THE RED LOCKS – Album Review: “Arena Dream Trap”

As EclecticMusicLover, I enjoy listening to a broad range of music genres and styles. And while my tastes generally lean toward alternative rock, dream pop, folk rock, synth pop and R&B, I’m always open to expanding my musical horizons by venturing outside my comfort zone. With that in mind, I was intrigued when singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Leah Al-Uqdah reached out to me about her band The Red Locks and their debut album Arena Dream Trap. Blending together elements of trap, hip hop, arena rock and dream pop, they create their own distinctly unique sound they’ve labeled ‘Arena Dream Trap’.

Based in Chicago, The Red Locks are also a rather unusual band, comprised of the aforementioned Leah Al-Uqdah, her husband DJ Privileged (aka David M Pospiech), and their 14-year-old son, percussion savant David Henry Pospiech. DJ Privileged has also been part of Chicago band Virga Trollyp, while Leah has played with bands Off The Radar and Another Pretty Lush. Both DJ Privileged and Leah play guitar, bass and keyboards, while their son David plays drums and keyboards. With a vocal range and timbre somewhat reminiscent of Björk, Leah sings lead vocals, and DJ Privileged sings back-up.

About their album, Leah confided to me: “So many years and tears have gone into these songs. I really feel the world needs these songs, to share a bottled remedy to aid in a hurtful world. I can help others grow from my pain and pensive notes from my very private spiritual journey. We titled the album ‘Arena Dream Trap’, because it’s the sum of our parts.” 

Well, let me say that the instant I pressed play and heard the opening track “Our Father“, I was taken aback by it’s trippy vibes and explicit lyrics. I was not expecting to hear “The Lord’s Prayer” and the words “You know, eating pussy cures cancer” together in the same song, but I get it. My guess is that the song is a statement on the nature of what constitutes as ‘sin’ in our rather hypocritical Judeo-Christian culture. To drive home their message, The Red Locks layer spooky ethereal synths over a throbbing trap bass groove as Leah talk-sings the lyrics in her breathy echoed vocals.

That deep, pulsating trap bass groove continues on the next track “$I4R“, short for “$o Impractical For Real”, only this time overlain by DJ Privileged’s jarringly beautiful psychedelic guitar chords that hover in a sweet spot between distorted and jangly, accompanied by recurring hand claps. I have no clue as to the song’s meaning, but I really like those resonant guitars. The curiously titled “Helen Keller” is even trippier, with spacey synths, otherworldly male voices and a discordant melody. But the most notable aspect of the song are Leah’s amazing vocal gymnastics, which go from oddly seductive baby-like croons to reverb-soaked menacing wails.

Overrated” is more melodic and upbeat than the previous tracks, with swirling, almost carnival-like synths and cheerful drumbeats, accompanied by Leah’s lilting vocals. I think it’s the prettiest song on the album. But “Spinning to Survive” has a harsher lo-fi sound, with grungy guitars and David’s assertive and marvelously intricate drumbeats. Leah’s colorful vocals sound almost like another instrument in themselves, adding to the song’s rich texture and enchanting vibe.

Perhaps the most unusual track on the album, both musically and lyrically, is “This Semester“. The song has a fairly simple trap beat, but features an exotic and complex blend of spacey instrumentals and sounds. My interpretation of the lyrics is that they seem address pregnancy and sex, however, Leah told me they’re actually conceptual, and meant to explore an abusive one-sided relationship an artist develops with music. Leah starts off with a series of la-la-las in a sing-song manner, then sings in a baby-like voice “I think I really fucked up this semester, ’cause I think I know what’s best for her. A new way of expressing her true temperature. For an even cure, believe in her ability to grow that seed in her, the need to know that she’s for sure I’m keeping her, close to my heart. Because it’s not about pain. We’ll make sure no one gets fucked, but like everyone came.” Later in the song, DJ Privilege gets even more explicit, speaking lyrics I won’t repeat here.

I Don’t Recall” is tasty little psychedelic acid rock trip, while “It Takes Like” is an acid trip on steroids. The eerie industrial synths, discordant percussion, gnarly distorted guitars and Leah’s almost maniacal vocals create a deeply unsettling vibe. I didn’t think the songs could get any more strange, but “1000 Words” proved me wrong. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, as despite the very discordant triphop melody, skittering chirpy synths and Leah’s starkly contrasting blend of tortured and sing-song vocals, followed by DJ Privilege’s rapped verses, the song has a certain bizarre appeal. They close the album with “Strung Along“, a fairly mellow and gauzy rock track, featuring grainy distorted guitars, restrained percussion and Leah’s quirky warbling vocals. The song ends with her saying “thank you”, in humble appreciation for our having listened to their album.

While Arena Dream Trap won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a unique and utterly fascinating work that deserves attention. I applaud The Red Locks’ strong originality, imagination and musicianship, and if you like quirky trap music that pushes the envelope, you will enjoy this record.

Arena Dream Trap is available for streaming or download on BandcampSoundcloudYouTube 

EXPRESS OFFICE PORTICO – Single Review: “Then Wave”

In naming themselves after the entrance to an old newspaper distribution office in the center of Nottingham, England, it’s no surprise that British synth-pop band Express Office Portico do not shy away from tackling relevant and timely issues. Since forming in early 2020, the talented five-piece consisting of Tara Freeman (lead vocals, keyboards), Billy Townsend (lead vocals, keyboards), Reuben Tobolewski (guitar), Ben Phipps (bass) and Olly Walton (drums), has released three singles touching on mental health and well-being.

Their first, “I Like it Weird”, dealt with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and how it can exacerbate feelings of jealousy over past lovers. Their second, “Mishmesh”, explored the dangers of alcohol dependency, and how our coping mechanisms and compulsive tendencies can manifest themselves in toxic habits. (I reviewed both of those singles, which you can read by clicking on the links under “Related” at the end of this post.) Now they’re back with a new single “Then Wave“, which addresses the struggle of coping with abandonment and trust issues. The track was produced and mixed by Joshua Rumble and mastered by Fluid Mastering. The beautiful artwork was created by Antonio Pacelli.

With “Then Wave”, Express Office Portico gifts us with another beautiful synthpop song, overflowing with their signature swirling synths and Tara and Billy’s captivating harmonies. The sounds of theremin, accompanied by Ben’s throbbing bass notes and Olly’s perfect drumbeats, creates a dreamy backdrop for Tara’s enchanting vocals as she plaintively sings the lyrics describing someone struggling to reach out for affection amid their fears and anxiety over letting people get close to them. As she sings the verses, Billy repeats the words “Can’t get up” over and over, driving home the feelings of anxiety and helplessness in overcoming one’s insecurities:

Let me be swallowed by my own self doubt
Nauseous from constantly spinning around
   (Can't get up)
Time to sit with my shame
   (Can't get up)
Feeling flows through my brain
   (Can't get up)

You are infecting my very body
So close I can feel you inside of me
Time to sit with my shame
   (Can't get up)
Feeling flows through my brain
   (Can't get up)
I stop calling your name
   (Can't get up)
Then wave, calling your name
   (Can't get up)

Connect with Express Office Portico:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Stream their music on Spotify / Apple Music / Soundclouddeezer

Purchase on Amazon

A MILLION RICH DAUGHTERS – Single Review: “Left Behind”

Hailing from Chicago, post-punk band a million rich daughters play a unique and fascinating style of, in their own words – “garage/industrial/horror inspired alternative post-punk – music that transcends the typical boundaries of the observable universe.” Founded by brothers Brett and Jake Grant, with Brett on vocals, guitars and synths, and Jake on drums, the four-piece now includes Matt Clepper on guitar and Dani Putrino on bass. (Brett also has a solo project under the moniker brett.grant.5.)  Exactly two years ago to the day – November 15th also happens to be Brett’s birthday – they released their brilliant debut EP Hidden Parents, which I reviewed. Now they’re back with a haunting new single “Left Behind“, their first new music release in two years. 

Brett was inspired to write “Left Behind” during a painful separation from his wife Ashlee (which thankfully was only temporary, as they’re both very special people who I’ve become quite fond of, albeit by long distance). He elaborates “In the broader sense, it’s about the helplessness of being left behind by someone who has outgrown you, and the feeling of betrayal that comes with that. One thing about this song is it’s all just AAA format. It’s a single verse repeated over and over as the music builds around it to the climax at the end. I intended for it to convey the whole concept of ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ When I was going through all that, I was literally just stewing in my emotions, self medicating with whatever I could get my hands on, and I felt unable to break out of the cycle. Add to this, this ALL happened right at the beginning of Covid. So I was going through all this, and suddenly I couldn’t leave the house or see anyone.

The song is darkly beautiful and melodic, with more of a dream pop sound than most of their previous songs. It opens with a simple, rather somber guitar riff as Brett forlornly laments “Well, I’ll swallow my pride and ‘ll eat my mistakes. And I’ll throw up the memory if that’s what it takes. Devour the regret, I’ll gorge on the shame. If it means in the end you’ll absolve me of blame. Your words when you left me been plaguing my mind. Now I’ve been vanquished, you’ve finally left me behind.”

Approximately 50 seconds into the track, Matt’s gorgeous swirling guitar enters, accompanied by Dani’s gently thumping bassline and Jake’s measured drumbeats, creating a dreamy but haunting backdrop for Brett’s increasingly impassioned vocals, backed by lovely soaring harmonies. Everything continues to build to a dramatic crescendo, replete with a blistering guitar solo in the final verse before trailing off in a outro of spooky synths as Brett sadly concludes “Your words when you left me been plaguing my mind. Now I’ve been vanquished, you’ve finally left me behind.” I love this song, and think it’s their best one yet.

The wonderful artwork for the single was created by Brett’s beautiful and creative wife Ashlee.

Connect with AMRD:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase:  Bandcamp / iTunes 

New Song of the Week – DAWNING: “Ennui”

One of the finest artists I’ve had the pleasure of learning about in 2021 is Dawning, the musical alter-ego of insanely talented and charismatic singer-songwriter and musician Aaron Senor. On the strength of his captivating and dreamy style of shoegaze/electronic rock, emotive vocals that go from ethereal breathy croons to impassioned soaring choruses, and electrifying live performances, the Grand Rapids-based artist has quickly earned a name for himself on the crowded Michigan music scene. Aaron is also drummer for Michigander, an outstanding band that’s also seeing its star on the rise.

Photo by Jesse Speelman

Dawning released his wonderful debut single “Coronation” in early 2019, and followed this past February with the brilliant EP Petals (you can read my review here). “Rose Hips”, one of the stunning tracks from Petals, has spent the past three months on my Weekly Top 30, and is still climbing its way up the top 10. Now he’s back with an exciting new single “Ennui“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week. With “Ennui”, Aaron makes a bold departure from the rather dark and moody vibes of his previous songs. He further elaborates: “‘Ennui’ is a declaration of sorts; a declaration of happiness, of change, and of hope, [and] a clear change in tone and mood from previous, darker releases. A perfect summer single for rolling down your windows and screaming the chorus at the top of your lungs.” 

The song opens tentatively with quivering shimmery synths, accompanied by Dawning’s plaintive breathy vocals, then an aggressive pounding drumbeat suddenly enters the mix, exponentially dialing up the energy. His vocals quickly turn more impassioned as the music erupts into a bombastic and glorious soundscape of exuberant swirling synths, thunderous percussion and pummeling drumbeats, launching the song into the sonic stratosphere. As if to express an overwhelming sense of euphoria, he gleefully shouts the lyrics about coming out of darkness and despair into a life filled with light, hope and love: “And right when I thought life was not worth living, I saw you there. And I cannot deny I’ve got to give in, no matter where.” 

“Ennui” is an exhilarating and grandiose anthem, and I love the ferocity of both the instrumental arrangement and vocals that Dawning employs to drive home his positive and joyously celebratory message.

Follow Dawning: FacebookTwitter / Instagram

Stream his music: Spotify / Apple Music YouTube

MICHIGANDER – EP Review: “Everything Will Be OK Eventually”

Photo by Kris Herrmann

As a lover of music, I listen to a lot of it, often for several hours a day. As a music blogger, I also learn about at least one new artist or band a day too. And every now and then, I come across a particularly good one who’s been around for several years, wondering how I could have possibly not known about them earlier. One such act is Michigander, an alternative rock project from Michigan (obviously) who makes some of the most consistently good melodic rock I’ve heard by any act in a long while. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been bingeing on their back music catalog, and can honestly say that I love every one of their songs – a rarity for even some of my favorite artists and bands. They dropped their latest EP Everything Will Be OK Eventually on March 19th, and I love it so much that I want to shout about it from the rooftops.

Michigander is the brain child of singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer Jason Singer. Originally from the central Michigan city of Midland, in 2014 he moved to Kalamazoo, where he started his music career playing in dive bars and open mics. He released his wonderful debut single “Nineties” two years later, followed by several more singles and two outstanding EPs, ​Midland in 2018 and Where Do We Go From Here​ in 2019. I first learned about Michigander in late 2019 when I heard his single “Misery”. One of the songs from Where Do We Go From Here, “Misery” spent many weeks on the Billboard Adult Alternative chart, peaking at #20, and has been streamed more than 3.5 million times on Spotify.

Over the years, Singer has been joined by other talented musicians for the recording and performing of his music. The current Michigander lineup includes guitarist Jake LeMond, bassist Connor Robertson, and drummer Aaron Senor. (Senor also has his own music project Dawning, whose gorgeous EP Petals I reviewed last month.) Singer has also recently relocated to Detroit.

Everything Will Be OK Eventually, released through C3 Records, was produced by Singer and long-time collaborator Jake Rye, recorded at Social Recording Company in Adrian, Michigan, and mastered by Mike Cervantes. I think it’s Michigander’s finest work yet, with a fuller, more polished sound, thanks to a greater use of electronic elements than on their previous music. In an article about the EP in BrooklynVegan, Singer explains his approach for the creation of this record: “In the past, I didn’t want to write anything I wasn’t sure we could pull off live. This time, I didn’t care. I incorporated programming and samples that went beyond being a rock band. I became more sure of who I am, what I want to do with music, and how I want to go about it. I tried to be more vulnerable and make something I’m very proud of. I got to add in everything I always wanted to.”

As its title suggests, the EP offers positive messages of hope in these troubled times, delivered with dreamy, upbeat melodies and gorgeous instrumentation. Singer confided on his Instagram page: “I am so happy that these songs are now out in the world for you to hear. Each one of these tracks was a labor of love that my friends and I worked so hard on for over a year. I hope this EP finds a special place in your heart for the years to come. I hope it becomes the soundtrack for this time in our lives as we are slowly healing and returning to some sort of normalcy. I couldn’t have made these songs without the help of my best pals and my incredible team.”

He further elaborates in his comments for BrooklynVegan: “Even though there was so much uncertainty, I found peace in the fact we were all in it together. It was straightforward about the times we’re in, but it was meant to be peaceful. I’ve said the title over and over again to all of my friends; eventually, we’ll get back to normal, and everything will be alright. Personally, I’m very optimistic and hopeful about everything to a fault. You can hear it in the music. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing though.” It certainly isn’t, and the result is a stunning collection of songs that make you feel good, even in the sad parts.

The EP opens with “Better“, an exuberant yet poignant song about loss and wanting to be a better person; “Cause life might be good, but I wish that it would be better. Just want to be better. / Cause you tried to love me and I probably should have let you. Cause things would be better. Things would be better with you.” The song is gorgeous, with a swirling torrent of jangly and chiming guitars, driven by a pulsating bass line and urgent drumbeats, all melding into an electrifying wall of sound. The dual guitars of Singer and LeMond are quite breathtaking.

The touching video for “Better”, which was released concurrently with the EP, shows a man, played by Alex Wells, missing his former wife or girlfriend and trying to straighten out his life and become a better person, while Singer lurks in the background (or foreground) as he sings the song. At first it appears the man missing his wife or girlfriend is making himself better in the hopes of winning her back, but at the video’s end, it’s revealed that she had passed away. About the video, Singer explains: “I’ve wanted to do a video that doesn’t feature me as the focus. So when [director] Tyler [Appel] pitched a story-driven narrative for this one I knew right away it was the right vibe. I think it really captures my personality as the video is goofy but also makes you cry. It’s emotional. ‘Better’ is probably my favorite song off the new EP, it’s the type of song I’ve always dreamed of writing and sounds the closest to what I think Michigander embodies.”

Next up is “Let Down“, the deliriously-catchy lead single for the EP and the band’s highest-charting single to date, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Adult Alternative chart. I love this song, which is currently enjoying a long run on my own Weekly Top 30. The track’s arrangement and production values are superb, and a close listen reveals so many wonderful touches like Senor’s ace drumbeats, LeMond’s rousing guitar solo in the bridge, and the haunting piano keys in the outro. The lyrics speak to those optimistic feelings one gets when meeting a possible new love interest, but also the nagging fear that it won’t work out: “Well I feel like I’ve known you. Even though I’ve only met you. I don’t wanna mess it up, I’m probably gonna mess it up. / Cuz I got high hopes, I got high hopes. But they let me down, they usually let me down.” The sweet video shows Singer’s playful side.

Saturday” starts off gently, with strummed guitar and delicate percussion as Singer softly croons “Well it always feels like Saturday when I’m next to you. / And it’s all downhill from here, the minute that you walk away.” Soon, the song expands into a beautiful guitar-driven Kings of Leon-esque anthem. Singer’s heartfelt vocals remind me of Sir Sly front man Landon Jacobs as he plaintively sings of his fear of losing the things he values: “I heard my voice on the radio for the third time this week. So scared to death of losing it, I can’t breathe. And It’s all downhill from here, the minute that you realize that we’re all living in fear. And it’s something that we can’t hide. Well I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna let you slip away. Let you slip away.”

The beautiful tunes keep coming with “Headlights“, a bittersweet song about a lost love that Singer co-wrote with LeMond. Once again, the arrangement and instrumentals are stunning, with glittery piano keys and synths, over which LeMond’s layers chiming guitar notes. And as always, Singer’s vocals are deeply moving and lovely as he sings “Cause I can’t get over you. And I don’t think I want to.” “OK” is a bouncy, lighthearted tune with somewhat dark but optimistic lyrics that speak to wanting to be with the object of one’s affection, but also acknowledging that it’s alright to be alone, at least once in a while: “You’re the only one that I want to see right now. But since you’re not here, I think I’ll just go home. Kicking up the dust as I wander around downtown. I’ll do anything to not go home. It’s OK to be lonely. It’s OK to be alone sometimes.” I especially like the interplay between the jangly guitar chords and tinkling piano keys that take the edge off what could be an otherwise melancholy message.

Closing track “Together” is a charming song about coping with the anxiety and isolation many of us experienced at the outset of the global pandemic: “Well oh my god, the world is ending. Do you still want to meet me for dinner? If the world’s gonna fall apart, maybe we could fall together. If the world’s gonna fall apart, I’ll stick with you.” Musically, the song has an exuberant, sweeping melody, highlighted by glittery synths and jangly guitars, giving it a bit of a Coldplay vibe. The blaring trumpet notes add a lovely sophisticated texture to the track as well. At the song’s end, Singer wistfully laments “Wish I could be with all my friends, but I’m feeling all alone again.”

Well, what can I add about this beautiful EP that I haven’t already gushed about? Everything Will Be OK Eventually is a stunning, flawlessly-crafted work, and easily one of the best EPs of 2021. I now count Michigander among my favorite artists currently making music, and look forward to hearing more stellar music from them for years to come.

Michigander will open for Mt. Joy at a socially-distanced Detroit show on May 7 (tickets).

Follow Michigander:  FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream their music:  SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloudYouTube

Purchase:  AmazonBandcamp

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!

Follow Brí:  FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream/purchase her music: SpotifySoundcloudApple MusicBandcamp

AU GRES – Single Review: “At Home in the Dark”

Last October, I featured Michigan-based artist Au Gres (the music project of singer-songwriter Joshua Kemp) when I reviewed his charming debut single “Nervous”. A delightful melding of indie rock, lo-fi and synth pop elements, the song speaks of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in order to more fully experience the joys of life, love and relationships. I liked it so much, it spent two months on my Weekly Top 30.

Now he returns with his second single “At Home in the Dark“, another stellar and dreamy track, but this time featuring a somewhat edgier rock vibe he describes as “indie pop with teeth”. The song was produced and mixed by Jake Rye at the Social Recording Company, and mastered by Mike Cervantes (the same guys who worked with another Michigan artist Dawning, whose stunning EP Petals I reviewed a few weeks ago). Josh and fellow musician Noah DeLeon played guitars, and both they and Jake all had a hand in programming synths. Brodie Glaza played drums, and Josh’s girlfriend Linsley Hartenstein played the lovely piano in the outro.

“At Home in the Dark” is essentially a sweet love song, in which Au Gres assures his romantic partner that he’ll be there to support and comfort her through good times and bad: “I want to be there when it rains / I want to know you on your bad days, baby / I want to be there when you start to think the wrong things in the right time frame / So I’m on my way to hold you close / If it rains outside we’ll stay indoors with a glass of red we’ll sing in prose / We’ll do what it takes to feel at home in the dark.”

To drive home his message, he and his fellow musicians start with a palette of delicate swirling synths, then layer multiple textures of guitar and percussion to create a lush, emotionally-powerful soundscape. The music swells to an exuberant crescendo in the choruses, highlighted by a dramatic guitar solo in the bridge. Interestingly, the song opens with the same crescendo that later appears in the choruses, putting the song on a strong footing right from the start. Josh has a fine singing voice, and his lovely comforting vocals are perfect for conveying the tender feelings of love and devotion expressed in the lyrics.

With both “Nervous” and “At Home in the Dark” to his credit, Au Gres maintains his perfect score of releasing outstanding singles. I’m confident we’ll be hearing a lot more great music to come from this talented man.

Follow Au Gres:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Stream “Nervous”:  Spotify / Apple Music / Tidal / Soundcloud

Purchase: Bandcamp / Amazon

DAWNING – EP Review: “Petals”

Photo by Amman Khan

I’ve previously noted several times on this blog of my fondness for dream pop, as I’m a sucker for beautiful melodies, luxurious instrumental arrangements and pleasing vocals. With that in mind, I’m excited to feature the artist known as Dawning, who’s just released his stunning debut EP Petals. Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dawning is the music project of singer-songwriter Aaron Senor, who’s quickly making his mark on the Michigan music scene with his gorgeous songs and captivating live performances. All the songs on Petals were written, performed, recorded and produced by Aaron, with the exception of “Rose Hips”, which was co-written by Jake LeMond of the band Michigander, and the guitar solo at the end was performed by Aaron’s father Brian Senor. The EP was mixed by Jacob Rye and mastered by Mike Cervantes.

Released on Valentine’s Day, Petals was initially to be comprised solely of love songs, but Dawning’s approach evolved toward creating something altogether different. “The plan was I’d write each song about a former relationship, tie all those memories up in a bow, put it out, and never write a love song again. ‘Petals’ was always meant to be the carrying out of this, but it never was. Contrary to my plan, most of these are not proper love songs at all, but rather, explorations of feelings I’ve had in the past that I thought were love, but really were not. This has been my effort to decipher what those feelings in fact were, if not love. Embedded in each song is a question: What is the difference between infatuation/having someone make you feel really good, and love? Is it possible to be obsessed with someone romantically, but still not truly love them? Where does physical attraction end and love begin? Why do we seem to sometimes realize how much we love someone only after they’ve gone? I have not presented anything in Petals as a definite answer to any of these questions, because this project was never an essay. Rather, it’s an expression of my own experience, and that mere expression gave me the solace of a satisfactory answer. I hope ‘Petals’ gives you that same solace as well.⁠”

The first track “Bloom” is a lush, dreamy affair with sultry R&B overtones in the vein of artists like James Blake. Using a rich palette of fluttering shimmery synths, crisp percussion and sparkling keyboards, Dawning creates a sumptuous atmospheric soundscape replete with well-placed moments of chirping birds and flourishes of soaring brass. His soulful vocals alternate between ethereal croons and commanding entreaties as he sings of being besotted by a lover: “Love full of color / Skies turning blue / I like the way your eyes always see the world / Everything, all in bloom / You are an ocean / Precipitate / My breath becomes so easy when I drown in you / My little hurricane.”

Dawning dials up the heat on “Liturgy“. With it’s sensuous thumping beat, sultry bass, and that bewitching organ, combined with his silky falsetto and breathy whispers, it’s downright sexy! When I didn’t think he could top the first two tracks, Dawning blows me away with “Rose Hips“. The songs starts off slowly, with pulsating synths and his gentle, plaintive croons, then explodes into a gorgeous cinematic wall of sound, highlighted by Brian Senor’s fiery guitar solo that leaves me covered in goosebumps. His vocals turn more passionate with the music as he channels The Weeknd with a beautiful soaring falsetto.

On the Sufjan Stevens-esque “Rose Lights“, Dawning sings of a brief love affair that didn’t survive the summer. The only sounds we hear are his lovely acoustic guitar and enchanting layered vocal harmonies, yet the song has a vibrant fullness of sound. His echoed breathy vocals evoke a sad resignation as he softly laments “I did you wrong it’s apparent, just know that I always cared but messed it up / Summer love, rising through the month of June / In my life, August came and went too soon / Summer love, falling in and out of you.

Though it contains only four tracks, Petals is a rich and colorful feast for the senses. Every song is brilliantly executed and sonically beautiful, and I’m really impressed with Dawning’s incredible songwriting, musicianship and vocals. My only criticism of the EP is that I wish it were longer! I guess I’ll have to wait for him to record more music.

I’ve included links for the EP in two formats, YouTube and Spotify:

Follow Dawning: FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream/purchase his music: SpotifyApple Music YouTube

CRYSTAL CITIES – Single Review: “”Jenny, How Were We to Know?”

Ever since first hearing their stunning and critically-acclaimed debut EP Who’s Gonna Save Us Now in early 2017, I’ve been a huge fan of Sydney, Australia-based dream rock band Crystal Cities. With a lush, melodic sound they describe as “like Death Cab For Cutie had a War On Drugs with The Beatles” – all bands I love – it’s no wonder I would love their beautiful music too. The supremely talented and strikingly handsome trio consists of Geoff Rana (vocals, guitars, keyboard), Jared King (bass, backing vocals) and Daniel Conte (drums, percussion). I’ve previously featured them three times on this blog, and ranked their gorgeous single “Under the Cold Light of the Moon” at #10 on my Top 100 Songs of 2019. Their outstanding debut album of the same name, recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, also received widespread acclaim.

It’s an understatement that 2020 presented significant challenges to musicians around the world, and like many artists and bands, Crystal Cities have had to make the most of a difficult situation by being creative in terms of how they record and release new music. Accordingly, they made the bold decision to self-produce, record and engineer their second album Hold Me Close Hold Me Tight, as well as release it as ten individual singles, one at a time. Bassist Jared King explains their thinking behind this move: “I think content and momentum are two very important things to be aware of in the streaming-age. Releasing multiple songs all at once is wasted potential in my eyes. We’ve worked so hard on each and every track on this album so why not let each one have it’s time in the spotlight rather than getting lost in the noise of an entire album release all at once.”

Last August, they released their first single “Don’t Speak Too Soon” (you can read my review here), and followed up over the next few months with “Got My Back to the Wind” and “Shadow of a Doubt”. On January 1st, they dropped the fourth single “Jenny, How Were We to Know?“, and it’s another beautiful gem in an unbroken string of superb singles. The song has a somewhat dreamier vibe than the previous three singles, more in the vein of their earlier songs. But as to be expected, the beautiful melody, swirling guitar work, subtle bass and thumping drums are flawless, and I love Geoff Rana’s warm, pleasing vocals.

The song seems to speak about desire and the uncertainties of love, but the lyrics are intentionally ambiguous. Rana elaborates: “The meaning behind this song is something I’ve chosen to remain a mystery. Being a music artist in 2021, we’re encouraged to share every little detail about our lives with our audience. While this has opened up many opportunities for artists to have unique and personal interactions with fans – something which we encourage and take full advantage of in Crystal Cities – there are some things that perhaps should be kept to ourselves in order to set boundaries and protect and respect the privacy of other people… In this instance, I want the context of this song to be left up to the listener’s own interpretation.”⁣

Have a listen to this captivating song:

Connect with Crystal Cities:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / SoundcloudApple Music
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes 

SOFT SHELTER – EP Review: “No Exits”

Soft Shelter is a talented young singer-songwriter, guitarist and music producer based in Southern California, who writes songs that explore such themes as memory, nostalgia, time, relationships, and climate change. His pleasing style of indie dream pop is laced with alt-rock, psychedelic and electronic elements, and delivered mostly with guitar, programmed synths and his soft, breathy vocals. He writes, arranges, produces and mixes all his own music in his home studio.

The prolific artist has released a tremendous amount of music over the past year, starting with his first single “Ashes” in November 2019, which he followed with two EPs and several singles, two of which – his EP Judgment Day and his single “Just a Ride” I reviewed earlier this year. (You can read those reviews by clicking on the links under “Related” at the end of this post.). Now the busy man is back with a new four-song EP No Exits, which dropped on December 4th. He recorded the EP in his home studio with assistance by Noah Kastenbaum on songwriting and guitar, as well as backing vocal harmonies on “Those Days” and “No Exits.” Drums on “Butterflies” and “No Exits” were played by Grant Whitson. The EP was mastered by Matt Pereira (aka KOMAK), and the artwork was designed by Nikki Castro.

Opening track “Time (Pressure)” has an edgier rock vibe than Soft Shelter’s more typical sound, highlighted by Noah Kastenbaum’s terrific fuzz-coated electric guitar. I really like Soft Shelter’s languid melody and swirling synths that nicely complement Noah’s bluesy guitar licks. The lyrics speak to the relentless passage of time, and the pressures it places on our psyche and the way we live our lives, sometimes missing out on savoring the good stuff in our rush to the next big thing: “Hey wait – it’s gettin’ late. Don’t go – we’ll miss the show. Can’t sit and waste the time standin’ in that stupid line.”

On the contemplative “Butterflies“, he starts the track with a quote by French actress Anna Karina in the 1962 French film Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live), in which she leaves her husband and infant son hoping to become an actress, but ends up becoming a prostitute. She says “I forget that I’m responsible but I am. No, it’s like what I was saying: wanting to escape is a joke. After all, everything is beautiful, you just have to take interest in things and find them beautiful.” As such, “Butterflies” at first touches on the intense feelings of desire for someone: “She gave me butterflies every time and didn’t have to try. She made me lose my mind every time and didn’t have to try“, but then hits us with a cold reality that those feelings might fade: “How long ‘til you’re bored w/ this metamorphosis? How long ‘til you’re bored w/ this faded elegance?” Soft Shelter uses gentle piano chords and lush synths to create a dreamy backdrop for his soft, wistful vocals.

Those Days” is a lovely, introspective track that Soft Shelter states was “written after an intensely nostalgic experience.” His delicate mix of shimmery synths, piano, horns and xylophone are supplemented with Noah’s subtle electric guitar notes and backing vocals that give the song a gentle anthemic quality. Soft Shelter’s breathy vocals are especially enchanting as he softly croons “Back home after many years. Is it time to face my fears? And before these memories nostalgia takes its toll on me. And what’s past was never meant to last.”

On the title track “No Exits”, he uses a double entendre to reflect on both the anxieties over climate-change and to serve as a metaphor for challenges faced in a long-term relationship: “Oh lord, tell us how we’ve strayed. Would we wanna go back anyway? The hourglass has melted away. The sun’s burning us and we can’t stay.” Musically, the song starts off with strummed acoustic and electric guitars accompanied by gentle bass, keyboard synths and soft percussion that give a mellow folk-rock vibe. Gradually, the instrumentals and vocals build to a harder rock crescendo as the song ends in a flourish of distortion.

No Exits is a great little EP that nicely showcases Soft Shelter’s growth as a songwriter, musician and producer. I like that he’s exploring his rock side a bit more, while continuing to write compelling lyrics that draw from both personal and timely, as well as classic themes.

Follow Soft Shelter on Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase:  BandcampAmazon