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Rivetshack “Nothing Left To Fear”

01 Apr, 2011 Michael Morgan

Folk music has the emotional leverage to fluctuate between sentimental acoustic balladry and golden fried frenetic pop-jangle.  But regardless of its rhythmic tendencies, it always tells a story.  Indianapolis-based folk/rock band Rivetshack’s latest album, Nothing Left to Fear, leaves no sentence unpunctuated and pulls on all of the folk levers.

“Perfectly, Perfectly” is a great example of how sweet acoustic sinews and mandolin flourishes can gel so effortlessly with catchy verses and an infectious chorus.  The well-done arrangement and production is also treated with some great slide rock guitars to give the song a semi-badass alt-rock element.  Another memorable hooky chorus lives on the up-tempo, ironically titled “This Is A Funeral.”  The guitar progressions are feisty, jangle-y and filled with a delicious angst that rears its beautiful head just before the guitar solo explosion, slightly more than halfway through the song.  Sure to be a fan favorite, “This Is A Funeral” will require several replays.  The feel good rhythm is unavoidable ear candy.

“The Choir” is another memorable up tempo song.  The strong hook and refrain, along with the roll-and-chug of the acoustic progressions really glue this song together.  Unfortunately, the tender vocals of lead singer Gavin Haverstick get lost in the voluminous sound of the other instruments.  On “Fallen,” the heavy reverb guitars drown the vocals out, and during the chorus and portions of the verses the lead singer is off-pitch, screaming rather than singing.

Gavin’s soft voice sounds better when it’s not as forceful and carries a delicate intensity. “Do You Dream Of Me?” is a perfect song for the lead singer because his expansive vocals brilliantly peak and trough, with crescendos and decrescendos.  His pitch is perfect throughout.  The dynamics on this track channel the musical tantrums of “Lightning Strikes” from 1990’s alt rock band Live, and the split vocal textures of nails and pillows which is the hallmark of lead singer Ed Kowalczyk.  Another great moment for the lead singer is on “You Should Be Fine.”  His male pouty side spurts out on this honky-tonk rocker.  The fresh and veiled attitude projected through the lyrics suits its curt delivery.

Slow-burning pop acoustic ballad “Signs of Carolina” captures another of many storytelling moments on Nothing Left to Fear. The subtle electric guitar fills, along with the far away slide guitar cries add an alt-country element.  “Signs of Carolina” is another one of the more memorable songs on the album; it would be a great candidate for a romance drama on television or film.  The sombre glide of the song’s melody, along with Gavin’s soothing vocal echoes Toad The Wet Sprocket’s 1992 hit “Walk On the Ocean.”

Another great addition to Rivetshack’s latest album are “The Daily Supplements,” which include Sean Bowman on trumpet and Emily Frame on French horn.  The brass duet rounds out the folk country sound of “Gravity” gluing the verses and choruses together into a sweet song package.  Woozy blues-er “Perspective,” also takes a daily dose of “The Daily Supplements” combining their brass bellows and swells with soulful guitars and acoustic minor progressions.

Fans of the unapologetic, raw Americana folk sound of bands like Okkervil River or The Avett Brothers, and of the pop energy and sweet sentimentality of bands like The Gin Blossoms will enjoy Rivetshack’s Nothing Left to Fear’s unbridled energy and bartering of ballads for balls-out folk-pop.

Review by Michael Morgan
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Bedsit Infamy “Late Out Tonite”

01 Apr, 2011 Michael Morgan

Insomnia-inspired “Late Out Tonite” deceptively begins like a house and dance track with wobbly synths, plenty of reverb and a thumping bass drum.  But hold on tight; the rhythm quickly morphs into a mashup of jazz-infused guitar strums and delicate cymbal taps led by a mellow, hollow vocal.  The hypnotic cadence of the whining guitar slides, subterranean synth sounds and bass lashes will make any old set of headphones sound like a space dancehall.

Even though the song is not meant for late night dance parties (the beats are simply too slow for any butt-shaking) the roots of the sounds and rhythms are of dance-house origins. The sparsely laid out production and lonely crystal-textured vocals echo the naked and effective production work of German minimalist dance band, The Whitest Boy Alive. “Late Out Tonite” is a stripped-down version of a bigger, dance version of itself, which is what makes this song so enticing.  More rhythms and grinding percussions, more obnoxious in-your-face abandon, these are all sacrificed for empty beauty and post-modern house-pop bliss before the first bars.  The track is an exercise in artistic restraint that succeeds in delighting listeners open to the challenge.
The song’s lyrics are poetically structured and soulfully repeated.  “it’s late out tonite/there will be no warning/it’s late out tonite/i will wait until…” One of the most memorable portions of the song is when the groove is dragged down to the very end, where the instruments coalesce into a set of waddling keystrokes and bass licks.  The spectre of sleeplessness looms heavy at the end of the song, “…like a demon in the dark/…like a demon, I will come for you.”
Fans of house music or even trippy dance rhythms will be challenged but sold on  “Late Out Tonite.”

Review by Michael Morgan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Zone Unknown “Reflection”

14 Mar, 2011 Michael Morgan

Under the moniker Zone Unknown, the album Reflection from producer and artist Keith Stewart defines well the soothing and mood-driven atmospheres of the ambient music genre.

“Desert Winds” opens Reflection with blowing winds then transitioning into an Asian sounding melody.  Backed by heavenly echoes and cascading breezes, it’s an eerie and highly experimental cinematic sketch work. The meditative progression is sleepy and repetitive, perfect for background music in documentaries on cable networks like Animal Planet, where polar bears might be foraging for food off of large icebergs in the middle of the Arctic.  The equally experimental “Mystic Calling” is a jam filled with jiggling synth dots and earthly wind effects, a suggestion of nature-meets-man rolled up into a wavering ambient texture. Sporadic high-pitched whistles sprinkled throughout add an urgent mood to the song as if something else waits within the next measures.  “Up In The Clouds” also mimics nature sounds along with woozy synths and dolphin-like squeaks that peer through the song’s textures.

In addition to searching for the sounds of nature, there are themes of outer space and discovery.  “War And Peace,” one of the most memorable tracks off of Reflection, fills musical space with long lines of dithering extra terrestrial synths. Speech samplings of what sound like Hitlerian chants and other subliminal rumblings take over midway through the song, as if the listener is a time-traveller. “War And Peace,” much like the title itself, is like a stirring pot of electrical jolts brimming over but never quite spilling to the brink. The cinematic changes during the more than seven and a half minute song are swooping and continuous.  The remaining half of the song is scratched away by gratings, like a guitar pick scraping against an electric guitar string.  The thematic variations and constant changes make this song one to play many times over.

“Serenity” is what one would imagine from such a song title.  The celestial chorus of chants swirl off into a series of melodic high-pitched razor-thin synths. The dreamy choir and vacillating notes form a fuzzy cloud of sound. The song is the perfect counterpoint to “War And Peace”’s scene-sweeping conflict.  “Serenity” would be a perfect fit for a sci-fi/fantasy space love scene.  “Djembie Groove” demonstrates the artist’s percussive side, filling empty space with bare drum patters and synth bleeps, creating an experimental fusion of future and past. The percussion and synths feed off each other like a heated sibling rivalry that occasionally cools down into slow-tempo camaraderie.

“Remember Me,” which also pumps up the percussive side of Zone Unknown, is the best balance of Reflection’s groove-side and ambient DNA.  It’s more mid-tempo and bouncy than “Djembie Groove,” with a sly drumbeat, along with more signature atmospheric echoes. It slows down a bit midway through then quickly picks up its rhythm again. There is a musical bridge in this track that allows the chanting echoes to wander into unseen corners alongside more asynchronous drumbeats and brief bugle-like synth quick-hits.  “Remember Me” is also one of the best tracks off of Reflections, aiming to please the listener looking for wildly ambient sonic experiments.

“O Baby” is a successful attempt at a club cut for the ambient genre.  It’s a cool and cocky slo-burner with 80s-style dirty synths leaving room for lots of wet and drippy drum fills. The song starts off with a raunchy whisper that repeats throughout,  “O Baby.” It’s undoubtedly one of the more unique tracks on the album. The synths take front and center throughout, dovetailing with deliberately sticky big beats.  Some might be turned off by the bombast, while others might appreciate the deviation from the celestial and spacey moods reeking from the other songs on Reflection.  The closest cousin to “O Baby” is the slow dusty beats of the less bombastic “Time Goes By.”  The melody has a crazed distorted robot sound as if it was pureed through a blender. Once again, the experimentation is incessant and innovative, but might be harsh on some ears.

Reflection’s song structures are amorphous wanderings of sound experiments and experience.  The yin of space love scenes and yang of nature’s monsters are all embodied and co-habitate on Reflection. Music supervisors for sci-fi, fantasy and nature documentaries will be inspired by Zone Unknown’s laboratory experiments of ambient sounds.

Review by Michael Morgan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Jeff Stockton “Beneath The Boughs”

10 Mar, 2011 Michael Morgan

Jeff Stockton’s sixty-plus minutes of folk-classical fusion on his album, Beneath the Boughs, are filled with melodic moments of spirituality and tradition of the Celtic-kind. With half of the album filled with instrumental trios including cello, violin and Celtic harp, and the other with shorter vocal accompaniments, the musical pastures of Beneath the Boughs are gleaming with soothing sounds perfect for a simple day of relaxation, or for wedding ceremonies and other special events.

The eighteen-minute album-opener, “Wonder,” is a slow-motion lullaby with a gentle and beautiful progression featuring a flourishing harp backing with periodic cello and violin solos. Approximately halfway through the song, the main melody line bellows from the cello and violin reinforcing the spiritual theme of “Wonder.” Harp fills and solos color the song with crystalline detail, and a soothing and relaxing air complete the last three minutes.

Along the same tempo-trend as “Wonder” is the pleasantly mellow “Awakening.” The song starts off with a sleepy cello tri-note progression and then gets accompanied by a layer of harp progressions that keep the pace of the song like a patient metronome. Violin also adds another layer of accompaniment, in a higher octave. The over 17-minute length and mild progression of “Awakening” makes it a good compliment to documentaries about animals given the quiet nature scenes which the music’s sounds convey within the imagination.  About seven and a half minutes through, a lovely violin solo raises the somnambulant spirit of the song’s mood which then propagates to the other instruments.  It’s this musical thematic variation (and contagion) that raises the melodic energy of the song overall. These variations progress in an evermore-beautiful manner throughout the second half of the song.

While the two longest tracks on Beneath the Boughs are rooted in spirituality and relaxing scenes, “Joy” adds a more amorous and enchanting melody to the album.  “Joy” breaks new ground with a lively tempo, backed by a light bongo and a more upbeat harp line. The harp strings on “Joy” act as the song’s backbone carrying with it a celestial tone and uplifting spirit. “Joy” is certain to be a fan favorite for those listeners who appreciate folk music’s ethereal and religious aspects.  Another piece that has a love song quality to it is “In The Stillness.” The song ripples with a gorgeous violin solo as the harp supports the bass lines and lower parts. The tempo is slower than “Joy” while its melody combines lovelorn melodic cries from the violin and the slow tempo echoes the quiet despondence of missed opportunities.

Adding vocals would paint an even sweeter color to the already motley melody of “Joy.” In fact, there is indeed a vocal version on the album that, if listened to straight through, is the penultimate track. The vocal version brings the melody to life a bit more; the singer’s tenor belts out “la-das” and “la-da-de-da-das” which don’t really convey as effectively the melody as real lyrics could. This technique was also used on a vocal edit of “Wonder.” In some ways, the arranger is almost better off having no vocals than musical phrasings, since it partially diminishes the song’s message and feeling.  “Blessings,” which has lyrics, is a great example of how forceful eloquence can convey a song’s message. A gentle conviction comes through in Jeff’s voice.  The singer’s tenor has a subtle timbre and vibrato that nurtures the underlying melody effectively capturing the essence of the song’s Gaelic origins.

The musical terrain of Beneath the Boughs is soothing hills, gentle green grass and warm rivers of sound.  Anyone seeking meditative music for creative inspiration or special occasions should consider buying this album.  While the vocals on some songs could be more engaging with lyrics rather than musical phrasings, the lengthy instrumentals alone are worth every penny.

Review by Michael Morgan
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Anne Van Schothorst “Then It Became Clear”

08 Mar, 2011 Michael Morgan

Self-taught composer and classical trained Dutch harpist Anne Van Schothorst’s latest album, Then It Became Clear, reveals how much raw emotion and drama can be plucked out of a harp.  The minimalist compositions are like tiny vignettes of a larger compendium of music; each one has its musical purpose uncovering new layers of emotion and self-discovery that will intrigue lovers of classical and ballet music.  The titles of the songs, like “I Am Able To Let Go,” “Yes I Do,” “Almost Home” and “Finally Acceptance” show that this was a deeply personal album to make and quietly demand repeated listens to uncover new emotions embedded within the harp melodies.

The best aspect of Anne’s technique is her knack for knowing when to pause and start again in the midst of a song.  It’s as if she is reading the notes on some kind of magical sheet music stone.  In “Almost Home,” her bass lines are plucked with a deliberate dragging on the notes, revealing a hesitation in the song that adds another dimension to its minimal structure, and leaves listeners on edge, waiting for what is next.  With one-and-a-half minutes left in the song, she seems to put down her harp for a couple of seconds, letting what was just played sink deep into the listener’s psyche, as if to say “Did you hear me? Did you hear all of that?”

“Still” is another example of how she uses dramatic hesitations and musical rests to engage her audience.  “Still,” (its title quite appropriate in this case), settles into a more somber tone than “Almost Home” but is equally intriguing in its methodical delivery, which includes some background udu for effect.

This artist understands the pathos that her instrument can uncover.  There is no better example of this than on the soul-searching “Motion.” One of the most memorable tracks off of Then It Became Clear, “Motion” is the antithetical antidote to the slow moving “Still,” whose melody moves like a confident yet illusive cat, testing its surroundings, eventually opening up into a vibrant cascade of circular progressions, accompanied by the delicate touches of cymbals and bongos.  The song’s hypnotic aura makes this musical prey for licensing to music supervisors of television romance dramas, modern dance theatre or even movies about unrequited love.

Self-discovery is a common theme on Then It Became Clear.  The harp is the artist’s way of expressing her soul-searching ways.  “Want to Fly” has passionate streaks of both strength and despair woven into the harp progressions.  The spirited intro and fluttering strums of “Triumph” reveal an intense optimism that becomes more descriptive with the precise and short notes of the harp strings that drive the song’s melody forward.  The crystalline production and periodic changing tempo warrant further listens.

While the harp is the center piece of Then It Became Clear, bass drums, bongos and other percussive elements effortlessly dot the artist’s sonic landscape.  Rather than acting as the main clause of her work, they act like mid-sentence punctuation, like semicolons or commas.  “Moos” has bass drum and bongos supporting the harp parts, never interfering with what the artist does best, but simply functioning as secondary elements on her musical palette.  “Such A Challenge” uses crash cymbal rattles and dings for a stormy effect, while the walking harp line cleverly dodges and ducks the cymbals.

The myriad uses of Anne Vanschothorst’s gorgeous harp interludes are endless.  The spare production and minimalist arrangements will leave the creative juices of filmmakers, writers, poets and producers flowing for a long time to come.  Who knew how much outpouring of emotion could be plucked from 80 lbs of string and wood?

Reviewed by: Michael Morgan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)