Monday, November 13, 2017

Nick Black - Summer + Spring (2017)




Written by Raymond Burris, posted by blog admin

The beauty of an album like Nick Black’s Summer + Spring is manifold, but primarily lies in how effortlessly it comes together. There’s a confidence level propelling these songs reaching well beyond Black’s relatively paltry twenty eight years on the planet and there can be little question, even after a single pass from a first time listener, that Black has the stuff long careers are made of. His skills as both a guitar player and vocalist are substantial enough that he could likely dominate any release featuring him, but it’s a testament to his musical vision that he resists any such temptations on this album and his work preceding its release. Instead, Nick Black’s Summer + Spring comes off as a fully realized band effort with a well rounded performance greater than the sum of its individual parts.

It kicks off in noteworthy fashion with the song “Joy to the Girl”, a surging and tightly arranged funk track that shows off the band’s collective chops while never allowing one player to dominate the performance. Black’s vocal has the same vitality that we hear from the instrumental performances and he rides the groove with assertiveness beyond his years. His guitar is a major source of fire in the song but never loses its musical direction despite coming across as full of spit and vinegar. “Summer & Spring”, the album’s title song, has a much jazzier air than the opener and the relaxed jaunt the band takes will win over many listeners. His vocal embodies the same relaxed mood and steers its way through the arrangement acting in near perfect complement to the instruments. He takes a slightly more commercial direction with the song “Change” and, despite its serious subject matter, the songwriting never invokes its themes with a heavy hand either lyrically or musically. One won’t mistake the lyrics on Summer + Spring for high flown, pseudo poetry, but it certainly has a level of conversational eloquence quite suited to its classy arrangements.

“Runaway Heart” offers a spotlight moment for Black’s vocal chops and he hits a decidedly bluesy note in this dramatic tune. The drumming is especially on target and frames the song nicely. Listeners enter a decidedly funky stretch in the album’s running order with the trio of songs “When the Morning Comes”, “Lay It on the Line”, and “Dance in the Light”. Of the three, the first is by far the hardest pure funk tune while “Dance in the Light” merely echoes the two earlier tracks in atmospheric ways. “Lay It on the Line” does an excellent job of straddling the line between soul and funk to create a compelling hybrid. “Diamonds” echoes those funk influences some, as well, but there’s a different thrust to the song’s percussion that has a jazzier base. The last number on Summer + Spring, “The River”, is another change of pace as Black strips everything down to a pure acoustic blues that his voice really excels with. There’s a completeness to this album that few other releases, any genre, equal nowadays and it’s the best effort yet from this top notch singer and musician.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

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




Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Black Note Graffiti, hailing from the University of Michigan’s home in Ann Arbor, are from some sort of academic exercise. The four piece featured on the band’s second full length Volume 2: Without Nothing I’m You plays in a convincing guitar heavy and aggressive rock and metal style without ever succumbing to the host of tropes and clichés that typically stamp the experience of hearing new bands of this ilk today. The band’s material is fraught with hard times and personal conflict, but the inherent musicality in everything they do, even at their most rugged, keeps hearing them from ever being a chore. The eleven songs on Volume 2: Without Nothing I’m You take things a step further than those we heard on the band’s first album and it simply reminds us that bands often refine their approach on sophomore releases – the songwriting brain trust behind this band has experienced success with other projects, so establishing chemistry is a process. This collection provides a bevy of evidence that process is well underway.

“No Love Lost” serves notice that this second album demands to be taken seriously. This is a band, as the song amply proves, capable of bringing hard-nosed aggression together with a fair amount of vocal finesse and compositional complexity. The complexity is reflected in their mastery of dynamics – Black Note Graffiti understand how and when to change things up for dramatic effect and varying the color in their performances makes for a more attractive presentation. “Such Is Art” forsakes the hard rock/metal posturing heard in the opener in favor of a more alternative rock approach and the rhythm section of Kurt Keller’s drums and Adam Nine’s bass playing. It’s one of the more intelligent, yet fiery, numbers on Volume 2. Kris Keller and Ricardo Ortiz make a formidable two guitar attack, but Keller takes a natural lead and unleashes lead work that engages listeners physically and hangs together coherently. “Castles” features one of the album’s better lyrics, but remains a bit unsatisfying musically. Much of the song seems to exist in a perpetual state of “winding up”. There’s a sense that the song is due to uncoil for listeners in a spectacular way, but the payoff never quite comes. It isn’t for a lack of trying however but, rather, because the payoff doesn’t match the promise shown. It’s a noble and rare misstep.

Black Note Graffiti step away, some, from their reliance on compelling riffs for the song “Bars from the Cages. Jagged, melodic guitar work creates a faintly foreboding mood to work as counterpoint to the band’s grinding rhythms and it adds a flourish to this performance missing from the rockier efforts. “Why We Trust” is another of the album’s outright gems thanks to the band’s willingness to tackle weighty themes with a dramatic musical arrangement and their forceful playing alternates between a softer touch and muscular guitar passages. The streak continues with the memorable “Relapse” and it’s a near perfect illustration of how the band’s songwriting brings personal qualities to bear in their work while never allowing it to become unduly obscure. The cacophonous finale “Send Off” sends Volume 2 off in a blast of guitar-driven fury and the dissonant surfaces are introduced by a brief, melodic interlude. It’s also one of the most impassioned numbers on Volume 2: Without Nothing I’m You and, in one fell swoop, shows how far the band has come since their 2013 debut. Black Note Graffiti, with the recent addition of second vocalist Gabrielle Bryant, is poised to take things to another level entirely.  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

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




Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Minneapolis based Austin Carson can never be accused of lacking ambition. Working under the moniker YYY, his fourteen song release A Tribute to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds contends as one of the best recordings of its ilk you’re likely to ever hear. It is scarcely possible to imagine a more evenly balanced presentation of faithful reinterpretation working alongside unique and individually distinctive embellishments. It is fortunate, for listeners, that Carson isn’t happy with just approximating the original Beach Boys material. It saves the release from matching standards impossible to meet and, instead, the personal twists he brings to these familiar tunes makes them more his own than pure cover. It has often been quoted that a work of art is never truly finished, only abandoned, and the greatest songs produced by the species are infinitely malleable and more universal than we realize. YYY captures that sort of magic with A Tribute to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” is the first indication that this isn’t your average tribute. He does a superb job of understanding the importance of vocals in these songs and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, naturally, relies on spot on singing more than most of the songs on Pet Sounds. It’s also one of the most immediately recognizable moments from the Beach Boys classic and illustrates a pattern in his approach to the album’s marquee numbers. Later iconic moments like “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows”, “Caroline, No” and “Good Vibrations” all pull off an artful balance between mesmerizing re-invention and faithful recreation. He wisely emphasizes certain standard elements in each of the aforementioned song as if nodding to the original version while allowing him the latitude to extemporize musically and providing an environment where his guest musicians and singers can flourish. “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” are the most successful examples in this vein and stand a chance of pleasing even the most hardcore Brian Wilson devotee.

The secondary numbers on Pet Sounds is where Carson’s imagination often runs wildest. Bringing in deeply affecting female vocalists to offer a notably different perspective on traditionally male dominated material makes for some interesting listening while he shows a wont for experimentation on those songs that embraces the originals while bringing new moods and atmospherics to bear.  The tracks among this group are the uniquely spun “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”, “Hang On to Your Ego”, and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”. The last song in that list rates as one of the sleeper gems on this album that shouldn’t pass by unheard or unnoticed, especially due to the tour de force vocal from Devata Daun. YYY is remarkable, as well, for his insistence on a music first approach that’s perfectly illustrated by his ease with never occupying the performing spotlight for long. He’s the guiding artistic force behind this release, perhaps, but the contributions he gets from every quarter immeasurably enhance even the more obscure numbers. YYY’s A Tribute to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds outstrips similarly themed efforts from his peers and contemporaries alike and whets the appetite for any future releases.

Elliot Schneider - Don't Put All Your Eggs in One Basketcase (2017)




Written by Robert Michaels, posted by blog admin

Never let anyone make you believe in the cliché of rock and popular music being a young person’s game. Youth isn’t a pre-requisite for fearlessness and energy. Elliot Schneider’s Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basketcase doesn’t sound like the work of a senior citizen; these are songs still vitally engaged with life and never afraid to take chances. Naturally, there’s the sort of far reaching command over both technique and expression one might expect from an older, evolved writer and performer, but there’s exuberance in the performances that couldn’t care less about chronological age. The eleven songs included on his latest studio album mark him as an artist still committed to growth rather than consigning themselves to moribund nostalgia. It makes for another impressive effort from this singer, musician, and five star writer. He continues to push his talents further and further out with each new outing and exhibits idiosyncrasies that few musicians and performers can match.

“The Moon Has Flown Away” is the album’s ideal opener. There’s a level of nuance in the way Schneider has written these lyrics that’s quite unlike anything else you’ll hear in the modern landscape. The mixture of specific imagery with more general details and often familiar tropes is perfectly synthesized. Schneider’s singing brings its potential home with understated emotiveness and coolly confident phrasing. “Diehard Killjoy”, the album’s second track, never locks into a truly memorable groove and shifts musical gears a little too often, but it does sport a number of satisfying aspects and a smart lyric. There’s an appealing elegiac quality in the song “Lost on the Radio” and a bit of rousing call to action crouched inside the lyric that he plays with genuine earnestness. He gives the song a breezy arrangement, complete with some colorful organ blasts, that juxtaposes with the lyrics quite well. “Are We Only Dinosaurs?” whips up some more of the retro rock and roll sound he latches onto at various points and puts it together with a sarcastic, darkly comic lyric. It gains a lot from his dry tone of voice – never overplaying the comedic elements makes them even more effective.

“In a Sense Innocence” highlights more of the unique attributes, including a penchant for memorable titles, separating Schneider from many of his peers and contemporaries. Backing vocals are present elsewhere on the release, but no song utilizes them to such a degree as this one and it helps underscore its mood as a pastoral ballad of sorts. He exhibits a much harder rock edge on the track “A Key to You”, but he’s a rare writer and performer who can retain a meaningful degree of nuance even in guitar heavy trappings. “Overruling Neo-Fascists” is certainly cut from a different mold as it couples offhanded political commentary, colored with a distinct punk flavor at key points, with Schneider’s affinity for classic rock and roll tropes. The recurring flutter of guitar notes, in its own small way, is emblematic of Schneider’s approach – otherwise innocuous seeming embellishments make put real flair on these songs. The track “First Day of Summer” is a track written many years before and once considered for production by none other than iconic guitarist Les Paul, but it comes to such vivid life here that it sounds like Schneider finished the song a little bit before the recording session. The keen sense of engagement he brings to the song casts it in the tradition of the earlier “In a Sense Innocence”, but it varies in important ways. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basketcase is much more ambitious and serious-minded than the album title implies, but the unique personality Schneider brings to these performances is undeniable. It’s an release that’s both entertaining and emotionally affecting.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sarah Donner - Black Hole Heart (2016)




Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

Sarah Donner’s Black Hole Heart illustrates how this singer/songwriter’s continued growth is making a case for her not being one of the most talented and promising figures on the indie scene, but as one of the best songwriters rising up through the ranks today. Her talents also cut against any notion of gender – this isn’t your stereotypical “chick” singer/songwriter specializing in appropriately heart-quaking odes to broken hearts and spurned love. The dozen songs included on Black Hole Heart speak directly to listeners, indulge in a meaningful amount of literary flair, and demonstrate uniformity of musical quality we don’t often hear on such extended collections./ There’s no danger of over-reach with Sarah Donner’s Black Hole Heart. Instead, the album’s dozen songs are uncluttered, pointed, and frequently quite eloquent.

It begins with the delightfully arranged “Phoenix” Referencing the mythological bird who rose from ashes to fly again is a popular trope in the arts, even popular song, and Donner’s writing definitely implies a deep connection with the story. She demonstrates a light touch, however, despite the potentially weighty subject matter and the song’s clipped, acoustic guitar based melodicism is complemented by a superb bass line courtesy of Jay Buchanan. The title cut has a sound quite unlike anything else you’ll hear in this style and the simmering qualities of its arrangement are married nicely with Donner’s emotive voice. Her writing talents for invoking a character’s voice come to the fore with the song “Tamsen Donner 1847” and the darkness edging in along the margins of her narrative are masterfully controlled – it never drags the lyrics entirely into unpleasantness and despair, but we get the sense that it is right around the corner.  “Athena” is a beautifully wrought and lilting tune with snowflake like delicacy that seems to sparkle around the listener.. Donner has a supreme talent for invoking textures with minimal instrumental support and it illustrates how deep her melodic skills run.

The inclusion of brass on “The Flood” pairs tightly together with the tempo’s light, intermittent gallop. It doesn’t maintain a constant presence in the song, but punctuates it nicely and brings an extra layer to its musicality. There’s a slightly skewed quality to certain passages as well. She indulges her love for classical imagery once again with the song “Albatross” and its undeniable that Donner’s able to bring some literary significance to her songwriting. Never mistake this for some stilted, unmusical touch – the lyrics, no matter their quality, are always complementary to the music and vice versa. Michael McLean duets with Donner on the graceful and lovely “All the Things” and it ranks among the album’s best moments, but another crucial factor in the song’s success is light percussion providing an intensely rhythmic pulse. The haunted quality of the album finale “Sol 549” is tempered by its melodic beauty and makes for a gentle, muted close to Donner’s album. Black Hole Heart is a moody collection at some points and Donner’s self-appraisal can seem rather withering, but the humanity behind this group of songs is unmistakable.