monoblogue music: “Jammin’ With Juma” by Rich Lerner and the Groove (featuring Juma Sultan)

This is another review of a monoblogue music alumni, and it’s an album that was a long time in the making.

You may recall back in January, when I followed up on my previous top 5’s, that Rich had been in the studio over the early part of 2018 but “the trail (seemed) to have grown cold.” This review is the bloodhound regaining the scent.

As it turned out, this album came out at the back end of 2018 but rather quietly, considering the album release party didn’t occur until just a couple weeks ago. And Juma was there: Juma Sultan is a longtime percussionist whose initial claim to fame was sharing the Woodstock stage with Jimi Hendrix. That bloodline is immediately set forth on the album’s first track, Hey Baby (New Rising Sun), which was a song Hendrix wrote and performed.

I can’t say whether The Groove’s version is as good as the original because it’s not a Hendrix track I’m familiar with. What I can say is that, if I didn’t know it was a remake, I’d be digging it anyway as a seriously good jam.

It’s not a music video in the true sense, but the audio is pretty cool and sets the tone for Lerner’s latest release.

“Jammin’ With Juma” is a good mixture of covers that I knew and some variant of the following: covers which were so obscure that a Google search couldn’t dig them up, or stuff that Rich had kept in his back pocket. In the category of covers I knew you can place the old Eric Burdon song Spill The Wine and a song originally by Freddie Scott and redone by a solo Ron Wood called Am I Grooving You? (That one came via Rich’s song listing on his band’s website.) The remake of Wine starts out a little shaky but improves as it goes, while the take on Grooving is that of a more straight-ahead rock song placed on a sea of very psychedelic relics and jams.

There are two other songs on here that are only done once. I honestly thought Ghosts of Jimi was also a cover, but the other song that has a similar title isn’t the same track. Too bad for it, because The Groove made this song into a jam band tune with very catchy lyrics. Similarly, Paranoia Blues isn’t the version Paul Simon made famous: instead, this one has a large Tom Petty influence with a really cool outro.

I say “only done once” because the final two tracks on “Jammin’ With Juma” are reworked versions of two previous songs. Be Here Now is already a strangely successful interplay of a hint of dub music (lots of echo) with some country overtones. I noted on the original play (it’s track number three on the record) that it had a good jam band potential but seemed rushed to finish – well, the producer picked it up with a reprise in track eight for an extra minute and a half to a more satisfactory close.

The other example is track two: the heavily reggae Seven Sunsets, which is nicely done except for being a touch weak on the vocals. On the last track this one is really dubbed out and (naturally) rechristened Sunset Dub (Head Mix). The song is definitely made different by the effects.

But as I generally say, you’re the best judge of what’s good to your ears so feel free to listen for yourself. I know I liked this one a lot, and although it’s waaaaaay too early to consider this year’s top 5 I can see “Jammin’ With Juma” being a contender.

monoblogue music: “Elise” by Damon Mitchell

This one is so new they haven’t even finished the cover art for it. I’m told this is the cover photo for (presumably) a debut EP by a 22-year-old artist from my old neck of the woods, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Damon Mitchell has a 6-song EP ready for release on March 2, so I’ve listened to the tracks but they’re still under wraps except for the title track, which is the lead single and video I’ll feature in a short bit below. Perhaps it’s a good thing Elise is the last in line but the first song out of the chute because it’s the best and most accessible tune on the album. (Saving the best for last?) I’m not so sure about the video, though, although we also learn that Mitchell is a southpaw when it comes to playing.

The lead single and title track to Damon Mitchell’s forthcoming EP, coming out March 2.

As Damon is a rather young musician, it helps to explain why his style is all over the place on this one. As presented in my preview, the leadoff song Heist is a Beatle-influenced ode to a pop era gone by, although he freshens up the genre and makes it a rather enjoyable song.

Damon slows things down with the ballad Just A Face, which begins to expose a few of the cracks in the facade. Some of the vocals on this one aren’t quite up to snuff, particularly when Damon tries to hit the higher notes. Shaping songs to his voice is something he’ll surely learn as time goes on.

License Plate is more of a country or bluegrass turn, with the addition of fiddle and harmonica. (In the credits there are a total of 12 musicians listed for the six-song EP, so Mitchell had plenty of help.) The problem with this song to me was the way the lyrical runs played out – again, practice and experience will help the cause here.

If you’re waiting on an adult contemporary song, you’ll find the music on the song Salo but the lyrics don’t really evoke romance. Aside from a clever reference to The Weight by The Band, I really didn’t care for the lyrics on Salo at all. They seemed stilted and forced. Maybe this is a song he revisits later on, using the riff to write something better.

Damon turns even more to the jazzy side of things with World In Her Eyes. But again the weakness in the song comes from the lyrics and singing. Completing the circle back to the vibe of Heist but going a couple notches heavier is the title track, which has as its coda some solid guitar work.

So while there are obvious flaws in this six-song EP, they are definitely fixable for the next time, and it’s likely a little bit of experience will help Mitchell work some of these issues out. I don’t mind complex or unconventional lyrics at all, but they need a special amount of talent to be done just right. Once Damon figures out his strengths and writes music in such a way to maximize them, he could do all right for himself. He’s just not quite there yet.

Since he has several shows lined up in the Indiana region (coming as close as Pittsburgh for a gig this spring) I think Damon will get some practice in. On March 2 you’ll see what I mean.

monoblogue music: “Spark” by Todd Warner Moore

This was one of the hardest reviews I had to write, and it wasn’t really because I lost the original draft of it on my phone. Rather, this was one that I couldn’t categorize because there wasn’t a pigeonhole I could place Moore’s music in to make my life easier. It could be the various influences of place: Moore is a Kansas native who’s traveled the globe and now makes his home in the unlikely musical hotbed of Hong Kong.

He’s also a prolific musician as this was his second full-length solo album of 2018, after June’s “Lapis Lazuli.” But Moore cut his teeth on the college circuit as part of an acoustic group two decades ago, later creating an “expat” band called Tea Thieves when he lived in Hungary. I’ll come back to them in a bit, but first I’ll talk about the issues I had with “Spark.”

Moore’s album is one with some serious storytelling, as I found when I listened to the album on the Bandcamp website, which features the lyrics for most of the songs. As far as that goes, it’s fine, but the problem I ran into was that his actual music is like the frame to a painting; put another way, he has an album which reminds the listener of the background music that plays while the movie’s dialogue continues. If you set aside the brief spoken Prologue and Epilogue you still have 12 songs that are densely filled with lyrics that range from the thought-provoking to the obtuse – oftentimes within the space of two lines. As most of the songs are done without instrumental bridges – thus clocking at no more than four minutes, and often under three – it’s so much so that the music is not even noticed.

I’m going to use an example of both thought-provoking and obtuse here. This song is called Noodles.

A track off Todd Warner Moore’s “Spark” album.

To hear Moore tell it, he says, “Apologies can be difficult.  Sometimes we express them through our actions and not necessarily our words.  When we cook, we transform raw ingredients into something new and wonderful.  In this song, underneath a simple recipe lies an apology with the hope of transformation.” Or maybe it’s just four-dimensional chess. To me this was one of the worst offenders of being trite and obtuse.

I mentioned the band Tea Thieves earlier. Tucked away at the end of “Spark” is a bonus track he did with the band called The Lens. The fact that it’s far and away the best song on the album to me tells me that maybe the band needs to come back together. Sadly, it’s the fourteen tracks of basically bland filler that came before that left the impression. But I’ll link again to Bandcamp if you want to listen (and judge) for yourself.

monoblogue music: “Sum Of All Parts” by Mark Peters and The Dark Band

This will turn out to be a second (and longer) helping from a monoblogue music alumnus – I reviewed a single from a previous EP last year – although at this point in time only the title track is available for listening or watching as a video. (The remainder of the four-song package is slated to come out this coming Monday, January 28.)

So how about the “Sum Of All Parts” as an album? Well, the title track seemed like a cynical look at a relationship but turned out to have a happy ending. It’s a very accessible pop song that should find a lot of interest if the radio industry will allow it. That’s backed up by the acoustic open to Failure Is My Friend, which turns out to be a bouncy, almost country-feeling entry into the adult-contemporary field.

The weakest song is Bone Dry – while it has nice slow-to-fast transitions that I liked, the most annoying part is hearing (loudly) the fingering of chord changes on the acoustic guitar. It makes the song seem underproduced and not thought through for some reason. (Otherwise, Mark had the sense to use Dan Fisher of Audio Heart Records – the label this will be released on – as his producer for his second EP after doing so on “Spirits.”)

The closing track of Highs And Lows is a good closer to the collection, blending a touch of country-rock in with his continental sound. It works well with his voice and probably will be a popular tune when Mark embarks on a six-week run of live appearances around his current home in Austria, a tour that will also have a lengthy run in Germany.

Aside from the modern-day marketing strategy of releasing just a few songs at once as an EP rather than the old days of 10- or 12-song albums with a handful intended as singles and the rest there to fill out the record, Mark reminds me of a ’70’s throwback in sound and feel. (Younger members of Gen X and Millennials – let alone any of my Gen Z readers – will have to go find a ’70’s pop music channel and listen for a couple hours to notice the arrangements and styles are distinct from those prevalent a decade earlier or later, let alone nearly a half-century now.) Maybe it was a little different in Europe, but either way Mark seems to me a 1970’s throwback – he even has a little of that look, but fortunately not the awful style of dress – and it’s Saturday. (Regarding those ’70’s styles: trust me, none of my late elementary to junior high pictures are going on Facebook.)

But when this comes out Monday – and assuming Mark quickly adds that to the title single that’s already on Spotify, although he has a very nice website, too – those who like the sort of station “you can listen to at work” because it has the sort of music that’s honest and not just about beats and bass should give this a chance. And who knows? If there’s enough interest, maybe he’ll give this side of the pond a go.

monoblogue music: “Wasted Time” by Future Thrills

After nearly five years of trying, this is the first time I have had the opportunity to review local music. And considering this exercise was instituted in no small part from my long-running “Weekend of local rock” series, it’s amazing that it took over a hundred reviews before I did one where I could easily see the band in person.

So back in late December I was minding my own business and perusing my e-mail box when up popped an e-mail press release from this band. I suspect I’m on their mailing list because Future Thrills bassist Chris Slavens is a fellow writer who I’ve known awhile, but regardless I thought it would be a good time to add a local element to monoblogue music since part of the intent of Weekend of local rock all along was to promote area music and this is the extension.

So what did I think of this four-song EP, recorded just up the road in Baltimore? Let’s just say this package generally has the sound you would hope to hear in an up-and-coming rock band.

The opening song Believe provides a great introduction, not just to the album but to Future Thrills’ influences as well. What begins as a relatively standard-grade post-punk alternative track takes several interesting turns through tempo changes and a detour into some reggae style before wrapping itself up. They avoid falling into some of the traps that make the sound stale.

It’s not quite pulled off as well with Stuck on You, the second track and the one of the quartet that is perhaps the weakest link. The song has a good harmony to it, but seems to be more of a paint-by-numbers effort than the others.

Charging into Bide My Time, though, the band picks up steam with a little more heavy sound, although it still lies well within the range of mainstream rock. (Mainstream rock, that is, that doesn’t have the over-dependence on bass, drums, and rap influence plaguing the “active rock” genre.)

If you like the punk side of rock, the final song borrows the most from the frenetic pace from which that brand is known. Next Episode may leave you breathless, but it also leaves you wondering where the other eight or ten songs are. Given the fact Future Thrills has been together less than a year (although three of the four played together in an earlier band called Sidecar Falcon) it’s a good way to introduce themselves and a rather enjoyable way to begin the review year.

If the band is to be commended on its good music, Future Thrills should also be commended for finding a good producer (in this case a guy named Justin Day, who runs New Noise Recording), outsourcing something that often causes trouble for DIY bands who don’t have that unbiased ear to know when something just isn’t right. This is about as tightly-produced as a garage-style band can be without it affecting their sound in a negative way.

I always implore the readers to listen for themselves, but locals can go one better: Future Thrills has its EP release party on January 26 at Trader Lee’s in Ocean City. (It’s a good venue that has bittersweet memories for me.) So if you can make it out I encourage it. Support your local original music!

Next week I have the first of my regular reviews already in a queue, so it’s a busy start to 2019 for this tiny little department of monoblogue.

monoblogue music: following up with quick hits

As promised, this is a fun little feature I’m calling quick hits: a paragraph or two (as opposed to full reviews) on new releases in 2018 from those artists who made up my previous top 5 lists from 2014-18. Rank has its privileges.

It gives me a chance to use my headings, too.

“I’m Not Country Enough” by Michael Van and the Movers

Follows on: “A Little More Country” (2016)

If you are a country fan, Michael Van and the Movers will definitely work out of your comfort zone with this one. But they are correct in subtitling this one “Cowboy Reggae and Other Atrocities.” (And yes, they do cowboy reggae – it’s really quite cool.)

Consider that I have the perspective of not being able to stand most modern country (i.e. not a country fan) and realize that I really enjoyed listening to the songs where MV&tM stretched the genre. (There are a share of tracks that are more reflective of classic country and bluegrass, too.) Those divergent songs will probably never be on country radio – at least not your formulaic “iHeartCountry” station most markets of any size have – but those who perform in the genre would do well to listen to this one and take notes.

“Weakened at the Asylum” by Midwest Soul Xchange

Follows on: “New American Century” (2015, reviewed 2016)

This one took a stab at being a rock opera, one set against the backdrop of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. But I just don’t think they really pulled off the two most important parts: clear storytelling and memorably good songs. While they haven’t really changed their musical style, this one just didn’t grab me by the collar – in part because there’s no hook song on this one as there were on “New American Century.”

One thing I would advise is to listen to it in order and maybe you can figure out all the parts I missed. This was a definite step backward to me.

“The Last Ride” by The Magic Lightnin’ Boys

Follows on: “Stealin’ Thunder” (2016)

I tell you what: I sure hope the rumors of TMLB’s demise are just rumors. But if they are not, the four acoustic remakes of their previous work and the four new songs are a superb way to make one last ride and say goodbye.

There are a lot of bands over the years who have lived by straddling the line between blues and rock; sadly, they are becoming less and less prevalent these days as everyone wants to cross over to rap and hip-hop by making the drums and bass most prominent. I’m pleased to say the bass and drums are put in their place on this one, which shows great talent and musicianship. A formal review of this would have put the collection in my top 5 once again, so treat yourself and take a listen. Even Spotify knew better than to interrupt this one.

“Shadow of a Stone: Songs of Remembrance” (EP) by Geoff Gibbons

Follows on “Buffalo Hotel” (2017, reviewed 2018).

(Also being reviewed are two of his three 2018 singles, Rollin’ Free and Fall Girl.  The third was the holiday tune Lonely Old Christmas.)

On Geoff’s two singles, he continues his smooth pairing of a classic country sound and adult contemporary vibe with a pair of songs that tell their tales of loss and longing well. But he tops this in a more biting way with the three-song EP “Shadow of a Stone,” using the theme of being a soldier to produce music that really should make him very successful in attracting discerning listeners. If you like mature music, Geoff may be the singer for you.

Something I’ve noticed about various bands is the emphasis they put on internet radio airplay. Instead, Geoff seems to have carved out a niche in performing live for a select few – I noticed on his calendar a particular place he plays several times a week. Maybe that’s where the veteran performer – whose eponymous first album came out 24 years ago – wants to be, but he has the musical ability to go a little further.

So that’s a look at what some of my “top 5” artists have been doing over the last year. Next week I have one other special review to do before I return to doing the reviews from my regular source two weeks hence.

monoblogue music: following up in 2019

It’s become one of my favorite first-of-the-year traditions: the annual “where are they now?” following of groups which have landed in my top 5 albums from each year. I now have five years’ worth of them to follow, a total of 25 in all although some of them are no longer active. For the purpose of this exercise, if the band or group released new music, played some shows, or even did social media in 2018 I would consider them active.

My 2014 crop included five groups: Billy Roberts and the Rough Riders, the Tomas Doncker Band, The Lost Poets, Monks of Mellonwah (now inactive), and Paul Maged.

While Billy Roberts is still on the full-length 2017 release “Greenbah,” last year he put out a pair of singles: the brassy but rocking Hillbilly Blues and the more somber re-release of a 2015 song, Gone to the Dogs. He’s staying somewhat country, but trends more toward pop with these songs.

At the beginning of 2018, Tomas Doncker (as a solo artist) did a 10th anniversary reprise of a collaboration with poet Yusef Komunyakaa called “The Mercy Suite.” But more recently his True Groove record label announced they’re putting out yet another take on Doncker’s 2015 release “The Mess We Made” dubbed “A Slight Return” in February. So the band is on a hiatus of sorts, or perhaps it’s morphed into the very active “True Groove All-Stars.” In either case, I don’t think moss is growing under Doncker’s feet.

In that same vein, The Lost Poets are still promoting the short film Insubordia Pt. III – which has played at a half-dozen film festivals – but, more importantly, have an upcoming single to be released January 19 called River Runs Dry. One thing I missed in their 2017 update was a neat single called Vulture that I would love to see included in their next full-length, whenever that is. Will it be Insubordia Pt. IV or have they mined that genre? Stay tuned.

While I await the third part of his proposed trilogy (2018’s “The Glass River” was part 2), Paul Maged put out a heavy rock single on Election Day eve called The Resistance. To say he’s no fan of Donald Trump would be an understatement, so it will be intriguing to see how that influences his 2019.

Moving up to 2015, the groups who won that year were Idiot Grins, The Liquorsmiths, Tumbler, Space Apaches, and solo artist Jas Patrick. (The latter two are now inactive.)

While Idiot Grins didn’t put out any new material in 2018, their most recent release of the album “State of Health” came out late enough in 2017 that they are still putting out singles – the most recent being Take It Back, which is charting on digital radio, according to a recent Tweet by the band.

Similarly, but on the flip side of the business, they’re still working from their 2016 album “All My Friends Are Fighters.” But instead of pushing for digital radio airplay, The Liquorsmiths are still doing the occasional live show around their San Diego home.

Lost in the runup to Christmas was the release of a new 2-song EP (for lack of a better term) by Tumbler called “The Power of the Song.” I just happened to stumble across it on Amazon Music, meaning I’ve only found samples to listen to – from the little I could tell, it sounds much like their earlier work. But on social media they’re promising, “We’ve already got some new things in the works for you in 2019!” so I will take them at their word.

From 2016, the groups in question were Michael Van and the Movers, Midwest Soul Xchange, Jim Peterik, Steve Hussey and Jake Eddy, and The Magic Lightnin’ Boys.

Lamenting that “I’m Not Country Enough,” Michael Van and the Movers put out an album in September that claims to have “Cowboy Reggae and other Atrocities.” This follow-up to “A Little More Country” that I reviewed is being supported by the occasional show around their California base.

Topping that, though, Midwest Soul Xchange put out their own album in November and supported it with a mini-tour through their home region last fall and plans for a more ambitious tour spreading eastward into Michigan slated for this coming spring. That’s appropriate given “Weakened At The Asylum” is described by the band as “a story (which) centers around the water crisis in Flint, MI, and follows the lives of several fictional characters as they navigate through unspeakable tragedy.”

The purple-haired one, Jim Peterik, is apparently taking a bit of a break from a solo career to do some new stuff with his old band, The Ides of March – an album that will include a guest gig from Mark Farner. Midwest-raised people like me would know that name, as he used to play for the Michigan-based Grand Funk Railroad. His other iron in the fire is the World Stage project, which has a recent collaboration with Dennis DeYoung of Styx for an upcoming show/album. Throw in a spring 2019 cruise for good measure and one of two things is true: either Jim is putting musicians a third of his age to shame or he’s got a great social media guru making up good stuff.

From what I’ve been able to gather, Steve Hussey and Jake Eddy still occasionally collaborate but are apparently working on different musical projects on an individual basis. Their joint website is no more and the combined social media page wasn’t updated in 2018.

Conversely, the previously-described demise of The Magic Lightnin’ Boys was more of a hiatus. They returned last month with an album combining some new songs with acoustic versions of older tunes called “The Last Ride.” Whether that is the last ride or not remains to be seen, but I’m hoping for more. In the meantime I will place those last three in the “semi-active” category insofar as continuing in their reviewed form.

2017’s top 5 (Revolushn, Rich Lerner and the Groove, Justin Allen and the Well Shots, Free Willy, and Freddie Nelson) is, as you might expect, still building on those releases.

For example, a brief California tour next month and a recent single called Little Red Dolls means Revolushn is still doing their best version of “American protest rock.”

But a funny thing seems to have happened to Rich Lerner and the Groove. While they went to studio in the spring of 2018 to follow up on “Push On Thru,” the trail seems to have grown cold insofar as that goes. But Rich and his band had a (slightly delayed) Groove Jam VII benefit concert in September and have been playing around their area over the last few months, so maybe 2019 is the year for a follow-up.

A couple of these groups have entered radio silence, though. Justin Allen and the Well Shots, who slated some shows in the spring of 2018, has abandoned social media and their website at some point since. So they may have done their last well shot for all I know. Similarly, Free Willy pops in on social media once in awhile but doesn’t seem to be making any progress on new music.

Meanwhile, Freddie Nelson continues to pick up airplay for songs off his “Shake The Cage” album and the occasional show around his native Pittsburgh area.

Last week I revealed 2018’s top 5, which were Maxwell James, Geoff Gibbons, Peak, Jared Weiss, and Justin Shapiro.

Of course, some of these artists just recently released their albums but I saw Maxwell James is promising a new song in the new year as he plays around Nashville. Interestingly enough, his song Roll Down Your Window Slowly made the top 200 digital radio charts in October, just a few slots behind Inspiration Nation by Justin Shapiro off his #1 album. Completely random but worth mentioning.

Geoff Gibbons has kept busy with three singles (including a Christmas song) and an EP taking up his 2018 – bear in mind I reviewed “Buffalo Hotel” almost a full calendar year ago and it had already been out several months prior to my review. So we’re talking about a year and a half for Geoff, and he’s made good use of the time.

Another group that’s been resting on an album for awhile is Peak, since we’re closing in on a year since their “Electric Bouquet” came out. They’ve been doing their share of shows around the New York area, but no word quite yet on new stuff.

The same goes for fellow New Yorker Jared Weiss, who has so many irons in the fire I don’t know when he’ll have time to do a follow up to his 2018 album.

The good news on the Justin Shapiro front is that we are slated for a live EP sometime in early 2019 as he continues to play in the area. Maybe we can get an Eastern Shore appearance? He is from the D.C. area, you know.

So that’s a wrap on my 2019 followup. Or is it? I think next week I am going to try something new as a companion to this piece: some “quick hit” (meaning a paragraph or two) reviews of music these previous top 5 artists put out in 2018. It should be fun to revisit their music as they develop. I also have a special treat in mind for January 19, so stay tuned.

monoblogue music: 2018’s top 5

Once again, for at least the third year in a row, I was disappointed that I had fewer than 20 records to review – that in spite of adding a few unsolicited contenders for the prize, one of which is represented on this list (and another that just missed it.) Thanks to those two I had a couple extra contenders because otherwise my top 5 would have been sort of “meh.”

So after going back through all my 2018 reviews and reminding myself why I liked these albums, here are your top 5 for this year.

5. Maxwell James (self-titled)

Original review: July 14.

This debut straddles lines between several genres despite its short length – it’s a five-song EP. Taking elements away from classic country, blues, and alternative rock, Maxwell James puts them together in something that was a pleasure to listen to. Unlike a lot of other artists who give us too much filler to pad out an overly long effort, Maxwell makes you wish there were a couple more on the CD. It leaves a listener wondering which direction James will decide to go as his career advances.

4. “Buffalo Hotel” by Geoff Gibbons

Original review: January 27.

Gibbons presented the image of a rough-and-tumble Western-style artist based on the cover of this one, but it turned out he was rather far from the “hat band” style of country that’s dominated the charts over the last couple decades. Instead, he reaches back to a bygone time when country music wasn’t rock music played with different instruments, and when there is the rock influence it’s done with a light touch. It’s worth listening to for the stories that are told.

3. “Electric Bouquet” by Peak

Original review: December 16.

If you look at the album cover hard enough, you’ll figure out that it indeed is an electric bouquet. If you listen to the album long enough, you’ll wonder why these guys aren’t raking in millions on a record deal and tour. They certainly have the musical chops to do so – perhaps they have more talent than the market will allow.

This was one of the three “filler” albums I closed out my year with, and by a pretty good margin it was the best of the three. I’ll be interested to see what this group that intersects funk and rock will do with their next release.

2. “Isolated Thunderstorms” by Jared Weiss

Original review: August 18.

There’s no doubt that Jared can sing, since he’s a performer on the musical theater circuit. But this album became a winner because Weiss can also write very compelling songs that range the gamut from acoustic ballads to active prog rockers like my favorite song of all those I reviewed this year that comes from this album, Elusive Particle.

Another thing that set Jared apart from the rest was the sense of humor he has in his lyrics, a trait long-ago balladeers like Harry Chapin or Jim Croce could also pull off (and sell a truckload of singles in the process.) The music industry has changed since then, but good writing will still sell eventually.

1. “Campfire Party” by Justin Shapiro

Original review: June 9.

This was actually a very close competition between 1 and 2, but what pushed Shapiro over the line first was the multitude of well-written songs set with a backdrop of clear Southern rock influence – something that for me is really tough to beat having grown up and listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers as they gave way to the heavier takes on the genre presented by Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot, Jackyl, and others.

As I said in the original review, this one hit my sweet spot and try as he might, Weiss couldn’t dislodge it nor could anyone else. Not only did it end up in my top 5, but “Campfire Party” finished as the top one.

I should add that a couple albums from 2018 deserve an honorable mention as they were also contenders for these spots: “Inward” by Ghostly Beard (reviewed the week before Shapiro in June) and last week’s offering “Past” by Kate Coleman were also seriously considered for this list. It’s also unfortunate that Paul Maged didn’t finish his trilogy this year because that would certainly be in contention for a position – but I want to judge it as a whole despite the fact it will be released in three different calendar years.

Next week (or perhaps January 12, depending on how long the research goes) I’ll revisit these and my previous listed artists – at least those who are still around and making music – and see how they’re doing.

In the meantime, go check these folks out if you like good music!

monoblogue music: “Past” by Kate Coleman

This is another record I came across in an unusual way. Atlanta-based musician Kate Coleman is friends with a group I reviewed back in October called Highbeams. (They actually served as an opening act to one of her recent shows.) So she wrote me recently and asked if I would take a listen to this one, and since I had a dearth of albums this year to contend for a top 5 I said to myself, sure, why not.

Both Coleman and the Highbeams group have a similarity in that they “perch on the ledge that exists between folk, rock, country, Americana, and adult contemporary;” however, if all these genres were made into a Venn diagram I would place Coleman closest to the country, rock, and Americana circles. Take the opening track Run Katie, Run – it’s a song that has a rockabilly tenor and more than likely crossover appeal. Like several songs on the album Katie has its minor flaws, like how it gets less interesting when it slows down, but there are facets where it shines, too, such as its coda.

If you ever wondered what Janis Joplin would have sounded like doing country, the answer may be in Do It Anyway, with a tasty bit of organ for good measure. It reminded me a bit of the stylings of a dear, departed friend of mine who graced these pages a number of times before her untimely passing three years ago this month. Reaching even farther back, I got the mental picture of a old Western swing two-step as Kate sang I’m Sorry, with a yodeling-like rendition of the title lyric.

Reverting back toward the modern day maybe a generation or so, I recall my mom and dad had a record where the artist was praised as one erasing the long-standing line between country and pop. If it weren’t already gone, Why Can’t You See? would have finished the job. (By the way, I’m talking about early 70’s pop, not the pop modern country merged with a couple decades back only to further dilute itself in recent years with homages to rock/rap/hip-hop.) Later on, the song Tomorrow also comes out to me as a throwback from four decades past. (That’s a bit of irony, isn’t it?)

Learning To Fly is not a remake of Pink Floyd, but instead comes across as a track that would be radio-friendly with a bit of pruning up front – the chant-like open doesn’t really help the song. Get it down to 3 1/2 minutes and it may be a winner if that’s what she wants. (Sometimes it’s hard to edit, as I know from experience. Why do you think I write a blog?)

The same can be said of Don’t, the second of two consecutive songs that could be singles if a little shorter – it’s a song that seeps its way from a weepy ballad to a more modern country track. But a strange bridge detracts a bit from that one, too. She doesn’t have to be like modern country – we have more than enough of that rot.

I credit Coleman with taking some chances on this album. A couple songs where the risk pays off with a reward are the countrified blues of Nothing At All, which features very tight harmony, and the weird dichotomy of the title track Past, a song which strangely evoked in my ears a cross between country and a rock opera that somehow gets pulled off in an enjoyable manner. It’s weird, but a good weird.

Kate wraps up with the acoustic and slow fade of What Comes Next? If I were to have a complaint about track order, it seems to me that the album sort of peters out halfway through, losing some of its energy and charm. It would be better to listen to this one on shuffle, for sure.

This may be the longest album review I’ve written this year, and it’s surprising because I wasn’t handed a lot of background information on the band. A look at the album on Bandcamp, which is a fine place to listen for yourself, shows that Coleman had a batch of helpers who supplied the usual Americana instruments: mandolin, dobro, and fiddle complement the standard drums, bass, and guitar. (Among other things, Kate played guitar, percussion, and tin whistle – which was something I had to look up!)

As a first effort, Kate has been wise enough not to self-produce and that helps to curb most of the excesses. In the eight months since she released “Past” she’s also released an album of collaborations with other (presumably) Atlanta-area artists (plus an intriguing solo take on The Cranberries’ hit Zombie) as well as a live album featuring most of these songs from “Past.”

Since she asked nicely, besides the review I’m going to give her a bit of (somewhat, but not completely tongue-in-cheek) advice. At her website as currently comprised, there’s a photo of her holding a Miller Lite. First of all, we here on our little corner of the Eastern Shore can turn her on to far, far better beer than that and secondly she might fit right in as a performer. Granted, it’s a bit of a hike from Georgia but piece together a couple other local dates and you never know.

With this I call it a year for reviews: next week will be my top 5 for 2018. This one isn’t the slam dunk for inclusion like one I did last weekend, but it is a contender as I give a second (or third, or fourth) listen to some of the other albums in past 2018 reviews.

mononlogue music: “Electric Bouquet” by Peak

Buoyed by the interplay within a very tight band, this particular segment of “bonus content” was one where I was pleased the band thought of me. (I’m not sure where they got the idea; perhaps being a New York-based band they knew of others I had reviewed from the same metro area over the years.)

In my introduction to the group I learned that they consider themselves “psychedelic indie funk.” Given the album leads off with Barometric Pressure (Here Comes The Rain) – a song with exactly that kind of groove – I was expecting more of the same. Add in the keyboard-based Win Some Lose Some and I got to thinking, “okay, this band has its chops down.”

But then I got the neat little reggae feel of Imaginary Lines and the more adult contemporary Falling Backwards Through Time and I realized, say, this band is on to something. And this was only four songs out of thirteen. Add to that a little bit of Southern blues flavoring at the tail end of the collection (except for its unneeded out-of-studio coda, Ballad Of Wiley Jones would have been right at home on an Allman Brothers record and Mama’s Got A Lot Of Love is, as the title suggests, a fun song) and you want to know where it all comes from.

So I did a little bit of digging upon their prompt and found that primary songwriter and guitarist Jeremy Hilliard was in a band called Turbine; a band that played regularly around the Northeast until it went on a apparently permanent “hiatus” around the end of 2016. Tellingly, one of Turbine’s last shows was a tribute they called “Radio Dead” – Radiohead songs played in a Grateful Dead style and vice versa. (The other current Peak members as of the date I received this invite back in August are Otis Williams on keyboards, Eric Thachuk on bass, and new drummer John Venezia, who replaced the drummer on the album, Dale Paddyfote. Yes, another one I sat on awhile for the reason I explained yesterday, particularly since “Electric Bouquet” was released back in January.)

After returning to the funk with song five, On The Grind, and another more mellow piece called My Heart (Time Lapse), I found out where that jam band influence went, beginning with the eight-minute Ride Through The Night. They reverse that trend in the next two songs, going with the radio-friendly Idyllwild Flower first and the funky instrumental Funk And Tonic, which is rather smooth going down, before they take six minutes to do the bouncy Feel Like Moving.

But Peak tops that with their best song – their peak, as it were – Nothing New Under The Sun. It’s a song that plays like a standard song for the first half before completely changing tone about midway through. If you’ve ever gone to a concert where a band does a mashup medley of two or three hits, you’d get this as they pick back up with the main lick in the last two minutes or so. Three years ago my number one album for the year (Jas Patrick’s “Inky Ovine“) had a track just like that and I like those kind of songs when they can be pulled off successfully, as Nothing New Under The Sun was.

So… speaking of number one albums, it is getting about that time, isn’t it? Since I only have one more record to review before I call it a 2018 – no doubling up next weekend – I can safely say there’s a top 5 album in this here blog post. (See what happens if you ask nicely?) Of course, your mileage may vary so by all means deal with Spotify and listen for yourself. And if you are in the Big Apple, you may catch a show by either Peak or the stripped-down Off-Peak, a show where less than the full band performs, and a name which I thought was humorous enough to add as a postscript of sorts.

monoblogue music: “Over The Edge” by The Pearcy/Gratzmiller Jazz Quintet

I am going to freely admit to you that I am about as far from an aficionado on jazz as Boston is from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I don’t think that in almost five years of doing these reviews that I have ever come across what the artists describe as “modern hard bop jazz.”

So I also have to admit it’s a little difficult for me to say whether this is a great or groundbreaking album. Another problem with having ten instrumental songs is distinguishing them by title, since the title of any particular song is completely up for interpretation.

To me, jazz composition has a similarity to listening to a jam band, one which has no problem taking a song and noodling and doodling around with it until you realize they’ve been playing the same thing for 15 or 20 minutes. Think Peter Frampton’s Do You Feel Like We Do or Green Grass And High Tides by the Outlaws as examples – already long songs in the studio, they were improvised to maximum DJ smoke break length while in concert. While the songs on “Over The Edge” range from four to nine minutes in length (the compilation of ten songs lasts 68 minutes) they could easily be twice as long performed live if they like the groove.

So the way I listened to it, once I caught on to the trick of the genre, was to use it a little bit like background noise. But I couldn’t help noticing how tight the songs sounded despite the fact they were freeform compositions. Unlike rock, which tends to be progressive in its chord structure, there’s no set formula for jazz, which allows any of the five instruments involved (or combinations of same) to take a lead role while others provide a rhythm or harmony. 

The creators stated their intention: “to create a modern album that classic jazz listeners could also enjoy. We made an effort to capture the spirit and tradition of classic quintets from 50’s and 60’s while mixing in modern elements, particularly in the areas rhythm and song form.” If you’re a classic jazz listener, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you what I tell people in most of my reviews: don’t let this fish out of water be the judge, go ahead (despite it being the dreaded Spotify) and listen for yourself.

monoblogue music: “Through Train Windows” by Norine Braun

An album that is hot off the press – released yesterday, as a matter of fact – Norine Braun brings an interesting backstory to her music with her latest effort.

Commissioned as an “artist on board” for a cross-Canada tour, Norine and her partner (who sings harmony on a pair of songs, including the most upbeat I’m Going Home, and also plays the keyboards on a number of tracks) used the occasion to write and compose eleven songs that generally play on a theme of traveling.

Another trend that seems to run through the record is one where Braun seems to emphasize one instrument in her songs; acoustic guitar on the opening song Sleeping Buffalo, its electric cousin on Jerkwater Town (to me, the best song on the album with a bluesy Pretenders vibe thanks to Braun’s vocals) and I’m Moving On, and so forth with tenor sax (one example being the plodding Climbing Table Mountain) and keyboards (such as in the non-anthemic O Canada or ballad Crosses & Sweetgrass) taking their turns as well. A number of songs get a little bit of blues harp as well, provided by Huggybear Leonard. (I just liked writing Huggybear, but seriously he adds a lot to those songs if you like a blues sound.)

But what sets the better songs apart, such as Jerkwater Town or Exhale (with its haunting coda), is the integration of more sounds and complexity. Now, this doesn’t always work – I wasn’t keen on the call-and-response in Climbing Table Mountain, the spoken word rap in Rock The Rolling, or the vocal stylings on the title track, for example – but that little splash of included tremolo makes Heading Up North a better song. You also get the culture-crossing Rue St. Jean as an interesting tidbit.

Maybe the only real misfire in the group is Heaven Only Knows – not a bad song, but vocally perhaps too much of a challenge for Braun.

Since I brought it up at the top, there is more to the backstory. Not only was Braun the Artist on Board for her cross-country journey, but she is also Musician in Residence at the Banff Centre in Alberta. And, thanks to the generosity of “Creative BC and the Province of British Columbia” you have the opportunity to secure this slice of Canadiana. To be sure, it’s a very artistic and eclectic collection and it may be one that gets plenty of airplay on adult contemporary and alternative stations north of the border thanks to their content laws. Whether it gets plenty of airplay or not in your home is, as always, up to you to judge: I’m going to encourage you to listen for yourself.