Saturday, February 15, 2020

An Interview With Mike Montali of Hollis Brown

Hollis Brown, left to right: Adam Bock, Andrew Zehnal, Mike Montali, Chris Urriola, Jonathan Bonilla
Bloggerhythms recently reviewed Ozone Park, the latest album by modern rock quintet Hollis Brown, and I thought enough of both the band and the record to ask lead singer Mike Montali if he would agree to an online interview. He immediately said yes.

Hollis Brown is from Queens, one of New York City's outer boroughs, and the album is named after their neighborhood that is famous for being an Italian-American enclave.

The quintet combines modern rock with more traditional rock styles. Their mostly electric guitar based sound uses a multitude of influences, and combines them with top notch songwriting to become one of the more appealing band of rockers working today.

Singer Montali writes the songs along with lead guitarist Jonathan Bonilla. They are joined by Andrew Zehnal on drums, keyboard man Adam Bock, and bassist Chris Urriola.

Montali's responses to questions are in quotes and are published here exactly as they were emailed back to Bloggerhythms.

The outfit is named after an early Bob Dylan song, "The Ballad of Hollis Brown." It comes from the great folk-rocker's 1964 album, The Times They are a-Changin' and I asked Montali why that name was chosen. His answer was simple, "He's the greatest songwriter ever." On their Wikipedia page Bonilla added that the name sounded "very true to America."

The band began in 2009. Both Zehnal and Bock have been with the group since 2014 with Urriola joining them later. These personnel moves brought musical changes Montali was happy to discuss. "The current band is different in our sound. We are modernizing our sound in an interesting way and we continue to work hard and give the people the best we can every night."

Bonilla's and Montali's music is "inspired by a lot of things. Mainly our travels, the things we see around us in NYC, other art and music, our relationships."

It's always interesting to discover how composers write. What comes first, lyrics or the music? Can both occur at the same time? In Montali's case, "It always happens differently. Sometimes we have the melody first, sometimes last. It’s a great puzzle. Always trying to do our best and have a good time if we can."

Regarding the rest of the band's contributions to their songs, Montali said, "Everyone contributes greatly. We are all found in the sound. It’s important for everyone to belong to the music and have the music belong to them."

When asked about what gives him more pleasure, studio work or playing live the frontman said, "I like all of it. All of it can be extremely exciting. Probably right now I’m interested in writing and making some new songs."

Ozone Park seems to be the album that is finally earning the outfit the wider recognition they deserve. Montali believes that is happening now because, "I think we are one of the fresh things happening in our genre. We have built something solid that is tipping over to the mainstream a bit."

When asked what is the thing he appreciates the most about the music business and if there is anything he loathes, Montali stayed positive. "I think the music business at it’s core is full of people who are fans and who really want to see the music they like succeed and be appreciated by people around the world."

The band has toured with some really top notch acts such as Counting Crows, Citizen Cope, and highly regarded 60s, British Invasion era band, The Zombies. Other artists Montali would like to share the stage with include Liam Gallagher. "He's the last of the true Rock 'n Roll Stars. I am also into Billie Eilish's new stuff. What she is doing is fresh and interesting, not the same old pop formula."

For more on Hollis Brown you can take a look at their official website. You can also read Bloggerhythms's review of Ozone Park while watching and listening to videos from the album.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Billy Joel - An Innocent Man (1983)

An Innocent Man is one of Billy Joel's greatest artistic triumphs even though its songs will never be considered high art. Instead, Joel closed out his classic period with a more relaxed album that is mostly a tribute to pre-Beatles pop and 60s rock. After this, the Long Island native's records continued to sell but he never again reached the heights he achieved with this set of music.

Joel spent a lot of time in the studio with his impeccably and intricately produced predecessor, The Nylon Curtain. He said working on it wore him down so, for his next record the singer took the laid-back approach. He didn't under-produce An Innocent Man but he didn't try to turn it into another Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band either. Instead, it's the piano man's version of The Beatles' eponymous 1968 set (a.k.a. the White Album). In other words, it's a stripped down gem.

An Innocent Man opens with "Easy Money" an obvious tribute to Stax/Volt. "Uptown Girl," (#3 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart) is for Joel's lady at the time, Christie Brinkley, and it's also a perfect tribute to The Four Seasons. Joel and his versatile band prove they can even turn in a good doo-wop performance with "The Longest Time" (#14), and the title track, his salute to The Drifters, went to #10. "Tell Her About It" (#1) is his homage to Motown. Lyrically, "Keeping The Faith" is for people who appreciate pre-British Invasion rock. It climbed to #18. "Leave A Tender Moment Alone" celebrates the music of Smokey Robinson and stopped at #27.

On "This Night," Joel shares a writing credit with a musician of note, Ludwig Von Beethoven, a song on which the rocker adapted the classical composer's work and turned in a very fine ballad.

This wonderful set of heterogeneous rock styles and his earlier, more personal work on Turnstiles (1976) are the best things Joel ever did in the studio.

An Innocent Man remained on Billboard's top album chart for over two years and Joel's only album to surpass that mark was The Stranger.

An Innocent Man was nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy but lost to Michael Jackson's Thriller.

Joel's website is here.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Almost Hits: Herman's Hermits - No Milk Today (1967)

The English version of the 45 RPM outer sleeve
Today Bloggerhythms begins an occasional series entitled Almost Hits that originally appeared on a popular rock, pop, and jazz music blog, Something Else, back in 2014. The series featured songs that failed to reach the top #20 on the American Billboard Hot 100 but became popular nonetheless. Many have become classics. The first entry is below.

Even though "No Milk Today" (#35, Hot 100 in 1967) was released in the USA by Herman's Hermits as the B-side to "There’s a Kind of Hush" (#4, Hot 100) it was the better song of the two and it received much deserved radio airplay on its own merit. Graham Gouldman, later a founding member of 10cc, wrote the tune that reached #7 when it was released in England as an A-side the previous year. The UK single had a different flip side.

I’ve always enjoyed fast moving, power pop ditties with good vocals and on these two counts the track delivers. It was also the first Hermits' song to employ a string section.

Despite its bright, uptempo production and arrangement "No Milk Today" is a very sad breakup song. To understand its meaning it helps if you're old enough to remember a time when milk was delivered daily to your front door. The lyrics use the empty bottle sitting outside the protagonist's house as a symbol of a recently broken up romance and, to him, it's only a reminder of what the relationship used to be.

It was common in England to leave a note telling the milkman "No milk today" if your standing order was not needed and because the singer's character was now the only person living in the house his usage declined. Referring to the note left for the delivery man, Herman (Peter Noone) sang, "No milk today, it seems a common sight, but people passing by don't know the reason why."

Many people believed that Noone was too cute and cuddly to be taken seriously as a rock star. The Hermits didn't compose their own music and many of their songs were thought to be too light and fluffy for them to be ranked among the British Invasion's more respected heavyweights. However, the quintet was usually a lot of fun, Noone was the perfect frontman for what the group was trying to accomplish, and, as this song proved, the group and their producers often selected good ones to record.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Hollis Brown - Ozone Park (2019)

Hollis Brown is a hard band to characterize. They're undoubtedly a modern rock group but they have a touch of classic rock seeping into their souls. Their most recent release, Ozone Park, employs digital drums and synths but they never forget a real rock band needs a live drummer (Andrew Zehnal) and a great electric axeman. The latter is more than ably supplied by Jonathan Bonilla.

Although there is no rap on this album, lead singer Mike Montali says Hollis Brown is inspired by hip-hop, funk, singer-songwriters, and much more. Their name is derived from an early Bob Dylan song, "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," even though they sound nothing like the uber-famous, folk-rock legend.

The New Yorkers' influences abound but they mix them all together into their own cohesive, identifiable image and sound. Much of that credit goes to Montali who not only sings with great emotion, he also possesses the necessary frontman swagger all top flight rockers need to connect with a live audience.

Ozone Park, takes its name from their home turf in Queens, NY and accomplishes exactly what Montali and his friends set out to do.

From the band's website: "We really feel like the last of the great American rock bands," Montali explains. "When you play rock music it's always kind of a hurdle to not be considered a retro band or a throwback band because somebody is always trying to put you in a box or define you. You're always compared to another artist, another band -- who are great, sometimes, but they're...old. I think we want to make a statement that rock music can still be done in a modern way that is still as good as some of those acts from the past." If Hollis Brown is not the last great rock band they are doing everything they can to keep the once thriving genre permanently off of the endangered list.

Starting with the arena rock of "Blood From A Stone" the group moves on to "Stubborn Man" a track you can imagine Otis Redding turning into a hard driving, soul, barn burner. The radio friendly "She Don't Love Me Now" and the riff heavy "Do Me Right, the first single," succeed where much of today's rock 'n roll does not.

Things calm down midway through the ten song set with the brief instrumental "After The Fire" that segues into "Forever In Me," proving Montali can also handle ballads effectively when called upon. Then the band comes roaring back with "Someday Soon," another track that could be a hit single. 70s, soft rock radio would have made sure "That's The Way She Does It" played it's way into the top ten. Then comes the record's loudest track, the fuzz box infused "Bad Mistakes" and the finale "Go For It." Either one would make a great concert closer.

Montali, Bonilla and Zehal are supported by bandmates Adam Bock (keyboards), and Chris Urriola on bass.

Straight ahead rock 'n roll with no gimmicks has been on life support for a long time now. Fortunately, Ozone Park proves it's still too early to pull the plug.

More info is available at Hollis Brown's website.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Queen - '39 (1975)

Queen's Brian May is the World's premier rock 'n roll astrophysicist and it's a sure bet he'll always hold that distinction.

In a band with a lead singer as flamboyant as Freddie Mercury it's also a good bet May will always take a back seat to the late, flamboyant star. However, one should never discount his contributions to the quartet. May's lead guitar work was integral to their success and he also was a composer of note. Among his credits are "We Will Rock You," Fat Bottomed Girls," and "'39."

May has always had a huge interest in astrophysics and he finally earned his PhD in the field after putting his degree on hold a long time ago to devote his attention full time to Queen. His thesis, "A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud" was finally completed in 2008. If you understand what that means you're a lot smarter than me.

In 1975 May combined his two primary interests to compose a song for his group's most famous album, A Night At The Opera. Side One, track five of the original vinyl LP was '39, a song that isn't readily recognizable as Queen to many people because it features May on one of his rare lead vocals instead of Mercury who only sang backup.

I'll let Wikipedia explain the lyrics to this very upbeat, melodic and fun track because I can't.
"The song tells the tale of a group of space explorers who embark on what is, from their perspective, a year-long voyage. Upon their return, however, they realize that a hundred years have passed, because of the time dilation effect in Einstein's special theory of relativity, and the loved ones they left behind are now all dead or aged."
As a joke May asked Queen's bassist, John Deacon, to play double bass on the song but Deacon, apparently thinking May was serious, learned the instrument quickly and used it on the record.

The album is named after one of The Marx Brothers most famous comedies. Groucho Marks was thrilled, so just a few months before his death, he invited Queen to his home where they serenaded him with an a cappella version of "'39."

The tune became a fan favorite in concert and was often performed as a singalong.