ALBUM REVIEW: Journey Home by Monica Ortiz

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https://www.facebook.com/monicaortizmusic/

Monica Ortiz is a country/pop/adult contemporary singer and songwriter. Ever since she was a child she’s had a very strong relationship with music and felt the desire to express herself creatively from an early age. This debut album Journey Home, which consists of nine songs, is the end result of her musical journey so far and features a number of collaborators and guest performances. She has co-written several songs with Charlie Lowell from Jars of Clay and there’s vocal contributions from Matthew Koziol and the McCrary sisters.

The album starts with the poignant piano ballad The Woman I Became. It acts as a fine showcase for Monica’s crystalline vocals and emotive, inspiring songwriting approach. It’s a style that was known in the 1970’s as “confessional”, where full and open expression of feelings was paramount. The opening lines paint a touching picture of parental love: “When I was little you said it would be hard, you sat me down and warned me of future scars….”.

Monica’s delicate and sensitive vocal performance in a high register perfectly expresses the lyrics that depict the difficult process of growing up, of a girl growing into a woman and standing on her own two feet. Aside from a fine piano arrangement, the song features strings which add to the emotional effect, especially on the moving and memorable chorus. A very strong opening song and one co-written with Charlie Lowell.

The second track Burn Out is a mid-paced country-tinged pop song written by Matt Odmark from Jars of Clay and Heather Bond. Monica very much makes it her own, delivering another fine performance that brought to mind Shania Twain’s country ballads. The musicianship and production is absolutely flawless with slick backing harmonies augmenting Monica’s lead vocal.

The following Pigtails, which is similar style musically and lyrically, is a plea to a partner to allow her to fully be herself and not try to control her, (“Just let me dance to my music, let me drum to my song”) a subject that many will be able to relate to. It features some lovely instrumental touches from the strummed acoustic guitar to some tasteful, creamy sounding slide guitar interspersed throughout. Once again, the backing harmonies enrich the vocals at various points to great effect.

On My Side is altogether different, an upbeat pop track with a reggae-tinged rhythm and a vocal from Monica in the highest part of her considerable range, bringing to mind Cyndi Lauper or Kate Bush circa Wuthering Heights. The melody is instantly infectious with the funky guitar adding to the catchiness. The beat is mostly in half time but cleverly switches to straight 4/4 and the whole arrangement is full of rhythmic invention. That’s something the discerning listener will enjoy, but this song’s huge commercial appeal is in its addictive lead melody. A definite contender as a single release.

Bring Me Home is a return to the emotive piano ballad style of the opening song. It’s on this kind of song that Monica gets to excel as a singer, and here she gives an enchanting performance. Lyrically, it’s about needing someone to show emotional support.

This Time is a little different, this one a country pop song that opens with a fine fiddle part. It’s a duet performed with Matthew Koziol and Matthew takes the lead on the opening verse. Monica joins in on the excellent chorus, their contrasting voices blending and complementing each other perfectly. She then takes the second verse giving a nice ‘yin yang’ vibe to the song, and lyrically it’s a positive affirmation about giving a relationship another go.

The Mirror is both a melancholy country ballad and an empowering, uplifting anthem. It’s about a woman who has reached the end of her tether while in an unhappy relationship and decides to leave, as captured succinctly in the superb singalong chorus: “She can’t take it anymore, her suitcase sitting by the door….she won’t back down”. Another potential single.

Let Me Be There is more emotionally straightforward and musically a toe-tapping country rock song that has an authentic, roots vibe. This song is actually a cover version of an Olivia Newton John which was originally released on an album in 1973. It’s traditional country at its finest, featuring a sweet lyric about wanting to be in someone’s life. The subtle low male vocals on the chorus are a nice touch as is the rich Hammond organ which adds to the instrumental texture.

The album closes aptly with one final piano ballad where Monica once again gets to shine, vocally. Backed by plaintive piano and evocative strings, she is eventually joined by the gospel-tinged vocals of the McCrary Sisters whose contribution lends the song an uplifting, highly spiritual quality. Lyrically, it’s particularly moving, about losing a loved one: “A forced goodbye when heaven can’t wait….”. It’s a fitting end to an album that, as the title implies, takes the listener on an emotional journey.

Overall, this is a very fine collection of country pop songs that allow Monica Ortiz to showcase her skills as both singer and songwriter. Her different collaborators bring variety yet there’s also a sense of cohesion and musical unity. With a flawlessly produced sound and several potential singles, Monica Ortiz has everything it takes to break through to the big time.

 

VERDICT= 8.8 out of 10 

Alex Faulkner

 

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SINGLE REVIEW: Come and Stay with Me by Phil Mitchell Band

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Phil Mitchell is a composer, author and musician hailing from Chicago and the members that comprise the Phil Mitchell Band are musicians native to that area. He started writing songs while still a child and has written music in an eclectic range of genres including jazz, classical, RnB, rock, blues and country. He has released several albums including Morning Star, Crossroads and America. The band formed back in 2004 and they have performed at a variety of venues whilst recording music in the studio.

This track, Come and Stay With Me, is an upbeat pop/rock song taken from their album Crossroads, with elements of 70’s rock such as musical virtuosity and an ambitious, epic arrangement. The sound is very musical with flamboyant, Rick Wakeman-style piano and equally florid guitars, providing the bedrock for Phil Mitchell’s assured vocal performance. The lilting verse melody latches quickly in the memory but its the surging passages of energetic musicianship that really set this apart from the pack.

The structure is unusual but highly effective and the longer the track goes on the more euphoric the instrumental sections become. Strident, octave-spanning piano duels with creamy electric lead guitar and synth strings driven by solid but inventive drumming, held in perfect balance by the vocal sections and the infectious title hook. This approach brought to mind the epic rock of the 70’s such as Queen and the operatic rock of Jim Steinman (Meat Loaf).

Overall, this is an immensely enjoyable rock/pop track that cleverly balances traditional verse and chorus songwriting with instrumental sections that allow the other members of the Phil Mitchell Band to shine. What is truly impressive is how the studio recording has effectively captured the energy of the musical performances and you can tell this is a band who have been playing a long time. It’s this kind of musical authenticity that is lacking from so much modern mainstream music, but fortunately Phil Mitchell and his gifted cohorts are here to help redress the balance.

 

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

Visit the official website here

SINGLE REVIEW: Cruisin’ by Josh Best

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Josh Best is an up and coming country singer and songwriter hailing from Forest City in North Carolina. He is currently in the Air Force stationed in Alaska and is now hoping to push forward with his music career. He has been playing the guitar and performing, having received tuition from his father and uncle, the latter a well known musician in the Gastonia, North Carolina area. He has recently released several songs including Rebecca’s Song, Half (Must See) and Country Grown And Country Strong.

This track, Cruisin’, is an upbeat mid-tempo country rock track and a good introduction to Josh Best’s music. Starting with a brief country-tinged guitar melody it breaks out into strummed acoustic guitar and a steady drumbeat. Josh’s vocals come across immediately as strong and authentic, easy on the ear and suited to the material.

Lyrically, it’s a light hearted and enjoyable ‘good time’ ode to the joys of a truck journey with someone you love and the radio blasting. The vocal melody is deceptively catchy on the verse melody which is magnified on the instantly memorable title hook: “Cruisin’ on down the road, I’m cruisin’ listening to the radio…cruisin’ and I’m crossing the lines, cruisin’ with you by my side.” The guitar solo after the second chorus adds a little flavour and musical authenticity.

Overall, this is an infectious country rock song by a talented songwriter who has a natural gift for writing accessible music that most will find easy to relate to. He has a voice suited to his chosen genre and while there is scope for polishing the production, his current recordings have a raw lo-fi appeal that gives his sound a little edge and an old school feel. Josh Best has the potential to find a large audience and I hope this fun song will help him get there.

 

VERDICT = 8.6 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

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SINGLE REVIEW: The Night He Came To Town by Luanne Hunt

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www.luannehunt.com

Luanne Hunt is an award-winning singer, songwriter and recording artist from Southern California. Her professional music career begin in the mid-nineties, finding rapid success with her critically-acclaimed single I Don’t Bother Counting. In 1996, she shared the bill with Billy Ray Cyrus, Tammy Wynette, Toby Keith and Martina McBride at Starfest Country Music Festival at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds.

Along with several other successes along the way, her 2007 album Breaking Through produced two hit singles on the U.S. and European charts. The song Solace In The Wind made it into the Grammy ballot in two categories and several songs since have topped various charts around the world, including 2018’s hit single Lightning In A Bottle.

This track, The Night He Came To Town, is a country folk ballad written by Canadian songwriter Dave Ward. The song begins with a spoken word poetry excerpt, setting the tone for the poetic lyrics that follow. From the opening lines there is a Dylan-esque depth to the words which seem to depict Judgement Day, or at least a vision of it: “The clouds rolled in, the rain came down, thunder roared, it shook the ground, dead men rose from all around the night he came to town…“.

Luanne delivers these powerful lines with an authentic, charismatic voice backed by strummed acoustic guitar, interjected with  electric guitar courtesy of Joe Eiffert. It also features some fine fiddle playing throughout by Christian Ward (no relation to the songwriter) who is one of Nashville’s most sought after studio and touring musicians. The haunting lead vocal melody is what stands out most of all though, perfectly mirroring the moral gravity and apocalyptic style of the lyrics. Both Christian Ward and Joe Eiffert get to shine at certain points with succinct solos on their respective instruments.

Overall, this is a very well written country folk song performed beautifully by Luanne Hunt. The storytelling aspect of the finest country and folk music is brought back to the fore with this release and rightly so. Its grave and solemn lyrical message will particularly resonate with those of a Christian faith, but the appeal of this song is universal and should bring Luanne Hunt another deserved success in her long and distinguished career.

 

VERDICT= 8.7 out of 10 

Alex Faulkner

 

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SINGLE REVIEW: Time For Some Ink by Rob Georg

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Rob Georg is a country singer and songwriter originally hailing from Tuebingen in Germany. He became interested in music as a child, taking up the piano and then switching to guitar. He bought his first guitar at just 14 and this led to writing his own material. In 2018, he released his first official song Push That Horn and in December of that year came his first full band release, This Ain’t My First Rodeo. That song made it into the US National Radio Hits AC Charts Top Ten and since then he has released Ghost, which I reviewed highly favourably (read here).

This track, Time For Some Ink, is a distinct contrast to the emotionally troubled epic balladry of Ghost and shows a whole other side to his musical persona. It’s a very upbeat, tongue in cheek ode to the joys of getting a tattoo, a subject which so many will relate to but not one I’ve encountered in a rock song before.

The song starts out as laid back as you can get, with low-end guitar melding with a slow roll on the snare drum. From the opening lines you know that this is going to be a fun, light hearted song: “I need to catch a buzz from a tattoo pen, got to get some pictures on my skin”. The bridge is short but effective (“Tell me I’m addicted, I don’t care what you think”) before exploding into the anthemic title hook that you can imagine the crowd singing along to with ‘devil horns’ aloft.

The second verse gives a little more lyrical depth as it describes how tattoos tell the story of his life on his body. After the second chorus the rock ‘n roll factor is turned up to eleven with a Slash-style, wah-drenched guitar solo. Indeed, the whole song wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Guns ‘n Roses classic album Appetite For Destruction.

Overall, this is a highly enjoyable, hugely entertaining track which shows the rockier side to Rob Georg. He shows his voice is just as adept at rock as at country ballads and, again, his gift for writing epic, singalong choruses. This song is guaranteed to be popular with his current fan base and should win over plenty more, especially the fellow tattoo lovers out there!

 

VERDICT= 8.7 out of 10 

Alex Faulkner

 

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SINGLE REVIEW: Wasting Time by Ray Ryder

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https://www.rayryder.com.au

Ray Ryder is a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist hailing from Australia and his music is in the country rock/pop category. Having studied music from a young age he eventually founded the group One Step Ahead who played with Sting, Chris Isaak and Bryan Ferry, amongst others. In 2016, he released his eponymous debut album which he wrote, performed and produced himself. This led to developing a large fan base. In 2017, he played the world’s biggest remote festival, the Birdsville Big Bash and has since visited Nashville to perform a series of showcases.

This song, Wasting Time, is his latest single and it’s an infectious and upbeat country rock track. Starting with a meaty drum beat and subtle but catchy guitar riff, Ray’s authentic and earthy lead vocals then become the focal point. After a succinct first verse it breaks out into a memorable chorus with reflective lyrics about learning lessons and finding the right path in life: “I’m a long way from where I’ve been, I’m not sure what’s wrong or right….if the point of living is not to fall on the way then I’ve been wasting time….”.

After the second chorus the song leads into a half-time section that provides nice rhythmic variety and features some rich organ. After breaking down for the third chorus it builds up to a concise and effective guitar solo that gives an extra musical lift to the track before driving home the last choruses to complete a perfectly arranged three minute song.

Overall, this is an impressive new release from Ray Ryder that has the authenticity and deep lyrics of country rock but with a modern pop production style that extends its commercial appeal even further. This song will be a sure fire hit with his present fan base but his potential to reach a massive worldwide audience is certainly very  strong. Hopefully, Wasting Time will be another important step towards that goal.

 

 

VERDICT = 8.7 out of 10

 

Alex Faulkner

 

ARTIST REVIEW: Suzanne Gladstone

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https://gladstonesong.com/home

Suzanne Gladstone is a country/soul singer and songwriter from San Diego. She was born in Oceanside, California and was one of ten children. Her childhood was rather difficult, being raised by her aunt and grandparents after the age of five. She turned to music and poetry for solace and this led to her love of singing and songwriting.

She is self taught and somewhat of a natural, with her paternal grandmother being a jazz singer. Along the way she has found inspiration from such artists as Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill and Garth Brooks amongst many others. Her voice has been compared to singers such as Shania Twain and Adele.

She has been steadily working on her debut album which so far consists of three completed original songs. In April this year she released the EP I Blew A Wish which has spawned two singles so far, the title track and Barely Felt The Fall, which was released May 21st. A third song, You Are The Reason (My Heart Beats), is yet to be released.

I Blew A Wish is a mid-paced country rock song that acts as a wonderful showcase for Suzanne’s powerful and versatile voice. Starting out with some bluesy harmonica that sets an authentic, rootsy vibe Suzanne then enters and delivers a knockout vocal performance. Holding back on the first verse she gets to unleash the Adele-esque power of her voice on the explosive, uplifting and memorable chorus.

Lyrically, the message is positive and empowering (“Leave those regrets behind”) but also expresses the harder side of life (“Another shot of whisky to get me through”) and Suzanne has the ability to convey strong emotion in her singing in a way that truly resonates in the listener, which is what separates the great singers from the good ones, in my opinion.

Barely Felt The Fall is another original song and has just been released as a single. This one is a poignant and melancholy country ballad that allows Suzanne to give another highly emotive and cathartic lead vocal performance. As with I Blew A Wish, the production and musicianship is exquisite, this one adorned with bursts of lonesome sounding slide guitar. Picked guitar and a melodic piano part are also instrumental highlights of this song.

Again, Suzanne displays her gift for emotional expression, running the gamut of emotions from sadness and regret (“I gave him my all, swept me off my feet”) to feisty anger (“You stomped on my heart“) on the second verse, as well as resignation.

The theme of the song is being heartbroken by a lover who has turned out to be unworthy of her, something many will be able to relate to. She really gets to express her considerable vocal range, especially during the soaring choruses where her singing is literally breathtaking. These two songs prove her both a highly gifted singer but also songwriter.

The other songs currently available on her website are well chosen cover versions which Suzanne interprets and performs in her own, uniquely emotive way. Perhaps aware that this is one of her biggest artistic strengths, she has chosen highly emotional songs that most will be familiar with.

Her version of Say Something by A Great Big World (ft. Christina Aguilera) is a very good reinterpretation that manages to convey a greater depth of feeling than the original. Suzanne’s passionate, heartfelt performance brought to mind Celine Dion and Adele, particularly her song Someone Like You.

Also superb is her cover of the modern classic Make You Feel My Love, originally written by the great Bob Dylan but made famous by Adele. Suzanne captures the poignancy in the lyrics and performs the haunting melody beautifully.

Another touching performance is her rendition of Sarah McLachlan’s Angel. By choosing songs that work well for just piano and vocal, it has allowed Suzanne’s voice to take the spotlight and centre stage where it belongs. So much modern pop music finds the singer competing against their overproduced musical backing, but not here.

Next comes a slight change of pace, a lovely version of the timeless jazzy classic Crazy by Patsy Cline. Suzanne delivers a suitably moving depiction of heartbreak and musically the arrangement is of the highest calibre.

After that is another contrast, a great cover of one of my all time favourite songs, the brooding country rock classic Black Velvet by Canada’s Alannah Myles. It’s a faithful rendition that captures all the sultry sensuality of the original, Suzanne getting to show a more edgy side to her musical persona.

The final cover is a real change of pace, an unexpected but very enjoyable version of Bob Marley’s wonderful song Three Little Birds. The light reggae groove and fine guitar work underpin a comparatively understated performance from Suzanne that suits the material perfectly. It shows she can pull off the more light hearted end of the recorded canon.

Overall, this is turning into a fantastic collection of songs for a debut album. Her original material is very well written and performed to an exceptional standard, managing to be both artistic and commercial. On the songs she’s chosen to cover she makes the songs her own through her ability to bring out hidden emotional depths via the power and beauty of her voice. Suzanne Gladstone has got the potential to be as big a star as the singers she idolized growing up.

 

 

VERDICT = 9 out of 10     

Alex Faulkner

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