JOHNNY KOWALSKI AND THE SEXY WEIRDOS – Album Review: “Until The Day”

Johnny Kowalski & Sexy Wizards album

One of the quirkiest and most enjoyable bands I’ve had the pleasure of featuring on this blog is Johnny Kowalski and the Sexy Weirdos. Based in Birmingham, England, the self-described “body-snatching carnival punk band” fuse Celtic, Balkan and Gypsy folk melodies with reggae, ska, mariachi, punk and rock’n’roll to create a uniquely eccentric sound that’s totally original, eclectic, and deliriously entertaining. In 2017, I reviewed their wonderfully marvelous album European English, and am now pleased to feature their latest release Until The Day, which dropped March 19.

Like many bands, they’ve experienced changes in personnel over the years since forming in 2009. Their current lineup consists of frontman Johnny Kowalski (Vocals, Lead Guitar), Chris Yates (Bass), Ilias Lintzos (Percussion), Matthew Osborne (Drums) and Katherine McWilliam (Violin). McWilliam is also violinist and vocalist for the Celtic rock band Quill, and her image is featured in the wonderful artwork for Until The Day, which was designed by Kat Bennett.

Until the Day is the fourth album by Johnny Kowalski and the Sexy Weirdos, and continues their tradition for making fun, generally upbeat songs while also touching on political and cultural issues of the day. Kowalski told me that while the album “doesn’t ignore the multitude of horrors being inflicted upon the world right now“, it’s also about “finding some hope and something to live for despite all that, even if that’s something as simple as celebrating the people around you.”

Things kick off with the title track “Until The Day“, a lively song that nicely encapsulates the album’s overall theme. McWilliam’s spirited violin takes center stage here, accompanied by gnarly guitars, exuberant drumbeats and a bit of funky bass to round out the proceedings. With his distinctive smoky vocals and delightful Brummie accent, Kowalski croons to his beloved about soldiering on together through good times and bad: “Let go of your secrets they’ll be safe with me / From the floor of this bedsit into eternity / We could live like pirates, each day standing tall / Fuck and fight for freedom until the day we fall.

The mood abruptly changes with “Flowers For Antifa“, a dark and aggressive song of protest against fascism. The raucous, punk-infused melody and harsh instrumentals are the perfect backdrop for Kowalski’s raspy, emotionally-charged vocals that sound a lot like The Clash’s Joe Strummer as he rails against those who fall prey to the hateful and divisive rhetoric of would-be fascist politicians and media talking heads. A verse in the lyrics express support for the militant anti-fascist movement Antifa: “I gave my money to buy flowers for Antifa / And to get the chance to shoot you I would trade in my guitar / When the war is over we will dance in sweet release / Feasting on the bones of all your sycophants and chiefs / Fall in fall out of line…” The song ramps up to a near-frenzy at the end, with Kowalski angrily shrieking “Good night alt right!” I wholeheartedly agree!

Smug Song” is a classic Sexy Weirdos tune, featuring a rousing gypsy folk vibe delivered with a colorful mix of instruments, highlighted by Lintzos’ electrifying percussive beats and McWilliams plucky violin notes. She lets loose with a terrific violin solo in the bridge that continues through to the end of the track. Next up is “Batch Music“, the first of two instrumental tracks on the album. The blending of fuzz-coated heavy electric guitar and bouyant violin give the song a strong Celtic rock feel.

The band shows their playful side on “Next Year“, which sounds to me like an old drinking song. The lyrics speak to letting loose and opening oneself up to any and all experiences and debaucheries that come along, and to hell with the consequences. We’ll worry about that shit tomorrow. “Pull down the ceiling again / Contact all your crazy friends / Wasted in weird foreign streets / Making memories we will not repeat / The circus is coming to town / Pretty girls bury your frowns / Weird women and men / They might not come again / Ah, fuck it, they’ll be back next year.” The delightful video shows Kowalski and a lovely, scantily clad woman taking turns on a stripper pole in the middle of a rather stylish room, while the other sits in a chair with their back to the person dancing.

Anarchist Barbeque (Egg For McGregor)” is the second instrumental, and once again, the combination of electric guitars, strong percussion and spirited violin give the song a wonderful Celtic folk-rock feel. The final track “The Dead Yard” continues the Celtic-gypsy vibe, with a bouncy violin-driven melody, gnarly electric guitars, a pulsating bass line and a frantic mix of exuberant percussion and snappy drums. I’m not certain about the song’s meaning, but my guess is that it’s about how on a certain level, our own truths are the ones that really matter to us in the end: “Deceivers will naysay but we’ll still be here / Believe us as we slay / The things you hold dear are gone / I’ll see you in the dead yard once again.” But whatever the meaning, it’s a fantastic song from a musical standpoint, and a fine finish to a terrific and highly satisfying album.

Connect with the band:  Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Apple Music / Soundcloud
Purchase on BandcampGoogle Play

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

Nath Jackson

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

Nath Jackson2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LIEMBA – EP Review: “Ever Evolving”

Liemba EP art

Today I’m pleased to introduce Brighton, England-based music act Liemba. I learned about them when one of the band members Simon Gledhill reached out to me about their new EP Ever Evolving, on the recommendation of another artist Fred Hills, who I’ve previously featured on this blog.  Primarily a three-piece acoustic act, Liemba was formed in early 2015 by Gledhill and Nelson Day, who share a love for folk-rock acts such as Crosby, Stills and Nash, early Fleetwood Mac, Kings of Convenience and The Staves.

Capitalizing on their skillful guitar work and sublime vocal harmonies, they released their beautiful debut EP All Costs in March, 2016, then toured throughout the UK and Europe promoting the EP. Vocalist Damien Best joined the lineup later that year, his own distinct vocals providing an added texture for what would become their wonderful signature three-part harmonies. They also began experimenting with drums and bass to create a fuller sound, and in February 2017 released their second EP Burning Wicks, another terrific work. I highly recommend that my readers check out these songs, which are available on all major music streaming sites, some of which are listed at the end of this review.

Liemba2

They followed up with a live acoustic EP Liemba Brighton Electric Sessions at the end of 2017. Moving ahead to 2018, wanting a bigger full-band sound, they recruited Brighton musicians Alfie Weedon on double bass and the aforementioned Fred Hills on drums to record some new material. The result was four stellar tracks recorded and released in 2019 that were ultimately included on a fourth EP Penlands. Subsequent to that project, the band retained drummer Hills and brought on bassist Joe Woodham to record their fifth EP. Gledhill told me this EP represents a new milestone in Liemba’s development, hence its title “Ever Evolving”.

Ever Evolving was recorded this past July at Ford Lane Studios (Royal Blood, Just Jack, Fickle Friends) in Arundel, West Sussex. The band recorded the tracks live to capture the dynamic essence of their sound, then Gledhill and Day spent the next month adding subtle texture and mixing the tracks, which were mastered by Simon James at Homesick Studios. Alice Humphreys filmed the recording process, creating live videos of each of the three tracks that give us a close-up view of the band working their magic.

The first track “PIP” really showcases their superb guitar work and vocal harmonies, both of which are so good they take my breath away. It’s not often that we see a band with three vocalists who can harmonize this beautifully, and Liemba are quite honestly one of the best at this that I’ve heard since Crosby, Stills & Nash. The layered chiming guitars are gorgeous, backed by crystalline synths, Woodham’s subtle bass and Hills’ flawless drumming. The lyrics speak of the heartache and sorrow brought by an evil woman you want to forget: “She’s cruel. The pip in my fruit. Swallowed she grows into the lump in my throat.”

Mirror Man” delivers gorgeous jangly and chiming guitars, along with more of those sublime harmonic vocals. The song is about conquering self-loathing, and learning to accept and love oneself in order to be able to love others: “Mirroman, I hate to bring the mood down. You’re the one person I should learn to love.”

The title track “Ever Evolving” speaks to how as we change (evolve), so too can our relationships, sometimes to the point where our divergence is too great for the relationship to survive. “Coz we are ever evolving. People only help or hinder. Revelations occur, make you realise you’re changing. Me oh my I’m bored of this life on a carousel. I felt like I’d moved but the scenery had too. And to my behest so had you.” Despite the rather bittersweet lyrics, the song has a bouncy, upbeat melody, with cheerful riffs and peppy drumbeats.

Ever Evolving is a marvelous little EP, and my only criticism is that I wish it contained more tracks! I’m so glad to have discovered Liemba, as I love their music. They’re incredibly talented songwriters and musicians, and I especially like Gledhill’s intelligent, thoughtful lyrics that speak to feelings we can all identify with.

Connect with Liemba:  WebsiteFacebookTwitter / Instagram
Stream their music:  SpotifySoundcloudApple Music
Purchase:  BandcampiTunesGoogle Play

OUTTAKE13 – Single Review: “Warrior”

Outtake13

Outtake13 is a recently-formed alternative rock band based in Wilmington, North Carolina. The three-piece is comprised of identical twin sisters Michaela and Annabelle Sanchez, and Calen Barbour. Michaela plays acoustic guitar and bass, Annabelle plays electric guitar, and Calen plays drums. Both sisters sing the lovely vocal harmonies.

Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Michaela and Annabelle began writing and singing songs when they were only eight years old. While in their early teens, they formed their own two-piece act Entangled Dreams, and went on to release two studio albums, an EP, and multiple singles. They earned awards for their music and played over 200 shows, all before the age of 17! After continually being asked “where’s your drummer?”, they decided to bring Calen into their act, which they rechristened Outtake13. On November 4th, they released their first single “Warrior“, an uplifting song of inspiration. The track was produced by Will Baker, front man of Wilmington band Hollow Intent, who I featured on this blog this past September.

About “Warrior”, the band explains “It’s meant to inspire the notion that nobody is alone in their troubles. This song discusses the power of art. How writing, composing, or just simply creating can give you purpose. With every bad moment, a fire is brought to the surface with the purpose to fight negativity. ‘Warrior’ portrays many messages but with one meaning: you can bring purpose to your life through a craft of your choosing, to take you from a dark place to a space with inspiration and drive. You can do anything, because YOU are a Warrior.”

The song starts off with Michaela’s strummed acoustic guitar, giving it a folk vibe, but soon Calen’s snappy drums and Annabelle’s resonant electric guitar enter the mix, taking things toward a heavier rock sound. It’s clear the sisters are both fine guitarists, and the interplay between their acoustic and electric instruments is really wonderful. Toss in their skill for writing an arresting melody, and Calen’s tight drumming, and the result is a powerful, uplifting backdrop for their vibrant harmonies. It’s a terrific debut for Outtake13.

Look into these eyes and tell me you don’t see a warrior
Don’t forget, I’m really no different than you dear
Overcome what you’ve yet to face and you’ll feel it too
Together let’s stand and become something beautiful and new

A blank space
That’s where it all begins
We’ve turned something meaningless
Into something colorful

Follow Outtake13:  Facebook / TwitterInstagram
Stream/purchase:  Spotify / Apple Music / Bandcamp

ANDREW NEIL – Album Review: “Freak”

Andrew Neil Freak art

Of the hundreds of artists and bands I’ve featured on this blog over the past four years, perhaps the most uniquely compelling life story would have to be that of Andrew Neil. The Virginia-based singer-songwriter is considered an “outsider” music artist along the lines of Daniel Johnston, and in fact, he now ranks as the #1 Best Outside Artist on Ranker, just above the late Johnston. The 31-year old has faced a number of daunting life challenges that would have crushed many of us, but his strength and resilience, as well as the incredible love and support of his family and friends, have enabled Andrew to flourish as an artist.

After growing up as a fairly typical kid and a high school athlete, Andrew suffered a life-altering event in Spring 2009 when he sustained a serious head injury in a car accident. The injury resulted in two significant changes for Andrew: 1) he began having a series of psychotic episodes, and 2) he started writing songs, despite the fact he’d never had any prior music training of any kind. During a psychotic episode in 2013, he stabbed his younger brother in the arm, which landed him in jail for seven months until his family and attorney convinced the prosecutor that Andrew needed help, rather than being incarcerated. 

His sentence was changed to not guilty by reason of insanity, whereupon he was released from jail and sent to a state mental hospital, where he received excellent treatment and learned to manage his illness. During the three years there, he wrote and recorded around 70 songs, on top of the 250+ songs he’d already written prior to his hospitalization. Andrew writes songs entirely by ear, creating the melodies on his rhythm guitar. He would record songs on a battery powered Tascam recorder, which his father Ray would then upload to the home computer. To date, he’s written over 400 songs!

Andrew Neil

Andrew was conditionally released from the hospital in May 2017, and moved into a group home in Charlottesville, where he still resides. Upon his release, he decided to produce an album of some of his songs, many of which were melancholy yet optimistic. Andrew hoped that perhaps his songs might help others struggling with similar mental health issues. The result was his debut album Code Purple – Andrew Neil, featuring 11 of the 70 songs he’d written while in the hospital. The songs were mastered by Vlado Meller, otherwise they were left pretty much in the raw, lo-fi condition as Andrew had recorded them. The art work for the album cover was done by his brother Kyle (the one he stabbed in the arm).

In 2018, he entered a studio to record his second album Merry Go Round, this time working with a number of accomplished musicians to help give his songs a more polished, fuller sound, as well as a more alt-rock vibe than his folk-oriented first album. Some of those musicians included Andy Waldeck, who also produced the album, on bass & guitar, Nathan Brown on drums, Gina Sobel on flute, and  and Jack Sheehan on sax for one track.

While it would seem that Andrew had already faced more than his fair share of challenges in his young life, in June 2019, while wrapping up the recording of his third album Freak, he was hit with yet another health crisis when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He underwent a grueling round of chemotherapy while the album was being mixed and mastered, and he and his family started a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for album production and marketing, garnering even greater support than expected.

Freak was released digitally for streaming on October 15th. It’s also now available on CD, and will soon be available for download, as well as a limited number of vinyl pressings. For the recording of Freak, Andrew was joined once again by Andy Waldeck on bass and Nathan Brown on drums, with additional musicians Matty Metcalfe on lead guitar, baritone electric guitar and marxophone, Nick Berkin on piano, and Andrew’s dad Ray on acoustic guitar and backing vocals on two tracks. His brother Kyle also did the arresting painting for the album cover, which was designed by Daniel Benayun.

The album is an ambitious work, with 14 unique tracks that address topics of love, faith, mental illness and self-identity. It opens with the marvelous title track “Freak“, and the first thing that struck me is its strong Red Hot Chili Peppers vibe. In fact, Andrew’s unusual, quirky vocals at times sound a lot like Anthony Kiedis. The intricate guitar work is terrific, and I love the track’s funky psychedelic grooves. Andrew’s simple lyrics speak of being a ‘freak’ as a badge of honor, something that sets him apart as a unique individual, rather than simply strange: “In every way, every day of the week, I’m a freak, freak, freak. I got a feeling, like a ceiling leak. And if I could, I probably would grow a beak, beak, beak./ What can I say? I’m so unique, I’m a freak, freak, freak.”

Next up is “Kentucky Whiskey“, a languid and lovely song about throwing caution to the wind and giving into temptation and vices. With a wistful tone in his voice, Andrew croons “Goodbye teacher, goodbye teacher, gonna learn rock’n’roll. Goodbye preacher, goodbye preacher, I’ve already sold my soul. Killing myself, killing myself, with a cigarette. Girl I know, yes I know that we just met. But I’m gonna, yeah I’m gonna make you miss me. Killing myself, killing myself, Kentucky whiskey.” He’s written a captivating melody here, and Matty Metcalfe’s marxophone lends an enchanting addition to the gorgeous guitar work. “Hope” is a pleasing ballad about a girl named Hope who lifts him up with her love and support. The interplay between the guitars and Nick Berkin’s tinkling piano keys is delightful.

By the time we get to the fourth track “Overdose“, it’s clear that Andrew has a real knack for creating compelling and memorable melodies. Each of the songs sound completely different, with an eclectic mix of styles that keeps his music fresh and surprising. This song has a wickedly seductive melody with fuzz-soaked driving riffs, and Nathan Brown’s sexy drumbeats that nicely complement Andrew’s lyrics about submitting to love’s ardor:  “Cause I’m about to overdose. Let my spirit soar. Become a ghost. Walk through your heaven’s door. Overdose.” It’s a great song, one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Help” sees Andrew crying out for support and understanding: “If you only knew all of the bullshit I’ve been through. Then you could give me no blame when I give the blunt a flame.” The jangly guitars and piano keys are sublime. “All Over” is a pleasant love song that starts off with Andrew rapping to a hip hop beat, then 20 seconds in it transitions to an upbeat pop-rock duet, with guest vocalist Savannah Weaver singing with Andrew. Their vocal harmonies are delightful. Here’s a snippet of lyric that provides a great example of his honest, straightforward songwriting that’s so relatable: “Because of you my heart beats. Because of you I got to wash my sheets.”

Awesome bluesy guitars are a highlight of the poignant “Put Me Back Together“, a plea for love and support to heal his broken soul. Andrew references nursery rhymes to make his case: “Mary had a little lamb. So will you love me as I am? / I’m a bloody humpty dumpty. And babe I need your company. Or else.” Another favorite track of mine, mainly due to the lyrics, is “American Dream“, a candid critique of the rat race. Andrew laments “I’m living the American dream, but things aren’t what they seem. I’m living the American dream, and it makes me want to scream. Wake up and go to work. Thank god my boss isn’t a jerk. People really aren’t so bad. But every now and then I get sad. So my doctor gives me pills They make me happy so I pay my bills. What would I do without my wine?

The optimistic “Drum Song” has an Americana vibe, with rousing folk-rock guitars, lively piano keys, and Appalachian dulcimer played by guest musician Roxanne McDaniel. Andrew sings of how the world would be a better place if people were more kind and loving to each other: “Love is in your heart, so find it and play your part./ This life would never be such a bummer, if we collectively loved one another.” Those wonderful bluesy guitars make a welcome return on “Beautiful Dancer“, a song about a woman who could be his savior or his undoing (romance can often be like that): “The birds are flying, or maybe they’re spying, or maybe they’re trying to let me know. That you are my answer, or maybe a cancer. Beautiful dancer. I’m at your show.” I really like the song’s rather sensuous melody, and Andrew’s vocals sound particularly good here.

Andrew takes a bit of an experimental turn on the trippy “Thirty-Two“, with more of those great bluesy grooves, accompanied by Andy Waldeck’s throbbing bass and some fine drumming by Nathan Brown. I love the lyrics “Take a shower, I feel dirty. In an hour, I’ll turn thirty. Life’s so fast and rough. I think I’ve had enough. Then I saw her walk back, and I knew I could make it to thirty-two.” The final track “Disappear” is a bluesy foot-stomper with an infectious country-rock vibe. I’m not sure, but the lyrics seem to speak of the mind-controlling aspects of blind faith: “Fork in the road. Choice is clear, do what you’re told, have no fear./We are free, when we do what it is that gods do. Disappear.

Freak is a wonderful album, made all the more special given Andrew’s remarkable talents, despite the many adversities he’s had to face throughout his adult life. His intriguing melodies, simple, honest lyrics, beautiful instrumentals and endearing vocal style have a way of burrowing into our brain and capturing our soul. I’m genuinely impressed by his imaginative songwriting and sincere musicality, and he’s a true inspiration for all who have experienced challenges, both large and small.

Follow Andrew:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Reverbnation
Purchase:  Bandcamp / cdbaby / Google Play

LAGPASS – EP Review: “Ostrich Approach”

Lagpass EP art

Lagpass is the new music project of a singer-songwriter and guitarist from Chicago who’s previously recorded under the name Draft Evader. I’ve featured Draft Evader’s music a number of times on this blog over the past two years, and have always been impressed by his deeply personal lyrics addressing his struggles with depression and self-doubt, then set to aggressive guitar-driven melodies, and backed with bass and drums. I’ve also enjoyed watching him grow and mature as a songwriter, musician and vocalist. Now, wanting his songs to feel even more honest and raw, he’s opting for an essentially guitar-only sound, recording under the new moniker Lagpass. When I asked how he came up with that name, he explained “Lagpass is a term my brother and I used to say when we would play National Hockey League video games. It’s basically just a missed pass after you hold down the pass button too long. It’s bound to happen at least once or twice a game and I catch myself saying “lagpass” all the time.”

He’s just released his first recording as Lagpass, a new EP titled Ostrich Approach, featuring four relatively short tracks that get right to the point with only his guitar and vocals providing the sounds we hear. First up is the title track, which seems to speak to solving your problems by eliminating the shit that’s complicating your life. His resonant, jangly guitar notes provide all the music needed to create a dramatic backdrop for his earnest, almost raspy vocals as he sings:

you can take your numbers
divide them by your clutter
then you should burn that old ski mask
you can take that platform
& add it to your ant farm
then you should dump it in the grass

so sick of hamsters, ghosts, zombies and vampires
I think it’s time that I light a match
but I’m allergic to sulfur
no need to sulk & suffer
here’s a lighter, it’s time to detach

On “Reassurance“, he ponders conflicted feelings of wondering if he’s going crazy, or just going through some difficult times, that everything’s basically okay, and you just got to deal with it. Musically, the track has a folk-rock sound, with fuzz-covered strummed electric guitars.

this constant stress and voices in my head
always talking questioning my sanity
something’s wrong with me
nothing’s wrong with me

replaced eating with dry heaving
two little devils resting on my shoulder blades
reacquainted with high maintenance
you gave your two cents
but you’ve still got hell to pay

i’m exhausted, still nauseous
just looking for a way to enjoy the day
reassurance is just a burden
can’t change nothin’ cept the way you handle fate

Old Ashes” speaks to the difficulties of maintaining a relationship, of the compromises we must often make to keep it alive, worrying about whether it can survive, and struggling with constant doubts. His clear, heavily-strummed electric guitar work here is wonderful.

I take up smoking again
just so I can be with you
I’m overthinking this mess
seems to be all I can do

do you love me?
she said prove that you love me

she got a new address
moved into her granny’s house
on an air mattress
with John Prine and Houdmouth
she said: “prove that you love me
do you love me?”

She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” addresses the sad reality that she’s moved out, leaving you to contemplate what went wrong, and realizing that perhaps it was doomed from the start, given each of your troubled pasts. Man, these lyrics are heavy, and so packed with meaning!

she doesn’t live here anymore
opened my mouth and held the door
scattered across the kitchen floor
she doesn’t live here anymore

don’t wanna live here anymore
too paranoid for close quarters
there’s silence down the corridor
she doesn’t live here anymore

two children both from broken homes
borrowing tape to mend their own

Once again, I’m really impressed by his intelligent and thoughtful songwriting and great guitar work, and look forward to following him on his latest musical journey as Lagpass.

SHIPS HAVE SAILED – Single Review: “Skin”

Ships Have Sailed 2

I’ve been revisiting a lot of artists and bands I’ve featured earlier this year, as so many are dropping great new music. Another such band is Los Angeles-based duo Ships Have Sailed, whose beautiful and moving single “Escape” I reviewed this past February. I loved that song so much it went all the way to #1 on my Weekly Top 30! They’ve just dropped a lovely new single “Skin“, which I’m thrilled to introduce to my readers today.

Formed in 2012 by songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Will Carpenter, Ships Have Sailed has included a number of musicians over the years, but now consists of Will and drummer Art Andranikyan. They play a pleasing style of alternative pop-rock characterized by beautiful melodies, thoughtful, uplifting lyrics, and sublime arrangements and instrumentation. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Will twice now, including just last Friday, and his kindness and warmth shines through in his engaging vocals.

“Skin” is about pulling down our barriers and allowing ourselves to become vulnerable in order to more fully connect with others in deeper, more meaningful ways. Being vulnerable to uncomfortable emotions and pain in turn enables us to feel empathy and sympathy toward others. About the song, Will explains: “Has anyone ever told you that you need to grow a thicker skin? I can’t even count how many times people have told me that. But they’re essentially telling you to numb your feelings, and I think that our feelings and emotions are the essence of our humanity. The music I create wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t lean into my emotions when I’m writing, and so ‘Skin’ is my way of expressing that I’m content with feeling as much as I do…even if it hurts sometimes.”

Musically, “Skin” is more stripped down from their typical sound, with an incredibly pleasing folk/Americana vibe. The instrumentals consist primarily of lovely strummed guitars, including acoustic guitar by guest musician Steve Stout, accompanied by delicate, crystalline synths and Art’s gentle percussion. Will’s smooth, heartfelt vocals exude a tender vulnerability expressed by the poignant lyrics:

It may be thin, but I love it,
feel the pain, rise above it

We don’t have to wound each other,
you’re my sister, I’m your brother

Open heart, open eyes
let them in…this skin so thin

The beautiful, heartwarming video shows scenes of Will and Art walking various streets in Los Angeles, as well as Will getting a ship tattooed on his back at Golden Daggers tattoo studio, and several people in a range of emotional states posing for pictures at The Spot photo studio on Sunset Boulevard. It was directed and produced by Michael Easterling and Jaala Ruffman of Talkboy TV and filmed by David Parks.

Connect with Ships Have Sailed on  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on iTunes  / Google Play / Amazon

PAUL RENNA – Single Review: “All My Life”

Paul Renna

This lovely piece is by guest reviewer David Thurling, whose son James Thurling was until recently frontman of the British alt-rock band Revolvers, and now a member of Bitter Lime. I previously featured Paul Renna this past February, when I reviewed his beautiful single “Bound to Love”.

Paul Renna has long established himself as a genuinely talented singer/songwriter with his roots firmly embedded in the Lone Star state.  While not venturing too far into either the heavier blues sound often associated with Texas rock nor the well-worn path of Country blues or Americana folk, his music seems to straddle all three with a joyous charm.  He has the unique ability to explore often poignant and melancholic themes with a gentle and genuine sincerity so wonderfully captured by his deft vocal talent. There is an edge to his voice that when coupled with often painful lyrics brings out a truly emotional response,  In his new single, “All My Life”, Paul continues with themes of love and reconciliation albeit in an entirely up tempo, toe tapping rocker that is overflowing with hope, passion and the promise of a wonderful life to come.  This is a song that is undeniably commercial with first-class production qualities and catchy, jangly guitar hooks.

“All My Life” kicks off with a “Springsteenesque” count in and in some ways, delivers its humble narrative in a manner that would no doubt sit comfortably with The Boss.  Country influenced guitar licks weave in and out of a driving drum and bass pattern – not too heavy, not too light.

Lyrically Paul is not treading any new ground here but as is often the case, when it’s personal, the simple yet heartfelt pleas of forgiveness take on a universal appeal.  Apart from anything, it’s a damn catchy melody that demands to be sung along with while breezing along the highway with the top down.

Lay me down, and get my feet off the ground
I’ve been running for so long, running for so long.
Watch over me, make a wish and try to believe
You’ve been helping me this far, helping me this far

All my life, it’s been you
Please give a little bit of your heart,
Give it to me, give it to me
Please can’t we go back to the start
I’m on my knees, I’m on my knees for you

With several forthcoming shows in and around Dallas, it would be well worth the effort to spend a night with a genuine troubadour who’s infectious songwriting will certainly beguile you.  In “All My Life”, Paul has knocked out a fantastic dance floor filler.

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

 

HOLLY REES – Single Review: “Getting By”

Holly Rees single art

The music industry is as alive and well as it’s ever been, with so many artists and bands continuing to put out great music, and it seems many of them are releasing new music today, Friday the 6th of September! One such artist dropping a new single today is Holly Rees, a delightful indie folk singer-songwriter based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. Her thoughtful, relatable lyrics, infectious melodies, skillful guitar-playing and lovely, heartfelt vocals have earned her critical acclaim and a loyal following, with flattering comparisons to the likes of Laura Marling and Courtney Barnett.

Holly launched her career with her debut EP Ilex in 2017, receiving airplay on BBC 6 Music and a feature on Tom Robinson’s BBC Introducing Mixtape. In 2018, she performed at the Hit The North and Evolution Emerging music festivals, and followed up with her excellent second EP Slow Down. She released “Text Me When You Get There”: The Live EP in May 2019, and is now back with a wonderful new single “Getting By“.

The song was written and performed by Holly, who played guitar on the track, with assistance from Rhys Melhuish on drums, Ryan Peebles on bass, and Olivia Ord on keyboards. It was recorded at Loft Music Studios, and mixed and mastered by Matt Dunbar. About “Getting By”, Holly explains  “This is a song about struggling with mental health – how things can be really good and really bad at once, and ultimately how sometimes just getting through it is all you can do, and that’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay to just survive. The tide will always come back in.”

The song has a bouncy, upbeat tempo that contrasts with, yet complements, the more serious lyrics. Holly’s pleasing strummed guitar takes center stage, and her supporting musicians do a fine job keeping the rhythm and adding texture and depth to the track. I really like her vibrant vocals that beautifully convey both resolute strength and a vulnerable world-weariness as she sings her honest, poetic lyrics:

Oh we’re just like everyone we know
Far too young to be this old

I’m doing great, I’m doing fine, I’m doing terribly
I’m confident, intelligent, I’m scared of what you think of me
Crossing oceans of emotion for the notion of some dopamine
There’s no lesson in depression, it’s just a question of getting by

Holly’s been touring Canada since mid-April, and has another six weeks left of her tour, so those of you in Eastern Canada still have an opportunity to catch one of her shows:

Holly Rees tour dates

The sweet cover art for the single was created by Dale Glenister, who has her own music blog Peanut Mixtape (which is currently on hiatus).

Connect with Holly:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream her music: Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase:  Bandcamp / Google Play

CULANN – Album Review: “The Great Ecumene”

Culann album

Culann is a band from Irvine, in North Ayrshire, Scotland. Comprised of PJ Kelly (Vocals, Guitar), his brother Sean Kelly (Drums), Greg Irish (Guitar), Ross McCluskie (Keyboards) and Calum Davis (Bass), they blend folk, Celtic-rock, alt-rock, prog rock and even a bit of reggae to create their uniquely colorful and dynamic sound. Largely ignoring the norms of conventional song writing, they employ complex melodies, time changes and a perfect fusion of traditional Scottish music with a contemporary lyrical approach, resulting in a deeply satisfying and distinct sound. Since forming in 2008, they’ve performed the length and breadth of their homeland, gathering adoring fans along the way.

They released their self-titled debut album Culann in 2012, and after dropping a few singles now and then, they returned this past April (2019) with their second album The Great Ecumene, which I’m reviewing today. Curious as to what ‘Ecumene’ means, I checked Wikipedia and learned that it’s an ancient Greek term now used by geographers to mean inhabited land. It generally refers to lands where people have made their permanent home. Accordingly, many of the album tracks touch on various aspects of Scottish life and its history, and its strong connection to the sea.

The album opens with “Evonium“, a jubilant, monumental song with symphonic rock overtones that call to mind the great 70s bands Yes and Boston, with a bit of a nod to Dream Theater. The song was first released as a single more than two years ago, in May 2017. Once again, I was compelled to Google ‘Evonium’, and found the following:

Evonium is a purported lost city in Scotland that was first described by Hector Boece in his 16th-century Scotorum Historiae. According to Boece, it hosted the coronation of forty kings and was located in the Lochaber area.” Writer A.J. Morton has suggested that if Evonium actually existed, it could have been located at the band’s home of Irvine, Ayrshire. Culann assembles a rich mix of roiling guitars, exuberant piano and organ, and lots of percussion to create a powerful song befitting of the epic saga of Evonium. Lead vocalist PJ Kelly passionately sings of how the historic legacy of Evonium has shaped the lives of all who are born there:

Blood of this town, the place where I was born
A strength that’s driven in across the sea
Cut from the coast, we wake with price each morn
For all that’s past, it’s richest history
We owe our lives to our western home
Where kings and rulers stole their destiny
Shaped their lives and carved them into stone
With all that’s seen and all were yet to be, all were yet to be 

Now I understand
It’s all because I’m from Evonium
Now it’s in my hands
The greatness past fuels greatness not yet done that’s still to come

The beautiful video shows scenes of the band performing the song in historic Dundonald Castle, interspersed with scenes filmed in the Scottish countryside and Duncarron Medieval Village, a replica of an early Medieval fortified village. The album version of the track includes a somber but beautiful synth instrumental beginning at 4:15 that continues through to the end.

Next up is “Event Without Experience“, a rousing, melodically complex extravaganza of Celtic prog-rock brilliance. The intricate guitar work is fantastic, and nicely complemented by some fine keyboards, humming bass, and aggressive thumping drumbeats. I really like how PJ’s Scottish brogue shines through in his fervent vocals. Culann deliver more Celtic folk-rock grooves with the philosophical drinking song “Brewing of Ale“, and once again, the guitars, keyboards and rhythm section are perfection. The just-released video was directed & edited by Stuart Breadner, and filmed on location in Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, and the Galloway Forest Park.

Century Box” is a stomper of a tune that took a couple of listens to grab me, but once it did, I couldn’t get enough of that wonderful melody. The lively guitars are killer and I love how they perfectly meld with the piano keys, something this band does so beautifully in many of their songs. The terrific organ riff and guitar solo in the bridge are real treats.

The title track “The Great Ecumene” is a near-epic six-minute-long ode to Scotland. This is true progressive rock, with a meandering (in a good way) melody, highlighted by a smooth organ riff and accompanied by delicate piano, measured drums and a wondrous mix of guitar textures that pull you deeply into the song. PJ croons about the complexities and contradictions of his homeland: “My country is bitter. My country is cold. My country is beautiful. My country is bold. My people are bitter. My people are cold. My soul it is sacred. My spirit is sold./ Join the great ecumene, see what you find. A road never ending, stretching through time.” Everything ramps up to a crescendo in the chorus, with impassioned vocal harmonies and a cascade of crashing cymbals for a dramatic finish.

Culann keep the energy flowing on “All Reverie” with rolling guitars, galloping drumbeats and passionate vocals. “Sunken Ships” appropriately opens with underwater sounds, then launches into a glorious mix of jangly guitars, sparkling piano keys, pummeling drumbeats and a deep, humming bassline. “Aegis” is perhaps the most high-energy track on the album (and also the shortest, though still running 3:51 minutes). Frantic riffs, pounding drums and exuberant piano keys make for a real banger of a track. PJ earnestly sings the lyrics to someone who’s been his aegis, or shield, helping him to overcome some of his self doubts and fears: “Closely, look at where I have come from. You made me, you taught me to be strong and lead the way. I can’t face the outside on my own. I can’t understand them. I can’t bear the inside, my unknown. Please don’t make me stand there alone.”

The guys really show us what they’re capable of on “Man Alive“, one of the standouts on an album filled with standouts. Running over seven minutes, this song has it all: melodic change-ups that hold our attention, complex and intricate guitar work, enchanting keyboards, a marvelous funky bassline, and some of the most impeccable drumming I’ve heard in a while, not to mention PJ’s always-great vocals. As I’ve mentioned on previous tracks, the interplay between the guitars and keyboards here is so freaking good. Finally, despite it’s length, “Man Alive” seems much shorter, always a sign of a great song (unlike some songs that seem to go on forever, with me wishing they’d come to a quicker end).

The lyrics speak to the resilience of the Scottish people: “Come gather ’round, meet the gladdest man alive. You see him everyday. Come gather’ round, meet the saddest man alive. He’ll never tell you so. A blackened sense of pride. No man alive could meet the broken soul of mine.”

The song immediately segues into the closing track “Queen Street“, a poignant ballad about life on the streets of Glasgow. The song has a more stripped-back sound than their other tracks, with mainly acoustic guitar, delicate piano and gentle percussion providing a somber backdrop for PJ’s heartrending vocals. With a strong sense of despair and pain, PJ laments: “I never needed a human being more. Sat down in the street, with a cup down by my feet. Oh but nobody seen me and the traffic arrow moving ’em on. And if I needed something, and I could reach out to you and I’d ask. I would beg of you one thing. Don’t make me beg for it. And if I needed someone, but I’ve turned my back on everyone that I had. I would beg of you one thing. Don’t make me beg for it.

Like a lot of progressive rock, it took me a couple of listens to fully appreciate all the nuance and complexity of the songs on The Great Ecumene, but once I totally immersed myself in the music, it really came alive for me. It’s a beautiful album, and Culann’s songwriting, lyrics and musicianship are all quite impressive. These guys are masters of their respective instruments, and operate as an incredibly tight unit to create music that’s flawless, exciting and a joy to hear.

Connect with Culann: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music: SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloud
Purchase: Bandcamp / Big Cartel