Selma Mariudottir – ‘Never Promised to Behave’

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

Last month, I first featured Selma Mariudottir in my ‘Independent Spotlight’ for her return to music, a track called ‘Unconditionally.’ I gave the song one of the strongest reviews I’ve given an independent artist or songwriter, and it spoke volumes in regard to her promising music composition career. Her new song is ‘Never Promised to Behave.’ Let’s delve into it:

As Mariudottir is the focus of the review, it makes sense to first tackle the composition and lyrics of the song. Essentially, ‘Never Promised to Behave’ is the story of two lovers who betrayed each other and cheated, only to find themselves returning to one another, both equally as remorseful. It’s an interesting songwriting perspective since normally songwriters assume one end of the spectrum: cheated or cheated on. It’s an intriguing perspective to look at a relationship where it happened on both ends. Similar to ‘Unconditionally,’ the track is well written and well organized, though it does follow a formulaic structure.  

Mariudottir has devised a recording of the song, one which was worked on with four different musicians around the world. The three session musicians click very well; musically, the collaboration is a brilliant success. When I was first provided this track, the initial vocalist was a detriment to the song. Now, the vocalist, a Serbian one at that, makes the track. Jovana, the new vocalist, is absolutely stunning. Her voice fits the song incredibly well and her harmonies and overdubs match song absolutely perfectly. There are multiple overlays of her vocals, all of which accent each other magnificently and introduce a very jazzy sound to the song.

Previously ‘Never Promised to Behave’ suffered drastically from its first vocalist. Now, the vocalist defines the entire song, elegantly classifying it into a beautiful jazzy ballad. The lyricism is fairly strong, and the musical prowess of the track is excellent. The production is also excellent. The song reaches its full potential with its new singer, and it’s certainly just as superb, if not more so, than ‘Unconditionally.’ Between both of these songs, Mariudottir has returned to music composition fiercely. She needs to continue this incredibly musical pursuit and complete an album or EP, because she has the talent to compose such a record. Her method of utilizing different session musicians on each track is proving beneficial and creatively unique, giving each song a dramatically different sound all while remaining under the umbrella of Mariudottir’s composition style.

Listen to the song:

Bernie Journey – ‘Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?’

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this Independent Spotlight I’ll be taking a look at an up and coming indie artist, Bernie Journey, and his new single, ‘Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?’ The single has been released on the independent dance label Phunk Junk Records, and is described as a ‘upbeat, energetic, indie rock/electronica offering.’ The single is available now through Phunk Junk and so are remixes Ros Garcia El Brujo, but for now, let’s check out the actual song:

‘Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?’ introduces itself with a dance floor beat that escalates through a synthesized soundscape. The song relies heavily on synthesized beats and overdubs with a whole lot of reverb. The production is quite good, which is always refreshing since so many independent electronic artists grab a copy of Garageband or Fruity Loops and create really subpar beats. ‘Are You Thinking’ carries itself like a professional studio recording. The mix is clear and each instrument delivers in the fullest capacity.

As the song continues, the virtual soundscape that is crafts becomes increasingly more complex. The song slithers in and out of explosive dance beats and droning echoes and reverberation. There’s even a sly electric guitar in there. In short, the track creates a waterfall effect of musical sound. With that said, the production does feel like it has come straight out of the mid 1980’s. In honesty, it’s the most 80’s esque independent track I’ve ever reviewed. That’s not a bad thing, but it does feel dated, as if the last time you heard music like this was in the ‘Wedding Singer.’

The lyrics to ‘Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?’ are incredibly shallow, but I can’t knock off points for that because they’re intentionally shallow. There’s a difference between a song that feels superficial because it takes itself too seriously and a song that knows exactly what it is and thrives on it. This track is the latter; I imagine Bernie Journey is completely aware that these aren’t exactly the kind of poetic lyrics that will woo this woman into his bed. They’re party lyrics, plain and simple: best enjoyed when drunk or trying to get someone else drunk. Again, that’s not a bad thing. Even Lou Reed had a phase of remarkable shallow content in his lyrics, and the man is a universal icon for poetic lyricism. I can’t compare Bernie Journey to Lou Reed in any way, but both fall into that group of performers who intentionally decided to party a bit more in the lyrical department, which is why I can’t criticize Bernie.

‘Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?’ is a nice party song: it’s shallow, unpoetic, and overproduced, but that’s everything a party song should be. It serves its purpose incredibly well and doesn’t overextend its hand by attempting to be something more. Despite the unimaginative lyrics and droning synths, the song does take you back to the glory days of the synthesized soundscape, reminding you that ‘Wedding Singer’ was actually a pretty great movie.

Connect With Bernie Journey:

Red Monday – The Debut Album

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this edition of Independent Spotlight I will be taking a hard look at the Chicago-based indie rock group, Red Monday, and their new self-titled debut album which dropped in August. First, though, I’d like to delve into Red Monday as a group to give the music some context.

Red Monday is a group built on coincidence. Essentially, lyricist and musician Jim Miller ran into a series of incredulous twists of fate and eventually teamed up with vocalist Rick Harris, where in turn they crafted a band around Miller’s vision for a unique musical experience that could attempt to energize the local music scene amidst a sea of cover bands and predictable acts. Their new bold debut album is twelve tracks long; so how did they do? Let’s get into it:

The album introduces itself with ‘She’s on Fire,’ a powerful rock track with cascading guitar riffs that echo the best of classic rock. Immediately, the musical style is eerily similar to a band like Rush, but with a more modern twist and a vocalist that has a bit of an Eddie Vedder vibe to him. The production is absolutely exceptional; the vocals are crisp, the mix is clear, and each instrument delivers in full force. It’s always refreshing to hear an independent band with a strong production since so much of the scene is plagued with low-fi, poorly produced DIY EP’s and albums. Red Monday’s debut was recorded professionally in a studio, and it complements them well.

‘Brianna’ continues the record introducing a softer tone to Red Monday with a pretty acoustic introduction. Quickly the band escalates into full on rock and roll, though, and their sound is quite elegant. The band describes their creative process as being centered largely around making Miller’s songs jive with Harris. They’ve accomplished this in spades, and Harris’ really carries the band emotionally giving an superb performance.

‘Time (It’s About Time)’ was the first single of the record, and it’s certainly single material. The track really rocks with a suave bass and guitar riff playing off of some equally suave lyrics. ‘Isn’t That The Way’ has a different aura to it with a unique vocal delivery from Harris coupled with an arena rock-like jam. It works, though, as does every song on this record. ‘Closer’ is a deeper jam with guitar harmonics overlaying a jazzy bass groove and some bluesy lyrics. There is no shortage of catchy choruses and love songs on this album, reminiscent of the glory days of this kind of music.

‘Sanctuary’ continues the rock anthem nature of the record, with ‘When I Hear Your Voice’ following after as one of the highlights of the record. This piece in particularly is magnificently beautiful, haunting the listener as it expands with a brass section. ‘When I Hear Your Voice’ may very well be the best produced and most excellent track on the collection.

Miller boasts that Red Monday houses some amazing harmonies and melodies. That it does, and those continue through the rocking ‘You Move Me,’ and  ‘Why Should I Lie,’ another highlight of the record where a stunning piano and minimalistic electric guitar bantering back and forth instrumentally in perfect harmony. ‘Broken Promises’ follows your classic heartbreak formula, but it does so with extreme tact and individuality.

‘Man in the Mirror’ continues the trend of catchy choruses with a wonderfully memorable performance; Harris and the rest of the band continue to convey quite a bit of emotion through their rock and roll: a rock and roll sound that feels pure and original, yet familiar. ‘Man in the Mirror’ has one of the most memorable guitar solos on the album as well. ‘Somebody Else’ finishes out the record, and it’s musically intriguing. The acoustic guitar opens the song accenting Harris’ ghostly performance. It’s one of those songs that looks forward to the future: “one day we’ll be together.” As a final performance, it acts as the perfect encore, since you’ll listen to it once, then return to it three or four times before you go back and listen to the record from the start.

The Chicago music scene breeds the best. From Mavis Staples to Cheap Trick to Wilco, Chicago has been the place for all of them. Rock and roll never would have happened without Chess Records, and you can bet your ass that the best place for live blues is Buddy Guy’s Legends. Believe me, I live here, and participate in the same music scene Red Monday is attempting to save. So with that said, Red Monday redefines your average clubbing band by creating a repertoire for themselves that stands on its own two feet. In the spirit of the city, there is plenty of space here for their sound. Hopefully, though, they can branch out, because they’re a good enough band to do so. They don’t seem to be gigging at the moment, but when they do, I’ll see you there.

Connect With Red Monday:

Christopher T – ‘Unfolded’

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this review, I’ll be taking a look at a new track by Christopher T, a dance mix called ‘Unfolded.’ Before delving into the track, however, I would first like to briefly overview Christopher and his music identity.

Christopher is a San Francisco-based musician on the record label LovelyDrops, a label that focuses on house music and ‘high quality electronic music.’ Christopher acts as the label’s owner and A&R rep, giving him quite a few hats to wear throughout the musical process. LovelyDrops in itself is something to be proud of; Christopher is extending his hand musically by creating his own record label, something that is becoming increasingly more popular and increasingly more beneficial to the music scene, as it supercharges the industry with a constant flow of independent music.

‘Unfolded’ is the track in the spotlight and immediately the production quality is abundantly apparent. It has a wonderful studio sound to it, a refreshing instance of professional production amidst an electronic music scene with an overflow of shoddy self-produced EP’s and independent artists fiddling with MIDI’s and Garageband.

The piano in the mix is especially intriguing, since so often house music devolves into mindless beats on a drum machine passing through drop after drop without much musical individuality or identity. ‘Unfolded’ feels like a smarter dance mix: it has an eclectic piano that defines the sound, and it introduces haunting female vocals halfway through. As the layers build around each other, the song offers one of the most complex electronic soundscapes I’ve heard in quite some time.

At the heart of ‘Unfolded,’ you have a excellent atmospheric production. As you dig deeper, the vocalist and piano create a much more impactful experience. This is the kind of sound that can be classified as ‘intelligent music,’ which can only truly be created by a musician and producer with a firm grasp of the technology paired with a powerful artistic vision. As ‘Unfolded’ unravels towards the end of the track, you aren’t attacked by an overly dramatic dance drop, rather, the song fades into itself as a gorgeous instrumentation echoes out.

Christopher T’s ’ ‘Unfolded’ is one of the most intelligently designed and tasteful electronic mixes I’ve reviewed this year from an independent artist. It stands as an excellent centerpiece to a growing independent label manned by Christopher, one that certainly has the talent behind it to persevere into the industry.

Connect With Christopher T:

Kelly Vaughn – ‘My Strength’

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this edition of Independent Spotlight, I’ll be taking a look at Kelly Vaughn, a contemporary artist stationed in Texas. He recently released his new six song record, titled ‘My Strength.’ The album is an eclectic mix of adult contemporary and Christian songs with a distinct pop/rock sound, flavored with a Texan vibe. Let’s delve into the record:

Immediately, listeners are introduced to Vaughn with the single, ‘Rainy Night in Dallas.’ The production of the record stands out immediately; the mix is clear and professional, which is a nice reprieve from an independent music scene plagued with poor productions. Vaughn’s backing band is right in step with his music and it flows very well. ‘Rainy Night in Dallas’ is a classic love song with a Texan sound. Vaughn dons the electric stratocaster like so many other guitarists from the region, and he does so with exceptional tact. He’s an excellent musician and the guitar sways effortlessly through his jam. He’s a conservative player, which is refreshing since he focuses on individual phrasing rather than shredding the instrument away.

‘Happy Ever After’ brings Vaughn’s blues appeal into focus, and it’s a powerful turn from the sing-song nature of ‘Rainy Night in Dallas.’ ‘Happy Ever After’ plays out like your standard blues tune: the girl isn’t what the guy thought she’d be, but he’s still remorseful for the loss of the relationship. This dark, bluesy number is one of the highlights of the collection with an infectiously catchy chorus and powerful guitar solo that sounds like something straight out of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s pinnacle ‘Austin City Limits’ performance. Vaughn’s guitar style in ‘Happy Ever After’ is actually remarkably reminiscent of Stevie’s approach to the strat’s sound.

‘When I’m With You’ departs from the raw blues of ‘Happy Ever After’ for an acoustically driven ballad. It’s a beautifully written, elegantly accented with a minimalistic production. There is no shortage of memorable choruses on this record, and this song supplies yet another. ‘When I’m With You’ does cause one of my criticisms to arise, however. Vaughn’s songwriting and performance feels a bit formulaic at times on the record; he doesn’t venture too deeply into musical experimentation. When artists do this, they run the risk of not taking risks, which in causes their music not to grow or worse, develop patterns and create monotony in the sound. Vaughn doesn’t necessarily do this, though songs like ‘When I’m With You’ feel like they’re built around a very typical songwriting formula.

‘We Should Get Together’ is a nice little love ditty, focusing on the birth of a new relationship rather than the remnants of one. In particular, the guitar solo on this track is the most poignant of the album, it’s dirty and raw, cascading through the mix with quite a bit of power. Lyrically, the song is quite repetitive but it’s still a good jam song, one probably presented with much greater intensity live.

The last two tracks on Vaughn’s record are actually contemporary Christian songs, which is a bold departure from the blues pop nature of the rest of the album. It’s a creative decision that usually alienates or confuses one or both parties that the music appeals to, however, with the secular crowd potentially not wanting the music to take on a religious connotation halfway through the album. On the flip side, those who buy the record for the worship music may be thrown by the secular ballads. In any case, Vaughn manages to make the transition fairly seamlessly.

‘My Strength’ feels like your standard contemporary Christian song, preaching faith, praising the lord, raising your hands to God, etc. In the scheme of popular Christian music, the song is quite good, though it suffers from all of the lyrical and musical stereotypes of the genre in that it lacks a bit of creativity relying heavily on the same imagery.  ‘It’s Worth A Try’ ends the record with another contemporary Christian song. That song, however, feels a bit more adventurous than the previous track. It deviates a bit from the expected nature of the previous track, making for a memorably endearing ending to a strong record.

‘My Strength’ is a very strong album with six powerful songs. Kelly Vaughn is able to maneuver his way through deep blues jams into sing-along choruses, all while finding a faith-based message along the way. The abrupt shift to Christian music may throw listeners towards the end of the album, but that’s clearly an artistic decision that Vaughn deemed worth the risk. Comparing his sound, I would characterize him along the lines of Steven Curtis Chapman, a contemporary Christian artist whose music falls in line very similarly to Vaughn’s since it delves into secular inspirations as well as Christianity. Kelly Vaughn is certainly worth keeping tabs on in the upcoming year; he’s got the talent, he just needs to continue to funnel that in a positive direction.

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Bode – The Self Titled Debut

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this review, I take a look at ‘Bode,’ a young European artist trying to carve his way through the electronic musical landscape. First, though, it is important to delve into Bode as an artist with some information about him:

Bode is seventeen years old, and acts as a multi-instrumentalist and producer on his own work. His age is incredibly impressing, as is his resume, which boasts performances with heavy weights at heavy metal festivals and extensive musical experience from a very young age. His first record, self titled ‘Bode,’ is his attempt to enter a genre he defines as ‘ambient electronic’ music.

‘Bode’ is six songs and fairly brief, timing in at just over fifteen minutes. Brevity is a virtue for electronic music, something that Bode overcomes quite well. The dilemma with electronic music is that too often it becomes monotonous and over extended, droning on into oblivion. More so, it’s difficult to ensure that each song on an electronic record is different from the rest, a feat that is significantly more difficult in this genre than others. It’s also worth noting that there is a fine line between intelligent electronic music and background music: one is refined and uniquely designed, the other is party music. With all of that said, Bode has a lot of bases to cover to be a strong act. He has to keep his content consistently interesting, not over extend a track, and construct the sound intelligently. Does he do it?

In short, Bode absolutely does it. ‘Valve,’ his introduction to the record, is mystical and diverse, showing off an incredibly broad range of musical influence, teeming with the best of electronic inspiration and diving in and out of world music. ‘Ecstasy in Devotion’ develops the world sound further, sampling some really unique content. ‘Encounters’ is equally as intriguing, quickly developing into a fast paced thriller of an electronic mix.

‘Nightmist’ is the most sonically interesting song on the record, dancing in and out of mystical instrumentation. ‘S314 Ritual’ feels like an exercise in atmospheric music, arranging itself around a Native American-esque vibe. The EP ends with a reworking of ‘Nightmist,’ which tightens up the sound and removes the the intense drum introduction. The first outing of ‘Nightmist’ feels more authentic, but both prove to be equally excellent renditions of the best song on the record.

By far, ‘Bode’ is the best independent electronic record I’ve ever reviewed. It surpasses expectations by fulfilling all of the requisites of good electronic music to allow it to enter the realm of intelligent electronic music. It feels very similar to the record Thom Yorke put out earlier this year, ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes,’ and that’s good. At such a young age, any comparison to Thom Yorke is overwhelmingly positive for Bode. He needs to keep doing what he’s doing and expand his audience: he’s got what it takes to make some very exciting tunes.

Check out the album stream here:

Fey – ‘Bye Bipolar’

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this Independent Spotlight, we take a look at the Vancouver based hard rock act, Fey. Fey has just dropped their new album, ‘Bye Bipolar,’ and this is an in depth analysis of the seven track album. First, though, it is important to understand the most we can from Fey’s own interpretation of themselves.

Fey has a fairly vague online presence at this point in time, with only a Bandcamp page and a Facebook page to support the act and provide information. With that said, it doesn’t sound like Fey gives a shit, which may be the point. They list their genre as ‘God Damn Noisy Grunge,’ and describe their music as ‘dirty and pure,’ citing influence from the 1990’s and an era when music was rough and unprocessed. Does Fey sound like their self-description, though?

When you delve into ‘Bye Bipolar,’ you are immediately met with ‘The Day We Meet,’ a song that opens up with a peculiar 1950’s style anecdotal piece from the radio reminding you that “this program” is about mentally ill and disturbed children. That’s certainly one way to start a record. Afterward, queue the overdriven guitars and stark drums.

It makes sense to immediately talk about the vocal style of vocalist Sam Caviglia, since the artistic direction of his performance is introduced in the first few songs and remains prominent the whole record. During the 1990’s grunge movement, the line between hard rock and screamo blurred, with forerunner bands like Kyuss pushing that style. Now, it’s a style that works, but it is also complex and artistically confused by nature. Caviglia’s performance resembles a young David Lee Roth, with can appeal to a broad demographic of hard rockers. However, when he flips the switch into raging mode, that demographic is immediately lost, pushing Fey into a 1990’s subgenre.

The issue that unravels from this point is that it is a difficult scene to appease today; music has moved past that screaming vocalist movement by and large, and outside of places like Portland, a market for it is very niche. At the heart of Fey’s ‘Bye Bipolar,’ they  have an excellent rock record for hard rockers. When he gets screaming, that pool shrinks. Now, I get where the inspiration to do it comes from, but Caviglia is a good rock vocalist, I applaud that side of him. It seems wasted when he devolves into screaming. Pulling back the Kyuss example, Josh Homme ended up evolving into Queens of the Stone Age, a hard rock act that is definitely one of the best in this past generation of rock. If Fey evolved a bit as well, they could land a bigger audience and their music would go farther.

Vocals aside, let’s talk about the music. Well, like I said, it is a surprisingly good hard rock album for an independent act. These guys have skill, and they shred away like no other act I’ve heard in quite some time. The electric guitar is powerful and tactfully harsh, not going off on needless tangents and detracting, but rather complementing the grunge sound. The drummer is also exceptional.

True to their description of themselves, ‘Bye Bipolar’ feels like a fairly untouched record. There isn’t a lot of overproduction, though songs like ‘14 Years’ prove they are willing to delve deeper into the mix to achieve a more introspective sound from their instruments. ‘14 Years’ is probably one of the better tracks on the record, exhibiting a really fantastic production.

The band seems to love sampled intros, whether that be radio presenters, police scanners, or wave sounds. It works to open the record, but by the time you’ve reached ‘Grease Pit,’ it gets a tad old. In any case, each song stands on its own instrumentally.

‘Zero One’ feels overproduced and contrived, though, with a stupid intro of Caviglia screaming and muttering incoherently over a guitar which was overdriven way too hard on the mix. It feels like a mosh pit number with no real purpose on a record of otherwise more tactful songs.

‘Compass’ ends ‘Bye Bipolar’ with a Nirvana-esque guitar lick introduction, a hauntingly intriguing one at that. Again, a sampled introduction is layered in, though in its brevity you barely notice it. At the two minute mark, the beautiful instrumental escalates into a forceful garage rock number. After nearly another minute, the music changes again, turning this song into an odd mixture of a Foo Fighters track, a Kyuss rocker, and ‘Band on the Run.’ ‘Compass’ is by far the best track on the record – a really sweet ending to the album, acting as a rock opera-like exit.

‘Bye Bipolar’ is a great record; I enjoyed it, despite being very removed from their target demographic. With that said, my criticism of the vocal delivery still stands, even considering Fey’s intent. ‘Compass’ was the most compelling track, and he only utilized his screaming style on certain lines, rather than devolving into a raging machine, much like how Dave Grohl handles his vocals on Foo Fighters records. Fey can remain in the 1990’s, it was a great sound and still is. Utilizing numbers like ‘Compass,’ however, will keep the essence of their inspiration, broaden their demographic, and make them seem like a much more musically intelligent band.

Fey’s Music: