Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Destroy Nate Allen "Take It Easy"

Sometimes in life you make a friend that enters and leaves your life with little fanfare but that ephemeral visit leaves a mark so profound that you know you’ll never forget them. To me that friend is Nate Allen. A few months ago, Allen was in the midst of his six-month tour of the United States. He stopped by Flint, Michigan, where I was living at the time, to play some shows with a friend and mentor of mine, Jason Guitarstring. I had the privilege of playing a show with Allen and seeing him play live twice. Both shows were light-years beyond any live performance I’d ever seen.

The way that Allen performs his music is so visceral and honest that it completely disarms the listener. You watch him sing from a place in his gut that seems to produce the perfect solution of passion and candor and you can’t help but soak in every word he sings. Allen tells stories in his songs and he makes them not only his own but everyone in the room’s whether it’s him singing them in person or his voice filtering out of your stereo speakers.

When he was in Michigan, Allen told the story about how his newest album, “Take It Easy” came to fruition. After a show he played in Indiana, not to long before he arrived in Michigan, a gentleman approached Allen and offered to record him that night. Allen explained that it was midnight and he was already running on an unhealthy shortage of sleep, but something made him agree to the gentleman’s offer. In his words “I thought it would be an opportunity to make a new friend and a new memory.” He went on to describe the sessions as being almost miraculous. The outcome, “Take It Easy”, is 11 tracks of music in its purest form. Allen blends elements of folk, rock, punk, and gospel to form his own unique sound. His gritty, melodic low tenor guides you through the tracks like the chapters of a book, each one revealing more about the protagonist as the story progresses.

Certain tracks stand out, like the brilliantly written “Arizona”, an apparent opus to the road. Other stand outs are “Glad Tidings” and “Stand By Me” both of which are double time numbers that have a distinctive feel to them that makes them addictively catchy. The tracks that really leave their mark, though, are ones like “Ambulance”, “On With the Show”, and “Let’s Get Together” that are slow burning folk songs that have a very soulful quality. They’re very profound and delivered in a fassion that drips with emotion but still with an incredible pop sensibility.

Nate Allen is an artist’s artist. He is the purest form of musicianship I’ve ever seen and I truly believe that his music is that of a lyrical intellect beyond his years. His album is free for download on him website, and I recommend getting it.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Empty Orchestra

By: Travis Valentine

As someone who has always loved listening to music and yammering on about it for days, I know that I’ve found a special group when it’s difficult for me to start talking about them or to tell someone about them. Empty Orchestra are the sort of musicians that you, simply from hearing or seeing them, have such an enormous amount of respect for that you can’t possibly explain how amazing they are. Stephen Wisniewski and his revolving cast of Flint music legends form a sound so eclectic and powerful that the cerebral hit of the beautifully potent lyrics and the soul wrenching musicianship are a one-two punch that will make almost anyone an instant fan.

The thing that first attracted me to Empty Orchestra was lead singer and songwriter, Stephen Wisniewski’s unusual voice and singing style, and moreover the fact that this particular voice was coming out of such a small guy. I’d heard his previous/other band Lingua Franca play live twice and own their split 7 inch with The Conquer Worm, and though Stephen’s voice was still powerful and made use of his unusual phrasing, it was no where near the gruff, visceral bellow that inhabits the voice part of Empty Orchestra. Stephen can go from the howl of a 70 year old bluegrass singer in a dive bar somewhere in Mississippi to a soft baritone, gently crooning an eerie tale at the drop of a hat and it’s only one of dozens of factors that make Empty Orchestra such a strong group of musicians.

The band’s new full length and second CD is called “Here Lies… Empty Orchestra”. The tracks on it blend elements of folk, rock, alt-country, and bluegrass with a grace that’s beyond their years. There is a very soulful quality to the record as well that gives you that gritty, deep soul sound with traces of rhythm and blues. Songs like “World on a String” have a dirty bluegrass quality with Stephen channeling the earthy croon of a 70 year-old man sitting in a smoky bar somewhere in the deep south. There really isn’t a song on the record that doesn’t stand out. The day after going to their CD release in Flint I was driving to Lansing with my wife, listening to the CD and every song I’d say “Turn it up, I love this one.” Tracks like “This Heart is a Monster” tell stories that keep you listening to every word as you follow the intricate musicianship through it’s various twists and turns. There’s a few more stripped down songs on the album (“Like Pianos”, “Lonesome”) as well that show you a more soulful, emotional side to the songwriting. If anything can be said of Stephen’s singing it’s that he has range. His ability to go from zero to sixty in three seconds flat is as admirable as his writing.

The final characteristic of this record that I’d like to draw attention to is the beautiful production. An enormous amount of credit should be given to Mark Michalik not only for his drumming but for his ability to record a beautifully glossy recording.


Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Swellers

This is Their Everest

Dark hopefulness is sewn into the music with brilliant eloquence throughout The Swellers pop-punk tour de force, "My Everest". The songs call to mind the glory days of melodic punk where throaty anthems condemned apathy and hyperactive guitars provided mosh pits with the fuel they had waited for. The sound on the record is both a sonic tribute to the sound that shaped their genre and a work of pure innovation. It blends the old and the new effortlessly, implementing virtuoso like instrumentation and vocals that range from a soft baritone croon to a full, gut blasting, bellow.

Two standout tracks on “My Everest” are “Vehicle City” and “The Way Back Home”, both of which are essentially love letters to the city of Flint. “Vehicle City” is the album’s opening and it’s about the Flint scene’s deterioration after The Flint Local closed last year. It’s an almost gut wrenching reminder of the good times so many people had there and a dark image of the skeleton of a scene that’s left behind. “The Way Back Home” is the albums closer, and is the band’s thank you letter to their hometown and a promise that they’ll never forget the friends they’ve made.

Other tracks that take The Swellers tried and true formula for melodic punk rock and build upon it are “The Flood”, “This is My Everest”, and “Clean Slate”. They almost seem to pick up directly where their EP, “Beginning of the End Again”, left off, pushing the boundaries of the entire genre. Another characteristic that the record has is a surprising amount of diversity. Two tracks in particular, “Keep Looking Where Your Eyes are Looking Now” and “Skoots” are heart wrenching, with Nick Diener’s vocals bordering on beautiful. The songs are both about Flint band Takeout’s fallen member Skoots. It’s a challenge to listen to all of “Keep Looking…” without tearing up.

Five years ago, a band was formed in Fenton, MI to play local shows and keep the true aesthetic of punk rock alive. Five years later that band has evolved into one of the single most talented band out of the Flint scene. “My Everest” may just be the record that launches The Swellers to national notoriety, but whether it does or not, it’s almost certain that they’ll never stop playing.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Eric Quimby

Soul in the Suburbs

When you grow up in a town that’s biggest claim to fame is that Michael Moore went to High School there, it’s difficult to carve out a musical niche. It’s equally as difficult to fall into a geographic, musical cliché. This is true of Davison’s Eric Quimby. It isn’t Florida where everyone expects musicians to be fast, radio clean pop rock, and it isn’t the New York underground where you have to be a noisy hardcore band. There’s no musical status quo, giving Quimby the chance to create his own sound, and be the musician he wants to be.

Talking to Eric Quimby isn’t quite what you’d expect of someone with the voice and presence that he exhibits in front of a microphone. He’s friendly, goofy, and to be honest, sometimes awkward. He never knows exactly what to say, and he seems embarrassed by compliments. Humble is an understatement when thinking of his general attitude toward the whole thing. Quimby manages the perfect balance of knowing he’s talented, giving him the confidence to sell himself, and being modest so that he’s likable. A testimony to his humble nature is the fact that he claims that the biggest compliment he’s ever received was when a group of girls recognized him at a gas station in Grand Blanc.

The same geographic blank slate Quimby gets from growing up in the suburbs of Mid-Michigan works to his advantage when drawing his influences. Being the tender age of 18, he’s a child of the 1990’s so that’s where he pulls the majority of his musical references from. He says that his greatest personal influence is probably Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas because he’s endured the kind of success he’d like to attain while still making a unique style. When you hear him, you get a refreshing drink of that mid nineties pop-rock that is rare in the current era of hyper active studio production and repetitive nothingness that makes up today’s radio pop. The soulful, world weary call of John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls melts effortlessly into the crisp, dark baritone of Diswalla’s J.R. Richards. Quimby’s vocals and musicianship are beyond his years, combining both a natural ear for music and a finely honed craft.

With a heart of gold, a pocketful of dreams, and a handful of other clichés Eric Quimby embodies something that everyone experiences. Dreams. Hopes. Some of us lose them along the way but Eric has the courage to fight for what he wants. Keep your eye on that boy… he’s going places.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Jeff Tessler

An interesting conundrum exists in today's contemporary music society. With the advent of massive studio production and mega-budget records that utilize every studio trick from Pro-Tools to AutoTune, people are losing faith in pop music. It’s gotten to a point where new musicians are being automatically dismissed for being too poppy, simply because people have gone to other extremes to, at the very least, find authenticity and sincerity in the performance and the production.

I prefer not to dismiss anything until I’ve heard it. I even listened to all of Justin Timberlake’s “Futuresex/LoveSounds” before I made the conclusion that it has one song on it that’s even listenable. I believe pop music has a much higher place of societal relevance than most musically educated critics believe and would have you believe.

Enter Jeff Tessler, a genuine pop musician hailing from California via Detroit. Jeff is a true musician with honest lyrics, and because he sings them melodiously in a pleasant tenor, a lot of critics and observers would have you believe that his sound is somehow of less significance than other underground musicians who disregard melody. I don’t want to be the one who bursts anyone’s bubble, but not all music played angrily and fast is done right.

Jeff’s songs are sweeping and catchy as anything. All of the songs on his debut EP (available on iTunes for five bucks) are beautifully penned and produced to accentuate his God given talent as a songwriter. The first track “What Did I Do” is an unfathomably catchy song that tells a story that pulls you right into it. The opening verse is played with acoustics and accenting piano, which bulilds into electric guitar, drums, and piano, and finally releases with the liftoff of the chorus. You can’t help but sing along with it’s infectious chorus “as I stare into your eyes, it made me think twice, what did I do, what did I do…”. The buildup and liftoff are characteristics of a true musician, they’re things you can find in songs by seasoned veterans like Train or Coldplay.

I could go on to describe what there is to love about every single track on his album but it would take pages and pages because there isn’t a single song that doesn’t meet up to the standards of pop rock perfection he’s set out to accomplish.

Other musicians that function in a similar vein as Tessler, would be, John Mayer (pre-blues), Ryan Cabrera, and Ashley Parker Angel. If any of those artists strike your fancy there’s really no reason not to like Jeff Tessler. Long live pop music!

Destroy Nate Allen

I am a man with a lot of free time and apparently no better place to spend my money than on my endless pursuit of the music I love and a hunger for new music. I’ve been to more shows than I could possibly count. I’ve been to stadiums to see bands on major labels, but more predominately I’ve been to coffee shops, clubs, city halls, and holes in the wall. I’ve seen thousands of garage bands and musicians. The reason I preface a review of another artist with these statements is because I can honestly say that last night I saw one of the best live performers I’ve ever seen.

Nate Allen, or Destroy Nate Allen, is a folk rock musician from Oregon who brings to life the very core of what the punk rock and DIY ethics embody. He travels the country on his own dime, living out of his van, living off whatever amounts a show might pay, merch, and donations. I had the honor of opening for him on a show he played at The Espresso Institute in Flushing, Michigan. When he played he had the shop cut most of their lights off, stepped out away from the microphone and didn’t bother to plug his guitar in. He started picking his guitar and singing in the single most heartfelt, soulful belt I’ve ever heard. He sang his songs with a confidence and honesty that made it seem almost like he was just telling a story. I could almost see the stories in front of my eyes as the words left his lips. I was hypnotized by the presence he brought to the room.

His current album is called “Awake O’Sleeper” and he asks only for a donation in exchange for it if you can spare it (which I was more than happy to). The CD contains 10 of the most expressive folk-punk songs I’ve ever heard. His upcoming album, “Take it Easy” contains some even greater pieces of work. The song “Arizona” tells the story of living on the road as a real musician, and it tells it so vividly and eloquently that you can almost put yourself in Nate’s shoes.

Bottom line… listen to the stuff:

Friday, May 18, 2007

Acoustic Front of Resistance

Punk rock played on an acoustic guitar. It isn't something that gets a lot of recognition and some would argue that it doesn't even exist by the very definition of punk rock. I mean how can you possibly fit the raw energy, passion, and message of punk music into a format that involves acoustic guitars, harmonica, and possibly light percussion instruments? It isn't something that many people try, even fewer of those who do, manage to succeed. Though if you're willing to look, you'll find it. If you want a glowing example of it's success with flying colors then look no further than South Lyon, Michigan's "Acoustic Front of Resistance".

The three things most people agree make up punk music are it's energy, it's passion, and it's message. All of these things are laced brilliantly and elegantly throughout the clunking melodies of Acoustic Front of Resistance. The lyrics range in subject matter from the D.I.Y ethic, to politics, to musings on life. The wheezing harmonica accompanies the chugging chords of the acoustic and the throaty belt of the vocals that couldn't be sung with more sincerity. There is a certain sense of deliberate, razor sharp poignancy in the phrasing of the vocal that lets you hear every word and let it soak in.

For the love of god, just go listen to him: