This early March roundup of new local and regional releases at Local Spins focuses on a GR keyboard icon, new projects from some notable West Michigan musicians and a Detroit-area indie-folk artist.
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Keyboard player and singer Dennie Middleton is well-known and revered by West Michigan fans for the comic relief he’s provided as part of the long-running, irreverent and funny Bimini Brothers.
But there’s obviously a serious side to this talented musician and Sparta native as his new album proves, with a number of heartfelt songs inspired by his wife, and life in general.
That’s just one of several compelling local and regional releases reviewed this week at Local Spins, with new projects from Moto, Via Mardot, Stepladders and Lilly MacPhee in the mix. Get the recaps of these recordings and listen to songs from all of the featured artists.
What Stands Out: Known for playing keyboards in acts such as the long-revered West Michigan musical comedy group, Bimini Brothers, Dennie Middleton is a veteran of the Grand Rapids music scene. With “Unheard Of,” he ventures into the more serious and varied topics of everyday life. Things start out with the rocking riffs of “Hearts Out,” the song buzzing along on waves of electric guitar with Middleton divulging a tender tale. As the album drifts through a swirl of textures, “Out Here” sheds layers of ’80s vibes that explode into a rip-roaring guitar solo finale. Other highlights include the swinging saxophone-filled “Feelin’ That Way” and “Drag Race,” a rambling number with honky-tonk piano and scorching electric guitar. Bringing things to a close, “There’s Not a Day,” ushers in a heartfelt ode with hopeful melodies, strings and gleaming piano.
Digging Deeper: With roots that stem from heartbreak but grow into hope, “Unheard Of” spans the depth of the human spirit. Its instrumentation is diverse, its production is clean, and Middleton holds his own as a songwriter and frontman.
Perfect For: Nostalgic daydreaming; being thankful for the small things; a soundtrack to the rollercoaster of life. – Ricky Olmos
Upcoming Shows: March 14 with Bimini Brothers at Putt Putt’s Bar, 1148 W. Fulton St., Grand Rapids; March 20 (solo) at The Pubb, 1568 Broadway Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
Listen: “There’s Not a Day”
What Stands Out: West Michigan artist Olivia Mainville debuts a uniquely hypnotizing new musical project with Via Mardot. Pulling the curtain back on the self-titled release, “Stand” lumbers along a long corridor of flickering lights and sonic apparitions that include soupy guitars and bare-bones percussion. “War” displays what is perhaps the record’s most entrancing melody, casting a sort of ominous spell. Following close behind, “Wreck” is a desert oasis of sorts. The song’s opening guitar riff is percussive and inviting, and a dance between Mainville’s voice and an assortment of instrumentation ensues. Concluding a truly pleasant listen, “Tie to the Bar” drapes a theatric vocal performance over a meandering bed of wild west guitars, drums and bass. The song’s highlight is certainly Mainville’s captivating voice as she drifts between luxurious phrases and quick-draw verses laced with vivid imagery.
Digging Deeper: With previous releases from the adept songstress as Olivia & the Aquatic Troupe, there seemed to be a distinct cadence and permeating sound. With Via Mardot, a new sonic palette – steeped in ’60s French ye-ye pop and noir chamber pop — surfaces from the depths, emerging into a kind of harsh and dusty reality that is both haunting and spellbinding. (Learn more about the band in this Local Spins Artist Spotlight.)
Perfect For: Haunting former lovers; dancing carelessly through cobwebs in the attic; hopping aboard a creaky westbound train under a full moon. – Ricky Olmos
Upcoming Shows: April 9 at Media Rerun in Murfreesboro, Tenn.; April 16 at The Sutler in Nashville
What Stands Out: Grand Rapids musician and songwriter Bill Chesney, aka Stepladders, has a unique alt-rock approach to his songs, combining snappy pop hooks with a bitter-but-somehow-uplifting take on relationships, starting with the opening track “Every Stone” and weaving its way through to the marvelously melancholy and muscular finale, “I’m Not Leaving Now.” Stepladders’ sophomore effort boasts plenty of pump-it-up, rock ‘n’ roll grit (“What Are the Chances,” “Out,” “Headlines,” “You Caught Me”), balanced by a bit of pop lilt (“In Bloom”) and psychedelic noisiness (“Dive Team Sitters 2”).
Digging Deeper: Although it’s technically a solo project, Chesney calls on some familiar names to assist him in the studio, including Dan Rickabus, Ben Zito and Emilee Petersmark of folk-rock’s The Crane Wives and guitarist Steve Leaf, and they’re all welcome additions to this 10-song collection and a step forward from his 2016 debut album. (Chesney, Leaf, Zito and Rickabus are also part of the instrumental rock band Public Access.)
Perfect For: Alt-rock and indie-rock fans who appreciate songs with an engaging, unexpected twist. – John Sinkevics
Listen: “Every Stone”
What Stands Out: Early on, Moto establishes its heavy core and brimming energy. On “Major Bludd,” the band revs its engine with crunchy guitars, decorated with harmonic touches and crashing drums. “Retrophiliac” jumps in with a captivating guitar riff and driving beat that breaks into a yearning chorus. Changing things up, “Together” provides a gentle acoustic approach with vocal harmonies and sparse bells. A focal point of the track arrives with the warm melody of a violin that sings its way to the close of the song.
Digging Deeper: Moto can get loud and raw. To an extent, this works in favor of its sound, but the contest between heavily distorted, metallic guitar tones and thrashing drums could be grinding for some. Coincidentally, the record’s highlight is its sole acoustic track, where both production and songwriting shine brightest.
Perfect For: Setting things ablaze (literally or figuratively); headbanging with long hair; turning amp volumes past 11. – Ricky Olmos
Upcoming Show: March 21 at The Iron Well in Grand Rapids (with Hurry Home)
What Stands Out: That voice. Metro Detroit singer-songwriter has the kind of intoxicating indie-folk voice that instantly draws listeners into smartly arranged songs with haunting melodies and backing vocals. It all starts with “Where You Are” on this three-song EP, a track enhanced by some wistful guitar work, and continues through the appropriately meandering “I’ll Show You the Way” and spare-but-captivating “Cold.”
Digging Deeper: A multi-instrumentalist who performs regularly at coffee houses and other venues in the Detroit area, MacPhee leans on the guitar and bass work of co-producer Geoff Michael on this EP laid down at Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor. Drummer Billy Harrington, guitarist Mike Harrington and keyboardist Timony Monger are also part of the studio lineup on a project that’s beautifully crafted and produced.
Perfect For: Contemplating love’s alluring power; fans of Phoebe Bridgers, Katie Pruitt, The Cranberries. – John Sinkevics
Upcoming Shows: 8 p.m. Saturday (March 7) at Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters in Royal Oak; March 13 at NICO & VALI Italian Eatery in Plymouth; March 14 at Lu & Carl’s Bar & Grill in Brighton.
Listen: “Where You Are”
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