Album Review: Annie Brobst – Where We Holler

Annie Brobst

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Album Review of Annie Brobst: Where We Holler

I reckon y’all know we’re big fans of Annie Brobst here at the Blog. From Eric Harabadian’s review of her debut album, My First Rodeo, to my coverage of her appearances at both Behind the Songs events and all three Local CountryFests, we’ve mentioned Annie’s name a lot. When she’s performing live, Annie owns the stage and the audience. She’s a big-stage-caliber country artist. And she’s proven to be a talented recording artist with songs that cover a broad swath of country music real estate.

Annie Brobst - Where We Holler

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Annie has a sweet, high voice that can be near-angelic on the slow songs, and she has an extra gear (or two or three) when she swings for the higher-tempo fences. The most frequent comparison for Annie vocals are to Miranda Lambert, all the way down to the puckishness in her delivery, though at times she amps it up to Dolly Parton-level mischievousness.

I’ll start my review with the biggest party song on Where We Holler, the sort-of title song “Holler & Swaller.” Long a drinking mantra at Annie Brobst concerts, this is the song behind the holler and swaller shouts (and shots) fired at Annie’s live shows. It’s the best showcase on this album for Annie’s comfort on that always-popular party-country end of the scale.

The album actually opens with “Jealous,” a reminiscent, relatable song that’s right in Annie’s sweet spot, one that’ll hit you with emotion then boom it to the rafters with a big sound in the chorus, tempering the pure-country melancholy guitar weep along with that hint of defiance that so often lurks beneath the surface of Annie’s vocals.

Annie Brobst - Where We Holler

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

“Ain’t He the Worst” shows the first hint of Annie’s vocal playfulness in this downhome country mid-tempo twanger.

After the aforementioned “Holler & Swaller,” Annie follows with a more introspective, slow to mid-tempo drinking song, “Red Wine on My Mind.”

Annie follows with the biggest Opry-flavored number on the disc, “Amazing Greats,” paying homage to both the country gospel hymn that inspired the song’s sound and the country artists who inspired the woman behind the microphone.

“Little Girl Dreams” is one of the poppier country songs on the album, radio-friendly all the way down to its reminiscent lyrics, with small-town childhood memories of throwing rocks off a bridge to make a wish and of grandma sitting on the front porch.

Next up is the sassiest, most mischievous song on the album, “Baby Don’t Love Me.” It features the sort of fast-paced, playful lyrics that are invariably bound to be found on an Annie Brobst disc. (In that respect, it’s kind of a sister song to “You Either Love Me or You Don’t” from My First Rodeo.)

Annie Brobst

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Annie shifts gears almost immediately, tugging at the heartstrings with the heartfelt, small-town story-song “Make Lemonade.”

I’d call “On the Record” a “lite” version of “Baby Don’t Love Me,” not quite as sassy and a fair bit more serious. And that leads up to the last song in the collection, the soul-searching, sweetly sung ballad “On the Road That Leads Me to Kentucky.”

A strong album from beginning to end, Where We Holler is a disc worthy of being the second of many rodeos. Annie Brobst is firmly establishing herself as a dependably exceptional country artist, one whose diverse song styles deliver something for everyone, while providing the variety to keep a full-album listen interesting.

Looking Ahead

An Annie Brobst show is an event. So be sure to catch one if you can. At the “Buy Tickets” tab of Annie’s website, you’ll find a summer full of Massachusetts shows, starting the Saturday, June 26 Team Song Is Born MS Fundraiser at Endicott Grille in Danvers MA. There’s a single New Hampshire show currently booked (the Gear Jammer Truck Show at Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, NH on Saturday, July 31). And there’s one show far afield from Annie’s home base: the Freedom Jam STL 2021 concert in Eureka, MO on Saturday, August 28. She’ll also be headlining Local CountryFest this year – an annual concert I’ve not missed since its inception – on Saturday, September 11 at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA.

EP Review: Paola Bennet – Maybe the Light

Paola Bennet

photo by Mim Adkins; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Paola Bennet: Maybe the Light

The somewhat cryptic and surreal Paola Bennet is a singer-songwriter originally from Boston, Massachusetts. Based in Brooklyn, New York, this accomplished artist has steadily been garnering positive press and making her mark, with a series of groundbreaking independently released albums. This current five song EP is filled with interesting sound design and vivid dream-like textures. She has been compared to singers like Phoebe Bridgers, Sara Bareilles and Daughter, with a blend of darkness and light in her vocal delivery.

Paola Bennet – Maybe the Light

cover photo by Justin Oppus; image courtesy of Paola Bennet

“My Mother Says” is moody, spacey and somewhat ethereal. Bennet’s voice is warm and familiar, yet exotic and totally original. Her interplay on electric and acoustic guitars with producer Adam Tilzer is inventive. It’s not so much about solos and improvisation as it is the creation of an ambient sheet of sound. This combined with the vocal backing of Elijah Mann and Jordan Popky, and strings from Ward Williams, complete a rich aural picture.

“Anthea” puts emphasis on lush orchestration. What appears to be Bennet reaching out to a friend in need becomes a spiritually moving anthem on the definition and the pursuit of love.

Paola Bennet

photo by Scout Sheehan; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

“In This Body” seems to address issues of body image and personal reflection, both physically and emotionally. With references to a lack of wholeness and houses falling apart, Bennet uses stark imagery to depict someone in various stages of inner struggle and crisis. That environment is further sparked, toward the finale, by heavy guitars and Brian Delaney’s well conceived drums.

“Astronaut” could almost be a companion piece to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” As with many of Bennet’s songs, it could, perhaps, be taken literally or figuratively. She sings about the the vastness and beauty of interstellar travel and documents the distance between the protagonist in the song and her love, the astronaut, in outer space. Benett sings: “I may never go further than crossing an ocean.” And then she sends a communiqué that she hopes connects with her significant other: “Do you miss it down here? Stars can’t love you like I do, my dear.”

Paola Bennet

photo by Mim Adkins; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

“7:23 AM” concludes the EP, with subtle orchestration and a strong acoustic guitar figure. Bennet sings in almost hushed and laid-back tones as she describes the silence of the morning. It’s a peaceful and serene time where she expresses the beauty of simple pleasures and sharing those with her lover.

Paola Bennet is in a class by herself in terms of how she arranges and assembles her song concepts and ideas. The somewhat baroque quality provided by Williams’ cello and viola combined with avant garde electronic embellishments defy the typical folk/Americana category. In a lot of ways she’s chosen a road less travelled. And we, the listener, are musically richer for the experience. Highly recommended!

Paola Bennet

photo by Mim Adkins; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

Looking Ahead

Though no shows are currently on Paola’s concert calendar, keep an eye on the “Tour” page of her website for shows as they’re added.

EP Review: Lisa Bastoni – Backyard Birds

Lisa Bastoni – Backyard Birds

image courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Lisa Bastoni: Backyard Birds

Lisa Bastoni an accomplished songstress from Northampton, Massachusetts that has earned award consideration and wowed audiences and major Folk/Americana events like the Boston Music Awards (folk category) and Kerrville. Her sweet, expressive voice recalls artists like Gretchen Peters and Patty Griffin. It’s a modern, poetic style that speaks from the heart and personal experience. And her delivery is so billowy and comforting, as to lull one into almost a meditative state. Bastoni has two previous albums to her credit, The Wishing Hour and How We Want to LiveBackyard Birds was recorded at home during the lockdown of 2020. It’s a low key release, in that it simply features Bastoni and producer/multi-instrumentalist/harmony vocalist Sean Staples. The production is minimal, but therein lies its power. The simplicity totally serves the music and message.

“Bring it On” is a wise song that rings true for anyone that has a history between themselves and a partner. It’s about cleaning one’s own emotional closet and honestly observing truth in how you feel toward someone. Bastoni in the chorus sings: “There’s a whole lot of things you’ve been carrying too long. If you want to love me, if you feel that strong, bring it on.”

“Southern Belle” has an early Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris feel. There’s nice Dobro guitar work here by Tim Kelly. The storyline centers on a woman that doesn’t wanna rush things in a relationship. She’s all about biding her time and waiting for love to take hold. The protagonist sings: “When you want to come around, I’ll meet you at the station. I’m not going to force your hand. I love you but I’m patient.”

Lisa Bastoni

photo courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

“Sorrow’s a String” is about changes one goes through in their personal life. Memories and a love for someone — in this case, her grandparents — forever endures, even though the people may not physically be present anymore. “When I cry my sorrow’s a string,” sings Bastoni. “I want to love you as long as I can. I would fly if I had wings. How I wish I could see you again.” And here she recalls fond moments in her grandparents’ house: “I can still hear your footsteps running down the stairway, I can still see your smile as you open the door. A new radio tower has gone up in the distance, but the backyard birds still whistle your songs.”

“If Not Today” features sleek acoustic guitar work from Staples. It’s got kind of a folk/blues vibe. The chorus encapsulates the urgency of the tune, with: “You can be a wallflower when the dancing starts, be a February empty of little paper hearts. A new morning’s coming and you’re right back where you’ve been. If not today, then when?”

“Red Rocks” has a relaxed country feel that documents an account of a burgeoning, yet fleeting love affair. In it, Bastoni unpacks heavy emotions : “I carried deep the promises of something just begun, felt it burn inside me like the high desert sun. You made me feel like I could be, a way I’d never been. Maybe someday I will go back there again.” And the chorus pulls no punches: “We had Red Rocks, blue skies, turquoise and tiger’s eye. We had young love, wild as a desert rose. Young love comes and goes.”

“Hidden in the Song” is another piece that seems to deal with speaking plainly and stating true feelings. Bastoni sets the scene in this verse: “At the party in the backyard you were soaking up the stars. Did you stand so close together or did you stand apart? Did you look her in the eye, did you find the words to say, or did you send a message in every note that you played?” The chorus states: “Simple words, but you can’t hide the meaning, hidden in the song that you were singing.”

The final song on the EP is called “This is My Love.” This is Bastoni in her purest form, so to speak. It’s just her and solo acoustic guitar recorded in her kitchen on a cell phone. It’s a basic, yet thought-provoking song of unfettered admiration for her significant other. She sings: “There’s a tugging at my shoes on this road I walk to you. Runs as far as a dream can dream. I’ve been asking without words, I wonder if you heard, I wonder if you ever think of me?”

On this sublime and unpretentious collection of original stories and songs, Bastoni is not afraid to be vulnerable and transparent. This new release features the artist at her most lyrical and melodically astute.

Looking Ahead

Available digitally via Lisa’s Bandcamp website since May 20th, the official release date for Backyard Birds is Friday, June 25th, with a release party to be held on Saturday, June 26th at the iconic Club Passim in Cambridge, MA. Other upcoming shows on Lisa’s calendar, which you can find at her website, are Friday, July 9th with Cloudbelly at the Northampton Summer Park Series in Northampton, MA; Sunday, July 18th with Danielle Miraglia on the Burren Back Patio in Somerville, MA; and Saturday, August 28th with Naomi Summers at the St. John’s 3rd Annual Bluegrass Fest in North Guilford, CT. Check out Lisa’s website for more information and keep an eye out for addition dates as they’re added.

Album Review: John Hall – Reclaiming My Time

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of John Hall: Reclaiming My Time (Sunset Blvd. Records/Redeye Distribution)

“Dance With Me,” “Still the One,” and “Love Takes Time” were chart-topping tunes for the harmony-driven band Orleans. During the ‘70s and early ‘80s, key vocalist, songwriter and guitarist John Hall was one of the prime movers and shakers in that band. He has also had success as a songwriter for a bevy of artists, including Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner, and James Taylor. In addition, Hall has played guitar on tours and records for Little Feat, Taj Mahal, Jackson Browne, and Seals and Crofts. A lot of his music has a very personal and socio-political slant to it. And being a man of his convictions, Hall co-founded Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), with his environmental activism leading him to serve two elected terms of office as a (D-NY) congressman.

John Hall - Reclaiming My Time

image courtesy of Anne Leighton

The man has lived a colorful life, for sure, and, after serving a number of years in elected office, he’s back full time making music, with his sixth solo album called Reclaiming My Time. The album title cleverly references a phrase used in Congress when someone in session is interrupted and wants to return to the floor. But it also slyly could refer to the time Hall has spent away from active duty as a singer-songwriter. Well, he’s back, and we could sure use a guy like John Hall right now! He speaks his mind most eloquently on a number of topics. And his ability to combine sublime lyrics with beautiful melodies and killer guitar work is a rare treat, indeed!

“I Think of You” is the opening song on the album and sets a scene, with plenty of romance, sun, surf and pleasant atmosphere. It is one of those pining and heartfelt love songs that transports you to a better place.

“Alone Too Long” is a tune that easily could have been written about life in quarantine and isolation.  Here are some sample lines: “My friend you miss the touch of a warm hand. A voice from across the room saying I understand. How it feels to be hurtin’, the future’s so uncertain. Don’t you stay alone too long, I could be that person.” Come to find Hall wrote the song before the pandemic about a friend who lost his wife and was wondering when it was time to start again. The groovy R&B-type song seems almost prophetic, in a way.

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

That’s followed by another romantic and ethereal type tune called “Mystic Blue.” Great hooks and a tasty country/blues vibe combined, with a Van Morrison meets Jimmy Buffet aesthetic abounds. Hall’s blues roots come shining through on the streetwise ballad “Lessons.” The master storyteller lays some knowledge on you, with the message: “I learned to have patience, I wound up in a traffic jam. I learned to handle money, it slipped right through my hands. Wanted to travel the whole world over, that’s when I lost my home. And then the chorus brings it all in focus: “If you ain’t hurtin’ you ain’t learning….I’ll be a genius before long.” The moral of the story is a classic one: “Watch what you wish for because you might just get it!”

“Islamorada” recalls a fantasy kind of getaway. It’s a holiday augmented by lots of percussion and multi-layered guitars and rhythms. It’s a nice break in the action, so to speak. “Somebody” almost has a retro early ‘60s feel. It’s got a driving and relentless beat that supports the sentiment: “Treasured friends can lift me up, but sometimes that’s not enough. I need somebody… I need somebody to love.” Hall nails the human condition in its purest form.

“Another Sunset” is a fine collaboration and co-write with Steve Wariner. Wariner plays nylon string classical guitar and gives the song a wealth of romantic ambience and elegance. Really nice!

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

“Now More Than Ever” reunites Hall with former writing and life partner Johanna Hall. Johanna was on board in the early days of Orleans for some of their biggest hits. A nice mix of electric and acoustic guitars, along with lush harmonies and signature choral hooks make this a highlight.

On “Save the Monarch” Hall is joined by Dar Williams on vocals. This tale of environmental and ecological awareness is wise and poignant in its account of man’s mistreatment of plants and animals. Hall and Williams sing: “In you who we trust, eternal and just, save them from us!” It is spiritually stirring and thought provoking. “All Up and Down From Here” has a topical message as well, but delivered in a light-hearted manner. It depicts a day in the life of a guy just trying to find some happiness and catching a break in life. In it, Hall sings: “I’m on cloud nine hangin’ with my baby mama. She said ‘this is it,’ you’re my futurama! But I came home from work the other day, a strange car’s parked in my driveway, I feel like a clown, but it’s all up and down from here.” The bridge wraps it with a nice bow: “It’s a roller coaster ride, not a straight line. I’m in darkness, but I know soon the sun will shine.” Life can be a balancing act sometimes and Hall conveys that message in the most entertaining terms possible.

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

“World on Fire” has a great hook in the spirit of Bob Marley or Toots and the Maytals. It’s basically a reggae/world beat-tinged song centered on global unrest and renewal.

“Future Ex-Wife” is another tonal shift back to more country-flavored territory. It’s essentially a song, with a farcical premise, that is as much introspective and revelatory as it is humorous. In it, the focus is on a guy that keeps repeating the same love connection missteps. Hall’s guitar acumen here is filled with plenty of Nashville charm and spirit.

The album concludes on a reflective note, with the returning military veteran saga “Welcome Home.” The sobering sentiment here says it all: “There were no parades of victory, no marching bands. He’s alive but still not whole. Invisible scars – wounds that would not heal. Stripes and stars – none of it seems real. Can he start to pick up his life and move on? But he’s waited all these years to hear ‘welcome home!’” Well said and highly recommended!

Looking Ahead

In the next couple of weeks, you can catch John on Friday, June 18th at the Beacon Theater in Hopewell, VA; on Friday, June 25rd at the McGrath Amphitheater in Cedar Rapids, IA with Pure Prairie League, and on Sunday, June 27th at the Southern Atlantic Hemp and Arts EXPO in Fletcher, NC with Firefall and Atlanta Rhythm Section. He already has more than dozen more dates scattered across the United States during the second half of the year, too, so check out the “Tour” page of John’s website to see when he’ll be performing near you.