Steven Casper & Cowboy Angst – Sometimes Jesse James
Silent City Records
When I heard the first notes of “Down”, the lead track on the latest from So-Cal’s Steven Casper, my first reaction was “Tom Petty lives!” High praise from me, but not hyperbolic and while I do feel the ghost of Mr. Petty wafting around Steven’s music, his own personality shines through and he is by no means a clone. It feels mostly like heartland or Americana, but the tendrils of blues, country, and other styles writhe around the songs subtly, giving them both depth, but also a comforting familiarity. His sharp wit and intelligence shine through in the lyrics – check out the words fueling the twisted folk of “Wrecking Ball” if you need proof. Unafraid to try everything, Steven ends the CD with the Spanish flavored instrumental “Mi Sueno, Mi Dolor” – translation, “My Dream, My Pain.” His pain and dream is the listener’s music delight. The Petty comparison goes a bit beyond his similar sounding voice, for Steven Casper is a pure songwriter. And even though there are only six songs on this CD, you will savor them over and over again. – MW
Bonsai Universe – Moonstreams
I cannot quite put my finger on what to make of this musical project by journeyman vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Woody Aplanalp…and perhaps that is why his music is so intriguing. I am not going to come up with one of those “cross so and so with so and so” references, although I do hear a subtle Bowie influence. I would include it in the progressive realm, and, no, that does not mean it sounds like Yes or Dream Theater; it is because it is so intoxicatingly different. There are lush, ethereal keyboard landscapes in abundance, but there are also folksy acoustic guitar passages and avant garde, but hooky pop passages. Woody has an undeniably catchy voice and a quirky sense for lyric writing, putting an extra dose of intrigue into even the most generic subject matter. This probably will not be for everyone, but I don’t think he created it for everyone either. Rather, if you respect solid songwriting talents that have zero qualms about creating different but captivating, then strap yourself in for this ride. – MW
Laura Benitez and The Heartache – With All Its Thorns
While many guys in country are going back to their roots, some of the gals are as well. The third release by Laura Benitez and her band The Heartache exemplifies this as she channels influences of some of the great ladies of country into her own sound. Her voice is undeniably catchy, with a sweetly subtly operatic croon that drives home the from-the-heart lyrics she writes. Musically you are transported back several decades, either clapping along at some smoky Texas honky-tonk, or tapping your toes and smiling in a chair at the Ryman. Both retro and refreshing, this is someone to watch out for.
Rich Krueger – Life Ain’t That Long
Rockink Music – RKM002
Long time member of the band The Dysfunctionells, Rich Krueger has released another excellent solo CD featuring his sharp lyrical wit melded with varied musical sensibilities. With a subtly powerful vote that feels a cross between Van Morrison and Cat Stevens, Rich takes you on a story telling journey that feels just like that…like he is sitting at some campfire sharing a half pint with you and regaling you with life stories and perspectives. Enhancing the stories further with unique music backdrops reaching many roots of folk, rock, country and blues, this is one tasty stew for even the most finicky of songwriting aficionados.
Gerry Spehar – Anger Management
In his 1997 song “Christmas in Washington,” troubadour Steve Earle implored “Comeback Woody Guthrie.” Gerry Spehar may have produced that comeback in spirit with his latest release. The Colorado singer/songwriter pulls no punches with his current political statements on this CD, leaning a bit more on the country side of folk than Woody but still infusing a bare–bone hominess that catches the ear and exemplifies the words. The sardonically humorous “Thank You Donald” kicks off the festivities with a bluegrass lilt. The moody, somber folk of “A Soldier’s Spiritual” is a soul-stirring plea about veteran’s difficulties. “Carnival” is like a twisted tent revival preaching a unique perspective on the legacy of LBJ. Gerry tackles multiple timely issues including racism, war, and immigration with music ranging from bizarrely delectable to musically potent. There are many talented players involved with this CD, but Gerry’s voice showcasing a wonderful diversity in both tonal qualities and emotive output is the real star here. He definitely has a lot to say and whether you believe or agree with him or not, the way he conveys his opinions and messages will no doubt get you to at least listen, and maybe think a bit as well. – MW
Dukes of the Orient – Dukes of the Orient
Frontiers Records – FR CD 845
Bassist/vocalist extraordinaire John Payne and keyboard maestro Erik Norlander have once again joined forces, and the result is mesmerizing. A few years removed from the Asia featuring John Payne era, John and Erik have unleashed both their musical and songwriting talents creating a CD that wonderfully melds the intricacies of prog with the pop sensibilities that Asia was known for during the Payne era. This is obvious straight out of the gate as the rollicking “Brothers In Arms” appears both radio ready with enough musical prowess to please the most ardent prog rock fans. While vestiges of Asia are obvious, the envelope is stretched further – very evident in the driving power of “ A Sorrows’s Crown” and the ear-opening opus “Give Another Reason.” Songs like “Time Waits For No One” and “Seasons Will Change” are strong with their comforting hooks; the musicianship being tempered a bit, but still amazing in a subtle way. It does feel even more like a reunion when you see the guest musicians include guitarists who were members of the John-Payne-era Asia (Jeff Kollman, Moni Scaria, Bruce Bouillet, and Guthrie Govan) along with Asia featuring John Payne drummer Jay Schellen. This is mostly John’s and Erik’s work, combining influences of their past collaborations with other facets of their songwriting souls to create some brilliant music. – MW
Teresa James & The Rhythm Tramps – Here In Babylon
L.A.’s veteran songstress Teresa James has strong roots growing into several branches of blues. The result is a sultry, sometimes bawdy but undoubtably catchy group of songs that smacks of barrel houses where you have to squint through the smoke to glimpse the band. Her delectable twinkling of the 88 keys is backed by a robust crew of talented players, kicking life into songs whether mellow or rocking. Teresa’s powerful voice from the Bonnie Raitt school rips loose the songs in potently soulful fashion. Some highly enjoyable tunes here.
Tim Woods – Human Race
The lead track of Pittsburgh singer/songwriter/guitarist Tim Wood’s second CD is called “Can You Feel It?” and, believe me, you can. You can feel old wooden floors shaking, tube amps vibrating, bandaids hastily wrapped around bleeding fingers. Yeah ,you can call it blues, you can call it rock, but Tim puts a unique enough spin on the songs that you can’t really pigeon hole it. His voice is pleasantly haunted by the ghost of Jim Morrison, his guitar work is often stunning, and the music gives the impression of a headlong free for all that works just right. A great example of someone who lets it all loose when he writes and plays music.
Andrew Sheppard – Steady Your Aim
The outlaw country revival drives on and Idaho singer-songwriter Andrew Sheppard is one of the newer voices taking the wheel. His sophomore effort is brimming with thought-provoking lyrics along with musical landscapes featuring vistas of old school country, blues and alt edginess, highlighted by Andrew’s Willie-meets-Dylan vocal prowess. From the traditional folk feeling “Take A Walk With Me” to the gritty blues-tinged roots of “Lies As Cheap As Whiskey”, and the rollicking groove of “Here At The Bottom”, Andrew proves highly adept at creating tuneful mosaics that burrow deep into your soul with the honesty of the rods while delighting your musical appreciation receptors with the vibrancy of the song structures. This is another one of the many breaths of fresh air into today’s country scene – an ear opening effort that could lead to bigger things for this talented artist and storyteller. – MW
John Lafayette Ramey – Exposition Lines
L.A.’s John Lafayette Ramey shows further depth to his songwriting capabilities on his third solo release. You can feel this just in the first two songs; the hard-charging, edgy roots rocker “Cheap Rent (Move On)” and the touching ballad “Guadalupe” which displays not only his lyrical prowess, but his stunning emotive vocal control. The depth of his songwriting well runs deep throughout the ten tracks with wafts of Brit-pop, Americana, blues and other stylings weaving their way into the overall mosaic. From the haunting groove of “Amelia” to the catchy pop lilt of “Jenny,” John more than proves that he is unafraid to weave any of his varied influences into his musical creations. The result is both comforting and ear opening. – MW