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.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Michael Askin - Road by the River (2017)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

Road by the River, the new five song EP release from New Jersey based singer/songwriter Michael Askin, is a relatively unassuming collection, but there’s a warm glow radiating from these five tracks that’s, in turns, haunted and deeply felt. He’s largely working in a folk/singer-songwriter mode, but there are definitely nods to country, blues, and rock influences peeking out at various times during this listening experience. Askin, fortunately, surrounds himself with a top notch cast of collaborators obviously sympathetic to his musical vision and they play with a singular focus aimed towards best serving the songs. Despite the retro style Askin has chosen to adopt for his songwriting, it has a fresh vitality that prevents it from ever sounding like an academic exercise. Much of this is thanks to the superb writing and uninhibited sensitivity Askin shows for giving us an artful peek into his life and heart.

We can hear that in the cool and confident jaunt he takes through the EP’s title number and opener. The drums are captured especially well and set a memorable tone for the performance as a whole, but the true beating heart of the song comes with Askin’s emotive singing and the satisfaction arriving with the chorus. It’s the only time he makes extensive use of harmonies to buttress his singing, but it’s exceptionally well done and memorable for its brevity. Some of the inevitable chagrin you experience when you feel like you aren’t being heard and held down comes across with the song “Nashville” and, although he communicates his dissatisfaction clearly, Askin’s songwriting is distinguished for its lack of pointless vitriol. It’s one of the EP’s darkest musical moments as well.

Not quite as dark as “Sun Goes Down” however. Askin, with this song, arguably goes deeper than anywhere else on the EP and his guitar playing particularly stands out thanks to its shadowy elegance, taste, and soulful touch. He hits another high point with the song “Hard to Make a Living” and this Merle Haggard-ish (lyrically) meditation on rough times allows his country music influences to come through a final time. The EP’s ending number, “Last Train”, mixes a dollop of rock into a folky blues shuffle that’s brief, but becomes more interesting as it goes along. It’s, lyrically, probably his most Americana tinged moment on the EP and feels like a satisfying finish for the EP in every way. Michael Askin’s Road by the River doesn’t have to pretend to be authentic; there’s a life well lived coming across on every song.

Sarah Morris - Hearts in Need of Repair (2017)

Written by William Elgin, posted by blog admin

Sarah Morris’ latest full length album Hearts in Need of Repair marks a new high point in the career of one of the country’s best singer/songwriters working today. The Minneapolis based artist has established a reputation as one of the more probing, vulnerable songwriters working today thanks to a mix of her revealing poetic lyrics and an intelligent, outside the box approach to her songs that, nonetheless, demonstrates a thorough understanding and mastery of fundamentals. This third album follows up 2013’s Ordinary Things well by reaffirming the virtues of that sophomore effort, enlisting the same musical team to help bring things off, and yet moves the needle closer to her peak than any preceding release. This award winning songwriter and vocalist has amassed an impressive following for such a young career and there’s little question that Hearts in Need of Repair will garner her even more respect and followers.

The title song is a piece of music with immense subtlety. There are a number of subtle tempo shifts built into the arrangement and drummer Zachary Schmidt handles these changes with a deft sense of timing and just the right touch. The mix of acoustic and electric guitar is, likewise, understated yet assertive enough to further shape the song. “Good at Goodbye” is a clever bit of songwriting with a more pronounced country music influence coming through. Some might deem it somewhat predictable, but discerning listeners will instead hear a pleasing inevitability in Morris’ writing that illustrates her mastery of the form. Her lyrics also traffic in a number of specific details that gives the song a more intimate edge. “Cheap Perfume” has some of the same specificity driving its writing and a moodier character overall while showing some of the same musical influences. A bluesier spirit fills the song “Falling Over” and the same penchant for concrete details distinguishing “Good at Goodbye” comes across even stronger here. Morris, likewise, fills the song with a wise gravitas that, as well, never fails to musically deliver. The slide guitar laced through the track is particularly effective.

The pensive intimacy of “Empty Seat” elicits a level of delicacy from Morris’ voice that gets under the lyric’s skin and there are some remarkable lines. It’s one of Morris’ finest moments in her career so far, never mind just this album, and the hard won experience fueling its observations is exquisitely expressed. “Shelter or the Storm” has some of the same swampy ambiance we heard with “Falling Over” with a more memorable vocal melody that demands lung power from Morris unlike any other song on Hearts in Need of Repair. Her wont for a probing love song continues with the starkly beautiful “Nothing Compares” and she wonderfully avoids the tired tropes common to the style without ever compromising what it wants to say. The steel guitar and piano duet coloring the finale “Confetti” is a good match for the customary acoustic guitar and dramatically arranged drumming, but it’s the considered tempo and deeply felt vocal magic that makes this a real winner for her final curtain. Hearts in Need of Repair is one of the finest exponents of the singer/songwriter school in recent memory and Morris’ command over Americana forms makes this a formidable listening experience.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Joe Olnick Band - Downtown (2017)

Written by William Elgin, posted by blog admin

The 6th release from completely instrumental threesome the Joe Olnick Band is a quirky, off-the-cuff album full of twisting rhythms and intense guitar workouts that conjures up some real funk ‘n blues hoodoo.  Downtown is a collection of jams that weave in and out of one another in a grandiose, 70s-progressive madness that encompasses every style from ambient noise to wailing punk-psyche to groovy drive in theater soundscapes. 

Things lead-in on the burly, buoyant funk of the title track which utilizes pounding, thunderous rhythms that you can shake your booty to while band mastermind and guitarist Joe Olnick splices psyche leads, fuzzy wah-explosions and atmospheric licks into the band’s Frankenstein creation of sound.  There’s an obvious drive, power and aggressive component to the band’s sound that keeps the music stomping forward on dirty, fun lovin’ numbers such as this one, the swank downbeat of “Philadelphia Moonlight (Part One)” and the bustling “Rush Hour.”  “Rush Hour” has a snappy rhythm that’s always moving along at a good clip as Olnick imprints his rocked-out, jazzy funk leads permanently into the tune’s tough rhythmic flesh.  The first part of “Philadelphia Moonlight” is one of the album’s most melodic numbers and even though some of the guitar work has an incendiary burn to it, the rhythms stay more meditative and the melodies are softer and more noticeable. 

The gristly “Food Truck” provides another take on the Joe Olnick Band’s varied, multifaceted funk.  This cut has a barrel-chested, walking bass lick played by Jamie Aston that holds the entire song together in tandem with Jamie Smucker’s precision, slow motion beats.  Meanwhile, Olnick snakes multiple guitar leads and lick into the jam that keep expanding far beyond the initial minimalist seeds that were planted.  “Parkside” examines a similar, stripped down atmosphere with gothic keyboard drones and an odd no-wave noise vibe being filtered through the atonal tunefulness.  “Philadelphia Moonlight (Part Two)” gets by on using the absolute bare minimum when it comes to instrumental notation.  The guitar, bass percussion and keys each seem to pick a singular note or simplistic motif/pattern and stick with it for nearly the entire song.  Slow but surely new notes are eventually added and Olnick builds his tense, noisy guitar squalor into a very eerie yet memorable ambience.  The soul sundering “Sports Complex” borrows heavy metal’s ruthless, infernal volume that was introduced to the genre in the late 60s.  Wedding this loud, dirty drawl to a runaway Sex Pistols’ tempo and allows the guitar work to erupt with volcanic psychedelic rock, this no-holds barred psycho ditty closes that album on a downright terrifying note. 

Downtown is 7 tracks of instrumental experiments that work and actually make for a set of unique, fantastic songs.  No two tracks are alike and the band’s musicianship isn’t afraid to catch a mighty groove or overload your senses with power and volume… exactly what good rock n’ roll should be doing whether it has a funk, jazz or classical base regardless.  Pound for pound you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better instrumental release this year.