Album Review: Annie Brobst – Where We Holler

Annie Brobst

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Album Review of Annie Brobst: Where We Holler

I reckon y’all know we’re big fans of Annie Brobst here at the Blog. From Eric Harabadian’s review of her debut album, My First Rodeo, to my coverage of her appearances at both Behind the Songs events and all three Local CountryFests, we’ve mentioned Annie’s name a lot. When she’s performing live, Annie owns the stage and the audience. She’s a big-stage-caliber country artist. And she’s proven to be a talented recording artist with songs that cover a broad swath of country music real estate.

Annie Brobst - Where We Holler

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Annie has a sweet, high voice that can be near-angelic on the slow songs, and she has an extra gear (or two or three) when she swings for the higher-tempo fences. The most frequent comparison for Annie vocals are to Miranda Lambert, all the way down to the puckishness in her delivery, though at times she amps it up to Dolly Parton-level mischievousness.

I’ll start my review with the biggest party song on Where We Holler, the sort-of title song “Holler & Swaller.” Long a drinking mantra at Annie Brobst concerts, this is the song behind the holler and swaller shouts (and shots) fired at Annie’s live shows. It’s the best showcase on this album for Annie’s comfort on that always-popular party-country end of the scale.

The album actually opens with “Jealous,” a reminiscent, relatable song that’s right in Annie’s sweet spot, one that’ll hit you with emotion then boom it to the rafters with a big sound in the chorus, tempering the pure-country melancholy guitar weep along with that hint of defiance that so often lurks beneath the surface of Annie’s vocals.

Annie Brobst - Where We Holler

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

“Ain’t He the Worst” shows the first hint of Annie’s vocal playfulness in this downhome country mid-tempo twanger.

After the aforementioned “Holler & Swaller,” Annie follows with a more introspective, slow to mid-tempo drinking song, “Red Wine on My Mind.”

Annie follows with the biggest Opry-flavored number on the disc, “Amazing Greats,” paying homage to both the country gospel hymn that inspired the song’s sound and the country artists who inspired the woman behind the microphone.

“Little Girl Dreams” is one of the poppier country songs on the album, radio-friendly all the way down to its reminiscent lyrics, with small-town childhood memories of throwing rocks off a bridge to make a wish and of grandma sitting on the front porch.

Next up is the sassiest, most mischievous song on the album, “Baby Don’t Love Me.” It features the sort of fast-paced, playful lyrics that are invariably bound to be found on an Annie Brobst disc. (In that respect, it’s kind of a sister song to “You Either Love Me or You Don’t” from My First Rodeo.)

Annie Brobst

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Annie shifts gears almost immediately, tugging at the heartstrings with the heartfelt, small-town story-song “Make Lemonade.”

I’d call “On the Record” a “lite” version of “Baby Don’t Love Me,” not quite as sassy and a fair bit more serious. And that leads up to the last song in the collection, the soul-searching, sweetly sung ballad “On the Road That Leads Me to Kentucky.”

A strong album from beginning to end, Where We Holler is a disc worthy of being the second of many rodeos. Annie Brobst is firmly establishing herself as a dependably exceptional country artist, one whose diverse song styles deliver something for everyone, while providing the variety to keep a full-album listen interesting.

Looking Ahead

An Annie Brobst show is an event. So be sure to catch one if you can. At the “Buy Tickets” tab of Annie’s website, you’ll find a summer full of Massachusetts shows, starting the Saturday, June 26 Team Song Is Born MS Fundraiser at Endicott Grille in Danvers MA. There’s a single New Hampshire show currently booked (the Gear Jammer Truck Show at Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, NH on Saturday, July 31). And there’s one show far afield from Annie’s home base: the Freedom Jam STL 2021 concert in Eureka, MO on Saturday, August 28. She’ll also be headlining Local CountryFest this year – an annual concert I’ve not missed since its inception – on Saturday, September 11 at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA.

Album Review: Bob Malone – Good People

Bob Malone

photo courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

Album Review of Bob Malone: Good People

World-class rockin’ blues keyboardist (and singer and songwriter) Bob Malone has done it again. Released today, May 21, 2021, Good People is his latest masterpiece. His music ranges from raucous and rollicking to slow and sentimental, his songwriting reaches deeply into the emotions of life, and his voice is rough, emotional, and relatable with a hint of a Randy Newman-esque delivery. His live shows are an event, and his recordings are a treat. If you’re familiar with him, all I should need to say is “Bob Malone has released a new album,” and you’ll order it. But that doesn’t make for much of an album review, so let’s dig in.

The disc opens with the title track, “Good People.” It’s a soaring, hopeful number. Even when Bob’s lyrics are cynical, he always sneaks a little hope in, and he doesn’t sugarcoat life’s difficulties here, but this is an exceptionally uplifting tune, almost a hymn in spots thanks to his background vocalists, that focuses on the silver linings, not the clouds.

The energy level amps up next with Bob’s rowdy cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” Of course, Bob has been John Fogerty’s keyboardist since 2011, so, you know, no added pressure here to impress, right? No worries; Bob nails it. The thumping, rhythmic keyboard opening starts to build the power, with ivory-tickling flourishes increasing as the song progresses, and rich background vocals throughout supporting Bob’s rough ‘n rowdy vocals. And let’s not forget the late-song keyboard and guitar noodling, hinting at the sort of long-form jamming I’m sure you could expect when hearing this song live.

Bob Malone – Good People

image courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

The mood is calmed almost immediately by “Empty Hallways,” a rich piano-based sad song, with Bob’s soulful, gravelly vocal portraying the emotional pain in this powerful ballad.

The energy returns again, following a cool, echoing opening, with “All There Is,” an energetic, enthusiastic blues-rocker with a strong, happy beat that belies the song content: “Is this all there is? ‘Cause I’ve seen this before. Is this all there is? There’s got to be more. Please tell me there’s more!” Never, this side of the Stones, will you rock along as enthusiastically to a song about dissatisfaction, with stop-starts, exploding rhythms, and well-placed background harmonies. As much fun as the recording of this song is, I guarantee this will be a live favorite, too.

Gruff, emotional vocals return on the steadily-progressing, slower-moving “Head First.” Behind the song’s powerful rhythm you’ll discover some nuanced keywork, supporting lyrics like “What didn’t kill me also didn’t make me stronger, and I’m just trying to keep what’s left of me alive.”

Next up is the second of Bob’s three covers on this disc, his rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” Gotta say, Bob’s version is way more rockin’! You might think replacing guitars with a piano would soften a song? You’d be wrong, though if you’ve heard Bob play before, you won’t be surprised. He adds a more ragged vocal delivery, too. The way this is arranged and executed, it sounds more like an update of an old-school blues number than a Fleetwood Mac cover.

The mood doesn’t last long, as Bob follows it with a particular favorite, a song that plays to one of his many songwriting strengths. In this case, on “My Friends and I,” he captures the emotions of the struggles of people of a certain age, his cohort, something I’ve appreciated in his music before. (On “Can’t Get There From Here” from Bob’s Mojo Deluxe album, for example.)

Next up is a quintessentially Bob Malone instrumental, a song so engaging with dancing melodies and memorable piano flourishes that you’ll find yourself thinking back “surely there must have been lyrics in there, right?” I assure you there are not. What Joe Satriani or Marc Bonilla can do with instrumental guitar, what Mindi Abair or Candy Dulfer can do with a saxaphone, Bob Malone does with a piano. On this album, he delivers “Prelude & Blues.” It’s an accessible, radio-friendly, energetic number that can fit comfortably and seamlessly on a playlist – or, in this case, on an album – alongside your favorite vocal-driven songs.

Next on Good People is an ode of appreciation to the “Sound of a Saxophone,” on which Bob’s keywork is rich, full, and organ-ic. And, of course, joined by some wailing, bluesy sax. It’s followed by a song Bob wrote a few years ago for a telethon to raise money for West Virginia flood relief, “The River Gives.” It’s a powerful song with soaring gospel-choir harmonies that complement Bob’s gravelly vocal delivery atop soaring music that mimics the power and force of flood waters: “The river gives, the river takes away. You can’t stop the water’s rise, you can only pray. The river gives, the river takes away. Down here by the river, we live day to day.”

Bob closes this enjoyable, heartfelt album with some serious energy, riffing uncontrollably through his funky flavored cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” It’s a fun song, a terrific rendition that’ll leave you with a bounce in your step and a smile, ready to hit “repeat” and hear the album all over again.

Good People is yet another feather in Bob’s cap, as he builds a catalog of world-class original music, an increasing “back catalog” of rollickin’ piano blues music awaiting discovery by the new fans each subsequent disc uncovers. Keyboard wizard. Talented songwriter. Voice of a generation. Good People.

Bob Malone at Barn #81

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Looking Ahead

You can catch Bob Malone live – or, at least, livestreamed. Upcoming gigs are here on the “Tour Dates & Livestreams” page of his website. You’ll find info there for Bob’s three streams scheduled this week: Sunday, May 23rd, Tuesday, May 25th, and Wednesday, May 26th. Farther out, the site lists upcoming live dates on September 30th in Rahway, NJ; October 1st in New Paltz, NY; October 2nd in Willington, CT; and October 29th in Los Angeles. There are few events as much fun as a live Bob Malone concert, so get out to see him perform this fall if you can.

In the meantime, Good People drops today, so go check it out. And then try one of his livestreams, if your schedule permits.

And don’t forget to read my previous Bob Malone reviews here at the Blog, of Bob’s last (non-holiday studio) album, Mojo Deluxe; of an insane house concert; of an unassuming, casual summer gig at a suburban concert in the park series; and of a performance at an iconic London blues club.

Album Review: Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

image courtesy of Hello Wendy

Album Review of Maia Sharp: Mercy Rising

Maia Sharp‘s album Mercy Rising drops today, May 7th, 2021. A quick look at the artists for whom she’s written give you the first indication that the songwriting’s going to be strong, and Maia clearly wrote for her own voice here, emphasizing the strengths in her voice and delivery style.

Maia’s voice reminds me of Tommy Shaw, perfectly suited to the soaring, ’70s AOR sound of the title track, “Mercy Rising.” There may be a little Glenn Frey in there, too, with a deft touch on songs like “Backburner,” where Maia builds up energy, then sets it sail into softer seas with the subtlest vocal tap.

“You’ll Know Who Knows You” has a hint of funk in its soft-rock DNA, as it rolls and flows while allowing Maia to vary her vocal rhythm and punch the right notes and phrases.

Strummer “Nice Girl” is one of the many songs that turns some clever lyrical phrases, here in the chorus with, “Hey, you’re gonna make some nice girl miserable some day.”

Other favorites on this disc include the heartfelt “When the World Doesn’t End,” the sentimental “Things to Fix” with its peppy tempo, and the smoothly syncopated heart-to-heart “Not Your Friend.”

You’ll find a bit more of an edgy blues-rock vibe on “Junkyard Dog,” while you’ll feel well-designed discomfort during the softly powerful “Missions.”

The album ends with the bonus track “Always Good to See You,” one final plaintive plea to close a powerful album.

Mercy Rising is one of those records you listen to beginning-to-end. Well-crafted, soft enough to listen while you work but engaging enough to warrant giving your full attention during a headphone listening session. Maia’s voice is rich with a hint of a ragged edge, the songs are deep musically and lyrically. Pair it with jazzy, smooth soft rock with mainstream sensibilities like the solo stuff from Don Henley or Glenn Frey, maybe Joshua Kadison or some of the smoother Martin Briley tunes. Or, you know, just settle in with a blanket and warm coffee, watch the trees sway and flowers bloom outside your window, play Maia’s new disc on repeat and settle in.

Looking Ahead

Live music is slowly returning. You’ll be able to find Maia’s shows on the “Shows” page of her website.

Album Review: Bob Lord – Playland Arcade

Bob Lord – Playland Arcade

image courtesy of Bob Lord

EP Review of Bob Lord: Playland Arcade

Progressive? Experimental? Quirky? I’m never quite sure how to describe Bob Lord‘s music. Bob is kind of like a musical Picasso. He creates masterpieces you don’t quite understand, but you know you’re witnessing something worth paying attention to, worth remembering, worth enjoying. Slated for an April 27, 2021 release, Playland Arcade contains nothing that disputes any of that. If you’re familiar with Bob’s work within Dreadnaught, whose 2017 album Hard Chargin’ I reviewed here at the Blog, this solo album is much more esoteric.

The music on Playland Arcade tends to fall into one of three categories: video game, movie soundtrack, or cartoon soundtrack. Actually, most of it falls into zero categories, but I can imagine it being used creatively and effectively in one of the three aforementioned situations. And since the album is named for the Playland Arcade at Hampton Beach, NH, this mix of sounds isn’t surprising; the album is an arcade-caliber auditory assault on the senses.

Now, I’ve listened to movie soundtracks. The Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack is a classic. And cartoon soundtracks can be incredibly detailed. In my early music journalist days, I reviewed The Carl Stalling Project: Music From Warner Bros. Cartoons 1936-1958. Carl Stalling’s music was pure genius, and I had that album in heavy rotation on my CD changer for quite a while. I can’t say I’ve listened much to video game music albums, but I’ve seen them cross my desk; no, Buckner & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever doesn’t count because it was music about video games rather than music from video games, though I practically wore out that cassette from repeated plays when I was a teenager.

Still, as oddball as Playland Arcade is, and as unusual as it is to hear music from these categories, Bob Lord’s vision and execution are masterful, and though I don’t sit alone just listening to it, it’s an interesting backdrop for me while doing other things, though the music occasionally seizes my attention, so I can’t be doing anything too attention-intensive while listening.

I’ll start from the beginning and end at the end, but I’ll skip around in between like a kid in a beach town on a rainy day with nothing else to do, dropped at an arcade to wait out the storm and unsure how to spend his pocketful of tokens.

“Fry Doe” opens the collection as an instrumental musical number that establishes a tone and rhythm, adds bits and pieces to itself as it progresses, building in power and taking the listener on a journey, either through a video game or, toward the end especially, maybe also through a jungle, while delivering memorable musical runs and recurring hooks.

The most attention-grabbing song on the disc may be “Yo Soy Miguel,” perhaps because the lyrics – or, rather, the title phrase – is delivered with such an enthusiastic jolt, though the keyboardwork, as well, adds its memorable, energetic splash. Later in the disc, “Get Yer Drink Up” is a subtler, more rhythmic vibe in the same vein, with a beat that almost sounds as if it was being taped while walking down the street, with the percussionist tapping it out on the wall, garbage cans, his own body, even clapping when necessary; I dig it.

True to its name, “In For the Kill” is an excellent example of tension-building background music, as if taken directly from a crime drama. “Night Sweats” continues in the eerie vein but also launches into a mid-song musical bridge that could be taken from a 1970s progressive AOR album. Also on “Night Sweats,” I’m especially partial to the ratcheting sound effect used in it, a bit like an old wind-up alarm clock… or toy… or maybe even just a ratcheting wrench. “The Backyard Swan” also plays in this ’70s TV/movie soundtrack musical space, simultaneously channeling both The Mod Squad and a Clint Eastwood movie soundtrack.

“Beach Pizza” is soundtrack background music of a walk that ends with a panoramic view, and it flows right into “Tenderly,” with its slack-key guitar style twang, as if straight from a Hawaiian beach… perhaps with a pizza? (Does the Playland Arcade serve Hawaiian style pizza?)

One song specifically reminds me of the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack. I could easily envision a scene where “Fanfare for a Losing Team” was the background music. Perhaps a scene in Marrakesh where Indy and his companions are being chased, with surprises around every corner. The song has sounds of tension building intertwined with success. I can see how it could be a team’s fight song, as well, but I’m gonna go with Indiana Jones on this one. Much shorter “Last Word” contains the same sort of seemingly-Raiders-inspired tension, too, and it’s clearly movie soundtrack fodder with its big, climactic ending.

A personal favorite of mine, “Wyoming Vice,” has the western feel its name suggests, while 35 second long “Lobster Roll” feels like it may come from either a ’70s sitcom with an overly enthusiastic music bed or, perhaps, a blooper reel.

“Mighty Forces” builds into a celebratory song, with barn dance-worthy fiddling and a more-frantic-seeming-than-it-actually-is pace really getting your heart racing over the course of the tune.

I’ll close by mentioning another favorite, “Siege,” which ends the album with energetic rhythm. Very ’80s electro-pop/rock styled music, blending pop song techniques with video game-worthy sound effects and progressive/experimental stylings in at least one of the bridges for an effective fast-moving song, both before and after the mid-song, odd musical interlude, which, by the way, is something I’d expect from a ’70s progressive rock album. Bob accomplishes the feeling of a 12-minute prog rock opus in the much shorter (only 5:16!) “Siege.”

Beginning to end, Playland Arcade is a well-conceived, peculiar collection of unusually catchy odd songs and sound effects. It’s kind of like an audition tape for various types of background music and soundtrack work. Bob Lord is joined by some of exceptionally talented musicians on this well-conceived project (as noted on Bob’s website here), and you’re not likely to find much else like it. Interesting from the first listen, it continues to grow on you with each subsequent spin.

Looking Ahead

Well, Dreadnaught’s website says there’s a new Dreadnaught album, Northern Burner, scheduled for a summer 2021 release. First things first, though; Playland Arcade will be released in three days, on Tuesday, April 27th, and you can pre-order it here.

Album Review: Lisa Bastoni – How We Want to Live

Lisa Bastoni

photo courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

Album Review of Lisa Bastoni: How We Want to Live

Lisa Bastoni is well-known around New England as one of the region’s premier folk singer-songwriters. Naturally, awareness of her talent extends beyond the region’s boundaries, but we’re lucky to get to enjoy more of her performances than the rest of you. (Well, obviously not lately, but generally that’s true.) As such, it’s my pleasure to be able to share Lisa’s talents with you, to highlight them within the context of this album review.

Lisa is pretty straightforwardly folk, but you can tell she has plenty of other influences, which help give Lisa’s music the texture that allows them stand out from the crowd. (You know, the influences, plus her hard work and talent.) There’s a bit of blues in there, when necessary. Some old-fashioned country. A bit of bluegrass. And, even moreso when the song really calls for it, Lisa is able to tap into a rough-edged, hoarse vocal delivery that conveys earnestness and emotion.

Lisa Bastoni – How We Want to Live

image courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

Album-opener “Nearby” displays several of Lisa’s strengths. In the chorus of this catchy singer-songwriter fare, Lisa examines the past, dishing out life lessons as the song rises and falls, with emotion clearly driving her almost matter-of-fact, still somewhat wry delivery: “I was wasting time in all the wrong places. Sifting through a river of faces. I was busy looking at the stars in the sky. You were so nearby.”

Title track “How We Want to Live” adds a bit more twang and a steady pace, equal parts melancholy regret and thoughtful forethought. This song is driven largely by the appeal of Lisa’s voice and the delivery she has perfected to best suit it. It pulls the listener in, very clearly on this song and this album, likely even more in a live performance.

There are more soft spots in the vocals, portraying vulnerability, in “Silver Line.” This song has well-placed dips in its engaging rhythm and, at least after several listens, an overwhelming urge to sing along with “loving you is like falling down a silver line” before Lisa picks up the lyrical pace enough that it’ll take a lot more than the couple dozen listens I’ve given this album before I’m able to sing it with her.

There are life lessons – or, at least, a generalization of lessons learned and lessons observed – throughout this disc.  There’s kind of a nice trilogy mid-album. First, the tumultuous “Never Gone to You.” Then the ideal parent-daughter song of love, “Beautiful Girl.” And finally the uplifting recollections of “Take the Wheel”: “You could make me cry or make me laugh like an old love letter or a photograph. I needed you to take the wheel. Saying I love you isn’t even close to what I feel.”

Things get simultaneously jazzier and bluesier during the quirkily compelling, slow-moving “Dogs of New Orleans.” But then the pace picks up again with the cheerful, fiddle-driven ditty “Walk a Little Closer,” featuring the singalong-able: “It doesn’t make sense my dear. I just want to stay right here. Let me walk a little closer, closer to you.”

The penultimate track on the album is its sole cover, Lisa’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues #2.” Lisa digs out her grittiest, most heartfelt, moderately downtrodden vocal for the song’s verses, bringing the volume up just a hint to add the requisite vocal heft to the chorus.

The album closes with “Pocketful of Sighs,” a song that tells a complicated emotional picture, much like the entire album, introspective, recollective, and forward-looking all at once.

The album is so solid throughout that I have a hard time calling out favorites. Mine shift with each listen. It’s just a really strong listen beginning-to-end, and it showcases all of the elements that suggest Lisa’s performances would be a special treat, especially in a cozy coffeeshop, but also suggesting that her raspy, intimate vocals could make a large theater feel like a living room, as well. She’s one of Boston’s best folk-based singer-songwriters, and How We Want to Live lives up to those lofty expectations.

Looking Ahead

The very top of Lisa’s website is where the tour dates would be listed if there were any right now. (Hopefully soon.) The “Events” tab of Lisa’s Facebook page actually does list an upcoming show: Saturday, April 2, 2022, at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Duxbury MA, with Danielle Miraglia and Monica Rizzio. Assuming that date stands a year from now, it’ll be a barnburner of a show.

Lisa has another album planned for release later this year. Watch for it. Here’s hoping it arrives on schedule!

EP Review: Sandy McKnight with Fernando Perdomo – San Fernando Blitz

Sandy McKnight with Fernando Perdomo – San Fernando Blitz

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

EP Review of Sandy McKnight with Fernando Perdomo: San Fernando Blitz (Twenty2Records)

Sandy McKnight taps into that ’50s/’60s rock ‘n roll vibe much like bands like Weezer did with hits like “Buddy Holly” in the ’90s. With elements of the Beach Boys and probably many of the influences indie pop singer/songwriter Richard X. Heyman taps into to create his timeless pop-rock music, San Fernando Blitz is an album of well-crafted rock ‘n roll that’s guaranteed to entertain multiple generations and is certain to age well.

On this disc, Sandy’s joined by Fernando Perdomo. You’ve read about guitar-master Perdomo before at Geoff Wilbur’s Music Blog before, specifically when we reviewed his album The Golden Hour a few years ago. It’s a pairing of talent that’s likely to produce exceptional music, and, indeed, it does.

This really is a charming throwback almost. All six songs are less than 3 minutes long, and they’re like their own individual slices of rock ‘n roll sunshine, bright and cheerful, kind of what you’d think Randy Newman might write for a modern retro rock ‘n roll band.

“Living on the West Side” opens things up with a hooky cheerfulness. “C’mon C’mon C’mon” follows by adding a hint of California surf rock to the mix, punctuated by noticeably fun guitar noodling.

“Melody Anne” is the melancholy sock hop number of the disc. “Pay It Any Mind” has a similar vibe, but opens with a quick burst of guitar and a neat little bridge solo, while also sporting some subtly hidden guitarwork that keeps the tempo moving along nicely.

“Why Make Promises?” adds more modern, progressive guitarwork to the mix, coupled with a more emphatic – what would possibly pass as explosive on this laid-back disc – vocal line. This song softly soars, as if dancing on a grassy hill overlooking the ocean, metaphorically speaking. And since this whole EP has an old-time California rock ‘n roll feel, that’d be the Pacific Ocean.

“Seven Words” adds a little more wall-of-music feeling to the mix atop a strong rhythm that bounces more than it sways. The guitar has a little more crunch, too. Though not significantly different from the overall feeling of the disc, “Seven Words” ends the collection with a little more power than found elsewhere. Not much, just a little. Just enough to nudge you toward to decision of moving on to the next album or repeating this one, both reasonable choice.

In its totality, San Fernando Blitz is a fun, short EP. It’s a bright, cheerful, throwback rock ‘n roll excursion and a welcome collection to my listening library.

Looking Ahead

You can find Sandy’s upcoming live performances on the “Events” page of his website.

Fernando’s a busy dude, and rightfully so. I’ve seen his name attached to two other projects just since I added this EP to my playlist. I don’t see a live gig listing on his website, but Fernando does have an “Events” tab on his Facebook page.

EP Review: Tokyo Tramps – I’m a Tiger

Tokyo Tramps

photo by Hiroshi Miyazaki; photo courtesy of Tokyo Tramps

EP Review of Tokyo Tramps: I’m a Tiger

Boston-based Tokyo Tramps are known in the area for being a terrific band to catch live. I’ve been following them online for a while, hoping to find a live show to fit my schedule, but of course that was before the whole live gig thing was shut down. So I’m delighted to get a chance to review their latest EP, I’m a Tiger. This disc does a great job of replicating the energy and buzz of a Tokyo Tramps live performance.

Tokyo Tramps – I'm a Tiger

image courtesy of Tokyo Tramps

Tokyo Tramps were founded in Boston by Japan-born Satoru Nakagawa (guitar, vocals) and Yukiko Fujii (bass, vocals, keyboards), forming what would become one of Boston’s more celebrated blues acts in the years to come. The origin of the band name is pretty cool, too, with “Tramps” coming from the Bruce Springsteen lyric “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.” The Tramps’ blend of musical influences produces a style that covers a lot of blues and rock ‘n roll ground, relying on Satoru’s guitar stylings to help produce their signature sound.

Tokyo Tramps

photo by Hiroshi Miyazaki; photo courtesy of Tokyo Tramps

This EP, I’m a Tiger, opens with a lively, jazzy blues number, “I’ll Stay and Take Care of You,” which is delivered in a very familiar, comfortable blues style but with just enough dodging in and out of the rhythm to grab your attention and make obvious you’re listening to more than just your standard blues band.

Next up, “I’m a Tiger” has a slower-moving tempo with a kind of ambling-along type of hook tying it together. In the end, the song rises in intensity and insistence that “I’m a tiger! Yeah, I’m a fighter!”

A funky rhythm and guitar hook drive the hip juke joint-ready tune “Jeffrey Jive.” There’s a bit of a late ’60s/early ’70s psychedelic rock influence in there, too. I’m picturing The Mod Squad walking into a nightclub with this playing in the background. Maybe also Welcome Back, Kotter‘s sweathogs gettin’ funky to it, too, though it was likely just before their time.

Tokyo Tramps

photo by Natalie Fox Photography; photo courtesy of Tokyo Tramps

“Long Day” is a rock ‘n blues jam song, built around brief scenarios of everyday woe that relate to the phrase “it’s gonna be a long day.”

Finally, the “Lovin’ Man Instrumental” closes the EP with a soft landing, an easy listening number with a catchy, mellow blues riff with a bit of a Key West-strength laidback feeling as a dominant hook.

In its entirety, this five-song EP is a great introduction to the Tokyo Tramps, an audio calling card suggesting the coolness, energy, and good-time vibe you can expect from a live Tokyo Tramps performance.

Looking Ahead

Tokyo Tramps

photo by Hiroshi Miyazaki; photo courtesy of Tokyo Tramps

I’ll still be looking for a chance to catch the Tokyo Tramps live once I’m clubhopping again. You’ll find their shows listed on the “Live Schedule” page of their website. And, while the EP showcases the rockin’ coolness of Tokyo Tramps as a full band, you’ll also frequently catch Satoru and Yukiko performing as a duo. As the disc is song-driven, its songs should clearly adapt well to a duo treatment.

In the meantime, the duo has uploaded 47 “Live From Home” videos to the Tokyo Tramps’ YouTube page.

Single Reviews: Houston Bernard – “People We Are,” “Small Town Way,” and “Without You Honey”

Houston Bernard – "People We Are"

image courtesy of Houston Bernard

Single Reviews of Houston Bernard: “People We Are,” “Small Town Way,” and “Without You Honey”

Houston Bernard is about the closest I’ve heard to a surefire-hit independent male country music vocalist in years. He’s doing a fine job building his fanbase on his own, but man, if I were a label looking for a fresh new voice within a well-worn, straightforward country music path, he’d be at the top of my list. He’s got just a little wriggle in his voice that makes it identifiable to get him attention, but his music fall smack dab in the middle of the eight-lane highway of male country vocalist.

Houston Bernard at Local CountryFest 2

photo by Geoff Wilbur

From Oklahoma but country-rockin’ from a home base in Massachusetts, Houston Bernard is the king of current-style male country music singers in the region, and I guarantee he’d be top-three in any country market. (Almost certainly still my personal fave because of his strong songwriting skills and his everyday, friendly vocal edge.) I’ve reviewed a couple of his performances at Local CountryFests. Last summer I wanted to review some of his music but was just beginning to dig out of my backlog, so I introduced Blog contributor Eric Harabadian to Houston’s music, and Eric enthusiastically reviewed the single “American Dream.” Eric has a more complete knowledge base in some areas, so I love reading his take on my favorite artists. But now that I have the time again, I’m reviewing Houston’s latest releases myself.

I enjoy reviewing multiple songs at a time because they allow me to talk about the breadth of an artist’s repertoire. In Houston’s case, he has been releasing singles lately, so I appreciate the opportunity to write about three of them in a single review. The first song, “People We Are,” dropped on January 15th and made some noise for Houston. The other two, “Small Town Way” and “Without You Honey,” were released on March 26th. Among the three, we have two uptempo, big-country anthems and a slower number, a ratio not too different from the mix of Houston’s recordings overall, showcasing his ability to shine across various tempos.

Houston Bernard – "Small Town Way"

image courtesy of Houston Bernard

“People We Are” is has a wideopen guitar hook that brings to mind sunny days and blue skies in this all-American anthem. “We’re a little bit of ‘hell, yeah,’ and a little bit of Amen. A whole lotta work hard, and throw in a little playin’.” It’s a big, enthusiastic song, and it’s easy to see why it garnered Houston some notice, the pedigree of its writing team notwithstanding. (“People We Are” was written by Kim Penz and Cole Taylor, whose credits include Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Cole Swindell, among others.) The song is a bit of a summer anthem, especially for a song released in January, but I’m sure anyone who heard it in the dead of winter appreciated its big, bright power… while doin’ a fair bit more workin’ hard and a lot less playin’ than even in a typical January when the short days cause that to usually be the case.

“Small Town Way,” cowritten by Houston Bernard and Brandon Ray, is a cool take on small-town life, another song that’ll almost certainly tug at the memories and pride of fans from the heartland (where Houston and I both originally come from), as well as small towns we’re aware of in areas most people don’t think of unless they live there, like here in Massachusetts, where our small towns aren’t much different from small towns everywhere. Anyway, Houston’s voice carries its usual power and emotion, very clean and strong but relatable, while the music itself includes an uplifting tempo and well-placed guitar hooks. The song is a little less all about the “boom” than “People We Are” and has a little more git-along in its rhythm, if you know what I mean. It’s still got the punch to be a big hit, but it also has the additional complexity to its rhythm and music bed to give it staying power. With the right placement, this could easily be the small town, American-as-apple-pie song of the summer.

Houston Bernard – "Without You Honey"

image courtesy of Houston Bernard

“Without You Honey,” penned by Houston Bernard, Mary Haller and Adam Steinberg, showcases Houston’s ability to take on a softer tempo. Oh, this is one of those rockin’ ballads, with a dancing guitar solo in the bridge, a sad tinge to the supporting axework and the rhythm, and lyrics like “I’m a fast train runnin’ with nowhere to go without you, honey.” A perfect country music club slow dance song, whether with a live band or from a jukebox. And, of course, Houston’s voice sells it, as it always does. These slow songs really take advantage of the subtle boom at the low end of Houston’s vocal range.

This three-song collection showcases Houston’s broad potential fanbase. And that’s great. But if you’re reading this as a fan, all you really need to know is that these songs are straight-down-the-middle, radio-friendly country music with Houston Bernard’s trademark stamp on them, with a sound that immediately tells you they’re his song. If you’re any kind of a country music fan – or just a good fan of talented artists regardless of genre – you’ll dig these tunes.

Looking Ahead

There aren’t any upcoming shows listed on the “Shows” page of Houston’s website, but that’s where you’ll find them whenever live music returns in earnest. You can keep up with Houston’s daily goings-on on at Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Single Review: Anne Harris – “Over”

Anne Harris – "Over"

image courtesy of Frank Roszak Promotions

Single Review of Anne Harris: “Over” (feat. Markus James)

Chicago-based singer-songwriter/fiddle player Anne Harris is joined by critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Markus James on this single, “Over.”

“Over” opens with music that paints a vivid picture of a slow canoe ride through a swamp, with some loose picking supporting a slowly rising, building-in-power vocal. The strings sound a bit like they’re crying, as the power of the music rises, barely perceptibly but quietly defiantly. The song would serve as an ideal scene-setter early in a movie, perhaps as a slow-moving camera scans the slightly unsettling countryside while the opening credits are running… or, obviously, a slow canoe ride through a swamp.

For me, this is a quietly engaging song, one that’s ideal for an at-work playlist because it has interesting elements to it, but it never has those consciousness-piercing moments that’ll interrupt my work. Very cool vibe; be sure to check it out.

Looking Ahead

There are several live dates listed on the “Tour” page of Anne Harris’ website, beginning with a Saturday, July 10th performance at the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland, ME.

Markus James doesn’t have any shows listed on the “Events” tab of his Facebook page at the moment, but check back to see if shows are added.

EP Review: Night Lights – 6 Feet Aparty

Night Lights

photo courtesy of DRPR

EP Review of Night Lights: 6 Feet Aparty (Position Music)

Indie pop group Night Lights delivers catchy, danceable, hooky pop on its current EP, 6 Feet Aparty. Mau Jimenez (vocals), Yusuke Sato (guitar), and Dag Eirik Hanken (drums) serve up the kind of synth-driven party pop that will quickly embed themselves into your brain so that you’ll soon react, as you hear the first notes, as if you’re hearing one of your favorite big pop hits. By all rights, that should be true. If not now, then soon.

Night Lights – 6 Feet Aparty

image courtesy of DRPR

For me, while all five songs on the EP have their appeal, there are a couple that really grab me.

First, “Look At Me Now” opens the EP strongly, with a sparse electronic beat accompanied by thin vocals before exploding into a full-on dance party with recurring synth riffs (including one occasional rhythm you’ll sing along to by the end of the first listen) and the occasional drum-beat breakdown keeping things lively.

“Here We Go Again” follows a slightly different pattern. It opens similarly, though this time with cheerful, soft music underscoring a rhythmic rap before picking up the tempo. It cycles back through this style, with each appearance of the “here we go again” lyric teasing that the song’s about to break out, but it never really quite does. Eminently danceable, this is a fun track to listen to, a nice option to keep the rhythm and dancing going while simultaneously bringing the energy level down, if you’re DJing, as a bit of a break to the breakneck-paced songs you’ll place before and after it.

Night Lights

photo by Nathan Tecson Studios; photo courtesy of DRPR

“Ready, Lose Yourself, Go” ups the ante again, starting at a higher energy level, with an almost Jimmy Eat World-like vocal texture atop a very danceable track. In addition, the “ready, lose yourself, go; oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” lyric presents a great opportunity to sample for a quick-hit music blast at an event. In its entirety, though, the song itself is overwhelmingly radio-friendly with cool bridges and variety to keep listeners engaged for the entire 2:57 of the song.

Song four, “Revolution,” seems like a song I was already familiar with before the first listen, though I’m sure I wasn’t. The song with perhaps the broadest potential cross-genre appeal, it’s a familiar verse and chorus based structure with lyrical insights in the verses and a hooky-beyond-belief main chorus lyric: “You know we’re gonna start a revolution, oh yeah yeah yeah yeah.” This is Imagine Dragons-styled stuff. I could absolutely envision them scoring an enormous hit with “Revolution.” I could also picture a poppy version of this song being a huge hit for Katy Perry. Of course, given a chance, Night Lights would be the ones scoring that hit.

Night Lights

photo by Nathan Tecson Studios; photo courtesy of DRPR

The EP closes with “Fire,” with a dominant synth rhythm and a danceable beat. An old-school dance number with variety of tempos and intensity, it’s another song that seems already-familiar even though it clearly isn’t, except for those lucky enough to already be familiar with Night Lights. And now, that includes you.

Give these songs a listen. You know I’m selective when I choose danceable synth-pop to share; I only review stuff that really stands out, music that’d liven up your dance party, whether it’s a packed roomful of people or just you and your family jamming inside your own house during the pandemic. (What? You don’t own a disco ball and danceclub lighting at home? Me, either, but that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.)

Looking Ahead

Though there aren’t currently any dates listed, you can keep an eye out for Night Lights’ future live performances on the “Events” tab of their Facebook page.