May 152011

Many people might be more familiar with the name Boulder Acoustic Society than they are with the name Aaron Keim. That’s because Boulder Acoustic Society has been making a name for itself as a progressive band in the bluegrass/roots/neo-folk world over the past several years.

But Keim (who happens to be the founder of B.A.S.) goes by yet another moniker when he’s flying solo: The Quiet American. And as The Quiet American, he has just released his second solo project, aptly titled The Quiet American, Vol. II. And if you listen to the record, and know a little of his story, you’ll discover that Aaron Keim is an old soul putting a modern twist on folk.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to Keim’s work is that he literally brings history to life in the way he tackles his music. First of all–he makes most of his own instruments.  Secondly, the first installment of The Quiet American was initially recorded on a wax cylinder from the 1890’s (the new release uses more modern methods, but has a historic feel, nonetheless). And third–Keim isn’t afraid to weave traditional bluegrass tunes in with his original stuff.  Vol. II has a healthy blend of both.

And yet, somehow in bringing the past to life, by weaving subtle modern indie-rock elements into his stuff, Keim breathes new life into the music–and what is old is new again.  Pretty amazing, when you think about it.

But don’t take my word for it.  Have a listen to the opening track below.

The Quiet American: “I Will Be the One”

Buy The Quiet American, Vol. II on iTunes:
The Quiet American, Vol. II - The Quiet American

Mar 142011

When Mike Sembos of Connecticut indie-rock band The Alternate Routes contacted me to let me know about his Other Band, The Backyard Committee, I have to admit I was a little wary.  Here’s why:

“…part of the concept is a constantly rotating cast of musician friends, each who brings their unique voice to the project.” (quote from Mike Sembos)

When I see phrases like “constantly rotating cast,” I get the picture of a loose-knit collective of musician friends who are just getting together to jam–which is cool, and lots of fun, but usually doesn’t add up to making good records because as a general rule, there usually isn’t enough structure in it to make it work.

Meet the exception to the rule. This is a hodge-podge collective that actually works.

Yeah it’s a little sloppy in parts, but nothing like I would have expected. Yeah, it skates across a few genres (a fact which Sembo admits), but overall it stays close enough to the folk-Americana category that it doesn’t lose its audience. The end result is a sort of jam-session garage band you’d actually want to sit and listen to–like somewhere in Connecticut is this bunch of musician neighbors that get together for a barbecue or something, and actually sound really, really good.

And here’s the best part: you can download the whole album, right now–and forevermore–and you don’t have to pay for it.  Says Sembo, “…[another] part of the band concept is that it doesn’t cost anything for anyone to own our music.”

So I’ve shared a couple of the tracks below to give you an idea about The Backyard Committee, but you can go to the band’s Bandcamp site and download the whole dang thing right now, for free.  IMHO, it’s worth owning.  And if The Backyard Committee ever decided to charge for the record, it would still be worth owning.

Alls I’ve got to say about it is if this is a backyard committee, this is a neighborhood I’d like to live in.

The Backyard Committee: “Red China”

The Backyard Committee: “25”

Or download the whole dang thing for free here.

Nov 012010

Typically, when a band labels themselves “Americana”, there is a certain amount of expectation as to what it’s going to sound like.  So when Denver-based “Americana” band The Congress sent me their self-titled EP for review, I got a bit of a surprise.  T’weren’t at all what I expected.

Don’t get me wrong. This is Americana; they haven’t mis-labeled themselves.  It’s just that sometimes we forget that our roots aren’t just folky; there’s a bit of fried chicken and soul mixed in there, too.  This is the part of America that The Congress captures–the blues/jazz/rock part–and the result is that mmmm-hmmm satisfying kind of music, like soul food (blue-eyed soul, to be exact)–or like a really good back scratch.

This band is relatively new, but it’s apparent these guys aren’t novices.  This record has a foundation of rock-solid musicianship and equally-solid songwriting, overlaid by near-flawless vocals.  This is an indie band that isn’t striving to be edgy–just really good. And they are.

The only potential downfall I found with the record isn’t with the quality itself. There’s a smooth Hammond B3 throughout the record that really helps define the record’s sound; the only problem is, there is no organ player in the band.  That part was added by co-producer Daniel Clarke, who isn’t part of the band. Thus, while this is definitely a solid recording, one has to wonder whether it is true to the band’s actual sound.  Of course, seeing them play live (which I plan to do) could settle all those questions; just saying.

Anyhow, check out The Congress and see what you think.

The Congress: “Queen Mary”

If you like this band, buy their EP on iTunes.
The Congress - The Congress

Sep 222010

Just so you know…I’m not really intending to focus all my attention on just indie-folk or Americana  country projects.  It’s just that those are the titles that have been accumulating on my submissions list. :)

Anywho…I got a listen yesterday to Darden Smith’s latest project Marathon, due to be released in the states on September 28. Actually, “project” really is a good description for it; according to Smith’s website, Marathon is also a theatrical work in progress (which totally makes sense when you listen to the record), and soon to be a book/music project, as well.  The title is appropriate, as well–although named after a town in west Texas, Smith says the concept for Marathon has been around for a decade.

What I found most striking about the record is that it sounds more old “western” than most country/Americana efforts these days.  Really.  You can almost feel the dust in your eyes, or see the tumbleweeds rolling by–or perhaps imagine a couple of gunslingers facing each other down at high noon.  Definitely a concept record, the main tracks are punctuated by several instrumental breathers.  In fact, I must say that the instrumentals are the strongest parts of the record–every time I heard one, I was disappointed when it ended.  Additionally, props are due for the instrumentation throughout the project–very professional, very well done.

So that’s the good stuff.  In my view, the album’s weakness  is found in the songwriting–in particular, bland melody lines (something that seems to plague many indie projects).  Darden Smith’s raspy voice is memorable in itself (reminds me of the late Rich Mullins, if any CCM fans are reading this).  But with the exception of the ending track “No One Gets Out of Here,” I had a hard time identifying any strong melodies.  I found myself toiling through the regular songs, waiting for the amazing interludes in between them.  Just saying.

That said, Marathon is at the least a very respectable project, the product of a great deal of work and thought. To give you a sense for the record’s thematic feel, I’d recommend listening to the sample tracks below in order.

Local Denver folk will get the chance to hear Darden Smith soon–he’ll be making a stop at Swallow Hill on October 2.

Darden Smith: “Marathon”
Darden Smith: “Sierra Diablo”

Aug 032010

D.B. Rielly is an American roots music artist with a two-sided approach to his art.  On one hand, he is quite tongue-in-cheek (or maybe just “cheeky”) in his approach, and on the other–well, it’s apparent he holds a deep respect for the Americana genre.  Both sides of Reilly’s nature are evident on his latest record, Love Potions and Snake Oil, a CD that pledges to be an “instantaneous cure for all afflictions.” (It says so–right on the label.)  The question, of course, is this:  does the record do what it claims?

Yes.  And no. (A two-sided answer–how appropriate of me.) :)

While the musicianship and songwriting on the record are definitely on target, in all honesty I feel that the record has three distinct shortcomings.  First of all, the dual nature of the record itself seems to work against it.  At times Reilly’s songs are heartfelt and sincere (“Save All Your Kisses”, “Love Me Today”), and at other times satrical and irreverent (“We’re All Going Straight to Hell”). And the twisted humor in the song “I Got a Girlfriend” borrows a page straight from “Weird” Al Yancovic’s playbook.  It seems to be intended as diversity, but instead it feels more like several violent mood swings.

Second, roots music spans several genres, and this record apparently tries to span all of them–from zydeco to blues, and everything in between. Granted, all genres are done well enough, but the overall voice of Love Potions is inconsistent at best. Listening to the album through, Rielly doesn’t stay in a genre long enough even to help the listener get used to it.

Third, as far as the music itself, while it certainly pays homage to the historic roots of American music, it doesn’t break any new ground. It sounds more like the music of yesteryear, not like a record made this year.

These three issues I have with the record all share a common thread: the music is good, but the dual theme doesn’t work.  This record feels like it travels all over the place, and doesn’t seem to know what it is, or what it wants to be.  It covers plenty of ground, but lacks focus.

Having said that, imho, the album’s strongest suit is actually its bluesy acoustic tracks just beyond the halfway mark.  Stark, raw and honest, these tracks represent the best of D.B. Rielly.  (I’ve included these as a sample below.) If the rest of the record sounded like this, it would be a classic.

If Love Potions and Snake Oil is inconsistent as a stand-alone record, at the very least it demonstrates Rielly’s range and talent–a sample of what he’s capable of.  And despite its shortcomings, the one message that comes through clearly on the record is his love for roots music.  It will be interesting to see where Rielly’s journey takes him next.

D.B. Rielly: “Changed My Mind”

D.B. Rielly “Got a Mind”