SCOTT RAMSAY – Single Review: “I Need Love”

Scott Ramsay

Scott Ramsay is a photographer and videographer from Austin, Texas who also happens to be an accomplished musician, songwriter and vocalist. He’s opened for Sheryl Crow and shared the stage with Blues Traveler. I learned about him when his good friend and fellow musician Paul Renna (whose single “Bound to Love” I reviewed in February) reached out to me about Scott and his wonderful new single “I Need Love.”

Released on May 5th, “I Need Love” was produced by Omar Vallejo at 512 Studios in Austin, and features additional guitar work by musician David Self. The beautiful track is a moving tribute to love and its power to nurture, sustain and heal us as we struggle with the difficulties and challenges that life throws our way. Musically, the song includes both Scott’s pleasing strummed acoustic and David’s more dramatic electric guitar, accompanied by gentle percussion and stirring background synths. Scott’s warm, smooth vocals are heartfelt as he sings the poignant, hopeful lyrics:

And I need love
I need some tenderness
I need a hand to hold while I’m growing old
Help me through this mess
I need some faith
I need to rise above this place
Break the chains that bind and ease my mind into a better space

I may not know what I’m talking about
But I know what I need
My world’s on fire
It’s burning me down
And it brings me to my knees

I need love
And I need some hope
Something to carry me through
And when things get bad
I can change all that with just the thought of you

And I need some time
Give me that precious time
I would roll back the years and dry the tears that I left behind
And I may not know what I’m talking about
All I know what I need
My world’s on fire
It’s burning me down
And it brings me to my knees
And I need love, love, love, love
I need love, love, love, love

It doesn’t matter who you are
Makes no difference where you’re from
Everyone, everyone needs love
Love, love, love

And I need strength
I need something to believe
Cause when it hits the fan
I’m gonna be the man that I wanna be

It doesn’t matter who you are
Makes no difference where you’re from
Everyone, everyone needs love
I would walk a thousand miles
Sail out on the sea
Just to find the love, love to set me free
And all the silly bullshit and negativity
It all comes down to love my friend
It’s what everybody needs
Love, love, love

I need love
I need some tenderness
I need a hand to hold while I’m growing old
And help me through this mess

Purchase “I Need Love” on iTunes

RIVERSYSTEM – Single Review: “Hello Stranger”

RiverSystem Hello Stranger

RiverSystem is the artistic name for the music project of singer/songwriter Richard Willis, who hails from the beautiful South Wales valley of Cynon. He’s been writing and playing songs in the Folk-Americana style for around 15 years. His songs address themes of loves lost and found, coping with depression, or anything else he feel like writing about. Richard explains that the name RiverSystem came about 10 years ago when he was having a jam session with some college friends he’d formed a band with, and after struggling to find a name for themselves, they finally settled on RiverSystem. The band has long since gone their separate ways, but he decided to keep the name.

RiverSystem has been working on a song of great importance to him and his wife called “Hello Stranger“, which he’s officially releasing as a single today, along with a video he created for the song. He explains that the song “was a labour of love that was co-written with my wife. It is about how depression or mental health issues can just creep up on you and potentially damage your perception of life.” He and his wife hope to raise mental health awareness through the song.

The song has a slow, mournful melody that sets a somber mood, perfectly befitting the subject matter. Starting off with an electric guitar riff and gentle percussion, the music gradually builds with added layers of guitar and melancholy synths. Though the song is sad, it has a haunting beauty thanks to RiverSystem’s fine guitar work. His earnest vocals are heartfelt as he addresses the ‘stranger’ of depression that’s returned to haunt him, bringing sadness and desolation, yet he refuses to allow it to conquer him.

Hello Stranger
Haven’t seen you awhile
So long in fact
I didn’t recognise you

Anxiety and depression
Is what you bring
I’m in this melancholy state
I can’t take this any more

Oh stranger
On my shoulder
Don’t stay there too long
Oh stranger
I can’t take this anymore

Hello stranger
If I knew you were coming
I would’ve closed all my doors
And held fast against the oncoming storm

Oh stranger
On my shoulder
Don’t stay there too long
Oh stranger
I can’t take this anymore

Now you’ve left me in pieces
With a trail of destruction in your wake
Now I feel dark and lonely
Drag myself out of what you’ve thrown me in

Oh stranger
On my shoulder
Don’t stay there too long
Oh stranger
I can’t take this anymore

Maybe next time you swing around
You could avoid me
I’ve had enough of you for now

The deeply moving video shows him playing the song in the lovely countryside interspersed with scenes of him being shadowed by the stranger, overcome with sadness and despair.

Connect with RiverSystem:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream on Spotify / Reverbnation
Purchase on iTunes / Amazon

GUY PAUL THIBAULT – Album Review: “The Road Between”

Guy Paul Thibault Album

When I last featured Canadian singer/songwriter Guy Paul Thibault on this blog back in September 2017, he had a few months earlier released his wonderful album It’s About Time, an appropriate title given the span of 17 years since his previous solo album. (You can read my review here.) Now the Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia-based musician returns with a superb follow-up effort The Road Between. Listening to his pleasing style of rock-infused Americana/Alt-Country music, it would be easy to assume he’s from somewhere like Nashville, Tennessee, rather than the maritime provinces of eastern Canada.

Over the past two years, Guy Paul has received numerous accolades, including being named 2018 Artist of the Year on New Vision Radio (New Jersey), one of the Top 40 Indie Artists of 2017 on several Ontario, Canada radio stations, having several of his singles appear on numerous Indie Music charts in Canada, the U.S., UK and Australia, and having It’s About Time named one of the top albums of 2017 by The Halifax Musicphile.

Guy Paul played most of the instruments on The Road Between, although Shawn Cherry played drums, and Ian Lewer played bass on the opening track “Anymore”. Guy Paul sang all lead vocals, and Carolyn Cherry sang most of the backing vocals, except for those on “Talk to Me” and “No One Understands”, which were sung by Lisa Comeau-McDow. Guy Paul’s daughter did all the hand claps and played tambourine.

The album features nine tracks that address love and relationships, and all the attendant joy and heartache they bring. Case in point is album opener “Anymore“, a poignant Alt-Country tune about feelings of betrayal and sadness over a love affair that went south. Against an urgent backdrop of really fine electric and slide guitar work, Guy Paul laments “You don’t know where I sleep at night anymore. You don’t know what it’s like in my life anymore. Why don’t you love me anymore?”

The Country-rock tinged “Dangerous Strangers” speaks to an illicit affair about to go down between two people – one with a faithful wife back home, and another seeking revenge on the man who cheated on her: “For a minute think you saw, what was really on my mind. A touch of evil, it could be a simple little crime. You can only think of him, how he broke your heart. Are you gonna do to him what he did to you.”

One of my favorite tracks is “Talk to Me“, a powerfully moving song about a couple struggling to communicate through the wall that’s built up between them: “Talk to me about anything you want. Just look at me like you sometimes care. Tell me what it is that you want. Show me that you’re somewhere in there.” The dramatic instrumentals, especially the intricate guitar work, are fantastic, creating a palpable tension that’s a perfect accompaniment for Guy Paul and Lisa’s beautiful, impassioned vocals.  The piano-driven ballad “Take Me” touches on the passage of time and how lovers can drift in and out of your life: “Funny how time flies. In her world and in mine. Children, death and love crimes. Chances that seemed to rush by. /  Only love can save my soul, from years of pain untold. Love me if you can. She said ‘Try to be my man’.

Another highlight for me in an album filled with them is the haunting “Who Are You“. The track opens with a mournful organ riff and drumbeat, followed by an achingly beautiful twangy guitar riff. Soon, Guy Paul’s resonant vocals enter the scene, backed by Carolyn’s soft croons as the instrumentals build, creating a lush, moody soundscape. The lyrics speak of a couple who’ve become strangers to each other after years of disappointment and hurt: “Cause here is the moonlight. And these are our scars. Though you lie here beside me, I can’t tell who you are.” This track really showcases Guy Paul’s skills for songwriting and crafting gorgeous melodies.

He lightens the mood with the celebratory “Day Drinking“, a fun rock’n’roll tune about just forgetting one’s problems and spending the day with a loved one like you’re on holiday.  Things turn serious again with the darkly beautiful “No One Understands“, an ode to someone who’s stood by you through good times and bad: “And no one understands but you. Why I do the things I do. And no one comprehends the secret wars that I have led. No one understands but you.” Once again, Guy Paul is joined by Lisa Comeau-McDow, and their vocal harmonies are sublime. The guitar solo in the bridge is pretty wonderful too.

Don’t You See Me Cry” is one of the more rock-oriented tracks on the album, with lots of great intricate guitar work, accompanied by some terrific piano keys. Instrumentally, this is one of the standouts on the album, and the distorted guitar riffs are particularly good. The dark lyrics seem to speak of someone who was already feeling bad, and put his hopes on a woman who ended up only hurting him more:  “I was such a strong man with no love left in his eyes. Well you changed all that and now I could just die. Don’t you see me cry.” The album closes on a bittersweet note with “Catch My Fall“, a song about a young runaway who he allowed into his heart and life, but was too young and unsettled to stay with him: “Much too young and always on the run. The rhythm in her feet always pulled her towards the sun. She couldn’t stop, just couldn’t settle down.”

Guy Paul’s songs have a way of boring themselves into your mind and soul, staying with you long after hearing them. I found myself liking this album more with each listen, discovering new sounds in the music, and deeper meanings in the compelling lyrics. I appreciate that he included them on his Bandcamp page, which also made my job of discussing each track easier. If you’re a fan of Americana and Country-rock, you will enjoy The Road Between.

Connect with Guy Paul:  Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Google Play / Soundcloud
Purchase:  iTunes / Bandcamp / cdbaby

SECRET AMERICAN – Album Review: “Warmth & Shelter”

Secret American album art

Sometimes you just want to hear music that makes you feel good, am I right? Well, that’s exactly what you get with the aptly titled Warmth & Shelter, an absolutely delightful album from the band Secret American. The album came out in May 2018, but I only recently learned about it from fellow music blogger Tina Romano, who wrote a wonderful review for the blog Niche-Appeal.com, and recommended that I give this band a listen. Well, I have to say that it’s one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard in a long time. I’m sorry I never heard this album in 2018, because I’d easily rank it among the best of that year.

Secret American’s refreshing sound is at once retro yet contemporary, unique yet familiar. While listening to the songs I kept wondering ‘who do they remind me of?’ Then it finally dawned on me that the carefree California pop-rock vibe of The Lovin’ Spoonful was the retro part, while the contemporary side evokes the laid-back grooves of Cage the Elephant. While their song lyrics often address serious subjects that require a bit of thinking, they’re presented with sunny melodies, breezy instrumentation and pleasing vocals that make for happy listening experience. The songs are infectiously catchy without hitting you over the head, slowly boring themselves into your brain, but in a very good way. When I first listened to Warmth & Shelter, I thought ‘these songs are nice’. On the second listen, I thought ‘this is a really good album’. By the third spin, it was ‘I fucking love this!’ and have been hooked ever since.

Born from the collaboration of singer/songwriter and guitarist Derek Krzywicki, who lives in the small town of Carpenteria on the California coast east of Santa Barbara, and his long-time friend Todd Mecaughey, a producer/engineer who lives in Philadelphia, Secret American is a bi-coastal band of sorts. Derek had written several songs after leaving the band Cheers Elephant, and reached out to Todd about helping bring them to life. Despite their distance, they began working together on music fairly regularly for over a year in Philadelphia, as well as collaborating through the internet from their home studios, and eventually formed Secret American. Todd has stated that the name comes from them being simultaneously proud and ashamed to be American (a sentiment I currently share). Using Derek’s songs, the two created their debut album Warmth & Shelter. For the recording of the tracks, Derek played guitar, bass and sang vocals, Todd played drums, Kevin Killen played pedal steel, and Katie Frank played keyboards. Todd also engineered and produced the album. Along with those four, three additional musicians – Tony Unander, Alex Baranowski and Rory Geoghegan – were enlisted to complete the lineup for live performances.

Secret American2

The album kicks off with the title track “Warmth & Shelter“, a sweet tune about making a life in the country with your beloved, knowing there will be rough spots, but that everything will be alright: “Oh my dear, I wish to lead a Countried life. Hard work low wages. But these days, they lie ahead of us just out of reach. We’re making changes. I’ll hold the book you’ll turn the pages. Take what we want, take what we need, this little home, this dog we feed. This land of ours it’s all we need. Give me warmth and shelter, heart as well to count, count, count, on me.” The twangy guitars, cheerful synths and bouncy drumbeats are sublime, and Derek’s falsetto vocals, backed by his and Katie’s smooth harmonies, are sheer delight.

I don’t usually include so many videos in my reviews, but the band has produced highly entertaining ones for several of the album’s songs that are worth sharing. Feel free to watch them (or not). This one for “Warmth & Shelter” beautifully showcases Derek’s strong charisma and playful spirit.

Speaking of charisma and playfulness, Derek has it in spades on the charming and droll video for “Bang Bang“. He states in the video notes that it was made “to explain some of the choreography for their first band practice. It is now our default music video.” Honestly, how can you not love this guy? The song has a soulful Americana vibe, and is catchy as hell, with a delightful mix of jangly electric and twangy slide guitars, accompanied by a gently galloping beat. Derek’s vocals are quirky as he croons the humorous lyrics that speak to sexual desire:  “I’m a standing tall and ready, not a man in disguise. I want you to blow my head out, right between the eyes. Sooner or later, like it or not. Tie yourself together and I’ll undue your knot. Send me your love on that ball and chain.”

Why Believe?” speaks to the current state of political, economic and environmental upheaval. The song’s bubbly instrumentals and vocals sharply contrast with the darker lyrics about trying to avoid becoming totally cynical or hopeless in the face of challenges on multiple fronts: “The hotter the hotter the deeper the water. I think it’s time for a swim. Shame to the shameful, blame to the blameful for frying their lies in a pan. Why Believe? I can’t believe myself. Too poor to retire, too young die.”

The great tracks keep coming as the album continues, each flowing beautifully into the next. “Good Men Change” addresses the impermanence of life and not always taking things at face value: “Bad men dream, good men lie. / Clocks go round, things unwind.” One of my favorite tracks is “Amen, California” an enthralling ode to Derek’s (and my) home state. The song is beautiful, with a languid tempo and smooth instrumentals that evoke the blissful feels of a sunny day at the beach. Derek’s vocals are soothing and warm as he croons of the California state of mind: “Be free, like the fish in the sea. Let the waves crash on you, and be reborn in California.” The track sounds like a live recording, with street noise and children’s voices heard in the background.

Another favorite is the joyful love song “I Wanna Know“. If this song doesn’t make you feel good, then I don’t know what will! The simple lyrics ask the object of his desire if they share the feelings he has for them: “I wanna know who’s side you’re on. I wanna know you completely and turn on your TV and put your records on.” Much to the band’s surprise and delight, the song was featured in the premier episode of the YouTube original TV show Weird City, produced by Jordan Peele and Charlie Sanders (which you can watch by clicking on this link). The video for the track, which was filmed on location in Philadelphia and edited by band member Tony Unander, is also a pleasure to watch.

Chelsea the Cat” is a wonderful slice of Americana confection, with some tasty guitar work, while the funky “Wish A Well” really channels Cage the Elephant. In fact, Derek’s vocals sound a lot like Matt Shultz on this track. Yet another favorite of mine is “Human“, one of the most interesting tracks on the album from a musical standpoint. The melody is mesmerizing and beautiful, with sort of a sped-up and modified ska beat, and the intricate, layered guitars and lush, exotic synths are gorgeous. Derek’s slightly echoed vocals are captivating as he sings of what it means to be a human, rather than a certain race, nationality or type: “I’m a human, I’m not labeled on the shelf. / So long being a stranger. Wearing the name that they gave ya.” The lyrics eventually recite the first few verses of the National Anthem, delivered in a completely different way that seems to lend the words new meaning.

Closing out the album is “Magnolia“, a pleasant lo-fi instrumental that opens with a sweet acoustic guitar riff and gentle synth beat that’s eventually joined by a simple organ riff that lends a bit of a carnival vibe. Halfway through, a lovely chiming guitar enters along with a string synth chord, and the result is pure bliss. The instrumentals fade as the song comes to an end, leaving us with just a few discordant notes of acoustic guitar.

I cannot gush enough about this marvelous album and band! Secret American is a group of incredibly creative and talented musicians, and they deserve to be big. I really love their sound and style, and hope they’ll soon make more of their incredible music for us to enjoy. Those of you fortunate to live in the Philadelphia area can catch them at their upcoming show on March 29th at Underground Arts in Philadelphia.

Connect with Secret American on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

PAUL RENNA – Single Review: “Bound to Love”

Paul Renna

Paul Renna is a prolific and humble singer/songwriter and guitarist from Dallas, Texas who’s been writing music and performing, first with bands and later as a solo artist, for over 25 years. His signature music style is a pleasing mix of folk, soft rock and Americana. He released his first solo album Portrait in 2003, and in the years since has dropped two more full-length albums and three EPs, the most recent of which was 2018’s Valley of the Moon, a wonderful collection of folk songs. He now returns with a new single “Bound to Love“, a deeply moving song of love that he’s appropriately releasing on Valentine’s Day.

With an innate gift for writing songs that draw us in right from the start, Paul weaves compelling stories through his memorable melodies with authentic, relatable lyrics. He’s also a skilled guitarist and vocalist, bringing his songs to life with layers of beautiful acoustic and jangly electric guitars. The bass, piano, drums and backing vocals were performed by Omar Vallejo, who also produced the track at 512 Studios in Austin, TX

Paul’s slightly raspy vocal style sounds honest and heartfelt, giving even greater impact to the poignant lyrics promising his undying love and devotion for another, and that with love, they can weather through whatever life throws their way: “We can find a way. Our love will never stray. Hold me now. Together we are bound to love. / Love will find a way, you wait and see. We are bound to love. My heart is yours to hold on.

Here’s a recent live performance by Paul of the song:

Connect with Paul on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music on Spotify / Soundcloud / YouTube / Reverbnation
Purchase on iTunes

SAMUEL ASHTON – EP Review: “Spreading Light”

Samuel Ashton EP

Samuel Ashton is a singer/songwriter based in Canterbury, England, who makes what he beautifully refers to as “acoustic soul.” Drawing inspiration from such artists as Michael Kiwanuka, Paolo Nutini, Leon Bridges and Nathaniel Rateliff, Samuel blends smooth blues, soul and country to create uplifting and powerful songs. He’s also spent years travelling around the world, and the various different cultures he experienced and came to embrace also strongly influence his music.

In January, he released his debut EP Spreading Light through independent label 2728 Records, and received a warm response at his EP launch show in Canterbury on the 19th. He’s also been playing at venues throughout Kent and southeast England, including Brighton and London, and is currently booking future shows throughout England for this Spring.

Samuel Ashton

First up is the title track “Spreading Light“, a moving and hopeful song about staying positive in the face of adversity and troubled times, and spreading truth and goodness through our actions. The song’s melody is rather simple, driven by a strummed acoustic guitar and light percussion, but a closer listen reveals lots of added subtle textures such as somber piano keys, bluesy electric guitar and delicate, moody synths. In his deep and resonant vocals, Samuel urgently sings “Said we got to keep on spreading light. Even in the dark and lonesome night, we gotta keep on spreading light. Oh how I moan, when my heart feels woe when there’s such injustice and pain.”

Send Me Angels” has a bit of a gospel feel, with a prominent organ providing the basis of the melody, and Samuel’s emotional vocals pleading “Send me angels, come on save my soul.” I like the way he uses both acoustic and jangly electric guitars to achieve a fuller, multi-textured sound. On the slow and bluesy “Freedom Never Lies“, his intricate layered guitar work is outstanding, creating a sultry mood for his soulful, fervent vocals. He sings about surrendering oneself freely to passion: “There’s a light that’s shining in your eyes. There’s a fire that burns inside you that you just can’t disguise. Let it burn. Freedom never lies. / I’m so close to the edge, I’m still wanting more.”

Love is in the Sun” is an uplifting folk song about the presence of love everywhere we look and in everything we do. “Love is in the earth, love is in the sea. Love is in the power, power that heals.” The track has a pleasing gospel-like melody, with acoustic guitar and gentle hand claps. The Americana song “Medicine Music” speaks to the healing powers of music, something I think everyone who loves and appreciates music can attest to. “Healing my soul, my heart is full of love./ Medicine music, purify me. Medicine music, show me freedom. Medicine music heals.” The backing choruses have a Native American sound, as if being sung by a Shaman. And once again, Samuel’s guitar prowess is on full display, as his riff that closes out the track is marvelous.

Spreading Light is a wonderful EP and a fine debut effort from this thoughtful and talented musician who’s intent on spreading his positive message of love and healing in our troubled times. Samuel’s compelling lyrics, outstanding guitar work and soulful vocals make for pleasing songs you want to hear again and again.

To learn more about Samuel, check out his Website
Connect with him on  Facebook / Instagram / Twitter
Stream his music on  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on  iTunes

STUART BLANCE – Album Review: “Utopia”

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Stuart Blance is a talented and thoughtful singer-songwriter from Perth, Scotland. (He also happens to be a terrific landscape and events photographer.)  He’s been writing and recording songs since 1999, and in 2001 he released his debut CD Utopia, an ambitious work featuring 13 tracks covering genres ranging from folk and Americana to pop and rock. In the years since, he has performed in venues throughout Scotland and also in London, and recorded several singles, three of which are included on his 2018 EP On Your Side.  Given the renewed interest in his music, Stuart felt the time was right for Utopia to be heard again, and so the album was re-released in digital form in December 2018, and I have the pleasure of reviewing it today. The songs all sound as fresh and relevant now as they did when they were recorded nearly two decades ago.

Stuart’s engaging music style is characterized primarily by gently-strummed acoustic guitar, often accompanied by percussive synths and occasional subtle bass notes. His contemplative lyrics touch on oft-covered subjects of life, humanity, heartache and pain, with the goal of sharing uplifting messages of hope and optimism. This is clear on the opening track “Lifeline“, where he urges us to stay true to ourselves in finding our way forward in life: “You’ve got it all, don’t throw your life away. And you’ll see where your path lies. Just follow your lifeline. The future lies ahead, it’s yours to keep.” So too on the title track “Utopia” a pleasant folk song where he extols the virtues of positive thinking and striving to be a good person: “You may be a dreamer, seeing good when it’s not there. Or maybe a believer in being kind and fair. Even if you’re feeling low, always try and smile.” And on Burnout“, he gently advises us to not push ourselves to the breaking point: “Slow down, take a short break. Just take your time. Enjoy the ride. You’re heading for a burnout.”

Several of the tracks on Utopia are really lovely and deeply moving. One of my favorites is “Memories“, a beautiful song with strummed guitar and delicate atmospheric synths that create a haunting, yet enthralling soundscape for Stuart’s calm, soothing vocals. He wistfully sings about revisiting past experiences that shaped his life: “Memories keep flooding back. Creeping into places that I haven’t been to in quite a while. Diaries kept for years on end. Words unheard for decades. Untold secrets brought to life. Oh I feel so at ease about these old memories. Won’t you please reminisce with me about these old memories?

Another favorite is “Slower Than the Flow“, a languid, hymn-like song in which he asks compelling questions for which simple answers continue to elude us: “Why do people go through life with their eyes closed? Why so many people without homes? Why can’t we take some time to look around us? Spare a thought and show someone you care. / Why must we fight like little children? Why must it always end in tears? Why is the root of violence in religion? When will the stigma disappear?

On the amusing “Fact or Folklore“, Stuart playfully ponders a number of fairy tale myths with droll satire: “Did Jack climb his beanstock, was Goldilocks so pure? She slept with the three bears, then went back for more. / Did Humpty Dumpty fall? I heard at first they shot him, then kicked him off the wall. / Climb over the rainbow, we’ll meet the Wicked Witch. She thinks that she’s scary, but she’s a stupid bitch.” And yet another personal favorite is “Anytime“, one of the most interesting tracks on the album from a music standpoint, and also the longest, clocking in at six minutes. The song opens with fluttering spacey synths which gradually fade into the background as Stuart’s pleasing layered acoustic guitar notes and smooth vocals enter the mix. The synths return to the forefront as the guitars fade, and continue through to the end as the song closes on a mysterious and atmospheric air.

Stuart switches gears in a big way on the final two tracks, replacing his laid-back folk persona with a punk-rock alter-ego. “Groovy People” is a simple but fun tune about partying with cool people in a hot club, delivered with chugging riffs of fuzzy guitars and a rousing drumbeat. Stuart’s vocals sound completely different here, with a bit of an early David Bowie twang. Even better is “Comin’ On Up“, where he really lets loose with hard-driving riffs of gnarly guitar and buzzing bass, set to a heavy thumping drumbeat. I really love this track, and want to hear more of this side of him! Some might feel these last two tracks don’t belong on what is otherwise an acoustic folk album, but I think it’s perfectly fine, and makes for a great, upbeat ending to an excellent work.

Connect with Stuart on Facebook / Twitter
Stream his music on Spotify / Soundcloud
Purchase through his website https://stuartblance.com/store and some songs are also available on Bandcamp

CHRIS WATKINS & DRUNK POETS – Interview & Album Review: “Derevnia’s Daughters”

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I’ve written previously about singer/songwriter Chris Watkins, and how his music stays with me long after hearing it, drawing me back for another listen. His pleasing music is a style of alternative folk-rock reminiscent of Bob Dylan, Shawn Mullins and Lou Reed – simple, pure and honest, but always with a compelling story. Based in Anchorage, Alaska, Chris has been making music since his teens, when he first formed his band Drunk Poets. He’s continued performing and recording under that band name, though the members have changed over time. Drunk Poets currently consists of Chris, who writes the songs, sings and plays acoustic guitar, Eric Cobb, who played all the other instruments and also produced the album, and Chris’s niece Flower Evenden, who provides some of the lovely backing vocals.

The primary components of their sound are acoustic guitar and Chris’s quietly intense and almost seductive vocal style that’s closer to speaking than singing. Following up on their superb albums London Can Take It, from 2015, and Lights All Askew a year later (which I reviewed), in January Chris Watkins & the Drunk Poets dropped a stunning new concept album Derevnia’s Daughters. In preparation for my review, I sent Chris some questions to gain a bit of insight into his creative process for the album, which he kindly answered.

Me: Hello Chris. As you know, I’ve been a big fan of yours for a while. Your songs always tell engrossing stories through poetic lyrics, and your warm, soothing vocals and acoustic style make for an incredibly pleasing listen, even when the lyrics are melancholy. Where do you draw inspiration for your songwriting?

Chris: Thank you Jeff. I don’t know, it just comes into my head.

The new album has several songs that are set in or reference places in your home state of Alaska. A few of them even reference Russian words like “babushka,” and I’m guessing even the title name Derevnia is Russian. I know Alaska was once a Russian territory. Is it that heritage you’re trying to evoke or celebrate with your album?

Yes, I am interested in the integration of cultures that occurred on Afognak Island at the turn of the century.

Continuing on that theme, who or what is Derevnia? And what is the significance or meaning of her “daughters?” Is it meant to symbolize a celebration of women, since you make references to girls from California and San Francisco, as well as a White Sister, your grandmother, and a song about a daughter writing to her father?

Derevnia was the Russian section of the village on Afognak Island. Her daughters are the offspring of a Swedish immigrant that assimilated into contemporary society in the early twentieth century. I am fascinated with the contradictions and juxtapositions of rural pastoral culture and its collision with modern technological industrial evolution.

(I looked up “Derevnia’s Daughters” and learned it’s an historical novel, written by Lola Harvey and published in 1991, about the island of Afognak, which is situated immediately north of Kodiak Island.)

Two tracks have Russian or Slavic titles. I Googled them and found “Kristos Voscrese” means “Christ is Risen,” and “Kristos Razhdaetsya” means “Christ is born.” The second track also makes reference to Spruce Island Chapel. Is there a religious significance intended?

Yes. The orthodox Christianity that existed on Afognak and the ethos that runs through the book is identical to Tolstoyan Christianity and early Calvinist enlightenment theory.

(Tolstoyan Christianity advocates an ascetic, chaste and simple life, with no smoking, drinking, or eating of meat. Another basic tenet is non-violence, loving one’s enemies and fighting evil with good.)

Your niece has a greater singing role on this album, and her spoken vocals in the Intro and “Seattle, WA Oct, 13, 1937” are especially compelling. What is the meaning of that particular track?

The spoken word on “Seattle, WA Oct, 13, 1937” was actually performed by Meghan Kim. It is only one in a series of letters that are the narrative backbone of the book, all of them reflect the daughters assimilation and acceptance of modern civilization.

Many artists have mixed feelings about social media, but you’re pretty active and have amassed a considerable following. Do you think it’s helped with getting your music heard by more people, as well as sales?

My opinion is that we are on the precipice of a new paradigm involving the distribution and consumption of intellectual property. It is my hunch that in the near future sales will matter very little compared to exposure.

Do you ever perform live locally in Alaska? What about Canada or other parts of the U.S.? If not, do you have any plans to?

I will be more than happy to perform anywhere if somebody asks me.

If you could perform or record with any other artist or band, who would you choose?

Erica

Are there any final things you’d like your followers to know that I haven’t asked?

Never let the sun go down.

All right, let’s dig into Derevnia’s Daughters. It’s an ambitious work, with 13 tracks that touch on various aspects of what life would have been like on Afognak in the past. The songs seem to address three dominant components of life on the island: the salmon fishing industry, church, and family (all pretty much still the same dominant features that exist today for a lot of small or rural single-industry towns).

The first track is a brief intro that consists of a reading by Eric’s daughter Emma of a letter from the book that was written by a young woman named Enola to her papa and family, updating them on goings on in her life and asking for a few dessert recipes. Her spoken vocals are accompanied by gentle acoustic guitar and strings. It immediately segues into “Black Iron Birch,” which is sung by Flower. The lyrics seem to be from the point of view of a woman telling her story about arriving in Derevnia to start a new life: “Arriving are the salmon ships. Oh my housemate. Where are my keys?

Tea and Cigarettes” is a perfect example of Chris’s sound, with a simple but arresting acoustic guitar riff, accompanied by a steady drumbeat and beautiful strings. He sounds wistful as he sings “When there’s nothing left,” and Flower’s gentle backing vocals are sublime. “Devil’s Town” starts off quite pretty with sounds of seagulls and delicate synths, but gradually keyboard synths, guitar, bass, drums and rattles are added to create a decidedly somber mood to match the rather sinister lyrics about a cold, cruel place where everyone seems to be ruthless: “They’ll cut you for a dollar, if they can count that high. Like a dog under the collar, in a 3-piece suit and tie. / Everyone’s talking but no one says a word. And that’s the price of inhibition, when you’re running with the herd. I ain’t goin’ back.

The influence of the Orthodox church is addressed on several tracks. “The White Sister” speaks to the contradictions between the good and malevolent aspects of religion. Early in the song, Chris sings of the nun’s support: “The white sister takes my hand. I was lost in Afghanistan.” But later in the song “Rasputin throws his coat around her neck, around her throat./ She keeps knocking on my door. It’s a song I’ve heard before.” The little riffs of electric guitar at the end give off a bit of a sinister vibe, contrasting with the beauty of distant sounds of nuns singing. “Spruce Island Chapel” seems to touch on the internal struggle between our chaste and sinful sides: “You only speak in Latin when they bring you wine. On bedsheets made of satin, over Hollywood & Vine. In the morning, when you wake up. You’re gonna fall down on bended knee. In the evening, when it gets rough, you’re gonna get tough like St. Timothy in Rome.

Kristos Voscrese” is an interesting track that opens with discordant sounds like static from dialing through stations on a radio and heavily distorted guitar chords. Eventually, guitars and drums take over as Chris sings the rather depressing lyrics “The Salvation Army band doesn’t come around no more. I think we lost them in the fire. But I can remember the dark of December. The winter had you under the heel. With Dickens and Capra, the sugar the safra. The wolves circling the spinning wheel.” “Prayers For the Damned” has a darker, harder rock feel, with menacing distorted guitar riffs layered over acoustic guitar. And on “Kristos Razhdaetsya” the rather haunting repetitive acoustic guitar riff and eerie synth gives the track a disquieting tone.

Meghan Kim does the spoken vocals on “Seattle, Wa Oct 13, 1937,” another letter featured in the book that was written by a woman named Eunice to her father. Eunice asks her father for advice with her dilemmas of being unmarried and becoming an old maid, obligations of having to care for her sister Enola and her children, and trying to finish college so she can have gainful employment as a teacher, instead of the physically demanding job she now has.

Several songs touch on the difficulties – both physical and emotional – of Alaska’s long, cold and dark winters. Besides some I’ve already discussed earlier, “Swallow Tail Cape” seems to address the desire to escape: “When the winter takes it toll. When the kerosene goes cold./ Don’t you wanna fly home?” And on the “Kodiak Flyer,” Chris sings of making it “over the mountain to the other side.” The catchy, melodically complex album closer “Mother of Sorrows” has some great riffs of psychedelic surf guitar layered over acoustic, and is one of my favorite tracks from a music standpoint.

Derevnia’s Daughters is a truly outstanding work that’s beautifully conceived and flawlessly executed. Chris Watkins once again shows us his skill for weaving powerful narratives out of often spare lyrics and instrumentals, and his music has a raw yet pristine quality that sounds honest and never over-produced.

Connect with Chris: Facebook / Twitter
Stream his music:  Apple Music / Spotify / Soundcloud
Purchase the album on iTunes  / Amazon

DAVID GERGEN – Album Review: “The Golden Light”

David Gergen2

David Gergen is a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles. He’s been making music for over two decades, and just released his 7th self-produced album The Golden Light in early February. He seems to drop a new album every four years – previous efforts being The Dreaming in 2014, The Nearer It Was…The Farther It Became in 2010, and Haunting Whirlwinds in 2006 (although he did release a five-song EP Odyssey in 2012).

Incorporating elements of alternative, indie and experimental rock with Americana and easy-listening, he writes beautiful piano and guitar-driven melodies to accompany his thoughtful lyrics about love, loss and renewal. He explains his writing process on his website: “I write songs faster than I can record them….lyrics are important to me. I change direction with each piece of work and rather than submit to any trends, I create music that I like first and foremost. Music that keeps me interested, that is the secret to longevity I think.”

As I listened to The Golden Light, I was struck by David’s exceptional piano playing and skill at writing melodic piano compositions, both of which are well represented on the lovely album opener “Closer to the Light.” The main piano riff is serene and hauntingly beautiful, and backed by a second layer of piano, as well as a delicately strummed acoustic guitar, mandolin and strings. The track has a spiritual feel, with lyrics that seem to be about hitting rock bottom and seeking a way out of the hole you’re in through love and redemption. David’s smooth vocals have a quiet intensity as he implores “I’m falling, fallingFalling, I’m falling…down. Down, worn and busted. Can love save me again? The only must have is light coming in? Closer, closer, closer to the light.” The song is one of the album highlights for me.

Talking About Love” is an uptempo song with more of a progressive rock sound, thanks to the predominance of electric guitar and a more aggressive drumbeat. The layered guitars on this track are really good. The brooding “Here and There” ventures toward an Americana vibe, and features some awesome moody guitars and piano keys that convey the sentiments expressed in the lyrics: “Slowly, the twinkle is leaving those eyes. Somber days the overture of the times. The moment you notice it’s already gone. I’m afraid to notice who’s driving this train. I know I’m falling in love with this feeling that’s here and there.

Another beautiful piano-driven track is “Looking Glass,” a poignant song that seems to be about facing your own truths with honesty and an open mind. David’s piano playing is exquisite, and the accompanying acoustic guitar and soaring string synths make for a really gorgeous song. His vocals are comforting as he sings: “Don’t run away there’s a price to be paid, it’ll come back to find you again. So many of us running in circles to find out what’s lying within. Life is so pretty like a beautiful city with its lights climbing up to the moon. High rising wild fire burns what it needs to renew. It passed through the looking glass….it’s gone, gone, gone, gone.

Sirens” is an interesting track with rather unusual melody progressions that keep us just a bit off balance, but in a good way. David employs otherworldly synths and a funky distorted guitar riff to create dissonance and a sense of uncertainty that complement the lyrics: “The sweet singing on the red sea leads you right to the edge. The sirens watching are breaking us in. How many signs does it take.

Another unconventional track is “Mountain,” which has two distinct parts. The first 50 seconds of the song consists of eerie, discordant synths and an echoed pounding drum that impart a sense of foreboding. That disturbing part ends with an abrupt shift to a melodic and pleasing Americana song with strummed and chiming guitars, lovely synths and piano. David croons “Can anybody see through the mountain? Can anybody see what’s there? If you only see, what you want to see. It’s an easy way to get lost.” The track closes out the last 10 seconds with a repeat of the discordant sounds, perhaps symbolizing the feeling of being lost?

David goes off in an experimental rock direction on the fascinating “Coffee in Bed.” He uses layers of differently-textured strummed guitars that are sometimes discordant, backed with spooky, ethereal synths to create a hauntingly beautiful and mesmerizing soundscape. David’s soothing vocals are almost seductive as he sings about the ardor of love’s desires: “Calm breeze, sun on her face. I bring her some coffee, she wants me to stay. Not in a long time has anyone said, you must be waiting for coffee in bed.

He follows up with “Big River,” a pleasing Americana ballad about making it home to be with his loved one, and closes the album with “Clouds and Lightning.” Piano is the only instrument on this lovely track about what appears to be death and rebirth, whether in the literal or figurative sense: “It’s easy now, when it comes. Separate the heroes from the villains. Higher than the clouds. The offering to guide you on the way out.  Talk slow, it’s me you’re looking for. Why are you trying to be so strong? Resting clouds, resting angel. There’s a story she’s trying to tell. And then they’re gone, crimson angels.”

I must concede that The Golden Light is a remarkable work that requires at least a couple of listens to fully appreciate the nuance and complexity of the music and poetic lyrics, though the songs still sound wonderful to the casual listener. I discovered new sounds and meanings with each additional listen, and grew to like the songs more and more, to the point where I now think the album is brilliant. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys piano rooted alternative and experimental rock music that’s just a bit out of the ordinary.

Connect with David:  Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Apple Music / Soundcloud
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

JD & THE STRAIGHT SHOT – Album Review: “Good Luck and Good Night”

Good Night and Good Luck

JD & The Straight Shot is a folk rock/Americana band based in New York City, and in September 2017 they released their sixth studio album Good Luck And Good Night.  Drawing inspiration from such legendary acts as The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and The Beatles, along with traditional Irish folk music, Country and classic rock’n’roll, JD & the Straight Shot deliver pleasing and sometimes topical songs that range from introspective folk ballads to catchy bluegrass foot-stompers.

The band is comprised of musicians with impressive credentials. Front man Jim Dolan, (lead vocals/guitar) is also CEO of the Madison Square Garden Company, which owns the New York Knicks and New York Rangers; guitarist Marc Copely has worked with B.B. King and Rosanne Cash; bassist Byron House with Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton; violinist/fiddler Erin Slaver with Martina McBride and Rod Stewart; drummer/percussionist Shawn Pelton with Sheryl Crow, Levon Helm, and the Saturday Night Live band; and backing vocalist/guitarist Carolyn Dawn Johnson with Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney. The all-acoustic Good Night and Good Luck was produced and mixed by Copely and engineered by Chuck Ainley at Soundstage Studios in Nashville. 

The album kicks off with “Redemption Song,” a rousing bluegrass number about searching for salvation and forgiveness. Slaver’s exuberant fiddle is one of the highlights on the track, and plays a major role in the band’s overall sound. Keeping with the gospel theme of finding redemption, “Ballad of Jacob Marley” is a an updated interpretation of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. The lyrics speak of making amends with one’s greedy ways before it’s too late. “Every day another link, you’ve taken yourself to the brink. / Time is short to right what you’ve done wrong.” Banjo and fiddle are the standout instruments on this great track, and Dolan and Johnson’s vocals harmonize well together, as they also do on “Moonlight” and the lovely “I Know You Know I Know.

One of my favorites on the album is “Run For Me,” a stirring song with a delightful Irish folk melody. The track opens with a sound imitating a galloping horse, followed by a catchy guitar riff and charming fiddle that continue throughout the song. The lyrics are a plea of hope that a bet on a horse race will pay off, easing worries about how to pay the bills: “Gotta pay my bills, running out of time, I’ll never get ahead. It’s all riding on the line. God help me win this time, just once to feel alive. Come on take the lead, come on baby bring it home to me.”

Referencing the phrase that the legendary early TV newsman Edward R. Murrow uttered at the end of every newscast, the compelling title track “Good Luck and Good Night” addresses the political divisiveness that permeates today’s news. “Hear a rumor make up a quote. Put it out there to see if it floats. Found your secret, told everyone. Doesn’t really matter as long as we won. Black and white. Must be right.” The languid country/folk song features a child chorus similar to that used to dramatic effect on Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”

The deeply moving ballad “Tonight” takes on the horror of domestic abuse: “From up above comes a terrible scream. Woke me up, I thought it was a dream. Sounds of breaking dishes and slamming doors. One big thud as something hit the floor. / She says she’s going to heaven, that’s right. I hope she’s not going tonight.” The band pays homage to their departed friend Glenn Frey with a lovely cover of the Eagles’ song “It’s Your World Now,” and incorporates lines from Maya Angelou’s poem Alone on their contemplative, gospel-like “Never Alone.”

The only miss on the album for me is their cover of the Three Dog Night hit “Shambala.” The song just feels lifeless and flat compared to the original, and lacks the energy or emotional depth of their other songs. Oddly, JD & the Straight Shot chose to perform “Shambala” when they appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on March 8. They would have been better served performing one of the many better tracks on Good Luck and Good Night, an otherwise terrific album.

The band kicks off a month-long tour in Chicago beginning this evening, March 14, where they’ll be opening for The Eagles. They’ll also open for Chicago and The Doobie Brothers for some shows. I will be seeing them in Rancho Mirage on April 6th.

3/14 Chicago, IL @United Center w/ the Eagles
3/15 Grand Rapids, MI @Van Andel Arena w/ the Eagles
3/17 Thackerville, OK @Winstar Casino w/ Chicago
3/18 St. Louis, MO @Scottrade Center w/ the Eagles
3/23 Nashville, TN @Bridgestone Arena w/ the Eagles
3/24 Nashville, TN @Bridgestone Arena w/ the Eagles
3/30 San Antonio, TX @Majestic Theatre w/ Chicago
3/31 Sugar Land, TX @Smart Financial Centre w/ Chicago
4/6 Rancho Mirage, CA @Agua Caliente Casino w/ The Doobie Brothers
4/7 Las Vegas, NV @ Chelsea at Cosmopolitan w/ The Doobie Brothers
4/8 Columbus, OH @Nationwide Arena w/ the Eagles
4/10 Lexington, KY @Rupp Arena w/ the Eagles
4/11 Charlotte, NC @Spectrum Center w/ the Eagles

Connect with the band:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on  Spotify / Apple Music
Purchase on  iTunes / Amazon