I have said many times before that truth, originality and authenticity are the corner stone of any great art form. The arts have a tendency to expose the insincere and the charlatans. The public knows when an artist is real and when they are putting on a front. An indie artist emerging from the heartland of the US has struggled with identity and has emerged at a place of truth that is evident in the music itself. Devin James Miclette was an adopted child at 4 and for years endured issues relating to what is termed non binary gender. Devin who now goes by the moniker Ivory Black seems to have come to terms with their gender identity issues and trust issues and has emerged as an original voice on the music scene.
Ivory Black has released a new EP called "Ready Get Set" that is sure to appear on a lot of critics' "best" list at the end of the year. The record is real, original and screams of authenticity. This young "person" has accepted themselves for who they are and writes about it in ways that are not "in your face" but more subtle and passionate than this reviewer has heard in quite a while. All too often, another component, in music at least, is adversity. Artists tend to use life's hard knocks to mold their art not only for their purposes but also for the benefit of their audiences. Art and particularly music can be a tremendously healing exercise and Ivory Black has channeled his adversity into songs that no doubt will help him and hopefully others.
The songs are intelligently well written and the arrangements are reminiscent of a Midwestern modern version of Nickelback or Three Doors Down. The EP only contains five songs but based on what we hear so far, we can't wait to hear more from this exceptionally talented artist.
Sonnet Cottage is an alternative folk band from Northern Virginia. The "band" is actually sisters Torey and Rachel Russell with help from guitarist Buddy Speir. They released their debut album, "Another Time" in 2012 and are back with a new album called, "Half Written Story". It is evident from listening to the music that the influences are deeply rooted in classical, folk and jazz music. The songwriting is pretty straight forward and the overall effect of the arrangements is an "ethereal" sound which gives it a nice quality, different from a lot of the Americana or so called alt-country bands populating the landscape these days.
The album starts off with the title track that at first sounds like they borrowed a few licks from Coldplay but settles quickly into a dreamy, melodic statement of purpose. The girls have worked hard on blending their vocals and each has a distinct sound that compliments the other. For my taste, the production on this track is a bit busy and muddled but by the second track, the record has settled into a better groove and production that is a little simpler and emphasizes the vocals a little better. Let's face reality. The songwriting is adequate and sometimes interesting but the best thing this band has going for it is the sister act and the vocal arrangements. The subtle harmonies and interplay between the principals is what sets this group apart from the rest.
Sonnet Cottage has been nominated this year for folk artist of the year and "Half Written Story" is nominated for folk album of the year by the International Music and Entertainment Association’s IMEA Awards. Quite an achievement for a band with just two albums to their credit. The Russell sisters are in their zone and we expect great things from this duo in the future.
I wrote a blog post on my website several months ago about children of rock stars and how their entry into the music business is a double edged sword. Children of parents who have enjoyed success in the music business may have an easier time getting the attention of a major record label but at the same time, the expectations put on them by the “suits” are high. Do you sound like your dad (or mom) for that matter? Do you play the same kind of music? Can we sell as many records as they did? Oops. That is the only question that bears any weight with the music industry power base. You see, in the music biz as in most other business is about marketing. How can a product be packaged to best advantage to deliver to the public. And let’s face it, if you have the lineage, as far as marketing goes, you’re half way there.
So I think it interesting that I was chosen recently to review the newest album by Dylan McDonald & The Avians. I began as usual. First listening to the music. I heard some things I found interesting and some things that I thought needed some attention. I never made the connection nor suspected that I was listening to an artist with lineage. I mean it’s not like the last name was Lennon, Jagger, or Cobain which would have tipped me off immediately. I have known a lot of McDonalds and certainly from the music I was hearing I did not think I was listening to music from a guy who had grown up in his father’s shadow. I am referring to Dylan McDonald’s dad, songwriter, singer, keyboardist and five time Grammy award winner Michael McDonald. You remember, the guy who stepped into the Doobie Brothers for the ailing Tom Johnston and with his songwriting and vocal ability kept the band on track churning out hits in the late 1970’s. The elder McDonald has maintained a music career spanning 40+ years of which most artist today would be envious.
Turning back to Dylan and his band The Avians, as I said earlier, I hear some licks and riffs that are familiar and identifiable. The opening of the title track of the album, “Fueled by Dreams of the Future” sounds eerily like a reworking of a King Crimson track “Ladies of the Road” from their 1971 album Islands. I hear some Neil Young licks on “Evil Perfume” and even a Stones like riff on the opening track, “Broken Lullaby”. The production on the album as a whole is pretty good but a little spotty at times but nothing that would detract from the enjoyment of the record. All in all, the album is solid and most definitely a work that may have been inspired and influenced by his father’s generation but a record all his own. The one thing that did surprise me about the total package is that there is no mention of the new album on Dylan’s website nearly a full year after its release which, to this reviewer, is an oversight that unfortunately speaks to the dedication and professionalism of the group.
I grew up in the era of album covers. It was a tangible physical product and I took great joy in organizing and displaying my trophies. The album cover sometimes was better than the album itself and believe it or not, a good album cover could actually boost sales. Now, in the digital age, not as much care goes into the digital packaging of a release. I did not realize how much I missed album covers until I heard and saw the newest release from a Canada based indie band called Autopilot. The music itself is pretty good but the album cover is fantastic. It’s simple direct and, I believe, reflects the spirit of the band’s journey over the past few years. The album is called “Desert Dreams” and the album cover depicts a tour bus on a lonely road under a sunny desert morning sky heading straight for us. It says a lot without saying much.
Autopilot is what is known as a power trio from the hinterlands of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Canada. Saskatchewan is a prairie province in central Canada slightly smaller than Alaska with a total population roughly the same as San Jose California. I mention this because in order to find success in music from Saskatchewan, three words come to mind. Tour, baby, tour. Autopilot released its first EP in 2005 and followed that with a full release in 2007 and their follow up didn’t hit retailers until 2013. They are back now with “Desert Dreams” and they plan to tour extensively to support the record. The band is made up of Marlon Harder, Colton Fehr and Jose A. Fuenzalida. The band has found some success outside their home turf over the years with their last release charting in both Canada and on US college charts. “Desert Dreams” debuted in Canada in the top 50 which shows a lot of promise.
The music on “Desert Dreams” is straight ahead indie alternative rock with some nice touches along the way. Marlon Harder’s vocals are distinctive and solid but maybe a touch too compressed for my taste. The guitar work compliments the vocals remarkably well and there are some experimental riffs and sounds which gives the record another interesting dimension. I hear a number of influences listening to this record, most notably a scent of some of the great art rockers in music like Genesis, or Squeeze but with a purely North American flavor. It’s a solid release from a band of Canadian journeymen musician and we wish them much success with the record. And, oh, did I mention that the album cover art is very cool.
I honestly don’t know how musician survive in this day and age. I listen to more indie music than anyone I know and I am always surprised how good some of it is. It may not be earth shattering or game changing good but it’s good. Very rarely do I come across an album that I just can’t listen to. The music business has been broken wide open since digital became the rage and I just don’t know how an artist finds an audience these days let alone make any money from their music. I guess most artists have a regional following and as they grow, they can branch out, travel farther, and expand their reach and their fan base. In the end, I guess The Grateful Dead had it right; make your money off touring and view your recordings as a loss leader or an expensive marketing tool.
Kathy Muir is a singer songwriter originally from Scotland and now living in Stamford Connecticut. Her style is reminiscent of some of the great women who have broken through in the past thirty years. Her newest release “Book Cover Judge” was dropped in March of this year and apart from a couple of singles and an EP, this represents only her second full length release. If you are looking for words to describe her sound, think Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega and Everything but the Girl. She is bluesy, rootsy, jazzy and folkie all at the same time. Kathy’s song craft is first rate and the production on this record is excellent.
Whenever I hear a new artist, I tend to judge it on one criteria. Would I play it on my syndicated radio show? The answer here is a resounding yes! That’s not to say that if I wouldn’t play it on the show I don’t like it. The aesthetic on the show is more classic rock but I will play anything from 1960 to today as long as it is a well-crafted, well performed song. Kathy Muir’s music is easy to listen to and as I said, very reminiscent of some of the women I mentioned earlier. Track selection order on an album can be crucial and I imagine it was especially difficult on this album because every song is strong. If I had to choose three or four songs that are stand out tracks, I am hard pressed. ‘Soul Lover’ is a sultry Southern charmer, ‘You’re on my Mind’ is a jazzy turn and ‘You and me Both’ is pure pop. All in all, “Book Cover Judge” is a strong release and needs to be exposed to a larger audience.
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.