Category Archives: [Submissions]

Submissions Report #2

Submissions Report #2

Every so often, I’ll review submissions sent to me, usually albums but sometimes singles or EPs. So here we go!

Arthur Fowler – What’s Keeping Me Going

2.5/5

2014

Possessing a voice like a cross between Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold and Jack Johnson, but harboring a far greater fondness for virtuosic jamming than either of them, Arthur Fowler is a better player than poet, and What’s Keeping Me Going, his 2014 record, tends to be at its best when it strays from typical lighthearted singer/songwriter confessional pop and favors a looser, musical structure. The washes of chimes, the atmospheric bongo patter and the ribbons of flamenco flourishes ensure that Fowler’s tunes never quite leave the coffeehouse, but that would be okay if these songs exuded a real warmth or rawness. Unfortunately, songs like “Please Try” and the breezy, faux-tropical “Love The Music” feel perfunctory, the kind of good-natured tunes that are easy to shrug off before turning back to your crossword and cappuccino.

What’s Keeping Me Going‘s core, though, is Fowler’s formidable guitar playing and arranging. Is it any wonder that two instrumentals, the bossa-nova feint of “Twilight Breeze,” a kind of sunny come-down interlude, and the sighing epic-tinged folk of “On The Verge,” are some of the best things on the record, when on other pop albums they would just be lovely diversions? To be fair, a few of the vocal tracks stand out. “For The Turnstiles” moves against its slow-burning country strings to lend itself an unexpected richness lacking elsewhere, while “The New York Song” succeeds where his other songs fail by utilizing an assuming, low-key charm. It doesn’t do anything special, but What’s Keeping Me Going is decently pleasant listening, an instance of someone who’s better at soundtracking a sunset walk with a loved one than expressing the sentiment himself.

Return For Refund – Return For Refund EP

2/5

2014

Return For Refund’s debut eponymous EP has one big problem with it: familiarity. Their music is firmly in the rote post-grunge camp, maybe with a little more quirky abandon, playing like a cross between Queen Of The Stone Age and Foo Fighters, a style the radio may have adopted in the late ’90s and early 2000s but seems depleted now. On a pure sonic level, Return For Refund aren’t as slick as, say, 3 Doors Down, or whoever, but they also lack a sense for melody and hook, and even when the songs get by on musicianship (as they often do), there’s very little here that doesn’t completely dissipate in the mind as soon as it’s over. Frontman Drew Clementino’s southern drawl may add a little flair but the music here is prone to stolid beats and power chords and pseudo-evocative cliches like the “Hey!” chant that permeates the martial stomp of “Between My Sheets.” It’s not that any these songs are glaringly bad per se—if the opening roar of “The Fields” appeared on local rock radio one day, few would bat an eye—but there’s just very little to mention in them at all (except that there’s one song called “Yolo,” which, even if the song makes fun of the term, doesn’t make it any less silly and disposable.)

On the brighter side, the last song, “Those Bombs,” demonstrates at least a little dynamic range, allowing the song to breath just a bit, easing up on the flat, overpowering heaviness that eats up the rest of the songs and letting Clementino’s words to reveal themselves. Meanwhile, the winding riffs on “Some Is Better Than None” display some post-punk tension that they would do well to exploit in the future. After all, it’s better that they learn what works about their sound now while they’re young, so they don’t end up in another pile of listless grunge acts.

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Submissions Report #1

Submissions Report #1

Every so often, I’ll review submissions sent to me, usually albums but sometimes singles or EPs. So here we go!

 

Tomás Doncker – Big Apple Blues

3/5

2014

Tomás Doncker has been kicking around for over 30 years now, in and out of blues circles, jazz ensembles and avant-garde scenes, mainly as a session guitarist. But following a record of Howlin’ Wolf covers, Big Apple Blues acts as sort of a coming out party for the studio vet. Teaming with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, Doncker turns in a modern slice of urban blues, folding in elements of R&B and free and cool jazz in with crunchy feedback. While on paper that sounds like wild, freewheeling listen, truth is, Big Apple Blues never has the musical sweep it aspires to, with some lapses in songwriting holding it back from becoming anything special.

Still there’s plenty to recommend here, whether it be the smoky, spacious title track or “Ground Zero,” which revels in a slow, ugly grind before shooting off into an electric solo. Even better is “Can’t Say No,” a pounding, kinetic single that has more fuel in its engine than most of the rest of the album combined. And, indeed, rather than overpowering hooks or muscular blues licks, most of the small joys found throughout Big Apple Blues are in the band’s lively interplay, how they jam within the confines of their songs, and Komunyakaa’s lyrics, which oscillate between nostalgic wistfulness and plainspoken politics, giving the record a bit more weight than it might otherwise have. The record’s at it best, though, when it allows some unpredictability show through, like how “Fun City”‘s limber, wah-wah guitar and swinging horns goose the soft-pedaled percussion, or how the album downshifts into “Coney Island,” a lovely, orange-skied homage to ’60s R&B. It’s whenever things begin to slow down, as they do on “This Midnight Hour” and “The New Day,” that the album stagnates. It’s not that these are bad songs necessarily, they’re just wheel-spinning filler, something that sounds okay as it’s playing but floats away from the mind soon after. Plenty of the record could fit that description at first blush, but upon repeated spins, Big Apple Blues reveals itself to have an edge over some of its contemporaries.

 

Nate Paladino – Good Boy EP

2/5

2014

Brokenhearted albums are an underrated art. The general goal, even for self-deprecating artists, is for the listener to empathize—everyone’s experienced all the attendant feelings of bitterness, envy and longing that come with not having your love reciprocated. But there’s a real balancing act that comes with dissecting such negative emotions. Will your rawness and desperation come off as endearing and tragic or as an off-putting, mopey mess? On the Good Boy EP, singer-songwriter Nate Paladino often falls on the wrong side of the equation. Consciously drawing on a broad range of classic American singer-songwriters, like Johnny Cash and Sam Cooke, whose melody for “Wonderful World” he twists here on the opening track here, and ’60s soul crooners, Paladino fancies himself a vintage balladeer, a swooning romantic for the new decade.

In order to separate himself form his influences though, he applies an undercurrent of irony that runs through some of his songs, ostensibly added to conjure some sort of detached cool. He begins with a skipping, retro-tinged ballad called “My Kind Of Bitch,” its title and tale of a relationship gone sour apparently intended to play off of the slick, innocent music in some productive way (a good instinct), but delivered with too much of a smirk, it just plays like an awkward joke. Faring better is “Buy Your Heart,” a gentle, organ-led lullaby that does a better job disguising its damaged words and “Something To Prove,” which occasionally overcome his annoying, affected blues growl to deliver a persistent hook. His lyrics tend to be straightforward in the whiny, I’ll-be-with-you-someday vein, but he confuses a lack of grace with emotional directness, and rather than hopelessly romantic (or even relatably pathetic), he sometimes comes across as creepy. When he swears he will “buy your heart and make you mine,” instead of sounding committed, he’s off-putting, like a song about a stalker that doesn’t realize what he’s doing is wrong. If the songs were better written, these might work as first-person narratives from the POV of an obsessive, scorned lover, but that was doubtfully the intention here. Only in the stark closer “Friend In Need” does he find an atmosphere that befits his gentle, insistent voice. It’s not a particularly great song, but it does suggest a better route forward for him in the future, one where he’s able to be sincere and sympathetic. Plus, Paladino has a way with melody, and as pure music and atmosphere, Good Boy works in spurts. He and his band create a retro allure that’s pleasant enough in the background—it just starts to fall apart on closer inspection.