Everyone loves an overcomer, an artist who fights tooth and nail for what they believe. New York City-based singer-songwriter Amanda Kravat is such an artist. Her four song EP AK is a DIY effort that vacillates between late 90s alt-rock (think Alanis Morrisette) and plaintive piano balladry (think Carole King). Written as a result to a series of panic attacks she was suffering, AK is a deeply personal and powerful work that charms and delights.
The EP opens with “Not Myself Today,” an angsty almost yelpy effort that suffers from being overly ambitious. Sonically the song is all over the place and is too cluttered for its own good. It is plainly clear to hear what Kravat is trying to achieve. Unfortunately the song suffers from shoddy production and just never reaches the song’s lofty goals. On the contrary, the placid piano ballad “I Could Tell You I Don’t Love You” is heartfelt and tender and proves Kravat’s limitless potential. Penultimate effort “Would’t Be This” has a definitive Sheryl Crow vibe and meanders along through a mid-tempo melancholy that has a pronounced sense of gravity.
The EP closes with “Somebody Else is Driving,” a big-hearted slice of alt folk-rock with a towering chorus and the most promise of any of AK’s songs. It is here and on “Not Myself Today” that AK resonates, smolders and simmers. Whether AK launches Kravat out of the ever-crowded Manhattan singer-songwriter scene remains to be seen. For now, it’s a welcome tonic to the onset of winter.
It’s rainy and melancholic here in Orlando this morning and this song is fitting my mood. Decidedly British, extremely liberating and instantly captivating, this is a garage-rock song that hits in all the right places. In short, Clones of Clones is a band who is destined to do big things. The band’s full length is being produced by Ted Comerford (Jukebox the Ghost, ZOX, Jonas Sees in Color) at Savannah’s Low Watt Studios and is due in early 2015. Expect a review by yours truly when the album drops.
Back in the late 90s I was mesmerized by the Liverpudlian band Treehouse. Their album Nobody’s Monkey, which was released by Atlantic Records, was a splendid collection of honeyed roots-rock that garnered the band countless praise and found the band sharing the stage with the likes of Edwin McCain and Hootie and the Blowfish. Nearly two decades later Treehouse vocalist Pete Riley has passed the torch on to his son Pete Riley Jr.
The younger Riley is the frontman for Shamona, a Liverpool-based trio who just released the video for their single “Just Like You,” off an EP of the same name. Vaguely reminiscent of Ari Hest and mining the same sonic terrain as James Blunt circa Back to Bedlam, “Just Like You” is a sterling slice of plaintive balladry that points towards a very promising future. Though it will probably fail to make waves here in the States, color this writer as one that’s hoping it will.
I always try and keep an eye on young bands, especially here in Orlando. Due to my frequent dabbling in Christian circles, one such Christian band has attempted to make a name for themselves. Plaid Gig, based out of Apopka, is a modern rock quartet with influences that range from Paramore to Underoath and from August Burns Red to Flyleaf and Gill Radio. The band is led by feather-voiced vocalist Robbyn Thomas. On their debut self titled EP the band showcases their variety as well as armfuls of promise.
The EP opens with “Why Do You Love Me?,” a lyrically clumsy effort that has a first-rate chorus and deftly showcases the band’s penchant for pop hooks. The quartet takes a giant step forward on “Grace Covering Me,” the album’s first real worship effort and a can’t miss dynamo. Robbyn Thomas has a voice not unlike Evanescence’s Amy Lee and while that may sound like a knock to some, Evanescence does have a Grammy Award in their back pocket. While Grammy Awards are probably not in Plaid Gig’s immediate future, there’s no ceiling on just how high this band can climb.
Easily the disc’s most aggressive cut is the aptly titled “Riot,” a brawny and guttural effort that shows Plaid Gig’s ability to up the sonic ante and so so quite well. The song also serves as a direct nod to their influences.
Not one to shy from their Christian faith, the band covers the Hillsong United effort “Lead Me to the Cross,” and does so in perfect fashion. Though its never a good thing when the EP’s best song is a cover that is indeed the case with Plaid Gig. From start to finish, the song finds the band firing on all cylinders. The rhythm section is air-tight, the guitars are sturdy and Thomas’ vocals are confident and wholly inviting.
Plaid Gig ends with an acoustic version of “Why Do You Love Me,” which continues to illustrate the band’s versatility and that they are not afraid of stripping down their sound. Though Plaid Gig leaves lots of room for improvement, the band does have one thing on its side: not one of the band members is over the age of 22. With youth still on their side, there’s plenty of reason to think that in the next couple of years, Plaid Gig might become one of Central Florida’s most promising Christian artists. Heck, once they conquer Central Florida, there’s no reason to think they can’t conquer the Southeast and beyond.
I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a voice and an acoustic guitar. There’s a reason I’ve been a passionate follower of folk music for more than half my life. Sometimes those two instruments can convey a wall of emotion that even a scattering din never can. And when it’s done well, it demands to be shared. Enter Gainesville singer-songwriter Ricky Kendall. His name was passed along by a friend at church and hot damn, is it something. Though the video is a bit dizzying, this whiskey-soaked Appalachian folk has equal hints of the Mississippi Delta and armfuls of honesty. Color me interested.
For reasons I don’t feel like elucidating life has me down lately. Nothing that won’t pass and nothing I won’t conquer. However this summer swoon has me flocking to music to try and rise out of said slump. One of those songs that has been speaking to me lately is the tortured, tantrum-laden effort “Runnin’ Me Down,” from Detroit's Silent Lions.
The song is deeply haunting, nocturnal and definitely creepy. Equal parts serpentine, saturnine and downright horrifying, it’s a real auspicious effort from a band I know very little about.
Not like my opinion counts for much but my favorite summer song so far this year is “I Say,” from Norwegian singer-songwriter Dagny. Punchy, bubbly and super cute it’s everything a summer song should be. The song, which has yet to be released in the States, hits British markets on July 28. A paean to self-defiance, independence and flying your own flag, it’s a song that should do well in the States. But often what charts in Britain fails to reach American shores. Here’s to hoping that doesn’t happen. Dagny is a star just waiting to break out.
There are very few American bands I enjoy more than the Counting Crows. Since 1994, their music has captivated, magnetized and absolutely floored me in every sense of the word. Even when they underwhelm and stumble (most notably on Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings and portions of 2012’s Underwater Sunshine) there are still songs that leave me absolutely breathless.
So it is with much anticipation that I await their album Somewhere Under Wonderland, which drops Sept. 2, and marks their first album of original material in seven years. In prepping fans for Sept. 2, the band has made a habit of playing at least one, if not more, of the songs that make up Somewhere Under Wonderland on their current summer tour. For those who have yet to catch them (what are you waiting for?), most of them are available on YouTube in various formats. At present, the only album track released to the public so far is “Palisades Park,” the disc’s opener and a song Duritz has said he’s immensely proud of.
Quite frankly, I’m not sure why.
Oh sure, there’s plenty to like about the song, but there’s also lots to dislike.
For starters, there’s 77 seconds of superfluous trumpet as an introduction. It isn’t until the 80 second mark that Duritz opens his mouth and the song starts taking shape. And sure enough, a story of young love, carnivals and summer emerges. Classic themes that Duritz has mastered over the band's now 20-plus year career.
Buttressed by a rollicking chorus (one of the band’s finest to date) the song is as good a five minutes as they've had in quite some time. And then unexpectedly, "Palisades Park" meanders, and not just for a minute or two, but for an entire four minutes. Equally as superfluous as the minute-plus trumpet intro, the entire song feels self-indulgent, tacked on and grandiose. Clearly the song’s second act is a nod to the band’s now famous improvisational concert form.
Yet why employ that effect on a record? Why not just save the tacked-on parts for the live concert and leave some room for surprise?
To me, the added four minutes distract from the song’s concision and make for an awkward and unneeded opening salvo. “Palisades Park” is a whale of a song with a killer chorus. Why mess with a good thing?
For as long as he’s been recording music Adam Duritz has always been a tough nut to crack. Many of his decisions over the last seven years (a double concept album, a 15-song disc of covers) have been head-scratching and the length of “Palisades Park” only adds to that argument. Being that Somewhere Under Wonderland is brief (nine songs only) there’s little margin for error for the rest of the disc. One hopes the rest of Somewhere Under Wonderland is not nearly as daring.
If so, the band’s streak of dud albums will now reach three, a statistic that very well might cripple their legacy. Here's hoping that doesn't happen.
I’ve been on a giant Palladia kick lately. I’ve had the music channel as part of my cable package for over four years now and have glanced at it occasionally but in the last two weeks have found myself fixated on the channel. Whether its Later….with Jools Holland, Live From Darryl’s House or CMT Crossroads, I have been whimsically swept up by the TV station. This is what I remember music television being like during my childhood. During one of my Palladia binges, I found myself transfixed by the documentary Dierks Bentley: Riser.
Ostensibly an inside look at the recording of his new album, the 45-minute film dives deeper into the man behind the songs, the story behind the lyrics and the recording sessions that helped make Riser. Tucked into all of this are candid moments with Bentley's family as well as his touring life. What separates Riser from its contemporaries is how honest, human and sincere it is. Whether its Bentley recalling memories spent with his late father or conversations with his daughter about his touring lifestyle, there’s something deeply magnetic and empathetic about every passing second of the film.
Whether or not you are a fan of Bentley or country music, the breezy, 45-minute film is a great look at the delicate balance of being a family man and a musician and the choices artists make to ensure both their fans and their spouses remain happy.
Having been a casual fan of Owl City since the “Fireflies” explosion, I’ve always been intrigued to hear his singles, always hoping that one song will sound different than the other. To be fair, Adam is one of the most sincere, humble and good-natured guys in music so it’s hard to root for his demise.
But let's just to the chase: his songs have little sonic weight. His newest single “Beautiful Times,” features the immensely popular violinist Lindsey Stirling but who in their right mind would absolutely know for certain that it was Stirling. In short, her violin part is far from exceptional or memorable. It could be my next door neighbor playing that violin reel and few would know the difference. And yet somehow having her name attached to the song will help the single chart.
Has it always been this way? Can an established name like Adam Young not just have some session violinist play on the track and leave it at that? I understand the want to emphasize the collaboration but Stirling doesn’t lend her vocals to the song and unless they’re touring partners she won’t be adding the violin part to the song in a live setting either. All of it just feels very contrived and Owl City is the last artist I'd associate with contrived.
I guess I’m just upset that Owl City’s team thinks Stirling's name on the project is what will help the single succeed. Can Adam not succeed on his own merits? Hasn’t he already done that in the past? As for the song, it’s same old Owl City, a sweet, earnest voice, a woozy if not hypnotic vibe and something pleasant and amiable to pass the next three or four minutes.
Does it make me want to rush out and buy the album? Absolutely not, nothing about Owl City’s output has ever given me that sensation. And yet I continue to feel piqued any time he releases a new single. I guess this means Owl City is a guilty pleasure. Sigh. Why must I always be a sucker for for cheap pop?
We often get so sucked into our American bubble that we fail to pay attention to what’s happening in other corners of the globe. In Australia, a fresh-faced collective named Sheppard are making quite the waves. Their single “Geronimo,” became the first independently released Australian single to top the ARIA chart since the 1970s and is now the longest reining independent Australian #1 of all time. It is currently the most tagged track on Shazam and has ben certified 3x platinum. Whether it translates to America is anyone’s guess. The song itself is decent, it’s certainly catchy but more so in the gimmicky way than that of sincere songcraft.
Digging deeper into their repertoire however reveals that the band is probably on the cusp of something successful here in the States. “Let Me Down Easy,” is a tender and sweetly affecting ballad that has a vibe that calls to mind Delta Rae, while “Something’s Missing,” has a late 90s acoustic rock jangle to it. Their entire veneer is sticky-sweet and harmless, light airy pop songs that are distinctly Australian, that is they are equal parts charming, cheery and bright. Australian artists have always been pretty hit and miss in making a dent here in America, but consider this writer one who’s rooting for Sheppard to succeed. This stuff won’t exactly change the game, but if it gets your toes tapping and your hips shaking. Methinks that’s not a bad way to start a day.
There’s a woozy, weariness in every utterance sung by Jimmie Linville, frontman for the Nashville-by-way-of-Wisconsin quintet Daniel and the Lion. Those utterances, sung with astounding conviction, empathy and tenderness anchor each and every one of the band’s songs. Buttressed by organ, keys and a heartland simplicity that evokes the likes of The Band, CSNY and The Eagles, Daniel and the Lion are arguably one of America’s most unheralded bands.
Seen this past week as the opening band on Counting Crows’ 2014 summer tour, the unassuming quintet revealed a maturity wise beyond their years and a timelessness that needs to be heard to be fully understood. Navigating the intricacies of co-dependence can often grow tired and banal, but somehow Linville and his supporting cast are able to craft indelible impressions from their very first notes.
The band, which appeared at 2013’s CMJ showcase The Outlaw Roadshow, co-produced by Adam Duritz and Ryan’s Smashing Life, are certainly no stranger to the big stage and no stranger to acclaim. Duritz has gone on record as calling the quintet “one of my absolute favorite bands,” and it’s easy to see why. Whether its the sweetly hypnotic “Flash Flood,” or the affecting intimacy of “On Berlin,” Daniel and the Lion write songs that bands all over the world will spent lifetimes trying to mimic. Now four years into a criminally overlooked career, 2014 just might be the year the band turns the corner. We have Adam Duritz to thank for that.
Venerable 90s radio heavyweights Counting Crows launched their 2014 summer tour at Tampa’s Straz Center, this past Wednesday. The summer tour in many ways serves as an introduction to the band’s sixth album Somewhere Under Wonderland, due in September on Capitol Records. During the band’s 21 song set, they sampled some of those new songs as well as diving deep into their discography. The show opened with a near ten-minute rendition of “Sullivan Street,” before diving into “Scarecrow,” the first of three Wonderland cuts. Straddling the line somewhere between country-rock and heartland narrative, “Scarecrow” has a pronounced bounce to it but never really packs a wallop. In essence, the song seems more focused on vibe and lyrics and not so much casting an indelible impression. On the contrary, the band’s next four songs did exactly that.
Beginning with the This Desert Life rarity “High Life,” and pushing into the whimsical “St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream” the set began with gusto and never once relented. Frontman Adam Duritz was quick to please as he inserted “Mr. Jones” into the rotation before performing the always brilliant ballad “Colorblind. Describing Teenage Fanclub’s “Start Again,” as “medicine for our heads,” Duritz proudly declared the song as one “we can’t stop playing.” Arguably one of the weakest on 2011’s Underwater Sunshine, “Start Again” was probably the only song of the entire set list that felt misplaced. On the contrary, a sterling, air-tight rendition of “Anna Begins,” was the first of many moments in which Duritz and Co. seemed completely locked in. That sense of presence and focus helped make the building rocker “Miami” an absolute home-run and easily one of the best of the night.
The second half of the set opened with “Earthquake Driver,” another genial rocker that has a playful frolic but never really packs an emotion wallop, a hallmark that has carried Counting Crows through the last two and a half decades. Much like “Scarecrow” the song seems more focused on vibe and lyrics than that of lasting impact. Though its arguably more appealing and commercial than “Scarecrow,” there’s still something about the song that leaves a lot to be desired. Knowing full well they had to draw the crowd back into familiar territory, the septet glided effortlessly into a near-ten minute rendition of “Round Here.” A brief acoustic set included “When I Dream of Michelangelo,” and the Grateful Dead cover “Friend of the Devil,” before the band concluded the acoustic set with the Joni Mitchell cover “Big Yellow Taxi.”
While it makes a great song on record, “Richard Manuel is Dead,” fell flat and hollow and aside from “Start Again,” was one of only two songs where the band just seemed to stumble out of the gate. Never the kind of band to wallow in mediocrity, the set closed with a powerhouse triumvirate. First up was the rocking “Elvis Went to Hollywood,” a brawny diatribe in the same vein as “Cowboys” and “Hanging Tree” and one that is destined to be a live favorite. The set came to a close with an error-free rendition of “A Long December” before sending the crowd into a frenzy with a rowdy rendition of “Rain King.” For an encore, the septet offered up the melancholic “Washington Square,” the drug-addled hip-shaker “Hanginaround” and the dreamy lullaby “Holiday in Spain.” Leaving the stage contentedly, Duritz stopped to thank the crowd before offering up this final salvo,” This was a damn good way to start the tour. Thanks for a great night. We’ll be back to Tampa real soon.”
Twenty-one years into their career, the California/New York-based band are still firing on all cylinders and still keen on playing many of their biggest hits. In a time when many of their contemporaries have called it quits, gone on hiatus or found careers outside of music, Counting Crows keep on chugging along. Now nearly 50, Duritz shows little signs of slowing down. He’s just as emotionally connected to his material as ever before and seems wholly invigorated by the new songs. While their days of charting for the Billboard Top 100 may be behind them, they’re still a viable touring commodity that very rarely ever disappoint.
Hell, if they’re not on your summer concert radar, then shame on you.
POST-SCRIPT: Exactly three nights later, the band headlined the St. Augustine Amphitheater and performed a total of four more new songs. The first of the five was the mesmerizing mid-tempo cut “Cover Up the Sun,” while the second was the introspective ballad “God of Ocean Tides.” Arguably one of the strongest of the five was the rustic rocker “Johnny Appleseed’s Lament.” For the band’s encore, Duritz and Co. presented the near ten-minute narrative “Palisades Park,” a genre-bending yarn with a bevy of twists and turns. An equal blend of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” “Round Here” and “1492,” the song is magnetic, provocative and deeply memorable. Though Duritz’s voice was notably weak for much of the night, he let the band do much of the heavy lifting. Nowhere was that more apparent than on an absolutely transcendent version of the urgent rocker “Children in Bloom.” With nearly a quarter of the set being culled from Underwater Sunshine, the evening was a firm reminder that even on their weaker nights, they’re still compelling, awe-inspiring and well worth the price of admission.
The halcyon days of the 1970s (and 80s) were rejuvenated with vigor at the St. Augustine Amphitheater this past weekend. Headliners STYX and Foreigner were accompanied by longtime Eagles collaborator Don Felder for a tour dubbed The Soundtrack of Summer, which kicked off in Kansas two weeks ago. The tour, comes complete with a companion disc, The Soundtrack of Summer, which cracked the Billboard 200 in its first week. Clearly, there’s still a demand for classic rock.
Depending on which narrative you choose to subscribe to, Don Felder is either a raging asshole or an integral force of one of rock music’s most iconic bands. Given his personality on stage Friday night the latter tenor seems far more appropriate. From start to finish, Felder was humble, gracious and ever the showman. Playing lead guitar on most, if not, all songs, he tore through the set with ease and abandon, never once coming off too self-indulgent and never once appearing uninspired. The set opened crisply with “Already Gone” and “One of These Nights,” before tackling a more contemporary Felder cut, “You Don’t Have Me,” off of last year’s album Road to Forever.
And then the set hit another stratosphere. A resplendent if not flawless version of “Those Shoes,” was backed by a note-perfect rendition of “Seven Bridges Road,” replete with five-part harmonies. The song also served as the first time the audience rewarded Felder and Co. with a standing ovation. After reminding the crowd that he’s a born-and-bred Floridian, he snaked his way through “Witchy Woman,” a song he dedicated to Tiger Woods. From there, he offered up the sinewy “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” from the 1981 film of the same name, before barreling through long-time fan favorites “Heartache Tonight” and Life in the Fast Lane,” the latter also receiving a standing ovation.
Alas, no Eagles-heavy set would be complete without “Hotel California” and so it was that Felder, sharing vocal duties with STYX’s Tommy Shaw, churned through a gorgeous and polished version of one of the 70s most ubiquitous songs. In the end, it was some of the most rewarding fifty minutes this writer has spent in a stadium in quite some time. In short, the best summation of Felder’s set was muttered by a concertgoer headed to the beer line, “This is exactly how you kick off Memorial Day weekend.”
Not looking to be outdone by Felder, radio-rock heavyweights Foreigner took to the stage twenty minutes later and left no debate for who was the evening’s most indelible act. Anchored by lead singer Kelly Hansen’s indefatigable spirit the set was not short on attitude or spunk. Twirling around the stage like a whirling dervish, Hansen brought flair, histrionics and swagger to a set that had few, if any, hiccups. Opening with “Double Vision,” and segueing quickly into first-rate versions of “Head Games,” and “Cold as Ice,” Foreigner was on-point and never once looked back. Soft-rock staple “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” was arguably the weakest cut of the night.
While no one can fault the band for playing one of their biggest sets, the song’s tepid arrangement did not match the intensity of Hansen, who wandered through the song like a dog on a leash, just waiting to get back to the set’s more uptempo cuts. He was given that chance on the yearning “Feels Like the First Time,” a song that could have easily sounded dated, rehashed and uninspired. Instead, it was just the opposite. The song’s deft execution is due in no small part to band founder Mick Jones, who joined the band on the song and stayed on stage until the end. Introduced by Hansen as “the heart and soul of Foreigner, who recently had to take time off to deal with health issues,” Jones was greeted to a standing ovation that lasted long after the song’s final note.
If Jones had been battling health issues, it has had zero effect on his guitar prowess. On both “Urgent” and “Starrider,” he absolutely owned the stage, tearing into searing riffs that were as provocative as they were chill-inducing. And then, Hansen took to the stadium theatrics on a rip-roaring rendition of the quintessential 70s anthem “Juke Box Hero.” After a five minute “break,” Foreigner retired for a most predictable encore. The saccharine power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is” was stronger than “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” though not by much. The added company of the Creekside High School Choir was a nice hallmark but did little to bolster the song’s memorability. But perhaps, the night was just about rocking in the end, and so it was that Hansen, Jones and the rest of Foreigner dove headlong into an amped-up, testosterone-addled rendition of “Hot Blooded.”
Don Felder may have opened the night but he most certainly had not stolen the show. That title squarely fell to Foreigner.
Closing the set was Chicago prog-rockers Styx, who try as they might, could not carry the set forward. Whereas the Foreigner set was drenched with sweat, fist-pumping and bravado, STYX’s set was saturated with swirling keys, guitar nuances and very little sense of modernity. Even on classic cuts like “Lady” and “Sail Away,” the band just didn’t have the believability that made Felder and Foreigner’s sets so likable. Music is at its best without pretense, without grandiosity and never once in the set did Styx find that sweet spot. Lawrence Gowan may still have a voice but he seemed more caught up in himself than pleasing the crowd. Ditto for Tommy Shaw. If the set had a high point it was the middle triumvirate of “Light Up,” “Crystal Ball” and “Superstars,” all of which had a sense of empathy and heart that much of the set was sorely lacking. Not content to let Foreigner be the only band with the arena-sized swagger, the band churned out high intensity on encore efforts “Rockin’ the Paradise” and “Renegade.”
In the end though the night belonged to Foreigner and Felder. Forty years removed from their heyday, those two acts showed that good things do come with age and that icons will always be icons. Here’s to hoping The Soundtrack of Summer lives on again in the years to come.
I’m always grateful for music that’s sent my way and while I only get to review about 10 percent of what I receive, I sure do wish I could review more. A week ago, I received an e-mail from a woman named Michelle Ellen who wanted me to take a listen to her disc. She said she was a British-based singer-songwriter and was hoping I’d give her a shot. While her sonic output is not exactly top-shelf, there’s a whole lot of heart on these seven songs.
While I admit I don’t know much about Michelle Ellen or her career. Here’s what I do know: she's a Welsh-based singer-songwriter who cites Sheryl Crow, Greg Laswell and Alanis Morrissette as musical influences, as well as the book The Secret and the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Her webpage biography is naive, hopeful and utterly adorable. But back to Grey's Anatomy for a minute. That latter inspiration frames much of this EP. From start to finish, Ellen’s music is heart-on-sleeve teen journal poetry. Big on sentiment, low on phrasing. While this may be laughable to some, there is actually a market for this and given enough resources and opportunities Ellen could hone her craft and find an audience with the teen and tween crowd. Her strengths are her ballads and her harmonica playing. As soon as she capitalizes on both of these, she'll find her voice and may make a dent in the Scotland folk scene.
So how's the disc? It has its winning moments. Whether its the vulnerability of “Better Man,” the stark honesty of “Think Of Me When You Dance” or the hushed placidity of “Upside Down,” Ellen knows her sweet spot and locks in on it every time. The issue with her music is that on the uptempo numbers she gets lost in the din and sounds average, one-dimensional and derivative. There’s a fine line between coffeehouse songwriting and Hotel Cafe songwriting. While the latter may never be Michelle Ellen’s career, there’s enough hope that given the right cards she can rise above her coffeehouse roots.