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.
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.
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.