Drumming Bird - Ocoee
Ocoee is the second full-length release from Nashville, TN-based Drumming Bird, led by frontman/guitarist/singer Austin Sawyer. He describes the album as a “love letter to East Tennessee” with lyrical imagery set around the small town that shares its name with the album.
Instrumentation on Ocoee is straight-ahead Americana. Drumming Bird uses vocals, guitars (acoustic and electric), bass, drums and the classic keyboard sounds: piano, electric piano and a variety of organs. Most vocals are handled by Sawyer; nice female backing work is sprinkled throughout. There aren’t many surprises; the radio-friendly album was recorded in central Tennessee, and reflects that typical sound.
It’s well-executed, to be sure. Arrangements are planned and taut, and serve the catchy songs well. “Nights Turn to Nothing” is a great example of this with its layers of piano, organ and slide guitar backing a lovely vocal duet which builds up into a just-right guitar lead. “Weekend Fisherman,” too, changes its texture throughout with nicely-effected slide guitar and a wash of backing vocals adding continued interest underneath the story. Upon repeated listenings of Ocoee, you’ll discover your own little easter eggs, such as the tinkly piano on the second verse of “Living On Your Own.”
For this genre, lyrics are key, and those on Ocoee are generally strong. Some are insightful (“Putting up with a heart of gold is hard” / “Living on your own is cool till everyone’s gone”), and some paint a picture of East Tennessee life (“Sunset cast fire upon the river” / “You were a weekend fisherman, a lousy caster”). Drumming Bird’s imagery puts us right in the story.
If I’d change anything on the record, it would be the mix. For me, the vocals are just a bit low--I want to hear the stories a bit more clearly. The title track, especially, was muddy: the drums are buried, and there seems to be some distortion with the mastering. It’s an odd result, given how the rest of the album is so nicely balanced.
These comments aside, Ocoee is an enjoyable spin. These are well-crafted, well-played songs that celebrate small-town Tennessee life. Well done!
Jesse Pomeroy - Amara
Jesse Pomeroy divides his time between the worlds of music and film, as a tech for Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole and Martin Page to garnering an Emmy nomination for sound-editing the Netflix series “When They See Us” and directing the indie horror flick “Hell Mountain.” Now due to the pandemic, he had plenty of time to write and record original music in the vein of “love ‘em/hate ‘em tunes.” Amara is an 11-track album that sees Pomeroy bearing down on an indie rock, power pop and punk pop sound, flexing through the genres with deftness and pomp.
Amara gets moving with sparse guitar riffs that swirl in the backdrop as some melodic vocals reels this song in. Next, the music grows in attitude as a drumming beat brings in a grittier vibe. The vocals become bigger and badder as Pomeroy shouts out the lyrics with gusto.“What A Girl Can Do” starts off to an upbeat start. Simply rendered with a guitar riff, drumming beat and vocals, Pomeroy keeps to a stripped sound. Next, the vibes become more adamant and hard-hitting as the music becomes more revved in spirit. The bouncy beats and groove feel amped and invigorating. More of Pomeroy’s charged energy plays itself out on the title track “Amara.” The vibrant beats set the tone. The number proves catchy and upbeat in groove.
Starting out with the stripped sounds of only vocals, Pomeroy’s distorted voice are placed on the forefront of “Eve.” Once the instrumentals come in, a more surf rock comes across from the psychedelic guitars. Pomeroy dives right in with a full sound with vocals and music. A bit of funk and island flavors could also be detected. Pomeroy struts more of his vocal abilities with the acoustic song “Supergirl.” The track, though minimally arranged, felt very emotional. I greatly enjoyed his spirited vocals here. On “Lizard Queen,” blaring guitars and a drumming beat makes its way on this song. The vocals are filled with flourish and verve on this classic rock n’ roll number. On “Gone Moved On,” a revving drumming beat takes the song to the forefront. With great flair, the instrumentals are executed. The vocals come across equally impassioned. This felt like a great pop punk track to get moving to. The synths go on to feed into the energized pulse. The sounds of waves crashing to the shoreline opens up “Tomorrow (Amara).” A melodious piano tune courses through this track. Simply accompanied by piano, Pomeroy’s smooth vocals make their way into the song. Listeners will be drawn to his riveting delivery.
As a one-man-band, the album features Pomeroy handling most of the project himself from writing, performing and producing everything on his own. Keeping things DIY and independent allowed Pomeroy total control over the making of this record. I thought a lot of the decisions behind the making of this album really went on to capture the spirit of punk and rock during the ‘90s that were popularized by such bands like Green Day and Weezer. I give him props for keeping the flame alive and all the while paving the way for more contemporary acts that follow in a similar vein. While he does little to redefine what has been done over and over again, staunch enthusiasts of tradition will find something familiar yet accessible in Pomeroy’s latest album. Amara sees an artist doing what he knows and loves best and backing it with an energy that borders on infectious. I look forward to seeing what’s up next for the artist.
I have often found that the themes of an album are often very broad. There are countless subjects packed into an album like love, hope and more so that the album starts to feel like it’s about everything under the sun. There’s something to be said about an album that has laser focus. This brings me to Terminator 1984: A Musical Tribute by Andrew Hetherington. The album title says it all. Hetherington mentions, “Inspired by Terminator the 1984 sci-fi movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger this musical tribute delivers all the drama and excitement from the movie in ten well-crafted instrumentals that could easily be mistaken for a real soundtrack.
I haven’t seen the original movie in a long time but there are some obvious things that should be included within the music. The soundtrack should have an ’80s feel, it should have a sci-fi quality and it should have some adrenaline inducing moments. I would say Terminator 1984: A Musical Tribute successfully pulls this off.
The album starts off with “Cyborg” and sort of melds classical and ’80s synths. It’s one of the more cinematic big blockbuster type of songs. The mood gets more ambient and sci-fi with “Who is Sarah Connor?” while “Tech Noir” sounds similar to ’80s new wave bands and is a dance worthy song.
“Run for Your Life” is more ominous and tense as if you were lost on an alien planet. The next song “The Rise of the Machines'' felt like a crescendo in the film with big budget CGI effects. “Cyberdyne Systems 101” felt like a journey through subterranean lairs while ‘I’ll Be Back” is jammed pack with layers of music. “(He’s) Unstoppable” sounds just like it sounds. I had to laugh when I read the title of the next song “Crushed (You’re Terminated F****r!).” Last up is “A New Destiny” which is atmospheric and serene.
This was a fun and unique record. In a very general way this felt to me like it could have been used in a sci-fi movie from the ’80s. It felt cohesive and like a soundtrack that would accompany a film. Recommended.
Nightbird Casino - Gregorian Nap
Gregorian Nap is the culmination of three years of material written between 2017-2020 by James Moore and Don Shepherd better known as Nightbird Casino. The album mixes elements of post-punk, alternative and shoegaze.
There are thirteen tracks and the album comes in around forty-seven minutes. I felt there was a lot happening on this release and quite a lot to take in. There are many killer grooves but also a lot of atmosphere which comes in the form of a long hall reverb.
A track like “Pole Line Road '' is one of the more kinetic tracks that takes post-punk and integrates some more modern aesthetics. The song drives but also has a good amount of space. I liked the juxtaposition between the guitars and the rhythm section. The vocal harmonies are on point and memorable.
On the very next song entitled “Symmetrical Electrical'' we get a much more submerged type of vibe not unlike something you might hear from a band like Radiohead. The song is melancholy but also provides some solace. The band Local Natives also came to mind.
As the album progresses there is quite a variety and the duo goes in clear directions to my ears. Some songs seem more clearly influenced by certain genres. There are even some songs which go in a more classical contemporary direction like “Cotopaxi.” I loved this song but it really sounds like a completely different artist. In fact I think an entire album in this style should be food for thought.
One of the highlights was “Birmingham.” I thought the instrumental aspect was unique and so was the singing. It hit an ambiguous vibe I really enjoyed that felt psychedelic and absurd. The horns in this song were great!.
This album felt a little disjointed at times but there are certain moments where everything comes together perfectly. I would say this is a great album overall with out of the box thinking and approach which pays off.
Dealers Choice - Dealers Choice
Dealers Choice is a five-piece band from British Columbia. The group uses a classic-rock instrumentation: vocals/lead guitar (Ben Thorne), rhythm guitar/backing vocals (Jim Burnham), keyboards (Kurtis Hall), bass (Garrett Armitage) and drums (Gavin May). This self-titled album Dealers Choice is their first release.
The band tells us that they aim to bring back “authenticity” and “guts and glory” in their writing and performing. For Dealers Choice, this means riff-based, bluesy classic rock. They clearly incorporate elements of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Bob Seger and possibly Great White and Jackyl. The keyboard parts and occasionally patronizing lyrics (“You Only Get One Life,” for instance) recall Richrath-era REO Speedwagon (or maybe Spinal Tap?).
Whatever influence you hear, the band is clearly having fun. Singer Thorne sets the tone right from the get-go (“Too Many Freaks”), where everyone gets a solo--and a shout out (“Kurtis, play that thing!” “Cmon Jimmy!”). He dusts the rest of the record, too (“all right, let’s go!”, “all right, here we go!”, “that’s right, get it!”, “excuse me while I whip this out”, “oh, get with it baby”), proudly carrying Bret Michaels’ torch.
There are some good moments on the record, and Dealers Choice knows its blues riffs. The wah guitar and shout-along chorus on “Too Many Freaks” are fun. The band shows great restraint in letting the slow minor blues of “Downtown Shakedown” breathe with Hall adding in his best keyboard work. That track’s middle section harkens back to the Doors’ “LA Woman” with the best guitar solos on the disc.
Here and there, the band veers off a bit; in general the arrangements could be tighter. Live, it’s fine to pass solos around; they can even be a bit rambly and squishy. On a record, instrumental parts should aim higher. They should be memorable and have something to say--some solos on Dealers Choice meander.
There are a few odd moments that stuck in my ear. “Hard to Say Goodbye” starts off with a fine, Chicago-like piano part, but once the guitars come in, it’s a bit of a farrago. The string-bends on the right side don’t work, and I’m not sure what the left-side guitar is doing. It distracts from what’s an otherwise fine chorus. The guitar figure under the later verses of “Been Around Enough to Know” is a bit awkward, too, and fills up a lot of space. I’d love to hear them do a slower, opened-up version of the song.
These notes aside, Dealers Choice clearly know who they are, and what they want to be. This album is a good first step along their journey.
Almost August - Avoid the Mess
Avoid The Mess is a remote collaboration between Jamey Cummins of Austin, Texas and Tony Logan of Iowa City, Iowa. They originally played together in the indie rock band Maylane and have several Bandcamp releases, playing everything from straight rock to vintage jazz.
They describe Avoid The Mess as “an indie rock album dripping in ’90s nostalgia! Lots of layered guitars and keyboards.” Their influences range from “indie shoegaze, alternative rock and quirky pop culture references.” Most tracks were built instrumentally using Garage Band with Cummins laying down vocals at the end. Without credits, it’s impossible for me to know who’s playing what, especially as Garage Band’s samples can be quite realistic. I will say the vocals are more than serviceable (though bathed in heavy reverb) and the crunchy guitars are excellent.
Lyrically, Almost August say they never take themselves too seriously - even stating that their words cover everything “from video games to video games” - but they also want the listener to feel something. Mixing and mastering were overseen by Austin Sister at Eastside Music Studios in Austin after the original tracks were copied to Pro Tools. The boys had access to “a plethora of great compressors, pre amps, reverb units, etc.!” Though the overall sound feels heavily compressed, the instruments and songs usually share the sonic space nicely, though sometimes leaning toward overload.
“Altered” opens the album in a deliberately downbeat mode, sounding both retro and modern simultaneously. Vocals are spread across the tracks like syrup, blending nicely with the music but hard to decipher. The guitar is brittle and distorted but equally pleasing.
The upbeat “Dead End Street” feels like a hit single and has a kinetic, poppin’ video on youtube with fast motion time-lapse highways, skyscapes, crowds and even some “Tron”-like visuals; I love the 90’s style jangly guitar on this one. “Warmer” is jam-packed with Smashing Pumpkins-style fuzz riffs with an aggressive rocking beat.
“Flies Have Conquered Flypaper” (winner for best title!) is a mid-tempo rocker with a beautifully constructed major-to-minor chord scheme and gorgeous stacked harmonies. “Trash Panda” is a clever high energy rocker with a stutter-y beat and wall-to-wall lyrics sung quickly and sardonically. Though fun, the clarity of the instruments here suffers a bit.
“Always Hallways” (another great title) slows things down for a contemplative, spooky song about dreams and nightmares, the kind where you’re late for work, school or basically life. “Another dream in which I’m running and I get nowhere / Another moment and I’ll have it figured out, I swear / I’m in this building like a school or maybe it’s a mall / I’m always late, I’m always last, I’m always in this hall.” Twisted and creepy piano breaks adorn this quickly-paced track, if again overloaded in spots.
“Inbetween” channels Billy Corgan in the chorus vocal sections. All the elements seem fine here, but somehow don’t mesh quite as well as in previous songs. Maybe just a bit too busy? “Ant Zelda” is a fun (and funny) tune in the tradition of the Monkees “Auntie Grizelda.” “Ant Zelda has a hairy back / if the kids don’t do what she says / Smack!” A shorter tune, just long enough to make the point.
“In The Sun” has a great driving fuzz riff worthy of Sugar, or (dare I say it) Smashing Pumpkins, and is one of my favorites. Cummings’ vocal puts me in mind of singer/songwriter Paul Williams, a comparison I’m sure he’ll find puzzling. Glorious circular lead break toward the end.
Appropriately titled, “The Bottom Drops Out” concludes the album. “We’re going out in style” Cummins sings, as their guitars slam and wail in manic abandon with an awesome lead guitar section and a surprising piano and birdie conclusion.
Though I really liked most of these songs, I’m on the fence about whether Almost August pushed some of them too hard in terms of the mastering. In my mind’s eye, I kept seeing a waveform that's a total block of sound without any peaks and valleys, but that may be exactly what they wanted. The riffs and melodies are certainly there, even if the words are sometimes hard to catch, so I’d call this a Win. Finally, I gotta compliment their weird and interesting cover photo of a pathetic ice cream stand beside a telephone pole, which somehow captures the music quite well.
Holy Star - To Be One
Holy Star is a visual project created by Jacob Ramsey. He recently released To Be One which is six songs and around seventeen minutes long. The songs sound more so than anything very electronic. To my ears this was the sound of modern DAW with virtual instruments working together to create captivating soundscapes.
The album starts with “Limiter” and we get some kind of AI repeating the words “the human form is limiting.” Musically, everything sounds very metallic and sterile like I was bouncing around the substrate of a computer. There was almost no warmth to the song which made it feel cold and disconnecting. There are some similarities to Burial and Oneohtrix Point Never.
Up next is “Frankenstein” which is again very cold sounding. The beat here is a little more consistent but fairly straightforward 4/4. “Manchu III” has some actual rapping against a darker and ominous soundscape.
“GraveDigger” is similar to “Frankenstein” and revolves around a straight 4/4 beat that is surrounded by colder sounding elements like white noise, warmly synths and more. “Crush 99” is a solid in the batch but ends a little too soon. Last up is “EggMan” and is the best track on the release. It’s a little more unpredictable and gets into avant garde territory.
This music is in similar territory to Oneohtrix Point Never, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Tim Hecker and similar like-minded artists. I thought there were some solid ideas here although I think he can go even deeper down the rabbit hole with experimentation which is where I think his strength lies.
I mentioned there is a cold like quality to the songs. In this case I think that was by design but still digital is well known to feel cold compared to a medium such as tape. My only critique for the artist would be to think about utilizing a tape saturation plugin. There are frequencies particularly between 150hz and 300hz which can introduce warmth which allow the listener to turn up the volume without ear fatigue. I think utilizing Low Pass Filter and removing some of the high end would have benefited the recording as well.
I enjoyed this release and it certainly points to an artist with a lot of potential. I’m excited to hear where he goes from here.
The Wandering Found is the project from Thomas Yonke. He apparently read a book that inspired him to form the project. They recently released the self-titled album The Wandering Found. It contains themes and lyrics that I think could only come from someone in their early 20’s. I’m well past my 20’s but all of these songs seem to be about the fears and concerns you might have around that age.
The album starts with “Restart” and, man, was this an intense way to start the album. I actually thought the song sounded too fast. It was almost like they were rushing. The song is dynamic and he starts basically singing about the future. HIs lyrics are very straightforward but effective.
The next song “Foolish and the Few” also sounds a little fast. It’s a song about reflection, fears and just sort of the normal emotions people feel. “The Wedding Table” is literally about a wedding. Up next is “Quit Your Day Job” which is the arguable highlight. It’s a little straightforward rock and definitely one of the better vocal performances.
“Ad Sumus” kind of continues this philosophical pondering about the direction of your life one would have after graduating college. This song again feels a little too fast and it’s almost like they are bypassing the emotion because of that. “So Far to Go” felt fast but the BPM felt like it fit the song. There is some distortion on the vocals and this was easily another of the better performances from the vocalist. I liked the grit of the song.
That is followed with “All Who Wonder” which continues with this existential pondering that is covered in thoughtful motivation. I was expecting a dramatic ballad to close out the album and that’s what I got. It revolves around piano and vocals and also has this wholesome quality.
A lot of this album felt like self-help in the spirit of Tony Robbins or other similar figures. The lyrics are straightforward instead of poetic and metaphorical throughout this album which adds to this quality. In fact the album cover feels very appropriate.
My only critique is the recording quality. This type of music benefits from studio quality fidelity and generally speaking this was a lo-fi recording. I would say some songs worked better than others in this area.
I've heard this type of style and aesthetics quite a bit over the last two years. If you're looking for something reflective, philosophical and motivational, I think you might appreciate this release.
Gabriel Douglas - Darker Still
Darker Still is the new album from Gabriel Douglas. Before hearing a word, I kwas interested in hearing how dark this album got. The music revolves around mostly acoustic guitar and vocals and the somber tone is consistent throughout, even when the lyrics are hopeful.
The album gets going with “Hearts Want'' and you are greeted with a couple of strummed chords and a lamenting vibe throughout. There really isn’t much change in terms of the music as it progresses and it sets the mood for the rest of the songs.
Douglas displays his vocal chops a little more on “Get Up, Fed Up, Yup.” I liked the sound of his voice in this range. The lyrics were pretty straightforward. Next up is “Holding Patterns” and is another song where I really enjoyed his vocals. We get an organ type interlude with “Dark”.
On “How To Make A Home (Somebody To Call)” he strums a little harder and there was a little more vigor. The album continues with “Morning’s Coming,” “I Want More (Make It Beautiful) and “Making Changes (Making The Grade, Making You), (Ain’t Gonna Fight (You Are Enough)” and all sounded very similar in terms of tone and color. “Darker Still” is the centerpiece and moves at a snail's pace. It revolves around a couple sparse notes on organ and vocals. The tape hiss was overwhelming at times and he gets melodramatic with the vocals.
Musically, there just wasn’t much happening on this album. There are a lot of strummed chords and that’s really about it. I wanted some more variation by the time I got to the third track. His vocals and storytelling are the strength of the album. This music is reminiscent of I See a Darkness by Will Oldham or Benji by Sun Kil Moon. If you are into those albums this album should resonate with you.
Man And Things - Wondrous
Man And Things is a musical project by Robert Ranaldi. He’s a prolific artist and his latest is a five-song EP entitled Wondrous. He says, “Wondrous is a collection… written and recorded during late 2019 and early 2020. The idea behind this collection was to take a minimalist approach to the writing and arranging but also to draw out the lushness of the tunes.” After I listened to the music I had a better understanding of what he meant by that.
The album starts off with “It's Story Time” and I was getting some heavy vibes that seemed similar to The Beatles. It didn’t really feel like a fleshed out song in a traditional way. There are some distant angelic vocals and then this section with serene guitars. I really liked this song..
“Feeling Streams” was more fleshed out but is also a slower and chill song that felt like late night lounge music. It starts off very soft and the dynamics are soft as if any jarring movement would completely disrupt the song. There are digital horns that come in a little after the one-minute mark. The horns fit the song. There is a smooth and sweet guitar picking as the songs sort of drifts away.
“A Wonder For You And Me ” revolves around rolling drums, organ and great guitar riff. This song contains the best vocal work I have from heard from Ranaldi. “I Know Something You Don't" builds on minimalism and disparate instrumentation. The experimentation right off the bat are the strongest on this EP in a number of ways. I thought this song seemed very original.
“Just Drive” and it starts off with a great guitar melody. This song is a little more experimental but not too much so. It felt like an improvised jazz/blues/folk jam. On "Cry Me A Funny One" he utilizes guitar and synths while "Side to Side" sounds like a full band. The mood turns lush with "Try Dreaming Again" and stays lush with the closer "Smile
I would say Wondrous the strongest releases from Ranaldi. I feel like the sum of its parts is stronger than the individual songs so I recommend listening from beginning to end.
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