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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Emmanuella Grace - London Stories

Emmanuella Grace - London Stories
2011, Emmanuella Grace

Emmanuella Grace is an Australian-born, London-based singer/songwriter who has performed all over Europe and Australia.  Classically trained, Grace studied musical theater and jazz at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in Brisbane.  With appearances at Sydney Opera House, The Barbican and Royal Albert Hall, Emmanuella Grace is a seasoned performer.  Emmanuella Grace recently released her debut album, London Stories.  Produced by Snowy Raphael, London Stories will open your eyes to a brilliant young story-teller and songwriter.

London Stories opens with "Butterfly", a picture-perfect introduction in solid pop dressing.  The title is pure allegory for Grace's voice, which grows from a solid, pretty alto into a fluttery upper range.  The tune is catchy, and the piano/synth-driven pop arrangement makes for a great start.  "Kentish Town Laundry" is an intriguing look at life and decay, following the lives of those in a small suburban Laundromat.  Grace uses distinctive imagery to detail the melancholy and grace of people just trying to get by.  It's a gorgeous piece of songwriting that is both poetically and sonically pleasing.  On "Words Aren't Enough", an abusive ex is put in his place, with the narrator standing for herself and taking control.  This will be a song of significance for anyone who has ever been there.  Well written, the song is full of an honest power, carried by a melody that grabs you.

"Share The Covers" is a reconciliation waltz.  Emmanuella Grace gives her best vocal performance of the album while using strings to fill out the arrangement.  Emotive and real, there's a distinctly theatrical feel here.  It wouldn't be surprising to find "Share The Covers" licensed out to a television show or movie in the near future.  "Here Today" is a solid album track, but does get a bit too repetitive at the end.  "Upside Of Anger" is a re-evaluation done in ballad form.  Grace builds tension throughout the song, taking off into a breathy soprano range that surprises.  "Soho" is brilliant.  Grace captures the manic air of London's famed neighborhood in a song of theatrical style and temperament.  Hints of Julie McKee and Nellie McKay are evident here, and it’s abundantly clear that Grace had a lot of fun on this recording.  London Stories closes with "Cocaine", an intriguing musical monologue that seems to be written from both inside and outside the clutches of its subject.  It's an intriguing closer, from the manic implications to the flat line portrayal played out in synth tones.

Emmanuella Grace is striking both in appearance and sound, building deep impressions in listeners even through recorded media.  At the same time, there is a sense of distance, as if Grace is holding something back at times.  She sheds that air on the last two tracks, but there is the risk that Emmanuelle Grace is at times more connected to her stories than to the listeners.  This isn't detrimental, as Grace is an absolutely spell-binding story-teller.  And the personal connection thing may well be there live, but it doesn't quite translate on CD.  If Emmanuella Grace ever puts the three together, she's going to rock the world, figuratively speaking.  For now, London Stories is a very impressive debut.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Emmanuella Grace at or  London Stories is available on CD from Emmanuella Grace’s webstore.  Digital versions of the album are available from both and iTunes.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Buxter Hoot'n - Buxter Hoot'n

Buxter Hoot'n - Buxter Hoot'n
2011, Buxter Hoot'n

San Francisco's Buxter Hoot'n is set to release their third album in five years, with the May 30, 2011 drop of Buxter Hoot'n.  Vo-vocalists Vince Dewald and Melissa Merrill; Jimmy Dewald (bass); Ben Andrews (guitar/violin) and Jeremy Shanok (drums) cover the turrets between Americana and Southern Rock on Buxter Hoot'n, the follow-up to their highly successful sophomore album In Another Life, which charted on the Americana Music Association, Roots Music Review and charts. 

Buxter Hoot'n opens with "Mariel", a story song that sounds like it could be an early Crash Test Dummies outtake.  The song has a solid melodic sensibility and a down-home feel.  Vince DeWald takes lead vocals this time around.  "Out The Door" is a Dylan-esque bit of bluesy Americana; a solid album track.  "Chief Justice Shepard" is a protest song that explores collusion between judges, governments and private corporations to keep prisons full of bodies.  This is a great tune, enveloped in a snappy Americana arrangement that's appealing to the ears.

"Thought I Head You Say" features Melissa Merrill on lead vocals, showing off fine alto sound with just a touch of toughness sewn in.  "Go Get Your Gun" is a song of paranoia and deeply repressed rage.  The gypsy-style violin (ala Stephane Grappelli) is a nice touch however.  "Cover Band" is a celebration of music at its most appealing; the story of a cover band working for all its worth.  This good time song manages to keep a low key approach that works well.  "Spill Some Juice On Me" is done in a bluesy, talk/sing style.  It's a solid album track, catchy in its own right.  Buxter Hoot'n closes with "Curtain", a brief instrumental fugue that tends off into nothing.

Buxter Hoot'n gets a fair amount right on their self-titled album, but also misses some of the finer points of creativity and production in the process.  Both vocalists are competent, and Buxter Hoot'n, the band, appears to have a very clear vision of who they are and where they are going.  As such, Buxter Hoot'n is highly representative of the band as they are now.  There are obvious opportunities for improvement (as there always are), but it wouldn't be surprising of the band re-creates the success they discovered with In Another Life.

Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Buxter Hoot'n at or Buxter Hoot'n drops on May 30, 2011, and will be available through the band's webstore.  Expect availability via CDBaby, and iTunes soon.

Marina V - My Star

Marina V - My Star
2011, Marina V

Moscow-born California gal Marina Verenikina won a scholarship at the age of fifteen and moved to America on her own.  Marina V began pursuing her musical dreams by gigging extensively while attending college in Illinois.  On graduating, she moved to Los Angeles, and has established herself as a favorite in the frenetic pop/rock scene there.  Marina V has composed songs for films such as Fallen Idol and Truth About Kerry, and has had songs placed in Days Of Our Lives, The Good Wife, and the iPhone game Tap Tap Revenge.  Marina V’s 2007 album, Modern Fairytale, announced an artist with a world of potential still learning her craft.  On her latest album, My Star, it’s clear that Marina V has grown in self-awareness as an artist.

My Star opens with "You Make Me Beautiful", a solid Adult Contemporary Pop love song.  Built on a strong musical bed, Marina V's warm, lovely voice is framed perfectly here.  "Thursday Song" is a melancholic ballad with a pretty melody and dreamy air.  There is a grey-scale depth to the song, however, that veers widely away from cliché and into a sort of complicated beauty.  "Blue For You" is a fairly straight forward song of heartbreak, pretty but bland at the same time.  Marina V sounds like a richer voiced Tori Amos on "My Star".  The piano that spurs the song along is supported by a symphonic-style arrangement that is sonically appealing. 

By the time Marina V gets to "Unbalanced", the upbeat quasi-rocker is a welcome change of pace.  Up until this point the music has been very self-involved, and while "Unbalanced" is still an internal conversation, its acknowledgement of a world outside is step in the right direction.  Marina V shines brightest on "Tonkaya Ryabina", a traditional Russian song that is haunting in its beauty and brings out additional textures in her voice.  My Star closes with "Magical Christmas", a modern Christmas ballad about recapturing the spirit of Christmas and of youth.  It's a sweet and positive addition to the modern Christmas pop cannon; low key, but pretty and warm.

Marina V can flat out sing.  Her voice is full of textures and tones that are intriguing and lovely.  The heavy focus on ballads on My Star wears thin, and Marina V shines best on an upbeat rocker and a traditional folk song.  My Star seems an effort to cast Marina V's voice in its best light while adhering to what may be perceived as a highly marketable genre, but the song choices here generally don't do the artist many favors.  The sound is great, but there are obviously musical niches that take best advantage of her stunning voice.  It would be nice to hear more of those.

Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Marina V at or  My Star is available digitally from and iTunes.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kristina Westin - In The Back Of My Mind

Kristina Westin - In The Back Of My Mind
2010, 7P Machine AB

Swedish vocalist Kristina Westin first rose to prominence as lead vocalist for The Valets, who took Popstad '98 by storm.  Later as an alt-country vocalist, Westin was a finalist in the Swedish Championship of Country Music, but Westin has found her home in pop music.  Westin is a big deal in Stockholm, with regional television appearances and in-demand gigs on a regular basis.  But Westin has set her sights westward with the release of her newest CD, In The Back of My Mind.  With a voice that's been described as a cross between Norah Jones and Dolly Parton, Westin will grab your attention quickly, but it is the subtlety and depth of her songwriting that will make you want to stick around.

Westin opens with "I'm At War", a wonderfully honest and straight-forward song of anger.  Westin avoids the aggression and histrionics that often pass for dramatic embellishment with an honest statement of intent that is compelling and refreshing in a brilliant pop song that is the perfect introduction.  "What A Night" is a solid pop number that finds Westin dancing through the upper notes in a fluttery, breathy voice that is atypically lovely, and contrasts with the solid alto she delivers in mid-range.  The song is a bit repetitive, with a percussively melodic chorus that works well as a counter to the circular lyrics.  "Fever" is a pure pop/country number about desire that could cross over easily to the US country charts.

"Stay Another Year" is a beautiful, dreamy pop number with cascading vocal harmonies that are reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac.  Westin's unaffected voice is beyond beauty at times, particularly so on this tune.  "Up In The Air" is built on a rock-solid melody, contrasting this against the uncertainty of returning to a relationship that's failed before.  The narrator has set herself straight, but doubts if her former partner has.  Westin reaches resolution with "I'm Walking Away", a wonderfully catchy tune that's a potential hit in waiting.  The narrator calls out a lover and kicks him to the curb for his behaviors.  Once again, Westin takes the refreshing route of telling the story and dealing honestly with emotions as a storyteller rather than trading in the currency of vitriol.  Westin's lyrics are cogent, and are married to an arrangement, and particularly a chorus, you simply cannot shake. 

"Where Do I Go" finds Westin exploring her next steps in a relationship; knowing better but wanting to trust him again.  The chorus is a bit repetitive but otherwise solid.  "Reasons" finds Westin trying to understand all that has happened in a melancholy ballad that alternates between fatalism and hope.  The singer/songwriter vibe here is impeccable.  "Please Get Away" finishes the cycle, so to speak, allowing Westin to move on to a new phase.  That phase starts with the delicious pure pop of "Pretty Girls".  Westin acquires a sultriness to her voice born of confidence, and a Holly Hunter sibilant S that's appealing.  In The Back Of My Mind closes with the "Untitled", a simple, gorgeous love ballad that's stripped bare, leaving just guitar, Westins voice and a subtle musical fringe that simply underscore the beauty of the melody.

Kristina Westin displays the subtlety and grace of a pure songwriter on In The Back Of My Mind, combined with class and presence of a professional performer.  In understated and personal fashion, Westin wraps listeners in tales of love lost, love found, and the myriad emotions that fill the spaces in between.  In The Back Of My Mind is the sort of album you live with for a while; it certainly qualifies as a Wildy’s World Desert Island DiscThis is an instant classic.

Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Kristina Westin at or   In The Back Of My Mind is available digitally from and iTunes.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Aaron Comess - Beautiful Mistake

Aaron Comess - Beautiful Mistake
2011, Aaron Comess

Aaron Comess is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer who has collaborated with the likes of Joan Osborne, David Foster, Phil Ramone, Isaac Hayes, Chris Whitley, Marc Cohn and Natasha Bedingfield (among others).  You might remember Comess as a founding member of The Spin Doctors (drums).  However you may have crossed musical paths with Aaron Comess, there can be no doubt that his talents have aided and abetted some pretty big names in the music business.  On June 14, 2011, Comess releases his second solo instrumental album, Beautiful Mistake

Comess surrounds himself with first class musicians on Big Mistake, allowing the ensemble to stand out as a whole, and in individually, while he quietly drives the action with variegated rhythms.  Opening with "Truth", Comess starts listeners off in mellow, thoughtful tones.  Guitar is the lead voice here, imparting a sort of stodgy melodicism that is more fluid and lyric than it first appears.  "Beautiful Mistake" is a deceptive and archaic waltz that occasional breaks into a swing beat.  Bass and percussion create a rhythmic bed that is entrancing, while Comess' guitarist has his way with your ears in a guitar sound that's part Prince and part Eric Johnson.  Comess and ensemble build all of this into a rollicking jam that sweeps you up in its pure joy.  "Past Present & Future" builds on a polyrhythmic feel with quirky guitar sounds, sounding like a compositional study in rhythmic aberrations.  It's entertaining and offbeat, and could be taken as run through with a wicked sense of humor. 

Comess drops into mellow rumination for "Kumpelicious", delving into some vaguely Hendrix-style riffs in a mellow side-trip of sound.  "Castkills Last Waltz" is jaunty and fun, with something a swing sensibility built loosely into the arrangement.  What will really catch your ear here is the phrasing on the guitar, which transcends technical competence to that thing they call "touch" or "feel".  As a counter, Comess pulls a complete left turn into the bowels of garage rock for "Dirt", an angular and distorted bit of fun that serves as a perfect counter to the pure essence it follows.

"Limbo" sounds like a blend of Steve Howe and Greg Kihn; funky and full of a bubbling energy.  The exceptional guitar work here is punctuated by rhythms and sounds that begin by distracting and slowly enmesh themselves into the creation that is the song.  Comess tries his hand at gothic-style film scoring on "Unleash The Beast", a messy-but-fun composition that gets points for style and pure chutzpah.  "Lullabye" serves as a spoiler, a sweet, flowing melody as a moment of piece in the maelstrom of creation imparted on Beautiful Mistake.  The moment of peace is over quickly, however, as Comess and band launches into the muscular-yet-atmospheric "High Five".  What starts out as a straight forward composition builds in intensity and style, adding funk and volume until it's ready to blow out the top. 

"Stinky" is an edgy new-age pop instrumental.  Mild-mannered, but rough enough around the edges to not quite fit into the traditional new age category.  Comess answers back with "Bubble Blues", which is bathed in distortion and reverb.  It doesn't really add a lot to the album, but is an interesting diversion that leads into the spritely sweet closing track, "I Love You".  Everything flows at the end, as Comess has save his purest melodic moment for last.

Beautiful Mistake is a pleasant surprise.  So many pop/rock instrumental albums out there rely on cyclical arrangements and blind creation, often resulting in repetitive or derivative creations that seem anathema to the creative process.  Comess has structured Beautiful Mistake with an ear for musical diversity and progression, forcing himself continually over new ground rather than recapturing the same harmonic and melodic fields again and again.  Not every moment here will work for every listener, but Comess keeps things original and new throughout the album.  Consequently, those will listen complacently will miss a lot.

Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Aaron Comess at or  Beautiful Mistake drops on CD on June 14, 2011.  The album is already available digitally from or iTunes.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The New Iberians - Bon Temps Rouge

The New Iberians – Bon Temps Rouge
2008, Psych-Delta Records
When you think of zydeco music you think of New Orleans.  Bourbon Street, the Quarter and the roots of Dixieland are all wrapped up the zeitgeist of music, which is a musical patois that could be born nowhere else.  So finding the New Iberians practicing their wares from the home base in Oregon might surprise you.  The New Iberians formed from the detritus of 1990’s zydeco act Mumbo Gumbo.  The band’s sophomore album, Bon Temps Rouge, was named from a rant by an overly spirited MC who mis-pronounced Bons Temps Rouler (Let The Good Times Roll), but there’s nothing accidental about the music.
Bon Temps Rouge opens with a feisty cover of Fats Domino’s “My Girl Josephine” that mixes Zydeco and blues.  This is a high energy tune with Claes Almroth making an absolutely wonderful spectacle of himself on harmonica.  Evan Shlaes has a pleasant, down-home voice that works perfectly in this setting.  “Goin’ To The Levee” is a Dave Edmunds-inspired rock number that makes the most of Evan Shlaes piano work.  “Bon Temps Rouge” is a catchy zydeco number featuring a fun night on the town with a scheming gal that doesn’t end the way the story-teller might have hoped.  This is a classic tale that’s fun and highly danceable.
“Black Snake Blues” is a Clifton Chenier tune that sees Claes Almroth stepping up to the mic for a solid lead vocal surrounded by some dazzling vocal harmonies.  “Terry Anne” sees Evan Shlaes back on vocals in a tune that pays homage to the culinary arts and their role in love.  The musical blend here is rich, mixing early rock n roll, R&B and zydeco in an almost magical mix you have to hear to believe.  “Rock Island Line” is a catchy and fun Leadbelly cover that stays true to the original while offering a richly stylistic interpretation.  “Voulez-Vous Dancer?” (Do you want to dance?) is a Cajun take on the Bobby Freeman tune that’s a great deal of fun; a low-key but danceable interpretation with layered instrumentation.
“The Belmont Waltz” works in a bowed saw solo that is a treat, but is presented here as an almost comical musical work, ala Spike Jones.  Originally a ragtime piece, The New Iberians have taken this one to the woodshed and made something magical in the process.   “Voodoo Juice” is a bit of Texas two-step, ala ZZ Top, done with Zydeco instrumentation.  This tune is so out of the box that it will grab you by the collar and drag you along for the ride.  Once the novelty wears off, however, you’ll be amazed at the virtuosity of the group on this number.  “Hot Dog Stand” (Buck Owens) is an entertaining set-up for the finale, a jitterbug number that threatens to rip the roof off the album.  The New Iberians wrap things up with a zydeco take on “I Can See Clearly Now” (Johnny Nash).  This is a solid cover, but perhaps the last two tracks should have been reversed in order, as “I Can See Clearly Now” is something of a letdown after “Hot Dog Stand”.
The New Iberians put in a solid effort on Bon Temps Rouge.  The blend of blues, rock and zydeco is novel, but in and of itself is quickly assimilated in the mind.  What makes The New Iberians intriguing is the level of musicianship apparent on Bon Temps Rouge.  You get the impression that this band could walk into any club, anywhere, of most any style, and be welcome on stage.  Bon Temps Rouge is worth spending some time on, but it’s really just an appetizer for a live show should you be lucky enough to attend one.
Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about The New Iberians at  Bon Temps Rouge is available from as a CD or Download.  The album is also available via iTunes.

Research Turtles - Mankiller, Part 1 of 2

Research Turtles - Mankiller, Part 1 of 2
2011, Research Turtles

Louisiana quarter Research Turtles have seen their stock rise in the last two years, selling over 5,000 copies of their self-titled Indie debut while garnering RadioSix International's 2010 Song of the Year award for "Let's Get Carried Away".  Touring extensively on the US Gulf Coast and throughout the UK, Research Turtles have developed a rabid following while opening for acts such as Toad The Wet Sprocket, Candlebox and Sister Hazel.  On May 31, 2011, Research Turtles will release their new EP, Mankiller, Part 1 of 2. 

Mankiller opens with the atmospheric acoustic ballad snippet "Girl Like You".  This is a solid start to the EP, but at 1:13 could have been developed into a full song.  "You Are So" is solid rock n roll built on a I-IV-V blues progression.  There's a definite Brit Invasion feel here, fueled by the bright catchy melody and insidious backbeat.  "Bugs In A Jar" has more of a Coldplay-vibe; a solid radio sound that's perhaps a bit too formulaic for what these guys are capable of.  It should sell and spin well, but is not their best work.  "Mankiller" is catchy post-punk pop; reckless and fun.  This is the song crowds will clamor for in the live show.  Mankiller closes with the Figgs meet the Kinks sound of "Rhinestone Gal".  There is a dark energy here that's infectious; don't be surprised if this song is stuck in your head for a bit.

Mankiller, Part 1 of 2 finds Research Turtles bouncing about a bit stylistically, but offering up a diverse and satisfying overall performance.  Research Turtles take care of the commercial considerations while refusing to stand still.  It will be interesting to see if these guys ever fully settle into a sound, or continue to find their way from song to song along a stylistic high wire.  Either way, their creative process promises a bright future.

Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Research Turtles at or Mankiller, Part 1 of 2 drops on May 31, 2011.  You can pre-order the CD from Research Turtles' webstore.  Expect wider availability upon release.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Headhunters - Platinum

The Headhunters - Platinum
2011, Owl Studios

It wouldn't be unfair to call The Headhunters the godfathers of Jazz Fusion.  Originally Herbie Hancock's backing band for his 1973 masterpiece album Head Hunters, The Headhunters have continued on over the years as periodic collaborators with Hancock as well as an individual band.  On hiatus throughout the 1980's and most of the 1990's, The Headhunters reunited with Hancock in 1998 for The Return Of The Headhunters.  The Headhunters have continued on their own since then, blend jazz, funk, African and Caribbean styles with traditional and electronic instrumentation to create a singular sound that has been copied, imitated and sampled by numerous acts over the years.  Led by long-time members Mike Clark and Bill Summers, the Headhunters return on June 7, 2011 with Platinum, a collection of twelve thrilling tracks with special guests such as Snoop Dogg, Killah Priest, Jaecyn Bayne, Private Pile, Bernie Maupin, Patrice Rushen and George Clinton.

Platinum opens with "Mission Statement", and bassist Gary Mielke nearly steals the show right out of the box, oozing funk in a driving line that electrifies the entire song.  Jaecyn Byrne takes the mic with a rap about his goals as an artist that's both poetic and sharp.  "Salamander" is a funk-driven instrumental with a wicked trumpet/sax pairing.  There's a danceable yet mellow groove here that's inescapable.  Snoop Dogg, Killah Priest and George Clinton all have input on "D-Funk (Funk With Us), a vibrant blend of funk and jazz in a modern setting.  "Tracie" dips into Latin Jazz and Meringue in an enjoyable instrumental that you won't be able to sit still for.  "Paging Mr. Wesley" steps back into a late 1970's and early 1980's pop/jazz/disco sound for a catchy and danceable instrumental.

Things get truly interesting on "M. Trane", a sax-led instrumental sonically inspired by John Coltrane that's fired along by deceptively cool percussion work.  Saxophone plays a bit too heavy a role here, but it's otherwise a fine piece of ensemble work.  "Apple Tree" finds Jaecyn Bayne returning to mic with another song about aspirations.  Once Bayne runs out, the Headhunters take things on to a new phase of instrumental jazz expressionism that is better experienced than described.  "Palm Nut" is an extended instrumental that gets a bit lost in its own voluminous nature at times, but always returns to a solid theme.  Entertaining and well played the experimental free style jazz number benchmarks on tradition, while constantly casting out for new horizons musically. 

"Congo Place" is a solid offering, and leads into the alternating frenetic and lyric passages of "Headhunting".  Pretty at times, raucous at others, "Headhunting" uses trumpet and a trio of saxophones to smooth out the edges in between energetic and occasionally chaotic passages and runs.  "Skizness" brings Private Pile to the fore with a purely entertaining rumination on state of being.  The Headhunters wrap things up with a more straightforward pop/jazz sound on "Soul Glow".

Platinum is very, very good.  It's also likely to be one of the most over-rated albums of 2011.  The mix of names, sounds, styles and history is of the sort to appeal to GRAMMY voters and to institutional critics who have "head everything".  Consequently, don't be surprising if Platinum is named on a host of year-end lists and perhaps even nominated for awards.  It may even deserve such nods by the end of the year, but strip away the novelty and reverie and this is a very fine effort that is worthy of praise but perhaps not to the extent it's likely to receive.  The Headhunters can still create jazz fusion gold, but there are times on Platinum where the level of inspiration falls just a little bit flat.  When all is said and done, however, Platinum will likely be one of the Top-25 selling Jazz albums of 2011, and for good reason.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about The Headhunters at www.owlstudios.comPlatinum drops on June 14, 2011.  You can pre-order the album from as a CD or Download from

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Kelli O'Hara - Always

Kelli O'Hara - Always
2011, Ghostlight Records

There are few performers on Broadway who can simply light up a stage the Kelli O'Hara can.  The three-time TONY Award nominee follows up her highly acclaimed appearance in Lincoln Center's revival of South Pacific with a new solo album.  Due out on May 31, 2011, Always finds O'Hara tackling a number of songs traditionally sung by male leads, as well as one hilarious original tune (written just for her) that shows off O'Hara's range as a vocalist, actress and, yes, comedienne.

O'Hara opens with a classic Sondheim love song in the form of "What More Do I Need?" (Saturday Night).  The light of love is contrasted against the dreary backdrop of city life, with O'Hara illuminating the song with the pure joy of the moment.  If you've never heard O'Hara sing, then any performance is a treat, but she's at her best here.  "Something Wonderful (The King And I) finds O'Hara wax poetic over her love for an imperfect man in a sweet interpretation that perfectly captures the spirit of the Rodgers & Hammerstein creation.  Vocal power and vulnerability blend in fascinating ways over a truly memorable melody.  "How Glory Goes" (Floyd Collins) is perhaps one of the more difficult songs to sing in modern Broadway, both for complexity and nuance.  O'Hara handles it like the consummate professional she is, pulling all of the disparate emotions that run between its lines together and wrapping them together in a performance fit for a Broadway diva.

"He Loves Me" (She Loves Me) is full of pure joy delivered over a light swing beat.  O'Hara's performance is full of pizzazz and charm.  Irving Berlin's "Always" is married to a lazy, sweet arrangement with Stephane Grappelli-style violin.  Some might find the arrangement a bit out of left field, but O'Hara makes it work.  "Finishing The Hat" (Sunday In The Park With George) is the hidden gem on the album.  O'Hara delivers a vocal performance full of love, heartbreak, desperation, hope and an almost bitter perseverance.  This is a Wow moment on many levels, both for the pure aesthetics of O'Hara's voice to the complexity and depth of the character she assumes. 

"This Nearly Was Mine" (South Pacific) is delivered as something of a pensive ballad and O'Hara's lyric interpretation is full of beauty rare and refined as it builds into a coloratura exploration of heartbreak.  O'Hara creates another moment as her voice dances with the waltzing bridge.  Listen for it.  "Once I Was" features full orchestration and one of those melodies you can't get out of your head.  O'Hara makes it hard to imagine anyone else singing this song.  "Another Life" (Bridges Of Madison County) is a gorgeous retrospective on the ashes of a relationship written in the distinctive style of Jason Robert Brown.  O'Hara finds a special synergy here, transcending the song.

"They Don't Let You In The Opera (If You're A Country Star)" was written for O'Hara by David Rossmer and co-producer Dan Lipton.  It's the hilarious story, in song, of a country star with a high-C and operatic dreams.  O'Hara will make your head spin with her transitions between Nashville drawl and Met tone.  While the song turns into a moral about not giving up on your dreams and who you really are, the song is a musical unto itself, and O'Hara pulls it off the way very few ever could.  "You're Always Here" documents the dichotomy of needing someone to complain about; she only remembers how bad things are when he's around.  There's a tragic feel to the song that O'Hara reads into the vocal line in subtle ways.  This O'Hara, sans belt, at her most vocally pure.  "The Party's Over" (Bells Are Ringing) finds O'Hara navigating Jules Stynes' gorgeous melody in chill-inducing fashion.  There's an utter, aesthetic beauty to the vocal line here that is startling, and O'Hara's voice cups the line like a precious gem.  Always closes with "I Could Have Danced All Night" (My Fair Lady), showing the grace and presence of a Broadway legend in the making on one of the Great White Way's most iconic songs.

Kelli O'Hara shows a depth and versatility of voice, presence and acting ability on Always that marks her as one of the greatest actresses of her young generation.  In a day and age where there is a distinctive split between "classic" and "new" Broadway styles, Kelli O'Hara is one of the few performers who could walk either path and do it well.  Whether reaching into the depths of a character or into the well of her classically trained voice for the perfect note, Kelli O'Hara dazzles you quietly with the poise and grace of a legend.  Even in couple of instances where the arrangements offered on Always seem a bit out of character with the songs, O'Hara makes them work.  That is the mark of a professional, and yes, perhaps even a legend.

Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Kelli O'Hara at www.kelliohara.comAlways drops on May 31, 2011.  Always is available for pre-order from as a CD or Download.

New Arrivals Vol. 4 - Artists Against Youth Homelessness

New Arrivals Vol. 4 - Artists Against Youth Homelessness
2011, MPress Records

Singer/songwriter Rachael Sage launched MPress Records a decade ago as a platform for her own albums, but also as a means to help Indie artists get their music heard.  In 2006, Sage launched the New Arrivals charity compilation series.  Each volume benefits a different charity while featuring both established and Indie artists.  New Arrivals Vol. 4 - Artists Against Youth Homelessness, available June 7, 2011, features established artists Rachael Sage, Lucy Woodward and Michelle Malone, as well as coming stars Seth Glier, Caleb Hawley (American Idol), Lindsay Mac and Greta Gertler & The Extroverts.  Proceeds from the album will benefit The National Network For Youth.

The album opens with American Idol 10 semifinalist Caleb Hawley.  His "Other Side Of It All" is a song of hope for a harmonious world.  It's a solid effort, catchy-yet-mellow, even if Hawley sufficiently glosses over the history he references to lose meaning.  Seth Glier is next with "Lauralee", from his album The Next Right Thing.  It's an amazing piece of songwriting from a guy you're likely to hear a lot from over the next decade or two.  Michelle Citrin impresses with a jaunty, live acoustic version of "Coffee".  Her voice is exceedingly pleasant to the ear, and you may find yourself seeking out what else she has done.  Light In August is up next with the dreamy acoustic pop style of "Northern Lights".  If you're familiar with the solo work of Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn then you'll have an idea of where Light In August are headed here. 

Lindsay Mac's "Stop Thinking" is brilliant folk/pop blending sensuality and pathos, drawn from her album of the same name (See review here).  The Paper Raincoat's Amber Rubarth shows off an impressive voice on the atypical pop sounds of "Sympathetic Vibrations", but Rachel Davis might just steal the show.  Davis doesn't appear to have a powerful voice, but with a soulful and deeply nuanced tone, Davis will make a believer out of you on "Mark Of Cain".  Micah Dalton offers up a solid performance on "We Came Alive Tonight", and Avi Wisnia will grab your attention with his songwriting and unusual phrasing on "New Year".  Josh Schicker's "The Other Side" isn't overly memorable as a song, but his voice will make you forget about the song.

Michelle Malone grabs you by the shirt and shakes for all she's worth on "Miss Miss'ippi", raising the roof and dropping it on unsuspecting listeners in her signature style.  After a bit of a lull, including a less-than-inspiring entry from GRAMMY nominee Dave Eggar, Greta Gertler & The Extroverts  drops "Veselka" out of a clear blue sky.  This wonderfully quirky bit of cabaret-pop memorializes a Ukrainian soul food restaurant on the Lowest East Side of New York City with character, humor and a distinctive sense of melody.  Listeners will be reaching for their handhelds and signing on to Gertler's website before the song is over.  The album wraps with two Indie icons.  Rachael Sage contributes "Big Star", from her album Delancey Street.  It's an entertaining mix of reality and advice for all who would walk the path she's followed in the music business.  As a special bonus, listeners are treated to Lucy Woodward's frenetic performance of "He Got Away".  Done in a call and response style with her band, this song will remind you (or educate you, as the case may be) of just how wonderful Woodward's voice really is.

As with any various artists’ collection, different tracks will appear to different listeners for different reasons.  But of the Indie collections released in the last few years, New Arrivals Vol. 4 - Artists Against Youth Homelessness has to be rated among the best for both songs and selection of artists.  So if you're looking for an opportunity to learn about some wonderful up-and-coming Indie artists and support a good cause in the process, New Arrivals Vol. 4 - Artists Against Youth Homelessness comes highly recommended.

Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about the New Arrivals Series at  For more information about The National Network For Youth, head over to www.nn4youth.orgNew Arrivals Vol. 4 - Artists Against Youth Homelessness drops on June 7, 2011.  Keep checking your favorite retailer for availability.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Grascals - Dance Til Your Stockings are Hot And Ravelin'

The Grascals - Dance Til Your Stockings are Hot And Ravelin'
2011, BluGrascal Records

The Grascals have been busy the past few years.  Awards, a new independent record label and non-stop touring haven't stopped the band from releasing two albums in short order.  The most recent, an EP entitled Dance Til Your Stockings Are Hot And Ravelin' (June 7, 2011), is a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Andy Griffith Show.  With sponsorship from Mayberry's Finest, a food company, there is a certain hyper-commerciality to the disc encompassed in the inclusion of the corporate jingle for the food company on the CD.  Putting that aside, however, Dance Til Your Stockings Are Hot And Ravelin' features some of the finest bluegrass work of the year thus far.

Dance Til Your Stockings Are Hot And Ravelin' opens with "Dooley", the mid-tempo tale of a moonshiner with a talent for not getting caught.  The rendition offered here is tight and well-played, with distinctive vocal harmonies.  "Boil Them Cabbage Down" features some of the best picking of 2011.  "Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)" is a bluegrass party tune, and The Grascals capture that spirit here perfectly.  The harmonies, once again, are exquisite, and the instrumentation is top notch.  The band shows off their instrumental prowess to full effect on "Ol' Joe Clark".  You'll find it impossible to sit still through this number as The Grascals play through like a finely tuned machine. 

"Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" is an old southern style hymn, incorporating bluegrass instrumentation and a touch of high lonesome sound in the vocals.  The Grascals deliver this tune with an inspired grace.  "Mayberry's Finest Theme", based on the original Andy Griffith Show theme, is the jingle for the food company of the same name.  It's a cute number that speaks more to the show than your typical jingle, but fits in with the company's theme.  "Boy, Giraffes Are Selfish", played to the same tune, is an original Grascals tune written on a request based on a line from one of the more famous episodes of The Andy Griffith Show.  It's an entertaining number, brief, but featuring some instrumental variations from "The Mayberry's Finest Theme" that keep it interesting.

The Grascals continue to find ways to increase their listenership with unusual business partnerships and their down-home brand of fiery bluegrass music.  Some may decry the corporate influences on what is an essentially Indie recording, but it's hard to argue with the music on Dance Til Your Stockings Are Hot And Ravelin'.  It's seemed like The Grascals have been working to find their footing on their last couple of efforts; consider it found.  This time out the Grascals are so tight you couldn't pry them apart.

Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about The Grascals at or  Dance Til Your Stockings are Hot And Ravelin' drops on June 7, 2011.  You can pre-order the album from as a CD, or you can purchase the Download, which is already available.  The EP is also available via iTunes.

Monday, May 23, 2011

P.J. Pacifico - Outlet

P.J. Pacifico - Outlet
2011, Viper Records

P.J. Pacifico has been wowing crowds around the US for several years now.  His sophomore album, Always & Everywhere, found Pacifico beginning to amass the sort of critical acclaim and exposure that fans have expected for some time.  Pacifico has spent the past couple of years on the road, playing live and perfecting new material.  In that time he became engaged and then married to his girlfriend of a decade.  On June 7, 2011, P.J. Pacifico releases his third album, Outlet.  Born of well-seasoned numbers and songs inspired by the love of his life, Outlet finds P.J. Pacifico truly coming into his own as a grounded singer/songwriter.  Long compared to Matthew Sweet, James Taylor and the Gin Blossoms, Pacifico has finally settled into his own distinctive sound that has its roots in all of the above but has seasoned with time.

Outlet opens with "Fold Up Your Heart", a song about picking up the pieces after heartbreak.  Pacifico's lightly gravelly voice is exceedingly pleasant to listen to, and the chorus is absolutely memorable.  The catchy country/rock arrangement is likely to have wide appeal.  "Heads Up" sounds like a blend of Rob Thomas and Alan Parsons, a kiss-off song to a friend who goes to the well one too many times.  Pacifico dresses it up in an Americana sound with deluxe vocal harmonies.  "Home With Me" takes a ten year relationship and compresses it into less than five minutes.  It's a mature love song, sweet but realistic.  Pacifico touches on both the highs and lows of getting to someplace good, in the process creating one of his most commercial viable songs to date.  This is a potential hit, but would probably need the help of getting attached to a big movie soundtrack to get the attention it deserves.

"Lakeshore Drive" is an edgy, low-key rocker that represents Pacifico's first composition not written in A-440 tuning.  The Chicago reference is obvious, but Pacifico is mysterious on the specifics of inspiration.  No matter, the unusual sound and style here will keep listeners glued to their speakers.  "As Soon As I Can" is a tribute to Pacifico's wife.  It's a song that any working and travelling artist with a supportive spouse at home can understand.  There's a melancholy here born of the dual pull of needing to be on the road and wanting to be at home that is touchingly real.  "Waiting" is about two friends falling slowly in love, while being the only two in the world oblivious to the fact.  Pacifico's writing is artful and sweet, taking a fictional scenario and breathing life into it with fitful glances and false starts that come across in the music.  This one definitely has licensing potential.

"New Song" is self-referential and fun, a song about the song itself, ala Jason Plumb's "Protest Song".  It's catchy and fun bit of fluff that's a treat for the ear.  "Where Can I Be" has a Paul Simon-gone-country feel to it, both in the songwriting and the subject matter.  Pacifico ruminates on new paths going forward, and the human collateral incurred by changes in direction.  The song is a general message that just because he's off on his own that old doors aren't necessarily closed.  Pacifico wrote the song with the idea of collaboration while recording only one vocal track, suggesting perhaps musical stories not yet complete.  "Ships In The Night" is a song about what might have been; near misses and the moments of contemplation that surround them.  There's a palpable quality to the song that cannot be ignored, and Pacifico breathes life into the moment.  Outlet closes with "Targets", an ode to being on the road and the sights seen as a traveling musician.  The arrangement is Pacifico on voice and guitar, and a galloping backbeat born of the early days of rock n roll. 

P.J. Pacifico has always shown a distinctive voice as a songwriter, and his singing voice is nothing to sneeze at either, but on Outlets it all comes together.  Just as the pieces of his life have fallen into place over the past few years, Pacifico's musical gifts have fallen into place to create his best work to date.  Full of heart, class and spirit, Outlet is the sort of singer/songwriter effort critics have been predicting Pacifico would one day create.  There's still room to grow (there always is), but Pacifico has finally found the comfort to let everything flow into song.  Outlet is breakout waiting to happen.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about P.J. Pacifico at or  Outlet drops on June 7, 2011.  Keep checking Pacifico's website for availability.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ali Milner - I Dare You

Ali Milner - I Dare You
2009, Ali Milner

Vancouver, British Columbia’s Ali Milner is making quite a name for herself, surfing the pipeline between the genres of pop and jazz.  With a pure voice that could brighten even the darkest day, Milner enthralls with her voice while engaging listeners with a story-telling style that is intelligent and artful. Milner got her start performing with the Vancouver Children’s Choir and has studied at the Berklee College Of Music.  In 2009, Milner released her debut album, I Dare You.  The album has earned Milner significant critical praise, and was named the Best Adult Contemporary Album at the10th Annual Independent Music Awards.  That doesn’t tell you the whole story however.

I Dare You opens with "Crystal Clear", a brilliant musical soliloquy from one used to playing second fiddle to her best friend for suitors.  Milner uses her warm, sultry, soulful alto voice to bring a great piece of songwriting to life.  "I Wanna Be Loved By You" blends reggae and pop in a memorable turn full of melody and Milner's distinctive voice.  "I Lost My Diamond" is a classic pop number couched in an upbeat arrangement.  Heartbreak is the order of the day, as Milner uses jewelry as an allegory for love lost.   "Secret To Tell" is a pop crush song with Americana elements that manages to be catchy and reserved at the same time.  Milner's voice is amazing; she could sing the square root of pie to one hundred decimal places and people would line up to listen. 

"I Dare You" is an unusually frank entreaty to love Milner that heartfelt and without affectation.  Such brutal honesty in pop music is unusual unless it’s intended to cruel, and Milner handles it all as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  "Gonna Dance" is catchy pop that's part 1950's rock n roll and part Motown.  You won't be able to resist dancing along if you have a pulse.  Milner gets a bit esoteric with "Portrait Of Dorian Grey", an intelligent and infectious piano-driven pop number that reminds you just how deep Milner is as an artist.  "I Can't Wait Forever" sways with the push-pull of heart vs. head in romantic affairs.  Milner's voice is so rich and beautiful you'll want to bottle it and sell it, or more likely save it for yourself.

"Breakaway" is a solid song made better by the artist performing it, while "Don't Forget To Call" is wonderfully catchy and fun pop music at its best.  Milner gets dreamy with the 1970's-style AM radio pop of "Day By Day", with a positive vibe and pleasingly lyric sound.  I Dare You bows with "Can't Change This Girl", a soulful declaration of self that's unforgettable. 

After listening to Ali Milner's I Dare You, you'll wonder how someone so good stayed out of the public spotlight for so long.  In this Indie music day and age, Ali Milner is a small fish in a world of small fish, but her songwriting and voice should place her near the pinnacle of pop music.  I Dare You is brilliant, a Wildy’s World Certified Desert Island Disc.

Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Ali Milner at or  I Dare You is available from as a CD or Download from  The album is also available via iTunes.