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James Ethan Clark is determined to find the answers to his questions himself in his first, full-length recording, “Southern Hotel,” an intrepid collection of songs about a young man’s coming of age in a bleak, southern landscape. Clark has shared his time between Elizabeth City and Wilmington, North Carolina, becoming a fixture in each city’s prospective music scenes. He has performed as a singer/songwriter, as well as bandleader of the beginning stages of “James Ethan Clark and the Renegades,” but has truly come into his own with his new group of stellar, Nashville musicians: Joe Giotta on percussion, Wes Langlois playing lead guitar and pedal steel, Chris Miller on bass, Joel Heumann singing background vocals, Kristin Weber on Violin. Ricky Dale Braddy and Mackenzie Elliot contributed background vocals on “Stories.” These musicians back Clark’s songs with fierce arrangements akin to Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.
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From the first notes of Clark’s fuzzy Gretsch guitar, the album swells to the opening “Destination,” a rock and roll prayer for those who “need some peace” in a world of “thieves and fallen angels.” He declares “Face the day with fire / and passion in your eyes and soul” because “they can’t tear you down.” Soft electric guitars start “So I Can See,” a lament of a singer watching “Everything I had / Everything I knew / Everyone of influence has faded into blue, blue, blue, blue.” Here, Clark isn’t sure of “what is real” in this life, but cries out for fulfillment by the sun and stars.
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“Forbidden Fruit” reaches to Clark’s back-story of learning how to love a woman, but not having the sentiment returned. Clark’s love sees him, but doesn’t concern herself with him as a true partner. This confusion “somehow seemed to paralyze my mind,” Clark sings. The song is ripe with hazy guitar tones singularly mindful of southern rock idol, Ryan Adams. “God Knows When” is “Southern Hotel’s” barnburner. “I ain’t seen the light in God knows when, / I ain’t seen the day in God knows when” sings Clark, begging for clarity in his life as a musician. In “Coalmine,” Clark invites us in to hear the story of why we are all here. In one of the more poetic songs on the record, Clark reminisces about a bittersweet time of a love now lost: “I’m sure that woman has found her a man by now, / but I’m sure that man aint’ nothing but a boy on a cloud.”
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However, quickly after such a dirge, Clark captures the morning after such a hellish night. The electric guitar is lite and the pedal steel delicately furnishes a perfect texture for hope. “I’d go to sleep when the sun came up, / the moon was my sun / I’d wake up at three in the afternoon, / Then I’d have my fun.” The drums hit in just right the time as Clark sings of an afternoon after church on Sunday. The song is eloquently captured with a melodically played pedal steel and twinkling electric guitar leads. The true gem is the choir of voices singing with him the final verse. “Anna Mae” turns the volume to eleven with rumbling, pacing drumbeats and more fuzzy, southern guitar work. The singer has found darkness, seen the light he needs to find and now, finds himself desiring to save what is left of another love’s life. “Oh, Anna, / Let me carry your burdens for you / oh, Anna Mae, you know if I could, I’d be there today.”
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“Flowers Die at Night” returns to a singer, regretful for holding onto a bittersweet love. Clark returns to similar, soft tones as “Stories” as he tells of spending too much time on dark thoughts and poor choices for friends. In honest chorus, Clark sings, “Oh, its such a shame when you realize / You are alone / And, oh, I’ve lost track of time / I can’t see that clock through the cigarette smoke, / My smoke.” The pedal steel continues to soar, drawing the song closer to a hopeful realization.
“Seattleville” finds Clark telling a story of a man who worked on a farm he encountered who could “write any song that he heard in his head, / and the words would come out / like a beautiful woman resting on a bed.” Relying on the acoustic guitar, the song is a beautiful narrative for a major influence in Clark’s life. And I believe it is here where the album starts flourishing as he relates this story to a young man wanting more out of life than working on a farm. Other instrumentation is sparse except for playful brush strokes underneath the warm acoustic and a perfectly placed fiddle.
The last song on “Southern Hotel” is a cover from Greg Kendall, which was written for the film “Bandwagon.” Clark’s version stays true to the version played in the film, but Clark delivers his vocal having experience the song’s true moment of doubt and confusion. This is a fantastic way to close “Southern Hotel” because from Clark’s experiences he still holds out hope for his lost love, but there is a truth in his voice. He doesn’t have to run after her anymore, but knows it is good to follow your heart. Captured in Prime Recording in Nashville, TN, Clark intentionally relocated his project from his hometown to clear his headspace. When asked what he wanted to say with this record he said, “I want people to know that I am still here. I am not some kid with guitar.” And from this collection of songs from Clark’s “Southern Hotel” shares how his experiences have made him more than some kid with a guitar.
Bio by Mike Blair, M.F.A., VCFA