Category Archives: reviews

The Celebration of Life! (Book Review)

Rating: ★★★★★

This is the true story of a five year old boy named Sammy. Though Sammy is the story’s narrator, it is told through the eyes of his mother and older brother. Sammy had cancer, the disease he succumbed to at age five.

The first part of the story shares insight into the daily life of a typical American family, detailing the goings-on with Sammy, his brother, and his mother. Readers get to know Sammy and his budding personality. Most American boys will recognize the activities of riding Big Wheels, messing with snakes, and sneaking off to forbidden areas. There are some humorous stories here, like the older brother, Gene, accidentally locking Mom out of the house. A neighbor had to bring a ladder, allowing Mom to climb in through the attic to unlock the door.

The second part is entitled Cancer Arrived. Sammy began to be sick—all the time. Sinus infections, inner and middle ear infections, mononucleosis, and upper respiratory disease took over Sammy’s body. Doctors couldn’t pinpoint a cause and medicines didn’t clear things up. A radiologist even misread the x-ray. Because of this, he missed the tumor mass in Sammy’s neck and head. The cancer diagnosis left the family reeling. No parent wants to hear that awful disease pronounced on their child. The battle against Rhabdomyosarcoma became a family fight.

To a young boy, this would be a scary situation to be in. Sammy certainly had those moments. But what we learn from this personal story is the wisdom and courage this boy gained in his all-too-brief time in this world. While cancer is a dark subject, this book is anything but dark. I found in these pages a celebration of a life that is still touching others, even nearly thirty years after his departure. As long as his mother, brother, family, and friends are here in this world, Sammy will be here too.

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Eclectic and Intriguing, Grace VanderWaal Returns with New Music!

Rating: ★★★★★

 ec·lec·tic   /əˈklektik/

adjective

  1. deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources.

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Eclectic. It’s a word that distills the very essence of singer/songwriter Grace VanderWaal into a single definition—if that’s even possible. To those who have followed this young lady since her rise from YouTube vid kid to international musical acclaim, she’s simply a breath of fresh air in a world of sound-alike pop pablum.

“Stray,” VanderWaal’s latest single and video, pairs Grace’s raspy vocal with a lush, jangly guitar riff that sends this new music in a direction much different from her previous work. And this is a good thing. It’s a sign of maturity and of a fresh approach—rather than an attempted re-capturing of what has already been accomplished.

Her words are poetic and cautionary, filled with real and raw emotion. An undertow of fear and urgency is detectable just below the surface of her mournful voice. The anxiety of growing into an adult and facing a world of uncertainty is a central theme the singer has discussed in recent interviews.

“’Stray’ is close to me,” she explained. “Not because it’s the re-start of my continuing path, but because it explains the exhilarating fear and freedom of growing up. Growing up feels like a storm you weren’t prepared for. But how do you prepare? By practicing and appreciating you.”

Her lyrics in “Stray” illustrate a fear of losing that one thing that has brought her this far: songwriting.

I gotta write a song

But I wanna feel my words

And I keep getting it all wrong

Think it out, write it out, rip it out

Throw it all to the wall

To be certain, this fear is unfounded. She hasn’t lost a step in the songwriting process. If anything, she’s unveiled a greater prowess in crafting melodies and moods and words within her music.

The video for “Stray” is a gorgeous visual steeped in creamy, earthy tones splashed across a canvas of loneliness, longing, and desperation. The desert setting finds Grace, garbed in a long flowing dress and barefoot, searching for something elusive and undefined—a yearning common to human beings since the beginning of time. Symbolism adds to the rich scenery, with VanderWaal riding a bike through desert scrub while blindfolded, adding to the narrative of, not only the song, but of its creator, and her incredible journey in just under three short years.

Director Blythe Thomas skillfully captures mood and vibe and real feeling with an artistry one would expect from a master filmmaker. Her partnership with Grace routinely produces stark and unforgettable results. If you aren’t familiar with the director’s work, I recommend you visit her website. CLICK HERE

The song itself is a haunting piece of guitar-driven beauty—which is something we don’t normally hear in Grace VanderWaal’s music. It is this driving guitar that adds an indie-rock element throughout the track. It stands in contrast to the “Clearly” single, released last March. And “Stray” would show out as markedly different among the tracks on her brilliant Just the Beginning album. This is what elevates her above the mechanical, formulaic pop singers inhabiting today’s musical landscape.

Grace’s music has soul. It has life. It sounds the way music is meant to sound—alive.

Bold and Empowering, “Clearly” is Grace VanderWaal’s Latest Triumph

Rating: ★★★★★

Grace VanderWaal’s latest single, “Clearly,” is finally available. This re-imagining of Johnny Nash’s classic 1972 hit “I Can See Clearly Now” became a staple in the fourteen-year-old singer/songwriter’s concerts during the second leg of her Just the Beginning tour over the winter.

One listen to VanderWaal’s rendition, and those familiar with Nash’s version can tell this is a completely different song. In fact, only the chorus remains from the original. Speaking of the track, Grace says, “It’s about hope, and having the courage to face the world, which can be pretty tough sometimes.”

VanderWaal’s voice is always her strongest asset, a gorgeous instrument full of all sorts of lush tones and textures. But those who follow her career—FanderWaals, if you will—know her secret weapon lies in her lyrical prowess. “Clearly” is a fantastic example of this power on full display. Her words have meaning. There’s never a stray verse that lacks cohesion with the rest of the song. She doesn’t drop lines into the mix just because they rhyme or sound cool. Grace is a storyteller. She paints vivid pictures with the poetic beauty of a true artist.

The song and accompanying video go hand in hand—this, too, a hallmark of the genius that is Grace VanderWaal. These are her ideas, her visions, her gifts that she has chosen to share with the world.

“Clearly” is catchy and addictive—as is all of Grace’s music. A gentle acoustic guitar opens the track, ambling along on warm currents of air. VanderWaal’s voice sways with the music in a delicate dance, slowly building from soft desperation to soaring determination. Between the lows and highs, there is a point where her vocals reach that sweet spot that gives even the most jaded among us goosebumps.

The video for this song is a visual feast for the eyes. It opens under a blue sky with just a notion of a cloud. Birds can be heard singing in the trees. Jumpcut to Grace, in a darkened room, dressed in gray sweats, strikingly beautiful in an almost fragile sort of way. A hint of tears gives her the weariness of a struggling soul. And just as VanderWaal’s lyrics paint meaning into the music, so, too, does each and every image captured within this story. As she sings the line “Gone are the dark clouds, the dawn has come,” she frantically wipes away her freshly applied makeup. Down the stairs she goes, ever cautious, wearing a flowing white dress with pale pink accents. She wanders through the kitchen, eyeing herself in a mirror, singing, “Take a breath and say a prayer, find the strength in my despair, it’s not gonna take me down.” Soon she is bursting from the darkness into the sunshiny day. Behind her is the house, its windows filled with singers from a gospel choir—an unexpected and touching scene. The camera play has brilliantly captured the sunshine at just the right moment and at just the right angles.

Nothing is wasted with this young lady. There’s no room for cheap gimmicks. She brings a message of optimism, of hope for a better life—for everybody.

Grace explains, “My favorite lyric from the song is ‘I accept all the things that I cannot change’. As much as we try to change ourselves, we will always be the same person deep down. We should embrace what makes us different and love that about ourselves.”

I’ll happily confess to being a FanderWaal; I have been one since her audition on America’s Got Talent two years ago. Grace’s music has had a profound effect on my view of life and the day to day living it requires. I am at a loss to attempt an explanation. I just know that I want to be a better person when I hear her music. Maybe it’s that voice. Or those lyrics. Perhaps it’s her beautiful melodies. I’m guessing it’s a combination of each. And it’s the girl herself. She is proving to me—and to the rest of the world—that kindness remains a beautiful thing.

Michigan Rockers Widetrack Return With A Brand New Album

Rating: ★★★★★

Widetrack is an alterna-prog band based in my home state of Michigan. One description tags them as: “Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling holds a group therapy session with members of Pink Floyd and Soundgarden.” The band has recently completed their third album, entitled Widetrack III. This latest offering is filled with great hooks, catchy jams, and some incredible musical moods and addictive vibes.

Widetrack’s lineup consists of Ron Tippin on drums, vocals, and guitar, Ron’s son Zach Tippin handling bass duties, and Brian Burleson on lead guitar.

Long-time band producer Andy Patalan twisted the knobs once again on this latest effort. Patalan, known for his stellar work with 90’s Detroit alt rockers Sponge, offers a great ear in helping the band capture its incredible sound in the studio.

The album kicks off with an infectious rhythm weaving its way through a track called “Burning the Sun.” Solid all the way around, this tune calls to mind a time when music was fresh and exciting. The lyrics draw the listener into soul-searching mode:

The last run
Before the darkness descends

Seasons cycling
Through one constant frame
Only vices left
To relieve your wait

Demons on your back
Feeding off your faith
Knowing not for certain
If its real or feigned

Feeling all the while
Nothing’s bound to change
Knowing something more
is somewhere

There’s no let-up as the band segues into a mesmerizing number entitled “Zero Hour.” The vocals on this one modulate between pleading and demanding, pulling the listener along for a trippy ride.

“Gift” is the third track on the album. The bassline drives an incredible vibe through the center of the song, painting a mood that feels both new and yet still familiar.

“Unknown” kicks into high gear with a frantic chase going on between drums and guitar. The vocals conjure a dreamy state of mind floating above the fray, watching it all unfold.

A nice Queens of the Stone Age-influenced jam called “The Other” follows. The guitar work on this number is stellar, verging on shredder-mode. There are even elements of classic Pink Floyd sprinkled into moments.

“Loveless” is a haunting melody drenched in flourishes of darkness. The vocals are incredible in their delivery of emotion, anguish, and, in brief moments, they even carry a hint of menace.

Bouncing along on a pulsing rhythm, “Desolate” recalls a time when bands had the talent and the skill to flex their musical muscles without even needing to add words. This instrumental tethers Widetrack to some of the great bands of the past while teaching those coming up today that musicianship should always take precedence over image or attitude.

Tracks like “Ghosts” and “Hindsight” and “Life Force” add their own flavor to the stew that makes up this incredible album. But it’s the song called “Transcend” that is the true standout here. The elements that make up this song mesh so well. It transports the listener to another plateau in some far away universe—the way really good music will do. This is currently my favorite track on Widetrack III.

“Still Here” closes out the set. There’s something subtle going on here, underneath the tone of this track. It’s a tension and a volatility that threatens to snap and take over. But it never loses control. The vocals of Ron Tippin keep the mood on an even keel—even as the music itself works up to an almost manic pace toward the end. This is another excellent track on an album loaded with great music.

Widetrack is a band fueled by many contributing influences. These all coalesce into a sound that is both familiar and uniquely their own. The best songwriters in the world are those who, when crafting their music, are able to interlace differing moods within each song. This is what the Beatles and Rush and Pink Floyd did so well. It is refreshing to know that this skill is very much still in use. You won’t find any computer-generated beats on this album. Neither will you find filler material. For those who appreciate the talents of real musicians playing real instruments, Widetrack has an album just for you.

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Check out WIDETRACK’S cover of the Pink Floyd classic “Welcome to the Machine”

Young Girl, Old Soul: Grace VanderWaal Shines on Debut Album

Rating: ★★★★★

Every so often, when the stars line up just right, and the angels find themselves all in agreement, there comes to Earth a talent so unique, so otherworldly, that even the staunchest of skeptics begin to consider the notion of reincarnation.

By outward appearances, Grace VanderWaal is a mere child. The world first glimpsed her as a contestant on the hit NBC television program America’s Got Talent. With her distinctive voice and skillful ability on ukulele, this girl dazzled viewers with an original song during audition week. She impressed the judges, who then sent her into the next round with the Golden Buzzer—an honor reserved only for the very best perfomers. With each subsequent week, Grace, like an onion, peeled back the layers and showed the world what lies beneath.

What we saw is a very old soul masquerading as a young girl. Grace VanderWaal, at the tender age of twelve, won season eleven of America’s Got Talent. And now, as if gifting the world, she’s released her debut album entitled Just the Beginning.

So, what does an album from a now-13-year-old sound like?

Pure heaven. Joy. Bliss. A sweet addiction that stirs up all those pleasure receptors in the brain.

I kid you not.

This 12-song full-length album is chock full of catchy tunes and sparkling gems that will still be relevant enough for airplay decades from now. On the album, she works with some award-winning producers that really capture the pure essence of the voice that first got America to take notice. And the fact that young Grace wrote or co-wrote every tune in this package boggles the mind.

The album opens with the ukulele-fueled “Moonlight,” a track that has listeners conjuring summer evenings under the night sky, when holding hands felt like the greatest thing in the world. “Sick of Being Told” moves us quickly into those teenage years of rebellion, when we felt old enough to make our own way, only to be reminded (by every adult) we still had a long road ahead of us.

Beneath lush piano, there’s a torment in Grace’s vocals on the darkly tinged “Burned,” a warning against continuing to do those things you know will only hurt you. “Just A Crush” dares listeners to sit still while hearing the honesty of a person who knows what she wants—and it isn’t the one she’s singing about. “So Much More Than This” is a bouncy number capable of painting even the grayest of winter skies with the lemon-yellow of summer sunshine.

“Talk Good” is a reminder of those moments when the mind wants to say the right thing but the tongue refuses to cooperate.

“Florets” is dreamy and gorgeous, filled with little bits of heaven. This one had been my favorite for the first few listens of Just the Beginning. But then I found myself entangled in the dark poetic beauty of the album’s closing track, “Darkness Keeps Chasing Me.” Anybody who has ever fallen under the blackness of depression can connect with this number. The maturity in her lyrics contradicts Grace’s age:

Opening my eyes
Seems like it gets harder sometimes
Look at the skylight
Would you mad at me if I tried running away to it in the night?
I tried to fight
But I’m not strong enough
I just want you here but I also wanna be alone
I don’t know what I want anymore

This is not a child singing here; this is a wise old sage taking refuge inside a young girl.

Have a listen to “Darkness Keeps Chasing Me” and find out what I’m talking about. If this song doesn’t touch you on some level, you just might want to check your pulse.

“Darkness Keeps Chasing Me” (with lyrics) 

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Click Here to Buy Just the Beginning

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