Album Review: Robert Lee Balderrama – The Great Hall of Smooth Jazz

Robert Lee Balderrama – The Great Hall of Smooth Jazz

image courtesy of Robert Lee Balderrama via Eric Harabadian

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Robert Lee Balderrama: The Great Hall of Smooth Jazz (Bullfrog Records)

Robert Lee “Bobby” Balderrama is a genuine rock ‘n roll legend. He was an original member of Saginaw/Bay City, Michigan band Question Mark and The Mysterians. They recorded one of the most pivotal and essential songs in the pop music lexicon, with the proto-punk classic “96 Tears.” Even to this day, tune into Sirius XM’s ‘60s channel or watch key vintage TV shows or movies and you could very well hear keyboardist Frankie Rodriguez’s signature organ figure that kicks off that tune.

Well, all that hoopla took place back in the mid-‘60s when Bobby and company were just teenagers. Fast forward to the present where Balderrama has spent the last 30 years or more reinventing himself as a blues and jazz player. In particular, the guitar styles of George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Carlos Santana, and others have informed his sweet and smooth musical approach. His new release The Great Hall of Smooth Jazz is the culmination of decades dedicated to his contemporary take on the improvisational art form.

The album opens with the breezy and samba-fueled sounds of “Santa Cruz.” Balderrama’s stinging guitar coupled with Rodriguez’s bright and billowy keyboards fill things out rather nicely. Structurally, the tune volleys between two distinct sections, with Tom Barsheff’s mellow tenor sax bringing it all together.

Robert Lee Balderrama

photo courtesy of Robert Lee Balderrama via Eric Harabadian

“Para Los Dos (For the Two of Us)” is a lovely ballad that sits comfortably as a romantic or meditative piece. Its drifting and languid feel inspires some beautiful and evocative solos from the leader.

“El Camino Rio” features dense percussion by wife Amy Lynn Balderrama and a moderate-to-uptempo groove. The cha-cha rhythms take a swinging detour as Jack Nash’s walking bass sparks things into overdrive.

“Sintiendo Tu Hechizo (Feeling Your Spell)” is a Latin track written by Liliana Rokita. Balderrama brings a flamenco flair to the instrumental tune, blending acoustic and electric guitars for dramatic effect.

“On Beat Street” finds Rodriguez’s ethereal sound design and textures being the star. His work provides a nice bed that gives Balderrama’s Wes Montgomery-meets-Pat Martino fluidity a place to flourish.

“Happy & Go Lucky” made a bit of a splash on national smooth jazz charts. Its buoyant, jubilant melody takes on an Asian persona. It’s also got a crisp and snappy feel.

“Jaz Dude” is another Balderrama composition that features a cool, west coast-type vibe. It is free and open, with some nice turnarounds and changes. It’s also very funky, the way certain textures and melodic elements float in and out.

“Estrella” has a solid pocket via Rudy Levario’s uplifting drums. This is also another example of Balderrama putting the emphasis on melody and atmosphere over gratuitous chops.

Conversely, “Ronnie’s Vibe” is a chops fest! This one swings ebulliently, with plenty of room for all to blow, guided by guest Pete Woodman’s stellar drumming.

“Out of This World” is kind of a digital about-face from some of the jazzier stuff here. It offers value in its heavy danceability and groove.

The 11th track on the album is a bonus tune by the group Le Sonic called “Any Moment.” Balderrama and Rodriguez are the principal co-writers, and it recently hit #1 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz Charts. The spacey and seductive two-chord vamp of keyboards and rhythms provides the backbeat for Balderrama’s signature guitar, along with moody vocals and trumpet. It’s a nice piece and a soothing way to conclude this stellar collection.

Album Review: Stormstress – Silver Lining

Stormstress

photo by Tim Johnson; photo courtesy of Stormstress

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Stormstress: Silver Lining

This is the debut album for Boston’s Stormstress, and it is a return to one of the classic ensembles in rock ‘n roll — the power trio! Identical sisters Tia Mayhem (bass and vocals), Tanya Venom (guitar and vocals), and long-time band mate and ally Maddie May Scott (drums and vocals) comprise this heavy metal brain trust. And the term “brain trust” is not used lightly, as each of their songs are well thought out and strategized for maximum emotional, intellectual and entertainment effect. Prepare to take a trip as this youthful veteran outfit gets inside your head and works its magic.

They open appropriately with a mighty rocker called “You Can’t Hurt Me Now.” The song addresses personal empowerment and standing up for one’s self. The message is a timely and direct hit as Venom puts her antagonist on notice, “never running out of reasons to cry, found out too late who you really were inside, now I’m shutting the door to lock you out… and you can’t hurt me now!” It’s a great mix of staccato guitars, pumping bass, and thunderous drums that grabs you from the get go!

Stormstress – Silver Lining

image courtesy of Stormstress

“Paint the Mask” is another strong song about being true to one’s self and not being a slave to hiding behind an inauthentic mask. In other words, quit trying to please others at the risk of sublimating yourself. Venom sings with a heart-wrenching tear in her voice that seems to speak from personal experience. Musically, the hooks and harmonies are pure pop, with screaming guitar that echoes Michael Schenker, Ritchie Blackmore and Neal Schon.

“Internal Divide” begins with a deep bass rumble that will shake the foundations of your psyche and soul. It’s got an infectious funk groove that supports Mayhem’s semi-rap cadence. There is so much to unpack here. With each line of the song the blue-haired bassist is approaching self-discovery and unpeeling all those layers of emotional bondage like an onion. It all comes together with this hook, “What’s in my heart, what’s on my mind, the static and the noise… There’s a voice that whispers in my ear at night, echoing between the walls in my mind, threatening my feelings held inside… creating this internal divide.”

“Fall With You” takes a slight detour and makes way for a beautiful ballad. Again, this is one from the heart, and Venom delivers a song that tackles aspects of love, trust, and the trepidation of taking a leap of faith with someone. The song is wonderfully augmented by a string quartet comprised of Jacquay Pearce (violin), Hannah Schzde (violin), Eden Rayz (cello) and Peter de Reyna (upright bass), with orchestration by the guitarist. It’s a radio-ready power tune for a modern generation, with elements of Scorpions, Lita Ford and Heart.

Stormstress

photo by Tim Johnson; photo courtesy of Stormstress

Stormstress shifts musical gears for the exotic “Gold.” Armenian musician Mher Mnatsakanyan plays a woodwind-like instrument called the duduk to open this piece. The atmosphere in the song is one of mystery and historical perspective. The hook “All that glitters… isn’t gold” seems to speak to the distractions in our present day society with watching the shiny object. The blend of Venom’s extreme metal vocals and the group’s more traditional harmonies are a gripping juxtaposition.

“I Wish I Could” is a slow and soulful number that speaks to the complex dynamics at play with the human condition. The lyrics say it all, “I wish I could give you my heart… but I know you’d wreck it. Wish I could give you my trust… no, not for a second. Wish I could give you my love… but I can’t let you in.” The band pours so much angst and pathos in this song. Anybody with a pulse has got to be moved. Included is a brief bass solo by Mayhem that really opens up the tune.

“Corpses Don’t Cry” is probably one of the heaviest and most personal empowering sentiments on the album. With the spirit of Ronnie James Dio in tow the band takes on evil spirits, with a full court press. They sing, “Come at me now I’ve got nothing to lose… I can’t be broken because I’ve already died!” It is cathartic, with some incredible rhythmic accents and breakdowns. They wrap things up with an “unveiled” reprise to “Fall with You.” This time it is done semi-a capella, with just the backing of strings. You really get to hear all the nuance and beauty in the trio’s voices as well as the message of the song.

Stormstress

photo by Tim Johnson; photo courtesy of Stormstress

One would be remiss not to mention the flawless and intricate production by Liz Borden and Sarah Fitzpatrick. From the richness of the instruments to the attention to bring out all the frequency response in the vocals, it’s a world class product! These songs will get inside your mind and soul, if you let it. Go ahead… take the ride!

Looking Ahead

Stormstress’ live gigs this year have extended from Boston and New York to Detroit and Chicago. At the moment, per the “Tour” section of the band’s website, the only upcoming shows currently booked are in Provincetown, MA – on May 28th, July 22nd, August 19th, September 23rd, and October 14th – but there’ll surely be more dates added soon, so be sure to check the website regularly and/or follow the band on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).

Album Review: Dean and The Singing Blue Jeanne’s – Crossing the Boundaries

Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne's - from "Persuasive"

photo courtesy of Dean Bailin & Jeanne Waller (from “Persuasive”)

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne’s: Crossing the Boundaries

This is the debut album for guitarist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Dean Bailin and vocalist Jeanne Waller. But it is by no means their first rodeo. Both Bailin and Waller are NYC natives, with a hefty resume of production, side, and session credits in support of a laundry list of multi-genre musical artists. Perhaps Bailin’s biggest claim to fame was as a member of Rupert Holmes’ band in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. His signature guitar licks on Holmes’ mega-hit “The Pina Colada Song” registered with fans and audiences around the world. And Waller toured the country in several high society orchestras and show bands.

Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne's – Crossing the Boundaries

image courtesy of Dean Bailin & Jeanne Waller

After releasing a series of successful videos on various social media platforms for the majority of these songs over the last two or three years, Dean and The Singing Blue Jeanne’s emerge with a comprehensive audio document of said tracks that is nothing short of amazing.

The album opens with the vibrant and jovial “Fantasy House.” It’s a funky patchwork of kitschy social and celebrity references that will keep your mind and feet engaged. Bailin’s jazzy guitar filigree is exciting and Waller’s intricate vocal harmonies suggest the quirky sensibilities of the Tom Tom Club or B-52s. Bailin and Waller just have fun and let their imaginations run wild.

That’s followed by the Motown-influenced track “Enter This Night.” It’s a fresh and modern take on the classic “girl group” phenomenon, with Waller’s uncanny abilities to stack her vocals and take on the personas of three singers. (Hence, the multiple “Singing Blue Jeanne’s” reference.) Bailin’s sublime production (i.e., baritone sax, guitars and keyboards) gives the undeniable impression of a full ensemble. This track just makes you feel good, as a lot of classic pop songs used to do!

Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne's - from "I Believe in You"

photo courtesy of Dean Bailin & Jeanne Waller (from “I Believe in You”)

The chameleonic duo shift musical gears once again for the piano-tinged “I Believe in You.” Bailin handles the lead vocals here and, with each line, seems to be giving himself a pep talk. Landlords, bill collectors – everyone has their hand out. But the song is all about believing in oneself, no matter the odds. The Wurlitzer-like piano and “everyman/everywoman sentiment” recalls some of Billy Joel and Roger Hodgson’s classic work.

“Samba de Loves Me” is a cleverly worded Latin-flavored number that sets a dreamy romantic tone. It’s a smooth and intoxicating blend of Brazilian rhythms, acoustic grooves and Bailin’s Larry Carlton-like lead guitar. Waller sings the surreal lines, “Tonight’s a carpet ride through the looking glass where nothing matters but which way the wind blows… and if I get swept away, that would be okay.” And, with that, you are transported to an island never never land! Smooth jazz, Philly soul and Steely Dan-like hooks converge on the swinging “Persuasive.” Waller hits notes that reach for the stratosphere and really sells it. Her voice is slightly overshadowed by the surprising mid-section bass solo bridge by the legendary Jeff Berlin. This is sophisticated pop for the big kids.

Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne's - from "Samba de Loves Me"

photo courtesy of Dean Bailin & Jeanne Waller (from Samba de Loves Me)

The first of two live guitar-based performances by the duo can be found in Bailin’s “A Dose of My Affection.” It has a gospel/blues quality that recalls some of Jeff Beck and Jan Akkerman’s solo fusion work. “Three Coins in a Wishing Well” follows and seems to evoke the mystical and supernatural, with tales of gypsies, Satan’s daughter and the precipice of fate. Stevie Nicks or Adele might have a go with this one.

Funk and soul seem like comfortable havens for this duo and the tune “Rebind” seems to merge Motown, Philly and NYC-derived “doo wop” like no other. Waller delivers a lovely lead vocal, with superb and rich harmonies. Bailin’s underpinning of Wes Montgomery/George Benson-flavored guitar bits totally supports a light funky feel.

Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne's - from "Rebind"

photo courtesy of Dean Bailin & Jeanne Waller (from Rebind)

The title track “Crossing the Boundaries” is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious songs on the album. It deals with elements of spirituality, déjà vu and the relationships between one another. The sound design is grand in scale and envelopes your senses, with the lyrical hook, “Crossing the boundaries of flesh and spirit… Our voices cry out, we both hear it… Talking ‘bout fate, talking ‘bout love and talking ‘bout you and me.” It summons up music similar to the Alan Parsons Project, Toto’s deeper cuts, and the like.

The album concludes with the second live track called “Blown Away in Awe.” Here, the diverse guitar stylings of Bailin seem to evoke the spirit of classic bluesman Roy Buchanan. His string bending and laid back approach sum things up on a perfect note.

Dean Bailin and Jeanne Waller have spent many years behind the scenes. Crossing the Boundaries finally puts them in the spotlight and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

Album Review: Galactic Cowboy Orchestra – Flirting with Chaos

Galactic Cowboy Orchestra

photo courtesy of Media Stew Public Relations

Album Review of Galactic Cowboy Orchestra: Flirting with Chaos

Galactic Cowboy Orchestra‘s Flirting with Chaos is an experimental progressive rock album that pushes around the edges of prog rock, producing a collection that stimulates the mind as the music takes you in unexpected directions.

The opening song, the title track, kicks off with a dissonant wall of noise that quickly descends – ascends? – into a blend of riffs and a repetitive almost-hook amid what’s still primarily cacophony to those of us without a significant progressive bent. Having reviewed a broad variety of music over the decades, though, I totally get what they’re doing, and I know it means there’s some pretty cool music on its way – and, indeed, that’s the case here. Meanwhile, I also realize edge-pushing, knowledgeable musicians will absolutely dig it, enjoying its residence pretty far on the experimental outskirts of the rock ‘n roll spectrum. Beyond the hints at what’s to come, if you take only one other thing from the disc-opening track, it’s that near-hook musical progression that appears continually throughout the album. It’s the glue that holds this collection together, no matter what directions the individual tracks take.

Galactic Cowboy Orchestra – Flirting with Chaos

image courtesy of Media Stew Public Relations

Next, indeed, as expected, “All for the Taking” settles into a stride more appealing to a broader listenership. That near-hook from “Flirting with Chaos” actually reappears here as if it were foreshadowed, but it’s mixed into an almost prog-Blondie vibe, with some shredding guitar during the bridges, and the line “It’s all for the asking, for the knowing, for the taking” playing a prominent role.

The fiddling on “Triple S” add an Irish folk song vibe to the heavily percussive soundbed, whose steadfast progress gives way to flights of fancy during a two minute long early-to-mid-song bridge, giving way to a more frantic musical section, only really returning to the heavy nature occasionally, as other musical structures weave in and out. I’m not really sure exactly what the three Ss are in “Triple S” – low S, high S, and middle S? – but there are three distinct elements in the track.

The meandering nature and the exploring adjacent riffs, related runs, and different structural patterns continue throughout the album, though individual songs feature different musical densities and heavier or lighter song structures. For example, “Unresolved Discrepancies” exhibits a lighter, airier feel than the preceding tracks, marking a bit of a change. “21st Century Schizoid Man,” meanwhile, incorporates classic rock riffs and a punk rock attitude.

You’ll continue to recognize the cohesive style throughout the rest of the album, with subtle differences. “Jazz Crimes” bips and bops (that’s jazz terminology, right?) sparsely throughout, except for its occasional exploration of richer, fuller tones. “Woodshread” leans heavily into the violin’s most violent high end but mellowing into a more classic rock-influenced bass and guitar rhythm.

Vocals return on the second-to-last track, “No Stranger to the Fall,” which adds Bowie-like musical and vocal elements to the vocals portions, with crunchy guitar distortion and bumble bee-like dream sequences rounding out the mix before is circularly spins to its conclusion.

And “Flirting with Oblivion” closes things with a sound that’s akin to classic guitar rock noodling atop a chirping wall of sound that seems like it could be from an orchestra or recorders, though I’m sure it’s not.

In all, Flirting with Chaos is an interesting mix of influences melded into a cohesive whole throughout the album by some exceptional musicians. So, if you dig some musical, almost jazzy experimentation in your prog rock, these cats produce some really interesting soundscapes on Flirting with Chaos that’ll definitely be to your liking. And regardless of your musical tastes, as long as you like rock ‘n roll in some form, while you’ll need to be in a “proggy mood” to fully appreciate the album, I get the feeling a Galactic Cowboy Orchestra concert will be an awesome, enjoyably exhausting musical feast for the senses.

Looking Ahead

Though there’s nothing currently listed, but you’ll find upcoming gigs on the “Shows” page of the Galactic Cowboy Orchestra’s website or on the “Events” tab of the band’s Facebook page.

Album Review: Richard X. Heyman – Copious Notes

Richard X. Heyman – Copious Notes

image courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

Album Review of Richard X. Heyman: Copious Notes

Richard X. Heyman is an American pop-rock songwriter. And, of course, a great performer of his own songs. I’ve reviewed Richard’s music a couple of times already here at the blog. I reviewed Incognito, a couple albums removed from his new release, and I reviewed the first single from Copious Notes, “Choices We Make.”

He starts the disc with the echoing angelic church-like harmonies that kick off “Nearly There,” a typically RXH uptempo, cheerful number steeped in timeless pop harmonies and hooks. Drawing from the fifties and sixties for his rock ‘n roll song base, Richard’s songs are melody-driven and fun to listen to.

The second song on Copious Notes is “Choices We Make,” which I previously reviewed, with its big hook in the chorus. It’s a hopeful song, released just ahead of the 2020 U.S. election, with its election theme apparent from the accompanying images in its YouTube video, though the underlying message could easily be applied across broad subject matter.

Richard X. Heyman

photo by Nancy Heyman; photo courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

You can tell a great pop song by the way it grabs you from the very first note, and the next track, “Tell Me When,” does just that. Very sixties-styled almost folk-influenced – or maybe in parts Irish folk song-like – in its stylings, the song is a cheerful, extra-uptempo number that’s fun to bounce along to.

Richard slows things down and mellows at times, too. The next song, “Cedarbrook Park,” for example, flows, floats, and soars, but it all feels a bit intentionally off-kilter, like a melancholically haunted memory.

“Sink or Swim” follows. It’s at least partially horn-powered and energetic, like you’d expect on an old-time dance party TV show, with the dancers doing a swim move during the chorus, at least.

Next up, “Oval” brings back the mellow, before “The Truth,” while still with a softer edge, is a rare Copious Notes song that pushes the tempo and level consistently throughout without catching its breath.

“But Our Love” is a soaring song as if a folk-styled, mellow number pulled straight from the early ’70s airwaves… or a love-in concert in the park from the same era.

“One and All” adds a psychedelic vibe that’s there throughout but most prominent in the bridge, while fun and catchy “Return to You” brings back the old-fashioned rock and roll bounce and harmonies, replete with background “oooohs” and “ahhhhhs.” I also dig the cool organ noodling at the end, leading to the fade-out.

Penultimate track “Ransom” sports that early ’70s rich, plush vibe and songwriting style, while ’50s/’60s-style, swingin’ rock horns open the timeless rock ‘n roll number “Greater Good” with its early ’70s message, melding three decades of rock ‘n roll influences to close the disc.

It’s sometimes hard to review a Richard X. Heyman album because there are only so many ways you can write “this is a catchy, timeless, song-driven pop-rock song,” but that description would fit virtually every song on Copious Notes, though different tempos, influences, and songwriting styles give each song an individual identity among this cohesive whole.

Richard X. Heyman is a consistently good songwriter who delivers dependably enjoyable, timeless pop-rock albums. So give Copious Notes a listen and then dig into some of his prior releases, which you’ll likely dig, as well.

 

Album Review: Jesse Terry – When We Wander

Jesse Terry

photo by Alex Berger; photo courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

Album Review of Jesse Terry: When We Wander

His voice. His delivery. His lyrics. But oh, my god, that voice. With When We Wander, Jesse Terry has delivered a timeless, relatable, emotionally connecting album, varied in style, that’s an instant classic. At least, it’ll be an instant classic if you hear it, so give it a listen.

Jesse Terry – When We Wander

image courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

An appealing mix of folk, country, and rich, warm soft rock, When We Wander sits on the radio-friendly edge of singer-songwriter fare. And there’s something everyman about Jesse’s voice, at times recalling John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, perhaps a hint of Bob Dylan, and just about any other singer with a bit of hoarse gravel in his voice, though Jesse’s songwriting about the experiences of everyday life more often bring forth comparisons to Mellencamp.

The title track, “When We Wander,” kicks things off with a folky strum, but you’ll soon discover that’s just one of many influences, as this, like most of the album, are a meaty folk-rock-country mix, falling my onto the soft rock side of Americana. There’s a rich tone, a hint of scratch – not exactly gravel – and a time-worn knowing lilt to Jesse’s voice. There’s also an attention to detail – on this song and on the album throughout – that distinguish this as a major-league recording. Little guitar flourishes, weepy slides, the extra drum beat. Jesse Terry is big-time, with a voice and delivery expansive enough to fill a concert hall with intimate, reflective, storytelling songs.

Jesse Terry

photo by Alex Berger; photo courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

“Strangers in Our Town” is one of those mid-tempo numbers that brings on a strong Mellencamp comparison. Stylistically, Jesse has his own unique spin, leaning a little more country but still a solid hometown pride number that’ll reach you deep inside, right where you live, and make you feel good.

“Ghost Stories” follows, bringing the melancholy, with a sad tone of remembrance, fittingly haunting to this slow number.

The mood doesn’t stay low long, though, as “Hymn of a Summer Night” has a playfully energetic bounce. Like “Ghost Stories” before it, it’s a look back, but this is a tale wrapped around fondness, affection, and complicatedly warm memories of a hometown. One of the neater verses recalls “All of us met on the banks when we got older, figured it was time to get out. But one by one, we came crawling back. There’s something about this simple river town.” It’s a song that’ll make you remember where you’re from, whether you stayed, left and returned, or exited for good.

Jesse Terry

photo by Jess Terry; photo courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

Jesse weaves in and out of uptempo happiness, slow sadness, and melancholy in-between though tales of recollection and stories of times gone by and yet to come remain a familiar theme.

One of the other standouts on this album is “Little Fires,” a mid-tempo tune full of real-life strength and struggles: “There’s little fires outside my window, little fires out of the corner of my eyes, little fires beneath the surface. I can’t put out these little fires.” Of course that’s mid-song. There’s set-up before, and more noodling and a bit of resolution afterwards. Of course. That’s Jesse’s strength… and, maybe, burden. He’s a storyteller.

Jesse Terry

photo by Neilson Hubbard; photo courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

It’s followed by an uplifting number, one that’ll help the listener – and it seems to help Jess – appreciate life, with lyrics that culminate in the chorus’ key phrase: “I’ve got somebody who understands, and that’s a pretty good hand.” The song has a nice country rhythm, what I sometimes refer to as a “git-along beat,” just bouncing along throughout, keeping the mood up, signaling that the guitar-slide is more reminiscent than melancholy, one of my favorite little tricks in this sort of mid-tempo, country-flavored song.

Jesse gives the album a soft, sweet, warm landing with the thoughtful “Just Out of Your Sight,” a both the album and the listener sway the disc to a close.

The rest of the songs are also worthy of mention, but they’re all within the themes and styles I’ve discussed already, so I’d just be repeating myself. Throughout, though, When We Wander is stylistically cohesive yet varied enough and sequenced well, making for an enjoyable beginning-to-end listen.

Looking Ahead

You can catch Jesse live in the Northeast in December – in Plymouth, MA, Stroudsburg, PA, Cortlandt Manor, NY, and Stonington and Middletown, CT. He’ll be in Mobile, AL on January 6th before spending the next few weeks in Florida. He has dates spanning from coast to coast in 2022, and some European dates in October and November 2022. So be sure to check the “Tour Dates” page of Jesse’s website for dates, times, locations, and ticket links for performances near you.

Album Review: DarWin – DarWin 3: Unplugged

DarWin

photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album Review of DarWin: DarWin 3: Unplugged

DarWin has followed critically acclaimed albums Origin of Species and DarWin 2: A Frozen War with this album, DarWin 3: Unplugged, a collection of orchestral and stripped back versions of songs from those first two discs.

Starting with album one, DarWin has been on the rich, powerful, orchestral side of progressive rock, but DarWin 3: Unplugged takes this a step beyond. As a result, listening to this album while doing other activities makes it seem as if your life has a surround sound movie soundtrack.

DarWin 3: Unplugged

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

This 8-song album contains five tracks listed as “orchestral,” two as “unplugged,” and one as “a capella,” so there are vocals and lyrics on three of the eight cuts.

The orchestral track that opens the disc, “Escape the Maze,” starts meanderingly, as if setting a scenescape within which one might imagine a stream running through the woods or maybe an eagle gliding, perhaps over the sort of frozen tundra depicted on the album cover. In the woods scene, it brings up visions of calmness at times and rapids and perhaps waterfalls at others. When focusing more on the song’s soaring aspects, I’d picture calm floating interspersed with conflict, perhaps the eagle hunting and swooping to attack or maybe trying to escape danger itself. Anyway, it is like all of the other orchestral tracks in that they are truly symphonic, largely string-heavy pieces that surge and sway powerfully as if telling a story. I’d gladly spend an evening at the local symphony to hear compositions of my favorite past-century classical composers and these DarWin songs, maybe with a sip of champagne during the intermission in-between.

The earlier of the “unplugged” songs in the album sequence, “Slowly Melting,” uses its light instrumentation to direct the focus to the intensely emotional vocals. The other, “One Horizon,” is driven by its rhythm, with the vocals and all of the instruments following along, supporting the thumping power.

The disc closes with the a capella track, “Another Year,” with smoky vocal verses leading up to vocal-heavy, rich, mainstream progressive rock choruses. This is the most radio-friendly song on DarWin 3: Unplugged and great way to end it.

I very nearly reviewed DarWin 2: A Frozen War, and I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t except that I was catching up on a laundry list of overdue reviews and trying to move to more recent albums at the time. DarWin 3: Unplugged is a great companion to DarWin’s earlier pieces, but it’s also presented so originally that I simply had to share it, even though I find myself again in catch-up mode. However, as cool as this album is, if you’re into top-shelf progressive rock and aren’t familiar with DarWin’s music, you’ll also want to check out his earlier albums.

EP Review: Public Library Commute – 1000 Summers

Public Library Commute

photo courtesy of DRPR

EP Review of Public Library Commute: 1000 Summers

Public Library Commute is the professional nom de plume of singer/songwriter/producer Conrad Hsiang. His sound on 1000 Summers is that of warm, open, smooth indie pop. Light and airy like a California summer afternoon with the top down, the music is a little jazzy, a little dream poppy, and at times borrows from the pop radio end of hip-hop, particularly in its muted rhythmic vibe.

In fact, it’s this consistent, almost dreamy summer vibe that makes 1000 Summers a perfect beginning-to-end play. Its six songs total less than 18 minutes, but they’re a smooth, cool journey.

Public Library Commute – 1000 Summers

image courtesy of DRPR

“25 MPH” opens the collection exactly with that slow driving, groovy vibe, with the overlapping sounds providing the audio version of a grainy black and white movie atop a colorful mural, drawing your attention in multiple directions at once, yet still leaving you with an unstoppable grin. A cool summertime cruising tune.

“Summertime” continues the same laid-back, soak-up-the-summer vibe but focuses more on Public Library Commute’s vocals, ending with what seems like it might be going to be a dreamy bridge, but on an EP full of songs with short run-times, it’s more of a fadeout.

The songs keeping on getting catchier without sacrificing the EP’s consistent vibe. with the more prominent hip-hop rhythm of “City Love” providing a tempo more amenable to radio play.

“You Been On My Mind,” next, sports an almost pop boy band vibe. Something you might expect from Nick Jonas. The tempo picks up a bit more yet again, not enough to dance to it, exactly, but you’ll find yourself quite significantly bouncing and swaying.

“Moonlight” is the most obvious potential hit on the disc, taking that one more step toward pop, as 1000 Summers continues its trajectory of increasing hookiness and energy. Lyrically and stylistically, it’s the sort of tune you’d croon to your baby: “All that I say, all that I do, I’m over the moon thinking of you.” On this song, the groove isn’t the only thing that’s smooth.

And all-too-soon, you’ve reached the last track, the title track of 1000 Summers. I swear there’s almost a country-meets-the-beach quality to the sound bed, at least at the beginning of the song. Or maybe it’s just the relaxed, almost slack-key styled strumming of the guitar. The feeling presented by “1000 Summers” is one part sunset falling on the beach in the summer, one part slow drive off into the sunset in a convertible with the top down before it ends all too suddenly.

It’s a tough album to describe – and I’m sure I’ve done an insufficient job, but it’s music I just had to share with you. It’s a true original but still oh-so-familiar. You’ll find 1000 Summers a quick favorite, a great summertime EP (that I’ve taken too long to review that I missed the summer). I can’t wait to hear what Public Library Commute creates next.

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.

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.