Monday, January 26, 2015

Jim Fenske. Only Half the World is Bright.

Jim Fenske.  Only Half the World is Bright.

Mr. Fenske is a singer/songwriter from Cleveland, or perhaps Westlake, or Fairview Park (web pages refer to various origins or places of residence), and former guitarist with the band State Fair. In his current career he is a solo artist, preferring to work as his muse moves him.  This fascinating CD combines electronic music with elements of rock, ambient, and various other styles, which he combines in-studio to considerable effect.

I very much enjoy how Fenske integrates his music and lyrics.  His vocal style seems at first at odds with the music.  One might expect something smoother, higher, and perhaps a bit twee.  But his voice is slightly gruff, has a bit of a blues edge, but also slides across the top of the music.  He adds to his vocals with some echo and overdub harmonies. I feel as it I’ve heard it before, but I know that I have not.  The closest singers I can think of are David Essex, and at times Peter Gabriel, especially in his phrasing.

The mix of songs flows well across the album.   It seems of a single piece to me, although he probably wrote them at various times, which suggests excellent programming skills, and a consistent conceptual vision.  Many of the pieces are slow and somewhat intense in atmosphere, but not tense.  Rather, they are concentrated vignettes, each of which displays a different facet of his interests musically and lyrically.  There are several songs about love, but many other things concern him as well.  The opening track, “Violence,” suggests an mbira overlain by reed instruments, then joined by other percussion before speeding up to dance speed, with Fenske’s vocals arriving halfway through the song and ending with the fade.  The effect is mesmerizing.  My favorite track on the album is “My Enemy, My Friend,” a slow-to-mid-tempo loping track dominated by Fenske’s vocals in the foreground, both strongly percussive and drenched in harmonies. It has a strong, menacing atmosphere.  I shall not give a blow-by-blow description of each track, but suggest that each has unique qualities and emphasizes different sound effects and moods.  Sometimes he uses organ washes, other times broadcast voices, or occasionally horns, for punctuation.  Here and there, as with “Calm My Mind,” he uses his guitar, creating a song that seems most like rock music.  The closing track, “Safir,” is the only instrumental piece, and is simply lovely.

I normally listen to an album on more than one player.  This one sounded best on my laptop with headphones because of the separation of sounds.  I urge you to seek out this fine artist and become acquainted with his sound world.

Personnel:  Jim Fenske (vocals, electronics, instruments).
Tracks:  Violence; My Enemy, My Friend; Oceans; Separate; Evidence; Light a Fire; The Best Things, Least Expected ...; Calm My Mind; Safir.

Gottfried Klaas

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jason Vieaux. Play.

Jason Vieaux.  Play.
Azica, 2014.  Jason Vieaux:

In a dozen albums over twenty years, and hundreds of concerts throughout the world, Jason Vieaux has shown that he is one of the finest guitarists around.  In terms of repertoire he ranges from Baroque to contemporary, and sometimes into jazz and pop.  Often, his albums have focused on a specific composer (Bach, Ponce, Piazzolla, Albéniz, Pat Metheny), but here he plays a set of short pieces across the spectrum of music.  We thought we’d talk about his latest album, Play, since Vieaux teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music (where he also studied).  Oh, and because the album has been nominated for a Grammy Award.

This album is a collection of showpieces selected from a wide variety of styles and composers, although Latin American and Spanish works predominate.  In the seventeen works here, only two composers show up twice, Agustín Barrios and Francisco Tárrega.  I don’t mind a bit, since I love Barrios’ music (by way of David Russell), and Tárrega is always a joy.  Vieaux brings out the wistful atmosphere of Tárrega while still remaining crisp and technically beyond reproach.  He continues the Latin American thread beyond Barrios through compositions by Sagreras, Brouwer, Lauro, Ponce, Bustamante, Bellinati, and Jobim.  This is indeed wide-ranging, across South and Central America, with the last two listed from Brazil.  I was particularly taken by the works by Bustamante and Lauro, which require a great deal of dexterous playing and sensitivity.  Tárrega’s Spain (although perhaps not his alone) is represented by pieces by Segovia and Sainz de la Maza.  The composition by French guitarist/ composer Dyens fits in nicely with this mix, and is a fun piece.

Vieaux brings in other materials to add different spices to the program.  The contemporary pieces by Andrew York and Stanley Myers contrast in style from the previously mentioned composers, and change up the atmosphere.  The Myers piece is the only one on the album I’m not so crazy about, but others may find it quite pleasing.  He finishes up with an arrangement of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” which again, fits well with much of the feel of the rest of the album, but adds a jazz touch that is welcome as a closer.

Best of luck to Mr. Vieaux in his Grammy nomination.  This album is certainly deserving of such an honor.  I highly recommend it to all those who enjoy solo guitar music.

Personnel:  Jason Vieaux (guitar).
Tracks:  Jongo (Paulo Bellinati), El Colibri (Julio Sagreras), A Felicidade (Antônio Carlos Jobim (arranged by Roland Dyens)), “Cavatina” from The Deer Hunter (Stanley Myers), Capricho Arabe (Francisco Tárrega), Sunburst (Andrew York), Danza Caracteristica (Leo Brouwer), Tango en Skai (Roland Dyens), Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Francisco Tárrega), Las Abejas (Agustín Barrios), Estudio sin Luz (Andrés Segovia), Vals Venezolano No. 3 (Antonio Lauro), Misionera (Fernando Bustamente (arranged by Jorge Morel)), Por Ti Mi Corazon (traditional Mexican (arranged by Manuel Ponce)), Zapateado (Regino Sainz de la Maza), Vals, Op. 8, No. 4 (Agustín Barrios), In a Sentimental Mood (Duke Ellington (arranged by Jason Vieaux)).

Jeff Wanser

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Earls of Leicester.  The Earls of Leicester.
Rounder Records, 2014.  Jerry Douglas:

We reviewed Traveler, Jerry Douglas’ last album, a while back, and he’s been a busy boy since then.  Between the Warren native’s Transatlantic Sessions series with Aly Bain (If we can afford them all, we’ll review the lot), his triple dobro work with Mike Aldridge and Rob Ickes, his session work with various folks, and who knows what else in the last couple of years, he seems unstoppable.  Here he has assembled a group of bluegrass and Americana giants to pay tribute to Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys.  A more traditional project than we might expect from Douglas, this still makes sense.  These musicians were all profoundly influenced by the original sounds created by this dominant bluegrass machine of the 1940s-1960s.  Heck, Johnny Warren is the son of FMB fiddler Paul Warren, so as Ronnie McCoury, who provides the liner notes to the album says, “It’s in the genes.”  

This album contains fourteen tracks, but it seems like less.  The music just flows, and it’s easy to get lost in.  All tunes are from the FMB catalog and they’re all familiar if you’re a bluegrass fan, but they’re not necessarily the usual songs one might expect.  No “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” or “Cumberland Gap” (much as I’d like to hear them).  In fact, not a single tune here is found on the classic Complete Mercury Sessions album, but the FMB catalog is a deep one, and they had plenty of choices.  There’s not a single clunker in the batch here, and the band is tight and expert at every turn.  They bring forth the sound of the FMB, but don’t just reproduce it.  These guys are of a different generation, and while their hearts can be found in the most traditional of bluegrass styles, they can’t help but make the sound a bit more modern.  The arrangements are slightly different, the vocal harmonies a bit updated, their playing influenced by so many changes in music since the FMB were making music.  Of course, the recorded sound is top quality.  They sound traditional, but their playing and singing is influenced by but not restricted by the gentlemen they revere.  Shawn Camp is a fine vocalist for this project, and every musician is to be congratulated on his contributions.  

If you’re searching for classic bluegrass, you won’t go wrong with this album.  Jerry Douglas has done a spectacular job of putting together this tribute.  I’m just not sure why they chose their band name.

Personnel:  Shawn Camp; (lead vocals, guitar), Charlie Cushman (banjo, rhythm guitar, lead guitar on “Who Will Sing for Me”), Jerry Douglas (dobro, vocals, producer), Tim O’Brien (vocals, mandolin), Johnny Warren (fiddle, bass vocal), Barry Bales (bass, vocals).
Tracks:  Big Black Train, Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, I’ll Go Stepping Too, Till the End of the World Rolls ‘Round, Dig a Hole in the Meadow, Some Old Day, I Won’t Be Hanging Around, I Don’t Care Anymore, On My Mind, You’re not a Drop in the Bucket, Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, The Wandering Boy, Who Will Sing for Me.

Jeff Wanser

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Strange Familiar. The Day the Light Went Out.

The Strange Familiar.  The Day the Light Went Out.
2014, Krian Music Group.  Strange Familiar:

This band is doing pretty well. They have their own Wikipedia article and everything.  Maybe it has something to do with getting airplay on The Vampire Diaries and other TV shows, with a lot of buzz afterwards.  Not bad for a couple from Cuyahoga Falls (pronounced “Cahoga” for you foreigners) who started out in the band Jaded Era (Leyden and Andrea, and geez, they’ve been together since grade school!).  Along the line, they picked up Freeman and Sainato, also from the area.  After Jaded Era, off to L.A. in 2006, and boom!  Well, maybe not quite that fast, but you get the drift.  

Readers of this blog (are there any?)  (Editor’s Note:  Yes) who liked the band that our editor just reviewed (Editor’s Note:  Wire & Wood, by Rambler 454) probably aren’t very fond of the kind of the pop/rock that The Strange Familiar are known for, although maybe I’m stereotyping (Editor’s Note: Yes, yes you are).  What we’ve got here is a nice batch of piano-led rockish pop songs.  Not candyass stuff, just good solid material.  I like it.  Some of it reminds me of Carole King. The tunes are catchy, the harmonies are cool and dreamy (I’m thinking overdubs, but maybe not), and the mix of voices and instruments are something you can get lost in, in a good way.  Yeah, it’s TV-ready stuff, but that’s not a bad thing, since it’s not venue that matters, it’s quality.  Some people work this style in a crappy way (see American Idol, any season), but others know their stuff, and these people really do it right.  From the lyrical perspective, it’s pretty much all about love and life and perseverance, but if I’m looking for political statements or deep philosophy I’ll probably be listening somewhere else, like punk or art rock.

Some of these songs already sound strangely familiar (Editor’s Note:  I left this bad pun in; forgive me).  I think they’ve already been on TV or got heavy radio airplay, but I can’t remember.  The first song, “Painkiller,” is one of them.  Good solid tune, and the closest to a rocker they have here, other than “And I Wait,” also excellent.  The title track was inspired by a sunset in Denmark, so they get around.  Lots of ballads, which are fine by me, and the more I listen to the album the more I get into it, and the songs seep into my brain.  Okay, I’ve waited to the end of the review to tell you that I love Kira Leyden’s voice, and that’s all I’m going to say.

Personnel:  Kira Leyden (vocals, piano), Jeff Andrea (guitars), Frank Freeman (bass), Nicholas Sainato (drums, piano, percussion).
Tracks: Painkiller, Gone, Rain, Surrender, Except to You, Lies, And I Wait, The One, We All Fall Down, The Day the Light Went Out.

Ron Yoyek

Monday, January 5, 2015

Rambler 454. Wire & Wood.

Rambler 454.  Wire & Wood.
2014, Danny McMusic.  Rambler 454:

How do we describe this Cleveland band?  The group is currently a four-piece bar band, with strong ties to Southern rock, Heartland rock, country rock, blues rock, and other time-honored styles of musical heritage. They like to refer to their music as “Drinking Man’s Rock.”  They make me thirsty, so this could very well be true.  This is their fourth album by my count, and it is an entertaining one, delivered with high octane guitar, bass, and drums, alcohol-soaked vocals, and good humor.

All the songs are originals, and so it is more difficult to compare them to other bands (covers make this easy), although George Thorogood, the Black Crowes, and Son Volt come to mind, as well as the more local Lords of the Highway.  In ten tracks they cover the assortment of topics you might expect them to lyrically, from love, to drinking, lifestyle, playing music, and having fun.  Every song is uptempo--no ballads to be found--and even mid-tempo is rare, except at the beginning of a few tunes, and no song tracks longer than four minutes.  Vocals are generally pretty good--you expect Pavarotti?--and entirely appropriate to the style of music.  Their best qualities are the strong rhythm section, vital in this kind of music, and some fancy guitar work peeking out here and there in solos.  A good example is the break in “Red Wine and Whiskey,” where I hear a bit of Allman Brothers.  The song also features a funny ending with the drummer leaving before the tune finishes.  Head bopping favorites include “Must Have Been a Good Night,” “Charleston Early,” and the title track.  

If you’re expecting art rock with synthesizers, look elsewhere, but if you want to listen to a fine, tight bar band without actually going to the bar, this album might just be the thing.  The band keeps its Facebook site more up to date than their web site, but the website gives more information.  Check out future concert dates.

Personnel:  Dan McCoy (guitar, vocals), Tim “Cooter” Brennan (bass, vocals), Jason “Jesse” Linder (drums), Rick Pflueger (guitar, vocals), Samantha Fitzpatrick & Greg Markell (backing vocals on Track 8).
Tracks:  Charleston Early, Blank Pages, Such a Shame, Something in the Water, I Think I Love You too Much, How About Me, Red Wine and Whiskey, Must Have Been a Good Night, I Ain’t Much, Wire & Wood.