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: Steaćn Hanvey РSteaćn Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies

Hi all!

As a child of the 70s with parents who listened to folk songs, I often fall back that musical orbit. And lately I’ve been encouraged by the new artists who bridge the gap between traditional folk (even down to some of its Bluegrass and Blues roots) and rock-and-roll. With artists like Wes Kirkpatrick, the Indigo Girls and Matt Duke, I’m able to enjoy folk music while not giving in completely to my folkie roots. (Yes, it’s a minor rebellion but I’ll accept that!)

But let me introduce you to Steaƒán Hanvey. Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, he brings a gift for rich arrangements, storytelling, and a voice you want to believe has lived those stories. As I listened to Steaƒán Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies, I was reminded of other artists such as James Taylor and Donovan as well as more modern folks like David Gray and Matthew Mayfield. His easy style with lyrics and guitar make him seem very genuine. I suspect that if I get a chance to listen to Hanvey live, I’m not going to want the concert to end.

Steaƒán Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies was released in Europe a while ago, but is just now coming to the U.S. Hanvey has even moved here to focus on building an audience while traveling back and forth to Ireland occasionally. Over the last 3 years, he’s also been working on his sophomore album called Nuclear Family that is due out in 2012. But don’t let that stop you from checking out Honeymoon Junkies.

What caught my attention while listening to the Honeymoon Junkies is the effortless way Hanvey tells his stories and finds just the right musical style to go with it… It starts with a simple rhythmic guitar intro in “Rooms,” transitions to the upbeat ballad “My Woman (Ode To You),” moves to the anthem-ish “Love’s A Decision,” flows through the hard-edged “Desperation,” and eventually ends with the James Taylor-ish “Show Me”…

And as I listened, there were more than a few that I’d have to tag as favorites, the first of which being “Love’s a Decision.” This one should be required listening at any couple’s therapy session. “Love’s a decision between you and me / not some half-baked scene from a movie screen… if you want it to last / you’d better let go of the past.” And I don’t know who’s singing in the background, but she has an amazing voice that completely complements Hanvey’s with the anthem guitar riffs and solid bass/drum beat.

“Fair Weather Friend” on the other hand feels like something from Colin Hay and I love the guitar riffs. This one tells the story about a guy who lost his way, finds his way back again, only to wonder how others see him. I interpret the story as someone coming back from alcohol or drug use and finding that some folks don’t like who they see when someone is sober. But I’m thankful whatever Hanvey’s story is for this song, that he came back with a “head full of songs” as he says. And I hope when something happens to me or someone else I’m not a fool or a fair weather friend… sticking through thick and thin.

In “Desperation,” he breaks the song mold a bit and it works. It starts with a vaguely Australian/digeridoo-ish funky beat that leads to a story about a relationship gone wrong. This is a darker tune telling the story of a man who knows it’s over, but she’s the one pulling away. “You will blame me and you’ve tried to shame me / What more could I do…” It’s interesting to me that it feels vaguely uncomfortable to listen to this one, like we’re voyeurs in some lover’s quarrel.

Check out the video for “Desperation”:

Then he turns it completely around with a tune you can’t help but smile while listening to… “Everything’s Happy” shifts to everything bright and cheery, but it has a hidden message. The rhythm of the guitar along with the acoustic bass in the background keeps it light and moving along quickly where you hardly have time to think anything but happy thoughts… “The sun changed it’s mind / decided to shine on my day / The girl on the street never misses a beat and she smiles as I catch her eye…” And a bit later there’s the dark side: “Everyone’s happy / Everyone’s ok / Everyone’s looking for someone to blame.”

Steaƒán Hanvey has a way of making the music fit the lyrics that isn’t forced or created by some crowded room of movie producers. Every song on Steaƒán Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies tells a story and I for one enjoyed the ride. I’m already looking forward to his next album – Nuclear Family – sometime next year! For tour news and everything else Hanvey-related, be sure to check out his web site SteafanHanvey.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Indigo Girls – Beauty Queen Sister

Hi all!

What seems like a lifetime ago, I discovered the Indigo Girls at the tail end of college. Rites of Passage and Nomads Indians Saints started off my love of this folk music duo made up by Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. I wore out my Swamp Ophelia tape in an old Walkman tape player when I was regularly walking around the Denver Tech Center near Fiddler’s Green Ampitheatre (which has since gone through a few name changes and is currently Comfort Dental Ampitheatre). I saw them perform at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, and at least one other venue in Colorado.

But like many easily distracted music lovers, I kind of lost track of Amy and Emily after a while. I have picked up most of my favorite albums on CD over the years and every once in a while have checked in to listen to their latest releases. And though occasionally I heard glimpses of some of what made their earlier albums amazing, through the tinted lenses of experience – both theirs and mine – I was never as caught up in the melodies, words, and harmonies as I was with songs like “Galileo,” “Closer to Fine,” “Pushing the Needle Too Far,” “Prince of Darkness,” “Strange Fire,” “Ghost,” “Mystery,” and “Kid Fears.”

Fast forward to this year – 2011 – and their 14th studio album Beauty Queen Sister. Featuring thirteen new songs in their signature storytelling style. They definitely haven’t lost their touch in creating simple yet complex arrangements, melodies, styles, and harmonies to suit whatever topic they choose to focus on. And those topics vary widely on the album, including my favorite on the CD – “War Rugs,” written about the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Their attention to causes both here and abroad hasn’t let up in the slightest, including support for saving the environment, the rights of Native Americans, and the LGBT rights movement. So support for the Egyptians’ brave stand against a corrupt government fits right in with their strong support for equal rights for all.

Though they’re just as capable of rocking the house as singing a gentle song, I tend to like their softer side. On Beauty Queen Sister there are three songs that fall into that category with different styles.

I already mentioned “War Rugs,” which is about the mostly non-violent revolution in Egypt that began in January 2011 and whose efforts continue today. Seeing the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square on the television news this past January and February was amazing. And obviously it wasn’t just those in the Middle East who were affected, with the continuing revolution in Libya ousting Qaddafi and the other areas affected by the “Arab Spring.” Amy and Emily’s song highlights the lasting effects…

“We’re all growing up together / We’re all making a mark on it. / We’re all damning the consequences. / I want to understand / the soul you have in there / Young Egypt seized the moment / and brought that bastard down / You’ve got technology / And you’ve got archeology / We treated you like punters / until you kicked the goal / now we’re claiming you for our team / ’cause what do we know?”

Freedom is one of those things we have to all tend to or it gets taken away in dribs and drabs until it’s gone. I think that’s the “team” we’re all on. And that struggle for freedom is happening even within our own country. Just ask the people with lifestyles not “sanctioned” by certain parts of the population. Couldn’t we all do with a bit more tolerance and brotherly love?

Also among the softer songs on the album is “Birthday Song.” And it’s a sentiment I often have. “I couldn’t think of a thing to write / on your birthday card / considered the poets / they didn’t know what lay quiet inside my heart / thought of Atlanta / thought of Toronto / all of the places we’d been…” But nothing comes to mind to write down. Instead, I hope my actions speak louder than words and we can share those together. What a wonderful sentiment. Words sometimes seem so hollow and given the chance we should all be happy to share time with one another.

“Damo” is sort of halfway between soft and loud, with its Celtic feel. And it makes me want to get up and jig. Nobody wants to see that, but it’s impossible not to feel like dancing. I think it owes that dancing spirit to Eamonn de Barra’s whistles and flute and the full-throated backing vocals of Irish singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey in the background along with the spritely rhythm guitar and the beat of the bodhran (Irish Drum).

Beauty Queen Sister mixes the soft, loud, and energetic sides of the Indigo Girls and should make fans sit up and take notice. It’s available at your favorite music store now, so I’d encourage you to give it a listen. If you want more info about the album or anything else you want to know about the Indigo Girls, you should also check out the Indigo Girls home page for biographical info, tour details, albums, and more!

This article first appeared in a slightly different form at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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