GRANFALLOON – Album Review: “CALENDAR”

I continue to be astounded by all the creativity and talent coming out of the British music scene, and one of my favorites (who I’ve been following for several years) is Granfalloon, the music project of Manchester-based singer-songwriter, producer and guitarist Richard Lomax. Using acoustic guitars, synthesizers and drum loops, along with unusual instruments such as vintage Omnichords, the engaging, curly-haired artist creates his own unique style of music that’s a pleasing hybrid of lo-fi alternative folk, experimental and electronica. His songs are enchanting little stories touching on the many idiosyncrasies of everyday life, but with a dollop of quirky surrealism to keep them fun. And his warm, soothing vocals, delivered with a lighthearted cheekiness and charming accent, are so wonderful I would literally enjoy hearing him sing the telephone book. Simply put, his songs make me feel happy.

Since forming Granfalloon in late 2016, Lomax has released a fairly steady stream of singles and albums, beginning with his debut album Down There For Dancing in 2017. He followed two years later with his beautiful second album RGB, then dropped his marvelous third album Positive Songs in August 2021, a collaborative work featuring 11 tracks produced for The Positive Song Project, launched by Lomax and his friend Lobelia Lawson during the first lockdown of 2020. They invited songwriters to create new music by challenging themselves to focus on positive aspects and feelings, rather than negative or depressing songs about feeling isolated and bored during lockdown. The response was overwhelming, resulting in the creation of over 300 tracks by artists from around the world. (I reviewed two of the tracks from Positive Songs – “Working On Your Own” and “The Pigeon” – which you can read by clicking on the Related links at the end of this post.)

Now he’s back with his fourth album Calendar, featuring 12 delightful tracks. I’ll leave it to him to explain his inspiration behind the album’s creation: “The roots of this album can be traced back to 2014, when I was recording a debut album with my previous band. It was the 13th time I had recorded that album. Getting it right was proving difficult… A different approach was needed to keep things fresh. I would write new songs, one every week, without perfectionism weighing down the process. By the end of 2014 I had amassed 52 new songs, each one reflecting the week I’d experienced, all framed as fevered journal entries. After founding Granfalloon in 2016 and releasing two albums, I went into the studio in February of 2020 to begin the task of committing definitive versions of the songs from my ’52 Project’.

Obviously the pandemic put the project on hold and ironically, now everyone had a double album of songs squirrelled away. But I never wrote because I had too much time on my hands. Writing has always been a matter of necessity for me. I returned to the studio again in 2021 with a core band from the Positive Songs Project to whittle down the original 52 to 12 songs. These 12 songs comprise this new album ‘Calendar’.”

In addition to Lomax, who sang lead vocals and played guitars, Wurlizter, Omnichord and melodica, a host of other musicians contributed their talents on some or all of the songs, adding a colorful kaleidoscope of instrumental sounds and textures: Daz Woodcock (bass, vocals, organ, keys), Andy Lyth (drums, percussion, banjo), Cleg (guitars, mandolin, vocals), Garreth Knott (trumpet), Sarah-Jane Pearson (vocals), Caffs Burgis (vocals, synths), Dom Major (guitars), Ellie Boney (cello), George Burrage (violin), Robin Melinda Koob (violin), Molly Becker (violin), Tim Davies (drums), Jack Wakeman (bass), and Jason Alder (contrabass clarinet).

The songs encompass an array of styles, from the exotically folksy “Witch of Woodplumpton” and seductively bluesy “Eulerian Circles“, to the whimsically poppy “Bee on a String” and Americana-tinged “A Year After the Party Died“. But the one thing they all have in common is their outstanding arrangements, instrumentation and production values. The album kicks off with “Archive“, which opens with Jason Alder’s fascinating contrabass clarinet notes, nicely accompanied by twangy guitars, George Burrage’s violin, Ellie Boney’s cello, Tim Davies’ military-style drumbeats. and Sarah-Jane Pearson’s gentle vocals.

I like all the songs of Calendar, but I’ll call out some of the standouts for me, as well as some particularly lovely little moments heard on a few tracks. The aforementioned “Witch of Woodplumpton” is pleasing, but with a mysterious undercurrent, and lyrics that speak to the historic and ongoing oppression of women: “From Mary of Eden to Joan of Arc, we’ve been burning and burying you from the start. You have to dig your way out of your own grave.” Richard’s intricate guitar work is sublime, and I think I also hear Cleg’s sweet mandolin notes. And once again, we’re treated to Sarah-Jane Pearson’s smooth backing vocals, Ellie’s lovely cello, and George’s violin, with added violin by Robin Melinda Koob for good measure.

Paint It By Numbers” is a cheeky number sung from the perspective of a professor who can only express their love through mathematical figures: “Shall I compare thee to the fundamental theorem of algrebaic K-theory? Like Pythagorus said, something’s deeply irrational about the square root of 2 where the 2 are me and U. Let me show you the numbers. Tell you in numbers. Lay down the numbers. Paint it by numbers 4 U.

Far and away the highlight for me on the album is the thoroughly enchanting “Please Write Responsibly“, which tells the story of an innocently-written song that goes rogue: “This yarn had caused more harm than was ever my intention. I’d only scribbled words on paper, I hadn’t wanted this destruction. I mean, whoever got hurt by a story? What song brought a government to its knees? What poem dismantled a tank, or started World War 3? And As I tracked the trail of carnage caused by my fantasy, it leapt right out of my computer screen and began to attack me. My Story tore me limb from limb, all the while screaming with glee: ‘Words are more powerful than you ever could conceive So please write responsibly!’” The beguiling song features the musical handiwork of Richard and Dom Major on guitars, Molly Becker on violin, Daz Woodcock and bass, and Andy Lyth on the sweet banjo. I love this song, which is currently enjoying an extended run on my Weekly Top 30.

Another favorite is the bouncy “Bee on a String“, with its lively guitars and Garreth Knott’s warm trumpet. The lyrics describing a woman who keeps a bee on a string trapped in a tupperware box in her refrigerator are an allegory for keeping her man similarly under her control: “I know you’re fascinated by me but won’t you let me be free? Why won’t you let me bee free? O must you keep me in a deep freeze. It makes me sleep so you keep me, and she keeps bees in a deep freeze...”

O Joyce” tells the story of a Joyce over a 60-plus period of years, beginning with how her mother bought a pet Macaw who she named Bobby Corwen when Joyce was a young child. It’s a cute little ditty, with some nice trumpets by Garreth and guitar, Wurlizter and Omnichord by Richard. I also like how he whispers in a slightly seductive voice, “Joyce, make us a cuppa tea“, after each verse.

All My Old Lovers (live on the same street)” is a rather wistful, introspective song about past loves, loss, and the need to move on and away from judgmental neighbors and gossiping tongues: “All the meetings they’ll have about this and that, make you feel so exposed. In a small town like this all you do is exist. This is no place to heal. It’s time to move on – You can’t live here any more.” The song is lovely, with a bit of a melancholy undercurrent, highlighted by gentle chiming guitar notes, cello and violin. Richard’s smooth vocals convey a slightly sad sense of resignation.

In a similar vein, “The Day the Party Died” speaks to loss and the passage of time, with references to several mythical characters like Ahab, Peter Pan and Cupid to drive home the inevitable changes that happen with time. Not all of these changes are for the better, expressed in the lyrics “They’ve turned the club into a takeaway. They’ve turned the pub into a takeaway. They’ve turned our home into a takeaway.”

But then on the album closer “Rushmore“, Granfalloon admonishes us to look to the future with hope and optimism, and not dwell in the past: “Don’t waste your life on a memory. The wind will change, both kind and strange. It’s never as dark as you think.” The song is another favorite of mine, as I love the dramatic shimmery electric guitars and beautiful soaring vocal harmonies in the chorus. It’s a fine finish to a delightfully charming album. With Calendar, Richard and his fellow musicians have created a lovely and thoughtful work that makes for a thoroughly enjoyable listen, for which they should be very proud.

Follow Granfalloon:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

His albums are only available as a digital download on Bandcamp and in CD format, though several of his singles are also available for streaming on SpotifyApple Music & Soundcloud.

RICK SABATINI – Album Review: “There Goes the Van Man”

I recently learned about Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Rick Sabatini when he reached out to me on Facebook about his album There Goes the Van Man. Released on New Year’s Day, the album features nine wonderful tracks with lighthearted relatable lyrics addressing the emotional minefields of romantic entanglements and responsibilities of young adulthood. It’s his second album, marking an eight-year span since the his first release Album 1 Demos back in November 2013. A delightful collection of lo-fi acoustic songs, Album 1 Demos is available for free download on his Bandcamp account.

Rick, who’s also been a member of The Band Sheep for the past several years, told me he composed most of the the songs for There Goes the Van Man five or six years ago on his iPad, but didn’t have the money to properly record it in a studio at the time. So, he started his own business doing painting and carpentry to earn money to fund the record, as well as earn a living, since he’d gotten married and had a child along the way. He finally recorded the album in a studio with the help of session musicians, and the result is a really enjoyable and well-crafted work.

Rick’s pleasing, highly accessible music can generally be described as indie pop with elements of folk, rock and jazz, and characterized by catchy melodies, lots of great guitar work and his endearing laid back vocals. The album opens with “At Your Service“, a sweet song about finding romance while working at a shoe store: “Just another day at the shoe store, the meet and greet, the fit your feet and send you out the door. Some of them I know by first name, and last name too. / If there’s anything that I can do for you baby, I’m at your service like a god at your church while you’re preachin’.”

Next up is “Van Man“, a terrific auto-biographical song about Rick that also serves at the de-facto title track, given its refrain “There goes the van man.” He croons about his workday routine “I was the van man today, I took the van real far away. I did stuff and got paid. I brought something that I made. I blasted sports radio. That’s just the way that I go when I’m driving down the open road.” The song is fantastic, with a wonderful, breezy melody and lots of cool instruments like organ, banjo and exuberant sax, adding nice Americana and jazz elements, as well as incredible texture to the overall sound. If all that’s not enough, there’s also a great guitar solo in the bridge too.

The Office” is a fun Americana song with a lively piano-driven melody and more of that great banjo. The cheeky lyrics speak to the drudgery of working at a dead-end office job: “I don’t like to drive when it’s dangerous. Roads are pretty treacherous, but the boss man, he doesn’t give a shit. He says ‘I want you in’, well if I crash would you pay for it? I’m desperate, strapped for cash, and I can’t afford another accident. It’s a lot to risk, just to waste my day away in the office.

On the bouncy “Tax Return“, Rick sings of the joys of finally being able to treat his girl to a nice evening out, now that he’s gotten his tax refund: “Baby relax I got my tax return. Girl let’s go out, I got some cash to burn. We’re gonna find somewhere nice to eat. The government paid me real good this week.” The musical highlights of the track are the great bassline, guitars, organ and piano keys, and I love the vocal harmonies.

One of my favorite tracks is “Talk to Me“, with its smooth and sophisticated jazzy vibe. I love the intricate, funky guitars, cool keyboards and subtle snare drums, but for me the biggest highlight are Rick’s lovely soothing vocals, backed by gorgeous Beach Boys-esque harmonies. This song really showcases his strong songwriting, musicianship and vocal abilities. “Colleen” is another great song, opening with a gospel-like organ riff and Rick’s voiceover speaking as an airline pilot to a plane full of passengers. That wonderful organ riff continues throughout the song, serving as its driving force and overlain with guitar, strings, sax and crisp percussion. Rick sings to a woman named Colleen of his desires for her affection: “Colleen, I might not be your man right now, but someday I will.

Devils” is a fascinating track, and much darker than the other songs on the album. Musically, it has a languid trip hop beat, with spooky synths, somber piano keys and skittering drumbeats, and in the background can be heard a man’s voiceover, speaking about LSD. It all serves to create an unsettling vibe. Rick’s vocals, which remind me of Mark Foster of Foster the People on this track, have a sense of sad resignation as he laments about trying to overcome drug addiction, or possibly a relationship that’s falling apart because of a partner who’s either addicted to drugs or cheating on him: “I’m trying to quit the devil, but he’s got his grip so tight on me it’s hard not be deceived and made of fool of. Well I’m wrestling with the devil. It’s not something that I’m proud of, but do you have to be so loud in the restaurant? I’m just trying to get back to normal. Well I caught you with the devil. You smelled like his cologne. All those moments you were alone, his smoky breath, the telephone. I thought we were getting back to normal.

On the upbeat “Principal Problems“, Rick sings from the perspective a high school kid frustrated with his principal, who’s trying to make him quit his aggressive behavior that’s earned him a reputation as a tough guy on campus: “I’m gonna punch my principal in the face, if he tries to stop my fight with Tony Robinson./ You’ve got an occupation, I’ve got a reputation to hold up.” And on the delightful album closer “Tel Aviv Blues“, he sings of a woman he loves and how her ambivalence is making him crazy: “At night I’m wonderin’, about what you’re doing. You’re my baby, but only in my dreams. Only kissing me when I fall asleep. I told my best friend, a real good Christian, he said ‘You don’t need her love, you need the Lord’. But the Lord ain’t never kissed me good before. I’m back to drinkin’, I’m tryin’ hard to rid you from my mind.” The song has a lively Southern rock feel, with a colorful mix of twangy guitars and banjo, accompanied by swirling organ, sax and a great toe-tapping rhythm.

There Goes the Van Man is a marvelous album, and I’m so glad Rick reached out to me about it. He’s a talented guy who knows his way around a song, and here he delivers nine superb tracks. Each one is different from the next, a testament to his eclectic sound and the quality of his songwriting. This album needs to be heard by as many people as possible, and I hope some of my readers will enjoy it as much as I do.

Stream/purchase Rick’s music: BandcampSpotifyApple MusicYouTube

LIAM SULLIVAN – Single Review: “Rodion’s Poem”

Leeds, England-based singer-songwriter Liam Sullivan has become a favorite artist of mine ever since I first learned about him in Spring of 2020. He’s a thoughtful and talented songwriter and guitarist who pens lyrics addressing the oft-covered topics of life, love and loss, but in a way that really speaks to our souls. He then delivers them with a vibrant and warm singing voice that’s both beautiful and comforting, accompanied by his exceptional guitar work and superb arrangements. Liam’s been writing and performing music for well over a decade, both as a member of various bands and, more recently, as a solo artist with a back-up band of musicians he assembled to help bring his poetic lyrics to life.

Last year, Liam set himself with an ambitious goal to release a new single roughly every 6-8 weeks. While he hasn’t quite met that frantic schedule, he has released eight singles over the past year and a half, the latest of which is “Rodion’s Poem“. (I’ve reviewed four of his previous singles, most recently his beautiful song “Jerusalem” this past July. You can read some of those reviews by clicking on the links under ‘Related’ at the end of this post.)

As its title suggests, “Rodion’s Poem” was originally a poem written by Liam about Rodion Raskolnikov, a fictional character and protagonist of the 1866 novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Liam decided to turn the poem into a song that he planned on releasing some time next year, but worried he wasn’t moving forward quite fast enough, he ended up recording the track for a late 2021 release. The words of the poem, which are now lyrics to the song, are Liam’s take on Rodion’s life, reflecting on the love that is bestowed on the character despite his wayward actions. He felt the melancholy vibe of the song made it an ideal track for wintertime.

There’s another poignant aspect to the song as well. The nylon string guitar Liam used in the recording of the song was once owned by the father of a close family friend. After the father passed away, Liam was helping his friend clean out his father’s house and came across the guitar. He instantly fell in love with it, and his friend kindly gave it to him.

Like many of Liam’s songs, “Rodion’s Poem” is a gentle and stunning track. But unlike most of his songs that are built around guitar, this one is built around the piano. And what beautiful piano notes they are, accompanied by gorgeous cello played by Christine Avis and Liam’s delicately strummed guitar. Then there’s his warm vocals, backed by lovely harmonies, all of which make for a truly exquisite track, and one of the most beautiful I’ve heard in a while. It’s the perfect song for sitting by the fire with a loved one on a cold winter’s night.

Connect with Liam:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music / YouTube

New Song of the Week – “Georgia” by Novus Cantus

Novus Cantus is an innovative music act comprised of brothers Alexander (vocals and guitar) and Christian Herasimtschuk (drums and percussion). Based in the Hudson River Valley roughly halfway between Albany and New York City, the duo draw from a broad and eclectic mix of influences ranging from traditional ethnic music like flamenco and Hungarian folk, to classical Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque, to alternative rock, to create their uniquely enchanting and exotic sound. They’ve been performing and recording together since 2010, and have released a fair amount of music. I’ve written about them three times over the past three and a half years, and you can find those reviews under “Related” at the bottom of this post.

On November 16th, they released their latest single “Georgia“, along with a darkly beautiful video that nicely captures the song’s brooding essence. The song was recorded and produced by Novus Cantus, with assistance from Scott Apicelli of Blue Sky Music Studios, who mixed and mastered the track. The video, which starts off with historical images and realistic sounds of battle, features footage made available by pexels.com, as well as Civil War images from the Library of Congress Image Archives. Live footage of Novus Cantus performing the song were taken by Alex and Christian, as well as A. Delgado.

Though the music consists primarily of Alex’s gorgeous strummed guitars and Christian’s layered percussion, accompanied here and there by spare synths, the haunting song has a lush fullness of sound. Alex’s guitar work is truly stunning, with a vibrant blend of acoustic and electric guitars. The strummed acoustic guitars lend a soothing Americana/folk vibe to the song, but when he plays those chiming electric guitar notes, the song takes on a richer, more cinematic feel, especially when combined with Christian’s dramatic percussion. Alex’s heartfelt vocals beautifully convey the feelings of loss and despair expressed in the lyrics, and when his backing harmonies are added to the mix, the song becomes even more impactful. It’s another stellar release by these amazing brothers, and I’m happy to choose it as my new song of the week.

About the song, Christian told Albany-based The Capital Underground podcast that “Georgia” deals with a character in the post Civil War era struggling to return to the only place he knew. Only it’s no longer really home, but rather a place of suffering and loss. In his heart, he’s conflicted, because it’s the only home he’s ever known.

Oh I'm going home to Georgia
Oh I'm going home to see 
That house of bondage in Georgia
That was the only home for me

Oh how I long for rest
This cross must rest upon my breast
But now I'm going back to Georgia
A war-torn refugee
Time's calling out in Georgia
The voices of my family

Winter has fallen and spring now has come
Let's go and see what Sherman has done

Oh how I long for rest
This dream is deep within my breast
That sweet wistful dream of Georgia
Is nothing but a dream for me
Where am I to go but Georgia
It was the only home for me   

Follow Novus Cantus:  Facebook / TwitterInstagram
Stream their music:  Spotify / Apple Music / Soundcloud
Purchase:  Website / Reverbnation / iTunes

New Compilation Album “V4Velindre” to Raise Funds for Welsh Cancer Center

Welsh music journalist Kevin McGrath has embarked on an ambitious effort to raise funds for Velindre Cancer Center in Cardiff, Wales, where he’s received treatment for his own cancer. A regular contributor to Wales Arts Review and New Sound Wales, McGrath came up with the idea to create a massive 40-track digital album release as a way to not only raise money for a worthy cause, but also pay back in kind for the life-saving care he’s received.

Accordingly, he reached out to some of his favorite musicians in Wales, as well as in places such as Italy, Finland and America, to donate a song, old or new, released or unreleased, toward the creation of a 40-track mixtape album. Well, the response was beyond what he expected, and the album, entitled V4Velindre, now has a whopping 50 tracks by some of the best bands in Wales, including Bandicoot, Climbing Trees, Campfire Social, and Head Noise, as well as established singer/songwriters such as Jodie Marie, Evans McRae and Dan Bettridge.

McGrath explains his mission for creating the album: “V4Velindre exists because from the minute that we are born our lives intersect with the National Health Service. We all have stories (happy and sad) of the crucial role the NHS plays in our very existence. Nothing, though, could have prepared us for the sacrifice that NHS staff all over the country made to keep us safe during the COVID pandemic. Just between March 2020 and December 2020 883 NHS staff members died from COVID doing their duty and so much more. As the NHS, and the nation, seeks to rebuild in the wake of the pandemic we need to come together and make our contribution. As Nye Bevan famously said, ‘the NHS will last only as long as there’s folk with faith left to fight for it’. That fight comes in many measures – some will work for the NHS, some will vote for the NHS, some will protest for the NHS, and some will help finance its upkeep through jumble sales and sponsored walks. Please consider purchasing V4Velindre. Every single penny of the proceedings that comes to me from the sale of this album (minus the Bandcamp commission) will be passed straight to the Velindre Cancer Centre, where I have been cared for as an outpatient for the past eight years.

Among its 44 tracks, the album features songs by the last three winners of the Welsh Music Prize, including “O Silly Me” by young singer-songwriter Boy Azooga, “Brassneck” by indie legends The Wedding Present (an exclusive re-working of one of their all-time classics), “Who You Are” by BOB and “Enemy of Promise” by the Nightingales. In addition, the album includes songs donated by outstanding new Indie bands from Italy (Smile) Finland (That Forgotten Band) and the U.S. (Walter Etc, Eggs on Mars and Parker Woodland). Two of the songs are by Welsh artists I’ve previously featured on this blog: “Deal With the Devil” by the hyper-talented singer-songwriter GG Fearn, and “Stage Fright!” by electro-punk band Head Noise. There are also some newly-recorded tracks from Armstrong, Silent Forum, Burning Ferns and Y Dail that cannot be heard anywhere else but on this album.

Here’s a sampling of the wonderful songs included on V4Velindre:

V4Velindre will be available exclusively through Bandcamp as a digital-only release on October 1st, and may be pre-ordered here. If you pre-order, you will get five tracks now (streaming via the free Bandcamp app and also available as a high-quality download in MP3, FLAC and more).

Jake LeMond – Single Review: “Miles”

Jake LeMond is an earnest, hard-working and talented young singer-songwriter and musician based in Detroit, Michigan. With his skillful songwriting and impressive guitar work, combined with his professionalism, kind and generous personality and good looks, the gentle-voiced fellow has been making a name for himself on the crowded Michigan music scene, both as a solo artist and as guitarist for pop-rock bands Michigander (with whom he recently performed at Lollapalooza in Chicago) and Hickey Eyes, as well as a frequent collaborator with a host of other acts.

Jake’s music is a pleasing style of indie folk, with heartfelt lyrics brought to life primarily with his nimble guitar work and sweet vocals. He released his excellent debut single “5 Months (Up in Smoke)” in January 2017, and in the years since he’s dropped several more outstanding singles. His latest is “Miles“, a stunning love song released on July 28th, and for which he today premiered a wonderful accompanying video. About “Miles”, Jake explains “I wrote this song in about an hour the day after I got back from a month long tour, and it’s about being far away from someone you really care about.”

The song is gorgeous, with lush layers of strummed acoustic guitars, backed by gentle synths and punctuated by heavier guitar notes perfectly paired with bursts of percussion that provide drama as the track unfolds. The arrangement and recording production by Ben Fisher are flawless, as are the mixing by Jake Rye and mastering by The Foxboro. Jake’s soothing vocals are beautiful too, turning more impassioned as he longingly croons “I’m miles, and miles, and miles away from you.”

The delightful video shows Jake searching for something through a vintage collectibles shop, then he suddenly spots a child’s rocking horse. After a bit of back and forth with the guy working in the shop (also played by Jake), he leaves and is shown doing a number of unpleasant odd jobs to earn the money to buy the horse. He returns to the shop, buys the horse and places it in the back of his old white pickup. The video ends with him riding the horse, as if he’s on his way to see his loved one.

Connect with Jake:  FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream his music:  SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloud

Purchase:  AmazonBandcamp

ANDREW NEIL – Album Review: “Sunny Side”

Virginia-based singer-songwriter Andrew Neil (full name Andrew Neil Maternick) is one of the more unique artists I’ve had the pleasure of featuring on this blog. I first wrote about him in November 2019, when I reviewed his third album Freak (which you can read here). Andrew is considered an “outsider” music artist similar to the late Daniel Johnston, and in fact, ranks as the #1 Best Outsider Artist on Ranker, just above Johnston (click this link to see the full list). The now 33-year old has faced a number of daunting life challenges that would have crushed many of us, but his strength and resilience, as well as the incredible love and support of his family and friends, have enabled Andrew to flourish as an artist.

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

He was subsequently released and sent to a state mental hospital, where he received excellent treatment and learned to manage his illness. During the three years there, he wrote and recorded around 70 songs, on top of the 250+ songs he’d written since his 2009 accident. Andrew writes his honest, deeply personal songs entirely by ear, first creating the melodies on his rhythm guitar, then recorded songs on a battery powered Tascam recorder, which his father Ray would later upload to a computer. Andrew was conditionally released from the hospital in May 2017, and moved into a group home in Charlottesville. (He now lives independently.) Upon his release, he produced his first album Code Purple – Andrew Neil, featuring 11 melancholy yet optimistic songs he hoped might help others struggling with similar mental health issues. The songs were mastered by Vlado Meller, otherwise they were left pretty much in the raw, lo-fi condition as Andrew had recorded them.

In 2018, Andrew recorded his second album Merry Go Round, this time working with a number of accomplished musicians to help give his songs a more polished, fuller sound, as well as a more alt-rock vibe than his folk-oriented first album. He entered the studio again in 2019 to record what would become his third album Freak, and as he was wrapping up the recording he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He underwent a grueling round of chemotherapy while the album was being mixed and mastered, and he and his family started a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for album production and marketing, garnering even greater support than expected. The album, an ambitious work featuring 14 tracks addressing topics of love, faith, mental illness and self-identity, was released that October to widespread acclaim.

His cancer thankfully now in remission, Andrew began recording songs during the Covid lockdown, this time with only his own quirky, endearing vocals and vintage nylon string Ovation acoustic guitar, accompanied on some tracks by subtle keyboard overdubs. The songs came together as his fourth album Sunny Side, which is being released digitally on June 15th via Tree Heart Records. The album will become available on CD on June 30th, along with a limited press vinyl version scheduled for release in October. The songs have a mellower and more lo-fi folk sound than the ones on Freak. About Sunny Side, Andrew states “I believe the album will appeal to people who really dig the lo-fi, outsider vibe. I hope my music will be recognized as something genuine; something that people can relate to and let them know they are not alone in this jello world.” The imaginative artwork for the album cover was created by Boston artist Daniel Benayun.

The album kicks off with “Gamblin’ Man“, a pleasing folk tune with an allegorical story about a reckless soul who always lives life on the edge. Andrew’s knack for writing seemingly simple yet profound lyrics with a powerful message is exemplified in these verses: “Out in the desert sun I made friends with a scorpion. We talked about how we feel, then I said shuffle up and deal. We played till the sun went down, full moon was wearin’ a crown. I cheated, gave myself some kings. Then I felt how a scorpion stings.”

On the optimistic title track “Sunny Side“, he advises us to not wallow in our problems, but instead try and find something good in every situation: “I buy flowers. She asked what for. Just in case the undertaker comes knockin’ on my door, cause tomorrow’s no guarantee. Let’s take our sorrow, and drown it in the sea. So keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side. Keep on the sunny side of life./ This life is a gift. It makes me high, high, high like a cliff.” He continues along a similar vein with the grunge-tinged “Lemonade“, urging us to make lemonade out of those lemons life sometimes throws our way: “Make lemonade. Realize that we got it made. Make lemonade. Don’t be afraid. Even in hell, be thankful for shade./ Live with love, the world is ours.”

Andrew’s strong sense of spirituality, love and faith in humanity is expressed on several tracks. On “One Big Family“, he sings of how, despite our differences, we’re all human beings deserving of love and respect: “We are one big family. And you have a brother, a brother in me. Tough times do not last. Tough people do. And I feel so much tougher when I’m loved by you. And no one’s perfect yet; we all have flaws. But we still deserve gifts from Santa Claus.” He uses “Heaven” as a metaphor for love and empathy, rather than a biblical place: “Heaven, where hate is not allowed. Heaven, another word for love. Heaven, it’s not below, it’s not above, it’s in your heart.

On the lovely, nearly six-minute long ballad “Awoke“, he sings of overcoming his past mistakes and feelings of hopelessness by accepting God’s love: “So many nights I wanted to cry. Wanted to fly away. This dream trope has come to an end. Stars explode, but you’re still my friend. And I’m still your friend. Cause I awoke to God’s mercy. We’re all thirsty for love.” And on the folksy final track “Thank The Lord“, he gives thanks for all the things that are important to him, and the positive role music plays in his emotional well-being: “Thank the lord for my friends. Thank the lord for family. Thank the lord for the music that lives inside, inside of me.”

Conversely, perhaps the most poignant track on the album is “Anymore“, where Andrew questions his faith, self-worth and direction in life: “You can lie, and say it’s all part of God’s plan. Cause I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to grow old. I don’t want to shut up, I don’t want to be told what to do, anymore. I don’t want to give up, I don’t want to go on. Just so tired of being so strong. Don’t know what to do anymore./ You can blame, you can blame me for not being a good man.” Musically, his strummed acoustic guitar is accompanied by some somber but lovely keyboards that create a haunting soundscape for his introspective and melancholy vocals.

Dog Without A Bone” is about having pretty much everything one could want in life, with the exception of a romantic partner to spend time with. Andrew uses clever and pretty direct metaphors to describe the feeling that something crucial to his well-being is missing: “Got a million reasons to live. I’m giving everything I have to give. Yet I’m so tired of being alone. Just a dog with no bone. A drunk without a drink. A cloud without a sky./ I have a lot, but I want more. Is there someone out there that could make me sore.” And once you’re in a relationship, conflicts and disagreements will undoubtedly arise, which he cheekily addresses on the charming “Kinda Turns Me On“: “When you get so mad, it kinda turns me on. Tell me what I did wrong. Cause baby it turns me on. Honestly, I want to grow old with you. Live the American dream, red, white and blue. Have a bunch of kids, and grandchildren too.”

Sunny Side is a wonderful album, filled with honest, heartfelt songs about faith, love and hope, and I’m confident all of us can relate to at least some of them. Andrew Neil is a thoughtful songwriter with a special gift for getting right to the heart of things in a way that few other artists can – or are even able – to do. I’ve grown quite fond of him, and hope he’ll continue writing interesting and compelling songs for us to enjoy.

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

LIAM SULLIVAN – Single Review: “Stadiums and Churches”

There’s a lot of musical talent out there, and I’m particularly impressed by the sheer number of exceptional musicians and bands that continue to emerge from the UK – something that’s long been apparent to even the casual music observer. One of the standout artists I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know in the past year is singer-songwriter Liam Sullivan. The Leeds-based musician is a fine songwriter and guitarist, with a vibrant and warm singing voice that’s both comforting and beautiful. His music style can generally be described as alternative rock with folk and singer-songwriter elements that make for an incredibly pleasing listening experience, and I love every one of his songs that I’ve heard.

Liam’s been writing and performing music for well over a decade, both as a member of various bands and, more recently, as a solo artist with a back-up band of musicians he assembled to help bring his poetic lyrics to life. Like a lot of musicians who were prevented from touring or performing to live audiences, he made the best of the Covid lockdown situation to write and record new music. He’s released four singles since last May, the latest of which is “Stadiums and Churches“, which dropped April 9th (which seems to be a big day for the release of new music). I’ve reviewed his previous two singles “When This is Over” and “Be Kind”, which you can read by clicking on the links under ‘Related’ at the end of this post. Those two singles have become his most successful yet, and with plans to release a new song roughly every six weeks for the rest of the year, the hard-working artist’s music career is destined to grow exponentially.

He was inspired to write “Stadiums and Churches” during the first lockdown after watching the British sports documentary series Sunderland ‘Til I Die. An episode addressed how sports stadiums have sat empty during the lockdown, which got Liam to thinking about all the stadiums, theaters and churches, where masses of people normally congregate to celebrate events important to them, that were now just empty and lifeless places.

To drive home his message, he starts with a lovely piano movement that forms the basis of the song’s haunting but beautiful melody, accompanied by his strummed acoustic guitar, subtle bass and gentle percussion. He first laments about all the empty places where we once assembled: “The churches and stadiums are hollow empty places now. Nowhere to gather, nowhere to believe, nowhere to go at all” but then seems to address his own personal feelings of abandonment: “Where did you go, where did you go, why’d you leave me here alone?” His guitars and soothing vocals turn more urgent in the choruses, bolstered by sweeping strings and more dramatic percussion that convey a sense of hopefulness about the future as he sings about returning outside: “Head out the window. Can you feel the daybreak?” I love his vocals throughout the song, as well as his exuberant guitar solo in the bridge and the soaring crescendo at the end. It’s a fantastic song, and I think it’s one of Liam’s best yet.

Follow Liam:  Facebook / TwitterInstagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music / YouTube
Purchase:  Bandcamp

PETER KLEINHANS – Album Review: “I Was Alive Enough”

Peter Kleinhans is a New York-based singer-songwriter who, after spending 30 years as a professional harness horse racer, trainer and announcer, decided to turn his love of music into writing and recording songs. His music is a pleasing mix of pop, folk and rock, but it’s his skill for telling engrossing stories through thoughtful, intelligent lyrics that makes his songs so compelling in a Harry Chapin kind of way. He doesn’t have a particularly strong singing voice – his vocal style is more of a talk-singing – but it’s warm and comforting, and perfect for storytelling.

In February 2018 he released his debut album Something’s Not Right to critical acclaim. LA Music Critic hailed it “one of the best debut albums we have reviewed“, while Neufutur Magazine called it “an album that blends together Dave Matthews with the protest tradition of performers like Neil Young and Phil Ochs.” He later released, in November 2019, an excellent video for album’s title track “Something’s Not Right”, a song about the sense of uncertainty and unease that many Americans seemed to be feeling about their country and their own future, while still trying to remain optimistic and grateful for what’s good. You can read my feature about the song and video here.

In December (2020), Peter returned with his second album I Was Alive Enough, featuring 12 tracks he states are “very specific to this very strange moment we are all living in, with songs about our fear of missing out (“FOMO”) and greed (“Race to the Bottom”), as well as mistrust of the media (“Fake News”). But it’s also hopeful and spirited, about appreciation for NYC graffiti (“91st Street”), a love of horse-racing (“W1775”) and the power and joy of solitude (“Table for One”). What binds many of the tracks together for me is the significance of each song’s characters despite their powerlessness. The befuddled news-watcher in “Fake News” is as real as the story of the horse W1775, the farmer in “Malagasy Uprising”, the homeless man in “Homeless” as much as the hapless narrator walking past, or even the corporate stooges in “Race To The Bottom”, who have more actual power and influence but who are ultimately prisoners of the soulless world they inhabit. One of the main things I was driving at in this album was the significance of every life.

The 12 songs run the stylistic gamut from gentle folk ballads and bouncy pop to pleasing Southern rock and world music. Peter’s lyrics are so good that I’ll be quoting a lot of them, so bear with me as you read on. The album kicks off with “FOMO“, a breezy pop tune highlighted by some nice jazzy piano keys, along with gnarly guitars and jaunty organ that contrast with the matter-of-fact lyrics addressing his, and everyone else’s, shortcomings and how there must be a pill to deal with all our myriad anxieties: “I’m looking for a doctor just to tell me I’m crazy. My girl says I’m older, vain, stupid and lazy. But no one says what everyone knows to be true, that I’m totally crazy and so are you. / Yes, keep me medicated, keep those bottles full. Cause I’ve got FOMO, can’t handle missing out. You know I’m all about regret and doubt.

Race to the Bottom” has a heavier pop-rock treatment, with rousing, multi-layered guitars, thumping drums and tasty psychedelia-tinged organ, all set to a strong foot-stomping beat. Peter sings the cynical lyrics spoken from the perspective of corporations hoping to cash in on a brain-dead public: “We got a fractured nation, a distracted population. Got to take advantage just the best that we can. But we better hurry ‘fore they get their pitchforks in motion, cause they’re getting pretty tired of being taken by the man. So, come with me on a race to the bottom, where the pickins are easy and there’s plenty of prey.

Continuing on a similar theme, he addresses how we all seek out the kind of news that feeds our own world views on “Fake News“: “So go ahead and play me some fake news, and I’ll just change the channel if want to change my views“, and how some want nothing to do with those holding opinions different from theirs: “Woke up to find someone’s unfriended me today. Doesn’t like the way I see the world. It could be we never were such good friends anyway, but I’m still stinging from the epithets he hurled.” The song starts off as a gentle piano ballad, then expands into a lively melody with guitars, bold percussion and what sounds like clarinet, which adds a nice but slightly unsettling vibe. The song has a bit of a Harry Chapin feel, and is one of my favorites on the album.

91st St.” is a wonderful ode to the graffiti-covered and abandoned 91st Street subway station in New York City. The station was deemed superfluous by the subway authority and closed in 1954, and later came to be known by New Yorkers as the “Ghost Station”. Peter wrote a marvelous article about the station and the song in October 2018, which I featured on this blog and can be read here. The song has a progressive/jazzy vibe, with a cool drumbeat, funky bass line and fuzzy guitar riff. Toward the end of the track, Peter injects a quirky little psychedelic synth that makes for a great finish.

Peter addresses the oft-covered and eternally relatable subjects of love and relationships on a few tracks, with lyrics that are painfully honest and real. On the bittersweet Americana-tinged “Our Journeys“, he sings of how he let his partner down, but is thankful for the good things they enjoyed together: “Now this song isn’t one of mistake or regret. I chose what I chose, and I’ll take what I’ll get, but when push comes to shove, it still hurts to hurt someone you love. And you were willing to spend your whole journey on me, and the value of that, maybe I just wouldn’t see. So please let me take the time to thank you now.” On the lovely “Table For One“, he sings his praises of being alone: “All I watched as a child, replayed the same scene. Go find a fair princess, make her a fair queen. But repeating the playbook has cost me a lot. Maybe you find who you are when you find who you’re not.” And on “Palpitations“, he sings of traveling the country with his new bride, not caring where they end up so long as he’s with her: “These palpitations inspired by you are invented by me. Palpitations are my body’s way of telling me I’m finally free.”

Homeless” is a poignant song about how those of us living in big cities co-exist with homeless people as we go about our days, intersecting with each other, yet living in completely separate worlds and fearful of becoming too involved: “There a man I see almost every day. He’s got a black dog with a collar. It used to be ‘could you spare a dime’ now it’s ‘could you spare a dollar?’ Sometimes I give, sometimes I don’t, depends what’s in my pocket. But he’s a man locked inside an invisible cage, and my dollar won’t unlock it. There’s no future, there’s no joy. He once was an adorable boy. Once he started to fall, he found no safe place to land. Walk right by that ghost of a man. It’s the crime I commit almost everyday. It’s the violence of looking away.” 

On “Malagasy Uprising“, Peter sings from the perspective of a farmer recalling the horrors of the nationalist rebellion against French colonial rule in Madagascar that lasted from March 1947 to February 1949, and now trying to eke out a living in peace. He uses African elements and instruments, along with a lilting chorus by female singers, to give the song an exotic flavor that works quite well. He channels a bit of Tom Petty on  “Beneath Two Moons“, a song that speaks to the love of personal freedom over romantic entanglements. And he sings of being with the one he loves in of the Land of Enchantment on the appropriately enchanting “New Mexico“, “where the people think we’re pretty, and there’s turquoise everywhere.”

One of his best ‘story’ songs is “W1775“, a poignant saga about a horse who started his career as an award-winning race horse, then spent time pulling a carriage in New York, and eventually living out his final years in a pasture. Peter elaborates on the song’s inspiration: “I trained racehorses for many years and I earned a deep respect for the animals. One of the things about horse racing that you just don’t find when following other animals, is the story within every horse’s career, all of which is documented and is occasionally remembered but more often forgotten.”

I Was Alive Enough is a delightful album, not only because it’s a pleasing listen, but also due to its great storytelling. As I alluded to at the beginning of this review, Peter is a masterful lyricist and storyteller, not to mention a fine musician. Each song is a gem, with no two sounding alike, keeping the album sounding fresh and surprising from start to finish. 

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

JUSTIN BEYNON – Album Review: “In Motion”

Justin Beynon is a musician and singer/songwriter based in Aberdare, Wales who I recently learned about when he reached out to me about his just-released debut album In Motion. Music has been a major part of Justin’s life since his childhood, and he’s played an active role in the Welsh music scene for the last 30 years. As a member of numerous bands over the years, he’s been featured on several albums, as well as collaborated on many projects as a session musician. He’s also taught guitar and piano for the last 24 years. Several years ago, he built his own home studio and began learning how to use new technology so that he could record the backlog of songs he’d been writing over the years. Last year he decided to produce his first solo album, and got busy recording songs in his home studio, singing and playing all the instruments himself, other than on four songs that he recorded in a studio with the help of a friend and former bandmate Meirion Townsend on drums. The tracks were then mixed and mastered by Matthew Evans.

Justin elaborates on the things that inspired him to record and release the album: “Long before this pandemic was even on the horizon, I had experienced some of the most difficult and emotionally challenging years to date. As a result, I began to feel my passion and drive for playing and creating music slowly ebb away. Things got really difficult. I wondered if I was done. But, as has been the case so may times in the past, music came to my rescue. This collection of songs started life as two separate EP’s but with a common thread, that life is constantly ‘in motion’, regardless of what gets thrown at us.

Putting this album together has been my way of navigating a very difficult time. It was a big step forward for me as a writer, to have the freedom to work to my own timescale and have the tools to record myself, without the restrictions of studio costs etc. It was also my first step in releasing my own music under my own name rather than a band name. I called the album ‘In Motion’ as it seemed an appropriate title to a life and body of work gathering momentum over time, from the past and into the future. It’s been my way of making sure that these songs don’t live and die in my head. I hope that whoever hears them will find something positive in them.

Well, I must say that after listening to In Motion, I’ve found plenty to like. First off are Justin’s engaging and catchy melodies. As someone with no musical aptitude whatsoever, I’m always impressed at how musicians are able to write great melodies and bring them to life with thoughtful arrangements and masterful instrumentation, which brings me to the second aspect of his music. Justin is an excellent guitarist, seemingly at ease playing a wide variety of styles ranging from folk, country and Americana to blues rock. He’s also a fine pianist, as evidenced on the opening track “All Inside” and the beautiful “All the Way Through”. Then there are his intelligent, heartfelt lyrics that speak to us in deeply meaningful ways which are expressed through his wonderful, no-frills vocals that remind me at times of the great Tom Petty.

He hits the ground running with the aforementioned “All Inside“, a rousing folk rock song that seems to speak to a relationship that’s failed due to a break down in communication and trust. Justin starts things off with his strummed acoustic guitar, then layers assertive piano keys and a driving bass line to add emotional depth to the song as he plaintively sings, “You’ll land, just like you did last time. You’ll stand, by keeping it all inside / Tell me, the reason for your disguise. Help me by keeping it all inside.” His blistering electric guitar that enters in the bridge and continues through the end of the track ends things on a high note.

Justin taps into his more soulful side on “The Walkover Rule“, laying down bluesy riffs over a mellow and funky groove that make this one of my favorite tracks on the album. He really channels Tom Petty on the next three tracks. The first, “Who Delivers?“, is a lovely, contemplative song where he seems to question the existence of faith: “Everyone’s talking like they know something. Like they found God. It’s probably nothing. Everybody knows somebody who delivers.” On the Beatle-esque “Another Universe“, he sings of hope and healing: “Until the sun comes out and warms the air like it was nothing. The day’s begun, start it all again. The fire and the rain will wash it all away into another universe.” And “The Sticks and the Stones” sounds like the best song Tom Petty never recorded, with a mix of jangly and twangy slide guitars that give the song a wonderful country rock vibe.

The melancholy “All the Way Through” is another of my favorites, as I’m a sucker for beautiful piano melodies. With only his haunting piano keys and stirring strings as a backdrop, Justin sadly laments to his partner of her unwillingness to make their relationship survive: “There’s nothing I can do to get you back inside the simple life. It’s perfectly entwined, and the love we’re trying to find is true. I really wanna see this all the way through. I’ll take it to a place where there ain’t any rules. I’m all out of luck.”

The mood picks up considerably with “Cheap Coat and Broken Wings“, a lively folk rock tune with some great Southern rock guitars, and on “One Long Kiss Goodbye“, with it’s exuberant toe-tapping melody and wonderful mix of jangly, chiming and gnarly guitars, accompanied by sparkling piano keys and snappy drumbeats. “Paper” is a particularly beautiful track, thanks to Justin’s shimmery guitar work and earnest vocals, enhanced by what I’m guessing are his own backing harmonies. The song seems to be a continuation of the sentiments first introduced on the opening track “All Inside”: “I don’t want to leave it all to chance. Do you want to wait for something greater? You’ve always lived with flashing lights. All of your dreams wrote out on paper.” He closes things out with “The Things That You Do“, a pleasing Country rock song with more of his terrific guitar work, and lyrics whose meaning I can’t quite figure out, but seem to speak to a loved one who takes him for granted: “The reason I fight ain’t over you. It’s not about the things that you do. I try, and I try ’cause of you, and you alone.”

To sum up, In Motion is a very fine, well-crafted album, and a wonderful debut effort from this remarkably talented musician. I’m truly impressed by Justin’s songwriting, musicianship and vocals, as well as his outstanding production abilities, and he should be very proud of what he’s created here. If you like an eclectic mix of folk and country infused with elements of blues, rock and pop, then you will enjoy this album.

Besides Soundcloud, Justin’s music can also be streamed on Spotify and Apple Music