Thursday, January 25, 2018

Shofar - s/t (2017)

Written by Laura Dodero, posted by blog admin

Shofar is as likeable as they come. Rarely does a band show such a talent for crunchy guitar rock balanced out with an equally attention-grabbing melodic bent. The native Minnesota quintet has a couple of releases already under their belt, but they’ve been inactive as a recording unit for some time now and their self-titled EP release represents the band’s first officially released recordings since 2005’s Turn. Larry Hagner is the band’s primary artistic force, serving as both songwriter and lead singer, but the six songs on this release make it abundantly clear this is a group effort in every important sense and Hagner’s collaborators help him realize his ambitions for the material without ever compromising or obscuring his voice. This EP is as fine as any release in 2017, indie or mainstream, and is certain to build momentum for a memorable 2018.

They waste no time grabbing listeners by the ear. “Running’ is a visceral, urgent tune with rambunctious guitar pyrotechnics and hard-hitting drumming. It’s one of the harder edged tunes on the self-titled EP, only lightening ever so slightly with a more measured approach during the verses,  Despite the weighty subject matter, the track’s built from a beguiling set of changes and much more melodic than the opening number. Guitar is still a prominent instrument in the mix, but there’s a distinctly different feel than listeners experience with the first song. The drummer is consistently strong throughout the EP and one of its high points surprisingly comes with the song “Shades of Grey” because, in essence, it acts as a sort of counterpoint to the lighter strains of its guitar attack and emphasis on melody. Larry Hagner’s vocal on the song “Hands Down” rates as my personal highlight for the EP’s singing performances. It’s the straightest rock tune, both musically and lyrically, on the release and has some charged transitions that linger in the memory, What a song.

There’s no real drop off with the next track. “Countdown” unflinchingly tackles the literal end of the world for its subject matter and sets it alongside a sensitive, piano-focused arrangement for memorable contrast. It’s the song with the lightest touch on Shofar’s new recording but shows their uncompromising spirit without resorting to power chord guitar heroics. Shofar’s personal beliefs artfully shine through on the EP’s conclusion “The Coming” and it’s both entertaining and illuminating. There’s a little of the hard hitting guitar attack we’ve heard on earlier tracks, but it has a more experimental and dream-like edge than anything else they’ve included on the EP. This release should bring Shofar back in a big way while also whetting the appetite for a future full length hopefully to soon follow. This is vital music full of conviction.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Man Called Noon - Everybody Move (2017)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

The punchy pop sprightliness underpinning even the rockiest moments of Man Called Noon’s Everybody Move incorporates other strands without ever coming off as too cluttered or overreaching. The three song EP is short, but covers an astonishing amount of musical ground within that short space of time and never fails to crackle with life. Everybody Move’s songs reach an impressive maturity level while remaining condensed musical efforts that never risk self indulgence. Man Called Noon achieves a specific sound for the release, as well, that has across the board consistency and a warm, organic quality despite the numerous effects applied to the instruments. This is a physical rock band with a modern aggressiveness in their attack that deserves widespread attention. They’ll likely get what they’re hoping for with the release of Everybody Move.

The title song is a masterful piece of musical construction that never bites off anymore than it can chew, stays centered on the guitar, yet marries that approach to an expansive and melodic sound quite unlike anything else on the release. Power pop rock wouldn’t be a misapplied description for what they do here, but there’s also a coarse lyricism accompanying some of James Marino’s lead guitar that’s straight out of an alt rock playbook. They harness impressive vocal energy with three distinct voices offering something to the band’s presentation, but lead singer Anthony Giamichael sets the tone with inspired, uplifting vocals never straining to catch the audience’s ear. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” has a certain amount of lasciviousness in the lyric, but never so much that the song comes off as puerile. Instead, it’s a physical and rollicking stab at something akin to pop funk,, with an emphasis on the latter style, while Marino’s guitar work throws some slashing rock licks in for added measure.

Man Called Noon ends Everybody Move with the track “One Last Ride”, closer to an out and out rock song than anything else on the EP while still retaining the band’s commercial elements in good stead. The melodic content is crisp and largely handled by James Marino’s guitar while Giamichael’s lyrics get an excellent all around vocal treatment to end the release on a biting high note. This Chicago based band has already made a name for themselves as an explosive and entertaining live unit, but there’s little question that the turn their development takes with this release likely represents their definitive sound and further refinement from here will only make them a more potent band for years to come. It’s an occasionally raucous, always intelligent EP release and positions Man Called Noon as one of the brightest rising talents in the indie band scene.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Michael Askin - Road by the River (2017)

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

Following up the momentum established by his 2015 solo release Ignore the Evidence, singer/songwriter Michael Askin continues to push an impressive career forward with his third EP, Road by the River.  Though only 5 tracks long Askin makes the most of the EP’s relatively short runtime by employing extremely thoughtful songwriting, great playing featuring a very nice balance of varying instrumental textures and solid melodic vocals that lament on loss, heartbreak, etc. 

The title track sets the tone as sweeping acoustic guitars thread together multiple melodies via a couple of guitar lines while the bass lines provide a somber push and the drumming vaults across lively snare patterns that keep the tune moving energetically forward.  Michael’s vocals shine brightly throughout and when the chorus strolls through there’s some nice double-tracked harmonies added to soothe the ears.  Overall, it’s a lush composition draped in organic folk and country shades that are an absolute beautiful joy to behold.  “Nashville” opens with a heartland acoustic country guitar line set against hickory cured, smokehouse melody vocals from Askin.  Gleaming steel guitar runs pretty up the musical backdrop and the song seasons the tuneful country/blues with some popping percussion, rocked out guitar riffs and driving bass lines during its second half that keeps the structure constantly evolving.

A sweeping unplugged lick intros “Sun Going Down,” a downturned blues-leaned cut that sounds tough and dirty even at its most melodic.  Electric lead squalls pile atop the chopping acoustics as Askin’s voice embraces a gruff attack element.  Heavy riffs and howling organs further the molten, 70s hardened blues textures and the end result is a composition that could appeal to fans of Leslie West and Alex Harvey.  A folky lead-in groove laid down on the acoustic sends “Hard to Make a Living” back down the aural dirt roads of Dylan and more recently Iron and Wine.  Minimalist drum work providing a simple beat, fuzzy background guitars and another dose of Americana organs give this serenity jam a real set of musical legs to run on as it heads off into a glowing orange sunset in the wild American West.  Closer “Last Train” also adopts these similar country n’ western folk influences by kicking off with a begotten acoustic guitar riff upon which Askin’s vocal melodies drift wayward in a ghostly, breathy melody that’s instantly infectious.  Again Michael’s use of the organ is some of the best by any modern artists and it enhances this track with a soft orchestral grandeur that wraps around the smoldering guitar lines and campfire lit vocals.  The organ work also gives way to some unusual 80s sounding synthesizers that take the tune in an entirely different direction altogether. 

Fantastic work all around by Michael Askin on Road by the River; quite frankly the writing on this EP is so good that it eats like a satisfying full-length.  Each of the 5 cuts has its own merits and multiple nuances to reveal as you listen to the music more and more.  Anyone into alternating acoustic/electric folk, country, blues and rock sounds would do well to add this release to their collections. 

Sarah Morris - Hearts in Need of Repair (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

Hearts in Need of Repair is the third album from Minneapolis singer/songwriter Sarah Morris and is a more than worthy follow up to 2013’s Ordinary Things. She brings a variety of instrumental voices to bear on the album’s eleven songs courtesy of many musicians who’ve contributed to earlier efforts and this consistency of sound from one release to the next gives her discography an unity few of her contemporaries can boast. Despite the instrumental diversity, Hearts in Need of Repair clearly embraces classic elements of both country and folk music while never sounding like the equivalent of a butterfly trapped under glass. These songs, instead, are gloriously alive and practically ache with sensitivity. Hearts in Need of Repair will likely enjoy the same level of success as Morris’ earlier efforts, but it goes more than a step beyond in terms of quality and will certainly elevate her already high standing.

If she released nothing but the title song from this album, it would likely make the same impression. It’s that good and perfectly understandable why she chose to lead off the album with the song. There’s a handful of interesting musical decisions powering the song, especially how the tempo changes from the verses into the chorus, that helps give it added spin it might otherwise miss. “Good at Goodbye” is another high point on the album and reaches those lofty heights without ever apparently exerting itself much. The lyric is among the best on Hearts in Need of Repair thanks to two key strengths – the wealth of detail in the song makes it a more intense listening experience and the direct chorus makes an impact as well. The bluesy elegance of “Falling Over” is substantive window dressing for a song that delves deep into personal experience but makes it resonate for all listeners and the addition of slide guitar makes it all the more passionate. “Course Correction” cops some of the musical feel from the opening cut and mixes it up with an exceptional conversational lyric that sparkles with genuine poetic value. The breezy, emotive vocal Morris provides the song deftly handles the changing tempos.

“Empty Seat” is one of the album’s truly breathtaking moments as all the finest elements from the other ten songs find their greatest refinement and a near flawless expression both musically and lyrically. This will be an undoubted peak for many listeners and it’s difficult to imagine anyone with an appreciation for fine songwriting stepping away from a performance of this track anything less than completely impressed. She shows a real flair for taking the common feelings of love songs and giving them profound intimacy redeeming any of their formulaic elements. “Nothing Compares” is the best example of this on Hearts in Need of Repair and the palpable meaning she invests the lyric with will impress even the most jaded music fans. “On a Stone” has some of the same spartan beauty we hear with the aforementioned musical track, but there’s less conversational poetry driving the lyrics in favor of strong imagery. Sarah Morris’ third album is more than just her best yet – it’s a paradigm shift for the artist that promises everything from this point on will follow the same glittering upward trajectory.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Joe Olnick Band - Downtown (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

With an ear for ace improvisation and tendencies that go far beyond the borders of textbook instrumental rock the Joe Olnick Band are firing on all cylinders on Downtown.  Part of a vast, lengthy discography and album number 6 in said sequence; Downtown is airtight in its composition, playing, arrangement and production (Olnick himself mixed and produced).  Featuring a mastering job by Grammy award-winner Reuben Cohen who has done work for Foo Fighters and Ryan Adams this record has an immaculate major label sheen that doesn’t sand away the rough edges.  Instead melodies are pushed to the forefront because of the superb sound quality and the record’s harder grooves are highlighted as well. 

“Downtown” shines the spotlight on bassist Jamie Aston’s monster funk bombs and Jamie Smucker’s well-fortified percussive arsenal.  These cavernous, pulsating tremors are guaranteed to get your foot tapping and head shaking as the funk overtakes your every sensory receptor.  Olnick’s winding, labyrinth-like guitar lines traverse the paths paved by Frank Zappa, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Syd Barrett.  The gristly, mid-tempo n’ melodic shuck and jive of “Philadelphia Moonlight (Part One)” slithers side winding psyche grooves and blues guitar stings into a leathery, elastic funk jive that’s musical hot lava that’s still plenty pleasing to the ears in terms of its many harmonic qualities. 

Grooving, grinding and gravelly, “Food Truck” lends an oddball, slower take on the trio’s muscular, atmospheric funk.  Smucker peppers this tune with well-measured beats as Jamie Aston’s ornery, growly bass grooves have that nasty, absolutely necessary Chris Squire or later John Entwistle grumble to them.  There’s almost a blues feel to this phat, mean tune because of its halted, creepy crawly tempos.  “Parkside” takes a walk down a weirder, noisier path that gives way to the howling, free-wheeling screech jazz of “Philadelphia Moonlight (Part Two)” that obviously borrows a page from both Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s unpredictable tactics.  Syrupy, syncopated drum and bass rhythms jams together and off-time while Olnick’s guitar unwinds like a sonic tapestry in the bleary, freak funk of “Rush Hour.”  Downtown comes to a close on a surprising note when “Sport Complex” literally comes blaring from your stereo speakers with the sole mission of incinerating everything in its path.  The song’s short, economical length of 2 minutes and change loses its mind of nerve-frying electric guitar shred with so much psychedelic distortion applied to the whirlwind atmosphere that every instrumental tone sounds warped and melted.  For an album full of crazy epics, it’s amazing that the album ends with its most succinct piece. 

There is almost no defining Downtown.  As an album it’s darn near impossible to pin down.  The musicians are talented and technical to the point that the numerous swerves and sudden time signature shifts blur the lines of reality.  Olnick is a stellar songwriting though because just when him and his band mates take a tune to the experimental limit, they always bring things back down to Earth with some gorgeous melodies and stark, attention grabbing sonic counterpoints.  Any fans of hard-hitting, rock-leaned instrumental music with a progressive, experimental backbone will completely fall in love with this group and album.