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Some rockers get most or all of their creative inspiration from one particular generation, while others look to different generations when it comes to influences. Shining Wizard demonstrates that singer/songwriter James Santarella is an example of the latter. This 2014 release has one foot in modern alternative rock and the other in classic rock, showing that Santarella (a resident of New York City’s Staten Island borough) has a major appreciation of the Seattle grunge and alternative rock of the 1990s and beyond as well as the garage rock, hard rock and psychedelic rock of the 1960s and 1970s. Santarella draws on the influence of Gen-X favorites like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney and the Stone Temple Pilots, yet Shining Wizard also has the direct or indirect influence of the Baby Boomer artists who helped pave the way for grunge and alternative rock (including the Beatles, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Doors and Neil Young). Santarella’s publicity bio states that he was only 10 when he saw Paul McCartney perform at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, and listening to Shining Wizard, it isn’t hard to imagine that.
Santarella salutes the grunge era with a memorable cover of Nirvana’s “Breed,” which was one of the songs on their seminal 1991 album, Nevermind (one of the discs that set off the grunge explosion that year). But “Breed” is the only cover on Shining Wizard. Everything else on this album was written by Santarella himself, and most of the more grunge-minded selections are Santarella originals. “You Know It,” “Oh, Desire” and “Freak” are all Santarella originals, and the creative debt they owe to the grunge era is evident.
But again, Santarella gets his creative inspiration not just from Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but also, from the rockers who came before them. And while “1-2-3-4,” “Day Saves Me,” “What Goes ‘Round” and “Big Wheel” are relevant to post-1980s alternative rock, they have classic rock appeal as well and indicate that Santarella is the type of rocker who could listen to Mudhoney or Alice in Chains one minute and a classic rock station the next.
Santarella is fairly unpredictable. He can rock out at times: “You Know It,” “1-2-3-4” and “Oh, Desire” are among the disc’s more intense and hard-rocking tracks. But Santarella is much more relaxed and laid-back on “The Fighter,” “Freak,” “Big Wheel” and “Handguns and Halos.” The fact that he gets a great deal of inspiration from grunge does not mean that he is obligated to rock out 100 percent of the time, and Shining Wizard ranges from the forceful to the laid-back.
Certainly, Santarella is feeling laid back on the bluesy, dusky and infectious “Summertime” (not to be confused with the famous George Gershwin standard). Recalling a time when 1960s and 1970s rockers were being influenced by classic soul, “Summertime” is not R&B per se but it is rock with a definite soul influence. And it sounds like the work of a Lovin’ Spoonful or Van Morrison fan being affected by Sly & the Family Stone, War or the Isley Brothers. Think of it as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” with hints of Sly & the Family Stone’s “It’s a Family Affair” or War’s “All Day Music”: that is the type of feel-good vibe that Santarella achieves on “Summertime,” which should definitely be released as a single. Santarella takes a very hands-on approach: in addition to writing ten of the 11 selections, singing lead and producing the CD, he helps with the engineering, mixing and mastering and plays guitar (both electric and acoustic), drums, percussion and keyboards. However, Shining Wizard never sounds slick or overproduced. In fact, Santarella goes for a gritty, edgy, earthy type of sound.
Santarella has delivered an album that is original, enjoyable, unpretentious and heartfelt.
James Santarella Shining Wizard Review by Alex Henderson 3 stars out of 4