Oaks’ “Galacticana” is winning teaser slice of forthcoming “Heaven”

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Strand of Oaks is the moniker created by Timothy Showalter, a 38-year old Indiana-born musician (and former Hebrew school teacher) who broke onto the scene in 2009 with album Leave Ruin.

I crossed paths with Showalter’s Oaks project in 2014, a year in which Tim’s album HEAL was a constant topic of conversation around indie rock circles. This was for good reason, as HEAL remains a desperately beautiful, screamingly raw, deeply delving insight into the deathly horror of mental, personal breakdown and the resurrection of finding the healing hope and reasons to still go on.

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HEAL also was speaking a lot to what I was feeling then. I had recently enjoyed being introduced to Dinosaur Jr’s brilliant J Mascis only to find his enigmatic guitar playing on “Goshen 97”, while the aching of loss I felt for Songs: Ohia musician Jason Molina after his tragic death at 39 was perfectly eulogized in the rattling “JM”. Even bonus track covers of Ryan Adams’ “My Wrecking Ball” and The National’s “Pink Rabbits” fit in line with other artists that obsessed me at the time.

HEAL is a true “complete” album without a misstep in an era that needs a lot more of them. That song on the radio may stay with you a day or a week; a true album is a staple of life.

I also empathized with Showalter nearly giving up the craft until fate intervened in the form of My Morning Jacket guitar-slinger Carl Broemel (leading to the recording of the gorgeous 2019 Oaks revival record Eraserland). I’ve long loved working in creative writing, but on more than one occasion I’ve felt the compulsion to quit based on anxiety, crippling self-criticism, and thinking I had nothing left to say anyone cared to hear. It’s connecting to hear someone singing and persevering through what I felt and what I still deal with mentally today.

Someone being real.

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Tim Showalter is one of those musicians talented enough to consistently bring that baggage of emotion out for some recording booth catharsis, and that continues with the lead single from the upcoming Strand of Oaks album In Heaven, due out October 1st.”Galacticana” has an uplifting swing in mentions of joy and ecstacy, but like storm clouds amidst summer sun it also dwells on the human fear and insecurity that lies beneath those gold rays.

But instead of that worrying “I don’t wanna drag you down” suggestive earworm on this track, that reveal of vulnerability instead feels like a badge of kinship. It’s a powerful bonding connection between Showalter and his listeners, which is more than can be said for a lot of musical projects.

For example, take a band I’ve enjoyed a long time who recently dropped a record with a producer I greatly respect. Despite the anticipated team up, the majority of this band’s new tracks just felt lifeless and meandering. But sometimes that’s just it, you can book the best producer behind a great veteran band with a handful of songs, but when there’s no soul in it…. you’re just ironing an empty shirt.

Not so with Strand of Oaks. If “Galacticana” is any indication, In Heaven is already a dark horse contender for 2021’s Best Of list.

Watch below:

Power trio Th1rt3en fuels with kerosene on raw, poignant “Exorcism”

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The band Th1rt3en is veteran rapper Pharaohe Monche, soulful blues guitar slinger Marcus Machado, and the punchy syncopated thump of jack of all trades drummer Daru Jones. The trio unites to form a sound I can only begin to describe as a mash of blazing fiery hip hop, assertive funk, and creepy cutting samples and sound; all combine to formulate the universe of their debut record A Magnificent Day For an Exorcism

To paraphrase Monche, the album’s title refers to the world and it needing a “cleansing” due to moral decay. A student tortured into school shooting insanity by constant bullies and beatings, violent conflicts and death brought on by the brutal actions of police, dealing with the constant fallout of racism as a person of color… it is a list of heavy tolls. 

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Despite that, Monche takes hearty bites of these heady matters with gusto; his carnivorous rhymes stripping apart the haters and competition alike with piranha-toothed glee, backed by the dual ninja slice of Jones and Machado acting as a backcourt of merciless Avengers. The trio swoons, battles, and machine guns through tracks like “The Magician”, “Goats Head”, “666”, and “Triskaidekaphobia”, barely stopping to hold still for the sad breath of a wistfully slipped “Amnesia”. 

While it’s brief sidebar amidst the louder issues, “Amnesia” is one of the tracks that stuck with me longest from “Exorcism”. It’s a beautiful relationship between musicians playing in sync together to give life and form to the same sonic wavelength. Monche deconstructs a soldier damaged in the ICU who slowly has his mind ebb away through each razor-sharp tightened bar, Jones thrums on an ever-steady rich backbeat, and Machado lands a dancing solo into the track’s conclusion that scatters like constellations into the midnight. 

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“Amnesia” is a sobering drop before the marathon march of closer “Kill, Kill, Kill”, which brings Exorcism back onto its breathless path for a final conclusion; a fatigued yet triumphant boxer throwing out his last flurry of haymakers. This is an album that may be too thematically intense for some listeners, but it involves the type of conversations we need to be having more and more in this day and age. 

And that’s where it begins: by shutting up and listening. 

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Bridges mining early gems on “Gold Diggers Sound”

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Leon Bridges just keeps getting it done. Since bursting onto the scene in 2015 with his debut throwback-inspired LP Coming Home, Bridges has embraced his retro-fitting R&B croon while slowly pushing his palette of sound watercolors into more modern spaces. Followup Good Day (dropped in 2018) kept Bridges’ soul stylings front and center, but traded in a few vintage lines for added pop hooks and production touches.

Bridges’ latest work at initial glance seems to focus on maintaining that relationship between the classic and contemporary. Entitled Gold-Diggers Sound for the studio where many late nights were spent recording the album, early singles “Motorbike” and “Sweeter” act like yin and yang between the two elements, with Bridges right in the center of the emotional crosshairs.

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“Motorbike” has all the hushed passion of whirlwind summer romance, hung with the delicate strength of pitter-patter drums and the miles beneath the metaphorical tire tracks. While “Sweeter” finds itself in that same laid-back pocket as Bridges and musician/producer Terrace Martin collaborate on the track, dedicated to the memory of George Floyd.

The song’s lyrics, which focus on a Black man’s thoughts as he’s about to die, are heartrending and vulnerably visceral in a current landscape so defined by police brutality, violence and hatred. And few could sing it as well as Bridges, who endlessly draws the usual comparisons to the likes of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, but is only really fair to be weighed against Leon Bridges.

To get a sense of what I mean, watch Leon and Terrace Martin tackle a live acoustic version of “Sweeter” at the Gold Diggers Studio below:

Gold Diggers Sound drops July 23rd. If the video above wasn’t enough to satisfy your interest in the album, check out the official music video for “Motorbike”. It’s directed by the talented Anderson .Paak, and adds a deeper emotional connection to the track’s blissful romantic side.

Sky feels like the limit for Craft’s talents with EP “Space”

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New York City has had no shortage of legendary, bar-spitting hip-hop MCs spread out across its five boroughs over the years. The genre is as much a part of the Big Apple’s bones as the veins and capillaries of the subway lines at this point. Mixed right down into the soul’s soil.

And while there are the legacy names like Jay Z, Biggie Smalls, A Tribe Called Quest and Nas, today I’m focusing my lens on a guy still trying to make his path, Hell’s Kitchen’s own Marlon Craft.

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Crafty’s new EP (out now) is called Space, and at first listen the journey’s a long, sighing drag of a confessional cigarette for the young rapper on this collaborative project with producer Yusei. “Can’t Call It” reflects on the toxicity of mental wounds not covered by bandage, whiskey or HMO, while “Cheap Date” tries to stay on those vibes caught up in pleasurable urges; really just overtures to avoid the anxieties in the landmines of making deep connection.

Swiping left while just trying to hold still.

This isn’t exactly new territory for Craft; he’s always liked to keep his subjects real. For all the toughness and mean mugging required to be a city kid in a rap world, Craft’s often just braggodocio; a disguise while trying to learn how to belong and have it feel right on a human-to-human level. But that’s often where great hip-hop hits the hardest; when it hypes like fire AND explores the soul’s icy chill deep in the night.

Like all of us, he’s still learning. And when it comes to Craft’s music, he just gets better with each release. Between this EP and his prior release of brilliant LP How We Intended, 2021 is this kid’s year to change the game.

“Slappers” fits Raleigh’s Aquarium like familiar blue jeans on surprise covers album

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While it’s been awhile since I can say I’ve truly experienced a “hootenany”, American Aquarium’s new covers album “Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers, Volume 1” gets pretty close to the experience during these hootenany-less pandemic times.

The genesis behind the record was simple for the North Carolina-area group: record odes to what they felt was some of the best of 90’s country music and have a lot of fun in the studio doing it. The final product includes covers of artists like Sammy Kershaw, Joe Diffie, Trisha Yearwood and Sawyer Brown, re-imagined through the lens of AA lead man BJ Barham’s sharp edged, glassy growl.

This album was also a learning experience for me as these were never songs I heard growing up. As a child of the 90’s era, most new country music of that time wasn’t something my parents or contemporaries had on the radio. The few peeks I had over the years also just never appealed to me and seemed canned in that “Nashville Factory” sound.

But it’s kind of funny how a slightly different interpretation of a creation’s bones can quickly change your mind. American Aquarium slays these tracks (according to my ears) because: 1. This is a very talented band you should be listening to if you aren’t, and 2. Their genuine joy to perform these songs is next level.

It’s like the difference between working and having a job you love. Take “I Try to Think About Elvis” (a “Johnny B. Goode” raveup at its finest) or “John Deere Green”, which has as much redneck charm as the song’s lovestruck painting protagonist. There’s no phoning it in for the check here. This is for sheer enjoyment of the material.

“Slappers” also has a vibe similar to Todd Snider’s 2016 “Eastside Bulldog” LP. It’s a little ramshackle, bit twangy, but has so much love baked into its metaphorical crust that any misstep just makes for a perfect mistake.

And you can’t do much better than that.

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“Welcome 2 America” takes latest glance at coveted Prince Vault materials

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The Prince Estate recently announced their latest foray into unveiling more of the legendary rocker’s treasure trove of unreleased creative material. Entitled Welcome 2 America and due out in July, the 12-track LP (recorded in 2010) was initially slated to accompany a then-ongoing tour of the same name. However, for reasons known only to the artist himself, Welcome 2 America was scrapped; bound instead to gather dust on the shelves of the much-spoken-of Prince Vault.

Until now. 

The lead single (and title track) is perhaps at first listen not the type of promotional introduction one would typically expect. The 5+ minute funky slink plays almost like jazz club improvisation, with Prince providing a spoken monologue against the gorgeous vocals of trio Shelby J, Elisa Dease, and Liv Warfield. Lyrically, the single confronts themes like the dangers of escalating technology, endless greed amongst the aristocrats, and oppressive societal rule, issues that have only grown worse and more toxic since Prince wrote and spoke these words to tape. 

That seems to tap into the broader mindset of where this posthumous album will dwell. To quote the Estate’s Welcome 2 America press release:

“(The album is) a powerful creative statement that documents Prince’s concerns, hopes and visions for a shifting society, presciently foreshadowing an era of political division, disinformation, and a renewed fight for racial justice”

This certainly isn’t new territory for His Royal Badness, as his albums Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times most famously highlighted themes including fears of nuclear war, the AIDS crisis, and trying to survive while the world is falling to pieces. Even Prince’s final studio album Hit n Run Phase Two opens with “Baltimore”, a rock’d up ode for peace following the 2015 death of 25-year old Black man Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police officers.

So it seems appropriate that even from beyond the grave Prince has more statements to make that fit into the mood of our modern times. And while I have pondered at length just what he might have thought of his Estate releasing this recording and several others since his passing in 2016, the facts are these: Prince put no plans in place for the future of his creative works and didn’t seem to care what might happen to it all.

As a result, I just want to hear the music. Ordinarily I seek to respect the wishes of the artist and creator first and foremost, but with no knowledge of that and the mythical whisper of the Prince Vault coming to call… its time to just enjoy these little musical feasts as the treat that they are.

Prince was a once in a lifetime talent; hearing more his thought process in this world is a good thing.

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Rag’n’Bone Man provides one of year’s best through “Misadventure”

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Rory Charles Graham is musician Rag’n’Bone Man, a strikingly poignant moniker inspired by a children’s show from Graham’s youth in the United Kingdom. His sophomore album is entitled Life by Misadventure, and I can easily predict this will rocket him straight to household name.

Think Chris Stapleton with 2016’s Traveller; Misadventure inhabits some different genre spaces but reflects just as much time spent with its heart on its sleeve.

What I mean begins within the tenderly gruff baritone of Graham. He simply has a can’t miss vocal; it draws attention as easily as dropped jaws given the spacious power, range, and easy vulnerability it takes on. It’s not just every musician that can go toe to toe with the rock steady talents of P!nk on a song, but “Anywhere Away from Here” is diamond level singer-songwriter piano balladry. The two could cut an album tomorrow and I’d be in line for it.

But for all this talk of vocals, the lyrics on Life on Misadventure are just as worth noting. Tracks like “Fall in Love Again”, “Crossfire”, “Anywhere Away From Here” and “Alone” feel downright confessional they shoot so straight, and that realness is in every melodic step this record takes.

That honesty might at first seem surprising upon initial glance at Graham, a 6’5 giant of a man with face tattoos who gives off more Hell’s Angel than Angelic Singer vibes. But looks can be deceiving for a reason, especially once Graham breaks into a Michael McDonald-esque croon that beautifully haunts long after the album stops playing.

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Pick up Life by Misadventure. For being about experiences off the path, it hits as straight as an emotional firebolt right to the heartstrings.

Fay’s “Firefly” offers sharp final preview before “Intuition” album release

The world of music is much like anything else when it comes to overall activity and how it relates to the time of year. January is usually pretty far removed within the doldrums of quiet, but luckily the pace starts to positively shift and accelerate once February gets a head of steam going.

And luckily for those of you who count yourselves as OTBEOTB readers, that means more features to peruse!

For today’s commentary, we return to artist Randi Fay, who’s on the cusp of releasing her concept album Intuition February 20th. Previously I evaluated the title track from the upcoming LP, now its time to take the vitals of its sibling single “Firefly” to get more of a sense of just what Fay’s concept is all about.

In comparing the two songs off the bat, the musical approach of “Firefly” certainly fits within the same melodic framework and audio-centric story teased at by “Intuition”. It has a fresh, exuberant rush of boisterous, retro 80’s layering mixed into a swelling pulse reminiscent of swirling K-pop, all while still maintaining a unique dance-floor identity. 

Don’t let that immediately upbeat nature fool you into thinking this endeavor is only about fun however. Beneath that danceable, rhythmic frenzy lies a sobering lyrical commentary that attempts to discover what’s real and genuine in a world dominated by Instagram filters, like quantities, and ego-boosting smoke and mirrors.

All in all, the contrast between the two opposing sides makes for the best metaphor to truly send the point across home plate. 

Much like the song “Intuition”, “Firefly” also has a strong sense for big, constellation-soaring hooks as well as easily ingratiating charm. Fans certainly won’t walk away disappointed.

Listen below:

Mohawk Bends make strong debut OTBEOTB feature with slick rocker “See What You Do To Me”

It’s now the month of February, which is right about the time we Northeast folk can JUST begin thinking about digging out from under winter’s stern, unflinching grasp. And unfortunately, while we are making some progress prying up the season’s fingers, the mood in the air remains an inflexibly grey, lethargic blandness. 

Thankfully we have the fiery energy of bands like Mohawk Bends to help melt away some of those frigid blues. The indie rockers recently dropped the sprawling, thrashing hammer of single “See What You Do To Me”, which soars on a wave of arpeggio-ed guitars, massively fun hooks, and confidence oozing out of every pore. 

It’s the kind of song at first listen that demonstrates strong musicianship without needing to take itself too seriously. And that’s long been one of the beauties of straight up, not-grown-in-a-test-tube rock n roll. While I can appreciate the next clever set of poetry set to intricate melody as much as the next music listener, sometimes it hits straighter to the point to take screwed-over heartbreak, add a teaspoon of nervy, flexing guitars cranked up to 10, and let the passion and talent take care of the rest. 

This Austin-based outfit manages to pull that all together and then some with “See What You Do To Me”, which blends together sounds from the likes of the Arctic Monkeys, Collective Soul, The Whigs and Oasis while still maintaining the nature of its own identity. And that’s one of the most important things to achieve here, when you can make a listener come back based on your approach to musical creativity, not because you just sound like group x, y or z. 

The realm of rock is always in need of more worthy ambassadors, and thankfully Mohawk Bends seem up to the challenge with a track like this in their arsenal.

Listen below:

Car roads and the casual melodies….

I recently found myself introducing a significant seismic shift into the expanding universe otherwise known as my existence. Namely, by deciding to alter my circumstances and start a new job that’s far removed from my old stomping grounds in media. The decision’s involved making a lot of significant alterations to my life and has left me wondering just what this next choice of a fork in the road has in store for me in the long run.

To be honest, the further outward I travel in that regard, the more I realize there’s a lot to unpack in the hypothetical possibilities.

Those unknown pages are exciting yet somehow dizzying and terrifying all at once, and that internal struggle of feeling makes tackling the present… less than pleasant from time to time. Especially for someone who’s fought chronic anxiety for years now with varying degrees of success.

But luckily, before each fresh morning of my newly-occupied time begins, I am given a small window of a commute for music and melody to come crawling on in to keep me company. The guest stars involved in the event usually rotate quite frequently too.

For a while it was Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 solo effort Western Stars. While I didn’t make a Top 10 album list for the year just expired, The Boss certainly would have made a cameo for this one as this record thrives on one of Springsteen’s main specialties: character songs.

While my car cuts a knife through backwoods, fields and scattered homes set against a rustic terrain, it’s easy to be transported away into the world of Western Stars. For one thing, there’s its engrossing stage of lovelorn daredevils (“Drive Fast (The Stuntman)”), past-prime cowboys (“Western Stars”), and aching nostalgics (“Moonlight Motel”). There’s also Springsteen’s ever-present ability to paint a vivid audio portrait for the listener that’s about more than just the story embedded at the surface.

Inside all those actors, the 70-year old New Jersey native injects honesties that include love, loss, insecurity, the struggles of blue collar living, and plumbing the dark depths of emotional turmoil. And while I never imagined making a segue between these two artists, many of those creative adjectives are also present via another cameo of my weekday listenings: rapper Mac Miller and his 2020 work Circles.

Circles was completed by producer-at-the-helm Jon Brion and recently released following Miller’s untimely demise from an accidental drug overdose in 2018. Like Western Stars, Circles is similarly a brilliantly flawed slice of humanity, not to mention another sort of seismic shift for its creator.

When Miller first came on the scene I remember him coming off as a stereotypical white frat-boy rapper, and as a result an attraction to his work never occurred for me. My car trips with Circles have caused me to bury that presumptive judgement however, as very sadly Miller seemed ready to show us a varied, evolving vision of himself creatively that we now can only get a glimpse of.

For example, album tracks like “Everybody” and “That’s On Me” ditch the hip-hop for a touch of The Beatles filtered through Elliott Smith’s Figure 8, with Miller showing a likable capability as a vocalist. Meanwhile, the title track is a gently meditative intro that slices deep into the cartilage of the musician’s blossoming display of vulnerability. Miller also hits familiar rap signposts with “Complicated” and “Blue World”, but despite the tone shifts the album’s focus remains on looking inward no matter the darkness.

I applaud artists willing to stare into the harshest parts of the mirror, not only for the courage of revealing truths in themselves but for placing those constellations in the sky for their listeners to find too. My experience in this case may be as simple as a few moments spent in the car before a long working day, but albums like Circles and Western Stars make those daily efforts easier to handle.

That’s because artists like these and so many others openly exorcise their fears, worries and anxieties in a way that, when we connect to it, feels like it slays the demons for us a bit too. I can think of few better ways to make the busy weeks just a little bit lighter.

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