Friday, February 21, 2020

Archive Review: Dan Bern's Dan Bern (1997)

Dan Bern's Dan Bern
Once upon a time, getting saddled with the “new Dylan” label was like hanging a big, fat dead artistic albatross around your neck. The industry equivalent of the Mafia “kiss of death,” it meant a quick, painful end to your young career. Other than Bruce Springsteen, who punched his way out of that particular box with the brilliant Born To Run, where are all the other “new Dylans” these days?

Steve Forbert and Elliott Murphy have managed to eke out a living with critically-acclaimed music through the past decade (although, admittedly, they had to run off to Nashville and Paris, respectively, to do do....), but all those other great hopefuls are strictly M.I.A.; which makes me overly cautious when I’m already hearing Dan Bern pigeonholed with comparisons to the legendary Mr. Zimmerman.

On his encouraging self-titled debut, Bern creates wonderfully wordy story-songs that, to these ears, compare more favorably with Murphy’s style or early Springsteen than to Dylan. Whereas rock’s greatest scribe has often favored tossing out oblique, indecipherable lyrics in songs, Bern instead strings together phonetic delights, delivering lyrics with a rhythm and cadence more common to rap than to the folk tradition these songs are obviously drawn from. Some critics have gone so far as to unfairly label Bern’s work as “flawed,” once again comparing the young artist to tried-and-true work that has withstood the test of time. Note to critics: come on guys, there is no “new Dylan” – never was and never will be. Hell, not even his own son is the next Dylan, and they share the same surname.

Instead, Bern is a ‘90s folksinger, one with a distinctive style and flavor that is entirely his own. When he hits the mark – which is often enough for this writer – there are few young songwriters who can match Bern’s marvelous wordplay. Bern throws away thoughts and imagery that many more successful artists would trade their souls for, lines far too numerous to recount here (Although I have to share the opening couplet of “King of the World,” my favorite song to date on the subject of fame: “the day that Elvis died was like a mercy killing/America breathed a sigh of relief/We knew all about the drugs and the Vegas shows/There wasn’t much of anything that looked like grief....”). Songs like “Estelle,” the darkly humorous “Too Late To Die Young” or “Jerusalem’ (where Bern seems to be lyrically predicting the critical box he’s been placed in) are artistic triumphs.

Bern is a bright young talent, thoughtful and thought-provoking, a gifted writer and charismatic performer. If he’s not yet the equal of Dylan, well, at the time neither was Bobby himself. If Dan Bern, the album, is any indication of the depth of his talent, I predict that time will treat Dan Bern quite well. (Work Records/Sony Music, released March 4, 1997)

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Archive Review: Moby's Animal Rights (1996)

Moby's Animal Rights
Along with Prodigy and the Aphex Twin, British artist Moby helped define early ’80s English club culture. Mixing Eno-inspired ambient music with electronic techno/rave compositions, Moby created a genre onto himself that led to many a ecstasy-fueled dancefloor trance. None of these Anglo-artists have broken through to a mainstream American audience as of yet, but no one can’t fault them for trying. Prodigy are attempting to conquer the states via appearances at this year’s Lollapalooza Festival, while Moby has made his bid for U.S. chart dominance via the release of his strongest album yet. Although it seems – at this date, at least – that Animal Rights is a failed attempt, commercially, from an artistic perspective a critic couldn’t ask for a more invigorating album.

With Animal Rights, Moby takes a step towards a harder rocking sound that incorporates his ambient and classical influences alongside strains of metal, industrial, and noise. Moby the producer juxtaposes moments of instrumental calm with those of sheer lyrical and musical white light/white noise. Although many songs here showcase the artist’s social conscious, both lyrics and liner notes covering a broad range of topics, it is the words, phrases and melodies seemingly tossed away at random that seep into one’s consciousness for future recall.

While the label released Moby’s cover of Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” – perhaps the weakest song on the disc – to moderate radio airplay, they missed the strengths of cuts like “Soft” or “Come On Baby,” which would sonically fit well into playlists alongside Tool, Korn, or Nine Inch Nails. Overall, however, the album is structured as an entire artistic piece not well made for pulling out radio cuts. Although not a concept album, as such, Animal Rights nonetheless should be listened to in its entirety, where the subtle interplay between light and dark, the clashing of ambiance and primal rock can work its magick the way that the composer meant it to.

Following in the footsteps of obvious influences like Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, and David Bowie, Moby creates music that is much more than the sum of its parts. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Moby is a vastly underrated guitarist, and if he delivers only a few amazing six-string flourishes during the massive instrumental attacks to be found on much of Animal Rights it only leaves the listener wanting for more.

Moby is, perhaps, one of the most exciting and stimulating composers in the rock genre today and if commercial stardom forever eludes him, it is only because Moby seems destined to make the same sort of historic contribution to the rock genre as the aforementioned artists. Animal Rights is a ground-breaking album, the sort that only comes around once or twice a decade. (Elektra Records, released September 23, 1996)

Buy the LP from Moby's Animal Rights

Friday, February 14, 2020

Archive Review: Living Colour’s Vivid (2010 reissue)

Living Colour's Vivid
When they came along in the late ‘90s, Living Colour was an anomaly among hard rock bands. First of all, the members were all young African-American men with musical backgrounds in jazz, R&B and improvisational avant-garde music. Rock ‘n’ roll at the time was sheer whitebread, dominated by longhaired white boys, the cultural diversity of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s overthrown by corporate homogenization.

Living Colour didn’t fit into MTV’s nerf metal demographic but damned if they didn’t rock harder than half a dozen Motley Crue clones. The band seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the summer of 1988 with the release of its debut album, Vivid, but New York City fans knew differently. Living Colour had been banging around town for a couple of years, refining their sound and stage presence with residencies at clubs like CBGBs.

Living Colour’s Vivid

The release of Vivid would break through the barriers of race in rock, opening the door for multi-cultural ‘90s hard rock bands like Rage Against the Machine and System of A Down. This breakthrough was accomplished mostly on the strength of a single song, the blistering “Cult of Personality,” the accompanying video dominating the MTV playlist well into 1989 and breaking the band with a white audience. It was apparent from the video for “Cult of Personality” that Living Colour wasn’t kicking out the same old shit.

Vernon Reid wasn’t just another heavy metal guitar god, but a world-class six-string wizard who had earned his bones as a member of the experimental Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoder Society. The rhythm section of bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun provided as big a beat as a band could ever want while frontman Corey Glover – largely untrained and with little experience as a singer – perfectly complimented the band’s funky, unpredictable groove with his rough-hewn, soulful vocal style.

Listening to the recently remastered reissue CD of Vivid shows that the album held much more great music than the celebrated hit single. Living Colour incorporated many styles and influences into the band’s sound, placing disparate elements of freeform jazz, funk, soul, heavy metal and guitar pyrotechnics into a hard rock framework. While songs such as “Open Letter (To A Landlord)” and “Funny Vibe” showcased the band’s social consciousness, visiting themes of poverty, homelessness and race, songs like the hedonistic “Glamour Boys” or “I Want To Know” were pop-influenced rockers with an almost new wave sound. (This was the ‘80s, after all….) When the band hit a metallic groove, however, as with “Cult of Personality,” “Middle Man,” or “What’s Your Favorite Color?” there were few other bands around who could match Living Colour’s powerful and innovative sound.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The CD reissue of Vivid includes five bonus cuts culled from 12” singles; most of which have never appeared on compact disc before. A hip-hop remix of “Funny Vibe” by Prince Paul includes cameos from rappers like Daddy-O and Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. A red-hot cover of the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” and a live version of “Middle Man” appeared previously on the band’s Biscuits collection. A Keith LeBlanc remix of “What’s Your Favorite Color?” adds to the funk quotient while a live performance of “Cult of Personality” closes Vivid and blows the roof off the mutha!

One of the most important albums in rock history, Vivid sold over a million copies and earned the band a Grammy® Award. More important, though, is the influence the album and Living Colour would have on those that would follow. With Vivid, Living Colour literally changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll. (Legacy Recordings, released May 4, 2010)

Review originally published by the Alt.Culture.Guide™ music zine

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Archive Review: Los Lobos' By the Light of the Moon (1987)

Los Lobos' By the Light of the Moon
It’s an unfortunate reality that rock ‘n’ roll, the corporate entity, is by its very exclusive nature, inherent racism, and bureaucratic unintelligence, pretty much a white man’s game. Oft times, all the hype, hoopla, and promotion is spent on the wrong artists or product, and musicians who fail, by reason of birth, to make the cut, are doomed to obscurity or, worse yet, an audience limited by racial demographics.

It’s a damn shame, too, for sheer, potent rock ‘n’ roll is not an exclusively lily-white art form. Case in point – Rick James can, and regularly does, out-rock any one of a number of lesser-talented AOR staples, doing it with energy, intelligence, and a measure of ballsy braggadocio.

Still, when was the last time you heard a Rick James song on your local “rock radio?” For every Prince or Michael Jackson who achieve multi-Platinum™ success in spite of the limitations of programing and promotion, there are dozens of talented artists and bands who suffer the commercial degradation of racial inequality. This editorializing is an attempt, however successful, to let you know what you may have been missing. There’s a whole world of talented musicians out there who aren’t represented on the charts, programed on the radio, or viewed on MTV. Los Lobos is one such band.

Roaring out of the Spanish-speaking slums of East Los Angeles, Los Lobos are a damn fine rock ‘n’ roll outfit of Mexican-American origin, carrying on a tradition that began some two decades ago with the crooning of Ritchie Valens and the garage-rock of Thee Midniters and continuing in an almost unbroken line through such contemporaries as Ruben & the Jets, Con Safos, and the Plugz (who would become the Cruzados). Unlike many artists of non-Anglo heritage who attempt to hide or downplay their ethnic origins, Los Lobos are proud of who they are and where they come from.

By the Light of the Moon is Los Lobos’ second album and follows much the same footsteps as 1985’s critically-acclaimed How Will the Wolf Survive? A blend of soulful, R&B, American-styled guitar-rock, and melodic, haunting traditional Mexican folk music, Los Lobos and By the Light of the Moon present a stylistic offering that is fresh, original, and at once both like and unlike much of what you may have heard before (strains of Doug Sahmn’s Tex-Mex musings reach my ears, as does brooding blues music not unlike Stevie Ray Vaughan). Lyrically, Los Lobos tend to sing of romance, pride, and wisdom.

The result is an all-too-brief glimpse into a culture that parallels that of the predominantly-white Anglo record-buying public. It would be a shame to allow such intelligent and thoughtful art drop into obscurity needlessly. Artists such as Los Lobos have too much to offer to be ignored for reasons of race, demographics, or ethnic prejudice…and if this does occur, we are all the much poorer for it.

Review originally published by Nashville’s The Metro magazine, 1987

Buy the CD from Los Lobos’ By the Light of the Moon

Friday, February 7, 2020

Short Rounds: Beach Slang, The Bar-Kays, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Delaney & Bonnie, Mott the Hoople, Television Personalities (2020)

Beach Slang's The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbeat City
New album releases in 150 words or less...

Beach Slang – The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbeat City (Bridge Nine)
There’s no denying that James Alex and his Beach Slang gang wear their Replacements idolatry on their collective sleeves, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbeat City. With former ‘Mats bassist Tommy Stinson helping craft the album’s sound, the band revels in the unbridled joy of playing rock ‘n’ roll with reckless abandon and guitars in overdrive. Sure, songs like “Born To Raise Hell,” “Tommy In the 80s,” and “All the Kids In L.A.” evince an obvious Replacements sonic vibe, but I think that Alex is a better lyricist (i.e. less self-absorbed) than Westerberg at this point in his career, and I hear strains of Hanoi Rocks and Superchunk in this gleeful din as well as a can’t-put-your-finger-on-it genius that separates Beach Slang from a generation of Replacements sound-alikes. I expect I’ll be playing Deadbeat Bang a helluva lot in 2020 (and so should you…). Grade: A   BUY!
The Bar-Kays' Gotta Groove
The Bar-Kays – Gotta Groove (Craft Recordings vinyl reissue)
The Bar-Kays’ Gotta Groove was a comeback effort by a band recovering from tragedy, after losing most of its members in the plane crash that also killed Otis Redding. The survivors rebuilt the band and found the funk with this energetic comeback effort. Inspired by Sly Stone, “Don’t Stop Dancing (To the Music), Part 1” is a joyful fusion of funk ‘n’ soul with blasting horns, a busy instrumental mix, and an overall raucous party vibe. They slow it down a bit for an instrumental cover of Marvin Gaye’s “If This World Were Mine,” which displayed the band’s musical chops, but the party cranks up again with the rowdy, mostly-instrumental jam “Funky Thang.” This version of the Bar-Kays would later back up Isaac Hayes on his landmark Hot Buttered Soul LP and, as members came and went, would find success venturing further into funk and disco throughout the mid-to-late ‘70s. Grade: B   BUY!

Booker T. & the M.G.’s Melting Pot
Booker T. & the M.G.’s – Melting Pot (Craft Recordings, vinyl reissue)
With both Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper looking to exit the Stax Records factory, 1971’s Melting Pot was recorded in NYC rather than Memphis. The album lives up to title, featuring a fusion of sounds befitting Jones’ expanding artistic vision, offering longer original songs with lengthy instrumental jams. “Back Home” mixes Southern rock and soul with gospel fervor, while the down ‘n’ dirty swamp-rock of “Chicken Pox” is brimming over with imaginative keyboards and greasy guitar picking. Running nearly nine minutes, “Kinda Like Easy” is a sequel, of sorts, to the band’s early hit “Green Onions,” the song mining a similar rhythmic canvas atop which Jones layers keyboard riffs and Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass lines echo with malice. The band’s last album for Stax, Melting Pot would become their most commercially successful album since 1967’s Hip Hug-Her, yielding a hit with an edited version of the eight-minute title track. Grade: B+   BUY!

Delaney & Bonnie's Home
Delaney & Bonnie – Home (Craft Recordings, vinyl reissue)
The 1969 debut by Delaney & Bonnie – the talented pairing of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett – Home was produced by Stax Records stalwarts Don Nix and Donald “Duck” Dunn, its groundbreaking sound providing a foundation for the duo’s later work, their blend of country, blues, and soul influencing the entire Americana genre. There’s a lot to like about Home, beginning with the album-opening “It’s Been A Long Time Coming,” which places Delaney’s gritty, soulful voice against Bonnie’s soaring tones for a stunning duet while the Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd-penned “We Can Love” should have been a hit single, the song reveling in a Sam Cooke groove and an Aretha vibe. Home failed to chart, and Stax dropped Delaney & Bonnie from their roster, but the album did attract the notice of people like Eric Clapton and George Harrison, who would help the duo write their next chapter of their career. Grade: B+   BUY!

Mott the Hoople's The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Mott the Hoople – The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Madfish Records, UK)
The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll is a two-LP, vinyl-only import compilation of the legendary Mott the Hoople’s three-album tenure with Columbia Records circa 1972-74 and, as such, it’s a real gem. All the UK hits are here – “All the Young Dudes,” “Honaloochie Boogie,” “All the Way From Memphis,” “Roll Away the Stone,” and the title track. The set also includes rare B-sides and UK single versions that were unavailable to stateside fans back in the day. Throw in lesser-known obscurities like “Marionette,” “Foxy Foxy,” “Saturday Gigs,” “Rose,” “Rest In Peace,” and Mott’s inspired version of Lou Reed’s classic “Sweet Jane” and you’ll see why Ian Hunter, Mick Ralphs, Overend, and the rest of the gang inspired everybody from Queen and the Clash to Def Leppard and Kiss. Beautiful gatefold packaging with liner notes by Hunter biographer Campbell Devine makes this essential for any Hoople fanatic. Grade: A+   BUY!

Television Personalities' Some Kind of Happening
Television Personalities – Some Kind of Happening (Fire Records)
The first of two double-disc volumes documenting beloved British rock institution Television Personalities, Some Kind of Happening is a collection of the band’s UK single releases circa 1978 to 1989. Although the band came of age during, and was inspired by the punk revolution, singer-songwriter Dan Treacy was too incorruptible to merely chase three-chord clichés. As such, the 45s preserved by Some Kind of Happening range from atonal post-punk and neo-psychedelia to melodic indie pop. The band was never more than a cult favorite stateside, but they influenced numerous college rockers of the 1980s and ’90s and Treacy’s restless muse, combined with his wry humor and dry wit, make songs like “Part Time Punks,” “If That’s What Love Is,” and “Paradise Estate” a joy. A whimsical cover of Syd Barrett’s “Apples and Oranges” and the Treacy original “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives” are worth the price of admission alone. Grade: A   BUY!

Previously on That Devil
Short Rounds, January 2019: The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dana Gillespie, Manfred Mann, Mick Ronson, An A-Squared Compilation
Short Rounds, December 2019 (Holiday Gift Suggestions): Cindy Lee Berryhill, Black Pumas, Alice Cooper, Robyn Hitchcock & Andy Partridge, Handsome Dick Manitoba, The Muffs, Harry Nilsson, The Rosalyns & Bobby Rush 

Archive Review: The Traveling Wilburys' The Traveling Wilburys Collection (2016)

The Traveling Wilburys Collection
Great music often occurs by happenstance, and never more so than with the intriguing story of the Traveling Wilburys. According to the tale told by former Warner Music chairman Mo Ostin in the liner notes to The Traveling Wilburys Collection, George Harrison was hanging around with a bunch of friends in Bob Dylan’s studio, working up a song called “Handle With Care” to use as a B-Side for “This Is Love,” the first single from Harrison’s Cloud Nine album. These “friends,” by chance, happened to include the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, the legendary Roy Orbison and, of course, the greatest songwriter that rock music has ever produced, Bob Dylan.

This humbling assemblage of musical talents finished the song and Harrison hustled “Handle With Care” over to Ostin’s office for executive approval. Warner Music A&R chief Lenny Waronker listened in, and everybody agreed that the song was too damn good to waste as a lowly B-side. Featuring a wonderful Orbison vocal performance and Harrison’s vastly-underrated fretwork, the song became sign of bigger things to come. The superstar quintet reassembled in the studio and quickly knocked out a proper album, Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 which was released in late 1988. “Handle With Care” was chosen as the album’s first single, just barely missing Top 40 status, but was a hit nonetheless. The album climbed to the number three position on the Billboard charts and subsequently sold over five million copies.

The Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1

Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 and its 1990 companion, Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3, represented an accomplished musical collaboration by a group of rock’s biggest stars and brightest talents. As the friendly, pop-inflected rock of the Traveling Wilburys gave way during the ‘90s to the onslaught of Seattle bands and harsher styles of music, the two albums slipped out-of-print and the rights to both reverted to Harrison. By the end of the decade, though, as the millennium approached, people began to rediscover the charms of the Traveling Wilburys and the two albums became coveted collector’s items, fetching premium pricing on eBay and elsewhere. After Harrison’s death, his estate sat on the albums for a while, but now Rhino has licensed them both and slapped them together as The Traveling Wilburys Collection, a two-CD set with a bonus DVD and collector’s booklet with liner notes, photos, and credits.

Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1
What made Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 so enchanting wasn’t the infectious video for “Handle With Care” that grabbed significant MTV airplay, or even the impressive pedigree of the superstar participants. No, what mattered most was the music, which sounds like it was created by a bunch of close buddies hanging around the studio. The songs are loose and ego-free, yet they showcase the talents of all the collaborators. To reinforce the group concept and downplay their individual star status, they all took on the “Wilburys” surname – Lucky (Dylan), Lefty (Orbison), Otis (Harrison) and Nelson Wilbury (Lynne) along with Charlie T. Jr. (Petty). An entire Wilburys’ mythology was created around the faux group, further creating an aura of mystery around the band and its music.

Every one of the Wilburys brought something to the table, each one singing and playing on every song. The material runs the gamut of musical styles, perhaps reflecting the individual group member’s tastes at the time. Lynne’s rockabilly-styled love song “Rattled” is a rollicking Carl Perkins/Jerry Lee Lewis hybrid, while Petty’s reggae-tinged “Last Night” offers staggered rhythms and great harmonies behind his tale of romance under the moonlight. Dylan’s “Dirty Word” pairs the bard’s penchant for oblique wordplay with sly, tongue-in-cheek humor. His other song here, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” is a deliciously wicked Springsteen-styled story-song, a sordid tale of shady deals gone bad that features one of Dylan’s most electric vocal performances.

Handle With Care

The aforementioned hit single, “Handle With Care,” features a lush Jeff Lynne soundtrack behind Harrison’s romantic fantasy, the song taken to a higher level by Orbison’s transcendent vocal contribution. The album’s other hit single, “End of the Line,” offers up the combined harmonies of the five Wilburys behind strong lead vocals courtesy of Petty, and some intricate, intertwined guitars, each doing something different in the mix to great effect. Orbison’s “Not Alone Any More” represents, perhaps, his best performance since the ‘60s, his quivering vocals drenched with emotion, simply heartbreaking as they soar towards the heavens behind Harrison’s delicate fretwork. The Traveling Wilburys Collection adds two previously unreleased bonus tracks to the package: “Maxine” is an upbeat number with slight production but energetic Harrison vocals and fretwork, while the grand performance of “Like A Ship” is reminiscent of late-period Beatles, putting Dylan’s creaky vocals behind the epic instrumentation instead of John or Paul.

The critical acclaim and commercial success enjoyed by Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 was tempered by Roy Orbison’s unexpected death shortly after the album’s release. The singer’s passing made a sequel problematic, as Orbison’s powerful and unique vocals were an integral part of the first album’s songs. Two years later, however, the surviving Wilburys gathered together to honor their fallen brother and celebrate his life, recording Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3 (yup, there is no “Volume 2”), which would subsequently be dedicated to “Lefty Wilbury.”

Aside from Orbison’s death, a lot had happened in the two years between the 1988 release of Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 and its 1990 follow-up. The Harrison album that inspired the entire Wilburys phenomenon, Cloud Nine, had also provided the former Beatle with a bona fide late-career comeback. Ditto for Bob Dylan, whose own Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy album, released in 1989, provided the aging rock star with a third career, launching a never-ending tour that continues rolling today. Lynne and Petty worked together to fashion Full Moon Fever, Petty’s first solo album and a hit in its own right, while Lynne also produced the critically-acclaimed posthumous Roy Orbison album Mystery Girl.

So, by the time that the remaining Wilburys foursome returned to the studio to put together Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3 they all had other things on their mind. As such, rather than the easy-going camaraderie that made the first album so user-friendly, Lynne and Petty tend to dominate these sessions to the detriment of Dylan and Harrison. For one, the material isn’t as strong as that from Volume 1, and the vocal performances don’t revel in the laser-like focus that they previously shared.

Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3

Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3
That’s not to say that there are no good songs on Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3. You can’t go wrong with a group of this caliber talent, and the album has many memorable moments. “The Devil’s Been Busy” easily rises to the level of the first album, showcasing similarly magical vocal harmonies, with the guys swapping lead vocals in front of a wall of jangling guitars and rolling rhythms. Dylan’s “If You Belonged To Me” sounds like a Blood On the Tracks outtake, a lovely romantic confession that offers an extremely satisfying vocal performance, timely harp work and delicate rhythm guitar.

The album also yielded a pair of hit singles, the first – “She’s My Baby” – a rocking number that benefits from Lynne’s retro-styled production (with slight echo), shared vocals and a red-hot guitar lead courtesy of guest Gary Moore. The second single, “Inside Out,” also features strong harmonies, with the guys swapping vocal leads on top of a steady drumbeat and complex six-string play. Overall, however, Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3 falls short of the performances created for, and the expectations created by its predecessor. Keep on listening, though, and these songs grow on you. They don’t share the spontaneity and intimacy of the material on album one, but they’re certainly not without attraction.

The Traveling Wilburys Collection also adds two bonus tracks to the end of Volume 3, although both songs had been previously released. The first, “Nobody’s Child,” was originally included on a benefit album. A trembling country blues, the song is, quite frankly, not much to talk about. The vocals are inappropriately over-the-top and somebody forgot to tell Dylan, et al that you don’t have to affect a nasal twang to sound like an authentic bluesman. Much better is an inspired cover of Del Shannon’s classic song “Runaway” that was released as the B-side to “She’s My Baby.” The song cries out for Orbison’s soaring vocals, but Lynne does a fine job on the lead and the harmonies build impressively on the song’s fast-paced rhythms.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The set’s additional DVD includes a “making off” mini-documentary titled “The True History of the Traveling Wilburys” as well as the music videos for all four of the two albums’ singles and one for the embarrassing “Wilbury Twist.” A deluxe edition of The Traveling Wilburys Collection includes a larger CD booklet, presumably with more pictures and content for the extreme fan. For this listener, however, the standard two-CD set works well, presenting the music in all of its original glory, finally resurrecting the magnificent sound of the Traveling Wilburys for a new generation. (Rhino Records, released June 3, 2016)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the CD from The Traveling Wilburys Collection

Saturday, February 1, 2020

New Music Monthly: February 2020 releases

Winter's icy grip is embracing most of us here in the U.S. but that doesn't mean that there aren't some red-hot tunes on the horizon this month to keep you warm! It's a short month, to be sure, bu if new music from folks like Green Day, Sepultura, Tame Impala, Guided by Voices, Supersuckers, and Ozzy Osbourne, among others, doesn't light your fire, maybe a five-disc Eric Burdon & the Animals box set will make the weather more tolerable.

Release dates are subject to 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! 

Green Day's Father of All...

Cadillac Three - Country Fuzz   BUY!
Green Day - Father of All...   BUY!
Nada Surf - Never Not Together   BUY!
Sepultura - Quadra   BUY!
Stone Temple Pilots - Perdida   BUY!
Supersuckers - Play That Rock 'n' Roll   BUY!

The Third Mind's The Third Mind

Huey Lewis & the News - Weather   BUY!
Nathaniel Rateliff - And It's Still Alright   BUY!
Tame Impala - The Slow Rush   BUY!
The Third Mind - The Third Mind [with/Dave Alvin, Victor Krummenacher & David Immergluck]   BUY!

Ozzy Osbourne's Ordinary Man

Eric Burdon & the Animals - When I Was Young, The MGM Recordings, 1967-1968 [5-CD box set]   BUY!
Greg Dulli - Random Desire   BUY!
Grimes - Miss_Anthrop0cene   BUY!
Guided by Voices - Surrender Your Poppy Field   BUY!
Ozzy Osbourne - Ordinary Man   BUY!
Nancy Priddy - You've Come This Way Before [vinyl reissue]   BUY!

Mondo Generator's Fuck It

Caribou - Suddenly   BUY!
Dom Flemons - Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus   BUY!
Mondo Generator - Fuck It   BUY!
Soccer Mommy - Color Theory   BUY!

Eric Burdon & the Animals' When I Was Young, The MGM Recordings, 1967-1968

Album of the Month: Eric Burdon & the Animals - When I Was Young, The MGM Recordings, 1967-1968 is a five-CD box set comprised of the band's late-period albums for the label including 1967's Winds of Change (with the hit single "San Franciscan Night") and 1968's The Twain Shall Meet (with the hits "Sky Pilot" and "Monterey"), Every One of Us, and Love Is plus assorted rarities and singles edits. An underrated period for the band, to be sure, coming in between the Animals early success as part of the British Invasion and Burdon's later solo work.  

Friday, January 31, 2020

Archive Review: Pat Travers’ Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights) (2007)

Blooze-rock guitarslinger Pat Travers is fondly remembered for his incredible string of late ‘70s/early ‘80s albums that began with his self-titled 1976 debut and ran through such blistering six-string showcases as Makin’ Magic and Putting It Straight (both 1977); Heat In the Street (1979), Crash and Burn (1980), and Radio Active (1981); and, of course, the signature Live! Go For What You Know (1979), which yielded Travers’ best-known tune, his red-hot and scorching cover of the Stan Lewis blues classic “Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights).” When the Reverend lived in Detroit circa 1979-81, you couldn’t turn on WRIF-FM without hearing Travers’ trademark guitar licks and distinctive vocals.

Pat Travers’ Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)

Unlike many so-called “classic rock” artists, Travers survived the onslaught of, first, punk rock and, later, “new wave” to carry stadium-approved guitar rock into the new decade. By the mid-‘80s, however, Travers’ trademark one-two punch of blues and rock had fallen out of favor with the MTV generation and he sat the rest of the decade on the bench, coming back into the game with School of Hard Knocks in 1990. Since that time, Travers has continued to plow the fertile earth of electric blues and rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills, releasing a handful of decent studio albums – some with an abundance of original material – as well as a slew of remarkably consistent live discs, working through the years with other such respected rock journeymen as Aynsley Dunbar, Carmine Appice, Jeff Watson, and T.M. Stevens.

The secret to Travers’ ongoing longevity is that, through the years, neither his original songs, nor his typically inspired choices in cover material, have been all that complicated. My old buddy Grimey once said of ZZ Top’s early albums, “anybody could play that stuff,” and that’s also true of Pat Travers. What separates the bearded wonders from Texas – and the six-string wunderkind from Canada – from the great unwashed masses is although anybody can play this stuff, few are as capable of doing it with such energy, passion and originality.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights), a rather worthwhile collection of Travers’ guitar rave-ups from the good folks at MVD Audio. While it might be easy to dismiss the disc as “justanotherPatTraversalbum” in spite of the ultra-groovy high-contrast Brian Perry cover art, with its reassuring deep maroon framework, you would have to be the worst sort of imbecile to pass this gem by in the “classic rock” bin of one of the few remaining record stores. Turn said disc to its reverse and take a gander at the glorious baker’s dozen of songs awaiting your purchase and tell me, honestly, closeted blooze-rock fan, that this collection of original Travers’ scorchers and rare cover tunes wouldn’t just ROCK YOUR F’KN WORLD!!!

Whiskey Blooze

Ostensibly this is an album of live performances and, since MVD licensed the content from Cleopatra Records, my best guess is that this elixir is of late ‘90s vintage, perchance from the same shows that populated the 1997 Whiskey Blues live album. Regardless, Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights) showcases Travers’ skills just as strongly as any of his late ‘70s releases, the middle-aged axeman finding new ways to breathe life into aging chestnuts like “Snortin’ Whiskey,” “Crash and Burn,” and the ubiquitous title track. It’s with Travers’ performance of songs by fellow travelers like Z.Z. Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Cream, and Aerosmith that a full measure of the artist is provided, however.

Given the man’s undeniable blooze-rock credentials (and I use the British slang term “blooze” since London is where the Canadian guitar prodigy cut his eye teeth), it should be expected that Travers would kick serious ass with tunes like the Texas mudstomp of Z.Z. Top’s “Waitin’ For the Bus” (a bull’s-eye right down to the Gibbonesque vox) and “Jesus Just Left Chicago” (ditto). Travers even acquits himself honorably on the redneck swamp sludge of Skynyrd’s “Gimme Back My Bullets,” while he should be able to play molten electric Chicago slag like Willie Dixon’s “Evil” in his sleep. But two of the covers here simply scream aloud from the smackdown laid down upon their pointy heads by Travers and his unnamed crew.

Travers’ energetic, soulful reading of Stevie Wonder’s wonderful “Superstitious” puts that of his former idol Jeff Beck to shame, the stellar fretwork displayed here is torn from somewhere deep down in the man’s rock ‘n’ roll soul. While the band struggles to keep up with Travers’ madman performance, the guitarist is walking on clouds with an extended solo so damn hot that it will leave blisters on the listener’s fingers. The other notable cover that DEMANDS your attention is the unlikely choice of “Lights Out” by British rockers UFO. With lightning bolt leads building upon galloping rhythms, Travers strays from his usual bluesy milieu to cut loose with reckless abandon on the strident hard rock classic, his vocals chasing some ghosts we can’t see, his trusty six-string coaxed and coerced into spitting out alien sounds that more respected “guitar gods” like Satriani or Vai can’t even muster up in their dreams.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Before you dismiss Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights) as “justanotherPatTraversalbum,” you should rustle up a copy and hear it for yourself. These thirteen songs are the perfect forum for Travers’ free-wheeling, swashbuckling six-string style, the album capturing the sound of a man whose time has clearly passed but he doesn’t GIVE A DAMN! Freed from commercial expectations, label demands, creative concerns or any of the constraints of the modern music biz, Pat Travers is able to simply do what he does best – rock! (MVD audio, released May 3, 2007)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) music blog

Archive Review: Paul Rodgers’ The Royal Sessions (2014)

Paul Rodgers’ The Royal Sessions
There’s no denying Paul Rodgers’ status as one of the most iconic singers in rock music. As the frontman of both British blues-rock giants Free in the 1960s and the chart-topping Bad Company during the ‘70s, Rodgers left his mark with a slew of hit singles and memorable moments. After the break-up of Bad Company, Rodgers half-heartedly launched a solo career in the 1980s that resulted in some decent music but diminishing commercial returns. The inevitable BadCo reunions would follow, as would a surprisingly good solo tribute to the great Muddy Waters. Rodgers seemed to have hit a career nadir in the mid-2000s, however, standing in for the late Freddie Mercury over several successful tours by pomp-rockers Queen.

Many of us felt that the Queen move was a waste of a great vocalist whose soul-drenched emotional howls would never be a proper substitute for Mercury’s operatic flamboyance. Rodgers may have felt the same, quitting Queen (to be replaced by Mercury’s American Idol doppelganger Adam Lambert) and high-tailing it down to Memphis, Tennessee. Within the hallowed walls of Royal Studios in Memphis, surrounded by a veritable who’s who of Bluff City musical talent, Rodgers returned to his roots with The Royal Sessions, a rock-solid collection of soul and R&B classics, many from the Stax, Goldwax, and Hi Records releases that had influenced a young Paul so many years ago in England.

Paul Rodgers’ The Royal Sessions

Rodgers kicks off The Royal Sessions with his horn-driven take on the Sam & Dave gem “I Thank You.” Rock ‘n’ roll fans probably know the ZZ Top version better than the Stax duo’s, but there’s no denying the power and groove of the original. Rodger’s reading of the soul classic falls, stylistically, somewhere in between the original and that by the blues-rockers from Texas, his throaty vocals soaring atop the rhythms, the arrangement bolstered by the bleating of The Royal Horns and the swirling keyboard licks of Rev. Charles Hodges, Sr. (who played on records by R&B greats like Al Green and O.V. Wright). A cover of Albert King’s “Down Don’t Bother Me” is similarly enhanced by the keyboards and hornplay, but Rodgers finds a bluesier groove here and guitarist Michael Toles (who played with King and Isaac Hayes, among others) hits a the high notes, making for one groove-laden jam.

Covering Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain” is pretty much a losing proposition for any vocalist, no matter how talented, but Rodgers gives it a good shot, delivering more emotion and heartbreak than many singers manage. The horns massage the anguish here rather than overwhelm it, and the keyboards chime on religiously behind the vocals. Rodgers fares better on the Otis Redding gem “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” capturing the singer’s soul-drenched teardrops as the band embellishes the original Stax house band arrangement only slightly. It’s a fine performance, and not the last time that Rodgers would find solace and inspiration from the fate-crossed soul legend.

Born Under A Bad Sign

Memphis-born songwriter Roosevelt Jamison penned a number of memorable classics, but none larger or more influential than his beautiful “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” Written for Jamison’s friend O.V. Wright, who recorded the song in 1964, it would become a Top 20 R&B chart hit a year later for Otis Redding and later be recorded by a diverse group of rock, pop, and R&B artists including the Rolling Stones, Little Milton, Humble Pie, Bryan Ferry, Taj Mahal, and others. Rodgers takes a shot at it here and knocks it out of the park, his stunning vocal performance mimicking Redding’s, displaying all the romantic intensity of the best versions, his voice backed by lush, elegant instrumentation.

By contrast, Rodgers’ lone blunder on The Royal Sessions may be his reading of the Bert Bacharach/Hal David tune “Walk On By” (an early-1960s hit for Dionne Warwick). Blanketed in sickly strings and imbued by faint and inefficient backing vocals, the version is bereft of any melody or discerning tempo, and if not for Toles’ subtle but funky fretwork, it would be a complete wash. Luckily, Rodgers’ inspired cover of Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” provides a breath of fresh air to the proceedings. Toles lays down a nice groove while Rodgers belts out the lyrics, the guitar solos are tasteful and rich in tone, and the horns underline the instrumentation rather than dominate.

Delving again into the Redding songbook, Rodgers wraps his voice around the often overlooked “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember.” Crooning above the mournful horns and washes of keyboards and guitar, Rodgers brilliantly matches Redding tear for tear. The lone original song on The Royal Sessions, Rodgers’ “Walk In My Shadow” is an up-tempo wildfire written and sung in the Southern soul style. With fine walking rhythms and R&B-tinged horns, Rodgers recreates the Stax blueprint so convincingly that only the album credits reveal the truth.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

I went into The Royal Sessions without a single expectation and found myself pleasantly surprised. Rodgers handles the classic material almost effortlessly, painting the faintest of contemporary sheen on these old-school soul gems. His vocals are wired and inspired and the backing band – wily, talented veterans of countless sessions for Stax, Hi Records, and Malaco – known when, and when not to play behind the singer. The result is a charming, entertaining effort that will make you fall in love with these songs all over again. Kudos all around to Paul Rodgers and his studio crew for their labor of love. (429 Records, released February 4, 2014)

Review originally published by Blues

Friday, January 24, 2020

Spotlight On Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg photo courtest of CD Presents
Billy Bragg photo courtest of CD Presents
Billy Bragg Select Discography

Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy (Go! Discs UK/Utility Records, 1983)
Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (Go! Discs UK/CD Presents, 1984)
Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (Go! Discs UK/Elektra Records, 1986)
The Peel Sessions EP (Strange Fruit Records UK, 1987)
Worker’s Playtime (Go! Discs UK/Elektra Records, 1988)
The Internationale (Utility Records UK/Elektra Records, 1990)
Don’t Try This At Home (Go! Discs UK/Elektra Records, 1991)
The Peel Sessions Album (Strange Fruit Records UK, 1991)
Live Bootleg [with the Red Stars] (self-released CD, 1995)
William Bloke (Cooking Vinyl UK/Elektra Records, 1996)
Bloke On Bloke (Cooking Vinyl UK, 1997)
Mermaid Avenue [with Wilco] (Elektra Records, 1998)
Mermaid Avenue Tour [with the Blokes] (self-released CD, 1999)
Reaching To the Converted (Cooking Vinyl UK/Rhino Records, 1999)
Mermaid Avenue, Volume II [with Wilco] (Nonesuch Records, 2000)
England, Half-English [with the Blokes] (Cooking Vinyl UK/Elektra Records, 2002)
Bill’s Bargains [live] (self-released CD, 2002)
Riff Raff: The Singles 1977-1980 (self-released CD, 2002)
Must I Paint You A Picture? The Essential Billy Bragg (Cooking Vinyl UK/Elektra Records, 2003)
Live At the Barbican (self-released CD, 2002)
Mr. Love & Justice (Cooking Vinyl UK/ANTI-, 2008)
Fight Songs (self-released CD, 2011)
Mermaid Avenue, Volume III [with Wilco] (Nonesuch Records, 2012)
Tooth & Nail (Cooking Vinyl UK/Dine Alone, 2013)
Shine A Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad [with Joe Henry] (Cooking Vinyl UK, 2016)
Bridges Not Walls (Cooking Vinyl UK, 2017)
Best of Billy Bragg at the BBC 1983-2019 (Cooking Vinyl UK, 2019)

Billy Bragg photo by Philip Wigg, courtesy Yep Roc Records
Photo by Philip Wigg, courtesy Yep Roc Records
Discography information courtesy of

Find Billy Bragg albums on

Billy Bragg Mini-Bio

British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg is best for his folk-rock protest songs and social activism and although he’s been able to find more than a cult American audience, he’s enjoyed modest commercial success in the U.K. Too often dismissed by critics as an unrepentant lefty, Bragg’s songs display a much deeper intellect and humanity than mere shouted rhetoric, his material often infused with melody and lyrically traveling to the edge of art where romance and politics intersect.

Bragg developed an interest in poetry while in school and first picked up the guitar as a teen, often practicing with his neighbor and future bandmate Philip Wigg (“Wiggy”). Bragg’s initial musical influences were the Rolling Stones and the Faces, while Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel would influence his early songwriting efforts. At 20 years old, Bragg saw the Clash play in London on the band’s ‘White Riot Tour’ and again at a ‘Rock Against Racism’ concert a year later, events that would have a strong impact on his career and political philosophy.

Bragg formed the punk band Riff Raff with his friend Wiggy in 1977, recording a series of D.I.Y. singles and performing live for a couple of years until breaking up in 1980. Bragg wandered through a series of jobs, including working at a record shop, and even joined the British Army. After finishing up several months of basic training, however, he decided that the military wasn’t his sort of career and, for the sum of £175, he bought himself out of the service and returned home. Bleaching his hair, Bragg began performing his punk-inspired folk songs as a solo artist, opening shows for other artists and busking around London under the name ‘Spy vs Spy’, a choice inspired by the comic created Cuban expatriate Antonio Prohías for Mad Magazine.

Billy Bragg's Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy
Recording a demo tape, Bragg got no response from the labels he shopped it to. By pretending to be a TV repair man, he got into the office of Charisma Records’ A&R exec Peter Jenner, who liked what he heard. Although Charisma was unable to sign the artist at that time, Bragg got a music publishing deal with Chappell & Co and recorded a series of demos that would subsequently be released by Charisma subsidiary Utility Records in 1983 as Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy. The album included Bragg’s song “A New England,” which would become a Top 10 U.K. hit when recorded a year later by singer Kirsty MacColl. When Charisma was bought out by Virgin Records, Jenner was let go and became Bragg’s manager. Former Stiff Records’ press manager Andy McDonald, who had formed his own Go! Records label, bought Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy from Virgin and reissued it in late 1983.

Go! Records would be the home for Bragg’s sophomore effort, 1984’s Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, which peaked at #16 on the UK albums chart on the strength of songs like the satirical “It Says Here,” the romantic “Love Gets Dangerous,” and the anti-war screed “Island of No Return.” England’s New Music Express magazine ranked the album at #6 on its “Albums of the Year” list for 1984. During this time, Bragg became known as a left-wing activist, performing benefit shows and attending political rallies. He helped form “Red Wedge,” a socialist musician’s collective that included the Jam’s Paul Weller. Bragg’s Between the Wars, a four-song EP, was released in 1985 and peaked at #15 on the UK singles chart. Inspired by the UK miners’ strike, the EP was explicitly political, and proceeds from its sale were donated to the striking miners’ fund.

Billy Bragg's Talking With the Taxman About Poetry
Bragg experienced his first North American tour in 1985, opening for Echo & the Bunnymen with his old friend Wiggy as his tour manager. He would release his breakthrough album, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry in 1986, which became his first Top 10 charting LP in the UK. While earlier recordings primarily featured just Bragg and his guitar, this third LP included studio contributions by singer Kirsty MacColl, guitarist Johnny Marr of the Smiths, and keyboardist Kenny Craddock of Lindisfarne, among other musicians. Bragg enjoyed his first Top 30 hit single with the album’s “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” while a second single release, “Greetings To the New Brunette,” would only rise to #58 on the charts.

Bragg’s fourth album, Worker’s Playtime, was released in 1988. Produced by the legendary Joe Boyd, who had previously worked with artists like Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, and R.E.M. the album also included backing musicians like Bragg’s friend Wiggy on guitar, guitarist Martin Belmont (Graham Parker & the Rumour), and journeyman drummer Micky Waller (Jeff Beck, John Mayall). The mini-LP The Internationale followed in 1990; released by his manager Jenner’s short-lived Utility Records label, it was recorded in protest to Go! Records’ signing of a distribution deal with multi-national giant PolyGram.

Billy Bragg's Don’t Try This At Home
Released in 1991, Don’t Try This At Home, recorded in the shadow of the build-up to the Gulf War, offered a mix of more commercial pop songs (“Sexuality,” co-written with Johnny Marr) and political material (“North Sea Bubble,” “Rumours of War”). Produced by Grant Showbiz (The Smiths, The Fall), with whom Bragg would work on better than a dozen albums, Don’t Try This At Home included contributions by Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M. and would subsequently peak at #8 on the UK albums chart. Bragg had re-signed with Go! Records for a million pound advance, so the album was afforded aggressive marketing, music videos, and a grueling 13-month tour after which Bragg paid back the remainder of his advance for his release and rights to his back catalog of music.

After taking a five-year hiatus to help his partner raise their son, Bragg signed with the artist-friendly UK indie Cooking Vinyl for the release of 1996’s William Bloke, which was the artist’s fifth Top 20 charting album. A year later he released Bloke On Bloke, a collection of outtakes and remixes from his previous album that only rose to #78 on the UK chart. Bragg was about to undertake a major career move, however…Nora Guthrie, the daughter of American folk legend Woody Guthrie, asked if Bragg would put some of her father’s unrecorded lyrics to music. The result led to Mermaid Avenue, a critically-acclaimed 1998 album recorded with Americana band Wilco and singer Natalie Merchant (of 10,000 Maniacs) that would earn a Grammy® nomination.

Billy Bragg's Mermaid Avenue
Mermaid Avenue, Volume II was released in 2000 and a third collection in 2012, along with Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, released to mark Guthrie’s centennial. An argument about the mixing of the first album created a rift between Bragg and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, which led to the singer putting together a new band, the Blokes (including legendary keyboardist Ian McLagan of the Faces), to tour in support of the albums. The rise in right-wing nationalism in Great Britain inspired Bragg’s England, Half-English album, which was named for a book by British writer Colin MacInnes. Recorded with the Blokes and released in 2002, England, Half-English tackled such sticky issues as racism and xenophobia in the UK. Bragg published his first book, The Progressive Patriot, in 2006, expressing his belief that British Democratic Socialists could reclaim patriotism from right-leaning nationalists.

In 2007, on the fifth anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death, Bragg founded the non-profit Jail Guitar Doors organization. Taking its name from a Clash song, the organization supplies musical instruments to prisons and encourages prisoners to face their problems in non-confrontational ways. An American chapter of Jail Guitar Doors was launched in 2009 by the MC5’s Wayne Kramer. Also named for a book by MacInnes, Mr. Love & Justice was recorded with the Blokes and released in 2008, peaking at #33 on the UK albums chart. Bragg began branching out beyond music, playing a small role in the 2008 film A13: Road Movie and later wrote new lyrics for “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which was later performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Bragg was involved with the 2010 play Pressure Drop at the Wellcome Collection museum and library, providing new songs and performing with his band. That year he was also asked to curate the Leftfield state at the Glastonbury Festival, which he has continued in subsequent years.

Billy Bragg's Tooth & Nail
Bragg returned to the studio in 2013, recording Tooth & Nail with musician and producer Joe Henry, the album exploring the Americana genre and becoming his most commercially-successful work since Don’t Try This At Home, peaking at #13 on the UK chart. The album led to Bragg being honored with the “Trailblazer Award” at the first Americana Music Association UK event in London in February 2016 and the “Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award” later that year at the Americana Music Association US event held in Nashville. In between these accolades, Bragg released a collaboration with Joe Henry titled Shine A Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad, which was recorded during a trip by train between Chicago and Los Angeles. The record was modestly successful and would become Bragg’s ninth Top 30 charting album in the UK.

Bragg published his second book in 2016; a history of the British skiffle movement titled Roots, Radicals and Rockers, the book traces the genre from its beginnings in the 1950s back to American folk, blues, and jazz music. A year later, Bragg released the six-song EP Bridges Not Walls with the new political song “Full English Brexit.” Record Collector magazine described the EP as “a solid gold collection of an always inspiring singer-songwriter finding inspiration in the actions of others.” In 2019, Bragg released the two-disc, 19-song collection The Best of Billy Bragg at the BBC 1983-2019 which offers a career-spanning retrospective of the singer-songwriter’s on-air performances. Bragg also published his third book, The Three Dimensions of Freedom, in 2019, a political collection that posits that accountability is the antidote to authoritarianism.

Billy Bragg's The Best of Billy Bragg at the BBC 1983-2019
Throughout his lengthy career, Billy Bragg has fought to bring humanism back to British society in the face of growing social injustice and right-wing nationalism. Both with his personal activism and through his art, Bragg has continued to shine a light on the plagues of fascism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia which has often brought him in conflict with far-right groups like the British National Party (DNP). Undaunted, Bragg continues to work towards “the great leap forwards.”

Archive Review: Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime (2006 reissue)

Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime
“If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it…”

By the time of the 1989 stateside release of Worker’s Playtime, punk-inspired folkie Billy Bragg had found an unlikely measure of commercial success in the UK and had developed a loyal cult audience in the United States. Whereas Bragg’s first two albums, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg (1984) and Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (1986), featured many politically-charged songs delivered from the singer’s left-leaning perspective, they also offered up intelligent romantic commentary such as “Levi Stubb’s Tears” and “Love Gets Dangerous.” It is the tension of this dichotomy – the soapbox rabble-rouser shouting political rhetoric and the hopeless Celtic romantic singing love songs – that drives Worker’s Playtime.

Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime

Working for the first time with noted producer Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention), Bragg pretties up many of the songs on Worker’s Playtime with finely tuned melodies and lush instrumentation, a stark contrast to his sparse previous work. The angry young man of Bragg’s early EPs and debut album has, a half-decade later, mellowed somewhat, allowing the romantic songwriter to come to the foreground. The result is a superb collection of material like “She’s Got A New Spell,” the melancholy “Valentine’s Day Is Over” (featuring just Bragg’s voice, guitar and a piano), and the rollicking, self-effacing “Life With The Lions.”

The most striking moment here, however, is “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards,” the song building from Bragg’s lone piano-backed vocals to a swelling crescendo of choral voices and a grand finish. It’s the defining moment of Worker’s Playtime, an affirmation of the singer’s social consciousness. Even so, the song displays Bragg’s growing disenchantment with politics as well as his wry sense of humor. Although proclaiming that “revolution is just a T-shirt away,” Bragg asks, “will politics get me the sack?” In the end, Bragg’s surmises “start your own revolution and cut out the middle man,” evoking Dylan’s “don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters….”

She’s Got A New Spell

Worker’s Playtime proved to be commercially questionable, fans and critics alike seemingly confused by the album’s tentative nature and artistic contradictions between the “new” Billy Bragg (stronger production, more instrumentation) and the “old” (guitar and vocals). In reality, the album’s sublime strength lies entirely in its uneasy nature, Worker’s Playtime showcasing Bragg’s evolution from street busker to self-aware musician. Somewhere between album number one and number three, Bragg realized that there might actually be a future to this music thing.

The material on the bonus disc of this excellent Yep Roc reissue – studio demos and outtakes – supports this critical perspective, showing Bragg experimenting with different ways to express his music. The demo of “She’s Got A New Spell,” with the Attractions’ Bruce Thomas and the Jeff Beck Group’s Mickey Waller, evinces a rock aesthetic while “The Short Answer” sounds like low-key Graham Parker, complete with the Rumour’s Martin Belmont on guitar. Other material, such as a stark, powerful cover of the Jam’s “That’s Entertainment” and an uncharacteristically soulful live reading of Tim Hardin’s classic “Reason To Believe” display different facets of Bragg’s talents.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

In retrospect, Worker’s Playtime is a solid collection of songs that served as an invaluable stepping stone to Bragg’s work on albums like Don’t Try This At Home as well as his collaboration with the band Wilco on Mermaid Avenue. It is in these grooves that you can hear Bragg becoming comfortable in his role as artist and musician, the album an important part of the artist’s overall catalog and an influential release in its own right. (Yep Roc Records, 2006 reissue)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the CD on Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Archive Review: David Olney's The Stone EP (2012)

David Olney's The Stone EP
Nashville’s David Olney is one of the city’s truly underrated musical treasures…forget Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw and all that Music Row pap, ’cause while they may be selling more records they’re not, at heart, true storytellers. They simply take clichéd words cranked out by some Music City songwriting assembly line and imbue the material with a modicum of personality. By contrast, Olney is an old-school wordsmith in the Townes Van Zandt tradition, mixing folk and blues with roots-rock in spinning tales that shoot straight for the heart of the human condition.

Olney’s second mini-album, The Stone – following last year’s Film Noir EP and released in time for the Easter holiday – is a six-song EP providing a unique accounting of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Olney revisits three older songs on The Stone, providing his previous creations with new interpretations, adding three new songs to complete his insightful personal take on “the greatest story ever told.” What makes Olney’s version here so mesmerizing is that each song takes a different lyrical view of Christ’s resurrection, the story told, in turn, by a con man, a donkey, a murderer, and a soldier.

David Olney’s The Stone EP

David Olney
David Olney photo by John Halpern, 2006
The Stone opens with “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” Sergio Webb’s classical-styled guitarplay weaving a beautiful tapestry of sound behind Olney’s rich, sonorous spoken word vocals. This is the con man’s tale, originally appearing on Olney’s 1989 album Deeper Well and later recorded by Emmylou Harris. An intricate first-hand tale of Christ’s ministry, it’s a prelude, of sorts, of the story to follow. Another older song, the largely-forgotten “Brays” from Olney’s 1995 album High, Wide and Lonesome, offers the perspective of a lowly donkey who feels like a stallion after carrying a humble Jesus on his back. “Blessed am I of all creatures, blessed am I of all beasts,” sings the donkey in Olney’s haunting voice, the lyrics accompanied by producer Jack Irwin’s ethereal orchestration, which creates a fascinating musical atmosphere.

One of the EP’s new compositions, “Brains” is a funky blues romp fueled by Olney’s growling vocals and fluid harmonica playing. Told from the perspective of a policeman looking to find out “the brains of the operation” behind Jesus and his disciples, with a sly reference to Judas on the side, it’s an unlikely but effective way to recount the story, and probably the most playful song on the EP. David Roe’s subtle bass lines and Irwin’s nuanced percussion lay down a solid foundation beneath Olney’s voice, the lyrics calling to mind every cop-show cliché you’ve ever seen on TV, delivered with tongue only partly in cheek. Seemingly referring to the last supper, “Flesh and Blood” is a more traditionally folk-oriented performance, with Olney’s droning guitar-strum providing a counterpoint to his warm vocals, a bit of Woody Guthrie-styled harmonica complimented by Webb’s piercing guitar tones.

The last of the old tracks, the amazing “Barabbas,” originally appeared on Olney’s 1999 album Through A Glass Darkly. A central character in the Christ narrative, the thief Barabbas had his death sentence commuted by Pontius Pilate while Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. Astride Webb’s strident classical fretwork, Olney tells his rambling tale of Barabbas’s imprisonment with Jesus and subsequent freedom, the thief later questioning his release and traveling across the land to tell his tale which, in itself, represents a form of spiritual redemption. Irwin lays in mariachi-styled horns in places, their odd dissonance adding nicely to the overall vibe of the story while Webb’s intricate and beautiful guitar playing is simply breathtaking.

The Stone ends with “A Soldier’s Report,” the tale of Christ’s resurrection told in the somber voice of a confused and troubled soldier present at the crucifixion and charged with guarding the tomb of Jesus. Above Webb’s insistent and sometimes discordant fretwork, with a few cacophonic blasts of horn thrown in, Olney unfolds the soldier’s shame at discovering that Christ’s body had disappeared, and his subsequent misgivings about the future that the mysterious event portends. It’s a powerful performance, Olney closing out The Stone with an open ending that invites further musical examination.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

David Olney is not a Christian songwriter, per se, nor does he frequent religious themes often, but when he does address matters of faith, he does so with the same intelligence and in the same thought-provoking manner as every song he pens. With The Stone, Olney has successfully wrestled with difficult religious mythology, adding his artistic voice to the history of the tale with no little majesty and grace. (Deadbeet Records, released March 20, 2012)

Review republished courtesy of Blurt magazine...

Friday, January 17, 2020

Archive Review: Billy Bragg's Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy (2006)

Billy Bragg's Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy
When originally released in 1983, the seven-song EP Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy earned Billy Bragg a reputation as a historical curiosity. After all, punk rock was still hanging on while new wave and Goth had begun to excite U.K. audiences. Bragg, on the other hand, was a wandering English troubadour, singing of love and justice and freedom…definitely an anachronism in the modern, trend-driven, media-savvy world.

At that time (as now), if you weren’t a beautiful actor/model/coverboy-girl with a set of safe, bland, over-produced songs, you need not apply. Bragg didn’t fit into that mold, relying instead on talent, attitude and sheer guts in his attempt to make life-changing music.

Billy Bragg’s Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy

Somehow, Bragg succeeded. Never a commercial artist, but always an influential one, his creative emphasis was on the lyrics, especially with his earliest work, which eschewed niceties such as production values and lush instrumentation in favor of the word, the voice and a guitar. The result, on these seven songs, was simply devastating. A talented wordsmith with a taste for the bizarre turn of the phrase, Bragg had a sharp eye for the absurdities of modern life and relationships, and a satirical wit that sinks a razor-sharp rapier into the jugular of the subjects he aims at. Bragg’s political material voiced the most radical worldview since the early days of the Clash (Joe Strummer a major influence on Bragg’s songwriting), the songs made even more effective by the sparse musical accompaniment. Bragg’s love songs are both emotional and bittersweet, never maudlin, and infected with a contagious romanticism more common to the folk genre than to punk rock.

In the thirty-three years since its original release, Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy has aged well, songs like “A New England” and “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty” benefiting from the timeless style of Bragg’s writing and performances. The Yep Roc Records reissue of the EP features the original seven-song EP on one disc, and a second “bonus” disc of unreleased rarities, alternative versions and a great cover of John Cale’s “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend.” Personally, I would have liked to have seen the label include the four songs from Bragg’s Between the Wars EP here, to flesh out the first disc somewhat. However, this is a minor cavil, and since Bragg personally oversaw the Yep Roc reissue series, it was his choice, not mine…

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

In 1985, when the vinyl version of Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy hit these shores, I wrote that Bragg had “a great artistic future,” and that although he would never become a “big star,” he would always be an “interesting and dedicated performer.” Through the years since, Bragg has never proved me wrong. (Yep Roc Records, 2006 reissue)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

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Archive Review: Billy Bragg's Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (2006)

Billy Bragg's Talking With the Taxman About Poetry
“But if you think all I do is press words other people use into my service Comrades, come here, let me give you my pen and you can yourselves write your own verses!” – Victor Mayakovsky, 1926

By the time of the 1986 release of Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, Billy Bragg’s self-professed “difficult” third album, the artist had become the poet laureate of the musical left. A tireless troubadour of socialist leanings, Bragg placed more fervor, energy, passion and emotion in a single phrase or turn of a word than most artists are capable of mustering throughout an entire album.

After a couple of critically acclaimed British EPs and a full-length indie album, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry represented Bragg’s major label debut in the United States. Although Bragg had softened some of the rough edges that endeared audiences to his early work, the lyrical arguments presented on Bragg’s third album proved no less passionate, his penchant for radical polemics no less zealous.

Billy Bragg’s Talking With the Taxman About Poetry

Whereas Bragg’s early songs featured only his thickly-accented vocals and an accompanying guitar, Taxman was fleshed out with a few additional strings, a horn or two, and even an occasional background harmony. The music remained stark, simple and effective, Bragg’s folk-punk musical style serving to underline the importance of his lyrics. First and foremost, Bragg is a poet; a hopeless romantic with a revolutionary bent (not unlike Byron), whose lyrics deal almost exclusively with love and politics – not an entirely inappropriate combination, for one inevitably involves the other. Bragg aims his pen mercilessly at the governments, institutions and the societies that would oppress the seemingly unflagging human spirit.

Bragg champions the worker as a noble creature, envisions romantic love as the Holy Grail and, at times, jabs so deep in the heart with his lyrics and often times brutal lyrics that he is able to invoke the tears/passion he himself obviously feels. The recent Yep Roc Records two-disc reissue of Talking With the Taxman About Poetry includes the entire album, remastered and spiffed up for the digital age, along with a bonus disc of rarities and inspired covers. Songs like Gram Parson’s “Sin City,” Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees,” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” reveal the depth and scope of Bragg’s musical influences and display the artist’s charm and joy in music-making.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Even after 20 years and better than half a dozen album releases, Billy Bragg remains an acquired taste. His music has never been a commercial commodity, although he has enjoyed a hit song or two along the way. As this critic wrote at the time of this album’s release, Bragg “is one of the most important artists to enter the rock arena in years – perhaps the most political folksinger since young Bobby Dylan strode into Greenwich Village with a guitar in hand.”

Bragg remains a man with a message, a poet of uncanny vision and a socially concerned artist whose work remains as fresh and relevant today, in the days of Bush and Blair, as it was during the Reagan/Thatcher era two decades ago. Much of today’s “folk revival,” the acid-folk music of artists like Devendra Banhart, owes a great debt to Bragg, an artist who, inspired by the music of Joe Strummer, would go on to create inspiring music of his own. (Yep Roc Records, 2006 reissue)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the CD from Billy Bragg’s Talking With the Taxman About Poetry