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Human Brother “Vision Days on the Life Ride”

23 Feb, 2010 Julian Gorman

human brother coverThe human is a very complex animal.  Aside from the usual cliché tool using metaphors, let’s speak of commonality for a change.  All animals share attributes, but two of the most profound are song and dreams.  Everything that lives, surely resonates with sound, one way or another, be it of the minutest fashion, say the scraping of a squirming worm, or the most magnificent, booming whale song.  Then even the most insomniac amidst us slip into dreams, no matter what the animal.  What is pertinent about contrasting the two is just how mysterious they still are to our culture.  Human Brother walks the edge of scientific mystery and folklore mythology with transcendental lyrics and electrofunkadelic sound.  By creating new musical synergies with synthesizers colliding into classical instrumentals, natural, sometimes howling, vocals sing from the essence of humanity; raw yet focused, wild with purpose, blending harmonies reminiscent of a vibrant rainforest canopy.  Vision Days on the Life Ride is the essence currently missing from what’s left of alternative rock:  natural ­experiential truth.  “Wake up. You’re not sleeping, but you’re dreaming.”

“Stars Are Ours to Name” is far and away my favorite.  It deserves the two versions on the album, one studio cut and another live performance dedicated to Joe Strummer (of The Clash and shortly of The Pogues) “Who’s alive in all of us” evokes JD Shultz, a.k.a. Human Brother.  The song has an incredible retro feel that infuses more postmodern alternative drive.  The harmonies in the chorus are especially powerful, and this is one of the few albums one finds himself singing along to (while writing, in my case).  For the most part, the alterna-rock scene these days is missing the heart and soul of those whom cleared the way through the musical jungle, cutting away at the disco-machines and doo-wop boy/girl bands.  Vision Days on the Life Ride is homage to the trailblazers, and even going beyond exploring musical wilderness where some of the best bands of all time left off.  Surely, Human Brother deserves all the comparisons and praise they are currently receiving and then some.  The variety of both instrumental style, and vocal range is technically impressive and somehow always pleasing to the ear, always funky yet with all the new electro beeps and hums one would expect from ambience, bass and synthesizer provide a beautiful canvas for the seemingly never-ending creativity of Shultz’s vocals and instrumentals so they have lots of room for expression.

One can’t say enough about the harmonic sensibility.  Sometimes Human Brother gets very intricate. At one point in “Behind You Now”, the vocals split in three parts, a synth lies on top of it, a wah-wah pedal bends up into perfect resolution, and that’s not even counting the ethnic instrumentals, drums, bass, and possibly more synth layers!  This sort of complexity is woven in with such care that it may progress a measure or two, and then we’re back to a more simplistic (yet no less pleasing) verse.  It is overwhelming to try and discuss the level of production going on here.  Not only is JD Shultz an impeccable artist, but and unbelievable producer.  Shultz has enough experience growing up with musical legends, on stage with the pulse of the Hollywood music scene, and now a phenomenal fusion album dubbed a new genre, “Hu-manilectro,” that the up-and-coming artist may be a performing producer capable of greater things still, such as organizing a record label.  Similar beginnings that come to mind, though cross-genre, are like the careers of Dr. Dre going from N.W.A. to forming Aftermath, or perhaps like DJ Tiesto going from producer to DJ to forming Black Hole Records in the Netherlands.  It seems that the biggest problem for musicians these days in the wake of the collapse of the record industry is cooperation.  We are in need of great humble minds that can organize artists in a meaningful way.  As Human Brother says in “Step to the Side”, “It’s what you’re dreamin’ of, it’s what I’m afraid of… if we don’t pave the way, prepare us for the fall.”  Vision Days of the Life Ride is a spectacular remembrance of what was important about the musical past, but dually and intrepidly, a divine interpretation as history mimics itself this age.  Will we have time to step to the side?  Will we be able to ride the transcendental?  It is only possible if we embrace the natural animalistic, Hu-manilectro, if you will, origins of music and dreams.  Creativity for the sake of preserving the beauty of earth; these songs are prophetic and speak in dreams.  Human Brother’s poetry has insight that most artists are missing: tribal visionary clarity.

Review by Julian Gorman

Benny Paul “My Kind of Normal”

27 Jan, 2010 Julian Gorman

Benny Paul_My Kind of NormalBenny Paul has mixed classical guitar mastery, alternative-punk style of vocals, folk poetry with a heart of bluesy country, and somehow produced a solid rock album.  I hope that is adequate, there are so many styles going on here it is difficult to discern any single influence.  The album My Kind of Normal stretches the fabric of the time-space continuum by synergizing so many great influences, that a style unique to Benny Paul is distinguished by range and ability. From raw screeching guitar solos to subtle classical melodies, his music is an exciting still undefined indie worthy of tearing up college radio around the world, and beyond.  The song Are You Happy especially hits home as a sure-fire hit on that scene.  The punk guitar and vocals conjure the spirit of the Sex Pistols, if Paul is a bit less vulgar and gives more sensible advice lyrically.  This kind of album is incredible for the massive extent and reach of artistic expression; one track your imagining moshpits and the next song it’s more like a folk jam-fest.  This is not normal.  This is Benny Paul’s normal, and life just wouldn’t be as interesting without such estranged perspectives.

Lyrically the subjects can range from love and misfortune, to striking juxtaposed comedy, when Paul sings “All I want for Christmas is a cardboard box,” it is humorous with stinging irony.  The song itself sounds funny, playful, but the message is poignant.  As cities around the world feel the depression, inner tent-cities have sprung up as my grandparents described the depression.  This is the kind of writing we usually find in Elvis Costello or Eric Clapton, great empathy for the common class, a message to help the poor and an incredible way of introducing painful subjects so that they do not offend, but grab the listener by the heart strings and tug gently to get the message across more effectively.

One must listen closely to Benny Paul’s singing.  His lyrics are brilliant, but his diction is muddy.  This is not a bad thing.  Honestly, it reminds me of a more lackadaisical Michael Stipe, who is -I must confess, a personal favorite- the lead singer of possibly the greatest band of all time, R.E.M.  One can hear the potential bursting from Paul’s voice; however he struggles with note resolution on occasion and has a tendency to mumble that takes a bit of power away from the impeccable guitar.  This may be a similarity between the two vocally.  There are two versions of Just a Touch by R.E.M.; one the familiar release on Life’s Rich Pageant, the other a live studio cut from And I Feel Fine.  The latter version is soft and mostly weaker then the album cut.  The difference is almost shocking, and all it took was a little more power, yet calm relaxed vocals on Life’s Rich Pageant, to boost the song into sensation.  I am highly biased, but this is a good musical example of where Paul’s voice also needs courage.  Sometimes I’m waiting for him to really build the vocals, only to have a soft song all the way through.  But this is a minor critique, the same way I would say I couldn’t understand early Stipe at first.  To put that into perspective, Murmur is still my favorite album, diction be damned.

Just because My Kind of Normal isn’t any sort of pop album doesn’t mean that it won’t be a treasure in your music collection to appreciate in value over time.  The album is indeed a work of art to be studied and enjoyed as the songs grow on you.  Benny Paul’s sense of alternative sound is only strange at first because it is at once, respectful of the past and groundbreaking.  If this is normal, this critic can’t wait to see Paul’s kind of supernormal.

Reviewed by Julian Gorman

Matt Soren – “Return from Broken”

27 Jan, 2010 Julian Gorman

Matt Soren Return from BrokenFusion is always exciting, be it a bit strange at first.  At the turn of an age, the scene of all creative expression goes through a symbiosis that ultimately, by deconstructing everything that came before it, reassembles itself into something that seems completely new.  Terrence McKenna coined this sort of change as the “Archaic Revival,” a way of taking all old or broken ideas and remixing them with modern failures to fix them, a sort of pastiche.  Thus every experience, especially failures, is of vital importance to new philosophical concepts.  This also means that the truth is never pretty.  For someone who has went to hell and back again, the truth is a road full of twists and turns, deception and temptation that destroys dreams, takes lives and hinders cultural progress.  The promise of Return from Broken is revitalization, the ability to see the worst of your insides and survive to become stronger.  Matt Soren has composed a fierce, clever culmination of mechanical industrial electro with a progressive sensibility and initiative to fight for survival against his greatest enemy: himself.

Don’t get me wrong and think that this music is masochistic, it is not.  It does however deal with subject matter on that level.  Anyone who hasn’t abused intoxicants or been close to taking their own life might find the album depressing.  On the other hand, those who have been addicted, abused and considered taking their own lives should find this sort of truth refreshing.  Soren’s ability to see through the pain and dream of ways to defeat the inner critic, though very glib in subject matter, are conceptually positive in outlook.  That being said, Matt is not yet fully recovered from his treacherous past, perhaps in a more vulnerable place then before.  Taking such a risk to share these thoughts is honorable.  Many of the songs deal with the moment we virtually all get stuck in, perhaps the moment of creation, or right before.  It is that place where you begin to make something wonderful, be it art, music, or anything creative, where the inner critic decides that everything is wrong, that the world is ending, that we’re worthless and every old problem starts to eat at the soul.  Songs like Broken start out in an intellectual quagmire, as Matt despairs “I still can’t let go, even though it’s the one thing holding me down.”  But by the end, he is talking sense, explaining the problems, asking for help and more importantly, planning a future that isn’t desolation for its own sake.

Much of the album is depressing; reaching to the interpersonal depravity that is familiar in early Nine Inch Nails, both is musical form and lyrical subjectivity.  However, the majority of it is too personal.  A perspective so inside one’s own life experience is a bit egomaniacal.  After a while, I simple have to tune out all the “I”s and “you”s simply for sanity and utilitarian use in everyday life.  The advice Soren offers is actually quite good when applied objectively and externally.  When his ideas are inwardly projected, it is quite easy to feel a sort of pseudo-sadness that is the illusion of caring, but honestly more like self-pity, loathing, and a sort of distrust of self that always comes with poetry too inwardly driven.  The poems are quite good applied to others who are in need.  It will be refreshing to here Matt move beyond the self-obsessed problems to some of the real issues we face as a society.  Until then, I am sorry to say, that most of these are love songs!  They may be detached, unromantic, technically difficult love songs, but initially most of the writing is centered on whomever the special “you” he is singing about, actually is.  Many times this magical romance solves the darker problems.  Drug addicts often refer to their substance of choice with such regard, and that is where one can identify just how intense of a problem dependency is.  The illusion that a substance can solve problems is a message that billions of people are in denial of and need to hear.  This is a difficult message to deliver, harder to create, and we have lost many great artists to it.  Even though the truth hurts sometimes, this is fighting the good fight.  Those whom have never experienced what he is talking about, take something you do all day everyday and simply stop; for instance, stop eating gluten or watching TV for the rest of your life and let Matt know how easy it was.  Then let us assure you, the unnamed substances he is referencing are even more difficult to refuse.  It almost always takes a complete lifestyle change, and Return from Broken is a multimedia journal of that sort of resolution to health.

Striking piano parts provide moments of unexpected warmth.  The song Surrender gradually wells up with subtle synthesis supporting the piano that builds until small chimes and mellifluous strings.  As the lyrics relinquish, “You know how desperately I tried, and it never was enough,” one wants to stay in the beauty of the moment, forever listening to more and more of this building symphonic beauty, but it’s impossible.  Vocally Matt Soren is very interesting, as some sort of cross between Trent Reznor (NIN) and Maynard Keenan (Tool) but less polished and with far less vocal breath support.  Soren’s raspy sort of whispers couldn’t be better, but the strong sustained power-house wailing of the aforementioned artists is rarely found.  Some meditation, voice lessons or whatever could go a long way for improving the ferocity of his sound.  A couple of the slides between notes do not resolute as quickly as they should either.  However, when Soren does get off it is only for seconds and then he is right back in his comfort zone again, a sort of droning baritone.  A higher technical difficulty in the vocals would breath even more life into these songs.  But you have to hand it to the guy, as he is the only band member and doing many times the work of a standard vocalist with a band supporting them.  In that light, his singing is already better then most front-men.  The impeccability of the instrumentals indicates that Soren doesn’t have much work to do to get everything fine tuned.  He just needs to hold our a few notes longer and really belt his voice (safely) on a few of the harder songs.  It is really cool when his voice is going through the effect processor and hits choruses like an electric guitar, favoring more of an alternative singing style.

The subtlety of Return from Broken is empowering and heart-breaking in the same instance. If it wasn’t for the concept of returning from this state strong, the album would be a collection of threnodies.  It is funny how much a title can matter.  If I didn’t know Soren’s ultimately positive outlook, say for example this album had been named merely Broken, it would be difficult to accept such negative observations.  But that is what is truly inspiring about Matt Soren; after seeing such despair in the world, after seeing the worst, one must go on, get stronger, and figure out some sort of solution.  Naturally then, the album starts off dismal which may throw some people off at first, but this conceptual album requires your attention start to finish to get the positivist perspective.  The ending is a very rewarding journey worth the time and emotional hardship.  Soren has done something nearly impossible that all great artists must do.  He has been to the bottom and now on the way up he is inspiring others to lift themselves out of despair and forge their own happiness.

Reviewed by Julian Gorman

Dorothy Axelrod “Somewhere In Romance”

04 Dec, 2009 Julian Gorman

Ron Axelrod album CoverWhat is romance?  Literally it was a form of adventure story, a hero on a quest with valiant intentions, a journey of epic proportions, but it has become so much more than that.  When stripped of words, romance can persist like a metaphysical force of nature, as though love was an element sculpting the world around us just as the forces of nature erode and evolve endlessly.  That is why we find passion in our craft, rending it from labor to art, if only we combine the love with hard work.  Dorothy Axelrod’s Somewhere in Romance is a work of sheer beauty that transcends conventional metaphor.  Despite being a collection of timeless piano pieces, her personal touch shows eminent passion for her music; near technically flawless, with just enough of her own style to make the album unique, classic, and astoundingly brilliant.

 

From the first few notes Somewhere in Romance grabs hold like an awe-inspiring dream that you don’t want to ever end.  Indeed, the entire album lives up to the fabulous rendition of Miss Saigon’s Sun and Moon where it begins and never lets go, gently progressing through old favorites and more modern fair, ending sweetly with an ingenious pairing of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Somewhere from West Side Story.  The first time I put it on it got played six times in a row.  After the first four, my girlfriend got home and walked into the middle.  She remarked how beautiful it was and asked to see the song listings.  She then immediately skipped to Somewhere Over The Rainbow.  Dorothy Axelrod’s version is so marvelous that after the first couple of minutes, my girlfriend was in tears.  Not because she has some sort of abnormal sentimental attachment to it (though many do think quite fondly on it) but simply because it is played that well.  We immediately listened to the entire album through –again two more times- after that.  Each successive time, towards then end she would get sentimental and need a few good hugs.  Music rarely has such a great effect on her, or me for that matter, so it is a little personal experiential proof that Somewhere in Romance is truly a masterpiece that we will listen to for years to come.

 

The selection of music couldn’t have been better hand-picked or arranged.  Familiar favorites, such as Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and even an Oscar Hammerstein II song, that all flow together well.  Axelrod’s particular flair sounds as though her fingertips have evoked the sense of a jazz scat vocal improvisation, filling the spaces between notes with nimble agility.  Her style shines through blending everything into harmonious romance, as though all of these songs were meant to be played together.  The only work I can find that even compares is some of the epic classical music being composed for fantasy, such as Kumi Tanioka’s work for Square-Enix, herself influenced by ancient stories and instruments, much of it solo piano, striking a familiar chord with Dorothy’s music.  Both have a rival like capability of impeccable timing, flawless performance, and love for epic music.  I could see Axelrod’s music working superbly well for heroic movies or maybe even fantasy gaming.  There is a surprisingly responsive audience to a sort of post-modern classical when associated with romantic literature, be it visual or virtual, which welcomes this genre with open arms.

 

Axelrod even managed to help me like a song I previously didn’t enjoy:  Somewhere Out There.  I know, the original song is all right, but when I was young there was always something I hated about character actors singing in high squeaky pitches, and I rarely enjoyed the romantic duets that plagued the radio of the late 80s.  Stripped of rodent vocal styling, the song takes flight with the simple power of the piano, and now I can say I love Somewhere Out There.  This version, for me, puts the old versions to shame.  It is always incredible when someone’s insight is enough to take one’s emotions from dislike to love, and Dorothy has such rare insight, beyond doubt.

 

Somewhere in Romance by Dorothy Axelrod is a flawless work of solo piano that when played has the passion to make any place “that special place,” and to make every moment “that special moment,” to quote the inside of her album cover.  It is appropriate for any occasion, be it a formal wedding, or simply unwinding from a stressful day and is even smooth enough to sleep to, yet is inspiring enough to use as a theme for work.  Versatile, elegant and beautiful, one would be hard pressed to find a comparable pianist in the world today.  My only single criticism is this:  I want to hear some original material, too.  Otherwise, perfection.

 Reviewed By Julian Gorman

Peter Napthine “Living In The Fast Lane”

04 Dec, 2009 Julian Gorman

Living in the Fast Lane is a relaxing sort of comfort.  Peter Napthine’s folk, combined with a smooth jazz sensibility, create a wonderful style akin to a postmodern James Taylor sort of vibe.  The album searches for the humble truth oft passed by in such fast-paced times.

Don’t be fooled by Peter Napthine’s new album’s title, Living in the Fast lane, as it isn’t a description of the music, but rather, this album is meant to slow one down, relax the commuter spirit, and give reprieve to the stressed out, pulling you off of the freeway into a simpler, happier world.  Living in the Fast Lane is more like forty minutes spent in the carpool lane, in a relaxing sort of comfort, watching the peons speed by on their way to nothing of particular importance, Peter a humble narrator driving a tour bus full of metro-hippy folk artists on their way to a music festival where people don’t wear shoes and the audience smells funny (in a good way).  So sit back and relax, forget about the fast and the reckless masses, and start noticing what is missed in life by such an impatient pace.

The advice on the album is wonderful.  In the true style of folk mentors before him, the lyrics speak of everyday problems resolved with a unique perspective.  On a personal note, I must say I love it when artists include lyric sheets.  It’s a bit pretentious this day and age to hide what you’re saying, unless it is political or controversial.  Since these are mostly light-hearted love songs there is no need to hide anything.  Advice hits home in lines like “I just don’t know who to listen to.  Tell me who speaks the truth?  Is it the child, the man, or the mother in me?”  I would venture, all three!

While Peter may need a little vocal discipline, his poetry is spot on.  Sometimes the story goes from romance to grim reality, noting suffering in cause and effect, a mentality we could all do more with these days.  Due to the surrounding illusion of technology we oft forget the interconnectedness that may make our lives more comfortable; we strip the resources from another’s homeland, and indirectly from the children of those families.  Something Peter doesn’t forget.  The music industry could use more sustainable attitudes like this that help to support those who are struggling, instead of being hypersexual or blasé with wealth, the whole point of song was to spread the news those in charge didn’t want to fess up to.  News for the common folk!  Napthine maintains a voice for the lower-middle class whose wisdom extends far beyond social struggle, to the felt experience of the individual caught up in these circumstances.  Despite the problems, a positive outlook is always maintained and one can feel the faith exuding from the songs.

Napthine has a peculiar way of approaching note resolution.  It is obvious that he’s not pulling air from a correct posture, and a lot of notes start out from the throat and nose, slightly sharp.  This effect is almost always present at the beginning of songs, but usually by the chorus he pulls it together and sings from the soul.  Peter desperately needs to start each song with the same type of energy he finishes with.  Consistency would help more then anything at this point.

In Sickness, Peter’s formation of vowels cause the low bass notes go slightly out of tune.  His diction slurs the words about until he sounds a bit knackered on a few songs.  However, it is appropriate to the subject matter, but the S-s-s-sickness in the chorus shouldn’t make one want to p-p-p-puke; swaying effects on the consonant induce nausea in me.  Most prefer music technicality to melodramatic performance style.  However, it is appropriate, just not pleasant, like foul medicine that ultimately heals, but tastes horrid.

The back-up musicians Peter has collected are wonderful and a great compliment to his subtle, yet beautiful, guitar parts.  Alexandre Dalòia’s Flute playing is especially pleasant, adding much needed melody to Wonderful Girl and empowering Peter’s voice on Martin’s Tears.  The feeling produces a sort of laid back jazz to the folk vibe.  Smooth bass and easy-going drums add more to a sense of mutating folk when it was evolving into rock.  The choir is especially lovely on A Thousand Yesterdays.  Their addition could have really boosted a few of the quieter songs into incredible chorus crescendo.  As it is, they are like a treasure in the midst of all the simplicity.  Truly, a great group of artists support Peter’s work and accentuate it in every way.

This mesh of daft folk style, smart poetry, and unique vocals produces a sound akin to James Taylor doing an impersonation of Weird Al Yankovic playing a collection of serious songs, though Peter Napthine is usually more pleasant to listen to with a couple of exceptions.  Living in the Fast Lane is a well produced collection of songs, cohesive and well thought out.  Though perhaps it is a bit oddly titled, one might think of it as pulling over out of the fast lane and taking the scenic route.  There is nothing fast about this album, just slow relaxing folk sure to charm your overwhelmed senses, and help you forget the worries of a stressful day.  One can feel that Peter genuinely cares, such heart and soul are rare to find these days; the music echoes the passion that he exemplifies in his fast lane life that is balanced with peaceful music.

Reviewed By Julian Gorman