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Light Over There, The Journey

21 Apr, 2016 Heath Andrews

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Light Over There is a dynamic, country/pop hybrid duo, spanning the Atlantic Ocean and two different cultures. Aileen Henderson is an Irish singer/songwriter while Rex Haberman is an American singer/songwriter and guitarist with the two of them sharing an interest in American country music. Their 2016 EP The Journey, is their second release and successfully carries on the musical chemistry that the two established on the record prior, even if it’s not quite as strong as it could be.

The EP opens with the lovely uptempo ballad, “Time.” An acoustic rhythm powers the song alongside crisp drumming and Henderson’s amazingly sweet voice. Complimenting her dulcet tones is the serene cry of the pedal steel guitar, an instrument that very firmly establishes the country tone of the piece. Henderson’s voice helps keep some pop elements alive however, given that she doesn’t completely carry herself into the stereotypical country “twang.” Pushing the song from the good to great category are the rich harmonies during the chorus, warm backing keyboards, and a guitar solo that is equal parts aggressive and soothing.

“Do Love Right” follows and immediately picks up the pace. The rhythm track is much brisker with consistently strong drumming and fairly rapid fills. Haberman does some of the lead vocals and this is where the record falters. Haberman has a much more limited range and expression than Henderson. This tone actually provides a great harmony, but when he’s not blending with her voice, the flaws in his stand out more. The rest of “Do Love Right” is wonderfully strong, sporting another fantastic guitar solo and a catchy melody; Haberman should’ve just stuck to the backing vocals.

“Leads Me To Bell Plaine” may be the EP’s strongest piece. The keyboards blend in with the pedal steel in tremendous fashion. This, along with the quick pace and country rock tones makes for a song capable of a great, extended jam. It is the longest track featured here and the way that it rollicks along makes it seem like it’s shorter than it is. The chorus is a tour de force for Henderson’s voice, powering the song’s emotion and bouncy nature.

The next piece, “While We’re Still Young” has a softer sound, established with an acoustic guitar base and a larger focus on the keyboards. The drums are also lighter, establishing a nice little shuffle as opposed to the more powerful snare hits on the previous songs. The songwriting shines here in both the music and the lyric, as the sentiment of the piece is able to come through more strongly with this softer arrangement.

Haberman takes on some more of the lead vocals with “Catch You When You Fall.” Overall the song is catchy, but once again it loses something in the shared vocal duties. The track itself is well written to serve as a duet but the lack of a compelling second vocalist to work with Henderson doesn’t help things. During the chorus, when the two are singing together, the mixing is a delight to listen to.

The Journey concludes with what might be the best song that Fleetwood Mac never wrote, “Off Track.” Henderson sounds like a combination of Stevie Nicks and Emmylou Harris, straddling the line between pop and country in exemplary fashion. The backing vocals are very poppy in the best sense of the word, nailing down a relentless hook that is every bit as engaging as the lead. It’s a fantastic combination of everything that Light Over There does so well, the pop and country, the spot on arrangement, everything is performed and polished to perfection.

For the most part, The Journey plays to the strengths of Light Over There, showcasing much of what makes them such a powerfully dynamic duo. A couple of the songs could be executed better but they don’t detract too much from the EP overall. Aileen Henderson and Rex Haberman have forged a remarkably strong working relationship with each other that has now produced two solid EP’s. The blending of their two styles is lovely, especially in how they’ve come together across continents with a shared appreciation for the country music that they love and perform so well.
Review by: Heath Andrews
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)

Groovexpress, Live at GVR

18 Jul, 2015 Heath Andrews

groovexpress2 Live at GVR isn’t a live album in the traditional sense of the term; you’re not going to hear crowd noises, spoken segues, and audience sing-alongs.  What Groovexpress has crafted here is a record of six instrumental tracks, recorded live on a flatbed train carriage. The six tracks are the soundtracks for their latest music videos: youtube.com/c/grooveexpressme. The object was to capture the sound of what Groovexpress sounds like during a live performance.  Not only did they succeed in doing this, but they also succeeded in making one of the most interesting and entertaining smooth jazz albums you could ever hope to hear.

Almost the entire album is written by the multi-talented guitarist, composer, and musical director, Mykeljon Winckel.  He’s joined by keyboardist/organist Ernest Semu, bassist Nic Haslip, percussionist Nick Nahi, Leyton Greening on drums, and “Haggis” Maguiness on harmonica.  Maguiness is largely responsible for what makes Groovexpress so unique in that his harmonica playing mixes up the standard smooth jazz formula by essentially giving the songs a bluesier feel to them.  Normally you would expect to hear these parts played by a saxophone, but having a harmonica in the mix, changes the context of things completely.

“Amsterdaam!” kicks off the album in delightfully strong fashion.  Instantly you hear the typical smooth jazz sounds of gentle percussion and drumming, a strong bassline and warm guitar tones.  About twenty seconds in though, the harmonica comes into play with the lead guitar echoing its rich sound.  As the track continues, soft keyboards fill out the mix while the harmonica takes the lead entirely, showing what it’s capable of, outside being teamed with Winckel’s guitar.  This transitions into a keyboard solo that Semu plays with a moderate intensity, helping to maintain the gentle texture of the track while still expanding on the sound.  This in turn leads to a solo from Winckel which he too plays with a moderated intensity; not so hard that it overpowers, but not so gentle in that it brings down the plucky nature of the song.  Finally, the band returns to the original melody that the combined guitar and harmonica formed as the song closes out.  It’s a great introduction to the sound that you’ll hear throughout the album in addition to being a great showcase for the talent of the individual musicians.

“Blues on the Outside” starts off softer with a keyboard wash and more subdued drumming from Greening.  Winckel’s guitar is a bit more atmospheric in nature though he often echoes the harmonica to generate a richer melody.  Semu again has a lovely, extended solo during which you can really hear how dynamic Haslip’s bass playing is.  It doesn’t just move the song along as part of the rhythm section; it does a great deal to help fill the sound and space within the music.  Winckel’s solo has a wonderful Pat Metheny type tone to it and during it, Greening takes the opportunity to include a great deal of crisp drum fills, showing that strong drumming can be accomplished through finesse instead of power.

The shortest track on the album, “Foxy Brown” may also be the catchiest one.  That’s probably not a coincidence either as the shorter run-length forces the song to do more in a shorter time.  The powerful cymbal work that helps opens the track goes in tandem with the powerful bass line.  The guitar playing is less evident here as the harmonica and keys are given a lot of room to play.  Naturally, Winckel’s still present, chiming in through the background and laying down yet another spectacular solo.  It’s a recurring case of three instruments sharing the limelight while being backed by one of the best rhythm sections a jazz ensemble could ask for.

Going from the shortest song to the longest song, “Geraldine” is the only piece here that falls a little flat.  Being a six and a half minute song is a slight detriment to itself given that it feels like it retreads some of the same ground.  Fortunately, the main melody that it repeats is very catchy and there’s a wonderful amount of percussion from Nahi that propels the track forward in stellar fashion.  If a couple minutes had been chopped off the runtime, this would’ve been a much tighter song but even in its current state it has a wonderful degree of talent powering it.

“Tell Me Why” is the equivalent of a ballad for the album, sporting the softest and gentlest sounds here.  The highlight of it has to be the extended work from Semu with his keyboards taking on the emotional tones of a piano.  The harmonica also has a more melancholic tone to it at times; keeping an atmosphere going that sets it apart from the other tracks here.

Finally, rounding things out are the funkier sounds of “Ukranian Doll.”  While the piece itself is still firmly rooted in smooth jazz, the backing guitar has a kind of funky vibe to it that leads to an overall different feel.  You can really hear this too in the main melody with the little breaks and rests that are thrown in to give the track even more of a kick.  And as you’d expect by this point in time in the album, everyone’s playing is fabulous and energetically smooth.

Groovexpress is remarkably talented and Live at GVR shows that in staggering fashion.  The dynamic songwriting and inclusion of harmonica should make even non-jazz fans give this a listen.  As for those who are already fans of the genre, you’ve just been given a chance to reimagine the sounds you love in gorgeous fashion.

Review by: Heath Andrews
Rating: 4.5 Stars (out of 5)

Mayden Hollywood, Hollywood

10 Apr, 2015 Heath Andrews

hollywood“Hollywood,” the 2014 single by producer, singer/songwriter Mayden Hollywood, paints a vivid picture of the titular town while contrasting it with the hard luck and hard times facing the people who live within it.  If you don’t immediately pick up on the song’s darker nature, it’s probably thanks to the lavish production and impeccably well-polished sheen.  This doesn’t detract from the piece at all, in fact it actually makes it even stronger, ensuring that if you do go searching for the song’s meaning, you’re going to have a wonderful sonic experience while doing it.

Mayden Hollywood enlisted the help of music producers Skip Saylor and Ian Blanch in addition to session musicians Thomas Harris & Mike Reason, with backing vocals from Jolina Star.  It’s pretty astounding how much sound they generate and how well layered it all is.  Keyboards and synths play a large role in the melody, but the rock solid drumming and fairly fierce electric guitar add a great deal of edge to the track.  In its closing section for example, the guitars come in very hard for a brief solo and then give way back to the keyboards and Mayden’s soft and smooth voice.

Much of this mid-tempo pop rocker works exceptionally well.  As mentioned, it’s very polished and pleasant with a suitable level of lyrical darkness to give it some depth.  There are one or two mild quibbles to be had however.  For starters, the lyric can be hit or miss at times.  One of the better lines is: “The sun always shines over Hollywood, you can be what you want today/Cause it doesn’t matter this is Hollywood, and we’re all actors in our own screen play.” But it’s preceded by: “Those that got your back gotta, keep them tight/Everybody else gets a knuckle fight.”  It feels like the word “knuckle” is crammed in there, an idea that’s reinforced when Mayden sings the line and the word feels hurried.  And speaking of his singing, there are degrees of vocal processing/auto-tune that become obvious from time to time which detract from the otherwise pleasant experience.

“Hollywood” is a charming piece of pop/rock with parts of glitter and grit.  Coincidentally (or perhaps by design) that’s exactly how the song aims to describe the town itself.  For all the wealth and fame, there are the struggling and poor.  Mayden Hollywood has done well in putting this track together and will likely fit in quite well within the collection of many of the genre’s fans.

Reviewed by Heath Andrews

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

 

madelyniris, Adventures

14 Jan, 2015 Heath Andrews

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When a vocalist trained for operatic performances decides to make a pop record, you can at least know for sure that it’s going to be sung to perfection.  Madelyniris and her 2014 EP Adventures is no exception to that statement.  Every note from start to finish on these five tracks is pitch perfect and delivered with methodical care.  Her music is more than that though, taking her voice and pairing it with evocative lyrics and musical arrangements that can either by starkly haunting or drivingly percussive.  Ultimately it ends up leaning more towards the quiet and contemplative but is still capable of delivering some aggressively passionate indie pop.

A mildly electronic or synth-pop vibe runs throughout the EP as the songs rely heavily on keyboards to provide the backing melodies.  Guitars are present, but they’re more of an atmospheric addition, droning, churning, and crying as necessary to generate the right ambiance.  The first track, “Leave and Never Look Back” exemplifies this right out of the gate.  Pulsing synths set up a quietly tense atmosphere over which we hear Madelyniris’ vocals for the first time.  Her voice comes in with a reserved strength that is as smooth as it is clear and beautiful.  As the first chorus comes in, the arrangement picks up slightly in intensity with multi-tracked vocals to match.  The delivery and tone is reminiscent of Kate Bush in the best way possible, and as the song continues, the aforementioned guitar ambiance comes in to give the track a degree of edge.

The set up to the following track, “Ghost” is similar in its simpler percussion track and hauntingly atmospheric nature.  As opposed to a synth line however, the melody here is played upon the piano and in such a way that it helps underscore the reflective nature of the lyric.  As the song progresses the instrumentation also begins to build; the drums become more forceful, the piano becomes heavier with added depth and the electric guitar comes in beneath this with a mournful cry.  All of this goes towards echoing the tone of the lyric and Madelyniris’ delivery. As an added bit of depth, midway through the piece the song suddenly bursts open with musical force and is matched by a more fully voiced vocal part.  It doesn’t bring the song out of its melancholic state, but it does give it an interesting shot of life.

“Street Signs and White Lies” reverts back to the electronic backing, creating a very tense sensation, but this just leads into a drum track that is unlike anything heard on the previous numbers.  Here, the beat is quick, powerful, and rhythmic.  Madelyniris sings with renewed vigor and cause to a track that is less elegantly bleak and firmly rooted in more contemporary indie pop.  The energy is captivating, not to mention refreshing based on how strongly it differs from the previous two songs.  It’s easily the catchiest song on the EP and makes for a ferociously strong single.

Going back to the previously established sound, “Let’s Restart” is a slower, more methodical piece which aims to be as haunting as the tracks that preceded it.  The barebones arrangement again works to highlight Madelyniris’ voice.  The song is lyrically evocative as it brings about almost violent images of love; in part showing its brutality in its high and lows.  She sings, “Carve your name into my skin/Hold me down? Let our love begin again” and ultimately, “we jumped off cliffs at a whim/crashing without hope to swim/breaking rips and breaking hearts/kiss my lips and let’s restart.”

Finally, the EP’s title track returns to the sound of “Street Signs…” by featuring another pounding drum beat backed by the stirring drone of electric guitar.  The backing keyboards begin rather dirge like but it really just serves as a bed rock over which an extensive instrumental build is constructed.  Madelyniris sings in a slightly higher register here, displaying more of her wonderful talents as a vocalist.  Its defining moment is in its closing minutes when the beautiful layers of backing vocals come in, the drum beats out a militaristic stomp and the entire song soars into its fading conclusion.  More than any of the other numbers here, this piece is an adventure unto itself, and may well be Madelyniris’ crowning achievement.

That being said, Adventures is a wonderfully sung and constructed EP that demonstrates Madelyniris’ abilities as a vocalist, lyricist, and songwriter.  While parts of the EP could be a little more energetic, it’s still a highly impressive collection of songs with at least the title track and “Street Signs and White Lies” being energetic pieces of indie pop perfection. Even the softer songs are not without their charm as the synths tend to give them a bit of an edge and feel all their own.  Madelyniris is a considerable talent, and Adventures is well worth the trip that it takes you along for.
Review by: Heath Andrews
Rating: 4.5 Stars (out of 5)

 

 

The Gravel Project, The Gravel Project

01 Apr, 2014 Heath Andrews

Coming out of Boston, Massachusetts, The Gravel Project has been developing a following in the Northeast thanks to their remarkably well played mix of funk, blues, and rock.  Led by vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Andrew Gravel, he and the rest of the Project absolutely rip their way through their 2014 eponymous album.  Across nine original songs and two covers, there’s not a moment that goes by that isn’t scintillating.  Gravel himself is a phenomenal guitarist, and he demonstrates this in entertaining fashion.

The Gravel Project kicks off with “When I Get Back Home,” a stellar example of the blues, rock, and funk mix that Gravel navigates so well.  The crisp drumming that starts off the song is quickly joined by a funky guitar riff and bluesy vocal about trying to get back home to the singer’s love.  The funk vibe is also maintained by the thumping bassline of Vaughn Brathwaite, a performance that stands up even under the fantastic solo that Gravel lays down.

There are actually a lot of great solos throughout this album.  As consistent and strong as all the performances from the band are, Gravel’s solos and riffs stand out thanks to their frenetic energy.  “In The Moonlight” may be his best performance as the solos here are so passionately captivating in the context of the overall arrangement.  This is the lone song on the album that sounds like it’s going to be a ballad, especially given its acoustic start.  From there the song builds and grows, thanks in part to the backing keyboards, to the incredible solos that make this piece so wonderful.

We also have tracks like “Jam Today” that don’t need to build up to be stunning.  In a very Allman Brothers like style, The Gravel Project churn out an extended, laid back jam that’s consistently stellar.  The duration of the song is fueled by the relaxed groove of the rhythm section and smooth backing keyboards.  The guitar tone here is also noteworthy for being heavily Allman Brothers inspired in a way that would make Dickey Betts proud.

“Dollar Bill” is another funky rocker, with a particularly strong vocal from Gravel.  As he bemoans the state of greed and corruption caused by the almighty dollar, he and the band lay down the music to another tight rocker.  This number is differentiated from the others by the inclusion of a trumpet and saxophone horn section.  Often they’re used in a flourish to accentuate some of the songs more powerful moments, but we also get a rather gripping sax solo that segues into another of Gravel’s fantastic guitar performances.

The horns also have a large impact on the cover of The Cure song, “Close to Me.”  The original was a unique song for The Cure to begin with compared to some of their other big singles, but it’s not impossible to hear how it could translate to Gravel’s style of music.  The sax and trumpet help keep to the original’s sound but the funky rocking guitar riff and bassline make this version unique to Gravel.  And the other cover, this time of The Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” is also made the band’s own; toughened up by the group’s rocking blues playing.

Going back to the original pieces, another especially noteworthy number is the percussion heavy, “Your Song.”  The funky little bass and guitar riff that begins the track sets the tone for the mix of percussion to follow.  Gravel’s guitar takes a backseat for a while, allowing the drums to set-up a lively atmosphere.  The rousing electric guitar eventually enters back into the mix for another extended solo, but this time the drumming is also in full force, feeding off of and propelling Gravel’s playing to intense heights.

These are just some of the highlights of an album that’s loaded with amazing moments.  Not one of the eleven tracks here is lackluster.  The combination of rock, funk, and blues also makes each of the songs distinct.  It’s sometimes easy for even a consistently strong album to have songs run into each other and become a bit bland, but that’s far from the case here.  Andrew Gravel and The Gravel Project inject everything they do with copious amount of energy and tremendous instrumentation.  The Gravel Project is a flawless album with a sound and style unique to itself.  With all the virtuoso instrumentation of a jam band condensed into a blues/rock format and coupled with a funky liveliness, The Gravel Project is a record that any music lover should own.

Review by: Heath Andrews
Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)