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Music Reviews

Beth Hart

Beth Hart

War In My Mind

Provogue/Mascot Label Group

Badass Beth Hart is back and better than ever with her latest album, War In My Mind. Produced by Rob Cavallo (who also plays a variety of instruments on several tracks and has worked with Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, Dave Matthews Band, My Chemical Romance), the deeply personal 12-track release is less blues-oriented and more piano-driven than prior collections. Her monstrous contralto vocals have never sounded better in all of their luscious layers. The music tackles sensitive subjects and takes you on an emotional roller coaster with bumps and twists at every turn, in true Beth Hart fashion. The seamless blending of rock, blues, jazz, soul and even a little funk and Latin flair finds its way onto this tightly produced record which also includes veteran industry players Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) and Tim Pierce (guitar).

Opening strong with the powerful rocker, “Bad Woman Blues,” Cavallo’s influence clearly rings forth. Followed by slower, more keys-heavy cuts such as “War On My Mind” and the jazzy “Without Words In The Way,” Hart’s vulnerability is on full display.

“Let It Grow” introduces a psychedelic keys opening followed by piano that slowly crescendos and is complemented with rousing backing vocals. The funky, groovy “Try A Little Harder” with Cavallo’s xylophone accents introduces a light reprieve before seguing into the intensely intimate “Sister Dear,” a poignant song Hart wrote asking for forgiveness from her late sister. Cutting the weight of the prior track, the Latin-inspired “Spanish Lullabies” tickles with the flavors of flamenco.

One of the true standouts both musically and vocally is “Rub Me For Luck,” a song with a subtle vocal nod to fellow contralto, the late Karen Carpenter, on The Carpenters’ cover of “Superstar” (Leon Russell/Bonnie Bramlett). Hart pours herself body and soul into “Rub Me For Luck” and gives it everything she’s got as the song culminates in an incredible aural frenzy. I can’t wait to hear this one live.

The last quarter of the record includes an uptempo, drum-driven rocker with “Sugar Shack,” followed by “Woman Down,” a stirring, piano-permeated ballad that showcases Hart’s vocal range.

Perhaps the most radio-friendly song, “Thankful” offers another private glimpse into Hart’s inner world. With a beautiful piano arrangement and a slowly building tempo, Hart is finally in a positive, content place in her life and grateful to those closest to her, thanking them through song.

Wearing her heart on her sleeve as she always does, Hart wraps up with the moving, painfully honest “I Need A Hero.” I’m not a hero/I’m only human/I got my problems/Comin’ and goin’/I look like my mother/But hurt like my father/I am so thirsty/But I won’t drink the water/I’m not a hero/Yeah I am goin’ crazy/I’m goin’ crazy again there I go…I’m not a hero/I’m no superwoman I got so many problems/But who am I foolin’/I look like my mother/But I hurt like my father/I scream from the rafters/I’m still what’s the matter/I need a hero.

Beth Hart truly is a musical tour de force who shatters barriers and never fails to reinvent herself. Just when it seems that she has given everything she’s got, she pulls out all the stops and kicks things up another notch. Never one to shy away from her very public struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder, the sultry songstress has used her battles to fuel her music. Her penchant for inner reflection, honest examination and raw emotion has never revealed itself more. It’s heavy, to be sure, but one would expect nothing less from Hart. She gives every last bit of herself over to the music, pulling you in and rattling you to your core. If you’re already a fan, you “get” it. If you are new to Beth Hart, treat yourself to this gem and hear what legions of fans already know – Beth Hart is one of the greatest singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalists you will ever encounter, and you will be hooked immediately. Hart has one performance left this year in Chicago (11/18), and then it’s off to Europe in support of War In My Mind. If you ever get the chance to see her live show, do NOT miss the opportunity. You will leave a disciple of all things Beth Hart.

www.bethhart.com

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Music Reviews

Joe Taylor

Joe Taylor

Anything’s Possible

On June 29, 1989, I attended a 10,000 Maniacs concert at Radio City Music Hall with Tim Finn (of Split Enz fame) as the opening act. He had just released his third solo effort, and I was so blown away by his music and his performance that I went out and purchased his CD the next day. Now, I’ve never had the privilege of enjoying Joe Taylor live, but if I had (and I certainly hope to one day) there would have been the same knee-jerk reaction. His creations are chill-inducing earworms — the good kind — that stay with you long after they end, just as they should.

Canadian-born Taylor now calls New York home, and he has established himself as quite the prolific singer/songwriter. After hearing Anything’s Possible, I immediately was hooked by his transcendent vocal style, which encompasses a raspy Steve Perry-like quality and a distinct tonality that stirs echoes of Mister Mister’s Richard Page. Laden with beautifully penned, eloquently voiced catchy pop tunes, this 12-song collection boasts all of the ingredients for a chart-topping success. In fact, track two, “The Sweetest Tune,” a dreamy, guitar-driven piece that evokes images of palm trees and aqua seas, hit number one on the Canadian Music Charts. Taylor wrote or co-wrote several of the tracks and plays acoustic guitar on many of them. The record was produced, recorded and mixed by Jeff Gross, who has worked with the likes of Gary Wright and Rick Springfield, and Grammy-award winning engineer Matthew Spindel, who also has collaborated with Springfield along with countless others including Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and Santana.

Taylor starts out with upbeat, crunchy stuff on “Contagious,” “Sweetest Tune” and even later on with “All Around the World,” but it’s not just rainbows and blue skies. There are the darker, more heart-wrenchingly soulful compositions as well, including the break-up songs “Pictures Off the Wall,” “Tears in Your Eyes,” which is highlighted by a subtle alto sax, and the haunting “Walk Away” featuring keys and accordion to complement his off-the-chain notes.

“Tired of Waitin'” cranks with its Rufus-flavored funky groove, while cuts such as “Possible” and “New Day” offer more of a ’90s Third Eye Blind/Collective Soul/Goo Goo Dolls flair.

Offering the heaviest electric guitar sound is “Here and Gone,” with hints of Led Zeppelin and Beatles riffs towards the end. Their influence also can be heard on “Save Me.”

In our sex, drugs and rock & roll fast-paced world, it’s refreshing to hear the lyrics in “Better With Our Clothes Left On” – a song about getting to know someone before jumping in head first – And it seems so strange, but it’s better with our clothes left on.

Combining stellar songwriting, soaring tones and stripped down instrumentation, this batch of material really allows Taylor’s unique artistry to shine. With the rapidly decreasing amount of truly talented singer/songwriters on today’s music scene, it’s rewarding indeed to find a diamond among the coals.

Joe Taylor: www.joetaylorofficial.com

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Music Reviews

The Growl

The Growl

Cleaver Lever

Shock Records

I don’t have much info on this band, but they’ve got that old-time horror show filmstrip soundtrack sound. The Growl writes music full and dark with purposefully obscure and evil lyrics, and there’s a slow drag funk back beat behind this group that reminds me of later X or Goo Goo Dolls or even the Horrorpops. There are five guys making this sound, and they write some decent titles.

“With the Sharp End of the Trowel” opens this five-cut EP. With its Hell-banshee vocals and fuzzed up guitars, I wish I had played this for my Halloween party. “Smoke It Down” alternates between more moody rock and occasional choruses that aren’t nearly as suicidal. There’s a slow, funerary rhythm under “Water Don’t Burn,” and I can’t quite decode the lyrics but I get the drift: too much Robitussin will make you late for work, and that one little high-pitched guitar string just won’t SHUT UP. “Spice Trader Blues” is a Tom Waits influenced ballad; something sad is going on and you’re almost sympathetic, but not quite. The disc closes with “369,” I don’t get the reference but it plays a surf sound that hearkens back to the low-budget secret agent shows of the ’60s. The vocals are compressed and distant, and death is lurking around here somewhere.

Overall, this excellent collection of music skirts the overly saturated Indie sound field and gives us something old, something new, and … you know the rest.

The Growl: us.myspace.com/legrowlthegrowl.com.au

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Event Reviews

Cage the Elephant

Cage the Elephant

with Morning Teleportation, Autovaughn

Firestone Live, Orlando, Fl • May 16, 2010

Cage the Elephant may have put out one of the most innovative albums to come across my personal radar in 2009, but the number of fans willing to shell out $20 to see a new band with only one album under their belt still surprised me.

Cage the Elephant

Jen Cray
Cage the Elephant

Firestone Live was uncomfortably packed for what I had thought was a relatively unknown, genre-juggling band from middle America (Kentucky), whose success seems to have spread by word of mouth and blogging. Who knew that so many Central Florida listeners were hip to the band’s funky, punky, garage-y indie rock sound?

Also surprising — how well-received the two openers were by the masses. Autovaughn played unoffensive (and unmemorable) pop rock of the adult contemporary variety (like Goo Goo Dolls, or Keane without the addiction issues) which I didn’t enjoy but would have welcomed back to the stage gladly in exchange for the following band, Morning Teleportation.

Morning Teleportation

Jen Cray
Morning Teleportation

An explosion of hippie jam-banding led by a lead singer wearing a Hawaiian shirt, polka-dot boxers, and a baseball cap with a giant flower on the front, this was a clusterfuck of wrongness that I just Did. Not. Get. They had a whole myriad of instruments including a talk box, a tambourine (worn, for one song, on the bass player’s head), chimes, and a trumpet. It was all so disjointed and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink. They gave the room a very tripped out psychedelic and freaky vibe, maybe I just wasn’t drunk enough to find the groove.

Cage the Elephant

Jen Cray
Cage the Elephant

Cage the Elephant did not require such hard work to enjoy, or even understand. As discombobulated as their sound can be — imagine Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Rolling Stones, and Violent Femmes tossed in a blender — the melodies are easy to hear and the choruses beg to be sung to. At the front of it all lies Matt Shultz, the mop-topped vocalist who’s a spastic spin-top set in motion by the first drum beat and whose revolutions only stop for a quick breath of air at the close of each song. He’s the kind of front man who makes seeing the band a joy to both the eyes and the ears. Vocally he doesn’t have to do much other than white boy rap and scream on occasion, so his boundless energy adds a much required special something to his vocal delivery.

Cage the Elephant

Jen Cray
Cage the Elephant

With just the one album to pull from, the set list was pretty much their self-titled debut on shuffle, but reanimated in person thanks to not only the band’s efforts, but the audience’s unexpected enthusiasm. Even at the back bars, far from the usual “raving fans” who set up camp in crowded packs in front of the stage, folks were singing along to “Back Stabbin’ Betty,” “Back Against the Wall,” and the hit single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.”

Cage the Elephant

Jen Cray
Cage the Elephant

The only setback to the band’s show was the relative enormity to the stage and the wide gap between it and the crowd. Shultz seemed desperate to be in the crowd as opposed to above it. I would have loved to have seen this same show in one of the more in-your-face venues like The Social or BackBooth, where the only barrier between band and fans is a two-foot drop. This guy wanted to sweat on his fans and, by the looks of it, the fans would have loved every second of it. At the close of the final song, “Saber Tooth Tiger,” he took the leap and flew into the hands of the ecstatic fans.

Cage the Elephant proved that while you may try to contain the animal, there’s nothing like a room full of screaming fans to set that beast free!

Cage the Elephant: www.cagetheelephant.com

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Music Reviews

The Day Of

The Day Of

Awaiting Take Off

Self-Released

Christian rockers The Day Of could easily compete with any of today’s popular spiritual acts, whether it be secular crossover stars P.O.D. or praise & worship favorites Casting Crowns. With a sound indebted to ’90s Alternative Nation, The Day Of are nevertheless able to fuse used parts into a solidly entertaining and emotionally fulfilling whole.

As with most Christian rock groups, The Day Of favor slickly produced, guitar-driven pop/rock with added piano and some acoustic instrumentation. Vocalist Nick Hickman (N-Luck) sings with the right amount of fragility and optimism; his voice is clean and clear but never boring, wearing his feelings on his sleeve but not falling into the histrionics of Creed. “Here We Are” is melodic and toe-tapping enough to fit onto Hot AC radio; unfortunately, pop stations still seem to be allergic to lyrics about Jesus Christ. “Be With You” and “It Should Have Been Me” crank it up a little higher, aiming for those Lifehouse fans who like their riffs with a tad more meat than the usual Adult Contemporary fare.

“The God You Are to Me” and “Never Far from Grace” could easily pose as mellow interludes on a Goo Goo Dolls or Collective Soul record. The indie hipsters will scoff; however, fans of CCM radio stations or positive rock & roll in general will be rotating this in their iPods for quite a while. I certainly am.

The Day Of: www.thedayofband.com

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Music Reviews

The Gecko Club

The Gecko Club

Evergreen

NorthLight Records

Evergreen is the second full-length album from Chicago band, The Gecko Club, and despite the promise of “guitar-pop for a world gone mad”, it sounds more like guitar-pop for a world gone to bed. Drawing from influences like Big Country, The Replacements, and The Connells, The Gecko Club deliver songs that are pleasant, but not much else. I don’t know how the live show is, but there is definitely a lack of energy on the album.

The only other complaint is the lack of direction on Evergreen. The first seven tracks seem to be full of the jangly guitar-driven pop the band is known for, but the last eight delve into flute-and-violin-oriented folk music that really comes out of nowhere. It seems as though the band didn’t know whether it wanted to be a power-pop band or a folk-rock band. And unfortunately, the two competing genres create a disparate album.

There are a few tracks worth taking a listen to though. The lush arrangement, calm vocals, and sweeping melodies on “Evergreen” make it the best track on the album. “Brand New Hope” comes in at number two for its abrasive heavy metal drumming and distorted guitar hooks; a definite anomaly on the album. Lastly there’s “My Lovely My Sea,” a haunting folk ballad that would’ve made a great last track.

Word on the street is these guys put on a very entertaining live show. My advice: skip the album, go to the show and report back here.

The Gecko Club: www.geckoclub.com

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Music Reviews

The Lemonheads

The Lemonheads

The Lemonheads

Vagrant Records

For a band that hasn’t made a record in almost 10 years, The Lemonheads’ self-titled album is nothing short of a miracle. Lead singer Evan Dando did everything he could to kill the band. He is the only constant from a band that has seen over 10 bassists and a dozen drummers. (One of the drummers, a week after being kicked out of the band, even answered an ad to replace himself.) Now (appropriately enough) with a new bassist and drummer, Dando plows through 11 pop-rock classics that bring back the flannel and make everyone remember that not only did The Lemonheads exist, but they were a truly under-appreciated group.

“Become the Enemy” is a ready-made pop song that is instantaneously catchy and sticks with you, just like everything else they’ve done. “Pittsburgh” is another pop gem. Upbeat, simple, and fresh from the ’90s, this song will bring back the days when the Goo Goo Dolls were new and Better Than Ezra ruled the radio.

The Lemonheads shows the band at its alt-rock finest. Sure, there is nothing groundbreaking or entirely different on this record, but is that really who Evan Dando and the Lemonheads are? They are a talented trio who scored a hit with the cover “Mrs. Robinson” back in 1994 off of their album Come On Feel the Lemonheads. Now they’re showing that catchy alternative rock is timeless.

Vagrant Records: www.vagrant.com

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Music Reviews

Jason Vigil

Jason Vigil

Heart Gone Sober

Young Denver songwriter Jason Vigil’s debut album Heart Gone Sober is a highly promising disc from an artist clearly influenced by the likes of Rob Thomas and Goo Goo Dolls.

Vigil’s clear voice has real commercial potential and his songs are, for the most part, well-written, containing plenty of memorable hook lines. Opener “You I’m Thinking” has obvious claims for possible radio play and along with the Coldplay-esque “Need Your Space,” has already gained rotation on a number of Denver stations. The acoustic ballad “Sad Month” is another highlight, showcasing a more delicate side to Vigil’s writing, while closing track “Come To Me” displays a harder edge. All in all, Heart Gone Sober is a debut that could lead Vigil onto bigger and bigger things if he continues to build a solid audience in his hometown.

Jason Vigil: www.jasonvigil.com

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Music Reviews

Grand Champeen

Grand Champeen

Dial T for This

In Music We Trust

Grand Champeen want everyone to know one thing about their latest record Dial T for This: everything was recorded live. Every instrument was played live, every string, horn, guitar, vocal that is heard on this record was not digitally enhanced or altered. So does that make for a better record? Sort of.

“Gonna Be the Death of Me” is a nice fast-paced lounge rocker with a decent horn outro. Confused? Think a fast-paced Death Cab for Cutie played on the Love Boat back in the ’70s. Still confused? Then I’m sorry.

“Wounded Eye” sounds like it was taken straight off of a Goo Goo Dolls record. Lead singer Channing Lewis sounds almost exactly like Robby Takac –not Johnny Reznick, the main front man for the Goo Goo Dolls. Also interesting to point out, the Goos have a song called “Lazy Eye.” Coincidence? Probably.

Grand Champeen are an ambitious quartet. They obviously want everything to sound authentic, not altered or forged. You’ve got to admire the tenacity and attention to detail that must take. It’s a lot easier to just change it on a computer to make it sound good, but to actually do it could take dozens of takes and cause a whole lot of frustration.

Does that mean better music? On Dial T for This it translates to a more authentic, but not necessarily better disc. The music is fairly generic rock which teeters from pop-punk to surfer rock (mainly “Cities on the Plain”) to pop-rock. Grand Champeen have accomplished what they wanted in authenticity; now it’s time to focus on the music itself and figure out where they want to take it next. They are a band who have a mission and are headed in the right direction.

In Music We Trust: www.inmusicwetrust.com

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Music Reviews

Switchfoot

Switchfoot

Live In San Diego (DVD)

Columbia Music Video

The brand new Switchfoot studio album, Nothing Is Sound, is just around the corner. But until then, Live In San Diego is a necessary diversion for fans of the band. Featuring the majority of the tracks from Switchfoot’s breakthrough, multi-platinum album The Beautiful Letdown, this energetic live show will be met with slight disappointment from long-time fans, as tracks from the band’s early career are excluded. But at least the brilliant “Learning To Breathe” makes an appearance.

Elsewhere, alternative modern rock smash hits such as “Meant To Live” and “This Is Your Life” get the crowd rocking. Set closer “Dare You To Move” is an epic showstopper. Extras include some brief interviews, a photo gallery and a behind the scenes clip of the “Meant To Live” video. Throughout, vocalist Jon Foreman provides impassioned interludes, encapsulating his faith and the state of the world. This is a welcome change from the usual clichéd rock star platitudes heard at live shows.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this DVD is the chance to see the band play such an intimate venue, because after the release of Nothing Is Sound, I suspect appearances by Switchfoot anywhere but arenas will be few and far between.

Switchfoot: www.switchfoot.com