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: Frank Viele and the Manhattan Project – Neon Lights

Hi there!

Somewhere between the 1980s and today, the use of a horn section in a rock band fell out of favor. I’m not sure how or when, but we went from awesome sax solos and trumpets in songs like “Urgent” from Foreigner, “Who Can It Be Now?” from Men at Work, and Huey Lewis and the News when they toured with the horns of the Tower of Power. Sure there are a few groups like the Dave Matthews Band who still use a trumpet or sax now and then, but it’s not quite as integrated into the whole rock experience as it used to be.

Now bring in Frank Viele and the Manhattan Project (from where else, but the New York City metropolitan area) – a six piece group featuring Viele on vocals as well as acoustic and electric guitars, Mario Capdiferro on drums, Rob Liptrot on bass and backing vocals, Eddie Arjun Peters on lead guitar, Pasquale Ianelli playing tenor, soprano, and baritone saxophones, and Andrew Mericle on trumpet. Add to that mix Richie Cannata playing sax (from Billy Joel’s band) on “Turn Around,” Jason Hirth on keyboards on six tracks, and Ben Golder-Novick helping on the alto sax on six tracks… and where having a strong horn sound can sometimes overwhelms a band, these guys sound amazingly well together.

They’ve been touring together for a few years now and Neon Lights is their first full-length album. It doesn’t disappoint, crossing multiple genres (funk, rock, pop, jazz, blues, and swing) on nine great tracks.

What blew me away was the title track – “Neon Lights”. It opens with a bass line that has stuck with me like few recent songs, reminding me of the way the bass line in “Running Down a Dream” from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers wormed its way into my head to the point where I can’t help but sing along. Layer that with Viele’s rough voice, the backing horns, and some sweet lead guitar and it is tough to get me to stop listening to it over and over again…

Like most great bands who write their own songs, the lyrics for “Neon Lights” tell a story as well. A modern tale of wanting the best for an ex- with drug and alcohol problems… “Then my hip starts buzzing, you’re on the telephone / But Honey you know they’re wrong and that you don’t want to stay…” It’s not quite a plea for her to come back (after all, in the first verse they say she “ain’t coming home”), but you can tell he’s worried.

Another great track is “Portland Rain” which has some awesome horn riffs that remind me of some of the great R&B groups of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a throwback to an earlier time with a guitar solo tearing up a chunk of the song as well.

And so you don’t think it’s all R&B and rock, their song “Try” sounds very much like something you might hear from Dave Matthews. The syncopated rhythms on an acoustic guitar mixed with Viele’s voice talking straight to a girl he wants to get to know better… “Yeah but Baby, there ain’t enough wine in me to tell you that God is on your side / And there ain’t no holy roller that’s gonna bring you peace tonight / … / But if you leet me be your lover, I will bring you peace tonight…” It’s a heck of a pick-up line to play from the stage, but it just might work!

My only complaint with this album isn’t with the musicians, but with Viele’s voice at times. Every now and then it was so gravelly or growly that it was nearly impossible to tell what he was singing. But most of the time when he wasn’t going that far, he sounded great and was backed up by his amazing guitars and horn players.

If you’re looking for something different with some sensational horns and guitars and a funky modern feel, give Frank and the boys a listen. Look for Neon Lights at your favorite music online or brick-and-mortar retailer when it’s available July 13, 2010. And check out their website at FrankVieleMusic.com for a list of tour dates and more information about the band!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Dave Matthews Band – Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King

Hi there…

Before I get too distracted by how amazing this album is, I have a confession to make. Though I’ve heard music from the Dave Matthews Band (DMB) over the years on the radio and have seen Dave Matthews himself when he’s acted on shows like House, I’ve never been a huge fan. The music was good, but I heard so much of it on the radio that I never felt compelled to buy an album. That is until now…

Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King served as a reminder that through tragedy comes growth. And with growth you never quite know where it will take you. For DMB, the departure of keyboardist Butch Taylor and the wake of LeRoi Moore‘s ATV accident and his death a month later would serve as both a wake-up call and a seemingly cathartic event for many of the songs on the album. Though I too mourned the loss of LeRoi as a young musician whose life was tragically cut short, I can’t help but think that Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King is better for it.

Though DMB has focused on philosophical and social issues in the lyrics of past albums, I found the lyrics of Big Whiskey to be amazingly poetic and deep. “Funny the Way It Is” was the first single off the album and it’s impossible to miss the comparisons between different people in different situations – “A soldier’s last breath / his baby’s being born / funny the way it is / not right or wrong / somebody’s broken heart / becomes your favorite song…” It’s trying to get people to see beyond their lives into the lives of others, and I think that stems from the loss of their friend. I know from past experience that the death of a friend is life altering in ways we sometimes don’t see for years. And in some ways, I’m sure writing and performing these songs helped band members accept the change and move on.

In addition, as a sax player I am all too aware of the difference between an ok, good, and amazing sax player. LeRoi was great on all of the previous DMB albums. And I think that made Jeff Coffin, who stepped in to fill the huge hole LeRoi left behind, bring his A-game to the table. Coffin, of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones fame, also has had one heck of a prestigious career – playing with the Flecktones since 1997, recording several independent albums, and winning a Grammy. So to have someone with his talent step in to help out the DMB on tour and on Big Whiskey is huge.

And then there’s the amazing music all throughout the album. The music just grooves along, sometimes hiding the deeper meaning of the lyrics along the way. I think that’s part of the attraction of this album for me. Each song has multiple layers of meaning. Enjoy it for the music. Enjoy it for the words. And then enjoy it for the thought it provokes along the journey. For me the combination of deep lyrics and amazing music blended to make this one of the most intriguing albums of the year so far.

With songs like “Lying in the Hands of God” telling someone to “Save your sermons for someone that’s afraid to love / if you knew what I feel then you couldn’t be so sure / I’ll be right here lying in the hands of God…” The person’s world is upside down – “Now the floor is the ceiling” – and he wonders about this person, perhaps a priest, lecturing him on how to feel.

And in “Dive In” the opening lines describe something I think we’ve all struggled with at one time or another – “I saw a man on the side of the road / with a sign that read ‘Will work for food’ / I tried to look away ’til the light turned green…” But the song then goes further to show how the man on the side of the road is just a symptom of deeper issues in the world and wondering if things are truly getting better – “Through we would like to believe that we are / we are not in control / though we would love to believe…”

Beyond the social depth of the album, DMB also created songs of hope and love. “Spaceman” is a man describing his love for his girl and the hope he keeps when things get rough – “Probably get it wrong much as I get it right / but I got it right woman / when I caught your eye / what I remember most / about that night is /I love the way you move baby.” This one too goes on to share that no matter what, we have to keep earning a living and we may not always love ourselves, but he won’t stop loving her.

But “Alligator Pie” caught me by surprise. When I first heard it, I couldn’t tell what it was about, but I heard the line “Stella said Daddy when you gonna / put me in a song” and thought of my own children wondering when they might be mentioned in something I write. Then I went back and read the lyrics and the song may actually be about hurricane Katrina and the images of those trapped by the storm in or on their homes. “Sittin’ on a roof eatin’ alligator pie / first day the water rise / second day the sun is high / third day Stella cries / cause night time’s dark as a dead man’s eyes…” Haunting lyrics. And to keep her mind off, Stella wants to know when she’ll be in one of her Daddy’s songs… All along the song is driven by this back-woods banjo-picking and beat that just keeps driving through. Amazing.

If you’re a fan of DMB, you can’t pass up Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. If you’re not a fan, you shouldn’t pass up a chance to take a listen. This is DMB at their best, celebrating the life of their friend and bandmate LeRoi Moore (whose nickname was “GrooGrux”) and so much more. Be sure to find it at your favorite local music store or online.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King at Amazon here!

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