Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina - Little King and the Salamander (demos)

What Fools We Can Be,” the second song in the 14-track collection of buzzing ballads and righteously rhythmic rockers that is The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina’s new album Little King and the Salamander (demos), isn’t the only slow song that we’ll hear in this retro-style indie fantasy, but its lightly overdriven guitar grooves will make it one of the more memorable along with the chilling “Fade into the Night,” which sets us up for the closing jazz wails of “I Have Always Been Here” better than any other tune could have. In songs like these, as well as the contrition-soaked crooning of “Slip Away (Dreamin’ Again),” the Gallagher brothers-esque “She’ll Do Anything,” and the midcentury melancholy of “I’ll Be (Kisses at Your Door),” we get to experience the acoustic prowess of The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina in a way that I never would have imagined finding on an album allegedly comprised of demo tracks exclusively. The balladic harmonies that these recordings offer us are unlike any other that you’re going to hear this season, and confirm what most critics (myself included) already knew about this deeply talented group of musicians.

The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina doesn’t fail to cut loose just enough to satisfy fans of their edgier stuff in Little King and the Salamander (demos), and ascribe themselves to the experimental rock category in songs like “White Light and Lullabies,” “Particle Craze,” “Definitely Not My Underwear,” the eponymous “The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina” (ironically the one song that I found to be the least cohesive with this entire set) and the agitated “Jeepers Creepers,” which is one of my favorite songs of theirs to date. They got off the rails-eccentric in a couple of instances, but to be perfectly frank, I think that this band wears the crazy look in alternative rock better than almost anyone else in their scene does. A lot of artists have been trying to “go old school” in the past 15 years – from garish indie acts like Wolfmother to more erudite crews like Dead Meadow – but I don’t think I’ve ever heard another band that exploits the framework of tradition with the same honest gusto that these guys do every time they get into the studio. If these really are demos, I can’t imagine how potent a performance The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina could put on if they had an unlimited budget to record with.

Whether it’s their hot harmonies or their ice cold groovers, Little King and the Salamander (demos) has got fans of The Merrymaker’s Orchestrina covered this year with 14 songs that you aren’t soon to forget. There’s a ton of good music scheduled to make delivery in both the underground and the mainstream this spring, but I plan on keeping this staple of 2018 spinning on my stereo well into the summer. There are very few bands that evoke the vivid imagery that these cats can just by laying into a righteously vintage riff, and for what I look for in a modern alternative unit, they meet pretty much every expectation I could have as both a critic and a fan.

Benjamin Gross

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Victor PEDRO’s “Call Me, I Miss Ya!”

Within the thick, resonating grasp of a sultry bassline, Victor PEDRO’s voice elegantly penetrates the pristine instrumental backdrop of his new single “Call Me, I Miss Ya!,” a track that is quickly becoming one of the most discussed among underground releases this spring. PEDRO will stop at nothing in his quest to make us feel every ounce of the emotion occupying his heart in this song, and while the beats are inarguably the most spellbinding element in the track, they’re hardly the only reason to give this single a really close look this season, regardless of your familiarity with the artist’s work.

The reggae influences in PEDRO’s sound are only subtly referenced in “Call Me, I Miss Ya!,” but they play enough of a role in the construction of the song’s core aesthetic that they’re highly noticeable to both the expert music critic and the untrained ear alike. The vocal is smooth, sexy and riddled with a Caribbean swing that adds to the texture of the lyrics tremendously. The bass is as big and bad as they come, but it’s not so cool as to reject a little old school Dancehall flavor in its strut. PEDRO has a lot of different elements working in synchronicity here, but it never feels like he’s dealing with an overly ambitious setup.

Percussion is always a key component in getting people’s hips swaying, and “Call Me, I Miss Ya!” isn’t devoid of a devastatingly handsome beat, driven by nothing short of a blustery, well-defined drum set. The grooves are larger than life, but they don’t steal the attention away from the vocal track at all. The mix is careful to share the spotlight amongst all of the individual parts in the song, and even when there’s one element grabbing you over another, it’s never long before it’s joined by a litany of other textures originating from other places in the track.

There’s little adrenaline in this single – if any at all – but I wouldn’t say that the rhythm of the song is the least bit pendulous. The grooves are really lively and rich with organic vitality, but from start to finish, PEDRO’s relaxed attitude influences the pace of the music more than anything else does. His verses are spot-on as far as timing goes, but there’s not a doubt in my mind that this is his most confident and sleekly arranged material so far.

It’s been six years since Victor PEDRO made his debut, and he’s not showing any signs of slowing down at all in his most recent release, which should be considered one of his best yet. There’s not a lot demanded of us in “Call Me, I Miss Ya!” other than a sliver of our attention, and in exchange for this, PEDRO rewards his audience with a cultured hip-hop experience that is far and away more engaging than virtually anything that his American counterparts and closest rivals in the Old World are producing at the moment. He’s still got a ways to go before he can break out of the underground, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

Levi Campbell

Monday, April 15, 2019

Francine Honey releases To Be Continued…

Francine Honey is far from a newcomer to the music world and her Canadian upbringing has proven to be no impediment for her discovering success on wider United States stages. Her third album To Be Continued… features the best eleven songs she’s committed to a full length recording and her songwriting acumen has advanced far since 2014’s Re-Drawn. She is investing much more of herself than ever before in these new songs and fills the album with extensive variety few of her contemporaries can readily match. Honey has found an ideal manifestation of the sound she hears in her head with the release of To Be Continued… and it will open countless new vistas for her art moving forward from here.

“Snowflakes on My Eyelashes” is one of the finest poetic moments included on the release. The sensitivity Honey exhibits as a vocalist elevates already exceptional lyrics to the level of performed poetry and the nuanced musical backing further reinforces the composition’s clear strengths. It is a note perfect introduction to the album – both musically and lyrically. Another delicate moment on the release arrives with its title track. “To Be Continued” underlines Honey’s storytelling talents without ever becoming maudlin – I feel it is a song you can only relate to past your thirtieth birthday and, with each passing year, its reflections will only gain resonance. The haunted musical arrangement is well suited for such ruminations. The bridge is particularly affecting
“Honey” takes To Be Continued… in a tasty bluesy direction without ever succumbing to the same tired blues clichés often weighing down such efforts. Much of this can be attributed to the inherent playfulness of her vocal; she owns this lyric with irrepressible personality and, of course, a wealth of talent. The musicians acquit themselves quite well and provide gritty, yet tempered, accompaniment.

There’s palpable pathos in the single “Shacked Up Sweetie”, understated, but plenty of the aforementioned playfulness as well. The song’s video underlines the playfulness without ever dragging the song into outright comedy and reminds me of the top shelf promotional fare often attached to some of the best country singles from the dawn of the genre’s video age in the late 80’s-early 90’s with its celebratory air. It has a light honkytonk sound, again understated but present, and the band keeps things on point while Honey leads the way with her powerful voice.

“Mamas Take Bad Dreams Away” reminds me of the carefully wrought emotional landscape laid out in the opener and title song. It’s a deceptively simple song insofar as it depicts a scene familiar to many, but the well-chosen language and vocal artistry she brings to phrasing the lyrics comes together for one of the album’s most satisfying efforts. The track “Marilyn” is another of the album’s fine points and packs quite an emotional wallop. The writing powering this tune, especially lyrically, has some of the deepest nuance you will hear on To Be Continued… and the band, specifically the acoustic guitar work, frames everything in a compelling manner for Honey’s vocal. Francine Honey should be very proud of this album. It risks cliché, but there is something here for everyone; fun, deadly seriousness, and an abundance of emotion marking every musical and lyrical turn. To Be Continued… is her first studio album in a while, but it is undoubtedly worth the wait.

Trace Whittaker

Monday, March 18, 2019

Stephanie Rose releases sophomore release

What an appropriate name for Stephanie Rose’s new release. The successor to her debut EP Go Where the Wind Takes You is a six song EP entitled Sprout and the plain-spoken brevity of the title is fitting for a sophomore effort expanding Rose’s songwriting vision with the same understated artistry that shapes her material. She starts off with the title song and, while the songwriting keys on a much different image, you can’t help but hear this song as a metaphor for her ballooning reputation as one of the most promising performers and writers today. The arrangement is quite a kicker to me – who would ever expect horns, but it punctuates the song really well. Rose puts some effective dynamics into “Rusted Love”, alternating from a full throated rock sweep into muted, yet simmering, passages, and she fills the lyric with a strong presence.  It’s quite a change from the first song, but entertained and engaged me from the beginning.

She really swept me up with the EP’s third song “Luxury”. It’s emblematic of her growing talents; Rose places herself in the middle of a life in dire straits yet finds redemption in the ties that sustain her subjects. It’s a song that could risk melodrama and cliché alike; Rose avoids that, however, thanks to how she grounds the song in so many telling details that flesh out the experience for listeners. It has an elegiac, slightly rueful air, but I never feel like the arrangement or lyric dragged me down emotionally. Instead, I finished this song admiring both her characters and Rose’s own considerable talents. She changes things up and goes in a much rootsier direction with the song “Old Soul”. It doesn’t get much more basic than a fleet footed shuffle tempo and acoustic guitars, but the song is a winner nonetheless. Much of the responsibility for its merits comes from the casual fluency of the musical performance and another engaging Rose vocal.

She goes back to the familiar ground of the EP’s second song for “Crushed”, but there’s a more even balance between her low key country influences and the rock side of her character. The light touches of reverb on the six string during the introduction give the song a slightly unsettled vibe she returns to later in the song, but Rose builds much of the track’s success off the same juxtaposition of dynamics that made “Rusted Love” so memorable. I think the chorus for the last song “Same Old Same Old” is one of the album’s best moments in this area and Rose, along with her fellow musicians, play the moment with just the right amount of skill. It’s mid tempo, but there’s still enough hints of a slow drag shuffle in the arrangement any listener will feel familiar with the setting from the start. Rose does an excellent job mixing the signature with the recognizable on Sprout and the EP’s six songs show tremendous growth from a first EP that still ranks among the best country releases in recent years.

Jason Hillenburg

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Rob Alexander’s new album Long Road Coming Home

Rob Alexander’s new album Long Road Coming Home is chock full of vibrant and evocative tracks that each work to capture a different element in his multilayered sound, but the record’s title track and fourth single is perhaps the most opulently vivid, emotional and relatable in its collection. Alexander doesn’t pull any punches in the lyrics of this song; on the contrary, he goes out of his way to wear his soul on his sleeve, cutting through any barriers that might exist between the music and us with his slick style of attack. For being a lethargic year in pop, this single stands out as a much needed beacon of radiance and optimism.

All four singles released from Long Road Coming Home have shown off a different angle of Rob Alexander’s multidimensional approach to songwriting, and in the title track we get to experience his more elegant side firing on all cylinders. The song plods along at the pace of a funeral drum, but its melody is anything but elegiac in nature. The crispness of the percussion and the insular hum of the instruments slinking around Alexander’s commanding voice create an atmospheric glow that is infectiously comforting. Though its climax isn’t as exciting as I’d like it to be, the brooding shadow the chorus casts makes up for it in spades.
Alexander is as vulnerable as he’s ever been with us in “Long Road Coming Home,” but he also comes off as speaking from a removed place of wisdom. Hindsight isn’t always 20/20, but what’s really trying to be conveyed to us here isn’t the concept that time heals all wounds. More than anything else, I get the impression that Alexander wants us to consider the courage that it takes to admit our faults and transcend the past in order to make a better future. After all, we’re often the ones who make the road home all the longer with our indecision and lack of self-realization
The mix of this track is a little plain for my taste, but the play from the band and Alexander himself is actually quite exceptional. It’s somewhat frustrating that the chorus is so much louder than the introductory verses are, but the absence of clarity doesn’t take so much away from the performance that the single becomes unlistenable. Rob Alexander has a wild talent that I would imagine is hard to capture within the four walls of a studio, but I think his music would benefit significantly from a slightly more concise mix in the future.

While he still has room for growth in several cosmetic areas of his songcraft, Rob Alexander shines nevertheless in “Long Road Coming Home” and delivers another rollicking soft rock sonnet to satisfy our inner lust for unblemished harmonies. Like the whole of his new album, “Long Road Coming Home” showcases the smoldering passion of a songwriter who utilizes a unique method when it comes to constructing original material. His music isn’t born out of a template nor a concept conceived by his forerunners; it comes from within his own heart.

Trevor Hopkins

The music of Rob Alexander has been heard all over the world due to the promotional services offered by Danie Cortese Entertainment & Publicity. Learn more here -

Monday, November 12, 2018

Abby Zotz - Local Honey (LP)


I value, more than all else in music, albums and artists who can transport me into their own personal vision for a time. I want it to be a fully immersive affair. Longtime folk music singer/songwriter Abby Zotz accomplishes that and more with her first solo album Local Honey and, definitely in some senses, the album marks a break with her extraordinarily rewarding past in favor of a new dawn. Many of the musical strengths defining her two decade musical career are present on this album, as well as the roots of her classical education, are in evidence throughout the collection, but she has expanded on the sound she hears in her mind with Local Honey and sounds comfortable on every cut.

Some people might find the premise behind the opener “Stability” to be a bit predictable, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as part of the joy the song produces comes from hearing how well she executes the inevitable turns in its lyrical and musical narrative plus what added personality she can bring to a familiar theme. The energy crackling off the recording never overwhelms listeners, but it’s ideal for the album’s beginning track. Zotz latches onto a funky retro vibe with the second tune “Big Hope” and the title alone reflects the inherently upbeat slant defining this album. It isn’t a Pollyanna approach to the world, however, and that’s reflected in the bluesy guitar lines cutting through the song’s mix. The production is a constant strength for Local Honey and gives these already great tunes even more dramatic punch.

“Peace Sweet Peace” and “Pirouette” are wildly contrasting songs illustrative of her far reaching talents. The light-stepping musical approach of her gospel cut “Peace Sweet Peace” strikes a pleasing universal note but the latter song is a much shapelier, tightly controlled number with a shuffle like sound that Zotz’s voice slides through with great confidence. “Pirouette” is one of the finest lyrics on Local Honey, but the later track “Be Here Now” may be the sharpest piece of writing on the release. There are some particularly winning lines near the beginning drawing together a character with a few brief strokes and the remainder of the song fleshes it out with a single wasted movement.

The comforting touch of “Hush Baby Waltz” is one of the album’s more elegant musical turns and the vocal for this song is framed perfectly against its arrangement. The apex of her nuance on Local Honey comes with the song “Sea Change” and the weaving of her voice, taking obvious delight in the lyrics and phrasing alike, plays off the musicians with a sparkle in her eye. I didn’t enjoy the album’s ending, at first, thinking it too light, but “You’ll Never Know” grew on me with a few listens because it’s such a confident, underplayed conclusion for Local Honey. It’s an important new turn for her musical career, but the variety of her first solo album heralds a critical turning point in her life as well.

Levi Colston

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Wave 21 releases Self-Titled LP

In their eponymous new full-length album, Wave 21 comes roaring out of the Canadian wilderness to find themselves smackdab in the middle of the Nashville spotlight and changing the game for every country music band around them. In ten elegantly stylized original songs, they assert themselves as one of the biggest players in the international pop music scene and easily the most exciting band to watch entering the next decade and beyond.

I had a chance to listen to Wave 21 ahead of its release this year, and although I was expecting to hear something pretty terrific based on the sterling reputation that the band has built up for themselves, I could have never predicted that I would be as moved as I was by what I heard. Wave 21 aren’t just making the best brand of country music to be introduced in 2018; they’re making the most charming pop music in all of the western hemisphere right now, and having a really good time along the way.
My favorite song from this record was “It’ll Be One of These Days,” but “Set Me Free” was a very close runner-up. Both tracks recall the golden age of country pop’s apex of success back in the late 1990s, and yet neither feel like a throwback to the past. Every song on Wave 21 is deeply unique to our modern, innovative times for sure, as I don’t think that most of these songs would have even been creatable with the limited palates that were producing records twenty years ago. Country music doesn’t need anyone else singing about cheating wives and drunken bar brawls in a dusty, half-yearning half-jaded voice anymore. What it does need is more bands like this one, who aren’t scared of change but instead make an entire career out of embracing it and seeing where the winds of creativity take them. I don’t think it matters for Wave 21 whether or not they get a platinum record or dominate the airwaves with their music videos. If their melodies have reached even one person, then their mission has been accomplished.
If you’re in the market for a colorful, diversely appointed record that rebels against stereotypes and the analogue way of doing things, I would highly recommend checking out Wave 21’s latest collection of country anthems. This is bar none the coolest listen of the late summer, and hopefully it will usher in a more exciting autumn than what a lot of other critics have been anticipating it could be. 

There hasn’t been a lot of great talent to really talk about in the last ten years, but now that Wave 21 is around there’s reason to get enthusiastic about country music and the artists behind its current campaign. I’ll be patiently waiting for this band to visit my town in the near future and give me a chance to see their live show in person; until then, you can count on this record being in my daily playlist for the indeterminable future.

Tyler Shaughnessy