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

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

Strange but Wonderful Mix of Styles

Magnolia – by Michael McArthur

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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

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

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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