Lacy crafts pop gem on playful “Gemini Rights” LP, an AOTY favorite

Image courtesy of Google

When 2022 began, if you’d mentioned Steve Lacy’s name to me in conversation I wouldn’t have had a clue who you meant. He was one of those guys on the list of artists I’ve heard long before I ever put a name to his work. Fast forward to the last sliver of the year though, and I’d now consider Lacy’s recent LP Gemini Rights odds on favorite for Album of the Year.

This one grows on you just that quickly. Let’s talk about it.

Image courtesy of Google

Even in a season that included new Kendrick Lamar, Wilco, Spoon, Adele and stellar entries from the likes of Brandi Carlile and Fantastic Negrito, like the cream of the crop it’s been Lacy who consistently comes out on top. The producer/guitarist for The Internet has hit all the right chords on sophomore release Gemini Rights. The LP is a tightly hook-laden punch that eloquently weaves in textures on its tracks resembling a living hybrid of sounds both old and new.

For instance Cody Freestyle has a synth vibe at home in the 2010s, while Amber sounds like Tapestry era Carole King holding down the piano for a swooning Prince singalong circa Dirty Mind era. Sunshine continues the retro grooves with an endearing burst of harmonies, while Bad Habit dwells somewhere within the 80’s sneer of Billy Idol and the lovelorn lust of today.

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And I don’t exaggerate when it comes to the hooks here. It’s as though Lacy tapped into my ear like a safe cracker. Songs I heard a few times turned into more simply because they almost immediately resonated and stayed glued to my head. Sunshine, Buttons, Bad Habit, Helmet, Static, Give You the World… the miles on this LP merge with plenty of home run hits along the way.

“Funkin’ Blame Game” single captures Andrew Thomases asking the important questions

Courtesy of Andrew Thomases

Here at OTBEOTB there have been some tremendous guest blogs I’ve had the pleasure of putting out recently. Material placed upon these digital pages is required to speak; to have a message that’s as relevant to the reader as it is my own two eyes. And Andrew Thomases may have just made one of the most urgently poignant features I’ve had yet.

The singer-songwriter delves into the delicate guts of his recent single “Funkin Blame Game”, a muscly blues tune further enhanced by the presence of fellow rocker Anne Bennett on backing vocals. The duo together only adds to the punch of the lyrical message, which is what what may excite me most about giving a platform to Thomases words here.

We currently live during a time in history in which US human rights are vanishing at an alarming rate; actions initiated by discrimination and fear against those in society who are different. Subsequently, it strikes a chord to me to hear Thomases ask the question, why do people blame others for their actions instead of taking personal responsibility? To me it feels like a societal wound; you aren’t what we consider normal so we’ll harass you for that and deny our heinous actions are wrong.

But I’ll let Thomases take it from here and explain the rest. Enjoy this important bite of food for thought!

Image Courtesy of Andrew Thomases

What is going on in society today? It seems to me that people tend to blame other people for their problems and refuse to take responsibility for their own actions. Whether it is small individual actions or large-scale political or cultural sentiment, people are looking for scapegoats. This trend has bothered me so much that I recently wrote a song about it called “Funkin’ Blame Game.” 

As the lyrics explain, I tend to believe that the blame game derives from a deeper narcissistic trait that is rearing its head. We see it more and more in our leaders, and that opens up the door to emulation of that trait by everyday people. The narcissists believe that they are always right, that they cannot make mistakes, and, thus, any problem must be caused by others. If others blame them for something, they play the victim and complain that the blame is unfair. 

Thanks to Andrew Thomases for the image

This blame game is damaging our moral fabric. It is teaching our kids that it is wrong to admit to a mistake. That, if something goes wrong, they should point a finger at someone else. Some people no longer have the courage to take responsibility for their actions, especially the decisions that turn out wrong. This seems most prevalent in the people who should be leading our country. Without their leadership, spinelessness turns to anger, and anger is now turning to hate and splitting society into factions. These people are not serving as proper role models for our younger generation, and I fear that the blame game will continue. 

“Funkin’ Blame Game” is a direct attack on this type of behavior. Under the funky bass line, the catchy guitar riffs, and the ear-worm vocal melodies, the song chastises all of us for falling into the trap of providing excuses rather than admissions. How constant deflection of flaws is just not credible. And, it also explains how the blame game is killing our society.  However, the song ends on a positive note. It asks all of us whether we are prepared to stop playing the blame game. Don’t you want to cease playing the blame game?

Image courtesy of Andrew Thomases

Watch the lyric music video for “Funkin’ Blame Game” down below, and check out more of Andrew over at his website AndrewThomases.com. Big thanks to Andrew for contributing to this one!

Rockers Brightshine keep us hopeful with the summer of single “New Days”

Photos courtesy of Brightshine

I don’t know about you dear readers, but as summer hits I find my mind waxing nostalgic for songs that illuminate the open road feeling of these approaching brighter months. Sometimes those points of light can be harder to find in 2022, so when an all-important hook passes by… you’ve gotta grab at it like Marty McFly truck-surfing via skateboard to Huey Lewis in the Back To The Future intro. 

Luckily, California rockers Brightshine accommodate by living up to their name through a dazzlingly bright new single called “New Days”. Accompanied by a sweetly optimistic music video, the track hits like a bouncy mid-level rocker with an afterburn that takes off in a jet plane during the guitar solo. Slashing through with psychedelic strokes like The War on Drugs meets Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler and Warren Haynes, Brightshine’s lead man/guitarist Pete Sawyer’s fretwork takes “New Days” to another stratosphere in its quest and pursuit for… hope, to describe it in a word. 

Photos courtesy of Brightshine

At least that’s the implication here as the song rides the high of getting out of the dry, withered winter and spring and moving towards the bloom of bright flowers reaching out with soft fingers for a new tomorrow. Whether those small initial green buds remember the trauma of the conditions that were before is unknown; what IS is that they always bloom again.

There’s more than a few lessons we can absorb from that philosophy, so take a seat, listen and start learning (with the the band’s music video below of course!).

Thanks to Brightshine for the opportunity to review “New Days” out fresh today! The track will also appear on the group’s upcoming sophomore album “The Wire”, due out July 23rd.

Ruby Greenberg shows us why vulnerable “Roses” bloom so sweet in behind the scenes “peek”

Photos courtesy of Ruby Greenberg

I love any chance to use this blog to feature other voices besides this one you always see before you. My relationship with my own writing has had a tendency to ebb and flow in the last few years anyway, as is natural when it comes to that will o’ the wisp creativity. So in those moments, rather than fight burnout I’d rather pass the mic to someone with an inspired message.

Enter Ruby Greenberg. The Colorado-born indie-folk singer-songwriter has been impressing in 2022 with her new single “Roses”. We need more voices like hers defining the genre as it makes its way forth into the future, especially because we ALWAYS need new female musical voices to help show the way.

There aren’t enough.

Fortunate for me (and you the reader), Ruby was kind enough to provide a peek behind the curtain into what makes this new song “tick”. For that I’m deeply appreciative, as not all artists are willing to provide a vulnerable window into their creative process. It’s much easier to simply board that window up; just keep the mask tight. Instead, Greenberg shows us how to listen by explaining when she had difficulties doing just that, and how it led to “Roses”.

Enjoy.

Photos courtesy of Ruby Greenberg

“How to Share Space with the Ones You Love”

Many of us try to approach life treating others as we would want to be treated. We might even have been taught this value at a young age, told that it was something to strive for. It’s a reminder to treat others with kindness and respect and to be mindful of how we’d want them to listen to, support, or nurture us. But some time ago, I realized that sharing space with those I love could be done in an even better way: by treating them how they would want to be treated instead.

As I wrote one of my latest songs, “Roses,”I was thinking about a particular relationship in my life. I tried thinking about what it would look like if I showed up for that person in the way that they needed me to, instead of responding in the way that was most instinctive to me.

Photos courtesy of Ruby Greenberg

Sometimes I get excited when I talk to someone I feel close to. I might try to finish their sentences and chime in with my own thoughts. I might start thinking of what I want to say next. When they pause to find their words, I might jump in with what I think they’re going to say. I realized this isn’t always what people need. That energy, though it comes from an earnest place, doesn’t foster an environment of psychological safety when someone is sharing something vulnerable. I’ve come to think that the best way to connect is to be mindful of creating a space that’s about listening instead of responding. 

Someone might share news with us, describe a decision they made, or even act in a way that is different from how we do. How we handle this matters. When someone shares themselves with the world, the response they receive can impact whether they continue to show up as their true selves again and again, or if they feel shamed and start to hide away. When a loved one shares themselves and is rushed, dismissed, criticized, or ignored, it can cause them to shut down. Then that honest side of them might not shine through again. Creating safety for someone to share their truth in a relationship or interaction can mean that we get to truly know them instead of knowing a version of themselves that they created to make us feel comfortable. 

Photos courtesy of Ruby Greenberg

These meandering thoughts are what were stirring in my mind when I wrote “Roses”I tried to think of an image of bringing comfort and support to someone as I got to really know them. When someone invites you to a home that they’ve built for themselves, you don’t run inside and start painting the walls the color of your own house. You bring them a gift to brighten up their kitchen. And so it became the refrain for this song: “I won’t disturb the space that you’ve created. I will bring Roses for your table.”

Thanks so much Ruby! Listen to “Roses” below:

OK Cool brings the heat to the engaging “Songs From The Spare Room”

Image Courtesy of OK Cool

As many of you out there likely know, damn it’s easy to get stuck in a rut with your music collection. What I mean by this is while I have shelves and shelves of beautiful artistic material, some weeks I’m happily marooned in the Rap and Funk sections with no proper means of escape. Seems easy to leave, but the hook is in trying to make something else sound as good as what needs to be in my head right that very second.

Thankfully, Chicago-area outfit OK Cool have jumped behind my mental velvet rope to shake up the routine with the recent release of their two-song single Songs From The Spare Room. The duo of Bridget Stiebris and Haley Blomquist chew the scenery on tracks “Self Sow” and “Time and a Half”, capturing emotion in a bottle that’s equal parts anxiety as triumph. Buoyed by waves of guitars reminiscent of Sleater Kinney, Yo La Tango or Television, the pair embody the true spirit of shiny, math-y garage rock in a couple songs that take less than moments to hear in their entirety. The notion is downright punk in its execution and sticks the landing with ease.

Image Courtesy of OK Cool

Lyrically, Stiebris and Blomquist are in a similar place to many of us still processing the lifestyle changes and psychological fallout of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike some musicians who choose to let their words bear the brutal brunt of the soul, OK Cool shows the heart on its sleeve more through these 6 string melodies. “Self-Sow” is an effervescent bird in flight amidst crescendoing thrash, while “Time and a Half” rocks in like a Smiths song played at double speed.

It may seem like cliche, but the short track times work to leave me wanting more in the best possible way. I think the most fun aspect of Songs From The Spare Room is just that, the feeling you’ve heard it before bleeding through the garage wall. And there is such a spirit to that, especially in all the kids who’ve ever started bands that way. It’s raw yet refined, rough around the edges, and has all the untapped potential of a diamond yet to be discovered.

It’s wonderful. Or rather, pretty OK Cool.

Andrew Thomases brings color, shading to the sprawl of “Suburban Void”

Courtesy of Andrew Thomases

As a kid growing up in the embers of a slow-dying small town, I was far from typical. I wasn’t into mindless goofing off with friends and I didn’t go out and get into the kind of trouble that’d inspire Bruce Springsteen to write Greetings From Asbury Park. I might have read about those exploits, but I tended to flee from what helped young people cope with their existential “Thunder Road”.

Thankfully, Andrew Thomases is back here on OTBEOTB to fill in the blanks for me with his new single “Suburban Void”. The track is a power-chording thumper; it feels like an omage to every thrashing band at a teen movie house party with adjoining lyrics to match and set the scene.

Courtesy of Andrew Thomases

Thomases growls his way through this leaned landscape of kids doing the random, mundane, and sometimes downright foolish as a way to escape the nature of their means. And, like all of us when we’re young, those methods eventually include many bad/embarrassing choices. That’s echoed in Thomases words, in which he looks back on these moments and finds them to be pathetic.

But I think that’s to be expected with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. If only we knew then what we know now, as they say. Growing pains are a real thing no matter your status or stature; sometimes we’ve got to get embarrassing to get better.

Just brace yourself, there will be embarrassing hairstyles along the way.

Check out the lyric video for “Suburban Void” below:

“Long Way Home” feels like creature comforts for Steele Creek on new LP

Courtesy of Steele Creek

I’d swear some of those dustier hills and valleys down South have a magic woven into their airs to bring forth such defining roots/rock music. Rising like monoliths out from the dirt. Past and present, those we watch thrive who carry the torch of sonic roots from creators moved on… the names big or small are often legendary.

We get a taste of that overall tapestry with New Orleans band Steele Creek and their brand new record A Long Way From Home. Hell, it’s less a taste and more a smooth-sipped whiskey that warms with charm down to the last drop. North Carolinian and frontman Phil Cramer leads the charge with gently haunting, echoing vocals reminiscent of The Head and The Heart or indie folk darlings The Avett Brothers scattered amongst the pines.

Courtesy Steele Creek

The tone is glad company down the path of weary tracks like “Florida” and “California”, the welcome trot of “Around The Bend”, as well as the folky strut walkdown of “I’ll Be There”. Long Way also brings to mind fine memories of one my favorite albums, Elvis Costello’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Cramer is a strong songwriter equally willing to, like Costello, flesh out the stories in his melodies until each feels like it’s own living, breathing novel.

There’s nothing to be found that’s one dimensional on SC’s new record. Evocative illustration is joined by cascading waves of guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and piano, creating a mental sense of visual sight as well as sound. Fog, crickets and the shift of wind whispers in the description of a morning dew if you will.

All told, A Long Way From Home feels like wind in the air optimism at the start of a year that really needs it. There’s just a certain uplifting mood that’s impossible to ignore between the lines here. Maybe thats just the feeling that comes with hearing something new that’s really good, but either way… this is good.

Go give single “Around The Bend” a listen below, check out more on the band at https://steelecreekband.com/home, and enjoy the full album due out Friday!

“Faces” adds reissue, needed revisit to mixtape dubbed “Mac Miller’s opus”

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I’ve heard a lot of analytical voices over the years eagerly detail the expert stream-of-consciousness musical technicality rapper Mac Miller throws down on 2014 mixtape Faces. And while I’ve done plenty of previous dabbling in the then-22-year-old’s headspace on the piece, it wasn’t until the recent re-release of Faces that I thoroughly took the mixtape’s (now) 25-song journey to its completion. Both the new version as well as its original incarnation, initially made available free online. 

Despite the 2021 edition’s removed samples due to rights issues and some slight instrumental changes, it still largely delivers on Miller’s tour de force of drug battles, struggles between darkness and light, and dodging in and out of the windows of a chaotic life that’d eventually result in his 2018 demise from a fentanyl-laced cocaine overdose. It’s the furthest type of album I’d have expected from Miller at one time, especially after his bright baby-faced independent pop-rap rise to stardom with 2010’s shiny-eyed K.I.D.S. and 2011’s Blue Slide Park. But I’ve had a lot to learn about Mac since falling head over heels for his final two masterful albums Swimming and Circles, and part of that included realizing he was so much more than just a half-drawn image of some Pittsburgh slack-rapper. 

Here instead was a musician who ultimately preferred being sequestered in his studio (dubbed “The Sanctuary”) as he explored just how far the deep end of his talent pool truly went. Themes of girls and partying present on Miller’s earlier work quickly gave way to new stories in the chapters of his own pain, depression, love, ego and mortality; all of which are delved into on Faces.

There were some record execs at the time who felt the direction would cause his star to fade, when the truth was something much more enduring. While Miller’s Blue Slide Park persona might have quickly given way as a gimmick had he stayed on that path, what instead resulted was a fragile, expressively brilliant yet self-destructive humanity in a young man whose lightbulb simply burned out too soon. What was once derision of Miller’s origins instead simply became a question of, what might have been with more time? What might have been next after 2018?

Sadly we won’t ever know the answer. As it is, I know we were fortunate to have Mac Miller as long as we did. Even four years before his overdose death, Faces is rife with references to significant cocaine use (“Polo Jeans”, “Friends”, “Angel Dust”), fears he would “die before he detoxed”, and that his doing drugs was “just a war with boredom but its sure to get me” (“Malibu”, “Funeral”). Miller even eerily seemed to foretell how his eventual death would play out on “San Francisco”, and pondered if he’d even make it to another album with closer “Grand Finale”. 

Periodically there are times in your life between the headphones of melody where a new musician in your life becomes something… more invested. Sometimes without you even realizing it’s happening and being woven into your DNA fabric. I’ve absolutely found that in Mac Miller, who utterly defied my expectations and showed me how wrong it was to put anybody’s talent in a predetermined box.

The listens (especially in later years knowing the tragedy of Mac’s story) aren’t always easy, but they’re real with warts-out honesty. And as hard and as painful as that can be to endure sometimes, it’s also often a way to create a bond over even the implication of shared experiences. Both the ups and downs in those pairings. 

Faces certainly has its fair share of uncomfortable truths when it comes to what was going on in Mac Miller’s life at the time. But despite the dark paths and alleys within those narratives, Miller’s talent only continued to blossom around those gritty city streets in his mind. And that led to the creation of so much beauty within this mixtape. And within so much of his catalogue. 

I wish it wasn’t the end, but he did have one hell of a gorgeous Grand Finale. 

A little closing statement for 2021…

I often find in my current stage of life still entering my 30’s that time really does mash down the accelerator once you get to a certain age. And it wasn’t like I was one of those kids who badgered and begged adulthood to appear either. It just…. happens with a snap one day and you’re left wondering exactly where all those minutes went on the way to your current destination.

Entering the final day of 2021 and starting 2022 has brought me into this basement of thought, which is a mixture of both slightly solemn and sobering. Age has a way of doing that to a person the more you notice it. But instead of getting too far down in the dumps, in this moment I prefer to think of rapper Mac Miller and a lyric from his 2010 track “Senior Skip Day”.

“Enjoy the best things in your life, cause you ain’t gonna get to live it twice”

To me that line’s a reminder and mantra no matter how serious things get, its important not to get so caught up in sadness/worrying that you miss out on all the good and enjoyable aspects of this experience. Sometimes that’s way easier said than done, but I can confidently say the best of this year in music at least certainly provided plenty of celebratory moments.

Take for instance…

Brandi Carlile, In These Silent Days

Courtesy Google Images

When it comes to Brandi, my jaw has stayed on the floor for her tunes since 2018 LP By The Way, I Forgive You. Despite knowing her music off and on since 2007’s The Story, By The Way felt like a coming out party for a musical vet taking her craft to the next level. The icon stage. Silent Days has only continued this rocketing trajectory upward behind the weight of tracks like “Right On Time”, “Stay Gentle”, and the golden threaded harmonies of “This Time Tomorrow”. Carlile’s bandmates twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth also deserve plenty of praise here as they’ve formed a power trio with Carlile that is a titan both in studio and on stage.

Ultimately though this is Brandi’s world and we’re just living in it, lucky for our listening ears!

Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars, An Evening With Silk Sonic

Courtesy Google Images

Arguably the album with 2021’s biggest hype, the end result is a tight 8-track affair harkening back to the best of old school soul, funk and R&B. Mars and .Paak navigate the terrain as deftly as their on-stage choreography, aided in part by P-Funk legend Bootsy Collins and bass wizard Thundercat (who shines on “After Last Night”).

I know there were some who felt Evening didn’t line up with their expectations, but I felt this was a great tablesetter for the collab project. I hope this isn’t the last we see from Silk Sonic as it feels like there are still plenty more chapters yet to be written in Bruno and Andy’s book together.

Marlon Craft, Homecourt Advantage

Courtesy Google Images

The rapper from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen was on a creative tear this past year, dropping EP Space (with producer Yusei), LP How We Intended, and this Homecourt mixtape. The release trio are exceptional, but Homecourt takes the top spot for me behind flows like “Lost Faith”, “All We Got”, and “PACE”, as well as a boundless roving energy.

Not to mention Craft only continues to sharpen his lyrical spearheads with each new work he puts out there. He’s one of a select bunch in the genre using that power of prose to move the needle of social consciousness in the right direction. We need more of that in the world as we move into a collective headspace that’s often more spun on lies than uncomfortable truths.

Rag’n’Bone Man, Life By Misadventure

Courtesy Google Images

Rory Charles Graham, AKA Rag’n’Bone Man, had one of the most affecting sound styles I heard all year with this LP. With a baritone reminiscent of a room-riveting Michael McDonald, Graham dominates from first note to last. He excels equally solo (“Breath in Me”, “Old Habits”) as he does in a duet (“Anywhere Away From Here”), which highlights an equally heartstopping vocal from pop singing maven Pink.

I also really came to adore Misadventure because it’s lyrical themes are so true and honest to our basic humanity. Love, loss, sadness, loneliness, fear of inadequacy in the world… these are just a few of our most essential and relatable emotional signposts. We’ve all been in that, and Rag’n’Bone Man feels like he’s right there with us in those trenches.

It means a lot.

And finally…

Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound

Courtesy Google Images

Since his retro-minded debut Coming Home dropped in 2015, Leon Bridges has melded his old school Sam Cooke vibes with a more pop, contemporary visage. The result is a 20th century R&B feel that is equal parts heart and earworming hooks with tracks like “Why Don’t You Touch Me”, “Motorbike” and the aching “Sweeter”. Sure there’s a bit more production present, but it doesn’t take away from messages like “Sweeter” and it’s ode to the George Floyd tragedy.

Add in stellar collaborators like Robert Glasper, vocalist Ink and musician Terrace Martin and Gold Diggers finds just that, the jackpot at the end of the journey. Much like the Rag’n’Bone Man release, part of the payoff is also in that lyrical relatability. It spoke to me a lot here, and I hope it does for you as well.

May the year of 2022 provide just as great a list of new favorites this time as it did in 2021!

Audrey DuBois Harris brings all the soul to tender “Christmas Without You”

Courtesy of Audrey DuBois Harris

At this stage of the year it begins to feel like December is leaking away through our fingers like so much common hourglass sand. 2021 is quickly and quietly escaping to a close, culminating with the imminent conclusion of yet another holiday season. Perhaps this is a gradual sign of my age, but it feels like this holiday process rolls in faster and faster the longer I’ve been around. Hanukkah, Christmas, pick the time… these celebrations come and go with the presence of a lightning bolt nowadays. At least from where I sit 31 years into my own story.

As you might imagine that perspective brings on the occasional cloud of melancholy about aging, even amidst the bright lights and bulbs currently illuminating the streets and shop windows with their luminescent casts. There’s a battle in me waged internally between having appreciation for the happiness of those shimmering moments that count, and a little wistful sigh at watching them smokily float away with both feet on the accelerator. Uncaring of my wish that they might stick around just a bit longer and delay their inevitable conclusion. 

Courtesy of Audrey DuBois Harris

I feel both the sun and shade of those moods within the effervescent vocals of soprano Audrey DuBois Harris on her recent single “Christmas Without You”. The track is a sweetly jazz-smoked ode that is at once as heavy as it is uplifting. That’s all due to the intricately gorgeous timbre of DuBois Harris, who carries emotional layers like the fine gossamer silk of spider’s webs. As beautiful as they are strong. Once dubbed by soul legend Aretha Franklin as her “favorite soprano”, DuBois Harris draws the listener into the stirring heartbreak of existing without the one she loves, while also making “Christmas Without You” into a gorgeously capturing torch song about being with those who matter the most. 

Because when it comes to this time of year, the real priorities lie within our connections to others. There are certainly plenty of presents, parties and pretty light strands to be had, but the true gifts dwell within our shared community. That type of gathering becomes a vision that’s more difficult to see during these pandemic times, which makes “Christmas Without You” a rather perfect ode to so many lives right now. But the single also serves as a reminder that even while COVID is ongoing, its still important to check in with loved ones. Make that phone/Zoom call, reach out and don’t leave regrets hanging. 

If they matter the effort is forever worth the time. 

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