Dear Apollo ready for launch with debut release

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(Before you read this review, I would highly suggest reading (or rather listening) to my prior piece before this one on the Ithaca, NY-based band Dear Apollo via my radio segment The Arts Beat. If you haven’t already of course. I feel like it really adds another great layer to this story.)

But anyway, onto the EP. Having recently met both Ben Robinson and AJ Dicembre (the core members of Dear Apollo) for the purpose of conducting the aforementioned Arts Beat interview, I feel like I possess an added level of context for this album review that I don’t normally get to receive. And that really gives it an interesting spin.

For one thing, hearing firsthand how the pair recorded this debut album in separate locations and in many stages via the computer program Dropbox doesn’t ruin or take away from the evident chemistry contained on the EP. In fact, it makes it more impressive listening to Dicembre and Robinson reach through the traditionally disassociated membrane of technology with something that makes every effort to connect with its audience.

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Exploring the thought of that borderline between futuristic feats and the fragile nature of humanity makes opening track “Parachute” a perfect way to set the scene of the EP. Pulsing with synthesizers like the gentle wave of a heartbeat, the song makes the Dear Apollo name feel literal as the emotional turmoil of the lyrics seems to play out over the shiny blue Earth spinning far down below.

Similar terms apply for following song “Won’t Stay, Won’t Go”, which has a David Byrne and Brian Eno sense of chorus in the higher tempo sections before settling into more gradual areas of moody guitar strums and blooping background textures. The wide-ranging influences of Robinson and Dicembre get a chance to play on third track “Your Way”, as vibes initially resembling The National get a folk-bearing twist of The Avett Brothers with the presence of banjo that seems to float up out of the mists. Its arguably the moment the record pauses most to get reflectively introspective, calling to mind Elliott Smith titles like Figure 8 where Smith’s confessional murmurs were met with more fully-fleshed arrangements.

Closing with the infectious bop of pop-rocker “Indestructible” gives the EP’s finish just the hook it needs to bring the listener back to the start, which comes quickly with an overall runtime of just over 10 minutes. Not exactly a lengthy amount of time for either an audition or making a first impression, but Dear Apollo proves themselves worthy of the challenge on this versatile, impactful debut.

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For more on the band, check them out at dearapollo.com. 

 

 

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Making Introductions: Dear Apollo

I had a lot of fun with this one.

Dear Apollo is an Ithaca, NY-based band led by good friends Anthony Dicembre and Ben Robinson. As part of my radio segment The Arts Beat, I had the recent opportunity to interview both Dicembre and Robinson in studio and talk more about their self-titled EP (which you can hear above; a full version will come out here eventually). We talk about a lot of great material including how the pair made their album entirely over Dropbox, which is one of the coolest musical creation stories I’ve heard in a while.

I’ll say this much, when it comes to interviews I’ve had with musicians in local music both here and around the Northeast I have had a lot of wonderful experiences. Not only from the standpoint of having met/worked with a lot of genuinely friendly people, but also because there are just such great stories to tell.

And Robinson and Dicembre have a good one. Go give it a listen, and if you want to know more check out the band at http://www.dearapollo.com.

And so we reach, the final number…

Of 2017!

It ended up getting here a bit later than I intended, but below you’ll find my final installment of the Top Five Albums of 2017!

This time Lee and I were joined by another one of our radio crew Michayla Savitt, who added an excellent selection to wrap up this year’s coverage!

My notes…

Julien Baker’s Turn Out The Lights hit my musical landscape like a gradually evocative wave this year. While initially in the midst of a pack of strong releases, Baker broke out further and further based on one simple fact: Lights may be a slow burn of a listen, but once it takes off it is flooring.

Baker isn’t just an artist whose brush is especially skilled at painting in the darker palettes either. Rather, she’s a highly underrated markswoman of a lyricist who hits profound lines in a way that requires listen after listen. If for nothing else but to truly absorb the beauty in what sometimes feels like ultimate despair.

Lights certainly isn’t a record containing the high level thrash of Queens of the Stone Ages’ latest or the righteous rock of Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound. It is slower and MUCH heavier (more of the morning after than the main event), but its brutally honest to the bones and Baker isn’t afraid to let her vocals fly out in pursuit of a catharsis to the pain of emotions expressed in songs like “Appointments”, “Shadowboxing”, and “Hurt Less”.

One of music’s great gifts is the ability to make us feel, especially through the rare talents that show up to turn that little bit of skilled craftsmanship they’ve figured out into a shivering, slightly indescribable chill running down your spine. Thats when you know you’ve found something more… something extra you need to slow down for because otherwise you might miss the next best thing.

Welcome Julian Baker. I’m more than proud to close by 2017 on you.

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!

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) 

 

 

Calhoun raises haunting “Phantom” into life

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To my recent memory, few musicians have truly captured the spirit of ethereally drawn emotional agony quite as close to the bone as indie songstress Kohli Calhoun.

Calhoun had already snagged my interest earlier this year with her prior single “Take Me Away” and its ability to ruminate on profound emotional discomfort with a Regina Spektor knack for wrapping it in brightly fragile pop. Her latest single “Phantom” takes that concept and walks off down a dark hallway full of whispers with it. The feeling is still familiar, but now its filled with a greater desperation of yearning vocals, swirling synths, heartbeat taps and an ominous tape player slink worthy of a St Vincent track.

The video for “Phantom” brings that internal dissonant chaos to visceral life in the form of a woman moving through a forest with a primal, almost seizured level of intensity. It boils the song down to emotion rather than wordplay, which is where “Phantom” seems truly meant to thrive the most.

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If Calhoun’s latest line of music continues to explore the depths of this musical headspace, I look forward to seeing where the rollercoaster of her thought will bend to next. The journey certainly won’t be an easy one, but it is a rare gift on Calhoun’s part not to just sing but to sing with her whole heart poured into every note.

“Phantom” doesn’t just stand out because its a strong single. It stands out because its almost uneasily direct in how it expresses itself. Not because its a Whitney Houston ballad from The Bodyguard and this moment called for something sad. Rather, it breaks down the finer details of what makes that sadness exist in the first place.

And in some way that imperfection, is sometimes the most perfect thing to hear.

Grade: A

For more: Visit kohlicalhounmusic.com

Pop rock roars with life on smashing “Talay”

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Break out your headphones or roll down your windows, because one of the most anthem-filled EPs of 2017 has arrived.

And its made its way to the world in the form of Megan Talay’s 2nd album, simply entitled Talay. If that (self-titled) album title is meant to indicate a greater ownership of the sound of these songs, it leaves one hell of an impression burning in its embers.

While Talay’s debut Piece By Piece was certainly a strong beginning start, it was more of a creamy Ani DeFranco center surrounded by an acoustic coating. Talay instead rips up that formula and replaces it with spastic electric guitars, brilliantly cutting, lip curled like a punk rock heroine lyrics, and a sense of constant crowd-surfing spirit thats more than worth a few stage dives.

Talay is essentially the all night party living next door to a rave. Even the initially-drifting “I Hope Your Band Goes Nowhere” groundswells into a belting riff-roaring growl of taunting defiance against a douchebag ex-boyfriend (maybe the same charming percussionist from prior romper “Drummer of the Band”). The album fluently demonstrates Talay’s proficiency for early to well into the-2000’s pop rock, embodying the guitars of Prince’s final all female band 3rdeyegirl and the vocal twistings of a revival straight out of Josie & The Pussycats or The Runaways.

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Talay manages to channel the heart and earworm choruses of those girl power outlets into one of the best rock EPs of the last several years. And not because it requires the technical proficiency of a Fleet Foxes album being reviewed by Pitchfork. Music is not a complex animal that requires a thesis statement.

Sometimes, the best music is all about feel. And Talay has it all the way to her “Parent’s House” and back again.

Grade: A

Songs To Download: “Parent’s House”, “I Hope Your Band Goes Nowhere”, “City”

Listen Here: http://www.talay.bandcamp.com

Third Class Gets Real On “Virginia” Double LP


Making a double album is a downright arduous task in modern music today. Lengthy epics from pioneering artists in rock, soul and so many other genres in the decades past have been replaced by one nagging fear:

The attention span of the modern audience. 

In an age where digital is still king while vinyl/physical media churns on in the shadows, the value of an album as a whole has been reduced to singles and sound bites in the modern audience’s ear. And sadly many artists have followed suit, releasing just enough quality for plenty of radio play and iTunes downloads while the material as a complete statement tends to suffer. 

This has worked so well in fact that you’ll often find once overly prolific musicians censoring themselves just to fit into the mold. And while I can understand that in some sense, I think it creates too much overthink and not enough bravery to just create.


Thankfully the lads in Third Class have disregarded this stereotype on their latest LP Virginia’s Playlist. The Ohio-based group has created an unashamedly honest patchwork quilt of subjects on this record, ranging from birth, death, childhood, love (and falling out), simply adorned poetry and the innocence of just experiencing what the world is all about once you move out past your front door. 

Accompanied by spare arrangements of piano, ramshackle electric/acoustic guitar, backing vocals, hand claps and ever-shifting ambiance, lead man Lee Boyle and co. take charge as the musical element in what feels like a many act play. At times on this one Boyle reminds me of Weird Al Yankovic when he appeared on the Ben Folds album Songs For Silverman. Capable of the comedic or what some might expect to immediately be lighthearted, when in fact he’s much much more. 

And much more is what’s needed when you feel so personally embedded into the concept of Virginia. It’s less of an album at times as much as a scrapbook of tapes, aforementioned poetry, personal statements and a woven tapestry of spoken word against song that creates more context than the music alone could ever do by itself. 


It almost feels voyeuristic to the listener in a way without pushing that envelope too far, yet is just as beautiful for all that it reveals. It makes me feel the memories being replayed as though I were there, while almost making me sad that I wasn’t able to truly live them. 

Say what you will about the YouTube/Facebook era of overexposure, I know I would have enjoyed recording on tapes for no other benefit than my own amusement. And there’s something about that type of nostalgia that rings more true than Keyboard Cat any day. 

In short, I give Third Class a lot of praise for this one. They weren’t afraid to make a double album. They weren’t afraid to make their statement regardless of what culture says is the “popular” way of doing it. 


They just made the most true sounding, human mix tape I’ve heard in a long time. That type of humanity could go a long way in a musical world much too hung up on the same dried out process of just earning a buck. 

Do what drives you. And make it as first class as Third Class does here. 

Stream Virginia’s Playlist now over on http://www.thirdclass.net, and make sure to follow the band on social media! 

Brent Cobb “Shines On” In LP Debut

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Country music is such a funny thing. Mention it to the average person and odds are they’ll either wrinkle up their nose at you in disgust, or name a favorite artist. The odds also state that favorite artist is probably from the list of Nashville industry regulars who made the first person do all that nose-wrinkling in the first place, which is really quite the interesting phenomenon.

Rarely can I think of a genre that either inspires so much blind love of retread stereotypes, or blind hate of a style that’s way more than meets the eye. For every Toby Keith or Brad Paisley there’s a Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson out there folks, and for every trailer park-loving, beer-swilling, tractor-obsessed milquetoast songwriter…. there’s another out there stabbing at their own heart just so you can listen to it bleed.

Isbell and Simpson are just two examples of that along with many others (The Lone Bellow, Chris Stapleton, and Ryan Adams when he still cared about country music to name a few). But today I’d like to focus on a young Southern artist who much like Stapleton paved his initial way as a songwriter before bringing his quiet, rough-around-the-edges style to his first major label LP.

And while I can’t say if this album is going to turn out as well for him as Traveller did for Stapleton, regardless it’s a pleasure to welcome Brent Cobb and Shine On Rainy Day into the world here in 2016. Cobb is another break of blue light in the cloud bank of business as usual in the industry of country music. He is every bit the soft-spoken, pastorally-minded singer-songwriter who may not dominate a room vocally, but still captivates it in just his debut the way guys like Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson have their whole careers.

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Just listening to Cobb’s songs (led by his accent-heavy minimalist croon) is like taking a step back in time to the beauty of early country and folk music and what made them tick. I mean before there was “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” there was “She Thinks I Still Care” after all. There was “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. There was the real time honest sentiment from both male and female artists that made country music so relatable, because so much of it was just about the strong emotions tying us to our day to day existence.

And when it comes to Cobb, he eagerly joins the club that keeps their eye firmly fixed on that keyhole of a mentality. Take the title track for instance, which incorporates a basic backing arrangement and leaves all the soul-stopping up to just Cobb’s vocals and lyrics alone. The song forces you to take notice, feeling as fresh as today yet as priceless as a 1960’s era masterpiece B-side you find abandoned in a stack of old vinyl.

It’s certainly not alone in that regard. “Solving Problems” is an easygoing toe-tapping strummer that would get along well with the songwriting of Isbell and Josh Ritter, while “Country Bound” has all the sepia-washed innocence of a walk through the woods listening to John Denver songs.  Pair that with the strength of tracks like “South Of Atlanta” and “Diggin Holes”, and you’ve got a record that’s already preparing to blast into the stratosphere of the next generation of country music artists.

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Add the fact Cobb teamed up with country music super producer cousin Dave Cobb on this one, and Shine On Rainy Day has got a little bit of everything your roots loving heart could ask for. A little cheatin’, a little bleedin’, a little done me wrong, with a slice of a heart born as a result of living through the world as garnish on the side.

You know, just a few of the problems of the world. And that’s nothing to wrinkle your nose at.