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.”
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 inHell” 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.
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 MeApart“, highlighted by enchanting flute and Gia’s delicate heartfelt vocals, and the hauntingly beautiful “HatingWaiting“, 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 notforever. Run boy, you got to get on a bus boy, take it, be clever. Run boy, find the place where you belong.”
“Depressedor 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 betweenme 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.
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 justwant 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
Last September (of 2020), I first featured German-American indie-folk singer-songwriter and producer Michael Lane on this blog when I reviewed his beautiful heartwarming single “Coming Home”. I also wrote a bit about his upbringing in both Germany and the United States, how his life experiences have shaped his songwriting, and of his growing success as a musician. A prolific artist, over the past seven years he’s released four albums, as well as numerous singles, helping him build a large and growing following in Germany and beyond. On Spotify alone, he has over 30,000 monthly listeners from countries like Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the U.S. Shortly after I published my review, Michael released another exquisite single “Moment” and now returns with his latest single “Good Times“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week.
As I customarily do when writing a review, I listen to some of the artist or band’s back music catalog, and once again I’m really impressed by the beauty and quality of Michael’s songwriting and vocals. His honest, relatable lyrics are consistently delivered with pleasing melodies, exceptional guitar work and soothing vocals. Released via the label Greywood Records, “Good Times” offers a message of hope and assurance that times of crisis will lead people back to the important things in life. Michael explains further: “Although ‘Good Times’ is a very upbeat and happy song, it still has a more serious and deeper meaning. Without getting too much into it, in the song I’m basically saying that, just because you surround yourself with a new house or nice car, doesn’t mean it will give you more happiness in the long run.“
The song has a breezy, toe-tapping melody, with an enchanting mix of gently-strummed and chiming guitars, accompanied by just the right amount of percussion and subtle bass to drive the rhythm forward, while still allowing Michael’s beautiful guitar work to shine. As always, his warm and clear vocals are heartfelt as he sings the poignant lyrics, backed by his own lovely harmonies. It’s another stellar addition to his unbroken string of outstanding singles.
You like drama but you never did like the truth
You sing songs to free the pain inside of you
Big house, new life helps to forget
All the memories that you regret
Act so tough, but you're really just scared
Yeah you're really just scared to live
All these walls, and you took what I had
Yeah, you took all I had to give
Yeah, you took all I had to give
Good times never die, don't you agree
What's life if you can't live life for free
You have a heart , so just hear what it has to say
Everybody hurts, don't give up and run away
Act so tough, but you're really just scared
Yeah you're really just scared to live
All these walls, yeah you took all I had
Yeah, you took all I had to give
For my latest installment of recent releases, I’m featuring four scintillating new singles by international artists (in alphabetical order) Favourite Daughter, Lazer Squad featuring Melotika, NAYAD and Alex Southey. Three of them – Favourite Daughter, Melotika and Alex Southey – are Canadian, Lazer Squad is German and NAYAD are Swedish.
“Long Distance” by Favourite Daughter
Favourite Daughter is the music project of Toronto-born and now Montreal-based singer-songwriter Julia Kennific, who’s just released her terrific debut single “Long Distance“. Drawing inspiration from such artists as Courtney Barnett, Hayley Williams and Julien Baker, she creates her own unique brand of infectious indie pop/rock through catchy melodies, honest, vulnerable lyrics and emphatic vocals. Julia wrote and sang vocals on the song, with assistance by Sam Eastman on guitars, Sam Donald on bass, Kate Markle on synths, Edward Scrimger on drums and Gabrièle Côté-LeBreux on percussion. The track was produced, recorded and mixed by Steven Gibb at Lites Down Studio, and mastered by Richard Addison at Studio Trillium Sound.
Julia elaborates on her impetus for writing the song: “I wrote ‘Long Distance‘ on an unplugged, rented electric guitar during a blackout on a night off from an opera gig I was doing in Halifax in the summer of 2019, in tears after a frustrating phone call with my then-girlfriend. We were spending a four month stretch away from each other while I travelled for work. Neither of us were communicating well, and our daily check ins became monotonous. Both of us kept up the charade that we were good, while allowing fear and resentment to build up, which ended up costing us the relationship entirely. It’s about trying to keep up appearances that everything’s fine, while running from the inevitable.“
The rousing song features lively rhythms and chugging guitars, creating a cheerfully upbeat but anxious vibe that builds as the song progresses. It all works beautifully to convey feelings of running away from one’s problems, yet knowing you’ll have to face up to them sooner or later: “So it’ll feel like I’m dying till it doesn’t anymore / I’ll rebuild again, Lord knows that I’ve done it before.“
“Eternal Eclipse” by Lazer Squad featuring Melotika
Lazer Squad is a versatile and talented electronic artist and producer from Germany who creates EDM, Synthwave and Nu-Disco music. He began his music career over 15 years ago as a drummer for a punk and metal band, as well as playing and touring with numerous bands as a backup musician, eventually transitioning to electronic music. In 2020, he wowed critics and fans alike with his excellent debut album Undead Nightmare, which he then followed with a series of singles. His latest effort is “Eternal Eclipse“, a mesmerizing EDM track featuring sultry vocals by Montreal-based singer-songwriter Melotika, a hard-working and charming electro pop artist for whom I have a special fondness. She’s released quite a lot of music over the past three years, and I’ve had the pleasure of featuring some of it on this blog. She will soon be dropping her debut album Dancing Without You.
“Eternal Eclipse” serves up an infectious EDM groove that aims straight for the hips, giving us three and a half minutes worth of joyous escapism. The timely lyrics describe what it feels like to be stranded in the middle of a global crisis with a loved one: “Everybody’s trippin’ out / Taken back, shaken up / Nobody even knows my name / Thinking about tearing down, and I’m singing a song. Singing alone. What can I do without you?” Have a listen and prepare to move those hips!
Stockholm-based duo NAYAD create dreamy psych lofi pop, which they humorously describe as “Tame Impala, Lana Del Rey and ABBA had an orgy and the result is us” – a pretty spot-on characterization of their gorgeous sound. Last summer, they burst onto the Swedish music scene with their breakout Swedish-language single “Ingen vet”, then followed up with the English-language “Don’t be mad if I don’t come along”, gaining airplay on Swedish National Radio and other radio stations. In November, they dropped their third single “Holy Lakes (Dusk)” a stunning track celebrating their love of nature. Although the single is now more than two months old, I’m featuring it now because they just released a beautiful video for the song.
The song is utterly captivating, with achingly beautiful piano keys, accompanied by stirring atmospheric synths creating an enchanting soundscape for their sublime vocal harmonies. About the fascinating video, they provide a bit of enlightenment: “NAYAD loves mother earth. We immediately had a clear picture that the video for ‘Holy Lakes (Dusk)’ would be a journey through lakes and mountains, because that is the theme of the song. We used an introductory film to national parks around North America and cut it together with other goodies we have collected over the years.” Much of the imagery they used includes old footage of Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks.
Alex Southey is an indie folk singer-songwriter and musician currently based in Toronto. He’s released quite a lot of music over the past few years, including two albums: Christmastown in 2019 and last year’s You’re Not Just a Body to Me. Since that release, he’s dropped three singles in advance of his forthcoming third album …And the Country Stirred, due for release on February 5th. The latest of these three singles is “Rosie“, a hauntingly beautiful and deeply personal love song to his erstwhile hometown of Vancouver. Alex sang and played guitar, piano and the soaring string arrangements, Kenny Feinstein played fiddle, and Tommy Drinkard played pedal steel and mandolin. The track was produced and mixed by JUNO Award winner John Critchley and mastered by Aaron Hutchison.
About the song’s title, Alex elaborates: “Who is ‘Rosie’? I had been wanting to write about a place, but knew that I’d have to personify it. I was trying, failing, at growing rosemary naturally on my balcony and I began to find the word alluring. I fused it with this personification concept and it became the name of the person when in reality, the song is a love letter to Vancouver where I was born. I feel a sort of mysterious attraction to Vancouver. The city sells itself well, but has its pitfalls: rain all the time, darkness, basements, high price of living – it can all seep into you. For a long time, I was giving something to it and it didn’t give me anything back.” In his sublime and plaintive vocal style, he croons of his mixed emotions: “Rosemary, I can stay away / You say it well, then you take it away / Got no problem, follow up / You’re the one I say I’m from.“