Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Great Lakes: Bringing Back Rock & Roll

February 2, 2016

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Growing up, my mother always made me listen to her music: Bad Company, The Eagles, The Police, etc. Often, I petitioned for listening to “cooler” music, but now I take those words back. I find myself regularly in the mood for some classic rock, and I now understand that you honestly can’t get any cooler than such true examples of rock & roll. The band Great Lakes echoes ‘70s and ‘80s rock & roll while making a sound all their own. Great Lakes’ 5th album release Wild Vision combines the true essence of rock & roll with country instrumentation and a bent towards nature.

“Bird Flying” and “Wild Again” are great reflections of the classic rock & roll vibe with a twist. “Bird Flying” begins with an electric guitar opener that oozes sex appeal. The electric guitar pops back in midway through the song and again at the end. Although the solos are not quite as long as The Eagles’ “Hotel California” solo, Great Lakes’ use of the electric guitar is just as seductive. “Wild Again” uses drums, bass, electric guitar, pedal steel, synthesizer, and even cello to create a very full rock & roll sound with moments of dissonance. The entire song builds to a climax at the end following the last chorus. Picture it: the lyrics “I want to be Wild again/ wild again/ wild again” repeat as the instruments go wild into this magnificent, all-instruments on-deck-outro (with space sounds, to boot)!

“Beauties of the Way,” “Blood on my Tooth,” and “Shot at and Missed” are unique rock & roll experiences. “Beauties of the Way” begins with a drums/guitar beat that instantly reminds me of ‘90s hit “The Way” by Fastball. As the song continues, more guitars and a pedal steel are added. By the end of the track, the initial ‘90s beat is long forgotten and the electric guitar leads the way to another far-out ending. “Blood on my Tooth” has more of a toned-down sound with minimal percussion and a great acoustic guitar rhythm. Then out of nowhere comes this funky, Doors-esque bass line. The lyrics in “Blood on my Tooth” are also very rock & roll: “You shouldn’t have asked if you did not want to get hurt.” “Shot at and Missed” throws you yet again into their funky rock & roll world and includes fun lyrics like, “To the wild/I Go”.

“Kin to the Mountain,” “Nature is Always True” and “I Stay, You Go” have more of a country rock feel, similar to the The Eagles, established through their instrumentation. These songs feature the acoustic guitar and pedal steel more than the other tracks. Great Lakes still maintained their rock sound in these tracks, they just toned it down a bit and featured more acoustic instruments. By softening up their instrumentation, listeners are also enabled to take more notice to the harmonic male/female vocal combination and poetic lyrics.

The lyrics and titles of Wild Vision’s tracks expose Great Lakes’ bent towards nature. I mean, with a name like Great Lakes and an album like Wild Visions, the focus on nature is already pretty evident. “Swim the River,” “Bird Flying,” “Kin to the Mountain,” “Wild Again,” and “Nature is Always True” are the titles of the first five songs–all related to nature. “Kin to the Mountain” contains some of the best nature-focused lyrics on the album, opening with the chorus: “I am kin to the mountain/ kin to the sea/ my name is lightning/ wild vision I’ve seen.” That is a lyric to chew on.

Great Lakes blew me away with Wild Vision. The male/female vocal pairing is harmonic and genuine, but the instrumentation is really what shines in this album. Wild Vision is nothing but true rock & roll. —Krisann Janowitz

Kalden Bess: Like an after-hours speedway

January 29, 2016

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Like an emerald mustang with a black racer stripe, Kalden Bess’s Jet Lag EP hits 60 mph in five seconds. The first two songs, “Rabbit Hole” and a remix by Jon Gurd, are techno-heavy, house-beat tracks that made me feel like I was punching it into gear with 500+ horsepower in an action movie. Just as intensely alluring as the original, this remix adds subtle details, such as a slight muting halfway through. It sounded, quite literally, like I was racing through a tunnel, with the sound dropping out a bit and then epic, bass-bumping diapason returning seconds later — barely enough time for me to hold my breath until reaching the other side.

The synth work in “Jet Lag (Original Mix)” is tight, severe and sexy-spooky. The overall vibe is eternal, like a warehouse party that will never end, or a blunt cruise with a full tank of gas. Clean hi-hats and a bumping bassline light up the car radio with flashing red and purple stereo lights. Adding a metallic charm, The Developer remix bolsters the original with an industriously atmospheric flair. Like a recording of a penny factory’s internal operations, the beat is repetitive and efficient.

“Slower (Original Mix)” was a personal favorite because of the muffled vocals, muted beat, and pounding-on-the-door rhythm that reminded me of making beats on cafeteria tables. I can almost hear my middle school classmates free-styling over the thud-th-thud of our rolled up fists, silverware clinking against trays.

Robotic and motorized, Kalden Bess’s Jet Lag is futuristic in a gritty, Clockwork Orange type of way. With tireless techno beats and pristine production work, Jet Lag is a rumbling, well-oiled engine of an EP that doesn’t want to drive us anywhere but to an after-hours illegal speedway.–Rachel Haney

Premiere: Stephen Babcock’s “Someday” kicks off a bright acoustic-pop record

January 27, 2016

Stephen Babcock‘s “Someday” is a smooth acoustic pop track that alerts you his “thing for Southern girls / wrapped in sundresses and pearls.” There’s rarely been a more confident statement of intended audience since John Mayer threw down “Your Body is a Wonderland.”

Babcock has more than a little of Mayer’s early-career suave to his pop songwriting, as he easily lays down a syncopated vocal line over lightly funky guitar and screamin’ organ. But it’s not played off as nerdy cool, like a Mraz tune: this is all eyebrow-raised flirtation and suggestion. (Just listen to those lyrics for more proof.) The results are both familiar and fresh, like a suit that you wear for the first time and automatically feel right in.

“Someday” kicks off Said and Done, where Babcock continues to develop his acoustic-pop milieu. He follows the opening salvo with “Lines of a Love Song,” which is actually a looking-back tune; there’s major wistfulness in the lyrics and a strong dose of melancholy in the verses, but Babcock can’t resist a major-key chorus with a catchy vocal line. Pop songs like those form the majority of Said and Done, with subtle variety throughout: while “Tightrope” and “Kings” continue the full-band alt-pop funkiness, “Worth” punches up the drive a bit by infusing a bit of rock push into the pop tune; “Amy” has some introspective singer/songwriter touches in the guitar line and the lyrics. “Cape Cod” amps up the funky and puts it in a minor key. Without losing his core style, Babcock is able to put distinctive spins on the tracks.

But Babcock’s not just a southern-lovin’, acoustic-toting good ‘ol boy. Babcock’s multi-faceted tenor is a selling point of the record, as the subtle touches in his delivery set the songs apart from other alt-pop tunes. He can easily shift his delivery between evocative and dry, creating tension between verses and chorus–sometimes even between lines. It’s clear that he’s got strong control of what his voice can do, from soaring melodies to wry speak-singing bits. That’s a rare, stand-out skill.

The eight songs of Said and Done show Babcock as an alt-pop singer-songwriter with a strong control of his voice and craft. If you’re looking for some bright, tight, well-penned acoustic pop to slot next to Matt Nathanson, Griffin House, and (yup) John Mayer, you’ll find much to enjoy in Stephen Babcock’s work.

Said and Done drops February 27–pre-order it here. If you’re in NYC, the album release show is that night at Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 2.

Benjamin Verdoes: Clean, concise wistfulness

January 11, 2016

The One & the Other - Verdoes

Benjamin Verdoes’ latest EP The One and the Other drips like the steady precipitation of his native Seattle. It’s melancholy and moist, with recordings of chirping birds and nighttime city sounds. Verdoes has tamed these eerie textures with soothing vocals to create a definite style of clean, concise wistfulness.

Starting with the somewhat jarring sound of a car driving by, “Highly Emotional” portrays alienation in a place that seems lively and urban. Verdoes uses dark, electronic texturing and echoing vocals to render a humanistic, raw, internal loneliness that’s imprinted on the rest of the EP.

“Night Walk” commences with a similar sound of a car kicking up rainwater from a curbside puddle, but the rhythm on this track is groovier, more dense, and bewitching. The percussion remains hauntingly steady, the synth creeps, and the whole mood is so darkly ambient, I expected to hear an owl hooting in the background.

One of the more upbeat tracks, “Above Ground,” culminates in a strange, circus vibe as the vocals soar and sweep along high notes. The mood reminded me of The Internet’s “Cocaine,” because of the similar dreamlike quality that Verdoes portrays. “It’s too beautiful to argue/You forgive me, and I’ll forgive you,” the male vocalist sings warmly. A sudden, beautiful interruption of R&B then elevates the instrumentation, and a swirl of that carnival techno pulses even harder.

Tracks such as “Is This All That We Are” and “Eight Oh Eight” are patient and calculated. “Is This All That We Are” utilizes a gorgeous touch of piano and horn, while “Eight Oh Eight” plays on bursts of vocals. But “Beautiful Dying World” is the most angelic, sounding like a big-bodied choir singing a church hymn. Strumming guitar builds up to a celestial drop, which– while not as earth shattering as an Odesza drop–has a parallel euphoric rush.

These six tracks are united in their darkly contoured style, haunting vocals and R&B tendencies, but they each offer something different in terms of tempo and shades of fragility and seriousness.  The One and the Other is an EP to digest solo, with only the rain-washed walls of your city to keep you company. —Rachel Haney

 

Last 2015 Quick Hits: Living Decent / Distant Cousins / Marc Maynon / Sundaug

January 4, 2016

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The acoustic indie-pop of Living Decent‘s Do What Makes You Brave EP shows a different side of the band, which released their self-titled pop-punk EP in July 2015. Brave relies on the singer/songwriter background of Vic Alvarez, featuring his voice against an acoustic guitar and minimal arrangement around that. The minimalism ranges from nothing but voice and guitar in “Minus 10” to the bass and tambourine of the perky (but still not pop-punk perky) “Crystal Palace” and the crescendoing drums and bass of “Moving the Sun.” The four songs here each maintain a balance between punchy and melancholy–it’s unsurprising that they list “emo” as one of their tags. They could tour with Football, Etc. as part of the emo revival, making music that draws off emo’s forefather influences but sounds modern and relateable.

The standout is closer “I Could Not Be Here,” the most realized of the tunes here: Alvarez’s breathy, earnest tenor is surrounded by warm keys and gentle percussion to create a tune that almost sounds like a Plans-era Death Cab for Cutie song. Living Decent has songwriting chops that they’ve now showed off in two different realms very quickly. They’re an exciting outfit to watch for in 2016.

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Distant Cousins‘ self-titled EP finds a way to triangulate contemplative folk, folk-pop, and Imagine Dragons-style radio pop in a fun, catchy product. Opener “Taste of Tomorrow” combines all three of their elements in an enthusiastic, sax-blasted tune that reminds me of Magic Giant’s work. “Your Story” is a straight-up-and-down folk pop tune that ropes in female vocalist Jessie Payo for the back-and-forth elements. Closer “For a Moment” is a pristine folk tune buoyed by multiple-part harmonies that sticks out for its beauty. The rest of the tracks on the six-song EP turn up the pop volume and get fun–if you’re into that style of music, Distant Cousins are right on that wavelength. Their debut EP shows off that they can write a snappy tune, and there are flashes of beauty in there too. I’m interested to see where they go next.

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The four songs of Marc Maynon‘s Watch Pot have thoroughly ingested British Invasion songcraft but don’t just spit that back out. Instead, Maynon’s songwriting has a bit of a power-pop cast to it at times (“Something to Live For”) and a piano-pop flair at other times (“Sensation,” “Vintage Lens”). Maynon’s high-pitched tenor is deployed nicely throughout the EP; in “Sensation” and “Vintage Lens” his vocals pair especially well with the bright piano tone. Even though he has solid pop bonafides, this isn’t all upbeat major-key work; Maynon has a solid control of mid-tempo and minor-key work. Add in the thoughtful arrangement touches throughout, from strings to synths to trumpet, and you’ve got a solid EP of pop songwriting. Watch Pot is a good slice of sound for fans of formal pop songwriting.

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Sundaug‘s Nocturnality is a full album of instrumental compositions that primarily revolve around a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Each of the 14 tracks is remarkably relaxing, from the gently grooving opener “Pyramid” to the moody closer “Chasing Angels.” The album is strongly cohesive, and you can listen to the album as one long tune if you wish. (It’s particularly good for setting on in an afternoon where you don’t have much to do and just want to chill–I can vouch). Some highlights that stick out (but only ever so slightly–it’s all really good) are “When Solitude Becomes Isolation,” a cascading tune that sounds more contemplative and positive than the title suggests, and “The Submersion,” which pairs pad synths with interesting guitar runs. (Some might not be thrilled with the occasional overture toward new age music, but I don’t think it diminishes the overall impact of the release.) If you’re interested in relaxing guitar-centric music, you should check out Sundaug’s Nocturnality.

Kisses: Balanced yet jubilant

December 29, 2015

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Kisses duo, Zinzi Edmundson and Jesse Kivel, have released Rest in Paradise, a neo-disco album that is balanced, jubilant, and just in time for a low-key holiday. With live instrumentation, it gave me the feeling I was at an outdoor disco or funky dinner party, alongside eccentric guests with even more eccentric dance moves.

Opener “Paradise Waiting Room” sets an immediate, cheerful tone via gellin’ rhythm and a recording of people conversing in the background. This blur of conversation is what gives “Paradise Waiting Room” a dinner party essence, lit up by a quick spritzing of jazzy, silver tinsel horn. This funky party boat glides right into a dock of peaceful, conclusive piano that ripples as the voices of the partygoers are amplified.

Nighttime ballads balance this theme, especially on “Sun,” where the male vocalist starts  this babymaker track off appropriately with, “I’m feeling something, it’s all in-tune.” With patient percussion, rhythm and vocals, this song takes its good ‘ole time.

This pace is replicated on the flat-out catchy “The Nile,” where I was stoked to hear Kisses boldly bring out the cowbells. Electric guitar sways like a low-waist-lined seductress, but it’s “Fred Roses” that really gets into things. With a full moon of a trumpet and soft, burgundy vocals that sing, “It’s written in the sun, it shines on everyone, you wanna be in love,” “Fred Roses” confirms that Rest in Paradise is just as alluring as it is convivial. This mood returns in the slow, sedated-by-oxytocin, “Eternal,” which has a gondola-like romanticism. And then finally reaches its emotive peak in the placid, swirling, conical, closing title track.

Bedazzling lyrics and the trademark Kisses groove channel a supreme sexiness take-over in “Jam.” The vocalist cries, “Oh, baby sista, please dance with me/I know what you’re thinking, but please dance with me…jam, on, jam on,” creating a subtle naughtiness. That heightened level of emotion appears again in a swelling horn section during the last 45 seconds of “Sunset Ltd.,” which is my version of those locker room jams they play in the final moments before game time.

“Control,” the teasing, half-smirk of a song, is a stand-out on the album. It sizzles and slides through synth and exotic percussion. Poppy male vocals, hand claps, and gentle trombone give “Control” a rollerskating-at-a-disco, dizzying buzz. Flirtatious, easy-going, and almost boy-band-like lyrics, “From the west side to the east side, she don’t know what’s right,” complete it.

I read that the duo recently got married and had a baby. And now the synched-up, jovial energy of the record all makes sense; Rest in Paradise is a celebration of the past that lead us here, of hope for the bright future, and of the freedom of being present in the moment. —Rachel Haney

ICYMI EP: Your Friendly Neighborhood

December 17, 2015

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By the end of any year, pretty much everything in me is fried. I am the sort of person that pushes hard to a particular end, achieves the goal, and then collapses contentedly in a pile for a week or so. There’s probably something unhealthy about treating every year as a goal to be achieved instead of a thing to be experienced, but whatever, I can deal with those emotions when I’m in my resting week. This year you can find me listening to the low-key indie-rock grooves of Your Friendly Neighborhood‘s self-titled EP on repeat during the last week of the year.

R&B and blue eyed soul have been big trends this year, as with a trend toward all things chill. (James Blake would be really animated about predicting the future, if he were ever animated; I choose to believe that his real-life persona and music persona are the same.) Your Friendly Neighborhood grazes the latter without explicitly referencing the former; there’s a touch of R&B drums in “Hello Mire,” a bit of falsetto in “Fall in Line,” and some Antlers-esque moodiness in “Overflow.” But the overall product is less coattail riding and more a groove-heavy exploration of indie-rock’s lighter side. The rhythms throughout the EP are more straightforward than the trendy genres would predict; the work sounds like an indie-rock band at half-time, but in the best possible way. The band calls it “ambient,” but it’s really more like indie-rock as played by a slowcore acoustic band. Imagine twinkly ’00s emo, without the charming sheen; consider ponderous mid-’00s indie-rockers without the distortion.

The results of this unique take on indie-rock are super-chill in ways both engaging and comforting. Opener “Backroads” is the fastest of the tunes here, moseying along under the strength of thrumming bass and consistent tapped cymbal. The guitars and vocals lean back on the motion, creating a barely-there tension that allows for headbobbing as well as close listening. (There’s a lot of headbobbing going on for me on this release.)

“Overflow” sets up the pattern for the next three tunes: the constant motion is replaced with slowly pulsing grooves riding on gentle organ, lazy guitar, and sparse electronic drumming. The vocals have just enough reverb on them to feel warm, but not so much as to feel psychedelic: the goal here is laying back and relaxing, not sending you into space. “Fall in Line” and “Hello Mire” follow suit, delivering beautiful ruminations on quietude and solace. It takes work to make a trio sound like one single player, but they accomplish it here. The songwriting, performances, and engineering all come together beautifully to make a compelling, interesting, way-chilled-out sound.

The only thing that’s not great about this release is that it’s four songs long. I could use a whole album of this lovely music. Your Friendly Neighborhood have a surprisingly clear outlook on who they are and a strong ability to deliver that vision to the listener. If you’re looking for some chill-out music with some pleasantly unique elements, look no farther than Your Friendly Neighborhood.

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Quick Hit: Casey Dubie’s Strangers

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Funded through a Kickstarter campaign, Casey Dubie’s latest EP Strangers highlights Dubie’s strong voice through the backdrop of varied instrumentation. Every song sounds slightly different yet does not wane in quality. Strangers highlights Dubie for what she really is– an overall solid artist.

Think back to Vanessa Carlton: she began her career by walking “A Thousand Miles” but  found a slightly darker sound by her album Harmonium. Dubie’s voice reminds me of Carlton’s steady voice in how she can belt high and low notes without strain, effortlessly transitioning through a rather large range. Dubie demonstrates this in opener “Motion Sick,” where the verses are comprised of much lower notes than the ones she transitions to during the chorus. This pattern repeats itself in many of the other tracks (“Ghost,” “You Make Me Feel”).  

The instrumentation of Strangers varies from subdued instrumentation (“Ghost”) to a more high-energy sound (“Motion Sick”). “Fugitive” starts out particularly subtle, with the instrumentation eventually rising as the song progresses. “Ghost” highlights Dubie’s voice through its slightly eerie acoustic guitar performance; the delivery remains consistent throughout to allow Dubie’s voice to soar towards the end. “Stranger” also begins with simple, repetitious guitar strum before the sound eventually explodes at the end with Dubie powerfully singing her “Ooooohhhhh”s. “You Make Me Feel” has the most unique instrumentation of the EP, as the electric guitar contributes harmony alongside the constant acoustic guitar strumming and unique percussive elements that gradually rise and then slowly fade out.

Casey Dubie’s powerful indie pop/folk sound makes Strangers a strong EP.–Krisann Janowitz

Alek Fin’s mesmerizing Án Mynda

December 14, 2015

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Alek Fin’s latest EP, Án Mynda, is like a mesmerizing love-at-first-sight experience between Bon Iver and an electronic empress. The five tracks are equidistant between earth and atmosphere. Woodsy vocals and instrumentation that gives just enough–nothing more and nothing less–root this EP in natural, earthy undertones, while a gust of electronica lifts it off the ground.

The title track contains a jolting, animated back-and-forth chorus that resembles the sound of quickened monk chants; it is both comforting and confident in its softness. Deep reverberation eventually slips in and guides the track up a winding road of transcendental sound.

“Lift Up” is a dim dance party in slow-mo and the eventual warm, appreciated crash into your bed at the end of the night, all in four minutes and forty-four seconds. “Insight” boasts even more hauntingly beautiful vocals that hollow out, gain depth and hollow out again, like a stream of consciousness rather than lyrics.

“Golden, Blinding (Feat. Galun)” is flat-out sexy, painting an abstract picture of lovers in landscapes, with lyrics like, “I see you on the water/You gravitate to me.” It erupts into a tunneling of sound that reminds those slanting, heavenly cylinder-shaped crepuscular rays that burst through the grayness after rain. “Golden, Blinding” is like a droid gliding over land, getting a whole aerial view of the world.

Alek Fin ends Án Mynda with a track that achieves “lullaby” better than any nursery story I’ve ever heard. “Eyes Open Shut” is a sensually simple song, ruffled by big, buttery, cumulus cloud vocals and soft, jumping percussion that give this track a heart and a heartbeat.

Alek Fin has thought of the whole picture here: the script, how to shoot each scene, the healthy weight of each song. He is a meditative artist, and Án Mynda is the furthest piece of music from ersatz electronic; it’s a successful, authentic experiment of sound.–Rachel Haney

ICYMI Quick Hits: Poppa’s Kitchen / Velcro Mary

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Poppa’s Kitchen is an old-fashioned pop band turning out songs in a variety of styles that are each impeccably classy and eminently singable. The duo’s Hopeful Song calls back to a (perhaps fictional?) time when it was totally normal to place the gravelly saloon swayer “Devil’s Playground,” the tragic story song ballad “Chinatown,” and a swingin’ tune like “Miner in a Cave In” on the same release, much less as tracks 2-4 on 12-song record. It’s okay that those tracks don’t establish a core sound or identity for Poppa’s Kitchen, because opener “Travis” does it perfectly.

“Travis” is a wonderful opening salvo, as it establishes the gentle acoustic-based arrangements, enthusiastic melodies,  and sense of humor that collectively drive the record. You’ll find yourself humming, snapping, and laughing along to “Travis,” and all are the right thing to do. Elsewhere on the record the small outfit goes minor key on “Ain’t 19,” get downright ’50s pop on “All You Love and All You Know,” and deliver a quiet lullaby/ballad to close out the record on the title track. Hopeful Song is just downright pleasant (and don’t you think that’s faint praise for a moment–how many albums can you just put on and kick back to in a good mood?). It doesn’t ask that much of you, but gives lots in return.

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Velcro Mary‘s Leave a Light On could have popped right out of 1996 rock radio: power-pop, pop-punk, and grunge are each represented and occasionally mashed up together here, creating a record that’s great for throwing on in a old car on the highway. Opener “Whatever Helps You Sleep at Night” hits the power-pop notes, tying muscly guitar distortion to an earnest, easygoing vocal line. “Fourth Quarter Funeral” gets a little more ominous with the vocals and the guitar strum, pushing more into punk territory. “Fifth of July” is vintage grunge arpeggiated guitar and angst: you know right now if you’re into that. The diversity of the record almost ensures that you’ll have a clutch of favorites off this 10-song record–there’s a lot to choose from.

Regardless if it’s noisy grunge or surprisingly chipper acoustic-driven power-pop (“Grow Up to Be Dead”), Jason Erb knows how to write and deliver a vocal melody that sticks. It all comes together in closer “Seasons to Sleep,” an evocative tune that draws from “Glycerine”-style grunge melancholy seasoned with the unassuming grace of modern indie ballads and Erb’s deeply affected vocals. It’s a beautiful, memorable tune.  Check out Leave a Light On if you’re looking for something diverse.

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

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