Thursday, June 29, 2017

Samantha Leon - s/t (2017)


Written by Shannon Cowden, posted by blog admin

Samantha Leon’s debut is a memorable debut from a genre, singer/songwriter, which has sometimes seemed to exhaust its initial purpose. Since the halcyon days of performers who Leon cites as pivotal influences, i.e. Cat Stevens, tropes and clichés about the form have come to increasingly dominate the musical landscape. Leon, however, is different. The seven songs on her debut EP touch on some elements we will find familiar from past performers, but she transforms them through the sheer dint of her personal experiences. What emerges from this collection is a performer with potential to revitalize this sort of approach to songwriting. Samantha Leon doesn’t merely seek to entertain her audiences. Instead, she seeks to bare her heart to her listeners and share experiences with lyrical language that never cheapens the sweet and bitter in life on this self-titled Kickstarter funded debut.

We get our first look at her lyrical skills with the opener “Bright Yellow Shoes”. Her talent for a telling image is reflected in the title alone, but it’s extended throughout the song and her lean writing immediately leaps out at listeners. The arrangement is woven together with great care and the attention paid to bringing all these elements together complements her vocal and writing perfectly. She takes a different bent on things with the second song “High (You Only Love Me When You’re Fuc*ed Up)”, but the attention grabbing title shouldn’t mislead listeners into thinking it’s a shallow excursion. She delves deeply into this fractured romance without any self-indulgence and simply lays out a stellar vocal. “Run Away” gives both Leon’s songwriting and the musical arrangement an opportunity to stretch out with a track clocking in at over the six minute mark. There’s many of the same musical elements working here that made the earlier songs successful, but the track’s deliberate pace allows them to create expanded textures not heard during the earlier songs.

The acoustic-based track “Perfect” has a relaxed air, but it shifts into a higher gear at the half way point and features the surprisingly successful inclusion of hip hop with a guest appearance from rapper Danny Matos. It’s an interesting and highly successful experiment that comes off because things are so well balanced and the difference in voice and tone between these two performers will impress any doubter. The second version of “Bright Yellow Shoes” is a full band version and varies greatly from the opener without even being unrecognizable. It’s truly the end of the EP, despite the inclusion of another track, and dovetails neatly into the first track as a bookend. The clarity of her musical and songwriting vision is quite impressive and meshes nicely with the personal qualities she brings to bear. Few debut efforts, whether they are full length or in EP form, succeed so well.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Jim Hagen - Jazzical (2017)

Written by Michael Saulman, posted by blog admin

Jim Hagen’s 2012 debut introduced the talents of this exceptional jazz guitarist to a national audience and his newest release, Jazzical, reinforces the promise and skill illustrated by the debut while showing considerable evolution in the same breath. The nine song collection doesn’t strictly confine itself to a jazz mode musically and shows how Hagen is capable of bringing a variety of musical elements into his wheelhouse without ever veering too far off course of its jazz roots. It also serves as a tribute, of sorts, to Hagen’s former bandmate and musical collaborator Rod Bennett, a vibes player extraordinaire whose tragic death as the result of a traffic accident fortunately didn’t curtail his valued inclusion on this inclusion on this collection. The real highlight of the release is Hagen’s exemplary guitar work, but he benefits from the inclusion of top notch vibes work, often from Bennett, as well as stellar keyboard and bass playing. The percussion on Jazzical, as well, takes the same top notch spot and complements the playing with welcome articulation.

“Pismo Beach” opens the album on a lovely note and shows off the band’s instrumental skills while lacking even a whiff of self indulgence. It’s cut to an ideal length as well and each of the song’s disparate sections never feel over-extended or overwrought. It’s incredibly stylized without ever striking a false note. “D-Tuna” takes a decidedly different approach thanks to its concentration on invoking atmosphere, but Hagen and his musical partners never forget to stress melody. It is, however, one of the album’s real moments of genuine experimentation and a testament to the talents of the players involved that it lines up very nicely with the remaining eight tracks. “Alexandra” bears some similarities to that track, but it shares more common with the other seven songs in the sense that it adheres tp a well defined sense of structure while still bearing a number of unmistakably individual marks.

“All Blues”, a Miles Davis cover, has a strong structure as well while still showing the flexibility to diverge from it and return without a fumble. The expected changes come at all the right points, but Hagen and his band mates are able to diverge from that structure and carve out specific notches in the piece that they stamp with their own signature style. “Jazzical”, the album’s title cut, might be the most illuminating moment on the release. Hagen’s classical background comes to the fore here thanks to his flawless guitar work, but he’s equally capable of weaving it with jazz influences into a seamless package. “Lazy Sunday” finishes off the release on a relaxed and lyrical note thanks to his guitar playing, but there’s a lot of factors contributing to the success of this closing curtain. Jazzical is more than just important genre release; there’s ample merit here to draw in casual fans as well thanks to Hagen’s melodic excellence.

Toy Trucks

He filled his closets with toy trucks
and snored like a flooded motor
when he dreamed of driving one off.
He raced his replicas through sleep,
past fence lines tied with leather belts
and down dirt roads knuckled with rocks
looking for his father to say:
I bought the toys you never did
and paid with the sweat of my brow.

He built walls from the white boxes
holding semi-trailers and trucks
like cardboard backbones to buttress
the walls crumbling around him.
Despite the barriers he raised,
I know now he was never here
and loved sleeping more than waking
where his trucks plowed through every wall
to shame a blind and dead father
who he never saw or forgave.

Natalie Estes - 20/20 Vision (2017)

Written by Ed Price, posted by blog admin

Natalie Estes’ four song EP collection 20/20 Vision heralds the emergence of a truly diverse talent capable of staking out a claim as one of the most promising vocalists working today. Young performers, singers or musicians, often arrive with rough edges still intact and those are only chipped away over time. There are much rarer cases, however, where a new performer comes out seemingly a fully finished product and ready for the biggest of stages. Estes falls in the second category. The four songs on her EP aspire to a surprising amount of stylistic diversity that’s shocking for a relatively brief collection. Estes is a Nashville native who didn’t immediately gravitate towards music, her first love being dance, but hearing Adele’s cover of Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” during her high school years sparked a fire in her that seems to be glowing now with enormous heat and intensity.

The build for the opener, “Until I Do”, is nothing short of magnificent. The lyrical content has a hint of titillation and equates the experience of longing with addiction. It isn’t particularly new lyrical ground to turn over, but the actual writing snaps with such a lean, economical bite that it redeems any overly familiar aspects of the songwriting’s themes. It seems a little too cliché to deem her vocal performance sultry, but this quality is in increasingly short supply in our modern era and her evocative tone really embodies the song’s narrative in a dramatic way. The intimacy of this performance will excite many listeners. As great as that opener is, however, “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire” is even better. This is the sort of big show stopping, cinematic number that most singers and pop performers aspire to latching onto for their entire careers and it makes a tremendous impact from the first. The backing vocals here make Estes’ strong belt even more memorable and the muscular recording is one of the best production moments on 20/20 Vision. Like the rest of the material, the songwriting and Estes’ vocal performance makes great use of sympathetic dynamics that make the song take on an even grander air than it might otherwise possess.

“Reminds Me of You”, the EP’s penultimate track, is much more in the mode of traditional balladry, but Estes excels here as well. There’s a gentleness that mixes with her customary intimacy to nice effect and it’s equally complemented well by the artfully turned piano work. The final number “Bad Game” has, perhaps, more attitude than the previous three numbers combined and Estes tears into the lyrics with all the zest they deserve. It’s an exclamation point ending on a fantastic EP that few young performers today can hope to equal. 20/20 Vision may be brief, but the four songs included on this release pack more of a punch than many full length efforts ever harbor.

Grade: A

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Real Hooks - Damn You (2017)

Written by Montey Zike, posted by blog admin

Artwork by Odandiee

The newest release from the musical Hooks family and their band The Real Hooks, “Damn You”, continues to capitalize on the same powerful combination of melody, mood, chemistry, and humor that’s brought them into the national spotlight. They made some exceptionally wise choices along the way that’s further helped them develop commercial momentum. The most recent intelligent move they made came with the decision to open up their songwriting options rather than keeping them exclusively “in-house”. It pays big dividends on this cut – it’s co-written with respected songwriter Mark Spiro, a composer whose work with performers as diverse as Lita Ford and Anne Murray, among others, has generates over 100 million units in sales. Lead singer and guitarist Kyle Hooks remains the focal point of the band’s musical presentation, but his siblings and father are formidable talents in their own rights and, taken together, they make a mammoth impact.

Any band capable of actually playing their instruments can whip up sonic energy. Some bands, however, betray how laborious it is for them  in the paint by numbers way they approach those moments. There’s none of that with The Real Hooks. “Damn You” has genuine energy born from the effortless and natural chemistry these players share. Kyle Hooks is the obvious front man and lead vocalist, but the band achieves an effortless vocal blend and the harmonies are among the most notable aspects of the work. The guitar jangle defining much of the track comes from electric and acoustic both and nicely timed piano fills further flesh out the song’s melodic possibilities. The band shows real sensitivity to match their playfulness and the phrasing often defining the vocal makes this an uplifting musical moment as well as underscoring the track’s understated humor.

The lyrical content delivers on that understated humor, but their playfulness is never childish or sophomoric. “Damn You” has lyrics capable of making you smile because they know exactly how to orchestrate those potential humorous moments so that they dovetail neatly with the arrangement and, especially, the vocals. They are ideally suited at every turn. The track, likewise, has a pleasing sense of completeness. They never try our patience and run on too long but, moreover, they offer up an unified and polished bit of songwriting that has everything it needs for making audiences happy, is built for live performance, and doesn’t feel like it is missing a single part. “Damn You” is The Real Hooks’ finest effort to date and promises greater things to come for a band that’s already accomplished much in a short amount of time.

Grade: A

Friday, June 9, 2017

Cranford Hollow - Color/Sound/Renew/Revive (2017)

Written by Montey Zike, posted by blog admin

The gradual evolution of a band, free from commercial pressures, is a fascinating thing. Cranford Hollow works in a style that isolates them from the need to score mainstream attention, not that it isn’t warranted, in order to turn a profit and justify their continued existence. Instead, they’ve built their well earned reputation on the backs of sterling live work and a commitment to producing albums reflective of where they are at a given point in their lives and musical journeys. The latest album from this South Carolina based five piece, Color/Sound/Renew/Revive, is a powerful reminder of what results following your Muse can produce. It’s a relatively brief recording, tallying only eight songs, but the band explores such a diverse array of sonic and stylistic identities over the course of this collection that they scarcely resemble the shit-kicking, whiskey-drinking four piece they began their run as. Instead, they have become so much more.

Color/Sound/Renew/Revive gets off to an impressive start with the track “Songfield”. John Cranford, the band’s lead singer and primary songwriter, still has the whiskey and nicotine wrecked grit. His lyrical contributions to the album reflect how his development at a writer has reached a stage where he seems completely freed to write about a variety of subjects with a mix of artfulness, suggestiveness, and specificity few of his contemporaries can hope to match. “Songfield” is uniquely the band’s own. The second track, “Long Shadows”, showcases the talents of the band’s fiddle player, Eric “Thunder” Reid, and his darkly lyrical playing is an important key to the song’s impact on the audience. There’s a more traditional bent to the album’s third track “Bury It Down”. The steady jangle of acoustic guitars and relaxed drumming are nicely punctuated by Yannie Reynecke’s bluesy and often blistering lead guitar lines. This is one of the most soulful moments on Color/Sound/Renew/Revive and John Cranford’s vocal has the same grit we heard before coupled with a surprising amount of sweet musicality.

There’s a much more current musical atmosphere surrounding “North” and it opens with a voice-over recording of a President John Kennedy speech. Naturally, Eric Reid’s presence means it remains wisely tethered to the band’s country/bluegrass roots, but the compelling groove provided by the drumming and Reynecke’s evocative swells of electric guitar give it a little added moodiness. They might surprise some with including an instrumental track as the album’s penultimate number, but “Dark Turns” doesn’t miss vocals and carries itself quite nicely on an album filled with eloquent lyrical excursions. It makes for an interesting pairing with the song “Swing” and Cranford Hollow truly captures the spirit of the song title without ever veering too far afield of the band’s musical wheelhouse. Cranford Hollow have arrived where they are with utter honesty. This is a band whose creative vision is organically shaped rather than resulting from market pressure. Despite their growing distance from traditional Americana, Cranford Hollow still embody the form’s strongest aspects and show no signs of slowing growth or stagnation.

Grade: A