Stellar followup is no “Fiction” on new Babcock EP

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When I was first introduced to Stephen Babcock through his prior record Said & Done, I could sense his developing potential. The kind of young musician beginning to reach out and establish himself as he found the basis of his sound and where it might possibly stake his career.

Said & Done felt like the initial foundation of that structure, built on charming acoustic-laden fixtures. Now, Babcock’s new release Fiction feels as though the walls of that metaphor are starting to build up and take on a greater shape. Not that it isn’t without its fair share of familiar moments.

The folky Dawes send-up of album opener “Atlanta” and folk-rock of “Seersucker Dress” could certainly slot in easily alongside tracks from Said & Done. I think the major difference for Babcock on this album though, is more experience. As with any talent, getting to constantly learn, hone and repeat your art is always the best medicine. And you hear those results both in the familiar, speedway-chugging, Paul Simon wit of “Atlanta”, as well as the real left turns that start coming in with tracks like “Darlin” and “Good Things”. The first gets off the ground on the wheels of a boisterously racing Hank Williams-style hoedown, while the other is a smoky, organ-accented blues take that rewards Babcock handsomely for reaching outside the box.

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In fact, “Good Things” final, guitar-searing crescendo may be the most head-turning moment of the whole record. Its the kind of hallmark standout that takes a good song and makes it great, while hinting at greater vision along with it.

Closer “5A” settles back into what Babcock does best without ringing of repetition or ground retread. If the first four tracks of Fiction weren’t enough to have you at least humming a chorus or harmony the first listen in, the earworming lines of “5A” will handle the rest.

Now ordinarily this would be the line where I’d riff a closing pun about how Babcock’s talent is no Fiction, but since I already did it in the title suffice it say: put this album in your summer playlist. You’re gonna have fun.

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Find Stephen online at stephenbabcockmusic.com, on Spotify, and where good social media is sold! 

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“Atlanta” gives 2018 the right side of folk rock kick

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As we wind down March and meander into April, it seems like a biennial rite of spring to hear new music fresh off the grapevine in 2018 from New York City troubadour Stephen Babcock. His prior album Said & Done was a fresh favorite of mine and a hot topic on this site at about this time in 2016. Now, two years later Babcock’s preparing followup EP Fiction, due out April 6th.

And while my first thought is its been two years already? What’s really important here is the song. On one hand, “Atlanta” continues the best qualities of Babcock’s well-crafted songwriting. Though in this case, it feels as though it hones in more on the Ryan Adams Gold-era as opposed to John Mayer’s Room For Squares. You can sense the growth in Babcock’s craft since Said & Done, tinkering and getting his weapons sharper. The instruments feel thicker here, with variations and new inclusions that show promise for the entire album’s direction. While the rest of the track hooks with the charm of a foot-tapping Southern ladykiller.

If the reason for our slow start to Spring has been because we don’t have enough 2018 summer driving songs to warm things up, lets start with “Atlanta”. That Jason Isbell-y sounding guitar hum that kicks towards the end is worth the miles alone.

Check out “Atlanta” over on Spotify, and Stephen Babcock online at stephenbabockmusic.com! 

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. 

 

 

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