In 1987, Electric Light Orchestra head honcho Jeff Lynne sat in as producer with ex-Beatle George Harrison on his hugely popular ‘Cloud Nine’ album. The combination of Harrison’s gift for pop melodies and Lynne’s very distinctive production sound (often revolving around filtered harmony vocals and a gated snare drum leading to a very compressed sound) led to the album being a multi-million seller. The sessions also gave birth to the greatest supergroup ever – The Traveling Wilburys, comprising Harrison, Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. While some people overlook Lynne’s contribution to the group, it is his studio expertise which, perhaps, brings the most to what we now think of as the “Wilbury sound”.
Following Eric Clapton’s 1992 appearance on ‘MTV Unplugged’, in terms of inspiration, his recorded output floundered for two decades. While three albums of blues covers (one made up of standards, two of Robert Johnson numbers) are full of enjoyable moments, the rest of his post- ‘Unplugged’ work hardly ever hints at any former glories. At best (as with parts of 2001’s ‘Reptile’), these albums represent a once-fiery musician drifting into late middle age with wishy-washy results, while at worst (1998’s ‘Pilgrim’ and 2010’s ‘Clapton’), the albums are full of easy listening material which the younger Clapton possibly wouldn’t have given the time of day. On his pompously packaged eponymous release of 2010, the clean and sober Eric Clapton had a fixation with 30s and 40s jazz standards and – in comparison to his much younger self – had largely become a musical irrelevance. A somewhat legendary irrelevance, perhaps, but fact is, ‘Clapton’ (the album) presented very little that would interest anyone but the most died in the wool fan…and even some of those found the record to be often forgettable.
Aaron Lewis’s debut EP ‘Town Line’ saw the Staind frontman experimenting with a more country-based sound. Having grown up with country music, he said the style felt natural to him. The result was enjoyable, but not always wholly country in a purist sense – yes, there were rootsy leanings throughout and the songs were far more country than anything Staind would likely ever record, but a couple of the tunes still had a slight rock edge. Still, it was country enough for him to gain a couple of award nominations from the Academy of Country Music.
A couple of years on, Lewis’s first full length release first capitalises on the promise of that EP and its first three tracks are pure gold. Lead track ‘75’ begins with a very traditional sounding country guitar played with a deep twang, joined in the left channel by steel accompaniment. …And then, with no messing around, Lewis offers some country staples – he’s “tired of missing the moments he won’t get back”, he’s tired of missing his loved ones, tired of motels. It may be over familiar, but the well-worn tune and combined with an oft-told tale of road weariness seems to be an appropriate place to begin this record. Its old-fashioned sentiments and tried-and-trusted arrangement (one which would suit almost any of Lewis’s forefathers) show a greater love and commitment to the genre than pretty much anything from his previous EP. The easy groove and dobro which drives the title cut is akin to southern groover JJ Cale at his most country influenced, while the more upbeat style allows for a few more lead guitar noodlings to provide musical interest, while Lewis himself offers a vocal with the confident style of a man who has been making country records for years. In a slightly poppier style ‘Endless Summer’ is a feel good tune, full of harmonies. By the time the chorus hits, it’s clear this was made for radio. There’s a slightly more pointed guitar solo than on the previous two tracks, edging things slightly further toward country-rock territory; the general mood could (almost) be likened to one of Nickelback’s softer hits…only covered by a country star. It may be the album’s most throwaway tune, but looking at the bigger picture, this opening trilogy of songs covers most of Lewis’s chosen musical moods in one triple-whammy.
From that point on, things don’t weaken. The patriotic ‘Red, White & Blue’ features some pleasing hard twangin’ guitar counterbalanced by some syrupy steel guitar, and as such is classic new country, the kind that would suit Garth Brooks or any of his million-selling peers. Perhaps part of the featured guitar solo is a little harder than on some country records, but it doesn’t intrude too much, or weaken the overall country vibes. Vocally, Lewis may be slightly filtered, but the deep richness in his voice shines through. ‘Lesson Learned’ is much more restrained, it’s pastel colours allowing Lewis to deliver one of his best performances. Set against a dobro and steel guitars (with the dobro often rising to the fore), his commanding croon sounds terrific as he works his way through a thoughtful lyric, name-checking Johnny Cash and advising us all to “slow down a little bit, take time, rewind, appreciate the little things that life provides”. The closest ‘The Road’ gets to its predecessor is during ‘Forever’, where Lewis allows more grit to influence his vocal. In turn, the drums are a little louder in places and some swirling organ fleshes out the loudest moments. With a whole world of steel guitars thrown in, it’s still firmly country and is a great song for what it is, but those coming at this from a country fan’s perspective will certainly find a stronger affinity elsewhere.
Closing the disc, the ominously titled ‘Party In Hell’ is another woozy waltz. Musically, it’s full of country music staples, with a dobro and particularly sharp lead guitar’s string-bent, hard twang punctuating each line with great effect. With Lewis reflecting his place “washed up and burned out” while imagining a raucous gathering with Janis, Jimi, Rick James…and Jamey Johnson drinking from a brown paper bag, the mood may be a little more heavy handed, but the musical mood brings things full circle with the opening number ‘75’. This adds to the feeling that for musicians, it’s all about the road… and the road goes on forever.
On ‘The Road’, there’s even less musically – and thematically – connecting Lewis with his alt-rock day job than ever before, but in terms of where he is headed with his solo career, that can only be a good thing. Overall, this is a surprisingly good record, one which exceeds expectations. With ten very strong numbers to be heard, it’s a release that those who like a little – or even a lot – of country music would be foolish not to make time for. Most importantly, for a man who hasn’t always been associated with the country scene, it’s far more country than about half of what’s often peddled in the name of the genre…
‘The Ignited’ is Joshua Ketchmark’s third release of 2012, concluding a trilogy of EPs showcasing the Tennessee-based singer-songwriter’s many facets. Following the power pop-ish ‘The Bittersweet’ and the wonderful, alt-country infused ‘The Dreamers Disease’, ‘The Ignited’ offers four energetic alt-rock tunes and presents the louder elements of his sound.
The opening track ‘About To Break’ is also the edgiest, as it powers ahead with some serious staccato riffing. The most alt-rock tune in Ketchmark’s EP trilogy, it firmly sets out his intentions, while his technical team of Davey Julson Riley and Jeremy Hatcher (best known for their work with Elvis Costello and Black Veil Brides, respectively) bring the song to life with a very crisp studio sound. Ketchmark attacks his lyric with a suitably sneering (slightly drawled) performance, while the rest of his band goes all out. There’s a rumbling bass which isn’t too high in the end mix (it really should have been pushed upfront); to make up for this, the drums attack in a fashion rarely heard on Ketchmark’s previous outings. In all, it’s a bit trashy, but a fine way to kick things off.
A fine balance between rock edge and pop sensibilities makes ‘Fallen’ shine. Ketchmark is in strong voice throughout, but it is only really with the chorus this one really grabs. A simple hook line and some soft backing harmonies are on hand for a full radio-friendly sound. Treading on Butch Walker’s coat-tails with its blend of pop/rock and alternative edge, you should be able to have a guess at how this sounds. While you’ve heard it all before – and many times, no doubt – if tuneful, slightly alternative rock is your bag, this should greet your ears somewhat favourably. Despite its predictable nature, ‘Fallen’ is ‘The Ignited’s recommended listen.
‘Hurt’ works on a little too much of a tried and tested formula, but if you can accept that there’s nothing new here, like ‘Fallen’, it’s got a pretty decent heart, even if it doesn’t always quite reach the stratospheres it’s aiming for. Hook-wise its strong, but musically it is a mixed bag: the pounding drums and rhythm guitars are enjoyable enough, but the guitar solo isn’t much more than a rudimentary offering. If Ketchmark had pulled out the stops on the lead guitar front, it could have, perhaps, been a match for ‘Fallen’, but as it is, it’s okay.
Finishing with a big emo-ish power ballad, ‘Without You’ is a mid-paced affair, where Ketchmark’s slightly filtered, slightly overwrought vocals lead the way. Musically, a few chiming guitars are its high point, but those – combined with reasonable song writing – just aren’t enough to make this any feel any more than bog standard. If Ketchmark were aiming for that alt-rock hit, there’s something missing here; maybe it’s a more instant chorus, maybe it’s a slightly bigger punch that’s needed…but it’s a case of “is that all?”
While it is obvious to see why Ketchmark has chosen to end his trilogy here – very much on a rock-fuelled, mostly upbeat note – it’s not necessary the sound of a musician going out with all guns blazing, especially in comparison to his previous EPs. There are some very enjoyable moments throughout, but these four numbers are not always loaded with of the kind of fireworks they could have been. These songs would’ve, perhaps, had a much greater appeal if he had chosen them to open the trilogy instead…but after ‘The Dreamers Disease’, ‘The Ignited’ sounds like a musician playing for safety. That’s fine of course, but as a parting statement from a body of work slowly unfolding over the course of a year, this EP should have been more than that.
Michael Addison’s ‘Blinding Shadows’ has a few songs on it that, in theory, should appeal to those listeners who love melodic indie/alt rock from the nineties; people for whom albums like Goo Goo Dolls ‘A Boy Named Goo’ still hold a very special place. On most of this release, the guitars chime like its 1994 and although a lot of the material becomes a bit formulaic after a while, there are a few strong choruses.
Sadly, most of those potentially enjoyable moments have the life squeezed from them thanks to far too much studio shine. On the first three tracks in particular, Addison’s voice is filtered so heavily it seems to have no natural edge anymore. This sort of thing mightn’t be so much of a problem on the pop scene, but musically, these songs clearly aren’t meant for such an auto-tuned disposable market. With the volume of the guitars, everything here deserves far more grit than it has been given and, with that, more real emotion. The worst offender is ‘Alone’ (the album’s first single), where Addison barely hits any long notes and if he does, there is clearly a whole world of auto-tuning going on. If you can make it past that, the ringing guitars and general radio-friendly tone shows off a solid song-writing talent, but for most of you, those vocal filters will be truly annoying to the point of distraction.
There are some (slightly) less clinical moments on ‘Blinding Shadows’, as evidenced on the quieter ‘All Your Might’ where Addison’s hushed tones were seemingly allowed to escape with something approaching a human quality. Even here, though, it seems the focus gets shifted away from Addison as quickly as possible and subsequently thrust upon a female counterpart and the instrumentation (in this case, muted guitar rhythm and soft cello fill the space). In terms of harder rock, ‘Tell Me Lies’ is a high point as it’s louder guitar-driven moments are very slightly reminiscent of sounds from the Minneapolis alt-rock scene of the very late 80s. On closer inspection, beyond those ringing guitars, there’s not so much happening; Addison’s delivery, although far less filtered, appears mumbly and indistinct (this is something which really hits home once a louder female backing vocal appears). At this point, you may find yourselves wondering why Addison didn’t settle for giving his (often) well-written tunes away to different performers…
Hard to believe given the amount of over-processed, shined-up-within-inches-of-its-life music on this disc that Addison’s press materials claim that ‘Blinding Shadows’ is “full of raw, hard rock energy” with “intense vocals”. It is anything but. While this album shows Addison to be a solid enough songwriter, his performances are absolutely lacking in any real dynamism.
If he chose the auto-tune and vocal filters for stylistic effect, it was a terrible choice. If, on the other hand, those filters were employed to disguise any shortcomings within his natural delivery, why would he want to do that? He would have been better off just embracing any idiosyncrasies in his performance (let’s face it, being less than perfect never hurt Paul Westerberg, Neil Young or many other heroes). Ultimately, Addison offers ten songs that are too rock-driven for the pop market, but too clinical for almost any rock fans to connect with fully – and that’s rather unfortunate.