Monday, June 18, 2018

Joshua Ketchmark - Under Plastic Stars (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

“We Were Everything” begins Joshua Ketchmark’s Under Plastic Stars on a decidedly elegiac note, but this isn’t a dreary collection of songs. Ketchmark’s first full fledged solo effort, self-produced and written by Ketchmark, finds this longtime musical cohort of some of the music world’s biggest acts stepping out on his own with considerable talent and finesse. The primarily acoustic slant to this album is adorned with other touches like keyboards and even some occasional swaths of steel guitar, but you can’t comfortably consign it to a particular genre. “We Were Everything” has strong melodic virtues that continues with the second song “Every Mystery”, but the arrangement is a little more inventive and less straightforward than we hear from the first song. It doesn’t veer too far, however, from the tendencies established with “We Were Everything”.

The steel guitar present in “Let It Rain” is so thoroughly integrated with the rest of the arrangement that it never calls ostentatious attention to itself and, instead, proves to be just another color in Ketchmark’s toolbox. It’s easy to single this tune out as one of the undisputed high points on Under Plastic Stars and the emphatic nature of Ketchmark’s singing signals he views the song in a similar manner. “Lucky at Leavin’” sounds like it might be some classic country cut, based on title alone, but it’s actually a lush and carefully wrought acoustic number, folk for the most part, that benefits from a swell of keyboard color strengthening its sound. Ketchmark’s singing hits another high water mark with this tune that will, undoubtedly, linger in listener’s memories long after the song ends. “Hereafter” is particularly effective thanks to Brad Rice’s sinewy electric guitar lines crackling throughout the performance and another impassioned vocal never risking overwrought theatrics.

“Get Out Alive” has a little more of a rough hewn gait than the earlier tunes and owes its roots to the blues much more than anything else so far. It’s an evocative piece lyrically and Ketchmark brings just enough gravel into his voice to make this character dissection all the more convincing. He hits another high point with the commercial potential of “Saturday Night”, but Ketchmark isn’t a performer pursuing the path of least resistance. Instead, he throws himself into this tune for all he’s worth and it reaches heights the earlier songs never explore. “In Harm’s Way” is a largely solo acoustic tune incorporating more sounds in the second half and has a pleasing melodic core that will draw many listeners into its web.

“Sweet Surrender” takes some of the same template we hear with the song “Saturday Night” but, instead of relying on guitars, brings piano in to great effect and Ketchmark’s voice responds in kind with a showstopper of a vocal. The near orchestral sweep of this song stands out from the rest and makes it one of Under Plastic Stars’ more memorable moments. The last track “The Great Unknown” adopts a busier tempo than we’ve heard with much of the album and, thus, brings the release to an energetic close. Joshua Ketchmark’s Under Plastic Stars is an obviously personal work, but the entry points for listeners are numerous and inviting.  

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Black Bluebirds - Like Blood for Music (2017)

Written by Wendy Owens, posted by blog admin

This is an album that, despite its often distorted texture and unusual vocals, has an infectious quality. Like Blood for Music from the Minneapolis power trio Black Bluebirds is a condensed, yet often epic and expansive, ten song collection packing punch on even the softest numbers. Daniel Fiskum’s vocals dominant the recording, but he’s often accompanied by second vocalist Jessica Rasche to spectacular effect. There’s some uptempo tracks on Like Blood for Music, but many of the songs on the album invoke a deliberate and cinematic air that never strains to make an impact on listeners. Guitarist Simon Husbands and drummer Chad Helmonds form the other two corners of this power trio, but you can’t readily label the band as some derivative outfit hanging onto clich├ęs often going along with that configuration. Instead, Black Bluebirds makes its own path while still relying on great fundamentals.

“Love Kills Slowly” relies a lot on Simon Husbands’ memorable lead guitar to make its most colorful marks and the combination of Fiskum and Rasche’s singing reach a peak of sorts with the very first number. Her voice isn’t used in quite the same way on the album’s second number “Strange Attractor”, but she has an effective presence nonetheless. The comparatively less cluttered arrangement has a sinewy power we don’t hearing in the first song, but nonetheless leaves it mark on listeners. “Life in White” shouldn’t pass people by as its one of the album’s more potentially underrated numbers, but Like Blood for Music takes a successful turn invoking acoustic sounds on an album where we wouldn’t necessarily expect that at this point.

“Battlehammer” is another of Like Blood for Music’s rockier numbers and unreels in such pyrotechnic fashion primarily thanks to Simon Husbands’ guitar pyrotechnics. He’s never a flashy player, however, and each of those moments across the span of Like Blood for Music makes great sense. One of the album’s undisputed high points comes with the song :”House of No More Dreams”. Despite the possibly overwrought implications behind the title, the song never descends into bathos and instead Fiskum’s lyrics give us a glimpse of some underrated poetic chops. The vocal for “Hole in the Day” gives a new spin to the album’s sound so far without ever venturing too far afield of Black Bluebirds’ musical DNA. “Don’t Fall In Love” continues striking the same fatalistic note that’s characterized much of the release from the start and definitely has added emotional firepower thanks to the contributions of second singer Jessica Rasche. The album’s genuine climax comes with the track “My Eyes Were Closed”, but it’s never self conscious and, instead, realizes the band’s cinematic ambitions in a way that solidifies their claim to present excellence while pointing a way towards the future. Black Bluebirds’ Like Blood for Music is definitely entertaining from the first, but gains even more from the added touch of personal statement fueling each of its ten songs.    

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Rejectionist Front - Evolve (2017)

Written by Michael Saulman, posted by blog admin

Rejectionist Front’s successful run has thus far seen the New York City based quartet place their music with both television and film productions, share bills with iconic artists like George Clinton and Joan Baez (among others), release a critically acclaimed and popular first album, and appear on important indie collections alongside other immensely respected artists like Patti Smith, MGMT, Third Eye Blind, and Jackson Browne. They’ve brought their music to respected NYC area venues like CBGB, the Highline Ballroom, and Webster Hall They’ve worked with important production figures like Grammy winner Andy Wallace, a pivotal player on recordings from artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and System of a Down. All of these turning points in the band’s career lead to its next logical step, the all-important second studio album, and the twelve song collection Evolve finds Rejectionist Front ascending to a new level.

Lead singer and songwriting force Michael Perlman’s musical art brings every bit of the same passion to bear that color his involvement with activist causes like Rock to Save Darfur, but there’s no soapbox raving on Evolve. The first song “Ride” is a fantastic opener revealing a specific side of the band while introducing some themes that remain album constants. The band’s songwriting embraces dynamics, like any aspiring great rock band will, and they show impressive timing in when and how they bring those moments off. Perlman has an excellent musical foil in guitarist Lincoln Prout – the six string player serves as the band’s sole guitarist, yet conjures a variety of sounds that are often the equivalent of a small guitar army. “Savior” is one of the album’s best pure hard rock tracks and illustrates some of the band’s primary strengths – they are able to marry especially effective hard rock guitar songs with memorable choruses, a generous but understated amount of melody, and a multi-faceted approach to vocals.

“All Is The Same” is a moment when that aforementioned strength reaches an inarguable peak. The meditative side of the band’s lyricism emerges vividly from these words and the musical accompaniment. Prout’s talent for bringing evocative, forceful melodies together with blazing lead work and straight forward riffing makes him a guitarist of rare distinction in the modern rock arena and bassist Tony Tino and drummer Dave Dawson are an effective rhythm section, yet versatile as well. “Sign” has a direct, highly charged riff propelling it much of the way and a real swagger that comes at listeners from the first. There’s no preamble here, no beating around the bush – Rejectionist Front wants to rock and does so convincingly in a familiar hard rock vein. The band returns to a more deliberative, nuanced musical attack with the track “Reclaim” and it shares many of the same exhortative elements that made the opener “Ride” so memorable.

“Innocent” brings together the artier aspects of the band’s musical presentation, particularly through Lincoln Prout’s often intense and even dissonant guitar work, with their talent for impactful and accessible commercial strengths like a good chorus. It’s one of Evolve’s standout efforts. “Flush” is the album’s briefest song and a perfect choice for single status thanks to its clearly commercial inclinations, yet it never unduly waters down the band’s hard rock approach. Rejectionist Front’s second studio release is a confirmation and elaboration of everything we heard with their debut and secures their status as one of the best hard rock acts maturing today.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Chris Murphy - Water Under the Bridge (2017)

Written by Jay Snyder, posted by blog admin

Like music you would expect to hear in a grand Civil War-era ballroom, Chris Murphy and his cohorts (The Blind Blakes Blues Band) fire on all cylinders with their latest eclectic instrumental album Water under the Bridge.  Molding a strong, soulful sound the record mixes and matches jazz, ragtime, blues, swing and country as so gloriously exhibited by opener “Moveable Feast.”  Saloon-styled piano that will make you want to soak back a sarsaparilla or three tangos hand-in-hand with vintage jazz rhythms, Murphy’s runaway train fiddle playing and some atmospheric guitar work.  This music is as catchy as it is progressive; welding together influences spanning a timeframe from 1930 to 2017. 

“Joan Crawford Dances the Charleston” furthers Chris’ out-there approach to his chosen stylistic attack in much of the same way that Frank Zappa threw caution to the wind in whatever sonic enterprise he decided to monopolize.  Murphy and his band’s take on the blues grooves with punchy upright bass work, ragtime piano, economical runs of downplayed electric guitar and numerous subtle tempo changes and aural fluctuations.  Neoclassical acoustic guitar lassos a flamenco element that positively dazzles the eardrums and only tangles the listener’s eardrums deeper in the artist’s audio webs.  The faster paced “Table for Two” incorporates bluegrass into the band’s repertoire with especial attention paid to high octane rhythms, fiddle on overdrive and spitfire, Nashville bound two/three-part vocal harmonies.  “Riverboat Blues” shifts into a slower waltz tempo that’s meant for swinging cheek-to-cheek sweetly with the one you love before “I Swear I’m Going to Learn This Time” settles on a danceable mid-tempo brimming with blue-eyed soul vocals with excellent harmonies, playful ivory tinkling, wayward fiddling and a rhythm section that’s completely locked into the arrangement.  A series of melodic stop/start instrumental licks and two-part harmonies enter at the 1:21 mark and craft an infectious sing-a-long you won’t be able to get out of your head with bleach and a wire brush.  An excellent segment of intricately picked, Hawaiian flavored guitar licks take the spotlight in one particularly potent segment which is immediately preceded by a fiddle lead and firmly bookended by some spotlight for the piano.  Even the bass guitar gets a shot to step up and command center stage.  Without a doubt this is one of the album’s finest tracks and my personal pick for a tester tune to see what Murphy and the boys are cooking up in their soul kitchen. 

Elsewhere “My Spanish Lover” a simultaneously laidback and engaging jazz number that’s afraid to strut both country and blues inflections over its 4 minute and 37 second course, “The Lemon Rag” is set aflame by a cavalry charge of busy fiddling heavy on the bluegrass touches while keeping the piano style firmly rooted in 1880s Americana, “Benzedrine Shuffle” buckles down on the blues in a well-layered storm of upright bass thunder mingling with every kind of stringed instrument imaginable, “Tomcat Blues” filters a blown out garage sound through the band’s usual and closer “Cheer uUp Mickey” relishes the minimalism of a kick drum and a rustic fiddle banging out complex melodies that are an absolute treasure to behold. 

Water under the Bridge is without a weak tune across its 14 track arc.  You get a little bit of everything on this record; from dazzling instrumentals to killer meat n’ taters singer/songwriter fare that sports a heightened level of instrumentation…it’s all here and sounds great.  This is a highly recommended release.        

Alpha Mule - Peripheral Vision (2017)

Written by Laura Dodero, posted by blog admin

The debut from this Southern Cali, rural music duo Alpha Mule is an excellent lead-off album.  Featuring 10 main originals, a pair of bonus cuts and some pared down duo versions without additional instrumentation of the album’s main tracks, there’s a lot to digest here and it’s certainly well-worth the time and listening effort.  Joe Forkan (vocals/acoustic guitar) and Eric Stoner (banjo/vocals) is practically the band, though they bring in a few support musicians to help out on the majority of the album’s tracks. 

Start-up number, “Corpus Christi” pulls the lead on a taut, tense dark-folk attack that sees dirty n’ raw production wraparound a hearty banjo/guitar/upright bass workout with lyrics and delivery fit for a night under the black sky.  There’s something overcast going on here and it’s among the bleaker, weirder tracks on the album and an interesting choice for an opener.  It really makes you stand up and take notice thanks to its bleak, foreboding vibe.  This darkness dissipates on the immediately following “On the Moon” which culls a brighter country guitar twang and buoyant banjo swagger that ricochets over a particularly wild upright bass line that practically propels the vocals to some awesome melodic highs. 

The mood takes a dramatic sea change on the stalwart country n’ western swing of the title track and its inclusion of slide licks and steel guitars which really hammer home the atmosphere; the hurdy gurdy vocals and plucky traditional arrangements only further the sentiment, conjuring one of the record’s most powerful tunes.  “The Distance” follows the same standard making for a superb couplet, which “Pavlov” is happy to alter with its furious upright bass grooves and incendiary guitar/banjo trade-offs.  One can hear bits of Elvis and even Bill Haley on this old school rock n’ roll scorcher, and again they change up the mood on the pickin’ n’ pluckin’ country of “Mule in the Mine.”  As the record continues onward in its steadfast charge to the finish line moods swap and change with the drop of a dime; “Step Outside” being the most straight forward atmospheric ballad on the album, “The Ballad of Huell Howser” going for the country side-wind full-throttle, “Music of our Hearts” going the dark, mid-tempo country route and closer “Empire” capping things off with dreamy, drifting folk that’s completely pitch-black in its vibe and atmosphere.  Some worthy bonus tracks including duo versions of album favorites “Step Outside,” “Mule in the Mine” and “Corpus Christi” show just how well Forkan and Stoner lay it down with no outside help at their disposal.  These guys can play and they have chemistry to spare. 

Peripheral Vision is a modern classic of the genre with great songwriting and musicianship that makes each track an all-out winner.  As the grooves seep into your brain and the duo’s dual melodic vocals take over your mind, you’ll find yourself replaying each track several times before moving on.  This is a standout record with one excellent song after another, and it’s hard to believe that these guys are already THIS good on their debut…the sky’s the limit for Alpha Mule, that’s for dang sure. 

Joshua Ketchmark - Under Plastic Stars (2017)

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