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. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Shofar - s/t (2017)

Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Minneapolis’ Shofar has returned to action with a six track self titled EP that finds the Larry Hagner led outfit revisiting the glories of their initial run with a new found perspective that represents a real advancement from their older releases. The songwriting definitely stands apart, particularly lyrically, from standard rock fare, but it’s distinguished with a number of light touches emphasizing its melodic aspects and the recording belies their indie status with its polished, even sophisticated sound. This is a collection rife with accessibility and authenticity alike while they punctuate every track with an intelligence and idiosyncratic flourish that’s all their own. Shofar’s return to active ranks definitely fares a lot better than other such “comebacks” from acts big or small and, even if the musical landscape has changed a great deal, they sound poised to build on their long-standing reputation.

“Running” sets an early desperate tone. Even the more muted verses, with sketched out electric guitar weaving tense melodic lines around Larry Hagner’s voice and lyrics, crackle with unsettled energy. It occasionally erupts into some ferocious riffing quite unlike anything else on the release. “Powerman”, however, is a complete shift into acoustic influenced pop rock harkening more to the classic British rock side of the spectrum with a little California sunshina-via snowy Minneapolis tossed in for good measure. The addition of backing vocalists makes it an all the more enjoyable musical ride and the six string jangle coming through on the tune is a little reminiscent of The Byrds as well. Hagner’s lyrical acumen remains at a high level for the song “Shades of Grey” and the musical mood finds him asserting a little more rock edge without ever exploring any of the harsh power we heard from the EP’s first cut. “Hands Down”, however, should be offered up as Exhibit A that, given the right inspiration, Larry Hagner has conclusively mastered the art of writing a top shelf rock gem. The chorus of this tune makes it priceless and it’s invigorating to hear the band seamlessly shift into a higher gear.

“Countdown” and the EP closer “The Coming” are more overtly introspective and thoughtful material than much of what we hear from this Shofar release/ The first of those two songs is particularly fascinating as it’s essentially a depiction of the world ending and rife with details that show Hagner’s eye for specificity is quite powerful. “The Coming” is a little more poetic minded, but it’s an ideal marriage of music and lyric with, arguably, Hagner’s best vocal performance on the EP. Shofar’s first run didn’t last nearly long enough and we can only assume, based on the strength of this release, that this time they’ve returned with the aim of fulfilling that early promise.

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 ...