Album Review: Haroula Rose – Here the Blue River

Haroula Rose

photo courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

Haroula Rose – Here the Blue River

Album Review of Haroula Rose: Here the Blue River

Haroula Rose‘s voice is ethereal. In fact, first track “Songbird” kicks the album off appropriately, with a calm, enjoyable, otherworldly feel.  (I also like that she ends the album with “Songbird (Reprise),” one of those cool things musicians used to do to bring their works of art full-circle back in the days when albums were king.)

Haroula Rose - Here the Blue River

image courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

It’s followed by “Margo,” the song that perhaps stands out the most for me from this collection. It has a hooky rhythm and catchy chorus that inspires singing along. All this while maintaining the relaxed energy of the album as a whole.

There’s a cool, rhythmic, musical line that adds character throughout “Moon and Waves” as the song periodically builds to power and mellows.

“The River (Drifting)” has a uniquely haunting aspect to its mellowness with a cleverly picked string backed by a more formidable orchestral wall, as if ushering a classical movie soundtrack through one scene and on to the next.

Haroula Rose

photo courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

“Sirens” showcases a ’70s psychedelia musical vibe, pulsing along with its purposeful rhythm moving around a vocal more forceful than most on this disc, though still very high and light.

Through “Premontion,” it flows into “This Old House,” a rather wistful, reminiscent, perhaps even melancholy track exceptionally well-suited to Haroula Rose’s soft delivery.

Ethereal music is difficult to get right while keeping it interesting, but Here the Blue River seems to have achieved that balance.

Album Review: Ashley Jordan – He’s Crazy

Ashley Jordan

photo by Kenzie Klem at Kenzie Klem Photography; photo courtesy of Ashley Jordan

Ashley Jordan – He’s Crazy

The Backstory

Ashley Jordan is well-known and highly regarded around New England. Since I started this blog, I had been looking for an opportunity to catch a live performance of hers, and her gig schedule finally coincided with my availability in August. You can read that review, so I won’t rehash it, but there’s a reason she’s regionally well-known, even in the city of Boston and not just in the outer suburbs where country music has a decent following. I’m pleased to get the chance to review her newest album.

Album Review of Ashley Jordan: He’s Crazy

A singer can only get so far simply by having a broad vocal range and hitting all the notes. There has to be a warmth, a richness, a fullness in the voice to convey understanding and truth, to blend well with the other instruments and to establish an emotional investment and understanding that causes you, the listener, to hang on every word, a tone and tenor that allow you to feel the singer’s emotion straight from her heart as if she’s singing only to you whether it’s in a crowded venue or the privacy of your headset. Ashley Jordan has that. That’s why she’s a local favorite, one of our area gems. And, combined with the strong work ethic and desire I’ve heard mentioned when people speak of her, that’s why she’ll go as far as she gets the opportunity to.

cover photo by Eric Snyder at EAS Photography; image courtesy of Ashley Jordan

cover photo by Eric Snyder at EAS Photography; image courtesy of Ashley Jordan

Ashley is from the small town of Harvard, Massachusetts. For those outside the Boston area, that’s 30 miles and a world away from its name-sharing university and Boston/Cambridge. Harvard, Mass. is small-town USA. I think I drove through it once, but I blinked and missed it. Still, given its proximity to Boston, Ashley was able to hone her skills busking in the big city beginning as a young teen. So it’s not surprising she exudes ample small-town charm backed by big-city confidence when she performs. It’s a deadly combination, one tailor-made for Nashville in particular and country music in general. Indeed, I get a bit of a Carrie Underwood-ish vibe from Ashley Jordan.

He’s Crazy is Ashley’s fourth album. And this time, it’s personal. Or at least it sure seems that way. The album centers upon the theme of an ended relationship, at different times sad, angry, introspective, dismissive, and defiant about it. Much the way Taylor Swift’s relationships are fertile songwriting fodder, this could be Taylor’s next album. But, to be honest, I’d much rather hear Ashley sing it. She clearly knows how to write songs that suit her voice and adds those personal touches, those vocal flourishes, that make a great vocalist unique and recognizable. The songwriting is impeccable, as well; Ashley deals from a vocabulary that’s broad but familiar, and the lyrics chosen are almost always very precise and ideal for the situation.

I’m guessing this album will have staying power, too, because each time I think I’ve selected a favorite song, I’m struck by a different mood and a different perfect track to represent it. So if you’ll indulge me, let me take you song-by-song through this impactful collection.

The disc opens with “Weapon.” Great way to start off. This one’s big-time. After a couple listens, I was checking the liner notes to make sure this was really an original, as it quickly became an old favorite. A powerful country tune, it’s mostly mellow but bursts forth with power and the sort of roar you’re more likely to hear from a rock band like Imagine Dragons. Just a hint of that rock edge, as it’s clearly a country tune, but this is the sort of song that could explode across genres. Between the violin opening and explosions of sound during the song all supporting her powerful vocals, this could be a signature song for a hot young artist.

Ashley Jordan

photo by Eric Snyder at EAS Photography; photo courtesy of Ashley Jordan

“Come Home” is a wistful country crooner, as Ashley’s voice soars through the chorus, and though the song is not rock, it somehow recalls rock phrasings of the word “home” ranging from Phillip Phillips’ “Home” to Scorpions’ “Coming Home,” even if the comparison ends at that word. Indeed, there are ample small-town country girl moments like the way she sings “mem’ry” that show a country sensibility and a hint of even country-folk influence. There’s also that dramatic pause late in the chorus that recalls the hooks from the big ’90s alt-rock hits. (Think Barenaked Ladies.) Though seemingly simple to categorize (“country”), Ashley’s songs are so much more complicated than they first seem once you lift the veil; this is a prime example of that.

I wrote in my live review that I hear a bit of Dolly Parton and Clare Bowen in Ashley’s voice. “Blue Eyed Boy” is the song that most brings both of these comparisons to mind, of Clare during the gentle moments but more of Dolly when she ever-so-slightly adds a little more power. And what seems like a bit of a twang at times comes across as defiant determination across a guitar-pickin’ music backdrop in this well-written song with its encouraging, resolute spin on a particular heartbreak.

The laid-back strumming of “Losin’ My Damn Mind” seems like something you’d hear around a campfire, walking the line between folky country and ’70s storytelling country, yet with a modern pop-inspired wail. And some of the phrases carry a bit of a James Taylor vibe. It’s a nice little damn song.

“In Spite of You” is the truly defiant song in this collection, downright rebellious in comparison to the merely-cranky-by-comparison “Blue Eyed Boy.” (Of course, y’all already know I enjoy a bit of snark and attitude with my country.) With a bit of radio play, I’m sure this would quickly become a favorite post-breakup anthem on campuses nationwide, with some great, cathartic scream-along moments.

Ashley Jordan

photo by Eric Snyder at EAS Photography; photo courtesy of Ashley Jordan

I suppose “Short Fuse” could be a word to the wise about staying on Ashley’s good side. Seriously, though, this is one of many sing-along worthy tunes, with sensitive guitar building to strength and a vocal edge at the song’s climax that conveys the fraying of her last nerve. Yes, she’s a convincing vocalist who’ll convince you every thought and lyric in her songs is the gospel truth, leaving you to wonder how much, if any, is fiction.

“Lone Wolf,” though, is the song that I always scream along with. Ashley, of course, is singing with smooth power on the disc while I’m merely screaming in the car. Though propelled by a tribal rhythm, this track is still slow-paced, but it is the one song on this disc that fully and frequently unleashes the tuneful firepower her voice is capable of.

“So Far Gone” mixes strength and sensitivity, power and compassion into a combination of music and lyrics that serve as a strong reminder of this vocalist’s songwriting skills. It’s all in the details, and, of course, she writes to her vocal strengths.

On “He’s Crazy,” a dancing and screaming guitar line weaves its way behind Ashley’s emotive vocals. This is the one song on which she utilizes a high register that I want to call a falsetto, but it really isn’t. It is quite cool, though. Yet another tool in her toolkit. And by song’s end, she leaves the listener convinced he’s crazy… though after “Short Fuse,” maybe he has a point.

“Angels” closes the album on a sensitive note, softly, though if you listen to the lyrics, perhaps a bit dysfunctionally.

Beginning to end, this album is a moderately-paced country tour de force; for those who don’t yet know her, it’s a terrific introduction to a young woman who has every skill – as a songwriter, in the studio, live, and seemingly off-stage as well – to be a country music star. So get this album, enjoy Ashley’s music, and root for her to gain broader notice. I can only imagine how she’d rock a packed Gillette.

If you get a chance, get ahold of a copy of this disc. I’d guess “Weapon,” “He’s Crazy,” and “Angels” will have the biggest chance of breakout success, but if you’re like me, another song or two on this album, which is solid beginning to end, may be your favorites.

Looking Ahead

Ashley has a busy weekend ahead. On Saturday, September 24th, she has the 11:30 AM time slot on the main stage at the Cape Cod Scallop Fest in Falmouth, MA. And the next day, on Sunday, September 25th, she opens for Trace Adkins at 1:00 PM at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA. The concert page on her website also lists a Friday, September 30 gig at Indian Ranch, performing as part of the Nash Next Radio competition. Obviously, check back to her website for additional upcoming shows.

Geoff’s Night Out: Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Cheryl Arena

The Backyard, Brighton, MA

September 17, 2016

It’s been four months since my last visit to The Backyard. Always a fun house concert venue with an eclectic crowd and delicious variety at the pre-show potluck. The weather also cooperated by providing a cool, comfortable setting for the evening’s festivities.

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Concert

I had heard Cheryl Arena’s name numerous times but had not yet seen her perform. This seemed like a great opportunity. She has shared bills and the stage with several of the blues-based acts I follow in the Boston area, so even without hearing any of her music before, I was comfortable I’d be pleased. And, indeed, I was. Winner of the Blues Audience Newsletter reader’s poll for most outstanding harmonica player three times since 2009, she does amazing things with the harmonica, a one-woman whirlwind jam session at times. She also wields a quintessential blues voice, the sort you might hear leading the house band at one of the hottest spots on Bourbon Street.

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Cheryl Arena’s supporting cast was stellar this evening. With Pete Henderson on guitar, Brad Hallen on bass, and Forrest Padgett on drums, the band was Cheryl’s equal step-for-step this evening, and many of the blues numbers turned into extended jam sessions with each instrumentalist showing his wares while Cheryl took her turn  – and often control  – with her harmonica wails.

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Indeed, Cheryl’s voice is smooth and yet has a sort of smokiness to it, though without the smokers’ cough. Much of the time, the music she performed this evening was as New Orleans as the jambalaya that was part of the potluck at the beginning of the night. Other times, the vocals and the rhythm were more of a blues swing. During the event, she notably dropped in a fun original, “Shave It,” for good measure. Pete Henderson took the lead on a few songs as well, lending the occasional hip counterpoint, providing an appealing occasional variance during the evening. Regardless, by the end of the set, the space in front of the stage was packed with dancers enjoying the evening and participating in the fun atmosphere.

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

Cheryl Arena & band with Willie J. Laws; photo by Geoff Wilbur

We also were graced with a special treat when Cheryl called to the stage the inimitable Willie J. Laws to join her on guitar and vocals for a couple songs, which began with an exceptional rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

The evening only came to an end out of respect for the neighbors; if it had been up to the crowd of about 100 attendees, the fun would have stretched on much, much longer.

Looking Ahead

The next gigs listed on Cheryl’s website are Tuesday, September 27 through Saturday, October 1 at Jon Gindick’s Harmonica Jam Camp at The Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, MS.

Cheryl Arena at The Backyard

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Willie J. Laws Band is performing tonight, September 18th, at Glenn’s Restaurant & Cool Bar in Newburyport, MA. (I love Newburyport. I wish I lived closer to it.) He also performs next weekend, Sunday, September 25th with Bruce Bears at The Beehive in Boston and on Saturday, October 15th at the Sandywood Center for the Arts in Tiverton, RI. Check out Willie’s website to keep up-to-date on his concert schedule.

Next up at The Backyard is Amy Fairchild on Friday, October 7th. She’s followed by Julie Rhodes & Sugar Blood Jinx on Saturday, October 15th and Jan Marie & Aaron Shadwell on Saturday, November 19th.

Two-Song Single Review: Jimmy Lee Morris – “When I’m Gone”/”Temptation”

Jimmy Lee Morris

photo courtesy of Jimmy Lee Morris

Jimmy Lee Morris – “When I’m Gone”/“Temptation”

The Backstory

I reviewed Jimmy Lee Morris‘ full-length album Wilderness Wood here on the blog this spring.  This is his newest recording, a two-sided single that’s available as a single-file digital download. Its official release date was yesterday, September 16th. Like Wilderness Wood, this double-single was produced by Simon Scardanelli.

Review of Jimmy Lee Morris: “When I’m Gone”/“Temptation”

Jimmy Lee Morris - When I'm Gone/Temptation

image courtesy of Jimmy Lee Morris

Is folkabilly a word? Jimmy Lee Morris’ “When I’m Gone” puts a bit of a ‘50s rock spin on pop-folk with a bit of a hillbilly edge. And some nice jazz/blues horns. With a happy, upbeat energy that’ll have you swaying to the rhythm by the middle of the song.

It’s followed by “Temptation,” whose lower register gives it a dark edge when you hear it directly following “When I’m Gone,” though it rattles and shakes pleasantly enough. The twang in “Temptation,” though, is decidedly more bluesy.

These two songs are, indeed, a well-matched pair, ideal for a two-sided single release.

Album Review: Gemini Syndrome – Memento Mori

Gemini Syndrome

photo courtesy of Concrete Marketing

Gemini Syndrome – Memento Mori

Backstory

Though my pop music fan friends lump me in with headbangers, true metalheads will confirm that I am, at best, a hard rocker. However, when I hear a band with a proper edge to its vocals, instrumental skills, and an aggressive musical approach with the skill to assemble those elements into a style that stands apart from the crowd, I cross over to the dark side. So yeah, I’m a bit persnickety when it comes to which real, true metal bands I listen to, and I know I leave out very worthy bands from entire sub-genres in the process; that’s why I always tried to have at least one true hardcore metal aficionado on staff when I published Geoff Wilbur’s Renegade Newsletter. But there’s nothing as sincere as my appreciation for a metal band when its sound really speaks to me. Several months ago, I introduced you to one such band, the amazing Forever Still. Now, again, I urge you to take a listen to Gemini Syndrome.

Album Review of Gemini Syndrome: Memento Mori

Gemini Syndrome - Memento Mori

image courtesy of Concrete Marketing

Gemini Syndrome combines the polished, heavy melodic power of Three Days Grace with the raw energy and rough edges of Coal Chamber to form its very own sound in this standout collection of songs, Memento Mori. And, of course, you can’t have an exceptional band without a prodigious vocalist with an identifiable vocal edge. Enter Aaron Nordstrom to rock your face off…

Right from the start, in fact. Album-opener “Anonymous” starts off with power, contains a catchy repeated lyrical/rhythmic section that you’ll remember long after the song ends, adds a little metal growl in the middle, and essentially establishes the mood of this powerful metal album.

If there’s a potential broad-audience hit, it’s “Remember We Die.” (In the video, there’s a minute and a quarter of pre-song storyline before the album version of the song begins.) The chorus soars, there’s a bit of harmony, the tempo changes and occasional forays into brief aggression are well-placed, and the title provides an easy sing-along throughout the track. While this may be the “gateway song” for crossover fans, most of the rest of the disc is heavier.

Gemini Syndrome

photo courtesy of Concrete Marketing

Other standouts include “Gravedigger,” which has an incessant, slow-but-heavy pace, with the vocals and the rhythm section taking turns driving the rhythm in tour de force fashion. Also, “Inception,” which eases into its power. And “Sorry Not Sorry,” which contains a practically pop music melody, balanced with heavier sections and some heavy metal screaming.

The album nearly closes with the aggressive “Eternity,” driven primarily by its pulsing heavy rhythm and typically soaring power vocals, with “Ordo ob Chao” serving as a one-minute decompression-chamber outro, as if meant to pull one final cathartic scream from the listener.

Memento Mori requires consideration not just by full-time hard rockers and headbangers; if you have any metal in your collection, this album may well be a worthy new addition.

On the Road

Gemini Syndrome has a bunch of live gigs scheduled. Check out the tour page of the band’s website to see if they’ll be performing near you. The band’s next show is Saturday, September 24th in Houston, TX with Alice in Chains. And on October 12th, the band hits the road with Sevendust and Red Sun Rising, playing Dallas on October 12th and Austin on October 13th, with dates through the end of the month of October in Flagstaff, Tempe, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland, and Spokane.

Album Review: Norwood – Notes to My Blood

Norwood

photo courtesy of Norwood

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Norwood: Notes to My Blood

There is a refreshing “don’t give a damn” ethos at work on this new album, Notes to My Blood, by Norwood. I mean, come on, you’re only 17 seconds in when you are hit with the first F-word on the album. “Prayer” is a nice, loose acoustic opener. No frills, just a polite acoustic word with the Almighty to “make me punk as f***”. Maybe he longs to trade in the acoustic and go electric, thrash the hell out of life and kick a few amps in. What I like is that the next song kinda does. The natty titled “Randolph Carter Rides Again” kicks straight out of the blocks and immediately you realise that Norwood does not appreciate being cast in one mould or tied to a genre. Its like Chris Norwood explains, “These songs are for the people who take life on a person-by-person basis.”

Norwood - Notes To My Blood

image courtesy of Norwood

So expect a varied journey through some great songs that don’t sit in a box of convenience. I am immediately struck by the lyrical nature of the songs that spring from the pen of Chris Norwood. Even in his promo blurb he comes across as creative and thoughtful, as if the imagery of words express themselves from his very soul. The imaginative approach to what is written, as a songwriter myself, makes me very respectful of his approach and his need to express himself without cliche. He says he comes from an ordinary, unremarkable background, “I don’t have a romantic legacy to fall back on, nor do I have the charm of someone who comes from absolutely no background whatsoever. All I have are my guts and a good sense of rhythm.” Guts and rhythm are serving him well on this record.

The album forces you to sit and listen. It’s not something you just put on in the background. You need to take the time to hear the songs and unravel the lyrical twists and turns. There is so much music these days. It’s too easy for people to zone out and find that, with music playing everywhere, they don’t remember any of it. Well stop and take 40 minutes out to actually play this album and do nothing else.

Although the songs are all individual and distinct, there is a clever lyrical and strong musical thread that runs throughout. The band behind Mr. Norwood are perfectly suited to his musical needs and provide a strong backbone to his free-falling style.  “I pride myself on being rough around the edges,” he claims. The trick, therefore, is to surround yourself with a bunch of musicians that click together, and this band that comprises of Nastasia Green, Keith Michael Pinault, Hajnal Pivnick, and Max Maples, each play their part in making this record work so well.

Norwood

photo courtesy of Norwood

Track 3 is “Art Is Never Free” and again takes you in another direction from the previous songs. This is not a problem. The variance is anchored by the ability of the band and a wonderful, almost Hurricane/Dylan weaving violin running across the tracks. It tells you an unorthodox tale set to a great upbeat, catchy tune, slightly reminiscent of the sort of thing The Beautiful South may have done back in their day.

I’m going to say now that, like a film you are planning on going to see and don’t want someone to tell you how it ends, I am not going to tell you what each of the songs is about. So much of the pleasure for me listening was hearing the stories, working stuff out, and getting immersed in the richness of the words chosen to be sung. So go get the album and discover the delights for yourself.

Meanwhile, I will tell you a bit more of how the album made me feel as I wander through the track listing as it plays in my ears.

“New Song” is slower and sounds classy; it reminded me of just how much the band work so well, but also the production on the album is handled with great delicacy allowing everything to breathe.

This is once again demonstrated on “Moonlight,” which is probably the most commercial-sounding tune. Like They Might Be Giants but more interesting.

Norwood

photo courtesy of Norwood

“I Never Told You” and “Pretend” show how the individual and combined voices of Chris Norwood and Nastasia Green work so well together. Voices made for each other. Both songs have more of that great violin I spoke of earlier, and the words and continuing fine tunes just keep you captivated.

“Middle Child” and “Skin” keep it moving and keep you interested, and then the album is rounded out with “When The Time Comes,” a lively, enjoyably acidly angry song. “You can’t hurt me anymore,” they cry in defiance.

I like this album a lot. It’s that loose styled defiance, combined with being able to write melodic and interesting songs. There is no harm, of course, in being backed up by a tight strong band. All this makes me recommend you go and get Notes to My Blood soon because it is already out there my friends and it is waiting to be heard.

If you want to see them live, you can catch Norwood on Saturday, September 17th at the Bitter End in New York City.

Album Review: Stewart Eastham – Dancers in the Mansion

Stewart Eastham

photo by Katrena Rochell; photo courtesy of Skye Media

Stewart Eastham – Dancers in the Mansion

Album Review of Stewart Eastham: Dancers in the Mansion

It’s always fun to stumble across a talented, old-fashioned country dancehall-style crooner. That’s the essence of Stewart Eastham, though he is capable of performing the whole breadth of styles encompassed by such a description and subtly incorporates some external influences while he’s at it. As a result, his latest collection, the 15-song Dancers in the Mansion, is a welcome listen; a fresh adaptation of a comfortable old musical friend.

Stewart Eastham - Dancers in the Mansion

image courtesy of Skye Media

Stewart’s music swings, and his voice is medium-deep but comes across with the power of the deepest country voices. I’m not comparing him to Kenny Rogers, but some of this album is stylistically similar; Stewart could share a stage with The Gambler in Kenny’s heyday. The rest is reminiscent of old-school, slide guitar twang-driven, Opry-ready tunes. All the while, though, Stewart maintains a fresher, more modern edge to his vocals. The result is a record that should appeal to traditionalists while also drawing in many newer-country fans.

Stewart Eastham

photo by Katrena Rochell; photo courtesy of Skye Media

Stewart does show off some variety over the course of the album. The disc opens with “In the Morning,” a side-to-side sway-inducing number that’s a bit of California country meets jazzy Americana. Occasionally during “Windshield” the music recalls for me the Eagles’ “Desperado,” perhaps “twanged-up” a bit, and it’s delivered in a way I could envision Garth Brooks singing it. There’s a hint of Waylon Jennings in “Jackpot.” And Stewart’s tone and delivery of “Fruit Cocktail Cannery Blues” reminds me a lot of Joshua Kadison.

Stewart Eastham

photo by Katrena Rochell; photo courtesy of Skye Media

But regardless of the stylistic variances on individual tracks, there’s a traditionally country dancehall twang and swing that permeates the disc. “Lonesome Melody” is one such heartfelt crooner, and it’s paired on the disc with the title track, the energetic, emphatic, fast-pickin’ and ivory-ticklin’ country dance number “Dancers in the Mansion.” Elsewhere, Stewart lends his deep voice to a song like “Carry On,” an old-fashioned country heartstring-tugger that sports a hint of ’70s pop-country behind its more traditional steel guitar-driven, storytelling crooning.

Throughout, this is an impressive album, delivered with strength, power, and sincerity by an artist well-suited to carry this brand of traditional country music into the next generation. If this sounds like a style of music you like, give Stewart Eastham a listen.

Looking Ahead

Keep an eye on Stewart’s website for upcoming gigs.