Daniel hales, and the frost heaves. – “Contrariwise: Songs from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland & Through the Looking​-​Glass”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Jabberwocky” “Contrariwise”

“Contrariwise” is, in a very loose term, a companion piece. The album was first performed (in my home state of Massachusetts) during a production of “Alice In Wonderland,” and was later released as an album. All but two of the seventeen tracks on the album are musical versions of Lewis Carroll’s poems found within the Alice works. The other two songs, “Contrariwise” and “(Push Them Into the) Wishing Well” were written by Daniel Hales, and co-exist in Carroll’s world. This album certainly isn’t for a commercial audience – it’s an ambitious and dense work that seeks to add more musicality to Carroll’s writing, and it’s largely successful.

Given that Carroll’s poems are often totally fantastical and even, at least in the case of “Jabberwocky,” total gibberish, you can’t exactly place this album under any one genre of music. At times it’s experimental, other times folksy, other times indie. The album’s one long song, “The White Knight’s Song,” feels like a 60’s folk song where the focus was on storytelling. “Beautiful Soup” is almost a ballad, while “Father William” brings guitars into a noisy ending, and “‘Tis the Voice of the Lobster” is almost a little psychedelic. Carroll’s words are usually reflected through the variety of music, although some songs are more straightforward. “Jabberwocky,” for one, leads off the album with a surprisingly straightforward indie ditty, but it is still one of the best songs on the album.

The band, in this iteration, consists of Hales on vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonica and ukelele, James Lowe on bass, Ivan Ussach on drums and Anna Wetherby on viola. Daniel Kasnitz sings back-up vocals, and also credited are “the Looking Glass Creatures,” which happens to include Jeff Steblea. The band is swift throughout the album, often effortlessly switching between genres. The album, in many ways, feels similar to Steblea’s recent Mystics Anonymous, often blending straightforward indie/folk songs with more experimental works.

The band does a standout job at bringing Carroll’s words to life, and a great job expanding beyond their usual indie-folk sound into something more unpredictable. “Contrariwise” is a fun and ambitious album, if you’re looking for something like it. It won’t be something for everyone, but Carroll fans should take notice.

The physical and digital album and tracks are available here, and live videos, dates, merch and more are available here.

If you like this, try: As mentioned, the album loosely resembles the Mystics Anonymous album I recently reviewed, even having Steblea involved.

-By Andrew McNally

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Mystics Anonymous – “Dreaming For Hours”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Made of the Time” “Vanishing Phase”

Mystics Anonymous, aka singer-songwriter Jeff Steblea, approaches music “where nothing is off-limits.” Indeed, nothing is more limitless than dreams. “Dreaming For Hours,” his first project under this moniker in a decade, is a transient mix of indie rock and dreamy, electro influences, finding a healthy balance. “Dreaming For Hours” sounds like a 90’s product – but one that we would have then said was ‘ahead of it’s time.’ It’s experimental, but very accessible, carving itself a home in between conventional indie and experimental dream-pop.

There are points on the album where Steblea’s music does become just standard singer-songwriter type music. One of the standouts, “Made of the Time,” is essentially a straight rock song. There’s plenty of tracks on the album like this, and a majority of them are strong. Steblea, and his backing band, are not afraid to sound familiar – there are alt-rock songs with big choruses and folk-minded acoustic tracks. But there are outside elements. The first track, “Sinner’s Lament” starts with a 90’s house-like rhythm, and there are “dream” interludes throughout the album, some sounding like video games, some like nightmares. Some songs, like “False Voices” and “The Fifth Business,” blur the two into original, dream-like songs that intersperse the straighter alt songs.

Steblea’s vocals are not the most powerful, but they seem to dominate most of the songs. The straight tones balance the dreaming quality of some of the music, and it helps to establish a 90’s-type alt-sound. Likewise, the backing band sound effortlessly talented, but they often reserve themselves to simpler music. “Dreaming For Hours” acts almost as an exercise for musicians – advertising the fact that talented musicians can create rock songs that are just as good as complex, electro ones (and there’s plenty of both). (It’s also worth noting that the band includes Daniel Hales).

“Dreaming For Hours” certainly resembles a dream. Some ideas are over in a minute, many stretch over six. There’s something very unexpected about the album, hidden amongst more familiar themes, just like a dream. The album’s only real fault is it’s length – a little too much of a good thing. It’s problematic, because there are few songs that overstay their welcome, and the album is cohesive as a whole. But five of the album’s fourteen songs are over five minutes, and it makes for a lengthy listen. For a musician, that’s about the best problem to have. “Dreaming For Hours” is an achievement; an original yet familiar piece, centered around the great songwriting of Jeff Steblea.

The album can be streamed and purchased on the Mystics Anonymous bandcamp page. It is also available on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, and most major sources.

-By Andrew McNally