Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Live Show and Record Reviews: Alternative, Indie, Dream, Pop, Gaze, Synth, Rock, Country

 The ability to attend live music shows out in public with your friends once again has been a long time coming. After a soul-crushing shutdown / lockdown of 2020 that continued into early 2021, we are finally getting back to in-person appearances. Summer in NYC and adjacent Long Island has always provided many opportunities for mostly-free events in open park theaters as well as clubs and restaurants. Along with a variety of recorded music both new and vintage covered in this months feature, comes a long-overdue return to live presentation recaps.

Among her many talents and accomplishments, Laura Schaefer is an impressive singer in the soft rock, country, adult contemporary, and pop music realm. Catching a recent run of live appearances both indoor and out in the open street festival environment showed the performer captivating audiences with her nuanced vocal interpretations. Appearing on Sunday night's during these summer months at the highly-regarded Westbury, Long Island restaurant Cassariano, the duo act of Laura and Bill (with the equally accomplished Bill Blais on keyboards and vocals) entertained patrons with a dramatic set of classic cover songs.

You can't go wrong digging into the summertime soul of The Drifters 1964 classic "Under The Boardwalk."

The same can be said about exploring late 80's/early 90's mega hits like The Eagles "Love Will Keep Us Alive."

Street festivals are always a great place to check out live music on a warm summer night.  A band Laura has been doing some guest vocal appearances with are the wonderful Americana Country Rockers Tri State Alehouse.

This band are equally adept at covering a wide range of classic covers songs as well as their own original music (more on that further down in this feature).  Adding a female voice for solo and backup work fits in seamlessly with these guys.

In addition to her current collaborators and bands frequently offering guest vocal spots, Laura co-wrote and released a number original songs as the lead vocalist in a band called Blue Mile. The album's opening track “What I'm Cookin'” serves up an easy-going acoustic guitar and bongo percussion groove, with clever lyrics on the essential art of flirting. “Caught my eye . . . 'cause you knew I was looking,” gives way to references of “recipes” and “dishes done” tying together the song's title theme. Attraction may come via “checked makeup” and “straightened skirts,” however the cautionary chorus warns “don't you think that I'm just a fool in love” because after “spending some time with you” - well, they're “moving on.”

Deeper emotions are explored on the country-rock tinged “Rest Of Our Lives.” While the multi-tiered acoustic guitars mirror classic-era Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – Laura's passionate phrasing and vocal tone bring to mind two legends of that same early 70's period - Emmy Lou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. “You expect me to take this lightly?” she questions - “sorry but I had to pause” is her immediate response. “Because when you showed your emotions – it took me by surprise.” “Why did you have to ask me – where do we go from here?” “Well I guess that brought up – All Of My Fears” (singing those last four words with powerful feeling), “and I got so many fears”. The chorus (and title line) is sung in tandem harmonies, with both male and female voices pulling it all together.

Gentle acoustic guitar picking introduces the predominantly Laura penned “Nobody Lives Here.” Singing out with tender sincerity, the listener is immediately drawn into her world of honest introspection. “I didn't come to break your heart, but somehow my life feels so incomplete. I've gotta take my world apart, I'm sorry but that means I've got to leave. I think it's time, to shed the skin, keeping me wrapped up so carelessly. I look inside real hard, for what I just might have to see, is a heart so dark and cold and oh so empty.” Rather than a simple recitation of these already well-crafted lyrics, key words are extended and held for dramatic purpose, embodying the power of storytelling in a musical setting. Reaching the chorus (and song's title), male harmonies and tambourine percussion add richness to this poignant tale that resolves on the line “but the voices that I hear tell me to start again, make this heart a home - for you and me.” A second verse serves up one more truly insightful lyric, “when you're blind, to all that's true, the ghost of what you dream is all you see.”

A slinky cat shuffle melody provides the basis for Laura's frank look at manipulative relationships on “You're Not The Person.” Far from pointing an accusatory finger (only) a sense of complicit behavior is also noted. “Lovers and liars, we're both some of each – I guess that's the way it's gonna be,” sets the tone for a harmony-laden chorus. “You want me when and only, I can be your prize. Too bad for you I'm only using the same lines,” comes as a musically elevated punchline. “You're not the person I thought you would be. And maybe you're saying the same about me. But I won't be waitin' for you by the phone, I'd rather be lonely all alone,” is the ultimate conclusion.

Country-ballad acoustic guitar chords enhanced by chiming single note emphasis rolls out the heartfelt “Didn't You Know.” Against this lean accompaniment, Laura delivers her lyrical prose of loss and it's aftermath. “You walked through the crossroads of heaven - did you know, you'd leave me behind? You said that, you'd love me forever – you said that you'd always be mine. They told me that time would do the healing, they told me that you'd still be here. But now that you're gone all I'm feeling is the heartache of a life all alone.” As the chorus emerges, subtle slide guitar bends expand the country feel, as a harmony voice joins in on each “Didn't you know,” leaving Laura to complete each line with “that I would believe you” - “that life would deceive you” - and “that I would be left here – to make it alone.” Not content to resolve it all there, a extended bridge immediately follows with full tandem harmony vocals “Time passes by, I see you again, but only inside of my heart. You hear me cry, alone in the night, I need you to say it's alright.”

A lighter mood is set with the good-timey Bo Diddly-beat influenced “Party Dress.” Perhaps more inspired by the classic rhythm of “Willie And The Hand Jive,” Laura sings about the joys this life also provides. “Gonna get up for work and put my party dress on, gonna pick out some lipstick and put a lot on. Gonna shake like a tree in a warm summer storm when I hit the dance floor and party tonight. Gonna drink from the sweetest molasses tree, gonna love you and leave and then we'll see. Gonna let myself fly so high and so free when I hit the dance floor and party tonight.” Harmony voices join in on a joyous chorus that goes “Yeah life is treatin' me so fine so I'll take a minute and spend some time, with friends who dance and party all night – these kind of people make me feel right.” Essential rhythm acoustic guitar backing tasty lead acoustic finger pickin' and shuffling percussion completes the happy-to-be-alive party atmosphere.

Although Blue Mile's time has come and gone, there are rumors Laura may record updated versions of some of these songs at an as-of-yet-to-be-determined point down the road. In the meantime, select live show appearances continue throughout the summer days ahead.

Live events attended, indoor and out

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While we wait for potential new recorded material, the previously mentioned band Laura has been doing guest vocal spots with recently – Tri State Alehouse has a more current album out with their inspired recording “Open Here.” Core members Jonathan Crist, Jeff Schumacher and Mark Ambrosino wrote and produced these 12 original songs (and one surprising cover) with a variety of guest co-songwriters and musicians. What you get on this recording is a quality Country/Rock Band with an “Irish Edge” from the Long Island/NYC area.

Opening the album on a reverential tone, “The Price” blends patriotic American country with the aforementioned “Irish Edge” by way of guest musician Eamonn O'Rourke's strong fiddle throughout.  Follow-up cut “Highway” jumps right into the harder rock and roll realm with it's quicker rhythm and multiple guest lead guitarists delivering piercing solos. The song's title serves as a metaphor establishing open road driving as a means of alleviating life's pain. “Jump Right In” takes that rockin' vibe and swings it over into a deep shuffle groove. There's a southern rock feel to this good-time tale of calling on some sweet lady catching your eye.  A hybrid of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Crowes and a bit of The Rolling Stones, essential lyric “you and that little tight red dress, I'm about to lose my mind” says it all.

Everything's Gonna Be Alright” combines a jubilant country groove, southern Irish fiddles and sinewy electric guitar solos, with lyrical advice to focus on the positive around you. “Whitaker” builds off steady shuffling percussion, telling a tale of one man overcoming hardship to ultimately live a full and happy life.   An emotional peak is reached at the album's mid-point with the Gospel infused “Who Am I To Judge?”  A Neil Diamond feel runs through much of the lead vocal recitation (who has embraced Gospel elements on some of his own hits), with this track bringing in the Kellenberg Memorial High School Gregorian Consortium for spiritual backing vocals. Special props to guest musicians Steve Skinner (credited with piano, hurdy gurdy, keyboards, electric guitar) and Gus Fafalios (lead and rhythm guitar) for some truly firey licks on it.

Check it out right here:


Loudest Party” serves up an appreciation for NASCAR racing, complete with opening engine rumbles before kicking in with a full-on fast and furious rocker. Chunky wah-wah enhanced guitar riffage sounds like Slash on GNR's “You Could Be Mine.” Shifting gears in every possible way, “Rock A Bye” presents an emotional story of life and the guiding hand of your dad. For those fortunate enough to have had a caring paternal role model throughout their lives (and having become one themselves), it's easy to relate to and embrace these affecting lyrics. It's a family affair involved with songwriting for the uplifting “On The Other Side.” Traumatic loss can either lead you down a dark road or conversely to one of forgiveness. Seeing the good your presence can offer and the family ties that bind convey views into our living years as well as the hereafter.

It's never a bad idea to include at least one classic cover on an album, and the band does just that with their version of the Rolling StonesAngie.” While the original track relied predominantly on acoustic guitar, piano, orchestra (and Mick's voice, of course), this version has a harder electric guitar fueled edge to it. The overall pace is quicker, with the originals softer piano now replaced by hammond organ, more forceful drumming, a rougher lead vocal and soulful backing singers. Speaking of soulful, “Freedom Rise Up” approximates a similar electric guitar-based rhythmic groove of a song like Eric Clapton's “The Core” with a spiritual chorus elevated by additional expressive voices. “I See Harry” tells the story of a man who helped out wherever he could, wrapped in a country music form. Final cut “Wendy” serves as something of an homage to the Springsteen mystique of “amusement parks, boardwalks” and taking the night on the run with a girl – well, a girl named “Wendy.”

Check out all of these songs at the band's official site – including how to acquire this album, as well as when and where their next live appearances will be.

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Continuing their relentless quest for sonic excellence, Ottawa-based Paragon Cause have now released their third album “Autopilot.” Expanding on the auditory palette they've been building since their first two albums “Lies Between Us” and “What We Started,” (both meticulously reviewed previously here on this site) a bolder evolution in composition and sound design has arrived.

The core duo of Jay Bonaparte (guitarist/songwriter) and Michelle Opthof (vocalist/keyboardist/lyricist) bring back Raveonettes legend Sune Rose Wagner as an equal songwriting partner for all of the songs. In addition to his impeccable production work, Sune adds guitars, backing vocals, percussion and keyboards, creating an instantly recognizable imprint on much of the work.

Lead off cut “Two To Play” builds out of a straightforward snare drum and high-hat pattern before a deep-bass guitar rumbles out front, defining the progression. Poetic lyrics describing motion (“looking forward, falling back – running – moving along”) and dual involvement (as the title would suggest) come wrapped in glorious rising hooks and lush keyboard enhancements. Second track “I'm Not Here” puts out an icy late 80's film-noir homage vibe, with it's long-note synth pads, distinctive heavily FX'd guitar figures and stalking beat. The mental image of Terri Nunn with Berlin or Dale Bozzio fronting Missing Persons walking mysteriously through a Blade Runner future scenario (so popular at that time) is evoked through this audio experience. The shimmering vocal lines “I can't live like this” and “I scare myself sometimes” furnish necessary hook resolution.

Reaching the third entry finds the first of six total versions for the album's initial single “Think I'm Going Crazy Over You.” With five separate remixes (and one bonus track live version) “Jupiter Mix” is up first, receiving a full video treatment along side it as well. Enlisting the aid of producer and Sneaker Pimps co-founder Liam Howe, the notable English collaborator relies heavily on celebrated 80's synthesizer Roland Jupiter 8 (inspiring this mix title) for the retro sound quality and overall mood. “Brooklyn Mix” leans more on a traditional bass guitar approximation at first, before bringing back the recognizable buzz of that polyphonic analog synth heard on so many of the 1980's biggest hits.

Acorn Mix” (the longest version) takes yet-another approach, building up via an over 30 second drone, before a traditional rhythm second of drums and bass drive the progression forward. That trad-band feel is the direct result of PC recruiting formidable assistance in the form of veteran LA musician Eric Avery. That angular, melodic bass pattern combined with more forceful, syncopated drumming affords a foundation for dynamic synth flourishes throughout. It's not until the “613 Mix” that Mr. Wagner makes his presence felt on this song. Providing his own bass and drum treatment, more atmospheric space is allowed overall. One more SRW version shows up dubbed the “Staten Island Mix,” whereby Sune's fondness for hip-hop percussion creates a busier undertow. Those privy to the “Live” (Bonus Track) version will get the most guitar heavy version of all.

A sense of relief in the act of unplugging and focusing on internal well-being comes shining through on “Disconnected.” A driving beat, electronic hand-claps, buzzing guitars and tinkling-ice keyboard fills dispense audio delights. However, it's the chorus that yields an instantly catchy sing-along hook that would slot right along side any pop-hit Charli XCX has written. The majestic “Making Up For Lost Time” becomes the album's high-point, combining precise songwriting with opulent production. Overdriven guitar chords, slow-moving riffs, Phil-Spector-like tambourine and minimal bass drum percussion render a lush sonic field for the emotive vocals. The truly beautiful chorus proves once again that simple ideas are often the best, when expressed with this much passion.

Check that one out right here:

Play Me” continues with that rough-edged guitar sound (near industrial) while adding some welcome pitch-bending for good measure. Alluding to the games people play with each other in relationship, the relatively brief track (at a mere 2:15) benefits from it's quirky rhythm and towering vocals (particularly at the end-out). Alternately, the albums longest track (at 5:06) “More Than We Can Handle” materializes out of softer, distant synths, mechanized percussion, low-growl bass and ethereal guitar figures. Voices float in, sharing space between the gentle reverberated guitar textures. Relying more on mood than defined structures, a Cocteau Twins feel is diffused throughout.

Denied” embraces a gothic atmosphere using dungeon-synths, lyrical guitar figures and melodramatic vocals. A new level of backing voices emerge with a synthetic echo line following the primary one. The overall feel is dark and foreboding, with accusatory lyrics suggesting nefarious activity needing to be exposed. The album's final track “Time To Leave” is keyboard-driven with ghostly background voices, steady bass-synth pulse and melodic electric-piano figures. Against the repeated line “time always tells the truth,” a variety of expanding structural changes and diverse instrumentation enhance the overall experience.

Find out how to listen to and acquire this album at the band's Official Website and Bandcamp Page.

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