Album Review: Shelly Waters – Shelly Waters

Shelly Waters

photo by Jenn Cady; photo courtesy of Skye Media

Album Review of Shelly Waters: Shelly Waters

It doesn’t take long to recognize a classic country voice. That’s obvious from the initial listen to Shelly Waters.

After a budding early music career, starting as a pre-teen, life intervened in Shelly’s early twenties. But she has returned to music with a vengeance. On the heels of her critically acclaimed 2014 release Drive, Shelly followed it up with this summer’s new album, the self-titled Shelly Waters.

Shelly Waters - Shelly Waters

image courtesy of Skye Media

Shelly has a versatile voice that leans toward classic country a bit. Her songs come across with an honesty that draws upon her Louisiana roots. And the song selection and ordering on this disc provide a showcase of the breadth of country music ground she can ably cover and deliver a satisfying listening journey.

The first song on the new album wowed me right from the start. Indeed, when trying to attract fans (and reviewers), it’s good to lead with strength. And the initial guitar chords of “Drink the Water,” followed quickly by a classic country gravelly wail, signals the gritty country awesomeness of this disc within the first few seconds. Though she’s leading men rather than horses in this song, the title phrase provides a familiar point of reference for the emotional lyrics Shelly delivers with a bluesy country soulfulness.

The slow-to-mid-tempo opener is quickly followed by the uptempo “Red Hot Red,” an energetically rockin’ country boot-scooter.

Shelly Waters

photo by Brandon Scott; photo courtesy of Skye Media

Shelly showcases the mellow end of her musical spectrum with oh-so-slow, heartfelt ballad “Knew You When,” a tune on which her vocals almost seem to expose a crack in her emotional strength, aligning with the vocals in a way that suggests the singer would love to break down and cry but is maintaining strength. With the added emphasis of slide guitar twang, it’s primo old-fashioned country balladry.

And it’s followed immediately by the more energetic “Time for a Change,” another example of the song placement I referred to earlier. It’s why you listen to albums like Shelly’s in their entirety, beginning-to-end. There’s also some deft, well-placed guitar-picking in this number that helps bring a smile to the listener’s face while the tempo and arrangement suggests a train rolling down the tracks, signifying the unstoppable nature of the lyrics’ decision, whether it’s truly unstoppable or merely an attempt by the song’s subject to convince herself of it.

I’m also fond of the next song pairing. First up is a countrified cover of “Red Red Wine,” full of slow, soulful mellowness. It’s not the “red” but, instead, the “blue, blue heart” from that song that ties nicely into “Nothing Bluer,” another blue tune that, if anything, ratchets up the sadness on the country blues meter. Though, contrary to the song title, it’s an old-fashioned country crooner that’s bursting with Opry and devoid of Bourbon Street.

Shelly Waters

photo by Jenn Cady; photo courtesy of Skye Media

The rest of the album continues showcasing Shelly’s talent and versatility. While I could touch on a distinctly original point within each of the songs, I’ll mention just two more by name.

“My First Car” could be a modern country hit, in large part because such cleverness often strikes a chord with current country music fans. Though there’s a throwback nature to this song (if not for the gender-specific lyrics, I’d say it sounds like it was written specifically for Marty Stuart), lines like “country girl with a little bit of luck/my first car was a truck” sounds like it could be a companion number to Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” either on the radio or on a cover band’s set list. Oh, they’re not stylistically similar, but the two songs share a symbiotic attitude.

And album-ender “Louisiana Rain” serves as an ideal finale. It twangs sentimentally, coming across with an honesty that can probably only come from a genuine Louisiana girl like Shelly. And such honesty is a great way to close a disc.

Shelly Waters

photo by Jen Morley; photo courtesy of Skye Media

I’m glad this disc found its way onto my radar. There’s nothing groundbreaking about Shelly Waters’ self-titled sophomore effort, but it is an emotionally satisfying, exceptionally well-written and performed country music journey, and that’s one of the main reasons we all listen to music, isn’t it? Shelly’s music is more classic than new country, though in the end it’s probably best described as timeless country. If you’re a fan of this kind of country music, then Shelly Waters should be part of your collection, one of your 2017 country music album acquisitions.

Looking Ahead

Shelly’s website lists a couple upcoming shows, both in Portland, Maine. Tomorrow night, September 9th, Shelly will be at Andy’s Old Port Pub. And on October 18th, she’ll be at The Dogfish Bar & Grille. Keep an eye on her website for additional dates as they’re added. I’ll be checking back regularly to see when she next makes her way down to Boston.

EP Review: Paola Bennet – The Shoebox EP

Paola Bennet

photo by Christine Florence Photography; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

The Backstory

I discovered Paola Bennet‘s music about three years ago. I was impressed by many of her songs, covers and originals, but it was actually her very original interpretation of Natalia Kills’ “Problem,” a song that she made her own musically, that hooked me on her music. When I started this Blog, Paola was on my list of amazing artists I wanted to tell the world about – yes, I made a list, and I’ve reviewed about 75% of the artists on that list so far – so when I noticed she had released The Shoebox EP, I reached out to her to offer to review it.

EP Review of Paola Bennet: The Shoebox EP

That voice. That hauntingly angelic voice. It conveys so much emotion – such a broad, nuanced range of emotion – all while seeming wispy and thin, yet subtly rich and full of power. Fragile power.

Paola Bennet - The Shoebox EP

cover photo by Christine Florence Photography; image courtesy of Paola Bennet

The music is rather ethereal but more directionally focused that most other music that’s so light and airy, with a soft guitar unobtrusively but very clearly driving the songs along their prescribed routes, beginning to end. And Paola’s voice, while it seems so often that she’s speaking softly, almost whispering in your ear, is firmer than other such soft vocals and shows strength and power when required. Indeed, when describing why Paola Bennet stands out as being exceptional compared to similar artists, it’s these ways in which she’s uniquely “more” that are surely the answer.

“Antidote” opens the album with Paola’s strength, that softly spoken, emotive vocal combining with lightly plucked guitar, as the song slowly builds. The seeming softness of the vocal causes the listener to lean into the song, paying attention to the details, the moaning guitar augmenting the plucked rhythm, the precise, slightly layered vocals building through the verses to the chorus. And the payoff lyric: “I am the poison/Where is my antidote.” It’s a pleasantly structured song, one that quickly grows into a favorite, but the key is always Paola’s voice, simultaneously familiar yet spectacularly unique. Because of “Antidote”‘s many special musical and songwriting elements and the way it truly features Paola’s voice, this is most often my favorite song on this disc, but that designation changes among these songs from day to day, as all four of the EP’s tracks grace my selective personal playlist.

Paola Bennet

photo by Christine Florence Photography; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

“Who I Can’t Have” follows, again beginning as if Paola is sharing a secret, just between friends. As it builds, this track develops into something a bit more likely to find a home commercially. It’s songs like this that make me wish there were a larger-audience commercial outlet for music whose tempo is this slow, with rich strings adding a warmth to the song, perhaps turning the song from sad to melancholy as a result. It’s a perfect song for a playlist, though, to share with friends who’ll marvel at how a wonderful song like this hasn’t already become an everyday music staple. And it’s ideal for a live performance. The sort of song that’s likely to make a large room feel intimate. Actually, though, that’s true of everything Paola performs. With songs like this, the best recommendation is to “just give it a listen” and allow the song to win over receptive ears. For new potential fans, this may be the best introductory song among The Shoebox EP‘s four.

Paola Bennet

photo by Christine Florence Photography; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

“September” is another of those tunes in which the singer seems to be sharing an intimate secret, directed primarily to the object of her emotional anguish, penned therefore in the way one might write a diary entry. The supplemental “there’s always one” vocal line is an important element in the build to finish, though my favorite lyric in this track comes in the chorus, “Darling, you’re an open wound.”

“Morning” is an ideal closing track to this all-too-short four-song collection, and it always makes me question if I’m really right about which song is the best introduction to Paola Bennet. There’s more breathiness in Paola’s vocals in this track than in the others, and perhaps in some ways a broader appeal, though I’ll still stand by “Who I Can’t Have” as featuring more of the elements of Paola’s voice that showcase how she’s uniquely different from other singers. Still, “Morning” is another very special tune. It starts off subtly, slowly builds, and then fades. From a song-order perspective, I love when the last song fades like this; it feels like the end of a collection.

Paola Bennet

photo by Christine Florence Photography; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

In all, four songs seem too few when they’re this good, but all four on The Shoebox EP are so exceptional that they’re all now part of my personal playlist, the rather select group of songs I carry with me everywhere I go. There’s nary a weak link on this EP, so I truly have no complaints. Nor will you have any complaints if you give Paola’s music a listen. She’s a talented singer-songwriter-guitarist with a subtly original voice through which she’s uniquely able to connect to listeners via very personal songs. I’d suggest there’s room for this music in almost anyone’s collection, regardless of your primary musical taste.

Looking Ahead

Though her third EP overall, The Shoebox EP is Paola’s first studio release, and I hope it’s the first of many. She’s a New York-based artist, but I’ll be watching her Facebook page and the “shows” section of her website hoping she’ll perform in Boston sometime soon. New Yorkers, however, needn’t wait long to catch a live gig. Paola is performing Saturday night, September 9th, at Kitty Kiernans in Brooklyn. (Free admission, even, so go. Enjoy. Thank me later.)

Album Review: The Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League – Masquerade

 

The Gentlemen's Anti-Temperance League

photo courtesy of The Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League

Album Review of The Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League: Masquerade

Speakeasies. Prohibition-era jazz clubs. Juke joints. That’s at least the music at the root of The Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League‘s sound. It’s jazzy swing music, the stuff you’d dance to in a club full of mobsters in black-and-white movie-era Chicago.

It’s really more complicated than that, though. Even within the album, the styles vary. Much of the disc is smooth and flowing, but the songs toward the end are increasingly harsh and edgy. Of course, if you read this Blog much, you’ll know I love artists whose music explores a breadth of musical territory while staying true to their own, identifiable styles. And The GATL does that, quite impressively.

The Gentlemen's Anti-Temperance League - Masquerade

image courtesy of The Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League

Kellie Reichert’s voice is noticeably versatile, ranging from sugary sweet to smooth to harshly cold. Musically, songs are led by different instruments, with violin and horns playing key roles in at least a couple of my favorites. Each song has a vibe all its own, though, so here are my thoughts on each of Masquerade‘s eight tracks.

The collection kicks off with “Prologomenon,” a smoky jazz club number that’s simultaneously smooth and anguished, musically led forward by the acoustic guitar with the other instruments’ minor solos adding texture. Indeed, I’ve just described your standard gypsy jazz song, so I should probably focus instead on the smooth exchanges and seamless interplay among the musicians, in and around the vocals. So let’s just pretend that was the focus of this paragraph.

Next up is “Pete’s Bossa,” my initial favorite song on the disc. Indeed, it remains one of my favorites; notably, though, it was the first to jump off the disc at me. This song is memorable for its prominent use of horns, though upon closer listen both the acoustic guitar and violin play prominent roles.

The Gentlemen's Anti-Temperance League

photo courtesy of The Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League

“Oh! (What a Senseless Affair)” features musical stops that place focus on key vocal phrases; very cool. The result is a song that would be exceptional music to play while enjoying a romantic dinner at a dimly-lit supper club, except that everyone in the club would likely stop, turn, and look at the stage during those dramatically focused vocal moments. I suppose that’s not a real-life scenario, but it’s certainly what would happen in the music video I’d direct for this song. Lyrically, this has one of the several memorable lines on the album – and y’all know how I’m a sucker for interesting lyrics – “Be kind to yourself and everyone else/Or live on your own in a personal hell.”

The lyrical cleverness continues in the next song, the title track, “Masquerade.” The song that eventually grew into my personal favorite on this disc starts early with phrases like “even the sycophants are sick of me” and progresses to deft interweaving of alternate definitions of “sweet.” But, of course, lyrics alone aren’t enough to make a song really stand out. Instrumental builds to power, emotional vocal wails, and a song structure that lets musical jamming run somewhat freely but contains it within a song structure that allows the music to follow the lyrical journey – that’s the combination of features taht allows “Masquerade” to eventually rise to the top.

The Gentlemen's Anti-Temperance League

photo courtesy of The Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League

“Those Meddling Kids” begins the slightly harsher second half of the album. A little “Peter Gunn Theme” flavor, stemming from a combination of horns and plucked strings, provides the drama, while next-man-up style instrumental solos provide some welcome swing. And I suppose the song title suggests a little Scooby Doo in there, too. Or, at least, that was my first impression.

“Gone Tomorrow” brings to mind a movie scene of a love story about to go horribly wrong. If a montage scene were necessary, this would be its portion of the soundtrack. It would probably be Prohibition-era. One of the young lovers would be an upstanding citizen; the other would long for that world but be inescapably tied to organized crime. Or perhaps it would simply be the story of a single night, with the closing lyrics of “stay here tonight/but then swear you’ll go” lingering in the air as the camera faded to black.

The Gentlemen's Anti-Temperance League

photo courtesy of The Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League

The disc closes with two songs showcasing the darkest of the band’s dark side. First up, “In Vino Veritas” maintains a dangerous tension throughout. Again thinking of song placement in film, this would play where everything fell apart, perhaps where everything was beginning to slip away from our downtrodden hero, as his attempt to game the system began to fall apart and an untimely, tragic end was about to befall him at the hands of the gangsters he was trying to swindle. Or maybe, if you lack imagination and stick strictly to the lyrics, it’s just a song about being troubled and drinking too hard.

Masquerade‘s final track, “Sam Dawes,” is likely to be a popular favorite. It’s a New Orleans jazz-themed song along the lines of “Devil Went Down to Georgia” but with a unique, Bedazzled-ish twist. This energetic, fast-paced number is a great way to end The GATL’s 8-song collection, and it’s likely a fitting ending to one of the band’s concerts, as even listening to this song (let alone attempting to dance to it) leaves the listener contentedly exhausted.

In the end, this is an original, enjoyable collection of songs from a tight, talented, Minneapolis-based gypsy jazz and swing outfit, and it’s a welcome addition to my music collection.

Looking Ahead

A quick perusal of the “shows” page of The Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League’s website reveals a busy schedule in Minnesota and Wisconsin. A glance at the band’s Facebook page can also offer clues to upcoming gigs.

EP Review: Valerie Orth – Wake You

Valerie Orth

photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

EP Review of Valerie Orth: Wake You

If you’ve seen my review of Valerie Orth’s prior album or have seen the Geoff Wilbur’s Music Blog Facebook posts (like this one) urging you to attend some of her shows, you already know I think Valerie is a transcendent musical talent.

At her core, Valerie Orth is an electric guitar-wielding rock ‘n roll singer-songwriter. And as much as she dabbles in other musical genres and production techniques, blending their styles with her own, sometimes treading lightly and at other times diving all-in, her musical explorations are those of a versatile rock artist. As such, she’s doing what famous musicians like David Bowie, Prince, Sting, and others have done, taking her song-driven rock ‘n roll approach to other genres, even as she fully embraces those other styles, producing unique, original music worth exploring.

Valerie Orth - Wake You

image courtesy of Valerie Orth

For Wake You, Valerie experimented with new musical approaches, creating her own beats, using all the tools available to a devoted studio rat, delivering an avant-garde, beat-driven alt-pop/rock/more album that carries her stylistic stamp into a new musical landscape.

This album brings forth easy comparisons to Dayton, Ohio’s iconic rock legend Jayne Sachs. (Are people our age old enough to be iconic yet, Jayne? If so, I want to be called an iconic rock journalist.) Vocally, I never previously realized the obvious comparison, though now I can’t miss it. The tone, the edginess, and the ability to reach listeners emotionally with a lyric.

Valerie kicks off Wake You with “Call You My Own,” a song whose beat lurches smoothly forward, purposeful advancement carefully obscured by an almost falling-forward feel to its rhythm. Atop that beat, Valerie serves a light pop lyrical snack, sung sweetly both across and along the beat.

Valerie Orth

photo by Gina Garcia; photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

Next up, Valerie presents “Pixie,” one of my two favorites on the EP, though Wake You sports nary a weak spot. “Pixie” deploys a pattern of beat-to-melody, repeatedly building the song’s hook, connected by rhythmic bridges and cheerfully clever lyrics. This song’s simplicity is a ruse perpetrated by its effortless intricacy. It’s worth repeating; Valerie Orth is a master musician and performer.

“Love You Back” is also a beat-driven, light pop song, this one featuring a bridge that hints at hauntedness. And again with the clever lyrics, a key to my heart because I’m (usually, at least) a lyric guy. It’s followed by “Side By Side,” a song whose verses are a tad off-balance, lurching a bit like “Call You My Own” did, flowing into smoother choruses.

Valerie Orth

photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

Valerie closes Wake You with “Make Your Move,” my other favorite song in this all-too-brief collection, a track that showcases her sweet, crystal-clear, carefully controlled yet emotionally powerful voice. Even though it’s more of a synthesized pop song, it’s structured and feels like a rock song. Elements of ’80s mellow-ish synth-pop-rock, with that heavier sound (more of an album track or concert favorite from the time than a hit), are probably responsible for that rock atmosphere. Song-structure and lyrics are doubly important in such a song, and the brief transitions from verses to chorus seem a bit haunted. Altogether, they almost seem like the sort of song you’d hear from a top DJ. With Valerie, of course, being the exceptionally talented guest musician.

In the months before this release, I knew Valerie was experimenting with beat-making, aware she planned to release an album that took musical risks, but well aware from her previous work that she was musically capable. Still, when one of my favorite guitar-slingers made it clear guitars were not going to feature as prominently on her next release, I was a little trepidatious. But, yeah, Bowie, Prince, Sting… Valerie Orth is a musician. An arranger. A songwriter. And even beyond this EP, she seems to be exploring deeper down her current musicmaking path, with presumably more surprises in the offing, most recently an electronically experimental, uniqely original cover of Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” Worry not, though, that Valerie experiments and tests her limits musically. Worry only if she ever stops.