Justin Levinson & The Valcours, “This Side of Me, This Side of You”

Justin Levinson & The Valcours

This Side of Me, This Side of You

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Release Date : January 1st, 2012

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With smart lyrics, gripping melodies, and a super tight band Justin Levinson and The Valcours album, This side of me, This side of you, is a refreshing addition to any music collection. Levinson, a handsome native Vermonter with a mop-full of hair and a book of songs, is more Ben Folds than Josh Groban. And as Martha Stewart often says, “It’s a good thing.” This album hits more than it misses and is the perfect soundtrack to what will be one wet, hot, climate-change-y summer.

Songs like “Bar Scene” and “I’ll Be OK” are so lyrically tight that they could easily be in an off-Broadway musical. In “Bar Scene” Levinson sings:

Now I brought you down to my level you should all just go home

someone call me a cab, let me be on my own

I’m in the mood to start a fight

With that guy at the bar laughing at me he thinks that my pants are too tight

go on hit me with your best swing…

“I’ll Be OK” is an exhilarating Ben Folds-esque musical romper room which immediately caught my attention and has been in heavy rotation ever since.

 

“I Was so Wrong” is another highlight off this record. This waltzy duet between Justin and fellow Berklee alum Liz Longley is as romantic as it is somber and never dips into that saccharine pit of hell that swallows so many modern day love songs. Just thinking of that Dashboard Confessional song “You Have Stolen my Heart” makes me want to drown myself in my own vomit. So, yes this song is the opposite of that. In fact, this track embodies the “feel good heartbreak” vibe of the album. And there is a harmonica.

“Say What You’re Gonna Say” and “If You’re Happier” are also great additions to the American playbook. The tight band is on full display on “If You’re Happier.” The bass, keys, guitars and drums all just seem to fit perfectly together. “Say What You’re Gonna Say” is proof that more songs need horn sections.

Every beautiful piece of fruit has at least one bruise…and I think this bruise’s name is “Love You Goodbye.” The space-beepy drum machine and emo-y vocals feel a tad out of place on this album. It is not a terrible song by any means-but when compared to tracks like “Bar Scene” and “I Was so Wrong” it feels out of place. Just as the production is a little different so are the lyrics. Songs like “I Was so Wrong” is overflowing with very specific details; a story is being told complete with characters and a setting. You can almost see the gross-y, gap-y space between the wooden planks of the bar floor and hear the swinging of bathroom doors. “Love You Goodbye” is much more open and vague. Sure, the listener can imagine themselves in the song and we will all identify with the feelings of heartbreak and loss the song evokes, however I found it lacking the charm which oozed from other tracks.

In closing, This Side of Me, This Side of You by Justin Levinson and the Valcours is one hell of an album. Levinson has already received recognition and accolades; and deservingly so. If you like feel good piano pop that focuses on lyrical storytelling you should get this album. Oh, and Danielle wants to meet this floppy-haired heart throb on Skype. I’ll bring the glitter.

 

Carsie Blanton, “Idiot Heart”

Carsie Blanton

Idiot Heart

Official Website

January 31, 2012

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Fair warning : This review is not fair and balanced because I swallowed the Carsie Blanton kool-aid, and like her third album, Idiot Heart, it went down just fine. Blanton’s voice is equal parts chanteuse and girl next door; inviting, subtle but not a wallflower.

On this week’s episode of Secretly Timid Danielle asked me if Blanton was country…and I stumbled before answering ‘no.’ Some tracks like “Idiot Heart” follow a pop-country model, yet Blanton is one of those artists that is not easily labeled; and to do so would be a waste of time. The Virginia native/Philadelphia resident sonically references that great Americana music, and it is no wonder that she counts artists like Patti Griffin and Billie Holiday both as influences.

Blanton is a gifted singer-songwriter living in a time of electronic samples and catch phrases. On “Backbone” Blanton sings, “you give your heart but I want to see your backbone.” The song tells an all too familiar story; but her approach is special. Although the lyrics tell a somber story the bass line is funky and the vocals cheery. Another stand out track is “Smoke Alarm” which you can check out below:

The connection between love and loss, sex, life and death, is explored in Idiot Heart.

“That connection was the spark that lit up all these songs,” Carsie says. “The concept came to me about a year ago and then I started seeing it everywhere: la petit morte, the femme fatale, ‘looks that kill,’ incubi and succubi, vampires… all these ideas imply that there is a relationship between sex and death. I think the relationship is that people feel most alive during sex, and in some deep part of our brain, it reminds us that one day we won’t be.”

Blanton is no stranger to critical praise. If you are looking for an album full of great stories, tight arrangements, and stunning vocals then this album is worth the cost. Check out some of her live performances below as well as the awesome video for “Baby Can Dance.”

 

 

 

Ani DiFranco, “¿Which Side Are You On?”


Ani DiFranco

¿Which Side Are You On?

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January 17, 2011

Righteous Babe Records

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She said it herself: “After having written hundreds of songs over decades, I think, ‘Now what? How far can I go with this? Can you sing the word ‘abortion,’ can you sing the word ‘patriarchy’ – what can you sing and get away with? I guess I’ve been pushing my own boundaries of politics and art. Seeing what people have the ears to listen to. How big is my mouth? What can I get out of it successfully?”

Photo By Patti Perret

¿Which Side Are You On? tests these boundaries, but it’s nothing that listeners aren’t willing to ride along with, aren’t willing to push and pull at just as they have for the last twenty years as the folksy fingerpicker has wrestled with the sweet synthesis of artful expression and political conviction. Coming off a three year hiatus and an influential move to New Orleans, DiFranco offers a fresh yet familiar collection featuring 11 new songs and one hot-blooded remake of Pete Seeger’s remake of Florence Reese’s protest anthem “Which Side Are You On?”

Personally, I prefer albums that will allow me to listen from beginning to end – not necessarily a concept album, but one that builds, that leads me, that carries me through a musical space and creates a new experience, maybe even with every listen. Knowing that about me, let me say: this one moves me. ¿Which Side Are You On? is consistently smooth and melodic, and the almost hypnotic rhythm of “Life Boat” and “Unworry” is only somewhat interrupted by the power of the title song before things settle back down, before the somber reflection in “Life Boat” resumes in “Albacore.” Though it’s the tattoo needle that metaphorically says I Do, this otherwise classic love song is easy to love. The lyrics are neither demanding nor profound but they are real. She’s no “blushing girl,” but then again, neither am I. We can both tap our feet just the same and feel the same comfort in knowing that “When I am next to you, I am more me.”

Photo By Shervin Lainez

“J” picks up the pace a bit and even digs a little at President Obama (“I mean dude could be FDR right now and instead he’s just shifting his weight.”) and “If yr Not” goes electric to proclaim ultimately (repeatedly) “If you’re not getting happier as you’re getting older / then you’re fucking up,” before the album slows back down with the very poignant “Hearse” and “Mariachi.” I could listen to these two songs on an endless Ani loop and never fall out of love—with anything—but maybe that’s just me. Add the vulnerable “Zoo” to the loop and bring me back to reality as the singer admits her own imperfections (“I walk past my own self-loathing like I walk past animals in the zoo /try not to really see them in prison they didn’t choose”). After a few ups and downs we are emotionally and melodically prepared for the big finish with “Promiscuity,” which gives a serious sound to a lighthearted metaphor, and “Amendment,” an impassioned rally cry for a woman’s right to choose.

As with all good albums, there’s more to ¿What Side Are You On? than politics, than emotion, than witty rhymes, than good ol’ fingerpickin’. There’s all of that and then some as New Orleans brass, the Neville Brothers, and Pete Seeger each weigh in to give the album a fullness, rounding out the authentic sound we’ve come to expect from such a raw, gritty, tell-it-like-it-is lyricist.  Neither Ani DiFranco nor ¿What Side Are You On? dares to disappoint.

John Gold, “A Flower in your Head”

John Gold

A Flower In Your Head

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Release Date : June 14, 2011

Vagrant Records

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With smart lyrics, quirky production, and west coast flair, A Flower in your Head is primed to be the soundtrack to your summer.

A Flower in your Head is Gold’s third release (preceded by These are Color Days (2002) and The Eastside Shake (2004). His music has also appeared in Weeds and the independent film Mean Creek. Gold’s vocal stylings are reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright and Aimee Mann, so if you are a fan of either artists, chances are you will soon be a fan of Gold.

The album kicks off with “Skyscraper.” Led by charming keys and tambourines he sings, “you’re a heart so breakable and I am see thru. Thick as glass.”

“Thursday” is an interesting beast. It begins with keys, beats, and space bleeps. The Hermetic mantra “As Above, So below” is repeated more than once-  At least…I believe it is Hermatic…I may be wrong…perhaps this is a Tom Tom Club reference? I mean…who doesn’t love those guys.  There is some very interesting imagery floating in this song- (vultures turning to dove, the famed looking glass, etc.) and Gold manages to herd these images together without any hint of pretension. Midway through the song is a glorious tempo change that made the cliché-d hairs on the back of my neck come to attention. This track quickly became a favorite and I bet it would be great live.

“Baby it’s your Life” is another standout track. Lyrically it reads like a lighthearted entry on fml. It’s happy-go-lucky chorus is a reminder to not take yourself so seriously. The bridge “don’t freak out, don’t freak out” is magic.

The album closer “The Loop!” has within it a beautiful summation of the album: “The sound was so beautiful. Oh the endless possibilities. The sophisticated melodies…”All in all this is a most successful album. Unlike other acts making the rounds Gold seems like an old friend you can’t wait to roll into town. It is evident that Gold spent a lot of time and heart on this album, and I have a feeling he will continue to produce great albums for years to come.

City and Colour, “Little Hell”

City and Colour

Little Hell

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Release Date : June 7, 2011

Vagrant Records

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Armed with a beautiful voice, electric backing band, and eleven solid songs, City and Colour‘s (AKA Dallas Green’s) long awaited third album, Little Hell, now available for your consumption.


If Little Hell chronicles the joy, confusion, and hopelessness that follows us, the album’s first track, “We Found Each Other in the Dark,” is the hope and promises which begin new love. The song, romantic and waltzy, is a great opener.  “The Grand Optimist” blends thoughtful lyrics with a staccato strum. “Little Hell” continues the folk confessional and leads into lead single “Fragile Bird,” which is pure blues-rock. “Northern Wind,” with it’s sparse strings and light production is reminiscent of the sound for which Dallas Green is known and loved.  With similar themes and narrative, “O’ Sister” may be a sister song to “Fragile Bird.” “Hope For Now” is a stunning closer. ” Dallas Green sings, “How can I instill such hope, but be left with none of my own? What if could sing just one song and if might save somebody’s life.”

Little Hell is complex, heartfelt, and heavy. It is full of vivid imagery and interesting arrangements. While possibly too heavy for an everyday listen, this album is the perfect companion for those dark times.

The Elected, “Bury Me in My Rings”

The Elected

Bury Me in My Rings

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Release Date : May 17, 2011

Vagrant Records

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After taking a five-year break from music, Blake Sennett, the dude from Rilo Kiley and the boy you loved to hate on that show from our formative years, Boy Meets World, Joseph “Joey the Rat” Epstein (and he played Ronnie Pinsky on Salute Your Shorts), is back with a new album from his solo project, The Elected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bury Me in My Rings, the third full-length release by The Elected, is a fun jaunt through mid-century West Coast rock. The pop album is layered with soulful harmonies, like on the late-‘70s-era Rolling Stones inspired “Babyface,” and relaxing trips to island escapes, with “Trip Round the World” that brings back the unique sound of the ukulele. Then there’s the David Bowie-esque “Go For The Throat,” which could totally become a personal anthem (and it’s already on repeat).

With simple drums, a grooving bass, and catchy lyrics, Bury Me in My Rings is an uncomplicated, yet refined album that just makes you smile and bop your head. It’s a feel good listen for the summer—a great album for lounging by the pool, driving along the coast, or just chilling.

A side note: four out of the 12 songs are titled after their respective first lines; at least you’ll always know what song you are listening while shuffling through tracks on your iPod.

 

Big Scary, “The Big Scary Four Seasons”

Big Scary

The Big Scary Four Seasons

Official Website

Release Date : May 17, 2011

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Indie duo Big Scary (Tom Iansek on guitars and lead vocals, Jo Syme on drums and vocals) latest LP, The Big Scary Four Seasons is a compilation of four previously released EP’s, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and (you guessed it) Winter. If the group were Texan there would be only two EPs, Summer and Winter, but I digress. Concept albums have a tendency for being hit or misses. This one, pun intended, is a hit.

If you’ve read any of my previous album reviews you will notice me stressing the importance for an album to “flow.” Seeing as this is a compilation of four smaller concept pieces some jerkiness should be expected.

The album opens with “Spring,” a soft, sweet, cinematic and simple song. Iansek’s natural vibrato is set loose on the next track, “Hamilton,” a track which is reminiscent of mainstream acts like Coldplay and The Killers. “Gem in the Granite” combines Beatlesque melody with lovely songwriting. Iansek sings “You sent me spinning through the air. You read your books, I’ll read your lips. Gem in the granite, you were from another planet.”

The White Stripes meet Queen on “Tuesday is Rent Day” (video above), another standout track. Iansek and Syme’s duet on “Microwave Pizza” is perhaps one of the most special tracks on the LP. The lyrics mix melancholy and wit. It feels complete and (for lack of a better word or phrase) right. In my opinion, “Thinking about you” is the album’s most successful track. The track has depth and resonates…and works well as the final track before “Deep Freeze,” the albums atmospheric close.

If you are a fan of finely crafted, well executed songs, then Big Scary are worth checking out. The duo are currently in the studio recording their full length debut. Their debut album and U.S. tour dates are planned for 2012.

 

 

 

Jim Ivins, “Late Night Drive”

Jim Ivins

Late Night Drive

Official Website

Release Date : March 22, 2011

Available via iTunes and Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

In a world saturated with bubblegum poptarts, young artists like Jim Ivins is a welcome breath of fresh air. Ivin’s five-track EP, Late Night Drive, is surprising both lyrically and sonically to ears familiar with his other act, The Jim Ivin’s Band. Sonically, he is stripped down to the essentials so that his words take point.

Ivin’s voice is reminiscent of Ben Folds in the tune of Chris Carrabba, and it’s A-plus on this EP. Subjects covered through song include introspection and existentialism (which all twenty-somethings go through) to the very personal experience of losing a parent. Although a general feeling of malaise hangs around this album it does not weigh it down. Like the title suggests, it is reminiscent of taking a late night drive to clear one’s head.

Preview the track “Twilight” below and tune in to next Tuesday’s podcast for the audio review.

“Twilight”

Bryan Master, “For People Like Us”

Bryan Master

For People Like Us

Bonavox Records

Release Date : March 15, 2011

Available on iTunes

Official Website

Similar Acts : Foo Fighters, Pete Yorn

This morning whilst stirring my sugar blasted coffee I thought to myself, 2011 so far has been a pretty good year for indie music. This trend continues with L.A. (by way of New York) based singer-songwriter Bryan Master, whose third release, For People Like Us, will hit iTunes and select retailers March 15th.

If I were limited to just one adjective to describe this album I would choose “solid.” Singles “Moments Like This” and “Let Me Come In” (featuring indie queen Liz Phair) are sleek and radio/film friendly. Lyrically, “Moments Like This” is poignant with subtle flakes of dark comedy sprinkled in.  Other stand-out tracks include “Karmacide” (an earlier version of this song is available on the album Incommunicado), “Born Out Of The Breakdown,” and “Lost Angeles.” The song “Paddle Out” is also becoming a fast favorite.

Photo by Adam Arnold

Sonically speaking,  the album includes what you would expect from Alternative Rock; lots of guitar and percussion, a piano ballad, and some well placed strings. Master’s voice is both strong and smooth and takes the spotlight on songs “A Pocket Full of Dreams” and “Let Me Come In.”

Master is known for putting on some great live shows, and a quick perusal of his Facebook page will illuminate some Texas connections (he’s shared the stage with both David Garza and Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s). Master’s will be playing a few dates in California in celebration of the album’s release, and hopefully a more lengthy tour will be announced shortly (and if it is, let’s hope there is a stop in Dallas.)

Review: Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, III/IV

 

III/IV, the latest offering from the ever-prolific Ryan Adams and his phenomenal band The Cardinals, was actually released back in December only in mp3 or vinyl formats, and made available as a double-CD a short time later. I’ve just recently gotten around to listening to it, which is unusual for me, a pretty devoted fan, but I’ve been a little busy these days. As for whether I regret this slight delay, well… kinda.

Adams’ penchant for paying musical homage to his influences is evident here as always. I tend to prefer when his records hearken to the Grateful Dead (Cold Roses) or Hank Williams, Sr. (Jacksonville City Nights), and I most certainly did not get my way here. Much like earlier his solo records Rock and Roll and Demolition, III/IV doesn’t reach quite as far back, instead echoing Tears for Fears and even The Knack in the musical equivalent of the ’80s skinny jeans and high-tops at Urban Outfitters. The vast majority of the songs on III, and more than half on IV, blend together in a reverb-y tribute to music that was popular about six years before I got into popular music. (Which makes sense, considering Ryan Adams is six years my senior.)

Within the minority, though, a few gems appear: “Typecast” (IV) the made-for-college-radio duet with Norah Jones, and “Ultraviolet Light” (III), which opens with a riff straight out of Led Zeppelin’s similarly-titled album, IV, and doesn’t disappoint. And as always, Ryan Adams shines brightest when back in touch with the alt-country roots that put him on the map as the frontman for Whiskeytown. “The Crystal Skull” (III) and “Death and Rats” (IV) showcase that side of him enough to appease those of us who could do without the Ramones-influenced majority of both records.

Given my obvious bias in favor of Adams’ alt-country work, and general sense of underwhelm toward all things early-’80s, it may not be fair for me to pronounce III/IV as mostly “blah.” After all, it’s a Ryan Adams album, so the default setting is Not That Bad. However, I’m concerned that a perfect storm of culture-wide ’80s nostalgia, Adams’ tendency to produce new music about ten times faster than the average rocker, and his bizarrely mismatched marriage to pop waffle Mandy Moore, all contributed to this less-than-stellar release. Again, though: Ryan Adams record = always better than average. III/IV, though: just barely.

Grade on the Ryan Adams Scale: C+
Grade on the Rest of Music Curve: B+