Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Sarah Donner - Black Hole Heart (2017)

Black Hole Heart, the latest release from New Jersey based singer/songwriter Sarah Donner, carries on in the tradition she’s established since first emerging on the scene. Light-footed, immensely musical folk pop is married to exceptionally crafted and intelligent lyrical content that delves deep into the personal without ever risking obscurity. The album’s dozen songs make use of a relatively limited array of instruments, but this shouldn’t alarm potential listeners. There’s an immense amount of color and melody sparking these songs to life and they never fail to both engage listener’s intellects and move their emotions. Her first class writing talents come through on each of the album’s songs and it’s quickly apparent she’s chosen an excellent supporting cast to help these tunes come to life.

“Phoenix” opens the album quite nicely. Its ambling acoustic grace has a lot of audible confidence as well. There’s ample delicacy in the arrangement, particularly how the vocals and guitar work weave around each other, but the steady acoustic strum has some strength as well in its inexorable march towards song’s end. The delicacy is even more pronounced on the album’s title track, but it also gains much from the well-conceived lyric poetry that fills the track. Donner exploits the full potential of the black hole metaphor and dramatizes it well with an evocative singing performance. “Florida” is an equally poignant acoustic based track with a direct and lilting memory guaranteed to get under listener’s skin from the first. Donner has a genuine knack for emotional narratives – not linear, A-Z storytelling, but a skill for getting inside the emotional truth of each song with a surprisingly minimal amount of effort. The same fine writing defining much of the release continues to hold sway on the song “Athena” and her sprightly vocal phrasing imbues the lyric with a lot of dramatic life. The mandolin in the song is a particularly effective musical touch and unwinds with just the right amount of artfulness.

There’s some unexpectedly entertaining self-deprecating humor in the song “The Longest Road”, an otherwise heavily reflective track about life’s journey and the mistaken turns we can make moving through the years. She changes musical gears slightly with the song “All the Things”, but the same honest wisdom and keen eye for significant details distinguishes this performance. The musical qualities manifest themselves a little different with a clipped, straight ahead acoustic guitar figure that gives her vocal an added urgency. Melody is the dominant musical force on the song “Sinking Ship” and it helps frame another fine Donner vocal in the best possible way – the interplay between these two elements is on point and easily elicits an emotional response from the listener. There’s a echo-laden, elegiac tone to the album’s conclusion “Sol 549” that brings Black Hole Heart to a finish like a leaf slowly wafting towards the ground. The distance surrounding Donner’s voice is quite evocative, but never so far removed from the mix that the instrumental tracks gain sonic superiority. Black Hole Heart has a well honed sense for the musical and a wide emotional breadth that encompasses many facets of human experience. Sarah Donner has greater achievements ahead of her, but there’s little question that Black Hole Heart ranks high among her most significant musical projects.

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Chris Bartels - Myths and Mold (2017)

Myths and Mold / Album Video Teaser #1:

Written by Alonzo Evans, posted by blog admin

The second solo release from Minneapolis music auteur and songwriter Chris Bartels, Myths and Mold, secures his spot as one of the indie scene’s most provocative artists. Bartels has earned quite a reputation over recent years as an important voice in the music world thanks to his work with a variety of outfits and different genres, but his solo work allows him even more latitude to explore ideas and soundscapes unfettered by label or expectation. Myths and Mold is a five song EP packing the cumulative effect of a full length effort. This is, largely, the result of nuanced compositions not entirely dependent on synth atmospherics, but rather benefitting from a well rounded approach incorporating electronica and guitar alike. His approach to vocals has some influences from the modern scene, but Bartels likewise has a wholly individual quality to his approach clearly coming through on each of the EP’s five tracks. This confluence of sound and voice helps make this release one of 2017’s most impressive outings yet.

The ambient influence is quite strong – there’s no doubting that. Bartels makes a great show of this with the opening of the EP’s first track “Blind” with its swirling electronica and dramatic sweep, but the track soon settles into a more conventional approach. The somewhat sprightly jaunt that the music takes on gives his massed vocal approach more urgency than it might otherwise possess. Multi-tracked vocal harmonies are a gamble – listeners, often times, might step away from the track feeling like such moves are a little too affected or heavy-handed. He seems to be striving for a choral effect and achieves it with memorable results. The second song “Missoula” pulls back some on that vocal approach in favor of concentrating more on developing the musical arrangement. The song’s terse and revolving guitar figure has an appealing amount of twang on it and, despite the plethora of electronic accompaniment, Bartels never loses its signature touch throughout the song’s duration. “Stay” is a lighter number, in some respects, thanks to the recurring chiming quality of the guitars and some ideal counterpoint from effect-free piano. Bartels’ fascination with the intricacies of recording and miking things in compelling ways comes across quite vividly here.

The EP’s title song, “Myths and Mold”, is the shortest number on the release and perhaps its most artistic. Bartels jettisons the straight-forward approach of song craft providing a skeleton for the earlier cuts in favor a much more ambient attack than we’ve previously heard on the song. The vocals are not key here, but they provide a crowning touch for the song. The last song on Myths and Mold, “Counting Hands”, shares some similarities with the earlier “Stay” insofar as it softens the uncompromising approach present in the other tracks and relies on soothing, lightly melodic qualities to complement his vocals. This isn’t a release for everyone – people who prefer a more organic, bare bones approach will likely be puzzled by Bartels’ musical point of view but, despite that, it’s presented with such obvious skill that you cannot help but listen. Myths and Mold is an interesting release, if nothing else, and certainly connects more than it misses.

Grade: A

Monday, May 22, 2017

Jim Hagen - Jazzical (2017)

Written by Jason Hillenburg

Artwork by John Lind Whitby

Jazz guitarist Jim Hagen has established a much deserved reputation as one of the best musicians working in the genre today. Many might dub his particular brand of jazz as “smooth” and it isn’t off the mark in terms of texture, but it doesn’t begin to describe the extent of his skills. Hagen’s original work and covers draws deeply from one of America’s finest musical traditions and his use of its lexicon shows a wide command over its intricacies along with an individual style quite unlike anyone else working in a similar vein. The nine songs on his latest album Jazzical testify to the aforementioned words and reveal him to be a formidable talent still growing despite a lifetime in the music world. Few artists can attest to such a characteristic.  

The first song and lead-off single, “Pismo Beach”, immediately draws listeners into his web. Hagen’s guitar work is, naturally, the musical center of these nine pieces, but that never means other instruments fail to provide an equal and colorful contribution. Hagen is clearly a musician with an ensemble, rather than virtuoso, approach and the drumming and keyboards enrich everything he does. Melody is not in short supply – each of the instrumentalists are fully cognizant of their role in this mix. “D-Tuna” has a less direct approach and opens with an artful cluster of sound before the arrangement solidifies into a discernible structure. Once again, however, melody is the order of the day and this has a bright, optimistic air without ever attempting to overwhelm listeners. The keyboard work is an especially important component of its success. Listeners return to the full on sound of “smooth” jazz with the song “Alexandra”, but there’s a slightly melancholy or elegiac air surrounding this song that Hagen and his collaborators play with just the right amount of energy. The recording emphasizes the song’s evocative elements quite nicely.

The bass opening “All Blues” sets a nice, loping stage for the arrangement and Hagen;s guitar does a memorable job of dueling with the keyboards while bobbing in and out of the mix. Each of the nine songs on this release do a superb job of remaining focused throughout and never risking self-indulgence. Few songs illustrate this better than the title track. Despite running nearly seven minutes long, “Jazzical” has a melodic motif that’s difficult to ignore or forget. The fluid transitions and various textural changes are, likewise, expertly handled. Hagen’s warm guitar sound has a syrupy musicality that’s equally difficult to forget. The album’s penultimate track, “Piece of Cake”, exudes a playful side quite unlike anything else on the release and the drumming complements it very well. The finale, “Lazy Sunday”, features some of his best guitar work and closes Jazzical on an appropriately tasteful note while displaying the same talents that make the preceding eight songs so delectable. Jim Hagen and his cohorts might be working with a long established form, but they prove skillful at pouring old wine into new bottles. 

Grade: A+

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Cranford Hollow - Color/Sound/Renew/Revive (2017)


 Written by Lydia Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Many bands and artists take pre-plotted paths to success, carefully orchestrated to ensure commercial success, but often relatively bloodless and free of passion. Other artists and bands, however, follow their occasionally wayward muses wherever they may lead and the results are invariably more interesting and rewarding for listeners. Cranford Hollow’s journey from their 2011 formation as a decidedly retro minded outfit has reached a place, five albums later, where labels like “Americana” or “traditional” can scarcely be applied to them.  Instead, they’ve grasped a sound and approach that reaches far beyond those labels to grasp something much different, a creative reach that employs traditional instruments in very modern ways. Their latest release, Color/Sound/Renew/Revive finds this South Carolina based five piece hitting their marks and then some. There’s a vibrant, life-affirming creativity running through the album’s eight songs, even the darkest lyrical moments,  and the band plays together with tremendous chemistry.

The masterful first cut, “Songfield”, begins the album in a measured way.  Cranford Hollow are clearly not a band who rushes things – instead, the intricate weave of electric guitar fills laid over the top of a strong acoustic guitar rhythm track. Lead singer, songwriter, and second guitarist John Cranford’s vocals certainly recall some of his songwriting influences, i.e. Tom Waits, but his songwriting content and phrasing bear the idiosyncratic qualities evident in the greatest individual talents and he shows no hints of hitting a wall in terms of growth. The second song “Long Shadows” has a decidedly more raucous air than the first and is largely propelled by Eric Reid’s darkly lyrical fiddle playing that, despite its intensity, musically sweetens the melancholy sentiments so often conveyed by Cranford’s songwriting. Lead guitarist Yannie Reynecke makes his presence felt with an assortment of hot, blues-drenched licks.

Randy Rockalotta’s drumming opens “Noise” with some exceptionally tricky rhythms and Cranford enters the tracks with a rugged, but wonderfully emotive, vocal. This is one of the more interesting cuts on the album as it lays bare the band’s various traditional influences and recasts them as something that can only be called “art rock” with retro influences. It still sports all of the required grit and gravel and definitely shows off an identity you wouldn’t mistake for anyone else working today. “And You, Brutis” is one of the better examples of lyric writing on the album and the musical arrangement proves equally up to the task of embodying Cranford’s words. It also demonstrates the same penchant for surprising listeners thanks to its unusual rhythms. Reynecke has the six string chops to dominate any performance, but his remarkable inclination towards color and restraint can be heard on “North”. This is a player who prefers a compositional style better suited to serving the song and his interplay with Cranford’s second guitar is impossible to deny. The album’s closer “Swing” has a brighter hue than many of the album’s earlier tracks, thanks in no small part to the nicely structured harmony vocals and the strong melodic powers carrying it along. Color/Sound/Renew/Revive succeeds  in a way few acts of this ilk can match.

Grade: A

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Real Hooks - Damn You (2017)

Artwork by Odandiee

Written by Lydia Stewart

The underrated power of The Real Hooks is in full effect on their latest single release “Damn You”, but more of their qualities jump out at listeners than just the youthful rush of their music. “Damn You” proves to be a playful and intelligent exercise in crafting top class pop music with just enough muscularity to imbed itself into listener’s memories. It’s a genuine family experience as well. The band is fronted by lead guitarist and singer Kyle Hooks, but the sum is greater than any of the individual parts and the innate chemistry shared by the lineup is not just a product of shared DNA, but the result of gifted musicians and songwriters who make the hard work of creation sound joyful and effortless. This is an accomplishment worth mentioning alone. They also show a tremendous willingness to grow. The new single is the by-product of collaborating with songwriter Mark Spiro, a decorated craftsman whose work has been featured by artists as diverse as REO Speedwagon, Luis Miguel, and Anne Murray – among many others. This is a can’t miss song from a can’t miss band.

It’s fascinating how they bring everything in such spotless accord with each other. The guitars are there, undeniably so, but this isn’t a band who goes in for empty histrionics. The drumming is equally tasteful. It certainly has an urgent, romping quality, but it connects with all the right points and never approaches the busy sort of drumming that amounts to overkill on songs like this from lesser artists and bands. The harmony vocals are never laid on too thick and, instead, well placed within the song’s framework to send the track even further skyward. This is straight up pop rock, but it’s never so rugged that it possibly excludes listeners – instead, there’s a wealth of melody here that sounds like something blossoming from them naturally rather than an overly crafted and heavy handed attempt to win the audience’s favor. They have, likewise, a freshness in their vocal approach that sets them firmly within a tradition, but it glows with enough individualistic beauty that you’ll likely feel you’ve never heard anything quite like this before.

The song is tailored to an ideal length and never wastes a musical note. Their lyrical vision, likewise, never wastes a single word thanks to Spiro’s contributions, but it goes beyond that. The Real Hooks play like a band who knew exactly what they wanted to write when they began working on this song and the energy never abates. The humor of the situation is lightly played and the understated bittersweet aspects, as well, are handled with a deft touch. The Real Hooks’ “Damn You” carries on the band’s tradition of writing great material ideally suited for both radio play and the stage.

Grade: A+