Album Review: Strawbs – Settlement

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Strawbs: Settlement (Esoteric Antenna/Cherry Red Records)

The Strawbs are one of those bands where the term “rock royalty” might easily apply. They began in 1964 as The Strawberry Hill Boys, named for a region in their native England where they originated and frequently played. In 1969 they shortened their title to Strawbs and released a debut album that same year. The abbreviated moniker seemed to follow their musical shift from a strictly bluegrass and folk-oriented trio to a quintet that integrated more rock and progressive sounds. The current lineup of the band features founder David Cousins (guitars/vocals) and long-time members Dave Lambert (guitars/vocals), Dave Bainbridge (keyboards), Chas Cronk (bass/vocals), and Tony Fernandez (drums and percussion). Guests include former Strawbs regular Blue Weaver on keyboards, mastering and production, with another long-time associate John Ford on guitar and vocals, Irish singer Cathryn Craig and South African bassist Schalk Joubert.

Strawbs – Settlement

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Strawbs have traditionally blended many musical styles, with always provocative and socially relevant lyrics. Conceived during the early pandemic months of 2020, Settlement is a full-length collection of well-crafted songs that rank with some of their best. Cousins’ reedy tenor envelopes the very topical and driving sentiments of the kick-off title track “Settlement.” He sings like a man possessed, “There comes a time when every settlement is due. No compromise, no other point of view.” Cousins is letting you know from the get-go there is some urgency to his message and he means business. And then he expresses thoughts born out of quarantine and a sense of a bigger picture, “Strapped down in a cold town, dying to pay the rent, what the masterminds are selling you is Heaven sent, ring around the rules, we’re nobody’s fools.” The weight of robust acoustic guitars mixed with mellotron, slide guitar and organ bring things to a fever pitch.

“Strange Times” follows and is another Cousins track that shifts, in mood and style, to more poignant and reflective. Again, the songwriting is totally on point as Cousins makes observations on occurrences in the present day, “Times of glory, times of pride, times for conflict set aside, times of danger, times of grief, such are these strange times.”

“Judgment Day” has a percolating, funky underbelly to it. Again, it’s a blend of acoustic and ambient sounds where Cousins is able to sing with pause and purpose. The song is a commentary on what social distancing has done to humanity on an emotional level. “Walk down the street, people I meet, step away as I pass by, know how I feel, down at heel, been known to break down and cry.” But the tune is not without a bright side, “Try to forgive, learn how to live, know in my heart where I’m going, hope and pray, on judgment day, they reap all the seeds they are sowing.”

John Ford collaborates with Cousins on the track “Each Manner of Man.” It is spiritual and observational, with a classic sound and a haunting quality. It’s a song that seems to address the humanity that connects us all. Ford and Cousins sing, “If ever the doubt shall still remain, the days gather pace like a mighty express, reminding us all to reflect on our ways, nothing more, nothing more, nothing less.”

Lambert’s “The Visit” sounds like a traditional Celtic folk song. It’s a story tune featuring shimmering mandolin and acoustic guitar, with a catchy chorus. This leads into his brief instrumental “Flying Free” that expands on an indigenous U.K. vibe.

“Quicksilver Days” is a vivid and somewhat somber ballad. It has a Gothic quality that stands with classic highlights like their own “Hero and Heroine.” Its fluid and surreal imagery is made even more relevant by the timeless Beatle-esque/King Crimson-like flute mellotron passages throughout.

Cronk’s “We Are Everyone” features splendid harmonies by himself, Cousins and guest vocalist Craig. It’s got a slow burning build that addresses the universality of the human race. The lyrics are simple and undeniably direct as they sing, “All bear witness, we are not lost, come together, join together, we are everyone.” It’s a goose bump-inducing piece that’s followed by Cronk’s dramatic and austere instrumental “Chorale.” It’s got a rousing Bach/Mozart pomposity that really makes a statement and brings the vinyl portion of the album to a satisfying close.

The CD version of Settlement contains three bonus songs under the heading “Off the Beaten Tracks.” They are the mini-epic boxer scenario “Champion Jack,” the seemingly auto-biographical “Better Days (Life Is Not a Game)” and the hopeful “Liberty.”

With multiple songwriters and vocalists in the band this is surely a true collective effort. It’s an amazing achievement considering it was created, in large part, through virtual means. Bravo!

Album Review: Laura Meade – The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Laura Meade – The Most Dangerous Woman in America

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Laura Meade: The Most Dangerous Woman in America (Doone Records)

Laura Meade is a vocalist with the modern New York-based progressive rock band IZZ. Coming off her 2018 solo release Remedium, Meade returns with a powerful statement tailor made for the #MeToo movement. The astute and perceptive singer-songwriter summarizes her latest release this way: “There have been so many people throughout history – many of them women – who stand up for themselves, stand up for what they believe in, and experience great pain and suffering for doing so; their memories lost along the way to gossip and rumor. I hope that this album, in some small way, honors and gives voice to the forgotten.”

What began as a concept album exploring one singular female icon’s struggles and challenges in life became a series of songs that address the body politic of women, at large. Meade is joined on the album by fellow IZZ counterparts John Galgano on guitars, bass and keyboards, Tom Galgano on keyboards, and Brian Coralian on drums and percussion. Following a brief sound byte “On the Shores of the Seine,” the track “Leaving” addresses the price of fame and sticking up for oneself and one’s convictions. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t proposition for the subject in this song as Meade sings, “Back against the wall, kind of had no choice, I knew it would be right, I knew it would be wrong.”

“Burned at the Stake” suggests reference to Joan of Arc in this song, as the protagonist feels the pressure of being under the public and media microscope. “Watching you, watching me shouting out so critically,” states Meade. “Scared like rabbits on the screen hiding out, embarrassing. I took the risk, I took the dive, iconoclast I have arrived, cut my hair, designed my taste, I can’t come out I’m such a waste.”

“Iconoclast” follows and seems a continuation of the storyline and emotions established in the previous track. Again, this addresses the dark side of fame. Meade sings, “Now that I’ve made it, every single glance is a perfect glance, and the way you walk isn’t left to chance. Destroyer of convention, a lover never mentioned. Forty times around the sun and no one paid attention.”

“End of the Road in Hollywood” is the diary of a generic movie star, or anyone that tries to buck the system and not sell out. Interesting sound design and rhythms frame the stark words and images in a very cinematic and self-reflective manner.

“Doesn’t Change a Thing” is all about picking up one’s personal spirits and carrying on in life. The chorus says it all: “Every day is another day to choose, every day is another day I win or lose, every day is another day to see, every day is another day I learn to be.”

The title track “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” is deadly serious, yet somewhat tongue in cheek as well. If being dangerous is synonymous with being resourceful and learning how to survive then that correlation makes sense. There is a sense of desperation and bravado in Meade’s voice as she sings: “There’s no way out of this alive, a glimpse of the ghost of me that survived… They say that I’m not tame, using my weapon for fame, It’s your obsession to blame, I control the game!” The music matches the tension in the lyrics, with a rapid up tempo keyboard pattern reminiscent of neo-noir cinema meets ‘80s synth-pop.

“The Shape of Shock” further explores a woman standing tall in the face of adversity, with the declarative chorus “I’m Still There!” The bank of keyboards and fullness of sound recalls early Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Genesis mixed with an enveloping wash of electronica. Meade embodies the character of the song when she sings: “The shape of shock is worthy of a face, just the type you’d like to see erased.”

“Forgive Me” is, perhaps, the most overtly prog-oriented track, with driving piano-fueled grooves, orchestral textures and oscillating synthesizers. Again, the protagonist here is trying to make a stand and represent her place in the world. Meade sings: “This is getting out of control. I wish I was younger, I wish I was older. No one here can love or comprehend me…Boisterous winds and Neptune’s waves have tossed me to and fro, and far below.”

“Tell Me Love” builds to a dramatic coda that shifts from solemn to revelatory. Meade concludes with cool observation and sage advice: “Don’t believe my biography, it’s just gossip, a ghost of me. It saves time, prevents us from thinking.” And later in the song she asks: “What should I do? Give in or stand fast? Live a long life or die young, burned at the stake? Tell me, love!”

Laura Meade has created an insightful and very personal piece of work here. Like all great music and literature its intentions and message will make their impression and resonate with the listener for a long time to come.

Looking Ahead

Though no live dates are currently listed, you can find future performances, when they’re scheduled, listed on the “Shows” page of Laura Meade’s website or the “IZZ Live” page of the IZZ website.

Album Review: District 97 – Screenplay

District 97

photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of District 97: Screenplay (MindScan/Cherry Red Records)

District 97 is a progressive rock band from Chicago that has been on the international scene since 2006. They started out as an instrumental group but really began to flourish as a more melodic entity after they brought singer-songwriter and American Idol semi-finalist Leslie Hunt into the fold. The current lineup of the band also features guitarist/vocalist Jim Tashjian, bassist Tim Seisser, keyboardist Andrew Lawrence, and drummer Jonathan Schang. The group has released a series of studio and live albums since 2010. Their last studio recording Screens dropped in 2019. The current one here is a double disc that serves as a curious document of various live performances – both original and cover songs – dating back to 2011, with Disc One a live track by track rundown of their Screens album performed at a venue in The Netherlands in 2019.

Disc One opens with the track “Forest Fire.” It is a multi-layered piece blending dense vocal harmonies, fluctuating tempos and Tashjian’s experimental noisy guitar riffs. The result is an exciting balance of dissonant and consonant sounds.

“Sheep” is a Sessier/Hunt composition that seems to address portions of society that tend to follow more than lead. The somewhat obtuse and fanciful lyrics perhaps make a comment on media consumption and compliance: “You’re living your best life. The blue glowing light redeems you, feeds you, numbs you… The blue glowing light has changed you, claimed you, drained you. It’s counting you as sheep.” Hunt rides a smooth vocal wave here as Tashjian and Sessier offer tasty guitar and bass breakdowns, respectively.

District 97 – Screenplay

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

“Sea I Provide” is somewhat of a straight-ahead rocker, with prominent cascading key passages from Lawrence. Metal-tinged guitar provides a thick wall of crunch that gives way to jazzy chords in the bridge. “Bread & Yarn” features sophisticated vocalizing between Hunt and Tashjian. It’s kind of a song cycle, with several thematic sections that drift from sedate to thunderous. The band deftly stacks a bunch of ideas in very compartmentalized fashion. It’s a real spotlight for the whole band.

“Trigger” keeps you on the edge of your seat, with its catchy harmonies, ear candy melodies and intrepid unison legato guitar and keyboard lines. The bass instrumental “After Orbit Mission” is a brief Jaco-esque vignette that leads into the aptly named “Shapeshifter.” With its many evolving musical detours and mind-bending lyrics the song indeed takes on a myriad of forms. In it, Hunt sings: “Blend with paper walls, I’ll change into something more comfortable to ignore. While you’re waiting for the form you’re expecting, but haven’t prepared for blow your lover has stored. Fully formed, you’re not who you were before.”

“Blueprint” starts out as a mellow and jazzy type of tune. Hunt sings surreal and dark lyrics through a barrage of altered changes, chords, and layers of sound. This one is not so much about blazing solos as stitching a number of vocal parts and thematic dynamics together smoothly.

The sides longest and final track is an ominous one called “Ghost Girl.” The 13-plus minute piece plays out as a short supernatural and suspenseful horror story. Hunt sings “How’s a girl to sleep at night with demons all around? They encircle me and then my bed lifts off the ground. They suffocate me, lacerate me across my naked flesh.” But then the supernatural sensibility hits home in, perhaps, a very real double-edged commentary on child abuse: “Mother, oh mother; I’m starting to see who was behind what happened to me. What was a little girl meant to do, when mother the only demon was you.”

Disc Two is a mix of live dates, from the U.S. and Europe, featuring early original songs from the band and an extensive covers set. In particular, District 97’s choices of artists and songs span an interesting and historically reflective gamut. The set list, assembled from several performances over the last decade or so, comprises a laundry list of key progressive and classic rock gems from the ‘70s and ‘80s. And the list is not without a few surprises. Jim Tashjian sings a very convincing solo version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” The band also covers a brilliant take on U.K.’s “Presto Vivace.” There are a couple back-to-back Bill Bruford songs that make the cut.

A real showstopper is a 2013 performance featuring District 97 backing the  legendary John Wetton singing lead on King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” But the absolute curveball in this whole package has to be an unlisted bonus rendition of that ‘80s perennial “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. It’s a faithful studio cut they tack on at the end of Disc Two that legitimately rocks! Who says prog bands can’t cut loose from the norm every once in a while? Highly recommended!

Looking Ahead

District 97 has a few upcoming concerts listed on the “Shows” tab of the band’s website. On October 28th, you’ll find them at the Brass Mug in Tampa, FL. On October 30th, they’re scheduled to perform as part of Progoween on the Ranch at the Crimson Sky Ranch in Masaryktown, FL. They’ll be back at their home base in Chicago, IL, on November 19th, at Reggie’s. And District 97 is scheduled on the Cruise to the Edge May 2nd-7th, 2022, departing from Port Canaveral, FL. For additional details and new dates as they’re added, keep an eye on the District 97 website and its Facebook page. (The Facebook page, for example, lists a November 1st gig at the Sweetwater Bar and Grille in Duluth, GA.) As always – and especially during a pandemic, when calendars and policies are constantly changing – double-check with a reliable source before heading out to a concert.

Album Review: Zanov – Chaos Islands

Zanov

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Zanov: Chaos Islands

Pierre Salkzanov (aka Zanov) is a French electronic music wizard who has been on the ground floor of the synthesizer-driven music field since 1976. From 1977 to 1983, he produced three albums for the Polydor and Solaris labels. After a 30 year absence from the scene, he returned in 2014 with the album Virtual Future and in 2016 released Open Worlds. Both of these recordings came out on his label Zanov Music.

Zanov – Chaos Islands

image courtesy of Rock Rose Music

This latest release is a continuation of electronic exploration and sound design that is cut from the same cloth as fellow artistic comrades such as Tangerine Dream, Maurice Jarre, Jean-Michel Jarre, Klaus Schulze and Eberhard Schoener. As is the tradition with much of progressive and experimental music of this type, the album follows a conceptual path. That path is comprised of seven signposts or tracks that are built around the perspective where order and chaos combine to generate surprising beauty. Hence, each track is rooted in melody and rhythms, but there is a pervasive serendipity and unpredictability there as well.

Track one is called “Edge of Chaos Island.” According to the liner notes, the tune describes Chaos Island as a region, or state of mind, where “creative and decisive changes are taking place in the transition from order and chaos.” Zanov’s synthesized wall of sound envelopes the listener from all directions. What keeps the music flowing and together is an oscillating mid-tempo loop that ebbs and shifts, with changing themes and melodies.

Zanov

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

On “Inception Island” there is a surreal soundscape that’s created inspired by the cult film Inception. Nothing is what it seems with this track. It’s kind of cerebral, with fractal bits of thematic material and obscure sounds weaving in and out. Subliminal sounds permeate underneath other sonic layers on top.

Track three is called “Strange Attractor Island” and has an almost meditative or sci-fi feel to it. The mid-section is in ¾ time while various melodies emerge, build and fade away. But as soon as one melody diminishes, a counter theme develops.

“Three Body Island” sounds semi-classical. It’s rather slow and pensive, with mood shifts at the half mark that surrender to multiple counter melodies and arpeggiated chords.

On “Phase Space Island” the liner notes state: “At a glance one can see all possible states of a system, leaving out time.” The piece is a nice mix of a swirling sonic wash, with recurring themes and bubbling rhythms. True to its title there is the swell of phase shifting here.

Zanov

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

“All roads lead to bifurcations, some of them leading to perpetual change,” on “Instability Island.” To a degree this is true. But the overall track harbors a smooth and calming melody that is woven within. This provides an anchor that keeps the entire piece intact.

In regards to the seventh and final track “Emergence Island,” Zanov states it is “very complex and beautiful where surprising structures can emerge from a very simple iterative process.” This piece sounds somewhat reminiscent of German outfit Kraftwerk’s early work on their international hit “Autobahn.” There is a strong rhythmic undertow that consolidates this whole conceptual package in an assured and mechanized manner.

Zanov creates music that is lush, fills your speakers, expands your mind and transports the listener to another level of consciousness.

Album Review: Steinar Karlsen – Destination Venus

Steinar Karlsen

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Steinar Karlsen: Destination Venus

Norway’s Steinar Karlsen knows his way around a guitar or two. He mixes a number of different styles together to create a unique brand of spacey and cinematic-based instrumental music. Picture an early Pink Floyd meets The Ventures mash-up for a taste of this super Scandinavian’s sonic vision.

All twelve tracks seem to tell a story that touch on various aspects of a journey through outer space. The album opens with “The Goodbye”’s slow and brooding minor key sounding Mediterranean blues. Right from the get-go Karlsen demonstrates impressive flamenco-sounding flourishes on electric guitar.

The fuzz-toned electric riffs of “Night Flight” blend elements of jazz and rock. It contains a meaty industrial strength-infused melody supported by spastic drums and a loose jam feel.

Steinar Karlsen – Destination Venus

image courtesy of Rock Rose Music

Karlsen shows his semi-classical side utilizing exotic modes and motifs in “The Karman Line.” Martin Langlie employs tasteful dynamics and snare-driven rhythms that really propel the piece into the band Focus territory.

“Weightless” is an interesting segue into experimentation that sets up a nice interlude for “Picnic on the Moon.” As the title suggests, this has a bright and light-hearted feel to it. The melody leans toward vintage surf rock, with modern overtones like Los Straightjackets.

The band goes on caravan for the exotic and cool “Space Camel.” The tune has a symphonic/gypsy vibe, with an obvious Middle Eastern quality.

“Monsters” swings as if Les Paul and Link Wray met and wanted to form a band. Eerie Theremin-like warbly saw sounds transport you to some bad B-movie sci-fi soundtrack music.

“The Trip” features really dense and animated drums and percussion. As the title indicates, you feel like you’re on an interstellar journey. The Farfisa-like organ gives it a cool retro feel that rips in an open and funky manner.

Another brief interlude called “Red Skies” leads into the signature track “Venus.” It’s got a catchy and danceable groove that spotlights a smooth breakdown between guitar and bass.

The mood alters slightly for the mellow “A Billion Stars.” Karlsen crafts a very lyrical and rich melody that harkens to one of Jeff Beck’s early instrumental fusion albums.

The voyage to Venus is concluded with a track called “Acid Rain.” It is an experimental Hendrix-like piece that dramatically pivots to an abrupt drum-induced finale.

Steinar Karlsen has released a successful series of guitar-oriented instrumental albums. This is certainly one of his best, with a playful and colorful blend of earnest, pop-induced melodies, thoughtful experimentation and brilliant musicianship. The perfect soundtrack for your resident billionaire’s next rocket ride through space.

Album Review: Merry Clayton – Beautiful Scars

Merry Clayton

photo by Mathieu Bitton; photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Merry Clayton: Beautiful Scars (Motown Gospel/Ode Records)

Go back and listen to some of your favorite tunes over the years – The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Feelin’ Alright” by Joe Cocker, or Ringo Starr’s “Oh My My.” Or maybe check out early recordings by Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt and Coldplay. All these classic songs and artists have one thing in common – Merry Clayton. She is, arguably, one of the most recorded session vocalists in pop music history. Her soulful and big booming voice has been a part of the soundtrack of our lives since the ‘60s.

In 2013, she starred in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. As a result of appearing in that film, she bounced back into the public spotlight. But then, in 2014, tragedy struck in the form of a serious auto accident. As a result of trauma from the crash she lost both legs from the knee down. However, Merry Clayton is an amazing testament to the power of prayer, personal fortitude and purpose. It never kept her down. And it’s her faith in God and a higher power that brought her back full circle in making Beautiful Scars.

Merry Clayton – Beautiful Scars

image courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Multi award-winning producer Lou Adler partnered with his long-time friend Clayton to bring this album to light. And what an incredible album it is! It’s a blend of the sacred and the secular where the bottom line is all about positivity and praise. For instance, the album opens with a classic song by Leon Russell called “A Song for You.” The song is a pensive ballad focusing on dedication to a significant other, whether the “other” is a lover, the listener, or The Lord himself. Clayton’s beautiful interpretation of this song transcends earthly parameters and is, simply, pure love.

Sam Cooke’s wonderful “Touch the Hem of His Garment” is a stirring tune that is a prime example of an artist that could walk that secular/sacred line. Gerald Albright really shines here on sax and adds spiritual weight to Clayton’s reverent delivery.

The title track was written by celebrated composer Diane Warren. Although it is dedicated to Clayton’s late sister it certainly encapsulates the rise from adversity that the singer has experienced herself. In it Merry Clayton sings: “These are beautiful scars that I have on my heart, these are beautiful scars that I’ve made it this far. Every hurt I’ve endured, every cut, every bruise, wear it proud like a badge, wear it like a tattoo.”

Merry Clayton

photo by Mathieu Bitton; photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

“Love is a Mighty River” was written by Coldplay’s Chris Martin. It’s a modern gospel tune, with a strong Mahalia Jackson feel. Kudos on this track go out to the brilliant voices of the Soweto Gospel Choir.

A simple message of looking to God for all things is expressed in keyboardist Terry Young’s funky “God’s Love.” It’s a catchy number that recalls something Chaka Khan might do. Some of L.A.’s finest session/side players show up and show out on this track.

Another Terry Young standout is a track called “Deliverance.” Clayton sings: “Deliverance is yours for the asking. Ask Jesus and I know he will deliver you.” There is a comfort and assurance in the singer’s words that should hit home with anyone with a pulse. The song is a powerful multi-dimensional piece that builds to a soul-stirring finale.

“Room at the Altar” has a lot of rhythmic vibrancy and really swings. It’s a rousing call and response number between Clayton and members of “L.A.’s Finest Choir.” Clayton sings: “Just call his name, ‘cause I know he answers prayer. I’m standing on the promises of God.” This is some of that old-time gospel that is sure to get you on your feet!

Merry Clayton

photo by Mathieu Bitton; photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Music director Terry Young’s “He Made a Way” is a mid-tempo pop tune that is sure to connect on a visceral as well as spiritual level. The song states: “Oh, what a friend you are to me, when I was bound you set me free. There’s no one like you, you brought me through… You’re always right there for me.”

The great Herb Alpert appears on “Oh, What a Friend.” It describes the definition of friendship and gets a decidedly light-hearted treatment via Tijuana Brass alum’s classic gossamer-toned trumpet.

Clayton and Adler’s blend of the secular with the sacred really comes together on the album finale “Ooh Child Medley.” In it the suite transitions from classic soul tune “Ooh Child” to the spiritual “It is No Secret (What God Can Do)” and concludes with the Jackie DeShannon joining Clayton for the uplifting “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”

Beautiful Scars is a perfect album on so many levels, not the least of which is the great Merry Clayton’s return from the ashes to the recording world. Here’s to many more and fruitful years for this inspiring and essential artist!

Album Review: Sheila Landis and Rick Matle – Walkin’ After Midnight

Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

photo by Bill Dwyer; photo courtesy of Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Sheila Landis and Rick Matle: Walkin’ After Midnight, feat. George “Sax” Benson (SheLan Records)

Sheila Landis is a Detroit-based multi-award-winning jazz vocalist and composer whose career spans 45 years. Rick Matle is a guitarist’s guitarist and composer, with a musical resume nearly as long, having played in big bands and combos throughout the metro Detroit area. Together, since 1991, they’ve released a number of unique albums exploring all aspects of jazz, blues, world music, funk, and everything in between.

“Walkin’ After Midnight” is not only the title track of the album but was a signature hit for country crooner Patsy Cline. Landis, an ardent maven of Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and all the greats, puts her gossamer spin on a classic singer and song. Detroit woodwind virtuoso George “Sax” Benson offers up some nice tenor work, with Matle ushering in cool bop lines. This is a well balanced mix of pop and swing courtesy of frequent collaborator Karen Tomalis on drums.

Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

image courtesy of Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

Louis Jordan’s “Knock Me a Kiss” is textbook vocalizing for Landis. She injects the suave and sexy tune, with just the right amount of playful humor and wordless scatting. Benson answers her phrasing by responding with smooth tenor shadings. “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues” is a Duke Ellington classic. It gets a funky treatment here as if James Brown or Curtis Mayfield were arranging. Matle’s Wes Montgomery-like  guitar, along with Benson’s muscular sax, make this sizzle.

“Something Wonderful” is a Landis/Matle co-write, and it recalls an old-school R&B flavored tune. Growing up in the ‘60s and ’70s, they were both heavily influenced by the contemporary sounds of the day. This is their loving tribute where Landis sings, “The music of those Motown artists really touched my soul.”

Acclaimed poet Maya Angelou’s work was the basis for “Phenomenal Woman (Inner Mystery).” Afro-Cuban rhythms fueled by drummer Gayelynn McKinney make the vamp-like groove sparkle. The harmonized trumpets of David Thomas recall Hugh Masakela or vintage Herb Alpert.

Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

photo by Andre B. Thomas; photo courtesy of Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

From there they bring it down a tad for a tune popularized by Peggy Lee, and written by Little Willie John, called “Fever.” Recorded in 2017 at the Arts, Beats & Eats festival, this is the kind of stuff Landis can really sink her teeth into. It’s appropriately cool, bluesy and mellow, with outstanding chordal guitar solos by Matle. At that same festival, a medley of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and a poem set to music called “Bold as Love” take the sound and spirit of the guitar legend to amazing and noteworthy heights. The rhythm section of bassist Kurt Krahnke and drummer Tomalis interact with Matle and Landis for a true and authentic re-creation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience band. While they are somewhat faithful to “Little Wing’s” original intent, Landis takes liberties with it in a suitably psychedelic manner. The original Landis poem “Bold as Love” is not only a fitting tribute to Hendrix, but it is a showcase for all her formidable and incomparable vocal and lyrical skills. She beatboxes, scats, utilizes word play, and straddles the stratosphere with her incredible range. Meanwhile, led by Matle, the rhythm section takes a journey through a collage of sound referencing Hendrix’s catalog of hits. About Jimi’s legacy Landis recites: “He has the psychedelic showmanship of Louis Jordan in the Age of Aquarius.”

They return on that same concert to some mainstream jazz for an oldie but goodie “It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got That Swing.” The Duke Ellington number never sounded so lively and fun! And it really does swing where Landis mimics a muted trumpet, among her many vocal iterations.

They conclude the album with a novel and unusual track, recorded live in 2017 at the Detroit Jazz Festival, called “Kazoo Who?” It’s kind of a jamming sort of situation where the moral of the story is that everything goes better with a kazoo. Drummer David Taylor and bassist John Lindberg lay down a jazzy hip-hop-type groove as Landis raps about her love of the kazoo, leading to an impassioned solo on said instrument. You just gotta hear it to believe it! It’s cool and one kids young and old can really dig into.

Sheila Landis and Rick Matle are a great team in the same family as Tuck and Patti and artists of that ilk. The combination of Landis’ sturdy modern bop roots, with Matle’s sense of guitar experimentation and rock sensibilities single-handedly take  jazz in new and exciting directions.

Looking Ahead

Sheila and Rick have several upcoming shows this month around metro Detroit. This weekend, they’ll be at the Village of Rochester Hills Gazebo on Friday, July 9th and at Johnny’s Speakeasy on Royal Oak on Sunday, July 11th. For additional details on these and other live dates, be sure to check out the “Shows” page on their website.

EP Review: Paola Bennet – Maybe the Light

Paola Bennet

photo by Mim Adkins; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Paola Bennet: Maybe the Light

The somewhat cryptic and surreal Paola Bennet is a singer-songwriter originally from Boston, Massachusetts. Based in Brooklyn, New York, this accomplished artist has steadily been garnering positive press and making her mark, with a series of groundbreaking independently released albums. This current five song EP is filled with interesting sound design and vivid dream-like textures. She has been compared to singers like Phoebe Bridgers, Sara Bareilles and Daughter, with a blend of darkness and light in her vocal delivery.

Paola Bennet – Maybe the Light

cover photo by Justin Oppus; image courtesy of Paola Bennet

“My Mother Says” is moody, spacey and somewhat ethereal. Bennet’s voice is warm and familiar, yet exotic and totally original. Her interplay on electric and acoustic guitars with producer Adam Tilzer is inventive. It’s not so much about solos and improvisation as it is the creation of an ambient sheet of sound. This combined with the vocal backing of Elijah Mann and Jordan Popky, and strings from Ward Williams, complete a rich aural picture.

“Anthea” puts emphasis on lush orchestration. What appears to be Bennet reaching out to a friend in need becomes a spiritually moving anthem on the definition and the pursuit of love.

Paola Bennet

photo by Scout Sheehan; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

“In This Body” seems to address issues of body image and personal reflection, both physically and emotionally. With references to a lack of wholeness and houses falling apart, Bennet uses stark imagery to depict someone in various stages of inner struggle and crisis. That environment is further sparked, toward the finale, by heavy guitars and Brian Delaney’s well conceived drums.

“Astronaut” could almost be a companion piece to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” As with many of Bennet’s songs, it could, perhaps, be taken literally or figuratively. She sings about the the vastness and beauty of interstellar travel and documents the distance between the protagonist in the song and her love, the astronaut, in outer space. Benett sings: “I may never go further than crossing an ocean.” And then she sends a communiqué that she hopes connects with her significant other: “Do you miss it down here? Stars can’t love you like I do, my dear.”

Paola Bennet

photo by Mim Adkins; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

“7:23 AM” concludes the EP, with subtle orchestration and a strong acoustic guitar figure. Bennet sings in almost hushed and laid-back tones as she describes the silence of the morning. It’s a peaceful and serene time where she expresses the beauty of simple pleasures and sharing those with her lover.

Paola Bennet is in a class by herself in terms of how she arranges and assembles her song concepts and ideas. The somewhat baroque quality provided by Williams’ cello and viola combined with avant garde electronic embellishments defy the typical folk/Americana category. In a lot of ways she’s chosen a road less travelled. And we, the listener, are musically richer for the experience. Highly recommended!

Paola Bennet

photo by Mim Adkins; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

Looking Ahead

Though no shows are currently on Paola’s concert calendar, keep an eye on the “Tour” page of her website for shows as they’re added.

EP Review: Lisa Bastoni – Backyard Birds

Lisa Bastoni – Backyard Birds

image courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Lisa Bastoni: Backyard Birds

Lisa Bastoni an accomplished songstress from Northampton, Massachusetts that has earned award consideration and wowed audiences and major Folk/Americana events like the Boston Music Awards (folk category) and Kerrville. Her sweet, expressive voice recalls artists like Gretchen Peters and Patty Griffin. It’s a modern, poetic style that speaks from the heart and personal experience. And her delivery is so billowy and comforting, as to lull one into almost a meditative state. Bastoni has two previous albums to her credit, The Wishing Hour and How We Want to LiveBackyard Birds was recorded at home during the lockdown of 2020. It’s a low key release, in that it simply features Bastoni and producer/multi-instrumentalist/harmony vocalist Sean Staples. The production is minimal, but therein lies its power. The simplicity totally serves the music and message.

“Bring it On” is a wise song that rings true for anyone that has a history between themselves and a partner. It’s about cleaning one’s own emotional closet and honestly observing truth in how you feel toward someone. Bastoni in the chorus sings: “There’s a whole lot of things you’ve been carrying too long. If you want to love me, if you feel that strong, bring it on.”

“Southern Belle” has an early Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris feel. There’s nice Dobro guitar work here by Tim Kelly. The storyline centers on a woman that doesn’t wanna rush things in a relationship. She’s all about biding her time and waiting for love to take hold. The protagonist sings: “When you want to come around, I’ll meet you at the station. I’m not going to force your hand. I love you but I’m patient.”

Lisa Bastoni

photo courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

“Sorrow’s a String” is about changes one goes through in their personal life. Memories and a love for someone — in this case, her grandparents — forever endures, even though the people may not physically be present anymore. “When I cry my sorrow’s a string,” sings Bastoni. “I want to love you as long as I can. I would fly if I had wings. How I wish I could see you again.” And here she recalls fond moments in her grandparents’ house: “I can still hear your footsteps running down the stairway, I can still see your smile as you open the door. A new radio tower has gone up in the distance, but the backyard birds still whistle your songs.”

“If Not Today” features sleek acoustic guitar work from Staples. It’s got kind of a folk/blues vibe. The chorus encapsulates the urgency of the tune, with: “You can be a wallflower when the dancing starts, be a February empty of little paper hearts. A new morning’s coming and you’re right back where you’ve been. If not today, then when?”

“Red Rocks” has a relaxed country feel that documents an account of a burgeoning, yet fleeting love affair. In it, Bastoni unpacks heavy emotions : “I carried deep the promises of something just begun, felt it burn inside me like the high desert sun. You made me feel like I could be, a way I’d never been. Maybe someday I will go back there again.” And the chorus pulls no punches: “We had Red Rocks, blue skies, turquoise and tiger’s eye. We had young love, wild as a desert rose. Young love comes and goes.”

“Hidden in the Song” is another piece that seems to deal with speaking plainly and stating true feelings. Bastoni sets the scene in this verse: “At the party in the backyard you were soaking up the stars. Did you stand so close together or did you stand apart? Did you look her in the eye, did you find the words to say, or did you send a message in every note that you played?” The chorus states: “Simple words, but you can’t hide the meaning, hidden in the song that you were singing.”

The final song on the EP is called “This is My Love.” This is Bastoni in her purest form, so to speak. It’s just her and solo acoustic guitar recorded in her kitchen on a cell phone. It’s a basic, yet thought-provoking song of unfettered admiration for her significant other. She sings: “There’s a tugging at my shoes on this road I walk to you. Runs as far as a dream can dream. I’ve been asking without words, I wonder if you heard, I wonder if you ever think of me?”

On this sublime and unpretentious collection of original stories and songs, Bastoni is not afraid to be vulnerable and transparent. This new release features the artist at her most lyrical and melodically astute.

Looking Ahead

Available digitally via Lisa’s Bandcamp website since May 20th, the official release date for Backyard Birds is Friday, June 25th, with a release party to be held on Saturday, June 26th at the iconic Club Passim in Cambridge, MA. Other upcoming shows on Lisa’s calendar, which you can find at her website, are Friday, July 9th with Cloudbelly at the Northampton Summer Park Series in Northampton, MA; Sunday, July 18th with Danielle Miraglia on the Burren Back Patio in Somerville, MA; and Saturday, August 28th with Naomi Summers at the St. John’s 3rd Annual Bluegrass Fest in North Guilford, CT. Check out Lisa’s website for more information and keep an eye out for addition dates as they’re added.

Album Review: John Hall – Reclaiming My Time

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of John Hall: Reclaiming My Time (Sunset Blvd. Records/Redeye Distribution)

“Dance With Me,” “Still the One,” and “Love Takes Time” were chart-topping tunes for the harmony-driven band Orleans. During the ‘70s and early ‘80s, key vocalist, songwriter and guitarist John Hall was one of the prime movers and shakers in that band. He has also had success as a songwriter for a bevy of artists, including Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner, and James Taylor. In addition, Hall has played guitar on tours and records for Little Feat, Taj Mahal, Jackson Browne, and Seals and Crofts. A lot of his music has a very personal and socio-political slant to it. And being a man of his convictions, Hall co-founded Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), with his environmental activism leading him to serve two elected terms of office as a (D-NY) congressman.

John Hall - Reclaiming My Time

image courtesy of Anne Leighton

The man has lived a colorful life, for sure, and, after serving a number of years in elected office, he’s back full time making music, with his sixth solo album called Reclaiming My Time. The album title cleverly references a phrase used in Congress when someone in session is interrupted and wants to return to the floor. But it also slyly could refer to the time Hall has spent away from active duty as a singer-songwriter. Well, he’s back, and we could sure use a guy like John Hall right now! He speaks his mind most eloquently on a number of topics. And his ability to combine sublime lyrics with beautiful melodies and killer guitar work is a rare treat, indeed!

“I Think of You” is the opening song on the album and sets a scene, with plenty of romance, sun, surf and pleasant atmosphere. It is one of those pining and heartfelt love songs that transports you to a better place.

“Alone Too Long” is a tune that easily could have been written about life in quarantine and isolation.  Here are some sample lines: “My friend you miss the touch of a warm hand. A voice from across the room saying I understand. How it feels to be hurtin’, the future’s so uncertain. Don’t you stay alone too long, I could be that person.” Come to find Hall wrote the song before the pandemic about a friend who lost his wife and was wondering when it was time to start again. The groovy R&B-type song seems almost prophetic, in a way.

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

That’s followed by another romantic and ethereal type tune called “Mystic Blue.” Great hooks and a tasty country/blues vibe combined, with a Van Morrison meets Jimmy Buffet aesthetic abounds. Hall’s blues roots come shining through on the streetwise ballad “Lessons.” The master storyteller lays some knowledge on you, with the message: “I learned to have patience, I wound up in a traffic jam. I learned to handle money, it slipped right through my hands. Wanted to travel the whole world over, that’s when I lost my home. And then the chorus brings it all in focus: “If you ain’t hurtin’ you ain’t learning….I’ll be a genius before long.” The moral of the story is a classic one: “Watch what you wish for because you might just get it!”

“Islamorada” recalls a fantasy kind of getaway. It’s a holiday augmented by lots of percussion and multi-layered guitars and rhythms. It’s a nice break in the action, so to speak. “Somebody” almost has a retro early ‘60s feel. It’s got a driving and relentless beat that supports the sentiment: “Treasured friends can lift me up, but sometimes that’s not enough. I need somebody… I need somebody to love.” Hall nails the human condition in its purest form.

“Another Sunset” is a fine collaboration and co-write with Steve Wariner. Wariner plays nylon string classical guitar and gives the song a wealth of romantic ambience and elegance. Really nice!

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

“Now More Than Ever” reunites Hall with former writing and life partner Johanna Hall. Johanna was on board in the early days of Orleans for some of their biggest hits. A nice mix of electric and acoustic guitars, along with lush harmonies and signature choral hooks make this a highlight.

On “Save the Monarch” Hall is joined by Dar Williams on vocals. This tale of environmental and ecological awareness is wise and poignant in its account of man’s mistreatment of plants and animals. Hall and Williams sing: “In you who we trust, eternal and just, save them from us!” It is spiritually stirring and thought provoking. “All Up and Down From Here” has a topical message as well, but delivered in a light-hearted manner. It depicts a day in the life of a guy just trying to find some happiness and catching a break in life. In it, Hall sings: “I’m on cloud nine hangin’ with my baby mama. She said ‘this is it,’ you’re my futurama! But I came home from work the other day, a strange car’s parked in my driveway, I feel like a clown, but it’s all up and down from here.” The bridge wraps it with a nice bow: “It’s a roller coaster ride, not a straight line. I’m in darkness, but I know soon the sun will shine.” Life can be a balancing act sometimes and Hall conveys that message in the most entertaining terms possible.

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

“World on Fire” has a great hook in the spirit of Bob Marley or Toots and the Maytals. It’s basically a reggae/world beat-tinged song centered on global unrest and renewal.

“Future Ex-Wife” is another tonal shift back to more country-flavored territory. It’s essentially a song, with a farcical premise, that is as much introspective and revelatory as it is humorous. In it, the focus is on a guy that keeps repeating the same love connection missteps. Hall’s guitar acumen here is filled with plenty of Nashville charm and spirit.

The album concludes on a reflective note, with the returning military veteran saga “Welcome Home.” The sobering sentiment here says it all: “There were no parades of victory, no marching bands. He’s alive but still not whole. Invisible scars – wounds that would not heal. Stripes and stars – none of it seems real. Can he start to pick up his life and move on? But he’s waited all these years to hear ‘welcome home!’” Well said and highly recommended!

Looking Ahead

In the next couple of weeks, you can catch John on Friday, June 18th at the Beacon Theater in Hopewell, VA; on Friday, June 25rd at the McGrath Amphitheater in Cedar Rapids, IA with Pure Prairie League, and on Sunday, June 27th at the Southern Atlantic Hemp and Arts EXPO in Fletcher, NC with Firefall and Atlanta Rhythm Section. He already has more than dozen more dates scattered across the United States during the second half of the year, too, so check out the “Tour” page of John’s website to see when he’ll be performing near you.