Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

Written by Craig Bowles, posted by blog admin

Yam Haus starts their debut album off with its title cut “Stargazer” and the song sets an early tone for the release that its following songs ably live up to. A synthesizer layered introduction recurs throughout the course of the title song, but Yam Haus augments it with some cutting guitar riffs and spartan drumming that never lays on a single excessive beat. It isn’t a groove centric tune, ala some rock or jam band tune, but there’s no question Yam Haus establishes a straight forward approach from the first with this polished tune. Lars Pruitt’s vocals are a highlight here and throughout the release, but another early peak comes with the track “Kingdom”. Pruitt has easy going pop singer charisma, but also the authoritative punch to command your attention and an obvious talent for realizing the potential of his vocal melodies.

“Get Somewhere” has a more playful tone than many of the other songs on Stargazer, empathized by its vocal melody, but Pruitt doesn’t neglect strengthening the song with on point phrasing that realizes its dramatic possibilities. Pruitt’s flexibility as a singer makes this one all the more enjoyable and it has an effortless forward rush that carries you away. “Too Many People” grounds the music a little more than we’ve grown accustomed to over the course of the album’s first quarter thanks to Yam Haus moving away from electronic accompaniment in favor of piano and Pruitt proves he has a voice ideally suited for such a context.

“Right Now, Forever” is the first low-key acoustic track included on Stargazer and the band handles this stylistic shift with singular aplomb. Assuming that Lars Pruitt’s guitar contributions are largely consigned to rhythm playing, Seth Blum’s gorgeously rendered acoustic playing on this track counterpoints his voice quite nicely. The rhythm section of bassist Zach Beinlich and drummer Jake Felstow excel with the late pop gem “Bad News” and it results in one of the album’s most memorable turns, particularly thanks to the song’s vocal melody. Pruitt tackles that facet of the songwriting with supreme confidence.

“This Won’t Be The Last Time” has a strong bass pulse thanks to Beinlich’s playing and effervescent backing vocals punctuating Pruitt’s voice. It’s a straight ahead pop jewel polished to a bright glow and the accompanying synthesizers help flesh it out even more. The “true” climax for Yam Haus’ Stargazer, “Groovin’ (That Feel Good Song)”, more than lives up to its billing thanks to its bright jauntiness and a compelling rhythm that hooks into listener’s consciousness and never lets go. Yam Haus has debuted in the best possible way with Stargazer – there isn’t a single dud included in its track listing and its impossible to ignore the inspired nature of their performances.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

“Forefathers” opens Astronomique’s Sharp Divide with the sort of confidence you don’t often hear from new bands. This Minneapolis based four piece has threaded together an irresistible sound coupling the best elements of electronica, eighties flavored Euro pop, and a deceptively strong singer/songwriter sensibility dominating the album as a whole. “Side of Your Mind” has a bright bounce from the first and singer/keyboard player Logan Andra Fongemie’s vocal shares the same upward, optimistic tilt, a mood in short supply on Sharp Divide. Drummer Mitch Billings and bassist Preston Saari distinguished themselves on the album’s opener, but they demonstrate their versatility here as they don’t play such a prominent role in the mix, yet provide a center for “Side of Your Mind” immeasurably enhancing the song.

The tracks “Losing Our Control” and the title song are likely the album’s pinnacle. There are extraordinarily good songs following this tandem, but the duo of songs near the album’s midway point stand a cut above thanks to the unified effort you can hear in both performances. Fongemie’s synthesizer playing is an integral part of the band’s sound, rather than pure ornamentation like it might be for lesser acts, and the delicate, nearly crystalline qualities of her voice are equally fitting for the material. The title song seems to be the more impressive of the two thanks to the extra dollop of passion Fongemie brings to her singing. “Smoke”, however, takes a slightly different and welcome shift on the band’s template this far and succeeds in focusing more on atmospherics without losing the musical plot.

“Unspoken”, however, returns us to the more familiar terrain of the album’s first four songs and rivals the aforementioned tandem of “Losing Our Control” and the title song without ever repeating itself. Hogan’s guitar work here is especially strong and one can feel his inspiration working with such a talented rhythm section team. “Bleed Me” is another of the album’s marquee numbers and effectively juxtaposes its intense lyrical content with another slightly melancholy, but entertaining musical arrangement. “Hardly Deliberate” maintains the same approach to Fongemie’s vocals defining the album on the whole while it brings a tense, rolling arrangement to bear anchored by the potent interplay between Saari’s rib rattling bass and Billings’ drums.

“Heading Nowhere” seems to bring Sharp Divide to a dispirited conclusion, but it is reminiscent of the earlier “Bleed Me” in its willingness to bring a relatively dire lyrical mood together with a freer, slightly more upbeat musical identity. Few albums are as clearly conceived and laid out as Sharp Divide and it’s a testament to the band’s innate chemistry, particularly between Fongemie and her songwriting partner guitarist Sean Hogan, but bassist Preston Saari and drummer Mitch Billings make a big impact on the album’s final form.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Lime Pit (1980) by Jonathan Valin

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Jonathan Valin's The Lime Pit, his first novel and Cincinnati private eye Harry Stoner’s debut, has strong points, but isn’t wholly successful. The book’s publication came during a period when the style’s resident titan, Ross Macdonald, fell silent and the thriving paperback market made room for potential successors like Valin, Stephen Greenleaf, Robert B. Parker, and Loren D. Estleman, among others. Valin never reached the same level of sales and visibility enjoyed by Parker, but his Stoner series has largely weathered posterity’s judgment and deserves revisiting.

Key components are, admittedly, dated. The idea of underage sexually explicit materials circulated via Polaroids is as quaint to 2018 experience as phone booths and recording weddings with a camcorder. Valin engages questions of morality and conscience in a manner reminiscent of Macdonald, but still groping for its voice. These questions are, ultimately, more important to Valin than the novel’s plot mechanics. The character of Cindy Ann, her disappearance functioning as a sort of inciting incident for Valin’s story, is a MacGuffian. The Lime Pit is much more about Stoner’s reactions to and challenges with the situation.

We learn a little about him. Stoner played football in college, served in Vietnam. He isn’t practically monastic like Marlowe and beds the occasional lady painfully aware of modern love’s vagaries. Macdonald’s Lew Archer is a profound influence, but never in an overly imitative way and Stoner never comes off mired in the same cloudbank of dispirited melancholy emanating from Macdonald’s legendary character,  Stoner, however, isn’t fully fleshed out.

Some of his crucial motivations are glossed over or outright tossed aside to keep the plot moving. Valin tries to pick his spots with underwhelming effect. Authors never need to belabor the underlying history and thought processes informing every decision, but laying a bit of breezy social commentary and two cents worth of psychology on readers is perfunctory at best. Promising opportunities for bringing added depths to Stoner’s character are passed over to serve formula and form. We get some, but Valin could have given so much more.

The book reflects its time period. Stoner’s 1979/1980 Cincinnati is a microcosm of an America on its heels stumbling into a new decade still punchy from the punishing one-two of Vietnam and Watergate. The national concussion makes Valin’s characters come off slightly woozy and bearing the claw marks of marginalized people hanging on for dear life.

Sometimes the dialogue falls flat or else reads like it’s cribbed from movies and past masters. Too many, but not all, of The Lime Pit’s secondary characters are cardboard. In the end, however, you will likely forgive Valin’s failings in favor of his presence. He orchestrates the form’s conventions with a steady hand and Stoner’s first person narration is consistently engaging thanks to Valin’s vivid flashes of prose punctuating his lines. The Lime Pit is a solid opening to a great series.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sky Orchid - Oculus (2017)

Written by Laura Dodero, posted by blog admin

Sky Orchid’s Oculus begins with the evocative cut “The River” and Gabriel Traynyak’s vocals immediately stand out as among the most individual I’ve heard in recent years. The brothers form Sky Orchid, Gabriel and Daniel Traynyak, are thoroughly modern sounding and share similarities with many first rate recording acts of today, but “The River” and later songs possess a distinct character unlike the vast majority of offerings from acts in this vein. The highly stylized qualities of their songwriting and presentation are further explored with the second track “Sneakers”, but there’s less focus on the duo’s rock influences in favor of a sleek, streamlined pop rock approach. There’s a strongly cinematic quality to the duo’s music, as well, and the opening tandem of tracks illustrates this exceptionally well.

“In the Fire (Pt. 1)” has a ballad-like construction many will enjoy. The sensitive, lyrical introduction with guitar and voice alone soon gives way to a steady rock push from Daniel Traynyak’s drumming. His talents on the kit and top notch production virtues often come together on Oculus to take already fine material and send it stratospheric. “Wildfire” and “I’ll Stop the World (Pt. 2)” are cut from the same musical cloth as the album’s other eight songs, but they strike a marked contrast with each other. The former is a largely acoustic song only returning to Sky Orchid’s familiar melodic sweep in the song’s final half. “Wildfire” is a welcome gear shift on the album proving the duo has a wider songwriting and performing range than many listeners might initial suspect. “I’ll Stop the World (Pt.2 )”, however, foregoes acoustic guitar entirely and rates among the album’s best nods to rock’s influence on their music.

Gabriel Traynyak’s vocal for “Lex” is among the album’s best. His elastic voice covers the gamut from the opening’s restrained, atmospheric delivery through gut-wrenching soulfulness in the song’s second half. Tucked into the tracklisting just after the album’s halfway point, it may be overlooked, but I don’t hear a slack second during the song. “Breathe Easy” is more of a lark, a loving take on influences from artists as diverse as Sublime and Bob Marley, but there’s a rambunctiousness about this track only wild-eyed youth usually produces; it’s jarring but daring to turn another direction entirely near the song’s end and unleash a full shred guitar hard rock final curtain. Some will love it; frankly, some will hate it.

One of the album’s best examples of spot on guitar melody comes with the track “Take It All”. The light bounce of the central guitar figure sustains itself through an assortment of changes and Gabriel Traynyak gives a smooth, gliding performance playing off well against the six string’s bright energy. The album’s penultimate tune “Yesterday” opens with ominous piano and drums before keyboards and guitars enter the picture and the song settles into a steady tempo. It’s definitely the darkest moment musically on Oculus, but tasteful and never testing listener’s tolerance for self indulgence. “Fortify” closes Oculus with a nuanced mid-tempo piece firmly in keeping with the earlier songs and acting as a sort of “falling action” following the climax we hear with the previous track. Sky Orchid’s Oculus is one of 2017’s more impressive debuts , yes, but it’s one of the best first efforts in recent years as well.

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.