Music Review: Frank Viele & The Manhattan Project – Acoustic Vudu

Hey folks!

It never ceases to amaze me when I hear a band go acoustic and it sounds just as good as it does electric in a studio. Unfortunately in an age when everything in the Top 40 seems over-engineered and artificial, these bands are the exception, not the rule. So when I find one, I’m ecstatic and want to celebrate that success.

Back in June 2010, I reviewed the album Neon Lights from Frank Viele & The Manhattan Project. This is a six-piece band based in Connecticut that sounds much larger than just six people, largely because they have a horn section – which you hardly find with any group these days (the Dave Matthews Band is the only other similar band I can think of). Their music is a mix of rock, soul, and blues that simply works. When I listen to them on CD, it’s a group I’d kill to listen to live. And after hearing Acoustic Vudu, I think I’ll have to double the bounty.

Acoustic Vudu is a five song EP of tracks that includes two new songs – “Push and Pull” and “Spanish Fly” in addition to acoustic versions of “Neon Lights,” “Somebody Else,” and “Try.” These tracks only reinforces just how good these guys are. Though these songs all sound great loud, proud, and plugged in, there’s a purity in hearing the instruments without that electric boost. Every song shines acoustically because you can hear the quiet moments just as well as you can the full moments. Words, finger picking, horns… it all layers and never reaches the frantic levels being louder can sometimes bring into play.

All the songs are amazing, but I’ll pick out three that really stick with me.

With “Neon Lights” the guitar lick still has just as much power as it does in the electric version, but I love that they’ve slowed it down a bit and let the horn section shine. The sax and muted trumpet set things up with a beautiful quiet as the song starts to build and build. And one of my complaints with Neon Lights was that sometimes Frank Viele’s voice was too gravelly and stressed to understand what he was singing. Without having to compete with the amplifier, Frank’s voice just works. It tells the story with a breathless growl driven by the guitar that doesn’t let up…

“Push and Pull” is another song that just grooves… “Don’t want no lover standing in my way / You find it hard to sit and stay / And I know inside you know it’s true / And every time you leave you know you’re through…” It’s about a relationship where both people have a certain gravity and each is pushing and pulling the other even though every time they part may be the last. And this one has some great guitar, both lead and rhythm – each expressing a different emotion along with Frank’s vocal… And I love the “Come on my baby / Come on my darlin” section as the singer pleads with his love.

Lastly, “Spanish Fly” just has some gorgeous guitar parts. I’m a sucker for great guitar. This one again tells a story of passion between a man and a woman where the guy is wondering if the relationship has gone beyond lust. It goes on for more than five minutes and I bet it could go on for another five and I wouldn’t mind…

What more do I need to say? If you’re looking for a new group to groove to, Frank Viele & The Manhattan Project should be right up your alley. And when you’re done with Acoustic Vudu, check out Neon Lights for more groovy goodness. Both albums are available now. For more details, check out the band’s website at FrankVieleMusic.com and look for them on Facebook and YouTube!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Mariana Bell – Push

Hi all!

For me, all art is about introspection at some level. Whether speaking about a novel, film, or song, the artist is sharing a piece of themselves, whether it’s their view of the world, how they deal with relationships, or how they explore their innermost dreams and desires. Sometimes the art of creation itself is simply a therapy to get it all out in the open. Through every piece, we as the audience gain a piece of the puzzle that makes that creator who they are.

Mariana Bell must have been going through some serious stuff while writing the songs on her latest album – Push. From the title song to the last track, you can tell some of that introspection was going on. As she says in “On It” – “Thank you for making me see myself.” Whether seeking some inner peace or to understand relationships with those around her, she seems to be questing for answers everywhere.

But what I love about this album is that though it’s airy in places, it’s dark in others… Styles flow effortlessly from pop to folk to almost country, rock and blues, with instrumentals combined beautifully with her voice and backing tracks in rich, but not overly complex arrangements. Ten tracks on Push offer a lush landscape of unique sounds, styles, and words evoking emotions throughout. She reminds me quite a bit of Shawn Colvin, with a voice that lends itself well to this kind of cross-genre work.

My favorite song on the album is “Good Enough,” which perfectly suits my relationship with my wife… “As long as you’re good enough, and come back home to me / then we can fall in love again. / I never asked you to be perfect, no… just be good enough…” There’s an honesty there that’s impossible to ignore. Love crests and falls and compromises, but lasts through it all. With a solid drum beat and electric guitars, this song is definitely in the country-rock vein sung by contemporary artists like Lady Antebellum. And though I’m not a huge country guy, the style in this case simply works.

The same holds true for the rockin’ song “California Clay,” which keeps that honesty flowing. Love sometimes drives you to do crazy things for people, so I can identify with these lyrics… “It’s not that I can’t leave I just don’t want to… / Don’t need a leash. I’ll stay easily. I’m putty in your hand…” And the last image is sexy and sultry all at the same time – “Metal sheets and a lead pillow so are we bed magnets…” It’s that attraction between lovers. And the sound is much harder with a rock beat and underlying electric guitar that pulls it all along.

And “Titanic” made me think completely of the film with the song’s opening strings… And through analogy, this song tells the story of a relationship gone wrong. Like the movie, you can see the iceberg in the distance and yet somehow can’t change course. “Of the greatest disaster, that would ever be the greatest disaster – you and me.” Guitars, strings, and reverb help tell the story of the end.

The album may represent a single continuous flow from the fleeting beginnings of love to the bitter end of a relationship, Push shares a journey through song. I hope we hear much more from Mariana Bell and that she once again shares loves and losses with us in the future! For more about Push, her previous albums, and her tour schedule, be sure to check out her website MarianaBell.com.

–Fitz

p.s. Check out Mariana Bell’s music at Amazon below:

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Music Review: Gaby Moreno – Illustrated Songs

Hi all!

Recently I’ve been amazed by the seeming rebirth of a more classic sound – not quite Motown, but something close mixing R&B and soul with modern songwriting. Artists like Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Duffy and Adele remind me a bit of the soul music greats like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight. It was an era where you could feel the blues and gospel roots shining through and I think we’re starting to see that style again as new artists are gaining traction on the pop charts.

Gaby Moreno takes the bilingual skills of an artist like J. Lo and puts a bit of a Duffy/Adele spin on them without losing her own originality along the way. She’s capable of smooth ballads in Spanish and hot songs like “Mess a Good Thing.” Her new album, Illustrated Songs, is impossible for me to lump in one category however. It spans multiple genres and would sound just as at home in a French cabaret, a jazz club in New Orleans, or on “Top 40″ radio. Though I compare her to Duffy and Adele, she both is similar and yet not at all similar to both artists.

To add to the confusion, I swear Moreno has one of the most genre-defying voices I’ve heard in a long time. In one song I’m reminded of the new soul movement, in another I’m reminded of Judy Garland, and in yet another I think her songs would seem at home in any Randy Newman-inspired Disney/Pixar movie soundtrack.

Of the dozen songs on the album, “Mess a Good Thing” is by far my favorite. The rocking soul guitar, strings and horn section behind her sultry voice just drive home that this woman has some serious soul. At no time did it feel like the song was out of her control, as can sometimes happen when you sing with such a large band. She knows she’s a good catch and her man won’t be leaving her: “Baby, you won’t be messing a good thing / Hurrying off with the break of day…” But though the lyrics may say he won’t be leaving her, her voice drives the point home hinting that if he does he’ll be in trouble!

But “Garrick” is one of those songs that just can’t leave my brain. The fact that she’s singing in Spanish makes no difference at all. It’s the amazing arrangement of strings, guitars, and clarinet that really makes this one groove. I can’t help but see her singing in front of a big band in some 1920s speakeasy or French cabaret. She’s just at home here as in her sultry soul mode, adding to the mysterious mix of genres she’s comfortable with.

And “Mean Old Circus” makes me think of some Judy Garland movie. The xylophones, circus organs, and her voice merge to provide yet another genre. She dons them as easily as changing hats. Beneath the kid-friendly sound however, there’s a darker purpose to the words – “A revelation …for conversation / A new permission for my religion / A sleeping lion’s lion dream /
In my forsaken evil schemes…” What is she really after here? Escaping to the circus may simply be a cover for more nefarious plans.

Evidently Gaby taught herself to speak better English by singing blues, R&B, and soul classics from artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin. “I learned English from blues records. I’d read the lyrics, then go to my dictionary. In school, we studied basic English, but the records made me interested in learning it and singing it.”

Moreno is backed up by a terrific band featuring Sebastian Aymanns (drums), Leslie Lowe (bass) and an ensemble of renowned musicians including Greg Leisz (electric guitar, Mandolin, Lap Steel), Big Band leader Bob Mintzer (bass clarinet), Larry Goldings (celeste, piano), Patrick Warren (piano, keyboards), Mark Goldenberg (guitars) David Piltch (upright bass), Conan O’Brien’s horn section – Mark Pender (trumpet), Jerry Vivino (tenor sax), Richard “La Bamba” Rosenberg (trombone), and Adam Schroeder (baritone sax) – and string, horn and woodwind arrangements by Paul Bryan (Aimee Mann, Grant Lee Phillips and Amy Correia ). It’s a huge band that reminds me of the big band era of the 1940s but has all the other genres and playing styles at their beck and call as well.

Gaby Moreno seems to be a lady out of time brining classic ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and other styles back to the people. If you’re looking for something to wile away a lazy Sunday, Illustrated Songs should be on your list to pick up. I love it when modern artists seek to rejuvenate the past and can’t wait to see what else lies in store for her. Illustrated Songs will be released on April 5, 2011 with a tour to follow. To learn more check out Gaby’s website.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up these great albums below!

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