Album Review: Andrew Belle – Black Bear

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Andrew BelleBlack Bear
1L Music/Elm City Music
Release Date – August 20th 2013

Recommended if you like: Ben Rector, Paper Route, Coldplay

Very rarely do you see an artist completely reinvent their sound with tremendous success. Many artists grow their sound, showing maturity with a couple albums and countless tour stops in half-filled bars. But do many artists completely change their sound after just one full-length album under their belt? Andrew Belle is hoping to change that perception with the release of Black Bear.

Although Andrew Belle may not be a household name, it’s hard to imagine you aren’t familiar with some of his music. In fact, Belle has had songs featured in “The Real World,” “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Pretty Little Liars,” to name just a few. The favorite song for TV, “In My Veins,” was a piano and acoustic guitar driven ballad that set the tone for what was to come from his first full-length record The Ladder. However, a lot has changed since Belle wrote the debut album over 4 years ago. Now a married man, this coming of age has played a significant role in his maturity both emotionally as well as spiritually. In an interview with Noisetrade, Belle speaks about the new record when he says, “the most consistent and overarching theme found in this album is that of a God that pursues a man until he inevitably succumbs to his persistence.”

It should come as fair warning to former listeners that this album sounds dramatically different from anything Belle has previously released. Gone are the days of acoustic guitars, occasional banjos, and bare piano chords. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a song that could have ever made its way onto his previous album. Belle has done some very precise surgery with the reinvention of his composition. Instead of wasting time trying to compare the two incomparable records, it would only be fair to Belle if we consider this record on its own merits.

It’s clear to see that this album is loaded with one catchy song after another. The lead single “Pieces” is an epic song, with its driving percussion and heavy synth bass leading you through each turn and guiding you into the new style. In the chorus, the song picks up as Belle sings in octaves, “There’s too much smoke to see it/ There’s too much broke to feel this/ Well I love you, I love you/ And all of your pieces.” Whether it’s the unexpected synth solo after the chorus in “Sister,” the driving drums in “Details,” or the ethereal backdrop of “I Won’t Fight It,” this record is brimming with songs you’ll be excited to put on repeat.

Even with the stark change in musical composition, you can definitely tell this was not an undertaking Belle decided on overnight. With four years of demoing and a methodical songwriting process, it’s fair to say that Belle has evolved and made a record to be proud of both musically and lyrically.

You can order the album on Amazon and iTunes. You can also like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

Top 12 of ’12

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As usual, I’ve compiled my list of top albums from the year. This is one of my favorite posts to make every year, so I hope you all really enjoy reading along. If you’re interested, here are the lists from the last few years:

Top 10 of 2009
Top 10 of 2010
Top 11 of 2011

It’s interesting to note that several of my top albums are self-released albums. Artists are definitely still making good records with or without the record labels, but those doing it without need your support.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order)


Bruno MarsUnorthodox Jukebox
Atlantic Records
Favorite Tracks – “Young Girls” and “Locked Out of Heaven”


Delta SpiritDelta Spirit
Rounder Records
Favorite Tracks: “Empty House” and “Tellin’ The Mind”


Justin BieberBelieve
Island Records
Favorite Tracks: “As Long As You Love Me” and “The Beauty and the Beat”


Macklemore & Ryan LewisThe Heist
Self-Released
Favorite Tracks – “Can’t Hold Us” and “Same Love”


Phillip PhillipsThe World From the Side of the Moon
Interscope Records
Favorite Tracks – “Man on the Moon” and “Home”

#12

Of Monsters And MenMy Head Is An Animal
Universal Republic

The opening fingerpicking of “Dirty Paws” sets quite an ominous tone for the debut LP for Icelandic indie pop quintet Of Monsters And Men. The eerie male/female harmonies, the gang vocals, and spacey choruses are the blueprint to My Head Is An Animal, but you really wouldn’t want the album any other way. Nanna (female lead singer) and Raggi (male lead singer) have quite an impeccable way of meshing their vocals together, whether
in octaves or in perfect harmony. Their most notable single was “Little Talks,” which went Platinum in Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, and the United States (strangely enough, not in Iceland.)

#11

Paper RouteThe Peace of Wild Things
Self-Released
To say that Paper Route’s last three years has been tumultuous would be an understatement. A lot happened between their major record label release Absence and their latest release, including the loss of guitarist and vocalist Andy Smith. In an interview with lead singer JT Daly, he speaks about the pain of losing a lot of really foundational pieces of the life they knew as Paper Route. Through this pain, Daly and company wrote their 2012 self-released The Peace of Wild Things. The familiar synth/pop feel is present, with strong influences from the likes of Peter Gabriel, ELO, and Genesis. Their single “You and I” has received lots of attention on the likes of Sirius XM Hits 1 despite the help of a big record label to help promote the song.

#10

Imagine DragonsNight Visions
Interscope Records

In 2011, Imagine Dragons quietly self-released an EP titled It’s Time, but thankfully their music didn’t remain quiet for very long. In November 2011, Interscope Records signed the quartet and put them in the studio immediately to work on their first full length, Night Visions. The result was a very unique album, bringing in hints of electronic dance music, rock guitars, and even some rhythmic hand claps. Their hit song “It’s Time” will get stuck in your head in a matter of seconds with it’s catchy melody and mandolin line, the song “On Top Of The World” features a earmworm-worthy whistle melody that keeps you hanging until the big chorus hits. While the band certainly has a good amount of growing to do, it’s very encouraging to see major record labels still pulling in excellent talent and growing it.

#9

BarcelonaNot Quite Yours
Self-Released
“Being told that your label doesn’t want to make a record with you at first felt like the rug was being pulled out from underneath us,” says Barcelona’s Brian Fennell. “Since we simply sold our first record to them, we were stoked to actually make a record with them. And that feeling of the floor falling out from underneath us was quickly replaced with hysterical laughter and going to get whisky.” While it’s hard to know all the details of what it took to make Not Quite Yours, it’s clear that fans were excited to hear what they had to offer.Barcelona created a Kickstarter to help raise funds for the album and within a month nearly doubled their goal. It was pretty clear that Barcelona was inspired by the response they received from their fans. With an acoustic guitar strumming lightly and a persistent floor tom pounding, Barcelona opens up their 2012 record with a subtle yet powerful song “Hanging in a Void.” Fennell’s vocals pierce through the music on every song, lyrics constantly in the forefront. While Fennell’s lyrics are usually about heartbreak, there’s always a small sense of hope that comes at the end of the album.

#8

Andrew OsengaLeonard, The Lonely Astronaut
Self-Released
In March of 2011, Andrew Osenga launched his Kickstarter announcing a bold plan: he wanted to write a concept album “to tell the story of a man named Leonard Belle. He lives 300 years from now and loses his wife in a sudden accident while their divorce is being finalized. In his rage and grief he takes a gig driving a long-distance space freighter for a year. (Due to relativity, by the time he returns to Earth everyone he knows will be old or dead.) He decides to bring along some antique instruments and recording equipment and will make a record.” Over $18,000 later, fans bought into the odd idea and waited patiently for the album to be released. The album was officially released September 18 2012, and it certainly did not disappoint. The musical stylings are all over the spectrum, ranging from acoustic guitar driven ballads like “Smoke Signals,” to synth heavy/screeching guitar solo weeping songs like “We Never Said Goodbye,” to catchy-bass-line rockers like “Tower of Babel.” While the genre may be hard to pinpoint, the lyrics follow the rise and fall of Leonard’s life and loss of a loved one he experiences through his time traveling. Although some may have initially seen this album as a comical/odd/unrealistic concept album, it is easy to fall deep into the story of poor Leonard, the Lonely Astronaut.

#7

Mumford & SonsBabel
Glassnote Records

There are some artists who musical stylings change drastically with the release of every album. Then there are some artists who know what works perfectly for them and stick to it. Mumford & Sons certainly fits into that last category. Their signature percussion style acoustic guitar, rolling banjo, and persistent kick drum make their presence known in nearly every song in some form. Marcus and company have taken their bluegrass tunes, alongside their gorgeous harmonies, and have brought a once forgotten genre into the forefront of Top 40 radio. The album peaked at 7 on the US Billboard Top 200 albums, number 3 on the US Digital Albums Chart, and number 1 on the US Folk Albums chart. While some critics may complain that it is far too similar to Sigh No More, many think that they have found their niche and know exactly how to write their style of music. Regardless of it all, these songs in their own right are a terrific collection of well-written tunes.

#6

A Silent FilmSand & Snow
Self-Released
When listening to A Silent Film, it’s easy to try and make comparisons to similar English piano-rock bands like Keane, Snow Patrol, and Coldplay. However, their new album Sand & Snow sets them apart mostly due in part to lead singer RobertStevenson’s strong vocals. Songs such as “Reaching the Potential,” “Danny, Dakota & the Wishing Well,” and “Anastasia” lay a terrific foundation for the rich layers of vocals, synth and keyboards, and the rest of the instrumentation. Although the band is independent, having self-produced this album in Arizona, they have had a few songs receive some radio success on Sirius XM’s Alt Nation, as well as earning 200K downloads as iTunes’ Discovery Download.

#5

AnberlinVital
Universal Republic Records

Fans of Anberlin are not afraid to tell you which album is their favorite and which album is their least favorite. Regardless of which era of Anberlin you prefer, it’s undeniable to see the progression in the right direction with their latest release, Vital. It’s perfect blend of rock guitars and drums, a more pronounced synth and keys presence, and their signature soaring falsetto vocals featuring Stephen Christian. When the first single “Someone Anyone” was released in late August, it was quite evident that there was a new energy that the band had never had before. When describing the new album, Christian describes it as “the record I want them screaming back at me every time we play live.” Anberlin should get exactly what they ask for with catchy tunes like “Self-Starter,” “Someone Anyone,” “Desires,” and “Orpheum.” And what Anberlin album would be complete without a final opus. With the help of Eisley’s Christie DuPree, “God, Drugs & Sex” ends on an epic note. The album had plenty of success on the charts as well, including reaching 16 on the Billboard 200, 3 on the Top Alternative Charts, 1 on US Christian Albums on Billboard.

#4

Punch BrothersWho’s Feeling Young Now?
Nonesuch Records
Since Nickel Creek’s breakup in 2006, Chris Thile has been quite a busy man. His side projects have included working with Michael Daves, Edgar Meyers, and most recently the Goat Rodeo Sessions. However, he spends the majority of his time working with the Punch Brothers. In February, Thile & Co. released Who’s Feeling Young Now? on Nonesuch Records, deciding not to over-complicate the music and make it a little more accessible than their previous work. Those facts, however, do not take away from the true bluegrass feel you get with this album: mandolin front and center, rolling banjo not far behind, guitar and violin shining through occasionally, and the bass laying the foundation and rhythm of each song. Even if you’re not a huge fan of bluegrass music, it’s hard to deny the catchiness of songs like “This Girl,” “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” and “Clara.” The only thing more entertaining than listening to Who’s Feeling Young Now? is watching the quintet play live. The Punch Brothers recorded a live set performed for Austin City Limits that aired live on November 3rd that included a number of songs from the latest album. The members’ shirts and ties certainly did not set a precedent for their behavior on stage; their excitement playing live shone through on each song.

#3

Anchor & BrailleThe Quiet Life
Tooth & Nail Records

In 2008, Stephen Christian started Anchor & Braille as a side project for Anberlin after the release of their major label debut New Surrender. The first release, Felt, was very laid back and significantly different from anything anyone had heard from Stephen Christian. The response was quite positive, but fans were unsure if the project would simply be a one-time-thing. Three years after the debut, Christian and new partner Micah Tawlks collaborated and essentially reinvented the sound of Anchor & Braille. Gone are light acoustic guitars and weeping pianos; they’ve been replaced with sampled drums and heavy synth to supplement his vocals. From the opening measures of “Goes Without Saying,” you know that something is very different. After adjusting a few songs in, the album becomes mesmerizing. The haunting chorus of “oohs” during “In With the New” draws you in, while the raspy guitar on “Kodachrome” jars you once again. Probably the most powerful song on the album is “Hymn for Her,” a song written for Tawlks’ soon to be born child. When listening to the song from such a perspective, it’s tough not to fall in love with it.

#2

House of HeroesCold Hard Want
Gotee Records

There were two foreseeable routes House of Heroes could have taken with their latest release: keep following the rock opera/concept album route that they did with The End Is Not The End as well as Suburba, or write a straight up rock album with killer songs. The band chose the latter, and it turned out to be a great decision. Each song on the album was loaded; hooks flying everywhere, harmonies galore, powerful lyrics. After spending years trying to make it big, they’ve said enough is enough and laid it all out there. “Out My Way” lays it out plain and simple: “It took a whole lot of blood and sweat to get what I got. It took a whole of cold hard want to get what I got.” Each song on the record is fantastic in its own right, whether it’s the Muse-esque “Remember The Empire,” the jangly acoustic driving “We Were Giants,” or the epic ballad “I Am A Symbol.” The boys pulled out all the stops on this record, and it certainly shows. The album peaked at 3 on the Top Christian Albums chart on Billboard.

#1

LovedrugWild Blood
Self Released

There are many bands who claim to be known for their unique singer’s vocal style. Then there’s Lovedrug’s Michael Shepherd. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny the fantastic melodies Shepherd brings to life with his range and style of singing. After nearly 4 years without a proper LP, Lovedrug decided to self-release their latest, Wild Blood. Opening with the title track, Shepherd gets right to business singing out “We’re crying out honestly, this wild blood will set us all free.” The drums set the tone in nearly every song, heavily dictating the emotion of every song. During “Dinosaurs,” the bass and drums drive the melody to ring out. The four-on-the-floor kick drum with rolling snare in “Preminition” make the song one that’s just begging to be belted. Chorus after chorus comes, each one bringing a feeling stronger than the last. The acoustic guitar takes lead on “Girl,” a gorgeous love song about spending the rest of your life with the love of your life. The chorus belts out “Spent thirty years not knowing you. I can’t afford to waste more time running ’round the world, when all I know is you’re my girl.” The final song makes for the perfect finale to the album. The opening pad followed by the slow guitar solo provides a mood of near desperation. Shepherd cries out “I’ll be your drug if you need it, I’ll be the one who will chase you so hard. I will be there when you need it, I’ll be the love that you’re chasing so hard.” By the end of the song, you feel like you’re the one crying out for her to just stop looking for drugs and abuse and want her to come running into your arms. The lyrics are poignant, but hit exactly where he wants them to hit.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, hope you enjoyed my reviews and list. Stay tuned for more musical suggestions, recommendations, and reviews in 2013!
-matthew

A Whole Lot of Blood and Sweat: Living Your Musical Career Under the Radar

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This is a piece I spent a lot of time curating. This was an idea I had back in July, and started with the bare bones around September. During that month, I had the pleasure of interviewing some of my favorite artists: Brian Fennell of Barcelona, Tim Skipper of House of Heroes, and JT Daly of Paper Route. I was really proud of how this turned out, and I hope you will take the time to read it. I’m looking forward to writing more pieces for Hypebot as well as trying to expand my writing to additional publications.

Original article can be found at Hypebot at this link: http://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2012/11/a-whole-lot-of-blood-and-sweat-living-your-musical-career-under-the-radar-.html

Everybody loves an underdog. They are the artist whose career started as a local opener with huge dreams to make it big. They worked for years to build a fanbase, growing it from their local area to the entire U.S. market and suddenly a major label wants to sign them. But is signing to a label always the best path for these artists?

Barcelona started as a solo project, but lead singer Brian Fennell quickly realized he needed a full band. Soon after, Barcelona’s music was noticed by several labels. “In 2006, we flew out to New York a few times right off the bat,” says Fennell. “About four months into being a band we were talking about signing to a label and it was an intense whirlwind.” On the day of their label showcase, half of the prospective label was laid off, including their potential A&R representative. After this happened, they had second thoughts about signing to a label and decided to tour and self-record an album instead.

In 2009 Barcelona signed with a major label, Universal Motown, to have their album Absolutes re-released. “In hindsight, we don’t see signing to Motown as a regret. It gave us an opportunity to extend the shelf life of our album and see what else it could do,” says Fennell. “We thought it would be a plus to sign to Motown because there was no one like us on their label.” This led the band to believe they would get special attention, but in fact, quite the opposite happened. Artists like Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi, Drake, and Shiny Toy Guns received all of the label’s attention and Barcelona was left with nothing.

Paper Route is a band that has followed a similar trajectory as Barcelona. After independently releasing a few EPs and an album called Absence, Paper Route was signed to Universal Motown to have their album re-released. Having toured with artists like Paramore, Owl City, and Switchfoot, Paper Route has played for a myriad of crowds with different musical tastes. “I’ve been shocked opening for certain acts and seeing the crowds react,” says Daly. “I’ve learned to never judge a crowd.” Unfortunately, the crowds have’t been nearly as large once they became a headliner.

House of Heroes can certainly relate to this problem. Having been together since 1998, lead singer Tim Skipper knows about the blessing and curse of always being the opener. “It would be great to be the band carrying the draw. When we try to do that, we don’t get a whole lot of people at shows,” Skipper says. “Doing tours with bands like Relient K, Silverchair, William Beckett, and MXPX has been a huge blessing. If we can get in front of more people, we believe we will win them over.”

Living as a band under the radar is never an easy thing. While some Top 40 artists seem to have sprouted onto the scene overnight, these artists have been working hard for years with little to no sign of forward progress. For Barcelona and Paper Route, the fact that they wouldn’t be doing a second album with their label was tough to swallow.

“Being told that your label doesn’t want to make a record with you at first felt like the rug was being pulled out from underneath us,” says Barcelona’s Brian Fennell. “Since we simply sold our first record to them, we were stoked to actually make a record with them. And that feeling of the floor falling out from underneath us was quickly replaced with hysterical laughter and going to get whisky.” It was nearly three years before a proper release after Absolutes, but Barcelona finally came around to releasing a new album, titled Not Quite Yours,in 2012.

“The lowest point in our musical career was firing our manager at the same time that we are finding out our label was going under at the same time as writing the best songs we’ve ever written,” says Paper Route’s JT Daly. “The last thing you ever want to think about is business, numbers, and commerce in the middle of the writing process.” They eventually buckled down, headed to their personal studio, and wrote The Peace of Wild Things three years after the release of their major label debut.

House of Heroes has been signed to a small Christian label, Gotee Records, for nearly ten years, but they still have trouble pulling in fans. While a little over 25,400 Facebook “Likes” is not a nominal sum by any means, it’s simply a speck when compared to Muse [13.6 million], Blink-182 [7.5 million], and Jimmy Eat World [1.2 million]—just a few bands in the same genre as House of Heroes. “The people who do it really well are really successful,” says lead singer Tim Skipper. “The pros of doing it are really cool — direct access to fans, and they have direct access to you. You can really set yourself up for success doing it right.”

Whether it’s the major label signing or a hugely successful headlining tour, we as fans believe we know what it means for an artist to be successful. What do the artists themselves believe it means to be successful? “Success is so relative,” says Barcelona’s Brian Fennell. “What’s keeping us going is growing up as friends and individuals and realizing what that means to us.” Paper Route’s JT Daly agrees, saying, “Success is the heartbeat of the band. What we have done already is a success to us. And we’re still going.”

MOREWe’re All In This Together: How Technology Should Shape The Future of Live Music

At the end of the night, we can count the money from merchandise, the amount of ticket sales, how many records were sold, and all of the Facebook “Likes.” However, if the artist isn’t playing their hearts out and putting every ounce of blood and sweat into their careers, then nothing else matters. “It’s important to make music that has integrity, good musicianship, and good lyrics,” Skipper says. “At the end of the day, hopefully it inspires somebody to make good music themselves.” If you’ve been inspired by bands like Paper Route, Barcelona, and House of Heroes, or any other group that has lived under the radar, let them know. Your feedback can honestly make or break a band, and sometimes a little motivation is all an underdog needs to come out on top.