Album Review: Samantha Preis – Good News

Samantha Preis

photo courtesy of Samantha Preis

Samantha Preis – Good News

Album Review of Samantha Preis: Good News

Samantha Preis - Good News

image courtesy of Samantha Preis

Stylistically, Samantha Preis is a standard, piano-based jazz vocalist in the vein of Diana Krall or Jennifer (Zuffinetti) Denmark. Her rich, full, crisp, expressive voice is the sort that would sound equally well-placed at a piano bar, at a jazz club, or on a movie soundtrack. Or on the phonograph at night with a drink in hand and the love of your life by your side. Or – and it’s jazzy enough to pull this off – perhaps just your love at the moment. But wherever you hear Samantha’s voice, you know it’s going to be a classy evening.

From the opening notes of “Holiday” to start the album, the softness of Samantha’s delivery is belied by the accompanying crispness and power in her vocals, weaving a captivating journey through the lyrics.

Samantha Preis

photo courtesy of Samantha Preis

Parts of “Aristotle and Wine” remind me of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” vocals. Mostly just the tempo and delivery of certain segments. The song is just so smooth and sophisticated; it’s my early favorite from this collection.

Another attention-grabber is “Wood For Burning.” I can’t entirely figure out why this song snaps my ear to attention every time, but my primary suspects are its cadence and the sharp rising of the initial vocal lines. Unique to this album, which is so often so terrifically smooth, a variance from that specific style stands out.

Title track “Good News” is perhaps the next greatest showcase of sharpness of tone, though it’s mixed throughout this song, which otherwise rolls and sways perhaps more than most of its album-mates as the vocal line is typically smooth but also exceptionally lyrical.

Throughout Good News, including on standouts like “On Boylston” and “Here We Are,” the vocal precision, warmth of phrasing, and sense of how to move within the melody, as is second nature to a truly outstanding jazz vocalist, signifies that Samantha Preis is something special. I can’t wait to hear what she does next, both within each song and in the context of her career.

Samantha Preis

photo courtesy of Samantha Preis

Samantha’s Upcoming Gigs

Samantha’s upcoming performances are listed here on her website. Currently the only performance listed is an online concert on Wednesday, March 30th (3 pm New York time; 8 pm in London). And if you can’t catch that or want to see her perform live, be sure to check the website for yourself occasionally. Or sign up for her mailing list.

Album Review: Park Sipes – Rise Above

Park Sipes – Rise Above

 

Park Sipes

photo courtesy of Serge Media Group

Album Review of Park Sipes: Rise Above

Park Sipes has appeared in a variety of recording projects, but Rise Above is his first solo, full-length release. And he has delivered a fun, well-constructed, catchy collection of progressive rock that combines his faith with his musicianship. Park is both a worship leader and a rocker.

Park Sipes - Rise Above

image courtesy of Serge Media Group

Park has had brushes with the big names. He was one of the vocalists on Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s 2015 album. And his Rise Above album features some big names, with Joel Hoekstra (Whitesanke, Night Ranger) serving as lead guitarist on three tracks and Marty Paris (Paris Keeling) on another. Park also co-wrote “Life (Revisited)” with Marty Paris and Kelly Keeling (Baton Rouge, MSG, King Kobra, Paris Keeling), though the rest of the album – and the songwriting is tightly-structured, well-considered, and impressive – is written solely by Sipes.

The album opens with “Anytime, Anyway (Rise Above),” an inspirational, energetic, hope-filled rocker that mixes soaring vocals with forceful and occasionally blistering Joel Hoekstra guitarwork. Compared to much of the somewhat progressive-influenced hard rock on the album, this track is relatively straight-ahead.

“This Love” is a particularly catchy number, as it utilizes Park’s high, powerful vocals across building verses and soaring choruses, with occasional soft stretches that serve to emphatically contrast to the rest of the song’s power.

Park Sipes

photo courtesy of Serge Media Group

You can hear Park’s classic rock tribute band days (with the band Sunset Strip) showing through on heartfelt ballad “Don’t Chase the Night Away,” which sports a serious FireHouse feel. Placed right after the soaring “This Love,” the song ordering is well-considered. Shall I rant about why it’s so much better to listen to a full album in the order it’s intended? I won’t, but this would provide me with a perfect opportunity if I was so inclined.

Instrumental “A New Horizon” holds my attention better than most instrumentals, featuring some scorching Marty Paris axework. It fits well within the disc musically; the continuity on Rise Above is exceptional, with each song varied but belonging to a cohesive family.

Somewhat-rocking slow- and mid-tempo power ballads (or part-ballads) are a strength of Park’s, and he showcases a few more of them on the album in “Midnight Ride,” “Breathe,” “Life (Revisited),” and “Burn Into the Night,” each with its own vocal and tempo change nuances, typically with an encouraging or inspirational message.

Worth noting are the two versions of “Caught in Your Storm.” The first rendition is song number two on the CD, and it is very crisp and clean, but album-ender “Caught in Your Storm (Original Version)” is much grittier. I rarely hear two versions of the same song on an album that feature such different approaches. I’m really glad they were included here; they almost single-handedly show Park’s versatility and range.

A mix of late ’80s-style melodic hard rock and classic progressive rock, Park Sipes’ Rise Above calls upon a variety of hard rock musical influences. The result is a rock album that’s emotional at times, pleasant to listen to throughout.

Album Review: Ilona – Fragile Heart

Ilona – Fragile Heart

Ilona

photo courtesy of Ilona’s management

The Backstory

Oh, yeah, there’s a backstory here. There are two singers I was singing the praises of on Twitter, on Facebook, in person to anyone who would listen, doing whatever I could to help them gain exposure long before I thought I’d return to music journalism. Ironically, they’re both based in London. And, of course, Ilona is one of those singers. In fact, if you’ve been reading this blog from the very beginning, you’ll have read about her already in the 9th installment of my 9-part “Road Back to Music Journalism” series.

EP Review of Ilona: Fragile Heart

Ilona - Fragile Heart

image courtesy of Ilona’s management

The Fragile Heart EP is a collection of 3 old songs, 2 new songs, and a radio edit of one of the new songs that does a solid job showcasing Ilona’s range and unique talent.

The first song, “I Still Fall For You,” excels because it includes some of Ilona’s trademark quick, controlled vocal wails that punctuate an already-great, sentimental song. The new recording of “I Still Fall For You” is most notably different in its guitarwork, which simultaneously rounds off rough edges while being crisper and meshes well with some of Ilona’s new vocal flourishes; as a result, this re-recorded track feels fresh and new. Longtime fans will appreciate the redux. And if you haven’t heard it at all before, well, this is the perfect introduction to how Ilona can be so unique and original while occupying a well-worn pop/rock highway.

Ilona

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Fragile Heart also includes “Back to You,” a slow-mid-tempo, emotional song that benefits from that hint of gravel in Ilona’s vocals. Radio-ready, pop-rock (and adult alternative), it builds to power periodically. But most importantly, it showcases Ilona’s vocal chops, including perhaps the best song-appropriate mid-song vocal howl this side of Shakira at the 2:30 mark. You can tell when someone in the audience has heard this song before because they prepare as the moment approaches, then close their eyes and enjoy. This song – and moments within this song  – represent something special.

Indeed, it’s a pleasure to have “I Still Fall For You” and “Back to You” included on this EP because they have long been two of my favorite songs from Ilona’s repertoire.

One of the two new songs is “Safety Net.” This, I can safely say, has the potential to be an enormous hit. The hook – and it’s a sneaky one – embedded in my brain and caused me to have this song in my head when I awoke several mornings in a row after just a half-dozen listens – ideal for a potential radio hit. It opens with a driving rhythm and Ilona’s trademark, passionate humm-moans before her first actual vocals. The song then builds and grabs attention with a quick-stop and light bridge before embedding its hooky chorus directly into the unsuspecting listerner’s brain. “Safety Net” is wonderfully catchy and employs all of Ilona’s most captivating vocal elements (lows, highs, screams, even a snippet of breathy sultriness) into a mid-tempo, radio-ready rock song.

Ilona

photo courtesy of Ilona’s management

The other new song, “Best Day of My Life,” is also exceptional; it’s an engaging, emotional ballad that has grown on me more with each listen and now pops into my mind unprovoked almost as often as “Safety Net.” A blend of elements from some of Ilona’s other top ballads, “Best Day…” clearly carries the weight of her emotions. The way she can pour her heart into a vocal, with her voice subtly cracking, covering several notes within a syllable at times, holding firm at others… Ilona can tug at our heartstrings, and this song offers plenty of opportunities.

There are actually two versions of “Best Day…” on this EP. And while there is some exceptionally effective steel guitar on the long version, offering a hint of country, the twang is punched up a little more on the “radio edit,” a shorter version that may play as country in the U.K. and throughout Europe, more likely as a “crossover” tune here in the United States.

This all serves as a great set-up for the remaining track, a twanging country-rock tune entitled “Beautiful Country,” first released last summer, that discusses the differences – and similarities – between life in the U.K. and in country-music America. The pleasant melody leads to a nice payoff in its chorus.

Overall, Fragile Heart is a great introduction to this talented singer and the amazing things she can do with her voice. I tweeted about her extensively before I began writing, and I’ll continue to write about her every chance I get. If Ilona isn’t the real deal, I don’t know talent. And even if I didn’t know talent (which I do), I’d still know Ilona has it.

Ilona

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Looking Ahead

Ilona’s website lists an upcoming live performance on July 10th at the Cornbury Festival in Oxfordshire. On Ilona’s Facebook page, she also mentioned an April 1 date at the Half Moon Putney in London in support of John Illsley. Keep on eye on both of those locations for information on upcoming gigs.

Album Review: The Sweetest Condition – Edge of the World

The Sweetest Condition – Edge of the World

The Sweetest Condition

photo courtesy of The Sweetest Condition

The Backstory

Nashville-based The Sweetest Condition is a two-person outfit, Jason Reed Milner (music and synths) and Leslie Irene Benson (lyrics and vocals). Edge of the World is the band’s first full-length album, a follow-up to 2013’s Truth & Light EP.

Album Review of The Sweetest Condition: Edge of the World

The Sweetest Condition - Edge of the World

image courtesy of The Sweetest Condition

My introduction to The Sweetest Condition was through the loudest, most aggressive track on this album, “Now.” It’s a song you might expect from a collaboration between Trent Reznor and Madonna. The edgy, industrial fabric – brilliant synth and background vocal distortion – combines with Benson’s voice, which sounds uncannily like Madonna’s. But that’s not the only reason. There’s a clear pop sensibility to the songwriting that recalls not just the Material Girl herself but also old-school pop music with a hint of ’80s new wave.

The key to the broad appeal of The Sweetest Condition’s songs is that they are exceptionally well-written and tightly performed. The changes in tempo and vocal phrasing are carefully planned and meticulously executed to capture the a pop music charm while remaining true to the music’s industrial core. In other words, if this is your style of music, you’ll like The Sweetest Condition because they perform it well; if this is not your style of music, you may still like this band. And, depending on the song, The Sweetest Condition’s music could find a home anywhere from a dance club to mainstream pop radio.

Structurally, Edge of the World is a complete package, with its song order constructed to ebb and flow, most satisfying to listen to in order, from beginning to end.

The Sweetest Condition

photo courtesy of The Sweetest Condition

Aside from “Now,” most of the rest of the disc trends more synth-pop, with the NIN-esque harsh edge called upon less frequently but judiciously. Throughout the disc there’s perhaps as much Thompson Twins, Human League, and Eurythmics in the mix, stylistically.

Album-opener “Beyond the Blue” merges a catchy, energetic enthusiasm with a dominant pop-synth sound. Next, some of the bridges in “Control” are very ’80s pop.

A couple of the catchier pop-leaning numbers are “Fall in Line,” an energetically moderately dark song that builds in power and energy throughout and “Secret,” a catchy, rhtyhm-driven synth-pop tune that seamlessly blends seemingly-angry verses and sing-along choruses with its sultry bridge.

“The War is Over” is a powerful, slowly-building song that relies heavily on Benson’s vocal tone to maintain its edginess, with the support of Milner’s music lying subtly beneath it until bursting forth midway through; excellent song-construction and delivery are equally responsible for this engaging hurt-and-anger ballad. The mood is carried into “This Poison,” which just builds upon its predecessor’s power before relaxing a bit toward the end.

The Sweetest Condition

photo courtesy of The Sweetest Condition

“Try” is another of the poppier songs, with its rhythm befitting a pop-dance number, with its rather Madonna-esque dramatic rhythmic pauses punctuating the otherwise driving beat.

But “Watch You Fall” may be my current favorite on the disc. The movement of the vocals around the melody, ebbing and flowing, dance in and around the song’s steady rhythm to give it a catchy off-center, slightly-off-balance, memorable flow.

Fittingly, from a musical and mood standpoint, the album bids farewell with “Without You.” Milner’s sometimes-busy, other-times-soft musical bed and heavy rhythms complement Benson’s rawly emotional vocals and troubled lyrics (“I can’t live without you/I’m nothing without you…”), maintaining the album’s painful, emotional theme to the bitter end.

Overall, Edge of the World is a well-written, lyrically and musically interesting disc that relies on a solid balance of rhythm, vocals, and controlled power to bridge the gap between its obvious genre (industrial synth-pop) and a broader listening audience.

Looking Ahead

The Sweetest Condition has no upcoming shows listed on its website, but that’s where you’d go to find out.

Album Review: Love and a .38 – Nomads

Love and a .38 – Nomads

Love and a .38

photo courtesy of Head First Entertainment

Album Review of Love and a .38: Nomads

Love and a .38 - Nomads

photo courtesy of Head First Entertainment

Powerful hard rock that’ll jolt you from your slumber and put a smile on your face.

Stylistically, Love and a .38 is most comparable to Steel Panther or Beautiful Creatures, sporting the blues-rock ethos of George Thorogood with a powerful, screaming vocal style that recalls Brian Johnson (AC/DC) or Marc Storace (Krokus). To varying degrees and in different ways, the band reminds me of Kix, Legs Diamond, early Great White, and Charm City Devils. Something about the band’s delivery, at times, even makes me think of them as a much heavier version of FireHouse. If you like any of those bands, Love and a .38 could become a new favorite.

The band grabs the listeners’ attention right from the start, opening the album with “Oh My God,” an aptly-named, oh-my-god, blues-based, swamp-rockin’, sure-fire crowdpleaser.

“Just Like Regret” follows with a little playful melody wrapped in its power-rock driving rhythm, with plenty of “whoa-ohs” and “ooh-oohs” mixed in, along with a slow-build bridge that climbs into a wall-of-sound and cranks up the volume just to seal the deal. Try not to get sucked into this song. You’ll fail spectacularly.

A bit of a softer track – and “softer” is purely relative  – is “Abre Los Ojos,” which is still a strong, pulsing, surging rocker but with a bit of a flair. When you aren’t singing the album-opening song’s “oh my god,” you’ll be singing this track’s “open your eyes.” In my opinion, the battle for catchiest song on this disc is a toss-up between “Oh My God” and “Abre Los Ojos.”

Love and a .38

photo courtesy of Head First Entertainment

There are other contenders, of course. If you like loud, straight-ahead screaming numbers without a lot of subtlety, “Big Leg Betty” does it best. “Holy War,” on the other hand, is loud rock with a monster guitar hook.

Raucous straight-ahead rocker “I Won’t Wait” brings back that catchy, singalong hook, providing texture to the disc, a bit of respite after a couple of balls-to-the-wall rock numbers. Then “Not Comin Home” rattles and shakes a bit.

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, “Born To Make Me Die” slows the pace and reveals a jangly, Old West gunfighter guitar sound. It’s not a ballad by any means, just a slower-paced power rocker with a different sonic feel.

The album wraps with “Get It Right,” a grizzled rocker that incorporates a variety of sounds heard elsewhere on Nomads, capturing a pure Love and a .38 sound.

When all is said and done, this is perhaps the freshest hard rock sound I’ve heard in a long time. If this is your genre and you’re not familiar with Love and a .38, resolve that immediately. Nomads will be one of your favorite albums this year.

Looking Ahead

Whenever a tour is announced, you will be able to see Love and a .38’s upcoming tour dates on its website.

Album Review: The Chapin Sisters – Today’s Not Yesterday

The Chapin Sisters

photo by Seth Thomas; photo courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

Album Review of The Chapin Sisters: Today’s Not Yesterday

The Chapin Sisters - Today's Not Yesterday

image courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

When you can’t decide if music is country or folk, it often fits the textbook definition of Americana. That’s the broadest, most general way to describe The Chapin Sisters. Digging deeper, the country is old-fashioned, harmonized country, while the folk is gentle, breezy, and tuneful. Most songs blend the two styles, rarely leaning too far one way or the other. The resulting sound is lush, sometimes wistful; it’s the sort of music you’d expect to hear in venues with the words “music hall” or “opera house” in their names, though only in the kind of country or small town opera house that more often hosts town dances than operas.

Today’s Not Yesterday introduces the Sisters’ harmonies immediately with “Autumn,” a melody that combines Lily’s and Abigail’s voices in perhaps the most haunting melody on the album.

The Chapin Sisters

photo courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

One of the cooler sounds The Chapin Sisters employ is a folk harmony and song structure atop country-style slide guitar and strumming. Like I said, Americana. But those harmonies are special. One song that delivers well on this promise is “Sleep In.” The wall of sound almost hints psychedelic, as if the song could have been a Woodstock favorite. Likewise, “There Will Be a Time For Us” has a similar style, with a catchier singalong chorus but more picking and less slide guitar.

“Love Come Back” is perhaps the most country song on the disc, and even it lyrically, stylistically hints a bit at folk-rock.

The Chapin Sisters

photo by Seth Thomas; photo courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

The Chapin Sisters have sometimes been compared to early ’70s soft rock acts, and I get that. For example, the catchy “Angeleno.” With its slide guitar and airy California-esque vibe, it really sounds like an Eagles tune. “Chasing the Rain” is stylistically similar, with perhaps a bit more of a psychedelic feel to it. This may well be my favorite track on Today’s Not Yesterday for its laid-back feel and rich, lush sound.

“We Will Not Stop” shows another interesting side of The Chapin Sisters’ songwriting; it’s a powerful, emotive, anthemic, ’70s folk-style protest song.

Overall, Today’s Not Yesterday is a great disc that centers on big harmonies-driven, ’70s folk rock-influenced modern Americana, with pleasant journeys toward each of those influences with a return ticket back from song to song. Regardless, the harmonies are special, the sound big enough to fill a music hall, and the 12-song disc a pleasant ride.

Album Review: Byron Nemeth – The Video Chronicles

Byron Nemeth – The Video Chronicles

Byron Nemeth

photo by Carmela’s Metal Life (https://www.facebook.com/carmelasmetallife); photo courtesy of Byron Nemeth

The Backstory

I’ve known Byron Nemeth for a couple decades, but I’m not sure how; we have, however, been on each other’s mailing lists for a very long time. Our connection is most likely tied to our presence in the Cleveland music scene in the mid-1990s. Byron was Cleveland-based at the time; I was an annual attendee and regional director (for parts of Michigan) at Undercurrents Music Conference in Cleveland.

For The Video Chronicles, Byron Nemeth (guitars) is joined by Mark Boals (vocals), Jeremy Colson (drums), and Philip Bynoe (bass), plus special guest pianist David Kole. Quite a pedigreed group of musicians – you can google their backgrounds if you’re curious.

EP Review of Byron Nemeth: The Video Chronicles

Byron Nemeth - The Video Chronicles

image courtesy of Byron Nemeth

This is ’70s-influenced ’80s heavy metal at its heaviest. The Black Sabbath/Dio influence is palpable. The musicianship on this album is exceptional, as should have been apparent simply by reading a list of those involved, but it’s a tightly-performed, impeccably-produced rock album with great songs.

The first of the four tracks, “A New Freedom,” drives hard, contains forceful axework, pounding drums, and a sort of soaring-but-sometimes-clipped vocal style that somewhat recalls Master of Puppets-era Metallica but with a little more overt classic metal influence.

“Everybody Knows” is another heavy rock track. This one has a solid, driving, engagingly rhythmic guitar line with rather playful runs that remind me a bit of earlier Y&T, while the tempo and vocal style are heavier metal in nature, though a bit more tunefully-oriented than in the opening song.

“Riding On the Flames” is Dio-esque in nature. No, Boals’ vocals don’t sound like RJD, but the soaring nature of them and of the plodding, powerful yet soft music are precisely what you’d expect from some a slower-paced Holy Diver-era song. Slow pace; lots of power.

Fourth and final track “Fight” is probably my favorite of the bunch. It’s a power-driven song, driven by its heavy, medium-paced drum and bass line, Mark Boals’ insistent medium-high level vocals (and controlled screams toward the end of the track), and the song’s signature, memorable, occasionally-repeated guitar riff. But it’s the solos and riffing in the long bridge that are something special in this song.

As a collection, The Video Chronicles is a great set of classic-style hard-rocking metal. For fans of that genre, this is a must-listen.

Looking Ahead

Byron is currently on tour as the guitarist of heavy metal band Kill Ritual. The Kill Ritual tour dates are currently listed on Byron’s website. Upcoming dates include: tonight, March 7, at The Loading Zone in Great Falls, MT; March 8 at Railyard Alehouse in Billings, MT; March 9 at The Garage in Moorhead, MN; March 10 at Every Buddy’s Bar in Chippewa Falls, WI; March 11 at The Elbo Room in Chicago, IL; March 12 at The Detroit Pub in Clinton, MI; March 14 at Chuck’s Steakhouse in Akron, OH; March 15 at 5th Quarter Lounge in Indianapolis, IN; March 16 at Firebird in St Louis, MO; March 17 at The Roxy in Overland Park, KS; March 18 at Seventh Circle in Denver, CO; March 19 at Phil’s Bar & Music Venue in Pueblo, CO; March 22 at Blooze Bar in Phoenix, AZ; March 24 at Count’s Vamp’d in Las Vegas, NV; and March 26 at The Other Place in Modesto, CA.