ALBUM REVIEW: The Met by Steven Blane

Steven Blane is a singer/songwriter and multi instrumentalist (guitar, piano, ukelele) hailing from New York City, as well as being a Universalist Rabbi and Cantor. His music ranges in style and genre, encompassing Americana, folk, rock and blues and jazz, amongst hints of other genres. As well as being musically eclectic, he has also been prolific with four albums releases during the last four years, from 2018’s So New York to 2021’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Several albums preceded these, stretching back to 2015. He has developed a sizeable fanbase, with some songs racking up big numbers on the major league streaming sites like Spotify.

This album, The Met, consists of ten tracks and the overall style is in keeping with the sophisticated, jazzy style of songwriters like Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra. While attempting such a distinguished and complex style of songwriting might faze lesser artists, Blane is blessed with both a suitably rich and sonorous voice for this kind of material and a finely honed skill for navigating the compositional side, with a natural flair for melody. Alongside this style are the more familiar 50’s-style torch songs and tragic ballads reminiscent of Elvia and Roy Orbison, done so well on previous albums.

The album kicks off gloriously with the exotic, Spanish-tinged What If, Blane delivering a perfectly measured vocal, a performance that portray’s a lover’s insecurity. The lyrics depict a man with nagging doubts about the woman he loves but the lyrics are full of clever irony and dry wit: “What if we die with our regrets? And there are no more tête-à-têtes and only menthol cigarettes…what if, what if….”. Mellifluous saxophone swirls round the song throughout, the perfect icing on the cake for this moody masterpiece.

Mournful, melancholy harmonica opens up the following Day After New Year’s Eve but the dry humour is never far away (“The weather is friggin’ cold...”). The relatively sparse musical backdrop is very effective, a colourful, Bridge Over Troubled Water piano arrangement lays the platform for a superb, heartfelt vocal from Blane. As well written as anything on, let’s say, Sinatra’s classic Songs For Swinging Lovers, it sets a very high bar for the rest of the album.

Fortunately, the quality is maintained by third track The Met, though quite a contrast. Much lighter in mood, more in the style of someone like Stephen Sondheim, the erudite and poetic lyrics are perhaps the most sophisticated on the entire album. There’s a Noel Coward-like ingenuity and wit at work as New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is celebrated: “Let’s meet at the Met, by the bust of Pompeii, wander through Ancient Rome then move on to Marseille…”. With shades of Randy Newman, this song is brief but exquisitely crafted and hugely enjoyable.

I Hate Her sounds like it might be a bitter rant against an ex-lover but it turns out to be a deeply tender love song (“Oh how I hate her dreamy eyes….”). It’s a wonderfully poignant song, capturing the heartache and pain that comes from loving someone deeply, the agony of trying to bury those feelings: “I don’t miss her honey lips, her tender kiss or the love that we knew…”. Steven here gives perhaps the most impressive vocal performance on the album, his vocal technically excellent while conveying great emotional depth with every line. A classic.

Love Is makes for another fine contrast, upbeat and with a charming Cole Porter-esque whimsy, with only a shade of melancholy. It’s another well written song, once again featuring some fabulous saxophone that really makes it swing. We’re then transported from the 1930’s to the 1950’s with the rootsy Americana of She Danced Like An Angel. It’s full of the mystique and magic you connect with that great period of music and the gritty, evocative lead guitar shows the influence of one of Blane’s favourite songwriters, Tom Waits.

In My Lonely Place is another highlight with a particularly good vocal from Steven, full of romantic longing and ennui. The atmosphere of a late night jazz bar at 2am is conjured up by the velvetine piano and dreamy sax lines. I can guarantee that if Mr. Blane gave such a strong performance live as he does here he would be met with a standing ovation for both the song and his singing.

Love Is A Hurting Thing is a switch back to his 50’s-style balladry with its Earth Angel-esque chord progression and driving acoustic guitar. Blane’s vocals are rather more gritty on this one, a nice juxtaposition.

Mean To Me is another one perfect for midnight in a jazz bar, this one in 6/8 with upright bass and deliciously languid drums. Lazy and luscious sax interweaves with Blane’s bittersweet vocals as he contends with another femme fatale.

The album concludes on a high note with the breezy and witty The Best Things In Life Aren’t Free, which offers a healthy dose of realism to a well known saying that never quite rang true. Blane exudes a Sinatra/Bing Crosby style charm and charisma, delivering every line with conviction and aplomb, ensuring this album ends with the same level of quality with which it began.

Overall, The Met ranks as one of Steven Blane’s best albums so far and possibly his finest. Showing a remarkable compositional versatility and sophistication as well as a fine facility for penning great lyrics, Blane brings his songs to life with consistently first rate vocal performances. The result is an album without a weak moment and several songs that deserve classic status, in this writer’s opinion.

VERDICT = 9.3 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: This Is Worth It by Blue Soul Ten

Blue Soul Ten is the artistic moniker and musical brainchild of a musician, composer and producer who has been part of the music industry for 20 years. He started out as a radio DJ, as well as studying composition and production at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

His music incorporates jazz, funk, soul, electronica, reggae and hip hop with his tracks often featuring guest artists. He’s released six albums previously, The Unspoken Warrior, The Fearless Warrior, The Beautiful Warrior, Blue Notes, Ten Percent, Songs About You and The Incredible Sound Of Blue (to which I gave stellar reviews, read here, here and here).

This album, This Is Worth It, consists of thirteen tracks, some featuring vocalists who’ve appeared on previous albums as well as some newcomer collaborators. For those not yet familiar with the music of Blue Soul Ten, the albums are always bookended by an intro and outro track and this album is no exception. However, whereas instrumentals at each end of the album have been a recurrence this one opens up with the fantastic All We Need (ft. Syauqi Destanika). It’s a deliciously slinky RnB track with huge jazz overtones, driven by smoky as hell Rhodes piano while backed by a tight yet swinging beat and pulsing bass. Combined with the earthy, lush lead vocals and sweet, rich layered harmonies it’s as a seductive introduction to an album as you can get.

It segues perfectly into Different Than I’m Used To (ft Skyler Harris), an exquisite marriage of soul, funk and jazz. It’s hard to overstate the high standards of musicianship across the board on this track, from the restless, roaming bass to the frenetic complexity of the drums and percussion. Skyler’s soulful vocals are the cherry on the cake and the result is another Blue Soul Ten classic.

You Should Know By Now (ft. Dennis Lorenzo) is a nice contrast, an upbeat but emotive RnB track with a very finely sung lead vocal from the talented Lorenzo. Sounding halfway between Luther Vandross and Jason Derulo, the vocals are counterpointed by an intricate bassline and vibrant percussion along with bursts of crisp, lead acoustic guitar. The harmonies on the secondo section/pre chorus are superb and the modulation is skilfully done. A definite potential single.

Fourth track Up To You (ft. Sharmain) keeps the bar high, this one a female led jazzy RnB track, set at a blissed out tempo. There’s an effortless synergy that emerges from the musicians playing in perfect sync, laying the platform for Sharmain to deliver a sensual, passionate vocal. Once again, the vocal arrangement and harmonies are absolute perfection, juxtaposed by the adventurous bass and Rhodes on the verses.

Just as classy and well performed is I’m Afraid I Might, another track featuring the excellent Syauqi Destanika on vocals. Bolstered by a particularly good, almost James Jamerson-esque, bassline and strident jazz piano along with timely punctuations of brass, it’s another slam dunk.

No Love Greater (ft. Saniyah X) is both the album’s most sophisticated and spiritual track, a deep celebration of faith reflected over a highly intricate groove, a rich mosaic of complex percussion patterns (take a bow). This is infused with a smoking hot bassline, timely stabs of brass, swirling sax and a vocal full of both sultry dryness and authentic emotion and passion. The lyrics are full of spiritual wisdom: “The heavens know our affair and know there’s no love greater….”.

Next up is the fine title track, another vocal outing for Dennis Lorenzo and yet another first rate arrangement where every musician delivers to the max with an uncanny synergy. The buoyant bass, taut groove and mellow Rhodes cook up a meaty bedrock of sound, augmented by syncopated guitar and timely brass lines, allowing Lorenzo to deliver an understated but hugely charismatic lead vocal that resonates.

Heavenly features both Skyler Harris as lead vocalist and the rapping talents of Ascent, who brings a fresh angle to the soul/funk hybrid that constitutes the album’s signature sound. As Blue Soul Ten have experimented with hip hop on previous albums Ascent’s effective cameo on this track comes as no surprise.

He features once more on the following Pieces, this time joined by Brail Watson, taking the lead vocal duties. After a jazzy intro and a compelling descending vocal melody from Brail, the dreamy Rhodes breaks into a fabulous groove, full of world music influences. Over this polyrhythmic backdrop, Brail and Ascent trade vocals both sung and rapped, creating a natural yin/yang together. A definite album highlight for me.

Like I Do features the third and lasting appearance from Dennis Lorenzo and it’s a jewel of an RnB track. With an irresistible 6/8 groove, the arrangement gradually builds in intensity, the lyrics depicting a romantic relationship in terrible turmoil: “Do you think it’s worth the fight, do you ever say my name?”

Also in 6/8 time is the Sharmain sung Loving You, a heartfelt RnB ballad full of inventive chord changes and musical left turns while still retaining an accessible core, enriched by bold, golden brass and soaring synth strings. Sharmain’s vocals are distinctive and versatile, backed by some super tight, gospel inspired block harmonies.

The final track opens with a spoken intro by Blue Soul Ten himself, setting the vibe for another appearance from Brail Watson. It’s perhaps the most romantic song on the album, delicately and exquisitely sung, accompanied by equally subtle piano and solid but very melodic bass. The harmonies on the chorus and rich organ complete the soundscape, emerging percussion only adding to the sophistication. It builds up to a restrained but undoubtedly climactic finale, paving the way for the now traditional album outro we get on a Blue Soul Ten album.

Blue Theme VI is a captivating conclusion to proceedings, full of musical twists and turns which the musicians navigate with consummate ease. In particular, the drummer gets to really let rip with some incredible fills and the well structured arrangement builds to a satisfying finish.

Overall, this is yet another album of the highest quality from Blue Soul Ten. This one finds him at his most sophisticated and nuanced as writer/producer and performer, a very high degree of musicianship combining with compositional craft and an array of gifted vocal collaborators, both male and female. Whether this is Blue Soul Ten’s best album yet is so somewhat subjective, but it seems to me that the quality and musical versatility only seems to go from strength to strength with every release. And only a fool would try to deny that Blue Soul Ten is making the most sophisticated, accomplished RnB music out there.

VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: Bliss Society by Karl McCann

Karl McCann is a singer/songwriter from Liverpool who has been involved with various indie/alternative bands since he was a teenager. He has performed across the UK and Europe, supporting bands like Scouting For Girls and Apartment, and has featured on various radio stations. Aside from his involvement with dreampop duo Lights That Change and side projects like Sophisto, he has been releasing solo material for the last decade. He’s built a sizeable fanbase via gigging and his prolific output since his debut album Naturealistic, back in 2012.

This album, Bliss Society, consists of twelve tracks and is Karl’s second release of 2022, following the Carbon Copy EP. Album opener Natural Disease is a good example of his unique style; plaintive strummed acoustic guitar and understated yet compelling lead vocals that meld with the texture of the music rather than dominate it. Karl performs the acoustic guitar himself as well as singing, joined throughout the album by a number of cohorts enriching the sound through varied instrumental contributions. This song is given a haunting cello line in the second verse (courtesy of Fiona Nightingale), bringing to mind Nirvana’s Something In The Way and the more ornate balladry of Elliott Smith.

After this strong start, Obscure Verse is even better, instantly grabbing the listener with a superb Vryll Society-esque guitar riff (played on acoustic) soon bolstered by a meaty drum beat and McCann delivering a blissed out, captivating vocal. This is nicely contrasted by a relatively heavier section which shows the influence of grunge and alt. rock bands amidst his folk and shoegaze influences. It’s the way these eclectic influences fuse together into a seamless whole which form the secret of McCann’s music.

Love Is A Burden is another example of this, blending the dreamy and melodic with angular chord changes and brief moments of dissonance, always resolving after building effective musical tension. With the left of field harmonic choices and the solemn sound of cello once again, the song expresses a deep melancholy with unsettling conviction.

The six minute Forever Lost Control maintains similar contrasts but is rather more upbeat, in tempo at least. The pulsating chug of acoustic guitars interweaves with simple but effective piano lines (River Jackson) and subtle synths completing the sophisticated soundscape. McCann’s vocals are again mesmerising, the vocal melody crystal clear despite being low in the mix, a neat trick.

Purify Your Dreams is another album highlight, this one in 7/4 time, showing a prog rock influence (though Pink Floyd rather than Yes). Over this angular rhythm, McCann delivers a spectral vocal, propelled by an urgent acoustic motif that locks perfectly with the beat. This is contrasted by a return to majestic melancholy, Turning Blue like a floating cloud of sound passing by, the vocoder harmonies adding a touch of the avant garde.

Make A Wish is the album’s epic, clocking in at just under ten minutes. It immediately intrigues with an enigmatic low end riff set at a deliciously languid tempo. This creates a compelling ambience over which Karl’s vocals weave a mesmerising, mournful melody. It brings to mind something as solemn and powerful and Joy Division’s The Eternal or Echo and the Bunnymen’s Over The Wall. It gradually builds into a colossal wall of sound, combining fuzzed up guitar (that sounds like the amps have been slashed with a razor blade, an early Kinks trick) with dreamy, echo drenched guitar lines. The final minutes have a quiet majesty about them, a thudding beat emerging to drive the forceful momentum till the very end. This heady mix of the sonically beautiful with the raw and the raucous creates a divine dichotomy, bringing to mind Sonic Youth circa Sister and Daydream Nation.

X Marks The Spot is a different beast altogether, an upbeat dreampop track given an exotic, seductive vibe with its vocoder-infused vocals, Karl joined by Nerissa Waters to great effect. This song nicely captures Karl’s natural gift for coining a memorable melody, akin to someone like Lee Mavers of The La’s. The sweet vocal harmonies are counterpointed well by a rootsy acoustic guitar riff and the end result is a superb piece of alternative/indie pop.

Neon Rainbow keeps the bar high, another hazy, gently psychedelic acoustic driven song, the guitars locking into a loping groove that provides the bedrock for another ethereal lead vocal that captivates till the end. An even more ethereal, ghostly vocal features on the following Azure Sky, built around an insistent guitar motif. It’s lilting melody weaves a hypnotic spell, contrasted by an unexpected burst of saxophone from Andrew Clarke.

The penultimate song Chateau instantly captivates with Forever Changes-style, crystalline picked acoustic guitar. The relatively sparse backing, augmented by subtle synth strings, allows McCann’s otherworldly vocals to come to the fore and results in one of the most beautiful and haunting highlights of the album. It also captures his almost Nick Drake-like abilities as a guitarist, with some particularly impressive playing towards the end. The gentle refrain, “Why you looking down?” recurs and the sadness in the music seems to provide the answer.

This sense of poignancy is maintained by the album’s understated finale, Preserving. Consisting of a minor key arpeggio-based progression, it paints a desolate but moving soundscape, the musical equivalent of a cinematic fade out and so an apposite way to conclude.

Overall, this is a consistently excellent album from a singer songwriter who has honed his style and artistry into something unique and authentic. Combining influences from shoegaze and the more psychedelic end of prog rock with alternative folk and grunge, McCann brings it all together with consummate songwriting craft. The result is a very strong set of songs that emotionally connect yet retain an air of mystery. Bliss Society will surely stand as one of the year’s best albums and perhaps will gain McCann the wider recognition his music deserves.

VERDICT = 9. 1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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The Gangsta Rabbi, a.k.a. The King Of Jewish Punk, is the moniker of the multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, composer and producer Steve Lieberman. He was born in Brooklyn, New York to a working class Jewish family and now resides in Freeport. Perhaps more than most artists, his work needs to be understood in the full context of his life.

He has been considered an ‘outsider artist’, partly attributed to his lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder which began for him at the age of just eleven. He has been releasing studio albums since 2002 and has now released over thirty, along with live albums and countless cassettes. He has shared the stage with Weezer, Andrew WK, Glassjaw, Ryan Dunn and The Misfits, but had to retire from performing in 2011 owing to having to battle an advanced form of leukaemia, returning briefly to the stage in 2016.

In 2018, he was admitted into a hospice and remarkably has carried on creating, producing his most challenging works including completely covering Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick (a major influence) and thrash metal versions of the British Opera, The H.M.S. Pinafore and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. In 2019, he released his 3 hour magnum opus, Symphonie-Thrash Du Professeur Juif Rebelle.

More recently, the Rabbi has now entered the Guinness Book Of Records for the world’s longest composition, his 33 hour magnum opus Noise Militia #38/76! You can read my review of this here and also a review of the overture to this piece which he released in 2020 (read here).

This compendium of singles and EP’s from Post-Militia Pogo Battalion (#39/77) starts out with the brilliant, incendiary Unholy War In A Holy Land, taken from his third album ‘liquidatia-455’, released originally in 2004. A chaotic yet controlled cyclone of sound, essentially the Gangsta Rabbi signature sound comes out all guns blazing from the start. Though the lyrics are hard to catch, the title strongly suggests it’s about the Israel and Palestine conflict and perhaps an expression of his Jewish faith.

The next three tracks consist of monumental medleys that combine Gangsta Rabbi originals with radically original takes on various pop, alternative rock and punk classics to great effect. Opus #111 (#1-5) opens up like an MC5 track, before breaking out into Militia Man, an inspired cacophony of electric and orchestral instruments locked in to a thunderous rhythm. This is followed by completely unique renditions of 25or6to4 by Chicago, The Knack’s perennial classic My Sharon’s, and Traffic’s Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, finishing with Be My Lover.

Opus #110 again opens with a Lieberman original, Bassett-Hound Pull Toy, following up with gloriously irreverent reworkings of Owner of a Lonely Heart by Yes, Feeling Stronger Every Day by Chicago and closing this medley out with Rock. Opus #109 flips things around, starting with an inimitable cover of The Third Hoorah by Jethro Tull, replete with a kaleidoscopic swirl of wailing woodwinds, before segueing into his own Mourn for Me Like The Prophet.

The lyrics to this track capture the Rabbi at his most poetic, profound and heartfelt: “Mourn for me like the Prophet, for these are my magic last days, bewail me, never stop it in my tragic magic last days.…”. The final verse is pure punk rock spirit, a glorious middle finger to the bullshit political meddling in the world an artist has to contend with: “Mourn for me you municipality, you can no longer censor me, mourn for me you State of New York, go and shove your General Municipal Law”.

This intensity is then thrown into light relief with entertaining covers of You Spin Me Round by Dead or Alive and A Salty Dog by 60’s legends Procal Harum. Next comes the blazing punk fury of I’ll Overthrow The Government For You(After A Bloodless Coup d’État-3472), featuring an impassioned and fiery lead vocal from the Rabbi, over five minutes of musical dynamite. The lyrics channel the romantic, revolutionary spirit of the Sex Pistols: “To have you back I’ll be an anarchist, for a night of love or just one kiss…”.

This is followed by the superbly titled POLICE OFFICER – (Don’t Gimme No PRODUCER), of similar duration and equal intensity – the Rabbi’s vocals are even more visceral and energetic on this one. Yet even this is outdone by a superlative ten minute cover of Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, a complete reimagining that the Rabbi makes his own.

Then we see a return to the gloriously manic medleys with OPUS # 104- ARIA’S# 1 – 4. 21st Century Schizoid Man by 70’s prog rockers King Crimson is given a sonic reinvention by the Rabbi that not even they could concoct in their imaginations, following up by an equally left of field take on Midnight Oil’s Truganini.

Radar Love is one the Rabbi’s finest cover versions, originally by Golden Earring. Managing to maintain the pop sensibilities of the original and infusing it with his brand of musical chaos magick, it’s thunderous energy and momentum continue to the end with razor sharp, jagged edged guitars pitched against restless, cyclonic woodwinds.

It features first as a stand-alone single then reappears as part of the medley Opus #103 Arias 1-4, which starts out with another excellent cover, Always Saturday, a song originally by Guadalcanal Diary. After Radar Love, we then get a typically quirky reworking of quite a mainstream original, Mixed Emotions by The Rolling Stones. Just as good is the Rabbi’s take on The Who’s 60’s classic I Can’t Explain.

Opus #102- Aria’s 1-4 is another strong and eclectic medley that ranges from the opening version of Midnight Oil’s Back On The Borderline, following up with a Rabbi take on Elton John’s Your Song, then an unexpected but excellent cover of Bring On The Dancing Horses by Echo and The Bunnymen. The medley is completed by a version of another track Guadalcanal Diary.

Opus #101 is just as wildly eclectic and versatile, from Nemesis to a cover of Billy Bragg’s A New England, then segues into vibrant versions of George Harrison’s Beware of Darkness and The Cure’s goth classic Disintegration.

The final medley in this collection is Opus #99 is kicked off by a Rabbi classic, Skinheads In My Yard, Oy Vey! An unexpected but a typically inimitable rendition of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer is contrasted by Echo and the Bunnymen’s Nocturnal Me (from their 1984 album, Ocean Rain). The medley, clocking in at over twenty minutes like the rest, is completed by The Story In Your Eyes, originally a hit for the Moody Blues back in 1971. It’s given the full Lieberman treatment and rounds things out perfectly.

Overall, this is an extensive singles and EP’s compendium of a legendary alternative artist who can genuinely lay claim to creating a truly original sound and style which he applies to both his own compositions and the colourful, eclectic range of other people’s songs that feature in his numerous medleys. With another record breaking composition on the way, there is simply no stopping the Gangsta Rabbi and long may he rock.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

SINGLE REVIEW: LAX by Ernando Recendez

Ernando Recendez is an up and coming singer and songwriter based in Los Angeles. He was raised in a very musical family in Pico Rivera, California (southeastern Los Angeles) and given early artistic inspiration as well as musical education by being introduced to groups like Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool and The Gang. He went to study singing, songwriting and production at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts where he found a mentor who helped him develop his blossoming talents. With the strong support of his family (some members have performed with him under the name The Nandos) , Ernando began pursuing his dreams of stardom and has already racked up huge numbers on platforms like Spotify and YouTube.

LAX, a track which features on the eponymous album The Nandos, is an upbeat, pop rock song with a distinctly summery feel. It’s a great showcase for Ernando’s talents as singer and songwriter, bringing to mind modern groups influenced by 60’s and 70’s music such as McFly. LAX gets off to an instantly infectious start with a pulsing synth backed by an urgent 4/4 beat. Ernando’s musicality quickly comes to the fore with the jazzy, Stevie Wonder-style chord progression played on a Rhodes piano and his charismatic, ‘easy on the ear’ vocal style completes the sound.

The song is essentially romantic in nature though nicely sidesteps sentimentality with some playful lines. The lyrics depict a relationship where they are having to part ways and the LAX in question refers to Los Angeles International Airport: “I wish you didn’t have to take this flight, I wish your papa heard me sing tonight, but most of all I just want to see you again, I just hope that we get stuck at LAX…”. After the excellent verse the “Is there something more than I love you?” section is just as strong while the reggae-tinged middle section gives an added musical flavour and sophistication.

Overall, LAX is an excellent, hugely enjoyable piece of modern pop from a highly talented young songwriter. Taking the best elements from the great sixties and seventies music he was raised with, Ernando fuses this with a slick, modern and radio friendly sound with relatable lyrics for the times. The result is a song with global appeal, not just in terms of geography but music that will resonate with people of all ages. In short, Ernando Recendez is a huge star in the making.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

DOUBLE A-SIDE SINGLE REVIEW: Always/Kiss at High Frequency by Victoria Fragoso

Victoria Fragoso is an alternative/indie singer songwriter currently residing in Tacoma, Washington. A plethora of influences have shaped her artistic development including her Hispanic heritage, her training in classical piano and background in musical theatre, as well as her degree in Creative Writing from Chapman University, South California. Her musical development was also shaped through many years of coffee house performances, a perfect environment for a singer/songwriter to learn their craft and grow as a performer. This eventually resulted in releasing her first material in 2019, the five track EP This River. 2020 and 2021, the years of the pandemic, saw her releasing a series of singles including Do You Mind, Beautiful Things, Heavy Heart and Weight of Limitations amongst others.

This latest single is, in fact, a double A-side release, which was a common practice in the 60’s and 70’s (The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single being an obvious example). This is fitting as Victoria’s musical style is reminiscent of the classic female singer songwriters of that era such as Carole King and Joni Mitchell combined with more modern artists such as Sara Bareilles, Katie Melua, Laura Marling and Tori Amos.

The first song Always is essentially a piano-led ballad, also featuring guitar work from Blake Tomasch & Paul Morgan. From the outset the song makes an immediate impression with Victoria’s distinctive and captivating vocals taking centre stage. Possessing a sweet, lilting tone akin to Katie Melua, Always provides the perfect showcase for her as both singer and songwriter. Her skills in creative writing also come to the fore through the imaginative, poetic nature of the lyrics: “I’m not a book but I love how you read me, I’m not a picture but I love how you see me….”.

The song’s poignant and affecting lead melody is equal to the words, resulting in a touchingly romantic song that sidesteps mere sentimentality and cliche, expressing deep feelings in a refreshing and seemingly effortless way. Alongside the guitar contributions, the arrangement is enriched by pizzicato synth string lines and chordal swells as well as a simple but effective beat which completes the sonic picture. With its radio friendly sound (Victoria,impressively, also produces her own material) and instantly memorable title hook, Always has all the ingredients necessary for a huge hit.

The second song, the “flip side”, is Kiss at High Frequency, which has a similar charm in terms of its melodic style but with a full beat that kicks in almost from the start. Underpinned by a swirling piano arpeggio that recurs throughout the song, the lyrics depict a moving situation of feeling love for someone without knowing how they feel in return. The opening lines capture this emotional vulnerability perfectly: “I’m sending you a kiss at high frequency, one no one can hear, no one can see… I’ve tried magic tricks and fireworks and stars but they never seem to reach your heart, they only make us seem so far apart…”.

The ability to express these kind of deep, innermost feelings is at the heart of what makes a good artist and Victoria clearly has this gift in spades, along with a fine ear for melody. Once again, the arrangement is augmented by tasteful and well crafted guitar contributions along with synth strings, though it’s Fragoso’s enchanting vocals that dominate, as they should.

A very strong song in its own right, it would make a good single on its own but works well as part of this double A side, the perfect complement to Always.

Overall, this latest release from Victoria Fragoso features two superb songs that capture her talents as both a singer and songwriter. Gifted as both lyricist and melodist, she is also blessed with a wonderful voice that conveys the deep emotions portrayed in her nuanced, articulate lyrics. With a commercial appeal equal to that of Katie Melua or Norah Jones, there’s absolutely no doubt Victoria Fragoso has everything it takes to enjoy similar global success and this release could be an important stepping stone to that goal.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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ALBUM REVIEW: Turn The Lights Back On by Swill

Swill are a five-piece rock band hailing from Buffalo, New York. The band formed in 2008 and consists of Galen Kogut (lead vocalist), Scott Kent (lead/rhythm guitar and backing vocals), Scott Baroniecki (lead/rhythm guitar), Michael Copp (bass/backing vocals) and Michael Polojac (drums, though stick duties on this album were by former drummer Ken Pruchnicki). They released their debut album, One…The Mid-Life Crisis Sessions, in 2013, followed by The Gin Mill in 2015 and third album Heart In Ruins In 2018.

This album, Turn The Lights Back On, constitutes their fourth and consists of eleven tracks. It begins with the blazing, anthemic title track, which starts out playfully and imaginatively; cracking vinyl noises and a haunting piano plays an instantly memorable melody which morphs into the meaty, low-end guitar riff when the band kicks in, underpinning the whole song. As I’ve written elsewhere before, the two vital ingredients for a rock ‘n roll band are a great lead singer and strong, memorable choruses. Galen Kogut’s earthy, heartfelt vocals instantly stand out along with the high standard of musicianship.

But musical chops count for little without those catchy hooks that audiences latch on to and this opener delivers a fist-pumping chorus as good as Bon Jovi in their early pomp. While Bon Jovi have a slick, commercial sound Swill are much more authentic with crunchy, Appetite For Destruction-style riffage beneath the vocals and effective backing harmonies. Their hard rockin’ credentials are cast in stone when it gets to the guitar solo, a glorious stylistic blend of Ritchie Blackmore and Eddie Van Halen. Lyrically, the song has a rather uplifting, spiritual message; it’s about waking up to the idea that the ignorant ideas that have kept people divided should be swept aside for a world where everyone you meet is your family, your brothers and sisters. I can definitely dig that concept.

After this instant classic, second track Heaven’s Getting Crowded show us the modern, alternative rock side to the band. Based around chugging high end chords and riffage that brought to mind bands like The Killers and The Strokes and Kogut’s voice also suits this different style well. The verses are more in the traditional rock/pop mould, the lyrics rather more mysterious and ethereal then the direct anthem that preceded it. There’s a real poetic quality to lines like, “dresses in a dazzling white suit and shining in the dawn”, and the taut, instant chorus has a poignant feel when you realise the title hook refers to having lost someone you loved. The well crafted solos after the second chorus lift the music even higher before the chorus repeat closes out an excellent arrangement and another corker of a track.

A Fable is a quirky, highly infectious track, an upbeat rocker with a punchy beat punctuated by short, low end riffs. Once again the words have a depth and meaning that lies outside the remit of most rock bands, where odes to hedonism and excess tend to be more the norm. It seems to be about how we can be seduced and tempted by the ideologies and stories we encounter in our lives, encapsulated by the chorus: “Legends, fables and fairytales are eating at your brain, Kings and queens and wolverines are gaining their free rein….”.

Better Off shows another musical facet of the group, this one an emotive, highly melodic anthem that opens with clean, reverb drenched guitar for the verses before hitting the distortion pedals for the meaty, soaring chorus, one of the strongest on the album. It portrays a bad relationship with a femme fatale who the protagonist should be moving on from yet finds himself drawn back into her web: “And here I go head over heels, you’re beautiful my dear….”. The references to the recent pandemic will add a further relatability for their fans and should prove a firm favourite, especially live with its singalong title hook.

The following Rise Up finds them at their most belligerent and positive, delivering a truly inspiring message about fighting back on both an individual level and a societal level. The exceptionally anthemic chorus has a great call and response chant between Kogut and the backing vocalists in the band: “Rise up! Rise up! You gotta rise up, don’t let the bastards get you down…”. With a fantastic lead vocal performed near the top of Kogut’s considerable range, the rest of the band more than match his energy, playing with guts and gusto to the end. Another superbly sculptured guitar solo proves the icing on the cake.

Strange Addiction is an interesting track, a funky, way-drenched track that raises a sceptical eyebrow at unhealthy sexual pursuits and licentious vices, let’s say….: “Strange addiction can be so depraved with that wicked, strange addiction to that which you crave…”. There’s so much to enjoy on this one beside another fine chorus, such as the blistering work behind the kit and the Avenged Sevenfold-esque harmonised guitars towards the end.

Sixth track Can’t is a return to the more sensitive and melancholy style of earlier tracks, the lyrics depicting a love and infatuation bordering on obsession: “Days are long and nights are cold and I wonder if I’ll sleep without you near me, hear you breathing…”. This kind of deep romanticism is a strong arrow in their artistic quiver, with most bands unable to reach those emotional heights and depths. Special mention should go to the gorgeous, Spanish style acoustic guitar which enriches the band’s sonic palette to great effect.

Out of Reach is an album highlight that finds a perfect convergence between classic and modern rock. Starting out almost like a Fugazi-type punk rock track, this combined with tight, Who-style vocal harmonies and dirty, distorted bass that creates a primal, surging momentum. Slick and crunchy guitars fill out the sound, the intensity building up to a gloriously display of shredding so fast and fluent that Eddie Van Halen would nod in respect.

Don’t Wanna Know starts out with a T.S. Eliot reference, developing into another well written, moving piece of epic rock that captures the emotional agony of a tormenting, unresolved romantic relationship. Penultimate song, The Contract, returns us to the spiritual themes that have run like a thread through the album.

It’s full of biblical fire and brimstone imagery, the lyrics reminiscent of Dylan in his “born again” period: “Do unto others as they do to you, in the river Jordan we bathe, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods or forever you shall be enslaved…”. This is married to music of equal depth, sparse verses contrasted with a powerful, cathartic section in 6/8 time featuring some fine double kick work. The lyrics are fascinating, the final verse depicting a Faustian pact with undercurrents of the legends about blues singers selling their soul to the devil at the crossroads.

The spiritual and biblical manifests once again in the album’s closing song, Angels Cry. Like most of the album, the song’s character is depicted in the midst of an existential crisis, trying to find redemption and their true path. The euphoric chorus offers consolation: “The trials and tribulations that are put upon you are here to help you past that test…”. In 6/8 time throughout, the band plays their hearts out, Michael Copp’s mellifluous, roaming basslines particular good on this track. The merging of the meaningful with the rawness of the rock ensures that the album ends on a triumphant note, closing out with a curtain call of incendiary guitar fireworks and guttural vocals.

Overall, Turn The Lights Back On is a hugely enjoyable fourth album from a band who have honed their craft and tapped into the roots of what makes a great rock band. Excelling both vocally and instrumentally, it’s the consistently strong songwriting and deep lyrics that makes Swill really stand out from the crowd. Authentic and emotionally honest, their songs are relatable as well as instantly memorable with a broad appeal. Provided they get the exposure they deserve, this album will see Swill recognised as one of the finest proponents in their field and see them garner a bigger fan base.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: Reminiscent by VxT

VxT (short for @valexteaky) is the artistic moniker of an aspiring producer/songwriter/rapper hailing originally from India but now residing in the Bay Area of California. By day, VxT works as a sound engineer but at night he gets to pursue his first love; writing, performing, recording and producing music. He began releasing original material back in 2015, with the singles Looking for You and Illusions of Reality. 2016 saw the release of a third single, Hate Me I’m High. In 2021, he released his debut full length album Holding and this year has so far produced his first independently released album, Reminiscent.

The album consists of eleven tracks in the rap/hip hop genre, opening with the smooth, subtly infectious hip hop/RnB of Stop. VxT takes centre stage from the start, first impressing with a mellifluous lead vocal then switching to displaying his rap skills in the verses. Throughout the track is a recurring guitar motif that gives the music a real melodic depth. Rhythmically, it’s perfectly in sync with VxT’s rap delivery, which is fluent both in wordplay and assured delivery. With its radio friendly sound and catchy title hook, Stop is an obvious contender for a single.

Even better is the second track, Brown Boy Flow. Built around a haunting, mysterious melodic motif full of Eastern flavour, here VxT merges the styles of the East and the West to form a potent and powerful fusion; imagine Ravi Shankar crossed with Eminem. Indeed, the rapid fire delivery on the verses rivals Eminem for verbal dexterity and flawless, tight delivery.

The lyrics are an honest depiction of feeling like an outsider as an Indian living in America as evidenced by the opening lines: “All the way to the land of the free and the home of the brave, I don’t know if I even belong here, I don’t even know what I’m saying…”. It’s a modern take on the classic theme of the outsider who doesn’t fit in, thematically akin to classics like A Boy Named Sue and Englishmen In New York. But this timeless theme is infused with fresh energy through VxT’s particular, unique perspective and the result is an instant rap classic.

Hey Dad is another emotionally powerful and affecting track, a reflection on, and reminiscence of, a difficult and troubled father son relationship. Centred around a haunting, classical-inspired piano progression and a slick hip hop groove, VxT lays his heart on his sleeve from the start: “Wanted to tell that I did everything that I did just to make you proud, wanted to hear “Son, you did well”, I just wanna hear that sound.…”. A fantastic hip hop track that skilfully balances rap virtuosity with a poignant and moving lyrical narrative.

Got What I Wanted maintains the high musical quality, this one more of a showcase for his singing, which is just as good as his rapping. The commercial, radio friendly production style and effortlessly memorable chorus make it another contender for a single release, especially as it covers the universal theme of romantic disappointment and emotional pain.

The blissfully languid Way Too Long shows another side to his sophisticated musical persona, this one featuring a superb lead vocal that rivals any RnB/soul singer out there. This is skilfully blended and contrasted by rap sections and the chilled out tempo really allows the lush melodies to breathe.

Sixth track Nobody Else takes the pulse down another few beats per minute, a seductive tempo in tandem with a hypnotic lead vocal melody. VxT delivers a perfectly poised and understated performance, even when the words express strong emotional turbulence.

The insistent, seesaw melody of Worth brought to mind an artist like Drake, whilst lyrically articulating a brewing emotional storm bordering on an existential crisis. The way Vxt combines depth and emotion with the lighter side of life is skilfully done, the following All I Wanted openly expressing his love of marijuana (which may explain the mellow tempos!): “So I think about when we do drugs, especially when I’m high, is it to die or to feel alive?“. Another commercial sounding track, though the drug references perhaps rule it out as a potential single.

Free is another excellent track, dropping the tempo to super languid, VxT delivering a dreamy, melancholy vocal that brought to mind artists like The Weeknd and Terry Blade. Paint A Picture explores a similar emotional terrain though with a few cheeky 420 friendly references thrown in: “All I need is an edible to calm down now and be sensible...”. The flowing triplets in the rap sections are a reminder of his high pedigree as a rapper.

The album closes with First Love, the longest here at nearly four and a half minutes. It’s also the most openly romantic track with a heartfelt chorus refrain: “People say I should find somebody new cos they think time with you is a waste, they don’t understand you like I do...”. Along with the perfect balance of displaying his rapping and vocal skills, ending on a positive note of expressing deep, unconditional love is a fitting end to the album’s emotional rollercoaster.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

SINGLE REVIEW: Tomorrow Yesterday by Toby TomTom

Toby TomTom is a singer/songwriter and producer with a very interesting backstory. Earlier in his career he worked with Alicia Keys and Shelby J (of Prince fame) , apprenticed with Kenni Hairston (Cameo, Cyndi Lauper) and even sat in on sessions with the legendary producer and composer Quincy Jones. He has a diverse range of influences, ranging from classical composers like Debussy, to funk and soul artists like Tower of Power and Marvin Gaye as well as the late, great Tupac Shakur. In the past, I’ve given very favourable reviews to Toby’s previous releases, Born To Be Free (read here) and Loveolution (read here).

This latest release, Tomorrow Yesterday, is an upbeat RnB/hip hop track with strong EDM/Pop vibes. Toby has stated the track was artistically inspired by an NBA Superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo interview, where he discussed the importance of living in the moment. Impressively, Toby wrote and produced the track, sang all the vocals and played all the instruments himself, with the exception of Frank Ferrara, who contributes guitar.

The song grabs you from the start with an arresting intro of strident synth strings and an urgent hi hat groove. This quickly develops into a very intricate and sophisticated RnB/hip hop beat that is constantly developing, full of nuance and detail which reveals itself upom repeated listens. Equally sophisticated are Toby’s vocals, which mix memorable refrains (“Today’s a good day“) with all manner of slick, cutting edge production effects.

As mentioned, the essence of the song’s theme is not dwelling on the problems of the past or the potential issues of the future (“Yesterday’s gone, tomorrow ain’t givin’…today is for livin’“). Stabs of brass only add to the inspirational, very upbeat and summery vibe of the music, and the complete effect is addictive and infectious to the very end.

Overall, Tomorrow Yesterday is a superb RnB/hip hop track and Toby TomTom’s most assured and impressive release yet. Full of catchy melodic hooks both vocally and instrumentally, the super modern production is perfect for radio and Toby’s vocal performance is first rate. With its inspiring, universal message Tomorrow Yesterday could truly be the track that brings this gifted artist and writer/producer to a massive, worldwide audience.

VERDICT= 9.2 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

Available on all streaming platforms, click HERE

SINGLE REVIEW: Tribal by Dizzy Scratch ft. Antoinette Roberson

Dizzy Scratch (Shawn McKenzie) is a multi-platinum record producer who was born in Toronto, Canada but grew up in Queens, New York. He was part of the East Coast hip hop group Main Source (known as Sir Scratch) and went on produce hits, including twenty platinum records, for numerous hugely successful artists including Nas, Madonna, TLC, Backstreet Boys, Seal, the O’Jays, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte. Now focusing on his own material, he has been working on his upcoming EP, The Art Of My Noise.

This latest release, Tribal, is a mid-paced jazzy hip hop/RnB track featuring the vocals of Antoinette Roberson. Built around a punchy, vibrant beat Dizzy has described the track as “more of a vibe song using my interpretation of a tribal beat”. This serves as the bedrock for a sensual and seductive descending vocal melody , augmented by some gorgeous layered harmonies from Roberson, who provides the perfect yin to the yang of the pulsating groove.

The arrangement gradually builds with the subtle sophistication of a Prince track, all manner of slick production effects emerging as shards of vocals are melded with moody brass to create a truly lush soundscape. The combination of the hypnotic beats and jazzy lines with the alluring, earthy vocals of Roberson create an intoxicating sonic experience that is both cutting edge and old school in all the best ways.

Overall, this is a superb hip hop track from the legendary producer and DJ, Dizzy Scratch. Showing a high degree of musicality with an ear for a great beat, the track’s jazzy vibes and melodic hooks intermingle seamlessly with a plethora of cool production moves. The result is a perfect, modern sound for this era with a strong influence from jazz and soul that will appeal to a very broad musical demographic. I look forward to hearing more from Dizzy Scratch, who has returned to the business in style.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

Buy Tribal on ITunes HERE