Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sixteen Cities - s/t

Sixteen Cities
Centricity Records
11 Songs, 39 minutes and 17 seconds
Release Date: April 20, 2010

Sixteen Cities is the freshman release of a band sharing the same name. Hailing from Portland, Oregon, the four man group began Christian ministry to fellow public high school students, soon after finding themselves forming a band and performing in the local indie music scene. Word-of-mouth and a demo circulated, and “Sixteen Cities” was soon touring as an opening act for some of CCM’s biggest acts.

Among this collection of Christian praise / pop rock there are gems. “Innocent” is a piano led ballad with a youthful sound underscored by well timed string accompaniment. Synth and vocal echo used in the calmer moments of the mild rocker “Someone’s Work of Art” provide the foundation for the song’s message of each person’s worth. “Winter” concludes the album with a piano led testimony of straying from our faith with the well written refrain:

‘Cause I’ve been searchin’ for the sun but I don’t know if anyone could tell me how to find my way home.
All the things that I’ve become are all the things I’m runnin’ from.
I don’t want my heart to turn to stone.
This cold has been so bitter, can you save me from this winter?’

Listening to Sixteen Cities, it is easy to hear there love for worship. With a Christian pop-rock sound much like Reliant K, “Sixteen Cities” is sure to be charting on Christian AM radio in the very near future. Among these gems there lies a wonderful message.
SS Mertens

Amber Rubarth - Good Mystery

Amber Rubarth
(Independent release)
12 Songs, 40 minutes and 43 seconds
Release Date: January 19, 2010

In Amber Rubarth there is an artist performing simplistically beautiful song writing, with accomplished acoustic guitar and piano, capped with a wonderfully innocent voice. In Good Mystery Rubarth combines these attributes to produce an alchemy which resembles the love and innocence of Joy Williams, but with an edge.

With a song collection which is light and fun, the listener is easily swept away to a listening station somewhere amid the high soft clouds of a sunny Sunday afternoon in summer. “Edge of My Seat” sets the stage with a light arrangement of acoustic guitar, strings, and Rubarth’s innocent voice followed by the album’s namesake with garage percussion, acoustic guitar, and low hanging strings laying the foundation for a fun lyrical ride. Amid a host of relationship songs shared with wonderfully light locals, acoustic guitar and strings are the bouncing “Wish We’d Gotten Drunk” just for fun and the poignant ballad to a daughter ‘Song to Thank the Stars’. Percussion meets piano in ‘Pilot’ with lyrics ‘I need a spark to ignite my pilot light’. To round out the smorgasbord, the special edition release includes “Golden Ratio of Silence’ which provides just that with reflective dead air as a prelude to the finale ‘The Stairwell’, a piano instrumental showcasing one of the many of Rubarth’s talents.

Playful and fun to serious and thoughtful Good Mystery is just that. A mystery which connects to its audience with lyrics meaningful, melodies simple, and innocence remembered.

SS Mertens

Anchors - Music from the Future

5 Songs, 18 minutes and 13 seconds
Release Date: February 16, 2010

Music from the Future by “Anchors” could be more aptly named ‘Music from the Past’ with a sound reminiscent of a mix of late ‘70s “Sparks” and early ‘80s “Spandau Ballet”. Where the electro-pop / emo offering excels is the song writing and the operatic-like tenor vocals of lead singer Seth Hecox. With a mix of acoustic and electric, the synth-heavy song collection is in the mold of early “Future of Forestry” offerings.

The five song EP is highlighted by the initial offering “Airplane”, a tale of love lost with the searching refrain ‘And now I’m just a subway underneath the busy city road. And baby, you’re an airplane 40 miles outside the east coast.” “Where the Houses Glow” is a piano driven rocker with a solid break to group harmony. The final “Virtue and Violence” provides interesting play between an echoed guitar, synth, and harmonies.

The EP leaves us wondering what a full offering by “Anchors” might bring, songs of the future or sounds from the past? In either case, we wait for more.

SS Mertens

Dave Madden - Open-Eyed, Broken Wide

Dave Madden
(Independent release)
24 song double album
Release Date: March 9, 2010

Over years of experiencing many types of music I’ve found that those albums that I cannot put a finger on, that I cannot immediately judge as loved / liked / disliked / couldn’t stand, are those that slowly grow on me becoming cap stones in my ever growing music library. This is true of Dave Madden’s latest offering Open- Eyed, Broken Wide. This is witnessed by my having had to listen to the entire two album song collection over 30 times prior to being able to finish this review.

The independently released two album set is written and produced by Madden, who supplies lead vocals, guitars, and keyboards for his sophomore effort. All tracks are recorded in 96k HD audio digital studio quality format providing a very clear, crisp sound. Hastening back to the great old days of vinyl, the album’s purchase comes with a glossy 9x9 bi-fold print supplement taking us back to the great days of album artwork. The pamphlet includes song information, artist’s stories, additional information, and art providing a great gate fold album-like cover.

The two album set is divided into ‘Open-Eyed’ a fourteen song collection of rockers and polished offerings, and ‘Broken Wide’ a ten song collection with more of an acoustic, raw feel. Both share varying musical styles of which Madden moves effortlessly from one to another showcasing his talent and poetic lyrics. Most songs are masterfully written with many containing a delicate use of strings. Listen carefully for the well written lyrics, well placed breaks, and occasionally spoken stanzas of Alan Ginsberg’s ‘A Footnote to Howl’. Among the ballads and the rockers you will hear some jazz overtones and even a Broadway-like jingle. A number of the songs are presented on both the acoustic and rocker albums, always with one posturing better than the other, leading one to think one album of the best cuts might have been a better choice.

Open-Eyed is the more ‘polished’ sounding of the two albums with songs ranging from solid guitar driven rockers to beautiful piano lead ballads. The lead song “Open-Eyed” has solid orchestration underlying a story of the pain involved in personal change and growth. “Neon Signs”, tells the story of America’s culture of gluttony, and is a slowly building ‘80s rocker blending well into “Tomorrow Today”, another wild ride showcasing great lyrics telling of the fast pace of our culture - ‘it’s not new unless it comes from next year’. “Believe” shines with the story of the modern life of a Christian and “The new New Testament” is a testament to today’s Christians. “Dirty Feet” tells us it’s ok to live with the weight of life - you can be a little dirty while “This Is Love” shines as a new ‘John Lennon-ish’ anthem to peace, love, and hope.

Broken Wide, the second of the two album set is an acoustically based album with a textured feeling present in its simplified approach to many of its songs and their recording. Some of the voice tracks are quite rough. The opening track “Broken Wide” is the raw, pared down twin of “Open-Wide” having a string arrangement accompanying an acoustic guitar lead. “Aware”, is a hot jazz-based rocker with a great break to a fuzzy lead guitar. “A Beautiful Night” is a piano-lead ballad beautiful in its simplicity. My vote for best song of the set, “Rain”, is a great piece of modern surf music with California style reverb guitar and drums, vocals and backing vocals are well timed - ‘God made the world and saw that it was good. Not fair, not happy, not perfect, but good. And little understood, like rain.’ “Dirty Feet” combines strings and acoustic guitar providing a slow ballad reminding us to find the simplicity in life.

Open-Eyed, Broken Wide represents Madden’s growth as a song writer with his personalized spiritual faith embedded in his lyrics, call to social justice in his stories, and ability to move his audience with distinctive song styling. Most arrangements are simple, not complex, but the simplest things tend to be most beautiful and appreciated longest. If you relax in a quiet place and just let the music rush over you, then the words settle into a beautiful, meaningful moment. This is worth more than one listen.
SS Mertens

Blake McKibben - Haze

Blake McKibben
Label: Independent
14 Songs, 41 minutes and 5 seconds
Release Date: February 2, 2010

Blake McKibben’s Haze is a very well crafted initial entry into the music scene. This collection of fourteen short songs includes everything from a soft ballad to heavy shoe gaze, folk to pop-rock and a little hip hop. All instruments and vocals are McKibben’s alone, as well as the writing, production, and recording. This solo project is reminiscent of Todd Rundgren’s famous ‘Something / Anything’ project while the theatrical story-structured content is similar to early Alan Parsons Project work. The song collection does not have a singular style, but a collection of styles. Individually, each song stands on its own while together they converge to support the album’s theme proving once again that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The stage is set with “Intro”, a short, synth-heavy, shoreline-esque instrumental which breaks to the shoe gaze title track “Haze” telling of lost communication in a lightly echoed voice. “I See your Ghost”, showcases great lyrics, ‘…once in a while I see your ghost, once in a while I feel you close…’ “Floating” flashes back to a ‘80s ‘new wave’ rocker and gives way to the acoustic guitar based ballad ‘Nothing More Than Anything Is” with whispery vocals telling of relationship woes. The well written “We All Face The Fate” theatrically fades from sirens and voices to lyrically telling a story of loss, ‘…so go ahead and fall, and put away that gun, cause we all make mistakes, yeah we all face the fate…’ ‘I think we ought to run and kick it in the sun’ leads off the heavy percussion and synth foundation for “Two”. The bright and bouncy “You Lift Me Up” provides an uplifting moment while “Black Laughter” begins with a laugh track giving way to a solemn synth and piano lead instrumental. “Another Day Another Dollar” tells the story of the day-to-day drudgery of life sounding much like INXS of the ‘80s.

Covering every emotion, Haze is a great listen and easy to relate to with a string of songs ranging from the serious to the light hearted moments of life. McKibben’s offering succeeds in putting the listener in a place warm and far away, a very nice place to be. This haunting, easy to love, well crafted ‘story’ album also manages to be a great ‘headphone’ album. Without reserve, this is one of the best ‘whole albums’ I have heard in a long time - exciting to listen to, great fun and very replayable.

SS Mertens

John Cox in Concert

John Cox Live
February 27, 2010
Cup ‘O Joy, Green Bay, Wisconsin

John Cox is a performer who, for many, has slipped under the radar. Gifted as a song writer, John has five albums to his credit and has written many Christian songs of praise and hope for other performers over more than a decade. While seldom performing live elsewhere in recent years, John performs annually at the Cup ‘O Joy in Green Bay, Wisconsin. This year’s concert was not only rare but one of the best the audience will witness in 2010.

Cox’s live performance pushes each song to new heights, making the song list always fresh from performance to performance. Bolstered by a band sharing fifteen year tenure, the set list includes jams with ‘unique changes’, all without missing a beat. Band members have varying backgrounds including many of the members making up Sonic Flood from 2000 through 2004 and now managing Zodlounge, a recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee. While Cox continues as a prolific Christian song writer, he also continues to hold a true connection to the audience while performing. Together, the band working as a single unit easily holds the ebb and flow of the concert through their shared experience.

Band members include John Cox on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Todd Shay on lead guitar, Tom Michael on bass and backing vocals, and Brett Vargason on drums and percussion. From ballads to rock, lyrics show deep personal expression. The lead electric guitar is ethereal, floating and full of song-to-song expressionism. The bass is solid, seamlessly moving in and out of the background. Drums and percussion spark and fire, rocking solid with a living beat. Watching the combined effort of the band song-to-song shows each member so involved in the music as to give more of themselves to the moment than most bands.

The set list began with “Not as Brave”, an unrecorded gem, followed by “All You Need” (Sunny Day). New songs were introduced including “The Son You Always Wanted”, “You’re Gonna Make It” dedicated to his son, and “A Little Wild”, a new country rocker with a great acoustic / lead guitar intro feeding the song. John’s first radio hit “Sunny Day” (Sunny Day) continues to impress with consistency in performance time and again elongated in live performances to include a reggae break with guitar reverb underlying the lyric ‘pull me out of the wreckage’. The set included “With His Love” (Worth Dying For) and “You Are Loved” (All Is Forgiven), a ballad dedicated to his daughter. “Pull You Into My World” (80 Years) a song about a loved one suffering from substance abuse is highlighted by percussion and flowing guitar rising to soaring flight. “Beautiful Savior” (Sanctuary) is a pop rock song with great roving bass providing the foundation for floating guitar, acoustic rhythm and percussion elevating the song’s lyrics. “I Need You” (Sunny Day) and “Child Again” (80 years) capped the evening with Cox becoming so engrossed in the song that he held the guitar pick in his mouth while strumming his guitar, then continued singing without pause despite the pick remaining in his mouth! Band member’s solos end the song and the evening with Todd first on lead guitar giving great riffs, Tom with a jazzed bass solo, and Brett with a spirited drum / percussion mix.

The evening leaves the audience drained from the performance’s emotions yet wanting more. Cox’s lyrics are story driven from personal experiences and are extremely well written Christian praise-rock. Clearly he is one of few who can write solid praise to a great pop rock beat without losing the lyric’s meaning. Faith is ever present and very strong in John’s music. And a seed was planted in every one of the audience’s heart that night.

SS Mertens

Lifehouse - Smoke and Mirrors

Artist: Lifehouse
Label: Geffen Records
Length: 12 Songs, 45minutes, 24 seconds
Release Date: March 2, 2009

Lifehouse has passed the test of time with a distinctive sound and ever-growing popularity spanning over ten years. Accomplished with lyrics relating to personal issues and relational problems which bridge the gap from secular to Christian, Lifehouse has found a home in this popular cross over niche providing wide appeal to a varying audience. Highlighted by another change in band members, guitarist Ben Carey on guitar and backing vocals joins Bryce Soderberg on bass and founding members Jason Wade lead vocals, guitar, and drummer Ricky Woolstenhulme Jr, the band moves toward a more polished pop-oriented sound on their fifth album Smoke and Mirrors.

Most songs are flavored by Jason Wade’s signature voice with many having keyboards, Hammond organ, and synth in the background providing a more well rounded and mature sound. Lead song “All In” has the classic Lifehouse sound while “Nerve Damage” provides a new sound beginning as a slow ballad and progressing with hot breaks and blazing rhythm followed by smooth, soft lyrical passages. With a personal message, this is a mood setter emotionally ranging from sad realities to angst highlighted by a smooth blues guitar solo showing a new dimension. Chris Daughtry co-wrote and provides harmony on “Had Enough”, relating a relationship in need of a new beginning. “Smoke & Mirrors” is the albums anthem with great guitar interplay and solid drum foundation. Classic ‘Lifehouse’ rocker “Wrecking Ball” showcases bassist Soderberg's first lead vocal with the band. “Here Tomorrow Gone Today” changes up from lyrics based on relational issues to a justice-based, anti-war lyric.

Smoke and Mirrors is well crafted with an intention to move to more of a radio-ready sound while still resonating with classic Lifehouse rock. While this is a solid effort to continue a long string of very successful efforts, we are waiting for another breakout in the footprint of “Stanley Climbfall”.
SS Mertens

Sanctus Real - Pieces of a Real Heart

Artist: Sanctus Real
Label: Sparrow Records
Length: 11 Tracks, 39 minutes, 24 seconds
Release Date: March 9, 2009

With Pieces of a Real Heart, Sanctus Real remains a cut above similar popular Christian pop-rockers with superior lyrics, and clear, sharp production. Similar in message to their first four releases, this song collection may not rock harder than others but the effort goes yard with message and pop sensibility certain to find a home in the ever widening Sanctus audience.

Lead singer Matt Hammitt’s voice continues to dominate each song letting the message work rather than the music. Ever maturing with improved instrumentation while keeping it simple in presentation, the band continues to provide solid supporting base and drums while guitars and occasional keyboards highlight the lyrics. The lead track, “Forgiven” provides a playful introduction giving way to classic Sanctus. Perhaps the album’s highlights are back to back in “The Way The World Turns” with great chorus and building emotion, while “Lead Me” hits home with lyrics asking for strong hands and love to support family relationships. Rockers “Take Over Me” and “ I Want To Get Lost” have guitar-lead highlights and provide great headphone moments. The album’s final songs provide slow rockers and ballads of Christian faith and hope. Pay attention to the inclusion of occasional banjo and nice orchestration showing the continual experimentation and maturing of the band.

It is no wonder why Sanctus Real has such a wide and deep fan base – they are likeable, rock hard in concert, and speak directly to our hearts. With each album building on the next, this is Christian pop-rock at its best!

SS Mertens

The Cove

Directed by: Louie Psihoyos
Produced by Fisher Stevens, Paula DuPre Pesmen
Written by: Mark Monroe
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Rating: PG13
Running Length: 91 minutes
Release Date: July 31, 2009
Street Date: December 8, 2009

If you care about God’s creation, support animal rights, have an interest in nature, or are just concerned about our world in general then this is a film which will enrage and possibly spur you into action. The Cove is a documentary focusing on the enslavement and slaying of dolphins by the Japanese fishing industry. The Cove, an American documentary, is also extremely well crafted providing a story with intrigue, history, and results.

As the story unfolds, bottle nose dolphins in Taiji, Japan are entrapped during their annual migration and sold or slaughtered by locals involved in the fishing industry. History is captured through interviews with former ‘Flipper’ dolphin trainer Rick O’Barry, including his life changing story of saving Dolphins from exploitation and death. Fast forward to Louie Psihoyos, National Geographic photographer and co-founder of the Ocean Preservation Society (OPS), meeting O’Barry and learning of the dolphins plight n Taiji. The dolphin’s devastation in Taiji is told amid the backdrop of Japan’s corrupt fishing industry. Psihoyos recruits a highly specialized team who must go ‘under cover’ to document the plight of the Taiji dolphins despite the deliberate acts of the local dolphin ‘fishing’ industry and local authority thwarting their efforts.

Migrating dolphins are herded into a local park’s ocean-facing cove where prospective buyers from the worldwide multi-billion dollar dolphin entertainment industry pay top dollar for dolphins. Remaining dolphins are later mercilessly driven into an adjoining cove hidden from the public eye where they are brutally slain and sold to the Japanese public as various types of ‘safe’ whale meat not containing high doses of mercury. Dolphins that are slain literally turn the killing-field cove blood red by boatmen using spears and knives, stabbing at dolphins of all ages who are packed tightly toward shore in large nets. The number of dolphins killed nears 23,000 annually. The brutal slaying of this intelligent, peaceful mammal is representative of Nazi Germany’s ethnic cleansing, keeping the strong for work detail and committing genocide of the rest.

While the city of Taiji provides a much publicized public image supporting the dolphin, it is only a rue to hide the savage slaying of this peaceful and intelligent mammal. Japan’s insatiable thirst for the ocean’s foray has been well documented. What has not been documented is the brutality of its hunt and selfishness of its gluttony. The film shows not only those embarrassingly caught exercising the crime and representing Japan’s interest in the ocean’s fisheries but those few who are trying to change Japan’s related history. A history which includes a fishing industry providing fish heavily tainted in mercury resulting in the retardation and physical abnormalities of many newborns in Japan.

Amid the espionage-like intrigue of the documentary’s crew in recording the story lies the savage plight of the dolphin in Japan’s fishing industry making this one of the more intense and worthwhile documentaries in recent times. This is an eye-opening experience and worthy of close attention but is not for the faint of heart or children due to the overt cruelty shown to this peaceful animal. The Cove won the Oscar for best documentary at the 2010 Academy Awards and the U.S. Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. This is a must see file whether you love creation and the animals who populate it or are just a concerned citizen of this world.