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.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Black Bluebirds - Like Blood for Music (2017)

Written by Craig Bowles, posted by blog admin

“Love Kills Slowly”, the opener to Black Bluebird’s Like Blood for Music, sets the emotional tone of the album from the outset. The Minneapolis trio isn’t really a power trio, in the strictest sense, since the core three piece is greatly enhanced by contributions from other musicians on Like Blood for Music, but “Love Kills Slowly” makes it clear the core three are the heart and soul of the band, without question. Guitarist Simon Husbands and drummer Chad Helmonds pack the band with a terrific amount of hard rock muscle and the jagged sheen from singer/lyricist Daniel Fiskum’s keyboards is the final key musical ingredient. There’s definitely a hint of the familiar surrounding these songs, but it’s never put forth in such a way that it smacks of cliché – instead, Black Bluebirds’ Like Blood for Music recasts familiar strands in new colors and it makes for a vivid listening experience.

The album has an ideal opener with the song “Love Kills Slowly” and Simon Husbands’ guitar work is a big reason for the song’s success without ever bearing down too heavily on the performance. Some listeners might need to adjust to Daniel Fiskum’s vocal sound, but Jessica Rasche’s near duet with him sweetens the sound thanks to the rich texture and tone of her voice. “Life in White” shows off the album’s first major stylistic shift with incorporating acoustic sounds into the band’s usual intense structure. Fiskum’s singing has a memorable grain to it, a near drone in some ways, but it comes off quite impassioned here while never going too far. “Battlehammer” implies that the band is going to bring a hard hitting stomp to bear and Black Bluebirds doesn’t disappoint, but there’s never any heavy handed reliance on the nonsense we hear from lesser bands.

“House of No More Dreams” comes off as definitely one of Like Blood for Music’s centerpieces and the care they’ve put into making it come alive is notable for even such a great overall release. “House of No More Dreams” comes off as definitely one of Like Blood for Music’s centerpieces and the care they’ve put into making it come alive is notable for even such a great overall release. Husbands and Helmonds do a great job imbuing the song with much of its musical drama, but the singers aren’t too shabby either.

“Soul of Wood” is one of the album’s best uptempo numbers as it hits a sweet spot between Husbands’ guitar work and Fiiskum’s oddly ominous keyboard playing working in accompaniment. Helmonds’ drumming is equally crucial to bringing this one off and his pushing, straight ahead attack enhances the song immeasurably. “My Eyes Were Closed” expands on the potential I hear in the earlier “House of No More Dreams” in a gripping way. The song really is an even longer reach than the aforementioned tune and Husbands’ contributes some potent, chaotic lead work. Like Blood for Music is an effort that will be difficult for Black Bluebirds to follow up on, but the quality is such I have confidence there are even brighter days ahead.