Thursday, September 21, 2017

Sarah Donner - Black Hole Heart (2016)

Written by William Cline, posted by blog admin

New Jersey headquartered singer/songwriter Sarah Donner has earned a certain amount of cachet in indie circles thanks to the success of her track “The Motherf**cking Pterodactyl Song”, but her talents extend much further than entertaining audiences with her wit and idiosyncratic sense of humor. The release Black Hole Heart amply illustrates this point. The album’s twelve songs bristle with effortless musicality thanks to her melodic gifts and fluid guitar playing, but their quality is largely driven by the light touch of her emotive vocals and exceptional songwriting skills. There’s a variety of emotions driving the tracks on this release, but those emotions are all united by a guiding intelligence and fully developed artistic sensibility that’s rare in both the mainstream and indie scene alike. There are few performers today who wield such a compelling balance of probing intimacy and full on musical ingenuity.

“Phoenix” explores a relatively common but durable metaphor in the arts and with loose, easy going confidence embodied by the acoustic guitar work and Donner’s vocal. She conveys the message behind the song with clear as a bell singing, but her emotive qualities help her stand out much more. Coupling her emotive range with evocative lyrics lightly touching on the myth underpinning the concept while artfully connecting them to her every day reality is the cherry on top of this delicious confection.  The title song has a sense of the grand surround it that’s inescapable – it’s due to two different factors contributing to this. The first is the lightly orchestration defining the track’s construction and the second is Donner’s masterfully handled vocal. Her voice is simply towering at key points during this track. Her storytelling powers emerge in full on the track “Tamsen Donner 1847” and the understated despair behind the narrative is nicely tempered by the sensitivity and devotion of Donner’s narrator. The musical accompaniment is understated as well but it has a crystalline beauty that’s quite appropriate for the track.

She brings organ and trumpet into play on “The Flood”, but they never assume any sort of dominant role and Donner does a superb job incorporating the instruments into her customary approach. Donner continues indulging her penchant for myth and metaphor with the track “Albatross” and it’s one of the album’s most successful straight ahead folk songs. There’s some double-tracking of Donner’s vocal during this performance that creates some interesting effects, especially because of her highly stylized take on this song. “Big Big Heart” is a piano driven ballad and speaks with an unflinchingly vulnerable voice. The lyrics are the sort that says more than their mere words convey and work splendidly within this arrangement. Even the most cynical music fan will find it difficult to not admire the sentiment and style informing this gem. One of the more special tracks distinguishing Black Hole Heart is “All The Things”. The terse acoustic guitar, fluid percussion, and duet vocal from Donner and guest Michael McLean are about as perfectly realized as such a piece could ever hope to be.  It’s moments like this performance and many others that make Sarah Donner’s Black Hole Heart such an enjoyable and rewarding musical experience.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Grace Freeman - Shadow (2017)

Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Grace Freeman’s solo debut Shadow sets the bar high for this impressive songwriter’s future releases. The eleven song collection of originals positions the nineteen year old prodigy as one of the most promising songwriting talents to emerge on the scene in recent years and it is frankly only a matter of time until she garners widespread exposure. This isn’t your typical quivering and sensitive release from a songwriter with delusions of the poetic. Freeman is a fine writer, a fact evident from the first track alone, and has a sure hand for seamlessly molding her lyrical explorations into the larger framework of her songwriting. Her vocal talents aren’t confined to the ethereal; there are more than a few instances where she’s able to bring impressive gravitas to performances despite her higher register vocal gifts. Shadow is a worthwhile purchase for anyone interested in top flight adult songwriting and thoughtful musical composition.

“Oliver” is a character study of sorts that ends up, by its conclusion, saying just as much about the songwriter as it does any outside subject. The lyrical eloquence of the acoustic guitar playing is excellent accompaniment for Freeman’s lyrics and vocals but, moreover, it doesn’t belabor any musical points and resolutely avoids even a hint of self indulgence. “Shadow” takes a decidedly different tack. Rather than focusing on acoustic guitar, the title song makes use of tasteful rhythm section work and evocative piano playing that unwinds with considerable melodic grace. The most commercially minded cut on Shadow, “Trying to Say Goodbye”, exerts a widespread appeal not because Freeman dumbs down her presentation in an effort to earn increased attention but because Freeman explores another side of her talent and produces something intensely catchy and melodic. “Another Long Night” is solidly in the singer/songwriter tradition and a very melancholy tune that finds Freeman in a reflective, slightly downcast state.

“Dreams” has a nice, striding quality despite being built around the acoustic guitar. The slightly exotic flair of the melody differs from a lot of the other tracks on Shadow but never sounds out of place despite its upbeat slant. It’s a different story on “Muddy Puddles”, however, as Freeman returns to her customary formula with the extra bonus of some exceptional writing that stands out even amongst the other artfully turned compositions on Shadow. She hits another peak with the cawing, surprisingly wide emotional range of “God Forbid”, a track that moves from palpable hurt, sarcasm, and biting criticism that never goes too far in any particular direction. The musical arrangement gives the lyric a more pronounced dramatic edge. Shadow closes with the enigmatic poetics of “Gemini”, but Freeman doesn’t revel in obscurity and a keen ear and mind will form their own interpretations of this track. It ends Shadow on an appropriately thoughtful note and clearly points the way to Freeman’s bright future.

Monday, September 18, 2017

KALO - Wild Change (2017)

Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Bat-Or Kalo has attracted a lot of much deserved attention for her scintillating guitar work and dramatic, heavily emotive vocals, but her three piece KALO is a band that brings the goods across the board. The interplay between Kalo’s six string, vocals, and the rhythm section of bassist Mack McKinney and drummer Mike Alexander pops the band’s latest release Wild Change from the beginning and retains its capacity to entertain over different styles. This band has garnered plum concert and festival spots and numerous laurels since their formation and this release, their fourth overall, seems to be geared in such a way that it will expand their growing profile on the scene. It is unlikely KALO wants to be confined to the roots music genre and everything about this offering suggests that they shouldn’t be. They may be influenced by traditional blues, funk, and R&B, but they present a thoroughly modern product for listeners.

The blues dominates much of the album. It’s gritty, amps dialed to ten, electrified blues with immediate presence and Kalo’s vocals are forceful each time out. “One Mississippi”, “Isabel”, “Fix”, the title song, and the second to last cut “Bad Girl” embody the various approaches that KALO uses to tackle this venerable form. “Isabel”, the title cut, and “Bad Girl” rely on a brawling, intense instrumental attack that overwhelms listeners every bit as much as they bewitch them with skill. “One Mississippi”, the album’s opener, and “Fix” are a little more sedate in comparison and focus on a more commercial side of their approach without ever lapsing into cheap vulgarity. The band goes in for some stabs at R&B and even funk on songs like “Upside Down” and “Pay to Play”. The first one incorporates brass into the musical arrangement with great success – Kalo seems to delight in playing her voice off against these added instruments. The second track, “Pay to Play”, is a delicious groove-oriented attempt to craft a hard funk tune and succeeds quite nicely. Kalo’s guitar isn’t far from the spotlight on either song, particularly the second, and it concludes “Pay to Play” on an impactful note.

The band has other surprises in store for listeners. They come late on Wild Change, but the acoustic “Smile and Blush” and the album’s final curtain “Calling All Dreamers” help bring the album to a wafting, gentle conclusion even with the blasting “Bad Girl” sandwiched in between both songs. “Smile and Blush” is a little more musically involved than the last song, but the spartan beauty of “Calling All Dreamers” is quite appropriate given the subject matter. It also shows off another way that the trio approaches vocals – the vocal arrangements on each tune help highlight the band’s possibly underrated lyrical content and the sheer solidity behind their songwriting. Wild Change provides ample evidence that this three piece is growing in talent and power with each new release. KALO packs quite a wallop, as it is, and they play like musicians who refuse to be denied.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Dust of Days - Analog Mind Bender (2017)

Written by Larry Robertson, posted by blog admin

New Jersey based four piece Dust of Days has released a blazing sheet of modern guitar rock colorfully titled Analog Mind Bender and the title, in crucial ways, is oddly reflective of their aims. There is certainly a throwback vibe surrounding their reliance on rough hewn guitars and a rambunctious rhythm section while they prove themselves equally capable of confounding expectations and bending minds thanks to the personal qualities inherent to the songwriting and their thoroughly modern presentation. This is rock, revamped for our modern age, and lays down the gauntlet for novices and those intimately familiar with the genre. The dozen songs on this collection marks the band’s second full length album and third release overall but, unlike earlier efforts, this one is born out of personal pain and tackles weightier subject matter than we’ve thus far heard from them. The impressive production adds ample punch to the band’s musings and few who stick with the album through its conclusion will walk away from it unsatisfied by the experience.

They definitely conjure up the storm of sound so emblematic of alternative rock but, as the opener and title track illustrate, are adept at sprinkling little melodic touches over the arrangements that spin them in different directions. The straight ahead riffing underlying the title song is further distinguished by chiming guitar fills interspersed into the track. It gives the song a small, but significant, added lilt. “Mustang” has a bit of a dark, dissonant undertow casting a shadow over its mid-tempo pace. It has a relatively unusual and definitely dramatic structure that the vocal makes the most of. There are no instrumental breaks in this song, per se, and the melodic touches heard on the opener are forsaken here in favor of dynamics. “Heavy” sports one of the album’s best riffs and the revolving, hypnotic feel of both the guitar riffing is complemented well by the lead vocal. The raucous guitar breaks in the song pull the guitars into jagged thrashing that locks into the song’s mood quite nicely. The light and dark of “Little Angel” is another example of the band making dynamics work for them and the rhythm section is particularly effective. This is, arguably, the album’s most atmospheric number yet and there’s no sense of the band straining for effect.

The airy gravity of “My Dear” is streaked with more than a little melancholy and builds on the atmospheric potential we heard in the previous number. The near-hushed lead vocal is quite memorable, but the lead guitar coming before the two minute mark and near the song’s conclusion put an exclamation point on the performance like nothing else can. They are extraordinarily sympathetic to the song’s mood and stay dialed into it throughout. “Porcelain” is very reminiscent. The expansiveness they achieve in less than four minutes is far greater than what many bands can manage in twice as much time. This is one of the album’s indisputable highlights and an all around fantastic performance, particularly from the guitar work and vocals. Analog Mind Bender’s conclusion, “Ghosts”, is interesting for a number of reasons. The song, structurally, is fragmented into two distinct halves with a brief interlude separating them. The first part of the song runs a little over two minutes and features whispered vocals alongside a foreboding acoustic guitar figure. The second half begins a little less than a minute later and has a distinctly different texture. It’s primarily centered on electronic backing with a dramatic, glowering vocal looming over it all. It ends the album on a dark note, but the impressive overall musical statement they’ve made with this release supersedes our comfort with its emotional tenor. Analog Mind Bender is substantive, challenging, and full of surprises. It represents Dust of Days’ finest moment thus far.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Chris Murphy - Hard Bargain (2017)

VIDEO: (“Cape Horn”)

Written by Larry Robertson, posted by blog admin

Chris Murphy’s increasingly extensive discography is a testament to the endless riches a creative songwriter can mine. Murphy, renowned for his virtuosity on violin, is a multi-instrumentalist who earns the bulk of his living from teaching but also rates among the best songwriters working today. His numerous albums and live appearances showcase a songwriter capable of working within any form and an instrumentalist who has never met a risk he wouldn’t take. It rewards audiences with an astonishing variety of voices in his songs – Murphy is just as comfortable working in blues as he is delivering something much more in a singer/songwriter vein and more musically challenging. He recorded his latest album Hard Bargain in front of a live audience and the recording features only his violin, guitar, mandolin, stomp box, and voice. The set he runs through features songs distinctly darker than usual and often grounded in straight forward blues changes. It’s an all around excellent listening experience.

The title track will be the first one to leave many riveted. He transitions from the cinematically pastoral feel of the opener “Caves of Killala” into the pared down blues of “Hard Bargain” without losing any momentum. Indeed, he makes the transition sound quite natural – the folk poses of the first track dovetail nicely into the unadorned simplicity of the title track and Murphy adjust his voice accordingly and without a misstep. “Ain’t No Place” aspires to gospel spiritual and takes on the language of those classic songs to great effect. Murphy doesn’t rely on that language alone and his emotive fire provides the extra spark to make this song truly his own. His identity is stamped all over “Bugs Salcido”, a meditative tale powered by a stream of staccato imagery that does an admirable job of storytelling. Murphy’s vocal plays it just right, never over-exaggerating a single passage, and this confluence of choices results in one of the album’s best tracks.

“White Noise” has a clear structure and familiar changes that a lot of listeners outside Murphy’s usual purview might latch onto. It certainly lights up the audience and the even catchier follow up “Last Bridge” brings the crowd to a full on roar. Murphy throws himself headlong into the latter song and sings verses and choruses alike with such striding confidence that the energy carries you away. “Prevailing Winds” has many of the same qualities as the preceding two songs, but Murphy develops the song’s melodic payoffs in a much less condensed fashion and the longer build proves as satisfying in its own way. “Trust” careens through an assortment of musical moods and affords Murphy a chance to stretch out instrumentally without ever risking over indulgence. He brings things to a thoughtful, yet decidedly gray, ending with the song “Friend”. For a final time on this album, the “I” in a Chris Murphy song finds himself in desperate situations and can’t romanticize his plight. Murphy really gets over the back against the wall atmosphere of the lyrical content and provides himself some remarkably sympathetic accompaniment. It closes this powerful release on one of its highest notes.