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Fur Eel “Elephant Summer”

17 May, 2011 Sarah Whited

Mix up equal parts Justin Timberlake, Prince, and Jack Johnson, and then top it off with a dash of Michael Jackson/Maroon 5 sprinkles, and you’ll have an approximation of Fur Eel’s particular flavor of funky power-pop.  The fetching, youthful boy band hails from Regina, Sasketchewan, a hot quartet from the cooler climes.  Their danceable yet bedroom-suited songs contain generous measures of chorus-laden vocals, R&B syncopations, melodious guitar solos, throwback Leslie keys, and summery vibes appropriate to the album title.

The album eases in with the pensive “Déjà Vu.”  The introspective prologue laments betrayal and abandonment, then breaks into a faster, straighter rhythm half way through the truncated tune.  Vocal effects give a layered, spatial feel to the piece, echoing the multilayered inner dialogue of the writer.  Although this piece is meant to give voice to the chaotic emotions stirred up when one is left behind, a feat accomplished through the conflicting time signatures and percolating yet unresolved drums, it is not consistent and thus not memorable.  It has a very specific role as a tasty appetizer to the rest of the album, and doesn’t aspire to be more.  However, sadly enough, the music industry has evolved, and over stimulated consumers are trending more towards downloading memorable singles rather than giving complete albums a full listen and appreciating the way the songs flow.  Therefore, it is recommended that the band re-analyze their full-album strategy and consider kicking off their next recording set with a stronger, catchier lead song.

The second song, “Entertainaz,” is a strobe-light dance-floor boogie reminiscent of the King of Pop’s funk-laden swing selections.  Although the suggestive lyrics should inspire elevated heart rates, somewhat trite expressions cramp this song’s style.  Phrases such as “Gimme something you want/ Gimme something you need/ And I’ll make you scream/ I’ll make you, please/ down on your knees” reveal the writer’s intentions without any innuendo.  Just as tiny lingerie is far more exciting than full nudity, metaphors are more exciting than full-on propositions, and this song loses much of its appeal in its outright, commonplace expressions.  Instrumentally, this tune is exciting, but lyrically it loses much of its appeal.

One of the most popular selections, “Sting,” has a lounge ballad feel.  Layered vocal harmonies, smooth wah guitar effects, and echoing club clinks with background chat give a certain slow-dance atmosphere to this pain-laced plea.  This selection is instrumentally and lyrically profound, but the vocal performance lends itself too much to weepy self-pity.  Vocals are consistently on-pitch and well supported, but they come across as overly emotional and somewhat weak on this number.  A short studio session could fix this. This same problem persists on another one of the group’s top cuts, “Don’t Try.”  This is more of an R&B selection, and while (once again) the instrumentation is glorious, this song could be even better with some light vocal work.

The mixing and mastering of the album is decent, but there is often one instrument (it varies from track to track) which dominates the others. For example, during “When We Feel Alone,” the undistorted electric is mastered at a much higher level than everything else, even the vocals and distorted guitar solo.  This will cause the listener to turn down the volume and miss the details of the other elements, or they will be forced to turn the volume up on portions of the song and turn it down again during the portions of the song where this instrument is present.  The shortcomings of the album’s mixing and mastering are not fatal, and could be fixed quickly by a more meticulous professional.

Overall, this album is good, and with a little work, it could be great.  A very enjoyable listen.

Review by Sarah Whited
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Baby Brother “Strange Things”

17 May, 2011 Sarah Whited

Juggling elements of rockabilly, punk, and country, Baby Brother has a strong masculine sound.  Despite being transplanted to New York, front man Jeremy Beazlie has retained his Texas core, and his Southern history permeates these songs like a salsa stain that refuses to be bleached out.  Strange Things alternately kisses your neck and sucker-punches you.  The album is boot stomping, satin and spikes fun.  Fans of The White Stripes and George Thorogood will enjoy this lo-fi, raw and raucous recording.

The garage distortion guitars and loosely harmonized vocals are predominant, the drums and acoustic simply keep the rhythm and add mostly tinny treble sounds, while the bass picks up the bottom layer and ensures the album doesn’t sound hollow.  Although they are easy to miss, there are several background elements that give depth to the otherwise simplistic, vintage garage tunes: incredibly light strummed acoustic guitar, reverb on the vocals, harmonized choruses, and intricate bass lines.  These almost subconscious elements help prop up the top-heavy balance and give the album a bit of studio muscle.

The first track, “Texas,” is a surprising choice for an opener.  Despite the fact that it embodies many sentiments of an expatriated Texan, a theme in keeping with the Southern roots tone and cowboy drawl that infuses the album, the song is a inherently weak track, dependant on the rest of the album to give it meaning and incapable of being an independent selection.  Although it makes traditional sense to use a prelude type of song as a foretaste of the album’s style, the fact that this song is only slightly over 2 minutes long and doesn’t hit full instrumentation until around 1:45 means that it is, in fact, not a true prelude, but is more of a snippet.  To a virgin listener who is unfamiliar with the band, this track gives an unfavorable initial impression.  The music industry is similar to the housing market in this respect; the prospective buyer’s mind is made up within the first minute or two of viewing or listening, and this initial impression is hard to shake.  In today’s evolving market where fans can simply download single tracks, rather than being required to purchase full albums, it makes more sense for the emerging artist to spend his or her resources producing an EP’s worth of independent, strong tracks, rather than producing a full album that contains some weak tracks.  Full albums that flow and contain dependant or “intermission” tracks are the realm of established artist who have a large following, and whose fans are willing to purchase the entire album.  That said, this track would make a great secret track or exclusive fans-only offering.

This album has a chin-up, outgoing, spirited air, which embodied in the carefree kazoo lines on “Go For It.”  Despite the fact that the vocals have a painfully fake British accent, this oddly fits with the punk-pop flavor of the track.  However, the background vocals during the chorus are also painful, and not in a good way; they are flat and weakly sung, the main detracting point of what is an otherwise fun, toe-tapping tune.  The title track, “Strange Things,” is an example of how the vocalist can use falsetto pure tones and still keep his voice strong.  The vocals are better performed on this track, but the harmony is still lacking strength, especially in the second half of the song.  It is recommended that someone other than the lead singer perform the background vocals.  This will make the lead line more distinct, and will add depth to the weak background vocals by layering a different   The lead in with the acoustic gives this song a different feel from the previous distortion-led tracks.

“Sad Kid” showcases Beazlie’s songwriting chops.  Witty and snappy, this song makes one want to sing along.  The good-old-boy style distortion solos drive home the Southern rock roots of this otherwise punk-pop song.  Oddly, the vocal strength of this track lies in the shouted background vocals rather than in the lead, a switch from earlier.  “Explode” don’t live up to the promise of previous tracks, using a military-style drumbeat to lead in.  There is no emotional ride, but rather a waiting game to see when the song will reach a climax.  “Long List” is also a long wait, but once the true post-pop core of the song is revealed halfway through the track, it becomes a very interesting listen.  Full-band instrumentation and the true style of the song should be revealed earlier, rather than leading the listener along until the heart of the song is exposed. In the vast majority of radio hits, the listener knows immediately what kind of song will fill the next 3 minutes.

This is exactly the case with “Ghost Train Robbers,” one of the two strongest tracks on the album.  The listener is immediately drawn in by the swinging, mysterious bass line, and the song sticks to the same style and balance throughout the whole track.  Traditional paths of verse-chorus are followed, and the song reaches its climax at the perfect point, about 2 ½ minutes through.  The end of the song does what all rock songs should do: it makes the listener want to rewind and hear the track again.  Beazlie’s wide-mouthed, loosely pitched, Southern-accented vocals are a perfect fit.  When introducing this band to a friend, this would be the track to pick.

Overall, this album is a fun listen.  A few tracks need some retooling as far as climax and instrumentation, and the vocals need some coaching and support, but in all other ways this is a strong album.

Review by Sarah Whited
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Michael Dyer “Blues Soufflé”

12 May, 2011 Sarah Whited

A part-time musician with a head full of songs, Michael Dyer began self-recording in 2007.  Since then, he has recorded and digitally released eight albums of new and previously written material.  This light, easy-listening album is, oddly, not a true blues album, incorporating none of the Delta or Chicago influences that are omnipresent in true blues.  Rather, Dyer’s music sounds like a reimagining of David Bowie and Julian Lennon.  The target audience of this album is unclear, but there are some niche uses where this music would do well.  With a little instrumental and equalizer work, the slower pieces on the album (“Ghost-Trek Blues” and “No-Holds Barred Blues”) would be great selections for a Spaghetti–Western horror movie.

Songs on this album feature a guitar that seems to be run through a Rhodes keyboard patch, producing a reverb-laden laden sound reminiscent of 1980’s electro-guitar experiments.  The treble-heavy mixing of the guitar, the ever-present reverb, and the high-frequency cymbals give the entire album a very retro feel.  Dyer’s voice coats the album like heavy syrup, with Elvis-like low bass crooning.

For the vast majority of the album, Dyer’s rhythm is quite steady.  However, at some points, his delivery of the lyrics sounds rushed, delayed, or slightly forced.  For example, during “No-Holds Barred Blues,” Dyer’s lyrical delivery and drum timing are deliberately behind the beat.  In any of the traditional, hard-hitting blues genres, this type of syncopation (usually dragging the vocals to a full beat behind) combines with the driving beat to inspire the audience to clap or dance in keeping with the true beat.  However, in “No-Holds Barred Blues,” Dyer’s delayed delivery simply drags the song down.  Many of the lyrics are well written, and they should be given the better execution they deserve.  Dyer’s vocal slides are appropriate to this soulful genre, always ending up more or less on pitch.  Again, “No-Holds Barred Blues” is an example of one part of the album where this was not well executed.

The first song, “Monica Harmonica,” was composed as a story about a virtuosic harmonica player.  Unfortunately, Dyer’s harmonica playing is far from virtuosic.  As stated in his liner notes, this song required him to spend many hours honing his newly acquired skill in an effort to do justice to this piece.  However, Dyer has still not achieved the skill level to be able to execute a piece of this challenging nature. For this song, Dyer “bound two harps together (each one in a different key) and… switched back and forth rapidly between them while playing harmonica riffs.”  This technique resulted in very obvious shifts in pitch, timbre, and tuning, creating a very fragmented and not-soulful solo.  The rest of the album is also peppered with awkward harmonica lines, and it is suggested that Dyer spend much more time playing with other blues musicians in order to bring his harmonica skills up to the level that it would take to be featured so prominently on an album.

As previously stated, there is a niche for this type of music.  The strongest impression this music gives is that of a background soundtrack for a scene.  “No-Holds Barred Blues” describes a depression prison scene, and with a bit of work on timing, mixing, and delivery, this would be a great song for a montage of prison life.  “Ghost-Trek Blues” could also use a little mixing work, but it evokes images of journeying across the desert in a convertible, running from evil deeds of the night before.  The haunting, reverberating quality of the instrumentation pleads for similarly spooky lyrics.  The artist might do well to try composing some very dark and violent pieces, since this seems to be the type of theme the music calls for.

There are a few pieces on this album that are of a higher quality than the rest.  It is recommended that the artist pare down his eight albums into one or two albums that contain only his best work.  It is also recommended that the album artwork for this “best of” collection be of a higher quality than the current album cover, and that the tracks for the album be coded with the album numbers in order to ensure that the album is heard in the correct sequence.

Review by Sarah Whited
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Steve Lee “Shut Your Mouth”

04 Apr, 2011 Sarah Whited

A true adrenaline-driven distortion guitar junkie, Steve Lee stays loyal to his Brit-rock roots with this unapologetic protest song.  Despite taking a detour through responsible adulthood, Lee’s obsession with turning the volume up to 11 has resurfaced with a vengeance, culminating in this rebellious single off his upcoming album Breakout.

Lo-fi crunchy distortion guitar is the overwhelming characteristic of “Shut Your Mouth,” and was apparently recorded straight off the amp for an honest, live feel that is typical of British garage rock.  The straight and heavy 4/4 drums paired with 7th-laden chords chugging along in half time emphasize the downbeat so intensely that it is nearly impossible to listen to this song without nodding or dancing along.  Grungy and in your face, the cock-strong tone of the electric guitar is the perfect backdrop for Lee’s strapping vocals.  During harmonized and pure-tone sections of the vocal lines, Lee hits each pitch smoothly, sliding into the middle of each tone easily.  Lee also never loses depth or power during screamed vocal sections, and his British accent on the screams is reminiscent of a melodic Mick Jagger or a serious Russell Brand.  The duality of the mellow jazz guitar solo that screams into a blues-laden rock riff during the bridge adds interest, and it breaks the unusual 5-minute length of the song into a manageable listen.

Unfortunately, the introduction does not reflect the driving energy of the rest of the song.  With its wavering whammy solo, lightly syncopated drums and deemphasized vocals, the first 20 bars of the song seem incongruous with the rest of the piece.  Occasionally, Lee stumbles lyrically, and the ending of the song feels like it devolves into name calling instead of continuing the intelligent, tongue-in-cheek protest of the first section.  Also, despite Lee’s singing and screaming prowess, the vocal mastering is a bit thin with no effects, and the fact that this song was recorded in a home studio becomes apparent.

Despite some minor shortcomings, this song is an energetic, easy listen with a universally appealing theme.  With some minor adjustments, “Shut Your Mouth” can live up to its grunge-rock heritage.  Reborn into rock-dom, Lee’s return to his true calling is an asset to the music industry.

Review by Sarah Whited
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)

Rivetshack “Nothing Left To Fear”

01 Apr, 2011 Sarah Whited

A crossover between singer-songwriter and country-folk, Rivetshack features wholesome acoustic guitar, smooth vocals, and uncomplicated bass and drum lines.  The acoustic lead rhythm guitar (or its undistorted electric equivalent) is usually featured prominently.  Guitarist Gavin Haverstick’s rhythm is very accurate, never rushing or dragging the beat, and has an effortless quality rather than feeling like the product of a metronome.  Slower selections such as “Swallowed up in Blue” showcase this precise rhythm.  However, the guitar on “Just Breathe” is out of synch with the mandolin, and its double-time strumming feels forced rather than capturing the energetic feel that recent sensation Mumford and Sons has managed to popularize.

The sweet quality of the acoustic meshes well with Haverstick’s honeyed vocals.  Despite hitting every note solidly during power sections, Haverstick does not possess the grit and edge that is required for more distortion-rock centered pieces such as “Fallen,” and the producer wisely deemphasizes his vocals on that track.  However, the charming, sugary quality of Haverstick’s voice is appropriately suited to slower ballads such as “Signs of Carolina.”  Crooning and gentle are the hallmark characteristics of his vocal performance.

Although obviously heartfelt and genuine, the lyrics of Nothing Left to Fear employ phrases that sound overly familiar, and the rhymes, though functional, are very structured, most noticeably on the opening track, “You Should be Fine,” and on “Perfectly, Perfectly.”  Perhaps loosening up the rigidity of the wordplay would give the lyrics a more natural flow instead of feeling like the rhymes are forced.  Haverstick also holds to very basic vocabulary, which, despite making the songs accessible to all ages and educational levels, gives this album an unrefined air and doesn’t offer extremely memorable hooks which are key to public popularity.  More imagery in the writing would give a shine to this album.  As is, this album is full of emotional honesty but lacking in cleverness and catch phrases, making it easy for it to slip from the listener’s mind.

The instrumentation on Nothing Left to Fear is well balanced, and each song has its own character apropos to the melody, yet the selections seem to blend into each other in a blur of basic mixing.  Bass, drums, rhythm guitar, either acoustic or undistorted electric, and vocals stay in the same slots with the same effects throughout the entire album.  Continuity and dependable mixing are important aspects of production, but can be a detriment when they cause an entire album to sound like one continuous, evolving song.

The musicianship on this album is accurate but basic.  Soloists do not attempt complicated, soulful, or even varied melody lines.  For example, the background horns on both the first and second tracks play in the exact same timbre, range, and even the same notes.  In fact, during “This is a Funeral,” the horns exactly mirror the vocals and/or bass, and all layers of horns hit the notes in unison instead of creating a complimentary melody line or adding harmony.  This type of simple structure can make a single song or portion of a song sound “clean,” and simplicity is helpful during rehearsal of new pieces.  However, when simplicity is applied to an entire album, it can cause the listener to lose interest.  Of notable exception to the rest of the album is “Swallowed up in Blue.”  The new element of piano strings and a slightly retro-distorted effect applied to the opening vocals, combined with the lounge-type guitar solo, gives this song a different feel than the rest of the album.  The changes heard in this selection give it an element of intrigue that sets it apart and recaptures the interest of listeners who have basically heard the same instrumentation up until this point.  Small variations can create big quality, and it would be to Rivetshack’s advantage to apply this technique to many of the other songs on this album.

Overall, this album plays it safe on almost all fronts, from lyrics to chord structure to solos, making it a very vanilla selection.  The title, Nothing Left to Fear, is at odds with the actual music, which seems afraid to color outside of the lines.  The best tracks are “Swallowed up in Blue” and “Signs of Carolina,” both easygoing and sweet selections that make Haverstick’s mellow vocals shine and sound the most natural for the band.

Review by Sarah Whited
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)