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 / Twitter
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

JON MAGNUSSON – EP Review: “Always a Rebel”

Jon_Magnusson

Jon Magnusson is a songwriter and musician from Stockholm, and the first Swedish artist I’ve featured on this blog. He’s been writing and producing his own songs for over twelve years, but more recently has been putting a greater emphasis into playing, singing, recording and producing music. His sound could best be described as folk with touches of rock, pop and occasional punk influences and, as he muses, “an occasional jazzy beat thrown in to keep listeners on their toes.” His primary instrument is the guitar, both acoustic and electric, but he’s also adept at programming drums, strings and keyboards.

Another big interest of Jon’s is languages and literature. Speaking and reading Swedish, English and even Spanish, he’s found inspiration in different cultures and has recorded songs in all three languages. In addition, as a professional social worker he also appreciates how interpersonal relations can affect humans in a positive direction and he brings that to his music as well. And finally, though he’s not quite as passionate about politics as when he was younger, his sensibilities still lie left of center, and he’s always striving for a more equal society, which is reflected in some of his lyrics, and something that definitely has appeal for me.

In March, he released his latest effort, a five-track EP titled Always a Rebel. The first track “Rely on Me” is an upbeat message of unconditional support to a friend or loved one. The fine layered guitars, sparkling synths and peppy drums make for a really warm and pleasing song.

I’m Not the Only One” is a pretty, bittersweet song that’s rather sad but hopeful. About the lyrics, Jon explains “I wrote this song the summer 2011. I had just finished my social worker degree. I was feeling a bit tired living in Stockholm and wasn’t really sure what to do with my life. On top of that I had a period with quite a lot of anxiety so life was actually kind of rough. Luckily I had some great people around me, family and friends and most of all my to-become wife and the line “I can not sleep tonight, but I’m not the only one” was more or less literally written a night when I couldn’t sleep but at least I had someone with me to keep me company.

Musically, the track features glittery synths that create a cheerful, sunny soundscape, conveying a strong sense of optimism. The guitars and percussion are just right, and Jon’s vocals (which can be a little flat at times) sound really good on this track. It’s a beautifully arranged song, and my favorite on the EP.

The third track “Set Me On Fire” is an interesting song that touches on three subjects – mental illness, existentialism and the need to keep on creating. Jon explains “The song is totally built around the first line ‘Put something in my bloodstream to take away the pain, attenuate my anxiety, make me go astray.’ I actually came up with this one day thinking back a few years when I was dealing with a lot of anxiety… I got a lot of help thanks to a fantastic doctor and to some anti-anxiety medication, and so that line is somewhat of a tribute to those pills that made such a difference for me. I also remember how much I got helped thanks to other people being open, breaking the stigma around mental health issues.”

The second verse goes into a bit of a mined ground, challenging the concept of a god and an inherent meaning to life. ‘Don’t preach about eternity, while life is fairly well. Don’t lie to us I know that there’s no heaven there’s no hell. If Jesus is your savior, cross me off your list. In the end I might get burned, but I gladly take that risk.‘ Personally I define my self as somewhat of an existentialist. I don’t think there is any basic meaning to life that you are able to find through soul searching or religion. Life itself is rather pointless; you’re born and then you live, and then you die. What’s important is to create meaning to your life yourself, and most of all together with others.” Being non-religious myself, I totally identify with Jon here.

The third verse – “And keep that fire burning, don’t tuck me in to sleep. Whisper softly in my ear, that I’m the one you’ll keep. I might get overheated, I might put on a show.
But what’s the point in holding back, I never liked it slow.” – speaks to Jon’s feelings that he can’t be still, and always needs to find outlets for his creativity, no matter how exhausting it can sometimes be.

Musically, the track has a languid, pleasing melody that slowly builds to a crescendo. Jon and his sound engineer Ruben utilized chiming guitars, synths and crisp drums to create the beautiful sound, as well as a distorted glockenspiel that adds to the song’s charming quality.

The title track “Always a Rebel” is a lovely folk song that’s featured in two different versions. Both sound fairly similar to my ears, with a pleasing mix of acoustic and rhythm guitars and gentle synths, along with a sublime organ riff. The first version has a slightly more polished feel, whereas the second has a more relaxed folksy vibe, but both sound great in any case.

The lyrics speak to someone who enjoys the freedom and independence that comes from being an unconventional, rebellious sort, but at the same time missing out on some of the meaningful things in life: “You see yourself as disengaged, so casual and smart. And pity for the working man stuck in his car. No bills to pay, no gallows swaying over you now. But deep inside you’re longing for a life where you will never be a part. But a rebel, always a rebel you are.”

Always a Rebel is a very nice little EP that actually grew on me the more I listened to it and delved deeply into the compelling lyrics, many of which strongly resonated with me.

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

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

Good Night and Good Luck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU’RE AMONG FRIENDS – EP Review: “One Day You’ll Look Back”

YAF EP Art

You’re Among Friends is a Cleveland, Ohio-based band who play a laid back style of funky, blues-infused folk rock that just makes you feel good. Following up on their wonderful album As We Watch the Years Go… (which they released in July 2016 and I reviewed last year), they dropped a new EP One Day You’ll Look Back at the end of November 2017. It’s a short EP, containing four tracks totaling only ten minutes in length, but it delivers the kind of honest, relatable songs about life and relationships the band does so very well. Making the music are Anthony Doran (lead vocals and guitars), Kevin Trask (bass, keyboards and backing vocals) and drummer Frank Mirabelli, a recent addition to, and sixth drummer for, the band.

The first track “I’m Happier Now” is a pleasant, upbeat tune about the happiness and joy a loved one brings to his life: “I can barely remember what life was like before you arrived. So I know I’m happier now. All I know is that I’m happier now. It’s true.” Anthony’s jangly guitar nicely complements Kevin’s humming bass line, while Frank bangs out the mellow beat on the drums.

The guys get philosophical on the funky “Back to Work Tomorrow,” speaking to the soul-crushing routine of a dead-end job, and advising against letting it define your life. I love the rather cynical lyrics to this song, as I think a lot of us can relate to them:

Work your fingers down to the bone
But in the end what do you have to show for it?
Except a few dollars that you’ve already spent
Because the money rolls out faster than it comes in
Well it’s an uphill battle towards a long decline
If you let your work define your life
If you worry about it you will lose your mind
It’s not like you get paid to think
Time flies, even when you’re not having fun
One day you’ll look back and half your life will be gone
Well that’s all time that you’ll never get back
I hope it was worth it working so hard for the man

You Lost Interest First” has a country vibe with an infectious bouncy guitar riff and toe-tapping beat. The song’s about a couple who’ve both lost the feelings for each other that initially drew them together. A catchy, uptempo beat belies the somewhat negative sentiments of “Not My Thing.” With a hint of resignation in his voice, Anthony sings:

It’s hard to make me smile
You can try your best but it probably won’t work
It’s not that I’m depressed
I don’t try to be dark, I’m not a jerk
It’s just that smiling is not my thing
Don’t like the sunshine I like the rain

All in all, One Day You’ll Look Back is a nice little EP featuring songs with simple melodies and compelling lyrics that make for a highly pleasurable listen.

Connect with You’re Among Friends:  Blog / Facebook / Twitter
Stream their music:  Spotify / Napster / Google Play / YouTube
Purchase:  Bandcamp / iTunes / Amazon