Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Monday, March 19, 2018

Black Bluebirds - Like Blood for Music (2018)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Black Bluebirds is a Minneapolis based power trio featuring the musical and songwriting talents of Daniel Fiskum working alongside band mates Simon Husbands on guitar/vocals and Chad Helmonds on drums and vocals. Additional contributions from guests Jessica Rasche and Patrik Tanner are important to the success of the release as well. Their ten song debut Like Blood for Music is an impressive and fully conceived effort with a powerful, plain-spoken lyrical sensibility complementing its musical artfulness. The band clearly owes a debt to bands and artists as diverse as David Bowie, melodic metal, and David Byrne, but those influences never come off as imitation – instead, Fiskum and his band mates are quite adept at transmuting those influences through their own skills and experiences into a collection that’s not particularly cheerful, but intelligent and often ultimately triumphant. Like Blood for Music is another fine offering from a Minneapolis outfit, long a hub for musical creativity and Black Bluebirds are poised to join the upper echelon of musical exports from this Midwestern mecca.

Rasche’s voice provides an impassioned and recurring counterpoint to Fiskum’s own on the opener “Love Kills Slowly”. This is a real kick in the door way of beginning the album as Black Bluebirds latch onto an impressive and striding hard rock track for the collection’s initial salvo. It finds its mark. Simon Husbands, as well, unreels some particularly tasty lead guitar bringing a further flourish to the performance. There’s a bit more control exerted over the album’s second song “Strange Attractor” and Rasche returns to parry dramatically with Fiskum’s deep, gravitas-laden vocal. Fiskum’s keyboards impose themselves more on this song than we heard with the opener, but their inclusion does nothing to dilute the aural muscle they are clearly intent on flexing. Black Bluebirds embraces a more progressive, softer edge with the song “Life in White”, a study of addiction’s power, and there’s a hint of grandeur surrounding the song’s atmospherics that makes it especially potent for listeners. Fiskum has a mildly stentorian vocal style, but it’s never so melodramatic or self-indulgent that it mars the performance. The heavy presence of acoustic guitar in the song marks it as a much different proposition than any of the earlier numbers.

The potentially portentously titled “House of No More Dreams” never taxes listener’s patience. It, naturally, opts for a near apocalyptic guitar workout with thunderous drumming laying down a heavy groove underpinning the song. Smatterings of keyboards emerge from the mix. Rasche’s backing vocals return on the song “Soul of Wood” with impressive results and the uptempo thrust of the song is ideal for Husbands to spark with some memorable guitar pyrotechnics. Like Fiskum and Helmonds on drums, Husbands’ never pushes his playing into heavy handed territory and his embellishments on this song make it more torrid, more memorable. The steady groove established in the opening of the album’s finale “Legendary” gives Fiskum’s keyboards a solid foundation and Husbands adorns the track with some almost painterly initial touches from his six string. The song, despite only running four and a half minutes, clearly aspires to be an emphatic final statement for the collection and succeeds. Black Bluebirds’ Like Blood for Music is a mature, yet energetic and imaginative, work that swiftly solidifies the band’s position as one of the best acts to emerge from the Minneapolis scene in some time.  

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Rejectionist Front - Evolve (2017)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

New York City based Rejectionist Front’s second album Evolve picks up where they left off with their debut Shock the Conscious Mass and take things a step further. Fronted by singer/songwriter/activist Michael Perlman, the band sports some obvious music influences they spin in a distinctly modern and individualistic way. It remains an entertaining effort that never presents an out of whack balance between the songs’ primary elements. There’s a dozen songs on this album and they avoid the dreaded sophomore slump thanks to retaining the same focus on the songwriting that made the first album stand out so strongly. Produced by World2Be Entertainment, Evolve has an impressive and forceful sound that, nonetheless, comes across with great warmth and bottom end.

“Ride” is an evocative and superbly orchestrated opener. The band definitely follows the example of ambitious alt rock and classic rock acts with the dynamic thrust of the song, the alternating passages of light and shadow, but they unexpectedly sweeten their musical stew with multi-part harmony vocals that enhance the performance in unexpected ways. “All I Am” is a much more straight-forward rocker with some inspired, even slightly raunchy, guitar playing from Lincoln Prout. Perlman has a tangible vocal presence on both of the first two songs, but the harmony vocals from Prout and bassist Tony Tino are equally crucial on the album’s second cut. “All Is the Same” has a faint hint of Pearl Jam’s influence permeating the tune, but there’s a steady amble to the track that quickly ingratiates itself with the audience. The rhythm section of Tino and drummer Dave Dawson turn in a particularly interesting performance with their work on the song. Perlman’s talent for writing issue-oriented tunes that embrace a very human quality makes his writing resound with a more timeless quality and rarely is that more apparent than on the track “Reclaim”. Dawson’s drumming is strong again and there’s some light strings employed with this number. This is, unquestionably, an anthem in Rejectionist Front’s own distinctive style, but nonetheless recognizable.

There’s some great riffing and transitions making “Flush” fly like it needs to and there’s little doubt why the band chose it as a single release. It’s a turbulent and entertaining tune with the same vocal excellence in a hard rock setting that distinguished the earlier songs. They mix the pensive and raucous on the song “Hold Or Break” and it’s another passionate guitar workout with one of Perlman’s most diverse vocals on Evolve. Rejectionist Front concludes their second album with the song “Inside of Me” and follows much of the same template laid down in the more modulated tracks, but they further refine the technique here with a more nuanced approach. It ends Evolve on the same intelligent note that defines the album’s twelve songs. Rejectionist Front’s sophomore slump proves to be nothing of the kind; instead, this improves on the first album and represents a new peak for their efforts.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Chris Murphy - Water Under the Bridge (2017)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

Chris Murphy’s latest studio release in a successful and critical acclaimed spate of recordings is Water Under the Bridge which, in the scheme of things, is a much more “traditional” minded album than some of Murphy’s most recent entries. This release finds him dividing the fourteen song track listing between instrumentals and lyrically driven numbers that manifest a number of sides to his musical character. He’s a long-respected member of the Americana scene in our national music, as well as an educator and respected producer. Murphy’s rubbed elbows and worked alongside some of the genre’s most formidable musicians and songwriters for a reason – he can withstand the proximity to their stature. His latest studio album Water Under the Bridge reaffirms those gifts and adds to his growing legacy.

He has opened past releases with stirring instrumentals and continues the trend with this latest studio offering. “Moveable Feast” is a spirited, melodic delicacy that Murphy and his musical collaborators dispatch with an impressive amount of energy. The second track and instrumental on the release, “Joan Crawford Dances the Charleston”, has much of the same nuance that longtime Murphy fans admire while still containing a bright enough shine to draw newcomers in. He doesn’t indulge listeners with any lyrics until the album’s first song, but Murphy and his partners have such musical and melodic talents, vocal-less songs are just as pleasing as any words or singing. “Table for Two” is an excellent introduction to his lyrical prowess on the release and the album’s jazzy theme continues unabated.

The slow, graceful winding of “I Swear I’m Going to Learn This Time” befits the reflective nature of its title, but Murphy’s compositional sense and the accompaniment he receives doesn’t drag it down into unnecessary moodiness. The title “My Spanish Lover” accurately reflects the song’s contents and the spicy energy is a welcome shift in gears while still burning the blue jazzy flame. “Benzedrine Shuffle” is a carefully controlled, laid out tune without much of the wild shriek you might expect from an instrumental so entitled. The shuffle aspect is quite strong, but never overwrought. There’s an immense charisma coming off all these tunes and even presumably darker numbers like this are reflective of the personality that helps make Murphy’s music so special. “Tomcat Blues” is a real growler that Murphy’s longtime fans will definitely appreciate and it’s enough off the beaten path of most Murphy tunes that it stands out all the more. “Dog Ear Blues” has a warm, immediate sound that grabs you from the first, particularly thanks to its percussion, and ranks among the album’s best blues-influenced numbers. Murphy closes the album with a final fine instrumental, “Cheer Up Rickey”, that recalls his latest release with its presentation of just Murphy’s violin and stomp box. The effect, however, is a memorable final curtain for Chris Murphy’s latest studio platter.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Alpha Mule - Peripheral Vision (2017)

Written by Jay Snyder, posted by blog admin

This Cali-duo works up a good ol’ Mason Dixon moonshine sweat on their debut Peripheral Vision.  Though sometimes they ramp up the membership and play live as a trio or even a full band, the core of the group remains Joe Forkan (guitar/vocals) and Eric Stoner (banjo/guitar).  Lively opener “Corpus Christi” gallops across desolate American with hoof-pounding banjo and guitar licks building a deep acoustic foundation for Forkan’s smoky, gritty vocals to construct gorgeous mantras upon.  Soft vocal harmonies and swells of volume from quiet to surprisingly bombastic yield a piece that’s as subtle as it is blues and hard-hitting.  Light touches of harmonica and wailing steel guitars yield a total musical package that latches onto your eardrums, never letting go in the process…  Special props go to the greasy tempo slowdown heard that the 3 minute mark which casts the tune in a darker, drearier light for its closing moments. 

“On the Moon” is more of an uplifting trot with plucky acoustic guitars and giddy-up banjo hooks giving way to peppy, hook-laden vocal melodies that are more of a broad daylight affair than the midnight madness heard on the lead-in number “Corpus Christi.”  Fen Ikner’s percussion firmly maintains a pocket alongside the energetic upright bass licks and the catchy whistling melodies.  It’s a nice tune through and through, yet a polar opposite flip from where the album began.  The title track brings in some gorgeous pedal steel and a traditional slow dance country tempo where dusty vocals, well-controlled acoustic guitars and a barren little banjo lick search in tandem for the next watering hole.  This is real deal country; the kind that you rarely hear on the radio anymore and a stylistic reminder of what this sound was all about before rap and electronica infiltrated the genre.  The lyrical hook in the chorus (heavily featuring the song’s moniker) is one of the strongest and most memorable vocal melodies on the entire album.  Moodier and bleaker than an overcast southern sky, “The Distance” features Forkan’s guitar and vocals in the respective lead roles, delegating Stoner to subtle, atmospheric banjo runs and some of his own acoustic guitar accompaniment.  Jacob Valenzuela’s crying mariachi trumpet is another nice touch which only furthers the atmosphere of this magic track.  Bubbling, boiling Latin-themed percussion enriches this piece with an instrumentally organic groove that’s draped in layer upon layer of swirling, sweltering aural sweetness. 

The funky, jazzy “Pavlov” is a pure representation of Nashville-bred, ol’ school honky-tonking with a rollicking upright bass line and crash n’ bang acoustic licks propelling the husky rockabilly vocals forward into an endless desert sunset.  This is Alpha Mule at their most upbeat and swinging; grappling with a groove and wrestling it into submission.  “Mule in the Mine” takes the energetic pacing one big step forward by careening the tempo into a bluegrass boogie that’s as contagious as their stellar songwriting gets.  A waltzing bass line, twinkling acoustic guitars and pristine steel melodies inflect “Step Outside” with a certain modicum of pop appeal thanks to sweeping 2-part vocal harmonies that hit all of the right notes.  Rounding out the album, “The Ballad of Huell Howser” combines busy bluegrass with a soothing folk guitar work out, “Music of Our Hearts” returns to the horns and mariachi influences and closer “Empire” is a dreamy, pitch-black blues/folk apparition with haunting vocals bewitching the brainstem and sullen string work bathing the melodies in spectral darkness. 

With 5 bonus tracks in tow and a main album that’s delightful in every respect, Alpha Mule lays down the law on Peripheral Vision.  This is soulful stuff that draws its most clear inspirations from great musical styles that are now decades old.  Anyone that’s into folk, country, blues, bluegrass and Western film scores would do well to score a copy of this record ASAP!