What’s Going on Here?

Once upon a time (Feb. 5, 2013 – Aug. 12, 2015) I ran a website that started off as album reviews and music finds. Over time, I conducted interviews with some of my favorite artists – and some who just happened to be available at the time. I even expanded to books and film. Then I moved, life got busy, and I just abandoned everything.

Thanks to a precient archiving in 2014 and the help of the Wayback Machine, I’ve been able to recreate almost as much of that old content as I care to. (For some idiotic reason, I didn’t think to actually backup my site files when the hosting lapsed and so some stuff is just lost to time.)

So, my intent is to get back to doing music reviews in real time. Over the last two years I’ve been rating tracks in my music library and scoring albums on a custom rating system. So, I’m excited to start sharing some of that info. In the meantime, I’m just trying to repost all the legacy content. I’m still of two minds about books and film, but they may find their way over here as well.

Hoping to start posting new content in early June. In the meantime, find me on Twitter.


Artist of the Month :: Chris Carrabba

A master of re-invention, Chris Carrabba has led the moshing masses, voiced the unsung feelings of the emo-elite, and is now setting off down the road of mandolin-rich folk fantasy.

Let’s take a little trip in the DeLorean back to the late ’90s an revisit a scene that many missed but I was waist-deep in. Back then, Christian harcore/metal/emo/screamo bands were a dime a dozen and on a good Saturday night you could catch 5-6 of these bands for $5 cover in the gym of one of the more “progressive” local churches or (dare I say it?) a bar. Most of these bands never left their hometowns, but the best of the best were able to get national record deals through Tooth and Nail and their imprint label Solid State.

One such Solid State band, Strongarm, disbanded in 1998 but very quickly re-formed with a new sound and new vocalist (Carrabba) under the moniker “Further Seems Forever”. In 2001, they released their debut record The Moon is Down on Tooth and Nail. I saw this record around for years and never picked it up because I really had no idea what it was.

Between the band’s inception and debut, Carrabba had released his own solo album The Swiss Army Romance (2000) under the name “Dashboard Confessional”. Feeling a deeper personal connection to that project, he left FSF after recording The Moon is Down, to focus on Dashboard full time.

As Dashboard Confessional, Carrabba would go on to release six studio albums between 2000 and 2009 along with a live album from MTV Unplugged 2.0. The first two records featured acoustic performances by Carrabba. An EP (2002’s Summer’s Kiss) featured full-band arrangements of 4 previously released songs giving way to the full-length full-band outing A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar (2003). While I would say that the band arrangements featured on the EP and live record were good, A Mark, A Mission just felt over-produced to me.

2006’s Dusk and Summer still featured the full-band, but made great strides back toward the band’s sweet-spot. While the songs still felt a bit rushed, veteran producer Daniel Lanois was able to keep the passion of Carrabba’s vocals on tracks like “Stolen” and “Don’t Wait”. While the guest spot by Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz seems a bit odd on “So Long, So Long”, there’s not a lot to complain about on this record.

Carrabba’s return to solo acoustic performance on 2007’s The Shade of Poison Trees was welcomed, but ultimately fell flat. Most of the tracks felt forced and at barely over 30 minutes for 12 songs, I didn’t feel like I really got my money’s worth.

For his next effort, Carrabba decided he could have it both ways by releasing a 2-disc, deluxe version of Alter the Ending (2009). Each disc was performed with a full band, but the latter was all acoustic versions. Here’s the deal. I love this record… but only the acoustic takes. In my mind, “Even Now” and “No News is Bad News” are classic Dashboard tracks that deserve a place alongside his early work.

In 2010, he reunited with Further Seems Forever (who had disbanded in 2006). Following some live shows, they released their fourth studio album (second with Carrabba), Penny Black, in 2012. This was really my first exposure to the band. I think that if I had gotten into them back during their first run, I probably would have been a big fan. Given my deep connection with DC, however, FSF is really just an interesting side-note to me.

While out on a solo, acoustic tour in 2011, Carrabba released a covers album under his own name titled Covered in the Flood. The track list could certainly be considered obscure given what we had heard from him up to this point. This journey into roots, Americana, and folk music served as the spark for his latest creative re-invention.

Made up of Suzie Zeldin, Jonathan Clark, Ben Homola, and Chris Carrabba, Twin Forks has been called a “folk supergroup.” While the term may be a bit overdramatic, the result is a welcomed change of pace. While mandolins, banjos, and washboards may be en vogue these days, this group safely steers clear of the period attire and handlebar mustache scene. In many ways they inject a bit of ’80s new wave into their particular brand of folk.

Debuting at 2013’s South by Southwest Festival, the band caught many by surprise and won over a number of new fans. They may still be under the radar, however, owing to their intentional avoidance of their own previous celebrity (refusing to be billed as “Chris Carrabba and Twin Forks”). With a new EP on the way and a U.S. tour kicking off, they are sure to gain much more exposure.

Artist of the Month :: Derek Webb

I’ve said a lot, in the past, about Derek Webb so I won’t bore my long-term loyalists with too much back story. Webb spent the first ten years of his career in the band Caedmon’s Call where he offered up a portion of the songwriting and lead vocal duties on a total of 14 records (full length, EPs, and compilations). In the past ten years, he has had an on-again-off-again relationship with the band having played on 2 of their 4 records since his “departure”. In that same latter time frame, he has released an additional 15 records (by the same accounting) with his latest album set to release the first week of September.

Now, there are a lot of artist whose music I enjoy. There are a number who have had some significant effect on me. But I don’t think anyone has had as deep an impact as Derek Webb – even beyond (and sometimes in spite of) his music.

I was first introduced to Caedmon’s Call (as many were) on their self-titled major-label debut record (1997). While I didn’t really know all of the dynamics (two songwriters, three singers) at the time, I definitely resonated more with Webb’s tracks – specifically “Standing Up for Nothing” and “Center Aisle“. While stocked in your local Lifeway Christian Store, this was certainly not what defined “Contemporary Christian Music.”

Their 40 Acres (1999)record was my first exposure to a discussion of reformed theology (“Thankful“) and by their Long Line of Leavers(2000) I was skipping over everything that wasn’t Webb-written.

In 2001, Webb embarked on a solo tour of non-church venues including bars and clubs. His stop in Lubbock, TX would mark my third show in concert promotion business (alongside BJ Olin who I interviewed last week). We even did an in-studio with the local college radio station – I’m the creeper by the door.

derek on air

In 2003, Derek released his solo debut, She Must and Shall Go Free, and basically lost me. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t “country” but to this day that’s the closest description I can give to it – and to this day, I’m not the biggest fan of it. By that point, I had been listening to live recordings of his most well-known solo track “Wedding Dress” for a year and a half, and the production on the studio record wasn’t for me.

With that in mind, I bailed on his live record The House Show(2004) and picked back up on his next studio record I See Things Upside Down(2004). This record knocked me on my butt sonically and lyrically. This was the dwebb record I wanted to hear. It was the first time in a long time that I had been challenged by a record and it proved to be the gift that kept on giving. As my obsession with one great song would start to wane, I would discover another more profound than the last.

It was probably a couple more years before I went back and listened to The House Show. The performances on that record are great, but pale in comparison to the points where Webb speaks on a variety of topics regarding personal faith and Christian culture. It was this experience that cemented me as more than a fan, but a loyalist.

From 2005 to 2011 Webb released a plethora of content – 4 studio albums including 1 instrumental, 2 compilations (acoustic versions and remixes), 2 duet EPs alongside his wife Sandra McCracken, and 2 quasi-fan-club cover records. They all had their highs and lows but the all pale in comparison to what he did next…

Last year Webb (un)officially dropped the “recording” from the front of “artist” when he took his fans on a journey of imagination with the events leading up to his two releases Nexus(with Josh Moore and Latifah Phillips under the moniker, “Sola-Mi”) and Ctrl. More than a couple of records, this was an experience complete with fake twitter accounts that would interact with each other, Webb, his friends, and fans, scavenger hunts across the country, promo videos for a non-existent film, and more. The resulting discovery was that the separately released records were in fact part of one whole with the Nexus album inserting within the Ctrl album between tracks 7 and 8.

And, while all of that is awesome, it was nothing on the level of how the Ctrl record, wrecked me emotionally. It is so beautifully crafted that no matter where you are, you can find yourself within it. I’m still on the journey that it started, and I hope it doesn’t end.

As mentioned at the outset, Webb has a new record on the table, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You. In a manner of speaking, it is his reflection on the same 20 years I’ve outlined above. I’ll be posting some acoustic versions of the new songs over the next few weeks, I’ve got an interview with derek going up two weeks from now, and (of course) a review of the record on the official release day, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, you can get selections from his entire solo catalog completely free on Noisetrade (a site he co-created) so go catch yourself up.

Artist of the Month :: Chris Thile

Chris Thile (pronounced “thee-lee”). If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s not because you’re out of the loop. Nor is it because he’s completely obscure. Widely regarded as one of the best at his craft (mandolin), Thile just happens to reside within one of the lesser-visited sub-genres: Bluegrass. But even to paint him into that corner is not quite fair, for what he does stretches far beyond the banjo and washboard routine.

While you may not know him by name, you’ve probably heard at least something from one of his bands – Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers, Goat Rodeo Sessions… but you’re more likely to have heard it in Starbucks rather than on the radio. All in all, Thile has released 18 albums in the last 20 years (not bad for a guy who is only 32) and is readying his latest release (Bach: Sonatas and Partitas) for August 6.

Thile began playing mandolin at age five and at twelve won the national mandolin championship and released his first album with Sean and Sara Watkins as Nickel Creek. The next year he released his first solo effort, Leading Off. Two more albums were released in the late ’90s, one solo and one group effort.

At the dawn of the 2000’s, Nickel Creek offered their breakthrough, self-titled, major label debut. Thile followed this with his own, Not All Who Wander Are Lost. The band’s releases would prove to be more mainstream, radio-ready fare. Thus, their work – in particular, 2002’s This Side – would garner more attention than Chris’ solo work. In fact, This Side peaked at #2 on the Billboard Country Music Chart. This was my first introduction to Thile’s work as we played it in heavy rotation at Starbucks during my early days there.

This Side is a nearly flawless record and I will review it in depth at a later date. For now, go out and listen to “Spit on a Stranger“, “Hanging by a Thread“, and “House Carpenter“. While each track is individually great, I would hope that they would help to dissuade you of any misgivings you may possess regarding the genre as a whole.

Thile and Nickel Creek each released another album (Deceiver and Why Should the Fire Die?, respectively) before the band called it quits in 2006. In writing this, I discovered that the Watkins siblings went on to play in a group called Works Progress Administration, that will require further investigation. Sara Watkinshas released two solo records to date. Sean released several solo works over the years, but has found his most wide recognition partnering with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot as the duo Fiction Family.

In 2006, Chris Thile released his own breakthrough solo album, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, filled with his characteristic wit, charm, and broken-heartedness. While this is technically a solo record, the live touring of it gave birth to a group of musicians who originally referred to themselves as the “How to Grow a Woman Band.” In 2008, the collective (fronted by Thile) would release their debut record under the moniker Punch Brothers, an aptly titled record – Punch.

Over the years since, Punch Brothers (Thile, Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, and Paul Kowert) have released two more records. While their instrumentation is decidedly bluegrass, their song structures have taken on a classical sensibility in form and structure.

Not satisfied with one successful band, in 2011 Thile teamed up with (arguably) the best stringed instrument players in the world – Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Edgar Meyer (upright bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle) – to release the album Goat Rodeo Sessions. The album won the 2013 Grammy for Best Folk Album.

Thile’s next album may prove to be a complete departure from anything we’ve heard before… or it may be the obvious next step on the road he’s been going down. Fully bridging the gap between bluegrass and classical, his upcoming August release will be selection of Bach, on mandolin. Here’s a preview.

Artist of the Month :: Hanson

I first encountered Hanson the same way many others did: during the summer of 1997 through the outrageously overplayed “MMMBop“. And, like many, I determined that this was enough for me to never want to  have anything to do with the band. Then, years later, in the most unexpected and unplanned way, I became a fan.

I had returned to my dorm room after a day of classes and flipped on the television which still happened to be tuned to MTV. On the opposite side of the room with my back turned to the tv, I was really digging the song that I was hearing so I turned around to learn more. After a few seconds I said to myself, “hey, that looks like Hanson”. And so I watched all the way through to the credits to find that the song was in fact by Hanson, the title track to their 2000 record, This Time Around.

Fast forward another 3 years, I’m living in Portland, OR and spending most of my free time at the library. Digging through their CD collection, I come across This Time Around, and remembering back to that random listen 3 years prior, I decided to give it a try. (It should be noted that this is the same library collection that made me a fan of Ben Folds, John Mayer, Simon and Garfunkel, and Elton John.) I was hooked. This Time Around is a solid record with a string of memorable tracks including the title track, “Save Me”, “Hand in Hand”, and “Song to Sing”. The band’s voices had passed puberty and the tone was rich. The piano-anchored compositions were immediately relatable without seeming contrived. (Just FYI, I don’t listen to anything prior to this record.)


Obviously, that record could never have lived up to the expectations set by their breakthrough single. As such, they spent a lengthy amount of time separating from their label and recording their follow-up independent release Underneath (2004) as detailed in the documentary Strong Enough to Break. This collection, again, was an all-around great record with plenty of quality songs that no one ever heard including “Penny and Me”, “Underneath”, and “Lost Without Each Other”.

In my opinion, the band reached its biggest musical breakthrough on 2007’s The Walk. On this record, each singer offers strong lead vocal efforts. The collection as a whole is perhaps the strongest of any release in the catalog. And the songs would have been perfect for Adult Contemporary or Top 40 radio if anyone would have played them. The inclusion of an African children’s choir on “Great Divide” is a nice touch highlighting the band’s charity work. Eldest brother Isaac shines on “Watch Over Me”. Perhaps my favorite song from the band is the Zac-fronted “Go” which is both fragile and firm in the greatest of ways.

Upon my early listening, I was not as enamored with Shout it Out (2010) as I had been with previous releases. The Walk had been so solidly pop-rock that the soul-bluesy Shout it Out was a bit of a surprise. The production on the record is a bit less robust than on earlier releases which I’m usually ok with, but here it just seems sterile. I’m usually not a fan of horns and that holds true here as well. While I’m glad that the single “Thinkin’ ’bout Somethin'” garnered more mainstream attention than anything else they had done in a long time, I felt that it sorely missed the greatness of the prior three records. Again, the Zac-led “Use Me Up” is great in the same manner as “Go”.


Now in their 20th year as a band, the brothers are set to release Anthemlater this month. The lead single, “Get the Girl Back” seems to stay in the same sound range of Shout it Out which is a little disappointing. However, as long as they don’t completely abandon the piano in favor of the Rhodes keyboard or other such keyed instrument, all should be fine.

Artist of the Month :: Eisley

Fall 2002. I travel to Dallas to hear a band that I’m scouting play a show – I think it was around Thanksgiving. When I get to the venue, I meet my guys and I look over to the merch table to see a bunch of young girls hanging out. Cool, one of the band brought their kid sisters to see t-shirts. My band plays a great set complete with a much loved guitar-behind-the-head maneuver and I retire to the adjacent coffee shop to catch up with some old friends.

Eventually, I decide it’s time to go home. I walk back into the main hall of the venue to find a bunch of statues staring at the stage, many a jaw upon the floor. Then I hear it. Mesmerizing, ethereal, hauntingly melodic sounds coming from the speakers. I look up to find the aforementioned kid sisters destroying everyone in the audience with their Radiohead meets Sixpence NTR meets Coldplay brand of melodic rock. I join the gape-mouthed statues for the remainder of the set.

So was my introduction to the band (Moss) Eisley.

circa 2002 copyright Alison V Smith

The band, comprised of sibling Chauntelle, Sherri, Weston, and Stacy Dupree was originally accompanied by a family friend and later replaced by cousin Garron Dupree on bass. Since that change, the group has experienced lots of personal changes (marriages, divorce, re-marriage, parenthood) but no personnel changes. With a new album (Currents) set to release at the end of this month, the band shows no signs of stopping. In fact, they have a Kickstarter going right now to help offset the costs of a world tour – a far more daunting task with spouses and newborn babies in tow.

I’ll be exploring the band’s discography over the course of this month leading up to the release of the new album.

circa 2012