Tuesday, September 23, 2008

EP Review: April All Year Long

Give me a Jersey Girl who lists Gene Pitney among her influences and dedicates her most sarcastic material to Paris Hilton, and I might forget to check whether she has any actual talent before declaring myself her biggest fan. Well, singer/songwriter/guitarist April Smith is a Jersey Girl. She lists Gene Pitney among her influences. She dedicates her most sarcastic material to Paris Hilton. Oh, I hope she has talent......(he listens closely to her music)......yes! She has talent!

April’s debut album, loveletterbombs [sic], was released by the tiny Indigo Planet label in 2005. Most of its tracks were guitar-heavy, cathartic rock mini-dramas sung in a punky voice. It was a solid effort, but there was no way it could prepare anyone for what was to come. As her self-released EP Live From The Penthouse demonstrates, the new April Smith offers beguilingly melodic pop opuses which draw from various elements of vintage popular music while retaining a thoroughly contemporary attitude. “Drop Dead Gorgeous” is a good example of this delicate balance: it sounds at times like a 1950s teen idol ballad, but lines like “You’re so enchanting when your mouth is closed” and “A pretty face is all you’ll ever be to me” would never have been uttered by Frankie Avalon. The delightfully naughty “Wow And Flutter” also excels at bridging the gap between old and new, its music hall style offset by many eyebrow-raising proclamations: “My mouth is wide open, ready to explore,” “I’m gonna spin you around and play you like a record,” and pretty much anything else a woman might say to get a man both aroused and a bit frightened.

All of the songs on the EP have something special to offer. “The Battle of Eliyahu” combines a jazzy melody with a sunshine pop arrangement and lyrics worthy of a sassy cabaret act, while “Beloved” is an extremely touching ballad. “Colors” is a rousing sing-along and one of my personal favorites. April likes to dedicate this one to our troops serving overseas, and while that is a kind gesture, “Colors” is simply too cheerful for me to associate it with something as bleak as war.

Throughout the EP, April is supported by her band The Great Picture Show. These performances have all the rawness and quirkiness you would expect from a live show, and they are mostly quite good. April’s throaty, elastic voice has really matured into a full-bodied instrument, and The Great Picture Show prove themselves to be no slouches. The slow numbers sound great, but the up-tempo “Wow and Flutter” and “Colors” are both a blast in this live setting. “The Battle of Eliyahu” suffers somewhat from an uneven vocal, but it must still be enjoyable because I’ve certainly played it enough times! This EP is well worth the purchase if you want April’s newer songs or if you’re looking for a handy document of her (and her band’s) live work. Be sure to look for it online or at April's shows.

For all things April Smith:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Spotlight On: Gillian Grassie

Gillian Grassie writes catchy, intellectually-stimulating pop and folk-rock songs. She sounds like a classically-trained opera singer trying her hand at jazz—and succeeding. She plays the harp.

Yes, you read all of that correctly.

The Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter/harpist (ahem) has two self-released records, both of which benefit from the substantial talents of producer/multi-instrumentalist Tim Sonnefeld. But Gillian is always the star of the show. She makes her harp sound at times like a piano and at other times like a guitar, but her playing is so naturally graceful that these auditory metamorphoses never sound forced. Her lucid voice is capable of conveying a wide range of emotions without ever losing its character.

Here is the breakdown of her two releases:

To An Unwitting Muse (EP, 2005): There are some moments when the songwriting could use a little tweaking or when Gillian’s vocals get a tad overdramatic. But overall, this is an impressive debut, especially when one considers that Gillian was barely 19 years old when it was released. The delightfully Celtic “Steps” is an exemplary piece of contemporary folk-rock songwriting, while “Oceans” includes the startling confession, “Women are like oceans, as whimsical as tides/They swell up with emotions and then forever change their minds.” The wonderful “Mr. Houdini” stands in a class all its own as the only harp-driven, psychedelic pop-jazz song ever to contain the word “erotomaniac.” At least I think it’s the only one....

Serpentine (full-length album, 2007): This album reveals itself in new ways with each listen, and clocking in at 37 minutes, it avoids the two-headed evil of being either too short or too long. “No Answer” kicks off the album in high style, Gillian opening with some echoed harp and an Erin McKeown-styled vocal before the track evolves into a distinctive slice of Triple-A heaven. “No answer is an answer; it’s just not the one you were waiting for.” “Pulse” exemplifies the principle of beautiful dissonance, whereas “Silken String” isn’t dissonant—just beautiful. The chilling “Tamlin” references classic folklore and literature, but you needn’t understand the allusions to be emotionally devastated by this heartbreaking masterpiece. The album closes with the pensive lullaby “The Train,” one of Gillian’s most haunting compositions. Not everything is wonderful; the graphic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics of “Tell Me” are not for the squeamish, and though the politically-charged “Sweet Metallic” has noble intentions, it could stand to be more focused both lyrically and sonically. But I hate to complain about such a likable album. After all, choosing the “worst song” on Serpentine makes as much sense as picking out the “fattest woman” in a room full of Victoria’s Secret models.

For music and more information:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Album Review: A Duke And His Kingdom

Oh, the joys of being a music industry insider! One Note Ahead favorite Matt Duke’s second album won’t be released to the general public until September 23rd, but my fellow insiders have been giving me their opinions of it for nearly four-and-a-half months! Long before I got my hands on a promo copy, I knew that Kingdom Underground (Rykodisc/MAD Dragon) would be a controversial offering. For example, one of my peers raved to me that this album is simply amazing and that it captures Matt’s raw intensity so much more than his debut album, Winter Child. But I recall another one of my friends in the biz moaning to me that KU is a too-polished effort, that all of its best songs can be found in its first half, and that its last few tracks sound like a bunch of random B-sides.

My opinion falls somewhere in between these extremes.

For starters, Kingdom Underground is a strange title for an album that really has nothing “underground” about it. If “radio friendly” was the phrase of the day for Winter Child, “pop friendly” is Kingdom Underground’s guiding principle. Unusually for Matt, all of the songs are noticeably hooky, while Marshall Altman’s production and arrangements ensure that even the folkier and rockier tracks are sweetened a bit. Thus, acoustically-based numbers like “Spilt Milk” and the gorgeous “30 Some Days” are fleshed out with full bands; “I’ve Got Atrophy On The Brain” doesn’t get to be the riff-driven heavy rocker it wants to be; “Rose” could have been cut at a Sheryl Crow session; and “Sex and Reruns” loses its folk-rock edge in a sea of electronic effects. Still, the bottom line is that these cuts all sound good—simple as that. And as a vocalist, Matt does have more mad moments than he’s had on any of his previous releases, displaying at least some of that rawness which was largely absent from Winter Child.

What about the material? Out of KU’s ten songs, the first five range from solid to fantastic. “The Father, The Son And The Harlot’s Ghost” is a logical successor to Winter Child’s “Tidal Waves,” and none the worse for it. “Sex And Reruns” is about neither sex nor reruns, but the art of muddling through: “When you suck at life but you’re much too scared to die/Embrace the sweet indifference with your brothers and we’ll march in time.” The improbably-titled “I’ve Got Atrophy On The Brain” goes from muddling through to barely holding on, with declarations such as “You’re sick, the time you’ve lost, you choke/The bile’s in your throat.” Its brilliantly gloomy lyrics are rivaled only by one of Matt’s best melodies yet. (The other songs on the first half are “Rabbit” and “30 Some Days,” both released on a digital single over the summer.) Does the second half of the album pale in comparison to the first? Unfortunately. The last five songs aren’t terrible, but Matt has better songs that would have been more welcome and one has to wonder why they weren’t used. Of KU’s second half, “Rose” stands out as a fun slab of rock ‘n’ roll with a cool “Lady Marmalade”-styled refrain. The disconcerting “Walk It Off” affords Matt the opportunity to freak out vocally, and his emotionally-packed performance on “Spilt Milk” might just make listeners think there’s more to the song than there actually is.

Kingdom Underground was recorded in less than a month. While it is not a bad album, it could have been a great album if only more time and care had been put into it. The entire body of work could have been as strong as the first five tracks, but in the final analysis, KU comes off as a rushed effort that tries to do right by the artist, but does not always succeed. But that’s just my opinion, and of course....everybody has one.

One Note Ahead article on Winter Child:

Music and more info:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

EP Review: Snider Gives The Green Light

You might expect a 17-year-old singer/songwriter from the suburbs to sing about fake ID’s and how his mom won’t buy him a new cell phone. Of the six songs on Jake Snider’s EP Green Lights For Granted, only “Say Farewell” will meet such expectations. More commonly, you’ll encounter moody masterpieces such as “To The Ocean,” with mind-boggling lines like “I went to see the warriors of virtue with you” and “Breaking open the calluses created by your mind.” How many 17-year-olds are writing lyrics like that and pairing them with beguiling, classically-influenced melodies? Jake’s first professional recording, Green Lights is mostly a collaboration with his buddy Jeff Berman, who handles both bass and drums with equal ease and provides a strong backdrop for Jake’s impressive keyboard work. The tracks generally have a stripped-down sound, although “Early Morning Somewhere” is fleshed out with Jake’s guitar and layered vocals, and the glorious “How?” needs little adornment to cement its position as a sublime slice of jazz-pop. Despite its upbeat musical qualities, “How?” is also the darkest offering on the EP, its lyrics almost disturbing in their portrayal of a man on the brink. While some of Jake’s vocals on Green Lights are a bit rough, his voice is so smooth and robust that with a little work, he should eventually earn his place as one of the great singers of his generation. Lately, Jake has been performing in Philadelphia and the western suburbs where he grew up. If you can make it to a show, you will be in for a treat as Jake jams with his friends and family, plays a wider variety of music than you might expect, and harmonizes superbly with fellow teenaged singer/songwriter Emily Bach. If you can’t make it to a show, get your Jake Snider fix by purchasing Green Lights For Granted on CD Baby or iTunes.

For music, videos, and more info:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.