Album Review: Judy Collins – White Bird

Judy Collins – White Bird: Anthology of Favorites

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album Review of Judy Collins: White Bird – Anthology Of Favorites (Cleopatra Records)

Folk legend Judy Collins has released a disc right out of the sixties, White Bird. You know these songs. You love these songs. Your mother (or maybe your grandmother) loved these songs. Judy Collins was a voice from a certain time, but she’s also a timeless voice.

OK, you might not know all of these songs, but you know most of them. While White Bird includes longtime favorites, the title track (and first single) “White Bird” is a never-before-released cover of a 1969 song from the band It’s a Beautiful Day.

Beyond that, though, this collection is packed with most of Judy’s best, most memorable numbers. And, since she was before my time, though I know many of these songs from the radio, this is the first time they’ve been part of my music collection, and it’s the first time I’ve given them the repeated listens that allow me to truly appreciate the songs’ nuances and Judy’s amazing vocal talent.

Probably the most ubiquitous Judy Collins hit is “Both Sides Now,” her highest-charting song in the U.S. Judy has a subtle, sweet edge to her vocals, and they serve the melancholy tone of this song’s lyrics well, building to power at the end. But you know the song, so you already knew that.

The album also includes “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season).” Before it was a hit for The Byrds, it was a Judy Collins tune, and she sings it beautifully.

Seemingly always my favorite song on the collection after most listens, “Chelsea Morning” is coolly energetic and warm, with Judy’s sweet high vocals serving as a cheerful call to greeting a beautiful day.

The never-before-released cover of “White Bird,” though, is also exceptionally impressive. It has that ’60s piano-organ sound and a kind of intense energy for such a sweetly sung song. It serves as a powerful first and title song to kick off this collection.

“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” is another powerful number, despite its slow tempo and the fact that it really doesn’t build significantly in vocal volume. It’s more the tone of Judy’s voice and of the piano and some of the other instrumentation, as well as the song’s subject matter, that give it its gravitas.

There are a couple duets in the collection. The combination of Judy’s voice with Willie Nelson’s on the soaringly haunting “When I Go” is truly special. And she’s joined by Stephen Stills on “Last Thing On My Mind,” a pleasantly strummed song, and the vocal combo provides a slight – and I do mean slight – rock and roll-ish folk flavor.

The disc closes with “Send in the Clowns,” ending a largely cheerful disc with a powerful heaviness.

It seems odd to even review a Judy Collins album, packed with songs you already know so well. So I guess the message is that this album is available. And, though you know many of the songs, I can attest that this is a great assemblage of them, including at least one – the title track – that you’ve certainly not heard on a record before.

On the Road

Judy Collins is currently on tour. She has a couple November dates remaining in the Midwest – tonight in Chicago and tomorrow night in Three Oaks, Michigan, down near the Indiana border – but you can see her all over the U.S. during the next half-year or so. (December’s dates are in the Northeast, January’s in the Southeast, etc.) You can find dates and locations on the “Concerts” page of Judy’s website. In Europe, you’ll find a single November 5, 2022 show listed in Borgerhout, Belgium, but, of course, be sure to check Judy’s website periodically for more dates to be added, wherever you live.

Single Review: Lealiza – “We Americans”


photo courtesy of Dog Ranch Music PR

Single Review of Lealiza: “We Americans”

Lealiza is a Michigan-based singer-songwriter with a soft, rich, sweet vocal delivery. In the case of “We Americans,” it was a song she felt compelled to write, expressing her disapproval at seeing the U.S. military leaving Afghanistan in a frantic, disorganized hurry. The song went live today, November 11, on Spotify.

The key lyric to the song is “We don’t leave our people behind. We’re Americans, that’s not what we do.” The story in the song begins twenty years earlier, with the event that sparked the war, then contrasts it with the images from earlier this year. You can hear Lealiza’s emotions in the sweet yet powerful vocals, tied tightly to the song’s lyrics: “Some day I’ll come for you sure as the sky is blue. We don’t leave anyone behind.”

Lealiza – We Americans

image courtesy of Dog Ranch Music PR

Poignant and topical, this is a powerful song from Lealiza, ably expressing the emotions she shares with so many fellow citizens as this past September’s withdrawal from Kabul unfolded. She talks of the feelings she felt that compelled her to write “We Americans” in this Facebook post. Beyond this song, if it leads you to explore more of Lealiza’s music – at her YouTube channel or on her website, for example – you’ll find her connection to singing Ladino songs, as well, and discover a multi-faceted singer who’s a sought-after performer.

Whatever Lealiza sings – from traditional-styled music to more current pop-styled songs, and in whatever language – her voice has the versatility and texture to capture your ear and hold on tight. So, while it’s worth giving “We Americans” a listen, don’t let your Lealiza journey end there. And if you’re in the Detroit area, watch for her shows. There’s nothing recent or forthcoming listed, but watch the “Events” tab of her Facebook page for listings of future performances as they’re scheduled.

Album Review: Dana Carmel – Little Red Heart

Dana Carmel

photo by Alison Shopmeyer; photo courtesy of Dana Carmel

The Backstory

I first heard Dana Carmel perform live at Rockwood Music Hall in June 2019. I had an hour to kill in the late afternoon and had circled this gig as an event of interest before my trip to the City just in case. This was a case of checking out a new artist because of someone whose musical taste I trusted. Dana’s event had popped up on my Facebook timeline before my trip, and I noticed that Valerie Orth (who I’ve recently reviewed for the third time) had clicked “interested.” So, knowing one of the earth’s most talented artists was “interested” in Dana’s gig, I sampled some of Dana’s music online and made a note of her set time “just in case” it fit into my Sunday.

Still, even though I was enjoying live music, I wasn’t “on the clock” as a music journalist that day; this was a weekend trip to just hang out and enjoy the City. For example, just for kicks, I grabbed a beer at The Waylon on Waylon Jennings’ birthday. I hit up a couple diners for my #OmeletTour on Instagram. And, just before heading to Dana’s set, I stopped by the Rocketman exhibit at Dolby SOHO, where I got to “star” in this kickass trailer. So while watching Dana perform, I didn’t take notes. I didn’t review the show, though I did thoroughly enjoy it. And when Dana handed me a copy of Little Red Heart, I was so far behind on my review queue that I wasn’t planning to review it, either. However, the CD has lived in my car CD player ever since, occasionally shuffled out briefly for Martin Briley’s It Comes in Waves or Jack Russell’s Great White’s He Saw It Comin’, but I’ve primarily only listened to Dana’s CD in my car since mid-2019. Now, two years (and hundreds of spins in my car CD player) later, I just have to share this record and Dana’s talent with you.

Album Review of Dana Carmel: Little Red Heart

Little Red Heart is a collection 11 catchy, well-written songs, ranging from pop to almost jazzy. The instrumentation is light, with lots of open space in the songs. Dana’s voice is piercing, clear, and frequently precise, with attitude and flourishes where necessary. The interesting thing about Dana’s voice is that I think it would be perfectly suited to being a must-hear pop-jazz chanteuse, and she has some great songs on this disc that fit her very well. Some of the catchiest tracks on here are full-on pop songs that are fun to hear in the more stripped-down arrangements on Little Red Heart but that might be enormous hits in fully-produced form. (I guess what I’m saying is “Pop divas, I’ve got your songwriter right here!”)

Obviously, if Little Red Heart has been my car CD for most of the last two-plus years, even with the minimal amount of driving I’ve done during the pandemic, I love this disc. It has a fun vibe, with clever lyrics that are fun to sing along with. It’s an ideal chillin’-and-drivin’ jam.

Dana Carmel – Little Red Heart

photo by Alison Shopmeyer; image courtesy of Dana Carmel

The album opens strong with “Not the One,” a syncopated pop number that grabs you from the get-go. It’s followed by “Castle,” which features a crack in Dana’s voice and a near-whisper that makes it seem very intimate and personal, including lyrics like “I don’t want to hurt, I don’t ever want to feel the pain of knowing you don’t feel the same.” The song is a terrific journey describing the art of hiding one’s heart away.

The title track, “Little Red Heart,” is moody, jazzy groove that showcases some of the sharp, piercing edges of Dana’s voice, almost like an intriguing huntress on the vocal prowl. When I mentioned “jazz singer,” it’s songs like this I was referring to. As much fun as her pop songs are, tracks like this show an edge to her voice that’s distinct and unmatchable.

After “Goodbye,” which continues in a similar vocal vein to “Little Red Heart,” “The End of Us” follows with an off-balance, jazzy vibe, tying it to the previous two tracks, but it adds a growlin’ rock ‘n roll bass line and – in the verses, at least – a poutier rock edge to Dana’s vocals.

My favorite song, probably lyrically at least, is “Baby Boy.” Dig the lyrics “I-I-I-I am not your mama. Don’t get it twisted, it’s me, your lover.” It’s a fun outing of a narcissistic man-child. And there’s a cool bridge in the middle of the song where the music just screams tiki bar.

Dana Carmel

photo by Alison Shopmeyer; photo courtesy of Dana Carmel

Another favorite is a true jazzy lounge number, “Blue to Gold,” as if straight out of a scene in James Bond movie, with Dana expressing insightful turns of phrase like “maybe if I start to let it go, then all my blues would turn into gold.”

I know I’ve skipped several songs – on some days, “Talking to Myself,” “The Great Escape,” or one of the other songs is a personal favorite, too – but I’ve captured above the essence of this album and, hopefully, have convinced you to take a listen to this talented artist.

Lastly, I’ll reiterate, an album does not remain in my car CD player for more than two years if it isn’t really cool.

Looking Ahead

Dana’s Facebook page doesn’t have an “events” tab, nor does her website, so I’m not sure how you’ll find out when and where catch her performing live. (My best guess, of course, would be to follow her on Facebook.) Her website does, however, offer singing telegrams, songwriting courses, and the opportunity to have a song commissioned for a special occasion, among other things, so it’s well worth perusing.

Album Review: Love Love – The Rhode Island Eepee

Love Love – The Rhode Island EepeeEP Review of Love Love: The Rhode Island Eepee

Love Love is a fun, talented outfit that’s ideal if you like a healthy dose of twisted, quirky, intelligent, occasionally haunting and slightly demented whimsy with your alt-pop-rock. Their sound and approach are one-of-a-kind, making them a uniquely enjoyable, valuable addition to any local music scene and their recordings a must-have for any music collection.

A few years ago, I reviewed this band’s self-titled 2015 debut. The Rhode Island Eepee arrived in my mailbox in early 2019 toward the end of the period when wasn’t writing much, so I put the envelope in a pile of “important music mail” and rediscovered it two years later when reorganizing my office. Well, it’s just so cool, I have to tell you about it, especially since this is still Love Love’s most recent long-form recording; the band has only released one song since then, a single entitled “OK,” released in February 2020.

Love Love’s primary members are Jefferson Davis Riordan and Chris Toppin, and The Rhode Island Eepee is an ode to Toppin’s native Rhode Island.

“We Can’t Get Enough of the Was” kicks things off with a cheery, poppy ray of jangly pop sunshine. This catchy tune is not exactly a word salad, but you have to listen to realize it isn’t.

“The Garden,” next, has a hint of a Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles vibe, guided by a slightly psychedelic, distorted, buzzy, rock ‘n roll rhythm and Love Love’s trademark uniquely non-combining harmonies. This is probably the most mainstream song on the disc and the one I’d be most likely to drop into multi-artist playlists.

The EP shifts to a more haunting vibe on the next number, “Rhode Island Ghosts,” which carries a similar vibe to the song “Murderpedia” from Love Love’s self-titled debut EP. The content of “Rhode Island Ghosts” isn’t quite as shocking, but it is creepy enough, both lyrically and musically, to stand your hair on end while listening. This song is the only time on this EP during which Love Love grabs something from the scary side of its musical toolbox, but it’s done quite effectively.

“Blind in the Sunshine (Sunlove Mix)” has a serious watching the clouds while lying in a field of daisies, summer of love-styled vibe. No lyrics, but whooshing winds and a soaring, gliding psychedelic guitar sound. As song number four, this is also intermission music at the halfway point of the seven-song EP.

“Joan Anderman,” next, is a cheery ditty about “the night Joan Anderman got me high.” It sounds like it wasn’t a great experience, contrasting the whimsical music and song delivery. It’s worth noting, also, a secondary storyline in which Love Love is not pleased by the prospect of making music for free, and they’re quite graphic in suggesting what you should do if you suggest it.

“Great Day in Rhode Island” continues the upbeat nature of the prior song, telling the tale of Jefferson and Chris meeting. At this pivotal moment in their lives, represented here by spoken-word narration, the song’s thematic lyric shifts from “we all just want someone to love” to “it’s a great day in Rhode Island.” If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is. Indeed, it sounds like a banner day for the Ocean State.

Continuing with the disc’s state(d) theme, the EP closes with “Rhode Island,” a broad-reaching, soaring, floating, beach-styled epic that dispenses facts about the state of Rhode Island and Chris Toppin’s life. One of my favorite lines in the song is “I’m your Roger Williams, baby, and you’re my Providence.” It’s a catchy, soft-rockin’ tune. Very Love Love-styled. A solid conclusion to a unique, must-hear collection, especially – though not exclusively – for those of us with a connection to Little Rhody.

Looking Ahead

There are no upcoming shows currently listed, but when they are, you may be able to find them here on the “Events” tab of Love Love’s Facebook page.

You can also read a bit about the music group founded in 2018 by Jefferson and Chris, WitchWood Music, here.

Album Review: Sweet – Isolation Boulevard


photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album Review of Sweet: Isolation Boulevard (Prudential Music Group)

Sweet is one of the seventies’ iconic rock bands. Isolation Boulevard, recorded between UK lockdowns in the fall of 2020, is primarily, though not entirely, a reworking of many of the original tracks on the various editions of the band’s Desolation Boulevard album; it also features a few songs that can’t be found on any of Desolation Boulevard‘s releases. Led by guitarist Andy Scott, the only surviving member from the classic Sweet line-up, this version of Sweet carries on the band’s legacy with talent, skill, and hook-laden aplomb.

Sweet’s heyday was just barely before my time, so this is actually the first Sweet album I’ve ever owned. Sure, I know a lot of the songs from hearing them on the radio. And I know a couple of the songs thanks to cover versions by ’80s rock favorites Krokus (“Ballroom Blitz”) and Black ‘N Blue (“Action”). To be honest, I still prefer Krokus’ “Ballroom Blitz” to the very well-performed versions on this disc. (On “Action,” I like different things about each band’s rendition.) Indeed, I love this album. The entirety of Isolation Boulevard is raucous, hooky, memorable and fun, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to really get to know these songs with repeated listenings over the last few months.

Sweet – Isolation Boulevard

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

I love that the album begins with “Fox on the Run,” a song that sounds both classic and current at the same time. The explosiveness of Scott’s guitarwork and the sharp drum-driven tempo make “Fox on the Run” timeless. Sure, the harmonies and straight-ahead, powerful tempo give this away as a classic-era rock song, but it’s absolutely one worth maintaining on your personal playlist.

Another favorite of mine on this album is “New York Groove.” It’s a classic song that charted in the 1970s for both Hello and Ace Frehley. Its first appearance on a Sweet album was on 2012’s New York Connection. It has a bit of a funky rhythm and, to exceptionally cool effect, transitions in and out of Alicia Keys/Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” If you want to find a cool mash-up of classic and modern on Isolation Boulevard, “New York Groove” is your song, probably my very favorite on this record.

You know, this is Sweet, so I can’t really bash any of the songs on here, nor would I want to. Top to bottom, this is a kick-ass, newly recorded classic rock album. However, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, there are some other tracks that stand out for me. I mean, you know these songs, so I’m not sure what my descriptions will add, but…

“Still Got the Rock”, the first single from Isolation Boulevard, has the cool syncopated drumming and rhythm in its bridge. “Love is Like Oxygen” has that soaring vocals, grounded by a crunchy guitar riff. “The Six Teens” is one of those cool, tense, storytelling rockers. The update of frantic, melodic speed rocker “Set Me Free” was also released as an Isolation Boulevard single; the fast-paced guitar noodling during its bridge is pretty cool. And “Teenage Rampage” is pure energetic, anthemic fun.

I’ve skipped a few songs that’ll, I’m sure, be someone else’s favorites. Seriously, this re-recording of Sweet faves doesn’t disappoint.

Looking Ahead

You can catch Sweet live in the coming months. The band will be undertaking a rather extensive UK tour from November 25th through December 20th, and you’ll find a smattering of 2022 dates currently scheduled in Germany from May through November. For more information on these performances and others, as they’re added, see the “Dates” page on Sweet’s website.

Single Review: Susan Gibson – “Compassionate Combat”

Susan Gibson – Compassionate Combat

image courtesy of Broken Jukebox Media

Single Review of Susan Gibson: “Compassionate Combat”

Susan Gibson released “Compassionate Combat” this past spring, in the middle of a spring surge of COVID-19. The single was released in conjunction with the Compassionate Combat website to help raise money and awareness to support nurses in thanks for their tremendous service during this pandemic.

I reviewed Susan’s last album, The Hard Stuff, here at the Blog last fall. As I discovered at the time, Susan is a celebrated songwriter with a deft touch at creating heartfelt, moving lyrics whose and a singer whose voice is exceptionally well-suited to delivering both the message and the emotion in her songs. “Compassionate Combat” is no exception. Musically, the song is softly instrumented, with soaring components supporting Susan’s heartfelt, emotional vocals.

Of course, Susan is an exceptional lyricist, and this ode to nurses during a time of crisis will warm hearts and jerk tears, from the verses to the chorus of “We ask so much of you. Leave your families and your homes for the work you gotta do. You are the miracle, the gift, pulling 18-hour shifts of compassionate combat. How do you thank someone for that?”

Whew! [sniff!] I’m not crying – you are.

“Compassionate Combat” was produced and engineered by Billy Crockett at his Blue Rock Studio in Wimberley, Texas. Billy is an exceptional singer/songwriter in his own right, widely revered for his talent as a musician, and his studio is a place where musicians and their talents are celebrated. Of course, regular Blog readers may recall a live Billy Crockett performance review and a review of Billy’s CD Rabbit Hole, both back in 2017.


I received this single back in March, and once I began to fall behind on reviews, I assumed the topic would no longer be timely by the time I got around to writing the review. Vaccine rollout was well underway, and appointments were hard to come by, as millions of vaccines were being administered each day. I anticipated that by this summer our hospitals would no longer be overrun. And, though vaccination rates are high and hospitals are not in a state of crisis here where I live, that is not true everywhere. I hope the next surge we see is that of vaccinations, so serious illness rates will decline and, in the vein of this song, our valiant nurses and other healthcare workers whose emergency rooms are still under siege will soon get some relief from their… compassionate combat.

Looking Ahead

Susan has a few performances scheduled in Texas this month – tonight, Friday, November 5th in LaGrange and nightly performances November 17th-20th in Austin, Fredericksburg, Santa Fe and New Braunfels – in addition to a women’s writing workshop on November 6th and 7th in New Braunfels. You can find additional details about these events and a January 14th show scheduled in Austin (and others, as they’re added) on the “tour” page of Susan’s website.

Album Review: Laura Ainsworth – Top Shelf

Laura Ainsworth – Top Shelf

image courtesy of Eclectus Records

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Laura Ainsworth: Top Shelf (Eclectus Records/Ratspack Records)

Vocalist Laura Ainsworth hails from Dallas, Texas and is a contemporary artist who is a brilliant interpreter of song. She’s kind of a Great American Songbook revivalist on one hand, but that would only tell part of the story. Her keen sense of style and sharp wit allow her to take established musical gems and rare nuggets and infuse them with a heavy dose of irony, humor, charm and candor. And her gossamer phrasing brings a unique personality to each song where she makes it her own.

Top Shelf is a deluxe packaged collection of the best from her previous independently released albums Keep it to Yourself, Necessary Evil and New Vintage. Courtesy of Japanese distributor Ratspack Records, this vinyl and CD formatted release features extensive liner notes and lyrics, previously unreleased tracks, beautiful photos, and detailed information on the songs and the wonderful musicians who make them leap out of your speakers.

The track list rundown begins with the pseudo-autobiographical adaptation by Frank Loesser and Victor Schertzinger called “That’s How I Got My Start.” It’s a slow and somewhat mid-tempo ballad that sets the pace for her unique and infectious brand of irony-imbued humor. Producer/arranger and pianist Brian Piper leads a lightly swinging ensemble as Ainsworth sings, “Prove it by my rich old banker, how I made that banker hanker. So let this be a lesson, keep ‘em guessin’. ‘Cause that’s how I got my start.” She really lays on that whole femme fatale/jezebel act pretty thick from the get-go.

“Necessary Evil” was an early ‘50s song by singer Frankie Laine that is fairly obscure. But being a musical archivist and curator is Ainsworth’s passion, as she invests this cool little known noir-ish burner with a sultry and seductive kick. Chris McGuire’s smooth tenor sax sets a vintage nightclub mood.

The redheaded chanteuse is in search of the ideal man on another early ‘50s rarity “That’s the Kind of Guy I Dream Of.” She sings tongue in cheek lyrics, with tales of romantic woe such as, “A handsome hunk o’ fellow with the sharpest clothes, a sunny disposition and a smile that glows. That’s the kind of guy I dream of, you should see the kind that I get.” And then she hits you with the clincher, “Got a guy, says he’s a jockey, took me to see his thoroughbred. You guessed it, of course, he looks just like his horse, I shoud’ve stayed in bed!”

Another lesser known Rodgers and Hammerstein song was tailor made for Ainsworth and bluntly called “The Gentleman is a Dope.” Although rooted from a bygone era, It smacks of modern #MeToo sensibilities, with a hint of sarcasm and sass. The small combo sound, with Piper at the helm gives this a minor urgency.

One of the unreleased tracks on the album is an Irving Berlin tune, popularized by Marilyn Monroe, called “You’d Be Surprised.” It’s significant that Ainsworth decided to include it here because it really displays her innate ability to tell a clear and intriguing story. It references that old phrase about never judging a book by the cover. In the case of a shy guy named Johnny, that would certainly apply. “He’s not so good in a crowd, but when you get him alone, you’d be surprised. He isn’t much at a dance, but when he takes you home, you’d be surprised,” she sings. “He’s got the face of an angel, but there’s the devil in his eye.”

“Love for Sale” is a classic Cole Porter song that has been done up tempo by Mel Tormé and a ton of other people. Ainsworth’s version really stands out as slow, steamy and resonant. The tight combo fronted by Piper’s cool and lithe piano playing really set the scene here.

“Skylark” is a familiar standard that, not only stands out for its beautiful lyrics and stellar vocal delivery, but the singular accompaniment of Chris DeRose-Chiffolo on guitar is mesmerizing. The medley of “Long Ago and Far Away” and “You Stepped Out of a Dream” is a lovely pairing in that they harmonically fit like pieces of a puzzle. Chris McGuire’s tenor sax work is just icing on the cake.

“An Occasional Man” was a minor standard sung in the past by legends like Sarah Vaughn and Julie London. Ainsworth and company give this a silky samba feel, with fun-filled lyrics like “I got an island in the Pacific, and everything about it is terrific. I’ve got the sun to tan me, palms to fan me and…an occasional man.” This vivacious crooner really knows how to paint a picture!

The Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen piece “Out of This World” is rather exotic and a nice slice of post-modern world beat-influenced fare. Pete Brewer’s flute and Steve Barnes’ percussion really make this one sparkle. “Hooray for Love” is another Arlen gem that keeps that up beat and free-spirited take on love and romance in full gear. It’s a bouncy and swinging tune.

Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s danceable “Personality,” Ned Washington and Victor Young’s delicate “My Foolish Heart,” Gus Kahn’s hopelessly romantic “Dream a Little Dream,” and bonus tracks “Wasting My Love On You” and the randy “Just Give Me a Man” complete this fabulous and comprehensive CD package.

Just FYI, the CD edition of Top Shelf adds numerous tracks from the three studio albums that had to be left off of the vinyl LP edition due to the limitations of the format. But, whether you purchase the fuller length CD or the vinyl version, you’re in for a real treat. Laura Ainsworth is one of the most talented and entertaining vocalists – of any genre or era – on the music scene today!

Album Review: Valerie Orth – Rabbit Hole

Valerie Orth

photo by Liz Maney; photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

Album Review of Valerie Orth: Rabbit Hole

Valerie Orth is one of our favorite music artists at the Blog. Longtime readers will already be familiar with Valerie’s talent from reading my review of her Fires and Overturned Cars anthology and my take on her subsequent Wake You EP.

Valerie Orth is a detail-oriented songwriter who pens memorable tunes. Her career has been a little genre-fluid, but I’d place her latest releases – the previous Wake You EP and the current Rabbit Hole LP – in the electronic pop category… with rock, R&B, and a plethora of other influences, in addition to life experience, serving as seasoning in her musical stew. On her website, Valerie describes herself as an “electro alt-pop singer, songwriter, producer, & feminist.” All clearly true. The press releases I’ve received for Rabbit Hole dub Valerie an “alt/cinematic dark pop songwriter,” and I suppose that fits her as well as any other description, especially in light of the music on her latest disc. The music on Rabbit Hole is memorable, complex, catchy, thoughtful, and often danceable.

Valerie Orth – Rabbit Hole

image courtesy of Valerie Orth

Album-opener and the album’s first single, “Rabbit Hole” combines rhythm and electronic flurry-based hooks with static, spots of mostly-empty audio space, and a catchy chorus to grab the listener’s attention and hold it throughout. This is the song you’re most likely to be hearing in your head days and weeks later. Well, it’s the one I do, at least. (Now, what’s this about sex robots? Is that available from Hammacher Schlemmer or SkyMall?)

Rabbit Hole is a great album to listen to in its entirety from beginning to end. It flows well together, and there’s a surprise around each corner. “99 Cent Dreams” feels musically like a funhouse mirror-filled meandering through the protagonist’s thoughts, dreams, hopes, and fears.

The spoken track “El Censo” leads the listener thoughtfully with an open mind into the politically-charged, current events pop number “I Believe We Will Win,” a song whose musical jerks left and right draw attention to the lyrics, including the raw hopefulness of the title phrase. Though the video of “I Believe We Will Win” is a standalone video, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the song presented sequentially with “El Censo” as the lead-in during an awards performance. Yes, I know, Valerie won’t be performing this on a televised awards show, but if I were choreographing such a show, that’s how I’d sequence it.

“Fight For Love” slows things down a bit, moving the album from a societal level to something very personal. The slow-build opening creates powerful tension, drawing us to its sequential, emotional story. If I were to direct a video for this, I’d blend the song’s military lyrical imagery (“fire one more weapon, shoot a bullet through my heart”) with a very intimate portrayal of a couple battling to work things out.

Valerie Orth

photo by Liz Maney; photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

“Done to Me” plunks along in a memorably catchy manner, using the space between the notes and the beats effectively to complement a vocal rhythm that stops, starts, and runs in a tense harmony with the beats, with occasional musical flourishes and a here-and-there dense static soundscape adding character.

“Gold to Dust” amps things up a bit, with a fun, uptempo chorus separating largely spoken-word verses. The back half of that catchy chorus – “maybe I could take a page from you; turn gold to dust the way you do; maybe then I’d be able to forget you, too” – tells you what this song’s about. And, yeah, you’ll be singing along within a couple listens.

“See Jane” is a short (0:53) between-song musically-backed spoken word bit featuring the words of Toni Morrison; it leads into “Limbo Love,” a beat-driven track using stutter-vocals, a vocal bridge that bounces back and forth in stereo, and catchy “everyone…” lyric sequences providing forward momentum and energy.

“Tourist in Nature” follows, a bit more of a standard-formatted song that would be one of the more radio-friendly songs on the album, one that would be just as engaging as a standalone number as within the context of Rabbit Hole. The beat churns along, ratcheting up the tension throughout this persistently-tempoed track. The song’s message? Yes, what you’d guess from its title. How did we get so separated from the outside, natural world?

The disc ends with Valerie’s original interpretation of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” Valerie delivers a slow, deliberate version that creaks eerily and ominously, with a pulsing synth “heartbeat” thumping the song powerfully forward to its conclusion.

On her website, Valerie calls Rabbit Hole “the most experimental album I’ve ever written and produced,” and I’d posit that’s one of the things that makes Valerie such an elite artist. Bowie, Sting, Gaga. They take (or took) chances, try new things, experiment with sounds and styles. Those influences produce surprises, mostly (from an artistic perspective, at least) pleasant surprises. Musicians who are willing to push the envelope, trying new things, and grow present a life’s work that’s worth hearing beginning to end. Though she’s still quite young, with hopefully decades more of music-making in her future, I consider Valerie Orth to be one such artist, and I look forward to hearing what she creates next. I assume it won’t be what I expect, but I expect my life to be richer for having heard it. For now, I’m glad to have Rabbit Hole to tide me over until her next creation. I’d suggest you check it out yourself.

Single Review: Tia McGraff – “What If”

Tia McGraff – "What If"

image by Trespass Music; image courtesy of Tia McGraff

Single Review of Tia McGraff: “What If”

Tia McGraff is an accomplished singer and songwriter, and her single “What If” showcases some of those vocal and songwriting chops.

Tia McGraff

photo by Denise Grant; photo courtesy of Tia McGraff

Tia utilizes a slight rough edge on her otherwise smooth, rich, storytelling voice to amplify the emotional power of this heartfelt song. The music bed beneath is lush and flowing without being so full to overpower the vocals. And vocals and music combine to perfectly suit lyrics like: “There is a place where no one’s a stranger, and we can embrace each other like neighbors. I wanna go there, wanna take you there with me.”

“What If” is a flowing, enjoyable song that supports a powerful message of togetherness, love, and a better world. It’s a song that’ll wash over you if you let it. Give it a listen, and see how it makes you feel.


Single Review: Simon Scardanelli – “The Glittering Prize”

Simon Scardanelli – The Glittering Prize

image courtesy of Simon Scardanelli

Single Review of Simon Scardanelli: “The Glittering Prize”

It’s no secret we widely appreciate Simon Scardanelli‘s songwriting and performance skills here at the Blog. Well, this single, “The Glittering Prize,” ranks among my favorites.

The song opens with a whimsical, carnival-style noodling, and this sort of offbeat flavor extends throughout, keeping the listener a little off-balance, a frequently used stylistic element on some of Simon’s songs.

Paul Walker’s clarinet playing is frequently used to advance the story forward and/or transition between song parts, often moving the song in and out of the chorus.

Seeming to be a story about pursuit of “the glittering prize,” it’s up to the listener to decide whether this fun song is insightful or not, but the song itself forewarns: “If you want it here’s a word to the wise, don’t believe a thing I say. I’m full of contradictions and contrapuntal points of view, and every clever song you thought that I wrote is just a load of words on play. Look at me now, still rhyming them with you.” So seek insight herein at your own risk.

Regardless of context, musically “The Glittering Prize” is a fun addition to any playlist, either to march along with and dance to in the summer sun – Simon’s website dubs the song his “new summer single,” – or to hold onto the summer as the weather turns cold. (It took me so long to write this review, that’s pretty much your only choice right now, anyway.)

Looking Ahead

Though there are no future performances listed at the moment, the “Shows” page of Simon’s website is where you’ll find upcoming gigs, as they’re scheduled.