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Groovexpress, Live at GVR

18 Jul, 2015 Alex Henderson

groovexpress2The 1960s and 1970s were great times for soul-jazz, a form of jazz that was heavily influenced by R&B.  In contrast to the cerebral, abstract tendencies of avant-garde jazz, soul-jazz outfits like the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Gene Harris’ Three Sounds and the organ combos of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Richard “Groove” Holmes and Jimmy McGriff favored groove-oriented accessibility and made a concerted effort to attract soul and funk fans.  Soul-jazz, thankfully, did not disappear after its 1960s/1970s heyday, and in the 21st Century, one group that has been carrying on the soul-jazz tradition is Groovexpress (whose members hail from Australia, New Zealand and Los Angeles).  Recalling the soul-jazz of the 1960s and 1970s, Live at GVR (which was recorded at Glenbrook Vintage Railway in New Zealand as a soundtrack for their music videos www.youtube.com/c/groovexpressme) makes a point of grooving but thrives on improvisation.  And that emphasis on improvisation sets infectious jams like “Tell Me Why,” “Amsterdam” and “Geraldine” apart from much of the smooth jazz one hears on commercial radio stations in the United States.  While smooth jazz artists such as Richard Elliot and Kenny G are known for avoiding improvisation, there is no shortage of improvisation on “Ukrainian Doll,” “Foxy Brown” or “Blues on the Outside” (which sounds a bit like “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” a famous standard that the late pianist/keyboardist Joe Zawinul wrote when he was a member of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s group in the 1960s).

One thing that speaks volumes about Groovexpress’ musical outlook is the fact that they sound as loose and uninhibited in the studio as they do on stage.  In smooth jazz, it is not uncommon for artists who typically sound stiff, mechanical and uptight on their studio recordings to let loose and become more free-spirited during their live performances.  But with the soul-jazz of Groovexpress, a free-spirited approach prevails on Live at GVR as well as on their studio albums.  For example, one can learn a lot about Groovexpress simply by comparing the way that “Ukrainian Doll” and “Foxy Brown” sound on this album to the way they sound on the band’s studio album, Ukrainian Doll.   The improvisations are different on the live and studio versions, but that spirit of spontaneity comes through whether Groovexpress are on stage or in the studio.

The Groovexpress lineup on Live at GVR consists of group leader Mykeljon Winckel (mykeljon.com) on electric guitar, Ernest Semu on organ and electric keyboards, Haggis Maguiness on harmonica, Nic Haslip on electric bass, Leyton Greening on drums and Nick Nahi on percussion.  This is a somewhat different lineup from the studio lineup heard on the Ukrainian Doll album, but whatever the lineup, it is not hard to pinpoint Groovexpress’ influences.  And those direct or indirect influences range from the Crusaders to Funk, Inc. to the late Philadelphia native Charles Earland (one of the many organists who was heavily influenced by the seminal Jimmy Smith back in the day).

The fact that one of the songs on this album is titled “Foxy Brown” says a lot about Groovexpress’ roots.  Foxy Brown is the name of a well-known female rapper, but it is also the name of a famous blaxploitation film from 1974 that starred Pam Grier and boasted a memorable soundtrack by the late soul singer Willie Hutch.  And by having a song titled “Foxy Brown,” Groovexpress are expressing just how much they appreciate the African-American culture of the 1970s.

The English-speaking countries of the Pacific are not the first places that come to mind when one thinks of soul-jazz, which was dominated by the United States during the 1960s and 1970s and is still dominated by the United States many years later.  And it is good to see Groovexpress playing this type of music in that part of the world: someone who lives in Auckland, Melbourne or Sydney shouldn’t have to travel all the way to Philadelphia or Chicago to hear quality soul-jazz.

Live at GVR is an enjoyable document of this Groovexpress gig in New Zealand.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5

 

Othman Wahabi, Blues for the Dead

14 Jul, 2015 Alex Henderson

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The blues have come in many different flavors over the years, ranging from the acoustic southern country blues of the Mississippi Delta and Piedmont, Georgia to the electric blues of Chicago and Detroit.  And then there is blues-rock, which can draw on anything from Mississippi Delta blues to Texas blues to Detroit blues (depending on what the artist is into).  On Blues for the Dead, singer/guitarist and songwriter Othman Wahabi favors a “north meets south” approach to blues-rock that draws on the influence of the Mississippi Delta as well as Chicago and the Motor City.

Blues-rock is often associated with loud, heavily amplified full-fledged bands.  Ten Years After, Cream, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, the Doors and Stevie Ray Vaughan did not hesitate to turn up the decibels.  Nor did Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Yardbirds or Canned Heat.  But on tracks like “The Devil’s Daughter,” “Midnight Rider” and “Soul for the Devil,” Othman offers a stripped-down approach.  He plays electric guitar on this album, but his approach is minimal in a good way that recalls the days of bluesmen from Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Georgia making their way north to Chicago or Detroit and starting to electrify their sound.  It is the sound of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf not long after they left the Deep South and moved north, where they maintained their southern techniques yet developed a more amplified and  more urban sound.

Othman has obviously mastered the art of slide guitar, which started on the acoustic guitar in Mississippi but later found its way to the electric guitar in Chicago and Detroit.  Othman (who was born in Casablanca, Morocco on September, 26, 1983 but now lives in Montreal, Quebec in eastern Canada) has clearly learned a valuable lesson that Hooker taught us: the blues don’t necessarily have to adhere to a traditional 12-bar format.  Hooker, from the 1940s on, was by no means someone who felt he had to stick to a 12-bar format 100% of the time.  But when it came to lowdown blues feeling, Hooker did not let us down.  And even though “Midnight Rider,” “Gypsy Woman Blues,” “Goin’ Down to Mexico” and “The Devil’s Daughter” do not rigidly adhere to a strict 12-bar blues structure, they are absolutely oozing with blues feeling.  The feeling of the blues is never missing on this six-song album, and like Hooker, Othman has a knack for moody, dusky grooves.  Wahabi has no problem maintaining a swampy, lowdown type of sound on “Soul for the Devil” or “Working Man.”  Nor does he have a problem expressing himself in perfect English even though he has spent his life in heavily French-speaking environments.

In his native Casablanca, the dominant languages are French and Arabic; many Moroccans are fluent in both of those languages.  And in Montreal, French is the main language even though many quebecois are also fluent or proficient in English.  But the blues, for the most part, have thrived in English-speaking environments.  And when Wahabi is singing on “Goin’ Down to Mexico,” “Gypsy Woman Blues” or “Midnight Rider,” he sounds perfectly comfortable using the English language to offer an abundance of blues imagery.  In fact, Othman sings in English so convincingly on this album that one would never know he has lived in places where English is not the dominant language.

Being only 31 years old, he is not old enough to remember the 1960s/1970s heyday of blues-rock.  He was born 13 years after Jimi Hendrix’s death, and of course, he was born long after Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker left the Deep South and advanced their recording careers up north (Hooker in Detroit, Waters and Wolf in Chicago).  But there is no doubt that Othman has absorbed a lot of great blues and blues-rock from the past, and that knowledge serves him well on the engaging Blues for the Dead.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5

 

Rory McMillan, Remember This, Vol. 1

02 Jul, 2015 Alex Henderson

 

Album Artwork for Remember This (Volume 1) by Rory McMillanInstrumentalist Rory McMillan hails from the Deep South in the United States, but if one didn’t know for a fact that he is a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, one would swear that he was from somewhere in Europe.  That is because he specializes in electronica that is very European-sounding, and he gets a great deal of inspiration from European artists such as Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno (who had a major impact on ambient electronica after he left Roxy Music and recorded classic solo albums like 1975’s Another Green World).  That European influence was evident on McMillan’s last album, Sutherland Avenue Hymns (which came out in 2014 and was his first full-length album), and it is no less evident on Remember This, Vol. 1.

 

This 2015 release, in terms of instrumentation, is a departure from Sutherland Avenue Hymns.  On that album, McMillan combined electronic programming with acoustic instruments that included ukulele, acoustic guitar and electric bass.   Some electronica purists might argue that because Sutherland Avenue Hymns was not 100% electronic from start to finish, it was not really electronica.  But the synthesizers, in fact, dominated that album; they were the main course, while the ukulele and the acoustic guitar were an appealing side dish (his publicity bios have described that approach as “folktronica”).  But on Remember This, Vol. 1, McMillan changes course and opts for an all-electronic direction.  There is no ukulele or acoustic guitar to be found on “Dream Cruisin’,” “Electro Mystery Panic,” “Race You to the Stars” or “Melting Ice.”  His Knoxville colleague Nick Miller helps with drum programming, but this time, McMillan becomes even more digital and abandons acoustic string instruments.

 

Yet compositionally, “Moving Spaces,” “Winter’s Promise” or “A Beach Bum’s First Love” is not radically different from the composing on Sutherland Avenue Hymns.  The McMillan heard on “Grey Mouse Escapes Space Mountain” or “Moving Spaces” still has a sound that is consistently mindful of European electronica, and the influence of Kraftwerk, Moroder or Eno is no less evident on “Electro Mystery Panic” or “A Beach Bum’s First Love” than it was on the material he offered on Sutherland Avenue Hymns.

 

Electronica is a broad, far-reaching term.  When one considers that everything from the most harsh, abrasive and blistering of techno to ethereal, lush chillout and downtempo is part of electronica, it becomes evident just how diverse electronica is.  And Remember This, Vol. 1, demonstrates that McMillan operates on the more melodic side of electronica.  Remember This, Vol. 1, like Sutherland Avenue Hymns before it, never becomes angry, confrontational or dissonant.  In fact, McMillan brings a good-natured outlook to “Melting Ice,” “Winter’s Promise” and other selections.  And the fact that Remember This, Vol. 1 is totally digital does not mean that any of the performances sound cold, distant, mechanical or aloof.  McMillan brings a lot of warmth to the material, demonstrating that there is no reason at all why programmed music should sound mechanical or unfeeling.

 

For musicians, going for any type of change of direction can be risky.  Followers can get used to a particular type of approach from an artist, and when the artist goes for something that is different from previous recordings, some of them might resist change.  In McMillan’s case, there will no doubt be some admirers who enjoyed the blend of electronic programming and acoustic string instruments that he offered on Sutherland Avenue Hymns and will wonder why he did not stick with the “folktronica” approach, as his publicity bios have called it.  But that switch from heavily digital to strictly digital has not caused McMillan’s music to suffer in any way.  He still gets his points across as both a composer and a producer.  And he still performs European-style electronica so convincingly that those who hear Remember This, Vol. 1without reading about the details of his life and career will likely assume that he is from Europe.

 

But no, McMillan is as American as apple pie.  And with Remember This, Vol. 1 he continues to deliver thoughtful, pleasing electronica.

 
Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5

 

 

Nancy Beaudette, South Branch Road

10 Apr, 2015 Alex Henderson

 

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Although Nancy Beaudette is not a huge name in the folk-rock world, the Canadian singer/songwriter has been performing for many years. South Branch Road, in fact, is her eighth album, and this likable 2015 release shows her to have a good-natured, pastoral style that draws on direct or indirect influences such as Joni Mitchell (a fellow Canadian) and Janis Ian.  One hears a lot of Mitchell influence in Beaudette’s performances, although that influence comes through in her vocal style more than her lyrics.  Mitchell’s lyrics can be cryptic at times, whereas on “Shoot to Score (The Hockey Song),” “End of the Line,” “Something Tells Me” or “Company of Stones,” Beaudette favors lyrics that are very straight-forward and accessible. Beaudette, who grew up near the town of Cornwall in the Canadian province of Ontario, paints an appealing, earnest picture of small town life on tracks like “’Til the Tomatoes Ripen,” “End of the Line” and the title song.  She gives the impression that she is drawing on her own personal experiences, which makes the performances believable and convincing.  Beaudette’s musical strength obviously lies in the fact that she is a storyteller, and storytelling is what she does effectively on “’Til the Tomatoes Ripen,” “Shoot to Score (The Hockey Song),” “Ride On” and other parts of this album.

South Branch Road has a very warm sound: Beaudette’s vocals are warm, the melodies and harmonies are warm, the production and engineering are warm.  Beaudette’s earthy approach calls for an organic production style, and when “Starlight,” “Can’t Hold Back” or “You Got It Goin’ On” is playing, one hears an album that is well-produced but not overproduced.

Although mainly a folk-rock album, there are times when South Branch Road detours a bit into country-rock territory: most notably, “Shoot to Score (The Hockey Song)” and “Starlight.” Both of those songs would have worked on an album by Mary Chapin Carpenter or Tricia Yearwood, although the production lacks the slickness that one typically finds in Nashville country-rock these days.  And that country-rock influence in what is primarily a folk-rock environment makes perfect sense in light of the relationship between country and North American folk. There are many differences between the folk scene and the modern country market: folk-rock singers (from Joan Baez to Bob Dylan to Natalie Merchant to Ani DiFranco to Tracey Chapman) have a long history of promoting liberal/progressive causes, while country has had its share of right-wing lyrics in recent decades. Yet folk-rock and country-rock, despite their musical and lyrical differences, have common roots (both were greatly influenced by the folk traditions that immigrants brought to North America from the British Isles), and they often intersect.  Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard covers are not uncommon in folk venues; country-rockers will perform some Bob Dylan and Neil Young songs (often the less political ones). So when Beaudette incorporates some country-rock influence on parts of this album, it does not feel the least bit out of place.

Although Beaudette is the type of artist who is likely to be compared to Mitchell, Baez or Judy Collins, the intonation in her voice sometimes brings to mind someone whose name seldom appears in reviews of folk-rock albums: Heart’s Ann Wilson. Given that Wilson has mostly made her mark in hard rock and arena rock, she is an unlikely comparison on an album like South Branch Road.  But those who are familiar with Heart’s 1970s albums such as Dreamboat Annie, Little Queen and Dog and Butterfly know that some of their early recordings had a definite folk-rock outlook (songs like “Soul of the Sea,” “Dream of the Archer” and Dreamboat Annie’s title track).  And bearing that in mind, it makes sense that, directly or indirectly, Beaudette could be influenced by Wilson at the same time she is being influenced by Mitchell and Baez.  Besides, this is modern folk-rock, not traditional folk from the 1940s. Singer/songwriters in today’s folk scene were raised on rock & roll.

South Branch Road is an enjoyable listen, demonstrating that Beaudette is deserving of a wider audience.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5

 

Frankie Bourne, Californicana

16 Feb, 2015 Alex Henderson

 

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Some roots rockers get most of their creative inspiration from one particular era of music.  Other roots rockers, however, draw on different musical eras for creative inspiration.  And Californicana underscores the fact that Frankie Bourne (frankiebourne.com) is an appealing example of the latter.  The Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter is 26 years old, which means he was born in the late 1980s and is firmly in the Millennial/Generation Y demographic.  Yet on his debut album, Californicana, Bourne is directly or indirectly influenced by artists who emerged in the 1970s (the Eagles, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Doobie Brothers) as well as adult alternative, roots rock and Americana artists who were popular during the 1990s (including the Gin Blossoms, Counting Crows, the Dave Matthews Band and the Goo Goo Dolls).  And on memorable tracks such as “The Whistle,” “Mrs. Redundancy,” “Oh Well, We’ll See,” “Fully Grown” and “Man in Days,” it is evident that Bourne (who wrote all 13 of the songs on this CD) likes his roots rock, Americana and alternative rock on the melodic, tuneful side.  Bourne definitely has a way with a hook, and his infectious songs are both easy to absorb and easy to like.

Singer/songwriters who operate in the roots rock/Americana realm often get a great deal of creative inspiration from the American heartland.  John Mellencamp, for example, wore his Midwestern heritage like a badge of honor on so many of his classic 1970s and 1980s recordings.  Instead of trying to hide his Indiana background, Mellencamp happily celebrated it on gems like “Jack and Diane” in 1982 and “Pink Houses” in 1983.  And Bourne does, to be sure, reference Memphis and other parts of the Heartland on this album.  But if there is any part of the United States that does the most to give Bourne creative inspiration, it is California without a doubt.  Bourne is originally from Northern California and now lives in the southern part of the state, and California imagery is plentiful in Bourne’s lyrics.  Bourne, for example, brings Golden State imagery to life on “California Man” (not to be confused with the Cheap Trick song from the late 1970s) and “Common Ground” as well as “Fog City Blues” and other tracks.  When Californicana is playing, one can easily picture Bourne walking around Hollywood Boulevard, the Sunset Strip or Venice Beach with his guitar.  And even though he doesn’t perform the Eagles’ “Hotel California” on this album, that song would have fit right in had Bourne opted to record it.

Bourne can be enjoyably bluesy at times.  “Darlin’, Don’t,” “Home Country Blues,” “Wanderlust Blues” and “Fog City Blues” are not blues in the strict sense: none of them actually adhere to the traditional 12-bar blues structure, but they certainly have the feeling and emotion of the blues.  There is no overlooking the amount of blues feeling that Bourne displays on those selections.  His appreciation of the blues comes through loud and clear.

The combination of instruments that Bourne favors on Calfiornicana does a lot to help him achieve and maintain a rootsy type of atmosphere.  Bourne, who plays guitar and harmonica in addition to singing, oversees a skillful group of musicians who play slide guitar (Johnny Hawthorn), organ and piano (Jordan Summers) and dobro (Manny Alvarez).  A saxophonist, Jeremy Trezona, joins Bourne on “Mrs. Redundancy” (which is the last track on the CD).  And the production also adds to the rootsy vibe.  Bourne produced this self-released album with Marc Danzeisen, and together, the two of them make Calfiornicana sound well-produced but never glossy or overproduced.  Bourne is going for earthiness rather than slickness, and the musicianship and production help him to display that organic type of sound.

Californicana is a consistently promising debut from Bourne.

Review by Alex Henderson
4 stars out of 5