White Owl Red - Naked and Falling
Alt country has in the last few decades risen to become its very own genre. And this is deservedly so, seeing as it has made its evolutions from the twangs of country and the slow, steady skips of rhythmic and entrancing acoustic guitar which meshes with a lonely lap steel and a soft beating of drums like the crunching of dry leaves. The instruments, working together, help from a strong musical emotion from which the singer is then able to set their often bleak tales of love and loss against.
A rising star in the alt-country universe is the singer/songwriter J. Josef McManus who spearheads the project White Owl Red. His debut record, 2014’s American Ash landed on the Americana Music Association Charts (AMA) and held a spot there for fourteen weeks. Now McManus is back with White Owl Red’s excellent sophomore record Naked and Falling.
Naked and Falling opens with the staggeringly heartbreaking “Pills and Paper” which as its title suggests is about someone coming to their own end, but before doing so they are leaving a letter explaining why. This sense of loss and haunting heartbreak is woven into the very fabric of Naked and Falling, which could also be attributed to so many different symbolic references; Angels come to mind almost immediately. Next on “Hurts Like Hell” we get a slightly sunnier picture, as McManus, in his straight-spoken twang delivers to us such lyrical gems as “I would not trade the bad times cuz I know they roll in with the good / we’ll smoke it up just like our lives were diamonds made of wood.”
But when McManus wants to break your heart he can do so quickly as he does with “Falling off the World” on which he channels such great artists as Damien Jurado and Neil Young. The guitars sound soaked in whiskey as do McManus’s sleepy vocal tones which mirror their drawn out twang as Young himself often does on so many of his greatest songs.
It’s not all fire and brimstone on Naked and Falling though, as McManus proves with his tongue and cheek story “Alcoholic Stepmom,” which echoes the old country greats like Woody Guthrie in his moments of gentle humor.
Thematically speaking Naked and Falling is an album soaked full of pain and sorrow, and is documenting those who have fallen on hard times, or just simply fallen. The record though is not in the least depressing because musically it’s so rich. The behind the scenes players; drummer Kyle Caprista, guitarist Gawain Matthews, and the lovely backing vocals of Leah Tysse, make this record what it is, a polished piece of what will surely become an alt country classic.
Sammy Nino - More Than Worries
Sammy Nino is a musician from New York who has dedicated his life to finding the right words and melodies to sing and play. Nino shares those songs with us on More Than Worries. He makes palatable music that has aspects of folk and rock but fits nice and snugly into a category of pop.
His music contains shades of melancholy but for the most part the songs were very uplifting. I like the flow of the album which was fluid with a lot of cohesive elements. He has a sound that he shapes amongst these eight songs.
Nino went to a pro studio and the proof is in the pudding. The songs are radio ready and reminded me of something you could find on the FM dial. This is a professional sounding effort in every aspect.
Nino opens with “Need You From The Start” which gives you a good idea of what to expect from the remaining songs. His songs often start grounded but by the end have a grand, epic and hopeful vibe. “Free” is a standout track. The vibe is upbeat and seemed like a serious contender as the single which would get radio play. “More Than Worries” was a solid track that also really brings on the reflective vibe and in a way that made me appreciate the subdued and sparse “Hold My Heart.” The remaining three songs further develop his style and the structure you can hear he clearly has an affinity for.
Nino’s music in general has a mainstream appeal to it. That’s not a bad thing but it’s hard to deny. You can hear differing artists like Coldplay and John Mayer in there. While there is little doubt he is stepping into a large arena with a lot of competition he doe it really well. The delivery and songwriting is on par with a lot of larger acts that have a similar style. Check it out and you should know quickly if this is your cup of tea.
Every week we mention a couple of artists that are worth your time to check out that were not featured in our weekly reviews.
Artist Album Rating
Turning In Thanks for the Help 3.4
Earl & the Love Dove Product of Condition 3.7
Glasfabrik Whippersnapper 3.4
REELS Not Now 3.4
Superimposed Flowers on Palestine Atlantis Rising 3.6
Citizen Serenade - Tape One
Marcello Ramirez is an artist from New Jersey who goes by the name Citizen Serenade. He released a four-song demo entitled Tape One. The music felt atmospheric to me but mostly may have had to do with the production. There is no denying the EP is lo-fi but it sounded like the songs were coming from a different room. His vocals especially seemed very distant.
Up first is “Alibi” which revolves around a standard rock setup of drums, bass, guitar and vocals. The drums were very upfront in the mix and largely took up my attention. Lyrically, you can interpret the songs in a number of ways. It seemed to be about a breakup but the meaning is up for interpretation. Ramirez sings, “Tell me what you want from me. You've never been so hard to please. Please don't believe the things you see, cause change will come internally. All I really want is to be free.”
“Park Shade” felt very much like an extension of the first song with a similar aesthetic. The song was pretty catchy overall and I appreciated the ambiguous lyrics. There is a section right before the two-minute-mark which was a formidable build up.
“Ice Bed” isn't nearly as ambiguous when it comes to a breakup and is about a lost love. Ramirez sings, “Mostly, I wonder if I’m gonna see her again when I melt away from this ice bed. Mostly, I wonder if I’m gonna see her again if I may.” He closes with “Great Golden Bird” which was a highlight. The melody was notable and the song had a warm feel to it. I was also very intrigued by the lyrics.
Ramirez has some talent but I have to admit I would have liked to have heard a full band take on these songs and see what could be done with them. The other thing that was hard to get past at times was the recording quality. I thought his vocals should have been front and center. He has a palatable voice that should be the main element. Hopefully we will get to hear some of his songs done in a pro studio at some point. I’m hopeful to hear more soon. Make sure to keep an eye on this artist.
January & June - January & June EP
It would appear that when vocalist Adara Ostdiek moved to Austin, Texas and met rhythm guitarist Carissa Chiu, she had found her musical soulmate. The two became friends and formed Indie/folk rock group January & June. The have released a self-titled album January & June which is full of charm and that covers several topical matters from animal cruelty to depression and suicide. Despite the severity of he issues covered, there is an underlining sweetness and optimism that permeates the entire album.
The music is mellow and soulful. Lots of delicate little elements combined with lovely guitar work create romantic movements that are very satisfying. The sturdy spine that runs through every song on the album is the incredible vocal work. Both Chiu and Ostdiek have excellent vocals skills. Their singing style is subtle and understated, but there's a quiet power in their performances that deliver real depth. The pair are also incredible songwriter. Each song delivers powerful, rich narrative, even when the subject matter is lighthearted. While they consider themselves Indie/folk I would actually say the music expands far beyond that classification. There's a healthy amount of quality pop in their work. The percussion and bass also spice it up with subtle hints of jazz and blues.
The arrangement of the tracks seems very thoughtful and well balanced. The album starts of with "Island" and I was in love. It's a catchy song with surf vibes and sunshine, but they hold all this cheesiness and keep it very genuine. Next up is "Gentle Creatures" which has the serious subject matter of animal cruelty. It definitely takes a more somber tone, but is still a lovely listen.
Track three takes the listener back to a more uplifting place with "Slow It Down" which became my favorite track with it's cool, soulful demeanor. Things slow down again with "My Heart" which features incredible lyrics. "World Is Still Spinning" which I feel like could have serious commercial success potential, is a great mix of catchy and unique. Last but certainly not least is "Tell You" which is bittersweet and fits perfectly into the final slot of the EP. I like that you could cut up the album into the light stuff if you like and have a lively playlist that could work in a plethora of situations.
The cherry on top is the production for the album which will make critics and casual listeners alike take this album seriously and want to hear it over and over again. Front and center is the vocal work, and when the time is right the percussion is pulled in front to create an addictive rhythmic sensation that can't be ignored. The recording process gives the album true commercial appeal.
I really enjoyed this EP. It's an easy listen but not shallow in any way. It is with the subtle details that you will find their distinct finger prints on this genre. I have no way of knowing what the dynamic is between the members of the band, but they have a good mixture of solid talent that from my perspective blends pretty seamlessly together. Here's hoping they're working on their next project.
Pope joan - City Zoo
Back in the day, before we had clever names and acronyms for every little niche piece of life, DIY was just simply the way many bands did things. They were experimenting with making music with the objects at hand and using the resources available to them. Back then no one recorded on a four track because it was cool, they did it because that’s what they could afford.
I was reminded of this epoch of yesteryear due to the lovely Montreal husband and wife duo Sacha and Caleigh Crow. Sacha became fascinated by Lou Reed’s ability to write great three chord songs and get away with being a musical genius.
Then he taught his wife how to play a few chords on the bass and they became a band that write songs which consist of three or four chords and are minimalistic as hell and of course to my ears sounded like an unearthed indie rock time capsule from the ’90s.
They already had me at their name, Pope Joan, and their first release, the five song EP City Zoo tickled my fancy in ways I can’t begin to explain. Okay maybe that sounds a little weird but I’m leaving it cuz I’m a lazy writer. But not so lazy that I won’t elaborate on sheer delightfulness of lo-fi simplicity that has never failed to delight my musical tastes coupled with hints of puck rock aesthetics whose forces are also quietly at work in the background of this record, as are a lot of different musical genres which makes the record a sort of musical kaleidoscope of sorts.
The opening tune “Lucy Says” has all the goofy splendor of Yo La Tengo, charged with a punk rock chagrin of the Sex Pistols. Then comes the stripped to the bone “Take These Hands” which owes a songwriting credit to Bobby Dylan for ripping off “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” It’s pretty lo-fi brilliant.
Then comes the psychotic indie-rock haberdashery of “Sit Beside Me” which gave me goose bumps of bands like Half Japanese and The Kinks just going crazy and throwing out songs left and right and not giving a damn about any sort of narrative flow. This extends into the cryptically beautiful “I Heard Her Sing” which reminded me of the early punch drunkenness of Bob Pollard and his brood. The record closes with the title track “City Zoo” which is straight up thrashing garage-bedroom rock music of the very oldest-school kind.
To me, City Zoo is a reminder that one doesn’t need the biggest box of crayons to make the most colorful drawings. One only needs the basest things and imagination and a whole lot of heart and soul which Pope Joan is chock full of.
Six Leaves Left - Departures
If I could choose to geek out on any recording produced today, that transports me back to a time when this kind of music was all I listened to, it would be Departures, the soon-to-be Shunu Records release from Six Leaves Left. If you’re a fan of instrumental synth and progressive sounds that feel like they could have been written for the Blade Runner soundtrack or maybe a horror flick, then I guarantee you’ll love this album.
But the one-man orchestra, Mauro Corbia, who’s based out of Berlin, Germany, doesn’t make just any old cliché’ soundtrack stuff. There are superb guitar sounds on “Tank” that sound very Prince or Nile Rogers inspired and a Pink Floyd-ish/David Bowie sound (a la his Berlin Trilogy days) on “Falling.” This last number also reminded me of something from the soundtrack to 28 Days Later, one of my absolute favorites.
“Eleadyus” and “Galaxy” definitely have a great soundtrack feel as well and if you check out the video to “Galaxy” on You Tube, I’m pretty sure you’ll be sufficiently creeped out. Slower ballads with a female voice speaking, like in “Paradox” and a tense-filled tempo that made me think of a street scene to some action movie on “Cosmopolis” kept the mid-section of the album engaging.
“Departures” is the longest track and it has some really sad sounding moments, as if someone you love is leaving you. “Tomorrow” kind of feels that way too and it stood apart from the others with a stripped down sound of piano and a little synth effect. But I feel that this added to the variety of sounds and fresh ideas overall. Also, the fact that each song has a one-word title adds mystery and depth to the recording, making it a good concept album as well.
According to the band’s website, Departures won’t be available to purchase until October 13th. It will also be available for streaming and download on Spotify, iTunes, Deezer and Amazon Music. I’ll sure be making a purchase then and look forward to Corbia’s next musical adventure.
Peter M Stewart - Pegras
You know that friend who can turn lemons into lemonade without even trying? That person who can sometimes drive you nuts with their ability to cut through your crabby mood with a razor sharp sword of sunshine? Yeah, I'm usually the one in the crabby mood and then here comes Peter M. Stewart and his new album Pegras. I'm really tickled that I have the pleasure to review this album considering I am a notorious grump. While there is struggle and heartbreak depicted in this album, this is at its core, a feel good album, and I was into it.
Stewart has been around the block when it comes to the music industry. This album comes off as a memoir with him being at peace with the past. There's a little punk, a lot of alt rock, some fresh indie and even Americana touches all bundled together. He's got a great voice that complements the album's aesthetic. He is not afraid to rip his heart out of his chest, leave it beating on the table and then politely tell you how that happened. I appreciate that sometimes he gets into serious storytelling and still manages to find a positive attitude about it in a cheeky, ironic sort of way.
Pegras is downright campy, a little bit too much for me at times, but again, that's his way. He actually named track seven "I Feel Good." The grump in me hissed at it like "oh come on! How dare you!" However it's an awesome track full of full disclosures and I absolutely loved it. Another honorable mention would be "Working at Target" which is just so raw while at the same time catchy. I even appreciate his more bleeding heart, romantic side with songs like "Everyone Lives on a Message." Yeah, he has really turned me into such a sap.
Stewart has let music define his life. He has a slew of influences that mostly have counter culture leanings and interestingly enough we share very similar tastes. Often times, when musicians are guided so heavily by influences, they end up mirroring them a bit too much. This is a conundrum Stewart managed to completely avoid. He's doing his own thing and carving out his own path.
I was fighting this album with every fiber in my grumpy being and in the end, it won me over. I feel I should congratulate Stewart on this achievement, I'm sorry it doesn't come with a statue or prize money. This album is so professional and fully developed that I could see it having broad appeal and commercial success. I wouldn't mind flipping through the radio and hearing these tracks, I would say that's well-earned. I really struggle to pin down exactly what his demographic would be and I always consider that a good thing. I also could see this album being used in a variety of occasions. There is no limit to where I would want to hear these songs. This isn't one of those albums you'd have to hide from certain groups of friends. it's quality stuff. Give it a listen.
Daniel Christian - coffee
Music is a tough business. Making a living as a musician is takes talent, tons of effort and luck - like lots of luck. For Daniel Christian he took the leap almost ten years ago when he quit his job as a high school English teacher.
He plans on releasing two EP’s this year. The first which recently arrived is entitled Coffee. Christian plays into a number of styles but if I had to chose one I would describe it as pop/rock. He mentions artist like Elvis Costello, Weezer and Teenage Fanclub as influences. Those influences weren't obvious to me. The more obvious comparison would be a band like Fountains of Wayne that above all else are about the hooks just like Christian is.
The songs aren’t heavy in an emotional way. For the most part the songs felt light, were easy to appreciate, backyard BBQ type type tunes that could be enjoyed by a wide variety of people. Take for example “A Girl In The Band” which dabbles in a topic that isn’t heady in the least. The title says it all. How having a girl in the band would be advantageous.
“It’s Perfect” is well pretty much perfect power-pop. The song is fast, fun and above all very catchy. “Juliana” felt more just like straight pop to me. I have to admit I preferred “You Don't Know Her” which has hints of bands like Huey Lewis and the News during the verse but once the chorus hits it almost has a ’60s pop feel to it. It somehow worked.
“Bruisin' the Bricks” is arguably the most rocking song on the EP while “Only One” contains some exceptional vocal harmonies. Christian closes with a highlight entitled “Never Wrong” which has a fast moving swing to it.
Coffee is a familiar sounding in plenty of ways but I didn't mind that because of the top notch production and delivery. This is an EP that you mostly enjoy right off the bat or you won’t. You don’t need to take a deep dive. If you are looking for a bunch of well written infectious melodies don't pass this up.
womb bloomer - Skinned - EP
Womb bloomer is the solo effort for Jaden Richeson. Skinned is a six-song EP which was created with what sounds like virtual instruments. It’s not a very organic sounding EP in plenty of ways when it comes to the music. Luckily, the vocals give the music a human component.
The production isn’t jaw dropping but works for what you might call melancholy bedroom pop. It took a little bit of time but the album grew on me. There is some good songwriting that shines through.
The EP opens with “From A Friend” which felt like an intro. Digital crystals play a melody and in the background is indistinguishable chatter. At the very least it got my attention. “Movie” is where we get to hear vocals. The delivery in the vocals is filled with sadness but creates a feeling of solace against the warm sounding synths.
Richeson sings, “I don’t know why It all has to end up like a movie in my mind for me to be fine” which I felt was a subtle yet powerful line. We’ve seen the movies and want it all to work out but sometimes life doesn't end up where you thought.
“Apartment” has a little more energy and sounded somewhere between Lali Puna and Postal Service. The vocals sound great and it's arguably the best beat on the EP.
As the album progressed I was impressed. “Whisper” lasts a little over a minute but is delightful. The more substantial “Silhouette” felt like the centerpiece. It finally hit me here that the music had a lot in common with Youth Lagoon. The closer “Skinned” is a subdued song with contemplative thought.
Richeson is doing a lot of things right. There is uniformity to the songs and there is a nice balance as well. This is a great start. I predict good things to come.
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