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Troy & Paula Haag, Migrate

14 Oct, 2015 Uncategorized

troyandpaulahaag2The contemporary folk/Americana genre is a tricky one to navigate. Beyond the practical concern of making a living in a niche market (though the reality is that it’s next to impossible for artists in any musical style to thrive financially these days), there’s also the authenticity problem to worry about: Go too far afield of tradition and you’ll get accused of artificiality, but cling too much to the sound of your musical forebears and you run the risk of being called derivative.

It’s kind of a no-win situation, and the only real way for artists in the genre to handle it is to be true to themselves. Troy and Paula Haag are a husband-and-wife duo who walk that tightrope better than most, with a bare-boned approach that places the emphasis on Troy’s delicate acoustic guitar and everyman vocals, Paula’s harmonies and subtle percussion, and the couple’s plaintive songs of love, devotion and discord. Migrate is their second full-length release, following The Century in 2012, and despite a title that suggests an artistic evolution, it follows that album’s format of simple tunes, simply performed, without complicated arrangements or heavy-handed production.

The songs that work best tend to be the uptempo ones. “Touch” uses a bright, hummable melody and a basic four-chord progression to tell of a romance that’s stood the test of time; it’s joyous, light-hearted and a great example of the Haags at their best. “Emily Dickinson’s Daughter” has a rolling, propulsive beat and a narrative that seems to be from the point of view of the great poet’s fictional descendant, asking her famously introverted mother whether she believed “that you’re the only one who ever locked herself away in hopes of finding something better?” “Used Up” has a jangle not unlike that of the alt-country band The Jayhawks, whose 1997 song “Trouble” the Haags once covered for a tribute album; but the bitter lyrics belie the sweet sonics, with barbed lines like “It’s not what I wanted/But it’s what I got” describing a love gone wrong. And “Maybe It Was Me” is lovely, with Troy crooning in an unusual accent (the Haags’ bio says he was born in Hawaii, but his back-rounded vowels make me wonder if he also spent time in Britain or Australia).

Some of the downbeat selections get a bit mired in sameness. “Samarkand,” named after the mythology-laden Asian city, and “Fall for You,” another song about the dissolution of a relationship, lack the melodic punch of the rest of the material, though the latter does feature a particularly appealing guitar solo. “This Is How It Feels” is the exception, a beautiful ballad in which Troy’s singing is at its most soulful, sliding from syllable to syllable in a way that’s reminiscent of Marty Balin’s rich, yearning vocals on late-’70s Jefferson Starship singles such as “Count on Me.”

The most pleasant song is one that falls somewhere in the middle, tempo-wise. “Cries and Lies” has the two singers’ voices bouncing off one another, Beach Boys style, in a shimmering harmony so exquisite it might give you goose bumps. Paula Haag even sings lead for a verse, lending a dose of variety to the program. A second, unlisted, instrumental version of “Cries and Lies” closes things out, laying bare the Haags’ gift for unfussy melodies that are just plain pretty. Like the album as a whole, it’s charmingly familiar without sounding like a copy of the artists who inspire the duo, helping to make Migrate a success — common folk that’s uncommonly good.

 

Review by Ken Bays

Rating: 4 stars

Sven Sundberg, Intimacy

26 Aug, 2015 Uncategorized

svensundberg16Just like a good stretch can help loosen and rejuvenate a body, Sven Sundberg’s music can relax and soothe the soul.  His serene tunes can aptly bring calm and inspiration to a myriad of settings whether the listener is still in pajamas to office attire to formal wear.  Sundberg’s album Intimacy is a tranquil collection of instrumental pieces lead by piano and laced with various keyboard effects that are more often than not, incredibly tasteful adding additional color to his music.

The opening number, “In Your Love” has a similar introduction to The Carpenter’s “Close To You” with its sweet, slow simplistic melody.  Unlike many of his peers who flaunt the synthesized strings to an overbearing effect, Sundberg keeps the accompaniment chilling in the background so that his lovely artistic piano tune stays to the fore.  “Carriage Ride” boasts a bright chime lead with percussion and snaps taking the listener on a non-hurried lackadaisical constitutional.  The formula Sundberg uses in his compositions of creating peaceful moods works so well, that at times, his pieces lack variability.  If one zoned out momentarily they might think that “Seasons Change” is a continuation of the previous track with the main differences being a slightly slower tempo, more echo and a quasi-harpsichord lead.  Nevertheless it is a charming song and could have been on the cutting room floor for Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to The Princess Bride. 

Another conundrum of this genre of music is not to overdo a good vibe.  “Gravity” is an uplifting happy song imbuing a sense of hope and progress, but by the midpoint of the number, this melody loses its momentum due to stasis.  However, this issue does not plague the upbeat sunny song “It’s Time 2015” which offers a delighted sense of resolve.

While the overall balance and mix of Intimacy is well done, the first half of “Wings” sounds off with the sustained piano and synthesized echo mushing together.  Thankfully this issue is resolved by the second half of the piece.  Sundberg does present a superfluous amount of syrupy keyboard sounds in “If Only”.  The slightly despondent tone is practically devoid in the magical jewel-encrusted synthesized tones, like a sparkling teardrop from a My Little Pony.  The solo piano in the coda though brings clarity.  These starlit tones are also abundant in “Crystal Clear” while the more celestial patches chosen for “Another Heaven” add a positive wholesomeness to the piece.

The namesake of the album is perfectly captured in the romantic ballad “You in Blue” which would be ideal for a candlelit dinner complete with red roses on the table.  “Dinner for Two” captures the same sensuous ardor in a more refined, almost regal fashion.   Intimacy has the special and unique ability to unassumingly offer the listener the serenity they did even know they were seeking.  “Sweet on You” with Sundberg’s signature piano lead is earthy and accessible washing away the daily troubles and doldrums of the world.

Intimacy is not the most innovative or creative album ever produced, but it does need or claim to be.  It is a therapeutic balm with its tranquil aura and soul soothing integrity.

Reviewers Name:        Kelly O’Neil
Rating:  4 stars

perkXsoundlabs, Structure

25 Aug, 2015 Uncategorized

perkxsoundlabs24perkXsoundlabs is the experimental electronic music project masterminded by Phoenix-based producer and composer Paul Rolan Perkes.  Perkes got his start in the music business rather late in life and not exactly by design.  Formerly, he was the Principal Technical Support Analyst at the Arizona State University, but in 2007 Paul was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which obviously brought a lot of tragedy and pain to his life but it was through his shocking illness, that he discovered his deep-seated passion for music and since 2011, the ever-prolific songwriter has written, recorded and self-released 22 albums.  The latest of which – his second release of 2015 – is titled, Structure and is available now via all digital retailers.  The new album perfectly captures and builds upon his unique brand of electronica that incorporates elements of everything from modern classical compositions to colorful chiptune alongside hints of trippy trance, energetic dubstep and even 70’s and 80’s progressive rock for an engaging and psychedelic sound that uplifts and transports you to a different mindset.

The album opens with “Without Structure” and immediately introduces you to the thematic element of the album – check out the song titles -  along with his nuanced and textural yet melodically-rich and memorable instrumental sound.  Standout track, “Without Form” follows with an 80’s new wave inspired aesthetic complete with warped synths and infectious beat.  “Without Substance” defies its own title with a powerfully pulsating rhythm and anthemic keyboard melodies adding substantial weight to the album.  Alternatively, “Without Foundation” lives up to its title with waves of liquid synths and an airy atmosphere.  The mysterious “Without Framework” is highlighted by a buzzing low end and twinkling chiptune synths for a nice contrast.

“Without Planning” opens with a deliriously danceable rhythm and ping-ponging synths that dissolves into a bridge consisting of spacey swooshes before breaking back into the beat again for a fun ride.  The epic album centerpiece, “Without Thought”, clocks in at nearly seven and a half minutes and stands out with a slower, head-nodding beat and a hummable main melody.  Next, the cinematic and emotionally-charged “Without Purpose” is built upon an introspective yet still propulsive piano melody that recalls Vangelis.  “Without Consideration” stands out with crunchy electro-guitar riffs and a darker, Depeche Mode-esque atmosphere.  Later, “Without Basis” soars with a peppy, insistent rhythm and synths like shooting stars and “Without Meter” showcases his love of prog-rock with subtle nods to both Tangerine Dream and Yes with a more straight-forward, tumbling drum beat and cosmic synths; all it needs is some poetic lyrics sung in an upper-registered vocal style.  The hard-hitting and heavier “Without Intention” with its stuttering and clattering drum beat, pounded piano notes and early 90’s industrial techno flourishes closes out the album with a bang.

With all that Paul Rolan Perkes has been through – MS, the dissolving of a marriage, etc. – he could probably write a mean, classic country & western song without much effort, but that is simply not his style and besides, he perfectly expresses that organic emotion through his instrumental electronic music, especially on his latest album, Structure.  Also, if after you listen to Structure you find yourself wanting more music from perkXsoundlabs – and you will – you won’t have to wait long, as he already has concepts and music planned for seven more albums to be released.  Additionally, he offers a V.I.P. membership plan via his Bandcamp page that allows access to download all of his upcoming albums for a year plus downloads of each of his previous albums for only $30 – the deal of a century for all EDM fans!

Reviewed by: Justin Kreitzer
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Alain Rozan, All Out Stops Rabble Rouser

25 Jun, 2014 Uncategorized

alainrozan

By now, it’s become clear that any type of rock music musician Alain Rozan decides to take on will be represented fairly. In his previous release, Riding The Wind, he tackled everything from blues to rock ‘n’ roll, whereas this time, his single “All-Out Stops Rabble Rouser” happens to be representing a side of rock we’ve never heard from him before. Rozan still retains his gruff vocals and his essential style, but he takes it up a notch and digs deeper into the vein of early rock ‘n’ roll by producing a song that is fundamentally rockabilly.

This rough and tumble style of music works well for the nature of the song. It’s got such a gritty, salty sound to it you might just get the feeling you’re being transported to some smoky dive bar while listening to this. That’s not to say, however, that the quality of the music takes on that same character. Rozan sings about a girl whose beauty and finesse seems to be beyond compare. She turns heads wherever she goes, thus being referred to as an all-out stops rabble rouser.

As with most rockabilly music, the work done with the electric guitar and upright bass stand out. This track is no exception. From the instrumentation to the lyrics, all of the track’s aspects seem to work in unison with one another.

Although Frenchman Rozan didn’t make his way to the United States until 1981, the era of rockabilly still managed to grab hold of Rozan and make an effect on his music. Whether he decides to go with a full-out rockabilly album or whether he decides to work on something entirely new such as an acoustic soft rock album, it will be interesting to see what Rozan has up his sleeve for us next time.
Review by Alec Cunningham
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Sossi, Neo

sossineo
Is there a place for the traditions of Japan, Armenia, and France in the modern Avant Garde genre?  Sossi’s Neo combines them, not just in instrumentation, but style, vibe, and mood. In Sossi’s songs, she employs mostly piano, flute, and vocals.  Singing in both English and Armenian might ordinarily prove to be distracting, but in the case of Neo, the switch between languages is refreshing, and the lyrics thematic, at least judging by the ones written in my own native language.

One very consistent musical aspect of Sossi’s album that shouts out to Japanese tradition is the somewhat atonal vocal melodies on top of lovely, classic piano chords and riffs.  It doesn’t seem to be in an effort to be different for the sake of being different either—rather, Sossi flawlessly weaves cultures together in each track, and her clear, high soprano voice, void of vibrato, mimics the flute sound and floats up and down like pale balloons let go in the wind.  No matter whether the vocal tune seems to fit into the chord below, it all still seems to somehow fit together.

In the first two tracks “One Cries Like a Baby,” (Armenian), and “Autumn,” (English), Sossi demonstrates the harmonic and rhythmic tendencies of the whole album—both tracks thick with sharps and flats, often unexpected ones.  Rhythmically, “One Cries Like a Baby” starts with a slight syncopation, tango-like, while “Autumn” has an optimistic lilt, like a waltz and even adds light snare drum, which creates a lovely, grey juxtaposition as the lyrics reference rain and dreariness and end with a wooden flute solo.

The wooden flute solo perfectly sets up track 3, “Fatum,” for its opening solo on traditional orchestral flute.  “Fatum” resembles “One Cries Like a Baby” in timbre and mood, and it’s also sung in Armenian; however, the flute solo reappears over and over in “Fatum,” implying a potential trend of new, featured instruments while at the same time punctuating the piece with unique riffs.

Sure enough, strings!  “Loveless Romance” begins with what feels like a symphonic arrangement of violins and striking piano chords, again, bringing about a distinct tango rhythm and harmonic structure.  Not only does the trend of new instrumentation continue in this track, as expected, but the presence of tango rhythm loops backward to track 1, creating the feeling of moving forward without forgetting the past.

Lyric wise, Sossi also draws from the past—traditional Armenian poems, Japanese Haiku—but the phrasing feels French, reminiscent of choirboys in an echoey church.  Though it’s unclear whether the music was set to the poems, or whether the poems were chosen/written first, consistency seems to be one of the tools that give Neo a solid identity. Drawing on so many cultures musically and lyrically, the album could easily go schizophrenic, but Sossi’s chanson voice never wavers and her tempo rarely shifts.  It’s a perfect balance.

Because of these placid consistencies, she can change the mood of a song with the addition of just one new instrument, or a very subtle shift of rhythmic accent in the vocals.  For example, “My Heart Hurts for the Past” (Armenian) begins again with strings, but they remain the primary background for the entire piece, high and long tones, while the piano takes care of the lower part of the chord.  Flute arrives at the very end, picking up the past loop of “Fatum,” but in the mean time, the vocals have a little extra staccato.  Instead of flowing lines, her voice punches, still quiet, but different enough for me to raise my head and wonder what she’s singing about.

The last two tracks, “The Wind” and “Solitude,” serve the same purpose as “One Cries Like a Baby” and “Autumn” at the beginning, demonstrating the effectiveness of rhythmic variations and the ultimate display of circling back after the last big step forward with those different vocals in “My Heart Hurts for the Past.”

“The Wind,” lyrical, with emphasis on piano and flute, carries us along with no bumps in the musical road—no rhythmic surprises, just air for breathing as the vocals drift high above the lower piano chords. “Solitude,” somewhat contrary to its name, offers up that strong, piano chord tango beat again.  Eventually “Solitude” does move into a slower tempo and softer rhythm more consistent with actual solitude—the piano uses more pedal, the vocals become choir like—then, we’re back in the tango ballroom, Sossi’s voice in a red dress, subtly bouncing us to the close of the compilation.

The album title, Neo, likely taken from the idea of neo-classical music, seems a perfect way to sum up Sossi’s idea and successful execution of her project.  The instrumentation and obvious musicianship, especially on piano and vocals, along with the pointed inclusion of many cultures’ traditional forms of music and poetry, do represent if not the actuality of classical music, at the very least the stigma around it.  However, the title Neo sums up its tracks mainly because, though it does have elements of neo (or modern) classical music, it provides more than a few twists.  If you enjoy classical, French chanson, and/or occasional Japanese-like atonals, naming the album Neo from neo-classical will feel like the equivalent of giving your best friend, someone you respect, admire, and love, a fabulous nickname, and Sossi’s solemn yet playful set of tunes which draw from very special, important cultures, then throw caution to the wind, will relax the muscles in your mind and ears, and free those beautiful, pale balloons.

Reviewed by Alice Neiley
Rating:  5 stars out of 5