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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Rejectionist Front - Evolve (2017)

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

Fronted by politically engaged and diverse vocalist/songwriter Michael Perlman, Rejectionist Front stands as one of the more powerful rock bands with a social consciousness working in popular music today. Their second studio album Evolve expands upon the possibilities listeners encountered with their breathtaking debut thanks to musicianship and songwriting that’s worked mightily to incorporate more colors into its artistic spectrum. Many of their abiding musical strengths are in more evidence than ever with this twelve song collection – guitarist Lincoln Prout proves he’s one of the underrated six string talents hovering near prominence today and deserves to be mentioned among the most talented of his peers while the rhythm section of Tony Tino and Dave Dawson provide meaty yet fleet-footed support for the band’s performances. The sophomore jinx is a real phenomenon for bands and artists, but it’s one that Rejectionist Front dodges with room to spare.

“Rise”, Evolve’s first tune, is a song of utter confidence. Rejectionist Front doesn’t make a single misstep for their existing fans or newcomers alike and whips up a sound and design for the song well balanced between prime Queensryche or Dream Theater neo prog-metal/hard rock and a fluid, aggressive modern edge brimming over with attitude. “All I Am” moves away from the sleek strands of prog metal we heard in the opener into a more rough and tumble classic hard rock sound delivered with a biting modern sound. The opener has a strong presence of harmony and backing vocals, like many songs on Evolve, but the second track’s relative lack of that device proves the band effectively mixes things up. “Savior” is another of the album’s songs that are fiercely individual yet seem ideally tailored for modern hard rock radio thanks to its thunderous salvos and near epic sweep. Lincoln Prout’s penchant for bringing strong melodies to bear alongside his hard-charging riffing makes for a potent mix here as elsewhere.

Much of Evolve is both barrels blazing, but “All Is The Same” stands as an example of Rejectionist Front tempering their attack for a more thoughtful performance. There’s always a storm of passion brewing just beneath the surface of everything the band writes and it explodes once again on the song “Reclaim”. The aforementioned fierce individuality distinguishing this song is reminiscent of the first song, as are its mild anthemic elements, and one of the album’s single releases, “Flush”, hits a home run along similar lines. The album’s finale “Inside of Me” is another more aurally considered moment for Rejectionist Front and brings all of Perlman’s surveying of the modern landscape back to a personal grounding that makes this a more powerful experience. Evolve is a more than impressive follow up to the band’s debut; it advances Rejectionist Front’s march into the future with a single breathtaking leap forward.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Chris Murphy - Water Under the Bridge (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

The Cajun cooked instrumentals and blues trappings of California-based Chris Murphy and the Blind Blake Blues Band come storming to life on their debut full-length Water Under the Bridge.  At the heart of the hurricane stands Murphy; violinist, fiddler, songwriter and bandleader.  The man practically eats, sleeps and breathes a style/class that you just don’t find with modern music.  There’s nothing retro about the 14 songs on offer here, on the contrary this is a grooving record with an authentically old soul on which you’ll hear bluegrass, blues, jazz, rock, folk, country, r & b and soul.  Each of these musical ideals are distinctly felt and it’s all wrapped up with a big band mindset that ruled the 30s to the early 60s, especially. 

Not only does Murphy play the role of multi-instrumentalist and lead vocalist but he’s also the sole composer of every tune contained on Water under the Bridge.  Additionally, alongside co-producer/mixer Joshua Cutsinger, Chris also grabs another production credit (he’s collaborated and produced with everyone from Steve Hodges and Larry Taylor of Tom Waits’ Band to punk legends Mike Watt and John Doe of punk legends The Minutemen and X, respectively.  Obviously, Murphy recognizes the talent and merit in many different types of music and he’s not afraid to include this wide breadth in his very own recordings. 

Each tune on Water Under the Bridge has a unique tasting flavor and literally walls upon walls of down-home instrumentation with the strings remaining a focal point.  In many ways this release brings the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” to energetic rural music that is literally a guidebook of every classic American music genre known to man.  Raucous ragtime jazz piano, countrified acoustics, a rockabilly rhythm set-up, fireball fiddle and swinging violins color tracks like opener “Moveable Feast,” the deliberately ethnic-kissed neoclassical guitars of “My Spanish Lover,” 1940s jazz club swagger of “Dog Ear Blues” and the title track all feel quite congruent with Murphy’s vision of these disparate styles of music.  This is just one turns Water Under the Bridge takes though.    

Then you’ve got the more midpaced, from the gut blues numbers that allow for some hard-edged yet clean riffing, a choice featured performance from the upright bass, cool collected tempos and Chris’ stellar work on the violins, fiddles and acoustics.  The stellar “Joan Crawford Dances the Charleston,” the smoldering downbeat of “Riverboat Blues,” the crunchy and rowdy prowler “Tomcat Blues” which illustrates some serious Hank Williams Sr. chops from the sizzling rockabilly/country musical split right down to the ornery lyrics and the hardliner grooves of “Tarbox Blues” and “Middleweight Champion” are all choice cuts utilizing the aforementioned rockabilly blues handbook.  You also get some Bill Monroe minded, blue-collar bluegrass that positively goes for broke during the high-speed chase of “Table for Two,” “The Lemon Rag” as well as the above-named title track’s hybridization of several styles (bluegrass being a major theme) and “Benzedrine Shuffle’s” sloth-ier realization of the sound.  The album caps off with a hypnotic soundtrack piece of barebones beat-keeping (a floor tom or someone stomping) and sunburnt violin called “Cheer up Mickey” that would be at home in a Clint Eastwood western’s film score.   

Chris Murphy and his merry men can do it all in terms of chops, ability and performance.  They make this stuff look easy on Water Under the Bridge and each track is one that you’re going to want to revisit over and over again to continue to catch of all the little nuances the band throw into their playing, production and arranging.  These cats have a mastery of old school jamming capabilities and they make every inch of every style their own on Water Under the Bridge.   

Alpha Mule - Peripheral Vision (2017)

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

An excellent debut here from traditional roots music duo Alpha Mule here and the band’s 10 original composition really explores some varied ground; more so than your average country n’ folk twosome.  With the core of the music relying on banjo, acoustic guitar and vocals, it’s really a treat to hear the music come off this fresh and original.  Let’s face it, as much as the genre is one of my favorites it can be a little bit confining and hard to take in an inventive direction. 

“Corpus Christi” starts things off with a gravelly, dust-storm of driving bass grooves, limber acoustic guitar/banjo workouts and smooth vocal harmonies from the main players, Joe Forkan (guitar/vocals) and Eric Stoner (banjo/vocals).  It has a bit of a bleak feel, especially when compared with the immediately following “On the Moon.”  Here the tempos congeal into a mid-paced trot instead of a light brigade charge and the tuneful instrumental wanderings bring in a bit of everything from bluegrass to ol’ tyme country with even some pop songwriting in place to create hooky verse and chorus vocal arrangements.  The pace further slows its runaway wagon axles on the steel guitar laced title track which should really provide some enjoyment for fans of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and all of the formative stars the genre has seen. 

The twosome retain their restraint on “The Distance’s” tranquil balladry before taking things up two or three notches on the 50s rock n’ roll jive of “Pavlov.”  Skillful sonic use of percussion and a mean upright bass foundation kicks the guitars and banjo into a furious overdrive with bluesy baritone vocals to match.  “Mule in the Mine” is a unique mix of styles that reckon of coal-mining country with riverside guitars and banjos plucking away as Stoner and Forkan match vocals wits along the way.  Accoutrements such as the addition of the rhythm section and harmonica further the depth of this tune, although it’s interesting to hear the stripped-down duo version available in the bonus tracks to see how the tune developed on the trail.  Of the remaining tracks, “Step Outside” and somber closer “Empire” harness some vast folk expanse and cool the mood off to a melodic, harmony-filled simmer that’s truly a stroke of low key brilliance to behold, while “The Ballad of Huell Howser” and “Music of Our Hearts” pile on the vintage country influences with the latter possessing some of the strongest vocal work on the album. 

This Southern California duo really knows how to get down and it’s the listeners that benefit across the 15 tracks of Peripheral Vision (there are 5 bonus cuts all told).  These songs move and shake, stirring up the soul and the brain during the process.  With a debut as tight as this one, it’s going to be a pleasure to watch Alpha Mule develop their sound further across future albums.  Here’s to a long, illustrious career for the guys, you’ve certainly won over this humble scribe; very good stuff and highly recommended.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Shofar - s/t (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

Shofar’s return to the musical arena with a six song self-titled EP will likely stand, by year’s end, as one of more successful releases in the band’s admittedly slim discography. It marks their first studio work since 2005’s Turn, but the time away hasn’t dulled their musical acumen in any appreciable way and, indeed, it seems lead singer and songwriter Larry Hagner has further matured during his time away from the microphone. The band’s religious/spiritual based message hasn’t been secularized, per se, but rather subsumed into an accessible vehicle that presents it alongside recognizable sounds and avoids any hint of hectoring or sermonizing. This is far, however, from a glorified solo vehicle for Hagner – taken as a whole and on an individual basis alike, the songs on this self-titled EP are clearly the product of a cohesive unit with each member making important contributions to the overall whole.

There’s a nearly progressive, quasi-classical intro kicking off the EP opener “Running” before a wall of pulverizing guitars falls on the listener’s head. The chaos clears for Hagner’s vocals to enter the mix and the nicely melodic qualities of his voice contrast nicely with song’s recurring raucousness. The indie nature of the band’s recording doesn’t hold them back at all; everything has a high level of production polish and an obvious ear for instrumental balance. While the rock histrionics of the opening track afford Hagner a chance to flex his hard rock muscle, we get an opportunity to hear his more classic melodic strains on “Powerman”. There’s some backing vocals sweetening things here at key points and some steady, unspectacular, but wildly successful guitar work. “Shades of Grey” is, like the aforementioned tune, more modulated than the EP opener, but it has a strong alt-rock stride that gives it some added urgency over “Powerman” and there’s a wider vocal presence on this tune that helps the tune come off quite nicely.  

“Hands Down” is more about observing a specific character than any particular message and one of Hagner’s best writing jobs on this collection. It’s a hell of a rock track as well that percolates with real rock power and an appealing “sweep” carrying listeners along. “Countdown” and the finale “The Coming” are much more in keeping with the band’s earlier material, but there’s an intensely human quality to these songs that keeps them tethered to relatable qualities instead of sounding unduly preachy. Shofar’s self-titled EP is a great musical mix that’s equally capable of overwhelming listeners as it is beguiling them. This is a talented band that we need to help redeem challenging times in the world of rock and roll. They bring great music to the table along with first class lyrics that draw you in.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Blue Apollo - Light Footed Hours + Circles (2017)

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

The members of Blue Apollo’s (a group of Dallas, TX pop/indie rockers) history stems back to their paths crossing at the Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts.  During their time at the school the future band mates formed a strong bond that encompassed similar musical and artistic tastes which led to the formation of project.  Though now a four-piece, most likely due to the fact that their debut EP Light-Footed Hours requires several segments of piano/organ/cello in addition to basic rock n’ roll instrumentation, this trio rocks hard and sinks deep into subtlety on this flagship six-song offering. 

Points of comparison are difficult to come by but the individual players’ list John Mayer and Maroon 5 for starters.  One could also say that they draw from the 90s indie-rock scene, catchy pop music, a touch of hard rock and a little bit in the way of orchestrated chamber music.  It’s a unique and entertaining mix that keeps the listener guessing throughout.  Jeremiah Jensen’s lays right into lead-in number “Walls” with a shaking, trembling beat that’s heavy on the snares and tapping rim shots.  Musically, the tune shoots right into perpetual motion with the percussion being joined by an aquatic bass line, stream of consciousness melody vocals and glowing electric guitars with nearly all of the distortion pared down.  Immaculate layering and building continually piles on numerous jangle-pop guitar lines and polyrhythmic backbeats in an infectious take on The Cure’s contagious post-punk minus the goth intentions.  Eventually sizzling bits of electric guitar and rabid jazz cymbal ghosting lend the cut everything it needs to become the multifaceted musical monster it strove for from the first note.  “Feeling Right” allows guitarist/vocalist Luke Nassar to mix several guitar styles into a distinctive whole; from tuneful, highly melodic indie-licks that are quickly picked to funky down-strum to wailing old school rock leads, Nassar is able to run the complete gamut of expression in this hip-shaking, mid-paced rocker.  The rhythm section plays with flash and panache but never speeds up too much, valuing tight, compacted playing in favor of speed thrills.  Though classified as indie-rock, this band proves that they are much more than any label could tag them with.  Wraparound guitar licks render “Therapy” an immediate standout as a melody-intensive pop rocker that hits all of the right chords and sends the hook-riddled chorus arrangement right out of the park with a grand slam homerun.  “Avalanche” and “Meant to Be” are a superb couplet of tracks and make for an interesting pair to analyze while the EP plays through.  Both more or less begin with a lengthy passage of Nassar singing back by a solo instrument (in “Avalanche” it’s piano and in “Meant to Be” it’s the singer’s own acoustic guitar), but once both pieces progress beyond their middle waypoints it’s an exercise in no-holds barred rock where even the instrumentation is tougher than any of the other tracks on the EP.  Closer “Circles” returns to the symphonic pop swagger of “Therapy” and couldn’t end this recording on a better note. 

Though Blue Apollo wears certain influences on the band members’ collective sleeves, they still manage to come up with a sound that’s quite eclectic and original.  They have zero trepidation about combining disparate styles into a single song while making it work to boot.  Fans of edgy pop rock should definitely make room in their collection for Light-Footed Hours.