Album Review: Ilona – Fragile Heart

Ilona – Fragile Heart

Ilona

photo courtesy of Ilona’s management

The Backstory

Oh, yeah, there’s a backstory here. There are two singers I was singing the praises of on Twitter, on Facebook, in person to anyone who would listen, doing whatever I could to help them gain exposure long before I thought I’d return to music journalism. Ironically, they’re both based in London. And, of course, Ilona is one of those singers. In fact, if you’ve been reading this blog from the very beginning, you’ll have read about her already in the 9th installment of my 9-part “Road Back to Music Journalism” series.

EP Review of Ilona: Fragile Heart

Ilona - Fragile Heart

image courtesy of Ilona’s management

The Fragile Heart EP is a collection of 3 old songs, 2 new songs, and a radio edit of one of the new songs that does a solid job showcasing Ilona’s range and unique talent.

The first song, “I Still Fall For You,” excels because it includes some of Ilona’s trademark quick, controlled vocal wails that punctuate an already-great, sentimental song. The new recording of “I Still Fall For You” is most notably different in its guitarwork, which simultaneously rounds off rough edges while being crisper and meshes well with some of Ilona’s new vocal flourishes; as a result, this re-recorded track feels fresh and new. Longtime fans will appreciate the redux. And if you haven’t heard it at all before, well, this is the perfect introduction to how Ilona can be so unique and original while occupying a well-worn pop/rock highway.

Ilona

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Fragile Heart also includes “Back to You,” a slow-mid-tempo, emotional song that benefits from that hint of gravel in Ilona’s vocals. Radio-ready, pop-rock (and adult alternative), it builds to power periodically. But most importantly, it showcases Ilona’s vocal chops, including perhaps the best song-appropriate mid-song vocal howl this side of Shakira at the 2:30 mark. You can tell when someone in the audience has heard this song before because they prepare as the moment approaches, then close their eyes and enjoy. This song – and moments within this song  – represent something special.

Indeed, it’s a pleasure to have “I Still Fall For You” and “Back to You” included on this EP because they have long been two of my favorite songs from Ilona’s repertoire.

One of the two new songs is “Safety Net.” This, I can safely say, has the potential to be an enormous hit. The hook – and it’s a sneaky one – embedded in my brain and caused me to have this song in my head when I awoke several mornings in a row after just a half-dozen listens – ideal for a potential radio hit. It opens with a driving rhythm and Ilona’s trademark, passionate humm-moans before her first actual vocals. The song then builds and grabs attention with a quick-stop and light bridge before embedding its hooky chorus directly into the unsuspecting listerner’s brain. “Safety Net” is wonderfully catchy and employs all of Ilona’s most captivating vocal elements (lows, highs, screams, even a snippet of breathy sultriness) into a mid-tempo, radio-ready rock song.

Ilona

photo courtesy of Ilona’s management

The other new song, “Best Day of My Life,” is also exceptional; it’s an engaging, emotional ballad that has grown on me more with each listen and now pops into my mind unprovoked almost as often as “Safety Net.” A blend of elements from some of Ilona’s other top ballads, “Best Day…” clearly carries the weight of her emotions. The way she can pour her heart into a vocal, with her voice subtly cracking, covering several notes within a syllable at times, holding firm at others… Ilona can tug at our heartstrings, and this song offers plenty of opportunities.

There are actually two versions of “Best Day…” on this EP. And while there is some exceptionally effective steel guitar on the long version, offering a hint of country, the twang is punched up a little more on the “radio edit,” a shorter version that may play as country in the U.K. and throughout Europe, more likely as a “crossover” tune here in the United States.

This all serves as a great set-up for the remaining track, a twanging country-rock tune entitled “Beautiful Country,” first released last summer, that discusses the differences – and similarities – between life in the U.K. and in country-music America. The pleasant melody leads to a nice payoff in its chorus.

Overall, Fragile Heart is a great introduction to this talented singer and the amazing things she can do with her voice. I tweeted about her extensively before I began writing, and I’ll continue to write about her every chance I get. If Ilona isn’t the real deal, I don’t know talent. And even if I didn’t know talent (which I do), I’d still know Ilona has it.

Ilona

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Looking Ahead

Ilona’s website lists an upcoming live performance on July 10th at the Cornbury Festival in Oxfordshire. On Ilona’s Facebook page, she also mentioned an April 1 date at the Half Moon Putney in London in support of John Illsley. Keep on eye on both of those locations for information on upcoming gigs.

The Road Back #9: Ilona

The Road Back to Music Journalism #9 (Bonus): Ilona’s Music Industry Showcase

Invitation to a Music Industry Showcase

Summer 2015

Ilona

Ilona, Tony Moore, and KT Parker at Rockwood Music Hall; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Backstory

I had discovered Ilona’s music early on during my return to new music discovery. In fact, her CD Thunderstorm was the second CD I purchased from overseas. I had also tweeted quite a bit about Ilona’s music as far back as January 2014, and she often replied with thanks. But we really didn’t start communicating until after I ordered the CDs and they failed to arrive. Sound familiar? (It would if you read Road Back #6.) Yes, twice I ordered CDs from the UK from different bands, and both times they failed to arrive the first time. In any case, thus began our communication, as the method I chose to reach out and ask about the CDs was managed by Ilona herself, not her management. Many months later, when Ilona came to the U.S., I tried to connect her with one of my industry contacts. Though it fell through in the end, I was able to be free from work on the day of her showcase, and she invited me to attend.

Ilona

Ilona, Tony Moore, and KT Parker at Rockwood Music Hall; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Why This Was a Step on the Road Back

Technically, I had already decided to start the blog by this time and had set October as the launch date for the blog, but if I hadn’t already decided, this cool event almost certainly would have “sealed the deal.” First, I received an incredibly warm welcome from Ilona, her band, and her management, even though I was “merely” a former music journalist who tweeted occasionally. I’ve been treated well on a variety of occasions with just that background, but it’s still the sort of thing that reminds me how many wonderful, nice people there are in the music biz. Second, wow, it was a very cool event. I’ll review Ilona’s outstanding performance below, but yes, this is the sort of thing that reminds me why I was involved in music for so many years, and it absolutely would have been the final push needed for my decision to return if I hadn’t already made that decision a few weeks earlier.

Ilona

Tony Moore, Ilona, and KT Parker at The Cutting Room; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Live review: Ilona at Rockwood Music Hall; Ilona at The Cutting Room

The night — or late afternoon, perhaps — kicked off with Ilona’s Rockwood Music Hall showcase. She performed a short set for a small, invited audience. The songs I recall from the set were two that show off Ilona’s incredible power vocals, energetic mid-tempo pop-rocker “Back to You” and powerful ballad “I Still Fall For You,” plus her latest single at the time, the countrified crooner “Beautiful Country.” During the set, Ilona showcased her vocals, which are every bit as strong live as they are on her recordings, and her stage presence, as she shares her engaging personality with the crowd in such a way that she naturally wins over the audience.

Later that night, Ilona had a relatively early set at The Cutting Room, and she rocked the crowd, giving another solid, skillful performance. Much of the set was similar to the showcase set, but she also trotted out “Wrong Places,” a song she ably uses for crowd participation purposes and for which she shot her most recent music video. For both shows Ilona was flanked by Tony Moore on guitar and keys and KT Parker on bass.

But that’s hardly a review. So let me tell you about Ilona’s vocals. Just wow. Her raspy voice adds edge to everything from soft rock ballads to uptempo pop-rockers. There is a hint of country in her voice at times, particularly on “Beautiful Country,” and even I suggested there was a hint of country-rock in “I Still Fall For You” in one of my tweets, but while she might be a great country duet partner (as Kelly Clarkson and Shakira have been), Ilona’s sweet spot is power pop/rock. I’d expect to hear her on radio stations that played Kelly Clarkson, Pink, and Jessie J. Songs like “Love is Stupid” and “Move (Together as One)” highlight this sort of energy, as does the newest song, almost blues-rocker “Wrong Places.” (By the way, I predict “Wrong Places” will be a live-show favorite for years to come.)

Ilona also swings a little mellower, especially with a couple of her more recent top trackes, which would place her squarely in the style of some more adult soft rock radio playlists, as well. Listen to “Back to You,” particularly the tuneful vocal wail at the 2:30 mark of the song. (In the “Back to You” music video, it’s at the 2:43 mark.) That’s a power rocker’s vocal chops with a balladic pop/rocker’s sensibilities. “I Still Fall For You” is similar. And, of course, “Beautiful Country” is a country-themed slow song.

Fast songs, slow songs, and an instantly-identifiable, exceptionally expressive, raspy, amazingly powerful voice. Ilona impresses more with each listen, and impresses even more if you’re able to see her perform live. She’s a unique, one-of-a-kind talent with a trademark sound. Exactly the sort of artist worth checking out.

My Return to Music Journalism is Complete; What’s Next for the Blog?

Those are the nine steps that brought me back to music journalism. Starting tonight, October 27th, I’ll be kicking off a series of 5 nights in London with coverage of Bob Malone’s concert at the 100 Club. On Thursday, October 29th, I’ll be at the Troubadour to hear Sonya Titus, who you may recognize as the subject of article #4 in the “road back” series. I’m still deciding where to go each of the other three nights, but I do intend to tweet about it. So if you’re in London, come out and catch some great music with me.

After that, I’ll work to get some additional writers involved, and the blog will become its long-term self, a mix of song/album reviews, live reviews, and interviews. After today, you can expect no more than one article each day, so rest assured if you’re an e-mail subscriber, you won’t be inundated. I hope you enjoy, and here’s to a nice, long run!