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.

Blue Apollo - Light Footed Hours + Circles (2017)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

Not as danceable as Panic at the Disco! and perhaps not as anthem-ready as Fallout Boy, Blue Apollo are worthy and formidable peers to such modern day indie/pop/punk giants such as the aforementioned outfits.  This Texan trio isn’t afraid of outbursts of bombast nor do they have qualms about digging in and exploring their softer, slow dance side.  They carefully and successfully mix n’ match ideas, vibes and sounds to arrive at a cohesive end result with 6-tunes all told that definitely belong with one another.  Light-Footed Hours is really a pleasure to listen to once you let its warm sonic massage bounce off of your brainwaves. 

There are a few varying types of numbers strewn through this release and the tempos flux enough to keep the songwriting interesting.  A vivid, lucid dream indie melody collides into an aggressive drum attack thanks to skinsman Jeremiah Jensen during opener “Walls’” stop/start rhythmic syncopation and labyrinth-like guitar licks going from starlit sparkle to searing leads.  Guitarist Luke Nassar is also lead vocalist and his trembling, quaking inflections makes use of a nice high-range capable of skyward falsetto and hovering vibrato.  Luke also lets fly with a pretty frenzied little rock n’ roll guitar solo as the track comes to a close (a tactic he uses to a similar great effect on the fuzzy, indie riff rocker “Therapy”).  Completing a one-two lead in punch “Feeling Right” pipes in soul, ska and funk influence thanks to some shaggy, almost reggae inspired guitar tones.  The shuck n’ jive, laid back tempos and wraparound rhythm work cements the guitars and vocals into a solid foundation that never shows any weak or shaky spots. 

Also on the rocking end of the tip bonus track “Circles” overflows with thumping, propulsive tom roll patterns, smooth yet slightly distorted guitar licks, deep bass lines and intoxicating piano melodies that never let up in terms of hooks, catchiness and all around contagious melody making.  “Avalanche” is completely different than anything else on the EP; weighing in as a slow, steamy ballad only featuring Nassar’s glistening vocal timbres and a limelight piano melody to start things off.  Piece by piece things start to come together with the soft addition of drums, bass and guitars, the song eventually giving way late in its runtime to some indie/emo crash n’ bang that paints a layer of melancholy on a decidedly pop-punk canvas.  Much of the same can be said of “Meant to Be,” although the lengthy lead-off this time is comprised of delicate acoustic guitar chords and Luke’s voice only, before other instrumentation decisively comes cutting through your stereo speakers. 

All in all Light-Footed Hours is a magical EP that shows great promise for this Texan power trio.  There’s enough variety to please those looking for a unique take on the genre and there’s also the usual tropes that indie, emo and pop punk fans will lap up voraciously.  The rockers are as equally competent as the ballads and the entire EP ends up being worth your time.        

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Shofar - s/t (2017)

Written by William Elgin, posted by blog admin

Minneapolis has always been a hotbed for indie rock bands of various stripes and the five member outfit Shofar is set to solidify their place among their ranks with this self-titled EP release. It marks a return to activity for Larry Hagner's project since their 2005 release Turn and Hagner's vocals and songwriting skill have lost nothing after the long layoff. The six song effort, in all honesty, comes closer to being a short album by modern standards rather than an EP effort and there’s a level of diversity in the band’s songwriting here supporting such a point of view. They’ve perfected every rock pose and strut in the book while peppering these familiar elements with a message and personality all their own bringing a welcome degree of lyrical intelligence to their songs giving the release more impact. These are intensely human and ruthlessly direct tunes, even at their most melodic, and arresting thanks to the conviction with which Shofar sings and plays. It’s artful abandon, forever skirting the line between energy and full on raucousness, and worth every second.

They aren’t shy about flexing their six string firepower and come barreling towards listeners with precious little preamble on “Running”. Shofar, fortunately, aren’t one dimensional enough to exclusively rely on a power rock attack and shift into another gear for, arguably, the EP’s finest chorus. The band’s vocals are another key in bringing added color to their approach, emotive and melodic, yet commercial as well and a point of entry for novice listeners. There are few guitar heroics on the opener and even less with the EP’s second track “Powerman”. Shofar’s commercial inclinations are a little more pronounced with this track and it has, in general, a much lighter touch than its predecessor. Backing vocals are more of a consideration beginning with this track, but the lead vocal is unmistakably effective on its own and only enriched by extra voices.

“Shades of Grey” will find favor with many as the EP’s most lyrically evolved number and continues much of the same music mood we heard with the second track. “Powerman”, however, was a song looking out whereas “Shades of Grey” is a song looking within and the band’s writing shows the same charged potential for engaging its audience on each cut. “Hands Down” has another strong contender for the EP’s finest chorus and generates a deceptive amount of energy considering its mid-tempo pace. Dynamics are much more at the forefront of the band’s concerns with the track “Countdown” as they spend much of the song’s first half building an inexorable musical head of steam before the guitar leaves a mark on the song and Shofar ratchets up the dramatics to a higher gear than before. The presence of piano as an important instrument further sets the song apart. Shofar ends their self-titled EP with “The Coming”, easily the most experimental moment on the release and a resounding success. The band’s traditional instrumentation is in place, but working in a much different style than we become accustomed to over the previous five songs – Shofar explores a near psychedelic texture here and the vaguely hallucinatory air has a slow, graceful elegance.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Man Called Noon - Everybody Move (2017)

Written by William Elgin, posted by blog admin

There’s a level of concision and surety of purpose guiding Man Called Noon’s Everybody Move that you rarely hear from any musical project. The three song EP embodies the sound of a band that knows exactly where it wants these performances to go and how to accomplish that. The eight member Chicago based unit does a remarkable job of never allowing too many cooks in the kitchen at once, so to speak, while providing each of the players and singers some opportunity to shine. Everybody Move stresses songs capable of establishing an immediate and dynamic connection with listeners while still allowing the compositions a chance to highlight their talents as instrumentalists. The two guitar attack of lead player James Marino and rhythm guitarist/lead singer Anthony Giamichael complement each other so well that their playing partnership sounds seamless – it is difficult, sometimes, to tell where one ends and the other begins. This sort of unity between musicians is indicative of the EP as a whole.

The first song is the title track. It’s a minor, but sure, indication of their confidence when they put the nominal statement song for their release in the front runner position. The confidence is justified as “Everybody Move” manages to entertain while making an intensely personal statement and the weaving of patiently developed rhythm section playing alongside the guitars sparkles brighter thanks to Nathan Crone’s sensitive and unstintingly melodic keyboard playing. Man Called Noon keeps their songwriting instincts sharpened to a fine edge and none of the tunes on Everybody Move exceed their mandate, but the title song is arguably the best realized track. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” has a totally different, more dangerous tenor and the band convincingly pulls it off while still retaining their melodic indie rock sound. The song’s raw physicality engages listeners from the first and Giamichael unleashes a fun, rambunctious vocal every bit the equal of its instrumental performance.

Probably the most traditional moment of the EP comes with the concluding track “One Last Ride” but a flair for the personal helps this song rise above any inklings of formula and there are some individual performances, especially James Marino, that leap out from the song. Marino’s skills for tough-minded rock guitar are unquestionable, but he brings something extra to his attack thanks to the natural talents he has for capturing melodic content. It’s a strong exclamation point for Man Called Noon’s third release and Everybody Move marks a true new beginning for an abundantly talented band just now hitting their stride. Interested listeners will likely one day look back to the release of this EP as a transformative moment for Man Called Noon’s creative journey and where they go from here will surely be a rewarding adventure.