Indie Spotlight: Seth Bernard, Smash Palace, Girlschool and more

Lee Zimmerman's Indie Spotlight column shines a light on new releases by Seth Bernard, Smash Palace, Girlschool, Afton Wolfe, Paola Tagliaferro and Cliff Berhardt.
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By Lee Zimmerman

Seth Bernard

Seth Bernard could be considered something of a wunderkind, and a multi-tasking wunderkind at that. The Michigan native currently boasts not one, but two current albums — Let Love Light the Way, recorded last year entirely on his own during lockdown, and a brand new effort, My Heart Is My Home, featuring a full ensemble. As the titles suggest, each boasts songs flush with emotional resilience, one that steers the proceedings from meditative melodies to rousing anthems flush with oversized choruses and all but irresistible refrains. Given its rich arrangements, My Heart Is My Home is breathtaking to say the least, one that takes its listeners on an intimate sonic journey and leaves them sharing those sentiments with every note and nuance. “It’s been healing for me to write these songs,” Bernard writes. “We’re all looking for a warm place to be. We’re all looking for a place to belong. I can’t sing like you, I sing like me. And I pour it all into my songs. I keep rockin’. My heart is my home.” Those sentiments clearly come through. Indeed, it’s rare to find a record that shares its feelings and reason for being so emphatically. My Heart Is My Home is the comforting destination that’s ready to welcome us all. 

  

Afton

Suffice it to say Afton Wolfe isn’t your typical bleeding hearts type singer and songwriter. To the contrary, this young Nashville-based artist doesn’t confine himself to sharing emphatic emotions. Rather, he expresses them with an unyielding urgency and intent that allows his songs to stand out even at first hearing. With Kings for Sale, his second album (his initial solo EP, Petronius’ Last Meal is also well worth acquiring), he establishes himself as a singular talent with a gift for wit, wisdom and wordplay that makes ample use of metaphors and melody in equal measure. Wolfe’s gruff vocals sometimes bring Tom Waits to mind, given the fact he tends to be unerringly expressive. Songs such as “Paper Piano,” “Dirty Girl,” “Carpenter,” and “Cemetery Blues” tend to grab immediate attention, but the truth is, there’s not a single selection here that fails to find its footing, even on the initial encounter. Indeed, Wolfe displays an uncommon gift for insight and intelligence, and each of these offerings makes his convictions clear. There’s a certain gravitas that accompanies his delivery, but at the same time, Wolfe also manages to find a clear connection that makes his material clear and convincing. Those are the qualities that allow Kings for Sale to exude such an indelible impression.

  

Paola

Retracing songs that have already been assured immortality by the original singer and songwriter is no easy task, simply because it forces the cover artist to compete with an already timeless template. So credit Paola Tagliaferro with attempting to establish her own singular stance with the songs of Greg Lake via the appropriately titled Paola Tagliafererro Sings Greg Lake La Compagnia Dell’es, an album devoted to the music of the late ELP/King Crimson singer and songwriter. To her credit, Tagliaferro doesn’t alter the melodies to any great degree, but she does enhance each offering with her precise and somewhat precious vocals and a series of nimble arrangements that transform these songs with decidedly delicate designs. Her European accent and seemingly innocent approach add a decided charm to the material, allowing songs such as “Lucky Man,” “From the Beginning,” “C’est La Vie,” “I Believe in Father Christmas,” and “Take a Pebble” to take on a new, more ethereal dimension that allows them to stand out from the originals. Granted, these versions will never superseded the originals, but it is intriguing how close they come. Likewise, given the production assistance of Regina Lake and an accomplished group of supporting musicians, the credence is all but assured.

  

One of the forebears of the so-called “Fast Folk” music cooperative, Cliff Berhardt’s been making music for well over 30 years, first as a sideman and collaborator with the late Richie Havens and then subsequently on his own. His new album Knew Things offers yet another reason why he’s so respected amongst his peers. Recorded during the pandemic solely on his own, it explores the difficulties and division that were so common during that period of unease and uncertainty, from “Room in the City,” a lament about the new realities of rising rents and general displacement felt in the places one once called home, to the unsettled state of relationships and life in general as shared in songs such as “The Things I Left Behind,” “The Lies That We Live With,” “Don’t Make Me Go Home,” and “Shake Hands with the Pain.” Eberhardt’s sandpapery vocals (here again, think Tom Waits or Nick Cave) add emphasis and urgency to the dire descriptions detailing these sad states of affairs, but given the resilience and resolve shared in these songs, Knew Things never lacks a knowing sense of insight and engagement. Consider those qualities the essential elements that distinguish Eberhardt’s musical mantra.

  

smashpalace

Longtime practitioners of a genuinely engaging power pop sound, New Jersey’s Smash Palace score once again with their new album 21, a supercharged ten song-set that maintains the band’s exceptionally exuberant sound and rich reserve of effusive energy. Their enthusiasm is obvious on songs such “Strange Things Happened,” “Then She Disappeared,” “Book of Days,” and, for that matter, every other offering shared here, hardly surprising considering the Butler Brothers’ consistent dedication to form. Their harmonies are, as always, spot-on while adding the crucial element that takes the music to a decidedly higher level. Naturally too, they keep a steady surge as well, ensuring not only a solid sound, but a series of riveting refrains as well. Listen to the billowy “la-la-las” that echo throughout “Mr. Maybe” or the cascading chorus that asks “What is wrong with me” on the song of the same name. Those that relish their rock delivered at peak performance would be well advised to check out 21, and for that matter, every effort this dynamic ensemble has to offer. As expected, 21 proves they’ve truly come of age. 

  

Girlschool album

Speaking of which, British rockers Girlschool have reengaged with a vinyl reissue of their classic 1982 album Screaming Blue Murder, a classic reminder of their unabashed intensity and energetic intent. These girls were never shy about expressing their drive and dedication to form, but they also made it clear that there can be a fine line between hard rock and heavy metal, one that keeps the melodic quotient intact. Songs such as the title track, “It Turns Your Head Around” and “Don’t Stop” prove the point, but so too, their take on the Stones’ “Live With Me” also mine an added insistence only hinted at in Mick and Keef’s original. Clearly, these ladies possessed the sheer determination needed to ensure that the pace would never falters and reach towards a higher level. Girlschool have clearly graduated to the level of true rock and roll champs.