ALBUM REVIEW: A Better World by Phil Mitchell Band

A Better World CD Front Page Cover Art

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, America and 2014’s Crossroads. The band formed back in 2004 and they have performed at a variety of venues whilst recording music in the studio.

This album, A Better World, consists of eleven tracks and begins with the hard rocking optimism of Brand New Day. The music immediately bursts out of the blocks with fierce energy, featuring biting lead guitar with a creamy tone over strident drums and punchy bass. Phil Mitchell’s made-for-rock voice then takes centre stage, augmented by spirited piano will fills out the soundscape perfectly. There’s aspects of Bon Jovi to the sound but with a distinctive style of their own. Brand New Day is a great opening salvo, with some superb lead guitar towards the end.

Second track Never Let It Die, is even better. It’s a ‘lighters in the air’, euphoric rock anthem with an instantly memorable title hook. Starting out in half time, it flips to straight 4/4 for the final minute, ending with glorious Evanescence-style classical piano. Featuring a magnificent vocal performance and more killer lead guitar, it’s the kind of great rock/pop that has been sorely lacking from mainstream music. A natural choice as a single.

My Love Is True is an unexpected surprise, a female sung pop track in the unusual but highly effective time signature of 6/4. It brought to mind the Stevie Nicks songs of Fleetwood Mac, but also a soul/RnB influence which keeps it sounding modern. Musically, it’s a fantastic blend of tight, funky guitars and nicely overdriven Rhodes electric piano. Again, the catchy chorus is of the highest calibre and would make a great, radio friendly choice as a single.

Irish Rose is also rather unexpected, a beautiful Irish folk track in 6/8 that is instrumental for the most part, with a haunting fiddle melody. It turns out to be an extended intro and it blossoms into a lovely song full of charm that obviously shows a deep love and connection to this genre of music.

Then comes another gorgeous piece of songwriting, the title track. It’s a James Taylor/Simon and Garfunkel style acoustic ballad with an intimate and heartfelt lead male vocal, wonderfully counterpointed by female backing vocals. The arrangement gradually builds to a mid paced groove with some exotic instrumentation that gives real richness and variety to the sonic texture. The theme of the song is rather moving in an understated way, the title hook capturing this succinctly: “Just searching for a better world for you and I….”.

Glory Train is a fine country rock song set at a languid tempo to begin with, the vocal melody doubled by piano. It then shifts to a galloping 2/4 rhythm that cleverly depicts a train in full motion. Having a verse and chorus in different time signatures is a difficult trick to pull off but it’s done with consummate ease, a classy acoustic guitar solo the icing on the cake.

God Bless This Child and Blessed is The Light seem very complementary to each other, both female sung and very spiritual/faith-based. The former has some fabulous stacked gospel backing harmonies and a first rate string arrangement along with Bridge Over Troubled Water-esque florid piano and swirling drum fills. Blessed is the Light is more specifically about religious faith, with a haunting minor key vocal melody and Spanish-inflected acoustic guitar. It’s a hugely uplifting song, with its inspiring refrain, “Rise above the darkness”.

Ninth track The World Is A Beautiful Place is a change of pace once more; a toe tapping funk pop track with Nile Rodgers-type slick guitar and some superb drumming. The second section has some adventurous chord changes that shows the deep harmonic knowledge behind the songwriting, yet it still works simply as just a very catchy pop track.

Heavenly Waters returns to male lead vocals but maintains the powerful faith theme, a sincere expression of gratitude for the solace that a strong faith can bring: “When you need love and healing, when you know there is no one…and you find the love within you, you let the water flow…the holy waters of God, blessed from above”. These words are harmonised beautifully and the yin/yang of male and female voices works perfectly.

The final track on the album, Love Is True Symphony, is a classical instrumental version of an earlier song on the album, My Love Is True. It’s a brilliant example of how a great song can be arranged in different ways, and this version really shows the depth of Phil Mitchell’s musicality.

You can tell he’s been strongly influenced by the great composers, with shades of Tchaikovsky and Mozart in the sheer beauty of the melodies and the Sugar Plum Fairy staccato rhythms in places. The music gradually builds and swells till the strings are soaring, bringing this album to an ecstatic close.

Overall, this is a hugely eclectic and wide ranging set of songs unified by the powerful artistic vision of Phil Mitchell. The album runs the gamut of human emotions, all expressed through a constantly evolving mixture of genres and styles. The mixture of male and female vocals only adds to the variety but, most importantly, there’s several songs here that are potentially huge hits and the album as a whole deserves to be a huge success.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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SINGLE REVIEW: Writer’s Resolve by Badminton Revival

Writer's Resolve Cover(1)

The genesis of Nashville-based Badminton Revival has a poignant backstory. The singer/songwriter’s uncle had a double heart attack during a badminton tournament, which also unfortunately affected his memory. Something that aided his recuperation was listening to music, which brought memories flooding back.

The importance of music was something that was brought home to him and he insisted his songwriter nephew should make the most of his gift. He suggested writing a song about being a struggling songwriter.

Writer’s Resolve is the result of that suggestion and is the debut release from Badminton Revival. It’s in fact written about a female singer/songwriter trying to make it in the Nashville music industry.

The song is in the alternative folk genre, a style that brought to mind early Simon and Garfunkel, Nick Drake and John Martyn along with more modern folk artists like Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst), Iron and Wine and Johnny Flynn.

Beginning with crystal-clear picked acoustic guitars, it’s the strong and stately male vocals that then capture the attention. The music has a melancholy, autumnal vibe encapsulated by the lilting vocal melody which works perfectly in tandem with the poetic lyrics.

The song is partly a fascinating depiction of the songwriting process itself, the first lines capturing the white heat of artistic inspiration: “Thoughts fly faster than fingers can fret, she’s never met a melody that she couldn’t catch yet…”.

The words then depict a difficulty that afflicts so many artists, having to deal with the commercially driven music industry as well finding themselves having to compete with more confident and commercially viable performers: “Her foes are brave and strong and tall and they don’t ever seem scared at all….”.

The lyrics to the last verse bring to mind the tormented but often beautiful metaphors of Conor Oberst: “Her friends they tell her time heals all, she fears the doses are too small, seconds tick like an IV drip…still she crawls….”. From there, the music blossoms with a virtuosic, superbly crafted acoustic guitar solo which bodes well for his future musical potential.

Overall, this a moving and exquisitely written song from an artist highly gifted both musically and lyrically. Blessed with a fine voice and a truly exceptional guitarist, his gifts as a lyricist are also of the highest calibre; this means he has everything it takes to rise to the top in his field and if there’s any justice he will get there. I very much look forward to hearing future material from Badminton Revival.

 

VERDICT =  9.2 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

Pre-save Writer’s Resolve HERE

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Tango Silhouette by Tony Marino

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Tony Marino is a composer and pianist based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana in the United States. His music is rooted in Latin and jazz and he has previously released ten albums, his first being The Latin Jazz Project in 1997. His 2001 album Samba de Say Party combined Brazilian jazz with bolero, swing, tango and funk and this eclectic approach has continued.

2004’s album 5 dealt with varying types of jazz and then after the 2006 album, It’s Not That Complicated, he took a ten year hiatus returning with 101 in 2016.  This year has already seen the release of Family and Friends which amalgamates Caribbean and Brazilian styles with jazz.

This album, Tango Silhouette, consists of twelve tracks. As the title implies, it involves a strong element of tango and other Latin styles crossed with jazz. The album was inspired by the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla and is an exploration of Tony’s family history.

It starts with Day Break, which gives a good representation of the album as a whole. The sound is largely electronic and synth driven, but with a wide range of instrumental and percussive colour within that framework.

Day Break bursts with energy from the outset, driven by an insistent rhythm and a memorable melody that is first heard on (a synthesized rendition of) guitar, followed by accordion and violin. This is augmented by string synths and colourful bursts of tango-infused piano. The lively percussion and intricate fills are also a feature of the album and add to the infectious energy of the music as a whole.

Second track, Sylvana Gene and Stella Tango Medley is a slightly more mellow track that gives more scope for Tony’s considerable skills as a jazz pianist. His piano part on this piece features large use of expansive arpeggios, which gives the music a strongly melodic feel.

This is counterpointed by a simple but effective melody which alternates between guitar and accordion and various instrumental doublings. The chord changes are somewhat unpredictable but rooted in tango and, as the track progresses, Tony gets to truly display his pianistic skills with some complex runs in the upper register.

Third track Lucia again straddles the midpoint between Latin music and jazz, with this track being notable for its rhythmic complexity. There is a highly effective use of triplets on the snare drum which creates a ‘push and pull’ feeling of tension in the music and it has a strong impact despite its relative brevity at only ninety seconds long.

In The Shadows has a swinging waltz-like rhythm and a brooding, almost ominous sounding melody which leads to some harmonically complex piano and interweaving accordion lines. This is one of the more musically complicated pieces on the album and showcases Tony’s unique skills as a composer and arranger. The intricate contrapuntal lines combined with the exotic harmonic structure and chord changes brought to mind the jazzier moments of Frank Zappa.

The Chancery Place Tango opens with a beautifully haunting melody on accordion in tandem with guitar, which then takes over on piano. Although the music is in standard 4/4 time, the accents are placed on the off beat (known as syncopation) which gives the music a rhythmic fluidity and a restless energy.

Sixth track Astor and Dizzy Tango Medley is one of the most melodically inventive and original pieces, featuring some versatile piano playing wildly exotic melodies that make large leaps in terms of register. The music has a powerful sense of drama and excitement that maintains to the end.  The following Circles in much lighter in tone and alternates between 3/4  and 4/4 time, which creates an exhilarating rollercoaster style effect that keeps the listener on the edge of their seat.

A Different Time is also rhythmically angular with diverse rhythmic patterns juxtaposed against each other in a way that creates a pleasing musical tension. The drums on this track are spectacular, with some superb tom tom and snare fills that drive the music forward. Lilting strings and dramatic piano contrast nicely with the violin sections.

The Layback Tango is another fine composition that features some delicious piano playing in octaves, the drums alternating between jazz and the seductive rhythms of Latin American music. The Death of A Romance is one of the darker, more melancholy tracks with a poignant and heart rending descending melody that becomes a recurring motif. This is alternated with dramatic piano and accordion sections, bolstered by a rolling baseline that maintains the saturnine mood.

By contrast, The Philly Tango Astronomical Medley is much more light hearted in tone, rhythmically very crisp and played staccato with some effective use of percussion. You can imagine a couple strutting across the dancefloor to this piece and it also features a beautiful guitar and accordion passage in the middle.

The album ends with That’s It, a wonderful composition that lies halfway between classical and jazz. It starts off with a superbly composed (and performed) piano introduction before taking off into a restless tango rhythm, which provides the bedrock for a series of exotic instrumentation and rich harmony. The music flourishes with an irresistible momentum here and makes it the perfect way to bring the album’s journey to a satisfying close.

Overall, this is a very fine collection of instrumentals that are based in Latin American music and jazz but are fused together in a way so as to become wholly original. The difficulty of forging your own unique musical style is something most artists never achieve, but Tony Marino can lay claim to an exotic style of his own that will appeal to discerning music fans in general.

VERDICT = 8.8 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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ALBUM REVIEW: New American Century by Midwest Soul Xchange

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Midwest Soul Xchange are a Wisconsin-based musical duo comprising of songwriters Nate Cherrier and Ryan Summers. Having been friends for nearly twenty years, it was only recently that they decided to collaborate. Together, utilizing their various respective skills, they co-wrote, recorded and produced this eleven track album which is destined for release on November 24, 2015.

Musically, they aren’t that easy to define. Their music fuses the authentic old-school Americana of The Band, the melancholy folk of Simon and Garfunkel, post-66 period Beatles and the harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash with modern Americana like Bright Eyes, Mercury Rev and The Decemberists. Then throw in a little prog rock/psychedelia in the mix and you’re nearly there.

First track, Set The Course For Common Worlds, is the perfect opener, encapsulating the musical alchemy of Midwest Soul Xchange. Elements of folk, country and rock blend with warm, rich vocal harmonies, their prog-rock influence manifesting in the subtly shifting time signature. It’s a heart-warming ‘come together’ type message that sidesteps cliché in the way R.E.M. were past masters of.

The second track Roots seems aptly named, as this music seems so natural and organic that it’s hard to believe it didn’t spring from the ground, fully formed. Lyrically, it’s somewhat oblique, seemingly written from the perspective of Mother Nature herself, in the first person. It seems to portray the power of nature (“I am strong, standing tall in the waters“) but also hints at a bleak future, possibly due to man’s rumination of the environment (“Don’t look now, but the waters are rising, and the sky looks so empty over the hills…”).

Truth Attention, the third track, begins with a haunting, minute long introduction before developing into the first of three direct and pointedly political songs on the album. It’s about the power of the media and the spread of misinformation through distortion of the truth: “I’m through making sense of the lamentable media lens….the favors are set from a call to the person behind it all….”. Musically, it’s as powerful as the words, with a simple but effective hook repeated between the vitriolic verses.

Next track Revolt of the Guards is evidence of their more mystical, Eastern musical influences (they cite 90’s psychedelic rockers Kula Shaker). This influence manifests in the insistent Indian-style percussion and exotic sounding vocal melody. Lyrically, it is about American imperialism and conjures some powerful imagery: “His highness sits atop a throne of skulls while the guards are watching on…”. The last lines of the track are where they derive the album title, and so this song could be considered the album’s centrepiece.

The following Occupy The Piper continues the political theme, dealing with financial corruption and inequality in society: “In here your up side is down-size, we cook the book, defend the crooked…”. It again employs C, S & N style vocal harmonies which add melodic weight and power to the searing truths in the lyrics.

Kings Among Kings is another album highlight, featuring a beautiful accordion melody over picked acoustic guitar (possibly 12-string). The vocals are understated, with a tone that brought to mind Mike Mills from R.E.M. Lyrically, it looks back to a happier time that ends sadly, portrayed in poetic words: “Now the choice of the boy deceased in so many words is the living ghost of regret to the man…”.

Seventh track Sun Dried carries on the Eastern vibes from Revolt of the Guards, with lead guitar that brings to mind The End by The Doors. The gentle, poignant She Flies and adjoining track The Return seem to deal with death and our mortality: “We all have to fall from that branch to fly away, to fly back home…”.

Has Anybody Seen Bob? is as delightfully quirky as the title suggests. It brings to mind the surrealism of Syd Barrett’s songs with the early incarnation of Pink Floyd, combined with the dark humour of The Pixies’ Black Francis: “I wonder if he’s sad and lonely, I wonder if he’s just getting by, I wonder if he has any money left cause he still owes me $63.05…”.

This quirkiness extends to the music, with a real 60’s psychedelia vibe created by a concoction of organ, synth brass and a brilliant lead vocal halfway between Bob Dylan and They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell. Throw in some wonderfully left of field chord changes, some gorgeous harmonies and you have a song of real charm that would have fitted in perfectly in 1967, but at the same time transcends pastiche.

Four Score and Seven To Go is the final song on the album and it’s a lovely way to finish. The title is based on a phrase used in Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg speech (Declaration of Independence), and as four score and seven means 87, I take the song to be about America and the years remaining in this century. Again, this reflects the album’s title, bringing us nicely full circle. It is blissfully mellow, with hymnal, Fleet Foxes harmonies and a quirky 6/4 time signature that flows perfectly. There’s a world-weary melancholy in both the music and the words, but also a hope and optimism for the future.

Overall, this is a rare jewel of an album that achieves the artistic holy grail of finding the midpoint between the personal and the universal. On the one hand, it’s a cultural snapshot of America in the early 21st century, but it also deals with the timeless themes of the human condition: money, power, war, love and death. With New American Century, Midwest Soul Xchange have alchemized their many influences and forged the sound of New Americana.

 

Alex Faulkner

Verdict: 9.2 out of 10