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Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Dolls on Fire, Brian Lisik, Brian James

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Dolls on Fire, Ladies and Gentlemen…

Heralding the arrival of a young, driven synth-pop band with a prog-rock edge, Dolls on Fire’s Ladies and Gentlemen… is a tastefully compact seven-song set loaded with fuzzed-out guitars and varied keyboard sounds. The sly “Minotaur,” the third track, sneaks up on you with warm organ and cool lead vocals from Rachel Jaggard, who shares lead singing duties with Zach Hodson. It’s the finale of a trio of songs that front-load the album with the band’s best material. Precision playing and slick vocals combine with an aggressive sonic mix into a timeless kind of sound, neither up-to-the-minute nor retro, and the best material sticks in the mind; they just need more songs as good as the first few here. This is clearly a band with the courage of its convictions.

Brian Lisik, The Mess That Money Could Buy

A rough-and-tumble garage-y sound blasts from the first strains of the opening track, “Small Town Royal Family,” with singer-songwriter Brian Lisik’s hoarse, heartland-rocking voice soaked deep in an ocean of chunky guitars. As satisfying as the earthy sounds and crunchy feel of this disc is, though, once we’ve rolled past the pair of strong opening tracks, the songs themselves fall well short of the Rolling Stones/early Springsteen standard they seem to aspire to. Variety crops up in the pleasant acoustic country-folk of “I’m Satisfied” and the moody falsetto of “Nights in Shining Amore,” but my mind kept grasping mostly in vain for something memorable to hold onto. Bottom line: What this music says just doesn’t match how good it sounds.

Brian James, The Wild and Free EP

And that’s the curse of 90% of the review CDs that land on my desk. Great production and fine musicianship are easy to come by these days on a modest budget, but great songwriting remains rarer than rare. Brian James’s EP is a very welcome break from all the crystal-clear but soulless sounds and as-loud-as-possible mastering in the pile.

These five songs have a rough-edged acoustic-band sound, driven by James’s honest-sounding vocals. His phrasing reminds me a bit of Darrell Scott’s, full but never pressing, with a plaintive Dylanesque tone (and harmonica to match). “If you should ever need a mockingbird or a flying trapeze/I’ll put it on the credit card and go stand in line for bankruptcy,” he sings in the refreshingly un-ironic “Honey Don’t Leave.”

The way his voice soars/cries when finishing the phrases (like “pilfer and steal”) in “Tom Cat” also brings classic Dylan to mind, but James has his own sense of melody, and he saves perhaps the best for last: “Wild and Free” is about sowing wild oats and never having to “come back to this place,” but if you’re a fan of gentle, earthy Americana music you may find yourself coming back here pretty often.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.