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Archive for July, 2010

Ernie Halter – Franklin & Vermont
June 29, 2010

This is not the first time Inner Ear Media mentions Ernie Halter. We spoke with the talented songsmith a few years ago and in our Myspace days we were sure to bring up his name on a regular basis.

Halter is a gifted songwriter and lyricist. In the competitive world of singer/songwriters there is a whole bunch of decent artists, some of them even quite good, but not very special. Halter manages to stand out. His sound is quite unique with his mix of soul, pop, rock, folk, and at times even a touch of rootsy music.

On his previous albums he already showcased talent, versatility, and depth (emotional, lyrical and harmonical) in his songs. And he continues to do this on a very high level on his new album “Franklin & Vermont”.

The melody of the opener Hard To Let A Good Love Go is catchy. The song is upbeat and tells a love story. But the cheer and sincerity in the song make it stand out. The acoustic Angel is a pretty neat track and typically Ernie Halter. The subtle guitar gives way for his excellent vocals to shine. Lead single Gone follows with a somewhat simple, but highly effective melody.

The real gems are the rhythmic Meant To Be, the funky Yes I Am and the beautiful duet with Amy Kuney that closes the album, This Beautiful Ache. All the songs feature strong songwriting, but the versatility, musicality and sincerity Halter shows on these tracks really shows why it’s a miracle that he hasn’t had a big breakthrough. Add to that the best cover of Coldplay’s In My Place you will ever hear, and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.

“Franklin & Vermont” is an album that’s even more solid and complete than Halter’s “Starting Over”, which already was a very strong record. This man keeps finding ways to complement himself as a songwriter and grow as a performer. The dedication and sincerity are admirable and the quality of the music on this album is the absolute top of singer/songwriter. If Halter can continue to evolve and grow, it’s hard to say where this will end. But a breakthrough is pending, sooner rather than later, if you ask me.

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Story of the Year – The Constant
February 16, 2010

Story of the Year has been a good band. One of the more consistent rock bands of the last decade. Not the most original, but with their work ethic, energy and passion the easily make up for that. Don’t expect brilliant, deep lyrics from these guys, but what you should expect is passionate vocals, endless energy and effort and great timing. They do that constantly. Which is why “The Constant” is an excellent title for this new album.

The Ghost Of You And I is the musical equivalent of drinking too much Red Bull, but the release of energy will definitely catch on. The Children Song and I’m Alive (lead single) are not particularly strong tracks, but To The Burial is a heavy rocker that shows SOTY at its best. They bring a lot of guts to the table, and they work it out to something you just have to rock out to. They do this a couple more times on this album (Won Threw Ate, Eye For An Eye). Not everything’s superb, as the power ballad Holding On To You is quite mediocre. But we can easily forgive them these missteps, because the overall quality of the album is strong and the lesser tracks are swiftly forgotten. Even the 90s powerpop (a la Weezer) on Remember A Time is quite catchy and actually works.

“The Constant” is more or less a continuation of “The Black Swan”, in quality it is no less than the previous album, but probably not a big step forward either. But it’s consistent and it’s solid. It’s a good rock record for the fans of real rock (opposed to the more mainstream variants that are popping up everywhere). It will not win the award for most original album of the year, or the award for best album of the year, but above all it’s a solid rock album with a lot of guts and energy that is very suited for rocking out.

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Spoon – Transference
January 18, 2010

Spoon changes directions on “Transference”. The directness and polished beauty from “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” is traded in for a more complex, but clever, rough-around-the-edges kind of indierock. It doesn’t heavily rely on pop hooks, catchy riffs or insistent grooves, though there is some of that throughout the record. No, the album delves more into a corner that draws in the fans because they are intrigued by the deeper layers and the mysterious sounding music.

“Transference” is a strong record, but it will not get the same commercial success as its predecessor. The Mystery Zone has a way of nestling itself in your head. It doesn’t really stick with you right away, but a few hours after you listened to the record you seem to suddenly recall the track. The balladry on the piano song Goodnight Laura is drenched in emotion and sensitivity, and Trouble Comes Running has a kind of groovy 60s rock sound to it. These are probably some of the standout songs on the album.

But I think it’s best to listen to this album in its entirety. See it as an album rather than a combination of songs. The album has a natural order, and feels organic, despite its complex and layered nature. And musically it is air tight. Spoon is a good band, an excellent band even, and while “Transference” might not be their most accessible album, and maybe not even their best album, it still is an effort of the highest quality. Opening up to this album may not be real easy, but in the end the effort you put into it is more than worth it.

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The Rocket Summer – Of Men And Angels
February 23, 2010

Bryce Avary, aka The Rocket Summer is one of those acts that has a certain characteristic feel or vibe. The upbeat, powerpop-influenced pop/rock this young man gives us is infectious and generally makes you smile, makes you feel good. But you can’t really say it’s just feel good music. The Rocket Summer is a an act based on strong songwriting with clever pop hooks and most of the time thoughtful lyrical content.

On “Calendar Days” the songs were quite raw and unpolished, which in itself was part of the charm of that record. It had a nostalgic yet happy-go-lucky vibe to it. It was fresh and accessible. Avaray continued that trend on “Hello, Good Friend”, though you might say that “Calendar Days” was more surprising than the sophomore release.

With a slightly more mainstream approach on “Do You Feel”, Avary got right back on track. With perhaps his strongest songwriting at that point he released not just a solid album, but a remarkable effort that garnered a lot of critical acclaim among critics and peers. With this album he set the bar high for himself regarding future releases.

This year The Rocket Summer released his 4th studio album “Of Men And Angels”. On this record he continues the more mainstream approach, though the songs have a more polished sound. Where, with other bands, this might lead to a ‘sell out album’, this is not the case with The Rocket Summer. The basic recording process leaves an organic, natural sounding album with songs that are radio friendly, catchy and have a high sing along factor. Lyrically I would say “Do You Feel” had a little more substance, but “Of Men And Angels” might be more cohesive in the theme of going through life’s struggle, coming out stronger because of it. Songs like Roses, Hills & Valleys, Walls, I Need A Break… and Let You Go are potential hit singles. The best song on the album, however, is Hey! which makes a terrific live song with a lot of energy and musically it’s more complicated than it sounds, but Avary makes it sound so easy.

The Rocket Summer’s talent for solid songwriting combined with his attitude and iconic vocals make him a unique act that brings something fresh and creative to the table. Even if the music isn’t exactly your thing it will still get to you, take you along for the ride. It’s infectious, and effective too. And “Of Men And Angels” is an album filled with that quality. And with the excellent live potential of the songs, The Rocket Summer’s fame is probably only going to grow. So his plea (“I need a break… but I’d rather have a breakthrough”) might be in the process of becoming reality.

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Seven Mary Three – Backbooth
February 9, 2010

Seven Mary Three is one of those bands a lot of people actually heard of but yet isn’t really a big name. And that fits the band. The combination of rock & roll, rootsrock, pop and grunge leads to a very solid, recognizable sound that’s been the band’s signature for quite some years now. At times they reach out towards a little harder rock, at times they soften it up a little, but overall they have a wide range of honest, well written rock songs.

And after a string of strong, and a couple very strong, albums, it was time for an album with live & acoustic rendition of some of their best songs. The songs are good, very good. Seven Mary Three is not a band that keeps delving into cliché’s and actually writes clever, solid, and most of all, honest lyrics that really speak to the listener. The songs have a southern rock (Lynyrd Skynyrd) meets grunge (Pearl Jam) feel to them live, even lead singer Ross’ vocals have a Eddie Vedder hint in them at times. The beauty of it all though, is that it doesn’t sound like one or the other, it sounds very much like Seven Mary Three. You would just place this band in the middle of these genres, musically.

You can hear Seven Mary Three is an experienced and accomplished band that knows how to write, record and perform songs with sincerity and emotion. The music is real and on top of that it’s musically very, very sound. Strong songs like Oceans of Envy, Wait, Dreaming Against Me, Upside Down, Each Little Mystery & Walk With The Devil sound even better live than they did on record. And that’s quite an accomplishment as these songs all come from strong releases.

“Backbooth” is a great treat for the fans, but not just for the fans, it’s a great album for everyone who loves solid rock music. And even though the band didn’t put their biggest hit (Cumbersome) on the album, there really isn’t anything wrong with this album. Seven Mary Three is one of the better rock bands out there, both in the recording studio and on the stage. And “Backbooth” is a testimony of that.

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Nada Surf – If I Had A Hi-Fi
June 8, 2010

Giving their covers album a palindrome as a title is great of course, but we need to ask ourselves a question here. Were we really waiting on the indiepop pioneers of Nada Surf to present us with a record full of cover songs? Breaking through with their 90s hit single Popular, Nada Surf never really reached the same commercial success again, but they are received extremely well as a live act and their fan base is still steadily growing.

To answer the question, no, we weren’t waiting for that. They are much more than just a cover band, so it’s too bad there is no original material to enjoy. But having said that, the album doesn’t feel like a covers album. Nada Surf makes the songs their own and at the same time they stay true to the original songs. Matthew Caws is an excellent vocalist and the band is a very cohesive unit. Songs like Enjoy The Silence (Depeche Mode) and Question (Moody Blues) may not be the most surprising choices for cover songs, but they are done tastefully and musically entertaining.

The best covers however are Love Goes On (The Go-Betweens) and I Remembered What I Was Going To Say (The Silly Pillows) where the renditions Nada Surf serves us with are actually quite deep and it’s on those songs where the band is able to really connect the songs and their artists with themselves and with both the audience of the original artist and their own fanbase. It’s on those songs where it really comes together.

Other cover songs (originals by Spoon, Kate Bush, Soft Pack & Bill Fox, among others) are done tastefully as well and are worth listening to, but can’t impress as much as the previously mentioned songs. Nada Surf does show a wide range of influences and interesting artists and they show they are more than capable to cover their songs very well, but in the end there is still a feeling of, well, disappointment. While the covers are good it is not really what you want to hear from Nada Surf. It’s their quirky, intelligent mix of indie pop and alternative rock that makes them so attractive to listen to. And honestly, it comes across much better when they can be creative with originals instead of reworking a cover song.

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Mae – (A)fternoon
September 24, 2009

With “(M)orning” released earlier and “(E)vening” upcoming at some point, Mae released “(A)fternoon” in late 2009/early 2010. The band took a similar approach as on “(M)orning”, but things are a little different.

“(M)orning” felt more like a unity, and frankly it was a lot more solid. The songs on “(A)fternoon” has a tendency to become a little messy at times. The final track is just a filler and Over & Over and Fight Song (Crash and Burn) just run too long.

It’s not all bad, because there’s some decent guitar work on this EP, at times very strong. Tracks like In Pieces and Communication (best song on the EP) show the band is musically very sound. Lyrically it’s not always very relatable or accessible, or when the songs are accessible it feels forced and while it is sincere it doesn’t necessarily come across that way.

The band delivered a promising debut, and while it was interesting there was obviously room for development and improvement. “(M)orning” was a nice EP with a lot of potential, but “(A)fternoon” isn’t really a step forward. Lets hope “(E)vening” brings us the potential this band has, because they are capable of something very good. It just hasn’t really come out on this release.

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Little Kim & the Alley Apple 3 – Riding The Rails
March 1, 2010

From the moment you press play “Riding The Rails” takes you back to forgotten times. Combining western swing, hot jazz, bluegrass, a touch of blues and some very early rock & roll and you have a sound that hasn’t been popular for decades. Through the first half of the 20th century however, this was the proverbial ‘it’.

And while it all sounds very vintage it doesn’t sound outdated. Not for a second. It’s an hommage to an almost forgotten era in music and on top of that it’s a reminder. A reminder that this mix of rootsy genres isn’t dead at all. Little Kim & the Alley Apple 3 prove that throughout 15 very strong  songs.

You might not say it when you hear the music, but this band hails from the beautiful country of Belgium. Where, I hear you say. Yes, Belgium. There is a lot of musical talent in Belgium, but the better known names (K’s Choice, dEUS, Soulwax) are in a completely different genre. Even other acts like Jacques Brel, Hooverphonic and Vaya Con Dios aren’t close musical neighbours. If there’s one other well-known musician from Belgium that you could tie this band to it’s jazz musician Django Reinhardt who was popular in the thirties and fourties.

So yeah, that’s what you should know Belgium from. But lets get back to Little Kim & the Alley Apple 3. As I mentioned before, they bring an almost forgotten genre back to life. The combination of excellent songwriting, technically very strong musicians and a female lead singer that not just has that classic beautiful look but also a classic beautiful voice that gives this bands all the facets they need to be successful in this genre. “Riding The Rails” is only the band’s debut full-length but this world would be very unfair if there wouldn’t be many more albums to follow in the future.

It would be almost unfair to say certain songs are highlights because the level of the CD is extremely high. But if I’d have to pick a couple songs I would say the title track Riding The Rails, Who Walks In When I Walk Out, Before The Storm, Ballad of the Old Oak Tree and Lou Ella Brown are tracks that you should at the very, very least listen to. Tom de Poorter is a very skilled guitar player and his fingerpicking skills are quite astonishing, combined with the iconic lapsteel playing of Pat Cattoir, Slappin’ Slim’s impeccable timing on the double bass and Kimberly Claes’ pure, clear vocals (with excellent range), make Little Kim & the Alley Apple 3 one of the most surprising, intriguing and one of the most impressing bands I’ve come across in the last 5 years.

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KaiserCartel – Secret Transit
June 8, 2010

It’s hard to categorize KaiserCartel. I’m not really sure how to describe this band’s music, other than that it’s very good, but I’ll give it a try. KaiserCartel finds a good balance between a more minimalistic sound and an alternative harmonic sound. Regardless of the intensity and richness of the instrumentals (or vocals for that matter), these musicians are very good at creating a kind of soundscape in their songs. The songs often tend to have a touch of mystery or even melancholy. But the songs never really turn into sad songs.

Courtney Kaiser & Benjamin Cartel are both gifted musicians who work really well together. Their songwriting, their vocals and their attitudes complement each other. The songs where one of them takes the lead vocals are strong, very strong even, but the songs that could be considered duets are probably what I’d consider the strongest songs.

You can hear these musicians have the experience, the talent and the insight to know what to do with their music. Take tracks like Falling (more upbeat and maybe even danceable, would make a pretty fine radio single), Worn Out Nervous Condition (groovy, edgy), Wherever You Go (soft and almost minimalistic, yet very intense), Memphis (with a folky, yet playful melody) and the stunning album closer The Wait. These tracks show class, talent and most of all they show an accomplished band (or duo if you will).

“Secret Transit” is an album that may need a little time. I’ll be the first to admit that several of these songs can be a little challenging at first. But I would tell you to give it a chance. There’s an emotional layer in all the songs, and you really can connect to these songs on a deeper level. But musically it’s an album that challenges you, makes you think, I would even say that it makes you interact. If that’s done the right way, it makes the music on the album of a very high quality, and in the past few years I haven’t heard many bands do it as well as KaiserCartel did on “Secret Transit”.

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Jack Johnson – To The Sea
June 1, 2010

Jack Johnson, surfer, documentary maker, liver of the good life, musician, generally nice person. Starting with that, who needs a review, right? But lets see what Johnson comes up with on his newest release “To The Sea”.

Essentially, he’s doing the same thing he’s been doing since he broke through, though over the years the classic pop influences have become a little more apparent. On “Brushfire Fairytales” & “On And On” it was the acoustic strumming and lush vocals that just kept things basic and on top of that very pleasant, and over the years with the releases of “In Between Dreams” & “Sleep Through The Static” Johnson started combining that with a smoother, more mainstream approach that is cut better for radio play. And radio play he got.

Apart from a handful of songs, Johnson’s albums have never been extremely memorable, yet he’s one of those artists you keep coming back to. It just sounds so very pleasant and relaxing. It’s too much to just dismiss his music as ‘feel good music’, but you can’t deny that’s a big part of it. His songs are actually pretty well-written singer/songwriter songs and often have nice little riffs and hooks hidden in them. Same goes for the songs on “To The Sea”, where Johnson finds a balance between being a solo musician and more of a band sound. Lead single You And Your Heart is strong and quite catchy and leads off the album very well.

The album in itself isn’t very surprising, it’s just Jack Johnson doing what he does best (and it works!), but there are a few songs that are actually quite impressive and surprising. At Or With Me is one of those songs. The arrangement is not as breezy as we’re used to and flows incredibly smoothly. And on When I Look Up, Johnson mixes in a little rock & roll, gives the record some needed energy.

Other songs that stand out are The Upsetter, which sounds like vintage Jack Johnson, just a little more mature, Pictures of People Taking Pictures, which has a very simple but extremely effective melody and a chorus that seems to have radio single written all over it. And the lush album closer Only The Ocean is also quite an interesting song.

Over all Jack Johnson is convincing and his music still comes off sincere, because he IS sincere. And there are a couple of songs that will confirm his status as mainstream musician and keep him playing pretty big stages. “To The Sea”, however, is probably not an album that will make many year-end-lists. It’s a good addition to your CD collection, it’s a very solid album with well written songs and the sincerity and ‘feel good factor’ of the album do make it a better record.

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