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

ERIN INCOHERENT – Album Review: “Medusa”

Erin Incoherent LP

Erin Incoherent is a unique artist with a great name and a colossal talent to match. The self-described ‘singer, musician, poet, writer, mental health advocate, model, artist, makeup junkie, loudmouth and strong woman’ is a force to be reckoned with. Ever since her publicist Radio Ready PR contacted me about a possible review of her latest album Medusa, my initial intrigue about Erin and her music has grown into full-blown admiration as I’ve learned more about her. Through her honest, provocative lyrics, her writings for the webzine The Punk Lounge, and her involvement with the Trigger Warning program in Philadelphia, I’ve found her to be an unflinching and outspoken champion for mental health and issues like domestic violence and sexual abuse. She’s also a great vocalist and pretty damned skilled on the guitar and ukelele.

Born Erin Cookman, the young singer-songwriter got her start in Fort Collins, Colorado, writing folk songs and making a name for herself on the local music scene. In 2013, she released her debut album Ha Ha Ha, a collection of eight terrific folk-rock songs featuring only her acoustic guitar and strong vocals. She followed up in 2015 with a second album Miss Shitskey, which included four of the tracks from Ha Ha Ha, and later that year, released a 3-song collaborative EP she recorded with artist CinderBlock, simply titled CinderBlock and Erin Cookman. In December 2017, Erin moved to Philadelphia and in April 2018 dropped her third album Medusa, an 11-song manifesto on anxiety, trauma and pain.

Erin Incoherent

Erin’s music style tends mostly toward folk/indie rock, with punk sensibilities. She played guitar, ukelele, xylophone and sang most vocals on Medusa (with the exception of three songs she co-wrote with CinderBlock, who also sang with her on those tracks).  Tenaya Heredia played bass and Chris Beeble, who also recorded and mixed the album, played drums. The album opens with the title track “Medusa“, a catchy but rather harsh song about drug addiction, with Medusa symbolizing the monster of addiction. Erin’s aggressively strummed guitar and fervent vocals convey the powerful and conflicting emotions expressed in the lyrics:

I’ll take a, laid back, panic attack 
some Xanax mixed with, a tonic and Jack 
two and one makes three, keep your eyes on me 
20mg of Sertraline 

I’ll take one for the anger and one for fatigue, 
one for the restlessness, and one just to sleep, 
and if after half the bottle, your symptoms increase, 
don’t you worry too much, just call me. 

Medusa! Destroy me, my love forevermore 
the most beautiful thing I will see, 
Medusa turn me to stone
oh Medusa, leave me alone!

Ulcer” speaks to the pain and desolation from a failed relationship where love has died. Once again, Erin uses a metaphor, this time a broken home to symbolize her emotional state, and her lyrics paint a stark picture: “and the carpet was torn up to serve as a shortcut for people who’d rather have an easy way out / and the faucets are all rusted, don’t try them, just trust me / the last living occupants died from the drought.” The track opens and closes with a beautiful folk-sounding strummed acoustic guitar, but for the main part of the song, Erin’s more aggressive guitar riffs have a bit of a Spanish vibe.

Erin reunites with the singer/songwriter CinderBlock on three tracks, the first of which “How to Cope” speaks to struggling to keep it together and not let life’s problems from the past bring you back down: “I just need to stay off of that street at least until I’m strong enough to not sink to my knees. But every heartbreak song, like the falling leaves, are drifting through the branches of the very same trees of this rotten town, this rotten old temple.” “Lose Myself” is about weighing the consequences of surrendering yourself to romantic and emotional desires for another, and “Stronger Man” addresses the inability to get over an old flame: “I wrote ‘I miss you’ in your notebook, cause most days I do. And I don’t wanna see you, but it’s all I’m looking forward to. I remember drinking whiskey, making love, and making plans. I guess I’ll never be the stronger man.” Erin and CinderBlock’s vocals complement each other beautifully, melding together into sublime harmonies on all three tracks.

On “Destroy“, Erin sings of the damage she’s caused to a relationship, and wanting forgiveness yet knowing it may already be too late for that:  “I wish you’d forgive me. Cause I fucking hate this. The end of the rope, yeah, we’ve tied both the nooses unless you’ll have mercy AND JUST FUCKING SHOOT US! Give me a sign that’s conducive to Spring. Unless it’s too late and I’ve destroyed everything.” Her guitar work on this track is exceptionally good. “Fallen” seems to be about not allowing others’ expectations and possible disappointments in you keep you mired in guilt, and preventing you from moving forward on your own path: “Now I’m left with these scars that will not heal. The pain it devastates, but tell me, is it real? Sworn to a creed, their tired old motif. But this is not my cross to bear.”

One of my favorite tracks is “Echoes“, a dark song about a relationship that’s broken beyond repair. Erin’s skill at writing biting and meaningful lyrics is impressive, and I offer as evidence this line that so poetically expresses how two people who once loved each other could become enemies: “A smoke screen was raised, we could not smudge one another with no time to waste, how easy are foes found in lovers.” Her ukelele on this track is hauntingly beautiful, as are her emotionally raw vocals. And I love the excellent video that shows her singing the song in a graffiti-covered abandoned building that’s as bleak as the lyrics.

Splinter” speaks to the loss of self-esteem inflicted in large part by someone you once held up on a pedestal: “Oh girl, he’s just a splinter, his eyes whisper just a glimmer of the story you once told of gold in him” and the desire to feel good about yourself again: “Please, tell me I can be enough for anybody else. Please, cause I was so much happier when I could love myself.” Self-esteem takes a nosedive on the grim “Cheerleaders Smoke Crack“, another song about the struggles of addictive behaviors, with some brutally frank lyrics:

I watched myself burn out on the wrong side of the tracks,
I hitched a ride back, then watched myself fall off the wagon
It’s no use, I’ve tried, to hide in plain sight
This weight in my heart makes me try
a suicide attempt 26 stitches wide

Punk rockers, they never survive
They either burn out young or they change their mind
Not a safe place to be, for you or me
And junkies, they never grow old,
They either clean up their act or they overdose
And I guess, as long as they’re happy, I don’t mind

Alcoholics, truth be told, 
They only see their future in a bottle of Skol 
And I don’t wanna know those fools no more, 
I don’t wanna be that fool no more

And you scared me nearly half to death, 
You don’t look the same since you’ve been smoking meth, 
But we all have different ways that we lose sleep. 
We all have different ways that we lose…

The final track “Disturbia Suburbia” is also pretty unsettling. Erin plays ukelele, guitar and xylophone on this track, accompanied by a bouncy melody that sharply contrasts with the troubling lyrics about how suburbia is not all sunshine and green lawns: “An old friend killed himself before the start of Spring, I wonder if he left the weight of the world or if the weight of the world just left him hanging. / Leave it to me to get strung out, and freak everybody out then say, ‘I won’t do that again’. These days there’s nobody here, it feels surreal, so many years spent with kids I don’t even think I know, do they know me?  Disturbia Suburbia, and I hope we all get out, and I hope we all feel free.

Erin Incoherent covers a lot of heavy subject matter on Medusa, but it’s all deeply relatable and compelling, and sounds fantastic too. She’s an incredible songwriter and lyricist, and her guitar and ukelele playing are first-rate. I also like her strong, clear vocal style, which makes listening to her songs a real pleasure. All in all, I give a big enthusiastic thumbs up on this album.

Follow Erin on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream her music on Spotify / Apple Music
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

ITHACA BOTTOM BOYS – Album Review: “Ithaca Bottom Boys”

Ithaca Bottom Boys album

Being EclecticMusicLover, I love discovering interesting new music, so it was my lucky day when I was contacted by Leo Maniscalco, a member of the band Ithaca Bottom Boys, about reviewing their album. Hailing from the bucolic college town of Ithaca, New York, the five-piece formed seven years ago while still in high school, and ever since have been honing their craft by playing together and writing songs. On September 1st, they dropped their eponymous debut album Ithaca Bottom Boys, and what a delight it is! Their infectious eclectic sound is refreshing, surprising and lots of fun as they weave stories about the travails of life, love, substance abuse and relationship hell.

Comprising the Ithaca Bottom Boys are Tenor Caso (drums, vocals, aux percussion, acoustic guitar), Tristan Ross (guitar, vocals, aux percussion, piano ), Leo Maniscalco (guitar), Joe Hayward (banjo, vocals) and Abel Bradshaw (bass). In introducing his band, Leo had this to say about their music:  “Its difficult for me to describe our sound in a concise way, and no one song fully gives a representation of it, but here’s a go: we have four singers and songwriters, do a lot of vocal harmonies, and the songs are very dynamic with many changing parts and moods. They are also highly textural, featuring five musicians (two guitars, banjo, bass, and drums) each with unique yet congruous playing styles. It’s kind of folk and country meets rock and punk meets funk and soul, with splashes of other things thrown in, like hip-hop, jazz, psych, and prog.”

After listening to the album, I’d say his description pretty well nails it, and I love their eclectic music. I always try to include a few lyrics in my reviews, but the Ithaca Bottom Boys’ lyrics are so colorful and hilarious that I’ll be quoting them a lot.

Ithaca Bottom Boys 2

The album kicks off with “Blues in a Bottle,” a bluesy Rockabilly romp that sets a light-hearted tone and plants a big smile on my face, even though the lyrics address the guy’s messed-up woman who’s into some bad shit: “Blues in a bottle, blues in a bottle. Where do you think you’re at pretty mama. You went and kicked my dog, and now you drown my cat.Goin’ to silly-putty, goin’ to silly-putty. Sorry I can’t take you pretty mama. I don’t abide no woman, who goes round sniffin’ glue.” The song immediately segues into “Gasoline n’ Kerosene,” a very catchy tune with very morbid lyrics about how he killed the woman who double-crossed him, burned down her house, and was hung for his crime: “When I went to that house you said that you’d be, you took one look into my eyes, and you began to flee. And I said gasoline n’ kerosene you owe me money for. You bad ol’ broad you shot me down, and now you’ll be no more. / Well… Just before that lever did let my gallows swing, I saw my aged mother a weepin’ after me. And I said gasoline n’ kerosene I can’t believe my sin, My soul shall burn as you have done and never…Will I see your sweet face again.”

Winter Biking” sees the singer riding his bike into town on icy roads, taking a spill, and wishing he’d listened to his momma about taking the bus instead – all metaphors for the risks we take in life. “Thirty bellow but I’m still sweatin’. The devil only knows what I am gettin’ into. Well up a hill down a hill the struggles that I’ve been through. The thing about life is the road always continues.” The guys’ vocal harmonies on this track are especially wonderful. The guys change gears (pun intended) to an R&B vibe with the delightfully soulful love song “Baby.” The opening bass riff that continues throughout the track reminds me a bit of The Temptations’ classic “My Girl.”

One of my favorite tracks is “Hail to Dale,” which humorously takes on the perils of heavy drinking with a rowdy mix of music styles ranging from blues to bluegrass to funk. The lyrics are both funny and poignant: “Well… if I don’t dale a beer tonight, I might as well start a rowdy bar fight. Cause I hate myself and I hate my life. Pain and pleasure’s the same to me, and that all started when I was three, ’cause my daddy switched the bottle.

Continuing with the theme of substance abuse, the guys veer off into psychedelic madness on the marvelously trippy “Salvia Apple.” The zany track sounds like what we’d expect from the bastard children of Frank Zappa and Dr. Demento, with all sorts of melodic change-ups, quirky instrumentals and crazed vocals. The lyrics are hilarious yet deeply poetic, as if from a fractured Shakespearean comedy: “Salvia apple and a bottle of jack. All I’ve had to eat or drink and that is a fact. Don’t care if I go hungry I’m just lookin’ to get smacked. Pass out in the jungle by the railroad tracks./ I’m a derelict, no one cares if I’m recked or sober. Grown colder, shouldered at the might of a globe wide society. So deprived of life yet so maniacally living. My state be so squalor I take whatever I’m given.”

Flip That Record Jhonny” is a rousing Bluegrass/Rockabilly mostly instrumental tune that makes you want to kick up your heels. The guitar work and vocal harmonies are really terrific. And speaking of Dr. Demento, the guys get downright scandalous on “Demented Family.” The highly provocative lyrics seem to poke fun of a certain demographic, calling out incest and religious fanaticism: “Well my family tree’s got lotsa knots, and I get a lot o’tention from the cops, Cause incest on the ranch is plain to see. Pappy loved his sister and that made my daddy. And my daddy loved his sister too and that made little ol’ me. Well I never had no sister so I just loved my niece. I lessend my genealogy by stickin’ my D in her crease.” Oh my! They turn mellow as they sing the virtues of toking up on “Reefer Makes Everything Better,” a funny ditty with an early Lovin’ Spoonful vibe.

Perhaps the wildest track is “Summer Beavers,” the title being a play on the leading lyrics “Some are beavers, some are people…and most don’t really understand.” This long track is a real tour de force, with a mix of genres that go from blues to punk to country to funk to rap – sometimes all in the same stanza, kinda like The Red Hot Chili Peppers have done on some of their songs. The guys go crazy with bizarre lyrics that sound like being on an acid trip: “Rippin’ and a skippin’ like a minnow in the river. Susquehanna wit’ yo mama, catchin’ tuna on a canoe. Hock at me I’ll lock you in a rock up in Chautauqua. Yo hablo con Jorgito, necesito mucha agua. Pappy’s down the road in a jalopy popin’ poppy seeds, cruisin’ past the stoppers, coppers crackin’ down on acid droppers. Baller all are things, some are beavers. Tall like cedars, small like skeevers. We be eaters, feeders, bleeders, breeders, breathers, and beasts like golden retrievers, whaddap? ha-ha-ha.”

The guys seem to channel The Red Hot Chili Peppers again on the languid “No Regrets,” with jangly guitars, funky bass and vocals that sound a bit like Anthony Kiedis. They then abruptly change things up again on “Surfer NY,” an exuberant tune with awesome surf-rock guitars and a frantic punk beat. The explicit lyrics speak for themselves: “Surfin’ New York, yes I’m surfin’ New York. Havin’ sex on the rocky beaches. I’ve got lotsa rocks in my breeches. No I don’t know how they got in the laundry. No I’m not doin’ the nasty momma. No mama no mama no mama no. No those aren’t crack rocks don’t be silly. That’s just some crusty jizz from my willy. No mama no I’m not abusin’ myself. No mama no don’t kick me outa the house.” It’s an insanely wild trip from start to finish!

I must say that Ithaca Bottom Boys is unquestionably one of the most unusual and enjoyable albums I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing, and I love this crazy band! If you like unique, eclectic and unorthodox music, then this album should be in your collection!

Connect with the Ithaca Bottom Boys:  Facebook / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

LOUIE JAMES – Single Review: “Yellow Doors”

Louie James single

I recently stumbled upon a talented young singer/songwriter from Wakefield, England named Louie James, and was immediately struck by his fresh and honest take on folk rock. He started making a name for himself last year with the release of two stellar singles “Different World” and “Tonight,” and has now returned to grace our eardrums with his heartwarming new single “Yellow Doors.”

The track opens with a tender acoustic guitar riff that quickly drew me in, and once Louie’s soothing vocals entered I was totally hooked. It always amazes me when such a simple guitar riff can have the ability to move us so deeply. Louie’s earnest vocals have a breathy quality that’s pleasing and calming, yet at the same time so powerful. The recurring deep piano chord and whistled chorus are especially nice, adding lovely textures to the track.

The song lyrics speak to his feelings for his new love and how she’s made his life better.  “We’re chasing yellow doors, dreaming of the days. Keeping track the score of when our dark times slipped away. Before she came along, there was a shadow in my life. And I’m glad she stuck around. Made something right.” Take a listen to this beautiful song:

Connect with Louie:  Facebook / TwitterInstagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Apple Music
Purchase on  iTunes

FIE! FIE! FIE! – Album Review: “No Light For Lies”

Fie! Fie! Fie! album art

Fie! Fie! Fie! is a gloriously-named alternative rock band who make glorious music. Based in West Yorkshire, England, the band was formed in 2013 by seasoned musicians Daniel Varley and Pete Long, both of whom play some pretty mean guitar. Later joining the band were bassist Avon Blyth and multi-instrumentalist/percussionist Matt Burnside. (Burnside recently departed the band, though he’s played on all their recordings, and Marcus Ambler is a new addition to the lineup.) Daniel sings lead vocals, and the other band members provide backing vocals.

Fie Fie Fie

They’ve released a number of tracks and albums, including Can You Hear This? in 2015, and Live at St. Mary’s and a terrific single “Hit the Spanish Main” a year later. In August 2017, they released a double A-side single “Edge of Space/Everything I Told You”, which I reviewed, then followed with another single “Famous Liars.” This August (2018) they dropped a new album No Light For Lies, which includes all four of the aforementioned singles.

The guys describe the album as being about “Courage, Truth & Love – that there is no light for lies – yet there is light for the truth.” It opens with “Intro Venus,” a brief but captivating instrumental that immediately draws us in with a haunting guitar riff paired with dark synths. Having gotten our rapt attention, Fie! Fie! Fie! proceeds to blow our minds with the stunningly beautiful “Edge of Space.” Oh man, this song has one of the most arresting guitar-driven melodies I’ve ever heard. What sounds like lush synths is actually an effect that Pete put down on one of his guitar tracks, along with an achingly beautiful guitar riff that burns itself into your mind. It stayed with me long afterward, leaving me humming the melody and wanting to hear the song again and again.

Using metaphors of space exploration, Daniel fervently sings about finding enough forgiveness to salvage a damaged relationship, or possibly a damaged world: “Could you find a way, a way to see past this. Past the mess that we both left, could you see through it. Gliding through the stratosphere, could fall off, float away. There’s bigger fears alone up here as we try to find our way.” The song ends with snippets of what sound like old recordings of astronauts speaking from their spaceships, and a final dramatic flourish of distorted guitar.  It’s fantastic, and my favorite track on the album.

Another highlight for me is the fun and bouncy “Hit the Spanish Main.” As it’s title suggests, the song features lots of tasty Latin guitars, but the guys spice things up with jolts of gritty and distorted guitars in the choruses that have the effect of Tequila shots on a beer buzz. Daniel sings about leaving their troubles behind when they reach Panamanian shores: “Got red-faced about everything. Still it all gets better when we hit the Spanish main.” The guys change up the tempo again with the mellow folk-like ballad “Everything I Told You.” The silky layered acoustic guitars floating above a smooth bass line and gentle percussion are sublime, and I really like Daniel’s earnest vocals, backed by a dreamlike harmonizing chorus. Here’s a lovely live performance of the song:

Famous Liars” is a fascinating tune, with sweet acoustic guitars, gentle snare drums and an enthralling background whistle set to a delightful galloping drumbeat. The delicate whispered vocals add a nice bit of mystery to the track. “From the Wreck” speaks to overcoming adversity and moving on with your life, becoming a stronger person for it: “Come on, you’re that long lost mother’s son. Her unwanted Caesarean. Who’s skull she loved to smash against the paisley walls in the living room. / And after all that, and after all this, hearts still beat. Could care less.” The pleasing acoustic guitars seem to give a feeling of reassurance.

The guys shed light on hypocrites and phonies on the Americana folk songs “Bullet Points for the Bullet Proof“: “Your sped-up lines just don’t rhyme, so unctuous and overrated. If you could see past your nose, you’d be better off castrated.So declare your manifesto, then we’ll decide if we’ll abide you or throw you over the side”, and “Bleeding Obvious“: “Who do you think you are telling us not to go far. With your snide remarks and your half-assed retorts. Is it stating the bleeding obvious you made such a stink and a fuss? About whether we have the right. Well our needs are a must.”

The hard-driving “Bloody Lane” is a moving protest song against the senseless jingoism and profiteering that lead to war: “bunkers filled with bankers playing with remote controls. Squares count lives in dollars...”  They close out the album with “Outrospective,” a biting but optimistic clarion call for us to rise up against the tyranny and bullshit being foisted upon us by our so-called leaders and big corporate interests: “They bankrupt and bleed you more. Disrupt their aims, move to settle the score. / You pay your dues, they burn your soul. You’ll run them out, run into the light. Become free, become one. You can’t submit. Cast out the bullshit. / Come out, come on. We are so strong! Get it together, you’re not alone. Morning coming, we are the light!”

No Light For Lies is a wonderful album from start to finish, and every track is stellar, with not a single filler. I’ve had a few conversations with Daniel by internet, and I found him to be generous, thoughtful and kind. I admire this band’s philosophy and dedication to their craft, and love their music and lyrics, so they’ve got a huge fan in me!

To learn more about Fie! Fie! Fie!, check out their website

Connect with them on  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on  Spotify / Apple Music
Purchase their music on  Bandcamp / iTunes / Amazon / cdbaby

9fm – EP Review: “Little House”

9fm - Jarrod Pedone

I recently learned about an outstanding musician who goes by the artistic name 9fm – short for Ninth Floor Mannequin – after he posted his music on my friend Roy’s music sharing website Chatsong. 9fm is the moniker for the solo music project of New Jersey-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jarrod Pedone, and I was instantly moved by his arresting sound the moment I heard it. He melds folk with alternative rock, injecting bits of synth pop here and there to create incredibly pleasing music that seems to draw influences from such artists as Fleet Foxes, Paul Simon and Sufjan Stevens. And not only is his music brilliant and captivating, his poetic lyrics are so deeply compelling and filled with meaning that they seem almost Shakespearean. He’s just released a five-track EP Little House, and it’s marvelous.

Before getting into the EP, a bit of background about Jarrod to provide some context for his music, in his own words:

Before 9/2/12, I was a full-time musician, recording engineer and composer. On that evening while out for a run, I was struck by an intoxicated driver. I suffered a laundry list of injuries, the most concerning of which was the traumatic brain injury. When I eventually woke up, I learned that outpatient physical and mental therapy understandably left something to be desired in regard to musician’s skills recovery. I naturally resumed my career path. Little did I know that creating music was now going to be by far the most significant source of therapy that I’d experience.”

9fm2

9fm writes, performs, records, mixes and masters all this own original music, and to my ears, I’d say he’s recovered from his injuries quite admirably. He released his debut album Green & Blue for Blackness in 2016, and followed in late 2017 with the EP 5 Characters (In Search of an Exit), both of which are superb. Little House dropped on September 3.

The title track “Little House” kicks off the EP with layers of shimmering synths and fuzzy guitars set to a galloping drumbeat, gently transporting us into to a dreamy soundscape. Jarrod’s warm vocals are lovely, and even more so when backed by his own soaring harmonies as he plaintively sings of letting down his guard and being honest with his true feelings – that he wants to settle down and be married to the one he’s loved for a long while: “To say it all aloud. The things that I had thought for years. I wouldn’t want a change. I wouldn’t change. I want a little house & rings.”

Tin God” sees him coming to the realization that his lifelong quest to be the best, to be on top, to win, has come at a price, and in the end, did not bring the happiness he’d expected: “The goal was clear from day one. Perfect the game, sharing first place with no one./ Sleep in the hall. No time at all for love now. A legend or a tin god. I risked my life for just one try to dethrone. Well in the end, I did win best of all time. Not worth my time, you keep it, you can keep it.” The track has a progressive rock feel, with reverb-heavy chiming guitars, industrial sounding synths, assertive percussion and echoed vocals. I love the rather haunting melody that weaves throughout the song.

And speaking of melodies, “Allow Me” has one that’s absolutely captivating, in stark contrast to the song’s dark theme. The track opens with glittery, pulsating synths, then expands into a gorgeous soundscape of delicate guitar chords and sparkling keyboards, led by a gentle, driving beat. Jarrod’s layered harmonic vocals are beautiful, bringing chills as they soar. The biting lyrics speak to the facades people create to mask their fears, phoniness and uglier sides, and that doing so only diminishes them: “Lies & smiles are all we are. I think that I can’t keep up. Allow me to let loose, to scream it all. It feels so good to yell out all the truth & the hate that we hold.

Good People Bad” was inspired by a Twilight Zone episode called “The Shelter.” In a nutshell, a group of neighbors are at a dinner party at the home of the only family to have installed a bomb shelter (nuclear war hysteria was rampant in the late 50s-early 60s). After hearing a news bulletin warning of an impending nuclear attack, the neighbors panic and turn against the family that installed the shelter and, eventually, each other. (Quite frankly, this episode should be required viewing for everyone right now.)  Once again, the song’s hauntingly beautiful melody and music contrast with the dark lyrics. “The radio sent us all a noose. We pass it around ’til it’s right. The power of numbers can drive good people bad. Left no choice but to fight.”

The meaning of the final track “Absences V2.0” was a bit ambiguous to me, with my best guess being that it’s about how we identify ourselves and others through the prism of all the factors that comprise our belief systems and biases. But 9fm told me it relates to his accident, specifically about getting blood transfusions and how he lost some of his senses that were damaged: “We exaggerate the loves we lost on the way. Missing less each day, the pain, smell, touch & taste. The times that we had seems like they were fine. The saying isn’t true. Absences & hearts go fine.” Musically, the song is the most experimental of the five tracks, with mesmerizing chord progressions, otherworldly synths, and interesting guitar work.

To sum up, I can’t gush enough over this beautiful little EP. I love everything about 9fm’s songs; his lyrics, melodies, instrumentals, vocals, track arrangements and overall production values are all exceptional. I am a dedicated fan!

Connect with 9fm:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  SpotifySoundcloud / iTunes
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

ALLEN & DOUGLAS – Album Review: “The Spider and the Phoenix”

Allen & Douglas Album Art

Allen and Douglas are a singing & songwriting duo from Birmingham, UK who play an interesting and pleasing style of folk rock. They’re also two prolific guys, recording and releasing eight albums – containing an astonishing total of 128 songs – in under five years! (They pack a lot of tracks into their albums, with each containing anywhere from 14-20 songs.) Their latest offering is The Spider and the Phoenix, which dropped this past March. It’s an ambitious work with 17 tracks, and is essentially a concept album in two parts, though it flows beautifully as one large production.

Lifelong friends, Craig Allen and Steven Douglas began writing songs in their teens. In their bio, they expand a bit on their background and what the latest album is about:

“Strumming, singing and writing away in old railway stations and under canal bridges we developed our sound, harmonies and song-craft as young men through hard work and trial and error. Nowadays after several hiatuses due to differing work and travel paths, we practice and record regularly in a small bedroom studio in Birmingham, UK. We write primarily for pleasure, producing many genres of music. Our latest body of work ‘The Spider and the Phoenix’ is conceptual and charts a journey from depression to recovery.”

They also have a cheeky sense of humour (notice I used the British spelling):

Allen & Douglas funny pic

The Spider” kicks off the album, not only setting the tone on a musical level, but also establishing the overall theme of depression, represented metaphorically by a spider that spins its web inside our minds, gradually taking over our personality and poisoning our thoughts. The jangly, heavily strummed guitars and spooky keyboard synths lend an unsettling feel to the track, and the guys’ earnest vocals exhibit a hint of menace as they sing: “The Spider inside your mind spins and winds. The Spider deals in junk, what does he find? And I was doing fine.

The melancholy “I Can’t Stand the Pain” speaks to a relationship that’s unraveling: “You scream it’s finished. And I feel diminished.” Listening to the album, one of the things that strikes me is the strong Pink Floyd vibe running throughout, and this song reminds me a bit of “Comfortably Numb” with it’s interesting use of keyboards and sweeping synths.  And the even sadder “So Blue” finds the singer sinking into despair over his emotional abandonment: “So blue, so very blue. Drowning in memories. / Dissecting reality from dreams, I’m struggling upstream. / Rejection is a mother.

One of the prettiest tracks is “Set Sail Suite,” a mostly instrumental composition with hauntingly beautiful string and keyboard synths. The song is briefly interrupted in the middle with a sweet interlude of delicate acoustic guitar and the guys’ distant echoed vocals that sing “Set sail, set sail on your way. You never have the courage to sail.” “Dark Matters” is pure folk rock, and really channels Pink Floyd, especially in the vocals. The song has the singer lamenting his state of loneliness: “Since you left me I’ve been so lonely. / Dark matters swirling round my brain. Too much space drives me insane.” These feelings of loss are affirmed on “The Sun Went Out Last Night,” as they sing “I find myself crawling since she went away.”

“Nothing Comes Out to Play” and “Through the Eye of a Needle” wrap up the depression part of the album. Both tracks have some interesting music touches, thanks to a greater use of synths and organ.  The latter is a somber but lovely piece, and finds the singer concluding that the one who broke his heart is not a good person after all, and therefore not worth wasting any more tears on: “You didn’t realize you were dead in the heart. Trampling innocent people filled with fear. You were so busy doing damage. You didn’t realize you would leave tears along the path.”

Wrap it Up” is the first track of the 2nd half of the album “The Phoenix,” that represents recovery. It speaks of beginning the healing process by regaining your sense of sanity: “Catch your psychosis, wrap it up in cellophane. Don’t let it breathe. Squeeze out the pain. / Don’t bubblewrap your brain.”  “And When All Hope is Gone” is actually a quite hopeful tune, with tentative piano and electric guitar notes that gradually expand into a pleasing melody that seems to evoke sunshine breaking through a layer of clouds: “The sun will shine again, and it will lead me from this pain.” This sunshine is celebrated in the cheerful “Rainbows in the Sky,” and the jangly strummed guitars on the track are especially nice.

Yellow Blue” speaks to a brand new day, while the raw and bluesy “Quite Like You” has the singer extolling the virtues of a new woman who’s captured his attention and heart.  The track has some great guitar and honky-tonk sounding piano.

The Phoenix” is a declaration of survival and rebirth: “Found myself again. / Shook off the feathers. New feathers give me flight. I feel myself again. Same me, shining very bright. I feel I can fly, I feel I can soar holding hands with the sky.” The song is one of the more interesting tracks on the album from a musical standpoint, with a heavily-strummed guitar riff accompanied by xylophone and plucky electric guitar. At the break, the track transitions with an awesome psychedelic flourish of distorted guitar and organ that continues through to the end. The guys shout “Ha Ha, I am the phoenix!”

The guys turn their attention back to that exciting new woman who’s got their juices flowing on the bouncy, romantic tune “Overflowing.” And album closer “Sweet Sweet Dreams” ends things on an upbeat note, with the singer appraising his happy situation with his new love. It’s a pleasing ending to an expansive work that encompasses a broad range of emotions from pain, despair and bitterness, to acceptance, hope and, finally, joy. This was a terrific concept and theme for an album, and I applaud Allen & Douglas for their skill and success in translating their vision into a coherent and finely-crafted work of near-epic proportions. Their creativity, songwriting and musicianship are impressive, and they should be very proud of The Spider and the Phoenix.

Connect with Allen & Douglas:  Facebook / Twitter
Stream their music:  Spotify / Reverbnation / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on  iTunes

BEN WRIGHT – EP Review: “Lifeline”

Ben Wright is a singer/songwriter/guitarist from Manchester, UK – a city with a vibrant music scene, from which have come several artists and bands I’ve previously featured on this blog. I’ve also been a little amazed by the number of singer/songwriters in the UK that play folk or Americana music, some of whom I’ve also featured on this blog. But then I remember that American folk and country music has its roots in the music that British, Scottish, and later Irish settlers brought to America. In Ben’s case, his pleasing style of acoustic folk/pop is influenced by blues, rock, and even a little reggae. He released a wonderful debut single “Starry Nights” in October 2016, which I reviewed. Now he’s returned with a seven-track EP Lifeline, released in early June through Sound-Hub Records.

Ben Wright

For the recording of the album, Ben played guitars and sang all vocals, the esteemed musician/producer Barrington Mole (White Moor, The Further, Ejector Seat) played bass, and Dan Williams played drums. The EP kicks off with the title track “Lifeline,” a lovely song about not letting fear of failure keep you from pursuing your dreams. Ben sings of his struggle to make it as a musician, though the lyrics could apply to any type of performance art. His smooth, calm vocals are incredibly pleasing as he sings: “Cause I’ve been waiting so many years to see this blurry silhouette coming through these tears. Cause I don’t want to be waiting for another lifetime. So I’ll throw these dreams a lifeline.”

The song’s arrangement and production are on-point, and Ben’s slide guitar work is positively sublime. I really like the video that shows him and his fellow musicians performing the song. For the video, the supporting musicians are Chris Bull on acoustic guitar, Dave Fox on bass, and Alex Bayley on drums.

Ben states that he was inspired to write the beautiful second track “Starry Nights” “whilst travelling and sleeping in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand.” The poetic lyrics describe the simple beauty of a starry night in the rural countryside, unblemished by the artificiality or pretense of urban life. “Looking down from high above, they’re flickering til the day is born. No artificial beams can reach the sky. No piercing sounds will break the night. Starry nights reveal innocence. There’s no delusions and no hollow men.” The song has a lovely melody and acoustic rhythm guitar riff overlying gentle percussion and bass. Ben’s soothing vocals convey a sense of tranquility – that everything’s alright with the world. The charming video, which shows Ben walking and/or performing the song by a lake, nicely complements the track.

Visions of You” is an upbeat folk song about celebrating the love he feels for his girl, while the cheerful “My Hometown” has a peppy reggae vibe. One of the things I like about this track are all the different guitar textures, including the wobbly little riff that can be heard throughout.

A favorite track is “She’s Leaving Town,” a bittersweet song about the end of a relationship that leaves him blindsided: “She’s leaving town tonight. The boy has no idea what it’s all about./ That smile is just an illusion.” The track has a bluesy feel, and the funky guitars and bass are really terrific. “Home Beyond the Pines” is another great track – oh hell, they’re all great! It starts off with a a bewitching little guitar note that expands into a pleasing acoustic riff, set to a happy toe-tapping beat.

As I listen to each track, I’m struck by the serene beauty of Ben’s voice, and no more so than on the gentle folk song “Fight Against the Tide.” His vocals are tender and heartfelt as he sings the inspirational lyrics about not letting self-doubt and the setbacks that life sometimes throws our way keep you from moving forward and living your own truth: “Wash away your pride. Don’t neglect your mind’s eye. Trust the strength you have inside, and fight against the tide.” It’s another favorite of mine.

Lifeline is a marvelous, well-crafted EP filled with songs that make you feel good, even when the subject matter is not particularly happy. Ben’s songwriting, musicianship and vocals are all first-rate, and he should be very proud of this work. An accomplished musician, he also teaches guitar lessons on his YouTube channel, which you can check out here.

Connect with Ben:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Apple Music / Spotify / Deezer
Purchase:  iTunes / Amazon UK / Google Play

DARREN CAMPBELL – Single Review: “Wherever You Are”

Darren Campbell is a talented and hard-working 24-year-old singer/songwriter from Scotland who’s now based in London, UK. He’s been making music since his teens, releasing his first single “Find My Way” in January 2012. He followed with the EP Days to Come later that year, and has released a great number of fine singles in the years since. His latest is a beautiful song “Wherever You Are,” which dropped in May.

Darren Campbell single art

The track opens with a delicate jangly guitar riff and ambient synths, immediately enchanting our eardrums. Fifteen seconds in, the guitars and synths expand into an exuberant and gorgeous wall of sound, accompanied by a joyous toe-tapping beat. Darren’s strong, earnest vocals convey the optimism, hope and love expressed in his lyrics:

Wherever you are, wherever you go
Always watch the stars unfold
The love you wanted you could know
The lives we live are wonderful
When you think about me when you think about us
I don’t want you to fear babe
I want you to trust

In an interview with music blog Music Musings & Such, Darren explained his inspiration  for writing the song: “‘Wherever You Are’ is inspired by the need to travel and see what’s out there in the world. I have older brothers in the States, great friends living in different countries and my parents back home in Scotland. With this song, I captured the feelings I had regarding the need to get out of your comfort zone and experiencing life whilst still feeling close and connected with the ones you love, even if they may be half the world away!”

The gorgeous music video for “Wherever You Are” was filmed and edited by Patrick Zangl, and follows Patrick and friend Christina Canek, accompanied by their beautiful husky, in their exploration of South Tyrol in northeastern Italy.

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

PANDARAMA – EP Review: “Mixed Messages”

PandaRama

PandaRama is a creative young alternative pop/rock band from Miami, epicenter for the thriving South Florida music scene. (I’ve featured quite a number of South Florida artists & bands on this blog, including Above the Skyline, Sunghosts, Dyslexic Postcards, Xotic Yeyo, Raker and John Defeo.) I also happen to have an adorable cat named Panda, so it’s only natural I’d like a band called PandaRama.

The band was formed 2014 by Christian “Panda” Benabe (vocals) and Steven Quintanilla (guitar) while they were students at Miami-Dade College, and they were joined two years later by drummer William Snyder. In September 2016 they released their first EP 37.5%, a solid effort with five very good tracks, and in May of this year, they dropped a new EP Mixed Messages. They’re currently working on recording a full-length album, but wanted to showcase their softer side. So, they recorded acoustic versions of a few songs, which resulted in the more ambient and experimental approach used on Mixed Messages, and I think they turned out quite nicely. The songs all address troubled relationships with honest, biting lyrics set to sublime melodies.

For the first track “Toxic,” PandaRama skillfully melds elements of acoustic folk/rock with synthpop to create a great-sounding and powerfully moving song. Despite the dark subject matter, the instrumentals are beautiful, with Steven’s intricate, rapidly strummed guitar work, accompanied by swirling synths and a gentle drumbeat.  Panda’s commanding vocals are filled with emotion as he sings the bitter lyrics about a relationship damaged beyond repair:  “This could be toxic. The grievances we hold. This is toxic. The story left untold. Those beautiful lies we left behind. We slowly killed ourselves inside.”

Someone Save Me” is a poignant ballad about someone in a precarious emotional state pleading with a loved one to help him keep it together: “Give me a reason to stay. Why shouldn’t I throw it all away? Instead of you standing there, show me that you really care. Prove yourself to me. / Recovery is a couple of words away. Giving up is an action I won’t take. All I need is to hear you go ‘Someone save me’.”

My favorite track is “Sweet Daughter of Blood,” a lovely song about a not so lovely woman. The gorgeous music, consisting mostly of delicate keyboard synths and Steven’s exquisite acoustic guitar work, sharply contrasts with the scathing lyrics, sung by Panda with an icy bitterness:

Disguising your lies with those pretty eyes
Oh boy what a joy just to have you around
Dear pretty girl you reeked of disaster
Make your plans, have them run a little faster
As you separate all in the family

Fooled just a little
Harbored a meany devil
Sick twisted individual
Monster, monster, monster
We had a monster, monster, monster
She was a monster, monster, monster
There goes the monster, monster, a monster
Good riddance to the monster

Hey sweet daughter of blood
I’m kicking you from my life to throw you in the mud
Guilty, with treason in the family
You don’t really care, watch us suffer everywhere
But no, not today. In hell you will stay
So burn away

As the song draws to a close, the hauntingly beautiful guitar riff is gradually replaced with sounds of crackling flames. I love it!

Follow PandaRama:  Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / YouTube
Stream their music:   Spotify / Apple Music / Soundcloud
Purchase on  iTunes