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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Styx - The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight: Live

Styx – The Grand Illusion/Pieces Of Eight: Live
2012, Eagle Rock Entertainment
From 1977 to 1981 there wasn’t a bigger name in American Rock N Roll than Styx.  The first group to ever score four consecutive multi-platinum albums, Styx dominated AOR and pop radio, and tour box offices, like few others up until their first breakup in 1984.  Times change, and musical styles move on.  Styx has never recaptured the commercial success they had in their prime, and the revolving door of band members and side projects since the band’s reunion in 1996 has made for a sound that is dynamic but altered from the signature sound of the band’s heyday.  In 2011, Styx put on a short concert tour that included complete live renditions of the band’s classic albums The Grand Illusion and Pieces Of Eight.  That tour is memorialized now on DVD, Blue-Ray, and combined DVD and 2-CD set. 

The Grand Illusion/Pieces Of Eight: Live is a visually stunning and musically surprising performance.  Some of Styx’ greatest hits were featured on these two albums, including “The Grand Illusion”, “Fooling Yourself”, “Miss America”, “Come Sail Away”, “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade”.  While the vocal mix has changed over the years, and Lawrence Gowan will never quite replace the voice of Dennis DeYoung, Styx managed to capture the same zeitgeist that made them the kings of Arena Rock for close to a decade.  The video presentation and audio quality are perfect, and Styx is entirely on their game on-stage.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Styx continues to be one of the highest grossing live acts in the U.S., and it’s easy to see why on The Grand Illusion/Pieces Of Eight: Live.  So while lesser acts are ensconced in the Rock N Roll Hall of Jann Wenner’s album collection in Cleveland, true Icons of rock music such as Styx continue to do what they do best:  Rock and roll.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Styx at 

   DVD/2-CD               BluRay                      DVD

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Meghan Cary - Building This House

Meghan Cary - Building This House
2012, Meghan Cary
Meghan Cary was Indie before Indie was cool.  The former theater actress fell into songwriting through personal tragedy in the late 1990’s.  What began as catharsis and tribute to her then-recently deceased fiancĂ© turned into a win of Billboard Magazine’s Critics’ Choice for Best Newcomer in 1998.  Cary was quickly drawn into the folk scene, touring extensively and recording/releasing three critically acclaimed albums.  Cary met her husband, Peter Farrell (The BlackTails) at a Meghan Cary show at CBGB’s Gallery, at a time when touring was becoming old hat.  She settled down and built a home and a family, but music was never really gone from her life.  Cary returns on January 31, 2012 with her first album in eight years, Building This House.  A story of recovery, rebuilding and ultimately, happiness, Building This House is a personal tale full of the resilience of the human spirit.  And while Meghan Cary has been rightly compared to the likes of Shawn Colvin, the Indigo Girls, Natalie Merchant and Stevie Nicks over the years, on Building This House she offers a voice that’s influenced by those above, but distinctly her own.
Cary gets started with the title track, a refreshingly smooth and mature piece of pop songwriting that’s an ode to family to be.  Cary’s voice is mildly soulful, and the almost harpsichord style sound from the synth gives this something of a baroque-pop ballad feel.  “Lost You In The Light” is a brilliant marriage of poetry and music.  Cary’s mildly soulful pop arrangement wraps itself around lyrics about the human tendency to lose sight of what’s important from time to time.  This organic blend of thought and muse reflects an artist who spends a lot of time inside her own thoughts, yet still manages to convey the output in an artful manner.  “Responsibility” is a morality tale told from a personal perspective, reflecting on those we see around us in hardship every day.  The message is solid and poignant in difficult economic times, but the subject has been covered many times over with more power.  Nevertheless, the wonderfully jazzy piano work underscores an arrangement that will get this song some attention.
“I Might Miss You” shows off Cary’s ear for melody in no uncertain terms.  A song about discovering what you really want after you’ve already cast it aside, the song’s theme unrolls in your brain like it was always written there and therefore refuses to leave.  This sort of honest, sweet love song is always appealing, but Cary delivers it with a sincerity and simple power that is compelling.  Cary digs into a delicious blues/rock arrangement with lots of soul for “Through Walking”.  This catchy number builds slowly, and will likely become a live favorite.  It would be nice to hear Cary open this one up a bit more vocally, but the song sits well as delivered.
“Invitation” is a powerful love song that might be about opening your heart to love, or perhaps something a bit more carnal.  Either way, Cary plays it straight and manages to create one of the most intriguing listens of the newborn 2012.  The compact pop/rock arrangement delivers the song with an economy of style that allows the raw desire of the song to be the star.  “Darker Song” is all about the unstable emotional ground that leads to a breakup. This woeful, haunting tune finds Cary coming to terms with what her heart has known for some time.  The universal appeal of this song will come from the fact that almost anyone who hears it will have been there once in their life, and Cary captures the moment in a near-perfect blend of poetry and musical scenery. 
“Moon Song” explores the complicated emotions that arise from learning a former love has moved on. In this case he is getting married.  This is all about the emotional turmoil that turns up at such a time, particularly when unsettled feelings still in play, and about the phone call or letters that happen at such times that rarely turn out of the better.  Cary plays this as if she’s lived it, and her representation in song is compellingly human, mixing desire, need, desperation and pain with that one little drop of hope that drives humanity to seek the impossible.  This is a brilliant, if raw, piece of songwriting that will haunt you.  Cary closes with “Live!”, a Sunday go to meeting song with a single message: seize the moment.  The energy here is tremendous, and punctuates the collection of songs about chances lost and gained with a simple directive: never give up on yourself.
Meghan Cary has lived both dreams and nightmares, and reflects upon them all in artful and symbolic songs on Building This House.  This album is a study in remembering that not only are good experiences build us, but that the ones we’d rather forget are often even strong shapers of the people we are to become.  Cary shares her story in honest and uncontrived language throughout the album, and blends these stories with arrangements that often perfectly shadow the mood of each moment.  The only possible complaint about the album is that it took Meghan Cary eight years to put it all together.  Listeners will find themselves fervently hoping that it won’t be eight years until the next one.
Rating:                  5 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about Meghan Cary at, where you can pre-order Building This House, as well as as purchase copies of her albums New Shoes, Onion Dream and Live At Your House.  You can also get a free song download from the new album for signing up for Cary's mailing list.

Haikaa - Work Of Art

Haikaa - Work Of Art
2011, Haikaa

Haikaa Yamamoto is a pan-cultural pop-star in the making.  Born in Brazil, Haikaa was raised in Japan and has studied both there and in the United States.  Her music shows influences from all three cultures and beyond, and her message is classically eastern: peace, love and respect.  Haikaa’s album Work Of Art is undeniably warm and sweet, and the songs are delivered with a voice that gets inside of your head.  Haikaa breaks down barriers through her understanding of the world, but she also projects the sort of personality as a performer that will draw listeners in and help them feel more open to ideas they might not have considered otherwise.
At the outset of Work Of Art, before you even really take notice of her songwriting, you’ll be enthralled with Haikaa’s voice.  It’s charming and out of the ordinary, with a warm sound and unusual tone that’s inherent both in herself and in her multi-cultural exposure.  In this day and age it’s not always possible to know whether a voice is doctored on a recording, but the end result is quite wonderfully unique.  Haikaa wastes no time impressing with her songwriting ability either, launching into “Everything I Know About Love”, a solid, low-key pop ballad that’s wonderfully constructed.  There is awkwardness in the lyrical constructs at times, but this fits well with the young and uncertain voice the song is written in.  The harmony vocals here feel out of synch with both Haikaa and the arrangement, and therefore become more of a distraction than an organic part of the whole.  “Work Of Art” finds Haikaa demanding to be seen for who she is.  It’s a positive message that parents will like their daughters to hear from pop music, and it manages to avoid clichĂ© to become truly meaningful.  The message itself is wrapped in a pretty pop arrangement with Alan Parsons’s style vocal harmonies.  It’s simply gorgeous.
“Call Me By Name” continues in a similar thematic vein, and continues the wonderfully-constructed pop path that Haikaa has embarked on.  It would be easy to see this song serving as a soundtrack component for a teen television drama or even for a movie.  “Happy” has a positive, feel-good vibe.  It’s a piece of fluffy pop music that isn’t ashamed to be what it is, and is ultimately enjoyable.  “I’ll Wait” finds Haikaa digging into a sweet love song that could have serious commercial potential if it gets airplay or other exposure.  From the sweetly honest affirmation of love to the wonderfully constructed pop arrangement and memorable melody, all the elements of a great pop ballad are here.
“Vision” shows off a slightly more mature sound from Haikaa.  She captures a Stevie Nicks vibe here, although you can understand everything she sings.  There’s something of an edge to this number that shows avenues Haikaa may follow on future albums, but the vaguely sensual sweetness that runs through the album survives even in this maturing sound.  Work Of Art winds down with “You And Me”, a solid love song with good energy and approach.  It’s a good effort, but not as strong as much of what’s come before, and perhaps not the best way to say ‘until next time’.
Haikaa shows talent, maturity and youth on Work Of Art.  She is a compelling young songwriter with a real gift for melody and pop construction.  That’s not to say everything works perfectly on Work Of Art, but Haikaa is on-target most of the time, and occasionally delivers moments of brilliance.  The most compelling aspect of the album is Haikaa’s voice, which is mainstream enough to fit in on pop radio dials, but unique enough to stand out.  Don’t be surprised if Work Of Art is just the start for Haikaa.
Rating:                  4 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Haikaa at or


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Charity Chapman - Gordon The Northern

Charity Chapman – Gordon The Northern
2006, Charity Chapman
Charity Chapman is just this gal, ya know?  Granted, she’s an incredibly talented songwriter…  and she has this incredibly sweet and vaguely smoky voice that makes you stop what you’re doing and find out just who that is singing on the radio.  But the young woman who lived her early live in Pensacola, Florida and then finished growing up in the verdant valleys of Colorado is as down to earth as they come.  It’s one of the reasons her songwriting is so clear and honest; there are no pretensions with Charity Chapman.  What you see, and what you hear, is what you get.  Its why, in spite of remaining an Indie songwriter and performer, she’s seen her music featured on Oprah, Felicity, Ugly Betty, and both the US and UK versions of The X Factor.  Chapman’s EP, Gordon The Northern, is a collection of old and new songs that are guaranteed to impress, and are likely to begin a long artist/listener relationship.
The EP opens with “If I Could Fly”, a song with many levels.  A gorgeous love song with a vaguely dark temperament, it is also a song of hope.  The song was featured in season 4 of Felicity, and has the distinction of being the tune that Keri Russell’s character graduated to.  The mixed sense of unrequited love and dreams breaking upon new shore is dizzying, but perfectly maps the collision of old and new desires and hope that are the watershed of adolescence on adulthood.  The song succeeds on the genuine sense of standing at the precipice of a new world, but looking back with the door to an old world not yet closed.  Chapman herself sounds very much like Canadian chanteuse Maren Ord, and ingratiates herself with her sweet, sweet voice. 
“Free” is an intriguing declaration of a movable self.  The song has a solid melody, and is packaged in an arrangement that is mellow on the surface but full of a deep energy.  Chapman’s voice shows many colors and shadings here, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in the sound of her voice.  “In My Room” is a song of heartbreak; of searching for an answer where none is to be found.  Chapman’s essential question, why he walked away, seems to pale in the face of the search itself.  The pain here is palpable, with a dramatic sense that is theatric in presentation and yet organic and real.  This mix is incredibly difficult to find; not a matter of craft but of honesty in the songwriting process.  Chapman maintains a strong pop sensibility without sounding like she’s trying to write a pop song, an impressive achievement in and of itself.
Gordon The Northern is an intriguing perspective on the artistic development of a songwriter left to her own devices.  Charity Chapman opens with her most well-known song, and then moves on to two more recent tunes.  You can hear the depth and complexity of her talent and of her intellect sprout before your very ears on Gordon The Northern.  What’s most intriguing is that throughout the process, she never loses the twin roots of her talent: A delicious ear for melody and an integrity and honesty in her songwriting that is compelling.  Chapman manages to have it all on Gordon The Northern; she is an artist who is creating meaningful and aesthetically pleasing art that just happens to be commercially viable.  Take one listen, and you’ll be hooked.
Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about Charity Chapman at or 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Vintage Blue - Strike The Mics

Vintage Blue - Strike The Mics
2012, Vintage Blue

Every band hits that point where they either break down or break through.  Chicago quintet Vintage Blue hit that point in early 2010, and flew through the barriers like a speeding bullet.  Formerly known as Tanglewood, Vintage Blue went through personnel and stylistic changes, first noted on their 2010 debut EP, California Road.  Vintage Blue’s second offering, Strike The Mics, due out on Valentine's Day in 2012, finds the band picking up where they left off on California Road.  Coming into the album with no stylistic preconceptions, Vintage Blue had remade themselves in the tradition of great rock n roll.  Ben Bassett (vocals, lead guitar); Ryan Tibbs (vocals, rhythm guitar, harp); Will Crowden (drums); Cesar Corral (bass, vocals); and Matt Zimmerman (sax, keys, vocals) enlisted the help of producer Jamie Candiloro (The Eagles, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson) to help them narrow their musical focus.  Consequently, Strike The Mics is the band’s most vibrant and enduring work to date.
Drawing on a wealth of influences and sonic palettes, Strike The Mics is a cathartic experience.  The album kicks off with the horn-laden blend of classic and alternative rock that is “Set You Free”.  Featuring the sort of chorus that sticks in your head, this song is a great introduction for the band, and the sort that could launch a pleasant association with commercial radio.  “Unchained” is a high-energy rocker at full gallop.  Strong vocal harmonies and a modern rock feel complete the sound in a number you’ll find it impossible to simply sit through.  Vintage Blue strips things down for the start of “California Road”, building into a fuller sound that’s melodically pure and well constructed.  The simple chorus is easy to sing along to, and you’ll find it recurring in your head once you’ve heard it.
“Speak” is funky folk/rock with a funky back beat.  The chorus sounds like it could have been written by Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see this song embraced by commercial radio programmers.  Vintage Blue has shown flashes of Americana influence throughout the album, but that influence breaks free on “Sleep On This”, a down-home rocker about being in love with an ever moving target.  The song is incredibly catchy, with a pop sensibility that simply won’t quit.  “Here To Stay” digs more into Vintage Blue’s emerging country/rock sound amidst a laid back sound and a big chorus you won’t soon forget.
“Just Breathe” is a smooth, classic-rock power ballad with refinement, originating more from a working-class rock lineage than the glam rock sound that so often characterizes classic power ballads.  This is the highlight of the album, both compositionally and instrumentally.  The guitar work is primo, and the vocal harmonies absolutely click.  “Help Me See” is one of those quietly catchy tunes that sneak up on you.  Solid on the first listen, but it will grow on you with each successive pass through.  Vintage Blue sounds like a cross between Toad The Wet Sprocket and Wilco here, displaying the mellow pop sense of the former and the full Americana influence of the latter.  “Great Divide” is an “Ah” moment; a forlorn love song built around a lovely finger-picked guitar core.  Do not be surprised if you end up with this number on repeat.  Vintage Blue bows with “True”, a musical epilogue that plays like the closing credits for a movie.  Catchy and upbeat, this song will get stuck inside your head and stay there.  The horns come back here and support a sound that’s danceable and pop-radio friendly while showing some songwriting substance all at the same time.  This should be a concert favorite; and in an era where great pop music was truly appreciated this would be a top-10 hit on the radio.
Vintage Blue does so much well on Strike The Mics that it’s difficult to summarize.  Ranging from singer/songwriter balladry to classic rock to modern rock and alternative, the band is eclectic in its range and songwriting talent.  Vocalists Ben Bassett and Ryan Tibbs are both capable front men, and the band plays with an energy and chemistry that are absolutely undeniable.  Vintage Blue has managed to take the core experience of the band’s history and mix it with new energy and new blood to come up with a winning rock and roll formula.  In another era these guys would be mega stars.  As it is, this is the sort of band you don’t soon forget.  A live show is bound to be an experience you won’t forget, and Strike The Mics is likely to become a treasured and oft-played part of your collection.
Rating:                  4.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more at