Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Short Rounds: Dave Alvin, Blue Öyster Cult, Shemekia Copeland, Coyote Motel, The Fleshtones, Little Richard, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, Midnight Oil, The Pretty Things, Walter Trout & Brown Acid

Dave Alvin's From An Old Guitar:
New album releases in 200 words or less…

Dave AlvinFrom An Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings (Yep Roc Records)
This “odds ‘n’ sods” collection of rare, unreleased, and barely-released songs by Americana pioneer Dave Alvin stands with any of the artist’s albums due to his talent and passion. Offering the listener every shade of American music, from acoustic and electric blues to country, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll, Alvin mixes original songs with those written by friends like Peter Case and Chris Smithers as well as tunes by musical idols like Doug Sahm, Bob Dylan, and Willie Dixon. There’s really no ‘hard sell’ needed here – if you’re already a fan of Alvin’s charms as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist then you’re going to pick up From An Old Guitar no matter what I write. But whether it’s the energy provided a spry reading of “Highway 61,” the heartbreaking cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Amanda,” or the exciting, electrifying guitar-play of “Variations on Earl Hooker’s Guitar Rumba,” Alvin knows his way around a song. Originals like the swinging, bluesy romp “Albuquerque” or the country blues-flavored instrumental “Krazy and Ignatz” display other facets of Alvin’s immense skills. A true legend of American music, the performances documented by From An Old Guitar are a welcome addition to an often-varied, always-impressive Dave Alvin catalog. Grade: A   BUY!

Blue Öyster Cult's The Symbol Remains
Blue Öyster CultThe Symbol Remains (Frontiers Records)

BOC’s first studio album since 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror was pronounced ‘D.O.A.’ has been hailed by many critics as a “return to form,” but is it really? The 1970s/’80s-era Blue Öyster Cult is long gone, although the (arguably) two most important old guys remain – guitarist Buck Dharma and singer Eric Bloom – backed by a longtime touring band with chops honed to a razor edge by a thousand nights on the road. So, The Symbol Remains offers a new sort of BOC sound, the guitar-driven slab o’ granite released by Italian hard rock specialists Frontiers Records. Whether there’s a market for this sort of rock ‘n’ roll two decades into the new millennium is beside the point, as aging fans will eat up the jagged power-pop of “Box In My Head” or the haunting Goth-metal palace intrigue of “The Alchemist.” All 14 tunes here are originals, written, co-written, sliced & diced with collaborators like musician/cyberpunk author John Shirley and rockcrit legend Richard Meltzer. The results are a crazy-quilt of ‘70s-inspired classic rock with a contemporary sheen. Dharma’s guitar cuts like a knife, the vocals-by-committee approach works, and the album rocks. Hard. What more could a po’ boy ask for? Grade: B   BUY!

Shemekia Copeland's Uncivil War
Shemekia Copeland Uncivil War (Alligator Records)

Returning to Nashville to record a follow-up to her award-winning 2018 album America’s Child, blues singer Shemekia Copeland is working again with producer, songwriter, and musician Will Kimbrough, who collaborates with Copeland’s longtime creative foil, John Hahn, to put together a helluva slate of songs for the talented singer. Musicians like guitarists Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Jason Isbell, Steve Cropper, Duane Eddy, Webb Wilder, and Kimbrough himself as well as steel-guitar maestro Jerry Douglas and mandolin wizard Sam Bush add to the bluesy gumbo that is Uncivil War. Make no mistake, though – this is Copeland’s show, and her confident, inspired vocals make for transcendent performances. The blues-gospel title track is a gem with heavenly vocals grounded by Douglas’s dobro and Bush’s mandolin while “Walk Until I Ride” is a gospel-tinged treasure with Copeland’s soulful vocals displaying a powerful defiance in the face of discrimination. The wonderful “Dirty Saint” displays a nuanced New Orleans mojo in tribute to the late Dr. John and “Apple Pie and A .45” is a devastatingly powerful blues-rock dirge. Copeland doesn’t ignore straight blues here, as the smoky “In the Dark” will attest, Copeland proving once again that she’s among the best the blues has to offer. Grade: A+   BUY!

Coyote Motel's Still Among the Living
Coyote MotelStill Among the Living (Dolly Sez Woof Records)

I’ve heard enough of ‘em over the past 50 years that it’s a rare live disc that really makes me wish that I’d been at a particular show. As for actually going to shows anymore, I’ve paid my dues several hundred times over in clubs with bad air, muddy sound, and overpriced beer. After listening to Coyote Motel’s Still Among the Living, documenting a February 2020 performance at The 5 Spot in Nashville, damn if I don’t wish that I’d been there that night. Pursuing what he calls “cosmic roots music,” musician and scribe Ted Drozdowski leads Coyote Motel through songs from their self-titled 2019 debut, offering a unique hybrid of blues, rock, and roots music. The guitarist imbues opener “Still Among the Living” with otherworldly fretwork and haunting vocals while Luella Melissa Mathes’ ethereal vocals offer a nice counterpoint to Drozdowski’s wiry vox, taking a song like the devastating “The River” into a higher dimension. An appearance by jazz legend Stan Lassiter on the classic “Tin Pan Alley” compliments Drozdowski’s scorched-earth approach to the song. Overall, Still Among the Living captures a truly electrifying performance by a talented band as scary as the wrong end of a .44 revolver. Grade: A   BUY!  

The Fleshtones' Face of the Screaming Werewolf
The FleshtonesFace of the Screaming Werewolf (Yep Roc Records)

Although I found the band’s previous album (2016’s The Band Drinks For Free) somewhat tepid (by the Fleshtones’ lofty standards), I’m happy to say that your fave “super rock” garage band is back in the groove with the rowdy Face of the Screaming Werewolf. Released on CD and vinyl for this year’s third Record Store Day “drop” in October, the album is the rock ‘n’ roll tonic we need for 2020. Featuring Keith Streng’s stellar fretwork, Peter Zaremba’s haunted vocals, and lusty, deep-throated bass drums, the title track will have you hiding under the bed from monsters, but tapping your toes nonetheless. The tribute “Alex Trebeck” takes on a new look with the beloved TV host’s recent death, pairing erudite lyrics with a throwback ‘60s rock vibe (trembling guitars and jangly rhythms) for a respectful homage. Much of the rest of Werewolf offers different shades of guitar-happy, reckless rhythm rawk, from the harmonies of “Child of the Moon,” which reminds of the Stones’ “We Love You,” to the Kinks-styled buzz and hum of “You Gotta Love, Love,” the Fleshtones leave no tasty musical stone unturned, putting their own signature on nearly 60 years of rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills. Grade: A   BUY!

Little Richard's Southern Child
Little Richard – Southern Child (Omnivore Recordings)

Signed to Reprise Records in 1970, Little Richard decided that his third effort for the label would be a country album. After all, if Ray Charles could pull it off, so could the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer. The result – 1972’s Southern Child – was produced by longtime friend Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and featured a brace of original songs…and it was promptly shelved by Reprise until finally appearing as part of a 2005 box set. Hindsight is 20/20, but I think that if the label had released the album, it may have gotten some traction. As shown by Omnivore’s CD reissue of this lost gem, Mr. Penniman sings country as effortlessly and with the same charisma as he does rock, soul, and gospel. Some of the material – notably “Burning Up With Love” or “California (I’m Comin’)” – are really just rockin’ soul tunes with a bit of added twang. But others, like the slow-rolling “Ain’t No Tellin’” or the raucous title track certainly could have found a home on country radio in the pre-playlist days of the early ‘70s. Altogether, Southern Child is a successful experiment in style, Little Richard proving (again) that he was the best at whatever he chose to do. Grade: B+   BUY!  

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets' Live At the Roundhouse
Nick Mason’s Saucerful of SecretsLive At the Roundhouse (Legacy Recordings)

I had my doubts about Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason reliving his glory days with live performances of the band’s classic psych-era tunes, but my fears were erased soon after slapping this sucker on the turntable. Mason does his old mate Syd justice with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets and their Live At the Roundhouse album and concert film. Documenting performances from two nights in May 2019 at the historic Roundhouse in London, England, Mason’s talented band rip and roar through almost two-dozen tracks that pre-date Floyd’s commercial ‘monsterpiece’, Dark Side of the Moon. Mason’s band includes former Floyd touring bassist Guy Pratt, guitarists Gary Kemp and Lee Harris, keyboardist Dom Beken, and Mason himself on the cans; they honed these songs with theatre dates across North America, Europe, and the U.K. The musical chemistry shows, gems like “See Emily Play,” “Arnold Layne,” and “Saucerful of Secrets” hewing close enough to the originals to please the hardcore faithful but offering enough originality to entertain any classic rock fan. FYI, the vinyl packaging is gorgeous, a cardboard slipcase with a cut-out revealing the colorful gatefold double-LP cover beneath, the two albums sheathed in full-color paper sleeves and thick slabs o’ vinyl. Also available as a double-CD set with concert DVD…buy ‘em both! Grade: A-   BUY!

Midnight Oil's The Makarrata Project
Midnight OilThe Makarrata Project (Sony Music Australia)

The first full-length studio album from Australian rock legends Midnight Oil since 2002’s Capricornia, The Makarrata Project is a special collaboration, a meeting of minds whose ponderous description may scare off the casual listener (and even a few hardcore fans). Don’t buy into the ignorance – The Makarrata Project is every bit a Midnight Oil album, from Peter Garrett’s stunning vocals and Jim Moginie’s razor-sharp fretwork to the thunderous rhythms of bassist Bones Hillman and drummer Rob Hirst. Where it differs from the usual politically-charged Midnight Oil joint is its worthy cause and inclusion of indigenous voices from ‘First Nation’ artists like Jessica Mauboy, Alice Skye, Tasman Keith, Sammy Butcher, Frank Yamma, and others. So, you get some spoken word passages, tribal chants, and other singers, all united in service of the ‘Uluru Statement of the Heart’ which, basically, calls for Constitutional power and protection for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. It’s a powerful use of rock ‘n’ roll for social change, and the band is donating its royalties (matched by Sony) from the album to organizations seeking to elevate the Uluru Statement. Midnight Oil has always “walked the walk;” with The Makarrata Project, they’ve upped the stakes. (Bones Hillman, R.I.P. November 2020) Grade: A   BUY!     

The Pretty Things' Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood
The Pretty ThingsBare As Bone, Bright As Blood (Madfish Music)

The final recording from these British rock legends is pretty much a collaboration between Pretty Things founders Phil May and Dick Taylor, with occasional instrumental contributions from friends and fellow bandmates. An acoustic collection of blues, rock, and folk music that places an emphasis on May’s expressive, soulful vocals and Taylor’s deft fretwork, Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood masterfully blends songs like the PT’s George Woosey’s haunting title track or Will Varley’s “To Build A Wall,” which features May’s gorgeous, fragile vocals with traditional blues tunes by Robert Johnson (“Come Into My Kitchen”) and Willie Dixon (“I’m Ready”), the likes of which the PTs cut their teeth on five decades ago. A cover of folk songwriter Gillian Welch’s hillbilly dirge “The Devil Had A Hold of Me” displays another facet of May’s immense talent while Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Song” benefits from May’s nuanced vocals and Taylor’s elegant guitar playing. Tragically, May’s death earlier this year ends the 55-year musical partnership between the singer and guitarist but, as swan songs go, Bare As Bone is a hell of a note to go out on. Grade: A+   BUY!

Walter Trout's Ordinary Madness
Walter TroutOrdinary Madness (Provogue Records)

The blues-rock maestro returns with Ordinary Madness, a quick follow-up to 2019’s critically-acclaimed Survivor Blues. There are no signs of rush recording here or a drop-off in song quality, though – the guitarist’s tone, tenor, and tenacity have never been fiercer. The title track is a smoldering jam with gorgeous guitar and lyrics that barely hide their menace. The production on “Wanna Dance” (by longtime Trout collaborator Eric Corne) is spectacular, lush tones and power chords pumping up the instrumentation, underlining Trout’s mournful vocals; forty years ago, this would have been a chart-topper. Much of Ordinary Madness follows the same blueprint – electrifying blues-rock with scorching guitar, soulful vox, and a stout backing band. Trout’s guitar talents often overshadow his vocals, which are displayed nicely on the ballad “My Foolish Pride,” Walter capable of expressing great emotion. “The Sun Is Going Down” may be the best performance of Trout’s lengthy career, Robert Johnson’s hellhounds picking up the scent again, the guitarist facing the passage of time with unflinching defiance. Since his near-death experience six years ago, Walter Trout has been making the best music of his life, Ordinary Madness an album so good that I bought it twice (on CD and vinyl!). Grade: A+   BUY! 

Brown Acid: The Eleventh Trip
Various Artists – Brown Acid: The Eleventh Trip (Riding Easy Records)

The folks at RidingEasy Records scour the back rooms, under-the-shelf crates, and other dark record store crevasses to find the most far-out psychedelic garage-rock cheap thrills possible and slap ‘em on vinyl as part of their “Brown Acid” series of rock ‘n’ roll obscurities. One would think this well-trodden turf to be mined out, what with all those Nuggets, Pebbles, and Back From the Grave compilations clogging up the shelves, but here’s Brown Acid: The Eleventh Trip with ten more roller-coaster time machine trips circa 1969-1977. Like every LP of this kind, there are hits and misses – some 7” wax should remain lost– so I’ll only mention the winners. Adam Wind’s “Something Else” is a cool psych-blues jam with flanged guitars while Grump’s “I’ll Give You Love” is a raucous R&B rave-up with swirling instrumentation. Larry Lynn’s “Diamond Lady” is a slab o’ guitary blues-rock with prog tendencies, old faves Zendik deliver a shimmering bit of chaotic hard rock, and West Minist’r offer a red-hot, Brit-sounding rocker. Kudos also to Debb Johnson for a brassy, soul-blues romp. Since six outta ten ain’t too shabby a batting average, I’ll happily recommend The Eleventh Trip for any fan of old school-dropout psych-cum-garage-rock. Grade: B   BUY!

Previously on That Devil Music.com:

Short Rounds, October 2020: Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite, The Hangfires, Kursaal Flyers, Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets, Toots & the Maytals, Crawling Up A Hill

Short Rounds, May 2020: The Burrito Brothers, Richie Owens & the Farm Bureau, Webb Wilder, Lucinda Williams & X

Short Rounds, April 2020: Datura4, Dream Syndicate, Drivin’ N’ Cryin, Bryan Ferry, Game Theory & Supersuckers

Short Rounds, March 2020: The Bluefields, Dave Clark Five, Marshall Crenshaw, Gwil Owen, Gary Moore & Watermelon Slim

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