Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Uncle Frank – Fountains

Uncle Frank – Fountains 

The Europeans have always had a take on electronic dance pop that their American brethren rarely share. Frank Benbini and his band aren’t just as assemblage of musicians and electronics mavens looking to make people dance and cash checks but come off, instead, as well-rounded songwriters and performers intent on providing audiences with a good time and connecting with them emotionally. The first single from their forthcoming second album Love Lion entitled “Fountains” is a reminder of many things, but two are most prominent. The first that this is an art form capable of saying much more to its target audience than just forget about your cares and dance and the second is that, in general, this music doesn’t have to be made be machines alone and, instead, it is better served being performed by flesh and blood musicians working at or near the top of their form.  

There’s certainly no question, even hearing “Fountains” for the first time, that Frank and his accompanying musicians are playing at their peak of their respective powers. Benbini immediately takes charge with all the nuance and style that he can bring to bear as singer. His technique is to tie his voice tightly to the movement of the song and he does that to superb effect here. His phrasing has a way of weaving around the warm bass thump courtesy of bassist Luke Bryan and Junior Benbini’s  rock solid and grooved out drumming that makes this band, this performance, a practically impossible combination to beat. The song kicks off by hitting the chorus first and, while it isn’t an unheard of move, it’s relatively audacious enough to deserve particular note. By doing this, Benbini and his band brings listeners directly into the experience of the song.

The experience is much more upbeat than the lyrics might sound on first hearing. They express a desire for escape to someplace better, an escape from loneliness, and uses perfect language to convey that sentiment. It’s a blend of the specific and general – we never really know what exactly the fountains are Uncle Frank is referring to in the title or why dreaming of such deliverance constitutes shooting off his mouth, but there’s little doubt that the vast majority of listeners will draw their own conclusions and profoundly relate. There’s equally little doubt that the longing in his voice is inextricably connected to the song’s experience and, together, they conjure a spell for listeners that gives this song a lot of impact. 

Based on this single alone, Love Lion is set to be one of 2017’s most meaningful releases in the genre. Few bands, collectives, or solo artists can boast the same skill set that is on display here. Instead, Uncle Frank and his band of talented players reach deep for the heart of the audience and capture it, but they never forget to get them moving as well. 

Joshua Stryde

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Magic Music

Magic Music 

There’s something for everyone on Magic Music’s first album. Very few debuts in any genre have the sort of quiet confidence that’s clear in this Colorado band’s songwriting. They sound very much like what they are – longtime friends and respected peers in the Americana scene who have come together to write and record some of the most unique traditional music to emerge in recent history. The band first formed in 1969 and enjoyed some popularity they parlayed into performances alongside legendary performers like Cat Stevens and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band among others. Those glimmers of success never erupted into full on fires and, as a result, the band called it quits in 1976. The friendships of the men involved never ended and they continued to meet for reunions where they played for family, friends, and admirers. A new opportunity for the band to record their first album came about in 2011 and over four years were spent assembling the material, recording, refining, and soliciting contributions from talented peers like Little Feat’s Bill Payne and bassist/producer Jimmy Haslip.  

They put their best foot forward with the one-two punch of “Bring the Morning Down” and “Bright Sun Bright Rain”. They are highly credible Americana numbers featuring mandolin, acoustic guitar, and flute among other touches, but they are equally melodic and have a surprising pop sensibility that immediately hits listeners. “Mole’s Stumble” is a well written and highly finessed performance without a single sliver of daylight in the playing. This is chemistry and it can’t be taught. The players intuitively respond to each other and nothing sounds unnatural or slapped together for the sake of effect. “Gandy Dancer” has impressive intricacy without ever seeming like some self-indulgent virtuoso trip and further illustrates the last point about how well this six piece plays together. Their understanding of what the songs need apply to their vocal approach as well and this track has a graceful take on the singing.  

There’s an assortment of textures working throughout “Carolina Wind” and the storytelling strengths of the song are the crowning touch on its appeal. The vocalists bring such attention to detail that the phrasing dramatizes every line. Nothing that has come before, however, prepares listeners for the excellence of “Eldorado Canyon”. This song is the apogee of their efforts and has a wealth of specific imagery and detail for the audience without ever obscuring the potential for listeners to connect with its experience. The guitar work is particularly good here and contributes much to its overall worth. 

“Hayin’” has some interesting musical turns, but it’s as close as the album comes to pure entertainment. It seems a little put on in certain lyrical respects because of how hard it tries to convey a country atmosphere, but it doesn’t prohibit enjoyed the track. “Our Song: Colorado Rockies” is a rich ode from the band to their home state and listeners will be hard pressed to not like this track. Their sincerity comes through with such vivid clarity that it redeems any self-consciousness that might have otherwise been present. Everything about this debut seems honest as a heart attack, often deceptively simple, and full of real love for the forms they excel in performing.

8 out of 10 stars 

Raymond Burris

Friday, November 25, 2016

Redbelt - Beautiful Surround

Redbelt - Beautiful Surround 

The secret of why young men are attracted to guitar rock is no secret at all. The physicality of rock guitar, in all its sub-genres, remains one of the abiding staples of 20th and 21st century popular music. Some bands prefer to bludgeon listeners over the head with the forcefulness of their playing while others, like Milwaukee’s RedBelt, marry that power with melodic virtues that deepen the impact they have on a potential audience. Their debut album Beautiful Surround is a welcome revisit of the power hard-hitting rock music gains when it’s hooked up to melody-fueled songwriting and exceptional vocals. There are thirteen songs on this first release and not a single one of them lack the inspiration needed to get their point across to audiences. This is music of the body, but there’s ample intelligence behind this work as well and an undeniable spirit that gives each song its own specific energy.

“Crossed Wires” might seem, on an initial listen, to be all aggression and precious little nuance. However, set aside the clashing guitars, and you’ll hear a band who pays as much attention to the melodic possibilities inherent to the tune as they do to their riffing and volume setting. Lead singer Kevin Brown, also the band’s second guitarist, has a strong voice for this sort of material and the band’s penchant for harmony vocals is a surprising turn in a genre that doesn’t often go in for such things. “American Mercy” is even better. This is the first example of the intelligence present in their work and mentioned earlier in the review. Multiple listens will reveal more and more to the audience about how good this track really is, but there are further surprises in store soon after. Lead guitarist Mike Mann whips out some satisfyingly nasty slide guitar on the song “Shoot It All the Time” and the rhythm section establishes the deepest groove on the album that gives him a great foundation from which he can singe the listener’s ears.  

The middle of the album, however, is relatively content to mine the punk rock vein. Songs like “Sweet Release” and “30 Seconds” largely desert the band’s earlier concern with melody, but they still have big choruses that will capture any listener’s attention. “Cold” is an unusual track on the album that plays, frankly, like the band’s clearest commercial track with an unbelievably hooky chorus that the band wisely revisits a number of times throughout the song. The final half of the album has two of Beautiful Surround’s best songs. The first, “Throw Away”, represents the fullest realization on the release of their desire to bring melody, longstanding rock tropes, and punk rock attitude into the same package. “Bones”, however, is much more overtly theatrical than any of the previous songs and shows a pleasing side to the band that earlier songs don’t hint at. This is a powerful debut from a band that’s quite obviously energized by the chance to get their songwriting out on a national level. They are talented players and songwriters alike. RedBelt’s Beautiful Surround sets the stage for this four piece to have a long and potentially brilliant run.  

9 out of 10 stars

Gilbert Mullis

Jemima James - When You Get Old

Jemima James - When You Get Old 

The thirteen song When You Get Old marks only Jemima James’ second album in a thirty seven year span. Her first recording, At Longview Farm, is being released in conjunction with it and it displays a clear evolution from her youthful 1979 compositions to When You Get Old’s much more stripped back, emotionally sophisticated songwriting. She has become a singer of great understated nuance in that time as well. Many of the songs on When You Get Old have a strong blues pedigree and James proves herself quite capable of flexing some gritty muscle in that direction without ever sounding unconvincing or else like she’s straining for effect. Her smiling, sleepy vocals on some of the more country-ish numbers stands in sharp contrast to the seriousness of some of the lyrics but, like you can with blues, a certain amount of this pose can be considered as part of the smiling to keep from crying school of singing. She has great emotiveness in her voice and a canny talent for winding her singing tightly into the arrangement of each song. 

While there’s some blues influence in this album, the most important strains laced through this music are decidedly country and folk in origin. James doesn’t have an overpowering voice, but none of the material on this album requires vocal pyrotechnics. Instead, When You Get Old focuses much more on intimacy than strength. The title song opens things and illustrates these points quite well. James, as a songwriter, has a masterful way of delivering weighty sentiments with smiling aplomb. She caresses each line out of her vocal chords with sensitivity and never adopts an aggressive vocal posture. The second song “Magician” emphasizes this strength. She revels in the literary possibilities that the subject matter affords to her and gives listeners quite an inspired vocal without, once again, ever overwhelming the listener.

This song first philosophy continues for the duration of the album. “If I Could Only Fly” will resonate with many listeners because James writes so well and, as a vocalist, completely inhabits the imaginative landscape she creates with her songs. “If It’s the End”, one of the album’s best songs, is perhaps the pinnacle of her ability to marry low-key traditional country music with nuanced lyrical material. The words, standing on their own, are serviceable and have great strength, but it’s James’ ability to create subtext through her phrasing that distinguishes songs like this from the rest of the pack. “Sensible Shoes” revisits the opening song from At Longview Farm to great effect. The full-band arrangement that powered the original is forsaken here in favor of the same bare bones approach that characterizes the whole album. 

“Golden Boy” is a solid traditional country song with bluesy color shooting through the arrangement. It’s a lyrically affectionate song, easily one of the album’s most affectionate numbers, and James delivers it with great phrasing while still avoiding any overt sentimentality. “Tennessee Blues” continues her exploration of classic country musical textures infused with a blues influence and the lyric, quite simple on the surface, gains much from another strong James vocal. The restrained mid-tempo shuffle of “One and Only” has great drumming and another top shelf performance from James’ collaborators. The album’s final track, “Nothing New”, brings this artful album to a satisfying conclusion and allows James a chance to perform a completely solo piece. When You Get Old carries underrated power and panache in the same streamlined package and anyone who loves folk, country, and a little blues will undoubtedly find this to be one of the year’s best efforts in that vein. 

8 out of 10 stars.

Montey Zike 

Martin X. Petz - Broken Man

Martin X. Petz - Broken Man 

The best songwriters resist pigeonholing. It might be easy for the uninformed to give Martin X. Petz’s latest full length album Broken Man a single listen and slap an ill-fitting label on it as faith-based or intended for adult oriented radio play. The source and appeal of this nine song work, however, is much broader. These are songs that attempt to dramatize Petz’s own interior struggles, but they just as often look outside the confines of self and connect wonderfully with facets of our lives that, undoubtedly, resonate with a wide swath of potential listeners. His lyrical content avoids inaccessible or high-flown moments of pseudo poetry, but make no mistake that Petz isn’t a superior writer when compared to many of his contemporaries in the field. There’s great intelligence and literacy driving these songs. He emerges from this album not just as a gifted songwriter and musician, but as a storyteller with a voice that’s an ideal vehicle for communicating with his audience. 

The title song incorporates a full band, but their touch is light. Petz keeps this track clipped and doesn’t waste a word or note, but the atmosphere of the song keeps the energy level at an engaging medium. It’s a credit to his songwriting skill that Petz never lets things get too overwrought, but his plain-spoken depiction of despair will be an affecting listening experience for many. “Noble Blues” takes on some of the full band trappings heard on the first song but tempers them somewhat. The result is a much more intimate approach for the song’s first quarter before Petz opts for ramping up the musical stakes during the remaining duration. The album’s third track “Fall” is constructed around a tasteful half shuffle tempo accentuated by understated drums. His vocal shows all of the care and sensitivity for phrasing apparent on the album’s first two songs and there’s some tasty lead guitar here as well. 

A classic count-in opens “Heart & Home” which, as the title implies, celebrates the connections that sustain our lives. The arrangement is full of the sound musical decisions and compelling playing that characterizes the album as a whole, but it does more than that. The song has a great uplifting swing that picks listeners up and keeps them engaged throughout the song. “Count” reaffirms the virtues that guides much of the album’s songwriting with a clean, uncluttered track primarily centered around Petz’s evocatively recorded vocals, his guitar, and light percussion. “They Say (You’ll Know)” has much of the same breezy confidence heard on the album’s best songs and a light shuffle pace that keeps things moving without ever forcing them along. Broken Man’s final song, “Chained”, has much of the same musical focus characterizing earlier tracks like “Count” and relies on intimacy to make its case to the listener.  

There’s deceptive simplicity here, but Petz is a songwriter who realizes the virtue of a song having no more than it needs to get its message/point across to the listener. The nine songs on Broken Man do not pretend to remake the wheel artistically – instead, Petz is a fine product of the singer/songwriter school of popular music and excels at giving his audience entertaining musical material along with substantive words that will reach and touch many hearts.  

9 out of 10 stars 

Lydia Hillenburg

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Django Mack - ‘Round Christmas

Django Mack - ‘Round Christmas 

You can help but admire someone pushing blues music so convincingly and artistically as Django Mack. It’s more than that though. Over the course of two albums, Mack has carved out his own unique niche in the genre as a creative lyricist who has co-opted the lexicon of blues and Americana music for his own uses. There are often some surprising poetic turns that elevate his words over the typical efforts from this music and Mack’s delivery completely inhabits the music. The newest release from this Sam Francisco based performer is the song “’Round Christmas”, a dramatic and emotionally heavy song teamed with a bonus track entitled “Big Black Dog”. They have a lot of punch, but they hit different areas on the listener. Mack has ensured both songs receive even-handed production that underlines their strengths and keeps things in balance. Everything comes across with startling clarity.  

The single “’Round Christmas” will sink the mood of many listeners, but it’s a facile way of hearing it. This is a very theatrical blues, not in a bad or hackneyed way, but instead it turns the narrator’s personal drama into a quasi-epic where everything is rendered in near life or death terms. Images of ruin and desolation litter the lyric. Mack manages a number of graceful verbal turns and his phrasing takes full advantage of his talents in this area. The arrangement is propelled forward by tasteful but steady drumming with a couple of guitars working their magic over top. The six strings have contrasting sounds and give it a sort of signature edge that makes it different. Mack’s influences have often been referred to as performers like Leon Redbone, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen, but the funereal emotiveness he summons for this song hits hard and never seems overwrought or imitative.  

He covers familiar ground in the genre with the second song, but pulls it off with every bit of the style that makes “’Round Christmas” sound nothing like many modern offerings in Americana music. “Big Black Dog” doesn’t pretend to have the same seriousness of subject matter and it revels in its humor. The inspired blues piano vamps and tosses in rave up after rave up without ever losing its handle on following the song. Mack and some backing singers give a performance that’s equal parts skill and pure, joyful gusto. This is a song that’s having fun from the moment it hits until the last note plays.  

Go back and check out his two albums to date if you don’t already know. Django Mack is as first class as it comes with this style of music and easily would have occupied a place alongside his idols in another generation. He’s that good and shows no signs of peaking yet. “’Round Christmas” and “Big Black Dog” entertain audiences in very different ways, but the final satisfying effect on listeners remains the same and this sort of musical and songwriting quality will keep them coming back for more.

YOU TUBE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8sF4YgT3uU 

Charles Hatton

Kelly McGrath - You and Me Today

Kelly McGrath - You and Me Today 

Despite the omnipresence of it in our lives, physical and otherwise, very little of our art concerns itself with examining death. Invariably, when a songwriter or poet turns their attention to the subject, it’s from the point of view Kelly McGrath adopts in her latest single “You and Me Today”. McGrath sings from the point of view of a survivor, one of those left behind to pick up the pieces after a close loved one dies, and her stirring performance never risks the hackneyed or overwrought. Instead, she approaches this event in song with the same grace the reality of her loss demanded from here in real life. Everything about this song rings true. There is a sense of hard-won wisdom emanating from the mid-tempo arrangement and the plaintive tone of loss infusing McGrath’s voice is unmistakable. She doesn’t subject the listener to a single note longer than the song needs and it’s a little astonishing that she manages to so comprehensively touch on a deeply emotional experience within three minutes eight seconds.  

It is remarkably patient for such a relatively brief song. One expects that such a profoundly requires a larger stage to communicate its enormity, but McGrath’s less is more approach belies more incremental ambitions. “You and Me Today” succeeds, in no small part, thanks to how well it understands its listeners. The rising and ebbing of human emotions, especially after such a transformative event, mimics the lightly handled orchestration so evident in this track. It starts off in muted mood, McGrath’s voice accompanied by acoustic guitar, and slowly climbs in intensity. The rhythm section gives the song a sturdy skeleton that McGrath’s other musical cohorts surround the skeleton with sparkling color that nonetheless has a darker, moody side. The mid-tempo pace that the song takes is ideally suited for both the subject matter and McGrath’s voice. 

The lyrics are tightly written and, like the arrangement, never waste any energy with extra material that means nothing to the song. The focus is laudable. She plumbs to the depths of this experience without ever relying on familiar turns in the form – she never plays to the audience’s pity, doesn’t over-sentimentalize her relationship with her father, and fills the track with a great mix of the personal and general. Instead, she is intent on relaying the reality of this experience with clear, startlingly direct language that never cheats the listener and tries to gaze into the face of this grievous change to her life without ever blinking or flinching. Her attempt is wholly successful and quite admirable. 

Anyone who has lost a loved parent will understand the pain in this single. “You and Me Today” is a song that sees the connection between father and daughter as unalterable, even by the grave, and while the song isn’t a catalog of platitudes for the deceased, it is a remarkable tribute to the enduring power that certain figures hold over our hearts and lives. As a preview of her forthcoming album, Kelly McGrath couldn’t have re-introduced herself to the music world in a better way.  

David Shouse