Friday, August 28, 2020

Archive Review: Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation's Mighty Rearranger (2005)

Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation's Mighty Rearranger
Simply put, Mighty Rearranger offers Robert Plant's best work since, perhaps, Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. Invigorated by his skilled backing band, the Strange Sensation, Plant takes musical risks and climbs out on a limb more than once with the finest batch of songs he's delivered during a lengthy solo career that has lasted nearly a quarter-century. Picking up where he left off with 2002's acclaimed Dreamland LP, this is the Robert Plant of yore – dropping the hammer of the gods and belting out songs with a cocksure confidence that many lesser vocalists have tried to capture and failed, often times miserably.

Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation's Mighty Rearranger

Working in tandem with his excellent band, especially guitarists Justin Adams and Skin Tyson, with no little assistance from keyboardist John Baggot, Plant has crafted a solid collection of material. The songs on Mighty Rearranger revel in their hard rock roots, but also incorporate Plant's fascination with Eastern modality and poly-rhythms, elements of complex, Zep-styled British folk and the singer's love for classic American blues and soul music. If it sounds like a heady mix, well, it is, Plant and the Strange Sensation masterfully weaving in and out of genres, challenging one another and coming up with truly breathtaking performances.

Suffice it to say that the second coming of Robert Plant is no dull affair. Mighty Rearranger is filled with memorable moments that blister and peel. The Middle Eastern rhythms of "Another Tribe" are paired with weeping lead guitar and Plant's mournful vocals offer precise social commentary, asking hard questions. The singer attempts a bit of vocal gymnastics on "Freedom Fries," the syncopated rhythm track approximately a sort of rockabilly shuffle but matched swerve-for-swerve by Plant's assured phrasings. "Tin Pan Valley" takes a look at days gone by, Plant's subdued vocals supported by a sparse soundscape as he takes a few lyrical jabs at contemporaries trying to hold onto past glories. By the time the guitars roar into the mix and Plant's voice soars to Wagnerian heights, it's clear that the rock legend is moving forward, not back. "Dancing In Heaven" offers the sort of crystalline acoustic guitarwork that Zeppelin fans cut their eye teeth on, Plant's brilliant lyrical imagery matched by the band's instrumental virtuosity. The title cut is a bluesy, gospel-tinged rocker with raw fretwork and otherworldly keyboards.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Mighty Rearranger is not a reinvention of Robert Plant as such, but rather a showcase for the artist's creative evolution. Without ignoring his past triumphs, Plant has built a bridge to the future, finding a revival in fortunes by working with the second great band of his career. With Mighty Rearranger, Plant and the Strange Sensation have discovered the legendary fountain of youth, and its name is rock 'n' roll... (Sanctuary Records, released May 3, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Book Review: Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies (2004)

Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies
I'm pretty much a half-assed, unmotivated music collector. I love music and with a little over a thousand vinyl albums and close to three times that many CDs, my collection never fails to impress the squares, and it has a little of everything that I like to listen to during the average week. While I enjoy the odd bargain-bin album discovery and have been known to dig through hundreds of CDs just to find a handful of 99-cent discs to tote home, my feeble efforts pale in comparison with the freaks featured in Brett Milano's book Vinyl Junkies. While my collection (and the mild compulsions that led to its creation and ongoing evolution) astounds the average citizen, my personal obsessions bow down with awe in the face of collectors like John Tefteller, Jerry The DJ or 'Monoman' profiled by Milano.

Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies

With his novel High Fidelity and the film subsequently made from the book, writer and music lover Nick Hornby defined the different types of collector personality, from the elitist record geek to the seriously-disturbed completist who collects everything and anything, as long as he gets it all. Milano, on the other hand, attempts to unmask the collector's psyche, delving into the reasons behind the vinyl junkie's unrelenting obsession. Milano restricts his topic strictly to, well, vinyl, and to the reasons why the collector is driven to amass incredible archives of (typically) obscure and, in some cases, unbelievably bad music. Although some collectors will focus exclusively on format – 78 RPM shellac discs or 12" mono LPs, for instance – others are drawn entirely to style, such as the hunters of '50s-era doo-wop or gatherers of circa-60s psychedelica. Then there are those who concentrate on finding everything available by a single artist like, say, Olivia Newton-John (to use an example from the book). Perhaps the mildest form of stalking, every single import album version, alternative picture sleeve and rare fanzine interview is fair game for this class of collector.

In his attempt to get to the bottom of this collecting business, Milano speaks at length with several vinyl junkies of note. Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth share their collecting stories, as do Steve Turner of Mudhoney, underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and the J. Geils Band's Peter Wolf (notice how many collectors are musicians?). My friend, Ireland-born/England-raised Nashville record store owner Mike Smyth (himself a collector), once told me that the British are even more whacked out than we Americans, with collections often spanning several generations, never moving out of a single rent-controlled house or apartment. Milano has tracked down collectors across the pond like the Bevis Frond's Nick Salamon and his friend Stewart Lee for their valuable perspectives on music and collecting. The comments of label executives and music industry veterans, zine publishers and used record store owners add to the diverse group of collectors that Milano has talked with in putting together the book.

Throughout Vinyl Junkies, Milano adds his own voice, relating personal experiences as a collector and adding personality to what might otherwise be a rather boring subject for those not caught in the grip of record collecting. Although Vinyl Junkies is academic in scope and ambition, the book is lighthearted and enthusiastic in its treatment, a quick, entertaining and informative read. Although consumerist by its very nature, with collectors spending hundreds or thousands of dollars annually on music, the pursuit of record (and CD) collecting is a side of the industry that multi-national media companies would rather you ignore. Collecting usually steps beyond the confines of hype-driven corporate music choices, snubbing the marketing department in favor of personal empowerment. Finding that one disc that you've been searching for since you were a teenager tucked away in a box under a dusty shelf in a used record or thrift store is an adrenaline-pumping moment that satisfies in a way that a hundred image-driven Britney clones could never provide. Serious music collectors program their own personal playlist, creating a soundtrack for their lives that no record company could ever imagine. It's certainly a form of addiction, albeit a mild and mostly harmless diversion, but collecting and the music it brings into our lives provides a natural high.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

There seem to be as many reasons for record collecting as there are record collectors, and Milano does an admirable job of sorting through the chaff, sidestepping enervating collector arguments (mono or stereo? vinyl or CD?) and providing insight into this growing musical subculture. It's a tribute to the writer that after my first reading of the book, I had to run out and buy several of the titles mentioned within, including albums by the Bevis Frond and H.P. Lovecraft. If you love music in the least little bit, you owe it to yourself to add Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies to your collection. (St. Martin's Griffin, published November 10, 2003)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2004

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Friday, August 21, 2020

Archive Review: Cluster & Eno (1977)

Cluster & Eno
More musically adventurous than his Roxy Music bandmates, Brian Eno left that successful British band and struck out on his own in 1973 to follow his own unique musical vision. Although he would later build a significant body of solo work, become the superstar producer of bands like U2 and the Talking Heads, and record groundbreaking collaborations with artists like Robert Fripp, David Bowie and David Byrne, one of Eno's first stops along the road to fame and fortune was in Germany.

Cluster & Eno

Fascinated by the conceptual possibilities of ambient music – one of many logical endpoints for the fledgling art form of electronic music during the mid-70s – Eno would team up with the duo of Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius for a series of albums that, while not earthshaking in their scope and ambition at the time, have nevertheless crept into the shared consciousness of popular music over time to become influential pieces of the puzzle that is Eno's wonderfully enchanting canon of work.

Eno's first collaboration with the two members of Cluster would be released in 1977 as Cluster & Eno. By the time of the album's release, Eno had already made his first forays into creating ambient music with the release of 1975's Discreet Music and the recording of Before and After Science, which included Cluster in the studio. His first album with Moebius and Roedelius, however, an entirely instrumental affair, would serve to define the boundaries of ambient music and then shatter them. Utilizing a series of set pieces – loosely-structured songs, really – the three visionary artists experimented with various found sounds and instrumentation, studio wizardry and the electronic synthesis of sound. The resulting mix of musical styles, instrumentation and sonic manipulation flows from your speakers like watercolors on a canvas. Cluster & Eno is a challenging and invigorating listen, with fragments of the album's compositions blending, chameleonlike, into the background (Eno's vision of ambience) while others jump up from the grooves to grab you by the ears and demand your attention.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Although the trailblazing electronic experimentation by Eno, Moebius and Roedelius, as well as other fellow travelers like Klaus Schulze would later become the foundation of prog-rock and, much to our dismay, the keystones of both techno and new age music, at the time of this recording, this was revolutionary work, weird in both its ambition and its execution. Recently reissued on CD for the first time, Cluster & Eno deserves a listen by any music lover interested in this essential touchstone in the evolution of electronic music. (Water Music, reissued 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

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Friday, August 14, 2020

Archive Review: Spock's Beard's Gluttons For Punishment, Live In '05 (2005)

Spock's Beards' Gluttons For Punishment
The remaining members of Spock's Beard had a lot to live up to when founding member and songwriter Neal Morse left the band a couple of years back. The major architect of the trademark Spock's sound, Morse's departure forced the other band members to step up and take the reins of the popular prog-rock trailblazers.

With drummer Nick D'Virgilio assuming lead vocal duties and underrated guitarist Al Morse stepping into the spotlight more often, the band took on a harder, rock-oriented edge with its two post-Neal albums, Feeling Euphoria and Octane. The band developed a collective approach to songwriting that took advantage of their individual strength's, bringing in friends John Boeghold and Stan Ausmus for lyrical assistance where needed.

Spock's Beard's Gluttons For Punishment

All that was missing was for the "new" band to establish its identity as a top-notch performance outfit, a questionable goal they seem to have rapidly achieved. After all, this is basically the same batch of guys that recorded such classic modern prog albums as The Light and Beware of Darkness. Morse's abdication changed the band's sound and, perhaps, its focus but the talent and instrumental creativity remained in place. As documented by Gluttons For Punishment, the first live set from Spock's Beard, version II, any questions about the band's performance skills were absurd from the beginning.

Recorded during Spock's Beard's Spring 2005 European tour, Gluttons For Punishment, Live In '05 effectively recreates the recent Octane album almost in its entirety and in virtually the same running order as the studio original. Although it's unusual for a band to release a live disc in such close proximity to a studio album, the clamoring of fans evidently tipped the band's hand. There is some embroidery provided the studio versions of the Octane songs, albeit very little, and although the performances are dynamic and multi-layered, one can't help but wonder what a little more time might have added to these songs in the way of instrumental interpretation.

At the End of the Day

The band all but ignores its recent Feeling Euphoria album, covering only two of that disc's songs in "The Bottom Line" and "Ghosts of Autumn," alongside a sparse selection of songs from earlier Spock's releases. "Harm's Way," from 1998's The Kindness of Strangers, provides an ample dose of keyboard wizard Ryo Okumoto's mad riffing while also offering an excellent showcase for Al Morse's understated and elegant fretwork. V's "At the End of the Day" kicks off the second disc, D'Virgilio's vocals taking the song in different directions than Morse's original reading, the tune benefiting from some improvisational jazz-rock fusion styled passages.

Since taking over as the band's frontman, D'Virgilio vocals have steadily improved, the talented drummer also forging a distinctive vocal identity around the band's evolving sound. Nowhere is D'Virgilio's confidence more evident than on the album-closing, nearly twenty-minute revisiting of "The Light" from the very first Spock's Beard album. The vocalist stretches his talents to their limits in recreating the roller-coaster highs and lows and dangerous curves of the song's lengthy and varied performance. Given new muscle by the various players' more aggressive direction, "The Light" is both a reminder of the past and a bridge to the band's musical future.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Spock's Beard remains one of the most intriguing and innovative bands on the modern progressive rock landscape, a wonderful match of talents and musical chemistry that has continuously moved forward for over 20 years. Gluttons For Punishment, Live In '05 is a fair snapshot of this moment in time for Spock's Beard, an entertaining and exhilarating performance from one of the guiding lights of the current prog-rock movement. (Inside Out Music, released May 3, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

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Archive Review: Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica (2005)

Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica
Longtime David Bowie foil and session gunslinger-for-hire Reeves Gabrels isn't a well-known name, even among guitar fanatics...though he should be. Besides recording and performing alongside the legendary rocker for most of the '90s, Gabrels has also turned in admirable session work with a diverse range of artists like Ozzy Osbourne, Public Enemy, the Cure and the Mission UK. Although his solo recordings have been few and far between, with several years spanning each effort, Gabrels' third album – Rockonica – should be the one that puts his name on the rock 'n' roll map for good.

Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica

Whereas on previous albums Gabrels would call in favors from famous frontmen like Bowie or the Cure's Robert Smith to provide vox on his songs, with Rockonica the axeman truly flies solo without a net, handling most, if not all the singing chores. It's not surprising to say that his vocals aren't half bad, his soulful Yankee drawl working well with the material. Sure, he's no Bowie, but Gabrels' voice does bring a bounce to his lyrics, with a cadence that is reminiscent of Wayne Kramer's early solo work. This is no coincidence, I'm sure, since Kramer drummer Brock Avery is on board, providing a rhythmic, Motor City edge to the songs (especially on "Underneath," which quotes quite liberally from the Kramer playebook).

It's all academic, really, since Rockonica is, first and foremost, a showcase for Gabrels' enormous skills. A vastly underrated guitarist often overlooked in the music media's rush to crown a new "guitar god," Gabrels is a hard rock instrumentalist with an avant-garde heart. Think of a cross between Johnny Thunders and Robert Quine and you're probably in the right ballpark. Gabrels' material cuts across stylistic barriers and genre considerations, the six-string maestro mixing straight-ahead rock riffs with taut leads that unwind like a runaway spool of razor wire. Angular, prog-flavored song structure, heavy metal thunder and jazzy, free-form improvisational soloing are blended together with incredible phrasing, unmistakable tone and breathtaking dynamics.

Gabrels is no string-shredder like Zakk Wilde or fretboard racer like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Reeves Gabrels is an entirely different creature, an experimental musician whose powerful performances and instrumental wizardry don't get in the way of having a good time. The ten-minute "Anywhere (She Is)," for instance, offers more twists and turns than a mountain road while "The Conversation" starts out big and blustery, like prog-rock run amok, before settling into a minimalist soundtrack with odd time signatures and an almost bluesy riff. "Leper" offers some tasty lead work before bouncing into a funky groove of '70s vintage while the lengthy, epic "Long Day" displays just about every weapon in Gabrels' toolbox, from slow, considerate chording to shimmering, hypnotic fretwork.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

If you're the type of listener that appreciates skillful guitar playing within a heavy rock 'n' roll background, then Rockonica might just possibly be an album worth looking for. With more experience than today's typically young string-bender, and with a penchant for coaxing just about any damn sound out of his stick, Reeves Gabrels creates music that is intelligent, challenging and, ultimately, rewarding in a way that much of the current corporate chart-fodder fails to achieve. (Favored Nations Records, released 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

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Friday, August 7, 2020

Archive Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' True Companion (2004)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' True Companion
Pittsburgh’s Joe Grushecky may well be rock music’s least-known cult artist, his longtime backing band the Houserockers the best bar band in America. An underrated songwriter and storyteller and a guitarist of no little skill, if not for his connection with fellow blue-collar rocker Bruce Springsteen, Grushecky would get no respect at all. In the eyes of many critics, however, Grushecky’s 2002 solo effort Fingerprints outdistanced Springsteen’s The Rising in both ambition and pure rock ‘n’ roll thrills.

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ True Companion

Working without the Houserockers net, Grushecky’s solo turn was impressive, but it also proved to be invigorating. Back in the studio with the band he’s fronted in one form or another for a quarter-century, True Companion is the Houserockers’ sixth studio album and first release in almost five years. The time apart has allowed players like guitarist Billy Toms, bassist Art Nardini, drummer Joffo Simmons, and the others to recharge their batteries. The chemistry between band and band leader is undeniable and Grushecky has delivered a solid batch of songs for True Companion, the Houserockers responding with spirited, energetic performances that have more in common with the Stones, CCR, and Memphis soul than with anything you’ll hear on the radio these days.

Grushecky is at his best when writing about his place in the world around him, and True Companion offers several insightful (and revealing) glimpses into the soul of the man. “A Long Way To Go” is a perfect recounting of the joys of rock ‘n’ roll, the lyrics tracing the artist from enthusiastic teenage rocker to middle-aged family man and rock ‘n’ roll lifer who has come too far to quit now. It’s as close to a biography as Grushecky has allowed, the defiant closing lines – “I still want to rock and roll/Hell I’m only in my fifties/And I still got a long way to go” – stating that the old dog still has some music left in him yet.

“Strange Days” is the opposite side of the coin, however, the wondering aloud of a man whose best efforts have been overshadowed by the success of lesser artists. Grushecky has always ignored trends, playing a timeless style of rock ‘n’ roll, although it has cost him greatly. “If only I would have known,” he sings, “maybe I would have changed my look.” He continues “Someday I’m going to write a book/And tell the world out there/About a mighty man they have overlooked/And spread my philosophy/Hey man, it ain’t what you eat, it’s who’s the cook.” Whether we like it or not, age catches up with all of us, and self-doubt creeps in when “all the things I like are so outdated.” Grushecky knows that the world has little place for a fifty-something rocker that few have heard of, yet he continues to hope that “tomorrow’s a better day.”

A Shot of Salvation

It is with the title cut, “True Companion,” however, that Grushecky delivers on every promise that he has ever made to his listeners. With a mournful melody reminiscent of Springsteen’s “The River,” the artist questions his ability to carry on in the face of indifference. In reflecting, he draws strength from those he cherishes – his father, his wife, and his family. Seldom has Grushecky’s guitarwork flown so high, punctuating his lyrics with a lonesome wail that channels the ghosts of a dozen Delta bluesmen. It’s not the only time on True Companion that Grushecky calls upon his family to get him through – “Count On You” is a wonderful love song for his wife, a Southern fried rocker with a funky rhythm and enough joy to share, a musical departure and a lyrical gem.

Grushecky has not abandoned his trademark tales of blue-collar woe on True Companion. “She’s A Big Girl Now” tells the story of a domestic abuse victim that manages to break free and start a new life while “A Shot Of Salvation” offers the lament of every family living paycheck to paycheck in a world where there are “too many songs, not enough soul.” The lively “A Silver Spoon” pokes fun at the privileged few that run this country while “The Shape I’m In” is a hard-rocking accounting of the fears experienced every day by both those who punch a clock and those who have no clock to punch. An electrifying cover of the garage rock classic “Dirty Water” is dedicated to the hometown that has supported Grushecky for decades (and the three rivers that define the city).

The album closes with “Call Him,” the artist coming to grips with the trials and self-doubt experienced across the previous ten songs, finding solace in his faith and the ability to carry on in the face of the dream-crushing daily treadmill. “Well I get up in the morning/And I do it all again/And I never tell nobody/About the pain I’m in” sings Grushecky, searching for a light to lead him out of darkness. It’s a powerful and personal song and a magnificent testimonial. Throughout all of True Companion, Grushecky’s guitar moans and cries and screams like a tortured soul, the Houserockers offering dignified support behind Grushecky’s soulful vocals.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Far too often has Joe Grushecky been compared to Bruce Springsteen, denied his place as a rock ‘n’ roll original. If not for decisions made long ago, or perhaps a stroke of luck or fate’s touch or whatever you want to call it, their roles might have been reversed. Grushecky is a true rocker, an artist of distinctive voice that stands in nobody’s shadow. He keeps struggling to create the perfect rock ‘n’ roll album because that’s all he knows to do. True Companion showcases Grushecky’s best work yet, proof positive that you’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll. (Schoolhouse Records, released January 27th, 2004)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2004

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Saturday, August 1, 2020

New Music Monthly: August 2020 releases

Is it hot enough for ya?! Yeah, it's August and the summer has been every bit the slog we thought it would be. Half the country is eat up with the Covid and the other half is trying to avoid the virus. The good news is that while the month starts out slow, it picks up by week three with a slew of new music from folks like King Buzzo, Cidny Bullens, Guided by Voices, the Lemon Twigs, Chuck Prophet, Deep Purple, reggae legends Toots & the Maytals, and blues giants Walter Trout and Bobby Rush, among others. Throw in a live sets from Iggy & the Stooge and Nils Lofgren and reissues from the Flamin' Groovies, the Tom Tom Club, and Collective Soul and August is starting to look pretty good! 

Release dates are probably gonna change and nobody tells me when they do. If you’re interesting in buying an album, just hit the ‘Buy!’ link to get it from’s just that damn easy! Your purchase puts valuable ‘store credit’ in the Reverend’s pocket that he’ll use to buy more music to write about in a never-ending loop of rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy! If you're boycotting Amazon and don't have an indie record store close by, may we suggest shopping with our friends at Grimey's Music in Nashville? They have a great selection of vinyl available by mail order, offer quick service, and if you don't see what you want on their website, check out their Discogs shop!

Deep Purple's Whoosh!

Collective Soul - Collective Soul [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Collective Soul - Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Deep Purple - Whoosh!   BUY!
The Flamin' Groovies - Jumpin' In the Night   BUY!
Glass Animals - Dreamland   BUY!
The Stooges - Live At Goose Lake: August 8th, 1970   BUY!

Biffy Clyro's A Celebration of Endings

Biffy Clyro - A Celebration of Endings   BUY!
King Buzzo - Gift of Sacrifice   BUY!
Robbby Krieger - The Ritual Begins At Sundown   BUY!

Nils Lofgren's Weathered

Cidny Bullens - Walkin' Through This World   BUY!
The Georgia Thunderbolts - The Georgia Thunderbolts EP   BUY!
Guided By Voices - Mirrored Aztec   BUY!
The Killers - Imploding the Mirage   BUY!
The Lemon Twigs - Songs For the General Public   BUY!
Nils Lofgren - Weathered [live album]   BUY!
Old 97's - Twelfth   BUY!
Chuck Prophet - The Land That Time Forgot   BUY!
Tom Tom Club - Tom Tom Club [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Various Artists - Willie Nile Uncovered [tribute album w/Nils Lofgren, Graham Parker, Elliott Murphy, others]   BUY!

Toots & the Maytals' Got To Be Tough

My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall II   BUY!
Dan Penn - Living On Mercy [Memphis soul legend]   BUY!
Bobby Rush - Rawer Than Raw   BUY!
Savoy Brown - Ain't Done Yet   BUY!
Toots & the Maytals - Got To Be Tough   BUY!
Walter Trout - Ordinary Madness   BUY!

Willie Nile Uncovered

Album of the Month: It's no secret that we're big Willie Nile fans 'round these parts (Willie is from WNY, after all!), but even in a month with new albums from the great Walter Trout and a live Nils Lofgren set, the tribute compilation Willie Nile Uncovered would stand out. Nile is an extremely gifted songwriter, and this two-disc, 26-song set features other very talented folks like Elliott Murphy, Graham Parker, Dan Bern, Richard Barone, Nils Lofgren, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky, among many others, interpreting songs from across the four decades of Nile's critically-acclaimed career. If you're unfamiliar with Mr. Nile, you owe it to yourself to check out Willie Nile Uncovered