Larry Stevens is an artist that has nailed many outstanding credits to his wall of local fame. From Peter Frampton to Blood, Sweat & Tears, Stevens has experienced the stage with all the greats. Hailing from the Montvale, New Jersey “hood,” Stevens is a musician that has survived cultural and audience shifts, doggedly plying his wares on television, radio and live performance since he was a youngster.
Stevens is out on the road in support of his latest EP, Heart On Fire. This is Stevens’s fifth release since he first stepped into the spotlight with his 1998 full-length, Our Country.
At first glance, I had a few observations about Heart On Fire. The CD cover features Stevens with guitar in hand, a leather jacket and sunglasses à la Bon Jovi, and bracketed by scantily clad females. The border of the cover is engulfed in hot flames. The image is old school ‘80s, from a time when there was such a thing as record company fat cats chomping on cigars and payola and Lear jets for everyone. Truth be told, when you are talking about an adult contemporary rock and roll presentation, Stevens is definitely preaching to a specific demographic with this image.
As I perused the credits, I began to see the work that went into this CD. The disc was recorded by Eric Fritsch (Sheryl Crow) and Goffery Moore (Daniel Cage), and the lineup of top-notch musicians such as Steve Bowman and Keio Stroud is commendable.
Stevens split production duties with Jim Reilly, and the whole thing was mixed in Soho by Chip Fabrizi over at P.P.I. Recording. With a team like this, the only thing left is an artist standing on his own two feet or in this case, on his own four (and one cover) songs.
First track off the disc is the title tune, “Heart On Fire.” This song is filled with lyrical jumping jacks as Stevens illustrates tongue-in-cheek thematic writing skill. “Heart On Fire” is a molten lava free flow, bubbling over with blues rock moxie and a 1960s James Gang Wurlitzer/B3 magic. Guitar work is succinct and tasty, and Stevens taps you on the shoulder with lines like, “I’ve got a heart on…fire for you,” a line that had me smirking at the sophomoric, albeit witty wordplay. It’s not my choice for starting off a five-song disc, but even though it hesitates at first, cranking like a cold engine in a 1973 Ford F150, it eventually roars to life and evens out as it goes.
Stevens comes into his own with “It Ain’t Right For Wrong To Rule.” This is a light and melodic California rocker in the vein of Dan Fogelberg or England Dan & John Ford Coley. Featuring super strong choruses, Stevens is dead-on key here, and his crew pounds out a poppy disposition of summertime sound. Chris Isaac-inspired shimmering electrics drive this good time rocker all the way to the party on the beach.
For the third selection on the disc, Stevens went for a cover that at least makes sense for his style. “You Are The Woman” by Firefall is right up this rock and roll-lite alley. Functional and correct, it’s hard to say why he chose this song instead of another original, but he did an exact and unwavering version of Firefall’s hit song.
I was kind of perplexed as to the addition of an acoustic version of the first song in the number four slot, but it actually sounds better this way. Something about the timbre of Stevens’ voice connected to an acoustic guitar just feels right. It retains the right amount of intimacy that he works well with. Once again, not my favorite choice considering everything he’s recorded, but if you’re going for one of the two versions, this is the one that works best.
My pick for best song is the last one on the disc. Think of Greg Kihn mixed with The Guess Who and that’s what “On My Street” sounds like. Filled with chimey, Randy Bachman-inspired electrics, “On My Street” utilizes smart chorus repetition and infectious player contributions. Stevens stretches out on this one and with the exception of a few of the verse kickoff melodies, he sounds completely relaxed and toned to the bone.
Stevens has a unique voice and could benefit profoundly from key change exploration in some of these songs. But overall, Heart On Fire works because he believes in what he does, and it comes across in the performance. Heart On Fire isn’t a bad disc, but it seems like an interim project that’s missing something. I feel that it could have benefited from additional song content and a more detailed pre-production schedule.
Stevens is an acquired taste. He is an artist that grows on the listener and stays long after the initial play is done, and that’s a magical trait to possess. My major hope for his next project is that it’s a full-length release, as Stevens needs the continuity and girth of material to make his point and tell you what he’s all about. After several listens to Heart On Fire, I realized where he was trying to go; but it just didn’t seem that there was a clear route to get there.
For more information on Larry Stevens and Heart On Fire, head over to larrystevensband.com.
Empire Escorts – Keep The Ghosts At Bay
Empire Escorts are a rising force on the Jersey scene and the world beyond. Their rootsy, melodic, hard rock sound is stacking new fans like paper money, and their blitzkrieg show is moving them out of the county and onto the open road. The group’s Empire Expansion tour kicked off last week at The Court Tavern in New Brunswick, NJ. They have since continued on, hitting major markets such as Penn State University, Cleveland, OH, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD stages on their whirlwind, 10-day tour.
The band has also started a Kickstarter crusade where fans can contribute to the tour, keeping the boys out on the road and knee-deep in clean underwear and tube socks the whole time. Tours can be costly, and this is your chance to help the guys get the message spread throughout the country. Pledges can receive items such as limited edition t-shirts, a lunch date with the band in Cleveland, OH, hand-written lyrics framed and signed, and even a personal house party show.
Empire Escorts are a fairly new group, but they’ve made deep and lasting impressions since they began back in 2009. They’ve toured and/or opened with Seether, Clutch and Into Another. Their self-titled 2011 EP included the track “Electric Whiskey,” a song that set the tone and changed the directive thinking of the music-loving public here in NJ.
The band has also dropped their latest Paul Richie (Parlor Mob)-produced single titled, “Keep The Ghosts At Bay.” I listened to the song and can assuredly tell you that it’s thunderously progressive and compositionally excellent. Richie guided this song from the tack barn to the fast track, and the pieces all lay in the perfect order for a surefire reaction of fan obsession. This is an ongoing taste from their recent self-titled EP, and it’s going to continue to turn heads well into Empire Escorts’ next intriguing project. Follow these guys and pick up all of their music. When a group embraces the opportunity to move beyond the two horse town scenario, we should all be there to lend a helping hand.
For more on “Keep The Ghosts At Bay” or anything else Empire Escorts, head over to empireescorts.bandcamp.com.