Out Calls Only

                   Donald Cumming     Out Calls Only     Washington Square Records

Donald Cumming is the former frontman of the Virgins. This is his solo debut, forged in the midst of a breakup, a move, and the disbanding of the Virgins. More importantly though, it’s the sound of one of the greatest cities in the world. I feel like I can hear New York City all over this Modern Pop record with influences from alt. country and folk to the world renowned NYC nightlife. Out Calls Only  easily recalls eighties Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, as well as early Bruce Springsteen, without out overtly sounding like them.

It’s hard to pick favorites here as each song is fairly unique. The flowing seven minute plus “Scarecrow” is favorite of mine though. While you initially hear it as a Pop tinged acoustic-ish tune, it evolves into a fascinating piece whose second half is a sort of sprawling mix of worldbeat jam. Just when you think it might lose you, it pulls you back into the fold for the songs final moments with a pointed return to its humble beginnings.

“Sometimes Sweet Susan” has a rollicking flavor that reminds me of a boardwalk bar band with its loose mix of piano, thin guitars, and sax all over the top of a simple and steady rhythm. Another highlight for me is the acoustic intimacy of “Total Darkness.” It sounds like a lost Springsteen home demo both lyrically and musically and that can never be a bad comparison! “Shadow Tears” cloudy eighties Pop feel is very cool as well. The muddled sounding mix and Cumming’s semi-croon come together screaming for a video filmed in a dark, rainy alley as Cumming stands singing under a streetlight in a trench coat. This is one of my favorite songs vocally as well as the vocals are gentle and soulful but also commanding.

Throwback artists are cool these days. For me, that’s not so cool. Every once in a while though an artist will cross my desk and make me believe in the classics all over again. Donald Cumming is one of those guys and Out Calls Only is the rarest kind of gem.

           Veruca Salt     Ghost Notes      www.VerucaSalt.com

There are many things on my musical wishlist that I’m fairly certain will never occur. However, I did manage to see Black Sabbath on their only reunion tour with the original lineup, see The Gathering live on U.S. soil, and live to see a brand new Faith No More album. As if that weren’t enough already, the original lineup of Veruca Salt is back together for their first album since 1997’s alternative rock classic Eight Arms to Hold You. This is a day I dared not dream of and it does not disappoint.

Ghost Notes is everything longtime fans hoped it would be. It’s punchy. It’s clever. It’s gorgeous. It’s powerful. Most of all though, it features the unbeatable vocal duo of Louise Post AND Nina Gordon. I particularly love Gordon’s vocals and having them back together is Alternative Rock’s version of Lennon and McCartney giving it another go.

The band just flat out rock on Ghost Notes. It picks up exactly where Eight Arms to Hold You leaves off, combining big, power pop anthems and half-ballads with snarky lyrics and sugary sweet vocals. The first single, “Laughing in the Sugar Bowl,” is a definite highlight and exactly the kind of power pop gem that most of us hoped would follow “Volcano Girls.” “The Gospel According to Saint Me” opens the album with the same power pop goodness but it leans more towards the jangly rock side of the band’s sound. “Triage” takes the sound even heavier, reminding me more of the band’s American Thighs material.

While there are plenty of anthems to go around, the band also bring some new things to the table. “Prince of Wales” is an even-keeled gem with few lyrics but it comes off as both elegant and powerful as the bass drives the verses through the wisdom of age. The gentle “Lost to Me” is delightfully deceitful as it’s sweet sound is riddled with lyrics of brokenness and lost hope.

Overall, this is an excellent step back into the limelight for the Veruca Salt lineup that matters most. It combines the best of  the Louise Post lineup and the Nina Gordon solo albums, but the rest of the band bring it all together by rocking out when the girls want to be soft spoken. It’s a beautiful fracture and it’s obvious that it’s what make the wheels turn on the Veruca Salt bus.

Kuts

Matt Skiba and the Sekrets      Kuts       Superball Music

Matt Skiba and the Sekrets return with their sophomore effort, Kuts. Following up the heavily anthemic Babylon, the band (which also features AFI’s Hunter Burgan) slow the pace and darken the landscape a bit more for their second Superball Music release.  The lack of big, catchy choruses here  surprised me at first, but repeated listens revealed a depth that Babylon didn’t have.

While, the choruses aren’t all big and sing alongy, Skiba and his Sekrets still offer lots of bouncy, melodic tunes that aren’t entirely unlike The Mission’s better works. “She Said” has a punk rock swagger that makes you want to pogo and throw up your hands. It’s an almost pop punk bounce, but the lack of ridiculous parts and a Chuck Berry style guitar solo keep it on the up and up.

“Lonely and Kold” and “Krashing” have the dark eighties vibe that Skiba has mastered at this point in his career. His voice commands you to listen as the music just rolls underneath it, enabling the listener to focus on the lyrics really easily. “Never Believe” finds Skiba attempting a croon set to a mostly acoustic backdrop splattered with some really nice piano work that helps set the song apart from the other Kuts. It’s got an almost Achtung Baby flare to it musically. “Vienna,” meanwhile, ends the album on an intimate note hearkening back to Damnesia or the Haven’t You? EP’s renderings. It’s the perfect end to a really good album as, in my opinion, Skiba is at his best when armed with only an acoustic guitar.

Overall, I really dig Kuts. The band didn’t abandon what made Babylon a classic but they also didn’t repeat themselves, a fact that surprised me. The darker overall sound and production hearkens back to a part of music that is sorely missed by this reviewer. While it’s not as anthemic as I had hoped, the deeper, more thoughtful approach, especially lyrically, makes it well worth your time. When it comes to exploring life’s relationships, no one in modern music can touch Skiba.

Tarja    Luna Park Ride    earMusic

One of the original voices of Symphonic Metal returns with the live Luna Park Ride album. The album was recorded in 2011 at Luna Park in Buenos Aires in front of a massive crowd. While the set list is made up primarily of material from Tarja’s now lengthy solo career, it also includes a sort-of covers medley (that includes choruses of both Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”) and Nightwish’s “Wishmaster” as a treat for her longtime fans.

The show gets off to a rockin’ start with “Dark Star,” which is one of the heavier tracks Tarja has done. It gets the audience engaged right from the start but it’s not until track four, “I Walk Alone” that the audience truly explodes. As the fans sing-along, you can feel the connection that Tarja has with these fans and this song is unquestionably the live wire that binds them together.

“Little Lies” is another of the show’s best moments. The band absolutely tears it up as Tarja’s vocals soar in a way that only she can, of course, the crowd reacts accordingly. By the end of the song, any questions as to whether Tarja’s solo career has been a success or not are definitely answered. The band transitions beautifully with piano and voice into “Underneath,” a emotional and victorious march that leaves you breathless. The medley of “Where Were You Last Night/Heaven Is a Place on Earth/ Livin’ on a Prayer” is another moment that eases the emotional heaviness of Tarja’s voice by having some fun with some big eighties arena rock.

Overall, this is an excellent album. It sounds great for a live album. In fact, it brings these songs to life a lot better than Tarja’s studio albums in my opinion. There’s a lot of energy here so if you are looking for a greatest hits collection to start you on your Tarja journey then this is it. Like I said, if you aren’t feeling her solo albums  give it another shot with Luna Park Ride because I bet she and the band will change your mind.

Innova

Fireflight         Innova          www.FireflightRock.com

In what was previously referred to as “Christian Rock,” Fireflight are one of the last rock bands standing. They made a name for themselves via Flicker Records in 2000 and have been barreling through music ever since. Innova is the band’s sixth album and their first crowdfunded release.

Right from the get go Innova re-establishes everything that is great about Fireflight. It’s got a modern sound that blends their rock base with a host of dance rhythms, ambient drive, and bits of electronica. Vocalist Dawn Michele’s voice takes all the musical suave over the edge with her powerful lead vocal that is seemingly just as comfortable rocking out as it is playing pop princess.

“Keep Fighting” kicks off the album with a lot of positive energy. It never really rocks out, but it’s slow build certainly holds your attention and makes you wonder what might come next. The disco underbellied  “I’ve Got the Power” is another of the album’s strongest moments. Laden with computer-generated sounds, the song breaks down like a house tune but holds just enough edge to keep you from refusing to call it rock.

The traveling sounds of “We Are Alive” are excellent as well. Firmly placing the band among  modern heavyweights like Imagine Dragons, St. Lucia, and Anberlin while being careful to keep the “Fireflight sound” at the forefront.  I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out the in-your-face urgency of “Safety,” which features Stephen Christian of Anberlin alongside Michele. The two play off each other surprisingly well and the more straightforward rock edge makes it a track that you will consistently revisit.

Innova is an album that will set Fireflight apart from the pack for the first time in a few years. The music here is forward thinking and free sounding while keeping all the positive vibes that you expect Fireflight to place front and center. This is a new chapter for one of the best bands of the late 90’s/ early 00’s and it’s great to hear them at the top of their game so many years later. If you’ve lost track of Fireflight then now is the time to rediscover them. If you’ve been along on the ride the entire time then Innova proves everything you already knew.

 

Julian Moon    Good Girl     Warner Bros.

Do you remember that short-lived era in the nineties when the ladies of Lilith Fair ruled the world? Julian Moon is an acoustic pop singer/songwriter that reminds me fondly of that era. Hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah, Moon is a sweet-voiced, sharp-tongued, dynamo that reminds me of the lyrically raw early works of Jewel, Sam Phillips, and Suzanne Vega as filtered through the musically inspiring early sound of Sheryl Crow and Lisa Loeb. Good Girl is Moon’s debut album and is produced by Greg Wells (Adele, Katy Perry).

Julian Moon does a lot of things really well on her debut album. She dabbles in jangly pop (“Good Girl”), funky jams (“Just Go With It” and to a lesser degree “Rebound”), and slickly produced balladry (“The Fault in Our Stars” and “How You Break  Heart”) while staying perfectly balanced on the singer/songwriter line. For me, the best moments come from the singer/songwriter side and I attribute that to her unique voice.

There are a number of standout tracks here.  “A Cup of Coffee,” which is just Moon and her guitar lamenting their job at a coffee shop with rude customers (I think I have been to that Starbucks by the way) and dropping some nicely placed f bombs along the way. “Popularity” which is on its way to sounding as inspired as mid-career Ani Difranco but loses its punch a little due to the tight production. “2 AM” is a beautiful ballad that puts Moon’s voice front and center amidst a semi-ambient backdrop. Of course the title track’s sugary pop declaration that a “good girl’s a bad girl that hasn’t been caught” is perfectly set to a bouncy backdrop that reminds me a lot of Lisa Loeb and Sheryl Crow’s debuts. That’s never a bad thing.

Good Girl is one of the first true surprises of 2015 for me. A month ago, Moon wasn’t even on my radar and now I can’t stop listening. This is probably the most impressed I have been with a female artist since Paula Cole’s This Fire (an album I have listened to at least weekly since it debuted).

Reviewed by Mark Fisher

Warrior - EP, Layne

Layne         Warrior

If there’s one thing that I’m a sucker for, it’s catchy pop hooks intertwined with alt rock sensibilities. Layne, fortunately for me, has my back. Hailing from the Black Hills of South Dakota, this is her third EP and my first experience with her music.

The EP starts out with “The Lonely” a catchy-as-hell mix of indie rock and electronic bits topped off by Layne’s strong, but distinctly feminine, voice. It’s a great way to kick off the EP and will certainly catch the ear of alt rockers and new wave kids all at once. “Seventeen” and  “Warrior” ably back it up with tight hooks and anthemic choruses. “I’d Go To Space” hones in on a basic but mesmerizing lead guitar riff to catch your ear but is steered by perfectly timed drums and waves of electronic that keep it from becoming redundant.

“Shades” is a brooding ballad led by an electronic piano that focuses on Layne’s emotional vocal. By showing another side of the music, Layne proves she isn’t a one trick pony and hearing her sing “Fuck it, I don’t want to be the only one….” over and over is pure gold. “Not So Easy” has a more laid back vibe but still stays consistent with the modern new wave sound that the other songs have. The chorus is a bit more bombastic though and, for me, it’s a highlight among highlights.

There isn’t a bad song on Warrior to be honest. This is a refreshingly awesome piece of pop art! Layne’s got a strong voice that isn’t easily overtaken by the instrumentation and the music sounds fresh and exciting. I can’t say enough great things about this EP and if there is any justice left in music then Layne will be 2015’s breakout artist. If you enjoy bands like Echosmith, LIGHTS, and Stimulator than you should check this EP out immediately!

The Year

Tim Myers        The Year      Palladium Records

Tim Myers is a name that I thought was completely unfamiliar with. As it turns out, I’m very familiar with his music. Most likely, you are as well. He is currently the most licensed solo artist to date with his solo music appearing in commercials for Macy’s, Target, Google, T- Mobile, and more, as well as television staples like Grey’s Anatomy, Ugly Betty, and Modern Family. Oh, he was also a founding member of a “little” band called OneRepublic. The Year is Myers second solo effort and concept album that follows his journey through its name sake.

“January: Get Out of Here” and “February: Smoking Gun” start the album off in a very indie rock sort of way, with strings and that borderline folk sound that is all the rage at the moment. It’s intense and creative and I can appreciate it for what it is, but by the end of “February…” I was having a hard time finding enough hook to grab onto.

When “March: Hills to Climb” rolls around though, I feel that the album turns a corner and really expands from what I thought it was going to be. Everything about “March…” is bigger, more beautiful, and easier to latch onto. In fact, this song is the key to the album as far as I’m concerned. It takes everything up a notch with big “Whoas” and musical crescendos and good vibes just ooze from it. “April: It’s My Life,” “June: Good Days Start Here,” and “August: Me & My Friends” continue in that vein, reminding the listener that pop music can be creative and interesting in the right hands. I much prefer the brighter, poppier side of The Year.

This is a record that starts out being exactly what you expect and then morphs into something surprisingly powerful. It’s full of lush orchestration, barebones piano work, and expertly anthemic sounds that remind you both of Myers history and his future. If you are looking for something new and enjoy the sound of OneRepublic, 30 Seconds to Mars, Tree63, Dustin Kensrue, more recent Jimmy Eat World, and the like then be sure to check out The Year.

Massive Addictive

Amaranthe                          Massive Addictive                  Spinefarm Records

http://www.Amarnathe.se

From the halls of mighty Gothenburg come Amaranthe. A triple vocalist tour de force whose prior releases (2011’s Amaranthe and 2013’s Nexus) established them as a band to watch for fans who enjoy symphonic metal, power metal, and hard rock. MASSIVE ADDICTIVE (spelled purposefully and pridefully in all caps) is an altogether different beast though as the band takes the subtle pop meanderings from previous albums and place them center stage. While that might make drunken, bearded, leather-studded metal fans a little pissy here and there, it certainly envelopes a lot more people when Amaranthe extend their metaphorical arms.

“Drop Dead Cynical” leads the charge for the pop-infused side of MASSIVE ADDICTIVE’s wall of death. Led by the female vocals and an unquestionable pop bounce, it’s an incredibly catchy song that makes you want to sing along and bob your head and not feel bad about it! And it’s stuttered electronic bits give it a life of its own aside from the album.

“Digital World” is another example of these elements coming into their own. It’s a wonderful tune with crunchy guitars, catchy hooks, and electronic goodies. It’s a bit heavier than “Drop Dead Cynical” overall, reminding me a great deal of the older Pain albums. “Skyline” also has a more straightforward feel, with a lot of clean guitars, some very emotional soloing, and a whole lot of positivity musically (This is worth noting because it’s damn hard to write a song that makes people feel good).  “Exhale” and “True” boast a similar feeling, the latter in ballad form, as the keys take the front and center, if only for a moment.

For those concerned at Amaranthe’s sudden turn to the pop side, don’t fret because that element is only part of this album. “Dynamite” opens the album with a very heavy bounce similar to Karmacode era Lacuna Coil. “Trinity” is similar in form and the title track is sort of a modern rock march through the back alleys of heavy metal. “An Ordinary Abnormality” is another moment where the band straddle the line but, for the most part, let the more ferocious vocals and machine gun guitar work get their due.

To be honest, this is the first Amaranthe album that I have enjoyed from start to finish. There is a lull here and a valley there, but overall the band really nail it on MASSIVE ADDICTIVE. Personally, the three vocalist approach sometimes kills the power of the song for me but I’m sure many others love it. While “metal” fans might balk initially for not being “metal enough,” they will also find it undeniably worthy of the innovativeness that Gothenburg has always offered it’s metal brethren around the world.

Always and Forever

Alien Ant Farm      Always & Forever     Executive Music/The End Records     http://www.TheEndRecords.com

While Alien Ant Farm has platinum sales under their collective belts, they were never a top tier music industry darling. As a matter of fact, by the time Up From The Attic was actually released most people had already moved on (which is shameful because that album is truly excellent in every way). With a PledgeMusic campaign and a strong re-introduction (EP Phone Home) in their rearview mirror, the band come out with all guns blazing on Always & Forever.

Always & Forever picks up right where Up From the Attic left off. With a pissy grin, the band smile sarcastically through a mix of radio-friendly anthems and big noise rockers iced by insightful and pointed lyrics. While the band doesn’t shy away from smiley, bouncy ditties like “Sidelines,” “Our Time,” and “Crazy Love” but they truly command your attention on the rockers.

Of the edgier songs, “Let Em Know” is the undisputed champion. Tinged with electronics and the heavy bounce that made their first two albums instant classics, the band take everything up to eleven as they anthemically rock their way through the song with middle fingers raised proudly. The clever lyrics add an even cooler dimension to it declaring that they are going straight to the top and when they are done with the spot they’ll let you know. A bit more positively-vibed, “Simpatico” and “Better Weather” join “Let Em Know” to form a trio of songs that are instant classics.

The other major standout here is “Homage,” a piano driven tune that pays tribute to the power of music. As the band name drops everyone from The Pixies to Sade to Pink Floyd to U2 to Otis Redding, the lyrics overtake the music quickly as Dryden Mitchell sings:

“They were singing my life with every line/Pulling my strings every time/ Even through my torment we share this moment/ The ups and the downs, the lows and the highs/ We’ll never forget/ You opened our eyes/ Even though I don’t know you, I feel like I owe you….”

If you have ever sought refuge in music you will love this song. I can’t think of any lyric that more accurately describes the places music has been with me or the places it has taken me too.

Although it’s still early in the year, I’m declaring Always & Forever my album of the year. This isn’t just a strong comeback from a great band, it’s the  bold rebirth of one of Rock and Roll’s best kept secrets.

Reviewed by Mark Fisher