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Nathan Partain: A reverent, transcendent acoustic folk album

October 23, 2017

A Lovely Wait by Nathan Partain

The last time that Nathan Partain checked in, he was purveying crunchy Southern rock and worshipful ballads on Jaywalker. On his new recordPartain has stripped out a large amount of the crunch and embraced delicate acoustic folk almost entirely. The songs still meet the goal of being fit for congregational worship, but A Lovely Wait is a reverent, quietly-intense album much more reminiscent of Rich Mullins’ work or Sufjan’s Seven Swans than a contemporary worship album.

Opener “You Were Not My People” is that rare opener whose instrumentation and lyrics set the stage perfectly for what’s to come in the rest of the album without stealing any of the thunder of the later tracks. The performances are crisp in their precision, but remain delicate: the mellow keys, acoustic guitar, drums, and vocal performances all contribute to this careful tight-rope act. Partain’s voice doesn’t strain or push—instead, he calmly lays out the engaging vocal melody with a female counterpart. The mood this and further pieces create is similar to the quiet awe of Seven Swans, a rare compliment from these parts.

That reverence carries over into the lyrics of “You Were Not My People.” Partain’s words reflect a depth and scope that is also rare in contemporary worship music since the death of Rich Mullins. Instead of focusing on a specific characteristic of God or on worshipers’ response to God, Partain takes listeners on a tour of the whole Bible from God’s perspective: the many ways that people have ignored, turned away from, attacked, and even killed God—and the astoundingly merciful and kind responses that God gives to people in response. The fact that this can happen in under 5 minutes is impressively concise writing. The idea of the song is one that comes from a unique voice in the world of Christian music.

The reverent arrangements and unique lyrical perspective shine throughout the rest of the album. The gentle pitter-patter of “One Thing I Have Asked (Psalm 27)” shows off the instrumental prowess in creating worshipful moods, while “In the Strength You Give” is a spartan tune that accentuates the clear-eyed confessional lyrics. “Deliverance Is a Song of Peace” is a fantastic, expertly-developed folk tune. The catchy “All You Do Is Good” and the folk-rock of “Your Ways” are two tunes that are clearly focused on congregational settings; still, they are both great songs in their own right that don’t fall outside the sonic scope of the album.

While those last two are clearly congregational, it’s a testament to the maturity of Partain’s songwriting that all of these songs work as folk tunes and could clearly work in worship. To then craft and sequence a top-shelf album out of songs that are already serving dual purposes is another challenge that Partain conquers. A Lovely Wait is an impressive acoustic folk album that transcends its place in the Christian music world while still creating music to serve the people of Christ. Highly recommended.

Mid-October Singles: Adventurous

October 17, 2017

1. “JUNGLES” – Rina Mushonga. The sort of exciting, carefully-crafted electro-pop tune that always has one more trick up its sleeve, from Mushonga’s engrossing vocals to unexpected synth melodies to sudden stop-start mechanics and more.

2. “Eghass Malan” – Les Filles de Illighadad. An all-female trio from Niger, they create music in the tende genre: it’s desert music, shifting, sinuous guitar work over stripped-down percussion. The vocals are impressive as well. This will appeal to people who like West African sounds, sitar (the melodic structures bear a resemblance), and adventurous listening.

3. The Wave – Los Colognes. This is a 43-minute long continuous video for a whole album. It’s such a gutsy, unusual move that the sheer audacity alone is enough to get it on this list. The space-rock-meets-psych-flutes indie rock of the opening track is a convincing bit as well.

4. “Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater)” – Holy ’57. Alex Mankoo’s exuberant indie-pop project makes a left turn on this track, a groove-heavy fusion of worldbeat, funk, and electro-indie capped off by a horns-waving brass line. The lyrics are an interview with Mankoo’s grandmother about her immigration to London (as reflected in the title). You haven’t heard anything like this in a while.

5. “Scarlet Fever” – Skye Wallace. The lyrics are about long-distance love in the steamboat/gold rush era, but the music is 100% mid-to-late-’00s hyper-enthusiastic indie-rock. Anyone who still pines for Ida Maria will absolutely love this track. It’s a total blast.

6. “Big Boys Don’t Cry” – Melissa Bel. Fans of the ’50s pop revival that seems to have been percolating for years but never hitting critical mass will enjoy the Meghan Trainor-esque tune here. The handclaps, hammering piano and skronking bari sax all pitch-perfect, while Bel’s vocals are thoroughly modern.

7. “We’re Alive” – Rivera. The chorus of this tune features the sort of well-written hook that I find myself humming absent-mindedly days later. It’s a pop song, but it doesn’t go for the “big anthemic explosion” type of chorus–there’s some subtlety involved, which I like. h

8. “No More Stones” – Oh Geronimo. Sort of like a cross between Manchester Orchestra and Frightened Rabbit, this song dances back and forth over the minor/major key line. The alternating moods of jubilance and melancholy create a fascinating blend.

9. “Americo” – Americo. A poem about WWII spoken against a solemn, pensive, keys-led post-rock backdrop. Americo is mostly a distortion-laden rock band, which only makes this atypical, impressive track stand out even more.

10. “Song of the Highest Tower” – Cut Worms. Sounds like the lost link between Simon & Garfunkel/America-era folk and mid-nineties lo-fi indie-rock, which is pretty rad.

11. “Never Be” – Meg McRee. Close harmonies in an almost rap-sung style over a turbulent adult-alternative arrangement create a tune that’s close to an alternate-universe Jason Mraz song.

12. “Bus” – Woochia. Starts off with a hypnotic acoustic guitar line and slowly turns into a smooth, bass-heavy instrumental electro track. The marriage between the electronic and acoustic is impressive here.

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Mid-October Singles: Acoustic

October 16, 2017

1. “Anywhere, Everywhere” – The Singer and the Songwriter. This is top-shelf folk-pop that draws on all the tropes that make folk-pop so good but puts the band’s own spin on it. (Those vocals! Those stuttering horns!) Highly recommended.

2. “My God Has a Telephone” – The Flying Stars of Brooklyn NY. Impressively enveloping low-key indie-soul, like a slowed-down Alabama Shakes or an acoustified Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Fans of Otis Redding and all that went on around him will love this track.

3. “Restless” – Common Jack. The confident folk swagger of Josh Ritter, the punchy melodies of the Lumineers, and a large dose of indie-pop enthusiasm create this fantastically fun song.

4. “Over There” – Dori Freeman. Trad-folk can sound a bit too dedicated to the past, but Freeman manages to evoke old-timey sounds and yet stay modern. Her clear vocals help, as does the immediate, bright recording style. If you like contemporary folk but can’t stand washboard, Freeman is a bridge between the two worlds.

5. “Wailing Wall” – Cameron Blake. A swirling pool of strings forms the backdrop for this emotional, dramatic singer/songwriter tune. Blake’s skills as an arranger and lyricist are on display here, as neither the standard piano or guitar lead the way; instead it’s just his voice, a small choir, and strings that lead the listener through.

6. “Get On” – The Northern Folk. Less satire and more bitter commentary, this folk tune swings punches left and right. Between the acid delivery of the lead vocals, the angry lyrics, a roaring vocalization section, and the unusual addition of saxophone into the horn section, this song has bite to spare. The horns do smooth it out a bit, in a jazzy way, but this one’s about being punchy.

7. “Gaudy Frame” – Monk Parker. More lazy, hazy, easygoing country for people who deeply miss Clem Snide.

8. “I Root (Trio Version)” – Michael Nau. The arrangement of a folk tune filtered through the melodic lines and recording style of a Beatles song results in a dignified, melancholy piece.

9. “Here We Are Again” – Ella Grace. This walking-speed alt-folk tune makes hand percussion sound intimate and personal instead of all of its other connotations. It also includes bird noises, gentle guitar, and Denton’s careful, almost speak-singing vocal performance. This will calm you down if you need it.

10. “Broken Bow, OK” – Aaron Rester. Fun fact: My home state of Oklahoma has a town called Broken Arrow and a town called Broken Bow, and they’re not next to each other. This alt-country/folk tune references the smaller of the two amid gravelly vocals, swooping fiddle, and plunking piano. The compelling tune lives in Americayana, an “alt-country/Americana retelling of the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana.” Whoa.

11. “Sorry” – M.R. Bennett. Fragile, delicate, and yet ruggedly determined, this spartan apology (just occasionally plucked guitar notes, Antony and the Johnsons-esque vocals, and yearning strings for the majority) is on a sonic plane all its own.

12. “Motion in Field” – Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno. Rogerson contributes the delicate, exploratory piano elegance; Eno contributes the pulsing, sweeping arpeggiator work. The marriage of the two is luscious. (Fun fact: I’ve only used the word “luscious” two previous times in Independent Clauses’ 14 years.)

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Polyrhythmics: An Origami of Musical Beauty

October 12, 2017

Diamonds are born from vast amounts of pressure. The pressure of being a talent from the Pacific Northwest may be the explosive element for many bands trying to find a form. “A caldera is the term for what’s left after a volcano erupts,” explains Polyrhythmics guitarist Ben Bloom. This is a precursor to the music found on Caldera, which is easily described as mind blowing. The band combines the talents of Ben Bloom (guitars), Grant Schroff (drums), Nathan Spicer (Keys), Lalo Bello (Percussion), Jason Gray (Bass), Scott Morning (Trumpet), Elijah Clark (Trombone), and Art Brown (Sax and Flute).

Polyrhythmics’ fourth release, Caldera, follows the success of Octagon. Here listeners are invited to take a trip musically around the world all at once, and to find substance from the unusual fluidity that is their music. Melding stylistic elements from jazz, blues, afrobeat, and funk with some rock flavor, the music from the Seattle-based band is an evolution. This album, written at the base of Mount Hood in rural Oregon, shows that the combination of all elements can create a unique form.

Fighting busy schedules, the band chose to get together and write at Stargazer Farms outside of Portland, Oregon. The result was being trapped in two feet of snow after the coldest winter snap in a while. Following the Stargazer writing sessions, the band headed into Gray’s Seattle studio and recorded nearly everything live as a band, just the way they’d been writing and experimenting out on the farm. The consensus that there was no way to capture the dynamic magic of live sound of a band of this size any other way than by doing it live.

An origami of musical beauty unfolds with each track of this twelve track masterpiece. It is an emotional journey from start to finish. It seems unfair to say one performance stands out or to focus on any one artist in the collective. Caldera is a multifaceted gem of a record that glimmers and shines with layers of musical beauty from all directions. The high-energy Polyrhythmics performance is a collection of world influences that each musician brings to the table.

Leading with the the smooth vibe of “Goldie’s Road,” a visceral connection is made. The easy flow is augmented by Brown’s flute coupling with Lalo Bello’s percussion. It is solidly followed by the sixties vibe of “Spider Wolf.” This song is a moment for Bloom’s guitar to start the conversation back and forth between the horns. “Marshmallow Man” is beautifully funky, starting off with an ethereal keyboard and grounded in solid horns that soar in, bringing a new shape to the song. Tight and precise, the song is magnificent in its formlessness. Capped off with a solo from the trumpet of Scott Morning that would make Louis Armstrong stop and listen, the tune is wrapped up with a stellar keys solo, thanks to Spicer.

The strange thing about Caldera is that many of the songs feel as if they are a reincarnation of something else. This most notably happens on “Au Jus” about half way through the album. With the solid framework and interconnection that has been built, the freedom to flow really takes place here. It creates a beast that defies containment. That animal who is Art Brown, and his saxophone rips into the heavens like Coleman Hawkins. Taking the horn section to that same place is “Lord Of The Fries” with its calypso beat of beauty. This is music of life, passionate and real with hips swaying in rhythm.

“Bowling Green” feels like laid back jazz, as alternating horns create a formless spiral of sound. “Dragon Lotion” finds true dance, blending afrobeat and Brazilian funk to push the limits on any expectations of what the music could be. The band pulls in some stellar keyboards from Spicer and is enveloped in guitar work from Bloom. Finding a piece of the heart of this album, “Journey To Caldera” is one of the best examples of the band’s songwriting collaboration. Each musician shines in their own moment, soaring into a moment that is classically understated brilliance.

“Vodka For My Goat” offers a taste of bass blended with guitar and sax into a drum-wrapped delight. Jason Gray’s bass stands out here. “Stargazer” is ethereal and all-encompassing; each piece of this musicianship is beyond description. To say that songwriting for Polyrhythmics has not always been a collaborative effort is hard to imagine. What makes Caldera pop for listeners is that it has been written collaboratively. Polyrhythmics limit the indefinable, connecting mind, body, and soul.–Lisa Whealy

Premiere: “Stone” by Little Shrine

October 11, 2017

The downtempo indie-pop/folk of Little Shrine‘s “Stone” sounds way too polished and mature to come out of a debut. But what seems incredible is true, much to the listener’s benefit. The tune opens with a stark, staccato acoustic guitar that hooked my attention immediately; instead of filling the song with strums, the band lets space ring out. The feel is almost of a mournful stutter or hesitance.

That guitar announces the tune’s solemnity right from the get-go, creating a fitting mood for the lyrics of loss and redemption to further accentuate. When the song expands to include a second guitar, a wavering violin picks up the staccato motif to tie the song together. It’s not just a sign of impressive arrangement, it’s a clear marker of strong chemistry between the players.

It’s not all instrumental synchrony, though. Songwriter/vocalist Jade Shipman’s confident alto resonates with calm-yet-emotional melodic lines. Her voice, the lyrics, and the tight instrumental arrangement result in a song that sounds like a lot less work than it certainly was: it rolls out of the speakers with ease, despite the heavy subject matter. Fans of Laura Marling, Laura Gibson, and Cat Power will find much to love in this track.


“Stone” comes from the band’s Wilderness mini-LP, which drops 10/20/2017. Check out the latest news on their Facebook.

Some Kind Of Illness – Awakening

October 6, 2017

The brothers Mark and Paul Hinks have something going with their musical partnership. Starting in 2015, the men became more than siblings growing up in Earnworth, United Kingdom. They have honed their skills and sound with live performances all across the United Kingdom. Listeners might find Some Kind of Illness’ sound as a place somewhere between a surrealist painting and a landscape by Van Gogh–this release, fittingly, features surreal artwork by Rhiannon Clark.

Following up 2015’s self titled album and the 2016 release Souls, the June release of Awakening brings to the present a retro sound that fits a vibe for today’s listeners. Utilizing retro Roland D-50 synthesizer and an 808 Drum machine, the album was recorded at recorded in Farnworth, UK; Stoneclough, UK; Birmingham, UK; and Ferrara, Italy. The ten-song album is a trip into the past and the future all all at once.

With an opening track that feels like submerging into an ocean of synthesizers, there is no mistake: this album is something special for the indie alternative band. A fusion of genres makes this album all the more satisfying. After the peace of the title track, “Neon Glass” creeps in with its haunting techno rhythms, forming a frame for some stellar lyricism. In a blink, it is done, leaving the rave behind.

One of the strongest elements on this album may be the sequencing, which takes a stance of challenging listeners rather than taking the safe path in and out. The techno beat assault of “Neon Glass” flows right into “No More Waiting”; this music is deliberate in its pace, but with rapid fire thoughts and emotions. Like the the Dutch painter and designer Bart van der Leck, all the abstract thoughts of simplistic forms fit together here. It’s smooth and insightful, requiring a deeper thought.

The transition from “Violet Dream (ft. Hara Su)” to “Memories In a Window” is genius sequencing, making this often-overlooked element in composition a strength along with the music. For instance, “Ledana” is a bit too artificial sonically to my personal taste, but it is a brilliant transition to “Cyclone (ft. Daisy Davies).” Gears shift down to “Icarus,” heading out of the ten song album, returning to the haunting vocals and ethereal music. On this third album from Some Kind of Illness, possibly the best track is the final notes heard. “Crystal Light” is that fade out into the night, blurry and clear all at once.

Track to track there may seem to be a lack of focus, much like a Jackson Pollock painting–colors, splattered colors in a chaos of contrasts. Suspend judgement of preconceived ideas of what is good or great music and listen via Bandcamp. This album is definitely a work of art.–Lisa Whealy

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Late September Singles 2: Indie-pop and more

1. “Salgado” – ALTRE DI B. Somewhere between the punchy riffing of Cage the Elephant and the attitude-heavy enthusiasm of The Vaccines lives this exciting tune. The extended coda is surprising and hopefully indicative of left-turns in the future.

2. “Hold On” – Leisure Club. For those who miss the old Vampire Weekend, look no further for your latest fix. It pushes almost all the buttons and feels so good.

3. “Turtledoves” – Gingerlys. The cloudy guitars of late ’00s SanFran garage rock are put to different use here, paired with pop-punk drumming and relatively straightforward indie-pop vocal melodies. The results are an unusually propulsive haze that collapses triumphantly and unexpectedly at the finish line.

4. “The Lord Giveth and Taketh Away” – Chaperone Picks. Lo-fi guitar strumming a la early Mountain Goats, big overdriven guitar that calls up ’90s indie heroes like Guided by Voices, and a drop-dead end to the two-minute song create a mystical union (a unified belt, if you will) of multiple strands of lo-fi indie.

5. “Oom Sha La La” – Haley Heynderickx. If Lady Lamb weren’t quite so prickly and prone to ’50s vocalizations (either for ironic effect or in true earnestness, who can say?), she could have written this loping, quirky, deeply engaging indie rock tune.

6. “Beholden” – Canon Blue. Anyone missing the chipper tones of Givers or who loves when Lord Huron plays huge pop songs will love this grooving, steel-drum-inflected folk-goes-indie-rock tune.

7. “My Heart, Your Heart” – Trevor Hall. I don’t know how Hall makes such a beats-driven indie tune sound organic and human, but whatever he does, it’s totally effective. This is immersive.

8. “Look Up” – raener. This de-constructed indie-rock tune is one part James Blake silkiness, one part menomena controlled chaos, and one part LCD Soundsystem abstract danciness. Despite its inherent coldness in the choppy, brittle arrangement, there’s an inviting nature to the tune. Very interesting.

9. “Warm (ft. Frankie Forman)” – Speakman Sound. This snaky, slinky, low-slung electro tune has features a real violin, real drums, and layered vocals; it almost sounds like a Local Natives tune, or a very distant cousin to a Fleet Foxes tune. I was astonished by it.

 

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Premiere: The Morning Yells’ “Take Me Somewhere”

October 3, 2017

The Morning Yells (L-R): Curran McDowell, Trevor Smith, Laura Stancil, Phil Stancil. Photo credit: Chase Bescey.

The Morning Yells (L-R): Curran McDowell, Trevor Smith, Laura Stancil, Phil Stancil. Photo credit: Chase Bescey.

The Morning Yells are a band that can appropriate and reinvent the past without becoming constrained by it. “Take Me Somewhere” combines all sorts of ’70s influences with ease: Fleetwood Mac’s mystic dreaminess, The Eagles’ effortless swagger (totally a compliment!), and the laidback California vibes of Jackson Browne.

Yet these are only touchstones–just threads pulled out of the larger tapestry. The six-and-a-half minute song feels totally cohesive and much shorter than its runtime because of the chemistry between the instrumentalists, the confident vocal performances, and the solid production job that puts just the right amount of space around all the parts. It’s a tune that easily stands up to multiple listens. They will take you somewhere, indeed.

The Morning Yells’ Proper Wilted EP comes out October 6. Pick it up here.

You can check out The Morning Yells on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or live:

10/4/2017: Los Angeles, CA @ Good Times at Davey Waynes
10/7/2017: Los Angeles, CA @ Hotel Cafe (11PM)

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Late September Singles 1: Acoustic and such

September 29, 2017

1. “Moonshine” – Winnie Brave. If you generally like the things I post on this blog, you will almost certainly like this song: shuffle drums, strong female vocals, pedal steel, even tasty organ. But there’s no alt about this: this is straight-up country. Get on the train, friends. Jump on it. There’s no shame.

2. “Go” – Glen Phillips. There are few people who have two full careers in music in their lives, but Glen Phillips is closing in on it: having been one of the staples of the ’90s in Toad the Wet Sprocket, he has remade himself into a troubadour par excellence since then. This latest tune shows off his mastery of the nuanced vocal performance, satisfying arrangements, and enveloping moods. Just stellar stuff.

3. “Kool Aid” – The Lords of Liechtenstein. This chipper post-Dixieland major-key folk tune evokes contemporaries like Jonas Friddle and vintage performers. (The banjo and piano work together beautifully here.) The satirical lyrics extend the horrifying-situation-turned-metaphor “drinking the kool-aid” (apropos for our current era in many ways). The video drives home its political point even more clearly.

4. “She Got Time” – The Morning Yells. If there’s a point where Laurel Canyon country meets Bruce Springsteen-esque road-rockers, The Morning Yells were born on that spot. Throw in some Dawes for modernization (although Dawes is always looking back too), and you’ve got a breezy-yet-grounded track that’s tailor-made for a late-night drive up Pacific Coast 1.

5. “Heavy Eyes” – Palm Ghosts. I try to avoid the word “dreamy” because it’s so over-used, but this chilled-out tune feels genuinely like a dream: it feels totally concrete but also gauzy around the edges, sort of like there’s something just over the next ridge that will pop the bubble, but until then it’s all floating and hazy. That tension is impressive, and gives this indie-folk/indie-rock track a unique feel (even among all the “dreamy” work out there).

6. “Paint the Road” – Sierra Blanca. Sierra Blanca’s stately, engrossing “Paint the Road” made me think of John Denver’s endearingly earnest delivery, James Taylor’s gentle guitar delivery, and Simon’s subtle rhythmic elements. That’s pretty rarefied air, even decades after the high points for that trio.

7. “Northern Lights” – This Pale Fire. The subdued, even reverent murmur that is this track draws on excellent arranging and a great engineering job to create its beautiful, nuanced vibe.

8. “Thursday Lights” – Frozen Houses. This tune has both delicacy and density, as synths burble and dance in the background of this friendly, almost tropical acoustic-led piece.

Your Friendly Neighborhood: Overflow

September 28, 2017

The indie-rock of Your Friendly Neighborhood‘s Overflow is a ship in a bottle: each tune is wild, rambling, and yet still carefully developed; lush, expansive, yet carefully defined. If you’ve ever been fascinated by the romance of a ship in a bottle and then contrasted that to the painstaking ways in which they are made, you know what I mean.

The first way I heard of Overflow was via IC fave Zach Winters repping it on social media. There are tons of sonic connections between Winters’ work and YFN’s: both use chill electric and acoustic guitar as the starting point (but not the centerpiece) of their songs, employ dense arrangements to create hazy/cloudy/expansive soundscapes, and often draw the song’s focus from lead vocals to the arrangements (“Backroads,” “Fall in Line”). Sonic touchstones beyond Winters’ work are non-Emma Bon Iver (“Hello Mire”), a more organic James Blake (the title track), the vocal stylings of Coldplay (“Doubt”), and rainy day musicians like The Maravines (pretty much all the tracks).

The album isn’t just one long chillfest, though–YFN carefully ordered the album so that it builds in emotional and sonic intensity to the towering roar of penultimate track “II.” If you listen to “II” on its own, you could be forgiven if you thought you were listening to Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky–it is very much awash in distortion and cymbal bashing. But in the context of the record, it is the conclusion of a long crescendo that started at the very beginning of the record. It is satisfying. This sort of careful development of an individual song and the whole track order are examples of the meticulous care with which this album was created.

As if to refute a bit of its own (well-earned) grandeur, closer “Birth Mark” strips out most of the complex arrangements except for some vocal processing and lets Caleb Killian’s skill with a guitar and vocal melody shine. Listening to this track unlocks a different angle on the record; instead of being a hazy indie-rock experience, it can also be read as a indie-folk record gone huge. (It’s all in what you prioritize as you listen.)

If that last assessment sounds a bit abstract, it’s because this record inspires that sort of thinking in me–I have puzzled and pondered over this record as I’ve listened to it repeatedly, and I still feel like I’m just getting to know it. It has depth. I haven’t even begun to parse the lyrics, because there’s so much going on in the sonics. Overflow has the free-flowing soul of a poet filtered through the meticulous approach of a careful editor. In short, it’s as beautiful and mesmerizing as a ship in a bottle, and just as expertly crafted.

Check out a Kickstarter for the record here.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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