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.
As often happens, I’ve been in a funk lately. Not much new music is inspiring me, hence the lack of album reviews. However, one song has been giving me hope in the last 48 hours. “Be Careful” from the Australian group Lyon Apprentice is pretty much the closest thing to perfect I’ve heard in months. Delicate piano? Check. Nuanced guitar-work? Check. Relatable yet insightful lyrics? Mmhm. A swelling chorus? It's got that too.
"Be Careful" is the third single off their debut EP Be Wild, Be Free, co-produced by Mark Myers (The Middle East, Emma Louise) and mixed by Catherine Marks (Foals, Death Cab for Cutie).
To be fair, I have very limited knowledge of Lyon Apprentice, but holy wow, this track is a beast.
Brooklyn singer-songwriter Risa Binder channels her inner Nashville on lead single “Burning Down the Dark,” a jangly acoustic-led effort that’s warm and amiable. Aided by a slide guitar, her doe-eyed vocals help craft a song that falls somewhere between Radio Disney and Danielle Bradbery. With a breezy chorus and ample amounts of charm, “Paper Heart’ is more than ready for the country charts. How big of a dent it will make remains to be seen. For now, this is total ear candy. Country-pop, come met your new starlet.
If their recent smash single "Peninsula" hasn't already proved their worth, then their live show definitely does. Seen this past weekend at Orlando's The Social, London trio Dinosaur Pile Up performed a master class in how to successfully marry guitar-driven grunge with armfuls of melody.
Matt Bigland and Co. tore though their set with both bombast and ballast, but never once did the band part with a catchy hook. Be it "Peninsula" or the ringing albeit open-hearted "White T-shirt and Jeans," the band made the most of their 40 minute slot. The set, which proved to be superior to both support act Brick + Mortar, as well as headliner Middle Class Rut, was bookended by the snarling opener "Draw a Line" and the clanging closer "Nature Nurture." Of all the songs few were as impressive as the latter. Like a blistering blitzkrieg the band howled from the very first seconds and performed the song with the wanton ferocity of a predator catching prey. It was in short, awe-inspiring and utterly star-making. If the evening proved anything, it is that Dinosaur Pile-Up have a most certainly bright future ahead of them. Wholly confident, arena-ready and more than capable of headlining, they just might be alt-rock's next great hope.
Fresh off a US tour with YouMeAtSix, the band is in the final stages of their Middle Class Rut tour, before taking a couple months off. The band returns to the US for a small Northeastern tour with Brand New this July. A word to the wise, do not come late and miss their set, it will absolutely blow you away. To date, this writer has not seen a more impressive set so far this year.
I really hate discovering albums long after they've been released, but in any rate, I can't hold back my love for Brett Dennen's spellbinding disc Smoke and Mirrors. Produced by the masterful Charlie Peacock (seriously, has he yet to touch anything that wasn't amazing?) the disc is sterling from front to back. Album opener "Sweet Persuasion" is a gorgeous paean to Laurel Canyon and perfectly encapsulates the vibe of the record. The most accessible of the 10 are the open-hearted "Wild Child," the nostalgia-laden "When We Were Young" and the crazily addictive "Get Out Of My Head." All three are stocked with infectious choruses, indelible melodies and some of the most engaging work Dennen has written to date.
The softer and more introspective fare, which dominates the album, is highlighted by the gorgeous title track, the wisdom-tinged "Don't Mess With Karma" and the self-affirming closer "Who Am I." Dennen has been one to watch since 2008 when John Mayer brought him out on his arena tour, and more recently after his top-notch 2011 record Loverboy. But Smoke and Mirrors is something else altogether. A wholly cohesive, expertly arranged tour-de-force that is as strong as anything in the singer-songwriter canon. Hindsight is always 20/20, but hot damn I didn't find this record last year, probably would have inserted itself into the AOTY Top 30.
Sixteen years removed from his first (and only) gold record, Edwin McCain brought his band to Orlando’s Hard Rock Hotel as part of its Velvet Sessions concert series. Proving that the sixteen years has indeed been a blessing, he performed a sturdy, confident and fully engaged set of a dozen soul-drenched charmers. The evening opened with “Mercy Bound,” an organ-kissed acoustic-driven yarn that ponders mortality.
From there he dove into the playful singalong “Gramercy Park Hotel” before performing one of his older tracks “Solitude” by request from an overeager fan. Using the humor that has always been his calling card, he addressed the crowd by saying, “Sure I’ll do Solitude. There’s nothing like a song about teenage drug abuse to keep our spirits high.” All hilarity aside the song was executed deftly and like much of the set had few if any swells. McCain’s music rests on his whiskey-soaked croon, a guttural powerhouse that can often do the sonic and emotional heavy lifting all by itself. On the note-perfect “Love TKO” he used his ageless timbre to perfection as he navigated an old-school soul ballad with aplomb. Two songs later, he belted out an arresting, power-packed nine minute version of the heartbreak ballad “Sign On the Door.”
McCain’s career has been paved via two wedding songs, the Diane Warren-penned “Could Not Ask For More” and the 90s radio smash “I’ll Be.” Both were delivered crisply, evenly and without flaw but it was the night’s more unexpected moments that proved to be the evening’s apex moments. McCain dove deep into his back catalog to sing the tender “Take Me” before trying his hand at Bruno Mars’ ubiquitous hit “Locked Out Of Heaven.” If the latter song proved anything it’s the dexterity of McCain’s backing band. Lead guitarist Larry Chaney, organist/saxophonist Craig Shields, bassist Jason Pomar and drummer Tez Sherard, never batted an eyelash as they carved through Mars’ mega single.
That same sense of dexterity was elucidated during the encore as McCain and Co. aced Teddy Pendergrass’ “Can’t Hide Love.” Though the set was brief, the Southern singer made the most of the opportunity. For all 80 minutes, he was engaging, candid and deeply committed to his craft. In an era where so many former radio heroes have a propensity to mail it in, McCain’s set was a refreshing reminder that there are still a select few vagabonds who still want to sing their songs and sing them well. More than two decades into a career he never thought possible, McCain shows very little signs of rust and disinterest. And for that, we should all be grateful.
For reasons I can't really explain, I've fallen for the song "Forget Your Life" from Brooklyn's Dogwater. There's an easiness about it that makes it easy to like and even easier to listen to on repeat. Whether its the languid vocals of Jack Collins or the amiable guitar lines, "Forget Your Life" has a Sunday afternoon simplicity that piques my interest about the rest of the Dogwater discography. While the song's lyrics and message are decidedly dark, the sonic landscape is anything but. Though Collins is busy as bassist for NYC psych-rock outfit Spires, there's enough reason to think that with more songs like "Forget Your Life," Collins may have a future beyond just Spires.
It's Saturday night and I work for a historically punk-driven blog. Thus I need a Saturday night punk-driven song.
So I'm swimming across the pond to embrace The Bohemian Embassy and their spiky new single "Rats in Paradise," a violin-driven slice of Brit-punk with tons of spunk, sweat and kinesis. If ever there was a Saturday night song, this is most certainly it.
I have no idea who Empires is. But holy crap, I love them.
Being a staffer here, I've seen their name here and there but I have very limited knowledge of their output. But all that has changed now that lead single “How Good Does it Feel,” has entered the world. An urgent, antic and absolutely explosive new song, this may be one of the best tracks I've heard so far this year. The band’s debut album Orphan was produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Black Angels, Explosions in the Sky) and appears on the Island Records imprint Chop Shop. Empires is on tour through May with Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos and stops in SXSW.