All it takes is 3 chords and a dream!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Grace Stumberg - Affect

Grace Stumberg - Affect
2012, Popadelic Records
Grace Stumberg proves that big things come in small packages.  The 4’11” singer/songwriter from Buffalo, New York has a voice as big and powerful as she is small.  Her 2011 debut album, To Whom It May Concern, was a groundbreaking fresh of air that mixed unusually subtle songwriting for a 22-year old with an unusual musical conscience.  Stumberg remakes herself with her sophomore effort, Affect, finding a heartier, soulful vocal sound and a more confident stance as a songwriter.

Stumberg starts out by lampooning pop culture and clichés about what it takes to make it as a performer in "Flaunt This". The song reflects a maturing worldview and sense of self that is healthy and fired by a tell it like it is attitude. Stumberg's voice has a sultry and soulful side that was less evident on her debut. The result is a splendidly acerbic pop song full of a sensual anger. "America's Got Talent" is a tuneful and buoyant song of disaffection with the state of music, lamenting the fact that so many people both within the industry and without forget that it’s all about the music.  “Song For Grace Potter” is a gritty call out by Stumberg of a one-time idol who went corporate.  It’s a classic “you sold out” message, but the air of condescension here is a bit pretentious from one so young, and doesn’t necessarily reflect well on Stumberg.  It is, however, a fine way to garner some attention, calculated or otherwise.

“So Cruel” plays on the theme of relationship games. It’s a taunting number that finds Stumberg in her upper range for much of the song.  While capable here, her comfortable range is down an octave, the combination of pitch and drawn out vocal line borders on uncomfortable at times.  “Limbo” explores the sort of relationship purgatory where one of the two simply stops communicating.  The frustration and need here are palpable, and Stumberg is in her best voice.  “Happier Side” is a song of desperation for hope, and fitting for the times we live in.  Stumberg’s band moves together as if one organism and she fires the song from the opening notes with a voice that sounds iconic.
“It’s No Good” is a bit generic in construction, but thrives on the strength and personality in Stumberg’s voice.  “Root Beer Fairy” on the other hand, is a silly/fun party song with a dark side.  Stumberg lets down her hair and rocks out with her locks out, selling the song through conviction and force of personality.  “Ring Song” is an angry diatribe about a friend getting married.  The message is a warning, but there’s an undercurrent of anger her that suggests deeper investment perhaps.  The arrangement matches the message in-line, full of angry guitar hooks and some devastating solos.  Stumberg brings the curtain down with a dreamy, acoustic number called “Appreciate”.  The song itself is impressive, but the recording itself sounds very much out of place, having the messy aura of a demo recording alongside all of the highly polished rock and roll that came before.

Grace Stumberg continues to grow as a singer, songwriter and performer.  Her efforts on Affect speak to some wonderful successes and also some distinctive growing pains.  Stumberg offers firm stances and strong opinions in song in a rapidly maturing voice.  Stumberg might overreach at times, but she’s certain to get attention in the process.  Musically, the album is very well done, and Stumberg continues to have one of the most intriguing young voices in rock music.
Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ben Folds Five - The Sounds Of The Life Of The Mind

Ben Folds Five – The Sounds Of The Life Of The Mind
2012, SONY Music
Ben Folds Five are back, thanks to the love, affection and financial contributions of their fans!  The band undertook a fan funding effort earlier this year to keep the project independent, and have managed to create a wonderfully subtle and complete collection of ten pop/rock songs entitled The Sounds Of The Life Of The Mind.

The album kicks off with Folds at his emotionally disaffected best on "Erase Me". A bit removed from the angrier songs if his youth, "Erase Me" finds Folds mining a mix of anger, heartache and knowing resignation as he confronts his co-pilot in a downward arcing relationship. "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later" finds BFF rocking out in classic fashion in interludes between Folds' classic storyteller verses. Folds gets contemplative on "Sky High", one of the pat aesthetically and lyrically pleasing compositions he has recorded to date.

Folds has always had a distinctive for capturing people and places in song in ways that bring them to life for the listener, but he outdoes himself on "The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind". This portrait of a young lady who escapes from the banality of her high school life through intellectual pursuits is surprisingly adept. Folds ability to tell her story both from within her thoughts and in the third person simultaneously is masterful. Likewise "On Being Frank", which a melancholy look at Sinatra's legacy as seen from the eyes of one time fanatic and now disillusioned fan. The composition is fully orchestrated and beautiful, reflecting back the sadness in the vocal line.

"Draw A Crowd" could be a take on the narcissism of artists who will do anything for attention. Regardless if your interpretation it's a hilarious take on the need for attention, wrapped in a wonderfully snappy pop arrangement. "Do It Anyway" is a piano-driven rock ballad about making hard decisions. There is an interesting dichotomy in this song, which initially sounds like an ode to immaturity but actually tackles the decision of whether to end a relationship from a surprisingly adult perspective.

Hold That Thought is wonderfully melancholy and melodic. The piano drives this along with a vibrant if quiet energy, and there is a lonely beauty in the melody that Folds has constructed.  “Away When You Were Here” is a bittersweet reflection on imperfect love and family ties.  Folds is coming to terms with a dysfunctional family relationship that is no longer reparable and finds the good, perhaps for the first time.  Folds once again explores this sort of imperfection on “Thank You For Breaking My Heart”, a gorgeous piano ballad that finds beauty and growth in suffering.  This song is a powerful statement, punctuated by the occasional use of the piano’s more percussive properties.  It’s a beautiful and poignant close that makes beauty out of sadness.

Ben Folds manages to make a classic Ben Folds album with the help of his original band mates Ben Folds Five.  Maturity and time have smoothed the sound of the trio a bit, but the songwriting is as incisive and original as ever.  The Sounds Of The Life Of The Mind proves that Ben Folds Five doesn’t suck.  I should know.  I have my own blog.  (Kudos to those who get it).
Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Danielle Aument - Songs For You

Danielle Aument – Songs For You
2012, Danielle Aument
Chicago-born singer/songwriter Danielle Aument was born for the stage.  Starting out in musical theater, Aument quickly transitioned from singing the songs of others to singing her own.  At the tender age of eighteen, Aument shows a poise and grace beyond her years, and she’s started to catch the ears of industry cognoscenti.  Aument’s debut EP, Songs For You, shows a capable artist who is beginning to figure out what her sound is and is not.

Songs For You kicks off with “What You Mean To Me”, a solid pop love song reminiscent of Jessica (Jacobs) Riddle.  It’s a fluffy little pop tune with a memorable chorus.  Aument’s voice is exceedingly pleasant and very radio ready.  “All The Time” is a bland dance/pop tune that is moderately saved by Aument’s voice.  “Star Lights” is a still life of sorts in song.  The simplistic arrangement is made more complex by layered sounds and a full-bodied pop arrangement.  It’s a solid listen with mild commercial appeal.  “Stronger Now” is a simplified light dance/pop number.  The lightweight feel of this tune doesn’t match up to Aument’s voice.  Songs For You takes a bow with “Once Again”, exploring relationship angst in the median strip of the pop music super highway.  It’s a solid effort that might pop the radio bubble, if briefly.
Danielle Aument has a voice worth spending some time with.  Unfortunately the material on Songs For You is born of generic pop templates that do little to enhance to her general appeal as a performer.  There’s enough here to cause listeners to seek out Aument and see what she might do next, but without a bit more challenging and inspiring material it will be hard for Danielle Aument to stand out in the crowded field of pop music.

Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out of 5)
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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mark Etheredge - Change Coming

Mark Etheredge – Change Coming
2012, Vipaka Records
Mark Etheredge is one of a long line of computer software/programming professionals to harbor dreams of an alternate career in music.  Unlike many, Etheredge walked away from the safety and security of his nine-to-five into his dream, full-time gig writing, recording and performing music.  Etheredge’s debut album, Change Coming, plays with the smoothness of adult pop performers as Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs and Rodd Rundgren.  Etheredge sprinkles his twelve original songs with often witty lyrics as he explores real feelings, real people and real life.

Change Coming opens with “Living In The R.T.”, a song decrying the spread of modern technology and the digital lifestyle.  The song is catchy with a mild dose of funk in the baseline, although the vocals are too low in the mix.  Etheredge nails a 1970’s AM radio soul/pop sound here, and keeps it going for “Tuk Tuk Driver”, a catchy little number about falling in love.  The song is actually quite catchy in spite of some occasionally awkward lyrical constructs.  Diving into regret over a relationship he walked away from, Etheredge explores what might have been with “I Would”.  Etheredge struggles a bit with pitch as he takes his voice up an octave for the chorus.  The song is generally well-written, although the lyrical turns are a bit ill-kempt at times. 
Innuendo and thinly veiled intentions are the order of the day on “Hot Tub”, all wrapped up in a deliciously catchy pop arrangement that blends jazz and soul into the mix.  Etheredge goes for humor here, missing the mark but skating along on the strength of the killer arrangement.  Etheredge aims for a second chance at love with an old flame, under the premise that this time she might be “The One”.  Even an impartial listener will be unmoved by the wishy-washy approach here.  Etheredge gets his mojo on for “The Other Man”, a slinky, funky number that tries to usurp the love who is already devoted elsewhere.  This is the best songwriting of the album thus far; hook driven and with a cogent lyrical flow.

“Pimp You Out For Love” starts out sounding like a compact rocker, but breaks into some serious pop/boogie for the chorus.  As good as the arrangement is, the lyrics take a rather pedestrian run at setting up a friend that eschews rhyme schemes and even poetic sense.  “Dear Buddy” is troubled relationship song written from a man to his cat.  Etheredge makes a vaguely subtle attempt to conceal the subject of the song at first, opting for a slow, sliding reveal that’s not without humor.  It’s a cute song that will hit home amongst cat lovers.  The straight-forward piano-driven adult pop arrangement is a good match.  “Room To Room” is full of pure singer/songwriter pastiche.  This portrait of a woman getting ready to downsize her home after forty years has the potential to be touching, but rather than expanding on the story Etheredge simply repeats it.  It’s all done to a solid piano arrangement with string a cello solo in the bridge, but the repetitive nature of the lyrics makes it a hard sell.
“Lessons” is a melancholy treatise on humanity’s tendency to have to learn the same lessons over and over again.  Etheredge gives an affecting performance this time around, sounding as if he’s singing from the heart.  The songwriting here is solid as well, from lyrics to arrangement and back.  “A Bit Of Kindness” exhorts the power of a being good to each other to make a better world.  Funk and jazz-infused pop make up the musical palette for the most vibrant and memorable song on the album.  “Change Coming” is a stiffly awkward pop declaration about rising above mediocrity.  The message is admirable, but Etheredge pairs it with a generic pop piano arrangement that is less than inspiring.

Mark Etheredge works the heart and humor strings on Change Coming, sometimes affecting sweet and/or funny moments, and sometimes tripping on awkward combinations.  The album is a solid introduction to an artist who is still learning his craft as a lyricist, but shows a surprising ability at crafting accessible and complete musical arrangements that seem ready for adult contemporary radio.  Change Coming bodes well for Etheridge’s future as a rock composer, and offers opportunities for poetic growth.
Rating:  3 Stars (Out of 5)

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Friday, October 26, 2012

The Do Good Assassins - Rome

The Do Good Assassins – Rome
2012, The Do Good Assassins
Even in the early days of his career, Ron Hawkins was lauded as one of the finest lyricists Canada had to offer.  His penchant for super-imposing darkness and light in his songs won him a generation of fans, a place in the Canadian Independent Music Awards Hall of Fame (as a member of Lowest of the Low) and a hard core group of fiercely loyal fans.  After flying mostly solo for a number of years, Hawkins felt the call to work collaboratively again on new material.  Thus was born The Do Good Assasins.  With the help of Derrick Brady (Hawksley Workman, Dodge Fiasco, Stifler’s Mom); Jesse Capon (Katey Morley, Big Rude Jake, Emily Weedon); Alex McMaster (Rob Szabo, Lily Frost, A Northern Chorus) and Steve Singh (Ron Sexsmith, Feist, Kiki Dee), Hawkins found a new vehicle and outlet for his iconic songwriting.  The Do Good Assassins’ debut album, Rome, drops on November 1, 2012 and is a two-disc affair.  The first disc is a collection of ten rock and roll tunes that trade darkness and light.  Set two is a countrified collection that mixes and matches emotions and musical hues with some pretty amazing results.

The Do Good Assassins get rolling with “Sadder Days”, sounding like a snap pre-punk outfit from the early 1970’s.  Rock and rhythm and blues drive the band along here in an incredibly catchy and radio-ready opener.  Ron Hawkins and Steve Singh trade vocal lines on “Fire Alarm”, a catchy mid-tempo number that’s reminiscent of Hawkins’ Rusty Nails days.  Ron Hawkins has long been one of the finest lyricists Canada has produced, and that fact is reaffirmed on “Public Transit”.  Opening with the line “Well it’s not so lonely to be all alone in a city of kisses and tells”, Hawkins explores the dichotomy of loneliness and closeness in a city where people are never far away but no one is truly close.  It’s an amazing piece of songwriting for anyone who has ever lived in a large city.
“Propellers” is a list song that explores the push/pull of love through widely ranging and sometimes diffuse analogies.  Hawkins’ voice brings a timely sense of melancholy to the proceedings in what ultimately ends up being a song of aching need.  This is a moment both tragic and beautiful; plaintive in presentation but with tremendous emotional depths.  “N.Y.C. vs. Jeffrey Brown” is a Steve Singh tune that’s amazingly catchy tune with distinctively 1970’s accents.  Singh takes the mic this time out and rocks out with undertones of funk and soul.  Don’t expect to sit still through this tune; I don’t think it’s possible.  The musical tour continues on “The Last Casanova In Town”, which has a decidedly retro feel and a catchy melody that you simply can’t get out of your head.  Once again, don’t expect to sit still.

Classic Ron Hawkins songwriting is on display in “A Spy In The 9 To 5”, a song about those artistic souls who masquerade their way through the days so they can live in the night.  Urgent, good time rock and roll takes over for “Wrap You Up (And Take You Home)”.  You’ll dance your ass off in this song of dance floor-born obsession, helped along by the guitar and horn-driven arrangement.  The energy stays high for  “Home Sweet Home”, a high strung rhythm and blues driven rocker about friends who have fallen by life’s wayside; lonely souls who met early ends.  Hawkins wraps this up with a classic couplet: “It takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to bury it alive.”  The rock portion of Rome closes out with a life reflection for someone born in the era of JFK.  “Bobby Was The D.A.” continues the trend of incredibly catchy rock and roll with a retro feel, while exploring the insecurities of the Baby Boom generation.
Disc two of Rome, the County Disc, finds Hawkins expanding on the country sound he has been developing over his past two albums. “Capistrano” is a beautiful song of free spirited love and exploration. It’s a sweet and upbeat love song, more the surprising for Hawkins’ frequent brushes with darkness and loss over the years in his songwriting. Alex McMaster gets a brief vocal cameo here and shows off a surprisingly rich and adept country voice. “Too Far” bears the instrumental marks of a country tune, but is more of a down-tempo pop/rock number. It’s well written, but the country connection is tenuous at best, with the guitar work sounding more like something you’d find on a Lowest of the Low album.

"Swing Low" is a ballad full if melancholy reflections. The Do Good Assassins find the beauty in a series of small personal tragedies, divining it in an incredibly nuanced arrangement around Ron Hawkins' affecting vocal line. Steve Singh once again takes the mic for "In The Chest Of The Land", a pragmatic and complex folk number that reflects optimism and hope.  "Spotlight" is an expression of frustration that one conception of the good life is not as brilliant as it might seem. The abject melancholy here is powerful, and Hawkins nails the moment with a stellar performance. "Rusty Chain" is a driven little country rocker about live gone sour, revenge and penance. This is classic stuff, replete with hooks and a lyrical flow that pulls you along. You won't be able to get this one out if your head.

The Do Good Assassins slow things down for the lonely beauty of "A Little Rain", while exploring the sometimes inevitable curves life throws our way. Mournful pedal steel serves as a co-vocal for Hawkins' rough hewn lead. "Us Eat Them" is a vibrant ad viral rocker dressed in country clothes that will get your feet moving. "Little Volcano" is a love song wrought from the darkness of personal reflection. Hawkins finds beauty in the mundane details here, creating the sort of poetry for which he has become renowned; even the minimalist arrangement ads to the milieu. The album winds down with the lonely strains of "Rome", detailing the tendency of life and love to decay. Hawkins once again finds beauty in heartache, scratching out one of the finest prices of songwriting he has done.

In this highly digital age it is often the case that the concept of an album as a body of work is irrelevant.  The Do Good Assassins apparently have not forgotten what it’s like to live with a song cycle from end to end.  The fact that Rome essentially encompasses two complete, distinct and incredibly well done song cycles is mind-blowing.  Ron Hawkins’ songwriting is as stark and beautiful as ever it was.  Steve Singh brings a brighter songwriting dynamic that serves as a very capable, if occasional balance.  The overall musicianship here is thrilling to a music fan.  Nothing is overdone; nothing left unsaid.  Rome has an organic and complete feel that is so often lacking in music today.  This is a must have for any music fan, and a Wildy’s World Certified Desert Island Disc.  This Do Good Assassins will hook you on the first pass and continue to grow on you.

Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)
The Do Good Assassins will be performing a series of album release shows for album during the month of November throughout Ontario and here in Buffalo, NY. 

11/01/12 - The Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, ON
11/02/12 - Mohawk Place, Buffalo, NY
11/03/12 - Mohawk Place, Buffalo, NY
11/09/12 - The Grad Club, Kingston, ON
11/10/12 - The Elmdale House Tavern, Ottawa, ON
11/16/12 - Murphy's Pub - Oshawa, ON
11/17/12 - The Merchant Ale House - St. Catherines, ON

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Stephie Coplan & The Pedestrians

Stephie Coplan & The Pedestrians – Stephie Coplan & The Pedestrians
2012, self-released
If Stephie Coplan can’t find a path to where she wants to be, she makes one.  Her ex-boyfriend tried to tell her she couldn’t make it in music.  Her response?  She dumped him, wrote a song about him (“Jerk!”), and proceeded to get 35,000 hits on YouTube.  Formed in March 2011, Stephie Coplan & The Pedestrians have won or placed in music competitions up and down the East Coast of the U.S.  In that time they have already shared stages with the likes of Cake, The Delta Spirit, Reptar, Bess Rogers and Matt Duke.  Stephie Coplan & The Pedestrians released their self-titled debut EP in January, and even though it’s been out a while now, it’s never too late to catch on to something new and exciting.

Stephie Coplan & The Pedestrians kick things off with the aforementioned “Jerk!”, decrying an ex-boyfriend who did not support her dreams, but whom she continues to be drawn to.  Interpersonal milieu aside, this is an incredibly catchy rocker with big commercial potential.  Coplan’s acerbic take on the situation borders on the tragic/comic divide, but there’s real pop punch behind the power chords.  A Ben Folds-style humor/sarcasm informs “Take Me Back To The Suburbs”, a tongue-in-cheek anthem about suburban flight that will get stuck in your noggin.  “Caroline” is a wonderful little biograph in song, capturing the essence of the subject, who manages to be an amalgam of someone we’ve all known.  Perhaps what’s so impressive is the sonic construction and chemistry of the band, which seems to move almost as one organic unit most of the time.
“Make You Mine” is a song of quiet desperation; of subjugating yourself and your own interests to get what you want.  Personally dysfunctional, but the song is incredibly well written and has an overpowering sense of truth/realism.  “We Don’t Need Much” is a beautifully atypical pop/rock love song that gets down to the heart of what love is about.  The stripped down arrangement artfully represents the philosophy of the song, and it’s clear that Coplan and her band think deeply into the creative process to find the art of each moment rather than simply whipping out songs.  The E.P> closes out with radio edits of “Jerk!” and “Take Me Back To The Suburbs”.

Stephie Coplan & The Pedestrians strike a near-perfect balance between pop and rock and roll on their self-titled, debut EP.  Coplan’s voice is reminiscent of Tanya Donnelly, but her writing style is more in line with that of a young Ben Folds.  Stephie Coplan & The Pedestrians is the sort of debut EP that goes out of print when the artist is eventually signed to a major label and one day gets sold as an expensive collectible on eBay.  The songwriting and sound here have a rough-hewn quality that is charming, but what really impresses is Coplan’s musical vision and her ability to turn a phrase that’s both intelligent and witty while creating some incredibly dynamic sounds on the piano.  It’s not surprising that The Pedestrians are anything but; talent like Coplan’s draws talent.  This is a fabulous debut.
Rating:  4 Stars (Out of 5)

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

With All Due Respect, Mr. President

Dear President Obama,
I have watched and listened now through many months of campaigning and now three nationally broadcast debates.  Aside from your rather listless performance in the first debate, everything else has pretty much been a draw.  I would like to comment on a trend in your campaign however; a trend that culminated in what I must say was a less than impressive performance in the final debate.  You spoke at the Al Smith dinner just last week of having great personal respect for Mr. Romney, yet everything about your tone and bearing last night was condescending, and bordered on the sort of social bullying behavior you might expect to see in a junior high classroom.

Several of your responses to your opponent reflected outright disrespect and belittling of a reasoned opinion that does not agree with your own.  This was done at a debate over foreign policy, which is really all about diplomacy and management of relationships with individuals whose interests often diverge from your own.  Mr. Romney underscored his willingness to work with others, yet you sat there and derided differing opinions as if they were stupid. Rather than taking the opportunity to educate others as to why you believe your opinions and policies are better, you chose to imply that your opponent, and his supporters, are dumb.
I am certain this shored up your base; as certain as I am that you hurt yourself with those who were still on the fence.  You derided Mr. Romney for thinking that the military is like playing a game of battleship, yet it is you who appeared last night to be thinking about the military as a game.  Your essential assertion that aircraft carriers are the be-all, end-all shows a complete lack of understanding of warfare.  The United States has not fought a complex military engagement since World War II, and while carriers are a great asset in such situations, they are also the largest targets on the water.  With the development of new missile technologies in China meant to neutralize aircraft carriers, it is necessary to have sufficient craft at sea to support and protect our large assets.

You seem, Mr. President, to have bought into the notion that air superiority is all that is needed.  From your reliance on aircraft carriers and your derision of bayonets underscores a lack of understanding that wars are still won on the ground.  It’s not the pilot screaming overhead who stabilizes the situation, but the men and women on the ground.  They are the ones who secure U.S. objectives in war time; they are the ones in the sights of the enemy; they are the ones who must constantly be on the watch for IEDs or opponents wearing friendly garb.  And sometimes in the heat of battle, the only thing left between you and your opponent might be the bayonet you so openly derided last night.
Mr. President, in foreign policy and in domestic communications, we need a leader who is gracious but strong; someone who can explain issues of import without putting down those who are listening.  We need a leader who can, as Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”  That is not what I saw on television last night, sir.  What I saw was a man who sunk to petty jabs and, frankly, unbecoming theatrics to counter arguments he doesn’t have answers for.  It’s not the tenor or image projected by your campaign in recent weeks, either.  Now Mr. President, I voted for your four years ago.  I was one of your biggest supporters early on; but it’s become increasingly clear that you have forgotten how this relationship works.  That is to say, you work for us, not the other way around.  We’ve had this conversation before; it’s in your file.  I’m afraid you might want to clean out your desk, sir.  Your interests and the interests of the United States of America are no longer the same.  You’re fired, Mr. President.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Rob Morsberger - A Part Of You

Rob Morsberger - A Part Of You
2012, Hieroglyph Records
Rob Morsberger is the sort of guy who makes things happen musically.  A singer, songwriter and composer, Morsberger’s work has been featured on PBS’ NOVAScience/NOW, Frontline and Masterpiece Theater.  As a sideman, he’s worked with My Morning Jacket, Patti Smith, Crash Test Dummies, Loudon Wainwright III, Marshall Crenshaw, Willie Nile and others.  But it’s Morsberger’s solo work that’s most intriguing.  His previous albums have been a mix of eclectic and literate pop songs with hooks impale your ears and drag you along for the ride.  Morsberger recently released two new albums, one of which we are reviewing today.  A Part Of You is written from the perspective of a father diagnosed with terminal brain cancer for his young son; an attempt to leave a lasting message and gift to see him through his growing up years.
It would be easy to see such a work in terms of darkness, but while living in a valley of shadows, Morsberger projects light on A Part Of You.  The album opens with the contemplative and beautiful "This Isn't Kindness", exploring the human struggle to differentiate charity from love. It is a song of thanks and a teaching moment from father to son. "The Russian Cartographer" is an adept allegory for Morsberger's own live, swapping out an artist who maps people and emotions in song for a Man who delineates boundaries and landmarks for others to follow. It's a beautiful biograph in song with some deeply personal connections.

"An Inside Place" is deeply reminiscent at times of Sting's songwriting on The Soul Cages. The sense of being trapped within oneself transforms into an urgent need to be heard done up in Baroque pop undertones. The transition is vital, and in its own elemental way, beautiful. "The Man And The Birds" is a powerful take on overcoming death. As Death himself looks on, birds come down and lift a man out of his reach. The spiritual allegory between birds and angels is unmistakable, and the imagery has a sort of classical beauty. Brad Roberts adds his distinctive baritone voice here in duet to create an amazing split between light and darkness.

"Maydianne" finds Morsberger taking a break from deeper reflections for a love story told in song. If the Beatles ever wrote in a classical romanticism hue it might sound a lot like this. Issues of spirituality, art and legacy are in play in "Jacob Wrestles With An Angel". Morsberger's path to discovery here is fraught with more questions than answers, reflecting an incredibly real negotiation to find meaning in the fleeting valley between birth and death.

"Cancer Road" is a hauntingly beautiful exploration of life's sometimes surprising curves. The piano- driven arrangement is simple and full if peace, as perspective puts understanding in its proper place. Morsberger is at his most powerful in "A Part Of You", a live song from father to son. The heavily orchestrated arrangement is the perfect complement, as Morsberger creates an eternal greeting in place of words of parting.

"A Good Laugh" is painted against an eccentric and unsettled arrangement seemingly representing the chaos of life. In it, Morsberger reminds listeners that the greatest tragedy of all is not learning to laugh at life. He makes this point by including the infectious laughter of his son Elan. If this doesn't bring a smile to your face then you've forgotten how to listen. A Part Of You closes with "You Son", a sweet love ballad from father to son that is personal and universal all at once.

Rob Morsberger continues to grow as an artist, and in the act of A Part Of You has crafted his most affecting and personal work to date. Informed by the tragedy of a death foretold, Morsberger finds the vitality of life in the love of his son. You might liken his efforts to turning lemons into lemonade, but with A Part Of You Morsberger comes much closer to turning water into wine. A Part Of You is nothing less than a Wildy's World Certified Desert Island Disc.

Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)
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Friday, October 19, 2012

P.J. Pacifico - Surface

P.J. Pacifico – Surface
2012, Viper Records
P.J. Pacifico has spent the past few years quietly building himself up from a well-liked regional artist to one with name recognition across the country. The Connecticut-based singer/songwriter has a penchant for folk/pop numbers with big hooks.  Pacifico’s most recent effort, Surface, loses none of that flavor, but does find Pacifico expanding his sound greatly.  The hooks and folk influence are still there, but Pacifico has begun to write the sort of songs that can get big crowds on their feet.

Surface opens with the upbeat and hopeful feel of "Half Wishing", a mid-tempo rocker about taking chances and hope for the future. This is a good place to start for Pacifico as it makes the best use of his bright and eccentric voice. "Champions And Guardians" is a wistful power anthem about the changing of the guard written in the first person. Pacifico creates the sort of sonic cadence that brings arenas to light with swaying fans and their smart phones.

Much the same can be said for "Something Nobody Knows", a wistful ballad about having the courage to let go. Once again there is a swaying cadence that is irresistible, and Pacifico manages to create a bit of magic in its midst. "Surface" finds Pacifico straying far from his listeners with a dreamy and diffuse ballad about change. Sonically pretty, it's just a bit too consistent thematically with what's come before, and seems likely to lull listeners into a musical slumber.

Change comes on "Lucky Bound", an upbeat blend of Americana and pop about biding your time and preparing yourself for success. This subtle and thoughtful piece of songwriting is catchy, and carries with it the weight of wisdom. Pacifico's cover of the Christopher Cross hit "Sailing" is organic and warm, but is cut from a rougher cloth than the original. There is more melancholy here, but it works.

"It'll Never End" has an introspective, naval gazing quality to it that is meant wants to be deep but doesn't quite hit the mark. In this case Pacifico ends up sounding a bit whiny. "Smiling Away" has more vitality even as it digs deeper into the intellectual side of loss. It's a fine bit of songwriting that's based in heartache and reflection. Surface winds down with "Hold Me, Austin", a song of letting go. In one of the most poignant moments if the album, Pacifico explores losing yourself as the path to a new beginning.

P.J. Pacifico continues the transition from unknown artist to star on Surface.  Songs of loss, reflection, survival and moving on are the prime directive on Surface, and Pacifico does get a big bogged down in the darkness at times, but then he throws a bright shining hook your way and moves in a song about hope and new tomorrows.  In short, Pacifico takes you to the edge and then pulls you back, just like any great story-teller.  The feel might be heavy at times, but Pacifico always seems to know when to step on the gas.  Surface is Pacifico’s finest work to date.

Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Anya Parker-Lentz - The Giving

Anya Parker-Lentz - The Giving
2012, Anya Parker-Lentz
The first time you see Anya Parker-Lentz you might think she’s a typical American teenage girl.  You would be wrong.  Parker-Lentz has an understanding of link between art and life that extends far beyond her sixteen years.  Her debut EP, The Giving, shows the growing pains of youth, but also the powerful talent that causes people who have never heard her before to stop and listen.

The Giving opens with "Staredown", a modern teen pop love song with a quietly memorable chorus. Parker-Lentz' voice is a wonderfully enigmatic alto that calls to mind a mix of Stevie Nicks and Alexa Ray Joel. "Not Trying To Hurt You" is a maudlin ballad with solid pop sensibility. Derived from a simple piano riff into a minimalist arrangement, this number feels heavy and never manages to soar in spite of an appealing chorus. "Stuck In Limbo" is an emotionally drawn ballad of longing and pain. The song is well constructed but feels forced lyrically.

"The Giving" explores a martyrdom concept of love in stilted, awkward turns of language. Parker-Lentz manages to achieve an AAA radio sound here; if she can smooth out the lyrical struggles she just might have a hit on her hands. "Wake Up Alice" begins as a dark and chaotic waltz but quickly resolves into a sing-song take on teenage angst seen through the eyes of Lewis Carroll's most famous protagonist. Parker-Lentz calls out a dysfunctional love in "Walking Out". She's fully on the mark this time out, with a strident melody and catchy hook. The Giving comes to a quiet close with "Lullaby", which is too dark and full of shadows to be restful. This is the best track on the EP, showing a growing maturity in Parker-Lentz as a songwriter.

Anya Parker-Lentz is still quite young at the tender age of 16. Her enigmatic voice can make that easy to forget at times, even as her awkward lyrical stumbles serve as a reminder. The Giving is a mix of blessings and blemishes, but clearly shows a burgeoning talent struggling to break free from the chains of adolescence.

Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Kathy Muir - Far From Entirely

Kathy Muir - Far From Entirely
2012, Kathy Muir
Kathy Muir grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and like so many other singers cut her teeth on first hymns, and later folk music from her church.  Over time she has garnered significant jazz and blues influences.  These days she writes on the edge of acoustic folk and rock, with a quiet energy that runs throughout her songs.  Those jazz, blues, and occasionally even country influences break through at unexpected times however, meaning you never really know what Kathy Muir might do next.  This unpredictability is highly evident on Muir’s debut album, Far From Entirely.

Muir opens up with the restrained and polished country/pop of Jezebel. This song feels like it should have more weight than it does. Muir's voice is solid, as she stays within a compact, comfortable range. "Heaven In Your Eyes" is a low key, mid- tempo song of love and longing. Intense emotion is conveyed in a diffuse and non-committal arrangement without any real spark.  There's a bit more life to "Sweet And Easy" in spite of the mellow arrangement. Muir is fully engaged here, singing with a quiet passion of the discoveries of new love. Things get a bit funky on "Come Undone", with Muir swinging her way through another love song. The slinky feel is a wake up of sorts, and one of the better musical moments encountered here.

"One Step Away" has a melody that's instantly familiar, but becomes a victim of its own low energy. Things pick up significantly on "Ties Of Love", which has a quietly vibrant chorus and a sense o urgency you can't shake. "Fairytale Lies" has the same urgent energy, as Muir swears off fairy tales as a relationship archetype in a compact country rocker.  Synth rock is the prime directive on "You Surround Me", a pyramidal musical structure based on one simple piano line. Muir builds the sounds through layers, but true crescendo and decrescendo would make this more vital. Muir stumbles through the meandering landscape of "The Piano Plays A Melody". Listeners may feel lost amidst the nearly free- form rhyme structure ad disjointed lyrical constructs used here. Muir closes on a positive note with "Dream Of The Night", a passionate and swarthy rocker that moves with its own inner life.

Kathy Muir lives through some musical highs and lows on Far From Entirely. In her best moments she engages listeners with a solid, comfortable voice and an easy going vocal style. The songwriting is generally well thought out and executed, and any sins noted above are forgivable in the context of the album as a whole. All in all, consider Far From Entirely to be a very cordial introduction to Kathy Muir.
Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)
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Friday, October 12, 2012

Nelson Wright - Still Burning

Nelson Wright – Still Burning
2012, Nelson Wright
What can you say about a folk singer whose photo appears on the cover of the classic Woodstock album and whose inventions are in the Smithsonian?  You’re certain to think of much to say about Nelson Wright as you listen to his album Still Burning.  The northeast U.S. native and northwest émigré is thriving in Seattle’s nouveau art-folk music scene.  Wright trades on the currency of well-written songs and artfully delivered stories that bring people, places and moments to life with flashes of intelligence and wit. 

Wright kicks off with “Worse Things”, a deliciously bluesy folk love song that recounts all the ways his life could be worse than being with the one he loves.  Wright’s rough hewn voice fits perfectly amidst his rather prodigious guitar riffs, and his sense of humor is somewhere between Lyle Lovett and Randy Newman.  Wright paints a picture of a roadhouse and a young lady looking for a way out in “Five Feet Under”.  If the name implies that something doesn’t quite measure up, the story confirms this as fact.  It’s a tale youth escaping from desolation and pain through music.  The resolution is, perhaps, a continuing story, but there are sufficient tension and potential plot lines to turn the song into a movie.
Nelson Wright displays a unique ability to spin tales in song.  “Time To Choose” takes a slightly different tack, laying out the story of a relationship on the edge in one-sided dialogue.  The vocal lines are accompanied and occasionally broken by some heartbreaking electric blues riffs on guitar.  Angst, anger and pain are wrapped up in each tremulous note as they crash upon the shore of indecision.  “No Second Chances” follows a more traditional folk route, exploring with melancholy air the transitive nature of relationships and the fact that those lost rarely come back.  Wright mixes melancholy and regret here with an almost clinical nature; a knowing observation in song.

In “Red Wing”, Wright recalls a brief liaison from his younger days with sadness: “there are tricks that time can play; the cruelest one is called regret.”  The image of a white sun dress becomes the icon of a magic moment that can never be recovered, but will always live in his mind.  “Burnin’” explores heartbreak from a gritty, dysfunctional perspective.  He’s trying to shake her and knows she’s nothing but heartbreak, but can’t put out the fire inside.  There’s a sense of urgency here that’s palpable, drawn out in the edgy blues/folk guitar work, and little resolution in the end.  It’s a well-written tune that leaves the listener on the edge that the singer seems to feel.
“It Ends With My Longing For You” may well be a continuation of the same story written with the perspective of time.  Where “Burnin’” is in the immediate aftermath and is full of the urgent longing of heartbreak, “It Ends With My Longing For You” is written perhaps years later from a depth of melancholy and understanding.  The contrast of the two songs is appealing, and Wright particularly nails the melody on the latter song. 

“February Thaw” is an intriguing little song about unrequited love.  The songwriter falls in love with someone whose heart has been made cold by experience and is simply waiting for the weather to change.  This song is a thing of beauty, written in the plaintive but determined tones of a man who intends to wait out the winter no matter how long it takes.  “Trouble In Mind” tells a story of young love against the backdrop of a vibrant Zydeco-fueled arrangement.  The song is catchy and vibrant, and the dueling guitar and violin solos threaten to rip the roof off of wherever they are played.  After spending much of “Still Burnin’” exploring stories of love lost or faded, Wright finishes off with a story about today.  “Unfinished Business” finds Wright headed out with nothing but a picture of the woman he loves.  His intent; to find her and finished what they once left behind.  It’s a carpe diem song, of sorts, but with a very personal investment.  The song is well-written and full of heart.
Nelson Wright crafts songs born from experience, deep thought, and ultimately, from the heart.  There isn’t a moment on “Still Burnin’” that isn’t somehow tinged with personal experiences.  Wright eschews cynicism and theatrics, focusing on the truths each moment brings as he sees them, occasionally moving around in time to offer different perspectives on the same theme.  The conclusion is that permanence is what we make of it, or as Wright sings, “there ain’t no forever, there’s only never lettin’ go.”  These simple truths are delivered in a mix of arrangements simple and complex, but full of the simple beauty of pure heart.

Rating:  4 Stars (Out of 5)
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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Amanda Ply - Runaway

Amanda Ply – Runaway
2012, Amanda Ply
For Amanda Ply it all started with Beethoven and “Fur Elise”.  Her discovery of a snow globe in a gift shop at the age of six turned the world upside down for Ply, who went home and began to teach herself to pick out songs by ear on an old piano.  Ply quickly graduated to classical piano training, which she took for ten years.  She spent the next decade developing her craft as a performer and songwriter.  Now, at the tender age of 25 years, Ply is an honest and engaging songwriter who has found her own singular voice.  Ply is currently touring in support of her EP, Runaway.

Runaway opens with "A Lovin' That Heals", a gentle pop ballad with mild country undertones. The classic feel to this tune makes it easy to listen to, and Ply's exceedingly pleasant voice is a breath of fresh air. "I Secretly" is a solid pop ballad with a memorable chorus. If there’s one complaint it’s that Ply spends a bit too much energy on vocal stylistics in this number. "Let's Just Fall In Love" is a bubblegum ballad that's easy on the ears but doesn't make a deep impression.

Ply brings out her soulful side on "Like That", calling out a feckless lover and threatening him with the big kiss off if he doesn't toe the line. This is the most entertaining and vital track on the album, and has major potential as a name maker for Amanda Ply. Continuing her chameleon-like shifts, Ply launches into the R&B groove of "Messy Little Piece Of Beautiful", a vibrant pop number with serious commercial legs. Ply sounds totally together here, knocking out a lyrical stream that would make Jason Mraz proud in a soulful voice you won't soon forget.
Amanda Ply takes listeners for a ride on Runaway, changing genres and styles as regularly as Celine Dion changes outfits.  The fact that she pulls it off without any major breakdowns is even more impressive.  Ply has the ability to appeal to a very wide range of fans based on her current approach to crafting songs; and her easy vocal style and elastic voice are more than worth tuning in for.  This might just be one of the most intriguing musical introductions you’ll have in 2012.

Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)
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May Stands Still - When You Come Home

May Stands Still - When You Come Home
2012, Milestone Music Studios

Los Angeles based singer/songwriter Emily Herndon is the driving force behind May Stands Still.  Working with a group of brilliant musicians, Herndon creates edgy folk music that blurs the line between folk and rock and roll.  Her lyrical aptitude, refreshing honesty and musical surety have made her a favorite on the west coast, and she is a top-5 artist in L.A. on ReverbNation.  May Stands Still received critical praise for their 2010 debut EP, Matter Of Time, but she raises the bar on the soon to be released When You Come Home, a collection of eleven literate and heartfelt folk/pop songs that have staying power.
May Stands Still starts off with the smart and peppy melancholy of "Gotta See". This is a mixed bag of emotions that is mildly tragic and utterly moving. "Wild" is an ode to someone who is able to create a sort of social magic from the stage. Once again May Stands Still wallows in deep and conflicting emotions and an utterly tuneful melody. "I Want You" is a classic song of love and longing that ends Ina wonderfully uncertain resolution. The song is well written and artfully performed; a definite highlight.

"New Groove" carries it with the energy and motivation brought on by new love, as well as the angst it brings. This is a nice snapshot at the inner thoughts that swirl around the fall. "Soldier" carries a dark beauty; informed by some Celtic influenced violin and some amazing vocal harmonies. This is a moving piece that will haunt you, particularly if you, like the song's narrator, are waiting for someone you know and love to return from deployment overseas. May Stands Still takes a surprising turn on "Make Me", building a solid groove in a song of self confidence and rugged determination.

"Sleeping Alone" is a beautiful moment of indecision and vulnerability where she explores her fear of dropping her defenses to let love in and her lack of fear of loneliness. "Wherever You Are" is a one sided conversation with a loved one who has passed away that communicates in real and heartfelt terms the worries that follow in the wake of loss.

"Raina" is a love song for the sort of free spirits everyone roots for here. The emotional lines blur here, as Herndon sings from her melancholy depths of real joy. "Falling" explores another aspect of happiness. Falling in love is compared to dreams, with reality the waking up. The orchestration here is beautiful, and the emotional weight of the song is wrapped in a beauty that keeps it buoyant. When You Come Home closes in appropriately melancholy tones with the lovely and quietly heartbreaking "Blue June".   Emily Herndon is at her best here, and the song rolls out her heartbreak like honey from a jar.

May Stands Still makes a mark on listeners.  Emily Herndon sings with the same quiet reserve and vocal beauty that made Margo Timmons and Cowboy Junkies famous.  At the same time, there’s a world of emotion going on in Herndon’s voice, which is rich and a pleasure to listen to.  The songwriting here is certainly worth taking note of as well.  May Stands Still has a lot to say, and wraps each story in such beauty you’re likely to be transfixed.
Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Jackopierce - Everywhere All The Time

Jackopierce – Everywhere All The Time
2012, Jackopierce
When I first heard Jackopierce it was 1995.  The radio was full of the dying vestiges of Grunge and the early roots of what would become known as alternate rock.  And out of nowhere are these two guys with two acoustic guitars, wonderful voices and a sense of vocal harmony that was flawless.  The songwriting had its ups and downs, as with any artist, but Jack O’Neill and Cary Pierce always seemed to pull each song off with an unpretentious panache.  The party ended a few years later, but Jackopierce simply would not stay in mothballs.  A series of annual shows turned into an album and then additional tours.  Now in 2012, Jackopierce steps into the limelight again with their latest album, Everywhere All The Time.

Jackopierce kicks things off with "Into Me", a song written by a guy who can't believe his luck in catching the attention of the most beautiful girl in town. Remarkably radio ready for the adult contemporary set, Jackopierce take it to the next level here. “Finally Free” is a smooth, compact, adult-oriented rock and roll love song. There's a solid groove here that makes your feet want to move. “Around Me Now” is highly published AOR balladry that is perhaps a bit too smooth for its own good.  “We Can Work It Out” digs into relationship rock, bordering on cliché with solid if occasionally awkward lyrics full of positive thoughts.

Jackopierce gets back to their roots on “Listen To Me”, a wonderful story song that relies on melody and vocal harmonies to soar. “Alright By Me” moves back into the arena rock tendencies that are the apparent oeuvre of Everywhere All The Time. The chorus is memorable, and the guitar work has a comfortable feel that fits perfectly here, although the metaphors are perhaps a bit out o left field.

The momentum falters a bit for “Change Your Mind” and “Killin Me”. The former built on solid energy but a bit too pro-forma in construction; the latter just too languorous by half.  Once again Jackopierce carries these tunes on force of personality, but as a long time listener these just fall a bit flat.  Fighting for a relationship is the theme of “Let Go Of Me”.  The vocal line is perfectly crafted, an ideal match to the melody.  Jackopierce keeps things simple here, and is rewarded with a moment of musical beauty.  “Lonely” keeps the same vibe in a song of questing for love.  This one feels highly personal, even as Jackopierce paints the concepts of the song in metaphor, simile and harmony.  Everywhere All The Time closes out with a reggae version of “Three Of Us In A Boat”.  While the song itself has life, and indeed is something of a fan favorite, the reggae-style arrangement just falls flat.
Jackopierce are still making greatly music nearly a quarter of a century after they started out.  The songs are generally well-written, and the voices have never been as sweet.  The occasional rough spot here is more than made up for by the musical immersion that surrounds it. Jackopierce continues to make great music.  Everywhere All The Time does provide a bit more musical sound that the songs from back in the day.  This occasionally leads to rough spots, but Jackopierce almost always wins out in the end.

Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)
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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Elijah Tucker - Saturn

Elijah Tucker – Saturn
2012, Elijah Tucker
Boy meets jam bands; falls in love; goes on to become a musician.

That is the story line of Elijah Tucker in a nutshell.  Growing up in Washington, D.C., it was the sound of Phish, Rusted Root and the Grateful Dead that turned Tucker onto music.  At the age of twelve he began studying guitar, flute and drums all at the same time.  There was no looking back from there.  Tucker was writing songs within two years, and even collected donations from classmates to buy his first four-track.  He paid them all back by donating proceeds from sales of his tapes to the class trip.  Tucker went on to success at Bard college as a member  of jam bands Mother Ming and TheFoundation, sharing stages with the likes of George Clinton, Brad Meldau, Mercury Rev, The Slip and others.  Fast forward to 2012, and Elijah Tucker is on the cusp of releasing his second solo album, Saturn.  Tucker evokes all the joys of rock and roll on Saturn, but underscores it with a thoughtfulness and maturity that is compelling.
Tucker opens with “Gimme Gimme”, which perhaps could be sub-titled ‘The Narcissists Love Song’.  Delivered in a catchy early 1960’s rock arrangement, the song has a heart of pure pop gold.  “Crazy Things” will make you want to dance.  Tucker pulls out elements of classic soul and funk, and accents it all with a horn section you could imagine Tower of Power chiming in to.  It’s an entertaining number that you’ll find yourself repeating.  “A Crimson Gleam” is a wonderfully catchy mid-tempo rocker; a love songs of sort but written from a pessimist’s perspective.  What drives this song is a deliriously messy guitar lick that’s dark and lascivious; it gets inside your head and refuses to budge. 

Tucker digs into bluesy soul for “Kickin’ Snow”, an image-filled expanse on futile frustration.  The guitar and organ-drive arrangement have a classic sound, but Tucker helps his cause with an emotive vocal line that alternates tension and resolution in masterful style.  Little turns of phrase ice the cake here, as Tucker completes one of the most finely crafted songs of the outing here.  “O Pain! Piano” has a bouncy melancholy feel that’s reminiscent of some of Billy Joel’s early work, but also involves some silly word play that lightens the mood.  Tucker is at his vocal best here.
Touches of Latin and soul help infuse “Amos And Boris” with uncanny warmth, which keeps the interest up in what is otherwise a fairly simple, straightforward and unremarkable number.  This is a great job of dressing up a song.  Tucker’s take on “If I Only Had A Brain” is ingenious, sounding more than a bit like Ray Charles.  There is life in the arrangement, meted out in swung rhythms and an inspired vocal line.  Tucker closes things out with “Whoa Daddy”, a cute and entertaining number that’s more afterthought than strong close.

Some might say that Elijah Tucker suffers something of a musical identity crisis on Saturn.  He changes styles and sounds so often on the album it might make your head spin.  The thing is, Tucker is bloody good at almost anything he touches.  There are a lot of post-genre acts out there who say that no style or sound is off the table, but few make the transitions in between as well as Elijah Tucker.  That being said, Saturn is a bit chaotic at times, but chaotic in the way a good party is:  running with a life of its own but never quite out of control.
Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

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