Singer/songwriter Jimmy Hasser out-Dylans Bob Dylan on ‘The Big Picture’

Reviewed by Jack Richter

Jimmy Hasser/The Big Picture

Bob Dylan is dead.

At least, that’s the headline I keep expecting to read after listening to Jimmy Hasser’s The Big Picture.  I realize that sounds morose, but I mean it in the best way possible. It’s not that Hasser butchers Dylan, but instead the opposite. He plays the part so well, that he must have invoked Dylan’s spirit then recorded the album during the séance.  You read it here first: Bob Dylan is certainly dead.

From the onset of The Big Picture, the similarities to Dylan are obvious.  The trademarks are there in spades: bright harmonicas, meaningful lyrics, and story-telling vocals. Boasting a track listing of 19 songs, The Big Picture could almost be nicknamed Brunette on Blonde — almost.  There’s the occasional song which brakes the mold, but keeps the spirit of classic rock and folk music alive nonetheless.  “How You Know It’s Love,” for example, touches more on Rod Stewart than it does Dylan.  All in all, this record is highly recommended for people longing for the freewheelin’ tunes of the ’60s.

Published in: on September 14, 2008 at 8:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Paul Marturano graduates from ‘American Idol’ with Billy Joel-esque CD

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Paul Marturano/Bucks County

He may have gotten the most recognition by appearing on American Idol, especially with his “Stalker” song for Paula Abdul, but if Paul Marturano wants r-e-s-p-e-c-t, he’ll need an album such as Bucks County to earn it. Released a year before the American Idol madness, Marturano is no short-lived novelty act on Bucks County. In fact, aside from the lusty “Checking Out the Goods,” this is a fairly depressing, low-key affair. Perhaps Marturano was just getting out of a relationship at the time. “The part of you I fell for/Is nowhere to be found,” Marturano laments on the lovelorn “Strings Attached.” Ouch. Nevertheless, Marturano moves us, finding the hurt that exists within us from past or present experiences.

Deft piano playing that recalls Billy Joel’s soulful shadings and Bruce Hornsby’s incandescent atmospherics lifts each track, even when Marturano is in despair like on “If You Believed in Me.” He tries to be hopeful on “Maybe Tomorrow” but clearly this is a man who has reached the end of his rope. Jazzy bass and percussion add spice to “Someday” and sizzling electric guitars inject “Hello Again” with life and energy. Laughs can be found on “Checking Out the Goods” but clearly Marturano is a real artist and not some American Idol gag.

Published in: on September 9, 2008 at 8:39 am  Comments (2)  
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Folky Filipina singer/songwriter Frances Ancheta driven by modest ambitions

Written by Kit Burns

Singer/songwriter Frances Ancheta isn’t aiming for global stardom. The young Filipina acoustic-pop artist is instead simply wanting her gently rolling unplugged narratives to be appreciated, to find homes in the ears of listeners. Given that so many musicians today enter the field with MTV fantasies in their imagination, Ancheta’s modest ambitions are touching and reflected in their down-to-Earth pleasures of her debut album Now We’re Here.

Kit Burns: Your music is acoustic but the influence of ’80s English alternative rock, especially Morrissey, is evident in your voice. Are these stripped-down arrangements really what you’re aiming for or do you dream of a full electric band?

Frances Ancheta: The stripped-down acoustic sound is actually what I was aiming for, interestingly enough. Although I listened to all kinds of music, including alternative-rock bands, I was always drawn to their unplugged acoustic songs. For some reason I was fascinated by the fact that many of my favorite musicians started off writing classic songs with their simple instrument, their voice, and either a tape recorder or a pen and pad of paper. I always admired this ability to create something profound by doing something so simple. As far as a full electric band, I wouldn’t mind any collaboration in the future, but for now I feel like I can continue my development in acoustic arrangements.

Burns: Growing up, what artists did you listen to the most that inspired you to write and sing songs?

Ancheta: I listened to and enjoyed all kinds of music including old-school R&B, jazz/old standards, classical, reggae, flamenco, Hawaiian, folk, and above all the alternative/modern rock of the ’80s and ’90s – too many groups to mention! I loved the Smiths, the partnership of Morrissey and Johnny Marr was the ultimate songwriting combination of original lyrics and music that captured beauty, irony, and sadness all at the same time. I also enjoyed the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, R.E.M. I appreciated the songwriting talents of Neil Finn of Crowded House, who I admire for his skill and resourcefulness. As I got older I really was moved by Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Ben Harper. I also enjoy Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, and Norah Jones.  

Burns: Are you involved with the Filipino-American music scene in San Francisco?

Ancheta: Yes, to a certain extent. I was born and raised in San Francisco so I’ve been able to witness the beginnings of a few Filipino organizations supporting Filipino American arts; for example, The Yerba Buena Pistahan Philippine American Arts Exposition, which I performed at last year, and Bindlestiff Studios. I know people who were performers, vendors, or organizers of the event. I try to be as supportive as I can with Filipino American events. However, I sometimes wish that these events would showcase more culture, history, and life for Filipino-Americans today. They try, but I’ve been seeing more often lately business/corporate-related booths such as the cell phone/cable company or a bank that happens to have Filipino staff representing the organization for that event. I still currently network with a few Filipino-American musicians I met during the open mike scene, including Olga Salamanca and Kapakahi, and I am happy for their success. In terms of trying to perform at various Filipino-run venues, my results have been mixed. I don’t think they quite know what to make of my sound at times, and they’re not sure how serious I really am. But for the most part my encounters with my fellow Filipinos have been positive.

Burns: What are your goals with this CD?

Ancheta: My goals were simple: To create a quality CD reflecting the crafts of good songwriting, artistic expression, and musicianship; to create a CD worthy of respect from appreciators of good music, something that I can be proud of.

Burns: What influences your songwriting? 

Ancheta: Many things influence my songwriting. Personal experience is such a big factor; many of my older songs helped me to deal with past relationships as well as to sort out my direction in life. I’m a pretty introspective person, and for better or for worse I tend to ruminate on things a lot. Songwriting helps me process my introspection at times and let things go. It helps me turn my negative feelings into something positive. In addition, my desire to understand other perspectives and points of view also influences my songwriting. In fact, some of the songs on the CD were based on imaginary situations and my interpretations of how certain people might be thinking or feeling. There were actually a few songs that I wrote for a friend’s unreleased movie, where I based the songs on characters in the screenplay. Most of all, a big influence is my desire and hope for the best to come; my belief that life will work things out in spite of all the ups and downs.

Steve Pichan’s socio-political commentaries have non-partisan bite

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Steve Pichan/Am I Here Already?

Somehow singer/songwriter Steve Pichan is able to write socio-political lyrics without being preachy or partisan. A big round of applause for Mr. Pichan, please. If Am I Here Already? were to be summed up in a single description, it would be, “Probably the only Neil Young LP that could be appreciated by both Democrats and Republicans.” Pichan slices into news media credibility on the pointedly catchy “NY Times,” slamming the legendary newspaper with the lines, “In the Times, New York Times/Can’t read anymore today.” On one hand, conservatives will appreciate Pichan’s disdain for the paper because of its reportedly liberal bias, but the left-wing set will agree with him as well as Pichan is really attacking the media’s obsession with violence and real-life horrors. The timely “The Line (Voter’s Lament)” takes a non-partisan punch at America’s distrust over politicians.

If all this sounds weighty and too serious, Pichan sends his messages through indelible roots-rock hooks a la not only Young but John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen as well. The gorgeous, evocative “Somewhere” glides with dreamy acoustic riffs and warm, contemplative singing. “Iron Man” has the tough exterior yet fragile heart of a lost Springsteen jewel. “Here Already?” seduces us with spellbinding riffs and a sultry groove.

Singer/songwriter Andrew Portz summons ghost of old Tom Petty

Written by Carson James

While many Americana artists openly cop vocal signatures and guitar riffs from Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, Sr., singer/songwriter Andrew Portz jumps further into the timeline of alt-country ancestry. There’s no denying the influence of vintage Tom Petty on Portz’s rejected snarl and speaker-busting jangle. When Petty first appeared in the late ’70s, his roots-rock angst was an anomaly in a rock & roll scene ruled by disco on top of the charts and punk overthrowing the underground. Perhaps it’s fitting that one of his spiritual kin is breaking away from predictable Americana staples and embracing the unfashionable Petty.

Carson James: Would you describe your lyrics as personal? If so, are you writing about your own experiences here or that of others?

Andrew Portz: When I write songs, I like to weave together personal experiences, fiction, and history in an abstract way. “Three o’clock in the mornin’/Staring at these records on my wall” is what I was actually doing when I wrote “Rollercoaster Ride.” The rest of the song is just lyrics that I thought sounded cool, and I really do dig rollercoasters.
James: Do you write the words down first or do you come up with riffs initially and then add lyrics on top of it?

Portz: I just write songs the way they come to me. I usually hear a melody and a lyrical hook in my head, and I start to work with that. I wrote “I Can Hear You” in about 20 minutes starting with the opening guitar riff. When I wrote the song “Blue Lake California,” I came up with the melody along with lyrics that I dropped because they didn’t fit the sound of the song. The story of “Blue Lake” came to me much later during some time I spent there recording the early demos for the CD.

James: Some artists I’ve spoken to in the past believe that the environment they’re in can have an influence on their words. Has this ever happened to you? If so, can you provide examples from your record?

Portz: I think your environment can influence the words as well as a song’s feel. I wrote “Road Trip” sitting around a campfire, and it has that sound to it. We went into the studio and tried to recapture that vibe with the banjo and harmonica.
James: What song on Blue Lake California has the most meaning to you and why?

Portz: “You and I” has a lot of meaning for me. It was the first song I ever wrote that made me feel like, “Hey, I can do this.” I wrote it years ago for my wife. It’s a song about everyday people and what they go through in their relationships.
James: Is it harder to write sad tunes than happy songs? Or is it the other way around?

Portz: Some people drink, some people get stoned. I write songs. That’s my way of dealing with the down and outs. When life kind of gets good it’s a lot harder for me to write.

Christian album from Michael Himes has echoes of James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Michael Himes/Forgetful Masterpiece

Singer/songwriter Michael Himes doesn’t seem like a newcomer at all. Blessed with a heartwarming, fragile voice a la James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, Himes’ focus is on spiritual themes, conveying his love and loyal heart to God in track after track. However, unlike some of the new Christian artists on the radio today Himes doesn’t overwhelm his songs with too much studio gloss or use canned backbeats. While Himes’ religious convictions may be the primary motive for his songs, he doesn’t neglect the high standard of musicianship which should play an important role in every style of music.

“Everlasting Light” opens up with plush acoustic riffs that are suddenly elevated with incandescent electric guitars and sun-sparkling keyboards; the overall vibe is reminiscent of Coldplay albeit with Christian sentiments. Himes’ vocals are sweet and crystal clear throughout the CD, reaching uplifting emotional peaks on “For You My King” and “To You,” wherein his singing truly soars. “World Revolving” touches upon country, adding flavor to Himes’ folksy leanings. Horns give spice to “Thank You Lord” while violins stream prettily through “From Above.” Production is crisp and professional; you won’t be able to tell that this was self-produced and independently released.

Don Arbor’s ‘softly dramatic and honey-warm’ voice recalls Don McLean

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Don Arbor/Salam Pax (Peace)

While listening to Don Arbor’s Salam Pax (Peace) for the first time, there were moments when I had to check my iPod to see if another Don – Don McLean of “American Pie” fame – was singing. Both Arbor and McLean have softly dramatic and honey-warm voices. I’d be stunned if McLean wasn’t one of Arbor’s influences. However, I don’t think it’s intentional; Arbor is simply blessed with a crystalline croon.

The title track is a moving tribute to an Iraqi blogger who wrote about his daily life in Baghdad, enveloped by war and despair. It’s not a political song which takes a right or left side of the electoral map; rather, it’s a human cry to stop the bloodshed. Musically speaking, jazzy horns and Steely Dan-esque light funk make the grim subject matter go down smoothly. “Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud” echoes the dreamlike folk balladry of Bread while “I Let It Go” recalls the winsome harmonies and spring jangle of George Harrison. Throughout it all Arbor’s vocals seduce and evoke a myriad of emotions.

Published in: on July 24, 2008 at 5:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Canada’s the Cat House Dogs ironically embody best of Americana

Reviewed by Carson James

Cat House Dogs/That Was Now

The Cat House Dogs bite as much as they bark. These Canadian alt-country rockers have more balls than a kennel of Wilco disciples. The band makes no secret of its yen for vintage Tom Petty. The opening track, “Fine Line,” could’ve fit onto any of Petty’s earliest LPs. Vocalist Todd Sharman has Petty’s nasal whine but somehow makes it sound better. I especially like it when it seems like he is singing through gritted teeth. The Southern-fried folksy singalong of “Sadie’s Theme” reveals another inspiration: the Black Crowes. But how then do you explain the skacore backbeat of “Crook” and the reggae pulse of “Lost Again”? Experiments, man. Even the Rolling Stones didn’t just shuffle to the same grooves.

Ironically enough, it takes a Canadian group to deliver one of Americana’s most commercially accessible releases. “Beautiful Rays” and “Far Away” are car-ready melodic pop/rock with a rootsy undertow; think of a less depressing Gin Blossoms. Perhaps what surprised me about “That Was Now” is how fast it moves. Like its blurry album cover, the record truly zips by. But not after entertaining the hell out of you first.

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.