Album Review: Sumo Cyco – Initiation

Sumo Cyco

photo by Francesca Ludikar; photo courtesy of Napalm Records

Album Review of Sumo Cyco: Initiation (Napalm Records)

Sumo Cyco has moved in and out of my awareness over the years, always attention-grabbing while clearly honing its sound with each successive release. Sumo Cyco is a heavy rock band with a raw metal edge and a punk attitude. Sonically, the band has the aggression and speed of many bands in its musical neighborhood with a world-class lead singer (Skye “Sever” Sweetnam) capable of bringing a level of tunefulness and softness to the mix, exploiting the ability to provide greater contrast to her raw, roaring metal vocals. In other words, range. The ability to achieve that range provides interesting contrasts within individual cuts but also the capacity to deliver a broader range of songs within an identifiable Sumo Cyco heavy rock style, satisfying core heavy rock fans while appealing to perhaps a broader demographic, particularly on individual tracks. Of course, “Sever” isn’t achieve that range of musical styles all by herself. Serious props to the rest of this band: Matt “MD13” Drake (lead guitar), Matt “Trozzi” (drums), and Oscar Aneset (bass). You all know by now how much I love versatile bands like this, and upon sampling a couple of songs on the new album, Initiation, I knew Sumo Cyco had delivered a musical collection I needed to write about.

Sumo Cyco – Initiation

image courtesy of Napalm Records

Like any good heavy rock band, Sumo Cyco kicks the album off with a couple of its most aggressive songs, appropriately greeting listeners to Cyco City with “Love You Wrong”. This track begins with a crash and rawly shouted vocals, and throughout the song the tempo and vocal aggression suggest mosh pits and a frantic, fear-filled confused rampage, but the lesser-instrumented verses and monster hooky chorus more welcomingly reel the listener in. Yes, the chorus is primarily “Not gonna love you, not gonna love you wrong” repeated several times, but damn, it’s an earworm. With each successive listen, this increasingly becomes a favorite. Then again, that’s true of so many of the tunes on this disc.

Perhaps the next-most-rough-edged song on the disc, “Bystander” aggressively urges actively taking part in your life, as if you couldn’t guess from the title. Worth noting is the rhythmic drum-driven bridge that accompanies the lyrics “We are uninvited, watching from afar. We are all misguided, divided, falling apart.” The most infectious part of “Bystander,” though, is its unrelenting, insistent pace.

Next up, “Vertigo” shows shades of Lady Gaga-meets-Gwen Stefani through the lens of a ’90s pop-punk-influenced mainstream heavy rock band. It’s all beat and rhythm atop grinding guitar and a wall of staticky background vocals. Very effective… and sound effect-ive.

Sumo Cyco

photo by Francesca Ludikar; photo courtesy of Napalm Records

The end of “Vertigo” flows sonically directly into “Bad News,” with rhythmic vocal verses ultimately combining with another one of those monster hook choruses. Actually, something you might find at a dance club in a vampire movie, an intense, energetic rock track with a sort of underlying club mix vibe.

Next, “No Surrender” thrashes tunefully, before “M.I.A.” follows with a rhythmic spoken-song effort that, of all the songs on Initiation, most closely resembles one Gwen Stefani would perform. But, of course, Sumo Cyco-style. Lyrically, you’ll find yourself hooked on “Do you remember? ‘Cause I forget.”

The back half of this album begins with “Cyclone.” The speed-guitar runs and aggressively, sneakily melodic verse are among this track’s standout features, though the softly sung “I can’t help myself I’m falling, in a downward spiral I’m falling…” will also pleasantly catch you off guard.

There’s a reggae-esque opening to “Run With the Giants”… up until the ripping guitars and sirens. But you can hear and enjoy the meshing of reggae and hard rock throughout – an enjoyably, intentionally harsh transition between the styles at times, smoother at others. The driving chorus is supported by a full, distorted heavy rock sound while implanting in your brain the memorably repeated “Gotta run with it, gotta run with it, yeah we’ll run with the giants!” You’ll be singing along by song.

“Overdrive,” next, has a serious funky rhythm and dancefloor vibe that almost overrides (overdrives?) its rockin’ guitar line, while “Power & Control” has just a hint of a soul-rock vibe, especially where Skye/Sever lets her voice soar a bit… with, you know, a much thrashier music bed.

One of the most memorable songs on the album, though, is “This Dance is Doomed.” You’ll frantically sing along with “doom da da da doom da da da day,” sometimes hours or days after you actually last heard the song.

The album closes with bonus track “Awakened,” which you’ll not find on every release. This song opens catchily with a tuneful “My heart’s been awakened…” It then flows into a classic-cool heavy rock vibe, yet still a bit sidewinding, befitting Sumo Cyco’s trademark style. It’s a fun, energetic way to end an album, though the prior song, if that’s the last on your version of Initiation, also provides a great final sendoff. They both encourage another listen. Immediately. Over and over.

In the end, Sumo Cyco is a unique band. One of a kind. The kind of band whose music deserves a spot in a well-rounded playlist. If you love it loud, you’re gonna love this heavy rock masterwork, Initiation – some songs immediately while others will grow on you like a fungus. But you won’t have anything else quite like Sumo Cyco’s music in your collection, and once you’ve heard it, you’ll occasionally crave it.

I’m hoping to get a chance to catch Sumo Cyco live one of these days. They do a great job of transferring their energy into their recordings, but I can only imagine how much they must rock to room live. For those of you in the UK, there are some dates listed on the “events” tab of the band’s Facebook page – a late October/early November tour with Wednesday 13. As always during a pandemic, double-check event status before leaving the house.

Post-Publication Addendum: It looks like the Sumo Cyco/Wednesday 13 UK tour has been postponed until 2022, per this Facebook post. COVID-19 strikes again. Yep, always a good idea to double-check (ahead of time and even day of show) before traveling any distance to a concert during a pandemic. -GW

Single Review: beauty is the end – “helplessly hoping”

beauty is the end

photo courtesy of beauty is the end

Single Review of beauty is the end: “helplessly hoping”

We’re reviewed the music of bandleader Clint Degan here before, in the role of Body English’s vocalist and guitarist, when I reviewed Stories of Earth. This, however, is a truly original, unique sound worth approaching with a fresh palate, featuring Cullen Corley on percussion and multi-instrumentalist Degan recording the remaining instruments and vocals. So grab some ginger and be prepared for a fresh musical dining experience on “helplessly hoping.”

beauty is the end – helplessly hoping

image courtesy of beauty is the end

This song is timeless. But beauty is the end delivers an updated version of this Crosby, Stills & Nash classic. The harmonies are replaced by instruments or perhaps just less volume, serving up a modernized sound, adding a hint of progressive instrumentation, softening the harsh harmonic edges of the original with a thinner, more sensitive vocal line and softened transitions. This version completely changes the feel of the song without touching the main melody, and in the process of modernizing, it actually recalls a completely different set of ’70s bands. Call it a two-way transportation through time, if you want, landing at a different destination.

Whatever it’s quite cool and really pleasant, enjoyable listen, gradually becoming a favorite on my playlist. To be honest, after acclimating myself to the beauty is the end version, I find it hard to listen to the original. I’ve come to expect this version’s softness to the extent that Crosby, Stills & Nash’s harmonies in the original startle me. Yeah, yeah, I know. I should show more reverence to the trailblazers, but I really dig this version. Check it out for yourself.

To keep up with beauty is the end, follow the band’s Facebook page.

Single Review: Troubleshooting Pandora’s Box – “Pyrrha’s Song”

Troubleshooting Pandora's Box – Pyrrha's Song

image courtesy of Potter’s Daughter

Single Review of Troubleshooting Pandora’s Box: “Pyrrha’s Song” (Melodic Revolution Records)

The first song from the Troubleshooting Pandora’s Box project, spearheaded by Melodic Revolution Records founder Nick Katona, is “Pyrrha’s Song.” It features Dyanne Potter Voegtlin (keyboard, vocals) and Jan-Christian Vögtlin (bass, guitar, keyboards) from Potter’s Daughter (whose recent album I reviewed) with Jimmy Keegan (drums).

An edgy, symphonic-leaning progressive rock number, “Pyrrha’s Song” is purposefully tense and uncomfortable. Or, rather, never quite comfortable. Stray notes pop up suddenly and harshly within the melody to keep the listener off-balance and paying attention, while the drums crash and vocals test the song’s upper sonic limits, all set interestingly to a laid-back bass line.

This is what progressive rock is all about, putting great musicians in a situation to pursue a concept – not always an unsettling concept, but sometimes and in this case – and try to tell its story through music, typically in unexpected ways. “Pyrrha’s Song” is a cool song and a fun, interesting listen, though by necessity it’s an active listen. If you dig this sort of music, this Troubleshooting Pandora’s Box release is a fine example of it and well worth your listen.

More info about the project (Troubleshooting Pandora’s Box) and the song (“Pyrrha’s Song”) can be found here on this page of the Melodic Revolution Records website.

Album Review: Carl Verheyen – Sundial

Carl Verheyen – Sundial

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album Review of Carl Verheyen: Sundial

There was a time when more rock ‘n roll albums blended catchy melodies and progressive guitarwork, energetic hook-driven tunefulness and meandering noodling, rock ‘n roll with both a soft touch and a musical passion. Carl Verheyen‘s Sundial harkens back to those ’70s and early ’80s albums on which rock music wasn’t as stylistically compartmentalized, especially when featuring a lead axeman capable of such guitar wizardry as Verheyen.

Carl kicks things off with the fun title track. “Sundial” recalls a Stranger-era Billy Joel tune, but with progressive rock-style guitar occupying the solo and bridge slots, constrained within the package of a broad-appeal pop-rock song. It’s a very cool, groovy, cheerful tune with a great big sound.

The cheerfulness carries on into the following song, the bright, happy, energetic guitar instrumental “Kaningie,” a song with a catchy beat and plenty of character. Something about the energy of this track reminds me of the sorts of energetic instrumentals Bob Malone sneaks onto his albums, daring you to notice – rarely on the first listen – that there weren’t, in fact, any lyrics.

You can hear the funk meet the blues in “Clawhammer Man,” a true ’70s-styled funk-rock attitude-filled gem.

Carl Verheyen

photo by Rainer Hosch; photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

“Never Again” seems like a song you might have heard from Styx. A forceful musical beginning opens into a softer, lush, musically smooth chorus. If it were a Styx tune, I’d expect a faster tempo, while “Never Again” has a more blues-based, takin’-its-own-sweet-time vibe, but the blend of guitar and organ mix and verse-to-chorus transition “well, never again” recall something one might expect from the aforementioned Second City rock heroes.

“Garfunkel (It Was All Too Real)” maintains that same laid-back tempo, but it returns to a style in the neighborhood of late ’70s radio-friendly soft rock, recalling those nostalgic numbers that seemed to be telling a story in black and white. This track features plenty of keyboard but also leaves ample room for Verheyen’s guitarwork to dance through the melody, as well it should.

Verheyen cranks up the energy again on his cover of the Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free.” Mixing a ska rhythm, a faster-than-the-original tempo, and overriding rock guitar lines and vocal wails, this fun reimagination comes across as a completely different song than the original.

Next up, “Sprial Glide” is a tightly-structured, well-composed, mellow, progressive soft rocker, a 7-minute epic with recurring note-bending guitar and keyboard hooks holding it together before and after the mid-song guitar solo. “Sprial Glide” is the sort of musician-based masterwork you think of when you hear the phrase “album-oriented rock.”

“Michelle’s Song” is more of a crossover pop/soft rock number, the sort that used to dot pop-rock radio playlists, a song where folk-structured lyrics meet pop songwriting sensibilities and rock ‘n roll musicianship.

“No Time for a Kiss” is the last full-length song on the album, a progressive rock-flavored not-quite-ballad designed to showcase a melancholy wailing guitar line that complements the similarly-pained vocals.

The last track on the album is the minute-and-a-half “Sundial Slight Return,” tying the album together with the instrumental melody of the opening track, putting a bow on the release as you’d expect from a thoughtfully assembled album. Also, coincidentally, it offers an opportunity for prepare you mind to return to song number one, particularly helpful if you’re playing Sundial on repeat. And why wouldn’t you?

Looking Ahead

Carl has a lot of gigs scheduled this summer and fall, beginning in Westlake, CA on August 29th, followed by September 4th and 5th gigs in Seattle, a couple more California shows, and then a European tour. You can find details about upcoming dates on the “Tour Dates” page of Carl’s website or on the “Events” tab of his Facebook page.

Album Review: Cactus – Tightrope


photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album Review of Cactus: Tightrope (Cleopatra Records/Purple Pyramid)

Classic hard rock from a bunch of veteran musicians who know how to make great music and still love rockin’. With that recipe, you just can’t go wrong. The new album from Cactus, Tightrope, hit stores on April 2nd. It’s album-oriented rock that straddles the ’70s and ’80s styles, with screeching guitar solos, instrumental mid-song jams, high-pitched vocal wails, a significant blues influence, and the inimitable drumming of Carmine Appice.

Cactus was an early 1970s classic rock band, founded in 1969, that released three albums from 1970 through 1974. An incarnation of the band continued to perform in the later ’70s. The band then disbanded until 2006, when it was resurrected by its original drummer, rock legend Appice. On this album, Appice is joined by longtime members Jimmy Kunes on vocals and Randy Pratt on harmonica. They’re joined by new members Paul Warren (lead guitar, vocals) and James Caputo (bass). Guest appearances are made by legendary rock vocalist Phil Naro (whose music I used to review regularly back in the ’90s when I published Geoff Wilbur’s Renegade Newsletter) and original Cactus guitarist Jim McCarty.

Beginning to end, Tightrope reminds you why that era of rock ‘n roll is timeless – why it persists to this day and was the foundation upon which the rock ‘n roll of my teens and twenties was built. With Tightrope‘s tricky beats, heavy rhythms, and sidewinding ways, Cactus also proudly displays the heavy blues influence that underpinned its lane of the ’70s classic rock superhighway.

Cactus – Tightrope

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album-opener “Tightrope” kicks things off with grinding guitar, stop-start rhythm, and edgily insistent vocals. Very classic ’70s rock with an uneven beat that stops each and every groove just as it’s getting started, purposely delivering an uneasily energetic ride balanced on a (as you may have guessed) tightrope.

The band takes that edginess into its next song, a growling, bluesy-wailing, juke joint-recalled rendition of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Yowza, what a kickass cover!

“All Shook Up” begins all jangly with hints at Beatles-esque harmonies before digging in with crunchy guitars and a slightly gritty blues rock vocal wail.

“Poison in Paradise” follows, a slowly thumping, testifying, sad blues number, positively dripping with despair and regret. It’s a sign of the depth of the blues’ influence throughout this record that such a pure rockin’ blues number slips so nimbly into this collection.

“Third Time Gone” restores the energy, with a scene-setting blues rock harmonica piece helping get things rolling and steering the song, with some energetic fretwork that’ll appeal guitar aficionados, and a kickass, harmonica-accompanied Carmine Appice drum solo toward the end.

“Shake That Thing” is another heavily thumping blues-heavy rock number, followed by “Primitive Touch,” which leans back into the sort of off-balance rhythm that’s the opening title track’s calling card.

“Preaching Woman Man Blues” returns the collection to the blues fold – in this case that of the relentlessly rhythm rockin’ blues variety – interestingly after an intro that seems significantly more classically-driven than blues-based, the first such strong appearance on Tightrope, though it’s pretty brief; still, it serves perhaps as foreshadowing that a bigger style variation might await.

But not yet. Indeed, the next track “Elevation” thumps away, as drums-and-harmonica driven as “Third Time Gone,” though with a vastly different rhythm line. I’m also quite fond of how “Elevation” ends so suddenly in a very live rock ‘n roll way.

Next is the longest song on the album. It’s one of my favorite 7-plus minute songs, a rarity for me as I tend to get antsy somewhere between four or five minutes. Indeed, “Suite 1 & 2: Everlong, All the Madmen” has some progressive rock leanings, and that’s not primarily a reference to it’s length; rather, my comparison is due to the song’s meandering ways. There is, in fact, a break point halfway through that serves as a dividing line between the “Everlong” and “All the Madmen” portions of the song, a great transition that rescues you, sonically with a bit of a circus or carnival musical flair, just as you think you’ll never get the hauntingly gurgling, otherworldly chorus of “Everlong” out of your head. It’s an inspired sound pairing, one that continues to improve after repeated listens.

“Headed For a Fall” picks up the tempo and delivers Tora Tora-esque blues rock that feels as if it’s delivered with a wink and a smile.

“Wear It Out” closes the disc with another slightly stylistically different take on the blues-rock that permeates Tightrope. As if a nod to the ’80s heavy rock that paid homage back to its ’70s roots, this is a song with a vocal line that might be found in a Honeymoon Suite song, though it might be some of the instrumental stylings that leads me to that comparison. Still, it’s dipped in and dripping from a purer blues and blues rock pedigree, augmented by judicious harmonica use and, as everywhere on this Cactus disc, driven by Carmine Appice’s intense rhythms that are simultaneously complex and straightforward, as only few drummers can accomplish.

I struggle to choose a standout track, with a different favorite upon each listen (but only just barely). “Suite 1 & 2: Everlong, All the Madmen” is always toward the top for me, in part because it’s such a unique song, but rarely number one. Simply put, this is a solid, cohesive collection of classic blues-based hard rock that’s an enjoyable listen every single time. My favorite way to experience Tightrope is beginning to end; I’m guessing that’ll be your favorite way, too.

Looking Ahead

There’s a “Cactus on Tour” page on the band’s website, but it’s currently devoid of dates. Be sure to check back periodically.

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.

Album Review: Bob Malone – Good People

Bob Malone

photo courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

Album Review of Bob Malone: Good People

World-class rockin’ blues keyboardist (and singer and songwriter) Bob Malone has done it again. Released today, May 21, 2021, Good People is his latest masterpiece. His music ranges from raucous and rollicking to slow and sentimental, his songwriting reaches deeply into the emotions of life, and his voice is rough, emotional, and relatable with a hint of a Randy Newman-esque delivery. His live shows are an event, and his recordings are a treat. If you’re familiar with him, all I should need to say is “Bob Malone has released a new album,” and you’ll order it. But that doesn’t make for much of an album review, so let’s dig in.

The disc opens with the title track, “Good People.” It’s a soaring, hopeful number. Even when Bob’s lyrics are cynical, he always sneaks a little hope in, and he doesn’t sugarcoat life’s difficulties here, but this is an exceptionally uplifting tune, almost a hymn in spots thanks to his background vocalists, that focuses on the silver linings, not the clouds.

The energy level amps up next with Bob’s rowdy cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” Of course, Bob has been John Fogerty’s keyboardist since 2011, so, you know, no added pressure here to impress, right? No worries; Bob nails it. The thumping, rhythmic keyboard opening starts to build the power, with ivory-tickling flourishes increasing as the song progresses, and rich background vocals throughout supporting Bob’s rough ‘n rowdy vocals. And let’s not forget the late-song keyboard and guitar noodling, hinting at the sort of long-form jamming I’m sure you could expect when hearing this song live.

Bob Malone – Good People

image courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

The mood is calmed almost immediately by “Empty Hallways,” a rich piano-based sad song, with Bob’s soulful, gravelly vocal portraying the emotional pain in this powerful ballad.

The energy returns again, following a cool, echoing opening, with “All There Is,” an energetic, enthusiastic blues-rocker with a strong, happy beat that belies the song content: “Is this all there is? ‘Cause I’ve seen this before. Is this all there is? There’s got to be more. Please tell me there’s more!” Never, this side of the Stones, will you rock along as enthusiastically to a song about dissatisfaction, with stop-starts, exploding rhythms, and well-placed background harmonies. As much fun as the recording of this song is, I guarantee this will be a live favorite, too.

Gruff, emotional vocals return on the steadily-progressing, slower-moving “Head First.” Behind the song’s powerful rhythm you’ll discover some nuanced keywork, supporting lyrics like “What didn’t kill me also didn’t make me stronger, and I’m just trying to keep what’s left of me alive.”

Next up is the second of Bob’s three covers on this disc, his rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” Gotta say, Bob’s version is way more rockin’! You might think replacing guitars with a piano would soften a song? You’d be wrong, though if you’ve heard Bob play before, you won’t be surprised. He adds a more ragged vocal delivery, too. The way this is arranged and executed, it sounds more like an update of an old-school blues number than a Fleetwood Mac cover.

The mood doesn’t last long, as Bob follows it with a particular favorite, a song that plays to one of his many songwriting strengths. In this case, on “My Friends and I,” he captures the emotions of the struggles of people of a certain age, his cohort, something I’ve appreciated in his music before. (On “Can’t Get There From Here” from Bob’s Mojo Deluxe album, for example.)

Next up is a quintessentially Bob Malone instrumental, a song so engaging with dancing melodies and memorable piano flourishes that you’ll find yourself thinking back “surely there must have been lyrics in there, right?” I assure you there are not. What Joe Satriani or Marc Bonilla can do with instrumental guitar, what Mindi Abair or Candy Dulfer can do with a saxaphone, Bob Malone does with a piano. On this album, he delivers “Prelude & Blues.” It’s an accessible, radio-friendly, energetic number that can fit comfortably and seamlessly on a playlist – or, in this case, on an album – alongside your favorite vocal-driven songs.

Next on Good People is an ode of appreciation to the “Sound of a Saxophone,” on which Bob’s keywork is rich, full, and organ-ic. And, of course, joined by some wailing, bluesy sax. It’s followed by a song Bob wrote a few years ago for a telethon to raise money for West Virginia flood relief, “The River Gives.” It’s a powerful song with soaring gospel-choir harmonies that complement Bob’s gravelly vocal delivery atop soaring music that mimics the power and force of flood waters: “The river gives, the river takes away. You can’t stop the water’s rise, you can only pray. The river gives, the river takes away. Down here by the river, we live day to day.”

Bob closes this enjoyable, heartfelt album with some serious energy, riffing uncontrollably through his funky flavored cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” It’s a fun song, a terrific rendition that’ll leave you with a bounce in your step and a smile, ready to hit “repeat” and hear the album all over again.

Good People is yet another feather in Bob’s cap, as he builds a catalog of world-class original music, an increasing “back catalog” of rollickin’ piano blues music awaiting discovery by the new fans each subsequent disc uncovers. Keyboard wizard. Talented songwriter. Voice of a generation. Good People.

Bob Malone at Barn #81

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Looking Ahead

You can catch Bob Malone live – or, at least, livestreamed. Upcoming gigs are here on the “Tour Dates & Livestreams” page of his website. You’ll find info there for Bob’s three streams scheduled this week: Sunday, May 23rd, Tuesday, May 25th, and Wednesday, May 26th. Farther out, the site lists upcoming live dates on September 30th in Rahway, NJ; October 1st in New Paltz, NY; October 2nd in Willington, CT; and October 29th in Los Angeles. There are few events as much fun as a live Bob Malone concert, so get out to see him perform this fall if you can.

In the meantime, Good People drops today, so go check it out. And then try one of his livestreams, if your schedule permits.

And don’t forget to read my previous Bob Malone reviews here at the Blog, of Bob’s last (non-holiday studio) album, Mojo Deluxe; of an insane house concert; of an unassuming, casual summer gig at a suburban concert in the park series; and of a performance at an iconic London blues club.

Album Review: Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

image courtesy of Hello Wendy

Album Review of Maia Sharp: Mercy Rising

Maia Sharp‘s album Mercy Rising drops today, May 7th, 2021. A quick look at the artists for whom she’s written give you the first indication that the songwriting’s going to be strong, and Maia clearly wrote for her own voice here, emphasizing the strengths in her voice and delivery style.

Maia’s voice reminds me of Tommy Shaw, perfectly suited to the soaring, ’70s AOR sound of the title track, “Mercy Rising.” There may be a little Glenn Frey in there, too, with a deft touch on songs like “Backburner,” where Maia builds up energy, then sets it sail into softer seas with the subtlest vocal tap.

“You’ll Know Who Knows You” has a hint of funk in its soft-rock DNA, as it rolls and flows while allowing Maia to vary her vocal rhythm and punch the right notes and phrases.

Strummer “Nice Girl” is one of the many songs that turns some clever lyrical phrases, here in the chorus with, “Hey, you’re gonna make some nice girl miserable some day.”

Other favorites on this disc include the heartfelt “When the World Doesn’t End,” the sentimental “Things to Fix” with its peppy tempo, and the smoothly syncopated heart-to-heart “Not Your Friend.”

You’ll find a bit more of an edgy blues-rock vibe on “Junkyard Dog,” while you’ll feel well-designed discomfort during the softly powerful “Missions.”

The album ends with the bonus track “Always Good to See You,” one final plaintive plea to close a powerful album.

Mercy Rising is one of those records you listen to beginning-to-end. Well-crafted, soft enough to listen while you work but engaging enough to warrant giving your full attention during a headphone listening session. Maia’s voice is rich with a hint of a ragged edge, the songs are deep musically and lyrically. Pair it with jazzy, smooth soft rock with mainstream sensibilities like the solo stuff from Don Henley or Glenn Frey, maybe Joshua Kadison or some of the smoother Martin Briley tunes. Or, you know, just settle in with a blanket and warm coffee, watch the trees sway and flowers bloom outside your window, play Maia’s new disc on repeat and settle in.

Looking Ahead

Live music is slowly returning. You’ll be able to find Maia’s shows on the “Shows” page of her website.

Album Review: Bob Lord – Playland Arcade

Bob Lord – Playland Arcade

image courtesy of Bob Lord

EP Review of Bob Lord: Playland Arcade

Progressive? Experimental? Quirky? I’m never quite sure how to describe Bob Lord‘s music. Bob is kind of like a musical Picasso. He creates masterpieces you don’t quite understand, but you know you’re witnessing something worth paying attention to, worth remembering, worth enjoying. Slated for an April 27, 2021 release, Playland Arcade contains nothing that disputes any of that. If you’re familiar with Bob’s work within Dreadnaught, whose 2017 album Hard Chargin’ I reviewed here at the Blog, this solo album is much more esoteric.

The music on Playland Arcade tends to fall into one of three categories: video game, movie soundtrack, or cartoon soundtrack. Actually, most of it falls into zero categories, but I can imagine it being used creatively and effectively in one of the three aforementioned situations. And since the album is named for the Playland Arcade at Hampton Beach, NH, this mix of sounds isn’t surprising; the album is an arcade-caliber auditory assault on the senses.

Now, I’ve listened to movie soundtracks. The Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack is a classic. And cartoon soundtracks can be incredibly detailed. In my early music journalist days, I reviewed The Carl Stalling Project: Music From Warner Bros. Cartoons 1936-1958. Carl Stalling’s music was pure genius, and I had that album in heavy rotation on my CD changer for quite a while. I can’t say I’ve listened much to video game music albums, but I’ve seen them cross my desk; no, Buckner & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever doesn’t count because it was music about video games rather than music from video games, though I practically wore out that cassette from repeated plays when I was a teenager.

Still, as oddball as Playland Arcade is, and as unusual as it is to hear music from these categories, Bob Lord’s vision and execution are masterful, and though I don’t sit alone just listening to it, it’s an interesting backdrop for me while doing other things, though the music occasionally seizes my attention, so I can’t be doing anything too attention-intensive while listening.

I’ll start from the beginning and end at the end, but I’ll skip around in between like a kid in a beach town on a rainy day with nothing else to do, dropped at an arcade to wait out the storm and unsure how to spend his pocketful of tokens.

“Fry Doe” opens the collection as an instrumental musical number that establishes a tone and rhythm, adds bits and pieces to itself as it progresses, building in power and taking the listener on a journey, either through a video game or, toward the end especially, maybe also through a jungle, while delivering memorable musical runs and recurring hooks.

The most attention-grabbing song on the disc may be “Yo Soy Miguel,” perhaps because the lyrics – or, rather, the title phrase – is delivered with such an enthusiastic jolt, though the keyboardwork, as well, adds its memorable, energetic splash. Later in the disc, “Get Yer Drink Up” is a subtler, more rhythmic vibe in the same vein, with a beat that almost sounds as if it was being taped while walking down the street, with the percussionist tapping it out on the wall, garbage cans, his own body, even clapping when necessary; I dig it.

True to its name, “In For the Kill” is an excellent example of tension-building background music, as if taken directly from a crime drama. “Night Sweats” continues in the eerie vein but also launches into a mid-song musical bridge that could be taken from a 1970s progressive AOR album. Also on “Night Sweats,” I’m especially partial to the ratcheting sound effect used in it, a bit like an old wind-up alarm clock… or toy… or maybe even just a ratcheting wrench. “The Backyard Swan” also plays in this ’70s TV/movie soundtrack musical space, simultaneously channeling both The Mod Squad and a Clint Eastwood movie soundtrack.

“Beach Pizza” is soundtrack background music of a walk that ends with a panoramic view, and it flows right into “Tenderly,” with its slack-key guitar style twang, as if straight from a Hawaiian beach… perhaps with a pizza? (Does the Playland Arcade serve Hawaiian style pizza?)

One song specifically reminds me of the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack. I could easily envision a scene where “Fanfare for a Losing Team” was the background music. Perhaps a scene in Marrakesh where Indy and his companions are being chased, with surprises around every corner. The song has sounds of tension building intertwined with success. I can see how it could be a team’s fight song, as well, but I’m gonna go with Indiana Jones on this one. Much shorter “Last Word” contains the same sort of seemingly-Raiders-inspired tension, too, and it’s clearly movie soundtrack fodder with its big, climactic ending.

A personal favorite of mine, “Wyoming Vice,” has the western feel its name suggests, while 35 second long “Lobster Roll” feels like it may come from either a ’70s sitcom with an overly enthusiastic music bed or, perhaps, a blooper reel.

“Mighty Forces” builds into a celebratory song, with barn dance-worthy fiddling and a more-frantic-seeming-than-it-actually-is pace really getting your heart racing over the course of the tune.

I’ll close by mentioning another favorite, “Siege,” which ends the album with energetic rhythm. Very ’80s electro-pop/rock styled music, blending pop song techniques with video game-worthy sound effects and progressive/experimental stylings in at least one of the bridges for an effective fast-moving song, both before and after the mid-song, odd musical interlude, which, by the way, is something I’d expect from a ’70s progressive rock album. Bob accomplishes the feeling of a 12-minute prog rock opus in the much shorter (only 5:16!) “Siege.”

Beginning to end, Playland Arcade is a well-conceived, peculiar collection of unusually catchy odd songs and sound effects. It’s kind of like an audition tape for various types of background music and soundtrack work. Bob Lord is joined by some of exceptionally talented musicians on this well-conceived project (as noted on Bob’s website here), and you’re not likely to find much else like it. Interesting from the first listen, it continues to grow on you with each subsequent spin.

Looking Ahead

Well, Dreadnaught’s website says there’s a new Dreadnaught album, Northern Burner, scheduled for a summer 2021 release. First things first, though; Playland Arcade will be released in three days, on Tuesday, April 27th, and you can pre-order it here.

Album Review: Lisa Bastoni – How We Want to Live

Lisa Bastoni

photo courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

Album Review of Lisa Bastoni: How We Want to Live

Lisa Bastoni is well-known around New England as one of the region’s premier folk singer-songwriters. Naturally, awareness of her talent extends beyond the region’s boundaries, but we’re lucky to get to enjoy more of her performances than the rest of you. (Well, obviously not lately, but generally that’s true.) As such, it’s my pleasure to be able to share Lisa’s talents with you, to highlight them within the context of this album review.

Lisa is pretty straightforwardly folk, but you can tell she has plenty of other influences, which help give Lisa’s music the texture that allows them stand out from the crowd. (You know, the influences, plus her hard work and talent.) There’s a bit of blues in there, when necessary. Some old-fashioned country. A bit of bluegrass. And, even moreso when the song really calls for it, Lisa is able to tap into a rough-edged, hoarse vocal delivery that conveys earnestness and emotion.

Lisa Bastoni – How We Want to Live

image courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

Album-opener “Nearby” displays several of Lisa’s strengths. In the chorus of this catchy singer-songwriter fare, Lisa examines the past, dishing out life lessons as the song rises and falls, with emotion clearly driving her almost matter-of-fact, still somewhat wry delivery: “I was wasting time in all the wrong places. Sifting through a river of faces. I was busy looking at the stars in the sky. You were so nearby.”

Title track “How We Want to Live” adds a bit more twang and a steady pace, equal parts melancholy regret and thoughtful forethought. This song is driven largely by the appeal of Lisa’s voice and the delivery she has perfected to best suit it. It pulls the listener in, very clearly on this song and this album, likely even more in a live performance.

There are more soft spots in the vocals, portraying vulnerability, in “Silver Line.” This song has well-placed dips in its engaging rhythm and, at least after several listens, an overwhelming urge to sing along with “loving you is like falling down a silver line” before Lisa picks up the lyrical pace enough that it’ll take a lot more than the couple dozen listens I’ve given this album before I’m able to sing it with her.

There are life lessons – or, at least, a generalization of lessons learned and lessons observed – throughout this disc.  There’s kind of a nice trilogy mid-album. First, the tumultuous “Never Gone to You.” Then the ideal parent-daughter song of love, “Beautiful Girl.” And finally the uplifting recollections of “Take the Wheel”: “You could make me cry or make me laugh like an old love letter or a photograph. I needed you to take the wheel. Saying I love you isn’t even close to what I feel.”

Things get simultaneously jazzier and bluesier during the quirkily compelling, slow-moving “Dogs of New Orleans.” But then the pace picks up again with the cheerful, fiddle-driven ditty “Walk a Little Closer,” featuring the singalong-able: “It doesn’t make sense my dear. I just want to stay right here. Let me walk a little closer, closer to you.”

The penultimate track on the album is its sole cover, Lisa’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues #2.” Lisa digs out her grittiest, most heartfelt, moderately downtrodden vocal for the song’s verses, bringing the volume up just a hint to add the requisite vocal heft to the chorus.

The album closes with “Pocketful of Sighs,” a song that tells a complicated emotional picture, much like the entire album, introspective, recollective, and forward-looking all at once.

The album is so solid throughout that I have a hard time calling out favorites. Mine shift with each listen. It’s just a really strong listen beginning-to-end, and it showcases all of the elements that suggest Lisa’s performances would be a special treat, especially in a cozy coffeeshop, but also suggesting that her raspy, intimate vocals could make a large theater feel like a living room, as well. She’s one of Boston’s best folk-based singer-songwriters, and How We Want to Live lives up to those lofty expectations.

Looking Ahead

The very top of Lisa’s website is where the tour dates would be listed if there were any right now. (Hopefully soon.) The “Events” tab of Lisa’s Facebook page actually does list an upcoming show: Saturday, April 2, 2022, at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Duxbury MA, with Danielle Miraglia and Monica Rizzio. Assuming that date stands a year from now, it’ll be a barnburner of a show.

Lisa has another album planned for release later this year. Watch for it. Here’s hoping it arrives on schedule!