Album Review: GunHill – Nightheat/One Over the Eight

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of GunHill: Nightheat/One Over the Eight (JLB Media)

Here is a “two-fer” of some ’90s rock that may have slipped by your musical radar completely. Fronted by ex-Uriah Heep and long-time Lucifer’s Friend vocalist John Lawton, these rare slices of British vinyl are presented here for the first time as a double CD. One Over the Eight was released in 1995 and the out-of-print Nightheat came out in 1997. Both albums reflect the times in terms of production and song styles but received a modern up-to-date sheen that gives each a very relevant and radio-ready sound.

Gunhill: Nightheat & One Over the Eight

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

One Over the Eight is a nice overview of originals and covers that define classic rock and soul. Lawton is a singer’s singer and draws a line in the sand from the get-go with a deep cut by Whitesnake called “Walking in the Shadow of the Blues.” That’s followed by a passable, yet effective take on Lennon/McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby.” The covers keep on coming strong, with a soulful showcase for Lawton’s voice on Bill Wither’s “Aint’ No Sunshine.” Guitarist Riki Robyns’ slightly metallic tone digs deep into cuts like “Better By You, Better Than Me” and Rainbow’s “Stone Cold.” They also write some fairly strong ballads as well on tracks like the ethereal “Angel.” All in all, this particular release comes off like a band that cut its teeth on the pub rather than arena or concert circuit.

Nightheat bumps things up a notch or two, with more effective production as well as songwriting. The band kicks this one off appropriately with an up-tempo rocker by Lawton called “Don’t Stop Believing.” Bad Company’s “Ready for Love” follows and is certainly in their wheelhouse of moody and hook-filled classic rock. “Nobody Loves You the Way I Do” is dramatic in a John Waite/Paul Rodgers/David Coverdale kind of way. Rousing rockers like “Don’t Look Back” and “Any Day Now” are nice blends of heavy rock and hook-filled soul. Also, one would be remiss not to mention Lawton’s brilliant and heart-wrenching take on the perennial “When a Man Loves a Woman.” He sings the you-know-what out of that song!

If you’re looking for real rock and roll that delivers a good balance of strong originals and quality covers, you would be well-served to check out this two album compilation. Understandably, GunHill may be a name that, for decades, has been only familiar to European audiences, but now everyone can enjoy these gems of really fine British rock that still resonate and hold up under modern digital scrutiny.

Album Review: Ava Wolfe – Casablanca

Album Review of Ava Wolfe: Casablanca

blank CD

Blank CD; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ava Wolfe describes this as a “pop noir” album on her SoundCloud page, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t come up with a better description. Ava’s voice is soft, sensual, sexy, and powerful, and the songs upon which she drips her dangerously delivered lyrics are those you’d expect to hear in a way-too-cool lounge that would be a modern-day descendant of Rick’s. Add the occasionally old movie audio clip, and I really can’t improve upon the term “pop noir.” The hook-laden album in all its black-and-whiteness is deliciously enticing.

It doesn’t hurt that Ava kicks Casablanca: The Album off with “xkss,” an alluring, terribly original-sounding attention-grabber. Why is this song unforgettable? It could be the slowly building, subtly dominant rhythm. It might be the oh-so-cleverly-utilized audio clips, from Casablanca to a judiciously positioned segment from Le Mans, an exceptional clip I couldn’t quite place at first. There are a lot of well-placed elements in this song, but it wouldn’t come together this spectacularly without Ava’s sultry, precise delivery. The first early release from Ava’s Casablanca album last year, “xkss” is the song that hooked me and the reason I began following Ava’s music.

Beginning to end, as you listen to this CD – especially the first few times through as you grow accustomed to the music – you realize you’re listening to something special, though you can’t quite put your finger on why. There’s something coolly seductive about Ava’s music. Much of it resides in her sensually powerful vocals, but the music and arrangements are attention-grabbingly unique, a modern sound drenched in nostalgia for something that never quite existed as it’s being presented. In the end, you’re drawn to the Ava’s songs even though you can’t help feeling as if they’re perhaps just a little too cool for you to comprehend. In any case, it’s an exceptional performance from an true pop music artist… a star who isn’t famous yet.

Indeed, it’s hard to decide which songs to highlight, as the album Casablanca itself is a work of art. The brash coldness of “cool” is a powerful, moving number that’s almost ambient at times. “m.a.f.i.a. land” adds just a dash of hip-hop to its stripped-down vibe, the song’s music sporting the bare-bones frame of a dance number, employing rhythm but at a mellower tempo. And “sapphires” is a glamorous number, with orchestration supporting a piano-esque keyboard line behind Ava’s richly breathless vocals; the delivery suggests it could only be sung by a “jewel-covered pop goddess.” And those are just the first four tracks from this 10-song collection.

I have other favorites on Casablanca, too. “jazz baby,” for example. It’s perhaps the most pop-accessible song on the disc. Ava’s vocals are sweet and rich; along with an almost folky guitar, they’re stretched across a warm string bed. The song builds and soars. The tempo changes a bit. And then the song ends abruptly; because on Casablanca, every song must be coolly different in at least one way.

“bordeaux” is a richly-sung number that gives the feeling of a jet-setting drive through the French countryside in a convertible. An Aston Martin perhaps. Or an MG. With a gorgeous, educated, seductively (that word again!) playful woman in the passenger seat. Scarf flapping in the wind. Something straight out of an old James Bond movie. Or more likely a less obvious film, one whose semi-obscurity would require a true film buff to recognize. It’s not the only song on the album that hints at that imagery, but it’s strongest with “bordeaux.”

Other favorites include “come on,” “my man (mon homme),” and the album-closer, “wheels up,” a softly brooding number, again almost ambient at times but with soaringly half-whispered, pop star-caliber vocals from Ava. And, remaining true to the style and ambiance of the entire album to the final note, “wheels up” ends by fading to black.

Ava Wolfe is a pop artist. A unique talent with a vision. And her vision, Casablanca, is a truly special collection of music.

Album Review: Lucifer’s Friend – Too Late to Hate

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Lucifer’s Friend: Too Late to Hate (Lucifer’s Records)

Many music fans worldwide will be happy with the release of this new studio album by German/British band Lucifer’s Friend. This is, perhaps, “breaking news,” as they say, because it’s been 36 years since the band’s last release Mean Machine in 1981. Lucifer’s Friend began in 1970 and has gone through a number of stylistic and personnel changes. But original core members vocalist John Lawton, guitarist/keyboardist Peter Hesslein, and bassist Dieter Horns are back at the helm to deliver an album packed with raw rock and roll dynamite.

Lucifer’s Friend: Too Late to Hate

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Now when a number of “classic” bands of the past decides to reform it seems like they’ve returned to the scene for a major payday or some ulterior motive. Often there may be only one original member from the band’s “glory” days, and an album or series of live performances is just an excuse to cash in on a retread of the “hits.” Well, that is certainly not the case here! These veteran musicians came to play and have released an album of totally new and original material that is strong and truly makes a statement. Lucifer’s Friend is one of the original hard rock and progressive bands from the ’70s and brings that ample volume of experience and expertise to the proceedings here. Right out of the gate, “Demolition Man” revs on all cylinders, with a driving force and uptempo vibe that won’t be denied. The spirit of Deep Purple and Whitesnake combined fuel the following track, “Jokers and Fools.” They lay off the accelerator a tad for the ballad “When Children Cry” but pick the pace right back up for the heavy-hitting “Straight for the Heart.” A little down the list, “Don’t Talk to Strangers” features a well-constructed chorus and huge guitar riffs by Hesslein. And when you have such a charismatic and brilliantly melodic singer as Lawton in the mix, blues rockers like “This Time” and “Sea of Promises” just flow like butter.

This is contemporary hard rock that may have eluded your radar screen in the past. But if you’re looking for something fresh on the music scene, you can’t go wrong here.

Album Review: Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli – Lifted

Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli

photo by Shannon Power; photo courtesy of Lori Diamond

Lofi Diamond & Fred Abatelli – Lifted

Album Review of Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli: Lifted

Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli - Lifted

image courtesy of Lori Diamond

There aren’t a lot of artists performing an easy listening folk style the way Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli do. Lori’s full, rich, soaring voice combines with Fred’s adept, softly energetic and colorful guitarwork to put an original, engaging spin on a style that’s not lately been a significant destination for such talented artists. As a result, Lori and Fred are a dominant local force in this lane of the musical highway, and their well-crafted albums – Lifted the latest – are necessities for a well-rounded music collection. After numerous near misses, I finally caught the duo live this past fall, and now I’m pleased to review their most recent (2015) release.

This album begins with “Always There,” a soft, soaring, keyboard-powered number that features a blend of Lori and Fred’s vocals in support of Lori’s vocal lead.

Lori Diamond

photo by Nikilette Walker; photo courtesy of Lori Diamond

Influences are all pretty straightforward throughout the album – folk, soft rock, easy listening – but other influences pop up from time to time. There’s a little soul in Lori’s voice in second track “Way Back Home,” which otherwise comes across as a ’70s-style vocal soft pop tune. Indeed, many of the songs might have connected with more mainstream audiences in the ’70s, as that’s when vocal soft pop was at its pinnacle within pop culture. As is the case with all musical styles, though, there’s always room for the best in any genre, especially when they keep things modern and interesting. Great music is timeless.

Back to the album, though, the next track “Dreaming” picks up the tempo a bit, adding playful and jazzy elements.

Fred’s vocals take the lead on the title track, “Lifted,” a heartwarming love song that sums up the heart of this album, its warmth almost suspending time as it washes over the listener. This comfortable, uplifting warmth, in fact, is a hallmark of Fred & Lori’s music, fitting well with the duo’s personalities in a live setting.

Fred Abatelli

photo by Nikilette Walker; photo courtesy of Lori Diamond

“The Outside” follows with a bit more energy again, its path guided by Fred’s subtly adept guitarwork, easy to miss behind Lori’s softly dynamic vocals and the song’s message of inner vs. outer beauty.

“Good Harbor” is another soft song, with the richness of Lori’s voice in lead, supported by Fred’s, driving a song that’s clearly about a very special place. It’s followed by “Castle,” perhaps my favorite song on this disc, whose piano lead-in and late-song ivory-tickling combine with soaring vocals, ranging from rich power to softness, to weave an interesting, softly dynamic path.

“Wayfaring Stranger” is the only cover on the disc. It’s a full-on ’70s cocktail lounge-shaking number, showcasing Lori’s only serious vocal wails within this collection and featuring fancy Western-flavored, smooth axework from Fred. This original, inspired rendition is an adult contemporary musical masterwork.

Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli

photo by Nikilette Walker; photo courtesy of Lori Diamond

The album closes softly again with “OM,” a peace and love-inspiring, warm, rich number. It’s the perfect choice to end a Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli CD, as if the album rides off into the sunset leaving the listener surrounded by warmth. And there’s that word again. Warmth. That’s at the essence of Lori & Fred’s music on Lifted, warmth… delivered with care by a duo of exceptionally talented musicians.

Looking Ahead

Keep an eye on the tour page of Lori and Fred’s website to see when they’ll be performing near you. There are currently several dates listed around Massachusetts in the next few months.

Album Review: Arjen Anthony Lucassen – Strange Hobby

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Arjen Anthony Lucassen: Strange Hobby (Cherry Red Records)

Arjen Anthony Lucassen is a Dutch progressive rock singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and producer who, among other things, fronts the band Ayreon. This long out of print solo album was originally recorded in 1996 as, more or less, a fluke. In Lucassen’s words, “Back in 1996 I had so much fun recording Strange Hobby! It was great to take a break from recording my complex, bombastic Ayreon prog-extravaganzas and blow off some steam blasting out these rocky cover versions of my favorite songs from the sixties.”

Arjen Anthony Luccassen: Strange Hobby

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

This is a “solo” album in the truest sense of that word. All vocals and sounds heard among the 22 tracks here were created by Lucassen. And, whether you grew up in the era of the ‘60s or not, this is just a really fun ride! This is a pretty comprehensive collection that spans the gamut from top hits by Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Beatles, Status Quo, The Beach Boys, The Box Tops, Marc Bolan, etc. Lucassen’s take on opening tracks like Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne” or Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” not only display a deep knowledge of ‘60s culture, but it’s a testament to his immense skills as a producer and performer. His vocals are spot on and his ability to shift various textures and moods to suit each song is impressive. Also included are deep cuts like Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” The Move’s “Flowers in the Rain,” and The Beatles’ “For No One.” Fans familiar with Lucassen’s prog rock work will probably be shocked as he does not take too many improvisational liberties and stays somewhat faithful to the original artist renditions. However, each track bears a strong 360 degree dimensional feel that really immerses the listener and draws you in. The vocals are enveloping and angelic and the guitars/keyboard effects are prominent and will saturate your senses.

You will find yourself singing along to each track and jamming air guitar for sure as well. Since Lucassen had such a blast creating this project, here’s hoping Strange Hobby, Vol. 2 might be a not too distant consideration!

Live Review: Caisy Falzone at Pianos

Caisy Falzone

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Caisy Falzone

Pianos, New York, NY

February 11, 2017

Backstory

Occasionally, I day-trip to New York. Typically, I hit a museum or two, visit a couple restaurants, walk around the city a bit, and catch a little live music.

Caisy Falzone

photo by Geoff Wilbur

There were a couple bands performing on Saturday night who I’ve reviewed before and would have gone to see if it had been possible. But Amy and the Engine, whose album I reviewed last year, was taking the stage at the Bitter End a little too late for me to make it to the show and still catch my train home. Project Grand Slam, whose album I reviewed last year, was performing at Sugar Bar; I’d’ve probably attended their gig, but I didn’t know about the show until I saw the band’s Facebook posts after it was over. I did, however, search show listings and sample several artists’ music in the day or two before my visit, and a listen to Caisy Falzone’s Your Time EP convinced me I’d almost certainly enjoy her live performance. So I made my way into Pianos early Saturday evening relatively sure I’d enjoy Caisy’s set before it even began.

Caisy Falzone

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Show

Performing solo with just a voice and a guitar, Caisy Falzone sings charmingly catchy, stripped-down, singer-songwriter pop-rock. In addition to an inherent vocal sweetness, Caisy infuses her songs with emotion at times via a somewhat uniquely hoarse delivery style, something she uses coolly effectively where many singers might instead lean on vocal gravel. It, when combined with her engaging stage presence and strong songwriting and wisely-selected cover song selection, provides Caisy with a memorable calling card in an otherwise relatively crowded sub-genre.

Caisy Falzone

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Caisy opened the evening with “I Feel You Look At Me” (note: my song title accuracy may vary), immediately charming the audience with sweet, echoing, atmospheric vocals. She followed it with a song that’s more of a strummer (“Almost There”?), one on which she showcases a typically singer-songwriter styled rhythmic vocal emphasis.

Caisy Falzone

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Caisy next served up her version of Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me.” She nailed it, leaning particularly effectively on her hoarsely emotional vocal delivery for this one. It was followed by a new, untitled pop song which was, yes, more pure radio pop styled but still clearly stylistically Caisy.

On “Hold Me Down,” from the Your Time EP, Caisy down a steady, strumming rhythm, with her voice cracking compellingly in the emotional spots. She followed with a cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic”; in this case, the emotion was drawn directly from the song, as Caisy clearly connects with this classic guitar-pop rock hit.

Next up was “Say”(?), an “old song,” Caisy noted, from her acoustic duo past. This song explored the more ethereal end of Caisy’s vocal delivery, complementing it with particularly emphatic strumming.

Caisy Falzone

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Her rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” was engaging and almost innocent-sounding. Worth mentioning is the original way in which Caisy delivered these vocals, seeming to round the vowels a bit, resulting in a unique vibe and memorable performance of this often-covered tune.

Caisy closed her set with “Drift,” another track from her latest EP. On this she employed a persistently hoarse vocal delivery, rhythmically rising and falling in power, combined with a simple-but-effective, interesting guitar rhythm.

Indeed, this set was a great way to cap a day in New York. Caisy’s musical toolbox isn’t notably exceptional, but she mixes and matches her tools effectively. An evening at one of her shows seems to be a guaranteed enjoyable time, and I look forward to hearing how she utilizes her skills and builds upon her song catalog as her career advances.

 

Album Review: Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Familia

Sophie Ellis-Bextor

photo by Sophie Muller; photo courtesy of Reybee, Inc.

Album Review of Sophie Ellis-Bextor: Familia

British pop music. You know what it sounds like. And when it’s done well, there’s nothing quite like it. Sophie Ellis-Bextor hits that mid-tempo British pop sweet spot. On Familia, there are a few songs that might hit the dance floor, and maybe a song or two that qualifies as a ballad, but the disc is dominated by songs whose tempos fall in-between where they’re best-suited to be radio and concert favorites.

American audiences may not be familiar with Sophie, but she’s well-known in the UK. And, while I’m professing ignorance, I am pretty sure I’ve heard and enjoyed “Murder on the Dance Floor” before. (Seriously, click that link; both the song and the video are worth a look if you’ve not seen and heard them before.) That was an early hit for Sophie from Read My Lips, her 2001 solo debut after leaving her role as frontwoman of theaudience. While she spent much of her solo career in the electro-pop dance subgenre, then surprised her fans with a baroque chamber pop release (Wanderlust) that dropped in 2014, her most recent before Familia, I’ve not followed her career closely, so I’m coming in with a fresh set of ears. And while I do hear the Latin influence in this disc, and I’ll point it out in a couple spots during this review, Familia still fits my expectations of a British pop star’s release. “Star” is an important word there, as where a typical pop singer would hew tightly to a stereotypical pop style, I’d expect a pop star to mix in new influences and try different things on each album to keep her music fresh; this is something Sophie ably accomplishes in Familia.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor - Familia

image courtesy of Reybee, Inc.

I’m afraid I’ve ruined the suspense; I adore this album. It’s a genre I wouldn’t ordinarily gravitate toward, but when done well like this, it can be special. I hear elements of Bananarama in here, a bit of Wham!, elements of Simple Minds (notably, a “Don’t You…”-ish tempo in at least one spot), and perhaps a hint of Duffy or Geri Halliwell but with a richer, fuller tone. Familia shows Sophie Ellis-Bextor deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with all of those stars. Indeed, the hardest part of writing this review is deciding which songs to highlight, since there’s barely a weak link in the collection.

Familia kicks off with one a dance floor-ready offering, “Wild Forever,” whose electronic opening hints at something this record is not, as this catchy tune is the closest Familia comes to electronic dance-pop. As the song progresses, instruments and voice soar, crash, and boom; that’s more accurate foreshadowing.

Another of the dance club-ready tracks is the energetic, catchy “Come With Us.” If you listen past the vocals and beat, you’ll hear the subtle musical hook that makes it memorable and some darker-than-expected lyrics. That’s what elevates the best pop music and makes it unforgettable; it’s the attention to detail. This, by the way, is the song that brought to mind Wham!

The “balladic” section of the record begins with the not-quite-a-ballad “Death of Love”; certainly, we’d be willing to slow-dance to it. The music soars and emphasizes a sweet, soft spot in Sophie’s voice. It’s followed by “Crystallise,” a sweet, soft, slow song that really is a true ballad.

While the Latin American influence shows itself in several songs on Familia, it’s most apparent on the terrifically engaging “Unrequited,” with a Latin rhythm that recalls old Western TV and movies, though Sophie’s warm, rich vocals and the warmth of the strings aren’t something you’d find on a lo-fi old movie soundtrack. And it’s there a bit on “Hush Little Voices,” appearing periodically around the slightly quivering vocal and flowing, swaying strings of this twisted lullaby.

Most of the rest of the disc resides primarily in that British-pop-star zone I referenced above. The lush orchestration and powerful, adeptly smooth, strong, and versatile vocals just beg for chart-topping status.

My favorite may be “Here Comes the Rapture,” with strings supporting Sophie’s uniquely strong vocals, vocals that smoothly navigate rich medium-lows and sweet, soaring highs, occasionally throwing in a bit of rasp, though only selectively. This is one of those songs that elicits an involuntary reach to increase the stereo volume from its first notes.

Deftly incorporating a somewhat electro-pop musical element from its opening, “The Saddest Happiness,” another personal favorite, combines flowing strings with a hauntingly slightly-quavering vocal to produce a quintessentially melancholy pop sound that’s only occasionally found on pop albums, probably because it’s hard to pull off this well.

Sophie ends the disc with another number that shows her versatility and relies on the power of her vocal highs, “Don’t Shy Away.” Though there’s nary a weak spot on the disc, it ends with strength. Such strength that it’s hard to remove Familia from the CD player as it ends; typically, I just let it repeat and start again from the beginning.

There are a few British pop stars who beg the question “Why isn’t this person huge in the States, too?” Robbie Williams comes to mind. Add Sophie Ellis-Bextor to that list. And get your hands on this album. Perhaps snag a bit of Sophie’s back catalog, as well.