Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Samantha Leon - s/t (2017)

Written by Mike Tabor, posted by blog admin

New York’s own Samantha Leon is a shiny newcomer on her debut EP, but she’s well-seasoned for it. This beautiful young future star is going places with her wise-choice influences and living up to them in the process. She might even surpass some of them, if she continues to release this quality of product. It has been said that she puts her heart into it, and that is an understatement. She can sound like Adele or Sarah McLachlan in the same song. She has a soft, but very big voice, and her lyrics are cutting-edge. The kind you have got to reckon with, even when she goes below the belt to make her point.

“Bright Yellow Shoes” leads the show and picks back up later with separate versions/mixes, and the first one is considerably better. This brings her voice into the fore and it grabs you and doesn’t let go. Only then are you starting to pick up on her lyrics too. The sound of her voice captivates all on its own. These are layers she gets you completely into. This isn’t some lo-fi production either. She sings her lights out and proceeds to hook you in one fell swoop with this. Every debut starts with a fabulous opener and this is no exception to that rule. She knocked it out of the park.

And this is followed-up by the fun, but completely different animal that is “High” with its lyrical subject matter taking on a more or less desired approach. You either like what she’s chosen to sing about or not, but there’s an audience for it and her aim is dead on. I did laugh and you might as well lighten up if you don’t like it, but to be honest it does go a low place or two. It’s all basically inoffensive though, and maybe rectifiable on the next track if you are forgiving. “Run Away” has its cleaner lyrical content, but there is a bleep somewhere in there. However, this is ultimately a killer track.

I could go on about this one title alone, it’s that good. But there are different gears and speeds to switch on this group of songs and the backing tracks all cruise together so well it’s like a tub of butter. “Perfect” is another story altogether with Danny Matos taking it to another level. Hearing his do some magic with a smooth rap just seals the deal. I wouldn’t even worry about the rest, it’s a voice you want to hear, even if you’re not into this type of pop meets R&B stuff, there’s still an experience to take away from her first, and hopefully not last release. Samantha Leon has a long way to go, but she’s already there in many ways.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Natalie Estes - 20/20 Vision (2017)

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

The four song EP from Nashville native Natalie Estes, 20/20 Vision, has surprising resonance for someone in their early 20’s who only hooked into music and what it could do for her during her teenage years. This young performer’s first love was dance and she made her mark initially as a talented ballet dancer, but being exposed to Adele’s version of Bob Dylan’s classic ballad “To Make You Feel My Love” transformed her ambitions in a way she never likely anticipated. It has lead her to seeking higher education in the area of music and working with some genuine major figures in modern music today – all in recognition of her considerable talents. 20/20 Vision, as mentioned before, is only four songs – but she packs a world of experience and emotion into these brief tunes and it ends up as one of the most all encompassing musical experiences of 2017.

The first track on 20/20 Vision, “Until I Do”, is arguably the darkest track on the album and a brilliantly theatrical track without ever over-exerting itself. Estes and her collaborators orchestrate the song with a sure hand throughout and she brings her vocals into full accord with the movement of the song. There’s a certain smokiness to the singing that’s never overstated but, rather, just the right touch of atmospheric. The lyrical content is solid, but revisits aspects of pop songs that we are all familiar with. “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire” tills the same relationship politics ground, but it’s likely the musical and vocal highlight of the collection. This sounds like a song that should have a full orchestra behind Estes and shares common ground with both pop music and R&B influences. The backing vocals bring an added dimension to the performance it might otherwise lack.  

“Reminds Me of You” is much more oriented towards the ballad mode of popular song, but it has a thoroughly modern edge and expertly produced vocals. There’s even some scattered handclaps thrown in for good measure. Estes’ vocals take on a decidedly poppier air during this performance in comparison to earlier tracks, but the decision never prompts any loss of emotional authenticity or musical credibility. The final song on the EP, “Bad Game”, bristles with more attitude than any of the aforementioned tracks and has a crackling sound that will engage any listener. It has a light rock edge, but there’s a lot of pop skills powering this tune as well – the backing vocals, bouncing tempo, and strong drumming all come together quite nicely. 20/20 Vision represents one of those moments when everything seems to come together on a debut effort. Natalie Estes, clearly, made the right decision shifting her focus to music over dance and shows a natural talent for getting under the skin of a composition that few young performers share.

Grade: A

Monday, June 19, 2017

Jim Hagen - Jazzical (2017)



Artwork by John Lind Whitby

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

Southern California based guitarist Jim Hagen’s release Jazzical is aptly titled. Hagen is a composer and musician seldom content with limiting himself to just one sound. Instead, the nine songs on Jazzical never pursue purely purist invocations of the jazz genre. Hagen brings a number of elements to bear on these performances and the label “smooth jazz” applies to much of the work here, but it reaches further. Blues, classical flourishes, and different textures make their presence felt from song to song and all of it blends together with a naturalness that, in its own way, strikes more a purist jazz note than any other approach. The nine performances on Jazzical have a beautifully organic quality and never strain for effect thanks to the first class collaborators he’s enlisted to flesh out Jazzical’s musical vision.

The first track “Pismo Beach” has a patient, meditative vibe that’s never dependant on Hagen’s guitar. There is, instead, a fine interplay between keyboards and Hagen’s six string work with them taking alternating turns in the spotlight. Melody is never far away from what Hagen and his cohorts do on Jazzical and the opener is no exception; the lyricism of his guitar playing is simply superb. “D-Tuna” has a much more artsy feel than the aforementioned song and slowly coalesces into form rather emerging full born the first second in. It doesn’t seemingly conform to typical structures, but the band never meanders and “D-Tuna” will ultimately strike listeners as a song that achieves its final effects through accumulation rather than showing all its cards immediately. We’re back in much more overtly melodic territory with the song “Alexandra”. There’s a bit of a preamble before the band launches full on into the song and, once it starts, it has a slightly melancholy air that lingers with listeners long after its conclusion.

The bass line of “On the Scene” clearly illustrates a small turn in musical direction. Hagen and his creative partners go in for a little bit of light funk here and pull it off with great style. The keyboard touches have a lightly playful air and wind themselves around the rhythm section with great finesse. “All Blues” is, oddly, the most traditionally slanted tune on Jazzical. One might expect him to tinker with the form here as he does on many of the album’s other cuts, but this is a relatively straightforward instrumental that emphasizes the keyboards and lowers Hagen’s guitar to a largely supporting role in the mix. The title song is one of the finest moments on this release thanks to how expertly Hagen marries classical guitar color with his jazz inclinations. The presence of acoustic guitar is another key difference and it’s recorded with tremendous warmth. Aficionados of the form and casual music fans alike will find something here to put a smile on their faces. Jazzical is accessible and quite a musical ride.

Grade: A

Friday, June 9, 2017

Chris Bartels - Myths and Mold (2017)

Myths and Mold / Album Video Teaser #1:

Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

Chris Bartels’ career trajectory is reminiscent of many other fine performers on the indie scene. He’s a jack of many projects, never adhering to just one course, and it’s resulted in a number of notable projects and efforts that reveal him as one of the best all around songwriting talents flying under mainstream radar today. His guitar playing is a powerful part of his presentation, but his vocals shouldn’t escape notice as he has quite an intelligent and emotive side to his singing reaching far beyond the ken of most indie singers. It makes his often poetic, at least suggestive, lyrical content stand out even more. The five songs on his newest solo EP, Myths and Mold, clearly shows that he’s capable of crafting some beautiful lyrics alongside near ideal sonic settings for that writing.

The EP begins with a decidedly alternative rock/indie music guitar vibe, but Bartels never stops there. He’s expended a tremendous amount of creative energy getting the guitar sound and composition right on songs like the opener “Blind”, but it’s equally apparent that he’s devoted considerable effort to structuring the vocals in such a way that they have a dramatic theatrical quality missing from much of modern music. Some might hear similarities or influences from the popular act Bon Iver, but Bartels is a more accessible singer and songwriter overall and the sheer variety of voices he utilizes in his performances often outstrips Justin Vernon’s offerings in this style. The guitar playing is even more assertive on the EP’s second track “Missoula”. Careful listening to this song reveals it to be a track about inchoate and specific longing – Bartels does an exemplary job of placing that mood in the right musical context. The melodic virtues of this track are the strongest on Myths and Mold, but they aren’t run of the mill melodies with identifiable tropes. Like he’s capable of in other areas, Bartels’ melodic sense challenges the audience’s preconception of what popular music and melody can accomplish together.

The theme of longing continues with the track “Stay”. The same melodic excellence we heard on the preceding song thankfully persists through this tune and the lyric even more directly exposes Bartels’ vulnerability without ever cheapening it. Myths and Mold takes its artiest turn with its title song, but Bartels never belabors his ambitions. He packs an impressive amount of musical world into the title song’s relatively brief amount of space while maintain a light, tasteful touch. Not many performers mixing electronica, guitar, and multi-tracked and layered vocals can claim that. He returns to more familiar territory with the last song, “Counting Hands”. This conclusion probably has a more definite “shape” than any other track on the release, but this veneer of traditional normalcy doesn’t sound out of place. There’s certainly enough of Bartels’ unique musical imagination powering this, albeit more subtly than usual, to make it an effective final curtain. Myths and Mold is a release of such quality that it places Bartels among the first rank of indie songwriters and sonic auteurs working today.

Grade: A-

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Real Hooks - Damn You (2017)

Artwork by Odandiee

Written by Bradley Johnson, posted by blog admin

As far as flawlessly crafted power pop goes, The Real Hooks are the real deal. They bring a masterful command of popular song’s fundamentals, an amusing sense of humor that never comes off as gratuitously sophomoric, and obvious musical talents keeping everything afloat from the first note onward. They’ve built a well-deserved reputation as a winning recording and live unit since their debut a few years ago and have taken all the necessary steps to expand on that initial strong showing. Their family bonds have produced much of the band’s material until recently when they’ve started collaborating with outside songwriters in an attempt to reach an even broader audience than before. It has enriched their songwriting as well – the new single “Damn You” features all of the aforementioned signature elements in the band’s sound, but it goes a step beyond and sports the high end polish that working with decades long veterans of the music world can provide.

The energetic, freewheeling musical character of this song can win over new coverts on its merits alone. It’s tempered in all the right ways however. A band more blindly eager to impress might have played this at an even faster clip, bleeding any hint of nuance out of it, but The Real Hooks achieve a high-stepping swing that makes other elements of the performance all the more contagious. The song’s melodic virtues are ostentatious, but they are quite real. The band’s songwriting has specialized in direct, uncomplicated melodic lines since their debut and this aspect of their presentation hasn’t changed. It’s further enriched by the strength of the singing, substantive harmonies, and a vocal melody that accentuates the humor of the song.

It’s a level of humor that can get over with young and old alike. Despite the expletive in the title, this is never an obscene lyric and, instead, has a lightly sarcastic edge much more intelligent than what we are used to hearing in this genre. The vocal phrasing is confident, loose, and makes great use of the dramatic possibilities in the lyric without ever laying it on too thick. Like a delicate ballad, success and failure with a song like “Damn You” depends much on how much muscle the singing and music exert. If it’s all about the notes you don’t play, The Real Hooks strike an entertaining and compulsively listenable balance on this new single. It goes beyond family though. These are clearly sympathetic musicians with a crystal clear idea of what this band should be doing and how to get there. Such chemistry is rare under any context. “Damn You” ratchets up the stakes with its deft turns of humor and it’s a performance and song capable of being enjoyed by a wide swath of the listening public.

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 ...