Unchained Music Blog

Unchained Music Blog

Thursday, November 30, 2017

EZLA - Outcasts (2017)

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Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

Firmly lost in the weird, oft-forgotten electronica underbelly that populated movie soundtracks during the 90s or even the stranger side of the late 80s enters EZLA and her brand new disc, Outcasts.  The singer/songwriter’s alchemical mixture of pop, indie, trance, dub, noise, drone, Top 40 and house music doesn’t sound like anything that’s come barreling onto the scene lately.  You might be able to make some correlation to EZLA’s music and the solo work of Irish wild woman Leslie Rankine, as both Ruby and under her own name.  You may even find that touchstones as varied as Blondie, Tricky and even Bjork apply to the music heard on Outcasts, but the fact remains that this EP is very much its own thing and plays by its own rules. 

The EP seems best relatable for discussion when the tracks are dissected as pairs.  “Outcasts” is a brisk open with dysfunctional beats congealing into a mid-tempo, shuck n’ jive chorus while the themes zero in on the pulse of living forever and a certain degree of urgent profanity that punctuates much of EZLA’s work all across the 5 tracks on display.  Laid out beside track #2 “Skeletons” where its equally soft to loud dynamics and acerbic, dysfunctional verse beats simultaneously shake things down only to shake them up again, later opening up into an arid, sing-a-long pop chorus. The two compositions are very, VERY much alike.  The vivid, poignant beauty and crystalline hypnotics of “Satellites” and “Hangman” explore deeper themes of love and the damage it does to a person, while the percussive backgrounds and gliding chorus synths provide numerous parallel points that ensure these tracks are the perfect companions for one another.  Whereas the opening pair of songs feel like they could break apart at any moment until the listener reaches the chorus destinations, it seems as if the next pair feels as if they are much more ordered, arranged and designed to follow a more tuneful, song-oriented trip down a dark New York City alleyway.  

This leaves the somewhat crazed and psychologically unstable “Psycho Killers” to occupy a space all by itself.  Proudly belting out the EP’s most harrowing set of lyrics, EZLA’s voice goes from a wispy croon to nearly satanic vocal back-masking atop a pounding, urgent beat and caterwauling synths; a proof positive snapshot that the singer operates from a darker frame of mind than anybody peddling pop songs in modern times.  Quite frankly, the extremes covered on Outcasts will be too intense for the casual listener, delegating the EP to record collections that favor honest, frantic electronica that’s not afraid to bombard the audience with curveballs.  Outcasts is an excellent piece of work from front to back cover and it makes clear the point that EZLA is an artist to keep an eye on as she progresses from release to release.    

Monday, November 13, 2017

Nick Black - Summer + Spring (2017)

Written by Laura Dodero, posted by blog admin

The third release from twenty eight year old Nick Black, Summer + Spring, is easily the most complete recording yet from a young musician and singer that has amassed more and more of a reputation as one of R&B, soul, and funk’s foremost practitioners working today. These aren’t songs devoted solely to just having a good time, but they do have an upbeat sound even at their most serious and largely concern themselves, subject-wise, with self reflection and interpersonal relationships. He’s grown enough as a performer and songwriter that he’s comfortable incorporating comedic tracks alongside the more serious numbers, but he never loses sight of musical excellence even when his point of view is less than serious. He’s logged a lot of miles and sparked audiences across the country since his 2012 debut and the passion he brings to bear for what he does distinguishes him from the pack.

He comes leaping out of his corner swinging with the first song “Joy to the Girl”. The not so subtle play on a popular phrase works wonders for this charming and very funky track and Black spices it up even more with a supple vocal and flashes of the guitar brilliance he brings to every project. His guitar playing is held in check on the album’s title song “Summer & Spring”, but it has a noticeable effect thanks to the crackling fills it drops into the mix and how much chemistry it strikes up with the rhythm and brass sections. While some songs are obviously better than others, I never hear anything else than full on chemistry stamped on each of the album’s thirteen tracks and few songs illustrate that better than the laugher “Nick at Night”. Once again, Black plays off a phrase common in the culture and makes it his own, but there are layers to this comedic romp as a close listen to the lyric gives listeners a chance to form more than one interpretation. “Runaway Heart” is, arguably, the closest that Summer + Spring comes to an outright blues, but there’s a commercial side to this song as well that primes it for radio play. Despite his allegiance to styles that have long fallen out of commercial favor, Black’s songs are crafted with an obvious desire to appeal to a much wider audience than genre buffs and he’s successful in this regard.

“Neighbor” is likely the nearest that Black comes to manifesting an outright rock sound and pairs up quite powerfully with its funked out follow up “When the Morning Comes”. Black cuts loose on the latter song with stinging lead work and an unerring sense of rhythm that gives the song some added internal propulsion. “Dance in the Light” has some of the same funk influences, but they are tempered some and much more stylized than on the aforementioned cut. Summer and Spring ends with the one two punch of “Outside of You” and “The River” – two tunes that could scarcely be more different. The former is a confidently striding soul rave up with just the right amount of force employed to make an impression while the closer concludes things on an acoustic blues note and contains Black’s most soulful vocal on the release. It’s quite an album for this young performer and undoubtedly his best yet.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

YYY - A Tribute to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

YYY’s A Tribute to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds revisits a seminal album release that, by 2017, should be considered every bit as canonical to our culture as Christmas classics and other iconic works from the first and second generation of modern musical and rock performers. The powerful imaginative hold exerted by this classic crosses generations – young Minneapolis musician Austin Carson, aka YYY, has set the bar high for himself with this audacious musical endeavor and the bevy of local performers he drafts as guest stars makes the case, however inadvertently, that the Minneapolis area remains a key hub for original American music in 2017. These covers are far from slavish imitation; instead, YYY aims at nothing less than fully re-envisioning Brian Wilson’s classic compositions for a modern audience. It sounds like hubris. The thrilling part is that it turns out to be anything but hubris because YYY pulls it off so compellingly.

He begins the album with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” featuring the guest talents of deM atla S and we are confronted with an approach that’s equally faithful to key elements of the original while offering a deconstructionist take on the remainder. There’s a couple of crucial drum sounds in the song – he adopts a highly-charged, live sound during portions of the track while relying on more electronic percussion during the song’s second half. There’s an appealingly raw, emotive sound to the vocals that will hit home with many. Electronic music is a big part of what makes this such an idiosyncratic release, but it’s always placed within a larger context that contains nods to the traditional as well. “You Still Believe In Me” has a guest star as well, City Counselor, and her ethereally tinted voice is highly appropriate for the track. It achieves a surprising and entertaining near-orchestral grandeur despite the electronic backing and has a beautifully pensive vibe. “That’s Not Me” finds YYY going at it alone for the first time on the album and his love for the Beach Boys vocal arrangements shines through once again. When Carson errs on the side of following Wilson’s examples, it’s invariably expressed through fidelity to the vocal arrangements and melodies. He finds inventive new vehicles for these elements without ever betraying the song’s original spirit and infusing it with something of his own.

Another turn from YYY on his own is the song “Let’s Go Away For a While” and he structures this piece as a sultry, moody instrumental with a dollop of voice over attesting to her love for The Beach Boys buried in the mix. It’s built around electronic instruments, for the most part, but keeps a warm and alluring sound up throughout the song’s duration. Al Church provides a particularly affecting vocal on the eternally vulnerable “Sloop John B” and sings with such open-hearted feel that it spins a dreamy, dramatic web for the song. Echoes of the original version underpin this, like they do so many songs on this album, but they provide the same basis for YYY to stamp the song with his own individual brand of magic. His take on the original album’s crowning achievement, “Good Vibrations”, utilizes the guest talents of Fort Wilson Riot and the dueling male and female voices in this song make for a nice contrast. The song remains remarkably faithful to the original version while providing its own finish to the number. One of the most distinguishing parts of this release is how YYY resolutely avoids self-indulgence throughout the entire album and that artistry reaches its zenith with the final track. As tributes go, there’s nothing quite like this, but one listen to it will convince you that it’s far more than mere tribute.

Elliot Schneider - Don't Put All Your Eggs in One Basketcase (2017)

Written by Larry Robertson, posted by blog admin

Elliot Schneider’s eleven song studio release Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basketcase comes appended with some bonus material, namely demos, rehearsals, and live performances from across his long life in music, and the combination of these seemingly disparate sources makes for an even meatier release. This is his fourth solo release since returning to the fray of a focused music career; Schneider, after his pursuing his dreams as a young man, chose to walk away during the Eighties and, instead, pursued a career as an educator. Only when he retired as a teacher did Schneider return to writing and recording music in full and the results attest to a talent that never laid dormant during those “lost years” but, instead, deepened and widened in all the right ways. There’s a nice musical mix here as well – some of the tunes are definitely throwbacks, but Schneider shows a willingness and ability to sound completely modern as well.

There’s nothing about this album to suggest that Elliot Schneider isn’t a spirit in full flight and writing at an inspired level few songwriters reach. “The Moon Has Flown Away” relies on some elegant imagery and a warm, inviting vocal tone from Schneider. He sounds like an eminently likeable performer and, if the listener is a newcomer to Schneider’s talents, there’s scarcely a better way to introduce him. The guitar sound, album wide, is a stre”Diehardngth and that’s no exception here. “Diehard Killjoy” lives and dies with the guitar, particularly the rave-ups punctuating the track, and has a hard-nosed charging quality that will work for many listeners. The weave of guitar notes propelling “Captain Argent” forward has a delicate, melodic touch dancing fleet-footed over a lean drumming attack. It’s has the air of an acoustic track given some light electrification, but there’s just the right amount of rock muscle thanks to the rhythm section. There are few songs on the album close to being any kind of ballad, but “In a Sense Innocence” comes close and has the same aforementioned folky elements, but they are accentuated much more strongly here than they are on “Captain Argent”. The harmony vocals employed on this track sweeten it more and further develop its melodic excellence.

“Overruling Neo-Fascists” is a heavily stylized piece, but it beats with a real heart and never feels overly plotted out. It’s a curious marriage of music and lyric, but convincing and amounts to a sort of stylistic hybrid and chimes in with some social commentary without any real finger pointing to speak of. “Surreal Survivor” has a raucous edge and real swing that gritty guitar work latches deep into, but Schneider feels like he’s straining to match the rough and ready texture with his vocal. It isn’t a grievous flaw, but it feels like it hampers the song’s potential a little. The album’s six bonus tracks are a mix of previously unreleased recordings from live performances and rehearsals alike and are likely included to lend some sort of over-arching view of Schneider’s life writing and performing music. They are an effective addition, but the real meat of the album lies in the first eleven songs and Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basketcase deserves mention as one of 2017’s most worthwhile albums.