Album Review: Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

image courtesy of Hello Wendy

Album Review of Maia Sharp: Mercy Rising

Maia Sharp‘s album Mercy Rising drops today, May 7th, 2021. A quick look at the artists for whom she’s written give you the first indication that the songwriting’s going to be strong, and Maia clearly wrote for her own voice here, emphasizing the strengths in her voice and delivery style.

Maia’s voice reminds me of Tommy Shaw, perfectly suited to the soaring, ’70s AOR sound of the title track, “Mercy Rising.” There may be a little Glenn Frey in there, too, with a deft touch on songs like “Backburner,” where Maia builds up energy, then sets it sail into softer seas with the subtlest vocal tap.

“You’ll Know Who Knows You” has a hint of funk in its soft-rock DNA, as it rolls and flows while allowing Maia to vary her vocal rhythm and punch the right notes and phrases.

Strummer “Nice Girl” is one of the many songs that turns some clever lyrical phrases, here in the chorus with, “Hey, you’re gonna make some nice girl miserable some day.”

Other favorites on this disc include the heartfelt “When the World Doesn’t End,” the sentimental “Things to Fix” with its peppy tempo, and the smoothly syncopated heart-to-heart “Not Your Friend.”

You’ll find a bit more of an edgy blues-rock vibe on “Junkyard Dog,” while you’ll feel well-designed discomfort during the softly powerful “Missions.”

The album ends with the bonus track “Always Good to See You,” one final plaintive plea to close a powerful album.

Mercy Rising is one of those records you listen to beginning-to-end. Well-crafted, soft enough to listen while you work but engaging enough to warrant giving your full attention during a headphone listening session. Maia’s voice is rich with a hint of a ragged edge, the songs are deep musically and lyrically. Pair it with jazzy, smooth soft rock with mainstream sensibilities like the solo stuff from Don Henley or Glenn Frey, maybe Joshua Kadison or some of the smoother Martin Briley tunes. Or, you know, just settle in with a blanket and warm coffee, watch the trees sway and flowers bloom outside your window, play Maia’s new disc on repeat and settle in.

Looking Ahead

Live music is slowly returning. You’ll be able to find Maia’s shows on the “Shows” page of her website.

Album Review: Bob Lord – Playland Arcade

Bob Lord – Playland Arcade

image courtesy of Bob Lord

EP Review of Bob Lord: Playland Arcade

Progressive? Experimental? Quirky? I’m never quite sure how to describe Bob Lord‘s music. Bob is kind of like a musical Picasso. He creates masterpieces you don’t quite understand, but you know you’re witnessing something worth paying attention to, worth remembering, worth enjoying. Slated for an April 27, 2021 release, Playland Arcade contains nothing that disputes any of that. If you’re familiar with Bob’s work within Dreadnaught, whose 2017 album Hard Chargin’ I reviewed here at the Blog, this solo album is much more esoteric.

The music on Playland Arcade tends to fall into one of three categories: video game, movie soundtrack, or cartoon soundtrack. Actually, most of it falls into zero categories, but I can imagine it being used creatively and effectively in one of the three aforementioned situations. And since the album is named for the Playland Arcade at Hampton Beach, NH, this mix of sounds isn’t surprising; the album is an arcade-caliber auditory assault on the senses.

Now, I’ve listened to movie soundtracks. The Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack is a classic. And cartoon soundtracks can be incredibly detailed. In my early music journalist days, I reviewed The Carl Stalling Project: Music From Warner Bros. Cartoons 1936-1958. Carl Stalling’s music was pure genius, and I had that album in heavy rotation on my CD changer for quite a while. I can’t say I’ve listened much to video game music albums, but I’ve seen them cross my desk; no, Buckner & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever doesn’t count because it was music about video games rather than music from video games, though I practically wore out that cassette from repeated plays when I was a teenager.

Still, as oddball as Playland Arcade is, and as unusual as it is to hear music from these categories, Bob Lord’s vision and execution are masterful, and though I don’t sit alone just listening to it, it’s an interesting backdrop for me while doing other things, though the music occasionally seizes my attention, so I can’t be doing anything too attention-intensive while listening.

I’ll start from the beginning and end at the end, but I’ll skip around in between like a kid in a beach town on a rainy day with nothing else to do, dropped at an arcade to wait out the storm and unsure how to spend his pocketful of tokens.

“Fry Doe” opens the collection as an instrumental musical number that establishes a tone and rhythm, adds bits and pieces to itself as it progresses, building in power and taking the listener on a journey, either through a video game or, toward the end especially, maybe also through a jungle, while delivering memorable musical runs and recurring hooks.

The most attention-grabbing song on the disc may be “Yo Soy Miguel,” perhaps because the lyrics – or, rather, the title phrase – is delivered with such an enthusiastic jolt, though the keyboardwork, as well, adds its memorable, energetic splash. Later in the disc, “Get Yer Drink Up” is a subtler, more rhythmic vibe in the same vein, with a beat that almost sounds as if it was being taped while walking down the street, with the percussionist tapping it out on the wall, garbage cans, his own body, even clapping when necessary; I dig it.

True to its name, “In For the Kill” is an excellent example of tension-building background music, as if taken directly from a crime drama. “Night Sweats” continues in the eerie vein but also launches into a mid-song musical bridge that could be taken from a 1970s progressive AOR album. Also on “Night Sweats,” I’m especially partial to the ratcheting sound effect used in it, a bit like an old wind-up alarm clock… or toy… or maybe even just a ratcheting wrench. “The Backyard Swan” also plays in this ’70s TV/movie soundtrack musical space, simultaneously channeling both The Mod Squad and a Clint Eastwood movie soundtrack.

“Beach Pizza” is soundtrack background music of a walk that ends with a panoramic view, and it flows right into “Tenderly,” with its slack-key guitar style twang, as if straight from a Hawaiian beach… perhaps with a pizza? (Does the Playland Arcade serve Hawaiian style pizza?)

One song specifically reminds me of the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack. I could easily envision a scene where “Fanfare for a Losing Team” was the background music. Perhaps a scene in Marrakesh where Indy and his companions are being chased, with surprises around every corner. The song has sounds of tension building intertwined with success. I can see how it could be a team’s fight song, as well, but I’m gonna go with Indiana Jones on this one. Much shorter “Last Word” contains the same sort of seemingly-Raiders-inspired tension, too, and it’s clearly movie soundtrack fodder with its big, climactic ending.

A personal favorite of mine, “Wyoming Vice,” has the western feel its name suggests, while 35 second long “Lobster Roll” feels like it may come from either a ’70s sitcom with an overly enthusiastic music bed or, perhaps, a blooper reel.

“Mighty Forces” builds into a celebratory song, with barn dance-worthy fiddling and a more-frantic-seeming-than-it-actually-is pace really getting your heart racing over the course of the tune.

I’ll close by mentioning another favorite, “Siege,” which ends the album with energetic rhythm. Very ’80s electro-pop/rock styled music, blending pop song techniques with video game-worthy sound effects and progressive/experimental stylings in at least one of the bridges for an effective fast-moving song, both before and after the mid-song, odd musical interlude, which, by the way, is something I’d expect from a ’70s progressive rock album. Bob accomplishes the feeling of a 12-minute prog rock opus in the much shorter (only 5:16!) “Siege.”

Beginning to end, Playland Arcade is a well-conceived, peculiar collection of unusually catchy odd songs and sound effects. It’s kind of like an audition tape for various types of background music and soundtrack work. Bob Lord is joined by some of exceptionally talented musicians on this well-conceived project (as noted on Bob’s website here), and you’re not likely to find much else like it. Interesting from the first listen, it continues to grow on you with each subsequent spin.

Looking Ahead

Well, Dreadnaught’s website says there’s a new Dreadnaught album, Northern Burner, scheduled for a summer 2021 release. First things first, though; Playland Arcade will be released in three days, on Tuesday, April 27th, and you can pre-order it here.

Album Review: Lisa Bastoni – How We Want to Live

Lisa Bastoni

photo courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

Album Review of Lisa Bastoni: How We Want to Live

Lisa Bastoni is well-known around New England as one of the region’s premier folk singer-songwriters. Naturally, awareness of her talent extends beyond the region’s boundaries, but we’re lucky to get to enjoy more of her performances than the rest of you. (Well, obviously not lately, but generally that’s true.) As such, it’s my pleasure to be able to share Lisa’s talents with you, to highlight them within the context of this album review.

Lisa is pretty straightforwardly folk, but you can tell she has plenty of other influences, which help give Lisa’s music the texture that allows them stand out from the crowd. (You know, the influences, plus her hard work and talent.) There’s a bit of blues in there, when necessary. Some old-fashioned country. A bit of bluegrass. And, even moreso when the song really calls for it, Lisa is able to tap into a rough-edged, hoarse vocal delivery that conveys earnestness and emotion.

Lisa Bastoni – How We Want to Live

image courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

Album-opener “Nearby” displays several of Lisa’s strengths. In the chorus of this catchy singer-songwriter fare, Lisa examines the past, dishing out life lessons as the song rises and falls, with emotion clearly driving her almost matter-of-fact, still somewhat wry delivery: “I was wasting time in all the wrong places. Sifting through a river of faces. I was busy looking at the stars in the sky. You were so nearby.”

Title track “How We Want to Live” adds a bit more twang and a steady pace, equal parts melancholy regret and thoughtful forethought. This song is driven largely by the appeal of Lisa’s voice and the delivery she has perfected to best suit it. It pulls the listener in, very clearly on this song and this album, likely even more in a live performance.

There are more soft spots in the vocals, portraying vulnerability, in “Silver Line.” This song has well-placed dips in its engaging rhythm and, at least after several listens, an overwhelming urge to sing along with “loving you is like falling down a silver line” before Lisa picks up the lyrical pace enough that it’ll take a lot more than the couple dozen listens I’ve given this album before I’m able to sing it with her.

There are life lessons – or, at least, a generalization of lessons learned and lessons observed – throughout this disc.  There’s kind of a nice trilogy mid-album. First, the tumultuous “Never Gone to You.” Then the ideal parent-daughter song of love, “Beautiful Girl.” And finally the uplifting recollections of “Take the Wheel”: “You could make me cry or make me laugh like an old love letter or a photograph. I needed you to take the wheel. Saying I love you isn’t even close to what I feel.”

Things get simultaneously jazzier and bluesier during the quirkily compelling, slow-moving “Dogs of New Orleans.” But then the pace picks up again with the cheerful, fiddle-driven ditty “Walk a Little Closer,” featuring the singalong-able: “It doesn’t make sense my dear. I just want to stay right here. Let me walk a little closer, closer to you.”

The penultimate track on the album is its sole cover, Lisa’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues #2.” Lisa digs out her grittiest, most heartfelt, moderately downtrodden vocal for the song’s verses, bringing the volume up just a hint to add the requisite vocal heft to the chorus.

The album closes with “Pocketful of Sighs,” a song that tells a complicated emotional picture, much like the entire album, introspective, recollective, and forward-looking all at once.

The album is so solid throughout that I have a hard time calling out favorites. Mine shift with each listen. It’s just a really strong listen beginning-to-end, and it showcases all of the elements that suggest Lisa’s performances would be a special treat, especially in a cozy coffeeshop, but also suggesting that her raspy, intimate vocals could make a large theater feel like a living room, as well. She’s one of Boston’s best folk-based singer-songwriters, and How We Want to Live lives up to those lofty expectations.

Looking Ahead

The very top of Lisa’s website is where the tour dates would be listed if there were any right now. (Hopefully soon.) The “Events” tab of Lisa’s Facebook page actually does list an upcoming show: Saturday, April 2, 2022, at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Duxbury MA, with Danielle Miraglia and Monica Rizzio. Assuming that date stands a year from now, it’ll be a barnburner of a show.

Lisa has another album planned for release later this year. Watch for it. Here’s hoping it arrives on schedule!

EP Review: Sandy McKnight with Fernando Perdomo – San Fernando Blitz

Sandy McKnight with Fernando Perdomo – San Fernando Blitz

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

EP Review of Sandy McKnight with Fernando Perdomo: San Fernando Blitz (Twenty2Records)

Sandy McKnight taps into that ’50s/’60s rock ‘n roll vibe much like bands like Weezer did with hits like “Buddy Holly” in the ’90s. With elements of the Beach Boys and probably many of the influences indie pop singer/songwriter Richard X. Heyman taps into to create his timeless pop-rock music, San Fernando Blitz is an album of well-crafted rock ‘n roll that’s guaranteed to entertain multiple generations and is certain to age well.

On this disc, Sandy’s joined by Fernando Perdomo. You’ve read about guitar-master Perdomo before at Geoff Wilbur’s Music Blog before, specifically when we reviewed his album The Golden Hour a few years ago. It’s a pairing of talent that’s likely to produce exceptional music, and, indeed, it does.

This really is a charming throwback almost. All six songs are less than 3 minutes long, and they’re like their own individual slices of rock ‘n roll sunshine, bright and cheerful, kind of what you’d think Randy Newman might write for a modern retro rock ‘n roll band.

“Living on the West Side” opens things up with a hooky cheerfulness. “C’mon C’mon C’mon” follows by adding a hint of California surf rock to the mix, punctuated by noticeably fun guitar noodling.

“Melody Anne” is the melancholy sock hop number of the disc. “Pay It Any Mind” has a similar vibe, but opens with a quick burst of guitar and a neat little bridge solo, while also sporting some subtly hidden guitarwork that keeps the tempo moving along nicely.

“Why Make Promises?” adds more modern, progressive guitarwork to the mix, coupled with a more emphatic – what would possibly pass as explosive on this laid-back disc – vocal line. This song softly soars, as if dancing on a grassy hill overlooking the ocean, metaphorically speaking. And since this whole EP has an old-time California rock ‘n roll feel, that’d be the Pacific Ocean.

“Seven Words” adds a little more wall-of-music feeling to the mix atop a strong rhythm that bounces more than it sways. The guitar has a little more crunch, too. Though not significantly different from the overall feeling of the disc, “Seven Words” ends the collection with a little more power than found elsewhere. Not much, just a little. Just enough to nudge you toward to decision of moving on to the next album or repeating this one, both reasonable choice.

In its totality, San Fernando Blitz is a fun, short EP. It’s a bright, cheerful, throwback rock ‘n roll excursion and a welcome collection to my listening library.

Looking Ahead

You can find Sandy’s upcoming live performances on the “Events” page of his website.

Fernando’s a busy dude, and rightfully so. I’ve seen his name attached to two other projects just since I added this EP to my playlist. I don’t see a live gig listing on his website, but Fernando does have an “Events” tab on his Facebook page.

EP Review: Tokyo Tramps – I’m a Tiger

Tokyo Tramps

photo by Hiroshi Miyazaki; photo courtesy of Tokyo Tramps

EP Review of Tokyo Tramps: I’m a Tiger

Boston-based Tokyo Tramps are known in the area for being a terrific band to catch live. I’ve been following them online for a while, hoping to find a live show to fit my schedule, but of course that was before the whole live gig thing was shut down. So I’m delighted to get a chance to review their latest EP, I’m a Tiger. This disc does a great job of replicating the energy and buzz of a Tokyo Tramps live performance.

Tokyo Tramps – I'm a Tiger

image courtesy of Tokyo Tramps

Tokyo Tramps were founded in Boston by Japan-born Satoru Nakagawa (guitar, vocals) and Yukiko Fujii (bass, vocals, keyboards), forming what would become one of Boston’s more celebrated blues acts in the years to come. The origin of the band name is pretty cool, too, with “Tramps” coming from the Bruce Springsteen lyric “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.” The Tramps’ blend of musical influences produces a style that covers a lot of blues and rock ‘n roll ground, relying on Satoru’s guitar stylings to help produce their signature sound.

Tokyo Tramps

photo by Hiroshi Miyazaki; photo courtesy of Tokyo Tramps

This EP, I’m a Tiger, opens with a lively, jazzy blues number, “I’ll Stay and Take Care of You,” which is delivered in a very familiar, comfortable blues style but with just enough dodging in and out of the rhythm to grab your attention and make obvious you’re listening to more than just your standard blues band.

Next up, “I’m a Tiger” has a slower-moving tempo with a kind of ambling-along type of hook tying it together. In the end, the song rises in intensity and insistence that “I’m a tiger! Yeah, I’m a fighter!”

A funky rhythm and guitar hook drive the hip juke joint-ready tune “Jeffrey Jive.” There’s a bit of a late ’60s/early ’70s psychedelic rock influence in there, too. I’m picturing The Mod Squad walking into a nightclub with this playing in the background. Maybe also Welcome Back, Kotter‘s sweathogs gettin’ funky to it, too, though it was likely just before their time.

Tokyo Tramps

photo by Natalie Fox Photography; photo courtesy of Tokyo Tramps

“Long Day” is a rock ‘n blues jam song, built around brief scenarios of everyday woe that relate to the phrase “it’s gonna be a long day.”

Finally, the “Lovin’ Man Instrumental” closes the EP with a soft landing, an easy listening number with a catchy, mellow blues riff with a bit of a Key West-strength laidback feeling as a dominant hook.

In its entirety, this five-song EP is a great introduction to the Tokyo Tramps, an audio calling card suggesting the coolness, energy, and good-time vibe you can expect from a live Tokyo Tramps performance.

Looking Ahead

Tokyo Tramps

photo by Hiroshi Miyazaki; photo courtesy of Tokyo Tramps

I’ll still be looking for a chance to catch the Tokyo Tramps live once I’m clubhopping again. You’ll find their shows listed on the “Live Schedule” page of their website. And, while the EP showcases the rockin’ coolness of Tokyo Tramps as a full band, you’ll also frequently catch Satoru and Yukiko performing as a duo. As the disc is song-driven, its songs should clearly adapt well to a duo treatment.

In the meantime, the duo has uploaded 47 “Live From Home” videos to the Tokyo Tramps’ YouTube page.

Single Reviews: Houston Bernard – “People We Are,” “Small Town Way,” and “Without You Honey”

Houston Bernard – "People We Are"

image courtesy of Houston Bernard

Single Reviews of Houston Bernard: “People We Are,” “Small Town Way,” and “Without You Honey”

Houston Bernard is about the closest I’ve heard to a surefire-hit independent male country music vocalist in years. He’s doing a fine job building his fanbase on his own, but man, if I were a label looking for a fresh new voice within a well-worn, straightforward country music path, he’d be at the top of my list. He’s got just a little wriggle in his voice that makes it identifiable to get him attention, but his music fall smack dab in the middle of the eight-lane highway of male country vocalist.

Houston Bernard at Local CountryFest 2

photo by Geoff Wilbur

From Oklahoma but country-rockin’ from a home base in Massachusetts, Houston Bernard is the king of current-style male country music singers in the region, and I guarantee he’d be top-three in any country market. (Almost certainly still my personal fave because of his strong songwriting skills and his everyday, friendly vocal edge.) I’ve reviewed a couple of his performances at Local CountryFests. Last summer I wanted to review some of his music but was just beginning to dig out of my backlog, so I introduced Blog contributor Eric Harabadian to Houston’s music, and Eric enthusiastically reviewed the single “American Dream.” Eric has a more complete knowledge base in some areas, so I love reading his take on my favorite artists. But now that I have the time again, I’m reviewing Houston’s latest releases myself.

I enjoy reviewing multiple songs at a time because they allow me to talk about the breadth of an artist’s repertoire. In Houston’s case, he has been releasing singles lately, so I appreciate the opportunity to write about three of them in a single review. The first song, “People We Are,” dropped on January 15th and made some noise for Houston. The other two, “Small Town Way” and “Without You Honey,” were released on March 26th. Among the three, we have two uptempo, big-country anthems and a slower number, a ratio not too different from the mix of Houston’s recordings overall, showcasing his ability to shine across various tempos.

Houston Bernard – "Small Town Way"

image courtesy of Houston Bernard

“People We Are” is has a wideopen guitar hook that brings to mind sunny days and blue skies in this all-American anthem. “We’re a little bit of ‘hell, yeah,’ and a little bit of Amen. A whole lotta work hard, and throw in a little playin’.” It’s a big, enthusiastic song, and it’s easy to see why it garnered Houston some notice, the pedigree of its writing team notwithstanding. (“People We Are” was written by Kim Penz and Cole Taylor, whose credits include Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Cole Swindell, among others.) The song is a bit of a summer anthem, especially for a song released in January, but I’m sure anyone who heard it in the dead of winter appreciated its big, bright power… while doin’ a fair bit more workin’ hard and a lot less playin’ than even in a typical January when the short days cause that to usually be the case.

“Small Town Way,” cowritten by Houston Bernard and Brandon Ray, is a cool take on small-town life, another song that’ll almost certainly tug at the memories and pride of fans from the heartland (where Houston and I both originally come from), as well as small towns we’re aware of in areas most people don’t think of unless they live there, like here in Massachusetts, where our small towns aren’t much different from small towns everywhere. Anyway, Houston’s voice carries its usual power and emotion, very clean and strong but relatable, while the music itself includes an uplifting tempo and well-placed guitar hooks. The song is a little less all about the “boom” than “People We Are” and has a little more git-along in its rhythm, if you know what I mean. It’s still got the punch to be a big hit, but it also has the additional complexity to its rhythm and music bed to give it staying power. With the right placement, this could easily be the small town, American-as-apple-pie song of the summer.

Houston Bernard – "Without You Honey"

image courtesy of Houston Bernard

“Without You Honey,” penned by Houston Bernard, Mary Haller and Adam Steinberg, showcases Houston’s ability to take on a softer tempo. Oh, this is one of those rockin’ ballads, with a dancing guitar solo in the bridge, a sad tinge to the supporting axework and the rhythm, and lyrics like “I’m a fast train runnin’ with nowhere to go without you, honey.” A perfect country music club slow dance song, whether with a live band or from a jukebox. And, of course, Houston’s voice sells it, as it always does. These slow songs really take advantage of the subtle boom at the low end of Houston’s vocal range.

This three-song collection showcases Houston’s broad potential fanbase. And that’s great. But if you’re reading this as a fan, all you really need to know is that these songs are straight-down-the-middle, radio-friendly country music with Houston Bernard’s trademark stamp on them, with a sound that immediately tells you they’re his song. If you’re any kind of a country music fan – or just a good fan of talented artists regardless of genre – you’ll dig these tunes.

Looking Ahead

There aren’t any upcoming shows listed on the “Shows” page of Houston’s website, but that’s where you’ll find them whenever live music returns in earnest. You can keep up with Houston’s daily goings-on on at Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Single Review: Anne Harris – “Over”

Anne Harris – "Over"

image courtesy of Frank Roszak Promotions

Single Review of Anne Harris: “Over” (feat. Markus James)

Chicago-based singer-songwriter/fiddle player Anne Harris is joined by critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Markus James on this single, “Over.”

“Over” opens with music that paints a vivid picture of a slow canoe ride through a swamp, with some loose picking supporting a slowly rising, building-in-power vocal. The strings sound a bit like they’re crying, as the power of the music rises, barely perceptibly but quietly defiantly. The song would serve as an ideal scene-setter early in a movie, perhaps as a slow-moving camera scans the slightly unsettling countryside while the opening credits are running… or, obviously, a slow canoe ride through a swamp.

For me, this is a quietly engaging song, one that’s ideal for an at-work playlist because it has interesting elements to it, but it never has those consciousness-piercing moments that’ll interrupt my work. Very cool vibe; be sure to check it out.

Looking Ahead

There are several live dates listed on the “Tour” page of Anne Harris’ website, beginning with a Saturday, July 10th performance at the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland, ME.

Markus James doesn’t have any shows listed on the “Events” tab of his Facebook page at the moment, but check back to see if shows are added.

EP Review: Night Lights – 6 Feet Aparty

Night Lights

photo courtesy of DRPR

EP Review of Night Lights: 6 Feet Aparty (Position Music)

Indie pop group Night Lights delivers catchy, danceable, hooky pop on its current EP, 6 Feet Aparty. Mau Jimenez (vocals), Yusuke Sato (guitar), and Dag Eirik Hanken (drums) serve up the kind of synth-driven party pop that will quickly embed themselves into your brain so that you’ll soon react, as you hear the first notes, as if you’re hearing one of your favorite big pop hits. By all rights, that should be true. If not now, then soon.

Night Lights – 6 Feet Aparty

image courtesy of DRPR

For me, while all five songs on the EP have their appeal, there are a couple that really grab me.

First, “Look At Me Now” opens the EP strongly, with a sparse electronic beat accompanied by thin vocals before exploding into a full-on dance party with recurring synth riffs (including one occasional rhythm you’ll sing along to by the end of the first listen) and the occasional drum-beat breakdown keeping things lively.

“Here We Go Again” follows a slightly different pattern. It opens similarly, though this time with cheerful, soft music underscoring a rhythmic rap before picking up the tempo. It cycles back through this style, with each appearance of the “here we go again” lyric teasing that the song’s about to break out, but it never really quite does. Eminently danceable, this is a fun track to listen to, a nice option to keep the rhythm and dancing going while simultaneously bringing the energy level down, if you’re DJing, as a bit of a break to the breakneck-paced songs you’ll place before and after it.

Night Lights

photo by Nathan Tecson Studios; photo courtesy of DRPR

“Ready, Lose Yourself, Go” ups the ante again, starting at a higher energy level, with an almost Jimmy Eat World-like vocal texture atop a very danceable track. In addition, the “ready, lose yourself, go; oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” lyric presents a great opportunity to sample for a quick-hit music blast at an event. In its entirety, though, the song itself is overwhelmingly radio-friendly with cool bridges and variety to keep listeners engaged for the entire 2:57 of the song.

Song four, “Revolution,” seems like a song I was already familiar with before the first listen, though I’m sure I wasn’t. The song with perhaps the broadest potential cross-genre appeal, it’s a familiar verse and chorus based structure with lyrical insights in the verses and a hooky-beyond-belief main chorus lyric: “You know we’re gonna start a revolution, oh yeah yeah yeah yeah.” This is Imagine Dragons-styled stuff. I could absolutely envision them scoring an enormous hit with “Revolution.” I could also picture a poppy version of this song being a huge hit for Katy Perry. Of course, given a chance, Night Lights would be the ones scoring that hit.

Night Lights

photo by Nathan Tecson Studios; photo courtesy of DRPR

The EP closes with “Fire,” with a dominant synth rhythm and a danceable beat. An old-school dance number with variety of tempos and intensity, it’s another song that seems already-familiar even though it clearly isn’t, except for those lucky enough to already be familiar with Night Lights. And now, that includes you.

Give these songs a listen. You know I’m selective when I choose danceable synth-pop to share; I only review stuff that really stands out, music that’d liven up your dance party, whether it’s a packed roomful of people or just you and your family jamming inside your own house during the pandemic. (What? You don’t own a disco ball and danceclub lighting at home? Me, either, but that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.)

Looking Ahead

Though there aren’t currently any dates listed, you can keep an eye out for Night Lights’ future live performances on the “Events” tab of their Facebook page.

Single Reviews: Divine Astronaut – “Undone” and “Whither”

Divine Astronaut

photo courtesy of Divine Astronaut

Single Reviews of Divine Astronaut: “Undone” and “Whither”

“Undone” was released as a single in late 2019, followed by “Whither” in the summer of 2020. These aren’t even Divine Astronaut‘s most recent singles, as “Voices” and “Ransom” dropped in the summer and fall of 2020, respectively, with a brand new video for the song “Only You”, showcasing perhaps DA’s softest side, joining them just a month ago. But “Undone” and “Whither” are the two MP3s that were sent my way last fall, and I’ve been enjoying in my playlist for several months now. So consider this an introduction to Divine Astronaut, and then go check out these two songs plus the group’s newer releases.

By “group”, I mean “duo.” Divine Astronaut consists of vocalist Livvy Holland and producer/multi-instrumentalist Moonhead. Livvy’s voice is that of a decade-spanning vocalist, while Moonhead’s music bed is a modern, buzzy, electronic wall of sound that simultaneously recalls ’80s New Wave and DJ-based modern electronic rock arena events. Indeed, the sound of Divine Astronaut is big enough, broad enough, and powerful enough to dub them an arena act, as it both fills the room and lends itself to the sort of light shows that would energize a stadium or a night sky.

Divine Astronaut – "Undone"

image courtesy of Divine Astronaut

It’s not surprising that Moonhead has cited as influences producers Trevor Horn and BT, as well as bands including Portishead, Bjork, Enigma, Peter Gabriel, Massive Attack, NIN, and Radiohead. The Bjork influence coincides just a touch with Livvy’s vocals, particularly in the sparser moments of “Whither,” though just a little, as her vocals are big, textured, and powerful, even when she sings softly. Livvy’s voice can slice through the mist, the fog, and a seriously dense music bed, as she displays more on “Undone,” between the two songs.

Turning specifically to these two songs, which are a bit yin and yang, showcase different sides of Divine Astronaut’s musical capabilities. The vocals on “Whither” advance timidly, tentatively, almost uncertainly, accompanying an understated music bed that relies on subtlety to convey strength and power, including a nice little bit of synthwork mimicking a ’70s classic rock guitar run during a late-song bridge.

“Undone,” meanwhile, will light up the arena and get a sea of fans moving, as it starts quietly, merely hinting at the power about to be unleashed. In my memory between listens, I imagine remembering Livvy launch into some serious power as she sings “when it all comes down,” but it’s illusion set up by the music and her voice gearing up and crescendoing specifically as she delivers those lyrics. Moonhead’s synthwork is louder and crunchier on “Undone,” though it’s again illusory, as the music never really builds to the power it conveys. Though I like both of these songs, this is perhaps my favored of the two, though for personal reasons rather than musical ones, as it recreates an energetic, packed concert arena abuzz with excitement and noise.

Divine Astronaut

photo courtesy of Divine Astronaut

Divine Astronaut has captured something special in the pairing of this duo’s talents, resulting in modern synth-driven pop-rock with broad-based appeal, music that’s cool, well-written, and performed exceptionally well, able to reach well beyond the band’s core set of listeners, offering the constant opportunity for breakout hits. On the Geoff Wilbur’s Music Blog spectrum, comparing Divine Astronaut to artists I’ve reviewed here at the Blog, I’d pair Divine Astronaut with ZagreuS and The Sweetest Condition, falling somewhere between the two but more likely to share a stage with ZagreuS.

An upcoming Divine Astronaut album, to be entitled Made Not in Berlin, is reported to be scheduled for a 2021 release, and I’m looking forward to hearing it. And catching a Divine Astronaut live performance. Whether in a large arena or a small listening room – hopefully with a great lighting system – I’d expect it to be an event.

Album Review: Hope Dunbar – Sweetheartland

Hope Dunbar

photo by Karyn Rae Photography; photo courtesy of Skye Media

Album Review of Hope Dunbar: Sweetheartland

When this album hit my inbox, I sighed. “Not another Americana artist,” I thought to myself. “I’m tired of reviewing Americana artists; I get sooo much music from this genre (relative to my preferred mix).” (Yes, my thoughts have semicolons and parentheses; I’m a writer.) I’ve got nothing against Americana, but its artists (perhaps second only to folk artists) are really active in promoting their music, so I get too much and, as a result, only review Americana music that is truly exceptional. This particular album came from a publicist who has introduced me to some amazing music, so rather than setting it aside to quickly sample and decide about at a later date, I downloaded it and put it in my review queue, deciding to give it a chance, acknowledging I’d probably eventually skip reviewing it. You see, I maintain a queue of music that I’m likely to review, and I play it while I work, during periods when background music is helpful to block out distractions without being a distraction itself, so that I’m familiar with the music by the time I begin to write about it. Also, after a few listens, I sometimes decide not to review an album because it just doesn’t stack up against the others in the queue (IMHO). I also remove albums from the list when I complete their reviews. As items are removed from the top of the list, songs move up the list so I begin hearing them during my workday and, eventually, review them.

Hope Dunbar – Sweetheartland

image courtesy of Skye Media

After reaching Sweetheartland two or three days on my way through the queue, I realized I’d definitely be writing this review. It’s a solid, well-written disc with a big potential breakout hit, a song that you must hear, a song I had to tell you about, though with each additional listen that early favorite catchy song turned out to be several favorites. From a label executive’s standpoint, that would suggest at least one song that could break an artist, then several others that could be hits once the world was aware of the artist. Now, an independent artist may have a much harder time getting those radio opportunities, but the exceptional songs necessary to make it happen are here on this disc. And beyond individual potential hits, Hope Dunbar has assembled a great full-album listening experience, too, on Sweetheartland.

The clearest breakout song on this disc – the song that sealed my decision to review Sweetheartland and began my journey toward discovering Hope Dunbar’s immense talent – is “What Were You Thinking,” a rockin’, fast-tempo, clever, humorous Americana number with sass, brass (not horns), and a fun, healthy take on a response to infidelity, leading to a reassessment that eventually turns the “what were you thinking” line into “what was I thinking” after the song turns. One of my favorite lines during the transition process, of course, is “all I need is a lighter, your clothes, and a gasoline can.” That’ll get his attention,

Hope Dunbar

photo by Karyn Rae Photography; photo courtesy of Skye Media

The second most-likely crossover hit, IMHO, is “John Prine.” It builds toward the catchy part, so it’s perhaps not as likely to latch on as a first offering, but it’s the song I find myself singing days later. It’s a love song, though not the romantic kind, rather the intellectual love a songwriter feels toward a master of the craft. “John Prine, John Prine, I wish your songs were mine. I wish I could steal one of your lines, and no one would know.” It’s a song that builds to energy, with the catchy, multiple repeats of the chorus backloaded.

The title track and album-opener, “Sweetheartland,” also is a catchy tune, one with a happy, bouncy, traditional country-Americana sway with pockets that leverages an intense vocal edge similar to that of Natalie Maines perched atop its already-edgy folk-country, Americana vocal style.

“Evacuate” is a tensely energetic, engaging number. And I had never thought about “evacuate” that closely before, but now I know “It’s a fancy way to say get out.” Through it’s crashing and frenetic energy, this is a song that’ll suck you in… as it’s telling you to evacuate.

“Woman Like Me” shows a softer side in the form of a big, sweeping slow song. Lyrically, it highlights the value and beauty of life experience: “Call me a rose whose first bloom is gone. But a woman like me sings the prettiest songs.” Gotta admit, she does. Or she can, anyway. As you’ve probably already noted, she also sings some of the fiercest songs.

Hope Dunbar

photo by Karyn Rae Photography; photo courtesy of Skye Media

Bluesy-twangy “Dog Like You” sounds like something Shania Twain might sing whenever she wanted to lean a little more old-school Opry.

“The Road Is” more folky but over an ominous aural backdrop. It’s a lyrically clever brief telling of multiple tales around the meaning of the road in various situations. Hope’s vocal power places emphasis adeptly as dictated by the emotion required by each various stretch of “the road.”

“Dust” is steadily progressing song with an almost war drum rhythm and whose quickly-escalating late-song “oh, oh-woah” mini-bridge forms an edgy, almost alt-country crescendo leading to the song’s most intense uttering of “we don’t wear rings because the promise didn’t last.” Oh.

Disc-ender “More,” after which there is no more, is a self-effacing introspective song from the indie songwriter about her lot in life (“I write down a few words, pick up my guitar, and sing”), seemingly a blend of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, essentially deciding that life is good but it’s OK to want more.

And that’s a good way to leave the disc. To leave the listener wanting more, which Hope does after a mere nine terrific songs.

This disc is strong throughout with pockets of amazingness. You know, one of the cool things about getting an advance review copy of an album is that I’m able to give it dozens of listens over a period of time and become familiar enough with it to write a thoughtful review, one in which I’m able to uncover both its obvious and subtle features, and still sometimes complete the review before the album is released. That was the case with Sweetheartland. Though I’ve played it dozens of times before writing this review, the album’s release date is today, April 2nd, 2021, so go out and be one of the first to pick up a copy… or download a copy… or save it to your streaming service if you don’t purchase music, though especially during a pandemic when artists can’t easily tour, this might be a good time to support them by buying music.

Speaking of touring, when Hope is able to tour again, you’ll find the dates here on the “Live” page of her website. And until COVID-19 allows touring to resume, Hope will support Sweetheartland‘s release with livestreams. Notably, she has a livestreamed set scheduled at TheBoot.com’s Facebook page on April 5, 2021 at 9:00 PM EDT/8:00 PM CDT.

Publisher’s Post Script

Thanks for indulging me at the beginning of this review. I’ve often thought of giving a peek behind my writing process, and this review seemed to lend itself to that, so I did. I hope some of you found it interesting. -GW