not typically known for its emotive depths with a voice that aches, yearns, and hits its mark each time out. The throbbing synthesizer cloud opening “Love Is Surgery” is soon joined by a steady pulse and lightly colored synthesizer fills lay over top. The vocal melody is relatively simple, but draws you in immediately; it’s the chorus, however, that finds Donner’s vocal reaching the song’s peak, but it’s handled with artful restraint. The title song is much more remarkable in every respect. Donner’s dream-like vocal melody has a graceful lilt lacking from even the finest tracks elsewhere on this album and when she unleashes the full force of emotional power, the song benefits even more. There’s some discreet backing vocals incorporated into this song that further sweeten the performance.

“Queer and Square” has a fat bass thud and swirling synth lines as a setting for one of Donner’s most emphatic vocals. She conjures a genuine bite for this number that she bears down on even more with the song’s chorus. The late album track “Symbols in the Sky” has a stronger groove than anything so far on Big Big Heart, but she never neglects making melody an important facet of the song’s success. “Eggs” is another surprising cut. Electric piano dispels the synthesizer spell hanging over much of the album and represents one of the best pieces of writing on this recording. Her vocals bring the same mix of technical excellence and impassioned self-expression that define many of the other songs, but it’s even greater here and she’ll leave many feeling rather breathless by her virtuoso talents. Kittens Slay Dragons’ Big Big Heart is one of the best electronica based releases in recent memory and has the sort of vulnerability coupled with immense artistry we’re lucky to find on any modern album.