Aaron Nathans & Michael G. Ronstadt- More

Aaron Nathans & Michael G. Ronstadt - Shadow of the Cyclone
The opening cut from this acoustic folk duo featuring Philadelphia-based guitarist Aaron Nathans and cellist Michael G. Ronstadt (nephew of Linda) begins with the appropriately haunting tune "Ghost Writer." The song, which chronicles a reclusive and perhaps washed-up author, has a high lonesome feel to it that in ways conjures the Old West, but is in fact set in New England. The pair, who wrote most of the songs individually or as a duo, also take turns on lead vocals. Ronstadt's cello work highlights the instrumental break in "Strongman," the cut that refers to the album's title is ostensibly about a Coney Island barbell lifter but some will hear it as a commentary on the current American political situation. And so it goes on this understated set of tunes that live on the edge of darkness, although instrumental cut "Phantasmagoria," where Ronstadt's cello mimics fiddle, has sections that heels could be kicked up to, and his "Just One Minute" flirts with whimsy. The only cover included is a take on Sting's "Englishman in New York," probably the most unique version of the song ever done.

Pete Kronowitt - Do Something Now
Here's a folksy set of tunes, some of which, like "Do Something Now," reflect today's zeitgeist, but without the hostility. In fact the title cut, which minces no words in telling listeners to "get off your ass," is downright bouncy with a catchy earworm chorus. But Kronowitt, a Bay Area resident and known activist, delves into other genres here too. "We're All Gonna Die" has the feeling of Jimmy Buffett at his lighthearted best, as does the whimsical "Roly Poly," and the country-ish "You Never Ever Never Know" might fool some into thinking the singer is Dwight Yoakam. The laid-back "Learn to Be," complete with weepy steel guitar, is a tongue-in-cheek assessment of those who ignore everything around them while obsessing with what's on their phone; not so political as the title cut but still a potent commentary on humanity today. Listeners shouldn't worry that this effort is too preachy for comfort; the messages are there but they're all delivered in fun ways, so dive into that first then hopefully, go out and make a difference.

John 'Pops' Dennie - I've Got Something to Say
This Texas-based singer/songwriter and guitarist (and social activist) presents a commentary on the hardship so many are going through right now with opening cut "Rose Garden." The pointed but hopeful song sets the mood for the effort; it's commentary on everything from low wages to the building of walls resolves that love and understanding will go a long way in alleviating these problems. The Little Feat-like title track though, is a song of admiration for a love interest and not a social commentary. "Long Black Cadillac Train" is a slow and resolute elegy; exactly to the opposite is the joyous romp that is "Creole Lady" where a great slide guitar line from Matthew Tedder adds a haunted vibe to the tale Dennie spins. "The Pendulum Swings" is another really upbeat song, loping along to a finger-snapping beat that makes the song, like the titular pendulum, swing like crazy. The solid set closes with "Here We Are," an especially relevant cut that, while not mentioning names, is clearly about the negative people in government and civil and racial unrest. It is refreshing to hear protest in wordplay without animus, and Dennie does it exceptionally well.

Tom Sless - California Dream
Sless is a native of New Jersey but having always felt an affinity for Los Angeles he moved to the city about half a dozen years ago when he finished college. The move has suited him nicely as far as his music goes and album opener "California Dream" sounds very Topanga Canyon-ish; had it been written back in the day it very well could have been penned at Jackson Browne's house. "Taking Me Back" is a country rocker with sweet pedal steel from Barry Sless (not related to Tom) while "Ready To" is a revelation that takes place after a night of partying in the bar; "I could have a better life than this and I'm going to get it together." The way Sless delivers the song with a heavy dose of positivity, it's easy to believe that the character he portrays could indeed turn things around. That honest, plaintive quality in his voice carries throughout the album; even the wondering "Why Oh Why," ostensibly moaning misfortune, has a hopeful quality to it. This is the first release from Sless and as such it shows a diversity and a willingness to take a chance that bodes well for things to come.

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