Introducing: Tim Totani...

Tim Totani is a singer and songwriter from McAlester, Oklahoma. His style is in the country/rock tradition of Bob Seger and John Mellencamp, and his new EP Back Home was released just last month. We’d like to thank Mr. Totani for taking a few minutes to answer some questions for us here at Musebreak. Musebreak: First of all, tell us a little about yourself. What is your musical background? How did you get started? Tim Totani: I grew up around music from my mom singing to me as a little boy to watching the band play at church. But I didn’t get started playing until junior high school where my music director John Wilcox influenced my passion for playing the most. MB: I’m assuming you play guitar. Do you play any other instruments? What models do you use, and what’s your favorite? TT: I do play guitar, and I’ve played many instruments such as violin, cello, mandolin, bass, drums, and piano. Recently, piano is probably my favorite. I play a Taylor acoustic guitar. MB: What is your process for writing a song? What comes first, the lyrics or the music? TT: When writing a song the process varies. Some days I have lyrics that pop in my head first that I write music for, and other time the music comes first. MB: I mentioned Seger and Mellencamp in the intro, which to my ear are the most stylistically similar acts to your work. What do you consider the most similar? What musicians do you go to for inspiration? TT: I have been compared to Brantley Gilbert on many occasions, and I could see that. And I listen to a lot of artist for inspiration such as Brantley, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Eli Young...

Album Review: The Buachaills’ At Your Call...

It’s a St. Patrick’s Day miracle: A second album of Celtic music for your enjoyment! It certainly was for mine. This week we’re looking at the debut release from the Celtic folk/rock band The Buachaills (pronounced bo’-quels, approximately). Their debut single is due out tomorrow, with the rest of the album due out in May. You can pre-order it on Amazon, and probably a few other places. The album is called At Your Call, and is an enjoyable collection of Irish influenced music. If the High Kings’ album we looked at last week was a little light on the Celtic influences for your tastes, this one should be right up your alley. Still using the electric bass (James Fleming) and drum set (Chris Carey), The Buachaills also have Eoin Murphy on guitar and mandolin and Aaron Dolan on whistles and Uillean pipes. Carey, Dolan, and Murphy all take turns on the vocals. The album starts with a short instrumental introduction, beginning with Dolan’s pipes and immediately moving into a lively reel. This is followed by the title track “At Your Call” which is catchy alternative rock style with a solid Irish feel to the accompaniment. Next is the song that is to be tomorrow’s debut single, a cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”. The famous sax solo is replaced very capably with Dolan’s pipes. It works much better than you might imagine. Following this is “You Couldn’t Have Come At A Better Time”. This is a lively Irish reel style pop song. It’s an infectious tune with a strong hook. Next is the instrumental “King of the Fairies”. It starts slowly and mournfully, and then moves into a nice minor key jig that highlights Dolan’s pipes and a fine, restrained drum performance by Carey....

Album Review: The High Kings’ Friends for Life...

A week from Monday, we see the return of St. Patrick’s Day, the day that everyone gets to either celebrate their Irish heritage, or pretend they have one. What St. Pat’s Day celebration would be complete without some rousing Irish music to go along with it? Sure, the Celtic Woman recordings have been popular, but let’s be honest. Their music just doesn’t have that Irish pub feel that the occasion calls for. So as an alternative, we bring you The High Kings, and their latest album Friends for Life. The High Kings is a talented quartet of Irish musicians with a healthy dose of contemporary influences added. Their stated motto: “Folk ’n Roll”. Friends for Life is their fourth album since their 2008 inception; and their third studio album. Released last September, it is a collection of original music combined with a few traditional songs spiced with their special arrangement skills. The opening track is “Oh Maggie”, an original song about a man on hard times and trying to do better so he can return to the woman he loves. It’s traditional sounding, but with electric guitars and a drum set added to update the sound. Following is a strong departure; “Gucci”. This is a borderline stream of conscience song with Paul Simon-esque metaphors. “All Around the World” takes us back to more familiar territory, with an upbeat feel-good dance song. It is, admittedly, the least Irish sounding song on the album; it almost sounds Cajun. It’s not surprising, then, that they follow it up with the first traditional Irish song on the album, “Johnny Leave Her”. This is an a capella arrangement, with each of the quartet featured on the verses, and harmony on the chorus. “Health to the Company” is another traditional...

Album Review: Marissa Nadler’s July...

Singer/Songwriter Marissa Nadler released July, her sixth studio album last week, and it looks to be a cold month. Nadler’s style is often categorized as “dream pop”, a sub-genre of alternative rock that features atmospheric music and ethereal vocals. Her mezzo-soprano voice is reminiscent of Norah Jones, and she frequently overdubs herself for harmonization. The music is almost totally percussion-less, relying on her acoustic guitar skills to provide the rhythm with flowing arpeggios. Layered on this is a bed of synthesizer chords and sometimes slow electric guitar notes. The effect is almost the acoustic equivalent to a Rothko painting, with large blocks of dark colors evoking a moody, hazy atmosphere. Musically, it’s actually quite challenging. Miss Nadler has no fear of dissonance; the layers of sound sometimes clashing and resolving in waves of anticipation of resolutions that almost arrives, but not never quite completely. Its effect is intentionally unsettling. Unfortunately, the lyrics do not quite deliver on the evocation that the music promises. Apparently this album is about a painful breakup she had; that much is apparent from the tales she spins in this collection of songs. The lyrics are very, very personal; perhaps too personal. We are offered images and ideas that obviously mean a lot to her, but we’re left a bit in the dark. It’s like someone posted on Facebook, “Well it looks like I’m single again. I should have made that paper airplane after all. I don’t want to talk about it,” and we’re thinking, “Paper airplane? What’s that about?” In effect, she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve, but she’s got her shirt turned inside-out and we can’t quite figure out what that stitching is supposed to be. July is a masterful and unusual album musically. It stretches the...

Ensembles: The Big Band Jan26

Ensembles: The Big Band...

In the 1920s, as recorded music became more common, there arose the beginnings of an ensemble constructed to appeal to a popular music audience. These groups contained trumpets, trombones and saxophones; supported by a rhythm section, and joined with a group of string instruments for a more orchestral quality. Such groups performed popular tunes and acted as accompaniment for vocalists. The jazz influence was minimal, with little improvisation; however, many period jazz musicians supplemented their incomes as members of such groups. Probably the best known example of groups of this type for contemporary listeners was Lawrence Welk’s orchestra which remained active for many decades. It wasn’t until the late 20s that we begin to see the big band really come into its own. Growing primarily out of New York, Chicago, and Kansas City, these bands dropped the string players, and adopted a musical style that allowed for much more improvisation. With a few exceptions (like Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer), these groups were primarily formed of black musicians and aimed at black audiences. The recordings were euphemistically referred to as “race records”, and were routinely dismissed as low quality. Still, talent will inevitably rise to the surface, and these groups began gaining larger audiences while crossing the race barriers. Black band leaders became household names and gained the respect of the musical community as a whole. The greatest of these would doubtlessly be Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club orchestra. Also, notable for this period is the fact that improvising soloists became nearly as famous as the band leaders themselves, many of whom would go on to form their own bands. Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman were just a few who came from this background. As the 1930s approached, the big band...

The Evolution of an Instrument: The Drum Kit Jan12

The Evolution of an Instrument: The Drum Kit...

We’ve all seen them or heard them, whether we listen to Rock music, Jazz, Country, and increasingly Classical: the drum kit. Sometimes referred to as a drum set, or “trap” set, this is the collection of percussion instruments collected onto a rack system so that they can be played by a single individual. When you hear some child saying he wants to play drums, this is usually what they mean. The earliest forms of the drum set date to the late nineteenth century, in particular in connection with Vaudeville and other small performance venues. These arrangements of percussion instruments were imperative to having the benefit of a full percussion section using the minimum of space. A bass drum would be set on its side on the floor where it could be played by the foot, thus giving it the name “kick drum” which is still used today. A concert snare drum (a flatter version of the field drums military bands used which had catgut or wire strands stretched across the bottom head which vibrate sympathetically to the top head being struck) would typically be placed to the left of the bass drum between the legs. Usually a floor tom (a larger, un-snared drum) would be placed to the right of the bass drum. In addition, other auxiliary percussion instruments would be mounted or placed close at hand, such as cymbals, whistles, cowbells, and anything else the music called for. The whole set up was colloquially called a “contraption”, which appears to have been the origin for calling a drum set a “trap” set. Another possible reason for the term was that early kits had a bass drum with a trap door in the shell to use it as a box for transporting smaller percussion...

Dynamics: The Heart of Sound Jan05

Dynamics: The Heart of Sound...

Most people are familiar with the basic elements of music, that of pitch, rhythm, and tone quality. As a musician matures, they must learn other important factors. The most important of these is dynamics. For the sake of the layman, dynamics in music are the variations in loud and soft. Student musicians sometimes fail to recognize the importance of these qualities. This may be a result of listening to a lot of popular music on radio. In addition to the fact that many pop performers use very little difference in dynamics, it is reinforced by the use of equipment in radio stations to level the dynamic contrast to make it easier to match various recordings to a constant volume level. This can be demonstrated by comparing a popular recording to a “classical” recording with a high degree of dynamic variation, such as Holst’s The Planets Suite. Dynamics really come in two ways. The first, more well-known way, is the overall level of a passage of music. These may be marked f (forte or loud), p (piano or soft), modified slightly with an m (mezzo or moderate) in front, or compounded by multiple indications like ff (fortissimo). Changes are made by indicating a new level for a sudden change, or with the description crescendo or decrescendo to indicate a gradual change. Usually when people talk about dynamics, it’s this type that they mean. Unlike many other things in the notation of music, the levels are entirely relative. Forte is not assigned a specific decibel level, and varies depending on the style of music, the type of ensemble, the importance of the passage, and ultimately the artistic intent of the composer or conductor or performer. The issue is further complicated by large variations in the intent...

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas Nov10

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas...

“City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, Dressed in holiday style. In the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas Children laughing, people passing, Meeting smile after smile, And on every street corner you’ll hear…” -“Silver Bells” by Livingston and Evans   We’re barely past Hallowe’en and already it has started: Christmas! The first trick-or-treater had yet to ring a doorbell, and yet the candy prices had been slashed and moved back to some obscure aisle to make room for the red, green, gold, silver ornamentations of Christmastime in every store. Most people don’t understand marketing, and fail to grasp that every retail establishment must promote themselves early and heavily as a good place to spend those Christmas greenbacks, even before anyone is even thinking about spending the first penny on it. It’s a cut-throat business, and the next two months will determine who is having a going-out-of-business sale in January and who isn’t. This is the dark side of Christmas. (Well, one of them.) And since a big part of getting shoppers in the Christmas mood is playing Christmas music over the intercom, the music is tragically linked to this commercial overload. It doesn’t help matters that the majority of recorded Christmas music is highly saccharine. Even the edgiest of musical acts cleans up their performance when they do a Christmas tune. It doesn’t have to be that way. Like many people of my generation (and the generation before that), I grew up listening to Bing Crosby’s album Merry Christmas, and I can honestly say that I never hear a single track from that album that it doesn’t give me a good feeling. Over the years, I’ve accumulated several other albums that I always enjoy hearing, sometimes even in the middle of summer. I love listening to...

Album Review: Diane Birch’s Speak a Little Louder...

The sophomore album from singer/songwriter Diane Birch was released just last week, and presents an artist who is still defining herself. Her first album, Bible Belt, brought inevitable comparisons to Carole King. This time she downplays her keyboard chops and focuses on songwriting and arranging. She has mentioned that she incorporates many influences in her music, particularly in this new collection. That much is obvious from even a single listening. Her singing is edgier this time around, making her sound like the second coming of Stevie Nicks. As you would expect, there’s some Fleetwood Mac sounds here as well. Also, keep an ear open for Sinead O’Connor, The Cranberries, Alanis Morrisette, Heart, the Motels, and even a disco number ala Diana Ross. They’re not fully fledged style copies, but the influence is present. The version of this album you’ll find in the CD racks at your store is shorter than the full-length version available online by five songs. I’d recommend getting the 16 track version, since some of the best cuts are among those left off of the short version. The title track is a very moody number with heavy synthesizer beds. Lyrically it’s a little weak, but the hook is memorable. The two tracks that really highlight Diane’s Stevie styles are “Tell Me Tomorrow” and “Love & War”, the former being a solo Stevie style song and the latter one more in the Fleetwood Mac mold. “Pretty in Pain” is the disco number, and works well. If you enjoyed Diane’s earlier work, you’ll want to take note of “Superstars”, which is a solid hypnotic song, and “Truer than Blue”, which is the only track that is just her voice and piano. Although Diane is too young to remember it first hand, there is...

Ensembles: the Brass Quintet Oct27

Ensembles: the Brass Quintet...

There are many varieties of small ensembles (sometimes referred to as chamber ensembles) for classical instruments; but perhaps the most popular one for wind players (brass and woodwind) is the brass quintet. This is for several reasons. For one thing, since three fifths of the group is made up of common jazz/pop instruments, these groups frequently play popular music in addition to the more mainstream classical literature. Another reason is its flexibility in performance settings. The group is small enough that it can perform intimate indoor concerts, but the nature of the instruments is such that it can perform equally as effectively outdoors with no acoustic support like band-shells and the like. The standard instrumentation for a brass quintet is two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone, and a tuba. In more advanced groups, the trumpets will sometimes switch off to piccolo trumpet (a trumpet pitched an octave higher than a regular trumpet) or flugelhorn (a trumpet relative with conical tubing that gives it a mellower sound). Some groups will use cornets in the place of trumpets, particularly if their repertoire includes a lot of Americana style music. Other variations will use a euphonium or baritone horn in the place of the trombone, or switch out the French horn with another trombone, or replace the tuba with a bass trombone. These alternations are relatively rare. It may surprise some brass quintet fans how recent the creation of this ensemble is. There were two groups that formed around the same time, in the 1940s, that established this type of ensemble. They were the New York Brass Quintet and the Chicago Brass Quintet. Of the two, the Chicago group is arguably the most influential, due to tuba player Arnold Jacobs being the teacher of Chuck Daellenbach...

Ragtime Oct20

Ragtime

Jazz is often thought of as “America’s Music”, but everything comes from someplace. If any genre of music can be thought of as the primary predecessor of jazz, it would probably be ragtime. Ragtime arose from black music traditions of the late 19th century, mostly as a blending of American march traditions with the polyrhythmic dance traditions of black music. It’s earliest form would probably be black bands that would do their own take on marches. The thing that really caused ragtime to take off was the fact that it was the first time this music was made available as piano sheet music, which allowed people from all across the country, regardless of background, to enjoy it as well. Another strong point was the rise of the player pianos, which allowed noted ragtime composers to record and distribute their actual performances. Ragtime is not like march time or waltz time, which had specific meter patterns that they followed. It was more stylistic. In piano ragtime, the left hand would play strong bass notes on the first and third beats of the measure, and higher-voiced chords on two and four. The right hand handled the melody for the most part, but the stressed notes would fall in-between the beats that were provided by the left hand. This actually had the effect of making the beats more pronounced, and encouraged movement and dancing to the listener. Composer Ernest Hogan is usually credited with coining the term “ragtime”, which gets its name from the “ragged” rhythms of the syncopated melodies. His sheet music for “All Coons Look Alike to Me” is regarded as the first big hit in ragtime sheet music sales, and inspired a ragtime subgenre known as “coon music”. (Hogan later regretted using the racial...

Album Review: Kenny Rogers’ You Can’t Make Old Friends...

The new solo album from Kenny Rogers has just been released, and Kenny shows us that he is not someone to rest on his laurels. This is a diverse, sometimes challenging, collection of songs that has the potential of being a big hit. The title track, “You Can’t Make Old Friends”, is a duet with Dolly Parton. This song is the only concession that Rogers makes to his age and history, and he makes it with one of his most popular partners. Dolly sounds slightly huskier now than she did when they recorded “Islands in the Stream” thirty years ago, but both performers are still very capable. This is going to be the first single from this album, but that’s largely for marketing purposes. There are stronger tracks to come. “All I Need Is One” is a contemporary, up-beat love song with a good hook. It’s an easy song to remember, and an easy song to like. “You Had to Be There” is Kenny Rogers on familiar ground: the storyteller. It tells the tale of an estranged father meeting his imprisoned son, and touches on themes of parenthood and responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as compelling as earlier Rogers’ stories. The next track is “ ’Merica ”. This is a bluesy patriotic anthem in 6/8. Not really Rogers forte; it would be interesting to see what someone like Michael McDonald or Garth Brooks could do with a song like this. Perhaps as a complete about face, we are next given “Turn the World Around”. This is a chanted song with a lot of attitude. It’s rather dark, and addresses the ills of society. This may be the strongest song on the album, and if Warner Bros has enough guts this should be the next...

Introducing: Paul Taylor...

Paul Taylor has the distinction of being one of a shallow handful of webcomic artists to have made the transition to the ranks of professionals. His comic, Wapsi Square, first appeared on September 9th, 2001, and has been a mainstay of the webcomic world ever since. Originally starring a young Hispanic woman named Monica and her friend Amanda, it was a slice of life gag strip. In the twelve years since its inception, it has become a supernatural thriller with a huge cast, but still maintains the wit that made it popular from the outset. Today, Mr. Taylor produces five original strips every week, sells original strip artwork and prints on eBay, and his fourth collection In the Shadow of Doubt has just become available as a paperback or ebook purchase. We’d like to thank Mr. Taylor for taking time out from his self-imposed busy schedule to answer a few questions for us at Musebreak. First of all, tell us about the origin of Wapsi Square. What was your motivation for starting a webcomic? Why this one? Paul Taylor:  Mostly, I needed an outlet for my overactive imagination. Also, I wanted a venue that I could use to help break stereotypes and give characters, who are normally sidelined in more mainstream stories, a front-and-center voice. The muse for this story was a friend of mine who was short, skinny, and very busty. She fit the bimbo bombshell (other than being 4‘10“), and most importantly, she was a super smart smarty-pants and very nerdy. And as quiet and socially awkward as she was, she had the fiery Latina temper and could put people in their place quite eloquently. I just knew this was a gal that needed a wider voice.   Anyone who approaches your...

Great Moments in Instrument Innovation: The Spit Valve Oct06

Great Moments in Instrument Innovation: The Spit Valve...

The biggest problem with most wind instruments is, of course, that one must blow into them to make them work. Apart from the rather distasteful act of repeatedly putting such an instrument in or on your mouth no matter where you’ve had it previously, there is the rather problematic fact that one’s, shall we say, expectorations will inevitably accumulate within said instrument. Except in the case of the bird whistle, this is generally regarded as a bad thing. How bad it can be is demonstrated by the case of the Royal Trumpet Corp of 1497, who were told they could not participate in the feast laid out before them until after they had performed. The sights and aromas of the banquet were so profound that their herald trumpets gathered many pints of saliva during the performance, resulting in the drowning of the whole corp. Henry VII was so appalled at the disruption of his meal that he had all four of the corpses beheaded writing, “Furely, the feafts of the crown are fuch that the provifion of mufic can be difpenfed with henceforth.” The mufician’s… er, musician’s guild realized that if they were to keep their sweet jobs, they needed to find some way to remedy the problem. This was resolved by the invention of the spit valve. Invented in 1498 by trumpet maker Alexander Spitt, the Spitt Valve was regarded as revolutionary, especially by people who were easily impressed. With the mere depression of a lever, a hole was opened in the body of the instrument which allowed the drainage of any accumulated bodily fluids that might find their way into it. The response by the instrument makers of Europe was universal: “Ew. Gross.” Over the years, instrument makers have experimented with these...