Monday, June 18, 2018

Joshua Ketchmark - Under Plastic Stars (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

“We Were Everything” begins Joshua Ketchmark’s Under Plastic Stars on a decidedly elegiac note, but this isn’t a dreary collection of songs. Ketchmark’s first full fledged solo effort, self-produced and written by Ketchmark, finds this longtime musical cohort of some of the music world’s biggest acts stepping out on his own with considerable talent and finesse. The primarily acoustic slant to this album is adorned with other touches like keyboards and even some occasional swaths of steel guitar, but you can’t comfortably consign it to a particular genre. “We Were Everything” has strong melodic virtues that continues with the second song “Every Mystery”, but the arrangement is a little more inventive and less straightforward than we hear from the first song. It doesn’t veer too far, however, from the tendencies established with “We Were Everything”.

The steel guitar present in “Let It Rain” is so thoroughly integrated with the rest of the arrangement that it never calls ostentatious attention to itself and, instead, proves to be just another color in Ketchmark’s toolbox. It’s easy to single this tune out as one of the undisputed high points on Under Plastic Stars and the emphatic nature of Ketchmark’s singing signals he views the song in a similar manner. “Lucky at Leavin’” sounds like it might be some classic country cut, based on title alone, but it’s actually a lush and carefully wrought acoustic number, folk for the most part, that benefits from a swell of keyboard color strengthening its sound. Ketchmark’s singing hits another high water mark with this tune that will, undoubtedly, linger in listener’s memories long after the song ends. “Hereafter” is particularly effective thanks to Brad Rice’s sinewy electric guitar lines crackling throughout the performance and another impassioned vocal never risking overwrought theatrics.

“Get Out Alive” has a little more of a rough hewn gait than the earlier tunes and owes its roots to the blues much more than anything else so far. It’s an evocative piece lyrically and Ketchmark brings just enough gravel into his voice to make this character dissection all the more convincing. He hits another high point with the commercial potential of “Saturday Night”, but Ketchmark isn’t a performer pursuing the path of least resistance. Instead, he throws himself into this tune for all he’s worth and it reaches heights the earlier songs never explore. “In Harm’s Way” is a largely solo acoustic tune incorporating more sounds in the second half and has a pleasing melodic core that will draw many listeners into its web.

“Sweet Surrender” takes some of the same template we hear with the song “Saturday Night” but, instead of relying on guitars, brings piano in to great effect and Ketchmark’s voice responds in kind with a showstopper of a vocal. The near orchestral sweep of this song stands out from the rest and makes it one of Under Plastic Stars’ more memorable moments. The last track “The Great Unknown” adopts a busier tempo than we’ve heard with much of the album and, thus, brings the release to an energetic close. Joshua Ketchmark’s Under Plastic Stars is an obviously personal work, but the entry points for listeners are numerous and inviting.  

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Black Bluebirds - Like Blood for Music (2017)

Written by Wendy Owens, posted by blog admin

This is an album that, despite its often distorted texture and unusual vocals, has an infectious quality. Like Blood for Music from the Minneapolis power trio Black Bluebirds is a condensed, yet often epic and expansive, ten song collection packing punch on even the softest numbers. Daniel Fiskum’s vocals dominant the recording, but he’s often accompanied by second vocalist Jessica Rasche to spectacular effect. There’s some uptempo tracks on Like Blood for Music, but many of the songs on the album invoke a deliberate and cinematic air that never strains to make an impact on listeners. Guitarist Simon Husbands and drummer Chad Helmonds form the other two corners of this power trio, but you can’t readily label the band as some derivative outfit hanging onto clich├ęs often going along with that configuration. Instead, Black Bluebirds makes its own path while still relying on great fundamentals.

“Love Kills Slowly” relies a lot on Simon Husbands’ memorable lead guitar to make its most colorful marks and the combination of Fiskum and Rasche’s singing reach a peak of sorts with the very first number. Her voice isn’t used in quite the same way on the album’s second number “Strange Attractor”, but she has an effective presence nonetheless. The comparatively less cluttered arrangement has a sinewy power we don’t hearing in the first song, but nonetheless leaves it mark on listeners. “Life in White” shouldn’t pass people by as its one of the album’s more potentially underrated numbers, but Like Blood for Music takes a successful turn invoking acoustic sounds on an album where we wouldn’t necessarily expect that at this point.

“Battlehammer” is another of Like Blood for Music’s rockier numbers and unreels in such pyrotechnic fashion primarily thanks to Simon Husbands’ guitar pyrotechnics. He’s never a flashy player, however, and each of those moments across the span of Like Blood for Music makes great sense. One of the album’s undisputed high points comes with the song :”House of No More Dreams”. Despite the possibly overwrought implications behind the title, the song never descends into bathos and instead Fiskum’s lyrics give us a glimpse of some underrated poetic chops. The vocal for “Hole in the Day” gives a new spin to the album’s sound so far without ever venturing too far afield of Black Bluebirds’ musical DNA. “Don’t Fall In Love” continues striking the same fatalistic note that’s characterized much of the release from the start and definitely has added emotional firepower thanks to the contributions of second singer Jessica Rasche. The album’s genuine climax comes with the track “My Eyes Were Closed”, but it’s never self conscious and, instead, realizes the band’s cinematic ambitions in a way that solidifies their claim to present excellence while pointing a way towards the future. Black Bluebirds’ Like Blood for Music is definitely entertaining from the first, but gains even more from the added touch of personal statement fueling each of its ten songs.    

Joshua Ketchmark - Under Plastic Stars (2017)

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