Dianna Cristaldi’s voice is ‘sometimes husky, haunting, sensitive’ on new CD

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Dianna Cristaldi/Dianna Cristaldi

You won’t find that many modern country albums with the kind of compellingly personal songwriting and evocative, beautifully crafted music that is on Dianna Cristaldi’s self-titled latest effort. Cristaldi unites folk, roots rock, and the blues into seamless slices of life. Her voice – sometimes husky, haunting, sensitive – doesn’t stay in one gear; it shifts with the varying tones of the song, the up and down emotions of the lyrics. On “I’ve Got Nothing Left,” Cristaldi sounds as if she’s been through the most serious heartache possible and is as drained as the tune admits. “From the hollow, I look up in pain/I am not strong enough/There’s nothing left to gain,” she sings with moving passion.

Many of the tracks here are slow and take repeated spins to grow on you; however, the finest LPs are the ones that reward with multiple spins. “Bye and Bye” is a heartbreaking meditation on dying and acceptance with Cristaldi trading verses with Bethany Cristaldi Wurster. Part Gospel, part country duet, it is the highlight of the whole CD, and like the rest of the record, it will stick with you long after you’ve stopped playing it.


Published in: on September 23, 2008 at 1:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tj Sherrill’s ‘High Horse’ has ‘universally appealing’ songs

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Tj Sherrill/High Horse

Tj Sherrill is an acoustic folk artist with bite. At times reminiscent of Toad the Wet Sprocket, he writes personal yet universally appealing songs that can be pissed off but often come from the perspective of someone who isn’t taking anybody’s crap. Sherrill establishes this attitude immediately with the title song, which slashes away at an egocentric’s ivory tower. In “Push Me On,” Sherrill fights away against the gloom as his voice reaches new heights of emotional power and his acoustic guitars rock harder than anyone would expect them to.

Producer Brandon Bee gives the album a rustic, almost Americana vibe, capturing the warmth in Sherrill’s vocals without smoothing them while reeling in his dark side, too. The result is a CD that balances hope and hopelessness without being too sweet or too bitter. My favorite track is probably “Happy Soul,” which has me fondly recalling Bourgeois Tagg’s one-hit wonder, “I Don’t Mind at All,” with its winsome melodies.


Dan Weintraub specializes in morose introspection on ‘The Gap Between v2’

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Dan Weintraub/The Gap Between v2

“I may be old/I may be fat,” sings Dan Weintraub, and with those hilariously revealing lines he has totally won us over. Far too many of today’s acoustic-pop artists are so focused on whoring themselves to suburban housewives and teenage girls that they’ve forgotten the folk roots of the genre. (Sadly, it has happened to country music as well.) This is lyrically driven style, and the words should not be nonsense. Weintraub writes candidly; you almost feel that you’re trespassing into the forbidden territory of someone’s mind. On “When I Was,” Weintraub cleverly observes how people often view the past with rose-colored glasses, letting sentimentality and nostalgia disguise the biting reality of truth. So “When I Was” isn’t about what Weintraub used to be; it’s merely his original perception of himself.

The Lou Reed-esque “Too Many Lindas” jumps to the shuffling riffs of the Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off” while “Just Before You” aches with the morose introspection of American Music Club and Buffalo Tom. This is quiet music with loud emotions. Don’t let the softness trick you. There is turbulence beneath the cozy embrace of Weintraub’s acoustic riffs.


Tasteful and bittersweet guitar playing make Steven Palmer’s ‘Morning Road’ glow

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Steven Palmer/Morning Road

The title is apt because, if you’re traveling for an extended period of time, Steven Palmer’s Morning Road is what you want playing in your car. There are miles in Palmer’s voice; you can almost see the scenery that his mind has captured through the decades of his life. I love how the title track recalls Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” at one point. Is it intentional? Perhaps or maybe unconsciously. Nevertheless, it fits the mood and meaning of the song.

Palmer is no hotshot acoustic gunslinger; this is a man that, if he had started recording albums such as this early in his life, we might be looking at him differently, such as an icon in his autumn years. Palmer’s songwriting and guitar playing are tasteful and bittersweet; each cut is crafted with feeling and poetic flair. The tropical “A Simple Man Needs a Simple Plan” invigorates with a summer glow while Palmer’s cover of Charles Johnson’s “The Dill Pickled Rag” has some stunningly beautiful crystalline riffs. Lovely.


Orchestral touches power Laura Pursell’s new album

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Laura Pursell/Somewhere in this Room

Singer/songwriter Laura Pursell has never been on my radar before but she certainly will be after hearing Somewhere in this Room. Unlike most solo projects, this seems to be more of a collaboration between her and her producer Andrew Bonime, who arranged and co-wrote these lovely songs. In other words, this is no mere folk or acoustic confessional, stripped down to its basic ingredients. Bonime has gifted Pursell as massive lens in which to shoot with. This isn’t just a record a with a girl and a guitar but a girl with the power of an orchestra behind her. Violins, cellos, violas, French horns, saxophones, oboes, and organs complement the basic guitar/bass/drums set-up. Actually, complement is an understatement; they elevate these songs to another level.

Those who prefer the less-is-more standard of today’s pop craftsmanship might be puzzled by all the added instrumentation here, but Pursell and Bonime are reaching for the artistic heights set by the jazz and soul artists of the past when having a Big Band behind you was considered cool. It certainly is a breath of fresh air, and not everything on Somewhere in this Room climbs to such mountainous extremes. The softly melodic “It Might As Well Be Magic” bridges together folk and smooth jazz with subtlety and technical precision while “Skywriting Neon Lights” is reminiscent of Heart’s vintage mellow-yellow dreaminess. The rainy-afternoon melancholy of “My Heart Knows You Were Here” plumbs the depths of Pursell’s heartbroken emotional state after a friend’s suicide. It’ll leave you knocked to the ground.


‘Daredevil Angel’ creates ‘waves of emotion and ripples of vivid imagery’

Reviewed by Carson James

Matthew Alexander/Daredevil Angel

There are times when I found myself daydreaming while listening to singer/songwriter Matthew Alexander’s new album, Daredevil Angel. Credit that not to disinterest in the music or the lack of an attention span but to the mood-spinning qualities of his guitar playing. Alexander is no bland strummer; there is artistry in the way his fingers work the strings, creating waves of emotion and ripples of vivid imagery. On “New York City Backwoods,” Alexander’s guitar playing is absolutely spellbinding, weaving a network of melody and texture that grips the ears and refuses to let go.

You can categorize Alexander as a folk artist but that term has been thoroughly abused over the decades. It’s gotten to the point that anybody who is unplugged is labeled folk, giving birth to a small population of acoustic dullards. Alexander actually puts thought and feeling in his compositions; they switch tempo and evolve, providing full color to Alexander’s straightforward songwriting. “Didn’t Happen That Way” is robust, propulsive roots rock a la John Hiatt while “God Must Be Lonely” and “Nancy’s On My Mind” shine with the starry-eyed melancholia of James Taylor.


The Callen Sisters master the art of moody, intense folk-pop on self-titled album

Reviewed by Carson James

The Callen Sisters/The Callen Sisters

Because I am old, a college/alternative band fronted by two sisters reminded me of the Throwing Muses. Coincidentally, the opening cut, “Anomie,” with its spiky riffs and little-girl vocals, sounds eeriely close to the Muses in their prime, when Tanya Donelly was still in the group with her step sibling Kristin Hersh. Although not as harrowing as the Muses, the Callen Sisters unintentionally hit me with a 120 Minutes flashback. And while the rest of the CD has more of a folk-rock feel, the Callen Sisters are definitely not your typical coffeehouse duo; their songs have rougher edges on the side, displaying a postmodern influence that energizes and intensifies even their most quiet moments.

Both Jessa and Beth Callen sing, but don’t ask me to identify on which tracks. All I can say is that the vocals throughout the whole album are melodic and bittersweet, tinged with both sorrow and hope. “Wildfires” and “Whirlwind Came” are reminiscent of the Sundays’ summer-afternoon mood swings, gentle and winsome folk-pop heavy on atmosphere. Albums like this have a tendency to drag (even the Sundays were guilty of that); fortunately, the Callen Sisters never meander, ensuring that each cut has a purpose and enough friendly hooks to keep our ears occupied.  


Published in: on March 31, 2008 at 11:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Vanessa Peters provides superb, enigmatic folk-rock on ‘Little Films’


Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Vanessa Peters & Ice Cream on Mondays/Little Films

Equipped with a quirky name that would make me assume they’re another ’80s New Wave revival, Vanessa Peters & Ice Cream on Mondays are actually a superb folk-rock act with intelligent, poetic lyrics. Now you may not understand the meaning of Peters’ lyrics initially, but they seem to open up after repeated listens. Like Suzanne Vega in her early years, Peters loves to write enigmatic lyrics. Fortunately, the music isn’t bogged down by the cryptic nature of her words unlike Vega’s debut album in the mid-’80s which, for the most part, found itself wallowing in her pretentiousness. Her band, Ice Cream on Mondays, keeps the songs loose and melodic, pushing them with chiming guitars and Americana touches here and there.

“I dreamed last night that I lost the first vampire I ever loved/To the cold and snow of Michigan,” Peters sings on “Anti-Hero,” putting a supernatural twist on unrequited romance. It’s a prime example of how Peters, as a songwriter, cannot be pegged; she goes her own way, and we are her willing passengers, grooving to the beat of her ice creams while seriously engaged in the wild tales she is sharing with us.


Published in: on January 30, 2008 at 6:15 am  Leave a Comment  

The late George Harrison recalled on latest French Possession EP

Reviewed by Jessica Shearer

French Possession/Triple A

If French Possession weren’t British, their music would be labeled Americana; well, at least the first two tracks on Triple A. French Possession specialize in twee pop with a noticeable crush on country and folk music; this is quite evident on “The Courtneys of Ballantry,” which seems to fuse together American country and English folk in the similarly wistful way that the Lilac Time do. Probably the most striking aspect of French Possession, and one that separates them from their peers, is lead singer Steve Jones’ resemblance to the late George Harrison is undeniable. Heck, with its sweet jangling guitars and warm harmonies, “Nothing Else Applies” could’ve been a Traveling Wilburys single, and “The Courtneys of Ballantry” has enough beautifully harmonic vocals to fill a couple of Beatles records.

“Ginny,” though, shifts the direction completely. It’s a delicious female-male duet with a trip-hop drum pattern. Lovely.


Published in: on December 20, 2007 at 7:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ben Dalby haunted by the spirit of Nick Drake on poetic new CD

Reviewed by Jessica Shearer

Ben Dalby/Symphony of Silence

Englishman Ben Dalby must get numerous comparisons to the late British folk icon Nick Drake; he should be prepared for another. Like Drake, Dalby’s unplugged soft rock has the intimacy of a bedroom kiss; it is warm and quiet, songs sung from what seems to be a gentle soul. This is cozy coffeehouse folk with a distinctly English sensibility. Dalby’s British accent adds flavor and color to the no-frills arrangements; you spend as much time listening to his phrasing as well as to his lyrics, which can be charming, witty, and utterly poetic as these lines from “Pictures on a Monday” will show: “The wind blew low, like the sigh of a widow/Cheeks were wet, like dew on a wooden lid.”

It all may seem too precious to some, but I found myself moved by these tunes. The slow yet uplifting “Don’t Give In” probably reminded me of Drake the most, mainly the fragile, breathy qualities in Dalby’s singing. Not everything is naked and soothing. “Never Broke My Heart” rides on a shuffling locomotive beat a la classic country and “No Need to Fear the Shadows” has ethereal riffs that the Postal Service would’ve winked at.


Published in: on December 17, 2007 at 3:53 am  Comments (1)