Thinking of a “Peaceful Dream” to end 2017 without a “Walk Into a Storm”…

As 2017 winds down to its final few hours, I feel like its the perfect time to continue posting more of the end of the year album countdown segments I participated in with Lee Rayburn over on the radio side of my creative work at WHCU. For this first one I chose to bring Mavis Staples’ latest, while Lee did the same with Jason Isbell. More below…

My notes…

If All I Was Was Black continues the run of dark horse brilliance between soul legend Mavis Staples and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who once again trade musical statements as natural and as free flow as conversation. Whether its Tweedy’s folk guitar mechanics adding warmth to the earthy gospel of “Peaceful Dream”, Staples beautifully empathetic delivery on the contemporary charge of the title track, or the two doing what feels like an overdue vocal duet on the sweet friendship of “Ain’t No Doubt About It”, the pair’s chemistry remains at a strength usually only held by decades long collaborators.

Though despite this Tweedy’s impact remains strictly as the crafty man-in-the-shadows, while Staples is allowed to shine with every bit of the wisdom, poise, and tenacity she’s held in her lengthy career. And in the state of a world today that has drifted further and further into complete upheaval, having a voice like Staples’ preach for love, tolerance and equality is one of the more comforting moments 2017 could actually provide.

We’re lucky for that.

Moving on to #2, where we compare my choice of The Lone Bellow, while Lee brought Big Thief to the conversation…

My thoughts…

Walk Into a Storm finds The Lone Bellow continuing to build off the momentum of prior release Then Came The Morning, which saw the band work with The National’s Aaron Dessner on a bigger sound that didn’t quite abandon their folks roots (see: Mumford & Sons) so much as expand them into new territories.

Now with Nashville producer extraordinaire Dave Cobb at the helm, third album Storm didn’t try to go even bigger and risk ruining the essence of whats in the band’s wheelhouse (again, see Mumford & Sons). Instead, its content with punching in the best of the band’s new material which crackles with bristling energy (“Deeper in the Water”, “Feather”), brakes appropriately for the introspective moments (“May You Be Well”, “Long Way To Go”), and shows that Storm is another essential listening moment on The Lone Bellow’s musical journey.

Whether its StormMorning, or the band’s self-titled debut, to truly understand them best requires reading each chapter carefully. They won’t make you regret it.

Keep an eye for #1 on the list in just a few days! 

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It’s (almost) the end of the year as we know it…

And I feel fine!

Well not really, but when it comes to thinking about the music of 2017 it certainly helps a lot! Once again from my realm on the radio at WHCU, Lee Rayburn and I continue to investigate and compare notes on our top 5 favorite albums of the year.

For this mini-episode Lee and I examine our #4 choices on the year, which was his selection of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings with Soul of a Woman, and mine with Queens of the Stone Age and Villains. Listen below:

My album comments…

Having been a more recent fan of Queens since coming onboard during the Like Clockwork era, perhaps that made 2017’s Villains a more palatable experience for me than most. With tight production from Mark Ronson and the band’s willingness to openly excavate what they openly referred to as a more “dance-based” sound, songs like the punk headbanger’s ball of “Head Like a Haunted House”, the Zeppelin-y smash of “The Evil Has Landed”, and the gristle-blues stomp of “Domesticated Animals” ring with a clear and decided sense of purpose.

Purists may continue to ruffle their feathers and not be satisfied with this one, but Villains really hit the spot for me this year and made for a great rock record. It didn’t possess any need for grand ambition, rather, it let the best parts of its catchy melodies and snake-like hooks do the talking, and Queens did the rest.

The controversy towards the end of the year involving Josh Homme kicking a photographer definitely took some of the wind out of the sails of my praise and knocked this ranking down a bit, but I still recommend giving Villains a spin to find out for yourself.

Its the final countdown…

…. for 2017! Apologies for the shameless reference to the band Europe, but with the calendar winding its way quickly towards 2018 now it is once again time to bring you my end of the year album list.

And for this year it might just be the most special yet! The selections are only the top five this year instead of ten, but the tradeoff is worth it given that this time I was able to do it on the radio.

Thanks to morning show host Lee Rayburn on my station WHCU we have planned five installments whereby I count down my top albums of the year, while he counts his down as well. To date, this may be one of the best segments I’ve ever had the pleasure of being able to do on the radio, and I hope all of you out there enjoy these as much as I do.

For the #5 slot on the list, we lead off with Buffalo NY’s own Julie Byrne and her latest LP Not Even Happiness, and The War on Drugs with A Deeper Understanding. For more, listen below….

My extended comments on the record…

Like a hollow voice emerging from a lost and restless wilderness, Julie Byrne’s “Not Even Happiness” is a subtle rap of lightning to the senses. It awakens from a gently sliding dream in “Follow My Voice”, trembles with an elegant folk purity that would make Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold jealous on “Natural Blue”, and lifts off to the heavens on the wings of church-like synths and gently traced strings for the finisher on “I Live Now as a Singer”.

Byrne has developed a lot in just a few years, amping up the strengths of her guitar work, sweeping vocals, and beautifully human songwriting with new elements of sound and exploration. Faint passes of instrumentation like harp and flute add even further interest to an increasingly nuanced tapestry on “Happiness”, and just listening to those shifts in tone makes the record a new reward with every journey through.

“Life is short as a breath half-taken”, Byrne sings here, and she makes sure that every moment put out on this record is another well-spent within the art of song.

Tomorrow, we introduce #4!

And to think, its almost Christmas…

a0024741739_16So we’re getting ever closer to wrapping up 2017, but first we welcome in the night where the guy with the red suit and all the reindeer has the world’s children in baited breath waiting for the 25th to come.

Of course, once you get to be an adult you realize there’s a lot more to it than that, but I think the best thing we can hope for is that when the meals are made and the people are together that it was worth the trip. And if I can pass along any advice when it comes to wandering through that minefield of decisions, its this: always make the days this time of year as worthwhile as you can. We only get so many, and with it being a very uncertain time in the world these days I think its all the more critical to appreciate everything that’s important to you.

Because you deserve it. Yes, you reading this. Just be sure to pay it forward where you can too, cause that… that feels pretty nice.

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But anyway, because this is a music site lets get back on topic and wrap up a few quick notes as we start to think about a new year.

  • Coming up next week, I’m very much looking forward to posting a music-themed collaboration from my day job on the radio that ties perfectly into something I like doing to close up a year in music. There’ll be five installments starting the day after Christmas, and I’ll explain more when it launches!
  • I’ve got a couple of really special reviews coming up soon as we transition to 2018. Both are still just a work in progress right now but there’s gonna be a lot of great elements as well as another audio interview in the mix. Everything is certainly subject to change, but I hope to get those out as I envision in my mind.
  • And as ever, I’m hoping to post here as much as I can and get out content every chance possible as we get into 2018, but I still don’t see a point coming where I can be consistent right now. Just a lot of busy going on everywhere, but regardless its going to be a lot of fun to chime in as much as I can!

Now lastly, while I could close this post by recommending Christmas-themed music choices ranging from Bruce Springsteen doing “Merry Christmas Baby” to John Lennon singing “Merry Xmas (War Is Over)”, I’m going to go with something a bit more recent. New York City product Megan Talay won a lot of praise from me this year for the snarling Joan Jett girl-rock sound of her latest EP, and with that formula in mind she went in the studio and recorded an original Christmas song that fits the mold just as well.

Now this is a song with a few curse words, so I will preface it with the NSFW label. But otherwise, get ready to dig in here.

And happy holidays everyone!

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Video Exclusive: unwrapping Kohli Calhoun’s “Zebedee”

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Over the last several years that I’ve spent writing about music, I can easily say that I’ve had good fortune come my way with the artists that I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and work alongside.

But this collaboration is something entirely new. What I have for you today has never before seen on OTBEOTB. In fact, it hasn’t been seen at all because this post is introducing the exclusive music video premiere for Brooklyn-area artist Kohli Calhoun and her song “Zebedee”.

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If you’ve read some of my prior content here you’ll certainly already know who Calhoun is, but if you don’t here’s a quick synopsis. As I said before, Calhoun is based out of Brooklyn, and after an tumultuous beginning to her musical career she “rose from the ashes” so to speak in order to create her first full length LP Take Me Away. The record came out earlier this year, and has already received favorable press from the likes of the Huffington Post as well as Calhoun’s recent selection as a Featured Artist on the website Noisetrade.

But that’s not why ya called. Today I want to discuss the aforementioned “Zebedee”, a melodic haunt of a track from Calhoun’s Take Me Away that seems like an apt choice for the music video treatment. And that expectation is well-placed as the video explores the song’s themes of love, loss, betrayal, and sadness through the eyes of a beautifully illustrated world of animation that gracefully illuminates the differences. I could easily speculate about the meaning behind many of the small details of note in this video, but that I leave to you as a fellow member of the audience to interpret for yourselves.

Suffice it to say, the visuals on this video are a stunningly creative complement between Calhoun and her collaborators to one of the strongest tracks on Take Me Away. Its work like this that makes the world of music videos a relevant place again, and we’re truly the better with the level of depth this visual context can provide.

So on that note, let me step aside and have you enjoy the music video for “Zebedee”, brought to you exclusively by On The Back Edge of the Beat.

A reflection on some of these recent days…

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I don’t often wax on the current event side of the fence when it comes to the material I write online. My day job requires me to write news anyway, so usually when I come here looking to discuss something about music the news and political topics of the day are the farthest things from my mind.

But in wake of a suggestion I received recently to talk about the mass shooting in Las Vegas as it relates to music, I can’t help but finally weigh in and wonder why its taken me this long. I mean the first guess is obvious, given that any mass incident of death, heartache and pain is impossible to comprehend as an observer, let alone to try and put it into words. To this point, I’m still not sure if any words I say will even be right.

But despite that, I also can’t pass up the opportunity because in addition to this tragedy taking place at a music festival, it coincided with the sudden passing of rock icon Tom Petty. Now those are vastly different losses that I am by no means trying to equate, but each have hit me together in a way that’s ultimately too hard not to speak up about.

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Unfortunately though, I have to start by returning to the most difficult fact of all in this story. Namely, that another shooting has taken place at a venue for live music. I’m not sure when it started that concerts became one of the latest targets for these atrocities, but it hits especially close to home because of how significant a role concerts have played in the shaping of my life.

I mean as many a diehard music fan will tell you, the live show is the musical equivalent of Mass on Sundays. For those who’ve never felt it, just picture your greatest joy and exhilaration gathered in one place, magnified by knowing that feeling is being shared by hundreds to thousands of people all around you.  In every theatre, festival and concert hall. Those who are there to relive nostalgia perhaps, eulogize that hard breakup they had that *insert band name’s song here* got them through, or just to come hit the high that comes in on the first guitar note or vocal line.

That’s one of music’s many great qualities as a unifier. I have heard it said that in our world today you have to “always keep your head on a swivel” just in case someone decides to create an atrocity. But going to see live music is the universal, gender-neutral, bilingual, bipartisan, multi-racial opposite of this so-called “mantra”, and it deserves to stay that way.

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People deserve a way to escape the world for a few hours, whether thats at a concert or in some other distraction. Whatever country they live in, and no matter how much money they have in the bank. I work in a newsroom five days a week, and with the amount of sadness the world can show you in just that short amount of time…. distractions are necessary just for mental health.

I have to bring Tom Petty back into the conversation at this point. For one thing because he was and shall always be an everyman figure of rock and roll, and we need those figures now more than ever in this increasingly divisive world. I know that in my case, my heart will hurt for a long time knowing his figure isn’t in the same world where I grew up on Wildflowers and Full Moon Fever during trips in the car.

But the other reason is simple: to slightly twist one of Petty’s most famous song lyrics, we can’t back down. And while that might sound a bit like stereotypical cheese for a situation like this, what it really means to me is that we can’t be made to alter our lives in exchange for more fear. No one ever made history or great memory from behind the couch waiting for the knocking at the door to go away.

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So to everyone out there, both music fan and otherwise, stay strong. Don’t let a thing in this world stop you from seeing any of the great concert halls and gathering places and areas where humanity can still figure out how to connect with itself regardless of creed or color.

Those are the places of love, and as granola as that may sound to the most cynical in our midst, in a world where divisive hate has had some of its biggest growth in years we need to hold on to all the love and camaraderie we have.

You belong somewhere you feel free. 

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In appreciation of music’s true “Screaming Eagle”

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There’s something to be said for listening to a true musician in the house of blues and soul trade their wares with the ferocity of a fire and brimstone preacher.

You see, to me blues music is different from a lot of genres in the way that it relies on feeling. Not that it just simply possesses feeling, as I’m sure you could say for many songs in just about any genre you can wrap your head around. No, I’m talking more about how blues music could sell off and sacrifice every conceivable piece of itself, yet would still have all the tools it needs in just one vocal take to relay to the listener the pain involved in enduring each of those sacrifices. Mainly because the humanity contained in those vocals goes beyond just knowing how to sing on-key or turn a pretty phrase of poetry.

That would be too perfect, coated in too much varnish and veneer. Life is rarely ever all that pretty, and all the best in blues and soul made it to that pinnacle because they each had the vision and the ability to express their emotion as a pure, scratched-raw animal of a thing living in their music. Whether the person you were referencing was as smooth as Otis Redding or rough as Robert Johnson. They didn’t make it because of large figure recording contracts, reality show wins or one good single that had the fortune of enough people hitting the iTunes “download” tab.

Instead, they bled to earn their place at that microphone.

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And that’s where Charles Bradley comes in. His late-in-life musical opportunity didn’t emerge until his early 60’s with 2011’s No Time For Dreaming, and only lasted for a trajectory of three records before his untimely death from cancer last month. Still, Bradley made every mile he had count by pouring the true anguish and joy of his own life into every artistic step he walked here. It takes talent for many musicians to even be considered believable wringing out the same emotion from songs they might sing hundreds to thousands of times on stage. Bradley always seemed to charge right through believable and into open wound though with his trademark electric shriek that helped earn him the nickname “The Screaming Eagle of Soul”.

Bradley’s work is the type of music that doesn’t require an analytical microscope or a Pitchfork review. Rather, think of it as every feeling of emotion you can’t quite phrase lingering in the ether of your mind that words won’t ever quite be able to describe, yet we can all relate to. A good example in that vein is Bradley’s song “Victim of Love”, a song strung together by ramshackle acoustic guitar and wandering backing vocals that lay low and loose as the staging area for Bradley’s earth-scorching lament to love gone and flickered away.

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But regardless of the setting or production choices, Charles Bradley really did possess a set of talents that few others could say they had all in one place. He could croon like a Sam Cooke, hammer in gravelly rasps like Muddy Waters, and emote like James Brown in a way that recalls Bradley’s run as Black Velvet, an impersonator of the Godfather of Soul.

I’ve still only just begun my journey into the run of Charles Bradley, but if you have the time or the attention I would urge you the reader to do the same. Not only because Bradley is a fine example of it never being too late in life to pursue your dreams, but also because he took that chance and didn’t waste a second of it in telling his story. And we could all learn a lesson from that.

So lets keep that story alive and breathing through the power of the music Charles Bradley has left us.

Ryan makes waves on breakout debut “Currents”

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Andrew Ryan and I have crossed paths many times as our journeys through separate sides of music have progressed. And while I would say that his has been the more interesting route, regardless I’m just appreciative to have played a journalistic spectator to his creative and musical evolution.

And no period in all that time has been more significant for him than the one here today. Since I’ve known him, Ryan has been a drummer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, writer and versatile jack-of-all-trades. But with his debut solo album Across Currents, we find him out of the support role and instead thrust directly into the spotlight.

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And thats not just because his name comes first on the bill, either. With this album Ryan is now the creative center line on the map drawing all the pieces his way, and Currents gently reflects the care of an artist who is very much aware of that. Much like we all do on a daily basis Ryan is figuring it out as he goes along here, but he manages to do so with a carefully enriching level of honesty.

Singing with a voice somewhere in the gentle timbre of an Elliott Smith or Mark Linkous mixed with a twist of slack-rock drawl, Ryan’s vocals are often more musing than momentum-filled. But that’s a very effective style for him, as tracks like “Take Aim” and “City Lights” demonstrate so well. “Out Of My Head” and “Gwyneth” show even further potential for Ryan down that road, as mourning the death of someone close and celebrating the love of his daughter brings out some of the most moving moments this record has to offer.

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And those effects are boosted when they’re brought together by Ryan’s deft hand for production. Where musicians like Smith or Linkous might be more content with tape-crackled landscapes with the ribs brought through, Ryan has a much warmer campfire to pull up a chair to. Currents generously sprinkles in horns, keys, drums, guitars and vocal layers (among other things) to dot the terrain with constant levels of shifting interest. On many occasions I found myself doubling back to a song just to catch a fragment of saxophone or winking of piano or harmonica that managed to sneak a cameo into the arrangement.

In a way, sneaking in is the best thing that Across Currents does. The tone of the record may not hit you on the first listen, but thats the thing about art built around introspection: it doesn’t just reveal itself after a few minutes. As a recovering introvert myself, this kind of storytelling takes time to reveal but means a lot if you just make the time to sit and listen to it.

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Its also the type of storytelling that can be very difficult to willingly tell (especially publicly), and for that I give Ryan a lot of praise.

He’s created a fine start to what I hope is a long solo career still waiting to be heard.

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For more, visit andrewryanandthetravelers.com. Photos courtesy of the site. 

Phan uses “Fear” to succeed on stellar latest LP

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Fear is the Teacher.

Those are the first four words to greet you when discussing emerging singer-songwriter Ben Phan’s latest LP. The phrase is the title of the album, but also in some way acts as the mission statement for it as well.

Phan has described the album as a collection of his own varied fears, and that is a truth this record upholds quite emphatically. The emotional tenor of Teacher is a skillfully introspective landscape that gazes thoughtfully at the up’s and down’s of worries of the day to day in human life. The record has all the folk-side campfire warmth of the Fleet Foxes, matched by a sense of energy and camaraderie similar to Old Crow Medicine Show or early-day (AKA: best day) Mumford and Sons.

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The genuine honesty of the album’s storytelling is as equally genuine as the chemistry Phan has with the musicians crafting with him in the studio. The group sounds seamless as they bob and weave through bluegrass jangle, ramshackle gypsy waltz, soft-hearted folk balladry and every stop of the train in between. The time signature shifts on tracks like “Beast of Desire” and “No Pain” alone are an impressive display of musicians riding a chromatic wave together in lockstep, no easy feat by any means.

Gazing further into the arrangements, one of my favorite colors spread onto the canvas is the consistent presence of Molly Barrett on the fiddle. Ordinarily, I feel the instrument is often used as a background appetizer in music and less of the main course. On Teacher however it has the chance to flourish, one moment seizing the terrain with grateful strokes before being able to hover between something I can only describe as Kentucky get-down and Classical reserve.

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But ultimately, this record boils down to the beauty of what Ben Phan has done here. You could chalk that up to instrumentation, the words behind the beat, the production in the mix, but in the end… there’s undeniable soul wrapped into this album’s pores. To begin to tap into that, fast forward to the end of Fear is the Teacher and its closing track “Be Still My Beating Heart”.

There are a lot of sights to see before you get to the end, so by no means should you skip those chapters for long. But “Heart” deserves special mention here, for many reasons I won’t be able to explain with entirety. Suffice it to say, with it’s plain-hearted richness and layered harmonies stripped back to one of Phan’s most stirring vocal declarations… the song will leave you in shivers.

But enough from me. Go check this out on http://www.benphanmusic.com, and start writing your own mental stories.

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(Photos courtesy of benphanmusic.com) 

 

 

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