Stella's Way - Wonderland
Stella's Way is an eco/folk/political/punk trio of scientists who write and sing songs. The group who are based in Canberra, Australia, features Stephen Sarre (vocals/acoustic guitar/harmonica), Llara Weaver (vocals/percussion) and Will Higgisson (acoustic/electric/and 12 string guitars). The band has been playing regularly at the "listening" folky type venues around Canberra since their debut in 2018. Their first release Wonderland draws heavily from those live shows. The trio writes music that probes the motivations and trials of life's damaged souls, while also taking the sword to politics through punky, politically motivated, protest songs. Wonderland was recorded, mixed and mastered at Peacock Studios (so named because of the feral peacocks that roam the surrounding streets and gardens), in Narrabundah, ACT, Australia.
It was produced by Dave O'Neill, one of Canberra's leading folk musicians who also played fiddle, bass, slide and mandolin on the recording. The twelve-song album features acoustic guitar on most tracks that are augmented heavily by electric guitar and other instrumentation such as mandolin, fiddle, bass, slide guitar, keyboards and percussion. Jack Rojahn, (drums), is featured on most tracks. The band’s strength features the vocal harmonies of Sarre and Weaver and the dynamic guitar work of Higgisson.
“Very Fine Day” opens with someone lighting up – a cigarette, I presume, and with words that, despite “the radio spitting out a warning,” it’s still “a very fine day.” “Somehow” begins with a beautiful acoustic introduction and equally beautiful vocal harmonies further in. The band’s lyrics tell of a relationship that’s on the outs. Musically, it’s a very moving song. There’s a melancholy quality about it that reminded me of Gordon Lightfoot. The opposite of this song is “Miner’s Daughter” – a rocking tune, filled with electric guitars, drums and a faster rhythm. There is some fantastic imagery to the band’s words here. “Humanity” features a bluesy, folkish style with plenty of protesting attitude. I really liked the extra vocals and hand claps on this tune. The latter verses are quite powerful and critical – “Who’s those who lie to us / To hold their power / With racist rhetoric / Like the White Australian Policy.”
Next is “Brooks Soak” – another beautiful tune with a great melody. This song features the slide guitar and violin, wonderfully played, and words to a place called Brooks Soak. The band’s words tell of a very, sad history of Australian Aboriginal culture that happened in 1928 (the amateur historian in me had to look this one up). “Walk Away” switches gears and offers a bit of fun – set in a modern-day spaghetti western, if you will – that pairs up with pop rhythms, Spanish guitar hooks and haunting backing vocals.
“Too Bright,” one of the shorter tracks on the album, tells the story of someone with whom a member of the band knew, who got messed up with drugs who was “too bright to burn for too long.” “I Don’t Want the Night to Come” is in a contemporary folk style and Sarre and Weaver sing about the fears about how the dark of the night brings out sad memories of the past. “White Widow” offers a faster rock tempo and features Llara Weaver on main vocals. This one also features keyboards and a sweet guitar solo by Higgisson. The next song “It Never Fades” is perhaps the band’s softest and most tender song on the entire album. At first, I thought this number had a traditional waltz (1-2-3) rhythm to it, but there’s something more here. Overall, a very interesting arrangement.
On the album’s title track “Wonderland” the song opens with what I guess is parliament bickering, (or some government head speaking his mind), on the band’s very punked-up rock song. The drums were fantastic here! The last tune “With You” is a hopeful song, despite a man being alone who finds himself thinking back to his lost love – “I don’t mind where I go / As long as I’m with you / With you.” And later – “No one knows how much time / They have left to spend / I’m like any other man / Take whatever I can get.” Sometimes the best songs are the ones that look at life straight in the eye. This one was a gem.
For those who like contemporary and traditional folk with just a bit of rock thrown in and written from a “biologist’s perspective” look into Stella’s Way.
MR LINEN - Stay Cool
Andre Cantave, Dave Madden and David Messier from Same Sky Productions in Austin, Texas have created Stay Cool, the debut album from MR LINEN. They describe the set as “a party album tailor-made for pool parties, beach trips and backyard BBQs,” with music reminiscent of '70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s pop and disco.
While Stay Cool is an indie release, let’s be clear that this is very clearly product with a well-executed branding and swag campaign--based around the studio’s French Bulldog--that comes part-and-parcel with the slick LP production. If you’re looking for raw, garage band dance tracks, this isn’t for you. If instead you are willing to lend your ears to professional musicians and producers who are skilled at their crafts, read on.
I hope you’re still reading (and streaming their album at the same time), because Stay Cool sounds great and is a ton of fun. The tracks give off their desired party vibe, and the group explores a few different dance grooves across the nine-track set. The opening tracks (“Go Fast Boat” and “The Taco Song”) recall classic Prince with the falsetto vocals, funky guitars, keyboards that play horn-like parts, and clavinets draped in effects. “Make It On Her Own” takes a bluesy, soul groove, and marries it with Tower of Power-like horns. Think of it as an updated Motown record, but played closer to 45rpm than 33⅓.
MR LINEN gives us some outright disco (“Space Kung Fu” and “Cindy,” which could have been a Kool and the Gang track), as well as a retro synth dance number (“Soul Shaker”). “Mr Linen” could be either a talk-show introduction or product placement in a blaxploitation spoof (complete with flute solo!). Their island-paradise homage “The Dirty Banana” sets Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Chesney and Zac Brown on their ears. Finally, “I Got You”’s broad, blue-eyed soul with extended chords is note-perfect yacht rock, which is exactly what they are aiming for. Stay Cool has all of your party vibes covered.
Lyrically, MR LINEN keeps tongue firmly in cheek, ala The Lonely Island, albeit with less of a shock factor. You know not to take them too seriously when they give themselves a shout out in the first minute of the first song of their first release, and then do it again (and again, and again). Some tongue-in-cheek lyrics will remain funny for years to come, while others won’t stand the test of time. We’ll see where Stay Cool ends up; the paean to the $3.70 taco constructor likely has some legs.
But really, the only legs Stay Cool is meant to engage are your own, such that they get you out of your seat and dancing. MR LINEN’s offering isn’t meant to be an enduring masterpiece that will be entombed in a museum. Rather, it’s meant to be a bit of lighthearted fun to bring some sunshine to your summer days. In that, it succeeds.
Aaron Scholz - Third Place
Aaron Scholz is a singer/songwriter from Madison, Wisconsin who recently released Third Place. He explains that the album was based on an unfinished album he started back in the 2000’s. I thought the theme behind the album was interesting. The artist mentions: “Third Place (the record) is a song cycle dedicated to the concept of a "third place" as described by sociologist Ray Oldenberg, wherein your first place is where you live, a second place is where you work and a third place can be any place people gather: a bar, coffee house, restaurant, church, school, clubhouse, etc.”
The album is more or less folk with a hint of rock. There’s a lot of warm Americana infused into the songs and it starts with “What Would It Take.” The clean, reverb laced guitar and subtle beat are immediately inviting. I liked the vocals as soon as I heard them, which felt nostalgic and hopeful. It’s a strong opener and indicative of the other types of songs you will hear.
The organ and guitar on “No Station '' create a sense of heartfelt intimacy while “Dorothy Door” is one of the catchiest and perhaps most single worthy song on the album. I loved the vocals on “Dorothy Door.”
I’m a sucker for laptop steel guitar and “Little Bars” implements that instrumentation which doubles down on the sense of nostalgia although the lyrics seem to revolve around gratitude. “Telephone” is a little different. This is another great song. The tremolo infused guitar and organ creates a little more of a psychedelic quality. I thought the way the drums came in gave it a late ’60s vibe.
Scholz has more success with “The Sky” which contains a fantastic vocal performance. Simon & Garfunkel came to mind in terms of the song structure. The more sparse “Payphone” is emotionally resonant and a little darker than some of the previous songs but blossoms in a pretty beautiful way about half way through.
There’s some of the best guitar work on “Dry Run Creek” while “St Paul” is perhaps the most upbeat and lively song on the album. Last but not least is “The Place” which ends with nostalgia.
Scholz managed to pull out these old songs and make a cohesive and heartfelt album. There’s a nice flow to the songs and I suggest listening from beginning to end. Highly recommended.
Beyond Here - New Dangers
Beyond Here is a Nashville based, alternative rock band founded by frontman Anthony Douglas (vocals) in 2019. The band also includes Jonathan Tuckness (drums), Jon Wisecarver (guitar) and Logan Hatcher (bass). They got to work quickly and released a five-song EP called New Dangers.
The songs felt like straightforward but well polished rock that has a lot of pop sensibilities. They start with “Fake It Till You Miss It” which felt like one of the more single worthy songs that was made for the masses. There’s just that polish here with more pop-oriented rock but also the structure and delivery plays into these aspects.
I preferred the song “New Dangers” over the opener which actually might be the most single worthy song going from subdued verse, to dynamic chorus, back again, etc. The band rocks their hardest with “Go There” and pulsates while “New Man” is a more lush and not as hard hitting. I actually liked this because they don’t go for that super loud chorus. There is some great guitar work especially on the second verse. Last up is “Young One” and it had almost a post-rock type beginning but still felt held back by a pop format. They hint at going outside of it but never really indulge.
The band is unequivocally talented but also are newly formed. Their sound seems a little too influenced by what pop/rock should sound like and in terms of structure and aesthetics for my taste. The problem with this is it’s really hard to create a signature sound that people will recognize. My advice is to really push themselves in this area next time around to separate themselves a bit more than they have. I think just a little experimentation would behoove them.
I think the band has done their homework here and produced a good EP that I'm sure plenty of people will appreciate. There’s no denying the technical abilities of the band. They sound crisp, tight and professional. I’m looking forward to hearing where they go from here and wish them success with their music.
Foolish Deep is back with a new set of singles that were part of a live session. The band is slowly releasing singles and just recently released “Looking For The Moon.” I immediately was enjoying the vibe on this song. The song, out of the gates, starts with a steady 4/4 beat, lush guitar chords and a syncopated bass line. I thought there was an ’80s type of aesthetic to the song but done in a more contemporary style.
The vocals are the focal point and Casper M-B nails the performance here. His vocals are inviting and he stays within a comfortable vocal range. The chorus in particular just blossoms with memorable melodies. There’s also a slightly haunting breakdown around the two-and-a- half minute mark which leads to a shredding guitar solo.
The next song is entitled “Never On Her Feet” and the song has a similar vibe but the guitar are a little more striking. I was feeling the ’80s type of vibe again especially on the verse. The song soars at points where Casper M-B goes into falsetto and it feels like it’s sparkling. There’s also some more fantastic lead guitar.
“One More Shot” is pretty straightforward in terms of structure and a little more subdued. The song revolves around some exceptional guitar melodies although there are moments that crescendo and blossom with lush reverb tails.
The band does a cover of “Rule The World” and they do this song justice. I mentioned the band has an ’80s quality and this song felt right at home. The band goes all out on the ten-plus- minute epic “Stranger.” There’s more nostalgia on this song than I heard before. The song is warm and meditative. It has it all including longer instrumental sections where the band sort of jams and lets loose. They do end the song in an epic way but it ebbs and flows.
The band has been prolific and these songs are testament to continued growth and talent. They paint a clear picture of what they are about and what’s on the horizon. I think these singles will appeal to a lot of people.
Mystic Purple Bird - Duality
Mystic Purple Bird is a Montreal based artist who brings together flavors of instrumental rock, hip-hop, jazz and funk with immense links to trip-hop and lo-fi production to create a unique interpretation of music. Duality is a four-track album, written, recorded, mixed and mastered in Mystic Purple Bird’s home studio.
The record kicks off with the track “Sunset,” an exciting introduction to the sound of Mystic Purple Bird. A really chilled jazz-funk number (akin to Roy Ayers in the mid-‘70s) that soothes and comforts the listener, with intriguing wind instrumentation and wah-pedal effect keyboard. Reminiscent of ’90s neo-soul in terms of attitude and sensibility.
This is followed by "Black Moon,” which follows the jazz-funk ethos of the preceding song, but with a slightly more ambient, darker, menacing and even seductive tone. This evokes memories of ’90s neo-soul great D'Angelo or even Fun Lovin Criminals in terms of vibe.
"Bloom" really showcases Mystic Purple Bird’s virtuoso guitar work with its stabs, fast rhythm and riffs, amongst the intertwining rhythm and lead guitar work, creating delicious intertwining pockets of sound which Prince or Eddie Hazel themselves would be proud of!!
The closing track "When You Say I'm Right, I'm Wrong" is the perfect conclusion to the album, bathed in melancholic optimism, the least funky number, but certainly the most scenic. It manages to captivate the listener with its textured, repetitive guitar riff, washing smoothly over the audience.
Duality is a stunning four-track instrumental work of art with fascinating layers, instrumental effects, intertwining sonic waves and enthralling production work, expressing Mystic Purple Bird’s sexy and serene concept of music. In this busy and daunting world, it's the type of music we all need in our lives to glide over you as you unwind and relax.
Greg Smith - Redemption Road
f you’re a musician who makes eleven albums I think that’s quite an impressive feat. I’d say once you get past five you are prolific. Redemption Road is the latest album from Greg Smith. On his website he mentions: “I love making music. It’s how I celebrate the good times, navigate the bad and generally make sense of the world.” I couldn’t agree more.
The first song “Redemption Road” starts with warm acoustic guitar, pensive vocals, bass and drums. I thought the song was a good indicator of what you can expect on the album. There’s a nice balance between melancholy, nostalgia and some hope.
“Amarillo” starts in a similar fashion bringing to mind the general mood I usually feel when listening to Cat Stevens. The song is very warm and pours on nostalgia. I loved the subtle rolling groove of “In My Dreams” which is the most uplifting song yet and the arguable highlight.
The album moves with more sun-bathed nostalgia on “San Joaquin Station,” “Snowfall” and “Redemption Redux (Redux).” The slow burn of “Go” and “The Bridge” seeps into the second half of the album. There are also some slight Pink Floyd vibes on “The Bridge.”
“Ten Sinners” has a little more darkness which I was ready for. Last up is “Fais Do-do” is unlike anything else on the album and sounded similar to something from Tom Waits. I liked the song but it did sort of feel misplaced amongst the other tunes.
Smith pulls off a very familiar tone and mood with this release. I can’t say it’s the most inventive music I’ve heard in recent memory but he certainly nails what he attempts. Take a listen.
John Thomson - Against The Grain
John Thomson is an Atlanta-based musician, songwriter and producer. Born and raised in New Jersey, he started playing guitar at the age of 10 and has spent the past several decades working as a professional guitarist, both as a session musician and playing in top-level bands across the Jersey Shore, New York City and Atlanta. Although he’s spent much of his professional music career playing in cover and corporate bands, Thomson has been writing original music for many decades and it was always a lifelong goal to someday release his own album. That “someday” resulted in his debut Against the Grain recorded and mixed over a period of seven years. The album is heavily influenced by the composers and artists from the ‘70s with harmonically complex, yet catchy songs, designed to bring the listener on a journey. The album was recorded and mixed at Thomson’s home studio in Atlanta and his love for audio engineering started in college, where he learned the art of recording onto 2-inch tape. The album was mostly recorded and entirely mixed in Pro Tools. Because the album was mixed for headphones, Thomson also wanted to choose a mastering engineer with the same philosophy. Glenn Schick - a Grammy-winning mastering E\engineer helped by mastering the album exclusively via headphones.
At its most basic, Against the Grain is a rock album, but it puts together multiple different genres – from classic rock to modern rock, from soft rock to pop rock, to even Latin rock. Thomson says that he is still trying to find his “style” and was experimenting with different genres for his debut – so what you’ll hear is an eclectic mix of songs. But across the board, the emphasis is on melody and harmony. Thomson’s musical inspirations were heavily influenced by AM/FM radio out of New York City, where major radio stations played a wide variety of music crossing all musical genres. Many of the popular songs written during that time were harmonically complex. This diverse musical palette shaped his appreciation of music – especially his appreciation for melody and harmony. His musical influences are quite varied but are heavily ‘70s influenced - from Steely Dan to Pink Floyd, Elton John to Andrew Gold, Todd Rundgren to Joe Jackson, Boston to Paul McCartney, and even from Barry Manilow to Yes. You can find traces of these influences throughout the album, albeit with a modern twist.
The album’s self-titled opener is a straightforward rocker that follows the tried and true, verse/chorus relationship. The band builds up a tension and plays progressively harder as the music builds up to a searing guitar solo. Next up is “Mystique” and it features a sweet and syrupy bass line. The song’s style and arrangement feels like something I’ve heard from the ‘70s – the Allan Parson’s Project, maybe? Lyrically, the song involves getting involved romantically with a girl, who Thomson refers to as “Mystique.” My guess is that Thomson is using that word metaphorically and is not literally referring to the superhero character from the X-Men comics. But hey, I could be wrong. “Complicated View” which was written in the mid-‘90s, has elements that are both fresh sounding and classic. Written for the piano, “Innocent Eyes” has some nice arrangements and experimentation. I especially liked the Latin guitar addition during the solo. Overall, the song’s style has got a ‘70s soft rock appeal, reminding me a little bit of Joe Jackson.
“Pet” begins with the line “Can you keep my secret?” being whispered. There’ll be no doubt with listeners of this tune’s suggestive lyrical content and the melodious bass lines which add to the song’s sultry nature.The lyrics to “Could’ve Been” which were written in the mid-‘00s, find Thomson thinking back to simpler times with someone who’s no longer in his life. A straightforward pop rock number about regret and what might have been. There’s also some great piano and guitar action during the last two minutes of the song.
Next is “Storylines” and it features a power pop/rock style. The power side of the song kind of reminds me of Boston, while the pop-ish parts remind me of Elton John’s stuff from the ‘80s. Moving on to “Falling Awake” which is a tune that has catchy lyrics and overall, a more pop “edginess” to it. Keyboards take on a greater presence with the guitar parts offering a supportive role, rather than being upfront. This one reminds me more of Elton John’s mid-‘80s stuff. “Blue Solitude” was a fun song to listen to – I especially liked the catchy guitar riffs. Thomson’s writing style here reminds me of something from the early ‘80s, like how some artists would mix elements of pop rock and new wave.In some weird way, it kind of reminded me of Rick Springfield. The last tune is “Sonata Moonlight” and like “Could’ve Been” represent Thomson’s unique melodic style and crazy good guitar playing. You’ll also hear plenty of Latin music influence with this romantic number.
If you like the pop and soft rock sounds of the ‘70s, and appreciate talented guitar playing, check out Against the Grain by John Thomson.
First Frost - First Frost
Steve Woodman is a Canadian solo artist recording as First Frost, and is based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. His new album is the self-titled First Frost and was inspired by film scores, video game music and early prog rock. Woodman states: “Pushing conventional song structures aside, this music draws inspiration from a wide swath of genres.” Woodman recorded in his own basement using a simple guitar, bass and drums setup “with free software and limited knowledge.”
“Reflection Pool” immediately establishes an early prog rock vibe, as promised. You can name several bands that seem to have influenced this music: Yes, Steve Hillage, Gong, and early Genesis are just a few examples. Woodman is right that he’s not using conventional song structures, as this track seems to float along from moment to moment. “Sun Soaked Seaside Soup Soup” jumps to the math rock style of progressive with fast melodies and quick changes, before settling into a more relaxed groove. “The Steady” features a spacey tremolo guitar riff at its center, with a steady Chris Squire baseline and synth and guitar variations floating around the edges. Alternating back to complexity, “Soft Sell” is a supersonic-paced workout with blinding guitar histrionics and multiple tempo shifts. The hardcore guitar sections push Woodman’s recording setup to the limit, but stops just short of total overload.
“Digital Heroics” is a pleasing medium tempo guitar pattern with lots of echo with Woodman’s hardcore overdubs jumping in at will. At this point it’s clear there’s some limitations in Woodman’s studio setup, as many of the stacked melodies get lost when playing together. I found myself wishing for a wider and more detailed mix, because the goods are definitely there. “Lunch in Lo-fi” is a short space-blues that has been compressed to the absolute max. It’s a bit much for headphones but might sound awesome in a club. “Top Ten Degrassi Betrayals” is a longish and heavy guitar track where once again I love the melodies but wish they were a bit clearer.
“At Our Speed” is another prog rocker, this time with a Hendrix-type chord as its basis, which then moves into an epic Yes “Relayer”-like musical collage. Musically one of my top picks! This is followed by a similar stylistic sandwich titled “Cross The Glass Ocean.” The album closes with “The Wolf And The Winter Cold” which is based on a muted picking pattern with lots of echo. It’s a bit mellow and restrained and a nice way to end the show.
I loved most of the music on this album but had to fight my way though the thick, center-heavy mix at times. Woodman clearly has the chops and the inspiration for recording, but could use some help in the mixing and mastering stages. That said, there’s plenty to enjoy here and I’m sure Woodman will just get better and more experienced with time.
Ben Weinman - In Heat
Ben Weinman is a recent graduate from Kenyon College. He is responsible for the vocals, guitar, sax and synths for his band. He is backed by Jesse Glass (drums), Brian Sellers (lead guitars), Eric Schwartz (slide guitar) and Kathryn Dawdy (bass). Originally, the band members were a part of the Kenyon Jazz Ensemble but wanted to go in a different direction by forming their own band. On their debut Heat EP, which was recorded at the Kenyon College WKCO Studio, the band merges tons of ambiance into their sound. Packed to the brim with mood and feeling, the songs on this collection combine setting and atmosphere to produce a truly resonating vibe. The EP is an accompaniment to Weinman’s Creative Writing thesis, which talks about “growth through difficult and intense circumstances and solace – what and where we look for comfort.” The EP emerges as a more diluted version of the manuscript, dealing with these themes in a more snapshot-like format. With the Heat EP, the band comes right at you with a great alternative sound that also gets you thinking.
The EP opens up with “Crown Sprout,” as a soft melody on guitar slowly builds in the backdrop, some quiet vocals eventually join in. The sound is very soothing and smooth, sounding a lot like a lullaby. I thought Weinman’s vocals were very stirring, ebbing and flowing with great emotion. The music backing him was also very powerful. At moments this reminded me of Bon Iver. “Sagebush” felt very melodic in tone. There was also a pop element to this song that made it feel inviting. I greatly enjoyed the energy of this piece. I thought the reverb was also nicely done here. The guitar solo was a straight up bluesy number that added a distinctive finish to the track.
On “Suntune,” what sounds like lap steel guitar adds a disconcerting vibe towards the start of this song. More subdued vocals come in, keeping the ambiance alive. As a drumming beat enters, the music feels like classic rock being done in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The folksy and warm tones really made the sound feel comforting and soothing. As synths settle in, the sound of the acoustic guitar contributes to the vibes on “Orion.” Feeling like a slow burn, the energy here keeps to the soothing sound of the earlier tracks. Moody bass lines keep the tone even. The groove here was sauntering and has a way of growing on you. The band keeps things consistent with the warm tones on this soft closer.
Soft yet biting, there is a bit of disquiet seen in this album. Underneath the surface is a restlessness that adds a bit of raw edginess to the overall recording. You can tell that a lot of thought goes into this record. This was a good introduction to the band’s sound and I look forward to seeing how they will evolve from here.
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