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.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Rejectionist Front - Evolve (2017)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

New York City based four piece Rejectionist Front’s second studio album Evolve avoids any of the wavering we sometimes hear from an act’s sophomore release and, instead, refines their songwriting template and consolidates their position as one of the rising indie rock outfits working today. Fronted by singer/songwriter Michael Perlman with Lincoln Prout single handedly taking care of the band’s guitar duties, the album’s twelve songs show off Rejectionist Front’s influences without ever sounding like slavish imitation. There are some obviously commercial rock songs included on Evolve, but there are some more artful and idiosyncratic tunes included on Evolve that often veer past hard rock and into top shelf prog metal reminiscent of a harder edged Pearl Jam or Queensryche with a crucial difference coming with how Rejectionist Front only boasts a single guitarist rather than two. Produced by World2Be Entertainment, Rejectionist Front’s second release has a powerhouse presentation guaranteed to capture the attention of both casual and hardcore fans.

There’s definitely an exultant quality to some of Rejectionist Front’s music that, thankfully, eschews any heavy handedness or over-simplifications. This quality comes across at a few key points during Evolve and one of the most notable is the album’s opener “Ride”. It’s also a powerful illustration of the rare vocal strengths they bring to a style and genre not ordinarily known for acts with a top shelf vocal presentation. They pursue their Muse down a more solidly traditional hard rock avenue with the second track “All I Am” and Perlman shows off, for the first time, the capacity for adapting his voice to a song’s demands. “Savior” continues in that traditional hard rock vein with a particularly punchy chorus and more of the outsized guitar muscle that defines the album’s songwriting as a whole.

Rejectionist Front tempers the brash, even bellicose, spirit of their music for the song “All is the Same” but this more even-handed, restrained approach still bears signatures of their style and fits in rather well with the surrounding material. “Reclaim” revisits the anthemic potential of the album’s first song and, like “Ride”, refrains from pandering to listener’s conventions about such material. “Flush” is a single from the album and it’s shortest track on a release where running times are largely uniform with only a few notable exceptions. The sleek, lean musical attack makes all the right choices if the song’s intent is immediacy and engaging the audience and Perlman delivers one of the best vocals you’ll hear on Evolve. The atmosphere of melancholic sensitivity pervading “Hold Or Break” contrasts dramatically with the song’s heavier passages and the varying tempo of the song nevertheless maintains the needed seamlessness for a coherent performance. Evolve’s closing number “Inside of Me” is another more thoughtful and orchestrated cut relying just as much on affecting vocal harmonies as it does compelling guitar theatrics. The meditative spirit of the release provides a valuable counterpoint to its boisterous, assertive sound and helps make it an even better, more entertaining listen. Rejectionist Front are quite unlike many rock bands working today and our music world is better for it.  

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Chris Murphy - Water Under the Bridge (2017)

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

A self-proclaimed purveyor of folk, blues and “gypsy jazz”, Los Angeles’ multi-instrumental troubadour Chris Murphy debuts his flagship album with The Blind Blake Blues Band, Water Under the Bridge and,boy, is it a doozy!  This 14 song collection presents a world worn, well-travelled sound that dates back to the early 1900s and goes through a musical criss-cross spanning several different major musical decades and landmark genres. 

It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint Murphy and his crew’s exact sound but trace elements of the above-listed genres found on Chris’ website are as accurate starting points as any.  You could also include r & b, southern soul, 50s rock n’ roll, finely aged bluegrass, pop songwriting hooks and even orchestral/symphonic arrangements in terms of the aural vast scope and the sheer number of instruments covered across this 5-star outing.  Murphy himself plays many of them and on this record he contributes vocals, violin, electric violin, fiddle, mandolin and guitar.  He might be responsible for even more instruments than that but it was as much as I could wring out of the album’s bio.  What Ry Cooder does for the guitar and all of its forms (slide, bottleneck, acoustic, electric, etc.), Chris takes on terms of the violin.  His playing of which is heavily featured on every single composition heard here ranges from a lead role to a true soloist to rhythm work and even atmospheric soundscapes like the ones heard on the multi-layered, double-tracked violins of album finale, “Cheer Up Mickey.” 

You never hear the exact same tune twice on Water Under the Bridge.  Despite the massive leans towards traditional styles heard on this release, the way in which they are adopted and pressed into the sound feels like new musical territory or at least the return to territory that has long since been unoccupied.  The album goes in all guns blazing thanks to “Moveable Feast’s” dizzying swerves between nitroglycerin-charged ragtime piano and country-tinged rockabilly that pits a pumping upright bass against death-defying violin work which feels like an uncharted cove in a style that’s been timelessly honored by greats such as Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Horton.  Murphy includes instrumentation that is denser and much more labyrinth like than all three of these leading men’s groups put together and Chris manages to pull off this feat on the opener without singing a note. 

In fact Water Under the Bridge is nearly built upon instrumental cuts that barrage the listener with a bevy of tuneful styles that never go out of date or truly reach an expiration date.  It’s on these wordless passages that Murphy and The Blind Blake boys shine the brightest.  The beefy, bluesy bass foundations of “Joan Crawford Dances the Charleston” provide steady ground for Murphy to paint unfolding tapestries of violin while a lively piano rhythm provides even more bang for the buck than the drumming (which here occupies an auxiliary stance).  It’s not until the caution to the wind, freewheeling bluegrass and frenetic, fast-paced piano/electric guitar swipes of “Table for Two” that we even get a vocal melody and it sure is a good one.  It’s a vibe that’ll return two tracks later on the spirited, country folk jazz of “I Swear I’m Going To Learn This Time.”  Aside from these noticeable excursions much of the album’s remainder is instrumental; the slow dance Nashville dip of “Riverboat Blues,” the free-form piano pizzazz and exotic acoustic guitar elegance of “My Spanish Lover,” the whirlybird bluegrass ride of “The Lemon Rag” and the scowling, bourbon swilling saloon workout of “Dog Ear Blues” are just a few of the instrumental masterpieces on this record and there’s many more tunes that equally as good on this record that share in Murphy’s love of instrumental music with a farmland aura. 

Whether allowing the vocals to steal the show or letting the music work its mesmerizing magic, Water Under the Bridge is a perfect record.  I can’t think of anything else out there right now that sounds like what Murphy and his band are achieving.  This is an upper echelon set of songs from an upper echelon set of players that should be in every true music fan’s collection.       

Monday, February 5, 2018

Alpha Mule - Peripheral Vision (2017)

Written by William Elgin, posted by blog admin

With its faded, Civil War style band photo on the cover of the album and its primary members holding their musical weapons of choice (acoustic guitar and banjo, respectively), it’s very apparent what you’re getting on Alpha Mule’s debut LP, Peripheral Vision.  With 15 tracks all told including the record’s 5 bonus tunes, there’s a lot to explore on this lengthy, side-winding release.  Featuring a cast of supporting players providing trumpet, harmonica, lap/pedal steel, drums, Hammond organ, mellotron and both electric/upright bass provided by Calexico’s own Joey Burns; Peripheral Vision has a ripe, rich musical atmosphere that always throws some curveballs and wild pitches in the direction of its audience. 

High-octane banjo and full-speed acoustics beam in “Corpus Christi” from the darker side of bluegrass.  There’s a smoky, dank atmosphere to the slinky, shifty melodies and heartfelt vocal harmonies.  Burns gifts the background with some deep, swaggering upright bass while Connor Gallaher shades things in with steel guitar ambience.  One of the bonus tracks is a duo version of this track and it’s interesting to compare this version with the stripped down album closer version that features only Joe Forkan’s acoustic guitars and vocals alongside Eric Stoner’s ornery banjo runs. 

“On the Moon” is a vintage country crooner that dials back the darkness and allows a sundrenched acoustic guitar licks to lead the charge as Stoner duels the vibrant guitar lines with some punchy banjo licks of his own.  Even the vocals take cleaner, clearer turns and approach some near “pop” melody even if the type of country that the boys play is far and away from what’s considered “pop country” in 2018.  Fen Ikner’s brush played snares and Joey’s tightly threaded bass grooves craft an airtight jam shimmering with anthem-ready melodies and a congruent instrumental vibe where the instruments always complement each other; refusing to spiral off in flashy directions that would take away from the songwriting as a whole.  The title cut is dripping with heartbreaking musical sadness in the fine tradition of Hank Williams Sr. as low hung bass licks, hurdy gurdy acoustic guitar and a wayward banjo wander beneath Forkan’s melodically aching lamentations on love.  Those Hawaiian sounding steel licks only add a deeper aural sadness to the overall mixture of exotic instrumental layers. 

Some Elvis influence feels apparent on “Pavlov” where the duo kicks the tempos in the pants and rough ride their way right into the heart of rockabilly country.  Aggressive upright bass licks swagger their way to the forefront as these low-end melodies duel at high noon with the six shooter banjo patterns and heavy acoustical firepower.  Even Joe’s voice adopts a huskier baritone that will instantly remind fans of The King’s lauded work.  “Mule in the Mine” is similarly uptempo with its explosive guitar/banjo frenzy but the end result is more in tune with Bill Monroe or some pioneering bluegrass than the Presley fury of the preceding number. 
Elsewhere, “Step Outside” is another penultimate country tearjerker fashioned from deliberate tempos and wailing steel guitars that wraparound the main instruments tightly, “Music of our Hearts” incorporates Mexican-flavored horns into a busy bluegrass jam, “Empire” feels like a more song-oriented take on Ennio Morricone’s grand teachings, “Short Man’s Room” is a blue-eyed soul classic and “Drift” is an echo-y, twanging drone that barely lasts a minute and sets up the duo version of “Step Outside” perfectly. 

All in all Peripheral Vision is a varied and challenging record with absolutely every corner of the classic country gallery explored.  From bluegrass to “Tear in my Beer” heartbreakers, this is an absolute must have for fans of the genre.  Each and every composition could be a single on this release and it’s one that fans of the style are going to want to pick-up posthaste.