In the midst of the holiday rush, Local Spins today spotlights six new releases by Michigan artists who deliver thought-provoking, compelling and sometimes surprising music. Read the reviews, listen to the music.
At this point, Santa Claus is knee-deep in toys, wish lists and travel agendas as he prepares to deliver joy to children across the globe.
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Meanwhile, artists from across Michigan aim to deliver joy in the form of new recordings as the year winds down.
Check out our takes on a half-dozen new releases below, and view our full roster of 2021 album reviews here.
The Verve Pipe
What Stands Out: Watching The Verve Pipe actually perform all of the songs from “Threads” live and in order during the band’s recent album-release show at Grand Rapids’ Listening Room proved to be an ideal way to follow the thread, as it were, of the tales and travails contained within this lush, intricate and artfully constructed collection. Frontman Brian Vander Ark and co-writer/singer Channing Lee introduced the complex and compelling subject matter – from injured love (“No One’s Gonna Break This Heart (Again)”) to sexual abuse (“The Freeze”) and, yes, even to the “End of the World” (“Everyone I know is going mad just to buy themselves a little more time/But time is all that I ever had, and I would trade it all to have you here tonight”) – in a way that enlightened and engaged TVP fans on hand. But repeated listens of “Threads” can prove even more satisfying and intoxicating, from occasional dives into familiar alt-rock fervor to the Beatle-esque and atmospheric ballads masterfully engineered and mixed by Joel Ferguson at Planet Sunday Studios.
Digging Deeper: Lee’s songwriting and vocals clearly have helped The Verve Pipe write a new chapter in the band’s storied history. As Vander Ark himself puts it: “It’s a really great shot in the arm for the band.” It’s also proof that a popular band needn’t repeat itself or stop growing to remain vital. Instead, “Threads” reflects a willingness to re-shape, enhance and mine new territory.
Perfect For: Modern rockers disposed to thoughtful, melodic music that really says something. – John Sinkevics
Upcoming Show: Feb. 26 at Lincoln Theatre in Belleville, Ill.
Listen: “Set Me On Fire”
What Stands Out: While Kanola Band has entertained audiences around the region for years, “Kanola” marks the group’s debut release with a stellar live, in-studio recording at the Jazz & Creative Institute in Kalamazoo, where bandleader Benje Daneman directs the program alongside his wife and creative partner Ashley Daneman. Talented Michigan artists populate this New Orleans-style group, including Benje Daneman (Trumpet/Vocals), Ashley Daneman (Vocals), Seth Ebersole (Tenor & Soprano Sax, Clarinet, Tambourine), Matthew Fries (Piano), Rufus Ferguson (Keyboards/Guitar), Chance Trottman-Huiet (Tuba), and Jeff Moehle (Drums). Kanola Band pays homage to the spirit of New Orleans thoroughly on this release between the instrumentation, the style of each arrangement, and the celebration of each member’s artistic voice through collective and featured improvisation. The live setting of the recording invites every listener to join in song and celebrate the wide range of New Orleans music styles, from Dixieland swing to traditional Second Line, classic funk, and zydeco.
Digging Deeper: Kanola is a strong debut release built from years of honing the band and gathering up the personnel to represent New Orleans culture, music and live performance practices. Every artist listed in this recording pours personality and expertise into every arrangement, leaving listeners wanting to immediately start the record over and dance the night away. As an added bonus, many-if-not-all of these musicians are prominent educators in their communities, meaning that the future Michigan music artists are in well-equipped hands.
Perfect For: Combating the winter blues with the soulful sounds of Bourbon Street, knowing that this band come summer will be the life of the party. – Dutcher Snedeker
Upcoming Show: Feb. 23 at Albion College in Albion; Feb. 24 at Ferris State University in Big Rapids; March 1 at Blue Llama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor
Listen: “You Are My Sunshine”
What Stands Out: Known for his lengthy tenure as mandolinist for Americana artist Lindsay Lou, Nashville-based Joshua Rilko, a Michigan native, set out to record his debut solo album in 2021. Characterizing it himself as “half bluegrass, half Americana,” the album brings a sweet cocktail of spirited texture, flowing melodies, intricate harmonies and boundless soul, showing great respect to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll.
Digging Deeper: The first single released off this 11-song collection premiered on December 6 on “The Bluegrass Situation” and showcases energetic licks, a dancing fiddle and soaring three-part harmonies, driven entirely by the classic syncopated rhythms that make the genre so recognizable. Much of this can be found throughout the other 10 tracks, sometimes slowing to a calming breath in songs like “Climb That Hill” and then picking back up on the next track to a laid-back groove on “Livin’ Clean & Lovin’ Jesus” that includes charming harmonies by Lindsay Lou and a funky synth layer by PJ George III (also on bass and harmonies throughout record). Other musicians featured on the album: Ben Sanders on electric guitar, Alex Bice on drums, Jed Clark on rhythm guitar and tenor vocals, George Guthrie on banjo and baritone vocals, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on fiddle and Geoffrey Saunders on bass.
Perfect For: Putting your feet up on a beautiful day, sipping sweet tea and cutting a rug in your favorite, worn-in cowboy boots. – Jennifer Lyn Bartlett
Listen: “New Way To Fly”
What Stands Out: Starting out as a collaborative project between Ben Patrick and Ben Ferrell, Vert Terms has offered up “Tough Call,” an indie-pop, “gloomgaze” record steeped in dreamy sounds and pointed, emotionally driven lyricism. The duo is joined by bassist/engineer Austin Owen and lead guitarist/harmony vocalist Jonah Craker to express feelings of malaise, pain and heartache nestled in swirling textures of synths, guitars, and the ever-present groove from the bass and drums. Each track offers a reflection of the artists’ lives, channeling their inner pains and outward expressions into a vignette of Midwestern angst and imagery.
Digging Deeper: “Tough Call” evokes images of late, frustrated nights on the porch, stealing away to just shut life out for a second and exhale any stressors into a puff of cigarette smoke. Time stands still for a brief moment, letting your thoughts and emotions wash over you to combat the darker moments of life. These human conditions juxtaposed against misty, soothing instrumentals offer a palatable way to both enjoy Vert Terms and the band’s artistry while confronting your own inner monologues.
Perfect For: Driving around the city on a bad day, knowing that some time floating in this record will be cathartic and healing. – Dutcher Snedeker
Listen: “million (1,000,000)”
What Stands Out: A fusion of surf-rock, punk and classic blues, “The Wire Monkeys” November 2021 release is positively reminiscent of the same grit and grind of the early days of Detroit’s own coveted rock duo The White Stripes. This Grand Rapids outfit delivers an EP that offers profound grooves to drive the listener into the gutter while captivating melodies and walking bass lines pull you right back to a gravelly surface.
Digging Deeper: Pulling from the controversial work of American psychologist Harry Harlow, this three-piece outfit named its musical project after his infamous and cruel experiment on infant rhesus monkeys. In a study aimed to examine maternal separation and dependency, Harlow placed these young monkeys in cages after taking them from their mothers to be replaced by two surrogates: a terry cloth-covered stand-in that provided no nourishment and one made only of wire with a bottle of milk attached. Self-described as “Bent Razor Punk-Blues,” this musical three piece doesn’t hold back on delivering just that. Themes of longing, fear, love and abandonment combine with crunchy guitars, driving percussion and feisty, garage punk vocals making it clear that this cousin and two brothers feel a deep connection to those motherless primates.
Perfect For: Fans of X, Social Distortion, The Black Keys. – Jennifer Lyn Bartlett
What Stands Out: From the first few notes, Saajtak reinforces why they are not just a standout of the Michigan music scene, but from most independent artists in the country. “Itch EP” continually evolves what makes this Detroit art-pop group so special: a blend of the surreal and the surprising within poetic storytelling. Analog, acoustic and digital instrumentation from Simon Alexander-Adams (keys, synthesizer), Jonathan Taylor (drums, percussion), and Ben Willis (upright/electric bass, lapsteel) combine to create memorable supporting textures to vocalist Alex Koi’s powerful, present lyricism. Every track delights in exploration and showcases an eclectic blend of influences and creative tool sets, making for a spectacular journey in just four tracks.
Digging Deeper: Saajtak masterfully deploys its members’ various backgrounds in creative music-making, from classical and jazz collegiate training to their time spent in Detroit’s free-improvisatory and expressionistic arts scene, to realize a truly unique work of art. One can draw parallels to other genre-fluid moments of artistry, but ultimately their work stands tall as something wholly unique. Every second of “Itch EP” pulses with intelligent design and directed energy, challenging and inspiring listeners to hear the humanity within the swirling engine of beautiful chaos that is Saajtak.
Perfect For: Listeners craving a raw, unabashed expression of artistry indulging in the blend of modern sounds and aesthetic that defies the rigid expectations of being in a “rock band.” – Dutcher Snedeker
Copyright 2021, Spins on Music LLC