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.

ANDREW NEIL – Interview & Album Review: “Alien”

The cool album artwork was designed by Daniel Benayun

Though many singer-songwriters tend to draw inspiration from their own life experiences, few I’ve come across are quite as thoughtful, candid and personal as Virginia-based singer-songwriter Andrew Neil (born Andrew Neil Maternick). Considered an outsider music artist in a similar vein to the late Daniel Johnston, Andrew writes from his heart and soul. The 34-year old has faced a number of daunting life challenges that would have crushed many of us, but his faith, strength and resilience, as well as the incredible love and support of his family and friends, have enabled him to flourish as an artist.

I’ve featured Andrew twice on this blog, first in November 2019, when I reviewed his third album Freak, then again in June 2021 when I reviewed his fourth album Sunny Side (you can read those reviews by clicking on the Related links at the end of this post). I wrote extensively about his life experiences in those reviews, but will touch on a few significant points to provide a bit of context.

After growing up as a fairly typical kid and high school athlete, he suffered a life-altering event in 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 he 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 a battery powered Tascam recorder, which his father Ray later uploaded 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. He followed up a year later with his second album Merry Go Round, then quickly went back to work in early 2019 to record his third album Freak. Sadly, as he was wrapping up the recording he was hit with yet another health crises when 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 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, featuring 10 optimistic tracks with a mellower, more lo-fi folk sound. Ever the creative, hard-working artist, Andrew’s now returns with his fifth album Alien, which dropped September 15th. Similar to Sunny Side, the songs on Alien were performed with just Andrew’s vocals and acoustic guitar, giving them a lo-fi folk sensibility. But the subject matter is a bit darker, touching on such issues as mental health, loneliness, suicide, alcoholism and relationships.

In order to get a bit more insight into his inspiration for writing Alien, I asked Andrew a few questions, to which he graciously responded.

EML: Thank you, Andrew, for agreeing to speak with me about your latest album Alien. You’ve experienced more than your fair share of trauma and difficult challenges in your life, and also suffer from depression, which you’ve spoken about pretty openly on social media. Like many songwriters, you draw from your own experiences when writing your lyrics, and as was the case with your previous albums, the songs on Alien address such topics as mental health and emotional well-being, addiction, suicide, loneliness and faith. Does writing and recording songs help bring you a little peace of mind?

Andrew: Yes, writing songs does bring me a little peace of mind. Some songs help me process my grief and sorrow. When I write it is like the hand of my heart reaching out to the world for help, love and understanding; almost always the world reaches back and that feels good. I also hope that my music will help others to deal with their own issues, depression, loneliness. If you think about it, it’s almost like a continuous circle of emotions. You write to help yourself, which directly or indirectly helps others and they in turn help you back with positive feedback. They view my song within their own life experiences and relate in their own way. We all learn from this exchange of melody and lyrics and emotions. Knowing this gives me peace of mind.

EML: The title track “Alien” reminds me a bit of “Freak” in that it seems to speak to embracing one’s identity, warts and all, rather than being ashamed of it. Is that the point you’re trying to make on this song?

Andrew: The point of “Alien” is the truth behind my belief in a universal family. We may come from other places, have different religions, have different governments, eat different food, but at the end of the day I firmly believe we all have hearts with similar desires. These hearts feel and desire love and it’s this desire that illustrates we truly are a family. So, when we see someone different, someone who fits the mold of an alien we should reach out to them with love and understanding.

EML: Two songs in particular, “I Need a Reason” and “Don’t Tell the Doctor”, are pretty heavy and dark, dealing with thoughts of suicide. Your dad told me that “Don’t Tell the Doctor” was inspired by a comment a woman whispered to you during a group therapy session – “Don’t tell the Doctor, but I’m in love with suicide”. What prompted you to write about that experience?

Andrew: I have spent a fair share of time in mental hospitals and have met many interesting characters. During one of my first stays at Virginia Baptist Memorial Hospital I met a young lady named Holly. It is true that we had a group session in which we were supposed to talk about what we love. Her answer was “Suicide”. I, like many in the group, could relate and it’s a moment of genuineness I will never forget. I wonder where Holly is these days, and she will always have a place in my heart.

EML: Not being a songwriter nor musician, I’m always impressed by people who can write compelling lyrics and compose interesting or catchy melodies. Do you generally write your lyrics first, then set them to music, or do you first come up with a melody or guitar riff, then write words to fit?

Andrew: When writing songs, I usually start with strumming some chords on the guitar. Then I hum a tune that fits and then I transform that tune into words. Sometimes I feel as though my fingers are guided on the fretboard. I don’t really know any standard chords or notes or even musical keys, but my fingers seem to find the right sound and melody. I really think melody is important. Melody is something I think is missing from many songs written today. There are lots of “beats” but not really much melody in many contemporary songs.

Once I have a melody, I try to determine what the melody is telling me or saying. The words/lyrics are by far the hardest part of the process. The lyrics are really my notes in a weird way. I write the lyrics so that the melody wraps around them. Sometimes I’ve come up with lyrics when the guitar is not in my hands. I might have a dream or a special feeling and the lyrics just pop into my head. “Mongolia” was a good example of this. In that case the lyrics helped to dictate the melody. I tend to write 2 to 3 songs a month.

EML: From what I can tell, the only sounds we hear on these songs are your voice and acoustic guitar, is that correct?

Andrew: Yes, it was certainly stripped down. Just me and my nylon string ovation guitar. I do not recall any keyboard dubs on the Alien album tracks. We decided to keep it simple and maintain a lo-fi sound. We also wanted to help the subtleties of my guitar playing, which is different than many guitarists, stand out. Over the years, I have come up with my own style of playing and make up my own chord shapes. It’s a very percussive style. My dad says it reminds him of Richie Havens in some ways. I am not really encumbered by the rules, scales, etc. of the instrument. I really think this gives me a certain amount of freedom in writing songs that many songwriters don’t have. They tend to stick to the conformity of the instrument.

EML: Who are some living artists or musicians whose work inspires you, or that you would like to collaborate with if possible?

Andrew: My inspirations are many. The living artists who come to mind are Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Richard Thompson, Sanjay Mishra, and Lady Gaga to name a few. I’ve also been listening a lot to Country artists John Anderson and Raelyn Nelson. It would be cool to collab with them, but I realize that is pie in the sky kind of stuff. More realistically, as far as collaboration, I would love to work with and perhaps co-write songs with some rising artists in different genres. One genre in particular I am developing an interest in is Alt-Country, which is a mix of Country, Garage Rock, Blues and Alternative. One up and coming Alt-country artist I would love to co-write a song with is Raelyn Nelson. As you know I was scheduled to open for her Band on 19 August of this year in Hershey PA, but it was cancelled due to an illness in her band. It will be rescheduled hopefully in November. After her manager notified me that they wanted me to open for them, I started listening to the Raelyn Nelson Band music. That listening experience inspired me to write a few Alt-County songs for the show. I would love to release an alt-country album after Alien. This would definitely be a different direction, but I think it’s also a way to reach more people with my music.

Prior to the inspiration by the Raelyn Nelson Band, I had begun to dabble in writing more country-like songs. For instance, I think the songs “Gambin Man” and “Kinda Turns me On”, on my Sunny Side Album have an alt-country feel to them. I think I am going to travel in that direction for the time being. Also, I am on this list on Ranker (Best Outsider Music Artist list). Many of the artists that are listed have passed on now. I really wish I could have worked with Daniel Johnston. But there are a few younger living artists on the list like John Revitte who is an exceptional lyricist, that I would love to collab with. R. Stevie Moore, and Iggy Pop are also on the list, but are really up there in age and I’m not sure if they are still active in music.

EML: Anything else you’d like to say about Alien or yourself that I’ve neglected to ask?

Andrew: No storm lasts forever. Life is good and people are beautiful. I appreciate you taking the time to review my music and get my story out there into this world. Music makes a difference in this jello world. Thanks again and peace out.

Now, let’s get to the album, which opens with the title track “Alien“. As Andrew stated, the song speaks of reaching out to people who are different from us with love and understanding, as we’d hope they’d do for us: “Far from ordinary, makes life kind of scary. I’d have it no other way. We come in peace. Don’t shoot please. It’s alright alien.” On the melancholy “I Need a Reason“, he questions the value of his very existence: “Like a bug stuck in a spider’s web, the more I struggle, the more I’m dead. I am blue, and blue I remain. Will I get conquered by my pain? I need a reason baby, a reason to be here. I need a reason baby, to make it through the year. I need a reason baby, before I disappear.

While “Mongolia” comes across as a pleasing folk tune, its lyrics are packed with meaning and emotional conflict. It starts off with Andrew listing a few of his psychoses: “I know angels on a first-name basis. And I can’t stare at the walls too long, or else I’ll see faces.” He then describes his wanting to escape to an exotic place in hopes of overcoming some of his shortcomings: “I want to go to Mongolia, Perhaps there I’ll get holier. Holier than the Judas that I am. Holier like Mary’s little lamb.” Continuing on, he acknowledges that he’s too old to be treated like a child, yet still needs emotional support and comfort from his mother: “Mommy please don’t spank me. I’m way, way too old. And I need a blankie, cause this world is so cold. So I wanna go to Mongolia.” Here’s a wonderful live performance of Andrew singing the song in 2021.

As described earlier, “Don’t Tell the Doctor” was inspired from an experience Andrew had in one of his group therapy sessions back in 2009, in which the discussion leader asked them to talk about what they loved. A woman in the group leaned over to Andrew and whispered “Don’t tell the doctor, but I’m in love with suicide“. The song has a languid, rather somber melody, with some really fine guitar noodling. Andrew’s melancholy vocals sing of feelings of hopelessness: “Sometimes I feel like there’s only one way out. That’s when you’ll find me hanging from a cloud. And sometimes I feel like there’s nowhere left to run. I keep my promises, I won’t use a gun.” That line, combined with the almost grungy feel of Andrew’s acoustic guitar, makes me think of Nirvana.

Fingers Crossed” seems to touch on people’s superficiality and phoniness, and making empty promises but not following through: “Ring, ring, ring, I ignore the call. So leave a message and I’ll call you back. Fingers crossed, yeah we all know that.” On “My Best Friend is Not Whiskey“, Andrew speaks to how alcohol does not solve our problems or make us feel better: “Where’s my fairy tale ending? What the fuck happened to me? Every day I keep pretending that I’m not in misery. Every day I keep pretending my best friend is not whiskey. It’s a thirsty world.” And on the allegorical “The Beat Goes On“, he describes a series of dreams in which he meets an Aztec priestess, has Jesus in a high school class, and is a Samurai warrior addicted to death and glory who ultimately commits hara kiri.

Remember to Forget” is a sweet song about being supportive and loving to a friend in need: “When you’re cold, I’ll be your sweater. When you’re sad, I’ll make you smile. We’re all in this together, mile after mile. When you need a hug, I’ll be your teddy. Yes, I’ll be your happy thought. Remember, remember to forget, the vampire that bit. Remember, remember to forget all of the bullshit.” And of course, it’s always wonderful getting that support in return: “When it rains, you’re my umbrella. When I cry, you dry my tears. We’re all in this together. You put meaning in my years.

The album closes with the charming “Black Sheep“, which speaks to how just because someone may be quirky and different, they still have qualities worth loving: “One day, we all kick the can. So girl, won’t you hold my hand. I promise that I am no creep. Yeah, I’m just a black sheep.” Andrew’s percussive style of guitar playing is strongly evident in his heavily-strummed acoustic notes. It’s an upbeat ending that keeps the album from being too overwhelmingly bleak. All in all, Alien is a marvelous little album, and Andrew’s stripped-down acoustic treatment really allows his endearing, heartfelt vocals and relatable poetic lyrics to shine.

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

HOLLY REES – Single Review: “English Bay”

As I continue working my way through new music being released by artists I’ve previously featured on this blog, I now bring you British indie folk artist Holly Rees. Based in Newcastle, the talented singer-songwriter and guitarist has been writing and recording exceptional music over the past five years or so. Her honest, relatable lyrics, often inspired by her own personal experiences, are wrapped in beautiful, understated melodies and fine guitar work, and delivered with her lovely, highly emotive vocals.

This past December, Holly released her sublime EP The Lost Songs, featuring five acoustic songs she recorded in isolation during lockdown. You can read my review of the EP here. Now she returns with a new single “English Bay“, which she wrote in 2019 while on tour in Canada. The song was recorded with her band members Ryan Peebles on bass and Rhys Melhuish on drums, and thus has a fuller, more hard-driving sound than the acoustic tracks on The Lost Songs.

The song starts off gently, with Holly’s slightly grungy strummed guitar and smooth vocals as she sings of a woman who catches her eye: “She walked past me with her headphones in singing her heart out. A Stanley Park evening. I guess I do the exact same thing.” Thirty seconds in, the rhythm section kicks in with Ryan’s driving bassline and Rhys’ snappy drums, turning the song into a vibrant, head-bopping rocker. Holly’s gnarly guitar hums with greater urgency as the song progresses, her plaintive vocals rising to the occasion and brimming with heartfelt emotion, but still upbeat enough to avoid becoming maudlin.

The lyrics speak to feelings many of us have experienced when embarking on a new romantic relationship, unsure as to whether we want to truly commit to another person, but also fearful we’ll screw things up and scare them off: “And I keep saying I’m trying, and I wonder if it’s true. Come on, bear with me ’til I get cold feet, and tell me to stop messing around./ I guess I never listen when they told me, everyone’s a little bit lonely.”

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

YOU’RE AMONG FRIENDS – Album Review: “Good Enough Sometimes”

Aptly-named Cleveland, Ohio-based indie band You’re Among Friends want us to feel welcome when hearing their music or watching them perform. With their laid-back style of funky, blues-infused folk rock reminiscent of the music of Steely Dan and The Grateful Dead, with touches of Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, listening to their music is like spending time with a good friend. That comforting, low-key vibe, combined with relatable lyrics touching on everyday aspects of life in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours, has a way of making us feel that everything’s gonna be alright at the end of the day.

The band was formed in 2007 by founding members and long-time friends Anthony Doran (lead vocals and guitars) and Kevin Trask (bass, keyboards and backing vocals). And like too many bands, they’ve struggled to find and keep drummers, but their current (and seventh) drummer Mike Janowitz, who came on board in late 2019, has turned out to be a perfect fit.

You’re Among Friends released their debut self-titled album in 2007, followed by an EP and double single, but the demands of life, work and starting families took so much of their time, they went on a hiatus in 2011 lasting four years. They reconnected in 2015, and the following year, released their second album As We Watch the Years Go…, with songs inspired by their life experiences, as well as the passage of time and how it affects friendships and relationships. They followed in late 2017 with an EP One Day You’ll Look Back, then dropped their third album Start Making Sense in May 2020. (I’ve reviewed their last three releases, which you can read by clicking on the links under “Related” at the bottom of this page.) Now the guys are back with their fourth album, Good Enough Sometimes, which dropped January 10th.

One of the many things I like about their songs is that the titles let us know exactly what they’re about, as well as the conversational flow of their down-to-earth lyrics that make us feel like we’re speaking with a friend. Kicking things off is “Don’t Borrow Trouble“, a mellow, upbeat song advising us to not overthink or worry over things we can’t change or that haven’t even happened yet: “Don’t borrow trouble, why worry about something before it’s here. By the time the dust settles, and the moving parts stop, don’t you know it may not be as bad as you fear.” These simple but wise words could be directed at me, as I’m frequently guilty of obsessing over a lot of shit.

Several tracks address the theme set forth in the album’s title, starting with “Here in the Middle of the Pack“. The lyrics advise us that it’s okay to be average, so long as we do our best and feel contentment with ourselves: “Don’t have to be the best. Just strive to be consistent./ It all works out eventually.” I like Anthony’s guitar noodling and endearing vocals that remind me of Randy Newman. On a similar vein, “Okay is Good Enough Sometimes” urges us not to expect everything in life to be perfect or the way we want them to be: “Got to let some things go, to preserve your mind and soul. Not everything is worth your peace, try not to lose too much sleep, because okay is good enough sometimes.” Anthony’s bluesy guitars and Kevin’s funky bassline are terrific.

The guys take a somewhat different tack on “You Know What You Want“, with lyrics about not giving up on your dreams and aspirations, “When you set your mind on something, you don’t stop til you’re done. It’s one of those things that I love about you. Someday your chance will come. Cause you know what you want.” I like the quirky and cool instrumental flourish in the bridge. And on the sweet “Accompanied“, Anthony sings his praises to a loved one who’s always there for him: “Sometimes life brings me down. That’s when I’m glad you’re around to pull me through. It’s tried and true.

But sometimes, even friends need a bit of tough love. On the catchy “Toxic Positivity“, with its bluesy Grateful Dead vibe, Anthony calls out those who spout meaningless positive adages like “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”: “Spare me your toxic positivity. When the world’s pissing in my face, I don’t have to pretend it’s refreshing rain.” On “Learn to Leave Well Enough Alone“, he admonishes someone to get off his back and mind their own business: “You’ll be the first to know when I want to hear opinions from folks who don’t understand a thing about my business.” The song has an interesting sound, with a repetitive bluesy groove, and delightful jazzy organ and percussion at the end.

Though You’re Among Friends don’t get political very often, there are times you just need to call out corporations, politicians and the media for their duplicitous actions too. The dark “Bad Karma and a Special Place in Hell” decries those who promote fear to keep the masses fired up and their profits soaring, while “This is Unsustainable” speaks to corporate greed and income inequality: “Don’t expect them to understand, how they’re living off our backs.”

With a breezy, upbeat groove that hovers in a sweet spot between Steely Dan and the Grateful Dead, album closer “Plan Cancellation Chicken” is one of my favorite tracks from a musical standpoint. Anthony’s guitar riffs are really wonderful, nicely layered over Kevin and Mike’s jazzy, thumping rhythm. The song circles back to the album’s overall theme of just calming down and going with the flow, with lighthearted lyrics that describe a romance in a cheeky, backhanded way: “It’s all a big game of plan cancellation chicken. I’m so glad you caved and canceled before I did. It’s looks like I won this round. Let’s keep each other around, so we’ll have someone to cancel plans with.

With Good Enough Sometimes, You’re Among Friends serves up 30 minutes of pleasing songs – with a few edgier ones thrown in for variety – we’ve come to expect and enjoy from them. Like I’ve mentioned previously, it’s like the return of an old friend with whom we’re able to pick right back up from where we left off.

Connect with You’re Among Friends:  Blog / Facebook / Twitter
Stream their music:  SpotifyApple Music / Napster / TidalYouTube
Purchase:  Bandcamp / iTunes / Amazon

SKY DIVING PENGUINS – Album Review: “Sky Diving Penguins”

Who would ever expect to find an act with a music style and sound similar to the Beatles in the tiny nation of Georgia? Well, such an act exists in the form of Sky Diving Penguins, the brainchild of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gia Iashvili, who on December 1st released his debut self-titled album Sky Diving Penguins. Based in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Gia is an interesting guy with a fascinating life story, some of which I learned about in a great review by Iain Key for webzine Louder Than War

He grew up in a time when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, and though Western music was frowned upon and even illegal, he managed to get his hands on some Beatles albums, which had a life-changing impact on the impressionable young teen. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, he was able to openly revel in the music of Nirvana, Beck and Elliott Smith, among others, all of which have had a major influence on his sound.

In 2001, Sky Diving Penguins released Outspoken EP to critical acclaim, and were on the verge of signing with a record label when Gia decided to relocate to Japan, where he began studying cinematography and Kyudo (archery). One day, while practicing Kyudo, an arrow accidentally struck his left ear, leaving him deaf in that ear. After a lengthy convalescence, he went off the grid in the Mount Fuji Five Lakes region, where he spent the next eight years in a kind of self-imposed exile. Once he emerged, he moved back to Georgia, where he had a serendipitous encounter in Tbilisi with Georgi Kinkladze, the Georgian former player for the Manchester City Football Club who’d become a cult hero.

After talking and reminiscing about their time in the Red Army together and living in Manchester, Gia felt reinvigorated. He began writing music again, including co-writing the 2016 Georgian Eurovision entry “Midnight Gold” for indie rock band Young Georgian Lolitaz, performing with the band Z for Zulu, and slowly rebuilding his fan base. He recorded the songs for Sky Diving Penguins over the past three years or so, with the help of his friend and producer Mark Tolle, who sadly passed away before the album was completed. Additional production was handled by sound engineer Kote Kalandadze, who also mixed the songs with Tolle. Mastering was done by acclaimed mastering engineer Pete Maher.

For the album’s recording, Gia played guitar, bass, mouth organ, electric piano and percussion, and sang lead vocals, and Dimitri Oganesian played drums. Additional musicians performing on individual songs included Kote Kalandadze on acoustic or electric guitar, Nika Kocharov on electric guitar, Tiko Kvaliashvili on flute, Vako Saatashvili on trumpet, Beka Berikishvili on French horn, and Evgenyi Inchagov on cello. Gia’s wife Maria Charkseliani sang backing vocals.

Sky Diving Penguins features ten tracks touching on the sadness and pain that’s an inevitable part of life, but softened with glimmers of optimism and the belief that things will usually be alright in the end. About the album and it’s quirky cover art, Gia explained: “I always wanted my first album to feature this artwork. It’s a picture of me from when I was a child, holding a toy machine gun; it’s kind of weird and cute at the same time. Every word and every note that I recorded on this album is honest. It took me three years to complete. This is also the last piece of work my producer and friend, Mark Tolle, was involved in. He died a couple of years ago. I wouldn’t change a bit of this album.”

The album opens with “I Don’t Want, I Don’t Care“, a melancholy but lovely song with a strong Beatles vibe. The piano and horns are marvelous, and Gia’s gentle vocals hover in a sweet spot between John Lennon and George Harrison. The lyrics speak to feelings of ennui that keep one from accomplishing anything or moving forward: “I’ve got many things to do, but I don’t do. I’ve got many things to share, but I don’t share. Indifference is everywhere. So I don’t want and I don’t care.”

On “Serotonin“, he successfully melds grungy Nirvana-esque vibes with more lighthearted and melodic Beatles elements, but most of the album’s tracks have a soothing Beatles sound. Case in point are “This Is Breaking Me Apart“, highlighted by enchanting flute and Gia’s delicate heartfelt vocals, and the hauntingly beautiful “Hating Waiting“, which sounds like a song John Lennon could have sung on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Gia’s layered vocal harmonies are wonderful, and I love the horns, xylophone and glittery guitar notes.

The pleasing two-minute long “All Goes Back In The Box In The End” sounds a bit like a Bob Dylan song recorded by the Beatles, highlighted by a cheerful mouth organ and fluttery guitar notes. The lyrics advise us to not get caught up too heavily with material things, and to try to keep our perspective on the more important things in life: “You can build the biggest house by the water. You can deny all your friends. Big cars won’t make you feel better, no matter. All goes back in a box in the end.” “About One Hermit” has a quiet introspective feel, with gentle acoustic guitars, horns and strings creating a somewhat melancholy feel. Gia’s vocals sound more like George Harrison here as he sings words of encouragement to another: “This pain won’t last forever. Stupid self-destruction ends. All of us dig at our own pure holes.”

Run Boy” is a bouncy, lighthearted song that continues on the theme introduced on “All Goes Back In the Box In The End”, that we should make the best of this life we’re given: “You dream of the place where ice-cream mountains and melon sun. There’s only weekends. Cops are playing with water guns. And there’s no trouble. Everyone’s a Beatles fan. You got no time boy. Find this place just live and Run boy, life’s not forever. Run boy, you got to get on a bus boy, take it, be clever. Run boy, find the place where you belong.”

Depressed or Bored” is a charming tune, despite its rather dour title. The humorous tongue-in-cheek lyrics speak of a general feeling of discontent with life and perhaps ourselves: “All the questions that I’ve come across, I’m the first in line to get the answer. Wish I was David Hasselhoff, brave, young with toned muscles. Ohhh, depressed or bored.” Once again, I must make note of the strong Beatles vibe, especially in the George Harrison-esque guitars and lilting vocal harmonies. “Headache Will Cause Migraines” is decidedly more downbeat, with lyrics that speak to our sometimes fragile emotional well-being: “Back to my emotions. Rituals of my childhood years. Still get pretty strange notions. But crying with sun-dried tears. Headaches will cause migraines.”

As its title suggests, album closer “Tripping #9” has a delicious psychedelic vibe, with spacey atmospheric synths and watery guitar notes layered over a droning melodic rhythm. The appropriately trippy lyrics are somewhat ambiguous and surreal, but seem to describe conflicting feelings of euphoria and fear: “Air is only distance between me and the stars, but It’s too far. Laughing at the treason. Crying for the sin, where have I been? Mind is the trigger, feeling is the gun. Ever since you’re gone, drink without permission. Glass of diet sky, with no ice.” It’s a haunting and beautiful song.

Sky Diving Penguins is marvelous, and such a delightful listen that made it a joy to review. Gia Iashvili and company have crafted a really brilliant album, and I for one am happy he came out of exile and gifted us with his wonderful music.

Connect with Sky Diving Penguins:  FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream their music:  SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloudYouTube

Purchase on BandcampWebsite

HOLLY REES – EP Review: “The Lost Songs”

Holly Rees is a talented and thoughtful singer-songwriter based in Newcastle, England who’s been writing and recording exceptional indie folk songs for the past five years or so. Like many songwriters, her poetic lyrics are inspired by personal experiences that make them highly relatable to us listeners. She then delivers them wrapped in beautiful, understated melodies, fine guitar work and lovely, heartfelt vocals, all of which have earned her critical acclaim and a loyal following, with flattering comparisons to artists like Laura Marling and Courtney Barnett.

Holly released her debut EP Ilex in 2017, garnering airplay on BBC 6 Music and a feature on Tom Robinson’s BBC Introducing Mixtape. In 2018, she performed at the Hit The North and Evolution Emerging music festivals, and released her excellent second EP Slow Down. She followed with “Text Me When You Get There”: The Live EP in May 2019, and that September, dropped her single “Getting By“, which I reviewed. On December 10th, she surprised us with release of The Lost Songs, an all-acoustic EP originally recorded in isolation exclusively for her Patreon supporters (patreon.com/hollyrees) that she’s now gifted to the world. 

She explains: “Here are the lost songs – songs I’ve written over the past three years that have fallen down the gaps. I never really intended these sad soft songs to see the light of day, but coming towards the end of another year I thought it might be nice to share them now, as a gentle winter gift before we draw a line under the year and start fresh in 2022. As some of you know, I’ve had to shield for a lot of the past two years, which is where this project started, in isolation. Every part of this project I’ve done by myself – writing, playing, recording, mixing, mastering, even the artwork – and I’m really proud of that. I hope that in listening you might find some of the joy, peace or escape that I found in making it.”

It’s a gentle EP, featuring five melancholy but lovely acoustic folk songs addressing conflicting emotions stemming from lost loves, missed connections, and the passage of time. With only her beautifully strummed guitar notes and clear, soothing vocals, Holly has created exquisite little gems that are simple yet profound, with a quiet intensity that touches the soul. The opening track “heather” is a kind of love song to her home of North East England (she told me that she actually got a heather tattoo right before leaving for her Canada tour in 2019, as an homage to the heather on the moors where she grew up): “I could be anywhere, except that the rain is making me homesick. Cry at your records, you were always such a sensitive soul. I tried to wear my heart on my sleeve but I must have got cold. And I feel open for the first time in a year.

Likewise, the enchanting “victoria” is a heartbreak song to the British Columbia capital city: “Oh Victoria, I think you always knew that I would fall for her. Victoria. She broke my heart for a year, god was I trying. But first came Victoria, Vancouver Island.” On the bittersweet song of unrequited love “i just want you“, Holly softly laments about being hopelessly in love with someone who just doesn’t feel the same about her: “Tell me about your family and living with your brothers. Tell me all your favourite streets, your heartbreaks and lovers. Tell me everything except the one thing I won’t ask. You don’t tell me if you feel the same. I know that you can’t do. I know it’s all on me, but I’m sick of writing about things that I can’t change. But I can’t change. I just want you.”

She touches on how shyness and fear of rejection sometimes hold us back, possibly losing out on opportunities for love on “seattle“. She sings of seeing a woman she’s attracted to on a bus in Seattle, but being too afraid to make contact: “Don’t know why I still hide like I’m seventeen. Smile and I won’t meet your eyes. You take down your bike. This must be your stop and we’re out of time. Go to Seattle maybe you were the one.” The serene “glad it’s you” has a bit of a Joni Mitchell vibe, and finds Holly content in a loving and trusting relationship: “Been singing with my all exposed. Been listening with my eyes closed, but my heart’s open. No I haven’t felt like this in a long time a long time, but I’m glad it’s you.

The Lost Songs is a wonderful little EP that beautifully showcases Holly’s strong songwriting, singing, recording and production talents. I’m confident she’ll continue to impress us with more outstanding music in 2022.

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

EML’s Favorite Songs – “Mine Forever” by Lord Huron

One of the best acts making music today is indie folk-rock band Lord Huron. Regular followers of my blog know I’m a huge fan of theirs, and their gorgeous single “Mine Forever” is currently enjoying a long stay atop my Weekly Top 30. The song recently peaked at #2 on the Billboard Adult Alternative Airplay (AAA) chart. For those still unaware of Lord Huron’s music, “Mine Forever” is a perfect introduction, as the song is both breathtaking and catchy. Those twangy, borderline surf guitars are gorgeous, and together with the soaring strings, captivating vocal harmonies and infectious toe-tapping groove, it all comes together to create a truly phenomenal track. 

Their uniquely beautiful music is a glorious mash-up of folk, western, rock and roll, pop, surf rock and new age, and has been described by a few music writers as evoking the ‘high-lonesome’ sound of such legendary acts as The Band and Neil Young, as well as newer acts like Fleet Foxes and My Morning Jacket. The most striking features of their sound are the lush twangy and shimmery guitars, backed by stirring orchestral strings, and lead singer Ben Schneider’s achingly beautiful vocals, which have an arresting and heartfelt vulnerability. For me, listening to their music is an almost religious experience, transporting me to a dreamy, faraway place somewhere out in the open West. The cinematic quality of their music makes many of their songs perfect candidates for the soundtrack of a sweeping Western epic.

Lord Huron was formed by singer-songwriter and guitarist Ben Schneider as a solo act in 2010, after he relocated from Michigan to Los Angeles. The name was inspired by Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes that border Michigan. The band eventually grew into a four-piece, and now includes Miguel Briseño on bass, keyboards & theremin, Tom Renaud on guitar, and Mark Barry on drums & percussion. They released their debut album Lonesome Dreams in 2012, but I didn’t learn about them until 2017, when I heard their beautiful ballad “The Night We Met”, from their second album Strange Trails. Their biggest hit thus far, the song has been streamed more than 857 million times on Spotify, and is one of my favorites of 2017.  

“Mine Forever” is from their critically acclaimed fourth album Long Lost, an ambitious and stunning work released this past May, and featuring 13 songs plus three brief interludes. Every one of the 13 tracks is outstanding, and I think it’s hands down one of the best albums of 2021. Another one of the album’s singles, “Not Dead Yet”, topped both my Weekly Top 30 and the Billboard AAA chart this past June. I strongly urge everyone to set aside some time to listen to the album, because you’ll be glad you did. Even a few friends of mine who aren’t that much into music have remarked on how good it is.

The song’s lyrics seem to describe an obsessive and dysfunctional love-hate relationship, in which the singer feels he can’t live with nor without his lover. Lord Huron tends to make quirky entertaining story videos featuring a mix of newly-filmed and vintage B-movie footage, and the one for “Mine Forever” is no exception. The song ends with blurry images of a couple embracing as a woman speaks words in French. I love it!

Here’s the Spotify link of Long Lost for those who wish to check out the full album:

ALEX SOUTHEY – EP Review: “My Nights On the Island”

Alex Southey is a Canadian singer-songwriter and musician who makes outstanding music that can generally be described as alternative indie folk, but it’s so much more than that. Originally from Vancouver and currently based in Toronto, the busy artist has released quite a bit of music over the past few years, including three albums: Christmastown in 2019, You’re Not Just a Body to Me in 2020 and, most recently …And the Country Stirred this past February. Prior to that album’s release, I featured one of its singles “Rosie” – a deeply personal and haunting love song to his erstwhile hometown of Vancouver – on a Fresh New Tracks post.

Now he’s back with an exquisite new EP My Nights On the Island, which dropped September 17th. All the songs were written, performed, and produced by Alex, and mastered by Aaron Hutchinson. The beautiful cover artwork was designed and created by Felicia Wetterlin. The EP is a departure from his more typical indie folk sound, though truth be told, his music style is rather eclectic and hard to pin down, genre-wise. Like all creative artists, he’s not afraid to explore and experiment with his music, and as a result, each of his albums sound different from one another.

In an interview with Spill Magazine, Alex explained his creative process behind “My Nights On the Island: “I was trying to make an EP that would please my 17-year-old self. So, there is a little bit of Hip Hop and beats; I am not rapping, but in terms of beats. There are a bunch of acoustic guitars, and electric guitars and there is a theme, which is breaking up.” In a later Instagram post, he further elaborated “The EP encompasses a lot of things I wanted to do, and to not do the same thing again. Instead of starting with folk songs and dressing them up with an arrangement, I tried to go backwards, starting with what might be considered secondary or accent instruments (at least for my taste) as the main instrument. It forced me to write in a slightly different way. Of course, there are some pretty simply structured songs on here, like ‘As Close As You’ll Ever Be’, but there are also plenty of moments where it’s totally abstract in a way that at least absorbed ME and continued to pique my interest enough that I followed through with them.”

Well, the result is a fascinating and sonically complex work that’s pure delight for the senses. I’ve now listened to the EP six times, and discover new atmospheric sounds, instrumental textures and vocal nuances with each successive play. While there are common threads running through all the tracks, each one sounds uniquely different, surprising and thrilling us at every turn. Using nature sounds of water, waves and birds, he takes us right to that island.

The darkly beautiful opening track “The Gods Are Fighting” starts off with sounds of a boat slowly moving through what I’m imagining to be nighttime waters, accompanied by far-off ominous synths. At around 45 seconds, the song abruptly transitions to a lovely acoustic guitar-driven melody, highlighted by gorgeous strings and what sounds like a Mellotron, soaring to a dramatic crescendo. The track calms back down at the end with gentle sounds of breaking waves. About the track, Alex told Spill Magazine“I wrote the song around the time my last significant relationship ended. That also happened to be when it felt as though Toronto and its relationship with many of its citizens was at an all-time low. The song describes the dual positions of a relationship that has soured – where even dreams are muted and the agreed upon etiquette is out the window.” His richly layered vocals are captivating, with a melancholy quality that nicely conveys the sadness and pain of his break-up.

On the moody, atmospheric “Evergreen“, which sounds a bit like a song Bon Iver could have recorded, Alex experiments with lush, otherworldly synths and sounds, over which he layers delicate notes of what sounds like a mandolin or possibly a ukelele. The lyrics are spare, but he wistfully laments of how his feelings of love have died: “I don’t, I don’t, I don’t love you. I turned yesterday into stone.” And as its title suggests, the instrumental piece “Mellotron and Juliet” features a stunning Mellotron and his enchanting falsetto croon, creating a dreamy, yet melancholy soundscape.

My Nights On the Island / Rich In Experience” is an interesting track, as it’s actually two distinct, but related mostly instrumental tracks that Alex has fashioned into a couplet. The first half, which is the title track, starts off with Alex’s charming strummed acoustic guitar, then deeply resonant brass sounds from what I’m guessing is his Mellotron wash over us as he sings in almost exotic-sounding ethereal vocals, accompanied by somber piano keys and a languid hip hop beat. The song appears to end at 2:30, and after a 10-second lull, we hear sounds of birds chirping along with a return of the beautiful Mellotron. Eventually, horns enter as the music swells into a lush, idyllic soundscape befitting its “Rich in Experience” title.

Perhaps the most unusual song is the dramatic and trippy “As Close As You’ll Ever Be”, which Alex first released as a single in July. The song opens and closes with sounds of a large crowd cheering, as if at a rock concert. He explained this technique to Spill Magazine: “On this song, there is kind of a crowd atmosphere which is influenced from listening to albums by Hip Hop artists and bands like Pink Floyd who would use crowd noises, and weirdly also influenced by Oasis. On their best albums they kind of do this tiny little intro and tiny little outro leading into songs.” Musically, the song features blaring, almost tortured synths and sounds, with acoustic guitar during quieter moments. The lyrics seem to speak to his partner’s lack of appreciation for his worth as a musician: “I’m the hit in your head / I’m all on your bedspread / But that’s as close as you’ll ever be. And it’s true I earn half of what the next dance gets, but I’ve got a heart of gold you’ll pay to see.” I love his vocals, which sound radically different on each track.

On the bittersweet closing track “There’s Anneko, Down the Fire Escape“, Alex comes to terms with the fact that the relationship is over for good, and that they must each let go and move on. The song has a wonderful dominant bassline throughout, overlain with mournful cinematic synths and acoustic guitar notes. His vocals are filled with sadness and regret as he laments “There’s a neat trick, that I taught myself. To let go. Let go. / I can never love you how you want. So let go. Let go.” It’s a fine, albeit dark, finish to this beautiful EP. My Nights On the Island is an impressive, masterfully-crafted work that should make Alex feel quite proud.

Follow Alex Southey:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Stream his music:  SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloudYouTube

Purchase on Bandcamp

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 

CLINT SLATE & IONA JAMES – EP Review: “The Silent Sea”

Sometimes the best things are born of chance encounters, and that’s exactly the case with the new EP The Silent Sea, a collaboration between French artist Clint Slate and Scottish singer-songwriter Iona James. Coming from different worlds, the two met serendipitously in early 2021 after entering a songwriting competition hosted by a radio station. The two hit it off professionally, and decided to write songs and record them together. The four-track EP The Silent Sea is their first in a series of planned releases.

For a bit of background, Clint Slate is the musical alter-ego of French singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gregg Michel. Based in Paris, the versatile fellow has been involved in numerous projects as a singer, musician and actor over the years, and created Clint Slate (a variation of ‘clean slate’) in 2015 to further explore a more experimental side. He’s released three albums, beginning with this debut work Before the Dark, an exploration of his feelings of grief and loss after the death of his father. He followed in 2017 with his exquisite second album Woodn Bones, which was recorded in a single take and premiered in a live performance on the internet with a full band plus choir in a theatre. This past January, he dropped his third album Dragons, an innovative and imaginative genre-blended work inspired by his love of David Bowie’s album Earthling, which was itself based on the idea of a ‘cadavre exquis musical’ (or ‘exquisite musical corpse’). The brilliant album was created virtually and remotely, with the help of two other musicians, bassist Francesco Arzani and drummer Louison Collet. You can read my review of Dragons here.

Iona James is a nurse from Scotland with a life-long love of music. As a young child, she’d sing along with her mum to songs by the Bee Gees, Jackson 5 and Cyndi Lauper, then learned to appreciate classical music while playing in her school band. She later grew to love such diverse acts as Nirvana, Enya and The Cranberries, and began writing her own songs while learning to play guitar. She eventually joined the army and became a nurse, but continued to feed her passion for music by writing songs in secret. Iona made an attempt to satisfy her craving to be involved in music by joining the Scottish military wives’ choir, but it was her father-in-law urging her to do something she loved that finally compelled her to take a songwriting course. Meanwhile, working as a nurse during the pandemic brought anxiety, stress and dread, causing insomnia for her. She found solace in writing songs, and made a new year’s resolution to record one of them, which led to the release of her first single “To the Moon” this past January.

The first track “No Way Out” was released in advance of The Silent Sea on May 24th. The song opens with shimmery strummed guitar chords backed by spooky ethereal synths and handclaps, then Iona’s lovely vocals enter, accompanied by a warm bassline. Her vocals are soon joined by Clint’s as the music expands into a luxurious, moody soundscape, punctuated by jangly guitar and enchanting keyboards. The interplay between Iona and Clint’s vocals is really wonderful as they complement and play off each other in perfect harmony. The powerful lyrics seem to touch on dealing with personal demons and regrets over past mistakes: “Stranded alone, alone in the crowd. Prisoner in my own head. Can’t seem to find my way out. This haunted memory, merry go round. Grasping the last piece of straw. Can’t take this no more.” It’s beautiful and haunting, and I think it’s my favorite song on the EP.

On the captivating “Believe“, the two admonish us to not live in the past or fall prey to all the noise we’re bombarded with on a daily basis, but to instead remain cognizant of that which is good and meaningful in our lives: “Be free of what you see In the fake news you read. When your heart controls your mind. Embrace what you have, not what you had.” The song is really lovely, with a gentle melody built around watery chiming guitars and delicate percussive sounds. Clint’s vocals sound a lot like Bono’s here (he in fact performs as Bono in a U2 tribute band), and once again, he harmonizes beautifully with Iona’s clear, resonant vocals.

Tell Me Now” is a pleasing folk-pop song, with an opening guitar riff that sounds a bit like that in the 1978 hit “Reminiscing” by the Little River Band. The sunny, upbeat melody contrasts with the simple, bittersweet lyrics spoken between a couple coming to terms with the fact their relationship appears broken beyond repair: “Loving you was easy, but loving you could be so damn hard. I didn’t know trying to hold on would tear us apart.” “The Ticking Tide” is the longest and most musically complex of the four tracks, starting off with quirky synths that are replaced by a piano driven melody, which gradually evolves into more of a rock feel with urgent guitars and heavier percussion. Lyrically, the song touches on the relentless passage of time, and our powerlessness in its wake. Everything that’s happened in our past continues to shape who we are going forward, but we cannot let those things imprison us: “The ticking tide, waits for no one. Tomorrow is today. The ticking tide it tempts me, I’m drifting away. The ticking tide one day will set me free. Time is an ocean. We’re helpless, but time is in motion, forging us.

The Silent Sea is a lovely little EP, and a fine debut effort by this talented duo. Iona and Clint are both great songwriters and vocalists in their own right, and their combined efforts have paid off nicely in the creation of these wonderful songs.

The special edition includes the EP, four alternate versions called ‘The Naked Sea’, a Radio Edit for ‘The Ticking Tide’ and the digital booklet.

Follow Clint:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Stream his music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music

Purchase:  Bandcamp / Amazon

Follow Iona:  FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream her music:  SpotifyApple Music