Monday, July 23, 2018

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

“Forefathers” opens Astronomique’s Sharp Divide with the sort of confidence you don’t often hear from new bands. This Minneapolis based four piece has threaded together an irresistible sound coupling the best elements of electronica, eighties flavored Euro pop, and a deceptively strong singer/songwriter sensibility dominating the album as a whole. “Side of Your Mind” has a bright bounce from the first and singer/keyboard player Logan Andra Fongemie’s vocal shares the same upward, optimistic tilt, a mood in short supply on Sharp Divide. Drummer Mitch Billings and bassist Preston Saari distinguished themselves on the album’s opener, but they demonstrate their versatility here as they don’t play such a prominent role in the mix, yet provide a center for “Side of Your Mind” immeasurably enhancing the song.

The tracks “Losing Our Control” and the title song are likely the album’s pinnacle. There are extraordinarily good songs following this tandem, but the duo of songs near the album’s midway point stand a cut above thanks to the unified effort you can hear in both performances. Fongemie’s synthesizer playing is an integral part of the band’s sound, rather than pure ornamentation like it might be for lesser acts, and the delicate, nearly crystalline qualities of her voice are equally fitting for the material. The title song seems to be the more impressive of the two thanks to the extra dollop of passion Fongemie brings to her singing. “Smoke”, however, takes a slightly different and welcome shift on the band’s template this far and succeeds in focusing more on atmospherics without losing the musical plot.

“Unspoken”, however, returns us to the more familiar terrain of the album’s first four songs and rivals the aforementioned tandem of “Losing Our Control” and the title song without ever repeating itself. Hogan’s guitar work here is especially strong and one can feel his inspiration working with such a talented rhythm section team. “Bleed Me” is another of the album’s marquee numbers and effectively juxtaposes its intense lyrical content with another slightly melancholy, but entertaining musical arrangement. “Hardly Deliberate” maintains the same approach to Fongemie’s vocals defining the album on the whole while it brings a tense, rolling arrangement to bear anchored by the potent interplay between Saari’s rib rattling bass and Billings’ drums.

“Heading Nowhere” seems to bring Sharp Divide to a dispirited conclusion, but it is reminiscent of the earlier “Bleed Me” in its willingness to bring a relatively dire lyrical mood together with a freer, slightly more upbeat musical identity. Few albums are as clearly conceived and laid out as Sharp Divide and it’s a testament to the band’s innate chemistry, particularly between Fongemie and her songwriting partner guitarist Sean Hogan, but bassist Preston Saari and drummer Mitch Billings make a big impact on the album’s final form.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Lime Pit (1980) by Jonathan Valin

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Jonathan Valin's The Lime Pit, his first novel and Cincinnati private eye Harry Stoner’s debut, has strong points, but isn’t wholly successful. The book’s publication came during a period when the style’s resident titan, Ross Macdonald, fell silent and the thriving paperback market made room for potential successors like Valin, Stephen Greenleaf, Robert B. Parker, and Loren D. Estleman, among others. Valin never reached the same level of sales and visibility enjoyed by Parker, but his Stoner series has largely weathered posterity’s judgment and deserves revisiting.

Key components are, admittedly, dated. The idea of underage sexually explicit materials circulated via Polaroids is as quaint to 2018 experience as phone booths and recording weddings with a camcorder. Valin engages questions of morality and conscience in a manner reminiscent of Macdonald, but still groping for its voice. These questions are, ultimately, more important to Valin than the novel’s plot mechanics. The character of Cindy Ann, her disappearance functioning as a sort of inciting incident for Valin’s story, is a MacGuffian. The Lime Pit is much more about Stoner’s reactions to and challenges with the situation.

We learn a little about him. Stoner played football in college, served in Vietnam. He isn’t practically monastic like Marlowe and beds the occasional lady painfully aware of modern love’s vagaries. Macdonald’s Lew Archer is a profound influence, but never in an overly imitative way and Stoner never comes off mired in the same cloudbank of dispirited melancholy emanating from Macdonald’s legendary character,  Stoner, however, isn’t fully fleshed out.

Some of his crucial motivations are glossed over or outright tossed aside to keep the plot moving. Valin tries to pick his spots with underwhelming effect. Authors never need to belabor the underlying history and thought processes informing every decision, but laying a bit of breezy social commentary and two cents worth of psychology on readers is perfunctory at best. Promising opportunities for bringing added depths to Stoner’s character are passed over to serve formula and form. We get some, but Valin could have given so much more.

The book reflects its time period. Stoner’s 1979/1980 Cincinnati is a microcosm of an America on its heels stumbling into a new decade still punchy from the punishing one-two of Vietnam and Watergate. The national concussion makes Valin’s characters come off slightly woozy and bearing the claw marks of marginalized people hanging on for dear life.

Sometimes the dialogue falls flat or else reads like it’s cribbed from movies and past masters. Too many, but not all, of The Lime Pit’s secondary characters are cardboard. In the end, however, you will likely forgive Valin’s failings in favor of his presence. He orchestrates the form’s conventions with a steady hand and Stoner’s first person narration is consistently engaging thanks to Valin’s vivid flashes of prose punctuating his lines. The Lime Pit is a solid opening to a great series.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sky Orchid - Oculus (2017)

Written by Laura Dodero, posted by blog admin

Sky Orchid’s Oculus begins with the evocative cut “The River” and Gabriel Traynyak’s vocals immediately stand out as among the most individual I’ve heard in recent years. The brothers form Sky Orchid, Gabriel and Daniel Traynyak, are thoroughly modern sounding and share similarities with many first rate recording acts of today, but “The River” and later songs possess a distinct character unlike the vast majority of offerings from acts in this vein. The highly stylized qualities of their songwriting and presentation are further explored with the second track “Sneakers”, but there’s less focus on the duo’s rock influences in favor of a sleek, streamlined pop rock approach. There’s a strongly cinematic quality to the duo’s music, as well, and the opening tandem of tracks illustrates this exceptionally well.

“In the Fire (Pt. 1)” has a ballad-like construction many will enjoy. The sensitive, lyrical introduction with guitar and voice alone soon gives way to a steady rock push from Daniel Traynyak’s drumming. His talents on the kit and top notch production virtues often come together on Oculus to take already fine material and send it stratospheric. “Wildfire” and “I’ll Stop the World (Pt. 2)” are cut from the same musical cloth as the album’s other eight songs, but they strike a marked contrast with each other. The former is a largely acoustic song only returning to Sky Orchid’s familiar melodic sweep in the song’s final half. “Wildfire” is a welcome gear shift on the album proving the duo has a wider songwriting and performing range than many listeners might initial suspect. “I’ll Stop the World (Pt.2 )”, however, foregoes acoustic guitar entirely and rates among the album’s best nods to rock’s influence on their music.

Gabriel Traynyak’s vocal for “Lex” is among the album’s best. His elastic voice covers the gamut from the opening’s restrained, atmospheric delivery through gut-wrenching soulfulness in the song’s second half. Tucked into the tracklisting just after the album’s halfway point, it may be overlooked, but I don’t hear a slack second during the song. “Breathe Easy” is more of a lark, a loving take on influences from artists as diverse as Sublime and Bob Marley, but there’s a rambunctiousness about this track only wild-eyed youth usually produces; it’s jarring but daring to turn another direction entirely near the song’s end and unleash a full shred guitar hard rock final curtain. Some will love it; frankly, some will hate it.

One of the album’s best examples of spot on guitar melody comes with the track “Take It All”. The light bounce of the central guitar figure sustains itself through an assortment of changes and Gabriel Traynyak gives a smooth, gliding performance playing off well against the six string’s bright energy. The album’s penultimate tune “Yesterday” opens with ominous piano and drums before keyboards and guitars enter the picture and the song settles into a steady tempo. It’s definitely the darkest moment musically on Oculus, but tasteful and never testing listener’s tolerance for self indulgence. “Fortify” closes Oculus with a nuanced mid-tempo piece firmly in keeping with the earlier songs and acting as a sort of “falling action” following the climax we hear with the previous track. Sky Orchid’s Oculus is one of 2017’s more impressive debuts , yes, but it’s one of the best first efforts in recent years as well.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Joshua Ketchmark - Under Plastic Stars (2017)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

There are likely to be two dominant schools of thought regarding Joshua Ketchmark’s Under Plastic Stars. The first will find Ketchmark’s twelve song collection to be a remarkably unified work, both lyrically and musically, with nary a hole to be seen in the track listing. Another point of view will likely peg Under Plastic Stars as a remarkably promising work slightly marred by too many similarities between songs and potentially benefitted by being pruned by a couple of tracks or else varied with one or two uniformly uptempo numbers. I side with the former. Ketchmark obviously wanted this to be an intimate affair and the predominantly mid-tempo cast of the material reinforces listeners’ concentration on the material. You can’t say this about a lot of releases, but the lyrics for Under Plastic Stars are important – even when they aren’t reaching high for some storytelling peak, they are obviously cut from a distinctly personal cloth and listeners will get a real sense of who Joshua Ketchmark is by album’s conclusion.

I particularly like the audaciousness of opening with the musically placid but vocally and lyrically heartbroken “We Were Everything”. Ketchmark throws us, from the first, into the emotional breach and his melodic talents as a songwriter make it a distinctly, if improbable, memorable listening experience. The acoustic guitar work is superb throughout the entire album, but this is one of many high points for playing on Under Plastic Stars. “Every Mystery”, the album’s second tune, is another track that does a superb job of mixing the singer/songwriter mold of the material with an appealing commercial edge that never overreaches. Some hints of Ketchmark’s more poetic side emerge here, but it’s a romantic song, in essence, and Ketchmark delivers it with the emotion such tracks demand.

“Let It Rain” and “Lucky at Leavin’”, in tandem, make for one of the album’s greatest peaks. The first is one of the more atmospheric performances on Under Plastic Stars, but it never sounds unnecessarily stagy or straining to impress listeners. I’m taken by how Ketchmark can use common turns of phrase like “let it rain”, a common song title throughout popular music history, and make something of his own from the familiar. “Lucky at Leavin’” is a beautifully lyrical folk tune, in essence, adorned with some discreet electric guitar and keyboard touches that flesh it out into something truly memorable. “Get Out Alive” has a fatalistic air not common to the other eleven songs and a dollop of blues coming through its arrangement while the late tune “Sweet Surrender” brings piano into the mix with powerful emotional impact. Under Plastic Stars reveals Ketchmark to be a truly talented figure and explains, in one fell swoop, why he’s been such a sought out collaborator and sideman for so many important performers and bands over the years.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Black Bluebirds - Like Blood for Music (2017)

Written by Craig Bowles, posted by blog admin

“Love Kills Slowly”, the opener to Black Bluebird’s Like Blood for Music, sets the emotional tone of the album from the outset. The Minneapolis trio isn’t really a power trio, in the strictest sense, since the core three piece is greatly enhanced by contributions from other musicians on Like Blood for Music, but “Love Kills Slowly” makes it clear the core three are the heart and soul of the band, without question. Guitarist Simon Husbands and drummer Chad Helmonds pack the band with a terrific amount of hard rock muscle and the jagged sheen from singer/lyricist Daniel Fiskum’s keyboards is the final key musical ingredient. There’s definitely a hint of the familiar surrounding these songs, but it’s never put forth in such a way that it smacks of cliché – instead, Black Bluebirds’ Like Blood for Music recasts familiar strands in new colors and it makes for a vivid listening experience.

The album has an ideal opener with the song “Love Kills Slowly” and Simon Husbands’ guitar work is a big reason for the song’s success without ever bearing down too heavily on the performance. Some listeners might need to adjust to Daniel Fiskum’s vocal sound, but Jessica Rasche’s near duet with him sweetens the sound thanks to the rich texture and tone of her voice. “Life in White” shows off the album’s first major stylistic shift with incorporating acoustic sounds into the band’s usual intense structure. Fiskum’s singing has a memorable grain to it, a near drone in some ways, but it comes off quite impassioned here while never going too far. “Battlehammer” implies that the band is going to bring a hard hitting stomp to bear and Black Bluebirds doesn’t disappoint, but there’s never any heavy handed reliance on the nonsense we hear from lesser bands.

“House of No More Dreams” comes off as definitely one of Like Blood for Music’s centerpieces and the care they’ve put into making it come alive is notable for even such a great overall release. “House of No More Dreams” comes off as definitely one of Like Blood for Music’s centerpieces and the care they’ve put into making it come alive is notable for even such a great overall release. Husbands and Helmonds do a great job imbuing the song with much of its musical drama, but the singers aren’t too shabby either.

“Soul of Wood” is one of the album’s best uptempo numbers as it hits a sweet spot between Husbands’ guitar work and Fiiskum’s oddly ominous keyboard playing working in accompaniment. Helmonds’ drumming is equally crucial to bringing this one off and his pushing, straight ahead attack enhances the song immeasurably. “My Eyes Were Closed” expands on the potential I hear in the earlier “House of No More Dreams” in a gripping way. The song really is an even longer reach than the aforementioned tune and Husbands’ contributes some potent, chaotic lead work. Like Blood for Music is an effort that will be difficult for Black Bluebirds to follow up on, but the quality is such I have confidence there are even brighter days ahead.