Tuesday, July 22, 2014

EP Review: You Used To Live Here by Kelley Mickwee

Kelley Michwee is stepping out from her band, The Trishas, with her first solo EP release, “You Used To Live Here.” And that’s a bold move, because the Trishas first album, “High, Wide and Handsome,” was a masterpiece of Americana rhythms and gorgeous vocal harmonies. But when the band decided to take an “open ended” break, she had little choice.

From the first chords of “River Girl” it’s apparent that Kelley isn’t trying to create a carbon copy of her former band. Sounding like a Country version of Aretha Franklin, she dives deeper into a style I can only call “Country Soul.” Blues guitar and Hammond organ punctuate her vocal phrasing to create a beautiful Nashville/Memphis synergy that’s reminiscent of Dusty Springfield’s seminal, “Dusty In Memphis” album.

In “River Girl,” Kelley sings, “I just want to sleep all day - rain on my roof. The river keeps rising, ain’t that the truth. It can wash me away, down to the sea - rolling and tumbling. So honey won’t you play a song for me.” Seeking comfort from circumstances beyond her control, the song and the EP are the perfect metaphor for her new found musical independence.

“Take Me Home,” again shows a woman longing to belong as Kelley sings, “Sing for me, quietly. Walk with me, slowly. Dance with me. Smile for me. Comfort me. Hold me. Somehow I ended up tattered and torn. Take me home.” Taken by itself, this song might be mistaken for a desperate pick up line. But in context, you can hear Kelley yearning for the comfort of her old bandmates and struggling with how to find a new “home” on her own.

In “Beautiful Accidents,” Kelley adds another layer of double meaning. Behind the story of accidental encounters that lead to happily ever afters, Kelley reveals her ability to make peace with her new found solo status as she sings, “Left turns and right turns get us here. All these beautiful accidents over the years, they look good on you.” (and on Kelley too!)

“You Used To Live Here” and “Blameless” continue the musical healing process for Kelley. And as a listener, you can’t help but marvel at the strength and courage of an artist to so openly face such a major life and career transition – and make such beautiful art from it all.

“Hotel Jackson” and “Dark Side Of Town,” reveal a new and transformed Kelly Mickwee - stronger and more confident. Putting the past behind her, she steps out (both musically and literally) unafraid to go after what she wants. And with this EP she succeeds.


EP Review: Justine by Liz Frame & The Kickers

I love Liz Frame’s voice. It’s the perfect combination of the velvet-wrapped sultriness of Margo Timmins (of Cowboy Junkies) and the earnest, yet vulnerable directness of Emmylou Harris. She showcases that wonderful voice, with the help of her band – The Kickers, on their new EP, Justine.

The four songs on this EP play like a musical confession. In “A Good Day To Say Goodbye,” Liz sings, “Look at that pretty tear running down your cheek. It don’t make you weak, it just makes you sad. ‘Cause loving me’s gotta feel like a losing streak. I’m just a freak who don’t know what she had.” Unlike the singers of most break up songs, Liz places the blame squarely on herself.

 In the title song, “Justine,” Liz reveals a possible backstory for the first song. Singing, “My name is Justine. This old life has been mean. Well it’s poisoned my momma and it’s scared off my dad. It’s made me feel guilty for not feeling bad.” Whether justifying her heartbreaking actions or just explaining them, she at least offers a reason.

But of course, those who play with others’ hearts soon lose their own. In “I Don’t Wanna Let You Go,” Liz (or her alter ego, Justine) faces that moment of truth. With a beautiful, breathy chorus, Liz pleads for love to stay.

Finally in the bluesy, “The Secrets I’ve Been Keeping,” Liz completes her musical confession. Singing, “I’m going to lay my burdens down,” she comes to realize that the truth will indeed make you free. By facing her past, she if free to overcome it.

Justine is a great, if short, musical drama. The kickers lend the perfect musical background for the story to unfold. The band is able to capture the full emotional range of Liz’s voice and lyrics. Moving from sultry to defiant to contrite, the band keeps perfect rhythm with the ebb and flow of Liz’s lyrical landscape.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Album Review: Blood Like A River by Nathan Bell

Nathan Bell’s voice stands out like a man among boys in today’s Country music scene. From the first verse of “Names,” his voice resonates like a cross between Merle Haggard and Ralph Stanley (and more recently, Steve Parry). It is a voice that commands attention. And listening to the lyrics of his new album, “Blood Like A River,” it is attention well deserved. Venturing far from the well-worn topics of cheating hearts and bar room upstarts, Nathan dives deeper into the human condition.

On the lead song, “Names,” Nathan introduces himself as Private John David McCutcheon. Exploring a soldier’s point of view, he sings, “I played safety on my high school football team. We even won a couple of games. But they stand silent at halftime now, for I am just a name.” It is a simple, yet powerful acknowledgement of the lives behind the statistics when adding up the cost of freedom.

On “Really Truly,” Nathan explores an even more controversial topic. Dealing with the subject of gay marriage, he sings, “Jenny said I love you and Jill gave her a ring. They got married in their mama’s wedding gowns and really truly it didn’t change much of anything. The sun kept coming up and going down.” Taking a stand on either side of this issue is not for the timid. But by zooming past the big picture and focusing on individuals, Nathan is able to peel back the slogans and rhetoric and offer a glimpse of the actual hearts and souls of those most affected by the debate.

Nathan reaches deep within to grapple with the tangled tapestries of love, family, and even our own mortality throughout the album. With a sparse, acoustic guitar or two as the only accompaniment, Nathan’s voice and lyrics demand that you hear what he has to say. And if you pay attention, you’ll realize that as he sings in the title track, “Blood like a river brings us together. Blood like a river ties us together.” And in the end it is the same blood that flows through all of our veins, and we are all in this together.