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Around Hear: June 2012

With an acoustic guitar and a sweet, Midwestern croon, singer/songwriter Heather Styka sings her heart out on Lifeboats For Atlantis. Styka’s sincerity and a knack for vivid storytelling permeate the 14 tracks. Traces of Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Armatrading are evident in her songwriting, which is a mix of country, blues, and folk tastefully backed by strings, accordion, and piano. Although she paints melancholic and hopeless pictures within “Contented” and “Atlantis,” the music and the melodies combined somehow leave a positive outlook. (heatherstyka.com)
– Kelley Simms

The South Side quartet known as The Black Oil Brothers has figured out how to transport the sounds of the Mississippi Delta straight to the Chicago music scene. The 10 tracks that make up the band’s latest release, The High Road To Ruin, are pure country-blues-folk bliss. From the sincere storytelling to the soulful slide-guitar riffs to the perfectly placed handclaps and stomps, it’s an album that might even convert the country-haters. (theblackoilbrothers.com)
– Carter Moss

The Magic Number is a dazzling statement from jazz violinist/composer Zach Brock. Slinky bass beats on “Summer Dance” give space to freestyle violin soloing that is captivating in its virtuosity. A warm feeling pervades all tracks, most of them composed by Brock. Harmonizing vocals add enchanting touches on “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and the Brian Wilson-like intro to “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” (zachbrock.com)
– Jason Scales

Of Polish and Mexican descent, singer/songwriter Rich Cantú first drew attention in front of Spanish rockers Antenna The Band. With his solo debut, Señor Cantú, he continues mining his mostly Latin musical roots via (all but one) original ballads and pop-infused story songs. Most arresting are the upbeat cuts, featuring Cantú’s whistling, mouth clicks, and foot-fueled wooden beat box on top of his rich tenor voice and warm acoustic guitar. Overall, this is a welcome world ambassador of the music made in Chicago. (chicagosound.com)
– David C. Eldredge

Celebrating 28 years of making music, The Chicago Kingsnakes delivers its 10th album, Blue Mosaic. The dozen tracks mix Chicago blues and R&B with strong vocal harmonies, twangy guitar licks, and happy-wailing harmonica. Slide guitar and blues-harp go hand-in-hand on “Take Your Time,” while the laid-back groove of “Come Back Home” fits nicely within the blues family. (chicagokingsnakes.com)
– Kelley Simms

With bits of power pop, classic rock, and an acoustic ballad to bridge the gap, Dead Flowers delivers a melodic five-track EP. Catchy and cleanly produced highlights include “Soul Full Of Flowers,” which could’ve come from the same family as The Cars’ recent reunion, while frontman John Cowan convincingly channels his best Tommy Shaw on “She’s All I Feel.” (reverbnation.com/johncowan)
– Andy Argyrakis

The glamorous packaging for Covering Up Your Flaws – the debut from 21-year-old Isaiah Grass – is a dead giveaway that he’s simultaneously pursuing careers as a pop star and a model. That said, his versatile vocal style and self-penned material sound well-suited to urban-contemporary radio. The single, “I’m A Freak,” has infectious synth beats, while the acoustic-based “Rainy Days” and “Starting Over” are light and breezy. (isaiahgrass.com)
–Terrence Flamm

The Hops‘ full-length debut, Won’t It Be Fun, merges indie, alt, funk, jazz, acoustic, reggae, and rock with spectacular results. A bit of the New York punk – similar to Television and Talking Heads – creeps in, and Patrick Tinning’s Syd Barrett-esque off-kilter voice somehow seems to work with The Hops’ style of music. Spaced-out, melodic twang and heavy basslines make up “There’s Something,” while saxophone and samba add flavor to the upbeat “Thermometer Splits.” “Everything” ventures into Dave Matthews flavor, and a laid-back almost reggae/new wave-ish beat of “I Look At Ur Eyes” could find itself living in the early ’80s. (thehops.net)
– Kelley Simms

Hard rockers I Decline combine a blue-collar, DIY attitude on their third full-length, Time To Shine. The 12 tracks loaded with fist-in-the-air anthems and punk-laden riffs disguised with huge chunks of distorted, fuzzy stoner rock licks – all executed with a high-level of maturity. Comparisons to Godsmack, Burn Halo, and Royal Bliss would not be off-base. The sing-along choruses are catchy and memorable, and the riffs are head-noddingly worthy – all included in a professional-looking package. (i-decline.com)
– Kelley Simms

It’s easy to get swamped by the sea of faceless, bland singer/songwriters who pass through the office. Annie Kennedy, however, hit a crucial nerve with Highway Songs, a mix of contemporary country braced with a dollop of folksy pop and bits of driving rock. Sprinkled with a swinging kick, Kennedy’s sprightly vocals prance along with the half-time waltz in “Gettin’ Over You,” recalling June Carter Cash. Her spirited musicianship shines through in the soaring “Again And Again” with precise and nimble playing that carries her message of perseverance. (anniekennedycountry.com)
– Patrick Conlan

Jay Mathes has been performing/recording (both solo and with bands) for more than a decade, and Fundamental‘s 15 originals fittingly showcase his troubadour talents through single takes. While always a bit risky for an artist to “bare” his musical soul in such fashion, Mathes’ playing and singing are up to it and the cleanly spare production sparkles. A certain consistency of tempo from song to song makes one otherwise yearn that new artistic ground were being blazed as well. (jaymathes.com)
– David C. Eldredge

Singer/guitarist Mayo‘s 12-song Experiment is an electric-guitar showcase, with four instrumentals, including an intriguing take on The Beatles’ “Glass Onion.” Mayo is also an effective vocalist and keyboardist, particularly on the T. Rex-inspired “Diamond Heavy” and hard-rock stomp of “Seven Seas.” There’s a variety of approaches on the CD, from the more intricate “Glory” to the serious jamming at the end of “Weeping Lady.” (www.mayois.com)
–Terrence Flamm

The Red Plastic Buddha sports a 1960s-type name, so it’s not surprising to find rampant psychedelia on All Out Revolution. Vocalist/bassist Tim Ferguson advocates peace and love on the melodic “Star Shaped Holes,” and evokes a British Invasion hit single with “Daisy Love.” There’s a bit too much slow material on All Out Revolution, but fans of Nuggets-style rock will embrace “King Of The Underground” and a cover of The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night).” (myspace.com/redplasticbuddha)
– Terrence Flamm

Founded in Chicago and now based in Portland, Riviera proves on its fifth release, Watching Western Skies, that it has perfected the laid-back sounds of Americana. In just five tracks, the EP highlights the band’s impeccable harmonies, simple-but-infectious acoustic riffs, and ability to travel from sad to reflective to playful, without ever being too much of any of them. (riviera-sound.com)
– Carter Moss

If typical “thinking-man’s metal” is too staid for your liking, welcome Sectara to your library. Indy 500 speed, blistering, technical guitar work, and death-metal vocals combine for a mind-melting, extreme metal style on Interstellar Terror: Beneath The Eyes Of Baines. It sounds both intimidating and monolithic; from the smoky sax piercing the blur of harried guitars in “Ghoulskin” to the neo-prog breakdown in “Quatto Influenza,” it’s clear that Sectara aren’t bound by genre tropes, songwriting limitations, or playing acumen. (myspace.com/sectara)
– Patrick Conlan

Singer/songwriter Leah Thompson takes a light and romantic approach to what she calls neo-soul-pop music on her three-song EP, The Magic. She calls to mind Norah Jones on the breezy acoustic ballad, “Summer Song,” while the title track, with MC J-Biggs helping out, has more of an R&B feel. “I Love The Sun,” a wise choice for a video, features Thompson in a flirtatious mood. (leahtmusic.bandcamp.com)
– Terrence Flamm

The Velvet Jimis are a party jam band capable of navigating the intersection of soul, funk, blues, rock, and a sidecar of hip-hop. On the 12-track The Distance Between Us, they can be slow-burn bluesy, as on “Sweet Angeline,” with seductive, harmonizing vocals, or they can combine scat-singing and funk, as on “When I Get Home.” “Shoot Shoot Bang Bang” is gloves-off garage rock – these guys are up for anything and they generally deliver. (velvetjimis.com)
– Jason Scales

From the opening twang of slide guitar on “. . . And So It Goes,” Via Verso lays down a swirling slab of psychedelic, country-inflected rock. Guitar-driven boogie, reminiscent of Southern-fried rock ‘n’ roll classics of the ’70s, infuses “She’s More To Be Pitied” and “Taking Chances” as these tracks revel in their boozy, stumbling heritage. There’s a healthy bluegrass influence in the swaggering melody of “Jack Tattered” swinging through the slippery leads. (reverbnation.com/viaverso)
– Patrick Conlan

Hard rockers Without Return team with producer Jimmy Johnson (Sleeping Shelby) on To Say Goodbye, which weaves hard-driving alternative rock (think Filter or Helmet) with hints of grunge and garage rock. The EP is anchored by the meaty guitars of “Their Land” and menacing vocals on “Rotary,” though the songs are still accessible amid the heavy-handed framework. (facebook.com/withoutreturnrock)
– Andy Argyrakis

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  1. A BIG thank you to David C. Eldredge for a fine review of our Southport CD, Rich Cantú “Señor Cantú”. We are happy for Rich – he deserves wider recognition. Thanks also to editor, Steve Forstneger. Much appreciated, Joanie Pallatto – partner at Southport Records.

  2. Patrick Conlan…thank you for the great cd review of Annie Kennedy’s Highway Songs. Annie enjoys making music so much I think that comes out in the songs she writes. We are so happy that an objective party can hear that.

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