Cassandra Cole – Steps

Released 5/6/22

Review by Joslyn Danielson

Written 4/30/22

Cassandra Cole, the powerful pop vocalist with a punk edge, will be hitting the KJ’s Hideaway stage on May 7th to release her newest album, “Steps”.

The extremely relatable lyrics focus on mental health struggles – applicable to our post pandemic society. Spanning across pop, punk, and blues, the genres ingrained in this album conglomerate into what could be called emo pop…at first.

The album starts off quite hard, with pop-punk vibes from the Paramore era. The genres morph as you listen through, each track gradually softer (or at least more positive), perhaps an analogy of healing one’s mental health through years of work. The focus shifts to recovery and to the importance of having someone to support you through mental health issues.

Joe Beier (guitar) exhibits an impressive range of skill. The intricate plucking of an acoustic in “Steps” vastly contrasts the abrasive power chords of the earlier songs. Troy Griffin (drums) shows the same amount of experience in many genres. Crashing, punk-rock throwdowns are equally contrasted by intricate jazz beats, and acoustic percussion. His stripped-down percusion in “Steps” introduces an unexpected but somehow needed rap section, emotional and moving. There’s perhaps a bit of musical theatre influences from Cole, mostly in the descriptive narratives, as well as the focus on the vocal performance.

Jason Hafer’s production deserves credit as well, subtle yet packing a punch. The electronic elements added to the mostly live instrument band gives the album a modern edge, separating it from earlier pop and psychedelic influences of the 90’s and earlier.

“So Silent Final” was a pleasant surprise after so many dark themes. Upbeat and poppy, with fun guitar riffs, cute vocal slides, and a little doo-op vocal harmony. The chorus repeats, “It’s gonna be alright, this will pass, just get outta bed”. This track shows the fun side of Cole, organically goofing around in the studio by vocally imitating the high pitched guitar riffs to laughs from the band. The beachy, reggae vibes indicate themes of emotional healing and a more positive outlook.

This album to its core makes it clear to the listener that they are not alone in these hidden struggles. Cole’s vulnerable lyrics and emotional vocals cause the listener to open up and explore themselves a little deeper, feeling comfortable in knowing they’re not the only person out there feeling like they just need to take it one step at a time. Encouraging but melancholy, “Steps” is an album aptly named.

Burning Sunbeams – Single by Red Eye Ruby

Released 4/8/2022

Song review by Joslyn Danielson

Written 3/27/2022

The Minneapolis band, Red Eye Ruby, has undergone a full transformation since 2018. Their earlier music leaned more towards folk with hints of swing and blues. However, in their newest single, “Burning Sunbeams”, they bring in a lot more electric instruments, a full drum set, and a classic rock and roll beat. They now self-identify as ‘retro roots-rock’, while always grounded in the blues.

Red Eye Ruby is the stage name for lead singer and songwriter, Liz Collin. It seems she has brought in all new band members to back her since the pandemic, drastically changing the musical style.

Her soft, breathy, soprano vocals have an indie/folk vibe, and it’s an intriguing combination with the new instrumentation which now has harder elements of rockabilly, americana, gospel, and of course classic rock and roll. Long, wailing organ chords give it the aforementioned retro gospel/roots-rock feel, filling out the sound nicely.

The song is also much more positive and upbeat than Red Eye Ruby’s earlier work. While there are moments of melancholy, the lyrics are mostly a cheeky yet hopeful view of love. The melodies are very catchy, and the focus is always on the vocals – save the one electric guitar solo toward the end. The solo itself is very surf-rock, with a little blues and twang.

The new track is great for driving on a summer day, and singing along to the peppy tune and cheery choruses. The final lyric, “your love is like a sunbeam, baby” fades out and sticks in your head even after the song is over.

WOW! We made it 6 months. In some ways it feels like yesterday, in others, it feels like 6 months. We are still new, and 6 months isn’t that long a time in the grand scheme of things. What’s been encouraging is the experience we’re getting really helps how we make decisions.

Things have been getting better and better. There also is more and more to do. It certainly seems the pressure on our time has been increasing dramatically. The biggest decisions of the day end up being on what we choose to spend our time on versus whatever specific topic we are working on.

The first few months the fear and uncertainty were something else. Sitting at the front door, wondering if we are doing the right things nervous out of my mind that nobody will show up. Trying our different marketing ideas to help promote our business and seeing what happens. Learning the craziness of Social Media. When you pay them for ads are people actually seeing them? Or are they making stuff up to get our money? (Maybe it’s a little of both…. LOL)

Then, to top it all of, maneuvering through the COVID restrictions, working with artists and folks to present shows in the most comfortable way possible. One positive is that it really made us focus on our business processes. Working continually on our food and beverage programs to improve quality and efficiency..

The artists have been fantastic! They are such amazing people to work with. It has really encouraged us in our mission to promote and support them. We have met such amazing people from all different backgrounds.

Our current efforts are now focused on elevating what we have. Improving our decor, food and beverage options, and simply how we do what we do to get better. We are excited for the next 6 months and our first anniversary!

Amateur- Every Little Thing

Released 3/11/22

Album Review by Joslyn Danielson

Written 3/16/22

A new group from Rochester just released their first full album this month. Ironically calling their band “Amateur”, their music is anything but. Until now, they’ve put out four singles, the first being in 2020. Like many covid bands, Amateur is finally gaining some footing and performing live all around the state, including KJ’s Hideaway in April of ‘22.

With a beachy, indie-rock sound, Amateur has always shown technical skill, but their new album “Every Little Thing” takes it to a new level. It’s clear that with each rehearsal they grow tighter and more dynamic as a group. They show musical similarities to other popular Southern Minnesota indie bands such as The Immaculate Beings, People’s Brothers Band, Karate Chop Silence, or Sleeping Jesus. The vibe is upbeat, positive, and dancey, yet introspective and ethereal; with choruses that will get stuck in your head nearly every time.

The dynamic energy in each song really impressed me upon first listen. With every new movement the music takes, it catches you by surprise. They are fond of lingering pauses right before kicking into a hard-hitting chorus or breakdown. The control of energy is impressive, and each song is a journey from start to finish. It’s easy for Indie/rock to become a little one-note or repetitive. Not Amateur. As soon as the instruments cut out for a slower moment, they bring this anticipation and build that puts you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the rush of energy when the breakdown drops.

I cannot write this article without mentioning the powerhouse that is Chris Tauzell’s vocals. The man has impressive range, both musically and stylistically. He fools you into thinking he’s a one-trick-pony with his smooth and vibey falsetto, only to bring the belt like a boss in the chorus of the same song. A belt not only fit for blues, but punk as well, as he makes clear in the track, “It Is What It Is”.

The band is comprised of five others. Justin and Jonathan Tauzell (on the drums and keys) are presumably brothers of Chris’, as well as Brody Heinzel on guitar, Alex Ortberg on the bass, and Amanda on harmonies. I really dug what Alex was putting down on that bass, with catchy lines and intricate fingerwork, he adds an element of groove and goes far above the ‘root chord trap’ that’s easy to fall into for the amateur bassist (pun intended). The group works very well together, each member adding a new layer to the sound, and each having their moment to shine.

None of this would hit the same without the great production. The mixing and mastering stood out to me, and it doesn’t always. It’s rare to be able to hear the texture of each instrument clearly, even when they’re all playing at once. You get the highs of the keys, and rich bass lines at the same time. A few songs have the addition of trumpet, saxophone, and female backup vocals, each adding a new and surprising element to the tracks.

I decided not to go into too much detail about each song for this review, because really, you should just go listen to it for yourself. Or even better, see them live in downtown St. Paul at KJ’s Hideaway this April. They have the chops and energy to put on a killer performance. 

Album review- “Moonshine” by Maygen and the Birdwatcher

Released 10/21/21

Review by Joslyn Danielson

Listening to “Moonshine” by Maygen and the Birdwatcher is like listening to a love story around a lakeside campfire in Minnesota. Originally a duo, Maygen and Noah released an album in 2018, and have since recruited some seasoned band members who take their sound to the next level – Ethan and Jesse from the Sawtooth Brothers, and Nik Pellinen from Sawed Off String Band.

 “Moonshine” was released October of this year, and was commemorated with a sold-out show at the intimate and upscale “Icehouse” venue in Minneapolis. The album opens with a stripped-down a capella song. Haunting vocal harmonies and simple timbre hits carry this delta blues-esque intro. Maygen and Noah draw upon vastly different influences to create a sound that is staunchly folk, combining influences of country, delta blues, and poetic americana.

The addition of the new band members have added a bluegrass flair, with banjo and fiddle taking center stage in much of the musicality. This (combined with songwriting by CMA-nominated Maygen) creates vibrant and nostalgic storytelling with songs like “Gunflint Lake”, which embodies nature-loving midwesternism at its core.

Maygen’s alto lead vocals are crisp, romantic, and raw, with poetic yet catchy lyricism. She tends toward a soft and soothing tone, with backing vocals and subtle harmonies from Ethan and Jesse. The second song on the album “Domine” is where we get a first hint and the blues power belt from Noah, soon to take center stage on the last track of the album, “Anytime”.

It was the last two songs on the album that sold me on the talent of this group. They showed variety in their musical skills, venturing outside the country songwriter vibe into the upbeat bluegrass and raw and dirty blues – a welcome change from the wholesomeness of the rest of the album. Noah’s bluesy vocals are killer, with exceptional tone and range. Being the last song on the album it only left me wondering what else this group is capable of. 

The group also holds out on us in a way with the raw electric guitar solos from Nik. The final song gives a hint of the skill level that each of these folks possess; a skill that transcends bounds of genre and leaves you wanting more. The combination of all these influences gives the album a progressive ‘newgrass’ sound.

We are bound to hear more from this group in the coming years, but in the meantime see Maygen and the Birdwatcher perform live this winter at various venues in the Twin Cities metro area.

Released 8/14/21

Written By Joslyn Danielson 1/6/22

Timeless jazz classics find a new life in the album by Leslie Vincent, a Minneapolis actor and singer who released her first album in August of 2021. With a background in musical theatre, she really brings the swing in her jazz cover album, “These Foolish Things”. 

The album opens with an upbeat cover of Duke Ellington. The vintage swing beat with Leslie’s broadway belt sends the listener back to a slightly simpler time and sets the tone for the remainder of the record. Classy with a bit of sass, the vibe is that of a 30’s jazz lounge. Each instrument takes their turn in the spotlight, throwing the solo in a circle like a light hearted game of keep-away.

The album continues with the 1929 swing hit, “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, from the 1929 comedy musical, Connie’s Hot Chocolates. The upright bass gets its first time to shine in this track, showing off complex finger work and rich tones. 

The title track “These Foolish Things” brings down the tempo for a melancholy,  broadway-esque ballad. The lyrics speak of hidden reminders of a lost love found in things in items in your everyday life. Muted trumpet solos and sultry piano evoke images of looking out the window on a rainy day. 

In a nice follow up to the previous song and stark change in vibe, “My Baby Just Cares For Me ” takes it up tempo with a plucky piano-led tune that one might hear in a saloon…but make it jazz. 

Next is the clever and emotive “Ev’rything I’ve Got Belongs To You” from Rogers and Hart’s 1949 musical, “By Jupiter”. You can imagine a dance ensemble gliding around her throughout the song – jazz hands galore. A Caribbean jazz beat on the drums, complex piano chords, catchy hook melody. Following is a very impressive guitar solo with jazzy plucking, and the soprano saxophone comes in strong with insanely fast runs.

“The Nearness Of You” is another romantic ballad, very sweet, with minimal instruments. The focus is on Leslie’s smooth and sultry vocals. Soft at times, and bursting with emotion at others.

Gershwin’s “(Our) Love Is Here To Stay” comes next with almost a seamless transition from the previous song, guiding the mood into something more relaxing and hopeful. The whole album definitely flows together as a stage musical would, with dynamic ups and downs in mood. Emily Dussault joins for a vocal feature, harmonizing and blending with Leslie’s voice seamlessly. 

Next on the album is the very cute and clever “Rhode Island Is Famous For You”. With comedic lyricism, the song points out all the things each state in the USA is famous for. It then ends with the endearing line “And Rhode Island is famous for you”. Guitar and saxophone solos ensue, leading into a lighthearted refrain in which Leslie really gets to show off her Broadway belt. 

In contrast, the ever-sensual “Teach Me Tonight” comes next, with complex jazz guitar solos and off-beat bass hits. It’s the type of song you imagine watching through thick smoke at a late night jazz lounge. 

With an acoustic and intimate feel, Leslie closes out the record with her folky version of “Moon River”, singing us to sleep with this classic lullaby, using simply her voice and her ukelele. Considering this is the method she uses to write her parts in all her music, it is integral to her writing process and fun to hear where the magic begins.

Released 8/20/21.

Written by Joslyn Danielson 10/21/21.

Bloodline, a Brazilian-American pop/R&B group from the St. Paul area is the Gen Z reincarnation of the family band. The group’s name is a reference to the fact that the group started with 3 siblings, the Wheatens. Eliza (songwriting/background vocals), Lukaz (production/keys), and Julia (vocals). They have also recently added Jake, who has been brought on since meeting Lucaz in class at St. Thomas. He recorded a few tracks on “Daze” this year and has since been added as the group’s guitar player. Bloodline is more collaborative and fluid than their previous projects, with each member taking part in the musical writing process in their own way, using their individual strengths. 

The songwriting, by the oldest sister, Eliza, is both romantic and melancholy. The album takes a journey through recovering from a breakup, the first half is very melancholy and has the feeling of a lost love. With down-tempo r&b beats and minor keys, as well as catchy vocal melodies. The second half, however, takes on a more upbeat and positive note starting at Young and in Love. Eliza also adds ethereal harmony throughout the album, matching and complimenting her sister’s voice very well. 

Eliza draws influence from artists like Amy Winehouse and Adele, with poetic storytelling and lots of emotion. The lyrics follow a person’s inner journey of finding themself and finding what they truly want in life and in a partner. It ends on a note of confidence and positivity in one’s self with the hook repeating the phrase, “ I don’t need your love baby I’ve got it all” which is backed by a catchy house beat. 

The musicality is very modern, but with a small amount of retro synth wave in the production style. Lukaz grew up listening to his parents’ 80’s music and it comes through in his production stylings. He combines modern trap and R&B beats with muted retro keys, and a nostalgic 80’s vibe using drawn out synth and drum and bass production. He creates a style a little reminiscent of 2000’s house like Cascada once the drop comes along. 

Julia’s vocal stylings are very with the trend in pop music today, a breathy, sultry soprano, along the lines of Ariana Grande or, Rhianna, Billie Eilish, or Sia. Julia Wheaten started her singing career in Brazil and has since brought those influences into her music. She embodies the new generation of South and Central American influence on pop vocals in the USA, which has long been contributing to our popular music without much recognition. Both her skill and tone are polished, giving her the sound of someone much older than her current age of 17; the mark of a promising future. 

Bloodline will be performing in St Paul at KJ’s Hideaway on November 5th, and at 7th St Entry a few days following.

Tell Tale Heart- Album by Avey Grouws Band

Released 9/24/21

Review by Joslyn Danielson – 10/08/21

The Avey Grouws Band is an up-and-coming 5 person group that is rocking the modern blues/americana scene. Their debut album, “Devil May Care” hit the #10 spot on the Billboard Blues Chart in 2020, and their second full-length album, “Tell Tale Heart” was released Sep 24th 2021, and it lives up to every bit of the hype.

As I write this, staring out at a foggy autumn day, the track titled “Mariana” lulls me into a sense of melancholic introspection. Chris Avey’s electric guitar playing is exceptional and gives the vibe of classic rock stadium solos. His ability to build up energy and funnel it all into a single moment of the song sends chills up your spine. He will then plunge headfirst back into the catchy blues riffs and masterfully keep the original groove driving.

Formed along the Iowa side of the Mississippi, the band has some obvious elements of country/americana, soul, roots rock, funk, and more… but they lay their foundation upon the blues. Jeni Grouws’ vocal stylings (alto belt with a tinge of twang) are distinctly melancholic and even a bit angry at times, reminiscent of the Joplin era. It’s during songs like “Love Raining Down” and “Heart’s Playing Tricks” that the blues is injected with so much rock and roll from Bryan West’s drumming, it takes on a new genre of hardcore blues-rock that you’ll likely be unable to sit still through.

Clearly drawing on influences of every kind to create this conglomeration of American music, the album is an exceptional soundtrack to the experience of the past few years.

In “Bad, Bad Year” (the stand-out track on the album for me), they use such classic and timeless stylings to comment on the current social climate, alluding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Chris’s guitar comes in on this track with a dirty blues solo, masterfully using a psychedelic effect to break up the long notes like a glitchy whammy bar. Jeni gives some crystal clear blues belts, hanging on the minor dissonant notes, with a bit of strategic rasp and vibrato at the exact right times, while Randy Leasman gives some classic blues bass licks.

Not to be forgotten, however, is the album title track, “Tell Tale Heart”. The song starts out as a slow, sultry, blues ballad with subtle keyboard by Nick Vasquez, but still gets grungy and raw like traditional blues. The lead up to the guitar solo made my eyes smart, there is so much emotion poured into this track.

The band is clearly polished and ready to tour after what seems like an eternity, and they hit all the sentiments the audience is likely feeling as well after the past few years. They obviously took advantage of that time and created a killer album, something to be proud of. All I can say for sure is that we’re in for a mind-blowing live performance at KJ’s Hideaway in November 2021.

Porky’s Groove Machine – Sticklers For Specificity

Sticklers For Specificity, released in February of 2021, is the latest extended play from Porky’s Groove Machine, a septet based in Appleton, Wisconsin. The cover artwork is adorned with a visual homage to Rene Magritte’s 1929 surrealist painting “The Treachery of Images”—with an illustrated hog in place of the famous tobacco pipe—immediately signaling the irreverent, Dada-esque approach to dance music that has become a trademark of this group.

More experimental than previous releases, and a stylistic departure from the primarily Afrobeat-influenced sound of their early work, Sticklers For Specificity was recorded at the famed Hideaway Studios in Northeast Minneapolis, with production handled by Jason McGlone. The EP begins with the title song, a humorous duet that lyrically riffs on conversational pedantry, backed by horns and a tight rhythm section.

The second track, “Spice Girls”, opens with a classic funk vamp, hearkening back to the late 60s/early 70s work of James Brown, before shifting into a melodic ode to its subject—which is not, as one might expect, the turn-of-the-millennium British girl group, but rather actual spices, as in culinary seasoning. The middle-eight features a sultry saxophone solo, before segueing into a retro-rap interlude underpinned by an old-school Roland beat machine, then picking up the chorus and closing out the song with a capella coda.

“Traffic Jam” features a comedic spoken-word introduction with “chipmunk-ed” vocals, which recalls the wackier moments of vintage Parliament-Funkadelic albums, while “Swamp Ass Shimmy” narrates an unpleasant journey through bayou country. The final song (“S.A.D.”) is an upbeat, disco-inspired dance tune about seasonal affective disorder, creating an unexpected juxtaposition between the feel-good rhythm and the lyrics.

There is no shortage of musical ideas on this five-track EP, and with Sticklers For Specificity it would seem that Porky’s Groove Machine has achieved a decidedly rare feat: thoughtful party music.

– K. McKee

Roll The Dice, released in 2017, is the third album by Héctor Anchondo, a blues singer/guitarist from Omaha, Nebraska, who also happens to be the winner of the 2020 International Blues Challenge for solo/duo performance. In contrast to 2014’s Young Guns, Anchondo’s previous album from 2014, Roll The Dice has a bigger sound and fuller arrangements, with a result that is more ambitious—and perhaps more accessible—than its predecessor.

The album opens with “Dig You Baby”, a brassy, rollicking duet with a female guest vocalist, followed by “Masquerade”, a vintage-sounding rock & roll tune. The title track (“Roll the Dice”) is more soulful and pop-inclined, while “Face it Down” is a hard-driving roadhouse boogie, a la ZZ Top.

Included among the originals is a seven-minute cover of the pre-Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac composition “Black Magic Woman”. Anchondo’s version features an extended introduction, with a flurry of sweep-picked guitar notes that build to a crescendo, before breaking into a four-to-the-floor bass drum rhythm. For a song that has produced so many iconic recordings—especially Santana’s 1970 version from Abraxas—the Héctor Anchondo Band provides a fresh take on a classic song.

The overall production of Roll The Dice is top-notch, and avoids the creeping sonic sterility that would otherwise leave the album sounding dated to the current era of digital recording technology. As for the musicianship, Anchondo can seriously shred, effortlessly switching from virtuosic Van Halen-esque arpeggios to sparse, crying blue-note leads. Moreover, though guitar may be his primary instrument, the guy can definitely sing, most notably on the album’s penultimate track “On Your Mic, Get Set, Sing”, where Anchondo’s vocals approach a Jeff Buckley-level of honeyed melodiousness. The harmonica playing also deserves a special mention, especially for the intricate harp-work on the first couple of tracks.

With Roll The Dice, Héctor Anchondo may not be trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to classic guitar-driven rock and roll, but he is clearly willing to take chances with songwriting and musical arrangements. While remaining firmly rooted in blues-rock territory, the album covers a lot of ground, both stylistically—from the Doors-y minor key jam of “That’s How It All Goes” to an almost 1980’s New Wave sound in “Jump in the Water” —and thematically, featuring lyrically humorous songs as well as heavier material throughout the ten tracks.

The combination of musical variety and skilled execution on Roll The Dice provides a satisfying experience that stands up to repeat listening.

K. McKee