Monday, August 14, 2017

Rhett Repko - About Last Night (2017)




Written by Aaron Ellis, posted by blog admin

Rhett Repko isn’t reinventing the wheel with his sound.  Instead he’s putting a little oil and grease on a style that hasn’t received any polish in far too long.  On this EP debut, Rhett takes a few greasy bits of rock n’ roll, removes the fat with some pop and explores the fringes of several other genres.  There is no unifying theme which offers variety instead of one note wonder tracks that lack substance.  Each song on this About Last Night affair stands by itself. 

Nimble acoustic guitar patterns, rock-solid traditional time-keeping and surges of riff smashing groove cement “Were You Ever Really Mine?” as a sturdy piece of work right from the first 6 string lick.  A folk/pop breeziness gusts through the verses as the choruses line up some hard-hitting rock intoxication that’s suited to a bar atmosphere; it’s a dichotomy that’s hard to maneuver around properly, but Repko is up to the task.  Also up for the task are his vocal chords, stretching to higher melodies when the music opens wide and going lower during the straight rock bits.  “She Loves Me” mines a similar ethic, only replacing the standard pop hooks for a gruffer, gravellier country romp.  The acoustic melodies have an old school, wagon train feel as they run roughshod into lead guitarist Stefan Heuer’s licks and riffs.  Without a doubt, “She Loves Me” is the most memorable cut on an EP packed with great tunes. 

The cinematic musicianship and searing vocal drama of “About Last Night” makes for a prime ballad, as it allows acoustic guitars to quietly escalate to an acrobatic chorus that shines thanks to Repko’s pristine voice in addition to the back-up singers, orchestrated instrumentation and meshing of several different harmonies together.  “Inside of Me” is a light hearted garage rocker that trades the dirty fuzz that the style is known for with a greater emphasis on radio-friendly songwriting.  “On the Run” is a further exploration of light-hearted acoustics trading shots with whiskey drinking guitar rock, paving the path for “Bye Bye Baby’s” plaintive acoustic/vocal only combo.  It would have been neat to hear a rocker cap things off but the rest of the record has enough ammunition to satisfy that itch.  Overall, if you like your rock sprinkled with pop and other influences, Rhett Repko’s debut EP is a nice listen that covers a wide spectrum of genres and influences. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Circus of the West - We'll See Ourselves Out (2017)




Written by Montey Zike, posted by blog admin

 This is a band interested in much more than churning out good time four minute rock songs. Circus of the West is cut from the same cloth driving many serious singer/songwriters but places their ambitions much of the time in a decidedly vivid rock context rather than keeping the audience at meaningful distance from what they do. There are many literary and even poetic flourishes filling their songwriting, but these aren’t highbrow songs in any respect – instead, both in words and music, Circus of the West perform tracks that reach out to people with straight forward but intelligently put statements that inhabit our everyday world rather than flying over our collective heads and remaining too personal of a project. This is, in key aspects, the final perquisite to full songwriting maturity – a willingness and talent for writing much more than self-referential terms and looking outside one’s self for inspiration – and it’s a quality sweeping across the entirety of We’ll See Ourselves Out.

“Birdhand” begins with a organ flourish before launching like a rocket with some turbo-fueled guitar pyrotechnics. This is the ideal opener for Circus of the West’s debut because it brings together so many of their strengths. It has attitude to burn without ever being vacant of coherence and sense, an attentive and committed vocal performance from Edwin Caldie, and a plethora of combustible moments between the string players, particularly lead guitarist Ben Court and rhythm guitarist and one of the band’s primary songwriters Joel Leviton. “Some Connections”, the second song on We’ll See Ourselves Out, has a much less cluttered attack and the dynamics vary much more. The band couldn’t have chosen a better one-two punch to start things off because it gives the audience a revealing glimpse of how well this unit can pivot between radically different approaches. “Boxes” one of the best tracks on the album, begins as a relatively straight forward acoustic track but reveals an appreciation for dynamics as it develops not shared by any other track up to this performance. The band constructs strong, sturdy choruses and “Boxes” features some of their best work in that regard thanks to how well the backing vocals build on the song’s inherent tension.

“Valentine Eye” opens with some lightly applied guitar feedback before segueing into a subdued melody. Caldie’s half-hushed voice and the slightly fragmented vocal melody bring a lot of added atmospherics to bear that will draw in any listener. There’s a little darkness creeping in along the edges of this song that the band artfully enhances as the song progresses. No moment ever comes when the song explodes into life and it is a better tune for the lack. “Looking In” is the first all-out rocker since the opening track and proves their ability to command attention in this style isn’t a fluke. They are obviously just as comfortable with slowly developing numbers like “Valentine Eye” as they are with pieces like this and such range speaks well of their overall promise. We’ll See Ourselves Out ends with the brief acoustic track “Epilogue” and it makes for a wonderfully fitting conclusion to an album that will linger in your memory.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Jackson Howard - Just for the Mystery (2017)




Written by Shannon Cowden, posted by blog admin

St, Louis born Jackson Howard earned himself a seat at the table of modern musical talents with his debut release and his follow up, a thirteen song collection entitled Just for the Mystery, will likely propel him to the forefront of indie artists working today. The bulk of the album’s thirteen songs are original compositions with both the music and words being Howard’s responsibility alone and his talent for crafting memorably intelligent material is one of the central factors distinguishing his work apart from the recorded output of other similar artists. He’s performed hundreds upon hundreds of times since his recording debut and considerable live experience he’s earned has given him an deeper level of commitment as a performer. It gives the original tracks and otherwise on Just for the Mystery an unusual level of maturity and emotional complexity for such a young performer and consolidates Howard’s position as one of the most talented newcomers on the indie singer/songwriter scene today.

He starts off things in a mildly ambitious way by kicking the album off with its title track. This is a number designed to lift listener’s spirits and does so without ever laying anything on too thick. Instead, it’s a supremely well constructed AOR rock track with just enough of a balance between the commercial and the personal to really make it fly. There’s some inventive, yet understated, guitar work coupled with measured drumming and tasty piano fills fueling “A Place in the World”. It’s one of Howard’s most assured vocals on the album and his genuine emotive grace comes through vividly. “Run With Me” doesn’t have the same quite bright hue coloring the previous track, but the meditative beauty of the song redeems any loss of light. First class guitar work, both electric and acoustic, is one of Just for the Mystery’s defining characteristics, but he doesn’t rely on that instrument alone. There’s an outstanding variety of keyboard colors, tempo shifts, and textural variations that make this far more than just some sensitive slice of AOR singer/songwriter craftsmanship.

One of the album’s two covers, “The Battle of Evermore” comes from Led Zeppelin IV and might strike some as an unlikely candidate for a Zeppelin cover. The classical folk and fantasy leanings of the track are revised into something much bluesier with this performance and guest vocalist Rachel Horter does a spectacular job with Sandy Dennis’ original vocal part. It isn’t meant as a slight to Howard’s songwriting talents, substantial as they are, but this rates as one of the album’s finest moments. There are a lot of light, barely perceptible touches that go into making “Driftwood” one of the album’s best songs, but its patient transition from essentially a solo piece into a lightly swinging acoustic number by song’s end makes this a memorable moment on the release. “if I Fall” is much closer to a purely solo performance. Howard’s voice possesses all the needed sensitivity to match up well with a lyrical piano track and the song practically aches with emotion. Jackson Howard proves on Just for the Mystery that he’s more than up to task of making himself vulnerable for his audience and hits a home run that will define his career in some respects from this point forward.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Julia McDonald - Gravity (2016)




Written by Lance Wright, posted by blog admin

The six song EP Gravity is a monumental debut for nineteen year old Florida native Julia McDonald and gets opens up a new avenue of her musical journey loaded with promise. Many times we hail newcomers for the remarkable maturity displayed in their art, but it seems almost feeble to suggest with McDonald. She clearly has much to offer the pop world, but there isn’t a single cut on Gravity that smacks of pandering to takes short cuts to garner the listener’s attention. The songs on Gravity explore experiences and interpersonal relationships with rare insight, a flash of the poetic, and undeniable vulnerability. Her ability to bring these lyrics to life with incredibly dramatic phrasing is another facet of her presentation that helps put everything over the top. There isn’t a hint of filler on Gravity and the confidence she displays on each of its songs is nothing less than inspiring.

The title song begins things quite auspiciously. “Gravity” has a relaxed tempo and relies on acoustic guitar more than any other single instrument. There are light keyboard touches scattered through the song and the drumming gives this opening performance quite a solid foundation. Exactly like the EP’s other songs, the title number has great focus and shows McDonald’s penchant for avoiding any self indulgence. Acoustic guitar threads its way through the second song “Games” and the keyboard presence, while tasteful, is much stronger here, but it’s a far busier affair than the opener. McDonald handles the challenging vocal melody with great skill and conveys each line with the attentiveness it deserves. Keyboards and a compelling percussion track give “Pretty Committee” a very different feel than we’ve encountered so far on Gravity, but this illustration of McDonald’s diversity is quite credible and rates among the best songs on the release. “No Good for Me” has some of the best lyrics featured on the EP and is a relatively rueful look at a doomed connection. The first person point of view makes it a rather intimate experience and its unflinching appraisal of the narrator’s behavior sets it far apart from the usual pop song.

There’s a surprising amount of attitude coming from the EP’s penultimate song “Something to Talk About”, but it shares some similarities with the previous tune in the way it embraces a singer/songwriter aesthetic while still operating along clearly commercial lines. Much of its ultimately satisfying impact comes from McDonald’s vocal. Her phrasing really makes the most out of the lyric and imparts just enough velocity to key lines that it gives the performance a lot of its occasionally biting flavor. The musical intensity is further ramped up with the EP’s concluding number “Simpler Things”. McDonald has the sort of command over orchestrating dramatic tracks that many listeners might associate with rock bands and the heavy-hitting focus of a song like this, despite its moody air, makes for an excellent ending to Julia McDonald’s debut release. There’s a second EP soon to follow and, based on this effort alone, one can only assume that her ascent will continue unabated.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Suburbs - Hey Muse! (2017)



Written by Shannon Cowden, posted by blog admin

The latest album from Minneapolis New Wave/punk legends The Suburbs marks a new high point in the band’s output finding them recalling the same spirit infusing their youthful recordings rounded off with increased songwriting powers and instrumental prowess. Original members drummer Hugo Klaers and vocalist/keyboardist Chan Poling remain forces to be reckoned with – Klaers has lost none of the spring from his percussive step while Poling’s matured vocal chords enable him to completely inhabit a number of lyrical and musical perspective that might have otherwise proven an ill fit years before. The original members continue working with longtime member saxophonist Max Ray and benefit from the addition of top flight players from the indie scene to complete the current configuration. Their ten song collection Hey Muse! has a generous sampling of the gifts that brought The Suburbs to their initial notoriety while they also show the substantial advances the core members have made as musicians and songwriters over the last thirty nine years since the band first formed.

The opener and title song “Hey Muse” gets things off to a memorable start with some of the album’s best songwriting. Guitar is the predominant instrument here and develops the song in a dramatic way without ever being too heavy handed about it. Poling’s vocal is particularly affecting, but he has the experience to tailor his voice to the arrangement and works with some of the album’s best lyrical material. The second track “Lost You on the Dance Floor” is another one of the album’s highlights. It has a hard hitting and steady, unvarying beat from the outset and it gives the song a firm foundation for everything lain over top. It has a slightly raucous edge, but it’s unquestionably much more commercially minded than many of the songs on Hey Muse! “Je Suis Strange” has a mid tempo strut punctuated with slashing guitar fills and a powerful brass contribution giving the song a little extra bite and color. Despite its relatively restrained tempo, there’s exuberance to this song that immediately engages listeners.

“Lovers” starts off with a grinding stop start tempo and gradually picks up more steam along the way. The unusual percussion gives the song a lot of its flavor, but The Suburbs are willing to get a little more daring with surging horns accompanying the drums.  “Our Love” has some of the same attributes. The unconventional presentation of tempo and rhythm strips much of the melody from this song, but there are meaningful flashes of the band’s talents in that area and its such an intensely colorful and physical piece that you’ll likely forgive them any indulgence. Poling’s vocal has a nicely evocative and theatrical quality here. Poling’s keyboard playing opens the closer “When We Were Young” and a churning arrangement greets listeners when the song begins in earnest. The song receives a somewhat extended introduction before the first vocals come into frame and the arrangement restrains itself accordingly. It’s another engaging musical effort ending Hey Muse! with a resounding exclamation point.

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)

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