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Quick Play: A round-up of January 2012 album releases

We've listed albums in order of star rating. Best first.

Reviews by  Pete Feenstra, Pete Whalley. David Randall

Grega Habic

GREGA HABIC Open Heart Surgery (Nostromo Records)

Slovenian guitar ace Grega Habic is the latest wizz kid to join the ranks of technically astonishing instrumentalists who have taken guitar playing to another level. And while the term 'atmospheric' is often bandied about in relation to albums like this, there are a several inspired moments when Grega does indeed soar to great heights.

The biggest challenge this instrumental album sets itself is simply to come up with some original compositions in what is a crowded market place. It's coming up 25 years now since Satriani broke new ground with 'Surfing With The Alien', and since then there seems to have been a surfeit of incredible players who have struggled to showcase more than their dazzling technique

'Open Heart Surgery' is Grega's fifth album and is a coherent work that readily explores the outer edges of his compositions but always finds a way back to base.

He demonstrates his scintillating playing on the pulverising opening track 'Pig', before he hangs back enough to explore some interesting grooves on 'Mirror', which is a succinct exploration of tonal possibilities. And almost as if to emphasize the inherent diversity of the album, Grega explores some jazzy chops and fractured funk on '2 L84 Tears', overridden by an eclectic rap, some crisp notes and a cool dynamic.

'Open Heart Surgery' is an album that surprises by turns, shifting from an explosive opening to explore different hues and tonal colours in an array of playing styles including rock, metal, fusion, jazz, occasional bluesy undertows and funk.

The key to it all is that Grega readily slips from one style to another in the same song. Listen for example to the impressive 'Marionette' with its moody ambience, big toned angular note flurries, drifting keyboards lines and an understated funky feel. Just when you think he's settled in a gentle groove, Grega explores a different angle and it this sense of spontaneity that lies at the core of an interesting album

The following 'Alchemist' is the closest he gets to rocking out, though the melodic lines are far from original, while the opening avalanche of harmonics on the excellent 'Devil's Whisper', cushions some coruscating runs, over Jesse Adams layered keyboards. The song explodes from a whispered voice and whammy bar intro into high register notes, crunching chords and a mellifluous rock solid groove with a melodic upswing and a stop-start outro.

In contrast there's the relaxed Pat Metheny influenced funky groove of 'Tunnel Lights', which demonstrates Grega's intuitive grasp of light and shade, while 'Fighting The Undertow' has a crazy Zapparesque vocal rap in keeping with the intensity of the track. 'Irreversible Damage' opens with a shuffle beat, cool jazz notes and some intricate acoustic playing over chopped metal chords and extravagant cymbal crashes, before settling on a chunky metallic groove that moves to a seamless finish. The album is neatly topped and tailed by the title track, in a blizzard of notes over some portentous metal shredding that just about resolves itself in a very sudden finish.

Despite its adventurous intent 'Open Heart Surgery' doesn't really break any new ground, but is full of lovingly crafted instrumental twist and turns, little intricately woven thematic ideas and a real dynamic sense of purpose. It's an album that blows away the cobwebs and is well worth exploring by all rock guitar fans. ****

Review Pete Feenstra

Miles Nielsen

MILES NIELSEN Presents The Rusted Hearts (Rotown Records)

It's always difficult to achieve success in your own right when you're the son / daughter of a famous parent. Especially if you follow them into the same field of expertise. Who among us would need more than the fingers of one hand to name musicians who have surpassed the fame of a parent. I can't think of a single one.

Which is why, the ‘son / daughter of' tag is a hindrance more than a help. But Miles Neilsen ‘son of' Cheap Trick guitarist Rick could, with his band The Rusted Hearts, be one to buck the trend and follow the lead of the likes of Rufus Wainwright and make it on his own terms.

Two years on from his debut album Miles (2009) the flavour remains the same - sixties pop infused Americana - but with a road tested and collective band spirit, as reflected by the album title.

Miles however, remains the focal point with his songs and vocals surfacing shades of Dylan, pre electric Bolan, Ray Davies, Tom Petty and The Beatles (to name but a few). But he is, perhaps, closest in modern day style to Ryan Adams.

It's a confident touchdown at second base and one that makes Miles Neilsen (and The Rusted Hearts) a credible artist in his own right. ***½

Review by Pete Whalley

SWEET SWEET LIES The Hare, The Hound & The Tortoise (Something Nothing Records)

A collision of male two song writing minds on a five year Bristol University music course was springboard for the first incarnation of Sweet Sweet Lies. But the absence of sustained finance and a falling out with management whose Plan B was the X Factor or the West End soon put paid to that.

But by chance, hope was at hand with the forming of Something Nothing Records by Junk Scientist - a label aimed at producing good music rather than chasing immediate success. It's modus operandi suited perfectly the pair's desire to make music driven by melody and narrative rather than radio playlists and passing fads.

Thus, The Hare, The Hound and The Tortoise is something of an intense artistic affair that ' inhabits a world ringed by the high drama of Scott Walker, the theatrics of Bertolt Brecht, the heart baring honesty of Elliot Smith and the intensity of Nick Cave.'

Whether that or the twelve songs that comprise their debut are likely to appeal will depend very much on your musical taste because the horns, weaving basslines, flamenco flourishes and love song waltzes that inhabit it are far removed from the mainstream trend. Think Elbow meets The Coral, with Nick Cave behind the mic. And if that sounds like it could be your thing, check out the Something Nothing Records website where you'll fine a selection of streamed songs and videos. ***

Review by Pete Whalley

DARKER HALF - Desensitized

Darker Half are a heavy metal band from the land down under, Sydney to be exact, but their influences are most definitely from the northern hemisphere. The band owe a lot to early Maiden more than anything else with a raw metal sound, twin guitar delivery and screaming vocals. Just to re-enforce this notion the band have supported Paul Dianno twice on antipodean tours.

This is the band's second full length release, the first found the band critical acclaim and led to several notable support slots. The guys play heavy metal with the odd bit of thrash thrown in for good measure and it is rather good.

The twin guitar work of Vo Simpson and Brad Dickson is excellent, harking back to the early sparring of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith (or Den Stratton if you want to go that far back). The only weak point in the delivery at times are the vocals of Vo who does struggle a bit at lower registers but he hits the high notes with aplomb.

This is a good album with a lot going for it, if you hanker for the good old NWOBHM days then Darker Half could be just the thing. They will be touring all over Australia soon in support of the album if you fancy popping over.  ***½

Review by David Wilson

FORMER The Kids Deserve Cable

Former hail from the home of country music, Nashville, but there is little of that city's musical heritage evident in this the band's second album. The band are billed as pop/rock and quote Cheap Trick, The Wildhearts and Elvis Costello as influences.

Their sound though owes more to Feeder than any of the aforementioned bands, I failed to find any musical nods to The Wildhearts and Cheap Trick, in fact the only CT track I was vaguely reminded of was ‘The Flame' which even the band aren't keen on!

Former's sound is more pop than rock, they reminded me of an X Factor boy band at some points, but mostly the album just washed over me. Some tracks off the band's first album were used on films and TV which backs up my thinking that they are more suited to background music than something you would listen to for pleasure.

If you enjoy Feeder's quieter numbers this may be your bag, just don't expect a ‘ Buck Rogers' moment or even a Roy Rodgers one for that matter.  ***

Review by David Wilson

Jarle H Olsen

JARLE H OLSEN Quadrasonic (2011)

Norwegian Jarle H Olsen is the latest prog metal "guitar prodigy" and ‘Quadrasonic’ is one of the better examples of its kind, the more so given that it is wholly instrumental.

Frequently intense, it is evident that Olsen is influenced by Dream Theater’s John Petrucci. For the most part he maintains listener interest (especially on 'Pro-10' and 'Dark Matter') but ultimately this is less of an ensemble effort more an Olsen showpiece. Although, as with many a similar release, somewhat lacking in emotion if brimming with technique.

With evident skill and compositional talent, I can’t help thinking that - with an excellent band in support - he has not made the most of his situation and there is a distinct feeling of a wasted opportunity. Greater use of Alex Argento’s keys for example would have introduced much needed colour and respite. Unless you are a hardcore and slightly masochistic guitar freak you will find this album strength-sapping halfway in.

As it is ‘Quadrasonic’ is a slightly flawed exercise and the accompanying press release with a lengthy (although unattributed) press quote is totally misguided. "So complete, so interesting, so mature" . It ain’t. ***

Review by David Randall

NAVA CROSS NavaCross (Hi4Head Records HFHCD009)

There's a certain irony in an Essex band struggling to put across their rich harmony laden brand of Americana music. The irony doesn't so much reside in a Brit band trying to sound mid Atlantic, but rather it's that their own Essex musical heritage is probably just a strong as the music they are trying to emulate. In short they need stronger songs and an identifiable style to back up their crossover intentions.

NavaCross peddle a catchy brand of roots music that evokes the feel of Americana, dips into the blues, uses country music style harmonies and they can rock out with best of them. But if their collective harmony singing is their strength the individual vocal performances are sometimes less so. This is particularly evident on the swing arrangement of 'Turn on a Dime' where Dean Baker for once struggles to make an impact, albeit you can imagine this song will become be a great live favourite.

But if there's a missing link it is simply that enduring search for a unique selling point. For while NavaCross have much going for them from their infectious songs with bouncy choruses, their sparkling musicianship and a feel for country blues, they straddle a thin diving line between British folk music, Americana and all roots reacted influences.

Their self titled debut album might not quite have the rock & roll swagger as suggested by some of their reviews, as they have a much more melodic based approach with strong harmony vocals on the chorus. The album is engaging and is a recording debut they can be justifiably proud of, even if you do suspect theirs is still a style in the making.

The simple songs work the best, with the raggle taggle up tempo picking and strident harmonies of 'After Tomorrow', the strong rhythmic feel and Crowded House harmonies of 'Let It Roll', the Van Morrison soulful influence on 'Monkey on my Back' and the train time blues and slide guitar of 'Look Back'.

The good news is that there is a market for contemporary roots as evident by the radio plays for The Band influenced sing-along 'Shine a Light'. And who could be less than impressed with the ballad 'Lay Down' or the big guitar figure, percussive presence and wistful phrasing of 'Listening'. The latter brace of songs suggest the band have a deeper quality to go with their good time feel.

NavaCross have plenty of potential and surely have a lot of gigging to do before they finally hone their own style. Meanwhile this debut album is a promising step in the right direction. ***

Review by Pete Feenstra

THE JAMES LOW WESTERN FRONT Whiskey Farmer (Union Made Records UMRC 4201)

Neil Young once sang 'Comes A Time' and this album similarly reflects that there comes a time in your life where if your not taking stock, at the very least you begin to wonder what your life is really all about. Call it mid life crisis perhaps, but whatever your view, singer-song writer James Low expresses these sentiments succinctly in a rootsy album that has enough lyrical substance to be regarded as a concept album.

James take on the mantle of the 'Whiskey Farmer' on the opening title track; 'I'm a whiskey farmer trying to grow champagne'. And under the guise of The James Low Western Front, he and his multi instrumental band works their way through 8 songs that range from the plaintive and reflective to the poignant.

Much like the performer himself, 'Whiskey Man' is an understated work that makes the most of some heartfelt lyrics delivered in a world weary voice that perfectly enunciate his feelings.

There's an early whiff of resignation on 'The Stars Don't Care', on which the following thoughtful couplet is typical; 'The stars shine on Texas, they shine on Paris, they shine on Portland, the stars don't care, if I went there'. And he strips things down to the bone on the love song 'I Would Have You', as the languid tempo gently meanders to its close.

Then there's a return to the theme of his Texas home on the wistful but aspirational 'Thinking California', which packs another telling couplet; 'Thinking Californian, living a Texas life, nothing I do, seems to bother this dusty sky''. The lines are delivered by just his voice and harmonium (pump organ) before a gentle accompanying acoustic guitar and percussive brush strokes.

It's one of his best songs on the album which captures the dichotomy between the possible and the actual. There's also some wry humour on the workaday country arrangement of 'Medicine Show', while the more inconsequential 'Sleeping It Off' makes the most of a thin hangover metaphor.

And just when you begin to think James elemental musings are the stuff of late night radio, producer and percussionist Mike Coykendall manages to get the very best out of James and his band on the closing 'A Little More Time', a poignant rumination on life itself, on. It's a beautifully paced and superbly poised song showing just what James is capable of when his focus is solely on the song and a smoking arrangement rather than AOR country. ***

Review by Pete Feenstra

RUBY MUSE Red Guitar In A Blue Room

‘It's a family affair', as Sly Stone once said (great song). And that's what Ruby Muse is - a DIY project between partners Jools (vocals, guitar, piano and mandolin) and Malcolm (guitar, bass, drums and production) Heyes that also features their 7 year old daughter on flute and a jig inspired by their late cat.

Conceived originally as an album only for the pleasure of friends and family, and coming from diverse backgrounds - Mal a rock / bluesman, and Jools a poet, roots, jazz and classical fan, Red Guitar In A Blue Room is essentially a soft rock album not a million miles removed from the likes of Katy Lied.

It touches down on a range of styles including country, folk, jazz, blues and rock, but the quality control is set high throughout with some nice vocal work and plenty of neat guitar lines. Sadly, it's probably not going to sell much beyond family and friends, but as Sly Stone might have said ‘It's a quality affair'. Good luck to them. ***

Review by Pete Whalley


It makes a change to see the offspring of famous parents (in this case the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serg Gainsbourg) making it on their own merits. And while she's conquered the French charts she remains something of an enigma on these shores.

Stage Whisper is her new double album of live and unreleased studio tracks - the follow up to her critically acclaimed IRM album (2010). And while we haven't had the benefit of a preview of the unreleased studio material, the live songs reveal a hugely diverse artist with a set ranging from Stranglers era punk, through ambient electronica, pop and folk.

It makes for a set of strange bedfellows, and Gainsbourg's vocals aren't the strongest. But there's an innocent appeal about them, and it's pleasing that the set follows the groove rather than a predetermined flight path. It has, as the French would say, ‘je ne sais quoi'. ***

Review by Pete Whalley

Grainne Duffy


The ‘tricky second album from Irish blues guitarist and singer / songwriter Grainne (pronounced Gron-ya) Duffy.

Her voice and guitar playing are inspired by the Memphis and Chicago scene as well as the likes of The Rolling Stones, Peter Green and Rory Gallagher. And on those levels Test of Time passes the test - Grainne's vocals are soulful with just the right amount of grit and, when combined with her tasteful and fluid guitar playing, the media comparisons to Bonnie Rait are fairly obvious ones.

The problem with Test Of Time though, is the material - it's OK, but for the most part that's about all you can say for it. The album opens promisingly enough with Everyday, and the Clapton / reggae Sweet Sweet Baby has a nice groove but in general terms the album rapidly slides into standard rhythm & blues / bar room blues / soul fodder. And sadly, nothing particularly original.

Hooked up with a decent songwriter Grainne Duffy's got superstar potential. But pleasant as Test Of Time is, the material falls disappointingly short of the mark. **½

Review by Pete Whalley

TWILIGHT HOTEL When The Wolves Go Blind

When The Wolves Go Blind was written in the main while Canadian duo Twlight Hotel (Brandy Zdan (vocals, lap steel, electric guitar and accordion) and Dave Quanbury (vocals, guitars, piano, dulcimer and ukulele)) were touring their previous release - Highway Prayer (2008), an album that won a # 2 debut on the Euro Americana Chart, a Western Canadian Music Award for Outstanding Roots Duo / Group and a 2009 Juno nomination for Roots Traditional Album Of The Year.

When Wolves Go Blind seems to be creating similar waves being nominated for 2 Canadian 2011 Folk Music Awards in the Best Contemporary Album Of The Year and Pushing The Boundaries, it's a strangely intriguing set that skies off piste as it skates across a wide range of styles and genres incorporating elements of European folk roots, jazz, hints of rock & roll and even Duane Eddy style rock & roll. The result is an eclectic collection with the atmospheric appeal of Twin Peaks. That is, strangely alluring. Even if you're not quite sure why. **½

Review by Pete Whalley

Phantom Limb

PHANTOM LIMB The Pines (Naim Audio)

I think we got it just about right when we said of Phantom Limb's eponymous debut that only stumbling block to worldwide fame and glory may be the absence of sufficiently commercial material.

The Bristol based country / soul outfit featuring the sumptuous vocals of Yolander Quartey continue to have a relatively low profile, although Yolander made an excellent gust appearance on The Devil And Midnight and So Long on Nitin Sahwney's recent Last days Of Meaning album.

The Pines, the band's second album picks up exactly where their debut left off, and sadly that means that while fans are likely to be happy, it's unlikely to widne the circle who have fallen for Yolander and the band's soul infused easy listening.

Once again, and as you would expect from any artist associated with the Naim label, it's a quality fidelity product. But to my ears, the material is perfunctory and ultimately un-inspirational. And for an album whose heart is soul and gospel, that's not good enough.

Perhaps their best ploy would be to consider a collaborative project with a decent songwriter - for example, Judie Tzuke's work with Morcheeba brought out the best in both artists. It could pay dividends. **½

Review by Pete Whalley

THOMAS TRAUX  Monthly Journal

Monthly Journal is an album of 12 tracks written, recorded, mixed, mastered and released to radio and on line at a rate of one a month over 12 months. And in places, it sounds like American singer songwriter, and inventor, Thomas Traux has been tripping on the Space Ritual or at least absorbed the muse and madness of Space Poet Bob Calvert.

Recorded on portable equipment in the US, the UK and Germany including self made instruments and Casio keyboards12 months might have a ‘DIY' feel but nevertheless it exudes an undeniable ambience as it touches down on an array of musical styles and subject matter such as Fukushima, the Royal wedding and the summer riots.

It comes as little surprise that the likes of Q and Radio 6 are taking Thomas Traux as a serious prospect. But for those of us who lived through the heady days of the early 1970s, we've seen it all before. And better. **

Review by Pete Whalley


Another in what seems like an almost weekly procession of releases fro.m the children of the famous. In this case, Christiaan Web - the eldest son of songwriting legend Jimmy Webb.

Having worked with both his siblings, and father, Christiaan is an accomplished keyboard player and A Man Possessed  ‘a shout to my child hood heroes, both living and fallen - John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Billy Joel, Elton John, Billy Preston and Jimmy Webb'. And that very much signposts Christiaan's own writing / singing style i.e. that of Marc Cohn in the 1980's and 1990's.

In other words, it's professional, competent and ‘clean cut'. But it's also very ‘yesterday'. There may be a market for this sort of material Stateside but it's hard to see it as a defibrillator for the stagnant UK music scene. **

Review by Pete Whalley

PAUL J RILEY Alba Place (Wurly Music)

The singer songwriter genre has exploded in recent times, so much so that solo performers are far more likely to get a record deal than a group. So, the question is, what can Paul J Riley bring to the party?

And after listening to Alba Place, I'm still unsure. The album would probably have remained unheard demos if it wasn't for a chance meeting with drummer and producer Wayne Proctor who over a two year period helped bring the album to fruition.

Previously an industrial designer (with the plastic Haagen Dazs spoon and a Vivienne Westwood key ring to his credit) and, for 10 years, a full time builder, Paul's writing and playing has until now been a private affair and I suspect, to most people, he's likely to remain a well kept secret.

Not that Alba Place isn't a competent debut. It's a pleasant, well played and produced release on which Paul wears his Al Stewart influence proudly. I was also reminded of Clifford T Ward. But the singer songwriter vogue has moved on significantly since those days. **

Review by Pete Whalley

STEVE CICHON Heavy Sleeper (Nightmare)

The latest offering from Steve Cichon doesn't really improve upon its predecessor (Cranial Feedback) and many of that album's shortcomings are repeated here.

Firstly, and typically for this sort of release, the production is poor especially the programmed drum sound. (Never more so than the otherwise promising 'Era's End')  But most of all this album lacks any degree of musical subtlety or originality.

The metal salvo of the two opening tracks sets the scene, although he quietens things down a little with ‘Moon Cycles' with a suitably Satriani-esque motif. But this soon degenerates into more relentless riffing and shred.

As does ‘Whitley's Song' with its promising intro and coda. But essentially, and I can't put this any other way, Cichon lacks interesting and engrossing tone and each song merely becomes a vehicle for his unfettered and frequently insipid noodling.

More light and shade and foot off the gas may have helped an evidently enthusiastic performer. But you can't help thinking that a project where Cichon wears all the hats (production, playing, mixing etc) is not going to be a healthy one. He should get out more. **

Review by David Randall


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***** Out of this world | **** Pretty damn fine |
*** OK, approach with caution unless you are a fan |
** Instant bargain bin fodder | * Ugly. Just ugly

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