Pictured above from left to right: Jacob Johnson, Brandon Harris, Chris Zehnder, Jake Bartlett
Photo by Cassie Schreiner
Review by Peter Karoly

As I grow older, I really miss the days when music was released on albums, and you had that 12x12 piece of cardboard to read while the vinyl spun on the turntable. I miss those days because my eyes are now so bad that I can't read the print on the CD labels. Consequently, I usually just put the CD in the player and listen to it without knowing what song is playing, who’s in the band, or anything else that might be printed on the label. That isn’t good, but it ain’t necessarily bad.  As Wordsworth said, "Other gifts have followed and I surely have abundant recompense."

What this lack of eyesight has done for me is to allow me to listen to the music without knowing too much about the artist or the album. In other words, the sound is judged on its merits without any prejudice other than my preferences, which is prejudice enough.

In the case of The Avery Set's Returning To Steam, it sounded to me like this was a group of fairly young men with a nice flair for lyrics and good musicianship. I liked the style of the songs and was interested in what they had to say. The vocal stylings were modern, which to me means they sometimes try to use too much volume and try to hit some notes that would be better off in a lower register. That's not a criticism by any means. I was raised listening to Joe Cocker and Leonard Cohen, and I probably can't sing as well as either one of them. Compared to me, Bob Dylan has an unlimited range and Roy Orbison is an alien life form. So, to my old ears, The Avery Set sings like many other groups, but that is the only similarity. I turn off most of today's artists, but I did not and would not turn this off. Like most of my g-g-g-generation, I turned it up.

The Avery Set sounds like some young, talented kids who are only going to get better as they mature.  I like their enthusiasm, their writing and their performance. If they showed up on American Idol, even Simon would sit up and take notice.

After a first listen, I got my glasses and read what I perceived as the small print.  It's a given in this job that the music I get is from someone local, so it didn't take me too long to figure out where these guys call home. Fronted by guitarist and singer Chris Zehnder, the band includes Jake Bartlett on drums, Brandon Harris on lead guitar, and Jacob Johnson on bass and keyboards.  Recorded in Nashville, the album has that country flair but isn't quite totally country.  Yet it isnt quite pop, either, and it isn't rock. It's a mix of all of them, and that makes it pretty darn good. The music is crisp, the lyrics are smart and they have done their homework more than I have. I especially liked the "wall of sound" reference in "Soul and Song."  I like it when I'm listening to music, and it makes me stop and stare at the speakers. They don't sound too old, but they are certainly wise beyond their years.

I did use the extent of my computer knowledge to look them up and found out I was right on one count. They are not too far removed from high school.  Having to deal with high school kids at work and home every day, I can tell you they don't bear too much resemblance to that animal. This group sounds musically mature and poised to make its mark on the musical world.

Michigan has always been a hotbed for musical talent and, in spite of losing our place in every other industry, we can still brag about that. The Avery Set is just the latest link in the chain of should-be chart toppers from this state. What they need is a break and a serious listen from the public. The album may be titled Returning To Steam, but I think "Picking Up Steam" would be more accurate. This was the first time I heard of these guys, but I'm hoping (and betting) it will not be the last.  

To find out more about the group, visit myspace, Facebook , and iTunes.

© Peter Karoly, 2010