Chicago Music Reviews

Album Review: Kaleena Marquez – Back to Gray

Posted by Jason Petros on May 20, 2009
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Kaleena could pass for a sad Michelle Branch, but lacks the production of a pop singer/the hooky sensibilities that can nail a song into your head. I’m really hearing a lot of possibility in these tunes, but there’s a lack of musicianship – unfortunately something all too common with singer/songwriters on their first recordings – and this prevents the tunes from leaping out of the headphones and sticking with you for longer than the album’s running time. For example, the timing of the acoustic guitar on the opening track is completely off the drum machine-like beat punching throughout. I was missing any type of effect on the vocals throughout the album; some delays and/or reverbs would really serve her voice well, and move some of the songs forward. The mood of the album is sleepy and sad all the way until the last two songs, “Back to Gray” and “I’m Alright”. The songs themselves sound to me like ideas that need a bit more fleshing out – electric guitars/a punchier drum sound/ and a push from the low end is necessary to distinctly separate the lead vocal melody line from the rest of the music. With more professional musicians/producers and a little bit more presence, this offering from Kaleena could really connect with an audience – here’s to looking forward to her near future.

www.myspace.com/kaleenamarquez

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CD Review: Mike Michalak Band – Big Plan

Posted by Jason Petros on May 20, 2009
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The Mike Michalak Band has us an instrumental gem with their new disc, Big Plan. From the first song, which I mistakenly took for a praise song (which it good be) I could tell this was an ensemble that was used to making really great arrangements. Unfortunately the more into the disc I progressed, the more apparent it was that the lyrical quality of the songs was far surpassed by the clarity and talent evident in the music. With clunkers such as ’make me some coffee, make it for me now, I really wish you would’, I kept wondering how they would allow themselves to write something that so obviously took the attention away from the truly wonderful mixing and absolutely stellar mastering of a disc so musically rich. There are times when you can get away with overly simplified lyrics, but usually it’s the overall feeling of the songs that will push past the shortfall. Without a really talented vocalist behind the mic, the lyrics get tiresome. Kudos to Chuck Kawal and Al Ursini on their aforementioned stellar mixing and mastering. Jumping from 80’s balladesque melodrama (Gonna Be Good) to a little reggae, (Stay) to classic rock (Sometime) – you can tell the members are all well-versed in genre and accomplished musicians – it’s essentially jam band music forced into 4 -5 minute packages of almost pop music, and I really enjoyed listening to the musical ebb and flow – but again, this was interrupted by some of the lyrical embarrassments that were dropped (Coffee, Turtleneck).. The guitar tone is really impressive throughout – the piano floats through the mixes appropriately and the lead parts are actual leads, and not the 4 note down-strums that have been passing for leads since Coldplay took the airwaves. The bass lines, especially the slap line in Pez I, were really impressive– bouncing and carrying the music without you realizing what you are actually bobbing your head to. These guys get 5 out of 5 stars for their musical ability and the production, but a 2 out 5 on lyrical ability.

Highlights include ‘The Wave’, and ‘Sometime’.

The disc is available on itunes, at CDbaby.com, or at www.myspace.com/mikemichalakband.

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The Hoyle Brothers – Don’t Leave Yet

Posted by Jason Petros on May 13, 2009
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Music brings you back – back to a morning, which, upon your blurry eyed and foggy brained wake, you are stricken with an internal fear.  Your head won’t clear and in your heart you can feel regret starting to bubble up inside.  Lying on your couch with waves of nausea passing through like stop and go traffic, you fend off bouts of panic with sure fire self awareness, “I wouldn’t do that. No way. I mean, why would I say that? There’s no reason…” Eventually your reasoning trails off and you resign to the depression, settle in, and wait for the treacherous, stormy, combination of alcohol and reality to drizzle itself off beyond the horizon.  The Hoyle Brothers keep a square jaw while walking into the jaws of boozey, smokey bars, knowing full well what it’s going to feel like in the morning.  Their revelry manifests itself in their affirming, defecating, and self defining histories sung in an easy going two-step that pays tribute to traditional country greats, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.  With such an iron fisted grip on truth and self awareness, one might forget that there is more to life than gettin’ drunk, smokin’ cigarettes, and lamentin’ over loves long gone – but unfortunately it’s these very vices that most of the time lead to the highest and lowest points of our decidedly human lives – and THB refuse to let those self defining moments be forgotten.   The music brings us to back to a simpler time, and their album, “Don’t Leave Yet”, leaves a lasting impression by staying away from the conformist so-called Country music that populates the current airwaves.  You won’t be finding any nuggets of Fraternity friendly quotable wisdom (ahem, Kenny Chesney) here – but you will be forced to recognize a form of music that is the very foundation of what could arguably, with the exception of the blues (and maybe hip-hop/rap), be called the only original American music.  The Hoyle Brothers have shown us that in staying true to oneself – about the good, the bad, and the ugly – you can become something more than just another person – you can become a self orating history lesson to all that cross your path.  They leave us music in their wake, and fans of salt-of-the-earth country music should take heed, these guys are the real deal – having toured country wide, you can find them every Friday: 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Empty Bottle for Hardcore Honkytonk Happy Hour.

 

http://hoylebrothers.com/

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Static in Verona – life-sized replica

Posted by Jason Petros on May 12, 2009
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Static in Verona, the alternative name to singer/songwriter, Rob Merz, shows significant growth on “life-sized replica” from his last EP, “Be Quite As You Leave”, although I have to say that it is a little bit more than obvious that he’s been listening to quite a bit of Death Cab for Cutie.  (The melody of “forgetful” is a dead-ringer for “Your New Twin Size Bed”).  There are a few stand out things happening on this EP that make it worthy of a listen or two – the first is most obvious, and probably the most enjoyable for me, was the production – absolutely stellar and clear as the Gulf of Mexico.  Secondly, although the melodies could be pushed a little farther into “hook” territory, the harmonies throughout the album really pulled me into the songs – a major departure from the last EP.  Lastly, SiV uses electronics sparingly, completely appropriate to the songs – and they add more than subtract from the songs – case-in-point “life-size replica” – the constant, overly eq’d and effected kick drum pours itself over the meloncholy strumming of an acoustic guitar.  This EP is one for fans of Death Cab for Cutie and other bands of this ilk.

http://staticinverona.com/

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On Our Radar: The Kickdrums

Posted by Jason Petros on May 11, 2009
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“That beat is raw.” is probably a phrase The Kickdrums hear all the time.  Pounding bass, tight snares, a little bit of electro dance hall and a whole shit load of tight production make up the songs that put the Kickdrums on CIMR’s map.  There’s a little bit of Ratatat influence evident, but only because of pulse pushing nature of the music they choose to make.  Unlike Ratatat, these guys throw some rocking vocals in the mix as well – they’re crate digging workers who’ve risen to the top by sheer force of their own creative ambition.  They are unafraid to mix sweeping strings with hip hop beats and dashes of real guitar, because this has done before to varying degrees of success (or failure) people will sometimes make the comparison to Gym Class Heroes or bands of that ilk.  Although having produced songs for a cache of rappers, including 50 Cent, they stay away from trying to be rappers and when singing, do things that feel comfortable to them and therefore, it sounds more comfortable to the listener as well.   Top notch production and a feel for what is relevant is what’s going to keep the Kickdrums behind some banging tracks for a long time.

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Andrew Belle – All Those Pretty Lights EP

Posted by Jason Petros on May 04, 2009
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Slow tempos and Fray-seque vocal stylings meander around piano and a lead guitar that comes directly from the pages of Jonny Buckland make up the 3 dimensional songster, Andrew Belle.  His songs could easily fit the background of any new ‘hot’ show of fake adults dealing with teenage melodrama (Grey’s Anatomy) – setting hearts soaring and college age women fantasizing the love of their life in montage.  The lyrical content is above average for most singer/songwriters in this vein – “So much for medicines and healthy patience, we have a little bit of a situation…” – they tell stories of heart break and a lost soul; although they consistently wander back into the “I’ve fallen in love” template typical of Keane/Fray/Coldplay apostles.  The sound of the album is most definitely radio ready, and no doubt radio friendly – but the similarities are much too obvious for Andrew to make the jump from local talent to statewide – or nationwide sensation.  The combination of a recognizable voice along with all too familiar arrangements works for him very well, and sounds great, but unfortunately is the same thing that will end up holding this talent back.  There are some very touching songs on the EP – my favorite was “Signs of Life” – although it was probably written to somebody else, in my own head I envision this as a song to one’s self – take a listen to it with this in mind and a new truth will be found.  None the less, my humble recommendation would be to diversify the sound, try new arrangements – without a piano or a telecaster – and force out a song that entertains all the things we already like with other choices that make a new talent really stand out.

http://www.myspace.com/andrewbelle

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Hollus – Joker and the Queen

Posted by Jason Petros on April 24, 2009
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Words I will not use in this review:  revolutionary, raw, and rocking.  These are possibly the most overused and wrought words in rock critic history – and unfortunately, rarely do they convey any meaning about a band or its music.  Anyway, Hollus is a strictly analog band.  You won’t hear any synthesizers, drum machines, or overzealous string arrangements on “Joker and the Queen”.  You are much more likely to hear poetic lyrics mixed with a road worn, Tennessean, Kings of Leon/Band of Horses – guitar- rock with a southern drawl.   Rugged production values add to the mystique here – it isn’t without flaw – but gets the job done and does it well for a self recorded album.  They do sometimes fall into Dave Matthews’ territory – not musically, but within the confines of lyric revelry; as shown on “One More Road” – ‘Getting high just passing the time/Watching girls above/All the time to drink up your wine/I feel sick with love’; but such digressions are forgiven when one begins to understand that Hollus is not a city slicker band trying to make it big in the urban jungle.  Instead, they are rural dreamers, allowing the imprint of their lush, created, environments made up of river beds, foreign fogs and other assorted portraits of a true American landscape to shape their sound.  Blues inflected rock music that dynamically moves between acoustic and electric guitars; blends the real with the surreal; comes together, wrapping us in a cocoon of heartache.  This is Hollus. 

 

www.hollus.net

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BlackJack Rover – Back to Chicago EP

Posted by Jason Petros on April 16, 2009
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Alternative rock had its heyday.  Electro has been infiltrating our musical infrastructure for the past year or two, and pop melody has been snaking its way through the speakers since the Beatles graced us with their presence.  BlackJack Rover comes from a royal blood line by the name of AC/DC.  Their songs are straight up, whiskey on the rocks, kilt-wearing, I don’t give a shit what you think of me, rock and roll.  Straight forward guitar riffs and cymbal heavy chorus drumming, backed by in the box bass lines all come together nicely and succinctly in the debut EP, Back to Chicago. 

 

Although it is refreshing to hearken back to an era before synthesizers, drum machines, and tear your throat open screaming, these songs sound like a rehashing of ideas that have been played out and done better by those who’ve come before BJR.  I do appreciate the simple structure of their songs, although I was left hoping for some variation between the verses, or an off key bridge, of even some bass/drum breakdowns that could give the listener an opportunity to say, “Hey, what was that? I need to rewind that part.”  Alas, such is the plight of the independent musician.  I’m finding more and more that tried and true dynamics, more than talent, and in some cases, more than songwriting can be the difference between bands, as I’ve said before, causing them to go from, “meh” to “holy crap that was great”.  “Ghost in the Sun” takes giant leaps forward in this respect, but clocking in at just under 6 minutes, is a bit too long for something that isn’t progressing towards some type of anthemic finish. 

 

BlackJack Rover are a rock band built on foundations already laid.  They have the ability, but could use a small push in the way of some more popular music today, once they figure out how to tie their devil may care swagger and pop-rock sensibilities they’ll be radio ready. 

 

www.myspace.com/blackjackrover

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I Fight Dragons – Cool is Just a Number EP

Posted by Jason Petros on April 06, 2009
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Add originality, creativity, 4 part harmony and  4 button controllers – rinse, now add pop sensibilities, superior songwriting and a bass player that knows his way around a melody and you’ll get I Fight Dragons.  It’s as if everything came together for this excellent band at the exact right time.  They’ve scored songs on 93.1 WXRT Chicago, sold out the Elbo Room (their 1st show), and have an online presence that rivals major label bands; oh, and their music’s pretty good too.  On their first EP, Cool is Just a Number, they use electronics to compliment their music (not to overtake it) – dial in perfect guitar tone and have a rhythm section that thunderously introduces the poppy vocals and guitars to rock.  IFD are ready to take on the world.  Led by Singer/Songwriter/Philosopher Brian Mazzeferri, Dragons totally embrace the nerd inside and take the listener on a Zelda infused journey; chronicling love, superman, and the working life – without you even realizing the subject matter of the song.  It’s an inspiration to hear completely well molded songs that are serious, but don’t take themselves too seriously.  There are so many things going on in each of the 6 songs that it takes multiple listens to enjoy all aspects – I’ll name a few, and then let you check out one of their videos – I can’t wait until their next show…who knows, maybe I’ll even get to play a game or two.

My favorite track is “Money” – makes me feel like the Dragon Fighters are direct descendents of those harmony masters, The Beach Boys; also –  wait until the breakdown and be blown away by the groove.  I didn’t even mention the fact that the drums in the beginning start with a bit crushed, 8 bit snare – for anyone still trying to recreate “Idioteque” – consider contacting IFD and asking how.

http://www.myspace.com/ifightdragons

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Fishing with Spoons

Posted by Jason Petros on April 06, 2009
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Fishing with Spoons newest EP reminds me of a short, bald, red-faced angry man.  He screams and yells, stomps his feet, clenches his fist and isn’t afraid to belly up to anyone.  Unfortunately, no matter how hard he tries, or how loud he screams, he just can’t be taken seriously.  The EP contains everything that it should: hard, metal-edged guitars, out of the box basslines, and cymbal heavy drums; but overall, lacks the feeling and the pure anger that really gives a band that “x factor”.  For example, “FUnambulism” begins with falsetto tinged melody line – but it sounds forced – almost like Jack Black singing, eyebrows raised and palm fluttering up as he reaches for the notes – it’s almost good, but it isn’t quite there yet.  The song is obviously inspired by Gogol Bordello – with it’s Eastern influenced, polka inflected bass line – but during the chorus sounds more like a D-12 song than a rock song and then, at the end, the “where’d you go my friend” repeats don’t seem like they serve the song – they just seem thrown in.  None the less, the instrumentation is very good – dynamic in the right places, with riffs that rip and pull left and right – the bass line isn’t afraid to stray from the E and A strings.  The drums are pounding and drive the music where it should, but the melody lines could be a bit more inventive.  These guys can play, I’m just waiting for them to play something inspiring.  I can all but guarantee that these guys are entertaining as hell live, and am going to check out their record release show at Reggies Rock Club off the Cermak Red Line on April 26th.

www.myspace.com/fishingwspoons

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