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American Beauties: Sound of Mind
(Independent Release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/2/2023)
The roots rock scene continues to flourish, propelled by the way the commercial pop world sounds so synthetic and contrived. A lot of groups are popping up eschewing the synthesizers, fake electronic drums, vocals with a completely unnatural sound, in favor of real guitars, old school instruments, and heartfelt vocals. Lately, people have come to call the style folk, though the sound can be a lot more electric than the folkies of decades past. Still, there have been a good number of worthwhile recordings from emerging bands. This week, we have one such. It’s by a group called American Beauties, and their new second album is called Sound of Mind.
American Beauties is not exactly a very prolific group. Their previous album Too Worn to Mend, their debut, was in 2012. American Beauties is basically a vehicle for the compositions of Boston area singer-songwriter Michael Gray, who has had a varied career. Growing up in Syracuse, New York, he began writing songs early in his teens, and after school toured the country as a solo folk-style artist. He left the music business for some ten years to raise a family, and then in 2003 formed a band called Dig in the Dirt, and was later a member of a progressive rock band called the Sarcasmatics. American Beauties’ first album was essentially Gray with a number of studio musicians, though they have continued to work together. They include drummer and producer Ducky Carlisle, bassist Mark Hickox, and lead guitarist Jonas Kahn, who all appear on the new album. The band’s website said that the Sound of Mind was due to be released in 2019. The pandemic may have contributed to the album’s delay. But it’s finally out, and it turns out to be worth the wait.
Gray combines articulate lyrics with a clear, honest band sound that embodies influences from Gray’s background as a folkie and also some of the musical sophistication of the progressive rock world. It’s a little folk-influenced, but hardly three-chord rock. One is reminded of the Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, or early Del Amitri. The arrangements are understated, but the compositions themselves bring the musical interest. Gray’s vocals are appealing and unpetentious.
Opening is a track called Yours and Mine, a reflection on an affair that ended. The song combines a melodic sound with kind of bittersweet quality. <<>>
One if the album’s highlights is a song called The Rain with an almost anthemic quality musically, and lyrics that offer to try to lift the spirits of one who “loves the rain.” <<>>
Good Excuses is another rather uplifting song, whose main message seems to be “you get what you deserve,” done a melodic rock context. <<>>
More laid-back in sound is Matters of Love, a sort of philosophical love song with an undercurrent of acoustic guitar. <<>>
The Place We Started is more or less about what its title says, with life often taking us back to our beginnings.
Sundown New Year is one of the more philosophical of the songs. In its somewhat melancholy setting, it asks whether a new year will really make things better. <<>>
The album ends with a mostly solo acoustic track Always Loved You a sad song about a love affair that did not work out. <<>>
Sound of Mind the new second release by the group American Beauties, coming eleven years after its predecessor, is a finely crafted roots-rock or folk-rock album that brings together the best aspects of the genre – intelligent writing, tasteful, crisp arrangements, and appealing vocals. Boston area singer-songwriter Michael Gray takes his time with his music. Before American Beauties, he took a 10 year hiatus from music, and now with a more than decade gap since the last American Beauties release, with similar personnel. But proves to be worth the wait, with nothing that could be described as filler material: eleven classy songs that you won’t get tired of.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an “A” with the recording reflecting the honest, clear sound of the group, and no sonic gimmicks.
One of the appealing qualities of roots-rock is its timeless quality. It’s music that will likely sound as good a decade or more from now as it does today. American Beauties underscore that with the new album that basically picks up where they left off eleven years ago. And in this case, that’s a good position to be in.
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