Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cranford Hollow - Color/Sound/Renew/Revive (2017)

Written by Alonzo Evans, posted by blog admin

Cranford Hollow’s journey through the modern music world has been shaped by their willingness to grow and take chances. The band originally began life as a more traditional minded outfit, but the addition of lead guitarist and fifth member Yannie Reynecke and a gradual evolution in their songwriting process has led them evolve in ways their fans and the band themselves likely never expected when they first formed. Their latest release Color/Sound/Renew/Revive is an eight song effort that might seem, when viewing the number of tracks alone, to indicate a work of relatively modest ambition. The truth is quite different.  These tracks highlight lead singer and songwriter John Cranford’s gifts in their full flower. Five albums into their career hasn’t dimmed his creative energies a single watt. Instead, Cranford writes like a man with something to say and the facility to express it in intelligent, often poetic terms and his vocals convey those lines with an appealingly theatrical world-weariness.

For novices to the band, the opener “Songfield” makes it startlingly clear that Cranford is every bit of the songwriter described above and plays with a band capable of investing his writing with the needed musical dynamics. Reynecke, over the course of Color/Sound/Renew/Revive, shows hints of his ability to dominate the recording with the sheer force of his playing alone, but the remarkable thing is how he restrains those talents with seeming ease. Instead, their performance on “Songfield” shows Cranford Hollow is a band of musicians and writers intent on serving the song first and foremost while deferring the spotlight to their efforts as a group. There’s a much more retro spirit powering “Long Shadows”, but the band’s blues rock spirit announces itself in artful ways. The instrumental breaks and chorus are dominated by Eric Reid’s violin playing while the verses are much leaner and guided by inventive percussion. Assertive and rather circular drumming opens the track “Noise” before other instruments gradually enter the mix. John Cranford is able to temper his vocal growl somewhat here and benefits from some key secondary vocal tracks to sweeten his gruff sound. The song has a brief and hypnotic melodic hook that has a slightly eerie effect on the song’s mood.

“North” sports a bit of a social consciousness, but Cranford is fortunately not a writer who picks up the soapbox and spews dogma. There’s an intensely personal quality touching his writing missing from songwriters addressing our time in much more strident ways. His phrasing is very effective as well; there’s something rousing about the way he treats the singing, but there’s a shadow of the melancholy seeping into the song. “Dark Turns” is a surprising instrumental this late on the release and encompasses a wide variety of musical turns, particularly near the end. The song certainly has a downcast air, but the tempo belies that and fiddle player Eric Reid glides and weaves through the arrangement with remarkable self-assurance. There’s a small amount of atmospherics woven into the fabric of the album’s finale “Swing”, but the tune has a definite shape thanks to some more strong, uniform drumming throughout much of the performance. Cranford Hollow has the rare versatility of invoking an array of moods without ever sounding incongruous. This is a result of their immense talents, but also a sense of identity – Color/Sound/Renew/Revive is the product of a band who knows exactly who they are, where they came from, and where they’re going.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 8, 2017

Kittens Slay Dragons - Big Big Heart (2017)


Love is Surgery:


Written by Craig Bowles, posted by blog admin

Kittens Slay Dragons is the electronic music project of singer/songwriter Sarah Donner and there’s no point during Big Big Heart when it sounds like a stylistic experiment. It sounds like a complete realized artistic and musical work that references Donner’s life in accessible ways and features songwriting that details others’ experiences as well. Despite the electronic nature of Big Big Heart, it never loses its warmth and heart – much of this is, surely, the result of Donner’s strengths as a melodic songwriter. She has an unique lyrical sensibility that serves the material well yet possess an understated conversational eloquence unlike many similar efforts in the style. The attitude infusing the songwriting is quite modern while still showing a complete mastery of fundamentals that supersede genre and sound – fundamentals that are, instead, the bedrock of popular song.

The first song “Gatekeeper” starts with a smattering of synth notes before a steady rhythm launches us off. Donner’s voice comes in soon after and, despite a light nasal quality to her tone, she sounds authoritative from the start and soon becomes the guiding emotional force of this release. Her approach to electronic music renders the form somewhat dreamlike – effects some to coalesce in Kittens Slay Dragons’ songs and the effect of the songwriting accumulates over time rather than arriving all at once. There’s a suggestion of the painter in this approach and she, indeed, uses the electronic instruments as conduits of color for these songs. “Smile Pretty” probably better embodies this than any other song on Big Big Heart. While Donner’s turn with this style shows off her talents for crafting direct, straight-forward numbers in this vein, this song shows her ability for going in a more atmospheric direction. It has a substantive lyrical message as well that she never communicates in a heavy handed way.

“Love Is Surgery” combines the straight-forward style with her more artful touches and succeeds. The multi-tracked vocals are a nice touch for a singer already possessing enough pipes alone to carry the material. The arrangement, likewise, has a patiently simmering quality. Minimalist verses build to an impassioned, well orchestrated chorus and the percussion does an excellent job mimicking the beat of a heart. The title song has some of the same patiently simmering qualities and Donner distinguishes herself with a flexible vocal capable of great sensitivity and towering emotional peaks. The insistent pulse beginning “Under the Waves” does a great job of scene setting before the synths join and Donner tackles the album’s sole duet. Her vocal partner wisely provides a counterpoint that accentuates his strengths while never attempting to supersede her importance to the song. It’s an interesting performance, as well, thanks to how it maintains such a restrained temperament throughout and yet hooks you into its web.

The album’s penultimate song, “Eggs”, has a muscularly soulful vocal from Donner and a rough-hewn arrangement quite different from anything else on Big Big Heart. The vocal melody stands out thanks to its cascading effect, but it’s the tension this song generates without ever quite exploding the way you expect that makes it especially notable. The song’s playful nature, as well, sets it at odds with the album’s finale “Head Down, Heart Up”. You can’t help but notice and admire the dogged determination behind the title, lyrics, and Donner’s exultant voice, but it’s a richer song for how it tacitly acknowledges that moments like this are products of struggle. Kittens Slay Dragons has produced one of the deeper, yet still faithful to the genre, electronic efforts you’ll ever hear. This is a songwriter behind this stuff, folks, and she makes every track count.

Grade: A-

Monsieur Job - Chilliando Hangueando (2018)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin Toby Holguin and his compatriots in Monsieur Job are steadily upping their musical ...