Strange but Wonderful Mix of Styles

Magnolia – by Michael McArthur

IMG_20150728_211633

When I started playing this album on my porch one lazy summer Saturday, I was expecting a good, but run-of-the-mill singer songwriter release with a pleasant name and a few nice songs.  Michael’s voice and jazzy style surprised me right away, and while I wasn’t sure I loved the sound – my curiosity was certainly piqued to check out the rest of the album with rapt attention.  The title track starts out slow, jazzy; with rhythmic guitar and actually a little R&B style that is fitting for the sexy lyrics like “one taste is all it takes, I’m drunk off of you / your chemicals are kickin’ in”.  This song features lots of falsetto, and a chorus that sounds like something by Justin Timberlake – but without all of the flash.

I immediately wanted to know more, so I found Michael’s website www.michaelmcarthurmusic.com to learn about his 2012 debut EP and self-produced 2013 sophomore EP.  These garnered him much positive attention, and the support of a top-notch production team for this new release, Magnolia.  Meanwhile, I was surprised again by the second track – called “Run Around”- that was so completely different from the first:  a slow, strummy song reminiscent of a Jack Johnson tune, in a darker and more minor key.

Enter finger snaps, keyboard, lots of “oooohs” and “na-na-nas” on the intro for “She’s Got It All”.  The simple musical structure and semi-cheesy lyrics are quickly forgiven when the catchy beat hits, and you are sucked into the song!  This struck me as similar to something by Phil Collins like “Easy Lover” or “Sussudio”.  But I still wasn’t hooked until Track #4 – “Clocks”.  There’s a real sassy bassline on this one, and great drums.  It is jazzy like the first track, but with more grit.  This track is almost a dead-ringer for a Maroon 5 song – if you like Adam Levine I think you would definitely like hearing Michael croon “you’re love’s got me spinnin’ like a clock – slow it down!”

I’ve mentioned a lot of other singers to try to give you a feel for what Michael sounds like – but I also want to add that no individual song particularly evokes these additional artists; there is  a sprinkling of these blended styles throughout.  I heard Michael Franti, Daniel Bedingfield, Gavin DeGraw, and even (somehow) Cat Stevens.  Bundle up those musical styles and vocal sounds, and you’ve got the basis for what Michael builds on and makes his own, on this wonderful album.

And yes, by Track #5 (“Lightning Nights”), I considered this a wonderful album.  This is a little bit country-ish, with some sliding steel guitar and smooth, mellow harmonies that still somehow fit in with the rest of the songs on Magnolia. Like you’d expect from a country song, the lyrics are simple – “we’ve got some time – let’s make a little love, and make it right” – but this is the song that made me realize that actually I am really enjoying this Michael McArthur guy!

“Truly, Madly, Freely” starts with a slow, rolling, arpeggio-filled opening that is way stripped-down.  It has a “raise-your-lighters” or “last-song-of-the-night” style that quickly rolls into a full-on waltzing slow-dance that is full of heart and soul.  The next track again is full of sultry rhythm and words, such as “touch like flame – skin like water – get me higher”.  I guess this is all fitting for a song called “Desire”!  The memorable chorus with great backing vocals will have you singing along – with your hands in the air, and major sway in your step.

The album closes with “She’s Got It All (1984 Remix)”.  This is a slightly-corny old-school representation of the earlier song (Track #3) that feels a lot like “All Night Long” by Lionel Ritchie.  Clearly this was not produced in 1984, but this version has all of the great 80s beats and sound effects of the best hits you love from that era.  It is actually really dance-y and cute, especially on the chorus.  I enjoyed this myself, but if this doesn’t style appeal to you I’d worry that you would miss out on the other great songs on this release. I think it is well-placed at the end of the album, so the die-hard listeners can appreciate it – but the more cautious types won’t be discouraged by the sudden 80s party.

The weekend I previewed this album, I was having an overall wonderful time.  Lots of sunshine, summer breezes coming in through my porch – and the music from Magnolia just fit right into the relaxed, positive mood of my surroundings.  Based on the first two songs, I wasn’t really expecting to love this artist, but the album as a whole really made a great impression.  I will definitely keep Michael McArthur at the ready for those days when I really want some groove during my commute.

Note:  Music review by Hannah of www.rockmycommute.com originally appeared on www.eartothegroundmusic.co on July 26, 2015.

Link to Preview Album on Google Play: Google Play – Magnolia

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon: Amazon – Magnolia

Advertisements

Old Best Friend could be your New Favorite?

Living Alone by Old Best Friend*

Old Best Friend

Living Alone is the debut full-length release from the band called Old Best Friend (let’s say OBF) that just came out in June of this year.  Since you probably have not heard of OBF, go ahead and start with a Google search to find this guy – personally I love the artist’s mini bio on his bandcamp page (https://oldbestfriend.bandcamp.com/):  “Mike Comite is your Old Best Friend.  He lives in Brooklyn.  Come over and he’ll cook you a mediocre dinner sometime.”  What a guy!  Mike includes a simple selfie that resembles Jason Schwartzman of “Rushmore” fame, and he also adds the welcome news that he has a live show in Philly coming up next weekend (July 25).  See if you can check him out!  Maybe a little road-trip is in order.

The album itself is 11 tracks of earnestly-attempted music that can be described as a blend of alternative / indie/ emo / songwriter styles, all bundled together in a release with a simple black-and-white drawing on the cover.  I think the image for the album art is a little freaked-out and lonely looking, but I guess that is fitting for an album called (and about, apparently) – living alone.  The song titles and lyrics are cute and clever without being overly intellectual or depressing.  In this way it is kind of a Ben Lee Grandpa Would album for a slightly older set of fans.

“Cold Came With” is an interesting choice for an opening track.  It is a little screamy, dissonant, and a bit, well – maniacal – but it is worth sticking through the reverb and feedback in order to experience some really neat and unexpected moments when a bit more melody pops in  – only to be interrupted again by really raw and fuzzy guitar.

You’ll notice that I have a hard time describing the overall sound of this artist.  Do you remember back in the early 2000s, when copies of “The Perfect Kellulight” by Flick were in the bargain bin at your discount record shop or used CD store?  I have not thought of this artist in nearly 15 years until I heard OBF last week.  Flick is the closest vocal and style comparison I can think of – hopefully they are now not so vague that this reference is no longer helpful!  There’s definitely a little bit of the Shins in there too – imagine a bright, shiny, youthful vocal tone with a little bit of basement -band “reckless abandon” thrown into the execution of each song.

I listened to the album in its entirety, some songs multiple times – and I think that the main reason I wouldn’t have this playing in my car everyday is that Mike’s vocal style is just personally not my preferred sound.  So you see, the whole album in chronological order is a bit much all at once (for me, anyhow).  There are definitely tracks that I really liked – I’m pretty sure that “Pretty Sure” is my favorite song on the album. I’d say it is upbeat and energetic with fun harmonies and good rhythms.  The title track though is a bit more of a downer – but again this is fitting for “Living Alone”.  It includes a sampling of piano that adds to the slightly more emotional effect on this one.

“King of Nowhere” kind of annoyed me with the overly simplified melody – but to be fair it contains a worthy amount of emo guitar complexity in the background, and again, there are the signature cheeky lyrics that are too witty and on-point to discount – “what’s done is done / a setting sun has no obligation to rise.”  The song “Divide your Sleep” is possibly one of the most angsty on the album – Mike reaches almost Linkin Park intensity at times!  Other tracks are a little bit upbeat; some more stripped down and therefore singer-songwriterly – but none seem trite.

I think that the last track (“Now I Don’t”) is a strong a finish as anyone could ask for – listenable, mellow, and thoughtful without being too slow or dragged-out.  You might completely disagree with me about Mike’s vocal style, and therefore just fall in love with this otherwise creative and well-executed debut album.  Another approach to appreciating this album would be to mix in the OBF songs with some other artists for more variety – in this setting the sprinkling of an “old best friend” would be welcome breaks punctuating a playlist of other favorites, and this would highlight well OBF’s fresh approach and enjoyable lyrics.

*Photo not taken by RMC – image copied from artist as shown on the bandcamp site above and also presented on http://www.eartothegroundmusic.co with the original posting of this article, published July 19, 2015.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play:

Old Best Friend – Living Alone – Google Play

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon:

Old Best Friend – Living Alone – Amazon

Wilder About Their Old Sound…

Wilder Mind by Mumford & Sons

IMG_20150715_224100 (2)

I didn’t love this album.  You’ll probably think I didn’t try to like it, and that I am a judgey grouch who hates for no reason.  Honestly, I tried!  “Wilder Mind” was suggested by someone very close to me, in a casual question  –  “Have you heard the new Mumford and Sons?”  Um, NO, and I didn’t plan to, either.  All indie-folk, NYC and craft beer, hipster beards and banjos – I thought I already knew these guys.  “But this one is different – more electric.”  OK FINE; I conceded.

Maybe I was actually biased, and am now being unfair – but I am not really a fan of their first two albums either.  To me their style seems painfully slow, and somehow artisanally crafted to sound “vintage” by using antiquated tools and techniques.  I can appreciate “the Cave” from their debut album, and of course sometimes “I Will Wait” from Babel pops up on the family’s Pandora Station; but I’d rather listen to the grainy voice of Cat Stevens or hear the pickin’ banjo rolls of Old Crow Medicine Show just about anytime.

I’ll admit there’s one thing I learned from the Google Play description that I did not previously know – this band is from England!  I was so convinced they had crawled out from under the Brooklyn Bridge based on their earlier sound, that this new fact surprised me.  Otherwise there were very few surprises for me on this album.

The first track on Wilder Mind  is “Tompkins Square Park” – I actually like the beat, and initially I rather enjoyed the song.  Nothing really objectionable.  OK let’s move on!  “Believe” is musically something that could be on Guster’s recent album – kind of lyrical and slow, telling some sort of story that I don’t have time to appreciate … next!  Track #3, called “The Wolf”, was probably the first one that I really thought was OK; I liked the stronger guitars à la the Strokes (or any other power-chord pop rock group that sounds edgy  – but still accessible at the same time).  However, I think it’s weird that the singer still has his old-man-style vocal wobble on these rock songs – he is just better suited to the moonshine-y mason-jar songs he warbled on during the two previous releases.  He even kind of reminds me of the singer from Passenger at times, with a mountainy twang!

“Wilder Mind” is probably my favorite, if I can say such a thing.  It has a faint twinge of nostalgia and sadness that speaks to me just a bit. A taste of keyboard hones in with tones like a crystal electronic xylophone, before the instrumental solo is taken over by a Boys-of-Summer-esque guitar.  And Track #5 (“Just Smoke”)  is finally a song well suited to the singer’s voice –  it somehow doesn’t sound out of place here as he laments “thought we were done  / young love must keep us young.”   Maybe it is the clapping sound effect that brings us back to enough of a folksy feel to not seem strange.  Otherwise, this piece unfortunately feels like a church song, since the relationship of words to melody seems just too structured and direct.

“Monster” is a song full of quiet attitude – mostly keyboard backing up lyrics like “here is the name that our sons will learn”, and this intrigued me enough to look for the actual words in the liner notes.  Guess what – these “notes” are just a bunch of vanity photos of dreamy musicians!  Checking out www.azlyrics.com helped a bit, but since I’m not good at interpreting poetry I’m still not sure if this song is about cancer, an ill-advised hookup, or someone who left her husband… anyhow, I don’t mind this track!

“Snake Eyes” isn’t totally bad either; it has some cool sound effects that are eerie, screechy and trainlike.  On this song, the singer sort of has that energy-devoid, limp effect of Mark Kozelek from Red House Painters – but without the warm honesty in Mark’s voice.  Next track #8 has a grand title: “Broad-Shouldered Beasts”.  Therefore it seems fitting that it would feel kind of majestic and sorrowful.  It features lots of piano, and gives you that same sad feeling as the bird song from Mary Poppins.

#9 “Cold Arms” was very quiet and stripped down – still electric, but without a ton of guitar or excessive instrumentation. Next “Ditmas” was more upbeat (thankfully), but still just a little anthem-y and very heavy on the poetry.  And “Only Love” again reminded me of something by Guster!  Like their new wave song “Come Downstairs and Say Hello”, the way it builds from almost nothing to something rhythmic is memorable.  This song would probably grow on me more, if I could only this point in the album more often.

The album concludes with “Hot Gates” – just a little hymn-like, opening slowly with piano and multi-part harmonies chiming in almost like a choir.  I looked up the lyrics because they seemed so beautiful and sad, with phrases you’ll never forget like “I can’t be for you all of the things you want me to / but I will love you constantly / there’s precious little else to me”.  The version I bought includes the first three tracks again as live recordings, and also “Snake Eyes”.  This confused the heck out of me the first time I tried to listen to this all the way through – I literally thought “I’m having déjà vu – will this album never end?”

If you are already hugely enthused by this band and you love these 12 songs on Wilder Mind, perhaps you will appreciate the bonus tracks.  I have nothing really REALLY negative to say about this album overall, but honestly nothing grabbed me.  Nothing at all.  Not a single song stepped up and said “love me, sing along to me, I am telling the stories of your heart”.  I wonder if they will go back to their earlier sound?

Preview Tracks on Google Play:

Google Play – Wilder Mind

Purchase Album on Amazon:

Amazon – Wilder Mind

Pre-Release Review!

Mister Asylum – by Highly Suspect*

Mister Asylum Image

Pay attention to this album coming soon!  Highly Suspect is a Brooklyn-Based trio with a big sound – I love the cynical band name, and the paranoid / creepy feeling of the opening track that perfectly sets the tone for their overall style. If you like Fall Out Boy (and you used to like Nine Inch Nails) you will really appreciate this album.  It has the modern production effect of something by Velvet Revolver; and frequently their style reminds me of that early 2000s rock sound brought back by Jet and the Strokes – but with contemporary genre-mixing and overall technical quality that you’d expect from something new.

The title track opens with rumbling, arpeggio-like hard-rock baselines (think “Army of Me”) and heavy, hard-crashing drums – the rhythms alternate intelligently as the vocals go from careful and singerly, to all-out screaming.  Haunting organ sounds back up the singer who is bluesy, gritty, and almost um, rapping at times, as he belts out “when you’re up against the world it shows”.  You’ll be immediately reminded of Kings of Leon, with a slight touch of Third Eye Blind peeking through.  The next track (“Lost”) just freaks out and starts rocking à la Red Hot Chili Peppers, with a baseline (and vocals) reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age, before breaking again into that bluesy, stylized feel.

Track #3 (“Lydia”) is one of the singles you may have already heard, with a reggae-esque rhythm laid down by punchy power-chords, and a lyrical-flow style of singing with enough emotion to carry proclamations like these: “I’ve seen better days, so unafraid in my youth / I can’t breathe, much less believe the truth“.  Plenty of angry swearing and drug references give this already dark song a deeper quality – check out the music video if you want to see how raw and real these guys can be!  At times the instrumentation backs out and leaves the singer alone; voice cracking under the weight of all this song conveys.

Next is “Bath Salts”.  If the video for “Lydia” doesn’t give you nightmares, then these other song titles just might combine in your head for one really creepy dream.  This track feels like Muse’s “Uprising”, or something by Radiohead; with lyrics that plead “these muscle spasms hit me so deep every single night… no one told me which way to go – why can’t I come down?”  This is followed by “23”, which is funky and sort of Rage Against The Machine in style.  There’s finally just a taste of backing vocals on this track, adding just a bit extra. And there’s a weird reverb and echo effect on one of the breaks, right before the itchy and assonant guitar solo.

“Mom” is a weird departure from the other more aggressive songs on this album.  It features major key chords, but with a buzzy reverberant guitar structure, and eerily dysfunctional lyrics that make you feel kinda guilty for listening in on this extremely personal song – “you kissed me on the head and left me out for dead, when I was only one”.  Yikes.  Not a bad song, but uncomfortable as intended. The delivery is full of strength and assurance, just like this line “I stand alone, I stand on my own; and I stand like a man.”  I read a recent post from Johnny on the band’s FaceBook page that this “may be the most difficult song I’ve ever had to release. But, as I’m sure you guys are aware, we only write songs about real sh&t.”

The remaining songs are equally impressive, with moments of fast music but slow singing – not exactly like Gavin McGraw, but like Gavin if he decided to cut his hand with a rusty nail, toss back a shot of whiskey and pick up the microphone.  I think he’d do a fair impression of Johnny on “Bloodfeather” in terms of the raucous, uninhibited way he just throws his voice out of his mouth and onto the mike – “In the name of love I’ll kill for you”.  Wow!  Next is a sassy and sexy song with lots of strong guitar and screaming, over more punky power-chords – basically the rock and roll’s version of a rap song about aggressive, anonymous hooking-up.  The album is peppered with plenty of F-bombs, which seem necessarily part of not just the texture and feel but also the philosophy of this band – you almost need a certain amount of abandon to achieve this level of rock.

Track #9 (“Vanity”) opens with guitars à la Queen, and totally sounds like something I have heard before (in a good way).  There is a shreddy guitar segue as the vocals start to howl – before kicking back into a more controlled interlude; probably one of my favorites on the album.  And this all wraps up with “Claudeland” – drumrolls accelerate through the intro, before vocals pop open with a maniacal laugh and some blubbering.  The style of this is a lot like the White Stripes, giving that classic freak-out feel that will make you want to jump up and down in the front of this show, singing along for sure when the singer yells out – “don’t worry about it – it’s not that bad!”  There’s almost a Diamond Dave performance style here that is really fun.  I love that an album is closing with so much energy on the very last song!

This is an album I strongly encourage you to purchase – and start searching for tour dates! While none of these songs have the major-key, upbeat or fun feel that usually I prefer, the earthy-ness of this album is kind of refreshing. Like a thoughtful darker movie, or an old cracked leather jacket, or a drink that it is too strong.  Seeing this band live on a small tavern stage would be amazing – but it would be equally riveting in a large arena setting because yes – Highly Suspect has a sound that can really hold true and be engaging at any scale.

*Image not created by rockmycommute – album art from Mister Asylum by Highly Suspect used as part of review written originally for eartothegroundmusic.co and published on July 5, 2015.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play: Mister Asylum – by Highly Suspect

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon: Mister Asylum (Amazon) – by Highly Suspect