Heartless Bastards (from the album A Beautiful Life available on Sweet Unknown Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
The Heartless Bastards are aging with grace. Not saying they’re old, but 16 years in since they dropped their debut. In Rock’n’Roll years that’s a healthy lifetime. Forget time and think longevity and brand. Their latest in A Beautiful Life is loaded with dreamy melodies that mix with Erika Wennerstroms always powerhouse vocals. “Revolution” kicks it off, a tune with a protest vibe. Wennerstrom suggests we ‘leave judgement at the door for others and yourself’ as she also calls out what could be big brother while ultimately just wanting to ‘take away the Blues’; it’s a cut loaded with punching statements as they melody moves from dreamy ballad to pumping singalong.
There’s a bit of AM gold in “When I Was Younger”, “Dust” digs into the ambient, and “Photograph”, with its 70’s guitar lead in, could be a star of Classic Rock radio. It ultimately digs into a wonderful, dreamy interlude. “Doesn’t Matter Now” has a subtle Pop vibe in a carefree package, its beauty being in its laid-back delivery. Sixteen years back this was a guitar heavy band. Heartless Bastards are still heavy while also stocked with thick, dreamy songs, delivered like a film score for A Beautiful Life. In the end, it is always Wennerstroms’ vocals that steal the show; commanding and big but also soft, they remain the star instrument. (by Bryant Liggett)
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José Leguina & Gamlebyen (from the album A Few Miles More available on Gamlebyen Recordings) (by Chris Wheatley)
A very interesting record from Norway here, José Leguina & Gamlebyen describe themselves as ‘an organic, sophisticated rattle orchestra’ who play ‘messy Americana and Rock meets Tango, Polka, and crooked Waltzes in the spirit of the good Tom Waits - a goulash with a little Dan Auerbach, a little Nick Cave, a little Gil-Scott Heron, and some Bulgarian brass on the top’. Fans of spirited, inventive and somewhat quirky music may just have found a new favourite in this likeable outfit, which consists of Jose Leguina himself on guitar, Knut Lothe on drums, Ole Jacob Evensen on bass guitar, Endre Tonnesen on double-bass, Lars A Haug on ‘all kinds of brass’ and Jon Thorstensen on keyboards and guitar (Thorstensen's own new single, “Kiwi Girl”, is also well worth checking out.)
A Few Miles More opens with “Booze and Jealousy”, a riotous, up-tempo, Gyspy Rock affair which does indeed rattle and roll with beautiful brass adornments and galloping guitar. The band is more than good enough to put down the sort of thrillingly loose and shambling style which can only be achieved by fine players with a spirit of togetherness. There are certainly echoes of Nick Cave's invention and ambition, eclectic style, and nuanced vision but this is band too good to merely imitate. “Throw Him Off That Cliff” is a wry delight, bouncing along on brass, shuffling percussion, and spiky, idiosyncratic vocals. There's a lot going on here but it's all perfectly placed, with disparate sounds providing plenty of depth. This is a record which you can listen to over and over, picking up new details on each run.
There's lyrical strength here, too – the songs are as clever as they are playful, with an enigmatic feel. ‘Is he a friend, has he got my back, or is he just, planning his attack? Who's the one who threw him off that cliff’? Whether tumbling forward at full pace, taking unexpected left-field turns or putting on the brakes, the band have plenty to offer. The dark-tinged “Uncle Frank” drifts on black clouds, but even here the sparkling guitar, off-kilter delivery, and fantastical lyrics inject a palpable sense of fun. This is twisted, fun-house mirror music which never leaves you feeling cold.
“Major Wife” is a particular standout – a bombastic, 70s prog-rock extravaganza which nevertheless manages to sound up-close and personal. A grand design in your back garden, the song lurches and rocks, throwing furtive glances over its shoulder as the players power full steam ahead. This sort of imaginative, adventurous playing is wonderful to hear. “Home With Me” continues the helter-skelter circus vibe, slipping and sliding like a sideshow from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Again, though, this music is so enjoyable that it will uplift rather than unsettle.
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The Way Down Wanderers (from the album More Like Tomorrow as a self-release) (by Bryant Liggett)
The Way Down Wanderers are a subtle musical grab-bag. They remain genre defined non-committal in the best possible way, flirting with the acoustic Roots and Americana without asking for more than a dance, sometimes hinting at Bluegrass, other times Folk or Jazz. On The Way Down Wanderers latest,More Like Tomorrow, they display those sounds to perk the ears before pulling away. More Like Tomorrow is a dabble of Roots music in a harmony heavy and happy minded package of Pop. When The Way Down Wanderers wander through other genres, they come in short bursts. Album opener, “Codeine Rest & Loneliness”, is swaying and dramatic, a banjo drifting under the vocals leading into a Bluegrass break. “Hiding” does the same, just replace banjo with keyboards and string band riffs with funky interludes, the exchange seamless.
“Love is My Gospel” has a simple but serious message in ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ within a tune that’s got a new-age Gospel feel, the banjo returning for the bouncy “Two Parts One Heart”, a tune for anyone that’s ever had a kid and realized it’s more glorious than tedious. The story its loaded with quick little phrases that sum up parenting at every level. This is efficient and quick with everything clocking in under four minutes. With no time wasted, More Like Tomorrow is an album loaded with lyrical quips and little musical curveballs at every corner. The Way Down Wanderers present Avant-garde Folk Pop at its best. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Colin Linden (from the album bLOW available on Highway 20 Records) (By Lee Zimmerman)
Canada’s Colin Linden is well known as an award-winning singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer whose association with any number of outfits North of the border — Blackie and the Rodeo Kings in particular — has brought him a significant amount of notoriety over the course of a nearly 45-year career. He’s had other milestones as well, including the fact that he’s not only shared stages with this likes of another Great Northern icon Bruce Cockburn, but also such notables as Bob Dylan, Gregg Allman, and John Prine. In addition, Colin Linden contributed to over 500 albums (of which, he produced well over 25 percent), netted a Grammy (for his work on Keb Mo’s acclaimed effort Oklahoma), snagged 25 Juno Award nominations, and managed to take home no less than nine.
It’s a pretty impressive list of accomplishments but it doesn’t necessarily account for a solo career of a more humble nature — that is, one that finds him tapping into basic Blues. bLOW the latest from Colin Linden, offers another astute example, courtesy of a set of songs that varies the tempo but not necessarily the motif. “4 Cars” finds him sharing some sizzling slide guitar, “Boogie Let Me Be” is, well, all about a boogie while other songs — “Right Show Wrong Foot”, “When I Get to Galillee”, and “Blow” simply slow the pace to accommodate a series of slow shuffles. “Houston” adds a bit of an edge, but overall, doesn’t change the template.
That’s all fine of course. Linden is clearly content to remain focused on a format that he’s been drawn to ever since he was a child. As always, those that appreciate his ongoing diligence and dedication to form will find much to admire here, particularly as far as the fiery guitar work is concerned. Consequently, be forewarned; the title says it all. With bLOW, Colin Linden gets down and dirty. (by Lee Zimmerman)
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Taylor Rae (from the album Mad Twenties available as an independent release) (by Lee Zimmerman)
Taylor Rae belies any sense of newcomer status with her debut album Mad Twenties thanks to a delivery that’s as poised, confident, and assured as any artist claiming far more years of professional proficiency. Despite her relative youth, this proud 20-something shows she’s adept at a wide variety of singing styles, from Country to Cabaret, perfect Pop to Easy Listening, and, in fact, practically anything and everything that falls in-between. Her singing style conveys a marked maturity — at once smooth, sensual, captivating and convincing, like a twilight chanteuse who’s easily able to captivate any crowd simply on the strength of her presence and persona.
It’s that cocksure attitude that allows Taylor Rae to make an immediate impression, making it clear at the outset that she’s ready to be taken seriously. One moment she’s spirited and sassy, the next she’s plying a quiet caress. That independent attitude is summed up succinctly with “Wait and See”, a song that reflects her true intents. In fact, there’s an abundance of offerings that define her just as distinctly — “Taking Space”, “Windows”, “Home on the Road”, and “Leaving You” among the many — and given the fact that she penned them all offers further proof that even now, her talent is fully formed. That alone contributes to the perception that Rae is a remarkable artist with the talents and tenacity to make an indelible impression, now and in the future. Eloquent and expressive, she shows an instinctive understanding of just what it takes to succeed, qualities that should assure her success in today’s modern musical arena.
Beyond that however, Taylor Rae emits a truly timeless quality, one that transcends any momentary sound or style. Her confidence is confirmed throughout, adding to the impression that she’s fully vested in her efforts and committed to sharing her skills with whoever’s willing to listen. Youthful indulgence is often a precarious proposition, but with Mad Twenties, Taylor Rae makes it clear, she’s ready for the world. (by Lee Zimmerman)
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Andrew Leahey & The Homestead (from the album American Static Vol. 1 available on Mule KickRecords) (by Lee Zimmerman)
Andrew Leahey has paid his dues, as evidenced by a steady surge of outstanding albums that have proven his credence as a readily determined heartland rocker. Although often compared to Tom Petty, that description doesn’t begin to do him justice. Leahey and his band The Homestead are a decidedly cohesive outfit that isn’t indebted to any other entity and their rugged, determined stance results in songs that are singularly stirring and flush with resilience and resolve. While they could be broadly described as heartland heroes in a somewhat romantic sense, Andrew Leahey and company also manage to maintain a melodic core that finds each entry resonating with an anthemic sensibility. The band’s latest effort, tellingly titled American Static Vol. 1, is no exception, and as such, it offers another solid set of original songs that finds the band fully invested yet again in the rocking regimen they established so early on. “Somewhere Between”, “Shadows That Still Stretch”, and “Become the Enemy” are immediate standouts in that regard — energized, emphatic, and anchored with a solid, yet stoic, dynamic that rings with an abundance of driving rhythms, compelling hooks and combustive choruses.
So too, songs such as “Disco Ball”, “Guilty Man”, and “My Avalanche” build to an emotional crescendo, the drama and delivery fully synched to maximum effect.
Ultimately, it’s Leahey’s reverence for Classic Rock motifs that’s fully in evidence throughout, making for a set of songs that seem timeless in their cadence and construction. The band treat the music with the dignity it deserves, sharing each offering with an authority and assurance that remains consistent through every note and nuance. In that regard, American Static Vol. 1 makes for an ambitious entry, one that reflects Leahey’s obvious awareness of the fact that Rock is actually a mantra, a calling that can’t easily be denied.
To summarize their stance, suffice it to say Andrew Leahey and the Homestead show the due diligence and dedication needed. Dissonance is diminished. This American Static reflects craft and commitment in equal measure. (by Lee Zimmerman)
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The Record Company (from the album Play Loud available on Concord Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
The Record Company have always dabbled in dirty Blues while finding a way to be attractive to ears that may stray from the grittier side of things. Their latest, Play Loud, explores electric Blues, Punky and Soulful sounds from an old school trio in a 21st Century music industry. The Record Company deliver a dose of rollicking tunes with a party vibe ripe for fist pumping and filling a dancefloor. They’ll fill the floor with “Never Leave You”, the album opener that’s more R&B than Chicago blues. The Record Company plus in for stadium rock when “How High” kicks off with a thumping, anthemic drumbeat where a quick question of ‘how high do you wanna fly’ is followed by a bass riff-driven break before the band kicks back in. The song is THE perfect soundtrack for halftime at a major sporting event.
The Record Company explore trance and psychedelic Blues with “Gotta Be Movin’’, rump shaking club beats on “Get Up and Dance!”, and toss around an spotlight slow dance ballad in “Lady Lila.” Play Loud presents “Midnight Moon” with chords that bounce off the garage rock walls, a touch of surf music, and wraps with a clap-a-long groover in “Ain’t Going Home”. The Record Company have a good thing going, combining the knowledge on how to construct a party record with a clear understanding of Blues traditions. No frills, no fuss, just a pocketful of singalong songs where raw Blues rides a cool groove, all with a lo-fi mindset and aversion to overproduction. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Aaron MacDonald (from the E.P. It’s Been Too Long available as a self-release) (by Danny McCloskey)
Introducing himself as an average guy, Aaron MacDonald opens his recent E.P. release with experiential advice. The musician is on the move in “Gonna Get There”, pointing out that even a regular joe has a story to tell and a heart that love, just like the fellow humans walking beside him on the journey of life. Layers of a smooth soulfulness prime the pump for Aaron MacDonald vocals as he locks rhythm into the tracks on It’s Been Too Long.
A persistent groove is the foundation when Aaron MacDonald voices his personal preferences for “I Do Better in the Sun” while a rolling beat churns underneath his soul-baring confessions in “My Soul and Me”. An easy Roots Rock rhythms puts a smile into every pulsing swing bouncing along in It’s Been Too Long. Aaron MacDonald is joined by Jess and Greg Favaro in harmony when the trio turn vocals into arms wrapping around a worldwide humanity in “I Still Need You”. A gentle breeze guides the melody in “Wait”, Aaron MacDonald whispering his troubles as he holds out his hand with hopes for a happier life while handclaps and a hefty beat flip the story, the musician wearing joy for his choices in “Exactly”. (by Danny McCloskey)
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Dakota Jones (from the album Black Light available on Lord Please Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
Any group who namechecks Chaka Khan, Janis Joplin, and Marvin Gaye as inspirations have a lot to live up to but New York based four-piece, Dakota Jones, appear well-equipped to do so. Lead vocalist Tristan Carter-Jones is possessed of an arresting voice, part honeyed-soul and part urban-edge. In Scott Kramp (bass) and Steve Ross (drums), they have a rhythm section capable of muscular, swinging charm, and guitarist Randy Jacobs, formerly of Was (Not Was), can cite Seal, Bonnie Raitt, and Elton John among his collaborative credits. This is clearly a project with pedigree. Production comes from Grammy-winner John Wooler. Kudisan Kai, a backing-vocalist for the aforementioned Chaka Khan, Sting, and Anita Baker, lends her talents, as do keyboardist Jon Gilutin, himself a Grammy-winner, and the wonderful guitarist, Michael Toles.
No surprise, then, that opener “I Did It to Myself” rolls out with a polished, Funk-Soul sheen. Fans of the classic 70s sound will find much to enjoy here, with excellent wah-wah guitar, deep bass, and imaginative drumming. The track does not come across as a homage, however – Dakota Jones have their own thing going on, not least thanks to the unique vocals of Carter-Jones. With a run-time of less than three minutes, “I Did It to Myself” is a shooting-star of a song, lighting up the sky and disappearing before you know it.
The title track is next up, a laidback, shuffling, Pop Funk number, with a frankly wonderful chorus. Here is another key to Dakota Jones' success – these compositions have depth, nuance, and a wonderful accessibility. The perfect balance, you might say. If that sounds like hyperbole, I can only apologize, but it's not that often that a band like this come on the scene. At the risk of pushing things further, a word must be said concerning the guitar playing here. Jacobs and Toles whip up a beautiful storm, incendiary without ever threatening to overwhelm.
“We Playin' Bad Games” opens with the sort of drumming that 80s hip-hop stars would have killed to sample. A slower, smokier track, Carter-Jones handles this as neatly as the more upbeat numbers. It's clear that the assembled players have the chops to tackle anything. Here, they add a lovely, Jazzy feel. Rest assured, though, the Blues lie at the heart of everything that Dakota Jones do. Lyrically, this is personal, cathartic writing, swaggering and assured, but with a knowing vulnerability. “Lord Please” is extraordinary, opening with a striking repeated mantra and some harmonized vocals, a sole, thudding drum the only accompaniment. Such bravery on a debut album is a rare thing indeed.
With its smooth keyboards, rolling chords, and cutting guitar, “Like That” is another standout, sweet as molasses, with captivating vocals and big production. Again, it's the strength of the composition which forms the bedrock. When you add great players to a great song, this is what results. “Noise” takes us out on the crest of a wave, with gliding horns and a velvety sonic palette. There's a bonus track too, “California,” a memorable Blues Rocker which is as visceral as it is compelling. (by Chris Wheatley)
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James Lee Stanley and Dan Navarro (from the album All Wood and Led available on Beachwood Recordings) (by Danny McCloskey)
It is ten years on for James Lee Stanley and his acoustic takes on the songs of Classic Rock artists including, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, and with his recent release, All Wood and Led, Led Zeppelin. Joined by Dan Navarro on the new outing, the pair revisit, reimagine, rework, and release a dozen cuts from the Rock gods catalog. Starting off the song cycle with the title track to 1973’s Houses of the Holy, James Lee Stanley and Dan Navarro make each song their own. Listening to Led Zeppelin perform their own songs, the story and melody can get a little lost when competing with the guts and glory bombast of the beat. That was the appeal of a Led Zep full package. James Lee Stanley and Dan Navarro civilize the songs, allowing the tales to unfold and the instrumentation to sparkle as acoustic strings accent the words and color the moods.
The fantasy born storylines in Led Zeppelin songs benefit from the acoustic touched versions found on All Wood and Led. A marching call and response is the beat for “The Battle of Evermore” while bright notes flutter over the sea shanty remodeling of “D’Yer Mak’er”, gentle hints of English Folk provide warm tones in “Over the Hills and Far Away”, and Jazz moods lay a path for “Stairway to Heaven”. The rhythms remain the same for “Fool in the Rain” as the vocals of James Lee Stanley and Dan Navarro duet riding on Folk Rock beats. Balancing his cover versions and his own, solo recordings, James Lee Stanley guides his All Wood And series with an identical master craftsmanship touch that he gives to his own music. An island wind can be felt in the Latin rhythms of “Whole Lotta Love”, a Rockabilly shuffle puts down a beat for “Good Times, Bad Times”, lazy strums provide a dreamy mood in “Dazed and Confused”, and regimented notes make “Rock and Roll” a coming of age confession. All Wood and Led collects finely (re)tuned songs from the Led Zeppelin catalog, James Lee Stanley and Dan Navarro hitting a stride as they exit the album in “Ramble On”. (by Danny McCloskey)
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