Friday, April 21, 2017

Gwyneth Moreland - Cider


Gwyneth Moreland - Cider


The fact that an album like this can exist in 2017 is testament to the abiding values of the popular music art form. Gwyneth Moreland’s Cider features ten tracks with a decidedly folk influence, along with other styles coloring the writing and performances, but it touches on the eternal verities of human experience in a timeless and highly personal way. The sunlight and shade of Moreland’s California upbringing vary throughout the songs and reflect the personal touch that makes this album stand out more than many other releases in recent memory. Moreland has the skill level of someone who has been doing this for many years and has a well honed musical vision. It’s truly bracing to imagine how much further she may go from this point on. Cider is an unusually powerful release from a musical scene that’s far from moribund.  

It would be easy for us to assume that spartan music like this doesn’t challenge listeners. The style seems so archaic in our technologically advanced time, but few musical presentations still communicate as effectively as a first class singer working in an acoustic setting that emphasizes taste – never overplaying and just serving the melodic purposes of the composition. “Movin’ On” is the first example of this on Cider. She takes on one of the most familiar tempos in country and folk music, even rock, the shuffle and makes it work for her with a surprising freshness. “Broken Road” shows a bluesy tinge, but it likely owes much more to the classic country tradition despite the continued low-fi approach. The mood is decidedly less jovial and carefree, but the same attention to detail makes both songs stand out. There’s a steadiness to the guitar playing on “Farmhouse” that has a slightly jovial air as well. There’s much of a reliance on worked out melody lines, but the chunky guitar chords set their own sort of atmosphere. “Eloise” reverts to a much more melodic approach but there’s a consistency of structure defining the entire collection that gives even these more delicately wrought tunes a definite shape. “The California Zephyr” has some classic bluegrass feel making its mark on certain passages thanks to the inclusion of banjo, but it is never a dominant musical factor of the song. Moreland’s ability throughout the album to incorporate a variety of sounds without steering the songwriting in specific directions sets her apart from many contemporaries. 

“Your Smile” is another sterling example, likewise, of her ability to write emotionally engaging material that strikes both a personal and universal note. It has a clearer structure than many songs on Cider, but that stronger skeleton never hampers its ability to connect. “Danny Parker” rates as one of the album’s strongest pieces and makes for a great pairing with the title song. “Cider” is the album’s penultimate cut but could have easily served as the finale. There’s a salutatory air to this number that helps make it one of the most beautiful moments on an album that’s sure to enchant many. Gwyneth Moreland is a must hear for any fans of quality songwriting and musicianship. 

9 out of 10 stars 


Scott Wigley

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rhett May - Creatures of the Night


Rhett May - Creatures of the Night 


Creatures of the Night is a thirteen song release from Australian based singer/songwriter Rhett May. May’s long tenure in popular music has seen him experience considerable commercial success in multiple decades and his time away from the music world saw no dimming of his considerable talents. May’s career began in the mid 1960’s when he formed his first band, The Wooly Bullys, at the age of fifteen and this formative unit morphed into The Flint Stones. May and his band experienced considerable success in his native India and that notoriety spilled over to live appearances throughout the Far East and the United Kingdom as well. May left India in 1969 and moved to Australia where he formed another band, Lucifer, who logged considerable stage time opening for bands and performers touring down under – Ray Charles and Queen, among others. The popularity of disco sabotaged any further efforts to elevate their profile and May, along with many other musicians, soon found himself on the outside looking in when it came to his musical career. It wasn’t until over thirty years later that May returned with a 2013 EP release and his latest effort, Creatures of the Night, underscores how successful his return to the musical world has been. 

Much of Creatures of the Night leans in the rock direction, but never falls for the standard tropes and poses that we so often rightly associate with the form. Rhett May has an energetic way of attacking those sort of songs thanks to his inspired approach to song construction and has such command over the genre’s fundamentals that it’s impossible to not find yourself drawn in. “Back Seat of My Chevy” doesn’t have such a heavy hand and whips up an assortment of recognizable imagery while still striking an individual note. The acoustic guitar opening the song soon gives way to its electric counterpart, but it never goes away and provides a firm foundation for the rhythm track. The title song has a theatrical air that May presents in just the right way and his vocals help contribute much to the performance. “Latex Lady” is the album’s first single and it has a forceful musical attack without ever overpowering the listener. May really succeeds here and elsewhere at creating characters rather than just simply concerning himself with his point of view. The drumming has a crisp snap that sets a tone from the first. 

There’s a number of strong tracks during the album’s second half, but the marquee moments come with the extended piece “Elixir of the Gods”, “Symphony of Sorrow”, and “When We Make Love”. Each of these songs are radically different from one another. “Elixir of the Gods” revisits the sounds of May’s Calcutta childhood in a very credible way and its exotic tastefulness is a standout moment on the album. “Symphony of Sorrow” changes gears quite a bit and ditches the six string workout heard on other tracks and pursues a hard-hitting rhythm section approach. “When We Make Love” concludes the album with a turn to blues and jazz that many listeners will find great fun. Rhett May’s return to music has paid handsome artistic dividends and Creatures of the Night is his greatest release yet. 


9 out of 10 stars 

Scott Wigley

Friday, April 14, 2017

Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally Band - Baby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home


Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally Band - Baby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home 


Nell Robinson and The Jim Nunally Band have followed up a number of high profile live performances with their first full length studio album Baby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home. It is a twelve song collection full of a wide array of musical poses Robinson, Nunally, and their top flight collaborators flawlessly pull off. These Bay Area residents share the spotlight with an assortment of top notch San Francisco talent with long pedigrees like bassist Jim Kerwin, pedal steel master Pete Grant, and percussionist Jon Arkin who’ve played with iconic artists like The Grateful Dead, David Grisman, and Lee Konitz. The performances on this release are sympathetic, lack even a hint of self-indulgence, and roll past the listener with a calm self assurance that draws listeners in from the first.  The dozen songs on this release make the case that this creative partnership might be the best going in this style today. 

It crackles and sparkles with life throughout all twelve songs. The title track eases listeners into their musical world with its alternating between guitar and pedal steel courtesy of respected guitarist Pete Grant. This is, obviously, a band that has a natural interplay that never needs to be forced. This fact leaps out at listeners with even greater clarity on the album’s second track “I Hear a Southwind”. It’s one of Robinson’s best lyrics on the album, a fine poetic invocation of self-reflection that she renders with some of the finest vocal phrasing on this release. “Tempest” is one of the album’s weightier numbers, but musically and lyrically, but Robinson and the band more than answer the challenge with a lightly atmospheric and less-simple-than-it-sounds backing. It takes many years for most musicians to develop the skills of rapport that are demanded to pull this sort of music off and “Tempest” stands as one of the album’s finest examples of the rapport existing between the players and vocalist alike. 

Some interesting percussion opens “Pardon Me” before the song begins in earnest. This is classic country with an effervescent sleekness that never sounds hollow or unduly calculated. Acoustic guitar dominates many of the instrumental breaks while the pedal steel provides valuable counterpoint for the verses and chorus. After “Pardon Me”, the deluge. “I’m Brilliant” is far and away the unhappiest moment on the album and has an unified mood quite unlike any other song on the album. This depiction of someone struggling to cope with an alcoholic in their lives doesn’t concede much in the way of hope, but its humanity is unquestionable. “Shackled and Chained” has some a little bit of slide guitar and a leaden pace that places it firmly in a blues mode. Nunally and Robinson share lead vocals on this song and their voices are, respectively, laden with enough dirt and hard-won wisdom that it all comes off quite credibly. These songs will please longtime fans to have them all on one release and newcomers will be astounded by its across the board strength.  


9 out of 10 stars 

William Elgin

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Brielle Von Hugel – “Stronger” FT B.o.B, (Exodus and Sweet & Sour Remix)


Brielle Von Hugel – “Stronger” FT B.o.B, (Exodus and Sweet & Sour Remix) 


Coming on the heels of her last successful single, “Naked”, Brielle Von Hugel has raised the stakes with an equally impassioned personal statement entitled “Stronger” (exodus  and Sweet and Sour remix). The American Idol season eleven semi-finalist has a well-developed penchant for making the personal universal and selecting top shelf creative partners to aid her in realizing her artistic goals. Those goals are inextricably linked with her personal aims and drafting hip hop artist B.o.B. to contribute to this track elevates it to another level entirely. The song runs a hair over four minutes and doesn’t waste any time attempting to attach itself to the audience’s consciousness. She opts for a largely electronic approach to this performance, but there is a small amount of “natural” instrumental sounds in the track that enriches the overall result. This is the same talent that has propelled Hugel from obscurity, through an appearance on arguably the most successful televised talent show in media history, live appearances, and musical partnerships with respected acts like Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox.  

It’s never just sound and fury signifying nothing. Hugel definitely has heavy-duty pipes capable of peeling paint from the walls, but she knows how to orchestrate it and use it to supreme effect. She avoids theatricality but still employs many of the same dynamic characteristics that listeners hear in the musical arrangement. While the vocals might avoid the aforementioned theatricality, the force and velocity of her voice doesn’t mean that she forsakes any sort of phrasing. She tailors her singing quite nicely to the backing track and fills the lyrics with the sort of emotion anyone familiar with her talents has come to expect. The second voice in this song, rapper B.o.B., brings his own brand of artistry to bear as well. His voice, naturally, doesn’t scale the same sonic heights of Hugel’s voice, but he definitely invests his words with the same resolute spirit defining her singing, albeit presented in a much more controlled fashion. It’s an intensely rhythmic performance from a major talent. The lyrics from Hugel are full of reality without ever lapsing into pretentiousness and she depicts her personal experiences with vulnerability, strength, and total honesty. 

There’s some guitar in the song’s opening, but the bulk of the track is dominated by electronic instruments like pre-programmed drums, bass, and synthesizers. Some songs of this ilk embrace flash over substance, but there’s a tasteful approach in this performance that doesn’t follow that path. The dynamic control of the music is notable. Just like Hugel’s vocal, the music has a dramatic sweep that explores high points, tempers its approach at key moments, and moves with a seamlessness that anyone working within this genre should aspire to. The music, fortunately, never overstays its welcome and provides a thoroughly entertaining listening experience. “Stronger” hits emotional and physical buttons alike and proves to be another great achievement in Brielle Von Hugel’s already impressive career. This is the stuff that makes great careers and she continues pursuing her dreams with every bit of the same determination that carried her onto a national stage.


Charles Hatton

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Susan Calloway - Time For This


Susan Calloway - Time For This 


Susan Calloway has the whole gamut of objective and subjective qualities required for stardom in the music world. There’s no argument she possesses one of the most compelling and emotionally capable voices in pop or rock music today. She’s equally effective on both the higher and lower ends of her register and never sings a refrain the same way twice. The subjective qualities of her appeal matter as well. She’s a stunningly beautiful lady who manifests a ton of personality in her vocal performances and surrounds herself with worthwhile collaborators like her producer and songwriting partner Gerard Smerek. Smerek’s long experience with Calloway’s personality and skills gives him a wide look into the best possible ways of presenting Calloway’s talents. This Detroit based singer/songwriter has a go for broke attitude informing her considerable skills and owns every line of “Time for This” like this is a spontaneous first take. 

Such a plaintive emotional mood deserves the bare bones musical treatment defining this song. The piano counterpointing Calloway’s voice on this song is more than enough to carry the track and they strike up such immediate chemistry that, if your ears notice the lack of additional activity, you’ll soon dismiss such concerns. The playing dives, soars, doubles back over itself, and sets up a near classical setting for Calloway’s voice to inhabit. Moreover, it forces listeners to keep their attention on two central elements rather than four or more. The setup for this track draws our ears to piano and vocals and how these respective instruments play off and against each other. The arrangement, furthermore, begins and ends in appropriately spot on fashion without any grandiose fanfare at either point. Many bands and performers have a wont for overexerted greatness utilizing these sorts of textures, but Calloway resists that sort of self-indulgence. The piano playing also conjures up a percussive quality at certain points that underlines the song’s power. 

The singing is up to the challenge. Calloway shows off a lot of gravel and grit in her vocal, plus an ample amount of power, but there’s a great deal of style coming with what she does. Her range is wide, but the most important aspect of what she does comes from the sharp and dramatic phrasing she invests the lyrics with. She’s more than capable of hitting all the same musical peaks and valleys summoned to life from the piano playing. The lyrics never gloss up the experience depicted by this song and give Calloway plenty of material to work with in her effort to create a brief musical world. “Time for This” stays accessible through melody, a stripped down musical arrangement, and a powerhouse vocalist with enough skill to get over a grocery list. Talents like this don’t come around often and Susan Calloway is making all of the right moves to realize her potential. This single is just one more step towards widespread mainstream recognition and is sure to win over many new converts.  


Gilbert Mullis

Kanisha K - Bet On Me


Kanisha K - Bet On Me 


Michigan born singer/songwriter Kanisha K continues her recent run of successful singles with  the release of her latest song “Bet on Me”. Once again working alongside producer and co-writer Joe Vulpis, Kanisha turns in her most impressive vocal yet with accompanying direct and conversational lyrics. This song doesn’t just work on one level, however; like all great music, listeners are allowed to derive any meaning they wish from the content. She certainly throws herself into the song with equal parts passion and conviction and the backing band hits all their marks with skill and stylishness in deep supply. Kanisha’s talents have earned her awards and numerous endorsement deals, but she isn’t some flash in the pan flavor of the moment; she’s climbed the ladder of success higher and higher thanks to talent, above all else, and the discipline to make those talents work for her.  

She has an unwavering approach evident in every line and musical turn. Kanisha, obviously, centers her performance on the movement of the music and the result is a seamless exchange between vocalist and musicians that never fail to engage the listener. Her vocal style is intensely physically – you can literally hear the price she pays to deliver these lines every time she steps up to the microphone, but the strength of her voice is such that it never wavers and comes through every time. Studio confections can’t always be trusted, but Kanisha gives no hint that she wouldn’t be able to perform this song with the same lung-busting power for a paying audience. This sort of talent can be refined, but it cannot be taught. Kanisha sings like someone born for that specific role and there’s not a syllable of staginess in the way she presents herself. Instead, it’s impossible to escape the unfettered emotional honesty filling this song and it’s certain to touch all but the most cynical. The lyrics are, nominally, structured in such a way to suggest that this is a love song, a yearning plea to be cherished, but her performance is rich enough that it works in a variety of ways.  

The guitar work is particularly biting and never hogs too much of the spotlight. The piano and drumming accompanying Kanisha are equally evocative thanks to the musical restraint shown by the players and their priceless selection of when to play and when to hold back. It results in some great, small spaces in the song where music and listeners alike get a momentary respite to just simply breathe, but it also results in some memorable crescendos that give the song added dramatic value. This song is firmly in a pop vein, but Kanisha’s vocal abilities and the accompaniment also show a strong blues influence that’s ideal for the emotional tone of her lyrics. “Bet on Me” is Kanisha K’s greatest moment yet and comes to the listener with its heart in hand; you’ll be hard pressed to not give it the credit that it so obviously deserves.  


Montey Zike

The Magnifiers - For the People


 
The Magnifiers - For the People 


The Magnifiers are a four piece band of siblings, none over the age of seventeen, hailing from the Chicago suburbs. The young age of these musicians is no impediment, however,  to them crafting a first class collection of catchy punk rock tunes that never attempt remaking the wheel. Instead, they crackle with tremendous energy and more than a little bit of wittiness listeners may not expect. It isn’t subversive snark, but there’s an appealing insolence of youth burning through in these songs. The lack of ugliness is welcome – instead, these are high octane songs focused on guitar that brims over with the joy of playing music. The band’s second EP, For the People, features four songs that live up to its title and comes across with tremendous enthusiasm. The Dombrowski siblings are certain to be around in the music scene for some time to come and have the potential to gain some genuine mainstream traction for a variety of reasons.  

The unquestioned stars of the show, though the band is amply talented, are vocalist Eden and lead guitarist Elliot. Eden is the first to take a turn in the spotlight with her veteran quality outing on the opener “Mostly Harmless”. Some listeners might recognize the title as a possible reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels, but the song has a distinctly different thrust that makes great use of the title’s familiarity. Eden has an unique sound as a singer straddling the line between the band’s alternative punk posture and pure commercial rock, but they never risk imitation. Lead guitarist Elliot Dombrowski shows he has the guitar chops to take this band in any direction they desire with his muscular performance on the track “TV Hat”. There’s some snarky humor in the lyrics, but there’s a surprising amount of social criticism as well that never sounds incongruous coming from such young performers. The effect, instead, is quite refreshing. 

A refreshing point of view is the order of the day on the next song “Anarchy Sucks”. It’s quite novel to, essentially, write a punk rock song about how some punk rock tropes and attitudes aren’t particularly valuable, but the song certainly pokes more fun rather than finding fault. It’s the EP’s shortest song, as well, which further dovetails in with the punk spirit while still gently spoofing it. The Magnifiers show they are quite capable of balancing the required musical fury for punk rock music with substantive musical values like melody and strong choruses. The EP’s concluding song “Transfiguration” will astound many with its 180 degree stylistic turn into acoustic territory, but it sounds wholly consistent with what has come before and has the same sort of strong personality defining the previous three songs. For the People consolidates the achievements of the band’s first EP while building on them for future releases and it’s a sure bet that when The Magnifiers unleash their first full length studio album, it’ll be quite a doozy.  

9 out of 10 stars


Lance Wright