This late January round-up of new releases by Michigan artists ranges from the latest by a national bluegrass powerhouse to the debut of a new Grand Rapids project to a heavy metal fusillade from Detroit.
Perhaps it’s all that pent-up creative energy or the songwriting burst that comes from a pandemic quarantine, but Michigan artists are releasing a flurry of new recordings these days.
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Today’s late-January roundup features the latest from a Kalamazoo bluegrass powerhouse, a seasoned Grand Rapids singer-songwriter, an ever-creative experimental ensemble, some Detroit heavy metal thunder, a brand new West Michigan “Junkyard Band” and a veteran songwriter who’s finally uncorking his musical tales.
And check out previous Local Spins album reviews online here.
What Stands Out: Written by band members as the COVID-19 pandemic set in, the appropriately titled “Stress Dreams” tackles thorny issues in darker yet somehow more uplifting fashion than anything progressive bluegrass champion Greensky Bluegrass has ever unleashed before. With its familiar psychedelic touches, GSBG sets the tone with the opening track, “Absence of Reason”: “There’s nothing else that I’ve discovered like suffering for another/That washes over the emptiness in me/’Cause I want to do right more than anything I do/And I’m burning my desire to make heat for you/I hope to show a little light that can guide you through.” Perhaps most stunning are the additions of unusual instrumentation on two tracks: The epic, eight-minute title track written by bassist Mike Devol with dazzling organ and piano work by guest Holly Bowling and the twangy ballad “Streetlight,” featuring guitarist Dave Bruzza on drums. (Bruzza started his musical journey as a drummer.) It enhances what’s already another impressive turn in the evolution of this Kalamazoo band.
Digging Deeper: The band’s maturation as top-notch instrumentalists and harmony vocalists is on full display on its eighth studio album, smartly co-produced by Dominic John Davis and Glenn Brown, who may be the perfect chemists for this sometimes-spacey bluegrass fusion. As Bruzza puts it, “Stress Dreams” represents “a real good collection of songs that work together but with no recurring theme.” This reviewer might disagree just a bit: It’s a collection that frequently dives into the murky, painful stresses of life but emerges with a hopeful air as expressed on “Grow Together”: “No matter how far we’ve come/Still the same thing on my mind/That we can grow old together.”
Perfect For: Fans of Billy Strings and other boundary-pushing acoustic music artists, especially those who see light at the end of the tunnel and the warmth of the approaching spring. – John Sinkevics
Upcoming Shows: Feb. 18 at The Fillmore Detroit in Detroit; June 2-3 at West Michigan’s Camp Greensky Music Festival (Location yet to be announced)
Listen: “Stress Dreams”
“Heart in Pieces”
What Stands Out: A bit of country, an abundance of jazz and a touch of rock, this singer-songwriter and Grand Rapids native released this full-length album to kick off 2022 following a series of EPs offered throughout the pandemic. With over 20 years of experience in performing locally and nationally, it’s clear by this dynamic, polished and flavorful body of music that Travis Atkinson is no stranger to his instruments or the craft of song.
Digging Deeper: Also a member of West Michigan’s alt-country group Deep Greens and Blues, Atkinson paints a broader picture with the breadth of his musical inspirations in this 13-track collection. Enlisting the help of Matt Gabriel (another Michigan singer-songwriter) as project producer, the album was recorded in Rockford by Joel Ferguson at Planet Sunday Studios. The team produced a body of work that showcases exceptional musicality, clean mixing and refined, well-rounded songs. Atkinson’s voice is velvet as it works in tandem with his effortless and impeccable playing. He brings in various instruments throughout with strings introduced immediately on the opening track, “Monsters of the Wind,” and horns coming in to play on the zippy second track, “Marionette.” The fifth song, “1993,” is the most intimate: Delicate and vulnerable, Atkinson invites the listener to get more personal with only his acoustic guitar while crooning lyrics of recollection and longing. Overall, smooth jazz stands out amongst the folk essence, Latin aromas and Southern twang, but it’s the robust storytelling that seems to be the glue that bonds these songs together.
Perfect For: Fans of Sade, James Taylor, Jack Johnson. – Jennifer Bartlett
Listen: “Spend a Day”
What Stands Out: Dynaflo is a genre-fusing project led by Grand Rapids musician Aaron Schaut. His latest album, “Gringo,” puts the west in West Michigan. The term “pulp noir” is used to describe its sound, which is fitting as the album undoubtedly covers a span of styles, from rock to jazz. The rasp of Schaut’s voice is clearly tailor-made for blues tracks such as “Pour Two For Me,” but it also melds just as well in the ballads of “La Ventanilla” featuring Karisa Wilson.
Digging Deeper: Schaut was inspired and motivated to create “Gringo” after the passing of his Western-loving father in 2020. He spent the following two years during the pandemic writing, learning instruments, reaching out to artists and recording. With almost 20 years of musical experience, it’s evident that Dynaflo is familiar with a diverse variety of styles. However, this album is dissimilar to Shaut’s previous work. Dynaflo’s 2007 album, “Get Down with the Old Man,” differs from “Gringo’s” very real, unmanipulated sound because of its absence of sampled instruments. Dynaflo even coined the phrase “Junkyard Band” to define the sound of the physical instruments used to create that jazzy, genuine production heard in tracks like “Break Neck.”
Perfect For: Fans of Marty Robbins, Leonard Cohen or Johnny Cash. – Robert Novak
Upcoming Show: March 12 at Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill in Grand Rapids
Listen: “Going Out like That”
“New Code for the New Girl”
What Stands Out: Les Creatif kicks off 2022 with a new A/B-side release, adding to the trail of breadcrumbs left by this group over the past year-and-a-half with so many small releases. “The Code” juxtaposes philosophical narration against improvisational saxophone, warbled bass lines gradually increasing in speed against layered vocals, and a light sprinkling of percussion and strings to add color to complement the character of the tune. “New Girl” is a more active track built around a fuzz-driven guitar riff, electronic and acoustic beats and percussion interacting, and a swirling layer of vocals swimming around the darker textures. However, it leaves a little room to breathe before building a warmer, laid-back groove, leaving the listener with a hypnotic outro.
Digging Deeper: Les Creatif continues to showcase why its sound is so distinctive amid West Michigan’s music scene. The combination of Brandon Copeland’s artistic vision and contributions as a performer and producer with a select cast of go-to artists for the collective allows for a delight in experimentation and a dedication to explore the range of sounds a group can indulge. “New Code For The New Girl” delights in specific aesthetic/color choices that offer a distinct and wholly realized work.
Perfect For: Those looking to delight in experimentation and self-examination for 2022. – Dutcher Snedeker
Listen: “The Code”
James S. Burkett
“67 Year Itch”
What Stands Out: For his debut album, “67 Year Itch”, James S. Burkett shares a cathartic experience that can only be compared to scratching a lifelong itch. The Kalamazoo singer-songwriter creates an authentic country-folk sound with his acoustic guitar and storytelling. Behind Burkett’s twangy vocals is strong lyricism that can bring anyone to tears, with tracks such as “Moondream Alchemy” and “More Than You Know.”
Digging Deeper: As the title implies, this album was a long time coming. Burkett wrote many of the songs on the album decades ago. When the opportunity arose, Burkett recorded the entire album in under three days in Nashville. Needless to say, Burkett’s ambition and experience can be heard in each track. These 14 songs capture a broad range of emotion, from the bare, vulnerable sounds of “Reynard” to the upbeat duet in “Cup of Coffee.” A plethora of Kalamazoo musicians helped record and appear on the album, including Karen Vosburg and Christina Eltrevoog.
Perfect For: Those late-night bonfires when you plan to stay up late with friends, singing, laughing, crying, drinking or dancing around the fire. – Robert Novak
Listen: “Moondream Alchemy”
“Fight Among the Tombs EP”
What Stands Out: Coming in like a searing sword, this four-track EP by Detroit heavy metal outfit Theandric promises to deliver (officially) on Feb. 11. Influences of Iron Maiden reign supreme on this concept album, filling every corner of the room with high-octane energy, thunderous tones and towering vocals. Tales of doom, corruption, betrayal, injustice and death send the listener on an all-encompassing, 26-minute journey that leaves silence a little quieter.
Digging Deeper: The first track seizes you immediately with gripping organs, blast beats and savage guitars then suddenly fall straight into a pacing gallop. In no time at all, “Flight Among the Tombs” offers images of flying through blackened skies into a mystical world where vampires lurk and dragons await. Commanding vocals come in no sooner than two minutes and 50 seconds, urging you to join them on their quest while they “ride at night, like cats on witch’s brooms” only solidifying the story playing in your mind. The title of Theandric’s second track shares the title of a song written in the 1700s by Scottish poet Robert Burns. In “The Battle of Sherramuir,” Burn’s lyrics depict the tale of Scotland’s inconclusive 1715 Battle of Sheriffmuir at the height of the Jacobite rising in England and Scotland. Theandric’s version, however, paints the picture a little differently. While lyrics like “The king will separate the goats from the sheep/Soaked in lukewarm apathy/Cloaked in black hypocrisy/Neither cold nor hot” send the mind reeling. The song also begins to beg the question if it’s the soaring guitars that are true soldiers in this epic face-off. As the album carries on, it becomes glaringly obvious that the instruments band together in an ambitious harmonizing force to win the war once and for all.
Perfect For: Escaping monotonous reality and letting your mind drift into a world of wicked inferno and dark fantasy. – Jennifer Bartlett
Upcoming Shows: Feb. 11 at Parts & Labor in Melvindale (EP-release show); April 22 at The Loving Touch in Ferndale; May 20 at The Token Lounge in Westland
Listen: “Condemned to Death”
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