JUSTIN KLINE – Cabin Fever Songs

After releasing two solo EPs dedicated to multi-layered, sun-filled power pop, followed by a third outing of alternative rock (with his band Origami Hologram),  singer-songwriter Justin Kline takes a different tack yet again for his first full length release.

‘Cabin Fever Songs’ is a stripped down affair.  Recorded entirely by Kline alone at home, these thirteen songs feature voice and acoustic guitar, sometimes bolstered by bass and occasional keyboards.  The songs sometimes come from a much darker place.  Where previously Kline was happy to indulge his listeners in a world of candyfloss brilliance, these songs rely on sheer honesty and heartfelt lyrical content far more frequently than before. These are songs the artist felt he just had to write: deeply personal songs, which given the relatively lo-fi recording techniques, can sometimes feel a little bleak.  Stripped of all the bells and whistles which made his previous recordings so vibrant, it’s much easier with ‘Cabin Fever Songs’ to get a handle on what makes Kline’s songs work…or in some cases, not.

‘Nighttime Girl’ has all the hallmarks of Kline’s earlier brilliance, though in this sparser setting, it exposes how simple his songs can be.  Clean acoustic chords back a voice that occasionally sounds a little sugary for such an earnest recording, while a bassline marks time, never really breaking beyond its two note march.  A world of “oohs and ah’s” flesh things out adequately – and in all honesty, are very much needed.  ‘Resurrect With Me’, if anything, is even more simple, relying on a one line hook and not the most interesting of tunes.  The bass’s marching approach returns for ‘Sunday Night Blues’ a three-chord pop song which showcases Kline’s previous gift for a hook, even though this bedroom recording doesn’t do such a potentially great song justice.

‘Your Mystery’ is one of a few numbers where Kline tackles something truly worthy of standing alongside his previous work. Here, a quirky keyboard tune (sounding slightly distorted and off-key) tops a much busier acoustic riff.  Even without full band backing, Kline’s multi-tracked vocal is a ray of sunshine, while a more staccato approach on a hooky chorus allows his previous brilliance to come bursting through.  The woozy ‘His Knives’ works an unfussy melody and riff around a shiny sounding vocal to create something enjoyably intimate – one of a few tracks where the lack of drums isn’t quite as obvious – while on ‘I Already Do’, Kline turns an enjoyable intimacy on its head and unnerves with a truly bleak lyric.  The one-time purveyor of sunshine pop allows a look into his darker side via lyrics such as “there is no way you can act, to expose the life I lack” and “I was marked when I was born and cursed to always mourn / you can’t make me want to die, more than I already do”.  While he admits that these songs were created during a particularly troubled period, it is unlikely anyone familiar with Justin’s earlier releases expected anything quite so cutting.

The relationship once explored in ‘Triangle’s ‘Alison, We Cannot Be Friends’ is revisited and explored from a different viewpoint on a particular high point, ‘Alison, I’m Here’.  Where as previously Kline was adamant that he and the Alison in question had no more to give each other, on the slightly wistful acoustic sequel, he reaches out to the imagined heroine.  A gorgeous finger-picked guitar has a slight McCartney-esque approach and is impeccably delivered, but it’s this songs bittersweet melody and dual vocal which gives it a most enjoyable quality.  It’s easy to imagine both songs bookending a compilation of Kline’s best work, should such a release ever appear.   Just as enjoyable, the jangly ‘Carol Lynn’ is classic Kline: with an upbeat vocal and buoyant melody, this number is a great acoustic pop workout, underpinned by a ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ inspired mellotron accompaniment.  Looking beyond the sugary, happy melodies, Kline takes on the role of untrustworthy narrator, delivering the song’s brilliant kick in the teeth via a lyric that forewarns of Carol Ann’s bad streak.

Although the songs are deeply personal and rather candid, ‘Cabin Fever Songs’ is an underwhelming beast at times.  If you’re a listener who values tunes over lyrical content, the relative lack of variety within this album may become quickly apparent…and it probably wasn’t meant for you anyway.  Long standing fans may find some of the songs are in danger of sounding a little unfinished, but if this is the case, don’t worry too much; as Kline says himself of ‘Cabin Fever Songs’: “It might not be for everyone…it may even be a letdown to some”.

If after a few plays you’re still listening, feeling there’s something here, but still finding yourself looking for that moment where everything clicks, try thinking of this as a collection of songs instead of a fully formed “album”.  At first, avoid listening from end to end:  dip in and out and it works far better.  If, after that, you’re still not convinced, just remember one thing:  Justin doesn’t necessarily care if we like these songs or not, they just needed to shared.  Sharing one’s art can be a wobbly experience, but the stark honesty and cathartic edge at the heart of these ‘Cabin Fever Songs’ may appeal to some.

Listen via the widget below and send Justin a few bucks if you can.

August 2012

MIKE VIOLA – Acousto De Perfecto

Although some of the material wasn’t as instantly likeable as a couple of his previous works, Mike Viola’s 2011 release ‘Electro De Perfecto’ included more than enough golden moments for it to eventually reach cult classic status among his fan base.  2012’s ‘Acousto De Perfecto’ – as its title suggests – is a quieter, more subdued companion piece to that previous album.  It is not, however, a straight re-recording (as some of you most likely thought):  only three of the album’s tracks are tunes revisited from ‘Electro’ – seven are new, while another is a reworking of a Viola tune from much longer ago.

As good as the re-recordings of those three ‘Electro’ tracks are (the version of ‘El Mundo De Perfecto’ being particularly stunning), it’s the inclusion of the previously unheard songs that make this disc an essential purchase.  Recorded on an 8-track machine – on loan from the Beastie Boys’ cohort Money Mark Nishita – the recordings could have ended up having a homespun quality, but instead – thanks to the strings and sheer professionalism – everything has the kind of polish which we should expect from a finished recording, whilst retaining a sense of intimacy.

‘Secret Radio’ begins softly, the violas swirling, before Mr Viola takes centre stage with a finger-picked guitar line and gentle vocal.  “I’ve been singing to you on my secret radio” he blooms, in a manner which is more accessible – not to mention more optimistic – than on his similarly sparse outing, 2005’s ‘Just Before Dark’. ‘Happy and Normal’ comes with a bouncy tune, driven far more by the strings this time, as Viola muses about his general wellbeing.  While the strings should (hopefully) be what pulls the listener in here, the vocal arrangement is also noteworthy, since Viola combines a great (normal) performance with quirkier elements: classic power pop ‘ba ba ba’s are joined by more aggressive wordless sounds reminiscent of Blue Swede’s ‘Hooked on a Feeling’.

‘Date Night’, sounds rather sad in tone at first, but repeated listens uncover some great melodies from all concerned.  If you’re keener on Viola’s punchier material like ‘What To Do With Michael’ or ‘Strawberry Blonde’, this kind of introspective quality may not strike a chord with you straight away.  However, like most of the songs that filled the aforementioned ‘Long After Dark’, there’s enjoyment to be had, provided you can get into the right headspace.  ‘Primary Care Giver’ – an ode to parenthood – is a little sharper sounding than most of ‘Acoustico’s other tracks.  This is partly due to a brilliant guitar line throughout, but also a multi-tracked vocal which really stands out.   Viola’s gift for penning a thoughtful yet honest lyric really gives this one a sharp edge.

Although not necessarily a great composition, the fun but rather brief ‘I’m Your Dog’ (co-written with The Bird and The Bee’s Inara George) really allows Viola’s natural sounding vocal style to shine as he plucks an acoustic guitar while being backed by violas.  The jauntiness of the piece almost makes the whistling section forgivable…  Although not revisited from the ‘Electro’ sessions, ‘Hair of the Dog’ is another tune that Viola’s fans should also recognise, since it first appeared on ‘Just Before Dark’.  The new arrangement is identical but for the string addition.  Although used rather more sparingly here than at other times, the strings give the song an extra dimension without ever detracting from the sadness in Mike’s voice.  Simply put, it’s lovely.

At roughly the mid-point of the disc – leading up to the three re-recorded tracks – the instrumental track ‘Thing In C’ doesn’t actually feature Mike at all (not even as a writer!).  Instead, the listener is submerged in a gorgeous string piece, which as well as highlighting the talents of Viola’s chosen players, is a wonderful composition all round, the enjoyment of which doesn’t seem to diminish on repeated listens.  Just as ‘Thing In C’ brought the first half of the disc to close, another instrumental finishes the second act. The downbeat ‘Tony Leather Tips’ showcases some rather pleasing guitar work from Viola, while the twin violas which accompany him are drenched in tones of sadness.   Most of the tune is soft, but as it pulls to a close, the strings take on a brief moment of menace, not unlike a string reworking of the intro to Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’.  This is all rather deliberate, since “Tony” refers to the legendary Tony Iommi!  These two instrumental cuts could have easily fallen into the “filler material” category – especially if you’re used to Viola’s usual singalong pop approach.  However, they’re so well arranged, they really add a sense of sophistication to the final product.

‘Acousto De Perfecto’ isn’t always the most cheerful, but, as always, Viola’s vocal performances have more than enough emotional pull to win over his audience.  It would be fair to say this is not the best release for first time listeners (the wonderful ‘Hang On Mike’ and ‘Falling Into Place’ would fit that bill rather nicely), but for the already enamoured, ‘Acousto’ presents another essential disc in an often underrated artist’s already impressive catalogue.

June/July 2012


Occasionally something completely unexpected appears in the Real Gone review pile.  This debut EP by Brooklyn performer (The) Underground Man is such a release.  It appeared with little information attached and even a visit to the official website drew a near blank – just a splash page featuring a hat-adorning silhouette, plus Bandcamp stream to the EP.

So, what is it about? Just who is the Underground Man?  What does he want?

The EP is comprised of five acoustic-based songs, played a twangy, late ’50s style, replete with underplayed harmonies.  There’s something about this release that sounds like it could’ve had roots in a side project from The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt.  Maybe it’s the cheeky New York edge; maybe it’s the blatant disregard for popular musical whims and fashions. It’s in the attitude as opposed to the end result: it’s not the work of Merritt of course (to begin with, this performer lacks Merritt’s rich baritone) but, just maybe, the amiable retro qualities present here may appeal to his devoted fan base.  Then again, they can be a demanding bunch, so maybe not.

The songs themselves are enjoyable in an old-fashioned (or rather post-modern take on old-fashioned) way, with the harmony-driven ‘Goodbye Look’ being the pick of the bunch.  The one-two shuffle and simple vocal suggest a love for the iconic Buddy Holly, while the recording really highlights the hard sound of guitar strings.  Just as charming, ‘It’s Not True’ mines a similar musical past as the best works of She & Him. In fact, after a couple of spins, it’s near impossible not to imagine Zooey Deschanel singing alongside whoever this unnamed man may be.

The remaining three cuts are enjoyable and represent more retro fun – suitable for either late night listening or wandering the streets with your portable device.  ‘Hey Love’ is upbeat, almost early Beatles in its execution, with some pleasing live-in-the-studio elements and ‘Trouble Follows Me’ wins through with a busy guitar break and lackadaisical mood, despite not being as strong overall.  Interestingly, the slow title cut – and lead track – is perhaps the weakest, never really tapping into Underground Man’s full potential.  After a wobbly start it never quite recovers, but doesn’t lessen the impact of the release too much.

Hear this mystery man’s take on fifties pop and pop-culture for yourselves: the EP is available as a free download via the Bandcamp widget below.

June 2012

ZANE STAFFORD – Lighting Up The Black

Zane Stafford is a musician from Stockton, California. His general sound is very much acoustic based, but instead of taking the sappy confessional route, he strives for something more concerned with moods and atmospheres. Across the ten songs featured on 2011 his release, his work combines airy vocals with a slight indie/emo edge and, naturally, this produces varying results.

With down-tuned sounding chords and a slightly alternative vibe, ‘Jericho’ suggests immediately that this disc isn’t just another run-of-the-mill piece of acoustic sappiness. Stafford’s chosen chord pattern is from the nineties school of song writing, but he combines the alternative feelings with ringing, clearer chords and a soft, natural vocal leading to something which makes for a strong opener. By the time the track reaches a climax, he’s also backed by organ and synth strings which both help give things a fuller sound. ‘The Signal’ follows with a rhythmic number, showcasing the more straight ahead elements of Zane’s sound. The song writing is solid once again, with Stafford breaking up the wordiness of the verses with a somewhat punctuating cry of “hallelujah!” The track also introduces a few electric guitars, which like most other elements on this album are concerned with mood rather than any kind of showiness. While these songs are enjoyable, there are others featured on ‘Lighting Up The Black’ which are a much better showcase for his talents.

‘Down With The Ship’ is such a number, and even though the core of the song remains with the previous acoustic vibes (and this time with a few great harmonics thrown into the intro), the performance is far stronger. The acoustic elements are underpinned by a far more effective use of echoing electric reverb, while Stafford’s unobtrusive voice stays in the realms of wistful. With a light influence from Iron & Wine, this recording has the scope of a movie soundtrack, and as such, brings a whole extra dimension to his breathy style. Similarly moody is the almost purely acoustic ‘Into The Black’. It’s a number which makes the best usage of the gently picked guitar, but it’s during the second half where the arrangement really comes alive, as the acoustic sounds get swamped by echoing electric guitars and a chiming piano chord. Meanwhile, Zane’s vocal holds its own, eventually meshing with backing voices to create a climax.

The use of relatively simple rhythmic chords ensures ‘Walls’ has potential, especially once those acoustic lines are juxtaposed with a few electric jangles. While the vocal isn’t quite as assured as that of ‘Down With The Ship’, when Stafford’s lead voice is coupled with a selection of backing voices (in a busier arrangement than those heard during ‘Into The Black’), it becomes one of his fullest sounding numbers. The return of a hallelujah refrain creates somewhat of a low point, since an idea can be overused; but on the whole, ‘Walls’ still a very agreeable number. ‘The End’ is a little more straight ahead acoustic alt-pop than some of the previous outings, with a tiny hint something Smashing Pumpkins would have toyed with back in the mid 90s. Since over the shimmering chords Stafford sings of “a glass for pouring poison in, if I’m the beginning then she will be the end”, maybe it’s the slightly darker lyrical content that occasionally makes this reminiscent of something from the bands of that period… Without too much analysis, though, this closing number stands alongside ‘Down With The Ship’ and ‘Into The Black’ as reason enough to listen to this album.

On the negative side, it could be said that Stafford’s arrangements feels somewhat one-paced when the album is listened to as a whole but, when listened to individually, each of the album’s ten songs comes with enough depth of feeling for them to stand up individually. If you find some connection with Zane Stafford’s music and occasionally dark and questioning song writing, it’s likely you’ll find this an enjoyable listen, though the moody atmospheres of ‘Lighting Up The Black’ may not appeal to everyone.

August 2011


new season

The acoustic based, uncomplicated melodies woven throughout Nathan Edwards’s debut album have an organic sound and occasional reflective quality. By his own admission, Edwards says the different seasons have an influence over his song writing; not only did this affect his choice of album title, but also meant three of the ten featured cuts are weather themed. Although those songs are about summer and winter, the over-riding quality of the music has a sort of autumnal feel. Rather like Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ album from 1994, Edwards’s ‘New Season’ has a sound which seems perfectly matched to his choice of album cover.

The lead track ‘Be OK’ sounds optimistic from the start with its combination of acoustic and electric guitar work, accompanied by organ and drums. Edwards has a soft, but strong vocal leading an arrangement which could perhaps be described as a cross between Jack Johnson and The Connells. The chorus isn’t perhaps as strong as it could have been, but each of the individual musical elements pull together to create something which sounds very complete. ‘The Broken Hearted’ pushes Edwards’ pastel shades into almost alt-country territory. Once again, although the song writing is okay, it’s the use of harmony vocal and a thoughtful arrangement which provide its most memorable aspects.

‘Little Soldier’ is one of the album’s weak numbers. While the uncomplicated chord pattern has a jaunty nature and Cassie Edwards provides a sterling harmony vocal, it soon becomes musically disposable and lyrically repetitive. On the other hand, ‘Shadows’ is an epic number, which not only captures Edwards in top vocal form, it builds slowly to a great climax featuring great guitar work, courtesy of Chris Champion and Tyler Steele. It’s a number which hints at Willy Porter (though without the flashy acoustic twiddles) and The Connells, and as such, is a fantastic example of its brand of pop/rock. While it’s certainly more forthright than most of Edwards’s work, it doesn’t stick out as being uncharacteristically aggressive.

‘Cold Winter’ is an acoustic shuffle, backed by simple drumming and washes of organ. Once again, the chorus could be a little stronger, but a key change and tuneful bridge section make up for any shortcomings. ‘Song For a Summer Day’ is a number based around hard sounding acoustic guitar strings. Edwards’s lead vocal has an easy tone which lends itself well to the style of acoustic pop/rock.

The live sounding ‘Strangest Ways’ captures the sound of twin acoustic guitars over organ sounds, backed by brushed drums. As before, an electric lead creeps in from time to time, but essentially its Edwards up front and centre on a number which sounds like it could have been around for years. I’m not keen on what sounds like quasi-religious imagery, but despite that, it has charm; the song sounds like it could have been inspired by personal experience, with Edwards’s voice providing the track’s biggest strength. The upbeat ‘Lonely Heart’ uses an electric lead as its main musical hook and here, Edwards can be heard in full on rock/pop mode. His lead vocal is very natural and the use of a backing vocal counter melody is very effective. With a much stronger focus on electric instruments, ringing guitars and organ fills, this is a number which could possibly be best compared to Jakob Dylan’s Wallflowers.

Some of this album was recorded at Edwards’s home in South Dakota, some at an apartment in Illinois. Despite such homespun beginnings, it’s a warm sounding disc, worthy of a major label release (which again, begs the question: if lots of artists are capable of recording and releasing albums of this calibre on smallish budgets, when will small rock labels realise that marketing demos as finished works just isn’t acceptable?). Although there are a couple of musical missteps, most of the songs featured are of a good standard and in the case of ‘Shadows’ you even get a piece of roots-rock that’s near perfect.

Get ‘New Season’ here.

February 2011