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Music Review: SJ – Coffee: Strong Brew Edition

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As I write this, it’s minus fourteen degrees in Toronto, and I’ve just finished clearing even more(!) snow from the sidewalk … and yet I can almost feel a warm, gentle breeze as the music of singer-songwriter SJ wafts from my speakers.

That’s what music can do – set a mood, take us away from our troubles, and brighten even the darkest winter night.

SJ’s latest release, entitled Coffee: Strong Brew Edition (available exclusively on ITunes), is like that. Born in Cleveland and now based in Miami, SJ toiled for a decade as an international corporate attorney, though he’s been musically active since the age of 15 (and can recall playing air guitar to Willie Nelson songs as a kid!). It wasn’t until 2009, though, when friends and family first heard a demo recording that SJ seriously began pursuing his passion. No longer content to be a lawyer playing music as a hobby, he launched a new career as a singer-songwriter, and now devotes his time primarily to writing and performing his original music. He’s also an active blogger (“The Musician’s Hypothetical”) on music business and law with a book on the subject forthcoming, and is the creative force behind the not-for-profit “One Acoustic World” foundation, established to help foster collaboration among independent artists around the world to benefit charitable endeavors.

Between 2011 and 2012, SJ’s first commercial releases won or earned nominations for over 15 independent music awards in the U.S. and U.K. “I Like You,” his initial single release, went Top 10 on U.S. national non-commercial radio charts. In 2011, SJ was nominated as a Discovery of the Year by Sirius XM The Coffeehouse, and won the Best Folk/Acoustic Emerging Artist Award at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards. SJ’s first full-length LP, Coffee: Strong Brew Edition, along with a live DVD entitled Coffee: Unfiltered, was released in 2012, supported by SJ’s first national tour. “Let Me Be,” released to radio, peaked at #32 on the national commercial radio charts, with airplay spinning in over 50 U.S. markets, making SJ one of the most active independent artists on national radio.

So the man is remarkably accomplished (along the way he also managed to play NCAA-level soccer, and considered a career in athletics) and obviously earnest. His songs, though, have a natural, easy-going charm, utterly without affectation. They’re almost all upbeat, but gently so – SJ’s acoustic guitars are supported here and there by harmonica, cello, and percussion, and are occasionally wry but invariably reflect an indomitably sunny optimism. He’s been compared to artists like Jack Johnson, John Mayer, and Jason Mraz, and indeed he shares their easy, breezy way with melody. His chord changes too, are thoroughly contemporary, and his arrangements are fully realized, yet never cluttered – SJ’s are the kind of songs that sound simpler than they are, yet have more than enough going on to sustain interest through repeated listens.

SJ’s guitar work is exemplary, intricate as required but never gratuitously so, more concerned with nuance and texture than dazzling displays of dexterity, though he’s technically flawless – he’s good enough to be endorsed by Taylor guitars. His voice is mellow with just a hint of an earthy rasp, as comfortable and honest as a favorite pair of jeans. It’s the kind that sounds open and friendly on first listen and just gets warmer and more inviting with each subsequent tune.

It’s sunny, feel-good music, yet SJ never gets maudlin or sappy. “I Like You” is as uncomplicated as true love, and the results are irrepressibly bouncy. “Coffee” is a reflective gem, moody and introspective, buoyed by subtle strings and shimmery background vocals courtesy of Cat Shell. “Breathe,” with its delicate washes of cymbals and gently percolating percussion, feels as delicate as a gossamer breeze. Both “I Am” and “Fresh Soul” benefit from Randy Singers’ restrained, jazz-inflected harmonica, with additional assistance on the former from fellow Miami singer-songwriter Joshua Stedman.

There’s unpretentious and unvarnished wisdom within “That Is All,” while “It’s Not Me” and “Let Me Be” are both sturdy and stirring. The affecting “Tonight You Are Perfect” is stunning in its quiet simplicity, and the equally hushed “Go Your Way” is poignant and touching in its resigned acceptance of fate. SJ also sings in Spanish, adding a delightful touch of romance to the gently jaunty and hauntingly pretty “Lo Mejor De Mi.”

The end result is quite simply wonderful, music that’s genuinely uplifting and inspiring without any hint of calculation or contrivance. Perfect for lazy days and starlit nights, the aural equivalent of the sweet kiss of a fragrant breeze, SJ’s own description sums it up best: “acoustic soul.” It’s music that could only come from a warm heart and a generous spirit.

For more information and sound clips, check out acousticsoulgroup.com/home!

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About John Taylor