Friday, February 26, 2021

CD Review: Crack the Sky's Tribes (2021)

Crack the Sky, photo by Rei Perri

Crack the Sky are rock ‘n’ roll lifers; formed in Weirton, West Virginia in the early ‘70s by John Palumbo (vocals, keyboards) and Rick Witkowski (guitar, vocals), the band’s original line-up included guitarist Jim Griffiths, bassist Joe Macre, and drummer Joey D’Amico. The band released its self-titled debut album in 1975, the first LP released by songwriter/producer Terry Cashman’s independent Lifesong Records label. Crack the Sky received near-unanimous critical acclaim for its heady prog-rock sound, and was even proclaimed the “debut album of the year” by Rolling Stone magazine. In a pattern that would be all too familiar over the course of their lengthy career, distribution problems and promotional shortfalls prevented the album from really taking off.

The band released its sophomore effort, Animal Notes, a year later and ran into the same brick wall of widespread critical acclaim and commercial indifference. They toured heavily, opening for major league headliners like Kansas, Boston, Supertramp, and Yes, but received little or no radio airplay (even from ‘sympathetic’ FM stations) and, when their commercial fortunes failed to improve, Palumbo left the band to pursue a solo career. Recruiting singer Gary Lee Chappell, and with producer Rob Stevens subbing on keyboards, CTS released its third album, Safety In Numbers, in 1978. When it, too, underperformed the band decided to break up; Lifesong would release a live album later that year. Palumbo and Witkowski reunited in 1980 for the album White Music, and Crack the Sky has been performing and recording in one form or another ever since.   

Crack the Sky’s Tribes

Crack the Sky got some positive press with the release of its 2018 studio effort Living In Reverse, the band doubling up a few months later with the compilation Crackology, which featured new recordings of old fan-favorite songs. Flash-forward a couple of years to the plague-ridden days of 2021 and CTS lives up to its name with the devastating Tribes, an album which sunders the heavens with sonic lightning bolts. I’ve always considered Crack the Sky to be more of a hard rock outfit with prog-rock tendencies, and it shows in the grooves of Tribes, with Witkowski leading a thunderclap band that includes original Skyster Joe D’Amico on drums as well as bassist Dave DeMarco, multi-instrumentalist Bobby Hird, and keyboardist Glenn Workman, the latter two men both 20-year CTS veterans. Together, they create a muscular musical canvas upon which Palumbo paints his colorful lyrics.

As a songwriter, Palumbo has always had a keen eye for his surroundings, but Tribes focuses that skill on America circa now, the album-opening title track the most succinct recap of where our society currently stands as you’ll ever hear. Above dark-hued instrumentation that settles into a menacing, slinky groove, Palumbo reveals the depth of divisiveness in our world with lyrics that are anything but reassuring. Palumbo’s vocals dance atop the lush soundtrack like a dervish on a pinhead, reinforcing the power of his words. D’Amico’s martial drumbeats open “Another Civil War,” Palumbo’s eerie vocals foreshadowing a dark future for the last American century as the band’s hybrid of pysch, prog, and goth sounds creates an intoxicating listening experience. The third of what is really a trilogy, “Dear Leaders” addresses the lack of empathy and anything even marginally resembling political courage in the U.S. in near-Biblical terms, the singer’s insightful lyrics matched by a gale-force storm of overwhelming instrumentation.

Palumbo resurrects an old song from his solo days for Tribes, “Blowing Up Detroit” masterfully capturing chaos in a bottle as the band rocks ferociously behind his vocals, the slashing guitars particularly stunning. Much of Tribes follows a similar blueprint to these first four, with Palumbo’s erudite, intelligent lyrics matched by snarling instrumentation that bares its fangs at every opportunity. Palumbo tosses off lines that lesser writers would kill for – “Turn on the TV and I feel like screaming, I close my eyes and hope I’m dreaming” or “I’m a stranger in a strange land, I tried to fit in a long time ago, and now it’s clear I don’t want to do that.” The songwriter waxes nostalgic for “Boom Boom” in a way that Springsteen forgot decades ago, the band strutting across the song like Godzilla stomping on Tokyo while “The Lost Boys” wonderfully captures the lingering alienation of the aging man-child with exotic rhythms that underline the agelessness of the theme.      

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Palumbo, Witkowski, and crew are extraordinarily talented musicians who, together, create a joyful noise, playing every bit as well as they did 45 years ago. Witkowski and Hird, in particular, are skilled and imaginative string-benders who play in service to the material without ego or showboating, but every member of CTS gets a chance to shine here. This isn’t ‘commercial’ music by any stretch of the imagination, but rather timeless incantations of rock ‘n’ roll that, the seeming topicality of the lyrics aside, sounds like it could have been recorded in 1975 or 2025, and it’s equally at home in either year. Old-school CTS fans will be overjoyed with Tribes, but any prog or classic rock fan will find a lot to like here. Grade: A (Carry On Music, released January 15th, 2021)

Buy the CD or LP from Crack the Sky’s Tribes

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Stuff I Like: Too Much Joy’s “Uncle Watson Wants To Think”

It would be an understatement to say that I’m overjoyed that one of my fave bands from the college rock era – the quirky, intelligent, indefatigable Too Much Joy – is returning in March with their first album in nearly a quarter-century. From indie rock records like 1987’s Green Eggs and Crack and the following year’s Son of Sam I Am (which includes the mirthful, insightful, classic tune “Clowns”) through their too-brief major label years, which yielded underachieving and overlooked albums like 1991’s Cereal Killers, 1992’s Mutiny, and the criminally-ignored …finally (1996), Too Much Joy never failed to deliver an entertaining musical experience. My long-lost interview with TMJ frontman Tim Quirk remains one of my favorite conversations with an artist but, since it was never published, I have no idea what we talked about…

Currently comprised of original band members Tim Quirk (vocals), Jay Blumenfield (guitar, vocals), Sandy Smallens (bass, vocals) and Tommy Vinton (drums) along with long-time member William Wittman (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Too Much Joy comes roaring back on March 19th, 2021 with Mistakes Were Made, and the band has released its first single from the album with an accompanying video. Needless to say, it sounds like they never left, with “Uncle Watson Wants To Think” displaying the same sort of bruised, wistful lyrics as their best songs along with an edgy pop-punk-drenched rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack…think of Weezer, but smarter and with balls. Of the song, the band writes that it “began life when critic/professor Gina Arnold shared a list of unused Raymond Chandler titles on Facebook and suggested her friends kill some pandemic lockdown time by writing stories to match.”

“Tim was struck by the title ‘Uncle Watson Wants to Think’, and asked if he could contribute a lyric, instead. He wrote the words quickly, while swimming laps in a swimming pool near his house: ‘I just saw Uncle Watson collapsed on a couch, and a little kid trying to sneak past him without disturbing the guy. The whole thing pretty much sprang to life fully formed, which is rare, for me. I could tell the guy was kind of a jerk, but I never like it when songs spend all their energy ridiculing someone else, so I tried to figure out what made him so sad and mean. Turns out Uncle Watson probably had his own Uncle Watson. Jay, Bill and Sandy worked up an appropriately melancholy arrangement for the tune, then Bill asked his pal Joan Osborrne to contribute some lady vocals to the mix, as we really needed to hear from the mother who brought this man into the house.’”

The video features singer/songwriter Joan Osborne on guest vocals and was directed and edited by Keegan Denery of 1596 Films. Says the band, “Jay had the idea for the video, which was assembled by young genius Keegan Denery after experimenting for several hundred hours with dozens of different images suggested by the band. Some looked uncannily real when they mouthed the song’s words, others were frightening failures. After a lot of trial and error, Keegan combined all the ones that worked into a seamless whole. Many of the characters are easter eggs for diehard Too Much Joy fans, based on old lyrics or PR mishaps.”

In the liner notes to the new album, the band writes “we weren’t really planning on making another record; this album only exists because 2020 sucked so goddamn much. Our humble hope is that, since it now exists, it can make whatever year you’re listening to it suck a little bit less.” Check out the video below and then get on over to Bandcamp to pre-order the brand-spankin’ new Too Much Joy album Mistakes Were Made. Tell ‘em that the Rev sent ya!

Buy the new CD: Too Much Joy’s Mistakes Were Made

Too Much Joy, circa 2021

Friday, February 19, 2021

Archive Review: Marianne Faithful's Kissin' Time (2002)

Marianne Faithful's Kissin' Time
Best known for her association with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones and for a string of lightweight pop hits during the ‘60s, Marianne Faithful has nevertheless forged one of the most enduring and unique legacies in music history. Although drugs derailed her career for much of the ‘70s, Faithful’s 1979 comeback album, Broken English, signaled the rebirth of her creative efforts and led to successful collaborations with producers such as Hal Willner and Daniel Lanois. Kissin Time is the latest chapter in Faithful’s storied life, a contemporary pairing of her incredible lyrical vision with the musical talents of folks like Beck, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics.

Faithful’s voice is rough-hewn and raw, easily an octave lower than heard on the lofty pop confections she recorded in the ‘60s. As gritty as Faithful’s voice has become, it is also a magnificent instrument, beautifully flawed and perfectly appropriate for her lyrical flights of fancy. There are several moments of pure enchantment to be found on Kissin Time, “Song For Nico,” for instance, offering a heartfelt tribute to a fellow chanteuse, revisiting memories of a time long past. Corgan’s production of “I’m On Fire” is priceless, subtle with shimmering instrumentation almost burying Faithful’s tortured vocals, her lyrics portraying an immense longing for love.

Kissin Time closes with a joyful reading of the Goffin/King gem “I’m Into Something Good.” Producer Corgan pushes Faithful into delivering the sort of pop tune she might have sung thirty years ago and Faithful responds by filling her performance with youth and vigor undaunted by age albeit informed by hard won experience. Beautiful and profane, intelligent and brutally honest, Marianne Faithful has taken the measure of her life and created in Kissin Time a complex, timeless work for the ages. (Virgin Records, released 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2002

Friday, February 12, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Leon Russell's Carney (1972)

Leon Russell's Carney
Rock ‘n’ roll legend Leon Russell began his career as an in-demand session musician, playing on albums by artists like Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys, and Dick Dale as part of the Wrecking Crew conglomerate of L.A. studio professionals. After recording a pair of albums with guitarist Marc Benno as Asylum Choir, Russell put in time on the road with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (where he met George Harrison and Eric Clapton) and, following Joe Cocker’s Top 20 chart success with Russell’s song “Delta Lady,” as the musical director for Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.

Somewhere in between all this activity, Russell found the time to record his self-titled 1970 solo debut which, although peaking at #60 on the Billboard album chart, would yield one of the songwriter’s most enduring compositions in “A Song For You.” Recorded through the years by artists as diverse as the Carpenters, Ray Charles, Cher, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, and the Temptations, among a couple hundred others, “A Song For You” would be inducted into the Grammy™ Hall of Fame in 2018. Russell would follow up his debut a year later with the Top 20 charting LP Leon Russell & the Shelter People, which featured both original songs and covers of tunes by George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Carney, Russell’s third album, was released in June 1972 to much anticipation from the artist’s growing fan base.

The album did not disappoint, the original slate of songs displaying Russell’s trademark quirkiness and musically adventuresome spirit. Nowhere is Russell’s free spirit more apparent than on the delightful “Tight Rope,” the album’s hit single (#11) and an unlikely radio hit that featured syncopated rhythms, staggered vocals, and a minimalist soundtrack on what is a metaphor for life lived in the spotlight. “Out In the Woods” offers up a swamp-blues vibe with double-tracked Russell vocals (effectively singing parallel to himself) and an overall rootsy vibe while “Cajun Love Song” moves out of the bayou and onto Bourbon Street with an infectious melody and mesmerizing vocal patois. “Roller Derby” offers a similar up-tempo New Orleans R&B sound with soulful vocals, honky-tonk piano, and breathless backing vocals.

Many critics, both at the time and more recently in reappraising Carney, have dismissed the second side of the album as too psychedelically-influenced which, honestly, would have been terribly out-of-date by ’72. Other than the second-side-opening, instrumental flight-of-fancy that is the title track, or maybe the meandering and pointless “Acid Annapolis,” much of side two of Carney is just as finely-crafted and imaginative as the flip side. “If the Shoe Fits” is a rollicking, mid-tempo romp with plenty of rowdy juke-joint piano-pounding while “This Masquerade,” which would become a Top 10 chart hit a few years later when recorded by jazz guitarist George Benson, is an ambient jazz-soul ballad with crooned lyrics and elegant fretwork. Album closer “Magic Mirror” is a blue-hued ballad with muted keyboards and haunted vocals.

Carney would become Russell’s most commercially-successful album, peaking at #2 on the Billboard album chart on its way to Gold™ Record status for better than a half-million hubcaps sold. Russell would continue to enjoy sporadic success through the years with albums like 1974’s Stop All That Jazz and the following year’s Will O’ the Wisp; several albums of country music recorded under his ‘Hank Wilson’ alter-ego; and collaborations with artists like Willie Nelson and Elton John. Russell’s eclectic musical tastes, along with his unbridled imagination and ability to span genres from rock, blues, and folk to country, R&B, and Gospel made the singer/songwriter one of the classic rock era’s most original and intriguing talents. (Shelter Records, 1972)

Also on That Devil Music: The Asylum Choir’s Look Inside the Asylum Choir review

Buy the CD from Leon Russell’s Carney

Classic Rock Review: The Asylum Choir's Look Inside the Asylum Choir (1968)

Long before he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Leon Russell began his career as a well-respected session musician. Moving to L.A. from Oklahoma in the late 1950s, Russell worked his way up the ranks of studio professionals, his natural ability to cross genres like rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, and gospel leading to a chair with the legendary Wrecking Crew, where he brought his talents to records throughout the 1960s by such disparate artists as the Byrds, Jan & Dean, Ray Charles, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, the Beach Boys, and Glen Campbell, among many others. Russell would later hook up with guitarist Marc Benno, a fellow studio pro, as part of the two-man band the Asylum Choir, which released its debut album, Look Inside the Asylum Choir, in 1968.

It was an auspicious, if tentative debut for the future rock ‘n’ roll legend, with the two musicians sharing production duties and tag-teaming the instrumentation and songwriting on a set that blended psychedelic rock (only then becoming passé) with scraps of pop, blues, soul, and whatever else they could mix in the bowl. With Russell handling vocals, piano, guitar, and drums and Benno adding guitar, bass, and vocals, the pair delivered a fine, if overlooked album which displays their musical curiosity while still flirting with a (barely) commercial sound. As such, you get songs like the Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles (“Icicle Star Tree”), Big Band-styled psych-soul (“Death of the Flowers”), noirish exotica (“Episode Containing 3 Songs”), or frenetic ragtime (“Black Sheep Boogaloo”), all carefully-crafted and sporting a glossy studio sheen.

Look Inside the Asylum Choir refused to find an audience in spite of the album’s widespread critical acclaim, which didn’t deter Russell and Benno from taking another shot a year later. They called in some friends to help record Asylum Choir II, including talented guitarist Jesse Ed Davis and bassist Carl Radle. Scheduled for 1969 release by Russell’s own Shelter Records label, legal problems delayed Asylum Choir II until 1971, by which time Russell had begun to establish himself as a solo star, helping push the album to #70 on the Billboard chart. Russell hopscotched through Delaney & Bonnie & Friends on his way to a role as bandleader for Joe Cocker’s momentous 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and then onto a modestly-successful solo career.

Benno didn’t do too shabby for himself either, establishing himself as a blues-rock solo artist and songwriter with better than a dozen studio LPs to his credit. Benno continued to dabble in session work as well, contributing guitar tracks to the Doors L.A. Woman album and recording with artists like Rita Coolidge, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. (Smash Records, 1968)

Friday, February 5, 2021

Archive Review: Bad Religion's All Ages (1995)

Bad Religion's All Ages
Contrary to the belief of many scribes, the recent punk rock revival hasn’t occurred overnight. Mainstream critics have all but ignored the punk underground, perhaps thinking that it would go away if they just wouldn’t write about it. The kids knew all along what time it was, jamming local all ages shows at clubs across the country to see bands like 7 Seconds, NoFX, Operation Ivy and, the grandpappy of them all, Bad Religion.

Formed during the early ‘80s American hardcore punk revolution, Bad Religion rapidly became SoCal faves with the release of their uncompromising debut, How Could Hell Be Any Worse? As the hardcore movement began to lose steam come mid-decade, mutating into a dozen varied musical forms, the band split into separate factions and stayed out of the game for almost four years. In 1988, the original five members of Bad Religion reunited to release the ground-breaking Suffer, and a revitalized punk scene was born that would carry over to the present day.

Over the next few years, Bad Religion would rewrite the book on punk rock. The band had developed a driving, furious rock style that combined the attitude and energy of punk with musical elements drawn from almost 40 years of rock ‘n’ roll. Intelligent lyrics, often espousing a certain socially-conscious world view, were contributed by vocalist Greg Graffin and guitarist Brett Gurewitz. Released through Gurewitz’s Epitaph Records label, albums like No Control, Against the Grain, and Generator captured the hearts and imaginations of young fans, each selling upwards of a hundred thousand copies – unheard of, at that time, for a punk band on an indie label.

All Ages culls material from the aforementioned late ‘80s/early ‘90s releases, as well as a pair of previously unreleased live cuts and a taste from their 1981 debut, “We’re Only Gonna Die.” All Ages is a significant overview of the band’s work during this important time period, presenting the band’s talents through cuts like “You Are (The Government),” “No Control,” “Fuck Armageddon...This Is Hell” and “21st Century Digital Boy.” Twenty-two cuts in all are included, each one going a long way towards explaining the band’s popularity and influence. This stuff is whip smart punk rock: no frills, cranked out fast and furious with style and intelligence.

Covering as it does, Bad Religion’s 1988-1994 pre-Atlantic label years, All Ages serves as an excellent document of the band’s achievements to this point, showcasing a considerable musical growth and their maturity into one of rock’s best bands. Along with the previously-released, self-explanatory 80-85, the appropriately-titled All Ages is an excellent compilation for fans of the band as well as an important touchstone in the band’s career. With the major-label release of Recipe For Hate, Bad Religion began writing the next chapter in their story, and only time will tell the story. (Epitaph Records, released 1995)

Review originally published by R.A.D! zine, 1995

Buy the vinyl from Bad Religion’s All Ages

Friday, January 29, 2021

Book Review: Zap Comix #16 (2016)

When the Reverend was a wee teen back in the dark ages of the early ‘70s, I was enamored of underground comix. I had been raised on a steady diet of Marvel and DC superheroes (Daredevil, Black Panther, The Avengers, and Batman) during my single-digit years, so it wasn’t such a large leap to dive headfirst into characters like Mr. Natural, the Checkered Demon, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. The day that I discovered Zap Comix is the day that my life took a left turn into a surrealist anti-authoritarianism that I’ve dragged with me well into (late) middle age.

After seeing an advertisement in the back of an issue looking for people to sell comix, I contacted all the major underground publishers and soon became Nashville’s resident “college sales rep” for The Print Mint, Last Gasp, and Rip Off Press. I fed my own growing comix addiction by placing new issues on consignment at Hillsboro Village head shops near Vanderbilt University, using the profits to pay for my own comix. It was a pretty good gig for a year or so as the publishers were cranking out new issues at a prolific rate. About the time that I graduated from high school in 1975, the bottom fell out of the underground comix biz and I drifted into other hustles (like writing…).

Zap Comix No. 16

Zap Comix was the granddaddy of all undergrounds, the ground-breaking, earth-shaking first shot across the bow that proved that comix were a legit art form, and funny books were not just for kids anymore. Artist/writer Robert Crumb published Zap #1 in 1968, selling copies out of a baby buggy on the streets of San Francisco. The success of the first issue led to Crumb enlisting a number of talented friends to contribute to the second issue. Thus was the Zap collective created – ringleader Crumb along with artists S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin – all of whom would be responsible for creating and carrying Zap Comix into the new millennium.

Through the decades, new issues of Zap Comix would appear more sporadically, often at three-to-five-year intervals between issues, some seven years elapsing between issues fourteen and fifteen. Griffen died in 1991, and artist Paul Mavrides was added to the team when Crumb announced that he no longer wanted to do Zap. The revolutionary publication was honored in December 2014 when a deluxe box set collecting all seventeen issues of Zap Comix was published by Fantagraphics Books. A previously unpublished final issue – Zap Comix No. 16 – was included in the box set as a bonus, and has since been published as a stand-alone graphic novel with fetching Robert Crumb cover art.

Unable to cough up nearly $500 for The Complete Zap Comix Box Set, it was with great anticipation that I ordered up a copy of Zap Comix No. 16. Since I’d owned and/or read virtually the entire run of the publication, I knew that the zine could be spotty and inconsistent – Victor Moscoso’s work generally bored me, and S. Clay Wilson’s shotgun approach to pen ‘n’ ink hits the target as often as it misses – but nothing could have prepared me for the mess that is Zap Comix No. 16. The first issue to include material from all eight Zap artist between two covers, it should have been glorious, but the results often make one wish that some of these guys had retired earlier.

Wonder Warthog & The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers

Zap Comix #1
First on the chopping block is Crumb, who readily admits that he’s out of practice on these strips drawn in 2003 and 2004, and it certainly looks it (the book’s cover, drawn in 2014, is a fine return to form, however). Although Crumb’s storytelling skills remain intact, his art here is crude and hesitant, lacking his characteristic energy and on-page charisma. Sneaking his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb into the book as its first female artist is less subversive than it is lazy, a way to flesh out autobiographical stories with her flat, unattractive, one-dimensional artwork shoehorned into the panels. I have nothing again distaff artists, but if Crumb wanted to include a woman’s work in this final Zap in order to combat the book’s often-criticized misogyny, perhaps he could have found somebody other than his wife, who jokes that she’s the “Yoko Ono” of underground comix.  

Worse yet are S. Clay Wilson’s contributions to this final issue of Zap Comix. Wilson’s long-running characters like the Checkered Demon and Captain Pissgums were seldom the epitome of subtlety, drawn in a rude and crude B&W style that matched Wilson’s raw but spellbinding storytelling. But the strips here, dated 2006, 2007, and 2009, showcase a significant deterioration of the man’s skills. Wilson suffered severe brain trauma in a 2008 accident, and he has been plagued with health issues since that have left him unable to draw. His 2009 efforts, though, are just bad; simplistic and uglier than normal. One guesses that they were included in order to generate some royalties for the tragically sidelined artist.    

This is not to say that all of Zap Comix No. 16 is bad, as there are a few gems to be found among the sludge. Spain Rodriguez’s stories feature the sort of dense, detailed art and gritty storytelling that he’s long been known for, and his tales of the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club are always welcome. Disturbingly, though, Rodriguez’s art is cluttered with un-erased pencil lines for some reason, and faces in some panels were left inexplicitly un-inked. The final Wonder Warthog story by the legendary Gilbert Shelton is one of the book’s color sections and it’s a real hoot, as is Crumb’s four-color “The Unbearable Tediousness of Being,” which displays a spark of his talent. Shelton’s Furry Freak Brothers story – “Phineas Becomes A Suicide Bomber” – was inked by the artist for the deluxe box set but this version was inked by Paul Mavrides. Either way, it’s a classic Freak Brothers farce with the ever-serious Phineas, as always, as the fool.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Overall, I’d have to say that Zap Comix No. 16 is a mediocre collection that might have been so much more. Perhaps his own less-than-stellar work is what caused Crumb to shelf the issue in the first place, and maybe it’s merely the last gasp from a formerly revolutionary group of artists and writers that have long since been eclipsed by the subsequent generations they influenced and inspired to pick up pen and ink.

The trade paperback format is perfect for this sort of collection, and I’d love to see Fantagraphics publish the other fifteen issues of Zap in similar graphic novel form (three or four issues per book) for those of us who can’t cough up half-a-yard for the limited-edition box set. Considering the uninspired mix of material found in Zap Comix No. 16, I can only recommend the book for hardcore comix collectors. The rest of you should instead dig up some of the early issues to find out why Crumb called his Zap brethren “the baddest gang of cartoonists ever to wield their crow quills together.” Grade: C (Fantagraphics Book, published February 22, 2016)

Friday, January 22, 2021

Archive Review: Otis Taylor's Double V (2004)

Otis Taylor's Double V
Contemporary blues artists mostly tend to fall into one of two categories. There are those who are strictly bound by tradition, following either the Delta or Chicago school of thought, with their individual and inevitable limitations. Then there are those who genuflect at the altar of Stevie Ray, guitar heroes and wannabes channeling the spirit of Jimi through endless blooze-rock exercises. Otis Taylor, on the other hand, falls into neither category. A unique and exciting artist following his own muse, Taylor infuses his music with life and energy, odd instrumentation and rhythmic meter supporting his intelligent lyrics.

Otis Taylor sounds like no bluesman you’ve ever heard before. Perhaps it’s because Taylor spent almost 20 years outside of the music industry, or maybe it’s because his musical education includes liberal doses of both rock ‘n’ roll (playing with Tommy Bolin back in the day) and folk (courtesy of the Denver Folklore Center). His songs blend elements of blues, traditional folk, and rock music with erudite lyrics that often offer edgy social commentary or historical morality tales recreated for a modern audience. The resulting mix is invigorating, Taylor’s imaginative and sometimes-reckless instrumentation satisfying your soul while his brilliant, thought-provoking wordplay massages your brain.

Otis Taylor’s Double V

Double V is Taylor’s second album for indie blues/jazz specialists Telarc and his sixth effort since ending his self-imposed exile from music. The album is not entirely unlike previous award-winning efforts such as White African or Respect the Dead, although it is a bit more ambitious. With Double V, Taylor forsakes the potent band that he’s used since returning to music. Using sparse instrumentation on Double V to highlight each song’s vocals and lyrics, Taylor’s mix of guitar, banjo and mandolin is supported by his daughter Cassie’s steady bass rhythm and augmented by the odd horn or cello. Each song on Double V is thus provided its own canvas, at times stark and at other times quite beautiful.

It’s his songwriting on which Taylor has built his well-deserved reputation, and Double V meet the high standard set by his earlier work. “Please Come Home Before It Rains” offers an upbeat soundtrack as a sailor reads a letter from his wife and reminisces of the things that he’s seen and the family that he misses. “Mama’s Selling Heroin” is semi-autobiographical, dark instrumentation and haunting vocals underlining the story of Taylor’s mother, serving as an allegory for the pain and heartbreak that drugs have brought to the African-American community. The ravages of poverty are explored on “Plastic Spoon,” an elderly couple forced to choose between medicine and food, opting for cheap dog chow to save money. Taylor tackles domestic abuse with “505 Train,” homelessness with “Reindeer Meat” and the slavery-like imprisonment of African-Americans under the U.S. justice system with “Sounds Of Attica.”

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Lest you think that Double V is overly dour and depressing, Taylor ends the album with the uplifting “Buy Myself Some Freedom.” Sung in an ethereal whisper by daughter Cassie, this tale of a young girl searching for a better life is filled with hope and dignity. It’s a fitting end to a solid collection of songs that present reality as a minefield of tragedy, emotion, and triumph over adversity. Even as it veers from tradition, Double V further cements Taylor’s reputation as a great, groundbreaking bluesman of keen insight and considerable vision. By redefining the sound of the blues, Taylor is also extending the tradition beyond its Delta roots into the 21st century. (Telarc Records, released May 21, 2004)

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

Buy the CD from Otis Taylor’s Double V

Friday, January 15, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Tommy Bolin's Teaser (1975)

Tommy Bolin's Teaser
Six-string wunderkind Tommy Bolin made his bones as a teenager playing with the blues-rock band Zephyr in Boulder, Colorado. Although he provided his stellar fretwork to that band’s self-titled 1969 debut album (Bolin was only 18), his restless muse prompted the guitarist to leave the band shortly after the release of their 1971 album, Going Back To Colorado

Bolin subsequently forming the jazz-rock fusion outfit Energy (which never recorded an album) before his immense talents would lead to high-profile gigs with the James Gang and Deep Purple during the mid-to-late ‘70s. Bolin also worked on sessions with fusion pioneers Billy Cobham (1973’s Spectrum LP) and Alphonse Mouzon (1974’s Mind Transplant) and provided guitar solos for Canadian hard rock outfit Moxy’s 1975 self-titled debut.

When it came time for Bolin to record his first solo album, 1975’s Teaser, it was only natural that he’d infuse the performances with elements of all of his disparate musical influences – hard rock, blues, jazz fusion – with the results varying entirely on your taste for what Tommy was dishing up. Recorded just prior to working on Deep Purple’s Come Taste the Band, Teaser is, first and foremost, a showcase for Bolin’s unique steel-string pyrotechnics. As such, it’s a somewhat schizo affair, with the guitarist often changing stylistic directions even within a song with whiplash accuracy.

Still, Teaser is an entertaining, if uneven, collection of period rock ‘n’ roll. Album opener “The Grind” is a boogie-flecked barrelhouse rocker with backing vocal harmonies, rollicking instrumentation, and an overall ‘70s era musical sound and feel. By contrast, “Homeward Strut” masterfully blends a hard rock soundtrack with funky rhythms and a little jazzy swagger to create a lively instrumental with definite New Orleans vibes. “Dreamer” skews a little too far into Elton John territory for my taste, probably due to David Foster’s wimpy piano playing while “Savannah Woman,” with its rhythmic Latin undercurrent, is a ‘yacht rock’ attempt at making the charts better left to folks like Toto (whose Jeff Porcaro plays drums on nearly every song on Teaser EXCEPT “Savannah Woman,” where the stool is occupied by the Tubes’ Prairie Prince).

Thankfully, the album’s title track mainlines some steroids with a hard rock soundtrack upon which Bolin embroiders his fluid, razor-sharp guitarplay. The soulful “People, People” displays Bolin’s emotional, albeit under-powered vocals, the guitarist bringing in a bunch of jazz dogs like synth wizard Jan Hammer and saxophonist Dave Sanborn to brass up the arrangement, which offers only the slightest of six-string shadings. Bolin dives into the depths of jazz fusion with “Marching Powder,” which brings in drummer Michael Waldon alongside Hammer and Sanborn for a cacophonic instrumental that wouldn’t have been out-of-place on a Cobham or Mouzon LP. Although the closer “Lotus” starts out deceptively soft and kinda mushy, it soon powers up with a soaring guitar solo before veering off again into more pastoral acoustic guitar strum and then exploding once more with switchblade flash.

Much like the entirety of Tommy Bolin’s too-short career (he would O.D. the following year after the release of his sophomore effort, Private Eyes), the guitarist’s debut album couldn’t figure out what direction it wanted to go, so instead it veered all over the road. It makes for a thrilling, if somewhat unsatisfying ride, but I’d still recommend either of Bolin’s solo albums for listeners looking for a challenging perspective on guitar rock. (Nemporer Records, 1975)

Buy the CD from Tommy Bolin's Teaser

Friday, January 8, 2021

Archive Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Hurricane (2014)

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Hurricane
Many think that the growing fascination with vinyl records by music lovers is nothing more than the hipster trend du jour. But as sales of vinyl LPs continues to grow from year to year and the major vinyl pressing plants expand their operations, it’s clear that the old fashioned record album isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Besides, if the so-called industry pundits and prophets took the time to talk to a few fans in the 15-25 year old demographic, they’d realize that there’s a growing dissatisfaction with modern music formats like crappy mp3 files. Young listeners just discovering their fave new bands are addressing this dissatisfaction by (re)turning to vinyl.

The major labels have begun to wise up somewhat, releasing a few classic titles on vinyl, trying to catch up with those forward-thinking indie labels that have been releasing new music in multiple formats for several years now. Jack White’s Third Man Records label has become a trend-setter in this regard with its dazzling array (and constant stream) of 45rpm records, live LPs, and vinyl blues reissues (Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, and the Mississippi Sheiks’ Paramount Records catalogs). The mainstream blues world has been underserved so far, an oversight that is somewhat redeemed by the release of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Texas Hurricane on vinyl by Chad Kassem’s Analogue Productions.

Texas Hurricane

Vaughan’s Texas Hurricane is a six-album box set that revisits the beloved guitarist’s studio recordings, beginning with 1983’s Texas Flood and including the following year’s sophomore effort, Couldn’t Stand the Weather; 1985’s Soul To Soul; 1989’s In Step; 1990’s Family Style, a collaboration with brother Jimmie Vaughan; and The Sky Is Crying, an odds ‘n’ sods collection of unreleased studio tracks released in 1991, shortly after Vaughan’s death. Each album has been carefully re-mastered from the original half-inch analog master tapes and masterfully etched into thick, high-quality 200 gram vinyl.

To say that Texas Flood was a revelation upon its release would be an understatement. Blues music had all but assumed room temperature by ’83, and although bands like the Nighthawks, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and Roomful of Blues cracked the door open a bit, it was SRV and his Double Trouble gang – veteran bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton – that would kick it in, smash all the windows, and paint the walls blue. While original songs like “Love Struck Baby” and “Pride and Joy” struck a chord with blues-starved fans, covers of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Tell Me” and Buddy Guy’s “Mary Had A Little Lamb” cemented Vaughan’s blues bona fides. Texas Hurricane recaptures the magic of that debut album’s original ten songs with vibrant sound and remarkable clarity.  

Couldn’t Stand The Weather

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Couldn't Stand the Weather
Texas Flood inched into the Top 40 on its way to double Platinum™ sales status, opening up the blues world to mainstream audiences and setting the stage for subsequent successes by talents like Robert Cray and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Many questioned what Stevie Ray would do for an encore, and he answered with 1984’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather. Although the album is, perhaps, a notch less revolutionary than its predecessor, it further showcased the guitarist’s immense skills. With only eight songs, Vaughan had to make a case for his stardom, something he achieved with the blues monster “Cold Shot,” recorded as a favor to his mentor, songwriter and bluesman W.C. Clark. Dynamic instrumentals like “Scuttle Buttin’” and “Stang’s Swang” highlight Vaughan’s jazzy, B.B. King/Lonnie Johnson influences while a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” pushes the song into the stratosphere.

Life was moving pretty fast for Vaughan in the mid-1980s: Couldn’t Stand the Weather improved slightly but markedly upon the debut’s chart position, hitting #31 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart. Videos from both albums were in heavy rotation on MTV and the band touring constantly. With the 1985 release of Soul To Soul, Vaughan expanded his band, adding keyboardist Reese Wynans, and his sound, by incorporating greater soul and R&B influences into his gutbucket blues sound. Vaughan still struggled to come up with original material, although the Southern funk of “Say What” has since taken on classic status, and by enlisting Texas music icon Doyle Bramhall to pen a couple of raucous numbers, Vaughan cleverly sidestepped the songwriting question. Covers of the Hank Ballard gem “Little Sister” and Willie Dixon’s “You’ll Be Mine” round out a solid album that nonetheless felt like a step backwards.   

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s In Step     

Part of the problem with Soul To Soul’s backsliding can be attributed to developing chemistry with Wynans, but the lion’s share of the blame can be laid directly at Vaughan’s feet. His growing drug and alcohol abuse threatened to derail his career, and after a minor accident in 1986, Vaughan entered rehab and took a couple years away from the fray. By the time he returned, with 1989’s classic In Step, Vaughan had found both sobriety and his songwriting voice, co-writing four tunes for the album with Bramhall while applying his newfound vision to covers like Buddy Guy’s “Leave My Girl Alone” and Willie Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby.” Originals like “Tightrope” and “Wall of Denial” highlight the artist’s freedom from addiction, while the group-written “Crossfire” would top the rock chart and become a fan favorite. In Step earned Vaughan his first Grammy® Award for “Best Contemporary Blues Album.”

Sadly, In Step was fated to be Vaughan’s last album with Double Trouble. Released in June 1989, slightly more than a year later the guitarist would meet his tragic, accidental death. Before that sad day in August 1990, though, Vaughan would fulfill a lifelong dream by recording an album with his older brother Jimmie. Credited to The Vaughan Brothers, Family Style was produced by Nile Rodgers (with whom Vaughan worked, pre-fame, on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album) and recorded in Memphis. By eschewing the use of either guitarist’s bands – although they did include friends like Bramhall and former Thunderbirds bassist Preston Hubbard – the brothers achieved a fresh sound that mimicked neither man’s previous album but broke new ground with its mix of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll.     

The Sky Is Crying    

Stevie Ray Vaughan's The Sky Is Crying
Although Family Style is often overlooked in favor of other albums from either artist’s catalogs, Stevie Ray and Jimmie sound like they’re having a great time together and Rodgers’ steady hand on the console enhances the funky strut inherent in the performances, and the mix of covers and originals blends together almost seamlessly. The brothers would earn hits with both the Bramhall/Stevie Ray co-write “Telephone Song” and the Jimmie Vaughan/Nile Rodgers’ track “Tick Tock.” Released a month after Stevie Ray’s death, Family Style shot up the charts to peak at #7 on its way to multi-Platinum™ status and a pair of Grammy® Awards for the brothers.

The posthumously-released final Stevie Ray studio album The Sky Is Crying is a collection of studio outtakes and alternate takes culled from across Vaughan’s meteoric but too-short career. Put together by brother Jimmie, the heart of the album is the guitarist’s incredible take on Elmore James’ title track, “The Sky Is Crying.” Overall, the album is an excellent representation of both Stevie Ray’s musical influences as well as his incredible dexterity as a performer and instrumentalist. From the howlin’ country funk of Lonnie Mack’s “Wham” and the muscular blues-rock of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” to the jazz-flaked instrumental “Chitlins con Carne” and impressive originals like “Empty Arms,” The Sky Is Crying was not only a fitting swansong for the beloved guitarist, but a comprehensive and creative album in its own right that would earn Vaughan another pair of Grammy® Awards.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

What’s not to like about Texas Hurricane? The six individual albums are all pressed on luxurious high-quality vinyl, thick slabs o’ black wax with deep grooves that capture every bit of the music with unbelievable, crystalline clarity. Each 12” hockey puck is lovingly wrapped in an archival quality, non-scratching, anti-static sleeve that is subsequently slipped into full-sized cardboard sleeves. Not some cheap-o, cheap-o simple reproduction, but a wonderful gatefold sleeve sporting the original cover artwork in brilliant full color, song lyrics, rare photos, and full credits. The albums are packaged in a giant-sized box with faux-leather graphics and the set includes a 24-page, album-sized booklet with (a lot) more photos, and insightful liner notes for each album penned by Guitar World magazine Senior Editor Andy Aledort.

The music stands on its own merits – Stevie Ray Vaughan forever influenced the evolution of blues guitar and extended the music’s popularity to the present day. With its obsessive attention to quality in all aspects, the presentation provided these classic albums by Texas Hurricane fits the status of the music itself. While a pricey box set like Texas Hurricane may appeal mostly to the well-heeled fan or hardcore collector, it’s definitely worth the money if you have the coin…this is Stevie Ray Vaughan as you’ve never heard him before. (Analogue Productions, released April 8, 2014)

Friday, January 1, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Be-Bop Deluxe's Futurama (1975)

Be-Bop Deluxe's Futurama

The bottles were all empty and the lights were being turned out by the time that Be-Bop Deluxe made their way to the early ‘70s British glam-rock party. The band released its critically-acclaimed debut album Axe Victim during the summer of 1974 and, while they had the musical chops and cool song titles like “Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus,” “Night Creatures,” and “Rocket Cathedrals,” it had been a couple years since Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust masterwork, three since Marc Bolan’s T. Rex breakthrough Electric Warrior, and Mott the Hoople were on the verge of breaking up. Glam-rock had begun to assume room temperature…

Be-Bop Deluxe frontman Bill Nelson evidently agreed, as he booted the entire Axe Victim band, stripped Be-Bop down to a power trio with new guys Charlie Tumahai (bass) and Simon Fox (drums), and re-forged the trademark Be-Bop sound to a curious mix of shimmering fretwork; unusual song structure; and oblique lyrics that often had the band venturing, often dangerously, into proggy art-rock turf not dissimilar to what Queen was pursuing at the time. In my humble opinion, Be-Bop Deluxe did it better. Listening to “Maid In Heaven,” from the band’s sophomore effort Futurama, my mind goes back to first hearing the song on Nashville’s WKDF-FM radio during my senior year in high school. Nelson’s wiry, melodic leads are balanced by a rough, scraped guitar lick, the band’s masterful vocal harmonies, and the sort of fantastical lyrics that would appeal to an erudite 17-year-old rock geek.

Nelson didn’t stop with “Maid In Heaven,” which became a minor FM radio hit stateside, delivering a knockout punch with the mesmerizing “Sister Seagull.” Offering up some of the most exotic six-string pyrotechnics of the era, the song matches a lofty melody with hard-rocking rhythms that are guaranteed to take your head to places that only ‘shrooms or old-school LSD could travel…call it a “new psychedelia” for a modern age. Nelson’s stunning guitarplay would bring an otherworldly vibe to every song on Futurama, from the lush, radio-friendly “Music In Dreamland,” with its lofty pop echoes to the Spanish-flavored guitar strum of “Jean Cocteau” or the alluring cacophony of “Between the Worlds.” Little has been recorded to match Futurama for sheer reckless abandon, and fewer still are the songwriters who could match Nelson in vision and ambition.

Be-Bop Deluxe would enjoy a short, but impactful career – a mere five studio albums and a stellar live set – over a too-short four-year span circa 1974-78 before Nelson packed it in and launched a solo career that continues to this day and best expresses his restless musical ideas. Still, you can’t go wrong with any Be-Bop LP, and after Futurama, I’d heartily recommend Sunburst Finish and Modern Music, both of which display differing facets of Bill Nelson’s talents and wandering muse. (Harvest Records, 1975)

Buy the CD from Be-Bop Deluxe’s Futurama [Deluxe Edition]