Sunday, December 17, 2017

CD Review: The Searchers' Another Night: The Sire Recordings 1979-1981 (2017)

The Searchers' Another Night: The Sire Recordings 1979-1981
The Searchers were one of the leading lights of England’s 1960s-era ‘Merseybeat’ scene, the band holding its own on the charts with contemporaries like the Beatles, the Hollies, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Originally formed in 1959 in Liverpool as a skiffle band by guitarists John McNally and Mike Pender, the band scored its first chart-topper with a cover of the Drifters’ 1961 hit “Sweets For My Sweet.” They’d subsequently enjoy hits with covers of songs like Jackie DeShannon’s “Needles and Pins” and “When You Walk In the Room”; the Orlons’ “Don’t Throw Your Love Away”; and the Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9.” Best known as interpreters of other artist’s songs, the Searchers nevertheless scored the occasional hit with original tunes like 1965’s “He’s Got No Love” (#12 U.K.).

By the end of the 1960s, the hits had dried up as rock ‘n’ roll moved towards harder and more progressive directions. The Searchers continued to tour throughout the ‘70s, however, performing contemporary songs by artists like Neil Young and Loggins & Messina alongside their ‘60s hits. When rock music began to turn back to the past as younger ‘new wave’ artists incorporated ‘60s-era sounds and influences into their songs, the Searchers had hung around long enough to take advantage of the musical evolution. They were the real deal, ‘60s-era music-makers who had updated their sound with enough of a contemporary edge to land the band a deal with Sire Records. The Searchers recorded a pair of excellent albums for Sire – 1979’s The Searchers and the following year’s Love’s Melodies – both of which stand proudly among the best power-pop releases of the era. Both of these long out-of-print albums have been combined as the two-disc Another Night: The Sire Recordings 1979-1981 by archival specialists Omnivore Recordings, with seven bonus tracks added to the original albums.

The Searchers’ Another Night: The Sire Recordings 1979-1981

The Searchers' The Searchers
The Searchers’ trademark jangly-pop sound was tailor-made for the new wave ‘80s, and their ‘60s rock pedigree should have served them well in the new decade, but an audience was hard to find in spite of the overall high quality of the Searchers’ self-titled 1979 album. Take, for instance, the band’s cover of the Will Birch/John Wicks gem “Hearts In Her Eyes,” as delightful a slab of shimmering power-pop as will ever melt your ears. Pender’s wistful vocals are as smooth as honey and his and McNally’s cross-cutting guitars shine with the light of a thousand suns as the rest of the band joyfully bangs along with reckless aplomb. Wicks recorded the song a year later for the Records’ sophomore album, and while both performances will heal your soul, when released as a single, the Searchers’ version failed to move the needle at all.

The only other single released from the album – the kinetic “It’s Too Late” – also failed to chart in spite of its delicious start/stop dynamic, bouncy harmony vocals, and infectious melodic hook. The performance sounds like a new wavish take on British rockers Argent (with a dash of the Zombies, perhaps…), the band coming full circle artistically while delivering a solid radio-ready ‘should-have-been-a-hit’ that easily trounces rivals, er…contemporaries like the Babys, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Split Enz, Squeeze, the Rezillos, the Undertones, the Tourists, the Knack, and the Cars…all of which released similar ‘60s-flavored power-pop LPs during the year. The band’s cover of Nick Lowe’s transcendent “Switchboard Susan” (penned by his pub-rock pal Micky Jupp) is more languid and lusty than Lowe’s original and falls short of the mark only because Lowe’s reading is so definitive.

The ignorance of the record-buying public notwithstanding, there’s a heck of a lot of great music to be found on The Searchers. “Feeling Fine” is an upbeat rocker with downbeat lyrics about a lost love, the song’s protagonist lying to himself above the din of twangy guitars and propulsive drumbeats. A cover of Tom Petty’s “Lost In Your Eyes” takes the song into the stratosphere, Pender’s echoed vox achieving an ethereal tone while guest Bob Jackson’s gorgeous piano underlines the song’s pathos. The band does Dylan equally proud, a cover of the Scribe’s “Coming From The Heart” provided a heartfelt reading of the lyrics above lush instrumentation. Among the band’s few original tunes, “Don’t Hang On” offers a rockabilly heartbeat with the soul of the performance fueled by bassist Frank Allen’s jaunty vocals while “This Kind of Love Affair” buries Pender’s vocals beneath swirling guitar licks and heavy rhythms that do nothing to dislodge the song’s undeniable melodic hook.

Play For Today

The Searchers' Love's Melodies
In spite of its feeble chart showing, The Searchers evidently garnered enough critical acclaim that Sire put the band back in the studio for a second shot at the brass ring. Released in the U.K. as Play For Today and stateside as Love’s Melodies in 1981, the album displayed the same incredible mix of inspired cover tunes and timely originals as its predecessor. The album is best-known for its lead-off single, a cover of Ducks Deluxe’s “Love’s Melody.” Written by that band’s Andy McMasters – a skilled songwriter in a band that included similar major talents in Sean Tyla and Nick Garvey – the Searchers imbue the song with a larger-than-life performance, Pender’s lovelorn vocals teetering atop lush instrumentation and supported by lofty backing harmony vocals and Billy Adamson’s ricocheting snare-drumbeats. The band’s original “Another Night” was the album’s second single, a somewhat atypical choice of songs with skewed guitars, chaotic harmonies, and angry drumbeats propelling an otherwise wiry rocker.

Much like its predecessor, Love’s Melodies/Play For Today offers a plethora of solid cross-genre performances all anchored by the band’s innate sense of melody and the twin jangle-pop guitars of Pender and McNally. The album’s opening track, “Silver,” is as maximum ‘new wave’ as a band could crank out at the time, the song challenging similar outfits like Blondie, the Rubinoos, or Katrina & the Waves with a delightfully 1960s-era pop/rock vibe comprised of glimmering guitar strings, on-point harmonies, and solid percussion work. “Radio Romance” comes courtesy of the band’s pal Will Birch (The Records), the song seemingly handcrafted for FM airplay with taut fretwork, whipsmart lyrics, and a fierce jangly sonic vibe that could blast effortlessly above the din from a car radio. The Searchers’ choice of cover songs are among the best I’ve seen and heard in four-and-a-half decades of poring over rock ‘n’ roll vinyl and they picked some tasty treats for Love’s Melodies/Play For Today, starting with John Fogerty’s “Almost Saturday Night.”

Performed with the same sort of ramshackle charm as the original, Pender’s vocals on “Almost Saturday Night” mimic those of Fogerty’s original as the band lays down a mighty rhythmic bedrock embroidered upon by twangy guitarplay. Big Star’s “September Gurls,” recorded years before the Chilton revival, captures the magic of the original with echoed harmonies and melancholy guitars matched by rollicking percussion. Whereas The Searchers disc included bonus tracks in the form of alternative mixes of “It’s Too Late,” “Love’s Melody,” and “Silver” that display a different facet of the band’s talents, the bonus tracks appended to Love’s Melodies include the engaging band original “Changing,” the B-side to the album’s first single, while John Hiatt’s “Back To The War” is an electrifying take on a then-obscure songwriter. Released as a B-side to the “Another Night” single, the song’s angular dynamics and Pender’s vocal approach make it the most ‘new wave’ sounding tune they had recorded. The band liked Hiatt’s material so much that they also recorded his “Ambulance Chaser,” unreleased until now, the song a definite stylistic throwback with charming vocals and distinctive instrumentation that would sound more at home in 1968 than 1980.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

With The Searchers and Love’s Melodies/Play For Today, the band reached the creative pinnacle of their lengthy career. More than mere interpreters of song, the Searchers imbued every recording with their own unique sound – gorgeous vocal harmonies, innovative use of twelve-string guitar, driving rhythms – making each performance their own, no matter who wrote the song. It’s no different with these two albums, the band rising to the occasion to deliver a pair of power-pop treasures that, while sorely overlooked at the time, nevertheless proved why the Searchers were a major influence on everybody from the Byrds and Big Star to Tom Petty and R.E.M. If you’re a fan of any of these bands, you owe it to yourself to discover the Searchers. Grade: A (Omnivore Recordings, released December 8, 2017)

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Cleveland Rock Royalty The Choir’s Unreleased Album

The Choir's Artifact
Years before the Raspberries would tear up the charts with early ‘70s hits like “Go All The Way,” “I Wanna Be With You,” “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),” and other tunes, its members performed with other Cleveland, Ohio area outfits like the Choir and Cyrus Erie. The Choir is especially notable as future Raspberries band members Wally Bryson (guitar), Dave Smalley (guitar/bass), and Jim Bonfanti (drums) were members; future Raspberries frontman Eric Carmen, a member of Cyrus Erie, had auditioned for the Choir but was passed over in favor of another vocalist.

A popular garage-rock outfit, the Choir is largely remembered for the band’s first single, the minor hit “It’s Cold Outside.” Released in December 1966, the song was featured on the garage-rock compilation Pebbles, Volume 2 and would subsequently appear on a number of dodgy import comps of garage and psychedelic-rock. Although the band would never release a full-length album during its tenure (roughly 1966 through 1970), Bomp! Records released a five-song self-titled EP in 1976, and Sundazed Records released Choir Practice on CD and vinyl in 1994, the album featuring the five songs from the previous EP along with a number of previously-unreleased tracks.

On February 16, 2018 Ominivore Recordings will release Artifact: The Unreleased Album, featuring ten tracks recorded by the Choir in 1969 and making their very first appearance in any format. Restored in the studio by Tommy Allen and Ducky Carlisle, who worked on the Raspberries’ recent Pop Art Live, the album includes new liner notes by Eric Carmen and Choir band members Denny Carleton and Phil Giallombardo as well as a Choir family tree and rare photos from the band’s collections.

In his liner notes for the album, Eric Carmen wrote, “I went to see the Choir when I was 16, and immediately wanted to join their band. They were a great group that had many lives and many members. This album was made by one of the last and final versions of the band. This recently discovered recording is sure to rekindle fond memories for the many fans of the Choir, including myself. Give it a spin, and enjoy a special piece of Cleveland rock history.”

Also on That Devil Music: The Raspberries’ Pop Art Live CD review

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Archive Review: Goodbye Nashville Hello Camden Town (2007)

Goodbye Nashville Hello Camden Town rock. A uniquely British construct – albeit one based on American music styles – pub rock represented a “back to the roots” aesthetic years before punk would rear its (often times) ugly head. Make no mistake, however…punk rock was heavily influenced by the pub rock scene, and the bands of the “Revolution of ‘77” benefited greatly from the trailblazing efforts of their forebears in opening up pubs and clubs to live performances (and rock music).

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though, shall we? As reflected by David Wells’ comprehensive liner notes for Goodbye Nashville Hello Camden Town, a two-CD set subtitled “a Pub Rock anthology,” the origins of the so-called movement lie with the American band Eggs Over Easy. The band had traveled to England in late 1970 to record an album with producer Chas Chandler, but the coming of the new year found them stranded in the country with no record deal. Convincing the management of the Tally Ho pub in the London neighborhood of Kentish Town to allow them to play on normally slow Monday nights, Eggs Over Easy quickly developed a loyal following.

Goodbye Nashville Hello Camden Town

Among the growing legion of Eggs Over Easy fans were several musicians looking for a new direction. Nick Lowe and Brinsley Schwarz attended many an Eggs Over Easy show at the Tally Ho, even sitting in with the band at times; other fans included ‘60s U.K. rocker Zoot Money and members of bands like Bees Make Honey and Kilburn & the High Roads. When Eggs Over Easy’s work visas expired, the band returned to the states, releasing a single album (Good ‘N’ Cheap) in 1972 before breaking up and disappearing into the rock ‘n’ roll ether.

Eggs Over Easy's Good 'N' Cheap
Although Eggs Over Easy would quickly slip into obscurity, the seed that the band had planted with its Tally Ho residency took root and sprouted into dozens of bands suddenly emancipated from the constraints of expectations. Providing an attractive alternative to the prog-rock and singer/songwriter fare of the day, pub-rock represented a welcome “back to the country” vibe, bands like Brinsley Schwarz (with Schwarz and Lowe), Bees Make Honey, Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers, Dr. Feelgood, and others pursuing original mixes of rock, country, blues, and bluegrass, performing in receptive pubs and clubs in and around London. None of the bands got rich, or even made a lot of money, but they enjoyed playing the music they wanted to play while honing their skills, and the top-of-the-card performers made daring, original music based on old standards that hits the ears hard, even 30+ years later.

From start to finish, Goodbye Nashville Hello Camden Town provides a fascinating and entertaining glimpse into the world of pub rock. Kicking off with the title track, Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers sound like Gram Parsons fronting the Flying Burrito Brothers with a British accent, the song’s innocence overwhelming its tentatively twangy instrumentation. The band’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” swings with a Western flair and jazzy undertones, kind of Cab-Calloway-meets-Bob-Wills in good old London town. Pioneers Eggs Over Easy deliver the simple, charming, countryish “Runnin’ Down To Memphis,” the band’s only cut on the anthology.

The Pub Rock Scene

Fronted by Ian Dury, who would go on to become a U.K. punk icon, Kilburn & the High Roads mixed a British Dance Hall sound with Dury’s keen lyrical observations and slightly-skewed sense of humour. Kilburn’s “Billy Bentley” is pretty snazzy while the band’s other cut here, “Rough Kids,” is a horn-driven blast of fresh air with honky-tonk piano and screaming guitars. Bees Make Honey could have just as easily come from Laurel Canyon circa 1971, with laid-back songs like “What Have We Got To Lose” showcasing delicious harmonies while “Indian Bayou Saturday” mixes Levon Helm and The Band with Goose Creek Symphony (?!). Perhaps the best-known pub rock band of them all, Brinsley Schwarz, is represented here by a single tasty cut, the free-flowing roots-rock “Country Girl.”

Brinsley Schwarz's Nervous On The RoadOne of the most interesting aspects of the short-lived pub rock phenomena was its inclusive nature; it was a big tent over a small scene, and everybody was welcome. Because of the honest, sincere nature of the music, old ‘60s rockers like Zoot Money, Mick Farren, Albert Lee, Stray, and McGuiness Flint found a new home within the genre. Session guitar-for-hire Lee, who was also part of the unabashedly country-honk outfit Country Fever, gets to show off his six-string skills with the transcendent “Best I Can.” Money’s “Arkansas” sounds like a throwback to the hillbilly ‘50s, a low-fi production with sparse instrumentation and wickedly somber vocals. Featuring members of Manfred Mann and John Mayall’s bands, McGuinness Flint pursued a guitar-driven rock sound with just a trace of rootsy influence on the band’s rollicking “Ride On My Rainbow.”

Some pub rockers would go on to find significant careers in the coming punk revolution. Aside from the aforementioned Dury and Brinsley Schwarz’s Nick Lowe, the raw, stripped-down sound of bands like Eddie & the Hot Rods (kicking out the jams here with the uber-cool garage rock vibrations of “Do The Monkey Man” and “All I Need Is Money”) or the Count Bishops (best known for their haunting Link-Wray-meets-Screamin’-Jay rave-up “Train Train”) finding a receptive audience for their hard-rocking tunes among the Mohawk-tressed masses.

Brinsley Schwarz, Dr. Feelgood & the Fabulous Poodles

The scene also embraced bands that didn’t subscribe to the typical pub rock band’s rustic country sound. The Fabulous Poodles, for instance, didn’t really fit in anywhere with songs like the boisterous “Roll Your Own” or a spot-on soulful cover of the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance” offering slightly-tilted guitar, off-kilter vocals, and a sound that was more rock than roots. Elevated to royal status by pub rock fans, the influential Dr. Feelgood brought an R&B influence to the genre, although the band’s lone song here, “Roxette,” could pass for a ‘60s-era British blooze-rocker with distorted guitar and some dirty mouth harp work. Raucous ‘50s-styled rockabilly was a favorite route for many on the scene, the Brunning Sunflower Band crossing Jerry Lee with Duane Eddy on the track “Good Golly Miss Kelly” while Matchbox, which would kick around well into the ‘80s, kicks out the spirited and electric “Rock’n’Roll Band” here. Another ‘60s-era holdover, the Pirates, evince an anarchic blue suede sound with their rocking “Gibson Martin Fender” (an off-the-tracks live version, no less).

The Fabulous Poodles' Mirror Stars
Out of the 49 total tracks on Goodbye Nashville Hello Camden Town, there are a lot of lesser-known bands included on the anthology that nevertheless made good music and deserve mentioning, such as the Cartoons, Country Fever, Mickey Jupp, and the Kursaal Flyers. Late-period pub rockers like the Tyla Gang or Nine Below Zero made more of a splash amidst late ‘70s/early ‘80s audiences loosened up by the triumphs of punk rock while others, cult favorites like the Downliners Sect or Unicorn, recorded albums that have become a sort of holy grail to collectors who prefer a little well-intentioned obscurity as they dig through the crates.

There are some obvious omissions hereabouts, most notably Ducks Deluxe, who had a unique Chuck Berry-influenced boogie-rock sound and which later provided musicians to both the Tyla Gang and Graham Parker’s Rumour; the Motors, who scored several U.K. chart hits; soulful vocalist Frankie Miller, whose oeuvre would fit firmly into the pub rock milieu; and even Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band the 101’ers. I would have dropped the third Kilburn & the High Roads song and included a second Dr. Feelgood cut, but it would be easy to have bumped the anthology up to a third disc considering the wealth of material available.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Given the relative scarcity of much of this excellent music, however, and the unfamiliarity of American rock fans with most of these bands, Goodbye Nashville Hello Camden Town does a fine job of documenting the pub rock genre. The anthology provides newcomers with a valuable roadmap to bands worth checking out and, indeed, many of the bands mentioned here have import albums readily available. If you’re looking for an antidote to the brutal reality of what passes for modern rock these days, or if you’re a roots-rock fan thirsty for something new, I’d heartily recommend checking out the pub rock scene; this anthology is as good a place as any to start... (Castle Music UK, released April 16, 2007)

Country Joe & the Fish Celebrate the Summer of Love

Country Joe & the Fish's The Wave of Electrical Sound
Folk-rock outfit Country Joe & the Fish – formed in 1965 by singer/songwriter Country Joe McDonald and guitarist Barry “Fish” Melton – are best known for their infamous August 1969 appearance at Woodstock, McDonald leading the audience in shouting “The Fish Cheer” (“gimme an ‘F’…”) before launching into a memorable performance of the anti-war “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.” One of the most innovative and popular bands in the San Francisco area, Country Joe & the Fish were steeped in the psychedelic-rock of the time, but tempered their flower-power excesses with elements of folk, blues, and even jazz to underscore their often politically-charged lyrics.

Country Joe & the Fish released their first two albums during 1967, their debut Electric Music For the Mind and Body appearing just in time for the “Summer of Love” while I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die, recorded in July, bookended the debut LP later that year. Both albums were groundbreaking, influential efforts by a then-veteran band, musically-adventurous with McDonald’s songs offering up intelligent political commentary and satire. On January 26th, 2018 Craft Recordings will celebrate Country Joe & the Fish’s “Summer of Love’ with the release of a limited-edition vinyl box set, The Wave of Electrical Sound. Both re-mastered albums will also be reissued as stand-alone LPs and have already been released digitally on iTunes and elsewhere.

Country Joe & the Fish's The Wave of Electrical Sound
Limited to 2,000 copies worldwide, The Wave of Electrical Sound is a four-album box set offering both mono and stereo version of Electric Music For the Mind and Body and I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die pressed on audiophile quality 180-gram vinyl. The albums are packaged in old-school-style tip-on jackets, with the mono versions of both albums sporting rare alternative cover artwork while the stereo versions of both feature replicas of their original cover art. The box set also includes a bunch of cool band memorabilia from the era including replicas of The Fish Game, a Fish Fan Club book, and a Fish calendar designed by Tom Weller as well as a DVD of How We Stopped The War, a 30-minute documentary film on the band and a 24-page book with rare photos and artwork and new liner notes from writer, producer, and musician Alec Palao.

In his liner notes for the box set, Palao writes, “what makes both albums Country Joe & the Fish recorded in 1967 so significant is not just the presentation, but the repertoire...the writing is extraordinary. Whatever influence from Dylan, Richard Farina and others McDonald might have absorbed, his muse was his own, and fully on display with idiosyncratic material that dripped with imagery and allusion.”

Buy the vinyl box set from Country Joe & the Fish’s The Wave of Electrical Sound

CD Preview: Chris Hillman’s The Asylum Years

Chris Hillman’s The Asylum Years
The legendary Chris Hillman released his first solo album in seven years in 2017 with the Tom Petty-produced Bidin’ My Time. A charming collection of Hillman co-writes and inspired cover songs (including Petty’s “Wildflowers”), the album is just another gem in a lengthy, critically-acclaimed career that spans six decades and includes tenures with the Byrds; the Flying Burrito Brothers; Stephen Stills & Manassas; McGuinn, Clark & Hillman; and the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band (yeah, the dude has made a lot of great music...).

Sadly, a number of Hillman’s solo albums have long been out-of-print, including the artist’s excellent 1979 debut Slippin’ Away. Luckily, the folks at Omnivore Recordings are Chris Hillman fans, and the label’s upcoming 20-track collection The Asylum Years – scheduled for February 9, 2018 release – combines Slippin’ Away and Hillman’s sophomore effort, Clear Sailin’, on a single CD for the first time.

Chris Hillman
Chris Hillman photo courtesy Omnivore Recordings
For the recording of Slippin’ Away, Hillman dove into his rolodex and enlisted friends and former bandmates like Memphis soul legends Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn as well as fiddle-player Byron Berline, guitarists Al Perkins and Bernie Leadon, drummers Jim Gordon and Russ Kunkel, and backing singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (The Turtles). The assembled talents created a classic of country-flavored rock. A year later, Hillman went into the studio to record Clear Sailin’ with a band that included future star Richard Marx on guitar, keyboardist Skip Edwards (who’d played with Johnny Rivers), and drummer Joe Lala (Joe Walsh, Manassas).

Clear Sailin’ was produced by Jim Mascon (Poco, Firefall) and included a number of songs written by Hillman and Crawdaddy magazine co-founder Peter Knobler as well as covers of Smokey Robinson-penned Marvin Gaye hit “Ain’t That Peculiar” and Danny O’Keefe’s “Quits.” Hillman’s The Asylum Years also includes an essay by writer Scott Schinder featuring a new interview with the singer/songwriter. Kudos to Omnivore for rescuing these two fine examples of 1970s-era L.A. avocado rock from obscurity for a new generation of fans to discover!

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

CD Review: Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers' More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows (2018)

Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers' More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Joe Grushecky is a music biz lifer, a survivor whose first band of note – the Iron City Houserockers – delivered four near-perfect albums of intelligent, unbridled rock ‘n’ roll circa 1970-1983. With a sound and lyricism inspired by blue-collar scribes like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger, tho’ often displaying more blues and soul influences, the I.C. guys earned a lot of critical acclaim but few record sales. When the band broke up after being dropped by MCA Records, Grushecky worked on his songwriting chops while pursuing a career as a teacher for “at risk” youths in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He would resurface in 1989 with the album Rock & Real, credited to “Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers.” Minor masterpieces like the Springsteen-produced American Babylon (1995) and True Companion (2004) would follow, yielding great reviews but providing no breakthrough.

After suffering through record deals with both major and minor labels, Grushecky launched his own indie Schoolhouse Records imprint years before many of today’s critically-acclaimed indie-rockers were born. When Grushecky wanted to explore other facets of his music, he recorded solo albums like 2002’s Fingerprints, 2006’s A Good Life, and 2013’s Somewhere East of Eden. He has always drifted back to the Houserockers, though, and this year’s model – More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows – finds Joey G. and cohorts in fine form as they deliver their first studio album together since 2009’s exceptional East Carson Street. In spite of an impressive body of work comprised of better than a dozen studio and live albums, Grushecky remains one of the best-kept secrets in rock music, forever marginalized by his association with a coterie of talented ‘70s-era rockers including Willie Nile and Elliott Murphy and bands like the Del Lords.

Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers’ More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows

From the new album’s title to the music in the grooves, Grushecky seems preoccupied with mortality and morality. Not a sort of Goth kid’s black-eyeliner and mopey obsession with death, but rather that of a middle-aged man staring down, as the title suggests, the reality that their existence holds “more yesterdays than tomorrows.” Turning 60 this year, I’m well aware of the Reaper’s stare – my father made it less than two months past his 60th birthday before passing, my mother a little more than a year and change beyond that before her death. The Oglala Lakota Indian chief Low Dog is famously quoted as saying “today is a good day to die” and I suppose that’s true, but many of us are dragged screaming to the grave. While the specter of death permeates our culture, it’s seldom addressed musically outside of blues and gospel songs.

Opening with the mid-tempo title track, Grushecky ponders the situation with his keen lyrical eye and takes stock of where he sits in life. Rather than mourning the days behind him, the singer’s joy at each “brand new day” soars atop a transcendent guitar solo and jangly instrumentation. Never a quitter, Grushecky wears his scars proudly as he soldiers on, headfirst, into whatever tomorrow has to bring. His reverie broken by reality’s intrusion, Grushecky launches into “Got To Go To Work Today,” a no-frills rocker with more than a little boogie backbeat hidden beneath the din. Burnishing his blue collar bona fides, Grushecky creates a protagonist who begrudgingly accepts his fate, the songwriter’s vague description of the workplace spinning a tale of an everyman’s curse, albeit one set to stinging guitar solos and clamorous rhythms.

That’s What Makes Us Great

Released earlier this year as a single, “That’s What Makes Us Great” is an incredible duet with Joe’s buddy Bruce (as in Springsteen), the song itself a call to arms for those resisting the loss of our country to greedy businessmen and craven politicians, the slipping away of the American dream to jackboots of fear and hate as refugees in need are turned away in our ignorance and the country itself seems under siege. The words are sung passionately, Grushecky and Springsteen’s voices surrounded by chaotic instrumentation, clanging guitar licks sounding like the Liberty Bell ringing the chimes of freedom.

Both men realize that we’re collectively witnessing a brutal turning point in our nation’s savage history, the song asking “is there a difference I can make,” its creators choosing love above all else in what may be Springsteen’s most overtly political statement yet (and I’m sure that I’m not alone in wishing that Bruce would record a full album with Joey G and the Houserockers). If “That’s What Makes Us Great” is an unabashed rocker with a political edge that pulls few punches, “Burn Us Down” is the body-builder’s roid-rage – a muscular, feverish, powerful cry from the darkness, the song’s bluesy undercurrent matched by Grushecky’s anguished vocals and empathetic, electrifying fretwork, both aspects of the song perfectly capturing the angst-ridden zeitgeist suffered by at least half of the country.

Joe Grushecky, Bruce Springsteen & the Houserockers
Joe Grushecky, Bruce Springsteen & the Houserockers, photo by John Cavanaugh

Blood Sweat and Beers

Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers have frequently been referred to as the best “bar band” in America, but they’ve always been much more than that. The core of the band has been playing together for decades, long past the point where rock ‘n’ roll dreams are realized, talented musicians reveling in the mere act of music-making. They’re professionals by any standard, with a lengthy history of thousands of performances and a couple dozen albums trailing in their wake. Grushecky and the Houserockers are the standard to which a “bar band” should aspire, but that doesn’t mean the Joe and his gang haven’t torn up a tavern a time or two. Grushecky isn’t above using a bar setting for a song, either (“Junior’s Bar” comes to mind), and “Blood Sweat and Beers” is really just a country song waiting for the addition of steel guitar to strut shamelessly down Nashville’s ‘Music Row’. A classic barroom tearjerker set to a twangy, rollicking rhythm, the singer lays out his romantic woes in a manner that would make ol’ Hank proud.

From haunting, 1970s-styled Southern-fried riffs and wiry fretwork to gorgeous, ethereal backing vocals, Grushecky imbues “The Voice” with an undeniable Stax soul sound. Singing above muted rhythms with his underrated, soul-drenched vox, Grushecky creates an incredibly charming vibe for a song that, lyrically, offers a light that pierces the darkness, the cosmos reaffirming that our inner strength and moral compass will win out in the end. A sort of thematic bookend to “The Voice,” the wonderfully poetic and insightful “Work In Progress” offers up a positive message riding upon an infectious melody with self-aware lyrics that are applicable to any of our lives, the reckless abandon of pure rock ‘n’ roll creating what would be a surefire hit if corporate radio – with its crippling playlists and overly-conservative consultants – hadn’t neutered the airwaves. Nevertheless, “Work In Progress” is a completely joyful slab of classic rock music.

Hell To Pay

With syncopated guitar licks, squealing six-strings, and explosive percussion pounding out a tribal Bo Diddly beat, Grushecky’s mesmerizing vocals leap out of the wall of sound with a sense of urgency on “Hell To Pay” as he sings of wasted lives and lost opportunities, praying for “love to conquer hate” and surmising that “something’s gotta change” or else there’ll be “hell to pay.” The addition of a wailing sax to the arrangement is sheer genius, the instrument offering a strident, sobbing counterpoint to the Bacchanalian instrumentation that bangs and crashes in the background, running amok as society burns. As many of us do, Grushecky sees a country that has strayed from its core values, teetering on the edge of decline with a conman at the helm.

Grushecky’s thoughts turn back to mortality with a contemporized cover of the 1930s-era gospel song “Ain’t No Grave,” which has most notably been recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Johnny Cash. Grushecky brings a gospel-blues spirit to the well-worn song with energetic acoustic guitar strum and locomotive blasts of high-lonesome harmonica before the entire band kicks in to take the song to the Promised Land, turning the performance from a plaintive plea to a tent-show revival complete with glossolalia. More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows closes with the acoustic “Don’t Mourn For Me Like That,” a hauntingly beautiful song where the protagonist says ‘goodbye’ to his loved one with words of reassurance and kindness, the belief in “today is a good day to die” reimagined as a gossamer ballad.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Forty years since the creation of the Iron City Houserockers, Joe Grushecky continues to create vital, complex music that is lyrically eloquent and relevant while remaining timeless in scope. After so many years, Grushecky continues to find new ways to express his muse in song, and while time-to-time he may revisit familiar themes that he first touched upon years ago, he does so with new perspective and insight. The music shows surprising instrumental flourishes that prove that old dogs can learn new tricks, and Grushecky’s status as an unheralded guitar hero is embellished by his fiery performances here.

More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows is an entertaining, exciting work that takes full advantage of the Houserockers’ immense musical chemistry – forged by decades of hard knocks and a shared faith in the religion of rock ‘n’ roll – to create a wonderful collection of songs that rock recklessly but pump the brakes when needed. Reunited with his longtime band after a handful of solo albums, Grushecky displays a renewed fervor and commitment to rock music as both soapbox and as a catalyst for social change. With More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows, Grushecky delivers a career milestone, outdoing himself once again. Grade: A+ (Schoolkids Records, released February 2018)

Get More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows through the band’s PledgeMusic crowdfunding effort

Related content:
Joe Grushecky’s It’s In My Song CD review
Joe Grushecky and the HouserockersAmerican Babylon Live CD review 

Wishbone Ash – The Vintage Years box set

Wishbone Ash's The Vintage Years

Revered British rockers Wishbone Ash join the ranks of the severely-anthologized with the April 2018 release of the band’s The Vintage Years limited edition box set by Madfish Music. Offering a band history on steroids, the whopping 30-CD collection is limited to 2,500 copies and features all sixteen of the band’s studio albums released from their self-titled 1970 debut through 1991’s Strange Affair, all remastered from the original master tapes for optimal sound quality. Three of these studio discs have long been out-of-print (1987’s Nouveau Calls, 1989’s Here to Hear, and Strange Affair) while many of the band’s other albums frequently pop in and out of availability depending on whatever way the wind blows. Each album will feature bonus material including rare studio outtakes, B-sides, and previously-unreleased tracks.

Wishbone Ash also released three studio albums during the span of decades covered by The Vintage YearsLive Dates (1973), Live Dates 2 (1980), and Live In Tokyo (released exclusively in Japan in 1979) – and all three albums are included here. The box set also includes eight previously-released live albums on eleven CDs, all recorded during the band’s prolific gravy years between 1973 to 1980, including performances from British tours for the albums Wishbone Four (1973), New England (1976), Front Page News (1977), and No Smoke Without Fire (1978), among others.

The Vintage Years box includes a swanky 156-page hardback book written by Classic Rock magazine scribe Dave Ling and featuring personal photos, rare posters and flyers, and collectors’ memorabilia. The set also includes a wealth of goodies for the hardcore Wishbone Ash fan, including a 36-page poster book covering the band’s early years through the Here to Hear LP, four reproduction concert posters from shows in 1973, ’74, ’75, and ’77; a facsimile MCA debut album promo pack; a 7” flexi-disc for the single “Blind Eye,” the first of the band’s 11 Japanese singles series; and individually-signed photos of each band member.

Wishbone Ash's The Vintage Years
Formed in 1969 by bassist Martin Turner and drummer Steve Upton, the classic early Wishbone Ash line-up came together with the addition of guitarists Andy Powell and Ted Turner (no relation to Martin). The band found its signature sound – a unique and ambitious mix of progressive rock and British folk fueled by their imaginative and influential twin guitar attack – with their sophomore album, 1971’s Pilgrimage. The band continued to explore new ground and outpace their contemporaries with pioneering albums like Argus (1972) and Wishbone Four. Band members have come and gone and come back again through the years, until Powell was the last man standing, both he and former member Martin Turner struggling for control over the band’s legacy during the ensuing decades.

Wishbone Ash continues to make vital, creative music as witnessed by the band’s most recent album, 2014’s Blue Horizon. All four members of the classic band line-up contributed to the construction of The Vintage Years, Martin Turner explaining in a press release for the box set, “I looked after most of these tape recordings for decades, wondering when they would ever see the light of day and I am very glad that they will at last be available for everyone to hear…It’s almost like having one’s whole musical life in one box. It certainly represents the most comprehensive Wishbone collection that I know of and I hope you enjoy it.”

Powell adds, “It’s truly amazing to look back at the musically fertile ‘70s and ‘80s and wonder at the sheer amount of incredible creative output from our band…I feel blessed to have played my part in it all and I’m truly thankful that it’s set the course for my entire life and all the music that’s followed, as the band continues to live on into the 21st century.” The resulting box set is a comprehensive and exhausting history of one of the more innovative and influential bands in rock ‘n’ roll history. Get more information on The Vintage Years from the Madfish Music website.

Related content:
Martin Turner’s New Live Dates CD review
Andy Powell’s Eyes Wide Open book review

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Cult Rocker Tommy Keene, R.I.P.

Tommy Keene's Based On Happy Times
We’re saddened to report on the death of singer, songwriter, and guitarist Tommy Keene of natural causes at the very young age of 59 years.

Keene is known for his melodic power-pop songwriting skills, and over the course of a career that spanned four decades, Keene released better than a dozen critically-acclaimed live and studio albums. Born in Bethesda, Maryland Keene was taught classical piano as a child before teaching himself drums and guitar. As a teenager, Keene performed in Blue Steel, a trio with Nils Lofgren’s younger brother Mike, before forming the Rage with singer/songwriter Richard X. Heyman. Keene left the Rage to join the Washington, D.C. area band the Razz, which opened for artists like Patti Smith and the Ramones.

After touring with singer Suzanne Fellini as a sideman, Keene decided to form his own band with former bandmates Ted Nicely and Doug Tull from the Razz. The band released their 1982 debut album, Strange Alliance, under Keene’s name on their independent Avenue Records label before signing with the Dolphin Records label in North Carolina. Keene subsequently recorded two EPs for Dolphin before getting signed to Geffen Records. The major label released a pair of well-received Keene albums in 1986’s Songs From the Film and 1989’s Based on Happy Times before dropping the artist from their roster. To be sure, Geffen had no idea of how to promote Keene’s unique brand of melodic rock and intelligent songwriting as they were literally printing money with Guns N’ Roses albums.

Keene built upon his major label exposure with a string of solid indie recordings throughout the 1990s and early ‘00s, released by labels like Alias Records, Matador Records, and spinART Records. In 2009 he was signed by Stephen Judge’s fledgling Second Motion Records label, which would release a handful of Keene’s recordings between 2009’s In the Late Bright and 2015’s Laugh In the Dark. Second Motion also released a career-spanning 2010 retrospective titled Tommy Keene You Hear Me.

I interviewed Tommy Keene once during his brief major label career, but never had the pleasure of meeting the artist who, by all accounts, was a helluva nice guy in addition to being incredibly talented. Our pals Stephen Judge (publisher) and Fred Mills (editor), who knew and worked with Keene, have put together an excellent remembrance of the underrated talent on the Blurt magazine website.

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F. Revisited

When guitarist Johnny Thunders struck out on his own from the infamous New York Dolls in 1975, he brought the band’s drummer, Jerry Nolan, with him and formed the Heartbreakers with former Television bassist Richard Hell. Guitarist Walter Lure was added to the band and, when conflict inevitably arose between Thunders and his bassist, Hell left to form Richard Hell and the Voidoids, replaced by Billy Rath. This is the line-up that, as Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers (to separate them from Tom Petty’s band), recorded a single classic punk-rock album in 1977’s L.A.M.F.

L.A.M.F. has been remixed and reissued numerous times over the 40 years since its original release, the album grabbing a new audience each time and cementing its status as a seminal work of the punk-rock era. In November 2016, sole surviving Heartbreaker Walter Lure was joined by friends like Blondie’s Clem Burke, Tommy Stinson of the Replacements, and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer on two nights at New York City’s Bowery Electric Club to perform L.A.M.F. in its entirety. The events, captured on audio and videotape, also included guests ‘Handsome’ Dick Manitoba of the Dictators, D-Generation’s Jesse Malin, Liza Colby, and Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys.

On December 8th, 2017 MVD Entertainment will release LAMF: Live at the Bowery Electric as a fourteen-track CD, a colored vinyl album, and as a full-length DVD which features bonus interviews with Lure, Burke, Kramer, and Stinson. These releases capture an energetic and reverent performance of the material by a group of talented musicians, coinciding with Lure’s touring L.A.M.F. show which kicks off at the end of November 2017 with gigs in Los Angeles, San Diego, Brooklyn, and New York City. Lure is joined on the tour by guitarist Mike Ness (Social Distortion), bassist Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), and drummer Burke. LAMF: Live at the Bowery Electric is a great addition to the Thunders/Heartbreakers canon and a perfect accompaniment to the recent 40th anniversary edition of the original L.A.M.F. album.

Buy the CD from L.A.M.F. Live at the Bowery Electric