monoblogue music: “The Drifter and the Dream (Part One)” by Matt Townsend

May 20, 2017 · Posted in Music Reviews · Comments Off 

Matt Townsend - The Drifter and the Dream part 1I’m going back to a monoblogue music alumni on this one.

Back in 2014 I reviewed Matt’s effort, done with a band he called the Wonder of the World. In it, I noted that Townsend had an unmistakable vocal resemblance to Bob Dylan, but added, ”fortunately for this listener, it’s really only the voice which is reminiscent of Bob Dylan because Matt forges his own musical direction.” (He also contributed to a more recent album I reviewed from the Asheville Symphony Orchestra.)

In some respects, that musical direction remains true with this release but I also think it’s a far more politically-pointed effort. I normally don’t read other reviews before I do my own, but I couldn’t help noticing on Townsend’s Bandcamp page as I was listening to the five songs that make up part one of what is supposed to be a two-part effort that he’s being compared to Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie – both noted leftist icons. That leaning is unmistakable in the opening song, called The Great American Madness, later on in Freedom Is Calling Again, and it’s also a little bit there in Came Down From The Mountain if you listen between the lines.

And listening between the lines is something you really need to do with this EP. With the exception of the final song, Katie, the other four songs are well-composed, complex arrangements. Townsend obviously spent the 2 1/2 years between “Wonder of the World” and “Drifter and the Dream” honing his musicianship and songwriting ability, as he has learned well how to craft songs in a style that suits his voice and the genre he’s choosing to work within. (I should say, however, that Katie is not a bad song by any stretch – it’s just a far simpler acoustic number with guitar, harmonica, and poignant vocals.) This ability shines the most on Roaming Twilight, a ballad which I think shows Matt at his best.

I wasn’t originally aware that this EP had been out for a few months (it was actually released back in December) so once I noticed that I got to wondering how work on part two was going. To be honest, I couldn’t find out much about that but I did learn that Matt was (obviously) successful in raising the $12,000 he needed to bring this project to life through crowdfunding and maybe had enough initial success with sales (or enough ambition) to do a quick tour around Florida and Georgia earlier this year. (He has only one show on his current docket at the moment, fairly local to his North Carolina home.)

As a bottom line, if you were to look at the evolution and growth as an artist and craftsman of song between his 2014 release and this more recent one, you would see from Matt a serious upgrade and dedication that is reflected in the work. It’s music that is invigorating and refreshing in its honesty. I don’t have to necessarily agree with the lyrical content or the politics of the singer to appreciate the music, so (knowing the political composition of my core audience) baffle the other side and listen for yourself with an open mind, too.

monoblogue music: “Let Go Or Be Dragged” by Silver Lake 66

April 29, 2017 · Posted in Music Reviews · Comments Off 

If you are really into old-line country music with male/female harmony – think of the great duets of yesteryear like Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn or Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – you just may like the first release from this otherwise unassuming-looking couple pictured to your left. I’m not going to say that this duo will make you forget these long-ago Nashville legends, but you should enjoy the slice of Americana presented by Maria Francis and Jeff Overbo, otherwise known as Silver Lake 66.

They tell a personal tale that could make for its own country song – originally from the Midwest, the couple toiled in Los Angeles for nearly a decade before trying their luck in the most unlikely musical hotbed of Portland, Oregon. It’s not Nashville, but I have noticed over my time of doing album reviews that a lot of roots/Americana/country music comes from that end of the country.

So when you listen to the opening track called Bury My Bones in Arkansas, be warned that it’s the first of twelve tracks that put a relatively modern spin on the tried-and-true formula of male/female harmony. The nice thing is that both spend time in the lead, which freshens up the collection – however, it seems Maria gets the bluesier songs such as Magnolia, Change Your Mind, or Price You Pay, while Jeff leads the more upbeat and humorous tracks like Arkansas or San Francisco Angel. All but one track features some harmony, but it only seems right that Maria handles Treat Me So Fine by herself.

As a group, though, I think the best songs are the ones which are most true to the duet styling: Devils Looking For Me, Do You Ever (perhaps the best example of this), and End of the Day. They also get everyone into the act on the last song, Doctor, which is a fun closing track suitable for an adult beverage of choice.

It’s a bit hard to believe this one’s been out awhile, as it was released last July. Perhaps it’s a sign of maturity or just a comfortable (or, conversely, shall we say working-class?) stage in life but Silver Lake 66 doesn’t stray all that far from their Portland base – they subsist on the somewhat occasional show as opposed to getting the gang together and traveling around the great northwest (or any other part of the country, for that matter.) Yet you don’t have to travel that far to sample their wares – as I often say, don’t take my word for it, just listen for yourself. As I said, if you really like the classic country you’ll probably be glad you did.

monoblogue music: “Empty Mansions” by C. K. Flach

March 25, 2017 · Posted in Music Reviews · Comments Off 

I’m here to tell you this is one of the most unusual releases I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing.

While C. K. Flach is not a complete stranger to the music business – the New York-based singer/songwriter’s bio states he’s performed for a few years in a band called The Kindness, which put out an EP in 2015 – his first solo album is a nine-song, one-poem stream of consciousness about life. As he describes the recording process, Flach did most of it himself, but “recruited friends and family as needed to complete certain songs.” One of them is an unnamed female singer who provides harmony vocals on some of the tracks, but apparently he played most of the instruments.

In my mind’s eye I can picture Flach holed up in a little apartment/studio someplace in upstate New York, spending hours making sure every note is just so. If anything, the album seems to me a bit fussy. It starts out well enough with the song Lazurus, which let me know that Flach has a voice that reminds me of a country singer but plays songs that have an acoustic sensibility combined with a feel for the adult contemporary genre. In that same vein, he bills Boxcar Dancing as the single; a song that melds a nice lyric line with an almost contrived “sha-la-la” ending.

There are also songs on “Empty Mansions” though that make for hard listening – not hard in a musical sense or as terribly bad songs, but songs that make you wonder just what kind of upbringing and influence were there to drive him to write such music. These are songs with simple titles like Munich, Tranquilized, and Calamity. And besides the spoken word final track called Firmament, there are spoken word interludes in Munich and Queen Caroline, an almost bluesy ballad about a “sad, sad girl.” Flach definitely falls in the mold of one who believes lyrics are poetry, and sometimes music just gets in the way.

Flach shows some different sides on some of the songs – being quite sarcastic on The Officer, putting together an antiwar screed on Machine Gun, and revealing that’s he’s “sick of Elvis, sick of politics” on the title track. Empty Mansions is perhaps the most accessible song from a radio standpoint, but it falls in the midst of Flach’s social commentary side of the release. There may be listeners who don’t make it that far because there is a sameness to the songs that may turn off some who would check it out, and this may be a by-product of doing most of the work himself as opposed to having a band with several different opinions on how songs should be crafted.

This is an album that would appeal to people who like their music challenging and thought-provoking, as it’s 180 degrees away from most of the mindless pop that permeates the commercial airwaves. “Empty Mansions” is definitely an album that falls under the category of acquired taste, but if you want to listen for yourself, Flach has set up sites to do so.

monoblogue music: “White Oak & Kerosene” by Justin Allen and the Well Shots

February 25, 2017 · Posted in Music Reviews · 1 Comment 

There are two things Justin Allen has going for him in my estimation: like me, he’s from Ohio but set out to make his fortune someplace else, and the other thing is that he’s a talented songwriter who seems to have found a niche at the intersection of rock and country. Of course, I don’t think he’s the only guy to ever try this combination.

But when the “someplace else” Justin chose to travel to is Nashville, it’s a natural that he would lean just a shade to the country side. Yet it’s not quite the modern country that’s giving the genre a bad name; instead there’s just enough other flavor to keep the listener’s interest. A good case in point is the lead video from Justin’s five-song EP release from last month, called Angelina.

I have to admit, the video itself is a little bit strange but then again a guy who’s worked as a pedicab driver yet can write a song lyric like “I don’t care if we go to hell/And Bon Scott greets us when we arrive” – he’s definitely not your average Joe. (That track, called Feeling Alright, is a rockabilly song with a definite influence from – and vocal style of - old John Cougar.) In fact, the best asset of “White Oak & Kerosene” is the variety of styles put into the compilation, which checks in at over 24 minutes for a five-song EP. Justin certainly doesn’t cheat on song length.

The country aspect comes through more on Angeline and also Come A Little Closer, but like I said earlier these aren’t exactly the modern country anthems that seem to be all about drinking beer, driving pickup trucks, and chasing women, in one order or another. Whether it’s the hint of western swing that Angelina has, the country-fried blues of the title track, or the more heartfelt Come A Little Closer, those who like country can enjoy this sampler.

But since I come from a rock n’ roll background I really got more into the other two songs: the aforementioned Feeling Alright and the lead track, Hard Luck Man. That song slowly builds up a head of steam but by the end you’ll want to crank it up.

Now if I had a quibble about this album, which is the debut for Justin and his band, it’s that he seems to oversing some of the songs. It sounds to me like he exaggerates the drawl a little bit for effect, so it comes out as if he’s trying to be a parody of a Southern rock singer. Perhaps in a live setting he lets it naturally flow a little bit more, which will improve the songs over time. As singers gain experience, they also learn to shape the songs to their singing style and I think Justin will, too.

And speaking of live shows, Justin and his very tight backup band, the Well Shots, have played a few dates already as support for the EP and it wouldn’t surprise me if they wandered this way. I’d be interested to hear what songs they cover to fill out the show; something tells me they wouldn’t be what one would expect. But don’t take my word for it, as they have three of the five songs up on their website so you can listen for yourself. If you like them, sign up for the mailing list and it may pay off in a tour stop – you never know.

monoblogue music: “The Asheville Symphony Sessions” by various artists

February 4, 2017 · Posted in Music Reviews · Comments Off 

For decades it’s been rare to see symphonic music on the mainstream record charts, and as a genre classical music has been banished to isolated corners of the radio dial, such as public radio. But at the same time purveyors of popular music have seen the need to “legitimize” themselves as artists by collaborating with classical ensembles: two prime examples are the Moody Blues 1967 album “Days of Future Passed” (which spawned the single Tuesday Afternoon), and two decades later Metallica’s performance of many of their most popular songs to that point with the San Francisco Symphony, recorded live and released as the album “S + M” in 1999.

The concept behind the Asheville Symphony Sessions wasn’t precisely the same, though. Instead, it was more of a collaboration between a wide variety of artists spanning a number of genres with a musical ensemble that has performed in that region of North Carolina since 1960. In some respects, it was a very glorified jam session as some of the bands took previously released songs and others made new music for the occasion.

Perhaps the most famous of these groups in their own right is Steep Canyon Rangers, a Grammy-winning group that’s also known for backing comedian (and banjoist) Steve Martin in his musical exploits. They contributed the already-haunting song Blue Velvet Rain, with the orchestra actually smoothing some of the rougher edges of it.

On the other hand, the song For Now, We Are by Matt Townsend sounds like something he envisioned from the start, as if it was just natural that the mood of the song needed the touch of the ASO to succeed. I realized after looking into this that I have previously reviewed an album Matt did with his band as one of the first few reviews I did. He still has the distinctive voice but has further perfected the craft of writing to it.

The artists determined how much of an effect the various ensembles had on their music. In some cases, such as the songs No Expectations by soulful singer Shannon Whitworth or the world music beat of Circle Round The Flame from Free Planet Radio (featuring singer Lizz Wright), a light touch was all that was really needed. The melody the ASO provided for the Doc Aquatic song Last Monday also made that song better. Yet to me where the collaboration really shone was on two tracks: a solid alternative tune called Pontiac from the Electric Owls and this almost Beatle-like track from Lovett called Don’t Freak Out.

The video also gives an idea of just what went into this compilation, which I’m sure was fun for both sides and gave everyone involved a chance to musically stretch their legs.

Out of the eight tracks, the only one I didn’t get any enjoyment out of was (unfortunately on my listening source) the very first track. It’s an anti-capitalist screed by a female duo called Rising Appalachia called Filthy Dirty South. (They did an EP with that name some years back, if my checking their website is correct.) I just had a hard time reconciling protest music with the beauty of a symphony – it was a track that didn’t work well.

All in all, this was an interesting project that showcases the artistic community of a relatively small city (about 80,000 call the city home) and brings it to the attention of others who may marvel at its outsize influence on the musical world. There aren’t many places twice the size that could pull this off, so the effort is commendable to say the least.

monoblogue music: following up in 2017

January 7, 2017 · Posted in Music Reviews, Personal stuff · Comments Off 

A few weeks back I resolved to follow up on the acts which have made my top 5 review lists from 2014, 2015, and 2016. I was curious to see if they were still making music and whether it was still good stuff. So over the last couple weeks or so I have been checking things out with these 15 acts and this is what I found, beginning with the 2014 crop.

Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders were my #5 pick in 2014. At the time I noted the Australian native was not a big fan of social media, but he has been prolific musically: in 2015 he did a follow-up called “Go By Myself” and this year I was alerted to another new release via e-mail – somehow I have managed to get on the e-mail list. Back in the summer Roberts released a rather haunting single called Little Johnny, which is purportedly off an upcoming album called “Greenbah.”

In this case, the song seems to fit the voice much better. With this single I think Roberts drifted away from country into a harder blues sound, but he came back just before Christmas (and actually after my initial draft of this piece) with a new single called Blood and Bones.

This one is more pop-flavored with the inclusion of some tasty organ. Again, for the most part Roberts is taking advantage of his raspy voice to good effect, and we now can see that “Greenbah” will continue Billy’s tradition of stylized animation for his album and single covers.

For awhile in the first couple years of monoblogue music, Tomas Doncker was a staple feature with his True Groove record label and musical performances, including the Tomas Doncker Band that had the #4 record from 2014, a tribute to Howlin’ Wolf. They actually had two albums reviewed in the space of a few months, with “Big Apple Blues” reviewed in October of 2014. Doncker also helped out on releases from TG members Lael Summer, Marla Mase, and Kevin Jenkins – all within the first 18 months or so of this feature’s existence.

In more recent times, Doncker’s band has subsequently sent out another soulful but politically-charged release called “The Mess We Made.” While several of the songs set an angry tone, it also has an interesting redo of U2′s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, too. The band also continues to play the occasional show in the New York region, but I suspect most of his energy is working toward the True Groove Records corporate goals.

Hailing from Sweden, The Lost Poets did an EP called “Insubordia” that landed in my #3 spot in 2014. I noted in my year-end review that they had put out a subsequent single called Mouth that I wasn’t sure would be part of a larger project or a bridge to the next thing. Well, I found out my answer: earlier this year The Lost Poets put out a full-length album called (not exactly original here) “Insubordia Pt. II.” It’s an album that remains true to the band’s grungy, heavy-laden style of grinding guitar and occasionally plodding rhythms – had I reviewed it, though, they would have had another top 5 contender. Meanwhile, Mouth was not only included in Pt. II but also added to a motion picture soundtrack for a movie called “Don’t Kill It,” a Dolph Lundgren flick coming out this spring.

But what’s even cooler, and speaking of movies, apparently this is the band’s next move.

It’s a short film under consideration for the next Sundance film festival. So the band may move out of the standard tour/album mindset into a different corner of the music world, but in the meantime they recently released In A Wasteland from Pt. II as a single that’s getting a little bit of internet radio airplay and promise another one later this month. Should be interesting.

Two years ago, my #2 album was the very first album I reviewed, “Turn the People” from Australia’s Monks of Mellonwah. They were definitely a band on the upswing, with some dates in the U.S. that summer and fall, with the summer dates backing Scott Stapp and that fall opening for Sevendust. Late in 2015 they did an EP called “Disconnect.”

But that EP seemed to have more of a pop sound rather than alternative rock. (I couldn’t see Sevendust fans being into it, that’s for sure.) And it seemed to be the end of the road – no social media updates, no new music, nothing. Their website – suspended. So I have no idea what happened to these guys, whether they went their separate ways or just put the Monks on a deep hiatus. Sort of a shame.

As for Paul Maged, whose 2014 effort “Diamonds & Demons” was my #1 selection, it appears he’s busy working on the follow-up while doing an occasional show with his “new and improved” backup band, the Strangers. Back in the spring I reviewed a one-off single he did called The Wild, which I was mostly pleased with. If I considered singles for my top 5, it would have been on the short list for inclusion but maybe more of an honorable mention.

But as I checked into his doings it was funny in checking out his Twitter feed that he was #NeverTrump too; however, I truly suspect his reasons were a lot different than mine – particularly as he was working on a gun control song and I’m definitely pro-2A in my viewpoint! But I’ll bet the music is good nonetheless. As he was recently in the process of mixing a song called The Glass River, I’m hoping that I get a chance to check a new album out in the early stages of 2017.

Now I’ll look at my 2015 winners, beginning with the #5 album from Idiot Grins. “Big Man” is still getting airplay around the world, but as of this past September the group was in the studio working on its follow-up. So I would imagine they will be debuting something new in 2017 – but it would be nice if they updated social media more than once in awhile.

On the other hand, The Liquorsmiths, who had the #4 album, are both proficient in social media and have followed up on “This Book Belongs To…” with a album that came out in August called “All My Friends Are Fighters.” I gave it a listen, and to me it took the band in a good direction but the execution was uneven. This may have been the unusual production strategy or just my general mood, so you may disagree. While they did a mini-tour from Georgia back to home awhile back, more recently they’ve been sticking around their own San Diego area playing the occasional show. They still do well marketing, though, with the most recent release being a full compilation called “The Complete Works.”

One thing unique about Tumbler, which came in with my #3 pick in 2015, is that after I reviewed it I received a nice note from and struck up a brief e-mail conversation with Richard Grace, who is the musical veteran of the group shepherding his son Harry into the music business. He said a year or so ago that they would follow up in 2016, and indeed they have with an album called “Come to the Edge.” The younger Grace penned four of the twelve tracks in the sophomore effort, and this could be a trend: as Richard said on the new album’s release, “Our kitchen concerts don’t happen so much these days. Endings though bring new beginnings. I don’t know where or whether Tumbler goes next. Whatever the future holds I’m grateful.”

But I’ll be damned if I’m not grateful for this release, because I thought it even better than the first – just like The Lost Poets above, this would have been a definite top 5 contender. The mix of songs would probably give some A & R guy a heart attack, but to me that’s part of the charm as old-school, traditionalist dad has several of the more retro, Beatlesque songs on the record while son has his more modern pop-rock tracks. “Come to the Edge” is a fun listen from great alternative to start to very upbeat, inspiring sort of prog-rocker to finish. I’m rooting for just a few more kitchen concerts.

Now I’m not quite sure what is up with the Space Apaches. Perhaps they’ve veered off to another galaxy, leaving just the traces of their second-place album from 2015 behind. Seriously, they haven’t done much in the way of social media or updating their website so they must be all doing their own thing as session musicians can tend to do, I suppose.

Speaking of doing his own thing, Jas Patrick is putting music on the back burner for a time and making some money in a slightly different arena. But he promises to get back to it and I’m holding him to that because the last thing he did was my #1 album of 2015.

Admittedly, this year’s crop really hasn’t had much time to do other things since putting out their music, but I still wanted to see if they were touring or following up at all.

Since I just reviewed the #5 album from Michael Van and the Movers last month, I wasn’t expecting a lot and so far not much has progressed except for a few more good reviews. We’ll see what they’re up to in the months ahead, but for now there’s inertia as far as they are concerned.

The social media is beginning to pick up on Midwest Soul Xchange, who kicked off 2016 with what turned out to be my 4th-ranked CD. Shortly thereafter, they announced they had enlisted a bassist and drummer to flesh out their band for a brief Midwest tour slated for last fall, and we’ve also been promised they are working on the follow-up album. They’re worth watching in 2017 to see how this goes, because I suspect the tour didn’t pan out – however, I just saw (again, since my initial draft of this before Christmas) where they have an April Fool’s Day show in Wisconsin where they pledge to “give a sneak preview of their upcoming material.”

I am truly convinced that as easily as some of us breathe, Jim Peterik writes songs. It’s like he must roll out of bed with riffs and lyrics on his brain, far better than I can write prose on a good day of blogging. Just recently he and friends Tom Yankton and Steve Salzman put together and debuted this country song.

And then you have the recent annual Christmas show he did with Ides of March in Chicago, not to mention that his band Pride of Lions will drop a new album in January. So I would venture to say that, even at the age of 66, he’s putting out more music than guys in the business half his age. (And dropping a lot of names on social media, where I found out he plays weddings. Of course, I suppose if you can pay for a wedding at Disney World, you can hire a well-known band, too.) It gives us whippersnappers hope, although I hope to be a successful writer a little bit before I’m 66. After all, #3 out of many isn’t a bad position to be in: I’d take the #3 spot on a best-sellers list any time - as long as there are more than three contenders, of course.

Having just put out their second-place album in November, Steve Hussey and Jake Eddy are seeing some success in Europe and hope to get a push stateside on the Americana charts as the year dawns. I haven’t seen a tour put together yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out they’re at least hitting the prime regional spots in the Ohio Valley. That may sound strange to us on the East Coast, but in their genre it’s a little like the Silicon Valley is to high-tech.

As they keep on supporting my top album pick of 2016, the Magic Lightnin’ Boys play shows around their home area of Cincinnati, but they also use their talents to bring awareness of a number of causes. In the first case, they take the song Fear & Freedom from their “Stealin’ Thunder” album I reviewed and use it to capture their take on the Standing Rock standoff that’s come to a temporary truce.

A little more recently, they did a touching version of an old country classic to honor those who perished and lost their property in the Gatlinburg fire.

Obviously there is no moss growing under their feet. They use their social media for a lot of live peeks at their rehearsals and such, so it’s entertaining to follow them. Hopefully we will see the next album from the group in the coming months (perhaps it will be an acoustic one?) because the world needs more southern rock with a heaping helping of blues and just a bit of old-school country.

So that’s where my top picks from the last three years of monoblogue music are as 2017 dawns. As long as I keep doing the music reviews I think I’m going to make this an annual feature, although I’m sure over time some of these artists and groups will no longer be actively making music. Yet if they keep it up - and based on what I’ve heard from a lot of them lately - it should be good stuff.

Update 1-14-17: I happened to see this in my social media message box, but here’s a follow-up from Ryan Summers of Midwest Soul Xchange:

I saw your (social media) note about talking about updates from the winners. Just thought I’d fill you in on what’s happening with us. There should be a steady stream of shows coming up from here on out. Being an independent act living in two parts of the country, it’s taken us awhile to get the infrastructure set up to put on a good live show. More to come there… The next album is already in the works. It’s going to be a concept album and should be due out late this year or early next. There might be a couple singles we’ll release prior to that as well. Feel free to send me any other questions too. Thanks again! Ryan – MSX

monoblogue music: 2016′s top 5

December 31, 2016 · Posted in Music Reviews · 1 Comment 

For year three of this enterprise I was a little disappointed that I had fewer records to review; however, the Top 5 would still compare favorably to the group from either of my other years. Again, it is a relatively diverse list that spans a number of genres and styles.

After going back through all the reviews and reminding myself why I liked these albums, here is your top 5 for this year.

5. “A Little More Country” by Michael Van and the Movers

Original review: December 10.

This album (as well as another in my top 5) represent a little bit of a rebellion against the state of country music today. Outstanding instrumentation and good songwriting are the hallmarks of this California-based group. It may be a surprise to listeners that they don’t hail from the hollows of hill country.

“A Little More Country” is the product of good collaboration between the three bandmates that wrote 12 of the 13 songs, and they picked a very appropriate cover song to close the album. We will see what 2017 brings for this five-member group.

4. “New American Century” by Midwest Soul Xchange

Original review: January 2.

Going from the last to the first, and a studio collaboration between five musicians to two musicians working in separate locations trying to put together a cohesive whole. Looking back on this one, this was perhaps one of the darker collections I listened to this year, but the pair put this together in a rather seamless fashion. It has a lot of different prog-rock influences, but the one I noticed most was Pink Floyd.

This duo will be one I’ll be interested in updating with a new feature I’m working on for next week.

3. “The Songs” by Jim Peterik

Original review: October 8.

One would expect this musical veteran to put out good music, but the hook of this album is the treatment he gives to songs that he wrote decades ago, music made famous by bands like .38 Special, Survivor, Sammy Hagar, and the Beach Boys, not to mention the band he’s most associated with, the Ides of March. So you know the songs but you will be pleasantly surprised by the updates.

After I wrote this review, I found out Peterik is embroiled in legal issues with his former band, Survivor. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, but in the meantime he’s still active with his original Ides of March.

2. “The Miller Girl” by Steve Hussey and Jake Eddy

Original review: October 29.

When I did the December review for Michael Van and the Movers I noted the similarity between their album and this one. Both are fine examples of musical craftsmanship in a genre which places a premium on such things.

But I thought this effort outshone the other, and it’s a merging of two generations of players who have come together to write a great album’s worth of work. Hopefully they are part of a growing backlash against the excesses of modern country music, which more and more resembles the dreaded “power ballad” era in rock but with different instruments. Hussey and Eddy bring an emotion that’s clearly missing in the more modern stuff.

1. “Stealin’ Thunder” by The Magic Lightnin’ Boys

Original review: April 16.

Of all the albums I reviewed this year, this one was most in my wheelhouse because, simply put, these guys rock. Yes, blues-based rock has been waning over the last few years as the hip-hop influence pervades the scene – it’s a recent change that reminds me of being outside on a pleasant sunny day when the wind shifts and suddenly you notice you’re right by a pig farm. Luckily, these guys have their heads screwed on right and put together good music the old-fashioned way, reminding us that the southern influence was what made a lot of classic rock, well, classic.

This was actually a rather easy choice for the number one album I reviewed, and may it spark a revival in a music industry gone commercialized and so, so stagnant.

As I alluded to earlier, next week I want to track some of the bands I’ve honored over the years and see if they are still making good music. That should be a fun post to put together as we all combat the post-holiday blues. Hey, maybe one of these guys can make that into a song!

Since this turns out the be the final post of 2016, I want to take a sentence and wish all of you a happy and blessed 2017. See you next year!

monoblogue music: “A Little More Country” by Michael Van and the Movers

December 10, 2016 · Posted in Music Reviews · Comments Off 

Michael Van - A Little More CountryComing out later this month as the bleakness of winter approaches, this album hearkens back to something you might have seen in your local rural America record store or Sears & Roebuck back in 1969 – honest, good old-fashioned country music with a heaping helping of bluegrass pickin’. I suppose if there were a truth in advertising rule for naming an album, this one would comply.

But unlike those albums which may have graced my dad’s record collection when he was younger (as he likes country music), these songs are more lengthy and, in many cases, more humorous. (Of course, modern technology makes this possible - in the days of the LP, 54 minutes’ worth of music is a two-record set.) But Michael Van and the Movers make this album work by a rich interplay of instruments and voices.

Yet if you watch and listen to the title track, you may swear this could be played on the more modern, formulaic (think “iHeart Radio”) country music stations. I don’t think the fellas in the band would mind some radio airplay, but given the balance of their work I can’t see them sharing a lot of airtime with Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, et. al.

Michael Van (the name is actually a shortened version of Van Arsdale) wrote that song, but the album features three of its players as songwriters and vocalists. There are four tracks apiece from Van Arsdale, guitarist and banjo player Pete Ahonen, and mandolin and fiddle player Alan Bond, with the thirteenth and final track a cover of a song done originally by Gillian Welch in 2003 called Look At Miss Ohio. That gave Ahonen and Van a chance at some harmony, which worked quite well.

Whether intentional or not, this collection is set up with the more upbeat tracks up front. A Little More Country is the lead single and track, but I was more impressed with the playing on the next song called Skedaddle Mountain Lullaby. And how can you not like a song with a chorus lyric like “drank whiskey for his health and now the man must die.” It’s a very honest country song, and Gettin’ Drunk On A Monday is another old-line tune to go with it.

There’s a more poignant mood with Love Me Till Thursday, which came across as a very weepy-style ballad, but that spell is broken with Juanita, a tune which has a somewhat Caribbean flavor to it. This song began a trio which showed the humorous side of the group, even if Van is “singin’ out the hurt” on Gimme Back My Guitar. Pretty Penny is a great story song which doesn’t seem overly long despite running over six minutes – in the country genre, that’s like eternity. But if you have a good story to tell, what’s the rush?

With the opening beats of Center Of The Universe, though, the moods change: this and Don’t Mind It If I Do seem to be more prototypical country love songs, while River Road turns introspective, with steel guitar playing a more prominent role. We also get the usual tribute to wanderlust with That Train – which also has a little bit of background harmony to it – and the mixing in of bluesy elements with Sounds Like Rain. This isn’t to say these are bad songs at all, but the more musically adventurous part of the album seems to be in the opening seven tracks. (Interesting to note: from reading the band’s social media page, those in the alternative country music radio business seem to think That Train has “great radio potential.” Let ‘em play it.)

As a whole, this album reminded me a lot of another one I reviewed a few weeks back by Steve Hussey and Jake Eddy. Both of these take a genre that overall sorely needs a kick in the pants and bend it back toward what made it worth listening to in the first place. I’m much more familiar with the hard rock/metal scene since that’s what I grew up listening to, so my analogy for the state of country music today is that of where the hard rock genre was as the “power ballad” era was playing out. The players involved may laugh at the comparison, but in a musical sense they are bringing to country what Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and others of their ilk brought to rock: a sound and passion for it that brings the musical style back to what it was meant to be.

If nothing else, what I admire about the bluegrass end of country music is the craftsmanship that is missing from the commercialized side of the genre. This album is another one that has that quality in spades, and if you want a listen before it comes out, feel free to judge for yourself.

Since this may likely be my final review of 2016, I’ll just say this one is a contender for my top 5 list that I will put out on New Year’s Eve (as it’s a Saturday.) I’m also contemplating a new annual feature to follow up on some of my past winners, so look for that as 2017 begins.

monoblogue music: “Minnesota” by Glenn Meling

November 12, 2016 · Posted in Music Reviews · Comments Off 

This is an intriguing concept album.

Glenn Meling is an Oslo-based singer and songwriter whose vision with this release (his first in seven years and third overall) was to commemorate the 800,000 Norwegians who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of them settling in Minnesota. As it turned out, the nine songs on the album range from the celebratory to the subdued, but mainly manage to hew closely to a pop-rock vibe with the exceptions of the piano-based ballad Far Away From Home and The Good I See In You, which I found quite mournful. The problem with Far Away From Home is that Meling doesn’t seem to have the voice to quite execute the song to its potential. The idea works better with the title track, which is still rather mellow but quite effective; however I thought the best example of this brand of song was The New Day, the penultimate song on the album.

In the mid-section of the album Meling gets into more of an upbeat, almost funk-based pair of songs with America and Secret Flower, where the horn section is put to good use.

To me, though, the best examples of Meling’s work were the straight-ahead pop-rock songs that employed just the right amount of harmony in them. These bookend the album, with Alive opening up the set with its fuzzed-out intro shifting to an upbeat song. It rolls over into Brother Jonathan, which is the single. It gives you somewhat of a taste, but I may have gone with the closing track Free as the single because to me it was very reminiscent of something U2 may have done then locked away in a vault someplace to be released as the lost song on a greatest hits album.

I have to admit that I was more lost on this one with my initial listen, but Minnesota grew on me the second time through. I think the concept and idea is sound, but there were a few minor flaws in the execution – maybe it’s a better album with a bit more polish as a long seven-song EP than having the full concept on nine. But take a listen to Brother Jonathan and project it out to the other songs; perhaps this one may grow on you, too.

monoblogue music: “The Last Remaining Payphone in L.A.” by Logan Metz

November 5, 2016 · Posted in Music Reviews · Comments Off 

In a perfect world, where I had more time and patience with artistic endeavors to do such things, I would take the album cover photo you see to your left and work on it a bit. It would be redone in such a way where the blue background has worn away in a circular pattern to reflect the record inside, something that you may see when you find the old records that belonged to your grandpa in his dusty attic because the covers have rubbed together for decades. It would do justice to this very recent release by Chicago-based singer and songwriter Logan Metz, who looks about 30 and sounds like he’s twice as old – to hear him sing, his voice reminded me a lot of Willie Nelson for some reason.

Yet while Logan occasionally works his way into very retro country territory, such as the honky tonk of the title track or the hopeless romance of Augustine, this album would have fit in perfectly with old standards of sixty years gone by. To be sure, this review should have been done on a throwback Thursday.

I’ll have to concede I don’t do tongue-in-cheek humor and irony nearly as well as Metz does, whether it’s on this track called Interesting People, the title song, or the ending Lullaby (For Everybody But My Baby (And Me)) – yes, we can all go to bed already. You just have to smile at the reference to dropping his last remaining quarter in the last remaining payphone in L.A. (indeed, that is how the lyric goes.) When I saw the song title I was wondering how Logan would get around to it and he didn’t disappoint me.

In the credits list for this eleven-track release I counted a dozen musicians, and Metz uses them to create a plethora of styles and moods, from the sultry Almost (All Mine) to the piano-based ballads I Got A Woman (one of the best songs of the collection) and Surrender, which gets the stringed instruments involved to good effect. Metz also gets bluesy (and boozy) with An Evening At The Cove, but redeems himself with the gospel overtones of I Must Be Found.

Yet because Metz takes a lot of musical chances with this collection – and be warned, those who are really into anything put out as popular music over the last decade are going to be completely lost with this record – they don’t always pay off. Perhaps I didn’t get the joke of The Rabbits, but I have to say Logan’s foray into Beatles territory called Jericho utterly missed the mark. But don’t let these missteps dissuade you from adding this to your collection if you like mature music that sounds so honest you’d swear this was recorded as analog all along. I’ve done my share of reviews of music that is technically dazzling because every note was perfectly placed by a computer program, so to have the backdrop I heard of a faint recording hiss is not a bad thing at all. (Or else I need new headphones. But I think it was Logan’s record.)

As a debut album, Metz sets the bar rather high and it leaves him with a lot of possible directions to proceed. And considering he financed the effort through Kickstarter (a little tidbit I learned from his social media) it looks like he has a bit of an audience already. I don’t know if this little corner of the world has a lot of fans of music your parents thought was retro, but if there are they should enjoy the listen.

 

monoblogue music: “The Miller Girl” by Steve Hussey and Jake Eddy

October 29, 2016 · Posted in Music Reviews · Comments Off 

I’m certain that within the range of my website there are a number of people who enjoy the style of music variously referred to as bluegrass, Americana, or old-style country. Regardless of what they call it, they should be circling November 22 on their calendars because that is the date this release will hit the market. (The title track will come out two weeks beforehand as a single, although perhaps it’s some misfortune that it happens to be Election Day. People may not be thinking of music.)

Steve Hussey and Jake Eddy are musical collaborators who are a generation or so apart in age but seem to get along just fine musically. (Eddy is the younger of the two, as he is still in his teens.) But in listening to this album I noticed it had two somewhat distinctive “sides” to it: the front “side” of five songs seems to be more upbeat while the back half has more of a old-style country feel to it. There’s also more of a distinction between the opening five tracks: Little Shove comes across as a bouncier shuffle style, while Into the Ether seemed to me the most conventional country song. (It’s one I’m allowed to share as the album hasn’t dropped yet.) Chalk It Up is more of a sad, sweet ballad that didn’t seem quite as strong as the other songs.

There more of a humorous sense to Long Lost of Goodbyes, though, and Master Your Mind may be the closest song to what’s become known as modern country music (which is more like classic rock stylistically but played with conventional country instruments.) Its bass line gives the song away.

That song seems to serve as a transition point, because the last five songs have a much more common theme and sound to them – not quite repetitive, but definitely done in a similar vein. Yet while Looking For Love is a rather sad song, the whole mood changes on The Miller Girl, which Hussey (who wrote all the songs) describes as “a simple hymn of a tune about young love.” Who hasn’t felt a longing for the girl from “the next hill over” and anticipated a time when you would be riding the same school bus? You can almost see the progression of romance through the last three songs Better Day, I Pick You (which, in fact, Hussey wrote for his real-life wedding), and Sweet. All these songs have an old-style country and bluegrass feel to them, which is appropriate since both artists hail from West Virginia.

I often note that I try to avoid reading the descriptions and bios until after I listen through the album, so once I read Hussey’s idea behind it things made more perfect sense. Hussey noted that, “The album is laid out as a concept album. The opening tracks tell the story of a man who is lost, as highlighted by the first 3 songs. As the album progresses love sweeps in and by the last song…the listener and the protagonist arrive delivered.”

The other common theme in these ten songs is the outstanding interplay between instruments. This is a well-produced record, and as a testament to that I can tell you the playing on it really shines because the instruments are kept nicely distinctive. As I noted above, I can only share one song but feel free to listen to Into The Ether for yourself and be your own judge. (I think the title track would have been the better pick, but it is intended as the lead single.) My musical friends should really enjoy this record, and who knows? It’s not a long stretch to have the duo make its way to the East Coast to back up their work live so you can check them out in person.

monoblogue music: “Quiet Hours” by Electra Day

October 22, 2016 · Posted in Music Reviews · Comments Off 

I don’t think this was literally recorded in the Iowa field depicted on the cover, but otherwise I must say that of all the albums I have reviewed over the 2 1/2 years of monoblogue music, this may be the title and cover that best (and most simply) describes the work within.

Julie Hampton, who records this solo album under her grandmother’s name Electra Day, wrote these nine songs over an 11-year period and performs them without accompaniment. Literally the album is just her and her acoustic guitar, which limits the music’s variety but allows you to listen to her lyrical tales drawn out over songs that usually run between five and seven minutes. (Ferry Song is the longest at 10:25, yet portions of it are among the most uptempo on the collection.)

In fact, this small description of the album isn’t hype or salesmanship, but pretty much writes the review for me:

Steady rolling guitar layered with deep and densely imagetic lyrics, drawing from the mystique of the places they were inspired by, work together to create an experience of engaged relaxation.

As I listened to her, I began to think of the songs as a musical journal, with a lot of references to the sky and other worldly expanses. (In fact, the one track I can share is called Big Sky.) I don’t picture Julie as the indoor type, although by her brief description of some past health problems she may have had a time in her life where she was trapped inside. ”Quiet Hours” is a story of a poet and teacher that took up the guitar relatively late in life and has traveled – somewhat restlessly – around the world. Currently she lives in Iowa, but it seems to me the wind could pick her up and blow her anywhere. I guess as long as she has her guitar and a pen to write lyrics, she’s happier that way.

“Quiet Hours,” released in August, is actually intended to be the first part of a two-part “Quiet Hours” project with the other half “hopefully (to) be recorded next year.” If soothing melodies that tell a story are your cup of tea, you may well enjoy the quiet hour plus three minutes her collection runs. It’s just as simple as that.

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