Album Review: Justin Piper – Transcend

Justin Piper

photo courtesy of Justin Piper

Album Review of Justin Piper: Transcend

You first read about Justin Piper here at the Blog in the spring of 2017, when he was one of the songwriters “in the round” featured during Off the Stage Music’s first Behind the Songs event. Today, I’ll take you through a spin of Justin’s latest release.

As you listen to Justin’s album Transcend, you’ll quickly discover instrumental guitar stylings that are unique and intricate; his music is memorable, with song structure and progressions forming tight single units, all cohesive within the album as a whole, tied together intentionally by writing and ordering the songs to connect to those before and after. And, of course, Justin does have an identifiable guitar style, intricate though it is, tying his songs together, as well. The style, if it must be categorized, is perhaps cool, nature-themed jazz, but very adult contemporary singer-songwriter structured (sans the singer part), forming its own little corner of the easy listening genre, as it sure is easy to listen to. In fact, it’s a form of music that stands up to dozens of listens a month for months on end – I know that from experience – without fading in enjoyment.

Justin Piper - Transcend

image courtesy of Justin Piper

Most of the songs on the disc evoke outdoor imagery. In cases like album-opener “Lakeside,” for example, you can almost hear raindrops falling on the lake, and also at times the lake washing against the shore.

“Through Composed” makes me picture an intellectual journey. There’s a meandering nature to the versus, with a faster pace to the chorus, which brings forth thoughts of an accelerated periods of understanding something, interspersed within prolonged periods of seeking and questioning. If I make an effort to picture physical events, I can, as well. That’s the cool thing about Justin’s compositions. They go somewhere, and they’re open to interpretation, even if/when he had something specific (and different) in mind. Of course, a lot of our favorite songs are that way.

Speaking of favorite songs, one of my preferred cuts on this disc, “Camels,” is next. It sports a recurring energetic series of notes that seem to exist in a few spots on this album, with soaring bridges in between. Very hip, cool, and jazzy in nature, this is one of the standout tracks on Transcend.

Justin Piper

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The soft finger-picking on “Rondo” forms a welcome, familiar, comforting North Star each time through the disc. Relaxing and calming. Recalling elements of many of the other tracks but with a light sense all its own, at times seeming to cheerfully indicate beams of sunlight shining through gaps in the pine forest before giving way to slightly different but sonically similar “Lenny Three.”

On “Falling Through the Dark,” Justin takes a little more exotic musical turn, with heavy strumming and a somewhat otherworldly twang driving the music. It flows nicely into “Mahavishnu’s Lullaby,” which softens the hard edges a bit and replaces them with some winding musical twists and turns.

“Peace Three” picks up the pace, perhaps one of the truly jazziest numbers on the album, with lightly dancing runs returning to a frenetic base rhythm. Followed by the memorable rhythm of “Fayetteville Honey,” this pair of songs is a welcome guidepost along the album’s musical journey that sparks a joyful smile of recognition each time through.

Justin Piper

photo courtesy of Justin Piper

From there, “Nearly Arriving” softly sets the stage for another of my absolute favorites on this disc, the pleasant “Snow Shower,” a song whose musical sprinkles land softly and joyfully with a light, upbeat energy. Brings forth images of frolicking in the snow and, during the slower segments, perhaps catching a flake or two on your tongue.

After “Bugs” zips by quickly, with an odd little sound at the end – a bug crawling or flying quickly and then getting zapped? – Justin showcases an odd, halfway off-kilter sound on “The Line.” It brings to mind, for me, an image of a snake-charmer getting a cobra to rise, though that’s only a 90% correct image, as there are a few notes that don’t quite fit. With these two tunes, though, Justin has added a bit of tension to the listening experience.

So he winds the album down with a couple songs that unwind the tension. First, “Stutter Steps,” which is a little stop-and-start – stutter step-like, I suppose – before washing the album out to sea with “Bobbing,” a number that (you guessed it) rises and falls pleasantly before twittering away to an end.

By the end of the first listen, you’ll realize Justin Piper’s dynamic, original talent, combining his songwriting skill with a unique guitar-playing style that’s soft but substantial. And the resulting Transcend is an album that’s enjoyable across repeated listens.

Where to Catch a Live Performance

At the moment, Justin’s performance calendar only lists his recurring Monday night gig at the Bell In Hand Tavern in Boston. Get out to see him some Monday night, and check back for more performances as he adds them.

Album Review: Shawn Butzin – Northern Trails

Shawn Butzin

photo courtesy of Shawn Butzin

Album Review of Shawn Butzin: Northern Trails

This review is long overdue, as Shawn Butzin has already released another EP, Adventures, since, but Northern Trails is such a great album I need to tell you about it. Shawn’s music sounds comfortable and familiar, like a favorite old shoe. I suppose it’s best described as Americana or, perhaps, folk-influenced country. At one time, I might have labeled this California country-rock due to its Eagles-ish rock edge with folky overtones, though Shawn lands on the country side of that equilibrium while I’d place the Eagles on the rock side. But you know by now I rarely have a favorite album that fits neatly into a category. Shawn emotive and not-quite-gravelly vocal combines with energetic strumming and, most importantly, imaginative and catchy songwriting that keeps the album moving forward, never settling into a rut, always turning out new wrinkles into a cohesive set of songs.

I have several favorites on this album, and disc-opener “Carefree to Carolina” is the first. A travelin’ song with twang and a feeling of wide open spaces, it’s driven by a hooky recurring guitar bit and a wisftul, edgy vocal, always persistently pushing forward without abandoning its laid-back posture.

Shawn Butzin - Northern Trails

image courtesy of Shawn Butzin

It’s followed by full-on contemplative moodiness in “What Did I Mean to You,” a plaintive ditty with a purposefully plodding rhythm, all serving the lyrics well. And, as with so many of his songs, Shawn’s lyrical skill shines on this song, with his words precisely chosen, suiting the song’s distinct flavor. In this case, descriptive but not showy.

The jangly, fun “Homemade Jesus” is a toetapper of the first order, its homespun twang delivering a vocal line full of emotion, while a more straightforward harmony vocal line adds stability. The song is over before it really settles in, a quick ditty (and “ditty” is descriptive in this case) that’s sure to be an audience favorite.

“Leaving Colorado” and “Hometown Blues” return the album to its wistful, melancholy lane. In this respect, Northern Trails‘ song order is one of the things that makes it such an interesting listen, a cohesive whole that never bores. Even though each song has its own distinctive sound, I can envision a grouping that wouldn’t accentuate the songs’ individuality as much.

Shawn follows those two songs with a very cool cover of “Blue Bayou.” His vocal waver adds a distinctive Butzin flavor to the well-worn favorite, and he even pulls out an insistive vocal edginess while hitting the high notes that’s not widely used in the rest of the collection. I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this cover based on Shawn’s other songs, but it fits quite nicely among Northern Trails‘ other entries.

Shawn Butzin

photo courtesy of Shawn Butzin

I’d place “You and I” at the alt-country edge of the disc, if only due to the sort of Talking Heads-reminiscent music bed. (I didn’t catch that comparison until after a few dozen listens, but now I can’t unhear it.)

“Back Together Someday” is more pure folky Americana twanger, a notably hopeful number that utilizes brief but abrupt vocal pauses to great emotional advantage.

Shawn plays with the tempo a bit in “I’m Your Loving Man” before slowing things down on album-ender “Your Sweet Love,” a drawn-out-sounding ballad that seems like what you might hear during a slow dance at an old-school country music/’50s pop-rock dance hall; there are a couple spots where I almost expect Shawn to break into “Please Mister Postman.” (I checked, and that was a 1961 release, but yeah, the early ’60s still had that ’50s vibe.) Picture a mirror ball and a sea of couples slowly swaying to the rhythm, and you’ll get the vibe of “Your Sweet Love.”

As a whole, Northern Trails is a collection that stands the test of time. I should know – it’s been on my playlist for more than a year, and I still dig it every time through. So, yes, even though there’s a more recently released EP in Shawn’s repertoire now, this is still the last full-length release, and I heartily endorse checking it out.

Shawn Butzin Live

The “events” tab of Shawn’s Facebook page lists a couple of upcoming gigs. On Saturday, December 15th, he’ll be at the Acoustic Tap Room in Traverse City, Michigan. And on Saturday, January 12th, he’ll be at Rocky’s Bar and Grill in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Shawn’s bandsintown page lists a lot more upcoming gigs, including January 4th at the Snowbelt Brewing Co. in Gaylord, Michigan; January 24th at the Traverse City Whiskey Co. in Traverse City; and several more shows across Michigan (plus a March 15th date at Uncommon Ground in Chicago) through the rest of the winter.

Album Review: Joe Kidd & Sheila Burke – Everybody Has a Purpose

Joe Kidd & Sheila Burke

photo courtesy of Joe Kidd & Sheila Burke

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Joe Kidd and Sheila Burke: Everybody Has a Purpose

Joe Kidd and Sheila Burke are a contemporary folk-rock duo that features stellar harmonies matched with skilled songwriting and heartfelt themes. In the five-plus years they’ve been together they’ve performed all around the United States, Mexico, and Canada spreading a message of peace, love and harmony.

Joe Kidd & Sheila Burke - Everybody Has a Purpose

photo courtesy of Joe Kidd & Sheila Burke

Fans of classic acoustic and folk artists like Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Arlo Guthrie, and others will certainly appreciate this duo. But their music has a timeless and limitless quality that is sure to satisfy any age or era.

The title track “Everybody Has a Purpose” lays the foundation for their music, with a message of being an individual and finding one’s place in the world. Echoes of Jessie Colin Young, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell certainly come to mind.

Joe Kidd & Sheila Burke

photo courtesy of Joe Kidd & Sheila Burke

Another strong song represented here is Burke’s ode to a serviceman “Veteran’s Song (My Brother).” She has the voice of an angel and her depiction of a soldier who seems to be dealing with PTSD is powerful.

“Shadow At the End of the Road” stands out as well for its haunting melody and mood. It has a Byrds meets Buffalo Springfield kind of feel matched with marvelous vocals and a contemplative resonance.

The struggles of the working man are reflected in the Pete Seeger-like “Grandpa Was a Coal Miner.” Tunes like that and, basically, all their material is directed toward the common man, woman, and human experience.

Joe Kidd & Sheila Burke

photo courtesy of Joe Kidd & Sheila Burke

There is a primary element to Joe Kidd and Sheila Burke’s music that is, at once, relatable and down to earth, yet spiritual and transcendent. The songs “Will Do” and “They Call it Romantic” are all that and are lighthearted and fun too.

Keep an eye out for this duo on the concert circuit as they keep a steady performance schedule throughout the year. Check their website for a list of upcoming performances, beginning with a Saturday, December 1st Rock For Tots benefit show at Freddy’s Bar & Grill in Clinton Township, MI.

Album Review: Thornetta Davis – Honest Woman

Thornetta Davis

photo by Bob Schultz; photo courtesy of Thornetta Davis

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Thornetta Davis: Honest Woman

She is often referred to as Detroit’s “Queen of the Blues.” And for good reason! Thornetta Davis has consistently won numerous awards in her hometown and abroad and, with this current album, shows she is as strong a composer and songwriter as she is a singer. According to the liner notes, this album was roughly 20 years in the making. And, while Davis always delivers a sincere and no-holds-barred performance, this is some of her more personal and powerful material to date.

Thornetta Davis - Honest Woman

image courtesy of Thornetta Davis

This is a full-length feature, with a baker’s dozen of all Davis originals. It’s a seamless cross-section of rocking blues and gospel-inflected R&B that truly is a showcase for what this world class artist is all about. “I Gotta Sang the Blues” kicks things off in an appropriate autobiographical vein. It’s an uptempo funky number that guests the legendary Kim Wilson trading vocals and harmonica with the Detroit diva. “That Don’t Appease Me” finds Davis boasting loud and proud in her defense from a man that did her wrong. This one really swings as well as rocks the house. “Set Me Free” changes the pace a bit, offering a jazzy feel, with great choral vocals and superb guitar from Saginaw blues man Larry McCray. Davis makes reference to Sam Cooke in her notes, and “I Believe (Everything Gonna Be Alright)” kind of rings with that “Change is Gonna Come” kind of vibe. Other highlights can be found in the spirited “Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues,” with horns by the late Marcus Belgrave, and the title track “Honest Woman” that features Kid Rock saxophonist David McMurray and intense revelatory lyrics from the singer.

Davis is joined by many of Detroit’s first-call session players and side musicians, including guitarist Brett Lucas, bassist James Simonson, drummers Skeeto Valdez, Todd Glass and Dave Marcaccio, keyboardists Phillip Hale and Chris Codish and many others. Simply put, it’s a solid release!

Live Gigs

Per the “gigs” tab of Thornetta’s website, she’ll be performing tonight, November 23rd, and tomorrow night, November 24th, at Kingston Mines in Chicago. Thornetta’s Facebook page also lists a March 2, 2019 show with Mike Wheeler at The Token Lounge in Westland, Michigan. I’d definitely keep an eye out for other live shows, too.

EP Review: Edge of Paradise – Alive

EP Review of Edge of Paradise: Alive

Edge of Paradise‘s follow-up to Immortal Waltz continues its full-on edgy hard rock aural assault. Margarita Monet’s emotively powerful voice again combines with a hard-driving, shredding metal music bed to deliver a set of memorable tunes. The songs are in Edge of Paradise’s trademark slightly off-balance, funhouse mirror metal style.

I gave a sneak peek at a couple of this EP’s tracks at the end of my Immortal Waltz review in 2017. One of those was the title track, “Alive.” Driven by churning guitars, some nearly-full-stop tempo changes, and a breathy flavor to a fair portion of the vocals, this is a power rock track. And it’s stylistically very clearly an Edge of Paradise song.

Edge of Paradise - Alive

image courtesy of Edge of Paradise

I totally dig the harmonies in hard rocker “Dust to Dust.” Yet, as straightforward as this track is, it still keeps the listener off-balance with croakily growled vocals and off-balance musical backing during the bridges. Indeed, nothing about an Edge of Paradise song is ever perfectly straightforward, but this churning rocker sprinkles EoP’s trademark song-twisting elements with a light touch for a fun change of pace.

It’s followed by “Mystery,” a theatrical ballad, suitable for anything from radio play to a rock opera performance. Monet’s straining vocals sit atop a music bed based on piano and orchestral strings, driven by booming drums and a rock guitar growl. An extremely touching, emotional, sensitive ballad, “Mystery” shows off Edge of Paradise’s range and is the song on this disc with the broadest cross-genre appeal.

The power is back with “Shade of Crazy,” with Monet’s expressive vocals providing texture to the otherwise hard-driving, powerful, crunchy melodic metal song.

“Humanoid” closes the Alive EP. Kicking off with frenetic drums and guitars behind an odd croaking vocal, the song evolves into a rhythmic power rocker in which Monet’s vocals are largely another instrument, and the beat is the real star.

I’m never sure if Edge of Paradise is one of the more uniquely original progressive rock-influenced melodic heavy metal acts or if they’re one of the more mainstream power rock-influenced heavy theatrical progressive bands on the scene. Regardless, their music is fun to listen to, their musicians and vocalist are top-shelf hard rock/metal talent, and I always look forward to hearing what they’ll do next.

Looking Ahead

I’ve taken so long to get this review written that Edge of Paradise’s new album will be out in just a few months, so there’s plenty to look forward to, but if you don’t already have this EP, it’ll be a great way to fill the gap while the next disc is in the works. In the meantime, also check the band’s website for tour dates. Currently listed are a couple early 2019 shows in Japan – January 31 in Yokohama and February 2, 2019 in Tokyo.

EP Review: Allyson Paige – Little Girl Lost

Allyson Paige

photo by Tom Dellinger; photo courtesy of Allyson Paige

EP Review of Allyson Paige: Little Girl Lost

The depth, warmth, and emotion of Allyson Paige‘s voice is what first stands out, and it’s the piece of the Little Girl Lost musical tapestry that remains a memorable constant. Stylistically, the three songs included on this musical snippet are old-school, folky country. The folkiness comes from Allyson’s picking (and, I assume, grinning) guitar style. The music on this disc would dub Allyson the country singer on an adult contemporary radio station, the folk singer at a country dancehall show, or just the singer-songwriter at an outdoor festival.

Allyson Paige - Little Girl Lost

image courtesy of Allyson Paige

The most energetic – and most knee-slappin’, twangy – number on the disc is the title track, “Little Girl Lost.” It’s a lively story-filled ditty with tempo changes, hooks, vocal flourishes and guitar runs all endearing this song quite quickly. A fun song, you’d definitely turn the sound up on the radio if this came on. This is (usually) my favorite of the EP’s three songs.

The other two cuts on Little Girl Lost are much softer, slower in tempo. First, a heartfelt ode to a certain beloved Gibson guitar, “Gibson Dove.” Sentimental and poignant, Allyson’s voice wavers in all the right spots, cementing this song’s very personal, emotional nature.

Final track “Jerry the Viking” sneakily became another favorite over the past many months. A strumming number that most clearly shows off the soaring power of Allyson’s voice, it plods along pleasingly in a sway-to-the-music drinking song style. But one from the end of the night, as everyone’s almost fallen asleep, mellow from perhaps a drink too many, its slow tempo bringing the EP to a close with a warm, pleasant, satisfied feeling.

Allyson Paige

photo by Bob Hakins; photo courtesy of Allyson Paige

I’m a big fan of song-ordering on discs, and the song order of Little Girl Lost is ideal, opening with energy and closing with relaxing warmth, a feeling of completion.

This short collection from Allyson Paige seems like a great introduction to a talented singer. Rather, singer-songwriter, as the well-craftedness of the songs are perhaps the most important element, Allyson’s vox notwithstanding. Of course, if you’re already a fan, it’ll simply be a new favorite.

I’m particularly intrigued by the text on the EP’s CD Baby page: “A country folk departure for well known SF Bay Area Blues singer and songwriter Allyson Paige.” Now I really want to hear more of her music.

Looking Ahead

I don’t see any upcoming dates on the gig calendar page of Allyson’s website, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. You can also keep an eye on the “happenings” page of Allyson’s Joni Mitchell tribute band, Foni Mitchell.

Album Review: Amiena – All In

Album Review of Amiena: All In

Adult contemporary music. There’s not a lot of that out there with soft music beds, dancing rhythms, and powerful vocals. With the power of Bonnie Tyler and the richness of perhaps a balladic Cher, but with a style so all-her-own that neither of those is really a good comparison, Amiena fills a gap in the current musical landscape. I suppose her positioning might be as a big-voice diva in the Adele vein, though it’s not exactly that. Amiena’s music also exhibits the pop sensibilities that helped launch singers like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey into the public consciousness (for those of us old enough to remember that they launched their careers as danceable pop singers).

But that’s enough name-dropping. The comparisons aren’t even that on-point. Amiena’s voice is all her own, as within a couple seconds of hearing one of her songs, I know who’s singing it. Rather, the comparisons are meant to give you an idea of whose musical sandbox she plays in.

Amiena - All In

image courtesy of Amiena

There’s a bit of syncopated rhythm and maybe a touch of Latin spice in the jangly music bed behind Amiena’s soft, expressive vocal on disc-opener “Chance.” The song allows her to turn her voice over, from soft and sweet to firm and all-business. There’s really no other way to explain the vocal dichotomy that helps make this song so interesting and memorable; stylistically, as well, the vocals progress steadily while the music, in this case, dances around the voice.

The next track, “Ghost” (featuring guitarist Nitin Sawhney), has a bit of Americana jangle, largely due to Roly Platt’s guest harmonica part, resulting in a bit of a Richard Marx “Hazard”-ish vibe, but with Amiena’s flowing version of an emotional vocal line.

It’s followed by a true, flowing, rising-and-falling ballad, “All In.” The title track’s production delivers a cavernous concert hall flavor to this classic-feeling vocal powerhouse-type song, a rich wall of sound surrounding Amiena’s crisp, strong vocal, all while sporting minimal instrumentation, mostly a keys-and-vocals number.

“Come With Me” adds some slow mid-tempo rhythm to the formula, feeling a bit like an ’80s diva almost-dance song – the sort that’s easy to sway energetically to, featuring powerful vocal embellishments, though not exactly what you’d call a dance number. If that description rings true to you, then you’ll know it’s a fun musical lane, very radio-friendly.

The rest of the disc falls within the range of its first few songs. I enjoy the stylized vocals and interesting rhythm of “Daydream.” “Frozen” has an interesting rhythmic beat, with the vocals interweaving with the playful percussion. And “Goodbye” weaves intriguing lyrics into the rhythmic pop diva formula, resulting in one of my personal favorite tracks on All In.

The last four songs on All In, in their own distinctive ways, utilize the wide-open-spaces flavor that showcases the soft power of Amiena’s vocals in a fashion loosely similar to “All In.” Among the quartet, “Broken” and “My God” are probably my favorites, though only slightly, as “Human” and “Take My Life” have their own unique elements. I’m sure you’ll select your own favorites.

I’m disappointed it’s taken me so long to write this review and share this album’s awesomeness with you – you’ve likely noticed a significant dropoff in my album review frequency since last fall. (Whether or not I pick up the pace soon, I’ve almost entirely halted accepting new music for review until I catch up on the backlog of seriously noteworthy albums in my review queue. And there’s some great music crossing my desk, too, so that’s too bad.)

But back to this release. Amiena’s voice ranks among the best of her subgenre, with power, emotion, edge, and a memorable tone. And that’s saying something, since her subgenre is powerhouse pop-AC vocalists. I’m so pleased to have been introduced to her music; you really need to listen for yourselves.

Looking Ahead

I don’t currently see any dates listed on Amiena’s calendar, but keep an eye on the “Tour Dates” page of her website or the “Events” tab of her Facebook page for announcements.