Single Review: Open Strum – “Wildfire”

photo by Krista Powers; photo courtesy of Michel Goguen/Open Strum

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Single Review of Open Strum: “Wildfire”

This new track from Open Strum is a breezy, light and open-ended song. On this single, Open Strum comprise of Michel Goguen, Frank Goguen, and George Belliveau. When you listen to more of the Open Strum back catalogue, you appreciate just how diverse they can be. A range of styles from ambient acoustic through to funky electronic.

photo by Nancy Boudreau; photo courtesy of Michel Goguen/Open Strum

“Wildfire” is at the mature poppier end of the scale with a style that is engaging and warm. A drum beat ushers in rich harmony vocals and jangly Byrds-type electric guitars which lead you into a very easy going, bright and highly listenable track. There are some subtle and lovely touches on the mandolin, and the airy production allows the track to shine. It’s a refreshing and gripping 2:39 in length, and whilst the listen is short it absolutely soars, particularly into the uplifting choruses. When the song ends, it feels like it could just be a lull before crashing into some thunderous solo and carrying on for another couple of minutes. However, its simple brevity actually works really well, leaving you ready to go again, time after time.

For those who like a hook to hang it on, I would say that it immediately struck me as an Eagles groove with a Jackson Browne twist.

Check this one out, and then go explore more of Open Strum’s work. You can find them at www.openstrum.com

They will be heading back into the studio, so not much time to head out and play live. But if you plan ahead then you can see them play on June 8th 2019 in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada to kick off next year’s “Music for Critters” fundraiser to help out animal shelters and rescues.

Album Review: Dan Israel – You’re Free

Dan Israel

photo by Steven Cohen; photo courtesy of Dan Israel

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Dan Israel: You’re Free

You’re Free is the new album from Dan Israel, released May 2018.

Dan is a talented singer songwriter with 14 albums behind him; You’re Free is number 14. On this album he sings and plays guitars and is joined by a host of great musicians and singers all bringing an array of musical strengths to his interesting and foot tapping songs.

The songs are mostly about the personal, political and cultural crises that he finds in the world today. In Dan’s own words, “Few of the songs offer explicitly political messages, but many are colored by frustration, anger, and concern over the political situation, environmental degradation, and the alienation that often accompanies our reliance on social media.”

Dan Israel - You're Free

image courtesy of Dan Israel

These inspirations have led Dan to create 11 highly accomplished songs, and whilst you may think the dire state of the world these days would lead to a maudlin bunch of tunes, you would be wrong. There is a jaunty juxtaposition to the songs. Serious matters couched in upbeat musical moods. He certainly has a knack for tuneful, contemplative rock.

The production is also rich and creates a very listenable montage of musical layers. A good mix of jangly guitars and keyboards with tasteful additions of the occasional violin, steel guitar, trumpet, piano and percussion. The sonics match the high quality of the songs. I can’t not draw comparison to Tom Petty as Dan’s voice has similar qualities, and the Americana rock vibe is familiar albeit still fresh to listen to. He has brought his own style to what is a well-trodden musical path, and the music is comfortable but contemporary. Lyrically, too, I am glad to say that he doesn’t fall into cliche, and the words are well though-out and engaging.

His musical influences shine through but don’t drown him out. There are flashes of Dylan and Petty and also, interestingly, I found myself hearing bluesy Stones vibes, especially on the acoustic slide guitar groove “Porch Storm” that ends the album. A similar vibe comes through on “Long Gone Dream” and “Soul Will Be Found,” which have a bluesy retro feel, kind of Canned Heat and Beggars Banquet-period Stones.

Dan Israel, Minneapolis 2018

photo by Steven Cohen; photo courtesy of Dan Israel

The album starts a little downbeat with “Gets You Through It” but is sent hurtling on with track 2, “You’re Free.” I always question whether it’s useful to start making comparisons to other artists. Not sure it’s very fair on the reviewee, but on the flip side it is handy for readers to get a feel for whether they will like the albums based on their own musical tastes. So I’m going with the comparison route, and with that in mind I would say that the title track is very Traveling Wilburys, and that can only be a good thing.

There are nice twists on the next song, “Back To You,” with the introduction of violin and a female backing vocal alongside the main voice. Also some lovely Springsteen-esque organ playing and a bright guitar solo.

“Make This Life Mine” and “Stay on the Run” are softer and bring a beautiful acoustic shade to the album, whilst “Feeling Better” and “If I Didn’t Have You” are back in the Tom Petty groove.

It’s always brilliant to discover an album of music that you dig. Quite out of the blue, I am very lucky to have been introduced to Dan Israel and look forward to continuing listens to this excellent album.

The album is available on LP, CD, and for download. You can find out more on Dan’s website, www.danisraelmusic.com.

Looking Ahead

He is a busy performer, and if you want to keep up to date with his live shows, you should keep an eye on the website, but in the meantime he can be found in June playing the following dates:

Thursday, June 14: Dan plays solo in downtown Minneapolis at 333 South 7th Street, a free show outside on the lawn of Accenture Tower, (in close proximity to Hennepin County Government Center, Capella Tower and other downtown buildings) from noon to 1 pm.

Friday, June 15: Dan participates in the Wooldridge Brothers Starts at Dusk album release show at Eagles 34 in Minneapolis, at 8 pm, along with White Sweater, Lolo’s Ghost, and more.

Saturday, June 16: Dan plays solo at the Stone Arch Bridge Festival in Minneapolis, 3:15 pm on the City Pages stage under the Central Ave bridge; earlier in the day, Dan plays a show at 11 am at a family farm, for the Friends & Family Day event at Tangletown Gardens, in Plato, Minnesota.

Friday, June 22: Dan plays solo at Flat Earth Brewing in St. Paul, 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm.

Thursday, June 28: Dan opens (solo acoustic) for Peter Himmelman at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis; the club website lists showtime of 7:00 pm.

Friday, June 29: Dan plays solo at the Trempealeau Hotel in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, 8 pm to 11 pm.

Saturday, June 30: Dan plays solo at Chankaska Winery in Kasota, MN, 6:30 to 9:30 pm.

[Publisher’s Note: Of course, I also reviewed Dan’s last album, Dan, in January 2016. If you’re interested in reading that, too, here’s the link. -GW]

Album Review: Meand’er – This Magic Path

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Meand’er: This Magic Path

This Magic Path is the first album from Devon based English duo, Meand’er.

Father and daughter, Graham Crocker and Hannah Power have been playing acoustic music together for many years although only recently as a duo. In previous incarnations they have been a support act for many well-known artists, including Martin Carthy, Seth Lakeman, Al Stewart, Roy Harper, Julie Felix and Roy Wood, to name a few.

Meand'er - This Magic Path

image courtesy of Meand’er

The new album is a beautiful, gentle, acoustic affair. The 12 tracks are self-penned with lyrics by Hannah Power (apart from the instrumental in the song “Service and Bond,” which is a medley of three traditional Irish tunes: “The Eavesdropper,” “Saddle the Pony,” and “East at Glendart”).

Hannah and Graham play all the instruments on the album but have assistance from James Crocker, who adds guitar, mandolin, bass, and accordion on the tracks “Service and Bond” and “There Will Be A Spring.” They are also joined by the wonderful violin playing of Morwenna Millership on “Ed’s Song” and “The Boat That Brought Me Home.”

All the album’s songs are highly accomplished and have taken many years to reach the point where the duo were ready to commit to recording them. As the pair say on their Bandcamp page, “This album has been a long time in the making, partly because the arrangements developed naturally as we performed them. We finalised the recording of each track only when we were happy with the way it was sounding.”

Happy they should be, indeed. I really enjoyed the organic quality of the recording from the slight creak of a performers chair on the opening track “The Short and the Long” to the entrancing simple lone voice of Hannah on the final and title track, “This Magic Path.”

Meand'er

photo courtesy of Meand’er

It is worth highlighting the spellbinding nature of Hannah Power’s voice. There is a contemporary resonance to it but it also rests in your soul as if you’ve been listening to it all your life. Warm and calming classic English folk tones but with so much more. A beautiful delivery that reflects her own inner voice. There is a natural tone and accent, a genuineness that makes it unique and appealing. This sense of realness carries through the words of each song and makes the album iridescent with heartfelt and personal experiences. On first listen you get a sense of eavesdropping into a personal world, and you know that further listens will reward you with rich detail.

There is so much lyrical content to try and cover in one short review, but in short I would sum it all up as brilliantly refreshing. They avoid cliche and they spark imagery and intriguing storytelling. So often writers fall back on easy solutions, and you get that feeling that you’ve heard it all before. Not so here; for instance, the biographical intensity of “Ed’s Song” with Hannah wanting to “be more rock n roll” but instead having bus fares and P.E kits to find with a forlorn cry of “I’m an ageing single mother trying to make it good.”

The unique lyrics are gently couched within a melodic tapestry created through a delicate approach of guitar with well thought out acoustic embellishment, be it mandolin, violin, or accordion. The sequencing of the album tracks is also key and effortlessly takes you on the journey. The mix of instrumentation and delivery means you are always met with intrigue and a smile of a new familiarity as one song ends and the next begins. All very beguiling.

A great debut album of sparkling unique, new English folk music.

You can find the album on their Bandcamp page at https://meander1.bandcamp.com/releases or follow them on Facebook at
https://www.facebook.com/MeanderDevon.

EP Review: Matt Westerman – Life Out Loud

Matt Westerman

photo courtesy of FARdigital PR

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Matt Westerman: Life Out Loud

Reviewing new music can be a bit daunting. Expectations are high, and you always want to stumble upon something that you love. Personally, I like to be grabbed when I listen to something for the first time. It is not always obvious what it is that sparks that interest; it may be a melody or a clever lyric or a mood or the rhythm that sweeps you up.

It’s the same with a film or a book. The narrative is key. I want to be interested in the characters, intrigued by the story. I want to be drawn in so I stick around to find out how it turns out.

Matt Westerman - Life Out Loud

image courtesy of FARdigital PR

The big question is, does the new EP from Matt Westerman make me feel this way? Let’s see…

Matt Westerman is a Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and Life Out Loud is his debut EP. His website says that he “writes upbeat acoustic pop songs with a positive, compassionate message meant to uplift and inspire listeners everywhere”.

In the last few years, Westerman has been carving out his dreams on stage, with gigs all over the Southern California area, from clubs to bars and even busking on the Santa Monica pier.

The EP features 6 tracks happily sitting in the popular mainstream with an easy pop presence. Lots of people will love this music, even if there are many other contemporary singer-songwriters competing for the same listener’s ear.

The opening song, “Don’t Give Up On You,” and following track, “One Fine Day,” are clearly the best of the collection with a smooth acoustic pop delivery.

“Don’t Give Up On You” starts a bit like a modern-sounding twist on a Simon and Garfunkel song but then grows through its positive vibe chorus to something more akin to Damien Rice or James Blunt. Matt Westerman’s voice is very much in the style and range of these singers.

Matt Westerman - Don't Give Up On You

image courtesy of FARdigital PR

“One Fine Day” has a Jack Johnson groove which confirmed my feeling that the EP had one foot in 2005, when a lot of singer songwriters were making an impact on the charts. Given their success, it is not a bad vein to mine.

The EP benefits greatly from the production of Brad Swanson, whose tracks can be heard in popular shows like Smallville, CSI and Ghost Whisperer. Matt is also joined by many notable session players including pedal steel player Marty Rifkin, a longtime Bruce Springsteen collaborator, and session journeyman Sean Hurley on bass, who has performed on John Mayer’s records.

There is so much potential for this debut release, and in this streaming age it won’t cost you anything to check it out for yourself. It would be worth doing just that, and then if you like what you hear you can commit to buying yourself a copy.

So whilst you all go and make up your own mind by giving Matt a listen, I still have to answer that big question I set earlier. How did it make me feel?

Well, here we have beautifully made music, with crisp and clean production. The songs are successfully populist in their themes of hope and love and deliver a pleasant FM radio wash.

I could argue that I felt it lacked an original edge and maybe I would have liked more narrative in the lyrics, but should this style of easy going, light touch, acoustic pop, really need to trouble itself with such ambition? Probably not, and I see from looking at Matt’s profile on Spotify he has a great many plays and monthly listeners, so it would seem his approach is, as I already said, a very popular one and I guess, at the end of the day, if it works for the many, who am I to doubt it?

Anyway, after any misgivings I had on first listen when it didn’t instantly grab me, I am glad to say that after many more, Matt’s debut release is definitely and positively a grower and worthy of your attention, so go listen.

Looking Ahead

Matt’s website currently list just a single show, a February 6th, 2018 data at Bar Lubitsch in West Hollywood, CA. See the “shows” page on his website for additional details and future shows as they’re added.

Alternatively hook up with him on social media, Facebook or Twitter.

Publisher’s Addendum

“One Fine Day” has made its way onto my personal smartphone playlist, the one whose first several shuffled-up songs during a breakfast or lunch out I periodically share with my twitter followers, dubbing it a breakfast (or lunchtime) playlist. One fine day (pun intended), since I carry “One Fine Day” on my phone, it’ll shuffle up this song from Matt. – Geoff Wilbur

EP Review: Cain Rising – Rear View Mirror

Cain Rising

photo courtesy of Cain Rising

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Cain Rising: Rear View Mirror

Following on from their critically acclaimed self-titled debut album Cain Rising, the band have been back in the studio to record new songs for release on this 5-track EP Rear View Mirror, out today, October 10th, 2017. All the songs have been released as singles over the past few months providing exciting glimpses, one song at a time, of what the band have been working on.

Where the debut album displayed the breadth of their influences, from East Coast rock to raw folk, the five tracks on Rear View Mirror show a band whose confidence is growing and who are not afraid to let their music grow with it.

Cain Rising - Rear View Mirror EP cover

image courtesy of Cain Rising

Since we last heard from Cain Rising, there have been some personnel changes. The core of Jo Parry, Jez Parry and Jimmy Price remains. Incoming guitarist Ian Hopper is edgy and creative; Matt Crawford on Hammond and piano gives the band a touch of soul; and Mick Ivory’s drumming is its beating heart.

The title track of the EP, “Rear View Mirror,” is an effortlessly catchy, hit the road, summer song that drives along from the opening chords to the mariachi outro. This is the first time the band have experimented with a brass section courtesy of Rebecca Gibson Swift and Pablo Mendelssohn.

“Glasgow City Spires” has the band rocking out behind lyrics reflecting the alienation that can hit you when returning to your home city after many years. It’s a feel good bouncy tune, with swirling organ, warm snappy guitars and a driving chorus.

“Soldier” takes the tempo back a touch with a real retro feel. A touch of Andy Fairweather-Low, a touch of The Hollies and an evocative Gretsch guitar solo.

Cain Rising

photo courtesy of Cain Rising

“Walk My Way” is a swinging rock tune. Once again adorned with horns plus a call and answer bridge in a Billy Joel “Innocent Man” style, which gives it all a foot tapping, bopping and breezy sway.

Finally the mood is taken down with “Social Man,” a tense, raw, stripped-back piano song. It’s good to be shown that the band have a versatility and confidence beyond the airy summer rock, and this track provides a perfect natural conclusion to the EP.

As well as the music, I should also mention that the drawing behind the cover art for the EP and singles is by Julian O’Dell. Julian’s artwork has long been a favourite of the band’s and has created a unique style for this release. His work can be found on his website www.artattackoncancer.org. All proceeds from his sales go to the Action Against Cancer charity.

Cain Rising

photo courtesy of Cain Rising

My previous reviews of the first two singles from this EP (here and here) have extolled the virtues of this band. Now at last you can get the full EP. With these 5 tracks you get a satisfying, hit the freeway, window down, summer blast. Get up close and personal with a pair of headphones, though, and you’ll find an equally enjoyable and rewarding listen thanks to the great production – credit for which goes to Jamie Masters, who seems to be able to get right inside the band’s sound and bring out the very best of the songs.

Great tunes, great songwriting, great production, great band. If you like Springsteen, Dylan, Tom Petty, Beatles, et al, you should really listen to Cain Rising’s new EP and then go get the album for good measure. Here is a band influenced by the greats and who then turn their own creativity into new wonderful music for now and for the future.

Follow the band on Facebook or Twitter @CainRising or visit their website at www.cainrising.rocks.

Album Review: Lindsey Luff – Lindsey Luff

Lindsey Luff

photo by Dustin Cohen; photo courtesy of Lindsey Luff

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Lindsey Luff: Lindsey Luff

This self-titled debut album from Lindsey Luff is hyper radio-friendly. I would go so far as to say it is an album full of singles. But there is so much more to this record than its glossy radio appeal. Get under the surface and you discover a deeper introspective worth. The singer has created an album to be proud of whilst candidly revealing a life of heartache and pain. These are raw emotions dressed up in such a well-presented musical package that it offers both passing radio play enjoyment and for the more discerning, a darker more rewarding experience.

“Music has been a really healing process for me,” says Lindsey. “I think this record is a story of the pain I’ve gone through in my life. It’s me processing that anger, and giving it a name and a face. It adds skin and bones to everything I’ve dealt with, and it makes it clear that those things don’t define me.”

Lindsey has an absorbing and plaintive voice; an intriguingly lazy drawl with a depth of world weariness. She puts it to good use in this revealing and beautifully concise 32-minute, 9-track album.

Lindsey Luff

cover design by Stephen Brayda; photo by Dustin Cohen; image courtesy of Lindsey Luff

There are some real standout moments here, plus a few tracks that happily grow on you. Opening track “Anything at All” is certainly a grower for me. After a few listens I found myself enjoying it more and more and liked the “Ticket to Ride” line which nicely referenced Lindsey’s childhood listening preferences.

Second song, “Until It’s True,” has a driving beat and bright sound that put me in mind of Fleetwood Mac and KT Tunstall, which also applies to the next track, “Remind Me,” which comes at you with a country pop kick and ultra catchy chorus. Could be my favourite track, but the more I listen, the more contenders there are. What a great dilemma to have.

“If You’re Leaving” starts slowly with a great drum groove (bit like Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”), and I have to admit, although it highlights the sonic geek in me, I really enjoyed the drum sound on the album, especially the relaxed and airy bass drum. Musically the album is beautifully played and its level of understatement gives the songs lots of room to breathe. This is particularly prevalent in the next song, “Homecoming,” with its warm acoustic opening and delicate vocal.

Next up is “What I Wouldn’t Do.” There is something reminiscent in the intro of KD Lang. I could also imagine a later-life Roy Orbison singing this. Very solid stuff and, yet again, another very radio friendly track.

Lindsey Luff

photo by Dustin Cohen; photo courtesy of Lindsey Luff

Track 7, “Weathered,” has a wonderful 3/4 swing that works so well in creating a swaying folky vibe, underlined by a weaving Gaelic lilt.

Penultimate track is “Wishing Well,” a love song to Lindsey’s husband, longtime supporter and childhood sweetheart.

Final track “Those Days Are Gone” is a stripped-back affair, just voice and ukulele. It is a nice way to end, a moment of solitude that focuses you directly on the singer for a final thoughtful moment before enticing you to take another listen from the top.

The album was co-written with a small group of collaborators, including the Lone Bellow’s Brian Elmquist. A similar approach was taken in the recording, filling the studio with guests, including singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken.

I completely agree with Lindsey Luff’s own conclusion on the album where she states that the songs don’t overshadow the challenging circumstances that birthed them. This is well-constructed, classic songwriting that draws from the musical influences of her childhood. Classic pop-style melodies woven through an alt-country landscape. This is a musically polished work but with the rough edge of painful raw emotions left unchecked. In the wrong hands it could have sounded mawkish, but Lindsey’s painful lyrics are delivered so boldly and honestly that the experience is very real, engaging and highly listenable.

It has been a pleasure to discover Lindsey’s music through this album, which is available now for download and streaming. Discover more through her website, where you can keep an eye out for any live shows at www.lindseyluff.com.

Album Review: Hobo Chang – Beast

Hobo Chang

photo by Tom Eyers; photo courtesy of Hobo Chang

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Hobo Chang: Beast

Hobo Chang - Beast

cover artwork by Paul Rumsey http://www.paulrumsey.co.uk/; image courtesy of Hobo Chang

Hobo Chang are a band from North East Essex in the UK and comprise of Fiona Harmon, Nick Munt, Phil Pain and Andrew Kearton. Together on this album release Beast, they have forged a sound like an illicit affair between ’70s prog rock and its snarling New Wave nemesis. There is a darkness and underground mood to the album. A swampy, lo-fi vibe creating a hypnotic and swirling sonic landscape with a vaguely disturbing mood that matches the album’s artwork of a struggling bull in a straight jacket. Fiona Harmon, the lead singer, has a voice that conjures up an intriguing crossover between Siouxsie Sioux, Dolores O’Riordan, and Cerys Matthews. Generally, the vocals are placed low in the mix and become a layer of texture within the music; an ethereal ambiance, like a sea washing against the shore. The band describe their sound as “a dark psychedelic funky train ride, experimental, apocalyptic and soulful with their roots in blues, jazz, reggae and the good bits of rock.”

Beast is a DIY approach to making albums. Only available as a download album through the band’s Bandcamp page, it is an indicator of the more accessible and modern way for bands to release and promote their music without the restricting, traditional expenses.

Hobo Chang

photo by Stuart Armitage; photo courtesy of Hobo Chang

The album is a dark, enveloping set of 10 songs. Not much light and shade within its tension, but I found it a fascinating listen and enjoyed the compelling journey of discovery. They have been getting many positive endorsements including musical poet John Cooper Clarke who said, “They’re a fantastic band, one of the great unsigned; I love them.”

You can catch the band live in the UK on the 28th May at Cosmic Puffin Festival or on 7th July at the 3 Wise Monkeys in Colchester. (Those are the dates currently listed on the “Gigs” page on Hobo Chang’s website; check back for others as they’re added.)