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Ellen Andrea Wang’s bass and vocals shine in melancholy jazz frames

October 27, 2020

As a bassist, I am drawn to work with strong bass aspects. This means that in the process of getting into jazz, I have naturally been drawn to bassist/composers of jazz/jazz+ music: particularly Joshua Crumbly and now Ellen Andrea Wang. Wang’s third album Closeness not only displays her bass and composing work, but showcases her smooth, easygoing vocals in several tunes.

Wang’s trio of bass, drums (Jon Fa̎lt), and guitar (Rob Luft) is an impressive outfit. In the early tracks of the record, Wang tends to stay in the background and let Luft lead the way with his (mostly) delicate, inventive guitar work. “Erasmus,” “Waiting for Ellinor,” and “Closeness” each feature Luft’s beautiful work over tastefully sparse contributions from Wang. Falt is a drummer who prefers to stay in the pocket and lean back on the groove, and thus the overall approach of this album is quiet, intricate, and intimate. “Recognise” is so minimalist as to be ambient in places. Yet the album never becomes flat or staid; the trio handles quiet work without losing intensity.

Another prominent approach is for Luft and Fa̎lt to create spaces for Wang’s gentle, smooth vocals. Wang’s versions of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” (here styled as “Nobody Knows”) and “Wayfaring Stranger” reimagine American spirituals/hymns in a melancholy, deeply-felt way. The trio’s haunting, deliberate, soulful version of Pat Metheny’s “This Is Not America” is remarkably relevant for our time lyrically and musically.

A couple tracks expand the trio’s approach. Wang & co. ratchet up the intensity and really get going on fast-paced jam session “Strange Flower.” Wang takes the first crack at the melody before the trio launches into a full-on workout. All three of them go at it with great gusto over the 5:29, with Luft breaking out the electric guitar heroics in places. Wang’s version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” starts with a two-minute solo bass performance from Wang; she accompanies herself on vocals. The back half of the piece is way more free than the rest of the mostly-structured release, with the drums, guitar, and bass all seemingly going in different directions.

This is a powerful release that shows off Wang’s vocal and composition skill. Closeness is an album that I can (and will) live with for a long time. Highly recommended.

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Quick Hits: Runnner / Stables

October 26, 2020

One of One by Runnner (three n’s) is a melancholy folk-pop/indie-pop project for fans of Sufjan’s Michigan, Freelance Whales, and emo-punk lyrics. Opener “Heliotrope” is a multi-layered song that’s built on banjo, low-key synths, gloomy vocals, and introspective lyrics; it has all sorts of great pop hooks and memorable lyrical lines packed into 3:07. “Cause it’s nice outside/ and that makes me feel stupid / for letting myself get so low / am I wasting the weekend now / freaking out under the heliotrope” is a great passage, and the concluding “is this the conversation you want to have?” is haunting.

“New Sublet” is an incredibly sad song that will yet make fans of Darlingside happy. “Captain Stupido” is a Thundercat cover, which is definitely not what I expected out of a mopey acoustic-folk release, but it works really well–the vocalist inhabits the vibe of the narrator well, while the arrangement is dense and compelling. “Ur Name on a Grain of Rice” gets positively M83, introducing prominent saxophone to the towering mix. This is the big statement of the record, and it works, even though  “Heliotrope” is still the standout. “Skewed” takes the short collection home with an intimate, gloomy (yet hopeful) piece. (Shoutout to autotune in folk/indie music, let all your Bon Iver fan friends know!) One of One is Runnner’s sophomore EP,  so keep your ears out for more from the outfit. Overall: if you’re up for gloomy yet homey alt-folk/indie-folk stuff, this should be your jam.

Stables‘ Silhouettes is a straight-up folk-pop record, which is the sort of thing I haven’t reviewed in a couple years now. But the cream rises to the top, friends, and Silhouettes is very much the cream. This is like if the strummy goodness of old-school Fleet Foxes met the cheery vibes of Lord Huron and Vampire Weekend (“When I’m With You,” absolute hit “The Seminar,” “Red Wine & Birthday Cake”) with occasional dalliances in Jon and Roy fingerpicking (“Curtain Call,” “Unwind”) and even Jack Johnson chill (the title track). This is just absolutely fun. Even the sad songs are fun (“Marathon”). If you need some respite from this unfriendly and difficult year, you need to take Silhouettes for a spin. It’s brilliant. You can’t tell me that “The Seminar” doesn’t cheer you. Highly recommended.

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Singles, October, 3

October 25, 2020

1. “Sins We Made (Acoustic)” – Harrow Fair. This acoustic version of the title track from the duo’s 2020 album on Roaring Girl Records shines, balancing its edgy lyrical simplicity with lush roots gospel vibe. Miranda Mulholland and Andrew Penner generate an electricity fitting for the soundtrack of a horror film about the seemingly voluntary extinction movement swirling in the internet’s cesspools. Capturing the enchantment of Brown Bird’s Morgan Eve Swain and David Lamb,  Harrow Fair is more than a conjuring of folk’s finest. Each carefully nuanced instrument captured authentically with Penner and Mulholland’s vocal dance makes Sins We Made” towards the top cuts of the year.–Lisa Whealy

2. “Blessed” – Charles Ellsworth’s starkly pragmatic Brooklyn country song feels like a battle-weary soldier calling out the death of his beloved republic. Producer Joe Reinhart defines the troubadour’s battlefield with Jared Schapker’s bass and Blake Suben’s drums. Mike Brenner’s pedal slides with Ellsworth’s lyrical imagery. Is it only in America that a Catholic mother nominated to the Supreme Court could generate so much fear from the opposing presidential party, whose candidate is the first Catholic to earn his party’s nomination since John F. Kennedy?–Lisa Whealy

3. “Galaxie” – Dominique Charpentier. Big arpeggiators, starry string sounds, and gentle piano make for a space-opera sounding piece from this pianist/composer.

4. “Run” – YutaY. A fantastic dark electro-indie-pop jam with glitchy/distorted synths and incredibly catchy vocals is not even the best thing about “Run.” The song comes packaged with a sidescrolling video game that critiques the personal and political effects of our hyperactive social media space. The critique is brilliant, and the game is actually fun! Watch for more from YutaY–he’s got a good thing going here. Highly recommended.

5. “It Goes On” – Sun Tailor. As the world keeps spinning through this year, Tel Aviv-based singer-songwriter and producer Sun Tailor wrote and recorded during Israel’s first COVID-19 wave. Featuring Shahar Haziza (drums) and Hila Cohen (backing vocals), there’s a spiritual rock edge to Taylor’s message that feels like one of hope and love.–Lisa Whealy

6. “Rivers” – Trevor Ransom. Ransom’s delicate ambient work is augmented in two ways here. First, vocals play a more prominent role than in most of his work, although they are mostly abstracted to wordlessness or the word “rivers.” They give a mournful, almost ghostly feel the front part of the work. The back half is anchored by a more aggressive electronic beat and synthesizer heft than Ransom has gone for before, making this more like a sad Teen Daze track than a truly ambient work. It’s a new corner turned for Ransom, and I look forward to hearing more in this vein. Highly recommended.

7. “Don’t Forget” – Isaac Monts. This interesting and exciting track comes from a short EP called Vocoder Music, and that description is right on the money. The only instrument here is layers of heavily vocals heavily processed through a vocoder. Heavy gospel vibes run through the melodies, harmonies, and lyrics; “Don’t Forget” comes off successfully like a gospel music as imagined by Imogen Heap for a male vocalist.

8. “Traversal” – Josh Werner. Bass guitar and minimal synths are the prominent features here, as Werner uses his electric bass to sculpt a barren landscape on a distant planet. The subtle high melody (either a guitar or a pitched-up bass) adds drama to the already evocative scene.

9. “Emerge (Message to Bears Reinterpretation)” – Liam J Hennessy. I covered this one when it first came out, but now it’s been developed further by new-favorite Message to Bears. The re-imagining amps up the bass and some of the skittering electronics while minimizing/transforming some of the soaring lead melody; it doesn’t feel so much like a rework as a true remixing of the original elements. The warmth is upped, overall, which makes a good track even more warm and engaging.

10. “Platano Superior” – Los Twangueros. A party-friendly, kit-drum-rockin’, electric-guitar-heavy take on the balearic sound, like as if Fatboy Slim got lost in Ibiza.

11. “QUO (live from a garden cottage)” – Martin Kohlstedt. Watching Kohlstedt play a gentle, pleasant reverie in an absolutely magnificent garden overlooking a beautiful forest would be enough to commend this to you. However, he also has a brass quartet hanging out on his patio, because who doesn’t? The arrangement is soaring and lovely, an overall wonderful take of a melancholy yet hopeful piece.

12. “Hollow Bones” – Nimrawd. Nimrawd’s debut focused in on ’90s sounds and field recordings; this first music since then is much more heavily digital. Big, squelchy synths lead throwback ’80s video game vibes, what with the clanking keys and the marching, Casio-esque beat. There’s still a hip-hop mindset in the track, but this is a very different approach. I like it a lot.

13. “Highly Likely” – Dex Wolfe. A quirky, melancholy, experimental pop song that meshes the intimate emotions of indie-pop in its lyrics and vocals with vocals the abstract emotionlessness of prog in its complex, icy arrangement. The concluding guitar attack feels like a melancholy “Paranoid Android” breakdown. It’s a wild, interesting song.

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Quick Hit: YĪN YĪN

October 24, 2020

YĪN YĪN‘s The Rabbit That Hunts Tigers is a treasure trove of engaging Thai funk a la Khruangbin. But where Khruangbin loves to chill things out, this Dutch four-piece likes to keep things peppy and speedy. “Pingpxng” takes a spaghetti western vibe and elevates it with searing electric guitar, Thai rhythms, and gusto. Follow-on “One Inch Punch” rides a funky, groovy bassline that is equal parts LCD Soundsystem and Khruangbin. “Thom Ki Ki” is twangy, bouncy, smooth (yes, bouncy and smooth), and deeply influenced by a variety of Southeast Asian sounds. The title track opens with guitar experimentation, then drops into a full-on adventure soundtrack. The bass again plays a vital role, creating a rolling vibe that is met by the rattling percussion. It’s got surf-punk vibes, on top of everything else going on. Very rad.

Closer “Dis Ko Dis Ko” is the most obviously electronic of the pieces, with an arpeggiator-esque speedy bass blast pushing the song forward before a dance-rock percussion line drops in to meet it. A vocal hook appears on this track, giving the song even more punch and panache. Overall, this album is absolutely wonderful; every track is enjoyable and has mysteries to explore. If you’re a fan of Southeastern Asian music, Khruangbin, or atypical dance music, you need to check out this record. Highly recommended.

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A.M.R goes long on deep house

October 23, 2020

Shingo Nakamura’s deep house was the music that really got me into electronica, so I have a soft spot in my heart for the genre. A.M.R‘s A Place For Everything is absolutely excellent deep house. It’s a record that takes everything that makes deep house great and implements it perfectly. He doesn’t mess with the formula, but adds his own melodies and sounds to the mix to make it his own.

After a neat intro, “Crystal Fountain” really kicks in the record; the rubbery bass, the driving (yet not harsh) beats, the chilled-out atmosphere contrasted with the punchy tempos–it’s all there. The vocals float above the locked-in mix, admitting a mysterious, elegant vibe. A.M.R is not afraid to drop out the beat for effect, and in the middle of the song, it’s just vocals, piano, strings and light background static. It’s a gentle, hypnotic breakdown before the beat comes back in big and bold for the finale.

That model holds throughout the rest of the album: strong driving beats, strings (“Light-Years From Here”), impressive melodies, and clever arrangement moments. “Fireflies” has a short, syncopated percussion clip that serves as a hook; “Sailor’s Cry” and “We Fell Out of Love” make impressive use of female and male vocal melodies (respectively) throughout. “Hidden Sun” amps up the drama with chant/sung choral work as the vocal element.  “In the Mornin'” is a highlight, with the melodic keys and the sampled vocal giving the piece a friendly, fun vibe without leaving the orbit of the deep house planet.

Each of the tracks (except the intro) are fairly long pieces, and yet the album closes with three extended mixes that amp up the club-friendly nature of the work. So in addition to being really solid, it’s really long–you get a lot of A.M.R work on this release. This strong, engaging deep house collection is one that I will be coming back to for a long time.

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Jacob Faurholt’s Wake Me Up speaks to our year

October 22, 2020

Jacob Faurholt’s Wake Me Up screams out loud what many of us sleepwalking through 2020 may be thinking. The twelve-song album via Raw Onion Records from one of Denmark’s contemporary lyrical masters drops a symphony of sonic brilliance in its minimalist folk. 

Simply stating that Faurholt’s latest work was recorded and engineered in his bedroom studio could seem like jumping on the pandemic bandwagon. Yet working remotely has been part of this troubadour’s approach for quite some time. Calling on friends in California and Switzerland, Wake Me Up reaches inward during a time of forced isolation, ripping slowly at the artist’s internal dis-ease one discomfort at a time. Calling out eclectic lo-fi heroes like Phil Elverum as musical influences, each beat this musical poet shares is influenced by this time warp of our current circumstances. The uncomfortable yet joyfully relatable inner journey into personal reflection depicts our virtual coexistence at its best.

Unleashing the nightmares, opener “All My Heroes Are Dead” is the perfect freefall into Faurholt’s universe. Both plucky and matter-of-fact musically, his lyrical imagery feels maniacal in its calm. Hollow vocals shape this synth-driven song. The grief-stricken follow-up “Don’t Go” with seems to fade into nothing. The sequencing on this record is excellent, with each track advancing the songwriter’s ideas seamlessly.

“Don’t Waste Your Soul” throws the notion of time in the eternal sense into this record. The rich, lush layers of Faurholt’s crystal clear vocals have no competition on the record; this is a standout. Abstract familiarity wraps around us all in “I Love You,” which then trips into the best of the record with “Hi How Are You?” The rambling, matter of fact, whistling-in-the-dark acoustic guitar of “Hi” embraces the notion of emotional support, revealing cracks in the psychological armor through tonal composition. (Behind that psychological armor: the only way this year has been bearable is that we’ve been in it together.) Built with discordant chord structures balanced against an aura of hope, I am grateful other people bear witness to the insanity that we have so far survived, no matter where we live on the planet. 

The title track in Jacob Faurholt’s reality is all of ours. Like Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness that gave birth to Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocolypse Now, this year of death, horror, and fear has changed us. Wandering on near the end of a genius creation, “Pitch-Black” takes a quick hit into technology’s alien world. 

Revisiting the notion that each human being is alone in this, “Don’t Worry About Me” is that quarantine anthem we all know too well. Truth be told, fear is the common thread throughout this year, from Italy’s crisis leading to jellyfish in the Venice Canals to New York City’s terrible experience of COVID-19 in the United States. This song points back to our fears. 

Cara Engel’s “Circus Horses” comes to mind while listening to “Tiny Unicorn,” with its childlike vision of reality. Shifting into the upbeat “Boys & Girls” is perfect, like throwing the doors open after a deep winter storm. Authentic, simple guitar with a sprinkling of piano suggests that somehow we all know we are not alone, right? Closer “We All Need Someone” seems the perfect reminder of humanity’s frailty in the face of isolation for the common good. Plaintive, aching, and soulful, right now is the perfect time to start Jacob Faurholt ‘s Wake Me Up from the beginning.--Lisa Whealy

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Book Review: Mirror Sound

I don’t review books on music much, but the unique concept of Mirror Sound: A Look into the People and Processes behind Self-Recorded Music by Spencer Tweedy, Lawrence Azerrad, and Daniel Topete (photography) drew me in deeply.

So a writer/musician, a photographer, and a designer get together to do a bunch of interviews with professional, full-time indie rock, acoustic, electronic, and rap musicians who self-record. They basically ask “How did you start self-recording? Why do you do it?” and let the interviews flow from there. They take a ton of photos of people’s home studios while they’re at it. Then they write up a sort of ethnographic research report on the themes they found, include the selected text of the interviews with 20+ different musicians, design it meticulously, and cram it all into one book. It is an impressively big project.

It’s a bit ironic that it’s a sprawling project, because the fun part of self-recording is about doing things small, weird, and idiosyncratic. And the creative team here knows that: even with the sprawling concept and cross-country interviews (they even visited R.A.P. Feirrera up in Maine), the whole thing is charming, personal, and lovingly done. People tell their weird life stories and their weird professional stories. They get surprisingly candid. (Sometimes incredibly candid: Bradford Cox talks so much that there aren’t even questions listed in his interview. Instead, they just cut things out with ellipses and start on another topic. Also, did you know that Bradford Cox and Eleanor Friedbarger are married? I did not either.)

The main themes of the book are that self-recording is freeing and challenging, really an art form all to its own. Many people start self-recording because they have no other options, but then become experts as they go. (The most charming interviews were a few younger self-recorders who said basically “I have no idea what I’m doing but it is working out ok.”) The ethnographic section that spools out these themes is interesting and motivating. The ethnographic report moves quickly–it was easy and fun to read. The 20+ interviews are really not intended to be read back to back to back like I did; that section is more of a process to linger over.

This invitation to linger is particularly true when you take into account the size of the book (9-1/4 x 11-1/2; coffee-table size) and the prodigious amount of beautiful photography in the book. Daniel Topete took photos not just of the artists in their workspaces and the artist at work, but little details of the studios of each person. They are almost uniformly creative spaces in their own right, as almost all have their studios packed with gear, cables, art, items, and ephemera. (A notable exception is Sadie Dupuy of Speedy Ortiz, who looks almost unbelievably minimalist in her photos; I have more recording equipment than Sadie does, it seems. This is impressive in its own right.) They are beautiful, fascinating photos.

The only downside of this whole book is a design choice to list the captions on the photos vertically instead of horizontally; given that there are dozens of photos in the book, I had to turn my head sideways a lot to figure out whose studio I was looking at. This problem may be solved by the actual size of the physical book (I read a PDF review copy), but it seems odd to break the flow so often by turning my head 45 degrees to read the captions. Other than that, this book is absolutely excellent–a great piece of music writing, a fascinating look into worlds music fans don’t often get to see, and a worthy coffee-table book.

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Alfred Howard Writes, Week 2: “Something to Believe”

October 21, 2020

Welcome back to our four-week premiere series of songs from Alfred Howard‘s truly ambitious project Alfred Howard Writes. Alfred Howard Writes is an herculean effort by Alfred Howard and a humongous cast of contributors to independently release 100 songs in 50 weeks. For more info on the project, see the first week’s premiere.

This week we’re premiering “Something to Believe,” which a funky, soulful track that relies on powerful vocals from Anais Lund, a lovely Wurlitzer-esque keys/organ double effort from Daniel Schraer, and Jason Littlefield’s impeccable funky basslines. The song has Motown vibe in its veins, displayed in a bright, tight contemporary recording style. Howard’s lyrics marry protest and love, asking a lover to be “a relief from this reality” that is “watching all the battles / when the fight is at your doorstep.” The song is smooth, easy, and warm, a perfectly written and recorded piece that doesn’t downplay the difficulties of our time while seeking solace in love.

Alfred has given us some comments about the song and his lyrics, which I’m honored to reproduce here:

I love this song. This is actually an older song that we just revisited recently and finished. I vaguely remember writing it, but I had this call and response thing in my head. The earliest version of me singing it isn’t altogether different from what it became, aside from it being terrible because I can’t sing. I remember getting excited and driving over to Ian’s guitar shop and humming this idea, and him coming up with the music really quickly. Anais killed this song. Her performance has so much vibe in it. It reminded me of Amy Winehouse, but with this genuine innocence in it. She just really nailed what the song needed. It was fun to record with the crew. Jason Littlefield, Jake Najor, Daniel Schraer, Ian Owen, and Shelbi Bennett doing backing vocals. These are the folks I’ve made most of my records with over the years. It’s good to hear them all together again. We haven’t been able to do as much since the pandemic.

Pre-order “Something to Believe” here. You can catch Alfred on his websiteFacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube. We’ll be back next week with another Alfred Howard tune!

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HUW x Richard X Bennett soar into outer space

October 20, 2020

HUW x Richard X Bennett‘s InParallel is the sort of jazz record that I have come to really enjoy in the last year. It’s got obvious jazz sounds and approaches, but mixes in a wide variety of other genres to show its vision. That vision is as a massive space opera sci-fi experience.

Opener “A Path Before That” kicks off with a squawking earworm of a riff from a synthesizer before slowly falling apart into a staticy, wind-swept expanse of barren post-rock, then blasting off into a maximum jazz sequence (and then back). It covers an enormous amount of ground in 3:34 and sets a vision of expansive, detail-oriented, jazz+ music. But it doesn’t yet let the listener in on the big reveal, which comes in the third and titular track: sci-fi jams. Lots of them. Good ones.

Part of the sci-fi expansiveness of their sound comes from the trio’s unusual setup: piano, synthesizer, and percussion. The piano and synthesizer sometimes trade riffs against the percussion backline, but also sometimes set the stage for each other. The title track sees the piano taking front and center in the intro, before a smash-cut leads into an absolutely massive wall of synthesizers. The pensive piano melody comes back in over the towering, sci-fi sound, creating a powerful tune that Muse would have been happy to come up with. (They play with the “pare to almost nothing, then blast a wall of synths at you” several more times in this song and in other songs; be forewarned.) The synthesizer sounds and the mysterious, enchanting piano work create a sense of extraterrestrial grandeur.

It goes on: The synth melody of “Love is a Distance” is immediately memorable; the laid-back drums and walloping bass hits emphasize it even more. “The Dimension” is sort of a punk rock version of their ideas, outer space at double time. Closer “A Song for All” is a lush, legato piece with hovering, distant synths that evoke a feeling of an overawed tourist gently hurtling through the galaxy. InParallel is a fascinating, bombastic record that has jazz, post-rock, and sci-fi stuff all jammed together. It’s awesome.

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Howlin’ Rain’s live record keeps us thinking about the past and future

October 19, 2020

Everything about the music industry is in flux. Should we thank the pandemic for helping vinyl record sales overtake CDs for the first time in mid-September since the mid-1980s? Maybe that has been one tiny aspect of the music industry that has found a way through these dark times. Now, technology’s historic parallels throw us back, whiplashing us into Bob Geldof’s multi-continent famine relief event Live Aid. This time, though, it’s a different topic. The National Independent Venue Association’s Save Our Stages is a free three-day donation-based music festival on Youtube. The festival is a fundraiser to help independent venues until they can fully reopen. Until we have live music back, though, we have recorded live music to tide us over–like Howlin’ Rain’s latest.

Howlin’ Rain recorded performances for their project Under The Wheels: Live From The Coasts vol. 2 in the band’s 2018-19 tours. If you’re like me, you find something special about the live music experience. For fans of the vinyl, collections like this one from the Oakland, California band feel like being at the show. Music transports us, and that may be the greatest gift this collection has to offer. The music from this project lets listeners experience the rooms where the music was made live on stage. Like The Wood Brothers’ 2019 release Live at The Filmore, great rooms season good live music into co-created experiences we share.

Produced by Howlin’ Rain and Eric Bauer, this is a musical joyride for fans of rock and roll infused with Gregg Allman’s ethos. There’s no doubt “Rainbow Trout” soars thanks to Ethan Miller’s vocals and guitar. Would “The Wild Boys” be as steady-cool without Jeff McElroy on bass? “Calling Lightning Pt. 2” seems perfect on its own, yet the met challenge of sequencing this album shines a light on the talents of engineers Eric Bauer and Andrew Bush. JJ Golden’s mastering connects to the vibe, creating a believable sonic experience like we are all at the same show

Howlin’ Rain’s Under the Wheels: Live From the Coasts comes out October 30 via Silver Current Records. —Lisa Whealy. 

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Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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