Friday, February 24, 2017

James Patrick Morgan - Art + Work = Love

 

James Patrick Morgan - Art + Work = Love 


The EP release from James Patrick Morgan, Art + Work = Love, is a stunning opener to Morgan’s career as something like a musical polymath. You can’t pigeonhole him into one particular style. Morgan has a strong enough voice to inhabit a rock musical texture, but he also has the chops to pull of soul or R&B influenced tracks, pop songs, and hard-charging singer/songwriter material. Despite the plethora of influences, nothing comes across too cluttered and there’s a clarity of intent picking up with the first track and carrying the entire release. Morgan’s vocals are vibrant and suggest he has a strong stage presence backed up by the skills needed to make live performances pay off. Art + Work = Love comes out of the starting gate with a lot of heart and a little attitude and, while he alters his approach from song to song, it never loses any of its spirit and energy along the way.  

It sets the bar high from the start. “Expected” has overall quality that any performer, at any level, would be proud to feature on a release. It’s jaunty groove makes it a perfect opener and Morgan’s clearly hot to sing it. He artfully tumbles through the lyrics, never stumbling over his phrasing, and brings home the lyric’s situation with eyebrow arching clarity. It’s a winning track and all around charismatic. There’s a rousing quality to “Alone” that Morgan and his collaborators play just right. The keyboards help propel the song along at a brisk enough pace without ever rushing its development. It’s one of Art + Work = Love’s more mainstream moments, but it’s never so poppy that serious music fans will reject it; quite the opposite. If anything, they will be impressed at how substantive it really is. Melody distinguishes a lot of what Morgan does and few songs show that better than “Sign Language”. The brief piano introduction is soon fleshed out further by compelling drums and strong acoustic guitar playing. It’s fascinating being able to hear glimpses in each song of its birth; it’s easy to imagine that many of these cuts began with a single guy working out the initial structure on acoustic between building onto it in the studio.  

“Right Mistakes” may be the album’s best song. It doesn’t have the same energy as the opener, but it’s an overall more thoughtful and considered bit of songwriting that Morgan clearly goes all out to elevate with his shattering vocal. The guitars working their way through this song hold everything together musically and do so quite nicely. His cover version of “Fly Like an Eagle” seems like a gift to his fans. He does a fantastic job refurbishing this Steve Miller classic for a modern audience without ever losing its connection to the original’s spirit. Despite this not being an original, it still reveals many of the same moves making the earlier songs so special. James Patrick Morgan is a risk taker – he isn’t afraid to reach out for his audience and lay himself bare to connect with the crowd. This is an EP that connects solidly with its intended listeners and should appeal to a broad based cross section of music fans. 

9 out of 10 stars 


Scott Wigley

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Matt Hannah – Dreamland


Matt Hannah – Dreamland 


Dreamland is a ten song album from Minneapolis headquartered singer/songwriter Matt Hannah. This second album from Hannah, following up his 2014 release Let the Lonely Fade, should raise Hannah to a place of preeminence among his contemporaries. The album doesn’t aim to be merely some memorable hodgepodge of different songs but, instead, is threaded together by a loose concept that seems almost novelistic in intent. The production presents all of Hannah’s songs in excellent fidelity and captures significant details that a less professional job would have missed while the album’s running order seems perfectly arranged. Hannah has really went the extra mile here; Dreamland more than reaffirms the talents on display during his debut, but takes a step further towards something with the potential to endure posterity’s judgment.  

He opens it up with a strong title track. Hannah’s acoustic guitar work is one of the album’s consistent strengths and the basis of all his songwriting, but the title track is one of its best illustrations. It’s joined at critical junctures by wonderfully atmospheric pedal steel guitar playing that perfectly complements Hannah’s playing. “Broken Hearts & Broken Bones” kicks off with some hard-edged, clipped acoustic guitar before the full band comes in. It never gets too heavy handed, but the song has a nice stomp to it and swings like a mother. “Dandelion” is much more of a solo performance than the preceding songs, but Hannah is a more than capable musician who can pick up a tune single-handedly and carry it to its completion. It’s his best character portrait on the album and the lyrics are full of delicately rendered details that will engage listener’s imaginations. “Banks of the Mississippi” has some electric guitar making low-key contributions near the end, but much of the song is dominated by Hannah’s acoustic guitar. 

The guitar means a lot to the song “Set Free”. The lyrical content is quite exceptional and Hannah really makes it go thanks to his energetic, but tempered, delivery, but it’s the instrumental break and resulting guitar solo that really seals the deal for this song. “The Night is My Home” has minimal accompaniment from other instruments except for a very light of touch of keyboards in the background. The center of the performance is Hannah’s voice and guitar playing. It has a tender touch that makes the most of the song’s melody without ever making things too precious. “Different Kind of Light” is a song with intelligent lyrics and a dynamic arrangement gradually scaling upwards in terms of musical intensity. These are the sort of dramatic shifts we usually associate with rock songs; Hannah makes excellent use of these turns to enhance what might have otherwise been a more delicate track. The final blast of blues on Dreamland comes with the steel guitar opening of “Gone”. This is, in some ways, the album’s most commercial track and has a strong musical and lyrical hook to draw listeners in. Dreamland is one of the young year’s best releases and transcends musical labels. 

9 out of 10 stars  


Charles Hatton

The Righteous Hillbillies - Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway


The Righteous Hillbillies - Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway 


A lot of music fans dismiss the blues as a relic of America’s musical past, a carnival of clich├ęs recalling the distant past without any relevance to modern music. The Righteous Hillbillies would certainly dispute that idea. The ten songs on their fourth studio album, Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway, are ripped from modern life and surrounded with a vital blues rock backing that’s handled with considerable skill and isn’t ever used as a cudgel. Instead, the band understands the slightly behind the beat and emotive value inherent to the blues without ever pandering for the audience’s attention. Vocalist Brent James and lead guitarist Nick Normando stand out from the pack on many of the album’s songs, but the other three band members are equally strong in serving this material to its maximum potential. The band’s three preceding albums make perfect sense when hearing this new release – rather than settling for staid invocations of the musical past, they’ve scooped up this time-tested American art form and set squarely in the present without any hint of irony.

The feeling of inspiration on these tracks comes with the first song. “Rollin’” highlights drummer Barret Harvey’s crucial role in making The Righteous Hillbillies’ engine hum. His series of rolls throughout the track shows great timing and Nick Normando and vocalist Brent James’ guitar work spars over the top with great spark. “Throwing Stones” brings Normando’s slide guitar playing more to the surface and the tempo gives it a high stepping, groovy energy that never abates. Brent James’ singing matches that tempo in both feel and inspiration without ever laying things on too thick. “Shake This Feeling” has a great barrelhouse roll from the start and James’ gives a leering, entertaining vocal that makes the song all the more enjoyable. The title song stands out from the other nine as one of the album’s most considered tracks, full of original but blues-derived imagery that shows off James’ songwriting talents in perhaps unexpected ways. James throws himself head long into the long slide guitar drawl of “Down to Memphis”; in the hands of lesser bands, this would all sound like hollow posing, but The Righteous Hillbillies nail songs like this with total sincerity and a significant amount of style. 

“Drama Zone” has a big, sludgey blues riff that makes everything go, but everything would be a little paler without the sympathetic rhythm section work and another great James vocal. Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway finishes up with “Rock Salt & Nails”. Some might expect such an ending after the bluster and chest-beating soul preceding it, but the effect is still strong to end this album with an understated acoustic blues. The Righteous Hillbillies bring a lot of fire to these songs, but they harness a variety of approaches to get this collection over. There isn’t an unsuccessful song on this release, but it isn’t because the band aims their sights low. Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway is a powerful effort that will invigorate blues fans and has the potential to earn many new fans for the band. 

9 out of 10 stars  


William Elgin III

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Sound of Curves - Gone Gatsby

 
The Sound of Curves - Gone Gatsby 


Gone Gatsby, the fourteen song third release from San Antonio alternative rockers The Sound of Curves, finds the band still reliant on their unmistakable mix of vibrant guitar work, dynamics, and vocal harmonies, but also sees them taking more risks than ever before. These risks never run the chance of taking them off course from their customary focus, but instead, it makes those elements stick longer and run deeper in the listener’s consciousness. The album runs too long, there’s easily three or four songs they could have shaved off the track listing without diluting the album’s final affect, but even the excess material isn’t distinguished by subpar musicianship, energy, or vocals. The band is overreaching with such an enormous collection but, while we may not be able to praise such an overreach, longtime music fans will be hard put to find fault with their ambition.  

The ambition is evident from the beginning. Songs like “Galaxy” bring electronic music to the fore as added color for the band’s predominantly guitar oriented approach and it’s quite a good match, but bringing great vocal harmonies together seals the deal. Other songs like the title track are much more in an alternative rock vein, eschewing the electronica influencing other tunes, and this example in particular works as a spectacular call to arms begging for an airing in front of live audiences. Lead guitarist Aaron Montano-Teague deserves just as much mention for the musicality of his lead work as the twin singers Leonel Pompa and Roger Mahrer, but Montano-Teague also brings a jagged attitude-driven edge that takes these songs from the realm of pure alternative rock into something much more passionate, much more on the edge. “Summer Radio”, as its title might imply, is pure pop guitar rock energy and hinges, in part, on the vocal melodies to reach its potential. The chorus is particularly effective and will stick in listener’s minds long after the song has ended.  

The elegiac melodic beauty of “Josephine” stands out, even on this collection, because it is so clearly conceived. The band clearly realized they had something a little more special than average with this track as evidenced by the differences in its arranging style from the other material and the surprising variations they’re able to wring from the melody. It also elicits very passionate vocals from both Pompa and Mahrer as further evidence of their inspiration. “London” is one of the album’s best unexpected rockers, at least initially, until the verses come in and they adopt a sort of art alternative rock texture that’s steps high and has a decidedly positive tone. “Waves” has a sort of quasi-U2 sound and the band handles that sort of airy grandeur with unexpected sophistication, taking their typical balance of light and shadow and imbuing it with powerful inspiration. The album’s final high point comes with “The Road” – unlike the usual song in this vein, The Sound of Curves subverts listener’s probable expectations with a healthy dose of electronica and an unusual arrangement that doesn’t follow the usual parameters. There’s a little bit of everything here for listeners. Longtime fans of The Sound of Curves will undoubtedly find much here that’s familiar, but it’s clear that the band is attempting to push themselves into new areas and succeeding. 

8 out of 10 stars 


Michael Saulman

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Nick Black - Deep Blue

Nick Black - Deep Blue 


Few young performers in any genre can say they match both Nick Black’s energy and finesse. The wont of musical youth is usually casting as many notions about lightness of touch as possible in favor of a full on, authentic rush. The energy of the young often throttles listeners upside their heads with its obviousness. Nick Black, instead, is working in a cross-section of traditional styles and pushes his music through an assortment of tempos and tropes with urgency that never comes off as unconsidered. It’s an awesome balance to achieve. Few releases from such young performers ever come off so filler-free. Even after a few listens, Black’s audience is likely to discover that there’s not a single song out of the ten compromising Deep Blue has style to burn and concerted musical value that never comes off as posing. Instead, Nick Black comes off as masterful.  

Horns dominate much of the musical thrust on Deep Blue’s opener “Ocean” and Black sings with great earnestness and an openness of spirit. The dance that his voice quickly achieves with the piano lines cascading through the mix is the song’s central melodic pivot, in a way, but the guitar work rising out of the mix for some vivid fills likewise contributes much to the song. “Grownups” starts off not seeming quite as serious in intent, but it’s clear pretty quickly that Black’s ambitions here and those of the songwriting might be a little subtler than they are letting on. This is as fine of a song as you’ll hear about an one on one relationship in some time because it does something just different enough that it sounds fresh. Black seems quite happy to be singing it and gives it a certain zing on the lines that the opener lacked. “Falling in Life” probably tries to cover too many musical bases, but it thankfully doesn’t go on too long in duration and the level of musicianship remains high throughout.  

“D.I.Y.” has a world of emotions swirling through its ballad construction and Black proves that he’s just as adept with this type of songwriting under the soul and R&B umbrella as he is with other types in the same genre. “Only One Man” begins at a much more sumptuous pace than it ends and the differences make for a much more dynamic performance. The second half, in particular, shows a surprising amount of fire primarily pushed by lead guitar playing that whips through the mix like a fanning flame. “Let’s Be Glad”, on the other hand, puts Black squarely in the land of gospel music and he pulls it off admirably. Few of the album’s songs utilize backing singers, but this is naturally one of the most successful instances of their use on Deep Blue. Another fine ballad on Deep Blue is “Don’t Leave Louise” – Black never risks melodramatic nonsense here and the form the song takes makes him dodging its likelihood all the more surprising. Instead, both lyrics and singer are a perfect fit here and Black shows the good sense to resist cluttering the direct, beautiful arrangement. Deep Blue is a vast improvement on Black’s already fine debut The Soul Diaries and shows that this performer’s potential is, perhaps, far vaster than anyone initially understood.  

9 out of 10 stars


Michael Saulman

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Dave Vargo - Burning Through


 
Dave Vargo - Burning Through 


Formula serves singer/songwriter Dave Vargo extraordinarily well on his first solo album Burning Through. Based out of the New Jersey area, he definitely cuts the album’s eleven songs in a meat and potatoes mold that eschews musical fireworks in favor of melodic virtues and emotional truth. It is the saving grace elevating Vargo’s performance over pre packaged fluff. There’s more though. He projects vast oceans of feeling with some vocals and his phrasing takes a distinctive approach that puts a figurative face to his finest moments. The production places his voice and the album’s instrumentation in equal prominence with one another and the result is an impressively unified sound that never sounds wayward or uninspired. Dave Vargo’s songs on Burning Through sound like the kind of material that’s waited a lifetime to emerge in this way and some of the songwriting on this release seems to reinforce that view. 

A lot of that fire and chest-thumping energy comes across early. The first song “Come Take Me Home” makes its pleas for the audience’s attention without any pretense or wasted motion and should suck in anyone who hears it. It’s impressive to hear how well Vargo, as a composer, can bring together various elements of light and shade into a credible rock track while surrendering none of his substance as a lyricist. “Good Enough” is an effort of equal value. It move at a little more a slow burn than the opener and shares, arguably, more in common with the album’s later gestures towards rock music without indulging any of the guitar workouts. “Wishing on a Star” is an affecting personal-sounding piece about how our desires and dreams inspire us early and sustain us for years to come. “Finding My Way to You” is, easily, the most outwardly stirring moment on Burning Through and grabs the audience’s attention from the start. It’s never strident or too strong, however, and accomplishes much of its positive effects through another of Vargo’s uncomplicated and often heart clutching melodies. His lead guitar work shines quite brightly on this song.

“Right Now” will bring you more and more into its world with repeated listens. Burning Through is an album that makes a big deal about connecting with the listener, but closer inspection will reveal countless subtleties in these songs. This particular cut does a memorable job of balancing sensitivity with embodying some of the urgency suggested by its title while contrasting it with a comparatively restrained Vargo singing performance. “Twisted and Bent” is, easily, the album’s most naked musical performance, but he is more than up to the task and its storytelling values help the song stand out even more. “Don’t Think Twice” finds him branching out a little musically without ever going too far afield of the album’s mandate and the variations are welcome. Burning Through concludes with the fine “Pieces of My Heart” and its interesting rhythms and tempo changes aid Vargo in getting the lyric over with his audience. Formula is very recognizable here, but Vargo is never content with just reworking some common poses and pandering for our attention.  

8 out of 10 stars 


Dale Butcher

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