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While this website has become known for its in-depth album and concert reviews, the digest contains concise comments on new music our audience has either recommended or might enjoy. Click on album covers or label names for links to further information. Click on the title to view the article.

Content
Jessi Hamilton
Brave
Ayreon
Leah Andreone
Avril Lavigne
Carla Lother
Sissel
Allison Moorer
Jennifer Marks
Vienna Teng
Sheryl Diane
Christia Mantzke

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Jessi Hamilton Debut CD Cover
Image © Hamiltunes, Inc. 2004
Released on Aorta Records


More Jessi Hamilton
Interview and Photos

 

(05 July 2004) Singer/songwriter Jessi Hamilton (piano, lead vocals) fronts a live lineup including Bob Andressi (drums), Brian Eggleston (keyboards, backing vocals), Harry Ford (bass), Mike Staertow (guitars, backing vocals), Cindy Samulski (backup vocals) and Dawn Sherman (backup vocals). Her stunning debut self-titled album (Aorta Records (USA) AOR-JH-1001, 2004) includes contributions from these artists and others and is comprised of thirteen tremendously produced tracks and is certain to delight our visitors. The album was produced by Chris Stevens and Bruce Pilato.

Though only 20 and not even born at the onset of the Women-Who-Rock movement, Jessi Hamilton is sure to be a name that will soon be added to the list of important female singer/songwriters. She writes, sings and plays music that is both passionate and compelling. Hailing from Raleigh, North Carolina, Jessi has spent years honing her craft, which is a radio friendly blend of piano-driven soulful rock'n'roll and ethereal, yet powerful ballads. Though she refuses to be trapped by having to always deliver one specific style of music, Hamilton is able to keep her recordings consistent by means of her exceptional voice.

In addition to her ability to write and sing her songs, Hamilton is also an exceptional piano and keyboard player. Formally trained in piano since the age of four, she has extensive experience in playing rock, classical, Broadway and some jazz styles of piano. After hearing Jessi Hamilton's current recordings it all comes together: amazing musicianship; songs from the heart and a voice that is undeniable.

At the age of 14, Hamilton connected with Raleigh-area producer and recording engineer, Chris Stevens, who helped her make her first demos. Hamilton and Stevens worked off and on for four years, until her current style--and some of the album's songs--had been developed and recorded.

In 2002, she caught the attention of music journalist and artist manager Bruce Pilato who has worked with several platinum artists as diverse as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Foreigner, The Tubes and Asia. In addition to signing with Pilato Entertainment, she also retained the North Carolina law firm that represents platinum superstars Hootie & The Blowfish.

Rather than follow the traditional method of using demos to get a record deal and having the label pay for--and own--her records, Hamilton's family funded the remaining equipment necessary to allow her and Stevens to make a world-class album in his Raleigh-based studio. Bruce Pilato also contributed to the album's production.

RockRGrl Magazine recently named Hamilton as one of the best unsigned female acts in the country. She will has been featured on their Discoveries compilation CD and in the magazine. Jessi worked with her band in Upstate NY during the summer of 2004 in preparation for a tour to promote the album.

Jessi's self-titled album is comprised of eleven new songs plus covers of tunes by Randy Newman and Al Green. Highly varied in both style and sound, the album is certain to attract critical acclaim as well as attention from a wide range of music enthusiasts. The material spans Jessi's vocal range and includes alternative, popular, rock and West End tracks. The initial pressing, available from Jessi's website and in selected commercial outlets, is a Limited Edition release by Pilato's own Aorta Records.

Jessi Hamilton is as highly accessible as it is mature and the range of material is certain to delight a wide range of audience tastes. The recording demonstrates Jessi's tremendous virtuousity, with the tenderness to do heartfelt ballads as well as the power for rock, funk and groove. The crystalline texture of her voice is evident across the album and superb production has ensured that she is never overpowered by the instrumentals, even in the louder passages.

While every one of the tracks on the album is certain to have mass appeal, one standout is clearly "When They Will Sing," an upbeat pop-oriented number with lush vocal layers and a rousing chorus with a tremendous hook. The instrumental/vocal bridge is the most astounding passage on the album. Listeners are certain to be drawn to the hearfelt and gently rocking ballad "Watching River" and the thick and rocking arrangements of "Sands of Time." And in sharp contrast, many will be delighted to hear Jessi's showcase in the elegantly arranged West End ballad "Simple Days."

The recordings effectively balance lush instrumental arrangements with layers of Jessi's vocal work supporting her lead. Jessi's covers of Randy Newman's "Every Time It Rains," and Al Green's Nashville-oriented "People In the World (Keep On Lovin' You)" couple with the hip-hop texture of "Turn Off, Shut Down" to further demonstrate the artist and her production team's virtuousity.

Jessi will be touring with her band to promote the album later this year and a review of one of her live performances is planned. This album is a tremendous starting point for Jessi Hamilton and sets the stage for a very promising career in the music industry.

 
Passages CD Cover
click to visit band website
Image © Brave Music 2004


Brave Michelle, Scott, Ben, Trevor, Suvo
Image © Brave Music 2004

More Brave
Arise From Thorns Feature
"Waist Deep In Dark Waters" Review
Searching For The Sun Feature
 

(13 June 2004) In their latest EP "Passages," recorded with 50 hours studio time earned by winning the number two spot in the Washington, DC-area Battle Of The Bands, this female-fronted Virigina-based band defies genrefication. While some may classify them metal, others would certainly put them in the progressive rock category. But the fact is, they blend these styles with pop, classical and folk, and in this latest EP, listeners are going to find Celtic elements as well. Further information on the band and their prior releases is available from links presented under the album cover image.

The band's material is ambitiously rich and sensuously layered with styles that span from simple balld to complex progressive epics with vast mood and tempo swings. The band's new five track EP clocks in at over 27 minutes, almost an album for some other artists. While their lineup has evolved since early days, today Brave is Michelle Loose (vocals, piano, keys), Scott Loose (guitars), Trevor Schrotz (drums), Ben Kelly (bass) and new arrival Suvo Sur (violin, keys). Suvo's violin parts add depth and texture to Brave's sound in this new release. The band have left Dark Symphonies and therefore proceeds from the EP will finance the next full length album, projected for 2005.

The EP opens with a six-minute track entitled "Words," which sets the scene for the rest of the EP by blending rock, metal, progressive and ballad textures in one rousing piece. Michelle's characterisically smooth and crystalline vocals are mixed well atop the rhythmic instrumentals, even the varied tempo and metal-edged guitar riffs. One does not have to listen too carefully--especially the sweeping violin solo that compliments those by electric guitar--to hear elements of Mostly Autumn in the band's new sound. It's the combination of different styles though that makes the material so enjoyable.

"Broken" is an introductary ballad that blends seamleassly into "Don't Go Away," with rhythmically heavy lead and bass guitars providing the foundation while never overpowering Michelle's soaring heartfelt lead vocal and backing harmony layers. A vast guitar solo during the instrumental bridge is perfectly complimented by the softer thematic echo by violin.

The EP's title track is an epic number clocking in at just under ten minutes in running time. An extended instrumental introduction showcases guitars and violin before the tempo drops back and ballad-style lyrical segments begin. Evocative violin excursions compliment Michelle's soaring lead and harmony vocal layers. A Celtic violin solo during the instrumental bridge is perfectly backed with rhythmically echoing electric guitar parts--developing into a Celtic-metal mix--clearly illustrating a new dimension to Brave's sound. Listeners will especially enjoy the upbeat memorable melody presented Michelle's vocals during the song's powerful middle climax. The instrumental conclusion of the song perfectly matches its beginning.

The EP concludes with a new arrangement of "Trapped Inside" whose previous version appears on Searching For The Sun. As one would expect, the new version is significantly more robust with guitar and violin solos dueling intersperced during the extended instrumental bridge before Michelle's lead vocal returns. The tempo changes within the song are significantly more extreme in this new version. This has got to be the song to see them do live.

"Passages" clearly shows that Brave are combining their background with new ideas and as a result of their 50 hours of studio time is a tremendous step forward. The band's staff writer perhaps said it best, "Brave are Led Zeppein, and Tori Amos, and Lisa Gerard, and King Crimson, Anathema and Fates Warning, The Gathering, and Dream Theater, Geneis and Queensrhyche, Sarah McLachlan, and the Cranberries, and Lacuna Coil to name a few." And of course they are none of these. A great EP, which could have only been improved by mastering more along the lines of their previous album. The new album will of course be superb.

 
The Human Equation CD Cover
The Human Equation
Image © InsideOut Music 2004


Day 11
Day 11: Love
Image © InsideOut Music 2004

Day 11
Day 16: Loser
Image © InsideOut Music 2004

Marcela Bovio
Marcela Bovio
Image © Elfonia 2004

Heather Findlay
Heather Findlay
Image © Mostly Autumn 2004

Irene Jansen, Arjen Lucassen
Irene Jansen | Arjen Lucassen
Image © InsideOut Music 2004

More Arjen Anthony Lucassen
Live On Earth
Space Metal
Ayreonauts Only
Flight Of The Migrator
The Dream Sequencer
Fate Of A Dreamer
 

(14 June 2004) Rock Operas were very much a feature of the 70s, though in recent years they have made something of a comeback in one form or other, with the likes of Clive Nolan, Oliver Wakeman and Spock’s Beard all producing story-based, multi-voiced concept albums. Perhaps the King of this sort of recording is Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen, whose Ayreon project has resulted in several grandiose works of this type, featuring a multitude of guest singers and musicians, and based around his own science fiction and fantasy stories.

On the The Human Equation (InsideOut Music (USA), 2004), however, Arjen has changed the pattern in two ways. First, aside from brilliant drummer Ed Warby, he has selected a totally new group of musicians and singers to work with. Second, his subject matter is more mature. He has taken a very human, personal story: a man in a coma wades his way through his memories and emotions (personified by the cast) before awaking a potentially better man.

The structure and ambience of the piece place this rock opera in the same category and class as some of the better work in the 70s, especially the masterwork of the era, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. For instance, there is an excellent use of singers whose voices have different tones and pitches, not to mention sexes, and the technique--developed in classical opera--of having a variety of characters swapping dialogue is extensively used to electrifying effect.

Much of the singing is quite operatic, from Eric Clayton’s rich baritone as "Reason" to Magnus Ekwalls' old-fashioned rock screech as "Pride." Other singers have been chosen with care and skill. The three women involved all inhabit their characters beautifully. Heather Findlay of Mostly Autumn provides characteristic warmth to her role of "Love," while Marcela Bovio of Mexican band Elfonia brings a vulnerable sweetness to her part of "Wife." Irene Jansen (Karma), sister of Floor (After Forever), provides the power singing as "Passion." The main character of "Me" goes to the versatile James LaBrie of Dream Theatre, who brings warmth and plenty of rock power to his part, while Devin Townsend as Rage produces little symphonies in themselves in what brief moments he has.

But the area where The Human Equation is streets ahead of works like Superstar, however, is in its music, and instrumentation, which is never less than astonishing, almost providing an extra character in the story. Sweeping seamlessly between melodic progressive rock, VERY heavy metal, and authentic European folk, its invention is breathtaking. Arjen himself provides the guitars, basses and warm, analogue keyboards, while a variety of other musicians provide solos, including Martin Orford of IQ, and a fluid solo reminiscent of his father from Oliver Wakeman. The folk playing is also wonderful, especially the work of Jeroen Goossens on flute.

CD 1. "Day One: Vigil" begins the story atmospherically by the main character's bedside, while "Day Two: Isolation" is the album's first tour de force, introducing many of the main characters, and musical styles, from metal, ambient synths, to Heather's folky interlude, and the final Camel-like prog workout. "Day Three: Pain" broods tensely before Devin Townsend's first telling contribution on the chorus. "Day Four: Mystery" returns us to the hospital, with the music almost country-like, before exploding into another terrific piece of prog-metal. "Day Five: Voices" starts to unravel the plot, and begins with a lovely folk interlude, reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, especially with Magnus Ekwall's Plant-esque vocal.

"Day Six: Childhood" uses haunting synths and strings to suggest the menace of child abuse, before the Hammond-led pop / prog of "Day Seven: Hope." "Day Eight: School" mixes gentle verses with huge, metallic choruses, while "Day Nine: Playground" is a charming progressive instrumental. "Day Ten: Memories" continues in progressive style, with a lovely melody and some great singing, especially from Heather and Marcela, not to mention some Thin Lizzy style twin guitar. "Day Eleven: Love" concludes the first CD, a terrific piece of folk / metal with the three women all featured.

CD 2. The next installment commences with the crunching "Day Twelve: Trauma," starting with sinister Mellotron and deep male vocals including the excellent Mikael Akerfeldt as "Fear," before heavy guitars and Hammond take over. Back to folk again with the start of "Day Thirteen: Sign," and another vehicle for Heather and some lovely low whistle. James Labrie, Marcela--with her finest moment on the album--and Arjen himself as Best Friend take up the melody to a classical backing, before the huge, Zeppelin-like riff of "Day Fourteen: Pride." "Day Fifteen: Betrayal" is another brooding piece, but includes a wonderful prog mid-section, including Orford's solo.

"Day Sixteen: Loser" commences, interestingly with didgeridoo, and features a cameo from Mike Baker of Shadow Gallery as "Father," who delivers a convincing Alice Copper impersonation--for Superstar fans, this is the equivalent of "King Herod's Song"--in a whirling folk / metal blast, which also includes a trademark Hammond solo from Ken Hensley. "Day Seventeen: Accident" commences with more analogue synths, before taking off into a great piece of Classic Rock, with Devon Graves' best moment as Agony on the chorus. "Day Eighteen: Realization" opens with yet more flute-led folk / metal strongly influenced by Spock's Beard. "Day Nineteen: Disclosure" is designed with plot-exposition in mind, though it still has a lovely chorus, before "Day Twenty: Confrontation," starting gently, builds into a huge, majestic, metallic climax with almost every character taking part.

Double CDs are something of a risk. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, and Snow by Spock's Beard are just two examples of fine story-driven pieces that nonetheless fail to sustain themselves at over 90 minutes. However, The Human Equation does just the opposite and without a dull minute across the epic. The story remains engaging throughout, though it is hardly original, and some of the lyrics themselves flirt with cliché, however the narrative is logical and well constructed. In fact, listeners are advised to avoid playing this album in the car for the first few listens, as it is almost impossible to hear the piece without frequent referral to the beautifully designed CD booklet.

Day 11: Love. Ayreon's four-track single (InsideOut Music (Germany), 2004) accompanies the three versions of the double album. Ayreon can always be counted on singles containing bonus material. This one includes the two non-album tracks: "No Quarter" with vocals by Devon Graves, Magnus Ekwall, Eric Clayton and James LaBrie and "Space Oddity" with vocals by Eric Clayton. The latter had been covered by Ayreon earlier. A radio edit of "Day Eleven: Love" and the album version of "Day Two: Isolation" are also included on this single.

Day 16: Loser. The second four-track single (InsideOut Music (Germany), 2004) in support of The Human Equation contains four non-album tracks. In the Star One version of "Loser" Joost van den Broek and Arjen Lucassen battle it out in a true to form keyboard vs guitar duel with electric violin from Robert Baba thrown in for good measure. Peter Vink recorded all new bass especially for the single and Ed Warby added some extra zing to his performance. The single also includes a cover of the Alice Cooper track "How You Gonna See Me Now" by Mike Baker and Arjen Lucassen, a version of "Into The Black Hole" recorded at the pre-release party and a special acoustic version of "Castle Hill" featuring Ewa Albering on flute and Dewi Kersten's on cello with vocals by Irene Jansen.

Most Rock Operas have a number of recurring themes running through them. Like a film soundtrack these give pointers as to emotion and motivation amongst its characters. Significantly, The Human Equation avoids this completely: every moment is new to the work, and though this adds to the complexity it leaves us marvelling at the level of invention. Readers are urged to purchase the Special Edition, which includes an excellent one-hour DVD (order). Over the top though Ayreon will feel to some, if you can find you way past the bombast, this is an astonishing piece of work and is certainly a must-listen.--Stephen Lambe in Cheltenham, England and Russ Elliot in New York, USA

 
Veiled CD Cover
Image © RCA / BMG 1996

Alchemy CD Cover
Image © RCA / BMG 1998
 

(14 June 2004) Leah Andreone worked hard, believed in herself and got lucky. Born in San Diego in the spring of 1974, she got involved in music early, singing in her elder sister's band when she was eight. Leah was a shy child who found both comfort and escape in writing and performing music. By thirteen she had a job writing jingles and commercials. Later, she dropped out of college and moved to L.A. determined to make a career in music. She waited tables during the day and honed her talent by singing at night. It was a hand to mouth existence largely fed by massive self-belief.

But it was hard and just when optimism was fading, she recognised an executive from RCA at one her tables in the restaurant and she got permission from the owner to dash home and get a tape from her room. She got back just in time to thrust the cassette into the exec's hand as he was leaving. "Listen to this," she said. He did. Twenty-four hours later she was an RCA artist.

Her debut album Veiled released in 1996 was given a massive boost by the opening track "It's Alright, It's Okay" being a deserved top 20 single in both the States and in UK. It's a hooked-filled song, excellently produced and with lyrics far above the norm for the singles charts. "The rhyme has changed, compulsion rules, Mary's little lambs are now raised by wolves." And is that a sitar in the chorus?

Musically, it's very hard to place Leah--somewhere not too far removed from Tori Amos for the song-writing, though the music is guitar based, a touch of Alanis Morissette and Holly McNarland in the attitude, but vocally she's very much her own--and she has a terrific falsetto.

She's been helped immensely by the fact that the producer (Rick Neigher) has clearly taken time to read and think about the lyrics and has dealt with the songs very sympathetically. There's some beautiful musical irony in places too. One of the most tender sounding tracks, "Kiss Me Goodbye" has all the aural attributes of a love song, until you actually focus on the words which reveals it to be a vicious and bitter paean to love betrayed. 'Don't sing me a lullaby, don't pretend to care, finish up and get out of here. Indulge yourself."

Although a number of the tracks mention love, they deal far more honestly with relationships than the sugar-sweet, wish-filled nonsense of so many songs. She has a wonderful ability to slip cutting phrases or couplets into her work. In "Will You Still Love Me" a song with a funked-up verse and another hook-laden chorus, she sings. "Call me Eve; how's the apple taste?" In "Hell to Pay" she rips off the mask of human behaviour, suggesting in no uncertain terms that's it's only the fear of being found out that keeps us 'civilised'. 'If there was no hell to pay, would you still need a god?' "Problem Child" considers the lengths a neglected child might go to gain attention.

The CD is stuffed with great ideas and an ability to put them across. It's fair to say that Ms Andreone does not have the highest regard for humanity. Which is fine by me as it's resulted in some great songs on this powerful and very listenable album.--Jamie Field

Whereas Veiled was described by Leah as a result of working through "every extreme I encountered while growing up," the 1998 follow up Alchemy appears to have had an altogether different genesis. "Now that I live within music on a daily basis, happiness comes very easily to me." Leah is reported to have said. of her second album. Her record company described it thus. "On Alchemy singer/songwriter Leah Andreone has undergone a transformation with many of her new songs boasting a harder, more metallic edge. Rock, pop, industrial and electronics are now crossed with flamenco, jazz, funk, delta blues and even country."

That description sounds like a recipe for a mess, and sadly that's what we get. That's not to say the album doesn't have its moments The lyrics are still well-worth listening too. The opening track, Sunny Days moves along pleasantly enough. The verse of the second track "Swallow Me" is dead ringer for The Beatles "Come Together" so that can't be all bad, and "You Don't Exist" has a complex arrangement involving a string quartet. But highlights are few and far between and the longer the album goes on the more tedious it becomes. The company blurb also makes frequent references along the lines of Leah's 'acceptance of her sexual nature' and her 'explicit approach to sensuality.' But to be honest on tracks like 'Porn' she sounds, quite frankly, desperate. The first album is whole lot more sensual perhaps simply because it's not trying to be.

The producer on this occasion is Bob Marlette who's worked with the likes of Black Sabbath'. The album's splashed with names, like Marilyn Mansun's guitarist, John Lowery and the Chili's drummer Chad Smith and jumps from one style to another without there being any coherence-- it's music by numbers , and sadly so are many of the vocal performances. Alchemy sounds like a group of people trying to make a hit album whereas Veiled sounded like an album that was made because people believed in the songs. And somewhere in that transmutation what's really been lost is Leah Andreone's individuality. Shame.--Jamie Field in Kington, Herefordshire, England

 
Under My Skin CD Cover
Image © Arista Records 2004 
 

(15 June 2004) Two years on from her debut album, Let Go, international fame and constant touring do not seem to have dulled Avril Lavigne’s appetite for a good tune and an acidic lyric. Her much-awaited second album Under My Skin (Arista (USA) 82876-61787-2, 2004) may lack some of the first album's quirky charm and varied dynamics, but she has returned with 13 strong songs that will disappoint few.

To keep herself fresh, Avril, or perhaps her record company, have chosen some brand new collaborators, including talented former Evanescence guitarist Ben Moody. All the performances are excellent, as you would expect, and Avril is in good form, though neither her voice nor song writing show any sign of great development.

"Take me away" opens the album with a tense verse, before a rousing, angry chorus, while "Together" hinges on its sing-song chorus and some excellent keyboards. Single "Don’t Tell Me" is one of the album's standout songs, full of the charm and attitude that made the first album so good. "He Wasn't" really rocks, a great piece of punky pop that Sum 41 would be proud of. Predictably, this is followed by a ballad "How does it feel," before excellent, catchy rocker "My Happy Ending."

"Nobody’s Home" is a little more melancholic, before the unusual "Forgotten" with its vaguely gothic piano and vocals leading to an aggressive chorus. "Who knows" is another fine song with an anthemic chorus and an uplifting lyric. "Fall to Pieces" represents some calm before the storm, prior to the crunching nu-metal of "Freak Out." The power ballad "Slipped Away" closes the album proper, before the delightful punk anthem in the making "I Always get what I want" provides a welcome bonus track.

With every song, except perhaps the more 'difficult' "Forgotten" a possible single, this is an amazingly consistent album in terms of song writing and every chorus is right on the button. However, it is also its partial downfall. There are only so many times one can listen to a brooding verse and a crunching, nu-metal chorus over and over again before longing for a little variation. In searching for potential singles, the album’s greatest asset--the character and youthful charm of its singer--has been somewhat eroded.

Nonetheless, this will keep Avril's fans happy as she heads out onto the arena circuit during the summer of 2004, even if some of us were hoping for something a little more adventurous.--Stephen Lambe in Cheltenham, England

 
100 Lovers
Image © Chesky Records 2004

More Carla Lother
Ephemera Review and Interview

 

(29 June 2004) Canadian born Carla Lother recently released 100 Lovers (Chesky Records (USA) JD250, 2004). This pop album tends to mix elements of folk, classical and traditional music. She has an evocative vocal quality that exhibits a clear and unique style. Her different styles are evident on her previous album, Ephemera as well.

Carla was trained as a classical pianist, culminating in a Master's degree in piano performance as well as a Professional Studies diploma in voice. Along with her extraordinary voice, she is a top-notch singer/songwriter. On 100 Lovers she matched up with Richie Stotts, the lead guitarist who fronted for Wendy O. Williams and The Plasmatics, a punk rock band. This unlikely pair collaborated on four songs on this album: "100 Lovers," "A Little Time," "Far Away" and "You Never Can Begin It Too Soon."

There is a gentleness throughout, but certain songs stand out. Traditional song "False Fly" has an unbeat melody aided by Jack Morer on guitar and clay bongos as well as David Chesky on djimbe. "Until I Met You" and "Let's Grow Old" both display her sensitive lyrics and stunning vocals.

Although this album is more pop-oriented, Carla Lother clearly shows her New Age talents. Her distinguishing tonal clarity and engaging lyrics are both bound to draw interest from an increasingly broad audience.

 
Sissel CD Cover
Image © Decca Records 2002

My Heart CD Cover Image © Decca Records 2004
 

(29 June 2004) Sissel. Sissel's first North Americal release is a self-titled album (Decca Records (USA) 440 064 412-2, 2002) of twelve highly varied tracks. When the album was released, she said, "I like music that I think is beautiful, music that touches me." That statement certainly describes the essence of her music presented here. She has a special clarity in her soaring vocals.

Sissel exudes a pureness of sound and has a sensitive, yet powerful voice. She seems to have some vocal qualities resembling Celine Dion and Enya. Sissel is able to blend folk, Celtic and classical influences on this relaxing album. "Shenandoah" is certainly a good example of her beautiful blend of genres with her clear and solid voice. Kenny Kosek on the fiddle sets the mood on this song.

Pop tunes "Can't Go Back," "Carrier of a Secret" and "Weightless" highlight Sissel's soothing and comforting vocals. Pairing the classical sound with a modern feel make this album a standout.

Sissel is an album that sets this engaging vocalist apart from the rest. Her clarity of tone and her lovely, angelic voice capture the mood. This first US release is surely a hit and has gathered critical acclaim. Her serenades of lovely melodies and beautiful lyrics bedazzle the listener.

My Heart. The latest album (Decca Records (USA) B0002080-02, 2004) by Norwegian-born siren, Sissel, is dynamic and expressive, mixing classical melodies, operatic arias and pop songs on her second album. This crossover vocalist has a vocal clarity that is reminiscent of Sarah Brightman. She sings effortlessly with a pureness in her soprano renditions.

Her gracefulness is evident throughout this album, and shows her extensive vocal range quite easily in the various genres. Sissel said, "This is the music that is closest to my heart right now. I hope people will listen, lean back, relax and enjoy the beauty. I think we've made something very beautiful." There is no doubt that she has accomplished this task!

Sissel's interpretations of "Pie Jesu, "Ave Maria" and "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" evoke a sensitivity of style with her floating and exquisite melodies. She is equally at ease with her pop tunes, comfortably resonating in "You Raise Me Up," "Someone Like You" and "Beyond Imagination."

Accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ettore Stratta, Sissel's sound is beautifully presented. Her rich, soaring sopranos are thoroughly captivating, and the listener yearns for more and more of this engaging sound. Bravo!

 
The Duel CD Cover
Image © Sugar Hill Records 2004

Allison Moorer Image © Sugar Hill Records 2004
 

(30 June 2004) Country music siren, Allison Moorer, presents her gritty and alt-country style in her new album, The Duel (Sugar Hill Records (USA) SUG-CD-3984A, 2004). This experienced artist, with her numerous recordings including successful previous albums, as well as contributions to movie soundtracks including The Horse Whisperer (1998), Songcatcher (2001) and The Rookie (2002), brings about a rock/soul/country sound in her newest release.

"What I'm trying to do is make music that means something to me. I don't pay too much attention to trends or what's selling. I hope my music reflects the spirit of what we used to call country music, that it comes from a place inside as opposed to an outside influence." She goes on to describe her new album as "heedless and blunt, and a little bit rough around the edges." Apparently, the eleven tracks were cut in a quick twelve days!

This dynamic, talented singer/songwriter opens the CD with "I Ain't Giving Up On You." Although the lyrics throughout the album tend to be a bit on the grim side, the production has an intense, gripping sound. Allison's languid style evokes a passion in the music, blended with the band's saucy accompaniment. The country sound isn't lost within these new songs, but rather expounded upon with a new sophistication.

Allison croons her heartfelt lyrics with great conviction, which seem to invigorate the soul. Some prominent songs on the album include "Melancholy Polly," "One On The House," "Believe You Me," "All Aboard" and of course the title track, "The Duel."

There is a freshness in Allison's approach to her music, having a strong rock influence without abandoning her country roots. This artist effectively continues her metamorphosis in developing her evolving and growing sound. To sum it up, it's great music!

 
Jennifer Marks (Self-Titled) CD Cover
Image © Bardic Records 2004

More Jennifer Marks
My Name's Not Red
 

(30 June 2004) Jennifer Marks recently released her self-titled album (Bardic Records (USA) 171002-2, 2004). This singer/songwriter has distinctive vocals, beautiful lyrics, and an engaging sound. With a degree in music and business from NYU, she quickly got involved in the music industry as an Indie artist. Jennifer Marks is her fourth album.

The first track, "Live," is featured in the new Spielberg movie, Terminal. This is not the first time her songs have been featured in films. Some of Jennifer's songs can be heard on the soundtracks of independent films including Pictures of Baby Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart (1995) and Snow Days, starring Bernadette Peters (2001). "Live" delivers a spicy start to the album, with an upbeat and catchy sound.

Her fresh sound ranges from the buoyancy of "Live," "Any Other Way" and "Avalanche" to the more ballad oriented "Raggedy Ann" and "Fragile." These more mellow tunes exhibit Jennifer's vulnerability and tenderness with her expressive lyrics and stunning vocals.

This pop/rock Indie artist has certainly come into her own in her latest album. Her poignant points of view come across in her songwriting and her music brings in a unique sound and a breath of fresh air. She easily hooks you with toe-tapping tunes and a most memorable sound. Jennifer Marks is a great album!

 
Warm Strangers CD Cover
Image © Virt Records 2003

Vienna Teng Photo: Glen Rose
Image © Virt Records 2004

More Vienna Teng
Waking Hour
 

(30 June 2004) Who would have imagined that a computer software engineer geek on track to medical school could display such musical virtuosity as on her second release, Warm Strangers (Virt Records (USA) VRT 1007, 2004). Vienna Teng exhibits her tenacity as a talented folk/pop singer/songwriter, with her beautiful lyrics and soaring vocals.

Graceful melodies and evocative lyrics have garnered Vienna critical acclaim and a rapidly growing legion of fans throughout the world. Her days are now filled with interviews and sold-out performances. Needless to say, it has been an abrupt shift from her cubicle days.

But in truth, the jump from code warrior to full-time musician had been a long time coming. Vienna began taking piano lessons at age 5, studying classical composers like Bach and Chopin. Far from being pressured into studying music, however, Vienna asked for piano lessons on her own. While she delved fully into classical works, leading her to even take on the name of Vienna after the Austrian city of composers, she was drawn more to the act of improvisation, and in expressing the ideas that were emerging in her own imagination. She wrote her first song at age 6, and had an album’s worth of instrumentals composed by age 16.

All the songs on Warm Strangers were written by Vienna with the exception of the catchy "Hope on Fire" which was a collaboration with Jim Batcho and David Henry. "Feather Moon" headlines as the first track and presents a soulful and tender beginning. The next track, "Harbor," kicks up the standard a notch with its poignant melody.

Other songs that stand out on Warm Strangers include the simply stunning "Harbor" and then "Mission Street," "Shasta," "Passage" and "The Atheist Christmas Carol." The final untitled hidden track continues as a culmination of the CD to display the powerful and touching melodies as well as gorgeous singing. Vienna displays a deep and rich maturity in her material with an emotional intensity that touches the soul of the listener. "I realized how much my songs could affect people - that they had some value. People wanted to hear them and wanted to make them a part of their lives," Teng remarks.

Warm Strangers certainly presents itself as the canvas onto which Vienna Teng has painted her heartfelt stories, expressed exquisitely through her orchestral and vocal interludes. This is a tremendous follow-up album that will delight those that have discovered Vienna Teng previously and draw new listeners into her fold.

 
Blackberry Love CD Cover
Image © S D Shumsky 2004

Sheryl Diane Photo by Karen Moskowitz
Image © S D Shumsky 2004
 

(30 June 2004) Blackberry Love (Guerilla Disc (USA) 2004) is Sheryl Diane's second CD. The first, Hotel Emo (released February 2003 and only available from CDBaby) was a demo album of eight songs, four recorded live and four others, "Someday," "Wish You Weren't," "Turnaround" and "Blackberry Love" which, developed and re-recorded, are the four songs which make up this EP. There are times when Sheryl's voice brings Kate Bush to mind, maybe a hint of Tori Amos too. But the songs and vocal style, especially in the phrasing, are distinctive - and she sings with power and verve and a sense of freedom.

The EP opens with "Someday," a song Sheryl wrote in her head while driving from Bellingham to Seattle which makes sense as it's a great track for driving to. Opening with a solid bass figure before the band enter it's a fascinating song. Lyrically, it's a stream of consciousness "Monday run off, rush away gone to catch a bus and a quick glimpse of some natural beauty going nowhere roads labyrinth under the gray day's discontent ..." There's a very relaxed feel to the musicianship, indicative of a good understanding. Sheryl's piano dominates, but the track has some lovely guitar fills and phrases from Thaddeus Turner and the bass and drums provide a solid and unobtrusive scaffold for the piano and guitar to build on. The drums are handled by Brian Young who's currently touring with The Fountains Of Wayne. "Someday" was written for Sheryl's friend Nancy (and originally titled thus) Sheryl says. "We weren't content with where we were at the time and adamant about evolving into our self-designed 'Someday'."

The second track "Wish You Weren't" is written from the view of a divorcee - and captures a more honest mix of emotions than is usually considered when the subject is covered. "I wish you weren't so tempting to me, I wish you weren't, wish you weren't". The song's written after Sheryl's separation from Joe Howard (aka Joe Bass or Joe Skyward), probably best known for his work in the Seattle based band The Posies. It's a song about loss of innocence and the inability to trust again. Yet Sheryl has a way of finding optimism in the bleakest of subjects and that's true for this song too. "Good things come to those who don't hesitate, could it be true ..." For this track Sheryl steps away from her piano and plays a keyboard styling a B3Hammond. There's a well established 'acid jazz' scene in Seattle and the B3 is the hallmark of it, and while it's a nod to her home-town crowd, I think my main objection to its use is that I don't feel her voice works as well with the B3 sound as it does with the piano. On the other hand, there's some stunning trumpet work by Bryan Sorum on this song which melds perfectly with the organ, especially in the play out.

"Turnaround" was effectively recorded 'live' in the studio with her band The Figs (Kevin Guess on drums and Kate Coniff on bass) - they played it twice and this was the better cut of the two. It's perhaps the least immediate song on the CD, but will grow and grow on you and the repeated mantra of 'Turnaround' will end up spinning through your head hours after you've taken the disc from the player. Sheryl says the song's about "the lack of a real cure for the downward spiral ... homelessness, alcohol abuse ..." Lyrically the track contains some exceptional images and phrases "you are walking wounded on the downside of the night"; "A bitter burden like a child's unspeakable grief". Immensely powerful.

The closing track "Blackberry Love" is as sensuous a song and vocal performance as I've come across in a long, long time. The instrumentation is simple, a repeating bass figure, and drums. The whole song is dominated by Sheryl's outstanding vocal performance. As with much of the work on this album, the phrasing is uniquely her own as are the vocal stylings - it's just a breathtaking piece of work. Perhaps what's most extraordinary about this song is that despite the overt sexual overtones and feel of the piece, it was, she says "written in almost one pen stroke", while her children were watching Sesame Street! "I wasn't involved with anyone at the time, but most of my experience with love was passionate and painful, so when I relocated to the PacificNorthwest I was in a state of self-analysis, surrounded by the Himalayan Blackberry, which I thought was the most beautiful plant, and it is truly amazing. It grows wildly and fast and bears delicious fruit, it persists to try to bloom even up to the first snow! A metaphor for love surely."

It's hard to find anything negative to say about this EP beyond the fact that it's 8 tracks shorter than I'd like it to be and that personally I could live quite happily without the organ on "Wish You Weren't." I suppose the fact that each track opens with the bass could be a considered a slight weakness. Hotel Emo contained three songs of Sheryl performing live alone at the keyboard for Radio KAOS at Evergreen State University and I would have loved to have heard a studio recorded piano/voice version of "I Believe" and/or "Moon" added to this disc. But maybe she's hanging on to these and others for the full album which I sincerely hope she won't keep us waiting for for too long.--Jamie Field

 
The First CD Cover
Image © Immutable Records 2004 
 

(01 July 2004) Indie artist alt-rock/pop singer, Christia Mantzke, creates an electric performance on her debut album, The First (Immutable Records (USA) CM1481, 2004). She is a powerful vocalist in addition to her strengths on guitar, keyboards and piano. This LA born talent charted in Germany and France with her single hit, "I'm Not A Boy" under the auspices of EMI-Europe.

The music on The First is raw and appealing, filled with emotion and excitement. All the songs were written by Christia with the exception of "Chance to Live," co-written with Michael Turner. "Just Like You" is at the top of the bill and has an electric vibe that makes you want to move with the beat. "Conversion (Take Me Now)" changes pace with an irresistible rhythm and her vocals soar.

"Alone Forever" catches one's attention at the rock/pop progression along with strong vocal performance. Another top-notch track is "I Hate It" where Christia's tender side is emphasized with her beautiful lyrics and sensitive music interludes mixed in with her rock sound.

The First has a freshness and excitement to the riveting music and passionate lyrics. There seems to be something for everybody on this album, and this multi-talented artist seems to have hit on the right formula.

 
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