Joanna Burns – The Green Year
Joanna Burns has come a long way since the early days of her childhood where she recalls singing her heart out in her mother’s station wagon. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Burns still sings her heart out to family and friends, but she’s also doing it on the big stage with likes of Harry Connick Jr., Ingrid Michaelson, Fountains Of Wayne, The Click 5, Melissa Ferrick and many other significant performers. She’s also made the smart move to college venues, showcasing at both the NACA Mid-Atlantic Festival and Conference and performing at over 50 colleges and universities throughout New England and the Mid West territories.
But the most impressive part of her education comes to light with her latest CD, The Green Year. The disc title is a good-humored jab at the color of the studio where Burns and company literally spent 365 days staring at the same four walls while coming up the ideas for the album. The Green Year is chock full of interesting production and performance surprises. Not only does Burns play guitar and piano, but she also handles all of the horn and string arrangements on the disc. It’s also of interest that she handled all of the producing as well as writing the material.
The Green Year is only Joanna’s third offering since Everything Til Now (2006), but it’s a growth jump of sizeable proportions. From disc opener “US,” a brassy, spitfire tune that romps with Ben Folds swing and includes simple, precise percussion along with a Fats Domino-vibed verse before blowing into an old school Bourbon Street middle. Raunchy horns and live crowd ambience put this opening party pleaser on the keeper list from the get-go.
The cheeky ukulele and breathy vocal intro Burns uses on “Make Me Hate You” leads the listener into lush string arrangements and plucked acoustic rhythms that address the age old topic of love’s true course of going off the cliff of romantic entanglement and the regret that ensues. The chorus is passionate, pained and Burns goes it alone, using no background vocals and relying on dynamic use of her solo vocal to get the point across. The chorus is ingenious and I love the direct and brutal line, “I’m asking you, make this easy on me, not behind my back, hurt me so I can see.”
I really got behind the R&B feel of “Where You Stand,” a song that showcases Burns’ immense vocal power and understanding of horn arrangements. At all of five foot nothing this little powerhouse can be deceptive during coffee house shows, but as she demonstrates here, she has a wide and powerful range not to be taken for granted. It’s a sexy, handclapping Motown successor that moves with hot backbeats courtesy of Pete Abazia and the bass thump of Chris Wells. Once again, Burns bypasses the conventional “wall of sound” background vocals and substitutes sweltering hot horn arrangements. The only things missing on this song are go-go boots and tassels to match the tambourines.
“Small Things” is reminiscent of something off of Carol King’s Tapestry and showcases Burns’ smooth piano style. It’s a blue and retrospective composition that flows with a quiet, melancholy passion. Good build up and lush background cello and violin work. “Small Things” looms larger than life with its dynamic construction.
“63 Summers” is another well-orchestrated and somber song, a story about a wife that no longer recognizes her husband due to Alzheimer’s. Burns’ voice is crushing here as she tells this story. The string work is sad in the most beautiful of ways.
I loved the lush and brushed feel of “Blue.” The brushwork of drummer Pete Abazia and the stand up bass of Steve Purpuri are the perfect blue velvet backdrop to Burns’ vocal. She kind of reminds me of Diana Krall here and I love it. Modulating, smooth vocals, sparse pianos and percussion pepper this little gem throughout. Natalia Peruz’s musical saw interlude was a charming touch.
Produced by Joanna herself, The Green Year is a beautiful 12-song masterpiece that needs to be heard. Her style is confident and she mixes it up well here, jumping styles without losing the unique continuity that she’s well known for. The Green Year is a golden effort from one of New Jerseys finest. For more info, go over to joannaburns.com.
Honey Spot Blvd – Playing With the Shadows
A big part of any working band’s success is knowing that you can’t take yourself too seriously. It’s always best to let the music do the bragging when you’re in the bloody arena of original music here in New Jersey. Honey Spot Blvd is a down home unit that balances the personalities of its four members with a bit of good humor and a lot of diverse talent. Fronted by the larger than life persona of Jessica Paris, the band rocks and rolls down the treacherous one lane highway to the crossroads of commercial success and genuine fan appeal. Their latest CD is low on pretension and heavy on feel. The self-titled disc was recorded at BDF Sound and was produced by Rusty Di Pasquale.
The Trenton-based foursome has a unique sound that is influenced by the likes of Jeff Buckley, Frank Zappa, Bootsy Collins and Steely Dan. Their humorous bio lists the members as Paris (vocals, rhythm guitar, songwriter, flute, rice pudding lover), Bill Wieszczek (electric guitar, vocals, songwriter, juggler), Terry Crawford (bass, clown spy) and Rusty DiPasquale (drums, vocals, hair product specialist).
Listening to their latest 15-song CD brought forth many recollections of influence and style. Some of the cooler songs that jumped out at me were the funky blues feel of “Windows,” a showcase vehicle for each member. Easy and laid back, Paris goes from smooth and hip guitar chords to gritty and voracious vocal rants as the rap of DiPasquale blows through the middle eight, linking the chorus with a bodacious rap that ties into the full-toned guitar lines of Bill Wieszczek, who sounds eerily like Walter Becker.
The Van Morrison vibe of “Chardonnay” features sparse instrumentation and background chants. Guitar lines are dark and stormy here as Paris lays down honey smooth vocals. Walking bass lines and feather light drum shots rein this “loungeabilly” flavored party in well. I especially loved the stepping stoned jazz guitar chords used in the end. Jessica shows off her flute prowess in “Fly Away With You,” a groovy Jethro Tull meets the psychedelic Dr. John.
“Piece Of Me” is a half-time blues romp featuring Jessica’s flute wizardry and Wieszczek’s well-honed blues sensibilities. It kicks into a bouncy, snarl of back roads woodshedding as Paris growls Joplin strong. Background vocals are old school cool, simple and quietly simmering underneath as smoldering six-string leads lurk within the structure, breaking formation and ripping raw, growling notes to the end.
Other cool tunes were the funky vibe of “The Noose” a song that has Paris reminding me of the sultry Alannah Myles. “Back Porch Swing” is a wah-wah driven funkster that features the violin riffage of Dan Rodriguez and the full-throated delivery of Paris, who leads this interesting and offbeat number like the veteran she really is. No seriously, she was in the army at one point before becoming a musician.
HSB are a unique little oddball of a band and I dig what they’re doing. Sidestepping the humdrum stereotype of most blues and funk, they’ve taken their sound to its own cool level, and that’s what it’s all about. For more info, head over to honeyspotblvd.com.