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

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

Got Twang?

Broken Hymns – by Matt Bradford*

Matt Bradford

Here’s my initial warning – if you don’t like country or bluegrass and you hate that steel guitar sound, then this album is not for you.  It is packed full of whiny twang that many of us just love – so if you are still reading, then you are in for a treat!  With that said, this is not an over-produced Trace Atkins or Alan Jackson album, but rather a more rustic and raw tribute to that Americana sound.

The album opens with “Break Easy”, and Matt immediately sets the tone by launching into a rather broken, cracked-with anguish vocal style – the way he sings is gentle, yet rugged at the same time.  The music follows a simple chord structure, and somehow even though the tempo and instruments are completely different it reminded me of that old song “Operator” by Jim Croce (must be that overall pleasant vibe of the song that creates an instant nostalgia).

I can imagine “Break Easy” being covered by someone like Darius Rucker to popular effect on hit country radio; it is the type of song that almost everybody likes.  I don’t usually appreciate slower songs, but somehow on a rainy summer Saturday night, this felt just about right – it would be fitting for an evening with friends, a date, or just hanging out on your own.

Track #2 is “The Singer”, with a rolling guitar entry that evokes something by the Counting Crows (from back in the “August” days when they were really good).  Lyrics like “put a penny in the jar / open up your heart” portray a singer as a storyteller, in a narrative song about some kind of life-changing traveling troubadour encounter.  The whole story is set over perfectly countrified guitar that feels just so healthy and homey here.

And Matt is back to sweet and slow again on #3!  I would say that “Recognize” has that waltzy “last song of the night” type of feel, followed by “The Worst Goodbye”.  This one isn’t bad, but I’ll admit it gets a little repetitive. I went back to the first track to see if I had different words to describe this song – I would say this one is more stripped down without the organ background and perfectly constructed backing rhythm of the opener.  Here you have mostly just Dobro and vox – which is fine but not really remarkable, with expected country-song lyrics like “I can take the pain, but I won’t take the blame / it’s your love that’s killin’ me.”

But don’t stop listening yet, because then we get Track #5 – “Ain’t Ready To Stop”.  This is the kind of song I was waiting for! There’s a driving train-track beat and some real twang and wail on the guitars, with laid-back lyrics like “cruisin’ though that desert kiss / sure don’t get better than this / I ain’t ready to stop for days”.  If you like the idea of a mix between Ryan Bingham and Old Crow Medicine Show, then you will enjoy this one.  Matt’s skill on the guitar really shines through and there is a lot of that pedal steel sound here too which is just awesome.

Next is “Going to Hell”, which sounds like a hyper-romantic and emotional slow-dance of a song.  Don’t play this on a date though, as the chorus “everything just keeps goin’ to hell” is a bit of a downer.  And I loved the title of the next track “Stronger Than The Song”; but this one was really slow and sobering as Matt sings “there’s lines on his face, the scars of loves lost and prices paid”.

Both of these songs are really fitting for an album called “Broken Hymns”, as you would expect the songs to be slow and simple with a trend towards the damaged, more depressing characters.  A pleasant female vocalist takes over here on Track #7 (as a more mellow version of Carrie Underwood) – adding some energy to the third slow song in a row as both singers harmonize pleasantly together.

Finally we have “Broken Hymns”.  This is a gritty relationship song, utilizing those lovely vocal harmonies again, on this – the title track and the album closer.  The instrumentation is full, and the tempo is upbeat enough to be catchy and memorable while still slow and sad.  The music has to be sad enough to support lyrics like – “I didn’t even say goodbye, just found a place to lay down and die / there’s nothin’ worth hearing in my final words.”  Yikes!

I think “Broken Hymns” is really a strong ending to the album – if this had been the opening track I would have certainly kept on listening.  The artist’s style is consistent, the musicianship is good, and his songs are solid.  Again, if you aren’t afraid of country music or slow tunes – you’ll like most of the tracks on this release.  Check out www.mattbradfordmusic.com for samples of the music right on the website!

*Image not created by rockmycommute – album art from http://www.mattbradfordmusic.com used as part of review written originally for eartothegroundmusic.co and published on June 21, 2015.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play:

https://play.google.com/store/music/album/Matt_Bradford_Broken_Hymns?id=Bmpf6f3uskno7jfqthjllb364hy&hl=en

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Broken-Hymns-Matt-Bradford/dp/B00UPRBZUW/ref=sr_1_2?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1435202024&sr=8-2&keywords=Matt+Bradford

Maritime Melodies and Island Moods

Maritime – Album by Dave and Mandy*

Dave and Mandy

Maritime opens with an elegant, balanced, harmony carried by both confident singers.  This first track is jazzy and full of movement, even while being simple and clean.  Dave and Mandy are actually Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer – no flashy band name for these two!  Their website states that they have “shared the stage” with many acts, including Iron & Wine and Mandolin Orange – and I must say these are perfect pairings.  Mandy’s voice reminds me a little of Mindy Smith, but deeper – and I’m still not sure how to describe Dave’s vocal style.  Gentle like Jack Johnson maybe, but more singerly and sustained somehow?

Dave and Mandy are in the same style vein and able to hold their own alongside these comparable, well-known bands.  This album was recorded on an island, so you’d expect it to have a sharp beach-grass, biting wind, salty air, roaring wave type of feeling; but honestly I think the overall style and feeling takes you to any natural out-of-door place that allows you enjoy music – and your own memories – in a calm and uninterrupted peace.

The second track on the album (“Compass”) is a beautiful acoustic guitar piece, supporting Mandy’s solo voice in a darker minor key that gets both rollicking and wistful.  It is just upbeat enough to have you singing along to the flavorful lyrics – “all these cigarettes and smiles, smell the salt that’s in the air”.  Track #3 is “Carillion”, with music that really doesn’t interfere too much with Dave’s lead vocals – you can really hear each sustained vibrato and therefore feel connected in some way to the singer, as he proposes “I would like to play for you, a song that is my own.”

Track #4 brings in a little energy, with crashing drums and a train-track rhythm that breaks through at just the right moments.  But the next track didn’t impress me as anything novel – even as I enjoyed the brighter feeling and warmer texture of this more upbeat piece aptly titled “Morning Song”, I realized that this song actually plays upon the familiar.  Dave’s voice shares words that pop out individually to tap into your own associations, words like cattails, fence posts, coffee, mason jars.  Even though it is not earth-shatteringly innovative, I have to say “Morning Song” is tied with “Compass” for my favorite track!

Dave’s turn to get jazzy is on #6, a piece called “How the Sea”.  This song really highlights the electric guitar – apparently Mandy played lead guitar for several other bands and her musicianship is well demonstrated here.  The storytelling style on #7 reminds me a little bit of Ani DiFranco – a coffeehouse style song brimming with angst.  Then “Rain on the Rosemary” actually has a, well, rainy feeling that calls to mind the Pacific Northwestern island setting where this record was made.  I just love the name, and again the electric guitar solos sprinkling in and out are just perfect mood-setters.

It might seem hard to have much patience for a song called “Silence”, but Dave and Mandy do a pretty fair job of it.  Slow, bare, and about someone who “can’t stand the silence”, Mandy’s voice is mostly alone on this piece before it ramps up; and she carries a rich strength that compares to one of my favorite singers, Susan Tedeschi.  The melody here leads you to unexpected places which is admirable – but I have to say this piece was probably my least favorite, as it is a more serious than energetic song.

“Tide Moon Ship Horn” (Track #10) is the song that uses words most explicitly to bring out the maritime theme.  In addition to the title that repeats throughout the chorus, you’ll hear other pepperings of salty words including gales, gray, anchor, and sail… that all work to bring you the place the artists want you to see.

The album ends very simply, with a sweet song crooning “I’ve got all the time in the world for Victoria”.  If you love Iron and Wine, Norah Jones, and if you have ever heard of an Ohio group called Over the Rhine… then you will love Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer.  They are certainly talented and intentional – and they have a couple of tour dates coming up in August.  I hope that some of these are outside shows – because this is the kind of music best enjoyed from a blanket in the grass, on a summer night with a bottle of wine.  Dreamy, mellow, and memory-making.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play:

https://play.google.com/store/music/album/Dave_McGraw_Mandy_Fer_Maritime?id=Bttwbnfdevbsjmeoa3mmekr4vc4

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Maritime-Dave-Mcgraw-Mandy-Music/dp/B00PO54RIW/ref=sr_1_2?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1433296282&sr=1-2&keywords=dave+mcgraw+mandy+fer

*Photo not taken by rockmycommute.  Image is as shown on www.daveandmandymusic.com/about on 05/31/2015.

Intentional-yet-not-too-campy Spaghetti Western Style

Rich Coast – by Kids*

Kids - Rich Coast

Why aren’t more bands called “Kids”?  No other word has so much attitude and energy, smacking of defiant grins and gonna-die-young teenage abandon.  It is almost perfect for a rock band (if you can keep the 1995 Larry Clark movie out of your mind).  This group keeps true to its energetic name by approaching this album boldly and earnestly.  Their soundcloud.com bio proclaims that the band intentionally added a “throwback vintage cinematic feel” to their pop album, Rich Coast, inspired by “old spaghetti western films and Kung-Fu movies”.  This is totally evident throughout the album, and kind of fun to look out for.  The images you’ll see in your head as you listen to this collection of songs are of graceful, martial arts curves; and bold, colorful open skies.

I liked the first song “Man on the Moon” right away. The vocals remind me of Coldplay and Richard Ashcroft, in that the singer is not afraid to get high-pitched and emotional.  Lots of the aforementioned Kung-Fu influence is apparent on this one.  The next song (“Vistas”) calls to mind a California Cowboy movie.  The Rich Coast title of the album seems like a fitting home for this song that could be written by One Republic – but with more cinematic background instrumentation throughout.

Track #3 is “Love’s Song” – The heavy echo on the vocals is somewhat dramatic and romantic, and the melody itself is like a stirring Celtic ballad from a Clannad album (just missing a tin whistle or bagpipe solo).  Just when you think this feels a little long, it rebounds into a huge choral session that breaks from the highland mood, before tapering back down again to the simpler lyrics and folksy feel of the opening.  “Second Star on the Right” has that Western feel again, complete with a horseback-riding lilt. It launches fully into an up-tempo energetic start, with mellow lyrics and sprinkles of sounds (almost like bells or a xylophone) adding a bit of sparkle.  On the chorus I noted again that the vocals have a very Chris Martin style to them.

“Paved Paradise” is next with a funky, upbeat, and bouncy style –like something by Vampire Weekend or Ra Ra Riot.  It has a cute and summery feel with some ska-like horns and a memorable chorus that plays like a top hit from almost any of the past three decades.  The Kids want you to dance along to this one, with lyrics like “expectation tends to make my heels itch”.  There are little bits of fun funky bass too, under crashing rock drum breaks.  “The Standoff” is probably my favorite on the album, with an almost edgy, electronica opening.  Vocals take a John Mayer-ish appeal with lyrics that don’t annoy, even with their simplicity – “Wasted all your good love when you were young – so tonight is gonna be another lonely one”.  The central theme of this song has an EDM-esque hook on a danceable chorus that I really liked.

Track #7, called “Lone”, really has the cowboy vibe I kept looking for throughout the album.  It is a storytelling ballad, with all of the Wild West bells and (literal) whistles.   Then comes “Rides”, a sing-along, sort of musical theater number about the ups and downs of life set to a gentle beat while the singer laments “you’ve come around on a carousel ride – lifting me up just to fall back down.”  “Falsetto” has some fun rhythms and the sound of a guqin, while “Sera” has a little more stripped-down appeal and some grittier lyrics, such as “how does a cigar makes the cheapest of whiskey so sweet?” (even though I think this combination of substances might actually give you the worst headache of all).

“Broken Homes” features a cowboy tempo again, also with a slightly of Celtic feel, and something like the whinnying of a horse popping out every now and again.  This has a bit more of that indie folk revival sound that is popular now – you could imagine a more mellow version of this being performed by a group like “Head and the Heart”. I lingered a little bit on the final song “Sunshine”, listening to it several times, because I found it both poignant and sweet, sad and full of hope – a combination of piano, horns, and even cymbals – while being a little like Death Cab for Cutie at the same time.

Some of the songs seemed a little bit lengthy, and because it is highly stylized and musically complex the album can feel a little decadent, like frozen yogurt with too many diverse toppings.  But there is something really fun about the intentional-yet-not-too-campy spaghetti western style, and the perfect song titles that help to carry the theme through the album, including “the Standoff”, “Lone”, and “Rides”… I love it when an album does not get too slow towards the end, and this one kept the energy moving forward the whole time.  And I must say that the overall effect is unique – this collection of vivid sounds is not something you would hear every day!  So pick up a few old movies at the library, view them on mute while listening to this album, and give Rich Coast a try.

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play:

https://play.google.com/store/music/album/KIDS_Rich_Coast?id=Blzaqulbdgqak2oyrx3hacxxkfu&hl=en

Link to Purchase Album on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Rich-Coast-Kids/dp/B00T530Q3O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1432785266&sr=8-1&keywords=rich+coast

Link to Band Website:

http://www.thebandkids.com/

*Artwork/photo not owned or created by RMC.  Image shown is as presented on Rich Coast by Kids soundcloud site: https://soundcloud.com/bandkids/sets/kids-rich-coast-lp-private

Another Newbie

Westside Royal – by She’s A Keeper

Westside Royal

Prepare yourself for an engaging album from a seriously talented band, with a super-sweet name!  Westside Royal is a five-track digital album released by She’s A Keeper in January 2015, on the heels of their full-length release Sterlin from 2013. This little gem is an energetic and upbeat treat for your commute, or it also works as little fun background music for a productive Saturday afternoon.

The first song is “Wannabe”, and sets the album off to an interesting start featuring strong chords with melodic vocals. This sounds like a heavily harmonized version of Vance Joy with a little Modest Mouse mixed in there. I would say the vocalist reminds me of the primary singer from the Head and the Heart, but the style is way different (and way more rocking).

The second track remains upbeat, with a 60s-feeling blend of Nick Drake, CSNY, and even Band of Horses – the opening reminds me musically a bit of Mindy Smith’s hit single “It’s Amazing”. The feel of this song is echoey and rhythmic, with great harmonies that I really enjoyed.

Next is “I Won’t”; something just a little darker, and more emo – with buzzy reverb on the guitars and banjo-esque strumming popping through the texture. These broken, jazzy, arpeggios break through to crashing guitars every now and then, to create a great level of complexity here under the smooth vocals and sensitive lyrics. And again the vocalist reminded me of the Head and the Heart – with a David Gray comparison presenting itself more obviously than ever.

“Dead Serious” is the 4th song, and this one will have you moving your feet! The guitar chords in the intro have a surf rock feel – with a little clashing/dissonant tension in there, under laid-back vocals that complement this bustling and complex musical background. The overall effect is more of an “indie folk revival” feel than some of the other songs; in fact I would say this is definitely similar to Mumford and Sons.

Everything wraps up on track #5, a straightforward and calm song called “Pennsylvania”. The musical styling, and even the entire chorus for this song is almost basic and direct – but there are beautiful, sensitive strings on this track that make up for its apparent simplicity. I listened to this one a few extra times to try to get a sense of the lyrics – what they are, and what they are saying. Through the layered effect of the vocals and instruments all I could gather for certain (other than the chorus) was one repeating refrain – “Are we gonna shout, are we gonna…”

I would personally shout that this group is worth checking out – I really enjoyed the 5-tracks on Westside Royal as an intro, and I look forward to hearing the 2013 full-length album too. You may also appreciate the local interview done by Kansas City’s own music and entertainment publication, the Pitch (www.pitch.com). The band has a few show dates scheduled in Missouri and Wisconsin, so you might be able to experience them live – if you are lucky!

Link to Preview Tracks on Google Play:

https://play.google.com/store/music/album/She_s_a_Keeper_Westside_Royal?id=Bhkztgoj36g4dttygnurdpojb5e&hl=en

Link to Purchase (digital) Album:

http://www.amazon.com/Westside-Royal-Shes-Keeper/dp/B00S95S208/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1431484401&sr=8-1&keywords=Westside+Royal

*Please note:  This piece was originally posted on EarToTheGroundMusic.co on May 10, 2015 – the image shown was captured from that website.  The article itself was written by rockmycommute and is subject to my copyright notice as detailed in the About link.