Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Shofar - s/t (2017)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Minneapolis based five piece rockers Shofar’s new self-titled EP release ended 2017 on a strong note for the band and seems poised to position them for an impressive 2018 run. The six song collection is a well produced affair belying its indie status and presents the band’s songwriting and musical strengths in warm, visceral surroundings certain to engage their audience with ease. The songs are, obviously, stage ready compositions as well and distinguished by a level of intelligence that matches up well with the passion and attitude they bring with this recording. The EP cover is illustrative, in some ways, of the band’s primary strength – a focused avoidance of any self indulgence and, instead, a muscular invocation of everything that makes rock music such an urgent vehicle for communicating with listeners. It's an auspicious return for the band and singer/songwriter Larry Hagner since their last studio recording 2005's Turn. The playing, singing, and songwriter surge with the same passion and sense of purpose perpetually defining the band's work.

The first track “Running” commences with a smattering of synth sounds before transitioning into a crushing guitar driven groove. The band quiets things for the individual verses and the vocals come through with an unusual amount of clarity and musicality for typical entries in this style. Shofar’s talent for alternating passages of light and shadow sets them apart from many contemporaries and “Running” quite clearly illustrates that skill. The chorus packs emotional, bone-rattling punch. Guitar is important to the EP’s second song “Powerman”, but this performance finds Shofar employing a very different style than we encountered on the first track. The guitars eschew the pulverizing power chord crunch of “Running” in favor of airier, more melodic playing that isn’t nearly as claustrophobic. The absence of that white-knuckle quality from this tune is the aural equivalent of giving listeners a moment to catch their breath. They continue in a similar vein with the track “Shades of Grey”, but they vary the approach some with more of an emphasis on vocal harmonies. Studio confection or not, the harmonies are on point and the guitar work nicely complements them. It’s definitely the EP’s most radio-friendly moment thus far.

They echo the synth-laden opening of the EP’s first song for the introduction to “Hands Down” but soon shift into another heavy guitar track. Shofar builds the song around a slashing, simple riff that’s nonetheless very effective, but the song falters slightly with a chorus unfortunately hitting with none of the wallop we experienced on the earlier “Running”, but the lead vocal is the EP’s best to this point. The band explores more melodic territory than before on the EP’s final two cuts. “Countdown” benefits from the presence of piano laced throughout the track while there’s a more atmospheric edge, courtesy of synthesizer touches, on the finale “The Coming”. Both tunes, together and separately, make for a logical ending to the album as they deemphasize the guitar heavy aspect of the release’s first half in favor of a more nuanced, considered approach while still seamlessly sounding like the same band we’ve come to know over the previous four tracks. Shofar might have mixed things up with at least one uptempo number, but their self titled EP firmly establishes them as one of the indie scene’s more promising rock acts and blazes a trail to an even brighter future ahead.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Man Called Noon - Everybody Move (2017)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

The new EP from Chicago based eight piece Man Called Noon, Everybody Move, is a startling three song release serving notice that a major new indie alternative rock band is emerging from the pack. This third release from the band promises a fuller, more realized line of musical attack than ever before and even a cursory listen to this trio of songs bears out that the band brings an idiosyncratic mix of dramatic arrangements and soulful vocals to the table. Despite the obvious brevity of the collection, Everybody Move definitely announces a new dawn in Man Called Noon’s evolution and will garner much deserved attention thanks to its relentless musical quality. Band re-inventions seldom come better than this and they sound confident at every step.

The title song begins the release with tasteful flourishes from both lead guitar and piano. James Marino’s guitar playing reverts to some staccato rhythm accompaniment during the verses and has a warm, echo/reverb laced sound for the recording that complements its airy ambitions. Nathan Crone’s shimmering keyboard playing provides him with a nice counterpoint, particularly how he structures his fills around Marino when his guitar assumes a more prominent role. Rhythm guitarist Anthony Giamichael lays down some unobtrusive but essential second guitar and his highly melodic, emotive lead vocals are ideal for the arrangement. The multiple voices filling this song and others gives them a pop sheen that never comes at the expense of sacrificing their identity or cheapening their presentation. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” has a more jagged, funkier edge and crackles with its own peculiar inner light. The same uncompromised commerciality we hear in the opener is present here, as well, and it’s pepper with an added playfulness missing from the EP’s opener. There’s a number of transitions in the song that change the feel a little while never veering off course and Dave Aitken’s bass playing is a particular highlight of the performance.

“One Last Ride” begins as the first outright rocker on Everybody Move and both Marino and Giamichael lay down sinewy guitar lines with real teeth. It’s, arguably, the EP’s best piece of songwriting in some ways as Giamichael’s lyrics embody the same urgency and streamlined focus we hear in the arrangement. There’s definitely a classic fatalistic rock song air surrounding this song that gives it some bonus appeal. Man Called Noon has the rarest of things with this EP release Everybody Move – a fresh start and a substantive musical statement indicating it won’t take them long at all to outstrip their previous achievements and blaze a more personal trail than ever before.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Michael Askin - Road by the River (2017)

Written by Jay Snyder, posted by blog admin

EP number three from New Jersey born singer/songwriter Michael Askin is a sultry blend of country, rock and folk that hits the bullseye on every genre it draws from.  Askin formerly cut his teeth in the band environment with groups like Divine Sign and My State of Attraction but he has chosen to strike out on his own.  Even more impressive he composes every note and word himself for a home-cooked flavor that really has an original vibe inserted into a well-worn sound.  Additionally, he plays every instrument and performs the entirety of the Road by the River EP himself. 

The title track kicks things off with a trotting acoustic guitar licks, roots-y bass work, precision vocal harmonies and tapping snare drumming that sounds as if the beats were played by brushes.  Slight electric guitar inflections ripple over the acoustics and Askin’s dusty croon crashes free flow verses into a simple, memorable chorus that sticks in the brain long after the song finishes playing.  An energetic tempo drives the tune along like a wagon train on the run from a gang of gunslingers.  Thanks to the stellar production job of Kurt Reil, each individual instrumental texture sticks out tall and proud for a careful ear examination. 

A plucky, Pure Prairie League styled shimmering twang opens up the delicate, graceful swing of Nashville.  Slide and pedal steel are interwoven with the acoustic transcendence as a harder backbeat, tougher bass grooves and some fiery electric leads enrich the aural atmosphere in numerous countrified brushstrokes that makes for a complete, appetizing whole.  Askin’s vocals ring of the belated legend Tom Petty and more recently Kurt Vile, both of which I consider to be very high compliments.  Glistening acoustic guitars give away to rugged bluesy riffs on the 70s-tinged, organ-kissed heft of “Sun’s Going Down.”  This track features Michael’s grittiest performance on the album, as well as the EP’s down n’ dirtiest instrumentation; making for a powerhouse of a song that sounds straight out of the golden age of bluesy rock n’ roll. 

Hymnal organ melodies also play a part in “Hard to Make a Living” which trades the greasy blues for a country gallop and Bob Dylan-inspired folk.  Fuzzy, ol’ Americana riffs could win over some fans of 16 Horsepower but the main focus is firmly placed on twinkling, starlit acoustic guitar swagger and subtle rhythmic nuances.  Closer “Last Train” couples a swirling, Ennio Morricone soundtrack feel to steadfast country music slither.  Again organ mingles with acoustic guitar while the rhythms play more of an atmospheric counterpoint role instead of stepping out in front to lead the way.  It’s a bewitching finale that ends this EP on a seamlessly cohesive note. 

Road by the River is a mature, immaculately composed third outing for Michael Askin.  Upper echelon songwriting, textured production, rock solid vocal delivery and dynamic instrumentation come together for a satisfying listen that is sure to quell the hunger felt from all fans of authentic, old school grooves.  There’s not a bad track in the bunch as each tune spends sometime in the limelight with its own unique, individualistic sound.  All in all, Road by the River is five cuts of the finest country-dipped blues rock around. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Joe Olnick Band - Downtown (2017)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Joe Olnick has built, over the course of five albums, a considerable reputation as one of the most inventive guitarists and bandleaders working today, mainstream or indie. His sixth release of original instrumental compositions, Downtown, is constructed around the theme of urban life, particularly the sort experienced in the near-megalopolis of eastern seaboard locales like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and so forth. Olnick and his band mates are a distinctly different proposition for listeners in a live setting, unreeling long improvisational runs off the band’s material, so the seven tracks on Downtown essentially present us with templates for future live performances. Downtown illustrates the increasing sophistication and ambition driving Olnick’s playing and songwriting, as well, and even those who love vocals will find themselves quickly bewitched by the fluency and articulation of Olnick’s musical ideas.

The title song has an undeniable groove for the band to ride from first note to last. The delightfully lubricous wah wah guitar running as an undercurrent through the song locks in rather nicely with the rhythm section of bassist Jamie Aston and drummer Jamie Smucker while Olnick lays some emphatic, yet considered, lead guitar over the top. The album’s warm production has immense polish and minimal overdubs, yet never sounds anything less than completely authentic. There’s definitely a sense of open-hearted frolic coming with the song “Philadelphia Moonlight (Part One)” and Olnick’s lead guitar scales impressive melodic heights. It has a nice bounce, as well, that’s refreshingly never over-exaggerated and the overall mood marks a nice shift in gears from the smokier, more “mysterious” opener. “Food Truck” takes listeners into near fusion territory and Jamie Aston’s gymnastic bass work will please newcomers and experienced listeners alike. Olnick’s guitar work hits some bluesy notes here with excellent effect, but it’s equally melodic as well and fully cognizant of its role in the overall sound.

Downtown’s longest cut comes with “Parkside”, a patiently developed number beginning with stuttered, slightly muted guitar strumming and ghostly organ swelling from the mix. There’s a near reggae quality to the song’s growing lope and elements gradually start filling in the song’s shape more and more as it progresses. There are hints of a darker, more intense sound entering the song’s second half immeasurably enhancing the song as a whole. “Philadelphia Moonlight (Part Two)” is much different from the first part, a more diffuse tune that makes its impact through accumulation rather than outright melodic motifs or ideas. Despite another fine rhythm section performance, Olnick’s guitar takes more of a demonstrable lead on “Rush Hour” than the earlier tracks and fires off one bluesy blast after another with just enough distortion to deepen its bite. There’s some especially incendiary playing in the song’s second half. “Sports Complex”, however, is the album’s guitar rave up to end all guitar rave ups and finds the three piece setting their instruments to take no prisoners mode. The frantic, uptempo musical attack puts a bold exclamation point on Downtown and stands out from everything preceding it. Joe Olnick and his band have turned another corner with their sixth release Downtown and show no signs of slowing down.