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.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Greeg Stewart - Twenty Sixteen (2017)

Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Gregg Stewart stays busy. The New Jersey based singer/songwriter, creative force behind the band Stewboss, follows up his first solo album released in March of this year with one of the most unique cover album projects you are ever likely to hear. Twenty Sixteen gathers fourteen songs popularized or written by musical artists who died in 2016 and ranges across a relatively wide array of musical styles and approaches. It’s more than a tribute however. One of the most notable strengths we hear on Twenty Sixteen is Stewart’s restless creativity that’s seldom content with merely duplicating the original versions of these songs. Instead, Stewart makes a noticeable effort to retain the spirit inhabiting those tracks while transforming them in unexpected ways that, nonetheless, remain faithful to their guiding spirit. This is no small feat. The path of least resistance says that merely aping the more famous originals and hitting one’s marks would be enough to make this a worthwhile excursion from his own songwriting, but it’s to Stewart’s credit that he doesn’t settle for that.

Dead Or Alive and their front man Pete Burns entered history with the relentlessly sing-able “You Spin Me Round” and, while Stewart can’t whip up the same physicality with his more low key arrangement, he does manage to capture much of the original’s suggestiveness and playful mood. He turns to another Eighties’ icon George Michael with a cover of his song “A Different Corner” and, stripped of Michael’s pop affectations, Stewart gives us a chance to rediscover this track as a fundamentally fine song   His take on Prince’s pop classic “Raspberry Beret” isn’t the first successful re-invention of the song, but it’s likely the most original. Stewart retains the central melody and builds around it, but the performance is shorn of the bells and whistles livening up Prince’s original and successful nonetheless because of Stewart’s emotive vocal and the low-key vibe his acoustic instrumentation takes advantage of. He takes a, perhaps, unexpected turn covering Viola Beach’s “Daisies” and the performance illustrates another of Twenty Sixteen’s strengths – it has the potential to introduce bands/songs to listeners that they might have otherwise missed. His take on the indie pop band’s “Daisies” reveals the nuanced depths of their young, tragically lost talent and Stewart obviously relates to the song and their experience as he digs in with an absolutely super vocal.

Leon Russell’s “One More Love Song” gets a compelling workout and restructuring that shows Stewart’s imaginative brilliance. It seems like a natural to revamp the tune so that it sounds more like a number from The Band and Stewart makes this decision pay handsome dividends. His cover of the early Jefferson Airplane track “High Flying Bird” filters the original’s nascent San Francisco trappings through Stewart’s modern sensibility and it results in a version of this Airplane tune that the band’s recently deceased leader, Paul Kantner, would undoubtedly enjoy. The album takes a slightly more personal turn with his performance of “That’s How You Know”, a song penned by Los Angeles songwriting mainstay Andrew Dorff. The close proximity of Stewart to the departed gives the outing a different sense of immediacy and urgency lacking in other numbers and Stewart definitely approaches it with an cathartic air. Twenty Sixteen says as much about Greeg Stewart as it does the songwriters he’s chosen from and it makes for a substantive offering while we wait a little longer for Stewart’s next burst of songwriting from his own pen.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Kittens Slay Dragons - Big Big Heart (2016)

Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

Kittens Slay Dragons’ debut release, moreso than most albums, has an agenda. Sarah Donner is the songwriting and vocal force driving the project and her passion for animal rescue informs the creation of this release in a significant way. The vocal pyrotechnics she summons for Big Big Heart’s ten songs underscores her commitment to that practice and the electronica influenced arrangements structuring the songs are warm, fluid, and play nicely to her strengths as a singer. Kittens Slay Dragons features songs that have genuine substance and never come off as preachy in anyway – Donner grounds her songwriting in vulnerabilities and well-worded poetic flourishes that bring the subject matter to life without any self-indulgence. Her collaborator on the project, $hClane!, brings some distinctive percussion to these songs. There’s some organic instrumentation on the album, but its presence is scant and, therefore, all the more effective.

“Gatekeeper” is a perfect choice for Big Big Heart’s opener. It’s interesting throughout the release how Donner’s vividly emotional voice strikes a contrast with the obviously processed sound of synthesizers and electronic bass/drums. Kittens Slay Dragons never confine themselves to one particular sound template when it comes to synths, but there’s an universally bright hue defining the sound of Big Big Heart’s songs that Donner rarely deviates from. The exultant emotional qualities of the material continue on the second song “Castiel” with a strong concentration of synthesizers working through the song. Much of the album can be divided into two distinct types of songs – there are more luxurious, mid-tempo workouts with a focus on the vocals paired up against songs with an emphasis on dynamics and intelligently orchestrated arrangements making the most use of that as possible. “Smile Pretty” is one of the best examples of the latter on Big Big Heart and Donner throws herself into it vocally with eye-popping commitment. It’s one of the best songs on Big Big Heart.

“Love Is Surgery” has uptempo energy unlike anything that’s come before on the album and brings together the aforementioned two approaches into one song. Her ability to bring dramatic and technically accomplished phrasing into a song rich with dynamics makes this an impressive track from the first. The title song moves its focus back to the atmospherics of earlier numbers, but her scope expands here and there’s a feeling of more patient development shaping this composition than we hear on earlier numbers. “Queer and Square”, like many other songs on Big Big Heart, has an awesome chorus that should bring people to their feet or otherwise tightly capture their attention. The rousing quality of that moment is well nigh irresistible. She turns things in a more serious, solemn direction with the song “Symbols in the Sky” and it’s a notable shift in mood without ever taking the track listing and album as a whole completely off track. The album’s second to last track, “Eggs”, is another high point on the release and has a lot of melodic virtues while still demonstrating all the quirkiness that comes with Donner’s individualistic approach. Kittens Slay Dragons is, perhaps, a one off release, but let’s hope not. Sarah Donner has found a potentially important new avenue for her tremendous creativity and there simply isn’t a song on this album that misses.