Heather Nova – Higher Ground review

When first hearing Heather Nova, there is one word that instantly comes to mind: tranquility. Soothing, insightful and powerful, Nova creates a surreal atmosphere with her music. Her voice is synonymous with ’90s sountracks, and the arrangements of her songs move like that of a movie; it has a message that it presents through dynamic contrast, melancholic chord progressions and the use of multiple instruments, opening up the listener to the creative world of Heather Nova. 

Nova’s latest EP, Higher Ground, follows in the same vein as past releases, but with a more focused approach on a rock sound. “Higher Ground” is absolutely beautiful; laid back drumming and soft guitar strumming crescendoing into a chorus filled with piano and orchestral sounds, “Higher Ground” will indeed leave you elevated.

“I’m Here” is a great example of Nova’s ability to go from graceful, soft-spoken singer, to rock-fueled alternative queen. Nova’s vocals contrast to the hard-hitting, unisonal parts from the guitar and drums, amplifying the chorus part. “But I’m here, this is where I want to be,” sings Nova, her voice filled with conviction.

A live version of “Island,” from album Oyster, is hauntingly beautiful. In an almost Beth Gibbons-esque way, Nova goes from echoed, to powerful, well-delivered vocals throughout “Island.” “Pretend I’m crazy, pretend I’m dead,” sings Nova, her gloomy, vulnerable voice supported by a calming guitar part.

“The Wave” strangely fits on Higher Ground. One of her many poems, “The Wave” follows up very well after “Island,” playing the calm to “Island’s” storm.

Being something of a teaser before her next album release called, 300 Days at Sea, Higher Ground shows that Nova is still a definitive singer-songwriter. Just through one listen of this EP, and you will understand why fans have loved her music for over 22 years. Nova’s voice resonates so clearly in each song; it conveys her emotions, allowing the listener to feel what she is feeling.

A great sample to start off with if you are unfamiliar with Heather Nova’s work, Higher Ground is enticing, and enjoyable. Allow Nova to take you on a journey as you encounter a world of luscious sounds, freeing your mind as Nova “pulls you from the wreckage,” and leaves you in a state of serenity.


Urge Overkill – Rock and Roll Submarine album review

Never heard of Urge Overkill? Do not be so quick to reply, “Yes.” Remember in Quentin Tarantino’s classic, Pulp Fiction, where Uma Thurman is singing Neil Diamond’s, “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon?” Well, you have Urge Overkill to thank for that. Their cover of the song accompanies Thurman during her iconic overdosing scene. Having taken a long break since then (their last full-length was 1995’s Exit the Dragon), the group has returned with Rock & Roll Submarine, an album that is a nostalgic nod to the alternative rock sounds of the ’90s.

Starting off with Guns N’ Roses-esque attitude and heaviness, both “Mason Dixon” and “Rock & Roll Submarine” are energetic and powerful.

“Little Vice” is hard rock at its finest; the chugging guitar part and the Scott Weiland-esque vocals from singer-guitarists Nash Kato and Eddie “King” Roeser, will instantly have you headbanging.

“She’s My Ride” almost sounds like Nirvana’s “Sappy” in the beginning, before going back into familiar territory with heavy snare hits and riffs. “Niteliner” begins with exploding drums and a guitar riff that you will attempt to imitate multiple times.

“Touch to a Cut” does not depart from the formula; heavy drums, riffs and raw vocals, this song closes out the album properly, although the fade out could have easily been replaced with a more memorable ending.

Urge Overkill is a straight-ahead, rock & roll band. For those who were hoping for something new and innovative, do not look here; these guys remain dedicated to reminding you of the rock music that dominated the airwaves during the ’90s. In the veins of Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and Guns N’ Roses, Urge Overkill keeps things simple; their music is meant to make you move, air-guitar for a few minutes and reminisce.

In an age where rock has ventured into new territory, it is good to sometimes have a band that remains in the realm of straightforward, hard rock. Urge Overkill is not trying to sound like the bands of today; they are a familiar sound that will bring to mind the rawness and intensity of the “Generation X” bands. Accessible, loud and powerful, Urge Overkill is a flickering light separating itself from the many hybrids of rock we have now. If you are a ’90s child, or just enjoy hard, riff-based songs, then this is the band for you.

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Planningtorock – W album review

Janine Rostron, better known as the multi-instrumentalist Planningtorock, is an experimental musician who combines elements of classical, experimental, hip-hop and opera music, to create a sound that is both innovative and all her own. Add in a strong interest in being theatrical during her live performances and you have a performer that pushes the boundaries of music both visually and auditorially.

Debuting in 2006 with Have It All Rostron had critics applauding her originality and her ability to take control of a listener and bring them into a world unseen before. Rostron continues to just that in her latest album W.

Rostron is a three-part system; her costumes, performances and videos all contribute to better understanding the mastermind behind Planningtorock. “Doorway,” the beginning track on W opens the listener up to the musical realm that is Planningtorock. Beginning with fuzzy synths and Rostron’s androgynous vocal delivery “Doorway” does not throw too much at the listener, rather giving them a sample of the sounds that has made Rostron’s music so appealing.

“Manifesto” will immediately have you with its infectious keyboard part and Rostron’s multiple vocal parts. The high and low registers sung by Rostron will arouse the listener, while the percussion and repititious saxophone notes just add to “Maniefesto’s” enticing sound.

“I Am Your Man” has charging drum hits that back Rostron’s declaration that she “is the right man.” Along with some Robert Plant-esque vocals at the end, “I Am Your Man” actually stands out, even more so because of its title.

“Don’t be surprised, if I’m ripping out my eyes,” sings Rostron on “The Breaks.” Wavy synths, reverberating vocals and electronic drum sounds show more of the experimental side of Rostron’s music. “Living It Out” has the potential to be a summer dance anthem with its layered vocals, heavy synths and club-influenced dance beat.

“Jam” begins with percussive sounds and haunting, ghoulish vocals from Rostron. Psychedelic and odd, “Jam” will grab the listener’s attention, taking them on a rollercoaster of strange sounds, echoey drum hits and nightmarish notes, all while keeping their head nodding. “9” shows off Rostron’s pop side, but still keeps the ghoulish and unconventional sounds that make her unique. The bouncy synths, heavy drum hits and Rostron’s eerie vocal delivery, is blended very well. “You’re like a light, I’m gonna keep you warm,” sings Rostron as drums crescendo all over the track, creating a wave of sounds that carry the listener in multiple directions.

Rostron is all her own; her music is innovative, different and daring. Although some may consider it too out there to gain mass appeal, Rostron’s sound will have listener’s attention. W invites you into a world that you are unfamiliar with, and sends you on an adventure where each song is different from the other. Rostron’s voice can be changed into many things; from a Janis Joplin-esque wail to Robert Plant-esque vocal deliveries, Rostron has the ability to manipulate her voice into how the song needs it to be.

Mysterious, otherworldly but absolutely enjoyable W can and will test your limits. It will open your mind to new sounds and see if you can handle them, rewarding you with innovative sounds and ideas from beginning to end. Planningtorock’s W has only one plan in mind; to send you on a ride of musical creativity that will leave you curious, and wanting more.


Art Department – The Drawing Board album review

Art Department’s The Drawing Board seems to be a nostalgic nod to the house music of the 90’s. Throw in a simple dance beat, syncopated synths and haunting, low vocals and you have yourself The Drawing Board. Consisting of Toronto-based duo Kenny Glasgow and Jonny White Art Department is a group that has many years of experience performing on the dance club scene. Their ability to create simple dance hits is evident in The Drawing Board.

What may take some time to adjust to are Glasgow’s out-of-tune vocals which are a staple in almost every song. “ICU” starts off with groovy percussion that sounds like something off of a Friendly Fire’s track, followed by Glasgow’s morose vocals. The eerie keyboard part underneath Glasgow’s “I see you” in the chorus emphasizes Glasgow’s desire to be watched by someone.

The drum beat on “In the Mood” sticks out as it has been used on various other tracks, notably Q-Tip’s “Breathe and Stop.” Other than that nothing too significant to mention. The 10-minute “Much Too Much” could have been halved. Its lack of excitement and intensity is what makes it a less enjoyable track.

“Tell me why does it feel you are always on my mind,” sings Glasgow on “Tell Me Why.” Keeping the obsessive romantic theme going Glasgow’s haunting vocals flow over sounds of percussion and other house sounds. “Tell Me Why (Part II)” brings in a change with an improvised keyboard part that contrasts against Glasgow’s “Tell Me why.”

“Vampire Nightclub” is a combination of samples, eerie synths and house percussion that actually makes it really enjoyable, regardless of its 10-minute mark. Unlike “Much Too Much” “Vampire Nightclub’s” sound is much more enjoyable and actually creates a shift when Glasgow begins to sing “I like the way your body gets down.”

“We Call Love” will have you moving as soon as it begins. The simple yet heavy percussion sounds against the bouncy synths, along with Glasgow’s vocals make this track stand out. “What Does it Sound Like” stands out with a synth part that sounds as if Crystal Waters may have made it.

“Without You’s” haunting, low vocals and bouncy synth notes go well with the snapping percussion and dark bassline. “I just can’t make it without you” sings Glasgow, the ghostly lyrics echoing over pulsating drum hits.

Art Department can obviously arrange a song pretty well; “Without You” was a 2010 house anthem and the evidence is all there as to why. Although most of the tracks are listenable there is nothing here that screams innovation, which works in Art Department’s favor. The simplified synths and percussion make the songs that much more danceable, where the listener or dancer does not need to worry about any sudden changes. People may dislike Glasgow’s lyrics, but the connection between dark lyrics and danceable tracks brings about a common idea in life: we dance and enjoy the night life to get away from the darkness that life can hand us. An idea that house music already knows so well Art Department keeps it going, adding their own take on very familiar territory. It may take a few times to listen through but The Drawing Board keeps things simple, preparing its listeners for a big night out.

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STRFKR – Reptilians album review

When first hearing the name STRFKR you may laugh at what the name really stands for (it is pretty obvious after all). Based out of Portland STRFKR’s mixture of synthesizers, spacey sounds and dance-pop beats are definitely welcome in an age where groups such as MGMT and Passion Pit are at the forefront of a similar sound. Having performed at this year’s SXSW music festival and having additional tour dates until August, STRFKR has also made time to release their latest album, Reptilians.

Reptilians begins with “Born,” a combination of acoustic guitars, electronic drums, heavy synths and Michael Angelakos-esque vocals. “Bury Us Alive” brings to mind 1980s synth-pop with its dance beats, reverberated keyboards and vocal parts from Josh Hodges. The happy, dance feel of the chorus is contrasted against Hodges’ “Bury us alive” that indicates that there is a deeper meaning to the song than just the upbeat sounds being heard.

“Death as a Fetish” starts off with heavy synths and organs before kicking in with the drums. Similar to “Bury us Alive” “Death as a Fetish” is an upbeat song with lyrical content related to death. The Beck-esque vocal part adds to the song’s spaciness.

“I want a simple life” sings Hodges on “Astoria.” An explosion of sounds “Astoria” is a short song but features a really cool synth part that stands out from the other tracks. The dreamy vocals and video game sounding parts will have you putting this song on repeat.

“Reptilians” stands out as soon as it starts. Beginning with acoustic guitar the song moves into a realm filled with explosive drum hits, synths and a bass line that will probably remain in your head for days to come. “The White of Noon” slows down the pace of the album with its funky, groove-filled beat and electronic sounds.

“Millions” will be a summer dance anthem with its heavy synths, dancing beats and a breakdown part that will have everyone going absolutely wild. Hidden behind the dance party sounds are very melancholic lyrics. “I love to see you crying, so happy when you’re sad” sings Hodges.

STRFKR ends Reptilians off right with “Quality Time,” an upbeat combination of sounds that will also be another dance party favorite. Bonus tracks “Slow Dance” and “Recess Time” are nice additions to Reptilians, although they do not stand out as much as the others.

Reptilians is an interesting album that shows STRFKR’s ability to create a sound that is enjoyable and creative. With this being their second full-length album they still have time to grow, and experiment with other sounds that will strengthen the music that they make. Although Hodges’ lyrics are mainly centered around death the combination of upbeat songs and melancholic lyrical content could be seen as a much larger theme: that death is responsible for giving meaning to life. Seen in this way STRFKR manages to create an album that will not only have you thinking, but will also have you moving too.


Gorillaz – The Fall album review

“Finally someone let me out of my cage, now time for me is nothing cuz’ I’m counting no age.” Introduced to Gorillaz during my junior high school years I have enjoyed seeing their progression from their self-titled album to their latest, The Fall. What originally had me hooked to this group was its Alternative Hip-hop feel as it went through songs such as “Clint Eastwood” and “Rock the House,” both of them featuring the amazing flow of Del tha Funkee Homosapien. You also had classics like “19-2000” that left you wondering what exactly was the catchy saying Noodle was singing during the chorus.

Following their self-titled album Gorillaz released Demon Days and Plastic Beach. Demon Days saw Gorillaz’s creator, Damon Albarn, working with an even wider range of artists. Throw in production with Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley fame) and you have songs that still remain in the vein of Gorillaz’s trademark sound. “Feel Good Inc.,” “Dare” and “Kids With Guns” showed that Albarn still had some tricks up his sleeve.

Plastic Beach showed Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, the other half of the Gorillaz, moving into a new direction with their group, both musically and artistically. Calling it his “most pop record” ever made Albarn not only moved the Gorillaz’s sound in a new direction, but incorporated many eclectic artists into the mix as well. Moving into a more electronica and techno feel Plastic Beach showed Albarn growing as a composer, working with people such as Mos Def, Snoop Dogg and Bobby Womack.

In The Fall you still get remnants of Gorillaz’s sound, but do not expect this album to be like past ones. Created entirely on Albarn’s Apple iPad this album follows in the vein of what has made most Gorillaz’s albums successful: its unique qualities and experimental nature. In a first listen you are not as captivated as you would be with their past albums, but giving it a second listen you will be able to appreciate Albarn’s creativity.

“Phoner to Arizona” begins with a heavy synthesizer part, followed by other additions. It is an instrumental track, but the feel and sound of it will not leave you skeptical; you will know you are listening to a Gorillaz album.

“Detroit” begins in a way that lends itself to Gorillaz’s Demon Days period. The synthesizer part in the beginning and additional instrumental parts will bring to mind “Dare,” minus vocals.

“The Joplin Spider” implements sounds from both Demon Days and Plastic Beach with its electronica-like feel contrasting against an eerie and ominous keyboard part. Add chopped, monotone vocals from Albarn and iPad noise that must be directly inspired by some M.I.A. song and you have something that is hauntingly amazing.

“Amarillo” is a soothing and dreamy track that is made even better by Albarn’s vocals. The song works like a ballad as it contributes to the album’s overall gentle mood.

“Bobby in Phoenix” is definitely a highlight on this album. Featuring Bobby Womack the song is backed by acoustic guitars and keyboard sounds, with Bobby’s soulful and tender voice flowing throughout the track.

“California & the Slipping of the Sun” begins with a station announcer, followed by gentle guitar plucking and the dream-like vocals of Albarn. Building up to a combination of dance, synth bass and vocal snippets this track is not as significant as the other ones listed, but definitely shows the more experimental side of the album.

To expect The Fall to be like past albums is not suggested. This album shows a much more creative side of Albarn that may grow with future Gorillaz records. Recorded during the American leg of the Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour it is obvious how passing landscapes through tour buses and planes have contributed to the overall sound and mood of The Fall. Stripping away the guest appearances and the usual additions that make us enjoy Gorillaz so much, and giving us a sound that is more natural, experimental and reflective, definitely makes this one of Albarn’s most ambitious records yet. Each song may not be as captivating as past Gorillaz’s songs, but it is Albarn’s untraditional approach and untraditional tracks on The Fall that show that Albarn not only runs with an idea, but he can do a damn good job at it too.