Album Review: Amiena – All In

Album Review of Amiena: All In

Adult contemporary music. There’s not a lot of that out there with soft music beds, dancing rhythms, and powerful vocals. With the power of Bonnie Tyler and the richness of perhaps a balladic Cher, but with a style so all-her-own that neither of those is really a good comparison, Amiena fills a gap in the current musical landscape. I suppose her positioning might be as a big-voice diva in the Adele vein, though it’s not exactly that. Amiena’s music also exhibits the pop sensibilities that helped launch singers like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey into the public consciousness (for those of us old enough to remember that they launched their careers as danceable pop singers).

But that’s enough name-dropping. The comparisons aren’t even that on-point. Amiena’s voice is all her own, as within a couple seconds of hearing one of her songs, I know who’s singing it. Rather, the comparisons are meant to give you an idea of whose musical sandbox she plays in.

Amiena - All In

image courtesy of Amiena

There’s a bit of syncopated rhythm and maybe a touch of Latin spice in the jangly music bed behind Amiena’s soft, expressive vocal on disc-opener “Chance.” The song allows her to turn her voice over, from soft and sweet to firm and all-business. There’s really no other way to explain the vocal dichotomy that helps make this song so interesting and memorable; stylistically, as well, the vocals progress steadily while the music, in this case, dances around the voice.

The next track, “Ghost” (featuring guitarist Nitin Sawhney), has a bit of Americana jangle, largely due to Roly Platt’s guest harmonica part, resulting in a bit of a Richard Marx “Hazard”-ish vibe, but with Amiena’s flowing version of an emotional vocal line.

It’s followed by a true, flowing, rising-and-falling ballad, “All In.” The title track’s production delivers a cavernous concert hall flavor to this classic-feeling vocal powerhouse-type song, a rich wall of sound surrounding Amiena’s crisp, strong vocal, all while sporting minimal instrumentation, mostly a keys-and-vocals number.

“Come With Me” adds some slow mid-tempo rhythm to the formula, feeling a bit like an ’80s diva almost-dance song – the sort that’s easy to sway energetically to, featuring powerful vocal embellishments, though not exactly what you’d call a dance number. If that description rings true to you, then you’ll know it’s a fun musical lane, very radio-friendly.

The rest of the disc falls within the range of its first few songs. I enjoy the stylized vocals and interesting rhythm of “Daydream.” “Frozen” has an interesting rhythmic beat, with the vocals interweaving with the playful percussion. And “Goodbye” weaves intriguing lyrics into the rhythmic pop diva formula, resulting in one of my personal favorite tracks on All In.

The last four songs on All In, in their own distinctive ways, utilize the wide-open-spaces flavor that showcases the soft power of Amiena’s vocals in a fashion loosely similar to “All In.” Among the quartet, “Broken” and “My God” are probably my favorites, though only slightly, as “Human” and “Take My Life” have their own unique elements. I’m sure you’ll select your own favorites.

I’m disappointed it’s taken me so long to write this review and share this album’s awesomeness with you – you’ve likely noticed a significant dropoff in my album review frequency since last fall. (Whether or not I pick up the pace soon, I’ve almost entirely halted accepting new music for review until I catch up on the backlog of seriously noteworthy albums in my review queue. And there’s some great music crossing my desk, too, so that’s too bad.)

But back to this release. Amiena’s voice ranks among the best of her subgenre, with power, emotion, edge, and a memorable tone. And that’s saying something, since her subgenre is powerhouse pop-AC vocalists. I’m so pleased to have been introduced to her music; you really need to listen for yourselves.

Looking Ahead

I don’t currently see any dates listed on Amiena’s calendar, but keep an eye on the “Tour Dates” page of her website or the “Events” tab of her Facebook page for announcements.

Live Review: Jann Klose house concert

Jann Klose

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Jann Klose

House concert in Shrewsbury, MA

June 30, 2018

You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that my byline has been scarce lately. Indeed, I’m still working on reviews of albums I received as long ago as September, as I’ve been having difficulty finding time to set aside for writing since late 2017. I also haven’t been getting out to many shows. But when Jann Klose is in town, it’s worth finding a way to hear him perform, especially in the intimate setting of a house concert as part of a local house concert series. I don’t have a lot of time to write this review, either, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. I’ve reviewed Jann a few times before, so please do check out what I’ve said in greater detail in the past, reviewing a 2016 house concert, his previous album Mosaic, and his joint release with Gary Lucas, Stereopticon.

Jann Klose

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Touring in support of his new LP, In Tandem, which includes co-writes with some renowned musicians globally, Jann delivered a performance of old and new material Saturday night, featuring his exceptionally engaging singer-songwriter rock ‘n roll songwriting style, his songs specifically designed to showcase his rich, powerful, memorable voice.

Jann kicked things off with several songs from the new disc. Show-opener “Dear Mel” was a great introduction to Jann for the uninitiated, showing off his vocal power and range, in a style that especially caters to some of the more special elements of his voice. He followed that with the more energetically-tempoed “Love High.” Among my favorites of the new songs was “Never Fall,” a catchy number notable for the tempo and energy of its chorus.

Jann Klose

photo by Geoff Wilbur

A couple songs from Jann’s Reverie disc closed the first set. The energetic “Clouds” was followed by “Question of the Heart,” a tune with soft, piercing vocals that, at least to me, seem carry a bit of a Paul Simon vibe, at times.

Jann kicked off the second set with the Tim Buckley cover “Song to the Siren,” a song that especially well fits his textured voice, one Jann recorded for his Mosaic album. Other highlights of the second set included “Pour the Champagne,” a potential hit single from In Tandem with its ’70s singer-songwriter rock vibe, and “Make It Better,” my personal favorite song from Mosaic.

Jann Klose

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Jann delivered a two-song encore, starting with the soft, sweet, mellow “Still,” another favorite from Mosaic. And he closed with a fun, playful rendition of Prince’s “Kiss” on which Jann hit some impressive high notes, ending the show with great energy.

As always, it was another great Jann Klose evening. He left his audience satisfied but wanting more. And he featured several cuts from what sounds like it must be an exceptional new disc. While there are plenty of larger venues on Jann’s album release tour, all of us in attendance were fortunate to live in close proximity to this much more intimate show.

Looking Ahead

Stay abreast of Jann’s live performance schedule at the “Shows” page of his website. And get out to see him perform if he’s in your area. He’ll be in Ohio this week – on Thursday, July 5th at the Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland and on Saturday, July 7th at Music at Madison in Youngstown. Jann will be at the Black Potatoe Music Festival in Clinton, NJ on July 14th. He has a couple Cape Town, South Africa shows schedule on September 1st and 2nd and a couple New Jersey gigs in December. With more shows being added, check his website occasionally to see if/when he’ll be in your area.

Album Review: Dan Israel – You’re Free

Dan Israel

photo by Steven Cohen; photo courtesy of Dan Israel

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Dan Israel: You’re Free

You’re Free is the new album from Dan Israel, released May 2018.

Dan is a talented singer songwriter with 14 albums behind him; You’re Free is number 14. On this album he sings and plays guitars and is joined by a host of great musicians and singers all bringing an array of musical strengths to his interesting and foot tapping songs.

The songs are mostly about the personal, political and cultural crises that he finds in the world today. In Dan’s own words, “Few of the songs offer explicitly political messages, but many are colored by frustration, anger, and concern over the political situation, environmental degradation, and the alienation that often accompanies our reliance on social media.”

Dan Israel - You're Free

image courtesy of Dan Israel

These inspirations have led Dan to create 11 highly accomplished songs, and whilst you may think the dire state of the world these days would lead to a maudlin bunch of tunes, you would be wrong. There is a jaunty juxtaposition to the songs. Serious matters couched in upbeat musical moods. He certainly has a knack for tuneful, contemplative rock.

The production is also rich and creates a very listenable montage of musical layers. A good mix of jangly guitars and keyboards with tasteful additions of the occasional violin, steel guitar, trumpet, piano and percussion. The sonics match the high quality of the songs. I can’t not draw comparison to Tom Petty as Dan’s voice has similar qualities, and the Americana rock vibe is familiar albeit still fresh to listen to. He has brought his own style to what is a well-trodden musical path, and the music is comfortable but contemporary. Lyrically, too, I am glad to say that he doesn’t fall into cliche, and the words are well though-out and engaging.

His musical influences shine through but don’t drown him out. There are flashes of Dylan and Petty and also, interestingly, I found myself hearing bluesy Stones vibes, especially on the acoustic slide guitar groove “Porch Storm” that ends the album. A similar vibe comes through on “Long Gone Dream” and “Soul Will Be Found,” which have a bluesy retro feel, kind of Canned Heat and Beggars Banquet-period Stones.

Dan Israel, Minneapolis 2018

photo by Steven Cohen; photo courtesy of Dan Israel

The album starts a little downbeat with “Gets You Through It” but is sent hurtling on with track 2, “You’re Free.” I always question whether it’s useful to start making comparisons to other artists. Not sure it’s very fair on the reviewee, but on the flip side it is handy for readers to get a feel for whether they will like the albums based on their own musical tastes. So I’m going with the comparison route, and with that in mind I would say that the title track is very Traveling Wilburys, and that can only be a good thing.

There are nice twists on the next song, “Back To You,” with the introduction of violin and a female backing vocal alongside the main voice. Also some lovely Springsteen-esque organ playing and a bright guitar solo.

“Make This Life Mine” and “Stay on the Run” are softer and bring a beautiful acoustic shade to the album, whilst “Feeling Better” and “If I Didn’t Have You” are back in the Tom Petty groove.

It’s always brilliant to discover an album of music that you dig. Quite out of the blue, I am very lucky to have been introduced to Dan Israel and look forward to continuing listens to this excellent album.

The album is available on LP, CD, and for download. You can find out more on Dan’s website, www.danisraelmusic.com.

Looking Ahead

He is a busy performer, and if you want to keep up to date with his live shows, you should keep an eye on the website, but in the meantime he can be found in June playing the following dates:

Thursday, June 14: Dan plays solo in downtown Minneapolis at 333 South 7th Street, a free show outside on the lawn of Accenture Tower, (in close proximity to Hennepin County Government Center, Capella Tower and other downtown buildings) from noon to 1 pm.

Friday, June 15: Dan participates in the Wooldridge Brothers Starts at Dusk album release show at Eagles 34 in Minneapolis, at 8 pm, along with White Sweater, Lolo’s Ghost, and more.

Saturday, June 16: Dan plays solo at the Stone Arch Bridge Festival in Minneapolis, 3:15 pm on the City Pages stage under the Central Ave bridge; earlier in the day, Dan plays a show at 11 am at a family farm, for the Friends & Family Day event at Tangletown Gardens, in Plato, Minnesota.

Friday, June 22: Dan plays solo at Flat Earth Brewing in St. Paul, 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm.

Thursday, June 28: Dan opens (solo acoustic) for Peter Himmelman at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis; the club website lists showtime of 7:00 pm.

Friday, June 29: Dan plays solo at the Trempealeau Hotel in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, 8 pm to 11 pm.

Saturday, June 30: Dan plays solo at Chankaska Winery in Kasota, MN, 6:30 to 9:30 pm.

[Publisher’s Note: Of course, I also reviewed Dan’s last album, Dan, in January 2016. If you’re interested in reading that, too, here’s the link. -GW]

Album Review: Meand’er – This Magic Path

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Meand’er: This Magic Path

This Magic Path is the first album from Devon based English duo, Meand’er.

Father and daughter, Graham Crocker and Hannah Power have been playing acoustic music together for many years although only recently as a duo. In previous incarnations they have been a support act for many well-known artists, including Martin Carthy, Seth Lakeman, Al Stewart, Roy Harper, Julie Felix and Roy Wood, to name a few.

Meand'er - This Magic Path

image courtesy of Meand’er

The new album is a beautiful, gentle, acoustic affair. The 12 tracks are self-penned with lyrics by Hannah Power (apart from the instrumental in the song “Service and Bond,” which is a medley of three traditional Irish tunes: “The Eavesdropper,” “Saddle the Pony,” and “East at Glendart”).

Hannah and Graham play all the instruments on the album but have assistance from James Crocker, who adds guitar, mandolin, bass, and accordion on the tracks “Service and Bond” and “There Will Be A Spring.” They are also joined by the wonderful violin playing of Morwenna Millership on “Ed’s Song” and “The Boat That Brought Me Home.”

All the album’s songs are highly accomplished and have taken many years to reach the point where the duo were ready to commit to recording them. As the pair say on their Bandcamp page, “This album has been a long time in the making, partly because the arrangements developed naturally as we performed them. We finalised the recording of each track only when we were happy with the way it was sounding.”

Happy they should be, indeed. I really enjoyed the organic quality of the recording from the slight creak of a performers chair on the opening track “The Short and the Long” to the entrancing simple lone voice of Hannah on the final and title track, “This Magic Path.”

Meand'er

photo courtesy of Meand’er

It is worth highlighting the spellbinding nature of Hannah Power’s voice. There is a contemporary resonance to it but it also rests in your soul as if you’ve been listening to it all your life. Warm and calming classic English folk tones but with so much more. A beautiful delivery that reflects her own inner voice. There is a natural tone and accent, a genuineness that makes it unique and appealing. This sense of realness carries through the words of each song and makes the album iridescent with heartfelt and personal experiences. On first listen you get a sense of eavesdropping into a personal world, and you know that further listens will reward you with rich detail.

There is so much lyrical content to try and cover in one short review, but in short I would sum it all up as brilliantly refreshing. They avoid cliche and they spark imagery and intriguing storytelling. So often writers fall back on easy solutions, and you get that feeling that you’ve heard it all before. Not so here; for instance, the biographical intensity of “Ed’s Song” with Hannah wanting to “be more rock n roll” but instead having bus fares and P.E kits to find with a forlorn cry of “I’m an ageing single mother trying to make it good.”

The unique lyrics are gently couched within a melodic tapestry created through a delicate approach of guitar with well thought out acoustic embellishment, be it mandolin, violin, or accordion. The sequencing of the album tracks is also key and effortlessly takes you on the journey. The mix of instrumentation and delivery means you are always met with intrigue and a smile of a new familiarity as one song ends and the next begins. All very beguiling.

A great debut album of sparkling unique, new English folk music.

You can find the album on their Bandcamp page at https://meander1.bandcamp.com/releases or follow them on Facebook at
https://www.facebook.com/MeanderDevon.

Live Review: Davey O. house concert

Davey O. house concert in Newton

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Davey O.

House concert in Newton, MA

May 11, 2018

The Backstory

I first reviewed Davey O. two decades ago when he handed me his demo cassette at the 1997 Philadelphia Music Conference.  Most recently, I reviewed his latest album, A Bright Horizon Line, here at the Blog. In the interceding years, he has harnessed his talent ever-increasingly to the point that he is now one of the premier regionally touring folk-flavored singer-songwriters in the Northeast, a must-see performer. So, though I have seen him perform once before, it is a pleasure to finally have an opportunity to write a review one of his live shows.

The Concert

Davey O. kicked the evening off with “Easy Work,” a song that fully showcases his musical talents. His trademark rich, smooth, and rough-edged vocals supported by lush chords with interesting strumming patterns. That’s Davey O.

Davey O. house concert in Newton

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Songs like “Nothing Could Go Wrong” emphasize another of Davey’s strengths: He’s all about the phrasing, riding the rhythm of the lyrics with his voice.

Davey’s first set continued with “In Its Own Time,” which highlights one of the first things I noticed that set Davey apart nearly two decades ago, his songwriting. He knows how to spin a yarn, and it’s a talent he has developed through the years, so much so that he’s one of the very best around, weaving tales and painting pictures in his very own, identifiable style. On this particular number, it is all about the lyrics, but also about finding the perfect rhythm to wrap them in.

A host-favorite at this event, “Ask Yourself the Question,” from Davey’s No Passengers disc, uniquely mixes a Johnny Cash-ish haunt with the tunefulness of the Eagles.

Davey closed the first set with a couple of my favorites off of his latest record, the catchy and fun “For Them” and pleasant, poignant strummer “Making Good Time,” which again highlights Davey’s great way with lyrics.

The second set kicked off with a rocking, rollicking travelling song, “Coming Home” and the evening’s sole cover, Crowded House’s “Better Be Home Soon,” a number very much suited to Davey’s range and style.

Davey O. house concert in Newton

photo by Geoff Wilbur

From No Passengers, Davey delivered “Standing in These Shoes,” a old country-meets-Jim Croce, character-driven song. Later in the set, Davey delivered “Ev’ry Single Day,” from his Testing for Rust release, an ode to hard-working people everywhere, a Springsteen-esque number he delivers a bit like a gruff John Mellencamp.

The second set also included a couple new songs. “Manistique” is an appealing, picture-painting tune about simple pleasures in remote places. And “A Little While,” with which Davey closed the evening. I like the way this song moves through its chord progressions. It rises and falls, ebbs and flows, making it seem new and fresh but also familiar.

Fresh but familiar are elements in a lot of Davey O’s songs. They’re the reason his music is a joy to listen to even as it feels like an old friend, whether on the first few listens or after a few hundred. And as enjoyable as his albums are, his presence and warmth in-person make his shows memorable evenings. I’m glad I was able to attend on this particular Friday night. I’d suggest getting out to a show when you can. And listening to his albums when you can’t.

Looking Ahead

Davey O. is a road warrior. Check out the “Tour” page of his website for upcoming dates. Tonight, Thursday, May 17th, you can catch him hosting the Nickel City Sessions at Nickel City Frets in Akron, NY. And on Friday, May 18th, he’ll be at the Tavern at Windsor Park in Williamsville, NY. After that, over the coming months, with shows already booked almost every weekend into the fall, Davey has gigs already scheduled in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maine, Illinois, South Dakota, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. There are still plenty of open dates on his calendar, too, so be sure to check his website for additional updates as more gigs are added.

Live Review: Paola Bennet at The Plough and Stars, with Max Clark and Ava Sophia

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Paola Bennet, Max Clark, and Ava Sophia

The Plough and Stars, Cambridge, MA

April 16, 2018

You’re familiar with Paola Bennet. I mean, if you read my review of her most recent recording, The Shoebox EP, here at the Blog. Or if you’ve seen my Facebook posts or Tweets. I even alerted you to this Plough and Stars show. Twice. Most recently about a week before the gig. When I’m this impressed by an artist, I shout it loudly over all of my online platforms. Surely you’ve noticed this. So I made my way out to her show on Monday night, and I was rewarded for my attendance with an extraordinary performance. I’d like to say it was exactly what I expected, but her performance exceeded my already-high expectations. What a treat. And at a free show, no less. You should’ve been there.

I couldn’t get out early that evening, so I ended up arriving at The Plough and Stars just after the kitchen closed. I’ll have to try their menu some other time. (It occasionally tops some of Boston’s best-of lists, so I probably do need to get a bite to eat there one of these days.) But that was fine. Tonight was all about the music. Paola had the middle slot of the evening, flanked by Max Clark and Ava Sophia. I’ll tell you a bit about their sets, as well, but as is the case when I’m there to see one artist in particular, I’ll focus primarily on Paola’s performance.

The Opener: Max Clark

Max Clark

Max Clark; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Max arrived a little late and performed an abbreviated set. It quickly became clear that his go-to songwriting style is that of earnest singer-songwriter whose songs, generally almost at the very end, just at the story-song climax, morph into hoarse, emotional screamers.

A couple of my favorites of Max’s set were the third and fourth of his five songs, and I missed or didn’t understand both of their titles. In any case, for his third tune, Max transitioned to a gravellier, softer, warmer voice that was almost Dylan-esque at times… before the inevitable climax punctuated by angry punk-worthy, hoarse, emotional screaming. And I was most fond of the fourth number, one that really leaned into Max’s gravelly, soft vocal. Max closed his set with “The Sun Also Rises,” a ’70s-styled blues rock-flavored, singer-songwriter, growling mostly-ballad… with a frenetic ending.

The Featured Performer: Paola Bennet

I suppose the “featured performer” bit is a bit unfair. None of the three singers was promotionally featured for this event. The Plough and Stars website calendar listed Monday simply as “Singer-Songwriter Showcase.” But as Paola is based in New York and hasn’t performed in the Boston area in years, her hometown contingent of friends and families comprised the vast majority of the audience. And while her opener and closer are talented performers, Paola’s talent is… well, it’s what drew me out to attend a 10:00 PM-to-midnight show nearly an hour from home on a work night. Something I simply don’t do.

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Stylistically, Paola’s music centers around that soft form of melancholy folk-pop that carries an intimate, revealing, and insightful vibe. It’s not hard to find an average performer of this style, singing in half-whispers, strumming tales of pain, heartbreak, and hardship. However, this average performance style is nothing special. If you haven’t heard Paola perform, I suppose I would ask you to think of what Sarah McLachlan might sound like if she were young, introspective, modern, reined in those big notes, and lived in the West Village. (I’m showing my age; perhaps the correct location in 2018 would be Williamsburg.) Paola sings softly but strongly – singing, not whispering – with varying, interesting guitar-picking fretwork supporting introspective, observant, and insightful lyrics. Her voice is high, sweet, melancholy, rich, and warm all at the same time, paying as much attention to the tone as to the notes she flawlessly hits, periodically nailing one of those notes that makes you sit up and take notice, well-aware that you’re in the presence of a unique talent.

There are hints of powerful soul, blues, Motown, or Broadway in Paola’s voice. Just hints; they’re what adds texture to her vocals. But also clues about why her performances have so much texture and depth while seeming to navigate such a narrow musical lane. What lane/genre is that? Well, Paola calls her music “sadgirl folk” – she insists “sadgirl” is one word. I’d suggest the “folk” part is less applicable the farther you get from one-girl-and-a-guitar performances, but I can come up with no better description. Think Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years,” Amanda Seyfried’s “Little House,” A Great Big World’s “Say Something,” and a couple songs I know Paola has covered, Passenger’s “Let Her Go” and some of the modern renditions of “Bang Bang.”

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tonight’s eight-song set contained seven new songs and one from one of Paola’s recordings. It gave a glimpse into Paola’s “future catalog,” and if I was worried she’d have trouble matching her artfully engaging The Shoebox EP, I am no longer. I wasn’t really concerned, of course. I trust she’ll always have another batch of engaging tunes up her sleeve; one does not simply release an EP like her last one and then forget how to write great music.

Paola kicked things off with “Rattlesnake,” a soft, soaring number with bite, hitting a couple of those “special” notes along the way – with that perfect tone; just the right note-shape for the song’s moment. Next up was “Voices,” delivered with a warm richness akin to a bluesy pop singer whose songs would appear during movies as they build to a climactic event, or as they go the protagonists navigate through some sort of trouble. And it featured that Paola Bennet-signature vocal quaver. That’s not the only way you recognize her songs, but it’s certainly one of them. And, with its sincerity, it helps squeeze a little extra emotion from them.

Third up was her French-language song of the evening – one whose spelling I was able to google thanks to Paola’s translation during its introduction – “À la Prochaine.” (In English, “Until Next Time.”) Bluesy, with a slowly ramping tempo, and based upon Paola’s soft vocal delivery, I particularly like the placement of musical/vocal runs in the bridges. The song itself was very upbeat and cheerful… in a melancholy way.

Next up was “To Love an Astronaut.” The explanation behind how this song was created is worth hearing for yourselves. (Ahem. Go to her show.) Slow and thoughtful, lyrically interesting, this tune builds to Paola’s deadly combo, her cracking voice-with-vocal quaver.

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

“Hope and Doubt,” Paola joked, was her most “on-brand” song of the evening, the most sadgirl folk of her set. It sports an introspective and insightful, richly haunting, slightly howling smooth vocal that’s oh-so-anguished. And the lyric line “All I’ve got is hope and doubt in the same amount” will stick with you. This song is one of those with a universal theme, one that will ring true with everyone. For Paola, it was about a period of her life in New York; for all of us, though, it would be about something, sometime, somewhere. And I can’t wait to hear a studio recording of this one day.

My first notes for the next song, “Remember This,” are “Tone. Holy crap!” See how detailed my hand-scribbled notes are? OK, no. But the point is that this song is one of those during which you know you’re in the presence of major league talent. Polished-through-hard-work talent, even. In Paola’s case, her “tone” is the “thing you can’t quite put your finger on” that cements her big league-ness. Eventually you do put your finger on it, of course. Then you understand. And Paola writes her songs musically and lyrically to suit her voice. Introspective, insightful, and relatable, songs like this are made complete through well-chosen lyrics that help paint a thought or picture. That’s what I mean when I simply tell people Paola Bennet is a “special” performer. The song “Remember This,” if you’ll pardon the conversational detour above, is melancholy, but upbeat with a nice tempo.

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

“Gunpowder” was the only “old” song of the night, from Paola’s Something to Win EP. The vocals on “Gunpowder” are a bit rounder than the others this evening, combined with a tension-building guitar-strumming style. Paola’s vocals, in fact, come in the form of emotional, restrained wail as the song builds. Since she was performing primarily for a room full of family and friends who were familiar with her songs, this older song proved to be a particular crowd favorite.

And Paola closed her set with “Desert Sky,” a song she mentioned was particularly new. Just two weeks old, in fact. (As I’m writing this review, it’s now 50% older.) Mid-tempo and lyrically smart, this song paints a picture and rides a great edge in the vocals.

Paola delivered a heck of a show. I expected her talent, though I couldn’t know for sure how well she’d deliver her songs live. What I didn’t necessarily expect was her stage presence. I’ve seen Paola’s rather scant performance schedule through the years, so I didn’t know what to expect. But she owns the room like a seasoned veteran. Relaxed and in control. Still, even so, it’s mostly about the songs. And that voice. Supporting those thoughtful, insightful, engaging lyrics. Wow.

The Closer: Ava Sophia

And the show wasn’t over. Though most of the crowd was there for Paola, and even though the hour was late, a majority stuck around to hear Ava Sophia, and they were treated to this keyboardist/singer-songwriter’s impressive big voice.

Ava Sophia

Ava Sophia; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ava has a strong voice that can hit some powerful notes, and she’s fond of vocal runs that showcase her vocal skills. As such, her best songs take advantage of those attributes. She opened her set with “Searching,” a jazzy, loungy tune with – you guessed it – vocal runs. Ava’s set included a couple covers that were particularly well-suited to her voice. Alessia Cara’s “Here” allowed Ava to hit its booming power notes, while a late-set cover of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” provided the perfect conduit for Ava’s powerful voice.

“Restless” was an energetic, warm, big-vocal R&B-styled number that contained some funky, rhythmic vocal runs. “Oceans Away” was funky, big-vocal, piano-lounge R&B. And Ava’s last song, “Love is Love,” was a nice little song, slowly upbeat. A song written for spring and a sunny day in a field of flowers. A happy song that was my favorite of Ava’s originals. And a great way to end the night.

Looking Ahead

Paola Bennet’s next gig is Saturday, April 28th at the Mercury Lounge in New York. She’ll be performing with a full band, which should be a treat. Personally, as much as I’m happy to enjoy solo, singer-with-a-guitar performances, I love a great vocalist with a full band. Multi-instrumental arrangements of engaging songs, and the added energy. Seriously, if you’re in the City, catch Paola whenever you can, but this will be an extra-special show. And then keep an eye on the “Shows” page of Paola’s website for future dates as they’re added.

The only upcoming show listed on the “Events” tab of Max Clark’s Facebook page is May 26th at Focsicle in Provincetown.

And the “Events” tab of Ava Sophia’s Facebook page also lists a lone May 26th performance, hers at the Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain.

Album Review: Marina V – Born to the Stars

Marina V

photo by Franz Salvatierra; photo courtesy of Marina V

Marina V is an international, award-winning singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles. Her music has been featured in television shows and movies. You’ve probably heard some of her music without realizing who wrote or performed it. She’s one of those L.A. artists, one of the performers who is one right place-at-the-right time away from being a household name. Suffice it to say, she’s exceptionally talented. Of course, I discovered her music and became a fan in much the same way you may be now, randomly finding a review or a music clip and, after a bit of investigation and song-sampling, realizing I had stumbled across someone special.

Marina V

photo by Erik Fischer; photo courtesy of Marina V

Longtime Blog readers may also recall that Marina was one of the artists I featured in the nine-part “Road Back to Music Journalism” series I wrote to launch this Blog in the fall of 2015. This CD and house concert review was item number five on my nine-part journey back. The follow-up to that album, Inner Superhero, is Marina’s new release, Born to the Stars.

Album Review of Marina V: Born to the Stars

Marina’s voice is strong and versatile. Her trademark is a quickly-identifiable, breathy vocal delivery, and many of her popular songs are the slow-tempo, soaring songs you’d expect to contain those vocals. A 10-song album format, however, can show her range and versatility, as she mixes rocker power and uptempo pop styles that reflect the variety of influences you’d expect from an artist with Marina’s clear star power – that transcendent quality you know is there but can’t quite pin down. Born to the Stars explores the rough-edged rocker influences, the pop hookiness, the hint of pop-danceable energy, all while remaining rooted in classical influences (she’s a pianist, after all) and folky traces that creep into her keyboard- and guitar-driven ballad and light pop-rock tracks. As is the case with so many of my favorite artists, Marina V has an identifiable core sound while incorporating a variety of influences.

Marina V - Born to the Stars

cover photo by Evelina Pentcheva; image courtesy of Marina V

The new album kicks off with power and authority, the initial release off the album (supported by a video sporting cameos from a lot of A-list [and B-list] musicians singing along to the music), the title track, “Born to the Stars” (featuring Árstíðir). Marina’s voice can be so sweet and crystal clear that it’s nice when she balances the softer songs with tracks like this one, a stadium-filling rock ‘n roll song with a vocal edge. There’s an ’80s pop flavor and an Imagine Dragons-esque soaring-music-wall roar providing the arena-caliber bigness, with Marina’s rich, tuneful vocal carving the melody weaving through the big sound. Indeed, this is either a concert-opener or an encore song, one that’s meant to bring a crowd to its feet.

Marina V

photo by Erik Fischer; photo courtesy of Marina V

The following “I Am Iron” is a nice transition to the softer songs on the album. It’s edgy, with dance-pop/rock-type of power and some of the soft, sweet, clearly soaring power vocals just a handful of vocalists can pull off.

It’s that softening of the vocal the leads well into the ever-softer, more saccharinely-pleading “Be My Light.” The expressive, emotional vocals are extraordinarily classical in nature, as is the piano. You can imagine a music video with a grand piano, a mostly-empty ballroom with large windows, curtains flowing in the breeze, perhaps a starry sky outside. Yes, it’s one of those grand, big, sweeping ballads. Classical-driven popular music.

Marina V

photo by Emily Hanley; photo courtesy of Marina V

Next up is “Together Alone,” another favorite of mine, this one a folky soft pop swayer that serves as a commentary on the solitude of modern life.

And then the album gets super-ballady for a while, soaring behind Marina’s vocal power, all the while maintaining lightness and conveying tremendous emotion. “Fire in the Sky” has some of that booming pop-balladness (the sound that often recalls bands like Imagine Dragons for me). “Beautiful Forever” is so sweet, strong, and touching. “Good” has one of those big-empty-room, piano-ballady openings, which the richness of Marina’s soft vocal carrying the day as it displays both fragility and determined strength in support of its emotional message.

Marina V

photo by Erik Fischer; photo courtesy of Marina V

“Bring It On” picks up where “Good” left off, but this time sporting a rhythmic music bed of soft pop power carrying the emotional rises and falls.

“Autumn Song” is the Russian-language song in this collection. And perhaps it’s just me, but with the rhythm of the music and Marina’s pianowork, this makes me think of a song that might accompany a ballerina music box. Or perhaps, at a fancy costume ball, it might be played during a dramatic ballroom dance.

Marina closes the collection with a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The soft edges of her voice and the unique tempo Marina uses in her phrasings sometimes become most apparent when she covers other people’s songs, and they’re what make her covers truly unique, identifiably Marina V. This is one of those Marina V covers I enjoy immensely as its own song, even though the original is so iconic. (Her cover of Scorpions’ “Wind of Change,” which appears on her extended 2017 release of Inner Superhero, is another such tune.)

Marina V

photo courtesy of Marina V

In the end, the rock ‘n roll power at the beginning of Born to the Stars and the softer, more balladic and slower tempo power that inhabits the middle and latter portions of the album result in a satisfying, beginning-to-end listen. They showcase the talent that has earned Marina a fair level of recognition within the music business and has garnered her music placement in video productions. You’ll wonder why you’ve never heard of her before. Of course, that’s the reason for this review – to introduce you to one of those top-shelf talents who’s still flying somewhat under the radar. Seriously, give this album a listen, sample some of Marina’s music. You’ll be glad you did.

Looking Ahead

Marina V

photo by Amelia Yokel; photo courtesy of Marina V

I can also vouch for her exceptional live shows. Whether in an intimate setting or on a big stage, Marina V delivers a rock concert performance you’ll long remember.

Check out the “Tour” page of Marina’s website for upcoming shows, and check back regularly as she adds new dates. Currently, the only spring shows listed are an April 22nd afternoon gig in Woodland Hills, CA and a May 11th show (opening for Tiffany) in Big Bear Lake, CA. Marina’s summer shows scheduled so far are June 23rd at The South Bay Festival of the Arts in Torrance, CA; a June 24th “Concert at My House” (these intimate dinner concerts sound fun!) in Valencia, CA; and an August 3rd through 5th sequence of shows in Big Bear Lake, CA (3rd), Mesquite, NV (4th), and Las Vegas, NV (5th). Since I’ve been following her music the last few years, I’ve noticed that Marina plays frequently on the west coast, regularly in and around Illinois (where she got her U.S. start), and periodically books European tours. Catch her when you can, and on the rarer occasions you find her performing elsewhere, be absolutely sure not to miss her.

Marina’s Patreon

Marina also has a “2 Songs a Month Club” via Patreon. For as little as $1 per song ($2 per month), you’ll receive 2 songs each month. Of course, greater pledges earn greater rewards. Her club members received the Born to the Stars album when it was released. Of course, some of the songs were monthly releases along the way. Rather interesting was being able to witness a couple steps of the evolution of “I Am Iron” via the club. Once you’ve discovered Marina’s music, it’s a neat way to support a new favorite musician. She’s not the only musician doing this, but I really do like the approach of offering a new song or two each month, as Marina has adopted, as a Patreon format.