By Lee Zimmerman
Known primarily as the harp player for the band War, Lee Oskar demonstrates both his skills and savvy with a superb solo offering titled Passages Through Music: Never Forget, a series of symphonic-like soundscapes that share memories of the Holocaust in a personal and passionate way. Integrating his harmonica into a series of orchestrated instrumental interludes, he creates an expressive and expansive suite of songs that incorporate classical, European and Middle Eastern motifs that reach far further than the typical pop parameters. Even without words, these songs convey an emotion and expression that are illuminating and evocative in equal measure. It’s a sweeping, sprawling work of a decidedly ambitious nature, and yet it feels intimate and engaging at the very same time. A tender tapestry threaded with emotion and commitment, it’s an album destined to stand the test of time in both its impact and importance. This is, in fact, both a tremendous triumph, and an extraordinary accomplishment.
Linda Draper is known as a mainstay of the so-called “anti-folk movement,” but her wonderful new album Patience & Lipstick, she takes a decided turn towards Americana courtesy of a set of songs that are beguiling and embracing by equal measure. Draper touches on subjects that have become a matter of concern of late, but the tone is never preachy or pompous. Instead, she treats each scenario from a reflective perspective, unfettered by the ramifications that might result or the controversy they create. As a result, Draper’s status should now get elevated to a higher tier of recognition and appreciation, giving her a clearer connection to a wider range of potential listeners. This is, in fact a standout as far as her own trajectory is concerned, an album that resonates and reassures all at the same time. Those who have been unfamiliar with Draper up until now have renewed reason to investigate.
Their name has always been something of a misnomer, but The Successful Failures have managed to persevere regardless, releasing a string of superb albums that underscore their status as one of today’s most prominent power pop outfits. Their latest effort, James Cotton Mather, is no exception. A concept album detailing the adventures of a naval hero, it shares the same excellent, accessible melodies that have typified each of the eight albums the came before. This time around, there’s a bit more drama imbued into he proceedings, but it doesn’t dispel the relentless rocking and unabashed exuberance that have become the band’s stock in trade. From the riveting opener, “Naval Victories,” through to the searing send-off “Freedom Within,” each entry offers a drive and dynamic that allows the music to remain captivating and compelling throughout. The Successful Failures share a commitment to resilient rock and roll, and that dedication to the cause never falters. Even with its unmissable echoes of the Who, the Kinks and other that ilk, it’s a riveting work all on its own.
The influence of iconic artists inevitably lingers long after the music stops being made. Sometimes it’s passed along through the efforts of others who manage to maintain the muse. If the music creates a strong enough impression, that particular group creates a lingering legacy of their own, underscoring the enduring imprint even more. Such was the case when the Byrds' helped establish the genre known as folk rock, a sound that was then emulated by others and made a permanent part of the rock and roll lexicon. One of those that took up the banner was a British band named Starry Eyed and Laughing, which would soon establish itself as an institution in its own right. Consequently, that sound is typified by ringing 12 string guitars, impeccable harmonies and soaring melodies, heard anew courtesy of a group whose own efforts can be traced back nearly 50 years. Helmed by founder and mainstay Tony Poole, they've made a comeback of late, a trend masterfully maintained by the band’s new album Bells of Lightning, which, of course, stays true to the template. An excellent covers album, Love/Song, is also available as well. Consequently, those whose fascination with the sounds of the sixties remains as enthusiastic as ever can find added opportunity to indulge once more.
Lady Psychiatrist A.K.A. Ashley Norton, Stephanie Groot and Laura Hall, is as intriguing as the handle suggests. The trio’s six track EP, aptly titled Lady Psychiatrist’s Booth, is a mix of whimsy, intrigue and imaginative melodies. They establish themselves as decidedly unique, an ensemble capable of drawing a listener in and then keeping them enticed for the duration of the effort. In a sense, Lady Psychiatrist’s Booth unfolds like a concept album of sorts, one that shifts its tone and texture with every song while still managing to keep it all in context. Granted, there is a hint of insanity at times, and a bit of menace and mania, but at the same time it’s all in good fun and never comes across as dark or dreary. It’s the kind of effort that’s not only certain to draw attention, but also to keep fans committed to hearing whatever might come next. Indeed, once you land on Lady Psychiatrist’s couch, you may never want to leave.
Nelson Bragg is known to many as a steady player in Brian Wilson’s solo band, which ought to give those unaware an excellent idea of the kind of music Bragg makes on his own. With his new album, Gratitude Blues, he takes the sound he’s shared with Wilson and a multitude of other artists, and applies it with the same diligence and devotion that he’s well known for. Indeed, while this is only Bragg’s third solo opus, songs such as “The Cool Kids,” “I Want Love,” “Glorious Days,” “No ONe’s Home in Hollywood,” and “Whitechapel Girl” sound like they’ve been plucked from the ethos. Bragg shares his harmonies, lush arrangements and irrepressible melodies in equal abundance, making this an astute example of pure power pop perfection. Consequently it’s easy to understand why Wilson and multitude of others would want Bragg remaining by their side. One can only hope that he doesn’t allow too much more time to elapse before again stepping out on his own. Simply stated, Gratitude Blues is an album we can all be thankful for.