Mar 312012

Artist: Pete McNeil and Julia Kasdorf
Album: Impromptu
Review By: Dan MacIntosh
Rating: 3.5 Stars (out of 5)

After getting an earful of Julia Kasdorf on Impromptu, it’s really difficult to believe this singer/songwriter/musician actually got her start by playing bass in San Francisco punk bands, such as Angry Samoans.  However, anyone that has followed the punk rock scene long enough is well aware of the way many of these players use punk music as career kickoffs, before moving on to their true musical loves. In Kasdorf’s case, singer/songwriter music — with just a touch of the blues – is the style that most sincerely represents her artistic heart.

Impromptu is actually a two-sided coin, if you will, as Pete McNeil (who also calls himself MadScientist) also contributes songs to this double-artist collection. Whereas Kasdorf goes for the mostly introspective approach to songwriting, McNeil is more apt to rev it up, as he does during the roadhouse blues of “Treat Me Like A Road.”  However, “Kitties” is one of the coolest tracks on this collection. It has a distinctive psychedelic – you might say druggy – feel to it. Instead of rollicking blues guitar, the six-string part is moody and spooky, instead, and placed over an inventive, wandering bass line. McNeil’s “Doldrums” and “Baby Please” are also built upon basic blues structures, much like “Treat Me Like A Road.”

Kasdorf’s songs are consistently lyrically intriguing. For instance, “Motel” opens with her announcing, “I’m gonna hide in a motel.” This could be describing reactionary behavior of typical musicians. However, it could represent something a lot darker, as in someone retreating to such anonymity in order to indulge in destructive drug-taking behavior. Nevertheless, when Kasdorf sings a line about burning old love letters, it suggests something more akin to post-relationship breakup activity.

With “This Heart,” Kasdorf expresses a much more empathetic perspective. It’s sung almost as a prayer, and speaks to the artist’s care for those less fortunate, including the underprivileged in Romania and Brazil. The track also features a bit of surf guitar in its upbeat melody, which is enjoyable. The chorus states, “You gave me this heart.” It reveals that Kasdorf might not be quite so concerned people half a world away, had Jesus not first given her a loving heart.

One other fine song is simply titled “Sunday.” It begins with rain sound effects before Kasdorf begins singing about the rain. When Kasdorf vocalizes on it, it’s with a world-weary, slightly scratchy voice. “I wish it was Sunday again,” she sings longingly. This recording is beautifully augmented by Carla Deniz’s supportive viola.

Although Kasdorf tends to sing with relatively stripped-down arrangements, she sure sounds boisterous and right at home during “Lament,” which also features a bevy of backing vocals and an orchestrated arrangement. This track is one place where the listener might secretly wish it also featured a string section. In other words, a little more could have been even better.

McNeil has said Impromptu is the first compilation for ALT-230 label. If what comes after this album is even close to the quality it contains, that is really a label future to get excited about. These songs may not be as commercial as what’s getting airplay these days, but that’s probably not a bad thing. Sure, it’s interesting to hear how electronic music is playing in such close quarters with rap and R&B, but after a while all of that stuff just starts to sound the same.

Best of all, Impromptu is filled with fantastic songs. The arrangements are slightly on the retro side, but they are retroactive back to a time when music just seemed to make a whole lot more sense. Instead of creating music for feet (for dancing), McNeil and Kasdorf compose songs for the heart and mind. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to create beats, no matter how much rap artists might brag about this particular skill. A title like Impromptu suggests something improvised and made up on the spot. However, his is well planned, and thoughtfully created music. You don’t have to love it, but you really oughta love it.

The Impromptu CD is available at CDBaby, AmazoniTunes, and everywhere you find great music!

Mar 202012

Artist: Julia Kasdorf and Pete McNeil
Album: Impromptu
Reviewed by Matthew Warnock
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)

Collaboration is the spark that has ignited some of the brightest musical fires in songwriting history.  When artists come together on a project featuring a core duo or group and a number of guest artists, there is something that can happen that makes these moments special, especially when the stars align and everything winds up in the right place at the right time.  Songwriters and performers Julia Kasdorf and Pete McNeil have recently come together on just such a record, which features the duo on each track alongside various other accomplished artists.  The end result, Impromptu, is an engaging and enjoyable record that possesses a sense of cohesiveness deriving from the duo’s contribution, but that moves in different and exciting directions as the different guest musicians come and go throughout the album.

Though most of the album is a collaborative effort between McNeil, Kasdorf and guest artists, there are a couple of tracks that feature just the duo, including “The Minute I’m Gone,” though one might not realize this unless the liner notes were consulted.  Kasdorf, being a multi-talented multi-instrumentalist, contributes the lyrics and music, as well as performs vocals, both lead and background, guitar and bass, while McNeil brings his talents to the drum work on the track.  Not only is the song a sultry, blues-rock number that grooves and grinds its way to being one of the most interesting songs on the album, but the duo do a seamless job of overdubbing each part to make it sound like a band playing live in the studio, rather than two musicians playing all the parts.  The same is true for the other duo track, “Motel,” though in a more laid-back and stripped-down approach.  Here, the brushes played by McNeil, set up Kasdorf’s vocals, bass and guitar in a subtle yet effective way, allowing the vocals to float over the accompaniment while interacting at the same time.  Recording in this way is not easy, especially when trying to create the atmosphere of an ensemble in the studio, but Kasdorf and McNeil pull it off in a way that is both creative and engaging, and it is one of the reasons that the album is so successful.

McNeil also steps to the forefront of several songs to take over the role of lead vocalist, including the Cream inspired blues-rocker “Doldrums.”  Here, the drummer lays down a hard-driving groove that is supported by Kasdorf on rhythm guitar and bass while he digs deep into the bluesy vocal lines that define the track.  Guest lead guitarist Eric Nanz contributes a memorable solo and plenty of bluesy fills to the song, bringing a Wah-based tone to the track that brings one back to the classic tone used by late-‘60s blues rockers such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.  McNeill also takes the reins on the track “Kitties” where he sings, as well as plays drums and synth, with bassist John Wyatt filling in the bottom end.  With a psychedelic vibe to it, the song stands out against the rest of the album in a good way, adding variety and diversity to the overall programming of the album while featuring the talented drummer-vocalist-pianist at the forefront of the track.

Overall, Impromptu is not only a cool concept, but an album that stands on its own musicality and songwriting regardless of the writing and recording process used to bring the project together.  All of the artists featured on the album, the core duo and guest artists alike, gel together in a way that serves the larger musical goals of the record, providing an enjoyable listening experience along the way.

The Impromptu CD is available at CDBaby, AmazoniTunes, and everywhere you find great music!