Tuesday, November 28, 2017

EZLA - Outcasts (2017)

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Written by Jay Snyder, posted by blog admin

EZLA jumpstarted her music career by moving to Nashville, TN; the rich breeding ground that has given us countless legendary country artists to admire.  On her debut EP, Outcasts, EZLA shows no signs of the signature Nashville twang or the brooding acoustic guitars that launched many superstars over the years.  The music is a dark, clubby trip with explicit lyrics, smoky vocals and inventive beats that establish a creeping, crawling trip full of oblique yet punchy grooves. 
The title track is a perfect example of EZLA’s freaky, oddball aural tendencies; a thumping, bass-centered pulse moves at a chunky mid-tempo as layers of warped keyboards wash and wax the darkness until an infectiously cathartic chorus drives the hook home for good.  Not only does the production provide an excellent integration of the singer/songwriter’s intricate, densely layered instrumentation but it fully features her slightly raspy and surprisingly limber vocal theatrics in all of their hypnotizing glory.  EZLA is far from a pop princess, but she’s got a knack for inserting the genre’s strongest melodies into more progressive fare that challenges the listener to hear outside of the box and any preconceived notions.  

Lively, rhythmic vocal flows and dynamic wordplay charges “Skeletons” vulgar, no holds barred lyrical approach with bleak frankness. The chorus is particularly noteworthy for its repeated mantra of “sipping on souls like coke and rum”, while the synths go from subwoofer rumble to spiraling triumph.  It’s a brave stylistic division that sports numerous, impressive valley to peak transitions.  “Satellites” tells a moody story of love and drugs, effectively launching straight into pushing, pulling vocal patterns backed by electronica-flavored ambience and an economical beat.  Each subsequent verse piles on subtle synth textures; eventually giving way to a jazzy trip-hop chorus that instantly gets stuck in your head.
“Hangman” culls some influence from rap, dub and trip-hop as EZLA goes straight into a wordy, yet well-delivered, rhyming couplet that almost has too many syllables to work properly but, somehow, she never loses the flow.  The energetic bass tremors insistently drive the tune forward while atmospheric splashes of looping, street smart keyboards preclude somber frequency changes that swirl and oscillate until radiating waves after wave of shifty, paranoid darkwave pop euphoria.  Closer “Psycho Killers” still dwells in the caverns of minimalism but engages the listener with a thudding, techno-leaned bump n’ grind and soon thereafter introduces terrifying pitch-shifted vocals.  It’s easily the EP’s weirdest, strangest standout track.  The boiling, bubbling vat of subdued evil could have easily landed EZLA on a bill with Twitch-era Ministry or Ruby’s sleazy noise/trip-hop heard on her 1995 album oddity, Salt Peter.  

Despite EZLA’s fondness for pop sensibility, there’s a demented side to Outcasts that you just don’t get from similar artists.  This stuff feels ambitious, artistic and rebellious even during its sweetest arrangements.  EZLA is a fiendish, freaky and fun all around talent.   

Monday, November 13, 2017

Nick Black - Summer & Spring (2017)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

Nick Black’s Summer & Spring is the third album from a young singer and musician whose ascent shows no sign of slowing down. It’s quite rewarding to encounter a young guitar virtuoso who knows just how to incorporate his playing into a larger framework rather than leaning on flashy six string heroics in some misguided attempt to guide the performance. There’s nothing heavy handed in these thirteen songs. Instead, Summer & Spring is guided by an artful sensibility that harkens back to an earlier time in the genre’s history and never risks the self indulgence so typically common to younger performers trying this style on for size. It is more than a outstanding successor to his 2015 Deep Blue – Nick Black’s Summer & Spring does what the aforementioned album did by expanding and building on the possibilities his talent affords.

“Joy to the Girl” makes total sense as one of the album’s first singles and moves effortlessly through an assortment of funky turns that the twenty eight year old never seems out of place delivering. Any silly notions about a white performer being able to carry off this style are misguided, to put it mildly, but whatever remaining doubts are in the heads of listeners should be laid to rest by a single performance like this. He shows off a more economical, thoughtful side with the album’s title cut and it has an effortless glide made even sweeter by on point production. Black co-produced the album with James Bennett and each of the thirteen tracks glows with a high gloss aural shine that gives every instrument in the mix clarity and warmth. “Nick at Night” might be regarded as a throwaway tune by some, but it’s good fun to hear and wisely doesn’t stick around long enough to try the patience of Black’s audience. He transitions without so much as a hiccup to more serious strands of “Change” and his ability to sound equally at home on more adult numbers and smirking jazz jumpers like “Nick at Night” is a further indication of how his talents have evolved in a major way since 2015.

The steady stride of “Neighbor” comes from a radio-ready take on AOR rock that isn’t in great supply on this album, but nonetheless makes a deep impact when it appears. He’s clearly comfortable with this style and the drumming provides a real urgency for this song that puts it over the top. The contrast between this song and “When the Morning Comes” could hardly be more pronounced. The latter is, far and away, the most funkafied number on Summer & Spring with Black and his band mates putting on a virtual clinic for listeners and taking them on a mind-twisting ride. “Diamonds” has a funky edge as well, but it is less pronounced than what we hear on other numbers and spun a little with a polyrhythmic feel. The percussion is especially effective. Nick Black covers a lot of musical ground over the course of these thirteen tracks and it makes for a satisfying trip for both casual fans and longtime hardcore music fans.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Black Note Graffiti - Volume 2: Without Nothing I'm You (2017)

Written by Larry Robertson, posted by blog admin

Black Note Graffiti’s second studio album Volume 2: Without Nothing I’m You immediately ranks as one of the best modern rock albums released in 2017. They have found a fiery mix of metal riffing and alternative rock that sparks in a way few bands dabbling in this vein have achieved in some time. The first album from the band, 2013’s Volume 1, certainly served notice that a promising guitar driven act was emerging who carried the potential to revitalize, in some way, an increasingly moribund style. They expand upon and realize that promise with this eleven song collection distinguished by the intelligence and focus of its compositions as well as the delightful amount of nuance they manage to work into a style not particularly renowned for its nuance.

“No Love Lost” is tough minded hard rock with metal influences running throughout the length of the tune. Ortiz turns in an often blistering vocal that shows moments, as well, of real nuance. The rhythm section of drummer Kurt Keller and bassist Adam Nine are essential to many of these songs delivering the impact they do, but they are particularly important to the sound of “No Love Lost”. “Such is Art” takes on a stronger metal hue than many of the other songs and Ortiz sinks his vocal teeth into this song. The guitar sound, concentrating on often staccato power chord riffing and rhythm work, could easily risk a cold and sterile sound, but it never does. This is a song that reveals the intelligence driving their work while never sacrificing any of their ability for entertaining a rock audience. When the band lets “False Start” fly, it’s a marvel of pure rock and roll energy with a Ricardo Ortiz vocal that nicely contrasts it. Drummer Kurt Keller really stands out here and guides the band through a handful of tempo changes without ever losing any of his drive or missing the beat.

“Bars from the Cages”, however, aims for more evocative musical effects and achieves them by mingling a melodic flavor into their typical riff heavy approach. The band’s vocal approach here likewise sets it apart from most songs on Volume 2, but they actually take things a step further with the next song. “Shadows” has an extended introduction that’s quite unlike anything else on Volume 2, particularly the percussion, and does a stellar job of setting a mood before the song truly begins. Some of the best guitar work on Volume 2 from Kris Keller and vocalist/second guitarist Ricardo Ortiz turns the heat up even higher on this performance. “Why We Trust” isn’t an especially happy tune, as its distorted and slightly dissonant guitars make clear from the first, but it has enough musically compelling elements that the listener doesn’t feel like it’s a chore to hear it. “Relapse” affords the rhythm section another chance to sign and certainly continues the band’s wont for heavy duty subject matter, but it’s delivered with such exhilarating physicality, even when its mid-tempo, that fans of guitar rock will find it impossible to resist.

“Natural” is one of the album’s best hard rock numbers and even strikes a bit of a classic sound thanks to the way the bass and drums work together. It pairs up nicely with the equally hard hitting, but a little more melodic, “Wicked Ways”. Black Note Graffiti, just recently, added a fifth member with the enlistment of vocalist Gabrielle Bryant and it’s tantalizing to speculate how these songs will sound different with a new singer and what changes that will have on the band’s sound. None are likely to be negative. There’s a sense of destiny surrounding bands with this level of talent and every indication on Volume 2 says it’s potential to be realized in full.

Monday, November 6, 2017

YYY - A Tribute to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (2017)

Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

A Tribute to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is a fourteen song effort from Minneapolis based performer Austin Carson, working under the name YYY, and puts to good use an all star cast of local and regional talent to help realize Carlson’s vision for the collection. It doesn’t attempt to merely mimic the sound and design of the classic Beach Boys album. Instead, it touches on the bedrock musical qualities of the songs while finding new veins of riches to mine in these well known compositions. Pet Sounds and its top billed numbers are not just songs anymore; they have become part of our cultural lexicon, associated with movies, commercials, moments in our experience. However, like the greatest songs, the tracks on Pet Sounds are elastic compositions and Austin Carson is intent on stretching them, reshaping them into what they mean to him. It’s staggeringly ambitious, but he makes it work with room to spare.

YYY’s project , naturally, duplicates the exact running order of Pet Sounds so the album kicks off with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and it’s immediately interesting what elements of the original YYY decides to keep and what he decides to jettison. He remains faithful to the vocal aspects of the band’s presentation, arguably their trademark, while essential refurbishing everything else. His approach on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” is certainly recorded and arranged in a more minimalist way than we are accustomed to hearing The Beach Boys’ music portrayed, but it is telling about his connection to the music that no amount of dissembling or rebuilding ever disconnects these songs from their roots entirely. The pensive yet often quite colorful electronic arrangement is nicely contrasted with the supernaturally ethereal vocals from City Counselor. The evocative production is, in its own way, every bit as effective and distinctive on Carlson’s album as it is on Pet Sounds. He has a wildly dramatic ear for sound and constructs reinterpretations of Wilson’s original writing without ever coming off too respectful, but yet always nodding to his source material.

The shimmering and revolving synth lines opening “That’s Not Me” provides an ideal accompaniment to some more of YYY’s flawless vocal arrangement. There’s a great intimate quality to his voice, quite alive, and it meshes well with the music thanks to a keen eared mix. This is one of the iconic album’s lesser known numbers, but YYY devotes every bit as much attention to these songs as he does the more renowned numbers. The inclusion of echo-laden guitar on this song is particularly effective. “I’m Waiting for the Day” is another of the album’s deeper cuts and its relatively straight-forward sentiments of yearning and desire rise to the level of high art thanks to the contributions from guests like LOTT and Zinna. He uses a lot of female voices on this tribute and it gives the Beach Boys material an unexpectedly entertaining twist. His re-imagining of “Sloop John B” features the talents of Al Church and the vocal has open-hearted emotiveness that gives it a soulful note amidst all the electronica. This song is about yearning and nostalgia, as are many of the tracks on Pet Sounds, and the deep intuitive understanding he shows of the material is a big reason why this tribute is so successful on multiple levels.

Matthew Jon’s contributions to “God Only Knows”, another of the album’s iconic numbers, is equally vital and makes for another of the finer moments on YYY’s release. Lydia Liza and Cold Moon make a difference on the song “Hang On to Your Ego”, one of the album’s briefer songs, but a rather boisterous number nonetheless. The thunderous backbeat powering the song gives a firm foundation for the quicksilver synth lines flashing and flaring to life. One of the more affecting moments on YYY’s tribute comes with his version of “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” thanks to the understated passion and overall emotional depth that YYY and guests Devata Daun and C.Kostra are able to bring to the performance. The crowning achievement of YYY’s release, as it arguably is on Pet Sounds and there’s a real sense of orchestration in how he brings his interpretation together. This is a wildly ambitious effort by any stretch of the imagination and his talents for bringing something of himself to these songs remakes them into something uniquely his own. As tribute albums go, there’s nothing quite like YYY’s A Tribute to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.