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Author: Lisa Whealy

Bendrix Littleton’s journey helps us through our own

We’ve all learned to sit still within ourselves in 2020–many would say against our will. Forces outside of ourselves seem like the starting place for the debut release of this project whose namesake is the protagonist in Graham Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair. Bendrix Littleton’s Deep Dark South via NNA Tapes haunts the hallways of the songwriter’s introspection, filtered through the classic novel’s framework of guilt, desire, excess, and miracles.

Dallas transplant and folk musician Bennett Littlejohn crafts a fascinating tale over the course of ten tracks. Formerly part of the duo Bent Denim which disbanded in 2018, this record pointed Littlejohn in a new direction musically. Through the project’s narrator, the songwriter found the freedom to embrace more experimental textures and soundscapes. Stepping into character as Maurice Bendrix, a new creative aesthetic was born out of Greene’s story of World War II love, infidelity, death, and forgiveness during the bombing of London. Littlejohn recorded and mixed all the tracks, with mastering by Edsel Holden; restrained, haunting subtleties roar throughout this record with stunning clarity. 

Bendrix Littleton admits to finding creative freedom through the classic narrative, giving the artist permission to experiment texturally. Sonically nuanced, many of this album’s moments could be seen as a dark, drunken depression on too much Tennessee whiskey. Opening with Evan Scala’s drums on “Church Choir” is misleading, a skillful sonic sleight of hand. “smoke” firmly entrenches the songwriter’s narrative, as this beautiful little ditty trips away into loneliness. The title track plods here, and it would seem “Deep Dark South” should be ominous. Masterfully recorded, the hollow echo captures that disconnected feeling of being alone we all might have felt at one time or another. Set to acoustic guitar and piano, Littleton’s dance is nothing short of a genius journey of self-discovery. 

The novel The End of the Affair gave birth to multiple films, as the themes of aching love, inadequacy, jealousy, and death transport themselves into any time. Littleton’s Dark South is a whole entity just as a film might be, though there are standout moments. “Carry These Things” is layered in purposefully-delivered metaphor, opening with an almost whiny lyrical delivery as the wander begins. We all collect memories, life’s dredges that somehow we can’t leave behind. This track is perfect. 

As the journey of this record reaches the end, “Wine” may be the best of the record. Deep, velvety, rich vocals draw the listener in, with a simple pillow-talk backline keeping the mood steady. Do people need to know the story that inspired Bendrix Littleton, or has his art transcended the confines of the old narrative, evolving into something satisfying and new? Oddly, many of the most impactful moments on this record are in the transition from each part of the narrative. With background vocals throughout from Sara Beth Go, “Boredom” seems an homage to 2020. Ultimately, Bendrix Littleton’s Deep Dark South via NNA Tapes is a stroke of artistic genius that rises from the ashes of this past year.–Lisa Whealy

Jess Jocoy’s Online Residency: “Somebody Somewhere”

This week we say goodbye to Nashville-based songwriter Jess Jocoy, as she wraps up her Independent Clauses residency.  With her track “Somebody Somewhere” from her latest album Such a Long Way as a down-home adieu, Jocoy embraces stylistic choices associated with her folk-Americana genre while breaking free of some of its stylistic confines.

Let me say: I’m not a huge fan of country music, but I respect its connection to rock and roll historically.  Now that I’ve cleared the air, I am always searching for music that connects to the soul. Jess Jocoy connects in this performance. “Somebody Somewhere” is an intricate masterpiece, disarming the listener with each uncomplicated theme rolling along, note by note.  

The songwriter tells her tale simply, the guitar serving as an echo to her deep vocal tone.  Reminiscent of Brandi Carlisle, Jocoy sings as an Americana troubadour ready to step into the metaphor-rich world of indie folk-rock. Providing a steady framework for Jocoy’s vocals, the restrained production envelops the listener like a warm glow from a fire’s dying embers. The video, filmed by Adam Jones of ALJ Innovations in Nashville, feels like we are all hanging out with Jocoy before she sets out on tour. It’s intimate yet casual at the same time. Jess Jocoy is poised to break out with cuts like “Somebody Somewhere”  from her album Such a Long Way as the finale to her stand here at Independent Clauses.

Though this is the final installment of Jess’s online residency here in IC, you can catch Jocoy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube. Check out the two previous installations of the online residency here and here. —Lisa Whealy

The Old Sounds Point to the New Sound: Zephaniah OHora’s Listening to the Music

Country music reflects our ever-changing culture with its ever-changing soundscape. The music passing away a cowboy’s loneliness grew, connecting hard-working folks with ideas of freedom in good times and bad. A transformation occurred with Ernest Stoneman’s 1927 Nashville recording, part of The Bristol Sessions. Radio audiences fell for the guitar-driven, down-home style, yet few major changes to the genre have ever stuck longterm, as styles in country ebb and flow. With all that in mind, Zephaniah OHora’s Listening to the Music may be leading a new renaissance. It’s one of the most potentially-influential records in recent years.

OHora’s successful transplant from the home of Buck Owens in Bakersfield, California, to the wide-open ideas of Brooklyn, New York is certainly part of the story. The musician’s deeply religious upbringing could suggest to those of faith that there are no mistakes in the universe that leads to this album. 

The final work of producer Neal Casal before his sudden passing is a unique blend of old school country musicality blended with jazz and blues stylistic elements. The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn provided the perfect setting to record the album; these friends and associates were able to create a record in live takes, adding an organic, spontaneous quality to the recordings. 

The traditional twang of “Heaven’s On the Way” is a nod to the old-school sensibilities of country music, contrasting with the song’s lyrical content. The quick-hit “Black & Blue” blasts through a break-up tune with slide and electric guitar. This uptempo stunner flashes moments of brilliant vulnerability. Themes traditionally left to angst-filled tunes lurk in the songwriter’s lyrics, but something’s different here. OHora shifts down gears to “It’s Not So Easy Today,” connecting to an exposed inner place. This subtle gem shines. Like Glen Cambell’s “Witchita Lineman” in its soaring proclamations, this is one of the record’s standout cuts. Violins and piano mix perfectly with Ohora’s vocals. Casal’s intuitive restraint shines here, lest we forget the producer’s touch. 

Surrounded by masters in their craft, OHora’s “Listening to the Music” is a testimonial to music as God’s gift to us all. The title track is beautifully simple, with the singer’s vocal tone somehow both embracing, encouraging, and sonically soothing. This song’s creative force cheers each of us, calling us to embrace music’s powerful energy. The sequencing is key to this album’s success; each song provides a step on the path to enlightenment through the overall narrative, from old school country to a new identity reflected through Ohora’s metaphor-rich lyricism. 

The emotional “I’ve No More Tears to Cry” is a set-up for the album’s lead single “All American Singer” halfway through the album. The song’s significance is only matched with its brilliance, putting forth the idea that our country was built on people fighting for change. Dignified and authentic, this rolling anthem blends old-school country composition with protest lyricism and a flair for positivity. OHora switches to sarcasm with the uptempo groove of “Living Too Long.” The song soars, with shining piano and guitar solos interjected throughout the closing refrain.

“Riding That Train” opens the window on life in New York City from an outsider’s perspective. This celebratory, joyful, jazzy roots Americana puts us all in the songwriter’s shoes. This song should get carved into the Great American Songbook. “Emily” and “You Make it Easy to Love Again” may seem like a country artist’s obligatory love songs, yet these are lyrically independent of the tired, formulaic themes that exhaust listeners. With an aura of Lyle Lovett, this track feels classic. The album closes with “Time Won’t Take It’s Time,” a laid-back swing with a touch of Ray Wylie Hubbard. This album is sonically lush: each note perfectly mixed and given space to breathe, each instrument–including Ohora’s vocal moments–given time to shine. 

Ohora hoped the album would shed light on the unique talents of his friend and producer Neal Casal. In the end, this album shows the universe had a plan for his artistry. Music opens a channel, connecting shared experiences to provide meaning in challenging times. Zephaniah OHora’s Listening to the Music helps redefine country music as a genre, its reimagining an expansion of country music’s sonic palate. The artist’s blend of performances creates a new flavor of country music, throwing it all the way back to blending gospel and jazz, then swirling it with the sheer spiritual joy only music brings.–Lisa Whealy

Jess Jocoy’s Online Residency, Pt 2

In Part Two of IC’s online residency from the Seattle-to-Nashville folk artist Jess Jocoy, we immerse ourselves in “The Ballad of Two Lovers” from her recently-released Such a Long Way

Written from a tag line that would not leave the artist alone, Jocoy’s track owns the throwback vibe of 1960s New York or San Francisco Bay folk-rock. These were hangouts for the cultured, anti-establishment hipsters supporting art-minded music that changed the industry’s sound for years to come. Music moved people to feel as if they could change the world. The scene that found Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell connects to talents like Jess Jocoy’s. The singer’s authentic vulnerability invites audiences to share an experience. Her lyrics cut straight to the soul. Combined with the artist’s vocal delivery, the words possess an unearthly, nuanced tone, with notes wrapping around the listener like tendrils of heat from a crackling fire on a cold winter’s night. 

Thinking about the heart of the song, Jocoy shared: “Whether they become comfortable or complacent, the fire dies down, but the memories of when love was new still serve as the coals underneath. It’s a song of resilience. Someone is willing to fight for the rekindling because they believe it’s worth fighting for. It’s melancholic, for sure, but also kind of beautiful.”

Haunting in its hopefulness, the stripped acoustic performance alludes to our shared experience with heartbreak. Jocoy is a songwriter whose imagery is sonically colored, each chord inviting us along for the journey. The beauty of “The Ballad of Two Lovers” is its ethereal, ghost-like quality; an essence of Joan Baez’s freedom-fighter flavored with Dolly Parton’s country angst. Jess Jocoy finds herself sharing the same contemporary space as women like Courtney Marie Andrews, whose authenticity defines their art. 

Jess will be back in two weeks on IC with the final installment of her online residency. You can catch Jocoy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube for more until then.–Lisa Whealy

Red Sammy’s “Between Love and Lonely Heartbreak”

Red Sammy’s “Between Love and Lonely Heartbreak” strikes a chord. His video for the single from his 8th studio release That Raging Heart reverberates with disjointed imagery, flashes of a soul in torment.

Adam Trice, the Baltimore songwriter known as Red Sammy, bleeds emotion through his haunting vocal performance, at times reminiscent of Disturbed’s David Draiman. Recording engineer Matt Fish (Stable Studios; Chambersburg, Pennsylvania) and mixer / masterer Dave Nachodsky (Invisible Sound Studio, Baltimore) helped define this unreal, dark folk vibe. It’s simple, yet undeniably unsettling. You’re wrapped in impeccable electric guitar: just close your eyes. Let insanity take you away, humming a tune.–Lisa Whealy

Kickstarter: Neal Casal Music Foundation

In roughly forty-three hours, the Neal Casal Music Foundation Kickstarter will be over. Currently 1,082 people have donated totaling $130,307.00 and counting. So why write anything at this point? Well, we all need a little more Neal Casal. Neal Casal’s story is of a thirty-year career tragically cut short. I’m so glad Neal got a guitar for his 13th birthday instead of an Atari, aren’t you? The Neal Casal Music Foundation will carry on his legacy, making sure New York and New Jersey students have access to instruments and lessons, as well as continued support for MusicCares Backline.

Another way the foundation will carry on Neal’s legacy is with Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal. As we all navigate these strange days, there’s no doubt music’s healing vibrations soothe the soul. Have you watched Billy Strings or Circle Round the Sun during lockdown, like me? Grammy-winning engineer/producer Jim Scott and Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools at PLYRZ Studio (Wilco, Grace Potter, Tedeschi Trucks, Crowded House) in Valencia, California will give wings to the triple album. Holding my breath and waiting for the contributions of Leslie Mendelson and Marcus King & Eric Kranso helps ground my soul a bit longer. It’s a perfect place for a reincarnation of Casal’s songs.–Lisa Whealy

Passenger’s Patchwork reflects the difficulty and connectedness of our moment

Music’s ability to touch the soul and heal through shared experience is undeniable. Patchwork from UK based singer-songwriter Passenger (aka Michael David Rosenberg) has a troubadour’s vulnerability, shared through song. His style of acoustic folk-rock has always felt like a cool ocean breeze, a salty hug for the soul.

Chris Vallejo served as both engineer and producer on the latest digital-only release. Andrew Philips contributed to the album’s rich instrumentation, while Richard Brinklow’s piano helps create an earthy, authentic vibe. All proceeds from the release go to The Trussell Trust.

Rosenberg has been in quarantine with the rest of us. His statement that there was never an intention to write a quarantine record seems authentic, yet odd. We all do our part. Doctors and nurses flooded to where they were most needed. Artists create beauty in times of tragedy. Shared memory of tragedy often helps us all cope, and thus songs like “Venice Canals” will always bring me to tears. Pain, suffering, hope, and connection resonate throughout this album, but there’s hope in our inseparability. Clear, deep, melancholy vocals unencumbered with simple guitar accompaniment is perfection. 

“Sword in the Stone” opens the album, resonating most with this blink-in-time we are living through. Like King Arthur, we have no power to vanquish the enemy ahead of time. Only together the coronavirus will be vanquished. “Patchwork” also reflects our moment in time and may be the track that most aligns with the songwriter’s partnership with The Trussell Trust. (The organization’s focus on ending hunger and poverty in the UK earnestly began in April of 2018. The Trussell Trust reports that in March 2019 there was a 19% increase in overall support to millions of people living in poverty, showing a country in crisis before the 2020 pandemic.) The song features lush, intricate instrumentation; lyricism that seemingly defies gravity in its imagery; and fingerpicking lightness, creating true artistry. 

“Year on Year, Day by Day” is a glimmer of what’s ahead, the second cut in this trip through an artist’s coping with chaos. Perky, uptempo, seemingly reassuring musicality hides the stark reality lurking in the lyrics. A poetic genius wields a guitar here. A cover of Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” reminds us all that those people that are revered are vulnerable, and the harshness of the pandemic’s grief and loss is all-consuming. To me, this version of a beautifully written song enters the category of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” a great version that stands next to its original.

The warm sun of “Queenstown” is sheer perfection. Though many have never been there, to those of us that have, this track is a vacation in our minds back to the place. Music spurs our imaginations, and Passenger certainly provides a vivid soundtrack here. Transitioning into the uptempo “Swimming Upstream,” it’s easy to feel the frenetic, stuck-with-nowhere-to-be phenomenon we are sharing. Not my favorite of the album, but maybe that’s because this song hits too close to the truth.

Patchwork ends with “Summer Rain” and its violin, soaring in warmth and love of this record’s season. The honest longing of this bleeding emotion is painful, yet each piano chord echoes with the promise of a new sunrise. Phantom memories of happier times, acknowledging we are all a bit frayed, are the only way to gracefully bow out of this tragic dance: stronger, bound through our collective survival. Passenger’s use of the metaphor in the title reveals one thing. We are all stronger connected, despite our flaws and weaknesses. Like jellyfish in the Venice Canals, this album’s shared purpose may be to provide Patchwork binding fans together to help The Trussell Trust.–Lisa Whealy

Pat Phelan’s Torn-to-Pieces-Hood introduces a new voice

The “Rat King” opens Torn-to-Pieces-Hood with an allusion to T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 story The Nutcracker, and The Mouse King is a heady place to start. Adam Lepkowski on bass guitar and synthesizer along with Shamus Hackett on percussion start the ballet with Pat Phelan’s guitar and vocals. Musically, a gritty sense of isolation creates a sense of separation, paralleling the lyrics. We know the story of isolation, especially in 2020. However, this Rat King’s story is different.

“Grown Giant” is stylistically softer, more like The Decemberists. “Annan Water” leaves the story of the Rat King and sets the stage for a real connection to an artist. We all have that first moment when we realize that  there’s no one putting together the pieces of our lives for us anymore. Phelan stitches that concept together with stunning imagery together. This track also displays a sense of disconnection, like “Rat King”. The genius of “Sweater” is easy to settle into: it’s authentic, simple, emotional, and sexy, stripped to only Phelan with Sean Egan on bass and Lepkowski on percussion. It captures an essence of innocence longing for more passion.

Much of this album’s joy is the result of the raw authenticity Lepkowski sought in the production process. “Sentimental Custer” starts its intricate tango with a bit of that, featuring Lepkowski on synthesizer and guitar along with Chris Flynn on percussion help. Phelan crafts a dance of forgiveness, framed in one of history’s greatest ego-driven defeats. Wandering toward the end of the record, the ominous “Glow” feels contextually supported with disconnected mixing techniques separating layers of sound. Joe Palamara joins the record on bass guitar along with Chris Carr on percussion and backing vocals. A disconnect breathes here between the lyrics and Phelan’s vocal. Possibly the most emotive of the entire record, this song resonates deeply. 

“Ships in the Digital Night” is punctuated with new instrumentation. Glockenspiel and synthesizer are perfectly weird production choices, solidifying Lepkowski’s work as a smart producer. Their sonic qualities speak to the glaring commentary of our digital world, exponentially augmented since this song’s pre-COVID birth. (Recorded in Sparta, New Jersey and produced by Adam Lepkowski during a period between 2017 and 2018, Phelan’s sophomore tunes land in a drastically different world than their creation.) It’s gritty, raw, and haunting perfection. I can see a music video in my mind, and that’s scary. 

Ending the journey of Torn-to-Pieces-Hood is “The Time of Fast Food.” Clean and quick, this cut is reminiscent of Jakob Dylan in The Wallflowers’ song “One Headlight,” hoping for better. At the end of this story of The Rat King and The Nutcracker, the new star of the ballet is certainly singer-songwriter Pat Phelan. —Lisa Whealy

Riaan Nieuwenhuis’ instrumental jazz rock soars

Riaan Nieuwenhuis’s Bleeding Moon seemed to come out of nowhere before entering my orbit. The fifth album from the accomplished South African composer was begun around the time of the lunar eclipse in July 2018. Featuring celebrated global musicians, this excellent instrumental jazz rock soars like the last twenty years of man’s life in space among the stars. 

Was the eclipse of the Blood Moon really the catalyst for this album? Maybe, but all events spark artistic creation leading to Graff/Del Aire, where all but one of the piano tracks were recorded. Starting from the outside in, Nelis Kruger’s cover photograph with Lara Kruger-Nieuwenhuis’ artwork evokes memories of great album covers like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The composer self-produced this effort, with Mark-Louis Ellis handling mixing and Tim Lengfeld handling mastering duties. Together they create an imaginative artistic statement.

This follow-up to 2018’s Reminiscence may be an extension of that creation, like stepping stones to a new space. Listeners are immersed in a funky jazz/metal/rock creation that is admittedly otherworldly. Music that defies classification is a view into the unknown. Nieuwenhuis has crafted an album in its purest form; an exemplary work that defies genre.

“Courtesy” stands alone on this album as the first and only song recorded on Tunes Studio’s pristine grand piano. Nieuwenhuis welcomes us with his restrained performance. This track shines clearly, echoing Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Not simply a jazz record, each clear chord structure dancing across the ivories has elements both haunting and hopeful. Instrumentation for the album’s nine tracks comes to life via the backline of drummer Jean Marais and bassist Mark-Louis Ellis.

Strutting in with Chico Muñoz’s trumpet balanced with Almuir Botha’s rhythm guitar, the tone certainly falls into a jazz vibe, but this album is about defying gravity, metaphorically speaking. “Clarksdale” grooves down into the old-school jazz-rock instrumental mood that made bands like Pink Floyd legendary. After immersing in Joe Russo’s music, I realized that instrumental composition really reveals its magic after total immersion. 

Multiple guest artists on this album provide an opportunity to compare performance styles. On “Declaration” Albert Frost (lead guitar), Rob Nagel (harmonica), and Wilken Calitz (violin) create an aura much like the Moody Blues or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. “Extraditione” brilliantly shifts into the Metallica orchestral-rock feel that I personally love. 

“Boreas,” written by Mark Louis Ellis (classical guitar), is the standout track of the album. Restrained, plaintive, and simple, the interplay of guitar and piano is reminiscent of Italy’s embrace of the harpsichord in the 17th century. Serving as an elegant resting place, I personally would love to hear more in this style. “Courtesy” continues in this same space, redefining the album’s overall tone. Stately, it carries with it an overall feeling of defiance. C.J. Bergh lends his classical guitar to “Agreement,” with a final homage to classic chord structures, echoing past masters. 

Closing with some contrasts, “Certainty” seems connected to the classical sensibilities of the record. “Frontier” drops back into an interesting place, as Heinrich Wesson (guitar), Riku Latti (accordion) and Nieuwenhuis (guitar) flip the switch back to the contemporary. Somehow, this is a rock instrumental with jazz funk grooves and a classically-driven piano piece blessed with stunning instrumentation. These two ends of the spectrum show the rare weakness of the album: dropping rock or classically-driven songs into the wrong place in the track order hurts the flow of the record. Still, the stylistically diverse record has many nuanced moments throughout the nine songs that show glimpses of music’s eternal connection to the universe.–Lisa Whealy

The Record Company’s Rarities thrill with blues-rock fervor

The Record Company’s drummer and backing vocalist Marc Cazorla notes that the band committed to being the best performance a live music fan ever experienced early on in the band’s existence. Scheduling my return from New York City in 2018 hinged on experiencing a second show at Phoenix’s Crescent Ballroom, this time for their All of This Life tour. My sister danced her way through two sets with me at the High Sierra Music Festival a year later. To say Cazorla, Chris Vos (lead vocals, guitars), and Alex Stiff (bassist and backing vocals) achieved their goal is an understatement.

The band’s self-sufficiency led to 2016-2017’s Give It Back to You. Fans urged the band to record. The album was born in the clubs and bars in Los Angeles where the band cut their teeth, refining their tight, lush, three-piece sound. Recorded in bassist Alex Stiff’s living room, the band’s energy was digitized brilliantly, raw and real. Vos and Cazorla found a connection to authentic blues-rock with Stiff’s backline foundation and three-part background vocal harmonies. There’s a new member of the club that formerly only had Cream and Big Brother and the Holding Company in it. 

Limited to 1,000 vinyl records from Concord Records on its Black Friday 2019 release, The Record Company’s Early Songs & Rarities is an invitation. This release was Initially supported through tour dates which are, of course, postponed. Now, while we sit home together with the band’s release digitized, does it fill the gap until we can hang together again, masked up like superheroes? 

“Darlin’ Jane” from 2013 throws it back from the beginning. “Crooked City” feels like a raw version of the track from Give it Back to You, listed as an alternate take. This gritty quality cannot be faked. “Medicine Man” brings to mind one of my favorite performances at the High Sierra Music Festival. A tribal, driving backline pushes the cut along. Hollow vocals reverberate each lyric in true blues-rock style, aching like the great John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton. Sweet!

New Speedway Boogie” drops in on the band in a living room recording session doing a cover. “Ain’t Love Warm” is that analog, down-and-dirty grit that shifts into a deeper dive with its grungy bar feel. Hopefully, we have all been places where there’s traction from slopped booze as we step up to the stage.

Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City” from 1961 shows a reverence for the band’s primary genre: blues. Each note embraces the history of a band that has fought for each achievement. Staying true to their roots, “Never Gonna Cry For Me,” composed by Stiff and Cazorla, brings back that Muddy Waters vibe, paying homage to the genre. Growling vocals from Vos alternating with harmonica transport us to a full-on juke joint grind. These guys are in charge with no pretenses, and “So Whatcha Want” brings us into the living room for the practice. The rough feel of gem “4 Days 3 Nights” is fitting here, especially sequenced with the tense “The Jailor.”

The Record Company certainly had no ability to foretell the future, seeing the devastation this pandemic would have. This throwback collection gives us all a chance to collect ourselves. Finding the will to be weird, as Jim Morrison said, may help people mask up, as Vos models on the band’s website. Stiff and Cazorla provide the foundation of this soundtrack for a strange new day in live music. It may be a while, but I can’t wait to see them live again. —Lisa Whealy.