ALBUM REVIEW: We Humans by Craig Johnstone

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https://www.craig-johnstone-music.com/

Craig Johnstone is a Canadian alternative country-rock artist currently living in Vancouver, BC. He was formerly a member of the band This-z-This and the wonderfully named Sledge Nicely and the Panty Bandits! From that moniker the perspicacious reader may discern that Craig has a strong sense of humour, and this shows strongly in his songwriting.

His music contains elements of classic folk/country songwriters like Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, and elements of more alternative artists like Tom Waits. He cites these artists as major influences. In the way he combines storytelling and humour in his songs, he brought to mind the great country songwriter John Prine, though there is more rock n’ roll in Johnstone’s music.

This album, We Humans, is a collection of fourteen tracks which Craig has self-produced in his home studio over several years.  He has performed the majority of the instruments himself, along with vocals and you can tell that it’s been a labour of love.

Opening song Key of D is a nice introduction to his unique sound. Over a fairly traditional folk chord sequence in 2/4 time (presumably in D!) Craig fuses this with sounds seemingly from outer space, his own voice put though all manner of effects from filtering and distortion to 50’s style slapback echo. There’s a dry, sardonic humour to lines like “Over there, there’s always greener grass, every time I try to fly I wind up on my ass....“.

Next comes the superb Put Down The Gun, Jake, a song full of worldly wisdom about someone about to take revenge on a man who’s stolen his wife from him. The music is rollicking rock ‘n roll that recalls the ramshackle energy of Bob Dylan and The Band’s classic Basement Tapes. It opens with the fantastic line, “If my soul is something I spend when I drink, I must be damn nearly broke I think.…”. The funniest line is unfortunately not printable!

Savin’ Up Pher A Foan Call takes the traditional blues subject matter of a man who’s been abandoned by his woman, and turns it on his head. Johnstone excavates hilarious gallows humour from the clichéd self-pity you find in the stereotypical blues song: “Now the crumbs of our love are all over the room, where she left ’em and she even took the broom….”.

Poor Random Dan’s Great Strategy is another entertaining song, this one about a hapless character who doesn’t seem to know or care how awful his life is. An excellent full-throated vocal performance from Johnstone makes this one stand out.

The title track We Humans comes next, and it’s a distinct change of pace. A plaintive ballad with melancholic and philosophical lyrics, this shows a real depth and poignancy to Craig’s songwriting. As the name implies, it’s about the slightly tragic nature of the human condition: “We can’t even believe our own behaviour, but we humans won’t admit we need a saviour….”. A very profound song, leant extra gravity by the relative levity of the surrounding material.

Next track The Bullshit Song rather proves my point for me. The opening lines tell you all you need to know: “Heaven and Hell, harps and accordions, what’s that smell can you tell where I’ve been?“. The breakneck pace is a nice contrast after the gentle tempo of We Humans.

Arrow, Girl is one of the more enigmatic songs on the album, showing again a deeper, more sensitive side to his songwriting. Like all good lyricists, Craig Johnstone has a fine eye for detail and conjuring imagery: “She wanders around kissing flowers in the pouring rain“. A fine piece of work, with some lovely lead guitar lines.

I Wanna Be A Reg’ler Guy is a return to the satirical humour of the earlier tracks, the target this time at the cliché of the ‘regular Joe’ stereotype. It’s about the man who works 9 to 5 and lives a life of monotonous routine, a life which ultimately kills him: “Early to bed, early to work and early to die…”. Grimly funny and poignant at the same time, the essence of Johnstone’s art.

Diddle-iddle is an interesting song, a gritty lo-fi blues/folk song with a vocal performance inspired by the Tom Waits of his classic Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones albums. In fact, Tom and the former album even gets a namecheck in the following Quarter to Three, courtesy of a clever pun. It’s a very human song about late night drinking and lust, subjects most of us can relate to. It captures the melancholy mood perfectly and the guitar solo is superb on this one.

We Go Together is a sombre ballad that expresses some profound and timeless truths about human beings that brought to mind Bob Dylan’s classic Gates of Eden. The way Johnstone captures the bittersweet and tragicomic in life is a testament to his talent. Beautitudes is another unexpected twist, a chord progression that recalls Bad Moon Rising, with lyrics taken from lines in the Bible. This song expresses the moral seriousness of his music underneath the fantastic humour, as well as expressing his faith.

The next song is a charmingly scruffy cover version of Bob Dylan’s Wallflower, an enjoyable two minutes with a deliciously off-key guitar solo. It leads to the closing six-minute epic (These Are) The Good Ole Days. This is the equivalent of another Dylan song, Desolation Row, in the way that it is simply vocals and guitar with some soul searching lyrics. I took it to be about appreciating what you have and living in the moment: “Sing about today, cos these are the good ‘ol days…”. It’s an important message and an apposite way to close the album.

Overall, this is a very impressive artistic document from a seasoned songwriter who has truly developed a unique style, both musically and lyrically. Mixing the craftsmanship of the classic country songwriters with the humour of John Prine and the quirkiness of Tom Waits, ultimately Craig Johnstone transcends his influences and produces his own home-grown musical alchemy.

 

VERDICT: 9 out of 10 

Alex Faulkner

To listen click HERE

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ALBUM REVIEW: After Songdown by Voice In The Attic

After Songdownhttp://voiceintheattic.com

 

Voice In The Attic is essentially the artistic vision of singer/songwriter BC Bogey, who hails from Cologne in Germany. His musical path has been unusual, starting out in metal bands before entering a musical conservatory at 23, where he seemed destined for a career as an opera singer. He left to pursue his musical ambitions elsewhere, forming a progressive rock project called TIDE, who became critically acclaimed.

Since then he has developed his own unique style as a solo artist, releasing the album Earily Familiar in 2010 and a few singles and EPs since. This second album, After Songdown, he describes as his ‘unplugged album’ and though it could be described as acoustic, that would be over simplying his rather original sound. With a deep, expressive voice somewhere between Chris Rea and Tom Waits, he combines elements of folk, jazz, classical and rock into a refreshing hybrid.

Consisting of thirteen tracks, it contains both songs and instrumentals. Opening song Day introduces his organic, intimate approach which features picked acoustic guitar, dreamy female backing vocals and haunting strings interweaved throughout. Essentially, it’s a song of longing: “I’ve been waiting for the day to break since you went away…”.

Glass is a poignant two minute instrumental consisting of piano and strings, while On starts out simply, then builds into an intriguing song that stands on the verge of several genres. It explodes in a miasma of vocal harmonies towards the end, lyrically about the urge to “go where the wild things are…”. Reminisce is another fine instrumental track, similar to Glass and rather moving.

Ablaze starts out as acoustic folk before a funky, jazzy beat turns it into something else entirely, built around the potent hook “We’re ablaze with desire…”. The female vocals complement his in a perfect yin/yang kind of way, both sensual and romantic. Tear is a lovely, tender song with beautiful, poetic lyrics: “You are a tear…a drop of ink in the sky…”. The female harmonies are breathtaking on this one.

Over, the first single from the album, is another highlight. It appears to be about dying, but is in no way maudlin: “I cross the borders into the light, that’s where I’m going, that’s when I die…weightless, I’m soaring, this our goodbye…”. A very deep and meaningful song, this one alone deserves to be heard by a wide audience.

Rhinoceri is an experimental track, a Tom Waits-esque spoken monologue over quirky percussion, while Tribute pays intriguing homage to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Foo Fighters Everlong in the lyrics, but sounds nothing like either. Toll is another fine song, with xylophone added to the instrumental blend.

Fall is the last instrumental featuring some gorgeous guitar work and leads to the closing title track Songdown. It’s a perfect way to finish, an ode to his passion for life and music itself, the chorus running: “I don’t know what I’m living for, but that’s OK…at the end of the day, songdown leaves me wanting….”.

Overall, this is a highly accomplished and eclectic album both musically and lyrically. It’s the work of a genuine artist that will reveal its depths upon repeated listening, such is the level of detail and sophistication. A highly recommended listen.

 

Alex Faulkner

 

VERDICT: 8.9 out of 10

ALBUM REVIEW: The Way by Bud Summers

a2412253726_10  Bud Summers is a guitarist and singer/songwriter hailing from St Louis. He was raised in a musical family with a father who played jazz bass and a mother who taught music at a public school. Although he was exposed to many genres including jazz, classical, opera and show tunes, he showed a preference for blues and rock. After trying piano and violin, he settled on guitar and went on to get a B.A in Music Performance, focussing on classical guitar as well as playing in the college jazz band.

He recorded two records with The Shot Down Band then played guitar for several groups (Tizzy, Carlson, Night Train and The Stingers) before going solo in 2006. He has released five CDs of original music as well as performing around 140 shows a year on average, a regular performer in  Chicago, Michigan and Nashville. This album, The Way, consists of seven tracks and the music is an eclectic blend of blues, rock, jazz and folk, combining to create a unique style of his own which he calls ‘Groundhog music’.

This fusion of genres is evident straight away on the opening track That’s Why. A mid paced, smoky blues/jazz song, it has the intimacy and bar room vibe of an artist like Tom Waits, as well as his gritty authenticity. Bud has the perfect voice for the material, his singing style halfway between a jazzy croon and the rougher edges of blues and rock. His guitar playing is also varied, alternating tight, clean rhythm playing with raw bluesy lead guitar that works as an effective contrast.

The song is nicely structured too; a funky, jazzy progression on the verse leads to a smooth second section that lyrically depicts his infatuation: “My world is spinning, floor is gone… I float but then I fly away…. I am beginning to catch on, it was meant to be this way…”. Jason McAfee on bass and Jake McAfee on drums provide excellent supporting roles and it makes for a great start to the album.

The second track, My Baby’s Big & Bad, is a twelve bar blues acoustic song, again about a woman, but this one shows a more light-hearted, humorous side to Bud’s songwriting as you can tell from the opening lines: “More chins than a Chinese phone book, more pounds than a pot of gold, more thighs than Colonel Sanders, and meaner than a Texas Bull….”. He then recites an entertaining tale of a large lady who’s a force to be reckoned with. It features some gorgeously smooth slide guitar playing as well as some excellent raw and throaty harmonica,  also having a sly dig at politics and religion in the verses: ” Well I was down at the tavern talkin’ politics, trying to explain it to them country hicks…”.

Third track She Sings Karaoke is a return to the full band sound, with a song about a talented amateur singer who might not be suited to the big time: “Won’t they be surprised when the real world comes along, when they hold the Grammies and turns out she doesn’t belong….”. The smoky blues rock vibe brought to mind Dire Straits’ classic Sultans of Swing and Bud really gets to display his lead guitar skills, laying down a mellifluous solo played with a killer tone.

Fourth track Ain’t Got Time For Whiskey returns to acoustic twelve bar blues, with some more fine harmonica work and excellent vocals harmonies that fill out the sound. It features another superb solo, with a biting twang and not a note wasted. Lyrically, as the title implies, it’s about putting his whisky drinking days behind him and the first line of the verse is a nice twist on the time honoured blues tradition: “Well, I woke up one morning…with a splitting head… “.

The Way I Do is another blues/jazz fusion with an angular, semitone based chord progression on the verse with more standard changes for the title hook. This song is about trying to make someone appreciate that they are loved, as summed up in the mellow second section: “You’ve been saying all along I’m the best thing…. you won’t be as happy if I’m gone so just don’t be a fool and let this go…”.

Bedtime Story is a lovely acoustic ballad featuring just Bud and his guitar. This along shows the folk influence in his music and his songwriting craft. The haunting vocal melody suits the romantic words: “Be my bedtime story, help me sow and reap, be my bedtime story till I fall asleep…”. My personal favourite on the album.

The final track Common Ground switches from the personal to the social, with a raw Springsteen-style lyric (and vocal delivery) about escaping from a town that has seen better days: “There’s bars on the windows running down the street, they go on and on as far as I can see….”. It is the most powerful song on the album and shows the serious side to his writing after the levity of earlier tracks.

Overall, this is a very high quality album from a first rate guitarist and singer/songwriter. He has become a master of his craft, after many years experience, and found his own musical niche between blues and jazz. Above all else, the music is enjoyable to listen to, containing classy musicianship throughout from Bud and his musical cohorts. The appeal of his music goes beyond the blues and jazz crowd as he writes accessible songs that any music lover can enjoy. A recommended listen.

 

Alex Faulkner

Verdict: 8.4 out of 10

 

 

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Walking To Dreamland by David Arn

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David Arn is a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist hailing from Ohio originally, but now based in Virginia. After releasing his first album to acclaim, this second album is set for release at the beginning of February, 2015 . His music is mostly acoustic and strongly lyric driven, allowing his words to be clearly delivered with a warm, gravelly voice that sounds full of experience. You can hear the influences of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and the sophisticated lyrics of Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman, though his style is very much his own.

Throughout the album the idea of dreams or dreaming as a way of transcending life’s troubles becomes a recurring theme, and the music often has a dreamlike or tranquil quality to it. This is most obviously encapsulated on the title track and album opener Walking To Dreamland. Over a stately beat and bluesy piano sound, the lyrics have a world weariness: “Startin’ to see no end to the working day…..I’m walking to dreamland, not five miles gone“.

Second track Better Off Today is one of the more upbeat songs on the album, with an instantly memorable vocal melody that would make it a good choice for a single. Lyrically, there are some lovely lines and evocative imagery: “She held a candle to the shoreline…illusions of fulfilment would not be washed away….”. Even In A Town Of Seven Churches (Odds Are Even) certainly has a dreamy, meditative quality, the mood throughout mellow and wistful. Musically, it is embellished with some lovely flourishes of violin from Charlie Austin.

Next track Real Time is a lovely jazz-tinged song augmented by Arn’s gifted musical cohorts, this one featuring some gorgeous bluesy acoustic guitar and piano, then later on brass and saxophone. Lyrically, it’s a love song, but with no hint of cliché, the hook simple and touching: “You change my world into real time…”. Another potential single. When You Lost Your Situation is my personal favourite on the album, a vibrant slice of hard hitting blues that recalls the more rocking moments of Tom Waits (say Big Black Mariah from Rain Dogs). Throughout, it features some stellar lead guitar work from Raz Ben Ari, and Arn delivers a great vocal performance.

Rosalina’s Music (Nexus Chokehold) brings back the dreamy pace, richly coloured by accordion and violin, while Hungry Kisses makes use of some unusual and inventive percussion. It features the great line “I cut my losses, but they grew back….”. Something More Between Us has a laid-back folk/country vibe with fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and beautiful female high backing vocals on the hook: “Dreams, sweet dreams, always looking for possibility…”. The Last Word brings us back musically to the title track, lyrically another love song, with the poetic hook “You are the free bird, you get the last word….come in and rest your wings…”.

Water Lilies closes the album and, suitably, it is perhaps the most other-worldly sounding and modern song here, sonically conjuring the ‘dreamland’ of the album title, with use of spectral synths towards the end. The final words on the album are “We drift away….” and then the music takes over, fading out in a hazy, blissful reverie.

Overall this is a classy and sophisticated album, beautifully crafted, both lyrically and musically. It certainly rewards close listening and is highly enjoyable from start to finish. When much of mainstream music is seemingly more reductive and vulgar than ever before, it is gratifying to know there are artists still devoted to the art of songwriting and who have become highly accomplished at their craft. With Walking To Dreamland, David Arn has given us an excellent example of this.

 

Alex Faulkner

Verdict: 9 out of 10

ALBUM REVIEW: Tell My Darling by J.P. Kallio

KALLIO

J.P. Kallio originally hails from Finland but is now based in Dublin and as a singer/songwriter, he is soaked in the spirit (or spirits, if you’ll excuse the pun) of the Irish troubadour. His songs are often gritty tales of real life that don’t shy away from tackling some of the darker themes of the human conditions and that gives the songs depth and an authentic voice. I can hear influences such as Van Morrison, The Pogues, Tom Waits and Damien Rice among others in these songs.

Sunny Summer’s Day begins the album and is a lovely but deceptively upbeat track in the context of the songs that follow. Kallio’s sound is essentially just his easy-on-the-ear voice and fingerpicked acoustic guitar, aided by mandolins and occasionally flute which adds colour. City Lights, the second track, is more indicative of the rest of the album, a sad tale of a man who has to travel to the city to find work, leaving behind his family: ‘There’s no reason to not drink anymore, now he’s lost his darling wife and his only child to the big City Lights….’.

Songs like the third track Judge (which features a beautiful Irish flute solo) and, later in the album, This Town deal with small town small-mindedness and modern social decline respectively, both poignant, powerful songs. The title track Tell My Darling is a harrowing tale of a man, told in the first person, who faces deep regret after turning to a life of crime.

Perhaps the most poignant track here is the fifth song Daddy’s Girl, a heartbreaking story of fatal disease from smoking, a social issue that needs highlighting. The lyrics paint a sad picture of the effect disease has on loved ones: ‘Daddy’s girl cries a thousand tears tonight, she wonders who’s gonna walk her down the aisle…’. You’d have to be rather hard of heart not to feel moved by it, and it is commendably raw and brave songwriting.

Other songs, such as the brutually honest Pain and the deeply sorrowful Close To The End bring to mind the melancholy of Nick Drake. Whether these songs are simply more tales sung in the first person is hard to tell, but they come across as more personal than some of the earlier tracks.

Overall, this album is a very accomplished set of songs that are about people and their everyday lives told in honest detail, both the good and the bad sides of life. With acts such as Mumford and Sons showing folk can now sell millions and top the mainstream charts, I can see J.P. Kallio building up a big fanbase as he takes this emotive music out on the road.

 

Alex Faulkner

Verdict 8.4 out of 10