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Friday, February 28, 2014

Jonathan Sprout - American Heroes #4

Jonathan Sprout – American Heroes #4
2014, Sprout Recordings

Jonathan Sprout is a mission musician, if you will.  A songwriter and performer since the early 1970’s, Sprout was inspired in 1994 to begin writing about heroes after seeing a poll of youth that listed heroes such as Bart Simpson and sports figures whose off the field exploits were less than heroic.  Since then, Sprout has released four albums encompassing heroes from all walks of life.  His third American Heroes album, released in 2010, won 11 national awards and was nominated for a GRAMMY Award.  Sprout returns in 2014 with his fourth installment in the series, American Heroes #4.

Sprout certainly believes in his material.  There is a heartfelt joy that runs throughout American Heroes #4, telling the listener that Sprout truly loves his material.  The material itself is well-crafted, with sometimes hokey electronic-based arrangements.  Sprout kicks off with “Unstoppable”, a tribute to Juliette Gordon Low, one of the founders of the Girl Scouts.    The song is full of admiration communicated in repetitive and somewhat banal lyrics.  The arrangement is bouncy but ultimately bland.  This is a situation where intent and heart carry the day.  “Come With Me!” is a bubblegum pop ode to the early Dutch settlers of the Western World.  “E=MC2” is about Albert Einstein that is an inartistic as it is full of awe.   Sprout takes to the Caribbean for a tribute to Pirates’ slugger Roberto Clemente in “Hall Of Fame”.    This is more an ode to Clemente’s relief efforts than his baseball skills, and is crafted in an awkward yet effective fashion.

“Man In The Arena” encourages kids to give their best to whatever they do, and not worry about what the crowd says.  It’s a positive pop song with a great message.  “Through The Eyes of a Child” finds Sprout crossing over into the world of ballads in an ode to Walt Disney.  The arrangement is a bit on the bland style, but the sentiment seems heartfelt enough here.  “Powerful” riffs on an innocent letter written by Samantha Reed Smith to Yuri Andropov during the Cold War that led to Smith being called America’s Youngest Ambassador.  The song plays on the theme of the power of children (and little girls in particular).  The activist message here aimed at children is a feel good theme that tries to take the exception and make it the world. 

“Dr. Seuss” is a playful ode to Theodor Geisel that sounds like something from the old Dr. Demento Show.  Sprout uses an impeded voice to essentially list all of Seuss’s characters rather than say much about the man who created them.  It’s entertaining fluff.  “Interconnected” is a meandering, collectivist ballad espousing Rachel Carson’s environmental efforts.  Sprout relies on cliché imagery to pay tribute to someone who relied on none of these to forward her cause.  Sprout turns it around on the listeners and reminds then that they can be heroes with "Heads, Hearts and Hands". He takes it one step further on "I See A Hero", falling into adulation and ego enhancement.  This is one of the nicer arrangements on the album, and one of the better listens as well.

Sprout works the crowd with simplistic musical portraits aimed at installing a sense of social right and wrong in his listeners. The center/left ideological focus of the songs will turn off a portion of his potential fan base, but Sprout keeps his common core approach fairly low key. One gets the impression that Sprout is reaching a bit with this fourth installment in his American Heroes series; the lyrics are a stretch at times and the arrangements often have a canned feel. But there's little doubt that the folks who have enjoyed the first three installments will love American Heroes #4.

Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out of 5)

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Monday, February 17, 2014

SuperJells - Problem

SuperJells are the next generation, or more accurately, the next incarnation of The Doerfels Family Band (The Doerfels).  Starting out in Western New York, the band grew up performing bluegrass, country and folk, earning spots on stage supporting artists such as Ricky Skaggs,Asleep At The Wheel and The Isaacs.  SuperJells finds six Doerfel brothers venturing into the world of alternative rock.  Now basing themselves out of the Key West area of Flordia, SuperJells have recently released a home-cut video of their song "Problem".  Check it out below!

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Video: Gena Perala - Living Proof

Gena Perala was a carnival kid growing up, moving around as part of the show.  That ethic has served her well as she transitioned to an adult, first as a poet and later as a songwriter.  The Vancouver native shows a lyrical astuteness and a penchant for theatrical songwriting.

Perala recently ventured into the world of music videos for the first time.  The song "Living Proof", from her splendid album Exactly Nowhere, is classic Perala.  The sound has a classic leaning, but delves deep into the human condition.  Check out "Living Proof" below.

Learn more about Gena Perala at

Video: Melanie Martinez - "Dollhouse"

Baldwin, NY native Melanie Martinez is an alumnae of The Voice, Season 3, garnering a rabid group of followers known as The Little Bows.  Martinez is finding her own voice, and steps out in 2014 with a new video for a song entitled "Dollhouse".  Stark imagery and a unique artistic rendering of a song about false faces has Martinez poised to break out big in 2014.  Check out the video below!

Dollhouse is available for download via iTunes.  Follow Melanie Martinez on Facebook, or keep up with her avid photography on Instagram.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Carrington MacDuffie - Only An Angel

Carrington MacDuffie – Only An Angel
2014, Pointy Head Records

Carrington MacDuffie grew up in with the lights of the 1970’s Greenwich Village Folk scene as a primary influence.  A songwriter from the age of 13, MacDuffie became something of a musical nomad.  The New York City native spent time in Boston, Europe, Los Angeles and Seattle before settling down in Austin, Texas.  Along the way she cultivated her songwriting craft while picking up a second career as a voice artist.  If you’re a fan of ‘books on CD’ you may have heard portraying anything from a Jackie Collins novel to World of Warcraft.  MacDuffie kicks off 2014 on a musical note, releasing the six-song EP Only An Angel

MacDuffie kicks things off with the title track, a middle of the road piece of folk/country/pop.  MacDuffie’s energy seems a bit flat on the lead vocal, but the atmosphere she creates with the backing vocal flourishes is a nice touch.  The spoken word bridge is a nice touch.  “Fly Away” is a country/folk blend with a samba beat.  Once again, MacDuffie creates great sounds in the harmonies, while the songwriting and the energy are okay but nothing to get excited over.  “Hot Sun of the Summer” is cut from the same cloth, and gets stuck in a repetitive loop that is never quite breaks out of.

“Red Eye” has an odd sense of poetry to it.  There’s a nonsensical feel to this love song about being apart, perhaps reflecting the emotional chaos that distance can cause.  The musical arrangement brings the song to life.  “Stand Below Heaven” stands out for its chorus, which is memorable.  You might say it is a speculative love song written to a wayward angel, and MacDuffie practices her storyteller’s art with some success here.  MacDuffie saves her best for last.  “My Favorite Place in Texas” is a fine piece of songwriting.  The production of the song is too slick and too flat sounding, but this song will shine when played live.

Carrington MacDuffie displays the candid air of a professional storyteller at times on Only An Angel.  At other times she displays the practiced art of a singer/songwriter.  The struggle on Only An Angel seems to be fusing those two talents.  She progressively finds the blend over the last two tracks on the EP, but the production values undercut her some.  The songwriting is at least solid throughout, but the presentation of the EP is perhaps a bit too smoothed over to honor MacDuffie’s folk roots. It’s a nice effort, but the nuances sought in the blending and smoothing done on the mixing board were likely already in the music.  It’s just harder to hear them now.

Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Bryan Johnson - Fun-a-day Ukulele Covers

I had the pleasure of reviewing an EP from Buffalo-based rockers Bryan Johnson and Family back in 2011.  Their self-titled EP was small-budget and rough around the edges, but showed great potential from a band that was still in the process of figuring out who they were. A year or so later I caught them live at a charity event, and was very impressed with the apparent growth of the band.  Bryan Johnson and Family are currently working on a new EP which should be out sometime in 2014. 

In the mean time, Bryan Johnson has embarked on an ambitious and fun project.  Throughout the month of February he is trying to release one cover song per day on Ukulele as part of the Buffalo Fun-A-Day project.  The process of learning one new cover per day on Ukulele is difficult enough, but getting to a point where you're willing to put it out on YouTube takes some serious work.

Johnson is a talented artist, and Bryan Johnson and Family is just one example of the many great bands in the Buffalo music scene.  Check out the cover of Katy Perry's "Roar"! Links to other videos in the series are below!

Check out these covers from the Fun-A-Day series.

Daft Punk - Get Lucky

Lorde - Royals

Ke$ha - Die Young

Capital Cities - Safe and Sound

Justin Bieber - As Long As You Love Me

Bruno Mars - Locked Out Of Heaven

And be sure to check out Bryan Johnson and Family on:



Mental Monkey Ballet - Breaking The Law [EP]

Mental Monkey Ballet – Breaking The Law [EP]
2014, Applehead Records

Swedish rockers Mental Monkey Ballet are driven by the combination of songwriter/producer Jan Fretman and singer/songwriter/producer Vivi Lundstrom.    Their mix of tribal dance and post-punk/garage sounds is unique and opens up a host of creative possibilities.  Lundstrom and Fretman are joined by Anna Wennesten (keys/backing vox); Nino Prekratic (guitars);Hakan Englund (drums); Maxa Fron Pashayeva (bass); and Linnea Simon (backing vox).  Mental Monkey Ballet’s debut EP, Breaking The Law, will be released in the early part of 2014.

Breaking The Law launches on the esoteric sound of “Into The Open”, with lead vocalist Vivi Lundstrom sounding like a wayward cross between Dolores O’Riordan and Chrissie Hynde.  Full of energy and a pending sense of chaos, “Into The Open” is an announcement, a dropping of the musical gauntlet, if you will that announces Mental Monkey Ballet to the world.  “Club 27” is an edgy alt-rocker built around a serious pop hook.  Mental Monkey Ballet falls prey to the song’s sense of repetition a bit, but this tune has the potential to cross the rock/pop/dance divide. “Different” is a forlorn ballad that matches sonic and lyric sensibilities.  The arrangement is well crafted, but the pacing is tough and the track simply lasts too long.  Lundstrom’s voice is impeccable, but even she seems to falter under the weight of the material.

“Chemical” is similarly weighted.  Mental Monkey Ballet seems to explore the various ways people try to find a higher mind, whether through drugs or religion.  This turns into a tired and drawn out piece that’s more naval gaze than anything else.  The energy level here is proof.  There’s sort of a messy monotony to “Breaking The Law”, as if Mental Monkey Ballet is trying to blend a messy, almost garage-like feel onto what is essentially a dance tune.  “You’re More Trouble Than You’re Worth” is a classic kiss-off song with a killer back-beat.  Mental Monkey Ballet are thoroughly in their element here, and Vivi Lundstrom shines.  Breaking The Law winds down with the “Get Around This”, a ballad about trying to move on.   The song is deeply melancholy, with the energy to match.

Mental Monkey Ballet wends their way through the seven songs on Breaking The Law with an almost lackluster feel at times.  There are some very bright moments here, and it’s clear to see that the band has the potential to be a major player on the international music scene.  Vivi Lundstrom has a classic alt-rock front-woman’s voice.  Unfortunately, Mental Monkey Ballet spends much of the EP wallowing in low-energy, low yield arrangements.  When Mental Monkey Ballet breaks out of their torpor, you’ll be glad you’re along for the ride.

Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out of 5)

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