Sam Friend is a composer, guitarist and vocalist who has fronted bands in New Orleans and Manhattan. He has amassed quite a resume since 2011: his band The New Orleans Swamp Donkeys created a viral video featuring the theme from Game Of Thrones, and his original music has been featured on NCIS, on CBS and NPR and in Vanity Fair.com. His bands have headlined shows across the globe. And if that’s not enough, he’s also a part-time actor!
Friend’s last collection of original music was 2016’s Twin. For that album, reviewers compared him to Dr. John and James Taylor, and I’m glad they said it first because that’s exactly what I thought while listening to Coming Home.
Friend describes his music as “hard rock to folk, to jazz funk, Americana to blues.” For this album he enlists a stellar pickup band, most prominently Beck Burger (keys) and Bryce Eastwood (sax). Ace rhythm support is provided by Chris Severin (bass) and Nick Solnick (drums). Burger’s keyboards are especially fluent and tasteful, and Eastwood’s saxophone adds class to each song on which he appears.
This album was recorded at the famed “Studio” in Louisiana, where alumni such as Kansas, The Neville Brothers and Stevie Wonder have cut tracks. Not surprisingly, Friend’s recordings are as professional as you can get, thanks to the talent on both sides of the control room window. This is the sound of real musicians playing together under optimal conditions.
The title track “Coming Home” gives us the Dr. John part of Friend’s influence with vocals and organ very similar to Rebennack. This is a nice, fully produced blues-rock ditty with stylish sax. Great opener! We next veer to James Taylor territory on "Royal Street” with Friend picking crystalline patterns on acoustic guitar and providing a Sweet Baby James lead vocal. This touching song about love found (but in danger of being lost) has all the earmarks of a hit single from the mellow late ’70s.
“Meant To Find Light” features a rousing guest vocal by blues artist Alicia Renee (aka Blue Eyes) and feels to me like Burt Bacharach meets “Knights In White Satin.” Tight jazzy ensemble playing here, too. “Grindstone” has an upbeat gospel feel, again featuring Friend’s engaging vocals and a tasty Fender solo. “Only Yesterday” would feel right at home in a film noir feature with its smoky sax and easy vamping tempo. Friend’s vocals here stretch a bit and recalls Van Morrison. “I couldn’t write a song / and I cried my eyes out missing you” is a sentiment I can relate to. Nice climactic build in this track with wailing organ and (yes) saxophone!
“If I Don’t Have You” lands in a perfect spot for a faster-tempo rocker; a simple song about unrequited love that gets you moving. Billy Preston-style organ by Burger on this one. “The Island” is another gentle guitar-picked tune with that J. Taylor vibe.
“The One You Loved The Most” ends the album appropriately with a heavy gospel sound thanks to the chorus vocals of the Chapel Hart Band, evoking a memorial parade down Bourbon Street with mournful horns and rolling snares.
I Honestly can’t think of a single misstep on this fine collection, and listeners with fond memories of the soft rock & bluesy ’70s should find much to enjoy here. Evocative cover art by Lea Dolo Grzywacz as well.
Yorkshire, UK’s Andrew Stewart has recorded five new musical offerings on his EP Nine Times Twelve, released under the name 1.0.8. He draws from a wide variety of musical styles to deliver a multi-textured, sonically interesting project. In a throwback touch, each track has its own artwork--be sure to check it out while you spin.
Nine Times Twelve kicks off with “MASK (Secret),” built around a simple descending riff. The riff, plus the swinging feel, recalls “Minnie the Moocher,” but this is no straightforward blues number. The production is layered with multiple vocal lines and cool sounds spread throughout. The cool sounds are the work of collaborator and producer Jason Odle, who had the task of interpreting Stewart’s musical thoughts, delivered to him as “whale-like whistles, grunts, and impersonations of various brass instruments.” The result is something that’s accessible, yet new.
It’s a good blueprint for the rest of the album and “Sawdust & Hay” which is up next. This starts as a bluesy track with some jazz changes, and then morphs into a pop dance track with nice rhythm textures and layered voice overs that could have been cut from classic BBC programming. I particularly liked the slashing electric guitars set against the smooth keyboards and drum machine, as Michael Jackson may have done back on Thriller.
Each track brings in a lot of different elements, and the songs shift over their running length. “Sirens (Hales)” stars as a pop song: a lovely melody set against some acoustic guitar work. But there’s tension underneath, delivered by the pedal-tone keyboards. The middle break evokes Paul Simon, White Album-era Beatles, Santana and maybe some Steely Dan. Spinning Nine Times Twelve has reminded me to revisit some favorites--a great outcome.
“Rooks and Crows (Hormuz Boys)” finds Stewart starting with a Latin/island feel with bouncy bass and layered percussion. It’s more ominous than just a daiquiri on the beach, though; the dark piano comes and the song morphs into a brooding song that could fit a rock opera--or a cabaret-style revue. You’ll know what I mean when you listen to it.
Stewart closes the EP with “Magical Dave.” With the horns and distorted guitar, it could have been an old Chicago track. In a wonderful touch, Stewart sings, “all of those things you said to me / as we drift beneath the deep blue sea” and the music matches perfectly.
There’s a lot crammed into these five tracks. There’s so much going on, though, that it can be a bit disorienting. I’d love to hear certain sections developed out more, either as their own songs, or in letting a longer suite stretch its legs. This is just a nit though, as Stewart has a lot of say, and his talent shines through everywhere on Nine Times Twelve. Enjoy it!
Truth Ray is the solo moniker of artist Mads Dalgaard based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He recently released True Romance. The EP contains six songs and comes in at around twenty-five minutes long.
The music is in the zeitgeist of artists like Pantha du Prince, Burial, SCNTST and other like- minded artists. Suffice it to say the music would fit nicely on Kompakt. The songs are ethereal, airy and backed by a huge sounding low end as this sort of music often does which makes people hit the dance floor.
The EP got going with “The Current Stream '' and I was quickly getting flashbacks of my younger years going to raves throughout the city of Chicago. The airy and ethereal exists with the vocals and ephemeral pads. The elements that are predominately high end all have a symbiotic relationship with making this unified, dreamlike drone. On the basement floor are the hypnotic drums and synth bass which are really the foundation that binds the music to the earth. Overall, it was a great song from beginning to end.
Up next is “Romanticist” and I was getting some worldly as well as Industrial vibes. That benign but ephemeral dreamlike quality is revisited here but with reverb laced synths instead of the vocals leading the charge.
About twenty years Chicago had a pretty wicked electronic, underground scene and “Resurrected “ brought me a slice of nostalgia. There is a heavy 4/4 kick but elements of glitch and jungle. The vocals are perfectly treated to reinforce the dreamlike haze we heard on previous tracks.
The EP has no signs of slowing down with the more kinetic and hyper focus infused “Bleed” while the more haunting and ominous sounds on “It’s All Delayed” has some catchy and vocal melodies. Last up is “Ciao Bella” which is more distorted, bit-crunched and more aligned with Aphex Twin.
This is electronic music done right in my opinion. Fans of some of the aforementioned artists should love this. Recommended.
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John Broughton (vocals/guitars/piano and most everything else) and Brian Ahnmark (drums/harmonies) are longtime partners in Strawberry Tops, a band that aspires to create melodic pop songs while mining the weirder side of the Beatles and the Velvet Underground.
With the proliferation of home digital recording systems, it’s become common for indie musicians to sound every bit as professional as the pros. That’s why an album like this, which plays like it was created on a ’90s Portastudio, is such a welcome change. Broughton and Ahnmark recorded at home using Logic software, but admit that a professional mastering test left them cold, so they “stubbornly, foolishly” mastered themselves. This is obvious in several songs, but only adds to the joy of creation and discovery. The fact that the original tracks were passed back and forth between Portland, Oregon and Richmond, Virginia is even more amazing.
A typical Strawberry Tops song begins with straightforward vocals and guitar or piano; a choir’s worth of vocal harmonies are then added, followed by a sudden change of key or tempo and the addition of synths and violins, undergirded by paramilitary drums. Guitars become increasingly more grungy as everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in, which finally leads to an unexpected, gentle conclusion. Their distorted guitars really ARE distorted, boxy drums ring out with too much room echo and vocals are overly processed. But I love every one of these indulgences, and I know I’m not alone.
The opening “East Coast Addict” wastes no time by introducing Beach Boys harmonies, ringing piano, strident snare drum and unexpected musical changes. Right off the bat, your speakers will barely contain the full-on guitars. Simple but true lyrics about addiction: “I’m the Captain of my soul / I want to get high / when I’m at home or on the road / Nobody tells you about the pain of letting go.”
“Just So Stories” features a Ringo marching beat with psychedelic vocals and more overdriven guitars. There’s a bit of a Ween vibe here, especially during the guitar solo. Layers of sounds barely hang together, but muscle through despite all odds. “Everybody laughs at me,” they sing, “the devil laughs at me / and everyone who’s ever died is laughing.” That’s a lot of laughter!
“What-Ifs and Fantasies” is one of the more overtly home taper-like songs with direct-in guitars, falsetto mock-oratorio vocals, creepy sci-fi effects and clanking drums. I just dig the hell out of these sounds, despite the fact that this song would get Strawberry Tops bum-rushed out of every record label in town.
“Out Of Body” lives up to its name with otherworldly vocals, creepy strings and psychedelic keyboards. The accomplished violins by Broughton’s sister Anne Claire are a real treat. “Automatic” also features Claire (an unofficial third band member), who must be the one legitimate musician here: if you told me this was the L.A. Philharmonic, I’d believe you. Piano and multiple super-close vocals dominate this tune. “It’s automatic / just like a C flat / You give a shit and all you get is flack.”
“Pause A Riot” is like a catchy novelty single from the space race ’60s with a beeping Telstar throughout; neat chimes and killer guitar breaks too. “Kitten We Don’t Miss Them” is an energizing straightforward rocker, though with a typically bizarre piano middle section. “Eerie Oregon,” another almost-normal rock song, steamrolls ahead with tart guitars, tooty sax samples, and Knack-like drums. “Down to Zero” again gets psychedelic with more of Claire’s violins and experimental guitar bursts.
After a couple more songs, “Objectivity (Wanes)” ends the proceedings with swaggering guitars, aggressively stacked vocals and Strawberry Fields drum patterns. It’s almost as if the songs become more traditionally hard rock as the end nears, though you’d need an electron microscope to measure the difference.
I’ve had fun with my descriptions of this album, but honestly this is one of my favorite indie releases this year. I love what Strawberry Tops tried to do, how often they succeeded, and even the times they failed. It’s the doing that’s important, and they DID it. I strongly recommend getting the best possible format for this album (CD, WAV. files, etc.) as MP3’s can’t quite contain the sonic mayhem presented here.
Peter Lawson is an artist from the UK who recently released Trees. Lawson has been in many bands over the years and this is his first solo effort. There are eight songs and they come in at around thirty-eight minutes. Stylistically the album is very varied and I definitely had some preferences.
Up first is “2020 Warfare'' which is basically acoustic folk song layered with psychedelic soundings synths. I think I would have enjoyed it with just guitar and vocals just as much if not more. There is a lot of hall reverb on the vocals. Overall, I thought this was a good song and a promising start.
“Jonestown” sounded like a different artist. It's basically a programmed beat, a prominent bass line that changes slightly. There are a bunch of samples sprinkled throughout from presidential addresses to other cultural references.
I liked the guitar and vocal work on “Black Water.” As a producer myself I thought the delay and reverb effects were a little too much at time. I just wanted to hear the natural, organic performance and felt like I was mostly listening to effects at points..
I ended up getting something with less effects on “Amon II” which is a highlight and thought the guitar and bass parts were great. His technical and creative skill is apparent on this song. It’s obvious Lawson has some skills on lead in particular. “Death’s Door” was not was I was expecting. It goes into sample based hip-hop.
“Dream On'' goes back to his strength which is rock/folk based songs. “Pray” is distorted and chaotic sounding while “Trees” is at first more stripped down but blends with synths and other elements as it progresses.
Lawson like everyone one else was at home during the pandemic and made the most of his free time. The whole album was DIY and as someone who has been engineering and producing bands for twenty years I have an ear for noticing lo-fi aesthetics. First off I give him kudos. On that note I would have loved to have heard some more fidelity on these recordings. Even if you can’t work with an engineer, an experienced mastering engineer can really help.
I felt like his strength was guitar and vocals which were more rock and folk based. There were a lot of songs where I just wanted to hear more of him simply singing with his guitar. I would have put a touch of EQ, reverb and compression and let the songs breathe because when recordings are lo-fi like these stacking instrumentation is not your friend. It narrows the stereo fields, causes phase issues and masks essential frequencies.
Overall, this is a solid DIY effort and with some specific songs that played into his strengths in my opinion. I’m looking forward to hearing more from him and wish him luck on his next release. Take a listen.
Jay Vogel aka Rather Vapid is back with a new EP entitled Lower Layer. The EP contains three songs. I found the songs to be dramatic, fun and sort of science fiction based as well in terms of some of the themes I was hearing.
The EP gets going with “Lower Layer” which features metallic sounds from percussion elements, guitars and more. I thought the music was strong and enjoyed the juxtaposition of certain elements. That being said, the spoken word is the focal center. The delivery is melodramatic and without the least bit of levity and you are greeted with poetic lines such “The figment of freewill /the roles of our biology / organic circuits in motion.” The emotional resonance of this song was hard to pinpoint because of that. I’m really not sure if he was being tongue in cheek or not and I think that can have its advantage.
I have to admit the music for me really connected when I heard “Your Peripheral.” The music reminded me of Primus minus the slap bass work of Les Claypool which you usually hear in their songs. I liked the slightly dark elements and guitar work. The vocals were also a lot easier for me to digest. He does have a flair for the dramatic when he sings but in this case everything does coalescence in a great way. I'll give a big thumbs up for this song.
Vogel ends with “Tried” and I thought it was actually the most straightforward song but arguably the highlight in the batch. I would definitely say it’s the catchiest in terms of the vocal melodies. The guitar work, especially the lead, was great. I did actually think of Larry LaLonde of Primus again. That being said he has his own style when the elements come together.
Vogel has talent as a solo artist but as a producer and engineer myself for the last twenty years I couldn't help but think how some of his songs would manifest with a full band. I say that because the structure and dynamics felt like they would lend themselves to that process. Food for thought.
This was an enjoyable release. I would say the EP was cohesive but there was enough variety between each song so that it felt distinct. This EP is relatively short in terms of time so I’m excited to hear where he goes next. Recommended.
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
Hoodlums Motorcycle Ride 3.7
Green Eraser Fish in the Sky 3.6
No Wave Charles Bulk 3.5
Khaki Scouts Send Help 3.7
Five of Cups Pantophobic 3.6
Claire Walding is a 23-year-old singer/songwriter located in San Diego, CA. Her latest album Encanto is based off the neighborhood she currently resides in. According to the artist, the neighborhood is one of the only places you can still get a plot of lush land close to the city. Walding has lived there for two years with her family and this is where most of the songs were inspired and written. The album – which is very much centralized in place – gets played out in the very recording process. According to the artist, “the album is about having a space that enchants you and allows you to feel that you can be your most vulnerable selves at all times.”
Walding (lyrics/guitar/vocals) backed by Daniel Westrick (guitar/bass/sound engineer), Ted Stern (pedal steel/banjo/violin), Mike Reedy (percussion), Jules Steward (percussion), Sam King (vocals) and Max Walding(vocals), recorded this album mostly outside in Walding’s beloved neighborhood on Westrick’s patio. The warmth from recording outside could be heard in the album as traces of the outdoors get filtered in and if you strain hard enough you can probably hear dog barks, cars passing by and the occasional bird chirping. The very environment of the recording also colors the vocals and music, as Walding’s voice is permeated with tons of reverb. The distortion and fuzziness could also be felt in the instrumentation which really adds a unique flavoring to the music.
Encanto aptly enough starts off with “Welcome to Encanto,” where a laid-back vibe is executed in the intro. Layered vocals sung in a much-improvised way sounds out. The vibe felt really refreshing and sounded a lot like the band was warming up their vocal chords. This felt very much like an intro. The acoustic guitar readies listeners for some more mellow vibes on “Freeport.” Walding’s vocals carry with it tons of reverb. The golden sounds spin a very nostalgic and sentimental sound. Strands of the violin buoys this track. Walding’s haunting vocals really conjure a sound similar to that of Lana Del Rey or Mazzy Star. A touch of blues really rounds out her sound. Stripped-down guitar work builds on a melancholy vibe on “Tribute to Daniel Johnston.” The feels are slow sauntering and will really grow on listeners. Walding’s vocals are ethereal and chilling. The song felt like a definite slow burn with evocative notes of country-blues making you feel loose and easy. This is a great track to relax to.
On “Hilda,” Walding’s vocals are haunting. Once they enter, listeners will feel themselves easing into the smooth elegant layers that also pick up on folk, alt-country and Americana fastenings. Walding’s vocals were a good mixture of earthy and celestial vibes. It felt like a healthy stew with lyrics that will really ground listeners. She sings about feelings that do not fade but only continue to grow stronger over the years. On “Sweet Nothingness,” noodling on the guitar brings in more of the band’s warm sound here. Walding’s sparse vocals on this track really added to the simplified sounds, carrying with it a wealth of underlying emotions. Sounds of conversations and children playing outside could be heard in the backdrop on the 0:40 second long closer “Waving Goodbye.” The track felt very unrehearsed and shows the band at some of their best, playing outside in the elements where they can draw from their natural environments in creating a sound that is organic and unique to the band.
I think Walding and the band unfalteringly delivers on this album. The music is sometimes played off-key and I thought this added to the charisma of the band. The group seems to be playing for their ears only and with this album, audiences get a very insider’s peek into musicians at their most intimate and vulnerable. I greatly enjoyed the spontaneous vibes on this record. The songs were heartfelt and I appreciated the band’s warm delivery. The album contained many pleasant surprises well worth exploring. Be sure you have a listen today!
Camille Vogley-Howes (violin), Molly Tucker (violin), Emily Edelstein (viola), and Karl Henry (cello) are Quartet Davis. They met while studying at Oberlin Conservatory and are, unsurprisingly, trained in classical chamber music. For their debut album Three Lefts Make A Right, the group takes that chamber-music knowledge (and virtuosity) and works in folk, jazz and blues influences.
The album is an inventive, fun, piece of work. The group has taken seven pieces from across the musical spectrum, and given them each an original treatment. Unlike an ‘80s hair-metal band copying a forgotten single to fill out an album, Quartet Davis has dug into the songs, and figured out how to reinterpret them in the context of their own instrumentation and influences. Most tracks are instrumentals; two, “Jealous Guy” (yes, the John Lennon song) and “Time After Time” (Sammy Cahn’s standard) include mellifluous female vocals too.
Start to finish, it’s pretty fun. All four players switch fluidly between pizzicato and arco passages, and strum and slap their instruments for percussion sounds as needed. The group trades solos around with some of Henry’s bendy cello passages clearly influenced by rock and blues guitar players. All of these elements are on full display with “Jealous Guy.” This version is completely their own, showing their skill as arrangers and performers. It’s a jazzy, swinging take with plenty of blue notes, double-stops and fantastic violin work on the outro. If you listen to only one track on Three Lefts Make A Right, pick this one.
Or maybe you should pick “RajRajRaj,” a peppy, major-key stomp through a Nordic folk tune run through an American lens. It’s folky, and up-lifting. On “Hembrännarmarsch,” the group creates amazing waves of sound. The sound is so full, I went looking for credits for extra musicians (or overdubs). There aren’t any: the band is that powerful all on their own. Wow.
To round out the eight-cut set, Quartet Davis includes one original, “Without Spring” penned by violinist Vogley-Howes. Here they use somewhat more exotic harmonies, especially over the opening triplet figure. It’s a lovely piece, and fits right in with the other compositions. I hope we’ll hear more originals from them as they continue to record.
Chamber-music aficionados will enjoy Three Lefts Make A Right, even just to appreciate the wide variety of sounds Quartet Davis is able to create with their classical instruments. Folk-music and pop-music fans alike will appreciate these fresh looks at some terrific tunes. In my neighborhood, three left turns gets you lost--but I’d be happy to be lost with this on my car stereo.
The album cover for Fall Apart by The Dandelion Catastrophe doesn't quite capture the intensity that the EP begins with. I feel like a bigger cat like a lion or jaguar would have matched the music. Metaphors aside I thought this was a high adrenaline EP with some unexpected twists and turns.
To my surprise The Dandelion Catastrophe is a solo project by Brian Stead. I thought for sure this was a full band recording. I’m not sure of his process, but I need to give credit where it’s due.
One thing I noticed is the album starts off really intense and with every sequential song becomes less so. I did have mixed feelings about this because I wasn’t getting a signature sound but more like a process.
The EP starts with “Violence” and sounds somewhere between The Blood Brother and Marilyn Manson. He sounds a lot like early Manson and has that sort of evil affectation. The instrumentation is high octane fuzz. It felt relatively straightforward in terms of structure but there is no doubt an explosive delivery to every aspect of the song.
You can hear the intensity drop a couple levels on “Candy Cane” but it also shifts in terms of style. There was this mix of early Industrial and grunge on this song. The song was somewhere between Ministry, Alice In Chains and Nirvana.
I was reminded of the ’90s band Filter on “Don’t You Cry.” This song sounds like a different vocalist. I wouldn’t have guessed it was the same person. This song is a little more pop oriented and accessible for a general demographic.
The last song “Under Every Me” is such a departure in style. It was a questionable move to put a reverb-laced ballad as the last track. I liked the song but it’s worlds away from where the EP started.
Overall, this EP was a little scattered in terms of style but it seems intentional and by design. I enjoyed all the songs especially the first two and I think that comes down to personal preference. This is a good release and I look forward to hearing more.
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