Talented and Intense

Alexa Melo – by Alexa Melo*

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This is the self-titled debut album for a remarkable young lady, with huge cynical eyes and a big voice.  “Still Right Here” has a song title that sounds like it should be on a reunion tour instead of a debut album, but it is a great album opener in that it immediately sets the tone for what Alexa is capable of delivering on the rest of the CD.  She starts out confidently – her voice an intriguing vocal blend of Natalie Imbruglia, Ellie Goulding, and Jewel – sometimes evoking the Sunday’s lead singer or even Joanna Newsom at times.  Lush, minor-keyed guitars create a big, almost magical and echoey sound under dramatic lyrics calling “got to change your evil ways”…  Her bio on her website says “Alexa Melo is intense”, and that is exactly the feeling I get when experiencing this album, start to finish.

The website bio goes on to describe her music writing history, as a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with a true alternative calling – even in the midst of popular musical styles that are anything BUT alternative.    This multi-instrumental effect is very evident in the second track – there are also various sampled vocal effects that give this a modern feel, over a beat that is dancey yet slow at the same time.  Track #3 features cool violin sounds over a trip-hop background.  Alexa’s vocals can intensify to a wrenching height at times, like a desperate character in a theatrical musical, and reminding me of some of Sia’s heartfelt and heartbreaking vocal performances that thankfully have broken through onto mainstream radio.

The next track opens with a little Hendrix influence that is fun; before merging into a White Stripes-inspired chorus, with lyrics squeaked in a style not unlike Tegan and Sara’s “Walking With A Ghost”.  Track #5 slows down a bit, reminding us that Alexa has experienced and is inspired by a sassy 90s girl musical history rich in influences.  She reveals a prettier voice on “Push-Pull”; which I will describe as an intimate and emotional piece that includes the sound of church bells providing a dissonant clash – this could be a sad movie soundtrack feature, or a thoughtful Tori Amos song.

I’ll admit that by Track #6 the wealth of sound sampling and cacophony of creative instrumentation was giving me a bit of sensory fatigue – the diversity of sounds was giving me a bit of a buzzy headache, so the more Paramore-esque “Should Have Been A Flirt” was a welcome relief.  The style of each song is different from the others, yet something is always the same – again the intensity is the common theme uniting the eleven songs and creating a comprehensive mood.  There isn’t a single feel-good song on the list!

Track #8 features more piano – and again the comparisons just continue to come to mind.  Birdy, Sara Bareilles, Leona Lewis… all of these voices help me describe Alexa, but here they represent just elements or facets of the overall sound that is all her own.  The creativity continues right through the end of the album, bringing in some jazzy horn on the 10th song (“Under Your Skin”) and rolling into a big noisy finale for the closing piece.

While the music is raw, emotional, artistic, and edgy – it is not fast or catchy.  This would be the kind of live concert performance that you could comfortably sit through to appreciate.  You notice the vocal quality, the careful execution, the selected instruments, and the dramatic lyrics more than how the music brightens your mood or makes you want to rock.  I appreciate Alexa because she is so different from other artists I have stumbled across, but the whole album is a bit much for me to take in all at once.  A carefully crafted mix or playlist might best highlight each song’s individual style and purpose, while a live performance might best demonstrate Alexa’s talent and ability. It is abundantly clear here that Alexa has something different to offer than other female artists of her generation – I’d even call her a potentially bigger, badder Taylor Swift that should prove to be a musical force to recon with for performances and releases yet to come.

*Photo not taken by rockymycommute.  This is a sample of the album art image as shown on http://www.alexamelo.com

Preview Tracks on Google Play: Google Play – Alexa Melo

Purchase Album on Amazon: Amazon – Alexa Melo

Interesting & Intriguing!

Bones by the Delta Saints

Delta Saints

Now Bones is an interesting album.  If you are looking for new and unique music, I think you should pay attention to this one.  It opens almost like “Money” by Pink Floyd, with a great bassline that you’ll notice right away.  The singer’s voice is sort of familiar – Black Keys mixed with Ray LaMontagne (it actually works).  This song is bluesy, with rolling, rhythmic guitar and drums that aren’t afraid to just lay it all out there  There is even some synth peeking through, to add a contemporary edge -while organ keys add a bit of honky-tonk style.

It took me awhile to really place the vocals and find several comparisons for you – they are familiar but not commonplace.  The singer is very like the Black Keys when the songs freak out and get growly – but something about this album is more indie, more gentle, more folk than a release by the Black Keys.  There is a little bit of Jack White influence and flavor in here too – OK maybe a lot.  But somehow I find these guys a little more intriguing and dare I say, more authentic?

The second song features lots of organ – there is a more upbeat tempo than the first, and a lighter, faster feeling – while still possessing an eerie and minor-ish twinge.  It reminds me a little bit of “Fly Like an Eagle” by the Steve Miller band, but more updated and fresh.  Bleak, creepy lyrics include:  “Breakin’ my back ‘till the work is done…Bitter fruit feedin’ on the damned…Be the wind, not the willow – rattle them bones” (imagine these words accompanied by echoey backing vocals!).

Track #3 is called “Heavy Hammer” and delivers a 90s party song feel.  I’m not completely sure how to describe this or compare this – maybe a little bit like the Black Crowes?  Very soulful and raucous.  Next, for a song called “Zydeco”, I’ll say I don’t think they’re really maximizing this song name (although there is a lyric “he’s the zydeco inside of me”…).  It starts out similar to “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winters Band!  The whole thing transforms into a psychedelic 60s-or-70s style, backing-vocal effect-charged mixture, making garbled bubbly sounds before the whole thing winds down – like a flying saucer coming to a halt.

“Butte La Rose” starts out bare but opens up into a multi-instrumental, multi-style extravaganza – definitely the artsiest piece on the album. There’s lots of reverb and sampled sounds – some electronic but many acoustic.  Overall you get the good feeling of experiencing musicians just jamming out and going crazy, while staying grounded with a Neil Young-esque appeal.

I couldn’t help but nod enthusiastically along with this one – track #6 called “Dust”. The intro is just really sassy, twangy, raw and rock, with a heavy but steady basic drum beat.  The lyrics whine above all of this messy goodness so delicately – a chorus of clapping hands chime in as the song picks up even more, and the vocals get intense.  Just when I thought had heard enough to know what this song was about, at approximately 3:10 I was surprised with howling vocals and a wailing guitar solo – all accompanied by the heavy vibrato of an organ.  The song is not especially fast, but there is so much going on it remains extremely compelling.

“My Love” starts out like something from the 70s – a CSNY sort of minor-keyed emotional and folky song, but then it picks up with heavy-hitting drums and a lot of soulful warbling.  Once again this sounds like a group of people just really jamming; recorded-with a live-in-a-house sound.

Track #8 is called “Into the Morning” – finally something that is more my style, easily accessible and less mysterious!  Guitars on this song are à la Rolling Stones, but with more intentionally intense lyrics and varied instrumentation (acoustic piano features prominently among the fuzzy guitars).  I loved the crazy vocal harmonies just coming in and out in a dreamy way, and some of the lyrics are just haunting: “Water and stone / Ashes and bone / Into the morning…”

“Soft Spoken” is really sassy – the vocal performance is amazing with a shrieking intensity on the high notes: “I may not be your clean kind of shiny bright / But I’ll be your pusher man and I’ll be your sugar cane / Baby I do it right.”  This one is full of syncopated rhythms and isolated sprinklings of guitar over mellow, moody bass.  The lyrics are kind of hard to fully pick-up, and they aren’t posted all over the internet yet – but I’m sure they will catch on in a big way soon.  They seem to be very rich and intentional; nothing especially trite or cheesy stuck out to me as being irritating which is a huge (and unusual) plus.

The last song is surprisingly danceable – Track #10 is called “Berlin”.  I’ll mention the vocals again, because here they’re just fantastic.  At the end of the album I realized that in addition to Black Keys with a touch of indie-folk influence, this singer evokes a bit of the Temper Trap sound here too: “Don’t look so tired my dear – we may be bruised by the day is almost here.” Complex guitars under everything complete this stellar song.

I really love that this album starts out a little bit slow, but then the energy is allowed to build and grow as each song gives even more movement than the next.  So many artists mix the slow songs on their albums in with the fast, or they tend to get more moody and delicate nearer the end – I really appreciate something like Bones that just keeps going, and going strong!  You should definitely check this out.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play:

Google Play – Delta Saints

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon:

Amazon – Delta Saints

*Photo not taken by RMC – image copied from album art as presented on http://www.eartothegroundmusic.co with the original posting of this music review, published October 11, 2015.

Rock n’ Roll Legend – Delivers!

Crosseyed Heart – by Keith Richards

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Keith Richards’ new solo album dropped on September 18.  Called Crosseyed Heart, I must say the cover art, the name and the concept reminded me a little bit of the film Crazy Heart starting Jeff Bridges as an aging country music star.  I was excited to listen to it all last week, hoping to get a write-up out to you as soon as possible.  Of course like everyone else in the world I like the Rolling Stones, so of course I think Keith Richards is an amazing guitarist (although I have never paid much attention to his solo work).

I also didn’t read his recently popular book Life, although maybe I should have.  It came out about six months after Patti Smith’s Just Kids which took me awhile to read, but was good enough to be fully distracting.  So what I’m saying here is – I know enough about Keith to be intrigued and curious about his new album; but not enough to be a loyal, crazy, all-knowing fan that is going to write you an extremely detailed or insanely insightful review. At this point, I’m just writing it like I hear it!  So let’s proceed.

A not-very-popular Rolling Stones album from 1994 included a surprisingly tender and un-offensive tune called “Sweethearts Together”.  I was reminded of this song multiple times during my reviews of Keith’s new album, because his songs aren’t about booty and hookups – they’re about real relationships.  Certain artists can write about love in a way that is actually rock n’ roll, and of course anyone affiliated with the Rolling Stones can pull this off.  Sweethearts together forever!

With that said, some of the songs (lyrically speaking) had a “mature” feeling or sentiment that evoked memories of the Eagles’ post mid-life crisis relationship song, “Too Busy Being Fabulous”.  Maybe we can’t all relate to the lyrics, but we can certainly all appreciate good driving guitars on memorable rock songs. Here are my initial thoughts on each track:

  1. “Crosseyed Heart” opens the album with your standard blues guitar fare.  It is a slow head-shaking, toe-tapping, sitting on the corner type of song you would play on your guitar among friends.
  2. “When She Holds Me” breaks into the ROCK feeling a little bit – the guitar is rollicking and fun on this one, but there is a cell phone reference or two that gives an old fogey feel.
  3. “HeartStopper” is good – Keith evokes Mark Knopfler’s vocal stylings here, but this song includes the worst line of the album – “I didn’t even know the Titanic Sank”. An unfortunate example of very routine lyrics placed methodically along with the otherwise fine music.
  4. I just loved “Robbed Blind”! This particular song – theme, lyrics, and all – is so ludicrous it is hilarious and very funny in a dry way.  I love lyrics like “they planned to screw me” delivered with such rich yet deadpan vocal intention.
  5. I noticed on the album cover that “Trouble” was the hit single. When I popped the album into the CD player I didn’t realize how easy it would be to identify the logical choice for a single – this song is catchy, fun, and has a great chorus (that almost seems a bit difficult for Keith to sing – this is way more melodic from a vocal perspective than most of the other lower and more growly tracks).  The song itself is rocking and sassy, like a Chrissy Hinde delivery on a Pretenders hit.
  6. “Love Overdue” is all reggae beats and backing vocals, with a snazzy horn solo and Tommy James style throughout on the echoey vocals. I have no idea why this song isn’t actually called “Prisoner of Loneliness” but that’s just fine anyhow as-is.
  7. “Nothing on Me” is probably my 2nd favorite after “Trouble”. It is slower and more chill, like a song by the Wallflowers.  But knowing Keith Richards’ long partying past, a song about how “they’ve got nothing on me” is tongue-in-cheek and kinda cute.
  8. “Suspicious” – is at once both dark and slow. Could be the token slow dance love song of the album?  Grab a dance partner and/or get your lighters ready.
  9. “Blues in the Morning” – is about what you would expect. Just good guitars on a fun blues song.  I don’t happen to enjoy blues as a genre very much (I know, heresy) but out of respect I will let it be known that there is nothing wrong with this track.
  10. “Something for Nothing” – Very much like a standard Rolling Stones track; a typical rock n’ roll song that is fairly catchy with rockin’ guitars, solos, and the ability to make you imagine those guys up on stage prancing around (and getting the whole sold-out arena to dance and clap along).
  11. “Illusion” is another Mark K. type of song, but this one is a duet with Norah Jones. She sounds really whisky-and-cigarette on this track, which is just perfect for the song.
  12. “Just a Gift” was puzzling to me. How is this really different from the earlier track “Suspicious”?  I will have to double-check and listen to them both a few times more.  Honestly I didn’t really want to listen to this very many times, it just wasn’t my favorite.
  13. “Goodnight Irene” is the old classic waltzing old-timey Leadbelly tune recorded yet again as a cover. Pleasant and depressing like it usually is, I wasn’t surprised at all when my Prius passengers fell asleep in the backseat during this song.
  14. “Substantial Damage” is awesome, because this is the perfect song name for a track on a Keith Richards album. I don’t even have to listen to the tune to like it – but I did, and I actually do.  It is the funkiest on the album, with lot of spoken/shouted-word lyrics of actually fairly routine relationship concerns – like “I’m paying for dinner – and I might as well not be here” and “what ARE we doing together?”
  15. “Lover’s Plea” on an ending note was too slow for my taste; turning even to horns and corny backing lyrics at times did not help this case.  The chorus theme of “this is my lover’s plea to you” sounded like someone with an enthusiastic David Bowie presence was dramatically crooning along to this cheesy sentiment.

I hate to be too rigid or prescriptive, but in my mind, 15 songs is way to long for almost any album – 12 is about perfect.  I would get rid of #8 and #12 because they are so similar.  Next I would axe either #15 “Lover’s Plea” for being uninteresting (if I heard it on the radio I would just skip – it sounds old-fashioned and not fresh) or #13 for being too familiar.  Then you would have a leaner, tighter, more rocking album for this much-loved musician.

All in all, this is not a bad buy or a regretted purchase – I got a few good chuckles and really enjoyed the guitars especially on “Trouble” and “Something for Nothing”.  Thanks Keith!  Always awesome to hear from you.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play:

Crosseyed Heart – Google Play

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon:

Crosseyed Heart – Amazon

Beautifully Broody; Slightly Melancholy and Mysterious

Aventine – by Agnes Obel

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I have been driving around with this 2-disc set (deluxe edition) in my car for some time, waiting for a moment when I felt like I finally understood this album with enough sophistication to write about it.  But there will never be a perfect moment – so the time is now.  And actually this is just fine, because anybody can instantly appreciate the graceful melodies of this musical work of art – even if it may be difficult to articulate exactly why.

Agnes Obel is a young Danish pianist/songwriter/vocalist/composer with TONS of talent. “Chord Left” opens the album, and strikes you right away with its instrumental beauty – it reminded me immediately of my two favorite movie piano pieces – “La Valse d’Amélie” by Yann Tiersen and “the Beginners” theme by Palmer, Neill, and Reitzell – but it also calls to mind many other classical (slightly impressionistic) piano pieces by the likes of Debussy or even Satie.

This album has been out for a few years –US release in 2013 – but I think it will be a timeless addition to your listening collection.  The deluxe addition that I previewed has some live tracks, and a few other songs – but the regular CD available on Amazon will do you just fine.  If you like vocalists like Tori Amos, Mazzy Star, Beth Orton, and maybe a splash of a new age-y Enya but also (at times) the hint of an edgier bite of someone like Sia – you will appreciate the trained yet unrestrained singing on Aventine. Welcome to the World of Agnes Obel!

Each track is an elegant combination of poetic lyrics, sensitive vocal phrasing, gentle harmonizing, perfectly balanced instrumentation – mostly piano but bringing in other orchestration when relevant (most notably some rich cello sounds and pizzicato violins).  If you think I’m exaggerating or over-generalizing how good this album is, please pick up a copy and see what you have to say about it (I’m honestly curious).

The songs are a little bit broody and dark, slightly melancholy and mysterious – but not without enough magic and beauty to be just uplifting enough so the overall effect is wistful, but not entirely sad.  I won’t write in detail about all of the songs, but here are some highlights:

  • “Words are Dead” is so simple and beautiful, it feels like a haunting vintage melody from the lips of a doomed starlet. I have been known to hum this (probably too loudly) at my desk.
  • “Fivefold” is almost jazzy at times – not my favorite, but I still enjoy it because it is neat how the individual pieces here can be so consistent in style and quality of execution, yet provide completely different experiences of their own.
  • “Run Cried the Crawling” is my favorite. The overall effect reminds me of the Julee Cruise songs from the “Twin Peaks” series – Agnes’ vocals are grittier and more pained here in a way that exudes much emotion.  Not to mention the title sounds like something from a classy horror movie.
  • “Dorian” is also quite likeable, although this is the one that reminds me of an Enya song from the 90s.
  • “Aventine” is the title track, and actually I think it is the most catchy and memorable on the album. The lyrics “you carry my heart in the night” are presented in a very rhythmic way, and the overlapping vocal effects along with the plucking of strings in the background create a lightly percussive effect.

I have no reservations saying that the combination of Agnes’ voice, the wonderful yet sometimes bare instrumentation, and well-crafted songs create one of the most beautiful albums I have ever heard.  This is instantly on my list of music to gift to loved ones (ranging from post-college artsy friends, to my good ol’ mom and everyone in between) because the appeal of this is so wide; her talent is so true and apparent.

A friend from work suggested this album to me, loaned me a copy, then “accidentally bought two” so I am lucky enough to have this for my own.  I keep it in the car for when I want my tree-lined commute to feel like a scene from an art-house film, or another thoughtful movie (maybe with period costumes or some conflicted leading lady character…).   I am very, very grateful for this addition to my list of musical experiences and I am delighted to share it with any of my loyal readers who are tuning in – this is really a treat!

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play:

Agnes Obel – Google Play

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon:

Agnes Obel – Amazon

Pathetic Excuses and a Mini-Review

Why I don’t have much to share this week – by Hannah

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So I know I owe you a music review or two (I have also been slacking at the giveaways and playlists) – but I was distracted this past weekend with a trip to the D, where I got this great shirt and a suggestion for a future review.

In the meantime, are you listening to Beck’s new single, “Dreams”?  It was released in June, but just hit radio play in the past 2 weeks.  Funky and techy and edgy and fun – it is exactly what you want, and even better than you think it would be.

I will have something for you soon – I actually have several great CDs and a few new artists in the mix right now. I just need to pick something and start writing!  Have a great week.

RMC

Real Party Music, with Classic Rawness that Rocks!

Under the Savage Sky* – by Barrence Whitfield and the Savages

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The band’s website suggests that Under the Savage Sky “might be the most soulful punk record – or perhaps the most punk soul record you’ve ever heard”, and I’m not sure I can do a better job of describing this 12-song release of rambunctiousness myself!  The album kicks off with “Willow” sounding a bit like the early White Stripes – I like the energetic abandon of Barrence Whitfield’s approach.  He has a vocal style on this song almost like the monotone of the Beat Happening or LCD Soundsystem, while somehow being Elvis-y in a way that is really fun.

There is a little bit of 70s snazz on the next track – like Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” or an Edgar Winter tune – something my parents would really like, but the rest of us would still enjoy.  Track #3 called “The Claw” features dance-y horns, and a mouth full of soul not unlike a grittier and more raucous John Hiatt would be (if you could imagine such a thing).  The next one has the classic rockabilly chord progression you’ll immediately recognize; with a great old-school recording style that sounds authentic and raw without seeming dated.

The sense of humor and playful wittiness exhibited by this group is evident not only in their musical style, but also in the song lyrics and titles – two of my favorite titles on the album are “Bad News Perfume” and “Incarceration Casserole”.  So creative!  Another one I liked the sound of was “Adjunct Street” – the song itself is a little bit more eerie and minor than the earlier tracks, with some creepy organ sounds evoking the Zombie’s old records, as Barrence warbles “I’m tired of living on adjunct street / where you can’t get no whisky neat / you know my neighbors they can be so unkind”…

Other song lyrics run the gamut of style and form, but you’ll hear select gems pop up like random references to everything from “a hollow leg” to “Pinochet”.  I’ll need some more time to fully absorb everything that is going on here, but in the meantime I’m just rocking out to the music and enjoying it thoroughly!

Track #6 is probably my favorite, as a great example of the blending of old and new, and it is chock-full of college-band-level emotion and enthusiasm.  You will not be able to stay still with all of this energetic organ vibrato peeking through!  I’m hearing some similarities to Little Richard, the Zombies, and even The Doors on a lot of these other tracks – Barrence Whitfield and the Savages as a group have done their rock n’ roll homework! It is clear that this band knows how to throw down wild words to crazy music that supports it all, and really gets you in the mood to move.

If you can’t actually have this band playing at your party in the basement, the next best thing you can do is to make sure you are playing this album at your house whenever you want to give your guests a good time.  If you’re in the Northeast right now then you’re in luck for catching a live show – there are some New England performance dates over the next couple of days before the band heads overseas for a European Tour.  You absolutely must have this CD in your lineup for a back-to-school event or an end-of-the-summer shindig, to keep the impending doldrums of cooler weather at bay.  Now, rock on!

*Photo not taken by RMC – image copied from album art as presented on http://www.eartothegroundmusic.co with the original posting of this music review, published September 6, 2015.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play: Barrence – Google Play

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon: Barrence – Amazon

Mixed Styles and The Sounds You Remember…

Edisun – Collision

Edisun

Perhaps with a name like Edisun, you’d expect something science-y and smart – calling to mind the great inventor and our natural energy source.  But what the band puts forward instead, is a stable blend of nostalgia bands (you’ve always sort of enjoyed their alternative radio hits but maybe never really joined the fanclub).  The first song initially struck me as being almost 90s-esque, but I couldn’t quite pin it down.  Then on the chorus I realize what this is really reminding me of is actually – Daughtry.  The vocals are really pretty good!

If you like this style of music and are looking for some fresh songs for the rotation, you will probably like these guys just fine.  According to their website they have been writing and performing music for the past several years – and they are East Coast based, so I’m hoping to check out a live show.

What is a little surprising (and impressive) on the album is the variation in style from song to song – it is almost hard to believe that “Vampires and Wolves” is on the same album as “Secrets” if you ask me – see below for my suggestions on comparable artists for each track on the release and you’ll see what I mean:

  1. Daughtry and Our Lady Peace (“Kill Me With Your Kiss”)
  2. Goo Goo Dolls (“Collision”)
  3. Jakob Dylan from Wallflowers with Hit the Lights or Saves the Day (“Pins and Needles”)
  4. Hard to describe (“Vampires and Wolves”) but let me try. The opening guitar sounds like something by Passenger; this whole thing is a bit more folksy than the rest of the album; and other than the dark title/chorus/lyrics (reminiscent of the Twilight movies!)I think this is a rather pleasant song.
  5. Dashboard Confessional chorus on “Farewell”. I mean these emo lyrics just scream Chris Carrabba on the chorus  – “Jealousy just let me be / caught up in your fame / it will never be the same – farewell to your world / break me from these chains”
  6. Not sure who this reminds me of – but “Arcade” is grittier and heavier than the other tracks so far. I kind of like the more aggressive guitars on the interlude! Somehow I am reminded of Dishwalla and Collective Soul but I just can’t place this sound exactly.
  7. More moody and rock than the rest, and almost Metallica-ish (“Secrets”)
  8. Goo Goo Dolls again, but like their later cheesier slow songs (“Ocean Waves”)

Is anything on the track listing super-inventive, as again perhaps the name “Edisun” would suggest?  Possibly, in the unexpected combination of styles and re-delivery of something you haven’t thought of in awhile (emo and alternative music from the 90s, 2000s, and today) wrapped up in a new package.  Is this album anything you would enjoy?  Probably, given the popularity of the other artists I referred to, and the fact that there is something here for everybody – quite a few different song styles.

I’ll be honest and say that my initial thought upon hearing the opening track at the first listen was “oh I have heard this before”; but when I listened to the album multiple times it started to grow on me.  I think it is mostly a nostalgia thing, as each track brings back a unique set of memories for me – I might have to dust off the Wallflower CD and break out the Dashboard Confessional again, too!

*Photo not taken by RMC – image copied from album art as presented on http://www.eartothegroundmusic.co (and http://www.edisunmusic.com) with the original posting of this music review, published August 30, 2015.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play: Google Play – Edisun

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon: Amazon – Edisun

Back After a Little Break…

Hello to my RMC readers!  I wasn’t rocking or commuting last week at all – I was vacationing without a computer on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Now I’m back to the daily grind, and I’ll have something new for you soon.  In the meantime, please check out my most recent review for EarToTheGround Music – Mike Waters’ debut EP entitled LIFE:

Mike Waters Image

I wasn’t sure what to expect at all from Mike Water’s debut EP, called LIFE.  The cover art was a little esoteric and abstract, so I certainly wasn’t expecting the opening track to be so upbeat and approachable.  “Daisy” started with bright guitar, simple drums, and a catchy whistling bit for the chorus.  Right away I thought Mike’s voice sounded a bit like Daniel Bedingfield, blended with a little Ed Sheeran, and tied together with some cheeky boy-band attitude.

Next came “Gambling Man”, a song in a slightly deeper register than the first.  This one seemed a little -richer and more balanced, with piano adding earthiness and depth – yet still positive and pop-y in tune.  The vocal harmonies and piano background reminded me of Five for Fighting – remember that guy?  For a few more throwback references, I’ll add that here Mike’s voice is similar to Third Eye Blind (on their mellow songs) or the guy from Filter.  The buoyant vocal style is balanced with heavier lyrics on this track – Mike is covering serious emotional territory here, with lines like  ” Sometimes I need a drink before I sleep; I can’t keep my  mind from running deep / I’ve got lot of secrets I can’t share / Please don’t stay away, please don’t be scared.”  Somehow it all fits together and sounds pretty good!

Every now and then you might catch a little bit of an Australian accent peeking through, with a slightly nasal and direct tone to Mike’s relaxed and clear way of singing.  The songs touch on some sad-ish topics and deep feelings, but they never feel bogged down or depressing.  Overall this is a refreshing little break from some of the slower, heavier fare out there – something entertaining and positive in tone to have playing in the car, the shower, the house – anywhere you’d like to imagine yourself humming along and tapping your toes to something catchy.

Track #3 is “Feels like Home”, full of snapping finger sounds and a little bit of country style.  The song is cute and strummy, like something you’d hear on a trendy car commercial – or an advertisement for an app that makes family photos into charming keepsakes or office solutions.  I’d say this is neat, trendy, nostalgic, and clean.  There’s even an appealing chorus that is easy to sing along with: “can’t you hear the crowd go – wooooooaaahhhh!”

This smart and charming little 4-song EP ends with “Dreams”.  Of all the songs on this mini-album, it is at once the most acoustic and truly the most intimate.  If you listen to the lyrics, they seem quite personal as Mike sings: “I don’t believe in heaven but I know you’re living on / Be with me forever, every note in every song / Oh I miss you so / Mama please don’t go…Don’t be sad just think of me and smile / Go live dreams as I’ve been living mine.”

I was really intrigued by the press info that said Mike had a normal-guy 10-year professional career while writing all of these songs – this is something I can relate to (for better or worse, I’m still rooted in the corporate world) so I tried to find him on LinkedIn to no avail. I guess I’m glad he found his voice and eventually broke free to the newfound LIFE he wanted to show to the world via this EP.  I think his music has very wide appeal, and he’ll probably get a fair shot at the music business – if he keeps putting out pleasant records like these in the future.

*Photo not taken by RMC – image copied from album art as presented on http://www.eartothegroundmusic.co with the original posting of this music review, published August 16, 2015.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play: Google Play – Mike Waters

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon: Amazon – Mike Waters

Vintage Feel with Real Appeal

Rags Across the Sun by Neil Holyoak*

Neil Holyoak

Press the play button on Neil Holyoak’s release Rags Across the Sun and right away, you’ll be pulled into sounds of something something warm and familiar, giving you a wistful yet free “arm-out-the window-on-a-country-drive-in-the-summer” kind of feeling.  

Imagine a fresher, livelier version of Townes Van Zandt, and his would-be protégé M. Ward; sprinkled with the occasional pedal steel sound thrown in for a country feel.  Neil sings calmly with a mellow and sometimes deadpan delivery – self-admittedly influenced by “teenage heroes” Belle and Sebastian (see bio on his website), sounding a little bit like Iron & Wine but with a voice that is less breathy and more whole, more vintage, more round and full.  Sometimes there’s even a hint of a young Neil Young sound and even style peeking through.

Each song is  a bit different from the next; some are more simple and stripped down than the rest – with delicious names like “Sidereal Sunrise”, “Fancy Moonlight”, Silvery Skies”, and “Red Queen of Autumn”.  Neil’s bio also mentions he was inspired by the Smiths – and the honest, straightforward lyrics certain reveal the same sort of vulnerability that is vocally and verbally thrown to the wind by Morrissey (while sounding completely different, of course).

Upon my first listen to the full album, I found that I happily enjoying each song without really catching many of the lyrics – but when I really tried to focus closely on the words the second time around, I found them surprisingly rich in texture and imagery, like this sample from “Fancy Moonlight”:

I’d rather be an old umbrella, wire silk and fallen leaves

Like a broken cigarillo, draped from old man autumn’s teeth

Or the wake of an ocean liner laughing at the harbor trees

This seems so mature and introspective for someone who looks so youthful in their promo photos online (http://www.neilholyoak.com/).  From Neil’s bio you gather that he has run into some hard times as a young kid – perhaps this contributes to his ability to really dig deep as a songwriter, and create something you can really experience and feel.  Knowing that he spent his formative years in Montana conjures images of big sky and lonely open spaces just begging to be filled with art, experience, and of course music.  Now he is Montreal-based, so if you are taking a reflective weekend trip to that part of Canada you should see if you can catch one of his shows.

The album features great rhythms that never drag, a smooth voice that never irritates, pleasant musicianship featured in nice quiet instrumental sections that never stretch out too long – the style of each song seems somehow timeless, as thought it could have come from 50 years ago while still being appreciated today.  This is definitely on my list of some of the best music I have heard all year, and I know I will be looking for this album to comfort and inspire me for many listens to come.

*Review originally posted on http://www.eartothegroundmusic.co on August 9, 2015.

Preview Tracks on Google Play: Google Play – Neil Holyoak

Purchase Album on Amazon: Amazon – Neil Holyoak

“Stranger” could be Stranger…

Stranger In My House – By Vincent Colbert

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When you check out a new release by yet-another singer-songwriter, there is always the challenge of how to describe this new artist in contrast to the rest.  There is usually something different, but it is sometimes embedded deep within the music, and may be hard to find.  Looking at an artists’ website while previewing their music is one of my favorite ways to get started – you learn something more of the person who is creating this work, and this gives you a starting point for interpreting their songs and determining their unique element.

My heart warmed when I noticed on www.vincentcolbertmusic.com that Vincent was based in Ann Arbor.  I myself grew up in this area, and for me that part of Michigan is filled with so many happy memories, and much friendship.  It breaks my heart to learn that Vincent struggled with loneliness and sadness while in this place that I love so much – but without going through this time of melancholy, Vincent would not have been inspired to write and release this new 5-song EP.

The title Stranger In My House sets you up for this feeling of alienation that comes through in the album, even in the cover artwork of a creepy shack that looks like a Dover Edition Paperback of spooky stories.  As I started on the opening track, I was looking for a bittersweet tone and expressions of personal pain in the music – and I realized that Vincent’s appeal is something classic and poetic, a bit like Leonard Cohen.  He’s not one of those singer-songwriters that is borderline bluegrass, or neo-folk.  He’s just presenting his work in a bare, essential, and yes – classic way – to what is hopefully a new crowd of listeners looking for raw beauty and authenticity.

The opening song “Baseline” keeps time with a wooden clapping sound, almost like a metronome turned up extra-loud.  It gets a little grating as it continues through the song – but thankfully later blends into the lovely chorus so you forget about it for a few seconds.  It is presented in an echo-y, vintage-y style of recording that helps feature Vincent’s beautiful yet relatable voice.  He sounds rather like my favorite singer from The Head and the Heart, on emotional songs like “10,000 Weight In Gold”.

As I listened to Vincent singing “Hold on, we have come on hard times / I think I hit the baseline”, I noticed that the overall effect of this song is very basic and elemental – like you are in a small room with a friend who is performing just for you.  I mentioned Leonard Cohen earlier, and while Vincent’s voice is deep, it is not quite as low as Leonard’s – there is a brightness there that sometimes breaks into an energetic vibrato à la Conor Oberst.  The overall effect is mellow, smooth, and warm.

Track #2 opens with guitar arpeggios that seem immediately familiar, and the tempo picks up intermittently with good train-track drums jumping in and out.  If you like some Nick Drake songs, you might like this one too, as Vincent proclaims “I don’t waste time filling space with empty words”.  The next song (“As You Are”) is slower, yet still low, rich, and full of emotion.  The recording style again seems bare, which supports the theme of loneliness on this album.  There is a lot of that scratchy sound that is so intimate – the sound of fingers moving on strings, up and down the neck of the guitar.

The title track is next, and it explores even deeper into darkness with a confession – “I don’t know what to pray, I don’t have the right words to say”. The chords here are less upbeat in feeling, but the listener may be a little surprised with creative transitions on the chorus (which also features great vocal harmonies, filling in around Vincent’s lead).  If you can remember the 90s, maybe you recall “Heaven” by Better Than Ezra?  This song evokes a lot of the same emotions as “Heaven”, via both musical and lyrical means.

The EP fittingly ends with a track called “Closing Hymn”.  The lyrics suggest deep memories, a delusional past, and disenchanted present.  Again the religious imagery in this song reminds me of Leonard Cohen (think “Hallelujah”) as Vincent sings above an appropriately hymn-like chord structure: “Praise The Lord, was the closing hymn”… There is a lovely piano solo on the bridge, before Vincent’s voice sings out strongly one more.

I can see this EP as a collection of songs that would appeal to someone in a time of loneliness or transition – someone looking for understanding, empathy, support, and a special song they can make their own.  Personally I prefer songs that are more built-out, musically fuller in instrumentation, and more positive in tone.  But if you pack this EP away for a big change that you are making independently – or even for just a rainy weekend when you’ll be alone with your thoughts – you just might find something in Vincent’s consoling voice that will speak to you.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play: Google Play – Vincent Colbert

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon: Amazon – Vincent Colbert