CD Review: Listen Above’s Self-Titled Latest

laAlmost from its inception into mainstream America with Elvis wiggling his hips on “The Milton Berle Show,” rock music has had an awkward and sometimes downright tumultuous relationship with Christianity. In its earliest years, Baptist preachers across the nation chastened their primarily Caucasian congregations that the very rhythms of this nascent genre would drive their youngsters to a life of debauchery, crime and non-stop fornication!

Increasingly with the passage of time, those fire and brimstone predictions began to seem quaint and outdated, as each unfolding generation of rockers pushed their respective envelopes a few steps further. Soon, the once mutually exclusive kinship between religion and rock gave way to a blurring of the lines, with songs like Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky” and The Byrd’s “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me” (later popularized by The Doobie Brothers), mixing heavily distorted guitar licks with praising to the Lord. That said, striking the precise balance between spiritual content and secular sensibilities would always be the key between having a hit single like George Harrison’s timeless classic “My Sweet Lord,” or being resigned to the dustbin of history like the overtly religious, saccharine ‘light metal’ ’80s band Stryper.

And striking that exact balance is the latest CD project from Mount Hope High School music teacher / local-music wunderkind, singer-songwriter David “Dj” Lauria and his assembled group of students, friends and family known collectively as Listen Above. Lauria refers to them as a worship group, as they are all members of the youth orchestra at Barrington’s Saint Luke’s Church. And under his tutelage, the eponymous seven-track album contains a variety of radio-ready tracks that contain a message of love and adoration to the Lord without ever crossing that line into “preachy-ness.” As Lauria explains, “I wanted to make an album that was Christian without being CHRISTIAN. Remember how, after the first couple records, people would call U2 a Christian band? … These tracks are a little more religious (a few, anyway), but there’s no God or Jesus anywhere. The final track could just as easily be about Skynet…

With David Lauria playing all guitars as well as producing, engineering and writing the material on Listen Above, the congregation is instrumentally rounded out by drummer Luke Imbusch, saxophonist Riley Saeger and percussionist Frank Carroll, as well as a cavalcade of vocalists in Caroline Coleman, Yesi Rego, Haley Ryan, Kathryn Santello, Emily Turtle and Lauria’s own children Jacob and Madelyn.

The disc opens with a straightforward rocker “Save Us With Your Grace,” a near-perfect pop gem that combines elements of alt-country with George Harrison-esque slide guitar, all the while hammering home the power of prayer: “Age-old song, chiming out. Silence shouts your name. Each of us, just a breath pleading with one voice.

Album highlight “Your Love Prevails” can best be described as Lauria puts it, Linda Ronstadt fronting Deep Purple. And there’s lots of truth to that, with the track’s deliberate heavy backbeat and Machine Head-era Ritchie Blackmore guitar tone, all enveloped in Coleman’s angelic voice: “When sharp the day has blinded us, Your Love Prevails. Where injured faith has guided us, Your Love Prevails. We join hands to declare, someday we’ll meet You where Your Love Prevails.”

Listen Above culminates with David Lauria himself stepping up to the mic with “Written In The Sky,” a song that in a past life could have been an AC/DC encore favorite. But this time around the content is far more profound then Hells Bells. “Every vow ever broken is written in the sky. Every pardon, every deal, every gift, every steal.”

As the band’s website states upon entry, Listen Above is the sound of generations coming together to make music with a positive message. If every school, mosque, synagogue and church had a David Lauria expounding the joy of rock ‘n’ roll alongside that ‘radical message’ of God’s love, just imagine how good the world would sound.

CD Review: Jimmy Adler’s Grease Alley

jimmyadler3By day, Pittsburgh’s James Addlespurger is a mild-mannered educator at a high school for the creative and performing arts. Armed with chalk and curriculum, he molds impressionable young minds into fine, creative citizens, poised to take on the world. One could argue that his day job is literally doing God’s work. However, when the clock strikes nighttime, Pittsburgh’s mild-mannered James Addespurger trades in his chalk for a telecaster and transforms into East Coast bluesman Jimmy Adler. The work he does in the midnight hour strictly belongs to the deep dark blues. And throughout the 13 original tracks on his latest CD release, Grease Alley, Adler proves he’s schooled in far more than one musical discipline when it comes to high-quality swinging rhythm and blues.

The sad truth is that there is a gulf-sized distance between the numerous mediocre bands that fancy themselves blues performers and those chosen few that are true purveyors of this great American musical art-form. Jimmy Adler clearly finds himself in the latter category, with this homage to the idiom serving as documented proof. From the opening track “Say It Like Magic Sam,” Adler and company school the listener in what a shuffle groove is all about. With an oooh-so-sneaky and laid-back rhythm section courtesy of drummer June Core (formerly with Charlie Musselwhite), as well as bassist and producer of Grease Alley Norwegian-born Kid Anderson, Jimmy Adler lays out his mission statement with ample T-Bone Walker-inspired guitar licks, and a vocal styling second only to James Montgomery in cool.

From Texas-swing we immediately head East, with a New Orleans romp on the CD’s title track “Grease Alley.” A few moments into the song finds the listener smack dab in the middle of a Mardi Gras parade, marching earnestly to that Bo Diddley rhythm that so defines that Louisiana bayou style. And with some creative lyrics courtesy of Adler, you’re treated not only to the sights and sounds, but also the tastes and smells of that famed alley: “Now there’s a shack just across the track, they fry everything in fat – It starts to ooze all over your shoes, the alley’s where it’s at – fish and chicken and all that pickin’ as spicy as you please —  To keep my motor on the go I’m gonna need a little grease.”

Other standout tracks include “Drank Too Much” where Jimmy Adler channels the guitar styling of Elmore James (not to mention the songwriting of Amos Milburn) like few I’ve heard before. “Went out to the club, thought I’d have maybe just one sip. Ran into an old friend of mine, I didn’t know when to quit — I drank too much, one’s too many and too many’s not enough.”

Although Adler is well-known for his songwriting and guitar prowess, in 2009 he gained a certainly unwanted national spotlight when he was physically attacked by a teenager in broad daylight in downtown Pittsburgh. Because the incident was surreptitiously videotaped and later made its way on to the internet, it became known as one of the first documented cases of the so-called ‘Knockout Game,’ a loathsome practice where unwitting pedestrians are assaulted merely as YouTube fodder. Adler made appearances on “Nightline,” “The Today Show” and CNN to discuss the ordeal. In all candor, including the anecdote here might seem out of place at first blush had he had not made such a highly potent blues album in Grease Alley. It takes a certain type of person to convincingly pull off the genre. One needs a whole lotta grit and integrity to sing in the kind of voice Jimmy Adler does without coming off as a wannabe, or worse, a fraud.  But rest assured that when it comes to playing the blues, Adler has long since paid his dues, and is most emphatically the real deal.

CD Review: Televisionaries — Self-Titled

10484674_717298304973560_1703852449433906777_nCompared to many of my fellow music writers who toil daily in the literary trenches, I’m still a relative newbie, having only been at this just shy of a decade. In that time, I’ve received  hundreds of compact discs, many of which today enjoy new life re-purposed as beer coasters. But this week, in an optimistic sign of things to come, I was mailed my first long player vinyl disc, spinning at precisely thirty-three and one thirds rotations per minute. Yup, I just got me a genuine LP album from The Televisionaries, a Rochester, New York, post-punk / surf-a-billy trio who unfortunately share their name with another New York-based band who specialize in covering 1970s TV show themes. But no matter, The Televisionaries that I heard are no cover band.

Made up of Taylor Guerin on bass, Austin Lake on drums and Trevor Lake taking the lead on guitar and vocals, this three piece demonstrate a knowledge of the surf-rock idiom that rarely translates so convincingly to a youth-based indie fanbase. But The Televisionaries inject a healthy dose of punk sensibility to get the kiddies stage diving throughout their set.

The bulk of The Televisionaries self-titled album is made up of instrumentals. While there is no doubt that the band have boned up on all things surf and can recreate not only the notes but also the tone (by far the more elusive feat), there is only so far that can carry an album side. Granted, the Televisionaries keep the songs varied by switching up the rhythms and diving in and out of syncopation with the grace of a gazelle. But to this listener’s ears, with each new musical offering, my craving for lyrics and a melody only increases. After all, take away the lyrical content from the greatest ’60s bands and you’re left with … well … The Ventures. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself.  But The Televisionaries possess the ability to take this sound, which make no mistake about it THEY HAVE MASTERED, and bring it to a whole ‘nother level. They’ve got the chops to pull it off like no other band that I can think of in this genre.

On one of the album’s rare non-instrumental tracks, The Televisionaries cover “King of The Surf,” originally recorded by The Trashmen, famous for their 1963 novelty smash hit “Surfin’ Bird” (a song recently rediscovered by a whole new generation via “Family Guy”). Though fairly faithful to the original, the boys kick it up several notches (not to mention beats-per-minute) to create two and a half minutes of pure rock & roll anarchy, worthy of The Ramones in their prime.

The Televisionaries arent reinventing any wheels with their eponymous LP, but I suspect they’re not interested in doing so. These guys are clearly armed to the teeth with an arsenal of Dick Dale-inspired licks that should last them well into the next decade. If you like your music fast, greasy and without a lot of pesky words getting in the way of a good party record, then The Televisionaries are the band for you!

CD Review: Kevin Connolly’s Ice Fishing

kevinconnolly12Hey kids, here’s a fun fact about me – I’m an only child. I never had to share my toys, or my albums, or my family’s affection with anyone else. And sure over the years I’ve often wondered how having a sibling would have changed the dynamics of my life, good or bad. Having been in a band for most of that lifetime, I really couldn’t fathom having a brother or sister as a fellow musical comrade. Think of all the famed family acts that have notoriously gone south over the rock era. Don & Phil Everly didn’t perform or even talk to each other for the better part of a decade. Ray & Dave Davies of The Kinks have been known to have show-stopping punch-ups literally on stage. And I shudder at the things that must have gone on in that Partridge Family bus.

But luckily for Boston-based singer songwriter Kevin Connolly, none of that melodrama applies to him and his brother Jim, who have completed a bi-coastal collaboration on Kevin’s tenth album Ice Fishing. Thanks to modern technology, both men recorded their respective parts on opposite coasts, never being physically together in the same studio. But thanks to old-fashioned brotherly love, what unfolds over 14 tracks is a tangible monument to that intangible sixth-sense that only two guys who share a mom could possess. Kevin would record the basic tracks of vocals and guitars here in New England, while big brother Jim was fundamentally given cart-blanche to interpret bass and keyboard parts all the way in sunny Santa Barbara, California.

I’ve listened to Ice Fishing in its entirety several times now; There are a few truisms that are evident throughout. Primarily Kevin Connolly’s seasoned and foreboding vocals drive the album every bit as much as a Stratocaster does Eric Clapton’s most renowned work. Connolly’s rich voice carries every emotion from pain to joy in such a way that elevates the lyrics from merely off the page, to directly into the heart of the listener. There’s real experience and integrity coming from them road-worn vocal chords.

Connolly’s roots rock / blues background is on full display for the album’s opening track “Bus Station,” not to mention a penchant for colorful songwriting. Although I could be wrong, one could argue that the inspiration for the characters in his station are autobiographically based: ”Here comes Indiana Jones in his canvas pants, headlights flash like camouflage dance / Looking for fresh air and homemade granola, he’s a fanny sackin, tree hugging man of devotion.”

On “Here Comes Whitey,” Connolly delivers the inevitable ode to one of the most notorious organized crime figures of the last 50 years, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. “Here comes Jimmy with a butcher knife — someone’s getting beaten within an inch of their life / Dont you act too cool , dont you talk too much. — Whatcha gonna do with a gun in your mouth.”

Flipping the spectrum of tribute paying to its other end, Connolly delivers a soulful and touchingly heartfelt gift to his young daughter with the ballad “Blow Them Away.” It takes a lot to get through to my cynical heart, but the following line actually set my lower lip a-quivering: “Your mother and me we see an innocent child… let the world be forewarned of your hurricane ways. You’ll blow them away.” Simply put, that is some great songwriting.

I would be remiss if I didn’t underscore Jim Connolly’s unique bass playing throughout Ice Fishing. Big brother’s upright slides and wraps around Kevin’s melody in a way that perks the listener’s ear and makes the tracks anything but predictable. The symbiotic musical relationship the Connolly men have is nothing short of magical. And perhaps Kevin Connolly sums it up best in the liner notes of Ice Fishing: “I’m lucky to have him, and so is he…”

CD Review: Spuyten Duyvil’s Social Music Hour Vol. 1

spuytenSomewhere in the dusty recesses of my memory, I was vaguely aware that Spuyten Duyvil was an area in New York City, specifically in the Bronx, apparently named after a particularly unruly body of water. Since its literal Dutch translation is “spouting devil” I’d guess it’s not a sleepy little watering hole. So it’s only appropriate that this heavy Americana roots band shares its name, because there is truly nothing sleepy about New York-based Spuyten Duyvil.

Led by the singer-songwriting power-couple Beth Jamie Kaufman and Mark Miller, the sextet Spuyten Duyvil (pronounced “SPITE-en DIE+vul” for those playing along at home) are hard to describe in a few words.  Their musical stew contains elements of traditional folk, Celtic, electric blues, rootsy Americana and spirituals, all done with an energetic modern sensibility that catapults their uniquely authentic vibe straight into the 21st century. Espousing the teachings of their musical pedagogues Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and others who they credit in the liner notes of their latest CD, Social Music Hour Vol.1, Spuyten Duyvil takes what was old and makes it new again.

The album begins with the slithering “Keep Your Skillet Good and Greasy.” Ten seconds into the bluesy, churning track and you can almost smell what Spuyten Duyvil are cooking, and man is it good. Though lyrically based on a old Woody Guthrie song, the band’s strongest assets are on full display and shine throughout, courtesy of gin-soaked vocals, droning slide guitar and a dark punctuating blues harp.

“Hot Time In The Old Town” sharply veers off the devil’s road and spontaneously sets up an old time revival meeting, complete with a knee-slapping double-time rhythm that would make Bill Maher a believer! Their spiritual reworking of this turn-of-the-century ragtime number spotlights the duel vocals of Kaufman and Miller, the latter employing a slight Louis Armstrong affectation, which unarguably works for this track.

On “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” Spuyten Duyvil takes the Elizabeth Cotton folk-blues number, famously covered by The Grateful Dead, and incorporates an updated electric and quite plugged-in approach, somewhat reminiscent of how The Band might have tackled it under the tutelage of Robbie Robertson. Demonstrating yet another facet of Spuyten Duyvil is the whimsical old-timey “Fishing Blues.” First recorded in 1928 by blues guitarist Henry Thomas, Spuyten stay faithful to the original while injecting a playfulness that the original most certainly lacked.

Social Music Hour Vol.1 ends with the uncharacteristically funky groove-laden “Stewball.” Though not to be confused with the Peter Paul & Mary song of the same name, both are based on the famed award-winning racehorse. The band once again proves that they are not merely one trick ponies (pun intended), but rather can seamlessly switch musical styles with much ease and dexterity.

Luckily for fans of music that defines the American experience, Spuyten Duyvil have been garnering ample airplay across the globe, on satellite and terrestrial radio alike. Their backbreaking tour schedule finds them traversing the country, performing everywhere from small clubs, to Citi Field (a.k.a., Shea Stadium), and all points in between. Their live show has been described as “throwing a cherry bomb into a lake…it wakes you up!” But based solely on what I heard on The Social Music Hour Vol.1, Spuyten Duyvil are that rare breed of band that can cover songs written long before their grandparents were born, and reinterpret them so that an audience will swear on a stack of Rolling Stones that they are new. And in essence, isn’t that really what the folk music tradition has always been about?

CD Review: Houston Bernard Band’s Knocking Boots

houstonbernardFull disclosure time: I am not a country music aficionado by anyone’s definition. Don’t get me wrong, my record collection contains more than a few selections from the likes of Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons and various rockabilly acts. But hardcore Western hillbilly is a gaping hole in my musical education. That said, it doesn’t take the ghost of Hank Williams Sr. to figure out that today’s crop of what passes for “country performers” just ain’t country music! In fact, to my ears Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler, Keith Urban, et al present more like manufactured Hollywood pop stars (but for the occasional twang in the voice or slide from the pedal steel) than they do authentic Bakersfield or Nashville artists. Hell, the Country Music Association awarded Taylor Swift a Milestone Award!!?? Loretta Lynn would be rolling over in her grave… I mean if she were dead… which she’s not.

Keeping all of that in mind, it was with a dubious ear that I recently listened to the new CD Knockin’ Boots by the Boston-based country act the Houston Bernard Band. Three lines into the first track, “Country Crowd,” and any doubts I had of whether these guys were true country artists worthy of the genre’s rich musical heritage instantly vanished. In fact, their sound is the embodiment of what 21st century country music SHOULD be, rather than the steady stream of also-rans clogging the airwaves of today’s Top 40 Country radio. And as the Houston Bernard Band’s own mission statement declares, “Country music is better raw than fried.”

It’s no great mystery how this band gained such an authentic sound and genuine appreciation for country music when you take a look at their respective backgrounds. Frontman / vocalist Houston Bernard not only hails from Oklahoma, but also is directly related to infamous gunfighter and member of the outlaw gang The Wild Bunch, George “Bittercreek” Newcomb. That’s some serious street-cred! His impressive lineage doesn’t end there, boasting a musical father and uncle who performed in Nashville with the likes of Tanya Tucker and Sleepy LaBeef. The band is rounded out by Midwest native Patrick Dalton on drums, guitarist Sam Crawford, Jameson Stewart on bass and Canadian-born Ben Blanchard on keyboards.

Knocking Boots has all the trappings of a hit album, with tight musical performances and a glossy production that ties everything into a cohesive package any big name label would be proud to release. But of all the elements demonstrated by the Houston Bernard Band, nothing stands out stronger than their sensational songwriting, a key factor for all genres, but downright paramount in the competitive world of country music. The opener “Country Crowd” is a cleverly written bemoaning of our often obnoxious modern pop-culture, especially when juxtaposed to the simpler pleasures of your average country fan: “I was wearing boots and all the guys were wearing loafers. They were selfie taking, photo taggin’ chronic Facebook posters… Just wanna party in the USA. Turn that Miley Cyrus down, tonight it’s Billy Ray.”

The title-track “Knocking Boots” is a rocking number, filled with equal parts sexual innuendo and attitude: “Been looking for a girl who looks like you with your pink cammo and your cowboy boots. Chug another beer, come on show me that caboose girl – Slip the DJ some green to play your favorite song, got you bendin’ over twerkin’ see the top of that thong.”

The standout track for my money is the hilarious “Yoga Pants,” which reminds me of some of Charlie Daniel’s best work from back in the late ’60s (when he was still an ‘Uneasy Rider’). “My god you’re looking good, give your downward dog a bone – Namaste with me tonight, the way you wear them yoga pants I’ll rock your world tonight.”

Without a doubt, the Houston Bernard Band is making an indelible mark on the New England music scene, country or otherwise.  Their schedule is exhausting, whether headlining clubs, festivals, or opening for nationals like Scott McCreery and the legendary Pure Prairie League. And although I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing them share the stage with the aforementioned headliners, based on what I’ve heard on Knocking Boots, I’d bet  they outclassed everyone on the bill. To date I’ve never heard any band more deserving of household name status than the Houston Bernard Band. And mark my words they will achieve it.

CD Review: Sarah Kenyon’s Love Again

kenyonIf Sarah Kenyon decided today to pack it all in and give up on the business we call music (and heaven knows that will never happen …) she would do so having already accomplished far more than most in her position ever will. With the voice of an angel and a face to match, Kenyon has fronted the ’90s-influenced alt-rock indie band GrandEvolution with a ferocity that somewhat contradicts her cherubic demeanor. In fact, since 2002 she and her cohorts (including a drummer who worked out so well she actually married the fella) have gone after rock’s brass ring with the single-minded persistence of a heavyweight prizefighter training for the championship belt. Under Sarah Kenyon’s leadership, they’ve released a new album like clockwork every other year since their inception, and in doing so have honed their writing and recording skills to an art form.

And all of this tenacity and hard work has paid off for GrandEvolution in some fairly impressive achievements, including working with great acts like Soul Asylum and Everclear, and earning accolades from fans and critics alike. Let’s face it, Pulse Magazine doesn’t give out Worcester’s Sexiest Musician Awards to just anyone, ya know! But make no mistake, dismiss Sarah Kenyon as just another pretty face at your own peril, because this New England Institute of Art alumna is poised to make her mark on an audience far wider than the surrounding areas of Wormtown.

Never sitting creatively stagnant for any stretch of time, Kenyon has momentarily veered from her GrandEvolution juggernaut to pursue a solo project in the form of a two track CD single “Love Again” and “Let Go.” The latter is a sharp divergence from her edgier alternative side, mostly devoid of heavy crunching guitars often associated with her GrandEvolution day-job. In a crystalline vocal performance, Kenyon draws the listener into the song so deep, it becomes  something just short of hypnotizing. “In the moment let go and fall into me. Let go and set yourself free — In a moment when you feel it it can change everything. In the darkness you wake up and find that it’s all just a dream, so let go …”

The single “Love Again” is three minutes and 20 seconds of pure radio-ready power pop. Though more upbeat than its counterpart, Kenyon has created another short yet potent mini-masterpiece. Along with project producer Peter Hubbard (of the band Whiskey Bent), Kenyon utilizes her strong commercial sensibilities, along with strings, keyboards, and oh that voice: “Lay your body next to mine, let me hold you one last time – Just tell me one more time how to love you again before I die.”

Sarah Kenyon is an overachieving Renaissance woman who’s paving her own path through a world that often rewards mediocrity and also-rans. Whether fronting her band, going solo or embarking on a much-rumored modeling career, Kenyon consistently brings to the table a work-ethic and enthusiasm for the project that all but guarantees success.

CD Review: Matt Vanaria’s Soaring

mattWhat I’m about to say might not win me any popularity contests among the younger indie crowd, but as a rule I frown upon artists recording their commercial releases in their “home studio”(a.k.a., mom’s basement), armed only with their laptop and a midi controller keyboard. Skipping over the professional recording studio environment, with its visceral, almost magical trappings that add immeasurably to any musician’s project, is akin to skipping over the 12-year classroom experience and just jumping right to taking the SATs (sorry homeschoolers … ) Rarely have I been impressed with a CD project born from what I’ve considered this shortcut.

But today I’ve had to seriously reexamine this dogmatic philosophy after hearing what I consider to be a skillfully crafted, fully-baked, four-track EP from local musician Matt Vanaria titled Soaring. This homespun project is unabashedly culled from the heart of Vanaria, a craft beer loving military serviceman, who makes it clear that his purpose is to certainly entertain, but more importantly, touch as many souls as possible through his art: “If there is something to aim for in my music, it is to bring out shadowed passions of lyrics that have meaning to anyone who has ever felt something before — I tend to bring out what others cannot describe but through lyrics and music …”

Matt Vanaria’s overall style can best described as an updated version of The Goo Goo Dolls, with a slightly edgier alternative vibe. The track “Until You Walk Away” enters with searing guitars and heavy bottom end, but soon Vanaria’s vocals unveil a vulnerability rarely found in today’s “alt-rock” sound: “The golden silence comes around, until you walk away. Undecided by those who’ve died, until you walk away. All remains are the stories, page after the page. Black as night upon the sight, until you walk away.”

Another standout, “Everything Inside,” is one of those songs that would fit perfectly in a teen-movie, playing during the scene when the 20-something boyfriend learns his girl has been diagnosed with some rare fatal disease that she picked up last year in the Peruvian jungle, during her stint in the Peace Corps. Does Peru have jungles? No matter, because the point remains that Vanaria pours emotion, real or otherwise, into his performance: “Every time you enter the room you light the flame inside.  Never had a question within my thought, I never felt so alive. I don’t need no simple gifts or to pretend when I’m with you. All I need is the love you give from when you say you love me too.” 

From reading through his Facebook, it appears Matt Vanaria is appending the EP with some forthcoming recordings that I’m anxious to hear. Credible singer-songwriters are fast becoming a rare commodity. But Matt Vanaria has already established himself as one such artist to keep an eye on.

CD Review: Mike Gendron’s The Day That I Give Birth

birthDon’t you hate when you see someone on TV, or even worse, on the street, and can’t quite place from where you know them? We start running through the alphabet in our head, hoping to hit upon their name. We flip through our cerebral Rolodex. Maybe we went to school with them? Maybe they work in our office… maybe we were in the service together… college? JAIL!!??

I went through those same machinations when I first set sight on The Day That I Give Birth, the new CD by Mike Gendron. I knew that I had seen/heard this guy before, and then it hit me. OF COURSE I know him! Not only was he with perennial local favorites GrandEvolution, but he’s the “Mike G” behind Mike G & Associates (both of whom I’ve covered for Motif in past columns).

In fact (with apologies to the late Godfather of Soul), Mike Gendron just might be the hardest working man in show business. Well at least in RI. In between recording this original material, for which he plays almost all of the instruments (more on that later) Gendron boasts residency in not one but TWO popular tribute bands (a John Lennon act called Lennon Live,  and the Neil Young tribute “Young Rust,” which Gendron fronts). Not bad for a kid who made his bones playing gigs at The Living Room at the tender age of 15.

A few moments into a deep listening of The Day That I Give Birth, it becomes amply apparent exactly from where Mike Gendron culls his songwriting influence. While much of the music throughout is deep driving rock & roll, his lyrics expose a poetry that often leans toward the surreal. The title track alone repeatedly reveals Gendon’s unconditioned ability to turn quite the thought-provoking phrase: “Fault lines crack where lava flows deep beneath the earth… Spiders raise and eat their young, they’re boiling in the pot… Let me paint you gold so you can shine.”

The acoustic folk ballad “Universus” sparingly utilizes a Neil Young strumming style and borrows melodically from Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side.” That said, Gendron unabashedly displays his vulnerable side by calling out to some higher power for guidance and strength to face an unknown future: “My path has been laid out before my blinded eyes to see. Somewhere deep into the fog is who I’m supposed to be. I can’t cut through this haze. Guide me through this treacherous, all consuming maze.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the final, somewhat disturbing track, “Anonymous.” What can only be described as the “Revolution 9” of the album, an ominous backing track plays over the recorded voicemail message of a very disturbed woman. With wailing guitars, she’s heard claiming the government has targeted her for assassination, which will come about by the explosive device they previously implanted in her head. Unfortunately her near-whisper is practically inaudible, and had it not been for an explanation detailed in the album’s press kit, I wouldn’t know what I was listening to. Frankly, unlike The White Album’s “Revolution 9”, “Anonymous” does nothing for what up to that point had been a strong body of work.

That small point aside The Day That I Give Birth excels as an example of Mike Gendron’s  ample gifts as a singer-songwriter. The disc was engineered by famed member of The Schemers, Emerson Torrey. And based on this output of work, Mike Gendron has earned his deserved spot alongside  Torrey, and Mark Cutler, and all the other best songwriters Rhode Island has to offer.

CD Review: Karma and The Truth’s Between Standing & Falling

karmaA few weeks ago I received word that guitarist Joey Magnanti (formerly of Hawkins Rise) had formed a new band with the enigmatic name of Karma and The Truth (the cool kids call them KatT for short). With a ‘fresh from the manufacturing plant’ CD already making waves throughout the area, I had to know more. Intrigued, you ask?  Why yes, I was. When that new release titled Between Standing & Falling finally arrived, I excitedly tore through the packaging like Kirstie Alley opening a box of Krispy Kreme, and earnestly began to give each of the 11 tracks a thorough listening.

From the get-go, these guys reek of professionalism and demonstrate an ability to take a legitimately heavy rock style and turn it into radio-ready, major label-sounding gold. Certainly aided in no small measure by the fact that Between Standing & Falling was co-produced and engineered by local studio svengali Joe Moody, the resulting performances illustrate an excessively adroit and mature execution. Basically this album kicks some serious rock ‘n’ roll ass.

The disc of all-original material starts off with the heavy driving, “Circling The Drain.” With dueling, grunge-laden guitar work provided by Seth Salois and the aforementioned Joey Magnanti, the song’s rhythm pulses along with a dynamically deliberate groove provided by drummer Nino Trovato and bass man Tofer Simpson. Salois’ vocals, in shades slightly reminiscent of Geoff Tate and Eddie Vedder,  provide a classic hook in the chorus “You can change your life or stay the same. In the end it’s all the same – When you feel alive escape the blame, instead of circling the drain.”

The quasi power-ballad “Time To Let Go” is a perfect example of what I mean by my claim that these guys are major label-ready. One hundred professional songwriters locked in a room for a week couldn’t come up with a prettier melody or more potent lyrics. “I woke up today and planned escape, the note you left was all in vain, I still believe the plan was three days late … Chasing down our last mistakes, we’ve burned the bridge but not the gates.”

And while on the subject of songwriting, Karma and The Truth outdo themselves on that front with “Dont Fear The Water,” a track that could top any pop, rock, adult contemporary or alternative charts with ease. The number contains all the earmarks of a well-crafted song, including a memorable chorus: “Dont fear the water and hide behind and watch it pass you by…

Sure everybody wants to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, yet for over 50 years few have figured out exactly how to make it happen. But once in a while a group of musically like-minded artists join together to create a cohesive, convincing product that has the potential for mass appeal. Karma and The Truth are that band, and Between Standing & Falling is an indication that these guys are a serious band with a potent product. KatT has already proven themselves a formidable live act, crisscrossing New England for the better part of a year, not only opening for nationals, but also headlining venues themselves. With music like this, these guys have earned themselves some seriously good KARMA…and that’s THE TRUTH!!!  See what I did there… Karma … Truth…? What, no good?