“The Great Divide” a Straight Shot of Skillfully Sliced Americana

JD and The Straight Shot’s “The Great Divide” begins on the strength of its title track, which is a catchy, folk-rock anthem incorporating a woozy, 60s-sounding build of a chorus. The band’s got an immediate chemistry for melody and harmony on the track, which makes for a unified contrast against the song’s subject matter of growing division in America. 

That’s a topic certainly-not-unfamiliar to the folk realm, and “Dead Men Tell No Tales” stays squarely in that wheelhouse as a grooving tavern sea shanty throwing a wink and a nod to the classic murder ballads as much as Davy Jones. The Straight Shot’s swivel of vocalists add to the unsettling nature of the track as baritones dwell uneasily against the sultry storyteller like a dark fog heading down to run amok on the innocent scenery below. 

“The Great Divide” functions at its best when it settles comfortably into those rootsy, Americana elements that attack with an acoustic edge. “Invisible” feels like another retro return to an almost Crosby, Stills, and Nash vibe on a classic music revue show, while “Anything But Love” evokes James Taylor within its opening six-stringed pluckings. The music’s arrangement is a well-honed, close up affair, which adds to the intimacy level a record like this needs in order to hit the right notes. JD and The Straight Shot sound as though they’re sitting just around your headphones, different voices arcing and waning in a songwriting circle of different motions and ideas. 

“Walkin On A Wire”, other than reminding me of the Richard and Linda Thompson song, brings to mind latter-day Mark Knopfler and Elvis Costello tacked to a backwoods backdrop. While covers of “Happy Together” and “Jessica” are faithfully interpreted with just enough flair to bring this album home on the band’s own terms. And while I recently learned the JD in JD & The Straight Shot is New York Knicks’ owner James Dolan, I chose to leave that until the end of this review because of that very thing: letting this album speak on its own terms. And in this non-basketball realm, “The Great Divide” does very well in accomplishing that.

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The Inoculated Canaries “Who Are You” A Crunchy Good Time

The Inoculated Canaries are a four-piece rock outfit from New York City with influences they describe as including Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Black Keys and Pink Floyd. That Whitman’s Sampler of artists is certainly on prominent parade in the group’s straight up, grass-fed approach to the rock-n-roll realm’s thumping beats and six-string gymnastics. And I found the same to be true with the music we’re talking about next.

As I listened to TIC’s recently-released single “Who Are You?”, I found my mind drifting to that crossover cocktail mixture of famous bands and melodies I mentioned a moment ago. The Nirvana aspect jumped out particularly hard in the case of this track. Not because “Who Are You?” embraces its grunge roots so much as its gleeful joy as an energetic 90’s alt-rock sendup. Sublime’s “Jumper” also came to me in traversing the song’s opening strums, which adds to the single’s overall level of ear-worming foot-tap.

Lead vocalist Mike Rublin adds to that effect with a vocal tone somewhere between Sublime’s Bradley Nowell and the gentle hiss of the Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corgan. That’s a compliment both to the riff-ripping enthusiasm of the era and TIC’s adaptation of it. Because in the end no matter the bands you listen to or emulate its about making the work your own signature in the world, and that’s the case here. “Who Are You?” joyfully chews at the scenery in its lyrical search for identity, while simultaneously not taking itself too seriously in the pursuit of a group growing in its sound.

You can also check out the band at theinoculatedcanaries.com!

Host Bodies New EP a “Diamondfruit” in the Rough

I love when its time to write reviews about up and coming talent in the music world. I’ve never asked around to get an opinion, but I’ve always been on the fence about whether to write about whatever music I’m listening to (popular or not), or to purely focus on that independent landscape. There isn’t exactly a binding contract stopping me from both I suppose. But, I enjoy it just a bit more when I get to try in-my-tiny-little-blog way to help someone get their art out there by using my own form of creation. So with that being said, let’s talk…. Diamondfruit

James Collector and Nick Hess are the San Francisco-based musical outfit Host Bodies, and together with Ryan Kleeman and Count Eldridge have created a new EP called (as you may have guessed) Diamondfruit. It’s an entirely instrumental creation, which isn’t a style I immerse myself in as often as I should. This was a nice way to be reintroduced. Music without words can speak just as loudly as a set of lyrics if the creators assemble it properly. Diamondfruit paints the scenery of its seven tracks with easily nimble fingers that leave plenty of room for the crafting of the melody. 

“Stories” is a ghostly, woozy sway of an opening track that quickly sets a mellow mood with a Portlandia-sounding intention that slowly twists shape. Guitars fade in and out and grow and diminish with a relaxing hypnotism that doesn’t evoke sleep so much as… satisfying balance. The moment they start to drift in on the back of an organic acoustic arpeggio brings the space of this track just a little bit closer to Earth. 

“Wildcat Beach” meanwhile returns more to the electronics of the constellations as it feels like the scene implied in the title, standing in the white dunes staring at the expanse of an infinite universe above. Guitar and drum kick in another layer to the party and spiral out with thematic elegance before spinning left into the ukulele strings and jittery zip of “One Under Won Over”. The pace and tempo of Diamondfruit never seeks to break the speed limit, but here you’ll go farther riding with the groove than speeding to the finish line. 

The first line of a description for Diamondfruit calls it “a dreamy electronic EP that finds calm and clarity amid hectic times”. I quote that line because by the time “A Humble Student” and “Outro” roll around and hit the final fade, it feels like there’s just a little bit less stress in the world. Fewer harsh vibrations and more reminders of the truth to power earnest, thoughtful music can bring.

For more on the band visit hostbodies.com, and to listen to Diamondfruit for yourself, click here.

Wyld hits the right notes on sweet summertime glow of “Child”

I’ve been freelancing as a music writer for a few years now, and I still consider one of my greatest gold medal achievements to be the connections I’ve made to New York City’s area music scene. I’m sure I’m said this in one form or another before in my writings, but here it is again. Some of the biggest city crossovers of mine have coincided within very significant parts of my life that really defined the person I’ve become and the art I’ve created since. There’s a beautifully-lit, urban imagery to it all I deeply appreciate whenever I get the chance to look back on it all. Plenty of nostalgic tones, sunrises, and late-night hero orders in that paint box.

I found that same fond imagery coming to mind watching the music video for my latest connection on that New York City map, Brooklyn-area singer-songwriter Elizabeth Wyld. Look no further than the opening shot of the iconic city skyline in “Child”, or the lyrics’ initial mentions of Christopher Street and signature yellow cabs. Though looking beyond that, I’d say the greatest ode to this city in both song and video lies in it’s romantic heart.

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“Child” is a sweetly shiny, folk-pop foot tapper that relays one of the oldest and most relatable feelings in humanity: navigating/risking the vulnerabilities of falling in love. It can happen as fast as a shock to the system and hit twice as hard, especially in that first moment’s “spark” that feels like your insides are doing caffeinated backflips. I equate the feeling to… jumping into an ice cold pool instead of dipping a toe in on a hot summer day. But as anxiety-provoking as the thought of such a crash is, when that feeling’s right… you just sense it in your bones and welcome it with a smile. And I felt this whole course of thought spill out just giving this song a few listens… again, good memories brought to mind by the presence of good art.

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Plus, the music video for this song fills in the illustrations of the lyrics beautifully. It does so in a way that reminds me of the useful narrative power music videos still have in even in a post-MTV and TRL era. I think that’s mostly due to the performances of Wyld and Dana DePirri, who exude the type of natural, bright-eyed chemistry that makes the “thrift store cardigan” romance of this song authentically movie-sweet. Not in the plastic, Hollywood way that feels more substance than stereotype. Rather, in the type of way that goes to show the sort of stylized gloss I think we all put on that initial relationship ember that makes our brain chemistry’s electricity crackle. It’s an endorphin rush, and this video really puts it in the moment.

To do that so naturally, puts a smile on my face every time. Go drive with the windows down, the sunshine on, and take in this song’s ambiance.

You can check out Elizabeth’s music at her website http://elizabethwyld.com/

 

 

 

One More Time With Feeling…

Watching Moses Sumney’s NPR Tiny Desk segment was a lucky stumble-upon this week that I highly recommend hearing at least once.

I say this due to the stripped-back crafting of Sumney’s vocal range, which for lack of a better phrase froze me to my seat like a slap to the head. I was immediately reminded of an ethereal, Nina Simone figure just emoting a… gossamer beauty. It reminded me of the first time I listened to Bon Iver sing Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me/Knick of Time” solo at the piano.

And while Sumney and Justin Vernon are different musically, to hear the level of falsetto these men can conjure is… frankly unreal. And it’s not because they’re male. Rather, it’s the undeniable power of this ability. I hear these performances and am just stunned someone’s voice can make these sounds so beautifully in the first place. Simone, Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley, Mahalia Jackson, Etta James, Jonsi from Sigur Ros, and certain select others come to mind. But whatever the case, my point is these are just some of the moments that make performances timeless, and why as a music lover I never stop searching for them. Because when you find it, you know.

Plus, if you somehow still don’t know by now (and you need to!), NPR Tiny Desk performances remain one of the best music media sources anywhere. Not only have I discovered new artists like Sumney and The Lone Bellow, but musicians like Wilco, Dave Matthews, Julien Baker, Anderson .Paak, Leon Bridges, Run The Jewels, Brandi Carlile, and countless others I love have adapted to the space in new and sometimes unexpectedly great ways. T-Pain anyone?

(Yes I really said T-Pain. It’s that good. Enjoy a few others.)

There’s so much feeling injected into these performances, and it would be a bucket list goal of mine just to watch a taping. But in the meantime, get a listen to Moses Sumney. Not just because of the voice. Listen to the harp, saxophone, and twinkling guitar in the band moving around in the arrangement. You may not be a fan for life by the end, but the creativity in motion is a fascinating place to play.

Oh, Tuesdays…

They’re not exactly the Tom Waits-ian type days of lore where you expect to sit back spinning “great yarns” by the smoky haze of lamplight. But, given that the start of my average work day coincides with the beginning of the standard workplace lunch break, I tend to look toward the odd days/hours to help unleash my inspiration. Which in itself… hasn’t been an easy process.

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Lately I’ve been trying to feel my way out of one of the worst dry spells I’ve experienced as an independent writer, and losing my urge to create. And while I don’t want OTBEOTB to be any less about music, from now on you may see more of my “nuts and bolts” feelings regarding my creative process.

That might occasionally include venting some of the frustration on the road to breaking out of a funk too.

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Because there certainly have been plenty of recent ups and downs, and speaking from the perspective of a slump as a long-time sufferer of anxiety, it makes the feeling of sitting silent agonizing. Not using the words I know I have. I feel like there are worlds out there spinning I’m out of orbit from or places my voice could be. And yet, I’m not there.

Yet at the same time, I still think of plenty I’d like to say about a new song or an album I see that I just can’t make myself write down. Or, I deeply fear what I will say won’t sound as good as what’s in my head. So… let’s change that feeling, because I have something new (to me) musically you need to know about.

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In the last week or so, I’ve suddenly been devoted to the discovery of California singer/rapper/drummer/producer extraordinaire Anderson .Paak, his last full-length LP (2016’s Malibu), as well as recent .Paak singles “Bubblin'” and “‘Til It’s Over”. Now despite being a voracious music lover, I admit to being very guilty of having good music in my possession I simply don’t listen to. To put it in terms of food, my eyes occasionally grow larger than my stomach. So from time to time, I’m a few years back on a good thing. #musicalpackrat

In .Paak’s case, last Monday morning I put on lead Malibu track “The Bird” in a spontaneous decision to listen to the album straight through after previously leafing through a few cuts. And while low background music I enjoy typically helps me focus during work days, I never expected to be so quickly struck by the burst of lightning that is how good of an album Malibu is. While a few moments do drag (and I’m still not sure whether to laugh or cringe at the Prince-sounding omage of “Silicon Valley”), .Paak’s consistency across Malibu and its 16 songs is almost revelatory in the days of digital.

To give you a quick sense of the artist without sudden need of a Spotify search, here’s .Paak with band The Free Nationals on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert.

And performing “The Bird”.

One of the greatest things about .Paak and Malibu in my opinion is the way the record’s sounds of rap and R&B glow fresh and contemporary, while still maintaining a washing machine blend of James Brown footwork, Otis Redding soul, swinging jazz/funk, and the building blocks of 70’s-era West Coast music. And to hone in on the Godfather of Soul for a moment, its .Paak’s similarly confident, swaggering braggadocio sealed with a Cheshire Cat grin that makes this record kick even harder. He’s got a hell of a gift and knows it, and that in and of itself is infectious.

.Paak does have other prior musical output, most notably LP Venice which has more of a predominantly hip-hop flavor and is still a work in progress for me. Its good, but feels like .Paak just before he starts hitting his stride knocking fastballs and melodies alike out of the park. So consider me hooked as we wait for the two .Paak albums supposedly due out sometime in 2018.

And until then, I plan to do plenty of binge-listening like Netflix to get ready. With any luck, perhaps I can also include pushing those fears and anxieties away too.

(Also, here’s one last video. Just for fun.)

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! 

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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