Mount Famine are a British post punk/synth-infused indie rock’n’roll project based in Derby. Formed in 2019 as a collaboration of seasoned musicians with a shared love of such bands as The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, Pet Shop Boys, Manic Street Preachers, Pulp and Suede, they aim to create music that, in their own words, “produces the adrenaline-fueled highs of indie disco dancefloors.” Hallmarks of their vibrant sound are infectious melodies, lush soundscapes and soaring vocals. A rather enigmatic band, they have no photos of themselves on any of their social media, nor do they list their members’ names. Band front man and vocalist Martin Stanier, who I know of from his having reached out to me on Instagram, explained that they’ve steered away from photos, wanting the focus to instead be on their music.
Beginning with their debut single “Faith” in January 2020, they’ve released a string of excellent singles over the past two and a half years. This past March, I included their fourth single “Distance” in a Fresh New Tracks post. The song garnered support from BBC Introducing East Midlands and Louder Than War, as well endorsements from actor Robert Carlyle and British broadcaster Terry Christian. I liked the song so much, it spent 11 weeks on my Weekly Top 30 list. Now they’re back with a new single “Offcuts“, a rousing anthem that calls to mind some of the great songs by New Order, Manic Street Preachers and The Killers.
The song storms through the gates with an exuberant soundscape of swirling synths, roiling guitars and driving rhythms. Martin’s sparkling keyboards have a wonderful cinematic quality, and the layered shimmery and grungy guitars are quite marvelous. Also outstanding are the humming bassline and emphatic thumping drumbeats, both of which add great power and depth to the track. And, as always, Martin’s resonant vocals are incredibly pleasing, rising with a commanding force in the choruses.
The song’s lyrics touch on the drudgery of executive management, work hierarchies, and the disposability of workers. Martin elaborated further: “It’s about a moment I had recently where I doubted myself. I spent some time in the company of some very senior managers in my job who weren’t nice or kind and treated others lower on the food chain really badly. And all the others treated them with adoration and respect that to my mind, they didn’t really deserve. I wondered if I had got it wrong and that doing this was the way forward. I mean, it didn’t last very long because of course that isn’t how to be or to treat people, but it also echoed the behaviour of a lot of our world leaders of late.”
I am the new normal in rock and roll; discos
Kiss me, between the sheets
You're so discreet, discreetMaybe I misunderstood
And dreams and schemes are not as fun
As real life, through office doors
We are Offcuts on director's floorsMaybe I misunderstood
And dreams and schemes are not as fun
As real life, through office doors
We are Offcuts on director's floorsFast cars, high class barsNow you are stars, all stars
Diamonds and dollars
Now you look down on us, on usMaybe I misunderstood
And dreams and schemes are not as fun
As real life, through office doors
We are Offcuts on director's floors
Maybe I misunderstood
And real life is Hollywood
And Sundays walking through the malls are the best days, best times of allFunny, you're so funny
They laugh with you
But money and power have made you sourMaybe I misunderstood
And dreams and schemes are not as fun
As real life, through office doors
We are Offcuts on director's floors
Maybe I misunderstood
And real life is Hollywood
And Sundays walking through the malls are the best days, best times of all
“Offcuts” is a fantastic radio-friendly song that’s certain to be a hit.
Hailing from East Sussex, England is the talented and charismatic young pop-rock band Wild Horse, consisting of brothers Henry and Jack Baldwin and long-time friend Ed Barnes. Now in their early 20s, the guys are seasoned musicians who’ve been writing and recording songs since forming in 2013, when they were barely teenagers. Both Henry and Jack are multi-instrumentalists who play guitar, bass and keyboards, as well as sing vocals, while Ed plays drums and percussion, sings backing vocals and plays guitar on a few tracks. The Baldwin brothers are also prolific songwriters who’ve penned hundreds of songs over the years, with five albums, three EPs and numerous singles to their credit. I’ve been following them on social media for nearly five years, and have reviewed two of their albums, DANCE!! Like An Animal in 2019, and When the Pool Is Occupied this past December, which you can read here.
Always keeping busy and productive, Wild Horse has recorded a number of new singles which they plan on releasing this year, starting with “Joy Ride” this past June. They now follow up with a second single “Bitter“, which drops today. The song explores the emotional minefield of casual romantic relationships, in which one partner desires a ‘no strings’ arrangement with the freedom to see other people, leaving the other partner feeling dissatisfied, insecure and generally unhappy.
I really like the song’s breezy, guitar-driven melody, which nicely contrasts with the poignant, rather ‘bitter’ lyrics. As always, the guitar work is first-rate, accompanied by a lively rhythm section that keeps the toe-tapping groove going, while allowing the guitars and vocals to shine. Jack’s endearing, heartfelt vocals sound better than ever here, and we feel his sad resignation as he plaintively laments “A little bit of feeling’s what I need. And just a little bit of pleasure’s all you want. And now I’m stuck here in the middle, playing games. I really thought we could have talked this out by now. I’m just a little bitter.”
“Bitter” is a wonderful track, nicely showcasing Wild Horse’s continuing growth and maturity as a band.
One of the most fascinating artists I’ve come across over the past year is dwi, the music project of Canadian singer-songwriter Dwight Abell. He’s also bassist for Canadian alternative/power pop band The Zolas, who recently completed a tour of Canada and the U.S. Though he’s a devoted husband and father of two young boys living in the suburbs of Vancouver, he lets his creativity and imagination run totally wild with his zany alter ago, making outstanding music that’s innovative, quirky and fun. Last October, dwi released his brilliant debut album Mild Fantasy Violence, which I happily reviewed. One of the album’s tracks, “Good Friend”, spent four months on my Weekly Top 30, going all the way to #1 this past January.
Now he’s back with a marvelous new single “Party4One“, accompanied by a delightfully wacky video. He says the song is “about falling in love with yourself during an intense state of cabin fever. Love yourself, make out with yourself, and for the love of gawd, scare yourself. The weirdos are in charge now!” The song’s a blast from start to finish, with an infectious bouncy groove, highlighted by a chugging bass line, a lively mix of jangly and crunchy guitars, crisp, thumping drumbeats, and swirling psychedelic synths. dwi’s quirky vocals are relentlessly endearing as he sings “Hey reflection, I really like you. Don’t want your friends. Hey man, I think it’s pretty funny given who I am. Nothing can stop me, I’m living in a single player game. You can’t stop me, it’s a party for one.“
The hilarious video was directed and produced by Canadian musician and film director Andrew Huculiak, and filmed in a house on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish), and Tsleil-Waututh nations. It stars dwi as an eccentric guy dressed in goth-punk black leather and a plaid skirt, with his hair featuring two tufts molded into devil horns. He enters an old house and proceeds to indulge in all sorts of childish antics, including playing video games with a giant stuffed teddy bear, overdosing on bowlfuls of Froot Loops, covering his face with lipstick in front of a bathroom mirror, and engaging in S&M pretend with the teddy bear. Haven’t we all wanted to run amok and do weird shit by ourselves at one time or another? I love it, and I love him!
JEEN (Jeen O’Brien) is a talented, successful and established singer-songwriter and musician from Toronto, Canada with quite an impressive resume. According to her bio, her songs have been used in commercials for such companies as Google, Panasonic, Estée Lauder, Kraft, BlackBerry, KIA, Rogers, MasterCard and Molson, as well as various movies and television programs, including Cook Off, Republic of Doyle, Instant Star, Ruby Gloom, Degrassi, Killjoys, Hockey Wives, Workin’ Moms, MTV Catfish, and MTV Are You the One. Though we’ve followed each other on Twitter for a while, she somehow slipped under my radar until a few days ago, when she reached out to me about her latest single “On and On“. I liked it at first listen, and agreed to feature it on this blog.
Before I’m able to properly review music by an artist I’ve not written about before, I check out their website and various social media accounts to learn as much as I can about them (alas, I’ll never be able to shake the research methods I learned in grad school), and try to listen to at least some of their music catalog to better familiarize myself with their sound. In searching through JEEN’s, I was amazed by her tremendous music output over the past eight years. After starting out as a member of Toronto alternative pop-rock band Cookie Duster (who released a fine album When Flying Was Easy in 2012), she went solo and released her debut album Tourist in 2014. Since then, she’s put out scores of singles and four more albums, most recently Dog Bite last October (2021). Her music is so good, I found myself going down a rabbit hole of binge-listening to her back catalog. Her alternative pop-rock music style and sound are somewhat similar to a few other female artists I’ve heard, yet also distinctly her own.
“On and On” is the first single off JEEN’s forthcoming sixth album Tracer, due for release in October. For the recording of the single and album, which were co-produced by JEEN and her frequent collaborator Ian Blurton, JEEN played rhythm guitar, bass and synths, Ian played lead guitar and Stephan Szczesniak played drums. The song was also engineered and mixed by Ian, and mastered by Brad Boatright. JEEN says the song is “about breaking points and falling down more times than you’re willing to get back up. I wrote this song last year when everything was grinding me down and nothing seemed worth it.”
The song is a lively banger with a hint of punk undercurrent, driven by Stephan’s urgent thumping drumbeats and JEEN’s throbbing bass. Ian and JEEN lay down a colorful mix of grungy and chiming guitars, accompanied by exuberant sparkling synths, creating a rousing backdrop for her echoed, somewhat mumbled vocals, which are backed by her own soaring harmonies as she laments “Everything got so complicated. Every day’s so intoxicating. Anyway I tried a hundred times (and on and on and on). And I think you must be blind, when you say everything’s fine (and on and on and on).Hey I’m sorry that I lost my place, started running but I fell on my face.” I like the gnarly instrumental fade out at the end, as if to signify someone becoming emotionally deflated like a tire losing air.
For the rather trippy video, JEEN’s chosen a fascinating way to show her lyrics, including written in lipstick on a bathroom mirror, in ink on her hand and arm, crumpled scraps of paper, mylar balloons, an old sneaker and concrete walls, and typed out on a computer screen.
One of the perks (and there are a few downsides as well) of being a blogger who writes music reviews is getting to know a lot of musicians and bands from all over the world, some of them on a personal level. High on my list of favorites, both as musicians and humans, is Chicago-based rock band The MillionReasons. Though I’ve never met them in person, I seriously love these guys and consider them friends who honestly care about me as a person, rather than simply a blogger who can be of use to them. A few of them actually check in from time to time to ask how I’m doing, which means a lot to me. It also makes me an intensely loyal fan.
The Million Reasons originally formed in 2016 as a trio comprised of Scott Nadeau on lead vocals, and Ken Ugel and Mike Nichols on guitars. They were joined a year later by drummer Colin Dill, then bassist Jason Cillo in 2018. I first learned about them when they followed me on Twitter in July 2018, around the time they released their magnificent single “Dizzy”. It was love at first listen, and I quickly became a big fan of theirs. Without question one of the most beautiful rock songs I’ve ever heard, I was happy to write a review of “Dizzy”. I loved it so much that it went all the way to #1 on my Weekly Top 30, and ultimately ranked #69 on my 100 best songs of the decadelist.
The guys went on to release a few more singles, then in August 2019, Scott decided to leave the band. Fortunately, they quickly found a phenomenal replacement in singer-songwriter Taylor Brennan, a close friend of Colin’s, and the band lineup was complete again. Taylor brought not only his impressive vocal talents, but also great songwriting skills and years of experience, which have expanded The Million Reasons’ musical horizons quite nicely. Whereas their music had primarily been classic rock/rock’n’roll oriented, some of their new songs venture more into progressive rock territory.
All five band members are highly accomplished musicians, several of whom are also involved with other projects. Taylor is vocalist for alternative-progressive rock band Polarizer (who’s brilliant album Love From the Underground I reviewed last November). Ken is guitarist for rock bands Guardrail and Wild Gravity, and Colin and Jason are members of covers band Dad’s Night Out. Having five members, including two guitarists, their sound is dynamic, heavy and melodic, consistently delivered with incredible riffs, tight rhythms and powerful vocals – everything we lovers of rock want to hear.
With their new lineup, the band set to work writing new songs, as well as re-working a few song ideas from their previous iteration that had never been fully-developed. This culminated in the release of their EP If Not For the Fire in February 2020, which I also reviewed. The title single “If Not For the Fire” also climbed to the top of my Weekly Top 30 chart, and ended up at #20 on my Top 100 Songs of 2020 list.
Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic cast its ugly pall soon after the EP’s release, hindering the relatively new lineup from touring or performing live to promote it. Also prevented from gathering together to record more songs, the guys soldiered on remotely, often struggling in the process. In the hopes of getting their music out to a wider audience, they signed with Pavement Entertainment in summer 2020, and once Covid restrictions were lifted, got back into the studio to continue recording songs for what would become their debut full-length album Haven, which finally dropped April 15th. It’s a beautiful work that was definitely worth all the blood, sweat and tears it took them to finally get it done and released.
The word ‘haven’, defined as a place of safety or refuge, is the perfect title for The Million Reasons’ new album, as it encapsulates all that got them to this point. The album features 11 tracks, including the four previously released on the EP, which have been re-engineered and mastered with a bigger and fuller sound. Though I did not conduct an interview, each band member beautifully articulated their own thoughts about the album, some of which I’d now like to share in order to provide some context.
Taylor: “It’s an intensely personal album for me. But I/we always hope that our songs connect with people, whether it’s an individual or a crowd. I like to think there are enough overarching themes to speak to someone else going through the emotions represented by the songs; the highs, the lows, or especially if it’s both. It’s about one’s journey through highs and lows, no matter the obstacles, no matter the duration of the tumult. One of my favourite lyrics on this album is ‘It’s not over til it’s better’. It updates on the ’til its over’ aspect because to me the original phrase implies a potentially negative finality. The point being, I now believe there is always “better”. Even if the body shots keep coming, even if it feels like death by a thousand shots, even if “better” is achieved incrementally…if you keep going…if you work on yourself and surround yourself with love and support…it will get better. To me, that culminates in ‘Haven’. Haven is the place where you finally feel safe. The place where you finally feel home. The place where you finally feel better. The place where you finally feel like ‘you’.
To me, the album represents that natural chemistry cannot be denied. That’s obviously a theme of the lyrics, but the band also lived that. We have a great time together when we get together. Musically, we gel. I think we had the rocky start that could have ended some projects before they had a chance to get going. But we made it through and now we know what we are capable of. I love the record, I am as proud of it as anything I have done. When you have to work hard to get through adversity, the end result is that much sweeter. We’ve done that, and we like each other and this band more now than we did when we first met, I feel. So while this feels like our peak right now, like a penultimate record, I think it also represents that we’re in this together and we have what it takes to see this through indefinitely. We are a band, and a fucking good one. And we’re just getting started.”
Colin: “‘Haven’ is the culmination of 5 years of songwriting, practice, shows, line-up changes and hard work, all finally pieced together to create the true foundation and spirit of The Million Reasons as a band. The spirit being defined by keeping Rock N’ Roll alive and well and having a damn good time doing it. COVID impacted our timeline and motivation greatly. It was extremely challenging to find time to finalize writing and recording each piece whether at the studio or on our own. There were absolutely discouraging times that we would never quite get there, but we persevered and are absolutely ecstatic at the end product. I’m very proud of this album and release. I love the guys in the band like family and it’s so exciting to have this release finally happening. “If Not For The Fire” and the passion of the group, there would be no album!“
Jason: “This really is a culmination of all the band’s work. Some of these songs were written during the first iteration of the group (Mike & Ken being the only remaining members) and then re-done with new vocals. I personally joined the band where the music was already mostly outlined for about half the album and the other half was written together. We write the music completely separate from the lyrics and let Taylor write on top of what we came up with. A lot of these songs came from jams or specific writing sessions in Ken’s apartment. Ken and I paired off a lot to write in a more rigid, methodical way, while Mike and Colin would go into the rehearsal space and jam with something recording them and then we’d converge on those ideas. I hope that [the album] gets in front of people who will enjoy it. I’ve never felt better about music that I’ve worked on and I know it’s good, it’s just a matter of showing the world that. Truthfully, I just want people to enjoy it and for the band to play some more shows to see that in-person.”
Ken: “‘Haven’ is our defining moment as a group and the place where we’ve established our sound. This is our base, and acts as the beginning of something special. The journey to find our ‘Haven’ over years of songwriting, lineup changes, and a pandemic; has led us here: our safe place, where we are coming into our own. The metaphorical and physical start of this new chapter of TMR. I truly believe if these songs were played to a wider audience and given the attention it deserves, we’d break out of the ‘only friends and family’ listening parties. I’d hope to start opening up for some bigger acts and get in front of new people over the next year. ‘Haven’ showcases everything the band is about and just to boost my self-esteem up a bit: I think it’s a damn good album!“
Mike: “‘Haven’ is about overcoming adversity, from being at your lowest point and attaching your focus from one silver lining to the next in order to escape your rut. It’s an emotional story from Taylor’s point of view, but to me it can also represent the journey the band has gone through over the last few years. There’s darkness, but there’s light to bring us out of it. Lyrically, ‘Haven’ delves into love, loss, and self-doubt, followed by hope, confidence, and triumph over hardship. Musically, the album explores the spectrum of rock music we grew up listening to, from the poppy sensibilities of “1985” and “Alone With You”, to the high energy of “Oh, Tranquilizer” and “If Not For The Fire”, to the anger of of “All You Can’t Afford” and “Only Human”. “No North Star” might be a standout track on the album, easily distinguished by being melancholic and acoustic, but it also reads as a flashback, setting the scene for how we’ve arrived at the emotional state that came to influence the rest of the record. Track by track, there’s something for everybody. Everything about this album is overdue, it’s about time the world gets its ears on The Million Reasons. I want people to hear the album and love it. I want to play on stage for those people. I want this album to inspire people to create. ‘Haven’ is the catalyst that turns our dreams into reality.”
Well, I’ve heard the album loud and clear, and I love it more with each listen! Haven kicks off with “Oh,Tranquilizer!“, a rousing blast of atomic energy that both Ken and Mike name as one of their favorite tracks to play. And no wonder, as they deliver an onslaught of scorching riffs, fortified by Jason’s pummeling bassline and Colin’s explosive drumbeats. Taylor has a commanding tenor voice, dazzling our earbuds as he sings about our failing to clearly see what’s important amid all the noise: “Oh tranquilizer, this will be our year. You soothe the symptoms of this mania. We’ve got a lot to lose. Pay attention to the signs around. You’ve got a lot of nerve, to hear the noise but miss out on the sound.”
On the fiery (no pun intended) title track “If Not for the Fire”, the guys unleash their inner beasts, letting loose with an electrifying barrage of thunderous musical mayhem. The song is a rock masterpiece, and a highlight of the album. Taylor says the message behind the song is simple: “Do not settle. We get one go at this. Whatever makes you happiest, whatever makes you feel most alive, whatever lights you up, go fucking get it.” And once again, he raises goosebumps as he passionately wails of his need for an intense, almost obsessive kind of love that thrills and excites: “I came for the curse of, I came for the kiss of, A love divine that paralyzes. What did you come for, if not for the fire to light you up this way.”
The powerful video, filmed and directed by Philip Goode, shows Taylor seated at a table and struggling to write, juxtaposed with scenes of the band performing the song and working their magic with their respective instruments. Their energy and charisma are clearly evident.
Perhaps the most upbeat track on the album is “1985“, a bittersweet love song with an infectious and pleasing pop-rock sensibility that sets it apart from the others. I love the bouncy, guitar-driven melody, soaring harmonic choruses, and especially Colin’s spirited drumbeats. Taylor plaintively reminisces about lost time he could have enjoyed with a loved one: “Take me to 1985. I’d do it all again with you. I learned too late, the only priceless thing is time. Bring me back to 1985.“
The guys get back to business churning out hard-rocking bangers on the next several tracks, starting with “Coup De Grâce“, a blistering song about a toxic and abusive relationship featuring lyrics with boxing metaphors: “Back in the ring again, absorbing the body shots. Jab to a cross then uppercut, sends me back to my corner.” I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but wow, these guys know how to deliver the rock goods, nearly blowing out the speakers with rampaging riffs and explosive, stomping rhythms. And it goes without saying that Taylor rises to the occasion with his jaw-dropping vocal gymnastics.
“Shine On” has a bit of a Meat Loaf vibe, with it’s frantic galloping beat and aggressive guitar work, but especially in that Taylor’s vocals sound at times like those of the late, great singer. “Alone With You” is a proper rock tune with a catchy melody, intricate guitars, and thumping rhythms. Essentially a love song, Taylor sings of the joys of being with the woman he loves: “Anything to be alone with you. Where you go, I’m locked beside you babe. I don’t think I can get enough of you. And we are only getting started.” “Ride Or Die” starts off with a grunge vibe, highlighted by Jason’s gnarly bassline, but eventually explodes into a full-blown rocker with blazing riffs and heavy chugging rhythms every bit as good as some of the iconic rock songs of the late 70s and 80s. And on the poignant “Only Human“, Taylor pleads with a friend to not surrender to the pain that threatens to overwhelm them: “We’re far from done. But please hold on. You’re going to make it. Remember, it’s not over ‘til its better.”
“Pretty Ones” is a brilliant track, with a complex melodic structure and intricate, yet powerful instrumentation that give it a monumental prog-rock feel. Mike and Ken’s dual guitars are really spectacular here, and Colin’s drums are perfection. Taylor’s vocals are filled with intense passion as he sings the lyrics touching on restlessness and the internal struggle between putting down roots in one place or with one person vs. the desire for freedom, believing the grass is greener somewhere else or with someone else, but also fearing that perhaps we’re just running away from ourselves: “Ever after chasing down the pretty ones / Right back to the place where I am running from / In motion, stuck in motion / I fear it’s just my nature.”
Without question the most beautiful song on Haven is “No North Star”, a powerful and melancholy ballad about a man ready to give up all vestiges of hope. The song opens with a mournful cello played by Alyssa Laessig, accompanied by a lovely acoustic guitar as Taylor forlornly laments about mistakes he’s made: “Four on the floor / As the shower head pours heat on me / Praying to the god of sorry / I’m sure she has questions for me.” The music gradually grows more expansive until reaching a dramatic crescendo at the end, at which point he passionately implores: “Stare in the sunken-in eyes of a ghost of a shell of a half of a half of a man / Saying what good can I be if I couldn’t be better for you / I couldn’t lie when you asked me to lie / But I’ll die if you ask me tonight / I’m going to die anyway / I might as well do it for you.” Along with “If Not For the Fire”, it’s my favorite song on the album.
The final track “All You Can Afford” is a dark and heavy kiss-off to a lover who’s pushed the relationship beyond the breaking point. The guys deliver a torrent of blistering psychedelic riffs and crushing rhythms during the first three minutes of the track while Taylor rails “I’m taking the keys to my heart and your car. I’ll leave you behind, hoping you’ll find all that you can’t afford, my love, anymore.” The music then transitions to a gritty, almost cinematic instrumental for the remainder of the song, punctuated by a rather ominous, barely intelligible male voiceover and a mix of sirens and other harsh sounds.
What more can I say that I haven’t already gushed about, other than to proclaim that Haven is a spectacular album and a glorious feast for the ears. The five talented lads of The Million Reasons have outdone themselves, and should be quite proud of what they’ve created here. This band deserves to be successful, and I hope this review will encourage my readers to give this album a listen. And if they like it even half as much as I love it, my efforts will have been worthwhile.
Alexis Gerred is an engaging and multi-faceted artist based in London, England. He began his career on stage, performing in productions of American Idiot, Our House, Dreamboats and Petticoats, The West End Men, and Rooms, but his true passion is for music and singing. I last featured him on this blog in November 2018, when I reviewed his wonderful debut album Alexis (which you can read here). Now, I’m pleased to share his new double single “Unbreakable“, featuring vocals by MiG Ayesa, along with “Mary Go Round“, a cover of the song originally recorded by The Struts.
“Unbreakable” was written by Gerred and produced by TylaJoe Connett, and is the lead single from his forthcoming EP, due for release later this year. The song features guest vocals by MiG Ayesa, the acclaimed Australian-Filipino singer and actor who’s performed on Broadway and London’s West End in such mega hits as Rock of Ages, Thriller Live, Annie, and We Will Rock You. It was Ayesa who’s responsible for inspiring Gerred to become an entertainer himself.
When Gerred saw his very first musical We Will Rock You, based on the career and music of Queen, in London’s West End and starring Ayesa, it was a revelation. He recalls: “I watched MiG Ayesa take to the stage and his delivery, passion and charisma flipped a switch inside me. Although I had never even attempted singing a note before, I knew I wanted to emulate him and follow a path that would one day see me up on that stage, too. I’ve followed his career and plucked inspiration from so many things he’s done. One that stands out in particular was his time on ‘Rockstar: INXS’ where I loved his rock ‘n roll style of showmanship.”
Having Ayesa record a song with him was a dream come true for Gerred, as not many artists get the opportunity to collaborate with the star who inspired them to make music to begin with. And let me state that the combination of these two talented and charismatic vocalists results in sonic fireworks. “Unbreakable” is the hardest rocking song Gerred’s ever done, and he really summons his inner beast to great effect, his raw vocals nicely contrasting and complementing Ayesa’s somewhat smoother vocal delivery. Musically, the song has an aggressive stomping groove and deliciously funky vibe reminiscent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I love the thunderous, driving rhythms and blistering guitars that hit full throttle in the bridge, highlighted by a screaming guitar solo that’s matched by note for note by the guys’ explosive vocal alchemy. Wow!
Collaborating on “Unbreakable” with Ayesa is even more meaningful given the personal nature of the song, which is based on a negative experience with a former acting agent. The song is about staying driven and focused on one’s dreams, an important message for many of us in today’s challenging, uncertain world. Gerred elaborates “This song is about resilience and determination. If I can inspire someone to take charge of their own lives and bounce back from adversity, that’s my goal.”
On his beautiful cover of the Struts song “Mary Go Round”, Gerred does great justice to the original, while making it his own. His vocals are a powerful combination of vulnerable and raw, beautifully conveying the feelings of pain and heartache of a broken relationship expressed in the poignant lyrics. “How long before my little pill starts kicking in. How long before your broken heart starts giving in? Here we go up, here we go down. Mary go round and round and round.”
It’s great to see Alexis Gerred back and sounding better than ever. Both “Unbreakable” and “Mary Go Round” are superb, and if the rest of the tracks on his upcoming EP are even half this good, it’s going to be a winner.
I recently learned about Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Rick Sabatini when he reached out to me on Facebook about his album There Goes the Van Man. Released on New Year’s Day, the album features nine wonderful tracks with lighthearted relatable lyrics addressing the emotional minefields of romantic entanglements and responsibilities of young adulthood. It’s his second album, marking an eight-year span since the his first release Album 1 Demos back in November 2013. A delightful collection of lo-fi acoustic songs, Album 1 Demos is available for free download on his Bandcamp account.
Rick, who’s also been a member of The Band Sheep for the past several years, told me he composed most of the the songs for There Goes the Van Man five or six years ago on his iPad, but didn’t have the money to properly record it in a studio at the time. So, he started his own business doing painting and carpentry to earn money to fund the record, as well as earn a living, since he’d gotten married and had a child along the way. He finally recorded the album in a studio with the help of session musicians, and the result is a really enjoyable and well-crafted work.
Rick’s pleasing, highly accessible music can generally be described as indie pop with elements of folk, rock and jazz, and characterized by catchy melodies, lots of great guitar work and his endearing laid back vocals. The album opens with “At Your Service“, a sweet song about finding romance while working at a shoe store: “Just another day at the shoe store, the meet and greet, the fit your feet and send you out the door. Some of them I know by first name, and last name too. / If there’s anything that I can do for you baby, I’m at your service like a godat your church while you’re preachin’.”
Next up is “Van Man“, a terrific auto-biographical song about Rick that also serves at the de-facto title track, given its refrain “There goes the van man.” He croons about his workday routine “I was the van man today, I took the van real far away. I did stuff and got paid. I brought something that I made. I blasted sports radio. That’s just the way that I go when I’m driving down the open road.” The song is fantastic, with a wonderful, breezy melody and lots of cool instruments like organ, banjo and exuberant sax, adding nice Americana and jazz elements, as well as incredible texture to the overall sound. If all that’s not enough, there’s also a great guitar solo in the bridge too.
“The Office” is a fun Americana song with a lively piano-driven melody and more of that great banjo. The cheeky lyrics speak to the drudgery of working at a dead-end office job: “I don’t like to drive when it’s dangerous. Roads are pretty treacherous, but the boss man, he doesn’t give a shit. He says ‘I want you in’, well if I crash would you pay for it? I’m desperate, strapped for cash, and I can’t afford another accident. It’s a lot to risk, just to waste my day away in the office.“
On the bouncy “Tax Return“, Rick sings of the joys of finally being able to treat his girl to a nice evening out, now that he’s gotten his tax refund: “Baby relax I got my tax return. Girl let’s go out, I got some cash to burn. We’re gonna find somewhere nice to eat. The government paid me real good this week.” The musical highlights of the track are the great bassline, guitars, organ and piano keys, and I love the vocal harmonies.
One of my favorite tracks is “Talk to Me“, with its smooth and sophisticated jazzy vibe. I love the intricate, funky guitars, cool keyboards and subtle snare drums, but for me the biggest highlight are Rick’s lovely soothing vocals, backed by gorgeous Beach Boys-esque harmonies. This song really showcases his strong songwriting, musicianship and vocal abilities. “Colleen” is another great song, opening with a gospel-like organ riff and Rick’s voiceover speaking as an airline pilot to a plane full of passengers. That wonderful organ riff continues throughout the song, serving as its driving force and overlain with guitar, strings, sax and crisp percussion. Rick sings to a woman named Colleen of his desires for her affection: “Colleen, I might not be your man right now, but someday I will.“
“Devils” is a fascinating track, and much darker than the other songs on the album. Musically, it has a languid trip hop beat, with spooky synths, somber piano keys and skittering drumbeats, and in the background can be heard a man’s voiceover, speaking about LSD. It all serves to create an unsettling vibe. Rick’s vocals, which remind me of Mark Foster of Foster the People on this track, have a sense of sad resignation as he laments about trying to overcome drug addiction, or possibly a relationship that’s falling apart because of a partner who’s either addicted to drugs or cheating on him: “I’m trying to quit the devil, but he’s got his grip so tight on me it’s hard not be deceived and made of fool of. Well I’m wrestling with the devil. It’s not something that I’m proud of, but do you have to be so loud in the restaurant? I’m just trying to get back to normal.Well I caught you with the devil. You smelled like his cologne. All those moments you were alone, his smoky breath, the telephone. I thought we were getting back to normal.“
On the upbeat “Principal Problems“, Rick sings from the perspective a high school kid frustrated with his principal, who’s trying to make him quit his aggressive behavior that’s earned him a reputation as a tough guy on campus: “I’m gonna punch my principal in the face, if he tries to stop my fight with Tony Robinson./ You’ve got an occupation, I’ve got a reputation to hold up.” And on the delightful album closer “Tel Aviv Blues“, he sings of a woman he loves and how her ambivalence is making him crazy: “At night I’m wonderin’, about what you’re doing. You’re my baby, but only in my dreams. Only kissing me when I fall asleep. I told my best friend, a real good Christian, he said ‘You don’t need her love, you need the Lord’. But the Lord ain’t never kissed me good before. I’m back to drinkin’, I’m tryin’ hard to rid you from my mind.” The song has a lively Southern rock feel, with a colorful mix of twangy guitars and banjo, accompanied by swirling organ, sax and a great toe-tapping rhythm.
There Goes the Van Man is a marvelous album, and I’m so glad Rick reached out to me about it. He’s a talented guy who knows his way around a song, and here he delivers nine superb tracks. Each one is different from the next, a testament to his eclectic sound and the quality of his songwriting. This album needs to be heard by as many people as possible, and I hope some of my readers will enjoy it as much as I do.
One of my favorite humans on the planet is Marc Schuster, who’s not only insanely creative and multi-talented, but also incredibly generous, funny and kind. I first got to know him several years ago through blogging (he has a terrific WordPress blog called Abominations), and he’s been among the most consistently loyal supporters of me and my blog.
A true renaissance man, Marc is an educator, author, literary critic, songwriter, musician and even a pretty decent visual artist. In addition to teaching English at Montgomery County Community College in southeastern Pennsylvania, he’s written several books, scripts for two short films, and numerous book reviews. He’s also a prolific musician, writing songs and recording music both as a solo artist and as part of multiple music projects. In just the past six months, he’s not only released several of his own singles and EPs, but also recordings by The Ministry of Plausible Rumours, a joint project with his cousin Vincent Zabielski, who put out a terrific album Summer Again last October, an outstanding improvisational instrumental album Simmons and Schuster that he made with fellow musician/educator Tim Simmons (you can read my review of that album here), and the single “In the Pink” by his collaborative music project Plush Gordon this past December.
Though Marc likes to experiment with different sounds, styles and textures, most of the songs he records as a solo artist have a delightful, indie bedroom-pop sensibility. Not only are his songs infectiously catchy, he has a wonderful knack for putting a youthful, often tongue-in-cheek perspective on everyday situations and problems many of us have faced at one time or another. On his new EP There Is No Down, which dropped February 2nd, he delivers five optimistic tracks (actually four plus an acoustic demo of one of them) assuring us that, no matter how crappy things may seem at the moment, there’s always reason to celebrate. For the recording of the EP, he was assisted by Paul Sanwald and Tim Simmons, who I’m guessing played piano.
Case in point is the trippy opening track “Funky Underpants“, wherein ‘funky’ refers to colorful and fun, not, well, you know… Over a languid bass-driven groove, Marc layers some lovely shimmery guitar notes and thumping drumbeats to create a jazzy, psychedelic backdrop for his dual auto-tuned vocals, half of which sound like Mick Jagger. He sings of wanting to pull himself out of the doldrums by letting loose in a pair of funky underpants: “Wishing I could dream, dreaming I could fly. Waiting on a world where we never die. I could be a saint or I could live in sin. I could live forever if my life would just begin. I want to sing. I want to dance. I want to wear a pair of funky underpants. I’ll take a drink. I’ll take a chance. I’ll take the world on in my funky underpants.”
Along a similar vein, “Feel Free” explores misbehaving, even if just for the night, in order to have a bit of fun: “Everyone says we should know better, but I never could tell wrong from right. Let’s hit the town like we won’t remember it. Let’s disappear into the night. I’m up to no good, and you’re just as bad. This could be the best time I ever had. I’m looking at you, you’re looking at me. Is this what it’s like to feel free?” Musically, the upbeat song has a bouncy pop-rock sound with a lively mix of jangly and fuzzy guitars.
“All We Are” has more of a rock vibe, with Marc’s marvelous fuzz-coated reverby guitars taking center stage. On this song, his vocals sound a bit like the late, great Tom Petty as he sings about the impermanence and brevity of our lives on this earth, and that we might as well make the best of things while we’re here: “The clouds roll in. The seasons change. We disappear. The world remains. All we are is right now.”
I think my favorite song on the EP is “Elevators“, a bittersweet piano-driven affair. I love the melancholy but beautiful piano keys, and the electric guitar solo in the bridge is superb. The lyrics speak of reminiscing about what seemed like simpler, more innocent times, yet not wanting to wallow in the past, but instead remain hopeful about the future: “So keep the fire burning to get us through the night. The wolves are creeping closer, but I think we’ll be all right. We used to ride in elevators, look down on the world below. We used to ride in elevators though we had nowhere to go.”
The fifth track “All We Are (Demo)” is an acoustic version of the third song on the EP, with only Marc’s gentle vocals and guitar. The spare treatment of the song nicely fits the simple and direct message expressed in the lyrics: “All we are is right now.” It’s a fitting finish to a lovely little EP.
Branwell Black is a charismatic young singer-songwriter, producer, dancer and model who creates alternative electro pop-rock influenced by some of his favorite artists like Kate Bush, Madonna, Charli XCX, Kerli, Evanescence and Tokio Hotel. Born in Oxford, England, raised primarily in France, and now based in London, Branwell has recorded music both in French and English as a solo artist, and as part of the band Brothers Black/Posie that he formed with his brother Morgan. Both he and Morgan developed a love of music at a young age, as their father was an accomplished rock drummer.
In September 2019, Branwell released his debut single “J’attends L’amour”, then quickly followed up with “What You Want”, as well as an EP Posie with his band Brothers Black/Posie. In May 2020, he released his sultry single “Love Life” (which I reviewed), then followed that October with a marvelous electronic cover of the Verve classic “Bittersweet Symphony”. Now he’s back with “Lay On Me“, the first single from his forthcoming Lay On Me EP, due for release by the end of the month. That EP will also feature a rave remix of “Lay On Me”, as well as a live version of “What You Want”.
About the new song, Branwell explains: “‘Lay On Me’ is the first song I’m releasing which features my live band [with] Harvey on guitar and my insane drummer Alexandra. It’s a sonic reintroduction of sorts, as it’s a little heavier than my original music, and also a tease into the direction I’ll be going. We’ve been touring the UK and have grown our sound into something even more exciting as a bridge between rock and pop. The song also takes influences from the Vogue scene with elements of ballroom vogue songs, and is a sexy number about taking control of situations and appreciating your beauty and knowing how to use it. The lyrics ‘But I’ll be me’ represent a realization that you’re always in control of your own enjoyment and knowing what you want.“
When I first listened to “Lay On Me”, it seemed to be primarily a catchy dance-pop song. But with repeated listens, the brilliance of Branwell’s songwriting was revealed as I detected elements of house, trip hop, electro and psychedelic rock he’d artfully injected into the mix. Though the song’s driving dance groove is undeniably hypnotic, it’s the variety of stylistic elements and textures that make it such a compelling and sonically fascinating track. I love the thick synth bass groove, Harvey’s funky riffs, Alexandra’s galloping drumbeats, and the colorful blend of gnarly and spacey industrial synths. Branwell’s bewitching and breathy vocals have an understated seductive quality that perfectly complements the captivating instrumentals. It’s a terrific song.
Six months ago (in July 2021) I wrote a feature article about Secret Postal Society, the music project of Welsh singer-songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Craig Mapstone, in which I focused on his intent to write and record a new song every week throughout 2021 (read my article here). At the time, he had successfully reached the halfway point in his very ambitious goal, with 27 songs under his belt. Well, I’m happy to report that Craig fully achieved his objective of faithfully releasing a new song every week, and by year’s end, he’d put out a total of 53 songs, including two Christmas-related tracks. He’s now asked his followers to let him know what our five favorites of his many songs are, and I’ve decided to write this post to tell him!
Before I get to my picks, I want to say a few things: First off, Craig is one of the kindest, most gracious and humble musicians I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know as a music blogger, and I’ve become quite fond of him both professionally and personally. He’s also incredibly talented, creative, and hard-working, and his discipline and ability to remain laser-focused on his goal puts many others – including me – to shame. Which leads to my second point, that I’m absolutely dumbfounded by his impressive output. The ability to write, record and release a new song – along with an accompanying video – week in and week out for an entire year is amazing in itself, but to achieve such a high level of quality in nearly every track is nothing short of astonishing.
Though his sound can generally be described as singer/songwriter-oriented pop and soft-rock, infused with touches of indie folk, his music is actually fairly eclectic. Some of his songs feature elements of grunge, progressive, post-punk and alternative rock, so there’s something for just about everyone in his discography (other than for fans of R&B or hip hop). It was extremely difficult winnowing down my list of favorite Secret Postal Society songs to only five, but herewith are my top five picks, followed by six honorable mentions that could all have easily been among my top five. Worth noting is that most of my favorites were written and recorded in the latter half of the year, an indication that Craig’s songwriting and musicianship grew better and stronger the more songs he wrote.
Though Craig doesn’t have an especially powerful voice, its comforting warmth is well-suited to his generally laid-back musical style, and no more so than on “Fly“, my favorite of all his songs. His 21st song, released last May, it’s his longest track, running over six minutes, and also his most beautiful. Craig’s twangy strummed guitar notes, accompanied by lovely strings, xylophone, and what sounds like a mellotron, create a hauntingly beautiful soundscape. His gentle vocals exude a deeply heartfelt sense of sadness as he sings the bittersweet lyrics expressing pain and regret over a relationship that’s ended, but remembering glimmers of what brought you both together in the beginning: “The ones we love are the ones we hurt the most. We fly so close. We fly so close. I kissed you once, and it took my breath away.”
The accompanying video is courtesy of The Internet Archives, and features footage from the classic 1923 silent film SafetyLast!, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor and starring Harold Lloyd.
2. A Thousand Times
Released in July as his 31st song, “A Thousand Times” is a perfect pop tune, with a breezy vibe reminiscent of songs by such bands as Fleetwood Mac, The Outfield and the Gin Blossoms. Craig’s jangly guitars and sunny synths are delightful, and the song is just so catchy and feel-good that it makes me happy. The lyrics seem to speak of a budding romance between two people who’ve been playing emotional footsie with each other for a while: “We both have secret smiles and glances. We play games young lovers still play. I believe we deserve second chances. I’ll wait a thousand times for you love.“
While it might not be one of Secret Postal Society’s most interesting songs from a musical standpoint, “Alive” is nevertheless one of my favorites because of Craig’s thoughtful lyrics, not to mention that it was released on my birthday in August as his 35th song. Many of his songs speak not only of romantic love, but love for humankind and each other, and this one’s a fine example of that. He acknowledges that while he may not be all that important in the scheme of things, he’s glad to be alive, and urges us live our lives with love and understanding for one another: “So we fight to survive through the lows and the highs ’cause we’ve got to keep going. So I look in your eyes. You know it’s OK to cry. I’m just grateful that you are alive.” It’s a warm and pleasing track, and the guitars and keyboards in the bridge are really lovely.
4. I Will Follow You
Released in October as his 40th song, “I Will Follow You” has a strong R.E.M. feel, which is why it appeals to me so much. Craig’s a fine guitarist, and his work is especially good on this track. The lyrics are spoken to a loved one, assuring them that they’ll always have your love and support: “Time and again I was always with you as a friend. But I guess that I never told you. I know that life’s hard. No one said it was easy at all. But we’ll be fine, and I will follow you.” The beautiful video was produced by Yaroslav Shuraev (Pexels).
5. Something From Nothing/Points of Light
Released in November as song #47, “Something From Nothing/Points of Light” is sort of a couplet, like having two songs for the price of one. With its urgent, intricate riffs and driving melody, “Something From Nothing” has a Foo Fighters vibe, but unlike the Foos’ similarly-titled song that ends in an explosive crescendo, Secret Postal Society’s ends on a calm, lovely and contemplative note with “Points of Light”. I like that Craig’s young son Reuben sings these optimistic closing lyrics along with him: “Don’t you let your sun go out. And never let the others dim the shine of hope you have inside. I see in you the light eternal.”
Very Honorable Mention:
Numb – A terrific alt-rock song with swirling synths and a great guitar riff reminiscent of “Lazy Eye” by Silversun Pickups
Hurt – A darkly beautiful, grungy track with industrial-sounding synths and fantastic reverby guitars.
Halfway There – A lovely guitar-driven track featuring shimmery keyboards and Craig’s soothing vocals, with optimistic lyrics addressing both his half-year milestone, but also a struggling relationship halfway toward its fulfillment.
A Song For Leaving You – A great kiss-off song with a captivating hip-swaying beat, spacey synths and some really gorgeous guitar work.
What’s Up Dude? – A languid and cool alt-rock song co-written and sung by Craig and his young son Reuben, with lyrics directed at slackers, encouraging them to get busy: “This is not a game of chance, you have to do the work, SO DO IT!“
It’s Not a Christmas Song(Unless the Sleigh Bells Are Ringing) – A thoroughly delightful contemporary Christmas song that’s as good as many I’ve heard from major artists. And once again, we’re treated to Reuben’s sweet vocals.
Craig is now enjoying a well-deserved rest from his exhaustive songwriting and recording schedule, and isn’t quite sure where he’ll take Secret Postal Society going forward. But I for one hope he’ll continue putting out more great songs, albeit at a more reasonable pace.