All it takes is 3 chords and a dream!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Break of Reality - Ten


Break of Reality – Ten
2014, Break of Reality

Eastman School of Music alum Break of Reality has been plying its distinct brand of cello rock for nearly a decade now.  The New York City-based quartet has released a series of albums that run the gamut from original tunes to dynamic covers; developing a dedicated following.  The band recently released their fifth album; a collection of original tunes entitled Ten.

Ten opens with the self-referential strains of “Helix”, driven by a serious rock and roll sensibility.  Lyric and percussive cello lines intertwine, with percussion providing a sense of sanity and stability.  The energy here is tremendous, and Break of Reality sounds like they’re ready to explode.  The listener is wrapped up in a revolving wall of sound from the outset.  “Storm’s End” is a highly artistic piece of baroque pop.  The rhythms are pure rock and roll, yet the melody line has an early Italian madrigal feel.  This is serious music for fans of classical music, film scores and unusual rock and roll hybrids.  Break of Reality explores gorgeous and complex moods on “Star”, building pensive swells with a sagacious sense of internal energy.  The band uses dual melody lines that circumscribe beauty with an edge of minor key darkness.

“Drift Apart” begins with a rhythmic pizzicato base and adding a lyric, mid-to-low range melody line.  You’ll want to close your eyes and soak in the depth and breadth of sound here; it’s simply gorgeous.  “Nine Deep” has a dark and percussive underpinning.  The lyric melodic build is right out front, creating an atmosphere that is powerful and moving.  Break of Reality changes moods with “Light the Fuse”, a quietly rolling composition that transitions into a thunderous dance.  “Uprising” begins with an aboriginal sound; an ancient feel to the percussion.  Break of Reality takes a more atmospheric approach this time, building musical scenery that is lush and full of dramatic turns.

“Levy” is a pensive and perambulating piece; an intriguing orchestral still life full of movement and color.  The band transitions on “Other Worlds” to more of a mid-range musical score sound.  There’s a bit too much center in this recording, particularly in the early going, but this is more an issue of production than of composition.  The breaks in this piece have a stunningly dark beauty in them full of rhythms and tonal rhyme.  Ten closes with “Six”, with Break of Reality utilizing layered melody lines and incorporating glock and xylophone in with their distinctive 3-cello sound.  There’s a lazy energy that runs throughout the piece, and at five minutes in length this might become a bit overwhelming, but it is a quietly ambitious effort that is off the beaten path.

Break of Reality reaches for new heights on Ten, going all original with a stylistic approach that blends the best elements of classical, rock and pop music styles.  The compositions on Ten are highly original and full of life, and Break of Reality use killer phrasing and a nearly flawless sense of timing and presence to build a collection of songs that will live in your mind long after the tunes have faded from your ears.

Rating:  4.5 Stars (Out of 5)

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Blue Skies For Black Hearts - Blue Skies For Black Hearts

Blue Skies For Black Hearts – Blue Skies For Black Hearts
2014, Blue Skies For Black Hearts

Blues Skies For Black Hearts are a Portland, Oregon quintet with serious pop sensibilities and power pop tendencies.  Blending heavy 1970s and 1980s influences with a modern AAA sound, the band has a consistently accessible sound that has carried them through 12 years, 5 albums and a number of lineup changes.  Their forthcoming self-titled album, due July 15, 2014, continues in the band’s tradition of working class, sweet sounding rock and roll.

Blue Skies For Black Hearts opens with "Keep On Keeping On", an easy going rocker with a memorable, easy to sing chorus. "It's Gone On Too Long" is a catchy Americana rocker with vibrant yet easy on the ears guitar work. Vocalist Pat Kearns has a down home sound that's appealing, and this song slips into your ears like butter on warm toast. "Nothing Came In The Mail" is a solid album cut that's accessible but doesn't call attention to itself.   "Love Songs" finds BSFBH reaching back into the 1950's for a mellow pop ballad sound. This works well, save for the messy backing vocals.  "You Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dog" has great energy and a decidedly low-fi aesthetic that will find it kicking around your head for hours.

"Waiting To Run" is a gentle pop rocker about the imminent failure of a commitment. The pop sensibility and guitar work here calls a resemblance to Blue Rodeo, with a lonely vocal flourish that can only be laid at the feet of Brian Wilson. "The Past" is a middle of the road rocker, a solid album cut. "Don't Look Back" is a catchy little rocker that sounds like it should be a cover tune. Various elements of the song will be highly familiar to fans of classic rock. BSFBH closes with "Back Home", a nondescript number that's more numbing than anything else. While sonically safe, the song doesn't do much to call listeners back again.

Blues Skies For Black Hearts succeeds in promulgating a sound that’s steeped in the past but ready for the moment.  The band’s sixth album is their smoothest and most appealing to date.  Blues Skies For Black Hearts spend most of their time hidden away in the Northwest, but do have some planned dates coming up in California this July.  Catch them if you can.

Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Rachael Sage - New Destination [EP]

New Destination

Rachael Sage – New Destination
2014, MPress Records

Rachael Sage is a four-time Independent Music Award winning singer, songwriter, actor and sometime Comedienne.  With 11 full-length albums under her belt and numerous collaborations, it is hard to imagine Sage finding something new to accomplish.  Nevertheless, her latest release, an EP entitled New Destination, is a first for Sage.  Recorded primarily in her home studio, the songwriting on New Destination brings the intimate feel of a Rachael Sage show into the studio.  It also features some of her best songwriting to date.

Sage opens with the title track, with a bit more of an aggressive sound than you might be used to from her.  The bed of the song is still built with piano, cello, guitar and drums, but the verses have a workmanlike feel.  The chorus rises out of that atmosphere with an uplifting and hopeful melody and message.  This might be the most commercially friendly song Sage has produced in a while, and could be a breakout hit for pop radio in spite of the largely acoustic palette.  You’ll be hitting replay on this tune over and over, and you won’t be able to get it out of your head.  “Wax” is a thoroughly unsettled pop experience full of anguished beauty.  The rolling piano and metronomic rhythm section set the tone, as Sage’s soul searching creates a visceral ‘a-ha’ moment. 

“Misery’s Grace” is a cleverly disguised waltz with a gorgeous instrumental bed.  Sage holds the center with a personal and personable performance that’s straight from the heart.  It’s also one of the most striking vocal performances heard from her to date.  “Not Leaving You” is among Sage’s most affecting and personal songs, a strong statement about an artist who makes a point of coming straight from the heart.  There’s a distinctive polish to this tune, and yet there’s an elemental feel to the songwriting that manages to not get lost in the studio.  This is a brilliant love ballad that’s fit for a movie soundtrack, or perhaps even a Billboard bullet.

Brilliant is a word that gets thoroughly overused in reviews of this sort.  But it’s a word that’s entirely apropos in this case.  Rachael Sage combines brilliant, compact and heartfelt songwriting, professional polish and an elemental feel throughout the four songs on New Destination.  This is some of her finest work to date, and reflects, perhaps, a new stage in her career.  Given the recent attention her music has received on-line, Rachael Sage is on the cusp of the sort of breakout that Indie musicians everywhere dream of.  Whatever tomorrow brings, New Destination is a place where you’ll want to me.  It’s a Wildy’s World Certified Desert Island Disc.

Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)

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Monday, May 26, 2014

War Poets - American Police State

American Police State: 8:05 On a Saturday Night

War Poets - American Police State
2014, War Poets

Minneapolis-based War Poets is comprised of bassist/vocalist Jenny Case and vocalist/guitarist Rex Habeman, but the band is more than it appears.  Born of the songwriting of some of the best musicians in the Midwest, War Poets strives to bring a mix of socially conscious songwriting, fun rock and roll and serious ballads in their performances and recordings.  War Poets plans three new recordings to be released during 2014.  The first is American Police State

American Police State opens with "Better Place", a low key song of hope with melancholy undertones.  This leads into the high intensity of "Closing In", which is contained in a powerful rock arrangement with faint hints of an old school R&B back beat. There's a vibrant energy here, driven by an overt sense of societal angst. War Poets chill on "8:05 On a Saturday Night", a stumbling ballad with silk-soaked country guitar and talk/rap vocal style. This is a mess, but an intriguing one that pushes convincingly against traditional genre boundaries.  "Where Love Has Gone" lives according to storytelling style that's monotonous in approach. When War Poets get to the chorus and the subsequent bridge they come alive, but the song has a choppy road getting there. The EP closes with "Red Lake", a middle of the road closer that suffers from a lack of real energy and dynamics.

American Police State has its moments, but the effort is uneven and at times, unconvincing.  There’s an eye for storytelling here, but also a sense that sometimes the intended message overrides the musical decisions that may seem most natural.  War Poets certainly have talent and an admirable social intent, but the elements just don’t seem to jell here.

Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out of 5)

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Mike Delledera Band - WakeUpSideDowntown


Mike Delledera Band – WakeUpSideDowntown
2014, Ivy Productions, Inc.

Brooklyn-based artist Mike Delledera is an imaginative singer/songwriter whose influences range the
gamut from 1970’s psychedelic rock to 21st century pop-rock.  Together with a group of longtime musical friends and cohorts as The Mike Delledera Band, Mike recently released his full-length debut album, WakeUpSideDowntown.  It is an uneven yet highly ambitious effort that places The Mike Delledera Band squarely on the need to know list.

WakeUpSideDowntown opens with "Silver Ruby Diamond Blues", a sweet honky-tonk style romp with quasi pop-cabaret flair. This is a great tune to open with; a memorable toe-tapper that you can't sit through. The piano work here is serious business, and the country style electric guitar is exquisite lot done. "Sugar Face" is a soul-romp of a love song. Catchy but very simple, with cloying lyrics that sound like a novelty tune.  "Gypsy Soul" is an ultra-smooth piece of 1970's AM radio pop, and leads into the island rhythms and abject silliness of "Bounce".

Delledera then leads his band into the emotional wastelands of "Zen", three plus minutes of painful naval gazing melancholy. While well crafted musically, the lyrics and vocal take on a laborer feel. "Main Street USA" has a bit more pop to it, donning a hip 1970's soul funk rhythm with backing vocals to match. This has a nice feel, but makes the mistake of incorporating a rap that tries to sound liberal but manages to botch ideologies from both sides of the political spectrum.

"Can't Stop Rockin'" has a funky groove and gets caught in your brain until the chorus comes along and the vibe falls apart.   This could turn into something big with the right chorus.  "Broken Angel" is a messy pop/rocker with some nice musical components. Lyrically weak, the son is too steady musically to make much of an impression. The Mike Delledera Band closes with "The Music Echoes On", a reflection on the power of music and its connection to life events. There's some serious country posture to the guitar work here, but the net effect is somewhat cloying as the song progresses.

The songwriting on WakeUpSideDowntown is messy and uneven at times, with lyrics that occasionally manage to gum up the works.  Delledera gets it right more often than not, though, and the musical content of the album is well-crafted.  The interplay between the members of The Mike Delledera Band is crisp, professional and highly original.  This is an ensemble that has found its niche, and Delledera is honing his skills as a songwriter.  It’s a very solid start, and promises even better for the future.

Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Gabrielle Aplin - English Rain [EP]

Gabrielle Aplin - English Rain [EP]
2013, Parlophone International

Gabrielle Aplin’s story of discovery is very familiar.  The Sutton Benger, England native recorded covers of popular songs and published them on YouTube (ala Justin Bieber).  Though still quite young, Aplin impresses with a budding maturity as a songwriter.  With musical tastes honed on the likes of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, Aplin has developed a very personal story-telling style. Aplin’s third EP, English Rain, peaked at #2 in the UK.  This spring she receives her first introduction to U.S. crowds, with dates between now and May 21, 2014 on the West Coast.

English Rain opens with "Panic Cord", a peppy little relationship post-mortem with brilliant folk/pop sensibilities. Aplin's voice has an ethereal quality vaguely reminiscent of Kate Miller-Heidke, and she has a delightfully conversational lyric style that's a perfect complement. Aplin's cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case Of You" is esoteric and not without charm, but lacks the emotional presence of the original.  "Please Don't Say You Love Me" finds Aplin exploring the early routes of romance with adept musical and lyrical grace. It's a beautiful piece of songwriting likely to kick around your noggin for days.

"Home" is an ode to love and virtual space that two or more people can create with nothing but love.  Aplin's simple guitar-driven arrangement has an incessant quality that highlights the quiet urgency of the song's lyrics.  Aplin dwells on a bout of romantic hero worship with "Salvation", a soaring anthem/ballad with a bridge that's thoroughly out of place. You'll either love or hate this song with little room in between. Aplin departs with "The Power Of Love", a self-indulgent love song that's more obsessed with the concept of love than the thing itself. Aplin sells it with her unusual, lovely voice, but the songwriting here is incredibly young and unpolished, unlike the rest of the EP.

Gabrielle Aplin is still growing into her considerable talents.  On English Rain she shows both her strengths and weaknesses with unabashed confidence, choosing to be herself rather than trying to ply her musical talents to the latest trend.  The effort is laudable, and foreshadows the wonderfully talented and independent artist she is destined to become.  English Rain has its warts; a fact that will seem apropos to anyone who’s ever experienced English rain, but the spots where the sunlight shines through show a tomorrow full of promise.

Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

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Friday, May 9, 2014

Spirit of the West - Live at the Bear's Den, Niagara Falls, NY - May 3, 2014

Spirit of the West – Live at the Bear’s Den – May 3, 2014

Vancouver rockers Spirit of the West began in 1983 as a trio consisting of John Mann, Geoffrey Kelly and J. Knutson.  The band’s original moniker, Eavesdropper, was quickly retired and Spirit of the West was born.   Originally plying their trade in Celtic and folk styles, the band became a popular draw on folk circuit.  By 1986, Knutson had departed and Hugh McMillan joined the band.  Vince Ditrich came on board in 1991, and Tobin Frank signed in on 1997.  Along the way other members have come and gone, and Spirit of the West has evolved as a band.  After expanding their sound in the early 1990s, SOTW became one of the premier alternative rock acts in Canada.  Spirit of the West continues to tour on a limited basis across Canada.  On Saturday, May 3, 2014, Spirit of the West brought their act to The Bear’s Den at Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls, NY.  It was a night to remember.

Spirit of the West took the crowd of 400 or so fans on a tour of their storied career across a 90 minute set full of tremendous energy, wit and life.  John Mann sang and danced around the stage like a man of 22 rather than 52, occasionally lapsing into St. Vitus-like gyrations.  Geoffrey Kelly was the warm and witty front man, sharing stories and anecdotes about songs, experiences and life events.  Wrapped in all of this repartee was the music, which was as fresh and lively as it has ever been.  The band opened with “Canadian Skye” before launching into the acerbic “Putting up with the Joneses”.  This latter was brilliantly executed, and had the crowd on the edge of their seats.  John Mann led the audience on a journey through “And If Venice Is Sinking” and “King of Scotland” before Geoffrey Kelly took the mic for “Scotland” and “The Old Sod”.   This last featured an unannounced special guest vocalist whom Kelly later dubbed “Sexy”.  The inebriated 50-something blond sang unintelligibly into the mic throughout the song, much to the amusement of the band.  She was led away after the song by casino staff and hopefully was allowed to sleep it off.

By this point in a show you know if a band is clicking or not.  Spirit of the West was firing on all eight cylinders with horsepower to spare.  Next up was “Political”, a relationship postmortem with an incredibly snappy arrangement.  Among the band’s best-known songs, it found Mann at the top of his vocal game.  “The Rites of Man” was accompanied with a story about its origination, giving the crowd a deeper sense of the song.  It was a touching moment when Mann’s voice rose to the crescendo at the end of the chorus and Kelly joined in on Irish whistle to bring the jig the song was named for to life. 

“July” let into “Is This Where I Come In”, which featured some wonderfully jazzy piano work from Tobin Frank.  Kelly touched the crowd with a story about the premature birth of his son Ben Kelly (drummer for Fish and Bird).  This was the preamble to “Goodbye Grace”, a tribute to the hospital and staff who saw the younger Kelly (and his parents) through the first few months of his life.  Once again, the context created a tremendous sense of presence and place.  Pacing through “Wishing Line”, SOTW next launched into the spirited “Morning in the Bath Abbey”.  This one of the band’s most underappreciated gems, and the song came to life on stage. 

Spirit of the West closed things out with three of their most well-known songs. “Sadness Grows”, “Save This House” and “Home for a Rest”.  The energy build was tremendous, and by the end the crowd was on its feet and singing along word for word.  The crowd response brought the band for one last go with “The Crawl”.  This was a true sing-along, with the crowd nearly drowning out the band at times. 

Spirit of the West was in brilliant form on Saturday night.  Mann and Kelly shared lead vocal duties.  In spite of the passage of thirty years, the vocals were as crisp and clean as they have ever been (even if some of the high notes are a bit more of a challenge these days).  Hugh McMillan provided a lot of musical subtext, playing nearly every string instrument under the sun.  His cool stage persona reminds one of “Shades” from That Thing You Do.  Vince Ditrich has some mad skills on the drums; a fact that isn’t as apparent on the studio recordings as it is on stage.  Tobin Frank added a lot of color to the night on synth and accordion.  Even Matthew Harter, filling in on guitar while John Mann focuses on vocals showed signs of brilliance.  The show was 90 minutes of transcendence; setting clocks back two decades or so while rising above the mere repetition of songs heard many times before.  Spirit of the West played with a singular joy and intensity, and that combination brought the room to life.

In short, Spirit of the West rocked the house.

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For those of you who haven't taken in a show at The Bear's Den but live in the Western New York or Southern Ontario regions, make a point of it.  The furthest seat from the stage is 40 feet away, and the U-shaped seating chart offers an intimate concert experience.  The world class sound system and steady stream of world class talent playing the place is a quiet gem sitting on the border between the U.S. and Canada.  And after the show it's just a short walk to the Falls if you're so inclined.