Friday, April 24, 2015

REVIEW: Erik Scott - Spirits


There was a marketing campaign for an automobile manufacturer that stated "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." Well, folks, Spirits is not your father's bass guitar album. Erik Scott, who cut his teeth in rock groups such as Alice Cooper and Sonia Dada, as well as a slew of session work and also producing other artists, has taken the electric bass guitar and reinvented it in a way that is refreshingly original, startlingly innovative, and flat out fantastic to hear. Spirits is one of those albums where I thank my lucky stars that I haven't retired from reviewing yet. This is emotionally rich, warm music that draws you in from the first track and holds you in its beguiling grasp until the final seconds of the last song. Whether relaxed and mesmerizing, pulsing with rhythm and energy, or laid-back with a nicely chilled vibe, Spirits delights at every turn.

Besides plying his craft on bass guitar (fretless and fretted), Scott also plays keyboards and drums and percussion programming. He is joined by a great crew of guest artists, all of whom contribute mightily but the one person I feel I would be remiss not mentioning up front is John Pirruccello who plays steel guitar on five tracks and man, does he play steel guitar! (He also performs on mandolin on one song). Other guests appear on acoustic guitar, piano, organ, drums, electric guitar, percussion, violin, flute, and English whistle, I hope that, as I listed all those instruments, you started thinking, "Wow, this sounds ambitious!" Yeah, Spirits is all that and then some. Crisscrossing between genres with tasteful audacity, Scott and crew have hewed out a meshed genre that they then call their own. Jazz fusion, blues, world beat, ambient, chill-out - hell, it’s all there in one way or another, but the real joy of Spirits is what a melting pot approach it embraces. The songs are just this singular achievement of taking elements and combining them into a stew that is both wholly accessible (to say the least - I have played this album something like 10-15 times and love it more each time) and also boldly adventurous. The most amazing aspect of this recording is how effortless it sounds, as if Scott and his compatriots did all this instinctively, yet adhering to a cohesive musical vision that is, well to be honest, kinda mind-boggling.

Pealing steel guitar opens "Peace On Saturn" quickly joined by Scott's bouncy, cheery lead bass line. The merging of the steel guitar's "island" feel with the laid-back thumping of the bass notes is instantly appealing; it's funkalicious but in an oh-so-relaxed way. "Other Planets" starts off in a spacey vein before ethnic percussion cuts in on the synth pads and ethereal vocals, and here comes Scott spiraling in with a simply beautiful bass melody accented by some electric guitar that adds some cool sound effects without becoming too "out there." This music is just so darn mellow and gorgeous. Headphones are a revelation as the mix on this disc is something else, as all sorts of coolness lies in the peripheries on most songs. "Free" also kicks off in an ambient vein but when the violin cuts in, the song takes on a mournful cast with a hint of Irish melancholy. When the mid tempo rhythm enters (via percussion, drums and Scott's bass) the sad melody becomes even more pronouncedly Irish-inflected. "Donnie and Sancho" swirls out on moody synths at the outset before an acoustic guitar in the lead (accented by Scott's bass) takes the cut into spaghetti western territory, with a dash of menace and danger laced into the Spanish-flavored guitar and soulful bass lead. One expects to hear the Man With No Name utter a sparse line of dialogue at any minute. "Weightless" once again shines the spotlight on Pirruccello's steel guitar, pealing languidly alongside Scott's lead bass which pumps out another slice of laid back goodness. Scott composed all twelve of the tracks on the disc, save one which is an interesting take on Lennon/McCartney's classic "Yesterday." What strikes me every time I play Spirits is that Scott composed all this diverse music and also how unselfish he is with all these guest artists. Yeah, bass is frequently prominent in the mix, but always as part of an ensemble sound. Scott is one of the best "team players" I've heard in a long time.

There's so much more I could write about Spirits…the joyful Celtic-fusion-flavored "Run," the down-home folksiness with a hint of blues on "Foggy Bridges" and the dramatic miasma of world fusion (with Indian spiciness) meets infectious chill-out (think Ace of Bass catchiness - and don’t deny that the beats from "All That She Wants" weren't classic!) with a dash of Fargo soundtrack on "Gypsy Mother and the Royal Bastard."

Spirits is just so damn fantastic that I can’t think of a fitting end to this review except to say that it's one of the best performed, most imaginative, and most engaging albums I've had the pleasure of reviewing in the last several years. Erik "Eski" Scott is a visionary artist and Spirits is solid proof of that statement.

Spirits can be purchased at CDBaby, Amazon, and iTunes

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Issue 12 - the final issue - is now available for viewing

Issue 12, (view it here), was published two and half years after the debut issue and marked the end of Wind and Wire as a hard copy magazine. The end came abruptly and occurred simply because I ran out of money. This issue marked the reviewer debut of RJ Lannan, and for that reason alone, it is a significant milestone, as RJ has gone on to a fantastic career as a music reviewer and I am proud and honored to have given him a leg up on his path to where he is now. Ironically, this is li also likely the best looking issue layout-wise and is certainly the most professional looking. The main interview (with David Parsons) was conducted by guest writer Bert Strolenberg who graciously allowed me to re-print it.

I hope you enjoyed all 12 issues of Wind and Wire. Revisiting these issues is, of course, bittersweet for me. I can't help but wish it was still being published, but I am proud of what I and my staff accomplished from 1997-1999.

Huge thanks are owed to Neil Leacy, Judy Markworth, Kathy Parsons, David Hassell, Chad Gould, Hannah Shapero, Phil Derby, Mann Makula Hawks, Fred Puhan, RJ Lannan, and all the people who advertised, subscribed, encouraged, and supported our efforts. Wind and Wire would not have existed without the encouragement and love from Kathryn as well as support from my good friends Barbara Gottfried, Ellen Yarns Fredrickson, and John Seaborn.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of true.

Issue 11 of Wind and Wire now available for viewing

Issue 11 of Wind and Wire can be viewed at this link.

Featuring four interviews with artists, including an interview with Tony Gerber of Spacecraft by Phil Derby, the issue also featured a noticeable printing error by the company that printed the issue, namely, margins for some pages were non-existent with the print sometimes barely fitting on the page.

The most notable article in the issue, though, and the one I received a lot of feedback on, was non-music related. My editorial this issue was a tribute to Kathryn's and my dog, Piaf, whom we lost between issues 10 and this issue. I received a lot of letters from fellow dog lovers who told me it was one of the most touching memorials to a pet they had ever read. To this day, when I read it, I cry remembering Piaf's gentle nature. She was the first dog I ever "owned" (Kathryn had her when we started dating in 1996).

I hope you enjoy the issue.

Monday, April 20, 2015

REVIEW: Peter Kater & Michael Brant DeMaria - Heart of Silence

Heart of Silence
Sounds True (2015)

Michael Brant DeMaria (Native flutes) and Peter Kater (piano) collaborate on one of the most meditative releases so far in 2015, Heart of Silence. Wholly improvisational, the eight tone poems on the album showcase both artists’ talents for playing in a restrained, subtle yet powerful method. Regardless of the particular piece’s tempo or mood, the overall evocation is one of introspection, a traveling inward to explore the depths of one’s emotions, memories, and connectedness to the world and others.

The opening title track starts the album off in an extremely minimalist vein; both DeMaria and Kater develop the musical theme with utmost patience, delving as much into the silence between the notes as the notes themselves. While no detail is listed in the liner notes about the assortment of flutes DeMaria plays on the recording (other than the three individuals who crafted them), on this track, the flute is low-pitched, which lends an earthiness and a more pronounced primal sensation to it (it even apes the sound of a didgeridoo at times). The second cut, "Radiant Dawn," while opening softly, builds in energy and tempo over its seven-plus minutes, no doubt seeking to evoke the titular reference of sunlight flowing over the horizon and signaling the start of a new day. The shift in momentum from the first track is not jarring, but instead is handled fluidly by the two artists. DeMaria's short flute notes are matched by Kater’s fingers flitting nimbly over the piano keys. "First Breath" returns the music to a sparse vein and also re-emphasizes lower register flute tones. Sustain pedal on the piano notes underscores the mood of patience and even contains traces of haunting mysticism, while DeMaria holds some of those low notes so long that he sometimes achieves an almost drone-like sound. "Holding Space" continues in the same sparse vein, but the piano seems to take a more prominent position in developing the minimal melodic structure, which at times has a somber/melancholic aspect to it. There is an underlying tempo to this piece, but it’s quite slow, and as the song progresses, there is a lightness of mood intermixed with the darkness. "Tender Heart" develops the piano-led melody even more, although long gaps between notes are still heard at times. As the track develops, a more structured, less minimal motif by both instruments takes over and the music evolves into something more fluid. As befitting the song’s title, there is warmth and comfort in the music.

The last three cuts, "Timeless Echoes," "Midnight Dreaming," and "Awakening" all travel more or less the same basic path but with enough deviation so that a seamless integration of musical vision cohesion and variety of particular motifs and thematic approaches is achieved. Each song allows for ebbing and flowing, from sparse musical phasing to more flowing melodic content. "Midnight Dreaming" is particularly evocative, painting a serene yet subtly disquieting soundscape, perhaps conveying a troubled, sonic portrait of a sleeper's dreamscape.

Heart of Silence is obviously ideal accompaniment for massage (the album running time is one hour, likely intentionally), but I can also see it being used in situations such as stress-relief, background for mental activity (played at low volume) such as studying, or perhaps as a sleep aid for young children (you may want to program "Radiant Dawn" out of the sequence for that instance though). The excellent production and engineering quality would also allow listeners to enjoy it as foreground, not just background, music, although the lower register flute notes will require good speakers if the album is played above a quiet volume setting—those low notes are low enough that they may cause resonant distortion in mediocre speakers (understand, this is not the fault of the recording in any regard; I listened once through my computer speakers and some buzzing occurred, but not on headphones or decent speakers). DeMaria and Kater are very much simpatico with each other and in sync musically throughout Heart of Silence, each one displaying their unique gift for expressing the theme "less is more." It's a special recording, one to savor time and time again in order to fully appreciate the detail and nuance exhibited by these two musicians.

Heart of Silence is available from Amazon, iTunes, or directly from the label

Friday, April 17, 2015

REVIEW: The Candlelight Guitarist - Sleepytime Special: The Lullaby Train to Dreamland

Sleepytime Special – The Lullaby Train to Dreamland
Geofonica Records (2011)

Throughout his recording career, Brad Powell (The Candlelight Guitarist) has shown that he likes to stretch his boundaries, having released albums of soft instrumental music with nature sounds (such as his debut), a Bob Denver tribute album (Golden Eagle) and a blending of jazz, acoustic, and neo-classical (Sunflower Serenity). Now, he turns his performing and composing talents to yet another new theatre - lullabies. As I would expect, he has succeeded as this is a fantastic CD, perhaps his best yet.

Many artists put the word "lullaby" in their album titles, but this may be the first one I have ever reviewed where the title is so well-earned. Not only is the music on this excellent album perfect for helping infants and children fall sleep, but the majority of the songs actually are lullabies: "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "Rock-A-Bye Baby," "Brahms' Lullaby," and many others. In fact, even those whose titles may not ring a bell will be instantly recognizable when you hear the melody itself.

One caveat, though—if you decide to buy this recording (as you should) to help your young 'uns fall asleep, be sure to buy an extra copy because, trust me, you will want one to play for yourself. This is one of Kathryn's and my favorite "cooking dinner" albums, one that we have enjoyed time and time again. This is due to both the treasured melodies of the many fine songs, but more importantly, the superb arrangements by Powell and the equally sublime performances by himself (on guitar) as well a host of guest stars on piano, violin, flugelhorn, clarinet, percussion, string bass, and tuba (yes, tuba).

Three of the songs on the album are originals by Powell: "All Aboard the Sleepytime Special" (which opens the album in a slightly uptempo but still gentle vein, befitting its placement as the first track), "Hush Little Tuba (Instrumental Fantasy)" (on which Powell once again interjects some classical elements—love the Mozart riff!), and "Ann and Andy's Ragtime Lullaby" (which also has a little spark of energy to it, but again, it's restrained). All the others are timeless classics and will wash over the listener (i.e. if, like me, is old enough to recall them) with warm waves of loving nostalgia.

There's way too much great stuff on this disc to highlight every track. "Brahm's Lullaby" is sweet and tender while "Rock-a-Bye Baby" has that gently rolling fluid feel to it that musically conveys the titular rocking. "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" features a delightful bell tone keyboard alongside Powell's guitar and "All the Pretty Horses" uses flugelhorn to great effect, imparting a pleasant etherealness to the song. "Hush Little Tuba" lets the tuba carry the main melody of "Hush Little Baby" and then evolves into the aforementioned series of classical piece interludes (something Powell has done before on previous albums). "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Rai (That's an Irish Lullaby)" carries just a hint of Irish folk influence, as does Powell's laid-back rendition of "Oh, Sleepy Boy (Danny Boy)." The last two tracks are the classic "Frére Jacques (Are You Sleeping)" followed by an unexpectedly and thoroughly delightful "Beautiful Dreamer," that seems to float out of the speakers on feathery wings, featuring some of Powell's most nuanced fingering work and spot on string accompaniment. Honestly, if your child/children are still asleep by this point, no music in the world is going to help them hit the hay.

Every Candlelight Guitarist album I have reviewed (he has two more recent ones I haven't heard yet) has proven to be a delight. Whether he is playing as a solo artist or with talented accompanists, performing his own originals or his great arrangements of others' works, he always brings heart, soul, and tons of artistic virtuosity to the recording. Sleepytime Special will calm the busy mind of your young children as well as soothe your own troubled spirit. There's nothing wrong with wanting to feel like a kid again and this wonderful album will take you back if you have the inclination to make the trip. My highest, wholly unqualified, recommendation.

The album is available CDBaby, Amazon, iTunes, and Rhapsody.

Monday, March 23, 2015

REVIEW: David Arkenstone & Charlee Brooks - Inamorata


Let's get one thing clear right away: Charlee Brooks has an amazingly beautiful voice. She could probably read Facebook status updates and make it sound gorgeous (and that would be quite the accomplishment). Inamorata is a fitting arena for displaying her crystal clear tone, her impressive range, her pipes, and more than anything else, her emotionally rich way with English lyrics. Paired as she is here with both originals and covers, backed by consummate musicians under the leadership of one of the true legends in New Age music, David Arkenstone, and her singing soars to new heights of magnificence. Yeah, a bit hyperbolic, but when she gets into the meat of a song such as "Did I Make the Most of Loving You?" I get serious chills.

I am not always a fan of an operatic style of singing, and I wouldn't describe Brooks' vocals that way, although I can imagine some will hear them as such. I think her vocal motif is more along the lines of the classic pop singers through the years who are/were accompanied by orchestras. She never reaches for bombast, even when she was going full tilt on high notes. It's a rare gift to be able to sing the way she does and performing these types of songs and not come off as melodramatic or schmaltzy, yet she pulls it off in grand fashion.

Now, when addressing David Arkenstone's role in this wonderful album, one cannot overstate his talent on guitar and piano/keyboards, but that is not the most important element he brings to the party. His arrangements are fantastic (much like they were on my favorite album of his, Sketches from an American Journey). The strings are never overblown, instead always serving as the perfect complement to Brooks' singing. Each of the original's melodies are beautifully constructed and I never heard anything that I would characterize as a musical cliché or overwrought.

Moving on to the music itself, it needs to be stated that Inamorata is not at all a "new age vocal" album, a la Enya, so if you are a long time fan of Arkentsone's work on Narada and some of his later discs, you may find yourself scratching your head. This is "classic" orchestral pop music, but you need to understand what I refer to as "pop" is not lightweight "pop/rock" but the kind of music that great "pop" singers have performed through the years starting in the '40s and '50s (or, maybe a better example would be to compare it to movie musicals or Broadway show tunes). My problem with the latter comparison is that I think this is better than a lot of recent show tunes in that it avoids being overly theatrical, i.e. it achieves a "big" sound without sacrificing, for lack of a better term, intimacy. I think this must be due to Brooks' voice and how it was recorded. And please, let's not compare Brooks to Celine Dion (no offense to the latter meant). While the back of the album reads "Music Style: Easy Listening" (and perhaps for some folks, it is), that may chase some of you away (your loss, trust me), I cringe at giving it that label. So, we're left with referring to it as "orchestral cinematic pop vocal," which may be a mouthful but at least it does the music and singing justice from my perspective.

I'm no lyricist so I can't "review" the songs' words (only two tracks are instrumentals), but for whatever it's worth, I think they (i.e. the originals) are well written and, surprisingly (for pop music), lacking in triteness. It should be obvious that the "theme" of the album is love and romance (the album title means "…a person's female lover…a woman with whom one is in love") and the songs capture the most powerful emotion in a variety of ways. The covers are all well done, especially Brooks' version of the theme from Downton Abbey, titled "Did I Make The Most Of Loving You?" which also features one of the album's best orchestral scores and arrangements by Arkenstone. One of the two instrumentals is the theme to Game of Thrones so you know I am down with that (it's one of my favorite TV shows of all time). Of the originals, I don't know that I can single out a favorite, as that would take many playings to whittle it down.

Stunningly well-produced, flawlessly engineered and mixed, and featuring superb orchestral performances and arrangements, as well as spotlighting one of the finest female vocalists in the current genre of pop music—well, what more could you want in an album? Inamorata may not appeal to hardcore Arkenstone fans, since it lacks the fantasy mysticism of the recent Arkenstone-Brooks collaboration Lovéren, and it bears little resemblance to his instrumental discography (or at least his earlier works), but I imagine that was the intent. Inamorata is an album that allows one to fully appreciate Brooks' magnificent voice as well as Arkenstone's many talents for arranging and performing. I can't think of a better gift for a paramour than this ode to romantic love.

 Inamorata is available for purchase at Amazon, iTunes, or directly from the label here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Issue 10 of Wind and Wire now available for viewing online

Click here
to view Issue 10 of Wind and Wire, which was originally published in March/April of 1999. This was a notable issue for its interviews with Vidna Obmana (Dirk Serries), Deborah Martin and Steve Gordon (a cross-label collaboration between Spotted Peccary and Sequoia Records) and most importantly, staff member Judy Markworth snagged an interview with Narada Records founder Wesley Van Linda. Read and Enjoy and leave your comments if you feel inclined to do so.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Issue 9 of Wind and Wire available for viewing

Click here to read Issue 9 of Wind and Wire, the magazine, originally published in November/December of 1998.

NOTABLE IN THIS ISSUE: Phil Derby joined our reviewing stable and made an immediate impact with his well-written and knowledgeable critiques of EM and ambient music. The value of his contributions in the latter stages of the magazine cannot be overstated and I was pleased when, after Wind and Wire ceased publication the next year, Phil started his own own periodical, Electroambient Space (which eventually went online after being a hard copy zine for awhile and existed until August of Phil's insightful reviews here).

Also, Kathy Parsons (her website, Mainly Piano) conducted a fascinating interview with New Age music pioneer Ray Lynch. I believe it was one of the last ones he gave before he more or less disappeared from the active music scene (his last release, Nothing Above My Shoulders But The Evening, was released in 1993).

This issue saw the review section become even more professional looking with more album covers and the move to a more compact font and layout.

I hope you enjoy the issue. Leave comments if so moved - always appreciated.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

REVIEW: CHRIS NOLE - Songs of the Wide Horizon (repost)

The following review originally ran in Wind and Wire, the webzine, in 2004. It is being reposted here as a courtesy to the artist.

Songs of the Wide Horizon
Moulin D'or Recordings (2003)
I am in love with this album! It reminds me of the very best work from pianist Wayne Gratz (on what I consider his best releases, Blue Ridge and A Gift of the Sea). Seldom do I hear piano (both solo and ensemble) that captures a vision and feeling so perfectly. About two minutes into the opening track, "To The Horizon," when Nole brings in the rhythmic accompaniment, it's easy to imagine yourself cruising down the long stretch of highway pictured on the album cover. The piano has a rolling sound to it as the drum kit pounds out a perfectly-paced midtempo rhythm. Music this fine just makes the miles fly by - I should know because I play a lot of this kind of music on road trips. It's not new age, it's not adult contemporary and it's not smooth jazz. It's that particular hybrid that takes the best from each genre and produces a hybrid filled with true feeling, accessible music, and polished production.

While assisted by a few other players on various guitars on selected tracks, most of what you'll hear on this CD is all Chris Nole. This is someone who really knows his way around the production of ensemble instrumental music. Engineering is textbook; you could easily think this CD came from a big house, such as Narada or Windham Hill (except that Nole's music is tons better than what comes from those labels these days). I sure wish FM radio would play music like this; it would make riving, even in rush hour, so much more enjoyable.
And that's where Songs of the Wide Horizon excels, i.e. it's ideal driving music, provided you prefer acoustic instruments (primarily piano) where the electronic keyboards are used to embellish or as sampled versions of the real thing. From the jaunty Irish-inflected "Far and Wide" with its jig-like rhythms, sampled accordion, and rolling piano chords, to the gentle melancholy of "First Rain" (solo piano with a hint of synth textures), to the wistful and sadly romantic "Miles to Go" (graced by spot-on assorted synth strings, including a great solo cello line) and ending with the perfect closing track, "Homeward" (which uses Copland-like strings to color the piano melody with nostalgia and genuine warmth), the album is a nearly perfect execution of music that is "mainstream" without sounding the least bit trite, commercial, overblown or false. I could probably leave this in a car's CD player all day long if I was driving cross-country.

Songs of the Wide Horizon easily earns my highest recommendation. Grab this one before fall arrives, because when the leaves turn red and gold, the skies is that comforting blend of sun and clouds, and the breeze carries a hint of frost, you're going to want it when you set off in search of that perfect two-lane highway running all the way to the setting sun. Can't you just feel it in your bloodstream? I sure can!
The album can be purchased (CD or download) at CDBaby, Amazon, iTunes, or directly from the artist at his website.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Issue 8 of Wind and Wire is now available for viewing online

Click here to read issue 8 of the magazine Wind and Wire which was published in September.October of 1998.

This issue was both a highwater mark for the number of reviews published (57 music and 2 book reviews) as well as featuring a sorely needed facelift of the review section itself which finally divided the reviews into genre classification. I had to basically eliminate CD covers in order to accommodate more reviews and it kinda shows since the lackluster visual appeal stands out. But on the other hand, my readers told me they were much more interested in content.

The lowlight of this issue (and actually of the entire run of 12 issues) was a single page article that I wrote. By now, I had acquired a reputation for being an egomaniac among some folks in the business via how I ran the magazine and my discourse on discussion boards/forums in the 'net. I decided to poke fun at myself while also making the magazine more personal. I wrote my one page bio in order to satirize the notion that I thought I was all that (the title was "The Man Who Would Be King"), but I also intended to put all my staff members, one-by-one, under the microscope in an issue to help our readers (who by now were almost literally worldwide) connect on a personal level with us. After all, there was life after music, right? Sadly, this idea bombed to such an extant that one of my writers blew his top and quit post haste when he saw the issue. Nobody on the staff was keen on the idea (yeah, I should've run it by them, in hindsight) so I abandoned the "folksy" approach and wrote next issue's editorial about it. I wouldn't write anything personal until the second to last issue editorial, which coincidentally (or maybe paradoxically) was much more personal and yet elicited the most positive response of anything ever run in the magazine (you'll just have to wait for that one).

Enjoy the issue and leave any comments you wish to make, PLEASE!