Friday, March 26, 2021

Archive Review: Wobbler's Hinterland (2005)

Wobbler's Hinterland
I’ve often joked with friends that there are only ten or twelve prog-rock musicians in the United States and Europe but, between them all, they comprise two dozen or so bands. Considering the cross-pollination between artists and the limited commercial possibilities available in the progressive rock world, it’s no surprise that musicians such as Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Roine Stolt, and such maximize their potential by getting involved in as many musical projects as possible.

Wobbler’s Hinterland

The truth is, prog-rock and its kissing cousin, prog-metal, may entail more roster-swapping and creative collaboration than does mainstream rock music, but this is mostly because the talents of the artists involved, their love of the music and a seemingly endless well of creativity results in a lot of great music being made. As the prog-rock genre becomes more popular with younger audiences both here and abroad (hell, I don’t think that it ever fall into disfavor in Japan), a new generation of young bands has begun to appear. Talented musicians weaned on classic ‘70s-era prog-rock as well as second-wave bands like Spock’s Beard and the Flower Kings, the third wave of prog has been launched with welcome new faces like Circus Maximus and Norway’s Wobbler.

Introduced to an appreciative audience at the 2005 NEARfest art-and-prog-rock festival in Pennsylvania, Wobbler follows up its dynamic summer performance with Hinterland, the band’s anticipated debut album. The results of Wobbler’s first effort is nothing short of stunning, Hinterland a magnificent tour-de-force combining elements of Scandinavian folk and old-school progressive rock with classical composition and instrumental virtuosity. Keyboardist Lars Froislie engaged the services of a number of vintage instruments like a Hammond C3 organ, Mini-Moog, Rhodes electric piano, and Mellotron to recreate the sound and fury of classicist proggers such as Yes and King Crimson while the rest of the band has woven a subtle tapestry of sound with symphonic overtones and rock roots. Guitarist Morten Eriksen’s fretwork reminds one of Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre while frontman Tony Johannessen’s vocals are warm but capable of reaching subtle heights.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The emphasis on Hinterland is on the music, however, and Wobbler has excelled at the construction of a dense, multi-layered and multi-faceted collection of songs that are long on Froislie’s considerable keyboard wizardry and short on pretension. The band has forged atmospheric compositions of amazing ambition and depth, combining disparate musical elements to create a new and exciting strain of progressive rock. Wobbler has shot for the stars and struck a bullseye, Hinterland an incredible debut, certain to bring the band acclaim as typically reticent prog-rock lifers sit up and take notice. We look forward to hearing more from this talented and innovative group of musicians. (The Laser’s Edge, released September 5th, 2005)

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

Buy the CD on Wobber’s Hinterland

Friday, March 19, 2021

CD Review: Jason Ringenberg's Rhinestoned (2021)

Jason Ringenberg's Rhinestoned
Jason & the Scorchers frontman Jason Ringenberg is a pioneering Americana legend who has also enjoyed a critically-acclaimed and modestly-successful solo career that kicked off with 2000’s A Pocketful of Soul, which was followed by 2002’s All Over Creation. In between these efforts, Ringenberg pursued a third distinct career as “Farmer Jason,” recording goofy yet deceptively sly albums for kid (and their parents). He took some time off after 2004’s Empire Builders, reunited with the Scorchers for 2010’s landmark Halcyon Times album, and then returned to his family and life in Tennessee.   

Jason Ringenberg’s Rhinestoned

The offer of an “artist in residency” program at Sequoia National Park in California proved to be too alluring to pass by, however, and with newfound clarity and purpose (and a bunch of new songs), Ringenberg came roaring back with 2019’s incredible Stand Tall album. The Roots of Stand Tall appeared last year, the album a sort of “making of” trip and, when 2020 rolled around, Ringenberg had songs left over that didn’t quite fit onto Stand Tall. In a press release for his new album, Jason states “these weren’t enough to make another record, nor did I have the fire to embark on another recording project.” When the Covid lockdown started, though, Jason says that “songs began to pour out. I felt increasingly excited and driven to record again. I put a guitar and recorder by my bed. I was ready to jump on any idea like a Revolutionary War Minuteman waiting to be called by Paul Revere.”

The result is Ringenberg’s finest solo album to date, Rhinestoned. The man himself says “the songs rolled out rather heavy. I reckon that was to be expected, with a world grappling with a pandemic and the United States embroiled in racial strife.” A historian in his own lyrical manner, Jason easily ties together events from yesteryear with contemporary themes to create a strong song cycle that has one foot in the past and an eye towards the future. Rhinestoned kicks off with the Dylanesque “Before Love and War,” a poetic rocker that shines with producer/guitarist George Bradfute’s shimmering fretwork, Fats Kaplin’s sweeping steel guitar, and emotionally-charged vocals. Ringenberg’s “The Freedom Rides Weren’t Free” is another up-tempo rocker with brilliant, timely lyrics that reflect the “Black Lives Matter” protests while speaking of the sacrifices of the Freedom Riders, who fought for civil rights in the early ‘60s. Jason delivers a powerful vocal performance for a song into which he invests a lot of heart and soul.

Nashville Without Rhinestones

Ringenberg has lived in the Nashville area for better than 40 years, and dabbled in the country music field, so he knows what he speaks of in “Nashville Without Rhinestones,” a folk-styled song with lyrics spoken, rather than sung against a rolling instrumental backdrop. Jason bemoans the loss of the “old” Nashville not in the manner of some aging crank, but rather as a traditionalist who isn’t so much criticizing the city’s progress as much as mourning what it’s leaving behind. “Out on the horizon, I see a sinking ship,” he sings, “filled with hillbilly ghosts on their final trip,” nodding to the Music City’s rich cultural heritage by playing “an old LP” from 1963, 1953, 1943, etc., throughout the lengthy history of country & western music. Jason pays further tribute to the “Old Nashville” with a charming cover of the Carter Family’s country classic “The Storms Are On the Ocean.” A duet with the incredibly-talented Kristi Rose, their two voices recreate pure magic in the grooves.  
Only Ringenberg could take an antiquated hymn like “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and turn it into a rock song, but with a little vocal assistance from two of his daughters (Addie and Camille), and soaring Bradfute guitarplay, the song manages to be both reverent and joyfully rowdy. Ringenberg’s “I Rode with Crazy Horse” is one of the album’s most interesting songs, with its germination in a dream. Says Jason, “I woke up and immediately hummed the words and melody into my phone recorder. I am enormously proud of that song.” A rollicking story-song, Ringenberg states that its “story is loosely based on an old Lakota/Oglala legend that one of Crazy Horse’s cousins rode and fought beside him through every battle, even to his death at Fort Robinson.” Riding a timeworn C&W beat like a galloping horse, the story unfolds into a fascinating tale accompanied by Bradfute’s ringing guitars and a locomotive rhythms courtesy of drummer Steve Ebe’s relentless percussion.  

Stoned On Rhinestones

Jason Ringenberg 2021 photo by Scott Willis
The semi-autobiographical “My Highway Songs” is the perfect antidote to today’s insipid “pop country” music with Ringenberg’s high-lonesome vocals sitting atop a twangy yet lush instrumental soundtrack, the self-reflective lyrics of an aging rocker wondering if “there’s a place in the world for my highway songs?” The music is simply gorgeous, with Kaplin’s weeping pedal steel standing out, and the song itself is worthy of a tradition built by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Speaking of which, Jason’s cover of ol’ Hank’s “You Win Again” is a beautiful contemporary take on the honky-tonk gem, Ringenberg imbuing the song with plenty of pathos and heartache while the band choogles on behind him. A cover of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ song “Time Warp” (from 1975’s The Car Over the Lake album) is a swinging nod to country music’s influence on 1970s-era Southern rock.

With “Stoned On Rhinestones,” Ringenberg takes a sly look at the allure of country music stardom, his humorous lyrics bouncing off a rockin’ hillbilly musical backdrop to cleverly (and honestly) describe both the ups and the downs of a life on stage. The grand romantic ambitions of “Keep That Promise” could easily have been a Jason & Scorchers tune, with guitarist Warner Hodges shooting off sparks while Jason sings of star-crossed lovers. As it is, Bradfute and company do a fine job raising the roof, providing stinging fretwork and a dense rhythmic canvas for Jason to paint on. Rhinestoned closes with “Window Town,” another poetic lyrical turn that obliquely speaks of the difficulty of personal relationships in the modern world. The soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful, masterfully blending country and rock with filigree guitar and pedal steel (and Kristi Rose’s harmony vocals) playing off a solid rhythmic foundation.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Jason says it better than I ever could, stating that “taken all together, this is a record populated by old souls and ghosts – both people and places. The main song cycle of Rhinestoned examines my relationship with a changing Nashville and its role in country music.” Although many of the album’s songs look backwards, they’re also contemplative of the future in a time of doubt and apprehension. Recorded during the Covid era with the attendant social distancing, and ably assisted by guitarist and producer George Bradfute, in whose Tone Chaparral studio the album was recorded, Ringenberg and his collaborators nevertheless managed to crank out a timeless and enduring collection of spirited country-rock music that is both uplifting and entertaining…and who could ask for better in these trying days and times? (Courageous Chicken Records, released March 5th, 2021)

Jason Ringenberg 2021 photo above by Scott Willis

Buy the CD direct from the artist: Jason Ringenberg’s Rhinestoned

Friday, March 12, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Badfinger's No Dice (1970)

Badfinger's No Dice
Widely-considered as the “Godfathers of Power-Pop,” Badfinger’s storied career dated back to the early 1960s. Formed in 1961, the band ran through names like the Black Velvets and the Wild Ones before settling on the Iveys. A typical British R&B outfit, the Iveys played Top 40 chart hits, Motown, psychedelic-rock, blues, and soul while touring with better-known outfits like the Who, the Yardbirds, and the Spencer Davis Group. They would come to the attention of the Beatles and, signed to that band’s Apple Records label, would change their name and start the long slog of moving out of the long shadow of their benefactors.

No Dice was the second album recorded under the Badfinger band name and features the “classic” line-up of guitarists Pete Ham and Joey Molland, bassist Tom Evans, and drummer Mike Gibbins, all of whom share vocals at one time or another. It’s an odd album, and not what fans might expect, in spite of the power-pop blueprint “No Matter What,” an engaging slice of guitar-driven chart candy that would become the band’s second Top 10 U.K. and U.S. single. Although a lot of the album’s exercises in rock ‘n’ roll reflect the uncertainty of the changing decades (as well as upheaval in the Beatles camp and Apple Records), there are a number of gems hidden in these grooves.

The Ham/Evans co-write “Without You” would become a big hit for Harry Nilsson a year after Badfinger’s hauntingly beautiful and sublime version. The rollicking, country-tinged “Better Days” offers up some stellar fretwork and harmony vocals while the rockin’ “Love Me Do” one-ups the Beatles with a stomping ‘50s throwback soundtrack. Evans’ “Believe Me” is a Paul McCartney solo track by any standard with plaintive, yearning vocals and lush instrumental accompaniment and “We’re For the Dark” closes No Dice with an elegant folk-pop tune boasting of elegant guitarplay and Ham’s warm vocals. Oddly enough, only “No Matter What” was released as a single off the album, although there are easily a couple of other worthy candidates here.     

Badfinger peaked commercially with the band’s 1971 album Straight Up, which would ride the Top 10 U.S. hits “Day After Day” and “Baby Blue” to a #31 position on the Billboard albums chart. Financial mismanagement, personnel changes, the demise of Apple Records, numerous lawsuits, and other issues plagued the band until its break-up in 1975 following the death of Pete Ham by suicide. Broker than broke, Badfinger members Molland and Evans re-formed the band in the late ‘70s and released albums in 1979 (Airwaves) and 1981 (Say No More) before breaking up again, each man touring with their own version of Badfinger in the early ‘80s. Despondent over an argument concerning royalties, Evans took his own life in 1983. Joey Molland continued to lead Badfinger, in one form or another, into the 2000s while also releasing several solo albums. (Apple Records, 1970)

Buy the CD from Badfinger’s No Dice

Classic Rock Review: Black Sabbath's Paranoid (1970)

Black Sabbath's Paranoid
If Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album, released in February 1970, was a shot across the bow of music biz politesse, then their sophomore effort, Paranoid, tore down the gates and announced that the freebooters were here to rampage and plunder. Released a mere seven months after their debut, the album represented a large creative leap forward for the foursome of Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass), and Bill Ward (drums). The touchstone for several subsequent sub-genres of heavy metal – as well as a foundational album for the metal genre altogether – there’s literally not a bad song to be found on Paranoid.

Kicking off with the anti-war dirge “War Pigs,” Iommi introduces his heavy, riff-based guitar technique to a legion of stoners while Ozzy’s sepulchre vocals perfectly match the Sturm und Drang of Butler’s lyrics. Producer Roger Bain added some sound effects to the mix while Ward’s explosive drumbeats drive the song’s lyrical narrative. The result ranks among the top two or three most influential metal songs ever recorded. The breakneck title song – literally thrown together in the studio at the last minute to pad out the album – shows the band channeling arcane forces with a thrashy descent into madness that would make “Paranoid” perhaps the most influential heavy metal track of all time (or only second, perhaps, to Deep Purple’s “Smoke On the Water”). Sabbath wasn’t content with merely resting on the success of the first couple of ball-breakers on Paranoid, nosirree…they go on to dredge up the most devastating sonic sludge that they could conceive of in the proto-metal daze of the dawn of the new decade.

The hallucinogenic psychedelic mindfuck of “Planet Caravan” is directly responsible for the creation of bands like Saint Vitus, Kyuss, the Obsessed, and Electric Wizard while the plodding, metal-clad golem “Iron Man” has taken on legs of its own beyond Paranoid. Songs like “Electric Funeral” and “Hand of Doom” display a heretofore unknown, uranium-strength level of heaviness and radioactivity while the album-closing “Fairies Wear Boots” (with its intricate musical intro often listed separately as “Jack the Stripper”) cranked the amps to absurd levels, Ozzy’s epochal vocals matched by jackhammer rhythms and Iommi’s six-string pyrotechnics. A new wind was blowing in from Merry Olde England, driving Paranoid to #1 in the U.K. and #12 on the U.S. albums chart, eventually selling more than four million flapjacks on its way to making Sabbath international rock stars. (Warner Brothers Records, 1970)

Buy the vinyl from Black Sabbath’s Paranoid

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Cleveland Rock 'n' Roll Legend Michael Stanley, R.I.P.

The Michael Stanley Band

So sad to hear about the death of Cleveland rock 'n' roll legend Michael Stanley. Although he never broke nationwide with either his Michael Stanley Band (which recorded a handful of great "heartland rock" albums for major labels like Epic, Arista, and EMI back in the 1970s and '80s) or as a solo artist, Michael kept on rockin' as a DJ for a local FM radio station for 30 years...

The Michael Stanley Band were faves of mine as a "Rust Belt" kid before, and after moving to Tennessee, and I liked Stanley's solo albums whenever I ran across them in the wild. Some years ago, he reached out to me by email after I'd written a positive review and we had some nice conversations. Stanley was never really famous (outside of Ohio), but he was a rock 'n' roll lifer. R.I.P.

More about Michael Stanley on

Friday, March 5, 2021

Archive Review: Delta Moon's Goin' Down South (2004)

Delta Moon's Goin' Down South
If only for the classic song “Money Changes Everything” – covered so completely by Cyndi Lauper – former Brains keyboardist and songwriter Tom Gray deserves induction in somebody’s hall of fame. Unfortunately, by the time of that song’s enormous success, the underrated band had disbanded and Gray moved from Atlanta to Nashville to pursue a full-time songwriting career. He must have discovered that Nashville isn’t the sort of creative mistress to nurture a gifted wordsmith, as Gray returned to Atlanta and ended up forming the acoustic roots band Delta Moon with neighbors Gina Leigh on vocals and guitarist Mark Johnson in the early ‘90s. Gray’s infatuation with traditional blues and roots-rock began to gain the band a following, the threesome subsequently adding noted blues bassist Jon Schwenke and drummer Scott Callison.

Goin’ Down South is Delta Moon’s third album and second studio effort, the record illustrating the impressive musical chemistry between the players as well as the band’s firm creative grasp on a wide range of material. An entertaining mix of rootsy originals and inspired covers, including Mississippi bluesman J.B. Lenoir’s “I Want To Go” and hill country legend R.L. Burnside’s “Goin’ Down South,” the album is an intricate mix of Delta blues, Southern-fried country funk, and roots-rock. Gina Leigh is a gifted vocalist, belting out the bluesier numbers with passion and finesse while Gray’s gruffer vocals are better suited for the more subdued and countryish material.

It’s the songs that make or break an album, though, and Delta Moon’s carefully considered material stands tall. “Poplar Grove” is a disturbing tale of rural vengeance, Gray’s mournful vocals complimented by his pedal steel playing and Mark Johnson’s nimble fretwork. “Stone Cold Man” is a swamp-flavored blues track featuring Leigh’s amazing pipes, the band delivering a funky groove behind the vocals. The unusual choice of the David Bowie/Iggy Pop tune “Nightclubbing” to cover is a risky move pulled off with skill by Delta Moon, the band interpreting the Teutonic cabaret of the original as a smoky blues shuffle. “Shake Something Loose,” written by Gray with fellow traveler Randall Bramblett, is a rocking number that bubbles over just short of rowdy.    

Delta Moon has attracted a lot of attention from the blues/roots music segment of the industry, but based on the strength of Goin’ Down South, I’d say that they could just as easily appeal to the jam band audience as well. The band has two skilled multi-instrumentalists in Gray and Johnson; Schwenke and Callison are a solid and flexible rhythm section; and between Leigh and Gray, Delta Moon’s vocalists can pull off a diverse range of material. Delta Moon may not meander off into twenty-minute extended jams (tho’ I believe that they could), but they evince the sort of rural southern “down-home” innocence and instrumental skills that have made bands as disparate as moe, Phish, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones favorites on the festival circuit. Don’t believe me? Check out Goin’ Down South…it’s all in the grooves. (Deep Rush Records, released June 15, 2004)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Buy the CD from Delta Moon’s Goin’ Down South