Sarah Jane Hargis (flute), Steve Haskin (guitar) and A.J. Montrose (bongos/percussion) are Rio Trio. They recently released Straight to the Top which combines classical, jazz and Brazilian and Latin sounds. I’ve also always loved Brazilian music and this album captures so many aspects that attracted me to that style in the first place. This album also reminded me of Madredeus which is one of my favorite musical ensembles of all time.
The trio is extremely talented in a number of ways. It didn’t take much time at all for me to realize the technical skill of the band. The performances are nuanced, dynamic and crisp. I appreciate technical skill but it’s not the end all be all. When I listen to music I have to find the aesthetics, the patterns of energy, the creativity and perhaps the most importantly the emotion. Rio Trio doesn't disappoint in these areas either.
There was a mix of emotions I was getting when listening. The one I keep coming back to is how soothing and comfortable it made me feel. The flute felt like it was wisping away on the opener “Footprints” and the acoustic guitar and percussion were so locked with each it felt like one instrument.
Some of the songs felt playful and festive like the cover they do of “My Favorite Things.” I was thinking of a humble European town where people were dining outside and children were playing in the street.
Some are more meditative like “Crystal Silence” while others like “Lucky Southern” are romantic and relaxing. There is a nice mix of variation such as “Agua De Beber,” “Nature Boy,” “Look to The Sky” and “My Little Boat.” It’s hard to pick out highlights since I enjoyed all the songs but “Wave” and “Black Orpheus” are in contention.
Overall, I give this album a big two thumbs up. Take a listen.
Oliver James Brooks is a Canadian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from a small town in Ontario. Divide & Conquer reviewed his debut album A Turn in the Bend as well as his single “The Fading House.” He is back with a song entitled “Set Free.” The only info I had about this song was what I read. He mentions, “This song was written in response to the current state of our planet. The turmoil in which we live has reached an unfathomable level that some days it becomes unbearable to even exist.” That’s a very broad statement but I wanted to keep it in mind when listening to the song. The thing that is ironic is that I’ve been reading Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker which was released in 2018 which argues that current times have been our best times compared to the global bloody history of our past.
The song starts with strummed acoustic guitar and within twenty seconds we hear a second lead guitar, bass and drums. Right off the bat I loved how lush and warm the recording felt. The production and recording quality was impressive.
Brooks sounds as good as ever vocally. His delivery is a mix of pensive, heartfelt melancholy and solace. The vocals are the focal point and I was happy that I didn’t have to struggle to figure out the lyrics. I thought the lyrics were broad, similar to the statement I read. He paints the picture that we are living in crazy and uncertain times but we are going to make it somehow. He throws in some poetic language but in general I was getting the vibe that this was a song about perseverance in tough times.
Once the second verse hits he talks about salvation. Brooks sings about being in a place where we don’t get told what to do or what to be. The theme he talks about is general and really can be applied to myriad situations. There are prominent countries which still have totalitarian regimes we are all aware of and in context the US, Canada and many other places could feel like the salvation Brooks is referring to.
The point I’m making here is that it’s relative and what Brooks does here rather brilliantly is use broad language so anyone can imprint their own story into the song. That’s ultimately one of the things that I think makes a great song or even great art. There is a reflection and a sense of understanding between the artist and the one interpreting the art that unite our similarities. Hence, a song like this, even if it’s brief, can make us feel like we are not alone.
Citrus Horse is an indie/alternative/jam band that straddles the Gulf of Mexico. Frontman Alex Laugalis (vocals/guitar/synths/violin) and bassist Daryl Valliant live in Mexico City. Their other two members (and producers), Matt Taylor and Brian Schimke, are based in St. Petersburg, FL. Through the magic of modern technology, they’ve passed the tracks back and forth, crafting them into their debut LP, appropriately titled, Made in Mexico.
Made in Mexico is a concept album, and should be listened to in order. It tells the story of how Laugalis’ (now ex-) girlfriend stabbed him in the kidney with a chef’s knife. Oof. As part of his recovery, Laugalis uprooted to Mexico City, and he’s poured his harrowing experience into the album. Unsurprisingly, the lyrics are a little gruesome, but they’re no more violent than say the Rolling Stones’ Undercover.
It’s a long album (sixty minutes), across just nine tracks, but the jam-band style songs don’t feel like they’re overextended. They’re not indulgent or noodle-y; the group uses varied guitar, keyboard and percussion sounds to give the music shape and direction. Laugalis throws in some “shredding” violin work as well.
As befits a concept album, the tracks connect together. Citrus Horse mixes in some sound effects to easily join the end of one track to the beginning of the next. Note this is a two-sided album: at the end of “Kidney,” these sound effects cleverly include the spoken words “time for the B-side.”
But first, the A side. “Kite” kicks off and it’s instantly engaging. The group delivers an upbeat, grooving number with an old-school soul feel. Melodic bass lines are locked in with pocket drums, colored with little keyboard and guitar fills. Next, “Tiny TV” starts with pop elements, adding some cheery handclaps and violin lines on an accessible vocal melody. The keyboards under the verse give it a bit of a ‘80s feel with drums that evoke Blondie, and guitars that made me think of The Edge. There’s much more: over the eight minutes, they vary the dynamics, instrumentation and soundscape, and the time flies. “Tiny TV” is great and my favorite track on the LP.
The next three tracks on the A side find the music turning slightly darker and heavier, in conjunction with the lyrics (and our singer getting stabbed). As Laugalis says in “Big Pump,” “I don’t think we’ll be laughing about this someday.” In “Kidney” he watches his “organs rearrange.” The music is still upbeat, but by the time we reach the tense, string-filled end of “Kidney” the vocals are understandably screaming in pain.
The B side is a little quieter and more introspective with spacier soundscapes and slower tempos. “Lawnchair” is driven by acoustic guitar with a neat raga-like violin jam on the outro. The instrumental “Run Dootsy” recalls Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell” with its opening guitar figure. The concept wraps up with “Open or Closed” which finds Citrus Horse playing with some electronica textures under some lyrics that are almost tongue-in-cheek.
Made in Mexico was a delightful listen. It sounds great, and the concept holds together well. The final track, the operatic “Milkman,” is a bonus track that’s a prequel to their next project. I look forward to Citrus Horse’s next release, but I’m enjoying this one in the meantime.
The Deer’s Cry is a Nashville, TN based band named after an old Irish prayer. Comprised of Karen Ballew (vocals/Celtic harp/portative organ), Bryan Brock (percussion), Patrick Atwater (double bass) and Will MacLean (banjo), the band also collaborates and records with other musicians. They are releasing their latest album entitled Rise with the Dawn.
Filled with Irish and Celtic influences, these are songs that brandish a pulse brimming with atmosphere and ambience. The deft musicianship on this album carries a sound that largely incorporates the banjo, harp and strings. These soundscapes capture huge moments of light and dark.
Rise with the Dawn opens up with “In Clear Winter’s Night,” where the sounds of the banjo jumpstart this track. The finger-picking on the banjo is evocative. The vocals are crystalline with a clear and startling cadence on this song filled with Celtic and Irish influences. The sound of strings adds a lush accompaniment.
On the title track “Rise with the Dawn,” Ballew’s vocals come in. Her voice is silky and elegant, propelled by emotional power. The soft and mellow cadences arriving from the harp underlines her vocals. The tone is lovely. The sound is soft with a lulling feel to it. This is a quiet track. The cadence of wind instruments also traces this song. The sound is easy-going and laid-back.
The sound from the harp on “Smiling Blue” is riveting. Ballew’s vocals come in in a joyful manner. This is an uplifting track filled with positive notes. Percussions that dress this song gives off an amped feel. Half of the song is sung in Spanish.
Moody cadences of the piano drives “Seeking Worth.” A mellow acoustic track, the sound is dynamic and rich. The piano solely supports the vocals. The piano tune is melancholic and meandering. The vocals arrive in a hushed manner. The tone on this song is quiet and reticent.
On the closer “The Deer’s Cry,” Ballew’s vocals are radiant and filled with light. The cadence really soars. Next, the sounds of the banjo set in. A strong sense of urgency arises. This is a dramatic track. The strings add a stirring tone.
Bursting with a lively vibe coming from the percussions, the first half of the album are soulful jaunts filled with uplifting and energized beats. Jam-packed with an amped feel, these songs are fully charged brimming with an up-keyed vibe. Filled with vibrant undertones, the majority of these tracks will get you moving in no time. The second half contains a soft lilting quality. The effect is lulling like much in a lullaby. The quiet tones will leave you in a contemplative mood to meditate on the moving melodies.
In the vein of Irish, bluegrass, jazz and other world tradition genres, the band members’ unique and intuitive perspectives really add range to all of the tracks on this album. There is a definitive spark that will draw listeners closer to the flame.
Phases is the debut album from Slumbernaut, a Wales-based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. It’s a long EP (or short LP, depending on your view) where he’s done it all: writing, performing, engineering, mixing and mastering all in his home studio.
Slumbernaut tells us that he wanted to create “a full, cohesive piece of music that could be played from start to finish” with an “eager focus on harmony and instrumentation” and he delivers just that. The tone of the album is consistent throughout with tracks driven by guitar, bass and drums. Layered-on vocals and keyboards give a thick, dreamy soundscape. He uses different effects (especially on the electric guitars) to vary the texture as he develops the musical themes.
Songs tend to have a few different sections and reflect a variety of influences. There are Latin guitars and rhythms, Beatles-y organs and pianos, and an old-school ‘80s square-wave synth sounds throughout. Slumbernaut’s talent lies in pulling all of these together into a whole that makes sense. Further, he keeps the arrangements tight: even with multiple sections to a composition, he thankfully resists the urge to prattle.
The first of the seven tracks, “Solis” fits the blueprint above. An a cappella start moves into an upbeat, poppy rock song and a Latin-themed, acoustic guitar-driven coda. The guitar ending of “Solis” connects directly to the start of the next track “Taste of Spring”. It’s an upbeat pop number that opens a window into the Welsh countryside: the track finishes with bird noises and a classically-styled upright piano etude. The birds give way to crazy chatter at the start of “Luna” as Slumbenaut asks us, “what seems to be the problem?” over a guiro and cool Latin rhythms. The soaring vocals are a particular highlight here.
My two favorite tracks are “Learning to Fall” and “Stellae.” “Learning to Fall” starts as an airy track with piano, plucked guitar and layered vocals just washing over your ears. It builds in intensity with well-effected guitars picking up earlier themes. “Stellae” is Slumbernaut’s take on a lilt: upbeat with the expected layered harmonies and airy textures.
Phases is an enjoyable spin. As he says on “Stellae”--“catch these notes and swallow.”
Abby Sullivan is a singer/songwriter based out of a quiet town outside of Boston, MA. Music has long been a conduit for her expressions. The majority of her youth was spent writing songs and attending concerts. The past year, she graduated from Ithaca College with a B. M. Sound Recording Technology degree which allowed her to grow as a performer as well as a recording engineer – two of her biggest passions. Aside from academic choir participation and open mics, Sullivan spent time gigging around Ithaca, NY with her band East Coast Summit before they graduated. Now she is ready to embark on her own solo adventures. The artist is releasing her self-produced four-track EP entitled Posture.
In the singer/songwriter vernacular, these are intimate tracks filled with range. Sullivan sings with a vulnerability that ties into the sensitivity permeating these tracks. Soft and meandering melodies pulsate through these piano-driven songs. Sullivan sings from a raw standpoint of honesty and authenticity. Suited for indie pop and alternative lovers, these tracks will appeal to fans of the above genres.
Posture opens with “Dreamcatcher” which is a piano-based track. The piano melodies are dynamic. A bit of drums and percussions sizzles in. Sullivan’s vocals are brimming with vulnerability. The performance is intimate. A strong sense of urgency undulates on this song. The piano tune is melancholy-tinged with a moving vibe. A smooth lounge feel pervades. Sullivan scats towards the close of this track.
Vocal harmonies soar out in the start of “Hindsight.” Sullivan’s vocals are alone supported by the piano. The piano melody courses through this song. Synths also take into effect on this track. The lines, “Watch my back / I back away” is repeated throughout the song. The words really reverberate on this track, which involves “the emotional processing of a toxic relationship.” The piano tune is somber sounding. This is a sparse song with a stripped-down feel.
An evocative piano melody takes place towards the start of “Untitled.” The sounds are soulful and pleasing filled with an inviting tone. The pacing on this album really picks up here. The beat on this piece is less slow sauntering and livelier. Sullivan’s vocals are reverb-drenched.
On the closer, “Lavender Walls,” the cadences of the piano and xylophone is mixed together. The track contains a bluesy lounge vibe. The synths add an airy aspect to this song.
At the focal point of these songs are Sullivan’s vocals. Her voice commandeers these tracks and are soulful and smooth all at once. Connecting listeners with her candid and sincere performances, what you see is what you get. These are no illusions with these straightforward songs about different types of relationships: toxic and healthy both with others and oneself. Sullivan goes above and beyond with these heartfelt numbers. Take a listen!
Sean Miller is a singer/songwriter from Petoskey, Michigan who, in the last four years, has primarily played across the state with his band The Real Ingredients. He also recently released a single entitled “Pour Out Your Love.” He originally wrote and recorded the song about two years ago for his girlfriend as a Christmas present but has released it to the world leading up to his album release in April. I have to say this does feel like a song you might write for someone you are in a romantic relationship with. It’s warm, intimate and inviting
The song fits into the singer/songwriter genre and hits a lot of the typical criteria that are associated with it. It has a sensitive, tender and heartfelt type of vibe that covers you with a blanket of melancholy. I would say it also contains inviting overtones that might make you comfortable and perhaps can even provide solace. The concoction of emotions is nothing new and was cooked to near perfection by artists like John Mayer, Jack Johnson and many more. That being said Miller certainly displays his talent with this song in terms of songwriting and delivery.
The song begins with a strummed guitar chord progression, vocals and atmospheric orchestral strings. MIller’s vocals stay within a comfortable singing range. I would say it's a mixture of emotion coming from his voice. It felt very reflective and full of gratitude. That combined with the lyrics I think gives a fairly overt signal.
He seems to be saying something like “it’s ok to let go and love, I’m open.” It’s a sentiment I think a lot of people might want to say to a romantic partner at some point. I think getting to know someone is a difficult process especially if you have been burnt in the past like most people have. Even when someone says something like “you can trust me” it’s hard. On that note the song might be an open door of sorts.
The song ends with the mood it starts with and the dynamics are subtle. I felt the instrumentation was there to elevate the vocal performance and become the focal point.
Suffice it to say this is a song that has mass appeal because it’s something a lot of people can relate to. Take a listen.
Planet Waves is a four-piece rock n’ roll outfit composed of William Bendix (percussion), Alex Sanchez-Stern (bass), Lindsay Ford (vocals/guitar) and Tony Ford (vocals/guitars/harmonica) currently residing in Southern California. They recently released their debut self-titled album Planet Waves which contains twelve songs.
The songs are fairly straightforward rock that doesn't seem to take itself too seriously. I felt the general vibe was fun and raw. On top of that I noticed a ’70s flavor to most of the songs.
Take for instance the opener “Hazy Hills” which felt like a summer jam. The melodies are memorable and there is a breezy feel to the music like you should roll down your windows and ride. Out of the twelve songs I felt there were some highlights.”Marty” felt like a single. It’s just a catchy tune that will get stuck in your head and you might find yourself singing it in the shower.
“Losing My Mind” has a ’70s funk quality that was really cool. I especially liked the guitar and bass work on the verse. “Be Your Fool” had an ’80s college rock quality that I enjoyed quite a bit while the folk/rock fusion on “Gobstopper” showcases Tony Ford on lead vocals.
“Autumn Blues” is definitely more blues oriented and sounds great - the harmonica, the vocals and the whole band. They close with the nostalgic and reflective “Good Things” which was a good way to land. There is a bit of a Mazzy Star vibe here.
The album is on the lo-fi side. My only critique was that I wanted a little more clarity and separation on some of the songs.
Overall, I found this is a great release that is packed with stellar songwiriting and top notch performances. There is plenty I found to appreciate on this release and think you might too. Take a listen.
Adam Fligsten is a composer based in Los Angeles, California and he creates music for film, television, games and commercial work. He recently released We Will Open the Distant Worlds.
He mentions “This is the soundtrack for a video game set in the ’80s on a Soviet spacecraft” and he used vintage synths to create them. I feel like it’s important to mention the culture phenomenon Stranger Things. If you are of the many people who got hooked on that show and the soundtrack you will surely appreciate We Will Open the Distant Worlds. The tones, textures and sounds all seem to come from '80s synths like the famous Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and Roland Jupiter-8 synthesizer.
There is a nostalgia factor depending on how old you are which again relates to Stranger Things. Personally, I was a kid in the ’80s and although a little foggy I certainly remember these types of sounds coming into my conscious mind.
There are a whopping twenty-four tracks and for the most part it feels like different scenes in a movie. That being said there are some songs with vocals such as “So Far Away.” The soundscapes range from awe inspiring to ominous, to fun and more. Suffice it to say there are a lot of different moods
Take for instance “Ice From Mars” which sounds a lot like the title. It’s visual and you can practically feel the cold on your feet. “Memoriae Laika” feels haunting and ominous in comparison as if you are walking through a graveyard full of ghouls and ghosts.
“Of Binary Attack” creates tension as if troops are getting ready for battle. You can probably guess what you might feel after hearing the title “Feeling of Celestial Anxiety.”
It makes perfect sense Fligsten is working in film and video games. I would have been able to figure that out without reading it. That being said I sometimes prefer to just listen to music rather than watch the video. There is something to say for where your own imagination can take you when listening to music. I suggest exploring that terrain with these songs.
Night Thieves is a rock band from London, UK that formed in late 2017 consisting of Jess Moyle (vocals), Paul Andrew (guitar), Rick Wall (bass) and Jamie Parker (drums). The band recently released Battle Cry.
They mention “Every story begins with chaos or adventure, which sets the theme and tone to the lyrics, and contains underlying messages prevalent/relevant to our current times.” I feel like that’s a pretty broad statement so I was trying to find specific topics in the lyrics. The lyrics however are broad so I wasn’t able to pick anything much more specific than that.
The music has a serious tone and is emotionally heavy. Bands like Evanescence, Linkin Park and Tool came to mind. Night Thieves come out of the gate with no build up on “Numero Uno.” The guitars are sometimes heavy and filled with distortion and other times serene and covered in reverb. I would say the drumming is consistently intense. The band does a good job exploring dynamics and I appreciated the performance all around. They sounded very tight and in the pocket.
Next up is “Battle Cry” and this is a song with a broad topic you can apply to myriad situations whether it’s getting ready to play in a volleyball game or trying to do a hundred push ups in a row. The song is pretty straightforward with a palatable verse and a more intense and rocking chorus as well as a breakdown.
They continue with “In This City (Say Never)” which perhaps brings a little levity to the overall vibe I was feeling. The chorus is heavy and intense but the verse felt fun and catchy in comparison. I enjoyed the juxtaposition.
“Stop. Start” felt very motivated when it came to lyrics. The song rocks hard but is certainly dynamic with a lot of transitions to keep the song moving.
Overall, I felt this was a mix of pop/hard rock and metal. This is a strong debut and I think fans of some of the aforementioned will appreciate the energy the band brings to the table.
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