ALBUMS OF THE MONTH
They say that what doesn’t kill us just makes us stronger. While not quite that extreme, Brooklyn by way of Boston singer-songwriter Eli Paperboy Reed emerges from the ashes of a major label deal gone bad with a remarkable new album.
The slick production that permeated his last record is gone, replaced by an organic sound that leans heavily on Reed’s guitar and a weighty rhythm section (with some tasty organ flourishes thrown in for good measure).
And the songs? Fiery, furious and soulful are the words that come to mind. No doubt biding his time as he extracted himself from the major label deal, Reed got involved with a youth gospel program in Harlem, NYC. The influence of that experience permeates the 11 tracks on My Way Home. These songs resonate in a spiritual, if not religious, way.
“Your Sins Will Find You Out” is fueled by an intoxicating hook and Reed’s bellowed vocals. From there Reed takes the listener on a glorious ride, often bouncing back and forth between major to minor keys. He shifts effortlessly from the glossy dance groove of “Tomorrow’s Not Promised” to the scorching fury of “A Few More Days.”
Reed offers up some jump-blues on “The Strangest Thing” before downshifting into the harmony-drenched field spiritual (“What Have We Done”). The gospel continues on “Cut Ya Down,” the album’s lone cover. Reed and company’s roof-shaking version pairs rich harmonies with a gritty musical accompaniment.
Although there has never been much question about the depths of his soulfulness and R&B cred, Reed removes all doubt with My Way Home.
Chicago-based singer-songwriter Michael McDermott has been on a creative tear lately. First with a pair of albums by the Westies, the group he fronts alongside his wife Heather Horton, and now with Willow Springs, his first solo album since 2012.
McDermott has long been an exceptional storyteller, filling his songs with tremendous emotion. He writes from a personal space, tending towards the darker side of his life experience. Those qualities are on fine display here.
Part of what makes McDermott an extraordinary songwriter is his ability to distill and convey the life lessons of his stories with grace and wisdom. “Here’s the thing about hope , it’s such a delicate rope,” he imparts on “Butterfly”, “if you pull too hard, you’ll wind up in the dirt.” Later, on “What Dreams May Come,” he asserts, “Doubt is a deep well, hope is a carousel, it spins until your faith is undone.”
The album’s most powerful moments find McDermott grappling with mortality. “Butterfly” contrasts the inherent beauty of the creature named in the title with the depths of drug addiction and despair (a topic the singer knows well from his own struggles). The ending isn’t a happy one as McDermott declares, “I heard the news the other day , I wish I had the faith to pray , But maybe she finally doesn’t hurt.”
The poignant “Shadow in the Window” was written as a tribute to his father, who passed away earlier this year. “Maybe I will see you in heaven, at least that’s how the story goes,” he sings, “Now there’s a shadow in the window that’s missing, I’m having a hard time letting go.” The song builds in intensity as it progresses, exploding into a moment of raw emotion at its conclusion.
McDermott does lighten the mood, at least a bit, elsewhere on Willow Springs. The title track would fit nicely in the Bob Dylan canon while “Getaway Car” has all the magic of a lost Bruce Springsteen classic. It is fueled by a restrained urgency as McDermott sings about cars and a quest for glory, all the while name-checking various locations across the US.
“Half Empty Kinda Guy” rumbles like a dive bar anthem even as McDermott professes a “glass half empty” attitude (“I can’t see the rainbow, I only see the rain”). He takes a more optimistic and romantic view, set to a soulful groove, on “Let a Little Light In.”
“I’m tired of all this darkness but I’m about to make a change,” he sings on “Let a Little Light In.” With music this good, we’re eager to join you for the ride.
Like his countryman Van Morrison, Vance Joy is a student of American music from folk to southern soul. The two also excel at infusing that appreciation into a sound that is distinctly reflective of their Irish heritage. The result is a style that is filled with spirituality, as enchanting as it is uplifting.
That inspirational quality shines on songs like the gentle ballad “Burden.” “No matter how much you are hurting right now, you know that everything will change in time,” he sings, “Let me carry your burden O brother mine.”
Then there are songs like “Upbeat Feelgood” and “Casanova” that saunter with a fun accordion-tinged groove. Elsewhere on The Wild Swan Vance gets downright funky as he provides a liberal arts lesson on the entertaining “Noam Chomsky is a Soft Revolution.”
Jean-Paul Sartre if it’s all just so
Dostoyevsky if you’re in the know
A bit of scripture for a little light
Baby Che Guevara for a full on bar fight
Alexander if you’re feeling great
Charlie Darwin if you’re thinking ‘bout apes
If you’re quiet and you’re looking for solution baby
Noam Chomsky is a soft revolution
Maybe Remember Me, Daniel Romano (from the New West Records release Mosey)
After a string of enjoyable country albums, Ontario-based Daniel Romano stretches out on his latest release. Sure, the twang in his voice keeps him somewhat anchored in country but this latest collection reaches broadly into rock and pop. It is as rewarding as it is adventurous.
Romano showecases his talent as he shifts effortlessly from the indie rock of “Toulouse” to the sultry jazz of “One Hundred Regrets Avenue.” The former track features some quirky wordplay – the title is interpreted as everything from a woman’s name to the French city to an inability to grasp something firmly (“too loose”). As is to prove his genre-busting point, “Toulouse” breaks down into a tasty 1970’s funk jam at its conclusion.
The one constant is Romano’s dark croon. It has a dusky edge, often with shades of Johnny Cash. It gives his songs a solemnness, even on a rousing pop gem like “Maybe Remember Me.”
Don’t Waste Her Time, Explorer’s Club (from the Goldstar Recordings release Together)
When last we heard from them, The Explorers Club were living in South Carolina and celebrating the release of 2012’s impressive Grand Hotel. Fast forward four years and the newly reconstituted band is living in Nashville and have just unleashed a mighty fine new album.
Damn if the group doesn’t pick up right where they left. Sparkling pop melodies and shimmering harmonies abound – the kind that would make Brian Wilson, well, smile.
I suppose there’s a certain irony that a band now located in middle America channels the best of California pop. You’ll get no complaints from me, however. Together is more than a welcome addition to any summer soundtrack.
Apocalypse Love Song, Leland Sundries (from the self-released music for outcasts)
Leland Sundries’ Nick Loss-Eaton is a storyteller in the Lou Reed tradition. His songs are filled with raw and colorful tales that range from the saga of a late night drive in an old Studebaker to the stark story of a Brooklyn stripper. The band set these narratives against an electric-guitar driven soundtrack that is just as gritty as the narratives that they accompany.
“Would a worldwide plague bring you back,” Loss-Eaton sings against ramshackle guitars on the feisty “Apocalypse Love Song,” “Making love in surgeon’s masks is a charming post-apocalyptic task.”
These American Blues, Levi Parham (from the Music Road Records release These American Blues)
What is it about Oklahoma these days? The number of talented new artists emerging from the state is staggering, from John Fullbright to John Moreland to Parker Millsap. Well, add Levi Parham to that list.
The combination of roots and soul can be potent, especially in the hands of someone like Parham. His honeyed voice will captivate, even when he’s singing about pain and heartbreak. Musically, there’s plenty of acoustic guitar here, often accompanied by tasteful piano. I’m drawn, however, to the brawnier tracks that are led by electric guitar and simmering organ.
The Ship In Port, Radical Face (from the Nettwerk Records release The Family Tree: The Leaves)
Epic is a word that gets thrown around somewhat regularly, arguably too much. It is entirely appropriate, however, when discussing Ben Cooper, aka Radical Face.
Over the past five years the Jacksonville, Florida artist has unleashed a conceptual collection of three albums and four EPs that set his family story to music. The result is something as impressive as it is ambitious.
The music is immaculately crafted, sometimes warm and sometimes brooding. The arrangements are often orchestral and subdued, occasionally drifting into dreamlike sequences. It’s the lyrics, however, that are the most special here. They are a saga of, well, epic proportions.
“Some say our dreams are a distant road down which our hearts would like to go, but I have always stayed in place under that old illusion that it’s safe,” he sings on the enchanting “The Ship in Port.” “Sing another song for the lost ones,” he implores, “we’re the ones who need it the most.”
I’d be lying if I said that I had dug fully into The Family Tree collection. But that’s what makes it so exceptional – there’s a new discovery with every listen.
You’ll find more Family Tree series, including the complete story and a visualized family tree, on a special web site that Cooper created.
Take Me Back, Sam Frazier Jr (from the Music Maker Relief Foundation release Take Me Back)
There’s something special about the sweet soul music that emanated from Alabama back in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. It was a fertile period for music and musicians.
For every artist that found fame and commercial success in that era, however, there were many more equally gifted musicians that never achieved the recognition that they deserved. Count Sam Frazier, Jr. among them.
Enter the fine folks at the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a group committed to promoting the music that these artists created – and continue to create. As important, the Foundation helps them earn an income (and in some cases provide them grants) to support themselves in their later years.
Music Maker recently unearthed some long lost Frazier recordings that date back to the late 1960’s. With strings and a vocal chorus augmenting the period’s standard R&B arrangements, these songs flow with an alluring grace. Add in Frazier’s smooth and charismatic vocals and you’re in for a special listen.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.