Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Brent Daniels - Every Road Has a Turn


 
Brent Daniels - Every Road Has a Turn


Produced by the respected Robyn Robins, former member of Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, the debut album from Brent Daniels poises this singer and guitarist for big things. The twelve songs on Every Road Has a Turn mix boisterous country-infused rockers with serious, more traditionally minded country tracks with catchy choruses. Daniels’ voice combined with the overall quality of the tunes is a winner in a crowded genre and the few lulls heard during the album are far more matters of taste than any quantifiable flaw. Robins’ production has every bit of the oomph and sparkle listeners will expect and clearly positions Daniels’ voice as the heart of each performance. Every Road Has a Turn feels like a concerted effort to launch Daniels’ career off with a major push and his vocal and interpretative talents deserve such treatment. 

“My First Friday Night” leaves no doubt that Daniels and the team behind him means business. This is as well crafted of a country song as you are likely to hear these days, grounded in universal details of human lives, and carries on the songwriting traditions of classic country music in a thoroughly modern context. The lyrics are sung by a vocalist, likewise, who draws strength, unintended or otherwise, from the genre’s long tradition while having an identifiable stamp of his own to leave on the songs. He’s got a virtually guaranteed hit with the big radio number “My Truck’s Bigger Than Your Truck”. We’ll leave the double meanings of such things for the psychologists to sort out and it isn’t a song that requires a lot of nuance from a very capable singer, but the song is certainly dumb fun that doesn’t demand anything from listeners except having a good time. Despite the “country” subject matter, the song is much close to outright rock than anything else on this debut.

“Love You Down” has a nice mid tempo pace applying just the right amount of force to the performance and it picks up nicely at the chorus. Another enormously appealing part of the performance is the cool confidence Daniels shows with a good emotional shade added for extra measure. He hits a particularly excellent note with the song “Everything About You”, one of the more rhythmic musical tracks on Every Road Has a Turn, and modulates his voice appropriate to help realize the song’s potential. The bluster and brass in earlier songs like “My Truck’s Bigger than Your Truck” completely vanishes on tracks like “Hold On”. Some might hear a certain amount of predictability or imitation in songs like “Hold On”, but listen closely and you’ll hear the differences between Daniels and many of his peers. Great singers bring a certain amount of charisma to their performance that shapes the color and delivery of individual lines. You hear that in the naked vulnerability of Daniels’ phrasing on this song. It’s just as present in the song “Different Just the Same” and Daniels benefits even more there from some of the album’s best lyrics. Every Road Has a Turn’s concluding number “I’ve Been Gone” recalls the classic country songwriting turns of earlier songs like the opener and brings the album to an end with the same confidence defining it. This is one hell of a first effort from Daniels and he’ll be able to build from this work for some time to come.
 

9 out of 10 stars 


Joshua Stryde

Nick Dakota - Vision


Nick Dakota - Vision 


Discovered by renowned producer Robyn Robins, thirty year old Michigan native Nick Dakota’s debut album Vision features a dozen songs with many written by top flight Nashville songwriting talent and accompanied by some of the best live and session players that Music City has at its disposal. The album is geared for commercial success, but it reflects a lot of what compromises Dakota’s character as a man. The commercially oriented fare never outright panders to country music fans but, instead, presents musical and lyric elements sure to resonate with the widest of possible country music audiences. The album is a little over-extended with a dozen songs when, perhaps, only ten would do, but the added songs don’t weigh the release down much. Instead, Vision is as solid as of a debut as you’re likely to hear in any genre and, in modern country music, Nick Dakota stands out as one of the most exceptional talents to come along in some time. 

It gets off to a great start with the jewel “We’ll Always Have Paris (Texas)”. This is a slightly elegiac track with a relaxed pace and Dakota shows a great knack for embodying the emotions of the lyric in his voice without ever being hamfisted about it. His turn on “How Cool is That?” possibly makes the whole album. He does a superb job of making the listener see the object of his affection depicted in the lyrics. The down to earth details mix nicely with much bigger, more general emotions and Dakota wraps his voice tightly around the instrumentation with great effect. He turns away from modern textures to recall a much more traditional country sound on the ballad “One Last Request”, but the steel guitar and patient unwinding of the track are far from its only merits. The true highlight of the track is Dakota’s profoundly moving, deeply emotive vocal and he elevates the fine lyrics to another higher level by virtue of his performance. “The Deep End” has a bluesy bite thanks to its insistent electric slide guitar licks and Dakota’s rugged vocal matches up with it very well. The chorus is one of the album’s best. 

“Used” is a fantastic study in musical contrasts that impressively come together. The verses have a light touch, the instruments scattered and leaving a lot of space for the music to breathe, before the energy level spikes for another great chorus. “Rain Down Sunshine” has a a great rock vibe thanks to its combination of acoustic and electric guitars plus authoritative drumming that never plays a note too many. There’s a fabulous uplift in this track, as well, that will likely make it a live favorite. The album’s last song “Sledge Hammer” has an unique sound, slightly crazed bluegrass cut with a dash of rock music, and ends Vision with a colorful exclamation point. Vision establishes Nick Dakota as one of the genre’s promising young talents and songs like the finale pave the way for a wide future. Any lulls in the album are due to there being a few too many songs, particularly mid-tempo rock influenced country tracks, but those lulls don’t compromise the album too much. 

8 out of 10 stars 

Joshua Stryde

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Andriana Lehr – Artifacts



Andriana Lehr – Artifacts 


Andriana Lehr might originally hail from a small farm in South Dakota, but there’s nothing small town about her songwriting or musical talents. Her latest release Artifacts builds on the promise she exhibited on her 2013 debut Try to Be True while still showing every bit of the influences that have shaped her into the performer she is today. Her decade spent in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, a traditional hotbed for talented singers and songwriters, has honed her potential to a sharp edge and she has both the sound judgment and technique to increasingly realize her artistic ideas. The ten songs on Artifacts never content themselves with a single pose or line of musical adventure. Instead, she fearlessly incorporates unexpected instruments into her template and sets them against unlikely instrumental counterparts. Classical meets country, folk gets a light R&B tinge, and her ear for inventive vocal melodies seems to be unerring.  

“Outrun the Change” puts listeners on notice that a lot has changed and more is in the offing. In some ways, this is a song that covers no new territory – plenty of young artists have written about the accompanying shifts that come with growing older and leaving childhood behind. What separates Lehr from her peers on this track and others is the melancholy she invests this with, but the deeper understanding as well. Her aims are deceptively modest. By merely communicating the realities of her life and inner weather, she seemingly makes music for herself alone, but by communicating these things so directly, the song achieves an universality that reaches far beyond the borders of the autobiographical. This applies to many of the songs on Artifacts.

“Ready To Be”, the album’s second track, is similar in intent, but it takes a little bit wider of a view lyrically. The quasi-shuffle of Steve Goold’s drumming gives Lehr a great rhythmic base to sing over and she takes full advantage of it. The languid unraveling of “Ashes in the Fog” is about, in some respects, finding clarity in a life and world where things aren’t always clear or present themselves as they. How do you deal with that, how do you move on? Lehr finds no real answers, but perhaps those answers are here for listeners to discover and remain unspoken. Ken Wilson’s evocative, haunting dobro playing gives the song a second “vocal” that neatly complements Lehr’s own. The tenor sax making an appearance on “Bright Yellow Lights” gives this track a smoky, late night quality that it might otherwise lack and the reverb-soaked guitar work further accentuates that. Though Lehr brings a bevy of talented collaborators to work with her on this album, none of the tracks are a showcase of their virtuosic skills and, instead, musicians like saxophonist J.P. Delaire and guitarist Bryan Ewald are much more concerned with serving the song. 

“The Expansion of Everything” ends the album on the same daring note that has characterized so much of it. Pedal steel and cell co-exist easily together with Lehr’s folkie acoustic guitar and she delivers another stunning vocal that puts a bright spotlight on her exquisite phrasing. Artifacts is the sort of album that all around music fans will enjoy and continue returning to for some time – it isn’t reined in by silly labels or an unwillingness to take chances. 

9 out of 10 stars 


Montey Zike

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Chris Murphy - The Tinker’s Dream


Chris Murphy - The Tinker’s Dream 


The Tinker’s Dream, Chris Murphy’s third album since May of 2016, is a new high in the career of this New York City born songwriter and recording artist. There’s a dozen tracks on his latest album, the vast majority of them instrumentals, and Murphy’s capacity for crafting fine melodies that linger in the memory is virtually unparalleled in the modern music world. They are top shelf in every respect. These aren’t the sort of simple, condensed melodies that hook into listeners at a shallow depth; their genuine catchiness reflects the skill of their composer and the vital urgency with which they are delivered ensures that they aren’t soon forgotten. Murphy’s worked with the cream of the crop in the singer/songwriter genre, but also sterling instrumental talents, and he brings an unique confluence of those two schools to bear on his solo work. The twelve compositions on The Tinker’s Dream soar with virtuosity and solid fundamentals while still speaking to our emotions and experiences.  

Songs like “Connemara Ponies” are especially geared to engage our imaginations. It isn’t a stretch to say that, in reality, Chris Murphy isn’t in the music business at all when he’s performing a song this powerful. Instead, he’s in the transportation business and “Connemara Ponies” moves listeners from the quantifiable world around them and, instead, invokes panoramic landscapes and enormous green vistas where majestic animals run free. The title number picks up some on that same vibe, but it isn’t quite as dramatic and feels a little more earthbound. It does share some of the same energy and it’s a pair of songs like this early on that helps The Tinker’s Dream get off to such an uplifting start. Murphy’s first venture into singer/songwriter territory on the album, “Wicklow”, has a pretty standard but solid lyric that he delivers with just the right amount of relaxed, almost laconic personality. The musical arrangement is never subservient to the singing, lyrics, or vocal melody and Murphy proves just as adept handling this sort of material as ever. 

“Gibraltar 1988” is, arguably, the most spartan musical recording on The Tinker’s Dream and doesn’t front load the song with a bevy of instruments or breathless pacing like many of the other tracks. There’s a definite melancholic note struck here, but it doesn’t dominate the track or its mood. The second stab at the singer/songwriter genre comes with “Cape Horn”, a much more elaborate and ultimately more successful revision of the earlier song “Wicklow”. The similarities between the two song’s lyrical themes are not uniform and Murphy conjures up a much strong first person voice for this outing than the previous one. “Small Wonder” is the final track with lyrics on The Tinker’s Dream and it is a distinctly different trip than the preceding two. This is much more a song about interpersonal relations than the storytelling focus of the earlier tracks and has a much better, more memorable, chorus. The album closes out with “The Hayloft Waltz”, a wonderfully elegant instrumental that ends The Tinker’s Dream on the same upbeat note that started the album.  

8 out of 10 stars  


Scott Wigley

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Little Diamonds - New Orleans Bound


Little Diamonds - New Orleans Bound 


Young singer/songwriter Luke Leblanc, performing under the name Little Diamonds, began seriously pursuing music as his passion between his twelfth and thirteenth birthday. He successfully committed himself to learning a number of instruments and two formative events further solidified his future musical path. He attended a Bob Dylan concert in 2008 that awakened the artistic possibilities of a musical career and later won a Dylan impersonation context that garnered him much attention for his vocal talents. His songwriting developed at a brisk pace and his debut album 1st Rail earned praise from numerous quarters for its undeniable quality and the inspiration fueling its performances. Little Diamonds is an un-ironic practitioner of a tradition that has an increasingly niche audience with each passing year, but he approaches his traditional minded material with absolutely no suggestion that these are museum pieces, modern approximations of dusty relics from a bygone time. His second full length album New Orleans Bound finds him discovering much more of an idiosyncratic songwriting voice than ever before and taking more musical chances. There’s plenty of confidence on the album’s dozen songs that would even be impressive from a veteran artist. 

“I Don’t Know About You” begins New Orleans Bound in an understated way. Little Diamonds has an approach that underplays the heavy emotions his songwriting discusses in such a way it actually underscores how much this is affecting the speaker. The guitar work is never too intricate for its own good, but every song has melodic substance coming either from his six string or the fiddle often joining him. He indulges in band efforts at a couple of points on New Orleans Bound and the first outing, “12-12-12”, hits a nice folk rock stride without ever sounding contrived or out of place with the rest of the album. “Too Early Gone” is one of the album’s sadder cuts and Little Diamonds sings with a conviction that explores the song’s emotions without ever wallowing in them. 

“Lord, Come Down” has hushed intensity from the outset and Little Diamonds never lets up on it. His vocal strikes a more serious note than any of the preceding songs and lines up very well with his equally focused guitar playing. The guitar playing on “Duluth Grandma” gives the song every bit as much of a marquee feel as the lyrical content. The words are very good – Little Diamonds’ greatest talent as a lyricist might be in rendering characters through his songwriting with three-dimensional clarity. “Old Man Al” isn’t quite as involved musically, but the vocal and lyrical content are both up to the same level.  

The album’s title cut is the second song incorporating a larger band format. Little Diamonds sounds just as comfortable as he does in the earlier song and genuinely moved to even greater heights by this particular track’s mix of musical styles. The mesh of traditional country with New Orleans jazz proves to be an excellent match and gives him a platform from which Little Diamonds gives his most convincing vocal performance yet. It wraps this album up with a strong conclusion that embodies the assurance he shows throughout the preceding eleven cuts. New Orleans Bound is a vital and completely modern work that just happens to utilize a number of time tested forms.  

9 out of 10 stars 


Scott Wigley

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Erica Sunshine Lee - Elixir


 
Erica Sunshine Lee - Elixir  


The southern flavor of this collection is impossible to ignore. It would be even if Lee didn’t make a big deal about her regional roots. However, none of the regional flavor heard in Erica Sunshine Lee’s music prevents listeners from different areas getting into her music. The subject matter of her songwriting has universal appeal and even her most personal concerns have an overarching common theme of humanity that any feeling person will respond to. Her seventh studio release Elixir runs a little long with fifteen cuts, but she retains immense likability even when she’s repeating herself a little. It’s purely speculation, but it’s a valid interpretation to hear this abundance of music as a self-conscious attempt to knock one out of the park artistically and make an emphatic statement of her creative vitality. It certainly highlights her productivity and impressive consistency, but some will conclude that you are most likely to create a masterpiece when you are relaxed rather than flexing too much muscle to force the issue.  

You will be hard pressed, however, to hear any outright holes in this album. It starts off with a blast. “Shut Up Heart”, naturally, deals with some weighty issues of the heart but the lyric and vocal delivery alike play up the darkly comic aspects of the song much more than its painful elements. “The Bottle Ain’t Enough” is the first of a handful of bluesy stompers that Lee includes on the album. She handles these sorts of songs with such wide-eyed, uninhibited glee that she carries listeners along for the ride with minimal effort. These chest-beating rock influenced numbers, however, seem to convey less of her inner life than songs like “My Favorite Word”. There are a number of instances on Elixir where the posturing of songs like “The Bottle Ain’t Enough” falls away and listeners come face to face, ear to ear, with the unvarnished Erica Sunshine Lee. Beautiful, almost classically themed, piano playing is the musical highlight of “My Favorite Word”, but her stunning singing matches it every step of the way. 

There’s piano in “Jesus and Georgia”, but it is much more understated. Acoustic guitar provides much of the song’s musical body and tasteful, brushed percussion stylishly accentuates everything. There isn’t one dominant musical element; instead, the approach here is much more orchestral with Lee’s singing having a crowning effect on the piece. “Medicine” is a slow burn country ballad that rejects a minimalist approach in favor of a slightly weepy mid-tempo jaunt. There’s piano lines diving in and out of the mix and precise, but never too thought out, drumming that sets a definite tone. “Drunker” is quite a playful tune this late in the album and its backing vocals, along with the jaunty tempo, give it different feel than any other song on Elixir. “Take the High Road”, the album’s closer, is a sharp contrast. The straight-ahead country beat, combination of acoustic and understated electric guitars, plus the climatic chorus are never heavy-footed at all, but quietly assertive and affirming the bedrock musical values informing Lee’s tradition and her own take on songwriting. It brings Elixir to a solid finish that will leave many listeners satisfied. 

8 out of 10 stars


Michael Saulman

Thursday, December 22, 2016

StonerPop


StonerPop
Maudie Michelle and Jimmie Maneuva, otherwise known as StonerPop, are a Louisiana based twosome whose five song self-titled debut introduces a vital new creative force to electronic music. Few experienced fans of the genre will fail to be impressed by the considerable confidence that these songs show and the patient development of each one that results in them being so memorable. There’s no sense here of two musicians who want to show off or overreach. They set an assortment of goals for each of these tracks that the performances comfortably reach and the bar is invariably high. The apparent ease of their achievement isn’t some knock against the overall quality of the compositions, or lack of, but rather a testament to their mastery of the technique needed to realize their ambitions. Few musical units of this strain could hope to emerge so strongly and conclusively, but StonerPop’s songs are unusual and promise much. 
Their surprisingly held back approach on the opener, “Preachers”, serves early notice that StonerPop does things differently than most. The electronic instruments drop distinctive touches throughout the song, never landing the same way twice, and Michelle mixes up her vocals as well, sometimes pulling great emotion out of herself, others times adopting a straight, affect-less approach. “Running”, naturally, has much more musical and vocal urgency than its laid back predecessor. This urgency is intermittent however; the song veers from a tense to breathless mood throughout its duration. The duo never falls prey to one of the most popular misconceptions about electronic music – the instrumentation has a wide range of color and always breathes with a warm glow flush with vitality. 
“You’re Never Listening (Get Over Yourself)” isn’t entirely successful, but interesting. The lack of melody here compared to earlier songs asks the audience to adjust accordingly and some may not enjoy the shift. This is a much more pyrotechnic display of electronica than before and can be accused of self-indulgence, but others will rightly hear it as merely another side of the duo’s musical character. “Monsters” is probably the musical and lyrical highpoint of the EP. The duo’s strengths come together here in a very obvious way – the lyrical complexity is greater than before and suggests a personal experience, the intimate manner Michelle uses to handle the singing reinforces this, and the arrangement manages an inspired balance between melody and moody atmospherics. The EP’s last track “Fox” foregoes any of the aforementioned moodiness in favor of a more clearly upbeat ending and the beautifully phrased piano playing scattered throughout the song gives it a flair that earlier songs lack. 
This debut EP from StonerPop has a distinctive character most artistic units don’t achieve until their second or third release. They clearly began the recording process with a clear idea of where they wanted to go with each song and enlisted the right collaborators to help achieve those goals but, ultimately, it’s emboldened young talent that make this recording succeed so well. StonerPop’s debut EP will please all fans of electronic music. 

8 out of 10 stars
Charles Hatton