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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Great American Robber Barons – Reno Nevada and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice and Betrayal

Great American Robber Barons – Reno Nevada and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice and Betrayal
2013, Great American Robber Barons

Some bands you can see coming from miles away, while others sideswipe you like a bread truck emerging from a dark alley at 4:00 a.m.  Great American Robber Barons fall into the latter category, but in sometimes subtle measures.  Led by Keith Dion (Ponsonby DC’s, The Ophelias, 3:05 AM and Corsica) and Diana Mangano (Jefferson Starship), Great American Robber Barons leave an impression.  Reno Nevada and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice and Betrayal is a cathartic and occasionally surreal musical journey that is much better experienced than described.

Keith Dion is an enigmatic vocalist, displaying a talk/sing style on Reno Nevada… that is a cross between Fred Schneider (The B-52’s) and John Plymale (The Pressure Boys, The Sex Police).  His sound is perhaps something of an acquired taste, but there is a stoic, geeky quality about his delivery that is ultimately charming.  On the other end of the vocal spectrum is collaborator and foil Diana Mangano, who has the sort of pipes that stop people dead in their tracks.  Their talents intertwine throughout the album, with sometimes amazing and sometimes mixed results.

Great American Robber Barons open up with “At The Hands of the Robber Barons”, a delightfully campy and catchy rocker with killer pop instinct.  Mangano belts this one out with aplomb, and the smooth guitar lead and backing instrumentation make this an instant winner.  The first class musicianship demonstrated here is apparent all throughout the album, with Great American Robber Barons never overplaying their musical hands.  “Reno Nevada” is an intriguing little story song, but how deep you dig into it will have much to do with how you respond to Dion’s voice.  Try to overcome any initial misgivings and focus on what he has to say, as Dion raises observational songwriting with wry wit to new heights at times.  The highlight of the album is “I Know You Just Don’t Want Me Anymore”, a bluesy, piano-based rocker ala Ray Charles.  Mangano gets a bit torchy here and sings her heart out.  It’s a goose bumps moment.

The band shows off their instrumental chops on “Nowhere Left To Go”, a smooth and pretty rocker with some pizzazz.  Like many rock instrumentals it outstays its welcome a tad, but it still manages to be a great listen.  Mangano takes another solid turn on “It’s All My Fault For Ever Trusting You”, a bluesy folk/rocker that feels slightly repressed.  Solid songwriting and strong performances all around make this work, but you can almost feel the band wanting to open up the throttle a bit here.  “Shut Up And Deal” has some of the best piano work on the album, but Dion’s angular talk/sing style makes this tune feel a little out of place.  Great American Robber Barons right the ship with “Hoo Hoo Man”, a classic bit of Saturday Night classic dance and roll. 

Things get a little uneven from here on out.  “Nobody Saw It Coming”, “Cemetary” and “What Were They Thinking” all enjoyable, if a bit off the wall at times, but the remainder of the second half of the album has more of a filler feel than anything else.  The 16 songs offered here could easily have been condensed to 11 or 12 and improved the overall listening experience.

Great American Robber Barons offer up some delightful turns on Reno Nevada and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice and Betrayal, with a few missteps along the way.   Keith Dion is a consummate musician and bandleader with a distinct persona and sound.  Diana Mangano, on the other hand, could fill concert halls with just the sound of her voice.  This seemingly strange pairing has a gravitational draw that is hard to ignore.  Reno Nevada… is driven by top-notch songwriting, first class musicianship and the fire and rain contrast of the two lead vocalists.  Great American Robber Barons are one lucky break away from being household names.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more on Great American Robber Barons’ Facebook page.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Lanes - Disengaged 2013 Live Set

Lanes – Disengaged 2013 (live set)
2013, Andrei Lanes
Andrei Lanes is a Brooklyn-based EDM musician who has played live sets in and around Williamsburg.  With an expanded live set coming for shows this fall, Lanes is building a library of unique and lively original EDM compositions.  The tracks reviewed here are not officially released, and Lanes has no plans for formal album releases, preferring the give and take atmosphere of the stage.
“Hysterical Sobriety” is driven by a killer beat and ethereal counter melody.  Lanes structures this around a series of riffs that are certainly dance worthy, and this tune has its own gravity that is difficult to escape.    Lanes makes an effort to explore the theme he’s concocted here, making “Hysterical Sobriety” more involved than your typical EDM track.  “Noctilucent”, inspired by Liz Nielsen’s “Egg Galaxy”, once again blends the ethereal with the primal.  The net effect this time around is more subdued, but Lanes manages a mellow groove.  With “Disengaged”, Lanes moves into more surreal territory, bringing Eastern sounds into the ether over a double-timed clockwork rhythm.  The result is infectious and driven, but with a measured feel that is not urgent, yet feels inevitable.  “East Coast” captures the frenetic pace of New York City’s West Side Highway, or perhaps any stretch of open road on the I-95 corridor.  The construction is coherent, but Lanes suggests between the lines that chaos is never more that a hair’s breadth away.  “RTT” has an incessant feel, like the onrushing of time in an urban landscape, where nothing changes but everything is always moving, circling, building…  Lanes constructs primary in 4/4 time here, but manages to build a techno/musical march that will get under your skin.
Lanes surprises and captivates with an unusually lively set of electronic compositions in his Disengaged 2013 live set.  Ethereal themes and energetic compositions are the rule of the day here, with Lanes showing no fear as a composer.  His tracks delve deep into thematic exploration without ever losing their EDM credentials.  If all EDM music were this original and energetic it could go main stream.
Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)
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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Candice Russell - So Much More

Candice Russell - So Much More
2013, Candice Russell
Candice Russell is a 21 year old singer/songwriter for Tualatin, Oregon.  The last time you saw her was on Hollywood Week of American Idol season 11.  In spite of getting sent home early, Russell has continued to refine her craft.  Shortly thereafter she met producer Dave Lubben (Kutless).  With Lubben and her brother, Aaron Russell, Candice wrote the ten songs that comprise her debut album, So Much More.
Russell sets off with the bubblegum country/pop of "Too Into You", a catchy but overproduced attempt to gain airplay at the artist's own expense. Producer Lubben utilizes significant vocal effects here and throughout the album, making Russell sound like a technical creation rather than a human being. "Escape" is a middle of the road pop ballad that leaves Russell stranded in an emotional and musical wasteland. The run-on feel of the chorus is maudlin at best. Russell picks up the pace a bit with "Good Luck With That". A catchy arrangement and a catchy bridge buoy the song, but the repetitive chorus drowns the listener.
Russell is joined by an unnamed male vocalist on the sweet duet "Loved By You". The song is a gem, inspired by the life-long love of her grandparents. This is a potential hit in spite and arrangement that is too present and too full. "My Friend" is a song full of need and longing that would work much better Ina stripped down arrangement. "Remember" is a down-tempo dream pop number with an ethereal feel. 
"So Much More" explores the journey of becoming who you want to be and not giving up in the face of criticism. This is perfunctory pop music, canned for pop radio but without the spark to catch on. "Someday" is a solid piece of songwriting with a memorable chorus. It's a song of overcoming and moving on, and Russell is convincing here.  Russell heads back into 1980's bubblegum pop with "Summer Nights", a pro-forms pop tune that's solid but a little too much like too many other things already out there. So Much More closes with "When I See You", a cookie cutter pop ballad. Russell means well and sings from the heart, but there's little originality or energy here. 
Candice Russell gives her best on So Much More, but never fully engages the listener in the process. It's hard to tell throughout the album how much of the vocals are really here and how much are courtesy of production tricks. The album is wholly over-produced, with electronics overcoming any human element. It would be nice to hear Russell’s voice in a stripped down setting. So Much More aims for a marketable sound, yet the heart that is so obvious in Russell’s lyrics can’t overcome all of the electronic paraphernalia that went into crafting the sound.
Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more at 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Claudia Russell - All Our Luck Is Changing

Claudia Russell - All Our Luck Is Changing
2013, Claudia Russell
Claudia Russell is a singer, songwriter and stage actress with a distinctive voice and a gift for writing substantive, evocative songs.  Russell has shared stages with the likes of Willie Nelson, Loudon Wainwright III, Steve Forbert and Kris Kristoffersen, to name a few.  Russell recently released her fourth album, All Our Luck Is Changing, a collection of remembrances and stories set to song.  Russell’s voice and songwriting style blend perfectly as she sculpts words and notes into images both simple and profound.
Russell opens with "Pirate Girls", a sweet reminiscence of the innocence of youth. Russell's voice is pleasant on the ears, and her subdued storyteller's style strikes all the right chords here. "All Our Luck Is Changing" remembers a family vacation from her childhood both as a benchmark of happiness and as a corner turned toward adulthood. The folk/country setting is an appealing backdrop for this moment.  "Silver Bird" brings a bluesy element into the adult contemporary pastiche, loaded with a subtle melancholy beauty.   Russell delivers the weight of loss in dulcet tones, carving beauty out of heartache with a delicate ease. 
"You Are The Light" finds Russell in a duet with her husband and longtime collaborator Bruce Kaplan.  The song has real potential, but Russell’s vocal style is much tighter here, and the end result sounds emotionally flat. Russell snaps back on "Hey Hey", with a lively little folk tune about the last gasp of summer. Russell sings with the quiet joy of remembrance, and the magic of her memories is palpable.  "So You'll Believe" is a melancholy ballad with a country/folk flavor that's pleasant on the ears. This is Russell's forte, as she is adept at painting pictures with words, and backing them up with velvet arrangements that always seem the perfect fit.  
Russell takes a jauntier pose with the southern swing of "Charleston". Russell reflections are both happy and sad, seeing dark and light as all part of a wondrous whole. "Follow Your Tail Lights Home" is a wonderfully obscure love song reflecting on a simple act as definitive of a lifetime of love. This is a brilliant piece of songwriting set in a lively Celtic arrangement. 
"These Shoes" is an artful kiss off song that dwells deep in symbolism without engaging in the pedantic anger that so often riles this sub genre. Russell says goodbye with class and with an artist's touch.   Russell returns to a swinging blue sound for "I Remember The Wind", pulling off a quietly powerful performance that would be amazing in a love setting. Russell closes with the explosive quiet of "I Can't Stand The Rain", exploring the small reminders of a relationship that's run its course. Russell brings the emotional darkness of this moment to palpable life with a vocal performance you won't want to miss. 
Claudia Russell is a rare talent. He voice isn’t perfect, but it’s perfect for her, and perfectly fit to the songs she writes.  All Our Luck Is Changing is a wonderfully well-crafted and mature song cycle, delivering on Russell’s talent as a songwriter and storyteller, as well as on her personal charisma.  If this album doesn’t win Russell awards in 2013 it will be an injustice of epic proportions.
Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)
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