It has been over a year since my last review but something about Americana folk-pop duo Westrin & Mowry’s long-awaited sophomore release, The Past Rushes In, begged for an in-depth listen. The duo features singer-songwriter Brian Westrin and producer/multi-instrumentalist Peter Mowry who have not worked together since their 2005 debut, One Week Epiphany.
Beginning with the opening title-track, it is quite apparent that Westrin & Mowry have put plenty of thought and care into the flow of this album – as it listens the way a great novel reads. The haunting title track creeps in, like a forgotten memory, with Mowry’s warm acoustic plucks (bringing to mind Nick Drake’s commanding use of space). Not to be out done, Westrin paints a bleak picture of a relationship that is tested to its limits; “How long can we sit here alone? How long can we talk on the phone? How long till the past rushes in and destroys us?”
Pretty powerful stuff, but this doom and gloom does not set the tone of the album, there are some positive revelations here as well. For example, “Something Missing” features some beautiful accordion, organ and steel guitar layers with Westrin at his most commanding wishing “you give me one more try”. Other highlights include the 70’s pop shuffle, “Never Alone”, the country power ballad “Ghost Of A Chance” which has Mowry channeling Elton John and “White Flag” is yet another example of folk-music produced to perfection.
With The Past Rushes In, I’m happy to report that the chemistry between the duo have only grown stronger during their long absence. Don’t be too surprised to see this on many Top Ten list by years end. ~ 4/5 Stars
2009 ECMA nominee, Norma MacDonald’s third album, Morning You Wake, is an easy-to-love collection of country songs that gets better with every listen. MacDonald and producer Phil Sedore have taken the time and consideration to create a diverse collection of stories that hit an emotional note with the listener.
“Cordelia” greets the listener with a simple accordion line and MacDonald’s beautiful voice as she reflects on a life-long friendship. She continues to score big on heartfelt follow-ups “Lesson Learned”, “Ages” and “Bright as You Dare”; All feature different arrangements that resonate a country vibe but are alt-rock, pop and jazz influenced respectively.
I won’t hold you back this time, you were meant to burn and shine, and I was made for leaving behind, so go where you’re going….
This is one of my favourite lines on the record and is the theme for key track, “Canada Day”. When MacDonald hits that line, instead of sounding resentful or bitter, she celebrates the growth of this person with harmonious layers of organ, steel lap and horns. Again, MacDonald reaches folk perfection on the brooding “Black Hearts of the Company” a song based on Cape Breton coal-miner William Davis, who was shot and killed by mining police during a protest in 1925; This track could have fit perfectly on Bruce Springsteen’s Devils & Dust.
Calling Morning You Wake a country-pop record would be an injustice as every track tackles the country genre from a different point of view and like MacDonald’s life-worn poetry they take you on a journey….you just have to give it some time. (Independent)
On his self-titled second EP, Winnipeg’s James Struthers continues to create the same kind of acoustic love songs that defined 2010’s Nadia and for fans of the blossoming pop star this album will only solidify his reputation as someone “with deep blue eyes, disarming smile and cool, calm demeanor” as his bio states.
Really though, who gives a shit about how the dude looks – what does he sound like?
Struthers’ creates those pretty acoustic pop moments that end Hollywood romantic comedies. His charming, playful poetry is kind of goofy, clichéd by young love and the tracks are mostly mid-tempo summer vibes that go down easy. Think of a light mix between John Mayer and Ben Lee and you’ll get a feeling of where he lies.
Unfortunately for Struthers this is also the kind of music that is so easily disposable and after only seven songs I pretty much got my full of his cutesy pop. Still, for those who dig these kinds of easy-going love songs, you have your holy grail in James Struthers. (Independent)
Rating: 2.5/5 Stars
Vancouver’s Amy Cunningham loves music; her commitment to the craft extends back to her childhood, singing with her guitar-wielding grandfather at family events eventually leading to her writing songs at a very young age. Come university, the muse was too strong for her to ignore, she immediately co-fronted a popular acoustic duo that regularly played in front of 300 people at the local campus bar and even opened for singer-songwriter Jeremy Fisher.
All these experiences have led to Cummingham’s satisfying debut, To The Stars We’ll Return. Produced by Corwin Fox (Scott Dunbar, Miss Emily Brown), his deft production style has given these simple folk treatments a dramatic flair that also gives weight to Cunningham’s wide-eyed poetry. But, without solid songs, Fox wouldn’t have anything to craft around and at the very heart of this project are Cunningham’s heart-to-heart writing style that is so easy to identify with.
Opening track, “Real” is a soul-pop number that celebrates artists and music that soothes the soul. This is followed up by the roots flavoured; “Freedom” which captures Cunningham’s current touring situation as she “travels up and down this road so wide” and third track “Similar Soul” features a beautiful string arrangement that really challenges Cunningham’s vocals – of course she hits every note pitch perfect, full of emotion.
Other highlights include the haunting “Saving Grace”, the folk-licking “We Are The Ones” which will be featured on the sustainability documentary Community Connections by Chris Carter and my personal favourite “Don’t Say A Word” an intimate portrait of uncertain lust.
Amy Cunningham’s To The Stars is an accessible brand of country-soul that will please most fans while those looking to be challenged might find it a tad too safe. (Independent)
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
OK…. so I’m way behind on hearing/raving about Brisbane based pop-star Megan Washington. This 5-song EP was released back in 2009 (and is her fifth EP) and she has already released her 2010 debut, I Believe You Liar. So, why am I reviewing a two-year old release?
Well, Washington (as she prefers to be called) is set on taking over North America and How to Tame Lions is the best place to start. Her special brand of clever pop songs are akin to Australian contemporary Ben Lee (during his moody “Hey You. Yes You.” era) combined with the romantic musical punch of Canadian indie-pop group Stars.
The opening title track beautifully reverberates with pulsing keys, chiming guitar strums, as Washington’s vocals eloquently dance over her upbeat pop melodies that embody the sad sentiment, “How do you tame a lion, when their lying low, you be my Arthur Miller, I will be your Marilyn Monroe”. Current single from I Believe You Liar, “Sunday Best” kicks in next and is pure rock n’ roll fun while “Halloween” blurs into a dreamy affair bringing back those intoxicating keyboard strokes.
My favourite track from How to Tame Lions is “Teenager Fury” an ode to days past that builds from a simplified drum loop to waves of piano, guitar and clavichord. “Welcome Stranger” an acoustic, live off the floor cut has Washington attempting to reign in the ghost of a past lover – “All the years of being broke, and all the spit and all the smoke, and all the fucking and all the drugs, all the love was not enough, you take my guts, I take the car”.
Sure, it is a bitter end for our dear protagonist but it leaves you wanting more – Washington is one of those rare musicians that can write beautiful upbeat pop songs while baring her soul, even when some of those memories are difficult to face. (Mercury Records)
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Australian Megan Washington has already conquered her home country. Her debut album, I Believe You Liar, is a platinum seller there and you better believe that North America is next. I love everything about this video, sure it is goofy but the track is so much damn fun!
Lisa Sniderman, aka Aoede (pronounced A-D-E), is already quite an accomplished artist as her sophomore breakthrough, Push and Pull, won “Top Album of the Decade” and “Top Artist of the Year” for 2008 from WomensRadio.com. It was during this time that Sniderman also found out that she has Dermatomyositis; a rare connective-tissue disease that attacks and weakens the immune system, muscles and skin.
I’m not writing this to garner pity for Aoede, quite the contrary; I greatly admire her for living with a chronic medical issue and still managing to focus all that negative energy into something more powerful – positivity that impacts others. She also has quite the sense of humor, The Muse in mythological terms is the sister goddess called…. you guessed it, Aoede…. so this whole affair is over herself, and honestly, I’ve never had more fun listening in on a conversation.
Opener “Fairy Tale Love” is one of those quirky conversations that finds Aoede waiting for the seemingly impossible – prince charming – but if your willing to “even eat the poison apple” once and awhile your bound to find one. “Does Your Heart Ever Stop Feeling” follows up with the same type of endearing pop, built around soft keys and glowing melodies that will be appreciated by fans of Ben Lee and Sarah Slean.
Affair With The Muse’s best moments are when Aoede completely lets her guard down. On “Crave Me” she longs for her partner to relive those sweet, lustful moments of new love, “Will you kiss me each time we ride in an empty elevator, side by side open-eyed”. Again on “Love Proof” she confesses, “Show me how to do this thing called life, I haven’t got a clue, I’m merely floating, fishing cork on the line”.
Full of fun, poppy hooks and gorgeous production that only aids in making these engaging lovelorn themes all the more enticing; Aoede’s easy-to-love pop will forever find a home on your headphones. (Aoede Muse Music)
Rating: 4/5 Stars
NikTex is a collaborative effort between Nikole Texidor, daughter of Jazz percussionist, Joseph Texidor (Rahsaan Roland Kirk) and multi-instrumentalist Manjinder Benning; who adds an exotic modern texture to The Power of Yang’s folksy origins. Receiving a grant from The Canada Council of Arts, this infectious debut is a deeply personal reflection from Nikole’s journals and looks at all the male figures that have effected her life. Like the Taoist symbol this album represents both the positive and negative – but even dark times can turn out to be happy accidents (“Definitely Lazy” and “Traffic In The Rain”).
Street noise and a tender kiss greet the listener as the electro-coffeehouse pop “Pantyhose” makes for a provocative introduction to a beautifully flowing album. The lush textures of “Irrationalities” follows up next and instantly reminded me of Canadian soundscapers The Hermit and again on the post 9/11 inspired “This Too Shall Pass” the duo capture soft plucks blended perfectly with well-timed electronic and organic percussive beats. Obviously, the untimely passing of Nikole’s father has had a great effect on her; “Red Car” is based on a dream she had a few weeks after his death and captures the man’s convention both lyrically and musically. On the dark side, “ManFather” was written about an argument she had with her father in 2005 (the song was finished a few months after he passed away in 2008) and is now a heartbreaking argument that goes unanswered – “ManFather what’s wrong? You grew angry and old, Alone”.
On more than one occasion the album comes dangerously close to sounding repetitive, as every track is a play on the same formula, but in the end, every track is deeply moving, intimate and so tactfully detailed that The Power Of Yang is one of the lost treasures from 2010. (Independent)
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Right now the Billboard charts are topped by auto-tuned popsters backed by MIDI drum beats, I guess every fad has its day. Luckily, I get to hear what’s happening at an independent level and 2010 was represented by plenty of gorgeous pop records filled with live instrumentation. Jamila Ford’s third album, Enough, is one of those gems. On her previous records Ford was content to show off her blues and jazz roots but on Enough she brings out the coffee-housed, soul grooves.
Opening track, “Ordinary People” is such a groove; testing the limits of booty-shaking as Ford’s phenomenal vocals recall kindred spirits Roberta Flack & Gladys Knight. Besides that amazing voice, Ford’s heartfelt songs unveil a blossoming songwriter. Songs like “Easy For You”, “Thank You For Loving Me” and “A Little Too Much” are intense love ballads with incredibly catchy harmonies and insightful sentiments of the heart. Clearly, Ford is trying to break into the mainstream by selecting a wider range of material – tracks like “Not Exactly Perfect” and “Make Me Forget” remind me of Maroon 5 – but at the very core of Enough is a lust for love, life and music. (Skinny Chick Records)
Rating: 4/5 Stars