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Music Reviews

Ben Harper and Rhiannon Giddens

Ben Harper and Rhiannon Giddens

Black Eyed Dog

Anti Records

3-time Grammy award winner Ben Harper, and 6-time Grammy nominated, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Rhiannon Giddens, have released their version of Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog”. It’s a first time collaboration for these 2 artists but after hearing what they did with this piece of music, I hope for more in the very near future. While it’s very rare for me to want to listen to any Nick Drake music performed by anyone other than Nick Drake, their version is the exception to that rule. Harper on his lap steel, and Giddens on banjo, are both deeply rooted in the Americana music scenes but their paths haven’t crossed until this collaboration. Harper says “Rhiannon and I are both black purveyors of American roots music, and while this is not an anomaly, it is an exception within the subculture.” Giddens says of their kindred spirit that it “… has more to do with the spirit that we access when we play it(roots music). I felt that spirit in him right off and knew if we ever got the chance we could make something beautiful together.”

And make something beautiful together they did. Their version maintains the sparsity, and haunting nature of one of the last recorded pieces of music before Drake’s death in 1974. It’s a fitting tribute that nods to the past, and hopefully for fans of Harper and Giddens, they will discover more opportunities like “Black Eyed Dog” to work on in future collaborations.

www.benharper.com

www.rhiannongiddens.com

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Music Reviews

Sunny War

Sunny War

Shell of a Girl

Hen House Studios

Sunny War’s music doesn’t prepare you for her back story. Shell of a Girl is a quiet, meditative, melancholy collection of folk-blues tunes. The music is so introverted that I imagine a singer in a coffee shop almost hiding in a corner, strumming her songs while not trying to bother the caffeinated clientele on their smart phones. That image doesn’t mesh with the girl who moved around the country with a single Mom before deciding that hopping freight trains was a good idea. Sunny War has been a modern day hobo. She’s been homeless, living on the streets. She lived on Venice Beach as a boardwalk busker and she plays with a punk band called Anus Kings. It just goes to show, you never can tell.

The music on is built around delicately plucked guitar lines. Sunny plays the bass line with her thumb and melody and chords with her fingers. It’s a style used by the old Piedmont blues musicians and banjo players. “The Place” feels haunted by the ghosts of Joao Gilberto and Nick Drake. Other songs are haunted by memories of her peripatetic life roaming the streets and train yards. “Drugs Are Bad” “Love Became Pain” and “Rock and Roll Heaven” reflect on bad times and loss. “Soul Tramp” looks wistfully at living constantly on the move.

Sunny’s songs may not be about the nicest things, but she sings about them in the most beautiful way. Her understated guitar provides just enough support for her voice. If she really were that introverted singer huddled in the corner of a coffee shop, Her music would slowly draws you in. Before long, you’re huddled in the corner with her, raptly hanging on her every word.

www.sunnywar.com

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Music Reviews

The Rails

The Rails

Cancel The Sun

Thirty Tigers

The Rails are the folk-rock duo for our times. The songs are well crafted, the singing is superb, the instrumental breaks are stunning and it’s all for nothing. The album title, Cancel The Sun, telegraphs the despair that permeates the album. I suppose it’s in their DNA. Guitarist/vocalist James Walbourne has spent time in the Pretenders, the Pogues, Son Volt and many more as hired gun. Kami Thompson is the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson. The Rails draws on this genealogy to craft some wonderfully crafted songs that are among the most nihilistic things I’ve heard in ages.

The very first lines of the very first song sets the tone. Kami Thompson sings, “Don’t give me that look again/I’m just your lover/I’m not your friend.” Ouch. And “Call Me When It All Goes Wrong” is a love song. James sings, “I’m in prison, bored and poisoned/Spend all my money on the ball and chain.” That’s James love song. If this is how the Rails write about love, it’s no surprise that “Dictator” and “Cancel the Sun” are astonishingly bleak. “Cancel the Sun, Hello Armageddon” is beautifully sung bleakness.

Once up on a time, say when I was a teenager, I would have seen this bleakness as gallows humor. Having been in this increasingly forlorn veil of sorrows for over five decades, I can’t whistle past the graveyard as easily. I’m troubled by the imagery in “Mossy Well.” James sings” So buy a round and wish me well/then drown me in the mossy well.” It’s a song about abandoning hope and flirting with suicide. Kami Thompson doesn’t flirt. She stands on the sidewalk yelling JUMP. On “Save the Planet” she sweetly sings “You’re all talk, your head’s in the sky/We’re all facing catastrophe/Load the chamber, get down on your knees.” Maybe that’s not clear enough. The chorus goes, “Save the planet, kill yourself/You know what you have to do.” When I was a teenager, I would have found this morbidly funny (I was highly amused by the theme from MASH, “Suicide is Painless”). Having battled depression for years and lost too many friends, I can’t laugh at these tunes. They are beautiful, finely crafted and horrifying.

Cancel the Sun is a perfect example of why I don’t mind reviewing albums sung in languages I don’t understand. If the Rails were singing in Welsh or Creole or Klingon, I’d be writing about the wonderful harmonies, the thrilling guitar solos and the how well the songs are put together. But the Rails sing in English and I can’t escape the pessimism they sing about. I don’t want to give up. I don’t want to jump into the mossy well. I can’t love this album.

www.therailsofficial.com

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Music Reviews

The Magpie Salute

The Magpie Salute

High Water I

Eagle Rock Entertainment

What do you do after reuniting half of a stellar rock band, putting out an album, touring the world, and playing 70+ shows with a constantly revolving set list of over 170 songs? Well if you’re Rich Robinson and his mischief of Magpies, you go back to the studio and get to work on the next one.

High Water I is the second album from The Magpie Salute and is a bold and flavorful mix of 12 new songs. This album hosts a slimmed-down version of The Magpie Salute, while maintaining the core of the group all present at it’s inception in Woodstock, 2016. And while we, the fans, desperately miss the Magpie family members that are on to other projects, this group of 6 pulls out all the musical stops and puts all their collective talent on full display.

Rich Robinson and Marc Ford bring back the chemistry on dual guitars that started in the early ’90s as members of The Black Crowes and continues to be a key signature to their creative sound. John Hogg’s lyrical genius and vocal finesse set the right tone either on lead vocals, or when he’s on harmonies and back-up vocals. Sven Pipien and his ferociously laid-back bass work continues to set the path on which the band can follow while Joe Magistros intricate drumming breathes in and out of each song and allows the band the space they need. Also back from the Woodstock session is the highly sought-after keys player, Matt Slocum. His delicate touches, initially set out by the late Eddie Harsch, help carry on the sound that is High Water I.

Songs like “Mary The Gypsy”, “Send Me An Omen”, and “Take It All” are riff-driven rockers while “Sister Moon” and “High Water” border on what I call a hybrid rock ballad. John Hogg sings harmonies and back up on “Can You See” while Rich, obviously comfortable in the lead position, takes the vocals. The 3rd front-man of the group, Marc Ford, also get a vocal lead on the Hogg co-written, “Walk On Water”. It’s the third tune on the album co-written between Marc and John, along with “Take It All” and “Sister Moon”.

Another stellar track of John’s is “Color Blind”, which speaks to his multi cultural background and it’s effects on him growing up in London. Each of the Magpies individually shine on this track while John’s personal experiences help to punctuate the importance of the message it contains. It’s one of many highlight of the album and a wonderful statement on the current state of affairs that should resonate with us all.

You may hear subtle influences of The Beatles as well as Rich’s affinity for Nick Drake’s open tuned guitar, but make no mistake, High Water I is a genuine sum of all the parts and the resulting music is quite simply, the beautiful truth. The album is a great continuation from The Magpie Salute (Live) and I look forward to High Water II, slated for release next year.

So, salute the Magpie when he crosses your path and definitely grab this album. The more I listen the more I hear and what better fortune could come than the blessing of good music.

themagpiesalute.com

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Music Reviews

Serena Jost

Serena Jost

Up To The Sky

Second Kiss

Places have their own spirit, their own feeling. Sometimes, it’s the acoustics of the room that make it special and sometimes it’s the history of the place. Carnegie Hall in New York has both fabulous acoustics and a storied history that makes playing there such an honor. There is something extra special about seeing Doctor John playing at Tipitina’s in New Orleans or Sonny Rollins at Birdland. Some storied venues turn out to be dives. CBGB’s was world famous, an important piece of musical history and a dump. That’s how things go sometimes.

The setting of cellist Serena Jost’s album, Up To The Sky caught my attention. Jost set up in the rafters of St. Peter’s Church in the Chelsea district of NYC. The songs were recorded live over two days using eight microphones, cello and voice only. The music is spare, leaving plenty of room for voice and cello to resonate. It’s an incredibly intimate sound with each stroke of the bow, each string pluck surrounds in hyper-fidelity. Serena’s voice rings out clear with a timeless clarity.

Jost’s original compositions have an entrancing, metaphysical quality. “Great Conclusions” uses contrasting images to suggest the development of ideas or maybe art. As the program progresses, I find myself being mesmerized. It’s odd then to be shocked back to reality by the unexpected inclusion of “Lullaby”. The song we’ve all sung to infants is out of place, yet of a piece with what went before. Another unexpected tune is “Happiness”, which was composed by Molly Drake (mother of Nick Drake).

Up To The Sky is a completely unique experience. It’s a departure from her work with her band or collaborations with poets, dancers and other musicians. Up To The Sky is a record of a time, a place and a unique experience.

www.serenamusic.com

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Music Reviews

Ken Dravis

Ken Dravis

A Season Of Jenny

With the songs featured on his latest studio effort, singer/songwriter Ken Dravis has managed to accomplish what very few artists can seamlessly achieve. He set out to create a record that’s engaging and enjoyable to listen to yet remarkably close and personal, almost feeling like taking a peek into the artist’s private notebook, scouring deeper into his thoughts, hopes, and dreams of love.

The romantic nature of this album could indeed be quite apparent to most listeners, even before listening to a single note. The title of the CD already hints at romantic content, and the songs follow suit with suave melodies and honest lyrics from Dravis.

Hailing from Colorado, Dravis set out to perfect his groundbreaking combination of introspective, lush, and melodic tones. On cuts such as opening number “Start With Her Heart,” Dravis reveals his most earnest songwriting side with some of the most spontaneous and genuine lyrics that I had the chance to hear in quite a while. As someone who dabbles a bit into songwriting myself, I can tell you that it is not easy to be so truthful and open about some of your deepest feelings, especially when you know that many other people – even strangers, are eventually going to listen to your music! However, Dravis opened up his heart with no fear of judgement, and the result is a record that feels like talking to an old friend. The record is constructed in such a way that the album sounds familiar, yet refreshingly innovative, going for a really special vibe.

Dravis’ hopelessly romantic lyrics make me think of the work of artists such as Nick Drake and Ryan Adams, with a truly honest feel that makes every song extremely easy to relate to. A good example? Take a song such as “I Just Can’t Say I Love You Any…more.” The title and the lyrics of this beautiful piece are absolutely self-explanatory, setting the tone for the track and acting as a perfect curtain closer for this phenomenal effort.

Ultimately, Ken Dravis managed to wrap up an album that stands out as a solid testament that artists can accomplish a lot when they are not afraid to open up and share their innermost desires and dreams with their audience.

www.kendravis.com

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Music Reviews

Aldous Harding

Aldous Harding

S/T

Flying Nun

Aldous Harding’s self-titled debut album has been slowly making itself known. The record was released in the antipodes last year but didn’t make it to the Americas until this year. Somehow, I find that appropriate. Harding’s music brings to mind the bogey in the film It Follows. It’s slow-moving, unsettling and it’s constantly gaining on you.

Harding is from a rural town near Christchurch, New Zealand. She plays a somber version of noir folk. Stark acoustic guitar melodies frame the singer’s weary, tremulous voice. It’s a voice that reminds me of English folk icons like Sandy Denny, fermented in a vat of Nick Drake despair with a millennial dose of cynicism.

At this point, you might be thinking I should steer clear of this album. Song titles like “No Peace at All” and “Stop Your Tears” don’t sound like much fun. They aren’t fun songs, but they are achingly, hauntingly beautiful. The songs are about people in dire situations getting on with their lives. On “The Hunter”, Harding sings, “He’s a hunter, he’s a good man / be brave when he brings you nothing home.” The keening fiddle underlines the quiet tragedy that even a good man, doing the best he can, may still fail to provide for his family. It’s a bit like a Cormac McCarthy novel: stark, bleak, enthralling and strangely beautiful.

aldousharding.com

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Music Reviews

Jennifer O’Connor

Jennifer O’Connor

Surface Noise

Kiam

Jennifer O’Connor has a smoky, soothing voice that blends with the sparse instrumentation of her folk-inflected rock tunes in a reassuring way. Listening to Jennifer, it just feels like everything is going to be alright. It’s like getting that 3am phone call from a friend just when you needed it. Like that reassuring phone call, it’s easy to overlook the pain on the other end of the line.

Jennifer taps the minor key melodicism that fuels the best work of artists like Nick Drake or the quieter works of Yo La Tengo. There is sadness and optimism dancing in shadows and smoke. The opening track, “Mountains”, morphs from the fear that comes with falling in love to the knowledge that love is an infinite resource. It’s a scary trip, but one worth taking. “It’s Going to Get Worse”, acknowledges that solving problems takes work and time. “Black Sky Blanket” has some good advice for those in despair: “Time meets me halfway, most days. I’ve got so much I want to hear and say.”

Listening to Surface Noise, I suddenly wished I still had a radio show. As I drove around listening to the disc in my car, that old instinct, I have to play that on the air, hit me over and over. I don’t have a radio show anymore, so I just have to urge you to get a copy or find some other way to listen to Jennifer. I think you’ll like Surface Noise.

http://kiamrecords.com

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Music Reviews

Tenement

Tenement

Predatory Highlights

Don Giovanni Records

Four years is a long time between proper album releases. The boys of Tenement seemed to have spent much of those years writing, writing, writing. The result, Predatory Highlights, is a double album of 25 songs — almost too much to ingest in one sitting. This isn’t a thematic double album, it’s a mish mash of the Wisconsin band’s myriad of musical interests.

“Dull Joy,” “Under the Storm Clouds,” and “Crop Circle Nation” — three of the most straight forward, and strongest, post emo pop punk songs on here — are offered up in the first gulp of the album. It’s after this, that things get a little weird. Ambient nature sounds and soft singing atop even softer piano makes “Ant + Flies” feel like an interlude. It’s a good place to hit “pause,” go use the bathroom or have a smoke, before returning to the record for the guitar rock of “Garden of Secrecy” that leads into phase two of Predatory Highlights.

In this Act, Tenement flex their classic rock guitar chops on “Whispering Kids,” “Curtains Closed” before stripping down to an acoustic ditty with a falsetto croon on the adorably folksy “You Keep Me Cool.” The Nick Drake feel of “Heavy Odor” peels the final layers of away and lays the band at their most naked. It’s completely unlike anything else on the record, and one of my favorite songs I’ve heard them do yet. The song ends with a long, cinematic arc (is that a cello I hear?) that slowly builds to a crescendo. Again, this is a good place to press “pause.”

After your intermission, “A Frightening Place For Normal People” spends nearly 10 minutes steering you into a surreal landscape of tribal drums, rattlesnake shakes, and old movie sound effects. If you’re confused by this, you’re not alone. This is why I recommend you eat this record in courses because if you try to gorge on it one shot, you’ll be sick halfway through.

The final plate of the ambitious Predatory Highlights begins with a sort of acoustic Nine Inch Nails lullaby called “Licking a Wound” before returning to the band’s Jawbreaker-inspired roots on “I’m Your Super Glue.” A quick instrumental interlude (“The Dishwasher’s Meal”) leads into the homestretch of strange little oddities, of which “Keep Your Mouth Shut” and “Afraid of the Unknown” stick out as winners.

Phew. It’s quite a large meal, this record, but worth the time it takes to digest.

tene-ment.tumblr.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Tenement

Tenement

Predatory Highlights

Don Giovanni Records

Four years is a long time between proper album releases. The boys of Tenement seemed to have spent much of those years writing, writing, writing. The result, Predatory Highlights, is a double album of 25 songs — almost too much to ingest in one sitting. This isn’t a thematic double album, it’s a mish mash of the Wisconsin band’s myriad of musical interests.

“Dull Joy,” “Under the Storm Clouds,” and “Crop Circle Nation” — three of the most straight forward, and strongest, post emo pop punk songs on here — are offered up in the first gulp of the album. It’s after this, that things get a little weird. Ambient nature sounds and soft singing atop even softer piano makes “Ant + Flies” feel like an interlude. It’s a good place to hit “pause,” go use the bathroom or have a smoke, before returning to the record for the guitar rock of “Garden of Secrecy” that leads into phase two of Predatory Highlights.

In this Act, Tenement flex their classic rock guitar chops on “Whispering Kids,” “Curtains Closed” before stripping down to an acoustic ditty with a falsetto croon on the adorably folksy “You Keep Me Cool.” The Nick Drake feel of “Heavy Odor” peels the final layers of away and lays the band at their most naked. It’s completely unlike anything else on the record, and one of my favorite songs I’ve heard them do yet. The song ends with a long, cinematic arc (is that a cello I hear?) that slowly builds to a crescendo. Again, this is a good place to press “pause.”

After your intermission, “A Frightening Place For Normal People” spends nearly 10 minutes steering you into a surreal landscape of tribal drums, rattlesnake shakes, and old movie sound effects. If you’re confused by this, you’re not alone. This is why I recommend you eat this record in courses because if you try to gorge on it one shot, you’ll be sick halfway through.

The final plate of the ambitious Predatory Highlights begins with a sort of acoustic Nine Inch Nails lullaby called “Licking a Wound” before returning to the band’s Jawbreaker-inspired roots on “I’m Your Super Glue.” A quick instrumental interlude (“The Dishwasher’s Meal”) leads into the homestretch of strange little oddities, of which “Keep Your Mouth Shut” and “Afraid of the Unknown” stick out as winners.

Phew. It’s quite a large meal, this record, but worth the time it takes to digest.

tene-ment.tumblr.com