Tuesday, November 28, 2017

EZLA - Outcasts (2017)

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Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

Textbook and traditional are not words that will help in the description of the flagship release, Outcasts, by California to Tennessee transplant EZLA. The singer/songwriter/musician is neither wed to simply West Coast influences nor the rural trot of the country and western capital of the world where she now hangs her hat. She’s stumbled upon this musical no man’s land where electronic instrumentation is the featured component, in addition to her earthy rise/fall/stop/start vocal style that makes playful usage of word-crammed verses that amazingly roll off the tongue and glorious pop choruses that go straight for the pay-off.  

There is no filler to be found here and no bad tracks. The only mark against EZLA’s debut is that a few of the tracks come off a bit same-y when tempo is considered. Although this uniform approach to rhythm and backbeats is broken by sudden sea changes and shifts in volume, as well as choruses that musically go against some of the darkness by sounding pretty darn happy and carefree. The title track leads the EP off and is a pitch-perfect example of EZLA’s abstract musical blueprint. Listeners are the on the receiving end of a jagged, angular beat that seems to start-up and shutdown at random until the song goes for the harmonic paydirt as the keyboards become more prominent in their cascade of phased/flanged grooves and a chorus that is practically tailor-made for radio airplay. “Skeletons” works up a similar sweat but might be just a few extra BPM in the verses as the song swirls in fuzzy, distorted discordance that’s akin to the 90s pop/industrial movement’s abrasive catchiness. You’ll never mistake EZLA for Nine Inch Nails even if the general aesthetics (edgy singing, twisted lyrics and a sonic arrangement meant to be played LOUD) is a kindred spirit to Reznor and company.  

The romantic “Satellites” is less aggressive and pointed than its predecessors, trading the harsher, noisier textures and jarring pace changes for echoing, reverbed ambience, soft yet expressive vocals drenched in vibrato while deliberate beat placements (that are less cut up and mashed) yield a more tangible song structure.  This welcome restraint is shattered by “Hangman’s” innovative vocal mapping, meticulous synth stacking, alien and mentally affecting trip-hop choruses and EZLA’s organically warped lyrics.  The cinematic musical backdrops reckon of experimental artists from past and present.  One can hear bits and pieces of VAST, Placebo, Joydrop, Plumb, Portishead and Massive Attack while listening to this track or any of the EP’s 5 well-rounded tunes, for that matter.  Cryptic and bent by black humor, “Psycho Killers” is the darkwave pop song equivalent of 80s slasher flicks with lyrics and musical undertones that only further this emphasis.  

You can allude to points of reference all night long when describing EZLA’s debut Outcasts but the fact remains that this is a wholly interesting piece of work that only sounds like EZLA.  The brutally honest underpinnings of the lyrics and shapeshifting sonic deconstruction won’t be for everyone but those that can handle the turbulence will find plenty to enjoy here.  Some stronger variations in tempo will be welcome on her next release, although the slight sameness of the beat programming ensures that open listeners will latch on and gleefully stick around on EZLA’s wicked ride.          

Friday, November 10, 2017

Nick Black - Summer + Spring (2017)

Written by William Elgin, posted by blog admin

Twenty eight year old vocalist and guitarist extraordinaire Nick Black scores big with the release of Summer + Spring, a thirteen song opus with no filler and consolidating his position as one of the foremost practitioners of soul, R&B, and blues working in the music world today. It’s a winning follow up to his 2015 release Deep Blue and finds Black working alongside seasoned music professionals like producer James Bennett and Grammy award winning engineer Brad Blackwood. It’s been spearheaded by two compelling singles from the release, the title track and “Joy to the Girl”, and those songs are emblematic of the overall excellence defining this release. Summer + Spring is a deliriously entertaining collection, but this third release from Black clearly illustrates why he’s regarded as one of the most formidable talents coming up in the pop-influenced soul scene.

“Joy to the Girl” is percolating from the first and never relents. This funk fueled romp has busy percussion and bass, a vibrant horn section, and colorful keyboard work, but never exceeds the boundaries of good taste while remaining entertaining throughout. Black’s vocals are the icing on the cake as he delivers a bright vocal smoothed out to a fine polish, yet one suggestive enough to serve a song like this extraordinarily well. The title song is much more grounded in traditional R&B, albeit the uptempo variety and the continued presence of horns in the mix add much. The true crowning moment for this song, however, comes with the introduction of Black’s guitar work. His fiery lead playing doesn’t really assert its presence until near the song’s end, but it makes an enormous impact. The enormous rave up kicking off “Nick at Night” kicks off what practically constitutes a jump blues built around his surname. The humor is real, but never overstated and Black’s vocal oozes the necessary charisma to pull this off.

“Runaway Heart” is part blues lament and part soulful barnburner in the tradition of songs like James Brown’s “Please Please Me” and one can only imagine that this track will become a marquee number in his live set. “Neighbor” is one of the more nuanced pieces of songwriting on Summer + Spring and brings acoustic instruments into the mix with his customary use of horns, but the most substantial achievement of this release comes from another superb Black vocal that demonstrates all the sure-handed phrasing and appealing sonics of the previous numbers. We’re back in funky territory with the keyboard driven “Lay It on the Line” and the choruses are especially effective, but it’s an appealing tune overall. The bass playing is eye-popping and elastic in a way that will demand your immediate respect. The album’s finale “The River” is one of the most introspective moments on the release and has a stripped down sound compared to earlier tunes. The spartan approach is quite rewarding as it forces listeners, more than ever before, to focus on Black’s voice and this is easily one of his best performances on Summer + Spring. His third album is easily the best so far and Nick Black’s talent shows no signs of hitting some impending wall.

Black Note Graffiti - Volume 2: Without Nothing I'm You (2017)

Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

The second album from Ann Arbor, Michigan based four (recently expanding to five) piece Black Note Graffiti, Volume 2: Without Nothing I’m You reaffirms the strengths of their 2013 debut while showing the advancement, primarily as songwriter, that’s occurred since the band first emerged. Their sound is best described as a mix of subterranean hard rock/metal riffing coupled with unexpected melodicism and alternative rock theatrics. Volume 2 is guided, in a significant way, but the vocal prowess of guitarist and singer Ricardo Ortiz. He’s equally convincing on the more straight ahead rock numbers and more elaborate, atmospheric tracks and brings dramatic weight to the band’s fine lyrics that further elevate them. They are winning an audience despite the diminished commercial stature currently enjoyed by guitar driven music thanks to the overwhelming, careening passion in their performances and the immense likeability of their vocals and overall sound.

It’s a sound with many faces. On the first song, “No Love Lost”, Black Note Graffiti comes swinging out of their corner and connects with listeners in a number of ways. Their talent for constructing memorable choruses is only equaled by their talents for building a song towards those climatic moments, but the body of this song is muscular and clich├ęd tight as a white-knuckled fist. Ortiz delivers his first show-stopping vocal with the track “Such is Art”. It’s the audience’s first beginning to end evidence, as well, of the quantum leaps the band’s songwriting has taken over the last four years. Much of this, naturally, can be lain at the feet of their growth as individuals, but there’s little question that the band’s live experiences garnered since the 2013 debut have made them a tighter musical unit with more songwriting focus than ever before. “Castles” effectively mixes metal and alternative rock tropes in another textbook example of how to use dynamics in this style and a punchy chorus that stands out on an album full of them. “False Start” lives up to its title in some mildly unfortunate ways – the song never seems to really get going and its slightly disjointed musical attack shifts gears too often to establish itself. It benefits, however, from a quality lyric and vocal courtesy of Ortiz.

“Shadows” begins rather artfully with a different approach to percussion than we’ve heard before on Volume 2 and some appropriately considered, even eloquent guitar melodies being sketched out deeper in the mix. The band soon shifts into a more customary mode of attack and the stomping design of the arrangement manages to remain light-footed and airy despite its aggressive pulse. “Natural” is one of the most convincing hard rock/metal moments on Volume 2 and they even find a hard-hitting swing for this song missing from earlier and later efforts alike. It’s a strictly alternative rock vibe, however, they muster for the urgent and brawling finale “Send Off”. If Black Note Graffiti wanted to end Volume 2 on a rousing, fire-breathing note then they have succeeded in a big way. It puts an exclamation point on this eleven song collection in bold ink and solidifies, along with their recent recruiting of second singer Gabrielle Bryant, this outfit’s intent to be around for many years to come.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Tow'rs - Grey Fidelity (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

Flagstaff, Arizona’s Tow’rs has a relatively slim discography thus far, but already boasts an outsized reputation on the indie scene thanks to chief songwriter Kyle Miller’s uniquely personal mix of spiritual concerns, reflection, and essentially romantic nature. Despite the presence of electronic instrumentation in the music, there’s something truly pastoral about the sonic feel of the collection. There are certainly strands of melancholy running through the album’s nine songs, but it’s always handled with a supremely artful hand. Their latest album Grey Fidelity keeps its eyes turned skyward, but there’s an inescapable sense of the cost experience incurs on our lives and it makes for a richer musical experience.

“Girl in Calico” is a marvelously evocative opening. The carefully modulated swell of synthesizer rising from the background is accompanied by delicate guitar melodies bubbling to the surface of the mix. The dream-like atmosphere of the song extends to its lyrical content – Kyle Miller proves adept at mixing just the right amount of specific imagery with more general sentiments. “Revere” finds him joined on vocals by discreet harmonies by his wife Gretta Miller and their singing partnership is punctuated by exquisite acoustic guitar and gently weaving violin lines. This song has a comparatively brighter hue than many of the songs on Grey Fidelity and placing it early in the album is an intelligent move. The post-modern folk of “Gold Parade” find the vocal roles reversed with Gretta Miller leading the way and Kyle providing low-key support. The song has certain gossamer like qualities at first, never quite settling into a form, but eventually settles into a quasi near-shuffle with light percussion.

The elegiac swing of “When I’m Silent” provides the perfect hook for one of the best songs on Grey Fidelity. There’s a light, ambling country music influence coming through on this number, as well, but it’s very understated and not a constant presence. The keyboard work on this track is particularly notable for the color it provides. “Consolations” has a slinky groove with guitars working in the background that snap with convincing reverb driven bite. Kyle Miller’s voice finds the right mood and timing for the groove from the outset. The chorus is, undoubtedly, one of the biggest payoffs on the album as a whole. Grey Fidelity concludes with the song “Revelator Man”. The obvious blues connections bring a level of meaning to the lyric, but the imagery is definitely all Kyle Miller with its surprising turns of imagery and the breathtaking specificity he’s capable of conjuring. Tow’rs will expand their profile a great deal based on the quality of this release and their music is clearly evolving as the band’s powers, across the board, continue to grow.

Monday, November 6, 2017

YYY - A Tribute to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (2017)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

This is an exhilarating release. Austin Carson, adopting the name YYY for his musical projects, is a Minneapolis based musician who can’t be accused of playing it safe. His tribute to the seminal Beach Boys masterpiece Pet Sounds, unsurprisingly titled A Tribute to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, doesn’t aspire to merely recreating the album. Thankfully. Instead, YYY has recruited the cream of the local musical crop to help him flesh out nothing less than a full on re-invention of this pop classic that endeavors to underline all of the aspects that make it such a canonical work while still putting his personal stamp on the collection with imagination and verve. It results in one of the year’s most impressive releases, original material or not. His interpretative powers are so developed that it isn’t a stretch to say this album, in its own way, is every bit as original as a release filled with his own compositions. He has claimed Brian Wilson’s tunes as his own and the addendums and revisions he subjects them to means this isn’t your father’s copy of Pet Sounds – for sure.

The opening track “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” makes that last point clear. We are in familiar territory, to a certain extent – this wouldn’t be anything resembling a proper tribute to the album if it somehow forgot that vocal excellence is the lodestar of all things in Beach Boys music and the earnest, deeply felt qualities behind each of the album’s vocals more than respects the source material. He never neglects the melodic strengths behind these songs either, but he places them in a new context. The largely electronic arrangement has all the warmth that the song requires and more than adequately summons the needed atmospherics. When you go through this album, there is a small sense of YYY expending most of his creative energy on the album’s foundational songs – the aforementioned opener, “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows”, and the closer “Good Vibrations”./ This is to be expected for a number of reasons, but it’s also a smart move – these are the pivot points upon which both the hardcore devotee and casual fan alike base their bulk of their knowledge regarding this album and he’d be a fool to not play those moments up.

Make no mistake, however, that his attentions do not extend to the comparatively little known secondary songs on Pet Sounds. He particularly excels bringing female voices into Wilson’s traditionally male dominated performances and Lydia Liza’s contributions to “Hang Onto Your Ego” and Devata Daun’s singing on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” give these tracks a distinct character the originals do not have. Bringing in such a wide cast of guest stars from the Minneapolis scene to help him realize this tribute album could have made it a diffuse affair with a slightly schizophrenic character, but YYY shows the good instincts to utilize those performers in ways that accentuate their strengths and those of the respective song. It makes this tribute to Pet Sounds one of the most unique listening experiences in my recent memory and marks its creative mastermind, Austin Carson, as a talent to watch for years to come.

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 ...