Friday, April 30, 2021

Archive Review: Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3’s Static Transmission (2003)

Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3’s Static Transmission

Steve Wynn is one of those greatly underrated artists that critics love, a songwriter and performer of unusual depth and atypical perspective. As founder of ‘80s cult band Dream Syndicate, Wynn spearheaded LA’s “Paisley Underground” movement with feedback-soaked, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll that was easily a decade ahead of its time. Wynn’s lengthy solo career has had its ups and downs since his first album in 1990, tho’ it’s been mostly up as of late. Static Transmission, credited to Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, represents another solid effort of what could be called, for lack of a better term, “psychedelic folk music.”
The tunes on Static Transmission feature Wynn’s imaginative songwriting and wan vocals, blending folk sensibilities with ‘60s rock influences and ‘80s punk attitude. “Candy Machine” is a fuzz-drenched story-song with beautifully chiming guitars and muddy sound complimented by a melodic hook; the song belongs on modern rock radio, where it would force many bland rock wannabes back to their day jobs. A percussive guitar riff transforms into a slinky, psychedelic wall of sound on “Amphetamine,” a rocking road song with explosive six-string work and unrelenting energy. 

The hyperbolic instrumentation that introduces “One Less Shining Star” leads into a shimmering dirge of sound and obscured vocals while “Hollywood” cuts like Bob Dylan, or maybe Dan Bern, providing a gutsy look at California’s famed city of dreams. Truth be told, there’s not a bad song to be heard on Static Transmission, Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 delivering one of the year’s best, if sadly obscure, rock albums. (DBK Works, released June 24th, 2003)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2003

Buy the CD from Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3’s Static Transmission

Friday, April 23, 2021

Archive Review: Furry Lewis's Good Morning Judge (2004)

Furry Lewis's Good Morning Judge
Walter “Furry” Lewis was a fixture on the Memphis blues scene for years beyond count, recording his first songs in the ‘20s, retiring from music in the ‘30s and being rediscovered in the ‘50s. While most of the original country bluesmen had fled the Delta for Chicago, Detroit and other points north, Lewis remained on Beale Street, traveled the Southeast in medicine shows and, along the way, forged a musical legacy that stands up with the greatest artists of the genre. The timing of the release of Good Morning Judge couldn’t come at a better time as it is one of the strongest collections of Lewis recordings that is currently available.

Recorded by producer George Mitchell in Memphis circa 1962, Good Morning Judge offers Lewis in fine form. The opening title cut is hilarious, Lewis stating that “I got arrested once,” and then going on to deny accusations of murder, fraud, forgery, and even loitering, his light-hearted lyrics covering the deadly seriousness of institutional racism, his vocals accompanied by slinky bottleneck guitar. 

In fact, much of Good Morning Judge showcases Lewis’ unique and intriguing six-string style, the elder bluesman filling songs like “Blues Around My Bed” and “Roll And Tumble Blues” with spry energy and soulful performances. “Don’t You Wish Your Mama Had Named You Furry Lewis” and “Furry Lewis Rag” revisit these traditional blues tunes with more braggadocio than any hip-hop microphone fiend could muster. A wonderful introduction to the lively wit, musical talent and immense charisma of Furry Lewis, Good Morning Judge should be on the shelf of any serious fan of the blues. (Fat Possum Records, released February 3, 2004)

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

Buy the CD from Furry Lewis’ Good Morning Judge

Friday, April 16, 2021

CD Review: Steve Cropper's Fire It Up (2021)

Steve Cropper's Fire It Up
If he did absolutely nothing else to close out a lengthy career that has now spanned some seven decades, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Steve Cropper’s musical legacy would be carved in stone for his tenure with Booker T & the M.G.’s and contributions to monster 1960s-era instrumental rock ‘n’ roll hits like “Green Onions,” “Hip Hug-Her,” “Groovin’,” and “Soul Limbo.” As the Stax Records house band, Booker T & the M.G.’s also backed legendary R&B artists like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, and Eddie Floyd. Cropper’s guitar talents have featured prominently on albums by artists as diverse as Roy Orbison, Wilson Pickett, John Lennon, Leon Russell, and Rod Stewart and his songs have been recorded by folks like Redding, the Rascals, Cher, Glen Campbell, Eric Clapton, and Mitch Ryder, among many others.

As a producer, Cropper has helmed albums by Redding (most notably the posthumous classic The Dock of the Bay), Buddy Miles, Poco, Tower of Power, Ramsey Lewis, and John Prine. Cropper’s languid Southern drawl and on-screen charisma stood out even when playing against larger-than-life figures like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers movies, and the guitarist would tour the globe with one version or another of the Blues Brothers Band for decades. In spite of his enduring influence on rock star guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards, Cropper never enjoyed the sort of solo career that he deserved as a talented musician, songwriter, and producer. He’s recorded sporadically, enjoying a string of critically-acclaimed and influential albums dating from 1969’s With A Little Help From My Friends and 1981’s Playin’ My Thang to 2011’s Dedicated (A Salute To the 5 Royales).

Steve Cropper’s Fire It Up

The aforementioned name-dropping aside, Cropper has never been an artist content to sit on his laurels, nor to ride on the coattails of other talents. For Fire It Up, Cropper’s first solo effort in a decade, the guitarist enlisted a tight-as-a-fist band comprised of singer Roger C. Reale, drummer Nioshi Jackson, and multi-instrumentalist Jon Tiven, who handles bass, keyboards, and horns. None of these guys are exactly household names, although Tiven was an acclaimed music journalist before becoming a full-time musician, songwriter, and producer. All are talented cats, though, and they provide the perfect instrumental foundation for Cropper’s stunning six-string skills. Case in point: the album-opening “Bush Hog, Part 1,” a short but funky strut of an instrumental that displays some of Cropper’s finest chicken-pickin’ riding high atop a strong rhythmic backdrop.

The album’s title track is a gritty, Southern-fried rocker that perfectly frames Reale’s growling, gruff vocals against a soundtrack that mixes rock ‘n’ roll bravado with a Stax soul heartbeat; Cropper’s fretwork stands out from the grooves, as does Tiven’s nuanced but essential harp-play. The blue-eyed soul gem “One Good Turn” was co-written by the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere, who provides subtle keyboard washes to the song, Reale’s emotional vocals accompanied by some timely blasts of saxophone. The mid-tempo “Out of Love” treads unabashedly onto Curtis Salgado’s soul-blues turf, Cropper lightning up the performance with his imaginative and varied fretwork while “She’s So Fine,” co-written by Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers with Cropper and Tiven, is the sort of ramshackle R&B rave-up suitable for the Blues Brothers.     

“Two Wrongs” is a sort of rock-infused, late 1960s/early ‘70s R&B construct that helps showcase the depth of Reale’s vocal talents, his performance here reminiscent of the great Otis Redding while “Heartbreak Street” is the sort of narrative soul that Stax Records superstars Sam & Dave cut their teeth on. The song’s deep emotional undercurrent is pumped-up and magnified by Reale’s turbo-charged, emotional vocals. “The Go-Getter Is Gone” is a tasty soul-drenched rocker, a brassy song that demands a larger-than-life performance from everybody involved, and it works in creating a real liver-quivering foot-stomper of a song. “Bush Hog, Part 2” leads into the lengthier, album-closing “Bush Hog,” a shimmering and buzzing instrumental throwback to the mesmerizing music of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, bringing Cropper full circle, as it were.   

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Steve Cropper’s guitar skills are unassailable, informed as they are by 60+ years of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll. Tiven, too, is a talented musician whose contributions to these songs (and the album’s production) are paramount in achieving the sort of rock ‘n’ soul fusion I imagine the two men had in mind. Cropper’s Fire It Up is a helluva lot of fun, an entertaining album guaranteed to bring back memories of a simpler, more joyful era of rock ‘n’ soul music. Grade: B+  (Provogue Records, released April 23rd, 2021)

Buy the album from Amazon: Steve Cropper’s Fire It Up

Friday, April 9, 2021

Short Rounds: Peter Case, The Fortunate Few, David Olney & Anana Kaye, Sour Ops, Joe Strummer & The Thieves

Peter Case's The Midnight Broadcast
New album releases in 200 words or less…

Peter CaseThe Midnight Broadcast (Bandaloop Records)
Singer/songwriter Peter Case is a walking contradiction – he’s a rocker, a folkie, a bluesman, and a power-pop pioneer! Over the course of an acclaimed career spanning five decades, Case has created an unassailable body of work largely by defying expectations and following his restless muse. The stunning The Midnight Broadcast stands apart from the crowd, however…a concept album, of sorts, the performances here recreate the sort of late-night, static-ridden, AM radio broadcast one used to hear on clear-channel stations like Nashville’s WLAC while driving cross-country. As such, Case pursues a rich American musical menu that places songs like the lovely folk-pop ballad “Just Hanging On,” which wears its pastoral piano and strings like a comforting cape, alongside obscure covers like Dylan’s country-blues gem “Early Roman Kings” or Sleepy John Estes’ “Oh the Morning/President Kennedy,” delivered as a reverent Gospel-tinged blues dirge. The Band’s “This Wheel’s On Fire” is reinvented as a sort of Delta blues ballad while the great Memphis Minnie’s “Bumble Bee” is an electrifying showcase of Case’s six-string skills. In this digital day and age, The Midnight Broadcast sounds like a station from another planet, but there’s a lot to like here for the folk, blues, or Peter Case fan. Grade: A   BUY! 

The Fortunate Few's The Rock Opera
The Fortunate Few – The Fortunate Few: The Rock Opera (9 Dog Records)

The “rock opera” was the foundation on which 1970s-era prog-rock was built. Although the concept album has long since fallen out of favor with the instant-gratification generation, it still comes out of hiding now and then to deliver a magical musical experience. Such is the case with the Fortunate Few’s The Rock Opera. The creation of Nashville rock scene veteran Price Jones, who wrote and produced the album and enlisted a talented band (including the stellar talents of guitarist Stan Lassiter), The Rock Opera is a Phillip K. Dick-worthy cyberpunk tale of a future where children are a consumer commodity, designed in a lab on spec. Following the protagonist, Jonnie, from conception to her teenage years, the song-cycle provides an analogy not only for reckless adoption but also for angst and alienation. Musically, The Rock Opera is more rock than prog, with Lassiter’s imaginative fretwork a welcome addition to the narrative. Notably, Jones doesn’t sing these songs (although she’s a great vocalist), relying primarily on the talented Ryan Greenawalt and Talisha Holmes for the main male and female characters, respectively. Holmes, in particular, is an incredible find, but the entire band breathes life and energy into Jones’ heady conceptual masterpiece. Grade: A   BUY DIRECT!    

David Olney's Whispers and Sighs
David Olney & Anana Kaye – Whispers and Sighs (Schoolkids Records)

Legendary Nashville singer/songwriter David Olney left this mortal veil a little more than a year ago, leaving behind a musical legacy of better than two-dozen recordings that displayed his enormous skills as a wordsmith and underrated compositional talents. The posthumous Whispers and Sighs is Olney’s swansong, and a hell of a goodbye at that. Recorded in collaboration with young singer/songwriter Anana Kaye and her musician husband Irakli Gabriel, accompanied by Olney’s usual group of talented friends, Whispers and Sighs is a wonderful showcase for Olney’s erudite lyricism and eclectic instrumental sensitivities. Olney’s sonorous voice is balanced nicely by Kaye’s dulcet tones, and the band delivers on Olney’s artistic vision, from the baroque “My Favorite Goodbye” and the fierce folk-rock of “Lie To Me, Angel” to the charming “Why Can’t We Get This Right?” and the rocking “Last Days of Rome.” With the mesmerizing “The Great Manzini (Disappearing Act),” Olney passes the torch onto the next generation much as he took the mantle on from Townes Van Zandt. The song revels in nostalgia, a poetic ode to love and loss and memories, written and sung by a master. Whispers and Sighs cements Olney’s legacy as a songwriter and artist without peer. Grade: A+   BUY!

Sour Ops' X
Sour Ops – X (Feralette Media)

Gonzo sonic sculptors spray-painting your eardrums with joyous noise, Sour Ops roar out of Nashville with X, their sophomore effort. Imagine Cheap Trick on a diet of gamma radiation and razorblade flapjacks, or the love child of Iggy Pop and Paul Westerberg, and you’ll have Sour Ops’ musical blueprint. Clocking in at roughly 30-minutes of scalpel-sharp, pulse-quickening git-rock, songs like the clattering “There She Goes,” which pairs a rough-grit sandpaper groove with stinging, chiming fretwork, or the power-pop gem “I’m An Animal Too” shudder out of your stereo speakers like a cold wind. The muscular “Contagious” offers tight-as-a-fist rhythms and snotty. punkish vocals while “I Want You Around” is a twangy country-rocker with weepy pedal steel (and better than anything Music Row will release this year). “Out of Place” is a reckless basher with explosive drumbeats, throbbing bass lines, altered melodic vox, and livewire guitar. Every song here crackles with arcane energy and reverence for the holy trinity of Chuck, Bo, and Elvis as brothers Price and Mark Harrison and fellow travelers Tony Frost and George Lilly revel in a Bacchanalian feast of music-making. Gleefully imposing electro-shock rock ‘n’ roll therapy for your soul, X marks the spot! Grade: A+   BUY DIRECT!

Joe Strummer's Assembly
Joe StrummerAssembly (Dark Horse Records)

Resurrected by his son Dhani, the first new release by George Harrison’s Dark Horse Records is this Joe Strummer collection, Assembly. Strummer performed and recorded with a number of bands after the Clash’s break-up, including the Mescaleros and the Pogues, and also put hours of solo performances down on tape. Assembly could have easily been twice the length and not scratched the depth of the man’s enormous talents, but the album’s 16 tracks cover a lot of ground nonetheless, from familiar tunes like the Mescaleros’ “Coma Girl” and “X-Ray Style” to previously-unreleased live versions of “Junco Partner (Acoustic),” “I Fought the Law” and “Rudie Can’t Fail.” To be entirely honest, however, I prefer the 2018 release Joe Strummer 001, which was overseen by Strummer’s widow and offers two discs crammed with material, 32 songs in total, including a dozen previously-unreleased tracks, music from the 101ers, the Mescaleros, Latino Rockabilly War, and the Pogues, as well as movie soundtrack work and solo recordings. There’s a bit of overlap between Assembly and Joe Strummer 001, so while I’d recommend the double-disc set, Assembly may be worth buying if only for the three unreleased songs (depending on your level of rabid Strummer fandom). Grade: B+   BUY!  

The Thieves' Catfish Karma
The Thieves – Catfish Karma: The Lost Demos 1987-88 (Rambler Records)

Nashville boasted of a number of great bands during the 1980s but none, perhaps, were as overlooked and undervalued as the Thieves. Comprised of singer/songwriter Gwil Owen, guitarist Bart Weilburg, bassist Kelley Looney, and drummer Jeff Finlin, the Thieves had one foot in rock ‘n’ roll and the other in the Music City’s honky-tonk sound years before such blending of genres was called “Americana.” The band’s 1989 semi-indie release, the Marshall Crenshaw-produced Seduced By Money, is a gem waiting to be rediscovered by the hipster crowd; Catfish Karma is a compilation released by Owen and consisting of the band’s early demo recordings. Featuring only four tracks that made their way onto Seduced By Money, the new disc stands well on its own. Holdovers like the Dylan-esque “From A Motel 6” or the rockabilly-tinged “Pick A Number” are rawer and, if memory serves, edgier than the album versions, but unreleased tracks like the melodic “The Night Gives Me Strength,” which veers onto power-pop turf, or the funky, strutting “Rabbit Town,” with shimmering guitar, display the band’s enormous talents and creative vision. My fave? “The Hard Way,” a fierce slab o’ rust-belt rawk that sounds like Nashville’s version of the Iron City Houserockers. Grade: A   BUY DIRECT!

# # #

Bonus Video!

Previously on That Devil

Short Rounds, December 2020: Dave Alvin, Blue Öyster Cult, Shemekia Copeland, Coyote Motel, The Fleshtones, Little Richard, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, Midnight Oil, The Pretty Things, Walter Trout, and Brown Acid: The Eleventh Trip

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

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

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

Friday, April 2, 2021

Archive Review: Son House's The Very Best of Son House (2006)

Son House's The Very Best of Son House
Son House is a name known by even the most casual of blues fans, but few have heard his amazing performances in their original context or understand his place in the history of the blues. Eddie House Jr. was brought up in the church, preaching at plantation churches at the age of fifteen. He didn’t even pick up a guitar until the age of twenty-five, but after discovering the temptations of the juke joint, his die was cast as a bluesman. House played alongside the legendary Charley Patton for years, and no less of legends than Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson were led to the blues by House.

The Very Best of Son House opens with three early (and rare) House recordings from 1930, “My Black Mama,” “Walking Blues,” and “Dry Spell Blues.” Technologically cleaned up as much as possible from the original cheap Paramount 78s, these raw, scratchy performances are valuable not only as historical artifacts but also as signposts for the intense, incredible music that would follow. House’s recording sessions in the early ‘40s with the Smithsonian’s Alan Lomax are better-suited to modern ears, House delivering scorching readings of well-worn songs like “Levee Camp Blues,” “Depot Blues,” and the haunting “Walking Blues (Death Letter).”

A handful of sides from ‘60s round out The Very Best of Son House, including the always-thrilling gospel rave-up “John the Revelator.” At once one of the most respected and yet overlooked of the original Delta bluesmen, Son House wrote the blueprint that a bunch of white boys from England would later use to create blues-rock some four decades later. If you haven’t listened to Son House, you haven’t heard the blues. (Shout! Factory Records, released November 1, 2006)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2006

Buy the CD from Son House’s The Very Best of Son House