All it takes is 3 chords and a dream!

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Going Back to Roseland in Style


Dennis DeYoung - 26 East, Volume I
2020, Frontiers Records    

During the late 1970's and early 1980's there weren't many bands who could keep up with Styx.  From 1977 to 1980 Styx released four consecutive multi-platinum albums (The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theatre.)  Styx was a mix of musical contradictions and complements that worked, in large part, due to the vision of Dennis DeYoung.  Forty years later, and 20+ years since DeYoung was pushed out of the band, Dennis remains the heart and soul of Styx to many fans.  His shows recreate the past for Styx fans 150 nights per year (or did pre-Coronavirus), and do so with an energy and vocal intensity that few 73 year old could match.

DeYoung thought he had hung up his spikes for new material under old friend Jim Peterik (Survivor, Ides of March, Pride of Lions) pulled him back in from the recording pasture.  Working together, DeYoung and Peterik wrote close to 20 songs.  One, "Proof of Heaven", appeared on Peterik's 2019 album Winds of Change.  DeYoung was just getting started, however, and dropped 26 East, Volume I in late May.  It mixes the best of Styx' rock sound with classic DeYoung ballads and wonderfully tongue-in-chic rock/pop.  

The album opens with "East of Midnight", a Jim Peterik tune enhanced with some classic DeYoung keyboard work.  The song fits nicely with DeYoung's looking back to look forward concept album, and sounds like a classic Styx tune.  "With All Due Respect" unleashes DeYoung's dad-humor style of the cognoscenti of television's talking head class in an irresistibly danceable rocker.  The chorus, "with all due respect, you are an asshole..." rings true with most people regardless of your thoughts on current events.  "Run For The Roses" and "Damn That Dream" take altering looks at the pursuit of success; the former a Pilate-like soliloquy on what really matters, the latter a paean to siren call of the life of a creative.  These two songs perhaps perfectly capture the tension that has driven DeYoung all of his (now eight) decades.  Longtime fans will appreciate DeYoung's ode to the American dream, "The Promise of This Land", calling for all Americans to work together to ensure the dream remains alive for all. 

The magic moment that seems to have inspired DeYoung to undertake this recording is the duet with Julian Lennon on "To The Good Old Days".  The song was written as an ode to his musical roots and where be began, and the inclusion of Lennon brings it full circle.  Musically this is the biggest surprise on the album; the song doesn't have the same tenor as the rest of the album, and I suppose that's the point.  It's well written, but will probably be hit or miss depending on what fans are looking for.  The album wraps with A.D. 2020, an ode to Paradise Past.  Get out the tissues, it's an appropriate ending to a brilliant career.

Except it's not the end.

26 East, Volume II has seven songs in the can with two to be recorded.  If Volume I is any indication, Dennis DeYoung still has plenty of gas in the tank.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)



Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2020

 One of the many casualties of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 is San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  Scheduled for October 2-4, 2020, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival cannot celebrate it's 20th anniversary in person, but will offer an online show entitled Let The Music Play On.  The show, live from Buddy Miller's studio, will include live performances as well archival footage from festivals past.   Announced guests include:

 Emmylou Harris

Buddy Miller

Amythyst Kiah

The War and Treaty 

Steve Earle & The Bluegrass Dukes, featuring Tim O'Brien and Dennis Crouch.

The festival's organizers also launched the Hardly Strictly Music Relief Fund in 2020 in support of the music community as it grapples with the COVID-19 crisis.  The fund includes $450,000 for musician relief and additional support for local music venues and their employees.  Musicians interested in grant opportunities can visit https://www.actaonline.org/program/hardly-strictly-music-relief-fund/. Venues can visit http://www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com/2020/music-relief/.

Details on the broadcast and lineup will be announced in the coming weeks via http://www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com/2020/.  

Hello, long lost friend.

 I remember you.

It's been a long time since I've walked these halls, but your face is still familiar.

A lot has happened since we last ran into each other.  The world has changed in so many ways.

Yes, it's good to be back.  I am not exactly sure of how I fit in here now.  But I think I'd like to give it a try.

Music is constantly changing.  Social mores are constantly straining the bounds of what past generations consider to be the norms, and it all runs in one big cycle.  

I plan on talking a lot about music.  Conversing with you.  I also want to talk about the world.  About ideas and philosophies as they apply to our world and our experience.  I am happy to talk politics in the form of ideas.  Keep your candidates to yourselves.  There's enough name calling elsewhere.  But ideas are always open season.

And health.  It's a scary world out there right now for many of us.  For some it's something to power through.  Some wear masks and view the world through a community lens; others say, "to hell with everyone, I'm doing my own thing."  The good news is that no masks are needed here, and the transmission rate is zero.  But if you're going to be out around others, put on a damned mask.  It costs you nothing but may save everything for someone else.  And if you feel it impugns your manhood or your right to choose, then you don't have either to begin with.

One thing I do note that's important in its way is the continued march to devaluing music.  I am talking to those of you who make the music here.  We continue to push for more streaming and less physical product (or highly overpriced decomposing product, where necessary.)  This benefits those in record labels and streaming services and has little long-term benefit for the creators.

Your recordings are a record (not the vinyl kind) of your work.  When you don't invest in creating physical product you devalue your own career and work.  Let me explain.

Streaming services are not for true music fans.  True music fans are the sorts who establish relationships with artists that last the whole or at least parts of a lifetime.  These are not people who simply taste and spit out the latest pop hit before quickly replacing it with the next thing.  These are people who buy all of your albums and go to shows and buy merchandise.  Granted, there are less of those people than there used to be, perhaps.  People have been conditioned to go digital by corporate marketers and shortened attention spans.  The ease of having every song available has conditioned people to consume whatever the labels want to push rather than investing in artists.

It is a scheme designed to maintain and enrich record labels while making artists disposable cattle.  It is very similar to the Hollywood studio models of the 1950s and 1960s.  It is easier to find listeners in the digital world, but more difficult to keep them.  Labels used to invest in artists and build them up.  They rarely make those investments anymore.

One of the benefits to physical product is the resale market.  Many of the artists out there bristle at this concept, because you don't get any money from these transactions.  The record labels hate the resale market, contending that it deprives them of revenue.  But is this true?  

There is an entire world of music fans out there who traditionally went to the resale market because they couldn't afford everything they might want to try.  The ability to purchase a used CD or LP for a few dollars means those individuals build relationships with artists by trying their music.  Those inexpensive sales can lead to other sales, of albums, tickets, merchandise, etc.  Records, CDs, cassettes etc. are also passed along to family members and friends as interest wanes, allowing for the discovery of new music for the receivers.  In this way discovery of an artist might occur months or years later than the initial fan, but those discoveries are facilitated through the natural trade and transfer of physical copies.  Digital is not the same.

Digital music is not something you own.  It's a rental or "license".  It can be revoked at any time (have you ever read the Apple user agreement?).  It is paying for a privilege rather than a relationship.  Investing in a relationship continues even if your most recent work wasn't the music fan's favorite.  It's very likely that the good will built from an established relationship will keep you eating even if your most recent work wasn't your best or your most well accepted.  Paying for a privilege has a much higher bar.  Why would I pay for it if I didn't like your last album and I can get it for free on a streaming service anyway?

The other consideration, and I recently had this debate with the merch people for a band I adore.  This band (who will remain nameless out of respect), recently released an EP of songs and did not make any physical copies available.  Now I don't buy digital copies of anything (my choice), so I did not provide any revenue to the band based on this recording.

But somewhere between 20 and 25% of music sales are still generated based on hard copy sales.  Those who buy hard copy are predominately of an older demographic; the one with the most disposable income.  These are generally the people most likely to pay premium prices to come to a show or to own/buy memorabilia.  Some of those folks don't have strong comfort with digital product, for various reasons.  So the failure to provide physical product means a loss for perhaps 20% of revenue from the release...  but continued failure to produce physical copies may mean an eventual loss of connection with the band... meaning loss of those ticket and memorabilia sales.  And let's face it, that's where most musicians make their money.

To those who say they can't afford to produce physical product, I would argue you can't afford not to.

And then there's legacy.

If you are relying on streaming services to make sure you are remembered, I would offer an analogy.  The next time you're at a large body of water (Ocean, Sea, large lake), take a bottle of bottled water and pour it in.  Wait even five minutes and try to identify or find the water you poured in.  This approximates the lasting impact that most musicians have in the digital world.  If you're Springsteen or Madonna or Taylor Swift then you'll be remembered, but the likelihood that someone will discover you one day is almost nil.

Those pesky CDs and records passed on by others, however, are enduring record of who you are, or at least who you were at the time you made them.  This is why ancient rock acts continue to see young fans come to their shows.  Artists who go all digital are unlikely to see the same benefits are they age.

And one final word about vinyl versus CDs.  Pick what you want, but I'll go with the small silver discs that are cheaper, easier to store, provide better sound re-production and don't degrade every time you play them.  The resurgence of vinyl only benefits the record labels.

When CDs were introduced, the labels increased the per unit cost of an album.  LPs generally retained for about 8.98 in the late 1980's.  CDs were introduced at a price point of 12.98 - 14.98 in spite of being cheaper to produce.  CD prices were beginning to crack $20 for major artists (list price) when the digital revolution hit. That digital revolution (file sharing) arose largely in response to the price gouging by record labels.  Most new albums actually sold in 12.99 - 14.99 range in department stores, but obscure artists weren't often discounted.  This didn't benefit the artist, but labels made a lot of money off of it.  Then, when LPs were introduced a few years back, two things happened.  First, the price points for new LPs were 24.99 - 29.99 in the US.  This significant increase persisted despite the rate of increase being wholly out of proportion to the increased cost of producing an LP as opposed to a CD.  Second: Labels began actively encouraging stores to decrease the amount of CDs they offered for sale.

Vinyl degrades every time a needle touches it.  CDs only degrade if they are mishandled.

More expensive + Less durable = greater profit for the record label.

Inability to trade resell (digital)  = greater profit for the record label.

Neither of these benefit you, the artist.

Something to think about.

Comments here are moderated by me.  I welcome discussion, disagreement, thoughtfulness and passion.  Personal insults to me (which may well be valid) or to other comments, will not got published.  Diagreements will not be restricted.  Free speech that adds to the conversation will always be respected.

Finally - I will review music here periodically, as in the old days.  If you have an album you would like to have reviewed, please contact me for info on how to submit a physical copy for review.  Digital submissions will not be accepted.  I am also available on a freelance basis to generate copy for artist websites and promo materials, including artist bios, mailings, articles and blog posts.  You can reach me at wildysworld@gmail.com.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Foam Ropes - Foam Ropes


Foam Ropes – Foam Ropes
2015, 7 Trick Pony Records

Derek Nicoletto, the former front man of Telling On Trixie, stood at a crossroads in his life: he walked away from his lifelong pursuit of music to pursue acting through an exclusive theater program.  Rather than this becoming a new path, the breaking down and building up of the stage has led Nicoletto back to music with a new fervor and a new understanding of self as a creative force.  Nicoletto returns this week under the name of Foam Ropes, with a self-titled album made up of smooth rock and pop.

Foam Ropes opens with “Truth In Fables”, a tuneful self-exploration informed by the human tendency to hide the truth in our own personal narratives.  It’s a compelling mea culpa, of sorts, full of a dramatic flair and a gentle yet persistent guitar-driven arrangement.  “Potion Me Well” has an edgier, more muscular guitar sound that would be at home on old-school AOR stations.  Think a cross between Canadian rocker Kim Mitchell and Billy Squier.  Foam Ropes goes for a pop inflection on “Telescope”, a wordy yet accessible paean to fear and inertia.  This is a radio-ready gem; upbeat and catchy yet melancholy all at the same time.

“On Celery Road” is a tasty little rocker that gets your feet moving with a bright in spite of the darkness sort of sound.  Nicoletto digs into the vocal here for all he is worth, and the performance is stunning.   The mood lightens on “You Make Loving Fun”, with Nicoletto exploring the natural high of love.  This is perhaps the weakest vocal on the album, but the heartfelt nature of the song makes it all good.  Even the easy sway of the guitar solo highlights the carefree nature of the moment.  Nicoletto explores the uncertainty of relationships on “Birches” in a dark and tempered pop rocker.  “Beauty Number Nine” is a dark rocker with a light message.  Foam Ropes creates a sound here that would be very much at home on Edge or Classic Rock radio formats.  “Bad Apples” hearkens back to 1960’s ballads, and is dappled with a wonderfully reverbed guitar sound.  This is among the best writing on the album.  Foam Ropes reprises “Telescope” to close out the album, showing the other side of inertia and fear; opportunity and hope. 

Derek Nicoletto has certainly grown as a songwriter since his time with Telling On Trixie.  There is more subtlety, nuance and range evident in the songs on Foam Ropes, and the band has a sound that is certainly marketable in this age of disheveled musical genres.  The songs on Foam Ropes could find their respective ways to various radio formats as well as to a number of licensing opportunities.  From the listener’s standpoint, Foam Ropes never stands still.  There is a constant evolution of sound as the album progressives, and you will be pushed along with the rush.  This is a great start.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)


Learn more at www.foamropes.comFoam Ropes is available from Amazon and iTunes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bullyheart - Antigravity

Bullyheart – Antigravity
2014, Skim Milk Productions


Bullyheart is the outward expression of recording artist Holly Long’s rebel musical heart.  The Chicago born singer/songwriter took off for UCLA to study theater, but it was music that ultimately moved her.  Today, Long has built a reputation as an honest, earthy songwriter and performer.  Long finds a home for her voice, both as a singer and as a songwriter, with Bullyheart.  Long created a cycle of ten songs entitled Antigravity with the help of musical cohorts David Boucher and Kevin Harp, but the sound is ultimately from the heart of Holly Long.

Bullyheart gets started with "Antigravity", a catchy little rocker full of syncopated guitar and a strategically laid back vocal from front woman Holly Long. The juxtaposition between arrangement and vocals is memorable, and Long's voice sounds like a cross between a young Geddy Lee and  Linda Perry.  "Thin Air" has a much more laid back vibe that's melancholy and refined. "No Pleasing You" has a catchy feel, and is driven by a talk-sing narrative style. Long works this song for all it is worth, and you'll have a hard time keeping it out of your head.

"How Was I to Know" is a slickly produced song of regret. It's well written and performed, but the elemental lyrics would work better without the highly polished sonic veneer.  "Lost My Nerve" is a languorous bit of navel gazing poetry set to a crawling arrangement. The juxtaposition of Long's voice and the depressive arrangement works on one level, but this is a tough listen nonetheless. Bullyheart sets the ship aright with the manic "Panic Attack". The inclination to pogo dance to this one is understandable; at the very least you won't be able to keep your feet still. "The Pendulum" swing back into navel exercise with a molasses like arrangement that is a tough sell.

"Shaken" takes the upbeat path in an observational piece about another’s emotional state and world outlook.  This is actually well-written, both musically and lyrically.  The song gets off to a slow start, but the incessant chorus has its own inertia, and you’ll find yourself bobbing along.  “There Goes My Man” explores angst in a delightfully high tempo rocker. This is a brilliant tune that could be even bigger in sound, but it works very well as presented here.  Don’t even try to sit still.  Bullyheart pulls in the oars for “Stay”, an angst filled, repetitive dirge that features just a lingering, plaintive acoustic guitar and Holly Long’s dynamic voice.  It’s a chilling moment, both memorable and painful. 

Bullyheart takes listeners through several ups and downs on Antigravity.  The down tempo pieces can linger too long and become bogged down in emotional and musical angst, but Holly Long always manages to sound good in the process.  The upbeat tunes are where she shines, rocking out in an understated but still notable fashion.  Antigravity is the sort of album you’ll revisit again and again, whether for specific tracks or the whole experience.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)


Learn more at www.bullyheart.com.  You can purchase Bullyheart from Amazon or iTunes.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: Michele McLaughlin - Undercurrent


Michele McLaughlin – Undercurrent
2015, Michele McLaughlin

Michele McLaughlin found her field of dreams, and it has 88 keys.

Drawn to the piano from a young age, McLaughlin was playing in front of school mates at the age of five and composing by the age of eight.  Blessed with a musical ear, McLaughlin inhaled melodies and breathed them in ebony and ivory.  McLaughlin briefly took piano lessons, but eschewed the structure of formal instruction.  For the most part, she taught herself by listening to and copying other composers.  Validation came in 2000, when after much pestering from her Mom; McLaughlin created a cassette of her music.  The feedback received from this experience led McLaughlin to set up her own home recording studio and get serious about making music for others to hear.  Fifteen albums on, and McLaughlin has become a powerhouse in the new age/instrumental world, with awards and/or acknowledgments including the Independent Music Awards Song of the Year; and Whisperings Solo Piano Radio Album of the Year.  McLaughlin’s latest effort, Undercurrent, is a powerful and moving cycle of 13 songs that demand your attention.

McLaughlin is a new age composer with a pop musician’s heart, writing in almost a singer/songwriter style.  It’s therefore not surprising to be occasionally reminded stylistically of pop recordings as you pass through Undercurrent.  The opening track, “11,000 Miles”, carries an air of Billy Joel in its straight ahead musicality.  It’s a pop anthem, unrestrained by subtlety but thoroughly enjoyable.  There’s more nuance to “Living in Awe”, which has an emotional, if not dramatic build.  The early trend on the album is not toward finesse, but almost to a power songwriting aesthetic.  Even the waterfall-like chorus of “Full of Love” carries this impetuosity, like a child seeing new wonders of the world for the first time. 

It isn’t until “The Space Between” where we catch glimpses of McLaughlin’s more pensive side.  As she moves into the second part of the song, however, McLaughlin’s muse storms back with a rush, pushing with an impatient insistence the story she has to tell.  She steps back for “Undercurrent”, but even here the quiet surface is deceptive, and the listener is soon caught up in her musical pull.  “Starstuff” makes no bones about its push, but McLaughlin seems to draw down the intensity on “Never Give Up”.  There’s a singular beauty to this piece, which reflects in grace and subtlety the depth of emotion it represents.  A sort of quietude pervades “Evolution”.  You might expect that this song would follow its own title and evolve into something louder or grander, and to a degree it does, but it is a gradual slide up the scale that shows tremendous finesse. 

“On My Own” showcases McLaughlin at her very best, with melody, finesse and lyric grace fully integrated.  This transitions into “Melody in Motion”; starting as a plaintive waltz but becomes an aggressively melodic piece of musical prose.  McLaughlin’s cascading piano style is imperative and impulsive and utterly without reserve.  A sonic code arrives with “Stepping Stones”, a pensive-yet-spritely meditation that’s pretty and refined.  McLaughlin closes out with “Synesthesia”, a quietly impatient number that rolls over and over itself without a sense of where it’s going until it arrives.

Michele McLaughlin impresses with “Undercurrents”.  Her compositional style is impetuous, inpatient and often lacks a sense of subtlety, but it is also ultimately inspired.  McLaughlin isn't afraid to be herself.  She wears her heart on her sleeve and she touches listeners with her musical honesty.  It might not be for everyone, but if you get it then you’ll find something to like here.

Rating:   4 Stars (Out of 5)


Learn more at www.michelemclaughlin.com.  Purchase Undercurrents via Amazon or iTunes, or via McLaughlin's Web Store.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Blade of Grass - She Was [EP]


Blade of Grass – She Was [EP]
2014, Blade of Grass

Blade of Grass is a minimalist, post-rock electronic duo from Los Angeles.  Josh James and Mike Hurst combine electro, rock, surf and world music influences to craft simplistic yet intriguing arrangements that serve as a bed for Josh’s vocal melodies.  The band released two singles as a two-song EP in the summer of 2014 entitled “She Was”.  While the EP doesn’t give a clear sense of the duo’s musical direction, it does serve as an intriguing introduction.

Blade Of Grass kicks things off with “She Was”, a droning post-pop ode to love lost.  This one is likely a love/hate proposition for listeners.  Josh James sings with a droning, nasal quality that affects the low-speed angst of remembered heartache, while a minimalist electronic arrangement counts the slow passing of time.  This will either connect or it won’t, but it is well and artfully done.  “Who You Gonna Run To” is likely to have more general appeal, with its mellow vibe and pure vocal line.  The simple arrangement is appealing, with a more readily apparent musicality than the previous track.  James’ voice is more appealing here as well, presented with a softer edge.

Blade of Grass isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but there’s a unique muse at work here.  She Was is an intriguing introduction to a duo with a lot, perhaps, to say, but whatever they say is going to have their own distinctive musical pizzazz.  I can’t guarantee you will like everything you hear, but there’s enough artistic juice here that you’re bound to respect even that which you do not find a feel for.  

This one is a keeper.

Rating:  4 Stars (Out of 5)


She Was is available from Amazon or iTunes.