Jason Castro: The Love Uncompromised EP

RIYL: Amos Lee, Michael Tolcher, Daniel Powter

Good luck trying to compare former “American Idol” finalist Jason Castro to anyone, because dude is clearly blazing his own trail. At times, you’ll hear elements of the artists listed above, and in the opening track of Castro’s The Love Uncompromised EP, he even channels Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. When Castro was on “Idol,” he played the part of the jam band stoner hippie, and he played it well. But one thing everyone knew about Castro was that, as Randy Jackson would say, he could “really sing, dawg.” And that remains the case today, but even better is the fact that Castro writes some nice, memorable songs that do not seem forced. The opener, “Let’s Just Fall in Love Again,” is acoustic and has some corny lyrics about falling “disgustingly” in love, but after that the fully produced fare is melodic with nice rhythmic arrangements – especially “Love Uncompromised,” which has a sort of reggae feel, and the bouncy “If I Were You.” But the best track of all is the riveting ballad, “Sweet Medicine,” which has the tenderness and soul of some of Amos Lee’s best material. The EP will leave fans wanting more, and that’s okay because this one is only available digitally and at Castro’s shows, but the full-length will be out this spring. Sometimes former “Idol” hopefuls tank, and sometimes they soar – and Jason Castro has the goods to be in the latter category. (Atlantic 2010)

Jason Castro’s website


Zero 7: Yeah Ghost

RIYL: Radiohead, Jose Gonzalez, Sneaker Pimps

Zero 7 is a project more than a band – so while Zero 7 tours as a group and has actual band members, it’s still technically the brainchild of British producers Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns. And some of those “band members” are rotated out every album or so. Once you get a grasp on that, it doesn’t take much effort to like what Zero 7 is doing. And on their fourth album, Yeah Ghost, there is still the same electronica-driven pop, but with a few added dimensions this time around. In particular, singers Eska and Martha Tilston are new to the project, rounding out a lineup that includes a few regulars like Eddie Stevens, Tom Skinner and Robin Mullarkey. After a subtle opening instrumental, “Count Me Out,” there are some bouncy dance tracks, with Eska’s power-meets-soul vocal at the forefront of awesome tracks like “Medicine Man” and “Mr. McGee.” “Pop Art Blue” features Tilston’s folky timbre and there are some fine, if quirky, instrumentals, like the haunting “Solastalgia.” But the best track on here is “Swing,” an uber-catchy ditty that still has the Zero 7 “chill” trademark – and a song that immediately has the feel of an iPod commercial. This may not be the best Zero 7 album yet, but it’s not a huge regression, either. (Atlantic 2009)

Zero 7 MySpace Page


Led Zeppelin: Good Times Bad Times; A Visual Biography of the Ultimate Band

For fans of iconic rock band Led Zeppelin, there will forever be a hole in their collective heart stemming from the tragic death of drummer John Bonham in 1980. There have been several attempts at reunion performances, most recently in 2007 with Bonham’s son Jason pounding the skins for a tribute to Atlantic Records’ founder Ahmet Ertegun. But there has never been another tour, or any new music from the band, nor any real promise of such. And as difficult as that may be to swallow for a Led Zep fan, it may be best to remember these guys as they were – pioneers of hard rock, filling arenas with loud music and prompting young musicians everywhere to dream of becoming rock stars.

And it’s easier to remember the good times when you have books like “Led Zeppelin: Good Times Bad Times (A Visual Biography of the Ultimate Band)” by long-time Led Zep researchers Jerry Prochnicky and Ralph Hulett. This 200-plus page hardcover is filled with some incredible shots of the band from the early days when they were known as the New Yardbirds, all the way up to that 2007 performance that features a white-haired Jimmy Page on guitar. Throughout, there are live shots, shots of the band hanging out at home with their families, shots that might be considered ubiquitous and others that are quite obscure. Sometimes photos can tell a story better than words can, and in this case the authors have put together one of the finest retrospectives possible. The only thing missing is an accompanying music CD, but we suggest drawing from your own Zep collection, and crank it up really loud while you peruse. It’s the only way. (Abrams Books 2009)


Straight No Chaser: Holiday Spirits

There is something about a ten-piece vocal group that just lends itself to holiday music. Straight No Chaser is such a group, and after forming over ten years ago at Indiana University, this group became YouTube darlings last year with their hilarious and compelling version of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Atlantic Records chairman Craig Kallman was one of those who liked what he saw; the rest is history, as Holiday Spirits is the group’s debut on Atlantic. But these guys are no one-hit wonder, because this collection of traditional holiday songs and a few originals blend together beautifully, and are delivered with an amazing vocal flair that rivals the likes of Take 6. Some of the highlights are Donnie Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” “Carol of the Bells,” and of course “The 12 Days of Christmas,” a live version that shows the group’s morphing into a medley of holiday songs, culminating in a clever use of the lyrics to “12 Days” to the tune of Toto’s “Africa.” But to have original songs rival the traditional stuff is not easy, and Straight No Chaser pulls it off with ease, particularly on the stunning “Indiana Christmas.” This one is a must-have this holiday season. (Atlantic 2008)

Straight No Chaser MySpace Page