Born in Dublin, Ireland and now residing in Brooklyn, New York, the folk singer/songwriter John Cathal O’Brien began playing guitar and writing songs at an early age. In the past he has played in several traditional Irish bands but at a certain point decided to focus on his solo career. If you’re thinking here that you should stop reading because you think this is going to be a traditional Irish folk singer full of sad drinking songs and refrains to be sung along to, first of all shame on you and secondly it’s not like that at all. O’Brien has released several albums to date and his latest offering is called These Borders.
The opening song “Cures” proves that this is not going to be a happy-sad ride of songs that will make you cry into your beer, but rather some very somber and stripped-down solo recordings that are at times hauntingly brilliant. By the second song, “Tavern” I was feeling that O’Brien was akin to such slow folk balladeers as Damien Jurado and Dan Mangan. The song is so simple yet so gripping. There’s this ethereal backing musicianship to it and a slightly shy eminence of female backing vocals which really makes the song so much more than it would have been without them. These are the small intricacies which so many other harbingers of the solo craft fail to recognize.
Later, on the album’s crown jewel of a song, the six-minute epic “Falling Life” the ghostly haze that is the backdrop to O’Brien’s acoustic guitar and vocals plays such an important part in giving off a ghostly presence which serves to add posterity to his melancholic story-song lyrics. Even when the song’s tone is less dramatic, as it is on the folksier closer “Winter” the backing effects just help to add so much more depth to the song.
These Borders is one of the best records by a solo-acoustic singer/songwriter that I have heard in a long while, and I have heard a lot. John Cathal O’Brien brings a lot more to his songs than just a guitar and vocals; he brings the whole record. These Borders is a result of what it means to hone a craft and the fruit that hard work bears.
The Portland, Oregon based band St. Love Revolts took a long time to record their self-titled debut record St. Love Revolts. However the trio of vocalist Blue, guitarist and bassist Craig McCord, and percussionist, Kyle MacLowry have been playing together for years leading up to this release and one notices how important that is right away on St. Love Revolts.
The band have an easiness about the way they play that could only have come from being together for a long time and learning how to gel with one another. From the powerfully beautiful vocals to the well-orchestrated strings and percussion, the songs have a natural flow to them, but one gets the sense that these have been chiseled and picked at relentlessly.
The opening track “Bad Makes” is a slow worn song of melodic beats and deeply rich vocals. This slow and somber way of working continues on “Take the Fall.” It has this hypnotic quality to it and also a cool sexiness like that of a love song but not one in which the lover is pining but rather is giving out a list of demands. The whole song itself is based around a guitar riff that just rips it up the whole time.
St. Love Revolts is an album of many layers. It’s a record that for me was hard to pin down as to what sort of category to put it in, but it has so many nuances from folk, to pop, to rock and jazz but I wouldn’t call it a hybrid of any of these genres. Take the wonderful song “Ponderosa” which is a veritable feast of music and vocal showmanship which also sounds like something that could be labeled performance art. They follow this up with “Stumptown” which is a wonderful ode to their hometown. It’s vibrancy and exoticness reminded me a lot of Stereolab. Later they put on a twangy lo-fi show on “When Our Ship Comes In,” and then blow it out of the water with the balls out rock closer, “Natural Consequences.”
St. Love Revolts may be a first record but it plays like a compilation of a band honing its sound over a period of years, like a retrospective. It just serves to show how well these musicians are able to shape songs from so many genres so well.
Mermaid Avenue calls Brisbane, Australia their home. They released their debut album Temptaion and Half The Truth in early August of 2018. Merging the sounds of each distinct era of alternative, some country and a certain melancholy in their delivery Mermaid Avenue has created a sound that will appeal to listeners for being both familiar and fresh.
The fourth track on the album, and the album’s namesake, starts with repeated guitar chords that underline a monologue. As the other instruments join, the room seems to open up behind the band. The space that they are taking up goes from a small bedroom to a foyer. The energy also jumps from a walk on the beach to a brisk walk to meet a late bus.
The switch is seamlessly and effortlessly by Mermaid Avenue, a quality of theirs that made listening to this album more than once a necessity. When the organ finally joins in, there are still two minutes for the well timed combination of instruments to take the listener on a complete journey.
As that journey fades, a few tracks down the album is “Caroline.” A much more hard rocking song with a boogie feeling to it, the energy is as high as ever as the band takes off on a tear to drive this song right into the hearts of listeners. The piano is what adds the needed spice that the song uses to carry itself from a good song to a really good one. The solo that carries the song to a close is as lively as any rock piano solo played before it. It sets the tone for the final two songs on the album incredibly well, carrying listeners into it with the energy that is needed to finish the album strong.
A hard hit of classic ’90s alternative, the time since its hey-day has allowed Mermaid Avenue to fine-tune the sound. It sounds immediately familiar to fans of bands like Gin Blossoms, Barenaked Ladies, Collective Soul, Everclear, Counting Crows or The Wallflowers. However, it’s not boring. Mermaid Avenue takes Temptation and Half The Truth in directions that mesh with modern alternative rock. The calm delivery of the lyrics and the accompanying reverbed backing track would fit into Empire Records as well as it would in the trailer for a movie on television today. As energetic as their sound is, it also provides a calm sense for listeners. Not entirely unique in terms of the overall sound of the album, it’s unique in the way that it merges a range of influences in the genre over a span of a few decades.
Being a brand-new band brings with it as many possibilities as it does headaches. A band needs to figure out their sound and work at it. Its members need to learn how to play together and make decisions as to what works and what doesn’t. Being in a band is like being in a relationship; it’s give and take all the way. But even far bigger than any of this is where you are a band. In the case of Strange Bird (singer/guitarist Dane Fernandez, bassist/backing vocalist, A.J Mora and drummer David Cornejo-Alegro), they are based in Brooklyn with just about every other band in the entire universe it seems. But competition breeds success and being in Brooklyn also means getting more exposure and better gigs. In the case of Strange Bird they had the chance to have their eponymous four-song debut EP Strange Bird produced by Alex Lipsen who has worked with such bands as TV on the Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s among others.
The opening song, “So is Life” is a shambling rock song that sounds like it was recorded inside a metal trashcan. Its guitars are tinny and its reverberations echo back and forth like a lo-fi tennis match of guitar and bass. Fernandez’s vocals are a high pitched whine of sorts that sound like the last cries for help from a dying man who has lost his voice from crying for so long. These vocals carry onto the next track “Quite Like Me.” However the musical thread here is simpler, slower, a half-assed jangle pop of art rock experimentation.
They pick the pace back up to full driven rock on “Florida Keys” but take it up and down in controlled torrents. It reminded me a little bit of the Sebadoh’s early stuff, the complete lack of any sort of pathway leading to structure but just creating a structure as they went along, thrashing all the way. The final track “Waiting Near” is another exercise in lo-fi jangle pop that Strange Bird uses as their calling card.
The charm of Strange Bird’s self-titled EP lies in its simplicity. However, charm can wear off after a time. I really dug the songs for what they are but found myself wanting to hear a hook every now and the; something that would make me keep coming back or to retain a memory to make a distinction between songs. Next time, perhaps.
The Late Bloomer is the third release from Pascoe. He mentions that he has always identified with the metaphorical idea of “the late bloomer.” To paraphrase I feel like he is talking about overcoming adversity. He also explains, “This album is my first attempt to record and mix my own music. It's the first album that is a reflection of the past several years, as opposed to my first records which were reflective of my current mood and status at the time.”
The album is really stripped back with guitar and vocals playing the biggest part. In fact the opener “You Can't Be Cool All The Time” is simply some finger snaps and vocals. He has a great voice; there is no denying that. He repeats “You can't be cool all the time / But you can be sincere, yeah you can be sincere all the time.”
The title track “The Late Bloomer” was a highlight. There is a tinge of ’70’s folk in the spirit of Simon & Garfunkel. It’s warm and pleasant on the ears with a chorus effect running through the guitar. Living in Chicago I had an immediate appreciation for “It's The Damn Winter Again.” It’s an instrumental guitar track where reverb and echo play a major part to the vibe. “Laughing In Your Sleep” is fun and arguably the catchiest. There is a tinge of The Beach Boys and The Shins. I actually kept thinking this song would have sounded great with a full band.
We are greeted with lots of delay and reverb on “Déjà Vu.” It’s shorter with no real hook but quite enjoyable. Last but not least is “Far From The Tree” which revolves around ideas of success and failure.
The Late Bloomer seems like Pascoe’s best work yet. I still think he should think about hitting a studio with some session musician at some point but this album shows more progress. The stripped down approach worked for this shorter EP which was a pleasure to listen to from beginning to end.
The archetype of the traveling ’60s folk musician is a strong one that withstood the test of time. It encompasses a free spirit, a wandering soul, a broken heart and much more. Artists like Bob Dylan, Donovan and countless others have attracted audiences with their honest songs that seem to resonate with the soul.
Sutton’s self-titled album Callum Sutton embraces the aforementioned idea with originals as well as covers. It’s a stripped back album like most of the original folk albums with guitar, a single lead vocal and sometimes a harmonica.
The album opens with “All That's Left is the Boogie” which more or less sounds like a traditional rhythm and blues song. It’s well delivered and a proper introduction. And when I say introduction I mean it. Sutton sings “My name is Callum Sutton / I’m an English-born man of soul.”
“Goodbye” is much slower, melancholy and reflective. I thought this was a highlight. Sutton’s voice works well bathed in sadness and regret as he displays on other songs. The mood is brought back up with “Do Not Doubt The Lord” which showcases some juicy harmonica. Some more sorrow is introduced with “Waiting for my Lord to Come” while “Jesus Was Not Recognised” has Sutton showing off his dynamic vocals.
“Tecumseh Valley,” “King David” and “If I Could Read Your Mind” seesaw back between melancholy and redemption. He closes with the Muddy Waters cover “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
The inherent dangers with this archetype is it becomes no more than a trope. A carbon copy of an idea. Sutton isn’t redefining this style but he certainly delivers an impressive homage.
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Devin Wilson (vocals/keys/producer) and Dalton Little (drums) are DARWN. I presume they are the two guys in that endearing photo in the right hand corner of their Bandcamp page. The two members have a good amount of experience in music. They both studied music in college and also have experience in production and engineering.
There is a lot going on their release Act Natural. It’s a mix of electronic and organic instrumentation. I was reminded of The Postal Service when it came to the music. The music is technically demanding and exceptionally executed.
“Electrophilia” is the opener which is a solid mix of keys, synths, fuzz bass and great drum work. There is a lot of ear candy that you can latch on to. “Echoed” is layered with warm, fuzzy tones. The vocals were fairly catchy but I have to admit some of the elements such as the drum work caught more of my attention.
“Patches of Green” is another solid tune and I thought the end in particular was interesting. It mixes elements of jazz and alien type sounding synth. “Pull Sam” has a great groove that is atmospheric and buoyant. The whole song is very soothing. “Nothing to Lose” is arguably the catchiest song that is upbeat and fun while “Siren Blue” shows off some inventive production techniques. “Limbo” is a bit robotic and again has insterating element to it. “Silver Grey” is as smooth as silk throughout whole “BodyFlow” sounded similar to something you would hear from Hot Chip.
I have to admit I wasn't always crazy about the way the vocals were executed. Some songs fared better than others for me. Overall, this is a really good release with exceptional instrumental performances, tight songwriting and inventive production. Recommended.
Chris Larkin is an alternative pop/rock artist from Raleigh, NC who recently released Honest. The album goes down easy and felt like the music could be appreciated by a large demographic. Larkin does hit upon a number of different styles some of which I had a preference for.
The album starts with “OCD” which is an explosive opener with shades of modern country, rock and pop. It’s a short song and doesn't waste time getting to the hook. I have to admit I could have done without the super fast borderline rapping part.
The beginning of “Sunrise” contained some of the more beautiful moments of the album. It’s mostly a cappella besides a soft pad that looms in the background. The song unfolds into a mix of nostalgia, reflective lyrics and hopeful vibes. It eventually goes into a epic crescendo.
“Make Believe” is more or less a straight pop song. It seems like a radio friendly song from beginning to end. “Panic Attack” was a highlight. It’s funky and upbeat but Larkin sings about having a panic attack. The drones on the bridge work wonders and mimic the impending doom of having a panic attack. Similar to “Sunrise” the song builds to more and more epic moments.
The title track “Honest” is more like an interlude. “Killajoule” and “False Prophet” plays into a R&B, pop vibe. “Sherman's Song (I'll See You in Heaven)” is the emotional ballad while “Boxes, Borders, and Lines” was another single worthy song. “Be Still My Heart, Be Humble” was a delightful closer that was a cappella.
I noticed a lot of the songs had a similar structure even though they were different. They would start off minimal and soft and the last minute would be epic and grand. I have to admit I would have liked a little more surprises along the way.
Honest is a solid pop album and Larkin seems to have a lot of talent and has put in the work. Take a listen.
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
Broken Bay Coalition Sleep More, Sisyphus 3.6
OILMEN Expect Excellence! 3.4
Jai Mohan November 3.7
Luka Sleepy in the Forest 3.9
January Moonlight The Barents Sea 3.6
Tyler Sloan Sea Meets Shore 4.0
As a man approaching middle age I often find that I’m not surprised by anything anymore. I know that as the world turns the handle of the proverbial jack-in-the-box long enough a clown is going to pop out and I’m not going to be scared by it. In the same respect I often find myself nonplussed by most of what is called art these days. Call it a coming to terms with my curmudgeonhood if you’d like but I just think most of what is done today is just made for the moment, not very good, and will soon be replaced by more of the same junk. However, every once in a while, there’s something that I see that may have a bit of a half-life, a bit of staying power. I felt this way upon listening to Thirteen by the Los Angeles based singer/songwriter Melody, who is in fact just fourteen years old.
Thirteen is Melody’s first record of stripped down, indie pop on which she plays piano, ukulele and sings in a sweet voice that reminded me a bit of her more established indie-pop forebears such as Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Cline and the Japanese House’s Amber Bain, both of whom have at least a decade’s worth of life experience on Melody, which is just another feather in this young girl’s cap as she writes songs and lyrics with the wit and wisdom of a girl twice her age.
What I found most enjoyable on the simple yet masterful five songs on Thirteen was that nothing really changes in one’s perspective on the world as one grows as far as human relationships are concerned. Read all the Freud and Sartre you want, try to make clever musings about the human condition, but in reality, the pain of being human and the words we say only to ourselves, the thoughts and observations we keep to ourselves remain always with us, haunting us forever. These are the depths which Melody mines on these five songs, and she does so beautifully and plainly. She sings the things we have all thought, and all continue to think, about how everyone else is living so much better than we are, and that they must have it all figured out, which makes our hidden pain and jealously burn that much hotter.
Age and gender do not matter on Thirteen, as these songs are simply wrought by feelings we all have had and will continue to have all our lives. Mind me when I say this is the initial spark of a major talent and you’d have a better chance of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning or suffering a shark attack in the middle of the desert before you’ll hear a record this insightful again.
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