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Alain Rozan & The Reprobates “Boogie Woogie”

27 Sep, 2011 Matt Warnock

French born, and current New York resident, Alain Rozan teams up with the band the Reprobates for his latest release Boogie Woogie.  Though there are elements of blues and boogie woogie sprinkled throughout the album, the album goes beyond a single genre as it expands into both French and American folk music, rock, pop and other genres in a blend that is both unique and highly personal.  Rozan’s musical background is rich and diverse, and he brings all of these different streams together into a concentrated focus that is at once diverse and held together at the same time.

There are moments when Rozan and company reach back to ‘60s America in songs like “Too Big to Bop,” which even has shades of ‘50’s vocal groups mixed in with its early rock and surf harmony and rhythms.   The guitar tone on the lead lines brings to mind the great California bands of the ‘60s, with their energetic phrases and Stratocaster tone that has now become a staple of the rock guitar world.  Rozan also takes a dive into the American South with his track “N’Awlins Two Steps.”  Here, the singer and songwriter pays tribute to the great city of New Orleans, with the accordion groove provided an Acadian backdrop for the guitar riff that permeates the background through the song’s verse sections.  With a deep knowledge and love of classic American rock and roll, from different regions of this vast country, Rozan is able to write in a historical style, but keep things diverse at the same time as he moves between the different sub-genres that made up early rock and roll.

On “Le Banc de Pierre,” Rozan returns to his native French as he sings the song’s narrative, mixing the lyrics with a quasi-Reggae groove that is laid down by the guitar.  To differentiate the groove from a strict Jamaican feel, there is a double-timed percussion part that weaves its way through the verse sections of the song, providing a personal touch to the underlying Reggae groove of the song.  Rozan also breaks things up with the instrumental song “Raisin’ Heaven in Hell,” where the guitar and accordion take center stage during this short but entertaining tune.  By using an instrumental to break things up musically, Rozan is allowing his audience to take a bit of a side-trip into another side of his artistic output, while at the same time keeping the groove and harmonic-melodic content in line with the rest of the album.

Though there are a lot of strong moments on the album, in particular the grooves, accordion and guitar lines, there are moments when the melody line becomes a bit predictable and drags on the overall success of a few of the songs on the record.  “New York City” and “Real American” are both interesting songs from a rhythmic and harmonic perspective, but the melody line becomes a bit stale during the course of the song.  With eleven songs on the album, having a couple of songs with quasi-stagnant melody lines isn’t a huge deal, just something that Rozan might think about for his next project.  Both songs have interesting lyrics, and with a few tweaks and turns with the melody they could both be raised up from good songs to great songs.

Overall, Boogie Woogie is a musically diverse album that leads the listener down different musical paths while keeping them locked together with Rozan’s artistic personality and musicianship.  Sometimes albums with so many genres being weaved into the songs can become loose and lose its direction, but this is not one of those cases as the musicianship of the band and Rozan keep things locked together and moving forward.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating:  3.5 Stars (out of 5)

Tyberium “No Strings Attached”

12 Aug, 2011 Matt Warnock

Electronic music, and the technology that accompanies it, has come a long way since the early American and European composers began experimenting with tape loops and sound manipulation.  Today, with a wide variety of powerful tools available to them, sound technicians and composers can take any sound, any sample, and weaver it into a totally new sound and timbre.  One of these new breed of composers, that has had success with taking one sound and using it to create myriad other sounds and emulate other instruments at the same time, is Tyberium. The composer’s stage name, Tyberium, was inspired by his love of the video game series Command and Conquer, as a play on words with the mysterious element tiberium which is featured in the game itself.

Tiberiium’s first album, No Strings Attached, features 11 tracks that were inspired by some of his favorite guitarists such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Paul GIlbert. Not being a guitarist himself, Tyberium used DAW, a Digital Audio Workstation to compose the music on a keyboard, then manipulate the sounds and bring them all together to form each track.  Not the most conventional way to compose and record instrumental guitar-sounding music, but one that works very well in this instance and just might inspire other electronic composers to explore these possibilities further in their writing and recording.

The album features mostly instrumental tracks, such as the expertly composed “Careless Winter,” which brings to mind both Steve Vai and David Gilmour’s guitar tone, as well as a piano section that hints at Pink Floyd’s “Allan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” if only slightly. Other instrumental tracks are more harmonic based, such as the hard-driving groove and guitar work of “Clash of the Chords.”  As the title suggests, this track is largely based on a series of chords that Tyberium lets ring out, followed by an arpeggiated single-line run that floats over top of the distorted layers beneath.  This track is definitely one of the biggest highlights of the record, deep layers of melody and harmony interacting perfectly to build and build until the climax of the piece is reached.

Though 10 of the 11 songs on the record are completely instrumental, “Area 51” features samples of Star Trek characters in different dialogues with each other.  Used to give the song a “space theme,” the samples are woven seamlessly into the music, not sounded jagged or forced whatsoever.  In fact, they sound very natural and add to the piece, raising the level of interest and layering different textures at the same time.

Along with the harder rockin’ moments, Tyberium also brings his softer side to the forefront with tracks such as “Lullaby.”  Here, the acoustic guitar and piano sounds are featured on softly woven melodies that are comingled with electronic sounds throughout the song.  Though one doesn’t always associate instrumental guitar music with a lullaby such as this, it is just this kind of slower, more melodic song that adds just the right amount of contrast to this album.

Tyberium hits the nail on the head with No Strings Attached, which is a well written, creatively interpreted collection of 11 instrumental tracks that will appeal to fans of instrumental guitar and electronic music alike.  Though none of it was composed on an actual guitar, it is very difficult to tell the difference.  The technology at composer’s fingertips these days is truly incredible, and No Strings Attached is an example of what these programs can do in the hands of a master technician.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating:   4 stars (out of 5)

SOMA “SOMA EP”

05 Jul, 2011 Matt Warnock

As the world entered the new millennium, a new generation of rock artists entered the fray.  Building upon, and pushing past, the Grunge and Alternative bands that had defined the decade of the ‘90s with their aggressive and anti-‘80s approach to heavy music and lyrics.  As their predecessors before them, this new generation is pushing the music past what their forefathers did, reaching for new levels of emotion in their songs, experimenting with new sounds and instruments, and adding their own unique stamp on a music that is now entering its seventh decade of rocking the airwaves and clubs across the globe.

One of the newest bands on the scene, and one that is pushing rock in a new and exciting direction is the Baltimore based trio SOMA.  These three talented rockers, Christian Neonakis (Vocals/Guitar/Keys) Jake Weiss (Drums/Vocals/Keys) and Andrew McCabe (Bass/Vocals), came together in January 2010 and have recently released their first self-titled EP, containing five of the band’s original tracks in a style that they can only call their own.

The EP kicks off with the hard-driving, heavily distorted “Dead,” bringing to mind Jack White’s approach to writing crunching guitar riffs and heavy beats, mixed with short, simple single-notes that help cleanse the listener’s palette between power-chord onslaughts.  The song is fairly straight ahead from a harmonic standpoint, which is perfect for a heavy-rock song, but what drives the song forward is Neonakis’ guitar solo, which also reminds one of the simplistic, yet highly effective, approach of Jack White, as well as Weiss’ driving drum beat.  The drums not only kick the music into high gear when needed, but the variety of rhythms helps to keep things interesting during the different sections of the song.

While the EP is full of heavy guitar, bass and drum work, one of the album’s highlights is the slower, more laid-back track “Audio Romantic.”  Featuring a more complex harmonic progression than some of the heavier tracks, and more variety from the drums, added keyboards and both lead and rhythm guitar, the song is “Muse-esque” without stepping on the toes of one of the decade’s most successful bands.  Fans of Muse will definitely find something to love about this song, but it won’t come across as a rip-off of the band’s sound.  Instead, it is a personal statement in the style of one of SOMA’s influences, something that any great rock band has done and recorded over the years.

The short and sweet record finishes up with “Apart from Suns,” featuring some interesting vocal harmonies, groovy bass and guitar intro, and a Rage Against the Machine like verse riff that is one of the funkiest on the album, heavy enough for fans of the genre but still with more than enough groove to get one’s toes tapping and head banging.  The song’s verse contains one of the more musically mature moments on the record.  By choosing to not include the guitar at the beginning of the verse, bringing it in later on, the band not only showcases their arranging chops, but also builds energy by layering the instruments into the track, and not overburdening it just because they have a guitar in the band.

Overall the SOMA EP is a nice introduction to this up and coming band from Baltimore.  The songs are well written, the music is heavy when needed and melodic when appropriate, providing a solid mix that will appeal to a wide audience, and the musicianship is strong throughout. With such a strong EP the audience is left wanting more, waiting for the band’s first full-length release to hit stores.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating:  Rating 4 stars (out of 5)

Josh Deutsch Nico Soffiato Duo “Time Gels”

10 Jun, 2011 Matt Warnock

Jazz duos come in all shapes, colors, textures and timbres.  From the classic voice and piano duo, to the double-guitar teams of legendary performers such as Herb Ellis and Joe Pass, or the more modern Joe Diorio and Mick Goodrick, and everything in between.  Jazz performers have long loved the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic freedom that the duo setting provides, and many have produced some of the most enduring records of the entire genre in this format, the great duo records of Jim Hall and Bill Evans come to mind in this category.  Two young lions who have recently delved into the realm of the jazz duo are trumpeter Josh Deutsch and guitarist Nico Soffiato, and their new album Time Gels is an elegant, fresh take on this timeless tradition.

When performing in a duo, mostly due to the lack of other musicians, one has to bear in mind that contrasting textures and musical diversity are the key elements when programming a successful record.  This lesson has not been lost on Deutsch and Soffiato, as the duo mixes countless timbres and many different grooves, harmonic ideas and feels throughout Time Gels.  There are simple, yet effective, ostinato based moments in songs such as the album’s opener “De Sidera,” where the duo kicks off the track with an ear-grabbing repeated line that is played on the seldom used, yet beautiful sounding, baritone guitar by Soffiato.  The song then moves into a weaving melodic line that floats over some tricky and interesting harmonic changes.

Proving that they aren’t one-trick ponies, the duo can also lay down a jazzy groove, such as the Waltz-like track “Topanga Canyon.”  Here, the listener catches a glimpse of the duo’s standard jazz vocabulary, at least their interpretation of the jazz tradition.  There are moments where one can follow the lineage of each performer, who they’ve studied and where they’ve come from musically, yet it is always projected through the lens of their own personalities.  This yin and yang, mixing recognizable rhythms and phrases with a unique approach to the genre, is one of the biggest reasons why this album is so successful, and why each player has managed to make a name for themselves in the crowded, modern-jazz world.

Branching off into a more contemporary, dissonant flavor, the duo showcases their love and deep understanding of modern jazz with the song “Time Gels #2.”  Here we find the duo at their experimental best.  Beginning with a free-flowing introduction by Soffiato that brings to light his openness as a musician, as well as his endless trough of melodic ideas, the song then melds into an ostinato bass-line and melody performed by Deutsch on the trumpet.  The interaction between both musicians is exemplary, running the gamut from soloist and accompaniment, to both players gelling at the highest level.  One of the most interesting moments on this track, or any on the album, is the Flamenco clapping that enters in the last third of the piece. With the trumpet playing a repeated melodic fragment, the clapping elevates the music to new heights of interest, leading the listener into unexpected, yet fully appreciated rhythmic territory.  Again, this is another example of the duo taking a chance with a new texture, and hitting the nail square on the head.

There is always the sense that musicians are taking a chance when they perform in a duo setting, that the music could become monotonous or that it can get too far out that the listener’s becomes lost in the musicians’ experimentation, but it is albums like this that show time and again why the duo is such a strong format for the jazz genre.  These two musicians perform as a cohesive unit, with improvisational vigor and mature musicianship, all elements that are needed to produce a record of the highest caliber.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating:  5 stars (out of 5)

Dawn Harden “A Lifetime”

06 Jun, 2011 Matt Warnock

Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, musicians began melding jazz and popular music into new and distinctive combinations, some finding broader commercial appeal than others.  Artists such as Sade, George Benson and Al Jarreau all brought their own, unique personalities to the pop-jazz world and all were able to open the ears of millions of people to the harmonic and melodic possibilities that one can achieve when they bring a pop sensibility to jazz rhythms and harmony.   French singer and songwriter Dawn Harden is an artist that is continuing this tradition in her music, and her latest recording A Lifetime is a solid effort for the singer, one that melds the best of the pop and jazz worlds in a manner that is reminiscent of those that have come before her, but with enough personal touches to make this a unique listening experience.

All of the songs, with one exception “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” were written or co-written by the talented songstress.  Each song bears Harden’s musical voice, though they each possess small twists and turns that make them unique unto themselves.  Whether it’s the percussive, guitar groove on “Seeing is Believing,” the pop-oriented piano motive during “Enough Love,” or the drum and bass inspired groove on “Falling,” Harden’s music is creative enough to keep the listener’s attention without getting too of the beaten track that she loses her audience along the way.  By sticking to a basic foundation of pop-jazz, Harden is able to lock her listeners into each song’s storyline, then once they are groovin’ along to the band, she bring them into new musical territory, subtly but with enough merit to keep the interest going throughout the entire record.  This is something that many pop-jazz artists fail to do, as they either go too poppy and don’t raise the level of musical creativity enough, or they move too far into the jazz world and lose their listener’s in long improvisations and musical meanderings, Harden has found the perfect middle ground between the known and the musically unknown, resulting in a record that will appeal to a broad range of fans, both jazz and pop alike.

As a singer, Harden has a strong vocal ability that carries her through the difficult musical phrases with what seems like the greatest of ease.  The breathy, yet strong, quality of her vocal lines allows her to navigate tricky melodic lines without making them sound hard or harsh to the listener, as the breathy side of her voice softens the edges on what might be a jarring vocal leap or run.  This softening quality helps Harden connect with her audience, bridging the gap between listener and performer in a way that is both relaxing and enjoyable.  There are never any moments where one wonders if she’ll be able to make the long, difficult phrase that is next in the music, she brings a sense of ease to the listener with her voice, and addresses her melodies with a confidence that hooks the audience in as she carries them throughout the album’s musical journey.

With a plethora of pop-jazz albums on the market today, many of them time-tested classics, there might not seem to be a need or new material in the genre, but then an artist such as Harden comes along and one realizes that there is still plenty of room left for new voices to emerge, bringing their unique touches to the pop-jazz spectrum.  A Lifetime is a solid record by Harden, one that can surely stand up to the best in the genre released over the past 10 years.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)