“SIMMONS and SCHUSTER” – Album Review

I follow more blogs than a reasonable person should, and spend far too much time struggling to keep up with all their posts, often to the detriment of writing for my own blog. And like mine, a good many of them are about or related to music, which then entails devoting even more time listening to one or more songs those bloggers have shared, sometimes an entire album! So it’s nice when that time I’ve invested pays dividends in the form of great music discoveries. Such was the case when I heard the new album Simmons and Schuster on Abominations, a blog I follow that’s written by the hyper-talented and creative Marc Schuster. A collaboration between Schuster and fellow teacher/musician Timothy Simmons, the album is an unusual, fascinating and thoroughly unique work that I like so much, I have to share it with my readers.

A true renaissance man, Marc Schuster not only teaches English at Montgomery County Community College in southeastern Pennsylvania, he’s also written several books, scripts for two short films, and numerous book reviews, as well as writes songs and records music both as a solo artist and with music projects Plush Gordon, The Ministry of Plausible Rumours and experimental electronic music project Android Invasion. Last April, I featured his single “Before the Boys” on one of my Fresh New Tracks posts. I don’t know very much about Timothy Simmons, other than that he teaches music at Delaware Valley Friends School in Paoli, Pennsylvania, and is a terrific and imaginative musician as well.  

The album features seven wonderfully-titled instrumental moodscapes that run the gamut from dark and menacing to light and soothing, with a cinematic quality that makes it feel, in their words, “like the soundtrack to a film that has yet to be made.” Los Angeles-based noir rock band Edgar Allen Poets compared it to Dante’s Divine Comedy, calling it “A journey between hell, purgatory, and then heaven”, a description I cannot argue with. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect about the album is that it was almost entirely improvisational, in that none of the seven tracks were composed, written or planned out in advance. Schuster explained “Usually, Tim would just start playing, and then I’d either play along or overdub my parts. ‘Start With Drums’, for example, literally started with Tim playing drums, and then I added some guitar and bass parts.”

Each of them played various instruments, with Simmons mainly playing drums, upright electric bass and piano, whereas Schuster played mostly electric guitar and bass, as well as snare drum on “Infernal Combustion Engine” and cymbals on “Murky Depths”. Most of the instruments are analog, and the drums were all recorded live and, in some cases, looped or rearranged in the editing process. They recorded the majority of the album in Schuster’s basement studio on August 18 and 28, 2021, though they did a fair amount of editing and overdubbing afterward. The exception is the album’s closing track, “Ralph Waldo Steps In,” which Simmons recorded in his living room earlier in the year, and Schuster later adding a string arrangement. 

With Simmons and Schuster, the guys attempt to “depict the history of creation in the space of about forty-five minutes“. The darkly beautiful opening track “Start with Drums” represents the big bang, “flinging bits and pieces of music everywhere“. Actually, the track sounds somewhat more orderly than that to my ears, with Simmons’ repetitive drumbeats providing a kind of forward momentum in the creation of the universe, though Schuster’s throbbing bass and otherworldly blend of chiming and jangly guitars suggest the more random elements.

Next up is “Infernal Combustion Engine”, an eerie, almost dystopian sounding track intended to depict “a hot mess of a planet gradually taking shape“. The spooky music and sounds are created from mostly harsh industrial synths and sharp percussion, giving the track a strong sci-fi vibe. The first time I heard it, I immediately thought it would perfect as the basis for the soundtrack of the next installment of the Alien franchise, should there ever be one. Moving right along, “Murky Depths” “imagines the first signs of life appearing deep beneath the primordial sea“. It’s the longest track on the album, and has a cinematic, almost contemporary classical feel, with dramatic sweeping string synths, accompanied by subtle bass, strongly resonant chiming guitar notes and delicate cymbals.

Tadpoles,” so named when Schuster noticed that the graphic representation of the sounds Simmons was making on his bass looked like tadpoles in the recording software they were using, is a languid track musically describing the continuing evolution of life. The music consists primarily of Simmons’ gentle bassline, overlain by Schuster’s twangy guitar notes that give the track a laid-back feel. For this track, Schuster played a Squier VI, which has six strings and is kind of a hybrid between a bass and a guitar. There are also rather strange shrill sounds that to my ears sound like screeching tires or brakes off in the distance. I have no idea of their significance, other than to perhaps add a bit of edginess and texture to the track.

One of the more unusual tracks on the album is “Mucking It Up”, meant to represent “the first land animals crawling onto muddy shores.” There’s a gnarly glop-like sound throughout the track that I thought sounded like it might be from a didgeridoo (an Australian aboriginal wind instrument). When I asked Schuster about it, he said “That didgeridoo sound is actually Tim’s upright electric bass. I ran it through a series of effects in Reason, the program I use to record music. The main effect is called the Synchronus Timed Effect Modulator. That’s what gives it what I think of as the “mucky” sound, hence the song’s title. I thought it sounded like stepping in mud.”

The futuristic “The End Was a Mess (So We Cut It)” sonically represents humankind’s industrialization of the world, millions of years after its creation. Appropriately, the guys use a mix of spacy and ominous industrial synths, wobbly guitar notes and quirky sound effects to create a somewhat unsettling soundscape that very effectively conveys – to my ears at least – the negative aspects of industrialization on both the planet and it’s inhabitants. Thankfully, things close on a tranquil note with “Ralph Waldo Steps In”, an enchanting piano piece with beautiful strings. It’s a fitting and optimistic end to a marvelous work by these two imaginative and creative guys. I hope at least some of my readers will enjoy it as much as I do.

Stream the album on  SpotifyApple Musicdeezer

Purchase on  BandcampAmazon

BUEL – Single Review: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”


BUEL is a bewitching, smoky-voiced singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles, who’s released a number of marvelous singles over the past four years or so. Her recent single “Lemon Smile”, released last October, is a gentle but powerful take-down of phony, duplicitous people, with a mesmerizing, sophisticated synth-pop melody that, to my ears at least, calls to mind some of Madonna’s early songs (not in terms of vocals, but rather in their style and feel). The YouTube video for the song has been streamed over half a million times. Now BUEL returns with a surprising new single – a thoroughly captivating reimagining of the Nirvana classic “Smells Like Teen Spirit“. The song was recorded at Wakeful Studios in Los Angeles, and produced by Burak Yerebakan (who plays guitar for L.A. band Yard of Blondes), who also played the theremin, an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact.

It’s an audacious undertaking to try and cover such an iconic and beloved classic, but she and Yerebakan pull it off with finesse. The song opens with otherworldly, siren-like sounds produced by the theremin, creating a decidedly portentous vibe. Then BUEL’S languid vocals enter along with a deep synth bass-driven trip hop beat, followed by delicate fluttering keyboards and accompanied by an enchanting mix of glittery synths, chiming guitar notes and the spacey warbling of the theremin. Her sultry vocals are gorgeous, with a haunting vulnerability that results in a completely different, but equally compelling, interpretation of Cobain’s provocative and sometimes impenetrable lyrics. Their treatment of the song is more melodic and dreamy, yet still manages to capture the dark rebelliousness of the Nirvana original.

The fascinating video was conceived and directed by BUEL, and shows her and Yerebakan performing the song in what appears to be a vacant derelict meeting hall of some kind, interspersed with scenes of an alien (also played by BUEL) and another shadowy man trying to solve a Rubik’s cube type of puzzle, but ultimately giving up. Watch and listen:

Here’s the original 4:18-minute long version of the song:

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New Song of the Week – “More Than” by Brí

Brí is a lovely and talented singer-songwriter from Offaly County, Ireland, who creates hauntingly beautiful and emotionally compelling indie pop with folk and electronic overtones. She released her debut single “Low Supply” in June 2019, then followed in 2020 with “Polite” and “Burying’. On the strength of those singles, Brí sold-out her Whelan’s headline show, received high praise from numerous blogs, gained radio airplay, and was selected to perform at Beatvyne’s Music X Tech Experience. Now she returns with her fourth single “More Than“, which drops today, March 19th. It’s an enchanting slice of atmospheric electro-folk, and I’m happy to make it my New Song of the Week. The song will be included on her forthcoming debut album Hide, due for release in October.

With assistance by her friend Aidan Mulloy on electric guitar and bass, and the production wizardry of Darragh Nolan of Asta Kalapa studios in Wexford, Brí has created a brooding yet soul-stirring soundscape. Floating over an eerily-beautiful, pervasive drone, they’ve layered sparkling keyboards, gentle percussion and Aiden’s gorgeous shimmery guitar notes, all of which create a dreamy atmospheric backdrop for Brí’s soft, ethereal vocals, which she recorded in her bedroom due to Covid restrictions. The captivating music and vocals slowly build into a climactic goosebump-raising cresendo at the end.

As to the song’s meaning, Brí explains: ”‘More Than’ is about craving more than the situation you currently find yourself in. It’s a place where passion and emptiness meet, the point where two conflicting paths overlap and where all that is cloudy becomes clear.” This is beautifully expressed in her thoughtful and honest lyrics: “I can’t be me anywhere there’s not music in the air, I can’t pretend to care about these things that make no difference to me. What about originality? Can I be me? My soul is longing for something more than, more than, more than this.”

The beautiful and haunting video was created after Brí’s initial plans for a big production video fell through. She elaborates: “My original plans for the visuals fell through due to travel restrictions. After a lot of waiting for restrictions to lift, I decided to direct my own music video and my local friend Constance Vance stepped in as my photographer, videographer and stylist. We discovered that she had talent to burn. The photos and video were shot at Charleville Castle, Tullamore. In this video, I long for more than my current situation as I struggle to sit with the spinning wheel which, for me, symbolises that ‘groundhog day’ feeling. Watching this video back reminded me that my passion for songwriting could never have been discovered if there wasn’t firstly a struggle. The very action of writing a song to express this was my answer to feeling the passion and excitement in my life that I was craving. I love the simplicity of that.

Well, we love your song and video Brí, so please keep making more great music for us to enjoy!

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Stream/purchase her music: SpotifySoundcloudApple MusicBandcamp

STRANGE SOUVENIRS – Single Review: “Pixels”

I love many of the names musicians choose for their artistic projects, and a particularly good one is Strange Souvenirs, the Berlin, Germany-based electronic/alt-pop duo comprised of brothers Thomas and Matthias Juhnke. In their own colorful words, they “blend influences from 80s new wave, 90s trip hop, post-millennial electronica & indie with science fiction soundtracks, video games and nuggets of nerd culture into a schizoid selection of danceable, delicate and disorienting songs.” Like some other artists I’ve written about, the two seem to prefer to remain anonymous, as I cannot find any photos of them anywhere. I’m guessing they want their great music to speak for itself, which it certainly does!

Strange Souvenirs released their debut single “Scrape” in December 2019, a fantastic otherworldly EDM track they call “a pummeling techno-infused micro-symphony of self-loathing.” They followed up with three more excellent singles in 2020, and are now back with their fifth offering “Pixels”, a captivating song that conveys a similar haunting moodiness of their previous single “The Way I Fell In”. All five singles will be included on their forthcoming album Spontaneous Mutation, due for release in July.

Like many of their songs, “Pixels” was co-written by Strange Souvenirs along with the help of their frequent collaborator Cameron James Laing, a talented producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist who also recorded, produced and mixed the track at The Famous Gold Watch Studios in Berlin. Thomas and Matthias played guitars, bass and sang lead vocals, Cameron played piano, mellotron and did the exquisite orchestral arrangement, as well as sang backing vocals, and Gidon Carmel played drums. The track was mastered by Davide Ruffini.

About the song’s meaning, they explain that “Pixels” “builds around the idea that we’re all pixels in an ever-changing cosmic mosaic, waiting to randomly attract or repel the other particles on our path as we spiral and drift through an equally beautiful and brutal universe. It’s about the shadows of regret lurking in the corners of our lives, inching forward, drifting back, inching forward, drifting back. On endless repeat.”

The song starts off slowly with a gentle drum beat and haunting piano riff, accompanied by airy synths and acoustic guitar notes, all of which set a rather somber tone. The guys’ vocals are equally gentle and understated, at first coming off as melancholy, but with glimmers of optimism that make them quite pleasing as they softly croon “Ghost in the room reaching out for you / A voice from the past you listen to / A shadow in the corner that knows / There’s a shadow in the corner that grows / Times stretches and slows / Doors open and close / Drifting alone…” The music gradually expands into a stirring atmospheric soundscape, highlighted by beautiful mellotron, lush orchestral strings and a fluttering trumpet that gives the song a wonderful jazzy feel at the end.

“Pixels” is a gorgeous, contemplative feast for the ears that transports us to a dreamy, faraway place. I’ve had it on repeat, and find myself enthralled with every listen.

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leaving richmond – Album Review: “Visions”

leaving richmond is the instrumental electronic music project of Los Angeles-based composer and producer Jordan Pier. He recently reached out to me about his latest album Visions, which dropped November 13th. As I always do when preparing to review an artist or band’s music for the first time, I checked out his back catalog to better acquaint myself with his style and sound, and was surprised at his considerable music output over the past 10 years. From what I can tell, his first release, in 2010, was the EP The Secret Traditions of Washington Ave., a very respectable work featuring five tracks. Since then, he’s released another two EPs, several singles and five albums, the latest of which is Visions.

His works have received widespread acclaim from both music critics and fans alike, with several of his songs garnering airplay on NPR and other radio stations around the world. Despite the pandemic, he says 2020 has been an amazing year for him from a musical standpoint. In addition to composing and producing a new album, he also saw a number of his tracks land placements on popular TV shows as well as advertisements.

About his new album, Pier explains: “Following the release of [his previous album] ‘Great Distances’, I took a deep dive which bore fruit in multiple ways, particularly in honing my composition, production and engineering capabilities in aspects that were exciting and inspiring. I strove to take all the new skills I had learned and combined it with the organic songwriting I so loved. The melodic, layered guitar as the main and guiding instrument represents a return to roots as I simultaneously embraced new electronic techniques. As a result of this new outlook on songwriting and experience in the studio, the ‘Visions’ LP was born. Every track on this album is tied to and inspired by a visualization of some sort. What this album has allowed me to do is combine my love for music and imagery into one offering. It is my hope to provide a soundtrack for the thoughts of the listener and offer some respite.”

All tracks were composed, arranged, produced and engineered by leaving richmond, and mastered by Brian Hazard. The album kicks off with “You Must Break Yourself“, an enchanting track featuring a kaleidoscope of shimmery and spacey synths punctuated by dubstep-like percussive beats. The result is a dreamy and optimistic soundscape that, to my ears, evokes a sense of breaking free from whatever it was holding you back and entering an aura of enlightenment.

Memories of Another You” is a stunning feast for the ears that really showcases leaving richmond’s impressive compositional and production talents. He intertwines layers of gorgeous chiming guitar notes with glittery string synths and delicate skittering piano keys to create a scintillating soundscape that’s truly magical. It’s an instant favorite of mine. The lovely “There Is So Much to See” has a somewhat more subdued and introspective vibe, with warm, sumptuous synths.

Inspired by the 1879 painting Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Adherence” is a rather dark and somber track, with a deep bass synth-driven melody overlain with swirling synths and reserved jangly guitars that nicely convey Joan of Arc’s sense of purpose and valor. “Daydreams at the Cannery” was inspired by a character in the 2017 video game What Remains of Edith Finch?, developed by video game company Giant Sparrow. The shimmery guitars and glistening synths are intended to honor the beautiful storytelling and cinematic art of the game.

On a more spiritual level, “Washing Over Us” attempts to convey through music the concept that, in his words, “pure emotion can surround, envelop and cleanse us like the beautiful waters in the oceans and lakes around the world.” He skillfully employs watery synths, chiming guitar notes and ethereal choir-like vocals to create images of water nymphs singing in a crystalline lake. “The Frequency of You” is a beguiling guitar-driven track with wonderful spacey synths and a hypnotic toe-tapping beat. Once again, his guitar work is quite marvelous.

leaving richmond’s love of neon light signs was the inspiration behind the sublime “Red Orange Light“. The track opens with muffled sounds of neon gas pulsating through glass tubes, followed by a building cinematic soundscape of spacy synths and delicately-strummed jangly guitars, accompanied by a gentle dubstep beat. It’s an enchanting and beautiful song. Keeping with the more techno-oriented sound, the enchanting “The Soul is Greater” serves up more of those spacey, otherworldly vibes, highlighted by leaving richmond’s signature gorgeous shimmery guitars.

I’ve run out of descriptors and superlatives by now, so let me just say that closing track “And Then We Begin Again” is yet another exquisite song, and a fine finish to a stunning album. I’ve listened to a lot of electronic instrumental albums over the years, and Visions stands among the very best. leaving richmond’s skill for writing beautiful and compelling melodies is impressive, and his guitar work and keyboards are truly breathtaking.

Follow Leaving Richmond:  FacebookTwitterInstagram

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HAN BLOOM – Album Review: “Higher State of Mind”

Han Bloom Higher State of Mind

Han Bloom is a classically trained pianist, composer and singer-songwriter based in London, England. Strongly influenced by modern jazz, progressive rock and experimental music, she uses her classical training to musically explore themes of interest to her such as society, politics, culture, ideology, conformism and big brother, among others. In her bio, she states that she “always strives to be as original and free thinking as possible. Creativity is the answer.” Sounds like a winning combination to me.

With that in mind, Han recently released her ambitious debut album Higher State of Mind, which dropped on May 1st. She wrote all music and lyrics, played piano and all other keyboards, programmed all instruments (other than the drums that were played on some tracks by Eddie Van Dorgen), sang all vocals, and produced, mixed and mastered the entire album herself (with the exception of one track “Free Me Now”, which was produced by Harry Powell). With 13 tracks and running an hour in length, there’s a lot to listen to, but I’ll touch on the songs that really clicked with me.

The album opens with “Bach Got Funked Up“, a fascinating instrumental track that fuses contemporary classical, modern jazz and experimental elements. Employing an array of ominous wobbly and spacey synths and jazzy piano chords, Han creates a trippy and mysterious soundscape that whets our appetite for what’s to come. Next up is “Burn“, a bewitching track that starts off quietly, with distant sounds of storms accompanied by the most delicate of keyboard synths. As her low-key, quirky vocals enter, the tempo changes to a toe-tapping beat, with jazzy piano, organ, cool synths and gentle percussion. I like the whispy little ‘whoosh’ snare sounds she uses to convey a feeling of water being softly poured onto a smouldering fire.

Blasphemy” resonates strongly with me, as I like Han’s biting lyrics touching on the hypocrisy that so often exists in religion and democracy: “Don’t tell me with your shit decree, excuse my Christianity. Don’t tell me about blasphemy, when you don’t know how to live in peace. Don’t tell me with your shit decree, about democracy, cause you don’t know nothing about me. But it don’t matter, so I won’t shatter, But they don’t listen, so I keep on living in sin, gladly.” I really like the song’s cool, jazzy grooves, and the deep synth bass,  moody piano keys and tapping percussive beats that make it a great listen.

One of my favorite tracks is “Finer Things“, both for it’s great tongue-in-cheek lyrics and mellow, jazzy vibe. Han’s conversational-style vocals and nimble piano work give the song a fun, casual quality that makes it sound like a live recording of a performance you’d hear in an intimate little nightclub. In fact, I think her music style is well-suited for that format, and it would be fun to see her perform live. About the song, she says “‘The Finer Things’ is a disposable comedic tribute to Frank Zappa that utilises the ridiculousness and profound impact of ‘influencers’ and ‘influence culture’, and the subsequent snowflake generation that it resonates with.”

I love the lines decrying influence culture and the fact she’s doesn’t quite measure up to their shallow definition of success: “Hello, my name is Hannah Bloom, and this song is about the death of influence culture…hopefully. I wanna shop at Liberty, but they welcome me bitterly, ’cause I ain’t got no money. I’m sorry, ’cause in my disposable song, don’t get me wrong. I like the finer things and I sure do love the joy that it brings. I love Pucci, Emilio Pucci…so much better than Gucci. So tutti frutti, but instead I’m wearing Tom Sweeney, which is for men.” Exasperated, she later asks “Can somebody please explain to me what an influencer is? “Cause in my mind it just makes sense that they’re professional beggars. And a lot of people would say the same thing about musicians. And they do say the same things. But we actually do stuff, and we’re just undervalued, whereas influencers are like super valued in society. And it’s like please stop making our generation stupid and meaningless.” I couldn’t agree more!

On “Free Me Now“, Han uses a greater electronic approach and somewhat darker tone to address the subject of addiction. In her notes about the track, she states that she developed the song’s framework off a Korg Tribe drum pattern machine she’d been experimenting with. She then layered delicate piano and organ keyboards to create an enchanting soundscape for her airy vocals. About the song’s meaning, she explains: “Lyrically it depicts a prior relationship with addiction that I needed to express in a raw and free form; hence the experimental instrumentation found in this track.” Her blunt lyrics get straight to the point: “I have an obsession. Addiction, yeah. My mind is imprisoned. Loneliness is not your friend. Free me now. You gotta let me out. Free me now. I don’t wanna be a burnout.

On the moody “These Games” – which Han says was inspired by the George Orwell classic 1984 – she rejects the expectations and ethical wrongs of social conditioning practiced by Western societies, pressuring us to conform to a specific set of social norms, and leaving us often feeling like our lives are unfulfilled. Han croons “So she goes to work for the man. Hiding his sweet lies, pulling the wool over their eyes. She says ‘I don’t know why I do it. And I don’t know how I do it. But I need to survive’. / So he says he stayed at work late today. Hiding his bitter lies. Wasting his own time, and he knows he’s not right to do it. But he just can’t say no ’cause money’s his goal. / And I see it happening every single day. And I don’t know why they play these games with themselves.” The song has a languid, piano-driven melody, with delicate synths, subtle organ notes, and Eddie Van Dongen’s gentle percussion.

My absolute favorite track is album closer “Light and Love (Coda)“, a stunning eight-minute-long instrumental that really showcases Han’s impressive compositional and piano-paying talents. She weaves a rich tapestry of ambient and glittery atmospheric synths, then adds vibrant piano keys to create a breathtaking contemporary classical piece that can easily hold its own among the works by many of today’s classical composers. I would love to see her put out an entire album of this kind of instrumental music.

I’ll be honest that it took a couple of plays for this album to grow on me, as the melodies are more experimental and free-form than typical pop, folk or rock music, requiring a more careful listen to fully appreciate its many nuances. I love when artists fuse multiple elements and genres into their music, and I applaud her courage to experiment with her sound and create a style uniquely her own. If you like music that strays from the conventional, with more contemporary, experimental and progressive jazz, pop and rock vibes, delivered by some really superb piano work, then you will enjoy Higher State of Mind.

Follow Han:  FacebookTwitterInstagram
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JADED JANE – Single & Video Review: “Heaven is Heart”

Jaded Jane Heaven is Heart

Almost exactly one year ago, I did an artist spotlight and interview with the hard-working and talented Olsson brothers Axel and Adam, who call themselves Jaded Jane. They’re both gracious and kind, and I’ve grown quite fond of them. Originally from Gothenburg, Sweden, and now split between Gothenburg and Glasgow, Scotland, the duo celebrate humanity and diversity through their music, writing compelling songs with positive, life-affirming lyrics and delivered with gorgeous piano-driven melodies and lush soundscapes. The brothers are prolific and busy artists, and have produced five outstanding albums since 2015, most recently 117 this past October. I reviewed “Trapped”, one of the stunning songs from 117, and you can read that review and my spotlight & interview by clicking on the “Related” links at the end of this post.

Jaded Jane is now back with another wonderful song “Heaven is Heart“, along with a powerful and deeply personal video. The song was written by Axel, and mixed and produced by their long-time collaborator and sound engineer Åke Linton. Axel was inspired to write the song from his experiences busking on the streets of Glasgow. He’s written on his social media of the challenges he’s faced trying to get their music heard, especially the struggles of being a street musician. He’s stated that he has met some of the nicest people and also some of the worst. But every once in a while, something really good can come from out of the blue:

Being an artist is a challenging calling for anyone living in 2020. Playing the streets to let out my notes inside, led me to meet the person who played this song on BBC Radio Scotland for the first time in February on The Roddy Hart Show. What are the odds? From the streets to the BBC Radio. When you follow your passion you’ll find your true self. Big thanks to Paul English who discovered our music on the streets & premiered this song on BBC Sounds.”

Accordingly, the song’s lyrics speak to not allowing yourself to become totally beaten down and defeated by what can sometimes feel like an endless stream of adversities, but instead choosing to brush them off, forgive others as well as ourselves, and keep moving forward. Not always an easy thing to do, but it’s what we must do in order to survive in this often difficult world.

I’m beaten up inside
You’ll see it in my eyes
I’ve swallowed my pride
You won’t see it outside
Burned my candle down
They’re using me
We’re burning up inside
They’re using us

How long? How long will this go on?

Taking responsibility
For the choices I made
Forgive myself
I forgive everyone else
Letting go of the past
To live in the here & now
I’ll build myself up
My Heaven is Heart

So long, So long it’s been so long
How long. How long will this go on?

Musically, the song features Axel’s lovely piano, accompanied by delicate atmospheric synths and gently throbbing bass notes from what sounds like a moog synthesizer. His beautiful vocals have a haunting, vulnerable quality that’s quite touching. The artistic and imaginative video was directed and produced by Rachel Koumparou, and shows Axel naked in front of a blank background, exposing himself not only physically but also emotionally. His brother Adam paints the words ‘How Long’ on Axel’s shoulder and arm, then ‘Heaven Is Heart’ on his chest as he gracefully moves to the music, smearing paint on his face and torso as if beating himself up but also reveling in the joy of being alive.

“Heaven Is Heart” will be officially released for streaming and purchase on most music sites on May 16.

Connect with Jaded Jane:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud / YouTubeTidal
Purchase on iTunes / Google Play

Erki Pärnoja – Album Review:”Leva”

Erki Parnoja LEVA album art

Though the vast majority of artists and bands I’ve featured on this blog have been from the US, UK, or Canada, I always enjoy writing about ones from other nations. In the past week or so, I’ve featured a band from Malta and a music producer from Luxembourg, and am now thrilled to introduce my very first artist from the Baltic nation of Estonia: the astonishingly talented songwriter, composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Erki Pärnoja. Based in the capital of Tallinn, Pärnoja plays guitar, bass, keyboards and synthesizers, and creates some of the most exquisite instrumental music I’ve heard in a very long while. Using an impressive array of instruments and textures, he weaves lush, dreamy soundscapes that envelop us in layers of shimmery atmospheric gossamer. Seriously, his music is fucking gorgeous!

He’s been recording and releasing music for the past five years, beginning with his late 2015 debut EP Himmelbjerget. He followed that EP with two stunning albums, the guitar-dominant Efterglow in 2017 and more synth-oriented Saja Lugu in 2018, both of which I’ve immersed myself with over the past several days. The track “Ranna I” from Saja Lugu has been streamed more than 2.3 million times on Spotify. All three works are exceptional, and I highly recommend that my readers check them out on one of the music streaming platforms listed at the end of this review.

Now Pärnoja is back with a glorious new album Leva, which dropped on February 12. His previous works have all been instrumental-only, however with Leva, Pärnoja for the first time introduces lyrics and vocals on some of the tracks. Also, while still delivering his signature enchanting melodies and dreamy soundscapes, he now injects a more orchestral perspective, along with more exotic elements that give the album a fresher, more eclectic feel.

The album was recorded in Gothenburg, Sweden in early 2019, and features a number of guest musicians. In addition to Swedish producer/keyboardist Filip Leyman and Danish drummer Ulrik Ording (Pärnoja’s loyal collaborators since his debut album) are Estonian singer-songwriter Anna Kaneelina, Swedish marimba player Love Meyersson, and the string quartet Prezioso. The striking artwork for the album cover was painted by Estonian artist/photographer Riina Varol, and incorporated into a beautiful cover design by Estonian artist Helmi Arrak. Pärnoja has written wonderful little explanations for each of the seven tracks on Leva that provide insight into his creative process, and enable us to more fully understand and enjoy each song. I will quote or paraphrase from them in my own discussions of each track.

The title of the opening track “Maa” is the Estonian word for “land” or “country”, and serves as an introduction to the album, both musically and conceptually. Pärnoja explains: “The whole album is about living and the different lives people lead, and that we can’t really get a look into other people’s worlds. The song gradually reveals a view into one world. It starts off as a harmless dreamy waltz, and moves with baby steps into this vast open field with all the space and possibilities in the world.” His words perfectly describe how the instrumentals and dreamy synths gradually expand into a lush soundscape like a field bursting into color with the first warmth of Spring. Although primarily an instrumental track, he uses his voice almost like an instrument with his lovely ambient background vocals.

The gorgeous Middle-Eastern infused “Fatigue” was inspired by the music of Algerian band Tineariwen, which Pärnoja first heard around ten years ago. It happened to be playing on the sound system in a second hand store in Toronto he walked into, and he immediately loved it. The use of what sounds like a zither or oud, along with Moroccan castanets. give the song it’s enchanting Middle-Eastern flavor. Parnoja states that the song is a kind of tribute to Tineariwen that came to him in one big rush. “The dreamy state symbolizes a need for something more or something better, and the continuous loops are the circles that always try to catch us and take us back to their cycles.”

The title track “Leva” is positively stunning, with layers of strummed guitars, backed by enthralling strings that give the song a haunting, otherworldly feel. The lyrics are in Estonian, a language closely related to Finnish, and beautifully sung by Pärnoja and his wife Anna Kaneelina. Nearly seven minutes in length, “Leva” almost sounds like two different songs, and in fact, the first time I listened to it on my smart phone though earbuds, I thought it was two separate tracks. The first part, which is more gentle and melodic, seems to end at 4:07, then two seconds later the music starts back up with a heavier, electric guitar-driven sound, deeper bass, stronger percussion and more passionate vocals.

About the song, Pärnoja explains: “This is most certainly the song that started it all. It holds the essence of the whole album. It became clear to me that even if you are content with your life, and if everything seems to be in order, you can still be going in circles and not be moving on in life. It might just be that you’re in the same place as you were years ago, and it’s only minor details of your life that have changed. I realised that I want to live more and better and make good use of my time.”

Here’s a lovely acoustic performance of “Leva”. For this version, Pärnoja and Jonas Kaarnamets played guitar, Pärnoja and Anna Kaneelina sang vocals, Peedu Kass played acoustic bass, Kristjan Kallas played drums, and Prezioso played strings.

Island” is a fairly simple, breezy track constructed with recurring cycles of loops, augmented with charming twangy guitars and lots of abstract sounds that convey a sunny, windswept sense of freedom. It’s a wonderful song that just makes me feel hopeful and happy. Next up is “Eha“, a beautiful, sweeping track that reminds me of some of the more atmospheric-sounding songs by Coldplay. The song title translates to “dusk” in English, and Pärnoja states it’s “a dreamy cinematic journey dedicated to a present-day soul. It is a story about the search for inner peace and belonging. It is also a wake-up call to one’s self to take a breath and look around.” He adds that “the occasionally atonal strings symbolise the dissonances we have within just before making a decision for a new direction.” His soft vocal croons are sublime, in perfect harmony with the gently soaring synths and strings as if they’re another component in his colorful instrumental palette.

Another standout track for me is the captivating “Soledad“, which is Spanish for “solitude”. The languid song has a slight Latin sensibility, though in no way does it sound like a Latin or Spanish song. The layered strummed guitars and sparkling keyboards are really marvelous, and this time, the lyrics are mostly in English, and sung by Pärnoja and Kaneelina’s enthralling vocal harmonies. Pärnoja explains the meaning behind the song: “The meaning of solitude has changed a lot for me. Once it used to have a negative meaning, but back then I must have mistaken it for loneliness or abandonment. Now in a time when society is seemingly social to the extreme, I came to re-evaluate the meaning of the word. There is a big contradiction to this, since hidden behind this big socially-connected world, there are a lot of people that are lonely, and not at peace with themselves. Loneliness makes them reach out to another world. ‘Soledad’ is a hymn to solitude – the only place where I personally can grow and make peace with myself.

The artful and compelling video for “Soledad” was produced and directed by  Kärt Hammer, and stars Edgar Vunš as the dancer who interprets the song through his passionate yet graceful movements.

The final track “Saudade” actually has a more pronounced Spanish guitar, which Pärnoja beautifully strums throughout the song. At first, all we hear is his guitar, then he begins to sing in a mournful yet beautiful chant, backed by what sound like his own vocal harmonies. The music gradually grows more animated and the vocals more impassioned as swirling synths are added to create a sparkling, cinematic soundscape. Parnoja states that this track sums up the album, and that the title is basically untranslatable, but represents “the presence of absence. It is a longing for someone or something that you remember fondly, but know you can never experience again.” I’ve experienced such human encounters and moments myself throughout my life, and their memories can elicit intense feelings of joy or sadness.

I feel I’ve used up all the superlatives I can think of to describe Leva, but folks, this is a magnificent work of musical art. With only seven tracks totaling 36 minutes of run time, it’s a bit on the short side for an album, however, each track is so exquisite and powerful that it feels almost monumental in scope. With an EP and three albums to his credit, Erki Pärnoja is without question one of the finest composers and producers of ambient instrumental music around today. I love his music and I love this album.

Catch Pärnoja at one of these upcoming shows:

Friday, April 3 – LEVA release show, Korjaamo, Helsinki, Finland
Saturday, April 11 – Südaöine, EELK Tallinna Jaani kogudus ja kirik, Tallinn, Estonia
Saturday, May 2 – Jazz.ee ja Saare KEK LIVE, SAARE KEK, Kuressaare, Estonia
Thursday, May 7 – Jazz.ee ja Rüki Galerii LIVE, Rüki galerii, Viljandi, Estonia
Friday, May 15 – Jazz.ee ja Haapsalu Jazziklubi LIVE, Haapsalu kultuurikeskus, Haapsalu, Estonia
July 3-4 – VÕNGE 2020. Rändav kultuurifestival, Mulgi elamuskeskus, Sooglemäe, Tõrva vald, Valgamaa, Latvia

Connect with Erki: Facebook / Instagram
Stream his music: Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase: Google Play / Bandcamp

New Song of the Week – NATH JACKSON: “Oncoming Storm”

Nath Jackson

Nath Jackson is a talented singer-songwriter from Leeds, England, who I learned about this past July when I reviewed an EP he collaborated on with electronic music project The Ocean Beneath. He wrote and sang the lyrics on two of the tracks on that EP, and I was really impressed with his captivating vocals. Nath is now writing and recording songs for his own debut EP Dreamers and Deceivers, due out in Spring 2020. He’s just released “Oncoming Storm“, which I’ve chosen as my new song of the week. It’s the first single from his forthcoming EP, along with an accompanying live recording of a second track “Best Laid Plans”.  The Ocean Beneath produced the tracks, with backing vocals sung by Nath’s brother Aaron and drums performed by Karl Rigby.

Nath Jackson2

“Oncoming Storm” is a beautiful and haunting track, starting off with sounds of approaching winds and Nath’s strummed acoustic guitar, accompanied by gentle cymbals that evoke waves crashing on the shore in advance of an oncoming storm. As the song progresses, his guitar strums become more urgent, while lovely but melancholy piano keys and measured percussion enter the mix to create a stirring backdrop for his warm, resonant vocals.

The lyrics seem to me to be about someone afraid of committing themselves to love or even to life, for that matter, fearing they’ll get hurt.

I know you wait
You waited for so long
You’ve been trying to run from the oncoming storm
So come along, won’t you come with me
I’ll get behind those eyes
I’ve got something that you better see

But it’s all too little too late
If life’s a game then you better play
From the upside to the down
The lost and the found
You better move soon before you hit the ground
And they’ve all got something to say
Waiting for those better days
From the love that you choose
The spreading out the news
Where do you go when you got nothing to lose?
Nothing to lose

On “Best Laid Plans”, it’s just Nath’s heavily-strummed acoustic guitar and strong, clear vocals, which are all that’s needed to make a highly satisfying and impactful folk-rock tune. The song speaks to not letting one’s life become trapped by too many rigid plans that can result in disappointment:  “And I find it hard to believe that the best laid plans fall apart at the seams. With just a roll of the dice, you can be free. Can’t wait til the moment’s gone. Dreamer keep dreamin’ on.

Though both quite different in sound and style, they’re both great tracks that showcase Nath’s skilled guitar work and beautiful vocals. I look forward to hearing all of Dreamers and Deceivers when it’s completed.

Connect with Nath:  FacebookTwitterInstagram
Stream on  SpotifySoundcloudApple Music
Purchase on  BandcampGoogle Play

HERO WARSHIP – Double-Single Review: “Therewithal / Halcyon Then Gone”

Hero Warship is the solo music project of Joey Doyle, who’s also front man for the Irish band Fiction Peaks, a terrific alternative folk-rock group I’ve featured on this blog a number of times in 2016 and 2017. He released two singles “Chrysanthemum” and “Lesser of Evils” in May (2019), and now returns with another wonderful double single “Therewithal” and “Halcyon Then Gone“, which drop today, October 24. The talented Dubliner is a great songwriter and guitarist, with a beautiful singing voice too. (He’s also a pretty good visual artist.)

Doyle takes a stripped down approach on these two songs, using only guitars and piano to create a captivating soundscape for his gentle vocals. The first track “Therewithal” features layers of cheerfully strummed acoustic and rhythm guitars, accompanied by more somber piano keys that give the song a contemplative air. He earnestly sings the poignant lyrics that seem to me to speak of the ephemeral nature of happiness and contentment. “By the way, I think I thought I had a handle on life suspended on a sunbeam infinitely calls, to an individual sense of therewithal.”

“Halcyon Then Gone” is a simple but lovely song with a haunting piano-driven melody providing the only music for Doyle’s heartfelt, falsetto vocals. He told me the song is a kind of tongue and cheek look at making millions by cheating the casino (casino as a metaphor for a kind of consumer driven, shallow life style). but then giving all the money away and doing it all over again: “When I make my millions I’ll call you, to meet me at the end before we start. This time I’m sure, I’m on to my surefire winning streak, loading the dice, cleaning the house out of countless funds, then give it all away again.


Purchase on Bandcamp / Google Play