Album Releases, Artist Focus

Getting Swampy With Jessie Smith

A couple of years ago, I came across an EP on NoiseTrade from an artist named Jessie Smith. Having been raised on sweet tea and hot, steamy summer days, the southern vibes of Smith’s sound were immediately appealing. I especially connected with the rawness and grit of her single, Secrets in the Hollow. I felt so engaged by the song that I included it on one of Tomme Suab’s weekly TS10  playlists.

Normally, when I share an artist’s music on the TS10, I start following them on social media. For what it’s worth, Smith is a “fun follow” on Twitter; funny, self-deprecating, and honest. Last summer, she tweeted about performing in Wisconsin. I replied back to her, telling her she really ought to get up to Eau Claire next time she’s in this neck of the woods. Thankfully, she’s planning to come up this way in August as she tours the upper midwest promoting her newly released album, Like the Sun.

Like the Sun is more of what drew me to Secrets in the Hollow (which is included on the record). As I mentioned above, having grown up in Dixie, I love the southern soul I hear throughout. That sound is what Smith would call “swampy.” I’ve been curious about that label and recently asked Smith about that as well as other aspects of her music and new release.

EH: Where does the “swampy” vibe come from? What drives that sound for you?

JS: I grew up in the hot, marsh-y, traditional south. Music in that neck of the woods was bendy, dirty, soulful, and used acoustic instruments. It was all about coming together and playing together. Though my immediate family was not musical, all the influences outside of them were there. In college, I tried on many different “styles” of music, but this swampy, messy, soulful thing was always what clicked with me the most. It also fit with my personality. I love the messy, darker life stuff, and I write from that place a good bit. And swampy-sounding music allows me to be the messy-deep chick I am on the inside. 

Image from Jessie Smith’s website

EH: What are your lyrics based on? What inspires them?

JS: I don’t write songs one particular way. The one thread that stays the same, though, is vulnerability. I figured if I’m going to write something, it better at least be real. I am always trying to understand the meaning of things. “Sitting Pretty” is my attempt to understand the culture of money and the pressures around it. My song, “Here With You” is about marriage and what I am trying to understand about love. I also have written songs about my struggles with depression, and “In The Morning” and “Lighting Up The World” shows this. I basically lay myself bare for my songs.

EH: What song on the record is the most meaningful to you?

JS: SUCH a hard one to answer! It’s a tie between two. “Been In The Storm” because it was one of the first songs I had written in my beloved “swampy” style, and it really solidified the theme of my music career. And “Take A Chance On Me” because that one was the first song I wrote that kind of wrote itself, and I still get chills singing it.

EH: How has the album been received thus far?

JS: It is doing well! I had some great album reviews on No Depression and a few other music blogs, and that was a great surprise. My favorite thing has been hearing from people who appreciate my rawness – it’s scary putting yourself out there on a stage, but there’s just no other way to do it, in my opinion, and to see it being well received makes me have hope in the world again, ha.

EH: Do you have any specifics yet on your potential visit to Eau Claire?

JS: I am currently looking to book shows in Eau Claire and surrounding areas for the first week of August. I am already booked to play for Band On The Sand on Crater Island in Brownsville, MN, August 4th and 5th.

You can catch some of her swampy vibe by checking out Like the Sun for yourself. You can stream or buy it by clicking the appropriate links on Smith’s homepage. And, if you’re in Wisconsin or Minnesota, plan to see Smith play live at the event in Brownsville (close to LaCrosse) or in Eau Claire.

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Album Releases, Artist Focus

The Ambivalence and Hope in J.E. Sunde’s Now I Feel Adored

Here’s my problem: I have a tendency to gush on and on about how much I appreciate J.E. Sunde’s music. Over the past five years, I’ve written several pieces about Sunde and his various projects. There’s a reason for that: the man is immensely gifted and he honors his musical gifts by continually honing his craft. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also a genuinely nice guy.

So, as I’ve considered what I’d like to say about Sunde’s new record, Now I Feel Adored, I’m trying not to simply gush more. Unfortunately, there will be gushing, because Sunde has created yet another gorgeous album. Some reviewers have described this new album as “lush,” and I have to agree. It is indeed lush both musically and lyrically. Sunde’s creativity and unpredictability are on full display, to be sure. However, I have also been taken by the emotional and philosophical lushness of Now I Feel Adored. It seems consistently flirt with ambivalence. There is an underlying sadness to much of what I hear and yet there is a prevailing hope threading throughout.

It is fitting the album begins with nothing but Sunde’s voice (joined later by PHOX’s Monica Martin) in I Will Smile When I Think of You. The man can sing. There’s never been a question about his technical vocal abilities. But, the beauty of his vocals go deeper than precision. There is something in his tone which evokes both warmth and provocation, a pretty incredible mixture. Somehow, through the voice he has been given, he is able to both comfort and unsettle the listener simultaneously at times. Even in this song, his vocals carry a sadness with them, even as the song expresses something of the joy of connected relationship. Again, there is that theme of ambivalence.

Immediately after I Will Smile When I Think of You comes Prism. For me, this song is the sadness anthem for the album. It is an acknowledgment of the brokenness all around us. Something is dreadfully wrong. Sunde expresses a standing expectation for progress, a progress which seems to be too slow, if not at a standstill. The chorus details Sunde’s disappointment and borderline frustration: “I thought we’d be further along…” While Prism is likely the most explicit expression of sorrow on Now I Feel Adored, the theme of underlying sadness, a sadness precipitated by the brokenness of society and strained relationships, is pervasive.

In the end, however, sadness does not get the last word. Even though there are many reasons to feel grief, there is also hope. In Called By Our Names, Sunde speaks of an impending “rising above”. The lyrics describe a connected hope, encapsulated in the lyric after which the entire album is named: “Now I feel adored.” Later, in the closing song of the album, Wedding Ring, Sunde describes a time in which “our sadness will drop off like scales.” He is referring to that “rising above,” a moment in which things are made right and there will be no more tears. That is the hope Sunde expresses in the middle of the grief, disappointment, and strife.

From what I can surmise, this hope is not based on a “blind faith”. Sunde’s hope is not based on some pie-in-the-sky dream in which, all of the sudden, things will just get better. What I hear in Now I Feel Adored is a relational, connected hope. It is based on trusting that there is someone who will in fact makes things right and has both the ability and desire to strip our sadness away. Such trust is only meaningful in the context of real relationship. And that’s what I mean by “connected hope”. To my untrained ears, this connected hope is the backbone of Now I Feel Adored.

Lush, again, is a great description of Sunde’s latest. It is textured and layered in every conceivable way: vocally, musically, emotionally, and lyrically. It is not ear candy… no, it is seven-course meal for the ears, mind, and heart.

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Album Releases, Artist Focus

Caught in Bon Iver’s Web… 22, A Million

There’s a pretty good chance my feelings about Bon Iver’s new album are a bit tainted. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed Justin Vernon’s music for a while, whether it’s Bon Iver, Shouting Matches, Volcano Choir, or any other of his projects. However, in August of this year, I truly became a fan when I experienced Bon Iver live at Eaux Claires. Not only was it my first time seeing him perform live, but it was the debut of all the songs that make up his new record, 22, A Million. And, admittedly, every time I listen to the first track on the album, 22 (Over Soon), I am immediately emotionally transported to that moment, to that amazing experience. So, I bring some baggage into first impressions of Vernon’s most recent creation.

Those considerations aside, the most definitive thing I can say about the album is that it moves me deeply. I resonate with the words of one of my favorite artists, Derek Webb, who when describing 22, A Million, simply stated, “mind/heart blown.” Yep. I get that. Me too, brother. Me too, brother.

Frankly, in a vacuum, it would be surprising to me that I am so drawn to this music. Vernon employs so much Autotune and constantly manipulates everything electronically. There are times when it seems like I’m listening to a warped cassette tape. I’ve gathered that’s what he was trying to create, but that kind of stuff usually grates on me. For instance, one of my favorite tracks on the album is 29 #Strafford Apts. It builds a little and offers a high-note crescendo, with emotive movements throughout. But, just as we’re getting to the main crescendo, the payoff is muddled by that warped tape sound. Again, this would normally turn me off… and yet I continue to be drawn in. And then there’s the whole principle of using current technology to make sounds reminiscent of older technology, and specifically it’s failings. Yeah, usually, that’s not for me… and yet I can’t walk away.

There is something magnetic and provocative about 22, A Million that I can’t even really describe. Certainly, Vernon and his team have worked hard to build some mystique and intrigue around its release. When he debuted the album at Eaux Claires, each song was accompanied by vivid, yet distorted video imagery. And as each song began, the official Eaux Claires app would inform us of the name of the song. Throughout the first day of the festival, Sam Amidon and his Guitarkestra walked the grounds, teaching everyone the words and melody of the album’s finale, 1000000 Million, “where the days have no numbers…” so we could all sing along later that night. Then, there were the “unique” listening parties a couple of days before the release in which hundreds of people would show up to catch an audible glimpse of the album as it was played on a small boombox (a fairly fruitless venture, from my personal experience). Certainly, the cryptic artwork on the cover/liner notes add to the mystique as well.

Another element contributing to this mystique is the utter unpredictability of the album. I mean, seriously, the first few times I listened, I had little idea what was coming next, not only between songs, but in the middle of each individual track. It is all over the place in the most precise, intentional manner. It leverages unique samples, traditional rock/pop instrumentation, incredible creativity, and Vernon’s signature falsetto to create a meandering, yet purposeful work of art.

I don’t know what the lyrics are really about, other than to say it certainly seems as though Vernon is tackling some deep and heady subjects. There’s God, the Devil, numerology, hope, and despair, among other such issues. All of this seems to come together in a central message. I’m not sure what that message is yet…but it seems to be something powerful. Something meaningful. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

As an Eau Clairian, it is incumbent upon me to be at least interested in Bon Iver. I’ve gone from being interested, to liking, to being an all-out fan. My 22, A Million experience has solidified that. And even now, as I listen to the emotive closing anthem of the album, 1000000 Million, my heart is captured and held in suspense. The emotional tension and grip is almost palpable. I expect that captivity, suspense, tension, and grip to hang on for a while to come.

 

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Album Releases

The Joy In the Doubter’s Song: Whym’s “Sing, Doubter”

As I listen to Whym’s new EP, Sing, Doubter, I find myself struggling to find the words to describe what I’m hearing and feeling from these songs. I started out with “ethereal.” And then there was “moody”… naw, that ain’t right. It’s not moody. Sad? No, it’s not sad. While Sing, Doubter has this ambient, emotive feel to it, it’s not sad. And then I thought to myself, it’s actually kinda sorta happy. Wait a minute. Can ambient music actually be happy music? They don’t seem to fit together. And then it came to me… joy. Joy is the word.

Whym is a band out of Asheville, North Carolina who formerly operated under the moniker “The Friendly Beasts.” Their debut EP, Sing, Doubter, released today, July 19, and it is a beautiful record. It’s beauty, by and large, from my perspective, is in the foundation of joy I hear throughout. The music and lyrics offer various emotional stimuli. I can feel questioning and struggle in various parts of these songs, but undergirding all of those questions and struggles seems to be an undeniable joy. It offers a steadiness in the middle of uncertainty. It’s an anchor holding the Whym vessel still in the midst of a turbulent sea.

Whym-Waxes (2)

Although I am not familiar with the music this outfit created under their former name, it seems as though the sound from Sing, Doubter is the result of struggle, mystery, and collaboration. Some of the struggle and mystery is even captured in the band’s new name, Whym. A fellow blogger recently sat with a couple of the band’s members and asked them about the name:

It’s really about the sound of the word. We wanted a single syllable that had a soft sound. We brainstormed a lot of different sounding words, and this one just seemed to fit. But we don’t really know what it means exactly. It’s a mystery. The meaning will work itself out. Kind of like our faith. When we were younger, we saw things as more black and white. Now we have questions and we allow room for those questions, for the mystery, in our music. And not just in the lyrics, but also in the actual music. We have been wanting to think about uncertainty. Not to worry about it… To leave space for it. And to be okay with uncertainty. We think it’s more authentic.

Amen. If you read my blog about Andrew Howie’s Post, you already know my affinity for embracing uncertainty. I hear that uncertainty, that mystery, throughout Sing, Doubter.

And there’s that collaboration piece as well. In a recent interview with The 828, Sarah McCoy, the band’s main songwriter and pianist, when describing the band’s sound, had this to say: “Our music tastes are ever-evolving. Sounds we used to like, we steer away from now, and sounds we hadn’t tried out, we experimented with. I think our new music came from a much more collaborative process of writing.” This included allowing the record’s producer to have input on wording and various other parts of the creative process. These variant voices have been synthesized into a unified singular voice in Sing, Doubter.

The end result of that synthesis and wrestling match with mystery is beautiful. Each song feels like an emotional journey. But it’s a journey not to the east, west, north, or south. It’s not up and it’s not down. No, it feels more like an invitation to an inward journey. It’s a call to search for that anchor, that foundation… joy. These songs feel like a testament to the power of joy, the power which enables you to keep your head above water when the waves are swaying everything else around you.

 

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Album Releases, Artist Focus

Latifah Phillips’ Moda Spira: An Emotional Journey

 

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From Moda Spira’s Facebook page

I first became aware of Latifah Phillips a few years ago when I began listening to her project, The Autumn Film. I fell in love with that music. It was heart-on-the-sleeve, emotive stuff. The lyrical content, which spoke of deep issues like experiencing abuse, hiding from the world, and overall brokenness, was matched beautifully by emotive, driving, and building melodies. One of the essential pieces of what drew me into The Autumn Film was Phillips’ voice. Her tone and style consistently seemed to capture and authenticate the emotionality in those songs. My fandom was solidified in 2012 when she collaborated with Derek Webb on the SOLA-MI project’s Nexus record, a concept album in which Phillips’ voice represents a machine that has been brought to life with AI. Again, she was able to sing and project the character in such a way that you can sense this being’s struggle to process what’s happening and to respond, even emotionally, to all the new stimuli. So, yeah, I love Latifah Phillips’ voice.

Therefore, I have highly anticipated her new solo project, Moda Spira, and recently released self-titled album. And it has not disappointed me in the least.  I expected a melancholic, emotional record and that’s what she has made. But, let me be clear: Moda Spira is not The Autumn Film or SOLA-MI. And it’s definitely not Page CXVI (her hymns-based project). This is something new, even though it distinctively sounds like Phillips.

There is a deeper level of soulfulness in this record. That’s not to say her previous work has been devoid of soul… not at all. But there is a different soulful quality to this music that’s difficult to qualify. Certainly, the song What You Need is a great example of this. It is easily the most overt example in its deep emotional pull as the lyrics offer aid to someone in desperate need. But this “soul” is not limited to that song. No, I feel it throughout the record. It is a part of the connective tissue that binds the record together. The songwriting, melodies, and instrumentation all carry that soul, but the dominant soul-conveyer is once again Phillips’ vocals. In my opinion, they are more captivating and emotionally evocative in this project than any I’ve heard before.

Combined with this strain of soul is an ethereal feel to the album. At various times, the songs have an otherworldly dynamic. I don’t understand the technical aspects of music well enough to speak to how Phillips makes that happen, but I think it has to do with instrumentation (beautiful use of synthesizer/keyboard) and mixing. At times, certain instruments are muted or sound like they are a little further back in the background of a song. This dynamic adds a depth to the record and certainly plays an elemental role in that ethereal feel.

One thing I hear on this record which fits with Phillips’ patterns in her previous music is her penchant for songs to build slowly into a crescendo. She is, in my opinion, a master of meaningful repetition. And that repetition will build gradually, adding different instruments or other elements with each repetition. Eventually, it all leads to a satisfying climax. I hear some of that on this record as well, and I still love it. It never gets old for me. Whenever I listen to one of Phillips’ songs containing that specific dynamic/movement, and I let myself engage with it, it takes me somewhere emotionally, usually somewhere I need to go.

Moda Spira is a beautiful record. It holds onto the elements of Phillips’ previous work while establishing new ground. This record has been a long time in the works for this gifted artist, and the time has been well invested. It is an emotional journey worth taking.

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Album Releases, Artist Focus, Music and Healing, TS10

The Unassuming Authenticity of Lizzy Diane

 

My relationship with Lizzy Diane’s music has been an interesting one. If you have been listening to the TS10 playlist on weekly basis, you know we have featured several songs off her new album, Otherkin. If you are connected with Tomme Suab or me personally on Facebook or Twitter, I have been actively promoting her for a while now. However, when I first listened to her, specifically her debut EP, Encompass Rose, I’m not sure I could have envisioned myself becoming a big Lizzy Diane fan. Thankfully, first impressions do not always tell the whole tale.

Here’s the thing… Lizzy has a very distinct vocal style. When I first listened to her, I honestly couldn’t tell if this was her natural voice, if it was an authentic outgrowth of what’s in her, or if he she was just trying to sound unique. That threw me off and I really wasn’t all that interested in hearing more. When I sense any possible lack of authenticity, it is easy for me to get all judgy and just walk away. That’s what I did with Lizzy Diane’s music.

And then, something happened. I started getting to know Lizzy. We connected via social media and as I would read her updates and posts, I was drawn to her. There was something about her that I couldn’t define. All I know is that it is evident she has something very special and unique living in her. As she began to mention the imminent release of her first full-length album, I was all in. When the album was released in early December and accompanied by a release show at Stone’s Throw here in Eau Claire, I promoted it actively and was incredibly disappointed that I couldn’t be there myself. In fact, there had been several opportunities to see her perform that I had missed out on. The only way I had experienced her music (and whatever that special thing that lives in her is) was through listening to Otherkin and through our social media connection.

Regarding the album, I enjoyed it from first listen. There is an otherworldly, ethereal feel to the whole record. This feel is created by a cohesive blend of sober melodies, gentle but poignant vocals, somber lyrical content, and an almost mystical-sounding combination of instrumentation. And yet, while the album certainly leads the listener to that otherworldliness, the power in the album is its thoroughly humanizing effect. I wrote about that dynamic in my short review of the album for Volume One. Ironically, I was a little concerned when I wrote about that humanizing dynamic in the V1 piece. After all, Lizzy called the album “Otherkin.” This is a mystical, metaphysical reference. I wasn’t sure if she would appreciate the fact that I am saying her supernaturally-themed album was essentially not supernatural. Regardless, that’s where the record took me personally, so I stood by that thought.

One of the humanizing elements of the album is the lyrical content itself. The themes are pretty dark, and they cover all kinds of relational woes. These are not typical heartbreak songs. These are deeply-felt personal experiences painted in creative ways on a melodic canvas. They not only speak honestly about how Lizzy has been hurt by others, but how she has hurt them too. It is profoundly honest and raw, and there is little that will draw me to an artist more than that.

In her song, Monster’s Lullaby, she shares a couple of lines that illustrate the depth, emotion, and honesty that can be found throughout the album. The song woefully describes an interaction between Lizzy and someone she cares deeply about. The relational backdrop seems to include a history of mutually-destructive behavior, including abusing alcohol. In this context, the listener finds what I consider the most poignant lines on the album:

I’ll drink it all, so you won’t

I’ll be the monster, so you won’t

At first glance, it would be easy to gloss over these lines. But, spend a moment in them. Think about what she is offering to this person. Think about the history that is indicated here. Think about how she is willing to engage in self-destructive behavior to save the other person from the same. There so much relational history and deep emotion, so much brokenness, in these two simple lines. This is the kind of poignancy that can be found throughout Otherkin.

While I really like what I hear in Otherkin, I know there is more and bigger stuff in Lizzy Diane. I’m listening to the album as I write this, and, yes, I am drawn in. Yet, what I hear is just a glimpse of the significant art and self-expression that is yet to come. That idea was confirmed when I finally had the opportunity to hear Lizzy play live and meet her in person. When I found out that Lizzy would be playing live at House of Rock at the end of January, I made sure that I could attend. I am indeed glad that I made being there a priority.

When she took the stage,  it was just her and her guitar. And, honestly, it was enchanting. There was a purity to her vocals and guitar-playing that struck me immediately. Otherkin has a really full feel to it. Lots of instrumentation with lots going on in each song. While I like that, I have to confess that the special something that lives in this artist seemed much freer to come out in this live and stripped-down setting. Her performance was really beautiful.

We were able to chat a little bit that night, but I felt like we needed to finish our conversation. So, I invited her to meet with me last week, and she graciously accepted. The short time helped me better, more clearly, see the significance of what lives in her. Now, I’m still not in a position to put actual words to it, but I can say that she is as genuine and unassuming as any artist I have met. It was clear to me that her music is an organic outgrowth of who she is and her experiences. Of anything I would personally ask of an artist, there would be nothing more important than this kind of authenticity.

Eventually, over the course of conversation, she made reference to the Volume One piece. Thankfully, she appreciated the comment about the “humanizing” effect of the album. For her, the idea of “otherkin” itself is a thoroughly humanizing thing. The legend of otherkin is that there are supernatural beings, often taking the form of animals, that humans identify themselves with (more on that here). When Lizzy was talking about this, she likened it to our fascination with superheroes. While we may like the flashy costumes, big muscles, and superhuman powers they possess, ultimately, it is their human ways of relating, their flaws, and their frailties that draw us in. In other words, it’s what we have in common with such supernatural or superhuman beings that really resonates with us. So, for her, the connection between the mystical and human is organic and about as connected as it gets.

For me, it is not at all unlike how God is creative, and has built us to be creative as well. These are both spiritual and natural realities that mesh together seamlessly. Lizzy’s self-expression and creativity contain both of these realities. So, yes, Otherkin is a significant expression of what it is to be human, while feeling otherworldly at the same time.

Lizzy Diane is the real deal. After our meeting, I walked away even more certain that the best is yet to come for her. Yeah, there may be some commercial success. More to the point, however, I believe she has even more significant art sitting on the tip of her heart, the kind of art and self-expression that not only helps her to feel more whole, more fully who she was built to be, but can have the very same effect on her listeners.

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Album Releases, Poignant Songs

Captivated by J.E. Sunde’s “Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God”

Ever since I started listening to music as a teenager, there have been those albums that have just grabbed a hold of me, seemingly not wanting to let go. U2‘s Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire were a couple of those. Kalispell’s Westbound was another. Derek Webb‘s Mockingbird was yet another. I immersed myself into these albums, feeling every twist and turn. They sucked me in and I was captivated. I have wandered into another of these traps, J.E. Sunde’s Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, released recently by Cartouche Records.

One of my favorite albums of the last few years is The Nature of Things by The Daredevil Christopher Wright. It was so delightfully unpredictable and the band tackled really deep philosophical, theological, and relational issues with grace and depth. This work of art stimulated me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I was really bummed when I heard that the band was on hiatus and that Jonathan Sunde was working on his own solo material. Now, that’s no knock on Sunde. It’s just that there was something special about what The Daredevil had created together. Surely, there would be no way that Sunde would be able to create something comparable in terms of the unpredictability, craftsmanship, philosophical wanderings and simple beauty of The Nature of Things.

Well, I was utterly and completely wrong. Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, is, in a word, wonderful. I can’t stop listening to it. Earlier today, I was listening to iTunes in “Random” mode. Easy Kid (the second track on the album) came up. Within ten seconds, I turned off the “Random” mode, selected the first track of the album, and was compelled to listen to it in its entirety. Again, it’s like a magnet… it draws me in and I seemingly can’t escape.

Now, don’t get me wrong… this is not another Daredevil album. It is J.E. Sunde. It is his voice, both literally and essentially. Other than his incredible vocals, it doesn’t sound like the Daredevil to me. Sunde has his own thing going here, and it is compelling and deep. The music and instrumentation are eclectic, to say the least. And, the emotional mood moves around throughout the album. There’s playfulness, passion, anger, sorrow… just so much to feel here.

One element that has drawn me in are the deep theological/philosophical themes in the album. It’s one thing to write about deep stuff. It’s another to make such thoughts compelling, both lyrically and musically. Sunde is obviously adept in doing just that. A Blinding Flash of Light describes Sunde’s apparent struggle with believing in God in the midst of people who don’t share that belief. The song seems like a journal entry in which he is weighing the views of the atheistic influences around him. He struggles with feeling “foolish for talking to Jesus.” These are heavy matters, and the melody, instrumentation, and lyrics accurately portray that heaviness.

Another song that grabs a hold of me every time I listen is I’m Gonna Disappoint You. It is a soulful ballad that sounds like part of a conversation between two folks on the verge of a romantic relationship. Sunde’s heart here is to ensure that the other person comes into this relationship with eyes wide open… “What if I don’t kiss you the way you want to be kissed?” “What if you don’t like the books I suggest?” This song is full of nitty-gritty thoughts about ways that Sunde could disappoint this potential partner. The trepidation he feels as he shares these thoughts is palpable. You feel it throughout the song. It’s as if he is saying, “I want to be with you, but I’m a little scared.” For so many, if not all, of us, these are thoughts and feelings that are very familiar, and he paints them clearly and emotively.

And then there’s the pain and anger of You Can’t Unring a Bell. It starts out with the sorrow-filled statement that you can’t, in fact, unring a bell. As the song continues, the listener learns that Sunde’s heart was broken and his trust betrayed by someone special. As the tempo picks up and the song intensifies, it’s almost as if you can feel Sunde himself shifting from sorrow to anger. Again, Sunde is masterful at portraying these emotions and the tensions surrounding them. When I listen to this song, I can’t help but enter the emotional world Sunde invites the listener into. I feel, to the extent possible, what he feels. There is no art that speaks to me as deeply as art that makes me feel like that.

While I once was disappointed that the Daredevil Christopher Wright was on a hiatus, I am now so glad that they took a break. J.E. Sunde has created something beautiful with Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God. The precise craftsmanship, eclectic instrumentation, incredible vocals, and masterful songwriting provide a portal into deep connection and emotion. I cannot recommend this album enough.

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Album Releases, Artist Focus, Music and Healing

Rivers'”Of Dusk”: An Invitation to Necessary Sorrow

A great philosopher once said, “Sad songs, they say so much. So turn them on, turn them on, turn on those sad songs…” Okay, so that is literally one of my least favorite Elton John songs. But, he was on to something there. Sad songs can say a lot. More importantly, they can mean a lot. They can impact us deeply… taking us to emotional places we need to go… helping us feel deeply and perhaps even heal from emotional wounds. There is something special about honest, vulnerable, sad songs. As I am becoming more and more acquainted with Rivers’ “Of Dusk,” I am once again experiencing the power of sorrow in music. As I write this, I am sitting in a coffee shop and have been listening to “Of Dusk” through headphones, undistracted by ambient noise. That’s how this album should be experienced, in my opinion. Isolating my focus and thoughts in this way has helped me to get closer to the heart of this music. And, that heart is broken. The first song on the album is “Weeping Willow.” It greets the listener with sweet harmonies, harmonies that welcome us into the story of a “forgotten” girl, whose story, identity, and value have been lost “in the branches of (her) family tree.” It is a truly beautiful and heartrending song. The band, vocally and instrumentally, portray the depth of the emotion in the lyric with precision and gentleness. Having my own issues with being “lost in the branches,” and knowing so many others who have experienced such things, “Weeping Willow” takes me to deep place of grief and sorrow, appropriate for the forgotten girl and for those of us whose stories resonate with hers. Perhaps my favorite song on the album is “Saudade,” a contemplative song dwelling on loss, longing, and loneliness. It speaks of its protagonist being “separated by a sea” of memories and desire for someone he can no longer be with. The longing in “Saudade” is almost palpable. The first half of the song provides the lyrical content, along with gentle guitar, bass, and percussion. However, the quietness of that part sets the table for a driving, building, and emotive instrumental climax. Additional strings and brass enter the story and the picture painted by the second half of the song seems to emotionally complete the earlier lyrical content. It is a beautiful song, and I find it engrossing. When I’m really paying attention, it captures my heart and reminds me of loss and longing in my own story. These two songs and the powerful lyrical, musical, and emotional content within are great standard bearers for the entire album. I have been captivated by the musicianship of all three members of the band: Colin Carey (vocals, percussion), Dexter Wolfe (vocals, guitar), and Pat Kuehn (vocals, upright bass), as well as the warmness, gentleness, and vulnerability I hear throughout “Of Dusk.” There is no instrumentation, lyrical content, vocal inflections, or other variable that does not fit with the emotional tone of these songs, which keeps their stories central and helps the careful listener remain undistracted and focused on the substance of what they are hearing. I am admittedly still getting to know this album, and I may have more to say about it as I get to know it more intimately. Having said that, I’ve heard enough to know that you can count me as a big Rivers fan. They have that magical mix of incredible musicianship, lyrical content, and emotional vulnerability. I invite you to get to know “Of Dusk” as well. When you do, take the time to listen carefully. Open your mind and your heart. Let the emotion that lives in you be triggered. Feel deeply as Rivers guides you deeper into your emotional world.

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Album Releases, Artist Focus, Live Shows

picard: A Mixture of Discontent and Melodic, Driving Rock

picard is a project initiated by Jason Ulwelling in 2011 that has grown into a full-blown collaborative effort (including Brad Hanson and Eric Giardina, and various other influences and musicians), resulting in the release of the band’s first album (appropriately entitled “#1”) earlier this year. Style-wise, it’s hard to classify picard as anything more specific than “rock.” Some of their songs are edgy/harder. I can easily hear some grunge influence in several of the songs, as well as elements of epic rock story-telling (especially in “Ed”), like you might hear in classics like Queen or Led Zeppelin. Now, I’m not ready to draw too many comparisons between picard and hall of famers like them, but I truly appreciate what I have heard thus far from this band.

The first track on “#1,” a passionate, pleading song called “Distending,” houses the declaration “I’m holding out for something bigger than myself…” In that statement is what I believe to be the essence of the lyrical, melodic, and instrumental themes throughout picard’s first album. There is this discontent, this longing for more, this longing for deep connection, for something better, something bigger. This theme is one of the reasons that I was drawn to this project.

“Ed” may be my favorite song on the album. I have always enjoyed that epic feel in music, especially when it involves distinct “movements.” “Ed” is not a rowdy song at all, but it is intense, with methodical, driving guitars and intricate, nimble-fingered bass rifts. Probably my favorite part though is how the driving guitar transitions into a quiet segment of the song that is haunted by a gentle chimes. These musical elements combined with the story-telling therein portrays an intense, compelling, and emotive discontent.

While “Ed” is likely my favorite song, the track that drew me into picard initially was “October,” their first release. “October,” for the emotionally engaged listener, can be a pretty painful song to take in. There is such intense longing in the lyrics. The protagonist so desperately wants to be with someone. He is longing for intimate, deep connection with that person. However, obstacles continually appear (“These walls are getting higher”). The frustration rooted in this deep longing climax with a plea for explanation: “Why aren’t you here like you said you would be? You said you would… Tell me are any of these promises any good?” There is so much pain in these lyrics and the music/instrumentation fit the mood and tell the story so well… This is one of the main reasons I enjoy this band like I do is their ability to draw me in emotionally and help me feel what they are feeling. This is a gift and a dynamic that can be healing for both the artist and the listener.

picard is a breath of fresh air for me. Eau Claire has its share of punk and hardcore bands full of all the requisite angst anyone could want. We have many gifted indie rock musicians producing creative, quirky, and provocative stuff. But, we don’t have many melodic, driving, edgy rock bands. picard is that kind of band, without foregoing the angst of the punk/hardcore scene or the creativity of the indie rock community. They are a unique and healthy blend of all those various elements.

If you would like to experience picard’s music, “#1″is available on their website, among other outlets. You can also stream some of their music on their Facebook page. Furthermore, they are playing live this Saturday night at 10pm at House of Rock, along with Letters From Earth and Kids With Boats ($6 cover).

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Album Releases, Artist Focus, Live Shows

Coming of Age: Thoughts on Adelyn Rose’s “Ordinary Fantasy” and Album Release Show

I make no bones about the fact that I am a big Adelyn Rose fan. I love their style, the fullness of their sound, the uniqueness of Addie Strei’s vocals, and the incredible percussion talent that is Dave Power. The first time I talked to Addie and Dave back in August of 2012, their debut album, Mezzanine, had only been out for a few months. Even though I, and many others, thoroughly enjoyed that album, Addie and Dave were quick to mention that the songs there were not really indicative of who they were as a band anymore and they expressed their deep desire to record their newer songs.

In Mezzanine and in the first few AdRo live performances I heard, I consistently heard great potential, deep creativity, rich instrumentation and textures, and emotionally intense moods and lyrics. They were, in my eyes, a diamond in the rough. The production value on Mezzanine was a little inconsistent throughout the album and some of the harmonies were a little loose. In their live shows, I couldn’t help but notice what seemed like a bit of insecurity or anxiety from time to time. They felt a little like a teenager trying to find out who they are. Nonetheless, I loved what I heard from them… and longed to hear them go deeper, stand more confidently, and record a truer representation of the creativity and talent that resides in them.

AdRo’s new album, “Ordinary Fantasy,” is an answer to those longings. What I hear on this album warms my heart. That’s not because of heart-felt lyrics or sappy sweet melodies. It is because, when I listen to this record, I hear a clear progression of the band and their sound. And, it is so, so good. I expected the emotiveness, intensity, textures, and instrumentation that I mentioned before. What I also got was higher production value, a fuller sound, and tight musicianship and vocals. The album is unpredictable and highlights what I consider the band’s greatest strengths: creative songwriting, unique vocals (lead and background), and incredible percussion.

My favorite song on the album is probably “It Means Shadow.” It moves and rocks. It is a riff and drums driven tune that should be playing on the radio. I also really enjoy the emotive “Press” and “The Wire.” “The Wire” is one of those songs that starts out quiet (yet intense) and builds louder and more raucous. I love that dynamic, and especially in that song. The album closes with what sounds like a declaration of independence in “Structured Hostility,” another song that builds steadily in intensity throughout, climaxing in Addie’s powerful declaration, “I’m done,” repeated several times. This album is packed full of mood and emotion: tenderness, edginess, sorrow, intensity…

 

I got to hear these songs as well as the other songs on the album live at House of Rock on Water Street last night at Adelyn Rose’s Album Release Show. They were so good. This was likely my favorite performance of theirs, not because of precision or showmanship (those things were there). I was enthralled by their poise and their confidence. I have always been a fan of Addie’s, but I felt like she was hesitant to be the front-person she can be. That was not the case last night. She totally looked like the face of the band, standing, playing, and singing with boldness and conviction.

And, Dave Power was… Dave Power. In fact, toward the end of last night’s show, there was a moment in which Dave’s drumming caught my attention and stirred me deeply. I’ve had spiritual experiences while listening to music many times over the years. Such a moment may come while listening to poignant lyrics (like those on Matthew Perryman Jones’s “Land of the Living”). Or, perhaps while taking in an epic classic, like Skynyrd’s “Freebird” (especially the guitar barrage at the end of the song). Last night, I had another such experience while listening to Dave play the drums. In that moment, his talent and passion were so apparent that I got caught up in what he was doing and I could see the God-given ability pouring out through the sticks. It was a breathtaking moment.

After becoming acquainted with “Ordinary Fantasy” over the last couple of weeks and experiencing the band live last night, I feel like I have seen something of a coming of age for Adelyn Rose. Their talent, creativity, and potential have always been evident to me. Now, the missing pieces are coming together. The teenager has become an adult and now has a clearer vision of who they are. Addie, Dave, Hannah Hebl, Leo Strei,  and Jaime Hanson should be very proud of what they have accomplished together. I still think the best is yet to come for Adelyn Rose, but “Ordinary Fantasy” represents a huge step forward for them, and I would not be surprised in the least if it gains traction outside of the Chippewa Valley.

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