Have you ever noticed how some artists can just make their music sound effortless? I realize it’s not; it is harder than you ever imagined but the music comes from deep within them and comes out as a flow like turning on a spigot. Tim Houlihan is one such artist. Tim has been around the music scene since his debut release, 1999’s “Letters From Caulk’s Creek”. It was almost eight years until his next release and he emerged more confident in his writing and his approach to music. One of the aspects I love about writing these reviews is when I come across an artist who has been around a while and has a body of work to examine. You can really hear their progression and growth. Tim’s newest album “Anthems” was released in 2013 and on the record we hear an artist who has really grown into his talents. Tim bills himself as a “singer songwriter whose songs are carved from real life with articulate enthusiasm, strong grooves and sophisticated playing”. He cites his influences as Jackson Browne, Stephen Stills and James Taylor among others and his influences can be heard throughout the album. Not a carbon copy or a poor imitation; influences.
Houlihan now makes his home in Minneapolis MN and is a product of the Midwest US, spending most of his life there. There is a certain sound to the musicians who call this region of the country home or who grew up in and around what we call the rust belt and the Great Lakes. Dylan, John Mellencamp, Boz Scaggs and Bruce Hornsby all grew up with those Midwestern values. If you enjoy the music of those artists, you will also like Tim Houlihan’s “Anthems”. There are a lot of similarities. From subject matter, to instrumentation to the overall mood and tone of the record. One of the things I like best about this record is that Houlihan and his band aren’t afraid to experiment with the arrangements and bring in any and every weapon in their musical quiver as long as it serves the song. From the Latin rhythm and trumpet in ‘Aljezur Sunrise’ to the mournful accordion on ‘Those Who Discovered The World’, Houlihan knows how to serve a composition.
The band includes Jon James Benson on guitar, Paul Madsen on bass and Todd Lester banging the skins. It is evident that the band has been together long enough to be a coherent unit with each player complimenting the other. According to Houlihan, his next album is due to be released later this year and he will explore more of his country and blues roots. We can’t wait!
Norine Braun is a rare artistic talent from Vancouver, British Columbia. Going back to her 1996 release, “Modern Anguish”, Ms. Braun has continued to release highly polished albums flirting with many different genres, performing them all with a style not heard in most independent artists. She has dabbled in blues, folk, Americana, pop and her latest release “Kind of Jazz” is reminiscent of the heyday of the genre in the 1940’s and 50’s when the likes of Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald ruled the street. The record evokes the smoky jazz clubs of the era when the finest and most creative artists of the age played small clubs and venues in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans.
Norine’s songwriting skills are exceptional and her voice has the sultry quality so necessary to carry off songs in this oeuvre. Make no mistake, this record evokes a bygone time but is fully rooted in today’s music. It is one of the few modern jazz records I have heard that does not sound forced or fake in some way. Ms. Braun slides from one style to another as easily as a chameleon changes his colors. Braun has been compared to KD Lang, Melissa Etheridge and Stevie Nicks but on this release, this reviewer hears more Tracy Thorn of Everything but the Girl, Ricki Lee Jones and Sade than the aforementioned divas.
The album’s production is first class all the way and the arrangements show off Braun’s skill as a singer to great effect. Fans of folk and pop will find much to like here, as well as jazz aficionados. The entire album is notable and the first three tracks, ‘Crystallize’, ‘The Perfect Love Affair’, and ‘Tips and Not Trouble’ are all breakout compositions. Norine Braun has hit her stride with this April 2015 release and is surely an artist to watch in the coming years. About the only complaint I have of the overall package and the only piece of constructive criticism I could offer is that I would hire a graphic artist to design album art that befits the quality and sophistication of this collection.
The Who’s Pete Townshend coined the term “power pop” in the late 1960’s. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s and early 1990’s that power pop became a genre distinction in its own right. Bands like The Gin Blossoms, Jimmy Eat World and The Knack popularized the genre when they didn’t easily fit into any of the established genres the record companies had devised. Power pop is usually characterized as falling somewhere between hard rock and pop music. In other words, thematically and lyrically the sound is pop but musically it is more akin to hard rock. It has been described as “pop music with an edge characterized by strong melodies, clear vocals and crisp vocal harmonies, economical arrangements and prominent guitar riffs.”
The Washington, DC based band Honor By August fits squarely into this power pop genre and does it very well. Listening to their new EP “Four Sides” I get hints of Fall Out Boy, Hootie and the Blowfish with a little Fountains of Wayne thrown in for good measure. Since their first EP release in 2005, Honor By August has steadily honed their sound until today they are a tight four piece band fully in control of their act. Honor By August is Michael Pearsall, lead vocals/guitar; Evan Field, guitar/piano/backing vocals; Chris Rafetto bass/piano/backing vocals; and Brian Shanley drums/percussion. The Washington Post has called the quartet “one of the most promising new talents on the East Coast” and chances are you’ve heard their music on ESPN, E! and popular MTV shows. The new EP contains four songs and is expected out on June 9th of this year. The EP leads off with ‘Mad Mission’ which is a pure power pop ballad exemplifying the very definition of the genre. The three remaining songs on the EP represent the band hitting its stride and poised to reach higher and farther than ever before.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Michael Pearsall says “We all believe in doing things the right way, with integrity, and making music that comes from a place of true inspiration. We hope that our music finds a place in people’s lives wherever they may be on the spectrum of life’s highs and lows. Life is what we make of it so why not try to make the most of it?” Honor By August is making the most of their musical prowess spending about half of last year on tour throughout the US, performing in some of the finest venues in the country and the rest of the time in the studio writing and recording this record. HBA is now hitting on all cylinders and should easily be able to accelerate into the next lane and leave lesser bands behind.
I was sent two tracks this week and I was asked to review them in great depth. I was asked to comment on all aspects of the songs including production, engineering, composition, arrangement and finally what I thought of the songs in terms of viability and marketability in today’s music market. The one thing I wasn’t told is who the artist was who created these tracks. I have listened to the two songs repeatedly, because I could (more on that later) and I must say to the mystery artist: bravo. The two songs in question are ‘Do I Look Good’ and a song called ‘Anchor’. After listening to the tracks I opened the two documents that came with the songs and it turns out it was the music and lyrics to both tunes. Both were notated as being written by Jake and Harrison Sharp. A quick search on the internet reveals that Jake and Harrison Sharp are from Brisbane, Australia and have a band called We Could've Been Kings and I found a link to a 2013 EP called “One Day Soon”. (I love the internet) mysteries are not so for long.
I’m going to assume here that Jake and Harrison are brothers and I will also assume that the band I discovered online is the same artist who sent me the tracks. If my assumptions are correct on all counts; what a difference 18 months makes. “One Day Soon” is raw, not well produced but perhaps shows a little promise. The two songs I was sent are mature, well written songs and the production is first rate. ‘Do I Look Good’ starts off with a solo acoustic guitar riff and launches into a mellow, reggae infused ditty that recalls the best of Jack Johnson, Damien Rice with a splash of Nick Drake. The only suggestion I could make on this track is there is an electric guitar part that is kind of buried in the mix and I would have liked to have heard more of it.
‘Anchor’ is a deeper composition and is more of a brooding ballad brought home by the crying violin (or perhaps it is a cello) throughout the track but once again I would have liked to hear just a little more of it more prominently in the mix. Lyrically, the song is about finding a love to hold on to and being with someone who “grounds” you in the “sea” that is today’s modern world. It is a fairly simple song but very well done. The writers have a central premise and don’t overly confuse it with too clever imagery.
Too often, I am given music to listen to that I am lucky to get through once not to mention repeated listens, but these two songs are very nice and were a pleasure to preview. I could very much hear ‘Anchor’ as the central theme in a romantic comedy flick and ‘Do I Look Good’ could easily find its way into any soft rock or easily listening playlist.
I thank whoever sent me these tracks and I can say it was a pleasure to be introduced to these two talented songwriters.
Mirage Box is a band out of Orlando, FL. Their sound has been described as modern retro which, I know, is an oxymoron but I was excited to hear their new E.P. “Contents Under Pressure”. I will admit, I did some promotional work for Mirage Box a few months ago before their E.P. hit the streets and heard the song ‘Juarez’ at that time. “Juarez’ is the first single released off the EP and I was reasonably pleased with the single. It showed some promise and plotted a direction for the band. It starts off kind of mellow and melodic and builds throughout the song and was really an interesting tune and I was looking forward to hearing more from the band. Mirage Box is a collaboration between Nick Coppola, a prolific songwriter and lyricist, and Chris Capozza, a multi-instrumentalist audio engineer and music producer.
The influences they cite reads like a who’s who of rock music in its golden age from The Beatles to Steely Dan and almost everything in between. Many of those influences are evident throughout the EP. At times, you can pick out flashes of The Who, Kansas, Genesis and others which makes for a confusing record. Let me back up. The first I had heard of Mirage Box, they had covered a song from 1974 that I had always liked called ‘Magic’ from a little known band called Pilot. The song reached #5 on the charts and I remember it fondly. Mirage Box’s cover was a faithful rendition but didn’t deviate much from the original. When I heard ‘Juarez’ I thought the band was destined for something special. Unfortunately, to my surprise, ‘Juarez’ so far is the watershed for this band.
The rest of the material on “Contents Under Pressure” is rather lackluster. Influences are great. They are what inspire you. Inspiration, however should lead you in a direction that is all your own. I can’t help get the feeling listening to this record that some of the licks and some of the melodic lines were almost forced in order to sound like their heroes. After listening to the EP a couple of times over now, I really haven’t changed my initial impression of this band. I do believe there is a nucleus here that could produce some very good music but my advice to Nick and Chris is get in touch with yourselves and put what you’ve got on the table. I want to hear what you can do and not how much you can sound like someone else. Perhaps if they discounted “retro” in the description and concentrated on the “modern” we might get to hear something really special from this band in the future.
The term “Plain Jane” has entered our vernacular as meaning a girl or a woman who is ordinary or average. Its frequent use has also come to mean something that is common or not distinct. The name “Plain Jane” has been used by many a regional cover band to telegraph that they aren’t anything earth shaking meant to change the music industry just a solid band where you will probably be familiar with the music and have a good time. So what am I to think of a band that calls themselves Not Another Playne Jayne? This is the task at hand. As the name implies, this band is anything but plain, common, or average. Not Another Playne Jayne is a rock and roll band with attitude. They have just released their debut album on May 25 and the band from Aurora Colorado is ready to stake their claim.
Not Another Playne Jayne is a core group of three musicians, Stephen Jayne and Adam Stewart on vocals and JD Stefan taking care of the heavy lifting credited with the instrumentation. The album is rock with a tough, gritty sound that reminds this reviewer of the great arena bands of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. It’s a big sound with lots of hard rock riffs and guitar licks that would make Ted Nugent proud. Add to that the numerous guitar trills and gruff growling vocals and you have a hybrid group that will appeal to the hard rock enthusiasts as well as devotees of the many sub genres of metal music. The production on the album is fantastic with each and every part crisp and audible and the vocals are right out front and not lost in the mix.
The band’s website says they “specialize in a somewhat dark, yet redemptive sound, while utilizing a unique variety of complimentary styles and techniques”. I guess that’s a kind way of saying that they are disciples of the darker side of rock and roll but don’t want to firmly plant their flag in any one of the many specialized genres of metal music. The album starts off with an ethereal track called ‘Only a Test’ that reminds me of a Zappa inspired track and sets the listener up for a ride they won’t soon forget. ‘Welcome to the Void’ follows and is a hard charging rapid fire track and we get a good sense of the band’s roots and inspiration. If hard rock is your thing, you will probably enjoy this album as each cut explores new territory and carries the listener on a hard rock and roll journey not to be missed.
Perhaps I have missed something but I don’t think of Oklahoma City, OK as being a melting pot for music of, well any kind. Not to be disrespectful to anyone living in Oklahoma but the only contribution to the musical landscape I can think of is Merle Haggard and in fact he was born in California. Oh, and of course the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Other than that… not so much. I received the new EP “Under Your Skin” from an artist who calls himself Scott AF and started at the beginning. What rushed at me was for lack of a better description was dance music. For those of you who have perhaps read my reviews in the past, you know dance music is not really my forte. I thought I might be in for a long night. Then imagine my surprise when I learned that Scott AF makes his home in Oklahoma City. Quite a juxtaposition for me to digest.
As I got further into the record I heard something that surprised even me. I must say I am glad I ventured further into it as I learned that this record has a lot going for it. It’s true the first track ‘One Step Away’ is a dance tune that would be right at home in any dance club anywhere. In addition, the track has more going for it under the surface. Lyrically it is more than I expect from dance tunes. As I continued on, it is hard for me to classify this release as a “dance record”. Many who listen to the EP might disagree with me but there are some really great elements here. It is very soulful and a very enjoyable listen, even for someone like me with two proverbial left feet. The one song that really jumps out at me is ‘Save a Little Place’ the fourth song on the EP. It’s reminiscent of some of the best R&B and Motown tracks from years past. “O” town; it has a ring to it.
Scott AF says in his bio that he has kept a purposefully low profile preferring to spend time “painstakingly crafting an inventive new sound that’s insanely infectious at every turn” and you know what, I concur. Scott goes on to say, “I’ve set out to write some killer pop songs with the lyrics of a singer/songwriter, basically something that you can’t not dance to, but crafted around an actual song with meaning.” He has succeeded most brilliantly. Reading further about Scott, I learned that he had an American Idol experience and made it past the first cut. He then states something that makes him my hero. “It was a positive experience for me, but I knew in my heart when I got there that the show would never know me as a true artist. I didn’t want to get famous off that story and stayed committed to making the music I wanted to make rather than having them mold me into what they wanted.” I have said for years now that AI represents everything that is wrong with the music business and I am glad to hear “artists” that agree. If this was the music Scott wanted to create, he surely does not need American Idol to succeed.
Uncle Duke; a.k.a. Rob Penland is the producer and host of "The Mad Music Asylum" a 4 hour weekly syndicated radio show and now a 24 hour streaming internet station.