GROOVES & CUTS – September 2022 – by John Apice
Some artists almost got away. Because of the heavy load, I postponed my blabber-mouth column & loaded up on reviews. I’ll be back.
Nora O’Connor – My Heart
Nora starts her 10-cut My Heart (Drops Oct. 7-Pravda Records) with some articulate catchy melodies with an attractive pop vocal style. Her tone has sincerity which helps sell the relatively simple but well-written songs. The lead-off “Sore,” has sophistication in its presentation. The straight progression into the title track “My Heart,” is a nice shift from the open. It’s all been done before but it’s Nora O’Connor’s voice that is the bait.
Chicago-based Ms. O’Connor has been recorded with clarity & she creates vivid soundscapes that maintain a mainstream commercialized appeal. Each song’s constructed as a potential stand-alone hit on the charts. However, Nora’s songs aren’t candy-coated. What they possess is something flavorful that lingers in the ears. The piano chords in “My Heart,” & “It’s Alright Now,” have a Beatles-like feel. And Nora sings with authority rather than showboating.
The acoustic guitar is featured on “Cambridge Cold,” with a steady 1-2 beat & delicious backup vocals. Again, Nora manages to sing with gratification. No cliches hamper the performance & it all has solid songwriting. If the late singer-songwriter Laura Nyro was more commercially viable she’d probably have sounded like Nora on this song. It’s a crepe suzette of a melody.
The only issue — while her songs are consistently strong some song titles (not all) are juvenile. A little more imagination given to the song titles would help develop a style for Ms. O’Connor’s music. “Tarot Card,” & “Cambridge Cold,” lead the way to more creative titles that pinch the mind. What are they about? That motivates a listener, the others fall short.
“Follow Me,” with its Nanci Griffith feel & vibrant soundscape is a delight. And yes, I hear a pleasant contrast between Nora and the late Norma Tanega who possessed magical melodic sensibility in her often-clever songs (“No Stranger Am I,” “Walking My Cat Named Dog,” “The Street That Rhymes With 6 A.M”) some covered by Dusty Springfield. The Tanega connection is evident in “Outta Space,” where Nora sounds warm, has good song ornamentation, good enough to step out front of all the acts she has supported.
Produced by Nora with Alex Hall (drums/percussion/piano/Wurlitzer/harmonium) & Steve Dawson on 2 songs. Musicians: The Flat Five (backing vocals), Casey McDonough (bass/acoustic guitar/vocals), Scott Ligon (organ/Wurlitzer/guitars), Robbie Djersoe (dobro/electric guitar) & Jon Rouhouse (pedal steel).
Nora needs some professional portrait images taken. She’s an attractive woman but few of the PR pictures pose her at her best. Highlights – “Follow Me,” “My Heart,” “Grace,” “Sore,” “Cambridge Cold,” “Winwoof,” (delightful instrumental) & “Fare Thee Well.”
David Beck – Bloom & Fade
Bassist David Beck has a pleasant, strictly pop approach to his vocal with a business-as-usual melody & performance. However, this always has a general appeal to ears not seeking out any heavy machinery songs or impressive playing. It’s better than Barry Manilow but not quite James Taylor. Fortunately, Crooked Talk,” has an element of originality despite its cliches.
Considering the subject Beck is singing about I’m surprised he didn’t dig a little deeper in his well of inspiration for more articulate words. The song deals with a heavy subject. The dreamy guitar application may have also been a misstep since the song needed more expansion. It’s a good song, presented simplistically, but dealing with a personal weighty topic. So, just a tweak, or rearrangement could turn a fair song into a compelling one.
Heavy themes laid out with sweetness isn’t always the wise way to go. Do I sympathize? Or emphasize? Or totally misunderstand the aim?
On David’s new Bloom & Fade (Dropped Sept. 30) his vocals are too good to be projecting in a lo-fi style. More songs like “Miner’s Song,” & Beck will have a career with legs. Why? Because he doesn’t sound like a commercial singer whose career could last as long as the life of a mosquito.
“Miner’s Song” has a guitar jangle reminiscent of The Byrds decades ago that made the cash roll in. But Beck scores better here – his voice has energy; it’s distinctive & the song is mature with its dependable guitar-note ripples. Lyrics are charged as well. I like this one which means Beck is developing still. He has the goods, but he has to be a better judge of what to keep, redo or work on a little longer.
Website – https://www.davidbeckdavidbeck.com/
The Legacy of John and Frances Reedy & the Stone Mountain Band
For those who appreciate more traditional music, these will surprise you since many are melodic & sung with strength. The instrumental activity is marvelous & captured magically on these recordings.
“Driftwood,” is particularly charming & I can hear Emmylou Harris cover this. For the most part, the 2 CD collection The Legacy of John and Frances Reedy & the Stone Mountain Band (Dropped Sept. 2–Shanachie-Yazoo Records) was recorded in the early 60s. It’s a cross of genres (bluegrass & country gospel). But a song like “Jonah,” is expressive, cleverly performed & fortifying. These people could play & they sound like they arranged their effort with care rather than play off the top of their heads.
This set includes a 20-page insert with annotation & photographs. It’s a backwoods country style lost on today’s country radio. John & Frances influenced who we think were influencers. They were favorites of the legendary Dr. Ralph Stanley who many country & bluegrass artists look up to. But it’s the Reedy duo who was his source. They weren’t entirely lost to music history, they were always critically acclaimed for their eloquence, artistry & songwriting.
“Prayer Is Worth More Than Silver & Gold,” has inspired playing. The Stanley standard “O Death,” that he performed in the Coen Brothers’ film “O Brother,” is performed in its original form, where Ralph himself found it & learned it. The recording itself is pristine.
The first CD has 18 cuts & CD 2 has 15. The mandolin, banjo, harmonica, piano, guitar & percussion are all captured with excellence. Some may be nostalgic, but the historical value is immeasurable for aficionados of this kind of music legacy. Clean, clear performances such as the harmonica-driven “Lost John” have a dynamic that is not lost in these grooves.
Some tunes (“I Just Dropped By”) may sound dated but this is a document that’s over 60 years old. What I like is that it’s not just something for reference. It has an entertainment value that comes through the speakers even today. Website: https://www.shanachie.com/artist/john-frances-reedy + for historical significance: https://remembereedy.blogspot.com/2011/06/reedy-collection-finding-aid-historical.html
Jake Hunsinger and the Rock Bottom Band – Wrapped Around the Axle
If you cross Waylon Jennings with Hank Williams, Jr. you might hear Jake Hunsinger (guitar) who has a rich resounding deep tone & articulates lyrics clearly but not at the sacrifice of falling between the notes. You would think with a voice like this he’d either be a genuine outlaw singer or a novelty act. But he’s neither. He’s just a good ole country boy vocalist who weaves a good tale. The music holds up on its own – well-thought-out stories, nothing overwrought.
Their debut Wrapped Around the Axle (Dropped Sep. 23–Hobo Castle) explores typical country themes – being on the road, loneliness & heartbreak with a tinge of self-reflection that’s more evident here than many of the more mainstream commerciality available menu following artists. The versatility & diversification is obvious. Jake’s deep voice comes across with more authenticity & affirmation than many of the sweeter singers.
The band is Andrew Donnelly (guitar/dobro), Jamie Doyle (bass), Zack Wedge (percussion) with producer the Grammy-nominated George Dussault (electric guitar/banjo/mandolin), Chris Brooks (pedal steel), Ben Richards (fiddle) & Lauren King (bgv).
The majority of tunes aren’t challenging but they certainly are pleasurable. “The Day My Life Began,” sounds like a song the late Jim Reeves with his rich baritone would’ve covered wonderfully. Highlights – “The Day My Life Began,” “Lorelei,” & “The Mess Around.”
CD available @ Soundcloud + https://jakehunsinger.bandcamp.com/album/lorelai-single-version
Have Gun Will Travel – EP – Silver Sounds
This Florida-based band has released the first of 2-EPs Silver Sounds (Drops Sept. 30–Sweetheart) that have 6-songs that are actually a harder American rock displayed in a controlled folk-rock Americana frame.
Actually, clever because to a degree it works with its harder edge, persistent drums in a melodically arranged structure. “Resist the Machines,” is well conceived while “Buyer’s Remorse,” has the early 60s feel in both the music & vocal.
It has a slight echo & economical arrangement. Is it heavy duty? No. Is it pleasant? Yeah. This is what pop music is about & not everything has to be heavy-handed. This is closer to the Americana we embrace with touches of subliminal harmonica that skirts around.
The band: Matt Burke (vocals/electric & acoustic guitars/harmonica), Daniel Burke (bass/bgv), Scott Anderson (electric & lap steel guitars/bgv), Edward Styork (keys/bgv), Sam Farmer (drums/bgv) with Andrew Brey (trombone) & Kenny Pullin (trumpet).
All songs by Matthew Burke & the set produced by Have Gun, Will Travel (except “Resist” that included Shawn Kyle). Highlights – “Melancholy Moon (Everything Dies),” “Cardiology,” “Dystopia” & “Our Fair City.”
Photo courtesy of Shawn Kyle. CD @ https://hgwtmusic.com/
Joselyn & Don – Seeds & Bones – EP
Montana natives & L.A.-based Joselyn & Don have a nice deep unique noir-sounding gothic country approach. With music & lyrics by Joselyn Wilkinson (lead & background vocals/tenor ukulele/djembe) & Don Barrozo (guitars/bass/keyboards/percussion/ horns/cigar box slide guitar/accordion/bgv).
The lead-off of 5 tunes is “Deep Down,” which creeps along with savory guitar & an expansive spirit in its melody. The EP Seeds & Bones (Drops Oct. 7) was produced by Don & is actually quite a penetrating effort since it’s not your run-of-the-mill country effort. The duo may be originally from the northwest & live in L.A., but this music is closer to hoodoo nation Cajun country, Louisiana, the Delta where eeriness has a distinct beauty. The horns on their songs lean into an Allen Toussaint tradition.
Joselyn (love that name, rare nowadays) Wilkinson has great pipes. Her clarity, intonation & phrasing is well-paced & the tone is perfect for these songs. Below the surface, the duo can sing whatever they wish but on first listen, the atmosphere, impression — is Southern gothic with big dark mansions, Spanish moss, trinkets hung from wide porches jingling in the air next to a coconut face & feathers, the low misty fog that drifts around giant uprooted trees. Evil? Voodoo? Not necessarily. Just surrounded by magic, spiritual posturing & a practitioner of dark arts.
The title track “Seeds & Bones,” is arranged impeccably. It has a resilient guitar that whispers through the voice & narration. Compelling, well-written & despite the “darkness” hopeful words.
Additional musicians — Alan Mark Lightner (drums on “Give Up the Ghost”). Highlights – “Stay,” “Seeds & Bones,” & “Deep Down.”
The CD @ https://joselynwilkinson.com/home
Mike Block Trio – What Now?
The title track “What Now?” is this new LP title & highlight (Drops Sept. 30/Bright Shiny Things). A well-recorded, exciting little production with cello (Mike Block), mandolin (Joe K. Walsh) & upright bass/double-bassist (Zachariah Hickman) — a burst of musical potency to the ears. Surprising, & this is a lesson in how to appreciate acoustic music on well-made instruments of the highest quality wood. The sound is warm, yet it has a slicing clear high register of notes that fire away. Rock music for the classical student.
What should sound stuffy & old world comes through with tidy little melodic pleasures. Even the vocalized “One Fine Day,” while a little too orderly & too perfect does sound engaging. The tonal qualities are excellent. Together the vocalizing is rich. It just sounds like they never veer too far from their charts.
They have to let loose a little more & I know they can. These guys are pros. The expected “stuffy” music approach has resonance & you can hear it in their fingers or bows. They transcend the old-world starch, cigars & brandy of this kind of music. It’s almost chamber music stirred gently with a bluegrass spoon. These fellows have a good grip on entertainment with classical instruments. Highly recommended.
Photo courtesy of the band’s website. CD @ https://www.mikeblockmusic.com/
Julian Taylor – Beyond the Reservoir
Scheduled for Oct. 14th release is Toronto-based award-winning Julian Taylor’s Beyond the Reservoir (Howling Turtle Records) produced by Julian with Saam Hashemi (piano) & distributed by Warner Music/ADA.
The title reflects a real childhood place in Taylor’s life – the St. Clair Reservoir. According to Taylor (vocals/acoustic guitar/piano/hand drum), his last CD The Ridge explored his early childhood & now Beyond the Reservoir is his adolescence record. The coming-of-age era where he moved into adulthood.
The 9-cuts with 1-bonus explore identity, loss, sadness, hope & redemption with themes of resilience, courage & strength. What many can relate to. The music is spiced with sadness but also tastes of hope.
“Murder 13,” is a powerful acoustic-based true-story song. But Taylor draws upon the folk tradition to shape his music & narratives. Not as radical as Phil Ochs, as polished as Fred Neil, but definitely as compelling & intense as Gordon Lightfoot, John Prine & Townes van Zandt. His songs don’t need the flash or showboating solos to add intensity. Many get by on intensity with strong messages, poignant words & decisive statements.
There are moments where opening melodies sound like they came from another source, but it’s brief & never becomes the main focus. The majority of songs are well-written ballads with imagination behind each. Most importantly is that Julian’s voice knows how to interpret his words & the simplistic lyric becomes fairly plaintive & bracing.
Sample the bonus “100 Proof,” with its frivolity of Taj Mahal & Keb’Mo. Taylor’s in good company. The band — Derek Downham (mandolin/ukulele/banjo/acoustic guitar/Fender Rhodes/piano), Burke Carroll (pedal steel), Miranda Mulholland (fiddle), Sheila Carabine & Amanda Walther (bgv), Gene Diabo (drums/congas/percussion), Barry Diabo (electric bass), Anna Ruddick (bass), Aya Miyagawa, Sarah Valesco, Eslin Mckay (violins), Maxime Despax (viola), Erika Nielsen (cello) & Michael Peter Olsen (string arrangements).
Highlights – “Moonlight,” “Murder 13,” “It Hurts (Everyone Was There),” & “I Am a Tree.”
Photo by Lisa MacIntosh. CD @ https://juliantaylormusic.ca/
Mariel Buckley – Everywhere I Used to Be
Coming a little late to me but worthy of mention is Calgary-based Mariel Buckley. Her Everywhere I Used to Be (Dropped August 12–Birthday Cake Media) is a 10-song showcase with some saucy spots bandied about with vigor & aggression but always with a driving beat & melody. A nice combination. Stand back, we have a chef in this kitchen who can cook. Produced by Marcus Paquin (percussion/piano/synths/bgv).
Mariel’s opener “Neon Blue,” cleverly starts as if it were poorly recorded but slowly its clarity comes into focus. Mariel’s stellar vocals take the center spot. This is her debut CD & it’s refreshing right out of the gate. Excellently recorded pedal steel, voice & it’s captured fortunately without a wimpy or whiney tonality as many female vocalists project today. I like her sand.
“Whatever Helps You,” is a slow ballad & creeps along in a Patsy Cline-type arrangement. But it’s the occasional vinegar-laced words stuck in the middle of a pleasurable melody that’s sassy. “Going Nowhere,” is commercially polished for mainstream consumption while “Hate This Town,” is a beauty.
The songs have a country feel that spreads out like hay & Ms. Buckley (acoustic guitars/vocals/bgv) manages to fill each with her absorbing style that’s quite attractive as she proceeds through each piece. She manages to not repeat herself melodically or lyrically & keeps each uniquely its own.
With Mariel are Liam O’Neill (drums/percussion), Tyson Maiko (electric bass/upright bass), Geoff Hilhorst (keys/synths), James Robertson (electric guitars), Ryan “Skinny” Dyck (pedal steel) & Jesse Dollimont (bgv).
This is a damn good album. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Mariel’s voice & songs ripple the musical water like stones tossed into a pond. Each makes its own pattern. There is a sparkling musical unification of personality, good intonation, tone, phrasing & range here. An original. Highlights – “Neon Blue,” “Whatever Helps You,” “Going Nowhere,” “Driving Around,” “Hate This Town,” “Love Ain’t Enough,” “Everywhere I Used To Be,” & “Let You Down.”
YCD & Digital Links can be bought at the artists’ respective websites.
Grooves & Cuts – September 2022