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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Molly’s Revenge transcend Celtic label with unspeakably beautiful folk music

Written by Carson James

There is something decidedly different about Molly’s Revenge and their take on Celtic music. Having only heard their album The Western Shore, my observation may not be accurate in summarizing the group’s approach, but there is an unspeakable beauty in their performances that is not often heard within the genre. Many Celtic acts, especially those based in the U.S., are content to simply be as authentic to their roots as possible. Molly’s Revenge push it a step further, leaving listeners in awe with wind-swept, evocative landscapes. For example, as soon as you hear David Brewer’s title cut, you’re already transported to the vast, open fields of Scotland. Pete Howarth (bouzouki, vocals) and Stuart Mason (guitar, mandola, vocals) spoke to Twang Town about their band.

Carson James: Celtic music has always been on the fringes of American pop culture although it has a cult following that continues to grow every year, especially with the massive success of Flogging Molly, which combined a punk aesthetic with the genre. Why do you think the U.S. hasn’t fully embraced Celtic sounds?

Pete Haworth: The first reason that pops into my head is that when most people think of traditional Celtic music, they think of old guys sitting around in a pub, reminiscing over the old days and playing scracthy fiddles.  That type of Celtic music does exist and in fact it’s an important part of the tradition, but it doesn’t project a very cool image for the pop culture. But Celtic music has evolved from that stage into several other sub-genres. Flogging Molly, as you say is the latest example of a punk band playing Celtic melodies, although the Pogues were probably the first ones to make it big in that style. Then there’s the whole Riverdance and Celtic Woman phenomenons which turned Celtic music into theatrical extravaganzas and and made it wildly successful. So while what you might call pure Celtic music hasn’t made it mainstream yet, variations of it definitely have. We fit into a niche of Celtic music that is influenced by the style of music we each grew up with and we’ve all carried some of those influences over to the arrangements and thoughts behind the music we play. I grew up in the ’60s in England, listening to the Beatles and their contemporaries, and that influence affects the way I think about chord sequences, and arrangements.  The other band members all bring their own influences to the table when we arrange our music.  That’s actually one of the great things about the age differences between the band members: we each had a different generation of pop music that influenced our early musical thought, and we each build that into the band’s music.  Hopefully, that combination of pure traditional and more modern influences will help get Celitc music more noticed.

Stuart Mason: For one, the U.S. isn’t fully Celtic, if you look at the demographics. Folk music in general (of which Celtic music is a subset here) is sort of a fringe genre, when compared to pop and rock. But other folk musics are bigger here: bluegrass and delta blues, for example, because they are homegrown sounds. Celtic music is an import that has been given a big boost by the advent of the Internet, which allows for niche sounds to reach their peeps. One might argue that Celtic music is big here, but no longer recognizable: about 100-150 years ago, we morphed it into mountain music and from there into bluegrass and country.

James: Is there a story behind the name Molly’s Revenge?

Haworth: Well, originally no, at least not a very interesting one.  The band formed at short notice for a St. Patrick’s Day gig and we had to come up with a name pretty quickly.  I think it was me that came up with the name. The Molly part came about because one of the other members of the band was in another band with that name it, and I have no idea why I came up with the Revenge part of it! When Stu joined the band, he wrote a song in traditional folk tale style about the story behind the name, and we recorded.  Stu’s a great artist and illustrated the story in comic-book style.  There’s a link on our web site to the comic-book version of the song.  We’ve been asked that question a lot over the years and now we have something interesting to say about it, thanks to Stu!

Mason: I wasn’t in the band when it was named, but I heard tell that the first gig was a St. Pat’s deal that was thrown together on the spur of the moment. At the time there was another band in town with “Molly” 
in the name and hence the reference. Molly gets around, especially in Irish circles. Later I wrote a song that tells the legend of how the spirit of the wind appears to a budding young piper and tries to physically tempt him, but he turns her down, and she takes revenge.  The result is that irish musicians are forever more doomed to play  all night if they sit down at a session. That part is certainly true,  wherever irish music is found… some call it “traddiction.”

James: Is Moira Smiley now a member of the group? How did you meet her?

Haworth: Moira joins us for gigs whenever she’s able.  She’s an amazing performer of many different styles of music and has many eclectic musical interests. Like all highly talented people, she’s much in demand so her time with us is limited.  We wish we could get more of it!  Moira has added a totally new dimension to the band with her great singing and has softened some of our rough edges, so to speak!  She’s an excellent musician and has added a lot of ideas to our arrangements as well as gracing us with her beautiful singing.
Our piper, David, first met Moira when she and David were involved with a touring Celtic Christmas show three or four years ago.  Then we met up with her at a booking conferences that we attended, and she was at with her band VOCO.  One thing led to another, and we ended performing together in our own series of Christmas shows in December 2007. After those shows were over, we decided we had such a great time working with her that we should ask her if she would like to work with us more often.  I still remember the phone call I made to ask her about that – the response was a giggle followed by an immediate yes!  We were all very happy she accepted! We were just about to start our second studio session for The Western Shore CD when that happened.  It caused a mad scramble for us to work out a time when the band, Moira and our producer, John Doyle, could all be available because we really wanted to have her sing a couple of songs for the CD.  I remember picking up John and Moira from separate flights and driving them back over to my house the day before we were due in the studio.  We all sat around at my house that night throwing out song ideas, mostly proposed by Moira.  We finally came up with a couple that we all liked and that John Doyle felt we could work with.  The two songs were “Weave My Love A Garland” and “Youth Inclined To Ramble.”  We’re very happy with the results!

Mason: She’s a part-time member, whenever her busy schedule allows. Right now she’s averaging about half of our gigs. David knew her first, from a Christmas tour, but I met her at a music convention where we 
jammed some tunes with her on accordion. She’s a gentle spirit with the voice of an angel and the hair of a blazing sunset.

James: When and how did Molly’s Revenge form?

Haworth: A local pub, Henflings Tavern, was looking for a band to play on St. Patrick’s Day 2000 and invited a local band to play.  Unfortunately, a couple of members of that band were out of town, but one of the other members, Mark, was a regular attendee at an Irish music session in Santa Cruz that the rest of the original band members attended.  So he suggested that he, David, myself, and the original fourth band member, George, get together and play the gig.  I think we had a week to get together a couple of hours of material.  Fortunately, we all knew a lot of the same tunes and songs from the session so managed to pull it together in time.  I still have a tape of that first gig and regularly threaten the original band members with blackmail! We didn’t really have any thoughts of turning that one gig into an ongoing project and didn’t do any more gigs for a couple of months, but then we all realised we’d had a lot of fun doing that gig and maybe we should try to get more, and Molly’s Revenge was born.Two of the original members left the band along the way but we’re still great friends with them and in fact we had a reunion concert in Santa Cruz last year with them and a couple of other ex band members – it was a lot of fun!

Mason: I wasn’t in the band way back then, but it was in 2000, I think. I’ve been in the band for about five years. They needed a guitarist for tours in Hawaii and China… how could I refuse? The rest is history.

James: Molly’s Revenge have released several records already. How has the band evolved throughout those CDs?

Haworth: Yes, I believe we’ve recorded seven CDs in total although not all of them are still available.  The very first one was pretty much a home recording project done on a four-track tape recorder at my house since we didn’t have any money for studio time.  Contrast that with The Western Shore, the first time we have worked with a producer, and the difference is amazing. I think we’ve always tried to steer clear of the really well-known Irish and Scottish tunes and songs. You won’t hear us playing “Scotland The Brave” or “The Irish Washerwoman” on our CDs!  I think each CD has had its own part in the band’s development, both in terms of musical skills and arrangements, and whatever preferences the band members at the time had.  But the key for us has always been to find great melodies and songs that aren’t quite as well known and there are literally thousands of them in the tradition if you look hard enough.  Some of the band members have also written great songs and tunes over the years and we have started incorporating more of those into our repertoire.  They’re still written very much in the Celtic style but have that modern edge to them.
For The Western Shore, working with John Doyle provided an amazing lift in quality.  Some of us knew John on a casual basis before we went in the studio with him and knew he was an amazing musician but I don’t think any of us were prepared for the whirlwind that hit us that first day in the studio!  We’d sent John mp3 versions of the tunes and arrangements over the previous several months and he had made suggestions back to us by email.  But there’s only so much you can do like that.  In the studio, John would get us to play whatever set of tunes we were about to record  and then immediately come up with amazing improvements to them, some simple, some complicated, but all of them made huge differences to the way the sets turned out. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his influence.  There was one arrangement I can vividly remember John coming up with.  We were looking for an ending for the “3’s A Crowd” set, and John came up with this totally astounding sequence of chord changes to back a melody phrase that essentially repeated 14 or 15 times.  The combination was out of this world and when we play it live now it’s just a magnificent, dramatic ending to our concerts.

Mason: When I joined, they already had two studio records out and one live set. Since then, I think our repertoire has moved away from the tried-and-true “chestnuts” and into the realm of obscure pieces (old and new) and original material. We always take that into consideration when choosing material. If it’s a common tune, we try to put our own stamp on it. Having John Doyle producing the new record was a real 
shot in the arm in terms of our arrangements and quality control. He’s nothing less than a musical genius. On every piece, he seemed to  know exactly what was needed. Our regular fans have told us, having 
him on the team really raised the bar on The Western Shore.


Published in: on September 18, 2008 at 8:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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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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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.


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.


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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‘A Meeting of Angels’ is a ‘naked, honest’ mix of folk, blues, and jazz


Reviewed by Carson James

Little Blue Planet/A Meeting of Angels

About halfway through A Meeting of Angels, Little Blue Planet had me weeping with them. The song, “This Hurt Is Too Deep for Tears,” is among the most heartbreaking songs about a broken relationship that I’ve heard in decades. The profound agony in Corry Suter’s singing is nearly impossible to bear; her voice is nearly cracking with pain and loss. It’s a shame such a devastatingly sad vocal performance will go unheard by millions of real music fans simply because Little Blue Planet do not have the push of a major label behind them. Then again, record companies have no room for naked, honest songs like this anymore.

Consisting of Suter, guitarist Blue Ray Luxemburg (love that name), and harmonica player Shakey Reay Suter, Little Blue Planet are a Canadian folk trio that also delve into the blues and jazz. However, on “This Hurt Is Too Deep for Tears,” they actually approach the harrowing despair of the late Nico. Each member has an important role in shaping the sound of the album. Luxemburg’s acoustic riffs shift styles to fit each track, either laying down rainy-day atmospherics in “The Great Stretch” or aiming for brittleness as on “This Hurt Is Too Deep for Tears.” Shakey’s harmonica can be wonderfully bluesy at times; check out his scorching work on “A Good One” and “Song for C.” Suter is a wonder to behold. Her voice will haunt you when you sleep.  


Published in: on March 29, 2008 at 5:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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