Album Review: Jimmy Lee Morris – Campervan

Jimmy Lee Morris

photo courtesy of Jimmy Lee Morris

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Jimmy Lee Morris: Campervan (Automix Records)

Jimmy Lee Morris - Campervan

image courtesy of Jimmy Lee Morris

UK-based singer-songwriter Jimmy Lee Morris is a talented artist with no pretense. He writes songs that define the term “folk.” In other words, they are down to earth, and about people and relationships, with resonant melodies and memorable hooks. This four song EP Campervan is Morris’ latest and follows the 2016 album Wilderness Wood.

Jimmy Lee Morris has been crafting songs since the ‘80s, fronting bands such as Mojo Filter and The Collaborators. He’s worked with Pink Floyd producer Ron Geesin and has toured extensively throughout the UK and Denmark.

Jimmy Lee Morris

photo courtesy of Jimmy Lee Morris

With this current effort, Morris provides a lean and economical window into his creativity. “Campervan Song” opens the EP in a pleasant and forthright manner. This bears a well-thought-out melody with lyrics that address escape and the open road. It’s all about being self-reliant and throwing caution to the wind. Simply, the song states: “And here’s to the camper that never breaks down, and here’s to the journey it takes us upon, and wave to the others as we go along, it’s just you and me on the road.” And you get this traveling troubadour kind of feel too via Javier Forero’s driving percussion and Clare Lees’ light and billowy flute.

Bethan Lees

Bethan Lees; photo courtesy of Jimmy Lee Morris

Although Morris wrote all the material here no one could accuse him of being dictatorial or autocratic. Bethan Lees is a young and very special vocal chanteuse, and Morris is more than happy to place her in the spotlight on his beautiful tune “Amor Compartido (A Love We Share).” Bethan has an angelic and lilting soprano that sends this lovely song into stratospheric trajectory. It’s entirely sung in Spanish, and the rhythm section of Morris on acoustic guitar, along with Richard Leney’s lithe bass, Javier Forero’s percolating drums and producer Simon Scardanelli’s tasty lead guitar give this a brilliant salsa feel.

Jimmy Lee Morris

photo courtesy of Jimmy Lee Morris

“When I’m Gone” is a bluesy-flavored number with a classic Beatles-meets-Jim Croce kind of vibe. It’s a song about love and longing. Anyone that has ever been separated from their significant other or main squeeze for any length of time will certainly appreciate this. Phillipe Guyard chimes in with a wailing sax solo that really kicks.

The final selection in this brief, but fine, collection is another rootsy kind of tune called “Temptation.” As is Morris’ style, he is direct and to the point in the communication department. In this he sings: “I’m holding you, you’re holding me, I’m loving you and you’re loving me. We don’t need no complication, just give in to your temptation, stay with me.” This has a real down home feel courtesy of Morris’ mandolin and Duncan Campbell’s countrified Dobro.

 

Live Review: Martin and Kelly at Chopps

Martin and Kelly

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Martin and Kelly

Chopps American Bar and Grill, Burlington, MA

May 23, 2017

Jilly Martin and Ryan Brooks Kelly are a local country duo with a good pedigree as is apparent from the list of big names they’ve shared the stage with. Also, more importantly to those of us who care about such things, they’re outstanding musicians and performers. When sampling their music in advance of this evening, the song that convinced me they were a must-see was their catchy, fun original “Young, Broke, and Beautiful.” Both have strong country voices – Jilly’s is a sweet, high voice well-suited to classic country, while Ryan’s is a modern country voice with a bit of an edge, with the added ability of throwing in a good twang when called for. Together, their voices blend exceptionally well, so it’s a real treat to hear them sing harmonies, and they find a way to work to their own vocal strengths in their originals.

Martin and Kelly

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The performance space at Chopps is in the bar area of the restaurant, adjacent to the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in which it’s located. As a result, the musical performances tend to be a little subdued. On this particular night, Martin and Kelly delivered a performance well-suited to a toned-down environment like Chopps, with patrons enjoying their music both actively and passively. I stayed for the first half of their 3-hour time slot and thoroughly enjoyed myself; I always love the food, service, and setting at this restaurant, so when there’s good live music here, I’m an “easy sell.” I do, however, look forward to catching Martin and Kelly in a livelier environment one of these days to see more of their energetic side.

Martin and Kelly

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The duo opened with their rendition of Thompson Square’s “I Got You,” with their vocals blending solidly when they harmonized. Next up, Jilly got to show off her vocal chops on Sugar Land’s “Something More.”

Jilly’s high and soft-but-strong vocals were particularly well-suited to Kasey Musgraves’ “Merry Go Round,” while Ryan’s voice displayed an emotional edge on Scotty McCreery’s “Carolina Moon.”

There were other noteworthy covers I caught during the evening’s performance. For example, there was a rendition of “Make You Feel My Love” that was sung sweetly by Jilly, somewhat like a lullaby. Thomas Rhett & Tori Kelly’s “Die a Happy Man” offered them an opportunity to showcase their sweet harmonies in a nicely blended duet. And Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind” afforded Ryan a chance to put his sweet crooning skills on display, while Jilly picked up the second verse strong, and the song lent itself to some classic harmonies, too; certainly, this is one of the duo’s strongest covers.

Martin and Kelly

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Also notable was Martin and Kelly’s rendition of Joey + Rory’s “Cheater, Cheater.” Jilly channeled Johnny Cash, it seemed, for some of the low notes on this picker and grinner, while Ryan’s guitar did its best banjo impression. And the duo delivered a fun country version of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” with Jilly and Ryan taking on Aloe Blacc’s vocal line by swapping the vocals back and forth, adding an interesting texture to the song.

Later in the first set, Jilly sported a bluesy country edge to her vocals on her rendition of Reba McEntire’s “Why Haven’t I Heard From You” – perhaps her strongest cover vocal of the evening, and certainly the one that showed the most range. And early in the second set, Ryan’s vocal was at its most half-growly during Eric Church’s “Hell On the Heart.”

But, again, this duo shines the brightest during Martin and Kelly originals. The original they performed during their first set was “I’m Gonna Kiss You,” on which both singers seemed to play to their strengths.

Martin and Kelly

photo by Geoff Wilbur

And, of course, just as the clock hit my personally previously-determined exit time, three songs into their second set, the duo cranked up “Young, Broke, and Beautiful.” So I stayed for one extra song. Simply wow. It’s an energetically fun original with well-crafted vocal harmonies, Jilly and Ryan’s individual vocal parts each residing within their own personal sweet spots and blending perfectly together, augmented by a nice supporting guitar line and subtle hooks. This one’s radio-ready and hit-caliber. And a great time for me to call it a night, to end on a high note, at the conclusion of my own personal favorite Martin and Kelly original… though I’m sure I’d’ve enjoyed the remaining 90 minutes of the band’s program if I hadn’t wanted to get home.

Looking Ahead

Martin and Kelly’s upcoming concert schedule has them crisscrossing New England, with many shows in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. plus the odd Rhode Island gig and a few shows in Verona, NY. Check the “Shows” page on their website for upcoming dates on a schedule that’s already packed until the fall and starting to fill in beyond, as well. According to Martin and Kelly’s website, their next few shows are… tonight, May 24th, at Sylvan Street Grille in Salisbury, MA with 101.7 The Bull; Friday, May 26th at World of Beer in West Hartford, CT; Saturday, May 27th at the Tin Rooster at the Turningstone Casino in Verona, NY; Tuesday, May 30th at a WOKQ event in Seabrook, NH; Thursday, June 1st at the Boston Harbor Hotel in Boston, MA; Friday, June 2nd at Station Eight in Marshfield, MA; and Saturday, June 3rd at the Whiskey Barrel in Haverhill, MA.

Album Review: Hobo Chang – Beast

Hobo Chang

photo by Tom Eyers; photo courtesy of Hobo Chang

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Hobo Chang: Beast

Hobo Chang - Beast

cover artwork by Paul Rumsey http://www.paulrumsey.co.uk/; image courtesy of Hobo Chang

Hobo Chang are a band from North East Essex in the UK and comprise of Fiona Harmon, Nick Munt, Phil Pain and Andrew Kearton. Together on this album release Beast, they have forged a sound like an illicit affair between ’70s prog rock and its snarling New Wave nemesis. There is a darkness and underground mood to the album. A swampy, lo-fi vibe creating a hypnotic and swirling sonic landscape with a vaguely disturbing mood that matches the album’s artwork of a struggling bull in a straight jacket. Fiona Harmon, the lead singer, has a voice that conjures up an intriguing crossover between Siouxsie Sioux, Dolores O’Riordan, and Cerys Matthews. Generally, the vocals are placed low in the mix and become a layer of texture within the music; an ethereal ambiance, like a sea washing against the shore. The band describe their sound as “a dark psychedelic funky train ride, experimental, apocalyptic and soulful with their roots in blues, jazz, reggae and the good bits of rock.”

Beast is a DIY approach to making albums. Only available as a download album through the band’s Bandcamp page, it is an indicator of the more accessible and modern way for bands to release and promote their music without the restricting, traditional expenses.

Hobo Chang

photo by Stuart Armitage; photo courtesy of Hobo Chang

The album is a dark, enveloping set of 10 songs. Not much light and shade within its tension, but I found it a fascinating listen and enjoyed the compelling journey of discovery. They have been getting many positive endorsements including musical poet John Cooper Clarke who said, “They’re a fantastic band, one of the great unsigned; I love them.”

You can catch the band live in the UK on the 28th May at Cosmic Puffin Festival or on 7th July at the 3 Wise Monkeys in Colchester. (Those are the dates currently listed on the “Gigs” page on Hobo Chang’s website; check back for others as they’re added.)

EP Review: Lillet Blanc – Lillet Blanc

Lillet Blanc

photo courtesy of Lillet Blanc

The Backstory

I discovered Lillet Blanc’s music while checking club listings (and sampling bands) to decide which live show to catch while in New York a few months ago. My final decision from among those I liked was based on time slot and neighborhood, so I went to a different gig that night. But Lillet Blanc’s EP was a free download, so I grabbed it, gave it some more listens, and decided it needed to be reviewed.

EP Review of Lillet Blanc: Lillet Blanc

Dream pop. Lillet Blanc’s Facebook page says “Lillet Blanc is the dream pop project of Emily Rawlings and Sean Camargo.” It’s jangly pop music with a floating, cloudy, dreamy film serving as a musical fog machine, residing in the same musical zip code as bands like Mazzy Star or Widowspeak but with Lillet Blanc’s offerings trending more out-of-focus and blurry, to the extent it’s possible for a kaleidoscope in or out of focus.

Lillet Blanc EP cover

image courtesy of Lillet Blanc

The first track of this eponymous 3-song EP (and, as I’ve written before, music journalists love reviewing self-titled collections because we get to use the word “eponymous”), “Foul Play” jumps right into the jangle, with the clean but slightly distorted guitar line reminding me a little of some of Amy & the Engine’s music. Even the breathy, kinda-squeaky (but not really), half-whispered vocal hints at a kinship, as if they might well share a stage. But Amy’s music is pure, catchy, mainstream pop-rock, while Lillet Blanc’s brand of pop is a bit much more ambient and “artsy.” Lillet Blanc’s entire style gives “Foul Play” a feeling of introspectiveness stronger than its lyrics warrant. In all, it’s a fun meander – I can’t call it a romp – through a well-performed song in an interesting, too-cool-for-it-all style.

Lillet Blanc

photo courtesy of Lillet Blanc

“Drenched” follows, a bit more atmospheric in nature. Or at least more dominantly atmospheric, much like the ethereal, eponymous 2013 EP of a now-defunct UK band I liked, Trophy Wife. “Drenched” seems to meander a little more drunkenly that the other two songs, its sound and vocal tone ever-so-slightly (though clearly intentionally) off-kilter. It serves as a nice midpoint in the collection.

The disc closes with a movement back toward the awakened side of dream-pop, with a couple catchy, subtle guitar hooks carrying the load during “Now and Yours.” There’s almost a hint of The Police’s early work in rhythms that occasionally bubble to the surface. Of the EP’s three tracks, this might reach most beyond the band’s core audience, serving as a good introduction to attract fans who might not otherwise typically sample their music. It caps off a solid collection of songs, an intriguing introduction to Lillet Blanc. I’ll be curious to see how this group’s sound and songwriting evolve from here.

Looking Ahead

Lillet Blanc will be performing Wednesday, May 24th at The Gateway in Brooklyn. Follow Lillet Blanc’s Facebook page to be alerted to future performances.

 

Live Review: Mary Fahl at Club Passim

Mary Fahl

Club Passim, Cambridge, MA

May 20, 2017

A few months ago, you saw my review of Mary’s latest studio album, Love & Gravity. As impressed as I was by that record, it was a real treat for me to get to hear her perform in concert. Originally known for her work as a member of the chamber pop group October Project, Mary’s solo work relies on the same powerful, soaring vocal abilities that brought her such early notoriety, but her solo style has perhaps a slightly stronger folk element. I can’t help being reminded of a folk-Americana CD I’m currently spinning in my car, the new one from Amilia K Spicer that I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks, as they both share the same ethereal vocal element and some folk influence, while from there the two take their music in different directions with extraordinarily different voices.

Mary Fahl

photo by Geoff Wilbur

On this night at Club Passim, Mary performed with cellist Monique Citro, whose contribution added warmth and depth to the songs in support of Mary’s singing and guitar-playing. Many in the crowd had seen Mary perform multiple times over the years, and during many songs there were several concert-goers mouthing along to the words. They were also aware of Mary’s penchant for between-song storytelling, typically related to the songs she was about to sing, and the combination of stories and songs rather quickly turned the concert ambiance into that of a roomful of friends… one of whom, of course, wielded her amazing voice.

Mary opened the evening with a couple October Project songs. First, “Take Me Down,” showcasing her powerful voice that cut through the warmth of the cello accompaniment, both blending well with her strumming guitar. But, of course, the focus of the evening was always on Mary’s amazing voice.

Next came an emotionally powerful rendition of “Return to Me.” And she followed that with a great rendition of “Wild is the Wind” – as she noted before the song, the Bowie version of the Nina Simone song.

Then she performed “Gravity (Move Mountains, Turn Rivers Around)” from her latest album, Love & Gravity, a song she penned for her husband. There’s a serious Irish folk song vibe to “Gravity,” and Mary, as expected, sang the heck out of it.

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Almost every song stood out in its own way, though I’ll not touch upon all of them. “Song for the Sirens” featured some acoustic picking as an added dimension, while the strong vocals and warbles were genuinely spine-tinglingly beautiful. Mary’s rendition of “Both Sides Now” is both a truly original version, as it appears on Love & Gravity, while also feeling ever-faithful to the original; as exceptionally good as this song was on the recording, its live performance carries so much more emotion! And her performance of October Project’s big hit, “Bury My Lovely,” was both booming and catchy; it’s obvious why it was a hit.

Mary closed her set with a song she recorded for her album re-imagining of The Dark Side of the Moon, a rendition of “Brain Damage” that seemed as if Mary had blended her voice with Roger Waters’ – maybe proportionally 70/30 in favor of her voice. Such versatility. Such variety. And what a way to end a set!

The two-song encore opened with Mary’s “Going Home,” from the Gods and Generals soundtrack, a tune with a sweet melody, in many ways like a folk-song lullaby. And Mary closed the night with an opera aria from her folk-classical EP. Because she can. Or, rather, for those who speak “hashtag,” simply #BecauseMaryFahl.

In all, it was a tremendous, intimate night of soul-touching music and stories-among-friends from Mary Fahl, featuring her amazingly rich, powerful voice. I can see why so many in the audience return to see her again and again… and again. I look forward to her next visit to the area.

Looking Ahead

If you can possibly make it, you should get out to hear Mary perform in person. Per the tour date page on her website, Mary’s next performances will be Friday, July 14th in Northampton, MA and Saturday, July 15th in Saratoga Springs, NY. The other dates currently listed are Sellersville, PA on July 29th; Ann Arbor, MI on August 11th; Pittsburgh, PA on August 13th; Denver, CO on August 26th; New York on October 5th; Wilkes-Barre, PA on October 6th; Geneseo, NY on October 14th; Wilmington, DE on November 4th; and Old Saybrook, CT on January 27th, 2018. Again, check Mary’s website for additional information on those shows and for other dates as they’re added.

 

 

 

Album Review: Matt North – Above Ground Fools

Matt North

photo by Angelina Castillo; photo courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

Album Review of Matt North: Above Ground Fools (Round Badge Records)

Old-school. Or timeless. Probably more of the latter, as Matt North‘s music has a modern alt-rock attitude rooted in folky, songwriting-focused music styles of the past. Above Ground Fools won’t be mistaken for a “new country” album or a “cutting-edge rock” album. Rather, there is simply plenty of catchy, memorable, fun music on this disc that should appeal to anyone who enjoys a good song that’s well-delivered.

Indeed, Matt knows his way around song, drawing in the listener by telling bits of stories, filling them musically with rich, lush sound and, of course, a driving, engaging rhythm – he is a drummer, after all – and topping them off with a rough-edged voice equal parts outlaw country and gritty rock ‘n roll with a quirky streak. On honky-tonk-ish, rollicking “Seventeen Days,” that quirk sounds a bit David Byrne-esque, while it can add earnestness to a swaying, more serious-feeling, introspective, nostalgic crooner like “Cronkite and Cosell.”

Matt North - Above Ground Fools

image courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

But the catchiness – the sense that you, as a listener, have stumbled across something you’re really going to enjoy – starts at the very beginning with the musically unique intro to “A Good Day in Nashville.” The song itself is an up-tempo mover-and-shaker that chronicles the adjusted vision of what passes for ordinary in Nashville. A fun romp, musically and lyrically, from a man who’s familiar with the topic, simply telling it like it is.

Truth be told, I sing along to most of the songs on this album now; there’s nary a weak spot. I howl along to “No Hard Feelings.” I shimmy along with the frenetic energy and clever lyrical rhymes of “Miss Communication.” And I feign a little rock ‘n roll strut as I sign along with the slight staccato and harsh vocal edges in “I Sold It All.” The album is one cohesive country-tinged rock ‘n roll styled canvas but is painted with broad-stroked songwriting variety. That’s how Matt has crafted Above Ground Fools to be an album with staying power.

The record closes with a couple of my favorite tunes, the eminently playful “Badgering the Witness” and the ’90s loud-yet-jangly pop-rock styled “Come Here Go Away.”

After a couple dozen listens to Above Ground Fools, it’s clear Matt North is your surprisingly cool neighbor who’s mostly normal but sports a hidden quirky streak. You’re not quite sure if it’s snark or sarcasm, but you’re pretty sure he’s not serious. You think. And he makes a damn good record.

Single Review: Cain Rising – “Glasgow City Spires”

Cain Rising

photo by Matt Crawford; photo courtesy of Cain Rising

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Single Review of Cain Rising: “Glasgow City Spires”

Time was when you would sit down and listen to a whole album, be taken on a journey through carefully sequenced tracks and enjoy the music as the artist intended. Things have changed, and if I’m anything to go by, then Spotify, playlists, and pressing shuffle may well be the way we are consuming our music these days.

It’s a great convenience to be able to choose the album tracks you like, skip the ones you don’t and have all your favourite music randomly coming at you as a soundtrack to your daily life. I’m not sure as an artist myself, brought up on flipping between two sides of an album it’s how I want my own music picked through, but I have to accept, we live in a more transient, song by song world and maybe there is less point in making albums anymore, just singles.

Cain Rising - Glasgow City Spires

image courtesy of Cain Rising

So that is why it is a very smart approach from Cain Rising to be releasing a series of five singles before putting them all together on a CD EP in July. It’s clever because it lengthens the shelf life for the band’s new release from reviewers like myself and from the radio stations that can have a new track every couple of weeks to keep them interested. There is so much musical competition when you release an album of music. A new release doesn’t stay new very long these days, and it seems that everyone moves on to the next new thing whilst the last song is still fading from the speakers. Dropping one track at a time as singles certainly keeps you in the public ear for a longer period of time.

Starting this series of releases on May 1st, Cain Rising put out “Rear View Mirror,” which I reviewed and loved. Now they have followed that with the single “Glasgow City Spires,” out on 15th May.

This song is inspired, according to writer and band frontman “Southside” Jimmy, “by a hazy hungover Sunday morning walk along Glasgow’s Great Western Road and down through Kelvingrove Park.” The song illustratively portrays the drive and passion Jimmy has for his hometown and poignantly marks his twenty-five years from moving away from it with lines like: “The streets below my soles, they’re home to me/My hometown’s now a foreign land.”

Cain Rising

photo by Annie Price; photo courtesy of Cain Rising

“Glasgow City Spires” is rockier than “Rear View Mirror,” and with this gear shift you begin to discover the range of songs to come. This is trademark Cain Rising and it is worth noting that the band have been described by others as strong, engaging, original, and accomplished. All of these most definitely apply with, for my part, a large serving of joy, to boot.

A big part of what makes listening to Cain Rising so enjoyable is the sound they have achieved on the recordings. Enough time has been taken to ensure attention to detail but without losing the passion of performance. The band spent about 12 days recording five tracks at Echo Studios in Buckingham, UK. This EP and last year’s album were both produced by Jamie Masters, who seems to be able to get right inside the band’s sound and bring out the very best of the songs, arrangements and performance. As “Southside” Jimmy Price says, “He doesn’t just record the songs, he contributes to the arrangements, and his skills with the tools of his trade are unbelievable. He tunes in with the band so much it’s as scary as it is creative.”

The single kicks off with a short Badlands-Springsteen style drum intro and then greets you with the warm guitar snaps and organ swirls so familiar in the band’s style. This leads you into the verse where, by hanging on one chord for the first few lines, a great sense of suspense is created before breaking into the bridge and bouncing you into the driving chorus. The chorus, whilst not such an “earworm” as in “Rear View Mirror” with it’s “looking at you” hook, does offer an alternative delight. It’s thrilling when a song grabs you straight out the box but equally rewarding when one grows on you with each listen, allowing access to the depths within. This is such feel good music, brilliantly made. I think I’m going to play the CD loud in the car all summer long.

So while we all wait for that CD release, I hope, for now, this has whetted your appetite, and I’m looking forward to bringing you a full EP review once the remaining three tracks, “Walk My Way,” “Soldier,” and “Social Man” are released.

Check out my recent review of Cain Rising’s “Rear View Mirror” for more info on the band and their live dates.