Music Review: Breaking Laces – When You Find Out

Hi all!

Sometimes it’s tough not to reflect on the musical influences in my life. Most came from my exploration of music in high school and college, but I’ve done what I can to keep open to new voices. That said, it’s bands like Toad the Wet Sprocket, Better than Ezra, The Presidents of the United States of America, the Indigo Girls, The Nylons, Heart, The Police, Sting, and others that make up a good chunk of those influences (yes, my tastes run to the eclectic!). Notice the glut of bands with big releases in the 1980s and 1990s…

So I’m always encouraged when I listen to my radio and find that new bands are coming up through the ranks that sound quite a bit like some of my favorites. Breaking Laces came into my consciousness when I heard “God in Training” in the car. Their sound takes acoustic pop and a bit of electronics but doesn’t stop there. With a bit of Better than Ezra, a little Maroon 5, some Snow Patrol, and some of the layered vocals and lyrics of Toad the Wet Sprocket, I was hooked. The mix of folk influences, humor, and a pop sensibility I haven’t heard for a while just works for them.

When I was offered a chance to hear more, I jumped. Breaking Laces’ album When You Find Out offers a cool mix of styles that varies enough to provide a rich musical landscape. The shape of the album explores the gamut of relationships, from breaking up, to moving on, and finding new love. It crests and falls with a life all its own, but each song can stand on its own. I love it when bands remember that assembling an album is more than just collecting a bunch of songs!

Brooklyn-based Breaking Laces is the trio of Willem Hartong (singer/guitarist), Rob Chojnacki (bass), and Seth Masarsky (drums) that has somehow managed to play more than 500 shows in 5 years around the country. Their hope was to take some simple pop songs and “make them bigger than life,” according to Hartong. And I think they’ve done that in spades with these 12 songs.

It starts with a breakup in “What We Need.” As Hartong sings “at least you know we tried / time to leave / and I will take this bit of sorrow if it’s all I have to borrow…” With a mix of acoustic and electric guitar, a steady drum beat, and a bass line that drives it from start to finish you can feel the angst as the relationship ends.

But it was “God in Training” that initially caught my attention and is still one of my favorites on the album. The quirky quality to not only the lyrics, but how it’s sung and the simple arrangement just sells it. “But once I quit my paper route / she’ll want my body…” The song goes on to talk about being “loved in foreign nations” and “mobbed whenever I go out” as he says “hey mom I’m gonna sing four tracks down in my basement…” It made me smile – the disconnect of youth captured beautifully.

From there we move to the questioning lyrics of “When You Find Out.” What happens when she finds out he’s in love with her? “What will happen next if things don’t go my way? I’m up I’m down, my thoughts confounding everything I say when you find out I’m in love with you…” We’ve all been there. How do you tell the target of your affection how you really feel? And the pop sensibilities of the band shine through with an arrangement that’s just enough without going overboard.

The album goes on from there, but I won’t spoil it. There’s something special about the way these songs are constructed and I hope Breaking Laces goes on to record many more albums. Please pick up When You Find Out at your favorite music store (online or brick-and-mortar) and support these guys!

Also be sure to check out their website at BreakingLaces.com!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up When You Find Out from Breaking Laces here:

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[Music Review] VOCAbuLarieS – Bobby McFerrin

Hello there!

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I discovered the world of a cappella. A group of us from high school (and then into college) started listening to The Nylons, a doo-wop a cappella group that sang such classics as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the “Duke of Earl,” “Poison Ivy,” and “(All I Have To Do Is) Dream.” In those few years I think we saw them at least once a year, sometimes twice as they’d tour the Front Range of Colorado. A group singing “a cappella” means that they sing without instrumental accompaniment. No drums, no backing band, just raw, naked vocal talent. It takes more than simply having a great voice – you must also be able to hear the harmonies around you and keep to your part while those around you are singing sometimes wildly different melodies or sounds.

So when I first heard Bobby McFerrin, I was already familiar with the concepts of a cappella. Yes, this is the man who sings “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” – but don’t let that throw you off. “Don’t Worry” was a big hit back in the late ’80s and inspired many to take the time to stop, slow down, and enjoy life for a while. When I bought the album Simple Pleasures on tape (yes, it was that long ago), I was stunned to discover that the man who sang the slacker anthem of my high school was one heck of a talented vocalist with a range that stuns me even today and the gift to create sounds that I still have no idea how the human vocal cords can make.

Like I tend to be with many artists, I visited McFerrin’s realm several times over the next few years, enjoying his albums Medicine Music and Bang! Zoom before his career faded a bit.

In late 2009, I watched The Sing-Off with my family on NBC, which was a competition for amateur a cappella groups from around the world that lasted about a week. Though I’d listened to a few podcasts featuring some of the amazing college a cappella groups around the United States and beyond, it was great to see groups like Nota and the Beelzebubs sing their hearts out for a recording contract. And in the season finale, Bobby McFerrin walked on stage and sang “Drive” with the finalists. The chance to see him perform live with these younger artists, even on television, was enough to remind me of all of his amazing work I’d enjoyed 15-20 years ago.

Now in 2010, McFerrin has released his latest project – VOCAbuLarieS. Only a master of his own voice and singing with others would consider taking more than 1,400 vocal tracks from members of Voicestra, his singing ensemble, and fine vocalists from the worlds of jazz, opera, performance art, early music, cabaret, and rock and roll including Grammy-winning recording artists like R&B singer Lisa Fischer, Brazilian jazz innovator Luciana Souza, Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer, and the stellar ensemble singers of New York Voices. This is truly a magnificent achievement.

The album starts off with the song “Baby,” which first appeared on Medicine Music in 1990. But this version definitely isn’t stuck in the 1990s. Somehow the layers and layers of voices and whistling not only add to the already rich melodies, but give a depth to the song that wasn’t in the original. It provides a good bridge to the past and to what McFerrin and his singing companions will do throughout the rest of the album.

“Wailers,” “The Garden,” and “He Ran for the Train” all seem to have a tribal African feel to them. But “Messages” had a vaguely Indian or Asian feel with the tiny cymbals in the background. And “Brief Eternity” feels like a Gregorian Chant at times in its intricately woven harmonies. So you can tell McFerrin continues to defy categorization. You can’t pin him to one musical style any more than you can trap the wind. And that remains yet another of his gifts.

Though I enjoyed the world-wide musical journey of VOCAbuLarieS, I almost feel that he’s lost his connection to the kidlike wonder that made his early albums more accessible. Simple Pleasures with its incredible energy will always be in the back of my mind when I hear McFerrin’s name. As Jon Bream said at the Star Tribune – “If Glee represents high school, the amazing vocalizing on this CD is a post-doctoral adventure.” I’m not typically one to go to the library to read someone’s doctorate, but if this is to be Bobby McFerrin’s magnum opus, it’s easy on the ears.

I hope to see him appear more often on the national stage in shows like The Sing-Off to inspire new generations of singers in person and through the infinite reach of television. And I hope that he continues to release albums – but I wish he’d visit the past to gain back some of that energy.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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