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.
“If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”
--John F. Kennedy
In my youth, being different was not something you had to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary, being different was almost a badge of honor. It was a simpler time. Where I came from anyone who ever had a rare talent, whether it was in the arts or in science or math was almost revered in school. It is probably a good thing I was born when I was. As a youth I was given to fits of melancholy and had I been growing up today, I may not have made it through high school. I’m not sure when it happened in the youth culture, or maybe it has always been so but today there seems to be a premium put on conformity and hegemony. Anyone who strays from the pack so to speak is ridiculed, ostracized, and yes even bullied. Kids always try to “fit in” so to speak but there was a time when almost anyone could find a clique to “fit in” to. Not so much anymore.
Bullying has become a national and dare I say it an international problem. Kids, especially in middle school and high school years have tremendous pressure these days to conform to whatever standard is set by their peers. Perhaps it is a phenomenon attributed to the rise of social media but I suspect it is more a product of childhood insecurity about “being different” that is to blame. I was looking at recent statistics about bullying and I was shocked at the numbers. Almost every month in the US, over a quarter million kids are attacked, 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of bullying, 10% of the dropout rate is attributed to bullying and sadly, almost a half a million kids either talk about or attempt suicide each year because they were bullied in school.
Ivan L. Wilzig better known as the recording artist Sir Ivan is taking a stand against bullies. Sir Ivan has had several charted songs in the Billboard Club Play Charts and has always been a believer in individuality and inclusion instead of exclusion. Sir Ivan has released a new single called “Kiss All The Bullies Goodbye” and has no less than ten distinct mixes of the song that will appeal to just about any musical taste. Sir Ivan believes that bullying must stop and we should celebrate our differences rather than punish them. Sir Ivan, through his philanthropic Peaceman Foundation has made major donations to anti-bullying organizations such as The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth. He is also putting his money where his mouth is by donating $100,000 to 10 non-profit organizations that have strong anti-bullying programs, and is giving away the net proceeds from the song “Kiss All the Bullies Goodbye” to these organizations. In this “me” oriented society we live in, it is heartening to see an artist willing to take a stand against an epidemic problem and contribute his time, effort, and yes, money to a cause in which he believes. Look for the song, buy the song, and let’s help Sir Ivan educate and eradicate bullying once and for all.
Imagine, if you will, a band with a lead singer who sounds a little like a young Elvis Costello with better tone, and a backing group writing and playing infectious pop tunes in a variety of styles. Add to that a producer and arranger who knows how to get the most out his musicians and not afraid to experiment with horns, and sounds that complement the songs. If you can imagine that, you don’t have to look farther than the music metropolis of Milwaukee Wisconsin to find it. Ian & The Dream is the band and according to their press, these three high school chums formed the band in 2008. Ian Ash is the lead singer, guitarist, and doubles on keyboards. Chivo is the bass player and Brian Farvour pounds the drums.
I&TD released a 7 song EP in 2012 and have followed that up with a full length album called “California Cauliflower” which was released in September of 2014. The album is a full on assault of the senses and an infectious pop collection guaranteed to have your toes tapping and songs that you just can’t get out of your head. The album starts off with “Girl From California”, an homage to California pop music reminiscent of everything from The Beach Boys to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. “Steppin’ On My Shoes” follows with a happy reggae beat that makes you think of chilling on a deserted beach. The title track checks in as track 5 and again embodies the California pop feel and picks up the mantle and moves the genre forward into the 21st century.
The songwriting on the album is clever and enticing, the production is first rate and the performances are flawless. Ian & The Dream is definitely a band that is going places and if you’re a fan, get on board now. If you’re not, you will be soon enough.
Recently, I have been marveling over song craft. I have wondered if the bands that came out of the music industry in the 70’s and 80’s were really the best that the industry could offer. Not having the opportunity to hear the thousands of songs that were written by “indie” artists during the time period, I wondered. Now having gone back and listened to many of the greats, I am convinced that they deserved to hold that lofty place in the industry. The songs they wrote were just plain good, by any standard. It all starts with the song.
Heavy AmericA is an original alternative hard rock band out of Boston, MA. This power trio was formed in 2013 and have just released their debut album independently. The band is Mike Seguin on guitars and vocals and keys, Dan Fried on drums and vocals and Budd Lapham on bass and vocals. I wish I could gush about how the band “brings forth the change so desperately needed in rock music” but I would not be doing a service to anyone. Not to be all negative, there are some bright moments on their self-titled debut album. The very first track starts off with a Nickleback inspired riff and builds into a hard driving rocker. The fourth song on the album “Under Glass” starts off with a soulful bass line and settles into a very pleasant groove. The song “Daddy” has a riff right out of the Green Day song book. Unfortunately, the songwriting on the album is not up to the standards I would expect from a band looking to bring a change to modern rock music.
The musicians here are skilled and seem to play well together but again, the songwriting leaves much to be desired. I don’t hear much being said here. The best advice I could give would be to have their principal songwriter take a creative writing workshop and learn how to express emotions and instill the sense of imagination and discovery in their music. I think this could be a very talented band but as I said, it all begins with the song and I don’t hear a well written song here in the bunch.
There are pros and cons to almost every situation. I have spoken and written about the music industry many times in the past and as usual, I am on the fence about the state of the industry today. First let’s look at the pros. Music provides a creative outlet for many individuals who otherwise might have none. The cost of entry these days is comparatively small. For the cost of a good microphone and a basic computer program, anyone can record an album. Corporate America is no longer holding the key to what you can discover in the music business. Sites like Reverbnation, Bandcamp and Noise Trade are filled with musicians trying to distribute their products without the need of a corporate master. Now for the cons. Almost anyone can now record an album and distribute it online and that’s not always a good thing. There is so much music available now it can be difficult to sift through the mediocre and find the gems out there. I see lots of artists that compare themselves to known established acts and once you are suckered in to make the click, there is absolutely no resemblance to those established acts.
The fact of the matter is, very few musicians these days are actually making a living off of their music. The reality is that music is a “hobby” or a pleasant diversion from their daily routine. Luca Bash is one such musician living the dichotomy of today’s music business. He states very plainly on his website that he lives in two worlds, the one world of jobs and responsibilities and the other world of creativity and expression. Such is the case for far too many “artists” of today. Luca’s newest project, CMYK is a 5 song EP consisting 1 single “Your Tomorrow” and 4 songs from the CMYK project. “The CMYK is a project made by 4 EPs that represent all the songs written since 2003 by Luca Bash.” The “band” Luca Bash is actually an acoustic duo consisting of Luca Bash & Giova Pes. The two met and started playing together in 2007 but it wasn’t until 2012 that the two embarked on the CYMK project.
Luca is “convinced that a song played properly with two guitar and voice is enough” and we couldn’t agree more. Provided of course that the songs themselves represent quality material and that’s exactly what we have on this particular EP and if you explore further, on all of the EP’s in the CYMK project. Song after song, Luca delivers heartfelt lyrics surrounded by sparse but ample arrangements and showcases the work of a true artist, not a part time hobbyist.
Exactly when did it become fashionable in pop music to sing torch songs in an almost breathless whisper? I suppose it is an extension of the Fiona Apple school of vocal training. When used properly it can be very effective. Jessica Domingo knows how to use it properly. Each week on my syndicated radio show, The Mad Music Asylum, I scope out at least four independent artists to feature on the indie spotlight. Last week, I was running late putting the show together and I had three artists who had submitted their music to me for consideration. I was struggling to find a fourth artist to fit into the mix when I came across an EP from Jessica Domingo and almost passed it by, not because it wasn’t good enough. It was too good. Rarely, in this day and age do I find a 5 song EP where every one of the songs is a stand out track. Domingo’s EP “Masterpiece” was a pleasure to discover and I am pleased that she chose me to write a review of the EP. After inclusion on the show, I guess she thought I liked it enough not to trash it in a review.
Yes, I will admit, I am somewhat of a music snob. I don’t feel that way because my tastes are very wide ranging and I like a lot of different kinds of music. I will never play for pay on my show because you can get stuck playing some god-awful music. These days, however, it is a little more difficult to find “the good stuff” because there is so much “bad stuff” being released. Domingo’s EP surely ranks in the former category. It is evident from listening to the EP that this young lady has quite a musical education. According to her published bio, she “grew up listening to all different kinds of music” and it comes through in her original compositions. One of her songs was a semi-finalists for the worldwide UnsignedOnly Music Competition 2013 and her song ‘Masterpiece’ won in the Teen category in the 2014 International Songwriting Competition (ISC) out of over 18,000 entries. Not a bad resume for someone not yet 20.
The EP begins with the song ‘Masterpiece’ and it is aptly titled. It is an upbeat pop anthem that could easily be heard on any top 40 station in the world. ‘Music’ is the next track and if Domingo can’t get any traction with it, her “people” need to get it to Corinne Bailey Ray. She would certainly have a hit with it. My favorite track on the album is ‘Everything Just Wasn’t Enough’. It’s the track I chose to feature on my show and shows a maturity in song writing far beyond her years. The other two tracks on the album ‘We Could Be Anything’ and ‘Last Night’ are solid cuts and round out the EP quite nicely. Jessica Domingo is an artist I will follow as I believe she has tremendous potential in this business.
I’m a sucker for good music. I admit it. There I sat at my computer on a Friday evening / Saturday morning at almost one am. (I had nothing else to do but that’s another story). I was just getting ready to hit the sack and thought I would check my email one last time before turning in. Damn. I had just gotten an email from an online site for which I write the occasional music review. He needs a review done as soon as possible. I shoot him back a quick missive that tomorrow morning is the best I can do. Like most people, I tend to see the world from my perspective and what I fail to realize until it’s too late is that he is in Australia and it is already mid-day Saturday there. Too late. So he responds almost immediately with the details and a link to download the tracks and the pertinent information. Instead of turning off the computer and going to bed, curiosity gets the best of me. I click the download link and seconds later, the new album from Billy Grima is on my desktop. Still not too late to bail. I already told him I couldn’t get to it until the morning. What the hell. A quick listen to a track or two and off to bed. Who am I kidding?
The first thing I encounter is the album cover. This guy looks like a cross between James Taylor and Paul Simon. A dead ringer. Alright. A quick preview. The next thing I know, I am eight tracks in to a ten track record and haven’t heard a filler yet. A filler? You know, a song that just doesn’t quite measure up to the rest of the material. Not a one, so far. Grima’s manner and style is confident, energetic and very easy going. His songwriting style is narrative and very clever. His vocal style is familiar yet unique. Almost a Billy Joel quality but not quite as sappy as Joel. The music is probably best classified as Americana which is becoming somewhat of a catch all these days. It’s not exactly folky but very much in the style of a James Taylor or Paul Simon. He is a modern singer/songwriter. Genuine, melodic and a great ear for hooks that are memorable but not at all forced. Sparse use of horns in all the right places that gives this record almost a Chicago blues vibe.
Grima was born in Australia and now makes his home near Toronto. Billy has 3 albums to his credit: “I'm Just Standing”, “A Little Piece Of Heaven” and his latest, “Sugar & Cream” to which I am currently grooving. Like I said at the outset, I am a sucker for good music and trust me, if the record had been a dud, I would have hit the hay, but “Sugar & Cream” is a fantastic record and I can’t wait to feature some tracks on my weekly internet radio show The Mad Music Asylum. The only problem I have is which tracks to play, they’re all so good.
My family roots are in the hills of western North Carolina and North Georgia so I guess you could say that the music of Appalachia is ingrained in my being. Further back than that, the family patriarchs emigrated from Ireland during the famine of 1740. They, along with tens of thousands of families made their way to the US and settled primarily in the Appalachian region from Virginia to the Carolinas. They brought with them a musical tradition based on Irish ballads and English folk songs and utilized traditional instrumentation of the banjo, fiddle and guitar. So it’s no wonder that the music of Appalachia and folk music from the British Isles have many similarities and meld together so brilliantly.
A new band called The Paper Trains out of Southampton, UK caught my attention recently. The band bills itself as a modern Americana string band from the UK and the blend of the musical traditions of the two regions are clearly evident and flawlessly executed on their debut album “The Mule” released in April of this year. What struck me first about this band was not the originality of the songs and how they were able to capture the feeling and spirit of the American South or the perfect blend of guitar, banjo, upright bass and mandolin. A lot of bands these days can do all that. To me, what sets this band apart is the quality of the vocal accompaniment provided by all three principals of the group Simon Fisk, Natalie (Nat) Olden and Jon Brendan. Nat’s voice anchors the arrangements and Simon and Jon fill the spaces and fit in like a complicated jigsaw puzzle. This collection of ten original songs ranges from the rootsy (‘Wednesday’s Child’, ‘The Straight and Narrow’) to the bluesy (‘Cookie Jar’, ‘In Exile’) to the back porch stompers (‘Cannonball Express’, ‘(The Virtues of) Wild Corn Whiskey’).
Even the cover art, Nat in a cowboy hat shooting pool in a darkened pool hall with Simon and Jon in the background with ball caps, decked in flannel with drinks in hand, sets the tone for the record and the tracks do everything to reinforce the mood set by the art. The band is a complete package; a coherent identity, a down to earth perspective and above all, music that supports and ties it all together. I could go on and on about The Paper Trains and how good they are but you cannot get a full appreciation until you pick up a copy of the album and hear it for yourself. In the tradition of Andy Griffith and Mayberry USA, the Paper Trains are a return to simpler times and a truly authentic style of music.
Buy the album
Provided you weren’t too old when Nirvana exploded on the scene in the early 1990’s, you grew accustomed to a little extra edge in your music. A host of bands followed in their wake, each one taking the genre a little further. Now, that rock and roll idiom is well established. Ages Apart is set to push the idiom one step further with their sophomore release S.T.A.T.I.C. Critics call it “active rock” but there are so many genre labels floating around these days it is difficult to know just what is meant by a label. To this listener, Ages Apart has one foot firmly planted in the traditions of grunge and the sound that we associate with the Pacific Northwest, and the hard rock sound of countless bands who try to make your head bleed, banging it against the proverbial wall. Ages Apart has a harder edge but is very controlled in how they present their music. You get the sense from the very first notes of the album that these guys know exactly what they are doing, exactly where they are going and exactly how to accomplish their mission.
Rock music has grown up a lot since the angst ridden sounds of Nirvana and make no mistake, Ages Apart is fully matured. It’s almost like the youth and f-you attitude of the early 90’s has given way to a more sophisticated and more mature sound. The band’s bio says they write “honest music and speak the minds of their fans” and they seem to be fully in touch with not only their past but their present and future as well. S.T.A.T.I.C. is a modern rock record capturing the best of rock’s past and bridging it with rock’s present. The first single from S.T.A.T.I.C., ‘Civil Wars’ sets the tone for the album and you know this is a record you’ll want to listen to again and again. Released on May 19, the new album sets a tone and charts the course for Ages Apart.
As I learned more about the band, I am surprised to find out that they are from Alabama because their sound is more suited to and reminiscent of a major industrial area or a big city. The band consists of Cody Webb on vocals and guitar, Chris Srygley on drums and Will Bradley on bass and the three have honed their sound and perfected the “power trio” formula. I look for big things from Ages Apart in the coming months and years and just hope their next release is as honest and entertaining as this one.
Ages Apart Website
I will admit that Sarah Vaughan is probably one of my favorite jazz vocalists. Billie Holiday is number one followed by Vaughn. Apart from them, others pale by comparison. Vaughan had an incomparable style and a personality to boot. She was discovered when she was 18 in 1942 and she performed right up until her health failed her in the fall of 1989. Vaughan was an original. I was intrigued by a new EP I discovered this week called “Sarah + 1: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan” by Canadian songstress Delilah. It seems I am not the only fan left. Delilah was born in Budapest, Hungary and was immersed in music from a very young age. She performed with her family in a 20 member touring ensemble with some of Hungary’s greatest musicians. Political upheaval forced the family to move to Canada in 1998 and she quickly became a fixture on the Toronto jazz scene. Beginning with her first release “Jazz” in 2002, Delilah has continued to engage audiences with her vocal presence and her style reminiscent of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s big band era.
On this 4 song EP, Delilah has chosen songs not necessarily made famous by, but certainly in the catalogue of the late Ms. Vaughan. The EP begins with two jazz standards from the 1930’s, ‘September in the Rain’ and ‘Just Friends’ and includes ‘Whatever Lola Wants’ from the 1955 play “Damn Yankees”. The +1 in the EP title refers to the fourth and final song on the album ‘Smile’ which bridges the material and gives it a cohesion. The music for ‘Smile’ was written by Charlie Chaplin and included in his 1936 film “Modern Times” and the lyrics were written in 1955 by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons.
Delilah is not trying to imitate anyone nor is she attempting to recreate Vaughan’s style. She puts her own spin on these classic standards and brings her own interpretation to the material. In fact, rather than a tribute to Vaughan, I see this record as more being inspired by the greats of the past, Vaughan in particular, and bringing the material to a modern audience. She worked on this record with Jim Peterik of Ides of March (‘Vehicle’) and Survivor (‘Eye of the Tiger’) fame and he has certainly brought out her best here. Those classic standards from the Golden age of jazz will not be forgotten and it is great to see young artists embrace the material and bring it to a modern audience. If you must call it a tribute album, go ahead, but I think it’s just a clever excuse to bring songs you love back to life.
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.