“A seamless evocation of timeless musical values…soulful but sophisticated, sturdy songs with instantly accessible melodies that give vocalist Middleton a platform from which he can truly soar.”Joel Selvin, SF Chronicle – full review
“His ability to change gears from one song to the next while retaining a core sound is one of the strengths of Middleton’s work…it truly elevates “Forward” into a memorable release.”The Hollywood Digest – full review
“”Forward” has an undeniable personal touch and his unflinching portrayal of a man staring deep into himself, searching for strength, and moving on with his life will resonate with many.“Top Buzz Magazine – full review
“”Forward” comes across as an EP that took Middleton a few months to write and a lifetime to live.”Medium.com – full review
“I am really quite taken aback at his utter honesty, a man questioning himself and yet finding the reason to go on.”Pop Icon Magazine – full review
“Talented musicians joined him…but the unquestionable star of this EP is Middleton and the message he offers listeners. We need voices such as his more than ever before.”The Indie Source – full review
“Forward” – album review
Nov 2, 2022 | Joel Selvin
– By Joel Selvin, Longtime San Francisco Chronicle pop music critic & New York Times best-selling author of Altamont, Here Comes the Night, Red (with Sammy Hagar) and others.
Jay Middleton stands on the precipice of new vistas in his life, and with his new solo album “Forward”, he wastes no time sinking his teeth into the meat of the matter on the opening track, “Last Time”, which is barely disguised autobiography:
“For the last time in my life – I’m starting over.”
This is a renewal of spirit, a rebirth of him as a musician – a fresh, clean run at expressing himself in music – and he is one hundred percent committed to the task. The joy of that liberation, coupled with his decades of experience both in and out of music, gives Middleton an impressive tool kit to tackle this second act that, looking back over his life, now seems almost inevitable.
The music on “Forward” is a throwback to the polished R&B/Pop blend of the early ‘80s, that brief but golden era when the disco tide receded, and hip hop had yet to make the scene. Like classic mid-century furniture where form and function meet perfectly, the sound is a seamless evocation of timeless musical values – soulful but sophisticated, sturdy songs with instantly accessible melodies that give vocalist Middleton a platform from which he can truly soar.
Produced by Carl Wheeler, working out of Wheeler and Tommy McElroy’s FM Recorders in Emeryville, CA., they took great care with the production. The songs have a polished, scrupulously-produced sound that unfolds kaleidoscopically into a variety of configurations. The riffing horns underneath the verses give “Hard 2 Luv U” a touch of Steely Dan or Chicago – and guitarist Vernon Black’s solos sear the instrumental breaks like Prince channeling Hendrix. The crystalline harmonies of “Whispers” bring to mind soft-rock from the likes of Loggins & Messina or Dan Fogelberg – while the whistling introduction is pure Italian spaghetti western soundtrack. Piano and pedal steel guitar light up the opening to “Get a Little”, which gives way to a mighty call-and-response crescendo between a tour de force lead vocal from Middleton and the “Oh Happy Day” wall of voices from the Love Church Gospel Choir, descendants of the Edwin Hawkins Singers.
The spirit of rejuvenation pervades the music down through the lyrics. Middleton can radiate optimism in “Forward”, a piano-based ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a middle-period Elton John album, and he takes a darker view on “Hard 2 Luv U” which braids tinkling mandolin from James Nash with the billowing, pillowy horn parts, giving supple support to Middleton’s searing vocal.
The entire enterprise bears the mark of seasoned musicians executing a mutual vision built on their combination of skills, viewpoints and backgrounds. Middleton collaborated with Wheeler and Black on much of the songwriting and each of the three collaborators brought a wealth of their own experience from the world of music from where they came. Together they paved a road to a unified musical identity and shared vision – which was to create uplifting and inspirational melodic songs with world-class musical tracks, ringing with lots of hooks – and all natural instruments played by real musicians. The philosophy extended through the lyrics; real, biting, penetrating, and, well, grown-up. This is decidedly music made by adults, seasoned players and artists who are not trying to be anything they aren’t, crafting music made to last.
For Wheeler and Black to hook up with a charismatic vocalist like Middleton has set the stage for a powerhouse collaboration that merges these three master musicians’ visions and gifts. These three friends were ideally suited to come together to create this powerful, richly realized music that represents their combined resources and the commitment of their characters. This is not the hot-blooded, almost reckless passion of youth, but the deeply considered, wickedly detailed work of mature talents. This is the beauty of adult musicians dreaming together – they are grounded in genuine knowledge drawn from decades of experience and first-hand knowledge of success (as well as failure). They can couple that advantage of acquired and practiced abilities to a real world understanding not available to youth that only expands the reach of the music.
“Forward” ultimately is music with celebration built in. Music you can party with, make love to, work around the house by – robust utilitarian music with heart, soul and panache. These musicians are bringing everything they’ve got to this work. And what they’ve got is a lot.
Starting over never sounded better.
Also: Read the full story of Jay Middleton and “Forward”, by Joel Selvin
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Jay Middleton Releases EP
Jay Middleton scored his last Top 40 hit almost three decades ago but has never stopped performing. For four decades he’s worked with various musicians and shared stages with countless well-known performers, but COVID sidelined him like it did so many peers and contemporaries.
He began penning a series of songs during that downtime that reflected his desire to deliver a message of optimism and hope in the midst of uncertainty. It resulted in Forward, a six song EP resplendent with positivity and first-class musicianship that should garner Middleton richly deserved praise. The San Francisco based singer is working near or at the peak of his considerable powers.
The single “Last Time” opens the EP. The song swells into life before launching into a robust groove driven by steady drumming. Middleton’s soulful vocals enter the picture soon after the track begins in earnest and his presence captivates the listener’s attention. He sounds inspired, brimming with life, and locks into the groove like a master. The lyrics are one of the many reasons why Middleton chose this as a single. They are incisive and thought-provoking without ever sounding overwrought. Organ plays an important role in fleshing out the track, adding color, as do the horns he shrewdly chooses to add into the mix.
“I Like the Way” isn’t quite as spirited as the opener. Nevertheless, Middleton digs into this wonderful love song with a percussive and ever soulful vocal. The backing vocalists return to this track, as well, and help punctuate his singing. Several of the changes are compelling – the shift from the primary groove into the bridge and beyond pepper the cut with ear-catching shifts. Piano and acoustic guitar are keys to the song’s musical success. It’s groove-centric material and Middleton excels placed in this setting.
It takes a bit for the atmospheric “Hard 2 Luv U” to get going but, once it does, we’re ensnared once again. Tasty electric guitar makes its presence felt early on and there’s a bluesy mood pervading the piece that helps keep the listener involved. Horns return and Middleton makes continuing good use of the backing singers who have had such a positive effect on the release. His ability to change gears from one song to the next while retaining a core sound is one of the strengths of Middleton’s work in general, but it truly elevates Forward into a memorable release despite its obvious brevity.
The deeply personal title track is an exceptional ballad on every level. Acoustic guitar plays a crucial role in bringing this song off for listeners, but the star is Middleton and his near-confessional lyrics that finds a man deciding to push onward despite whatever self-doubt he may struggle with. It has an atmospheric touch like the aforementioned track and Middleton takes his time developing the performance. It’s the EP’s key moment and reminds listeners why this talented singer and songwriter continues to leave his mark. It is the sound of an artist fully engaged with life and his work alike.
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Review: Jay Middleton — Forward (EP)
San Francisco’s Jay Middleton is no stranger to longtime music fans. Though it’s been nearly three decades since he lodged his last Top 40 hit in the United States, the outstanding singer has never stopped living and breathing music. His new release Forward highlights his songwriting ability alongside his outstanding vocal talents with a six song EP collection that, as the title implies, looks forward toward a better day. The songs came out of his perspective during the COVID crisis and the ongoing doubt facing our world today and he’s recruited exceptional talents to aid him in crafting this potentially instant classic.
Forward begins with the EP’s first single “Last Time”. This is a vigorous way to kick off the release and finds Middleton fully engaged. It sounds like he hears this song as his prime moment to establish the EP with a single performance. He begins it in an ideal manner. It swells to life and the horns contribute to the liveliness of the single as a whole. With some timely organ fills thrown in for good measure, it brings an added character to the performance that puts it over the top. His lyrical acumen brings added dimension to the piece as well. He’s joined by current Jefferson Starship guitarist Jude Gold on the track alongside several powerful musicians capable of making his vision a reality for listeners.
Co-writer and guitarist Vernon Black makes his presence felt during the EP’s third song “Hard 2 Luv U”. His biting lead guitar transforms this blues-tinged track but never dominates. It’s Middleton’s presence that once again figures as the defining element. Middleton’s experience also shines through in the backing vocals as he uses this tried-and-true accouterment as well as anyone. They accentuate his talents rather than obscuring them. It shares the same lineage as the opener in the sense that he builds it around a memorable groove.
The dramatic rise and fall of the arrangement for “Whispers”, plus its acoustic foundation, makes this much different from the preceding fare. Middleton, however, demonstrates the necessary nuance to inhabit every passage of this song with the same flair that distinguishes its predecessors. It never sounds painfully orchestrated but, instead, has a natural flow that carries listeners through an exquisite musical landscape. It pairs quite nicely with the title song. They share the same contemplative demeanor, but the title song goes a step further with its naked vulnerability.
The finale “Get A Little” has a slow burn gospel flavor listeners should appreciate. The mid-tempo movement of the piece allows it to develop in a patient manner and the aforementioned gospel influences manifest themselves in the emphasis on backing vocals exceeding even the previous tracks. It is a fitting conclusion. Forward comes across as an EP that took Middleton a few months to write and a lifetime to live. It makes for a fulfilling addition to any music lovers collection and serves notice that Jay Middleton is far from finished. We’re better off for it.
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I was unfamiliar with Jay Middleton’s work before hearing his new EP release Forward and its charms immediately drew me in. The six song EP promotes a forward-looking message, there are no odes to despair over the course of this release, but it isn’t looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses or adopting a Pollyanna approach to life. Instead, Middleton acknowledges the struggles that we face in our daily lives, but lifts listeners with music that says we can keep our chins up through such storms. This mature and thoughtful take on life will appeal to many. Coupled with superb musicianship and winning arrangements makes these six songs must hear. It’s another milestone in a four plus decade long musical career and shows he has no intentions of stopping or slowing down.
I am completely swept away by the first song “Last Time”. Middleton picked this for the EP’s first single and it proves to be a perfect introduction to his talents for me. He’s a soul singer who gives every ounce of himself over to this track. The backing singers are a little sulfurous to me as Middleton has enough lung power to carry any tune by himself, but I understand why they are here. I think the organ fills provided by producer Carl Wheeler are an especially nice touch, as are the horns.
I love how he structures the second tune “I Like the Way” – particularly the piano. Its condensed and melodic runs peppering the song are just what the track needs to help push it over the top and his unabashed emotion comes through in every line. The vocal phrasing is fantastic. It’s a love song expressing sentiments we’ve heard a thousand times before, if not more, but Middleton owns this one and it glistens with freshness that should be attractive to countless listeners. “Whispers” is a lovely example of how to write and perform a soulful tune with acoustic guitar and construct it in such a way that it makes use of dynamics. The rising and ebbing of the arrangement is well suited to Middleton’s voice and he knows how to take control of the song without ever putting the music in the backseat.
“Forward”, the title track, is another example of that. There isn’t so much rising and falling in this one, but he continues refusing to pit his voice against the instruments and instead sings along with the arrangement. It’s a lyrical highlight as well. I am really quite taken aback at his utter honesty, a man questioning himself and yet finding the reason to go on. The nuance of the song is a consistent element driving the entire EP. It’s the high point of a release with no low points. Jay Middleton has written and performed a set of songs that any listener can relate to without straining to find a connection. I find it mighty impressive that, after four decades of performing, he sounds like a young man and he’s still working at the top of his game.
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Jay Middleton Releases Six Song EP
The Indie Source | May 30, 2023 | Anne Hollister
Jay Middleton knows the joys of being a husband, a father, and translates the ongoing hope those experiences produce on his new EP release Forward. The six song EP is the latest turn in a four decade long plus career as a truly underrated vocalist and embodies optimism that he rightly feels is essential in the aftermath of COVID and various other challenges facing our world today. Talented musicians join Middleton for the release along with current Jefferson Starship guitarist Jude Gold, but the unquestionable stars of this EP are Middleton and the message he offers listeners. We need voices such as his more than ever before. He seems to be writing and recording some of the best music of his career and his voice is as strong as it has been over the years.
“Last Time” proves all of the above. It’s a no brainer for the EP’s first single and sounds tailor made for live performance. He makes excellent use of horns in his music, here and elsewhere, and isn’t afraid to embrace traditional instruments such as an organ for a richer musical experience. He’s accompanied by a first-class cadre of musicians, that’s obvious, and “Last Time” benefits from on point drumming as well. Middleton, despite his many years as an active vocalist, sings like a man reborn.
The second song “I Like the Way” and its successor “Hard 2 Luv U” are songs counterpointing each other. The first is an outright love song that pulls back the reins on the opener’s exuberance but nevertheless maintains an energetic tilt. Piano and acoustic guitar fill out the track and it has a much more laid-back feel while chugging onward with steady energy. “Hard 2 Luv U” is love on the rocks, yet the best songs of this ilk are always pure love songs in disguise. Guitarist Vernon Black turns in an impassioned guitar solo late in this song that makes it a must hear. There is no filler on this EP and “Hard 2 Luv U” is one of the releases best.
Subtle percussion, piano, and acoustic guitar make up the musical body of the title song. It’s Middleton, however, and his deep maturity that brings the song to full flower. This is a song brimming with hard won wisdom rather than trivial cliches and overwrought sentiments. The acoustic guitar is a particular highlight. The finale “Get A Little” is a perfectly wrought closer that pursues the same mid-tempo path of earlier tracks while ratcheting up the emotion for the EP’s final curtain. It’s a perfect way to end Forward.
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Singer/Songwriter Jay Middleton Releases New EP
Jay Middleton is a name that may be unfamiliar to many but for over four decades he’s performed many times with his bands at some of the best clubs and venues around, and shared stages with renowned musical names.
His new EP release Forward is the latest entry in a long musical career and, even if he is almost three decades removed from his last Top 40 hit in the United States, you can’t tell. He sings with the vigor of a much younger man and the six songs included on this new EP release deliver a wise and well-earned message of optimism and looking toward a brighter day that many listeners will embrace. Bring that all together with polished yet deeply emotional musical arrangements and you have the ingredients for a brief but memorable release.
It starts off with “Last Time”, the EP’s first single, and there’s no better way to kick off this release. It opens gradually, but we’re soon in the thick of it with a swinging irrepressible arrangement. There are subtle embellishments along the way. Many listeners will find the inclusion of organ an especially delicious addition and the horns bring a lot of verve to a performance already packed with vitality. The backing singers are a nice complement to Middleton’s voice without ever overwhelming the track and Jefferson Starship guitarist Jude Gold’s solo is a nice feature as well.
Love songs are a dime a dozen for some listeners, without a doubt, but “I Like the Way” has such a strong and light-footed groove that few will find fault with the magic he weaves. The piano gives the song a lot of its airy charm and the drumming helps give the tune a solid foundation throughout. He’s having a lot of obvious fun with this tune and gives the needed zest. There’s even an appealing amount of grit in his vocal that takes the song over the top.
“Hard 2 Luv U” is another highlight. Vernon Black’s guitar is featured during this song and brings unquestionable bluesy brilliance to an already first-rate tune. This is another track where Middleton really lets the grit fly as he puts a lot of oomph behind every word and knows when to accentuate the song’s high points. “Whispers” has a much softer effect and brings back the organ playing that added such color to the opener. The break late in the song is an especially shrewd move, from a songwriting perspective, and it’s not hard to hear this song playing well live.
The title song, however, is the undisputed high point of the release. It’s apparent that Middleton gave this song a great deal of consideration rather than tossing it off. It has an undeniable personal touch and his unflinching portrayal of a man staring deep into himself, searching for strength, and moving on with his life will resonate with many. It’s a theme, in some ways, that recurs throughout the album, and this is the crowning moment. Jay Middleton’s Forward is an EP filled with the blood, tears, and joy of life, and these are songs that are always looking towards a better day.
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