British electro-funk/soul collective WINACHI call their sound a blend of “swaggering Mancunian tenacity spliced with smooth Californian G Funk soul”, a perfect description for their delectable music stew of infectious sexy grooves. Based in Warrington, situated roughly halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, WINACHI consists of Liam Croker (lyrics and vocals) and Antony Egerton (keyboards, programming), Inder Goldfinger (percussion), Andy McKay (lead guitar), Richard Ritchie (bass) and Paul Lawrence (drums), all accomplished musicians with diverse musical backgrounds.
They formed in 2015, but I first learned about them in Spring of 2018, around the time they released their funky dance single “Transition”. I instantly loved it, as well as all their subsequent releases, and have featured them numerous times on this blog, most recently last November when I reviewed their PARASITICAL ELIMINATION E.P. (You can find links to some of those reviews under “Related” at the end of this post.) That EP included four great collaborative remixes of three of their previous songs by international artists and producers Howie B, Paolo Baldini, Jim Spencer, and Impey. Now WINACHI are back with a marvelous new single “CHARACTERS“, the first of a long line of singles they plan to release in 2022.
The track, which features additional keyboards by Lee ‘Latch’ Parker, was engineered and mixed by Jim Spencer and mastered by Ben Booker. About the song, front man Liam Croker explains: “CHARACTERS is about how we’re all living together in this extremely beautiful yet completely fucked up world, and how once you get past all the prejudice, hate and judgmental bullshit, we’re all just the same, living under the same sky…we’re human beings and without each other we’re nothing. When writing and producing this track we wanted to make something that sounded like a cross between Beck, George Clinton and a Looney Tunes cartoon, I think we succeeded with that. The world’s such a dark, insane place at the moment that we wanted to put out our own little slice of madness…except exchanging the darkness for a bit of a colour. CHARACTERS is exactly that, a funked-up Bugs Bunny cartoon.”
I’m not sure I can improve on Liam’s description of the song, so I’ll just elaborate on what I love about it. Firstly, there’s that seductive and funky bass-driven trip hop groove that grabs you by the hips and shoulders, compelling you to move! Then there’s the colorful mix of magical glittery and darker industrial synths, punctuated with flourishes of sci-fi and cartoonish sound effects, hand claps and wonderful jangly guitar chords, all of which come together to create a trippy, enchanting soundscape.
Liam’s distinctive vocals are smooth, but with a seductive, slightly raspy undercurrent that conveys an air of mystery as he croons “The people that we meet, will paint the pictures of our lives. Some make a fortune, some shoot to get by. Some walk on the moon, while some just shoot to get high. We’re all just faces in the crowd./ We’re characters of the world.”
WINACHI never disappoints, and with “CHARACTERS” they deliver another stellar track for our listening enjoyment. I’m certain we’ll continue to hear more great songs from them in the coming months.
Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, the exceptionally talented and undeniably attractive couple who call their music project almost sex have been on a creative tear since the release of their debut single “Knockoff” in September 2020. In the 16 months since, they’ve dropped nine more singles at the rate of one every 6-7 weeks, the latest of which is “Lucille“. I first learned about them a year ago when I read a great review of their beautiful second single “Charmer” by fellow blogger The Alternative Mixtapes, who posited that “their name is meant to imply that their music is almost as good as sex.” As smitten with them as I now am, he subsequently wrote about them two more times. The duo followed me on Instagram a few months ago, and I’ve decided it’s high time I featured them on my own blog.
Consisting of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Nick Louis and architect, multi-media artist and musician Warren LaSota, almost sex met online through a dating app during the first Covid lockdown in early Spring 2020. Little did they realize at the time that they were forming not only a romantic relationship, but also an artistic one too. Nick and Warren began sharing poetry, song lyrics and music demos back and forth over the internet, and two months later they finally met in person, whereupon they recorded and subsequently released “Knockoff.”
Drawing from elements of folk, post punk, alternative rock, electronica and indie bedroom pop, their sound is richly varied and eclectic. Consequently, none of their songs sound alike, and I love every single one of them. Nick has a distinctive and endearing vocal style that reminds me somewhat of Passenger on songs like “Charmer”, “Swallow”, “Part of You” and “Lucille”, grandson on “Collapse”, and like no one else on the rest. Warren’s bewitching ethereal harmonies nicely complement Nick’s vocals on several tracks.
Their latest offering “Lucille” is the lead single from their forthcoming debut EP We’re Okay, due out on April 1st. Co-written, produced, mixed and mastered by Ken Helmlinger, the song has a rather melancholy vibe, with a languid melody driven by Nick’s strummed acoustic guitar, and accompanied by a subtle but resonant bassline and nice drum fills. Little instrumental touches like the gentle finger-plucked guitar notes and enchanting sounds from what I’m guessing is a mellotron add some interesting textures to the song.
Nick’s warm, vulnerable-sounding vocals convey a sad resignation as he softly croons the lyrics addressing the end of a relationship with a woman named Lucille that wasn’t meant to be, and relieved it’s finally over: “And after all these complications, I really should be grateful it’s the end. / Cause time wasnever on our side. Lucille, goodbye.” Warren’s backing harmonies in the choruses are sublime, making for a really lovely track.
Unquiet Nights is an outstanding rock band with a somewhat unusual career trajectory. Originally started in Belfast, Northern Ireland as a solo project by singer-songwriter and guitarist Luke Mathers in 2006, he began recording tracks with help by Rodger Firmin on drums for what would become the first Unquiet Nights album 21st Century Redemption Songs. In 2010, Luke relocated to Italy, where he eventually finished and released the album.
He was later joined by Italian musicians Francesco Piciucchi on bass and keyboards, and drummer Matteo Bussotti for live shows, though Rodger still played drums on their recordings. In 2015 they released their beautiful and compelling second album Postcards in Real Time. One of the tracks from that album, “George Best City”, which was never released as a single but was used in the Federico Buffa Racconta documentary series, landed them several live national appearances on Italian TV stations. Their best known and most successful song, it’s now garnered more than 355,000 streams on Spotify. Luke moved back to Belfast in 2016, where he continues to record and release music with Rodger and Francesco as Unquiet Nights.
I first learned about them in early 2018 when Luke reached out to me about their superb single “Promise of You”, which I reviewed. They quickly followed with “Young Believers”, then a year later they released another stellar single “Four Winds“, which I also reviewed. I enjoyed that song so much it ended up ranking #76 on my Top 100 Songs of 2019 list.
Now Unquiet Nights are back with a new single “In Spite of ItAll“, which they’ve released in conjunction with their third album First Ten (2012-2022). A sort of ‘greatest hits so far’, the album commemorates the ten year anniversary of their debut album 21st Century Redemption Songs, in recognition of their impressive body of work over the past decade. The album features ten songs they feel are an important part of their musical journey up to this point, including two songs from 21st Century Redemption Songs, three from Postcardsin Real Time, the three standalone singles listed above, and the new one written especially for this collection, “In Spite of It All”. As depicted in the art work for the album, all ten songs are gems, written and produced by Luke, and flawlessly mixed and mastered by Neal Calderwood.
Though not quite as hard-hitting as their last three singles, “In Spite of It All” is a beautiful rock song nonetheless, with a somewhat gentler, more melodic sound. As always, Luke’s guitars are gorgeous as he lays down an intertwining mix of urgent riffs and chiming notes over a hypnotic driving rhythm, courtesy of Francesco’s beautiful humming bassline and Rodger’s propulsive drumbeats. Francesco’s sparkling synths are the added jewel in the crown, beautifully complementing Luke’s swirling guitar to create an enchanting and exciting backdrop for his clear, plaintive vocals.
The lyrics seem to address the fact that the journey of life can be difficult and full of obstacles, and to make it, you shouldn’t follow the crowd, but instead forge your own path forward, learning from your mistakes and staying true to yourself: “You don’t have to jump just ’cause they tell you to jump. You don’t have to dance just ’cause they call you up. You don’t learn to walk before you learn to crawl. But you keep moving forward still in spite of it all.”
And here’s the full album, available for purchase on Bandcamp at a very reasonable price. I just bought mine!
The poignant and beautiful “Crutch” by Band of Horses takes over the top spot on my latest Weekly Top 30. It’s their first song to ever top a Billboard chart, recently spending two weeks at #1 on the Adult Alternative Chart. It was a tough decision knocking dwi’s wonderful song “Good Friend” down to #2, as I still love it so much. Finally entering the top 10 are three great songs – Solar Eyes’ “I See the Sun”, Apollo Junction’s “Two Car Family”, and a million rich daughters’ “Left Behind”. Debuting this week are Elvis Costello & the Imposters’ “Magnificent Hurt” and Adele’s “Oh My God”. It took a while for “Magnificent Hurt” to grow on me, because I can sometimes be a real idiot when it comes to music (as well as many other things, unfortunately). But after reading two recent posts about the song and Costello’s new album by fellow blogger Christian’s Music Musings, I finally realized what a terrific song it is.
The video for “Crutch” is odd but sweet, and features lots of cute cats, so please watch.
CRUTCH – Band of Horses (2)
GOOD FRIEND – dwi (1)
TIME IN DISGUISE – Kings of Leon (4)
I DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE – The War on Drugs feat. Lucius (3)
STARTS WITH YOU – Shimmer Johnson (6)
THE TIPPING POINT – Tears for Fears (7)
I SEE THE SUN – Solar Eyes (11)
LOVE LOVE LOVE – My Morning Jacket (5)
TWO CAR FAMILY – Apollo Junction (12)
LEFT BEHIND – a million rich daughters (13)
I DON’T WANNA TALK (I JUST WANNA DANCE) – Glass Animals (9)
SMILE – Wolf Alice (14)
JOURNEYMAN’S BALLET – Sam Rappaport (15)
U&ME – alt-J (16)
ONE AND THE SAME – Future Theory (17)
THE HARDEST CUT – Spoon (19)
WAKE ME UP – Foals (18)
BEGGIN’ – Måneskin (8)
UNTIL I COME HOME – Two Feet & grandson (20)
CHAPSTICK – COIN (21)
HEAD IN THE CLOUDS – Thunder Fox (22)
THE OUTSIDE – twenty øne piløts (23)
LOVE IN OCTOBER – Ships Have Sailed (10)
THE ONLY HEARTBREAKER – Mitski (25)
INDUSTRY BABY – Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow (28)
JUST LIKE ALWAYS – Oli Barton & the Movement & Maella (29)
REDCHURCH STREET BLUES – Philip Morgan Lewis (30)
MAGNIFICENT HURT – Elvis Costello & The Imposters (N)
Aptly-named Cleveland, Ohio-based indie band You’re Among Friends want us to feel welcome when hearing their music or watching them perform. With their laid-back style of funky, blues-infused folk rock reminiscent of the music of Steely Dan and The Grateful Dead, with touches of Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, listening to their music is like spending time with a good friend. That comforting, low-key vibe, combined with relatable lyrics touching on everyday aspects of life in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours, has a way of making us feel that everything’s gonna be alright at the end of the day.
The band was formed in 2007 by founding members and long-time friends Anthony Doran (lead vocals and guitars) and Kevin Trask (bass, keyboards and backing vocals). And like too many bands, they’ve struggled to find and keep drummers, but their current (and seventh) drummer Mike Janowitz, who came on board in late 2019, has turned out to be a perfect fit.
You’re Among Friends released their debut self-titled album in 2007, followed by an EP and double single, but the demands of life, work and starting families took so much of their time, they went on a hiatus in 2011 lasting four years. They reconnected in 2015, and the following year, released their second album As We Watch the Years Go…, with songs inspired by their life experiences, as well as the passage of time and how it affects friendships and relationships. They followed in late 2017 with an EP One Day You’ll Look Back, then dropped their third album Start Making Sense in May 2020. (I’ve reviewed their last three releases, which you can read by clicking on the links under “Related” at the bottom of this page.) Now the guys are back with their fourth album, Good Enough Sometimes, which dropped January 10th.
One of the many things I like about their songs is that the titles let us know exactly what they’re about, as well as the conversational flow of their down-to-earth lyrics that make us feel like we’re speaking with a friend. Kicking things off is “Don’t Borrow Trouble“, a mellow, upbeat song advising us to not overthink or worry over things we can’t change or that haven’t even happened yet: “Don’t borrow trouble, why worry about something before it’s here. By the time the dust settles, and the moving parts stop, don’t you know it may not be as bad as you fear.” These simple but wise words could be directed at me, as I’m frequently guilty of obsessing over a lot of shit.
Several tracks address the theme set forth in the album’s title, starting with “Here in the Middle of the Pack“. The lyrics advise us that it’s okay to be average, so long as we do our best and feel contentment with ourselves: “Don’t have to be the best. Just strive to be consistent./ It all works out eventually.” I like Anthony’s guitar noodling and endearing vocals that remind me of Randy Newman. On a similar vein, “Okay is Good Enough Sometimes” urges us not to expect everything in life to be perfect or the way we want them to be: “Got to let some things go, to preserve your mind and soul. Not everything is worth your peace, try not to lose too much sleep, because okay is good enough sometimes.” Anthony’s bluesy guitars and Kevin’s funky bassline are terrific.
The guys take a somewhat different tack on “You Know What You Want“, with lyrics about not giving up on your dreams and aspirations, “When you set your mind on something, you don’t stop til you’re done. It’s one of those things that I love about you. Someday your chance will come. Cause you know what you want.” I like the quirky and cool instrumental flourish in the bridge. And on the sweet “Accompanied“, Anthony sings his praises to a loved one who’s always there for him: “Sometimes life brings me down. That’s when I’m glad you’re around to pull me through. It’s tried and true.”
But sometimes, even friends need a bit of tough love. On the catchy “Toxic Positivity“, with its bluesy Grateful Dead vibe, Anthony calls out those who spout meaningless positive adages like “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”: “Spare me your toxic positivity. When the world’s pissing in my face, I don’t have to pretend it’s refreshing rain.” On “Learn to Leave Well Enough Alone“, he admonishes someone to get off his back and mind their own business: “You’ll be the first to know when I want to hear opinions from folks who don’t understand a thing about my business.” The song has an interesting sound, with a repetitive bluesy groove, and delightful jazzy organ and percussion at the end.
Though You’re Among Friends don’t get political very often, there are times you just need to call out corporations, politicians and the media for their duplicitous actions too. The dark “Bad Karma and a Special Place inHell” decries those who promote fear to keep the masses fired up and their profits soaring, while “This is Unsustainable” speaks to corporate greed and income inequality: “Don’t expect them to understand, how they’re living off our backs.”
With a breezy, upbeat groove that hovers in a sweet spot between Steely Dan and the Grateful Dead, album closer “Plan Cancellation Chicken” is one of my favorite tracks from a musical standpoint. Anthony’s guitar riffs are really wonderful, nicely layered over Kevin and Mike’s jazzy, thumping rhythm. The song circles back to the album’s overall theme of just calming down and going with the flow, with lighthearted lyrics that describe a romance in a cheeky, backhanded way: “It’s all a big game of plan cancellation chicken. I’m so glad you caved and canceled before I did. It’s looks like I won this round. Let’s keep each other around, so we’ll have someone to cancel plans with.”
With Good Enough Sometimes, You’re Among Friends serves up 30 minutes of pleasing songs – with a few edgier ones thrown in for variety – we’ve come to expect and enjoy from them. Like I’ve mentioned previously, it’s like the return of an old friend with whom we’re able to pick right back up from where we left off.
I’ve been following Nashville alt-rock band The Ivins for nearly five years, and have had the pleasure of featuring them several times on this blog. I first wrote about them back in June 2017 when I reviewed their excellent debut album The Code Duello, then again in April 2019 with a review of their single “Certain”, followed a year and a half later, in November 2020, when I reviewed their single “Bloom” (You can read those reviews by clicking on the links under “Related” at the end of this post.) This past November, the talented four-piece dropped their second album Conditions, and like The Code Duello, it’s an ambitious work, featuring 13 stellar tracks.
Consisting of brothers Jim and Jack Ivins (with Jim on guitars & vocals and Jack on drums), Hatton Taylor on lead guitar, and Regan Akers on bass & vocals, the engaging four-piece plays a hard-hitting, guitar-heavy style of melodic rock. Their intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics are delivered with Jim and Regan’s earnest and raw, yet pleasing, vocals, backed by intricate riffs, sturdy basslines and aggressive percussion (courtesy of Jack’s athletic agility on his drum kit). On Conditions, the guys really pushed themselves further than they ever had before, and the result is an exciting, melodically complex and beautiful rock album. They were assisted by Michael Zuehsow on engineering and production, Robert Venable and Zach Scott on mixing, and Duncan Ferguson on mastering. Additional last-minute mixing and mastering were done by Caleb Sherman and Andreas Magnusson.
Before I get to my review, I want to share some heartfelt words Jim wrote about the album on his Facebook page: “I have never tinkered, worked harder on or been more emotionally invested in a record than this one. And it certainly beat the hell out of me. From that first day, it’s been a slog full of intense writer’s block, songs changing in editing, songs changing in mixing, re-writing lyrics, re-playing guitar parts long after they were “finished”. I had to go to a damn one-room cabin in the middle of the Tennessee wilderness alone for several days just to get the lyrics out (and that would prove to be just the first draft). And all of this drama is only fitting given the content. Going back to the beginning, this record started with a panic attack. A truly frightening, paralyzing episode the likes of which I had never before experienced and where I legitimately thought I was going to die. The ensuing mania that defined the next several months had me convinced that my girlfriend was about to go running for the hills. Sooooo that’s kinda what this record is about…..OK, maybe not entirely. But it’s basically a snapshot of my life from when I was turning 30, and all of the anxiety and fear that I had never experienced is the nucleus of it all. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are legitimately HAPPY songs on here! A few! I wrote a true love song for the first time in a decade after I had literally forgotten how to do it (I thank Matt Nathanson for showing me the way, writing for his last album that his goal was to write something sincere about his wife without sounding like a Hallmark card).
This record is also significant because it may be the only real “band” album that I have ever made. While Jack and I made the last one, this one was made by the FOUR of us – Jim, Jack, Hatton & Regan. ‘Conditions’ shines because of that and I am so so proud of it. I’ve been making records since I was 15 and have made something like ten or so and this very well may be the best one I’ve ever made. I’m not sure yet. I’ve lived in it way too long to see the forest from the trees and objectively make that determination. But if you are looking for a really interesting 46 minutes that takes you on a journey, I implore you: give this album a listen. I really think it’s great and that you will enjoy it.“
Well, I gave it a listen all the way through from beginning to end, and let me say I was dutifully impressed, which doesn’t happen very often when I first listen to an album. All 13 tracks are strong, with no filler or toss-offs, and I’ll touch on most of them in my review. Things kick off with “Better Days“, a rousing rocker that serves not only as the opening track, but also as an introduction to the album’s overall theme. The lyrics speak to feelings of inadequacy and that your efforts don’t matter in the scheme of things, but hoping that will all change: “I long for better days. Days that haven’t happened yet. A future’s past worth remembering./ Because the only thing worse than worry is indifference.” The song features an abundance of time and melody changes that make for an arresting listen, and I love the shimmery guitars and atmospheric vibe in the bridge, during which Jim softly croons the line that makes me think the song is about him wanting to be valued as a musician – “Waiting for you to understand that rock’n’roll ain’t dead yet” – before everything erupts into a raging crescendo in the final chorus. It’s a great song.
On the hard-driving “All I Want“, Jim issues a plea for a return of the love he thought was his: “All I want is to feel the love you laid aground“, while the catchy ear worm “Begin Again” finds him ruminating about his feelings that his life is an endless cycle of disappointment: “Love only gives what you deal out, but you can’t leave out yourself. You can’t, you can’t begin again, when you find your middle never had an end.” The jangly guitars and and swirling synths gives the song an 80s feel.
One of my favorite tracks is “Love Tonight“, thanks to its infectious dance groove, Regan’s wonderfully sultry bassline, Jim and Hatton’s scorching riffs and Jack’s thumping drumbeats. Another standout is “Hide & Lie“, inspired by Jim’s difficulties with making small talk, and how he’s used alcohol to loosen up, as he elaborated to Gerard Longo for Nashville webzine Underground Music Collective: “When I was single, I was never the guy who could effectively do bar banter. Finding, talking and picking up girls from a large group of people? Not my thing, no matter how much I wanted it to be. Same goes for regular interpersonal relationships — never very good at networking, never very good at getting past that initial 30-60 second ‘how’ve you been?’ phase of conversations. So, simply put, alcohol was, is, my security blanket.”
The entertaining and humorous video for “Hide & Lie”, filmed at the Old Glory bar in Nashville, shows the band playing an audition performance at a bar where they’re having a hard time impressing the owner. To help them play better, they indulge in a bit of liquid courage served up by a sexy bartender played by Monique Staffile of Nashville rock band HER.
The great tunes keep coming. “Growing Pains” is a beautiful, melodically complex song highlighted by a flourish of wobbly distortion that would make Jimi Hendrix proud. The anthemic and pleasing “Patient” features some really pretty guitar work, nicely accompanied by Jack’s assertive drumbeats that give the song considerable heft. “Canyons” is a hauntingly beautiful rock song about missing a loved one who’s gone: “So what if I stayed in a dream? Would it make me closer to you, or would I just sleep. Because I know if I open my eyes, I’ll lose you again.” As always, the guitar work is fantastic, highlighted by gorgeous chiming notes. The grungy, anthemic “Scream” speaks to not allowing fear and complacency to rule your life: “It’s hard to let go, when comfort is controlled.”
The album closes on a powerful note with “Chameleon“, one of the darkest, most intense songs The Ivins have ever done, and I love it. The guys pull out all the stops on this song, unleashing a barrage of gritty, reverb-soaked riffs, pummeling rhythms and soaring choruses. The guys’ intricate, textured guitar work is really spectacular, and I love the spooky industrial synths throughout the track. My only criticism is that the instrumentals are so big and bombastic, they overpower the vocals, making them difficult to understand. But my guess is that they’re about politicians – or anyone without conviction really – who talk out of both sides of their mouths, trying to please everyone with their doublespeak, but pleasing no one in the end.
Conditions is an outstanding, beautifully-crafted album that nicely showcases The Ivins’ growth and maturity as both songwriters and musicians. They’re a talented, underrated band who deserve to be more popular and successful. Hopefully, this review will bring them at least a few more fans, which is what I aim for at the end of the day.
I just can’t get enough of those exuberant jangly guitars, driving beats and soaring vocals on the marvelous “Good Friend” by Canadian artist dwi, and it remains my favorite song for a second week. Closing in at #2 is “Crutch” by Band of Horses, and climbing four spots to #4 is the beautiful “Time in Disguise” by Kings of Leon. It’s not doing particularly well on the Alternative charts, which is perplexing to me, especially given that “Bandit” was the top song of 2021 on the Adult Alternative Airplay chart. The ebullient dance-pop tune “Starts With You” by L.A.-based singer-songwriter Shimmer Johnson climbs three spots to #6, and Tears for Fears’ “The Tipping Point” also climbs three spots to #7.
Three songs debut on this week’s chart: Though it’s been out for over three months, “INDUSTRY BABY” by Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow finally enters my chart at #28. Bringing up the rear are new songs by two of my favorite acts from London, England – “Just Like Always” by Oli Barton & the Movement and Maella, and “Redchurch Street Blues” by Philip Morgan Lewis, which enter at #29 & #30, respectively.
GOOD FRIEND – dwi (1)
CRUTCH – Band of Horses (3)
I DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE – The War on Drugs featuring Lucius (2)
TIME IN DISGUISE – Kings of Leon (8)
LOVE LOVE LOVE – My Morning Jacket (4)
STARTS WITH YOU – Shimmer Johnson (9)
THE TIPPING POINT – Tears for Fears (10)
BEGGIN’ – Måneskin (5)
I DON’T WANNA TALK (I JUST WANNA DANCE) – Glass Animals (6)
LOVE IN OCTOBER – Ships Have Sailed (7)
I SEE THE SUN – Solar Eyes (12)
TWO CAR FAMILY – Apollo Junction (13)
LEFT BEHIND – a million rich daughters (14)
SMILE – Wolf Alice (15)
JOURNEYMAN’S BALLET – Sam Rappaport (17)
U&ME – alt-J (18)
ONE AND THE SAME – Future Theory (19)
WAKE ME UP – Foals (20)
THE HARDEST CUT – Spoon (22)
UNTIL I COME HOME – Two Feet & grandson (23)
CHAPSTICK – COIN (24)
HEAD IN THE CLOUDS – Thunder Fox (25)
THE OUTSIDE – twenty øne piløts (26)
DON’T BRING ME DOWN – Two Feet (11)
THE ONLY HEARTBREAKER – Mitski (30)
JUSTIFIED – Kacey Musgraves (16)
KALEIDOSCOPE – Soda Cracker Jesus (21)
INDUSTRY BABY – Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow (N)
JUST LIKE ALWAYS – Oli Barton & the Movement & Maella (N)
Six months ago (in July 2021) I wrote a feature article about Secret Postal Society, the music project of Welsh singer-songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Craig Mapstone, in which I focused on his intent to write and record a new song every week throughout 2021 (read my article here). At the time, he had successfully reached the halfway point in his very ambitious goal, with 27 songs under his belt. Well, I’m happy to report that Craig fully achieved his objective of faithfully releasing a new song every week, and by year’s end, he’d put out a total of 53 songs, including two Christmas-related tracks. He’s now asked his followers to let him know what our five favorites of his many songs are, and I’ve decided to write this post to tell him!
Before I get to my picks, I want to say a few things: First off, Craig is one of the kindest, most gracious and humble musicians I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know as a music blogger, and I’ve become quite fond of him both professionally and personally. He’s also incredibly talented, creative, and hard-working, and his discipline and ability to remain laser-focused on his goal puts many others – including me – to shame. Which leads to my second point, that I’m absolutely dumbfounded by his impressive output. The ability to write, record and release a new song – along with an accompanying video – week in and week out for an entire year is amazing in itself, but to achieve such a high level of quality in nearly every track is nothing short of astonishing.
Though his sound can generally be described as singer/songwriter-oriented pop and soft-rock, infused with touches of indie folk, his music is actually fairly eclectic. Some of his songs feature elements of grunge, progressive, post-punk and alternative rock, so there’s something for just about everyone in his discography (other than for fans of R&B or hip hop). It was extremely difficult winnowing down my list of favorite Secret Postal Society songs to only five, but herewith are my top five picks, followed by six honorable mentions that could all have easily been among my top five. Worth noting is that most of my favorites were written and recorded in the latter half of the year, an indication that Craig’s songwriting and musicianship grew better and stronger the more songs he wrote.
Though Craig doesn’t have an especially powerful voice, its comforting warmth is well-suited to his generally laid-back musical style, and no more so than on “Fly“, my favorite of all his songs. His 21st song, released last May, it’s his longest track, running over six minutes, and also his most beautiful. Craig’s twangy strummed guitar notes, accompanied by lovely strings, xylophone, and what sounds like a mellotron, create a hauntingly beautiful soundscape. His gentle vocals exude a deeply heartfelt sense of sadness as he sings the bittersweet lyrics expressing pain and regret over a relationship that’s ended, but remembering glimmers of what brought you both together in the beginning: “The ones we love are the ones we hurt the most. We fly so close. We fly so close. I kissed you once, and it took my breath away.”
The accompanying video is courtesy of The Internet Archives, and features footage from the classic 1923 silent film SafetyLast!, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor and starring Harold Lloyd.
2. A Thousand Times
Released in July as his 31st song, “A Thousand Times” is a perfect pop tune, with a breezy vibe reminiscent of songs by such bands as Fleetwood Mac, The Outfield and the Gin Blossoms. Craig’s jangly guitars and sunny synths are delightful, and the song is just so catchy and feel-good that it makes me happy. The lyrics seem to speak of a budding romance between two people who’ve been playing emotional footsie with each other for a while: “We both have secret smiles and glances. We play games young lovers still play. I believe we deserve second chances. I’ll wait a thousand times for you love.“
While it might not be one of Secret Postal Society’s most interesting songs from a musical standpoint, “Alive” is nevertheless one of my favorites because of Craig’s thoughtful lyrics, not to mention that it was released on my birthday in August as his 35th song. Many of his songs speak not only of romantic love, but love for humankind and each other, and this one’s a fine example of that. He acknowledges that while he may not be all that important in the scheme of things, he’s glad to be alive, and urges us live our lives with love and understanding for one another: “So we fight to survive through the lows and the highs ’cause we’ve got to keep going. So I look in your eyes. You know it’s OK to cry. I’m just grateful that you are alive.” It’s a warm and pleasing track, and the guitars and keyboards in the bridge are really lovely.
4. I Will Follow You
Released in October as his 40th song, “I Will Follow You” has a strong R.E.M. feel, which is why it appeals to me so much. Craig’s a fine guitarist, and his work is especially good on this track. The lyrics are spoken to a loved one, assuring them that they’ll always have your love and support: “Time and again I was always with you as a friend. But I guess that I never told you. I know that life’s hard. No one said it was easy at all. But we’ll be fine, and I will follow you.” The beautiful video was produced by Yaroslav Shuraev (Pexels).
5. Something From Nothing/Points of Light
Released in November as song #47, “Something From Nothing/Points of Light” is sort of a couplet, like having two songs for the price of one. With its urgent, intricate riffs and driving melody, “Something From Nothing” has a Foo Fighters vibe, but unlike the Foos’ similarly-titled song that ends in an explosive crescendo, Secret Postal Society’s ends on a calm, lovely and contemplative note with “Points of Light”. I like that Craig’s young son Reuben sings these optimistic closing lyrics along with him: “Don’t you let your sun go out. And never let the others dim the shine of hope you have inside. I see in you the light eternal.”
Very Honorable Mention:
Numb – A terrific alt-rock song with swirling synths and a great guitar riff reminiscent of “Lazy Eye” by Silversun Pickups
Hurt – A darkly beautiful, grungy track with industrial-sounding synths and fantastic reverby guitars.
Halfway There – A lovely guitar-driven track featuring shimmery keyboards and Craig’s soothing vocals, with optimistic lyrics addressing both his half-year milestone, but also a struggling relationship halfway toward its fulfillment.
A Song For Leaving You – A great kiss-off song with a captivating hip-swaying beat, spacey synths and some really gorgeous guitar work.
What’s Up Dude? – A languid and cool alt-rock song co-written and sung by Craig and his young son Reuben, with lyrics directed at slackers, encouraging them to get busy: “This is not a game of chance, you have to do the work, SO DO IT!“
It’s Not a Christmas Song(Unless the Sleigh Bells Are Ringing) – A thoroughly delightful contemporary Christmas song that’s as good as many I’ve heard from major artists. And once again, we’re treated to Reuben’s sweet vocals.
Craig is now enjoying a well-deserved rest from his exhaustive songwriting and recording schedule, and isn’t quite sure where he’ll take Secret Postal Society going forward. But I for one hope he’ll continue putting out more great songs, albeit at a more reasonable pace.
Carbonstone is an industrial alternative metal band from Baltimore, Maryland that I learned about a few weeks ago when their front man, songwriter and vocalist Corey James reached out to me about their latest album DarkMatter. Influenced by such acts as the Rolling Stones, Korn, Nine Inch Nails, Static-X, Linkin Park and Starset, among others, Carbonstone creates hard-hitting, yet incredibly melodic music fueled by powerful driving rhythms, explosive riffs and lush industrial soundscapes, and fortified by James’ exceptional vocals.
James originally formed the band in 2005 under the name ‘Unspoken’, but later briefly changed their name to ‘Carved in Stone’, until someone misheard him, thinking he said ‘Carbonstone’. In a conversation with bandmate Neely Johns I watched on YouTube, James humorously recalled the exchange he had with someone at a party: “Somebody asked me ‘So what’s the new band name?’, and I said ‘It’s Carved in Stone’. When you have about 15 beers in your system and try to say Carved in Stone, it slurs out a little bit. He repeated Carbonstone back to me, and I said ‘Holy shit, that’s now the band name!’“
Carbonstone released three albums, Behind Closed Doors, Process of Elimination and What You’veBecome, as well as two EPs Unspoken and Strength in Silence, before life demands, the pressures of touring and burnout ultimately led the band to call it quits in 2014. Everyone went their separate ways, and James came very close to giving up on music altogether. But he could never fully let it go, and after a hiatus lasting more than five years, James once again felt the pull of music. In 2019, he decided to resurrect Carbonstone with former bandmate Neely Johns on guitar, along with new members Daniel Ryan on bass, Tony Correlli on synths and production, and TJ Darpino, who handles the extra live guitars and produces the band’s videos. Armed with three previously-written songs and several new ones he wrote during the first three months of 2021, James got together with his bandmates in April, and spent the next six months recording Dark Matter.
Released in late October 2021, Dark Matter is a gorgeous work, featuring 11 outstanding tracks plus a brief instrumental intro. The album was masterfully arranged and produced by band member and engineer Tony Correlli. As implied by its title, it’s a dark concept album inspired by some of the personal traumas James experienced in the years after Carbonstone’s breakup in 2014. He says the album contains some of the most personal songs he’s ever written, which take us on a journey from initial injury, as depicted on the opening instrumental track “Laceration” and following track “AM Trauma”, through the process of addressing personal demons and beginning the recovery from emotional trauma, as described by “Mend” midway through the album, to a state of well-being on the closing track, “Heal”.
The opening instrumental track “Laceration” establishes a moody tone with ominous atmospheric industrial synths, highlighted by darkly beautiful piano keys, before launching into the full-frontal assault that is “AMTrauma“. The guys layer an intense barrage of gnarly riffs over a chugging bassline and pounding drums, all of which explode into a raging torrent in the choruses. James has a beautiful, arresting vocal style that’s perfect for hard rock. His voice reminds me at times of Trent Reznor or Adam Gontier, effortlessly transitioning from seductive breathy croons to bone-chilling impassioned wails as he sings “Have you recovered. You won’t admit you never knew me, and you’ll pay for the way you deceived me. AM trauma, look at what you’ve done!/What have I become? All eyes on me, I am a catastrophe!”
“Hush” is a dramatic and melodically beautiful rock song with intricate guitars that run the gamut from shimmery to shredded, accompanied by swirling industrial synths and galloping percussion. The lyrics speak of being unable or unwilling to face one’s demons, choosing instead to suppress them in the mistaken belief they’ll just go away: “Ever feel like you’re always faking. It’s all in how you hold secrets left untold. You’d never know I’m suffocating.”
Bookended by rather spooky dulcet tones one would hear on a music box, “Phantoms” is a melodically complex tug of war between the calm of a lovely rock ballad and the explosive aggression of industrial metal. James plaintively laments of the demons – i.e. phantoms – that torment him: “I am forever haunted. These phantoms live beneath my skin. If I descend to madness, just look away and pray for me.” And on the heavy and dark “Mend“, he fears he’ll never experience happiness again: “I can never feel that way again. It’s so unreal the way I bend. Push and pull me closer to the edge. These open wounds will never mend.”
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “My Own Summer (Shove It)“, an excellent cover of the Deftones classic. Carbonstone does the song great justice, capturing the intense, eerie vibe of the original while making it their own, and James’ jaw-dropping vocal gymnastics are every bit as good as Deftones lead singer Chino Moreno’s. The title track “Dark Matter” is a powerful and stunning song with elements of Depeche Mode and Muse, only much more intense. James rails about the burdens he’s carried his entire life: “Cause I’ve carried the weight of the world, from the very day that I was born. Been buried underneath again, forever walking with the dead.”
The parade of excellent songs continues with “Pins & Needles“, featuring the dual vocal harmonies of James and his wife Chrystal, who’s the lead singer of metal rock band ANOXIA (of which James is also a member). Her beautiful vocals remind me a bit of Evanescence lead singer Amy Lee. The lyrics are a plea for help to escape from emotional torment: “I’m locked alone inside my head, it’s like a carnival. Somewhere between alive and dead, I’m just a tragedy. Rescue me from myself, the enemy.” “Vertigo” is a hard-driving banger addressing the negative impacts the cruel, hard ways of the world have on our souls: “It’s not your fault, the way you are. Thisfucked up world will leave you scarred. It tears you up and lets you down. This vertigo drives us underground.”
Another favorite of mine is “Kill the Dark (Astray)“, a stunning piano-driven ballad that’s the most melodic and beautiful song on the album. James’ breathy vocals are captivating as he sings of coming out of the dark and moving toward recovery: “Inside you scream, until it bleeds. Let’s kill the dark in you and me. Feel it all break, shattering away. Every move we make leads us more astray.” “Heal” closes the album on a high, albeit intense note, with a strong Nine Inch Nails vibe. James’ menacing vocals even sound like Trent Reznor’s as he passionately sings “The hardest part is letting go. It’s diving into the unknown. An empty space that you can feel. Sometimes the fall is how we heal. Do you feel better now?”
Dark Matter is a phenomenal, beautifully-crafted album brimming with impactful songs dealing with emotional trauma and the self-realization required for eventual healing. Carbonstone should be very proud of what they’ve created here, and this album needs to be heard by as many ears as possible. They’ve got a fan in me, and I hope my readers will love this album as much as I do.
I’m thrilled to place the lively but poignant song “Good Friend” by Canadian artist dwi at #1 on this week’s Top 30. The music project of insanely creative and talented Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Dwight Abell, dwi was one of my favorite new music discoveries of 2021, and his brilliant debut album Mild Fantasy Violence is among my favorite releases of the year (read my review here). “Good Friend” is about discovering after the fact that a friend had been going through some hard times, and wishing you’d known more at the time so you could have helped them through it. I love the song’s infectious hard-driving melody, colorful guitar work and dwi’s expressive vocals lamenting about his shortcomings as a friend: “Had I known you were broken inside. Had I known you were empty inside. If I was a good friend, I’d a known better. If I was a goodfriend, I’d have done better./ I’m done with the drugs, but there’s still some left inside.”
In other chart developments, “Crutch” by Band of Horses jumps four spots to #3, Tears for Fears’ “The Tipping Point” enters the top 10, and Mitski debuts with “The Only Heartbreaker”, her first-ever appearance on my Weekly Top 30 chart.
GOOD FRIEND – dwi (2)
I DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE – The War on Drugs featuring Lucius (1)
CRUTCH – Band of Horses (7)
LOVE LOVE LOVE – My Morning Jacket (4)
BEGGIN’ – Måneskin (3)
I DON’T WANNA TALK (I JUST WANNA DANCE) – Glass Animals (6)
LOVE IN OCTOBER – Ships Have Sailed (8)
TIME IN DISGUISE – Kings of Leon (9)
STARTS WITH YOU – Shimmer Johnson (10)
THE TIPPING POINT – Tears for Fears (12)
DON’T BRING ME DOWN – Two Feet (5)
I SEE THE SUN – Solar Eyes (13)
TWO CAR FAMILY – Apollo Junction (14)
LEFT BEHIND – a million rich daughters (15)
SMILE – Wolf Alice (16)
JUSTIFIED – Kacey Musgraves (11)
JOURNEYMAN’S BALLET – Sam Rappaport (19)
U&ME – alt-J (20)
ONE AND THE SAME – Future Theory (21)
WAKE ME UP – Foals (22)
KALEIDOSCOPE – Soda Cracker Jesus (18)
THE HARDEST CUT – Spoon (25)
UNTIL I COME HOME – Two Feet & grandson (27)
CHAPSTICK – COIN (28)
HEAD IN THE CLOUDS – Thunder Fox (29)
THE OUTSIDE – twenty øne piløts (30)
ALL TOO WELL (10 Minute Version) – Taylor Swift (17)
SURVIVOR – Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats (23)