Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mr. Gnome. The Heart of a Dark Star.

Mr. Gnome. The Heart of a Dark Star.
El Marko Records, 2014. Mr. Gnome:

This album is a year old, and so has already been reviewed in numerous places, including Consequence of Sound, Cleveland Scene, and even NPR. It made the Rolling Stone College Album charts, CMJ charts, and probably several others. They are now officially cool. The duo have a biography in AllMusic (surely a sign of having made the big time), where they’re described as alternative rock, indie rock, art rock, and sadcore. I’m not sure what these categories mean anymore, but I would describe their music as simultaneously hard and delicate, noisy and lovely, ever-shifting and hypnotic. We reviewed the excellent Madness in Miniature back in 2012, and so forgive me as I try to come up with new and clever things to say about this latest offering.

The band is consistent in both sound and presentation. Madness in Miniature was similar in some respects, but it seems that their musicality is a bit more sophisticated, as is their studio work. Layering is an important quality to their work, with multi-tracking of the vocals a major feature of their work. That is not to say that the music is less present, because it’s upfront in many tracks, and often the swell of guitars overwhelms everything else. They seem to like to alternate longer and shorter tracks, with a couple clocking at 4-5 minutes and others a minute or less. Combined with their tendency to shift rhythms and moods within songs, it’s difficult to tell without watching the time (I’m using a laptop) or reading the lyrics where we are. I like this. It makes for a coherent listening experience despite its pastiche approach that often disorients.

I hear a stylistic differences as well, particularly in the way they are now incorporating more  elements of folk and gospel into the psychedelic swirl. The last track, “The Sea,” is reminiscent of gospel music, and “Odyssey” takes a folky start before the electric guitars come in and add considerable fuel, ending up in a strange mix that suggests the Pogues on acid. “Rise & Shine” has a similar feel. “Follow” is one of my favorite tracks, with the layered vocals giving the song a 60s feel, combined with the anthemic qualities of arena rock, without being retro in the slightest. I also enjoy how it blends right into the next track, “No Place like Home,” as if it were a coda to the first song. This happens elsewhere, also to good effect.

But I’m at the end of the album. Let’s go back to the first track, “Melted Rainbow,” as it sets the tone. Echoing the lyrics, I can’t explain why this song reminds me of early Moody Blues, but there it is. Perhaps it’s the combination of spacey atmospherics and gently layered harmonies. Others will hear other things, and I betray my age and musical references. “Mustangs” has more of a dance feel to it, but specifically 80s dance music. “Star Stealers” is harder rocking, with an almost punk/metal quality to it, although the psychedelic elements are never far away and take over in the bridge (if we can identify it as that). Flamenco sounds build into a curious hard rock piece in “Storm,” which then fades to almost white noise. “Light” is the longest track, and one of the slowest tunes, with interweaving vocals and a drifting, hypnotic atmosphere.

I found this a rich and rewarding album, complex and gorgeous, one best listened to in its entirety, which I believe is what Mr. Gnome had in mind. A concept album in the 2010s?  Unbelievable. They are currently touring the Midwest and West, but will be back in town for a concert at the Beachland Ballroom on December 19th. I can’t wait to hear how they do all this live.

Personnel:  Nicole Barille (vocals, guitar, piano), Sam Meister (drums, piano, vocals), Jonah Meister (guitar on “Star Stealers”). Somebody does a lot of handclapping.
Tracks:  Melted Rainbow, Dark Star, Rise & Shine, Mustangs, Folk Lonely, Star Stealers, Storm, Light, Hangunder, Odyssey, Follow, No Place like Home, The Sea.

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Michael Stanley. And Then...

Michael Stanley.  And Then...
Line Level Music, 2015.  Michael Stanley:

Quite some time back, Neil Young suggested that “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” I guess that could be good advice for some, but it seems that there are alternatives. Michael Stanley has found a third way, one that was followed by luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin. In his later years, Franklin was Ambassador to France, participated in the Constitutional Convention, and wrote abolitionist works. Continue what you do, and if it’s good and honest work it will be rewarded and remembered. In recent years, despite more than 40 years in the music business, the Cleveland heartland rocker has produced such a consistently fine material that it reminded me of old Ben. One album after another, from The Hang, to The Ride, to The Job, he’s turned to an autumnal renaissance of excellent music. And Then… continues the annual feast.

The new album is in some sense typical for Stanley, but unusual in the world of popular music of the moment, in not having been written by a stable of Swedish songwriters. No cheap pop here. Stanley wrote most of the songs, with credits for one shared with Marc Lee Shannon and one other borrowed from David Grissom. There’s a lot of variety--anthemic rockers, power ballads, softer ballads, a bit of Americana--but it all fits nicely within his aesthetic and musical sense of the world. Lyrics speak to separation and loneliness, love and loss, hope, and more than one political comment. It feels a bit more uptempo than The Job, but less so than The Ride. Most of the rockers are in the first half of the album, with the more pensive material towards the back, but it’s a good mix.

I’m a fan of uptempo songs so I tend to concentrate on those, but I have to mention “Long Ohio Winter,” a beautiful ballad on a subject many of us relate to, which of course he uses as a metaphor for missing someone he loves. Bob Pelander does some gorgeous piano work here. A couple of the other ballads are heartbreakers too, especially “In Your Kiss,” with Ed Caner on viola in the background. Of the rockers, I particularly enjoyed “Snakes,” and “Don’t Say Nothing,” both of which I interpret as social commentary (although I’ve been know to be wrong). Both have a hard edge that shows off the power of the band. He throws some R&B flavor into the mid-tempo songs where the whole band shines. “All Together Now” is anthemic, with a singalong part that will be a big hit in concert. “Shifting Gears” is one of my favorites, partly because of the vocals (nice trick with the background vocalists finishing the verses), and the prominence of Pelander’s organ work. The odd song out, but not in a bad way, is “Sweet Spot,” which has a country flavor courtesy of Ed Caner’s violin.

The ensemble is strong, nearly a big band except for horns, and the guitar work is great throughout. There are no weak tracks. The only weird thing is the cover, which as you can see is a bit creepy. It was not photoshopped, which is even more creepy, but appropriate for the Halloween season. Fans of Stanley need not be convinced, but if you like solid rock & roll, give this music a try. As for concerts, he’ll be playing Hard Rock Live at Northfield later in December. Get your tickets now, because he always sells out.

Personnel:  Michael Stanley (vocals, guitar, bass), Tommy Dobeck (drums), Bob Pelander (piano, organ), Danny Powers (guitar), Jennifer Lee (vocals), Marc Lee Shannon (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Rodney Psyka (percussion), Ed Caner (violin, viola), Don Dixon (vocals).
Tracks:  All Together Now, Radio Waves, Sound of a Train, Shifting Gears, And Then, Snakes, Sweet Spot, Long Ohio Winter, Hang on to this Heart, Don’t Say Nothing, Good Day for the Blues, In Your Kiss, Circadian Rhythm.

Jeff Wanser

Monday, October 26, 2015

Quire Cleveland. The Land of Harmony

Quire Cleveland. The Land of Harmony: American Choral Gems from the Bay Psalm Book to Amy Beach.  Quire Cleveland, 2014.  
When the Editor asked me to review this CD, I balked a bit. My experience with Quire Cleveland involves, as stated on their website, music from “distant lands and ages past,” and this collection is certainly a different direction for them. However after listening to this album several times, I was captivated. They have brought to life songs that many may have either heard of or have heard and forgotten. This elegant and lovely collection of American songs dating from 1640-1920 begins with the “Star-Spangled Banner,” to which some of us would irreverently say, “ho-hum.” But this is a rousing version sung as it would have been in 1815, with all the verses. Listen closely to the third verse since it is hardly ever heard. While the “Banner” is not my favourite patriotic song (“Het Wilhemus,” the Dutch national anthem, remains in my heart), I found this rendition far exceeded the usual version. Rather than being overly dramatic, Quire Cleveland makes it a very special piece; smooth, flowing, and tuneful.

I won’t mention each selection, but will assure the reader that the variety will not disappoint--sacred songs, love songs, and whimsical pieces abound. Stephen Foster is undoubtedly the most well known composer in this group. As for title recognition, anyone who hasn’t heard “Amazing Grace” has probably never listened to radio or television, as everyone from Garrison Keillor to Arlo Guthrie has sung it. Poetry lovers will recall Robert Burns in “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” while church choir members will remember singing “When Jesus Wep’t,” a haunting choral round. I thought the parlour songs were especially captivating, even though not one of them was familiar to me.

Whether Biblical, patriotic, or parlour, it seems remarkable that one group of musicians can be so versatile. This was recorded in concert in 2014 at Historic St. Peter Church in Cleveland, but I have not heard of a repeat of this repertoire since then. If you want to hear this program, you will have to settle for the CD for now.

Personnel:  Quire Cleveland, Ross W. Duffin, artistic director.
Tracks:  Star-Spangled Banner (1814) (John Stafford Smith, arr. R. Duffin), Psalm 98 (1640) (Thomas Ravenscroft), Psalm 23 (1698)(John Playford), The Lord Descended (1761) (James Lyon), When Jesus Wep’t (1770) (William Billings), The Dying Christian’s Last Farewell (1794) (William Billings), I Am the Rose of Sharon (1778) (William Billings), Down Steers the Bass (1786) (Daniel Reed), Modern Music (1781) (William Billings), O Look to Golgotha (1843) (Lowell Mason), Amazing Grace (1847) (arr. William Walker), Flow Gently, Sweet Afton (1857) (J. E. Spilman, arr. J. S. Warren), Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming (1855) (Stephen Foster), Hymn of Peace (1869) (O. W. Holmes, Matthias Keller), Minuet (1903) (Patty Stair), Through the House Give Glimmering Light (1897) (Amy Beach), So Sweet Is She (1916) (Patty Stair), The Witch (1898) (Edward MacDowell, writing as Edgar Thorn), Don’t Be Weary, Traveler (1920) (R. Nathaniel Dett), Hymn to Music (1877) (Dudley Buck).

Dietlinde Klaas

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Kerry Kean. This Song is for You.

Kerry Kean.  This Song is for You.
Kerry Kean, 2015.  Kerry Kean:

The latest release by this guitarist, singer, and songwriter feels like putting on a pair of old but treasured gloves. It’s comfortable music, friendly, fitting easily over the mind, and most welcoming against the cold.  Kean, raised in southern Ohio, lives in the Kent area, having been the piano technician for Kent State University for many years, and runs a piano service business. Oddly, he doesn’t play one here, but we can forgive him. His guitar work will do just fine. In the past he’s worked in rock, jazz, bluegrass, and just about everything else.

This album features ten songs, seven of which are his, two oldies in the public domain, and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a jazz tune from 1925. “Some Days Are Like That” is a live recording (and a funny one to boot). There’s a lot of variety, ranging from ballads (“Just One Dream”), to chestnuts (“Shady Grove”) to jazzy instrumentals and talking blues. What keeps the whole affair together are the intimate feel of the music and Kean’s sparkling guitar work. He won’t win an award for singing, but one doesn’t need to be Pavarotti to get a song across in folk music, and his soft-spoken tenor works just fine, and has an emotional quality that is very effective.

I have a personal preference for faster and jazzier tunes over ballads, but the slower songs are certainly well done and a pleasure to listen to. “Lose or Win” is one of these, with lovely harmonies by Kathy Camille. I really enjoy his take on “Shady Grove,” with a slightly loping rhythm, and “Sweet Georgia Brown” is, well, sweet. Both display his remarkable guitaristry, especially the latter, and I think he does his best vocals on the former tune. Another instrumental, “Blackberry Blossom,” is also a fine showcase for Kean’s instrumental work. His talking blues song, “Playin the Blues,” is a great story about learning from the masters.

I found this a very enjoyable album, and if you like folk music I expect you will as well. Kean plays around the area quite often, especially the Tasting Room in Wadsworth. Please go see him and enjoy his spectacular playing and good-time feel.

Personnel:  Kerry Kean (guitars, bass, violin, banjo, vocals), Brad Bolton (bass on tracks 6, 7, & 10), Kathy Camille (harmony vocals on track 2), Warren Henry (bass, electric guitar on track 4), Bobby Patetta, harmonica on track 5), Samuel Salsbury, violin on track 5), Mike Stroffolino, banjo on track 3).
Tracks:  Just a Little Crazy for You, Lose or Win, Shady Grove, Sweet Georgia Brown, Just One Dream, Playin the Blues, Blackberry Blossom, Mother Bear, Some Days Are Like That, For You.

Jeff Wanser

Monday, October 5, 2015

Brian Charette Tour

We thought that our devoted readers would like to know that Brian Charette, jazz organ player extraordinaire, will be touring the Midwest, with stops at Blu Jazz in Akron on Wednesday, October 21st, and Nighttown on Thursday, October 22nd.  We've heard him play before, and he's definitely worth hearing.  With him will be Bobby Ferrazza on guitar.  For more information, check out his website:

From Brian's bio:  I'm a Grammy Nominated, Hammond endorsed, Posi-Tone recording artist. I won the "Rising Star" award in Downbeat Magazine last year and have climbed up to #4 in the Downbeat Critic's Poll in the Organ category this year. I just won "Best Organist" in NYC by one of our magazines, Hot House. I also write regularly for Keyboard Magazine, Downbeat, NYC Jazz Record, and a Czech Magazine called Muzikus. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Upcoming Hingetown Hoedown Festival

While we're patiently waiting for more reviews to appear, here is a notice about the upcoming Hingetown Hoedown Festival.  Sounds pretty cool!


For more information, contact: Adam Reifsnyder
2820 Detroit Avenue #404
Cleveland, OH 44113 (513) 207-4371
Grab your boots, friends and family and get ready to stomp at the first annual Hingetown Hoedown!
Cleveland’s first ever folk and bluegrass music festival will be held October 3rd in Ohio City’s Hingetown neighborhood at the intersection of West 29th Street and Detroit Ave.. This event fills a void in Cleveland’s music scene, making it more diverse than ever, and will be complemented by food trucks, vendors, beer and family-friendly activities. Admission is free and open to the public.
Hingetown’s main stage will feature a slew of Ohio’s finest musicians. Among the many scheduled to perform are:
 The folk rock trio Shivering Timbers visiting from their hometown of Akron, where they were voted ‘Best Musician/Band’ by the Akron Empire in 2014.
 Local newgrass band Honeybucket , fresh off their second album release (Stompin’ Grounds) will share with the crowd their modern twist on traditional bluegrass music.
 Hailing from Zanesville, Ohio, The Wayfarers are known for their upbeat performances and are sure to play a high-energy set of traditional American roots music.
 The Gage Brothers straight from Akron, will form a well-rounded mix with their blues inspired folk sound.
In addition to the Hoedown music, there will also be an array of local vendors, food trucks, and craft beer from Great Lakes Brewery. The Hingetown Hoedown also strives to be as environmentally friendly as possible, using sustainable products and practices.
The Hoedown is a family friendly event and welcomes all ages. With this in mind there will be children’s activities such as face painting, sidewalk chalk, and henna tattoos. Also, The Music Settlement’s Bob Stop is generously providing instruments for children to try out, hoping to spark an interest in music and the community.
The day long festival runs from 1:00 PM to 10:00 PM on Saturday, October 3. Hingetown, a division of Ohio City, and one of Cleveland’s coolest up-and-coming neighborhoods is located at the intersection of West 29th Street between Detroit and Clinton Avenues.
To help make this first-year festival a success, and to ensure that it continues future years, donations can be made through Hingetown Hoedown’s Kickstarter campaign.
For more information please visit, Facebook, and Twitter.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Billy Hart Quartet. One is the Other.

Billy Hart Quartet.  One is the Other.
ECM, 2014.  Billy Hart:

I don’t know if his students at Oberlin College call him Billy or Professor Hart, but casual or not, they’d better give him some serious respect. A master of post-bop, but comfortable with nearly any style of jazz, Hart has worked with Jimmy Smith, Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery, and Stan Getz to name a few, and been putting out releases of his own since the late 1970s. He has led this particular group since around 2005, the group changing its name to make him the honorary leader, and it’s clear that they are extremely comfortable together. Complex harmonies, intricate rhythms, and remarkable playing are the order of the day. Recorded in 2013, it is the second release of the group on ECM, and fits nicely within the overall vibe of the label--contemporary, deep, cerebral, singular in vision, and sometimes out on the edge of jazz.

First of all, this is a highly cooperative venture. Hart may be the leader, but three of the four members contributed compositions, and Hart never hogs the spotlight. If anything, he gives a great deal of time to Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson, who, at first listen seem to dominate the recording. However, upon closer inspection, it’s clear that Hart has his finger on everything from the first track.  He and bassist Ben Street are like the bedrock on the tree-covered mountain. You might spend a great deal of time looking at the pretty trees, but there’s a reason the landscape is shaped the way it is. Of course, Turner’s tenor sax and Iverson’s piano are out front with a combination of sweet and tart that provides both a yearning quality and a warm, inviting sound. The first two songs on the album show the strengths of all of the musicians. “Lennie Groove” showcases Iverson’s piano, then Turner’s gorgeous sax, but Street holds the rhythm down while Hart adds to the melody and makes the tune an amazing workout.  Hart’s contributions become more evident as time goes on, with “Theule’s Redemption,” where he solos extensively and maintains a high presence throughout with an insistent rhythm aided by Street and Iverson. “Amethyst” and “Yard” continue to expose more of this work, along with the wonderful interplay among the musicians.

One of the best aspects of this album is the ability to hear everything--every note, every beat, crystal clear. I attributed this to both the fine ECM recording sound but also to the spacious playing. There’s no mud here. My favorite tune may be “Sonnet for Stevie,” written by Turner, a lovely piece where you can hear everyone contribute out front, and it brings some blues along with it. “Big Tree” reminds me of the old Gillespie tune, “Salt Peanuts,” with its jumpy melody and rhythm changes. Hart is strong throughout, and the others get to go a little wild. My only disappointment is “Some Enchanted Evening,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, which I have frankly never cared for in any manifestation. Others may find it a charming piece.

The rest of the album displays a masterful, quiet intensity that is delightful in so many ways, and an easy place to get lost in. I look forward to hearing more from these fine gentlemen, as well as checking into more of their back catalog.

Personnel:  Mark Turner (tenor saxophone), Ethan Iverson (piano), Ben Street (double bass), Billy Hart (drums).
Tracks:  Lennie Groove, Maraschino, Teule’s Redemption, Amethyst, Yard, Sonnet for Stevie, Some Enchanted Evening, Big Trees.

Jeff Wanser

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Total Babes. Heydays.

Total Babes.  Heydays.
Wichita Recording, 2015.  Total Babes:

Dance to this.  Shake your rear. Bop your head. At least keep time with your foot or hand, or other appendage if you can’t otherwise move. Do something for this extra fine band and their new EP. Well, maybe it’s an EP.  Eight tracks isn’t a full album unless they’re all like, seven minutes long, and nothing clocks over five minutes here. It doesn’t matter because the music is really great, except that there should be more of it.

Total Babes was started by Christopher Brown and Jayson Gerycz in Medina back in 2010, apparently as a side project that has a life of its own. And after all, somebody has to start bands in Medina. Brown was (is?) in Swindella, Gerycz is the drummer for Cloud Nothings (which Baldi fronts), Nathan Ward is from Smooth Brain, and John Elliott was in Emeralds. Wow, talk about cross-pollination. The music is power pop/punk with synthesizers and jangly guitars and distortion, or something like that, with hints (are we wine-tasting?) of Emeralds, Cloud Nothings, R.E.M., and probably other stuff if you listen hard enough. Nearly everything is high energy and fun, with speeds ranging from pretty fast to breakneck. Harmonies hit just the right spots (who’s singing harmony?) for garage rock (check “Circling” and “Repeat Gold”). The guitar is cool, the drums dominate (no surprise), and it all comes together. I like the fact that almost nothing here is a love song. Thank you! “Sunny Side” is a piano track, sort of like Jefferson Airplane doing “Embryonic Journey,” but sounding nothing like it. “Repeat Gold” is as close to a ballad as it gets, and it’s a catchy tune with a nice vibe.

Since I have the advantage of seeing other people’s reviews of the album (Metacritic shows eight), I can critique those too. Sorry, Consequence of Sound, but this rates higher than a C+, and isn’t just Cloud Nothings lite. DIY and the 405 are closer to my opinion, and therefore entirely reasonable. We just missed their concert at the Happy Dog, but they’ll probably pop up somewhere. In the meantime, groove to this.

Personnel:  Christopher Brown (guitar, vocals, bass, piano), Jayson Gerycz (drums), Nathan Ward (bass (sometimes), John Elliott (synthesizers), Dylan Baldi (saxophone on track 4, and maybe some vocals).
Tracks:  Blurred Time, Heydays, Bone Dry Eyes, Circling, We’ll Come Around, Sunny Side, Repeat Gold, Can I Turn You On.

Ron Yoyek