Formed in 2020 during the height of the Covid pandemic, talented British five-piece Express Office Portico is comprised of Tara Freeman (lead vocals, keyboards), Billy Townsend (lead vocals, keyboards), Reuben Tobolewski (guitar), Ben Phipps (bass) and Olly Walton (drums). In cleverly naming themselves after the entrance to an old newspaper distribution office in the center of Nottingham, England, it follows that they would not be afraid to address all sorts of relevant and timely issues, including those related to mental health and emotional well-being. Their debut single “I Like it Weird”, released in late January 2021, dealt with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and how it can exacerbate feelings of jealousy over past lovers. Their second single “Mishmesh” explored the dangers of alcohol dependency, and how our coping mechanisms and compulsive tendencies can manifest themselves in toxic habits, while their third single “Then Wave” addressed abandonment and trust issues.
I really like their brand of dreamy synthpop with an edge, and have reviewed all three of their previous singles, which you can read by clicking on the ‘Related’ links at the end of this post. Now they’re back with their fourth single “Cosmic Joke“, which has a mellower vibe than their previous singles, as well as a more lighthearted message. They’ve provided a bit of background on their creation of the song: “‘Cosmic Joke’ came about by trying and failing to work out the chords to the 70s classic “I’d Rather Be with You” by Bootsy Colins. As big fans of artists immersed in RnB and funk like Erykah Badu, Yellow Days and Steve Lacy, we began thinking, how would an Express Office Portico track with these accidental chords sound? ‘Cosmic Joke’ evolved from there, with other influences such as Men I Trust, Beach House, Yellow Days, Rex Orange County & Mac Demarco adding to its creation. We love comedians that go on long rants that are more like philosophical monologues than stand-up. Bill Hick’s famous ‘It’s Just a Ride’ piece, being the perfect example. From here we decided on using this framing device for the track.
The title comes from an idea in philosophy that the entire universe and life in general is just one big joke. A trick played on humanity by existence itself, or God, or whatever you wanna call it. ‘It’s all a cosmic joke, nothing less and nothing more’. The lyrics are essentially about having an existential crisis and the utter confusion of being a conscious human in the physical world. Everyone is searching for meaning, but life is fundamentally meaningless. So, we might as well just laugh about it all, and try to enjoy it as much as we can! During the recording weekend, we booked ourselves an Airbnb to house us all. After a mild night of drinking, our guitarist Roo had a bit too much nicotine, which resulted in a fairly violent bout of sickness, starting with us all sat around the TV. Who knew too much nicotine could do that to you hey?“
The song opens with Olly’s assertive drumbeats, then silky keyboards enter along with Ben’s funky bassline and Reuben’s beautiful shimmery guitar as the music settles into a delicious R&B groove. In her sweet, lilting vocals, Tara cheekily croons “Sit back, relax. As the curtains draw, the microphone stands upon the stage floor. Out walks a comedian. The crowd we roar. Out walks a comedian, and they say ‘It’s all a cosmic joke, nothing less and nothing more. Your ticket’s already pulled, so you may as well just laugh and applaud’.” The song is filled with great moments like the quiet little interlude halfway through the song during which Ben’s funky bass really shines, and Tara and Billy’s wonderful harmonies in the final chorus.
With “Cosmic Joke”, Express Office Portico keep their perfect score of putting out stellar singles fully intact.
As I stated in my previous review, so many artists and bands I follow and have previously written about are releasing new music at a dizzying pace, and I’m doing my best to keep up with as much of it as I possibly can. One of my favorites who I always try to make time for is Malaysian singer-songwriter Lyia Meta, an immensely talented, gracious and lovely recording artist with a powerhouse singing voice. I generally prefer female voices in the deeper ranges, and Lyia’s rich, soulful and smoky vocal style fits the bill quite nicely.
Based in Kuala Lumpur, Lyia’s a multi-faceted artist in a literal sense. She can sing just about anything, and in fact, has recorded songs in a wide range of genres including blues, jazz, pop, country, rock and even metal, bringing her international recognition and acclaim. She’s been nominated for, and won, numerous awards, including Best Overall Female Act at the Voice Independent Music Awards (VIMA) in May 2016, the 2018 Josie World Music Artist Award and 2019 Artist of the Year (multi Genre), Best Music Video for her song “Daylight” at the ACCORD CINE FEST in August 2021, and most recently this past October, 2021 Texas Sound International Country Music Awards for Vocalist of the Year and Virtual Entertainer Of The Year. On top of all that, she’s also a highly accomplished visual artist with several exhibits to her credit. You can check out some of her phenomenal work on her WordPress blog. (She even did a wonderful pencil drawing of me in 2019 as a thank you for my support of her and other indie artists’ music, which was a both a tremendous surprise and an honor.)
A prolific artist, Lyia has released three EPs and more than a dozen singles over the past six years, beginning with her debut EP This is Lyia in 2016. I first learned about her in early 2018 when she reached out to me about her fantastic single “Without Walls”, which I instantly loved and wrote a review of. I’ve written about her numerous times since, most recently last April when I reviewed her soulful track “This One’s For You”. (You can also find some of my other reviews under “Related” at the end of this post.)
Her latest release and third EP, You Think About Me, which dropped January 31st, sees Lyia revealing a sassier, more playful side, with five delicious tracks exploring various aspects of romantic love. While she’s written many of her own songs, Lyia also collaborates with other songwriters and musicians from time to time, not only to broaden her own musical horizons, but also to support other songwriters. The songs for You Think AboutMe were co-written and co-produced by Lyia and Nashville-based musician and producer Bob McGilpin, who also produced and played several instruments on “This One’s For You”. Like a lot of long-distance collaborations these days, the two recorded the EP remotely, with Bob recording the music, as well as engineering, mixing and mastering the tracks, at his studio in Nashville, while Lyia recorded her vocals in Kuala Lumpur.
You Think About Me has a retro R&B feel, with generous helpings of soul, funk and jazz to spice things up. Kicking things off is “Uptown Tonight“, a delightfully upbeat song with an infectious R&B groove, bolstered by a lively blend of exuberant trumpets and jazzy sax. Lyia sings her praises of going out for a night on the town with her man, dressed in their finest clothes and livin’ large, while also expressing gratitude for their good fortune: “I never thought I’d live a life like this. If it’s a dream, don’t wake me up, cause I don’t want to miss going uptown.“
On the soulful “Black High Heels“, Lyia croons of her sexy moves and the spell she casts on her man when she presents in her black high heels: “You can tell by the way I walk, I’m a woman of class and style. I got a swing in my step and a sway in my hip that just drives you wild. You can try but you can’t conceal. Cause I know how to make you feel. Knock you out when I walk out in my black high heels.” I love the song’s sultry groove, with McGilpin’s smooth Wurlitzer, cool sax and funky bass accentuating the torrid vibes. Then there’s Lyia’s sensuous smoky vocals, nicely punctuated by a well-placed sassy little yelp in the final chorus.
“You Think About Me the Way I Think About You” is a sweet, uptempo love song with a bit of an Americana/pop feel, thanks to it’s toe-tapping melody and McGilpin’s pleasing organ riffs. To my ears, it sounds like a song Cher could have sung back in the 70s. The endearing video, filmed in sepia tones, shows Lyia singing to her husband Zack, nicely capturing the lighthearted feel of the song.
Lyia’s powerful vocals really shine on the soulful “A Real Man Can“, where she fervently sings of the things that are most important in a romantic partner, which is a true and meaningful love she can depend upon: “I’ve been told ‘I love you’ more times than just a few. But it doesn’t mean a thing if their heart’s not in it too. I need more than just the words to keep it real. It’s got to come from a deeper place, a place only they can feel. I want the kind of man that puts his woman first. I want the kind of man who holds her when she hurts.” McGilpin’s warm piano and strings, gentle guitar notes and smooth sax create a captivating backdrop for Lyia’s beautiful, emotive vocals.
The EP closes on a high note with the rousing “You Always Come Home to Me“, featuring a catchy head-bopping groove and more of McGilpin’s wonderfully exuberant brass section of trumpet and jazzy sax. Lyia joyfully sings of how badly she misses her man when he’s away, but confident he’ll always be true to her because she keeps him happy in the love department: “But I don’t worry about where you are, or where you might be. Yeah, you always come home to me. Cause I’m not the jealous kind, but I keep my man satisfied.“
You Think About Me is a great little EP that showcases Lyia’s amazing and versatile vocal gifts, as well as Bob McGilpin’s masterful musicianship, arrangement and production skills. Together, they’ve crafted a wonderful collection of songs that make for a fun and enjoyable listen.
Lyia was originally scheduled to attend the Texas Sound International Country Music Awards 2021 event in Jefferson, Texas last October, both to accept her awards and also to promote Malaysia as an ‘attractive destination’ for Americans at two seminars to be given by her and Zack during the music festival. Unfortunately, she was unable to obtain financial support from the Malaysian government to make the trip. The good people of Jefferson raised $5,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, but it wasn’t enough. So, Preston Taylor, Vice President of East Texas Performing Arts Inc, insisted Lyia do a pre-recorded show in Malaysia that would be aired at the event. Here’s a video of their performance:
Jamie Alimorad is a talented, charismatic and congenial singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles. Music has been a big part of his life since his early teens, and by the time he was a college student at Northeastern University in Boston, he released his first EP Cornerstone (in 2010), then followed up two years later with his critically-acclaimed full-length album Words Left Unsaid, winning several music and songwriting awards. His very first video, for the song “Beautiful” from that album, has been viewed over 2 million times. Jamie then experienced a creative slump lasting several years, during which he became filled with crippling self-doubt, wondering if he’d ever be successful again.
He eventually decided to take a few classes with famed singer-songwriter, musician and producer Gino Vannelli, who offers small Art of Song & Voice Master Class sessions at his music studio outside Portland, Oregon. The two hit it off, and Gino eventually became his mentor. The two began working together writing and recording songs for what would become Jamie’s outstanding second album This is Tomorrow Calling, which was released in September 2019. (You can read my review of the album here.)
Now Jamie is back with a great new single “Give a Little Lovin’“, his first release in more than two years. The song was co-written by Jamie and composer, songwriter and producer Ross Vannelli (Gino’s brother), who also produced and arranged the track. The duo spent several months last year writing, arranging, recording, and mixing lots of new songs that Jamie plans on releasing in 2022. “Give a Little Lovin'” is the first of them. Drawing inspiration from the music of Prince, Morris Day & The Time and Bruno Mars, the two have fashioned an infectious and upbeat pop gem imbued with sexy swagger and funky grooves. From the wonderful opening guitar strums to the swirling synths, sultry strings, funky bass and lively drumbeats, the song is a master class in arrangement and instrumentation. Everything about the song is flawless and fresh-sounding, without ever feeling over-produced.
Jamie told me the song is “essentially about the chase; man sees woman, falls in love/lust with woman. Will she let him in?” As always, his strong, emotive vocals are exquisite, perfectly capturing his feelings of being intensely besotted with a beautiful woman:
Cross my heart and hope to die I want you and that’s no lie Never been so captivated Don’t wanna make it complicated I hope that I can make it clear tonight
From the moment that I saw you I couldn’t live my life without you I wanna make it all about you Oh oh oh oh oh
Give a little lovin’
“Give a Little Lovin'” is marvelous, and if Jamie’s upcoming songs are half this good, we’re in for a treat!
One of the most uniquely wonderful bands on the planet is Thunder Fox, a wickedly funny, intensely creative, and outrageously talented five-piece based in Sydney, Australia. Drawing on elements of funk, soul, jazz, blues rock, hip hop, reggae and pop, they skillfully channel the sexy funk of Prince, the soulful croons of 70s-era R&B artists like Al Green, Ronald Isley and Teddy Pendergrass, and the brassy exuberance of Earth, Wind & Fire into their delectable music stew. And while their sometimes bawdy lyrics and playful antics would seem to indicate a juvenile zaniness – not to mention the fact they could all still pass for teenagers – their music has a stylish, jazzy sophistication, thanks to their exceptional songwriting and musicianship, as well as having both a saxophone and trumpet player in their lineup. Finally, though they’re all straight men, they’re not afraid to be playful and affectionate with one another, as well as tear down gender barriers by sometimes showing a more feminine side. As a gay man, it makes me admire, love and respect them all the more.
Thunder Fox has been making and releasing music since 2015, but I first learned about them in 2019 when they reached out to me about their hilarious single “Been Busy”, one of the tracks on their wonderful debut full-length album Love at First Sniff. It was most definitely love at first sniff for me, and I loved the album so much I wrote a review about it. Over the past two years, they’ve experienced a few lineup changes, and now consist of the dangerously charismatic Sam Dawes (Lead Vocals/Guitar), Travers Keirle (Sax/Vocals/Rhymes), Jesse Tachibana (Trumpet/Vocals/Synths), Max Vallentine (Drums), and Casey Allan (Bass). They followed with several more singles, a few of which I also reviewed (that you can read by clicking on the ‘Related’ links at the end of this post). Now they’re back with a second album Sanctuary, which dropped November 18th, and it’s every bit as delightful as Love at First Sniff.
Sam has written a marvelous background piece about their inspiration and creative process behind the album, and rather than try to paraphrase, I thought I’d simply share his eloquent words verbatim:
“‘Sanctuary’ is our second full length album, which marks the dawning of a new era for Thunder Fox in many ways. After having a couple of members leave the band and experiencing a few other obvious set backs during 2020/21, we needed a second wind. As an artist it’s really easy to lose motivation and focus when faced with challenges that draw you away from your art such as band member turnaround and, say, a global pandemic. As such, I think we all really felt the need to pick up where we’d left off somehow and find some momentum by creating again. With the addition of Casey the Bass Ace to the crew, it was a great chance to dig into some new and improved sounds and try to reshape our art in a way we had yet to explore.
We had the idea to stay in a far-off Air BnB during one of lockdown’s rare lulls, and managed to snag a spot at a beachside bungalow in Nambucca Heads in order to get away from the bullshit and just create. It was a week of literal bliss, at least for me, where we could all engage in art fully and be immersed in the creation of a project again. In all honesty, we didn’t have much of a plan for the album’s concept or soundscapes; we’ve always got so many ideas spinning from all the unique inspirations of the different members that half the battle is just taming the flaming bird’s nest of ideas into a nice, silky coif. What we did have, though, was a bunch of time on our hands, a cathedral-esque living room with high, echoing ceilings and a glistening sun to spill across the verandah as we sat and flicked through old recordings of rehearsal jams.
Now and then, we’d land on a groove that tasted sweet enough to revive and try to mould into a full blown banger. Once the songs started shaping up and I began to feverishly type lyrics into mynotes app, the mood of the record began to take shape. Turns out I was feeling all kinds of put out by the doomsday that was the year past and my lyrics would tumble out of my brain like multi-coloured, cynical snowballs, building in size and scope as they rolled. If I were to describe the sentiment of the record in one word it would be “cynical”. More broadly, though, I think I’ve always weaponised cynicism as a way of attempting to understand the world around me. I felt cynical about the political climate, about love, about my day job and how I felt I’d never leave. It felt good to write it out.”
The album opens with sounds of a plane flying overhead, then the guys break into a gospel choir on the joyously upbeat “Head in the Clouds” as they sing “Something pulling me up out of my seat. Rather be anywhere than where I’ve just been. Smile but stay silent. Don’t want no one to see. Head in the clouds. It’s a glorious thing.” And a glorious thing it is, chock full of funky grooves, sunny instrumentation and uplifting harmonies, highlighted by Sam’s gorgeous silky vocals which often rise to an angelic falsetto.
He’s provided wonderful background notes for each song that are more colorful and interesting than anything I could possibly write, so I’m just gonna share them all. It’ll likely make this review too damn long, but fuck it, it’s my blog and I’m going to include them! Here’s what he has to say about this track: “If Thunder Fox are known for anything, it’s being able to avoid taking things too seriously. ‘Head in the Clouds’ came to me in a blue dream on one of those hot nights where your brain feels sticky. We wanted to open the album with some fun and familiarity before shit got real.”
The album includes four brief interludes that serve as intros or connectors, the first of which, “A Party“, leads us into the funky gem “Good Time“. Sam sets the stage: “Early twenties, share house, undesirable shindigs with desirable chemicals. This night I wasn’t so much pissed off as I was hammered and concussed after having hit my head on the pavement following a few libations too many at the bar. I returned home to my lovable city dirt shed to find hundreds of people swarming. As I stumbled through the crowd, blood still tacky on my forehead, I thought to myself, ‘this is a great idea for a song.’ Luckily when we got to nutting it out at our makeshift writing space up the coast, Max had the perfect drum groove he’d been wanting to try for ages. It came together in a flash.”
Each of the guys shine on this track. Sam starts things off with a funky little guitar riff as Sam and Casey lay down a soulful rhythm on drums and bass. Amid flourishes of Jesse’s jazzy trumpet notes and Traver’s cool sax, Sam cheekily complains “Why is no one acting like I’m the man of the house? No one at this party seems to know my name, and that ain’t right. Yeah, I’m pissed off coz I got here, and nobody offered me a good time.” Good times indeed!
The guys dial up the energy on “Not For Sale“, a bouncy, funk-infused take on the old adage that money can’t buy you love: “I know you got more money than me, but money is just temporary. Cash ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, when money can’t buy my heart, heart, heart.” The song has an irresistible Earth, Wind & Fire vibe, highlighted by the band’s signature horn section and Casey’s funky bass groove. Sam explains: “Casey, being a relatively new addition to the band at the time, brought with him a synth bass and a set of fingers carved by the gods. Man, he had such a groove on that pile of plastic, the rest of us were floored. We wanted to write something dark, but funky (duh) and bad boy Casey had just the stuff. I know I’m not the only one who had it etched into my brain early on by social media among other sources that success and happiness is defined by finance, followers and fame. Damn we were wrong. Sometimes we lose ourselves so immensely to the pursuit of materialistic ends, we forget how ridiculous it all is. I know I did.”
The second interlude “A Circus“, featuring carnival music, unnatural-sounding neighing horses, and Travers’ quirky vocals, leads us into “Fruitcake“, a delightfully silly song with nonsensical lyrics like: “Moose ate my tooth paste. Said his tooth aches. Ate a few too many half baked fruit cakes, more than he could take. Now he’s a on a diet, trying to shift the weight lifting rakes by the lake.” Sam elaborates: “I don’t even know if Travers knows what this song is about – more millennial existentialism, I’d say – but it’s gotta be one of the most fun, hilarious and groovy tracks on the record. Full Travers, as we say. We came up with the groove and guitar vamp at a soundcheck in Townsville. We were just fucking around at the time but it resurfaced months later at the Sanctuary shack. We jam packed it full to the brim with Thunder Fox-isms and fuckery ‘til it made us laugh our asses off and we knew it was a banger. Fruitcake was one of the many opportunities we all got to try and flex our production chops and collaborate using DAWs and samples, you know, like modern shit.“
The guys tap into their R&B side on “Love You 2“, a sultry, heartfelt song about apologizing to a loved one for having fallen short, and reaffirming that you still love and cherish them. Sam explains: “Drawing from the same existential angst of the previous tracks, there came a time in the months following the writing of ‘Sanctuary’ that I noticed I’d let my material pursuits get in the way of the most important thing imaginable – delicious, unadulterated, full throttle, hyper-vulnerable romance, baby. ‘Love You 2’ is an apology, in a way. Apologising for allowing myself to become so distracted by desire, work and anxiety that I almost forgot to tell someone how much I fucking love their sweet ass. Heed my advice, friends, tell whoever it is you love them. Every. Chance. You. Get.” Accompanied by a languid, soulful and jazzy groove, Sam softly croons “Trying to sort out my life. I know we’ve been here like one million times. I love you too by the way. I’m sorry it took so long to say.“
The 55 second-long instrumental track “A Dream” has more of an alt-rock feel than most of their songs, and serves as a fascinating lead-in to the reggae/ska/goth rock beauty “Blue Light Blindness“. Deliciously dark and melodically complex, the song calls out our mobile phone addiction. Sam elaborates: “‘Blue Light Blindness’ has a serious ring to it if you ask me. You know, us millennials and our god damn phones, right?! Seriously though, I couldn’t name a more potent drug than a smartphone packed with social media apps. We know it’s bad, it distracts us from the importance of self-worth among other things but, we can’t stop. I was listening to Kanye’s ‘Black Skinhead’ and Marilyn (fuck you) Manson’s ‘The Beautiful People’ and I wanted that hardcore triplet groove so bad, I wanted the darkness. Luckily everyone was on the same page with that one. This one started as another off-the-cuff jam we happened to have recorded on one of our iphones (good for something after all) and it was pieced together intensely on the first day of writing. When we added in the horns we realised we had some James Bond shit on our hands.”
There’s so much going on musically, from a bouncy reggae beat one minute, to a psychedelic gospel-like interlude the next, only to be broken by an explosion of goth rock distortion and mayhem before circling back to the reggae/ska groove. God damn, I love this song!
I love “The Weekend” too, on which Thunder Fox give us their delightful take on the drudgery of soul-sucking dead-end jobs that leave us in a continual state of living for the weekends. Sam opines on the subject: “More angst, more day job, more bullshit. Until it stops being the norm, I won’t stop writing about it. I mean, can any of us really imagine a bearable life that entails 5 days of working our asses off to afford 2 days of drinking away the stress? Not me. But, it be like that sometimes. We thought it was pretty funny to put the little kids voices (not real kids, just us, we’re not made of money) in there because it became apparent that this way of being was built into our psyches from the youngest possible age. Work, party, work, party, die. No thanks! The irony is, we made this song a party anyway, the screaming, the South American street festival dirty sax interlude is one of the best moments on the album hands down.”
The song is another melodically complex track, starting off with swirling guitar notes and quirky otherworldly childlike sounds, followed by a few seconds of children’s – that is, the band’s – sing-song voices. The song quickly transitions to a lovely melody with Sam’s beautiful smooth vocals, which are abruptly broken when he wails “I don’t wanna wait for the weekend! No!” The song returns to it’s melodic groove, as Sam laments “I feel like crying when I clock in. Feel my soul dying for a few cents. A hundred hours to cover rent. All this shit just makes me sick. The clock it ticks from nine til six. I don’t wanna wait for the weekend! No!” Man, can I relate! At around 2:20, we’re treated to a jazzy trumpet and sax-fueled burst of energy as the melody briefly turns into an exhilarating Latin-esque dance beat. These guys just keep blowing me away with their inventiveness and musicality.
“A Lapse” is a minute and a half long instrumental featuring super-gnarly, funky grooves that would make Grandmaster Flash proud. This lead us to “All the Stars“, a sexy and soulful song that sort of continues with the theme introduced on “The Weekend”, namely, what is the point of all this disorder and uncertainty in life? Sam elaborates: “Ah, sweet entropy, the cause of, and solution to all of life’s entropy. I wrote this as a poem in another one of my moments of existential disaster, still reeling from a day of working a call-centre job of all things. Believe me when I tell you there’s no stronger vacuum to suck the soul right out of the holes in your face than a fucking call-centre job. Anyway, ‘All the Stars’ is the epiphany that this happens to all of us at some point in our lives, maybe even forever. We’re all stars really, but we sure as hell don’t act like it. We run in circles trying to make sense of this chaos. All of us. One of my favourite elements of this one is the longing, weeping horns after the chorus. When Jesse and Travers get together to dream up a perfect horn line, they never miss.”
The first part of the song is gorgeous, with shimmery guitars, glittery synths, and those weeping horns layered over Casey’s sensuous bassline and Max’s restrained percussion, creating a dreamy, enchanting soundscape for Sam’s resonant falsetto. Two-thirds of the way in, the song abruptly shifts into high gear to become a rousing punk-rock banger, with blaring horns and frantic rhythms. It’s simply perfect!
The album closes with “The Stew“, a wild and funky ride with more grooves than a box full of vinyl records. I love the soulful James Brown-like vibe, driven by a funky bassline and stuttering drumbeats, and highlighted by fluttering horns and Sam’s rapid-fire vocals. Sam sez “This track is a band favourite from way back. We wrote it in 2017 and played it at a few shows but it never really saw the light of day and faded away eventually. When it came to putting together a track listing for ‘Sanctuary’, we listened to an old live recording of “The Stew” and all agreed we’d be crazy not to show this off. To me, ‘The Stew’ is Thunder Fox’s anthem. It perfectly sums up our chaotic mixture of anything and everything that brings us joy. It’s more than the sum of its parts, to say the least. When I wrote the lyrics, I was riding high on a wave of rockstar ego that feels so real when it hits but, when you wake up to jackhammers in your brain, you remember you’re so full of shit and you’re going to work hung over. I really wanted to just take the piss out of myself in a song, try bring myself back down to the ground. Here, I get in touch with my sarcastic, self-depreciating British roots. When all is said and done, I’m fully aware that I’m not God’s gift… Thunder Fox is.”
I wholeheartedly second that, as I adore this band, and adore this brilliant album. With Sanctuary, Thunder Fox has one of the best albums of the year on their hands, and it should also be in yours.
One of my favorite songs of the 1970s is the enchanting and soulful “That’s the Way of the World” by Earth, Wind & Fire. The song was the title track from their magnificent sixth studio album That’s the Way of the World, released in March 1975. I loved the entire album, and had it on repeat that summer when I also experienced my first significant love affair.
Named for band founder and front man Maurice White’s astrological sign of Sagittarius (which has a primary elemental quality of fire and seasonal qualities of earth and air), Earth, Wind & Fire was formed in Chicago in 1969. White had formerly been a session drummer for Chess Records, as well as a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. He eventually moved the band to Los Angeles, where it grew to include as many as nine members.
Their extensive lineup underwent numerous changes over the years, but some of the notable members have included Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson, Larry Dunn, Al McKay, Roland Bautista, Robert Brookins, Sonny Emory, Fred Ravel, Ronnie Laws, Sheldon Reynolds and Andrew Woolfolk. They’re known for their exotic kalimba sound (characterized by the Mbira, a family of traditional musical instruments of the Shona people of Zimbabwe), exuberant horn section, elaborate stage shows, and the dynamic contrast between Philip Bailey’s falsetto and Maurice White’s baritone vocals.
Their first five albums each met with successively greater success, and two of the singles, “Mighty Mighty” and “Devotion”, from their fifth album Open Our Eyes cracked the Billboard Top 40. But it was “Shining Star”, the lead single from That’s the Way of the World, that would be their breakout hit, going all the way to #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Soul Singles charts. The song also won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, but I digress…
“That’s the Way of the World” was the second track from the album to be released as a single, in June 1975. It reached #5 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart, but only #12 on the Hot 100, which I always thought was a travesty, as the song is so phenomenal. I used to compile my own Weekly Top 10 back then, and it was a #1 hit as far as I was concerned. To this day, it remains my favorite of Earth, Wind & Fire’s many great songs.
It’s a beautiful and uplifting song of love, hope and optimism, but with a darker undercurrent touching on how racism and intolerance can corrupt an innocent child. The serene R&B melody is sublime, and I love the jazzy horns, lovely keyboards and funky guitars. And, as always, the dual vocal harmonies of Maurice White and Philip Bailey are fabulous.
Hearts of fire creates love desire
Take you high and higher to the world you belong
Hearts of fire creates love desire
High and higher to your place on the throne
We've come together on this special day
To sing our message loud and clear
Looking back we've touched on sorrowful days
Future, past, they disappear
You will find (you will find) peace of mind (yeah yeah)
If you look way down in your heart and soul
I don't hesitate 'cause the world seems cold
Stay young at heart 'cause you're never old at heart
That's the way of the world
Plant your flower and you grow a pearl
Child is born with a heart of gold
The way of the world makes his heart so cold
On their 2004 version of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Rolling Stone ranked “That’s the Way of the World” at #329, however, the song was dropped altogether on their revised list that just came out on the 15th of this month (a list with which I have many issues). Surprisingly, the inferior (to me) and grossly overplayed “September” ranks at #65 on the more recent list. But it’s their most popular and most-streamed song by far, so what do I know?
One thing I learned in researching for this write-up is that the album That’s the Way of the World was initially written as a soundtrack for a film of the same name that was produced and directed by Sig Shore, who also produced the 1972 film Super Fly. The film starred Harvey Keitel, Ed Nelson, and Earth, Wind & Fire as “The Group”. Keitel played a record producer who hears The Group performing and is impressed by their act. The band was convinced the film would be a flop (which it was), and decided to release the soundtrack prior to the film’s premier. It turned out to be a smart move, as while the film bombed, the album became a huge hit.
Though we’re officially only one week into Summer 2021, it’s already turning out to be an exceptionally hot one for a large swath of the U.S., and around the Northern Hemisphere. Temperature records have been shattered in many locations, including here in the Coachella Valley of Southern California where I live. On June 17th, the temperature in Palm Springs reached 123 degrees, setting a new all-time record high for June (after hitting 120 two days earlier). In the normally temperate Pacific Northwest, Portland, Oregon set a new all-time record high of 108 on June 26th, with Seattle also breaking their all-time record with 102 degrees. Those new records look to be short-lived, as they’re forecast to be broken later today!
(Late update: they were indeed broken on the 27th, as high temperatures reached 112 at the official airport station in Portland, and 104 in Seattle, then broken again on the 28th, with temperatures soaring to an unbelievable 116 in Portland, 117 in Salem and 107 in Seattle!)
These crazy-hot temperatures got me thinking about one of my favorite songs from the 1960s, “Heat Wave” by Martha & the Vandellas. Originally formed as the Del-Phis in 1957 by Annette Beard, Rosalind Ashford and Gloria Williams, (and briefly renamed The Vels in 1961-62), the act was redubbed Martha & the Vandellas in 1962 after Martha Reeves replaced Williams as lead vocalist (and later to Martha Reeves & the Vandellas as Reeves gained prominence). “Heat Wave” (also known as “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave”) was written by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, who also penned numerous hits for the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops and many others. It was the second hit song they collaborated on with Martha & the Vandellas, following their first hit “Come and Get These Memories”.
Yellow Shoots is the music project of singer/songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Greg Matthews. The Brooklyn, New York-based artist was one of the very first I wrote about, way back in March 2016 when my blog was still in its infancy. His artistic name comes from his experiences with synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway, such as sound, leads to an automatic, involuntary response in a second sensory or cognitive pathway, such as sight. He sometimes sees vivid yellow colors when hearing music (a common form of synesthesia is known as chromesthesia, for sound to color), hence his name “Yellow Shoots.” With his distinctive vocal style and skillful fusing of R&B, soul, funk, jazz, electronic, hip-hop, alternative and psychedelic, he creates his own unique neo-soul sound that envelops listeners in raw sensuality and emotion.
Beginning with his debut single “Pieces” in 2014, the prolific artist has released an extensive amount of music in the years since, including his marvelous Prince-influenced album everything in 2018. One of the singles “make it to the summer” has garnered nearly half a million streams on Spotify. Last May, I reviewed his single “Wonderful Day”, which was featured on his EP Naked, released in July 2020. He’s also collaborated with numerous other artists, most recently last September with fellow Brooklyn singer-songwriter, producer and engineer Johnny Burgos on their single “Fun Tonight”. Now he returns with “SIRENS (Mermaid Version)“, the first single from his forthcoming sophomore LP The Green Album, due for release in July. He programmed synths, played all instruments, sang vocals and produced the track. His brother Jason Matthews did the mixing and Dan Millice did the mastering.
Release via his label La Reserve Records, the song is a totally reimagined version of his 2018 single “Sirens”, a silky and mesmerizing R&B/hip hop song about a long-distance love affair. Yellow Shoots uses the beguiling but dangerous Sirens of Greek mythology as a metaphor for the intense, all-consuming longing that comes from being far away from the one you love. He elaborates “They’re singing you to shipwreck. You put yourself in harm’s way because you’re so in love.” On “SIRENS (Mermaid Version)” he shaves about 30 seconds off the song and dials up the tempo from the previous version’s chill, musically-spare vibe to a faster-paced, more sonically complex track. About the new version, he said “This song is me drawing from my many influences, and not trying to fit into one style.”
Yellow Shoots’ shimmery, psychedelic-tinged guitar notes take center stage here, as he layers them over a kaleidoscope of lush analog synths and skittering R&B grooves. I love all the colorful synth textures and quirky sounds he adds to the mix, and when accompanied by his electronically-altered falsetto, it all makes for an enchanting and fascinating listen. The more dynamic arrangement lends a greater sense of urgency to the lines he sings in the chorus “blind my eyes, tie my hands, I’ve got nothing left to lose“, symbolizing a complete surrender to lustful desires. It’s a great track.
There’s so much great musical talent out there that it sometimes makes my head spin. I’ve recently written about quite a few exceptional artists and bands, and today I’m pleased to introduce another – silky-voiced Australian singer-songwriter Sam Dawes, who goes by the artistic moniker G. Samedi. Sam’s actually no stranger to this blog, as he’s also the lead vocalist and songwriter for Sydney band Thunder Fox, who I adore and have featured numerous times. While still actively involved with Thunder Fox, who will be releasing their second album later this year, Sam decided at the beginning of 2020 to record and produce some of his songs as a solo artist. In little more than a year, he’s already released seven singles (the first was actually a double single), all of which are fantastic. His latest is “Icarus“, which dropped April 30th.
Curious about the name G. Samedi, I asked Sam how he came up with that moniker. He told me it’s “just a silly amalgamation of my real name, Samuel George Dawes. People would call me Sammy D at school, I liked the character ‘Baron Samedi’ from James Bond, and it just came together nicely.” Well, I think G. Samedi is an ideal name, as it suggests an air of sophistication and sexual mystery, both of which are characteristics of his wonderfully unique sound.
Drawing from R&B, soul, trip hop, electronic and alternative rock elements, Sam creates moody and sensuous soundscapes for the expression of his bold lyrics addressing the darker and more introspective aspects of love and relationships. Then he delivers them with his distinctive soulful vocals that go from smooth, sultry croons to plaintive falsetto. He writes all his own music and lyrics, records and programs all instruments, sings all vocals, and produces and mixes all tracks. The only think he outsources is the mastering.
“Icarus” is a stunning and fascinating track, featuring a complex, almost progressive arrangement and a colorful array of instruments and synths. The song opens with stirring synths and an almost gospel-like organ, accompanied with tinkling piano keys. I love Sam’s expressive vocals, which sound especially vulnerable as he laments about falling out of love for his partner and the resulting pain he caused her and the damage he did to their relationship, while admitting he still has strong feelings for her: “I still needed her after all / I fell away, wings like Icarus melting on my bleeding lust. I knew I’d fly too close for us.” As the organ recedes, the melody settles into a languid R&B groove, highlighted by a mix of shimmery and gritty guitars and a thumping drumbeat. His layered vocal harmonies are really beautiful too, turning more plaintive and heartfelt as he implores her to reconsider: “I just love you, isn’t that enough?” The song ends with sounds of a droning synth and pounding drum.
“Icarus” is wonderful, and another in an unbroken string of really stellar singles by this talented artist. If you like it, do take a little time to listen to some of his other songs as well on one of the music platforms below.
My fellow blogger William, who has a terrific blog a1000mistakes, recently did a series of posts about songs beginning with the word “All” (of which there are literally a ton), and it reminded me of one of my favorite songs “All Around the World“, by soulful British singer-songwriter Lisa Stansfield. The gorgeous song was released in the UK in October 1989 as the second single from her marvelous first solo album Affection, both of which were breakthrough hits for her. It was subsequently released in the U.S. in January 1990. The song was a massive worldwide hit, topping the charts in the UK, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Netherlands, Norway and Spain. In the U.S., it reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #1 on the R&B and Dance Club charts. Stansfield received two Grammy award nominations for the song and album.
Stansfield co-wrote the song with Ian Devaney and Andy Morris, former bandmates from her previous band Blue Zone. In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, she recalled “I came into the studio, and Ian was messing around at the piano. He had a melody, and I just started singing: ‘Been around the world and I, I, I…’ Everyone laughed but Ian said, ‘Wait, it’s really good, that.’ It just came into my head – it was nonsense, but had a really good feel to it. “I, I, I” became the main hook. We’d no idea how massive it would become.”
The song is both sexy and heartbreaking, with lush, swirling strings and a soulful melody creating a sensual backdrop for Stansfield’s sultry, emotion-packed vocals that cut to the core. She’s an incredible singer, and her vocals are utterly convincing in conveying the torment and pain expressed in the lyrics. She brings goosebumps as she alternately coos, purrs, and cries out over the guilt of hurting her former lover, and now that he’s gone, of her desperate search to find him and hopefully win back his love.
I don’t know where my baby is But I’ll find him, somewhere, somehow I’ve got to let him know how much I care I’ll never give up looking for my baby
Been around the world and I, I, I I can’t find my baby I don’t know when, I don’t know why Why he’s gone away And I don’t know where he can be, my baby But I’m gonna find him
We had a quarrel and I let myself go I said so many things, things he didn’t know And I was oh oh so bad And I don’t think he’s comin’ back, mm mm
He gave the reason, the reasons he should go And he said thing he hadn’t said before And he was oh oh so mad And I don’t think he’s comin’ back, comin’ back
I did too much lyin’ Wasted too much time Now I’m here and cryin’, I, I, I
Been around the world and I, I, I I can’t find my baby I don’t know when, I don’t know why Why he’s gone away And I don’t know where he can be, my baby But I’m gonna find him
So open hearted, he never did me wrong I was the one, the weakest one of all And now I’m oh oh so sad I don’t think he’s comin’ back, comin’ back
I did too much lyin’ Wasted too much time Now I’m here and cryin’, I, I, I
Been around the world and I, I, I I can’t find my baby I don’t know when, I don’t know why Why he’s gone away And I don’t know where he can be, my baby But I’m gonna find him
The song at #29 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Bad Bad News” by American singer-songwriter and producer Leon Bridges. The talented Ft. Worth, Texas-based artist is like a breath of fresh air with his throwback R&B style that echoes some of the great soul singers of the 60s like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. It’s a reflection of my advanced age perhaps, but though most of his songs are mellow and low-key, they excite me because they remind me of so many of the artists and music coming out of Detroit (Motown), Memphis and Philadelphia from the early 60s to the mid 70s that I loved.
“Bad Bad News”, from his second album Good Thing, is fantastic, with jazzy guitar, gorgeous brass, crisp percussion and a deep bass groove set to a soulful, hypnotic beat. Add Bridges’ smooth vocals that go from sensual to plaintive, and the result is sonic heaven. He sings about overcoming others’ lack of faith in him, and making it on his street smarts, honesty and belief in himself: “Ain’t got no riches, ain’t got no money that runs long. But I got a heart that’s strong and a love that’s tall. Ain’t got no name, ain’t got no fancy education. But I can see right through, a powdered face on a painted fool./ They tell me I was born to lose. But I made a good good thing out of bad bad news.”
Though none of Bridges’ songs have appeared on the stinking Billboard Hot 100 nor even the R&B chart – which is a shocking travesty! – both of his albums have made the top 10 on the 200 Album chart, and two of his singles, “Smooth Sailin'” and “Bad Bad News” reached #1 on the Adult Alternative Chart. “Bad Bad News” spent three weeks at #1 on my own Weekly Top 30 in early summer of 2018.
The sexy video for the song was directed by Natalie Rae, and shows scenes of a woman following a man who she thinks whistled at her through an empty underground subway station and out into the streets at night, when she suddenly becomes overtaken by the song’s sensual grooves. Scenes of her are interspersed with footage of Bridges walking into an auditorium where he encounters a group of musicians jamming, and he then dances around them as he sings the song. At the end, the woman finally catches up to the man and silently confronts him before walking away.