I’m sharing this well-researched and beautifully-written article about acclaimed British record producer Hugh Padgham by Pierce Brown of The Press Music Reviews blog. It’s truly a master class in writing, so do yourselves a favor and give it a read! And while you’re there, follow his terrific blog too.
Though we’re officially only one week into Summer 2021, it’s already turning out to be an exceptionally hot one for a large swath of the U.S., and around the Northern Hemisphere. Temperature records have been shattered in many locations, including here in the Coachella Valley of Southern California where I live. On June 17th, the temperature in Palm Springs reached 123 degrees, setting a new all-time record high for June (after hitting 120 two days earlier). In the normally temperate Pacific Northwest, Portland, Oregon set a new all-time record high of 108 on June 26th, with Seattle also breaking their all-time record with 102 degrees. Those new records look to be short-lived, as they’re forecast to be broken later today!
(Late update: they were indeed broken on the 27th, as high temperatures reached 112 at the official airport station in Portland, and 104 in Seattle, then broken again on the 28th, with temperatures soaring to an unbelievable 116 in Portland, 117 in Salem and 107 in Seattle!)
These crazy-hot temperatures got me thinking about one of my favorite songs from the 1960s, “Heat Wave” by Martha & the Vandellas. Originally formed as the Del-Phis in 1957 by Annette Beard, Rosalind Ashford and Gloria Williams, (and briefly renamed The Vels in 1961-62), the act was redubbed Martha & the Vandellas in 1962 after Martha Reeves replaced Williams as lead vocalist (and later to Martha Reeves & the Vandellas as Reeves gained prominence). “Heat Wave” (also known as “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave”) was written by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, who also penned numerous hits for the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops and many others. It was the second hit song they collaborated on with Martha & the Vandellas, following their first hit “Come and Get These Memories”.
N Pa (the music moniker of songwriter, composer and producer Nicholas Pavoni) is a creative and talented electronic artist based in New Jersey. He began writing and recording music as N Pa Productions when he was only 17 years old, and in 2007 he self-released his first albums Reality | a dream and Reality | a dream: The B-Side (neither of which are now available). Over the next couple of years, he collaborated with numerous vocalists and producers from different genres of music for the recording of his debut album Sight & Sound, as well as producing tracks for several artists. He was later signed to a couple of different London-based independent labels from 2010 to 2014, but in the years since has worked as a solo independent artist.
In September 2013, he independently released his second studio album The Ghost Within: The Tale of Turmoil, as well as a separate EP Unorthodox. Another collaborative effort involving at least 20 other songwriters, musicians, vocalists and producers, The Ghost Within: The Tale of Turmoil is an ambitious concept work built around the main character and protagonist Turmoil, who N Pa states represents “the fight and uncertainty that is in all of us when we’re trying to move on when something tragic happens such as the loss of a loved one.” The story explores the realms of the reality and lucid dreams/nightmares that Turmoil experiences. The antagonists are The Ghost Within (and his minions), and Turmoil’s lost love Melinda(whose name is never mentioned in any of the album tracks).
A summary written by Josh Wright further explains the album’s concept: “Devastated by the love of his life leaving him, Turmoil finds himself drowning in a cesspool of depression and wanting out of his emotional roller coaster ride. The ghost within haunts his thoughts as he feels his grip on sanity slipping away. The listener gets taken on his journey through madness and back again. Join Turmoil in his process musically and evolve as he does, and as the music progresses, so will he.“
N Pa conceived of the overall concept theme, then composed the instrumentals for each track, knowing in advance what part of the story he wanted to tell. He then gave his musical compositions, along with their desired themes, to various songwriters so that they could write the lyrics for each particular track. His goal was to ensure that no two songs would sound the same, and that together, they would tell a fluid story. The songs draw from a wide spectrum of electronic music elements, including EDM, trance, orchestral, dubstep, breakbeat and glitch. The album was a passion project for him, however, he was never able to fully promote it. After reading some of my reviews of other artists, he reached out to me about reviewing the album, even though it was released eight years ago.
The album opens with “Prologue (The Beginning)“, a darkly beautiful and mysterious track introducing us to Turmoil, and setting a perfect tone for the story about to unfold. N Pa wrote the lyrics, which are narrated by Michael Leonard: “Her betrayal turned love to poison. His heart, now tainted with the thought of madness. It burns, like a brush fire in the field of lust. His sanity escapes with every breath. His mind, the only safe haven for him to hide. This, is the tale of turmoil.” The song quickly segues into “Turmoil“, an ominous track which sees Turmoil slowly losing his sanity: “Turmoil, she creeps into your veins. Another world overtaking all the sane.” The lyrics for this track were written and sung by Xenoc, aka Aaron Zafran, a DJ, musician and electronic music producer. I really like the orchestral touches N Pa uses on this track, especially the dramatic strings that give the track a bold cinematic feel.
Continuing with the theme of Turmoil’s mental anguish, “Memories” delves more deeply into his PTSD resulting from his obsession over the loss of Melinda; “I’ll never be the same, cause now I’m lost in you. My memories still haunting me. Running after you. You saw the best in me when I couldn’t see. But now you’re gone, I’m all alone.” Musically, the song is a seven-minute-long EDM track with haunting dubstep undertones. The lyrics were written by Dvir André Tzanua and Meital Patash-Cohen, members of Israeli electro-dance pop act Knob, with Patash-Cohen singing vocals.
“Blistered” sees Turmoil coming to terms with reality, and realizing he must metaphorically walk through fire to get to a better place of rebirth and healing: “It’s all around you, Engulfing, it’s everywhere. It feels like choking, but still you can find me there. I know an answer to clear up this smoky air. Just walk right through it. The fastest way to get you there.” The song delivers more pulsating EDM goodness, with lyrics written by Christopher Volz, lead singer of nu-metal band Flaw, and sung by Volz and Anthony Grisko.
One of my favorite tracks is “Sea of Darkness“, a darkly beautiful and musically complex feast for the senses. I love the mix of psychedelic and spacy industrial synths and hypnotic thumping EDM beat, punctuated here and there by bass drops, trap breakdowns, enchanting keyboards and loads of gnarly distortion. The lyrics, which speak of sinking further into despair – “This sea of darkness Is taking me down, down, down. The depths of the sea are my only escape. Darkness my only light” – were written by N Pa and sung by Richard Bush of the Philadelphia rock band Peace Creeps, whose vocals remind me in spots of Calvin Harris. Additional vocals were sung by Bobby Jasso, and electric guitar was played by multi-instrumentalist and music producer Taylor Barefoot.
Escaping from darkness and moving into the light is addressed on the brief “Interlude (The Battle)“, a haunting orchestral track with gorgeous electric violin played by David Wong. The lyrics were written by N Pa and narrated by Michael Leonard: “The once was is now no more. His fate sealed in this entrapment. He must now seek out the light. Encased in the darkness, the battle for the mind has commenced, and each side is eager to win. But Who will turn out the victor?” The next track “On the Inside” opens with a sample from The Mars Volta song “Ilyena”, featuring heavily distorted and otherworldly vocals, then settles into an exuberant EDM groove with thumping dance beats and spacy synths. The extensive lyrics were written and sung by Frank Pino, Jr. of Massachusetts rock band Waltham, who has a beautiful, emphatic vocal style. The song seems to be a tug of war between Turmoil and The Ghost Within, who gives him an ultimatum to either save himself or be forever lost: “Follow me no compromise, or you’ll be left alone. Come with me to save your mind, or fall forever.” It’s a great track.
Next up is “Release Me“, a beautiful seven-minute long EDM track in which Turmoil pleads with both The Ghost Within and Melinda to free him from his emotional hell: “Release me from all I’m feeling. Release me, and start the healing.” The lyrics were written and sung by Pete Murray of L.A. rock band Lo-Pro (who to my ears sounds a bit like Jared Leto) and Luke Jackson, with guitars and cello played by Jeremy Berghorst. The synths and beats on this track are fantastic, and I really love the guys’ passionate vocals.
Finishing the saga is the dramatic and hopeful “Not Today“, with lyrics written by Michael Leonard and Joshua Spradlin, and sung by FloatstoneHeart, Esper Fiction, and Kate Wild. The lyrics for this track are quite extensive too, and speak to Turmoil’s wanting his life to be better, but still feeling intense self-doubt and uncertainty as to whether he’ll be successful: “All I can show is I am buried under all this debt, but I have not given up just yet. Still all I know is, if you give me just one more shot I will surely fuck it up.” Nevertheless he feels resolved to make it, ending things on an optimistic note: “Oh, time, can’t lay me down to bed cause I’ve got too long left to run. I won’t be floating there with the fishes til I’m done.” Musically, the song reminds me in places of songs by Everything But the Girl and Thirty Seconds to Mars, obviously a very good thing!
Making a concept album can be a tricky undertaking, but with The Ghost Within: The Tale of Turmoil, N Pa has succeeded quite nicely. This expertly-crafted album is a fascinating and engrossing listen, sounding as fresh and current today as it was in 2013. N Pa released a remixed version of the album in 2015 entitled The Ghost Within: Remixed (Part 1), then went on a brief hiatus. In December 2020 he released a single “Nothing In Your Eyes” (feat. Marcie Joy, GloomIsOkay, & Android Invasion), and is working on his next EP Euphoric Absence set to to released in later this year. I look forward to hearing it!
Alain Dorra is a French musician and composer who creates a unique brand of electronic music, featuring his terrific guitar work in a starring role. His influences include such acts as Tangerine dream, Ashra, Ronny Jordan, Morcheeba, Mahavishnu and Soft Machine, as well as early Pink Floyd and Scandinavian jazz. He’s released quite a bit of music over the past three years or so, and his songs have been played on radio stations across Europe and the UK, including Deep Kulture, WIM radio, PRYSM radio, Décibel radio, Sword UK radio, Radio Three D. and Groover, as well as in London and Paris clubs.
At the end of May, Alain released his latest EP Pelican Spirit, featuring four relatively short instrumental tracks with a total run time of just under eight minutes. But what the tracks might lack in length, his deft guitar playing and the variety of sounds and moods of each track more than make up for it, resulting in a wonderfully engaging little collection of songs. “Mystical Teapot” kicks things off with a thumping EDM beat that immediately has our hips in motion, making it a perfect tune for those sweaty nights at the club. Alain’s shimmery guitar work is fantastic, finding a sweet spot between jangle and funk.
“Blue Desert” has a hypnotic deep house groove, with fascinating funky guitar notes that almost sound at times like horns. As it’s title would suggest, “Galactic Heart” has a darker, more spacy vibe, thanks to it’s strong pulsating beat and funky, psychedelia-tinged guitars. Alain’s guitar prowess really shines on the contradictorily-named “Short Eternity”. His guitar work here is truly exquisite – all jangly and bluesy, and soaked in reverb. The track’s languid, jazzy vibe and otherworldly synths are the perfect accompaniment to the amazing guitars, making this a standout track for me. But truth be told, all four tracks are great, so give this a listen!
Since forming in 2018, Dutch indie band Morgendust have been building a loyal following both at home and abroad on the strength of their outstanding brand of alternative rock music. The Zwolle, Netherlands-based quintet is comprised of Marco de Haan (lead vocals, guitars), Ron van Kruistum (guitars, backing vocals), Iwan Blokzijl (keyboards, backing vocals), Dario Pozderski (bass, backing vocals) and Job Noordmans (drums & percussion). All are talented and accomplished musicians with years of collective experience playing in other bands and as session musicians, imparting their music with a maturity and worldliness that comes from having lived on this earth for a while and experiencing the joys and pains of life, love and relationships. Through intelligent, thoughtful lyrics, they tell stories that everyone can relate to, and package them with exquisite rock melodies and beautiful instrumentation.
In September 2019 they released their stunning debut EP Storm Will Come, then followed up in 2020 with a string of excellent singles: “Alien”, inspired by the story of band member Dario, who as a young man fled his war-torn homeland of Bosnia, “Sundays”, a moving song exploring feelings of choking from a lack of freedom due to abuse of power by others, contrasted with a sunny melody, and “Hands”, an uplifting tribute to all the craftsmen and women around the world who take care of us, using their hands to make, build, create and heal. (You can read my reviews of the EP and two of the singles by clicking on the links under “Related” at the end of this post.)
On June 11th, they dropped a terrific new single “Easy Way Out“, and today I’m happy to premier the marvelous video they produced for the track. The band says the song is “about former lovers, premonitions and escape routes”, with lyrics inspired by Jonas Wergeland, the main character in the trilogy by Norwegian writer Jan Kjaerstad. Marco explains further: “After reading the first novel, around the end of the nineties, I got in touch with him via email. We had a nice conversation about his books and plans. In this trilogy (The Seducer, The Conqueror, The Discoverer), a man looks back on his life and all the women, music and art that made him the man he is today. A lot of my reading experiences fell in place. You never get out of a relationship easily, you always take something out of it, or with you. At least yourself. It defines you. The mantra ‘Stop wasting time’ has become a motto, but easier said than done… So this song was waiting to be released for another project I did with Ron, a long time ago. Luckily, Iwan brought it back to life with fresh new sounds, but the composition, structure and intention of this song stayed intact.”
“Easy Way Out” was produced by Morgendust, mixed by Iwan Blokzijl (who also created the artwork from a photo by Alain Hermans), and mastered by Erwin Maas. The song has an upbeat retro 80s vibe, with Ron’s animated guitar, Dario’s thumping bassline, Iwan’s colorful, swirling keyboards and Job’s lively drums, all melding together perfectly to create an exuberant wall of sound. Marco has a vibrant and warm singing voice, and his plaintive vocals are especially nice on this track. The guys clearly enjoy making music together, and their playful sense of humor shines through in the fun black and white video showing them performing the song in a very tight space. I love it!
I came to you with nothing but my heart in hand It took some time to realize, I didn’t understand I ignored the warning signs in my head
Stop wasting time
I‘ve served all different queens and each one had its flaws To learn to be obedient in absence of the law And learn about the warning signs in my head
Stop wasting time Stop wasting time You’ll never get the chance
We never agreed to allow There is never an easy way out
I came to you with nothing but my heart in hand All this time I realized, I didn’t understand Living with the warning signs in my head
Stop wasting time Stop wasting time Stop wasting mine You’ll never get the chance again
We never agreed to allow There is never an easy way out There is never an easy way out
I first learned about silky-voiced singer/songwriter Shimmer Johnson in early 2018, when she followed me on Twitter. She has a beautiful and resonant singing voice that puts her in the company of other contemporary female vocalists like P!nk, Kelly Clarkson and Sara Bareilles. Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, she started out writing and recording Country songs, but wanting to broaden her musical horizons, a few years ago she relocated to Los Angeles. In addition to her amazing vocal talents, she’s also a fine guitarist and pianist, and has been working with several songwriters and producers. In the process, she’s recorded and released an impressive repertoire of stellar songs.
Shimmer creates and sings lovely and compelling songs about life and love that we can all relate to. Her clear, pitch-perfect vocals are strong, but with a raw vulnerability that she skillfully employs to beautifully convey the subtle yet powerful emotions expressed in her heartfelt lyrics, enabling us to connect with her songs on a deeply personal level. Her 2017 single “Pride” has been streamed more than 239,000 times on Spotify, while her gorgeous 2020 single “Never Be the Same” has garnered 100,000 streams. I first featured her on this blog in February 2018 when I reviewed her uplifting single “Getaway”, and this past January, I featured her single “Love is Possible“ on one of my Fresh New Tracks posts. She followed that single in February with her exquisite debut album Inner Me, and now returns with her latest single “It’s Fate’s Turn“. The song was co-written with Thornton Douglas Cline and her husband Corey, and released via Catalyst Records.
On this track, Shimmer’s vocals sound more emotional and fragile than on many of her previous songs. She sings with a trembling vibrato that quite effectively conveys a sense of both apprehension and firm resolve as she dips her toe into uncertain waters, hoping that this time things will work out. Musically, the song has a languid, hauntingly beautiful melody that’s driven forward by the wonderful interplay between emotive piano keys and shimmery guitars, complementing each other quite nicely in the creation of an enchanting soundscape for Shimmer’s bewitching vocals.
The lyrics speak of never giving up on finding happiness and fulfillment in life, no matter how many roadblocks you’ve encountered and missteps you’ve experienced along the way: “I felt defeated, over and over again. I felt cheated, how would I ever win? Life is hard, when easy becomes the game. Take a spin to bet on a chance of change. You can be wrong a thousand times. Then suddenly, everything’s right. It’s fate’s turn. Don’t turn off the lights. Lessons learned. My lining is in sight. Cause this time it’s real. No one tells me how I feel.”
“It’s Fate’s Turn” is another in an unbroken string of superb singles by this incredibly talented vocalist. I’m confident we’ll continue to hear more great music from Shimmer well into the future.
To learn more about Shimmer and her music, check out her Website
Virginia-based singer-songwriter Andrew Neil (full name Andrew Neil Maternick) is one of the more unique artists I’ve had the pleasure of featuring on this blog. I first wrote about him in November 2019, when I reviewed his third album Freak (which you can read here). Andrew is considered an “outsider” music artist similar to the late Daniel Johnston, and in fact, ranks as the #1 Best Outsider Artist on Ranker, just above Johnston (click this link to see the full list). The now 33-year old has faced a number of daunting life challenges that would have crushed many of us, but his strength and resilience, as well as the incredible love and support of his family and friends, have enabled Andrew to flourish as an artist.
I wrote extensively about his experiences in my previous review, but will summarize here to provide a bit of context. After growing up as a fairly typical kid and high school athlete, Andrew suffered a life-altering event in Spring 2009 when he sustained a serious head injury in a car accident. The injury resulted in two significant changes for Andrew: 1) he began having a series of psychotic episodes, and 2) he started writing songs, despite the fact he’d never had any prior music training of any kind. During a psychotic episode in 2013, he stabbed his younger brother in the arm, which landed him in jail for seven months until his family and attorney convinced the prosecutor that Andrew needed help, rather than being incarcerated.
He was subsequently released and sent to a state mental hospital, where he received excellent treatment and learned to manage his illness. During the three years there, he wrote and recorded around 70 songs, on top of the 250+ songs he’d written since his 2009 accident. Andrew writes his honest, deeply personal songs entirely by ear, first creating the melodies on his rhythm guitar, then recorded songs on a battery powered Tascam recorder, which his father Ray would later upload to a computer. Andrew was conditionally released from the hospital in May 2017, and moved into a group home in Charlottesville. (He now lives independently.) Upon his release, he produced his first album Code Purple – Andrew Neil, featuring 11 melancholy yet optimistic songs he hoped might help others struggling with similar mental health issues. The songs were mastered by Vlado Meller, otherwise they were left pretty much in the raw, lo-fi condition as Andrew had recorded them.
In 2018, Andrew recorded his second album Merry Go Round, this time working with a number of accomplished musicians to help give his songs a more polished, fuller sound, as well as a more alt-rock vibe than his folk-oriented first album. He entered the studio again in 2019 to record what would become his third album Freak, and as he was wrapping up the recording he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He underwent a grueling round of chemotherapy while the album was being mixed and mastered, and he and his family started a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for album production and marketing, garnering even greater support than expected. The album, an ambitious work featuring 14 tracks addressing topics of love, faith, mental illness and self-identity, was released that October to widespread acclaim.
His cancer thankfully now in remission, Andrew began recording songs during the Covid lockdown, this time with only his own quirky, endearing vocals and vintage nylon string Ovation acoustic guitar, accompanied on some tracks by subtle keyboard overdubs. The songs came together as his fourth album Sunny Side, which is being released digitally on June 15th via Tree Heart Records. The album will become available on CD on June 30th, along with a limited press vinyl version scheduled for release in October. The songs have a mellower and more lo-fi folk sound than the ones on Freak. About Sunny Side, Andrew states “I believe the album will appeal to people who really dig the lo-fi, outsider vibe. I hope my music will be recognized as something genuine; something that people can relate to and let them know they are not alone in this jello world.” The imaginative artwork for the album cover was created by Boston artist Daniel Benayun.
The album kicks off with “Gamblin’ Man“, a pleasing folk tune with an allegorical story about a reckless soul who always lives life on the edge. Andrew’s knack for writing seemingly simple yet profound lyrics with a powerful message is exemplified in these verses: “Out in the desert sun I made friends with a scorpion. We talked about how we feel, then I said shuffle up and deal. We played till the sun went down, full moon was wearin’ a crown. I cheated, gave myself some kings. Then I felt how a scorpion stings.”
On the optimistic title track “Sunny Side“, he advises us to not wallow in our problems, but instead try and find something good in every situation: “I buy flowers. She asked what for. Just in case the undertaker comes knockin’ on my door, cause tomorrow’s no guarantee. Let’s take our sorrow, and drown it in the sea. So keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side. Keep on the sunny side of life./ This life is a gift. It makes me high, high, high like a cliff.” He continues along a similar vein with the grunge-tinged “Lemonade“, urging us to make lemonade out of those lemons life sometimes throws our way: “Make lemonade. Realize that we got it made. Make lemonade. Don’t be afraid. Even in hell, be thankful for shade./ Live with love, the world is ours.”
Andrew’s strong sense of spirituality, love and faith in humanity is expressed on several tracks. On “One Big Family“, he sings of how, despite our differences, we’re all human beings deserving of love and respect: “We are one big family. And you have a brother, a brother in me. Tough times do not last. Tough people do. And I feel so much tougher when I’m loved by you. And no one’s perfect yet; we all have flaws. But we still deserve gifts from Santa Claus.” He uses “Heaven” as a metaphor for love and empathy, rather than a biblical place: “Heaven, where hate is not allowed. Heaven, another word for love. Heaven, it’s not below, it’s not above, it’s in your heart.”
On the lovely, nearly six-minute long ballad “Awoke“, he sings of overcoming his past mistakes and feelings of hopelessness by accepting God’s love: “So many nights I wanted to cry. Wanted to fly away. This dream trope has come to an end. Stars explode, but you’re still my friend. And I’m still your friend. Cause I awoke to God’s mercy. We’re all thirsty for love.” And on the folksy final track “Thank The Lord“, he gives thanks for all the things that are important to him, and the positive role music plays in his emotional well-being: “Thank the lord for my friends. Thank the lord for family. Thank the lord for the music that lives inside, inside of me.”
Conversely, perhaps the most poignant track on the album is “Anymore“, where Andrew questions his faith, self-worth and direction in life: “You can lie, and say it’s all part of God’s plan. Cause I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to grow old. I don’t want to shut up, I don’t want to be told what to do, anymore. I don’t want to give up, I don’t want to go on. Just so tired of being so strong. Don’t know what to do anymore./ You can blame, you can blame me for not being a good man.” Musically, his strummed acoustic guitar is accompanied by some somber but lovely keyboards that create a haunting soundscape for his introspective and melancholy vocals.
“Dog Without A Bone” is about having pretty much everything one could want in life, with the exception of a romantic partner to spend time with. Andrew uses clever and pretty direct metaphors to describe the feeling that something crucial to his well-being is missing: “Got a million reasons to live. I’m giving everything I have to give. Yet I’m so tired of being alone. Just a dog with no bone. A drunk without a drink. A cloud without a sky./ I have a lot, but I want more. Is there someone out there that could make me sore.” And once you’re in a relationship, conflicts and disagreements will undoubtedly arise, which he cheekily addresses on the charming “Kinda Turns Me On“: “When you get so mad, it kinda turns me on. Tell me what I did wrong. Cause baby it turns me on. Honestly, I want to grow old with you. Live the American dream, red, white and blue. Have a bunch of kids, and grandchildren too.”
Sunny Side is a wonderful album, filled with honest, heartfelt songs about faith, love and hope, and I’m confident all of us can relate to at least some of them. Andrew Neil is a thoughtful songwriter with a special gift for getting right to the heart of things in a way that few other artists can – or are even able – to do. I’ve grown quite fond of him, and hope he’ll continue writing interesting and compelling songs for us to enjoy.