Archive for the 'CD Reviews and blurbs' Category

Cosmic Knowledge by Knowledgeborn07

Cosmic Knowledge by Knowledgeborn07 is a straight up hip-hop masterpiece. It is the musical equivalent of someone turning on a light switch in a pitch-black room that contains the missing essence of hip-hop. Lyrically in some ways it harkens back to the grass roots era of hip-hop that gave us great MC’s like KRS One, Guru, Kool Moe Dee, Rakim, the Native Tongues and Chuck D who pushed knowledge of self as a pillar of the hip hop mindset. Like these founding fathers, Knowledgeborn07 has something worth saying and inventive ways of saying it. The lyrical flow here is densely packed with thought provoking content. Sharp social commentary along with spiritual themes of accountability, peace, non- violence, self-awareness, and living with purpose infuse this album in a genuine and sincere way. This is music I think Bob Marley would have dug. In fact the distinct reggae influence here merges with hip-hop and catchy pop sensibilities perfectly to form a powerful and unique sonic trinity.

The musicality of this album is striking. It has an infectious tunefulness and melodic approach driven home with stunning production and remarkable skill. Knowledgeborn07, co-creator Johnny “Cosmic” Gray, and their creative cohorts have crafted a fresh take on music that is both modern and rootsy, earthy but spaced out, underground yet accessible. A gang of talent is present here laying down rhodes, guitars, synths, percussion, backing vocals, guest rhymes, etc. Stylistically the collective sound reminds me a bit of Michael Franti and Spearhead though “Cosmic Knowledge” would also fit right in on the excellent Quannum label, home to conscious West Coast hip hop artists like Blackalicious.

Maintaining vibrant idealism and spiritual optimism in the face of suffering and injustice is the mark of true Soul. Soul is precisely what flows so vibrantly throughout  “Cosmic Knowldege”. An album this actualized in terms of vision, heart, and execution is a rare bugged out happening. Knowledgeborn07 has given birth to a classic work of truly divine and inspiring art and it should not be missed. Like many of the best things in life, this album is free and available for download at

Down home soul: The feel good groove of Soul Track Mind

Soul Track Mind in Action

Witnessing a Soul Track Mind performance is like stepping out of time and space. Their recent show at Mishawaka’s Midway Tavern felt like a great party onboard a funky time machine. The 8 piece band took the crowd back to the classic era of 60’s soul music, a time where hungry artists with something to prove stepped out of Gospel churches and brought spirituality, passion, polished performance, and ingeniously crafted songs to stunned and inspired audiences. Like soul archaeologists, Soul Track Mind dug deep to unearth those forgotten ways and lost rituals and brought them into the present. Their horn driven show was a vivid exposition on just how joyous live music can be. “We have been able to build a shared feeling between the audience and us. Sharing that kind of relationship almost has a spiritual effect. It’s high energy, passionate, sweaty, emotional,” says front man Donovan Keith, a graduate of Penn High school who now lives in Austin Texas.

Soul Track Mind and Keith’s ability in particular to inspire and entertain the audience was striking. When asked about this gift for connecting with the crowd Keith says “So many people can sing well but they can’t put on a show. It’s an element that has been missing for many years. We use that element to try to distinguish ourselves as a band that can really put on a great show. It’s helped us stand out in Austin. There are better singers out there and there are performers with more energy but I won’t let anyone out sing and outperform me. I won’t let anyone beat me at both.” says Keith, exuding all the confidence and enthusiasm of someone born to front a band.

When asked about the evolution of his unique performance skills and onstage antics, Keith offers a surprising answer. “The Showmanship came from my theater days, theater and comedy specifically. I did improv. I did stand up. I have always been very physical in performing. Chris Farley was always a big comedy influence. If you look at my comedy or musical influences they always have a big physical presence.” Keith cites musical inspirations like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke as particularly strong influences as well. “Sam Cooke for the songwriting and vocal phrasing and Otis Redding for his live show” says Keith.

As for why he became a soul singer, Keith says “I liked other music but would always keep coming back to soul. It is probably the most uplifting music when it is played correctly. Something about that energy level and that kind of spirituality was very appealing to me. The music is more gospel based than blues would be and the singer has to have a good voice to pull it off.” When asked to define soul, Keith offers an insightful answer. “There is soul music as its own genre of music, then there is soul as a term where someone sings with soul or has a soulful voice and I don’t really link the two. I think people who sing with soul are being open, honest, simple, and expressive. If you take those things and match them with soul music you have the best combination.”

Not content to simply imitate, Soul Track Mind seems determined to forge its own sound. At their Midway performance the band captured the audience by relying on original music, adding infrequent but perfectly timed covers. “We have our own voice now and we are writing the music and the words and it doesn’t sound like anything else because it’s our own completed ideas”. This fact is apparent on the band’s impressive debut CD “Ghost of Soul”. It is a great debut crammed with inventive arrangements and crowd tested songs. The CD manages to sound like fresh new music that could have come out on Memphis’ classic Stax label circa 1971.

As Soul Track Mind’s Midway performance proved, seeing a great soul band is a truly uplifting experience. “Our shows are where people who havn’t danced at all or havn’t danced often come to dance.” Says Keith. “So many times we have had people come up to tell us that. A woman came up and said “My husband hasn’t danced with me in 20 years and he finally danced with me.” He continues “Then this metal head guy said “I just want to let you know I’m a metal head, I never dance when I see a show… but you guys made me dance!” says Keith. He seems to thrive on channeling such inspiration. He adds “The performance aspect, being in front of audiences, the rush of sharing your voice and music with the audience and having them reward you with their energy, there is nothing else like it”.

Living Room by Ali Baba’s Tahini

It is a rare and enjoyable thing when a CD can evoke nostalgia and sound fresh at the same time. Such is the case with the new Ali Baba’s Tahini CD “Living Room”. This is a CD that harkens back to 60’s psychedelia, 70’s Jamaica, roots country, classic rock, childhood innocence, and better times. It does so without getting trapped in any of them. Instead of molding their songs into a given genre’s format, Living Room tends to draw diverse elements from different eras to fuel the bands songwriting. Unlike some bands, they don’t let the on going musical sight seeing overly distract from the journey to good songs. The strength of the material makes it all work, and over the years they have in fact become quite good songwriters.

Once one of the hottest original bands in the area, original members Jake Cinninger, Karl Englemann, and Steve Krojniewski parted ways in 2000 and Cinninger’s career took off with Umphrey’s McGee, leaving this band behind. They kept in touch though, stayed friends, and had a reunion and CD in 2005. What has kept the project going over the years and what really shines through on this CD is just how good these guys sound together.

The band members are a natural fit for each other musically and clearly have a blast together. Their musical chemistry has aged quite well and even improved over the years. They clearly brought all the outside experiences from their other bands into this CD. Where as once they sometimes sounded contrived to my ears, the musical flow here is quite nice, even polished. Occasionally the vocals can grate in an overly strident REM like whiney hillbilly way, but usually they anchor the songs well. There is something almost pop about how catchy this CD sounds. Cleverly constructed songs, talented musicianship, socially conscious lyrics, and exceptionally creative production all shine here. With the demands of the member’s other full time bands I was expecting a hastily recorded reunion CD of half finished songs. Much to the bands credit this CD obliterated those expectations in the best possible way.

“Living Room” is a real achievement for the band. For all practical purposes I had thought Ali Baba’s Tahini had peaked in the summer of ‘98. Was I wrong! This CD is likely the band’s creative zenith to this point. This is musical eclecticism on a grand scale done by seasoned musicians who sound really great together. “Living Room” is like a musical bike ride that stops by a variety of musical eras gone past while taking you somewhere fun you have never been before. It is a place definitely worth visiting.

South Bend’s got talent: Alligator Blackbird

On their impressive self titled debut, Alligator Blackbird lay down a sound all their own. They have a mellow but catchy acoustic based style that deftly draws from reggae, pop, and folk. Their stripped down approach serves their music well and allows the individual elements to stand out well in the mix. Fabian Guzman has a well-developed vocal and guitar style and is really beginning to come into his own as a singer. The bass playing of Chris Keck is extremely tasteful and anchors the songs with impressive musicality. Cory Miller provides the percussion with a subdued and inflective style that propels the tunes nicely. There is a catchy energy to the rhythm though it is a restrained one. The overall group chemistry is impressive and very musical. This is a very pop sounding album, though Alligator Blackbird falls firmly into the more rootsy end of the pop spectrum. The highly crafted tunefulness here brings to mind artists like G Love and Special Sauce, Jason Mraz, Ben Harper, and Jack Johnson. All pop artists that have maintained a degree of individual identity despite the cookie cutter SoundScan based “artist development” the majors have foisted on us the last 20 years.

So what’s not to like about this CD? Well this is not the most challenging, interesting, or innovative music, but this fact bodes well for the bands career potential and perhaps the average listener’s ears. Also there are some overly forced and clichéd sounding Kravitz derived vocalisms. Then there are the autobiographical accounts of youthful awkwardness those listeners past the age of 25 will likely find non-relatable. The lyrics at times reveal a young and inexperienced perspective, one that will likely mature over time. Honestly, how many weed references does one need to cram into a CD before it gets stale? This band seems determined to find out. At the same time there are many times where the lyrics really shine past the bands age and paint a bright future indeed.

It is great to hear art like this coming out of South Bend, especially from a band making their debut. This CD is the most ear-friendly and polished CD I have reviewed in a while. I could easily see their music ending up on the radio at some point. As catchy as this CD is though, it leaves the impression that some more time and life experience for this band could produce an even better one. The bottom line though is that a group that can combine such catchy song writing with equally impressive musical chemistry is a rare and beautiful bird indeed.




Still by Micaela Kingslight

Still by Micaela Kingslight shows that Michiana has another promising female singer songwriter in our midst. The strong debut from the up and coming songstress shows lyrical depth, musical refinement, and vocal poise. The fact that she wrote the songs, sings, plays guitar and even bass on many tracks shows just how much talent she has going on. The accompaniment is strong as well, with solid contributions from Joe Chamberlin, Carolyn Koebel, and Adam Danis.

There are some real musical gems here that show tons of promise. The style is hard to peg, at times it seems folky, other times more rocking, and occasionally even feels a little jazzy or alt county. I like that you can hear an individual style evolving on this CD rather than someone trying to conform to an existing formula. That being said there seems to be some room for improvement.

While Still is a strong debut, it comes from a young artist clearly getting their musical foothold. The vocals while solid, will no doubt mature with time. The songs while tightly constructed, don’t always transcend the emotional murkiness that no doubt fueled their creation. There is a distinct melancholic air that tends to restrain the energy on this moody album. For some that might be a good thing, for this listener it left me wanting a greater range of emotion in the music.

The gloomy atmospherics are in no doubt the flipside of what makes Ms. Kingslight a talented songwriter. She is a keen observer who sees the contradictions in life and herself and skillfully articulates them in song. One gets the sense she is reflective, honest, and true to her experiences. At the same time one can’t help but wonder what she will sound like when she has had a greater range of life experiences to channel into her already promising music.

Funk Prelude by Funktion

Groove scientists Funktion

Kalamazoo funk maestros Funktion have dropped an impressive debut CD that is as well crafted as it is enjoyable. The band is known for their high energy live shows and slamming covers of songs by James Brown, Kool and the Gang, Parliament, and others. Funk Prelude ups the ante and marks a major step forward in the band’s evolution. The debut is a refined studio recording of surprisingly strong original material. On it we hear a maturing group with a rootsy funk sound that is really starting to gel. Funktion has harnessed their vibrant live mojo to produce an eclectic batch of solid tunes that grow on the listener.

This band does not fake the funk. One can hear the classic elements of great funk music here. Tight syncopated rhythms, playful upbeat grooves, soulful vocals, jazzy overtones, sophisticated arrangements, expressive solos, and contagious horn parts are all here. As the dust settles and history weighs in, Funk music will no doubt be seen as the highly innovative, enjoyable, and important artistic achievements that it is. This band is definitely doing their part to keep this under appreciated art form alive. They are paying homage to the form and its roots while forging their own unique sound. In doing so Funktion is blazing a fast path to join the ranks of contemporary funk artists like Galactic, the Greyboy All Stars, Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, and the parade of talent on the Daptone label.

Funk Prelude is a solid debut from one of the most impressive live acts in the region. Having said that, the band has a ways to go to ascend to the level of the classic funk masters. Funk greats like Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, and James Brown had a socially conscious sophistication to much of their best work that seems to be somewhat lacking on the dancing and romancing tunes found here. Still Funktion nails the fun factor, and turning out a party has always been the foundation of funk. This is a tight knit group of talented musicians that have been working very, very hard to take their music to the next level. They have succeeded strongly here and the future is wide open with possibilities. Funk Prelude shows that Funktion is more than just a funk cover band. They are original artists applying tasty musicianship and stellar chemistry to unique sounding music that is genuinely funky. Its a shame there are not more bands around like them.

“Storyline” By Mike Struwin

Mike Struwin, a songwriter to watch.

Every so often I come across a CD with a unique sound built out of layer upon layer of lovingly crafted sonic nuance. The impressive “Storyline” by talented singer-songwriter Mike Struwin is just such a CD. No newbie to the music game, Struwin released his first CD at age 17. Since then he has released 7 albums, performed in several bands, and learned and lived in such musical hot spots as Portland, OR and Kalamazoo, MI. “Storyline” reflects the experiences of a well lived musical life and combines them with the passion and enthusiasm of a young artist rapidly coming into his own.

There is a unique artistic vision on this CD that is apparent in the way these songs were constructed. The songs on “Storyline” cover a lot of territory, both musically and lyrically. Songs of love, life, loss, and letting go are all intertwined into unique musical paintings that draw from roots, folk, alt country, and rock. A stable of talented musicians contributed a wide range of instrumental flavors to the rich tapestry of this album. Lap steel, horns, organ, piano, percussion, harmonica, and mandolin accompany Struwin’s vocals and guitar playing. The lush instrumentation not only serves the music but also takes it to another level completely. The exceptional production from Struwin, Lee Howard, Daniel Fretto, and Demetrius Keller really shines here. They have brought these songs to life in a way that reminded me of some of the more musically rich productions of John Mellencamp, Paul Westerberg, or Nick Drake. Struwin has a unique voice and doesn’t particularly sound like any of these artists, but the ability he shares with them to merge song crafting, musical collaboration, and the possibilities of the recording studio is a rare gift worthy of high praise.

This album is likely to have resonance with anyone who has spent quality time in South West Michigan. Lake Michigan, the Dunes, and even Kalamazoo are all celebrated here. It was nice to hear so many experiences I could relate to put into song form. At times the local focus feels almost provincial, yet this is a big part of the albums charm for those who have been there. This is not a perfect album. Some of the narratives meander at times but there are plenty of well-written songs with meaningful lyrics to make up for it. In the end it was really nice to hear a genuine “recording artist” make an album that really works as an album. In a world with a demographic driven corporate owned music industry, it is harder to find them these days. Struwin has really stepped out from the crowd on “Storyline”. With this album he has proved he is a gifted songwriter with a unique artistic vision and a ton of promise.

Mantis by Umphrey’s McGee

“Mantis” by Umphrey’s McGee is an intriguing amalgamation of solid musicianship and creative studio song crafting. It is an ambitious and eclectic work that harkens back to the golden era of progressive rock. This album works, but ultimately leaves something to be desired. While a solid effort in a bold new direction, it doesn’t quite conquer the band’s notorious case of “jambanditis”, also known as “the noodle syndrome”. This common jamband affliction in which technically proficient musicians substitute endless exploratory improv riffage for well honed cohesive songs has dogged the group in the past and is not quite transcended here. The band deserves credit though. They seem to be moving in the right direction by painstakingly crafting multidimensional music that benefits from their formidable musical skills. On “Mantis” they come closer to hitting a difficult target often missed by jam bands-using musicianship to serve songs, not just using songs to serve musicianship.

While listening to this album I heard echoes of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, E.L.O., Queen, Van Halen, the Who, Supertramp, and Styx. These are all bands that spent a great deal of time in the studio perfecting their sound and songs. Theirs was the era of the album and arena, but it was the album that always came first. Touring came after they had something new to say. The remarkable musical tightness of Umphrey’s has evolved through constant touring yet I can’t help but think how much better this album could have been if Umphrey’s spent less time on the road. This album was pieced together throughout several tours and often sounds like it. While not as A.D.D. as some of their other works, the album still seems a quite scattered compared to the best works of the groups mentioned above.

Mantis is a mixed blessing. One can hear that the band is starting to learn that you don’t need a million chord changes and gratuitous odd time signatures to craft good music.  Yet throughout the album interesting elements are thrown into songs that don’t really benefit from them. Still Umphrey’s impressive command of dynamics and musicianship is being channeled in an interesting new direction that grows on you with repeated listening. The album catches on fire at times but ultimately only hints at what they may achieve. Umphrey’s McGee could very well raise the musical bar for the jam band and rock worlds if they put the kind of energy and dedication into studio song crafting that they have been putting into touring. “Mantis” is a good first step in this direction.

Furniture by Furniture

This very interesting disc is at the top of the running for the most psychedelic music to ever come out of the local Michiana scene. There is no pretense or aspiration here to fit into tired musical forms or genres. Instead we hear a relentless unhindered drive to connect with cosmic, primordial sounds. Sounds that lie far beyond the limited confines of the mass produced prefabricated mindset society finds itself stuck in. This band appears to have been more influenced by whales, bees, rail yards, glaciers, shooting stars, factories, and birdsongs than predictable musical idioms. This is improvised music that shimmers, shifts, glides, collides, crashes, melts, and transforms, its way into all kinds of unexpected sonic realms.

I can’t help but think of adventurous bands like Seattle’s Hovercraft, early Sonic Youth, or the Butthole Surfers when hearing this disc. Local art-jammers Squirm and Kalamazoo’s way ahead of their time Liminal also come to mind as more accurate comparisons. All of these bands steadfastly inhabit their own expanded sonic Universe that in turn expands ours. To me I would expect to see a band like this in big city environs like Chicago or Seattle but to discover them here in Michiana was refreshing.

As with all improvisation, things don’t always catch on fire here. At times solid ideas seem prematurely aborted or cut short, some of the edits are jarring (some perhaps intentionally so), and the rhythms, while creative and propulsive, seem somewhat unhinged at times. This is definitely a rough edged disc by a band that could use some polish and refinement. Someone please teach them the magic of the fadeout/in, especially for blending amorphous improves. Having said all this though, Furniture is on right track and making a unique place for themselves in the local musical landscape. This disc is like an adventurous vacation with challenging rough spots. In the end the bad is outshined by the unexpected experiences that make the journey worthwhile. Furniture’s live show is even better, as they proved at the recent Lakes of Fire Great Lakes regional burn.

Despite its flaws, this is a fascinating disc. I appreciate artists who really go for it warts and all and try to unearth something no one has heard before. That is exactly what is happening here. This is music at, for, and from the outer perimeters of consciousness. You will not hear this in a mall any time soon. With hardcore creative original artists like this in the world though, likely the day will come when you will.

Unton the Maximum by VGB and the Power Plus Crew

Every so often a new band puts out something as half-baked as it is promising. Unton the Maximum by VGB and the Power Plus Crew falls squarely into this category. This is unapologetically raw, unpolished, and stripped down music with a certain vibe and attitude that somehow works. Part of the charm here is the bass and drums duo seem to either not care or are entirely unaware of just how mediocre this is. Their blissful ignorance seems to give them carte blanche to give 110% on these tracks and, well lets face it, that’s where real greatness begins. Make no mistake, this is a band that gives it all and seems to have a lot of fun doing it. In the end it is that sort of rambunctious fun that is an important part of music and that is predictably missing from a lot of musical “product” these days. So if you don’t mind things raw and trashy, VGB and crew get the job done.

So what does VGB and the P.P. Crew sound like? I hear echoes of indy rock, hip hop, funk, and punk, but they really have their own sound going. Sonic ballpark reference points might be 311 minus the guitars or early pre Mother’s Milk Red Hot Chili peppers mixed with a bit of the brattiness of early Violent Femmes. While this CD doesn’t hold a candle to the finer works of those bands, it’s a decent debut for some obviously talented musicians.

VGB who raps and vocalizes while playing bass is particularly impressive. Playing involved bass lines like the ones here while performing vocal duties is a rare talent. The bass playing is creative and accomplished. The vocals on the other hand are a little monotone for my ears and the lyrics can get pretty trite and even pretentious at times. Some of the vocal phrasing sounds awkward and forced as well. All that being said though, the bass skills and fearless vocal delivery clearly shows a talented natural born front man developing. On the skins Nick Brabhan holds his own. He creatively keeps tunes flowing through a variety of ADD arrangements, unexpected changes, and dramatic tempo shifts. The two seem very tuned into each other in a way that makes exciting and interesting music happen.

VGB and the Power Plus Crew are off to a good start but have a long way to go. Over the years I have seen a lot of similar bands that could eat these guys for breakfast. At the same time they deserve credit because they don’t sound like anyone but them selves and definitely stick out from the local crowd. If you are a fan of raw, trashy, and energetic bands with a unique blend of ingredients you might want to check out this joyously cantankerous debut.