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Linda Wood, Return

17 Mar, 2014 Heath Andrews

Return is the 2013 sophomore album from Australia’s Linda Wood.  Over the course of its eleven songs, Wood embraces pop mixed with an assortment of different flavors, including rock, Latin, and jazz.  All of it is tied together with Wood’s strong, pop sensible voice and stellar musical performances from her backing musicians.  While not every song is golden, most of Return is a joy to listen to.

Wood begins with the poppy, loving, “A Kiss I Will Remember.”  The cute lyric about young love is powered by her staggeringly sweet, clear, and theatrical voice.  The music itself is surprisingly compelling given the rattling drums, melodic piano, and snarling guitar solos.  The solo is actually quite astonishing given that it comes from out of the blue, but still works wonderfully in the context of the song.

“Bubbles” the following track, also has those guitar licks pop up, but the lyric is, for lack of a better phrase, too bubbly.  “I wanna hold your pithy rainbow in my hand/Like a little puppy chasing butterflies.”  The juxtaposition of “pithy rainbow” and a puppy chasing butterflies makes the lyric go from inspired to saccharin in the course of seconds.  Still, the musicianship is fantastic as are Wood’s vocals.  And as far as lyrics go on the album, this is the only real misstep.

Wood’s lyrical strength can be more readily heard on later songs such as, “Shut Up and Dance.”  The Spanish guitar and Latin hinted melodies are meant to evoke the image of a dance floor, which they successfully do.  The lyric is an anti-love song of sorts with Wood demanding that her lover not talk and just do what he’s best at, dancing.  It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek emasculatory and that’s what makes the lyric work so well along with its genre bending musicianship.  It’s also worth noting two other songs that sport distinct styles, “Lost My Heart” and “Pretty Baby.”  The former of the two pairs the imagery of getting back up on a figurative horse with guitar tones that are straight out of a classic western movie soundtrack.  The latter has a slight jazz feel to it and builds a fairly large vocal arrangement on top of it; larger than you’d expect given the track’s low-key beginnings.

Wood has her fair share of poignantly romantic pieces; “Your Love Makes Me Beautiful,” “Kissing in the Streets of New York,” and “Boat and Sail” make up the bulk of them.  In keeping with the rest of the album, these songs are actually full of pep, including the initially stark, “Boat and Sail.”  The track gradually goes from piano and voice to something complex and haunting.  The guitars churn atmospherically in a kind of U2 style while the piano maintains a grounded melody and emotion.  Near the song’s end, the guitars chime out while the drums crash down in a beautiful cascade of sound.  The other two tracks are less complex in their arrangements, but “Kissing…” manages to bring back those snarling guitars to a lyric that is surprisingly lovelorn for all the energy it has to it.

The best piece here is the fantastically catchy, “Nothing to Wear.”  The wordplay is especially noteworthy as Wood sings, “Pieces of my life are hanging everywhere/My cupboard’s full of clothes/But I’ve got nothing to wear.”  The singer laments that nothing in her wardrobe can make her feel good about her life at the time, despite and perhaps even because of the meaning those clothes have.  It’s a tightly written song, clocking in at a little under three minutes, but between the amazing hook in the chorus, the stirring guitar solo and vivid imagery, this piece of the album leaves you wanting more.

The closing track, “You Liked It” is a missed opportunity for Wood to end on a powerful note.  The lyric sounds deeply personal as she sings about a relationship, having children, and the growth of a family.  It begins with an acoustic guitar and her voice, and that’s where it should’ve stayed.  The drums, additional guitars and piano only detract from the lyric in this case, and though the song is quite good, it feels restrained by its arrangement.

There are a great number of fantastic songs on Return.  Linda Wood is a phenomenally talented singer and songwriter, as her second album unquestionably proves.  The sheer number of enjoyable performances, from her singing to the work of the session musicians is staggering.  Wood adds a lot of variety to her record by dabbling in various fields of pop music to great success.  Mild quibbles aside, Return was well worth the wait from Wood, and it hopefully is a sign of more great things to come.

 

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

 

 

Mariya, Storyteller

21 Dec, 2013 Heath Andrews

Storyteller, the four song debut EP by Mariya, simultaneously meets and exceeds the expectations of a typical singer/songwriter album. As one might expect from a record of this name, the songs tell stories, and are done so through Mariya’s compelling voice.  Where it goes above and beyond is with its arrangements.  Whereas the stereotypical singer/songwriter album generally centers on the acoustic guitar or piano, Mariya uses the piano as a foundation to build some tremendously lush sounds, rife with horns, strings, and percussion.

That percussion is put to immediate use on the album’s opening track, “Drunk.”  Mariya sings over some deep piano chords that could best be described as remorseful.  Her soft voice is perhaps a bit too hushed at times, though it does work with the song’s atmosphere.  The scene is really set by the clinking of wine glasses, a key holder and other various bar room sounds.  When Mariya quietly sings, “People start staring at my blurry brown eyes,” those sounds tell the story of where she is and a bit of why her eyes are the way they are.  There’s a build up as the song goes into its second half and small bursts of saxophone and trumpet come in.  This all coalesces in the final minute of the song, complete with guitar and some crashing drums.  It takes slightly too long for the song to get to this wonderful build, but once it reaches it, it takes on a new life.

“Goodnight” is delightfully more upbeat, opening with a bouncy keyboard refrain and thumping rhythm track.  The simple yet steady drum is effective if a bit bland, but the bassline is intriguing enough to keep it interesting.  One of the benefits of this is placing the emphasis on Mariya and her singing.  There’s a strong vocal hook to the song, sharpened by the simple melody.  Even when it goes into a small breakdown near the end, it comes back just as strong with its gratifying hook.

“Coffee” returns to the darker piano tones of the opening and Mariya’s hushed voice.  The melody is once again, quite simple, and it’s not until about a minute and a half in where it varies itself with some backing vocals.  The drums then come in with a soft, militaristic beat.  Eventually the track picks up from there by bringing in the trombone and clarinet.  In an odd choice though, the last forty seconds or so is played out with an organ that seemingly comes out of nowhere.  It’s a unique sound, but not one that seems to fit in with the rest of the instrumentation.  Additionally, this track too could benefit from better pacing, as the payoff takes a bit too long to get to.

Finally, Mariya closes things out with the peppier, “Lies.”  The piano is lighter than on the previous tracks, and the drums are crisper and livelier too.  Mariya embraces vocal harmony to a greater degree and it propels the number along beautifully.  The combination of horns and strings comes along faster, making the song more engaging and dramatic.  Lyrically it’s quite a treat too, in part because it puts a spin on where the EP gets its name of Storyteller from.  This is easily Mariya’s strongest song in that it presents a uniquely engaging melody; it’s wonderfully paced, wonderfully sung, and extremely well written.

Storyteller is an uneven EP, but it’s remarkably deep, especially for a singer-songwriter effort.  It’s also a solid debut in how it reveals Mariya’s talents when a song like “Lies” comes together as strongly as it does.  Patient listeners will get the most out of the songs considering that “Coffee” and “Drunk” are both “slow burns” so to say, but even casual listeners will be able to appreciate the rich atmospheres Mariya creates.

Reivew by: Heath Andrews
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Produced by Rossen Nedelchev: rossennedelchev.com

Seong-Min Brian Baek, “Heart of the Warrior”

22 Nov, 2013 Heath Andrews

Guitarist and composer Seong-Min Brian Baek is heavily inspired by the works of his guitar hero, the acclaimed jazz fusion player, Al Di Meola.  Wearing that influence on his sleeve, Baek wrote his original song, “Heart of the Warrior,” a piece that incorporates jazz, rock, and latin themes into it.  It’s a demanding piece to play, but Baek’s skills as a guitarist are quite exceptional, as are those of the musicians working with him.  Baek is joined by, keyboardist Elin Lee, Jongbin Francis Song on bass, and Carlo Ribaux on drums; forming a remarkably talented quartet.

Over the course of its six minute length, “Heart of the Warrior” covers a good deal of ground.  The first half of the song leans more towards a progressive rock sound with Baek’s guitar snarling away and Lee setting a mildly ominous tone with the keyboard.  Song’s bass relentlessly plugs away at a brisk pace and Ribaux’s drumming shows the jazz influences in the song given his emphasis on the cymbals and hi-hat.  That being said, he also manages to rip his way through a number of strong drum fills, using the kit to its fullest.  The track goes through a few changes during this first half, but nothing too drastic, more just some changes in tone as Baek’s guitar grows more forceful over the length of this section.

The second half of the piece is far more jazz based with Lee’s keyboards becoming the lead instrumentation at times.  There’s an interesting dynamic that takes place during this part with Lee and Baek trading off between each other.  The former gives the song a smooth jazz texture that seems almost worlds away from the hard sounds of Baek’s guitar, but the rhythm section helps make it all come together.  To that extent, Baek aids in this too.  Even though his playing is far more forceful, his tone ties itself back to the song’s first half, giving the entire piece a cohesive sound.

“Heart of the Warrior” is a fantastically strong piece of music.  Seong-Min Brian Baek’s talent as a guitarist and a composer is more than evident here.  Credit too needs to be given to his fellow musicians for making this piece come alive.  Baek not only shows his influences in this wonderful song, he qualifies himself as a wonderful musician in his own right.

 

Artist: Seong-Min Brian Baek

Single: “Heart of the Warrior”

Review by: Heath Andrews

Rating 5 Stars (out of 5)

Funkyjenn, Rock and Roll Voodoo Queen

10 Oct, 2013 Heath Andrews

The debut EP from LA’s own Funkyjenn, entitled, Rock and Roll Voodoo Queen captures a fantastic mix of rock and classic soul.  The cover art may bring to mind Stevie Nicks, but the music and Funkyjenn’s voice is much more akin to Janis Joplin, Gladys Knight, and early Tina Turner.  She also has the good fortune to be backed by a sensationally talented group of musicians who also know their way around this style of music.  The six original songs that make up the EP are all strongly written and performed, marking a stellar freshmen outing for the vocalist and songwriter.

 

Rock and Roll Voodoo Queen opens with a down and dirty guitar riff on “Shoulda Been My Lover” that gets the song moving briskly.  As it leads into the bassline, the stomp of the bass drum comes in and finally, after a quick keyboard flourish, the track takes off into its full arrangement.  Guitarists Dan Wistrom and John Schreffler Jr. pack in a tremendous amount of sound by playing snarling guitar lines over the main riff and a gritty solo partway through.  Ted Russell Kamp’s bass playing maintains a strong presence in the mix and along with Jamie Douglass’ drumming, makes for a dynamic rhythm section.  Slightly more understated but essential in giving the song some flair is Carl Byron’s work on the keys.  And then of course, there’s Funkyjenn.

 

Consistently strong performances are given by Funkyjenn on every one of the songs here. It speaks strongly to her experience as a vocalist that she knows exactly what to do with her voice when she needs to.  When she needs to smolder, she smolders.  When she needs to be gritty, she’s gritty.  For example, “Butterflies Bleed” is a ¾ time ballad of sorts, powered as much by Funkyjenn’s emotive singing as it is Byron’s organ playing.  As raucous and rocking as her voice is on the tracks that precede this, here she is softer and displays hints of the emotional vulnerability within the lyric.  “Every time that I cry, is when you say goodbye/And I know these butterflies bleed.”  These sentiments are further enhanced by the string arrangement by Kamp.

 

Returning to the rock and soul, Funkyjenn leads her band through “Nashville, TN.”  Once again the song takes right off with its rollicking bassline and southern rock guitars.  Douglass’ drumming is inspired as he launches into several quick drum fills at compelling speed throughout the piece.  Byron’s piano playing is also a tremendous part of the arrangement even getting the opportunity to break into a brief solo right before the guitars take off again.

 

“Outta Sight Outta Mind” goes back to the ¾ time and mellower style of “Butterflies Bleed,” though this time the arrangement is more heavily focused on Funkyjenn’s vocals, the stomp of Douglass’ drumming, and the violin playing by Aubrey Richmond.  The verses are very low key affairs with most of the instrumentation relegated to backing up the drums and vocals.  As they progress towards the chorus the playing picks up bit by bit until we do hit the chorus and get the chance to appreciate just how layered the arrangement is.  Here’s where those guitars come back in, the organ churns away in the back, and the bass thumps away.

 

The record’s closer is also its title track.  The style and power of the song is similar to the opener, effectively making everything come back around full circle.  From start to finish it never relentless, always delivering something engaging whether it be Funkyjenn’s singing or the back-to-back guitar solos that steal the show in the later moments.  It’s an excellent number to close on as well as being excellent overall.  It rocks, it has swagger, and it’s a strong representation of the EP as a whole.

 

The remaining song of the six, “Boom Boom” is also more in line with its rocking counterparts, though it has a slightly different sound to it; think the introduction to Deep Purple’s, “Hush.”  While being an excellently performed and enjoyable song, it’s also important in showing that Funkyjenn and her band know how to breathe originality into their compositions.  Where it would’ve been one thing to record an album that follows the formula of the songs that bookend this EP, they’re able to mix it up.  “Boom Boom” has its own unique air around it thanks to the percussion breaks, the guitar effects, and how Funkyjenn carries her voice.

 

Rock and Roll Voodoo Queen is a virtually flawless debut for Funkyjenn.  As mentioned earlier, the cover art could draw comparisons to Stevie Nicks and the gypsy or witch persona she had adopted.  Funkyjenn’s voice and style is far different than Nicks, and it’s interesting that the same differences can be seen in a voodoo queen versus a gypsy queen.  Where the gypsy persona is seen as mystical and enchanting, voodoo is aggressive with a bit of menace and grit.  Funkyjenn captures that effortlessly.  All bow down to the Voodoo Queen.

 

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

 

Race Against Fate, Stolen Man

21 Jun, 2013 Heath Andrews

Race Against Fate is the brainchild of vocalist Vik Kapur along with some input from his friend Jay Knapp.  Together they’ve created their debut single, 2013’s, “Stolen Man.”  Based off of demos that Kapur had originally worked on by himself, he states that Knapp’s input, “improved the song tenfold” but with how well the song sounds, it’s hard to believe there wasn’t already something great there to begin with.

Race Against Fate lands “Stolen Man” firmly in the pop-rock genre with its combination of jangling guitars, punchy drums, and lovely vocals.  Kapur’s voice is quite pleasant, but he also manages to be just a little forceful when needed, specifically when he brings his voice down to form the low harmonies during the chorus.  Unlike a pure pop song where the vocals can be sweet to the point of being saccharin, Kapur’s tone is relaxed and natural in a kind of soothing way.

The music on the other hand has some serious meat to it.  The rhythm section provides a good deal of oomph thanks to an exceptional bassline and a drum performance that mixes some brief and quick fills with a good deal of crash cymbals during the chorus and two guitar solos.  Both solos, take a grittier tone as opposed to the jangling rhythm or the low, almost mournful chords that play in the back of the mix.  The combination of all these sounds gives “Stolen Man” a rich, textured, and layered sound that reveals more to itself the more you listen to it.

Aside from the enigmatic lyrics, Race Against Fate’s “Stolen Man” is a straight-forward dose of pop-rock that is exceptionally written and performed.  There’s not a wasted second in the three and a half minutes the song runs for, and the inclusion of two guitar solos makes that time seem to fly by on the strength of their performances.  If this is a sign of what can be expected from an album release, Race Against Fate is an act to watch out for.

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