Mornings & Memories

Morning Phase – by Beck

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I set off with high spirits and good intentions to review the critically acclaimed “new” Beck album that I should have picked up a year ago, when it was released in February 2014.  I have to admit, it is just not suited for early morning commute music, despite being named Morning Phase.  So slow, and sweet – not only did it remind me way too much of the Sea Change album from 2002, but it dangerously contributed to the sleepy, not-quite-caffeinated-enough feeling of the daily drive.  I could only get through the whole thing 2-3 times in entirety.

Whenever I tried to think about the Morning Phase album and how to describe it, “The Golden Age” song from Sea Change kept creeping into my memory, so I decided to take another look at this album to note the similarities.  Heck, even the cover art is ridiculously similar – an unsmiling headshot of the quirkily handsome and talented Beck, with various rainbow colors super-imposed on his stoic visage.  But what happened next as I searched for key tracks online, is that I fell into a very personal “memory lane” re-discovery of Beck’s entire discography.

I think it is worth doing a deep dive into Beck’s musical career as a basis for understanding, interpreting, and appreciating his most recent work.  I will be the first to admit that the early and lesser-known Golden Feelings (1993), Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994), and One Foot in the Grave (1994) have never crossed my path.  Otherwise though, I think I have given each new Beck album a fair audience at each phase in my semi-adult existence, and I have really enjoyed most of them.

Without question, my favorite Beck album is Midnite Vultures; the sometimes comically danceable CD emblazoned with neon-pink stretch pants from 1999.  The fact that my nostalgia for this fun release coincided with my freshman year of college is not surprising.  Guero is my 2nd favorite; it is so rhythmic and awesomely gritty.  But then again 2005 was a really great year for me, so my rosy retrospection is probably in full effect.  Getting back to the current album, I must say I don’t really like it…yet.  Don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful; just too mellow for me.  I have to find a way to get past my instant appreciation for upbeat and rocking songs, in order to see the clever craftsmanship of these more esoteric pieces.

One of the first things you’ll notice on Morning Phase, is that there is tons of true orchestration on this album. Song tracks like “Cycle”, “Wave”, “Phase”, and Waking Light” give a good indication of what is to come.  Thankfully, these gentle pieces are broken up by stronger songs, so the whole album doesn’t just mellow into the background. And forget that overly raw, slightly crappy production quality – Beck has the resources and reputation to command the best producers, sound technicians, session musicians, guest artists – you name it.  The resulting effect is engineered to perfection.  “Cycle” is just gorgeous with its 40 seconds of swelling strings before moving right to “Morning” – this is the track that would belong right at home on Sea Change.

I really liked “Heart is a Drum” – it features an entire choir of Becks singing over simple guitar background and orchestral samplings.  I love the inclusive lyrics here (“keeping time with everyone”) and the piano that jumps in to give the song an emotional ground and a hippyish feel à la CNSY. “Blue Moon” has a punky banjo-picked background, but with stronger and more monumental vocalizations.  And “Don’t Let It Go” almost sounds like Eddie Vedder – I actually love this one!  Especially when the heartwarming piano joins in again.

Some of the pieces have a timeless feel.  For example, “Blackbird Chain” incorporates vintage surf-rock sounds.  “Turn Away” evokes old Simon and Garfunkel, but with a freshened up style that could be performed by Vance Joy.  And “Country Down” also reminds me of an older group – the Band.  It totally brings to mind the style and feel of “the Weight” and other classics by this legendary entourage.

Given the work that Beck has put in over 22 years and 12 studio albums, he is more than just another neo-folk artist that picked up a banjo or mandolin to warble a few lines to play on your emotions.  He is one of the talented treasures of our time, and I am certain that with a few more listens, this new album too will form part of the sentimental timeline of my life, and will probably produce a few choice tracks for me to cycle through on my favorites list as well.  I’m thinking of taking a long “Beck Week” to re-appreciate at least one of his major studio releases per day –that would really set the scene to enjoy Morning Phase as it was truly intended.  I suggest you join me; and I trust we won’t be disappointed by the experience.

Link to Google Play to Preview Tracks:

https://play.google.com/store/music/album/Beck_Morning_Phase?id=Bzbbouwtdgcqx3hgawrmu4n3lua&hl=en

Link to Amazon to Purchase Album:

http://www.amazon.com/Morning-Phase-Beck/dp/B00HHYEOY0/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1427165695&sr=1-1&keywords=beck+morning+phase

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Simple Name, Simple Pleasure

Audrey and Chris – By Audrey and Chris*

Audrey & Chris

(*Image pulled from https://audreyandchris.bandcamp.com/ – not taken by RMC)

Looking for something folky but not too bluegrass or country?  This is the perfect album.  I loved every precious second of the seven short tracks on this self-titled debut from charming duo Audrey Snow and Chris Gillin-Schwartz, known simply as Audrey and Chris.  I couldn’t find a ton of information about them, but apparently they are from Cape May, New Jersey – which is also extremely charming.

They open with one of their strongest songs – “Dissipate”.  I love the beautiful lyrics, and slow but simple guitar.  Apparently Audrey can really sing! She has a mellow, low, soulful voice that reminds me of Susan Tedeschi and Fiona Apple.  She really belts it out on the heartfelt chorus when the banjo kicks in.  Did I mention that I love this song?  In fact, there really isn’t a bad one on this album.

The second track reminds me of the excellent Ryan Bingham songs from the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack, complete with the gravely whiskey dude voice that totally fits a song called “Down the Line” – it is perfect!  It has a bright, open guitar sound and lots of harmonica.

Track #3 is called “Elliot” and is pretty depressing if you think about it.  I would describe it as a cross between Nirvana and Eliot Smith, in terms of both content and sound.  Well done, but dark.  I suggest that you experience it fully, then continue on to something lighter!  You can move on to the next track that again showcases Audrey’s amazing voice.  The vocal style of “Hold Out” is reminiscent of Shawn Colvin with a little Sheryl Crow mixed in – but this track is more upbeat in tempo (if not in tone) than the opening Audrey song.

Track #5 “Maybe” perhaps is the best example of Audrey’s Fiona style because it highlights just her voice roaming over a basic guitar.  And then there is “Late Night” – A sultry and rhythmic duet between Audrey and Chris, with a standard format but unpredictable harmonies; and of course plenty of tambourine (this is a folk album, after all).

The last wonderful song is called “Moon Man”.   This actually seems like it could belong on another album I recently reviewed by The Hand and the Heart, in terms of style and caliber.  Chris takes the lead on this melancholy indie-folk ballad (that is loosely trying to run with the spaceman theme first carried by David Bowie and Elton John…).  Really a very short song (like tracks 3 and 5) but a sweet little number and a great way to wrap things up.  A+ for effort, execution, and heart!  I really hope they come out with more music very soon.

Link to Album on Reverbnation:

http://www.reverbnation.com/audreyandchris

Link to Album on BandCamp:

https://audreyandchris.bandcamp.com/

New Songbird in Town

Tales of A Songbird – By Shivon Coelho

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The cover of Shivon Coelho’s 2014 Release is charming with pink text and a photo of Shivon in a frilly dress (check out the links below to see!).  The title Tales of a Songbird is also lighthearted, and this whimsy carries through to the music.  Shivon’s voice is clear and pleasant, with a gentle Australian accent peeking through.  At times she sounds almost elfin – although not quite as eerie as Joanna Newsom or Cindi Lauper.  She is backed by professional musicians, with a range of featured sounds from upright bass on the opening song, to military-style snare drums and trombones on other tracks. The musicianship is good and never distracts from Shivon as the feature; even when providing harmony to her own voice the result is well-blended for a beautiful effect.

The music is enjoyable – but I can’t figure out who the target audience would be, since all of the songs seem hyper-feminine in a fairytale castle-and-princess kind of way.  There are mentions of garden gates, cupcakes, queens, horses, and of course – songbirds.  Still this doesn’t mean the lyrics are trite, as Shivon finds a way to pull these elements into thoughtful stories about life expectations, and being “just a girl, twenty-two with no tattoo”.  I can imagine this album playing in the background of a tea shop or bookstore, or maybe you’d have it on while studying for a Modern Poetry exam in your college dorm.  All of the songs are very different from one another, so the result is flexible and fun.

The album opens with “Just a Girl” – a 90s-style coffeehouse song, with appealing acoustic guitar chords and upright bass.  Shivon sings kind of like KT Tunstall here, with upbeat, bouncy vocalizations and “doot doot doots”.  The second song incorporates a vocal effect that makes her voice more alien and ethereal on this track.  Also included is a brass section lending musical interest and a carnival-esque mood.  Track #3 (“Kings & Queens”) is slow and ultra-romantic.  Some of the lyrics are a little predictable and lovey-dovey (such as “I can be your queen and you can be my king”, or “love is like a flower, more precious than gold”), however you will enjoy the lilting guitar punctuated by a strong drumline that keeps the song moving.  Sugar-coated themes aside, this reminds me of something by Natalie Merchant or the Cranberries from back in the day.

“Tales of a Songbird” is probably my favorite; this again has the echoey vocal effects that give a vintage appeal to this song – also not unlike some of the popular hits by the Cardigans.  The song is upbeat, catchy, and confident.  Next is “The Reason” featuring beautiful, deep, strings invoking plenty of emotion.  Although the whole song is reminiscent of a slower version of the chorus from Nina Gordon’s “Tonight and the Rest of My Life”; it is not bad at all.

Shivon closes the short album with a folky number: “Call Me When You Laugh Again”.  This is my 2nd favorite track – it really sounds like something by Shawn Colvin à la “Sunny Came Home” or the early acoustic days of Jewel Kilcher.  She is smart to end on a strong note (without too much princess-y stuff) that will make people remember her as an appealing new artist they will check out again. We’ll undoubtedly hear more from Shivon in the future, since she has made a strong start, and it’s clear that she is both dedicated and aptly talented for a career in the music industry.

Link to Google Play to Preview Tracks:

https://play.google.com/store/music/album/Shivon_Coelho_Tales_of_a_Songbird?id=Bfb7vvp45bqnmwb6g2ewklazm3a&hl=en

Link to Amazon to Purchase Album:

http://www.amazon.com/Tales-Songbird-Shivon-Coelho/dp/B00NR43K7Q

Special Feature for Friday!

“Disco Cowboy” – by Without A Net

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Disco Cowboy is a new release by the Hudson Valley’s very own Without A Net (let’s call them WAN).  Usually a classic rock cover band, WAN has been writing original songs, warming up the keyboard, and rehearsing guitar solos to bring you this colorful mini-album.  With just seven tracks, “Disco Cowboy” presents a style variety ranging from funk guitar to rap.

Fun wah pedals, an upbeat 60s feel and catchy lyrics make “Disco Cowboy” the right choice for the opening/title track – you might even sing along!  Phrases like “with the boys in the band, we work the hits of man” demonstrate that WAN don’t take themselves too seriously to have fun.  After all, there’s nothing wrong with being a popular cover band that specializes in classic rock with a particular inclination towards the Grateful Dead.  This song ends with a referee whistle refrain that has been known to turn into an audience participation moment at their events.

If you get the chance to see this band perform live, I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself.  While their sound is not particularly innovative and their catalogue is mostly covers, there is something for everyone to tap their toe along to.  The drummer keeps things tightly together, the bass is loud enough to give the songs some soul, and the guitar solos are awesome.

WAN is fronted by their very own disco cowboy.  Frank is one of the primary songwriters, and also lead vocalist and keyboard player.  He throws a lot of energy into each performance, with a voice that is sometimes reminiscent of Roger Daltrey. I’m not sure if he is the founder of the band, but he is certainly becoming the recognizable mascot – he earned the disco cowboy moniker at his work, for being a free spirit willing to flaunt his own style in the sea of financial industry fashion.

Getting back to the album, I’ll say that “Hard to Understand” is my favorite song here. It has the 60s organ sound à la the Zombies, but also the vein of more raw early Beatles hits, and with a little more twang.  “Overtime” is smooth and sassy; it could be loosely influenced by Steely Dan and even includes some female backing vox to complete the sound.  The jazzy guitar steals the show on this track!

“Peggy O” is a slow and sweet love song – the melody is reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt, Cat Stephens, or Bob Dylan, with additional female vocals providing call-and-response style singing.  It is traditional and pleasant, although the mixing on the CD doesn’t do it justice – would probably sound better in person at a show.  And for track #5 it seems that that “Cold, Rain and Snow” is more than just a good song title – but also great number with a grainy, Clapton feel.

The album also features bonus versions of Disco Cowboy (the rap, as performed live by Frank; and an extended version).  As a special treat, you can catch WAN this Saturday, at Tenapa restaurant in Croton, NY.  You can easily check out their album online – then go see the show!  Disco Cowboy is available for free on Reverbnation, but for $8 you can order the CD and show some support.  Have a great weekend!

Link to Album on Reverbnation:

http://www.reverbnation.com/playlist/view_playlist/-4?page_object=artist_3975759

Link to Merchandise Site:

http://withoutanet.bigcartel.com/

Daylight Again

I hate to even mention Daylight Savings Time, but something was making me feel a little chaotic this week. I hope you don’t mind me taking an extra day to get organized before posting my Other Lives review!

Also, I know totally botched the execution of this month’s “drawing”/contest for the February CDs, which is horribly unfair.  I knew I could easily  track my Facebook shares from the blog, but it is hard to find out who is actually sharing – so I’ll be running any giveways directly from https://www.facebook.com/rockmycommute going forward.  Be sure to “like” my page, so we can stay in touch!

The extra hour of sunlight and nearly 60-degree weather on the home commute is helping me to feel energetic and whole again – I’m looking forward to popping a new CD in the Prius tomorrow and getting back to work.  Have a wonderful week!

Hannah

P.S.  Thank you Libby, Jo, Bill, Ginger, and Lydia for being faithful readers and supporters.  You’ll each be getting a CD in the mail from me soon!

No Puns for This Week – Just Wonderful Music

“Tamer Animals” – by Other Lives

Other Lives

This is the best “new-to-me” artist that I have heard in a long, long, time.  Per Google Play, “Tamer Animals is the second album of the American indie rock band Other Lives”; apparently they are from Oklahoma, although I never would have guessed that.  They have a vocalist and sound that reminds me so much of the UK band Travis, just with more orchestral instrumentation (vs. rock guitar).  In addition to “Tamer Animals”, there is also a 2009 self-titled release, and a 2011 vinyl import (I didn’t see this available in another format).  At times the style reminds me of something like Arcade Fire and/or Muse – two artists that also impressed the heck out of me when I heard them each for the first time many years ago.  Every single track on “Tamer Animals” is both intelligent and intentional, from a musical perspective.

My favorite tracks are #1 (“Dark Horse”), #4 (“Tamer Animals”) and #10 (“Landforms”), although there are actually none on this CD that I would reject or skip over.  “Dark Horse” sets the expectation for the whole album, revealing to the listener that the rest of this album should be well-written, with lyrics that are authentic, and with a musicianship evident in the complex scores supporting each piece. The song itself evokes a more refined version of Brian Wilson-esque “God Only Knows” vocals, delicately arching over percussive brass and regimental drums.

The fourth track gets most of its effectiveness and emotion from simple open-chord piano accompaniment and very-well selected percussion.  The repetitive chorus gives the song a familiar feeling right away – that makes it accessible without being saccharine from the start.  This isn’t a direct song comparison, but the amount of vocal effort exuded here is reminiscent of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division – the singer delivers the melody in a relaxed manner that is smooth and so perfect for the song.  #10 is richly supported by a full orchestral accompaniment – the violins are all over the place, flying gracefully over earthy woodwinds and lots of ethereal vocal harmonies.

This album was recommended to me by an audiophile work colleague who takes music appreciation and sound very seriously.  Of course this slightly biased my first impressions to assume the music was sophisticated; but obviously I had to make my own decision about whether or not I liked this, and why. He loaned me a vinyl copy which sounded excellent at home, but as you know I do most of my listening on the road – so I picked up a portable version for the commute with no major side effects that I noticed.  If anything, I think that the current bleak, dark, East Coast winter mornings and the pale landscape of 3+ feet of residual snow enhances the feelings evoked by music like this – lonely songs feel more sad; eerie songs feel more alien; relationship songs feel more…crucial. So the CD version works just fine, too.

I recommend with much enthusiasm that you check out this album – and for something to look forward to, their May 2015 release of “Rituals” is available for pre-order on vinyl.  I’m really excited about this, since “Tamer Animals” was so truly excellent (a solid “A”). Please please please, don’t miss this.

Link to Google Play to Preview Tracks:
https://play.google.com/store/music/album/Other_Lives_Tamer_Animals?id=Bi63a44o4emcjqbxfeu5w54dy2i&hl=en

Link to Amazon to Purchase Album:

http://www.amazon.com/Tamer-Animals-Other-Lives/dp/B004U8T3AQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1426125700&sr=8-1&keywords=tamer+animals

Another Month, Another Giveaway – AND T-Shirts!

UPDATE: To make sure I see your February CD drawing entry this week, try sharing a blog post from my facebook site (https://www.facebook.com/rockmycommute), OR you can comment on my blog, OR you can send an email to: contact@rockmycommute.com  Thanks – sorry for the confusion while I figure this all out!

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February always flies by so fast, and at RMC this February was no exception.  Somehow I always found just enough time to jot down my thoughts about each week’s CD, as one day rolled into the next and things felt busier and busier… Happily this month’s music selections were mostly AWESOME!  So, I have four great CDs to give away: Milky Chance, Manu Chao, Head and the Heart, and Guster.

I also now have RMC t-shirts available!  They’re a lovely gray with a white logo; $10 each in S/M/L/XL.

To win a CD, just share your favorite RMC album review on your facebook page!  I’ll announce the winners on the RMC facebook page too.  I’m trying this for the first time, so we’ll see if this works better than last month’s email fiasco.  To order a t-shirt, send me a note with your details (size and address) and we can arrange payment (amazon bucks, paypal, old-fashioned check or hopefully – swap for a new CD!):   contact@rockmycommute.com

Thanks so much for showing support for this project, and for keeping it going with your music suggestions.

Hannah