Reviews

For over three years, OnAxis Music has been writing reviews for full albums, singles and live shows. Check out the latest news:

Better Than TV: Dive Into the Debut Album of Doug Rosenberg


Like kids glued to Saturday morning cartoons, Chicago saxophonist Doug Rosenberg’s debut album Better Than TV will have jazz fans at rapt attention. Any listener will be swept up in the fireworks display of top-notch musicians in action. Fittingly, the album is constantly changing, exciting, playful and unrelenting. It’s an animation full of colorful sounds that are too fleeting to fully grasp, but together, tell a story greater than the sum of their parts.

Rosenberg, the Logan Square-based composer loves his neighborhood and is passionate about music: “I live and breathe it, teach it, listen, and grow from it.” He has found like-minded players to pursue that passion with, and is coming into his own as a composer with his debut album.

 “I’ve been writing music all my life, and finally got the courage and wherewithal to actually produce it,” says Doug. Receiving a boost from the CAAP (Community Arts Assistance Program) grant “was a big part of my getting my mojo to make this project happen.” Up to now, Rosenberg is best known for his work with the Chicago powerhouse band Eastern Blok. Besides that, he has performed as a side man for numerous projects on not one, but three instruments: saxophones, flutes and clarinets. He has performed with historic jazz musicians like Robert Glasper and Bob Moses. Stir in over 10,000 hours practicing, and Doug has honed “a pretty unique melodic vocabulary.”

All this hard work is front and center throughout Better Than TV, which roars like an action movie, distilled into a pure musical form. Quiet moments in the track “Forged Stability” are restrained; but vital rather than solemn. “Dirty Basement Jazz” takes listeners on a smoky coffee break before the espresso-induced fun of tracks like “Mato Grasso”.

“My art form is improvisation. For amateur listeners, they will hear some pretty sounds and fun groove. For deeper listeners, there is a ton of information packed in there. It will unfold with time as art music does,” says Doug.

See and hear it live TONIGHT, two sets at 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct. Chicago, IL 60605. Doug Rosenberg appears with Rob Clearfield, Mike Harmon and Juan Pastor. Albums to be available for sale and at www.dougrosenberg.com.


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ALBUM REVIEW
Matthew Morgan
Red Silhouettes 


While Chicago artist Matt Morgan's visual art pares images down to basic shapes, simplifying objects into blocks of color, his recent music album is just the inverse of that-- it turns the sweater of life inside out and shows us the fascinating patterns, loops, twists, turns and strings behind it. He does this through simplicity, complexity and through a word not often used outside overly-serious law firm advertisements, yet is in “Red Silhouettes” in spades: integrity.

Why might you need integrity in music? Perhaps to combat the disc's biggest charm- and notably not its Achilles heel- the fact that Matt records and plays nearly all of the instruments in the DIY spirit and reality that marks independent music as a slightly different breed than its glossy Billboard chart counterparts. It might have been easy to worry that, as bands or artists obtain a few pieces of gear and rush to make an album, that Red Silhouettes may walk about with a scarlet “DIY” on the chest.

In fact, it should. The DIY creation helps the album at every turn. This home-spun album is peppered with detail and salted with a quirky charm that make it surprisingly complex, entirely original and fit like a perfect hat. It makes it unexpected, bitter and tasty; warm and conversational, light-hearted as tea and dark as strong whiskey, and as eye opening as a cup of coffee or transcendent as a peek at a the perfect ray of sun.

Bell-like gongs, electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards and jiving organs mingle with triangles and harmonica. The collection of sounds and the way they are placed in arrangements keep the album's head high above water in what could otherwise be just a splash in the folk/country ocean. The variety in the choice of instrumentation has a “Where the Wild Things Are” vibe or the color half of The Wizard of Oz...it's a new reality. Red Silhlouettes is grounded in experience from real life- the stories are of battles, soldiers, and friends.

The lyrics, in part, are loosely based on letters from the Civil War. Within ear-shot of a folk fan, this mere idea could easily become sentimental, either full of reverb or heart-bleeding sonic memorabilia from the glory days of Alan Lomax- but this doesn't go in that direction. Instead, due to the number of different and unexpected sounds, there is musicality and sense of adventure. The battles can be war or personal battles.

PhotobucketThe illustration on the album cover is based on brass buckeles from different insignia in the Civil War. The idea for the imagery of album was based on tintype pictures from the war, as Morgan looked to the era initially simply for ideas for lyrics. Morgan has found that starting with a story from another source is a way he can invent lyrics. In fact “My Country's Son” is attributed to J.D. Flowers, who is not a songwriter but a soldier that lived over 100 years ago. Matt came across his letters, as well as those of another soldier, a 12-year-old boy who ran away from home to join the regiment, and who “Drummer Boy” is loosely based on. The battles throughout the album are tempered with graceful realizations and a life-affirming energy.

Rather than dwelling on war, the album is more a commentary about life in general. Morgan states, “One pervasive theme is facing the demons in front of you-- taking your flag and going to the front of the line, [saying] “I'm gonna face this down, I'm gonna take charge of life and be who I am” and make your life into how you want it to be.”

The arrangements are fresh, ebbing and flowing through verses and choruses with musical moxie. The instrument sounds are modern, well-crafted digital simulations at times, but the energy with which variety is entertained with helpless aplomb keeps the disc raw. The combination of sounds creates a backdrop of sonic texture that raises up like braille (Inside the Bone). Morgan's steady voice is the constant, which presides over the tracks like a violin, as his phrasing mirrors the way a violin can hit a note and play it the length of the bow, drawing out the sound. It's low, deep and somehow sounds selfless- but it's entirely confident and lyrically wise. When it arrives, it settles in like a pendulum.

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Matt's rich tenor voice pulls the album out of folk trenches and adds to the musicality. Melodies are hypnotic and Gregorian-chant-like at times, cresting and falling in waves. There's a reggae vibe all over “Be Good” including a fife (a small flute circa 1776). It's as if the sounds of two revolutions (Jamaica's and the Revolutionary War) come together. The Civil War theme is just part of the album, which is overall about life's struggles and wisdom gained.

In the same way that some movies are loosely based on real events, the word “transcendence” is loosely based on a real human experience that may be overshadowed by our busy lives. The term itself can be eclipsed by new-age feel-good lingo. Within the sonic adventures of these songs, like a ship with its sails set on something real, transcendence is returned to a tangible feeling.

Transcendence comes from a general sense of triumph-- sometimes subtle, and sometimes overt. Triumph in lyrics “like bells in the wind, you rise up for your song to begin…”(Last Song) and "search for my triumphant day" (For All This Time). The latter song calmly leans like the giant arm of an oak tree. Background vocals by Anita Chase (½ Mad Poet) add a full aural experience. The violin is a feat of soaring country fiddle: lush, full and never itchy. The tone is haunting and rich, like a dark wood bookcase talking.

What you'll find in this album is something that makes you feel good. Red Sihlouettes is upbeat and melancholy. The acoustic guitar, ranges from deliberate single note picking, to strumming, full of dissonance and hungry, appearing even gospel-like in its movement. You can hear in the details it's clearly a labor of love- neither quick nor drifting. The album is easy to champion as simply an “indie musician makes good” but it's more than that. Novelty in sounds keep it fresh from without while lyrical substance for the soul makes an impression within. Together, you've got unique musical integrity ripe for repeated listens.

The CD Release show will be Friday February 25, 2011 at the Jackson Junge Gallery (1389 N Milwaukee Ave.) from 8pm - 11pm. Admission is free. Red Silhouettes is available for download on all major digital distribution websites (iTunes - Amazon - Napster - LastFM) and is available for purchase in physical format on CD Baby here: LINK

Matt's website: www.matthewmorganmusic.com. To learn more about the people, musicians and organizations that contributed to Red Silhouettes, check out Matthew Morgan's blog: http://matthewmorganmusicart.blogspot.com

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ALBUM REVIEW
Monologic
The Things Themselves

The Things Themselves is like an answer that is within the question. The album by dance floor regulars Monologic reframes the fundamentals of electronic music. Lyrics of the track “Bathed in Static” are “instruments sweet in habit...bathed in static.” The “habit” that The Things Themselves hint at is the nature of electronic music and the way certain stipulations within that genre define it. Habitually, electronic sounds may repeat relentlessly, it's what communicates with the body, the lyric-less-ness providing just enough anonymity to transcend individual identity and have a collective experience. The same electronic sounds are now used to add variety within the same system, and it is turned on its head for a different effect. The Things Themselves questions the habits or role of electronic music to get outside of the box of dance music.

In the evolution of a band built on dance music, The Things Themselves is more musical, more delicate, more intricate and definitely based around songwriting. This makes the album accessible even if you don't normally listen to electronic music- it's as intimate as two lovers with their foreheads pressed together.

The production is so sophisticated that enjoying the album is simple. Have you ever looked at the back of a playing card and marveled at the intricacy of the designs? What about the surface of the moon on a clear night, or the line art on a dollar bill? Any of these might tip you off to the sonic layers, the lush bag of sounds that work together so that the listening experience seems as vast as the ocean when swimming in The Things Themselves. The beats seem to float...yet are held in place by gravity, except it's gravity on the moon. Such is the world of The Things Themselves, which references angles, being “topsy turvey” or escaping in to space, all while being conscious of the results of life experience that are shared by all of us- universal yet completely individual. It's an album that is very easy to “think” to.

PhotobucketIt's also one of the most embracing efforts of recording technology and the marriage of electronic music making and more 'traditional' or organic music with acoustic instruments made in 2010. The delicate combination is completely seamless and the “digital” sound will make sense, now and in years to come, as it is played to a population that uses electronic devices daily more than any other population in history. As our lives become more influenced by digital technology, perhaps music that is at home with the future, as well as the present, will be something that makes us look at our own habits, and the way we use technology, and consciously be aware of the role of technology in our lives and our future. Or, we might just enjoy The Things Themselves because it has awesome sounds.

Although the album is a feat in songwriting as much as it is in production, the dance floor roots of Monologic are alive and well. Keep an eye out for upcoming dance remixes by other artists that will stretch The Things Themselves in further universal directions- and secure the aural pleasure of electronic music that is solid, sweet, and accessible due to its craftsmanship and creativity. Enjoy it as it explores, entices and embraces you in everything you never thought electronic music could be.


LISTEN "The Things Themselves": www.ilovemonologic.com

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FULL ALBUM REVIEW

The Plastic Boots

The Plastic Boots 


The Plastic Boots keep it down and dirty, fronting a universe recalling Buck Cherry, Black Crowes, Zappa and the Toadies. Rock grows thick and swampy with distorted guitars, B3 organ, electronic funk, bar-rock lyrics and a head-expanding psychadelic groove. It's hyper, bold music for when all you have is smokes, the taste for whiskey and a good night out.

The Chicago four-piece relishes in packing venom and raunch into a caucophony that squeezes parts like party-goers jamming into a small car. Crunchy guitars ooze like fire alarms next to head-banging toms that hit hard while cymbals are fat and brassy. Vocals boogie with Led Zepplin-era aplomb, paying homage to action. Psychadelia is held in check with tight, purposeful solos tucked into the dense sonic arrangements.

There's some space to breathe in “This Ones for All the Bitches”, which showcases the players' chops. Greater than the sum of its parts is dance-infused “Stripper Soul”, held down by keys while guitars grind and twirl. Flexing straight-forward riffs, “Dig That Twang” wears classic blues-rock on its sleeve. The band takes a break from ripping your face off with “Abraham's Falafel,” which reads like an electronica song where the distorted vocal mic becomes one more element in a sound collage; an extended vamp that recalls Zappa's “Help I'm a Rock”.

On their debut LP, The Plastic Boots retain an edgy, tweaked sound that swirls in a trippy telescope and hits like a wrecking ball, handled from the ground up with well-mixed drums. With relentless fervor, songs pack as much punch as possible and lean on groove and excitement rather than verse-chorus formula. Hypnotizing like a burning building, with densely layered parts that push and pull, The Plastic Boots deliver the sonic equivalent of upbeat claustrophobia of a hot party. Disorienting and dynamic, it breaks new ground while staying tight with its roots.

Check out their upcoming show Saturday Sept. 17, 2011 at Elbo Room in Chicago.
LISTEN: www.reverbnation.com/theplasticboots