This pre-Thanksgiving round-up of new releases by West Michigan artists also features Lisa Can’t Sing and The Good Old Days. Listen to tracks from all of the recordings.
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We’re thankful around here for the plethora of new recordings that Michigan artists have released in 2022, covering the breadth of the musical spectrum. Today, here’s another half-dozen to examine and experience.
Check out previous Local Spins album reviews here.
“Live from Dogtown”
What Stands Out: Austin Benzing has been a welcome addition to the West Michigan artist roster, playing regularly around the area and state with various groups as a sideman (Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys, The BlueWater Kings Band, etc.) while coordinating his own music. Listeners were treated to his brand of country rock on “Steady Your Nerves” last year, and this follow-up EP features a live performance of several new tracks at Grand Rapids’ Dogtown Studio. In five tunes, listeners can hear bluegrass, country rock, a splash of acid rock, and even some blues-laden funk with roots rock flavors. This EP gets you up dancing while each artist shines among infectious melodies and grooves.
Digging Deeper: Benzing is no stranger when it comes to the guitar, and the work he’s put in over the last year around his debut artist footprint has left an impression on the scene. Stellar guitar skills, confident frontman leadership and a solid collective of musicians highlight each track, supporting and standing out in their own right. There are colorful moments throughout the record, especially when cosmic country oozes into the sonic nook and crannies to create that delicious listening experience.
Perfect For: Bluegrass and country rock fans looking to widen their listening palette, stomp their feet and revel in some down-home Michigan-made music. – Dutcher Snedeker
Upcoming Show: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 23) at Midtown in Grand Rapids (formerly Listening Room) with Grace Theisen (Release Show)
“Vote for Love”
What Stands Out: Grand Rapids-based Cole Hansen’s sophomore album is an eclectic mixture of genres. Some songs feel almost like musical theater ballads, while others are Americana anthems. Hansen’s strong, crisp vocals are consistently impressive, a product of extensive musical training. Musically, she’s at her best with songs that showcase the power and versatility of her voice, like “I Do It Cuz It’s Bad” and “I See Color”: “I’m green with envy and as blue as I can be / but you’re still a yellow-bellied fool,” she sings, almost menacingly, in a tune that would fit nicely into an old Western film.
Digging Deeper: The album’s title track, “Vote for Love,” is a political anthem — and an appropriately-timed one, since the record was released two days before mid-term elections. The song itself feels dangerous and urgent, a metaphor for the state of the nation: “This land is on fire,” Hansen begins. Then, Hansen touches on everything from COVID-19 to immigration, while powerfully imploring listeners — sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish — to “vote for love” and “extinguish the hate.”
Perfect For: Anyone looking for musically versatile but consistently empowering ballads. – Katie Rosendale
Listen: “Vote for Love”
Conklin Ceili Band
“A Three Legged Stool”
What Stands Out: It’s difficult to fully elucidate what a mammoth undertaking “A Three Legged Stool” represents for West Michigan’s Conklin Ceili Band. As frontman Mick Lane points out in the liner notes, the two-CD compilation covers a lot of territory for an Irish-American folk band that honors three principles – or legs – of Irish music: traditional tunes from Ireland, songs of Irish immigrants and the Irish legacy that continues in the music of so many artists (including young singer Lexi Schaub who performs a version of “Song for Ireland” on this collection). Over the course of 24 songs – ranging from traditional favorites such as “Red is the Rose” and “King of the Fairies” to songs written by Steve Earle, Elton John & Bernie Taupin, Tim O’Brien and Loreena McKennitt – Conklin Ceili Band immerses listeners in the magic of the Emerald Isle’s tale-driven folk amid stellar production without unnecessary frills.
Digging Deeper: Recorded at Cannonsburg’s Audio Bay by Andrew Mitchell who helped make Conklin Ceili Band “sound like a band that’s been together for 25 years,” as Lane puts it, this nearly two-year-long project ultimately unfolds as a series of captivating stories told in the Irish tradition by guitarist Lane, mandolinist Tom Verlin, fiddler Natalie Beversluis, bassist Jon Koeze and banjoist Mike Scott.
Perfect For: All Celtic music fans, especially those seeking to delve deeper into the fertile Irish musical tradition. – John Sinkevics
Listen: “A Song for Ireland” (feat. Lexi Schaub)
What Stands Out: Seasoned Grand Rapids musician Bruce Madden returns with “Trouble Times,” a record steeped in the blues and colored with the sounds and influences of an artist who has traveled the world and reflected it in his music. Each track was written on Madden’s first musical love, the harmonica, and features several guest artists to add to the vision of this record (recorded at Goon Lagoon). Listeners are treated to fuzz-fueled guitar tone, garage rock flavoring, Doors-style songwriting, and a collection of almost mantra-like lyrics centering strongly and plainly around liars, love, poverty, traveling and how hard life can be.
Digging Deeper: As an artist who’s lived in France, New Orleans, Boston, Virginia, and was born and raised in Arkansas, Bruce Madden has a plethora of musical environments to draw inspiration from as a multi-instrumentalist. Gritty blues interwoven with garage rock and world music is combined with very straightforward lyricism that gives listeners succinct bursts of character in each track. Little additions that deviate from the core trio add personality throughout the record, including the featured sounds of Lafayette Gunter on saxophone, Emily Green on penny whistle, Ryan Limbeck on trombone, and Dick Chiclet on Mellotron, Hammond, guitar and Bass VI. It is a record that doesn’t mince words and gets right to the heart of the music while never overstaying its welcome.
Perfect For: Anybody who finds comfort in the blues to ease their winter woes. – Dutcher Snedeker
Listen: “Trap Time”
Lisa Can’t Sing
“Devil on the Road”
What Stands Out: Although they’ve been making music together for at least six years, “Devil on the Road” marks the debut album for Kalamazoo rock band Lisa Can’t Sing. After spending years putting their own spin on classic ’80s rock, this signals their dive into original music. The title track, “Devil on the Road,” is a standout hit. The driving guitar and enchanting vocals are reminiscent of The Sword, with a grungy, almost airy audio quality. Their retro rock ‘n’ roll sound blends with a little bit of country in “Hold My Beer,” a song created when guitarist, Harry, challenged bassist, Deb, to write a song based on the legendary phrase. The silly lyrics of sledding in January, playing with fire and driving too fast allude to the dangers sure to follow when someone utters the words, “Hold my beer.” The album finishes with a twangy, rock rendition of “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” a perfect way to round out the record, hearkening back to their ’80s rock influences.
Digging Deeper: While flaunting a commercial rock sound that is perfect for drawing a crowd, the recording lacks dynamics. This album could stand for a bit more variety and power in the vocals. Chuggy guitar is consistent throughout the record, breaking into squealing solos here and there. The band showcases its classic rock ‘n’ roll vibes and ’80s influences with powerful guitar solos, clunky bass and witchy vocals.
Perfect For: Casual listening at an outdoor community festival, like RibFest or Festival of the Arts. – Chelsea Whitaker
Listen: “Devil on the Road”
The Good Old Days
What Stands Out: Grand Rapids duo The Good Old Days, consisting of Eric Raby II and Kevin Fein, goes acoustic and folksy for their sophomore album, “Quieter Days.” The record feels like a complete and satisfying project: It begins with a song entitled “Words” and concludes with a track called “No Words.” (Fittingly, there are no lyrics in this one, although there’s plenty of clarinet, contributed by Joel Stob –– all the way from Baltimore.) Standouts include the despondent “Tracks,” a story of pain and addiction, and the hopeful, upbeat “Another Key.”
Digging Deeper: “While frustration remains, there is also hope,” the duo wrote on their Bandcamp page. “These songs span a wider range of the human experience.” The somber “Spider” exemplifies one end of the album’s emotional spectrum: It’s an eerie tale of unexpected death, from the murderous spider outside the window to the “small man sitting behind a big oak desk on the eighteenth floor,” who “think[s] of jumping” and “how easy it would be to leave it all behind.” But ultimately, the album concludes in a far happier place. “Home,” the penultimate track (and the last track with lyrics), centers on the simplicity of the good life: “I would like to feel the earth beneath my heels / to hold my wife close by my side / to stake a plot to call our own.”
Perfect For: A frosty and contemplative walk through the woods. – Katie Rosendale
Website: Listen: “Another Key”
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